Sunday, March 29, 2020

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Fifth Sunday in Lent (A)
March 29, 2020
Text: John 11:1-53
            The Lord knows exactly what we need to hear this morning, doesn’t He?  I know these are the Scriptures you need to hear, because these are just the Scriptures I need to hear.  The prophet opens his mouth and the Spirit blows through a valley of dry bones, and behold, a rattling.  Sinews and flesh and the breath of life.  The dead are raised to stand on their feet (Ez. 37:1-14).  Jesus opens His mouth, and at His Word, the four-day-old rotting corpse of His dear friend Lazarus is raised and made healthy and whole (John 11).  He is unbound and freed from more than just the linen strips of the grave.  Death itself cannot keep captive one who belongs to Jesus Christ.  (I)f Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.  If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Rom. 8:10-11; ESV).
            We are the dry bones in the valley.  Laid waste by sickness and death, the crafts and assaults of the devil, and our own sin, we are dead, rotting.  Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.  What can we do about our situation?  What can any dead man do?  Nothing.  Be dead.  So the Lord sends His prophet to open his mouth and preach: “Thus says the LORD God” (Ez. 37:9), and the Spirit comes in His Word to give life to the dead. 
            “Spirit,” “wind,” and “breath” are all the same word in Hebrew (ruach), and in Greek, for that matter (pneuma), so there is a play on words in our reading form the Prophet Ezekiel this morning.  The breath comes, like a wind.  It is the Spirit of God, just like on Pentecost (Acts 2).  I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live… Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD” (Ez. 37:14).  The preaching of the Word, which incidentally comes on the breath of the preacher, is an enlivening wind, the breath of life.  The Spirit Himself, whom we confess to be “the Lord and giver of life” (Nicene Creed), breathes Himself into you by His Word and raises you from death to life.  That happens spiritually now.  You are no longer spiritually dead when the Word takes hold of you.  It will happen bodily on the Last Day.  That is the Promise that sustains you all the way through the Valley of the Shadow and out the other side again. “I am the resurrection and the life,” says Jesus.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).
            But it sure doesn’t feel like we’re free from death.  It sure doesn’t feel like we’re alive, especially in dark days like these.  How can this Promise be true? 
            This may be one of the strangest passages in Holy Scripture, but there is deep comfort in it for anyone who has ears to hear: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.  So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (John 11:5-6; emphasis added).  Did you hear that?  Because Jesus loved Lazarus and his family, He purposely did not come and heal His friend.  He let Him die.  Then the disciples are all confused when Jesus says Lazarus has fallen asleep, and when He tells them bluntly, “Lazarus has died,” He actually says, “and for your sake I am glad that I was not there” (v. 14).  What on earth?!  Martha, and then Mary, rightly say in their grief and resignation, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (vv. 21, 32).  And many in the crowd lament, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” (v. 37).  Lord, if You had been here… He was purposely NOT there!  He could have kept Lazarus from dying, but He didn’t.  Why?  Why, Lord?  Why did You let this happen? 
            So that you may believe (vv. 14, 42).
            Where is God in the coronavirus?  Where is Jesus when we need Him?  Why hasn’t He delivered us already?  Why do so many have to suffer?  Why do so many have to die?  Why do we all have to isolate and face this thing alone?  Why do people have to lose their jobs?  Why is society coming apart at the seams?  Why can’t our political parties work together on a solution?  Why, God?  Where are You, God?  Are You sleeping?  Are You unaware?  Don’t You care that we are perishing?
            Where was Jesus when Lazarus died?  Was He really so far away?  He knew exactly what Lazarus was suffering.  He knew exactly when Lazarus died.  And this was all to serve God’s purpose in saving His disciples, saving Mary and Martha, raising Lazarus from the dead, saving you and raising you.  Where there was sickness, where there was death, Jesus came.  And then what?  When He saw Mary weeping, and her companions weeping, “he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” (v. 33).  Jesus is with us in our grief.  He is troubled by it.  He weeps with us.  And then, when they show Him the tomb, “Jesus wept” (v. 35).  See how he loved him!” (v. 36).  And then, coming right up to the tomb, Jesus is deeply moved again (v. 38), as He orders the stone to be taken away (v. 39).  Jesus weeps over our death.  Oh, He knows what He will do about it.  He does not weep in hopelessness or helplessness.  He weeps because He loves us.  He weeps because death is not what He intended for us.  God did not create us to die.  Sin did that.  We did that.  Here on the threshold of the tomb, He who created us weeps over our fallenness.  Does He care?  You bet He does! 
