Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Midweek of Lent 2/Third Sunday in Lent

Lenten Midweek 2: “Behold the Man! A God Beaten”[1]
March 20, 2019
Text: John 18:19-24

            So you think you need a god who meets you in the garden alone, who walks with you and talks with you and tells you that you are his own.  You need a god who walks with you on the sand and picks you up (figuratively speaking, of course) from time to time when the going gets too tough for you to handle.  You need a god who makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside because you know he’s always silently, invisibly rooting for you and maybe miraculously engineering a break for you now and then, and who will take you up into that great golf course in the sky someday.  In other words, you need an ethereal god, a not-really-real god, designed by you in your own head, though not all that original… the god of American civil-religious piety.  Or, at best, the god of Greek philosopher, Plato.  But that is not the God of the Bible.  That is not the God who puts His skin in the game, becomes flesh of your flesh, to suffer in the flesh, to save you, body and soul.
            Jesus is a God who can be punched.  It’s right there in our Holy Gospel.  When he had said these things,” that is, when He had simply and honestly answered the High Priest’s questions, “one of the officers standing by struck with his hand” (John 18:22; ESV).  Now, whether it was a punch or a slap (and undoubtedly our Lord suffered both in His Passion), God has human flesh to receive blows from sinners.  He has a cheek to be struck, skin that bruises and bleeds… Maybe He ended up with a fat lip.  And why is this important?  It is one aspect, seemingly insignificant, often missed, but one aspect nonetheless of His suffering for the forgiveness of your sins.  The Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary for this very purpose, to receive this unjust blow for you, to suffer and bleed and die for you, to reconcile you to God, to atone for your sin, to give you eternal life.  This episode before Annas fulfills the Scriptures, our Old Testament reading (Isaiah 52:13-53:12).  It fulfills God’s will of accomplishing our salvation by the sacrifice of His Son, Jesus. 
            Indeed, it was the officer whose hand reached out and struck the Lord.  But it was more.  Our Lord Jesus Christ is stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted (Is. 53:4).  This is God’s punishment of His righteous and holy Son.  And why?  He has not sinned.  He deserves no punishment.  But He has taken our place.  (H)e 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” (v. 5).
            The Church Fathers, pastors of the Church in earlier times, teach us, as they do so well, the full import of this.  Hear the preaching of Cyril of Alexandria, who was a pastor in the early to mid 400s.  “He was scourged unjustly, that He might deliver us from merited chastisement; He was buffeted and smitten, that we might buffet Satan, who had buffeted us, and that we might escape from the sin that cleaves to us through the original transgression.  For if we think aright, we shall believe that all Christ’s sufferings were for us and on our behalf, and have power to release and deliver us from all those calamities we have deserved for our revolt from God.  For as Christ, Who knew not death, when he gave up His own Body for our salvation, was able to loose the bonds of death for all mankind, for He, being One, died for all; so we must understand that Christ’s suffering all these things for us sufficed also to release us all from scourging and dishonour.  Then in what way by His stripes are we healed, according to the Scripture?  Because we have all gone astray, every man after his own way, as says the blessed Prophet Isaiah; and the Lord hath given Himself up for our transgressions, and for us is afflicted.  For He was bruised for our iniquities, and has given His own back to the scourge, and His cheeks to the smiters, as He also says.”[2]  Thus far Cyril. 
            Notice here that our Lord, who commanded us, “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:39), does even more than this.  He does not respond to the officer in anger, though He could have responded in divine wrath, calling down fire from heaven, or commanding the earth to open up and swallow the offender.  Like those Sons of Thunder, James and John, we may well wish He had done just that.  But He doesn’t.  He calmly speaks the truth… “if what I said is right, why do you strike me?” (John 18:23)… and then offers not only His other cheek, but His whole body to be beaten, scourged, abused, pierced, crucified, killed.  For the man who struck Him!  And for you, who have pierced Him with your sins. 
            St. Augustine, the great pastor and Bishop of Hippo, who was a contemporary of Cyril, reflects of this truth and what it teaches us: “If we consider who it was that received the blow, might we not well feel the wish that he who struck it were either consumed by fire from heaven, or swallowed up by the gaping earth, or seized and carried off by devils, or visited with some other or still heavier punishment of this kind?  For what one of all these could not He, who made the world, have commanded by His power, had He not wished rather to teach us the patience that overcometh the world?  Some one will say here, Why did He not do what He Himself commanded? for to the one that smote Him, He ought not to have answered thus, but to have turned to him the other cheek.  Nay, more than this, did He not answer truthfully, and meekly, and righteously, and at the same time not only prepare His other cheek to him who was yet again to smite it, but His whole body to be nailed to the tree?  And hereby He rather showed, what needed to be shown, namely, that those great precepts of His are to be fulfilled not by bodily ostentation, but by the preparation of the heart.  For it is possible that even an angry man may visibly hold out his other cheek.  How much better, then, is it for one who is inwardly pacified to make a truthful answer, and with tranquil mind hold himself ready for the endurance of heavier sufferings to come.”[3]  Here ends Augustine. 
            And here we learn from our Lord what St. Peter teaches us in our Epistle (1 Peter 2:18-25), that we should endure unjust suffering by faith in the One who unjustly suffered punishment for our sins.  It is a gracious thing in the sight of God.  We’ve been called to it.  He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (v. 24), that we might die to self and offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God (cf. Rom. 12:1).  That is why we turn the other cheek, not in self-righteousness, but as those who are given to suffer for the sake of Christ, who suffered for us and by His suffering won our redemption.
