Monday, April 24, 2017

Second Sunday of Easter

The Second Sunday of Easter (A)
April 23, 2017
Text: John 20:19-31

He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!
            The disciples are terrified.  That is why they are behind locked doors.  For fear.  Fear of the Jews.  Fear that all their hopes are lost, that the Savior is dead, or worse… For now there are rumors, the silly chatter of women (!), but also reports from some of their own, that Jesus is alive and has appeared here and there among His own.  And if only that could be true, how wonderful beyond all telling!  But, how dreadful at the same time.  For the disciples, every one of them, had deserted Him in His most urgent moment of need.  Every one of them fled for fear of the danger to himself.  Peter, he who had so confidently boasted that all the rest may desert the Lord, but he never would.  Even if he had to die with Jesus… Peter denied Him three times before the cock crowed, and even as Jesus was led out to Pilate, Peter wept the bitter tears of one trapped in his sin.  The Romans, the Jews, these may seek the disciples to kill them.  But worse than the sword would be facing Jesus in His disappointment over their sin.  Lock the doors and keep them barred.  Let no one in.  Not even Him. 
            All at once, Jesus stood among them and said, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19; ESV).  Now, the doors were locked.  Everything was shut up tight.  How did Jesus come to be in their midst?  No, He didn’t climb in through the window.  No, He didn’t sneak in while they weren’t looking.  No, He didn’t walk through the wall.  This is the new reality brought about by Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead.  He is always in the midst of His people!  He is always in the midst of us as we gather together in His Name!  Not just as God, but now as a man!  In His body, risen from the dead and glorified!  He shows them the wounds, His hands and His side.  It is really Jesus, the man who was crucified, died, and was buried.  He is risen from the dead and lives.  And the peace He pronounces flows from these very wounds.  So that they believe it, just so that they don’t miss it, He says it again: “Peace be with you” (v. 21).  And this is precisely what they need to hear.  Jesus does not come in disappointment.  Jesus does not come in condemnation.  There will be no divine wrath today, or ever.  Jesus comes in peace.  Jesus comes to impart His peace, the peace that passes all understanding.  Jesus is peace.  This little phrase, which we hear right before Jesus comes among us in His body, with His wounds, in the Holy Supper, “Peace be with you,” “The peace of the Lord be with you always,” is nothing short of a Holy Absolution.  It is the joyous proclamation that God no longer holds your sins against you.  Christ having died for your sins, you being justified by faith, you have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1).  You can approach His throne.  You can eat and drink at His Table.  God is for you.  Jesus is for you.  No wrath of God for you today, or ever.  “Peace be with you.”  He says it twice to the Church gathered behind the locked doors, because that is the Gospel that creates faith and keeps faith alive.  He says it eight days later again to the Church (notice the pattern He is establishing of appearing to His Church on Sundays), and specifically He says it to Thomas, and shows him His wounds, because that is what creates faith in Thomas and keeps Thomas’ faith alive.
            Oh, poor Thomas.  “Doubting Thomas,” we call him, though that epithet is never applied to him in Holy Scripture.  Should it really surprise us that he doubts?  Of course, he should have believed upon the preaching of his brother apostles.  But then again, we all have our doubts, don’t we?  We all have our crises of faith.  Yet we’re so hard on “Doubting Thomas.”  I’ll tell you what Thomas needs.  Thomas needs to go to Church!  Thomas needs the Divine Service, where Jesus Himself comes among His disciples and speaks His peace and shows His wounds.  Jesus knows this, and He does this for Thomas, and for the Eleven, and for you, and for me.  He comes to the place where His people are gathered in all their doubts and all their fears and all their sins and He speaks His peace.  He forgives.  He preaches the Gospel.  And He shows His wounds.  For Thomas and those with him, He invites them to go ahead and poke around a bit.  For us He gives His wounds, His body, His blood, in the Holy Communion. 
            And now, what are the results of all of this?  “Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord” (v. 20).  They told Thomas, “We have seen the Lord” (v. 25).  “Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’” (v. 28).  “(T)hese are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (v. 31).  When Jesus speaks His peace and shows His wounds, there is gladness where once there was despair.  There is confession of the risen Jesus Christ in the face of denial and doubt, confession that will ultimately lead to martyrdom for most of these men, and the holy cross in one form or another for you.  That is to say, there is faith that spills over in joy and witness.  The peace that flows through Jesus’ wounds gives you faith in Jesus, and so life everlasting in His Name.  And it opens your lips to proclaim His praise. 
            What our Lord did for His apostles that Easter Day, and again eight days later when Thomas was with them, He does for us every time His Church gathers together in His Name.  Beloved, you do not see Him with your eyes, but Jesus is in the midst of us this morning as surely as He was in the midst of His disciples who were locked away for fear.  He is in the midst of us, not just as God, but as a man.  In His body.  With His body and blood.  And He speaks: “Peace be with you.”  What else is all the preaching and Scripture and liturgy about if not that?  He forgives your sins.  He declares to you that God is not against you, but for you.  He died.  He is risen.  Your debt is paid.  You are freed from captivity.  His Father is your Father.  His God is your God.  You no longer need to fear.  Peace, beloved.  Peace. 
            And because this peace that flows from Jesus’ wounds creates faith in you and keeps your faith alive, Jesus gave a gift to His Church that Easter evening to perpetuate the giving of this peace.  He gave the Office of the Holy Ministry.  The Apostles were the first to receive it.  “And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld’” (vv. 22-23).  These are the Words of Institution for the Office of the Ministry.  If you were to boil the Pastoral Office down to its essence, what’s it all finally about?  It’s about this one thing: The forgiveness of sins.  In other words, the peace of Jesus Christ.  Why does a preacher preach Christ crucified?  For the forgiveness of sins.  What are the Sacraments about, Baptism, Absolution, the Lord’s Supper?  The forgiveness of sins.  Why have Bible study and Sunday School, Beer & Bible on Tuesday nights, devotions, pastoral visits, even meetings about the governance of this congregation?  It’s finally all and only about the forgiveness of sins.  That is why you have a pastor.  That is why the Church exists.  For sinners, for the forgiveness of sins.  Even this bit about withholding forgiveness from the unrepentant as long as they do not repent has as its goal the forgiveness of sins and the restoration of the sinner.  The Church has been called a hospital for sinners.  That’s true, in a manner of speaking.  The Church is the hospital where dead men are brought, those dead in their trespasses and sins, that the death and resurrection of Christ be applied and the dead brought to new life in Christ.  The peace of Jesus, the Gospel, creates faith in them, breathes the Spirit of life into them, and keeps them alive.  Our Augsburg Confession puts it this way: “So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted.  Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given [John 20:22].  He works faith, when and where it pleases God [John 3:8], in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake” (AC V:1-3; McCain).

