Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Fourth Sunday after Trinity (Luke 6:36-42)

“Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” 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 is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Luke. Dear friends in Christ, there are many phrases and verses from Scripture that you hear on the lips of people who have never cracked a Bible. There are many quotations of Jesus that are ripped completely out of their context and then used to support any and every cause. But there is perhaps no single part of Scripture that you will hear more often in our culture than the one that we find in our text today: “Judge not, and you will not be judged.” Usually, this is simply shortened, in a music video, a magazine interview, at a family reunion, or in your living room, to, ‘Don’t judge me!’ Don’t judge me when I wear or say or do what I want. Don’t judge me when I choose a lifestyle for myself and my children. Don’t judge me when I choose to love someone of the same sex, or chose to become a different sex. Don’t judge me when I neglect or destroy my family through gambling, alcoholism or affairs. Essentially, it all comes down to, ‘Don’t judge me in anything I do.’ These words of Jesus have become very popular indeed, and if someone doesn’t know anything else about our Lord, they know that He was against judging, and therefore was a really good guy.

At least He was better than His followers. The accusation flies against the Church, especially a congregation, like ours, that actually believes in something. It’s said so often that we almost don’t hear it anymore, its become an axiom that no one questions: ‘The Church—or your church—is judgmental.’ Maybe you haven’t heard this personally, though I suspect many of you have, we hear this as a congregation, we hear this as the Christian Church. Someone encounters the Church in some way, and perhaps before anyone has a chance to say anything at all about their lifestyle, it is said, ‘Don’t judge me!’ Especially today, ‘Don’t judge me’ is an essential part of the relativistic spirit of the age. ‘Don’t judge me!’ means, ‘You can’t tell me whether what I am doing is right or wrong.’ ‘Don’t judge me!’ means, ‘There is not an objective standard which you can hold me or anyone else to.’ ‘Don’t judge me!’ means, ‘Don’t call my actions sin!’ ‘Don’t judge me!’ is a trump card, that anyone can play to shut off all conversation, to put an end to any discussion of morality or virtue. Jesus says, “Judge not,” and that’s that.

You should know all about this, because you do it all the time. ‘Don’t judge me!’ isn’t just the cry of a transgender activist, it is your cry whenever you are trying to justify yourself and your sinful actions. You may not be so blatant as to say it in the same way, but you have the same arrogance, the same desire to keep on doing what you are doing, no matter what anyone says. ‘Don’t judge me!’ you arrogantly say as you approach God’s holy altar while living in open sin. ‘Don’t judge me!’ you boldly declare when your pastor calls on you to repent. ‘Don’t judge me!’ you say as you cherish and indulge your secret, hidden sin. It’s your trump card; Jesus says, “Judge not,” and that’s that.

Quite often, when you hear (or use) the phrase ‘Don’t judge me!’ it comes from a spirit of arrogance; someone is doing what they know is wrong, but they have found in Jesus a word that excuses everything: “Judge not.” But we would be making a terrible mistake if we assumed that in every case ‘Don’t judge me!’ was a cry of arrogance. Even many of those who cry ‘Don’t judge me!’ in a bold, seemingly confident way, are in reality souls desperate for a word of grace. ‘Don’t judge me!’ then means ‘Don’t reject me because of my sin!’ Quite often, these are words of humility. When a person says, ‘that church is so judgmental,’ it could mean that a congregation spoke the truth about God’s Law and man’s sin, and that person in arrogance refused to repent. On the other hand, it could mean that a humble sinner, broken by their transgressions, facing the deep consequences of their sins, not knowing how to escape, came to a church desperate for a word of grace, a word of hope, and were only given the Law’s threats and condemnations. By word or by deed, directly or indirectly, they were told ‘You aren’t welcome here.’ This is tragic, heartbreaking; for many a broken sinner, ‘Don’t judge me!’ is a cry for help.

You should know all about this, because you do it all the time. Every Sunday, in fact, you gather before God and cry out to Him, ‘Don’t judge me!’ We call it Confession and Absolution. First we admit our sinfulness, we declare openly who we are: “I, a poor miserable sinner…” Then we plead for grace. “Be gracious and merciful to me, a poor sinful being.” ‘Don’t judge me!’ we plead. Our sins are great, our sins are many, our sins fill us every day, every moment, and we are desperate for a Word of grace, a Word of mercy, a Word of forgiveness.

And Christ has come to give us that Word. “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful,” Jesus commands us, and the Father’s mercy is shown forth in the sending of His Son. Jesus didn’t come to judge or condemn, He didn’t come to reject those who have been humbled by their sins, driven to repentance by the preaching of the Law. Yes, Jesus certainly preached the Law, more severely than any who came before him, as there were many arrogant sinners who needed to see their sins, but when the Law did its work, when it drove sinners to repentance, Jesus spoke words of hope, of comfort, of forgiveness. And these were not empty, idle words. Jesus Himself paid the price to make these words reality, to remove judgment and condemnation from a world that deserved it.

The One who said, “Be merciful,” was shown no mercy by this world. The One who said, “Judge not” was judged by Caiaphas and the blood-thirsty mob. The One who said, “Condemn not,” was condemned to death by Pilate. He was shown no mercy by men so that you would be shown mercy by God. He was judged guilty not just by the rulers of this world, but by God Himself, so that you would not be judged. He was condemned to death so that you will live, even though you die. Your sins, which are many, are put away, paid for by the shed blood of Jesus. Jesus died in your place, He died your death, He died bearing your sin. He, who saw more clearly than anyone else, allowed the blind to lead Him into the pit of Hell, and there He suffered your punishment so that you never will. He preaches the Law to humble you when you arrogantly say ‘Don’t judge me!’ clinging to your sin, and He preaches the Gospel to forgive you when in humility you cry ‘Don’t judge me!’ despairing of your sin. He shows you mercy.

It is this mercy that we then, as individual Christians and as the Church, take into the world. “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” We are not the blind, our eyes have been opened by the healing hand of Jesus, sight has been restored in the washing of Holy Baptism; we do not follow our teacher into the pit, but we follow Jesus in the way of mercy. “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.” Our teacher did not condemn us, He did not hand us over to the judgment of God, our teacher showed us mercy. That is the mercy that we show to others, those who desperately cry out ‘Don’t judge me!’ Our interactions with our fellow sinners is to be characterized by mercy. “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.”

The one who has been forgiven and then refuses to forgive will find the same standard applied to him. The one who has been spared condemnation, and then condemns his fellow sinners will discover that the same standard has been applied to him. The one who has been forgiven and then goes out to forgive, to show mercy, will revel in the grace that he has been given. “For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.” The measure you received was mercy, mercy given to you who didn’t deserve it; you were spared the judgment of God because Jesus endured it in your place. This is the mercy that Jesus extends into the world, and He does so through His instruments, His Christians, His Church. A disciple is like his teacher when a disciple shows mercy.

Our teacher didn’t condemn us, He didn’t judge us, but He forgives us. He didn’t ignore sin, He didn’t leave us in our arrogance, but in mercy He preached the Law to call out our sin, and then preached the Gospel to forgive it. When we encounter sinners who in an arrogant refusal to repent say, ‘Don’t judge me!’ we do not leave them in their sin. That is the most unmerciful thing we could do. We preach the Law, but not because we want to condemn them to hell, but because we have the joy of the angels over every sinner who repents. We preach the Law for the same reason Jesus preaches the Law: so that sinners would repent, so that they would turn and be saved. And when we encounter sinners who desperately, humbly cry ‘Don’t judge me!’ we in mercy extend Christ’s forgiveness and do all that we can to welcome them into a congregation of sinners and help them leave their life of sin.

We can only forgive when we have received forgiveness; we can only call to repentance when we have first repented. “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” Specks need removing, but only by those who have their logs removed, their eyes opened, by daily contrition and repentance. Repent. Repent of all your sins. Repent of those sins you try to justify, repent of your refusal to act in mercy toward those who simply need a word of grace, repent of judging and condemning. Admit your hypocrisy, that you have desired mercy while giving none. Repent, for your Father is merciful. Repent, for Jesus died for your every sin. You are forgiven, you have been shown mercy; Jesus bled, Jesus died for you. Good measure has been given to you, it is overflowing, enough for you, enough for your neighbor. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

First Sunday after Trinity (Genesis 15:1-6)

“And [Abram] believed the Lord and He counted it to him as righteousness.” 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 is the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the fifteenth chapter of Genesis. Dear friends in Christ: Father Abraham had no sons, no sons had Father Abraham. There were none of them, no not one, so let’s all complain to the Lord. God had promised Abraham many offspring; He promised that nations would come forth from him, that in him and in his offspring would all the nations be blessed. God had taken the promise given to Adam and Eve in the Garden, that one of the offspring of Eve would crush the head of the serpent and reverse the curse of the Fall, and applied it to Abraham. But Father Abraham had no sons, no sons had Father Abraham. And that’s a big problem. Not to the world, mind you, fatherhood doesn’t matter much to our world. Although we give it lip service on this day, a nation that has legalized homosexual marriage, that encourages the procreation of children apart from the union of husband and wife, that portrays fathers as bumbling fools, proclaims loud and clear that fathers don’t matter. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, despite fatherless homes driving crime and violence in our cities and instability in our homes, our country has chosen to tell fathers to take a hike.

