Cruce Tectum

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

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Location: Dorr, Michigan

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Palm Sunday/ Sunday of the Passion

Palm Sunday/ Sunday of the Passion (C)
March 28, 2010
Text: John 12:12-19/ Luke 22:1-23:56

Jesus enters Jerusalem as a conquering King, albeit in humility, riding on a donkey. He leaves the city as a humiliated criminal, to be executed among murderous thieves, yet He is crowned with thorns and enthroned upon the cross. The charge Pilate has nailed could not be more true or more poignant; for here upon the tree, lifted up as the royal standard of our salvation is “the King of the Jews” (Luke 23:38; ESV), indeed, the King of all humanity, the King of all creation, our King and our Savior. His Kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), yet His Kingdom encompasses this world and all things, the whole universe, Pontius Pilate, Caesar himself, even the devil and his demons, for this King is no mere earthly claimant of an earthly throne, but Almighty God in the flesh. And He rules all things for the good of His people, for the good of all who believe in Him, for the good of His Church. “Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate had asked Him at His trial (Luke 23:3). “You have said so,” was Jesus’ pointed reply. And now above His head Pilate says so again, for every witness to read for himself, and much to the chagrin of the chief priests: “This is the King of the Jews” (v. 38).

Beloved in the Lord, behold your King. Behold Him enthroned upon His cross, gathering the nations to Himself, sheltering them under His wings, His outstretched arms. He beckons you, too, into His bloody embrace. Behold your King, bearing your griefs, carrying your sorrows, stricken by God, smitten by Him, and afflicted, all for you. Behold your King, pierced for your transgressions, crushed for your iniquities, punished that you might have peace with God, wounded, that in His wounds you might find healing. God has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. For we’ve all gone astray, like dumb sheep, eating poisonous weeds and drinking dirty water and wandering right into the clutches of the wolves and the thieves. Christ, our Good Shepherd, our Suffering Servant, is oppressed and afflicted, that He might win us back. He takes our place, submits Himself to the wolves and the thieves and the butchers so that we may be saved. He goes willingly. He does not open his mouth in protest. Though He could at any moment call upon a legion of holy angels to come to His defense, He is silent (cf. Is. 53). He endures it all for us. He takes it all, all the sin, all the wickedness, all the fallen-ness of this world into Himself. He who knows no sin becomes sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). He takes all the wrath of God for us. He is forsaken of His Father for us. He goes through hell on the cross for us. Indeed, “it was the will of the LORD to crush him” (Is. 53:10), that we might not be crushed, but brought to eternal life.

And so it is in this way that Jesus is your King. He is King precisely in His humility and suffering, by which He purchases you for Himself. The price on your head is His blood. His blood be on you and on your children, that you may be His own, and live under Him in His Kingdom. The cross of Calvary is the location where the Son of God is glorified as King. Here very God of very God does not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but willingly, deliberately, makes Himself nothing, having taken on the form of a servant, your human flesh, making Himself obedient to God in your place, as your stand in, obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. And in this way God highly exalts Him. Only through the death of the cross can our Lord Jesus be raised from the dead and so be victorious over death. God has raised Jesus from the dead and placed Him at His own right hand to rule as both God and Man, so that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow in homage to the King, every knee in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:6-11).

This is the way God works in the world. He kills and He makes alive; He wounds and He heals (Deut. 32:39). He casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. He chooses what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. He chooses what is weak in the world to shame the strong. Our God chooses what is low and despised in the world, even the things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, so that no human being might boast (1 Cor. 1:27-29), so that all must come under the reign of the crucified King. Jesus is the foolishness of God. Jesus is the weakness of God. Jesus is the last, the least of these, the One who is not who brings to nothing the first, the greatest of these, the things that are. And so He rules. He brings all things into subjection to God by His blood and death. All people, believers and unbelievers alike, are under His government, which is a government of grace for believers, and of judgment for unbelievers. Finally, even Satan must acknowledge the Lord’s Kingship. “Are You a King then?” Indeed. “You have said so.” It is as plain as the charge nailed above His sacred head.

Your King Jesus has graciously redeemed you, a lost and condemned person. He has purchased and won you from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood, and with His innocent suffering and death, all so you may be His own and live under Him in His Kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness (Luther’s Small Catechism). How do you serve this King? By believing Him. By trusting Him in everything, especially for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. You serve Him by faith, rejoicing in His salvation and living daily in His gifts in His Word and in your Baptism into Him, being nourished by His body and blood in the Supper. You serve Him by living lives that bring Him glory by serving your neighbor in love. Because this King has freed you from your bondage to sin, death, and the devil in His death for you. He has freed you to serve Him without fear of condemnation or the accusations of the Law. He has freed you that you might be subject only to Him.

Behold your King, high and lifted up, upon the cross extended, His royal wooden throne, thorns His only crown. Behold your King, glorified in His humiliation, humiliated that you might be glorified. Behold the One who became nothing that He might be your Everything. Behold your Savior, your crucified God, your eternal King. Today is the first day of Holy Week. Holy means “set apart.” Set apart this week.[1] Set it apart for meditation upon the image of the crucifix. Set it apart to behold your King, for in beholding Him, you behold your redemption. Come faithfully to His house this week, where He meets you with healing in His wings, where you have an unobstructed audience with your King. God strengthen you for this week. God strengthen us all, and grant us faithfulness. For this week we journey to Golgotha, to Good Friday, to the cross, for it is the only way to Easter and resurrection. You cannot skip over death if you are to have a resurrection. The Lord kills before He makes alive. He wounds before He heals. But Easter is coming. Be patient. Wait upon the Lord. The King will deliver you. Take up your cross now and follow Him. He will lead you on straight paths to the place of healing and life. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Thanks to the Rev. Timothy Winterstein for this admonition.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It's TIME to Rock the Lutheran World

An urgent plea from the Rev. Matt Harrison (copied from his blog) that would alter the current course of world Lutheranism and the financial focus of our Synod... I agree, let's "rock the Lutheran World!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

