Cruce Tectum

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

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Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Second Sunday in Lent

Second Sunday in Lent (C)
February 28, 2010
Text: Luke 13:31-35

Rejection of preachers is nothing new. Prophet after prophet was sent by God to Israel, preaching repentance, preaching a returning to God, and prophet after prophet was rejected, exiled, imprisoned, tortured, executed. Preaching the Word of God demands a high price of the preacher. It demands self-sacrifice. But it is God who sends the preacher, and God who places the preaching into the preacher’s mouth. The preacher is to preach whatever God sends him to preach, and only what God sends him to preach, no more, and no less. And so a preacher preaches whether the message falls on deaf ears or finds reception in open hearts. The preacher preaches whether the seed of the Word falls on rocky ground or good soil, even at risk of the seed being picked off by birds or growing up only to be choked by thorns or scorched by sunlight. The preacher preaches the Word of God, Law and Gospel, bitter and sweet, life and death, because that is what he is called to do. The preacher preaches repentance and the forgiveness of sins. He preaches Christ. And woe to him if he fails to do it.

Now let me say at the outset here that I don’t have an axe to grind with this congregation… You’ve been nothing but welcoming to me, and you’ve embraced my family as your own. We’ve been among you almost four years now. I love you all dearly. But what I’m getting at here is a very real spiritual danger that has afflicted (and continues to afflict) many congregations and could at any time afflict ours, a danger that has troubled the Christian Church throughout her history, and that is a constant battle in the heart of every sinful saint: Rejection of the preacher and his preaching. We see it in our Scripture readings this morning. Jeremiah is rejected by the priests and the prophets, the religious elite of Judah, who want to kill him for his preaching (Jer. 26:8-15). Paul speaks of many who once walked in his own example, but who now walk as enemies of Christ (Phil. 3:17-18). And finally, our Lord Jesus is rejected by Herod, by the Pharisees, by Jerusalem, by the very people for whom He came to die (Luke 13:31-35). Why are preachers so often rejected? I’m not talking about legitimate reasons for fleeing a preacher or removing him from office, such as the preaching of false doctrine, or leading a manifestly sinful life. Why are even faithful preachers rejected, not only by the world, but by the people of their congregations? There are many superficial excuses… His personality rubs me the wrong way. I can’t understand him. I don’t like the way he conducts the liturgy. I don’t like the liturgy. I wish he preached more “uplifting” sermons. I don’t like how he always talks about sin and death and crosses and forgiveness. Why does he always harp on me about attending church and going to confession and absolution and receiving the Sacrament so often? I wish he would concentrate less on doctrine and more on what is relevant to my life (as if the doctrine, the teaching of Jesus, could ever be anything but relevant to you). I’m sure there are many other reasons given for rejecting a preacher. And maybe you’ve had some of these thoughts yourself. But in reality, when a preacher is rejected, it is for the Word He preaches. That is to say, what is rejected is the preaching of repentance, and the preaching of Jesus Christ. Jesus said to His disciples: “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16; ESV). When a faithful preacher is rejected for preaching the Word of Christ, it is, in reality, Christ Himself who is rejected, and so the Father who sent Him.

Sometimes the preaching is rejected outright, as the priests and prophets rejected Jeremiah, and as Jerusalem rejected our Lord, both seeking to kill the preacher. We think of so many Christian martyrs throughout the centuries who were tortured and killed for their faithful proclamation of Christ. Often pastors are removed from their pulpits because they refuse to scratch the itching ears of their congregation. More often, the rejection is subtle, a matter of the heart. I know this because I’ve done it myself: We nod and smile as the pastor preaches, but in our hearts we secretly acknowledge that we don’t really believe what he’s saying. Beloved, repent.

The problem here is the hardness of the human heart. To the natural man, to the unconverted person, and even to the believing Christian insofar as every one of us is still a sinner, the preaching of Christ and His cross is an offense (1 Cor. 1:18; 2:14). For outside of Christ and His life-giving Spirit, my will, your will, is bound. The bondage of the will is not a popular article of doctrine, and too-little taught and preached. Ever since Adam and Eve fell into sin, the human will has been bound to choose only sin, only death, only that which is opposed to God. This is why you can never say you made your decision for Jesus. A slave cannot choose which master to serve. You are born into the service of sin and unbelief, of death, and ultimately, the devil. That is what it means to be lost. You cannot choose to serve Jesus when you are bound by the chains of the evil one. And what really gets us about the idea of this bound will is that there is nothing you can do about it. If you are to be rescued from this bondage, it must come from outside of yourself. It must come from God. It can only come from God. All of this is simply to reaffirm what we confess in the Small Catechism: “I believe 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, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”[1] The only way that anyone ever comes to accept and believe Jesus Christ and His Word and His preachers is by the Holy Spirit working through the divinely appointed means of grace, the Word and Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. You don’t choose Jesus, He chooses you! It is by grace. Faith is not your work, it is the gift of God. But that doesn’t mean that faith is easy. Our Lord Christ has covered our sin with His blood, forgiven us poor sinners, but we still sin. We are at the same time saints and sinners, and so it is always a struggle with this sinful flesh to believe the preaching, to hear the preacher, to allow the Law to do its painful work on us, to look to Christ alone for help and salvation.

What great compassion our Lord Jesus has for those who reject the preaching, reject the prophets, reject Him and the salvation He alone brings. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Luke 13:34). When there is danger, when there is a predator, like a hawk, seeking to eat the chicks, or when a fire threatens her brood, a hen will shield the little ones with her own body. She will die for the sake of her offspring, to save them. In the same way, Jesus suffers the cross for us. He dies for us. He dies for the sins of the whole world. He suffers our punishment. His wings are outstretched on the cross, and He would gather all people under them, gather all people to Himself, under His cross, in His holy Church, for safety and shelter. Jesus sets His face toward Jerusalem for that very purpose, that He may die for all humanity, and gather a Church unto Himself: “I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem” (v. 33). Why can’t Jerusalem see the salvation that comes to her in Jesus? Why do the people not bow down in homage to the One who would pay so high a price, His blood and death, for their forgiveness and life? The answer is here in our text, in the lament of our Lord: “you would not!” (v. 34). It’s the bondage of the will. Jerusalem “would not,” willed not to be thus gathered to our Lord in faith, because her will is bound to choose everything and anything other than our Lord. It is not a lack of love or willingness on God’s part that leads to the eternal death of the sinner. It is the stubborn human heart that rejects the preaching, rejects the Gospel, and so rejects Jesus, rejects God, rejects salvation.

