Saturday, March 30, 2013

Holy Saturday

Christ is our substitute in every way; He stands in our place in every stage of life. He was conceived in the womb of the virgin and passed through each and every part of development that you and I did. He was born and grew into a man in the same way as any other human. And then He died and was buried, just as you and I will be. His Body was placed into a tomb, and there it rested, just as our body will when we die. We cannot ignore that little phrase in the Apostle’s creed: “and was buried.” He passes through every stage that we do; He passes through every stage for us, in our place.

His rest in the tomb sanctifies our tombs; it makes them temporary shelters, caverns now filled that will one day be robbed blind. Because Christ rested in the tomb, so must we, but Christ didn’t stay in the tomb. Holy Saturday is the beginning of the Easter celebration. We ended Friday in darkness; today the light begins to dawn. The sun refused to shine as the Son of God hung dying upon the cross; the stone is rolled from the tomb as that same sun rises on a new day, a new week, a new creation. For Christ has risen, the firstfruits of the dead. Christ’s grave is empty, and so shall yours be. Holy Saturday was a day of contradictions; the disciples huddled in fear, expecting to soon share the same fate as their master. The religious leaders, Roman soldiers, and death itself thought that Jesus was dead and gone. Evil thought that it had triumphed, while the godly despaired. But the truth of things was altogether different. Victory had been won on that gory cross. Death had swallowed a poison pill that would destroy it forever. The story wasn’t over, Jesus had triumphed. Soon He would descend to hell to proclaim His victory over Satan Himself, and then would rise to proclaim that same victory to all the world. Now, for Christians, Holy Saturday isn’t a day of despair, it is a day of anticipation. The night will soon be ending, the day is drawing near, for Jesus, for this world, for you and me.

Good Friday (Isaiah 52:13-53:12)

Behold, my Servant, declares the Lord! Behold Him as Pilate presents Him before the angry mob, behold Him as He bears the cross down the road of suffering, behold Him as He hangs upon the tree. “Behold, my Servant shall act wisely; He shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.” Behold, my Servant! He will be high and lifted up, He will be exalted; His throne is the cross. Behold my Servant, and shudder at His agony! “As many were astonished at you—His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and His form beyond that of the children of mankind.” My Servant is this bloody man hanging upon the cross, beaten, bruised, scourged, hardly recognizable by any who once knew Him. This is the One who is exalted, who will be exalted. There is glory there, O my people, there is glory hidden beneath the suffering, and there is glory yet to come. Do not look upon my servant only in pity, look upon Him in love, for He has abundant love for you. “So shall He spinkle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of Him; for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand.” What you heard of this night will be told throughout the world, and my Servant will sprinkle the nations; His blood will cover them. The cross is not the end; remember this as you look upon my Servant in the valley of the shadow of death: I declare that my Servant shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted!

We have looked upon God’s Servant, as God calls on us to do this night, and we hardly know what to say. “Who has believed what they heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” Who will believe what we saw this night? Who can understand it? We hid our faces from His suffering, from His humility. We judged according to appearances, we judged by what our eyes saw. And what did we see? Not a noble, handsome Savior, but a suffering, dirt-poor country rabbi. “For He grew up before Him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him.” He was not born as a king, but to a carpenter’s wife and was laid not in a palace, but a manger. His humility wasn’t worth our notice; His followers were tax collectors and prostitutes, and His disciples? Fishermen. Why did He suffer? Because He was cursed by men and by God, rejected in earth and heaven. “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised and we esteemed Him not.” Only those abandoned by God, cursed by Him, hang upon a tree. We covered our faces when He passed by, we shielded our eyes, because this man died completely and utterly alone.

We thought He suffered for His own sin, for offending our Lord more deeply than any man ever had. But we were wrong. “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” We thought He suffered for His sin; instead He suffered for ours. His suffering is our sin. We were unfaithful, we were rebellious, and we were under the curse. But He was cursed for us. Our sins were a burden upon us; the Servant took them up and bore them away. He becomes the sinner, for us, He suffered the consequences of those sins, in our place. Our penalty fell on His head. “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.” 

We couldn’t even look at Him, for we saw that He was cursed by God; but now we must watch Him, for the curse He bears is our curse, the stripes He receives are for our sins, we bear the hammer that drives in the nails, we placed Him upon that 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.” O Lord, what have we done? We have been rebellious, we have spurned our Creator, and this is the result. My God, my God, why have you not forsaken me? It was our sins that caused this suffering, that made the Servant One from whom men hide their faces. But we must watch; we cannot turn our face; this is our penalty placed upon another. His chastisement will bring us peace; His stripes will heal us.

We watch Him give His life into death willingly, refusing to defend Himself, to call forth the legions of angels that are at His command. “He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before His shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth.” When the soldiers come to arrest Him, He declares, “I AM He,” and gives Himself into their hands. We watch as He is spit upon, falsely accused, beaten with the rod and assaulted with the scourge. We watch Him carry His own cross; the instrument of His torture and death upon His back. The One with all power, who had healed the sick and calmed storms, refuses to fight, He refuses to struggle; like a lamb led to the slaughter He does not open His mouth.

In our sight justice is perverted; the very authorities that God set in place to punish evil and protect good put His Servant to death. “By oppression and judgment He was taken away; and as for His generation, who considered that He was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?” Pilate declares Him innocent yet sends Him to His death; a murderer they save, the Prince of Life they slay. Justice is perverted; the righteous one dies as a criminal. And we watch Him die. We hear His cries of anguish, we see His clothing divided, His mother given away, His need to drink. Then we hear Him cry: “It is finished!” What is finished? His suffering, His torture, His agony. His life is finished. “As for His generation, who considered that He was cut off from the land of the living?” He has no generation, no offspring. His bloodline is ended; He has no progeny to carry forth His name. He is cut off from the land of the living; God’s Servant is dead.

But His body isn’t left to the ravages of animals, sun, wind, and rain, instead it is protected by those who loved Him. God’s Servant isn’t disgraced after His death; His humiliation is finally over. “And they made His grave with the wicked and with a rich man in His death, although He had done no violence, and there was no deceit in His mouth.” The innocent one dies and is buried among sinners. What more can we say? “Who has believed what they have heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” He did this for us, for our sin, in our place. All of this was for us; it was the plan of His Father for our salvation. “Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush Him; He has put Him to grief.” God did this to His Servant for us, in His great love for us; love that is driven by nails, marked with scars, and crowned with thorns. Love as fierce as death.

