Cruce Tectum

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

Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Resurrection of Our Lord

The Resurrection of Our Lord (A): The Miracle of Easter[1]

April 24, 2011
Text: Matt. 28:1-10

He is risen! He is risen, indeed!! Alleluia!!!

The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead shakes things up, to say the least. It turns out Easter is not all bunnies and chocolate. It is really a fearful thing for the first witnesses of the resurrection. Toward the dawn of the first day of the week, the women, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, come to the tomb, and as they approach, there is a great earthquake (σεισμός in Greek, from which we get the English word “seismic”). We heard about earthquakes in our Lenten series. It was one of the miracles of Lent upon which we meditated this season, that when our Lord died there was a great earthquake. The curtain of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom, the earth shook, the rocks split, and the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised (Matt. 27:51-52). Earthquakes in the Bible are a sign of God’s presence, either in wrath or in mercy. Earthquakes are a sign that God Himself is speaking. They are an indication that we had better pay attention, because we are about to have an interaction with the living God. And this interaction isn’t gentle. It is seismic. It puts the fear of God into you. When the women come to the tomb just before dawn, there is a great earthquake, and an angel of the Lord descends and rolls back the stone and sits on it. His appearance is like lightening and his clothing is white as snow. This causes the guards to have a seismic event of their own. Your English translations say something like “the guards trembled” (Matt. 28:4; ESV), but the Greek word indicates seismic activity once again. They are shaken, and they become as dead men. And now the women are really afraid. Because the angel turns from the guards to look at them. What will happen? Will they drop dead, too? Undoubtedly, they begin to shake, as well.

But there is a difference between the women and the guards. The guards seek to keep Jesus in the tomb, to lock Him in death. They are posted at the tomb because Pharisees had come to Pilate concerned that the resurrection might just really happen, or at least that the disciples would make it look like it happened. “Sir, we remember how that imposter said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first” (Matt. 27:63-64). Thus Pilate makes provision for the guards to be posted at the tomb. By order of the Roman Governor of Judea, no one is to get out of that tomb! The women, by contrast, come to get into the tomb to see Jesus. To be sure, they are expecting Him still to be dead. Their faith is ill-informed. But they come seeking Him nonetheless. This is a profound difference. The guards want to hide Jesus away in death. The women want to see Jesus, who has given them new life. Then the angel appears and the guards shake and fall down as if dead, betraying the truth that they really are spiritually dead, unbelievers, enemies of Christ. The angel turns from the guards to the women. The women are fearful. You would be, too, if you saw an angel of the Lord in all his glory. What will happen now?

The angel speaks: “Do not be afraid” (28:5). It is the Word of the Lord that the angel speaks, a Word that stills trembling hearts in the midst of seismic events. And how can the angel say this? On what basis can the women cease to be afraid? “I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified,” says the angel. “He is not here, for he has risen, as he said” (vv. 5-6; emphasis added). And just so there is no doubt that this is an honest-to-goodness bodily resurrection, the angel bids them, “Come, see the place where he lay” (v. 6). There’s nobody there anymore. Just the linen cloths. The women are charged to go quickly and tell the disciples the earth-shaking news. And as they go, they meet the risen Lord Himself, in the flesh, He who once was dead, standing before them, scars and all, alive. “Greetings!” He says (v. 9), in the joy of His resurrection victory. “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me” (v. 10).

Easter is not all bunnies and chocolate for us either, and if we really stopped to think about the reality of this event, if this really happened (and it did!), that He who once was dead is now risen and living in His once dead body, this is earthshaking news for us. Because even without the appearance of a majestic angel, we have our fears that shake us to the very core of our being. We’re sinners, and we know it. Try as we might, we can’t shake the guilt of sin. We try to forget the evil things we’ve done, but the wickedness of our fleshly hearts betrays us. We fear the wages of sin: death (Rom. 6:23). In the grave of every loved one who has died we stare our own impending death in the face. We fear the punishment of sin: hell. As is the trend these days, we’d prefer to deny hell’s existence, but ultimately, we know this is a lie. And in addition to all of this, we fear all that sin has caused in this fallen world: sickness, war, poverty, famine, broken relationships, loneliness, despair. We tremble. We shake. Like the guards, we are as dead men. Until Jesus speaks. “Do not be afraid.” There is no more need for fear. Christ is risen! He died for your sins. He is raised for your life. He has redeemed you from sin and death and hell. He has bought you back. He has reconciled you to God. And He promises, “behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).

It changes everything that God, the Son of God, has come in real flesh and blood, born of the Virgin Mary, for you. It changes everything that the Son of God suffered and died in His real flesh and blood, for you. It changes everything that the Son of God rose from the dead in His real flesh and blood, that He has passed through the valley of the shadow of death and come out the other side, alive again! In His body! It changes everything that you are baptized into this reality, that in a very real way, His death is your death, and His resurrection is your new life, that you are raised spiritually now, and will be raised bodily on the Last Day. It changes everything that, as our crucified and risen Lord, the Son of God, Jesus Christ, distributes and places His crucified and risen body and blood into your mouth for the forgiveness of your sins, that you also may live in Him and not die, that you may be raised in your body when He comes again. The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is an earthshaking event that continues to rumble and shake us nearly 21 centuries later. But do not fear. You no longer need to fear. Your Lord has spoken. He has cast out fear. He has conquered sin in His sacrificial death (His blood covers your sins!), and He has been raised for your justification, that He may be your righteousness and life. He has conquered death by His resurrection. The grave could not hold Him, and it will not be able to hold you when He calls you forth from the grave. He has conquered hell and Satan and all the powers of darkness. They no longer have any claim on you, for He has purchased you for God by His blood. His resurrection shows the new reality. So don’t even fear all the bad stuff that can happen in this fallen world. It is only for a short season. The victory has been won. The tomb is empty. Your deliverance is coming soon. Fear no more. Rather, go and confess: He is risen! He is risen, indeed!! Alleluia!!! He lives! And because He lives, you live! In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[1] The theme and many of the thoughts in this sermon are from Miracles of Lent (St. Louis: Concordia, 2011).

Easter Sunrise

The Resurrection of Our Lord: Easter Sunrise

April 24, 2011
Text: John 20:1-18

He is risen! He is risen, indeed!! Alleluia!!!

“This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps. 118:24; ESV). This is the Day of the empty tomb. He is risen, as He said (Matt. 28:6). Our Lord Jesus has conquered death in His own death and resurrection. The grave could not hold Him. Our Lord Jesus has conquered sin, for the resurrection is the Father’s divine seal of approval over Jesus’ sin-atoning work. God has accepted His sacrifice on the cross and raised Him out of death. He “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). Our Lord Jesus has conquered hell and the devil, for “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:15). Indeed, this Easter Day is the Day that the LORD has made. How can we not rejoice and be glad in it?

