Friday, February 27, 2015

Lenten Midweek 2: The Eighth Commandment (Matthew 26:59-61)

“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” 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 twenty-sixth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, which reads as follows: “Now the chief priests and the whole Council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put Him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, ‘This man said, “I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.”’” Dear friends in Christ, the courtroom is the home of the Eighth Commandment. There, among judges and juries, defendants and prosecutors, it rules. It is the task of those in authority to provide justice, to make sure that the truth wins out, that the guilty are punished, and the innocent freed. Only the truth should be told in court. No lies—not even little ones! No slander, no falsehood, no tall tales of any kind. A judge must be fearless; he must be consumed by the search for truth. And the witnesses must be the same; they must be upright and trustworthy, for the reputation of their neighbor is in their hands. That’s why, if you are a witness, you are required to swear a solemn oath; you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God. Serious stuff, especially if you happen to believe in the almighty God who gave the Eighth Commandment. The court wants to hear and determine the truth, nothing but the truth.

Surely, that is what the Sanhedrin wants to hear, right? They want to hear the truth about Jesus, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, correct? For the Eighth Commandment, though it rules our entire lives, especially governs the courtroom. These men have been charged with justice, and they will certainly make it their task to ensure that Jesus receives a fair hearing, right? Wrong! “Now the chief priests and the whole Council were seeking false testimony about Jesus that they might put Him to death.” Did you hear that? The Council is seeking out false witnesses! They want the liars, they want those who will willingly break the Eighth Commandment. Jesus will only receive the pretense of justice; He will be tried, but in the middle of the night, and with a crowd of false witnesses testifying against Him. The ones who know the Law subvert it; they want nothing to do with the truth. They lust for liars so that they can put Him to death.

It’s hard to believe that upstanding, ‘good religious people,’ those who pride themselves on their keeping of the Law, could subvert justice in this way. The authorities, those charged with administering justice, would do that—even to an innocent man? Sure, they would, without a second thought, for their hatred blinded them. And so would you. And so do you. Martin Luther teaches us the meaning of the Eighth Commandment: “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.” The courtroom is the Eighth Commandment’s natural home, but the thing is, this world is a courtroom, everyone is on trial.

And you are an expert in giving false witness. You bear false witness by lying about your friend, saying things you know aren’t true, intending to exalt yourself by bringing her down. You bear false witness by revealing secrets, betraying the trust of another by making what was private public. You bear false witness when you take someone’s sin not to him, but to the entire world. You bear false witness when you explain your neighbor’s action in the worst possible way. You destroy someone’s reputation from a safe distance with your I-Pad or Smartphone, seemingly isolated from the consequences. You don’t give them a fair hearing in the courtroom of this world; your goal is not the good of your neighbor, but his destruction. You see, the Eighth Commandment doesn’t only deal with telling lies, but also with how you use the truth. Even if what you say is true, if it hurts your neighbor’s reputation, you are called to silence. “Defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.” Public sin should be reproved publically; the Eighth Commandment is not a shield for those living a publically sinful life or preaching false doctrine. But the private sins of your neighbor are to be taken to her privately, seeking repentance, not trumpeted before the world.

For you see, false witness is dangerous. It takes a lifetime to build up a good reputation; only moments are necessary to destroy it. Words can wound, words can destroy; false witness can lead to the violation of numerous other commandments. We saw this last week when poor Naboth was falsely accused on the orders of the king and put to death. And tonight, it happens to Jesus. The false witnesses come against Him, one after the other, but something is wrong. They can’t agree. Even though no one defends His reputation or speaks well of Him, Jesus appears to be winning! But then two last witnesses come forward, and they decide to quote Jesus. They declare, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.’” This clinches it. They have quoted one of Jesus’ most provocative and confrontational sermons, the one where He appears not only to be not only a nut, but a dangerous nut, a terrorist, one who threatens buildings, and the most important building of all—the temple.