Behold my Servant, declares the Lord! See Him hanging on the tree, wounded for your transgressions, crushed for your iniquities. He suffers and dies for you. But suffering isn’t His end. “When His soul makes an offering for sin, He shall see His offspring; he shall prolong His days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in His hand.” The One who had no generation will see His offspring; the One who was cut off from the land of the living will prolong His days. The dead one will rise, and my Servant “shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.” You who strayed like sheep will become His offspring, He will restore you back to me. He will produce countless offspring with His bride the Church, and He will see them all, for He lives, He will prolong His days to eternity. 

My Servant lives, and He lives to make you righteous. “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.” He makes you righteous because He died your death; He stood in your place and bore your curse. His righteousness is given in place of your sin, and you are now my beloved children. And as my children, you have everything, all that He won for you. “Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the many, and He shall divide the spoil with the strong, because He poured out His soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet He bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.” The spoil is His, for He triumphed over sin, death, and Satan, but He doesn’t keep it for Himself. My Servant, the righteous One, gives the spoil to you; all that He won: forgiveness, life, and salvation. He gives you the very treasures of heaven, and on this Friday that you call ‘Good,’ He gives them into your mouth in the Holy Supper of His Body and Blood. It was my will to crush Him, for you; by His stripes you are healed. Go in peace, you have been sprinkled with His blood. Amen.

Maundy Thursday (Luke 22:7-20)

“And [Jesus] said to them, I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the Kingdom of God.” 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 Maundy Thursday comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twenty-second chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, what is the Lord’s Supper? What is this meal all about? Why did Christ give it, and what does He give us there? We are called upon to ponder such questions as we prepare ourselves to receive this Supper on the night when Christ first gave it, and for my money, Martin Luther gives us a pretty good answer: “It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.” What is the Lord’s Supper? Body and Blood, bread and wine. More specifically, the Body and Blood of Christ Himself. This meal of Body and Blood, bread and wine is instituted by Jesus, established on the night on which He was betrayed, and it is given not to look at, not to simply adore, but for Christians to eat and to drink. What is the Lord’s Supper? Body and Blood, bread and wine, eating and drinking; a feast given to Christians from Christ.

What is the Lord’s Supper? It certainly isn’t our meal. It belongs to the Lord, not us. He controls the action, He establishes the meal, He is Lord and Master over this feast. He sends His disciples into Jerusalem to prepare the Passover, but it is actually Christ who makes the arrangements. “Tell the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’” He chooses the place, He sets the guest list, He runs the show: “And they went and found it just as He had told them, and they prepared the Passover.” Some set the table and serve the meal, the rest eat, but Christ is the Lord of this Supper. We simply participate, giving and receiving, each in His vocation, each in reverence to our Lord who gave it.

Christ is in control; He has authority over even the most ancient of institutions. He takes the Passover, the feast of deliverance, the feast of salvation, and makes it His own. God gave the Passover; now, hundreds of years later, God transforms it. “And He took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’” Israel had celebrated the Passover for almost fifteen hundred years, from the first night when the Angel of Death passed over blood splattered doors, but no celebration had ever been like this. Jesus makes the Passover His own meal, for this Passover is the last Passover; what it had pointed to for a millennium and a half had now come. This Passover is Christ’s Passover, and the lamb that was to be sacrificed is God in the flesh, as John the Baptist had so boldly declared with a powerful voice and a quivering finger: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

What is the Lord’s Supper? It is the meal of the sacrifice, the new Passover, the fulfillment of what God did for His people of old in the bondage of Egypt. On that night of nights, the eve of Egypt’s final plague, lambs were sacrificed, slaughtered, and their blood would save. For lamb’s blood would mark the doorposts and lintels of Hebrew homes in Goshen, and the Angel of Death would pass over, bringing death to Egypt but sparing God’s chosen people, as they gathered together to feast upon the lamb who had been sacrificed for their salvation. Jesus gathers with His disciples on the day of slaughter; Luke tells us, “Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed.” On the day when the Passover lamb is given into slaughter, Christ, the Lamb of God, is betrayed into the hands of sinful men. He will be slaughtered, sacrificed upon the altar of the cross, and His blood will save. It will mark His people, the doorposts and lintels of their hearts will be painted with that blood, and death will pass over them. And then, as with God’s people of old, the sacrifice will be eaten by those who have been saved by it; the feast of salvation, once a lamb, now Body and Blood, bread and wine. Death passes over; it has no power over those marked with blood, who have eaten of that sacrifice, for they have a new relationship with their God.

What is the Lord’s Supper? It is the feast which establishes a covenant unlike any other, as God Himself says through Jeremiah: “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord.” The Passover was the meal of God’s covenant with His people, His declaration that He had acted in salvation to deliver them, and He called on them in response to be obedient to His commands. God was faithful to His covenant; man wasn’t. Despite all the gifts that He gave to them, despite all the gifts that He daily gives to us, we are unfaithful, we are rebellious, we are sinful. We live for ourselves, separate from our loving creator; we abuse those gifts or refuse to give Him thanks. God doesn’t leave us, we break away from Him. And departure from the God of life means only death.

What is the Lord’s Supper? It is the feast of a new covenant, a new relationship between God and man. The time of the old covenant is over; it has been fulfilled, with all of its institutions. The sacrifices are no more; they have been fulfilled by Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice, as we hear in the Epistle: “Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.” The Passover is no more; it has been fulfilled by Christ’s Passover; the new feast of the covenant is the feast of His Body and His Blood. “This is my body, which is given for you.” The Body that is joined with the bread is the Body that hung upon the cross to reconcile God with man. The Body of Christ is given unto death “for you,” for your salvation, for your deliverance; His death in your place. “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” The Blood that is joined with the wine is the Blood that was poured out upon the cross as the price of your redemption. The Blood of Christ is shed “for you,” to establish a new covenant with you and your God, to mark your door so that the Angel of Death will pass over it forever.