For this is the Day of the exodus of the New Israel, the people of God, the holy Church, from slavery to sin, death, and the devil. We have passed through the water of Holy Baptism, our old sinful flesh being drowned and the new man emerging and arising a new life in Christ. We are on our way to the Promised Land. Therefore we “sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea” (Ex. 15:1). This is the Day of the LORD’s victory. He has done it all. It is all by grace. The LORD fights for us. We have only to be silent (14:14), to believe His Word, to rest in His victory. This is the Day the LORD proclaims His resurrection triumph, and in the Word proclaimed, the Holy Spirit bestows faith in Jesus Christ as a free gift. We hold fast the Word of God in preaching and proclamation, and so we are saved (1 Cor. 15:2). By the Word of the LORD, this is the Day that the stone is rolled away from the tomb (John 20:1), that we may behold the empty tomb by faith, believing the Good News (v. 8). This is the Day the angels bear witness: There is no more need for weeping (vv. 12-13). This is the Day that the risen Lord Jesus Himself comes among us. He calls us by name (v. 16). Our names are written on the palms of His pierced hands (Is. 49:16). He has placed His own Name upon us in Holy Baptism, the Name He bears and the Name He has revealed, the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We belong to our Triune God (Is. 43:1). This is the Day our Lord delivers us from sadness and bestows upon us great joy. And in that joy, He sends us out to confess His resurrection to others (John 20:17-18). We confess it in our rejoicing. We confess it by gathering here around font, pulpit, and altar, to receive the gifts of Jesus’ death and resurrection, to be forgiven of our sins, to gladly hear and learn His Word, to have His crucified and risen body, and the blood He shed on the cross, placed into our mouths for our forgiveness, life, and salvation. We confess it as we listen to God and then speak His Word back to Him and to one another in liturgy and song. We confess it as the Word of Christ dwells in us richly, as 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). We confess it as the resurrection permeates our daily lives and vocations, as we speak of Jesus to those God places in our lives, as we live lives shaped by Scripture and the holy cross, lives of faith toward God and fervent love toward one another.

Beloved in the Lord, this is the Day the LORD has made for feasting. “This is the Feast of victory for our God. Alleluia” (LSB p. 155). This is the Day the LORD has made for feasting on the body and blood of the risen Christ, Himself our Host, Himself our meal. The Holy Supper is a foretaste of the feast to come. This is the Day for casting out fear, for wiping away tears, for throwing off all anger and malice. This is the Day for reconciliation with your brothers and sisters, for you have been reconciled to God in Christ. This is the Day for forgiving those who have trespassed against you, for you have been forgiven all your trespasses by the blood of Christ. This is the Day for breaking bread together, the bread of Christ’s body here, bread in your homes with great joy as you gather around the family dinner table. For on this Day everything is changed. The old order of things has passed away. The new has come (2 Cor. 5:17). The Lord Jesus is making all things new (Rev. 21:5). Death is dead. Sin is washed away. Satan is crushed. Hell is vanquished. You have eternal life. This is the Day that the LORD has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it. For He is risen! He is risen, indeed!! Alleluia!!! And on the Last Day, your Lord Jesus will raise you, too. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Vigil of Easter

The Vigil of Easter: The Miracle of Christ’s Descent into Hell[1]

April 23, 2011

Text: 1 Peter 3:18-19: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison” (ESV).

Sometime after sundown on Saturday evening, the beginning of the new day according to the Old Testament reckoning of time (cf. Gen. 1), our crucified and buried Lord was “made alive in the spirit,” which is to say that He who was dead is now bodily risen. Yet even before this is manifested, revealed to the world by the earthquake as the stone is rolled away to display the empty tomb, even before the women come in the wee hours of the morning to witness all of this, our Lord descends bodily into hell where St. Peter says He “proclaimed to the spirits in prison.” This is the first step in our Lord’s state of exaltation, wherein He now, in His glorified resurrection body, always and fully uses His divine powers. He descends into hell for this purpose: to declare His victory to the devil and all his demons, as well as to the unbelievers who are confined there as a result of their unbelief, awaiting their judgment on the Last Day when they will be cast into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:14-15). We don’t understand all the mechanics of our Lord’s descent into hell. We cannot grasp with our reason and our five senses how these things can be. And that’s okay. We simply confess this truth. We confess that Jesus descended into hell in both the Apostles’ and Athanasian Creeds. With the early Church, with Dr. Luther, and with the writers of the Formula of Concord, we confess on the basis of the Scriptures that “We simply believe that the entire person (God and man) descended into hell after the burial, conquered the devil, destroyed hell’s power, and took from the devil all his might… So we hold to the substance and consolation that neither hell nor the devil can take captive or injure us and all who believe in Christ” (FC SD IX: 2-3; McCain, pp. 596-97).

Many people misunderstand the purpose of our Lord’s descent into hell and what it is that He is doing there. He did not descend into hell in order to suffer more for our sins. No, remember, He suffers hell on the cross. This is why He cries out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). That forsakenness is hell. Nor did Jesus descend into hell to give condemned unbelievers another chance to believe and be saved. There are no second chances. “(I)t is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). Nor is the “prison” into which Jesus descends anything other than Hades, the hell where the souls of unbelievers go to await the resurrection of their bodies unto judgment, to be cast into Gehenna, the end-time hell, also known as the Lake of Fire. It is not the case that this is some sort of Limbo in which the Old Testament believers were held until the time of Christ and the New Testament. The Scriptures say no such thing. The biblical teaching is this: In the moment of our Lord’s death, His soul went to heaven, as He said to the thief on the cross, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). Then, sometime between sundown on Saturday and the early hours of the morning on Sunday, our Lord was bodily raised from the dead, and He descended as God and man into hell where He proclaimed His victory to the spirits in prison. This is His victory parade through downtown hell! In ancient times, when a city was conquered, the conquering general or king would do a victory parade down Main Street. Jesus' proclamation in hell is nothing other than the preaching of His victory. And St. Paul says that in this way, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities,” which is to say, the devil and his demons, “and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:15).

So you see, Christ’s descent into hell is good news for us. This is the good news of Easter. We are no longer enslaved to hell. The devil is conquered. The dark forces no longer have any power over us. It is good and right, therefore, in these first moments of the Easter Feast to celebrate with our Lord His victory over Satan and hell. And I can think of no better way to celebrate this magnificent truth than to confess it to one another and to the world as we declare boldly: He is risen! He is risen, indeed!! Alleluia!!! In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] The theme and many of the thoughts in this sermon are from Miracles of Lent (St. Louis: Concordia, 2011).

