Saturday, April 28, 2018

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Fourth Sunday of Easter (B)
Good Shepherd Sunday
April 22, 2018
Text: John 10:11-18
He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!
            The Good Shepherd loves His sheep.  Each and every one of them.  He will do anything to keep them as His own.  Like King David, He will fight the lions and the bears with His bare hands.  He will face down robbers and wolves.  He will leave the 99 to seek and to save the lost one.  He will go any distance, through any weather, any terrain, scale any mountain, descend into any ravine, risking life and limb for His precious lamb.  He will bind his wounds.  He will lead his sheep to green pastures and quiet waters and provide His sheep safety and rest.  The Good Shepherd gives His life for His sheep.  A hired hand will not do this.  Sure, he’d rather keep the sheep alive and healthy and with the flock if he can.  That’s how he makes his money.  But he will not risk his life, and he certainly won’t give his life into death for the mangy little animals.  He can always get another job, and there are plenty of other sheep.  The hired hand watches over the sheep for a living, but he does not love the sheep.
            The Lord is our Good Shepherd.  Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep.  You are the sheep.  Jesus lays down His life for you.  That is how He loves you.  By dying for you, for the forgiveness of your sins, that you might not die, but live.  He knows you by name, He says.  I know my own and my own know me” (John 10:14; ESV).  Jesus doesn’t just care for the flock in general.  He cares for you individually.  He knows you intimately.  In fact, He knows you better than you know yourself.  And this is important.  He knows your sins.  All of them.  He knows your deep, dark secrets, the ones you keep buried in your mind and heart.  He knows your rebellious nature, how prone you are to wander, how you get yourself into all sorts of mess and mischief, munching on poisonous weeds (the things that are not good for you and poison your faith), bumbling right into the jaws of the predator (the old wiley foe, the devil).  He knows about all of this, and it is precisely from this that He rescues you.  He snatches you out of the clutches of the demonic dog, warning you of the dangers by the preaching of the Law and turning you from sin to Himself in repentance and faith by the preaching of the Gospel.  He purges the filth and washes it away in the precious bath of Baptism, anoints your wounds with the medicinal oil of His Spirit in His Word, and binds your injuries in Holy Absolution.  And He sets a Table for you, right here in the Church, in the presence of your enemies (the devil, the world, and your own sinful nature).  Your cup runneth over, the Chalice, the Cup of salvation.
            Of course, the Good Shepherd always wants more sheep in His flock.  That’s what He says in our text: “I have other sheep that are not of this fold.  I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice” (v. 16).  In its original context, our Lord is talking about the Gentiles who will come to faith in Him.  That’s most of us, all of us who are not Jewish, and so this is very good news for us this morning.  The Good Shepherd wants us, too.  The Gentiles who believe in the Lord Jesus are added to the Jews who believe in the Lord Jesus, and thus there is one holy Christian Church, “one flock, one shepherd,” and Jesus is that Shepherd.  We tend to use this as a mission text, and that is absolutely right.  Jesus isn’t done adding Gentiles, or Jews, for that matter, to His flock.  He still has other sheep, and He preserves the world for the sake of bringing those sheep into His fold.
There are a couple of things we should take into account about this text, though, if we’re going to use it as a mission text.  The first thing is, it is not the case that Jesus wants more sheep for His sheep fold because the bigger the numbers, the better.  Jesus isn’t interested in a massive flock of sheep for its own sake.  And this is first of all a point of Law for us, because the Church too often gets this wrong.  We need to do missions and evangelism, which is absolutely true, but what we too often mean by that is that we need more members to preserve the congregation (as if it isn’t really Jesus who preserves His congregation!  The arrogance of us sinners!).  We too often mean that we need more people in the pew to put more dollars in the plate so we can keep going, and it doesn’t hurt to inflate the congregational statistics, either.  Of course, we’d never say these crass things out loud (well, I guess I would…), but that’s the truth of the matter.  Beloved, we must guard against this sin of lovelessness and looking for salvation in our own mission efforts and bigger numbers.  Especially as a mission congregation, where the future is always a little uncertain.  Remember, this is God’s congregation, Jesus’ flock, and He’ll do what He wants to do with it.  It’s up to Him to preserve it, and it’s up to Him to grow it.  He’s the Savior.  We’re not.  We are given to be faithful and to proclaim the Word of God in this place and love people, body and soul.  Jesus, remember, is concerned with the individual sheep.  You.  Your neighbor.  Actual people.  Individuals.  Jesus wants them for Himself.  Jesus wants you for Himself.  Our district president is fond of saying, “God counts by ones.”  He’s got that one right.
