Sunday, February 28, 2021

Second Sunday in Lent

Second Sunday in Lent (B)

February 28, 2021

Text: Mark 8:27-38

            Peter gets so much right, and Peter gets so much wrong.  He gets it entirely right when he sticks with what has been revealed to him by the Father.  That is, when he sticks with Jesus and with His Word.  He gets it entirely wrong when he lapses into his own ideas of what Jesus should say and do, and how Jesus should be the Christ and save Peter and the rest of us.

            Jesus asks His disciples what people are saying about Him, who He is, and what He is doing.  And everybody has an opinion.  Some say John the Baptist.  We know Herod was of that opinion.  Others say Elijah.  God promised, after all, that Elijah would come back before the great and awesome Day of the Lord (Mal. 4:5).  Others say one of the prophets, like Isaiah or Jeremiah, or perhaps even that Prophet Moses spoke about, like unto him, to whom we are to listen (Deut. 18:15, 18).  And though they misunderstood the concept, it is true that Jesus is that Prophet. 

            The fact is, though, that all of these opinions are based, not on Jesus’ fulfillment of God’s revealed Word, but on subjective opinion.  And there is nothing new under the sun.  Who do people say that Jesus is today?  In general, they say He is whoever they want Him to be.  Never mind what the Scriptures say or what is historically true.  “My Jesus would never do…” this or that thing that we don’t want Him to do.  “My Jesus would never say…” this or that thing we don’t want Him to say.  Instead, “my Jesus” would do and say, think and believe, what I do and say, think and believe.  He’d want me to live with my boyfriend or girlfriend outside of marriage, because that is what I want.  He is not concerned with my sexual preferences, my gender identity, or the sanctity of marriage and life.  He’d want me to cheat on my taxes.  He’d endorse my candidate for office.  He’d want me to be happy and true to myself, even if my life choices contradict His Word.  What is the old Mark Twain quip?  “God created man in His own image.  And man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.”  Actually, it may have been Jean-Jacques Rousseau who said it, or Voltaire, or George Bernard Shaw, or somebody else enitrely depending on which internet site you believe.  But it doesn’t matter, because in our relativistic culture, Mark Twain does or says whatever I want Mark Twain to do or say.  And, as Abe Lincoln said, you can’t believe everything you read on the internet. 

            People say a lot of things when it comes to who Jesus is.  And for the most part, they couldn’t be more wrong.  But the more important question is the personal question.  Who do you say that I am?  And here you are not to look within your own heart or mind to determine who you’d like for Jesus to be.  That is not the question He is asking.  Peter and the Apostles had been with Jesus for some time now, hearing His teaching, seeing His signs, encountering the objective reality that is Jesus of Nazareth.  It is on the basis of that objective reality that they are to answer.  So you, here in the holy Church.  You have received Jesus’ teaching in the Holy Scriptures.  You've heard all His signs in the reading of the Gospel.  And you’ve seen it here in the Sacraments, albeit hidden under common elements.  And in these words, and in these signs, you’ve encountered the Lord’s saving work.  So on the basis of that revelation, and not your own thoughts and feelings about it, who do you say Jesus is?  And there can be only one answer.  Peter speaks it for us, on the basis of the Man, Jesus, and His Word: “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29; ESV).  You are the One promised by God, anointed by Him with the Holy Spirit, to save us from our sins, from death, and from the power of the devil.  Another way to say it is, “You are the Savior!  You are the Lord!”

            But what does that mean?  Here Jesus teaches us.  It means that “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (v. 31).  The word translated here as “must” indicates divine necessity.  That is, this is God’s eternal plan for our salvation.  How will He save sinners?  Through suffering and the cross.  There is no other way.  Jesus will give Himself over into the hands of His enemies to suffer their cruelty and be murdered by them.  And Peter, for one, will have none of it.  “Over my dead body!  Look, Lord, there is another way.  See how popular You are?  It is because of the miracles.  Free healthcare with a 100% success rate.  And the people find Your teaching refreshing.  It’s a nice change from the burdensome legalism of the Jewish leadership.  And the kicker of it all?  Messianic expectations are high, because we’re getting sick and tired of these Romans and their subjugation.  Just say the word, and we’ll all follow You into battle, a mighty, God-ordained, revolutionary army.”  That is the kind of Christ you get when you follow Peter’s ideas of what Jesus should say and do, and how He should fill the roles of Christ and Savior. 

            But what you don’t get, in any sense, is the forgiveness of sins and salvation from death and hell.