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday Tenebrae

Good Friday Tenebrae: The Miracle of Good Friday[1]

April 22, 2011

Text: 1 Peter 3:18: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit” (ESV).

When we speak of the miracle of Good Friday, we speak of the miracle of God’s love for sinners. Only God’s love could explain what happens here. Only God’s love would result in the almighty Son of God humbling Himself, taking on our flesh, becoming one of us and one with us, and entering into our mess of a fallen world to redeem us. Only God’s love would result in Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, fulfilling the Law for us, in our place, because we could not. Only God’s love would result in the sinless Son of God in the flesh, the righteous One, suffering for the sins of the unrighteous, that He might bring us to God. This great mystery finds its only explanation in the depths of God’s love. This is agape love, the love of God that is not an emotion, but a divine decision to love that which is unlovable, to love rebellious sinners. Agape love is a self-sacrificial love. It does not pursue its own interests or its own pleasure, but is sacrificially bestowed without any thought of such love being returned. This love seeks only your interests, your pleasure, your salvation. This is the love of the cross. This love suffers. This love creates its own object out of that which does not love in return. This is love incarnate, even Jesus Christ, our Lord. God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). Jesus Christ is love crucified, that you may be brought back to God.

The sacrifice is a great mystery. It is mysterious in this sense: The righteous Redeemer redeems the unredeemable. There is nothing redeemable about you, or about any other human being. I know that’s not a popular thing to say, and it certainly isn’t politically correct. We always want to find something redeemable about the worst offenders. Many are the books written and the movies made about such a quest to find the good in one who has done evil things. But understand, in terms of our relationship to God, there is no good in us. St. Paul writes (quoting the Psalms): “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10-12). There is no room for self-affirmation here. This is not about self-esteem. This is the sentence handed down by the righteous Judge in His holy Law: Guilty! Sinner! St. Peter, in our text, calls every one of us “the unrighteous” (1 Pet. 3:18). There is only One who is good (Matt. 19:17), God. Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, is the One who is good, the righteous One, and He suffers once for sins, that He might bring us to God. His death, as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, changes the sentence. On account of Christ the divine sentence is now: Innocent! Righteous! Sinless! Because Jesus’ blood has washed your sins away. It is all by grace. It is a miracle. We have no right to expect it, or even to imagine it, but here it is, our redemption, a gift of divine love.

Luther expresses the miracle this way (you know the words): “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me 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, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.”[2]

This is agape. This is the love of God in Christ Jesus. “For God so loved (agape) the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10). “(B)ut God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Behold, the miraculous love of God, lifted up upon the cross. For you. Here, beloved, in the death of Jesus Christ, is your righteousness, your salvation, and your eternal life. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] The theme and many of the thoughts in this sermon are from Miracles of Lent (St. Louis: Concordia, 2011).

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

Good Friday Tre Ore

Good Friday Tre Ore

Our Savior Lutheran Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan
April 22, 2011

Text: John 19:29-30: “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. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, ‘It is finished,’ and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (ESV).

“When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, ‘It is finished’” (John 19:30). What is finished? The work of atonement. All that is left now is for Jesus to commend His spirit to His heavenly Father and breathe His last. In dying, Jesus releases Himself into His Sabbath rest. For death, too, is finished. Death is radically re-defined in the death of Jesus Christ. Outside of Christ, death is hell. Outside of Christ, death means the eternal forsakenness of God. This is a horror that we cannot begin to imagine. It is the lack of all that is good, for all good things come from God. When things are really bad for us, we are tempted to think that God has forsaken us. But He hasn’t. Not even close. God-forsakenness is hell. It is what Jesus suffered on the cross. It is that suffering, that God-forsakenness, that is finished. Death is re-defined. Death is no longer God-forsakenness. For those in Christ, death is but a peaceful sleep.

Death is difficult for us to talk about. We would prefer not to confront the subject. When we must, we resort to euphemisms and silly notions about the situation of the one who has died. We sing songs about “holes in the floor of heaven” through which Grandma is watching over you and me, or we point to a star and declare that it is our loved one shining down on us. This isn’t helpful. Somewhere deep down we know that we’re being dishonest. In reality, death is impossible to polish up or cover over. We live in a state of denial and we pass this denial on to our children. We either live as though we’re never going to die, or we treat death like a friend, like a natural part of life. Neither option is tenable. Because every death of a loved one is a slap in the face reminding us of our own mortality.

What we need instead of all the self-deception is a little frankness. Death is an enemy. Death is a brutal tyrant. It is the wages of sin (Rom. 6:23). God told our first parents not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “for in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). They ate, and they died. They died spiritually, which is to say, their relationship with God was destroyed. They began to die temporally, which is to say, they aged, their bodies began the process of decline, and they came to know pain, disease, and injury. And they were sentenced to eternal death, which is to say, hell. And what we have to understand is that in their death, we died. Because the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Two sinners always make a sinner. The disease of sin is inherited. And this disease is terminal. You’re dying, and you know it. You’ve been dying from the day you were born. You’ve been dying since you were conceived in the womb. You know it with every passing year. You know it with every ache and pain. You know it with every graying hair. You know it in the guilt that, despite your best efforts, you cannot repress.

You’re dying, and there’s nothing you can do about it. And that’s why God has done something about it. He promised it already after the fall of Adam and Eve, that the Seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head. The Promised Seed would destroy our enemies, destroy sin, destroy death, destroy the guilt and punishment of the Law, destroy the power of Satan. St. Paul says that death is the “last enemy to be destroyed” (1 Cor. 15:26). What he means is that we still have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death. Unless Jesus returns first, every one of us will have to physically die. But death no longer holds the dread it once held. Death is still a tragedy, to be sure, because God did not create us to die. Still, because Jesus died for you and for me, death has been radically re-defined. Now death is but a slumber, a Sabbath rest, as we await the resurrection. Because your Lord has spoken. It is finished. Sin is finished. Hell is finished. Death is finished. The work of atonement is completed. Jesus has made full atonement for your sins and the sins of the whole world in His suffering and death. He has paid sin’s wages in full. God does not forsake you in death. He has done something about your death in the death of His Son Jesus Christ on the cross. He is with you precisely in death, to bring you to life. “It is finished,” declares Jesus, as He bows His sacred head and gives up His spirit. And then He takes His Sabbath rest in the tomb before taking up His life again on Easter Sunday, on the first day of the New Creation.

