Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

Location: Dorr, Michigan

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday/ Sunday of the Passion

Palm Sunday/ Sunday of the Passion (A)

April 13, 2014
Text: Matt. 26:1-27:66

            Today marks the beginning of Holy Week, a sacred time for Christians to ponder deeply the sufferings and death of our Lord Jesus Christ for us poor sinners.  We call it His Passion, a word that literally means suffering.  And this is the day when we hear the whole account in one sitting, or standing as the case may be.  It could be you felt your first twinge of impatience when you opened the bulletin and saw the nearly 6 pages of Gospel lesson awaiting you.  Yes, the service will go a little long this morning, so be prepared.  You may spend ten extra minutes in the pew today.  Gasp!  You don’t have anything better to do.  There is nothing more important than this.  God has given you the gift of time for this very purpose.  Repent.  And listen.  The Lord is speaking.  To you.  And His Word to you is unimaginably good.  Because here He tells you how He took your place under God’s wrath and the curse of sin.  Everything you hear Him endure in the Passion narrative rightly should have been endured by youYou should have been accused, arrested, and tried for capital crimes.  You should have been mocked, beaten, scourged.  You should have shouldered your own cross to the place of a skull, been nailed to it, and lifted up for hours upon hours in the darkness of God’s forsakenness.  You should have suffered hell.  You should have died.  But you won’t.  Not you.  No, you’ll live.  You live now, and you possess the very Kingdom of heaven, because He did all of this in your place.  Not because anybody forced Him.  It was the Father’s will, but the Father didn’t force Him.  Pilate, the Jewish authorities, and the Roman soldiers had no authority to do it, and could not have done it against His will.  No, no.  He did this willingly.  Because He loves you.  He loves you with amazing, self-giving love, love that only comes from God.  It is unknown among mere men.  That’s what St. Paul writes, “one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:7-8; ESV; emphasis added).  While we were still sinners.  While there was nothing good in us.  When we didn’t even want it.  While we were the perpetrators of it, nailing Him to the cross by our sin, marching happily into hell, He did this for us, for you and for me, to make us His own and give us eternal salvation.  Frankly, I don’t know how, after hearing this Holy Gospel, we can contain our alleluias.  At the very least we ought to be able to stifle our yawns, still our shifting feet, and sing a hearty Hosanna in the Highest.  For this Holy Gospel makes all the difference between eternal life and eternal death.
            I know, it’s a war within us, though, a war between the Old Man, the sinful flesh, and the New Creation in Christ Jesus.  “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41).  The Old Man can’t stand to hear this stuff.  The Old Man will sit for hours in front of the television for March Madness, but before a Word of the Gospel is read, he’s ready to bail.  But beloved, that’s not who you are anymore.  The Old Man in you has been drowned in Holy Baptism, and you crucify him daily in repentance.  Christ Jesus, who was crucified for you and is now risen from the dead, raises you to new life, as a New Creation in Himself.  And as a New Creation in Christ Jesus, you love to hear again the Passion of our Lord.  You rejoice to hear of your forgiveness and salvation in Christ, and to receive it fresh and new and ever more abundantly in the hearing of Christ’s Word and the Supper of His Body and Blood.  So let me let you in on a little secret.  That impatience you may have felt when you realized this is the Sunday with the two exceptionally long chapters of Gospel reading is a dead giveaway that this war between the Old Man and the New Creation is being waged full-throttle within your heart, mind, body, and soul.  The issue isn’t your impatience with a long Scripture reading at all.  That’s just a symptom.  The issue is the struggle between faith and doubt, the daily death of the Old Man and the daily emerging and arising of the New in Christ.  Holy Week, with its longer readings and extra services, has this way of bringing the struggle into focus.  Because the Old Man chafes every time he has to hear, yet again, about Christ crucified for your sins.  He hates it.  Well… Kill him.  Crucify him.  Repent.  Return to your Baptism.  Take this bulletin home and treasure it all week long.  Read the readings again.  And again.  And again.  And when you start getting tired of them, read them again.  Because that means it’s working.  Old Adam is dying.  And Jesus is breathing the Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, into you. 
            Let me tell you something, guys.  I know a thing or two about this struggle, only I know about it from the other side of the pulpit.  All the services.  All the sermons.  All about the exact same thing.  And what good does it do?  Does anybody really listen?  Does it really help anybody?  Does it change anyone?  Or is it all for not?  Notice, though, that in every single one of those questions, I’m looking at me, I’m looking at you, and in so doing, I’m not looking at Christ crucified.  These are lies of the devil designed to take my eyes off of Jesus.  My eyes are not on the Good Shepherd with His pierced hands and feet and side, who speaks and we hear His voice and we know Him and we follow Him.  And if my eyes aren’t on Him, your eyes won’t be pointed toward Him in the preaching of the cross. 
            This is why we need Passion Sunday.  This is why we need Holy Week.  To set our eyes on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb. 12:2).  We need to hear the Passion narrative like we need oxygen and water to live.  We heard it from St. Matthew’s perspective this morning.  We’ll hear it from St. John on Friday.  And we’ll hear a lot of Scripture in between, and in the Easter Feast, all of which will focus us on Christ crucified for our sins, Christ raised for our justification.  Pope Francis recently handed out pocket sized copies of the Gospels to a crowd of thousands in St. Peter’s square.  He said that Christians should keep the Gospel with them at all times, and read it daily.  Though I vehemently disagree with the Pontiff about many things, I’m totally with him on this one.  Because the Gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).  So, in answer to my questions of struggle and despair, that’s the good it does.  It saves you from hell.  It delivers to you the death and resurrection of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and eternal life.  And that’s a pretty big change, if you ask me, from death to life, from Old Man to New Creation, from sinner to blessed saint and child of God.  Does anybody listen?  I guess that’s not really up to me.  It’s up to God.  But there is something you can rejoice in, beloved.  The Spirit didn’t bring you here today for nothing.  You may resist it.  You may wish you hadn’t set your alarm clock this morning, conveniently missing the extra-long Sunday.  Perhaps you allowed your mind to wander during the Holy Gospel.  Maybe it’s wandering right now.  But the Spirit is knocking this living Word of Jesus into your ears and mind and heart and soul in spite of you.  Because He promised His Word never returns to Him empty, without accomplishing what He desires (Is. 55:11).  That’s not an excuse to not pay attention, by the way.  That’s the Old Man, after all, who must be crucified.  It’s simply a testimony to the grace of God that He pours out on you in His Word, which you cannot achieve by your own reason or strength.  The Holy Spirit does it in the Word.  He brings you to faith in your crucified Savior.  And He keeps you in that faith through the precious means of grace here in the Church.
            And what a beautiful thing the Lord speaks to you here today.  His body is anointed for burial before the fact by a grateful and devoted woman.  He is sold-out by one of His closest disciples.  He gives His Church the Sacrament of His Body and Blood for our forgiveness.  He promises that when His disciples fall away, even if they deny Him, He will raise them up.  He is sorrowful unto death in the garden, and His disciples cannot stay awake to watch with Him even one hour.  Apparently even seeing the Gospel take place firsthand is enough to make you sleepy.  Our Lord prays that the cup of suffering may be taken from Him, but if it is the only way to save us, He’ll do it.  Not as I will, but as you will, dear Father.  And so it must be.  Judas arrives with an armed crowd and betrays Jesus with a kiss.  Still, Jesus calls him “Friend” (Matt. 26:50).  He is arrested and tried before the Sanhedrin.  Peter denies Him three times and weeps bitter tears.  The Jews hand our Savior over to Pilate and the Romans.  The crowd, whipped up by the chief priests, demands blood.  “Let him be crucified… His blood be on us and on our children!” (27:22, 25).  Unwittingly, they proclaim this very Gospel.  That is precisely what will happen.  The murderer, Barabbas, and you and I, go free.  Jesus is scourged and handed over to be crucified.  He is nailed to the wood and lifted up that His blood be on us and on our children, to cleanse us from our sins.  He is reviled by pious and criminal alike, enshrouded in heavenly darkness, forsaken by God, for you and for me.  An eternity of hell packed into 6 miserable hours.  For you.  And having accomplished all, He cried out with a loud voice and yielded up His spirit.  The consequences were literally earthshaking.  The curtain of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom, the rocks split, the graves flew open and the bodies of many saints popped out, risen and alive.  And you… you were restored to the Father.  I guess that’s worth a few extra minutes of your time, right?  Rejoice, dear Christian.  Christ has made you His own.  And listen.  In the Holy Gospel, the Lord is bespeaking you righteous.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.              