            Get behind me, Satan!  For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (v. 33).  It is a stunning rebuke for the one who had just got it so right in his confession that Jesus is the Christ.  In dissuading Jesus from the cross and suffering, Peter had become a little satan, and the mouthpiece of the evil one.  Peter had become Jesus’ adversary (“satan,” you’ll recall, means “adversary”).  But believe it or not, Jesus says this in love… Love for Peter, and love for the rest of the disciples, who are thinking the same thing as Peter.  And in love for you.  Because Peter’s idea of the Christ is not the Christ you need, or the Christ who will save you.  And our Lord diagnoses the problem.  Peter got it right, as long as he stuck with Jesus and His Word.  Peter got it wrong when he gave first place in his mind to the things of man, to human reason, to emotion, to fleshly desire, the fallen nature.

            And you also have to look at what Peter missed, because we miss this, too, whenever we have in mind the things of man rather than the things of God.  Yes, this salvation can only happen through the suffering, rejection, and death of the cross.  But after three daysafter three days, the Son of Man will rise again.  Jesus’ suffering transforms suffering.  Jesus’ death transforms death.  The suffering and death of Jesus ends in His resurrection from the dead and His glory at the right hand of the Father.  And do you see what that means for you?  When you suffer and die in Jesus, your suffering and death ends in your own resurrection from the dead, and in glory as you reign with Christ in the eternal presence of the living God.  That is the kind of Christ you get when you forsake Peter’s and your own ideas of what Jesus should say and do, and how He should fill the roles of Christ and Savior.  You get forgiveness of sins, and eternal salvation from death and hell.  Righteousness, the Kingdom, peace, heaven, healing, wholeness, and eternal resurrection life.

            But it only comes through the cross and suffering.  It comes through Jesus’ cross and suffering for you.  And now He bids you, in this life, for a little while, to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Him.  And He tells you what that cross is.  It is to live and believe in the revelation of God in Christ the Crucified, and His Gospel, His Word.  It is to put to death the things of man so prevalent in your mind, and cling to the things of God, even when they hurt.  It is to know and believe that all that Jesus does and speaks is for your good, and in spite of all appearances, He will never give you anything bad for you.  It is to suffer all in this faith.  And it is to confess Him, and confess His Word, even when that confession offends the world.  Even when it offends those you love.  Even when it offends you.  It is to be unashamed of Christ and His Word, and to take whatever punishment those offended mete out to you, to bear suffering and rejection, and even death… for the sake of Christ who suffered, was rejected, and died for you; and His Word, which is life to you.  After all, even if you gained the whole world for the few fleeting days of your earthly life, what would it profit you in the end if you find yourself in hell?  But in losing your life for Jesus’ sake, and for the Gospel… maybe even literally, if necessary… you save it.  For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (v. 38).  But the converse is also true.  To quote Jesus from another place, “everyone who acknowledges,” that is, confesses, me before men, I will also acknowledge,” confess, “before my Father in heaven” (Matt. 10:32).  And as He says in the Revelation to the Church in Smyrna: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev. 2:10).

            We know that despite Peter’s bold assertions of loyalty, he would be swallowed up by the waves of his own cowardly denials.  That is where having in mind the things of man gets you.  And so you, if you are ashamed of Jesus as He really is, objectively, revealed in His Word, and in the flesh.  On your own, you get it so wrong.  But by the grace of God in Christ, Peter came around.  The Lord caught him, and lifted him out of the abyss, and restored him.  The Holy Spirit came upon him, and reminded him of all that Jesus did and taught (John 14:26).  And so you, in the preaching of the Word.  The Holy Spirit comes to you by the Word, and in the acts of Jesus in Baptism and Supper.  There is only one way to put to death in you the things of man, so that you have in mind only the things of God.  The Spirit, as He comes to you in the Word.  He gives you a new mind, to think the things of God, and to love them, and to love Him.  And to suffer… to bear your cross, confessing Him faithfully, whatever the consequences, knowing always where this leads.  Resurrection.  Life.  Because of Jesus and His suffering and cross and resurrection and life.  When you stick with Jesus and His Word, you get it all so right.  God grant us steadfastness in this faith and confession now and forever.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.             