But fatherhood certainly matters to God. Not only did God so order the world so that fathers would be the heads of their households, having spiritual leadership and the duty to provide, God also would provide salvation from the Fall and its consequences—sin, death, and the power of the devil—through fatherhood; until, of course, the Messiah would be born of woman alone. But Father Abraham has no sons, no sons has Father Abraham. God’s promise has hit a roadblock; the plan of salvation is stymied. Not only does Abraham have no son to inherit his vast wealth, Abraham has no son to inherit the next link in the chain of salvation. But before Abraham can open up his mouth to complain, the Lord moves first to reassure him. “After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’” The promise of God comes to him once again, completely out of the blue, to reassure him, to comfort him, to tell him everything will be OK. But Abraham isn’t buying it. “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”

Abraham’s eyes are telling him another message: a childless marriage, a servant poised to take his inheritance, whispers in his tent, the promises of God turning to dust. “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” We cannot see the fulfillment of the promises. We read in the Bible, we hear from this pulpit great and many promises, given by God to His saints. Promises of deliverance, promises of blessing, promises of prosperity. And we look around us, and we see nothing of the sort. Lazarus, the believer, lay at the door of the rich man, a complete and total hypocrite and pagan. And it was Lazarus, who trusted in the God of the universe, who suffered, while the rich man, who scorned his Creator, ate and drank in luxury. Our eyes tell us a much different story than God’s Word does. The Bible declares that your Savior, your Lord, who you were baptized into, holds all power and all authority in His hands. But you don’t see any of it. You still suffer, you still languish, the world continues to laugh in your face. There doesn’t seem to be any difference between you and unbelievers; in fact, they seem to be doing better. You gaze over the fence and see success and prosperity filling the hands of those who hate God and refuse to go to church. So you doubt, so you despair, so you wonder what the point of following God is. You cry out with the words of our Introit: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”

God hears the cries of His people, from Abraham in his tent, to Lazarus at the door of the rich man, to you at your kitchen table as your world falls apart, before your doctor as he brings you bad news, or at the bedside of a loved one as they suffer and die. He hears our cries, He knows our afflictions. And He responds. “The Word of the Lord came to him: ‘This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.’” Notice what God doesn’t do. He doesn’t immediately give Abraham a son; He doesn’t remove his suffering or affliction. God certainly reserves the right to act in miraculous healing or provision immediately after you pray, and sometimes He does. But most of the time, He doesn’t. Instead, He gives us His Word.

“And He brought [Abram] outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then He said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’” The response of your Creator to doubt is preaching, the proclamation of the Gospel. Dear friends, you are suffering now, in one way or another. You may feel like Lazarus, abandoned to lie in the muck; you may feel like Abraham, left high and dry by God. You may be doubting and despairing, but hear this day the promises of your God: your sufferings have an end, they have a termination. God’s promises are true, despite all the evidence your eyes try to give you. You have glory and prosperity that is much more than financial security on this earth: the inheritance of heaven belongs to you, perfect healing and victory over death. Because Christ died and rose again for you, because He bled for you and He rose in victory for you, sin cannot condemn you—it is forgiven! Death cannot defeat you—it has been defeated! And none of Satan’s threats or accusations can stick—He has been conquered! You are righteous, right with your God through Jesus, and so your suffering is temporary, your suffering will end, your suffering doesn’t have the victory, that belongs to Christ.

The resurrection of Jesus is the answer to your suffering; as Job trusted in His Redeemer who lives in the midst of his affliction, so you trust in that same Redeemer, who walked this earth centuries after Job, suffered, died, and rose again for him and for you. The destination of believers is not that of the rich man, but that of Lazarus: “The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side.” Abraham’s side is destination of all believers, for Abraham is the father of all who believe. “And he believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness.” God’s Word, His promises, do not return void, they are not worthless vibrations on the air; God’s Word is full of power, the power to create faith. Repent of your doubt, repent of your unbelief, repent of your despair. Repent and believe the Gospel, the Gospel which proclaims to you your crucified and risen Lord, who has already defeated sin, death, and the power of the devil, who has made you righteous. God’s Word, His promises, come washing over you like the waves of the seashore, creating and sustaining faith, reassuring you each and every week, each and every day, as you walk through this valley of the shadow of death.

Abraham believed the Word, even though God did not immediately grant him the son he desired. He walked by faith, no longer by sight, faith in the sure and certain promises of a God who does not lie. The rich man lived by sight, and he thought (correctly) that the world does the same. “I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.” But Father Abraham, the father of those who walk by faith and not by sight, points the rich man to a lesson that he learned so long ago: it is through the Word that God does His work. “Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’” God attacks doubt through the Word, through preaching. But the rich man, even in hell, still refuses to trust the Word, responding, “No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” The world lives by sight, Christians live by faith, faith in the sure and certain promises of God. “He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”

Father Abraham had no sons, no sons had Father Abraham. There were none of them, no not one, so let’s trust in the Lord. At the end of our text, Abraham still doesn’t have a son; the promise is still waiting for its fulfillment. But he is no longer walking by sight; he walks by faith, worked by the Holy Spirit through the preached Word. “And he believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness.” Abraham is righteous not because he did anything, but through faith he took hold of the promises of Christ. He believed in the coming Messiah, his offspring according to the flesh, who would crush the serpent’s head, just as you believe in the Messiah who has come, and that faith made him righteous, right with God, because that Messiah was coming to win righteousness for him and for all. Abraham is the father of all who believe, all who live by faith and not by sight, he is your father and mine, and every earthly father who faithfully teaches his children the Word which brings faith follows in his footsteps, and should be celebrated this day and every day. The life of faith would not be easy for Abraham; he still had many years to wait, he continued to struggle with doubt, and would need the reassurance of the Word again and again, just as you need it daily. But he walked by faith in God’s promise, and when the time had fully come, God fulfilled that promise, just as a Day is coming when His every promise, already ‘yes’ to you in Christ, will be fulfilled for eternity. On that Day there will be no faith, only sight, and with Abraham you will see your God face to face. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21)

“It shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” 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 Pentecost day is the Epistle lesson read a few moments ago, the account of the first Christian Pentecost, Acts chapter two. Dear friends in Christ: everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord will be saved. It doesn’t matter what nation, race, or country; everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord will be saved. It doesn’t matter what language or dialect; everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord will be saved. Neither riches nor power, neither athletic ability nor beauty, make any difference at all; everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord will be saved. This is not universalism, that everyone calls out to his own god (or gods) and is saved, but this is very specific. Everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord, the one Name of the one and only true God, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, will be saved. It is only by calling on that Name, to that God, that men are saved. Salvation is found in no one else than that God; salvation is given through no other name. All other names, every other path, is false, and leads only to damnation. Like those who sailed with Jonah, you can call out to other gods all you want, and the storm will keep on raging. But not so with the God of Israel. Everyone who calls on the Name of that Lord, the only true God, will be saved.

How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? There is one problem—one big problem—with these words of Joel, preached by Peter. No one can call on the Name of the Lord on his or her own. Sinful man cannot call on the Lord and be saved. The world and our sinful flesh consider the things of God to be foolishness. “And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others mocking said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’” The preaching of the Word of God is drunken stupidity to the world. The proclamation of the Gospel is the rambling of an idiot to our sinful flesh. You’ve heard their mocking, you know what they say, you may even agree. The Bible’s morality is repressive and outdated, the teaching of a six-day creation intellectually infantile, all those miracles ridiculous to even consider believing. And that doesn’t even touch on the greatest foolishness of all, the foolishness that the people reacted to on the day of Pentecost: the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the proclamation that in His Name alone can salvation be found. This is the height of stupidity, the pinnacle of offense, to say that there is one path to heaven, that eternal life is found in only one place: the resurrected Jesus.

The sinful mind, the sinful world, wants nothing to do with the things of God; everything God says is simply the speech of a drunken fool. So the world responds with disdain, with mocking, with angry comedy, rather than calling on the Name of the Lord to be saved. No one can believe in God on their own, no one can call on the Name of the Lord on their own volition. Yes, they can call on plenty of other gods, but the Name of the true God is foolishness to the world. Why? Because they do not believe.

But how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? Faith can only come by hearing, and it is hearing that Pentecost is all about. The signs and wonders of Pentecost are not an end in themselves, but they are there so that the world will hear and believe. “Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language.” The rushing wind, the tongues of fire, even the speaking in other languages, all were to gather the nations to hear the Word. This is no surprise; every miracle performed by Jesus was for the sake of the Word. Not a single healing or act of mastery over nature was an end in itself; each and every sign and wonder was to gather people to hear the Word.

The signs and wonders declare that God is coming into their midst; as the Lord descended in fire and storm upon Mount Sinai, so in flame and wind He has come among His people again. As on Sinai He descended in power to give the Word to His people, the covenant, with the Ten Commandments at its center, so now He descends to bring His Word of Gospel to the nations. The disciples are not speaking gibberish, but are speaking what the Spirit has given them to say. “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” The Holy Spirit comes so that the Word will be preached, so that the world will hear what He has given the disciples to say. So the point of Pentecost is not a bunch of Hollywood special effects, but when Peter opened his mouth to speak.

How are they to hear without someone preaching? The Holy Spirit works through means, and the first miracle of this day is not that wind rushed in, nor that tongues of fire appeared, nor even that different languages were spoken. The first miracle of this day is that Peter, who denied our Lord three times less than two months before, stands up boldly and preaches the greatest sermon a pastor has ever preached. “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words.” The hatred of this world for the Word of God has cowed many a Christian into silence, it has led many a preacher to talk about something else. The mockery of this world has kept you, time and again, in silence, refusing to speak of Jesus to friends and family when opportunities have been placed before you, it has kept you, time and again, from seeking opportunities to speak. But filled with the Holy Spirit, on the day of Pentecost, Peter—miracle of miracles!—lifted up his voice and spoke.