Sunday, April 06, 2014

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Fifth Sunday in Lent (A)

April 6, 2014
Text: John 11:1-53

            If not even a sparrow falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge (Matt. 10:29), if even the hairs of your head are all numbered (v. 30), then certainly it is true what our Lord proclaims in the Introit from Psalm 116 (v. 15): “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (ESV).  That means that you are never alone, not even in death.  That means that your every breath, every beat of your heart, every impulse of every nerve in your body is a gift from the Lord, regulated by Him and intimately known by Him.  He knows every moment of your life, and He knows the moment of your death.  And not only does He know it, He is intimately present in it, directing all things, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, for your good, and ultimately for your salvation.  He does this because you are precious to Him, so precious that He gave the holy, precious blood of the Son of God to purchase you for Himself, to atone for your sin, to conquer death so that whoever believes in Jesus Christ, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Jesus Christ shall never die (John 11:25-26).  That’s what our Lord Himself says.  We know it by faith, not by sight.  We believe it because Jesus proved it beyond the shadow of a doubt.  He died on the cross.  He was buried in a tomb.  And He rose from the dead on the third day, just as He said He would.  And since that is true we can believe what He says about giving us eternal life.  We can believe that He is who He says He is, God in the flesh, who has the authority over life and death, the authority to raise the dead: “I am the resurrection and the life,” says Jesus.  “Whoever believes in me,” that’s you, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me,” again, you, “shall never die” (vv. 25-26).
            “I am the resurrection and the life.”  It’s another one of Jesus’ “I AM” statements in John’s Gospel.  Jesus is stating in no uncertain terms that He is God, YHWH, who alone gives life and who alone can raise the dead.  So He’s the One to trust in the face of death, your own or that of a loved one, because in Him is life, and in Him, though you die, yet you live.  I’ll warn you, though, trusting Him in this is not easy.  Because all the eyes see is death.  All the eyes see is sickness and suffering and pain and finally, the expiration of life.  Martha and Mary had a hard time with this.  Sure, they believed in Jesus.   They believed that if He had just been here their brother, Lazarus, would not have died.  They both say so (vv. 21, 32).  Now it’s too late.  It’s too late for Jesus to do anything, for death has had the final word.  They know, as Martha confesses (v. 24), that their brother will rise again on the Last Day.  But they are frustrated and hurt, because what they really wanted from Jesus when they sent word all those days ago was for Him to come and heal their brother, save him from death altogether.  They could not imagine that this, in any way, could turn out for their good or for the good of Lazarus. 
            And what did Jesus do when He heard Lazarus was ill?  St. John curiously states: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.  So when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (vv. 5-6).  What a strange thing to say.  Since Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters, He purposely delayed His coming long enough for Lazarus to die?  Even we poor sinners, we who do not have the ability to heal the sick, when we hear that someone we love is on their deathbed, we immediately run to that person’s bedside to offer comfort and assistance.  I mean, that’s just what you do when you love someone.  But apparently not Jesus.  He loves, so He stays away.  What in the world is going on here?  The disciples are as puzzled as we are.  “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep,” He tells them, “but I go to awaken him” (v. 11).  The disciples are confused.  Isn’t sleep good for a sick man?  And anyway, Jesus, why would you want to go to Judea where they are seeking to kill you?  “Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe’” (vv. 14-15).  And here Jesus clues us in as to why He delays His coming.  He delays because He knows that He will work Lazarus’ suffering and Lazarus’ death for the good of not only Lazarus, but also for Martha and for Mary and for His disciples and for you.  For in doing what He is about to do, in raising Lazarus from the dead, He will raise many from spiritual death to living faith in Himself.  And He will strengthen and confirm the faith of those who believe in Him, that they, too may pass from death to life (John 5:24).
            You have been there where Martha and Mary and Lazarus are, haven’t you?  Waiting for Jesus, praying for Him to come and relieve and heal and deliver?  And He delays.  He says it is because He loves you, but it seems awful much as though He does not care.  Why does Jesus hide Himself when we need Him most?  He does it so that you may believe.  It is not that He doesn’t care.  He loves you.  Behold how He loves Lazarus.  When He comes to the tomb, He weeps for His friend.  Knowing full well what He is about to do, that He is about to raise Lazarus from the dead, still He weeps.  He weeps because His friend has suffered.  He weeps because death is a tragedy brought into the world by sin.  It breaks asunder what God meant to be joined for all eternity, the body and the soul.  He weeps because death is an enemy, a punishment, a curse.  And He weeps because no one sees that the antidote to death, the undoing of the curse, has come in Jesus.  He weeps over our unbelief.  We weep for the same reasons, by the way.  We weep at funerals, even we Christians who know what Jesus will do for our loved one and for us on the Last Day.  We weep because death is a tragedy, and we miss our loved ones, even though we’ll see them again.  Jesus’ weeping sanctifies our grief. 
            But don’t be fooled.  Jesus is not despairing.  And He hasn’t forsaken you.  He hasn’t arrived too late.  “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints,” and Jesus was right there with Lazarus in his death, and He’s right there with you and your loved ones in yours.  That He is hidden necessarily means He is still present, present right there with you, intimately so, directing all things for your good and ultimately for your salvation.  He’s right there bringing you through death to eternal life.  Now, all of that would be true even if the story had ended there with Jesus weeping at the tomb.  Because Lazarus still would have been in heaven, and Jesus still would have raised him from the dead eternally on the Last Day.  But so that you may know that Jesus has authority to raise the dead and give you life, He commands them to take away the stone in front of the tomb (John 11:39).  And He says to the stinking, rotting corpse there in that tomb, “Lazarus, come out” (v. 43).  And “The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth.  Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’” (v. 44). 
            And that’s what Jesus will do for you on the Last Day.  He will open up your grave and the graves of all people, and He will say to your stinking, rotting corpse, “Come out!”  And you will.  No longer stinking.  No longer rotting.  No longer dust to dust and ashes to ashes.  You’ll come out good as new, better than new, your very body made like Jesus’ resurrection body.  And unlike Lazarus, who lived for who knows how long and then died again, you’ll never have to die again.  You’ll never have to hurt or suffer or weep again.  For Jesus, who is the resurrection and the life, has given you to live with Him forever. 
            Well, that being the case, you can go to your death as though going to your bed for the night.  After you fall asleep, Jesus will wake you.  He has promised.  He does not lie.  Your death is precious in His sight.  You are precious in His sight.  And He is hidden in your suffering, hidden in your death, working all things for your good and for your salvation (cf. Rom. 8:28).  That you may know this, He has told you ahead of time that He is hidden in another place, where you can always find Him.  He is hidden in His Word, where He speaks the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life into you.  He is hidden in your Baptism, where you already died and have already received eternal life in Christ.  He is hidden in the Supper where the risen and living Lord Jesus gives you His crucified and risen Body and Blood for your forgiveness, life, and salvation.  These precious means of grace, the Word and the Sacraments, are conduits from whence flow our Lord’s gift of life.  They mark you as one who will not die, but live.  For living in these means of grace, you live in Jesus.  And it is true, what He says: “I am the resurrection and the life.”  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.   


