Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Lenten Midweek IV

Lenten Midweek IV
March 29, 2017
“Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice: Your Ransom and Your Rescue”[1]
Text: John 14:15-27; LSB 556:7-8

            “To me He said: ‘Stay close to Me’” (LSB 556:7).  Stay close to Me.  Stay close to Jesus.  And your heart need never be troubled or afraid (John 14:27).  How do you stay close to Jesus?  He tells you in our Holy Gospel.  “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (v. 23; ESV).  You stay close to Jesus by “keeping” His Word.  And that word, “keep,” is a word that means so much more than simply “obey.”  It means “guard, observe, attend to carefully, treasure up, meditate upon, take it to heart and put it into practice.”  That is how you stay close to Jesus.  In His speaking to you.  In your hearing of Him.  That is to say, you stay close to Jesus in your daily Scripture reading and in Bible study, and especially here in the Divine Service where His Word is publicly proclaimed and His Sacraments given to you as physical manifestations of His Word.  And through this Word of Jesus, as through means, the Holy Spirit works faith as He pleases in those who hear the Gospel.  That is the other Promise Jesus makes in our text.  “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth” (vv. 16-17).  What will the Spirit do?  “(H)e will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (v. 26).  The Spirit comes through the Word and He keeps you in the Word, which is to say He keeps you with Jesus.  “In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”[2]
            This is so important, because your enemy wants you back in his possession, enslaved to sin, death, and hell.  He’ll do everything he can to separate you from Jesus’ Word, and so separate you from Jesus.  Forever.  Because that’s the only way he can get back at God for casting him out of His holy presence.  The devil is condemned to hell for all eternity, and he wants to take you with him.  To do that, He must divide you from the Lord Jesus.  So he will tempt you to make other things more important than hearing the Gospel and receiving the Lord’s Supper.  The kids’ sports are more important.  The weekend chores are more important.  Sleeping in is more important.  When else will I have time to golf?  When else will I have time to fish?  I don’t have any other time to relax.  And it’s not like I haven’t heard it all before.  I know it.  I believe it.  Isn’t that enough?  Beloved, I want you to learn to recognize the insidious hiss of the serpent when he whispers his sweet nothings into your ear and your heart.  You must call him what he is: a liar!  You must tell him where to go: to hell!  And then you must run to your pastor and demand that he preach the Word to you, absolve your sins, give you the body and blood of Jesus.  Jesus keeps you safe from your old master’s tricks.  Stay close to Jesus!  He is your Rock and Castle, your Mighty Fortress, your Protector and Savior.
            He won you from your former slavery by His suffering and death on your behalf.  He purchased you, redeemed you, ransomed you from slavery, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood.  The corpse on the cross is the banner of your victory.  The empty tomb and the risen Lord Christ are the declaration that the sum is sufficient.  Your sins are forgiven.  Atonement is made.  Your debt to God is paid in full.  You belong to Jesus, in His Kingdom, in His life, forever.  “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).  Stay close to Him.  He will see you through.  He strives and wrestles with the serpent for your very soul, but the foe cannot divide you from Jesus.  For He is yours and you are His.  And where He is, you may remain.  “I go to prepare a place for you…  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:2-3).  He will take you to Himself in heaven when you die.  On the Last Day He will raise you bodily from the dead, just as He is risen bodily from the dead.  You will live with Him forever.  Life will from death the victory win, for His innocence has borne your sin.  You are blest forever (LSB 556:8).
            So now you live each day of this life in the Word and Spirit of Jesus, that you may stay close to Him.  And understand that the answer to all the trials and tribulations the devil and the world and your own fallen flesh can throw at you, is the Word of Jesus Christ.  When your conscience troubles you, you call your pastor and ask him to absolve your sins in the stead and by the command of Jesus.  When you are downcast, discouraged, depressed, you call your pastor and ask him speak the consoling Word of Christ.  When you are sick or in the hospital, when you face a surgery, or when death draws near, you call your pastor and ask him to come and preach to you and give you Jesus’ body and blood.  You do this, not because your pastor is anything.  He is not.  I promise you, he will stumble through it all like a bumbling fool.  That’s okay.  He’s not the important one.  You need Jesus.  You need to stay close to Jesus, to be in Jesus where there is now no condemnation, where healing and life flow to you through His gifts.  Jesus’ Word is always the answer.  It applies our Lord’s blood and death and resurrection to every circumstance.  When your marriage is in trouble, you need Jesus.  Call your pastor.  When you’ve made a mistake and now there are consequences, you need Jesus.  Call your pastor.  And so also, when God has given a blessing, in times of joy and prosperity, you need Jesus.  Call your pastor.  All things are sanctified by the Word of God and prayer (1 Tim. 4:5).  Call your pastor to bless your house.  Call your pastor to say a prayer of thanksgiving for your new job.  Call your pastor to visit your new baby in the hospital.  And it should go without saying, but call your pastor to have that baby baptized.  Call your pastor, not because you need your pastor, but because you need Jesus, who sent your pastor here for no other reason than to bring you Jesus.  Be in Church every chance you get.  Hear the Word.  Receive the Supper.  Remember your Baptism.  Be in the Word and prayer every day.  Stay close to Jesus. 
            And in this way, your heart need never be troubled or afraid.  Do you still doubt?  Come to the Supper.  The proof of it all is Jesus’ blood, shed on the cross for your ransom and rescue, poured out from the chalice, down your throat, and through your veins for the forgiveness of all your sins.  Jesus isn’t just close to you.  He’s in you.  And you are in Him.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.    

[1] The theme and structure of this sermon are from John T. Pless, “Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice,” Lenten Preaching Seminar 2010, Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.
[2] Luther’s Small Catechism (St. Louis: Concordia, 1986).

