Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Easter Day (Colossians 3:1-4)

(Both the introduction and conclusion of this sermon are adapted from St. John Chrysostom's paschal homily)

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above.” 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 beautiful Easter morning comes from the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the third chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Colossae. Dear friends in Christ: Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! If any man, woman, or child is a lover of God, let them enjoy this radiant and triumphant feast. If any are wise servants, let them rejoicing enter into the joy of their Lord. If any have labored long, let them now receive their wages. If any have worked from the first hour, let them today receive their just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let them not be dismayed, they will not be deprived. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let them draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let them, also, be not alarmed at their tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of His honor, will accept the last even as the first; He gives rest to those who come at the eleventh hour, even as to them who have worked from the first hour. And He shows mercy on the last, and cares for the first. And He both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering. Dear Christians, enter you all into the joy of your Lord; come to the feast and receive your reward.

For Christ has risen, and you are raised with Him! His death was the death of death, His sufferings were the crushing of Satan, His blood paid the price for all sin. You were dead in your trespasses and sins, you were dead forever in tragic separation from your Creator, there was no hope. But all that has changed on this day. Rejoice, for Christ is risen! He who died for you has been raised for you! Christ has died, and His death is your death; Christ has risen, and His empty tomb is now yours. Your future changed from a destiny of death and hell to the promise of life everlasting. “When Christ who is your life appears, you also will appear with Him in glory.” In Christ you died, for you are baptized into His Name. He has washed you in holy water, water sanctified with His Word. He pushed your head beneath those waters, putting you to death, and He brought you back out again, giving the life that only He has to give. “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This He set aside, nailing it to the cross.” Christ is risen, and He left your sins nailed to the cross! Christ is risen, and your life is with Him! You have a treasure, stored up and belonging to you forever. You have a treasure safe with Jesus, a treasure of life everlasting and the very glories of heaven.

This treasure is yours even now; your eternal life began the moment you were baptized. But you don’t see it. “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” You have life, but it is hidden in death. You have forgiveness, but it is hidden in your Old Adam. You have a treasure, but it is hidden in suffering. You cannot see the treasure that is yours; all you can see are the things of this world. You have an eternal inheritance, you have all that heaven has to offer, but you cannot see it, and so do you still live like those who are of the earth? Christ is risen, but do you live as if He is still in the tomb? You are baptized, you have died and risen with Christ, but do you live as if that day never happened? “Set you mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” Christ has risen, but does it make any difference in your daily life? Do you still live like those who don’t believe? Are your eyes fixed on the things of heaven, or on the things of the earth, the practices and behaviors of men that you have been called on to destroy: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” Your treasure is hidden, and what is out of sight is also out of mind. It appears that Easter hasn’t changed anything.

But that’s not true, is it? Easter has changed everything. Your treasure may be hidden under a cloak of suffering in this world of sin, but it is yours, more real than anything else that you can see with your eyes. That treasure will be revealed when Christ is revealed; when He returns, your treasure will come with Him. “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.” Christ is risen, and His glory will be yours; Christ is risen, and the day of His revelation will be the day your treasure is revealed. You died with Christ in the waters of Baptism, you were been raised with Him in the font, and on the Last Day, you will be glorified with Him forever. Your treasure is hidden because it is kept safe, it is held by Christ in His nail-pierced hands, and He will not cast it away. In this life, it seems that the baptized are no better off than anyone else; in fact, it seems that they are worse off. But on the Last Day, that illusion will be destroyed, your treasure will be revealed, and you will enjoy it for eternity. Christ is risen, and you will rise too. Death will not conquer you, the grave will not hold you, you will rise with your Lord.

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” Your treasure is in heaven; don’t live as if it is found on this earth. Seek the things that are above, set your mind on the things of heaven, for there your treasure is found. You were declared to be a child of God, you died to the things of this earth and were raised to the things of heaven when you were washed by those waters: be who God has made you to be. “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” Live as one who knows Easter, who knows what Easter has done for you, who peers into the empty tomb and does not remain unchanged. You have been delivered from the evil of this world; do not wallow in it any longer. “You have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator.” Be who you were declared to be—a child of God—not a person of this earth any longer, but a citizen of heaven. On this day, cast the practices of the world, the behaviors of your sinful nature, onto Christ, and hear His beautiful words of Absolution. The cross is for you; so is the empty tomb; when you died and rose again at the font, all of your sins were washed away. Your sins are forgiven—Easter is the proof, God’s seal and guarantee! Repent at the door of the empty tomb, and enter its sacred space with the joy of Christ’s forgiveness.

