Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Palm Sunday (Matthew 21:1-9)

“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.” Did they know what they were saying? Did the crowd on Palm Sunday, or the crowd on Good Friday, have any idea what their words meant? Jerusalem received her King with shouts of ‘Hosanna’ on Sunday, then cast Him out with shouts of ‘Crucify’ on Friday. Did they know what they were saying? No. They shouted almost without thinking, caught up in the moment, stirred up by others; they shouted without stopping to ponder the meaning of the words they spoke. They were caught up in events much greater than they could even comprehend, and like many others in the life of Jesus, they spoke the truth without realizing it. They didn’t understand that the joyful, expectant cry of ‘Hosanna’ pointed to the same reality as the hateful, angry cry of ‘Crucify,’ that the shouts of Friday were the only answer to the pleas of Sunday. The two crowds didn’t realize that they were calling for the same thing: Jesus hanging dead upon a cross.

The crowds may not understand what they are saying; they may be shouting without much thinking, but Jesus does nothing haphazardly. Every action, every word, is deliberate. The King has arranged everything; He has set forth His plans and He will carry them out, instructing His disciples: “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me.” He will enter the city in triumph, but He will enter in humility. He will enter not at the head of an army, but leading a motley collection of out-of-work fishermen. He enters in accord with the Scriptures: “Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’” His chariot is humility; this King comes to serve.

But the crowd responds as they would for any conquering hero; they react as you would expect a people long under foreign rule to react when their King returns to the city of kings. “The crowds that went before him and that followed him were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’” They call Him a King, their conquering hero; the Son of David come to take His rightful place on the throne. “Hosanna!” they shout, quoting the Psalms, which means: “Save us, please!” They seek salvation from this King, deliverance from oppression. This is God’s King, His instrument, the tool in the Lord’s hand to save them. What will He save them from? Foreign domination, poverty and oppression. He will deliver them politically, He will deliver them economically. How will He save them? Through armies and rebellion, or by the power of the finger of God, as in Egypt long ago. He will deliver them through a mighty display of temporal and divine strength.

This is their conquering King; the one who would fulfill all their prayers. As the Emmaus road disciples said, “We had hoped that He was the one to redeem Israel.” Many who joined the throng that triumphant Sunday were no doubt shocked to wake up Friday to see that same King nailed to a cross. Another crowd, with another cry, had turned their hope to despair. “Pilate said to them, ‘Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?’ They all said, ‘Let him be crucified!’” The crowd responds as they would to any common criminal or rabble-rouser, to one deserving of death. They cry out for His blood; they want to see Him suffer, and they will.

The crowds may not understand what they are saying; they may be shouting without much thinking, but Jesus does nothing haphazardly. Every action, every word, is deliberate. The King has arranged everything; He has set forth His plans and He will carry them out, as He spoke to His disciples: “I lay down my life for the sheep… No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” He, who has all power, who is God Himself in the flesh, departs the city as He entered it; in humility, with a crowd thronging around Him, crying out His Name. He departs to lay down His life willingly for the sheep. He departs to conquer, but not by military victory; He carries not a sword or shield but a cross. It is by being put to death that He will save; when the crowd cries out for His blood, they are crying out for the price of their salvation. And when they declare, “Let His blood be on us and on our children,” they are asking for the conversion of the nations. They do not know what they are saying. In Jesus, the cry ‘Hosanna’ is exactly the same as the cry ‘Crucify.’ And whether the crowd shouts in joy or in anger, He will answer their cries; Christ saves by being crucified.

That is the mystery of this Palm Sunday: the crowd that shouted ‘Hosanna’ and the crowd that shouted ‘Crucify’ were crying out for the same thing—Jesus dead upon a cross for the sin of the world. Jesus’ followers didn’t know what they were saying; they didn’t understand what kind of salvation Christ would bring, and they certainly were shocked to see how He would accomplish it. They were left, on Easter Sunday, saying in sorrow, “We had hoped that He was the One to redeem Israel.” The cries of ‘Hosanna’ seemed unfulfilled, unanswered as that day dawned. But ‘Hosanna’ and ‘Crucify’ mean the same thing; Christ saves by being crucified, and God proved it by raising His Son from the dead, triumphant over sin, death, and the power of the devil for you and your salvation.