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Fourth Sunday in Lent (A)

March 26, 2017
Text: John 9:1-41

            Blind from birth.  The disciples thought it was because of some sin his parents committed, or perhaps that he himself sinned in utero or God had foreseen some grievous sin he would commit in the future.  The Pharisees thought this, too.  “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” (John 9:34; ESV).  Typical Jewish thinking.  Typical human thinking.  If something goes wrong, if a person suffers, God must be out to get them.  They must have it coming, they must deserve it in some way.  And this, of course, leads to all manner of self-righteous judgment and thanksgiving that I am not like other men, not like this sinner.  Until it happens to me.  And then there is despair.  God must be out to get me.  There must be some sin in me for which I am required to pay.  As though Jesus’ blood and death are not sufficient to cover your sins.  Beloved in the Lord, repent.  “It is not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (v. 3).  God has His own purposes in our suffering, and He does not owe us an explanation.  This is a fallen world and bad things happen.  The devil has his hand in every pot.  The mystery is not that bad things happen, but that anything good happens.  That is God’s pure mercy.  And then the Promise.  He has His plan.  He will work it for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28).  That is to say, He will work it for your salvation and for the salvation of others.  His power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).  You may never understand why God does what He does in this life, and that’s okay.  He is God.  You are not God.  Like a child, you simply have to trust that your Father in heaven knows what He is doing.  It is enough that He says so. 
            Blind from birth.  That is our spiritual condition prior to Baptism and faith.  David sings it in the Psalm: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5).  We are born infected with original sin, the deep corruption and mortal disease inherited form Adam and passed on from generation to generation.  This is to say, faith in Jesus Christ does not come naturally to us.  Quite the contrary.  We are born in opposition to God, opposed to His will, opposed to His salvation.  St. 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).  The unconverted person, as he is born, thinks the things of God are utterly foolish.  So he rejects them.  He cannot be reasoned into the faith.  Faith is opposed to natural human reason.  He cannot be emotionally moved into the faith.  Faith is opposed to the natural human will.  For a person to come to faith in Jesus, the Holy Spirit must act, and He does, through His Word preached and His Word joined with water in the font.  A miracle must occur.  The blind must be given sight.  A blind man cannot make a decision to see.  A blind man cannot give his heart to seeing.  For a blind man to see, healing must come from outside of him.  “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”[1]  He does it all.
            And Jesus teaches us this in the case of the man born blind.  Jesus Christ is the Light of the world.  He comes into the darkness with His Word and Spirit and turns on the lights.  He gives you new eyes and a new heart and a new mind to receive the things of God by faith.  He does not work as you might expect.  Look at how He heals the man in our text.  He spits.  He spits in the dirt and makes mud with His saliva.  And He rubs it in the man’s eyes.  It’s gross.  And frankly, it’s offensive.  He could have simply said a Word, or given a nicer, gentler, healing touch.  We’ve seen him do it before.  But that’s not what He does here.  And even after all this, He makes the man go find the Pool of Siloam and wash.  The whole thing smacks a little of Naaman the Leper when Elisha told him to go wash in the dirty, stinky water of the Jordan River seven times, with the promise that in that washing he would be clean.  Why does God always have to work this way? 
            The mud takes us back to Genesis and the forming of Adam from the dust of the earth.  Jesus is teaching the man, and us, something profound in the working of this miracle.  It is a new creation.  Jesus comes to undo all that has gone wrong since the fall, all those things for which we want an explanation from God, the sin, the suffering, the sorrow.  He doesn’t tell us why we must suffer it, but He does do something about it.  The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ brings about a new creation.  “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). 
            And then there is the water.  Jesus still works this way with us.  Water and the Promise.  Wash and your eyes will be opened.  In Baptism, Jesus opens our spiritual eyes.  The Spirit gives us new eyes of faith to see Jesus as our only Redeemer from sin and death.  He gives us faith to believe in Him.  Nothing surprising about the water.  Naaman’s washing in the Jordan and this man’s washing in the Pool both point us to our washing at the font.  There God performs the healing.  “How can water do such great things?  Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water.  For without God’s word the water is plain water and no Baptism.  But with the word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.”  Baptism is where God brings about a whole new creation of you, so that the old sinful flesh in you, which cannot believe in Christ and is bound to sin and death, is drowned and killed, and a new man is raised up in Christ, free from sin and death, clean, healed, whole, possessed by the Holy Spirit, united to Christ by faith, reconciled to the Father.  It’s a scandal.  It’s gross.  A little water and a few words from the Bible.  It’s all so ordinary.  But that is how God works.
            Now, there is a cost to it all.  There is a cost to Baptism and faith in Christ, to having your eyes opened by God.  Salvation is absolutely free to you in Jesus, but there is a cost to be borne, here and now, in this life.  The man born blind, who now sees, is rejected.  By the Pharisees and the members of his synagogue.  That would be like your congregation excommunicating you because you believe what is taught in the very Scriptures we read.  And then his parents… They throw him under the bus.  They don’t want to be excommunicated, too.  Sorry, the boy is on his own.  Ask him.  He is of age.  He can take his own chances with Jesus.  Those who think they see are really blind, and they resent those who know they are blind, but have come to see.  And so, if your eyes have been opened by Jesus, you will bear rejection, and it will hurt. 
            How does this happen among us?  Surely you know by now that Christianity is not the favored religion it once was in America.  Surely you’ve seen how many in government want their say in what we believe and how we practice what we believe.  What happens when you’re threatened with the loss of your business or your life savings for being faithful to Jesus?  Do you compromise with the world?  Or do you take the loss?  What about when you’re called to be faithful in a congregation or a church body that is teaching false doctrine or practicing sin?  Do you go along to get along, or do you confess the truth come what may, even if it means you have to leave?  What about when your friends and your own family members are opposed to Jesus and His teaching?  Do you keep your faith inside and pretend there is nothing wrong, just so you can keep the peace?  Or do you speak the truth in love, with all gentleness and respect, but faithfully, because as much as you love your friends and family, you love Jesus more, and your love for your friends and family is too deep to sweep the question of their eternal salvation under the rug?  It’s hard.  You realize, don’t you, that there are many places in the world where to be baptized is to put a target on your back, to mark you for death?  It is a capital crime to believe in Jesus.  So what do you do when you face rejection and punishment and suffering for the faith?  You do as the man does in our text.  You confess faithfully.  You invite your persecutors also to believe.  And then you take whatever they have to dish out.  What’s the worst they can do?  Kill you?  Well, a lot worse could happen to you than that if you deny Jesus.  So you go to heaven… Is that really punishment?  Beloved, we confess the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.  When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was called upon to die for his confession of Christ and his opposition to the Nazis, he said to his friend: “This is the end… For me it is the beginning.” 
            They reject you because they reject Christ.  But, beloved, Jesus will never reject you.  He found the man after he was cast out of the synagogue, and He opened his spiritual eyes.  “Lord, I believe” (John 9:38).  He finds you and daily returns you to your Baptism in repentance, killing the old you and raising the new you to life in Himself.  And remember this: He bore your rejection all the way to the cross.  He was rejected unto death.  So that you will always be accepted by God.  You will always have a place at His Table.  You will always be precious in His sight.  His Name is on you.  You belong to Him.  It is true, we are born spiritually blind and separated from God.  In Baptism and preaching, Jesus gives us to see and believe in Him.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.        