Beloved in the Lord, there is nothing within us that led the Holy Spirit to convert us, to turn our heart in repentance to faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. It is not by our merit or worthiness or any effort on our part that we came to faith. It is all by grace. Do not torture yourself with the question why everyone else is not converted. It is a futile question, a seeking to look into the hidden will of God, things that are not given us to know. We can only say what Scripture says, what our Lord says in our Gospel lesson this morning: How God longs for every sinner to be gathered to Christ and be saved, and how only the stubborn, hard heart of man, his bound will, is responsible if he is lost. God does not force anyone to believe. There is no such thing as “irresistible grace.” But there is unimaginable grace.

What great grace that God gave His sinless Son into death for us sinners. What great grace that God has gathered us here, by Baptism, under the wings of His Son’s cross, into His outstretched arms, into His nail pierced hands. What great grace that God has gathered us here to His Church, where we receive all the benefits of the death and resurrection of Christ, including His very body and blood in the Supper. What great grace that here God has placed a man into the preaching office, of himself unworthy, flawed, weak, sinful, but called by God to speak Jesus into your ears and hearts, to forgive your sins, a mere instrument and mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit. What great grace that we can come every Sunday, and so many other times during the week, and we will always find our Savior here in the preaching, and in the Sacrament. For the preacher is called to preach God’s Word, preach Jesus, and woe to him if he does not do it. God grant that this preacher, and every Christian pastor, always proclaims Christ and His Word faithfully, no matter the consequences, even if it be rejection, even if it be death. But what great grace that our Lord has not left us orphans. He comes to us (John 14:18), here, in Word and Sacrament. And even as we gather around His altar to receive His true body and blood, really present, received in our mouths for our forgiveness, we sing these words, the words Jerusalem sang as our Lord came into the city to die for her, for us: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 13:35). And so we see Him in the Supper, just as we hear Him in the preaching. Rejection of the preacher is nothing new. What is new is you, your heart released from bondage, forgiven of sin, freed by the Spirit, brought to faith in Christ by the same Spirit. What is new is the life you have in Christ crucified, the open ears and hearts that hear and cling to His Word. “Therefore, my brothers” and sisters, “whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved” (Phil. 4:1). Stand firm by hearing Him. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Luther’s Small Catechism (St. Louis: Concordia, 1986).

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Lenten Midweek 2

Lenten Midweek 2: “The Promising Word”[1]
February 24, 2010

Text: Luke 23:39-43 (ESV): 39 One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” 43 And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Beloved in the Lord, the second Word of Life from Jesus on the cross for our consideration this Lententide is a Word of Promise. Our bleeding, dying Savior declares to a justly condemned malefactor: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).

Behold, there are three crosses on Golgotha. The sinless Son of God, even our Lord Jesus Christ, innocent, righteous, unjustly condemned, hangs between two criminals, one on His right, and one on His left. One of the criminals rails against Jesus. “Are not you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (v. 39). “If You are who You say You are, You can simply do a miracle and deliver us from our punishment.” It is a perverted prayer for salvation. It is a prayer for salvation outside of, without, the cross. It is a prayer for deliverance from the cross, not through the cross. And, in reality, it is no prayer of faith. This criminal joins in the mockery of our Lord. His is a prayer of derision. “Some Christ You turned out to be! What an end You’ve come to! Imagine, executed, nailed to a tree, like a common criminal!”

What a difference between this criminal and that on the other side of Jesus. “Do you not fear God,” he inquires of his counterpart, “since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (vv. 40-41). It is both a confession of sin, and a confession of Christ. “We deserve nothing but death. We are justly condemned. We deserve all the fire of hell, in fact. We have no right to ask for deliverance from this fate. But this man, this Jesus of Nazareth, has done nothing wrong. He is righteous. Have you no shame? Don’t you fear God?” And then he turns to Jesus, who alone can help him in this, the hour of his death, and he prays for real salvation. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (v. 42). “Remember me.” The criminal doesn’t pray that Jesus would save him from crucifixion. He prays that Jesus would remember him. “Remember me in Your mercy. Deliver me from my sins. Deliver me from my just condemnation. O You who are what the sign above Your thorn pierced head declares, King of the Jews, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.” Beholding the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, beholding God’s Servant suffering the wrath of God on behalf of sinful humanity, beholding the Promised Messiah suffering for him, bleeding for him, this criminal beholds his only Savior, his Lord, and his God. Thus he prays: Remember me. And it is here, in this context, that Jesus, the King of the Jews, the King of the universe, God in human flesh, enthroned upon the cross, declares His saving Word of Promise: “today you will be with me in Paradise” (v. 43).

There is nothing essentially different about these two criminals. Both are guilty of horrendous crimes. Both are justly condemned. Neither has any righteousness of his own to boast of. Neither is worthy of mercy or help. The only difference is this: One believes in Jesus, and one does not. One trusts Jesus alone for salvation, for forgiveness of sins. The other rejects the salvation that Jesus gives. One prays in faith, the other mocks. One receives the Word of Promise: “today you will be with me in Paradise.” The other, rejecting that Word, resigns himself to an eternity in hell.

Beloved in the Lord, you and I must see ourselves in the criminals crucified on either side of Jesus. We are either the criminal who believes in Jesus, and so receives the Word of Promise, or the criminal who mocks, and so is lost. You and I should be justly condemned for our sins. The wages of sin is death. We are sinners, through and through, our nature so corrupted with original sin, producing all manner of actual sins, the bad tree bearing bad fruit, the terminal disease producing noxious symptoms. Out of our hearts proceed evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. Like the criminals, we are guilty, having no righteousness of our own to boast of. We are not worthy of mercy or help. We must confess that we are poor, miserable sinners, by nature sinful and clean, having sinned against God in thought, word, and deed. The question is not whether we are guilty. The question is not whether we deserve our punishment. The question is what we believe about Jesus. Because either we will be like the first criminal, who mocks and derides, who really has no faith or fear of God, or we will be like the second criminal, confessing our sins, but simply entrusting ourselves to the mercy of Christ, who by His holy, precious blood, and his innocent suffering and death, purchased and won us from sin, death, and the power of the devil, and so has redeemed us for God.