Thursday, February 25, 2021

Lenten Midweek 1

Lenten Midweek I: “Return to the LORD: A Call to Prayer”[1]

February 24, 2021

Text: Matt. 26:36-46

            Return to the LORD your God” (Joel 2:13; ESV).  Return to Him in prayer.  You should pray.  God tenderly invites you, and when you think about what that invitation is, that the Almighty Creator and Ruler of the universe wants to hear from you, about all your concerns large and small, from world pandemics to where you left your car keys, one can hardly imagine why you would refuse.  But whether or not you are inclined to accept His invitation, you should know that God commands you to pray, and He expects it.  Just as it is a misuse of God’s Name to call upon Him falsely or profanely, so it is a misuse of His Name not to call upon Him at all.  Prayer should be easy, and we should want to do it.  Prayer is, after all, simply holding converse with your Father who loves you, your Brother, Jesus Christ, who has redeemed you, and the Spirit of the Father and Jesus who abides with you.  Prayer is the breath of faith.  You inhale the life-giving and life-sustaining oxygen of God’s Word, and you exhale your petitions, supplications, and thanksgivings.  And in this way, prayer is really a two-way conversation.  So prayer should come as naturally as breathing.  But it doesn’t, does it?  It doesn’t come naturally to our fallen flesh.  It is a struggle.  It is as Jesus says to His sleepy disciples: “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41). 

            What makes it so difficult is, first of all, Old Adam’s disinclination.  Now, you’ve been redeemed from that by Jesus’ crucifixion and death which covers all your sins, and you are baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ.  His life is in you and His Spirit is in you, so it is not that Old Adam reigns supreme in this.  Your spirit is willing, as Jesus says, the new you, the New Creation in Christ that daily emerges and arises out of the baptismal waters.  You do want to pray.  But the flesh is weak, and that is where the disinclination comes from.  And you have to know about that in order to fight it.  Essentially, it is spiritual lethargy.  Laziness.  Sleepiness.  I know I should pray, but I don’t really want to right now.  There are other things I’d rather do.  I’m tired.  I’m hungry.  I’ll get to it later.  But, of course, you don’t get to it later, because later isn't a good time, either.  Or it can be a matter of misplaced priorities.  I have so much to do, I couldn’t possibly take the time to pray right now.  Here it is helpful to keep in mind what Luther famously said, that he had so much to do, he’d better spend at least the first three hours of the day in prayer.  For him, it may not have been an exaggeration. 

            But perhaps most serious are the doubts the devil plants into your heart and soul regarding prayer.  “Does God even hear me?  Does He desire my prayer?  Will He answer?  Does He care?  Surely God does not want to hear the poor petitions of a sinner like me.”  These are the very issues Dr. Luther addresses in his Large Catechism, and here he is worth quoting at length:


“we let thoughts like these lead us astray and stop us: ‘I am not holy or worthy enough.  If I were as godly and holy as St. Peter or St. Paul, then I would pray.’  But put such thoughts far away.  For the same commandment that applied to St. Paul applies also to me.  The Second Commandment is given as much on my account as on his account, so that Paul can boast about no better or holier commandment.


“You should say, ‘My prayer is as precious, holy, and pleasing to God as that of St. Paul or of the most holy saints.  This is the reason: I will gladly grant that Paul is personally more holy, but that’s not because of the commandment.  God does not consider prayer because of the person, but because of His Word and obedience to it.  For I rest my prayer on the same commandment on which all the saints rest their prayer.  Furthermore, I pray for the same thing that they all pray for and always have prayed.  Besides, I have just as great a need of what I pray for as those great saints; no, even a greater one than they” (LC III:15-16 [McCain]). 


            And then Luther calls our attention to the promises of God in the Holy Scriptures concerning prayer: God “says in Psalm 50:15, ‘Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you.’  And Christ says in the Gospel of St. Matthew, ‘Ask, and it will be given to you; . . . for everyone who asks receives’ (7:7-8).  Such promises certainly ought to encourage and kindle our hearts to pray with pleasure and delight” (LC III:19-20). 

            Our Lord Jesus is our example in this.  So often, Jesus went off by Himself to a place of solitude to pray to His heavenly Father (e.g. Matt. 14:23).  He did this regularly, but especially before major events in His life and ministry; for example, He prayed all night before calling the Twelve to Himself to be His Apostles (Luke 6:12).  And here we find Him in our Holy Gospel this evening, praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, in great agony before His sacrificial death, asking the Father to take the cup of suffering from Him… yet not His will, but the Father’s be done.  And He asked His three best friends to wait with Him, and watch with Him, and pray with Him, but their eyes were too heavy, and the flesh too weak.  Just like us, they were overcome by their sinful nature.  But Jesus was not deterred.  Three times He went back and fell on His face before God.  Three times He petitioned His Father in heaven.  In His very worst moments, in the Day of trouble, He called upon His Father for help and deliverance. 