The second thing is, Jesus is very clear in our text that He will be the One doing the bringing of the sheep into the flock.  “I must bring them.”  Did you get that?  Jesus, not you, will do the bringing.  Oh, He’ll use you in the doing of it.  You will confess Christ.  We call it evangelism, the speaking of the Gospel.  The best way to do it is simply to invite people to Church.  Use the postcards we have in the narthex.  Or just ask, face to face.  I’m not talking about knocking on the doors of total strangers, although you can do that if you want.  I’m talking about individuals that you know and love, or people with whom you have these kinds of conversations.  It’s never wrong to say, “Hey, we’d love to have you at our Church sometime.  Come visit us.  I’ll send you a postcard with all the information.”  That’s very easy to do.  And, of course, the person may say “No thanks.”  That’s not all that painful, is it?  What it is is a very important indication that you need to be praying for that person.  Then again, the person may show up!  And if so, praise the Lord.  Because here’s the point.  You have no responsibility to bring a sheep into the sheepfold, which is to say, make a believer out of an unbeliever, make a member of this congregation.  That’s not your job.  Jesus is the One who does that, as He says in our text.  He may do it through you.  That’s a glorious privilege when that happens.  He may do it through someone else.  But He’s the One who does it, so there’s no pressure on you.  I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating, the pastors and synodical bureaucrats who guilt everybody for not loving the lost enough and doing enough evangelism need to knock it off.  They’re trying to make saviors out of us all.  It’s not right.  Jesus is the Savior.  He brings the sheep into the fold.  And He tells us here how He does it.  They listen to my voice.”  He does it by the Word.  Not by gimmicks.  Not by “changing the way we do church,” pandering to the world, letting unbelievers set our agenda and dictate what we should do and how we should do it.  No, that’s making us and our brilliant and oh-so-cutting-edge ideas the saviors again.  Jesus gathers the sheep to Himself in His Word.  He does it in preaching.  He does it when you tell your co-worker about Jesus.  He does it when parents bring their child to the font of Baptism and raise that child in the faith, bringing that child Sunday after Sunday to the Divine Service and Sunday School, making them do their Catechism homework (Catechism students, your parents are loving you when they make you repeat your memory work!).  The Spirit blows in on the vehicle of the Divine Word.  He’s in the preaching and the Scripture readings and in the visible manifestation of the Word in Baptism and Supper, doing His Holy Spirit thing, bringing the dead to life, creating faith where faith is not, out of nothing, and strengthening faith where He has already planted it, causing it to thrive.  And He does this on an individual basis, to every individual sheep gathered here with the flock in the sheepfold, which is the Holy Christian Church.  So here’s what we do as the Church: Preach, preach, preach.  And hear and believe the preaching.  The results are up to God.  He knows what He is doing.  Relax, and let Him drive.  Do you hear what He is saying in His Word?  That Word is for you.  Believe it.  Trust it.  Cling to it.  And know that that Word is for your neighbor, the very neighbor you love and wish would believe in Jesus and join the Church.  Jesus wishes that, too.  It’s up to Jesus to do it.  Invite that person here, to hear the preaching and come under the care of the Good Shepherd.
For the Good Shepherd loves that person.  The Good Shepherd loves you.  And He loves you to the utmost, to the ultimate self-sacrifice.  He loves you to hell and back (print that one on a t-shirt!).  He loves you to the laying down of His life on the cross for your forgiveness, and the taking up again of that life in His resurrection, that you be raised from the dead and be His own forever and live with Him in His Kingdom.  For this reason the Father loves Him, because He does all of this willingly, for you.  The Father sent Him to do this very thing.  Because the Father loves you.  And this is the Father’s House.  And these, your brothers and sisters, are Jesus’ sheep.  And He loves each and every one of you, despite what He knows about you, which is all forgiven in His blood.  And the Spirit goes out on the wind of the Word and enters your ear and mind and heart and takes possession of you whole.  Every evil spirit is cast out.  Here you are in the Good Shepherd’s fold.  Your every want has been provided.  The pastures are green.  The waters are still.  The rod and staff comfort you.  The Shepherd leads you through death and out the other side alive, risen, and free.  And here is the Table.  The altar is the Table.  Your enemies cannot harm you here.  Eat and drink and rejoice.  You will dwell in this House forever.  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 17, 2018

Third Sunday of Easter

Third Sunday of Easter (B)
April 15, 2018
Text: Luke 24:36-49

He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia! 
            Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” (Luke 24:38; ESV).  As we learned last week, the disciples are locked away that first Easter evening for fear of the Jews.  This is Luke’s version of the account we heard from John’s Gospel last week.  As the disciples are discussing the strange events and rumors of encounters with the risen Jesus, they are troubled and afraid.  What do we do now?  We gave our lives to this man who has been crucified.  Now we have to start over.  If we can.  The authorities may be coming for us next!  We’ll have to lay low for now.  And what about all of this resurrection talk?  It is all very unsettling.  And if it’s true?  Will Jesus forgive us for denying Him?  For deserting Him?
            And suddenly, there Jesus is among them.  And it shouldn’t surprise us.  As we said last week, the reality is, the risen Jesus is always among His people, in their very midst, bodily, yet in a hidden way.  When your pastor says to you, “The Lord be with you,” I really mean it.  Not just spiritually.  Really.  Bodily.  Jesus is with you.  And you say, “And with your spirit,” and you really mean it.  The Lord is with the spirit of your pastor as He declares to you the whole counsel of God, that your sins are forgiven, that the crucified Lord Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and you therefore have eternal life.  It’s not just a pious wish when you tell me the Lord is with my spirit.  It’s the truth of the matter.  You impart it as you speak it, because it is not your word, but God’s Word, that does what it says.  As surely as He was there in the midst of His disciples, He is here, in our midst.  He is with you.  He is with my spirit.  And as with His disciples in the locked room, so it is with us.  He is among us and He speaks into reality the one thing they and we need to hear, “Peace to you!” (v. 36).  It is a Holy Absolution for all our sins and failures, for all our fears and our doubts. 