Jesus speaks His Word of Promise: “today you will be with me in Paradise.” Faith appropriates that saving Word. Faith grasps that saving Word and clings to it in the peril of death and hell. And so, repenting of our sins, we look to Christ crucified, who alone is our hope and our help. We cling to His promise. And take note, this promise is delivered not outside of the cross, not without the cross, but through the cross. It is won in the suffering and death of the Son of God. And so notice further, the criminal is not delivered from crucifixion on his own cross. Jesus promises him eternal salvation, but he does remove him from his current suffering, his current cross-bearing. The Promise does not remove from the thief the civil penalties for his crimes, nor does it remove him from the earthly consequences of sin. “This word, like Jesus Christ, does not bring an end to earthly suffering. It does, however, empty all our suffering of its verdict against us and fills it with Jesus Christ for us now and in paradise.”[2] And so we should not expect the Word of Promise to deliver us from all of our current sufferings. We will still have to suffer the consequences of sin and bear the holy cross in this earthly life. But we can do so in the faith of the criminal, who receives the Word of Promise: “today you will be with me in Paradise.” Heaven awaits. Paradise is the end of suffering. There is no suffering in Paradise. But Paradise comes through the vicarious suffering of Christ. And we are delivered to the life to come in the Paradise of God through many trials and tribulations. So be it. Christ is with us in our suffering and cross-bearing. And in our suffering and cross-bearing, we are molded into the cruciform shape of our Lord Christ, as we come to despair of ourselves, confess our sins, and rely on Him alone for mercy, help, and salvation.

So we take Jesus and His Word of Promise with us throughout our life, and into our death. For one day, it will be you and me staring death in the face. On that day, there will be only one help, one Deliverer, one Savior from death and hell. It is Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. And we can do no better than to pray the prayer of the thief on the cross: Lord Jesus, remember me, that I, unworthy beggar that I am, sinful and altogether unrighteous in and of myself, but pleading Your blood and righteousness alone, may come into Your Kingdom, and so be with you forever in Paradise. Grant it, O Lord, for the sake of Your bitter suffering and death. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] This year’s Lenten series is based on Words of Life from the Cross (St. Louis: Concordia, 2010). Though the sermon is my own, the theme and many of the particulars are taken from the series.
[2] Mark W. Love, Words of Life from the Cross: Daily Devotions (St. Louis: Concordia, 2010) p. 15.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

First Sunday in Lent

First Sunday in Lent (C)
February 21, 2010
Text: Luke 4:1-13

Beloved in the Lord, this morning we see that “Our Saviour Himself was willing to wrestle with the devil in His temptation in the wilderness, in order that He might overcome him for us and for our salvation, and thus be our faithful Champion in all our conflicts with the tempter.”[1] As our perfect substitute, the Son of God united Himself to our flesh, became our Brother, and so was, as the writer to the Hebrews reminds us, “in every respect… tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15; ESV). It was divinely necessary that our Lord undergo the temptation common to man, and He did so throughout His life. But particularly now, at the beginning of His earthly ministry, immediately after His Baptism, our Lord is led by the Holy Spirit (Mark even says that the Holy Spirit “drove” Him) into the wilderness to undergo a great trial: 40 days (from which we get the 40 days of Lent), exposed to the elements, with no food, at the end of which, when He is tired and hungry and most vulnerable, He is acutely and viciously tempted by Satan. He is tempted to forsake His saving mission, and so leave us in sin and death and hell. He is tempted to doubt the Word of His Father. He is tempted to doubt that He is the Son of God, the Word made flesh. He is tempted to use His power for selfish ends. Our Lord suffers this temptation, goes head to head with the devil in mortal combat, and He is victorious. He does not succumb to the temptation. He does not give in to the devil. He does not fall, as Adam did, and as we do. He is without sin. He is victorious. He defeats temptation for us.

We all suffer temptation. Temptation is enticement to evil. Our Lord is tempted for us, in our place, as our substitute. He stands in for us in the fight against the devil, that He might win the victory for us. He stands in for His people Israel, 40 days in the wilderness being representative of the 40 years that the people of Israel spent wandering in the wilderness, ever tempted and surrendering to idolatry. He stands in for His Church, the new Israel, who wanders in this wilderness of sin, full of sinners, ever under the sinister attacks of Satan. He stands in and He resists, in our place. He is actively obedient to His Father, and in the great exchange whereby Jesus takes our sin upon Himself and pays for it on the cross, and we get His righteousness by Baptism into His death and resurrection, Jesus’ resistance against temptation is credited to our account. We are now pronounced righteous by God, justified, because our Lord Jesus resisted temptation and was victorious in our place. It was divinely necessary that our Lord be severely tempted by the devil, and that He win, so that He can ever be our Champion in the battle against the adversary.

Every temptation, whatever specific sin it may be enticing us to commit, is ultimately a temptation to make the self a god. Thus when Adam and Eve are tempted by the old wily serpent in the Garden of Eden, they are specifically tempted to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree from which God had forbidden them to eat, lest they surely die (Gen. 3). But ultimately the sin to which Satan tempted Adam and Eve was the idolatry of self, the desire to be their own God, to determine their own good and evil, to be the masters of their own destiny. Satan tempted Adam and Eve to believe that God was holding out on them, that they could be just “like” Him, knowing good and evil. And so they ate, and for the first time they truly knew evil. They didn’t simply know about evil, they experienced it. They had sinned, broken God’s loving will, come to immediate spiritual death, begun the process of dying physically, and brought upon themselves the just condemnation of eternal death in hell. Adam and Eve were tempted, and they were not victorious. The devil won the battle in the Garden that day. And ever since humanity has been fallen, utterly corrupt, suffering the terminal disease of sin. For this reason, it was necessary that a new and greater Adam come on the scene and be tempted by the devil. Jesus is that new and greater Adam, the new Head of all humanity. Adam and Eve were cast out of paradise into the wilderness of this fallen creation. Our Lord goes out into the wilderness to be tempted, that He might bring humanity back into Paradise. God had promised Satan in the presence of Adam and Eve: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heal” (Gen. 3:15). In this way Adam and Eve and the rest of us, their children, would be saved from death and hell and restored to the Paradise of God.