            We should follow His example of persistence in prayer.  But even more, we should rejoice that our Lord prays faithfully for us and in our place.  Not only does He suffer and die for the forgiveness of our faithlessness, He fulfills the Commandment where we fail, and His perfect faithfulness is credited to our account.  So we can approach the throne of God confidently, covered by the sin-atoning blood of Jesus and by all His righteousness, knowing that God will hear us and answer for the sake of His beloved Son.

            God does not reject our prayer because of our sins or because prayer is a struggle for us.  He gladly hears us for Jesus’ sake.  But He does know that in our earthly life praying will always be a struggle.  So He gives us promises to sustain us and tools to help us, so that we do not lose heart, but always pray (Luke 18:1).  We do not know what to pray for as we ought, and we so often have trouble finding the right words.  So the Spirit of God helps us in our weakness and intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express (Rom. 8:26).  Jesus Himself, who is risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father, prays for us, and with us, and in us.  And He gives us words that are always the very best words to pray.  He gives us His prayer, the Lord’s Prayer.  This is the most perfect prayer, because it comes from the mouth of our Lord Himself, and includes every need of body and soul.  And because it is the Word of God, it also serves as a means of grace.  It preaches to us every time we pray it, and gives us Jesus and His salvation. 

            And there are other prayers our Lord gives us.  The Kyrie appears so often throughout the Scriptures: “Lord have mercy.  Christ have mercy.  Lord have mercy.”  It is a prayer that is always right and fitting, and should always be ready upon our lips and in our hearts.  When we see something terrible, “Lord have mercy.”  When we hear that someone is sick or suffering, “Christ have mercy,” and so forth. 

            Then there are the Psalms, the prayers and hymns of the Old Testament Church now fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who also prayed them (for example, on the way to the Gethsemane and from the cross), and so they are now made the prayers of the New Testament Church in the fullest sense.  There are Psalms that fit every occasion, and when you know them, they become an inexhaustible spring of consolation.  That is why I recommend praying Psalms every day, because in that way, you will come to know them, and you will know which ones fit whatever your particular need may be at the moment.  And even when you are praying a Psalm that doesn’t seem to fit your particular need that day, remember that you are praying for, and with, the whole Church of God in Christ Jesus, and someone in that number does need that prayer.  And they are praying for, and with, you, and so at any moment you can be comforted in knowing that Christians you do not know, and who do not know you, are praying for you: the Lord’s Prayer, the Kyrie, the Prayer of the Church, Psalms that fit your very set of circumstances.  And God in heaven is hearing, and answering, and coming for your aid and deliverance. 

            Of course, you can and should speak your own prayers, too, what are sometimes called ex corde prayers, “out of the heart” prayers.  Though I don’t really like that term, because it seems to imply that the biblical prayers are somehow less sincere.  But would you really ever argue that some prayer you make up is better and more God pleasing than our Lord’s Prayer or the prayers from Holy Scripture?  Let me tell you something, I’ve been at the bedside in dire circumstances and at death, and in those moments, the last thing people care to hear is me making up stuff out of my poor heart.  But say the Our Father and they are immediately comforted, and often even in great weakness, dementia, or delusion, the Spirit brings those words to their own lips, and they pray a mighty prayer that rattles the heavens and burns the devil’s backside. 

            And never underestimate the prayers of the Church, the liturgy, the collects, the hymns, the prayer books, saturated as they are with Holy Scripture, that have stood the test of time and circumstance.  The fact is, we do often struggle to find the words to pray.  And so, here are words.  Pray them.  Pray them individually, and join your voice with others to pray them here in the Christian congregation.  The Spirit will help you in your weakness, and these words will enrich you and sanctify you, and your Father in heaven will hear them, and answer for Jesus’ sake. 

            If you find that prayer is a struggle (and my guess is that you often do, because the flesh is weak), here is what you do.  Set aside a specific time each day, in a specific place, so that this becomes a habit.  Take your Bible and your hymnal, or some compendium of the two, like the Treasury of Daily Prayer or the Catechism.  Open the book and pray the words God has given.  This will inevitably lead to the Spirit opening your lips for the people and needs in your life as you converse with your Father in heaven.  And God will not forsake you in this.  As you return to the LORD your God in prayer, you will find that He is right there with open arms and open ears, to hear your prayer, answer you, and help you.  “Our Father who art in heaven,” we are given to pray.  What does this mean?  With these words God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear father.”[2]  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.                  


[1] The theme and many of the ideas for this sermon are from Eric Longman, Return to the Lord: Resources for Lent-Easter Preaching and Worship (St. Louis: Concordia, 2020).