            Now the disciples, far from feeling the reality of peace that has just been spoken, are even more scared!  Well, I suppose you would be, too, if someone you knew to be dead suddenly showed up in the middle of the room.  They think it’s a ghost!  “Why are you troubled,” Jesus asks.  “Why do you doubt?”  It’s a rhetorical question.  “How can you doubt?  How can anything trouble you now that I am risen from the dead?”  The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ changes everything.  If Christ is risen, that means death is at an end.  If death is at an end, that means sin has been abolished, wiped out, done to death in Jesus’ death.  If sin is abolished, that means God has nothing against you.  He does not condemn you.  He loves you.  He is for you.  And if that is so, why are you troubled?  What could possibly trouble you?  Why do you doubt? 
            What is it that troubles you?  What is it that causes you to doubt?  There are any number of things.  You are worried and troubled about your temporal welfare.  Will I have enough to get by?  You worry for your children.  Will they succeed in life?  Will they make good choices?  Will they be safe?  Will they know the Lord?  You worry for your parents as they age.  Will I be able to care for them as they become more dependent?  You are troubled by the things that are happening at your job.  The troubles of your friends trouble you.  The events on the world stage trouble you.  And you worry whether our leaders know what they are doing, or if they even care.  The situation of the Church troubles you.  Especially in a mission congregation (mission congregations are always fragile creatures), and a Synod that has its share of conflicts.  Your loved ones get sick, and that troubles you.  They die, and you grieve.  You get sick.  Trouble.  You will die.  And until you do, more troubling, perhaps, is living in this constant danger.  The devil wants to have you.  He can’t, but it won’t stop him from trying.  And the point is this: Your troubles and doubts are real.  It is not the case that the Gospel makes them any less real.  It is rather the case that the Gospel, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, transforms them from death to life.  What is behind every one of the things that trouble you, ultimately, is the fear of death and God’s judgment for your sin.  There you have it, I just saved you a ton of money on counseling.  That’s your problem.  You know that your very existence is fragile and outside of your control.  And you know that you are a sinner, deserving of death and eternal damnation.  But you see, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead changes all of that.  Christ has died.  You are no longer in your sins.  He shed His precious blood to cover them and wash them away forever.  And He is risen from the dead.  Death has been defeated.  It cannot have you.  Our Lord’s resurrection is the great Absolution for all your sins.  It is your justification, your righteousness, your life.  For in raising His Son, the Father has declared His sacrifice for your sin sufficient, accepted, complete.  God declares you His own, His beloved.  He gives you life.  He will raise you from the dead on the Last Day.  Bodily.  And in the meantime, He will not fail you.  He is with you.  He is with you in His Word and Baptism and Supper.  He is with you in the resurrected flesh of His Son, Jesus Christ.  So why are you troubled?  Why do you doubt?  Jesus’ presence with you, with His wounds, with His peace, is the answer for all that ails you.
            Doubt is a sin.  You must know that.  Your troubles are real, and they are hard.  No one is denying that.  But the doubt and anxiety that come as a result of them is sinful.  Repent.  It is a paradox, isn’t it, the life of faith?  I believe; help my unbelief.  I trust, but I worry.  Jesus appears in the room with His disciples, and when they are finally convinced that it is Him, in the flesh, eating fish, touchable, very much not a ghost, Luke tells us the disciples disbelieved for joy (v. 41).  Disbelieved.  For joy.  That’s a paradox if I’ve ever heard one.  I love that phrase.  Because that’s me.  And that’s you.  We know it’s true.  Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.  For me.  For you.  We believe it, beyond a shadow of a doubt.  Except that we still have doubts.  God help us.  He does.  But what’s the matter with us?  We too often live as if Easter never happened.  As if death really does have some claim on us.  As if the devil, the world, and our sinful nature still have a claim on us.  What do we do with that?  Where do we turn in the struggle? 
            Peace,” Jesus says.  That wipes it all out, because that is the forgiveness of sins.  And then He gives us three gifts to sustain us in the struggle.  First, He points us to the Scriptures.  The Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.  It’s all about Him.  It’s all fulfilled in Him.  And He opens our minds to understand that, to read the Scriptures with the eyes of faith in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus.  Second, He gives the preaching of His death and resurrection for repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  This Gospel is to be proclaimed!  This is preaching broadly speaking.  It includes the sermon, of course, but it is every way this Gospel is made known.  It is Baptism and Absolution, the public reading of the Scriptures and their explication in the Divine Service and in Bible Study.  It is the Supper of Jesus’ body and blood.  It is the liturgy, the prayers, the hymns.  Don’t think of those things as filler to keep you entertained in between the boring parts where the pastor talks.  All of those things preach.  They give you Jesus and His death and resurrection for your forgiveness.  This is where so many congregations get messed up in their liturgy and hymns, because they think of these things as unimportant, a mere add-on to the preaching to be utilized according to the whims of the people, whatever the people want.  That’s not it.  Everything we do between the prelude and the postlude and in Bible Study and Sunday School is part of the preaching.  And, of course, there is the witness you take with you out into the world.  You confess Christ.  You speak of Him and His Word to your family, to your friends and co-workers, to your neighbors.  Third, He gives His Spirit.  And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you” (v. 49).  We will see how He gives His Spirit in His fullness on Pentecost, and we will see it in a very special way on that day as five of our children confess the faith in the Rite of Confirmation and receive their First Communion.  What a beautiful day that will be.  I can hardly wait.  But our Lord gives His Spirit, the promise of His Father, to us in every encounter with the Scriptures and with the Preaching.  And that is the beautiful thing.  These gifts are really one.  They are of a piece.  The Spirit comes in the Preaching of the Scriptures, to give us repentance and forgiveness of sins by the Preaching of the Word that imparts Christ, who restores us to the Father by His death and resurrection.  It’s beautiful.  It’s Trinitarian.  It’s Law and Gospel.  It’s cross and empty tomb; death and resurrection.  It’s Means of Grace.  It’s all wrapped up in that little Word Jesus speaks when He appears in our midst: “Peace.”  He says it.  You have it.  His Word creates the very reality.