            So here you are, beloved, sinners, every one of you.  I know, because I am, too.  Here you are with your doubts and your fears, your heartaches and tears, and the deepest, darkest secrets of your black heart and soul.  You lock it all away for fear.  You’d be mortified if others knew your real thoughts, your real feelings, the things you’ve done and the things you want to do.  Jesus knows.  He knows them all.  But be not afraid.  He does not come to you in wrath or condemnation.  He comes…. In mercy!  He is here.  Right in the midst of you.  And He speaks.  “Peace be with you,” He preaches, He absolves, forgives all your sins.  “I have washed you clean in my own blood.  See my wounds.  Poke around.  Take, eat.  Take, drink.  My body.  My blood.  Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.  Be no longer doubting, but believing.”  And so it is.  Your lips are open.  Jesus fills them with Himself.  You are glad, and you speak.  You confess the crucified and risen Christ.  The Creed.  The hymns.  Your prayers.  Your amens.  It is all because of Easter.  It is all because of Jesus’ presence here in your midst at this very moment with His peace and His wounds.  It is all because of this one simple, but earthshaking fact: He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.          

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Resurrection of Our Lord

The Resurrection of Our Lord (A)
April 16, 2017
Text: Matt. 28:1-10; LSB 458

He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!
            And upon that one fact rests our whole Christian faith and our eternal life or death.  Remember the line we sang in the Luther hymn we used throughout Lent: “Fast bound in Satan’s chains I lay; Death brooded darkly o’er me” (LSB 556:2).  We are utterly helpless to free ourselves from this bondage.  Our Hymn of the Day this morning, also a Luther composition, states the matter plainly: “No son of man could conquer death, Such ruin sin had wrought us” (LSB 458:2).  There is no one innocent in all the earth.  We all are included in the sin of Adam, and every last one of us has rebelled against our God.  We have gone our own way.  And that is the way of death.  And so death brought us into bondage.  No matter how hard we’ve tried to struggle free with our good works, our good intentions, our sincerity, our being “basically a good person,” it’s all been for not.  The bonds just get tighter.  The noose constricts.  Death’s vice grip upon our fallen flesh squeezes every vestige of life from our mortal frame.  The devil is stronger than the whole world, and his hell-hound, death, sniffs out every one of us and snares us in his steely jaws.  What we need, we who are helpless and damned, is One stronger than death, One stronger than Satan, to give Himself into those jaws, into our captivity, and burst the bonds asunder. 
            “Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands For our offenses given” (v. 1).  The bands are the nails that fastened Him to the cross.  He is one of us.  He is one with us, flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone.  And He carries His own cross into our captivity.  Our sins are heaped upon Him.  Broken, bleeding, pierced, dying, He gives Himself wholly and completely into the hands of our enemy.  His death is a real death.  Mystery of mysteries, God dies for poor sinners, to save us.  God lies dead in a grave, having completed all the work of your salvation.  He takes His Sabbath rest.  But that is not the end of the story.  So strong is our Champion, Jesus, so infinitely stronger than death and the devil, He bursts death’s bonds asunder and blows a hole so deep and wide through the grave it leads out the other side to life and light abundant and eternal.  Oh, it was a strange and dreadful strife, when Life and death contended.  But the victory remained with Life!  The reign of death was ended.  “Holy Scripture plainly saith That death is swallowed up by death, Its sting is lost forever.  Alleluia!” (v. 4).  Jesus Christ blazes a trail right through the valley of the shadow, a highway for His people to follow in His train.  Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.  Bodily.  The scars, once bitter wounds inflicted upon the suffering Savior, now glorious trophies of victory and proof of our redemption.  God has accepted the sacrifice.  Your sins are forgiven.  You are righteous on account of Christ.  You will not die, but live.  For where your Savior has gone, you will go, through the valley of the shadow and out the other side into life eternal and your own bodily resurrection from the dead. 
            Now at God’s right hand, Jesus stands!  He’s alive!  And He rules.  He reigns.  For you.  He brings you life from heaven and He gives you joy.  Christians have true joy in this life because the war with death has ended…  In victory for Christ, and so victory for us.  Oh, there are still skirmishes in this life and in this world.  Yes, we still suffer here and now.  Yes, we still get sick, and at some point, sick unto death.  Yes, our loved ones still die.  And yes, as long as we remain in this fallen flesh, we still sin.  But just as all appeared hopeless when Jesus gave up His Spirit on Good Friday, and yet that was His ultimate triumph, so it is with us.  Our death is but a portal to life.  Death cannot have us.  We belong to the Savior.  The sufferings of this present age are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us.  We live… and not just someday up there in heaven.  Now!  In Christ!  Albeit, our life is now hidden with Christ in God, as St. Paul says (Col. 3:3).  We are baptized into Christ.  His death is our death.  His resurrection is our resurrection.  Rejoice!  Sing!  This Day is your Day of victory.  Now nothing can harm you.  Not sin.  Not Satan.  Not even death and hell.  Jesus has conquered them for you.  “Here our true Paschal Lamb we see, Whom God so freely gave us; He died on the accursed tree—So strong His love—to save us.  See, His blood now marks our door”… the blood of the Passover Lamb that protects God’s people against the angel of death, as it did in Egypt so long ago… “Faith points to it; death passes o’er, And Satan cannot harm us.  Alleluia!” (LSB 458:5). 
            And so, this Day we feast.  Let us keep the Festival to which the Lord Himself, Jesus Christ, our Paschal Lamb, invites us.  He is our Joy.  He is the Sun that warms and lights us.  And His Sun not only shines upon us, but in us, as we take Him into ourselves, His risen and living body and blood for our forgiveness, life, and salvation.  The night of sin has ended.  Where the Light of Jesus Christ has risen, there can be no night.  Jesus not only wins the cosmic victory over sin, Satan, and death, but He wins the victory in each one of us, baptized into Christ, Worded, bodied, blooded with Jesus Himself.  This Easter Day, we feast on Christ, the Bread of heaven, our true Manna, the Word made flesh who casts out the old and evil leaven of sin and death.  As you eat this bread and drink this cup, it pushes out all that is not Christ, not faith.  “Christ alone our souls will feed; He is our meat and drink indeed; Faith lives upon no other!  Alleluia!” (v. 7). 