Enter into the feast; rejoice with great joy on this triumphant day! You rich and poor together, hold high festival. You sober-minded and you reckless, honor this day. Rejoice together, both you who have spent this Lent in prayer and those who have not. The table is full; feast upon it! The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry. Enjoy the feast of faith: receive all the riches of loving-kindness. Let no one complain about their poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep over their sins, for pardon has shone forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He who was held prisoner of it, has annihilated it. By descending into hell, He has made hell captive. He angered it when it tasted His flesh. It was angered for it was abolished. It was angered, for it was mocked. It was angered, for it was slain. It was angered, for it was overthrown. It was angered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen. O death, where is your sting? O hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one of the dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, has become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.” Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia! In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Good Friday (John 19:30-37)

“He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe.” 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 Good Friday is the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Saint John, particularly verses thirty through thirty-seven. Dear friends in Christ, in an interview not long ago, Emma Watson, star of the popular (and controversial) movie ‘Noah,’ commented on whether working on a Bible-based movie had changed her outlook on religion. Her reply was oh-so typical these days: “I already had the sense that I was someone who was more spiritual than specifically religious.” She is hardly alone. More and more people are using that label every day. What does it mean to be spiritual but not religious? It means to like the idea of an unseen realm, to be in touch with your soul, but not to actually attach any doctrines to it. It means picking and choosing from the religions of the world like a great buffet line, making God in your own image. It means praying to that vague ‘God,’ but certainly not going to church. It means to like the idea of a higher being, something bigger than yourself, but only if He never actually says anything. If God speaks, if He reveals to you anything specific at all, you instantly have a religion, you have doctrines, you have teachings. And that is to be avoided at all costs, because if God speaks, if you follow a ‘religion,’ then you are not the final authority, God is.

And that is unacceptable to the ‘spiritual but not religious’ person, because the goal of modern spirituality is to put you at the center as the final authority, deciding what is true or not for yourself. It’s no one else’s business what you believe, because your spirituality is just that: yours. People pick and choose from a smorgasbord of different teachers and philosophies, each promising to make you feel better, to make you a ‘better person.’ Even Jesus is turned into a guru, a teacher that can help you feel better about yourself. His teachings, His moral example are what matter, rather than His preaching about the kingdom of God, or especially His death and resurrection. Jesus becomes a nice subject for a pretty picture on a wall or a comforting Hallmark card, and the texts of the Scriptures, from Psalm 23 to the Lord’s Prayer, become sentimentalized to the point that they become nice thoughts, hardly recognizable as proclaiming Christ. Emotions become the driving force in the life of the Church; Christianity becomes more about what I feel rather than about actual events that really happened in history. Doctrines and teachings, the very words spoken by God Himself, are marginalized, taking a backseat to the emotional experience of having a relationship with Jesus, a relationship most often is managed on our terms and to our own goals. These end up being the same goals of the ‘spiritual but not religious’ crowd: to make me a better person who feels good about myself.

Those are the evils we fear, those are the evils that we are seeking deliverance from through a vague, fuzzy spirituality, inside the Church and without. We fear the evil of not being a nice person, of not being kind enough to others, and so each and every ‘spiritualty’ promises to make you a better neighbor, a better parent, a better leader. We fear the evil of not being well adjusted, of not feeling good about ourselves, and so we seek deliverance from prophets like Oprah and Dr. Phil. And if Jesus can help, then we’ll pick and choose from His teachings, too. No one wants to feel bad about himself, right? That’s why these spiritualties are individualistic; you pick and choose until you find the combination that works and when it works, you stick with it. And when it doesn’t, you go somewhere else. It doesn’t matter if it’s true, it only matters if it works.