            So why are you troubled?  The Lord is asking you.  Why do you doubt?  It’s silly.  Stop it.  Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.  What more do you need?  He is with you.  He forgives you.  He loves you.  He provides for you.  And He gives you eternal life.  That puts everything else in perspective, doesn’t it?  All those things that trouble you?  In fact, the resurrection of Jesus Christ changes everything.  Now your troubles can’t hurt you.  Not really.  They all come to their end in Jesus Christ, your Savior.  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 6, 2018

The Resurrection of Our Lord: Easter Vigil and Easter Day

The Vigil of Easter
“The Pit to the Pit: The Pit of Lions to the Tomb”[1]
March 31, 2018
Text: Dan. 6:1-24; Mark 16:1-8

His is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!
            Who will roll away the stone?  Jesus had descended into the pit of death as surely as Daniel had been cast into what was believed to be certain death in the pit of lions.  The Hebrew word translated as “den” in our reading from Daniel is better translated as “pit.”  And over both pits, the pit of the tomb, the pit of lions, a great stone was rolled and sealed by the government authorities, Pontius Pilate, King Darius.  That is what the State thinks of Christ and His Christians, so we might as well get used to it.  Notice that even after Daniel knows about the King’s edict, which cannot be changed according to the laws of the Medes and Persians, that no one is to make prayer or petition to any god except King Darius, still Daniel opens the windows toward Jerusalem and makes no secret of it.  Three times a day, he prays and gives thanks to his God as he had done previously.  Times of persecution call for bold confession.  Daniel is confessing the one true God.  It’s like he’s begging to be caught.  It was a dream come true for his persecutors, his colleagues and subordinates in the college of satraps, who, in their jealousy, are out to get this Jew!
            To the lions with Daniel!  To the cross with Jesus!  To death with you!  Cast into the pit.  And by now it should not surprise us that our Sunday School teachers missed something big when they taught us about Daniel and the Lions’ Den.  Well, maybe your Sunday School teachers didn’t miss it…  Maybe mine didn’t either, and I just wasn’t paying attention.  But this beloved account of Daniel about which we all learned as children and did color pages and crafts on, really isn’t about Daniel’s heroic faith at all.  Nor is it about you making your heroic stand for Jesus, as much as we pray you and I will do just that if the moment comes.  No, it’s about Jesus.  The whole thing is about Jesus.  The pit.  The stone.  The certain death… And then the miracle at the crack of dawn.
            Down into the pit.  Up and out in the morning.  Death and resurrection.  This is all about Christ!  And to make it all even more beautiful, how is Daniel saved from the mouth of the lions?  God sends His Angel.  There is the Angel of the LORD!  It’s Jesus!  It’s just what King Darius had wished for as he sealed Daniel in the pit: “May your God, whom you serve continually, deliver you!” (Dan. 6:16; ESV).  (Now, we shouldn’t quibble, perhaps, but let the record show that in this the King violated his own law, which cannot be changed according to the law of the Medes and Persians… He makes a petition to a God other than himself, yet no one tries to throw him in the lions’ den.  The typical government double standard!)  It’s not just a wish, it’s a prophecy!  The God whom Daniel serves continually shows up!  The Son, the pre-incarnate Christ is on the scene, shutting the mouths of the lions so that no harm comes to Daniel.  (Your Sunday School teacher may have told you this was just some angel, but I think we know better than that.)  Now, it’s not that the lions aren’t hungry.  We’ll find out in the morning just how hungry they are.  The satraps don’t even make it to the bottom of the pit before their bones are shattered and the ravenous cats gobble them up.  But for Daniel, the Lord of heaven and earth shuts their mouths.  The lions recognize what everyone else but Daniel misses.  Jesus is their God.  He who would come in the flesh to descend into the pit of death and the tomb for Daniel and for us all, and come out triumphantly, alive, bodily on the Third Day, has the power of life and death.  With Jesus on the scene, Daniel lives.  No matter what the King, the State, or the devil himself may have to say. 
            Daniel gives all glory to God for his deliverance.  When, at the break of dawn, King Darius rushes to the tomb to learn Daniel’s fate, what does Daniel say?  My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths, and they have not harmed me” (v. 22).  God did it.  Jesus did it.  All glory be to God and His Christ!  And this divine deliverance is God’s own testimony to Daniel’s innocence.  Note that very carefully: Deliverance from death is a declaration of innocence!  Righteousness, even! 
            This is important, because Daniel in the pit of lions is a type of Jesus in the pit of death.  A pit that cannot hold Him!  Make no mistake, Jesus was truly dead when He was buried.  The spear evoking water and blood is proof of that.  The crucified Lord Jesus lays down His sweet head in the sepulcher.  No crying or sound of breath He makes.  He is as dead as dead can be, having completed the sacrifice for your sins and mine and the sins of the world on the cross.  But at the crack of dawn… The women rush to the tomb with spices to anoint His body.  The first Altar Guild arrives early Sunday morning to care for the body of Christ.  That’s no joke.  That is the holy work our Altar Guild does.  It comes from this text.  But who will roll away the stone?  Who will open the sealed pit? 