            Beloved in the Lord, Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and on that fact rests our whole Christian faith and our eternal life or death.  The victory remains with Life.  Never forget that when death shows its ugly fangs.  Christ Jesus kicked death in the teeth even as His wounded heel crushed the head of the serpent.  Death’s fangs are now the crudely fashioned dentures of a mortally wounded mongrel.  Death has no more bands to bind you.  For He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.              

Friday, April 14, 2017

Good Friday

Good Friday Tenebrae
April 14, 2017
Text: John 19; LSB 450

            “O sacred Head, now wounded, With grief and shame weighed down” (LSB 450:1).  Beloved, do not look away.  Do not hide your eyes from the awful sight.  Behold, your King, crowned with thorns, surrounded by a court of scornful jesters.  You would not believe it to see it, but this man, naked, bleeding, dying, hanging between two criminals… This man is the Son of God!  What glory, what bliss belongs to Him who is God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.  But now, oh, now… despised and gory, pale with anguish, they heap upon Him sore abuse, the soldiers, the religious leaders, the bystanders, the thieves.  How His face doth languish, He who once was bright as morn, the Morning Star how fair and bright, the Light of the world, the Light no darkness can overcome.  But now grim death with cruel rigor hath robbed Him of His life.  The strong man has plundered the Stronger.  Light has fallen to darkness, life to death.  But…
            What our Lord has suffered is all for sinners’ gain.  It is all for you.  Do not let appearances deceive you.  Understand what is happening here, hidden under grief and sadness.  Death swallows a bitter pill.  Light is swallowing darkness from the inside out.  Life is ripping a hole in the belly of death.  Jesus dies to lead a host of captives out of death and the condemnation of hell.  Jesus dies to lead you through the valley of the shadow and out the other side forgiven, righteous, alive, and free.  His death should have been yours.  The wages of sin is death, and yours is the transgression.  Yours the rebellion, the selfishness, the rejection of God.  But He would not have it.  He would not leave you in separation from Himself.  So He takes your pain upon Himself.  He takes your death upon Himself, your hell, and He does them to the bitter end of Himself on the cross.
            How can we begin to thank Him for all of this?  What language shall we borrow to thank Him who calls us “friends”?  Words fail us.  Our praise is inadequate.  We simply fall before Him and bid Him look on us with favor and grant us His grace.  He is our Shepherd.  We are His own sheep.  He bestows the gifts.  He washes our sins away in pure baptismal waters and heals our wounds.  He feeds us with His Word and with His body and blood.  His Words are truth and love.  By them His Spirit leads us to life and heavenly joy.  “Dear Savior, make me Thine forever,” we pray, “and do not forsake me.  Should some sin or weakness cause me to stumble, do Thou set it aright and stand me up again.  And if not, take me, O Lord, to Thyself in heaven.  Let me never, never, lose the faith to which You’ve brought me.  Let me never, never, outlive my love for Thee.”
            Now, our Lord has won the victory over death by dying.  Death could not hold Him.  We will sing of that very soon.  But remember how this victory was hidden under the grief and death of Good Friday.  Remember how that Friday appeared to be anything but good, how it was, in appearance and external circumstance, very, very bad.  The good is the surprise ending of it all, but don’t forget the good is a surprise that is hidden under the cross and suffering and death.  What our Lord did in His death, flipping everything on its head, turning what is very, very bad into what is very, very good, He will also do in your death.  Death cannot have you.  That is the result of Jesus’ saving work.  You do still have to walk through the valley.  You will still physically die.  But here is what the Lord will do with it.  When you close your eyes in death, you will open them in heaven.  You will not die, but live.  And just as we gather on this Good Friday to await Easter morn, so your eternal Easter will come on the Last Day, when Jesus raises you bodily from the dead, even as He is risen. 

            Death is the last enemy to be defeated.  But you do not go it alone.  Your Savior has gone ahead of you.  He came out the other side alive.  And He is with you now.  So we pray the Savior would be near us when death is at our door.  That He would cheer us with His presence.  That He would not forsake us to the darkness.  That He who suffered the anguish of our death and condemnation would not leave us alone when our own soul and body languish, but would take away our suffering by virtue of His own.  And He will, of course.  He will be your consolation, your shield when you must die.  He will remind you of His Passion, He will hold His cross before your closing eyes, when your last hour draws nigh.  He will tuck Himself into your heart and soul.  He will never leave you.  And knowing that, you can depart in peace and joy.  Look upon your Savior.  Look upon His sacred head, crowned with thorns, His hands and feet pierced for you.  Behold the blood and water that flow from His side.  Behold, the God who died for you.  Behold Him nailed to the cross for your redemption.  And beholding Him, believe and live.  He who dies thus in Christ, dies well.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.          