And so our Lord goes to battle against the serpent in the wilderness. There are three temptations recorded by the Gospel writers, and each of the three is ultimately of the same nature as that in the Garden of Eden: “Did God really say? Isn’t God holding out on you? Are you really His beloved child? Don’t you think you could do a better job than God?” Each temptation bids Jesus to show that He is the Son of God by an abuse of His divine power. Of course, Jesus is God. He is God in the flesh. But being also fully human and in His state of humiliation, Jesus could be tempted as we are. And were He to succumb to the temptations of the evil one, He would effectually reject His suffering on our behalf, reject His saving mission, reject the cross, and so we would be forever lost. Needless to say, after 40 days of no food, Jesus is hungry. The devil says to Him, “Make bread out of these stones! You can do it. You are the Son of God, aren’t you?” Notice how the devil seeks to lead Jesus to doubt: “If you are the Son of God…” (Luke 4:3; emphasis added). He wants Jesus to doubt God’s Word, to demonstrate His divine powers by changing stones into bread, to satisfy His own selfish hunger, to fill his belly, to reject suffering, to reject obedience to the Father. Just as Adam is tempted with food, so Jesus is tempted with food. It’s the Garden of Eden all over again. But Jesus counters with the Word of God: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone’” (v. 4). And in this way, by remaining in God's Word, Jesus is victorious.

Again, the devil tempts Him. He shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, a stupendous vision, all the wealth and power of every worldly kingdom, all of which are influenced by Satan. And Satan promises Jesus, “If you’ll just worship me, just pay a little bit of homage to me, I’ll give you all of this. I’ll make you the greatest earthly ruler that ever was. You’ll have everything at your disposal, unlimited wealth, fame, power, and influence. It won’t cost much. Just bow down once.” It is a temptation to be an earthly god. But Jesus’ Kingdom is not of this world. He again answers with the Word of God: “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve’” (v. 8). And again, Jesus is victorious.

The devil gives it one last try. Taking Jesus and setting Him up on the highest point of the Temple, the pinnacle, he says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here” (v. 9). “It’s a test, to see if You really are the Son of God, because if You are, God will not allow You to die, and all in the Temple will see and know that You are the Son of God, and they will all worship You. Your mission will be accomplished. You won’t have to suffer. You won’t have to die on the cross.” And then, in a perverse imitation of Jesus, the devil quotes Scripture: “for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone’” (vv. 10-11; cf. Psalm 91:11-12). “You won’t even hit the ground! You’ll go sailing up into the air for all to see in a glorious display of majesty!” But the devil never quotes Scripture without twisting it. He fails to quote the whole thing. God, according to the verse, commands His angels to guard Jesus, that Jesus might walk “in all your ways” (Ps. 91:11), that Jesus might never transgress God’s commandments. And so also the devil fails to quote the verse immediately following this. The angels bear up Jesus so that he can “tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot” (v. 13). The promised Seed of the woman, the Son of Mary, Son of God, comes to crush the serpent’s head. He does so by suffering the mortal snakebite of the cross. It is the only way. The devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour, even to devour our Lord, but Jesus, the Lion of Judah, is mightier. In His obedience to the Father, in His resistance of temptation, in His death on the cross, in His victorious resurrection, He defeats the devil forever. Once again, our Lord resists the temptation with the Word of God: “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Luke 4:12). Not only should Jesus not put the Father to the test, the devil should not put his Lord and God to the test. Jesus is the Lord and God of the devil. And with this Word of Jesus, the devil must flee.

Our Lord utterly defeats Satan. He faithfully resists temptation and stands firm in obedience to God. He does this for us, in our place. His victory is our victory. Yet we are still tempted. We are daily tempted by the devil and his demons, along with the world and our own sinful flesh. What are we to do when we are tempted? We are to remember that though we are weak and helpless in the face of the devil’s attacks, Jesus is stronger than the devil, and He has won the victory for us. We resist temptation by taking Jesus’ Word, God’s Word, and throwing it in the face of the devil. “One little Word can fell Him.” That Word is Jesus, the Word incarnate, and His written Word in Scripture. And we pray for help in time of need. We pray: “Lead us not into temptation.” We can pray this confidently, because Jesus was led into temptation in the wilderness for us, in our place, and He was victorious. Temptation actually has great benefit for us. God tempts no one, it is true. But He does allow us to go through temptation for our good. Temptations drive us to Christ. They lead us to despair of ourselves and our own righteousness, works, abilities, etc., and drive us to Christ alone for mercy and help. They drive us to find Christ in the means of grace, His Word, our Baptism, the Sacrament of His body and blood. They drive us to where He has promised to be for us. They drive us to Holy Absolution, for when we fall, when we fail to resist, our Lord is always there to forgive. His blood covers all our sins. Temptations show us that we cannot save ourselves, that of ourselves we are weak, unable to win the victory. Temptations show us that we are, on our own, in fact, dead. We cannot be our own god. We can do nothing outside of Christ. But Christ is our Victor. Christ is our Champion. Christ is our Savior. He is our God! And in Him, we can begin to resist temptation. In Him, we are forgiven, righteous, justified, as if we never sinned. For He is our righteousness. He is our salvation. He is our life. God is not holding out on us. He gives us Christ. And in Christ He brings us back out of the wilderness into Paradise. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Johann Gerhard, Sacred Meditations (Malone, TX: Repristination, 2000) p. 229.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday[1]
February 17, 2010
Text: Luke 23:24: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (ESV).

Beloved in the Lord, as the Roman soldiers pound the nails into His flesh; as the Jewish elite and the common passers-by mock and taunt Him; as the disciples, once boasting of their loyalty to Jesus, scatter in fear of like-punishment; our dear Lord Jesus Christ prays that God would forgive them. He prays that God would forgive them all, that He would not hold their sin against them. Jesus prays for His persecutors and executioners, prays through His blood and agony, prays from the depths of His Being. He pours His whole life into this prayer. Jesus prays that the sins committed against Him, the sins committed against Almighty God, be charged not to the account of those doing the sinning, but His own account, to Himself. Jesus takes the sin into Himself. Jesus pays the penalty for the sin in His flesh. Jesus gives Himself for sinners’ sake, and He prays that in no way may this sin be held against the perpetrators. Jesus prays that the sin may be His own.