That is the world that we live in, that is the air that we breathe, and it has affected us all, to some extent or another. And that is what the preaching of the cross destroys. Good Friday is the annihilation of all those vague spiritualties, the claim that one can be ‘spiritual but not religious’ is shattered by the cross. Rather than a vague deliverance from some flimsy evils, the cross is very real deliverance from very real evil. On Good Friday, Jesus isn’t suffering and dying to make us a better person, He isn’t shedding His blood to help us feel better about ourselves. He is hanging upon that cross to deliver us from evil, the very real evil that threatens us. We have enemies, real enemies, and they intend to destroy us, forever. The fuzzy spirituality of our age is shattered by each and every funeral. What is more real than death, than a person in a coffin who will never speak again? The greatest evil we face is not that we don’t feel good enough about ourselves, it’s that we are going to die. No amount of being ‘spiritual’ can defeat death. And why do we die? We die because of sin. We can’t be a nice person, because we are sinful. And even if we are nice to others, that still doesn’t change the fact that we are going to die. Sin is real, death is real, and so is Satan. People can deny his existence all they want; someone who is ‘spiritual but not religious’ has little place for him, but he likes it best that way. Satan would rather attack us when we’re unsuspecting, completely unprepared for his assault.

Those are our enemies, those are the evils we need salvation from; they are real, and they are dangerous. Those are the evils that we are taught to ask for deliverance from in the Lord’s Prayer. “We pray in this petition, in summary, that our Father in heaven would rescue us from every evil of body and soul, possessions and reputation.” Those are the evils that threaten us; those are the evils destroyed by the cross of Christ. Jesus answers this petition on Good Friday. At the moment of the cross, as our Lord Jesus hangs there suffering and dying, you and I are delivered from evil, the very real evil that threatens us. He destroys death through His own death on our behalf; He delivers us from the bondage of sin by paying its price; He crushes Satan by robbing his accusations of their power. This deliverance isn’t vague, it isn’t ambiguous, it’s raw and real. What is more real, more definitive, than a crucifixion? The Gospels don’t just preserve detached teachings, a ‘spirituality’ proclaimed by our guru Jesus. The Gospels declare that this Jesus died on a cross and rose again in real history, for real sinners. The writers of the New Testament are preserving eyewitness testimony to events that really happened, events that have eternal significance. John was there when the spear pierced Christ’s side. “He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe.”

John’s witness declares that the harsh reality of death is destroyed, overcome by the death of Jesus in history, “under Pontus Pilate.” On a Friday afternoon, death was destroyed, sin paid for, and Satan conquered. On a Sunday morning, that victory was sealed and proclaimed by a tomb that is still empty. That is reality. And now our reality is life forever, a life in the new heavens and the new earth. This isn’t conveyed to us by some sort of vague ‘spirituality,’ but in actual water, physical bread and wine. The cross brings you forgiveness for when you are not such a nice person; the cross gives you an identity as a child of God that endures even when you aren’t feeling so good about yourself. The cross is reality in the midst of the changes and chances of life. Emotions are good, and we do feel sorrow over our sin and great joy over Christ’s deliverance, but our feelings cannot tell us how we stand before God. To know that, we look to the cross, and there God says, “I love you.”

We look to the cross as Zechariah prophesied: “They will look on Him whom they have pierced.” All humanity will look to Jesus, the one pierced for our transgressions, on the Last Day. Some will look in joy, in faith at their deliverer. Some will look in sorrow, for they refused to believe. That is reality. No one in need of real salvation from real evil can bypass Jesus. And we have the assurance that when we look in faith, we will be delivered, as we confess in the Small Catechism. We pray that when our last hour comes God would “ give us a blessed end, and graciously take us from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven.” God’s answer is yes, because of the reality of the cross. It is finished; that is reality. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Holy Saturday: My Song is Love Unknown

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.”

O God, creator of heaven and earth, grant that as the crucified body of your dear Son was laid in the tomb and rested on the holy Sabbath, so we may await with Him the coming of the third day, and rise with Him to newness of life, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Maundy Thursday (Matthew 26:17-46)

“Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 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-sixth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ: Satan works overtime in the shadow of the cross. He is always casting temptations our way, but he never works harder than when the cross comes into view. His goal is to separate us from the cross, from Christ’s death on our behalf. He wants us to live in sin and despair; that is the goal of temptation, as Luther teaches us in the Small Catechism: “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.” False belief, despair, other great shame and vice—these are the goals of temptation. The devil, and his allies—the world and our sinful nature—want to separate us from the cross, they want to separate us from Jesus. That is their goal this Maundy Thursday, and it was their goal the first Maundy Thursday.