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Maundy Thursday

Maundy Thursday (A)
April 13, 2017
Text: Matt. 26:17-30; LSB 617

            We must always make a distinction between the way our Lord Jesus wins our salvation, and the way He gives it to us.  Dr. Luther carefully makes the distinction for us in his Against the Heavenly Prophets: “We treat of the forgiveness of sins in two ways.  First, how it is achieved and won.  Second, how it is distributed and given to us.  Christ has achieved it on the cross, it is true.  But he has not distributed or given it on the cross.  He has not won it in the supper or sacrament.  There he has distributed and given it through the Word, as also in the gospel, where it is preached.  He has won it once for all on the cross.  But the distribution takes place continuously, before and after, from the beginning to the end of the world… If now I seek the forgiveness of sins, I do not run to the cross, for I will not find it given there.  Nor must I hold to the suffering of Christ, as Dr. Karlstadt trifles, in knowledge or remembrance, for I will not find it there either.  But I will find in the sacrament or gospel the word which distributes, presents, offers, and gives to me that forgiveness which was won on the cross” (AE 40:213-14).  The point is, you can’t go to the cross when you need forgiveness and life.  We don’t have the cross anymore, and even if we did, it wouldn’t do you any good.  It would be an interesting museum piece, perhaps, but ultimately a useless relic and an object of superstition.  Jesus won our forgiveness on the cross, but He hasn’t attached His Word to the wood in such a way that we are to seek forgiveness there.  Instead, He takes bread and says, “This is my body, given for you.”  And He takes wine and says, “This is my blood, shed for you.  Eat it, drink it, in remembrance of me.”  That is to say, the very body given into death for you on the cross, the very blood shed for you on the cross, is given into your mouth here and now in the Holy Communion.  The Supper makes what happened there and then present for you here and now.
            We sing of this in Luther’s marvelous Communion hymn, “O Lord, We Praise Thee.”  It’s hymn 617 if you want to follow along as we meditate on the hymn verses.  “O Lord, we praise Thee, bless Thee, and adore Thee, In thanksgiving bow before Thee” (v. 1).  Luther paints a picture of the Divine Service for us as we gather around the altar with one another, and with angels, and archangels, and all the company of heaven.  We are singing.  We are praising.  We bless His saving Name.  And of all things, we bow in adoration, and even kneel, before bread and wine, as if this food and drink were God Himself.  Because it is.  It is the true body and blood of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God.  Think about that when you come to the Supper tonight, and each time you come before the altar.  The way you carry yourself, your gestures, your disposition, these are a confession of the bodily presence of Jesus in the Supper.  You wouldn’t bow if it were just bread and wine.  That would be idolatry.  But here the Lord’s own body is under the bread, and His own blood is under the wine, and so you act accordingly.  And what you do says something about what is going on here.  It preaches a sermon to all who witness it.  This is what St. Paul means when he says that as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes (1 Cor. 11:26).
            We give thanks.  Eucharist, another name for the Lord’s Supper, literally means thanksgiving.  We thank God by receiving His gifts.  We thank Jesus by receiving Him into ourselves.  Now, don’t misunderstand.  This does not make the Supper our work.  Why are we so thankful according to the hymn?  Because by His body and blood Jesus feeds and nourishes us so that our weak souls may flourish.  We are beggars, starving and destitute, and here the Lord of heaven and earth bids us feast at His Table!  And the fare is sumptuous indeed, the very body born of the Virgin Mary that carried our sins to the cross, the very blood poured out on Calvary for our forgiveness, now courses through our veins and pleads for us before the throne of God in every trial, fear, and need.  The Father cannot turn His back on the blood of His Son.  Therefore He cannot turn His back on you, for the body and blood of Jesus makes you one with the Savior.
            “Thy holy body into death was given, Life to win for us in heaven,” we sing in v. 2.  “Lord, Thy kindness did so constrain Thee That Thy blood should bless and sustain me.”  Note again how Luther connects what happened there and then on the cross to what happens here and now in the Supper.  The body of Jesus was given into death for us on the cross.  Now it is given to us here for our eternal life and salvation.  The blood of Jesus was shed there on the cross.  Now it is given to us here in the chalice to bless and sustain us.  Our debt is paid in full.  God no longer holds our sins against us.  The proof is in the gift given here, the body and blood of Jesus for our forgiveness, life, and salvation. 
            On the basis of all of this, v. 3 of the hymn is a prayer that closely resembles our post-Communion collect, which was also written by Dr. Luther; namely, that being refreshed through this salutary gift, we would, of God’s mercy, be strengthened in faith toward God and fervent love toward one another.  Faith and love.  Vertical and horizontal.  Helpfully, it makes the sign of the holy cross.  We pray in the hymn that God would bestow on us His grace and favor to follow Christ our Savior: Faith toward God.  And so also we pray that we would live together here in the Church in love and union: Fervent love toward one another.  We pray that by this Supper the Spirit would make us heavenly minded: Faith toward God.  We pray that Jesus would give His Church to see days of peace and unity: Fervent love toward one another.  That for which we pray is bestowed in the Holy Supper.  As we commune with Jesus, receiving His body and blood, so we commune with one another, one body in Christ.  Receiving the body of Christ makes us the body of Christ.  You are what you eat, or in this case, who you eat and drink. 
            And so Luther’s hymn captures the great mystery that is the Holy Supper of Jesus’ body and blood.  Just compare it with the Catechism: “What is the Sacrament of the Altar?  It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink… What is the benefit of this eating and drinking?  These words, ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,’ show us that in the Sacrament forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us through these words… How can bodily eating and drinking do such great things?  Certainly not just eating and drinking do these things, but the words written here: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins’”… Who receives this sacrament worthily?... that person is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words: ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’”[1]  Do you sense a running theme in all of this?  The body and blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of sins.  Is your conscience troubled?  Are you loaded down with guilt?  Do you need Jesus, the real one, the flesh and blood Jesus, the flesh and blood God?  Run to the altar!  You will meet Him there.  And He will give you everything He accomplished at the cross.  He will give you Himself, His body and blood, crucified for you.  He will give you Himself, risen from the dead and living.  What happened there and then is given to you here and now, by the real, tangible Jesus who is here, now.  O Lord, we praise Thee, bless Thee, and adore Thee, in thanksgiving bow before Thee.  For You are here in Your very body and blood.  And as You once gave Yourself for us, now You give Yourself to us: Given and shed for us, for the forgiveness of sins.  Praise be to Thee, O Christ.  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).  

