Cruce Tectum

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

Name:
Location: Dorr, Michigan

Thursday, March 31, 2011

God's Word Alone Can Grow the Church


Pastor’s Window for April 2011


God’s Word Alone Can Grow the Church!

Beloved in the Lord,

The Church never really grows by means of human ingenuity. Our cleverness does not make disciples. The church-growth gurus will tell you otherwise, and they can even point to impressive buildings and massive crowds as evidence that their methods and techniques “work.” But while novelty may draw a crowd, it leaves the heart empty. Conversion is not a matter of filling the pews (or the offering plate!) to capacity. Conversion is a matter of the heart. The Holy Spirit works through His Word alone to convert sinners, to turn hearts, to make believers. The Church is the company of believers. Therefore God’s Word alone can grow the Church!

The Scriptures themselves are clear on this. Jesus tells His Church exactly how we should “make disciples of all nations,” namely by “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Baptism, the Word of God in the water!) and “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Preaching, the proclamation of Jesus Christ and His Word in the Scriptures!) (Matt. 28:19-20; ESV). Jesus commands His Church to “Go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). St. Paul says that the Word of God’s grace “is able to build you up” (Acts 20:32), and that the Holy Scriptures “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 3:15). Finally St. Paul declares that “faith comes from hearing” (hearing the preaching!) “and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). After all, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (v. 14). God’s Word alone converts. God’s Word alone can grow the Church.

But even within God’s Word we must make a distinction. We must properly distinguish between Law and Gospel. The Law is God’s infallible truth. The Law tells us what we are to do and not to do as God’s people. Then it condemns us for our failure. So you see, the Law does not convert. It does not direct us to Christ in faith. Only the Gospel converts. Only the Gospel changes hearts. The Gospel is the Good News that our sins are forgiven on account of Christ. Jesus Christ has reconciled us to God. This alone can turn us in faith to Him who is our Savior. Both Law and Gospel must be preached in the Church. But the Law only prepares sinners for the converting work of the Gospel by convicting us of sin. The Gospel then is the instrument by which the Holy Spirit delivers Jesus, who reconciles us to the Father. The Gospel is the vehicle by which the Holy Spirit grants faith in Jesus Christ. Thus the Gospel is what grows the Church!

The Church may look like it’s getting smaller, and this can be discouraging. This is also why it is so tempting to follow the methods and techniques of the church-growth gurus that seem to “work.” But we must ever bear three important truths in mind when we think about evangelism, missions, and church-growth. First of all, the Church as the body of believers in Jesus Christ will remain on earth until the Last Day. Jesus promises that the gates of hell will not prevail against her (Matt. 16:18). We often talk of the Church as a dying institution, because rather than trusting in Jesus’ promise, we trust our own observations of the appearance of things. Less people come to church, therefore the Church must be dying. But nothing can be further from the truth. We don’t see the reality that the Church grows with every Baptism, with every conversion. Nor does it shrink when a saint dies and goes to heaven. They are still members of the Church! The second thing we must keep in mind is that filling this building to capacity every week is not the mission of the Church (nor is filling the offering plate with the money of our guests!). The mission of the Church is to proclaim Christ and His Word, and administer the Sacraments. That’s it. It is good, of course, to have a crowd in church, and we should invite our friends and neighbors to church, and we should come to church faithfully. But the reason is not to increase attendance, boost the bottom line, and preserve the institution for the sake of it. The reason is that this is the place where the Word is preached and Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar are happening. The third thing we must keep in mind is that we are not at all responsible for the growth of the Church. God alone gives the growth. Read Mark 4:26-29! And remember what we confess in the Augsburg Confession, that the Holy Spirit “works faith, when and where it pleases God [John 3:8], in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake” (AC V:2-3; McCain p. 33). Again, the Word alone converts. Human ingenuity and novelty can never grow the Church. The Word alone grows the Church. And this is very good news for us, because it takes the pressure off of us. We are simply to proclaim the Word. Let God worry about the results!

Pastor Krenz

This article is based on J.T. Mueller’s Christian Dogmatics, pp. 66-67.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Lenten Midweek 3

Lenten Midweek III: “The Miracle of the Splitting Rocks”[1] March 30, 2011 Text: Matt. 27:51c: “…and the rocks were split” (ESV). Beloved in the Lord, the creation groans (Rom. 8:22). The creation groans because, through no fault of its own, but because of man’s sin, this creation has been subjected to futility (v. 20). Even unbelievers have some grasp of this groaning, and this is why they have this sense of impending environmental catastrophe and have created the false religion of environmentalism. There is a point to be made here: Man’s sin damages the creation and subjects it to futility. Creation groans. It groans as it waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God, for the Last Day and the great Judgment when the creation will be delivered from its subjection and created anew, a new heaven and a new earth, where only the saints live in truth and purity. Creation groans because, unlike unbelieving man, it knows its Creator. And creation, even in the midst of groaning, praises its Maker, its Lord. When our Lord Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the people sang His praises. So much so that the Pharisees said to Him, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples” (Luke 19:39). Jesus responded, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (v. 40). For when man does not recognize the Creator of heaven and earth, creation must bear Him witness. St. Paul writes: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:19-20). This is called the natural knowledge of God. Unbelievers are without excuse because the creation intrinsically bears witness to the Creator and praises Him by functioning according to His design and will. When man keeps silent, the very stones cry out. Beloved in the Lord, in the moment of Jesus’ death, not only was the curtain of the Temple torn in two from top to bottom, not only was there a great earthquake… Rocks split apart! You can’t even imagine the sound. The stones were crying out. For man was not praising. The Jews, Jesus’ own countrymen, were accusing and mocking and sentencing to death. The Romans were pronouncing unjust judgment and scorning and jeering. The disciples were denying and cursing and fleeing. And from Adam to the present day and on into the future, until the very Last Day, our lips are filled with all that is not praise, all that is unholy and unclean. But in the death of Jesus Christ, the very stones cry out. The rocks are split apart. They cannot endure the death of their Creator and His act of redemption without singing out loudly. They explode in testimony of Him. The old creation is passing away. Behold, Jesus makes all things new. But as with all the miracles we’ve considered in this series so far, we have here the physical manifestation of a spiritual reality. The preaching of Jesus’ cross continues to split the rocks. It splits our hardened hearts of stone and makes them into new hearts of flesh. “Is not my word like fire, declares the LORD, and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces” (Jer. 23:29). “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Ps. 51:10). The preaching of the cross converts us. The preaching of the cross crushes our rocky hearts and makes them new. The preaching of the cross leads these unbelieving stones, you and I, to cry out in praise and confession of our Creator and Redeemer, the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The death of the Son of God on the cross is the decisive event in human history. It is the decisive event for all creation. It is the decisive event for you. For the death of Jesus Christ saves you. The death of Jesus Christ makes it possible for you to believe. The death of Jesus Christ makes it possible for your lips to be opened and filled with praise of the one true God. The death of Jesus Christ marks the end of the old fallen creation, and the beginning of the new. We will see it in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, the firstborn of the new creation. But for now, the creation groans, and you groan, and the Spirit groans before the Father on your behalf. Beloved, the Father has heard the groaning, and His answer is the death of His Son Jesus Christ. Contrary to all human reason, at the death of our Redeemer, the stones and the Church explode in praise of Him who died, but who now lives, even Jesus Christ our Lord. 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).