            The god of “In the Garden” cannot do that.  But the God who is flesh and blood can, and does.  That is the God you need, a God who can be punched, slapped, beaten, scourged, crucified, in His body, for the forgiveness of your sins, to save you, body and soul.  You need a God with skin in the game.  You need Jesus.  The real one.  From the Bible.  With meat.  The Crucified One.  The One bodily risen from the dead.  The One who lives and reigns in human flesh and blood with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  You need the God who gives you that flesh and blood under bread and wine in the Sacrament.  Ethereal meetings in gardens make for saccharine poetry, and by the way, if there are two pairs of footprints in the sand, as in your favorite poem, it’s only because yours are running the other way.  But the flesh and blood God is the One who really can hold you, in His very real, very pierced hands.  Our God was beaten… to death… for our salvation.  And we wouldn’t, indeed, couldn’t, have it any other way.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.   

[1] Based on Jeffrey Hemmer, Behold the Man! (St. Louis: Concordia, 2018).
[2] Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on the Gospel according to St. John, Book 12, trans. T. Randell, in A Library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church; vol. 48 (London: Walter Smith, 1885), 606.  Emphasis original.  Quoted in Hemmer, Behold the Man!  Available online at www.tertullian.org/fathers .
[3] Augustine, Homilies on the Gospel of John, Tractate 113.4, NPNF1 7:419-20.  Quoted in Hemmer.

Third Sunday in Lent (C)

March 24, 2019
Text: Luke 13:1-9

            It is the perennial question: Why do bad things happen?  If God is good, and He loves me, and He is almighty, and can stop bad things from happening, why do they still happen?  Jesus asks a similar question of His hearers in our Holy Gospel this morning, and it is not because He doesn’t know the answer.  It is rather to teach them and us particularly what the answer is not.  Those Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices… Were they worse sinners than all the others?  After all, think of the sacrilege.  It is not unlike if a shooter were to come into Church and mow us all down with a machine gun during Communion, mingling our blood with the holy and precious blood of Christ.  If that were to happen, God forbid, would that mean that we are worse sinners than all the Christians whose churches were not a target?  Of course not.  That’s the point.  Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell… Were they worse sinners than all the rest living in Jerusalem?  It is not unlike those in the Twin Towers on 9/11 who lost their lives when the towers came crashing down.  It is safe to say that among the nearly 3,000 who lost their lives that day, over 2,600 of whom were in the towers, there were some faithful Christians who knew the forgiveness of Christ, and who lived relatively virtuous lives.  By the way, I was pastor in Michigan to a couple whose daughter was on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.  This text was very real to them.  And a man in our congregation worked at the Pentagon and survived.  This is a very real point of contact for all of them, a vital question.  Was God out to get them?  Were they being punished?  Jesus answers with an unequivocal “No.” 
            But it is a call to us all to repent.  It is often the case that we cannot answer the specific reason why a particular bad thing has happened.  But we can know this: Every natural or man-made disaster, large or small scale, is a call specifically to you and me to repent.  It is not the case that bad things happen because God is out to get sinners.  Pat Robertson of 700 Club fame is simply wrong on this.  He’s a false prophet.  It is true that some sins have direct consequences.  For example, if I drive drunk (may it never be), I may end up injuring someone, or taking someone’s life, or taking my own.  I may lose my license and have to go to jail.  I may tear apart families, including my own.  There are always consequences to sin.  Adultery may end in divorce.  Promiscuity may end in disease, and always in broken relationships and broken hearts.  Not honoring my father and mother will undoubtedly end in foolish behavior on my part, which will lead to ever more and greater consequences.  But it is not the case that these consequences are God pouring out His wrath on me because I’m a greater sinner than somebody else. 
            We have to get over this.  Like Job’s friends, we’re always trying to connect the dots in ways God hasn’t given us to connect them.  We drive past someone who’s been pulled over by a policeman, and we delight because he had it coming.  Something bad happened to my enemy at work?  She deserved it!  Look at all the bad stuff that guy has done.  Now he’s terminally ill.  Just goes to show you, what goes around comes around (that is not a Christian idea, by the way.  The idea of karma comes from Hinduism, and it’s a false teaching, so no more saying that, okay?).
            But we do this to ourselves, too.  Why is God allowing this to happen to me?  Or worse, why is God doing this to me?  What did I do to deserve this?  God must be punishing me.  Beloved, that is a lie of the evil one.  Do not believe it.  The truth is this: God punished all the sins of all people of all times, including all your sin, every bit of it, in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ on the cross.  There God’s righteous wrath is at an end.  It is spent.  When a bad thing happens to you, it is not God punishing you.  God is not out to get you.  When you are tempted to think that, look at a crucifix.  And remember that your whole punishment happened there.  In Jesus.  And tell the devil to go to hell.  He has no business robbing Jesus of what He has accomplished for you on the cross.
            Look, bad stuff happens, and there is no avoiding it in a fallen world.  The world is out of harmony with man since the fall into sin.[1]  It doesn’t work as it should.  There is chaos and disorder now as creation groans, awaiting her redemption (Rom. 8:18 ff.).  Creation doesn’t recognize man as her reason for being, nor you for the Christian that you are, and much of the bad stuff that happens seems to be random.  The devil has his purposes in it, and God has His, and God wins, because He is God, and devil is not. 