Monday, April 10, 2017

Palm Sunday/ Sunday of the Passion

Palm Sunday/ Sunday of the Passion (A)
April 9, 2017
Text: Matt. 26:1-27:66

            Today marks the beginning of Holy Week, a sacred time for Christians to ponder deeply the sufferings and death of our Lord Jesus Christ for us poor sinners.  We call it His Passion, a word that literally means suffering.  And this is the day when we hear the whole account in one sitting, or standing as the case may be.  It could be you felt your first twinge of impatience when you opened the bulletin and saw the nearly 6 pages of Gospel lesson awaiting you.  Yes, the service will go a little long this morning, so be prepared.  You may spend ten extra minutes in the pew today.  Gasp!  You don’t have anything better to do.  There is nothing more important than this.  God has given you the gift of time for this very purpose.  Repent.  And listen.  The Lord is speaking.  To you.  And His Word to you is unimaginably good.  Because here He tells you how He took your place under God’s wrath and the curse of sin.  Everything you hear Him endure in the Passion narrative rightly should have been endured by youYou should have been accused, arrested, and tried for capital crimes.  You should have been mocked, beaten, scourged.  You should have shouldered your own cross to the place of a skull, been nailed to it, and lifted up for hours upon hours in the darkness of God’s forsakenness.  You should have suffered hell.  You should have died.  But you won’t.  Not you.  No, you’ll live.  You live now, and you possess the very Kingdom of heaven, because He did all of this in your place.  Not because anybody forced Him.  It was the Father’s will, but the Father didn’t force Him.  Pilate, the Jewish authorities, and the Roman soldiers had no authority to do it, and could not have done it against His will.  No, no.  He did this willingly.  Because He loves you.  He loves you with amazing, self-giving love, love that only comes from God.  It is unknown among mere men.  That’s what St. Paul writes, “one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:7-8; ESV; emphasis added).  While we were still sinners.  While there was nothing good in us.  When we didn’t even want it.  While we were the perpetrators of it, nailing Him to the cross by our sin, marching happily into hell, He did this for us, for you and for me, to make us His own and give us eternal salvation.  Frankly, I don’t know how, after hearing this Holy Gospel, we can contain our alleluias.  At the very least we ought to be able to stifle our yawns, still our shifting feet, and sing a hearty Hosanna in the Highest.  For this Holy Gospel makes all the difference between eternal life and eternal death.
            I know, it’s a war within us, though, a war between the Old Man, the sinful flesh, and the New Creation in Christ Jesus.  “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41).  The Old Man can’t stand to hear this stuff.  The Old Man will sit for hours in front of the television for March Madness, but before a Word of the Gospel is read, he’s ready to bail.  But beloved, that’s not who you are anymore.  The Old Man in you has been drowned in Holy Baptism, and you crucify him daily in repentance.  Christ Jesus, who was crucified for you and is now risen from the dead, raises you to new life, as a New Creation in Himself.  And as a New Creation in Christ Jesus, you love to hear again the Passion of our Lord.  You rejoice to hear of your forgiveness and salvation in Christ, and to receive it fresh and new and ever more abundantly in the hearing of Christ’s Word and the Supper of His Body and Blood.  So let me let you in on a little secret.  That impatience you may have felt when you realized this is the Sunday with the two exceptionally long chapters of Gospel reading is a dead giveaway that this war between the Old Man and the New Creation is being waged full-throttle within your heart, mind, body, and soul.  The issue isn’t your impatience with a long Scripture reading at all.  That’s just a symptom.  The issue is the struggle between faith and doubt, the daily death of the Old Man and the daily emerging and arising of the New in Christ.  Holy Week, with its longer readings and extra services, has this way of bringing the struggle into focus.  Because the Old Man chafes every time he has to hear, yet again, about Christ crucified for your sins.  He hates it.  Well… Kill him.  Crucify him.  Repent.  Return to your Baptism.  Take this bulletin home and treasure it all week long.  Read the readings again.  And again.  And again.  And when you start getting tired of them, read them again.  Because that means it’s working.  Old Adam is dying.  And Jesus is breathing the Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, into you.
            Let me tell you something, guys.  I know a thing or two about this struggle, only I know about it from the other side of the pulpit.  All the services.  All the sermons.  All about the exact same thing.  And what good does it do?  Does anybody really listen?  Does it really help anybody?  Does it change anyone?  Or is it all for not?  Notice, though, that in every single one of those questions, I’m looking at me, I’m looking at you, and in so doing, I’m not looking at Christ crucified.  These are lies of the devil designed to take my eyes off of Jesus.  My eyes are not on the Good Shepherd with His pierced hands and feet and side, who speaks and we hear His voice and we know Him and we follow Him.  And if my eyes aren’t on Him, your eyes won’t be pointed toward Him in the preaching of the cross.
            This is why we need Passion Sunday.  This is why we need Holy Week.  To set our eyes on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb. 12:2).  We need to hear the Passion narrative like we need oxygen and water to live.  We heard it from St. Matthew’s perspective this morning.  We’ll hear it from St. John on Friday.  And we’ll hear a lot of Scripture in between, and in the Easter Feast, all of which will focus us on Christ crucified for our sins, Christ raised for our justification.  A couple years back, Pope Francis handed out pocket sized copies of the Gospels to a crowd of thousands in St. Peter’s square.  He said that Christians should keep the Gospel with them at all times, and read it daily.  Though I vehemently disagree with the Pontiff about many things, I’m totally with him on this one.  Because the Gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).  So, in answer to my questions of struggle and despair, that’s the good it does.  It saves you from hell.  It delivers to you the death and resurrection of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins and eternal life.  And that’s a pretty big change, if you ask me, from death to life, from Old Man to New Creation, from sinner to blessed saint and child of God.  Does anybody listen?  I guess that’s not really up to me.  It’s up to God.  But there is something you can rejoice in, beloved.  The Spirit didn’t bring you here today for nothing.  You may resist it.  You may wish you hadn’t set your alarm clock this morning, conveniently missing the extra-long Sunday.  Perhaps you allowed your mind to wander during the Holy Gospel.  Maybe it’s wandering right now.  But the Spirit is knocking this living Word of Jesus into your ears and mind and heart and soul in spite of you.  Because He promised His Word never returns to Him empty, without accomplishing what He desires (Is. 55:11).  That’s not an excuse to not pay attention, by the way.  That’s the Old Man, after all, who must be crucified.  It’s simply a testimony to the grace of God that He pours out on you in His Word, which you cannot achieve by your own reason or strength.  The Holy Spirit does it in the Word.  He brings you to faith in your crucified Savior.  And He keeps you in that faith through the precious means of grace here in the Church.