            The women need not have worried.  Jesus is not in the grave, as if it could keep Him.  The stone is rolled away to reveal it.  He is not here.  He is risen, as He said!  The angels (this time they’re really just angels… Just angels!  Listen to how we talk in the face of the Easter miracle!)… The angels are there to preach the first Easter sermon, to announce the Good News.  Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!  And what do we know about deliverance from death?  It is God’s own declaration of innocence, of righteousness.  Jesus is the righteous One!  Of course, we know that.  We knew it all along, that He was innocent.  So did the Jews.  So did Pilate.  Everyone knew, just like everyone knew Daniel was innocent and righteous.  But we killed Jesus anyway!  In the end, though, it is only God’s verdict that matters.  And the resurrection is that verdict.  Jesus is innocent.  Jesus is righteous. 
            But more than that… Jesus gives us His righteousness!  That is justification.  God declares us righteous for Jesus sake.  And that is the Good News of Easter.  In raising His Son from the dead, the Father declares that He has accepted Jesus’ saving work, His payment for our sin.  In declaring Jesus righteous, justified, God declares us righteous, justified.
            And here is the kicker of it all.  If you are innocent, righteous before God, justified (and you are, in Christ, sins forgiven, His righteousness given to you as a gift, received by faith)… God will raise you from the dead!  Bodily.  On the Last Day, the risen Lord Jesus will come visibly and call you out of the pit.  Daniel is a type of the resurrection of Christ.  Daniel is a type of your own resurrection.  Our text from Daniel isn’t just about being faithful in the face of lions, as important as that may be.  It is the Promise that the Angel of the LORD, our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ will meet you in the pit, and death cannot have you, indeed, death cannot harm you.  He will bring you out, alive, at the crack of dawn, at the sound of the trumpet of God.  And the angels (the just plain angels) will be there, with all the saints.  Risen bodies, glorified bodies, new heavens, new earth, forever with Christ.  The Dawn is coming.  The Daystar is rising.  Jesus rolls away the stone.  He brings us up from the pit.  Sin and death, the devil and hell are thrown to the lions in our place.  We belong to Jesus.  And He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  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 Jeffery Pulse, Return from Exile: A Lenten Journey (St. Louis: Concordia, 2017).

The Resurrection of Our Lord
“Welcome Home!”[1]
April 1, 2018
Text: Mark 16:1-8

His is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!
            But the women thought He was dead.  Of course, He was dead the last time they saw Him, when Joseph and Nicodemus wrapped Him and placed Him in the tomb.  The women saw His crucifixion.  They saw His lifeless body.  They saw His blood.  They saw the linens and the spices and the tomb.  But there hadn’t been time before the Sabbath to do it all, so here comes the Altar Guild, bright and early Sunday morning, the Marys, Salome, maybe several others, to finish the job, to care for the Lord’s body, to treat it properly, as something sacred, to honor it as it should be.  But their expectation was a sealed tomb and a dead corpse.  Not an empty tomb, stone rolled away, and an angel announcing that Jesus is not dead!  He’s not in the grave!  He is risen, just as He said!
            Easter blows away our expectations.  In this world, there are two things that are certain: death and taxes.  Well, tax day is coming up quick, so you better get going on that.  And death, well, that could happen to us at any moment, much as we may try to deny it.  It will get us all in the end.  Or so goes the conventional wisdom.  There is one thing we know, though, beyond a shadow of a doubt: The dead stay dead.  Dead men don’t rise.  Nature takes its course.  Corpses rot and become fodder for worms and fertilizer for plants.  The circle of life.  In the end, the only plot of land you own for keeps is six feet under.  The grave is your home. 
            Jesus breaks all the rules!  By order of the State, His tomb is sealed.  No one is to get in, and no one is to get out!  Armed guards are there to make sure of it.  But that is not what the women find when they arrive with the spices.  They are worried along the way about who will roll the stone away.  Will the soldiers even let us in?  But when they arrive, the grave is wide open.  The angel preaches Good News, the first Easter sermon: “Do not be alarmed.  You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has risen; he is not here.  Se the place where they laid Him” (Mark 16:6; ESV).  Then the command.  Go tell the disciples and Peter.  (Incidentally, Peter is singled for a very important reason.  He had denied his Lord.  The angel wants Peter to make no mistake.  This Good News is for him, too, and for every sinner who has ever denied Jesus by sins of thought, word, and deed.  So this is Good News for you, too, beloved.  The Lord Jesus, who died for you, for the forgiveness of your sins, is risen for you, and lives for you, that you may have eternal life.)  In any case, the women bear a marvelous privilege.  They are the first to hear the Easter message, and they are given to go and tell the Good News to the Apostles, who are the first called and ordained Christian preachers.  There is something beautiful, here, that merits further exploration sometime. I think of my mother, who taught me the faith at her knees, and now here I am proclaiming to you the risen Lord Christ as a called and ordained servant of the Word.  But I digress.