And you are baptized into this reality. In Baptism, you died with Christ, and so in Baptism, you are raised to new life in Christ now, and sealed for the resurrection of your body on the Last Day. Because death is finished. Jesus finished it on the cross. And that means you no longer have to euphemize or eulogize or make up fanciful delusions when it comes to death. You confront death head-on. That’s what we’re doing today, beholding our crucified Lord on this Good Friday. We’re staring death in the face through the lens of Jesus. He is the end and consummation of death. Now we can go to our own death with all confidence, knowing that the hour of awakening is fast upon us. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday: The Miraculous in Holy Communion[1]

April 21, 2011
Text: 1 Cor. 11:23-29

“If only I could see a miracle,” one might be heard to say, such a one being a well-meaning Christian, maybe even a Missouri Synod Lutheran. “I mean, I believe, but if only I could see one of the extraordinary miracles of God.” Maybe you’ve said something like this yourself. Of course, we all know what is meant. If only I could have been there to see Jesus perform one of His many miracles of healing: restoring sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, curing leprosy, casting out demons, raising the dead. Or maybe one of God’s Old Testament miracles, like the crossing of the Red Sea, or the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal, or the three men in the fiery furnace.

The real problem is, though, that we can’t recognize a miracle when it happens right under our nose. We can’t recognize a miracle if it hits us in the face, right between our lips. You know where this is going. And you’re right. You see a great miracle every time you come to the Divine Service for the Lord’s Supper. Here our crucified and risen Lord Jesus speaks through the mouth of a poor sinful man clothed in a divinely instituted office, and bread and wine are now the true body and blood of Christ. And you receive that true body and blood under the bread and wine in your mouths, to be eaten and drunk, for the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation. What could be more miraculous than that? And yes, we believe it really happens that way, that this is real, honest-to-goodness body and blood of Jesus that we eat and drink. Because Jesus says so, and He cannot lie. Jesus declares in the Words of Institution, recorded by the holy evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and St. Paul: “this is my body… this is my blood” (Matt. 26:26, 28; ESV). It’s a miracle.

Many Christians deny the miraculous in Holy Communion. They say that at best, Jesus is spiritually (but not bodily) present with the bread and wine, at worst, He isn’t present at all, but the bread and wine are just symbols of His body and blood, to remind us of His death for our sins. This is the official teaching of many churches. But this isn’t what Jesus says. He says the bread is His body. He says the wine is His blood. There is absolutely no indication in the text that He is speaking symbolically. You can think of the word “is” as a big equals sign. The bread equals Jesus’ body, because He says so. The wine equals Jesus’ blood, because He says so. How this can be, we do not know. Nor does Jesus owe us an explanation. Obviously this is supernatural, meaning “above nature,” which is just another way of saying that this is miraculous. But that doesn’t take anything away from the truth that this bread and this wine that Jesus singles out in His Word is His true body and blood. And He tells us to eat it and drink it. When you eat and drink with faith in Jesus’ Words, you receive the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation. When you eat and drink without faith in Jesus’ Words, denying the truth of Jesus’ body and blood in the Sacrament, St. Paul says you eat and drink judgment on yourself (1 Cor. 11:29). Needless to say, this is a serious matter. The Sacrament is powerful stuff. You shouldn’t use it without instruction. This is why we practice closed Communion. Because love demands that we protect our neighbor from eating and drinking to their judgment.

But practically speaking, even many Missouri Synod Lutherans who have been instructed about the Lord’s Supper, who have learned the Catechism, who have received the Lord’s Supper for years… even many Missouri Synod Lutherans for all practical purposes deny the miraculous in the Lord’s Supper. What I mean is that we so often heedlessly come forward without examining ourselves, without confessing our sins, without stopping to think about what a powerful miracle our Lord is accomplishing in our midst, without asking ourselves if we still believe the Word of the Lord and what this is He is distributing to us. The old sinful flesh treats the Lord’s Supper casually, as just another custom, a thing we do for the sake of doing it. Repent, beloved. Did you catch yourself thinking, when I compared the Sacrament to the other great miracles of the Bible, “Yeah, Pastor, I get it, but that’s not really what I mean when I say I want to see a miracle.” Exactly. Repent. Because the Sacrament is actually the greater miracle. That is why it is so unbelievable. When someone is miraculously cured of cancer, even the rankest unbeliever believes it. But when bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus by virtue of His Word, even the most faithful Christians deny it. Beloved in the Lord, this miracle, this gift of God’s grace which communicates to us the saving benefits of our Lord’s cross, this meal is to be received by faith. It cannot be rationalized or explained beyond the simple words of Jesus. It really is as simple as this: Jesus says it, we believe it. For Jesus cannot lie.

And faith basks in the great miracle, clinging to the benefits our Lord here promises. Receiving the Supper by faith, you are cleansed of all sin, cured of death by the life of Christ, saved from every peril to your soul, strengthened for life in this fallen world. Christ is now in you, even as you are in Christ. You are united with your brothers and sisters in Christ who commune with you in common confession. You commune with your loved ones who died in Christ, but who still live in Him. And just as this Sacrament heals you spiritually, who is to say what physical benefits there are in receiving the Sacrament? After all, you are coming into contact with the same body of the Son of God that healed the sick, cast out demons, and raised the dead. Miracles do happen. They happen right here every Lord’s Day and every time we gather around the altar.

So, do you want to see a real life miracle? Come here. Behold what your Lord here does for you. Here He really touches you with His healing. Here He places His body on your tongue and pours His blood down your throat. Here He distributes to you freely the medicine of immortality. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] The theme and many of the thoughts in this sermon are from Miracles of Lent (St. Louis: Concordia 2011).

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Palm Sunday/ Sunday of the Passion

Palm Sunday/ Sunday of the Passion (A)

April 17, 2011

Text: Matt. 26:1-27:66; LSB 438: “A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth”

Beloved in the Lord, “A Lamb goes uncomplaining forth, The guilt of sinners bearing” (LSB 438:1). “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29; ESV). He is the true Passover Lamb, sacrificed for your sins (1 Cor. 5:7). By the blood of this Lamb, the angel of death passes over. “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (Is. 53:7). He does not cry out in just complaint. He trudges on to Golgotha, bearing the cross, “laden with the sins of earth” (LSB 438:1). “Hosanna,” save now, we pray, O Lord. And He does, in this way: He bears the burden of your transgressions in His innocent suffering and death on your behalf. No one can help Him bear this burden. He must bear it alone if He is to atone for the sins of the world. In the account of the Passion of our Lord read this morning, we see His determination to save us, His determination to suffer, His determination to reach the goal of the cross. He knows there is no other way. So He goes patient on, though growing weak and faint, more so with every step. He trudges on to slaughter. He has done nothing deserving of death. Pilate washes his hands of Jesus’ blood. He knows the sentence is unjust. This Lamb is spotless. But the blood must be shed, that it may be on us and on our children (Matt. 27:25). So He bears the stripes, the wounds. “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But 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. 53:4-5). On top of the physical torture, He bears the rejection of His people. “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11). They bore false testimony against Him. He bore their lies, their mockery. Yet He replies from the depths of divine love for all people, for you: “All this I gladly suffer” (LSB 438:1).