            Repent lest you likewise perish.  There is a lot we cannot say about why a particular bad thing has happened, but we can always know that through the bad thing God is calling us to repent.  Repentance means a turning.  It is a turning from sin, from your hell-bent rebellion against God and His Commandments, from your captivation to the things of this world and the pleasures of the flesh and the works of the devil, to God in faith that for Jesus’ sake He has forgiven you all your sins and gives you eternal life.  And repentance is not a single act.  It is not just being sorry for this or that bad thing you’ve done, or this or that good thing you’ve failed to do, although it is that.  But more than that, it’s a way of life.  In the first of his 95 Theses, Luther wrote, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ [Matt. 4:17], he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”[2]
            Now, strictly speaking, repentance has two parts.  The first is contrition, which is to say, sorrow and the terrors of the conscience that result from the knowledge of sin.  And the second is faith in Christ born of the Gospel, the Word of Absolution, that for Christ’s sake God forgives our sins.  Then we may also add a third part, which is not repentance strictly speaking, but rather, the fruit of repentance, and that is the life of love and good works (Cf. AC XII).  This repentance and its fruit is the gift of the Holy Spirit working through His Word and the Holy Sacraments.  And it’s a daily thing.  It’s a way of life.  It is living in your Baptism.  It is daily death to self, daily resurrection in Christ, daily clinging to Christ.    
            The stress of our Holy Gospel this morning is that now is the time of repentance.  Today.  The time is short.  There is not a moment to lose.  Because you don’t know when Pontius Pilate or a terrorist will mow you down and mingle your blood with the holy Sacrifice for sin, the blood of Jesus.  You don’t know when the Tower of Siloam or the Twin Towers will fall on you.  In other words, you don’t know when you’ll die.  Nor do you know when Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead.  You don’t know, so be ready.  Repent.  Your whole life should be one of repentance. 
            This is not, by the way, repentance in the sense of good old-fashioned Lutheran guilt, like David Letterman likes to talk about.  That kind of guilt is anything but Lutheran.  It’s false.  This is true repentance, which, in practice, means honest self-examination.  How do I stack up against God’s Commandments?  Look at the Commandments.  Look at yourself.  You’ll be horrified.  So then you go to confession.  You speak the sin before God.  Sin that is spoken aloud loses its power to accuse you.  And then you hear and cling to the Holy Absolution, which is to say, you live every day, every moment, by faith in Jesus Christ, who died for your sins and is risen from the dead.  His is the voice you hear in the Absolution.  He forgives your sins.  And He gives you life.  Repentance means always a turning from yourself to Christ.  Repent, lest you likewise perish.  In your sins, apart from Christ, you die.  In Christ, you live.  You are safe. 
            Christ is the answer to all the bad things that happen.  I don’t know why you have to suffer cancer, or why your mom died, or why Christians had to choose between jumping to their death or being incinerated on 9/11.  God knows, but I don’t.  But I do know what God has done about it, and so do you.  He sent His Son.  The real bad thing happened to Jesus.  We all deserve whatever bad happens to us, and worse.  We all deserve hell.  But not Jesus.  Yet that is precisely what He suffers, for you, for me, for the world, most of whom reject Him, for everyone who has suffers or dies as a result of natural or man-made tragedy… for all people.  Jesus did not deserve the cross.  But that is what He got.  That is what He took upon Himself willingly.  There, on the cross, He suffered God’s wrath.  There, on the cross, He suffered hell.  There, on the cross, He suffered the injustice, to accomplish justice against our sin, and justify us sinners.  And all the bad that happens now is baptized in His blood.  He turns it.  You might say, He repents it.  He uses it for our good and for our salvation.
            There is the parable of the fig tree in the second part of our Holy Gospel.  For years, the tree has not borne fruit, and the owner wants to cut it down.  The vinedresser pleads for mercy for the tree.  Give it one more year.  What does he hope will make the difference?  Manure.  Let me dig around it and throw manure all over its roots.  That should do the trick.  It will be fruitful then.  For as the manure rots and stinks, it enriches the soil with nutrients.  Well, the Lord has a way of making you fruitful, too.  When God looks for the fruits of repentance, Jesus suggests to His heavenly Father that they pummel the dirt around your roots and throw manure on you.  It happens.  The manure is the bad stuff that happens.  And it brings you to the end of yourself.  You have no help, no alternatives, no other resources.  That is exactly what God needs to work repentance in you.  And Jesus is not a God who is afraid to get His hands dirty.  He gets down in the manure with you to work it for your salvation.  The manure is the call to repentance, the turn from sin and all that is not Christ, to Christ alone for help and salvation.  And God’s call imparts what it says.  He says repent.  That gives you repentance.  He says believe.  That gives you faith.  And that repentance and faith in Christ brings forth the fruit of faith, the evidence that you are a living tree in God’s Vineyard. 
            So when bad things happen to Christians, we call it a cross.  It hurts.  It is painful.  It is tragic.  It is deadly.  But you give thanks nonetheless, because you know the cross is always for your good.  Manure, to help you grow.  Manure, to drive you to Christ.  For His cross is the Tree of Life.  And by His cross, you know Almighty God, who is good, and who loves you, does all things well.  And He does all things to give you life in His Son.  We don’t know why bad things happen.  But we know Jesus.  And that is enough.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.    