Temptation swirled around in the darkness of that night; for good reason Jesus told His disciples, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” The temptation was to see the cross and take offense, to see Christ’s sufferings and fall away, to want nothing to do with a dying Savior. Jesus predicted those temptations would come. He told the twelve, “Truly I say to you, one of you will betray me.” Judas wanted a warrior-king, he was offended by the meek and suffering Savior, and so he handed Him over to His enemies. But he was not the only one to take offense at the cross. Jesus said, “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’” The disciples would see the cross and flee from it; they would want nothing to do with crucifixion and the agony of suffering, for they knew that Christ’s death would lead to their own. How many of you would keep coming to worship if you were threatened with beatings or arrest? I wonder how full this church would be if it were a target of persecution, or if you would have anyone to preach to you if pastors were threatened with death. Don’t answer too quickly; Peter had much confidence in his own ability to stay firm, and Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.”

Instead of praying that their faith wouldn’t fail, Peter and the rest boasted of their loyalty. But events would quickly show that there was no reason for such trust in their own abilities to withstand Satan, just as Jesus had predicted. He goes off to pray, to wrestle with His Father in agony, and He calls on His trusted companions to keep vigil with Him, but they cannot. “And He came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And He said to Peter, ‘So, could you not watch with me one hour?’” Satan’s temptation is for us to become lazy, to fall asleep, when we should be watchful in prayer. We should be watching for Satan’s temptations, we should be looking to Christ to counter them, but we are soothed to sleep by Satan’s lullaby. He distracts us with the things of this world; even good things, like family and friends, are used by our enemy to divert us, to take our sleepy eyes away from the cross. I might stay away from worship or bible study because of sin, but also because I’m busy with work, feeding my family. I can neglect reading the Bible or prayer because I have other things to do, even good and noble things. A thousand different distractions, sinful or not, keep us from focusing on Christ’s cross, for Satan has one goal in mind. He wants you to have nothing to do with the proclamation of the cross, because Satan wants you, and he knows that the only way to get you is to separate you from Jesus, to lead you into “false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice.”

He wants us to despise the cross; to take offense at Jesus’ sufferings or to hear of them as little as possible. He wants you to deny your Lord, to take offense at suffering for His name, or to live your life in a contented, drowsy spiritual sleep. He wants you to live your life as far as possible from the cross of Christ, because Satan knows that at the cross he is defeated. That’s why the temptations the disciples faced were only a sideshow; the main event was his temptation of Jesus. And this greatest of all temptations was the same as his whisperings in your ear and in mine: “Have nothing to do with the cross.” 

Jesus falls in agony to His knees in the Garden of Gethsemane. He says, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.” The cross is staring Him in the face; He knows the agony, the suffering ahead of Him, and He would not be true man if He did not struggle with that future. Satan is there, whispering the same temptation that he spoke in the wilderness: “Take the glory without the cross.” It was the prince of hell that filled His soul with the dread of death, who made Him shrink back from the tortures of the cross, who called on Him to refuse obedience to His Father in heaven. Jesus is tempted to refuse that cup, to leave it for you and me to drink, to escape the tortures of hell, leaving us to endure them forever. Make no mistake, with a word Christ could’ve avoided the cross; and Satan tempts Him to speak that word.

Christ is left alone; the disciples were to pray with Him and for Him, but they have failed; they sleep and soon will scatter. With Satan whispering in His ear, Jesus alone wrestles with the Father’s will. He says, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” He wrestles in agony, the torment of these dark hours are impossible to describe, but where man fell into the temptations of Satan, Christ refused to listen. He cries out, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” God’s will be done, not Jesus’ will or Satan’s will. God’s will be done. Jesus rises from His wrestling triumphant over temptation, triumphant over Satan; He will go to the cross. It’s over; the cross lies ahead, but Christ will not avoid it, He will go forth resolute, ready to suffer and die. There is no hesitation, no shrinking now. He emerges from the Garden not like a fugitive who must be drawn out from hiding; He is as a conqueror meeting the vanquished. “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”

Satan tried to keep Jesus from the cross because he knew that the cross would be his end. He thought that in the face of all the torture, humiliation, and suffering that was ahead of Him, Christ would grasp after glory, He would seek to escape, but He didn’t. He was resolute, and Satan’s defeat was as good as done. He refused to be separated from the cross, but He boldly walked that path for you and for me. And now He who refused to be separated from the cross refuses to let you be separated from it either. That is Satan’s goal, each and every day, to separate you from the cross, too keep you from the forgiveness found there, the defeat over death won by Christ’s death. But take heart, Jesus fights for you; He brings His cross near to you, overcoming Satan’s attempts to isolate you from your Lord or His cross. That’s why Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, to bring the cross to us, to forgive our sins and to strengthen us against all the whisperings of the enemy. 