This Lententide we consider the seven Words of Jesus from the cross. These are Words of life to us, and the first Word is no exception. For life comes to sinners only by the forgiveness of sins. And it is from the cross, the instrument of our Lord’s torture and death on behalf of sinful humanity, that Jesus prays: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He is not just praying for His executioners. He is praying for you. He is praying for me. He is praying for every sinner of every time and every place. He is praying for our forgiveness and salvation. Make no mistake, sin must be dealt with. The wages of sin is death: not just physical death, but spiritual death, and eternal death in hell. In no sense does God excuse our sin. In no sense does He sweep our sin under the rug. In no sense should we fail to grasp the seriousness and severity of our every offense against God. If God is just, if God is holy, then He must deal with sin. Jesus prays that God would deal with all the sin of all the world on His cross, in His suffering and death. Jesus prays that God would not deal with us as our sins deserve, but would rather deal with Him, with Jesus, the sinless Son of God, as our sins deserve. And God gives Jesus what He prays for.

Beloved in the Lord, by our sins, you and I nailed Jesus to the tree of the cross. And it is true, we know not what we do. We fail to consider that every bitter word, every spiteful thought, every lustful glance, every covetous desire, required the death of God in the flesh for atonement. We fail to understand that our very nature, fallen and utterly corrupt by original sin, requires nothing less than the blood of God to be cleansed. We imagine that God winks at our sin and pretends He doesn’t see, unless of course it is a big sin committed by someone else. We expect Him to deal with the serious sins of the big sinners in His divine wrath, but we know we’re forgiven of our little sins. Jesus loves us after all, and so it doesn’t really matter what we do. But we don’t know what we’re saying, anymore than we know what we’re doing. Jesus does love us. He loves us so much that He takes all those so-called “little” sins that merit eternal hell-fire, and He pleads with His Father to punish Him in our place. There is nothing little about sin. Every crucifix ought to remind us of that. Every crucifix ought to remind us that Jesus suffered the great physical agony of the cross and the great spiritual agony of hell in payment for our “little” sins as well as our “big” ones. It is true, we know not what we do, for we sin so carelessly and never give a thought to divine justice.

But Jesus knows what He is doing. When Jesus took our sins upon Himself, He knew exactly what He was doing. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). This is the great exchange, the “happy” exchange as Luther called it. It is happy for us, for all our sin becomes Christ’s, and all His righteousness becomes ours. When God looked at His Son on the cross, He saw all the sins of all the world, and He unleashed His just and holy wrath. And so now, when God looks at us, He sees nothing but the perfect holiness and righteousness of His Son. Thus we are saved from the punishment of death and hell that we rightly deserve. Jesus takes our place, that we might be in His place. He does it willingly. He does it deliberately. He does it out of love for you and me. May we never fail to recognize this blessed truth. Jesus is our substitute. He stands in for us before God. Every crucifix ought to remind us of that. Every crucifix ought to be a source of great comfort and strengthening for us, for on the cross our precious Lord wins for us the full and free forgiveness of all our sins. We are reconciled to God. God loves us as His own dear Son. We are baptized into the reality of the crucifix. We are baptized into the death of Jesus. His death is our death. And remember, death and crucifixion are not the end of the story. Christ is risen. And we are baptized into His resurrection. His life is our life, now, in a hidden way, and then, in the Day of His returning, fully manifest to the sight of all.

We are sinners, and the wages of sin is death. That is why we receive ashes on our foreheads this evening. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. You will die. Your body will decompose. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes. But the ashes are placed upon us in the shape of the cross. For though we have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death, physical death, we are redeemed, bought back, by our Lord Jesus Christ on His cross. As in Baptism, so now, we receive the sign of the holy cross to mark us as redeemed by Christ the Crucified. And so even though we die, we live. For whoever lives and believes in our crucified Lord Jesus, even though he die, yet shall he live. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In this forgiveness is life for the sinner, life eternal and abundant.

And that life starts now. It actually started at Baptism. Again, it is hidden in this life, but it is a new life marked by faith toward God and love toward the neighbor. That means you can forgive your neighbor his trespasses against you, as you have been forgiven by God on account of Christ. You can recognize that the blood of Christ covers your neighbor’s every sin as much as it covers your every sin. How freeing this is. Let all grudges be gone. Let all resentment be cast aside. Let our hearts be open. Forgiven by Christ, let us all rejoice in our common gift of redemption. May we never forget the prayer our Lord prays for us in the midst of His agony: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” May we live in the freedom and joy of that forgiveness.

That freedom and joy, the Christian life, does not exclude repentance, however. The Christian life is a life of daily repentance, daily crucifixion of the old sinful nature with its sinful and selfish desires. And so we are marked with ashes, and we enter upon another penitential season of Lent. God keep us faithful in the fast, in preparation for the Easter feast. We shed our tears of sorrow now, that God Himself may wipe them away. We look to the cross of Christ especially now, that we may gaze eternally upon Him risen and glorified. God has answered our Lord’s prayer. Our sins are forgiven. Our assurance is in the body pierced and the blood shed, here present and distributed by our crucified and risen Lord Himself in the Holy Supper. Rend your hearts, beloved. Confess your sins. Believe the Gospel. Receive the absolution. Come to the Table of our Lord. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] This year’s Lenten series is based on Words of Life from the Cross (St. Louis: Concordia, 2010). While the theme and many of the concepts and motifs come from this material, the actual sermon is my own.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Transfiguration of Our Lord

The Transfiguration of Our Lord (C)
February 14, 2010
Text: Luke 9:28-36

Beloved in the Lord: Ascending the Mount of Transfiguration with our Lord and His inner-circle of disciples, we catch a glimpse of the Promised Land. There, our Lord is transfigured before us, manifesting Himself in His heavenly glory. Here, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is the proof that before us stands nothing less than God in human flesh. It is an epiphany, a revelation. Messiah has come, God Himself, to deliver us from sin, death, the devil, and hell. Before us stands God’s beloved and only-begotten Son, His Chosen One. We are to listen to Him. Because His Word alone can bring us life and salvation. His Word alone can preserve us in this fallen world and deliver us from our own fallen flesh. His Word alone can snatch us out of the jaws of hell and the fangs of the devil. We catch this glimpse of the Promised Land, heaven, here on the mountaintop with Peter, John, and James, that we might be strengthened for what lies ahead. For this is only a glimpse, a foretaste of what is to come. Heaven awaits, Easter and resurrection are coming, but not before the cross. Lent is fast upon us. Holy Week and Good Friday are immanent. There is no avoiding Golgotha. But the theologian of glory in every one of us would avoid the cross. The theologian of glory in every one of us would rather stay on the Mount of Transfiguration and bask in the divine glory of the Lord, bask in the presence of the Old Testament saints, Moses and Elijah, stay forever on that mountain where there is no cross.

