Monday, April 5, 2021

The Resurrection of Our Lord

The Resurrection of Our Lord

“Return to the LORD: Return and See”[1]

April 4, 2021

Text: Mark 16:1-8

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

            What the women saw in the wee hours of that first day of the week, when the sun had only just risen… scared them!  They had already come with great anxiety.  Who will roll away the stone for us?  For the stone is very large.  The tomb is insurmountable.  But when they arrived, they saw that the stone had already been rolled back.  Strange for a tomb sealed only the day before yesterday.  And upon entering the tomb, expecting, as we all would, to see a corpse, they see instead a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe.  In other words, they see an angel.  And now they are really scared.  Alarmed, Mark says, as humans always are when they see angels.  What the women see is a world turned upside down: A burst-open tomb, a living being where there should be a dead one, and the Body of their loved One, whom they’d come to anoint properly for burial, missing from the grave.

            But the women do not have eyes to see… until the young man preaches to them.  Do not be alarmed!  Always angels have to say something along these lines when they appear to people.  Don’t be afraid, Mary.  Do not fear, Joseph.  Fear not, shepherds, for I’ve come to bring you good news of great joy.  I’ve come to preach the Gospel to you!  A Savior has been born, Christ, the Lord.  And so now to the women, do not be alarmed, for something has happened that will cast out fear forever.  You are seeking a Jesus who was crucified, dead, and buried.  But the Creed will never again end there.  He has risen; he is not here.  See the place where they laid him” (Mark 16:6; ESV).  The young man in the white robe preaches the death and resurrection of Jesus to the women!  And hearing the preaching, they are given eyes to see! 

            And then they are given a message.  Go and tell his disciples and Peter… Tell them what?  He is going before you to Galilee.  You will see Him, just as He told you.  Wait, what?  One can only imagine how the minds of these dear women must have struggled to catch up to the Gospel truth proclaimed into their ears and set before their eyes.  If He is not here in the grave… If He is going ahead into Galilee, to meet His disciples… If we will see Him… Then it must be true, what the young man said.  It must be true, what Jesus has been preaching all along.  Alleluia!  Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  But they run away from the tomb, seized with trembling and astonishment, and afraid to say anything to anyone, because, well… You can understand, can’t you?  Can we really believe our eyes and our ears?  And if this is true… and, it’s true!... the whole world has been turned upside down.

            This is why it is so important, what St. Paul writes in our Epistle (1 Cor. 15:1-11).  Paul preaches a Christ who has died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, and has been raised on the Third Day in accordance with the Scriptures.  And this is not a pious myth, like the ancient Greek stories of old.  Nor is it a figment of the women’s, or the disciples’, imagination, as though in their grief, they are unable to cope with reality.  Nor is it that Jesus lived on in their hearts, like we so often say of Grandma, or another loved one who has died… which is really just to say, they are dead, and we miss them.  Nor is it some sort of spiritual resurrection like the Gnostics, and liberal American pseudo-Christians, would claim, whereby Jesus overcame the bondage of His physical body, to arise spiritually in His true form.  When Paul preaches (and when we preach) that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, that means bodily.  And it is an overwhelmingly well-attested fact.  People saw Him.  Touched Him.  Ate with Him.  He ate.  He showed His crucifixion wounds.  People poked around in them.  And the point is, they saw.  There were eyewitnesses.  They had seen Him dead.  Now they saw Him alive!  Cephas (Peter).  The Twelve.  More than five hundred brothers at one time, and Paul is very careful to make the point that, though a few of them have fallen asleep (in other words, they died… but they, too, will rise), most of them are still alive and well at the time of this writing, so you can go ask them about it.  They’ll tell you.  Then to James, the Lord’s brother.  Then to all the Apostles.  And finally, on the Damascus road, to Paul himself, turning this zealous persecutor of the Church into the great Apostle to the Gentiles.  Most of these people died gruesome deaths simply for believing and confessing the truth: Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.  And all of them suffered for it.  For they knew what they had seen.  They'd been given eyes to see.  And they were sustained by the preaching.  They’d been given ears to hear. 

