Monday, March 26, 2012

Lent 5 of Series B (Mark 10:32-45)

“Even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the tenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Dear friends in Christ, Jesus had a way of shocking people. He shocked people with His miracles, the great shows of power that demonstrated His authority over disease and demons, the wind and the waves. He shocked people with His teachings, for He taught ‘as one who had authority,’ not as they were used to hearing from the scribes and rabbis. He shocked people with His actions, turning over tables, writing in the dirt, and eating with sinners. In fact, the very appearance and demeanor of Jesus was shocking. Mark tells us, “They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them. And they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.” There was something about Jesus that made that crowd around Him uneasy. His emotions were at a boiling point; there was an intensity radiating from Jesus that made people nervous. He had a determination, an inner resolve that seemed dead-set to travel to Jerusalem.

He went to that holy city completely aware of what He would encounter there: “See, we are going to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock Him and spit on Him, and flog Him and kill Him. And after three days He will rise.” Mark doesn’t tell us how Jesus spoke these words; we don’t know what tone of voice He used, or what emotions accompanied this statement. But I picture Jesus saying these words defiantly, with strong emotion, matter-of-factly declaring what will happen to Him. ‘I will be condemned. I will be humiliated. I will be mocked and spit upon. I will be flogged and killed.’ That is His destination, His destiny, His goal. He knows that Jerusalem holds only suffering, but yet He doesn’t turn aside from His path. Instead He marches on, for this Jesus is confident in His Father’s love, He is confident that He will be vindicated. This graphic prediction of suffering and death ends with the statement, “after three days He will rise.”

Jesus knows that He is the suffering servant described by Isaiah hundreds of years earlier, the servant who declared: “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. He who vindicates me is near.” Jesus knows that He will be vindicated, because His suffering and His death is for you and for me. His suffering and His death is God’s plan for your salvation. His suffering and His death is necessary to reconcile man to God. Jesus comes as a servant, the suffering servant, who bears the iniquity of man. Perhaps this is what shocks His followers the most: the great Jesus, worker of miracles, stiller of storms, teacher of God’s Word, is a servant, a suffering servant.

If they hadn’t understood this before, the followers of Jesus should’ve realized at this moment that any visions of glory were far-fetched. No matter how shocking it was to them, the truth was that Jesus had come to serve, to suffer and die. But humans don’t speak the language of service; we speak the language of power. And so James and John chose this very moment as the opportunity to ask Jesus a question: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Sure, James and John know about the cross, they’ve heard about service, but it doesn’t really effect how they treat their fellow Christians in the Church. They want to exercise power over others, they want to get their way above all else, on everything from the budget to the color of the paint on the walls. Maybe James and John are used to exercising power at home or in their business, and they take that attitude with them into the Church. Or maybe James and John are used to being trampled on in the world, and the Church is the one place where they can flex their muscles and order someone else around. Either way, for them the Church is no different from the world; here the language of power speaks, and they selfishly seek to impose their own will.

But the rest of the group is no better. “When the ten heard it, they began to be indignant at James and John.” The only reason everyone else is upset is because James and John had the boldness to do what they wanted to do. They are indignant because they don’t want anyone placed in authority over them. The ten disciples want the same power that James and John grabbed for. Their perfect vision of the Church is a place where there are plenty of bosses to go around, but few if any workers. And so, they will seek any opportunity to exercise power, to subvert and go behind those placed in authority, whether a board, a committee, an officer, or their pastor. Once again, it comes down to selfishness. The ten want to have their own way, they want to exercise their own power, and so they refuse to be placed under the authority of others, especially James and John.

Into this mess of power grabs and selfishness, Jesus speaks the language of service. “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.” That is the way of the world, the way of power, of domination, of tyranny. The world teaches you to seek power and to hold onto that power with all your might, exercising it only for your own benefit. Jesus shows His followers a more excellent way. “But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” The way of the Church is not power but service. The way of the Church is placing your desires behind the needs of others. Those who are placed into authority are not there to exercise power, to get their own way or to satisfy themselves. They are to exercise authority in service. This means subverting your own needs to the needs of others, becoming servants and slaves to those around you. The one with the greatest authority should seek to be the lowest servant. The language of the Church is service, not power. 

This isn’t a language that the Old Adam or the world around us understands. His words come as a shock; Jesus isn’t operating the way we would think. Servants and slaves are treated as doormats in a world that knows only power. Suffering is the result of selfless service: suffering from your sinful nature, which doesn’t want to have its desires for power to be crushed; suffering from your fellow Christians, who bring the language of power into the Church; and suffering from this world, which is always looking for an opportunity to crush the weak. Jesus promised us that this would happen, that we would follow His pattern: “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” Jesus has been called upon to drink the cup; the cup of suffering. Jesus has been called upon to be baptized; the bloody baptism of fire on the cross. Those who live their life in service, placing the needs of others ahead of their own, will suffer in the same way. 