The second miracle of this day is that people hear and believe. It was not the signs and wonders—those simply gathered the people to hear—but the Word of God, preached by Peter with unexpected boldness, that created faith. The hatred of this world for the things of God has left many hearts in darkness. That was your state; conceived and born in sin, you were an enemy of God. You hated God, and everything associated with God; you thought it was all drunken foolishness. When you see and hear the hatred of this world for the things of God, know that this is the hatred that once filled you, the hatred that still dwells within you and all people. But on that first Pentecost—miracle of miracles!—Peter preached, and people believed.

We don’t hear about this in our text; we must look toward the end of Acts chapter two. Peter has proved throughout his great sermon that the Lord to whom we must call to be saved is the crucified and resurrected Jesus, and now he says, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” The people are cut to the heart by the preaching of the Law, and they cry out, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter’s response is the same as Joel’s: everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord will be saved. “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Miracle of miracles—they did call on the Name of the Lord, and they were baptized.

Peter preached, and people called upon the Name of the Lord. Not on their own power, but by the faith worked in them by the Holy Spirit, using the means that God has appointed, the preached Word. How are they to preach unless they are sent? With this great miracle the Holy Spirit propels the disciples into the world, the many languages a prophecy of how the Gospel will go to every corner of our planet. Through the means of the Church, the Holy Spirit will call on the world to repent and believe, and it will come to pass that everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord will be saved. Pentecost is a miracle repeated every Sunday, every time the Word is proclaimed, every time a sinner who hates God is made a believer who loves Him in the waters of Holy Baptism. Pentecost is your miracle; it is a miracle that someone preached the Gospel to you, that someone baptized you into Christ’s name, and it is a miracle that you believe.

“It shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” You can only call on the Name of Jesus when God has called you and you believe, as Peter preaches, “The promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” You can only believe when you hear the Gospel proclaimed; there is no faith without hearing, the Holy Spirit doesn’t act directly, zapping faith into your heart apart from the Word. And you can only hear if someone preaches; the Word of God on occasion boomed forth from the sky, but no longer, now it comes through the mouths of men. And those men can only preach if they are sent, propelled forth from Jerusalem and Judea to the ends of the earth. This is the great order, filled with the Holy Spirit, that Jesus uses to bring His salvation to the world, and this is how He saved you.

The same Jesus who poured out His blood on Calvary as the sacrifice for the sin of the world pours out the Holy Spirit to give to you the benefits of that sacrifice: forgiveness, life, and salvation, won by His wounds, His innocent suffering and death, His victorious resurrection from the dead. The signs of Pentecost tell us that we are living in the last days: wind, fire, and the languages of the world proclaiming the glories of Christ, they tell us that the great harvest is being gathered in. Only one promise is yet to be fulfilled, and for that the Church waits, as she preaches, as she proclaims the Word so that many will hear and believe: Christ has promised to return, and He will, to take to Himself you, me, Peter and the eleven, along with all who have called on His Name. This Name we worship, this Name we praise, for salvation is found in no other Name but the Name of Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord. Amen.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Fifth Sunday of Easter (Isaiah 12)

“The Lord God is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation.” 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 is the Old Testament lesson that we sang at the beginning of the service and read just a few moments ago, the twelfth chapter of the prophet Isaiah. Dear friends in Christ, the old song was sung by the Red Sea. It was a song of victory, of triumph over the enemies of God and His people. The people stood above the waters, gazing into the waves that swallowed up their foes: Pharaoh’s host, chariots, horses, officers and soldiers, all cast down in utter, humiliating defeat. Their song of triumph echoed out over the waters of destruction, the waters of victory: “The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise Him, my father's God, and I will exalt Him.” But that was the old song; our Introit calls on us to sing anew. “Sing to the Lord a new song, Alleluia, for He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations. Alleluia.” The new song is sung by the baptismal font. It is a song of victory, of final triumph over the enemies of God and His people. We stand above the waters, gazing into the waves that swallowed up our foes: sin, death, and the power of the devil, all cast down in utter, humiliating defeat. Our song of triumph echoes out over the waters of destruction, the waters of victory: “The Lord God is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation.”

Sing, dear friends, sing out the song of victory. Sing out, each and every one of you, for God has Himself become your Savior; He has come in salvation to you—you singular—delivering you from His just wrath over your sin. “You will say in that day,” the day of Easter, the day of your baptism, every day since that you celebrate His salvation, and then on the Last Day that endures forever, “You will say in that day, ‘I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me.’” God was angry with you, for you sinned; God was angry with you, for your rebelled against Him. God was your enemy because you were His enemy, you, along with all of humanity, turned against the One who gives every good gift. You were quite rightly condemned to death and hell. I am convinced that we do not take this nearly seriously enough. Yes, we say the words, “We justly deserve your present and eternal punishment,” but we don’t actually take them seriously. We don’t really think that our sins anger God, that a holy God must have wrath over sin, and that His wrath paints a bullseye on our chest. We don’t think about what it means to have the God of creation angry with us, or consider the eternal consequences of our sins. But that is reality. Our sins anger God, they anger and offend Him enough that death and hell is our only share. You deserve to spend eternity in hell; know it, believe it, confess it, sing it.

But don’t stop singing there. “Though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me.” The wonderful miracle that inspires our song is quite simple, though it is the most profound mystery ever conceived: in an inconceivable act of mercy, the angry God has become our salvation. Our salvation came from no other place, no other source, than the very God who was angry with us. This angry God freely, in His overwhelming love for you, acted to bring you salvation. “Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation.”

In Isaiah chapter eleven, we see this plan unfold. A shoot will come forth from the barren stump of Jesse, the line of Israel’s kings that had been cut off by God’s wrath. A shoot will come forth, a Branch bearing fruit, true God in the flesh, and He will go forth to bring you righteousness and peace. He will restore Eden again, reconciling man and beast to each other and to their Creator, and He will bring forth the new Exodus that requires a new song, gathering the people of God from every place they have been scattered. He will bring us through the waters of baptism as He brought the people of Israel through the Red Sea waters, and we will see our enemies drowned behind us. How will He do this? To find the answer, we must look to Isaiah chapters fifty-two and fifty-three. There we see this Branch from the stump of Jesse placing Himself between us and God’s wrath over our sin. “He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed.” God was angry with the Branch, His Son, for our sins, He was angry with the Branch and so His wrath passed over us, and now He comforts us, the angry God has become our salvation for the sake of Christ. Sin can no longer enslave, Satan can no longer accuse, and death has no more victory. Know it, believe it, confess it, sing it!

Come singing to the waters of life, drink deeply of this salvation. “With joy will you draw waters from the wells of salvation.” This is the water flowing from the pierced side of Jesus, the living water that He promised the Samaritan woman, water that one drinks and is never thirsty again. This is the water bubbling up from what used to be desert; as God gave His people Israel water from the rock in the wilderness, so He gives you and me water from Christ, our crucified and risen Lord. The desert has become a garden, and on the Last Day we will dwell in the new Eden forevermore. On that day, the day of salvation, the day of Easter, the day of your baptism, and every day since until the Last Day, you will rejoice to sing, together with all the Church of every tribe, language, race, and century, “Give thanks to the Lord, call upon His Name, make known His deeds among the peoples, proclaim that His Name is exalted.”

Call upon His Name, the Name of salvation, the Name above all other names, at which every knee shall bow. The salvation of the Branch, the salvation brought by God, is not just for you as an individual, it is not just for us in the Church, it is for the entire world. “Sing praises to the Lord, for He has done gloriously; let this be made known in all the earth.” That is what the song is for, to proclaim to the world that the angry God has become our salvation. He has done gloriously, He has acted, intervened in mercy, in grace, in love for a creation estranged from Him. He did Himself what we were unable to, He acted in compassion toward those who had only hatred for Him. He brought you through the waters; He destroyed your foes in the font, but his salvation doesn’t end with you, it doesn’t end with those currently in the Church; His salvation is for all, and the Church sings so that the world will know that God has acted in salvation for all people.

That is what the new song is all about. “Sing to the Lord a new song, Alleluia, for He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations. Alleluia.” The old song was incomplete; the salvation it celebrated, though great, was not total. Pharaoh’s host was drowned in the Red Sea, but sin, death, and Satan still stalked God’s people, creation was still in the bonds of rebellion. The new song celebrates a salvation that fulfills the exodus because it is greater than the exodus; because the Branch stood between us and God’s wrath, an enemy nation has not been defeated, but the domain of death; the people have not just been freed from slavery, but from the shackles of sin. It isn’t a worldly ruler who is defeated, but the tempter and deceiver, Satan Himself. The Branch has triumphed over them by being nailed to a tree in our place and rising again in victory. “Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” The angry God has become our salvation. The angry God, whose holiness meant our destruction, now dwells in our midst, God comes among us, in Word and Sacrament, not to destroy but to save. We are the inhabitants of Zion, the Church, which exists in this world wherever the gifts of Christ are given, and will be fully revealed as a bride for her husband on the Last Day. On that day, we will shout, on that day we will rejoice, on that day we will sing! “The Lord God is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation.” In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Fourth Sunday of Easter (John 16:16-22)

“A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.” 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 is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ, we do not know what Jesus is talking about. We don’t get it, we cannot comprehend His words, they fill us with confusion. “So some of His disciples said to one another, ‘What is this that He says to us, “A little while, and you will not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me”; and, “because I am going to the Father”?’ So they were saying, ‘What does He mean by “a little while”? We do not know what He is talking about.’” It’s not that the words themselves are hard to understand, it’s not that we need to consult a dictionary or thesaurus. It’s not as if Jesus is speaking here in code. Yes, He’s speaking a little mysteriously, but anyone who has been with Jesus throughout His ministry, or anyone who has read the Gospels, who has heard the three passion predictions, knows exactly what He is saying. In a little while He goes to die, they will see not see Him, He will dwell in the belly of the grave, but that is not the end of the story. For it is only a ‘little while’ and they will see Him again, He will rise victorious over the grave, “and no one will take your joy from you.”