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Christ, Our Servant

Great devotion by Luther from Day by Day We Magnify Thee (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985) p. 138: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life as a ransom for many. Matthew xx.28. Look at this picture and love it. There is no greater bondage or form of service than that the Son of God should be the servant and should bear the sin of every man, however poor and wretched or despised. What an amazing thing it would be if some great king's son should go into a beggar's hut to nurse him in his illness, wash off his filth and do all the things which otherwise the beggar would have to do. All the world would gape with open mouths, noses, ears, and eyes, and could never think and talk enough about it. Would that not be a wonderful humility? Therefore would it be well to sing, talk, and preach of this for evermore, and on our part to love and praise God for so gracious a gift. But, behold, what does it mean? The Son of God becomes my servant and humbles Himself so much that He carries even my afflictions and my sin; yea, the whole world's sin and death He takes upon Himself, saying to me: You are no longer a sinner, but I, I Myself step into your place. You have not sinned; I have. The whole world lies in sin, but you are not in sin, but I am. All your sin shall be upon Me, and not on you. No man can comprehend it. In the life hereafter we shall have a knowledge of the love of God and gaze upon it in eternal blessedness.

Third Sunday in Lent

Third Sunday in Lent (A) March 27, 2011 Text: John 4:5-30, 39-42 It is not an accident that Jesus is sitting at this particular well, Jacob’s well, on this particular day at this particular hour, the sixth hour. It is not an accident that Jesus meets this particular woman in this particular time and place. This is divinely appointed. It is not by accident that Jesus sends His disciples away to buy food. It is not by accident that we meet Him all alone with the Samaritan woman. It is not an accident, because Jesus knows precisely what this woman needs. She has come to draw water. Jesus knows that she needs living water. Jesus is the living water. Jesus knows that this woman needs Him, and very soon, she will know it, too. Because Jesus will expose her thirst and give her the living water that alone can quench her thirst for righteousness. Jesus will give Himself to her as “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14; ESV), even as He gives Himself for her, for the forgiveness of her sins. The situation is tenuous from the beginning. Jesus really shouldn’t be talking to this woman at all, at least not according to the standards of the day. The difficulty is three-fold: First, no respectable Jewish man would ever speak to a woman alone to whom he was not related. Second, this woman has a reputation. She is a notorious sinner. No respectable Jewish man would ever be seen keeping company with a disreputable woman, lest his own reputation be tarnished. Third, this woman is a Samaritan. No respectable Jewish man would associate himself with Samaritans, the half-breeds, the remnants of the ten Northern Tribes of Israel who worshiped in all the wrong places instead of Jerusalem, and who intermarried with the pagans after the Assyrian captivity. But Jesus has come to seek and to save that which is lost (Luke 19:10). Jesus comes for men and women alike. Jesus comes for sinners. It is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick (Luke 5:31). Jesus has come to heal those sick with sin by calling them to repentance (v. 32) and giving them the medicine of living water. And Jesus has no room for racial barriers. He has come from the Jews, “for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22), but He has come for Jew and Gentile alike. In fact, in Christ “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). It is not an accident that Jesus commits this social faux pas. For this Jesus was sent by the Father. For this Jesus came, willingly, the Son of God in the flesh, to be one with sinners. Jesus has come to impart living water to sinners. Jesus promises that everyone who drinks of the water He gives “will never be thirsty forever” (John 4:14). The woman thinks it might be nice not to have to draw water from the well anymore. She wants Jesus to give her this magical water. But of course, she has it all wrong. Jesus is speaking of a greater water than that which is in the well. And the woman has a greater need than physical thirst. Whether she realizes it or not, she thirsts for righteousness. She knows an emptiness within herself that can only be filled with the living water Jesus gives. She has tried to quench her thirst with everything else. She has filled her life with men, thinking that they can slake her desire. But she goes on thirsting. Jesus points out her obvious need. She has had five husbands. Now she lives with a man outside of marriage. She knows this is sin. Jesus does not have to point it out to her. She is a social outcast. She is an adulteress. Notice she is alone at the well. She must come at a time when the other women are not at the well to draw water. Because she wears the proverbial scarlet letter around her neck. The other women shoot her dirty looks and talk about her indiscretions behind her back. Jesus does not talk behind her back. He confronts her directly with her sin. Why does He do this? To make her feel bad about herself? Out of meanness? No. He does this that she might know her great need and desire that cure that Jesus here offers, that Jesus alone can give. From the preaching of the Law, she perceives that Jesus is a prophet, but she has not yet come to faith. Jesus fills that need by proclaiming the Gospel to her. “The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I who speak to you am he’” (vv. 25-26). You can’t see this as well in the English translation, but this is an “I AM” statement. Jesus is pointing to Himself and saying, “I AM, YHWH, right here, in the flesh!” “Dear woman, I am the Messiah. I AM, YHWH, is speaking to you in the flesh right here and now. I have come to save you from your sins.” This, beloved, is the decisive point. If Jesus is the Messiah, there is no need for any other helper. There is no possibility that anyone or anything else can help. The only cure for sins is Jesus. The Gospel is that Jesus has come to save His people from their sins. The Gospel is that Jesus has come to save this poor sinful woman. The Gospel is that Jesus has come to save you, to give you living water, to give you Himself, even as He has given Himself for you. Believe it and it is yours. For faith is the true divine worship. What does it mean that “the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (v. 23)? It means that whether you’re a Jew worshiping in Jerusalem, or a Samaritan worshiping on Mt. Gerizim, or an American worshiping in Dorr, Michigan, you worship by faith in your Lord Jesus Christ, the faith the Spirit Himself has given you and preserves in you, by receiving the gifts of Christ in His Word and Sacraments, and believing the truth of His Word. That’s what it means to worship in spirit and in truth. It means to believe, to trust, to receive, to live by faith. That faith flows to you in the living water that is Jesus Christ. Beloved in the Lord, it is not by accident that Jesus is in this particular place, on this particular day, in this particular hour, to meet you here. He is here really and substantially, as God and man, here in the flesh. This is divinely appointed. It is not an accident that Jesus is here, because Jesus knows precisely what you need. You need living water. You need Jesus. And you know it, too. Because you also know your sins. They weigh you down. They drown you in death. They drag you to hell. Your thirst has been exposed. You thirst for righteousness. Only Jesus can give you the living water that is able to quench your thirst. You have tried to quench this thirst with anything and everything else. Perhaps like the woman you have tried to quench it with the pleasures of the flesh. Perhaps you have sought relief in substance abuse. Perhaps the false promises of earthly wealth and possessions have claimed your trust. In any case, you have believed that living for yourself is the answer, that which can fill the emptiness you know all too well inside of you. But none of it has worked. It has left you as empty as you were before. The preaching of God’s Law exposes your great need. And the Gospel delivers the cure that is Jesus Christ, the living water. Whoever drinks this water will never be thirsty forever. For in drinking deeply of Jesus by faith, you now possess His perfect righteousness. It is not by your own works that you become righteous before God. You have no righteousness of your own, only sin. You become righteous before God because He credits Jesus’ righteousness to your account. He covers you with Jesus’ righteousness. By faith in Christ you are pronounced righteous, justified. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). Jesus is the living water. He is the rock in our Old Testament lesson (Exodus 17:1-7), the rock that Moses struck with his staff, and water poured out of it for the thirsting people. St. Paul says that “all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:4). Indeed, when the centurion struck the crucified Savior’s side with the spear, there flowed forth from His sacred body water and blood. The water fills the font. The blood fills the chalice. The Church is born and lives from this saving flood. From the riven side of Christ the new Adam, the Church, the Bride of Christ, the new Eve, is born and nourished. She worships in spirit and in truth. She lives by faith. She lives by every word that comes from the mouth of God. You are the Church beloved. You are sinners who have drunk deeply of the living water that is Jesus Christ. You are the Samaritan woman, the unclean sinner, to whom Jesus comes, and it is no accident. Jesus comes to you, to make you clean. Jesus comes for you, to save you from your sins. It is divinely appointed. Jesus loves you. Jesus comes to give you eternal life. “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly… God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6, 8). It is no accident. This living water is for you. Come and drink deeply, and thirst no more. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Lenten Midweek 2