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

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Lenten Midweek III

Lenten Midweek III
March 22, 2017
“Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice: Jesus: God’s Son and Your Servant”[1]
Text: John 13:1-20; LSB 556:5-6

            “His royal pow’r disguised he bore; A servant’s form, like mine, He wore To lead the devil captive” (LSB 556:6).  No one expected it.  No one expected that when God’s Messiah came to rescue His people from sin and death, He would come in lowly form, born of a poor girl from Nazareth of all places, the supposed son of a carpenter.  No one expected Him to be born in backwater Bethlehem, in a cattle stall, no crib for a bed, but laid in a manger, the feeding trough for the barnyard animals.  And certainly no one expected He would win His victory over Satan and the yawning jaws of hell by submitting Himself to their power, to the condemnation of sinners and the accursed death of the cross.  God’s ways are not our ways.  His thoughts are not our thoughts.  So when our Lord stoops down to wash His disciples’ feet, the proper work of a slave, the disciples, and Peter in particular, are greatly offended.  “Lord, do you wash my feet? … You shall never wash my feet” (John 13:6, 8; ESV).  “Lord, this is not the way Messiah is supposed to behave.  No stooping.  No serving.  Be served!  Sit back and relax!  Let us do the work.  There have to be some perks to this Savior gig.  Let’s enjoy a nice Passover meal and then go blast those Romans to Kingdom Come by Your sheer glory!”  Yes, that’s what we expect.  Not a Savior who stoops, but a Savior who stupefies. 
            But that’s not Jesus.  The Son of God would not have needed to become man to do that.  That’s what a mostly hands-off god would do, a selfish and self-involved god, like the gods of the pagans and the false gods that reign in our hearts.  But not a God of love.  Not a God sincerely and intimately concerned with the plight of sinners.  A man got us into this mess… “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12, emphasis added)…  So death and sin must be undone by a man, and that man is the eternally-begotten Son of the Father, Jesus Christ.  “For if many died through one man's trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many” (v. 15).  “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5).  Jesus puts it this way: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).  This is the God who loves you in such a way that He cannot leave you in sheer despair, death as your share, the pangs of hell to suffer, as we sang a couple weeks ago in Luther’s marvelous hymn.  He cannot and He will not forsake you.  Instead, He becomes one with you, bone of your bone and flesh of your flesh.  And He takes your sin upon Himself and suffers your death and your hell, that you be free and live forever as children of God. 
            “God said to His beloved Son: ‘It’s time to have compassion’” (LSB 556:5).  “When the fullness of time had come…”  At just the right time, God sent His Son.  “Then go, bright jewel of My crown And bring to all salvation.”  Set them free from sin and sorrow.  Slay bitter death by dying.  Punch a hole through death’s stomach, that it may never hold my children again, that they may live with You forever.  And that is what He does, our merciful Lord Jesus.  He obeys His Father’s will.  He is born of a virgin.  He puts on our birthday suit, our flesh.  And He does what we cannot do… fulfills God’s Law, perfectly, without error, without sin.  This is His active righteousness.  And He does what otherwise we would have to do.  He suffers under Pontius Pilate, is crucified, dead and buried.  This is His passive righteousness, His taking our punishment, thus atoning for our sins.  He has to be one of us to do this.  He has to be a man to be our substitute.  And God cannot die.  Unless God is a man.  And He is.  His Name is Jesus. 
            Yes, our God is a man.  How humiliating.  No wonder it was a stumbling block to Jews and utter foolishness to Greeks, and remains so for all the world to this very day.  We call this our Lord’s state of humiliation, from His conception in the womb of Mary to His death and burial, when He does not always or fully use His divine powers.  St. Paul puts it this way, probably quoting an early hymn: “though he was in the form of God, [Jesus] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8).  And so, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1), to the end of His life, to the end of Himself, to His utter humiliation, condemnation, and death.  That’s a God who loves you.  That is how your Savior wins the victory.  And, of course, the hymn continues with the story of Easter and the Ascension: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9-11).  That last part, by the way, “Jesus Christ is Lord,” is the earliest Christian Creed.  In Greek, it reads more like “Jesus Christ is Caesar,” words that will get you killed in the Roman Empire.  This is what we call our Lord’s state of exaltation, from His bodily resurrection from the dead and into eternity, when He now always and fully uses His divine powers.  The Father exalted Him.  Because He submitted Himself to death and hell for you, to save you, thus accomplishing the Father’s will, His reward is resurrection from the dead… Not just His own on Easter morn, but  yours on the Last Day.  His reward is to reign at the right hand of the Father, not only as God (as He has from all eternity), but as man, in your flesh.  And He is bringing you with Him!  He wants you to reign with Him forever. 
            So now we live in the Great Meantime between our Lord’s saving work and that glorious Day when we will see Him as He is and reign with Him in our Father’s Kingdom.  What are we to do?  Jesus demonstrates it for us.  We are to be servants of one another.  We’re to do the work of slaves.  Jesus was not commanding His Church to do foot washing from here on out, though that is certainly fine and good if you want to do it.  The point is, humiliate yourself before your brothers and sisters.  Serve them.  Which is to say, love them.  And at the proper time, God will exalt you.  And them.  And now, you do this as one who knows that your salvation is already completely accomplished by the Lord Jesus, apart from works, apart from service, apart from your love.  You’re freed up to just go do it, in joy and thanksgiving, because that’s what Jesus does for you. 
            He came to be your Brother.  In fact, wonder of wonders, He became your Servant.  Think about that one.  Almighty God stoops down to serve you.  He washes you head to toe in Holy Baptism, washes all your sin and guilt away forever.  That is why He tells Peter, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet” (John 13:10).  We might say, Jesus washes your feet in Holy Absolution, which is always a return to your Baptism.  You’re already clean.  You’ve already bathed.  Now Jesus washes the dust and grime of daily life in this fallen world from your feet by forgiving your sins.  He did it again tonight.  He’ll do it your whole life long until you walk the streets of gold where there is no filth, no sin, no death.  Jesus still washes your feet.  He still serves you.  He is still one with you.  He loves you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.                         