So it is not the words themselves that cause us the trouble, it is the consequences of these words, it is living out these words. We do not know what Jesus is talking about because we have to live through the ‘little while.’ For the disciples, “a little while and you will not see me” meant that very shortly, in just a ‘little while,’ a night of horrors would begin. They would see their Lord, their Master, their friend and the One they depended on betrayed by one of their own, handed over to a midnight court, and then condemned to the cruelest death imaginable. To the disciples, “a little while and you will see me” meant hours of waiting with Jesus’ cold, dead body languishing in the grave, a day of darkness so excruciating that many lost their faith, and nearly their minds. Jesus’ ‘a little while’ was overwhelming, crushing, it seemed to never end, and they couldn’t understand why. “We do not know what He is talking about.”

You and I understand their confusion. We too live in Jesus’ ‘a little while,’ living in the valley of the shadow of death without seeing our Lord. We dwell in a Holy Saturday that never seems to end, waiting and watching for Jesus to rescue us from our misery, and not understanding why this ‘little while’ is taking so long. We do not see Jesus, He has departed again, ascended to the right hand of the throne of God, but what we do see is what distresses us. “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament,” Jesus says, “You will be sorrowful,” He emphasizes, and He never spoke truer words. As the disciples languished in sorrow on Holy Saturday, so we languish in sorrow all the time. We feel like Jesus has abandoned us, that He has left us to languish in our sin and in the midst of a sinful world. To all appearances, Easter hasn’t changed anything; our baptism seems to have been a waste of time, Jesus doesn’t seem to love us or care how much we suffer. Job argued over and over again that the wicked often prosper while the righteous suffer, and Jesus here guarantees it: “You will be sorrowful.” And we do not understand why: “We do not know what He is talking about.” As a pastor, probably the question I am asked most often, in one way or another, is, “Why am I suffering?” Perhaps we started out patient, but as time goes on and sufferings pile up, there is an added urgency to our cries. We don’t understand what’s going on, we do not know what Jesus is talking about, ‘a little while’ seems interminable, we cannot see Jesus, we can only see suffering, and we are bearing the brunt of His words, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice.”

That is what it looks like in the midst of ‘a little while.’ The Church at large, and individual Christians, sorrowing and suffering, wondering just how long ‘a little while’ will last, not seeing their Lord, only their sufferings. And all around them, the world rejoices, the world that hates Jesus and His followers celebrating victory after victory, Satan enjoying the torture of Christ’s saints. The world doesn’t see Jesus, and it is glad, because to all appearances its great enemy has been defeated. The foe was triumphant, when on Calvary, the Lord of Creation was nailed to the tree. In Satan’s domain did the hosts shout and jeer, for Jesus was slain, whom the evil one’s fear. You see them gloat, mocking Christ and His Church with seeming impunity, and the frustration of Christians only increases their fun. Nothing happens as they deride your Lord and run down His saints. Instead, they sit in smug victory, rejoicing with every suffering Christian.

But short was their triumph; only ‘a little while.’ The world killed the Lord of glory, their foe and bitter enemy, but in ‘a little while,’ their victory turned into defeat, their rejoicing into mourning. The tomb was robbed, the grave left empty; the enemy they had left behind them dead and defeated rose to put an end to their victory party. Jesus rose to turn the world upside down, to give mourning in the place of rejoicing and rejoicing in the place of mourning. The world didn’t see Jesus for ‘a little while,’ and they thought victory had been won, but now they see Him again, a terror to His foes. John cries out in the first chapter of Revelation, “Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of Him.” In ‘a little while,’ the world will see Jesus again, coming with the clouds of heaven, and He, whom they mocked and killed, the Head of His body, the Church, which they persecuted and harassed for these many centuries, will return as the judge of the living and the dead. In just ‘a little while,’ the world’s smirk will be wiped off its face, in just ‘a little while,’ the world’s joy will be turned into sorrow.

In just ‘a little while,’ the sorrow of Christ’s suffering people will be turned into joy. “You have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” The same vision that gives the world terror, that melts those who stand against Christ’s Church, will give you joy. Satan oppressed you, sin overwhelmed you, death threatened you and finally took you, but their rejoicing, their victory, will be turned into sorrow, and joy will instead belong to you. On Easter morning, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb filled with sorrow. But as she wept, the promise of Jesus in our text for today was fulfilled, and her sorrow was turned into joy. “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.” No one understood those words when He spoke them, but when Jesus looked Mary in the eye, risen and glorified, she finally understood. We do not understand why we must suffer so, we do not understand ‘a little while,’ but like Mary, we will. When we see our Lord face to face, then we will know that we have only been waiting ‘a little while.’

Jesus’ promise is ‘a little while.’ He guarantees that your suffering has a termination, an end, that this world does not have the victory, but is foolishly rejoicing in defeat. That is the promise of the cross and the empty tomb: Satan has been dealt with, sin has been paid for, death robbed. The world has no victory over you, but has already been defeated. Your sorrows will terminate, but joy will never end. Jesus led the way, winning joy—eternal joy—through His sorrow and sufferings; He too walked through the valley of the shadow of death to the joys of eternity. Without the sorrow of the cross, no joy is possible, without the death of Jesus sorrow lasts not ‘a little while,’ but for eternity. Because Christ has passed that way before us and in our place, we know that all the sufferings of this world last only ‘a little while,’ and a Day is coming when they will not be remembered any more. “When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.” This joy drives away all sorrow, because this joy lasts forever. In this world, you will have tribulation, but take heart, Christ has overcome the world, your sufferings have an end in perfect joy. Saint Paul captures it perfectly: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”

‘A little while’ doesn’t remove the hurt, ‘a little while’ doesn’t eliminate the pain. ‘A little while’ will not immediately bring back your lost parent or child, it will not restore your marriage. ‘A little while’ doesn’t remove all the questions: “We do not know what He is talking about.” As a pastor, when people ask, ‘why am I suffering?’ I desperately want to take away their afflictions like the apostles of old. There are times that I wish I was a faith healer, and could simply say, ‘be healed,’ and their sufferings would be gone. But I am not an apostle, and neither are those faith healers, all they have to sell is a false theology and empty promises. Instead, I, along with all faithful pastors throughout the centuries, are to preach, we are to bring God’s Word to the hospital bed and the living room of those entrusted to our care. We are not given to ‘fix’ suffering, we have been given to say: ‘a little while.’ ‘A little while’ means that all suffering has an end, ‘a little while’ means that relief is coming, ‘a little while’ means that the cancer, the heart disease, the family conflict, the addiction, your sinful desires, even death itself, do not have the victory, but their days are numbered, in the new heavens and the new earth, they will not even be remembered. The cross and the empty tomb guarantee it. As Jesus was raised, so you too will be raised, and you will see Him face to face in an eternity that will be characterized by joy. Sorrow has a termination; joy will last forever. “So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Easter Sunrise (Isaiah 25:6-9)

“It will be said on that day, ‘Behold, this is our God; we have waited for Him, that He might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for Him; let us be glad and rejoice in His salvation.’” Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia, Amen! Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia, Amen! Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia, Amen! Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning of joy is the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the twenty-fifth chapter of the prophet Isaiah. Dear friends in Christ: come to the feast! You have fasted long, come eat, come drink! You have held back your alleluias, come sing them so that all the earth can hear! You have spent forty days in repentance, come rejoice in the forgiveness won by Jesus! You have worn the mourning veil, come watch Christ swallow it up! “And He will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations.” You have wept, come to have your tears dried! You have been ashamed, come in guilt and shame no more! “The Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of His people He will take away from all the earth.” Come to the feast, come partake of the good things Christ has to give; His abundance is for you!

Come to the Mountain to eat and drink. Do not be deceived by its humility, do not be offended at its stature. Do three steps make a mountain? Yes, if the Lord’s feast is there! “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.” Come to this mountain, come to the feast; here Christ feeds His people the wedding banquet of the Lamb in His kingdom, the marriage supper of the Lamb. Here He is both host and meal; here the sacrifice sits at the head of the table, giving His Body and His Blood to eat and drink. He bears the scars, but the nails afflict Him no longer; He was slain, but now lives forevermore. No sacrifice ever sat at the head of his own feast, but this one does, for He lives, never to die again, and He lives to feed His people. Rich food He gives: Body and Blood riding on bread and wine.

Rich food, the very Body of the incarnate Son of God, the Lamb without spot or defect. The costliest gift that God could ever give, given into death on the cross, given to you in this feast. Well-aged wine, the Blood shed from the very foundation of the world. Every drop the most valuable liquid this earth has ever drunk, and it is poured out on the ground for your salvation, and poured out into your mouth in this feast. His holy, precious blood, and His innocent suffering and death, given on this mountain, given in this feast. The promise complete, the prophecies all fulfilled. God doesn’t lie, and today He gives you the proof. Rich food full of marrow, aged wine well refined, food which gives life, food which annihilates death, food which fills us body and soul for eternity, food on this Mountain which gives us all that He won on another mountain, so long ago.