This is why Peter proposes making three tents. He wants to dwell there on the mountain in the glory of Jesus, with Moses and Elijah as their honored guests. What Peter fails to understand is that the Transfiguration is but a promise of what is to come. And it cannot come without the cross. Peter doesn’t want the cross. He doesn’t like all this talk about suffering and death. And yet, that is the topic of conversation between Jesus and Moses and Elijah. They are discussing Jesus’ “departure,” literally “exodus,” “which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Luke 9: 31; ESV), which is to say, His suffering and death on the cross. This alone accomplishes the salvation of the world. This alone wins the forgiveness of sins for all people. Indeed, in the conversation of Moses and Elijah we get to eavesdrop on what is the content of all the conversation in heaven: Our Lord Jesus and His saving mission; namely, His death and resurrection. This is the content of all the praise of the whole heavenly host, that God gives His only Son into death to save us. Salvation only comes through the cross. Eternal life only comes in the death of the Son of God. This is why Jesus came. In fact, before the Transfiguration, Jesus had told His disciples this very thing: “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (v. 22). Death comes before resurrection. It cannot be any other way. And so also the disciples of the Crucified Savior must expect to bear the holy cross, not for their salvation, but simply because they belong to Jesus: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it” (vv. 23-24). Whoever would stay on the mountaintop and bask in that heavenly glory, avoiding the cross, will lose that glory. But whoever loses the glory, descends the mountain to take up the cross daily and follow Jesus, that person will receive the eternal reward of heaven. For that person will be covered by the blood of Jesus. Faith takes up the cross and follows Jesus. Faith is showered by the blood of Christ. Peter wants to stay on the mountain, but he does not know what he is saying. He is listening to his own words, his own wisdom, human wisdom which considers the cross to be foolishness. And so the Father must correct him, correct us, point us to the only Word that can impart life and true heavenly glory to us, the cruciform Word of Jesus, the Word of the cross. “This is my Son,” declares the Father, “my Chosen One; listen to him!” (v. 35).

Our Lord gives His disciples, gives us this glimpse of His glory for our strengthening and encouragement. He desires to strengthen Peter, John, and James, for the difficult road ahead of them, the road to the events of Holy Week, when the Shepherd is struck and the sheep are scattered (Matt. 26:31). He strengthens them with this foretaste of the resurrection. That is what the Transfiguration is. It is a little sneak-peak at our Lord’s resurrection glory. The Lord will suffer a gruesome death on our behalf, for our salvation. But He will again dwell in glory. Knowing the end of the story fortifies the disciples against despair in the face of the cross. And so also, the Transfiguration of our Lord strengthens us with a foretaste of the resurrection. For we, too, as disciples of Jesus, must bear the holy cross, again, not for our salvation, for the cross of Christ alone is the instrument of our salvation. He has earned it for us. But the disciples is not above his Master. If Jesus had to bear the cross, we should expect to bear the cross, too. For the devil, the world, and even our own sinful flesh, despise the Savior and His disciples. And so there is suffering in this fallen world for the Christian. It is often inexplicable suffering. We often do not know why God allows us to bear certain crosses. But faith confesses that they are for our good. Contrary to human reason, the holy cross is a precious gift. Our gracious God gives us to bear the holy cross as a gift of His love, for in so bearing the cross we are molded and shaped into the image of our Crucified Lord Jesus. But we know the end of the story. We know that the Lord Jesus was not only nailed to the cross for our salvation. He is risen. He dwells now eternally in divine, heavenly splendor, with power and great glory, ruling all things for the benefit of His Church. And we know that He who is risen from the dead will raise us from the dead on the Last Day, and that between now and that Day, when we die, He will take us to heaven to be with Him in perfect bliss. We bear no crosses in heaven. We bear no crosses in the resurrection. Knowing the end of the story fortifies us against despair in the face of our own suffering and cross-bearing.

It is always tempting for this sinful flesh to avoid the cross and suffering, whether it be our Lord’s cross and suffering, or our own. And that is why Lent is so burdensome. Transfiguration Sunday marks the end of the Epiphany Season, the end of the Christmas cycle of the Church Year. This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, and once again we will rend the garments of our hearts in repentance, confess our sins, receive the sign of the holy cross in ashes upon our foreheads, and be reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. This isn’t a pleasant thought. What we are confessing here is that we will die. Our bodies will decay. And this is because of sin. The wages of sin is death. Only Christians can make such a sober confession in confidence, because we know that death is not the end of the story. Because our Lord died for us, we know that we will live, eternally, in Him. Our Lord’s Transfiguration is not just a glimpse of His resurrection glory, it is a glimpse of our own future resurrection glory in Him. Christians, those baptized into Christ, you and I die in the full confidence of the resurrection. And so we can enter the penitential season of Lent knowing its culmination is Easter. We can fast now, knowing the feast is yet to come. We can put away our “alleluias” for a time, knowing we will soon sing them again with gusto. And we can bear the holy cross in this life, carrying around the death of Jesus in our bodies, knowing that glory awaits. It is possible to bear sickness and injury and broken hearts and death itself, all of sin’s consequences, because we know that finally all of these things hold no power over us. Sin and death are defeated in the death of Christ for sin. The Transfiguration is a little glimpse of this victory, which is invisible now to all but the eyes of faith, but will be fully manifest in heaven and in the resurrection.