[1] The theme and structure of this sermon are from John T. Pless, “Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice,” Lenten Preaching Seminar 2010, Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Lenten Midweek II

Lenten Midweek II
March 15, 2017
“Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice: From the Father’s Heart”[1]
Text: John 12:27-36; LSB 556:4

            God had seen our wretched state before the world’s foundation, before the beginning, before the first tick of the clock inaugurated time and history.  He knew what would happen.  He did not will it to happen this way.  God does not will sin, and He did not will the fall of humanity in the Garden.  But He foreknew it.  And He foreknew your sin, your wretched state.  And from all eternity He was determined to do something about it, for from all eternity you have been in His heart.  God so loved the world, God so loved you, that He did not choose the easy part.  He gave His dearest treasure.  He sent His Son.  Jesus came to bear your sin.  Jesus came to suffer your punishment, that God “might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26; ESV).  Jesus came to die.
            “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour” (John 12:27).  For this purpose I have come to this hour.  What hour does He speak of in our Gospel?  The hour in the Gospels is the divinely appointed time when the Son of Man is sacrificed for our sins.  Jesus came for this purpose, to be lifted up on the cross and die for the sins of the world.  And this isn’t just some Plan B because things went tragically wrong in Eden.  This has been God’s plan from all eternity.  It has always been in His heart to redeem you in a manner most costly to Himself, the blood and death of His Son.  And in this way, Jesus’ prayer is answered, that the Father’s Name be glorified, the Name Jesus bears and reveals to us, that God is our Father who loves us and longs to be reconciled to us by the forgiveness of sins.  And in this way also the Father’s Name is glorified, for in the lifting up of the Son on the cross, the Judgment of this world is complete, being poured out on Christ; the ruler of this world (Satan) is cast out; and our Savior draws all men unto Himself.
            Jesus is the answer to the question, “How is God toward me?”  Is He a God of wrath, justly angered by my sins, poised to cast me into the abyss of hell?  Or is He a God of mercy, determined to win my salvation and bestow on me His eternal Kingdom?  In Jesus, we know the heart of God.  If you ever wonder what God thinks of you, how He is disposed toward you, look on a crucifix.  Consider the man, beaten and bloody and dead, nailed there to the wood.  Remember that this dead man is none other than God, the eternally-begotten Son of the Father, become flesh for this very purpose, so that He could die.  For you.  Look at the wounds.  His sacred head encircled with thorns for your sinful thoughts, your fantasies, your premeditation and nostalgia for sin.  His hands pierced with nails for your iniquitous actions, His feet likewise impaled to atone for your feet which have carried you places you should not be.  Look upon His side, thrust through with a spear.  See the water and the blood poured out for you.  A crucifix is a helpful piece of jewelry or d├ęcor.  It helps you meditate on your Lord’s Passion.  It keeps Christ crucified before your eyes.  How is God toward you?  Here you have your answer.  He is the God who sacrifices His own Son to save you and make you His own.  He turns to you a father’s heart, the heart He has had for you from eternity.  God loves you, and He will not forsake you. 
            In addition to our hymn, Luther writes of the Father’s heart toward us in the Large Catechism.  In his discussion on the Creed he writes, “For here in all three articles God has revealed Himself and opened the deepest abyss of His fatherly heart and His pure, inexpressible love [Ephesians 3:18-19].  He has created us for this very reason, that He might redeem and sanctify us.  In addition to giving and imparting to us everything in heaven and upon earth, He has given to us His Son and the Holy Spirit, who brings us to Himself [Romans 8:14, 32].  For… we could never grasp the knowledge of the Father’s grace and favor except through the Lord Christ.  Jesus is a mirror of the fatherly heart [John 14:9; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3], outside of whom we see nothing but an angry and terrible Judge.”[2]
            Jesus is a mirror of the fatherly heart.  On the cross you see the heart of God, “laid open, broken and bleeding for you” (Pless).  All God’s just wrath over your sin is poured out there, on God’s Son, lifted up on the cross.  All God’s tender love for you is poured out here where the risen Jesus speaks into your ears and heart and feeds you His true body and blood.  In Baptism you are made God’s child.  The Spirit opens your lips to pray, “Our Father”…  God in heaven hears and answers for Jesus’ sake.  Again, Luther writes in the Large Catechism, “whenever a godly Christian prays, ‘Dear Father, let Your will be done’ [see Matthew 6:10], God speaks from on high and says, ‘Yes, dear child, is shall be so, in spite of the devil and all the world.’”[3]  So, how is God toward you?  He is your Father, and you are His child.  The proof of it is Christ crucified for you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.            

[1] The theme and structure of this sermon are from John T. Pless, “Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice,” Lenten Preaching Seminar 2010, Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN. 
[2] LC II: Article III:64-65 (McCain).
[3] LC III:32 (McCain)

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Second Sunday in Lent (A)

Second Sunday in Lent (A)