            We live in this life as though ruled by death.  Think about this.  We live for all practical purposes as if there is only one life to live, and this is it, and then we die.  So our eyes are focused on the things of this world.  We have to have all the experiences now.  We have to have all the stuff now.  We have to stake our claim to glory now, experience pleasure now, in the flesh, be rich and powerful now.  And then we die and the grave is our forever home.  That is certainly how the unbelieving world lives.  More and more that is the direction of our culture and society.  But it is also how Old Adam would have us live.  Materialism.  Everything can be explained by natural phenomena.  No need for God.  Eat, drink, and be merry now, because this is all you get.  Nothing came before.  Nothing comes after.  What a hopeless existence.  This is the philosophy that gave rise to Hitler and the Nazis and the Holocaust.  This is the philosophy behind Communism and nearly every form of statism and tyranny.  We call it totalitarianism, because the State becomes god and makes its claim to you totally.  Evolution is the apologetic for this materialism, the creation myth of secularist or statist religion.  Evolution depends on death, the death of the unfit, and its end is death and meaninglessness, non-existence.  This is the theology behind abortion.  This is the theology behind so-called euthanasia and assisted suicide.  This is why we divorce sexuality from procreation and do our utmost to make marriage meaningless.  Because all of life is meaningless.  It all ends in the tomb.  The end of all of this, beloved, is hopelessness.  Despair.  Along with greed and exploitation to get as much as you can, while you can, at the expense of everybody else.  Which is just what the devil wants.  The end of all of this is hell.  And of course, it is all one big demonic lie.
            Don’t listen to it.  Don’t follow the world.  Don’t follow Old Adam.  Don’t follow the devil.  Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and that is precisely the opposite of materialism!  The one true God, the Creator of all that is, has defeated death.  There is something that comes before.  He does!  He is eternal.  And there is something that comes after.  The judgment.  And for those who are in Christ, eternal life and the resurrection of the body!  And that gives meaning to everything.  Life matters.  It has value.  It is sacred.  How you live matters.  Loving and serving your neighbor.  Living faithfully with your spouse, or in chastity if you’re single.  Marriage as God designed it, man and woman, father and mother raising their child in the faith of Christ.  Promoting the welfare of others, not yourself.  Speaking up for the defenseless, the lives of the unborn, the elderly, the terminally ill.  Sacrificing your own resources to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give shelter to the homeless, and most of all, care for those in your family and your Church and your community.  There is only one thing that gives all of this meaning, and it is not to do good works so that you can make yourself right with God.  Nor is it as a cog in the wheel of the state, in service to the collective.  No, it is this.  Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.  Death is not the end.  The grave is not your home.  God is your God.  Christ has made you right with Him by His sin-atoning death and triumphant resurrection.  This is not all there is.  There is more.  So much more.  Infinitely more.  Stop living for this world.  Repent of that.  Kill that.  Live in Jesus.  He is your life and your salvation.  Keep your eyes on Him, for He is risen from the dead, and He will raise you. 
            Jesus breaks us out of our slavery to death and the grave.  By His resurrection, He has opened a highway out of death, and He leads a host of captives in His train.  He has prepared a new home for you, with Him, a home of resurrection… bodily resurrection… and life forevermore.  This is the new reality of Easter.  Life.  Life is the end, or perhaps we should say, the beginning and eternal continuation.  Life with Christ.  Life in Christ.  And now, where Christ is, that is our home.  He is our home!
            And this isn’t just some ambiguous future reality, sometime, someday.  It is now!  Understand this.  This is why you are here this morning.  This is why we come together here, in this place, gathered around pulpit, font, and altar.  Heaven breaks in here.  The risen Lord Jesus is here.  He is speaking to you now in His Word, breathing the breath of life, the Spirit into you.  And He is here in His crucified and risen body and blood to feed it to you and nourish you and give you life in the Supper.  This is heaven on earth.  This is your home.  This is where angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, the blessed saints who have gone before, meet us and sing with us.  Around Jesus.  Around the Lamb on the altar.  For the Feast.  When you eat Jesus’ body and drink His blood, that is heaven.  And it is risen body and risen blood that now becomes one with you and courses through your veins.  It is the body and blood of God in communion with you.  And it unites you to your neighbor at the altar.  One body we are, the Church, the body of Christ, made so by the body that we eat and the cup we drink.  Oh, that is life.  That is real life.  That is life full of meaning, full of Christ.  And nothing else matters.  Not really.  Everything that belongs to this world of death is coming to an end.  Finally, only one thing matters, and everything hinges on that one thing, and that one thing is this: He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  And He will raise 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 Jeffery Pulse, Return from Exile: A Lenten Journey (St. Louis: Concordia, 2017).

Maundy Thursday/ Good Friday

Maundy Thursday (B)
“Meal to Meal: The Passover to the Lord’s Supper”[1]
March 29, 2018
Text: Ex. 12:1-13; Mark 14:12-26

            Unleavened bread, the better to eat in haste.  Bitter herbs, the bitter suffering of the people.  Wine, the promise of joy.  The lamb, the sacrifice.  The blood of the lamb is painted with a hyssop branch on the doorposts and lintels of the Israelite dwellings.  Seeing the blood, the angel of death passes over.  Those dwellings not marked by the blood, the homes of the Egyptians, suffer the last and most terrible of the plagues: The death of the firstborn.  No home is spared but those painted red.  From the lowest of slaves to the household of Pharaoh, man and beast alike, the firstborn dies.  For death is the judgment.  The wages of sin is death.  To be separated from God by unbelief is to be dead.  Death, temporal and eternal enters the dwellings of the Egyptians.  But to be in a house marked by the blood of the lamb is to live.  And this is the night Israel will be freed from her bondage.  This is the night Egypt will send Israel out in haste.  “Take our silver!  Take our gold!  Take our clothing!  Just get out!”  “Keep the Feast,” the LORD commands, “with your belt fastened, sandals on your feet, your staff in hand, ready to depart in haste.  You are but a stranger here in exile.  I am bringing you out and bringing you home.”  The bread, the wine, the bitter herbs, the lamb.  It is the LORD’s Passover, to be observed by all generations as a statute forever, that in this way, God’s people of all times participate in His great salvation.