Jesus sets the pattern; He is a servant of all, as we are called upon to be, and He will suffer for it, as we are promised. But His suffering as a servant was far more than merely an example for us to follow. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” His service, His suffering is in your place; His service, His suffering is for your salvation. Jesus drinks the cup of suffering for you, as your servant. He drinks what you deserved for your sins, and He drains it down to the dregs on the cross, swallowing the poisonous mixture in bitterness and agony. In the same way, Jesus’ bloody baptism is in your place. At the Jordan, He was baptized in the place of sinners, He was declared the sin-bearer. That baptism was brought to its completion with His bloody baptism on Calvary’s cross. There He died in the place of sinners, He died as the sin-bearer, He died for you. He died as your ransom, the required payment for your sin. He placed your need for salvation ahead of Himself, and the One through whom the earth was created became the lowliest servant, obedient even to death.

As a servant, as a slave, He was condemned with the condemnation you deserved; He was condemned in your place. He was condemned to remove your condemnation, the condemnation of eternal death. He shows us the greatest example of service, and through that act of service He brings us forgiveness for when we fail to follow that example. He gave up all claims to power to forgive those who seek after power; He was selfless to forgive the selfish. He came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many, as a ransom for you. 

No wonder the people following Christ had amazement and fear; what Jesus calls for is drastically different than the way the world operates. But He walks that path Himself, not seeking after power but making Himself the servant of all. Even today He serves you with His Gospel, the free grace and the forgiveness of sins won because He willingly drank the cup, He willingly submitted to the baptism of the cross. Jesus doesn’t act the way that we would expect; He acts in self-giving love, love that pours out upon you through the forgiveness of sins. This is shocking, but this is who Jesus is, and this is what He has come to do. The God of the universe came to serve you, to give His life as your ransom, because of His great love for you. In His holy and precious Name, Amen.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Lent 4 of Series B (Numbers 21:4-9)

In the beginning, God created you. He formed you in the womb of your mother, He knit you together in secret, then brought you forth into this world that He had created for you. He gave you everything you needed: food, water, and shelter. Even the air you breathe is a gift from Him. He is the one who provided your family to bear you, to raise you and care for you; whether they realized it or not, they were His instruments of provision. Every good gift comes from God, but what God wants to give you isn’t enough. You want more, you want something different. You are impatient with His provision, because it doesn’t come the way you want it, and so you grumble and complain. “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food, and no water, and we loathe this worthless food!” God has given you every good gift, and yet you say, “we loathe this worthless food!” You want what is not yours; you aren’t satisfied with what God has given to you, and so you desire what others have. Your focus is on the stuff of this world- food, clothing, cars, houses, money, status in the eyes of others- rather than on the God who gives all of these things as He sees fit. Psalm 78 declares, “They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, ‘Can God spread a table in the wilderness?’”

Why do you speak against God? Because you are sinful. And this sin can have only one penalty. “Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.” Your grumbling and impatience has earned death. This is a reality that you cannot ignore, for you see it in your own body. Your very flesh is corrupted by sin; that is why you get sick, that is why your body wears out, that is why you die. Death is the result of sin; we die only because we are sinful. No person can escape the penalty of sin; whether you believe the Scriptures or not, the reality of corruption and death is apparent to all. You can’t explain away cancer or heart disease, much less death itself. Sin isn’t simply some spiritual affliction that only religious people have to deal with; it has very real physical consequences. 

But yet, the physical consequences of sin only point to the deeper spiritual problem. St. Paul writes, “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience- among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Your sin has made you a child of wrath; God’s wrath over your sin and rebellion. Your selfish desires for the things of this world over the God who gives them can only lead to separation from that God forever in eternal judgment, body and soul, in hell.

When you are faced with the stark reality of your sin and its penalty, you can do one of two things. First, you can try to ignore your sin and its penalty, pretending that you really don’t have sin and that hell doesn’t exist. But you can pretend that hell doesn’t exist all you want; the reality is, you can’t pretend that your body isn’t corrupt and broken, you can’t pretend that you won’t die. The path of denial is ultimately delusional and irrational, no matter how many of our world’s intellectuals and celebrities take it. No, the only real option is to cry out to the only one who can do something about it, the one who imposed the penalty, God Himself. “And the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that He take away the serpents from us.’” 

You come to God in humility, you come to God knowing that you have a problem that you cannot solve on your own; you come to God in sorrow over your rebellion and ingratitude for the gifts He has given to you. You come confessing your sin: “I have sinned, for I have spoken against the Lord.” God’s holy Law and the penalty that you can see in your very own body has exposed your sin, and so you bring it to Him. You come knowing that God doesn’t have to listen to you, that He doesn’t owe you anything, only wrath. But you come begging for His mercy. You call on the God who lovingly created you to save His creation; you call on the God who provided for all of your bodily needs to provide eternal deliverance. The penalty of your sin is too hard to bear; if it remains upon you, it will drag you down to eternal punishment. And so you pray, you confess, you plead- for deliverance, for forgiveness, for salvation.

Your plea doesn’t come to God’s holy throne alone, but instead you have an intercessor who is pleading for you before Him, begging Him to have mercy upon you. As Abraham stood between the wrath of God and his nephew Lot, as Moses stood between God’s punishment and the people of Israel, so the second person of the Trinity, the eternally begotten Son of God, intercedes for you before His Father. He pleads for your salvation, He pleads for mercy, for grace. He pleads for you, calling on God to remember His love for His Son and His love for you.