March 12, 2017
Text: John 3:1-17

            Many people, even Christians, think of God primarily as Judge.  As he was growing up, Martin Luther and the majority of Christians in the Middle Ages looked upon Christ as a stern Judge who beheld poor sinners with nothing but wrath and condemnation.  Well, Luther came around on that, thanks be to God.  He came to understand the Gospel as Jesus proclaims it to us this morning: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17; ESV).  The Lord Jesus looks upon us poor sinners in mercy, in grace, with the forgiveness of sins.  But it is tempting even for Christians today, even for you Lutherans who know the precious Gospel of forgiveness and life in Christ, to think of your various sufferings and afflictions as God’s punishment, as His judgment against your sin.  “I must have done something to anger God,” you think.  “I must be paying for my sins.”  Which, of course, is utter nonsense.  Because as you know Jesus paid for all your sins on the cross.  He paid with His suffering, with His blood, with His death.  He paid your debt in full.  There is nothing more to be paid.  God’s wrath has been spent on Him.  The Son of God did not come into our flesh on a mission of wrath, but on a mission of mercy.  “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (v. 16). 
            That is not to say our sin is undeserving of God’s wrath.  Far from it.  It took the blood and death of the Son of God to pay for your sin.  A righteous and holy God cannot abide sin.  He cannot simply ignore it.  If He did, He would be neither righteous nor holy.  God had to do something about our sin if He wanted to save us.  So He did.  He sent Jesus.  The cross of Christ is the intersection where God’s love and justice meet.  For there on the cross, in the body of His only-begotten Son, God punishes our sin in justice.  And there on the cross, in the body of His only-begotten Son, God pours out His love for us poor sinners, to save us.  Now we need not die.  Now we are not condemned.  For Jesus has been condemned and died in our place.  Now there is eternal life and salvation, heaven for all who believe in Christ.  Believe it and it is yours.  It really is that simple.  Christ Jesus who died for you is now risen from the dead, and He gives you that life of His, that life that has conquered death and hell, freely, distributed in His Word and the Sacraments, received by faith in Christ.
            It doesn’t make sense, though, does it?  Free grace is a scandal.  Surely I must do something.  Surely in some way I must be worth it to God.  And if that means I have to pay with a little penance, a little suffering, or do a few extra good works, then so be it.  Not so, dear Christian!  For to see grace as anything but free is to reject Christ and His sacrifice for you.  That was Nicodemus’ problem when he came to Jesus by night for fear of his colleagues in the Sanhedrin.  Nicodemus was a Pharisee.  These were, of course, the guys who were really good at doing good works, preserving an outwardly pristine life, and thinking that in this way they were justifying themselves before God.  The Pharisees also believed that if someone is suffering, it must be because they or their parents committed some grave sin for which God is punishing them.  The disciples thought that about the man born blind: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” (John 9:2).  When we think this way about ourselves or others, we show ourselves to be as misguided as the Pharisees and the disciples.  Jesus puts such thinking to rest: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (9:3).
            It is the nature of the Pharisee, like Nicodemus, to think that somehow he must earn his standing before God.  It’s the nature of the Pharisee, like you, to think that you must pay some price for your sin.  You can’t.  There is nothing you can do to appease God’s wrath.  There is nothing you can do to earn God’s favor.  And thank God, you don’t have to.  For God so loved you that He sent His only-begotten Son to take your sin to the cross and die for it.  God so loved you that He did not leave His Son in death, but raised Him from the dead, that He might give you eternal life.  Do you want what Jesus has to give you?  Just believe it.  It is already yours.  Amazing!  Incredible!  And totally opposed to your fallen reason.  That is why Luther has you confess in the Small Catechism, “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.”  To believe this, as our Lord says in our Holy Gospel, you must be born again, or as it is better translated, born from above.  “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again,” born from above, “he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).
            Nicodemus does not understand what Jesus is talking about.  What a ridiculous statement.  “How can a man be born when he is old?  Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (v. 4).  We don’t understand it either.  Unlike Nicodemus, perhaps, we know that Jesus is not talking here about a physical rebirth.  But we think that somehow we have to make ourselves be born again by making a decision for Jesus, surrendering our lives to Him, dedicating ourselves to living a Christian life.  But when you make faith your effort, when you think you are born again, not from above, from God, but from your own striving, you are a Pharisee.  Don’t you see?  Faith is a gift!  It is God’s gift to you!  You cannot make yourself be born again spiritually any more than you made yourself be born physically.  Utter nonsense.  God brought you forth from your mother’s womb.  And God your heavenly Father gives birth to you spiritually, bringing forth living faith in Jesus Christ.  He does it by His Spirit, in His means of grace.
            Jesus singles out Baptism in our text.  That is why you have the precious little baby on the front of your bulletin, baptized into Christ, God’s own child I gladly say it.  “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (v. 5).  To be born again, from above, of the Spirit, is to be baptized.  There at the font, where water is joined to God’s Word, by His command, the Spirit is given to you.  And the Spirit gives you faith in Jesus Christ as a gift.  That is why babies are baptized.  Because we cannot reason with them.  We cannot reason them into the faith.  They have no idea what we’re talking about.  So we simply baptize them, as God has commanded us to do for all nations (Matt. 28:19) of which babies are a part, and we trust that God will do in Baptism what He has promised, namely, give birth to them from above by His Spirit, giving them faith in Jesus Christ.  And in truth, that is why we baptize adults as well.  For we cannot reason adults into faith, either.  Reason is fallen and corrupt, opposed to faith in Christ.  And so, as our Lord says elsewhere, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15).  That is to say, faith is simply trust, like a newborn who trusts Mom for food and protection and care and love, who cries out to Mom in every need, who rejoices and is comforted when Mom speaks.  Baby cannot reason about Mom, or confess Mom’s name, but you better believe Baby knows Mom and trusts Mom and clings to Mom as the giver of all good.  That is you before your Father in heaven, a newborn from above, baptized into Christ, born of the Spirit.

            There are, to be sure, sufferings and afflictions to be borne in this life.  You do not understand them any better than a newborn understands the new world into which she has entered, what it is that is happening to her, why it is happening to her, and why some things are so unpleasant, why some things hurt.  God could explain it all to you, but you would be as uncomprehending as a newborn.  Go ahead and cry out to God like a newborn when you hurt.  But also trust that everything God does He does for your good.  He is not punishing you.  Your punishment happened at the cross, where the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, was lifted up like the serpent on the pole.  He was lifted up in your place.  He was lifted up as the standard of your sin and death, that when you look upon Him there in faith, you be healed of your mortal illness, sin.  When you look upon Him there in faith, when you believe in Him, you have eternal life.  This is how God loves the world.  This is how God loves you.  He gave His Son, that you might be His own child.  And you are.  In Baptism, God has written His Name on you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Lenten Midweek I

Lenten Midweek I
March 8, 2017
“Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice: Possessed by Sin and Bound by Death”[1]
Text: John 8:31-38; LSB 556:2-3