            And what a beautiful thing the Lord speaks to you here today.  His body is anointed for burial before the fact by a grateful and devoted woman.  He is sold-out by one of His closest disciples.  He gives His Church the Sacrament of His Body and Blood for our forgiveness.  He promises that when His disciples fall away, even if they deny Him, He will raise them up.  He is sorrowful unto death in the garden, and His disciples cannot stay awake to watch with Him even one hour.  Apparently even seeing the Gospel take place firsthand is enough to make you sleepy.  Our Lord prays that the cup of suffering may be taken from Him, but if it is the only way to save us, He’ll do it.  Not as I will, but as you will, dear Father.  And so it must be.  Judas arrives with an armed crowd and betrays Jesus with a kiss.  Still, Jesus calls him “Friend” (Matt. 26:50).  He is arrested and tried before the Sanhedrin.  Peter denies Him three times and weeps bitter tears.  The Jews hand our Savior over to Pilate and the Romans.  The crowd, whipped up by the chief priests, demands blood.  “Let him be crucified… His blood be on us and on our children!” (27:22, 25).  Unwittingly, they proclaim this very Gospel.  That is precisely what will happen.  The murderer, Barabbas, and you and I, go free.  Jesus is scourged and handed over to be crucified.  He is nailed to the wood and lifted up that His blood be on us and on our children, to cleanse us from our sins.  He is reviled by pious and criminal alike, enshrouded in heavenly darkness, forsaken by God, for you and for me.  An eternity of hell packed into 6 miserable hours.  For you.  And having accomplished all, He cried out with a loud voice and yielded up His spirit.  The consequences were literally earthshaking.  The curtain of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom, the rocks split, the graves flew open and the bodies of many saints popped out, risen and alive.  And you… you were restored to the Father.  I guess that’s worth a few extra minutes of your time, right?  Rejoice, dear Christian.  Christ has made you His own.  And listen.  In the Holy Gospel, the Lord is bespeaking you righteous.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Lenten Midweek V

Lenten Midweek V
April 5, 2017
“Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice: In Trouble He Will Comfort You”[1]
Text: John 16:1-33; LSB 556:9-10

