Cruce Tectum

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

Location: Dorr, Michigan

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Second Sunday in Lent

Second Sunday in Lent (B)

March 1, 2015
Text: Mark 8:27-38

            Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34; ESV).  Broadly speaking, bearing the cross is any suffering a Christian bears in the Name and for the sake of Jesus.  In this sense, all the sufferings of the Christian are baptized in His blood, sanctified, made holy, and the promise applies to these sufferings that God will work them all for the good of His beloved baptized child (Rom. 8:28).  That means all your aches and pains, all your heartbreak and loss, your grief and your sorrow, all these have been turned into gifts of God, crosses laid upon you in love by your gracious heavenly Father, so that you despair of yourself, crucify your flesh, lose your life in Christ, and flee to Him alone for help and salvation.  The cross drives you to Christ.  The cross drives you to His Word.  The cross drives you to prayer.  So you should always receive your suffering with thanksgiving, for God is working a mighty thing through it, even though you may not know what that thing is until you see Him face to face.  Faith believes what the eyes cannot see, even in the face of great suffering. 
            But Jesus is more specific about the cross in our text this morning.  “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it… For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8:35, 38).  The crux of the matter is being ashamed of Jesus and His Words, who He really is and what He really says, in this adulterous and sinful generation, a generation that doesn’t want the real Jesus or His real Word.  The cross the Lord bids you take up in our Holy Gospel is that of faithful confession of Jesus and His Word, no matter what persecution it may bring you.  Think here of the hundreds of Christians who have been kidnapped by ISIS in Syria.  Think here of the 21 Christian martyrs who were beheaded in North Africa.  Think here of the florists and photographers and bakers who have lost their businesses, reputations, and livelihoods because they were not ashamed to confess the Word of Christ.  They considered it more important to be faithful to the God who was so faithful to them He gave His only Son into death.  “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (v. 36).  The word “life” can also be translated as “soul.”  You can easily gain the admiration and approval of the world, but at what cost?  Your soul.  Things can be easy now, but you will, in the end, lose your soul into an eternity of sorrow.  Or things can be hard now.  You can be despised, mocked, rejected now, suffer now, lose your life now, and your reward will be an eternity of the Lord’s admiration and approval in heaven.  For whoever would save his life, his soul, his self… NOW… will lose it in the end.  But whoever loses His life, his soul, his self… NOW… for my sake and the gospel’s, will save it in the end.  When it comes to confessing Jesus and His Word, it’s either your way, which is to confess a Jesus who is acceptable to this adulterous and sinful generation… or there is the way of the cross, which is to confess Jesus as He is, and His Word as He says it, and to do so without shame, and so to suffer whatever consequences such confession may bring.
            Peter doesn’t like that plan.  Peter is ashamed.  Oh, he’s willing to die for Jesus.  At least he thinks he is.  But he’s not willing to die for a Jesus he finds unacceptable to his own reason or ideals.  He is not willing to die for a Jesus who just surrenders Himself to His enemies, surrenders Himself to the cross and death.  Jesus teaches that the cross is divinely necessary, that He must suffer many things, that He must be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, that He must be killed, (and then the part that they all miss) that He must rise again after three days (v. 31).  He says it plainly (v. 32).  He says it boldly.  And Peter does not like it one bit.  Peter takes Jesus aside and begins to rebuke Him (v. 32).  But Jesus will not save His life, His soul, His self NOW and so lose the souls of those He loves.  His mission is to lose His life for Peter’s sake, for your sake, for the whole world, to save your soul for His eternal Kingdom.  And seeing His other disciples, Jesus cannot allow Peter’s adulterous and sinful, indeed, demonic preaching to continue.  “Get behind me, Satan!  For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (v. 33), on the things of this world and this generation, the things of your fallen, dead flesh.  Incidentally, talk about a Jesus who is offensive to our politically correct sensitivities.  When Jesus hears false doctrine, He isn’t tolerant.  He isn’t even nice.  He calls Peter (one of His three best friends in the world) “Satan!”  For false doctrine has as its source the very father of lies. 
            The truth is, though, sometimes Jesus has to say this to you.  Because there are any number of things about Jesus that you don’t like, and there are things that He says that make you ashamed of Him.  There are things in His Word that make you cringe.  There are commandments you wish His Church wouldn’t proclaim quite so loud.  And worst of all, there is the Gospel, which preaches a Savior who just surrenders Himself to His enemies, gives Himself up into death, willingly, without a fight.  And then has the audacity to say that this is necessary if you are to be saved.  Because you are so evil that it takes the death of God to pay for your wickedness.  Because if He doesn’t do this, you will be the rightful property of Satan.  So He does it, because He loves you.  Not because you are so loveable.  But because He has decided to love you anyway.  Because He says so.  Because that is how gracious He is.  Because He is faithful.  He remembers His mercy and His steadfast love, for they have been from of old (Ps. 25:6).  He remembers us, and He blesses us (Ps. 115:12).  That’s just who He is.  For “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). 
            And now Christ Jesus is risen from the dead, and that changes everything.  Peter is forgiven and restored.  He is no longer ashamed to confess His love for the Lord.  He is given the charge to feed the Lord’s sheep and precious lambs.  And now he will lose his life, literally taking up his cross, for he will stretch out his hands and be dressed with the wood and carried where he does not want to go.  Those are Jesus’ words, indicating the kind of death with which Peter would glorify God.  It’s all right there in John 21 (vv. 15-19).  So you also are forgiven and restored.  You have died with Christ, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3).  This all happened at the font.  You are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus.  So the you that is ashamed of Jesus and His Word is crucified by daily repentance, a daily return to the baptismal water.  And raised to new life in Christ, you are no longer ashamed.  With St. Paul, you confess that you are “not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).  You are not ashamed to confess your love for Jesus.  You are not ashamed to speak His Word in season and out of season.  You are not ashamed to lose your life, to surrender yourself to the cross, to die with Him who died for you, that you may live with Him who lives for you.
            This adulterous and sinful generation has many ideas about who Jesus is and what He says.  He is a prophet, a great teacher, a revolutionary, the model of morality, a practitioner of tolerance and acceptance of everyone and everything.  There are as many opinions about Jesus as there are people on the earth.  To take up the cross is to die to your own opinion of Him.  There is only one true Jesus.  He is, as Peter confesses, the Christ, the Anointed One, the Savior appointed by God from all eternity to suffer the cross to save sinful humanity.  The Christ is defined by God in His Word, not by the opinions of men.  And when you go confessing the Christ as defined by God, you will suffer for it.  They may mock you.  They may reject you.  They may dress you in an orange jump suit and lead you where you do not want to go, to kneel by the sea and there receive your martyr’s crown.  But losing your life in this way, you will glorify God.  And you will receive the better life won for you by Jesus in His own suffering and death.  Those 21 men by the sea in North Africa cried out to Jesus as their throats were slit.  It was the last thing they heard on earth, the last word they said.  Then, all at once, they heard for themselves the choir of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, standing before the throne of God and of the Lamb.  And Jesus confessed them before His heavenly Father.  He was not ashamed to call them brothers.  For redeemed by the cross of Christ, they were not ashamed to deny themselves, take up their own cross, and follow Him.

            And so you.  Since you have been justified by faith, you have peace with God through your Lord Jesus Christ.  Through Him, you have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which you stand, and you rejoice in hope of the glory of God.  More than that, you rejoice in your sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put you to shame.  You are not ashamed.  Because God’s love has been poured into your heart through the Holy Spirit who has been given to you (Rom. 5:1-5).  This is God’s doing.  He turns everything on its head.  Losing your life, you save it.  Hated by the world, you are loved by God.  Yourself a sinner, God declares you righteous.  Having died with Christ, you have new life in Him.  With Jesus, Good Friday always ends in Easter.  And at the End of all things, your grave will be as empty as His.  Christ Jesus will raise you from the dead.  And because of that, you need never be ashamed.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.           