It’s TIME to rock the Lutheran World

In the mid-1990s, I met a friendly African man working in the print shop at St. Louis Seminary. I was immediately drawn to his winsome personality. I was on campus doing graduate coursework for a summer session. He was in St. Louis – on leave from teaching at the seminary of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Kenya, in Matongo, Western Kenya. A controversy over the bible’s teaching on the sinner's justification before God had rocked the church. Scandinavian missionaries in Kenya suggested Robert Preus be invited to speak on the topic. He did so. It was Dr. Preus who suggested that Walter study in St. Louis.
Next I heard of Walter Obare, he’d been elected Bishop of his Kenyan church body sometime early in the new millennium. This rather large and fast growing church had no official ties with the LCMS. In
2003, Walter wrote to me as executive director of LCMS World Relief and Human Care, and soon I was able to visit Kenya. We began an investment in the Kenyan church and its programs of mercy for the needy. This has borne fruit beyond anything we could have hoped for or imagined.
Soon Walter had convinced his church to seek fellowship with the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. That was accomplished in 2005. The relationships with the Missouri Synod have continued to grow and blossom. A few years ago, as the Church of Sweden was devolving like so many liberal Lutherans, into the acceptance and promotion of homosexuality. A group of faithful Lutherans within that church asked Walter to come to ordain for them a bishop who could in turn ordain pastors who were faithful to the word of God. This was necessary because the Swedish church has for years harassed and denied ordination to young men faithful to God’s Word. Walter did so. But he soon was accused of “meddling” in the affairs of another church body. He was called on the carpet by the Lutheran World Federation leadership (the ELCA Bishop is also head of the LWF!), and even removed from the LWF theological commission.
Yet Walter did not, has not, looked back. In fact, I just received news that Walter traveled to Europe again last week. In Bavaria he received the Walther Kuenneth Prize for faithful Lutheran Confession, given by the remnant of faithful Lutherans in the Bavarian church (Sammlung um Bibel und Bekenntnis). He also traveled to Finland where he assisted in ordaining a Finnish Bishop for a group of faithful Lutherans there facing the same persecution and harassment (http://scandhouse.org/finland/home.html).
The news of a black African bishop, coming to Scandinavia (the Kenyan church was the mission plant of the Swedish church and other Scandinavian mission societies), as a missionary seeking to re-introduce the true faith to the motherland, has caught the attention of not only the Lutheran World, but also the secular press.
All this happened because ONE student from Africa was given the chance to study at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.
It’s time to rock the Lutheran world. It is time for us to shift 4 million dollars (as a start) from the total 80 or so million dollar budget of the national LCMS, to both seminaries. (In fact, with a bit more money our Canadian sister church and its seminaries could also help us rock the Lutheran world!). This will enable 100 international students per year on each of the two LCMS campuses (at about $20,000 a student). One of our seminary presidents was speaking with an ELCA seminary president recently, who complained, “The ELCA provides only 15% of our funding.” Imagine the shame in our man having to admit that the LCMS provides next to nothing for our seminaries! This is an immediate way to increase the number of students at our schools, increase the numbers of faithful Lutheran missionaries and theologians around the world, and to introduce the deaconess ministry as the option for the service of women in confessional Lutheran Churches around the world. Think of the benefits of our American students getting to know the next Walter Obare? Think of the lifelong missionary interest and knowledge of the world that will be shared! We have so much to learn from friends around the world! Think of a hundred Obares A YEAR going home to Asia, to Russia, to Eastern Europe, to India, to Indonesia, to Madagascar, to central and South America! We have a theological treasure to share with the world. As the ELCA has fallen off the cliff on the issue of sexuality and the authority of the bible (along with the host of northern and liberal Lutherans), the Lutheran world has never been more open to contact with the LCMS. These scholarships will be provided to top students from our partner churches, and from many other churches well beyond our traditional realm of cooperation.
Our seminaries know how to deal with international students. We have the room on the campuses. The people of the Synod want the seminaries supported. We could simply put up HALF the amount ($2,000,000) and ask the good people of the Synod to match it. Given the opportunity, I’d help raise this money myself. Every one wins. In fact, once the Synod begins actually supporting the seminaries (one of the main purposes of the Synod’s existence – long since forgotten; Constitution, Article III Objectives: “Recruit and train pastors… and other professional church workers”; “to support synodical …seminaries”), the money will roll in and the program will be expanded even more. I’ve worked long enough in the Synod’s bureaucracy to know what can and can’t be done. This not only CAN be done, it must be done. It only takes the will to do so. This will be money FOR CHRIST’S MISSION IN THE WORLD well spent! What I’m suggesting is a veritable “drop
in the bucket” compared to the dollars spent by national Synod. But it will be a drop with Tsunami like waves of mercy and grace for the world!
The simplest ideas are the most profound. It’s time to rock the Lutheran World. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine…” Matthew 5:14-16
Matt Harrison
Judica
Lent 2010

Lenten Midweek 6

Lenten Midweek VI[1]

March 24, 2010

Text: Luke 23:46 (ESV): 46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” The dying Word of Jesus is a Word of trust, of total surrender into the hands of the only One who can help, into the hands of the eternal God. Though Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth, He totally surrenders Himself into the authority and control of the heavenly Father for our sakes. Knowing that the work of redemption has been finished, knowing that the Scriptures have been fulfilled, knowing that the time has come to breathe His last, our Lord Jesus prays Psalm 31:5, which reads in full: “Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O LORD, faithful God.” God is faithful to all His promises, and the proof is the dying Man on Calvary’s cross. His faithfulness leads Him to place His Son where we belong, in punishment, in suffering, in death, in the hell of the cross, and so accomplish the redemption of the world from sin, death, and the devil. Our Lord speaks this Word in His death for us, in our place. In commending His spirit in His death, He commends us and our spirits to God. For now reconciliation with God is made complete in the flesh of Christ. Because He has borne our punishment, we can place ourselves into the hands of God without fear of His wrath. Thus this dying Word of faith is a Word of life for us, placing us as children into the hands of a reconciled, loving Father.

Jesus speaks this Word in neither a whisper nor a whimper. He cries out in a loud voice. It is a victorious shout. Death is in its death throes in the death of our Lord Jesus Christ. This cry changes death forever. For now, the believer in Christ can go to his or her death in confidence, knowing that Christ has commended every believer to the Father and the Father, in accepting Christ, accepts every believer. This means that you and I can go to our deaths with the victorious cry of our Lord Christ upon our lips: “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.” We need not fear when the time has come for us to breathe our last. Because Christ died for us, our death is but a portal into heaven. Death is a peaceful slumber for the believer in Christ. When a believer dies, the soul goes to heaven to be with Jesus and in the hands of the heavenly Father, while the body rests in the grave. And then that Day will come when our crucified and risen Lord Jesus will raise all the dead and give eternal life to all believers in Christ. He will reunite our souls and bodies to live with Him forever in a new heaven and a new earth.

But beloved, that eternal life does not only begin the day we enter heaven. That eternal life begins for us in our Baptism and continues throughout our lives on this earth and throughout all eternity. You have eternal life now, albeit in a hidden way. It is hidden by the death that surrounds us on every side. It is true, every one of us will die unless our Lord Jesus returns first. And we live lives of daily death. That is to say, our bodies age. We get sick. We get injured. We watch our loved ones pass away. This very world is dying. Not just the physical world. This world is a world of death. Bad things happen. Trust is broken. Hearts are broken. Relationships are broken. Governments are corrupt. Nations war against nations. Nature itself rebels against man for whom it was created. And all of this because of sin. The wages of sin is death.