Sunday, March 30, 2014

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Fourth Sunday in Lent (A)

March 30, 2014
Text: John 9:1-41

            The very same miracle that took place in our Holy Gospel we witnessed with our own eyes this morning at the baptismal font.  For as hard as it may be to believe, precious little Astrid, a true daughter of Adam and Eve, was born into this world spiritually blind, and worse, spiritually dead, and an enemy of God.  But the Lord Jesus sought her out, and mixing the Word of His mouth with common, earthly water, He washed her in the cleansing baptismal pool, washed all her sin away and gave her His Holy Spirit, so that her eyes are now open.  Now she can see.  He drowned her spiritually dead sinful nature, her Old Adam, and raised her up a new creation.  He turned her heart from enmity against God, to love for God and faith in Him as her Redeemer.  Notice who did all the work here.  It was Jesus.  Astrid did nothing but receive the water and hear the Word.  It is Jesus who works while it is day, before night comes and no man can work (John 9:4).  He does the work of the Father who sent Him, and the work of His Father is this, that Astrid and the man born blind and you believe in Him whom the Father has sent (John 6:29).
            The word “Siloam” means “sent”.  Jesus is the One sent by the Father to cleanse us from our sins.  Jesus is the true Pool of Siloam in which Astrid and the man in our text and you wash that we may receive spiritual sight which looks to Jesus, the author and perfecter or our faith, who for the joy set before Him in redeeming Astrid and the blind man and you, endured the cross, despising the shame, and is now seated at the right hand of God.  That is to say, the washing our Lord performs on us, washing in Christ, Baptism, gives us eyes to behold Christ crucified for our sins and raised for our justification, to believe and trust that all that He has done He has done for us and for our salvation.  In Baptism, Jesus gives us faith in Himself. 
            Now, to be sure, there was a physical healing that took place in our Holy Gospel.  The man literally was blind, from birth.  And Jesus literally spat on the ground and took mud and put it on the man’s eyes.  And the man went to the actual Pool of Siloam and literally washed in it and he who was once physically blind could now see.  But if that is the only miracle you see in our text, you are as blind as the Pharisees.  For the physical healing, as spectacular as it is, points to something even more significant.  Jesus cured the man of spiritual blindness.  Jesus gave the man faith in his Savior.  He gave the man a faith that could confess Christ even when it brought persecution, expulsion from the Synagogue, the shunning of the community, even abandonment by his own parents.  That’s a miracle.  Who of you would suffer abandonment by your own parents for the sake of Christ?  Most likely you haven’t had to.  But many people have in the history of the Church.  Many still do today.  I’ve met some of them.  God grant us the same faith if we are called upon to suffer such a cross.
            And He will.  Such faith has to come from Him.  He’s the only One who can open our eyes, our eyes that have been spiritually blind from birth.  He’s the only One who can open them so that we see Him as God in the flesh come to save us from our sins, from death, and from eternal damnation.  He does it by pouring out His Spirit upon us, again, in Baptism.  That is what St. Paul writes in his letter to Titus: “he saved us… by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6; ESV).  This is what we confess with Dr. Luther in the Small Catechism, that “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts,” the gifts He pours out on us in the washing of regeneration in Baptism, as well as the precious Word of God and the Supper of Jesus’ Body and Blood.  What does it mean to enlighten but to bring us to see what we once could not see?  When you are surrounded by darkness, you cannot see the perils that surround you.  You cannot know whether you are safe or in danger.  You cannot know if you are on the right path, or if you have strayed.  And you do not know what predators may be stalking you.  The same is true of the spiritual darkness, the blindness in which you were born.  When you are in the dark spiritually, you think you see perfectly, as was the case with the Pharisees in our text.  But you are blissfully unaware of the perils with which you are surrounded.  You cannot see the danger.  You do not understand that the path you are on, paved with good intentions as it may be, is a path to hell.  And you do not see that the devil himself is stalking you, prowling around like a roaring lion, seeking to devour you (1 Peter 5:8).  But when you are washed in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit comes and turns on the Light of His Word, all is exposed.  Now you know the danger.  And the thing about the Lord is, He doesn’t just leave you there to fight your way back to the right path, escape the danger, slay the lion, or any of that.  That would be salvation by works.  No, even as He exposes the danger to you, He swoops you up in His pierced hands and rescues you and sets you on the path of eternal life: Himself.  What does He say in our Old Testament?  “I will lead the blind in a way that they do not know, in paths that they have not known I will guide them.  I will turn the darkness before them into light, the rough places into level ground” (Is. 42:16).  St. Paul points out in our Epistle that you were once utterly lost in the dark.  But no more, now that Christ has rescued you.  “For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Eph. 5:8).
            There is a warning to be heeded here, though.  “Walk as children of the light,” Paul says (v. 8).  “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them” (v. 11).  The warning is this.  While it is true that God does everything in terms of brining you to faith and enlightening you, that you could not by your own strength fight your way out of the darkness, it is also true that you can go back to the darkness any time you want.  But you do so to your own mortal peril.  There are many ways that we flirt with the darkness.  Even we Christians who have been regenerated and renewed by the Holy Spirit.  The old sinful nature in us still stares longingly into the dark.  We stare at the things of this world as if they can make us happy.  We stare at the false god mammon, as if it can fulfill us.  We stare at illicit images on television and computer screens, coveting flesh for selfish satisfaction, exploiting precious human beings for whom Christ died.  We stare into our own heart and bow down before the chief god in our pantheon of idols, the self.  We stare at all of these things, and take our eyes off of Christ crucified.  Beloved, those things are darkness!  It’s all an illusion.  Satan is behind those things ready to pounce.  Repent.  That’s not who you are anymore.  Jesus has saved you from those things, delivering you from the overpowering darkness of evil.  The light only comes from one place.  Jesus Christ is the Light of the world, and He sheds His light abroad in His precious means of grace, the Word and the Sacraments.  Don’t take your eyes off of Christ.  For He has opened your eyes to see only Him.  He has given you sight.  He has raised you up from the dead and given you life, as we heard in our Epistle: Christ says to you, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (v. 14). 

            As with the man born blind, the Lord Jesus comes to you right where you are in your blindness, bringing with Him His healing, salvation, and life.  As with little Astrid this morning, the Lord Jesus comes to you right where you are in your helplessness, as an infant, anointing you with His saliva (His Word) and the stuff of this earth (water from the tap, thin and sticky wafers of bread, and wine from regular earthly grapes).  And all at once what was common is now holy and full of Christ.  It brings you healing and forgiveness.  He washes you and you are clean from the guilt of your transgressions.  He washes you and you can see.  And what you see is this: He has rescued you from sin.  He has rescued you from death.  He has rescued you from that roaring old serpent, the devil.  And He has made you His own, covered you in His blood, anointed you with His Spirit, made you God’s own child.  If you don’t think that’s a miracle, that you have come to see all this, just take a look around you in the world.  Most people, even religious people, think such grace on the part of God laughable, a scandal, a great big joke.  But you see what they cannot.  Not because you are any better than they are.  You, too, were once darkness.  No, it is simply because of this: Jesus Christ has opened your eyes.  Now you are light in the Lord.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.            

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Third Sunday in Lent

Third Sunday in Lent (A)