Sunday, February 22, 2015

First Sunday in Lent

First Sunday in Lent (B)

February 22, 2015
Text: Mark 1:9-15

            St. Mark paints a picture of stark contrasts in our Holy Gospel this morning.  First the beautiful Trinitarian picture of our Lord’s Baptism in the Jordan, the heavens torn open and the Spirit descending on Him as a dove (Mark 1:10), and the voice of the Father from heaven: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (v. 11; ESV).  But then a violent transition.  That beautiful dove, the symbol of peace, the Holy Spirit now filling our Lord Jesus to the brim, “immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (v. 12).  Drove Him out, cast Him out, the same Greek word used when Jesus casts out the evil spirits.  Threw Him out, you could say.  Immediately upon His Baptism, the Holy Spirit threw Jesus out into the wilderness, the place of nothingness, where the demons are said to dwell, the home of Satan.  Utterly alone except for the company of wild beasts, our Lord languishes for 40 days in the place of hunger and thirst, loneliness and desolation, death.  Why?  To be tempted.  To do battle with His archenemy, Satan.  To be tested.  To be faithful.  To be victorious where you, and Adam, your father, have not.  To love the Lord His God, His heavenly Father, with all His heart and soul and mind and strength (Mark 12:30; cf. Deut. 6:5).  To love His neighbor, love you, even more than Himself.  And to do it all in your place, for you, so that it counts for you, so that His victory is your victory.  “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).  He wins the battle!  And the holy angels minister to Him (Mark 1:13).
            You are baptized into Christ.  You are clothed with Christ.  You are in Christ.  And so what happens to Christ, happens to you.  You are baptized, and the Spirit comes upon you, and God says that you are His beloved child, with whom He is well pleased.  But then immediately, violently, the Spirit throws you out into the wilderness of this fallen world.  He throws you out into the place of nothingness, of doubt and unbelief, of sin and sorrow and death.  This is where the evil spirits are said to dwell.  And they do.  You know it by experience.  You only have to turn on the evening news to see the evidence of their handiwork.  And it is not for nothing that Jesus calls Satan “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11).  It is a dangerous place, this wilderness, a place where you hunger and thirst for righteousness, a place that is often lonely and desolate (that’s why we need each other in the Church), a place where, on your own, you would die.  Spiritually.  And eternally.  You would die.  Why does this Spirit put you here?  This life, in this world, is the Spirit’s school of cross and trial.  You are here to be tempted.  You are here to do battle.  You are here to be tested.  You are here to be faithful.
            But there is a great difference between you and Jesus in this wilderness sojourn.  Jesus’ faithfulness is the faithfulness that counts for you.  And thank God for that, because you aren’t always faithful.  You fall.  You sin.  You are hit by Satan’s arrows.  Sometimes you even like it.  You’re perfectly happy to trade the bread of God’s holy Word for the bread of stones.  Repent.  But thank God, this isn’t that kind of test for you, to see if you’ll be faithful enough to be saved.  Jesus did all that already.  This time of trial and tribulation is different.  It is a time to crucify your flesh.  To drive you to despair of yourself, your righteousness, your abilities, your talent, your loveable-ness.  To make you realize that, in and of yourself, you are as empty and dead as the wilderness.  That apart from the Holy Spirit who is in you, you would be the dwelling place of evil spirits, under the rule of Satan.  You would be dead.  You would be, not a son of God, but a son of hell.
            The wilderness is not a pleasant place to be, but it has its good purpose.  The Holy Spirit has done this kind of thing before.  Remember Moses was exiled to the wilderness for 40 years after killing the Egyptian.  40 years spent in the middle of nowhere, tending the flocks of Jethro, marrying Jethro’s daughter, living the life of a Bedouin.  Moses was 80 when YHWH called him from the burning bush, and he had four decades of wilderness wandering still ahead of him.  For those 40 years Moses spent with his father-in-law Jethro, were just a trial run, a practice, a preparation, for the 40 years Moses would spend shepherding God’s flock, God’s holy Bride, the children of Israel, in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land.  St. Paul tells us the people of God were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, when they went through the Red Sea as on dry ground (1 Cor. 10:2).  And then they immediately found themselves in the wilderness, the place of nothingness, the place of hunger and thirst, and, apart from God, the place of death.  They had to live by faith that God would bring them into the Promised Land, that God would be faithful to His Word, that His Word would keep them alive and bring them joy and blessing, that He would feed them with His manna.  It was all a picture of our life in the wilderness, as the Church, the people of God, the New Israel. 
            For just as Israel of old failed to be faithful in their wilderness wandering, so are we.  Just as they grumbled and looked back longingly to the flesh pots of Egypt, so we moan and complain about our lot in life and pine after the good old days of our slavery to sin.  Just as they fashioned idols and sat down to eat and drink before them, and rose up to play, so we run after other gods and follow after the pleasures of the flesh.  Just as they trembled and feared before their enemies and forgot that it is the LORD their God who fights for them and wins the victory, so we tremble and fear before the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh.  And we think we will never receive our inheritance in the Promised Land, because our enemies are too strong for us.  Of course, we’re half right.  They are too strong for us.  But our Lord is stronger.  He fights them.  He defeats them.  Our Holy Gospel is all about that.  Where Israel, where we, have failed in our wilderness journey, the Lord Jesus Christ has not.  He did not grumble or complain, but went willingly into the wilderness for us.  He did not eat and drink and rise up to play, but fasted and denied Himself, for us, living not by bread at all, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of His Father.  He did not fear before His enemy, but triumphed over him for us, by the sword of His holy Word.  And now, baptized into Christ, His victory is our victory.  His faithfulness is our faithfulness.  And He does not leave us in the wilderness alone.  He is with us, as our Mighty Fortress, protecting us, providing for us, picking us up when we fall, speaking to us His Word of life, feeding us with His Manna, His true Body and Blood.  And the angels are ministering to us, surrounding us to keep us safe in body and soul. 
            Lent has this way of making this all so vivid for us.  Lent is about our baptismal life in this wilderness, our journey from the font to our Father in heaven, our battle in the meantime with Satan, a battle which has already been fought and won for us by the Lord’s faithfulness, by His cross and death, by His resurrection life.  Many of us give something up for Lent, but we don’t do it to impress God or impress others or make ourselves more righteous.  We do it to remind us how weak we are, how impossible it is even to give up chocolate, much less give up sin.  Some of us add a discipline for Lent, which is always good.  We certainly add the discipline of more services and more devotions.  But again, we don’t do it to impress God or anybody else.  And we don’t do it because it makes us that much more worthy of heaven.  No.  We do it because we know that man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4).  Even as we fast, we feast on the gifts of our Lord Christ.  Lent gives us to see our cross in the shadow of His.  Your suffering, your sorrow, your sin, your death… it is all taken up into His.  Lent imposes the cross of Christ on our foreheads and on our hearts.  It is the banner of our Lord’s victory over the devil, that the serpent who once overcame by the tree of the garden, has now likewise by the tree of the cross been overcome (Proper Preface for Good Friday).  And after the cross, there is Easter and the empty tomb.  After the Lenten fast comes the Feast.  After the wilderness, there is the Promised Land.  Christ is risen.  Christ will raise you from the dead.  Blessed Lent.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.     