What is the Lord’s Supper? It is a continual remembrance of Christ’s passion and death for you, for your salvation. As Christ Himself tells us, “Do this in remembrance of me.” But this remembrance is like no other in our world. In the Supper we aren’t playacting, we aren’t simply calling to mind Christ’s passion; Christ’s passion is coming to us, even touching our very lips. The same Body that hung upon the cross, the same Blood that was shed there are given to eat and to drink under the bread and the wine. And the Body and Blood of Christ cannot come without the benefits they won; forgiveness of sins, life and salvation, the fruits of our redemption, given to those who eat and drink. When we remember Christ’s death in the Supper the very fruits of that death, the very flesh and blood of the Lamb of God, are given to us. If we truly understood the great gift of the Lord’s Supper, we would demand that our pastors give it to us each and every Sunday; as an early church father said, “I always sin, so I always need the medicine.” 

What is the Lord’s Supper? The medicine of immortality. Those who feast here in faith will live forever, for here is given the flesh and blood of the One who won eternal life. Here the Passion of our Lord, which we will observe tomorrow, comes near to us. Here the Resurrection of our Lord, the light that dawns on Sunday morning, becomes our victory. Jesus said that He would not eat of this feast until the Kingdom of God comes. It has come, through the cross and empty tomb, and in that Kingdom He will dine with you now and forevermore. What is the Lord’s Supper? The feasting of the Kingdom of God, that will last forever, world without end. In the name of Jesus, who gives us His Body and His Blood to eat and to drink for our salvation, Amen.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Good Friday

What is the cross? It is an instrument of death, one of the cruelest ever devised by sinful men. What is the cross? It is an instrument of life, the most glorious ever given. What is the cross? It is two pieces of wood, hewn from some tree, discarded or used again to put another condemned man to death. What is the cross? It is the eternal declaration of salvation, standing forever to declare that sin has been paid for, death destroyed. What is the cross? It is a moment in time, when the sun was darkened, the earth shook, and the Son of God suffered for all, for you and me. What is the cross? It is the event on which history turns, it fills all history, reaching backwards and forwards to reconcile man with God. We don’t worship the cross on Good Friday, or any other day for that matter; we worship the one who hung on that cross. 

On the first three days of Holy Week, we meditated on the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Saint Matthew, Saint Mark, and Saint Luke. Today, on Good Friday, we turn to Saint John. In Saint John’s Passion, Jesus is clearly in command of His Passion, in fulfillment of His own words earlier in the gospel: “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” Jesus exercises this authority, giving Himself into the hands of the soldiers after making them cower with fear from the thunder of His voice. He tells Pilate, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” He gives His mother into the hands of John, and then He is the one who gives up His own spirit. No one takes His life from Him, but He gives it up into the hands of death on His own accord. He does this willingly for you; at the end of the reading this night, as you hear the Passion in all of its excruciating details, remember these simple words: He did it all for you.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Holy Thursday

Holy Week isn’t a reenactment of the last days of Christ’s life. Holy Week isn’t a drama or a passion play. Instead, Holy Week is something much more. It is the gifts that Christ won on the cross coming near to us. Salvation was won and accomplished on the cross; in the worship services of Holy Week, salvation is delivered to us through the Word and the Sacraments. Our remembrance of Christ’s Passion isn’t us traveling to the cross, but the cross coming near to us, with all of its great gifts.

Nowhere is this more apparent than when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Jesus commanded, “Do this in remembrance of me,” but this remembrance isn’t simply a nice memory or a reenactment of what happened that night. In the Lord’s Supper Christ actually brings His Passion to us. He gives us His Body, the same Body that hung upon the cross for our salvation; He gives us His Blood, the same Blood that was poured out there to atone for our sin. On Maundy Thursday, we celebrate the institution of the Sacrament that brings the cross to our lips. Much happened on that night on which Christ was betrayed, and the action moved from the tension of the upper room to the anguish of the garden, and from there to the courtroom, but the focus of this night is on the great gift that Christ gave as they supped. This is the medicine of immortality, it is the antidote to death, because it brings to us forgiveness, life and salvation, all that Christ won given into our mouths and open hands. The miracle of the Lord’s Supper is the miracle of the Incarnation, it is the miracle of the cross, it is Christ Himself coming near to you with salvation. We remember Christ’s passion, and He remembers us, giving us every good gift, physical food for the journey that nourishes to eternity. What better way to remember Christ’s cross than to receive the gifts that He won for us there!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Wednesday of Holy Week

Someone once called the four gospels: “Passion narratives with long introductions.” There is much truth in those words. The rest of the Gospel narrative moves fairly quickly through the birth and three year ministry of Christ, but when we arrive at Palm Sunday, the narrative slows down, taking us day by day through that most holy of weeks. Then, when we come to Maundy Thursday, the events are described in even more detail, as the evangelists present us with an hour-by-hour account of the sufferings and death of our Lord. This use of time shows us that these events are the very fulcrum on which time itself turns, the culmination, climax, and center of all history. Today, on Wednesday, we look to Luke.

Luke presents Jesus as the holy and innocent martyr. He is shown as dying unjustly, but willingly; He doesn’t seek death, but when it comes, He accepts it as the Father’s will. Jesus is declared innocent by the civil authorities, as Pilate says, “I find no guilt in this man,” but yet He is still crucified, victim to the mob’s thirst for blood. Jesus goes bravely, honorably to His death. He is a prophet, speaking words of warning to the women who followed after Him. “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” He is gracious even to His persecutors, praying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus even gives forth everlasting life, declaring to the penitent thief, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Finally, Jesus gives Himself into the Father’s hands, declaring, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” before He breathes His last. Jesus nobly, honorably gives His life into death, the innocent in place of the guilty, the Son of God in your place and mine. His death wins what He bestowed even upon the cross: forgiveness, paradise, to you, me, and all who believe.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Tuesday of Holy Week

Some people think that the fact that we have four Gospels is a great problem. They compare the narratives with a fine-tooth comb, looking for contradictions, for problems that they can exploit. To them, the existence of four different Gospels is perhaps Christianity’s greatest weakness. I couldn’t disagree more. The four Gospels are a great gift from God to His Church. Together, they don’t give contradictions; they give a full picture of the work and teachings of Christ. Each evangelist brings a different perspective, they pick up on different details, giving each of their narratives a richness that deserves to be explored on their own terms. That is what we are doing this Holy Week, and today, we look at the Passion of our Lord according to Saint Mark.