            We wish we could see it, what they saw.  Lord Jesus, just let me see You.  Just a little glimpse of Your resurrection Body, and the scars of my redemption.  That would be enough.  But then I’m reminded of our Lord’s reaction to poor Philip, who said something very similar: Lord, show us the Father.  That will be enough for us…  Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip?” (John 14:9).  It is true, we don’t get to meet up with Jesus in Galilee, to see Him with these still-fallen eyes.  Or behind closed doors in the Upper Room, to poke around in His wounds with Thomas.  Or by the Sea of Tiberius, to breakfast on His smoked fish recipe with Him.  Let’s be honest… He doesn’t even knock us on our… backsides… with a blazing appearance on the roadside.  And we’re probably actually thankful that one hasn’t happened, though He does have a penchant for knocking us down when we’re on the wrong road, thank God.  He calls us to repentance. 

            But what do we see?  A man (not very young, anymore, but a man) sent by God, clothed in white, proclaiming good news of great joy.  Do not be alarmed.  All fear is cast out.  Because this Jesus, who was crucified for you, for the forgiveness of your sins, is no longer in the grave.  The impregnable tomb has burst open.  The stone is rolled away.  Jesus Christ has risen from the dead.  Bodily.  Just as He said.  Go and tell everybody.  He is going before you into heaven.  And He is the firstfruits of the Resurrection.  There you will see Him.  Finally.  These fallen, dead eyes, healed.  What your ears have heard, these eyes will see… what is already the reality.  It will be as Job said: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.  And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19:25-26).  Christ is risen from the dead, bodily.  And on that Day He will raise us, bodily.  To live, bodily, with Him forever.

            We live for that Day.  And what a Day it will be.  We don’t yet know, entirely, what it will be like.  But as St. John writes, “we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).  But of all people, the Prophet Isaiah gives us a pretty good picture of that Day (25:6-9), and he, writing in the Old Testament, several hundred years before Jesus was born.  It will be a Feast.  And not just for the Jews.  Not just for the nation of Israel.  But for all peoples.  Even for Gentiles, like those to whom Paul preached, and like most, if not all of us, gathered together in this place.  And it will be rich food, and well-aged wine; meat full of marrow, prime marbled cuts, with wine well-refined.  And we know from the wedding in Cana, it will be the very best, and it will not run out.  And all that now casts a pall over us, this veil that blocks our sight, He will swallow up.  And that includes death forever.  And He will clear our eyes.  He will wipe away all our tears, taking away all sadness and sorrow and pain.  And the reproach we’ve suffered here, the guilt of our sins, the world’s mockery, the devil’s accusations… that will be at an end.  All will know the truth.   They will see it for themselves, that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, that He lives, and he reigns.  And what I find, perhaps, most moving, is what we will say on that Day: This is our God.  We knew it!  We’ve waited for Him to come and save us.  And now, look.  This is YHWH (and we’ll be pointing to the flesh and blood Man on the throne of His Father).  This is the LORD.  We have waited for Him.  And here He is, our dear Savior.  Let us be glad and rejoice in His salvation.

            That Day is coming.  It is coming soon.  We can be certain of it, because the young man preached, and the women saw, the eyewitnesses testified, even unto death, and these things are written that you may believe.  In the meantime, here is a foretaste of the Feast to come.  Here you can poke around in the risen Lord’s wounds.  Eat them.  Drink them.  It is all true.  Alleluia!  Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  And here He is.  Come and see.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.                  

[1] The theme and many of the ideas for this sermon are from Eric Longman, Return to the Lord: Resources for Lent-Easter Preaching and Worship (St. Louis: Concordia, 2020).