Lenten Midweek 2: “The Miraculous Earthquake”[1]
March 23, 2011
Text: Matt. 27:51b: “And the earth shook” (ESV).

What does it mean when God shakes the earth? Is there a meaning, or is an earthquake simply a random event and a natural phenomenon? The science of earthquakes is fascinating, the results, devastating as we know all too well from recent events, especially after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Our text this evening suggests that earthquakes are not just meaningless natural disasters, but indeed, carry a message from God. The earthquake that took place in the moment of our Savior’s death on the cross was once again the physical manifestation of a spiritual and theological reality, and that spiritual and theological reality can be read out of every other earthquake before or since. God is calling our attention to the reality of His presence in majesty, a majesty that includes His wrath and His mercy. He is calling our attention to the reality that the wrath of God that should rightly have been poured out on us has instead been poured out on His Son on the cross. Jesus suffers God’s wrath in our place. This is God’s merciful deliverance. Thus every earthquake is a call for all men to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as the sacrificial Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

In the Scriptures, earthquakes always indicate God’s presence. When the LORD passed by Elijah in the cave, His presence was preceded by a great earthquake (1 Kings 19:11ff). When Isaiah prophesied the siege of Jerusalem, he declared, “you will be visited by the LORD of hosts with thunder and with earthquake and great noise” (Is. 29:6). This was a fearful visitation. When Ezekiel was called as a prophet the words that were spoken to him sounded like a great earthquake (Ez. 3:12). Later God spoke through this same prophet: “For in my jealousy and in my blazing wrath I declare, On that day there shall be a great earthquake in the land of Israel. The fish of the sea and the birds of the heavens and the beasts of the field and all creeping things that creep on the ground, and all the people who are on the face of the earth, shall quake at my presence. And the mountains shall be thrown down, and the cliffs shall fall, and every wall shall tumble to the ground” (38:19-20). There was, in fact, a great earthquake in the days of Uzziah, King of Judah, which occurred in 760 BC, and is attested by the prophets Amos (1:1) and Zechariah (14:5). This earthquake was so destructive that it was known in the ancient world simply as “THE earthquake,” even several centuries later.

In the New Testament, Jesus tells us that earthquakes are a sign of the end, when He will return visibly to judge the living and the dead. “For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains” (Matt. 24:7-8). In the Book of Revelation, the judgment of the earth was accompanied by peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightening, and earthquakes (Rev. 6:12; 8:5; 11:13, 19; 16:18). Clearly the Scriptures indicate that earthquakes are a sign of God’s presence, and particularly His presence in wrath, punishing sin and calling all men to repentance.

But in this way, an earthquake is also a reminder of God’s great mercy to us. For when the earth quaked in the moment of Jesus’ death, it was an indication that God’s wrath had been poured out in full on His own Son on the cross. Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath to its very dregs (Is. 51:17). He did so for us and for our salvation. Now the cup is filled with mercy. Now the cup is filled with the very blood of Christ, shed for you, for the forgiveness of your sins.

We must exercise great caution in interpreting events outside of the Scriptures, natural disasters like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. The Japanese people are no more, nor any less, sinful than you and I. God was not punishing them specifically for some specific sin that they committed. The truth is, we really can’t say why God allowed this great tragedy to happen. That remains concealed from us in the wisdom of God’s hidden will. We can say what the Scriptures say, however. In the Japanese earthquake, and in every other natural or manmade disaster, God is calling us all, every last one of us, to repentance, lest we likewise perish (Luke 13:1-5). He is reminding us that He is not a God far away, but a God who is present. In this way He was present in the flesh of Jesus Christ on the cross, suffering for the sins of the world, for your sins and mine. He was present in wrath, pouring out the punishment for our sins upon Christ Jesus. He is present in mercy, even in the midst of great trials and tribulations, present in the flesh of Jesus, speaking His forgiving Word over us, washing us with baptismal water, feeding us with the very body and blood of the Son of God. Earthquakes are a call to faith, as we will see in three weeks when the Roman soldiers standing at the foot of the cross see the earthquake and miraculously come to faith, confessing, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matt. 27:54). Earthquakes are a call for us to remember the greatest miracle in the history of the world: God dies for man in the flesh of Jesus Christ! God dies for you in the flesh of Jesus Christ. And upon that earthshaking fact rests the salvation of the whole world. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Second Sunday in Lent

Second Sunday in Lent (A)
March 20, 2011
Text: John 3:1-17

Justification by faith alone. It is the article by which the Church stands or falls. It is the central article of the Christian faith, the center of all Christian doctrine. We are justified, pronounced righteous before God, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, without works, works rather coming as a result of our justification, which happens apart form such works. Consider how the Church confesses this truth in the Augsburg Confession: “Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works. People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness in His sight (Romans 3 and 4 [3:21-26; 4:5]” (AC IV, McCain p. 33). And of course, John 3:16, memorized by countless Christians and even many non-Christians is a golden text from which we learn this precious article of doctrine: The redemption of Jesus Christ is received by faith alone. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (ESV).