Your intercessor, the one who pleaded for your salvation, is called to the throne. “‘Go forth, my Son,’ the Father said, ‘And free my children from their dread of guilt and condemnation. The wrath and stripes are hard to bear, but by your passion they will share the fruit of your salvation.” God answers your cries, He provides deliverance in the person of His Son. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Our intercessor, our mediator, is called upon to bring salvation to us Himself, and He does this without hesitation. “Yes Father, yes, most willingly I’ll bear what you command me. My will conforms to your decree, I’ll do what you have asked me.” In love He stood before the Father’s throne for you; in love He will go forth to bring you the salvation He pleaded for.

“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” Your sin is a sin of the body: the desire for the things of this world over the God who provides them. The penalty for your sin is a penalty of your body: the corruption that fills you, that leads to maladies, disease, and finally death. And so God makes His Son the image of your sin. He gives to Him your human flesh; the Son of God takes on a body and becomes man. He is the image and likeness of your sin. But more than that, He becomes sin itself, bearing your own sin in His flesh. He is sin incarnate, the very embodiment of sin, not because He has any sin of His own, but because He bears your sin.

The image of your sin is then placed high upon a pole, for all the world to see. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” The image of your sin is nailed to a cross, exalted in humiliation, exalted in suffering, exalted in order to die. When He is lifted up, He is exposed to ridicule, He is displayed as a condemned criminal, He is declared a traitor to Rome and His own people. But the image of your sin isn’t simply lifted up to receive ridicule from men; He is lifted up to pay the penalty for sin, He is lifted up to endure what you deserved, He is lifted up for your salvation. He is lifted up so that nothing stands between Him and God’s holy wrath, He is lifted up so that the full brunt of the penalty for your sin falls upon Him and not you. He is lifted up so that when you look to Him, you live.

“So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look to the bronze serpent and live.” You are sinful; you know it, for you have seen its penalty in the frailty of your body, in the death that stalks your steps. You have confessed your sin and then cried out to God for deliverance, for salvation, and His answer is His Son, made the image and embodiment of your sin, exalted high upon a pole. “O wondrous love, what have you done! The Father offers up His Son, desiring our salvation. O Love, how strong you are to save! You lay the one into the grave who built the earth’s foundation.” Your sin has been made man and put to death; its eternal penalty is removed. Look to Jesus, hanging high upon the tree, exalted upon the bloody throne of the cross, and you will live! You will live even though you die, for there sin’s power over you has been destroyed. Look to Jesus when you fall into grumbling and complaining against the good gifts of God, for only through His cross can you have forgiveness. Even now He stands before the Father’s throne, interceding for you, placing His cross between you and the penalty for your sin. He remains your mediator forever; look to His cross in repentance whenever you sin. Look to Jesus when your body falters and fails, for He will give you a new body in the new heavens and the new earth, one that will have none of the corruption that results from sin. Look to Jesus in the midst of this corrupted and dying world, for He is the only answer to sin and death. Look to Him this Lenten season, exalted high upon the pole for all the world to see. 

The cross is your most sacred treasure, for there the image and embodiment of your sin was exalted for your salvation. St. Paul writes, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ- by grace you have been saved- and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” Jesus was exalted upon the cross so that He would be exalted to the right hand of the throne of God; Jesus was exalted upon the cross so that He would exalt you to the glories of heaven. There you will dwell forever, receiving every good gift from the God who created you and acted to redeem you. In His holy and precious Name, Amen.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Reflections on 'My Song is Love Unknown'- Stanza's 6 and 7

God is love. His love sent Jesus to this earth; His love sent Jesus to the cross. Jesus’ love for you and for His Father meant that He accepted this charge willingly, going forth to suffer and die for you and your salvation. Saint John understood this love, writing in his first letter: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” There is no greater example of love than Good Friday, as the last verse of our hymn declares, “Never was love, dear King, never was grief like Thine.” The grief of the cross means that you will live even though you die, the suffering and humiliation of the cross means that you will be delivered from suffering and exalted to heaven. Christ’s death means your life, Christ’s tomb means your resurrection.

“In life no house, no home my Lord on earth might have; in death no friendly tomb but what a stranger gave. What may I say? Heaven was His home but mine the tomb wherein He lay. Here might I stay and sing, no story so divine! Never was love, dear King, never was grief like Thine. This is my friend, in whose sweet praise I all my days could gladly spend.” Christ died in your place, and He was buried in your place. Heaven is His home, the place where He belonged, but in death He lay in your tomb. He suffered all that you deserved: the wrath of God and the penalty of death, then He rested in the earth. He lay in the tomb for you, to sanctify your grave, for as the grave couldn’t hold Him, so it will not hold you. His tomb stands empty, broken, with all of its power destroyed, demonstrating that death itself has been crushed. He stayed in the tomb, but He didn’t remain there, and so your tomb is transformed from a place of defeat to a place of rest, where you will wait for the victory. For the trumpet will sound, and you will be raised, to be with your friend, your Savior, “in whose sweet praise I all my days could gladly spend.”