Friday, April 2, 2021

Good Friday

Good Friday: “Return to the LORD: Return to Truth”[1]

April 2, 2021

Text: John 19

             What is truth?” Pilate cynically asks (John 18:38; ESV).  And the answer would, in a very short time, be hanging on the cross.

            The truth is, this man is the King of the Jews, and Pilate finds no guilt in Him.  But the pressure is great, and the threat of riot is very real.  Pilate wishes to release Him, but the Jews demand Barabbas instead.  As the Church sings, “A murderer they save, The Prince of Life they slay” (LSB 430:5).

            The truth is, Pilate has an innocent man flogged with a cat-o’-nine-tails, hoping to gain the sympathies of the crowd for Jesus.  The truth is, the soldiers sadistically punish Him, weaving together a crown of thorns and pressing it into His brow, clothing Him in royal purple and striking Him as they offer mock obeisance.

            Behold the man!” Pilate declares (John 19:5), as he brings the pitiful spectacle before the crowd.  But the truth is, this crowd has no pity.  “‘Crucify!’  Is all their breath, And for His death They thirst and cry” (LSB 430:3).  We have a law,” they exclaim, “and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God” (John 19:7).

            Pilate is afraid at this assertion, and continues interrogating the Accused.  He is looking for an out.  It is an impossible dilemma.  Execute this blameless man, a gross miscarriage of justice, or face the ire and potential violence of the mob. 

            But Jesus is no help.  He gives no answer.  “Don’t You know who I am?  Don’t You know who You’re talking to, Jesus?!  I have the authority to save You, or kill You”  But the truth is, Pilate would have no authority at all, unless it were given him from above. 

            And the truth is, in spite of all appearances, Jesus is in absolute control of this situation.  For His will is one with the Father’s, and it is the divine will that Jesus suffer and die for the sins of the world, and in so doing, win for Himself a Kingdom. 

            The next charge seals the deal.  If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend” (v. 12).  To be a “Friend of Caesar” is a technical term and title of honor.  It means you are considered a loyal supporter of the Emperor, and even his advisor.  But to rule in favor of an imperial rival, well… that is treason.  Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.”  Ergo, Jesus opposes Caesar, and if you, Pilate, let Jesus off the hook, then you oppose Caesar.  And we’ll tell him so!  But as for us, we faithful Jews… “We have no king but Caesar” (v. 15).

            But it is a lie!  They don’t mean that, and they know it.  And Pilate knows it.  The truth is, the Jews had never acknowledged Caesar as the rightful king.  They were looking for a Davidic King to free them from Roman rule and restore the Kingdom to Israel.  But when that King’s swollen and bloodshot eyes are staring them right in the face, offering them an even greater freedom, a freedom from the tyranny of sin, death, and the devil, they perceive Him as a threat… a threat to their power and position, their autonomy, and their self-generated sanctity.  So they turn to the earthly powers as though they’d been loyal sons of the Empire all along.  And Pilate’s hand is forced.  He delivers Jesus over to them to be crucified. 

            What happens next is the penultimate event in all of world history.  Our Lord carries His own cross to The Place of a Skull, where the soldiers nail Him to the wood, and raise Him up between two criminals.  It appears as though the Romans are carrying out “just another routine execution, of another common peasant mongrel, in another backwards region of Roman conquest, in the middle of nowhere.”  The soldiers did it all the time.  The hills surrounding Jerusalem were routinely littered with crosses and corpses.  But the truth is, this is not just an execution.  It is a coronation.  Jesus is ascending His throne.  He wears a crown, and Pilate has written the truth above His sacred, wounded head: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (v. 19).  Many of you wear this sign on your t-shirt, or post it on your bumper, the initials “INRI.”  You’re quoting Pontius Pilate in Latin: “Ieusus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum.”