March 23, 2014
Text: John 4:5-30, 39-42

            It is a recurring theme in Holy Scripture: marriages are made at the well.  Just this past week in Bible Study we witnessed Abraham’s servant find a godly wife, Rebekah, for Isaac, that the promise of Abraham’s Seed through whom all the nations would be blessed be carried forward through Isaac’s line (Gen. 24).  You’ve also been reading that account this week if you use the Treasury of Daily Prayer for your devotions.  Isaac’s son Jacob, whom God would later name Israel, likewise met his wife Rachel at a well (Gen. 29).  Moses met his wife Zipporah at a well (Ex. 2).  Now, to be sure, our Lord Jesus is not interested in making a marriage with the Samaritan woman in our Holy Gospel, though marriage is a rather important, albeit incidental, topic of the discussion.  Still, there is something coming to fulfillment here at Jacob’s well to which all the other wells and marriage-matches point in testimony.  Our Lord is not looking for carnal marriage with the woman at the well.  But as a Bridegroom, the Lord Jesus, by the living water of His Word, has come to incorporate this Samaritan woman as a member of His holy Bride, the Church. 
            Jesus meets sinners at the well.  Jesus meets us at the water.  He meets us at the font.  And there He does for us what He did for the Samaritan woman.  He meets us in mercy and incorporates us into the Body of His Bride, the Church.  “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5; ESV), Jesus said to us last week.  He was speaking of Holy Baptism, where water is joined to God’s Word, by God’s command, and in this way becomes a life-giving, sin-cleansing, Spirit and faith bestowing water by which God writes His Name on you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and makes you His child.  He meets you at the well, right there at the font, to make you His own.  And He starts by drowning your unbelieving and incapable of believing sinful flesh.  The Old Adam in you must be drowned and die with all sin and evil desires.  It happens in Baptism, and it will continue to happen each and every day as you live your Christian life in your Baptism.  It is a daily thing, this drowning.  We call it repentance.  Jesus accomplishes this in you by pointing out your need.  He does this by making demands of you that you cannot keep.  In other words, He preaches His holy Law, so that by looking in the mirror of the holy Law you will recognize your sin, your lack, and realize just how badly you need what Jesus comes to give you.  So, for example, Jesus says to the woman at the well, “Give me a drink” (John 4:7).  The request is simple enough on the face of it.  But it leads to a discussion whereby Jesus shows the woman a greater need within herself than simple physical thirst.  She needs living water, water which, when you drink it, you never thirst again.  And if she knew who it was who was asking her for a drink, she would have turned the question around.  She would have asked Him.  Because only He can give this living water.  And what is that?  It is His life-giving Word.  It is the Gospel.  It is that which Jesus pours out upon us at the well in Baptism, in Scripture and preaching, and in the Supper of His Body and Blood.  It is that which raises us out of death to new life in Christ.  It is the forgiveness of sins.  It is eternal salvation.  It is the Spirit of the living God.  It is the water that takes root in a person and becomes an ever flowing spring, a living faith in Jesus Christ that wells up to eternal life, that then spills over in works of love toward the neighbor.
            The disciples, and the woman herself, for that matter, think it an astonishing thing that Jesus is speaking to a Samaritan woman, and one who has a reputation, at that.  To be sure, this woman is a notorious sinner.  Jesus gently points this out.  Divorce, and living together outside of marriage: sins, in spite of what our culture teaches us.  “Go, call your husband,” He says, innocently enough (v. 16).  But He knows what He is doing.  He is leading her to confess her sins.  Again, He is putting to death her Old Adam, the sinful nature, the flesh.  “I have no husband,” she replies (v. 17).  “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband.  What you have said is true” (v. 18).  Notice that Jesus is gentle with this poor sinner, and yet, He does not ignore the sin.  He does not allow her to go on living dishonestly.  She must come face to face with the sin, so that it can be dealt with in such a way that it no longer destroys her and others.  Love demands that Jesus state the matter plainly.  Love demands that Jesus proclaim the Law.  But He doesn’t do this to condemn or to shun the sinner.  He always does it for the sake of proclaiming the Gospel.  He kills so that He can make alive.  He brings this poor woman to the realization of her thirst, of her mortal dehydration, that He may give her the living water of forgiveness and restoration and life eternal.  “(T)he hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (v. 23).  The hour is coming and is now here when the true worshipers will worship the Father by the new birth of water and the Spirit; by Spirit-given faith in the Son, Jesus Christ; by believing the living water of Jesus’ Word.  The hour is coming.  And the hour is now here.  It is here in Jesus.  “I know that Messiah is coming… When he comes, he will tell us all things” (v. 25).  Indeed.  And here He is.  “Jesus said to her, ‘I who speak to you am he’” (v. 26).  No, you miss the full force of it in that English translation.  Here is what the text really says: “Jesus is saying to her, ‘I AM, the One who is speaking to you’” (translation mine).  I AM, YHWH, right here, in the flesh, come to give living water to the thirsty, righteousness to sinners, life to the dead.  Jesus comes to the well… God comes to the well, to meet the sinful Samaritan woman and take her as His Bride, make her a member of His holy Church. 
            And that is what He does for you.  It is an astonishing thing that Jesus would want to hang out with a sinner like you, take you to Himself, and make you His own.  But He does.  That is His mercy.  That is His love.  He meets you at the well.  He drowns you in Baptism.  He drowns your sinful flesh by the preaching of His Law.  He does not let you go on living the lie… you know, that you’re basically a good person.  He does not let you go on destroying yourself and others in unrepentant sin.  He makes you confront the fact that you are a poor, miserable sinner.  He brings your sin out in the open where it can be dealt with by the forgiveness of sins, by the application of His precious blood which atones for your sin.  And He raises you up out of the water to new life, His resurrection life, the Christian life, the Baptismal life of repentance and faith, death and resurrection, a life in Christ who was crucified for your sins and has been raised from the dead, from whom your whole life flows.  He meets you at the well.  He takes you for Himself.  He makes you a member of His holy Bride, the Church.  St. Paul describes the love of Christ for His Bride this way: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25-27).  What is true for the Church is true for you.  Christ loved you and gave Himself up for you, that He might sanctify you, having cleansed you by the washing of water with the word (which is to say, Baptism), so that He might present you to Himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that you might be holy and without blemish, sins washed away, robed in the righteousness of the Savior, crowned with His glory, radiant with His holiness.

            Christ fashions a Bride for Himself from His riven side.  Sleeping the deep sleep of death on the cross, the side of our new Adam is opened by a spear, and out pour water and blood.  The water from His side fills the font.  The blood from His side fills the chalice.  And the Church comes to life.  And here we understand that Jesus Himself is the well from which we receive this living water.  He is the Rock Moses struck in our Old Testament reading (Ex. 17:1-7), from which water flowed for God’s people.  St. Paul comments on this very account: “all drank the same spiritual drink.  For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:4).  Our Rock was struck on the cross.  Our Adam’s side was riven on the tree.  And out poured water and blood.  “For there are three that testify,” St. John writes: “the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree” (1 John 5:7).  These flow from the well that is Christ.  His living Word through which the Spirit testifies, the water of Holy Baptism, the Blood poured out for you on the cross and poured down your throat in the Sacrament.  Jesus meets you at the well.  Jesus is the well.  And in Him a marriage is made.  You are His and He is yours.  And because you belong to Him, you will never have to thirst again.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.               

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Second Sunday in Lent

Second Sunday in Lent (A)