Of course, we didn’t actually see the Transfiguration, like Peter, John, and James did. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t still a comfort to us. In fact, St. Peter writes that “we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19). St. Peter says the Holy Scriptures are more sure than the sight of the Transfiguration, because Peter had to leave the holy mountain, but we can return to the Scriptures again and again. We can live in them. Here we can build a tent and dwell with Jesus. And so dwelling with Jesus in His life-giving Word, we realize that His body is the true Tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting, the dwelling place of God with men. It is the body of Jesus of which we sang in the Introit: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!” (Ps. 84:1). And so the Father says of the Son, “listen to him,” for in listening to Him, He dwells with us, and we dwell in Him. We listen to Him, to the Chosen Son of God, in Scripture and preaching and Sacrament. And in this way we behold God in the flesh. It is crucified flesh. It is risen flesh. And so we are strengthened to enter upon the road to the cross, the Lenten road, the only road that leads to our own resurrection from the dead and eternal life. Our Lord gives us a glimpse of the Promised Land of heaven and the resurrection in His Transfiguration. This is for our strengthening, as now, for a little while, we bear the cross, until that Day when the glimpse becomes our permanent reality. God strengthen and keep us for that Day. It will surely come. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany

Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (C)
February 7, 2010
Text: Luke 5:1-11

How does Jesus, the Lord and Master of the Church, go about making disciples? The scene St. Luke paints in our Gospel lesson shows our Lord Jesus mobbed by a great crowd of people, pressed in on every side. So eager is the crowd to be in His presence, to be near Him, to get a piece of Him, that He must get into a fishing boat and push out a ways from shore. And what is it that is drawing the people? Why are they crowding around Him by the Lake of Gennesaret? Our text does not say that Jesus is performing miraculous healings, though that certainly would draw a crowd. No, this crowd is not drawn by the miracles. St. Luke tells us that “the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God” (Luke 5:1; ESV [emphasis added]). So eager were they to hear the preaching of Jesus that they gave Him no breathing room, wanting to be as close as possible so as to catch every word of teaching. They practically push Him into the lake! Jesus came to preach, as we heard last week. He came to preach the Good News of the Kingdom of God (4:43). And with His preaching, Jesus caught His hearers like fish in a net. They were utterly captivated by the Gospel, holding the Word of God sacred, and gladly hearing it and learning it.

It is in this context that Jesus calls His first disciples, the apostles (literally “sent ones”) to be fishers of men (5:10). And notice how they are to catch these men: They are to preach! They are only given one tool by which to make disciples: The Word of God. They are not given some kind of slick commercial program to gain adherents. Jesus doesn’t tell them to do anything and everything to get people in the front door (the old “bait and switch” method). Jesus never defines evangelism that way. There is no synodically mandated movement afoot here, as if the cleverness of men could ever be more effective than the Word of God. The hook is not the preacher’s personality. And as important as friendliness is, Jesus doesn’t mention it here. Jesus says nothing of coffee bars and big screens and contemporary worship. He certainly never advocates capitulation to the prevailing whims of the culture, and He never capitulates Himself. The hook, line, and sinker in evangelism are the Word of God alone. The Word of God alone is the vast fishing net that scoops up the elect unto salvation by faith in our crucified and risen Lord Jesus. The evangelism program of Jesus is simple: Proclaim His Word. Proclaim the Gospel of Christ. Confess Christ. It’s so easy, a child could do it. And children do do it. They do it every time they sing a hymn or speak a prayer or talk about Jesus. Children don’t spend millions of dollars to sit around and talk about evangelism and missions all the time. They never talk about it. They do it. They just talk about their Savior. And it shouldn’t go unnoticed by us adults how willingly they invite their friends to church with them. The evangelism done by our children is the most effective, because they only make use of what God has given them for the task: His precious Word.

Jesus preaches the Word, and the crowds press in upon Him. Then He calls Simon Peter, James, and John, fishermen all, to speak that same Word, and so catch men. The Word preached and read in Scripture, and the visible Word that is the Sacraments, are the only means, the only tools of the trade, that our Lord gives these apostles, the only means He gives His Church, for making disciples. He reinforces that point shortly before His ascension into heaven when He says to His apostles (Matt. 28:19-20), “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” … Sacrament, visible Word of God… “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” … Preaching, audible Word of God. And our Lord promises that in this way, through these gifts, these means of grace, Word and Sacrament, He Himself will be present with His disciples. “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” And just in case the disciples and the Church doubt the power of the Word, and the Word alone, to make disciples, our Lord gives here an object lesson: At the Word of Jesus, Peter, James, and John are to let down their nets once again. Even though they’ve been fishing all night unsuccessfully, at the Word of Jesus, they are to try one more time. When these professional fishermen make their best effort, with all of their knowledge and experience, they catch nothing. But what happens when they rely on the Word of Jesus alone? The nets are full to the bursting! They are so heavy with fish that two boats, working together, begin to sink. The point is not that Jesus can cause a miraculous catch of fish. He certainly can do that, for He is the Creator and Lord of the universe. But the point is that if Jesus can do this with fish by His powerful and effective Word, He can certainly do it with men.

Now, we must regard this miracle rightly. This is not to say that every time we preach the Word of God, the masses will fill our building to capacity. It would be a false theology of glory to believe that. It would puff us up, and lead us away from reliance on the Word alone to trust in our own efforts and methods for success. We preach Christ crucified here in this place called Epiphany Lutheran Church. We proclaim the Word. And yet, we’d all like to see more people in the pews. God grant it, for Jesus’ sake. But God nowhere promises that every preaching of His Word will bring in a miraculous catch. He does promise this: My Word “shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Is. 55:11). The Word of God is always powerful and effective, it always accomplishes what God sends it to do. Where the Word is proclaimed, there the Holy Spirit is busy and active, creating faith, calling by the Gospel, enlightening with His gifts, gathering the Church, sanctifying, and keeping His Christians in the one true faith of Jesus Christ. This is an article of faith, not sight. And so while the Church often appears to be anything but bursting at the seems, we yet confess that God is faithful in His Word, and that He makes disciples by the same. And certainly when we regard the Christian Church in her totality, including the saints who have gone before us and are now in heaven with Jesus, the Church never shrinks. It is always getting bigger and bigger. Every Baptism is church growth! Beloved in the Lord, we are not called to grow the Church. God does that. It is His work. But we are called upon to preach the Word, to confess Christ. And that Word is mighty, always performative, always living and active and accomplishing great things.