            The soldiers divide His garments, a part for each man.  But His tunic is seamless, a valuable specimen, so they cast lots to preserve it in one piece, to fulfill their greed.  But the truth is, this fulfills the Scripture, which says, “They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots” (v. 24; Ps. 22:18).  And this is an important point.  What is happening here in the crucifixion of Jesus is not by accident.  It is written.  It was all prophesied long ago.  This is the culmination of the Law and the Prophets.  It is God’s eternal plan. 

            And the truth is, Jesus is really in the driver’s seat throughout.  Not the Jews.  Not the chief priests.  Not Pilate, or the soldiers, and certainly not Caesar.  See how King Jesus, in the throes of His agony, provides for His mother and His beloved disciple.  A son to care for St. Mary.  A mother for St. John.  God setteth the solitary in families” (Ps. 68:6; KJV).  And by His suffering and death, He sets you in this Family, the Family of His Father, with brothers and sisters and a place at the Table, God’s own child, a Church to call home.  The truth is, you’d be utterly alone in the outer darkness of hell, were it not for gracious King Jesus, who has taken you in, to be His very own.

            Now, knowing that all was now finished, His suffering complete, Jesus said, to fulfill the Scriptures, “I thirst” (John 19:28; ESV).  They try to relieve Him with a sponge of sour wine… “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink,” Jesus prays in the Psalm (Ps. 69:21)… but it isn’t just that His mouth is dry, though assuredly He is physically and spiritually parched.  Jesus hungers and thirsts for your righteousness (Matt 5:6), and He will not be satisfied until He has poured out His own righteousness upon you, that you may be justified, that is, counted righteous for His sake.  And the truth is, that even as they lift the sponge up on a hyssop branch, the blood of God’s Paschal Lamb is painted on the door posts and lintels of the cross, and on the hearts of all who believe in Him, thus shielding you from the angel of death. 

            And then the declaration: “‘It is finished,’ and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30).  He declares that the goal has been reached, that God’s wrath has been exhausted, that He has made full atonement for the sin of the world.  And He bows His head, and He gives up His spirit.  He has the authority to lay down His life, and the truth is, He has authority to take it up again (10:18). 

            But then, the truth is, that should have been your cross and your death.  For it was your sin for which He was condemned.  You are Barabbas.  Jesus takes your place.  He suffers your hell.  He sheds His blood for you.  He dies for you.  And He does all of this willingly.  The truth is, this is God’s eternal will.  “O wondrous Love, what have You done!  The Father offers up His Son, Desiring our salvation” (LSB 438:3).  The truth is, His death saves you.  And by dying for you, He becomes your King.  And your old master, the serpent?  His skull has been ground to dust.

            God put our Lord into the deep sleep of death, and from His side formed for Him a Bride.  One of the soldiers pierced Him with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water (John 19:34).  Baptized into this sacred Fountain, you are born anew.  Drinking from this eternal Spring, your sins are forgiven, and new life flows through your veins.

            What is truth?  The truth is not a what, but a Who.  The truth is Jesus.  I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).  And you will know this truth on the Third Day, when the penultimate event in all of world history gives way to the ultimate.  And not only will you know the truth, the truth will set you free (8:32).  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.                        

[1] The theme and many of the ideas for this sermon are from Eric Longman, Return to the Lord: Resources for Lent-Easter Preaching and Worship (St. Louis: Concordia, 2020).

Maundy Thursday

Due to file size, we were unable to post the video of our Maundy Thursday service.  To see the video, please visit our Facebook page, 

Here is a manuscript version of the sermon:

Maundy Thursday: “Return to the LORD: Return to the Table”[1]

April 1, 2021

Text: Mark 14:12-26

             In the Holy Communion, God creates a union that is cross-shaped.  We can think of this Communion as both vertical Communion with God, and horizontal Communion with our fellow Christians.  That is, it is as we pray so often in Luther’s post-Communion collect:  With this salutary gift, God strengthens us “in faith toward You and in fervent love toward one another” (LSB 201).  Now, it is critical to understand that in both directions, it is God who creates the Communion, not us.  It is the Lord’s Supper, after all, not ours.  Communion is not or our making.  Communion is not our work. 