Thus the prayer, “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit,” is not only a prayer we pray with our dying breathe, but a prayer we pray daily. We pray it daily as we suffer the changes and chances of this world, as our bodies fail, and as we daily mortify the old sinful flesh in us, turn again and again from the sins that weigh us down to God in faith that He forgives us for Christ’s sake. “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.” There are no other hands that can help. There are no other hands that are safe. When we rebel against God in our sin, when we break His commandments, when we turn to other people or other things for help in time of need, we do the opposite of this prayer. And placing ourselves in any other hands only leads to death, physical, spiritual, and eternal. But God’s are the hands of life. God’s are the hands that created us. God’s are the hands that redeemed us and sanctify us. When we commend ourselves into God’s hands, we confess that we cannot free ourselves from our bondage to sin. Nor can anything else free us. But God can, and He will to do so, and He does so, in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Thus in life and in death, this is our cry of victory, “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit.” Luther enjoins us to pray this prayer every morning and every evening in the Small Catechism: “For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things.” The Christian begins and ends each day with these words, for to commend yourself into God’s hands is to cast yourself entirely on His mercy alone, which is the only safe place to be. Indeed, as Christ says, no one is able to snatch you out of the Father’s hand (John 10:29).

So Jesus prays this prayer for you and for your salvation. And having said this, He breathes His last. He breathes His last, only it is not His last breath. For while He truly dies, the Father, into whose hands He has just commended Himself, raises Him from the dead on Easter. And even as you are baptized into His death, commended into the hands of your heavenly Father, God will also raise you from the dead on the Last Day, and has raised you now spiritually, and given you who once were dead the life-giving breath of His Spirit. “Father, into Your hand I commit my spirit; for You have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.” Now you too, in life and in death, can surrender yourself in total trust into the hands of the only One who can help, the hands of your eternal God and Father, His innocent Son, your Savior, and His sanctifying and life-giving Spirit. For He is ever faithful. And He has redeemed you. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] This year’s Lenten Midweek series is taken from Words of Life from the Cross (St. Louis: Concordia, 2010). The focus and the thematic material come from the series, but the final form of the sermon is my own.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Fifth Sunday in Lent (C)
March 21, 2010
Text: Luke 20:9-20

This morning our Lord speaks another parable about another prodigal man of means, meant to teach us about our prodigal God. The word prodigal, again, means wastefully or recklessly extravagant. In the parable ordinarily called “The Prodigal Son,” we find out that while the rebellious son is wasteful and reckless with his inheritance, so also his father is reckless, prodigal, with love for his son and receives his son back by grace, without any merit or worthiness in him, and out of pure mercy and love restores his son to his original status. This morning we encounter a vineyard owner who is prodigal in his dealings with the tenants of his vineyard. He is reckless as he seeks to bring his tenants to repentance over their hostile takeover of the vineyard. And once again, in this parable, we learn of God’s heart for us. We learn the great lengths to which our gracious God goes to bring us to repentance, to grant us salvation, to include us in His Kingdom. But so also we learn of the other side of the coin in this parable. God’s patience will come to an end. In spite of these great lengths to which our God goes to bring us back to Himself, His invitation can be refused. There is no such thing as irresistible grace. God does not force anyone to believe in Jesus Christ and receive the forgiveness of sins. Finally, God gives those who resist Him, and who harden their hearts, what they want: He leaves them alone. He leaves them alone in their sin, and in their death, and in their condemnation. And this is a great tragedy, because when this happens, these unbelievers find themselves outside of the vineyard, outside of the Kingdom, in hell, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

There was a man who planted a vineyard and let the vineyard out to tenants. Notice that the owner of the vineyard has done all the work of preparation. The tenants only have to tend the vineyard and, when the appointed time comes, give the owner his share of the fruit. The rest is theirs. It is a very generous arrangement for the tenants. But the tenants don’t see it that way. You see, while the owner of the vineyard is generous to them, they don’t want to be governed by him. They are not satisfied to be tenants. They want to have the vineyard for themselves, to run as they see fit, and they want to store up all of the vineyard’s fruit for their own use and profit. And so, when the appointed time comes and the owner sends a servant to collect his share of the fruit, the tenants beat him, and send him back to his master empty-handed. Now, already at this point, most of us would have called the authorities in to evict and arrest these wicked tenants, but not this prodigal vineyard owner. What does he do? He sends another servant! And this one they also beat, and in addition, they treat him shamefully, dishonor him, and send him likewise to his master empty-handed. Surely this time the owner will call in the authorities. But no, he sends yet a third servant! And this one they severely wound and cast out of the vineyard.

What is the vineyard owner to do? It’s like watching one of those frustrating movies where we know what the main character should do, and he’s just not doing it. Here we see the vineyard owner sending servant after servant to men who clearly have no intention of giving up the goods, and the mistreatment of the servants is getting worse and worse. We’re jumping up and down, screaming at the television screen, “Send in the troops! Teach those rascals a lesson!” But we’re dealing with a prodigal vineyard owner. “What shall I do?” he asks himself. “I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him” (Luke 20:13; ESV). Brilliant! That will definitely work! And what happens? When they see the son walking down the road, they say among themselves, “Let us kill him, so that the inheritance may be ours” (v. 14). “Let’s kill the owner’s only son, so that there will be no heir, and then we can have squatter’s rights.” So these violent, rebellious wretches take the son and they throw him out of the vineyard and kill him. The prodigal vineyard owner made a bet, and lost. Or did he?

For the prodigal vineyard owner is God, and the vineyard is His people Israel. The tenants are those called to tend that which God has planted, tend the spiritual life of Israel so that it produces the fruit of repentance and faith, so that the people of Israel are prepared, in fact, for the very coming of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. The tenants are the chief priests and scribes, the religious elite. God sent servant after servant, prophet after prophet to His vineyard to collect the fruit, and what happened? The prophets were beaten, treated shamefully, wounded, persecuted, rejected, sent away empty, many even killed. What is our God to do? He acts prodigally. Out of great love and longing for His people Israel, He sends His beloved and only-begotten Son. He sends Jesus. And what happens? The chief priests and scribes, the Sanhedrin, the religious elite of Israel say to themselves, “Let us kill Him, so that the inheritance, the vineyard, the Kingdom of God, may be ours.” And kill Him they do. Oh, it’s at the hands of the Romans to be sure, but it is the chief priests and scribes pulling all the strings, manipulating the action, stirring up the people, and maneuvering to bend Pilate to their will. They take Him out of the holy city, out of the vineyard, out to the place called Golgotha, the “Place of a Skull,” and there they crucify Him.

Did God lose that day? By no means! This is why we call that tragic Friday “Good.” For in the death of the Son, Israel and all people are redeemed. The vineyard is saved! Because this Son that was killed, this stone that the builders rejected, and that the tenants rejected, has become the cornerstone. And upon Him is built the new Israel, the holy Church of God, to which you and I and all believers in Christ belong. He who died is risen. The Son is still the Heir. And He shares the inheritance with His people who turn to Him in repentance and faith, who trust in Him alone for forgiveness of sins and salvation.

