Lenten Midweek V
“Death to Resurrection: The Wilderness to the Promised Land”
March 21, 2018
Text: Josh. 3; Matt. 3:13, 4:1-2
Our sin and unbelief has exiled us from God and His Kingdom. The question is, how do we get back? How do we get back to our home with God in the Promised Land? Through the water, of course.
Israel had sinned against the LORD. (I know, what’s new, right?) But this sin was an act of unbelief so grievous that it cost a whole generation the Promised Land. Remember the spies Moses sent to scout out the Land and bring back some of its produce (Ex. 13)? Twelve men, a man from each tribe, and when they came back, not only did they show the people the huge, juicy grapes, pomegranates, and figs and describe the place as a land flowing with milk and honey… They also scared the people and discouraged them with reports of strong, fierce warriors and impregnable fortifications. “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are” (v. 31; ESV). As though the Israelites were to win battles by their own might. As though the LORD had not promised that He Himself would fight for them and win the victory. Of the twelve, only Caleb and Joshua confessed their faith in YHWH and encouraged the people to go forth boldly, in the Name of the LORD. Guess who the people believed? It wasn’t Caleb and Joshua. The LORD was justly angry. The ten unfaithful spies dropped dead from a plague. Of the rest of the nation, God swore, “none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness… shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers… not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun” (vv. 22-23, 30). Israel was forced to go back out into the wilderness, the place of death, the place of emptiness, hunger, and thirst, the place, it was said, of the demons and their prince. They had been on the cusp of the Promised Land. They were about to enter it from the south, no bodies of water in their way. But now, the wandering and the waiting… the waiting to die in the dessert.
Now there is a new generation. The old has passed away. The children of wilderness wandering are poised to enter the Land from the east. And to do so, they must cross the Jordan River. Ah, the Jordan River. Baptism. This is where our Old Testament reading picks up (Josh. 3:1-6). You have to understand what is happening here. This is nothing less than a death and resurrection… of Israel. One generation has died in the wilderness. A new generation has been raised up to enter the Promised Land through the water. There is even this peculiar phrase, “At the end of three days…” (v. 2; emphasis added). Isn’t that just like God, to leave us a verbal marker to understand the theology of what He is doing? The third day, the day of resurrection! Our Lord rose from the dead on the Third Day. Now, at the end of three days… There will now be a resurrection of God’s people! They are to consecrate themselves, for God is about to do wonders. He Himself will lead them through the water. He Himself will lead them into the Land. The priests carrying the Ark of the Covenant, the seat of God Almighty, the throne of YHWH, the dwelling place of the LORD with His people, shall pass before them, and the people shall follow. And what happens? As soon as the priests’ feet touch the water, the River stops flowing. One side of the river stands up in a heap and the water is cut off. The people cross over on dry ground. It is a repeat of the Red Sea miracle for this new generation. Joshua is established in the office of Moses. The people pass through the water and set foot in the Land of Canaan. God ha fulfilled His Promise. A Land flowing with milk and honey. Forty years after the tragedy of the spies, the children of Israel are home.
Baptism. Death and resurrection. It’s all right there for us to read in the history of God’s people. Remarkable. Israel passes through the water from the place of sin and death and Satan to the place of life and peace promised by our God. But now consider this: Jesus makes this journey in reverse. He goes through the water out into the emptiness. He comes from Israel to be baptized by John in the Jordan. And then the Spirit leads Him out into the wilderness to do battle with the devil. What is going on here?
Jesus is baptized into our sin and our death, our condemnation. He is baptized into Israel. He is baptized into us. He takes our sin upon Himself. He bears it. He becomes the Sinner. And He carries it out into the wilderness. He carries it to the devil. He is fulfilling the role of the scapegoat. That’s a word everybody uses, but very few realize it’s right out of the Bible. The scapegoat was one of two goats set before the LORD on the Day of Atonement. Lots were cast over the goats, one for death, and one for Azazel, which is to say, Satan (Lev. 16:8). The goat chosen for death would be sacrificed as a sin offering. But the scapegoat, the one for Azazel… The priest was to lay his hands on the goat’s head and confess the sins of the people, and send it bearing the people’s sin out into the wilderness, to the place of Azazel. That is what our Lord Jesus does. He bears our sin into the wilderness. He bears our sin into death, the death of the cross. And it is no longer ours to bear. The Lord has taken it away forever. He has returned it to Satan, to be cast into hell forever.
And now there is you. As you are born into this world, in this flesh, you are born into the wilderness, the place of death, the place of emptiness, hunger, and thirst, the place of the demons and their prince, the devil. Your father, Adam’s sin has put you here. And your sin has confirmed it. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. You are his child. And what can you do? You’ve been exiled here in this wilderness. How do you get back? How do you get back to your home with God in the Promised Land, His Kingdom, His heaven? Through the water, of course.