            We do not create Communion with God by our good work of attending the Sacrament, as though we’re doing Him a favor by merely gracing Him with our presence, or, as we commonly think, doing our Sunday morning duty and getting credit for putting in the time.  That is the Roman idea of ex opera operato, of the work being worked, getting credit for the mere outward act, even apart from faith in Christ, or the gifts He imparts in this Sacrament.  And we certainly must guard against the idea that we create this Communion by our Sacrifice of the Mass, by our repeatedly offering up to God the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, in order to propitiate Him for our sins.  That gets the direction of the giving precisely backwards.  Instead of God giving us the gift, we’d be giving a gift to God.  That would make the Lord’s Supper our work for God rather than His for us, and it would rob our Lord’s death on the cross of its proper honor as the once for all atoning sacrifice for our sins. 

            So also, God creates our horizontal Communion with our fellow Christians.  We do not create that Communion, for example, by being open and affirming of any and every idea someone has, or lifestyle they want to live, or by sweeping doctrinal differences under the rug, or opening up the Altar to anyone and everyone, regardless of what they believe they are receiving, and why they are receiving it.  The Communion of the Church is not one big group hug or feelings of affection toward one another.  This would be to base the Communion of the Church, at best, on superficial social acceptance and sentimentality; at worst, on deliberate disregard of God’s Word and our neighbor’s welfare, and dismissive dishonesty about our differences. 

            The question is, what is God uniting us around?  Bread and wine?  A mere symbol?  Or His true Body and Blood, hidden under bread and wine, because He says so in His Word?  And why is it we receive what we receive?  Is it simply to commemorate Him, and to call to mind His death and resurrection?  Does it depend on our faith heroically stretching up to heaven to receive the Lord’s salvation somewhere up there?  Or is it heaven come down to us poor sinners (who are incapable of stretching anywhere), Jesus handing over the goods, the Lord Himself present to impart all His saving benefits of forgiveness, life, and salvation as He feeds us with His crucified and risen Body and Blood?

            As it happens, we don’t have to wonder.  Both Jesus and St. Paul answer the question.  What is this bread?  (T)his is my body,” Jesus says (Mark 14:22; ESV).  What is this wine?  This is my blood of the covenant,” Jesus says (v. 24).  And St. Paul underscores the point that the cup of blessing that we bless, that is, the cup we consecrate with the Lord’s own Words in the Supper, is a participation (κοινωνία, communion) in the Blood of Christ.  We share in it.  We partake of it as we drink it.  And the bread that we break, he says, is a participation (κοινωνία, communion) in the Body of Christ.  We share in it.  We partake of it as we eat it. 

            And it is not these things because of some indelible character stamped on the clergyman whereby he is given the mystical ability to confect the Sacrament.  Nor is it these things because of your faith’s ability to reach up really high, where Jesus is, and claim it for yourself.  It is these things because Jesus says so.  The Word makes the thing what it is.  The Body of Christ.  The Blood of Christ.  The Holy Communion.

            And it is this Body and Blood that unite us to God, and to our fellow believers in Christ.  Because this is the Body and Blood of God Himself, the eternal Son of the Father, who is incarnate, who has taken on our flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary.  He is a flesh and blood God.  It is this very Body given into death on the cross for our sins.  It is this very Blood shed on the cross for our sins.  It is the Body and the Blood now risen from the dead, and living, and reigning, with the Father and the Holy Spirit.  And He puts that Body and Blood into us.  So that the Body and Blood crucified for our sins imparts the forgiveness He won for us.  So that the Body and Blood now risen from the dead becomes one with us and gives us new life.  Therefore, being forgiven of all our sins, we are able to forgive one another, break bread with one another, and live together in peace and unity, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” 

            So the sin that separates us from God, and from one another, has been done to death by Jesus, who died for us on the cross.  All those sins are forgiven.  And the proof of it is the Sacrifice of Atonement that we are given to eat and drink in this Sacrament.  And the new life and right spirit we need to live now in faith toward God and fervent love toward one another is likewise imparted in the eating and drinking of the risen Body and Blood of Jesus.  In feeding us the fruits of His cross, He creates the cross shaped Communion we enjoy in the Church, Communion with God, Communion with one another.