But what of the tenants? “What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others” (v. 16). This is the other side of the coin in the story. Our God is prodigal. He is patient, longsuffering, abounding in steadfast love. He does not desire the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his evil ways and live (Ez. 18:23). But finally there is an end to the time of grace. God does not force anyone to believe in Him and in His Son, Jesus Christ. God does not force anyone to be saved. Just as no one could argue that the vineyard owner didn’t do enough to win back the hearts of the tenants… if anything we would all agree that he did way too much… so no one can argue that God doesn’t do enough to win the hearts of sinners. No one can argue that God didn’t do enough when He sent prophet after prophet, Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and all the others, and finally John the Baptist. And when all those prophets were rejected, mistreated, beaten, killed, what did God do? He sent His Son. And the Son Himself, out of great love for the chief priests and scribes, called them to repentance. But they would not. They would not have Him. Their condemnation is just. They will be destroyed and the vineyard given to others. And that is just what happens. In AD 70 the Romans sack Jerusalem and destroy the Temple. The preaching of the Kingdom of God, the tending of the vineyard, is given to others, to the Gentile believers in Jesus, along with every believing Jew, the new Israel, the holy Church of Jesus Christ.

Our Lord Jesus Christ is the stone that has been rejected. He was beaten and scourged and mocked and spit upon. And then He was crucified. But He did all of this for us, for you, for me, for all people. And though He died, He is dead no longer. He is risen. He has become the cornerstone of the Church, which is you, the holy believers in Christ, as St. Paul says to the Ephesian Christians, “you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:19-21). This afternoon we add another living stone to the Holy Church in the Baptism of little Charlotte Hiscock, thanks be to God! But here’s the thing about this Stone that is Christ: Everyone is broken by it. You either fall on top of this Stone, being broken to pieces, dying to self, crucifying the old sinful nature, being drowned in the waters of Holy Baptism as little Charlotte will be this afternoon, so that Jesus can raise you up to new life and bring you into His vineyard and under His government, so that He can give you the inheritance of the Kingdom. Or, if you continue to reject this Stone, it will fall on you and crush you. And after being crushed, there is no new life, no entrance into the vineyard, no inheritance. You want to fall on the Stone and be broken in repentance, rather than have the Stone fall on you and crush you in condemnation. You either have Jesus as Savior, or you have Him as Judge. And don’t think that the judgment in the parable only applies to the chief priests and scribes. You are the others to whom the Lord has given the vineyard. But if, after making every effort to win back the hearts of the tenants, the Lord still cast them out of the vineyard and destroyed them… If the Lord did not spare Israel after they rejected Him, He will not spare you if you reject Him. So do not harden your hearts. Rend your hearts in repentance. Jesus has sent you many servants: the prophets, the apostles, and the pastors. And most prodigal of all, He has sent you His Son. Believe the preaching and cast yourself upon Him.

In our sinful flesh we always want to buck the governance of God and have the vineyard for ourselves, for our own selfish use and profit. We don’t want to obey His commandments. We want to determine our own right and wrong, our own course. And so we reject the preaching. But now we are baptized into Christ. We have been broken into pieces and raised to new life in Christ. And now this is our daily reality. That old sinful flesh is daily put to death. The new man daily emerges and arises to live before God in righteousness and purity. The new man in us yearns for the governance of God, yearns to return the fruit of repentance and faith to Him. And so unlike the wicked tenants, the Church prays, as we did in our collect, that God, on the basis of His great goodness, would look upon us, behold us in our rebellion, and extend His mercy to us, forgive our sins. The Church prays that God would govern us in spite of ourselves, that we may be preserved and brought to eternal life.

Beloved in the Lord, what a prodigal God we have. He recklessly lavishes His mercy upon us. For our sakes, for our forgiveness, He sent His Son for our redemption. And now He sends us His Word and graciously calls us to repentance and faith again and again, Sunday after Sunday, daily even, in every contact with His Law and His Gospel. And as if that were not enough, in this way He gives us His Son, crucified and risen, for our eternal life and salvation. This morning He gives us His Son in the Supper of His body and blood. It is another gracious, prodigal call. Come, dear Christians, receive of His mercy. Be governed by Him, and so receive the inheritance by grace. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16; KJV). In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Lenten Midweek 5

Lenten Midweek V[1]
March 17, 2010

Text: John 19:28-29 (ESV): 28 After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” 29 A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth.

Beloved in the Lord, behold your Lord Jesus, hanging upon the cross, dying for your sins. He has served God faithfully to the end, in your place, so that His righteousness may be credited to your account. He has suffered hell for you, been forsaken by God for your sake. He has paid your debt to God in full. Indeed, “he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (Is. 53:5). So now, knowing that all is finished, before Jesus breathes His last, He speaks a suffering Word, a Word that is nonetheless a Word of Life for us from the cross: “I thirst” (John 19:28).

“I thirst.” Do not let the comfort of this Word from the cross be lost upon you. That Jesus thirsts means that His suffering for you, on your behalf, in your place, is real suffering. Don’t forget who this is who is hanging on the cross. This is God in the flesh. This is the almighty Word through whom all things have been created, the heavens and the earth, water itself. This is the Rock that followed His people Israel in the wilderness, ever providing them water and refreshment and life. This is He who turned water into wine at the wedding in Cana. This is He who promised the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well that if she asked Him, He would give her living water, and she would never thirst again. Jesus could at any moment call upon a legion of holy angels and they would come with the purest and most refreshing water imaginable to slake our Lord’s thirst. But on the cross, Jesus thirsts. He suffers. For you. For me. He is not only God, but truly human, God and Man, the God-Man. And He has so sacrificially given Himself upon the cross, that in Christ we can say that God thirsts.

Remember this when you suffer in this life. Our God is not a God removed from His people and their sufferings. This God knows what it means to suffer. This God knows what it means to thirst. This God knows what it means, in fact, to die. This God literally goes through hell for you. There is no suffering with which this God cannot identify. And the really mind-blowing reality of it all is that this God works through suffering and thirst and death itself to bring about the salvation of the world and eternal life for all who believe. Jesus thirsts, that we might be satisfied. This Rock is struck by the spear of the soldier, and water and blood pour forth from His side for the life of the Church. Water pours into the font for the washing away of our sin and our adoption into grace. Blood pours into the chalice that we might drink of the cup of our Lord’s salvation. It is all by grace. It is Jesus’ gracious pouring out of Himself in His thirst and suffering for the life and satisfaction of the world.