Sunday, February 08, 2015

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (B)

February 8, 2015
Text: Mark 1:29-39

            Jesus comes to preach.  That is what He tells His disciples after they track Him down at the end of our Holy Gospel.  They find Him in a desolate place, praying, communing with His heavenly Father, commending His ministry to God and asking for divine aid and counsel in His work.  Our Lord has demonstrated His Divine Nature as He healed and cast out demons late into the night.  But Jesus is also a man, and this work is taxing to His Human Nature.  So very early in the morning, while it is still dark, He departs to a desolate place to pray.  And note that for Jesus, weary as He is, prayer and communion with the Father is more important than sleep.  This is true rest.  Sabbath rest.  It is just what you need, too.  Well, the people don’t want Jesus to rest.  Everyone is looking for Him.  They want more miracles.  They want more healings.  They think that is why He came, to be some sort of a witch doctor, magically and mysteriously granting relief to those who suffer and healing for all that ails them.  So when Simon and those with him find Jesus and urge Him to come back to the house to treat more patients, Jesus says to them, “Let us go to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out” (Mark 1:38; ESV). 
            Jesus comes to preach.  The Son became Man comes to be the Word of God in the flesh (John 1:14).  Jesus is an incarnate sermon, if you will, the revelation of the Father’s love for lost humanity… His love for you.  The people gathered together at Simon and Andrew’s house had missed the whole point of the miracles.  To be sure, the people had much reason to rejoice in the healings and exorcisms.  There was real relief distributed, real wholeness granted.  But the miracles were not an end in themselves.  Have you ever thought about this?  Jesus didn’t heal everyone.  He heals a relatively lucky few on earth at the time of His earthly ministry.  It is not that He doesn’t have compassion on all of them, on all those who suffer, of all times and all places.  He certainly does.  And that compassion moves Him to perform healings.  But the true purpose of the healings, the exorcisms, and all the miracles, is to serve the preaching.  Jesus comes to preach.  The miracles are visible sermons, tangible sermons, action sermons on the part of our Lord.  They preach.  They say something about who He is and what He will finally do.  Jesus raises Peter’s mother-in-law by the hand and the fever leaves her (Mark 1:31).  And it is like a resurrection from the dead.  So completely has He healed her that she is invigorated to serve, to be the hostess for Jesus and His disciples (side note: On the Sabbath, no less!).  The people of the town, who witnessed Jesus cast out the unclean spirit in the Synagogue begin to show up at sundown, freed from the Sabbath regulations so they can walk to Peter’s house.  They bring to Him all those who are sick with various diseases or demon possessed, and Jesus heals their illnesses, silencing and casting out their demons (vv. 32-34).  What do these miracles preach?  They preach that our Lord has authority over sickness and suffering, authority to raise up and invigorate, authority over demons, to bind them and cast them out.  Jesus has authority over death, to snatch His people from its jaws.  And if He has authority over death, He has authority over the cause of death: Our sin.  These miracles preach who Jesus is.  He is God.  Only God could do what Jesus does.  These miracles preach what Jesus has come to accomplish and to give: eternal healing, eternal wholeness, eternal freedom from death, and the binding and casting out of Satan and his evil hoard.  This He will accomplish by His own suffering and death on the cross, and His triumphant resurrection from the grave. 
            Jesus comes to preach, because in preaching He delivers this true healing, this ultimate healing, accomplished by His saving work.  You see, preaching is God’s delivery system for the benefits of our Lord’s death and resurrection.  What He accomplished by His perfect life of love, His spotless fulfilling of God’s Law, by His cross and empty tomb, this He delivers to you and bestows upon you in the preaching, in what we call the Means of Grace.  That is to say, He delivers the forgiveness of sins, healing, restoration, life, and salvation, in the Holy Scriptures, the preaching of the Word, your Baptism, the Absolution, and the Supper of His Body and Blood.  Faith, then, is your empty hands receiving these free benefits from the Lord in His Means of Grace.  You can’t go back to the cross.  We don’t have it anymore, and even if we did, it would do us no good.  It would only be a relic, at best a fascinating historical artifact, at worst  an object of idolatry.  Jesus accomplished our salvation on the cross, but we don’t receive it there.  We receive it here, where Christ Himself is present, delivering our salvation in the preaching.  That is why He comes. 
            Now, we get confused, like the people in Capernaum.  We forget, or maybe we don’t even realize, that Jesus comes to preach.  And so we demand all sorts of other things from His Church.  We want the spectacular.  We want miracles.  We want dazzling demonstrations of divine power.  Or, at the very least, we want special effects.  We want comfortable seats, a comfortable experience, good coffee, entertaining worship, an inspiring and uplifting message, and songs the touch our hearts but aren’t too specific when it comes to doctrine, or God’s Law, or especially the cross.  We want glory.  Not a boring old sermon.  We want glory.  Not words and water, bread and wine.  We want glory.  Not the cross.  And so we miss it.  It is all too ordinary.  It is all too weak.  It is all too mundane.  Repent.  Thanks be to God, Jesus preaches anyway, in spite of us.  He preaches directly to you and to me in the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures, in the sometimes boring and often stumbling words of His called and ordained servant, in the visible and tangible sermons of Baptism and Supper.  He may not deliver what we want, but He ever and always delivers what we need.
            And here is what happens when Jesus preaches to you.  He heals you.  Not just temporarily, like those people in Capernaum.  They all eventually got sick again, and in the end, they died.  No, here is healing that endures, a wholeness sustained for all eternity.  For the preaching of Jesus delivers life, the life of the crucified and risen Lord.  And that marks you as one who will never die, because the eternal life you already possess in Jesus is the life you will go on living in heaven, and the life that will enliven your body on the Last Day.  As Jesus raised Peter’s mother-in-law from her sick bed, He will raise you from your coffin.  As Jesus healed those who came to Him with various diseases, He heals you from death.  As Jesus cast out the demons in Capernaum, so He delivers you from the devil and the condemnation you have merited by your sin.  He does it by taking it into Himself, taking it for you, taking it to the cross, and dying it to death.  And then He wakes from death, that He may awaken you.

            And in the meantime He does give you the very same gift He gave to the people of Capernaum.  You may not think about this very often, but every healing is from Jesus, even when you credit the doctor, the prescription drugs, or Mom’s chicken noodle soup.  To be sure, Jesus works through those ordinary and often mundane things to bring you healing, but anytime you’ve recovered from a common cold or a hangnail, that is from Jesus.  And you know that while your Lord works through the stuff of this world to bring you relief and physical healing, the real medicine you need is His preaching.  That is why you call your pastor when you are in the hospital, so that I can come and preach to you.  It is rather odd by human standards, when you think about it.  “I’m sick, so I better call my pastor for a sermon and Communion.”  But you know that is what you need.  And for everything else that ails you, you know that is what you need.  That is why you come to Church.  It is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick (Mark 2:17).  Jesus comes to give the medicine of immortality to those who are mortally sick with sin.  Jesus comes to heal by preaching.  And so, if your body is racked with disease, if your heart is weak or the cancer is back, or even if you’re just a little under the weather, this is the place to be, to hear the healing Words of Jesus and receive His risen and living, healing and death-defeating Body and Blood in your mouth.  If you are grieving the loss of a loved one, if you are suffering loneliness or depression, if your marriage is in trouble or there is strife in the family, this is the place to be, where your Great Physician applies the salve of the Holy Gospel to your wounds.  If the devil is oppressing you and the demons are up to no good, if you know and feel the tremendous guilt of your sins, then this is the place to be, where Jesus binds and casts out the devil with a Word, and declares your sin forgiven, and you justified, righteous, spotless, and holy.  St. Ambrose said, “Because I always sin, I always need the medicine.”  So here you have it.  It may not be flashy.  It may not seem all that spectacular.  But here it is.  Jesus comes.  Jesus preaches.  You are healed.  You are whole.  Your sins are forgiven.  Depart in peace.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.      