Despite this accusation, Jesus doesn’t protest. Why? He did preach this sermon! The false witnesses, desperately sought by the court, have actually spoken the truth! They preach Christ despite themselves, declaring before the whole court who Jesus is and what He has come to do. For Jesus isn’t speaking of Herod’s temple in Jerusalem; He is, as we are told in John chapter two, speaking about the temple of His body. His body is the new temple, the greater temple, the temple to replace Herod’s temple forever—this man, standing before them, is also true God, Immanuel, God with us. “In Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” and so it is His body, His own flesh and blood that is God’s new temple; Jesus points not to brick and mortar, but to Himself.

And Jesus is no terrorist; His opponents have twisted His words, for He didn’t threaten to destroy anything when He first spoke these words. Instead, amidst the ruin of His wrath against the money-changers, Jesus calls on His opponents to “destroy this temple,” and He knows that they will. In fact, when these words are repeated in the darkness between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, the Sanhedrin will set this prophecy in motion. They will destroy the temple of His body; now that they have their conviction, gained by twisting His words, they send Him to Pilate for sentencing, and more false witness will be borne. Then, upon the cross, the temple of His body will be destroyed, thrown down; the false witness of many will end up in murder. The ruined temple will be laid in a tomb. But the false witnesses have spoken more truly than they know; three days later the temple will be rebuilt, Christ will rise, victorious over the false witness of His opponents, victorious even over death.

What the Sanhedrin meant for evil Jesus turned into good; they fulfilled His prophecy despite themselves. He went to the cross as the sacrifice for sin, bearing every violation of the Eighth Commandment, even the ones which sent Him there to die, and He rose in victory over their evil. Now Jesus speaks the truth about you: you, yes you, sinner, are forgiven. The courtroom is a place for truth, a place where the Eighth Commandment is to rule. In the courtroom of God’s justice, there is no way to put a good construction upon it; you are guilty, condemned for your callous and evil disregard for the reputations of others, along with all of your other sins. That is the truth. But there is another truth that is greater. God doesn’t count your sin against you anymore for the sake of His Son. That is the truth, and it is greater than any word of condemnation. 

Now Jesus has only good things to say about you; He declares to the entire world: ‘Do you see these people? Yes, they are sinners, through and through. But they are my sinners—I died for them! I’ve forgiven them. I’ve put my name upon them when I washed them at the font. They are my holy ones!’ Jesus speaks well of you in the heavenly courtroom, freeing you to speak well of your neighbor in the courtroom of this world, to use your words to edify your neighbors, to build up your friends, to stand up for others and explain everything in the kindest way. And you are now free to tell the truth about Jesus, to confess that He is Lord, that His death and resurrection have brought you deliverance. You confess to yourself and to others that this Jesus is ‘for you’ for the forgiveness of your sins. That is His reputation, declared by the Church to the world: He is the Savior of sinners—even you, even me. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Quinquagesima (Luke 18:31-43)

“‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He said, ‘Lord, let me recover my sight.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.’” 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 eighteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ: we envy the people of the New Testament, don’t we? We don’t envy their lack of indoor plumbing, their short lifespans or their lack of freedom, but still we envy them. We envy those found in the pages of the Scriptures because they had the privilege of walking this earth with Jesus. They saw Him, they heard Him, they touched Him. “If only I had seen Jesus,” we say, “my faith would be so much stronger!” What a privilege to look Jesus in the eye when He gave the Sermon on the Mount, to sit with Him in the boat, to walk the dusty roads alongside Him, or to eat the miraculous fish and loaves with the rest of the five thousand! We look back on that three-year span with longing, wishing that we would’ve been there to be part of that great story told by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. We even add a beatitude to Jesus’ list: “Blessed are those who have seen!” Blessed are the seeing ones; not us, who stand two thousand years later, beset by doubts, assailed by the world, depending solely on the words that other have spoken. Seeing is believing, and we know that if we had seen, then our faith would be unshakable.

The disciples, yes, they were blessed; more than anyone else in all of history, they had a personal relationship with Jesus. They followed Him from place to place; they witnessed His miracles, they saw His great signs. They heard His preaching, the powerful declarations of divine identity, His expositions of God’s Holy Word. And before the gates of Jericho, Jesus paused to give these blessed men the plainest, clearest sermon He would ever preach: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.” The disciples nod their heads—so far, so good. Jesus is going to enter the holy city to bring all that is written about Himself to completion, to end it, to finish it, to conclude all that God said before, putting an exclamation point on the Old Testament. But how will He do this?