            “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone” (John 8:33; ESV).  It is laughable on the face of it.  The Jews, the Israelites, have never been enslaved?  Anyone with a casual familiarity with the story of the Old Testament knows this is patently false.  The book of Exodus is all about how God rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.  Judges is all about how time and time again the Israelites turned away from God and were enslaved by the heathen nations occupying the Promised Land.  When they repented, when they turned back to God, He would send a deliverer.  The books of Kings and Chronicles and the books of the prophets are all about the slow decline of the Kingdom of Israel into idolatry and rebellion, her civil war and separation into Northern and Southern Kingdoms, and her humiliation and defeat as she is carried off into captivity; the Northern Kingdom, Israel, to captivity in Assyria in 722 BC; the Southern Kingdom, Judah, the Jews, to captivity in Babylon in 586 BC.  And now even at this moment in our Holy Gospel, as the Jews are asserting their freedom over against our Lord’s preaching, the Romans patrol the streets of Jerusalem, keeping their Jewish subjects in line.  Never been enslaved to anyone?  Why, that’s the whole story of the Jews!
            But you and I are Americans!  We are offspring of the founding fathers and have never been enslaved to anyone!  We live in “the land of the free,” and liberty is an unalienable right with which we are endowed by our Creator.  Now, it is true that since the Revolution, the United States has maintained her freedom as a sovereign nation.  But what have we done with that freedom?  What once was understood to be freedom from tyranny, we have distorted into personal autonomy, law unto self, the freedom to do whatever we want.  It’s like the days of the Judges in Israel: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6; 21:25).  What do we get when we do whatever is right in our own eyes?  Abortion, euthanasia, sexual permissiveness and perversion come to mind.  Note the common theme in all of these: Death and the distortion of marital relations from which God gives life. 
            But it’s not just them.  It’s not just those people who do those things.  You think you are free.  You believe you have never been enslaved by anyone.  To you Jesus says, “everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34), and St. Paul and King David agree: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom. 3:10-12; Cf. Ps. 14:1-3).  These words are about us.  We talk a big talk about free will, but it’s utterly foolish.  Adam and Eve were created with free will, but they screwed it up in the Garden.  Remember?  “(I)n the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17).  Our first parents died spiritually as their teeth sank into the fruit.  And their children have been born in death ever since, dead in your trespasses and sins.  What freedom does a dead man have?  A dead man is only free to be dead.  A sinner is only free to sin.  An unbeliever is only free not to believe.  What kind of freedom is that?  It’s no freedom at all!  “Fast bound in Satan’s chains I lay; Death brooded darkly o’er me.  Sin was my torment night and day; In sin my mother bore me.”  And it’s not just an inherited condition, although that is our greatest problem, original sin, as we heard on Sunday.  But we act accordingly: “But daily deeper still I fell; My life became a living hell, So firmly sin possessed me” (LSB 556:2). 
            We are good at keeping up the illusion that we are free, in and of ourselves, apart from Christ.  As if being a Christian is a matter of decision and earning God’s favor.  When someone dies, we say of him, “He was a good man.  He is in a better place.”  As though heaven is for good people, or at least people not as bad as the bad people.  What we’re really saying is, “I hope I’m good enough to get to heaven.”  Well... you’re not.  No matter how good you are, you are not good enough.  And I hate to burst your bubble, but you really aren’t good at all.  Remember what St. Paul says in our Epistle: “All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”  That means you.  It is true, what we sang with Dr. Luther: “My own good works all came to naught, No grace or merit gaining.”  And what about free will?  “Free will against God’s judgment fought, Dead to all good remaining” (LSB 556:3).  There is no freedom of the will for sinners.  There is only bondage of the will.
            So if there is to be freedom, if there is to be life, if there is to be rescue from slavery to sin and death, it must come from outside of you.  “(I)f the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).  Jesus came for this very reason, to liberate you from bondage.  His blood and death are the price of your ransom.  The cross of Christ unlocks the chains in which Satan has bound you.  His death destroys death.  His resurrection puts death to open shame.  And now Jesus gives you His freedom and life by the means of grace, the Word and the Sacraments.  “If you abide in my word,” He says, “you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (vv. 31-32).  What truth is it that you will know, that will liberate you?  You will know the truth of your sinful condition, and you will know the truth of the forgiveness of sins and salvation that come alone by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for you.  In other words, to know the truth is to receive the saving gifts of Christ by faith.  The purpose of Christian preaching is to shatter your faith in anyone or anything that is not our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The purpose of Christian preaching is to shatter your illusions of autonomy and freedom and the ability to work your way out of your slavery to sin and death.  The purpose of preaching is to give you the true freedom that comes only by the Gospel as the living voice of Christ forgives your sins and breathes the Spirit of life into your dry bones.
            And what is this freedom which you have come to possess by your knowledge of the truth, by Jesus’ Word, by faith?  It is not the freedom to do whatever you want.  That is the old bondage of the flesh to sin and death.  No, when Jesus frees a man, he is for the first time free to love God and love his neighbor.  He is freed from the tyranny of the self.  He is freed from the slavish subjection to the Law to the freedom of the doing of God’s will.  He is freed from the condemnation of death and hell for the life God always intended for man.  In his classic treatise, The Freedom of a Christian, Martin Luther shows us that the life of the Christian is lived in this paradox: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.  A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”[2]  You are free from the doing of good works in order to earn God’s favor and salvation.  In that way, you are perfectly free, a lord of all, subject to none.  But you are also free for love and service and self-sacrifice for the sake of your neighbor.  In that way, you are a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.  In Christ, you are freed from yourself to do this very thing, not for the sake of earning anything, but for the sake of love.  God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.  Freed from sin, freed from death, freed from slavery to Satan, you are free to do what love demands, what your neighbor needs you to do for him.  This freedom is yours in Christ alone.
            The great paradox that runs so counter to our fallen human reason is this: In freedom from God, you are enslaved by sin, death, and the devil.  As God’s slave, you are truly free.  Redeemed by Christ, your sins are forgiven.  You are free to love.  You are free to live.  You are free to be the child of God He has called you to be in Baptism.  “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”  The Son has set you free.  You are free indeed.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.         

[1] The theme and structure of this sermon are from John T. Pless, “Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice,” Lenten Preaching Seminar 2010, Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.
[2] Three Treatises (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1960) p. 277.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

First Sunday in Lent

First Sunday in Lent (A)