[2] Martin Luther, Ninety-Five Theses, Luther’s Works, vol. 31, ed. Harold J. Grimm (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1957) p. 25.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Midweek of Lent 1/Second Sunday in Lent

Lenten Midweek 1: “Behold the Man! A God Who Prays”[1]
March 13, 2019
Text: John 17

            Jesus prays.  As our Great High Priest, a Priest forever in the order of Melchizedek, the fulfillment of the priesthood of Aaron and the Levites, Jesus prays.  For us.  For His Church.  As God, the Son of God, He prays to God our heavenly Father.  As God, who is a man, He raises His hands and His eyes to heaven in expectation that His Father will hear and answer in mercy, His lips and His tongue shape the syllables, His lungs push air through His vocal chords, and words come forth, gracious words of life and salvation.  Behold, the Man!  Jesus, our Savior, prays for us.  He is our great High Priest.
            What do priests do?  They are mediators.  They stand between the people, who are sinners, and a righteous and holy God.  They make sacrifices for sin.  They offer the sin-atoning blood of sheep and bulls to God, and they put the sin-cleansing blood on the people.  And then they intercede.  They pray.  They ask God to have mercy for the sake of the blood. 
            Prayer and blood are connected.  The priests prayed for the people, and the people themselves prayed, through the blood of the continuous sacrifices.  Jesus is our new and greater Priest.  He offers, not sheep and bulls, the blood of which can never actually take away sin, but that to which the blood of the sheep and bulls has always pointed: His own blood!  The blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Jesus is both Priest and Sacrifice.  And His blood makes full atonement for our sins, once and for all. And now Jesus, who is risen from the dead, who has ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father, prays through His own blood.  He holds His blood and death before the Father as He pleads for us.  And the Father, who has declared the sacrifice of Jesus sufficient for the atonement of all our sins, hears and answers Jesus’ prayer for us with forgiveness, grace, and mercy.  And life. 
            Tonight we get a glimpse into what our risen and ascended Jesus prays for us, for His Church, for His Christians, in what is known as His High Priestly Prayer.  It was the night on which Jesus was betrayed.  He knew what was coming.  Satan had already entered the heart of Judas.  It was simply a matter of time. 
            It was the night of the Passover, the night the lambs were to be sacrificed.  It was the last night before His own self-sacrifice that Jesus would spend with His disciples, His friends.  He washes their feet.  He gives them a new command, that they love one another.  He gives them a gift that will last them, and us, until the Day of His glorious return, the new and greater Passover Supper, His true Body, His true Blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.  And He prays.
            Now, Jesus has a habit of praying.  There is nothing new here.  Often, He would retreat to a lonely place to pray.  He fulfills the Second Commandment for us, where we so often have failed.  He calls upon the Name of God in every trouble, prays, praises, and gives thanks unceasingly.  He taught His disciples to pray, and He teaches us, that we call upon God as “Our Father, who art in heaven.”  But this prayer that He offers on this night in the upper room is for the benefit of the Eleven who are about to undergo the trial of their life in the betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion of their Lord, and for us who believe on account of their Word and live ever after from our same Lord’s crucifixion and resurrection.  In other words, we get to overhear what Jesus is always praying for His people, for His Church, for you.
            That He would be glorified with the glory He has had with the Father before the world existed, from all eternity.  In the Scriptures, and particularly in John’s Gospel, Jesus is glorified by His crucifixion.  It is there that He reigns as King.  It is there that He brings to completion the divine, saving mission for which He was sent.  Father, the hour has come,” He says (John 17:1; ESV).  This is theological language.  What hour?  The hour for His glorification by suffering and death.  And because that is the case, and because His sheep are about to be scattered, He prays for them.  And for us.
            He has manifested the Father’s Name to His disciples.  In Jesus, we know God to be our gracious Father who loves us and wills to save us at the ultimate price, the sacrifice of His own beloved Son.  I have kept them, Jesus says.  I have given them Your Word.  And through that Word they have come to know and believe that You sent Me.  But now Jesus will no longer be in the world.  Not in the same sense in which He was in the world during His earthly ministry.  He will die.  He will rise.  He will ascend.  True, He will be with them, and us, always, to the very end of the age.  But in a hidden way.  They, the disciples, you, must be in the world.  And it will be hard.  There will be crosses to bear, suffering and the mold and shape you into the cruciform image of Jesus, into the Christians the Father would have you be, crosses that drive you to Jesus alone for help and salvation.  There will be persecution.  There will be the old sinful nature.  There will be the slippery serpent, your enemy, the devil, prowling around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.  So Jesus prays the Father would keep His beloved disciples in His Name, the Name Jesus manifest, the Name into which you are baptized.  Jesus prays that you be kept in your Baptism over against all your enemies. 
            And He prays that we would be one.  Not that we would pretend doctrine doesn’t matter, or some silly shortcut like we’re always willing to take for external unity in the Church.  But really one.  Like the Father and the Son are one, together with the Holy Spirit.  True unity.  Unity in doctrine.  Unity in confession.  Unity in our Christian life together.  Love.  Forgiveness, from God and for one another.  Patience.  Forbearance.  Longsuffering.  He prays that we have joy.  Not silly happiness, like so many Christians think you have to have, plastering a fake smile across your face to show you have the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in your heart.  No, real joy.  Even through the tears.  The joy of salvation in Jesus, the forgiveness of sins, eternal life.  The joy of the Holy Spirit.  And He prays that we be sanctified in the truth.  That is His Word.  That is what gives us the gift of unity.  That we believe and confess His Word.  All of it.  Unabridged.  Popular or unpopular.  Politically correct, or not.  Even if it means some don’t walk with us.  Even if it means the death of us. 