Come to the Mountain, see your Lord hang derelict and still. Do not be deceived by its appearance, do not be offended at its horror. Does a knobby, rocky little hill make a mountain? Yes, if the Lord of glory is perched on its top, suspended high upon the cross. Then this hill of death and punishment is the very Mountain of the Lord, the Mountain of salvation. On that Mountain God offers His sacrifice, it is the high place where the altar is constructed. On that Mountain God does not spare His Son as He commanded Abraham to spare his, on that Mountain God Himself provides the fire for the sacrifice, and the consuming fire of His wrath is poured on His Son. On that Mountain God Himself provides the sacrifice that His justice demands, He gives His Son into death. And on that Mountain, death greedily swallows up Jesus, as the whale swallowed up Jonah, thinking it has won the victory, and it takes the Lord of life into its slimy, stinky gullet.

Come to the mountain and see the place where death holds its prisoners. Do not be deceived by its peace, do not be offended at its lack of prominence. Does a peaceful hillside in a garden, with a cave cut into it like the wound of a spear-thrust, make a mountain? Yes, if the Lord of glory dwells in its belly. Then this hill of captivity is the very Mountain of the Lord, the Mountain of salvation. For look! This Mountain is not full any longer, but it stands empty, gaping and hollow; its prey has been taken away, never to return again. Death swallowed up Jesus, but it could not hold Him, it could not keep Him, the grave will stand empty of Jesus forever. Jesus picked up His life again after having laid it down, and He left the tomb as empty as He found it. Death thought it had the victory, but victory was robbed from it; certain victory turned on Easter morning to certain defeat. Death swallowed up Jesus, and now Jesus goes forth to swallow up death.

“And He will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations.” Come to the feast, for this is a feast of destruction! Come to the feast, where what He takes away is just as important as what He gives! On this Mountain, Jesus swallows up every barrier between you and your God. On this Mountain, Jesus destroys every one of your enemies. On this Mountain, the mountain stained with His blood, the mountain gashed with an empty tomb, the mountain on which the feast is laid, every veil and covering is swallowed up. Our world was shrouded in darkness, choking, thick darkness, smothering us with sin, death, and suffering. We could not see God, we were blind to Him, and the veil of mourning simply hid our tears. But on this mountain, every covering is destroyed.

Come to the feast of destruction! Here the covering that divided you from you God is abolished! No barrier remains, no divide exists; your sin has been paid for, done away with, eliminated. You are in fellowship with your God, the divide is gone, the harmony of the garden restored; He is your God and you are His people. Come to the feast of destruction! Here the shroud that hid your eyes from God has been destroyed! No spiritual blindness remains where Christ preaches His Word; He opens eyes, He creates faith, He makes enemies of God into beloved children. You can see your God with the eyes of faith, and a Day is coming when your own eyes will see Him, and not another; the time for faith will be over, and the time for sight will have begun. Come to the feast of destruction! Here the mourning veil will be removed; Jesus Himself will take it from before your tear-stained eyes, for He has replaced sorrow with victory.

Come to the feast of destruction! Here your greatest enemy is annihilated. “He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of His people He will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.” On this Mountain, tears are destroyed, they are wiped out, eliminated, abolished, ended forever. Jesus has gone to war with your tears, and He has defeated them. Jesus has gone to war with death itself, and He has left the tomb behind in victory. At this feast, at this table, Jesus stoops down low to you and in tenderness wipes your face clean. He doesn’t tell you not to weep, for He knows that you will weep in your journey through the valley of the shadow of death. But here He wipes away your every tear, here He comforts you with His victory, here He gives you the promise of a mountain and a feast where tears will be no more. For at this feast, on this Mountain, He takes away all that is evil and gives to you all that is good.

Come to the feast of destruction! Here your sin and guilt, your shame and embarrassment, is removed. At this feast, there is no more humiliation, at this feast, Christ looks down on no one, at this feast, each is given the honor belonging to Christ Himself. You belong to God, every one of you, for your sins are forgiven and you have been made His child. You each are loved by your God, because Christ loved you into the grave and then back out again. No more divide, no more blindness, no more tears, no more death, no more guilt and shame. Only rich food full of marrow, and aged wine well-refined. At this feast there is life in place of death and forgiveness in place of sin. At this feast you eat and are satisfied.

Come to the feast! Come to the feast where death is destroyed, come to the feast where every covering is swallowed up, come to the feast where reproach is taken away from the earth. Come to the feast that points forward to a greater feast to come, on the final Mountain, Mount Zion, where the Lamb who was slain will hold His marriage supper for all eternity. On that Mountain, on that Day, we will say, as we say on this Mountain, on this day: “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for Him, that He might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for Him; let us be glad and rejoice in His salvation.” On that Mountain, there will never be a tear again, on that Mountain, no one will ever feel guilt or shame ever again, on that Mountain, every barrier between God and man will be torn down forever, and you will see with your own eyes what you today see with the eyes of faith.

Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He who was held prisoner of it, has annihilated it. Death 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 will remain in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, has become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia, Amen! Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia, Amen! Alleluia, Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, Alleluia, Amen!

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Good Friday (John 19:19-22)

“Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’ Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek. So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews,” but rather, “This man said, I am the King of the Jews.”’ Pilate answered, ‘What I have written, I have written.’” 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 holy night, Good Friday is that portion of the Gospel lesson that I just read, from John chapter nineteen. Dear friends in Christ: the charge was placed upon the tree, a sign to declare to all who passed why this man, or any man, should suffer so. Such signs were public declarations that justice was being done, and they were warnings: do not go and do likewise, or you will find yourself nailed to a tree. I N R I. We still place it upon our crucifixes, the Latin abbreviation of this title written in three languages. Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum. Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. This Jesus suffers so, this Jesus will die, because He is the King of the Jews. Pilate didn’t really believe it, or else he would’ve swiftly approved crucifixion for a rebel and usurper; any political threat to Caesar’s authority must be quickly dealt with. The Jews didn’t believe it, or else they wouldn’t have called out for His death.

Who could believe it? Who could look at this Jesus, beaten, bloodied, and dying, and think that Pilate’s sign was anything other than a dark and sarcastic joke? “We esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” This is the King of the Jews? Naked, scourged, bleeding from every pore; He who once commanded crowds of thousands with His words now hangs between two thieves, their equal in torture, their equal in suffering, their equal in death. The One called by Pilate, the One proclaimed by the sign above His head as ‘the King of the Jews’ is a beaten mess. When He cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we have no answer, but we agree with His cry. This man is forsaken by God, abandoned by Him. No man has ever suffered more, in the history of the world, than the One called ‘King of the Jews.’ “He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him.” All who pass Him deride Him, they reject Him, they are horrified at the spectacle that hangs above their head. The sign upon the tree, denoting majesty and honor, nobility and beauty, points to a man who has none of these things, whose very appearance is a terror, from which men shield their eyes.

“As many were astonished at you—His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and His form beyond that of the children of mankind.” This is the King of the Jews? He barely appears to be human, much less a king, and those who cried out for His death want it to be made clear that they utterly and completely reject Him. “the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews,” but rather, “This man said, I am the King of the Jews.”’” He is not our king, they say, they declare as loudly and insistently as they can. They want no such king; they refuse to be ruled by a man who suffers so. This is not the kind of king we would choose. We want our rulers to be strong leaders, we want our heroes to be mighty warriors, we want those whom we choose to exercise authority to be worthy of honor, not just from us, but from everyone else. We want our rulers to look the part. And this One declared the King of the Jews does not look the part. He is weak, He is bloody, He is rejected by the mob and condemned by the governor, scourged and nailed to a tree, His crown made of thorns. He has no attendants, all who followed Him have scattered, only a few women and one young disciple are left. “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not.” Most reject Him, most want nothing to do with such a king, most refuse to be associated in any way with such weakness. “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am the King of the Jews.’”

But Pilate refuses. In spite, the governor, who has been bullied by the chief priests and their mob the entire day, gets in one last jab. This man, hanging upon the tree, beaten, bloodied, dying, is declared to the world to be their king. “Pilate answered, ‘What I have written I have written.’” He doesn’t believe it, but still he declares it. The governor, the Roman government in that place, the representative of Caesar, whose authority ultimately comes from God Himself, imposes this dying man upon the Jewish people. This is their king. He refuses to take the sign down; he has spoken his last word on the matter. “Kings shall shut their mouths because of Him; for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand.” Pilate has not read the Scriptures; he knows nothing about God’s promises, but what those who have been told about the Messiah refuse to see, what those who have heard the prophecies refuse to understand, he confesses, despite himself. In his vengeance toward those who have humiliated him, Pilate makes the good confession: the Suffering Servant is the King of the Jews. This man, suspended between earth and heaven, hanging there in order to die, is the King of the Jews. This man, despised and rejected by men, whose appearance is so marred that He is barely recognizable as human, is the King of the Jews.

His throne is a cross, His reign is established in blood, for both Pilate and the chief priests are part of a much larger drama, the conflict between this King and His foes: sin, death, and Satan. The cross is not an isolated tragedy, or a miscarriage of justice, this is justice, done upon the King for the sake of those over whom He rules. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” The King is a servant, and He establishes His throne by dying for His people, defeating their enemies by surrendering Himself to them in our place. He laid Himself into the jaws of death bearing the iniquity of His people; He did not die for Himself, for any crime that He committed, He died because He is the King of the Jews, the Messiah, and the Messiah does one thing: He dies in the place of His people. “He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed.” This is the King we need, no matter how weak and rejected He is, no matter how horrifying He is to our eyes. This is the King we need, because He dies the death we deserved. He was forsaken by God so that you would never be forsaken, justice was done upon Him so that it would not be done on you. This is your King—this is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews, as Pilate declares and God confirms three days later. For the King of the Jews is not just the One who dies for His people, but the One who rises again in victory for them over the grave. “When His soul makes an offering for sin, He shall see His offspring, He shall prolong His days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in His hand.”