That we may obtain such faith, God has given us the ministry of Word and Sacrament (AC V). Through the means of grace, the preaching of God’s Word and the administration of His Sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Spirit is given, and through these means He works faith when and where it pleases Him in those who hear the Gospel. Jesus insists that the means of grace and faith are inextricably related in our Gospel reading this morning. We see this in his conversation with Nicodemus. Nicodemus, a man of the Pharisees, a strict Jewish group who believe they will be saved by stringent observance of the Law, comes to Jesus by night so that no one will see. Naturally Nicodemus believes that also faith is a work by which he will please God. And he has decided that he will now believe in Jesus. After all, he admires Jesus for His teaching, and especially for the miraculous signs He performs. He even tells Jesus so: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him” (John 3:2). But of course faith is not a good work that you do by which you are saved, and Jesus calls Nicodemus out for thinking that even by faith he can save himself. Faith must be God’s gift. And God gives such faith in a very particular way. He gives faith in an act of re-creation. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (v. 3).

Born again. The Greek word translated here as “again” can also mean “from above,” so perhaps the better translation here would be “unless one is born from above,” born of God, “he cannot see the kingdom of God.” In any case, because the word in question can mean either “again” or “from above,” Nicodemus takes it to mean a literal reentry into his mother’s womb to be born a second time (v. 4). But Jesus is not talking about a physical rebirth. He is talking about being born anew, born from above, born of the Holy Spirit. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (v. 5). He’s talking about Baptism. Water and the Spirit, that’s Baptism. Born again, born from above, whichever translation you want to use, that’s Baptism. The only born again Christian in the Scriptural sense of the term is a baptized Christian. Nor is there any other baptism that comes later, such as a so-called Spirit baptism. Your Spirit Baptism is one and the same Baptism as your water Baptism. For the Holy Spirit comes to you, as Jesus says here in the Gospel, as you are born of the Spirit in Baptism. The water in Baptism is just plain water, to be sure. That is, until it is combined with God’s Word. Then it “is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul says in Titus, chapter three: ‘He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. This is a trustworthy saying.’ [Titus 3:5-8]).”[1]

Nicodemus, who believes that faith is his work for God, cannot believe this talk about a new birth in Baptism. “How can these things be?” (John 3:9). This teacher of Israel simply cannot wrap his mind around the means that God uses to bring us to faith and grant us salvation. And that is because, as Paul says, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14). So much for making a personal decision for Jesus. So much for free will in spiritual matters. So much for faith being our work for God. No, faith must be God’s work for us and in us. And He does it through Baptism as Jesus says here. Beloved, you must never think of Baptism as your work. It is God who does the baptizing. It is all God’s work. He washes your sins away. He gives you His Spirit. He gives you faith. And that faith is counted as righteousness (Rom. 4:3-4). You are justified by faith alone, the very faith given to you when God baptized you into Christ. This is also why infant Baptism is the greatest example of grace alone without works. The baby doesn’t ask to be baptized. The baby doesn’t know what Baptism is. Often the baby is born from above of water and the Spirit kicking and screaming, wholly against the baby’s corrupt and bound will. But in reality, so is the adult who is born from above by water and the Spirit. Baptism is when the Lord takes a dead man by the hand and raises him to new life. You were dead in your trespasses and sins. In Baptism, God grabbed a hold of you to be His own, baptized into Christ, crucified with Christ, raised to new life with Christ, sins covered by the blood of Christ, God’s own child. You have new life now. You have eternal life now. Because you’ve been given faith by the Holy Spirit. And that is the promise. “Whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (3:16).

For such faith given in Baptism is always directed to Christ crucified, to receive the benefits of His cross. That is why every sermon and Bible class is ultimately about Christ crucified. St. Paul writes, “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23)! That is why we spend so much time especially during the Season of Lent meditating on our Lord’s suffering and crucifixion. Faith must have an object, that to which it is directed and that in which it trusts, that to which it clings. Too often we think of faith as simply this ambiguous quality of optimism that everything will eventually work out for the good. That’s not faith. That would once again make faith our work instead of God’s work in us, because faith would be a quality intrinsic to us. No, faith is simply trust in Christ Jesus and Him crucified for the forgiveness of our sins and our eternal salvation. That faith is a gift that God gives us in Baptism and in His Word and in His Supper. That faith is directed by the Holy Spirit to ever behold Jesus Christ lifted up upon the cross. For “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). Just as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent on the pole so that any Israelite who had been bitten by a fiery serpent could look at the bronze serpent and live, so Jesus is lifted up on the pole of the cross, so that we who have been bitten by the deadly serpent Satan, we who have the poison of sin coursing through our veins, we who are otherwise staring death and hell in the face, may look upon the Savior thus lifted up for our sins, and so be healed and live. Behold, the Son of God, crucified for you. Here is your salvation. This is utterly contrary to fallen and bound human reason. No one would make a decision for this. This must be revealed from above. And it is. The God who sheds His blood, suffers, and dies, He is our Savior. He is our God. We believe in Him. We worship Him. We are baptized into Him. It is He who is risen and speaks to us and declares that we are forgiven, righteous, justified. We eat His pierced body and drink the blood He spilled for the life of the world. We are born from above and nourished from above. By grace, not by works. Through faith. Whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

It is not recorded in Scripture how and when it happens, but Nicodemus eventually gives up his silly notion that faith is his work and receives the gift of faith from God. He, along with Joseph of Arimathea, performs the burial rite for our Lord (John 19:38-42). He believed, and so he received eternal life. Beloved in the Lord, you are baptized into Christ. You are God’s own child. You have received the Holy Spirit. You have received the free gift of faith. And so this promise is for you, unshakable, unchangeable, guaranteed by the very blood of Christ: You have eternal life. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Lenten Midweek 1

Lenten Midweek 1: The Miraculous Tearing of the Temple Curtain[1]

March 16, 2011

Text: Matt. 27:51a: “And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (ESV).