            Finally, to sum it all up, He prays that the love with which the Father loves Jesus may be in us, and that Jesus Himself would be in us.  That is the prayer of our High Priest, Jesus, who prays through His own blood shed on the cross for us. 
            Priests in the Old Testament were ordained by the blood of sacrifice.  When Moses ordained Aaron and his sons, he put the blood of the sacrifice on their right ear, that they hear and obey the Word of God, their right thumb, that they do the priestly work of offering sacrifice for themselves and for the people, the big toe of their right foot, that they enter the holy places to serve as mediators between God and the people (Cf. Lev. 8). 
            Our Lord Jesus is the fulfillment of all of this.  He is the Word of God incarnate who faithfully and perfectly hears and obeys the Father’s Word always.  His are the hands lifted in intercession for us, praying for our salvation and perseverance in the faith of Christ.  His are the beautiful feet that bring the good news of salvation by His cross and death.  And, of course, He is the sacrifice.  His is the blood.  His hands and feet are nailed to the wood as He offers the sacrificed of atonement.  His sacred head is crowned with thorns.  His ears go silent in death.  Behold, the Man!  Your High Priest.
            And now the risen Jesus ordains you a priest.  Not a pastor.  This is not a denial of the Holy Ministry Jesus instituted to preach His Word and administer the Sacraments.  There is a lot of confusion about that in our Synod these days, and it robs both the Holy Ministry and the Royal Priesthood of all believers of their respective glory.  There is a difference between pastor and priest, and they are both gifts of Jesus who is our Great Pastor and our Great Priest. 
            To be a priest, dear Christian, means you are now a mediator between God and man, your fellow Christians, and unbelievers.  It means that you sacrifice and you pray.  Now, the prayer part is easy, or at least it appears to be.  You make intercession for those in need.  You bring people and their needs before the throne of God for His mercy in Christ.  And you do it through the blood of Christ.  The blood of Christ has washed you clean.  You enter the holy place through the sacrifice of His flesh.  And you plead the blood of Christ for your neighbor.  That is why we offer our prayers in Jesus’ Name, or for Jesus’ sake.  We always pray in Jesus, because of His death for us on the cross. 
            And then, as priests, we sacrifice ourselves for our neighbor.  We forgive their sins against us.  We love them, even when they are unlovable, on account of Christ who loved us and gave Himself up for us when we were unlovable.  We help them.  We serve them.  We give generously to them when they are in need.  Even when they abuse it.  And if called upon, we die for them.  Not because they are worthy, but because Christ is worthy, and that is what Christ has done for us, and what He would have us do for others.  For that is what it means to be a Royal Priest of God.  It means to be Jesus to your neighbor.  It means to sacrifice.  It means to pray. 
            St. Paul bids us to present our bodies “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1).  That can only be a reality through Jesus who offered His body as a sacrifice unto death, but who now lives.  And He is still the Priest who mediates between us and the Father.  He still prays.  And His sacrifice, of course, was once and for all, but He still puts the Blood on His people to present them before God.  He does it at the altar, and in the font, and in the preaching.  You are holy and acceptable to God by the Blood of Jesus.  More than that, you are loved.  And your sins are forgiven.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.    

[1] Based on Jeffrey Hemmer, Behold the Man! (St. Louis: Concordia, 2018).

Second Sunday in Lent (C)
March 17, 2019
Text: Luke 13:31-35
            Rejection of preachers is nothing new. Prophet after prophet was sent by God to Israel, preaching repentance, preaching a returning to God, and prophet after prophet was rejected, exiled, imprisoned, tortured, executed. Preaching the Word of God demands a high price of the preacher. It demands self-sacrifice. But it is God who sends the preacher, and God who places the preaching into the preacher’s mouth. The preacher is to preach whatever God sends him to preach, and only what God sends him to preach, no more, and no less. And so a preacher preaches whether the message falls on deaf ears or finds reception in open hearts. The preacher preaches whether the seed of the Word falls on rocky ground or good soil, even at risk of the seed being picked off by birds or growing up only to be choked by thorns or scorched by sunlight. The preacher preaches the Word of God, Law and Gospel, bitter and sweet, life and death, because that is what he is called to do. The preacher preaches repentance and the forgiveness of sins. He preaches Christ. And woe to him if he fails to do it.
            Now, this congregation has shown love to this preacher and his family in many and various ways. But what I’m getting at here is a very real spiritual danger that has afflicted (and continues to afflict) many congregations and could at any time afflict ours, a danger that has troubled the Christian Church throughout her history, and that is a constant battle in the heart of every sinful saint: Rejection of the preacher and his preaching. We see it in our Scripture readings this morning. Jeremiah is rejected by the priests and the prophets, the religious elite of Judah, who want to kill him for his preaching (Jer. 26:8-15). Paul speaks of many who once walked in his own example, but who now walk as enemies of Christ (Phil. 3:17-18). And finally, our Lord Jesus is rejected by Herod, by the Pharisees, by Jerusalem, by the very people for whom He came to die (Luke 13:31-35). Why are preachers so often rejected? I’m not talking about legitimate reasons for fleeing a preacher or removing him from office, such as the preaching of false doctrine, or leading a manifestly sinful life. Why are even faithful preachers rejected, not only by the world, but by the people of their congregations? There are many superficial excuses… His personality rubs me the wrong way. I can’t understand him. I don’t like the way he conducts the liturgy. I don’t like the liturgy. I wish he preached more “uplifting” sermons. I don’t like how he always talks about sin and death and crosses and forgiveness. Why does he always harp on me about attending church and going to confession and absolution and receiving the Sacrament? I wish he would concentrate less on doctrine and more on what is relevant to my life (as if the doctrine, the teaching of Jesus, could ever be anything but relevant to you). I’m sure there are many other reasons given for rejecting a preacher. And maybe you’ve had some of these thoughts yourself. But in reality, when a preacher is rejected, it is for the Word He preaches. That is to say, what is rejected is the preaching of repentance, and the preaching of Jesus Christ. Jesus said to His disciples: “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16; ESV). When a faithful preacher is rejected for preaching the Word of Christ, it is, in reality, Christ Himself who is rejected, and so the Father who sent Him.