            Okay, so if He cares and He weeps, why does He bring us to this point of helplessness and nothingness and death?  Because He loves you and He is showing you that apart from Him you are nothing but dead, dry bones rotting in the valley.  He is bringing you to the end of yourself.  You can do nothing, finally, to save yourself.  You can do nothing about death except be dead.  He is stripping you of your idols.  Government is good, but the government will not save you.  Just more dry bones acting like they can give life to dry bones.  Doctors and nurses are wonderful (and boy do we pray for them in these days as they are on the front lines of the battle against this pandemic).  But they won’t save you.  None of them has a cure for death!  Money can’t save you.  Nor can the things money can buy, like toilet paper and hand sanitizer, much as those things are helpful.  Rich people with triple-ply and sanitized hands still die. 
            Jesus brings you to death so that He can bring you to life.  So that you believe in Him and live.  See now that I, even I,” says your God, “am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal” (Deut. 32:39). 
            So Jesus stands weeping outside the tomb of the one He loves, the one He let suffer and die, and He opens His mouth and cries out with a loud voice: “Lazarus, come out” (John 11:43).  And what happens but these bones live.  The Spirit breathes life into the stinking corpse and the man who was dead comes out, hands and feet still bound with the linen strips, face still covered with a cloth.  And Jesus commands: “Unbind him, and let him go” (v. 44). 
            Jesus opens His mouth today and unbinds you from sin and death.  He forgives you all your sins.  And He speaks His enlivening Spirit into you.  You were spiritually dead.  But Jesus prophesies to the breath and behold, a rattling.  He raises you to life, to faith in Him, breathing His Spirit upon you in His Word.  He clothes you with Himself, with His resurrection life in Baptism.  You have eternal life already now by Baptism into Christ, albeit this life is now hidden with Christ in God (Col. 3:3).  On that Day when He comes again in glory with His holy angels, He will raise you bodily.  He will come right up to your grave and cry with a loud voice, “Beloved, come out!”  And that is what you will do.
            For Jesus knows what it is to be bound in death.  He went to His death, willingly, on the cross, for you, as the sacrifice of atonement for your sins.  He suffered.  He died.  Like Lazarus, He was buried and His tomb was sealed by a stone.  And all who loved Him wept.  But see, that is what He does, ultimately, about our suffering.  He suffers it.  That is what He does, ultimately, about our death.  He dies it.  And then the Third Day.  Lazarus’ resurrection pointed to this very moment.  Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. 
            In the midst of grief and death, Jesus speaks His Promise: “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”  What a breath of fresh air!  What a breath of the life-giving Holy Spirit!  The Lord brings us to life by His Word.  He loves us!  He cares for us!  He is in our suffering with us!  And He who died, and who is risen from the dead, raises us.  Do not lose heart.  Do not fear.  Jesus lives!  So do you in Him.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.                  

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Annunciation of Our Lord

The Annunciation of Our Lord
March 25, 2020
Text: Luke 1:26-38
            We need a little Christmas, right this very minute.  Okay, hokey song.  But it has never been more true.  Right in the midst of Lent.  Right in the midst of this pandemic and crippling isolation.  While people are panicking and turning against one another.  While others are suffering and dying.  While the economy tanks and we’re all wondering how this ends and where we’ll be as a society when all is said and done.  Just then, just now, Jesus comes.  Emmanuel, God with us.  Christmas.  Or in this case, His conception in the womb of the Virgin Mary.  The angel Gabriel announces it to Mary, thus the Feast of Annunciation.  And almighty God rides in on the wings of His Word through the ear of the virgin and takes up residence in her womb.  God is now flesh and blood.  He has skin in the game.  He’s in it with us.  When we comfort one another in these trying times, saying “God is with us,” we can point to the Annunciation, the conception of Jesus, and be assured that He isn’t just with us spiritually.  He’s with us bodily.  In the flesh.  Really and truly.  All the way.  And that means He knows what it is to suffer all the afflictions of the body: sickness, pain, hunger and want, fear and anxiety, grief… all of it.  All that comes of life in a world broken by sin and death.  And He takes it all into His body to redeem us from it, from our sin and all its consequences, by His death on the cross.
            We could simply call this the Feast of the Body of Jesus.  That is what the Feast of the Annunciation is all about.  It was at just this moment that He became one of us, for us, for our salvation, to be Jesus for us, Jesus, which means “The LORD saves.”  This, by the way, speaks to the sanctity of all human life beginning in the womb.  Just as our Lord takes on human flesh and blood, becomes a man for us men and for our salvation, so He becomes a Zygote for zygotes, a Blastocyst for blastocysts, an Embryo for embryos, a Fetus for fetuses.  Life begins at this very moment, when God brings into being a new human person in a mother’s body.  It is a miracle every time.  Jesus goes through all the stages to redeem all the stages.  He is a Baby for babies.  A Toddler for toddlers.  A Child for children.  And yes, a Teenager for Teenagers.  He is a fully grown Man for adults.  He is a Man for you.