“He will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging Him, they will kill Him, and on the third day He will rise.” Jesus couldn’t have spoken any more clearly; His journey to Jerusalem will end in death. In graphic detail our Lord describes His humiliation at the hands of the Gentiles. The King of creation, the Son of God in human flesh, will be mocked as an imposter and executed as a common criminal. All that the prophets wrote about Him will come to a bloody end; the exclamation point of the Old Testament will be a cry of agony. This was God’s intent from the beginning; the Seed of the woman must have His foot struck so that the serpent’s head will be crushed. The completion of God’s plan of salvation is the agony of the cross. No one takes Jesus’ life from Him; He gives it up willingly, and with His dying breath, He will preach another clear sermon: “It is finished!”

We simply read these words today, two thousand years later. The disciples—blessed are they!—heard Jesus speak with their own ears; they could see the emotion on His face, they could watch each syllable escape His lips. Seeing is believing—blessed are those who have seen! “But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” The disciples heard. The disciples saw. But the disciples did not believe. And so when the sword struck the shepherd, the sheep were scattered. When they laid Him in a tomb, the disciples did not gather there, waiting for the third day to come, they hid behind locked doors. Even though Jesus could not put it any more clearly, His death and resurrection came as a surprise. It is not hard to surprise a blind man, and the disciples were blind.

The message of the cross is foolishness to man. Did the disciples want to see? No, because all that Jesus had to show them was the cross, the sight from which men turn their heads in shame. Two thousand years of history has perhaps sanitized the cross, as it hangs from rapper’s necks and stands tall on church roofs. But when Jesus shows it to us in all of its gory detail, we recoil. We would rather remain blind. For the cross shows us the high price of our sin; the cross shows us what it took for God to save us from sin, death, and the power of the devil. For sinful man, for you and me, the cross is the death of any attempt to work our way back to our God, and as the disciples understood quite clearly, a cross for Jesus meant a cross for them. The cross always puts men to death. Do you want to see? No, we would rather, like the disciples, remain blind, because all that Jesus wants to show us is the cross—His and ours. Seeing, it turns out, is not believing.

Faith comes not from sight; otherwise, it is not faith at all. Faith instead leads to sight. Jesus stood before a blind man and asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” An odd question, to be sure. What else would a blind man want? He certainly didn’t need a vacation or a lottery ticket. He needed sight! But did he really want to see? Our sinful nature finds that it is much more comfortable to bury our heads in the sand and remain blind. We can’t deal with the consequences of sight—a cross for Jesus and a cross for us. Jesus asks the blind man if he really wants to follow the Son of Man who goes to Jerusalem to die. How about you: do you want to see? Do you want to see the cross that puts you to death, that calls you to a life of cross-bearing, suffering before glory? Or would you rather remain comfortably blind, living in your sin, going through the motions, believing in the Jesus who is a great pal and a help for your life, but never bloody, never dead? Whether you hear the words from the lips of Jesus or read them on a page, the natural man wants to remain blind; your sinful nature wants nothing to do with the cross.

The disciples see and do not believe; they take offense at the cross. But this blind man who cannot see believes; he cries out to Jesus despite the opposition of the crowd. They simply call this wandering rabbi “Jesus of Nazareth.” They see, but they do not believe; the blind man believes, even though he cannot see, and he names Jesus the Messiah: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Have mercy. The blind man sees Jesus for who He truly is; the Messiah come to save. Kyrie Eleeson. Lord, have mercy. The crowd tells him to be quiet, that Jesus has better thing to do than heal beggars, but this blind man knows His Savior, and he grabs hold of him in faith, begging for mercy.