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). This Lamb is Christ, your soul’s great friend. The Lamb of God lays down His life for you, for your salvation. The Father sent Him for this very purpose, that He might reconcile you to the Father; that He might make you God’s own child, united by Baptism and faith to the Father’s only-begotten Son; that He might free you from your dread of guilt and condemnation, from sin, death, the devil, and the yawning jaws of hell. This was no easy task. Even though Jesus is God, He became man, took on real human flesh in the womb of the Virgin, for this very purpose, that He really suffer and really die to save you. By His Passion, His suffering, you are blessed to share the fruit of His salvation. He comes willingly. “Yes, Father, yes, most willingly I’ll bear what you command Me” (LSB 438:3). “Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10; KJV). “(N)ot my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42; ESV). “My will conforms to Your decree, I’ll do what You have asked Me” (LSB 438:3). The Father’s plan for your salvation is the Son’s plan for your salvation. It is the unified act of the divine will that reaches into this mess of sin and death and hell and snatches you out of destruction. Jesus does this by Himself being destroyed. The sinless Son of God suffers the punishment for all sin. God’s wrath is poured out completely upon Jesus on the cross. “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). “O wondrous Love, what have You done! The Father offers up His Son, Desiring our salvation” (LSB 438:3). For this love is strong to save. Love holds our dear Lord Jesus to the cross. He could come down at any moment, but He does not. Because He loves us. He suffers for us. He dies for us. Mystery of mysteries, the Word incarnate, the Creator, the Maker of heaven and earth, lies in a tomb. And we, who should rightly inhabit the grave, we live. By grace.

And you, beloved, are baptized into this reality. You now come before the throne of glory tasting the kingdom’s pleasure, receiving the true body and blood of this Lamb in your mouths for your forgiveness, life, and salvation, covered by the blood of Christ as your royal robe. What joy beyond all measure! Christ is risen, and even as His death is your death, His life is your life. Because Jesus suffered your death, death will not be able to hold you. You, also, will rise from the dead on the Last Day. And you will stand before the throne of the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, and Christ’s own righteousness shall be your crown. You will be counted as royalty. You no longer have any need to hide from God, as Adam and Eve did in their sin, as you would have to do (as if you could) had Christ not covered you with His blood. Indeed, now His righteousness covers you as a radiant garment. Your sin-stained robes have been washed white in the blood of the Lamb. You are the Church of God, the Bride of Christ. And because He loved you and gave Himself for you, you will now be brought to Him to stand beside Him for all eternity.

Let not your impatient flesh deceive you. It is good that this morning we have come face to face with the cross of Calvary, the suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is good that we heard again the Passion account, read in its entirety from St. Matthew, without interruption. Because this is THE determinative event for us. This is a matter of eternal life and death. We dare not turn a deaf ear to this. This morning we enter upon Holy Week, an intensely holy time for Christians. There will be many church services this week. We are called especially this week to devote ourselves to the hearing of the Scriptures and preaching, to meditation and prayer, and the reception of Christ’s body and blood. Don’t rob yourself of this blessed comfort by not coming to the services. Come as much as you can this week. Because here you will encounter your crucified Lord in the flesh, speaking to you, personally and individually, forgiving your sins, and feeding you with the fruit of His sacrifice. We must take up our cross and follow Him. We must go the way of the cross if we are to come to the empty tomb. We must travel through Good Friday if we are to come to Easter. But do not fear. All this He suffers for you. And in His suffering and death and resurrection you have the eternal blessing: Life, salvation, and the forgiveness of all your sins. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Lenten Midweek 5

Lenten Midweek V: The Miraculous Faith of the Roman Soldiers[1]

April 13, 2011

Text: Matt. 27:54: “When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” (ESV).

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Can you imagine the impact these words of our crucified Lord had on the Roman centurion and his soldiers? These were hardened men. They were used to blood and killing and death. They had crucified others. Perhaps they had been to war. They did not place a high value on human life. This centurion and these men were probably assigned to Jesus from the time he came before Pontius Pilate for trial. That means that these were the men responsible for His captivity. These were the men who mocked Him, spat on Him, beat Him, scourged Him. These were the men who placed the purple robe on Him and pressed the crown of thorns into His sacred head and scornfully worshiped Him. These were the men who divided His garments among them and cast lots for His seamless robe. They drove the nails into His precious flesh, His hands and His feet. They nailed the charges above His head: “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (Matt. 27:37). They lifted our Lord up upon His cross. They were butchers of men! The point is, at no time in all of this did they recognize that they were sinning. They were just doing their gruesome job. They did not apologize to Jesus, much less ask God for forgiveness. They were not Christians. They were not even Jews. They were pagans. If they believed in any sort of deity, they believed in the Roman pantheon of gods and goddesses. They worshiped the Emperor as a god. And they did not believe that they had committed any sort of religious offense. Yet Jesus speaks: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

They witness all the miracles of the Passion: the three hours of darkness, the great earthquake, the splitting rocks. They hear the seven words of Jesus from the cross. They behold the love of the Lord Jesus for His people as the Jews hurl insults at Him and blaspheme His holy Name. They behold the love of the Lord for the criminals to His right and His left who also hurl insults at Him, and they see the change that comes over one of the criminals as he is brought to faith and assured that he will be with Jesus in paradise. And through it all, they behold Jesus’ great love for them, hear His words of love for them ringing in their ears: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” What an amazing and puzzling word this must have been to them. What great compassion Jesus showers upon them as He prays for their forgiveness and dies the death that will make it happen. Jesus speaks with tenderness toward His torturers and executioners. No mere man, no sinner, could utter such words. These were the words of God.

The Holy Spirit calls us by the Gospel. Those who come to faith in Jesus Christ are given that faith through the Word and the Sacraments. Jesus speaks. The centurion and the Roman soldiers hear. They behold the great earthquake and all that takes place. And they come to the conclusion to which only the Holy Spirit could lead them, the conclusion to which even Jesus’ own people, the Jews, could not come: “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matt. 27:54). “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” The Word of God brings faith to the centurion and the soldiers and leads to the confession of faith: “This was the Son of God!”