March 5, 2017
Text: Matt. 4:1-11

            Everything was riding on Adam.  He had the Commandment.  He was armed with the Word of God.  “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:16-17; ESV).  This is not just some arbitrary rule God made up because He’s a divine stick-in-the-mud and doesn’t want Adam to have any fun.  God is not withholding good food from Adam and Eve.  He has given them every other tree in the Garden for food, and I’m certain all of it is very delicious.  But this tree is special.  This is tree is a place of worship.  This tree is a place for man to exercise faith that God’s Word and will are good and wise.  By not eating this fruit, and preaching the Commandment to his wife and their children, Adam would be loving God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving his neighbor as himself (Mark 12:30-31).  In failing to preach the Commandment, and eating from this tree, Adam would be rejecting God as his God and proclaiming himself god.
            And so the moment of battle came.  The sly serpent approached Eve, questioning God’s Word which Adam had preached, preaching instead an anti-Gospel.  “You will not surely die.  God knows that in the day you eat of it you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”  Now, don’t miss the trick in the devil’s words.  He would have Eve believe that with just one bite she could determine good and evil for herself, be like God, essentially be her own god.  And he would have Eve believe that God was holding out on her for this very reason, that He did not want to cede His power to the man and the woman.  But the plain truth is, up to this moment, Adam and Eve had known only good.  Now the supple flesh of forbidden fruit between their teeth, the juice still dripping down their chins, Adam and Eve for the first time knew evil.  And it was them.  It was their rejection of God.  They had lost.  They had fallen.  They had died spiritually, and they were dying physically, and they would die for all eternity as slaves of the serpent.  By the way, where was Adam in the heat of battle?  Hiding behind his wife.  We find out he was standing there the whole time, not saying anything, failing to preach the Word God had given him.  He let Eve be the preacher.  He let Eve fight the battle.  It would be like Jesus making His Bride, the Church, fight the devil on her own!  Eve preached a sermon, though it was not given her to preach, and she got it wrong.  She skewed God’s Word and finally rejected it, and then she turned to her husband and gave an anti-Sacrament.  “Take and eat,” she said, and the whole creation was subjected to the curse, plunged into darkness, broken, dying, and dead. 
            Our first parents sinned.  It’s not just that they did what they weren’t supposed to.  They were mortally wounded by the serpent, infected with a deadly disease.  We call this original sin, not just because it was the first, but because it is the condition to which Adam and Eve succumbed and in which their children have been born ever since.  Sin is not simply a matter of the bad things we do and the good things we fail to do.  We call those actual sins, sins of commission and sins of omission, our transgressions of God’s holy Commandments.  But the problem is so much deeper than that.  No matter how successful you may be at avoiding sin and doing all the things you should do, you’re still a son, a daughter of Adam.  And so you’re still a sinner.  From the moment of conception.  That is what King David confesses in Psalm 51: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (v. 5).  Original sin is a corruption deep within your nature.  Its guilt is with you from the moment you exist, passed down from father to child.  Yes, it’s your dad’s fault you’re a sinner.  It’s ultimately Father Adam’s fault.  Everything was riding on him, and in a moment, with one bite, it was gone.
            And so the Promise, a new Word from God spoken directly to the evil foe: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15).  A Son would be born of the woman, born without the guilt of Adam, without an earthly father, and He would go toe to toe with the devil.  He would be our last and greatest hope, One who by the mortal bite of the serpent would crush the serpent’s head forever.  “Ask ye, Who is this?  Jesus Christ it is, Of Sabaoth Lord, And there’s none other God; He holds the field forever” (LSB 656:2). 
            Jesus is our Champion.  Jesus fights for us against the prince of darkness.  Adam lost everything in Paradise.  Jesus, our new and greater Adam, fights the rematch in the desert.  Note again the place of food in the temptation, food God has not given.  Take and eat, forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Take and eat, stones commanded to become bread.  It is the temptation to forsake God’s Word which nourishes to eternal life, for that which only fills the belly for a time.  Armed with the Word of God, our Champion proclaims: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4).  Note also place of glory in the temptation, glory God has not given.  Your eyes will be opened.  You will be like God.  You will not die.  Cast yourself down now from the pinnacle of the temple.  The eyes of the masses will be opened.  They will see you are God, as the angels catch you before you strike your foot against a stone.  You will not die.  And again our Champion preaches, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (v. 7).  Finally, note the place of power in the temptation.  You will be like God.  You can determine what is good and what is evil for yourself.  Make your own rules.  Follow your heart.  See all the kingdoms of the world in a moment, throughout time, across space.  These I will give you, now, apart from suffering, apart from the cross, if you bow down and worship me.  And our Champion proclaims the First Commandment, the Commandment of Commandments: “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (v. 10).  And the devil has been mastered.  It is only the first battle in a war that will culminate at the cross.  But it is a decisive victory.  And it is vital for your salvation.  For just as sin came into the world through one man, Adam, and death through sin, and sin came to all men for all sinned, so by the one man’s obedience, that of Jesus Christ, are the many made righteous (Rom. 5:12, 19). 
            This is what we call our Lord’s active righteousness, His fulfilling God’s Law on our behalf.  Adam fought the serpent and lost.  You fight the serpent and lose.  Jesus fought the serpent and won.  He did not give in to the temptation.  It is Eden 2.0.  Recapitulation we call it in theology.  Jesus undoes all that has gone wrong with Adam and with us.  He is THE faithful man.  He is THE righteous one.  And all His righteousness, all of His resisting temptation, all of His active fulfilling of the Law, He gives to us in Holy Baptism, He gives to us by faith.  We rightly stress Jesus’ passive righteousness, His suffering and death for our sins on the cross as the sacrifice of atonement.  So also we stress our Lord’s resurrection victory over death, and rightly so.  But we so easily forget that our Lord’s life of faithfulness to His Father is also a vital component of our salvation.  He does what we cannot do, and we get all the credit.  Our Lord undertakes a great exchange.  He takes all our sin and death upon Himself and nails it to the cross.  He gives us all His righteousness and life in exchange, received by faith.  Jesus fights the devil and wins.  God declares His victory is ours.

            And, of course, the ultimate victory is His death and resurrection.  In His death on the cross, where the nail literally pierces His heel, the serpent’s head is crushed.  By His death, death is undone.  By His resurrection, we have life eternal.  Everything was riding on Jesus, and He came through for us.  If He had lost, if He had sinned, if He had failed, we would all go to hell.  But He did not lose.  He did not sin.  Jesus is our Champion.  He won for Himself a Kingdom, and He gives it to you.  By means of a tree, the precious tree of the cross, once a tree of death and condemnation, now the tree of life and salvation.  This tree is also a place of worship, but unlike the tree in the Garden, here you worship by taking of its fruit.  Its fruit is the body and blood of Jesus.  Man does not live by bread alone, but by the Word of God.  Hanging on the cross is the Word become flesh, and He is the Bread of Life.  Take and eat.  In receiving this fruit, you receive Jesus as your God.  Your sins are forgiven.  You live.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.                   

Friday, March 3, 2017

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday

March 1, 2017
“Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice: Rejoicing in Repentance”[1]
Text: Psalm 51; LSB 556:1