The blind man knows that Jesus has come to save beggars; that it is only beggars, only those who have nothing to give and everything to receive, who will find mercy. The others around him try to quiet him, they tell him not to badger Jesus like this; but this blind man knows his Lord. He isn’t going to wait until he’s worthy before he asks, but he asks in the midst of his affliction, he clings to the promises of almighty God in faith, and with tenacity he hangs on. What matters is not his sin or his station in life, but God’s promises. The Messiah has come, and He brings mercy, mercy for beggars, mercy for the blind. This man refuses to be tempted by the crowd; he stops his ears and deals with God directly, and his God hears him. “He said, ‘Lord, let me recover my sight.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.’” Believing is seeing. Jesus speaks a plain and clear sermon once again. This man sees because he believes. Faith, created by the working of the Holy Spirit through the proclamation of the Word, leads to sight, seeing Jesus for who He truly is: God in the flesh come to bring mercy.

You see, Jesus came to open blind eyes. “And immediately he recovered his sight and followed Him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.” The people saw the great reversal in action; they saw a beggar turned into a believer, a sinner into a saint, a blind man restored to sight, and they believed, they praise God. The blind man sees, spiritually and physically, and his response is the same: He gives glory to God, God in the flesh who has had mercy upon him. And he follows Him; he follows this Jesus on the way to the cross. Faith characterizes the journey to the cross; faith that the One who will be crucified will also rise. Believing is seeing.

On the first Sunday after Easter, Jesus will speak His own beatitude: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” We think that those who walked with Jesus, who saw Him with their own eyes, who touched even the hem of His garments, are the blessed ones. But Jesus consistently and emphatically declares that it is not the generation that saw him the flesh who was blessed; so many saw and yet did not believe. Instead, it is you and me, who did not see but yet believe by the Holy Spirit, who are blessed. Seeing is not believing; believing is seeing. On Easter afternoon, despite the words of Jesus, despite the testimony of the women, the disciples were still blind. But the risen Jesus, disguised from their physical eyes, gave them spiritual sight by opening up the Scriptures and explaining why the cross was necessary for the salvation of the world. And in the breaking of the bread, they saw Him, for only a moment, and He was gone. 

At Emmaus the pattern is set: believing is seeing; eyes are opened by Word and Sacrament. The same Jesus who opened the eyes of the blind man, who gave the disciples spiritual sight, has opened your blinded eyes in your baptism; His cross is seen no longer an offense, but the instrument of your salvation, and even though you bear your cross, by faith you cry out with the blind man, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” You cling to His promises in the midst of affliction, as you carry the cross, trusting that He will have mercy, for believing is seeing. And there will be a Day when faith is no longer needed, for all that will remain is sight: “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Believing is seeing, until that Day of eternal sight. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Septuagesima (1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5)

“I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” 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 Epistle lesson read a few moments ago from the ninth and tenth chapters of Paul’s first letter to the Church of God in Corinth. Dear friends in Christ: do you want to compete at the highest level? Do you want to win championships? Is it your dream to catch passes in the Super Bowl or hit big-league pitching? Or are your goals more modest, like fighting back the effects of age or achieving greater health? You cannot get there on talent alone; you cannot achieve such lofty goals by sitting on the couch and thinking about it. Every athlete who has reached the pinnacle of their profession will tell you that it takes work; they know that the first opponent you struggle against isn’t on the other side of the line of scrimmage, it is within yourself. It is your own body that will hold you back, because its goals are completely opposed to yours. It seeks the easy way out; if left to its own devices, your body doesn’t desire what is good, it won’t eat healthy or run a mile or lift weights. You must force your body to do those things, and your body doesn’t go quietly. The athlete must go to war against himself, beating and pummeling his body to put it into submission. Your toughest task is to struggle against yourself, fighting your flesh every step of the way in order to achieve your goals.

Every athlete knows this, as does everyone who has ever tried to lose weight or run a marathon; your body struggles against you, it will resist every attempt to make it better. But few stop to ask ‘why?’ The answer is easy: your body is sinful. And the same sinful flesh that resists your every attempt to train it for health or competition is even more stubborn when it comes to spiritual matters. At the Baptismal font you were made a Christian, claimed by Christ Himself; you are truly a saint. But your old sinful Adam still hangs around your neck, and he will not leave until the day when your baptism is fulfilled with your death. So, from the moment that the water touched your head, your flesh has been at war with the Holy Spirit, fighting every attempt to put it under submission. 

