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.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:16-21)

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” 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 Ash Wednesday is the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, are you giving up something for Lent? We modern Christians don’t fast much. We don’t skip meals in preparation for receiving the Lord’s Supper, we don’t withdraw from the pleasures of the flesh to focus on prayer, self-denial isn’t really a part of our piety. But we do often give something up for Lent; this practice, which both Christians and non- Christians participate in, oddly enough, is the last vestige of fasting left in our world. What will it be for you this year? Chocolate? Caffeine? Facebook? Steak? It’s usually something that won’t put much of a dent in our lifestyle, that we can give up with a little pain, but not too much, something we can mention in passing to our friends. There will be articles again this year, by Christians and non-Christians alike, touting the benefits of this Lenten ‘fast;’ no more Facebook? More time for jogging! No more sweets? You might lose a few pounds! Lent can help you become a healthier, happier you!

When teaching us about the Lord’s Supper, Martin Luther instructs us to confess, “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training.” He is simply echoing Jesus, “And when you fast…” Jesus assumes that His followers will fast, He assumes that this spiritual discipline will be part of their lives, not just in Lent, but in every part of the Church Year. And because His disciples will fast, they need some instructions. “Do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.” Hypocrites fast so that others can see them; hypocrites fast so that their friends, their neighbors, their fellow church members will be impressed. Hypocrites fast to earn the praises of men, and they will get what they asked for. “Truly I say to you, they have received their reward.”

Our reward will be given in full from our fellow men; they will be impressed, but not our Father in heaven. “When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret.” This seems like strange advice on a day when two pastors and a vicar lined up before the service to disfigure faces. We did not do this to make you all hypocrites, but we applied ashes to the outside of your body to point you to inward repentance; ashes stain your forehead for this one day as a reminder to you of sin’s penalty and sin’s destruction. If you are wearing the ashes tonight because you wanted to show everyone else how pious you are, if you are planning to wear them with pride back to work or to the store or when you go out to eat, go to the bathroom and wash them off. Repent. “Rend your hearts and not your garments,” God thunders forth through Joel.

Quit playing around with the outward show, quit simply giving up things that have little real effect on the comfort of this life. What should you give up this Lent? How about your sin? Give up your sin this Lent. Repent. That is the Lenten discipline to which all Christians are called: repentance. Lent isn’t about self-improvement, it’s about death, dying to your sins in repentance. Turn from your sins, refuse their hold on you. Rend your hearts in sorrow over your sins and cry out to God for mercy, for He is merciful. “And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” He will reward you not because you are so good at being repentant, He will reward you because of Jesus. In Joel we are told, “Then the Lord became jealous for His land and had pity on His people.” He had pity on His people, He had pity on you, and sent you Jesus to take that sin and endure its penalty, leaving it nailed to the cross.

Lent is for sinners, sinners in desperate need of a Savior. Those who do not think they have the disease see little need for the cure. Maybe you are one of those who steadfastly and publicly refuses to give up anything for Lent. Perhaps you cover it with a veneer of piety, pointing out how ridiculous the whole ‘giving something up for Lent’ fad has become in our culture, and you are right. But it goes much deeper than that. Luther said, “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training,” which you interpret as ‘Fasting and bodily preparation are probably detrimental to your faith and are to be avoided at all costs.’ Jesus said, “When you fast…” which you interpret as ‘If you fast, and you probably won’t, fast this way…’ Why should you fast, why should you give up any of the pleasures that this life can offer, any of the things that you have earned? I’m a Christian, I go to Church, that should be plenty. The things I have, they are mine, to use as I please. Who has the right to tell me to give any of them up, even for a little while?

Jesus has that right as your Savior and Lord, and He calls on you to loose yourself from the bondage of your things. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.” If you refused the ashes tonight because you wanted to show everyone how pious you are, if you did not come forward because you didn’t want to sully your head with a reminder of death, repent. No one is required to take the ashes, but if you refused them because you want nothing to do with giving up any of the pleasures of the flesh, repent. Give up your sins this Lent. Give up all that has a hold on your heart, that pulls you away from your Lord. Do not pile up your treasure on this earth, give it up, lay it aside, refuse to let anything of this world have its clutches upon you.

For you have a greater treasure. “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” Your treasures, your things, whether they are the praises of men or the pleasures of life or the things that you enjoy, will all fade, they will all be corrupted, they will not last. Not one thing that you own or enjoy will last beyond the grave. But what Christ has given to you lasts, it endures. It will not fade, because it is attached to Jesus, and He lives, never to die again. Nothing, and no one can destroy that treasure, for it belongs to you even now, and you will receive it in full on the Last Day. That is what Lent is all about: taking our eyes off the fading and fragile treasures of this world and fixing our eyes upon the treasure that lasts, the treasure that endures, the treasure held in heaven for us by the One who died and rose again to win it for us.

Are you giving up something for Lent? “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training,” training for a body consumed by sin. Fasting is discipline, discipline for the flesh, part of killing the Old Adam within you; fasting is always in service of repentance. Fasting from food or any other pleasure is not to help you lose a few pounds or to give you time to read a book, but to provide opportunity and focus for prayer, to lead you to repent of all the sin that entangles you. This Lent, die to yourself, examine your idols and in repentance cry out for God to break them. Lay aside all that holds you in the chains of sin, all that distracts you from receiving Christ’s precious Word. Repent and believe. Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training, but they are worthless without faith. Luther teaches us to confess: “That person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’”

Repent, and hear the Gospel. “The Lord became jealous for His land and had pity on His people.” He was jealous for His land, His chosen Zion, and He had pity on you, you who are bowed low with sin, you who are subject to death. He had pity and sent His Son, His only Son, whom He loved, to die in your place to win you treasure in heaven, treasure that no moth or rust will corrupt, and no thief will ever break in and steal. That is what Lent is all about. The ashes on your head, a reminder of death, are in the shape of a cross, a reminder of who actually died that death. Jesus, for you. That is Ash Wednesday. That is Lent. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.