            “Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice”… in repentance?  This may seem an odd theme for Lent, and especially for Ash Wednesday as we smear our foreheads with the dust and ashes of repentance, and upon us is pronounced the sentence for every sinner: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  It’s a more poetic way of saying, “You are a sinner, therefore you must die!”  Rejoice in that?  Yes.  Because that is not the end of the story.  That is not the end of you.  Remember that those ashes are smeared in the sign of the cross, the cross made over your forehead and your heart at Baptism, to mark you as one redeemed by Christ, the crucified.  You are baptized into Christ!  You have put on Christ!  His death is your death.  His resurrection is your life.  And so, while the ashes declare the truth that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23), the cross declares the truth that Christ took your death upon Himself, O sinner.  You will not die, but live, eternally, with the crucified and risen Christ.  And though your body must expire when your earthly life has run its course, still, you live, with Christ, in heaven.  And the risen Christ will raise your body from the grave on the Last Day, and you will live eternally in your body in the New Creation inaugurated on Easter with the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ.
            And so, Dr. Luther’s magnificent hymn is just the right theme for this Ash Wednesday, and for all of Lent.  If preaching ended with the Law, if we simply smeared your forehead with a blob of ashes and told you that you were going to die, and then left you in your death and condemnation, there would be no joy, there would be no rejoicing.  In fact, there really wouldn’t be repentance.  Repentance is a turning from sin and from self and from all that causes your death and condemnation to the God who saves you in the flesh of Christ.  In other words, the Christian life of repentance is the life lived under the shelter of Christ’s salvation, His saving you from your slavery to sin and the condemnation of the Law.  This is great joy!  This is reason to rejoice!  Repentance is God’s gift to you.  We too often think of repentance as something we do, a feeling of sorrow we evoke from ourselves by singing sad hymns and putting on sad faces.  That’s not it at all.  God is the one who turns you.  The Spirit convicts you of your sin in the preaching of the Law.  The Spirit kills you, crucifies Old Adam, by the preaching of the Law, and then raises you to new life, faith in Christ, by the preaching of the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins and restoration to the Father by Christ’s saving death and resurrection for you.  That’s the turning.  That’s repentance.  God turns you.  God repents you.  It is all His work.  And that calls for praise and thanksgiving and great rejoicing.
            King David was a man on the run from God.  He was hiding in his sin.  You remember the story.  One day as he looks out upon the Holy City from his palace, he beholds the beautiful Bathsheba, bathing in the light of day.  And he desires her for himself.  He lusts for her.  There is just one problem.  She is married.  To Uriah the Hittite, a faithful soldier in David’s army.  But David is the king, and Uriah is conveniently occupied in the battle.  He’ll never know, thinks David.  And so the king summons Bathsheba to his chamber.  It’s the stuff of soap operas.  It’s also the stuff of the real lives of real sinners.  Adultery.  Lies.  A cover up.  Bathsheba is pregnant.  Uriah is too honorable, when summoned home, to sleep in his house with his own wife, to unwittingly cooperate in the scandal.  So David sends a letter by Uriah’s own hand to General Joab.  Put him where the fighting is fiercest and withdraw so that he dies.  Murder.  And now David can take Bathsheba as his wife and there will be no public scandal.  You can read the whole sordid story in 2 Samuel 11.  David is saved. 
            Except he isn’t.  David is lost.  David is dead in his trespasses and sins.  David is the dust of the earth, and he acts like it, and so to dust he shall return.  I’m sure David was sorry, deep down, that it had to be this way.  But that sorrow is not repentance.  It is not a turning.  And it is no cause for joy.  All the sorrow David can drum up in his heart will never be enough to turn him out of himself.  If there is to be a turning, if there is to be repentance, God must do it.
            So the LORD sends a preacher.  The Prophet Nathan comes before David and tells him a parable about a rich man who has many sheep of his own, but takes the one and only dearly loved sheep from a poor man and slaughters it to entertain his guest.  David is filled with what he supposes to be righteous anger.  Sinners are really good at being angry with the sins of others.  “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity” (2 Sam. 12:5-6; ESV).  Nathan preaches the Law.  “Thou art the man” (v. 7; KJV).  And all at once, the whole false narrative David has constructed to deceive himself and protect his kingdom, the whole house of cards comes crashing down.  David is cut to the heart, as God intends His Law to do.  He confesses to his prophet, his pastor, “I have sinned against the LORD” (v. 13; ESV).  And Nathan, God’s called and ordained servant of the Word, pronounces the Absolution: “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die” (v. 13).  And so God turns David by the preaching of His Word from sin to salvation, from death to life, from unbelief to faith.  And there is greater rejoicing in heaven over this one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous Pharisees who need no repentance (Luke 15:7). 
            There is one catch, though.  The sin must still be atoned for by a death.  David’s Son must die.  Oh, yes, the fruit of David’s union with Bathsheba dies as a consequence of the sin.  But that is not the Son we’re talking about here.  That son is but a type of the Son of David who will come for this very purpose.  That Son is Jesus, who dies for David’s sin, and for the sin of the whole world.  He dies for you.  This is how the LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die.
            So we sing Psalm 51 with King David.  David wrote this song in his repentance over Bathsheba and Uriah.  With David, we come before God with the sacrifice of a spirit broken by sin, a broken and a contrite heart which God will not despise (Ps. 51:17).  We confess our sin and pray that God will wash us with that alone which can make us pure and clean… the blood of David’s Son, the Son of God, Jesus Christ.  We pray that we may hear joy and gladness once again, that the bones God has broken with His holy Law may rejoice in the sweetness of the saving Gospel (v. 8).  We pray that God would create in us a clean heart and a right spirit, that He would not withdraw His Holy Spirit from us, that He would restore to us to joy of His salvation (vv. 10-12).  We are praying that having been repented by God, having been smeared with the ashes of death, but in the shape of the holy cross, we would rejoice.  That we would rejoice in repentance.  That we would rejoice in Christ.
            In the canon of Luther hymns, “A Mighty Fortress,” gets all the play, and it is a marvelous hymn which you should commit to memory, and in fact we’ll be singing it this coming Sunday.  It’s the appointed Hymn of the Day for the First Sunday in Lent for all the congregations in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, whether they sing it or not.  But this hymn we’ve chosen for our meditation in our midweek services is perhaps Luther’s best.  It’s Law and Gospel, it’s the whole story of salvation, applied to you personally.  This one delivers the goods.  In Lent, we put our alleluias away for a time.  We do this in Christian freedom, as a discipline, to remind us where we are without Christ, dead in our trespasses and sins, self-bent and hell-bound.  But we know the Day is coming.  We know this path leads through Good Friday and our Lord’s suffering and death on the cross for our redemption.  And we know that on Easter morn, the tomb will be empty.  Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.  On that Day, we will sing our alleluias with full throated joy.  But even in this penitential season of Lent, dear Christians, we rejoice.  For this is the unfolding of our salvation in Christ.  And here at the font, in the pulpit, and at the altar, is where God turns us from all that stinks of death and hell to Himself and the joy of His saving work.  The LORD has taken away your sin.  You shall not die.  The right arm of Christ has won the victory by receiving the nail, pierced for your redemption.  Praise the Lord!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son +, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.           

[1] The theme and structure of this sermon is from John T. Pless, “Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice,” Lenten Preaching Seminar 2010, Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, IN.