So it goes for us. For Jesus was pierced for our transgressions. Our sins placed Him on the cross. And hardened as we are, we act as if it’s no big deal. We sin so casually, knowing that “after all, God will forgive,” never stopping to think that this was a real death, a real flesh and blood crucifixion that God demanded in payment for our sins. And worse, this was really hell that Jesus suffered in His spirit as He was dying on the tree. Because of us. Because of our sin. Every “little” sin we commit nailed Jesus to the cross. We’re no better than the soldiers. And even though it was the soldiers’ hands that drove the nails into our Lord’s flesh to fasten Him to the cross, it was just as much our sin that held Him there. For He could at any moment have come down from the cross and in a horrifying display of wrath and glory obliterated all His assailants (which, by the way, would include you and me). But He doesn’t come down. He is held there by love for sinners, love for you and me. Because He desires to pay for our sins in His body. He desires to suffer our punishment. He desires to give us His righteousness, His life, His freedom. He desires to restore us to the Father’s favor. He prays for us, for you, for me: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

And the Father forgives. He accepts the payment of His Son in our place. And hearing that Word of forgiveness, the Word in which the Holy Spirit is active and working, we come to faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, just like the centurion and the Roman soldiers. Hearing, we believe. Believing, we confess. This man was the Son of God. This man is the Son of God. For He died, but He is no longer dead. He lives. He is risen, as He said. And He raises us from death and gives us life eternal.

It is a miracle that the centurion and the soldiers are converted. And the same miracle that happened to them happens to you. From start to finish, salvation is all by grace. Not even faith is your work. It is a miraculous and divine gift. For “no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] The theme and many of the thoughts in this sermon are taken from Miracles of Lent (St. Louis: Concordia, 2011).

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Fifth Sunday in Lent (A)

April 10, 2011

Text: John 11:1-53

“For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling” (Psalm 116:8; ESV). Beloved in the Lord, you’ve been mortally wounded. Sin has done this to you. In fact, the situation is even worse than simply a mortal wound. You’re stillborn. You are born in sin, and therefore you are born spiritually dead. And there’s nothing you can do about it, anymore than a dead man can raise himself. You can’t decide to come to life. You can’t even “try really hard” to come to life. This is what we mean by “the bondage of the will.” In spiritual matters, you have no freedom of the will to choose God, to choose to believe, to choose life. There is no life in you to choose. You are of the flesh, and your sinful flesh is bound. St. Paul writes, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot” (Rom. 8:7). A dead man is bound to death. Life must come from outside of you. And here is the great good news for you. Your Lord Jesus Christ says to you this morning, “Come out of the tomb! Come out of death! Be unbound from the graveclothes! Come out and live!” And so life comes from outside of you, from Jesus. Faith comes from outside of you, from Jesus. He alone can give such life and faith. And here is His promise to you this morning: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).

Lazarus was bound to death. For four days he laid in the tomb decaying. He could do no other. There was no life in him. He was bound with the linen strips of death and a great stone sealed his tomb. If Lazarus is to live, if there is to be a resurrection, the Lord of life must speak. The Word of God bestows life. Jesus speaks, cries out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out” (v. 43), and look what happens. Lazarus comes out of the tomb. The Word of God bestows freedom. Jesus speaks: “Unbind him, and let him go” (v. 44), and look what happens. Lazarus is unbound, alive, and free. Life and freedom are bestowed by the Word made flesh as that Word is preached. As this Word is preached to you this morning, the Word made flesh cries out to you: Live and be free!

Jesus imparts life and freedom, and it is His very nature to do so, for He is “the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world” (v. 27). Only God has life in Himself, and the life that we have comes from Him. So the fact that Jesus bestows life demonstrates that He is the life-giving God in the flesh. And as for freedom, well, again, we’re bound. And men in bondage cannot bestow freedom. God alone has freedom within Himself, so the fact that Jesus bestows freedom demonstrates that He is the freeing God in the flesh. And notice that this has always been God’s plan for humanity. He did not will that we should fall into sin and thus be bound to the devil. He did not will that we should fall into sin and thus be bound to death, temporal, spiritual, and eternal. This is why Jesus weeps at the tomb of Lazarus (v. 35). It was never supposed to be this way. God created Adam and Eve to live eternally with their offspring in His “very good” (Gen. 1:31) creation, basking in His love, loving one another, and joyfully tending the Garden in praise of the God who created them and breathed the breath of life into them. When our first parents fell by the serpent’s beguiling, the relationship with God was shattered. Creation was subjected in bondage to the curse. Adam and Eve and all their children, including you and me, were cursed. We died in Adam’s sin. The moment the forbidden fruit touched our ancestors’ lips we died spiritually. We became hostile to God, blind, dead, and God’s enemies. And we were consigned to eternal death in hell. And in that moment, for the first time, Adam and Eve began to age, to decay. Physical death was but a symptom of the spiritual death that had already set in. From the moment we’re born, we’re dying. If you wear glasses, it’s because you’re dying. If you have aches and pains, it’s because you’re dying. If you’ve ever had to fight off a common cold, much less cancer or heart disease or a life-threatening injury, this is a sign of your impending death. Sin has mortally wounded you. Pretending otherwise won’t help. You were born dead, and you live in death.

So what are we to do? Can these bones live? God only knows! He knows and He acts. He speaks. He speaks and there is life. The Word of the LORD must be spoken over the dry bones if they are to be clothed with flesh and spirited with the breath of life (Ez. 37:4ff.). God does not leave us in death. God does not leave us in bondage. Already in the aftermath of our first parents’ demise God spoke the promise: The woman’s Seed would crush the serpent’s head, but only in this way, by taking the mortal poison of the snakebite into Himself. In crushing the serpent’s head, His heal would be crushed (Gen. 3:15). Jesus can give life to Lazarus because He is God, and because He has come in the flesh to undo the curse. Jesus can give life to Lazarus because He has come as the woman’s Seed to take the curse of death into Himself. What wondrous love is this? “O love, how deep, how broad, how high, Beyond all thought and fantasy” (LSB 544:1). That God, the Son of God, should take on our frail flesh that He may be stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted in our place, as the punishment for our sins; that He be wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; that upon Him may be the chastisement that brings us peace; that by His stripes we be healed (Is. 53:4-5), made alive, raised from the dead, forgiven, free.

And don’t miss the tragic irony here, that raising Lazarus from the dead leads directly to Jesus’ death by crucifixion. As High Priest, Caiaphas ignorantly prophesies: indeed, it is better that one Man should die for the people, than that the whole nation, the whole world, should perish (John 11:50). And so with envy and great bitterness, the chief priests and Pharisees unwittingly capitulate to the divine plan of salvation: “from that day on they made plans to put him to death” (v. 53). In hostility to God and the bondage of the will, unbelieving man cannot do otherwise. But don’t miss the divine irony here either: In putting to death the Lord of life, eternal life comes to all who believe. These bones can live, when the Lord speaks, and by His Word grants life and faith to those who are dead in their trespasses and sins. Those living in bondage to sin can be freed when the Word of the Lord forgives them, looses them from their sins. There is new life and freedom in Christ, the life-giving God.