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

Sunday, February 21, 2021

First Sunday in Lent

First Sunday in Lent (B)

February 21, 2021

Text: Mark 1:9-15

            The minute you are baptized, you become a giant target for the devil and his deadly knives, darts, and arrows.  Because he can’t stand that you now belong to God.  And not only do you belong to Him, but you are God’s own child.  So the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking to someone devour (1 Peter 5:8).  Through false christs and false prophets who perform great signs, he seeks, if possible, to lead astray even the elect (Matt. 24:24).  He harnesses the unbelieving world against you, empty philosophy, the spirit of the times, the glitter of fame, the allure of money, the prestige of power, the seduction of sex, to turn your mind, to bend it away from God and toward yourself.  He harnesses your old sinful nature against you, appealing to Adam’s appetites.  It worked with food in the garden, as well as the desire for autonomy and secret knowledge, and so it works with you.  The comforts and pleasures of the flesh, a life of ease, and the ability to determine your own course, independent of the laws and rule of others, and of the Law and rule of God.  “Be true to yourself”… you hear that sermon everywhere, and in some sense, you believe it.  But it’s the same old lie the serpent told Eve!  Don’t fall for it.  Repent.  “Did God really say…?”  It’s a sinister question, intended to make you doubt God’s Word.  But when considered in sincerity, it’s a good one.  What did God really say?  Because that… that is our defense against the lies and accusations of the old evil foe.  “Thus saith the LORD!”  “It is written!”  God really says…!  And so I believe it.  Whether I like it, or not.  Whether I understand it, or not.  Even when Satan’s lies are more attractive.  In fact, especially then.  Because the Word of the Lord is the Word of life.  Because it imparts God’s gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Christ Jesus.

            In his Baptismal Booklet, Luther said, “Therefore, you have to realize that it is no joke at all to take action against the devil and not only to drive him away from the little child but also to hang around the child’s neck such a mighty, lifelong enemy.”[1]  There are, of course, the unsurpassing and eternal benefits of Baptism, which make it all worth it, but it is true for every one of us, that the devil becomes our mortal enemy when we are made God’s own in this way.  How comforting it is, then, that Jesus goes before us in this.  He is baptized.  Heaven is opened.  The Spirit descends upon Him.  And God declares that Jesus is His beloved Son, with whom He is well pleased.  And then all at once the Spirit drives Jesus out into the wilderness to be tempted and attacked by the devil.  So what is true for you, Baptism followed by satanic attack, is also true for Jesus, and He leads the way through.  This is comforting for two reasons.  First, Jesus knows what it is to endure such attacks.  He identifies with you.  He is with you, fully, in the flesh, and suffers all that you suffer, including the lies, temptations, and accusations of the evil one.  Second, He suffers this for you, in your place, as your Substitute.  Remember, He is baptized into you, and you are baptized into Him, so that all that is His now becomes yours, and all that is yours He takes into Himself to forgive and cleanse by His death on the cross.  So when He wins the victory against Satan’s temptations in the wilderness, that counts for you.  You get the credit.  His victory is your victory.  And your failures become His failures, to be atoned for in His suffering and sacrifice. 

            So this changes everything in your battle against the devil.  You wouldn’t be able to resist him for a second by your own power.  But Jesus is the One who goes into battle for you.  And this isn't confined only to the forty days in that particular wilderness.  Jesus is the One who fights the devil in you now.  By the Spirit He imparts to you in Baptism.  By the unfailing and unchangeable declaration of the Father at your Baptism that you are His beloved Son with whom He is well pleased; that is, that you are covered with Christ and His righteousness, and therefore you stand justified before God, and loved by Him as His own child.