            Sometimes the preaching is rejected outright, as the priests and prophets rejected Jeremiah, and as Jerusalem rejected our Lord, both seeking to kill the preacher. We think of so many Christian martyrs throughout the centuries who were tortured and killed for their faithful proclamation of Christ. Often pastors are removed from their pulpits because they refuse to scratch the itching ears of their congregation. More often, the rejection is subtle, a matter of the heart. I know this because I’ve done it myself: We nod and smile as the pastor preaches, but in our hearts we reject what he’s saying. Beloved, repent.
            The problem here is the hardness of the human heart. To the natural man, to the unconverted person, and even to the believing Christian insofar as every one of us is still a sinner, the preaching of Christ and His cross is an offense (1 Cor. 1:18; 2:14). For outside of Christ and His life-giving Spirit, my will, your will, is bound. The bondage of the will is not a popular article of doctrine, and too-little taught and preached. Ever since Adam and Eve fell into sin, the human will has been bound to choose only sin, only death, only that which is opposed to God. This is why you can never say you made your decision for Jesus. A slave cannot choose which master to serve. You are born into the service of sin and unbelief, of death, and ultimately, the devil. That is what it means to be lost. You cannot choose to serve Jesus when you are bound by the chains of the evil one. And what really gets us about the idea of this bound will is that there is nothing you can do about it. If you are to be rescued from this bondage, it must come from outside of yourself. It must come from God. It can only come from God. All of this is simply to reaffirm what we confess in the Small Catechism: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”[1] The only way that anyone ever comes to accept and believe Jesus Christ and His Word and His preachers is by the Holy Spirit working through the divinely appointed means of grace, the Word and Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. You don’t choose Jesus, He chooses you! It is by grace. Faith is not your work, it is the gift of God. But that doesn’t mean that faith is easy. Our Lord Christ has covered our sin with His blood, forgiven us poor sinners, but we still sin. We are at the same time saints and sinners, and so it is always a struggle with this sinful flesh to believe the preaching, to hear the preacher, to allow the Law to do its painful work on us, to look to Christ alone for help and salvation.
            What great compassion our Lord Jesus has for those who reject the preaching, reject the prophets, reject Him and the salvation He alone brings. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Luke 13:34). When there is danger, when there is a predator, like a hawk, seeking to eat the chicks, or when a fire threatens her brood, a hen will shield the little ones with her own body. She will die for the sake of her offspring, to save them. In the same way, Jesus suffers the cross for us. He dies for us. He dies for the sins of the whole world. He suffers our punishment. His wings are outstretched on the cross, and He would gather all people under them, gather all people to Himself, under His cross, in His holy Church, for safety and shelter. Jesus sets His face toward Jerusalem for that very purpose, that He may die for all humanity, and gather a Church unto Himself: “I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem” (v. 33). Why can’t Jerusalem see the salvation that comes to her in Jesus? Why do the people not bow down in homage to the One who would pay so high a price, His blood and death, for their forgiveness and life? The answer is here in our text, in the lament of our Lord: “you would not!” (v. 34). It’s the bondage of the will. Jerusalem “would not,” willed not to be thus gathered to our Lord in faith, because her will is bound to choose everything and anything other than our Lord. It is not a lack of love or willingness on God’s part that leads to the eternal death of the sinner. It is the stubborn human heart that rejects the preaching, rejects the Gospel, and so rejects Jesus, rejects God, rejects salvation.
            Beloved in the Lord, there is nothing within us that led the Holy Spirit to convert us, to turn our heart in repentance to faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. It is not by our merit or worthiness or any effort on our part that we came to faith. It is all by grace. Do not torture yourself with the question why everyone else is not converted. It is a futile question, a seeking to look into the hidden will of God, things that are not given us to know. We can only say what Scripture says, what our Lord says in our Gospel lesson this morning: How God longs for every sinner to be gathered to Christ and be saved, and how only the stubborn, hard heart of man, his bound will, is responsible if he is lost. God does not force anyone to believe. There is no such thing as “irresistible grace.” But there is unimaginable grace.