To understand the miraculous tearing of the Temple curtain, you have to understand something about the architecture and layout of the Temple itself, and the theological purpose for that layout. For God’s Old Testament people, the Temple was God’s house, the dwelling place of God with man. And yet, man cannot see God and live, because man is sinful, and God is holy, and whenever the sinfulness of man and the holiness of God come into contact, there is disaster. The LORD says through the prophet Isaiah: “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God” (59:2). Thus the Temple curtain. The Temple curtain separates the Holy of Holies (or the Most Holy Place) where God dwells, from the Holy Place where the priests do their work. The curtain is the physical manifestation of the spiritual reality that sin separates man from God. But it is also a protection. It protects the priests from coming into contact with God’s holiness and being obliterated by His wrath. Others are even further distanced from the Holy of Holies for their protection. The men of Israel could come into the Court of the Priests, just outside of the Holy Place, which is just outside the Holy of Holies, but only with their sacrifices. The women could not even come that far, but were confined to the Court of the Women in the Temple precincts. Gentiles (non-Jews) were even further removed, being confined to the Court of the Gentiles. The priests were the go-betweens, the mediators. The priests made sacrifices in the Court of the Priests and the Holy Place for the sins of the people. And only one priest, once a year, on the Day of Atonement, having ceremonially bathed his body, being clothed in holy vestments, carrying incense, and most-importantly, the sacrificial blood of a bull or goat for his sins, entered the Holy of Holies. For in the Holy of Holies was the Ark of the Covenant. And on the Ark of the Covenant was the mercy seat. And the mercy seat is the throne of the holy and living God.

The curtain, which separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies was about 6 inches wide, 60 feet high, and spanned the whole width of the Temple. It separated God’s people from certain doom by coming into contact with their holy God. It simply was not possible for them to have direct access to God because of their sins. They had to have mediators, the priests, the sacrifices, the blood. And now you can surmise what it means that upon the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, our once for all sacrifice for sin to which all of the Old Testament sacrifices pointed, the blood that covers our sins as the blood of bulls and goats never could, in the very moment He breathed His last, the curtain of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom. For in the death of Jesus Christ the sins of all men are forgiven. The sins that separate us from God are covered. There is no longer a division between God and man. Jesus is THE faithful High Priest who has made atonement for our sins, and the sacrifice He offers is Himself. His death is for the life of the world. He who knew no sin became sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). In the person of Jesus, the sin of man and the holiness of God came into contact, and the result was disastrous. The result was the death of the Son of God for sinful mankind. The result was the tearing of the curtain of Jesus' flesh. But in this way His flesh becomes the new and living way to God (Heb. 10:20). His death is our life. His life is our righteousness. Covered in His blood, we now have direct access to God. There is no need for any other mediator, save Jesus Christ. There is no need anymore for a special class of priests. God has made us all priests. And He comes to us directly, immediately, with no separation, in the flesh of Jesus Christ His Son.

And now just as the architecture of the Temple was the physical expression of the theological reality, so the architecture of our church building confesses this new reality that we have direct access to God. For all of you, men and women and children, Jews and Gentiles, whoever you are, come to church and march right into the nave, the Holy Place, if you will. And as God’s dear redeemed people, bought by the blood of His Son Jesus Christ, you then march right up to the chancel, the Holy of Holies if you will, wherein is the mercy seat, the altar of God, where God dwells really and substantially in flesh and blood. You come at the LORD’s bidding. There is no more division. There is no more curtain. The communion rail represents where the curtain used to be. But you come right up to that rail and kneel and God comes right through the rail, as you receive in your mouths the very body and blood of Jesus Christ, the very body and blood of God. Because Jesus Himself is the Temple. Jesus, the God-Man, is the dwelling place of God with man. Jesus is the dwelling place of God with you. The Temple of His flesh being destroyed by our sins, He raised it up in three days. He covers us by His blood in His Word and Baptism and the Supper. The sacrifices are over. The curtain is torn. Now nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:38-39). 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).

Sunday, March 13, 2011

First Sunday in Lent

First Sunday in Lent (A)
March 13, 2011
Text: Matt. 4:1-11

Beloved in the Lord, you are marked men and women. You’re not even aware of the great spiritual danger you are in at every moment. As much as you may wish to pretend otherwise, and as much as he may try to convince you otherwise, there is a devil. His name is Satan, and he is the leader of the fallen angels. There are demons who desire nothing else but to do you harm. There are spiritual powers of darkness and they aim for your death and damnation. I’m not saying this to scare you, but ignorance of the danger is neither helpful nor salutary. You are marked men and women. Ever since your Baptism into Christ, you have a target on your back. Satan has you in his sights. It torments him to no end that Jesus has redeemed you for Himself. Satan wants you back. Luther said that when we’re baptized, there is now around our neck “a mighty, lifelong enemy.”[1] Because in Baptism you are ripped from the devil’s possession and made God’s own child. This makes the devil very angry.

So he tempts you to sin. He tempts you to doubt. He tempts you to forsake the faith given to you by God in your Baptism into Christ. And the thing that you have to understand is that you are absolutely helpless on your own in the face of the devil’s attacks. You have no power or strength to resist him. The devil is stronger than the whole world. Don’t ever underestimate him. Of yourself, you are utterly helpless before him. The devil’s tricks are too strong for you, and in your frailty, you are too willing to believe his lies. Note how he works. He introduces doubt about God’s Word: “Did God actually say…?” (Gen. 3:1; ESV). He introduces doubt by twisting God’s declarations into conditional statements. At Jesus’ Baptism (and again at His transfiguration), the Father declared, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17; cf. 17:5). In His temptation in the wilderness the devil says, “If you are the Son of God…” (4:3, 6; emphasis added). The devil, who is a better theologian than you and I, who knows the Bible better than you and I, twists the Word of God toward his own ends. The devil’s version of God’s Word is always just close enough to God’s actual Word that it sounds good to our fallen and itching ears. In the case of Jesus, he rips God’s Word out of its context. He tempts Jesus to throw Himself off of the pinnacle of the temple, even quoting Scripture, Psalm 91, “He will command his angels concerning you,” and “On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone” (Matt. 4:6; Ps. 91:11-12). Of course, the devil leaves out the rest of the Psalm, which shows the reason the Father sends the angels to protect Jesus. “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him” (Ps. 91:14). Jesus’ obedience to the Father in completing the sin-atoning work for which He was sent, the cross, by which He would “trample underfoot” the “young lion and the serpent” (v. 13), is the reason the Father protects Him. Jesus must not die before the appointed time for His sacrifice.