“Lead us not into temptation,” Jesus teaches us to pray. He gave the Supper to His disciples in answer to that prayer, to strengthen them for the temptations that lay ahead. That same Body and Blood is given to you in the midst of your temptations; in the Supper, the cross of Christ is brought near to you. In the Small Catechism we read, “Although we are attacked by these things, we pray that we may finally overcome them and win the victory.” Jesus overcame the temptations of Satan, He won the victory, and in the Supper He brings that victory to you for the forgiveness of your sins. Jesus will let nothing come between Him and you; not Satan’s temptations, not your sin, not even death itself. He is resolute, He is unshaken, He is firm; He who went to the cross will not allow Satan to divide you from Him. He went to the cross for you, and this night He brings the cross to you. Take eat, take drink, the fruits of the cross are for you. In the name of Jesus, Amen.

Good Friday: My Song is Love Unknown

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.  “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.

Almighty God, graciously behold this your family for whom our Lord Jesus Christ was willing to be betrayed and delivered into the hands of sinful men to suffer death upon the cross; through the same Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Maundy Thursday: My Song is Love Unknown

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.”

Almighty and everlasting God, grant us by your grace so to pass through this holy time of our Lord’s passion that we may obtain the forgiveness of our sins; through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Wednesday of Holy Week: My Song is Love Unknown

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.

“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 to the “loveless that they might lovely be.”

Most merciful God, as the people of Jerusalem, with palms in their hands, gathered to greet your dearly beloved Son when he came into His Holy City, grant that we may ever hail Him as our King and, when He comes again, may go forth to meet Him with trusting and steadfast hearts and follow Him in the way that leads to eternal life; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.

Tuesday of Holy Week: My Song is Love Unknown

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 at your need “His life did spend.”

Merciful and everlasting God, you did not spare your only Son but delivered Him up for us all to bear our sins on the cross. Grant that our hearts may be so fixed with steadfast faith in Him that we fear not the power of sin, death, and the devil; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Monday of Holy Week: My Song is Love Unknown

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.

Almighty and everlasting God, you sent your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, to take upon Himself our flesh and to suffer death upon the cross. Mercifully grant that we may follow the example of His great humility and patience and be made partakers of His resurrection; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.

Palm Sunday (Series A: Philippians 2:5-11)

“Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” 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 Palm Sunday is the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi. Dear friends in Christ, our King, our Lord, our Messiah, is a coming King. He comes this day into Jerusalem, He comes to His people, who line the road waving palm branches, who cheer and acclaim His name. They shout, “Hosanna, blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” He comes to the praises of men, but He also comes in humility. He comes not on a steed of war, but on a donkey; He comes not leading an army, but twelve disciples. He comes in fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is He, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” This is a humble King, a King who lowers Himself, a King who gives up glory instead of taking it. He comes not to conquer, but to die; He comes not to a palace, but to a hill of execution; He comes not to a throne, but to a cross. This is a King like no other, as the events of this most holy of weeks will demonstrate. He will be glorious, He will have His triumph, but not before He is humbled, not before He suffers, not before He dies.

This King is a humble King, a King who empties Himself, who freely gives up all that is rightfully His and submits to humiliation, suffering and death. “Though He was in the form of God, [Jesus] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but make Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” This King is true God, He is equal with the Father, but yet He lays aside His glory. He makes Himself nothing, not simply being born as a man, but as the humblest of men. He didn’t seek after God’s glory, even though it was rightfully His, He resisted the devil’s temptation to grasp power for Himself, and instead walked the way of humility. He lowered Himself from the lofty heights of heavenly glory to the humility of servitude, putting Himself, the equal of the Father, into the hands of the Father’s will.