            And why?  Why would God become a man with flesh and blood?  He does it to make you His own.  He does it for your redemption.  At just the right time, He who gave the Law places Himself under the Law.  God sends forth His Son, born of woman, born under the Law, to redeem you who are under the Law, that you may receive adoption as sons (Gal. 4:4-5).  He fulfills the Law for you, in your place, the Law you have not fulfilled, and you get all the credit.  He undoes all the damage done by Adam.  He obeys where Adam rebels.  He is the Seed of the woman come to crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15).  This is the ancient Promise.  God must be born of a woman to redeem us from sin and death. 
            And God must be flesh and blood to die.  God cannot die.  He is Life in Himself.  But God does die on the cross because He is a man, Jesus of Nazareth, Son of Mary.  God suffers.  God bleeds.  God cries out in pain.  Because He is a man.  His flesh is pierced with thorns.  His flesh is beaten and scourged.  His flesh is nailed to the tree.  He dies a bodily death, the shameful death of a criminal.  His fleshly side is pierced with the spear.  And from His body pours forth blood and water.  It is all very corporeal.  The Father puts Jesus, our new Adam, fully man, into the deep sleep of death, and from His side brings forth a spotless and holy Bride, the Church, born of water (Baptism), nourished by the blood (the Lord’s Supper), forgiven all her sins, healed and made whole.
            Now, after His crucifixion, our Lord’s body was laid into a tomb, dead as dead can be, wrapped in burial cloths, sealed by a stone, guarded by soldiers.  And do you know… none of that could keep Him in.  Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.  Bodily.  The body conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, is risen and living.  Right now, His heart beats and blood courses through His veins.  Right now, He has skin and muscles and nerves and all the features a human body has.  Only they work as they were always meant to work.  That is what it means to be raised from the dead.  Fully restored.  His body, the very body with which He walked the earth, suffered and died, is glorified and whole.  Except for the wounds, which no longer hurt Him, but are left as a testimony that this is He who died.  He is risen and lives.  He is not a ghost, as He proves to the disciples.  He can eat and drink, touch and be touched.  He invites Thomas to go ahead and poke around the holes in His hands and side.  It is a flesh and blood man, Jesus, who is risen from the dead.  It is a flesh and blood man, Jesus, who has ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  Of the line of David, He is David’s Son.  He’s the King!  He reigns.  He rules all things for our good.  All things are subject to Him. 
            And it all hinges on the Annunciation.  It all hinges on a real conception of a real human being who is God in the womb of the Virgin Mary.  How can these things be?  Mary is wondering, since she is a virgin.  It’s a natural question.  She knows how these things work.  By now her parents have had “The Talk” with her.  In her case, it is not so much a rational objection as it is an honest question.  How is this gonna work?  And the angel answers, not with a technical explanation, but with preaching: The Holy Spirit will come upon you.  The power of the Most High will overshadow you.  And the Child will be in you, God’s Son.  It is a beautiful mystery, a thing not to be understood, but believed.  It is a Trinitarian action: The Spirit coming upon, the Most High (the Father) overshadowing, the Son conceived.  And it all happens by the Word of the Lord.  That is how God always works.  Through His Word, which does what He says.  “Let there be light,” and there was light.  “It is finished,” and so it was from the cross.  “Your sins are forgiven,” and they are forgiven.  “This is my body, this is my blood,” and bread and wine are His body and His blood.  Because He says so.  It happens as God says.  The Spirit comes upon her.  The Father overshadows her.  The Child is conceived.  As He says.  God is a man.
            We ask, “How can these things be,” too.  Our question does tend to be a rational objection.  How can a child be born of a virgin?  Ridiculous!  How can God become a man?  Absurd!  How can God die?  Why would He die?  What kind of God would do that?  And how does that save us?  On and on it goes.  Objection after objection to the teachings of the Lord.  We think we know better than God.  Enough!  Silence!  Repent.  God can do what He can do, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37; ESV).  Why, even old, barren, Elizabeth has miraculously conceived, albeit in her case with the participation of her elderly husband, Zechariah.  God created nature, and God is above nature.  God uses nature for His purposes.  Mary teaches us how we are to receive the mysterious gifts of God.  In simple faith.  In simple trust.  Believing His Word, which is powerful to do what He says.  The Word enters our ear and conceives faith in our heart.  Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (v. 38).
            And this is just what we need, right here and now, in our present circumstances.  To know God is with us in it, in the flesh.  Emmanuel.  To know that He has redeemed us from sin by His bodily death and resurrection, and so we are redeemed from death and all of death’s symptoms, including coronavirus and economic and societal uncertainty.  To know that Jesus is risen from the dead, bodily, and He’ll raise us, bodily, on the Last Day.  Nature itself is subject to the One who took on our nature.  Nature is God’s creature.  Nature belongs to Jesus.  He made it.  He rules it.  He has redeemed it.  So the answer to coronavirus, ultimately, is Christmas.  Or even before that, the Annunciation.  Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary for you.  Whatever happens to us with viruses or the economy or… whatever, we’re safe.  In Jesus.  The LORD saves.  That is what He has done.  That is what He does.  In the body and blood of Jesus.  May it be to us according to His Word.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.              