A close examination of our Old Testament lesson (Gen. 3:1-21) reveals that Satan works in the same twisted way upon our first parents. They eat because the devil has convinced them that God is wrong, that God is the liar, and that God is holding out on them. But whereas Adam and Eve succumbed to the temptation, fell into sin, and took their whole posterity with them, the second Adam, our Lord Jesus Christ, did not succumb. He did not fall. Where Adam failed, and so brought sin and death into the world, our Lord Jesus was victorious, thus bringing righteousness and life (Rom. 5). You and I cannot fight against Satan and win. But the LORD of Hosts fights for us. YHWH Himself comes to our aid. He comes in the flesh. The reason Jesus is sent out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil is so that He can undo what Adam did. He is sent out to successfully resist the temptation on Adam’s behalf and our behalf. Jesus is the promised Son of the woman come to crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). He will crush it by being crushed on the cross. But here He is already battling the old evil foe on our behalf. And He is wins. He wins for us. He wins in our place. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Jesus knows our weakness. Jesus knows what it means to be tempted. Jesus knows the crafts and assaults of the evil one. But the difference between Jesus and us is that where we have been defeated, He wins the victory. And His victory counts for you. Baptized into Christ, His victory is your victory.

Therefore having now won the victory over temptation for you, He lends His aid for winning the victory over temptation in you. What was done for your justification, for making you righteous, namely, Jesus’ successful resistance against the devil’s temptation, is now applied to your sanctification, God making you holy, so that you actually begin to resist sin and do holy things in your Christian life, so that you yourself, with the help and by the grace of God, successfully combat temptation. How do you do this? How do you resist temptation? There is only one way. Be in Christ. Outside of Christ, it is hopeless. Remain in Christ. Abide in Christ. And how do you do that? Make frequent use of the means of grace, the Word and the Sacraments. That means that you should be in the Word every day, reading and meditating upon the Holy Scriptures. That means that you daily remember and return to your Baptism, knowing that in the font your sins are washed away, your old sinful nature is drowned and you are raised out of the water as a new creation in Christ Jesus. That means that you do not make a habit of absenting yourself from the weekly Divine Service, but you come here to be absolved of your sins, to hear and digest the Scripture readings and the sermon, to receive the life-giving and strengthening body and blood of our Lord Jesus in His Supper, to confess the faith to and with one another in liturgy and song, to encourage one another by the mutual conversation and consolation of your brothers and sisters in Christ. You resist with prayer, calling upon the Lord in every trouble, in faith that He will deliver you (Ps. 50:15). And to be sure, you resist the devil by means of the Word, recalling Bible passages that will strengthen you to resist, but always remembering again that you will never out-quote or out-argue the devil. So what it means first and foremost to resist the devil by means of the Word is that you be in that Word, and so commune with your Lord Jesus Christ who has won the victory. You cannot keep yourself safe from the devil, but Jesus can, and Jesus does.

And He outfits you for spiritual warfare with the whole armor of God (Eph. 6). God puts His armor on you so that you may be able to stand against the wicked schemes of the devil. He fastens upon you the belt of truth, the breastplate of Christ’s own righteousness which has been credited to your account, shoes which are the readiness of the Gospel of peace. He covers you with the shield of faith so that you can extinguish the flaming darts of the devil’s temptations. He places the helmet of salvation upon your head, and finally, He gives you your one offensive weapon, the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Being thus outfitted, do battle. Resist the devil. And pray. Pray at all times. Pray the Lord’s Prayer, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Pray for yourself. Pray for your fellow Christians. Pray for all people. Pray for the ministry of the Word, which is a full frontal assault on the devil and his kingdom. Pray in full faith, even in the midst of persecution, even when all seems hopeless. Because the Lord will answer. He has promised it. He cannot lie.

And when you do fall, beloved, as will happen in this fallen flesh… When the devil comes to you to accuse you, to bring to mind your sin and your shame, to drag you into the death and hell that you do, indeed, rightly deserve, remember this: The devil has not won. Christ is the victor. He has claimed you for Himself. He has purchased you with His blood. He has covered your sins, paid the penalty for your sins, buried your sins forever in His tomb. You are forgiven, set free. And you have eternal life with your Lord. This is why you resist temptation. Because you are the Lord’s. And He has defeated Satan for you. Now not even the devil himself can rip you from His hands. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Baptismal Booklet, Kolb/Wengert, p. 372.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday
“The Miraculous Darkness”[1]
March 9, 2011

Text: Matt. 27:45: “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour” (ESV).

The darkness that descended upon the world from noon to three p.m. that Good Friday was the physical manifestation of the spiritual reality of all men. All men walk in darkness. Jesus Christ is the Light of the world. But “this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19). So the world was covered by darkness from noon to three p.m., half of the world in the darkness of night, the other half in the mysterious and miraculous darkness of midday, to show that the whole world is shrouded in the spiritual darkness of sin and death, and the judgment of God is that He leaves us in such darkness.

Men try to explain this darkness away. The physical darkness of Good Friday is recorded not just in the Bible, by the way, but also in the literature of pagans. It is an attested historic fact that a strange darkness descended upon the earth for three hours that afternoon. But the pagans explained it away as an eclipse or some other sort of natural phenomenon. So also we try to explain away the spiritual darkness. We blame God. “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12). We blame the devil. “The serpent deceived me, and I ate” (v. 13). “The devil made me do it.” We blame others. “I’ve had a hard life.” We pretend it is not darkness. “It’s not really a sin.” “Times have changed since the Bible was written.” “God made me this way.” “That’s just your interpretation.” This is darkness, beloved. It is the darkness into which we are born. We are born spiritually blind, dead, and enemies of God. Darkness. Total lack of light. Living in this darkness, we die in this darkness. And the judgment of hell is that we be cast out into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30). That darkness is forever.

But there is this cosmic battle between Light and darkness, and it’s happening on the cross. The devil and his minions thought the darkness had won during those three dark hours. The devil, the demons, the unbelieving world thought they had defeated Jesus by killing Him. Little did they know. The Light’s victory is to be swallowed up by the darkness and to burst forth from its bloated belly. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). Jesus defeats death by willingly submitting to death, being swallowed up by death, that death may be swallowed up by life when Jesus bursts forth from the tomb. In dying, Jesus pays for the sins of the whole world. Humanity is redeemed, bought back with the blood of the Son of God, and the devil is defeated, the serpent’s head is crushed.