            “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33; ESV).  It’s a promise.  It’s a fact.  Jesus tells you ahead of time, so it will not take you by surprise.  This is simply the reality for Christians in a world hostile to Christ.  Martin Luther writes, the “holy Christian people are externally recognized by the holy possession of the sacred cross.  They must endure every kind of misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh (as the Lord’s Prayer indicates) by inward sadness, timidity, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, and weakness, in order to become like their head, Christ.  And the only reason they must suffer is that they steadfastly adhere to Christ and God’s word, enduring this for the sake of Christ” (AE 41:164-65).  So you have our Lord’s Word for it: In this life there will be suffering, trouble, tribulation.  The disciple is not above his Master.  The members of the body suffer with the Head.  “Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God” (v. 2).  Think Islamic terrorism.  Think secularist persecution.  Think liberal Christianity which has sold its soul to gain the world’s favor. 
            Yet, the Lord does not leave us to suffer on our own.  He promises that as He completes His saving work on our behalf, His death, His resurrection, His ascension into heaven… He will send the Helper, the Holy Spirit.  Again, the translation “Helper” only gets at one aspect of the Greek word here, “Paraclete.”  It is sometimes translated “comforter,” “counselor,” or “advocate.”  In truth, it is all of the above and so much more.  The Paraclete is One you call to your side in the time of trouble.  And what will He do for you in that trouble?  He will guide you into all the truth (v. 13).  He will declare to you the things of Jesus (v. 14).  He will always preach Jesus.  He will always preach Christ crucified.  He will apply Christ crucified to you in every situation.  He will do so through the Word and the Holy Sacraments.  Luther writes, “Here Christ makes the Holy Spirit a Preacher.  He does so to prevent one from gaping toward heaven in search of Him, as the fluttering spirits and enthusiasts do, and from divorcing Him from the oral Word of the ministry.  One should know and learn that He will be in and with the Word, and that it will guide us into all truth, in order that we may believe it, use it as a weapon, be preserved by it against all the lies and deceptions of the devil, and prevail in all trials and temptations…. The Holy Spirit wants this truth which He is to impress into our hearts to be so firmly fixed that reason and all one’s own thoughts and feelings are relegated to the background.  He wants us to adhere solely to the Word and to regard it as the only truth.  And through this Word alone He governs the Christian Church to the end” (AE 24:362). 
            The Word!  The Word!  The Word!  That is where you are to flee in the day of tribulation.  Because there the Spirit is, the Paraclete, with His help and comfort and counsel, guiding you into all truth, and declaring to you the things of Jesus.  By the Spirit, in the Word, Jesus Himself comes to you, speaks to you, feeds you.  When you need God, you find Him in the Word.  There He has attached Himself, so that you always know where He is for you.  In every trouble, you need the Word of the living God, in which the Spirit works, bringing you Jesus and His salvation, reconciling you to the Father. 
            Oh, it is powerful, this Word.  It always does what it says.  God said, “Let there be…” and there was.  By His Word, God created the heavens and the earth, and by His Word, He sustains them.  By His Word, God sent plagues upon Egypt, so that Pharaoh let His people go.  By His Word, God dried up the Red Sea so that His people crossed on dry ground.  God’s Word never returns to Him empty.  It always accomplishes that for which He sends it (Is. 55:11).  Like a hammer to a rock, it breaks the stony hearts of sinners in pieces, and creates in them new hearts, clean hearts, hearts of faith in Christ.  By God’s Word, Holy Baptism is not plain water, but the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word so that it washes away your sins and makes you God’s own child.  By God’s Word, your sins are forgiven.  By God’s Word, you have new life.  By God’s Word, bread and wine are the very body and blood of Jesus, given into  your mouth for the forgiveness of your sins, eternal life, and salvation.  “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).  The Word of God kills you and makes you alive.  The Word of God saves you.
            Now this Word is the Word of Jesus, who is the incarnate Word of the Father.  The Spirit has been called “the shy Person of the Holy Trinity,” because He doesn’t talk much about Himself.  He is always pointing us to Jesus, who reconciles us to the Father.  This is a very Trinitarian action.  The Spirit is the Preacher of Jesus who makes us children of Our Father who art in heaven.  As the Spirit works in the Word, He brings us Jesus, who reveals His Father to us as our Father.  And this is why you need the Word in every time of trouble.  Because by the Word, the Spirit applies Jesus to you very specifically for your very specific troubles, as one who has been redeemed by the death and resurrection of Christ and is therefore a child of God.  Are you having troubles at work?  Look to the Scriptures and see how Jesus faithfully bore suffering and tribulation and injustice, doing the will of the Father and bearing it all in love for His persecutors.  Has your marriage encountered challenges?  Look to the Scriptures and see how Jesus loved His holy Bride, the Church, and gave Himself up for her… to death!... that He might cleanse her and present her spotless to Himself.  Are you afflicted with depression or illness?  Look to the Scriptures and see how Jesus sweat drops of blood in the Garden, commending Himself to the Father’s will and trusting that, despite all appearances, that will is good.  Are you dying?  You are.  Look to the Scriptures and see how Jesus’ death for your sins takes the teeth out of your own death; how, as one who has died with Christ and been raised with Him in Baptism, you will never really die.  You will be with Jesus in Paradise, and He will raise you from the dead. 
            There is nothing in this fallen creation, nothing your enemies, the devil, the world, your own sinful flesh, can throw at you that can separate you from the love of God in Christ (Rom. 8:38-39).  The Word of God says so, and the Word is powerful to make it so.  What Jesus has done, what He has taught, guide all your life and teaching.  In this way, His Kingdom’s work is wrought, and honored in the preaching (LSB 556:10).  His Kingdom comes.  His will is done on earth as it is in heaven.  The Word!  The Word!  The Word!  The Spirit, the Paraclete, comes in the Word.  And the Word is Christ crucified, Christ risen from the dead, for you.  Dear Christians, one and all, rejoice!  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.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Fifth Sunday in Lent (A)
April 2, 2017
Text: John 11:1-53