            And the Lord Jesus leaves you tools, weapons, for the fight against the devil’s temptations and accusations.  Here it is particularly helpful to review the armor of God as St. Paul speaks of it in Ephesians 6.  Put on the whole armor of God,” Paul says (Eph. 6:11; ESV).  Actually, it could be translated passively: Have put upon you, be clothed, be outfitted, namely, by God, with His whole armor.  And that is better, because these aren’t gifts you give yourself.  This is the outfit God gives you in Holy Baptism.  He doesn’t send you out into the battle naked and alone.  What kind of God would He be if He did that?  No, He covers you in Christ and His armor.  And what is that armor?  The belt of truth, and that is the truth you know from the Holy Scriptures, so that when the devil asks, “Did God really say?” you can respond, “Yes, God really said!  Here it is, in the Bible! And you can rebuff the claims of false christs and false prophets.  Then, the breastplate of righteousness.  That is, God’s declaration that you are justified for Jesus’ sake.  That covers you, all your vitals, and the devil’s knives, darts, and arrows cannot strike through.  As shoes, the readiness given by the Gospel of peace.  That is, the preaching of the forgiveness of sins sets you on your feet, and it is the good news of Jesus’ victory over Satan that you herald.  And there is the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish the devil’s flaming darts.  This is the saving faith in Christ given you continually by the Spirit who is in you, with which you face down, not only temptations to sin, but besetting doubts.  Faith clings to the truth belted around you in Holy Scripture and proclaimed in preaching.  Which is to say, faith clings to Christ and His victory.  And there is the sword of the Spirit, your offensive weapon against our archenemy, and that is, again, the Word of God.  To be belted with the truth is to have and know the Word for yourself.  To use it as an offensive sword is to speak the Word, to confess it!  It is to confess Christ!  And so often neglected in this list is prayer.  You have been given to pray!  (P)raying at all times in the Spirit,” Paul says, “with all prayer and supplication” (v. 18).  Pray against Satan.  Pray for God’s help.  As I’ve told you before, never say “I guess all I can do is pray,” as though praying isn’t something extraordinary and effective.  You have the ear of Almighty God!  Think about that!  He promises to hear and to answer.  Always.  And it really burns Satan’s behind when you do it.  So do it.  Read and hear the Word.  Be clothed in Christ and His armor.  Confess the Word.  And pray!

            And of course, we would be remiss if we didn’t say a word about the Lord’s Supper when it comes to the tools and weapons the Lord has given us against the crafts and assaults of the evil one.  Though St. Paul does not include it explicitly in his listing of the armor of God, this is yet another way the Lord outfits us, as He places Himself into us, His true Body and Blood, given us to eat and to drink for our forgiveness, life, and salvation, so that the crucified and risen Christ becomes one with us and flows through our very veins.  This is why Luther says in the Large Catechism that the devil “is a liar, to lead the heart astray from God’s Word and to blind it, so that you cannot feel your distress or come to Christ.  He is a murderer, who cannot bear to see you live one single hour.  If you could see how many knives, darts, and arrows are every moment aimed at you [Ephesians 6:16], you would be glad to come to the Sacrament as often as possible.”[2]   

            Now, never think that you mobilize these weapons by your own strength and abilities as some sort of spiritual hero.  You use this armor and these weapons always within the reality that Jesus Christ, who died for you, is risen from the dead.  And it is really He, the risen Christ, who covers you and who fights for you.  That is the baptismal reality.  You are all wrapped up in Him, the One who strove with Satan in the wilderness, and who won!  The One who strove with him in the Garden of Gethsemane and all the way to Calvary, who, in being crushed, crushed the serpent’s head.  The One who is risen, and lives, and reigns even over the devil, and who is coming back to judge the devil and his demons, and cast them eternally into the lake of fire prepared for them (Matt. 25:41).

            And this Jesus sends His holy angels to minister to you, to fend off the demons, to protect you in body and soul, to encourage you in your faith, and to help you in your prayers.  And He sends His preachers who are given to proclaim what He Himself proclaimed in His earthly ministry: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

            And because the Kingdom has come in the Person of the King, Jesus Christ, even the devil’s temptations and attacks God turns for your good.  Remember that in all suffering and temptation, the devil has his purposes, and God has His purposes.  And guess whose purposes prevail.  The orthodox Lutheran father Johann Gerhard wrote in his Sacred Meditations[3] that temptation offers three advantages to the Christian: “Temptation tests, purifies, and illuminates the soul.” Temptation tests the soul, he says, “because our faith assailed by storms of adversity strikes its roots more firmly down into the very bed-rock of our salvation; it spreads out its branches more widely in good works, and shoots up higher and higher in its hope of the glorious liberty of the children of God.” Secondly, temptation purifies our souls, in that “Our great Physician, Christ, employs many bitter remedies to expel the malignant spiritual diseases of love of self and love of the world… Worldly honor puffs up many with pride; and so God often sends reproach, and removes that which feeds worldly pride.” Finally, temptation illuminates the soul, in that “Affliction as a severe test of our faith serves to make our spirits humble and contrite, so that the souls of the afflicted may greatly rejoice in their afflictions. Through temptation we come to know God more truly and intimately, for the Lord Himself says, ‘I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him and honor him’ (Ps. xci. 15).”  God tempts no one. But He allows us to undergo temptation for our good, that He may accomplish His good and perfect will for us and in us.