Mark is concerned with identity, specifically the identity of this Jesus. His Gospel opens with these words, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark makes it quite clear where his allegiances lie. His narrative is about this Jesus, who Mark believes is the very Son of God. The only problem is, no one in his gospel agrees with him! At least, no human agrees with him. The Father’s voice at Christ’s baptism calls Him “my beloved Son,” and the demons call Him “Son of the Most High God,” but no human makes such a confession; that is, until the cross. Mark tells us, “And when the centurion, who stood facing Him, saw that in this way He breathed His last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’” The only human in Mark’s Gospel to confess Jesus as the Son of God is a Roman centurion at the cross. In this way, Mark is teaching us a powerful lesson. It is only in the death of Christ that we can fully understand and confess Him to be the Son of God, and this death is for all. He is revealed at the cross; there is where we look to see our God, for there He is suffering, He is dying, in His great love and compassion for you and for me. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us!

Monday, March 25, 2013

Monday of Holy Week

Yesterday was Palm Sunday; we lined the streets of Jerusalem with the adoring crowds and acclaimed our coming Lord. “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” We waved the palms, we rejoiced that salvation had come, we rejoiced that Holy Week had come. Today is Monday, Holy Monday, the second day in this most holy of weeks. Christ is in Jerusalem, the lamb awaiting slaughter, and we wait with Him. We wait, and we pray, we meditate on God’s Word. In the three-year Lutheran lectionary, the first three days of Holy Week are dedicated to reading a passion narrative in its entirety. Today, on Monday, we read from Saint Matthew

Matthew is a catechist, a teacher. His Gospel is organized around five great discourses of Jesus, each intended to lead us to understand the truths of the faith. When it comes to the Passion of our Lord, the discourses are over, but Matthew ever remains the teacher. He gives us signposts, events and words from Jesus and from His enemies that teach us what this suffering and death means. The first is the most important: the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Jesus wants us to view His suffering and death through the lens of the Lord’s Supper. Specifically, the Lord’s Supper teaches us why Christ died. “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 next signpost is Barabbas, the murderer who is freed in Pilate’s attempt to placate the crowd. Barabbas is you and me; he was condemned to death, but Jesus dies in his place, just as He died in your place and mine. Finally, when Pilate declares himself innocent of Christ’s blood, the people cry out, “His blood be on us and on our children!” In their violent hate, they express a great truth; Christ’s blood does cover them, it covers you and me, forgiving all our sins and presenting us before His Father clothed in His righteousness. That is the gift of the cross; that is what Holy Week is all about.

Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion (Deuteronomy 32:36-39)

“See now that I, even I, am He, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.” 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 Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the thirty-second chapter of Deuteronomy. Dear friends in Christ, God gives us all things. Every good gift comes only from above, from our Creator, our sustainer, the only true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of you and me. He created all things, and He has not abandoned His creation. He still provides for us; nothing comes to us except through Him. Martin Luther teaches us to confess in the Small Catechism: “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life.” Our God is a giver God, the giver of everything we need for this body and life. He delights to give, He rejoices to shower His abundance upon us. That is why He made us, so that He could give us every good thing, so that His hand could be open toward us.

We receive this abundant bounty from our Creator and immediately set to work forming it into idols. Not idols of wood or stone, but idols of everything else. This is a fundamental violation of the First Commandment, the foundation of the other nine: “You shall have no other Gods.” We learned the explanation from the Small Catechism: “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” We don’t bow down before statues, but we bow down before our money, our reputation, our car, our home, our family. We bow down before ourselves. We worship the gift rather than the giver; we worship the things of this earth rather than the One who created them. We make them our gods. Martin Luther says in the Large Catechism, “A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress. So, to have a God is nothing other than trusting and believing Him with the heart.”

We depend on our idols to bring us good; we trust in them to provide for us, to protect us. We seek our good from them. Satan has made quite a career of convincing people to make the good gifts of God into idols, to worship the gift in place of the giver. The Lord gives us work, an income, money in our pocket; we form our checkbook into an idol, the place in which we put our trust, where we expect all good, our work becomes our life. The Lord gives the gift of family; we make families into idols, looking for them to satisfy our own needs and not receiving them as gift, loving them more than the God who gave them to us. The Lord gives us a body, physical abilities that allow us to work and to play; we think that this strength and ability is our own, and we derive our identity and self-worth from what we are able to do with our bodies. The Lord gives us government and medicine; we think that they can even conquer sin’s effects in society and in us. And we do the same with every other gift that God gives, from the air we breathe to the house we live in. All gods require sacrifices, and we are ready to give whatever they demand, for we believe that they will help us, that they can provide all that we need.

Idols promise great things; they promise to help us through this life, they promise to protect us, to be a rock of refuge in any storm. If we give the right worship, if we offer the right sacrifices, they will respond, and we will never live in want. They promise us the world. But they are liars. When we are faced with adversity, it is the idols that fall. A fire consumes a home, an accident destroys a car. Death attacks a family, disease assaults your body, joints and ligaments wear out and break. Suffering reveals that your idols have no power. They cannot even protect themselves, much less you. And no idol can reach beyond the grave. They may have some limited power in this life to care for you and protect you, but when death comes, there is nothing they can do. I’ve never seen a hearse pulling a U-Haul trailer; our idols crumble when confronted with the tomb.

Every obituary, every accident report, every diagnosis of cancer is a declaration that our idols are worthless. God mocks our idols, saying in our text: “Where are their gods, the rock in which they took refuge, who ate the fat of their sacrifices and drank the wine of their drink offering? Let them rise up and help you; let them be your protection!” It is in suffering, and especially in death, that idols are shown for what they are: empty, worthless, promising the world but giving nothing. They cannot rise up and help us, they cannot be our protection. They have no power, and we, who have trusted in them, who took refuge in them, are left with nothing. Worshipping idols leaves you powerless, empty, without any means to save yourself.

But it is precisely at that moment, when you are at your weakest, abandoned by your idols, that God takes action. “For the Lord will vindicate His people and have compassion on His servants, when He sees that their power is gone and there is none remaining, bond or free.” Idols cannot save; God does! He sees that our strength is gone, that our idols have failed us, that we are in desperate need of salvation, and He comes down to save. He enters this world in humility, as Saint Paul says, “[Jesus] made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” He enters Jerusalem in triumph, as the crowd waves palm branches, acclaiming their arriving King. “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” ‘Hosanna!’ they cried, ‘Save us, please!’ Our idols have left us naked, unprotected, unable to deal with sin and death on our own. Save us, please!

Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph to response to our cries. He comes in compassion; He has seen our miserable condition and he has felt great sorrow for us. He looks on us with love, He seeks to comfort us. This compassion led Him to take our flesh; it led Him to heal the sick, to drive out demons, to feed the multitudes. Now this same compassion leads Him to sit upon a donkey and enter the Holy City. Compassion never stands alone, as simply a nice feeling on the part of Jesus; it always leads to action. Jesus will act to vindicate His people. Only He can bring judgment on their enemies; only He can defeat sin, death, and hell. No idol can do that; only Jesus, Jesus alone. Jesus comes to be the advocate of His suffering people, to judge their foes and set them free. But He can only do this by standing in their place, even unto death itself.

This week begins in triumph; it will end in death. God has entered Jerusalem to shouts of acclamation; by Friday the mob will lead Him to Pilate with shouts of anger. Today we hear “Hosanna!” On Friday we will hear “Crucify!” Only Jesus can vindicate us, and only by being given into death in our place. For He is the sinless Son of God, and He bears our sin as the perfect atoning sacrifice; living the life we couldn’t and dying the death we deserved. Only Jesus can do away with sin and death by bearing the sin of the world to the cross. As God Himself says in our text: “See now that I, even I, am He, and there is no God beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.” Idols cannot save; God does! He put His Son to death upon the cross; He wounded Him with the scourge, the nails, and the spear of the Roman soldiers. God kills and makes alive, He wounds and He heals. He put Christ to death, but He made Him alive again; beyond Good Friday stands Easter. He wounded Christ, but He healed Him; Jesus would walk this earth again before taking His seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Isaiah says: “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.” God kills and makes alive, He wounds and He heals. He puts Christ to death to make you alive, to remove the curse of death from you. He wounds His only begotten Son to bring you healing, to restore you to perfect health from the ravages of sin. But first He must put you to death. “See now that I, even I, am He, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal, and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.” He kills you, He wounds you, through the stern proclamation of His holy Law, which points out and condemns your sins. He puts your sinful nature to death in repentance. He drowns the old evil Adam in the font. He sweeps away the idols that you have surrounded yourself with, leaving you powerless, with nowhere else to turn. But God only puts to death with His Law in order to make alive with His Gospel. The sweet proclamation of Christ’s death for your sake, the ‘for you’ of the Gospel that will ring in your ears on this most holy of weeks, creates faith within you that makes you alive, eternally alive. Your sinful nature was drowned in the font, crucified with Christ; God raises up a new man with Christ, to live before Him in righteousness and purity forever.

God kills and makes alive; He wounds and He heals. He is doing this work constantly, each and every day, as He points out your sin and destroys your idols, then speaks the life-giving words of the Gospel to forgive that sin. Christ enters this day in triumph to die in humiliation for you. God made Him alive as the seal and guarantee that death will have no hold upon you, that you will receive perfect healing in the halls of the New Jerusalem. He entered the old Jerusalem in triumph to the waving of palm branches; one day you will enter the New Jerusalem celebrating the same victory. Christ’s death means your resurrection; Christ’s wounds mean your healing; God intends to make you alive, now and forevermore. No idol can defeat death; Christ already has, and His victory is for you, for your forgiveness, for your life, for your salvation. In the name of Jesus, who entered Jerusalem this day with shouts of ‘Hosanna!’ to depart on Friday with shouts of ‘Crucify!’ showing compassion to you, me, and all people. Amen.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Lenten Midweek Service (Luke 22:39-46)

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 evening comes from the text just read from Luke chapter twenty-two. Dear friends in Christ, one of the more popular biblical scenes to paint or enshrine in stained glass is the image of Christ praying in the Garden of Gethsemane; in fact, if I’m remembering correctly, there are at least four different renditions of this event at St. John’s. In 1730 the Italian painter Sebastiano Ricci tried his hand at this familiar scene, painting the work that you have as a bulletin insert this evening. His brushstrokes illuminate both the angel and Jesus with heavenly light: our Lord is on His knees, His head bowed to the ground, the angel floating between earth and heaven, covered in glory. First-century Jews typically prayed standing up, but Jesus is so weighed down by the burden of this world’s sin that He falls to the ground, He cannot find the strength even to stand. The disciples are there, shrouded by the darkness of that evening. In short, all the characters of our text for tonight are in this painting, except one: Satan.

It isn’t very surprising that Ricci fails to paint Satan explicitly into the scene; Luke fails to mention him, too. But make no mistake, Satan is there. His presence is acknowledged by the exhortation of Jesus, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” Christ wants them to pray the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer that He gave as one of His greatest gifts to them, the prayer that contains the petition, “Lead us not into temptation.” Luther gives us the explanation: “We pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice.” In the Garden that night, Satan will deceive, he will mislead. He wants the disciples to be led into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. He wants the disciples to be scandalized by the cross. He wants them to reject the sufferings of Jesus, to reject His cross, which Satan correctly tells them will lead to their own. Satan wants to them to seek their own good, to avoid Christ’s sufferings to save their own skins.

Ricci shows us that Satan’s temptations have had their effect. Jesus called on His disciples to “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” They should be in the light, praying with Jesus, fighting against Satan, asking the Father to keep them all from temptation, asking for strength to face the hours and days ahead. But instead, they are in the darkness. So much so, that on your black-and-white copy, you can barely see them. Luke tells us, “And when [Jesus] rose from prayer, He came to the disciples, and found them sleeping for sorrow.” They fail to stay awake and pray, “Lead us not into temptation.” They are lulled to sleep by Satan, and so they will be completely unprepared for what will come; they will flee at the sight of the cross. Zechariah prophesied, “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” The sheep are ready to scatter; the offense of the cross will drive them away. Satan has triumphed over the disciples; they have failed to be faithful.