Your parents bring you to the font, or, if you’re older, your mother, the Church, brings you to the font. Now, understand, just as there is really only one altar in all of Christianity, for there is only one Jesus who gives Himself there in His body and blood, so there is only one font. In the sacraments, we step out of time and space into eternity. So there you are with Israel and John the Baptist and Jesus at the Jordan, and with all Christians of all times and places. And just as the priests’ feet touch the water as they bear the ark of God, and now YHWH is in the water, so Jesus is in the water of the font. That’s what He says. Through the Apostle Paul, He tells us, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27). More than that, you’ve died and been raised with Him, for His death and resurrection are in the water. Again, St. Paul: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4). So there is Christ in the water, and there you are with Him in the water, and there is the Spirit descending upon you, and there is the voice of the Father, declaring you God’s own child, His own son, with whom He is well pleased. For your sins and death and condemnation are washed away. Jesus has soaked them up in His own Baptism and borne them to the wilderness and put them to death in His body. There is nothing left in you for God to judge but Jesus and His righteousness. And what does that mean for you?
The path is open. The Promised Land lies ahead. By His death and resurrection for you, your Lord Jesus Christ has led you out of your exile. He went out that you may come in. And through the water, you enter the Kingdom, the Church, heaven. Now, in this earthly life, you are living in the already/not yet, the great paradox of baptismal life. You are in the water. You are living in your Baptism. You’re in the great in-between. You have one foot in the wilderness, and one in the Promised Land. As a result, you walk in danger all the way. There are temptations to return to the perceived safety of the slavery you know out there. But it’s a lie. And you know that. So you stay in the water. Because that is where Jesus is. And He is leading you out. He is leading you to His home, to the place of life and fullness and peace and joy.
And it is nothing less than a death and resurrection: Christ’s for you, yours in Him. You were dead in your trespasses and sins. But you are baptized into Christ. In Him, you live. So, beloved, take up your cross and follow Him through the water, through Good Friday, to the eternal Easter Day. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 The theme and structure of this sermon are from Jeffery Pulse, Return from Exile: A Lenten Journey (St. Louis: Concordia, 2017).
Palm Sunday/ Sunday of the Passion (B)
March 25, 2018
Text: Mark 14 & 15
“And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked” (Mark 14:51-52; ESV). The young man is not named. Mark does this on purpose. It is a literary device employed to pique our curiosity. Who is this young man? Why does he appear here, of all places? The Holy Spirit is not so careless an Author as to weave meaningless details into His Composition. This is here for a reason. Many have surmised (and I include myself among them) that the young man is none other than St. Mark, John Mark, the human author of our Gospel. That could well be the case. It would not be unusual for an author to write himself into the narrative, especially if this is Mark’s way of confessing that he, too, denied his Lord, ran away from Jesus when the going got tough. It is fun to speculate, but we can’t say for sure, because Mark leaves the man unnamed. Because he has an even more important point to make. The young man who runs away, the young man who is already dressed immodestly but now has to run away naked and totally exposed, the young man who abandons Jesus in His hour of suffering is not only John Mark, not only some random figure in the wrong place at the wrong time. You are that young man. And so are the apostles. And so are Adam and Eve. So are all their children. This is humanity’s story. This is your story.
Note that the scene takes place in a garden. God in the flesh, Jesus, is walking with His people, His disciples, sons of Adam all. But in the time of trial, mortal men once again fail and fall. In the face of temptation, rather than hold fast to the Word of the Lord, the disciples determine for themselves what is good and what is evil. It is good to flee, they think, and leave Jesus to suffer His own fate at the hands of cruel men. It would be evil to be caught and to die with him, they think; to take up their own cross and follow Jesus. So as the serpent strikes the Shepherd’s heel, the sheep are scattered (cf. v. 27). They all realize they are naked, vulnerable, exposed, so they hide. Undoubtedly they make excuses. Undoubtedly they turn on one another. They are fallen men. “You will all fall away,” Jesus had prophesied (v. 27). Now His Words come back to haunt them. Every one of them had boasted they would never leave Jesus in the lurch, that even if they must die with Him, they would never deny their Lord (v. 31). Their track record would suggest otherwise.
They already show their hand, making a big fuss when the woman anoints our Lord with expensive ointment at the house of Simon the leper (v. 3). “There were some who said to themselves indignantly, ‘Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor’” (vv. 4-5). The woman’s extravagant gift is a fruit of faith. She anoints the Savior’s Body in preparation for His burial. The reaction of those at the table is neither a fruit of faith, nor the fruit of any real concern for the poor. It is stinginess dressed up with piety. The Church has suffered from this sin from time immemorial. Repent. In any case, this is the last straw for Judas. When the money isn’t handled as he sees fit, he leaves, and from that point on he seeks an opportunity to betray Jesus. He will be there in the upper room to ask with the others, “Is it I?” (v. 19), and to dip his bread into the dish with Jesus (v. 20). But he is there under false pretenses. He bellies up to the Communion Table, but he eats and drinks judgment on himself. For he does not discern the Body of Christ. He does not eat and drink in faith. He is a hypocrite in the true sense of the word. Woe to Judas. “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (v. 21).