It is this salvation for which we cry; it is for this salvation that we shout the Hosannas with the crowd on Palm Sunday. But do we truly know what we say? No. We shout almost without thinking, caught up in the moment, stirred up by others; we shout without stopping to ponder the meanings of the words we speak. Too often, we are, like the crowd, crying out for temporal deliverance by an unbloody Jesus. We would never choose suffering, for us or for Christ. We don’t understand the cost of salvation, because we underestimate our sin. We want deliverance from the symptoms without realizing the disease. But even in our more faithful moments we never fully understand the cross; these are mysteries so profound that even in heaven we will still marvel at them. Let us ponder these mysteries this Holy Week. Let us ponder how the crowd that shouted for His blood answered and fulfilled the cries of the crowd who acclaimed Him as King. Let us ponder the love of a Lord who despised the shame of the cross, going to suffering and death to free even those who nailed Him to the tree. Let us ponder the mystery of God suffering and dying in the place of sinful man, in your place and in mine. “What may I say? Heaven was His home but mine the tomb wherein He lay.” In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Lent Midweek 4 (Fifth Commandment; 2 Samuel 11)

“Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, that he may be struck down and die.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ. The text for our meditation tonight on the Fifth Commandment is the entirety of the eleventh chapter of 2 Samuel, the affair of David with Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah. Dear friends in Christ: the message was put in terms of comfort, comfort to a commander who had lost one of his best soldiers in a seeming tragedy, a foolish attack. “Thus shall you say to Joab, ‘Do not let this matter trouble you, for the sword devours now one and now another.’” These things happen in war, dear Joab; do not fret. The sword devours the mighty along with the weak. Stuff happens; you win some, you lose some. Keep on fighting, my honorable general, while I stay in Jerusalem and prepare to take my newest wife to bed. Oh, yes, she’s the widow of heroic Uriah, faithful Uriah, dead Uriah; out of my mercy I will comfort and provide for the widow of this great warrior. These things happen; the sword devours now one and now another. Someone had to pay the price for my sin, and Uriah was too stubbornly faithful to cover it up by performing his marital duty, and so he had to die. One night of pleasure could’ve spared his life, but he refused, and so the sword must devour, as it always does. Do not fret, dear Joab, the sword has done its duty.

David understood one thing about Uriah; a man like him would never open a private note from the king to his general. The man was faithful, he was honorable, he could be counted upon to do his duty. He honored and exalted his vocation as a soldier. While David stays behind in Jerusalem, spying on and sleeping with the wife of one of his soldiers, Uriah will not be hindered from his duty. “The ark and Israel and Judah dwell in booths, and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field. Shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do this thing.” He is a soldier; his duty, his vocation, is to serve and protect his fellow soldiers and the people who have sent him to fight. Even though he has shed more blood than most men, Uriah serves the Fifth Commandment. “You shall not murder. What does this mean? We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbor in his body, but help and support him in every physical need.”

In bearing the sword, Uriah’s vocation serves the Fifth Commandment, for he fights to protect the people of Israel from harm. Luther writes in the Large Catechism: “Anger, reproof, and punishment are the prerogatives of God and His representatives, and they are to be exercised upon those who transgress this and the other commandments.” Uriah bears the sword as a representative of God in accordance with the Fourth Commandment, there to punish evil and protect the good, just like any police officer, soldier, or judge today. Saint Paul teaches us, “[The ruler] is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.” Uriah was not sinless, not perfect, he sinned in his vocation as we do in ours, but he was innocent of any crime; he served faithfully in his vocation. He had nothing to hide, nothing to be ashamed of as a soldier or as a husband.