But the conflict between Satan and the disciples is only a sideshow; the main event is happening in the very center of the painting. Ricci has portrayed for us the decisive moment of Christ’s passion, the moment that has the potential to change history. Luke tells us what is happening. “And [Jesus] withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.’” We cannot see Satan, but he is there, giving to Jesus the same temptation that he offered in the wilderness: ‘You can have all the glory without the cross.’ And Jesus is on the very edge of giving in. He asks for the cup to be removed, the cup of suffering, the cup of divine wrath, the cup that you deserved to drink for your sins and rebellion against God. That is what ashes upon your head declare: the cup doesn’t belong to Christ, it belongs to you! And here, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asks for the cup to be given back to you, to drink down to the dregs. Jesus asks the Father to spare Him from the cross—the whole reason He became man and walked this earth in the first place. Your eternal salvation hangs in the balance. No wonder Luke tells us: “And being in agony He prayed more earnestly; and His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”

There is perhaps no other moment in Christ’s life that we see His human nature so clearly as when He asks to be spared the cross. But that isn’t the end of His prayer. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.” Sebastiano Ricci shows us the Father’s answer. The angel comes down from heaven, carrying a cup, the cup of God’s wrath over sin, the full weight of the punishment that the rebellion of all people has earned. Ricci doesn’t paint it this way, but that cup is marked with a cross of ashes, for it is your cup, and mine. And that cup is offered to Jesus to drink, down to the dregs. The angel has one finger extended to heaven; without a word, he is declaring to Jesus that yes, this is the Father’s will. He has called upon His Son to drink this cup; this is the only way that creation can be delivered from the bondage of sin and death. This cup is His will. The decisive moment has come; will Jesus take that cup, or will He leave it for us to drink? Our eyes turn toward our Lord for the answer. The angel bears the cup that fulfills the Father’s will; the open hand of Jesus tells us He has accepted that will. The angel points to the Father, Jesus points to the ground; His path lies on this earth, from the garden, to the courtroom, to the cross. He submits to the Father’s will; He will drink the cup, He will face the cross. Satan is conquered; Jesus has triumphed where His disciples failed.

You and I are also in this painting; we too are hiding in the darkness, facing the assaults of Satan. He wants us to be scandalized by the cross this Lenten season, to flee from it like the disciples did. He wants us to seek to save our own skin rather than willingly take up the cross and follow Jesus. He wants us to be timid, cowering with fear, fear that paralyzes us from serving our neighbor, from speaking the words of the Gospel, from bolding standing for Christ in a world under the sway of the anti-christ. His tune has never changed; he wants us to desire to be gods, and no god, he whispers, should bear a cross.

Like the disciples, we are lulled to sleep. We fail to pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” and instead we slumber. We fail to confess Christ when we are confronted with the cross. It’s easy to speak of Christ, to serve your neighbor, when there is no cost, when we’re safely within the borders of the Christian Church. But when confessing Jesus, when serving your neighbor in body and soul, when standing against this world all carry a hefty price tag, we cower, we fear, we fail, we flee. Like the disciples on that Maundy Thursday evening, we are scattered when the cross comes into view. That is why we are here, because we have failed, we have fallen for Satan’s lies, we have been unable to “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.” But where we have failed, Christ has overcome.

The moment that Sebastiano Ricci captures is the decisive moment; our salvation stands on the edge of a knife. But with the submission of Jesus to the Father’s will, our salvation is as good as done. Our Lord was on His knees, wrestling with the cross, wrestling with His sufferings, wrestling with the Father’s will, the plan of salvation. But then He rose. Luke tells us, “And when He rose from prayer, He came to the disciples and found them sleeping for sorrow.” This is a word of resurrection; as Jesus rose from prayer obedient to the Father’s will, so He will rise from the grave having accomplished that will. There is now no question of Christ’s obedience to the Father’s will, even unto death. He conquers where we fail; He conquers for us, in our place. His obedience is given in place of our disobedience, and He takes that cup and drains it, so that we never have to. His triumph over Satan’s attacks makes all the difference, for you, for me, for all eternity. In the Name of Jesus, who conquered temptation by submitting to the Father’s will for our salvation, Amen.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Lent 4 of Series C (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32)

“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” 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 fifteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, repentance, repentance, repentance! It seems that is all we’ve been talking about the past few weeks. Repentance isn’t a feeling, repentance isn’t living a perfect life, repentance isn’t going around being gloomy. Repentance is the mighty work of God within you through Law and Gospel, turning you away from sin and toward God in faith. Repentance is the theme of Lent, it is the theme of this day, it is the theme of your life. Repentance is the theme of the parable of the Prodigal Son. But if we call it the parable of the Prodigal Son, then we are in great danger of missing the point. The Prodigal is by no means the main character. He is only one of two rebellious sons, but the star of this show isn’t either of them, it is their father. It is his crazy antics that should draw our attention: Jesus has instead told us the parable of the Foolish Father.

This father truly is foolish. His younger son comes to him one day and says, “Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.” His youngest son comes to him and asks for the inheritance—before he is dead! The Prodigal Son is telling his father to hurry up and die, because he wants the money. There is no love, no care or compassion there; greed fills his heart, rebellion and rejection of his father, who gave him life. The Prodigal Son deserved a beating, some would even say he deserved death, but what does this Foolish Father do? “He divided his property between them.” What a fool! He allows his son to run all over him, to insult him to his face! And then he lets him go! “Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.” Instead of punishment, instead of death, instead of the penalties that no one would fault him for dealing out, this Foolish Father lets him leave and waste the fortune he had earned for him; his son is dead and lost to him, dead in sin and lost in depravity.

Sounds like another Father, who lovingly formed children from the dust of the ground, who formed you in your mother’s womb. And his children rebelled, they took the gifts that He had given them and squandered them. They exchanged love for lust, they exchanged hard work for greed, they traded in heavenly treasures for the fleeting pleasures of this earth. Every time that you or I sin, we are telling God to drop dead and we are taking the gifts and abilities He has given us to a far off country, far from Him, far from His love. And He is a fool to let us go. Anyone else would’ve sent us punishment, and many would’ve simply put us to death right then and there. But our Father lets us go; with tears He allows Himself to be rejected. He created us to be living beings, alive in body and soul; with sorrow he watches as we put our souls to death with sin.