            What great grace that God gave His sinless Son into death for us sinners. What great grace that God has gathered us here, by Baptism, under the wings of His Son’s cross, into His outstretched arms, into His nail pierced hands. What great grace that God has gathered us here to His Church, where we receive all the benefits of the death and resurrection of Christ, including His very body and blood in the Supper. What great grace that here God has placed a man into the preaching office, of himself unworthy, flawed, weak, sinful, but called by God to speak Jesus into your ears and hearts, to forgive your sins, a mere instrument and mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit. What great grace that we can come every Sunday, and so many other times during the week, and we will always find our Savior here in the preaching, and in the Sacrament. For the preacher is called to preach God’s Word, preach Jesus, and woe to him if he does not do it. God grant that this preacher, and every Christian pastor, always proclaims Christ and His Word faithfully, no matter the consequences, even if it be rejection, even if it be death. But what great grace that our Lord has not left us orphans. He comes to us (John 14:18), here, in Word and Sacrament. And even as we gather around His altar to receive His true body and blood, really present, received in our mouths for our forgiveness, we sing these words, the words Jerusalem sang as our Lord came into the city to die for her, for us: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 13:35). And so we see Him in the Supper, just as we hear Him in the preaching. Rejection of the preacher is nothing new. What is new is you, your heart released from bondage, forgiven of sin, freed by the Spirit, brought to faith in Christ by the same Spirit. What is new is the life you have in Christ crucified, the open ears and hearts that hear and cling to His Word. “Therefore, my brothers” and sisters, “whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved” (Phil. 4:1). Stand firm by hearing Him. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

First Sunday in Lent

First Sunday in Lent (C)
March 10, 2019
Text: Luke 4:1-13

            Immediately after His Baptism in the Jordan River, the Spirit having descended upon the incarnate Son, the Father declaring from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22; ESV), the Spirit now leads our Lord out into the wilderness.  Understand what is happening here.  Our Lord Jesus, the righteous and holy Son of God, was baptized into our sin, and now, as the Sin-Bearer, He is the Scapegoat sent out into the wilderness, to Azazel, the demon of the wilderness.  The wilderness is the haunt of Satan.  It is the place of nothingness and death.  It is there that our Lord fasts for forty days.  He eats nothing.  In a monumental understatement, St. Luke records for us that when the days were ended, “he was hungry” (4:2).  Think how weakened our Lord’s very human body must have been at the end of that time.  Yet it is precisely at that time, in that state, that Satan unleashes the barrage of his greatest temptations on our Lord.  This is instructive for us.  The devil never rests in his work of tempting us away from the Lord.  But he does his best work when we are at our weakest.  And, incidentally, he knows the signs of our weakness better than we know ourselves.  He can read the circumstances, our body language, our temperament, and he knows just the right way to get at us so that we’re most likely to fall, and we do fall every time apart from the Lord’s help. 
            So there is Jesus in the wilderness, physically diminished, greatly weakened, and famished.  In other words, in our condition at its weakest, to do battle with the devil in our place.  And what is the nature of the temptation?  Yes, it is certainly an appeal to fleshly desire.  Food.  Power.  Glory.  Those are the kinds of temptations you and I face.  But that is just the external packaging.  What is behind the specific thing to which the devil is tempting?  You know, he really shows his hand here in his first few words: “If you are the Son of God…” (v. 3; emphasis added).  He does it again in the third temptation, same words, “If you are the Son of God.”  That’s really the temptation.  To doubt what the Father had just said of Him at His Baptism, that He is the Father’s beloved Son.  To doubt the Father’s Word.  To believe that the Father has it out for Him.  To believe there is another way than the will of the Father.  If You are the Son of God, then why is God holding out on You?  If He loves You, why does He want You to go hungry?  Command this stone to become bread.  You made the stone, after all.  It has to obey You.  And, by the way, You want to be King?  Just so happens that I, the devil, once an archangel of God, now rule this world.  Look at all the kingdoms of the earth.  Behold all of world political history in this moment of time.  I own it all.  You can have it, You know.  Just one little thing I ask.  Just once, bend the knee and worship me, and it’s all Yours.  You think You have to suffer and die to make it Your own?  No, no, no, no.  I can make it happen with the snap of a finger.  No cross.  No bleeding.  No dying.  It’s as simple as one act of obeisance.  Or, You know what You could do?  Throw Yourself off the pinnacle of the Temple, here, in the sight of everyone.  The fall would be certain death for a normal man.  But for the Son of God?  If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down and the angels will pick You up before You even hit the ground.  It’s in the Bible and everything.  Psalm 91.  The angels will catch You, bear You up.  The people will see the great miracle and they’ll be putty in Your hands.  No need to die.  There’s a shortcut.  God must not really love You if He insists on all this suffering and death stuff. 
            You see how temptation works?  There is the external temptation, and then there is the temptation behind the temptation, which is always a temptation to reject faith in God and sell yourself into unbelief and slavery to the devil.  Is that not what happened to Adam and Eve?  The temptation was not just about a bite of fruit.  Yes, the fruit was pleasing to the eye, and good for food, and able to make one wise (albeit not with the true Wisdom from God… just a poor human, and demonic, substitute).  Just like commanding the stone to become bread, the temptation at the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is about so much more than food!  It’s a temptation to doubt God loves you, to doubt that you are who God says you are, to doubt His Word and gracious will for you.  “Did God really say?”  Eve fails that battle.  She heeds the voice of the serpent over the voice of God.  Adam fails that battle.  He does not preach the Word given him by God, “Eat from every tree of the Garden, but not this tree!  In the day you eat of it, you shall surely die.”  He heeds the voice of his wife over the voice of God.  And all humanity falls with our first parents. 