The will of the Lord is that this King establish His rule over all creation, that the crucified and risen One will be not just the King of the Jews, but the King of all, Jew and Gentile. The will of the Lord is that the confession of Pilate is published throughout the world, a mission that Pilate Himself began. “Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek.” Pilate gives us a preview of Pentecost, as the proclamation of the Suffering Servant as King goes out in the languages of the world. To all creation this message goes forth: this is your King, the Suffering Servant. Do not despise Him as the chief priests did, do not refuse this title of love. Do not look down upon His sufferings, His marred face, His lack of form or beauty, for He did this all for you. He is your King, and He is your King chiefly in suffering for you, His people. “Out of the anguish of His soul He shall see and be satisfied; by His knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant make many to be accounted righteous, and He shall bear their iniquities.” He has made you righteous, for He, the righteous One, has borne your iniquities and paid their penalty, once for all people, once for all time. “Pilate said, ‘What I have written, I have written.’” May these words stand forever as a banner of love, of victory, of salvation. I N R I. Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. In His Name, Amen.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Holy Monday (John 12:1-23)

“Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you but you do not always have me.” 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 Holy Monday is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twelfth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John, particularly the first eleven verses. Dear friends in Christ: We are Lazarus. Raised from the dead, brought over from death to life, summoned forth from the grave by the powerful word of Jesus. He made us alive, crying: “Lazarus, come out!” “I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” He made us alive, He raised us out of our watery grave new and alive, a new man, to live before God our Father in righteousness and purity forever. He raised us to dine with Him, to have table fellowship with the One who raised us, to sit us at the table with Him. “Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for Him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with Him at the table.” We are Lazarus, gathered at the table of Jesus again and again, receiving His Body and Blood in fellowship with Him, who is both host and meal. Our life in this world is sustained by this meal, this fellowship with our Lord at this altar. Those who are raised by Jesus dine with Jesus, forever. We are Lazarus.

We are Mary. Thankful for all that Jesus has done for us, filled with deep and abiding affection, overwhelmed by His grace and love. No price is too high, no expense too great, to show our love for our Lord. “Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair.” In humility, we offer all that we have to our Lord; our lives, our very selves into His service. Our costliest gifts are hardly enough, but they are all we have to give. In humility, we give thanks to Jesus for making us alive, for releasing us from bondage, for pulling us out of the grave with His powerful cry of command. We gather here in this place to praise the Lord who raised us from the dead, to fill this place with our joy. “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”

We are Mary. Mary embraced Christ’s burial, she rejoiced in it. In boldness, she prepared our Lord for His death, a death that was just around the corner, that was lurking ahead. She knew what was coming, she heard the predictions of our Lord’s Passion, and she did not fear, she did not hesitate, she did not question, but prepared His body beforehand for burial. The thought of His death filled her with love, with devotion, not fear or revulsion. She knows the time is urgent, she knows that while she has a lifetime to serve others, Jesus’ departure is soon, and she pours out herself in humility for Jesus. And Jesus gives Himself to her. He gives Himself to Mary to be anointed, He receives her love in all of its beauty. He gives Himself to the saints, to those who love Him, so that He can be anointed by their love. He receives the gifts we bring, accepting them in joy as thanksgivings for His salvation. We are Mary, and the fragrance of our love fills the room. But there is not only Mary in that room, or in our heart.

We are Judas. Greedy for the things of this world, concerned only with ourselves, filled with confusion about the coming Kingdom of God. “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” Any price is too high, any gift is too extravagant. Spending money on the Church, especially the beauty of God’s house, is more than wasteful, we imply that it is sinful. We cover our greed and selfishness with a veneer of piety, but at the core, we are concerned only with ourselves. “He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.” Why put what is mine into a dying cause? Why give up what belongs to me, what I have earned, for something that has no tangible benefit? Why sacrifice my life, why sacrifice my things, to Christ and His Church? We reject the burial of Jesus because we know what it might mean for us: our own burial. Christ may call on us to die a physical death for His sake, but we are all called on to die to our desires, to our sinful nature, to lay down everything and follow Him. We are called upon to die to ourselves, and for Judas’s like us, the price is too high.

We are Judas. Judas despised Christ’s burial, he rejected it. The burial of Jesus is an offense to him, he has scorned Christ’s death and all that it means. No Messiah he wishes to follow would allow himself to be killed; no deliverer worth believing in would be scourged and crucified. If that is the kind of ‘Messiah’ that Jesus wants to be, then Judas will be glad to oblige. And Jesus gives Himself to him. He gives Himself to Judas to be kissed, the kiss of betrayal, the kiss that would lead to the cross. He gives Himself to sinners, to those who love themselves, so that they can do their worst to Him. He gives Himself to a world that hates Him, He gives Himself to Judas, for the supreme act of humble love. “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth. When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to the One who judges justly.”

He gives Himself to those who love Him, and He gives Himself to those who hate Him. Mary prepared Jesus for burial, and so did Judas; Mary by anointing, Judas by betraying. And Jesus received both anointing and betraying for the sake of the world. “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed.” Mary gave a precious gift to her Lord: “a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard.” Jesus gave an even more precious gift to Lazarus, to Mary, yes, also to Judas, even to you and to me: His pure, spotless life, the costliest gift that could ever be given, the precious blood of the incarnate Son of God. The same body anointed by Mary, the same body betrayed by Judas, would be laid into the grave. But the burial of Jesus was not the end. He trusted in His Father’s vindication. “The Lord God helps me; therefore, I have not been disgraced; therefore, I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.” Jesus is Lazarus; on the third day He who raises the dead would Himself be raised in victory, so that He could go forth and raise others, so that He could raise you and me.

We are Lazarus, raised from the dead by the powerful Word of Christ; we are Mary, humbly devoted to our Lord, refusing to be offended by His burial; we are Judas, self-seeking and self-centered, rejecting the burial of Jesus and all that it implies. We who are Lazarus are Mary and Judas; at the same time saint and sinner. Our life in Christ is then putting Judas to death and raising up Mary; Jesus raised us up to die, to die to Judas, to die to the world, to die with our Lord. “So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.” The world hates those who have been raised by Christ. The world hates every Lazarus, because every Lazarus is a testimony to the power of Jesus, the world’s enemy, and because through every Lazarus many believe. So the cry goes up: ‘Kill Lazarus!’ But the world is foolish. How can it destroy one who has already been raised from the dead? Jesus has raised Lazarus once, He can certainly do it again. Jesus has raised you once, He can certainly do it again. He can, and He will.

Death has already been shorn of its power over you, this world can do nothing to you; you who have been raised up in the font will be raised up on the Last Day. You will follow the path of Jesus, as Peter says: “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you might follow in His steps.” You are Lazarus; you follow your Lord into death, and you follow Him back out of death again into life. You go forth with the confidence that Jesus had, the confidence that He would be vindicated, the confidence that He would be raised, that His enemies would not triumph over Him. As Jesus Himself, who passed this way for us, declares, “Let him who walks in darkness and has no light trust in the name of the Lord and rely on his God.” In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Judica (John 8:46-59)

“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.’” 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 is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the eighth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. Dear friends in Christ: you can’t have Jesus as simply a good teacher. You can’t have Jesus as only your friend, your companion. You can’t have Jesus solely as a philosopher or giver of advice. You can’t make Jesus a saint, a doer of good deeds, a banner for political or social causes without considering these words: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” Anyone who claims to have any opinion about Jesus must deal with these words; they cannot be ignored. They came from the same lips that said, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another,” the same person who, just verses before, saved an adulterous woman from mob execution. The same Jesus who said all those wise sayings we like to hear, who did all those kind things we want to emulate, also said, “Before Abraham was, I AM.” Decades ago the Christian thinker C.S. Lewis wrote that when you are confronted with the question, ‘What do you think of Jesus?’ there are only three options. Either Jesus is a lunatic, that is, He thinks He is God and He isn’t, or He is a liar, that is, He knows He isn’t God and He’s the most successful con man in history, or He is Lord, that is, He knows He is God and He is telling you so.

The Jews understood this dilemma perfectly. They actually listened to the words of Jesus—all His words—and they understood what He meant by them, better than most people today. Better than any political interest group, any social activist organization, better than many Christians, they took Jesus seriously. They looked beyond the miraculous healings and the wise sayings and they saw the fundamental claim of Jesus: ‘I am God walking this earth in the flesh, and all who believe in me have life in my name.’ “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” They heard Jesus loud and clear, they understood Him perfectly, and they gave an answer: Jesus is a lunatic, or He is a liar, but He is certainly not the Lord. “The Jews answered Him, ‘Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?’”

The Jews didn’t want Jesus as a teacher, they didn’t want Him as a friend; they cared little for His wise sayings, and they despised His acts of mercy, because they rejected who He claimed to be. Why take the advice of a crazy person? Why appreciate the miracles of a con man? Why befriend a liar? They were much more honest than most who deal with Jesus today, who superficially follow Jesus, who see Him as an advocate for a cause, the companion we lack in this world. We think we can have Jesus without dealing with the words of our text, but the Jews knew better; they took Jesus’ claims seriously, and they rejected them. They didn’t want a superficial Jesus, they didn’t want Jesus as a banner or slogan, they didn’t want a Jesus who made them feel better about themselves. If Jesus wasn’t God, as He claimed, then He was of no value to them.