When our Lord cries out, some soldiers take a hyssop branch and lift up a sponge full of sour wine, vinegar really, not at all satisfying, and place it upon His lips. It is not good wine. It is not fit for the supper table, much less as a gift for the dying Savior. But this is to fulfill the Scriptures, Psalm 69:21: “for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink.” And so also this is to fulfill Jesus’ own prophecy: “For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:18). Here our Lord drinks of the fruit of the vine. The Kingdom of God has come. It has come in the flesh of Christ lifted up upon the cross. It has come in our King enthroned upon the tree, crowned with thorns, He who thirsts for our righteousness, and pours out Himself that we might have it. The Kingdom of God comes as the Church is born from blood and water, the riven side of the thirsting, suffering Savior.

And so this evening the Kingdom of God comes to you, the people of God, the holy Church, as you drink of the fruit of the vine with your Savior. He Himself gives you to drink. He gives you to drink of Himself, His blood, shed for your forgiveness, under the wine, even as His true body is under the bread. This is no sour wine, no wine-vinegar. This is the vintage. Drink of this and you drink of the spiritual Rock of Israel. Drink of this and you join the unending wedding feast. Drink of this and you drink deeply of the water of life, even as you are baptized into that life. Jesus’ thirst has become your satisfaction, your fullness. Jesus’ thirst means that your thirst forever comes to an end. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] This year’s Lenten midweek series is taken from Words of Life from the Cross (St. Louis: Concordia, 2010). The sermon is my own, but the theme and many of the details come from the above-mentioned materials.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Fourth Sunday in Lent (C)
March 14, 2010
Text: Luke 15:1-3a, 11-32

When it comes to confessing sin to God, there are two kinds of confession. One is a confession that does not expect real mercy or real forgiveness, the kind of confession that believes it must work for and earn a new status and relationship to God. The second is a confession that casts itself entirely into the merciful hands of God, pleading no merit of its own, no ability to work for or earn the forgiveness of sins in any way, but pleading the blood and death of Christ alone. The first kind of confession is made on the belief that sins can be worked off, that the sinner can make satisfaction, atone in some way for his sin, even if only in part. We see this in the Roman system where satisfactions are added to confession and absolution, to make the forgiveness of sins an effective remedy for the sinner.[1] But this idea is not unique to Rome. Our fallen nature, with a little help from the devil and the world, always convinces us that we have to “make up for” the bad things we’ve done, our sins. How many people spend their whole lives trying to make up for something they’ve done in the past because they cannot escape their guilt? The problem with this idea of making up for sin is, of course, that it is a denial of the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrificial atonement on the cross, where He was punished for all our sins, where He made perfect satisfaction for us, where He alone earned our salvation, our new status before God. Beloved in the Lord, Jesus has done it all for you. You cannot add to His satisfaction, nor do you need to. You are too weak and sinful to add anything. But thanks be to God, Christ paid your debt in full. All your sins are covered by His blood. You are free. And so the only right way to confess your sin is the second way, in such a way that you cast yourself entirely into the merciful hands of God, pleading no merit of your own, but only the blood and death of your Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

The prodigal son (and prodigal, by the way, means wastefully or recklessly extravagant), has sinned against his father. We all know and love the story. There is this man who has two sons. One son is loyal, dutiful, an all around good boy. The second son is rebellious, wild, and greedy. This second son one day goes to his father and asks for his share of the inheritance. It is as if he said, “Dad, I wish you were dead. I’d rather have the money than have you.” Now most fathers would have a few stern words to say to such a son. But this father does something prodigal, wasteful and recklessly extravagant: He gives the boy what he wants. In fact, he divides the inheritance, all that he owns, and gives both of his boys their share. The older, loyal, dutiful son gets the family farm, as is the custom. The younger, rebellious, wild, undeserving son gets money. And with that money the boy takes a trip to a far land (think Spring Break in Panama City Beach, Florida), and he blows the whole thing, his entire inheritance, in reckless living. And then to top it all off, a severe famine arises in the land. The boy begins to be in need. He looks for a job, but no one will hire him. Finally one of the local pig farmers feels sorry for the boy and gives him a pittance to feed the pigs (and don’t let the irony be lost on you, that this Jewish boy is feeding unclean pigs!). But the job still leaves the boy hungry and dirty and homeless. He longs to eat the pods that the pigs eat, the ones human beings can’t digest, but at least it would be some sort of “filler” for his aching stomach. Look where sin leads this boy. It leads him where sin always leads: To certain death. The sin is fun for awhile, but the fun is meaningless and harmful and quickly comes to an end. Finally sin leaves the sinner in despair and spiritual death, leading to temporal and eternal death. The boy is as good as dead sitting there beside the pig trough.

It is about this time that the boy hits rock bottom. And now he finally comes to his senses. “Wait a minute, here I am sitting next to this pig trough, starving to death, when my father has how many servants back home, all of them well dressed and well fed, with a roof over their heads? I know what I’ll do. I’ll go back home and I’ll confess my sin. ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son’ (Luke 15:18-19; ESV). And then I’ll work my sin off: ‘Treat me as one of your hired servants’ (v. 19). Yes, that is what I’ll do. I may not find a kind reception at home, but at least I’ll have food and clothing and shelter and I’ll get away from these stinking pigs.” So the boy arises and sets off for home, a mere shadow of the man he was when he left, skin and bones, still reeking of the pigsty, disheveled, covered in mud and who knows what else.

Now, the boy’s father was heartbroken when his son left him. After all the love the father had prodigally showered upon his son, his son had wished him dead and selfishly taken his share of the inheritance to go and sow his wild oats. Still, the father loved the boy dearly. Everyday the father would spend the hours watching and waiting, hoping against all hope, eyes on the horizon. “Maybe my son will come back to me today.” And one day, over the crest of the hill, still a long way off, a figure appeared. It hardly looked human, but the father would recognize that walk anywhere. “My son! My son!” yells the father. And then he does something unimaginable, prodigal even. This man of means hikes up his robes and runs! Nobody respectable runs in the ancient world, but this father does. Why does he run? Because of his great love for his son. His joy overtakes him. He loses all reason and scruples. He runs to the stinky, rebellious, sinful boy and throws his arms around him. The boy starts to make his confession: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (v. 21). And right he is, but the father cuts him off before the son makes the rest of the appeal. There will be no talk of satisfaction for sins. There will be no earning of a new status before the father. The father will hear nothing of it. Without any merit or worthiness in the boy, purely out of love and mercy, the father commands his servant to cover the boy with the best robe, put the family signet ring on his finger, fully restore the boy to his original status, that of beloved son. It is all by grace. And now there will be a great party, great rejoicing over this son who has repented, who was dead, but is alive again, who was lost, but is found. There will be feasting. They will kill the fattened calf and eat and drink and be merry all night long.