            But I can already hear one objection arising in your mind.  If it is God who creates this Communion, both with Himself, and with our brothers and sisters in Christ, why do we practice closed Communion.  It feels like we are being exclusive, particularly of other Christians whom we confess to be believers in Christ and children of God.  Actually, your concern is noble.  If the purpose of closed Communion were to keep the Communion Table pure, so that we don’t soil ourselves with the unclean or the otherwise inadequate, we’d be no better than the Pharisees who couldn’t bear to see Jesus dining with tax collectors and sinners.  And if we were honest, we’d have to end up excluding ourselves.  Because we are the tax collectors and sinners. 

            The Church is not a club, never mind an exclusive one.  There is no one we don’t want in this Communion.  The purpose of closed Communion is actually not to keep people out.  It is to bring them in by the proper, God-given way.  It is to protect them from the dire consequences of playing around with very powerful, Holy Things they don’t yet understand, or about which they maintain false beliefs.  In other words, it is done in fervent love.  It is to take seriously St. Paul’s warning that “anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself,” and that “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Cor. 11:29-30).  He doesn’t deny that they are Christians and that they will go to heaven when they die.  He says that eating and drinking without discerning the body, without knowing and believing what it is that the Lord here gives us, is dangerous spiritually and physically. 

            So what is the solution to that?  Instruction.  We make this too complicated.  Closed Communion is actually quite simple.  We simply ask that before you commune, you take an instruction class with the pastor.  And if you agree with what he teaches, you join the congregation and come to Communion.  And if you don’t agree with what he teaches, why would you want to go to Communion here?  Communion is, after all, a confession of unity with this Church, that you believe what this Church believes, teaches, and confesses.  Where there are disagreements, by the way, between this and other Christian Church-bodies, we shouldn’t just say, “Oh well!” and jump into Altar and Pulpit Fellowship (that is, Communion) together.  We should work toward agreement on the basis of God’s Word, and pray that God gives us unity, for He alone can.  Communion is always the goal.  Always.  And if we don’t reach that goal in this world, we know it will be our reality in heaven.  And in the meantime, we love one another, we pray for one another, we rejoice in the faith we do hold in common, even as we discuss our differences honestly, and we wait upon the Lord to deliver us from all division.  For He alone creates the Communion of the Church. 

            And yes, it is also true that another facet of closed Communion is that those who refuse to repent of their sins are denied Communion until they repent.  This is not because they are worse sinners than those who commune, or even than the pastor distributing the Communion.  Not at all.  It is rather because of their refusal to repent.  It would be dangerous for them to come to Communion while refusing to acknowledge and confess their sins.  It is the loving exercise of Church discipline, the exercise of the binding key the Lord has given His Church, as in “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven” (Matt. 16:19; 18:18).  This is the Law.  The unrepentant are bound in their sins, but always with this goal: That they come to repentance, that they come back to faith in Jesus, that they be loosed, absolved, forgiven, and restored to the Holy Communion.  This is the Gospel.  The Lord must do this.  He must work in their hearts, by means of His Spirit, in His Word.  But this is important, because it is a matter of eternal life and death. 