Reflections on 'My Song is Love Unknown'- Stanza 5

Jesus loved Barabbas. He loved this murderer, this insurrectionist, this despicable man languishing in a Roman prison, given the sentence of death. He loved Barabbas to such an extent that He was willing to die for him. Barabbas was guilty, in fact as guilty as any man could be; Jesus was innocent, more holy and righteous than any person who had ever lived. But Jesus died and Barabbas lived. Jesus died in the place of Barabbas.

 “They rise and needs will have my dear Lord made away; a murderer they save, the Prince of Life they slay. Yet cheerful He to suffering goes that He His foes from thence might free.” Jesus loves you. He loves you, even though you are sinful, even though you are corrupted, even though you are under the sentence of death. He loves you to such an extent that He was willing to die for you. You are guilty, in fact as guilty as every human since Adam and Eve. Jesus is innocent, more holy and righteous than any person who had ever lived. But Jesus died, and you will live. Jesus died in your place. “Yet cheerful He to suffering goes that He His foes from thence might free.” He died in the place of His greatest enemies; He died in place of His friends. He died in place of the ones who nailed Him to the cross; He died for you and me. Martin Luther called this the ‘great exchange.’ Jesus takes all that is ours: our sin, our shame, and our guilt, and makes it His own. In return, He gives us all that is His: His righteousness, His holiness, and His standing before God. Through His death and resurrection, all that is Christ’s is now yours. The hymn tells, “Yet cheerful He to suffering goes.” Christ goes to the cross cheerfully because of His love for you and me. This is truly love unknown, love incomprehensible, love divine. God is love, and He demonstrates this most clearly on Good Friday, in the cross of Christ.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Reflections on 'My Song is Love Unknown'- Stanza 4

The love of Jesus didn’t begin at the cross; it defined His incarnation and life in this world. In love He drove out demons from the possessed, in love He healed disease, in love He raised the dead. When Jesus wept outside of the tomb of Lazarus, the gathered mourners exclaimed, “See how He loved him!” Jesus poured out His love on this sinful and corrupted creation, for that is what He came to do. The Creator was present in His creation to renew and restore it, to make right what had gone so terribly wrong. Jesus came to show love, and the creation responded with hate.
“Why, what hath my Lord done? What makes this rage and spite? He made the lame to run, he gave the blind their sight. Sweet injuries! Yet they at these, themselves displease and against Him rise.” In hatred this world raged against the God who is love. What has Jesus done? What makes this world scorn and abuse Him? He has done what Isaiah prophesied He would do: “The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.” He came in love to free this creation from its bondage to sin and death. Every disease healed, every demon driven away, every leper cleansed was an indication that Jesus had come to destroy sin’s effects forever. But this cleansing and restoration would only come through His rejection, His suffering, through the facing of the rage of this world. Why was He hated by men? So that He could save them, so that He could show them love. Only His death could destroy sin and all of its corruption. Our hymn exclaims, “Sweet injuries!” The injuries of Christ are sweet because through them the disease of sin and death is cast from us, as Isaiah wrote, “With His stripes we are healed.”

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Reflections on 'My Song is Love Unknown'- Stanza 3

We do not honor our love in Lent. Our love is fickle, it is wavering, it is unsteady. Our love is weak, even when turned toward those closest to us, but especially when it is turned toward God. Holy Week isn’t about the love of the people for Christ, because their love failed, and the crowds turned against our Lord. This dramatic shift, this failure of human love, is described in the third stanza of our hymn this week, “My Song is Love Unknown.”
“Sometimes they strew His way and His sweet praises sing; resounding all the day hosannas to their King. Then ‘Crucify!’ is all their breath, and for His death they thirst and cry.” Jerusalem rejoiced to receive her King on Palm Sunday. Jesus even said, “I tell you, if these [people] were silent, the very stones would cry out.” The cries of ‘Hosanna’ rose up to Jesus, cloaks and palm branches covered His path. The people showed Jesus glory, honor, and love. But by Friday that all had changed. The cry was no longer ‘Hosanna!’ but ‘Crucify!’ Man’s love had faltered and failed. The crowds who once had adored Him now cried out for His death. 

We do not honor our love in Lent, for we too are like the crowds of Jerusalem. Our love for Christ falters and fails. On some days we cry out ‘Hosanna!’ praising our King for all that He has done for us. On others, we are like the mob on Good Friday, rejecting Christ through our words and actions. Our love is completely corrupted by the sin that fills all of our members. Lent isn’t about our love for Christ, but His love for us. Even you and I, who have love that is so weak, so faltering, so unsteady, are shown love by Jesus, the love that led Him to the cross. His love is shown, as the first stanza declared, to the “loveless that they might lovely be.”

Reflections on 'My Song is Love Unknown'- Stanza 2

On Christmas we see God’s love. The Father shows His love in that He sends His Son into this world; the Son shows His love in that He willingly lays aside the glory that is rightfully His and is born in humility. Saint Paul ponders this mystery in the second chapter of Philippians: “[He] made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” The love of the Son points in two directions: Jesus shows love toward God in that He is born, lives, and dies in obedience to the Father’s will for our salvation; Jesus shows love toward you in that He is born, lives, and dies for your great need of deliverance from sin and death. He had all glory, but He laid it aside in love for His Father and for you.