Lent is all about this cosmic battle. In the season of Lent especially we reflect upon and confess the utter darkness of our hearts and of our spiritual situation. And we reflect upon the great Light of our salvation that is Jesus Christ and His sin atoning work. When we speak of Jesus’ passion (from the Latin word patior, meaning to suffer), we speak of His suffering and death as payment for our sins. This is the great good news of Lent: Jesus suffered the darkness of God’s judgment for us, in our place, so that we could be brought into the Light of God. Jesus suffered our death, so that we could be brought into His life. Jesus suffered hell for us, in our place, so that we could go to heaven, and live with Him eternally in His joy. It is good and right that on this Ash Wednesday we be marked with ashes in the sign of the holy cross, that we may remember that we are dust and to dust we shall return, that we will die, but that so also Jesus’ cross and Jesus’ death marks us for life, for life everlasting as the redeemed of God, for the resurrection, for the Light. Today is a day of darkness, but this darkness is the triumph of the Light. For when Jesus cries, “It is finished” (John 19:30), the light returns. It is a sign of Jesus’ victory. It is a sign of the impending Easter Day. The devil is vanquished. Death is dead. The darkness is banished forevermore.

Beloved in the Lord, God keep you this Lententide in the Light of His Son Jesus Christ, that you be faithful as you take up your cross and follow Him. This Lenten journey is perilous, for it leads to Good Friday and Golgotha, to suffering and death. But the Lord will not leave you there. He will not leave you in the dust of death. For the Lord has called you out of darkness and into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9). 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).

Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Transfiguration of Our Lord

The Transfiguration of Our Lord (A)
March 6, 2011
Text: Matt. 17:1-9

Listening is an art. I have been told I’ve mastered the art of selective listening, which really isn’t listening at all. Listening to other people does not come naturally to our fallen flesh, because that flesh is curved in on itself. We have a hard enough time listening to those we love, because it takes effort to pay attention to the interests of others, and our selfish selves are not convinced that the effort is worthwhile. But when it comes to the speech of the living God, we have an even greater problem. That is that the ears of this fallen flesh are totally tuned out. We don’t understand the language of God, and we don’t really want to. And because even the Christian is weighed down by the fallen flesh, the old sinful nature, we, likewise, have trouble listening to God. It’s not for lack of trying. It’s just that we fail miserably every time. Because we listen in all the wrong places. And we listen to all the wrong gods.

On the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter thinks he’s listening. But he’s failing miserably. Instead, he’s talking. And by talking, he’s really listening to himself. He’s getting in the way of himself hearing the Word of God. Peter thinks that he will learn of God by talking.[1] Beholding the great light emanating from Jesus’ body in the Transfiguration, seeing Moses and Elijah, the author of the Torah and the great prophet, talking with Jesus about His exodus (Luke 9:31), His saving work in His fulfilling of the Law, His suffering and sacrificial death on the cross, and His victorious resurrection… In the midst of all of this, Peter has the audacity to speak and to tell Jesus how this phenomenal situation might be better. Peter wants to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles with the glorified Jesus and His saintly guests. “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Matt. 17:4; ESV). Peter wants to stay on the mountain. Peter wants to bask in Jesus’ glory. This is much better than Jesus’ plan. Only six days before Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the holy mountain, Jesus had predicted his death. And Peter, having in mind the things of men rather than the things of God, made himself an instrument of Satan, rejecting the Lord’s Word. Peter rebuked Jesus, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” (16:22). Peter, in turn, received the Lord’s stern rebuke, “Get behind me, Satan!” (v. 23). But now in the radiance of Jesus’ divine glory, Peter felt vindicated. “See, Lord, you don’t have to suffer and die. You have your glory now. Let’s stay up here on the mountain. Let’s enjoy the Kingdom here and now on earth. It is good that we are here. This is better than Your plan of death and resurrection.” St. Luke reports that Peter didn’t know what he was saying (Luke 9:33). He didn’t know what he was talking about. He was just talking. Enough talk. In talking, he was listening to himself. He had become his own god. Thus the true God cuts him off. While Peter is still prattling on and on, a bright cloud, the shekinah, the glory of the LORD, overshadows them, just as the same pillar of cloud guided the Israelites as they wandered in the wilderness, and as the same cloud was present at the Tent of Meeting whenever Moses would speak with God face to face. This was the cloud of God’s presence. And from the cloud, the Father speaks. He silences Peter. No more talking. Listen. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matt. 17:5).

Stop talking. Listen to Jesus. Don’t instruct Jesus about how things could be better. Be instructed by Him. Learn of Him from His own Word. We’re always talking. And in talking, we’re really listening to ourselves. We become our own gods. We always think we have a better doctrine to offer than that which Jesus teaches in His Word, so we re-interpret His Word to fit the times and to fit our liking. We always think we can make worship better, more glorious, by making it more of an experience for the people, taking the emphasis off of God’s Word and His external means of grace (preaching and Sacraments) where God serves us with His gifts, and instead placing the emphasis on our praises and the things we can do for God. We’re just like Peter. We’re always talking instead of listening, teaching rather than being taught. We don’t know what we’re talking about. We listen to everyone but Jesus. We listen to the world, listen to our emotions and gut feelings, listen to our reason, listen to the devil. We listen in all the wrong places, to all the wrong gods. Most of all we listen to ourselves, for we worship ourselves by living for ourselves. We listen to our own desires, our own preferences, our own wisdom (which is utter foolishness). On and on we talk. God has to interrupt us. The Father silences us in our endless prattling. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him!”

Beloved in the Lord, repent, and listen to Jesus only. For His Word alone gives life. He speaks to you wherever and whenever His Word is preached, read, contemplated, studied, given and distributed. He ties Himself to His Word so that you can always know whether it is Him speaking, or someone else, some other god, your own sinful flesh, the godless world, or that sly old serpent, the devil. On the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter was listening to other voices, especially his own. By the time Peter writes our Epistle, he’s learned his lesson. In his office as apostle, he writes by the Spirit’s inspiration just how we sinners can, even today, listen to Jesus our Savior. He points us to the prophetic Word, the Holy Scriptures, to which we do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place (2 Peter 1:19). The Word of God is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119:105) as we navigate through the darkness of this fallen world. By this Word of God the Holy Spirit keeps us on the path, keeps us in the one true faith, until the Lord’s return to judge the living and the dead. Because God is ultimately the Author behind the human authors of the Scriptures, the Scriptures are living and active, powerful, able to make us wise unto salvation, and keep us in the one true faith.