That will called on Him to humble Himself even further. It is a great mystery that Jesus humbled Himself to become a dirt-poor rabbi, born away from home, laid in a manger, with no place to lay His head. It is far greater mystery that He humbled Himself unto death. “And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” He is the Son of God, true God in the glory of the Father, and He humbles and lowers Himself to the most wretched death ever devised by men. He to whom all power and glory rightfully belong humbled Himself to the disgrace of men: “I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.” This is the Father’s will, that Christ would die for the people, that He would humble Himself to die in your place and mine, bearing our sin, and He was obedient to that will.

The drama of this week is captured in that phrase: “He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Here is the agony of Maundy Thursday, here is the horror of Good Friday, here is the fear and sorrow of Holy Saturday. He to whom all power and all glory rightfully belonged humbled Himself to the wretchedness of the cross. But that is not the end of the story. He humbled Himself knowing that He would be exalted, He laid aside His glory knowing that He would take it up again. This King died in humiliation, He died the death of a criminal, but He did not stay dead. He went boldly to the cross because He knew what would happen on the third day: “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.”

The humble King was vindicated, He was not put to shame; on the other side of the humiliation of the cross stood the glory of the empty tomb. Because He humbled Himself unto death, even death upon a cross in obedience to the Father, He was given eternal glory. “Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name.” The crucified King is now exalted to the highest seat of honor. He who made Himself the lowest of all is now given the name above every name. The name of Jesus is the name of salvation, it is the name of glory, and at the sound of that name, all creatures, even the devil and His evil host, will fall down and give Him honor. “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Humility led to glory for the crucified King.

That is the path that Paul calls on us to walk. He instructs us to “have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” We are to have the same mind as Christ, who not only humbled Himself, putting away His divine glory, but was humbled even to death upon a cross. He who was exalted over all became the least of all. He refused to glorify Himself, He rejected every temptation to seek after earthly gain, and instead subjected Himself in obedience to the Father’s will. He didn’t exalt Himself—He let His Father do that. You are called upon to have that same mind as your King. You are called upon to humble yourself, to refuse your own glory, to not boast in anything that you are or have. You are to put your pride to death, to put others before yourself, to be obedient to the Father whatever the cost may be. What do you boast in? Do you take pride in your wealth, your physical strength, your looks, your talents and skills? Do you crave the attention, the praise of others? Put it to death. Nail it to the cross. You are called to humility, to empty yourself like Christ, not to puff yourself up.

Paul explains exactly what he means just before our text: “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but to the interests of others.” Pride looks only to your own needs; humility looks to the needs of your neighbor. The gifts you have been given are not to make you better in the eyes of others, they are to serve your neighbor in love. Empty yourself of self-serving pride and glory so that others can be filled. Despise the glory of men, their praise and adoration; it is fleeting, it fades away. Seek rather to live in humility, for, like Christ, you know that there is glory yet to come.

Jesus laid aside His glory knowing that He would take it up again; He endured the cross having spoken of the empty tomb. The one who exalts himself will be humbled; God makes sure of that, in this life or in the one to come. But the one who humbles himself in imitation of Christ will be exalted. Humility endures, while pride kills. Are you to come to God in boasting and pride, thinking that you have something to offer Him, that you have something that He needs, that you are worthy to stand in His presence because you are so wonderful? Or do you come to God empty-handed, a beggar, with nothing to give Him but your sin and wretchedness? Pride before God is the height of foolishness; humility is the only posture we can honestly have before our holy Creator. We say it at the beginning of every service: “I, a poor, miserable sinner.” Those words give us no room for pride before God or other people; we are all equally sinners, no matter what skills, wealth, or ability you may have. You are no different than anyone else; we all stand as sinners before a holy God. Is there room for pride, before God or before men, in the confession of sins? How are we to come before God?

We come as a child. Jesus, the King who humbled Himself, even to death upon a cross, told His disciples, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” What is more humble than a child? An infant is weak and helpless, totally dependent on others; they cannot give, but only receive. That is our pattern.  Our example is an infant, brought to the baptismal font; our example is Christ, hanging upon a cross. If He who had all things humbled Himself even unto death, then we, who have no reason to boast before God (and little reason to boast before men), are also called to live in humility, the humility of a child.
Christ our King continues to come to us with that same humility. Our King, our Lord, our Messiah, is a coming King. He came to this world on Christmas, He came to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and even though He is now exalted above all things, even though He has been given the Name that is above all names, He still comes to us through humble means. He uses a fellow sinner, these broken lips, to proclaim the Absolution, to read and preach the Word. He uses simply water to claim children for His kingdom. He uses ordinary bread and ordinary wine to convey His Body and Blood. The King who came to Jerusalem in humility on Palm Sunday still comes in humility to His people each and every Sunday. He comes to humble us with His Law, to condemn our sin and help us to see that we have nothing to bring before Him, no merit to offer Him. But then He comes with the beauty of His Gospel, forgiving the prideful through His humble means. 