In the midst of his depravity, seeing the complete emptiness in his life, the Prodigal Son comes to repentance. “I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He cannot imagine grace, he cannot conceive of forgiveness, and so his repentance is incomplete, it has a condition, a bargain: “Treat me as one of your hired servants.” The Foolish Father sees his son at a distance, but he doesn’t wait for him, instead he runs to his son to greet him. Does he bear an angry fist, a death sentence? Is he ready to bargain, to negotiate a return into the family? No, all he has is grace. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” What a fool! The Prodigal Son rejected him, squandered his wealth and was as good as dead, and the Foolish Father welcomes him back with love. The gospel overwhelms his attempts to bargain; the Prodigal can now only confess, “Father I have sinner against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” He is unworthy to be a son; anyone can see that. But the Foolish Father doesn’t act like any normal person; he shows reckless grace. The Prodigal Son is given the best robe—the father’s robe—a ring on his finger, and sandals on his feet; he kills the fattened calf and begins to celebrate. What a fool! He doesn’t require punishment, he doesn’t want him to work his way back—he receives him with joy, no questions asked! The Prodigal is a son again; not by his good life (he has lived the worst of lives), not by his bargaining (he had no chance to bargain), but by the Foolish Father’s lavish grace. As the Foolish Father said himself, “This my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”

Our Father doesn’t wait for us to return; He runs to us and showers us with compassion. He finds us and lavishes us with grace. Having been confronted by the Law’s grim reality and the Gospel’s free offer of rich and abundant love, we repent: “I, a poor miserable sinner…” He pours out His love upon us: “I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This grace is reckless, some would even say foolish. The Father sacrifices not a calf, but His own Son to reconcile you with Him. The Father places on you His own robe, the robe of Christ’s righteousness; He puts a ring on your finger and sandals on your feet, giving you the status of sonship once again, making you His beloved child. You were Prodigal; He is gracious. You were dead; He has made you alive. It’s time to celebrate!

But some refuse to rejoice. The older brother stands far off, and when he finds out that his father has welcomed back the Prodigal Son, his anger cannot be contained. “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” You fool! he says. He despises the Father’s grace, he stands aloof and self-righteously is offended by this unconditional love. He wants a bargain, he wants punishment, he wants his brother to work his way back into the family. The grace of his father is a stench in his nostrils, he rejects it, and so he rejects the celebration. He refuses to have joy.

How quickly the grace of our Father is forgotten! We were the Prodigal Son, we had rebelled, we had squandered what He had given us, but yet He receives us back to Himself. His lavish grace has overwhelmed us, making us a part of His family once again. But how do we look at the other Prodigals? Do we receive them with joy, with the same reckless love as our Father? No, so often we who have spent years or even a lifetime in the Church look down on the Prodigals. The same abundant grace that is given to us is despised when it is given to others. Do we welcome sinners into this fellowship, remembering that we are all Prodigals? Or do we self-righteously look down on them, giving them the cold shoulder? When they return to their Father, so often our reaction isn’t one of joy but instead, “About time!” or “She thinks she can call herself a Christian?” What about the Prodigals that don’t walk through these doors? We encounter Prodigals all the time; they work with us, they go to school with us, they are in our families, we see them on the street. Do we call on them to be reconciled to their Father, or do we think that some of them aren’t worth saving? I know how this works, because I fall into it all the time: you look at a person living a sinful life not as one for whom Christ died, but as a wretch not worth your time. And if we do welcome them, if we do call on them to be reconciled to their Father, it isn’t out of joy, but from a sense of duty; our motivation for evangelism and confessing the faith is of the Law and not of the Gospel. No wonder our confession is so weak and often non-existent!

In his self-righteousness the Stubborn Brother was as dead and lost as the Prodigal Son; he rejected his Foolish Father’s grace and love, and refused to join the celebration. If your child talks back to you like that and refuses to join the feast, then you probably would leave him out in the cold. But not this father. The Foolish Father doesn’t respond with punishment or anger, but with grace: “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive, he was lost, and is found.” What a fool! Instead of disinheriting this insolent and stubborn son, the Foolish Father affirms that he has all things. All that the Father has is His. The Father’s reckless love finds the Stubborn Brother; the dead one is made alive and given all things by grace. He offers to the Stubborn Brother the same rich grace that he gave to the Prodigal Son. And then he calls on him to celebrate. 

Jesus doesn’t conclude this parable; the ending is left hanging. What will the Stubborn Brother do? That’s exactly the point; the Pharisees, along with you and me, will finish the parable. The call of repentance from this parable isn’t so much to Prodigal Sons, it is to Stubborn Brothers, to you and me. Repent of your self-righteousness and turn to Christ in faith! The Father doesn’t reject you, His lavish love covers both Prodigal Sons and Stubborn Brothers, it covers you and me! Despite your sin, despite your rebellion, the Father says to you, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” Through the death of the obedient Son, our brother Jesus Christ, all that belongs to God is ours. We have a heavenly, eternal inheritance! The Father shows foolish, reckless love to you and to me, calling us back from prodigal living, calling us back from self-righteousness and forgiving all our sin! And God says that we are always with Him; He is ‘God with us,’ who dwells among us in grace, who celebrates when we repent. That is where we receive this inheritance, this is where we dwell with God: at the celebration, the marriage feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom. “It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” It is fitting, necessary that God would celebrate the finding of the lost, the making alive of the dead, for nothing else gives Him as much joy as making Prodigal Sons and Stubborn brothers His beloved children, to rejoice with Him forever. In the Name of Jesus, who in His reckless love reconciled us to the Father, Amen.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Lent 3 of Series C (Ezekiel 33:7-20)

“As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” 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 Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the thirty-third chapter of the prophet Ezekiel. Dear friends in Christ, do we have watchmen today? Our cities don’t have high walls manned with watchmen who are supposed to keep alert for danger, so I guess in a sense the concept of a ‘watchman,’ as we have in our text, is a bit foreign to us. But are we really without watchmen? We have watchdogs, who are to warn the house when an intruder invades. We have weathermen, who are to tell us when to take cover from a storm. The thing with a watchman (or watchdog) is that he or she is obligated to raise up a warning when danger is sighted. When the warning has gone out, it is our job to listen. A dog who hears the intruder and refuses to bark will be to blame if its master is harmed, as a weatherman will be blamed if he doesn’t tell us about a tornado. But if they each do their job and warn us, then the blame is on us if we fail to listen. We can keep sleeping if the dog is barking, we can stand out on the deck when we are told a tornado is coming, but that isn’t the fault of the watcher. They have warned us, they have done their job: they have been faithful watchers.