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (B)

February 1, 2015
Text: Mark 1:21-28

            The battle is closer to you than you think.  There is a battle being waged between God and the devil, the angels and the demons, and you are the contested territory.  It is a battle for your body, your mind, your heart, and your soul.  The devil knows his condemnation is final.  His defeat has already been accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  But he is not going down without a fight.  If God loves these precious humans so much that He gives His only Son to become one of them and suffer the shame and torture of the cross to save them, then devil is intent to drag as many people down to hell with him as he can.  It is the only vengeance he can take.  And if he can deceive Christians, if he can deceive you, and bring you down with him to the fire and sulfur of the bottomless pit of damnation, then that is the ultimate trophy.  So the battle rages.  It is all around you.  It is within you.  You are torn between two factions.  Your sinful nature is pulled toward the forces of hell, with whom the sympathies of your flesh lie.  But you are baptized into Christ, and the new creation that daily emerges from the baptismal waters and arises to live in Christ, is pulled toward Christ.  The devil hates this.  So he whispers his seductive temptations into your ear.  He shoots his deadly arrows directly at your heart and your mind.  This liar, and the father of lies, wields even truth as a weapon, so that he speaks enough truth that you think he is being rather reasonable, so that when he speaks a bent truth, you hardly notice.  You buy the lie.  You give yourself to it. You sin.  You don’t even realize the source is the evil one.  Because, for the most part, you live your life blissfully ignorant of the battle that is raging all around you and within you.  You go about your daily routine, unaware of the spiritual reality to which your eyes have been blinded, angels and demons, this world’s prince scowling fierce as he will, and Christ, the Valiant One, who fights for us, whom God Himself elected, who holds the field forever.  Beloved, you will not win this battle with any might of yours.  Only Christ can win.  He is your mighty fortress, your help and protection, who shields you under the pierced wings of His outstretched arms.  You are only safe when you dwell in His Word, in His Baptism, in His Supper.  Luther says that the devil “is a liar, to lead the heart astray from God’s Word and to blind it, so that you cannot feel your distress or come to Christ.  He is a murderer, who cannot bear to see you live one single hour.  If you could see how many knives, darts, and arrows are every moment aimed at you [Ephesians 6:16], you would be glad to come to the Sacrament as often as possible,”[1] to take refuge in Christ, the Savior.
            The people in the Synagogue, who otherwise were much more in tune with the spiritual realities of the world than you are, were nonetheless blissfully unaware that there was a man in their very midst possessed by an unclean spirit.  The guy is a Church member.  But somewhere along the line he has fallen into secret unbelief, the oppression, and eventually the possession of the demonic.  Outwardly, his life may very well have been quite respectable.  But inwardly he had given himself over to the darkness.  Now Jesus came on that particular Sabbath, teaching in the Capernaum synagogue.  (By the way, much of that Synagogue still stands.  You can Google “Capernaum Synagogue” and see images of this very building from our text, as well as a Church built over what is believed to be Peter’s house, where our Lord healed Peter’s mother-in-law. That is our Holy Gospel for next week [Mark 1:29-39].)  Now, the people in the Synagogue, just like you, are gathered for the Divine Service, mostly unaware of the battle that is raging.  But they are about to catch a glimpse.  Jesus is teaching them with authority, and not as their scribes (Mark 1:22).  And now He is about to give a demonstration of that authority.  The man with the unclean spirit bristles at the preaching of the Gospel.  It is sheer torture to him.  And the unclean spirit himself is tortured with the knowledge of who this is who is preaching.  This is the Christ.  This is Messiah.  This is the Savior of the world, and the Judge of the demons.  So the spirit, through the man, cries out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are—the Holy One of God” (v. 24; ESV).  Now Jesus rebukes the demon, tells him to be silent.  Why?  It’s true, isn’t it?  Yes, but remember, demons are always liars.  They only wield the truth to further the lie.  This unclean spirit pegs the Lord Jesus, not as a Savior, but as a destroyer.  And if the witnesses believe that, the Gospel has been muted. 
            “Be silent, and come out of him!” Jesus commands (v. 25).  And the unclean spirit, making a great show of the whole thing, as unclean spirits are wont to do, convulses the man and cries out with a loud voice (v. 26).  You can almost hear the demonic shriek.  But he comes out.  He has to.  For that authority with which Jesus teaches the people, is a real authority.  It is the authority of God.  Jesus is God clothed in human flesh.  He is the Creator of the heavens and the earth, and all that is, visible and invisible.  He is the eternal Ruler of the universe.  And He is even the God of the devil.  When Jesus commands, the devil must obey.  The demons must depart.  The unclean spirits must flee.  The Lord has not come to destroy His people, but to save them, to save you, to deliver you from the powers of darkness, from the prince of this world, and the present evil age.
            Once again, the people are amazed.  A new thing has happened in their midst.  They question among themselves, “What is this?  A new teaching with authority!  He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (v. 27).  Indeed, He teaches with authority.  He has authority over unclean spirits.  That is what it means that Jesus is Lord.  The Lord is the One with the authority.  There is a new Lord in town.  This is the Lord who received the Holy Spirit at His Baptism in the Jordan, in whom the Holy Spirit dwells.  Where the Holy Spirit is, there is no room for unclean spirits.  Where the Lord speaks His Holy Words, deploying His Holy Spirit, every evil spirit must depart.  And that authority He has over the unclean spirits extends to every affliction that may plague you, beloved.  He has authority over your sin, both your sinful condition, and every sin you’ve ever committed.  He takes away your sin, and nails it in His flesh to the cross.  He speaks you forgiven, bespeaks you righteous, speaks His Spirit and life into you.  Death?  He has authority over it, including every symptom of death, every illness and injury, every ache and pain and disability.  Remember, He is risen.  And He will raise you on the Last Day with a body made whole and undefiled, fit for eternity.  Sorrow, heartache, depression?  He has authority over these, too.  When He brings you to your eternal consolation in heaven, God will wipe away every tear from your eyes.  Mental illness?  He renews your mind by His holy Word.  Persecution, war, violence?  He is your peace.  And though it may appear as though the enemies of the Church are triumphing in this world, in the end, the saints of God will reign with Christ in a new heavens and a new earth.
            So Jesus says to the unclean spirits that afflict you: “Be silent, and come out!”  We live in the midst of so much spiritual yuckiness, the filth of sexual immorality, selfishness, greed, murder, profanity, godlessness.  And we buy into some of that.  Repent.  But Jesus commands it all to go away.  He does not give us into the possession of the evil spirits.  They cannot win us.  Because Jesus already won in His cross and resurrection.  Jesus is the Lord God of Sabaoth, the Lord of the heavenly armies, and the devil is powerless against Him.  The serpent is outmatched.  The Lord is the Stronger One who binds the strong man (Mark 3:27).  The victory has been accomplished, and it is yours.  In the meantime, as the battle rages around you, you are safe in the shelter of your Savior.  He protects you.  He provides for you.  He comforts you.  He brings you here, to His mighty fortress, the holy Church, where you dwell with Him in safety.  Here, your Great Physician gives you the medicine of immortality, His holy Word and the Sacrament of His Body and Blood.  Here you have an up close and personal encounter with the Holy One of God.  He speaks.  The unclean spirits are cast out.  The Holy Spirit enters in.  And you belong to God.  Jesus has the authority to make it so.  And He has done it.  Praise be to Christ.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.     