They took Jesus seriously, they took the question ‘What do you think of Jesus?’ seriously, and they gave their answer. There is only one problem: they were wrong. “Jesus answered, ‘I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me.’” Any false view of Jesus dishonors Him, any view that calls Him a liar or a lunatic just as much as any view that doesn’t take His claims seriously. Jesus is dishonored when people call Him simply a good teacher, He is dishonored when His compassion for the sick and needy is emphasized at the expense of His claim to divinity. He is dishonored when you simply think of Him as a good friend or companion, but not as your Lord. He is dishonored when His salvation is minimized or ignored, when His cross is skipped over in favor of His teachings or miracles. Jesus told us what is important: “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.”

The Jews took His claim of salvation seriously. They heard Him loud and clear. “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my Word, he will never taste death.’” They bring forth Abraham as their expert witness, claiming that he testifies against Jesus by the fact that he still lies in the grave. “Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” But Jesus takes their witness and turns him against them; Abraham knew of Jesus and confessed Him. “Your Father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” Abraham rejoiced when he saw the day of Jesus in God’s promise that all the nations of the earth would be blessed in his offspring, Abraham rejoiced when he saw the day of Jesus in the provision of a ram in place of his son Isaac. He saw the day when the very Lamb of God would substitute for all sinful people, when that Lamb would be placed on the altar instead of Isaac or Abraham, you or me. He saw that day coming, and He was glad. He didn’t call the name of that place ‘The Lord has provided,’ but “The Lord will provide,” and thousands of years later it would be just outside the city built on that very mountain where God would provide the Lamb for the sacrifice, once for all people, once for all sin.

For it is God Himself who testifies to Jesus, who glorifies Him, who honors Him. “Jesus answered, ‘If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’” Jesus takes their every witness away from them. Not only does Abraham testify to Jesus as Lord, but God the Father, who they claim to worship, calls Jesus His own. The Father glorifies the Son. Jesus doesn’t seek His own glory, He doesn’t grasp after the honor from all men that is certainly His due. He will wait patiently for His Father to glorify Him, to witness to His identity throughout the world. “I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and He is the judge.” And the Father will seek the glory of His Son. He glorified Him when the angels sang at His birth, when the Magi brought great gifts. He glorified Him when He testified to His identity at His baptism in the Jordan and on the mountain of Transfiguration. But those were simply previews of the glory to come, glory that would begin in the strangest way.

When Jesus is nailed to the tree, when He is lifted up high upon a cross, at the moment when the Jews said, ‘I knew He was a liar or a lunatic!’—there the Father is glorifying His Son. He is glorifying Jesus as the sacrifice for the sin of the world, He is glorifying Jesus as the Lamb who substitutes for us as the ram substituted for Isaac. As the sun is darkened and the earth quakes, God is glorifying His Son as your Savior. That is who Jesus is—not a liar, not a lunatic, not simply a good teacher, wise philosopher, good buddy, or political activist, but your Savior. He is given bloody glory as the deliverer or all people from sin, death, and the power of the devil. The proof is three days later, as Jesus leaves an empty tomb behind. From there He passes from glory to glory, as He ascends to heaven, taking His place at the right hand of the throne of God, from whence He will return on the Last Day, when all people will give Him the honor and glory that He is due, with joy on the one hand, and with weeping and gnashing of teeth on the other, the terrible realization that having dishonored Jesus they have dishonored the Father, and His words of judgment are true: “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”

That’s why they reject Him; while they take His words seriously, they refuse to believe them. “You are not yet fifty years old, and you have seen Abraham?” They could never have predicted what Jesus would say next: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” The world so often doesn’t take these words seriously, it doesn’t understand, but the Jews did. “So they picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple.” They know what Jesus claimed, they know that with this simple phrase Jesus was declaring Himself to be not just before Abraham, but the God of Abraham, the very One who spoke in the burning bush, true God from eternity. Liar, lunatic, or Lord? Their actions tell the tale, and it will only be a matter of time before Jesus hides Himself no longer and they nail Him to a cross.

What do you think of Jesus? Is He a liar, lunatic, or Lord? Is he simply a good teacher, a wise companion in life’s journey, an example of compassion, the friend that you cannot find anywhere else, or is He your Savior? Is He simply good for you in this life, to help you make it through your day, or is He of eternal significance? So many churches and so many pastors spend all their time on the former, but Saint Paul says, “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” A Jesus who only helps us during our life on this earth is worthless, and those who follow Him are most to be pitied. He did not come so that your life in this world would be comfortable before you spent eternity in hell. Jesus Himself declares why He has come. “If anyone keeps my Word, he will never taste death.”

Jesus has come to give you eternal life, to deliver you from the bonds and shackles of sin and death. Jesus has come to forgive all your sins by dying in your place. Jesus has come so that you will live forever. Through the cross and empty tomb, Jesus was vindicated, He was proven to be the Son of God and the sacrifice for the sin of the world. Through the cross and the empty tomb, the Father was vindicated, as He was proven just and loving, exacting justice on Jesus to show love to you. And through the cross and empty tomb, you are vindicated, you are rescued from your enemies and made right with your God. You are justified, declared righteous in God’s sight through the death and resurrection of Jesus for your sake. That is a Jesus worthy of honor, that is a Jesus worthy of joy and gladness, that is a Jesus glorified by His Father, not a lunatic, not a liar, but your Lord and your Savior. In His Name, Amen.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Lent Midweek 3 (Isaiah 53:4-6)

The following is adapted from a sermon series by Rev. Rolf Preus.

“Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to His own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” 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 day is that portion of Isaiah’s suffering servant song that I just read, Isaiah chapter fifty-three, verses four through six. Dear friends in Christ: when sheep wander into the wilderness, they turn away from life to death, they stray from protection and safety into danger and terror. “All we like sheep have gone astray.” We have wandered, we have strayed, we have turned away from the God who gives life to wander in sin and death. All mankind fell in Adam’s fall, all like sheep have gone astray since the first man and woman entered into the wilderness, and we are lost, condemned to die in the desert.

How can wandering sheep return? How can we turn back to God after we have turned away from Him? Surely, we need forgiveness, but our sin seems to be a wall between us and our God. How can God forgive sin? How can God forgive me, a sinner? How can I know that when I have sinned against God that I can receive any mercy from Him, any grace, any forgiveness? How can I know that He will be a loving Father for me, forgiving all my many sins against Him? Human reason cannot conceive of an answer, we cannot know this on our own. God Himself must teach us, and He does in our text. How can God be gracious to me, a sinner? Two words: vicarious atonement.

These two words hardly seem to clear up the confusion. Perhaps you’ve never heard them before, or only in passing, a far-off memory of a bible class or confirmation lesson. But these words are life, they are your salvation. They reveal to you the suffering Servant whose suffering brings us forgiveness, peace and health. Every spiritual blessing God has to give He gives on account of the suffering of His Servant. The suffering of the Servant has opened to us the doors of Paradise, it has taken away our sin, reconciled us to God, and brought us eternal life. That is what the words ‘vicarious atonement’ teach us. His death is vicarious. That means the Servant did what He did, He suffered what He suffered, as our substitute. He took our place, He stood in as our representative. What was done to Him was supposed to have been done to us. His death is atonement. That means that the Servant did what He did to bring us back into fellowship with God, establishing true peace between Creator and creature by paying everything that we owed. Vicarious atonement. Those words describe the very center of our faith, and they reveal God’s love to us.

“Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” At first glance, it appears that the Servant suffered on His own account, for something He had done. But nothing could be further from the truth. They were our griefs. They were our sorrows. He didn’t just sympathize with our sorrows, our sins. He carried them, He bore them in His own body. While the Servant walked this earth, He healed many of the corruptions of sin. But every act of mercy, every declaration of forgiveness, every restoration of disease had a cost. The illnesses He cured He bore. The griefs He removed He suffered. The sins He forgave He died for. He paid the ultimate price for every gift He gives to His people, not only suffering, not only death, but the very wrath of God Himself.

“Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” Understand these words well: Stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. God did it, God put His Servant to death. We all know the political machinations that went on during Good Friday, the power games and the terrible miscarriage of justice that let Barabbas go free and an innocent man hang upon the cross. But do not be deceived. God did it. He used corrupt religious leaders and cowardly politicians to carry out His will, but He did it. When we see men abuse Jesus, we must remember that they are only instruments: He was stricken, smitten, and afflicted by God Himself. God punished His Servant. This is the most amazing kind of love, beyond anything the world has ever seen. It certainly doesn’t look like love. The Father strikes, smites, and afflicts His dear Son, the one whom He loved from all eternity. But make no mistake: this is love.

“But He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed.” This is love, love for you and me. When God punished Jesus, He punished the sins of all sinners of all times and place. Does God punish or does He forgive? On the cross, He does both at the same time. The Servant was wounded, the Servant was pierced, the Servant was punished, the Servant was crucified. For what? For our transgressions. God loves us, He forgives us, by punishing Jesus. “Upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace.” He was punished instead of us. God makes peace with us by punishing Jesus in our place. Vicarious atonement. That is love. “With His wounds we are healed.” The Servant was whipped, the Servant was scourged, the Servant bore a crown of thorns for us. All health was taken away from Him to give us healing. He takes our place and by taking our place He gives us what is His takes what is ours. In Jesus God is both gracious and just. He both forgives and punishes. God doesn’t forgive without paying the price for forgiveness. The reason we can know for certain that God forgives our sins is because He laid those sins on Jesus.