March 16, 2014
Text: John 3:1-17

            Many people, even Christians, think of God primarily as Judge.  As he was growing up, Martin Luther and the majority of Christians in the Middle Ages looked upon Christ as a stern Judge who beheld poor sinners with nothing but wrath and condemnation.  Well, Luther came around on that, thanks be to God.  He came to understand that Gospel as Jesus proclaims it to us this morning: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17; ESV).  The Lord Jesus looks upon us poor sinners in mercy, in grace, with the forgiveness of sins.  But it is tempting even for Christians today, even for you Lutherans who know the precious Gospel of forgiveness and life in Christ, to think of your various sufferings and afflictions as God’s punishment, as His judgment against your sin.  “I must have done something to anger God,” you think.  “I must be paying for my sins.”  Which, of course, is utter nonsense.  Because as you know Jesus paid for all your sins on the cross.  He paid with His suffering, with His blood, with His death.  He paid your debt in full.  There is nothing more to be paid.  God’s wrath has been spent on Him.  The Son of God did not come into our flesh on a mission of wrath, but on a mission of mercy.  “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (v. 16). 
            That is not to say our sin is undeserving of God’s wrath.  Far from it.  It took the blood and death of the Son of God to pay for your sin.  A righteous and holy God cannot abide sin.  He cannot simply ignore it.  If He did, He would be neither righteous nor holy.  God had to do something about our sin if He wanted to save us.  So He did.  He sent Jesus.  The cross of Christ is the intersection where God’s love and justice meet.  For there on the cross, in the body of His only-begotten Son, God punishes our sin in justice.  And there on the cross, in the body of His only-begotten Son, God pours out His love for us poor sinners, to save us.  So now we need not die.  So now we are not condemned.  For Jesus has been condemned and died in our place.  Now there is eternal life and salvation, heaven for all who believe in Christ.  Believe it and it is yours.  It really is that simple.  Christ Jesus who died for you is now risen from the dead, and He gives you that life of His, that life that has conquered death and hell, freely, distributed in His Word and the Sacraments, received by faith in Christ.
            It doesn’t make sense, though, does it?  Free grace is a scandal.  Surely I must do something.  Surely in some way I must be worth it to God.  And if that means I have to pay with a little penance, a little suffering, or do a few extra good works, then so be it.  Not so, dear Christian!  For to see grace as anything but free is to reject Christ and His sacrifice for you.  That was Nicodemus’ problem when he came to Jesus by night for fear of his colleagues in the Sanhedrin.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee.  These were, of course, the guys who were really good at doing good works, preserving an outwardly pristine life, and thinking that in this way they were justifying themselves before God.  The Pharisees also believed that if someone is suffering, it must be because they or their parents committed some grave sin for which God is punishing them.  The disciples thought that about the man born blind: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” (John 9:2).  When we think this way about ourselves or others, we show ourselves to be as misguided as the Pharisees and the disciples.  Jesus puts such thinking to rest: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (9:3). 
            It is the nature of the Pharisee, like Nicodemus, to think that somehow he must earn his standing before God.  It’s the nature of the Pharisee, like you, to think that you must pay some price for your sin.  You can’t.  There is nothing you can do to appease God’s wrath.  There is nothing you can do to earn God’s favor.  And thank God, you don’t have to.  For God so loved you that He sent His only-begotten Son to take your sin to the cross and die for it.  God so loved you that He did not leave His Son in death, but raised Him from the dead, that He might give you eternal life.  Do you want what Jesus has to give you?  Just believe it.  It is already yours.  Amazing!  Incredible!  And totally opposed to your fallen reason.  That is why Luther has you confess in the Small Catechism, “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.”  To believe this, as our Lord says in our Holy Gospel, you must be born again, or as it is better translated, born from above.  “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again,” born from above, “he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). 
            Nicodemus does not understand what Jesus is talking about.  What a ridiculous statement.  “How can a man be born when he is old?  Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (v. 4).  We don’t understand it either.  Unlike Nicodemus, perhaps, we know that Jesus is not talking here about a physical rebirth.  But we think that somehow we have to make ourselves be born again by making a decision for Jesus, surrendering our lives to Him, dedicating ourselves to living a Christian life.  But when you make faith your effort, when you think you are born again, not from above, from God, but from your own striving, you are a Pharisee.  Don’t you see?  Faith is a gift!  It is God’s gift to you!  You cannot make yourself be born again spiritually any more than you made yourself be born physically.  Utter nonsense.  God brought you forth from your mother’s womb.  And God your heavenly Father gives birth to you spiritually, bringing forth living faith in Jesus Christ.  He does it by His Spirit, in His means of grace. 
            Jesus singles out Baptism in our text.  That is why you have the baptismal shell on the front of your bulletin, with the three drops of water for Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the Name with which God has named you, into whom you’ve been baptized.  “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (v. 5).  To be born again, from above, of the Spirit, is to be baptized.  There at the font, where water is joined to God’s Word, by His command, the Spirit is given to you.  And the Spirit gives you faith in Jesus Christ as a gift.  That is why babies are baptized.  Because we cannot reason with them.  We cannot reason them into the faith.  They have no idea what we’re talking about.  So we simply baptize them, as God has commanded us to do for all nations (Matt. 28:19) of which babies are a part, and we trust that God will do in Baptism what He has promised, namely, give birth to them from above by His Spirit, giving them faith in Jesus Christ.  And in truth, that is why we baptize adults as well.  For we cannot reason adults into faith, either.  Reason is fallen and corrupt, opposed to faith in Christ.  And so, as our Lord says elsewhere, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15).  That is to say, faith is simply trust, like a newborn who trusts Mom for food and protection and care and love, who cries out to Mom in every need, who rejoices and is comforted when Mom speaks.  That is you before your Father in heaven, a newborn from above, baptized into Christ, born of the Spirit.

            There are, to be sure, sufferings and afflictions to be borne in this life.  You do not understand them any better than a newborn understands the new world into which she has entered, what it is that is happening to her, why it is happening to her, and why some things are so unpleasant, why some things hurt.  God could explain it all to you, but you would be as uncomprehending as a newborn.  Go ahead and cry out to God like a newborn when you hurt.  But also trust that everything God does He does for your good.  He is not punishing you.  Your punishment happened at the cross, where the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, was lifted up like the serpent on the pole.  He was lifted up in your place.  He was lifted up as the standard of your sin and death, that when you look upon Him there in faith, you be healed of your mortal illness, sin.  When you look upon Him there in faith, when you believe in Him, you have eternal life.  This is how God loves the world.  This is how God loves you.  He gave His Son, that you might be His own child.  And you are.  In Baptism, God has written His Name on you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.         

Sunday, March 09, 2014

First Sunday in Lent

First Sunday in Lent (A)

March 9, 2014
Text: Matt. 4:1-11

            It was, after all, a small thing, wasn’t it?  Just a tiny morsel, a bite of fruit.  Eve really did think it would make her life better.  As the serpent had pointed out, it would open her eyes so that she would know good and evil, determine what is good and what is evil for herself, and so become like God.  And who wouldn’t want to be like God?  Adam… well, if he could become like God AND please his wife in the process, why not?  Just a little bite of fruit that is pleasing to the eye and good for food.  God couldn’t be against that, could He?  And the serpent had made another good point: “Did God actually say…” (Gen. 3:1; ESV)?  Where does the letter of the Law meet the spirit of the Law?  If God had all the information we have, what would He actually want us to do?  And if He would withhold this thing from us, this object of our desire, then is His Law really good, anyway?  Is God really good?  Who is to say?  And that is the war that rages in your heart, dear Christian, every time the tempter and his minions come knocking, whispering their seductive words of doubt and unbelief into your all-too-willing ears and minds and souls.  Did God really say…?  Does God really mean…?  Who does God think He is, anyway? 
            It worked on our first parents, and now it’s in our genes, so to speak, a defect, a corruption so deep it infects every one of us to our very core: original sin we call it in theology, rebellion against God.  It is a disposition, a disease with which are born, the mortal illness of unbelief, spiritual blindness, spiritual death, and hatred of God.  Because we’d rather be our own gods.  We worship ourselves.  We serve ourselves.  It is even a commonly accepted cultural proverb taught to every school child: Believe in yourself!  Be true to yourself!  Follow your heart!  You know what that is?  Idolatry.  But we’re blind to it.  The devil has us bamboozled.  We’ve totally bought into the lie.  And the serpent has sold us a false set of goods.  For now we call evil good, and good evil.  We call sin virtue, and virtue sin.  We call false doctrine tolerance, and are intolerant of the truth.  We’ve been deceived and we don’t even know it.  We’re in slavery and we think we are free.  We look upon freedom from sin as slavery.  It is not simply that we cannot free ourselves from the cold grasp of the evil one, from death, from sin… It’s that we don’t want to!  For so deeply has the corruption taken hold of our nature, our will is bound in spiritual matters.  That’s what it means to be spiritually dead.  You can do nothing about it.  Like a corpse laying on the floor, you can do nothing to make yourself come alive.
            Jesus has to do it.  That’s the only way.  Jesus has to come and undo all that Adam has done and all that you and I have done.  Jesus has to come into our human nature, into our flesh, and undo the corruption, the sin, the death, the rebellion against God.  So that’s what He does.  The Son of God becomes a man, flesh of our flesh, born of the Virgin Mary.  He comes to St. John in the River Jordan and is baptized into us, into our sin, becoming our stand in.  And then immediately the Spirit drives Him out into the wilderness to do battle with the old evil foe.  The devil uses the same tactics with Jesus that he used with Adam and Eve, that he uses with us.  “Did God really say…?  Jesus, did God really say of you, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’ (Matt. 3:17)?  Well, then, let’s prove it.  ‘If you are the Son of God…’ (4:3; emphasis added), wouldn’t Your Father want You to eat and be satisfied?  Really, Jesus, 40 days and 40 nights of fasting?  What kind of a God would want You to undergo such misery?  What kind of a God would withhold from You the basic necessities of life?  ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread’ (v. 3).  It’s just a small thing, after all.  Just a tiny morsel to relieve Your hunger…”  Do you see how this is the Garden of Eden all over again?  Do you see how this is you every time you are tempted to sin?  Jesus is fighting your battle for you, in your place, taking on your enemy where the enemy has home field advantage.  And, by the way, remember, Jesus is true man.  This is a real temptation.  The writer to the Hebrews reminds us of this.  “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15).  Jesus doesn’t get a pass just because He’s God.  This isn’t easy for Jesus.  Temptation is just as difficult for Him as it is for us.  But the advantage He has is that He isn’t infected with original sin.  He has no human father.  God is His Father.  And so His will is not bound.  He’s able to do battle, to resist the devil, to stand firm in the time of temptation. 
            And what does He do, our Savior, in His battle against serpent?  Where the devil speaks his blasphemous question, “Did God really say…?” Jesus responds with a “Thus saith the LORD!”  He quotes the Scriptures!  “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matt. 4:4).  He doesn’t interpret His way around God’s Word.  He speaks it faithfully to the devil.  And that Word is powerful.  It thwarts the devil’s onslaughts and rescues the one suffering temptation.  It is no accident that St. Paul calls God’s Word “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph. 6:17).  Along with prayer, it is our only offensive weapon against the spiritual powers of darkness.  We do have to be careful with this, though.  Quotation of Holy Scripture is not some magic formula.  In our weakness, we can quote Scripture and still fall into sin.  And the devil, of course, knows the Holy Scriptures better than we do.  He can quote Scripture chapter and verse and put a spin on it that will lead you to sin and think you’re doing God a favor in the process.  There we are back to calling evil good and good evil.  It happens to us insofar as the corruption of the sinful nature still clings to us, even though it has ultimately been put to death in Baptism.  That’s why we need Jesus to fight this battle for us.  He recognizes the devil’s lies for what they are.  He is not led astray.
            When Satan does quote Scripture to Jesus, urging Him to throw Himself off the pinnacle of the temple, he leaves out a very important part of the passage.  He quotes most of Psalm 91:11-12: “He will command his angels concerning you… On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone” (Matt. 4:6).  But he leaves out the middle section.  Psalm 91:11 in its fullness says, “he will command his angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways” (emphasis added).  What ways?  The ways God has commanded.  The ways of faithfulness.  The ways of our Lord’s saving mission of death and resurrection for sinners.  If Jesus deviates from that by falling for this or any other temptation of the devil, that’s the end of it.  And here we gain an insight into how the devil uses Scripture.  He’s very happy to quote the Bible, but he leaves things out.  He adds other things.  It all sounds good and right to our fallen and easily deceived ears.  But it’s deadly.  You’ve undoubtedly heard the old adage that you can quote the Scriptures in support of anything.  And it’s true, as long as you add and subtract and take things out of context.  Oh, the devil is a master at this art.  So be on your guard.  Know the Holy Scriptures.  And rejoice that even when you do get tripped up by the deceiver, Jesus didn’t.  He was faithful.  For you.  And His faithfulness counts for you.
            Well, the last temptation recorded in our Holy Gospel puts the whole thing in perspective.  The devil shows Jesus the glory of all the kingdoms of the world, from all times and places in one single glance, and he promises Jesus that if he just does one little thing, he can have it all.  “Just fall down and worship me,” he says (Matt. 4:9).  “Just one time.  Just this one tiny little thing.  And you won’t have to undergo the cross and suffering.  You won’t have to die.  There is an easier way than the Father’s plan.”  And here the devil betrays himself.  This is the very nature of his original rebellion against God.  He thinks he should be god.  And so the root of all rebellion against God, all sin, is idolatry.  It is a First Commandment issue.  You and I, Adam and Eve, the devil himself, we all have other gods before the one true God.  Ourselves!  And the people and things that we put before God.  We reject Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in favor of ourselves and our pleasure and the stuff we think we deserve.  Repent. 