            The truth is, all who come to Communion (and that means you) are sinners.  And if they come in repentance for their sins, and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, to receive His Body and His Blood for the forgiveness of their sins, this is the Lord’s doing, by His Spirit, in His Word.  By His cross, the Lord Jesus creates the cross-shaped Holy Communion of faith toward God, and fervent love toward one another.  Sins forgiven, what is broken is restored.  It is not something we do.  It is all Him.  It is all His gift, to be received as He gives it.  He gives it by His Word, which makes the thing what it is.  Heaven comes down.  Our Lord hands over the goods, the fruits of His cross, His true Body under the bread, His true Blood under the wine, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.  When you eat and drink this Supper, you eat and drink Jesus Christ.  By it, He forgives your sins, and gives you eternal life, in Communion with Him, and with the whole Church of God in Christ Jesus.   

            “May God bestow on us His grace and favor That we follow Christ our Savior And live together here in love and union Nor despise this blest Communion!  O Lord, have mercy!  Let not Thy good Spirit forsake us; Grant that heav’nly minded He make us; Give Thy Church, Lord, to see Days of peace and unity: O Lord, have mercy!” (LSB 617:3).  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

[1] The theme for this sermon is from Eric Longman, Return to the Lord: Resources for Lent-Easter Preaching and Worship (St. Louis: Concordia, 2020).  

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Palm Sunday/ Sunday of the Passion

Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion (B)

March 28, 2021

Text: Mark 15:38

            And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:38; ESV). 

            In the Gospel according to St. Mark, our Lord’s ministry is bookended with a violent tearing.  At His Baptism by John in the River Jordan, “when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (1:10-11).  Now at His crucifixion and death.  Once again, the Spirit is imparted, only this time, the Spirit who had descended upon Jesus at His Baptism, is unleashed on the world through the breath… same word as Spirit in Greek… through the breath of the dying Lord: “And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last” (15:37).  Then the tearing.  And once again a voice, only this time from below, but the same declaration as that made by the Father at Jesus’ Baptism: “when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God’” (v. 39). 

            The heavens were torn open, the curtain of the Temple torn in two from top to bottom.  Tearing.  Torn.  σχίζω… from which we get the words, “schism,” a tearing or division between parties; “scissors,” an instrument for tearing or cutting; “schizophrenia,” a torn mind.  σχίζω.   The word is onomatopoetic.  It is abrasive.  It is violent.  And that is on purpose.  The violent death of Jesus Christ on the cross, for which He was baptized in the River Jordan, and in which He was baptized in His own blood, tears wide open any impediment to your direct access to God.  The heavens that conceal the throne room of God.  The curtain that conceals Holy of Holies, the Ark, and the Mercy Seat, where God is enthroned between the cherubim.  This is how the writer to the Hebrews puts it: “since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb. 10:19-22).  The tearing of Jesus’ flesh unto death results in the tearing open of the curtain and the very heavens.  And the Blood of Jesus that flows from that tear cleanses your conscience, that is, forgives your sins, as you are washed with pure water.  You are baptized into the death of Christ.  Heaven is now open to you.  You have direct access to God.  The Spirit is bestowed on you by the breath of the Lord.  And God declares that you are His beloved Son, with whom He is well pleased.

            The curtain of the Temple was a massive tapestry.  Really, more like a system of tapestries.  About 60 feet tall in Herod’s Temple, and four inches thick (the width of a hand), the curtain was several curtains put together, made of the most precious material, purple, scarlet, and blue, rare colors usually reserved for royalty.  The curtain divided the Holy Place, where the incense altar, the lamp, the table, and showbread were kept; from the Most Holy Place, or Holy of Holies, where God was enthroned on the Ark between the cherubim.  And the curtain was actually given by grace as a safety measure, as a way for the holy God to dwell with His sinful people without killing them.  He was with His people, but not directly.  Because when holiness comes into contact with unholiness, sin, evil… the results are disastrous.  Think, for example, of poor Uzzah the Levite, who simply reached out his hand to steady the Ark when the oxen stumbled bringing it into Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6:5 ff).  Don’t kid yourself.  Uzzah was a Christian.  But he was also a sinner.  And sinners can’t touch holy things, least of all the throne of God, and live.  Unless… well, we’ll get to that.