David, on the other hand, had everything to hide. Where Uriah was faithful, he was faithless. He abandoned and brought to utter disgrace his vocation as king, as ruler of God’s covenant people. “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab…” but he didn’t send himself. In violation of his vocation, in violation of the Fourth Commandment, “David remained at Jerusalem.” From there, the sins quickly piled up. An evening stroll leads to lust, the violation of the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” then a violation of the Tenth, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife,” and more violations of the Sixth. In one night of sin, unrepentant sin, the man who was after God’s heart has given his own heart to Satan. Make no mistake, dear friends in Christ: the Holy Spirit will not dwell in an unrepentant heart. But God would not let go of David so easily. “The woman conceived, and she sent and told David, ‘I am pregnant.’” His sins have consequences.

The earthly consequences of our sins should drive us to repentance, they should drive us to cry out to God for mercy. But so often they don’t. Like David, we cover sin with sin; we spiral deeper into depravity. Repentance is not our first thought; instead, when the harsh light of the Law shines on our darkness, we try to obscure the view with more darkness. David, the faithless king, tries to deceive faithful Uriah, and when that fails, he condemns an innocent man to death. The king, charged with protecting his people, puts to death one who is in his care; he perverts justice by punishing the innocent for his own sin. The Fifth Commandment is violated to cover over other sin, a pattern repeated all too often in our world. There is no difference between Uriah in the Old Testament and the child in the womb today; both are killed to cover up sins against the Sixth Commandment. We bully and attack others to exalt ourselves. The innocent are raged against, insulted and hated, not because they are wicked, but because we are.

Even the guilty are not to be murdered in thought, word, or deed. Jesus warns us: “I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” The Fifth Commandment condemns physical violence against others, but also any words or acts that could lead to violence. Your neighbor’s body is sacred; what God has made is not to be the object of your rage, whether he ‘deserves it’ or not. “‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord, ‘I will repay,” and He repays only through His appointed instruments.

Even inaction is condemned by this commandment. When Joab had opportunity to help and support his neighbor in every physical need, he refused to act, and Uriah perished. When we see our neighbor in need, the Fifth Commandment requires us to act. In fact, the very definition of a ‘neighbor’ is one who is in need. Luther writes: “If you send a person away naked when you could clothe him, you have let him freeze to death. If you see anyone suffer hunger and do not feed him, you have let him starve.” The Fifth Commandment will not let any of us escape; not only murder but hatred, not only murder but failure to act, leaves us condemned with faithless David.

Take heart, good Joab, David had said. “The sword devours now one and now another.” Yes it does, faithless David, and the sword of God’s judgment especially devours the unrepentant. “The thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” Nine months later—nine long months of unrepentance—David would finally see the sword poised over his own neck. From his own mouth would he speak his condemnation and yours: “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die!” Nathan speaks to David what I this day speak to you and to myself: “You are the man!” As Uriah carried his own death sentence, so David declares his own penalty, and yours, and mine, and all who violate this commandment. You are the man, condemned by the Fifth Commandment; the light of God’s Law shines too brightly for you to cover your sin.

Uriah was not spared the penalty for David’s sin; the innocent died for the guilty. But David was spared; another innocent one stood in his place. “David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the Lord.’ And Nathan said to David, ‘The Lord also has put away your sin, you shall not die.’” The first offspring of Bathsheba’s womb would perish; once again the innocent would die in place of the guilty. But the womb of Uriah’s wife would produce another son, and through him the line of the Messiah would continue, the Messiah who would be born of a virgin to stand in the place of David and all who have been condemned by God’s stern word of Law.