            Jesus doesn’t do that.  Jesus is faithful.  He will not fall before the devil.  He will not bow the knee.  “Be gone, Satan!  For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve’” (v. 10).  The devil will not be Jesus’ god, for Jesus is the God of the devil.  And He has come in the flesh to crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15).  He has come to be faithful in our place, to resist temptation, to be our righteousness in fulfilling God’s holy Law, to suffer for our sin on the cross, and to be raised on the third day for our justification and eternal life.  And now He rules all things in a way the devil could never give Him.  He sits at the right hand of the Father and He reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit for all eternity.  He reigns for us, as our King, to bring us to Himself in heaven.  And now even the devil can’t touch us.  Well, sure he can tempt us.  But he cannot harm us.  Not in any lasting way.  Because we belong to Jesus who has triumphed over the devil in His fasting and temptation, in His agony and bloody sweat, in His crucifixion and death, and in His bodily resurrection from the dead.  And so “Thus saith the LORD!”: “On account of Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins.  In Baptism, you are my son with whom I am well pleased.  The Kingdom is yours and you have eternal life.  For you, dear Christian, belong to me.  And you will never be a slave to that serpentine tyrant again.  My Son has set you free, and if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed (John 8:36).”  God has spoken.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.                 

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany (A)

February 23, 2014
Text: Matthew 5:38-48

            Do not resist the one who is evil.  Turn the other cheek.  Give the one who sues you more than he’s asking of the court.  Give to beggars.  Lend generously.  Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  It’s a tall order Jesus gives us this morning.  “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48; ESV).  We’ve learned a thing or two about holiness and righteousness in the past couple of weeks, though, as we’ve heard and meditated upon our Lord’s sermon on the mount.  And we know that our holiness and righteousness does not come as a result of our doing God’s commandments.  Our holiness and righteousness come in Jesus.  He is holy.  He is righteous.  And He gives this holiness and righteousness to us freely, as a gift, in His Word and in His Sacraments, to be received by the empty hands of faith.  So also our perfection.  We are to be perfect, as our heavenly Father is perfect.  Well, that’s impossible for us in and of ourselves.  But Christ Jesus is perfect, as His heavenly Father is perfect.  He is sinless.  He loves God with all His heart, soul, mind, and strength.  He loves His neighbor as Himself, in fact, more than Himself.  And He imparts His perfection to us poor sinners just as He imparts His holiness and righteousness, by grace, through faith, by means of His holy Word and Sacraments.  That’s a joyful and freeing thing to know.  You don’t become holy, righteous, or perfect by doing, but simply by being in Christ who died for your sins and who is risen from the dead to give you new life. 
            But you have not been freed to become a slave again to sin and death.  Things change now that you are in Christ.  There are things that Christians do and don’t do because you are a Christian; not to be saved, but because you have been saved; not to become holy, righteous, and perfect, but because in Christ God has declared you to be holy, righteous, and perfect.  You’re a new person.  And as such you are no longer enslaved to the desire for vengeance against your enemies.  You are no longer enslaved to the desire to protect your life and property at all costs.  You are no longer enslaved to living for yourself.  For you have been made a son of God in THE Son of God, Christ Jesus (v. 45).  You are a son of God in your Baptism into Christ.  And the son is not a slave.  The son is free.  You are free to sacrifice yourself for your neighbor.  You are free to give yourself up for your neighbor, as Christ gave Himself up for you.  For after all, as a son of God, what can possibly be taken from you that will not be repaid in overflowing abundance?  What can you possibly lack?  As St. Paul says, all things are yours in Christ Jesus (1 Cor. 3:21-23).  And what do you have that you did not receive (4:7)?  God has given you your life and breath and all that you have that it may be given to and for your neighbor in love.  And you will never be expended.  For God is an unfailing fountain of good who continuously fills you with Himself and with all that you need, so that the more you give, the more you receive, here in this life, perhaps, but if not, most certainly in heaven.
            So you are free NOT to exact an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth (Matt. 5:38).  You are free to suffer at the hands of one who is evil (v. 39), to rejoice and be glad when you are persecuted and slandered for righteousness’ sake, for your reward is great in heaven (vv. 10-12).  You are free to turn the other cheek toward one who has slapped you on the right (v. 39).  You are free to give the shirt off your back to one who sues you (v. 40), to labor diligently for one who forces you, doing more than is expected, to give, to lend liberally with no expectation of repayment (v. 41).  For all things are yours in Christ Jesus, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (1 Cor. 3:23).  You do not do the things you do to gain an advantage.  That is what the pagans do.  Unbelievers understand that they must treat others as they wish to be treated if society is to work and if they are to gain the goodwill and favor of their neighbors.  But you do what you do as an emissary of the King, as a son of the Father.  After all, if all things are yours in Christ, what possible advantage can you gain that you do not already have?  You do the things you do out of love, because Christ has loved you unto His death on the cross.  You do the things you do because the love of Christ flows through you to your neighbor.  “We love because he first loved us,” as St. John writes (1 John 4:19).  Beloved, you are the hands and feet of Christ in the world as you love and serve and sacrifice in your daily vocations, your relationships, your place in life.  And like your Lord, you are crucified, you die for the sake of the other.  You are free to do this very thing.  For Christ has died, and He is risen from the dead, and lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit forever, and you are baptized into Christ, and so His reality is your reality.  He will raise you, too.  Death has no power over you when you are in Christ.
            Remember, His righteousness is your righteousness.  His fulfilling of the Law is your fulfilling of the Law.  For what He has done counts for you.  And so where you have not loved your enemies and prayed for those who persecuted you, where you have not forgiven as God has forgiven you, where you have not turned the other cheek, given the shirt off your back, served, given, loved with everything in you and with everything that is you… He has.  For you.  He did not resist the one who was evil, but gave Himself into the hands of the Jewish guards, though at any moment He could have appealed to His Father, who would have at once sent twelve legions of angels to defend Him (Matt. 26:53).  He gave Himself into the hands of the Sanhedrin, King Herod, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate.  As the Prophet Isaiah writes, He gave His back to those who strike, His cheeks to those who pull out the beard; He hid not His face from disgrace and spitting (Is. 50:6).  The soldiers forced Him to walk and bear their load, His own cross, to Golgotha, where they stripped Him naked, nailed Him to the cross, and cast lots for His clothing.  Freely He gave His all, His everything, for you who could not repay.  So greatly did He love you, His enemies, that He gave Himself into death on the cross, praying for His persecutors, praying for you, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).  So all of these things Jesus commands you today in the Holy Gospel He did for you, in your place, to your credit, and for your benefit, “that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 5:45). 
            When, in our Old Testament reading (Lev. 19:1-2, 9-18), God commands His people: “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (v. 2), this is not an admonition to do the things that He commands and thus become holy by your own effort.  We know that would never work.  No, this is a promise grounded in the very identity of your God.  You shall be holy.  Really, you will.  And you are.  How?  Because I, the LORD your God, am holy, and I have placed my Name upon you and made you my own by the blood of Jesus Christ, God in human flesh.  So I give you my holiness.  It is a gift in Christ.  And now here is how you are to act, now that you’ve received my Name and my own holiness.  You are to love your neighbor.  You are to leave the gleanings for the poor.  You are not to steal or deal falsely or lie.  You are not to oppress or rob your neighbor, withhold wages, curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind.  You are not to do injustice in court, nor are you to hate your neighbor in your heart, take vengeance or bear a grudge against him.  Why?  Again and again in our Old Testament, God gives you the reason.  “I am the LORD” (vv. 10, 12, 14, 16, 18).  You belong to me.  I have given you my holiness.  So do not do those things.  Instead, love, serve, give, sacrifice.  Have mercy, for you have been shown mercy.