Saint Paul writes, “I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” As a saint, he delights in God’s Law; but his sinful nature goes to war against him, putting him into slavery. And your sinful nature wants nothing else than to drag you to hell; the old evil Adam wants to see you fall into open sin and give up the faith delivered to you at the font. The danger is real; even Paul, the great apostle, speaks of finding himself excluded if his flesh is given free reign: “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” And then, as a clincher, he mentions Israel in the wilderness. Even though they had been baptized into Moses in the Red Sea, even though they had received miraculous manna and water from the Rock, even though they partook of Christ Himself, their fate is well-known: “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” Paul isn’t kidding around, and neither is your sinful flesh; its intent is to drive you from the faith and straight into hell.

So do battle with your flesh; put it into submission under Christ. Pummel your flesh; beat it down with all of its evil desires; do not let it gain the upper hand. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” The stakes are high; higher than game seven of the World Series; this is life or death, heaven or hell. Keep watch over yourself, recognize when your sinful Adam is exerting himself and beat him back down again. Put your flesh into slavery; no, better than that: put him to death, crucify him each and every day. Saint Paul tells the Romans: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

How? How do we put the old man to death? How do we pummel our flesh and put it into slavery under Christ? For an athlete, the answer is easy: ‘work harder.’ It’s up to you to control that flesh through your own efforts if you want to lose a few pounds or hoist the Stanley Cup. But things are completely different in spiritual matters. Martin Luther teaches us in the Small Catechism: “[Baptizing with water] indicates that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before Him in righteousness and purity forever.” 

You were baptized, covered by the water and the Word? Drown that old Adam each and every day by contrition and repentance. This is the discipline that puts the flesh to death. See your sin, pointed out to you by God’s clear Word of Law; see that sin, and repent of it, turn away from it by receiving the gift of the absolution. Drown your flesh in repentance and faith; cling to your Savior’s suffering and death by running to hear the blood-bought absolution. The flesh isn’t overcome by trying harder not to sin, but by repenting of that sin and trusting in Jesus, receiving His precious words of absolution. So it is Christ who disciplines your flesh and puts it to death; He is the One who proclaims the Law to condemn your sin, He is the One who speaks the Gospel to forgive it.

It is His forgiveness that overcomes the flesh; the forgiveness purchased and won not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. Luther teaches us: “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training, but that person is truly worthy and well-prepared who has faith in these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’” The only true spiritual discipline is faith, the faith created and sustained by the Holy Spirit in the means of grace. The flesh is disciplined by Christ and His work in both Law and Gospel, not by us or our own efforts. But that doesn’t mean that other discipline is without value. Luther praises fasting and bodily preparation, in their proper place. They are tools that can be used against your sinful nature in service of God’s Law, pummeling the flesh and its desires.

You have received the Body and Blood of Christ? Feed the new man on that heavenly food and starve the old Adam, refuse to let him feast on what he desires. Exercise self-control over your passions; rule over them, do not let them rule you. Be deliberate; Paul says, “I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air.” See what enslaves you, what seeks to replace God in your life, and deny those things to your sinful flesh. But do not rely on this discipline, do not think that through it you are earning anything before God, that it is you who are winning the victor’s wreath. The discipline that matters is not external fasting, but the discipline that Christ inflicts: death through the Law and life through the Gospel. So drink deeply from the Rock, which is Christ, feed on His Body and Blood in repentance and faith; that is the only discipline that can put the flesh into submission, because it is Christ’s work in you.

For the wreath comes solely through grace alone. The denarius comes to the workers because they have been called, not because they have worked (although they still do work). It is Christ who has done the work to earn that denarius, and He gives it away as He pleases. He labored under the burden of the cross; He carried the weight of your sin unto death; He earned salvation, and He gives salvation, by putting to death old Adams and raising up new men, first at the font, and then every day after, until that glorious Day when the old Adam in all of His saints is destroyed, immersed and drowned forever, and all that is left is the new man, to live before Him in righteousness and purity forever. In this life, your flesh will resist and oppose you, but these are only the throes of death; your flesh has been defeated, and the day of its doom is quickly approaching. Your sinful flesh will die, but you will live, with a sinless body and a pure soul, forever. You make war against your flesh with the victory already won, by Jesus and Him alone. In His Name, Amen.