[1] LC V:81-82 (Luther’s Large Catechism with Study Questions [St. Louis: Concordia, 2010) p. 153.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Third Sunday after the Epiphany

Third Sunday after the Epiphany (B)

January 25, 2015
Text: Mark 1:14-20

            Our Lord Jesus Christ is THE Preacher in Christian Church, and He is the content of all Christian preaching.  THE Preacher, the content of the preaching.  So it is that Jesus came into Galilee, preaching, “proclaiming the gospel of God” (Mark 1:14; ESV).  And the Gospel of God is this: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (v. 15).  The Kingdom of God is none other than Jesus Himself, whom God sent into the world at just the right time to redeem the world by His blood and death.  The Kingdom of God is all those whom the crucified and risen Lord Jesus has drawn to Himself, to be His own, to live under Him… You.  This is good news for a world under the tyranny of Satan.  The word “Gospel” means “good news.”  Jesus proclaims the good news that He has broken into the world to deliver you from the power of Satan, from the slavery of your own sin, and from the destiny of death and eternal condemnation.  And so the message of all Christian preaching is that which Jesus proclaims: Now is the time!  Jesus has come!  “(R)epent and believe in the gospel” (v. 15).  Turn from sin, from Satan, and from all that holds you captive and believe what Jesus says.  Believe what He has come to do.  Believe that He saves you.  Believe it and it is yours.  No conditions.  No caveats or qualifiers.  Believe in Jesus as your Savior and you possess His salvation full and free.
            Now our Lord, 40 days after His resurrection from the dead, ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  It is not that He left us.  After all, He promised, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).  He is present with us, with His Church, ruling over His Kingdom, chiefly by means of His Word and the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  But His is a hidden presence.  He is hidden under these means.  But THE Preacher has not left us without His preaching.  He has given us Apostles, even as He gave us the prophets of old.  The word “apostle” means “sent one.”  An apostle is one officially sent to execute a very specific responsibility on behalf of the one sending him.  And in the matter for which he is sent, the apostle has all the authority of the one sending him.  That His message might be proclaimed in all the earth, our Lord Jesus chose Twelve Apostles, among whom are Peter and Andrew, James and John, whom He calls to follow Him in our Holy Gospel this morning.  These Apostles are officially sent to proclaim a message from Jesus, the King.  In this matter they possess all the authority of Christ Himself.  When you hear the Apostles, you hear Jesus.  And their message is nothing new.  It is what Jesus, the Preacher, preached.  They preach the Gospel of God.  They preach the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for you.  They preach: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
            When Jesus called these two sets of brothers in our text, He found them doing the work of fishermen, their family profession.  Simon and Andrew were casting their nets.  James and John were mending theirs.  “Follow me,” Jesus tells them, “and I will make you become fishers of men” (v. 17).  We love this text, and all of us memorized it in Sunday School or VBS.  Usually this verse is held out to us as Jesus’ admonition that we all get busy evangelizing, that He makes us all fishers of men sent out to catch people for the Kingdom.  Now, of course, it is certainly true that we should all speak of Jesus in our daily lives and vocations, to our family members and friends and neighbors and those around us.  It is certainly true that we should confess the faith, invite people to Church, and in general speak and act in such a way that people know the hope that is in us and want to have that hope in themselves.  There are many texts that speak of this.  But that is not really what this Gospel is about.  This is a Holy Ministry text.  The Apostles are called away from their profession into a new vocation as official spokesmen for Jesus.  In other words, pastors, preachers, and in this case, a special office that only exists in the infancy of the New Testament Church: Apostles.  Jesus is giving His Church a gift in this text: The Office of the Holy Ministry, that by the preaching of His Word, including the visible Sacramental Word, you and I come to saving faith in Him.  Our Confessions put it this way: “To obtain such faith God instituted the office of the ministry, that is, provided the Gospel and the sacraments.  Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where he pleases, in those who hear the Gospel.  And the Gospel teaches that we have a gracious God, not by our own merits but by the merit of Christ, when we believe this” (Tappert, AC V:1-3).
            It is not by accident that our Lord compares the Apostolic work of Gospel ministry to that of fishermen.  Later in His ministry, Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to “a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind” (Matt. 13:47).  That is, by the preaching of the Gospel, believers are gathered to Christ in His Church.  When Simon and Andrew are called to follow Jesus, Mark tells us that “immediately they left their [literal] nets and followed him” (Mark 1:18).  Interesting Greek word here for “left.”  Though that is certainly the intended meaning, it can also mean “forgave.”  If I may be so bold as to translate it imaginatively, “they forgave their nets,” which points us to their new work as Apostles.  If the net is the Kingdom, the Church of Jesus Christ, the Apostles and the ministers who follow in their tradition are to be about the work of forgiving the nets, forgiving the sinners who have been caught by the Gospel proclamation.  So also James and John.  When Jesus calls them, they are in their boat “mending the nets” (v. 19).  The word for “mending” may also be translated “restoring.”  The Apostles and the ministers who follow in their tradition are to be about the work of restoring the nets, restoring sinners to the Father by proclaiming and distributing the saving and reconciling work of Jesus in Word and Sacrament.  Forgiving and restoring.  That is the work of Apostolic ministry.  That is what the Apostles are officially sent by Jesus to do.  That is the goal of the proclamation of the Gospel of God: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” 
            Now the Apostles are no longer with us in this world.  They all met their martyrdom in one way or another.  They rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer for the Name of Jesus (Cf. Acts 5:41).  They join us now at the altar with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.  But they still preach to us.  They preach to us in Holy Scripture.  They are still entrusted with the Apostolic message, the preaching of Jesus Christ.  It is recorded in the inspired and inerrant Word of God, the Bible.  And so also, the Lord Jesus continues to send men to speak for Him.  They are not Apostles, but they are given to speak the Word the Apostles spoke, which is the Word of Jesus.  They are the Christian pastors.  Like the Apostles, their message is nothing new.  It is what Jesus, the Preacher, preached.  And it still has all the authority of Jesus Himself, so that when you hear a preacher preaching the Word of God, you hear Jesus Himself.  When your pastor says, “I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit,” that is as sure and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with you Himself… because He has dealt with you Himself, behind the mask of the Office of the Ministry.  When the pastor baptizes, it is Jesus who baptizes.  When the pastor proclaims the Scriptures, it is Jesus calling you to repent and believe in the Gospel.  When the pastor consecrates the bread and wine, it is Jesus giving you His true Body and Blood for the forgiveness of your sins.  In the Office of the Holy Ministry, Jesus continues to fish for men.  The fish are gathered in the Gospel nets.  They are forgiven and restored. 

            And the great twist in this whole thing is that, as a fish in the net of Jesus’ Kingdom, it is not that you are sold at the fish market, sliced open, roasted, and gobbled up.  Our Lord catches you, not for death, but for life.  To swim in the pristine waters of your Baptism.  To live each of your days in the shadow of His cross, repenting of your sins, and believing that in Christ your sins are forgiven and you have eternal life.  Jesus, THE Preacher, and the content of the preaching, sends His messengers, Apostles and pastors, to speak Him into your ears and place Him on your tongue.  And so hearing and eating and drinking, you believe.  And believing, you have… You have Jesus, and He has you.  And so, the Kingdom of God is at hand.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.       

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Second Sunday after the Epiphany

Second Sunday after the Epiphany (B)