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Fourth Sunday in Lent (A)
March 22, 2020
Text: John 9:1-41
            (W)ho sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2; ESV).  Who sinned?  Must have been somebody, because we know that what goes around comes around, poetic justice, karma, divine retribution.  Where tragedy or misfortune strike, there must be some one-to-one correspondence between the sinner and what he has coming.  That is the way they thought in the ancient world, and especially among the Jews, so it was a natural question on the part of the disciples.  As a matter of fact, we’re asking that question in some ways regarding this pandemic.  Who sinned, China or the United States… or Italy, or some other country, that God is visiting this pestilence upon us?  There are some irresponsible preachers who, in times of tragedy, recklessly give answer to just that question as though they know God’s hidden will and can identify who the sinners are, excluding themselves, of course.  They need to silence themselves.  They are false prophets.  They have not been sent by God.
            Even apart from the question of divine justice, we love to ask the question, “Who sinned?” in such a way that we may assign blame.  Even secularists employ this tactic.  Who sinned, President Trump and the Republicans, or the Democrats who oppose the president?  Your answer to that question may just expose who you’ve adopted as your idol, your god, and who you’ve identified as the devil.  Who sinned?  The guy who sneezed without covering his mouth and nose, or the person advocating the cancelling of all of life for weeks, or even months, on end so we can protect ourselves.  We’re anxious.  We’re fearful.  And anxiety and fear so easily mutate into anger.  And anger needs an outlet, to be unleashed, someone or something to punish.  So who sinned?  Let’s get ‘em! 
            But none of that is helpful.  Nor is it right.  Who sinned, this man, or his parents?  You’ve got it all wrong, says Jesus.  Oh, of course they are sinners, He’s not denying that.  As are we all.  And of course, bad things happen in the world because this is a fallen world due to the sin of our first parents, and our own sin.  But it isn’t that God foresaw that this man would do some terrible thing, and so made him born blind.  Or his parents did some terrible thing, so God gave them a blind child.  No.  This blindness, and this pandemic, and every other terrible thing in the world, is visited upon us, as Jesus says in our text, “that the works of God might be displayed” (v. 3).  In other words, God has His purposes.  We know the Promise as St. Paul writes it in Romans 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”  What is the good?  What is God’s purpose?  To save you!  Oftentimes… most of the time… we can’t say exactly why this or that particular bad thing happened.  It’s a fool’s errand to try.  You cannot know God’s hidden will.  But we can say this: By this terrible thing (blindness, pandemic, whatever it is) God is bringing me to the end of myself.  He’s calling me to repentance, crucifying my sinful nature, brining me to the realization that I’m utterly helpless, that I have no resources within myself to save myself.  And it is at just such a point that He sends the preaching of the Gospel… Christ, His death and resurrection, the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, the resurrection of the body on the Last Day… and this preaching drives me to Christ, to put all my hope and trust in Christ alone. 
            You know what that is?  That is a miraculous opening of your eyes, just as He opened the eyes of the blind man in our Holy Gospel.  It is amazing.  We think we see so clearly that we can assign blame, identify the real sinners, avoid the dangers, lead everyone else to salvation by following our example.  Turns out we’re just blind leaders of the blind!  What Jesus does for us in His Law is identify our true state: Utter blindness.  And then, by the Gospel, He creates us anew. 
            What’s with the spit and the mud rubbed into the man’s eyes?  Gross!  Social distancing, Jesus!  Yeah, but this spit is from the mouth of the God who called creation into existence out of nothing.  This mud is made with the dust from which our father Adam was formed.  Jesus is re-creating the man’s eyes.  They were blind and dark in sin and death.  But at Jesus’ Word and touch, they are opened to righteousness and life.  Then, go to the pool of Siloam and wash.  Where does Jesus create us anew?  At the pool!  At the font!  Sins forgiven, washed clean, healed and whole, God’s own child!  The same miracle done for the man is done for us.  Born spiritually blind, dead, and an enemy of God, at the font, Jesus opens our eyes so that we believe in Him (eyes on Him!), gives us new life, His Life, and restores us to the Father by forgiving our sins.
            He can do this because, for all of us blind sinners, our Lord took up our flesh, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary… true human eyes with pupils and irises and optic nerves, eyes that took in all the evils of life in this fallen world, eyes that wept, eyes that winced in pain, eyes just like our eyes… and He closed them in the blindness of death on the cross.  Only to open them up again on the Third Day.  Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.  Bodily.  And He’ll raise you, bodily, when He comes again in glory.  Blindness, coronavirus, anxiety, fear, and every affliction… sin itself, and sin’s wages, death… they all come to an end in Christ.  Jesus came to make all things new.