“He came from His blest throne salvation to bestow; but men made strange, and none the longed-for Christ would know. But, oh, my friend, my friend indeed, who at my need His life did spend!” Because Jesus came in humility, He was rejected. He was long expected, but when He came, He didn’t fulfill expectations, and so men refused to know Him for who He was. He took the form of a servant, Isaiah’s suffering servant. Isaiah chapter fifty-three runs throughout this hymn. The prophet writes: “He had not form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by men.” This Jesus, true God from eternity, is born in the likeness of man, born in humility, despised and rejected by all for you. Your need is salvation from sin and from death. It is a desperate need, for you can do nothing to deliver yourself. And as the hymn declares, at your need “His life did spend!"

Monday, March 12, 2012

Reflections on 'My Song is Love Unknown'- Stanza 1

God is love.  That fundamental character of our Creator is declared emphatically by Saint John in his first letter.  Love isn’t just a characteristic of God or something He does, it is His identity.  God is love.  In this world we have poor analogies to understand God’s love.  We love baseball, we love ice cream, we love television.  Our love for our family- our spouse, our parents, our children and grandchildren- comes close, but it remains imperfect, tainted by sin.  To understand how God is love, we cannot rely on human illustrations, but must turn somewhere else.  We must turn to the cross.
“My song is love unknown, my Savior’s love to me, love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.  Oh, who am I that for my sake my Lord should take frail flesh and die?” 

God is love, love unknown.  His love isn’t unknown in the sense that we cannot see it or hear of it.  It isn’t love that is hidden or secret.  His love is unknown because we cannot comprehend it, we cannot understand it.  We cannot imagine why Christ would die for someone like us.  We know our sin, our guilt, our shame better than anyone else.  We know that there is little in us that deserves salvation.  But God is love.  Saint Paul writes in Romans chapter five: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  This statement is the essence of what the Gospel is: love shown to the loveless that they might lovely be.  Our hymn immerses us in that mystery.  “Oh, who am I that for my sake my Lord should take frail flesh and die?”  This hymn isn’t about our love, which fails and falters, but about the Savior’s love for us, shown to us on Calvary’s cross.  This love is shown despite our sin, and it is shown to destroy our sin, so that we might be made lovely in the Father’s eyes forever.

Lent 3 of Series B (John 2:13-22)

“Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ: the third commandment is God’s gift to His people. Listen again to the words of our Old Testament lesson: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God... For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” God blessed the Sabbath day and gave it as a gift to His creation. Man was given the gift of rest, but not simply rest for the sake of rest. The Sabbath rest is the gift of worship. We are privileged to interact with our God, the One who created us and acted to redeem us. God bends over backward to give us His gifts. He condescends to come to us today in humble words, water, bread and wine. For God’s Old Testament people, He established an elaborate system of sacrifices, all designed to convey His grace to His people. He dwelt among them in the tabernacle, and later in the temple; He came to His people so that they could receive His great gifts and respond in prayer and praise. The Sabbath is truly a gift; the gift of a compassionate God to His beloved creation.
But humanity rejected this gift; we rebelled against the loving compassion of our Creator and Redeemer. In our text for today, Jesus goes to the temple, the place where God promised to meet with His people in mercy, the place that the Father had so graciously provided for His people to worship Him. On that day the Scripture is fulfilled, the word spoken by the prophet Malachi: “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to His temple.” God in the flesh suddenly came into His temple, and He expected to find His people reveling in the gift of the Sabbath, receiving His great gifts and giving Him thanks and praise. Instead, He found quite the opposite. “In the temple He found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, with the money-changers sitting there.” The temple was supposed to be a place of prayer, a place of sacrifice, the place where God had promised to come to His people, but now it was a shopping mall. The religious leadership would rather reap the profits of turning the temple mount into a marketplace than encourage true piety and respect for the worship of God. The Sabbath was being desecrated in the courtyards that surrounded God’s most Holy Place; that is what the Lord found when He suddenly came into the temple.

What would Jesus find if He walked into our sanctuaries? What would He find if He walked into our lives? Would He find that we too have despised the Sabbath like His people of old? Martin Luther gives us the Christian application of the Sabbath command in his Small Catechism: “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” The Sabbath isn’t about a specific day, it isn’t even about not doing work; it’s about the proper worship of God. This worship has two parts: we receive God’s gifts, and then we give Him thanks and praise. Do we hold God’s Word sacred, and gladly hear and learn it, or do we despise preaching and His Word by placing other things above it? Do we hear God’s Word and receive His great gifts with thanksgiving, or grudgingly, looking for an excuse to avoid them? What takes priority in your life over prayer, devotion, and worship of God? Is it work, school, sports, recreation, your social life? So many other activities are encroaching on the time set aside for worship, and Christians have often allowed the sports tournaments and social gatherings to replace weekly worship. But I’m not just talking about Sunday mornings. The Sabbath is not restricted to one day of the week. Luther calls on us to “gladly hear and learn” the Word throughout our lives. Do we spend time in prayer, studying and meditating on God’s Word during the week? Do we take advantage of opportunities to receive God’s Word in bible class or special services? Do our Lord’s gifts receive priority, or does everything else crowd them out?