January 18, 2015
Text: John 1:43-51

            The Lord Jesus calls you as He called Philip in our Holy Gospel: “Follow me” (John 1:43; ESV).  The Lord calls you in Baptism.  He calls you in His holy Word.  To follow Jesus is to be His disciple, to follow in His discipline.  It is to hear and keep His Word, to receive His teaching, to follow in the way that He goes.  And the way that He goes is the way of the cross.  So to follow Jesus is also to suffer the crosses He lays upon you, and to sacrifice yourself for the good of your neighbor.  That means to give of what you’ve been given, relying on the Lord to provide whatever you lack.  That means to give your life, if necessary, for the sake of your neighbor, as Christ gave His life to save you for life eternal.  Part of what brings on this suffering and sacrifice is your Christian position regarding the culturally contentious issues of the day.  And so this is Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, always the Sunday prior to the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision, and Christians are unapologetically pro-life.  How could we be anything else, having freely received the Gospel of life in Christ?  Now, this is not the Church taking political sides in terms of party affiliation or elections, though we are often accused of that very thing.  But as the Church of Jesus Christ, entrusted with the proclamation of God’s holy Word, we are to be a prophetic voice in the wilderness of this culture of death.  Let me tell you,  none of the prophets lived a cross-free life, and very few of them died of old age.  The Church has an obligation to the unborn to oppose this holocaust, estimated at over 57 million abortions since Roe v. Wade.  57 million!  This is THE issue of our time.  And don’t think that God will allow this to go on forever.  Those who follow Jesus Christ are charged with calling the culture to repentance, speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves, and fostering culture of life and forgiveness and grace in Christ.  So too, the Church ought to be on the front lines of helping unwed mothers and those in crisis pregnancy situations, as well as ministering to women who have had an abortion, and the men involved in those decisions.  There is help, and there is healing in Christ.
            Then there is the marriage issue and the whole host of sexual issues the Church is called to address.  St. Paul addresses these in our Epistle: “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body… Flee from sexual immorality” (1 Cor. 6:13, 18).  Your body is sacred, redeemed by our Lord’s bodily death and resurrection for you.  Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, and God will raise it again on the Last Day to live forever with Him, pure and holy.  You should treat it that way.  Your body is not your own, to do with as you please.  It was bought at a price, the precious blood of Jesus.  Therefore glorify God with your body (vv. 19-20).  You should not have sex outside of marriage.  You should not have sex before marriage.  You should not live together outside of marriage.  You should not have sexual relations with those of your same gender.  You should live chaste and decent lives in what you say and do, and husbands and wives love and honor each other.   These things should go without saying for the Christian, but they don’t.  So St. Paul has to say them, and so do I, and so do you as the holy Church. We are once again to be a prophetic voice in the wilderness of this world, to hold up marriage as God intends it, the lifelong union of one man and one woman, the basic building block of society, charged with the care and protection of children.  And the Church must be on the front lines of care for those who are trapped in sexual immorality, for homosexuals, for the divorced, for the victimized, for the lonely, always by the clear light of God’s holy Word, always in light of His will for marriage and sexuality as His good gifts.  Such proclamation won’t win you any popularity contests with the culture.  The culture will call you haters, prudes, and hypocrites.  They may even persecute you.  Because these are also sacred issues for the culture.  We’re hitting on the idolatry of our society.  The sexual issues go hand in hand with abortion.  They both have to do with the desire for uninhibited sexual activity, with whomever or whatever you want, completely divorced from the obligations of commitment and procreation.  And there really is nothing new under the sun.  Just as the ancient cults had their temple prostitutes and human sacrifice, we have the hyper-sexualization of the culture and abortion.  Speak against those and you will suffer the cross.  But Jesus, your crucified Lord, says to you: “Follow me.”
            Following Jesus is hard.  You would rather follow other voices.  You would rather go along to get along with the culture, to avoid controversies in your family and among your friends.  And you would rather cater to your own fleshly desires and comfort than have to follow after Jesus and suffer.  Repent.  Our Lord calls you to follow Him on the way of the cross, to suffer and die, and in this way to live with Him.  He will raise you up.  You can suffer now in the confidence of that promise.  Jesus called Philip, and Philip (it is believed) was crucified and stoned to death while hanging on the cross.  Why?  Because he preached the Gospel.  He followed Christ.  Jesus called Nathanael (also known as Bartholomew), and Nathanael (it is believed) was flayed alive and crucified by the pagan priests in Armenia.  Because he preached the Gospel.  He followed Christ.  And Jesus called St. Peter, whose confession of Christ we also commemorate today (Cf. Mark 8:27-35), and Peter (it is believed) was crucified upside down in Rome the same day St. Paul was beheaded in Rome.  Because they preached the Gospel.  They followed Christ.  These men followed Christ, literally, to the cross.  They died, and yet they live.  Because following Jesus on the way of the cross, you also follow Him on the way of the empty tomb.  You follow Him to eternal life.  You follow Him to the resurrection.  “God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power” (1 Cor. 6:14). 
            So you confess the faith.  You speak the truth in love.  And most importantly you proclaim Christ as Savior.  This is actually a lot less difficult than we make it.  Evangelism is really quite simple.  Philip is our model here.  How does he witness to Nathanael?  He simply invites him to come and meet Jesus.  “Come and see,” he says (John 1:46), and that is our whole evangelism program in one simple phrase.  Invite people to come and see.  Invite people to Church.  If they ask you to give an account for the hope that you have in Christ (1 Peter 3:15), give them the basics of the Creed.  And then invite to them to come here and see for themselves.  Understand, whether they believe or not isn’t up to you.  That’s the Holy Spirit’s problem.  You can’t convert anyone.  Only He can.  By the Word.  By Baptism.  He calls others in the same way you were called, by the Means of Grace. 
            For in these Means of Grace, the Word and the Sacraments, you see Christ crucified for sinners, Christ risen for you.  And you invite others to come and see Jesus of Nazareth in the Means of Grace for them.  We often think that for the Church to be relevant to the culture today, we have to make it flashy, exciting, cutting edge.  We have to spice up the message with special effects.  Over against this, Jesus says that Nathanael will see something even greater than His demonstration of miraculous foreknowledge, seeing and knowing Nathanael even while He was under the fig tree.  He says that Nathanael “will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man” (v. 51).  Nathanael will see Jacob’s ladder (Gen. 28), the bridge between God in heaven and this fallen world.  And so will you, here, in the Means of Grace.  The ladder is the cross.  The bridge by which sinner cross to heaven is the Son of Man lifted up.  The way to God is Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.
            “Follow me,” says Jesus.  And you do.  You follow His voice in preaching and Scripture.  You follow Him through the flood of your Baptism into Christ, and to the Table of His Body and Blood.  You follow Him through the cross and suffering, to resurrection and eternal life.  With Him there is forgiveness of all your sins, forgiveness for all those times you’ve failed to speak, failed to act, failed to serve and sacrifice and suffer… failed to follow.  With Him there is righteousness.  With Him there is, in the end, peace.  It isn’t easy to be a disciple of Jesus.  Following Him can be perilous in this body and life.  But His is the way of life eternal.  His is the way of truth.  Following Jesus, you are safe.  Following Jesus, you are always on the right path.  And so, thanks be to God, by His grace and by His Spirit, by His precious work in you, you ever follow the voice of your Good Shepherd as He calls to you: “Follow me.”  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.        