You are forgiven of your pride, you are forgiven of trying to exalt yourself, you are forgiven of seeking your own glory. Christ died not just to show you an example of humility, but to forgive your lack of humility; to pay the price for it, to take away its penalty from you forever. His humility stands in the place of your pride, He laid aside His glory to be your substitute. And now He gives you, as a forgiven sinner, the glories that followed His humiliation, and they belong to you forever. In this world, Christians live in humility, but you know that glory is up ahead, just as surely as you know that after Good Friday comes Easter. In the Name of Jesus, the Name above every name, given to the One who humbled Himself unto death upon a cross for you and for me, Amen.

Monday, April 7, 2014

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

I was in Abraham’s bosom, dwelling in eternal bliss. All around me were the patriarchs, the prophets, and countless others who had trusted in the coming One, the One who they had only heard of in prophecy, but I had seen with my own eyes and had touched with my own hands. I even counted Him as a dear friend; when my sisters sent a message to Jesus, they simply said, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” When I became sick, even though it was a violent illness, my sisters and I were confident of healing. We knew Jesus, after all. We had seen him heal others before, we had heard dozens of other stories, and now if his beloved friends were suffering, He would surely come. He had healed strangers; He would certainly heal His friend. As the Jews said, “Could not He who opened the eyes of the blind also have kept this man from dying?” But Jesus didn’t come. He never arrived at my bed, and so I said my goodbyes to Mary and Martha and passed from this world to the company of all the saints. There I found perfect peace, there I found perfect comfort, there I found perfect joy. In Abraham’s bosom, it didn’t really matter anymore that Jesus had failed to come; for the first time, I was perfectly satisfied. I dwelt there, enjoying the Sabbath rest for what seemed like just moments, or maybe a couple lifetimes, when I heard the voice: “Lazarus, come out!”
It didn’t matter whether I wanted to leave or not; I was going back into the world, and in moments I was standing there, outside the tomb, wrapped in grave cloths. Jesus, who had allowed me to die, now yanked me from the peace of Abraham’s bosom and back into a world that I knew very well was filled with pain, suffering, and evil. I had died once; now I knew that I would have to die again. More than that, the religious leaders wanted to make that death happen, and soon. So, not only did I dwell again in a corrupted world, I was going to be persecuted on top of it. Why? What possible reason did Jesus have for letting me die and then pulling me out of heaven?

I was raised so that many would believe. My resurrection was the proof that Jesus was who He said He was. He told my sister, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” I was raised so that Jesus could demonstrate before my sisters, before the Jews who had come to comfort them, before me, and even before you, living two thousand years later, that He was the master over death. He claims to be the resurrection and the life? Well, when I walked out of the tomb that day, He proved it. He says that those who believe in Him will never die? I was pulled out of Abraham’s bosom to declare that He speaks the truth. Isn’t this the most amazing phrase in all of Scripture? “The man who had died came out.” This is paradoxical, it is nonsense, dead men don’t go anywhere on their own. But I did, by the power of Christ’s word. He spoke to me as if I was living, and through the power of His Word, I did live. Jesus commanded the people standing around, “Unbind him, and let him go.” As they pulled the linens off my body, they could touch with their hands the truth of Jesus’ authority over death. I was no ghost, and everyone who saw me knew that Jesus is the resurrection and the life. I was raised as the greatest sign that He would ever do, the culminating sign that capped off His entire ministry. I was raised so that many would believe.

Both of my sisters had the same cry of anguish to our Lord, our friend, when they met Him that day. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They asked Him in tears, ‘Why?’ But even before I walked from the grave, Martha gave a bold confession, she showed forth her faith. First she said, “But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, He will give you.” Then she declared, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God who is coming into the world.” She still needed to see the miracle to confirm that faith, as Jesus gently chided her when she protested against opening my smelly grave: “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” I was raised so that those dearest to me, my two beloved sisters, would believe that our friend Jesus had come to conquer death, so that they would boldly confess that faith until their dying day. But even more than that, I was raised so that you would believe that Jesus is the resurrection and the life.