            So who sinned?  Wrong question.  We’re all sinners.  By our sins, we all deserve blindness and coronavirus.  Jesus came to atone for our sins and bring us forgiveness and healing and life.  A second question, which is similar in dealing with the problem of evil: Is this affliction a scourge of Satan or a chastening by the Lord?  It doesn’t have to be an either/or.  Satan loves that we’re suffering, and you can bet his wicked fingerprints are all over this thing.  Think of his goals in this: To rob us of faith in Christ.  To rob us of the Word.  To prevent Word and Sacrament ministry, foment fear and anxiety, separate us from our fellow believers and family and friends, turn us against one another.  To cause as much death and destruction and chaos as possible.  Yes, that is the work of the evil one.  But God allowed it.  Satan is not a god.  He is only a creature.  He cannot overpower God.  And he is, in this way, as Luther reminds us, God’s devil.  Which is to say, God can turn the great evil Satan works upon us for our good, which is exactly what He promises to do. 
            I’ve been thinking about this a lot with the pandemic and all the fallout from it.  Evil, no question.  I wish it hadn’t happened to us.  But it did.  So now we must ask, how is God working this so that, as Jesus says, “the works of God might be displayed”?  So that He can show us that He is bringing salvation, healing and wholeness, and making all things new?  Think of the things to which God has opened our eyes by this trial.  First, our own mortality.  We’re always convincing ourselves that we’re strong, that we’re invincible.  It’s the old sin of Adam and Eve.  We think we’re gods!  Turns out, we’re not.  We’re fragile.  We’re vulnerable.  We’re weak.  We’re dying.  That’s just where God needs us so we’re ready to hear the Gospel, that He is God, God for us.  And He has saved us by sending His Son, Christ Jesus.  This pandemic shows us that we’re at the mercy of forces beyond our control, but God shows us in the Gospel that even more so are we at the mercy of a God who controls all things for our good. 
            Second, in all of this, we Christians have been called to recognized vividly the truth that man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4).  We know, for the first time in most of our lives, what it is to not have access to the Church and preaching and Sacraments and the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren.  That’s why you’re here!  We’re craving it.  We’re starving for it.  We realize, now, that we’ve taken it for granted for so long.  God has opened our eyes to just how precious His Word and gifts are.  We need His means of grace, the medicine of immortality.  We need it like oxygen, like water.  It is life, because it brings us Jesus and His salvation.
            Third, all the other stuff of this life… is not life.  Our eyes have been opened to the things that really matter, and to just how much we can live without.  The eyes of our fallen flesh look around at a time like this and see only the threat of scarcity and the fear that if we don’t hoard up all kinds of things, God will suddenly stop giving us our daily bread.  As though our Father in heaven can’t be trusted.  As though He’ll stop caring and providing for us.  Jesus opens our eyes by the Word to see that, with or without, in hunger and in plenty (cf. Phil. 4:11-13), God will provide for us each day, whatever we need for this body and life.  He has in the past, up until this very moment.  He won’t forsake us now.  Trust Him.  You’re safe in Him.
            Buy what you need, of course.  Be wise.  Plan ahead.  But don’t hoard.  For this is another thing to which our Lord has opened our eyes.  The need of our neighbor.  Knowing that God will provide for us, we also see that God provides for our neighbor through us.  Make sure your neighbor has what he needs.  Do not neglect to do good,” says the writer to the Hebrews, “and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Heb. 13:15).  Give an offering.  Even in these times when we’re away from the Church.  It’s hard to say that as a pastor, but I’ve been very direct with our members about this, and I know a number of you who are watching are from other congregations, so let me say this on behalf of your pastor: Please send in your offerings to your congregation.  We have a responsibility in these times to provide for the preservation of our Church and the preaching of the Gospel.  And give alms.  That is a word we need to reclaim.  Alms, aid to those in need.  Money, food, other necessities to those who lack.  A number of people will be laid off or lose their jobs entirely in this.  It’s time for Christians to be God’s merciful hands in the world.  Let’s take care of one another. 
            And here’s the thing: Don’t do this so God will reward you.  There is no place for merit in this.  That is the old blindness.  Do this because God has already saved you and promised to provide for all your needs and sustain you in Christ Jesus.  Sacrificial giving is an exercise of faith that God will provide.  It is a concrete act of prayer.  It is a concrete expression of love. 
            Who sinned?  We all did.  Who saves us?  Jesus does.  Jesus, and Jesus alone.  He opens our eyes.  We look only to Him.  Even in bitter times like this.  Don’t lose focus by blaming others or casting aspersions.  Don’t look to yourself and your own resources for one minute to get you out of this pinch.  Look to Jesus.  Eyes on Jesus.  He who died for us, lives for us.  He’ll never let us down.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.                