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to His own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” This is love. Vicarious atonement. For Christ’s sake all our sins are forgiven. How do we know? “He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities.” We know because He bore our sins to the cross and paid the price for them there. His piercing pierced the dragon; His crushing crushed the head of the serpent, our ancient foe, because He was pierced and crushed in our place, removing the devil’s power over us. Vicarious atonement. This beautiful doctrine teaches us about our God, it gives us confidence that we can always run to God in repentance when we sin and find Him a loving, forgiving, and gracious Father who will never turn us away. We know our sins are forgiven because we know Christ. The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

It is only through the vicarious atonement that we are forgiven. Our sins aren’t forgiven because we believe they are forgiven, because we have faith. Our sins are forgiven because Jesus Christ, true God and true man, suffered and died for them. Jesus and Jesus alone takes away our sins by suffering and dying for them. But faith is still necessary, because faith receives this gift, it clings to the forgiveness that has been won. There is no one for whom Jesus did not die, and God forgives all those for whom Jesus died. God forgives the entire world. But the entire world is not saved. Forgiveness is not received except though faith. Only those who trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins receive from God the forgiveness of their sins. Apart from Christ, our sins are not forgiven; apart from faith in Him, we cannot receive that forgiveness. That is how wandering sheep return to their Master: the forgiveness of sins, purchased by Jesus, received by faith. Vicarious atonement. When we know Christ and Him crucified we know that God sees us at our very worst and forgives us all our sins, sets us at peace with Himself, and rescues us from death and hell. Like foolish sheep we wandered away. But by God’s grace we have returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. He sought out wandering sheep, and He paid the price for them, giving to you and to me green pastures and quiet waters, forever. In the Name of the Servant, Jesus Christ, Amen.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Reminiscere (Matthew 15:21-28)

Neither Saint Matthew nor Saint Mark tell us how the Canaanite woman came to faith. There is no conversion story, no account of how she, who lived miles up the coast from the homeland of God’s people, heard of the one born King of the Jews. There is no digression by either evangelist, telling us how someone could believe who lived in the region of Tyre and Sydon, a place so wicked that the prophets and Jesus Himself repeatedly decree its ultimate destruction. We’re not told how a Canaanite woman, part of a people that Israel was to destroy centuries before, came to have faith in Israel’s Messiah. It’s often this way. There are many who come to Jesus who already believe in Him, who believe without seeing, who cry out to Him believing He can save. “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” Faith cries out to God. Faith sees its object, its Lord walking this earth, and it cannot help but cry. For faith sees not only its Lord, faith sees its need. This is what believers do when they experience affliction: they cry out to the One who can heal, the One who can save, the object of their faith, the One who has promised to help. Faith cries as only faith can: “Have mercy on me.” Kyrie Eleison. Lord, have mercy. This is the right cry, the right prayer, directed at the right man, the only One who could help. She recognizes her God walking past her in the flesh, somehow, by some miracle, in her darkest, most desperate hour miles from His home, seemingly there simply to bring her daughter healing.

But her God doesn’t listen. “He did not answer her a word.” Silence. God ignores her cries. God doesn’t heal. God doesn’t save. She isn’t crying out to a false God, she isn’t offering a blasphemous prayer. In faith, she is crying out to the only true God, incarnate for her salvation. She is offering the prayer that Jesus has heard so many times, the prayer that seems to tug on His heartstrings, that causes Him to spring into action, the prayer that halts Him in His path. But not for her. Faith cries out, and God doesn’t listen. He doesn’t pause, He doesn’t stop, He doesn’t acknowledge her at all. Her God ignores her. He who has healed so many, who has given such great promises, is silent. The ministers of the church, the clergy, join their voices to hers, entreating her God to listen, to heal, to save. “And His disciples came and begged Him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is crying out after us.’” But their prayers are no better than hers in moving God to action. She could’ve gone to Facebook, sent out a mass e-mail, called the church office to be put in the bulletin or on the prayer chain, but it would’ve made no difference. The volume of prayers makes doesn’t matter when God remains silent.

Faith cries out to the right person with the right prayer; faith cries out in humility, in sorrow, with tears, but God does not answer. It seems that unbelievers are quickly freed from their troubles; their time of trial is short and insignificant. They pray to the wrong gods, they pray in the wrong way, if they pray at all, and they seem to be blessed, while the children of God, who in their suffering take refuge in the true God only sink deeper and deeper into distress. There is no relief, there is no answer. They just continue to suffer. The fire gets hotter, the trials get tougher, the suffering gets worse.

Faith gets no reward for its cry, not even an acknowledgement. God, who is seemingly never at a loss for words, has no words or action for us, only silence. “And Jacob was left alone.” The sufferer feels alone, abandoned by God, abandoned by men, left to his own devices. And we can’t handle it. Like Jacob splitting his camp and sending people back and forth across the river, we try to fix the situation ourselves. We fill the silence with our own words, our own works. We put our trust in ourselves, or in other people, depending on human resources alone to fix our suffering. We are impatient, unwilling to wait for God’s answer. I want to be delivered right now, and if God won’t do it, I’ll quip praying, I’ll look somewhere else. But that is not the path of faith. Faith is persistent. Faith is not deterred. The silence of God is anguishing, but it does not stop the voice of faith. “She came and knelt before Him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’”

Faith doesn’t quit crying out to God; faith doesn’t give up the fight. Martin Luther teaches us, “Even if [God] hides himself in a room in the house and does not want access to be given to anyone, do not draw back but follow. If he does not want to listen, knock at the door of the room; raise a shout!” Faith is persistent, faith is stubborn, faith refuses to be cast aside. Faith knows that there is no other place to go, that no one else can help if God Himself is silent. Faith enters the arena with God, faith takes Him on, faith wrestles with the God who has promised to be gracious. The woman doesn’t leave, though Jesus has given her every reason to; she doesn’t give up. But as Jacob wrestled with God all night, she is in it for the long haul. She will wrestle with her God, she will take Him on, and she will struggle with Him until the sun rises.

But this Jesus is no ordinary man, just as Jacob was wrestling with no normal combatant. “When the man saw that He did not prevail against Jacob, He touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with Him.” When you wrestle with God, expect to be put in your place, expect to be reminded of who you are. “He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’” You deserve nothing from me; no grace, no mercy, no salvation. I came for the people of Israel, you have no reason to claim anything from me. Then He gives His most devastating blow, more terrible, more painful than Jacob’s hip being put out of socket. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” You are a Gentile dog. You have no right to ask anything of me, for you deserve nothing of what I have to give. You are a sinner, you are not part of my chosen people, you stand condemned.

So it is that God appears as our enemy. He not only ignores us, with devastating silence, but often He actually seems to be opposing us. The more we pray, the worse it gets. Job complained that the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer, the Psalmist threw up his hands and said, “All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning.” Loving, gentle Jesus, full of mercy and compassion for so many others, has nothing for us but His wrath; the wrestling match has left us defeated. Our hip is out of joint, we are crushed and crippled, filled with excruciating pain. God has given us every excuse to give up, to run the other way, to follow the advice of Job’s wife, echoed by many others in our lives, perhaps the voice in our own head: “Curse God and die.”

But faith does not let God go. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She doesn’t argue, she doesn’t dispute His accusation, the voice of God’s harsh Law. She agrees. She owns her sin, she owns her identity, she agrees that she deserves nothing from her God, that there is nothing Jesus has to give that she has earned. Faith knows that it has done nothing to deserve anything from God but His wrath. “I, a poor, miserable sinner…” She agrees with this truth, clearly revealed by God’s Law. But then she declares her trust in a truth that is greater than the truth of the Law. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Yes, Lord, I am a dog. I deserve nothing from you but death and hell. But you came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost, and here I cling to your mercy, your grace. The crumbs are enough, they are sufficient, for they are everything. The crumbs from your table are a food that lasts to eternity, and you have them in such abundance that even those who wait under the table are filled with eternal life.

She doesn’t say this based on any merit of her own, any worthiness that she possesses. She clings not to herself, but to His promises. She knows she is not worthy, she hears the Law and she agrees with it, but she clings to a truth that is greater than the Law’s demands and threats: this Jesus has come to fulfill the Law’s demands and destroy its threats. She clings to the mercy of a God who promised a Savior from sin and death, who through this Messiah He will give the forgiveness of sins, along with every good gift. Like Jacob of old, on the basis of His promises, not her merit, she refuses to let her God go, she wrestles Him to the ground, saying, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

This is the faith which conquers God. “Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” The Canaanite woman understood her identity as a fallen, sinful creature, and she knew His identity as the One who came into this world to save sinners. When God is silent, when He appears as our enemy, faith doesn’t give in or give up, but it clings to the promises God has given despite everything that it sees to the contrary. Martin Luther teaches us, “If [God] should cast me into the depths of hell and place me in the midst of devils, I would still believe that I would be saved because I have been baptized, I have been absolved, I have received the pledge of my salvation, the body and blood of the Lord in the Supper. Therefore I want to see and hear nothing else, but I shall live and die in this faith, whether God or an angel or the devil says the contrary.”

You do not look to your sufferings, your afflictions, your tribulations, or your sins to know what God thinks of you. You look to the cross where Jesus bled and died to win your salvation, and you look to your baptism, to the Lord’s Supper, to Absolution, where Jesus delivered that salvation directly to you. With those gifts, those pledges of God’s grace, you can then be persistent in prayer, but also patient, constantly crying out to God but waiting patiently for Him to answer, clinging to the ‘Yes,’ even when all you seem to hear is ‘No.’ And whether He answers your prayer in this life or in the next, He will deliver you from evil, He will give you every good gift. He will remember His promises, for He remembers your sins no more; He remembers you not according to your iniquity but according to His mercy. Today, we live on the crumbs, but a day is coming when we will feast at the table with all of God’s children, forever and ever. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.