Like Uriah, the Messiah who came from the line of Bathsheba was innocent of any crime. But Jesus was more than innocent, He was sinless. He fulfilled every vocation perfectly, He followed every command. And like Uriah, the innocent one would die in the place of the guilty. Jesus died for David’s sin, and He died for yours and mine. Where we sought revenge, He submitted to the blows of His enemies without complaint. Where we had hatred, He had love for a world that raged against Him. Where we failed to help, Jesus was the Good Samaritan who nursed our wounds. Where we even took human life, from the neighbor who sinned against us to the most innocent of human life in the womb, He pronounces His blood-bought forgiveness. Jesus Christ died so that I can this day say to all of you: You are the man! A man or woman like David, condemned by your sin but forgiven by Christ. “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die.” You shall not die eternally, for Jesus died in your place. You are forgiven, and through Jesus, you are pleasing to God. Take heart: The sword devoured Christ; it will not devour you. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Lent 3--Oculi (Luke 11:14-28)

“Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls.” 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 eleventh chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ: there is no neutrality between God and Satan. We think that we can compromise, that we can find some middle ground, that there is gray instead of black and white. But there is no gray when it comes to God and Satan; there is no neutral ground. The crowd understood this, better than we, with our wishy-washy, relativistic and subjective ways; they understood that either Jesus is serving God or He is serving Satan. He cannot be neutral. The crowd declares: “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons.” They understand what Jesus’ miracles mean. Such great power can only have two sources: God or Satan. They clearly think that it’s Satan; Jesus just happens to disagree. “If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?” Satan isn’t such a fool as to work against himself. No, if the demons are being driven out, there is only one explanation: “If it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” There is no neutrality between God and Satan; and if it is God who is doing these works, pay attention, for Satan’s house is about to fall.

“Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls.” Jesus comes to divide Satan’s house, to rob it, to plunder it, to bind our evil foe for eternity. When He is finished, Satan’s house will be laid waste, and his divided household will fall. Jesus comes as the stronger one to seize those in Satan’s house and take them out as plunder. Jesus comes to cast out demons with power of the finger of God. There is no neutrality between God and Satan. Either we belong to one, or we belong to the other. And from birth—indeed from our conception—we belonged to Satan. In the heart of every human being there is a throne. And if God doesn’t occupy that throne, then Satan will, and he does. There is no neutrality. We are creatures, we are not gods, we are always subordinate to another. You dwelt in bondage to Satan, with the evil one occupying the throne. You cannot control yourself; you live following Satan’s orders. All you can will, all you can do, is sin. Satan deceives you with his old evil words, “You will be like God, knowing good and evil.” He wants you to try to occupy that throne yourself, to determine good and evil according to your own thoughts and desires. But you cannot sit on your own throne, any more than a horse can ride on its own saddle. Satan knows that; he knows that when you try to sit on the throne, it is really he who is enthroned, who occupies the house of your heart, who holds you in his chains, as his plunder. “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe.”

Satan’s goods are safe because he knows they aren’t going anywhere by themselves. You and I, deceived into thinking that we can sit on the throne of our heart, put the chains around ourselves; we are imprisoned, enslaved because we’ve bought the lie. Satan knows that he need not fear rebellion from inside the house. And he’s right; you and I are no threat to escape his bonds. Fast bound in Satan’s chains I lay, death brooded darkly over me. Sin was my torment night and day; in sin my mother bore me. But daily deeper still I fell; my life became a living hell, so firmly sin possessed me.

Satan has nothing to fear from you and me; his house will not be divided from within. “But when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil.” Satan’s defeat did not come from us; it came from the outside, from an invader, a mighty warrior who is God Himself in the flesh, Jesus who is called the Christ. His royal power disguised He bore; a servant’s form, like mine, He wore to lead the devil captive. He came to do battle with the strong man in his own house, and all of Satan’s weapons, in which he trusted, proved powerless. The sword of temptation lay broken as Jesus triumphed over it in the wilderness. His mighty army of demons was cast out left and right by the power of the finger of God. And even his greatest weapon and ally, death itself, could not conquer Jesus. “Though he will shed my precious blood, me of my life bereaving, all this I suffer for your good; be steadfast and believing. Life will from death the victory win; my innocence shall bear your sin, and you are blest forever.” Satan put his trust in the armor and chains of death; he counted on them to defeat Christ our Lord. But when Jesus rose on Easter morning, He took Satan’s armor from him, transforming even death into the portal of life. And He takes the spoil, you and me, purchased and won not with gold or silver but with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.