            And what about those times that you haven’t lived according to the holiness the Lord has given you?  What about all those grudges you’ve harbored, goods you’ve hoarded, lies you’ve told, and vengeances you’ve taken?  Repent.  And rejoice in the gracious Good News that Jesus has done it for you, and He’s taken all your not doing it and paid the penalty for your sin on the cross.  You are forgiven.  You are free.  You are God’s dear child.  All things are yours in Christ Jesus.  And so you are perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.  For Christ is your perfection.  You are Christ’s.  And Christ is God’s.  Which means you belong to God.  Do not fear.  Rejoice.  You are baptized into Christ.  Therefore yours is the Kingdom of Heaven.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.       

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany

Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (A)

February 16, 2014
Text: Matt. 5:21-37

            “You have heard… But I say to you…”  We sinners are very good at hearing God’s Law differently than He speaks it.  The Pharisees and the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day heard the Law as something that could be kept, with great effort to be sure, but it was possible for those of superior character and religiosity… you know, like they were.  But for them the Law was strictly an outward matter, as we heard last week.  They were only concerned with outward behavior.  They were not concerned with the disposition of the heart.  The Pharisees were also very good at changing God’s Law.  Jesus illustrates this point with regard to the 4th Commandment: “Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother’; and ‘whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’  But you say, ‘If a man tells his father or his mother, “Whatever you would have gained from me is Corban”’ (that is, given to God) – then you no longer permit him to do anything for his father or mother, thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down” (Mark 7:10-13; ESV).  So you see there is a difference between what the Pharisees heard and what God actually said.  The Word of God is changed as a matter of interpretation.  If giving money to provide for older parents is good, giving it to God is even better, or so the thinking goes.  So we’ve improved upon God’s Commandment.  And while it is easy for us to sit here in the pew and condemn the Pharisees, the truth of the matter is that we do the same thing.  God said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24), but who are we to judge the actions of two (or nowadays, more) consenting adults, be they men and women, or men and men, or women and women?  Who are we to judge the way another treats his or her own body?  Who are we to judge a husband and wife for whom the flame of love has died if they tear asunder what God has joined together?  It is more loving to live and let live, to be, not just tolerant, but affirming.  After all, God is love (1 John 8).  Which He is, but of course, what that really means is that in love God has given us His Commandments for our good.  But we interpret our way out of them.  We rationalize or emotionalize God’s Commandments in such a way that any and all outward behavior is excused and even justified.  And so there are two ways that we hear God’s Law wrong.  There is the way of the Pharisees, legalism, which is concerned only with outward behavior and cares not about the disposition of the heart.  Or there is the way which is much more prevalent in our culture, moral relativism, the way that says anything goes in terms of outward behavior, because all that matters is warm fuzzies in the heart, all that matters is that you are fulfilled, happy, and true to yourself.  At the end of the day, both approaches are the same.  Pharisees and libertines, legalists and moral relativists, both attempt to manage the Law in such a way as to declare themselves righteous.  Both seek self-justification, either by moralism, or by lawlessness.
            But that’s not Christianity.  That is why Jesus ups the ante in our Holy Gospel.  You have heard the Law preached in many and various ways, but Jesus preaches it in all its unyielding truth.  Jesus gives it to you straight.  The Ten Commandments leave no breathing room.  God expects you not to murder.  There are no exceptions here for unwanted pregnancies, vigilante justice, or excruciating terminal illnesses.  But even if you have kept this Commandment outwardly, you haven’t yet kept it.  For when you have been filled with unrighteous anger toward your neighbor, when you have insulted him or called him names, when you’ve refused to forgive his trespasses against you, you have broken the 5th Commandment.  St. John writes that “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer” (1 John 3:15).  If you do not love your brother as yourself, you have murdered him in your heart.  If you can help your brother in physical need but don’t, if you embitter your neighbor’s life by your words and actions, if you injure your neighbor physically or emotionally, you have murdered him.  No one walks away free from this Commandment.  And the Sixth Commandment is the same.  God expects you not to commit adultery.  To be sure, this means that you shall not physically cheat on your spouse.  He also expects husbands and wives to remain faithful to their marriage vows until death parts them, and so He forbids divorce, with only very narrow exceptions to that rule.  But here God also expects sexual purity in thought, word, desire, and deed.  This prohibits all forms of unchastity, fornication, sex before marriage, living together outside of marriage, prostitution, pornography, homosexuality.  It should go without saying, and yet it cannot go without saying: Christians do not engage in such behaviors.  If you do, repent.  Confess and be absolved.  Let’s talk, you and I, about how to make the situation right.  But even if you have not offended against this Commandment outwardly, you still aren’t free.  For Jesus says that even to look at another person with lust is to commit adultery with him or her in your heart (v. 28).  And we’re all nailed to the wall.  We’ve all broken this Commandment, too.  Jesus also gives instruction on the 8th Commandment, that a Christian’s yes ought to be yes, and your no, no.  There are times when you must take an oath before God, such as in court or when you get married, whenever your neighbor’s welfare demands it, but this should only be in very serious circumstances.  A Christian’s words should always be truthful even without an oath.  How many empty promises do we make?  Sure, I’ll do this or that.  Sure, I’ll be there at this time.  And we have no intention of following through, or we lose that intention somewhere along the way.  And so you see, once again we’re all nailed.  We’ve all sinned.  Repent. 
            But dealing with this sin is going to take a whole lot more than a simple outward reformation of life.  For your outward behavior is symptomatic of the condition of your heart.  Jesus is interested in your heart.  That’s where the disease is.  Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, etc. (Matt. 15:19).  Defeating sin is not as simple as gouging out your eye or cutting off your hand.  Amputate all your limbs and appendages and you’ll still be a sinner.  Because what you really need is a new heart.  “Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Ps. 51:10).  What you really need is a heart transplant, a bona fide death and resurrection.  And that is what you get with Jesus, His death and His resurrection for you, and your death and resurrection in His.  A great exchange takes place for you in Christ.  Jesus takes your murderous, unforgiving, adulterous, dishonest, and unfaithful heart into Himself.  And He gives you His sacrificial life, His faithfulness, His truthfulness, His love, so that these are credited to your account.  He takes all your sins to the cross to be crucified and die with Him.  And now they can never count against you.   He gives all of His sinless body parts to redeem all of your sinful body parts.  He gives His eye, His hand, His whole Body into death and hell for you, that you might have life and heaven.  He who knew no sin became sin for you, that you might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). 
            And though you have been unfaithful, your Bridegroom, Jesus, does not divorce you.  He gives Himself up for you to make you holy, cleansing you by the washing of water and the Word, to present you to Himself in splendor, as a Bride adorned for her Husband, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, holy and without blemish (Eph. 5:25-27).  The risen Lord Jesus bestows His righteousness and His resurrection life upon His Bride, the Church, you.  And so in spite of what you have heard from the world, from society, from the culture, even from false Christian teachers, you listen only to the voice of your Beloved Savior.  You do not try to justify yourself.  You do not try to earn your righteousness by your outward keeping of the Law.  You do not excuse your sinful behavior, or seek Jesus’ tolerance and acceptance of your sin.  Instead, you confess it.  You confess the hidden wickedness of your heart to the One who alone can make you clean and new.  You confess it into His tomb where it is buried forever, forgiven, never to be resurrected.  You say “Amen” to your Lord’s killing and condemning Law, because you know that He slays you only to raise you to new life, that you may say “Amen” to His life-giving Gospel.  You have heard many and various things from many and various voices in the world.  But you also know the one and only voice of truth, the voice of Jesus Christ.  Let all that is not of Him be put to silence.  For He is your God.  His Word is your life.  His Word bespeaks you righteous.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.             