You, beloved, are the prodigal son. But thanks be to God, your Father is also prodigal. You have squandered your inheritance in reckless living, in sin, which leads only to death. How your father has longed for your return in repentance. He watches for you. His heart aches for you. And whenever you return, whenever you repent, whenever you confess your sins, your heavenly Father runs to you and scoops you up in His arms, filth and all. There will be no talk of satisfaction for sins. There will be no talk of earning a new status before this Father. Your heavenly Father will hear nothing of it. Without any merit or worthiness in you, but solely on account of the merit and worthiness and sacrifice of His Son Jesus Christ, your God will put the best robe on you, the robe of Christ’s righteousness, given in Holy Baptism. He will put the signet ring on you, making you His own child. And He will set a Table before you, the Table of His Son’s true body and blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of sins. It is a foretaste of the eternal feast to come, where you will eat, drink, and be merry in the presence of God and His Christ forever and ever.

Of course, there is another son in this story. He hears the merry-making as he is coming in from another day in the fields. He grabs a servant and asks what all the hubbub is about. “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound” (v. 27). Now one might expect this son, too, to be overjoyed at the return and restoration of his brother. But this son instead is angered and refuses to go in to the party. The prodigal father leaves the party to beg his older son to join in the festivities. But the boy is jealous. “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him” (vv. 29-30). Beloved in the Lord, many of you are also this older, jealous son. For this son represents the Pharisees and every lifelong member of the Christian Church who thinks that one must earn his status before God, or that at least his good works give him a special status ahead of the bigger sinners in the congregation. This son represents every Christian who feels superior to unbelievers for having been chosen as God’s child, every Christian who feels superior to drug dealers and rapists, IRS men and prostitutes and prodigal sons, you know, the really “big” sinners. This son represents every Christian who looks upon his neighbor in self-righteous judgment, judging himself better than others. This son does not make confession of sins, because he believes he has already made satisfaction for himself, and so, he too, denies the sufficiency and even necessity of Christ’s sacrificial atonement. Beloved, repent.

And join the party. Rejoice over the dead who have been raised to new spiritual life. Rejoice over the lost who have been found. Rejoice that God has found you, brought you to faith, raised you to new spiritual life, and given you an inheritance and life eternal in Christ Jesus. We don’t know whether the second son ever goes in to the party. The story is intentionally ended as an open question, because now the question is what you will do. Will you continue to believe that a sinner must work for his status before God and work off his sins, earn his salvation, earn his standing in the Christian community? Or will you believe that this is all by grace, for Christ’s sake, without any merit or worthiness in you? Will you cast yourself into the merciful hands of God, pleading only the blood and death of Christ? For that is true confession of sins. That is a confession that expects and receives absolution, the forgiveness of all sins on account of Christ, our crucified God.

In Christ, Beloved, you are reconciled to the Father. In Christ you are a new creation. “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). And all of this is from God. It is not by our works. It is through Christ, who has reconciled us to Himself, so that God no longer counts our trespasses against us (vv. 18-19). Therefore let us confess our sins, not in such a way that we might thereby work them off, not expecting a list of satisfactions by which we may add to the atonement of Christ, as if we could, but in this way: Casting ourselves on the mercy of God and receiving full and free forgiveness of all of our sins in Christ alone. In this way God covers us once again with our Baptismal robe of Christ’s righteousness and prepares a great feast for us on this altar. And God, without any merit or worthiness in us, but only because of His Son Jesus, calls us once again by the Christian family Name: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church (New York: Image/Doubleday, 1995) pp. 404, 407-08.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Third Sunday in Lent

Third Sunday in Lent (C)
March 7, 2010
Text: Luke 13:1-9

The Old Testament lesson from Ezekiel (33:7-20) is sobering for a preacher to read, to say the least. For God has a Word that He would have proclaimed, and the preacher, whether he be prophet or apostle or pastor, is called to proclaim it. And woe to him if he does not. A spiritual shepherd must give an account for the souls of his sheep. When God gives a Word, the preacher must warn the people. If the preacher does not warn the wicked, calling upon sinners to repent, then the death of the sinner, his eternal death in hell, is on the preacher’s hands. But if the preacher warns the sinner to turn from his ways, then even if that sinner does not repent, dies in his iniquity, the preacher has fulfilled his responsibility and delivered his soul. The difficulty is, of course, that sinners don’t want to hear the preaching of repentance. No one wants to be told that they are sinning. No one wants to be told that they are wicked. And yet, there is not one of us to whom this message doesn’t apply. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. We are born altogether corrupt. We daily transgress the Commandments. There is none who does good, not even one. Outside of Christ we are altogether lost. The preaching of repentance is as critical today as it was in Ezekiel’s day, and the preacher is held to the same responsibility, called by God to preach repentance, a turning away from sin, a turning from sin and to God, to Christ, in faith for forgiveness and mercy.

Beloved, our Lord calls you to repent. And this call is, in reality, pure grace. He does not utterly destroy you and consign you to an eternity in hell, as your sins deserve. He is patient, longsuffering, abounding in steadfast love. But His patience does have an end. Now is the time of grace. Now is the time for repentance. There is no repentance after death. There is no repentance on Judgment Day. Repentance is for this earthly life. How our loving God longs for our repentance, as He says in Ezekiel: “As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (33:11; ESV).

This morning our Lord Jesus, in His grace, calls you to repent. He is the Vinedresser in our text, who pleads with the owner of the vineyard, God the Father, to graciously allow the fruitless fig tree just a little more time to produce fruit (Luke 13:8-9). You, beloved, are the fig tree. God would have you produce fruit in keeping with repentance (Luke 3:8). It is not as though He hasn’t given you time. Notice in the parable, the owner of the vineyard came seeking fruit for three years, and had found none. The tree had become useless, a waste of space and time and energy and resources. It is solely on the basis of the vinedresser’s pleas that the owner of the vineyard allows the tree to stand one more year. In that year, the vinedresser will dig around the tree and fertilize it, and if it bears fruit after that year, it will retain its place in the vineyard. If not, it will be cut down, good for nothing but the fire.

In the original context of this parable, the vineyard is Israel, and the tree is Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the crowning city of the Promised Land, the site of the Temple, the civil and religious capital. But because this city, and all that it represents, the whole Jewish religion, did not produce fruits in keeping with repentance, did not turn to Jesus, the Messiah, for forgiveness and salvation, but trusted in her own righteousness and so committed grave injustice (Ez. 33:13), this city was threatened with utter destruction. Nevertheless, in His great love for the Jews and the city of Jerusalem, God gave them a little more time to be fertilized with the preaching of Jesus, and the continued preaching of Jesus in the ministry of the apostles after our Lord’s resurrection and ascension. But the city would not repent. And so, in AD 70, the Romans sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple, the fulfillment of this prophecy that the tree would be cut down, literally dug out of the ground, roots and all, and so be utterly destroyed.