Your pastor is a watchman; the commission given to Ezekiel is one that is given to every occupant of the Office of the Holy Ministry: “So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me.” This is a difficult task; bringing warnings from God won’t win you any popularity contests. In fact, the pastor who takes these words seriously will be hated by the world. He will stir up opposition, he will be dealing with people where they are the most sensitive and defensive. But that is what a pastor is called upon to do. Let’s take this text seriously: your pastor is commanded by God to call you out on your sin. He can’t avoid that task because you will get defensive and angry; you don’t give the orders, God does. And God says, “If you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul.” When your pastor tells you that despising God’s gifts by not coming to worship is a sin, he is being a watchman. When he warns you from greed or sinful pride and ambition, he is being a watchman. When he tells you that living together outside marriage is sinful and must be repented of before you can commune or the church will host your wedding, he is being a watchman. In short, when he condemns any sin that you are committing, he is serving as a watchman. He isn’t commanded to give his own opinion, he is commanded, “Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me.” His warnings should only come from God in His Word. You may not like it, you may not want to listen, you may go and find another church, but if he warns you according to God’s Word, then he has fulfilled his task; he has preserved his life.

The pastor who avoids this task, who doesn’t warn the wicked of their sin, will be completely and universally loved. He won’t make anyone defensive or uncomfortable. His church will be full, the money will flow in, conflict will cease. There will only be one problem: he has failed in the task given to him by God. “If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand.” If God’s Word condemns your sin, but your pastor doesn’t, the penalty falls upon him. If he fails to speak boldly to you from the pulpit or in private conversations to warn you from your sin, he has failed in his task. If he doesn’t exercise church discipline by withholding communion and the other privileges of the church from you to lead you to see the seriousness of your sin, God will require your penalty from him. He is a watchman; he is required by God to warn you from sin, and if he doesn’t, it doesn’t matter how popular he is in this world or how much his church grows; in the eyes of God, his ministry is a failure. 

Why would anyone become a pastor after reading these words? I have to tell you that there is perhaps no other text in all of Scripture that fills a pastor with as much fear and trembling as this text. It is like a hammer on my soul. I have been called to be your watchman, and while I have at times given warning, I confess before you today that out of fear of rejection, out of a desire to be liked, I have often failed to give warning as I ought. I beg for God’s forgiveness and for yours, and I pray with the Lord’s help to serve as a more faithful watchman in the future.

This is pretty strong stuff, for pastors and for hearers. Three verses into our text it seems like God is only concerned with pointing out sin, with condemning us to death. The people in Ezekiel’s day thought so, and they complained, “Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?” At this point in the sermon, you must be thinking the same thing: is the only reason we have a pastor so that he can run around condemning people? Does God just want us all to rot in hell? You might be getting ready to get up and leave, to find another church or another religion. But not so fast, God says. “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” 

God doesn’t desire the death of a sinner. This phrase should be printed on every page of our Bibles, it should accompany every statement of condemnation that we read in God’s Word or hear from our pastors. God doesn’t desire the death of a sinner. God makes us that promise; in fact, He confirms it with an oath. He is so serious that He stakes His life on it. And when it came time to confirm that oath, to pay up on that promise, God didn’t hesitate. “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” The life of God was given up to fulfill that oath, to prove its truth. Jesus Christ, true man and yet true God, died on the cross because God doesn’t desire the death of a sinner. When it came down to the life of God or the death of a sinner, God died so that man could live. God backed up his words, He ratified His oath, and in so doing provided life to the wicked, to you and me. God takes our salvation so seriously that he staked His life on it, and in giving up His Son into death, forgiveness, life, and salvation is now freely offered to all who heed the watchman’s call and repent.

That is what our text, this day, and this season is all about: repentance. Repentance is a turning, a turning away from sin and toward God. The Hebrew word for repentance describes the turning of our whole body in a completely different direction. It is a turn from sin and wickedness to God and righteousness. None of this is our own work; it is God’s work in us. His Law, proclaimed by His watchmen, shows us our great and many sins. In fact, His Law shows us what we could never figure out ourselves: that we are completely corrupted by sin. We don’t just commit sins, we are sinful. Repentance is realizing this and renouncing it with sorrow. But that is not the end of repentance. Repentance is turning away from sin and toward God in faith through Jesus Christ. That is the work of the Gospel. “Though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if he turns from his sin and does what is just and right…he shall surely live, he shall not die.” Repentance is seeing our great sin, renouncing it, and clinging to Christ for forgiveness. Repentance isn’t about feeling sorry, even though you will feel sorrow over your sin, repentance isn’t about never committing that sin again, even though the fruits of repentance are that your will seek to amend your sinful life. Repentance is all about forgiveness, clinging to Christ alone, being righteous only through His blood.

The reason that God proclaims the Law and commands His watchmen to proclaim the Law is so that we would turn away from our sin and live. The same One who is sending judgment gives us a watchman to warn us from that judgment. God bears the sword, but in His mercy and grace He sends watchmen to make that sword ineffective. Repentance is His goal, His aim, not death. He sends His watchmen to warn the wicked to turn toward righteousness and to warn the righteous to not turn back to wickedness. As Saint Paul says in our Epistle lesson, “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” He is simply echoing our text: “When the righteous turns from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it.” Each and every day is then to be a day of repentance for those made righteous by Christ. We should never be secure in our sins, but instead we should constantly be repenting of them and clinging to the Gospel. We need forgiveness every day, because we sin every day; we are both the wicked who need to be turned and the righteous who need to be warned against turning.

In the eyes of the world, repentance doesn’t seem fair; the wicked should die in his wickedness, and the righteous one should live in his righteousness. In fact, the people of Ezekiel’s day say, “The way of the Lord is not just.” But this is God’s justice, His amazing grace. God is all about giving wicked people life through His Son, turning them in repentance and faith. His oath, “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live,” was confirmed and fulfilled by Christ’s own blood. His oath is a reality through the cross, through the empty tomb, through repentance and faith worked by Law and Gospel in the lives of His people, in your life and mine. Now, through repentance, and faith, as we hear in our text, “None of the sins that he has committed shall be remembered against him.” Before God, our sins are no longer remembered; His memory has been wiped by the blood of His Son; life is our destination, eternal life, with our living Lord. In the Name of Jesus, the one who confirmed the Father’s oath with His own blood and death, Amen.