Peter is astounded by the power of God’s Word, and we should be, too. Falling to His knees, he confesses, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). It is not unlike Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson, who confesses his great unworthiness. Seeing the Lord sitting upon His throne, the prophet declares, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Is. 6:5). Then a seraph flies to Isaiah. He has in his hand a burning coal. So hot is the coal, even this angel must use tongs to handle it. And the seraph touches Isaiah’s mouth with the coal and says, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for” (v. 7). We, like St. Peter, are sinful men and women. We are unworthy of the presence of our Lord. We, like Isaiah and the people of Judah, are a people of unclean lips. Were it not for the Lord’s great mercy, we would all die in His presence. But He has touched us with the burning coal of His Word. So powerful a Word is it, that even the Seraphim must treat it with reverence. And yet it is near us, so near as to touch our lips and fill our mouths with the Word of God, with Christ Himself. And so being touched, we are cleansed. For the Word of God is a Word of absolution, forgiveness of sins, in Christ Jesus. The Word brings us all the benefits of the cross. The Word conveys the death of Christ. The visible Word, Baptism, conveys the death of Christ and His resurrection, and washes away sin. The visible Word, the Lord’s Supper, conveys Christ’s true body and blood for our forgiveness and strengthening. The Lord cleanses us, forgives us, renews us, gives us new life, so that we, as His people in this place, can speak His Word. And so we need not fear, as Jesus says to Peter. “Do not be afraid,” which is always an absolution on Jesus’ lips; “from now on you will be catching men” (Luke 5:10). From now on you know how the catching of men will be accomplished: By the Word, and by the Word alone. Programs may have their place. Strategies may or may not be useful. But the Word alone is the important thing; the Word of God concerning Christ, the Savior.

Beloved in the Lord, do you want to be a missional congregation? Do you want to be an evangelistic Christian? Take a lesson from our children. Don’t talk about it all the time. Just do it. Talk about Jesus. Invite your friends to Church. Because in so doing you utilize the one and only tool that Jesus has given His Church to make disciples: The Word of God. And you yourselves, be like the crowds in our Gospel lesson. Hang on every Word He speaks. Be so eager to hear the Word of God that you press upon Jesus, that you delight to be where He is, to be near Him, to get a piece of Him. He is here to be pressed. He is here for the taking. “Take, eat; take, drink,” the tangible Word of forgiveness. He is here to preach. His Word is powerful. It is powerful unto the salvation of all who believe (Rom. 1:16). It is powerful to catch you into Jesus’ net, and deliver you unto eternal life. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

The Liturgy: God Fills Our Mouths With His Word

Pastor’s Window for February 2010
The Liturgy: God Fills Our Mouths With His Word

Beloved in the Lord,

There are many reasons to be thankful for the rich Lutheran liturgical heritage that we enjoy, but certainly chief among those reasons is that the Liturgy of the Church, be it the Divine Service in one of its settings, or the Prayer Offices such as Matins, Vespers, Compline, Morning/Evening Prayer, puts the very Word of God in our mouths. Most of the Prayer Offices begin with the words of Psalm 51:15: “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare Your praise” (e.g. LSB p. 219). The Lord opens our lips and fills our mouths with His Words. We declare His praise by saying back to Him what He has first said to us.

The liturgy teaches a pastor how to speak. This struck me particularly several weeks ago while ministering to the dying, the grieving, and those hospitalized. When it rains, it pours, and I was making several hospital (and other) visits a day. I was exhausted. I realized how true it is, as Paul says, “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God” (2 Cor. 3:5; ESV). I have no sufficiency in myself. Finally, what do you say in the face of death? I have no words. But the Lord has words. He alone is our sufficiency, He alone is my sufficiency in ministry. And I, as a pastor, am called to speak the Lord’s Word, not my own. In one hospital room, when the chitchat was one-sided, me struggling to say anything worthwhile and failing miserably, I finally said, “Let’s begin our service.” And now there were words, God’s Words, the Divine Service, as we heard our Lord’s absolution, meditated upon His Word, and received the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood. The chitchat was worthless. The Word of the Lord never fails.

The liturgy teaches you how to speak. The liturgy makes the Word of God in the Scriptures your heart language. You literally learn it by heart. And now you have the words to say when you are called upon to confess Christ to your family members and friends and neighbors and the world: You know the Creed. Now you have words to pray when you can’t come up with the words yourself: You have the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms and the hymns and collects of the Church. Now you know what to say when your sins bother you and the devil accuses you: You know the absolution, the forgiveness of sins. You know the Gospel. You know the body of the Lord crucified and the blood of the Lord poured out for your forgiveness and placed on your lips. You know this from the Words of Institution that you hear every week. You know you have your Lord’s benediction, the blessing of the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and you can invoke His Name at any time and any place, making the sign of the holy cross, for you were baptized into that Name. You belong to Him. His Name is written on you.

The liturgy teaches you how to speak in the face of trial and tribulation. What a great comfort are the words of the liturgy when you are sick, when sadness overtakes you, when a loved one dies, or when you are at death’s door yourself. You can sing the Nunc Dimittis: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace… for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation.” You have heard the voice of Christ. His Word is in you. His body and blood are in you. And you are in Him by Baptism. Even death is but a sleep from which you will awaken in the resurrection.

The liturgy teaches the Church how to speak. It defends the Church against false doctrine. The Gospel is placed upon the lips of pastor and people even if the pastor teaches falsely elsewhere. And the people know when the pastor is teaching falsely thanks to the Word of God that they learned by heart through the liturgy. So also, the liturgy informs our corporate prayer. We sing and speak the same words, in unison, as the Body of Christ. We pray “Our Father…” Through the liturgy the Word of Christ dwells in us richly, and so we teach and admonish “one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness” in our hearts to God (Col. 3:16). The liturgy places the Word of God into our mouths, into our ears, into our hearts. For this, we should all thank God. Because none of us are sufficient in ourselves. We have no words. But God has graciously opened our lips, and filled our mouths with His Word. Indeed, He fills our mouths with Christ Himself.

Pastor Krenz