And what does this mean for you? You are baptized! That means that God has spoken! “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” is the Name written on your forehead. You’ve been marked with the sign of the holy cross. Your name has been engraved on the pierced hands of God. You belong to Him. He has not left you in death. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4). In Baptism, the Old Adam in you, the old sinful flesh, has been drowned along with all sins and evil desires, and you’ve been raised to new life, new life now, though hidden, and you’ve been sealed for the resurrection of your body on the Last Day. God gives life to you in Baptism, because in Baptism, God has spoken. And there is no mistaking the fact that He has spoken to you directly, because the water was poured on you. God has spoken, and He cannot lie. You are His, alive, and free.

This also means that temporal death, though always tragic, even for Christians, because it was never meant to be, nonetheless takes on a new cast. We regard death from a new perspective. “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (Ps. 116:8). Baptized into Christ, united to Christ by faith, though you die, yet you live. For Jesus is the resurrection and the life. In Him, you never die. When your body expires, it goes into the ground to await resurrection, and your soul rests with Jesus in heaven. But that isn’t the end. On the Last Day your body is raised from death in an even more glorious resurrection than that of Lazarus. You are raised, and unlike Lazarus, you will never die again. Your soul is reunited to your body and you will live eternally in your body in a new heaven and a new earth. Your body will be like Jesus’ resurrection body: Perfect, sinless, glorified. We don’t know yet what that will be like, but we know that we will be like Him, for we will see Him as He is, and that is enough for us (1 John 3:2). And knowing that, we face death with confidence, regarding it simply as a peaceful sleep from which we will soon awaken.

Beloved in the Lord, Jesus says to you this day, “Come out of the tomb! Live and be free!” And at His speaking, you live and are free from all bondage, for you are forgiven, and you have eternal life. He has delivered you from death. He wipes every tear from your eyes. And He sets you on the sure foundation of His own death and resurrection. “I am the resurrection and the life,” says Jesus. “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). Dear Christian, come out of the tomb and live. Your Lord has spoken. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Lenten Midweek 4

Lenten Midweek IV: “The Miraculous Raising of the Saints from Death”[1]

April 6, 2011

Text: Matt. 27:52-53: “The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (ESV).

It is a great paradox: The death of our Lord Jesus Christ is actually His decisive victory over death. There is no little amount of sacred irony in the fact that Jesus overcomes death by submitting Himself into death. Death is dead because Jesus dies, and His death gives birth to eternal life.

And so in the moment of our Savior’s death, the tombs are opened and the bodies of many of the saints are raised from the dead. The grave can no longer keep its grip on them. Who are these saints? We don’t know. The Scriptures do not say. Are they disciples who came to believe in Christ during His earthly ministry, but who died before His crucifixion? Perhaps. More likely they are Jews who died in the hope of the coming Messiah, as indeed, God’s Old Testament people were saved by faith in the Messiah who was to come, even as we New Testament people are saved by faith in the Messiah who has come, even Jesus Christ. Perhaps these saints who were raised from the dead were great Old Testament figures, like Job or Abraham or David. We just don’t know. And really, it’s useless to speculate. Matthew leaves these details out on purpose, at the direction of the Holy Spirit. Because who these saints were simply isn’t important for us to know. What is important is this: Death has been defeated. In swallowing up our Savior, death has been swallowed up in victory. Jesus’ sin-atoning sacrifice is sufficient. He has delivered us from bondage to the devil and sin and to death and hell. The bodily resurrection of these saints is the physical testimony of Jesus’ victory, of His coming resurrection on Easter morning as the firstborn from the dead, and of the resurrection of all the saints, including you, on the Last Day.

Jesus dies and the tombs burst open. It happens in the same moment as the tearing of the Temple curtain, the great earthquake, and the bursting of the rocks. In that moment, everything has changed. The tombs are open, but no one is inside. Where are they? They are risen, presumably in their glorified resurrection bodies. We don’t know much about what has happened here. It is a mystery. Again, the Scriptures give little detail. But we know that these saints are raised in the moment of Jesus’ death, yet they do not appear to anyone until after Jesus’ resurrection. What’s going on here? Where are they hidden? Beloved, the resurrection itself is a mystery. Our fallen minds cannot grasp it. If these saints are in their glorified bodies, then even though these are the same bodies in which they originally lived and died, the bodies have been changed. They are like Jesus’ glorified body. And so their bodies are where Jesus’ glorified resurrection body is, in heaven. And yet, after Jesus’ resurrection, just as He Himself appeared at various times and places to the disciples during the forty days between Easter and His ascension, so these saints appeared to many in the Holy City of Jerusalem.[2] Imagine the witness they offered. They had been through the valley of the shadow of death and come out the other side alive, because Jesus has gone through the valley of the shadow of death and come out the other side alive.

And what a great comfort this is to us. Because by all appearances, death has not been defeated. We have all stood before the grave of a loved one, and staring into that grave, we stare into our own, for we, too, will go the way of all flesh. Unless our Lord returns first, we will die. Our souls will be separated from our bodies. Our bodies will go into the ground. Our souls will be with Jesus in heaven. But that is not the end of the story. The resurrection of these saints testifies to that blessed truth. For death has been defeated. Jesus did not remain in the grave. He is risen, as He said. And His resurrection is the basis of the resurrection of the saints in the event of His death, and the basis of our own most certain bodily resurrection from the dead. In spite of all appearances, in spite of your grief over loved ones who have died, in spite of your own fear of death, you have this blessed comfort that your body will be raised and reunited to your soul. You will see your loved ones again who have died in the Lord. Though they have died, they live. They join us at the altar every time we gather around it to receive the Lord’s gifts, along with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. The saints who were raised on Good Friday are gathered here, too. Their resurrection is a testimony that death really doesn’t have any power over us. Because death has no power over Jesus. And we belong to Jesus, who died, and is risen.

Many of the Jews of Jesus’ day expected that at the coming of the Messiah many saints would rise from the dead. So it happened, and so it is recorded in the Scriptures for our learning and comfort. “‘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). In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] The theme and many of the thoughts contained in this sermon come from Miracles of Lent (St. Louis: Concordia, 2011).