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Baptism of Our Lord

The Baptism of Our Lord (B)
January 11, 2015

Text: Mark 1:4-11

            “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness” (Mark 1:4; ESV).  The people, all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem, were going out to the wilderness to be baptized by John in the River Jordan (v. 5).  They come to the wilderness, to the wild, to the place of nothingness, to the place of death.  They come to the place where the only water is the dirty, stinking, rancid water of the Jordan.  But they come in their thirst.  Their physical surroundings serve as vivid testimony to their own spiritual reality.  They are parched.  They are dying.  They are dead.  Sin has done this.  Sin has separated them from God, the Lord and Giver of Life.  Sin has turned them into dirty, stinking, rancid corpses.  But John comes to this place of death with a Word from the living God.  John comes into the wilderness “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v. 4).  It is a Word of life in the midst of death.  It is water in the dessert, water pure and clean, refreshing and life-giving.  The gift brought about by this Word is nothing less than the resurrection of the dead, and everlasting life. 
            With what eagerness the people of Judea and Jerusalem sought this refreshing and revivifying Word, because they knew they were in the wilderness.  What about you?  Do you know that you, too, are in the wilderness, the wild, the place of nothingness, the place of death?  The unbelieving world, the fallenness of creation, the fallen nature of your own sinful flesh, these are the marks of the wilderness.  I think somewhere deep down in the subconscious of every person there is some knowledge of the emptiness and thirst of the human soul.  That is why all of us humans, Christians included, are constantly striving to fill ourselves and slake our thirst with the stuff of this world.  We always want more money, more possessions, more power, more pleasure.  We always seek the approval and accolades of men.  We always seek new experiences of the world.  We have our bucket lists, the things we want to do before we die.  Now, not all of these things are bad in and of themselves.  But we think these things will fulfill us.  We think these things will slake our thirst.  We seek salvation in the stuff of this world.  And this is like slaking your thirst in the wilderness by drinking sand.  But it is even worse than that.  Because in seeking your fulfillment from these things of the world, you reject the living, life-giving water of God.  You reject His Spirit.  You reject Jesus.  And that is like preferring to drink sand when a man is holding out to you a skin of pure, clean, life-giving water.  It’s madness.  But that’s the blindness of our sinful flesh.
            But there is good news.  Your Lord Jesus comes right into this wilderness, this place of nothingness, this place of death, to be baptized by John in the River Jordan (v. 9).  He comes to the place where sin has been repented, confessed, washed away in Baptism, forgiven, absolved.  Now of course Jesus, the sinless Son of God, does not need Baptism.  He does not need to repent.  He has no sin to repent of.  But He wades into the dirty, stinking, rancid waters of the Jordan, and He soaks up all the sins that had been washed away there, sloughed off in Confession, scrubbed away in repentance.  He soaks it all into Himself, the sins of the people baptized by St. John, the sins of the Baptized in all generations, the sin of the world, your sin.  Your death.  Your condemnation.  And He leaves in its place all the benefits of Christian Baptism.  His righteousness.  His life.  His salvation.  By His Baptism in the Jordan, our Lord Jesus, as Luther prays in his Flood Prayer, “sanctified and instituted all waters to be a blessed flood and a lavish washing away of sin” (LSB 269).  He is baptized into you, that you may be baptized into Him.  And what happens to Him at His Baptism becomes your blessed reality in your Baptism.  Heaven is torn open.  You have free access to God and an eternal home with Him in His Kingdom.  The Holy Spirit descends upon you and dwells with you, hovering over the face of the baptismal waters, sanctifying you and preserving you in the one true faith of Jesus Christ.  And the Father says of you at the font what He said of Jesus in the Jordan: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (v. 11).
            Yes, God is well pleased with you.  He calls you “son,” and puts His Name on you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  He bids you call on Him as your Father, and He hears, and He answers.  Because you are in Jesus.  You are baptized into Christ.  So you are no longer empty.  You are no longer enslaved to sin and death.  You are no longer condemned.  You are filled with Christ and His righteousness.  You are alive in Christ, who died for you, and is risen from the dead.  He has opened heaven, and no one can shut it.  Not even your sin.  Because you are baptized, a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  Your sin is gone. 
            Your Baptism into Christ is life-giving water in the wilderness.  You are still in the wilderness, but you are no longer of it.  You are in the wilderness as long as you live in this fallen world, as long as you live in your fallen flesh.  And because you live in this wilderness, you will still be tempted to slake your thirst, to be filled with all that is not your Baptism, with all that is not Jesus.  You will still be tempted to gulp down the sand.  And because you still have the old sinful flesh plaguing you, often you will take a big swig of wilderness soil.  You still sin.  But when you do, you have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous, who has filled you with Himself.  You are still baptized.  So you return to your Baptism.  You repent.  You confess.  You are absolved, forgiven, refreshed, set free.  You live each day in the wilderness of this world under a new reality.  God sustains you and fills you with the water of life. 
            And you will live, forever.  And you have new life in Christ already, now.  You live in thanksgiving and praise for all that God has accomplished in Jesus’ Baptism, and yours, in the Great Exchange that takes place by Baptism, whereby all that is yours Christ takes upon Himself, and all that is Christ’s He gives to you, freely and graciously.  You live to love and sacrifice for your neighbor, to be a little christ to him.  The old you is dead.  The new you in Christ is risen and living.  For “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, on order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4).  That newness of life is the Christian life, the life lived in the wilderness sustained by the baptismal water of life.  It is the new creation in Christ.  It is the life filled with the Holy Spirit, as a child of the Father.

            The Lord sends you out into the wilderness, but He also sends His man there, your pastor, to preach, to proclaim a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, to pour out upon you and into you the water of life.  The world will never fill you and it will never slake your thirst.  But Jesus will, here in His Word and Sacraments.  “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God” (Ps. 42:1).  The Lord hears your prayer, and He answers.  The voice of the Lord is over the waters (Ps. 29:3).  The waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert (Is. 35:6), for God has spoken.  You are baptized.  You are His.  And you are full.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.             

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Holy Innocents

The Holy Innocents

December 28, 2014
Text: Matt. 2:13-18

            Perhaps those Bethlehem mothers had just rocked their baby boys to sleep.  Finally, all was quiet.  They sat there by the fire, babes in arms, listening to the slow, slumbering breath of their precious little boys, entranced by the rhythm of those tiny little hearts.  Their own eyes were heavy with the weariness of the day.  Their heads began to nod.  Then suddenly the doors of their hovels flung open.  Herod’s soldiers came crashing in, brandishing swords, ripping those precious baby boys from their mothers’ arms, with no explanation, going about their murderous, bloody business.  Every male child, 2 years old and under, in Bethlehem and vicinity, slain.  Because jealous Herod heard from the wise men that one had been born King of the Jews, for they saw His star in the east, and had come to worship him (Matt. 2:2).  Herod could not allow this threat to his rule to stand.  Thus the soldiers and the flashing of steel.  The boys silenced for good, their mothers wailing, arms empty.  “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matt. 2:18; ESV; cf. Jer. 31:15).  Merry Christmas! 
            We call them the Holy Innocents, not because they were sinless, but because they had done nothing to merit Herod’s ire.  And because they were righteous by faith, sins forgiven in Christ, innocent with His innocence.  For these boys were circumcised on the 8th Day.  They were Covenant boys, God’s boys.  They died because Herod was seeking to kill Jesus.  He figured if he killed them all, he would kill the One he perceived as a threat.  But it was not yet our Lord’s time.  His time would come, in just a little more than thirty years.  But for now, He escapes, Joseph being warned in a dream to take the Child, Jesus, and His  mother, Mary, down to Egypt and remain there until the threat has passed (Matt. 2:13-14).  Now, you may misunderstand this event, as though Jesus threw the Bethlehem boys under the bus to save His own neck.  But nothing could be further from the truth.  Jesus escaped to die another day for these boys, and for their mothers and fathers, for the whole world, the atoning death of the cross for you.  And these boys, they are comforted now.  They are safe.  They are with Christ in heaven.  They rejoice that they were counted worthy to shed their blood for Jesus.  They were the first Christian martyrs.  And the Lord Jesus will raise them from the dead and restore them to their mothers’ arms on the Last Day. 
            The great mystery that we find so hard to comprehend in all of this is that God works His good through death.  These boys die as a witness that our Lord would accomplish His saving mission by His own death.  These boys die as a witness against a cruel world ruled by murderous tyrants, exposing our great need for the salvation of the Lord.  These boys die to send the toddling Savior into Egypt, “to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’” (v. 15; cf. Hos. 11:1).  These boys die, and the sword of grief pierces the souls of their mothers, a type of the sword that would pierce Mary’s soul at the foot of the cross.  They are a type of Jesus.  Their blood foreshadows His blood shed for them.  Their blood is made holy by His blood, their death by His death, and as He is risen, they will be raised.  All of this is not to deny that their death was tragic.  Death always is, and especially the death of little children.  Betrayed to death by their own government, the government put in place by God to protect them.  Such is the wicked pattern of this world.  The Holy Innocents slaughtered by Herod’s soldiers.  Babies torn limb from limb or chemically burned to death by the thousands each day by government funded and endorsed abortion factories in our own nation, the holocaust of the unborn, a 9/11 every day. 
            I don’t know what the good of that is.  But I know the Lord will work great good even out of this horrendous evil, because He has promised (Rom. 8:28).  That is what He does.  He has done this before.  Recall the situation in Egypt.  Prophecies that a deliverer would come to free the Hebrew slaves from Egyptian bondage.  Once again, a monarch is threatened by babies.  Every Hebrew baby boy is to be killed, cast into the Nile, Pharaoh’s orders.  Moses’ mother casts him into the Nile, but in a basket of bulrushes, and floats him down the river into the arms of Pharaoh’s daughter.  He is raised as her own son, and grows up to be that promised deliverer to lead his people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.  All those little boys died so that this one could live and save many more.  All of this is a type, of course, of what happened on a grander scale in Bethlehem.  Those boys died so that Jesus could live and save the whole world. 
            That is the ultimate good that our God works through death.  And that is the great comfort for those weeping and wailing mothers of Bethlehem, and Egypt, and for any parent who has ever lost a child.  God suffered the death of His Son, too.  In fact, He gave Him up willingly into that death, to save those baby boys and every one of us children of our mothers from the eternal death of hell.  It was the supreme sacrifice, God in the flesh nailed to the cross.  He is the sacrifice of atonement for your sins.  He bears your sins to death, so that you can live as God’s child, holy and righteous.  That is what Christmas is all about.  This Child was born to die for you.  The death of the Holy Innocents points to the death of the one true Holy Innocent for the life of the world.  The salvation of the world is accomplished in that death.  And the Child does not stay dead.  He is risen.  He is risen to give eternal life to you and to all who believe in Him.  He will raise the boys of Bethlehem.  He will raise their mothers.  He will raise you. 
            We do not understand the Lord’s ways.  His ways are not our ways.  His thoughts are not our thoughts.  His ways and thoughts are as much higher than ours as the heavens are higher than the earth (Is. 55:8-9).  He knows what is good for us.  We think we know, but we don’t.  God is God and we are not.  He knows, and He does all things for our good and for our salvation.  Even death.  So many suffer with grief during the holidays.  There are empty places at the table.  Loved ones who were so much a part of the festivities now celebrate the feast on the other side of the veil.  We don’t know how that can be for our good.  But faith confesses that, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, God is doing all things well.  And the proof of it is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the salvation of the world.  The proof of it is the Body and Blood of the Lord placed into your mouth for the forgiveness of your sins and eternal life. 