But with the Scriptures comes the cross and suffering. The Word of God always directs us to Christ crucified. And the Word of God always lays upon us a cross as we live this earthly life in a world hostile to Christ, in this rebellious and sinful flesh, walking by faith, not by sight. There is a reason why we would rather listen to ourselves, or to any other god, rather than Jesus. Because Jesus only gives us a glimpse of His glory before sending us down the mountain. We cannot stay and bask in the Transfiguration light. There is a cross to be borne down there. The road leads through suffering and death, Good Friday, Golgotha. It cannot be any other way. It is divinely necessary for the Son of Man to suffer, to be crucified, and after three days, to rise from the dead. Upon this hangs the salvation of the whole world, your salvation and mine. Only through the cross and suffering can we come to glory. Only through Good Friday can we come to Easter.

That is why the Mount of Transfiguration is where we begin our Lenten journey. Having now caught a glimpse of Jesus’ glory, and the glory that will be ours in Christ, we have been encouraged and strengthened to go the way of the cross, to trudge on (really, being carried by Him), knowing that after suffering glory awaits. The Lord knows how weak we are. The Lord knows that apart from Him we can do nothing, that we are utterly helpless. The Lord knows that like Peter and James and John on the mountain, naked in our sinfulness before God, we cower in fear. And so He comes to us, tenderly, and touches us (really, not figuratively… He touches us with His true body and blood in the Sacrament). And He speaks to us (really, not figuratively… He speaks to us in the Scriptures and the Absolution and the preaching). And He says to us, “Rise, and have no fear” (Matt. 17:7). By His Word we are able to rise. By His Word all fear is cast out. By His Word our eyes are lifted up to see no one but Jesus only. Seeing Him, we behold the author and perfecter of our faith. Seeing Him, we see the beloved and only-begotten Son of the Father, and we listen to Him. We live by His Word, which takes us through the valley of the shadow of death to His heavenly glory.

Dear Christians, be faithful this Lententide. Take up your cross and follow Jesus. Listen to Him. Discipline your bodies and your souls. Take every thought captive to the Word of God. Come to the midweek Lenten services to hear our Lord’s Word and meditate on His passion. We descend the mountain now to begin our 40-day journey to the cross. But know that you cannot do this on your own. You cannot do this by your own reason or strength. You cannot do this if you insist on doing all the talking. Listen to the Son of God. For His Word makes strong the weak hands and makes firm the feeble knees (Is. 35:3). Rise and have no fear. Set your eyes on Jesus. He lifts you up. He strengthens you. He takes away your sins and by His cross makes you sons of God, with whom the Father is well pleased. It is good that you are here. It is good that you are wherever Jesus is speaking His Word of life. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Rolf Preus, http://www.christforus.org/Sermons/Content/2009/Transfiguration%202009.doc.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Open Questions

Pastor’s Window for March 2011
Open Questions

Beloved in the Lord,

St. Paul writes: “But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3:9-11; ESV). Here St. Paul warns us against bogging down the body of Christ with “foolish controversies,” arguments about what we call in theology, “open questions,” i.e. questions about which there is not a clear answer in the Holy Scriptures. When possible, we should avoid strife and division in the Church. Whenever we have a legitimate open question, a question that Scripture does not clearly answer for us, we should leave the question open and not divide the Church on account of it. We can discuss it, but we dare not answer for God what He has not answered in His Word. Some examples of open questions are these: Whether Mary was ever-virgin (and along with that, whether Jesus’ brothers and sisters were Mary’s children as well as Joseph’s), what was the nature of the devil’s rebellion, where did evil come from in the first place (we can only back it up to the devil, but where did he get it?), and finally, THE unanswered question of the Bible (called the crux theologorum, the cross of the theologian), since all have the same guilt and are converted by God’s grace alone, why are some converted to faith in Christ and others not? You see, we have to leave that question unanswered. We cannot mine the depths of God’s unrevealed wisdom. Here we must follow Moses’ admonition: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever” (Deut. 29:29). In other words, God doesn’t answer all our questions, nor does He owe us an answer to every question. But in the Scriptures, He has given us all we need to know of Him and His will for us and our salvation. What the Scriptures do not answer, we must leave unanswered. To make such open questions into Church-dividing issues is sin.

But there is another danger: when we call something an open question that is, in fact, very much answered in the Holy Scriptures. One example: the ELCA (and most of mainline Protestantism) on the question of homosexuality. Because our culture has trained us to be “tolerant” and “affirming” of homosexuality, to regard it as another legitimate lifestyle, we begin to waffle on an issue that the Scriptures have very much answered. “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (Lev. 18:22). “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed and abomination” (20:13; cf. Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-10; 1 Tim. 1:9-10). We don’t like those verses. They are not tolerant. They are not affirming. They are not nice. So we pull an ancient trick. We say that we don’t really understand what these verses are saying. We say that the verses are not very clear, by which we mean that the verses can’t possibly mean what the clear words say. Or we just dismiss the verses as outdated. We make it an open question, just as the devil made an open question out of the commandment of God not to eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: “Did God actually say…?” (Gen. 3:1). The ELCA now ordains openly practicing homosexuals into the holy ministry and has a liturgical rite for blessing same-sex “marriages.” How can they do this? Because they have made homosexuality an open question. They ask, “Did God actually say… that homosexuality is sinful?”

We could list a multitude of other examples where Christians have made open questions out of what is clearly answered in the Scriptures. Here are just a few: Women pastors (St. Paul, speaking about preaching: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” [1 Tim. 2:12]); evolution (but Christians know and believe that God created all that is in 6 days [Gen. 1]); the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament (Jesus says, “This is my body… This is my blood” [Matt. 26:26, 28]); whether Baptism saves/ Infant Baptism (“Baptism… now saves you” [1Pet. 3:21]… “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children” [Acts 2:38-39; emphasis added]). Even the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ is made into an open question! But the resurrection of Jesus Christ, attested in every New Testament document (and prophesied in the Old Testament!) is the linchpin of the Scriptures. If the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is not true, our faith is in vain. We are still in our sins (1 Cor. 15:17).

Thanks be to God, the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus for our salvation is not an open question. It is God’s ultimate revelation, the purpose and center of Holy Scripture. Scripture is absolutely trustworthy and authoritative because it is God’s Word to us. We believe it, because in the Scriptures Christ comes to us. Christ speaks to us. Christ forgives us all our sins and gives us eternal life. We dare cause no division over a matter about which Scripture is silent. But when Scripture speaks, which is to say, when God speaks, we cling to that Word for our eternal life.

Pastor Krenz