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Lenten Midweek III

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Lenten Midweek III: “Eyes on Jesus: Betraying Eyes”[1] 
March 18, 2020 
Text: Mark 14:26-31, 66-72
            Peter, how could you botch this?  You, who boasted that you would never fall away, never deny the Lord, that you would follow Jesus to death, if necessary.  You had confessed Him!  You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29; ESV), you declared boldly, on behalf of your brother Apostles.  But then you tried to dissuade your Lord from suffering, being rejected and killed, going the way of death and resurrection.  Get behind me, Satan!” He had to say then, “For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (v. 33).  Now confronted by a little servant girl warming herself by the fire, you lose every ounce of courage.  You deny that you even know Him, not once, not twice, but three times!  There is even a rooster crowing his sermon in the midst of it all, calling you to repentance, but you call down curses upon yourself, swearing to God that you do not know the Man.  Your eyes betray you, wild with fear.  Your accent gives you away.  You are a Galilean.  Surely a Christ follower!  The rooster crows again, and this time the Lord’s Word hits its mark.  Right between the eyes.  You break down and weep bitterly.
            It is easy, of course, to beat up on Peter.  But what of you?  You, also, have seen the great salvation of the Lord, His saving deeds, forgiveness, life, and salvation by His death and resurrection for you.  Like Peter, you've heard His gracious Words, you’ve received His saving and healing renewal, born anew by water and the Word, baptized into Christ.  Like Peter, you’ve been there, at the Supper, where Jesus gives you His body, His blood, given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins.  And you’ve made your boasts.  Even if I have to die with you!  Never, never, will I deny you. 
            But you do.  You do deny Him.  Every time you insist on your own way.  Every time you neglect or mistreat a precious human being for whom Christ died.  Every time you recklessly throw yourself into the lustful passions of your flesh, disregarding what Christ has said in His Word, not treating your neighbor’s body, your own body, as holy, created by God, redeemed by Christ, who was crucified in the flesh for you, who is risen, bodily, for you.  Anytime, like Peter, you’ve failed to speak when you should speak, you’ve denied Him.  Anytime you’ve been afraid of the cost of confessing, ashamed of your Lord and His Words, you’ve denied Him. 
            Anytime you fear, love, and trust in anyone or anything more than Him, you deny Jesus.  You deny Him in favor of other gods, your idols.  If there is one thing this pandemic is doing for us, it is exposing our idols.  What do you fear more than the Lord your God?  What do you think can overpower His love and care for you?  What do you love more than the Lord your God?  What things, what people, do you think it is your job to protect, because the Lord cannot possibly handle it on His own, without your help?  What do you trust more than the Lord your God?  We pray for our doctors and nurses and healthcare workers.  We pray for our government, for the scientific community and researchers, and we pray that media will keep us informed so that we can be responsible and cautious.  But you know what all of those entities have in common?  They are not God.  They are not your Savior.  Repent.  Fear, love, and trust in God alone.  He is your only help and salvation.  Through Christ.  He will deliver you from this pandemic, one way or another, either by keeping you safe from it, or by healing you… here and now through medicine, or there and then, on the Day of Resurrection.  The medicine you need more than anything is that which is delivered by Christ in the preaching of His Word and in the Holy Sacraments.  Your sins, your idolatry, your denials, are forgiven you for Jesus’ sake, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. 
            Our Lord Jesus, the Son of God, was fully man, and I’ll bet He was scared when He stood before Caiaphas, the Sanhedrin, Pontius Pilate.  He knew where this would lead.  “Crucify Him!” called out the bloodthirsty crowd, and He knew that soon the wood would be laid upon His shoulder for the slow and agonizing march toward Calvary.  He knew the nails would pierce Him.  He knew He would be lifted up, naked and bleeding, shamed and mocked by the bystanders, crucified between two criminals.  He knew the Father would turn His back: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).  He did not deserve any of this.  Sinless.  Holy.  That is what He is.  It was in His power, you know, to not do this, to not suffer this, to leave us in our sin and condemnation.  So why does He do it? 
            He will not deny the Father, whose will is to save you, and to save you in this way.
            He will not deny you.  His own will is to save you, and to save you in this way.  By paying the price for your sins, the price of your redemption, the sacrifice of atonement, His blood, His suffering, His death.  He takes up His cross to make you His own.  It is in that way that He is for you, as Peter confesses, the Christ.
            Jesus died for you.  But He didn’t stay dead.  He is risen.  Bodily.  And He lives and He reigns for you.  Remember that when you’re scared of this virus.  Remember that when you’re scared of your sin and your guilt.  Remember that when you’re scared of anything else in the whole world.  Jesus lives, and Jesus reigns.  This is all in His hands.  The very hands that were pierced for you.  The very hands He showed His disciples to prove to them that He is risen and alive.
            The way to resurrection is only through death.  The way to Easter is only through Good Friday.  We will get through this, not because we are strong, but because Jesus is strong, because Jesus is risen from the dead.  Resurrection is the end result of all of this.  Now, hard times, yes.  But keep your eyes on Jesus.  He who is risen will raise you.  The Lord has given us quite a Lent.  But imagine the joy we’ll all have when we finally gather together for the great Easter celebration, however and whenever that is. 