Jesus responds to violations of the Third Commandment in a way that we wouldn’t have expected. “Making a whip of cords, He drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And He poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, ‘Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.’” The only thing to do when the things of this world encroach on the Sabbath is to drive them away. In holy anger, Jesus cast the merchants out, He drove away their animals, overturned their tables. They felt the bite of his whip, they cowered before the righteous wrath of almighty God. When the Sabbath is desecrated, it must be made clean again. This isn’t easy, it isn’t without pain; it is the work of God’s holy Law. Sin must be driven out. Our sins don’t want to leave, the Old Adam’s hold on us is tight; Satan knows that if He can keep us away from God’s gifts, we are well on our way to joining Him forever. The whip is necessary, no matter how painful it is. You and I must feel the bite of the Law, we need to have our sins attacked and driven away; the Old Adam must be put to death. This is the task of the Law: to expose sin and drive it away in repentance.

The disciples watched Jesus’s whip cleanse the temple, they observed the operation of the Law upon sin, and they remembered a phrase from Psalm 69: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Jesus had zeal for His Father’s house that day; He wouldn’t let it be desecrated before His very eyes. His zeal, His passion led Him to use the whip of the Law to drive out sin, to declare God’s just judgment upon it. But if that was all that Jesus had come to do, we would still be lost. The Law exposes sin, it cannot destroy it or deliver you from its penalty. Jesus came to bring sin to light and destroy it. His zeal led to the proclamation of the Law, but more importantly, it led to the accomplishment of the Gospel. His zeal for His Father’s house would lead Him into conflict with the religious leaders, conflict that would begin here at the start of His ministry. This zeal would literally consume Him, it would lead to His death. He suffers because He loves His Father; He dies as a criminal because He is passionate for the holiness of the temple. “Zeal for your house will consume me.” His crime? Love for God and His house. Jesus has zeal for the things of His Father. That is why He suffers, that is why He dies.

But while Jesus suffers innocently, He doesn’t suffer unwillingly. His zeal for His Father’s will consumes Him. The Father wills that Jesus offer up His life as the sacrifice for your sin, in answer to the Law’s sting. Jesus has zeal for the things of His Father, and so He goes boldly to the cross. His Father’s will is His desire, and that desire, that passion, that zeal, will consume Him. He will be devoured upon that cross, consumed by the righteous wrath of God over our sin. He will feel the bite of the whip, the Law’s just judgment. Jesus endures that suffering and humiliation not only because of His zeal for His Father’s house and His Father’s will; He endures the cross because of His zeal for you. His zeal for your salvation will consume Him. He will not let you die in your sin, He will not see you dwell in hell forever, and so He gave up His life in your place. His love for you was so strong that He was willing to endure hell itself for you.

This zeal leads Jesus to challenge His opponents in the temple that day. “So the Jews said to Him, ‘What sign do you show us for doing these things?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’” He commands His enemies to put Him to death, with the promise that He will rise again on the third day. They are tearing down the temple, the location of God’s gracious presence, by turning it into a marketplace; now Jesus dares them to tear down the true temple, the new location of God’s gracious presence: His very own body. He will show His authority as the Son of God and His identity as the new temple by raising up His body on the third day, never to be torn down again. For Jesus has come to fulfill the temple and all of its sacrifices with His own death and resurrection. In our text, He drives out all the animals for sacrifice, and the temple courtyard is left empty- except for Jesus Himself, Jesus only. Jesus alone is the sacrifice for our sin, the answer to the Law’s bite. That building He so vehemently defended will become obsolete on Good Friday with His own sacrifice. The dwelling place of God with men is now Jesus Himself, the sacrifice for our sin.

Having accomplished salvation, Christ’s zeal is turned toward distributing the fruits of salvation. His passion and desire is to bring forgiveness to you and to me. Yes, we need to feel the bite of the whip, the sting of the Law. Our sin needs to be attacked and driven away, but then we need the healing balm of the Gospel. The Third Commandment now describes the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. The Sabbath is now the opportunity to receive Christ Himself as He comes to us in Word, water, Body and Blood. We take time out of our lives and gather in this place because here Christ fulfills our greatest needs, the only needs that truly matter for eternity. Here Jesus gives us rest, not just the opportunity to take a break from this world, but eternal rest. Through the shed blood of Christ, we have eternal rest, the Sabbath rest of heaven. There all the distractions and other priorities will be no more; there will simply be Christ, the temple, the location of God’s presence with His people forever. We read in Revelation chapter twenty-one, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God.” In the Name of the new temple, the one whose zeal for His Father and for us led Him to the cross, Amen.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Star Wars and the simul

It is easy to identify good and evil in Star Wars: A New Hope. On one side is the good guys: the idealistic farm boy Luke Skywalker, the beautiful princess Leia. They are appropriately dressed in white, providing a sharp contrast with their antagonist Darth Vader. He is clad in black, more machine than man, in the words of Ben Kanobi, “twisted and evil.” But at the end, Luke triumphs, Vader is defeated, and Leia is there in beautiful white to hand out the medals. It’s easy to see the contrast between good and evil as the Star Wars saga begins.