But it is not as though this prophecy is only for Jerusalem without any application for us. This parable is preserved for us in Holy Scripture, that by it our Lord may graciously call us to repentance. Repent, or you will all likewise perish. You will likewise be uprooted and destroyed. Our God does not destroy without warning. He has given us, and continues to give us, ample warning: Repent or perish. The Scriptures call upon us directly to repent. Every preacher of God’s Word is charged to preach repentance, and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. Many examples are given us in Scripture that we might learn of them, to avoid falling into sin, and to repent when we do fall. Thus St. Paul says in our Epistle of the history of Israel in the wilderness: “these things took place as an example for us, that we might not desire evil as they did” (1 Cor. 10:6). So also all the suffering and violence and disaster in the world, in addition to simply being the consequence of living in a fallen creation, is a call from God to repent. Those Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices were not worse sinners than anyone else. They were not worse sinners than we are. “No, I tell you,” says Jesus, “but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-2). Every man-made disaster, every act of terrorism, every act of senseless violence is, for all of us, a call to repentance. So also accidental disasters and natural disasters: “those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (vv. 4-5). Those who lost homes or died in Hurricane Katrina, or the victims of the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, do you think they were worse sinners than all other human beings? False prophets like Pat Robertson certainly think so. But this opinion is not biblical. No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

We must confess that we have much to repent of. When we examine ourselves according to the Ten Commandments, we find no righteousness in us. We do not love our neighbors as ourselves. We do not honor father and mother as we should. We are filled with unchaste sexual desires, and have succumbed to our culture’s claim that anything and everything goes, whatever makes us feel good. We know sex outside of marriage and living together without marriage are wrong, but we think it unreasonable and unrealistic to expect ourselves and others to refrain from these sins. Yes, cheating on your taxes is wrong, but everyone does it, right? Sure, it’s wrong to hate my neighbor, but I don’t have to love him. And of course, there are our sins against the First Table of the Law. There are many things that we allow to take God’s place in our lives: Money, job, spouse, hobby… We do not fear, love, and trust in God above all things. We use His Name carelessly, thoughtlessly, in unimportant matters, in exclamations and curses. And we do not honor preaching and God’s Word as we should. We do not gladly spend our time and energy in hearing and learning it. Beloved, repent.

Repent, lest you likewise perish. This is a word of Law, to be sure. The preaching of repentance always is Law of the most stinging variety. But it is also a gracious preaching. Because without the preaching of repentance, we remain lost, secure in our sins, unconcerned with our eternal life and salvation. The Law prepares us for the Gospel. The Law tells us what we should and should not do, but it gives us no power to obey its commandments. It always accuses. And that’s just the point. The Law shows us our sins, so that we come to know our great need for the Savior, Jesus Christ. The Law kills us, slaughters us, makes us good and dead, so that entirely without our help or cooperation, Jesus, the Lord of life, can breathe new life and His Holy Spirit into us by the Gospel. And the Gospel is this: None of the sins that you have committed will be remembered against you (Ez. 33:16). For Christ has taken them all into Himself, and nailed them in His body to the cross. He has borne your punishment. In Christ, you are forgiven, restored, set free. And thus having received the free gift, and grasping that gift by faith in Christ, you begin to produce fruit, works of love that serve your neighbor and bring honor to God.

The Law and the Gospel, the Word of God, are the tender care and fertilizer that the Vinedresser, our Lord Jesus, uses to bring new life to a dead tree. It is not the fruit that saves the tree. The fruit is only the evidence that the tree has been brought to life again, that it is not useless, that the sap flows through the limbs of the tree, that the tree belongs precisely in the vineyard. Repentance does not save. Jesus saves. Repentance and its fruit are the evidence of the new life in Christ that is already yours. The Word of God, dear Christian, is the tender care and fertilizer by which our Lord Jesus brings you new life. He bestows this life in Scripture and preaching, the preaching of repentance and the forgiveness of sins, and the visible Word of the Sacraments. Now there is certainly a warning of Law here too. When the Lord Jesus tends you and fertilizes you with His Word, if you still do not produce fruit as evidence of your life in Christ, which is to say, if you do not believe in Him, there is a Judgment Day coming. And on that Day, every fruitless tree will be uprooted and cast into the fire. But this is also a great Word of grace and comfot. The Lord Jesus will tend and fertilize you with His Word. And to all who come to new life through that Word, to all who believe, trusting Jesus alone for life and salvation, these will not perish, but have eternal life.

Beloved, the Lord longs for you. Repent and believe the good news. You have sinned, but the Lord also has taken away your sin. He has dealt with it on the cross. I am called to preach nothing else. I am called to speak a Word from God to you. I am called to proclaim to you that you are a sinner. And I am called to proclaim to you, in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, that all your sins are forgiven. I may preach nothing more and nothing less. Repentance and the forgiveness of sins is the content of all Christian preaching. Which is to say, Christ is the content of all Christian preaching. We preach Christ crucified. Cling to Him beloved. For as the Vinedresser tends and fertilizes the tree, your Lord tends you and feeds you. And thus He brings you to new life, His life. The time is now. Repent now. Believe now. And so come to rest in the arms of your crucified Lord. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

In Memoriam +Hulda Katherine Puschel+

In Memoriam +Hulda Katherine Puschel+
March 6, 2010
Text: Job 19:21-27; Rev. 14:13; Luke 2:25-32

Dear Paul and Diana, family and friends of Hulda, members of Epiphany, Beloved in the Lord: Grace, mercy, and peace to your from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

“We go to the Lord’s Supper as though going to our death, so that we may go to our death as though going to the Lord’s Supper.”[1] Since I arrived at Epiphany almost four years ago, I came to know Hulda primarily in the context of bringing her the Lord’s Supper. For she was already failing when I arrived, soon in the nursing home, temporarily at first, then permanently. I didn’t get to meet the Hulda Puschel that you all knew. I was never able to have very deep or extensive conversations with her. But please don’t misunderstand. I did have a very deep relationship with her, for, privileged to be her pastor in her last years, our relationship centered always and only on what is most important: Christ, our only Savior and Lord, and His gifts in His Word and Supper. So the visits with Hulda were short, and the small-talk was labored, but the minute we began our service, “In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit,” Hulda came alive in a new way. Even when she couldn’t talk to me about anything else of substance, she was always awakened by the Word of God. She knew every word of the liturgy, and spoke them clearly along with me. She even spoke my parts. She recited most of the Scripture readings with me, especially when I read them in the King’s English. She had undoubtedly memorized them in Catechism class and held on to them tenaciously the rest of her life. The Word of our gracious Lord Jesus entered her ear and was planted in her heart, spilling over in the praise and confession of her lips. And then, together, in the presence of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, Hulda and I received our Lord’s true body and blood under the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, for our forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation.

I mention all of this here, not to point out what a great Christian Hulda was. She certainly was that, but she was also a sinner. She confessed it every time we met, and her gracious Savior absolved her of her sin every time we met. I mention all of this here because we see in the life and death of Hulda Puschel the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who by His Spirit and His gifts sustained Hulda to the end, and has now taken her to Himself in heaven. He has taken her to Himself in heaven not because of Hulda’s faithfulness, but because of His own faithfulness, the faithfulness that led Him to His bitter suffering and death on the cross for the forgiveness of Hulda’s sins, and the sins of the whole world, your sins and mine. This is the same faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ that was vindicated in His resurrection from the dead, and bestowed upon Hulda in her Baptism into Christ on February 6th, 1921, so that she, too, on the Last Day, will be raised in her body to eternal life. She will, as Job says, see with her own eyes and in her own flesh, her Redeemer and God standing upon the earth (Job 19:25-27).