Judas, of course, is the most egregious example of a disciple who falls away from Jesus. But how do the rest fare? After boasting of their faithfulness, Peter, James, and John cannot watch with their Lord for even one hour (v. 37). They fall asleep when their Friend needs them most. “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (v. 38). It is true for all of the disciples. Judas comes with the soldiers and every one of them scatters: “And they all left him and fled” (v. 50). Look closely. There is that young man running away naked. There is his linen cloth, lying on the ground.
It doesn’t get any better at Jesus’ trial. Peter follows at a safe distance, but as our Lord is falsely accused, mocked, beaten, and spat upon, Peter doesn’t speak up for Him. Instead, Peter is in the courtyard denying Him three times. Just as Jesus said He would. Peter is not so willing to die with Jesus after all. The rooster crows twice, calling Peter to repentance. Peter breaks down and weeps bitter tears (v. 72).
And the hits keep on coming. The Sanhedrin, the spiritual leaders of Israel, hand Messiah over to the Roman government to be killed. The crowd of pilgrims in Jerusalem for the Passover sacrifice call out for blood: “Crucify him… Crucify him” (15:13-14). Pilate denies Jesus justice for the sake of his own convenience. Barabbas (literally “Son of the Father”), an insurrectionist, a robber and a murderer, goes free. Jesus is scourged and delivered up to be crucified. The soldiers worship Him in mockery, beat Him, abuse Him, then strip Him and lead Him out to the Holy Hill to be crucified. They nail Him to the cross and lift Him up between two robbers. They gamble over His clothes. The chief priests and scribes and those passing by deride Him. The very sun in the sky hides its face for three hours. Our Lord is utterly alone, abandoned by His friends, the Church, the State. And what of His Father? Where is the Father? His back is turned on His beloved Son. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (v. 34). Even the Father has left Him to suffer on His own. That is hell. He suffers it because of your sin. And Peter’s. And that of the Twelve. Even Judas. Even Pilate, the Sanhedrin, the robbers, Barabbas, Mother Theresa, and Hitler. It all hangs there on the wood in the flesh of the Son of God. This is the payment. This is the sacrifice of atonement. Jesus is the Passover Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. He is the perfect Mediator between God and man, because He is God and Man, by His death reconciling God and man in the forgiveness of sins. Of all people, the centurion in charge of the execution is the first to get it. As Jesus utters a loud cry and breathes His last (v. 37), the centurion confesses what the disciples should have known all along: “Truly this man was the Son of God” (v. 39).
And where are you in all of this? You are there in the griping and complaining, in the hypocrisy and betrayal. You are there in the boasting of your faithfulness and the failure as you flee. You also have denied your Lord when the going gets hard. You also have neglected justice for the sake of convenience. You also have betrayed Him and pierced His sacred flesh with every sin, every breaking of every commandment, every lustful thought, every wandering glance, every juicy bit of gossip or sweet boast that passes over your lips. You talk a big Christian talk, but when it comes right down to it, you can’t watch with Him one hour either. You need your sleep. And you certainly don’t want to take up your cross and die with Him. I know you don’t want to hear it, but you are just like your parents. You just can’t bear the temptation. Instead of clinging to the Word of the Lord, you listen to the serpent. You are convinced you can determine your own good and evil, and you reach for the fruit that is forbidden. Hear the rooster’s early morning sermon: Repent. But know this. Even as you are the young man fleeing naked, your sin exposed for all to see, you are in the naked Man lifted up on the cross, your sin exposed for God’s wrath to be spent on it in His flesh. That you be saved.
You have denied Him, but He has not denied you. You have forsaken Him, but He has not forsaken you. There is great comfort in confessing yourself to be the naked young man. The linen cloth is all the young man has with which to clothe himself. It is immodest and insufficient. It is his own version of Eden’s fig leaves. But in the arrest, suffering, and death of Jesus, the young man and you are stripped of your linen cloths, your fig leaves, the sin you parade before God and others as if it were righteousness. You are stripped of it, that Jesus may be wrapped in it and buried in it. “And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb” (v. 46). You see, Jesus does all of that to death. He takes it to the grave with Him. That He might clothe you in something better. In the Garden of Eden, God sheds the blood of animals to clothe Adam and Eve in their skins. At Golgotha, God sheds the blood of His beloved Son to clothe you with Jesus. And you are no longer naked. By your Baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection, you are given the robe that is Christ Himself. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27). And so you don’t need to run away and hide anymore. You already died with Christ. And Easter is coming. No matter what happens to you in the days to come, there is one thing that is certain. In the end, your grave will be as empty as His. He cannot leave you in death. You are clothed with Him. You walk around in His skin. Where He is, you are. Weep your bitter tears this Holy Week for all your sin and all that Jesus has suffered for your forgiveness. But so also, lift up your head and rejoice. All of this has come to pass that you may be God’s own child, fully fed and fully clothed. God has written it in the flesh of Jesus: You are loved. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.