            Peter denied His Lord and wept bitter tears of repentance.  You have denied your Lord, and your eyes weep in sorrow, too.  Remember what Jesus did for Peter on the lakeshore after He was risen from the dead (John 21:15-19).  Simon, son of John, do you love me?  Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”  Three times the question.  Three times the answer.  Three times the charge: “Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep… Feed my sheep.”  Three denials.  Three-fold restoration.  Sins forgiven.  Then the call: “Follow me.” 
            To follow Jesus means to take up your cross and go where He goes.  Peter would stretch out his hands and another would dress him and carry him where he did not want to go.  Our Lord told him this to indicate what kind of death Peter was to suffer to glorify God: Crucifixion, like his Lord.  You now have to suffer this pandemic and isolation and the fallout in our nation and our world.  Or cancer, or arthritis, or sacrificial care for a loved one, or persecution for confessing Jesus, or whatever it is.  We all have crosses.  Right now a particular cross of the whole Christian Church is how to be faithful to our members, caring for them with Word and Sacrament ministry and confessing Christ to the world, without endangering them or being irresponsible, and continuing to honor the governmental authorities without compromising our responsibility to preach.  We don’t know exactly how to do this.  We’re doing the best we can, but is it right?  I don’t know. 
            I only know Jesus and His forgiveness if we’re wrong, and His mercy for all our denials and sins.  He forgives us, He restores us, He enlivens us, and He emboldens us, to take up our cross and follow.  To walk in faith.  To confess Him boldly.  To die in His Name, and so to live eternally.  We know exactly where He is taking us.  Through the valley of the shadow and out the other side.  Through the cross and suffering to resurrection and eternal life.  Beloved, eyes on Jesus.  Only on Jesus.  On we go, in the Name of Jesus.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1] The theme and many of the ideas in this sermon are taken from Eyes on Jesus (St. Louis: Concordia, 2019).

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Third Sunday in Lent

Third Sunday in Lent (A)
March 15, 2020
Text: John 4:5-30, 39-42
            She makes her way to the well at a rather strange hour, the sixth hour, high noon, in the heat of the day.  This is not the time the other women come to draw water.  Could it be that she is avoiding them?  Their judgmental glares?  Their gossiping tongues?  Their righteously cold shoulders?  They know who and what kind of woman this is.  She knows it, too.  Her reputation precedes her.  She is a loose woman.  She is a sinner.  Not just in her heart.  A real, honest-to-goodness sinner.  Five husbands.  Five failed marriages.  Each man had used her and then abandoned her.  And now she lives in sin.  The man she now has is not her husband.  He won’t even do her the honor of committing to her.  He uses her body for his own pleasure.  She uses her body to keep him.  The whole situation is broken.  Shameful.  Fallen.  And she just can’t face the other women of the town. 
            But as she approaches, there sits… a man!  A Jewish man!  And she, a Samaritan woman, is to have no dealings with Jewish men.  But she has a job to do, and she’s going to do it, Jewish man or not.  She needs the water.  For drinking, for cooking, for washing, for bathing.  Water is the stuff of life.  You can’t live without it.  So undoubtedly, without a word, she sets down her jar and begins to draw. 
            And that is when things get really scandalous.  Not on her part… On Jesus’ part!  He speaks to her!  A Jew to a Samaritan!  A man to an unaccompanied woman!  An honorable man to this woman!  A clean man to this woman who is anything but clean!  Give me a drink. 
            Now, this woman is no stranger to scandal, but even she thinks this is over the top.  How is it that You, a Jew, ask a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?  We hate each other, remember?  You especially despise us.  We’re the leftovers from the time of the exile, intermarried with the nations, impure in your eyes. 
            Ah, dear woman, if you only knew the gift of God and who it is who is speaking to you, you would understand that you should really be asking me, and I would give you living water, and you will never be thirsty again. 
            Oh, really… How are You going to do that?  Are You greater than Father Jacob, who gave us this well? 
            Ah, dear woman… I AM.
            It should not surprise us that Jesus meets this woman at the well.  The well, the source of life, water.  The well… Cities are named after wells.  Beer-lahai-roi, “Well of the Living One Who Sees Me,” where God saved Hagar (Gen. 16), where Isaac settled (Gen. 25:11).  Beersheba, “The Seven Wells,” dug by Abraham and passed on to his children, a sign of God’s covenant and gift of the Promised Land.  Baalath-beer, “Mistress of the Well,” that is Ramah (Josh. 19:8), where Rachel wells up in tears, weeping for her children and refuses to be comforted (Jer. 31:15; Matt. 2:18). 
            Marriages are made at the well.  Abraham’s servant finds a wife for Isaac, the beautiful Rebekah at a well (Gen. 24).  Jacob meets Rachel at the well (Gen. 29).  Moses meets his wife at the well (Ex. 2).