            “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:26; ESV).  We will see death’s ultimate defeat two weeks from today, on Easter Sunday, in our Lord’s victorious resurrection from the dead.  Today we get a foretaste of that victory, as Jesus is on the cusp of His suffering and death for our sins.  Death is as real as your sagging flesh, your wrinkling skin, your failing eyes, your aches and pains.  Grim reminders are these that from the womb of your mother you are spiritually dead and physically dying.  It is the great tragedy of humanity.  Death was never meant to be.  Mankind was made for life and unending fellowship with God and with one another.  Already this is broken in the beginning, in the Garden, with the first mouthful of forbidden fruit.  In the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.  Not just you, Adam and Eve, but all of us, your children.  The wages of sin is death.  No one gets out alive.  Except Jesus, and those who cling to Jesus.  And as our Lord shows us, the only way out of death is through it.
            Death is always tragic.  We do our best to dress it up so it doesn’t look so bad.  Funeral homes do amazing things with the bodies of our loved ones, and we stand around the casket and lie to one another about how peaceful our dearly departed appears.  But we know better.  Death is a slap in the face of all we are created to be, and no amount of mortuary makeup can cover it up.  That’s why even Christians cry at funerals.  Sure, we know that those who die in Christ are in heaven with Him, which is far better.  Sure, we know Jesus is coming again to raise the dead on the Last Day.  But death is sad.  Jesus, with full knowledge of what He was about to do, came to the tomb of Lazarus and wept (John 11:35).  Why does He weep?  Because He loves Lazarus, who lays rotting in the tomb.  Because He loves Mary and Martha, who weep bitter tears and cry out to Him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (vv. 21, 32).  Because death is the epitome of all that has gone wrong in creation as a result of the fall.  “See how he loved him!” (v. 36).  See how He loves you and all humanity.  These are real tears, the tears of God, the tears of God who is a man, for you.  They are the tears of a man who is God who is determined to undo death by diving into its belly.
            The great surprise in all of this is how Jesus uses death against itself.  It doesn’t appear that way at first.  After Jesus hears His friend is ill, because He loves Martha and her sister and Lazarus, He stays where He is two more days (v. 6).  He doesn’t come to the rescue.  He lets the worst happen.  It’s the strangest thing.  But He says it’s “for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (v. 4).  Great comfort, Jesus.  Thanks.  I’m glad it all worked out so well for you.  What is He doing?  Well, for one, we know He is setting the stage for doing a great sign that will show us who He is and what He’s come to do, a sign that will be a great comfort to us our whole life long and in the face of death.  He comes to raise Lazarus.  Lazarus has to be dead to be raised.  And so that there is no doubt, He waits until Lazarus has been in the grave four days.  When Jesus commands the stone be rolled away, Martha objects that by this time there will be a great odor.  The King James says, “Lord… he stinketh” (v. 39).  His flesh is rotting.  This is a vital component to the miracle.  Everybody has to smell it, for the glory of God, so they know this death is real.  And then what?  Jesus cries out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out” (v. 43).  And “The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth.  Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’” (v. 44).  Jesus unbinds Lazarus from death.  He has come to do the same for you.  God is glorified as sinners are released from sin’s wages, as the breath of life, the Holy Spirit, gives new life to dry bones (Ez. 37).  This is what it means when Jesus says, “I am,” YHWH, “the resurrection and the life” (v. 25).  Jesus has all the authority of God, because He is God, to loose from death and give life. 
            But there is more.  Not only is God to be glorified by Lazarus’ death, but the Son of God, Jesus, is to be glorified through it.  Not just by the adulation resulting from the miracle.  In fact, that’s really not it at all.  What happens among the chief priests and Pharisees as a result of Lazarus’ resurrection?  They conspire to kill Him!  Caiaphas, being high priest that year, prophesies: “it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish” (v. 51), and “not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (v. 52), which is to say, you.  The raising of Lazarus gets Jesus killed.  But the true glory of Jesus is His death on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins and to give you eternal life.  Jesus has authority to lay down His life and to take it up again (John 10:18).  It is paradoxical.  It is incomprehensible.  Jesus is glorified in the humiliation of death.  Jesus defeats death by submitting to it.  And on the Third Day He bursts a hole right through death’s belly.
            Now what Jesus did for Lazarus physically, He does for you spiritually.  He raises you from spiritual death, which would be eternal death in hell were it not for our Lord’s saving work.  He sends preachers to call to you in the darkness of death, “Sinner, come out!”  And you, who were dead in your trespasses and sins, come into the light and life of Jesus Christ.  Now, when you come out of this darkness, you stinketh, the stench of sin.  So it is very important what Jesus commands His servants, His preachers, to do for you next.  They are to unbind you and let you go.  That is to say, they are to pronounce Holy Absolution, forgive your sins, unbind you from your transgressions and throw those transgressions into the tomb of Christ, and let you go, let you depart in peace.  In this earthly life, in this time between our Lord’s calling you out of death by Baptism and preaching, this unbinding is a daily thing.  Daily you sin.  Daily you return to your Baptism in repentance.  And as often as possible, you come to the Church to confess your sins and be absolved, not because you are dead again, but because your sins stink to high heaven.  Here Jesus applies His death and resurrection to your sins so that they are removed from you as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103), that they never trouble you again, that the perfume of Christ’s righteousness cover you, a pleasing aroma to the LORD your God.
            But there is more.  What Jesus did for Lazarus physically, He will do for you, physically, on the Last Day.  And when He does it for you, it will be even better than Lazarus’ resurrection.  Lazarus was only a type, a foreshadowing of our Lord’s resurrection and our resurrection in Christ.  But Lazarus had to die again.  His was only temporary.  On the Last Day, Jesus will raise you and Lazarus and Mary and Martha and all the dead, and give eternal life to you and all believers in Christ.  In a new heavens and a new earth.  No more pain.  No more sorrow.  No more sickness, or grieving, or death.  Only the eternal joy of our Lord.  On that Day, Jesus will call your name, as He called to Lazarus.  And you will come out, and you will be unbound forever, never to stink again, never to die again.  This isn’t pie in the sky, feel good theology, like the lies we tell ourselves around the casket of a loved one.  This is true.  This is real.  Your bodily resurrection is as real as our Lord’s empty tomb on Easter morn.  He is risen.  You will rise.
            And now a remarkable thing happens at the Christian funeral.  Oh, there is weeping and there is sadness.  But there is so much more.  When Christians gather for a funeral, of all the things one might do in the face of death, we sing!  Not gloomy dirges, either, but songs of hope and joy, of resurrection and life.  Death and the devil sulk and seethe with rage as we rejoice!  And we laugh!  You’ve been to the after parties we call the Church funeral luncheon.  There is not a lot of gloom.  Amidst the very best of food, made with love by the matriarchs of the congregation, there is laughter and joy.  We tell our stories about our loved one and we catch up with family and friends we almost never see, and we smile and we laugh (and we cry) and we love.  And it’s like we’re dancing on death’s grave.  We are.  Because Christ is risen.  He died.  And He defeated death.  And He doesn’t leave us in the grave.  He calls us out.  He unbinds us.  He has the authority over death and the grave.  He is the resurrection and the life.  And so whoever believes in Him, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Him shall never die (John 11:25-26).  Not really.  When you die, you who believe in Christ, you go on living in heaven with Jesus.  And on the Last Day, you rise.  How can you call that death?

            The last enemy to be defeated is death.  But he is already mortally wounded.  The final and everlasting Easter is coming soon.  The time is short.  Rejoice, beloved.  Laugh and sing, even through your tears.  Jesus gets the last Word.  His Word is life.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.