            When you are tempted, it is the same thing.  Every sin is about so much more than just the specific thing you do against God’s will, or don’t do according to God’s will.  Every sin is a rejection of God.  It is unbelief in His Word, in His love for you, in His gracious will for you.  It is faith in the serpent’s word in which he preaches that God is against you, holding out on you, out to get you.  It is a denial of who God says you are in Baptism:You are my beloved son… my beloved daughter… with you I am well pleased because of My Son, Christ.”  As much as the devil delights in the specific sins you commit, because he loves chaos and destruction, he’s out for more than just your indiscretions and transgressions.  He’s out to make an unbeliever out of you. 
            And we can’t win that battle by our own spiritual strength, or intellectual prowess, or cleverness.  Luther said the devil is stronger than the whole world.  He’s definitely smarter and stronger than you.  We need another Champion to fight for us.  That is what we have in Christ, our Savior, who is led out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to do battle for us.  And He wins!  He conquers the devil.  He stomps on the serpent’s head. 
            Now, here we have to be careful, because we often say, “See, Jesus conquered the devil by quoting the Bible, so we can conquer the devil by quoting the Bible.”  It’s true, Jesus quoted the Bible, and it’s helpful for us to know the Bible and quote the Bible.  Vital, even.  But don’t forget, the devil quotes the Bible in this episode, too.  He quotes selectively.  He quotes out of context.  But he does quote it.  And the dirty secret is, he knows the Bible better than you do.  So while the Bible is the sword of the Spirit, the weapon we are given to fend off the attacks of Satan, we shouldn’t think of this in such a way that we can easily win a skirmish if we just quote the right passages.  We should quote the Bible, of course.  But we still need Jesus to fight the battle for us, or we lose.  That’s it.  It’s that simple.  We can’t do it by our own strength, even with the Bible.  We can’t outsmart the devil.  We can’t win in a debate with him.  But when Jesus fights for us, He wins.  And here is why…
            In the face of the devil’s scheme to introduce doubt into the mind of our Lord about who He is, Jesus doesn’t enter into debate.  He simply lives the reality that He is the Father’s beloved Son, in whom the Father is well pleased, by faithfully speaking God’s Word and acting according to the Father’s will.  Man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of God.  You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.  You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.  He speaks it, and He lives it.  And here is why this matters for us.  First, because in maintaining His righteousness, Jesus is the Sinless One who bears the sins of everyone else.  Adam’s sin.  Your sin.  He will bear it all the way to the cross to put it to death in His flesh.  Second, as the One who is baptized into us in the Jordan River, Jesus’ victory over the devil is Adam’s victory, and our victory.  He succeeds where Adam and you and I fail.  He undoes the damage Adam did.  Adam sinned and was cast out of Paradise into the wilderness.  Jesus goes out into the wilderness and does not sin so that Adam and you and I can come into Paradise.  That is the good news of our Lord’s victory over Satan. 
            And now we are assured of heaven and the resurrection of our bodies on the Last Day.  Jesus won this victory over Satan, and the devil left Him until an opportune time.  That time, of course, was in the Garden of Gethsemane where our Lord sweat drops of blood as He prayed that, if possible, He would not have to drink the cup, yet submitted nonetheless to His Father’s will.  It was the devil’s entering the heart of Judas to betray his beloved Master into the hands of sinful men with a kiss.  It was before the Sanhedrin, in the high priest’s house, standing before Pontius Pilate, where the devil stirred the crowds to cry out for His crucifixion and perverted the cause of justice.  It was in the abuse of the soldiers, the solemn procession toward Golgotha carrying His own cross, the piercing thorns, the nails, the mockery, the spit, the gall, the lifting up of the Son of Man.  And the great surprise of it all: In being thus defeated, the Son of God gains the ultimate victory over Satan, and sin, and death, for Himself and for all people… for you.  For death could not hold Him.  Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. 
            And now we have confidence in our own temptations.  To be tempted is not a sin.  Falling to temptation, giving in to it, is sin.  Luther famously said that you can’t prevent the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from nesting in your hair.  You will be tempted.  And God can even use the temptation for your good, as an exercise of faith. 
            What should you do when you are tempted?  Well, of course it helps to know Scripture, and you should use the Holy Scriptures in your battle against temptation and sin.  Again, you can’t outwit the devil this way.  But what the Scriptures do is fortify you against your own sinful flesh, so that you know God’s will, and the precious Gospel of Jesus Christ, all that He has done for your salvation, which gives you to want to do God’s will and the ability to begin to do it.  Haltingly, imperfectly, yes.  Old Adam has to be drowned daily in repentance.  But this is done precisely through the Means of Grace: The Holy Scriptures, the preaching, the witness of your brothers and sisters in Christ, your Holy Baptism, Confession and Absolution, the Lord’s Supper.  These are the means God gives you to strengthen you against temptation and give you Jesus’ forgiveness when you fall. 
            Of course, you should pray.  “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  Pray the Psalms.  Have others pray for you.  These are invaluable gifts.  Talk to your pastor.  Confess and be absolved.  That’s spitting in the devil’s eye.  And most of all, remember who you are in Christ.  You are baptized into His death and resurrection, His righteousness.  You are the Father’s beloved Child.  He is well-pleased with you, because you are covered with Christ. 
            We sang of the devil in the sermon hymn, that “One little word can fell him” (LSB 656:3).  Luther later told us what that little word is.  It is the word that identifies the devil for what he is.  “Liar.”  So when the devil assaults you with temptation, call him out.  “Your day is done, you slippery serpent.  My Lord Christ has crushed your head.  And I know who you are, my dear devil.  You are nothing but a big, fat, liar!”  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.