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (A)

February 9, 2014
Text: Matt. 5:13-20

            “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20; ESV).  Well, on the face of it, it seems like we might as well just give up and resign ourselves to eternal condemnation.  The Scribes and the Pharisees, these were the guys who knew every jot and tittle, every iota and dot of the Law, and meticulously kept every detail.  So how on earth is my righteousness, your righteousness, to be greater than theirs?  After all, you and I know our sins.  And Jesus knows them even better than we do.  There are times when we may regard our neighbor with pharisaical pride.  In fact, we love to do this.  We love to revel in another person’s sins and faults and weaknesses.  We love to gossip about them.  We smirk with delight in the knowledge that we are better than they are.  And then the unforgiving mirror of God’s Law shows us the hideous truth of our condition.  Our gossip betrays us.  We are not better than our neighbor.  We are not holier.  For every finger we point at another, ten thousand fingers of the Law are pointing back.  Righteousness exceeding that of the Scribes and Pharisees?  Hardly.  We are not righteous at all.  We are, as we confess, by nature sinful and unclean, constantly sinning against God and our neighbor in thought, word, and deed. 
            Jesus knows that, and thanks be to God our righteousness is not determined by our conduct or our disposition or our piety.  Our righteousness is in no way determined by our keeping of the Law.  Christ Jesus is our righteousness.  And it is in that way, and that way only, that our righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees.  The Scribes and the Pharisees put on a pretty good show.  They were really good at outwardly keeping the Law.  Humanly speaking, these were the upstanding citizens, good Christian folk, morally blameless, advocates of traditional values.  They talked a good talk.  They walked a good walk.  All of which is fine and good.  But it does not count as righteousness before God.  For as St. James reminds us, “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10).  There is no breathing room when it comes to God’s Law.  No matter how bright and shiny your life may be, the fact remains that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23), all, including Scribes and Pharisees and good Christian folk.  Because as good as you may be at keeping the Law outwardly, you know the thoughts in your mind and the desires in your heart.  You know that you are not pure.  You know that you are full of rebellion against God, selfishness, greed, lust, pride.  So you are a sinner.  And a sinner is, by definition, not righteous.  So here is the dirty little secret about the Scribes and Pharisees: They have bright and shiny, religious lives, but they are not righteous.  Because they do not have Christ.  They are sinners.  And instead of receiving God’s salvation for their sins, they reject Him, and by their own efforts work to make themselves righteous.
            You are a sinner, to be sure.  Your life is not even as bright and shiny as the Scribes and Pharisees.  And yet, your righteousness exceeds theirs.  Because your righteousness has nothing to do with who you are in and of yourself, or anything that you have done or left undone.  Your righteousness is Jesus Christ.  You are in Christ.  You are baptized.  His righteousness counts for you.  His blood washes away all your sin.  And so, while the Scribes and Pharisees find themselves shut outside the doors where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, you are entering into the kingdom of heaven, into the joy of your Master.
            And this is great Good News to us who are beset by vexing sins, whose consciences are troubled, fightings and fears within and without, whose hearts are weighed down with grief and hopelessness, broken lives, broken relationships, a broken faith.  Whatever you are going through right now, whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, wherever you’ve been, all of that is baptized in the blood of Jesus Christ, your crucified Lord.  All your sins are forgiven.  And Christ is your righteousness.  That is what St. Paul means when he says you’re justified.  Justified simply means righteous.  Righteous on account of Christ.  Justified on account of Christ.  Here’s what he says: “But  now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law… the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.  For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Rom. 3:21-25).  How are you made righteous before God?  Christ died for your sins and God raised Him from the dead.  And now on His account God bespeaks you righteous, declares you righteousness, pronounces you righteous.  It’s a courtroom decree.  And Christ’s righteousness is given to you as God’s free gift.  It is received by faith.  Believe it and it is yours.  It’s as simple as that.  There’s nothing to add.  There’s nothing said here about your works.  There’s nothing said here about your worthiness or whether you deserve it, because you don’t.  It’s pure grace.  It’s pure gift.  For you.  In Christ alone.  And in this way your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, who, in reality, are not righteous at all. 
            But aren’t Christians supposed to do good things?  Shouldn’t we do good works?  Shouldn’t we be upstanding citizens, good Christian folk, moral, advocates of traditional values and the like?  Shouldn’t we serve our neighbor, love our neighbor, provide for our neighbor’s needs?  Shouldn’t we flee from sin and godlessness?  Yes, yes, and yes.  Absolutely.  But that doesn’t make you righteous.  And thank God for that, because in your fallen flesh you will fail.  Your fallen flesh still needs to be crucified daily in repentance.  But you should do these things, not in order to be righteous, but because you are righteous in Christ.  So He sends you out to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  What does salt do?  It preserves and it seasons.  Back in the days before refrigeration, how did you keep the meat from spoiling?  Salt!  And my wife doesn’t always believe me, but even when something tastes great, sometimes the experience can be enhanced all the more with just a little bit of salt.  Christians are salt.  God preserves the world on account of Christians who pray and love and serve in it, and on account of people who are not yet Christians but will be as they hear God’s Word and receive Baptism.  And God seasons the world with His Christians, with your faithful confession, with your works done in Jesus’ Name, with your various vocations to which God has called you to be His hands in the world.  He sends you to be light in this dark world, to shine the light of Christ in the darkness and expel it.  You do this as you speak of Christ, as you speak God’s Word, which is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Ps. 119:105).  And by example as you live according to God’s Word in the world, confessing your sins, and hearing and living by the Absolution of the Lord that you receive freely here in His Church. 
            It is an amazing thing what Jesus once said to the chief priests and the elders of the people: “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you” (Matt. 21:31).  Or, as He said of the tax collector over against the Pharisee: “I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other” (Luke 18:14).  How can Jesus say such things?  It is not that Jesus has suddenly become tolerant of sin and affirming of materialistic lifestyles or sexual transgressions.  He has not come to relax the Law, much less abolish it.  In fact, as He says, not one iota or dot will pass away from the Law until it is accomplished.  Jesus does not abolish the Law.  He fulfills it.  He accomplishes it.  By His righteous life in our stead.  By His death on the cross for our forgiveness.  And He is risen and gives new life to us who were dead in our trespasses and sins, new life now in Baptism so that we can be His salt and His light in the world, life hidden under this weak flesh, but real life, a life that will be made manifest on the Last Day in the resurrection of the dead.
            It is no secret that you are a sinner.  If you try to keep it a secret, you are a Pharisee and not a Christian.  Christians confess their sins.  Christians confess that they are sinners.  Because you know that your righteousness does not consist in a polished outward life that, like a whitewashed tomb, hides the stench of deadly sins inside.  Your life is Christ.  Your righteousness is Christ.  Your everything is Christ.  And in Christ, to you belongs the very kingdom of heaven.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.