            So the curtain kept the Ark, and therefore God, safely concealed.  Present, but hidden.  And only the high priest, and he but once a year, on the Day of Atonement, could enter the Holy of Holies behind the curtain, and come into the presence of the Ark.  And he had to come with blood, the blood of the atonement sacrifice for his own sin, and for the sins of the people.  And it was always dangerous.  He could die in there.  Don’t forget Uzzah.  For this reason, when the priest entered, a rope was tied around his ankle, so in case of death, they could pull him out.  And we know this from the Jewish rabbis rather than the Bible.  They were being extra safe.  We do know from the Bible that the priest had to be ceremonially washed with pure water, and wear special clothing, a linen tunic and linen underwear, a linen sash, and a linen turban (Lev. 16:4).  Curiously, no shoes or sandals are mentioned.  The priest was to be barefoot.  Why?  (T)ake your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Ex. 3:5). 

            So the priest would enter the Holy of Holies, incensing the whole way with fire from the incense altar, so that he wouldn’t die.  And he would first take the blood of a bull he had sacrificed for his own sins, and sprinkle it in front of the Ark and on the Mercy Seat… the Mercy Seat, which is the throne of God on top of the Ark, which contains the tablets of the Ten Commandments.  Because the blood of the atoning sacrifice must come between God and the Commandments which the priest had broken. 

            And then he would go out again and sacrifice a goat, this time for the sins of Israel.  This is the goat chosen by lot for the LORD, whose counterpart served as the scapegoat sent out into the wilderness for Azazel.  He would sacrifice the goat chosen for the LORD, and once again bring the blood into the Holy of Holies, and do with this blood as he did with that of the bull.  Because the blood of the atoning sacrifice must come between God and the Commandments which the people had broken.

            Now, you know, this sacrifice had to be repeated, year after year.  And it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (Heb. 10:4).  These things were a shadow of the good things to come, not the true form of these realities (v. 1).  But they were pointing to the perfect Priest to come, who would offer the perfect Sacrifice of Atonement, once and for the sins of all.

            So it was on a Sunday of Passover week, our Lord Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey to be that Priest, and to make that Sacrifice.  Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.  Hosanna!” the crowds shouted, as they waved their palms and spread their cloaks.  “Save us now!”  And “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (John 12:13).  “Ride on, ride on in majesty!  In lowly pomp ride on to die” (LSB 441:2). 

            But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come… he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.  For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb. 9:11-14).  Jesus is the end of the Levitical Priesthood and all other atonement sacrifices.  For He is the everlasting High Priest, and all the Old Testament sacrifices were but a shadow of the reality of His Blood, and the sacrifice of His Flesh, to atone for the sins of the whole world. 

            So when Jesus breathed His last and died on the cross, the curtain of the Temple was ἐσχίσθη, torn.  And that from top to bottom.  In other words, God did it, from above.  Because in the death of Jesus, there is no more need for safety barriers.  The wall between you and God has been broken down in His flesh.  Atonement has been made, and your sins, all of them, are forgiven for Jesus’ sake.  You have been washed with pure water.  You are baptized into Christ.  You are clothed with Him, better than the linen-clad priests of old.  And now heaven itself is torn open to you.  And it is true, is it not?...  that you, a sinner, but forgiven and cleansed, march right up here into the Holy of Holies and touch the Holy Things.  In fact, you eat them and drink them, the very Sacrifice and Blood of Atonement.  There He is, enthroned on the Mercy Seat, and His Blood comes between God and the Commandments you have broken.  And unlike poor Uzzah, you do not die, but live.  In fact, these things you touch and eat and drink, are given for your life, and for the life of the world.

            The curtain of the Temple has been torn in two.  Come, now, with confidence, and enter the Holy Places by the Blood of Jesus.  Come right up and touch God in the flesh.  Come right up and touch God for you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.