And so Hulda this day is among the blessed saints of God who enjoy the beatific vision of our Lord in heaven, and await the sure and certain resurrection of their bodies on the Last Day. This is what is meant by the voice in heaven that declares in our Epistle Lesson: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on” (Rev. 14:13; ESV). Blessed are the dead? Yes, but only those who die in the Lord… those who die in the faith of Jesus Christ. Death is always tragic, always sad, and so we mourn, even the death of a dear Christian like Hulda. For man is not meant for death. Death is the result of sin. The wages of sin is death. But when that death is “in the Lord,” the death of one who is united to Christ by Baptism and faith, we recognize that death is but a sleep. Death is but a sleep from which the sleeper will be awakened in the resurrection of all flesh. Hulda’s soul is now with Jesus in heaven and her body will soon be laid to rest in the grave, but this is not a permanent reality. This is not a permanent separation of body and soul. She will be raised! Bodily! Death is not the end of the story, because Christ, who died, is now risen from the dead, and will give life to all His saints in their bodies when He comes again in glory.

Therefore the Christian can go to his or her death as though going to the Lord’s Supper. And throughout this earthly life the Christian goes to the Lord’s Supper in preparation for his or her death. In this earthly life the Christian comes again and again to Christ’s altar and receives His true body, given into death for the sins of the world, and His true blood, shed for our forgiveness, and this is a sign and seal of eternal life. This is a pledge of the resurrection to come. For it is none other than the risen Lord Jesus who places these gifts into the mouths of His Christians. Throughout her life, Hulda came to the altar of God to receive these gifts, and when she was no longer able to come, the altar of God came to her with these gifts. And throughout her life, after receiving this tangible salvation under the bread and wine, Christ’s body and blood, the fullness of the Lord would spill over in the praise and confession of Hulda’s lips in the words of Simeon: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen they salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people” (Luke 2:29-31; KJV). “Lord, now I can die. I can die, knowing that in Christ, I live. For You have shown me and given me my Savior and Lord Christ in the Supper. I have seen with my own eyes His salvation in this, His body and blood. I know and believe beyond the shadow of a doubt that my Lord Jesus, who died and is risen and now gives me these gifts, will give me eternal life and awaken me from death. And I know that this salvation is for all people, for me, for my loved ones, for the whole world. Therefore, O Lord, I rest in You” “We go to the Lord’s Supper as though going to our death, so that we may go to our death as though going to the Lord’s Supper.”

And note well, that when we go to the Lord’s Supper, we come into the presence of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. That is to say, our relationship with Hulda continues, centered always and only on what is most important: Christ, our Savior and Lord, and His gifts in His Word and Supper. Hulda still joins us at the Supper, only now from the other side of the altar. She is with us again when we join her here.

And it is so important for us to be here. Because here we are prepared for our own death. Here our sins are forgiven, covered by the precious blood of Christ. Here we are given the pledge and seal of eternal life, salvation, and our own resurrection from the dead. Here we are given Christ and His faithfulness, His righteousness. Here death’s reign is ended, its sting overcome by Christ’s victory. Here death is dead, and Christ is our life. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Dr. Kenneth Korby, quoted by the Rev. William Cwirla, http://blog.higherthings.org/wcwirla/article/1673.html.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Death: The Last Enemy to be Destroyed

Pastor’s Window for March 2010
Death: The Last Enemy to be Destroyed

Beloved in the Lord,

On Ash Wednesday we gathered together to mark the beginning of another penitential season of Lent. We confessed our sins and heard the absolution. We read, marked, learned, and inwardly digested the saving Word of the Lord. We received the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine. But as is our custom, we were also marked with ashes in the sign of the cross, and these words were pronounced upon us: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

In other words, remember that you will die. Unless our Lord Jesus returns first, every one of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death. We all have to die, because we are sinners, and the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23). Dust to dust, ashes to ashes… Ash Wednesday offers a sobering reminder of our own mortality. As I’ve come to know and love all of you, it gets harder and harder every year to mark your forehead and remind you of your impending death. And when I get to my wife and my precious little daughters… It is not a pretty thought.

Humans in general, and Americans in particular, especially Americans of the modern/post-modern stripe, don’t like to talk about death. The very word, “death,” strikes us as harsh. We don’t like to use it when speaking of those whose bodies have expired. But we should talk about death, because it is a reality every one of us must face, both in the deaths of loved ones and in our own death.

Unlike the unbelieving world, Christians can speak of death with confidence, because we know what our Savior, Jesus Christ, has done about death. In His death on the cross, He defeated death, by covering death’s cause, sin, with His blood. And so also, our Lord Jesus is victorious over the grave by His resurrection from the dead. For all who are baptized into Christ, into His death and resurrection, and believe on His Name, death holds no ultimate power. When we die, those of us who are in Christ will be taken to heaven. And in the end, our Lord Jesus will raise us from the dead, even as He is risen, for He has power over death, and the authority to give life.

This is not to say that death is a good thing, a pretty thing, a thing to be welcomed. Death is always an enemy. It is always tragic. This is why even Christians mourn when a loved one dies. This is why even Christians face death with some amount of apprehension and fear. But death’s sting has been taken away by the death and resurrection of Jesus. “‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’ The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:54-57; ESV).

And yet, Paul also describes death as “the last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Cor. 15:26). That is to say, while Christ has defeated death, we still have to contend with it in this earthly life. That is why we are marked with ashes. We are dieing men and women. Yet the ashes are marked in the sign of the cross, for we have been redeemed by Christ, the crucified. Death is not the end of the story for us. When we die, our bodies return to dust, it is true. But our souls are ushered by the holy angels into heaven, to be with Jesus, to be with our Triune God, in bliss, awaiting the resurrection from the dead. And one day, in a marvelous act of re-creation, our Lord will gather the dust of our bodies and reunite them with our souls, in the resurrection of all flesh. On that day, He will give eternal life to all believers in Christ, body and soul. Christ is the end of death. We are redeemed for this reality by our crucified and risen Lord Jesus.

It is good to be reminded of our death. Our prayer is that the Lord would “teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12). Death teaches us to repent of our sin and cast ourselves upon Christ alone for mercy. This is true wisdom. Yet even as we are reminded of this last and bitter enemy, death, we are reminded also of our Lord’s victory over death. And this is cause for great rejoicing, even in the midst of Lent.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. But remember also that your Lord Jesus will raise you from the dust, and bring you to eternal life.

Pastor Krenz