            God even works your own death for your good.  The death you’ve already died at the font, baptized into the death of Christ, that even as He is risen from the dead, you, too, might walk in newness of life (Rom. 6:4).  Because you died there, you need not fear death.  For you, it is nothing but a blessed sleep, your soul safe with Christ in heaven, your body in the ground, to be raised for all eternity on that blessed day when our Lord returns to judge the living and the dead.  As for the boys in Bethlehem, so for you.  Your death day is your birth into the joy and peace of heaven.  It is the day you will see for yourself what you now believe but do not see.  You will see Jesus.  And before you know it, you will see Him with your resurrection eyes.  Then it will all make sense.  Your questions will be answered.  Your aching heart will be relieved.  Rachel and you will be comforted.  And God will wipe away your tears.  For your loved ones who died in the Lord will be restored into your arms.  Merry Christmas!  Christ is born for you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.             

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Day

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Day

December 25, 2014
Text: John 1:1-18

            The good news of Christmas is that you don’t have to work your way up to God.  He comes down to you in the flesh.  He comes as a Baby, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.  He is God.  He is Man.  He is one with your flesh.  He comes to make His dwelling with you.  He comes to be present with you, and to be present for you.  Now, this is incredibly good news, because if you had to climb some sort of ladder up to God, you would never stop climbing.  No matter how high you got climbing the ladder of the Law, you would never reach the level of our holy and righteous God.  And every sin you commit, every impure thought, every lustful glance, every twinge of bitterness or hatred or greed, would knock you off the ladder.  And there would be no second chances.  There is no getting on the ladder again.  Sin disqualifies you.  Which means you are sunk from the beginning, because even before you’ve committed an actual sin, you have inherited the guilt of Adam.  You are born in sin, and in sin did your mother conceive you (Ps. 51:5).  That is the predicament of all humanity.  You are not worthy.  You are not good enough.  You cannot ascend to God by keeping His Law.  You will never reach Him that way.  So God comes to you in the humility of His only-begotten Son, wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger, because there is no room for Him in the inn (Luke 2:7).
            “In the beginning…” (John 1:1; ESV).  In our Holy Gospel, St. John takes us back to Genesis.  “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1).  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1, 3).  It is this Word of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the eternal Son of God, who “became flesh and dwelt among us” (v. 14).  The Creator has come into His creation.  The Creator has come to make His dwelling in the midst of His creation, in the midst of His people, to tabernacle among them, to be one with them, to be one with you.  The Creator has come into your flesh to redeem you.  Because you could not ascend to Him, He has come down to you.  The Word, the Son of God, has come down to the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, to be a Son of Adam, to undo all that Adam did and all that you have done, and make Adam and you sons of God once again.
            And He comes right into the midst of your broken mess of a life.  He doesn’t wait for you to be good enough or clean enough.  He doesn’t wait for you to polish up your life so that you and He can live in the delusion that everything is just fine without Him.  He knows just how screwed up everything is, just how screwed up you are.  He knows about your unfaithfulness, the things you do and say and think in secret.  He knows your selfishness, your pride, your loose tongue, your wandering eye.  You can hide those sins from yourself, but you can’t hide them from Jesus.  The good news of Christmas is that He comes to you, not even in spite of those things, but because of them, to deal with them, to take them away from you, to take them upon Himself and bear them to the cross.  That is why He had to be born as a real Man, fully Man, really born of a woman, real flesh and blood.  So that He could stand in for you and take the corruption of your flesh upon Himself, and so that He, even though He is God, could die.  For you.  So that you, being man, can live.  In Him. 
            You see, He comes into your mess of a life as Life in the midst of death, as Light in the midst of darkness.  All life has its source in the speaking of God.  The Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (v. 4).  And the thing about this Life from Jesus Christ, which is the Light of men, is that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (v. 5).  Your darkness, your sin, your sadness, your suffering, your death, cannot overcome the Light and Life that Jesus brings.  Christ Jesus is risen from the dead.  And He will raise you.  You have eternal life.  What happens when Jesus comes to you is that His Life dispels your death, takes over, encompasses you.  His Light dispels your darkness, shines into every corner of your body and soul, your heart and your mind, and completely envelopes you.  In Christ, all your sin is gone.  In Christ, your death is done.  In Christ, all that is wrong is right.  In Christ, you are a child of the heavenly Father.  You are not worthy, but He is.  He is your worthiness.  You are not good, but He is.  He is your goodness.  He is your righteousness.  He is your holiness.  In Him, you stand before God as a son, to inherit the Kingdom with Christ.  All of this is yours, not by works, but by faith.  By believing in Him.  By receiving Him, receiving your Christmas gift from God, your heavenly Father.  “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (v. 12). 
            You receive Him on your head and in your ears and in your mouth.  Water, Word, bread and wine, the Body and Blood born of the Virgin Mary.  He comes to you still in the humility of the Means of Grace.  He comes to you still right in the midst of your broken mess of a life.  He comes for the broken.  He comes for sinners.  How many of our members stay away from Church, stay away from the Body and Blood of Jesus, because they think their lives are just too broken and messy for Him?  Dear brothers and sisters, this should not be.  If your life is broken and messy and you know it, come.  This Supper is for you.  It is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick (Luke 5:31).  Christmas is for broken people.  The Church is a hospital for sinners.  Christ comes to you here in the midst of your sickness and darkness and death.  To make you whole by His Life and Light.  That under these humble vessels you see His glory, “glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  That from His fullness you receive grace upon grace (v. 16).

            And so we feast.  The Creator has come to rescue His creation.  He has come in the flesh to redeem our flesh.  Christ is our Immanuel, God with us.  And He is our Light and our Life.  Joy to the world, the Lord has come.  Now sing we, now rejoice, with heart and soul and voice, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, over what our God has done.  God is a Man.  And in Him we are all made sons of God.  Merry Christmas!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.