But the picture quickly becomes complicated. Good doesn’t triumph in The Empire Strikes Back. It is battered and bloodied. Against the white background of Hoth, Vader smashes the Rebellion’s hidden base; he relentlessly pursues our heroes to the Cloud City. C-3PO is blown to pieces, Han is frozen in carbonite and handed over to the bounty hunter, Luke is drawn into a trap. There good and evil square off—and evil wins. Luke loses his hand in the stuggle; good is vanquished.
Luke loses more than his hand; he loses the illusion that he is somehow disconnected from evil. Vader is his father, and so like Frodo Baggins carrying the ring, or Harry Potter’s link to Voldemort, Luke has an intimate connection with evil. Good and evil was once black and white; simple and easy. But now good and evil both co-exist within him. Luke looks at himself differently, especially when he is fitted with a mechanical hand to match his father. He cannot imagine that he is clean and pure; the white garments he once wore were an illusion, now, in The Return of the Jedi, he is dressed in black. Even Leia is tainted; she too is a child of Vader. But this knowledge causes him to see his father differently, too. Luke claims that there is good left in Vader, that there is a conflict within him. He knows this because he has the same conflict within himself.

Saint Paul knew all about this conflict. He wrote in chapter seven of Romans: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate... For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” (Romans 7:15-23)

Theologians call this the simul justus et pecattor: we are simultaneously saint and sinner. Good and evil dwell within all of us, and they wage against each other. We have been made holy, saints through the working of God in Holy Baptism, but yet, we can’t escape our sin, we still have the conflict within. How can I be a Christian and still sin? How can I continue to struggle against temptation when I go to church every Sunday? Am I still one of God’s redeemed children? Saint Paul was at the point of despair, despair that every Christian since has felt. Sin is warring against me. “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” You and I are like St. Paul, Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, or even Darth Vader: divided between saint and sinner. What hope is there for us?

What saved both Vader and Luke was the love of a son for his father. That love led Vader to cast the Emperor, the source of evil, down into the pit. What saves us is the love of a Son for His Father. St. Paul writes, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Jesus loved His Father and obeyed His good and gracious will, which demanded that He go to the cross and die for your sin. That is the only deliverance that we have from the tragic reality of the simul; when we fall into sin, we have forgiveness through His shed blood.

Paul concluded: “So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” (Romans 7:24-25) Martin Luther put it this way in the Small Catechism: “[Baptism] indicates that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die along with all sin and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and holiness forever.” The old Adam is cast into the pit each and every day by returning to the font, by clinging to Christ’s redemption, and there the new man arises, which will stand before God forever in the new heavens and the new earth. There the conflict will cease, there we will be at peace.

Issues etc. blog of the week

Thank you to Issues Etc. for the honor of selecting this blog as one of their 'blogs of the week.'  I am a daily listener to the program, and I consider it part of my 'continuing education' here in the parish.  Todd, Jeff, and Craig do great work putting on a top-notch program, and I encourage everyone to listen.  You will be challenged, informed, and strengthened by this solid, confessionally Lutheran radio program.  Thank you to Issues Etc. for all that you do to proclaim the Gospel in the wilderness of American Christianity!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Lent 2 of Series B (Mark 8:27-38)

“Whoever is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the eighth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Mark. Dear friends in Christ, our Lord took His disciples up to Caesarea Philippi, the farthest away from Jerusalem that they would ever be during His ministry. There, at the foot of Mount Hermon, He had a question for them: “Who do people say that I am?” Far from the crowds of Galilee or His dangerous opponents in Jerusalem, Jesus wanted an impartial evaluation of what people thought of Him. They answered, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” But Jesus wasn’t really all that interested in what other people had to say about Him. He wanted to know about what His closest companions, His friends, His disciples thought of Him. “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers boldly on behalf of them all: “You are the Christ.” Their great teacher is much more than a mere man: He is the Messiah, the anointed One! The disciples, especially Peter, were excited, they were enthusiastic, they had visions of glory running through their heads. This was Israel’s triumphant Savior, come to establish God’s kingdom on earth!

But then Jesus tells them what it means that He is the Christ. “He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, but the Christ will not receive glory before suffering. He is the suffering Messiah, who will give up His life into the hands of the religious leaders, the enemies of the Gospel. His destiny is rejection and death. And the disciples can’t believe it. “Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him.” Peter may be bolder than the other eleven disciples, he may speak his mind more freely than you or I, but he is simply saying what we are all thinking: Jesus is a suffering Messiah? We are often ashamed of the sufferings of Jesus. We are embarrassed by a God who acts in weakness. Sure, we love the baby Jesus, the great teacher Jesus, even the exalted Jesus, but we turn quickly away from the suffering Jesus. That is why so many churches have empty crosses, or no crosses at all. That is why you find it so difficult to speak about Jesus to your friends and family. That is why Lent is such a difficult time of the year. Why? Why are we ashamed of Christ’s sufferings? First of all, our world hates weakness. The weak get crushed and despised, not admired and worshiped. But the attitude of our world is only part of the answer. Deep down, we are ashamed of Christ’s sufferings because we know that His sufferings will lead to our own.