[2] For more on this, see R.C.H. Lenski, Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel (Columbus, OH: Lutheran Book Concern, 1932) pp. 1109-1112.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Fourth Sunday in Lent (A)
April 3, 2011
Text: John 9:1-41

The sinful flesh of man, including your own sinful flesh, believes it has 20/20 vision when it comes to spiritual matters. This is why it is impolite for a dinner guest to bring up the topic of religion. Because some at the table might disagree. And the sinful flesh of each individual believes it possesses a corner on religious truth, all protests to the contrary aside. “At least for me, I believe, according to my sinful flesh, that I know what is spiritually true for me, and no one had better say otherwise.” Not even God. Not even the Scriptures. With regard to spiritual matters, you and I and all other sinners declare, “We see” (John 9:41; ESV). And when we say this, our guilt remains. For we are utterly blind. We are born spiritually blind, dead, and enemies of God. There is no way to make ourselves see. We cannot improve our spiritual eyesight. We cannot bring ourselves to see the truth of God. We cannot by our own reason or strength believe in our Lord Jesus Christ or come to Him. The Holy Spirit must call us by the Gospel and enlighten us with His gifts. Jesus Himself must restore our sight, that in Him we may behold the love of the Father who gave His only Son into death for us. On our own, we are in bondage to our blind self-deception, to sin and to death. But when the Holy Spirit leads us by the preaching of the Law to recognize our blindness, then a miracle happens. By the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, our eyes are opened. We were blind from birth, but now we see.

There is a double-miracle in this morning’s Gospel lesson. For when Jesus encounters the man born blind, He would give so much more to this man than simply physical sight, as great a blessing as that is. Jesus would give this man the eyes of faith, eyes that see Jesus for who He is, the Son of God and our only Savior from spiritual blindness, sin, and death. The first miracle is the physical sight that Jesus bestows, and this shows us that our Lord cares for our bodies as well as our souls. We dare never think that God is unconcerned with our physical well-being. He comes to us in the flesh, after all, in the incarnation of Jesus, and through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, He has redeemed us, body and soul. When Jesus encounters the man born blind, He recognizes this as an occasion wherein the works of God might be displayed (v. 3). Therefore spitting on the ground and making mud with His saliva, He rubs it in the man’s eyes. Gross? Disgusting? Maybe, but this is always how our Lord works, through common and unexpected means, means that give offense to our blind sinful flesh that would prefer to see Jesus work in a more “spiritual” way. Jesus “anoints” the man’s eyes with mud and spit, and we wonder why He does this instead of just waving His hands around and saying some magic words. Jesus works through means. He works on the man with mud and spit. He works on us with words and water and bread and wine. Our objections to the means of grace, the Word and the Sacraments, are the same as our objections to the mud and spit. It’s too ordinary. It’s not “spiritual” enough. It’s an offense. It doesn’t make sense to our all-seeing sinful flesh. We can’t see why our Lord, in His wisdom, would work through such foolish means. But here He does, and the man sees. The Creator of heaven and earth and all that is in them fashions new eyes for the man born blind.

And what Jesus does for the man physically, He later does for him spiritually. For this man, along with all other men, was also born spiritually blind. Jesus is not content simply to restore his physical sight. Jesus wills to give this man the eyes of faith. After the man has miraculously received his eyesight, the Pharisees, in their blindness, throw him out of the synagogue. They excommunicate him. After all, nothing good can come from this Jesus who breaks the Sabbath and the other traditions of the fathers and claims to be God in the flesh! Cast out of the congregation, this man is lost. Jesus finds him. The man does not find Jesus, Jesus finds the man. And here He performs the second miracle. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Jesus asks him. “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” “Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you’” (vv. 35-37; emphasis added). And with that, the man is given spiritual sight. Jesus opens his eyes of faith. Once again Jesus works through means, namely, the means of His Word. “You have seen Him,” says Jesus, and immediately the man sees Jesus for who He is, for the Word of the Lord is always performative, it always does what it says. The Word gives birth to spiritual sight (faith), which leads to confession and worship. “He said, ‘Lord, I believe,’ and he worshiped him” (v. 38). The man born blind did not come to this faith on his own. He could not by his own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, his Lord, or come to Him. He was blind. But the Lord opened his eyes by the Gospel. Now the man sees and believes.

Beloved in the Lord, the same miracle has been done to you. You were born blind, but Jesus has opened your eyes of faith by sending His Holy Spirit. The Lord opens your eyes through means as common, and perhaps as disturbing, as mud and spit. He pours water on your head, the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word, and you believe. He speaks through an ordinary, sinful, weak man and your sins are forgiven. You read words on a page from an ordinary book and suddenly there is light in the darkness. You eat a thin, tasteless wafer of bread and take a little sip of wine, and you’ve received the true body and blood of Christ into your mouth for your forgiveness and life. It’s an offense to the unbelieving world and even to your own sinful flesh, that this is how Jesus works, that God has bound Himself to these ordinary things. But the Holy Spirit has opened your eyes through these means so that you believe in Jesus Christ and see that Christ is truly present for you in these means, really speaking to you, really washing you, really forgiving you, really feeding you with His very real body and blood. You could not have come to this conclusion by your own reason or strength. But the Holy Spirit has called you by the Gospel and enlightened you with His gifts.

This is of vital importance for you. This is a matter of your eternal life and death. “For at one time you were darkness,” unbelieving, in bondage to the devil, spiritually dead, a lover of sin, “but now you are light in the Lord” (Eph. 5:8). The Lord has enlightened you. You became a child of the light in Baptism. The Lord has rescued you from darkness. You have received the gift of faith from the Lord. You are no longer in bondage, but have been freed to love God and to do good works in love toward your neighbor. You have been brought to new life, reborn in the baptismal water. Now you love the good, for you love the God who alone is good, and who has redeemed you by the blood of His Son. Therefore you now walk as children of the light, bearing fruit in all that is good and right and true (v. 9). You no longer walk in the works of darkness, the passions of the flesh, in idolatrous unbelief, blindness. You were lost, but Jesus found you and opened your eyes. You once were blind, but now you see.

And your eyes of faith being open, you sing with King David, “My eyes are ever toward the LORD” (Ps. 25:15). He alone is your help in every time of need. He alone is your salvation. Again, you sing with King David, “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple” (Ps. 27:4). For you know that here, in the house of the LORD, is where He distributes His sight-bestowing and sight-sustaining gifts. Faith gazes upon the beauty of the LORD where He is present, bodily, for you.

And this faith, this spiritual sight, leads to confession and worship. You confess Christ as He dwells in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Col. 3:16). You confess the Creed. You sing the liturgy and hymns. You worship. You give thanks and praise to the God of all grace. And you go out and live your daily life, in your daily vocations, in praise of the God who opened your eyes and made you His own. There is a reason that John does not name the man born blind in our text. Because you are the man. Whoever this man historically was, John would have you read yourself into this text. This morning Jesus extends His healing hand to you to anoint you with His scandalous means of grace. This morning He opens your eyes, that you may behold Him, the Son of Man, your Savior and your Lord. And in beholding Him by faith, you have eternal life. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.