Jesus plunders the strong man’s house, casting Satan from the thrones of human hearts. “Get behind me, Satan!” He cries out through the baptismal liturgy, “and make room for the Holy Ghost.” There is no neutrality between God and Satan. The throne within the human heart has room for only one occupant. And in the waters of baptism, the former occupant is cast out, driven away. Every baptism is an exorcism, a driving away of Satan from his place in our hearts, the breaking of the chains the held us fast. The stronger one does battle with the strong man, and in the end it is Satan who is chained, not Jesus, not you or me. God promised through Isaiah, “Even the captives of the mighty shall be taken, and the prey of the tyrant be rescued, for I will contend with those who contend with you, and I will save your children.” Christ went to battle for us during His life on this earth, through His bloody suffering and death, and His victorious resurrection. And in the waters of Baptism, He brings that victory to you and me, casting Satan from his throne, cleansing the house of our heart and setting things in order.

There is no neutrality between God and Satan. Either one or the other will occupy the throne in every human heart. In a world where demons roam, there are no empty houses. “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’” Satan cannot dwell where the baptismal waters are present. He must seek rest in ‘waterless places,’ in those locales where baptism isn’t spoken of or practiced, where the waters do not flow freely over sinners’ heads. But even there he finds no rest, and he returns to his former haunt.

There he finds a remarkable thing: the house is empty! “And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order.” There is the appearance of order; the house has been decorated, cleaned up, it looks good on the outside. An older gentleman lives a good life, he is likable and honorable, he is held in high esteem by all. But the throne is empty; the house is in order, he was baptized long ago, but he has long since quit coming to worship more than a couple times a year, his bible collects dust, the name of God is only used in vain. Christ has been driven away through indifference and unbelief. A child is being raised according to all the accepted conventions; she is healthy, well-nourished, she is learning her numbers and letters, and she brings joy into the lives of family and friends. But the throne is empty; the house is in order, she has been brought to the font, but she has never seen the inside of the church since; her parents do not bring her to worship or Sunday School, there is no reading of Scripture or prayer at home. Christ has been driven away by the negligence of those who brought her to the font.

There is no neutrality between God and Satan; either one or the other will occupy the throne of the human heart. And if the house is left empty for Satan to return, woe to that house! “Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first.” Christ cast Satan from his throne, but if Jesus is cast out through laziness, indifference, or negligence, Satan is ready to return, and he returns with a vengeance. There no neutrality between God and Satan; a house divided against itself will not stand. “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”

Woe to those who do not fill the cleansed houses of their own hearts or that of their children with Christ! They do not gather but scatter! Repent! Turn from Satan, take his assaults seriously and fill the empty house with Christ. It is only Christ that can release you and me from the bondage of sin and Satan, it is only Christ who, day after day, through Law and Gospel, can cleanse the house of the human heart and place Himself on its throne. Christ is the stronger one, who has defeated the strong man and plundered his house, and only He can keep that house clean. How does He do this? He works only through the Word. “Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and keep it!”

Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it, not in the sense of following the rules and never sinning; keeping the Word of God is instead a matter of faith, of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. It is that Word of forgiveness that drives out Satan day after day, that keeps Him from taking that throne again for himself. That is why the Church exists, that is why we proclaim from this pulpit God’s pure Word, why we give from this altar His Body and Blood. It is for no other reason than filling the hearts of the baptized with Christ that we teach Sunday School and offer Bible classes; it is the sole reason why this congregation has established and supports a school. The Word of Christ flows from this place into the hearts of the baptized, into your heart and mine, driving Satan away and placing Christ in His rightful place on the throne. This sanctuary is the place of divine combat, of spiritual warfare, for here the stronger one rules, and He has already overcome by His shed blood. He has conquered, Satan’s kingdom is divided, and it has fallen, never to rise again. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.