We hear the words of Jesus in our text for today, and we know that He is calling on us to follow Him on the path of sacrifice, humiliation, and suffering. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” There are only two paths: the way of the world and the way of Christ. The way of Christ is a way of self-denial. Jesus calls on us to cease our self-promotion and pride and instead deny ourselves. We are to refuse to acknowledge ourselves; we are to place all people, especially Christ Himself, above us. When we do this, we will face ridicule, we will be trampled upon. We will suffer as Christ did. We will truly sacrifice, we will give up our own lives for others and for Christ. Our lives will be completely focused on following Christ, in everything we say and do, from Sunday morning in church to the rest of the week in our vocations at work and at home. It goes without saying that we don’t do this; we follow the way of this world. We don’t deny ourselves; we worship ourselves. We seek our own interests above all else. We desire the good life this world offers, the material things that will make us feel better and make our lives more convenient. We seek the approval of the world, and the world approves those who help themselves, those who keep their religion private. We are ashamed of the suffering and sacrifice that Jesus calls for, and so while we live for Christ on Sunday, the rest of the week we live for ourselves.

Jesus has stern words for us this morning: “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” There are only two paths: By following Christ, you may give up all earthly possessions, you will be ridiculed and persecuted, and may even give up your life, but you will receive eternal life. On the other hand, by following the world, you will keep all your possessions, you will praised by others and preserve your life, but you will receive eternal death. “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” Nothing in this life can pay the ransom for your soul. All the wealth, all the popularity in the world counts for nothing in eternity. You cannot exchange the things of this world for the eternal salvation of your soul.

Only one price could be exchanged for your soul: the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. St. Paul writes in our Epistle lesson, “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The world has deceived you; nothing it offers can defeat death. All of its praise and wealth cannot travel with you beyond the grave. Suffering is the only path that brings salvation, the only way to eternal life. Jesus gave Himself in exchange for your soul, He walked the path of suffering, the path that Peter didn’t want Him to walk, for you and for me. We have a suffering Savior because that was the only way that He could deliver you and me from death. Mark tells us: “He began to teach them that the son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” This is the divine ‘must,’ the ‘must’ of salvation. Jesus must go to the cross because it was the only way to save you from sin, death, and the power of the devil. No other way would suffice, no other path would lead to salvation, all that the world claimed to offer was a lie. The world offered salvation, but Jesus knew that the path of the world lead only to death. “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” Every rich person dies, every poor person dies. Every Christian dies, and every non-Christian dies. Jesus went to the cross so that those who believed in Him, no matter how much they had to suffer and sacrifice in this life, would not die eternally, but instead receive eternal life.

Jesus wasn’t ashamed of His suffering; He walked willingly, boldly to Jerusalem, where He knew that humiliation and death awaited Him. Mark tells us in our text that Jesus spoke the prediction of His suffering and death “plainly.” The Greek word Mark uses is even stronger; Jesus spoke ‘boldly.’ Jesus boldly declared His suffering, humiliation, and death. He boldly proclaimed His cross, because He knew that this was the only path to deliver you from sin and death. He wasn’t ashamed of the cross, but He boldly proclaimed it and He boldly walked that path for you. The Gradual for Lent calls on us to look to Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus despised the shame of the cross, enduring it for you and for your salvation. His love for you would not let Him avoid paying the price for your redemption; He knew the cost, but He boldly declared that He would pay it, saying in John’s Gospel, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down on my own accord.”

He was not ashamed of you; He was not ashamed to bear your sin. The author to the Hebrews writes: “For He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why He is not ashamed to call them brothers.” Jesus was not ashamed to take flesh and become your brother; He was not ashamed of your sin, and so He bore it to the cross. He was not ashamed of the cost of your salvation, and so He paid it. You and I are covered with sin; we fall into pride and fail to deny ourselves, in our sin we are even ashamed of His humiliation. There is plenty for Jesus to be ashamed of. But He doesn’t reject us; He calls us to repentance, and then in love, mercy, and compassion He forgives our sins, cleansing and purifying us to live before Him forever. To follow Christ, we will face the loss of status in the eyes of others, ridicule, and persecution. We may perhaps be called upon to give up our possessions or even our lives for the sake of Christ. But this text gives us the assurance that despite all that we lose in this life for the sake of Christ, our Lord has a heavenly inheritance for us, won by His shed blood. Even though we die, yet through Christ, we will live. As we sang last week in the hymn A Mighty Fortress is our God, “And take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife, though these all be gone, our victory has been won; the Kingdom ours remaineth.”

For us as well as Jesus, suffering comes before glory. Good Friday comes before Easter, and for us, a life in a world opposed to Christ comes before an eternity spent with Him. We travel with Jesus to the cross this Lenten season, for there the price has been paid, there the gates of heaven have been opened wide to us. Through His sacrifice on Good Friday, all the glory that belongs to Jesus is given to us. Like Jesus, we travel the road of the cross, we walk through suffering and sorrow, all the while knowing that our Easter is coming. For the God who vindicated Jesus by raising Him from the dead will surely raise those who belong to Jesus on the Last Day, bringing you to the glories of heaven, where we will no longer suffer, but instead will praise the Lamb who suffered for us. In His holy and precious Name, Amen.