            And so, beloved, baptized into Christ, you have become a target for the devil, it is true.  But more than that, you have become God’s dear child, covered with Christ and His righteousness, and so God is well pleased with you.  Christ is victorious over the devil and all his tricks.  And He clothes you in His victory, and in the whole armor of God.  Therefore guard against the devil and his temptations, but do not fear him.  Abide in God’s Word and in the gifts of Christ.  Confess His Word, and pray.  And know this for certain: The Kingdom of God has arrived in Jesus.  Satan cannot have you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.             


[1] Baptismal Booklet, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Robert Kolb, Timothy J. Wengert, et al. Trans. (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000) p. 372.

[2] LC V:81-82, McCain.

[3] Johann Gerhard, Sacred Meditations (Malone, TX: Repristination Press, 2000) pp. 229-34.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday: “Return to the LORD: A Call to Return”[1]

February 17, 2021

Text: Joel 2:12-19

            It wouldn’t be a bad idea to read through the Book of the Prophet Joel this week.  It is only three chapters.  Not only does our reading from the second chapter of Joel serve as our text for this evening, it sets the theme for our whole Lenten midweek series, and really for the whole concept of Lent in general.  And the message is timeless: “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13; ESV).  Return.  That is, repent.  For disaster is coming, and it is but a prelude to the coming Day of our Lord’s Judgment.  But in returning to Him there is safety and shelter from the coming wrath over sin.  For He has pity on His people in their distress, and grants forgiveness and salvation to all who trust in Him.

            Joel opens his book with a vision of invading locusts, devouring everything in their path (Joel 1).  This calls to mind, of course, the eighth plague in Egypt that led to Israel’s exodus from slavery (Ex. 10).  But it is not an otherwise unheard-of occurrence.  For example, for the past year, places in Africa and the Middle East have been dealing with devastating locust swarms.  Asia and Australia have likewise suffered.  We haven’t had swarms of biblical proportions for some time, now, here in North America, but it wasn’t that long ago, in the 1930s, during the Dust Bowl, that the high planes locust swept through large swaths of the country in great, glinting clouds, up to 200 million locusts per square mile, that blocked out the sun and would the clothes off a man’s body, along with every speck of vegetation.  2020 was a difficult year, but there were other very difficult times in history when a lot of bad things happened all at once (dust bowl, depression, devouring locusts, war, just to name a few). 

            Joel announces the coming of such a bad time to Judah and Israel.  It is impossible to say for certain whether the prophet is speaking of a literal plague of locusts that will eat all the vegetation, or whether the locusts symbolize invading armies of Assyrians or Babylonians coming in to devastate the nation and drag it off to exile.  Maybe both.  In any case, you know who else are described in the Bible as locusts?  The swarms of demons.  St. John writes in Revelation of the devil opening the shaft of the bottomless pit, from which come smoke and locusts on the earth with power like scorpions, who were given to torment people.  John described them like horses prepared for battle, with human faces and women’s hair, but fangs like lions, breastplates of iron, and tails that sting (Rev. 9:1-11).  Now that is scary, and it is meant to be.  Though the comfort is that the locusts are not allowed to actually harm those who have the seal of God on their foreheads (v. 4).  That is, the baptized believers in Christ.  And that is the point that the Prophet Joel is making.  There is only one safe place to be when the locusts come.  With the Lord.  In the tender mercies of the Lord.  Return to the LORD your God, to His grace and mercy, to His patience, and to His steadfast love. 

            Beloved, the locusts are swarming all around us.  We see it in this pandemic.  We see it in politics and civil unrest.  And we see it in our own lives, in our besetting sins that devour us, in our brokenness and weakness, in our faithlessness and weariness.  It is demonic chaos, and it is but a prelude to the Day of our Lord’s Judgment, when Jesus comes again with the holy angels to judge the nations and put an end to the chaos once and for all.  You are dust, and to dust you shall return.  We must know that.  And there is only one place of safety in the midst of all that now troubles us, and on the Day of wrath to come in the end.  The Lord.  Return to the Lord.  Turn from your sins.  Repent.  Cling to our Lord’s faithfulness and mercy.  Return to the LORD your God. 