            So it is that our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night in which He was betrayed, celebrates the Passover with His disciples in the upper room.  There is the bread and the bitter herbs.  There is the wine, the cup of blessing.  But this night is different than all the Passovers that have come before.  On this night, Jesus takes the bread, breaks it, gives it to His disciples, and says of it, “this is my body” (Mark 14:22; ESV).  And in the same way, He takes the cup, the wine, gives thanks, and gives it to His disciples, saying of it, “This is my blood of the [New Testament], which is poured out for many” (v. 23).  We must not fail to understand what Jesus is saying here.  He is the Lamb.  He is the Lamb we are to consume to participate in the LORD’s great salvation.  Have you noticed none of the Gospel writers talk about a lamb being on the table when our Lord celebrates the Passover with His disciples?  Jesus is the Lamb.  We are to eat Him.  He is the Host of the Feast, and the Feast itself.  We eat Him by eating the bread.  It is His body, because He says it is.  Faith does not ask how.  It is enough that Jesus says it, and so we believe it.  We drink His blood by drinking the wine.  It is His blood because He says it is.  Faith does not cast doubt on the Word of the Lord or His ability to deliver.  It is enough that Jesus says it, and so we believe it.  And we receive it. 
            Now, it is Jesus who gives it.  We do not offer the body and blood of Christ to God as some sort of bloodless sacrifice.  It is not our gift to God, it is God’s gift to us.  It is His work, not ours, not some ordinance we must perform in order to check it off the list of must-dos.  And by this gift, He forgives our sins, strengthens our faith, and grants us His Holy Spirit.  Indeed, all the benefits of His cross and death and resurrection are given us in the Supper.  Because that’s what He says.  Again, the power in all of this is His Word.  It isn’t the pastor or the priest.  Although it is certainly true that not just anybody should officiate at the Lord’s Supper, for God has given us the pastoral office for that, nonetheless, the power doesn’t reside in the pastor.  It resides in Jesus.  It is Jesus who first said these words, the Words of Institution, to the disciples on the night in which He was betrayed.  And it is still Jesus who says these words as often as we eat it and drink it in remembrance of Him. 
            Remembrance of Him, ah, how those words are misunderstood and abused.  Here to remember doesn’t mean simply to call the thing to mind, like “Oh, that’s right!  I forgot!  Jesus died for my sins!”   No, remembrance in the Scriptures is what the yearly Passover meal was all about.  That is, by this meal, given and instituted by God Himself, the people were to participate in the great salvation of the Exodus.  And they didn’t just say, “Oh, this Passover Seder represents that great salvation.”  No, they believed that in partaking of the Seder they actually participated with their fathers in the Passover and Exodus from Egypt.  And it is no accident that they thought that way.  That is the theology of the thing.  And so it is the theology of the fulfillment of the Passover, the Lord’s Supper, wherein we eat our Paschal Lamb, Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. 
            Yes, we really mean it.  The bread is Jesus’ body.  Because He says so.  It is the very body born of the Virgin Mary, given into death on the cross, and raised from the dead on Easter.   The wine is Jesus’ blood.  Because He says so.  It is the very blood poured out from His sacred veins as the thorns sunk into His brow, the nails pierced His hands and His feet, the spear His side.  In fact, both Baptism and the Supper pour from His side, the water giving birth to Christ’s holy Bride, the Church, the blood nourishing her.  Now, this is supernatural.  That doesn’t make it any less literal.  You literally eat and drink Jesus’ body and blood.  But this is beyond the normal course of nature.  Supernatural simply means “above nature.”  That is to say, it’s a miracle!  So if you steal some of the consecrated bread and wine this evening (don’t get any ideas!) and you sneak over to one of the labs at the University of Idaho and put the elements under the microscope, no, you’re not going to find little bits of First Century, Middle Eastern male DNA mixed in.  This isn’t cannibalism (as the early Christians were charged by the Romans).  We don’t say, “Look, I got a piece of His little finger,” or “I’m gnawing on a foot.”  We don’t eat pieces of Jesus, but we get the whole Jesus in the Sacrament.  And it’s not as though we run out of Him because we ate Him all up.  That would only happen in a natural eating.  The real, bodily presence of Jesus in the Sacrament is not a natural presence, it is a supernatural, miraculous, but nonetheless very real, bodily presence.  The bread does not cease to be bread, but it is His body.  The wine does not cease to be wine, but it is His blood.  We don’t use philosophical terms like transubstantiation or consubstantiation (thank you, Aristotle) to explain the how of it all.  We just stick with Jesus’ simple words.  For that is always safe and right, to stick with Jesus’ simple words.  “This is my body.  This is my blood.  Do this in remembrance of me.  That is, participate in my great salvation.  Receive the benefits of my cross and death and resurrection.  For these, my body and blood, which I give to you here in the Sacrament, are given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins, for your life, and eternal salvation.”