You see, we all fear death, and rightfully so, for it is our greatest enemy, it is the penalty given in the garden, and it hangs over our head still today. Every person on the face of this planet is going to die. People know this, instinctively, and so they put forth an enormous amount of time, money, and energy trying to stave off death. But that’s all that you can do; even with the best efforts of the medical community, you can only put off death, you cannot conquer it. Only One man has the power to overcome death, and He raised me to prove it. He declared, “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” Yes, your body will die, it’s inevitable. But by believing in Christ, you shall still live. How many bend over backwards to keep the body healthy, while neglecting the health of the soul? Saint Augustine wrote, “Every man is afraid of the death of the flesh; few, of the death of the soul.” Just make a simple comparison. Do more people in our world go to worship or visit the doctor? Do more people spend time in prayer or take pills? Do more people see their pastor or have surgeries? Where do your priorities lie? Take it from me, the one who believes will live, even though he dies. The one who doesn’t believe is dead already, and no doctor or hospital can help his soul. No doubt you should take care of your body, and God has given people skills of healing for your good, but so many are focused on trying in vain to avoid the death of the body that they neglect the soul, and when death comes, they will tragically find that they have lost both.

That’s the trap the Pharisees fell into. They were concerned about earthly things: their place and their nation. They thought that by killing Jesus (and me, too, if they could) those things would be safe. But less than forty years after the death of Christ, their place, their temple, was destroyed, and their nation was taken away. They sacrificed their souls for the sake of the things of this world, and they ended up losing both. I was raised so that many would believe; I was also raised so that some would disbelieve, and rage against the One who gives life to the dead. I was raised so that my friend would die, so that the Pharisees and the chief priests would unite together to destroy Him.

They were gathered to determine how to respond to my resurrection. Here’s a hint, guys: believe! Fall down and worship the One who has power over death. But, sadly, they went in another direction. Caiaphas stood up and declared, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” That was their plan; but it was God’s plan, too. He was going to work through Caiaphas and the rest, and Jesus truly would die for the people. Caiaphas never spoke a truer word: Jesus had come to die for the people, He came to die so that you and I would not die eternally. His suffering was for the people, it was for you. His death was for the people, it was for you. I was raised so that Christ would be put to death, and He was put to death so that you will live. Because He died for the people, the nation will not perish. “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

My resurrection points to another resurrection, two weeks later. Another tomb in a cave, another stone placed across its entrance. This time three days, not four, but the same result: He who was dead is now alive. I was raised to give a preview of Christ’s own resurrection; I was raised to point to Jesus. He demonstrated that He had power over death when I left my tomb behind; when He rises, that victory is complete, He has fulfilled His words: “I am the resurrection and the life.” He is the resurrection because He is the resurrected One. He is the life because He gives life, and He gives life to all. Saint John writes, “[Caiaphas] prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.”

That is what the Last Day is all about; on that Day, Jesus will gather into one the children of God scattered throughout the world, as God promises through Ezekiel: “And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land.” My resurrection points to Jesus’ resurrection only two weeks later; my resurrection points to your resurrection on the day of His return. I was raised to show you your future, and mine. I went through death twice, my body is back in the grave, but it will not stay there. Neither will yours, or the bodies of any who belong to Christ. And the resurrection that is coming is much greater than the one I went through. 

I was stinky; you will be dust, the dry bones that Ezekiel saw in his vision. I was raised to die again, I was raised to be persecuted and suffer in this world of sin; you will be raised to live forever, you will be raised following the pattern of Jesus. My body was still sinful and fallen; yours will be perfect forever. The one who believes will still die, but because they belong to Christ, their soul dwells with Him, and their body will live again. As Saint Paul says, “If the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” I’m waiting for that day, here with all the saints in heaven; you are too, as you walk through a world of sin. Christ promises resurrection to you and all who believe; a promise guaranteed by my resurrection a week before Palm Sunday, and Christ’s resurrection a week after. Christ is the resurrection and the life: your resurrection and your life. In His Name, Amen.