            And the enemies of God’s people are forever trying to steal the wells (Gen. 21), fill in the wells and ruin them (Gen. 26:15), drive God’s people and their sheep away from the wells (Ex. 2), and God is forever rescuing His people from their enemies and restoring access to the life-giving water.
            So what is Jesus doing at the well?  This is a divine appointment!  A marriage is being made!  Jesus, the faithful Bridegroom, is bringing the Samaritan woman, and soon, her whole community, into the Bride of Christ, the Church!  He is reclaiming the Promised Land.  He is fulfilling God’s ancient covenant.  He is driving away her enemies, the shaking heads and wagging tongues, sin, shame, impurity, filth.  He sees the woman, and He rescues her.  He comforts her and wipes her tears.  Not by excusing her sin, but forgiving her, restoring her, restoring her access to the water, the water of life! 
            Later in John, at the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem, as the priest drew the ceremonial water from the Pool of Siloam and poured it out at the altar in the Temple, Jesus cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:37-38; ESV).  Jesus is the well!  He is the Rock struck by Moses, from which came water in the wilderness for all of God’s people.  As St. Paul says, “all drank the same spiritual drink.  For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Cor. 10:4).  God dug the well on the cross.  He gouged it out from the dust of Jesus’ flesh… His hands, His feet… The soldiers struck His side and, like a well, out gushed the water and the blood.  Jesus is the well, and there on Calvary He thirsted for us men and for our salvation.  I thirst,” He said (John 19:28), as He poured out the water of life from His body for us.  It is finished,” He said (v. 30), as He bowed His head and gave up His Spirit.
            So ask Him if you’re thirsty.  As a matter of fact, before you even ask, there He is, giving you to drink, slaking your thirst with the water of life.  By the time the Samaritan woman asks Him to give her this water always so that she wouldn’t have to keep coming back to the well, He is already pouring forth the water of salvation in His Word. 
            Who really came to whom?  Jesus was there at the well, not by accident.  He’s waiting for her.  Her sin and shame does not dissuade Him.  Nothing will keep Him from saving her.
            What about you?  Who really came to whom?  Jesus was there at the well of the font, not by accident, waiting for you.  Your sin and shame did not dissuade Him.  Nothing will keep Him from saving you.
            Yes, there at the font, in Holy Baptism, Jesus makes you His own.  He brings you into His Church, His holy Bride!  He drives away your enemies, sin, death, the devil… all who would fill in the well or drive you from it.  He gives you access to the living water of salvation that flows form His wounds.  It flows to you in His Word and Holy Sacraments.
            And unlike all the others who came before… the five husbands who used and abandoned the poor woman at the well, the man who was using her for his own selfish desires and would not marry her, the idols that defile you and abandon you, with whom you have made yourself unclean… unlike all of them, Jesus is ever faithful.  For the first time in her life, a man truly loved the woman at the well, not in lewdness, but in faithfulness.  For the first time in your life, at the well of the font, you have a God who actually loves you, who is faithful, who will never leave you nor forsake you, who forgives you and restores you and provides for your every need.
            Divorce is not God’s will for you.  It happens, I understand (and of course, there are the biblical reasons for divorce; namely, adultery [Matt. 19:8-9] and abandonment [1 Cor. 7:15]), but it is not God-pleasing.  It is a mark of the pervasive brokenness of humanity.  We are not meant to go from husband to husband, wife to wife.  And we should not live together outside of marriage.  We should reserve sex for marriage.  I know this is hard for you, but you must hear it.  The boyfriend who expects his girlfriend to live with him outside of marriage, who expects sex from her before marriage, is using her in the same way the Samaritan woman was used.  Christian men, don’t be that guy!  Christian women, don’t let your boyfriend be that guy!  Don’t give yourself to that kind of guy.  Repent.  Your body is holy.  You are precious to the Lord.  You should treat one another as precious and holy.  Just get married!  Commit!  Love one another really and truly, in the full sense of the word.  If you are in a situation that is not God-pleasing, come and see your pastor to be absolved, and to make the situation right. 
            For whatever your sins, Jesus will not reject you.  Neither will your pastor, by the way.  Jesus will take your shame from you.  He will not leave you in your sin.  He will forgive you.  He will wash away your guilt.  He will quench your thirst with living water.  His Spirit.  His righteousness.  His salvation.  Poured out from His sacred veins.  Pooled in font and chalice.  Flowing from His mouth in the speaking of His Word and Absolution.
            And what will happen then?  The water that Jesus gives will become in you a spring of water welling up to eternal life.  Salvation will bubble over with faith toward God and fervent love toward one another.  Faith will bring forth faithfulness.  The Spirit will open your lips to go and tell others, without fear and without shame.  And like the Samaritan woman, you’ll bring them with you to encounter Jesus for themselves.  Where?  The well, of course.  Jesus meets His Bride around the well.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.