            Beloved, you are Israel, and this is the night of release from your bondage to sin and death.  Christ Jesus is our true Passover Lamb.  We eat Him in the Supper.  By the bitterness of His suffering and death, the bitterness of our suffering and death is taken away.  Our sins are forgiven.  And here we are in the House marked by the blood of the Lamb, the holy Christian Church.  And we eat the bread and drink the wine, and it is Christ we consume, because that’s what He promises.  The Bread of Life.  The Wine of Gladness.  Jesus, the Sacrifice of our redemption.  The Lord has set the Table before us.  Let us eat and drink and rejoice.  For death passes over.  In Him, we live.  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 Jeffery Pulse, Return from Exile: A Lenten Journey (St. Louis: Concordia, 2017).

Good Friday
“Sin-Bearer to Sin-Bearer: The Day of Atonement to THE Atonement”[1]
March 30, 2018
Text: Is. 52:13-53:12; John 19

            What do you do with sin?  What do you do with the thing that kills you and separates you eternally from your God?  It must be atoned for by blood and it must be sent away.  That is what the Day of Atonement is all about.  Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, was an Old Testament day of repentance and sacrifice for sin.  Sin separates sinners from our holy God.  If God is to dwell with His people Israel, something must be done about their sin, lest His holiness lash out against them and kill them.  You have to understand something about holiness: It is serious business, and it is incompatible with sin.  Like magnets of the same polarity, they repel one another, only the repellence is deadly to the sinner.  That is why you cannot see God and live.  But here God desires to dwell with His people Israel, in the Tabernacle and the Temple, on the mercy seat between the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant.  And if that is to happen, something must be done about the people’s sin.  Atonement must be made.  There must be blood.  And the sin must be sent away, outside the camp, into the wilderness, back to its father, the devil.  Furthermore, God must do it.  God must provide the way.  For His Old Testament people, there is the Day of Atonement.  And among the sacrifices to be made on that day, there are the two goats.  We talked about this in a previous meditation.  Lots are cast for the goats, one for death, and one for Azazel, which is to say, Satan.  One goat is slaughtered and sacrificed on the altar as atonement for sin.  The priest confesses the sins of the people over the head of the second goat and sends it out into the wilderness, to Azazel, to Satan.  This one is the scapegoat.  It bears the sins of the people and takes them away. 
            Our Lord Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of both of these goats.  Jesus, our High Priest, is the fulfillment of the Day of Atonement.  He both makes the offering, and He is the offering.  And He alone is the sacrifice that can make atonement for our sins.  He is the propitiation, a word that refers to the mercy seat on the Ark.  That seat was covered with the blood of sacrifice, so that blood came between God and the Ten Commandments that were stored inside the Ark.  The blood comes between God and the Law you have transgressed.  It makes atonement.  Well, we know the blood of bulls and goats cannot actually atone for sin.  The blood of Jesus Christ, however, the Lamb of God and God’s only-begotten Son, cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7).  He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (2:2; ESV).  So He is the sacrifice offered unto death.  He sheds His holy, precious blood on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins.  That is what we commemorate this night, this Good Friday: The death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, for you and for the world.  We remember His holy injuries: His sacred Head now wounded, pierced by thorns, with grief and shame weighed down; the beating and the flogging, the insults and the spittle; the nails driven through hands and feet; His spear impaled side.  And we know that as excruciating as was the physical pain, the worst of it was the hell He suffered for us as He was lifted up on the tree.  His Father turned His back on His beloved Son.  My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46).  That is our punishment He took upon Himself.  That is our suffering and death.  That is our condemnation.  This is what we call the vicarious atonement: Jesus stands in for us and pays the price for our redemption.  And why does He do it?  That God be reconciled to us in the forgiveness of sins, so that He can be our God and we can be His people, and He can dwell with us, which is precisely what He does in our mercy seat, our propitiation, the flesh of our crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ.
            Christ is the sacrifice of atonement, but so also He is our scapegoat.  For He not only covers our sins with His blood, but He takes them away and buries them in the place of Azazel, in hell.  When our Lord rises from the dead, our sins stay buried, where they can never haunt us again.  Jesus has removed them from us as far as the east is from the west. 
            Have you ever wondered why Jesus dies on Mt. Calvary, on Golgotha, not Mt. Zion?  The unclean business of execution must happen outside the Holy City.  It cannot happen on the Temple mount.  So our Lord takes up His cross and bears it outside the city, up another hill, to the Place of a Skull.  But the cross is not all He is bearing.  He is bearing our sin.  He is quite literally fulfilling the role of the scapegoat.  That is what the Prophet Isaiah is getting at in our Old Testament reading.  Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.  But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (Is. 53:4-5).  He has borne.  He has carried.  Upon Him.  He is loaded up with all of our evil and He takes it away.  It is gone.  It no longer belongs to us.  It no longer damns us.  Jesus is the scapegoat. 
            So what do you do with your sin, that which kills you and separates you eternally from your God?  There is nothing you can do.  God must do it.  And He does.  In the perfect, once for all sacrifice of atonement, Christ crucified, the Lamb of God who takes away your sin and the sin of the whole world.  That is why this Friday is good.  Because our sin is covered by the blood of Jesus and taken away.  This day is the true Yom Kippur, the true Day of Atonement.  Now reconciled to God by the blood of Jesus Christ, we live and we belong to God and He dwells with us.  And perhaps most marvelous of all, on account of His Son Jesus Christ, God calls Himself our Father.  And He calls you His child.  He loves you.  He loves you to the death of Jesus, His Son.  He loves you to all eternity.  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 Jeffery Pulse, Return from Exile: A Lenten Journey (St. Louis: Concordia, 2017).