            But how?  The Lord Himself tells us in our text.  Rend your hearts and not your garments.  This is to be a repentance from the very core of you.  Contrition, that is, sorrow over sin.  Return with fasting and weeping and mourning.  That is, come face to face with your sin.  Be honest, and no longer live by lies.  Confess your sin.  Name it before God.  Yes, even those sins, the ones you that really trouble you, the ones you try to put out of your mind and pretend never happened.  Especially those sins.  Confess them before God, and perhaps even before your pastor in the context of private Confession.  Lent is not a time for superficial acknowledgement that you are a sinner in general, and you have your faults and weaknesses.  Repentance gets to the heart of the matter.  Apart from the Lord, you are dead in your trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1).  The wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23).  You are really guilty.  There are real sins that afflict you, and they are killing you.  And the only answer is the grace and mercy, the patience and the steadfast love the LORD.  The only answer is Jesus. 

            And that is who you receive in the Holy Absolution.  Jesus and all His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation.  The LORD, who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  He shelters you from the locusts and defends you against their deadly tails.  He binds up your brokenness and forgives you all your sins.  He takes all the sins you confess to Him away from you and covers them in His precious and cleansing blood.  He gives you His righteousness and His resurrection life, so that on the Day of Judgment, you will stand.  You will stand before Him, clothed in His righteousness and perfection, declared not guilty, justified.  And you will live.  You will live forever with Him in His Kingdom, and reign with Him for all eternity.  There the locusts will never touch you. 

            Now, repentance is not a one-time event, but it is the whole life of the Christian this side of glory.  We sin daily, and so we return to the LORD daily and live by faith in His mercy.  It is really just a daily return to Baptism, and living daily in that new reality.  Every day, Old Adam must be drowned along with all sins and evil desires.  And every day, the New Creation in us emerges and arises to live before God in righteousness and purity.  Lent helps us with that because it gathers us as a people for that very purpose, and it focuses our mind… on our deadly sinful condition, and on the sacrifice of Christ that is the cure for that deadly sinful condition.  With Lent, and particularly with Ash Wednesday, we are doing as the Lord bids us through the Prophet Joel.  We are consecrating a fast and calling a solemn assembly.  Elders and children, bridegrooms and brides, which is to say, people of all ages and in every stage of life, gather together here in the Christian congregation, to lament our sins and turn to Him in faith.  This is the place of returning to the Lord.  Because this is where the Lord is for us in His Means of Grace, to forgive us and enliven us.  This is where the Lord sends us His promised grain, wine, and oil: The Bread that is His Body, the Wine that is His Blood, and the Oil of gladness, which is His Holy Spirit.  The Church returns to the LORD in repentance, and in faith, as she gathers around these things in which the LORD grants salvation and deliverance.  For here He bestows the fruits of the sin-atoning death of our Lord Jesus Christ.  God’s wrath over our sins has been poured out on Christ.  And now He shelters us under the outstretched arms of His cross from the locusts, from the Law’s righteous condemnation, from death itself, and from all harm and danger. 

            The Prophet Joel announced the impending disaster to God’s Old Testament people, bidding them, “Return to the LORD your God.”  And so he does for us this evening.  It is true, the locusts are swarming and the chaos is all around us.  But there is a place of safety and deliverance.  It is the embrace of the LORD’s grace and mercy, His longsuffering patience and steadfast love.  And the Promise is absolute.  Even on that dreadful Day when the sun turns to darkness and the moon to blood, the great and awesome Day of the LORD, nevertheless, it shall come to pass, that everyone who calls on the Name of the LORD, everyone who returns to Him and trusts in His redemption, which is to say, Christ crucified and risen… shall be saved (Joel 2:31-32).  And so you are marked this evening with the ashes of repentance, but in the sign of the cross, the sign of your redemption, and the seal of faith.  Grant us, O Lord, true repentance, that returning to You, we may have life and eternal peace.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.                  

[1] The theme and many of the ideas for this sermon are from Eric Longman, Return to the Lord: Resources for Lent-Easter Preaching and Worship (St. Louis: Concordia, 2020).

Sunday, February 14, 2021

The Transfiguration of Our Lord

The Transfiguration of Our Lord (B)

February 14, 2021

Text: Mark 9:2-9

            The Transfiguration of our Lord is the great epiphanic event, the grand finale of the Epiphany season.  This man, Jesus, is God.  There is no denying it.  He is the Son of God, the Word of our Father, and God’s merciful revelation of Himself to man.  This is the whole point of the Transfiguration.  This is the whole point of the Epiphany season.  Jesus had demonstrated His divinity throughout His earthly ministry, in every miraculous healing and exorcism, in the feeding of the multitudes, and the command of wind and sea.  But here on the mountain, He shows His divinity to His disciples, that He is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact imprint of His nature (Heb. 1:3).  He is transfigured, μετεμορφώθη in Greek, the divine light, not simply reflected from the Father, but radiating from within Jesus as its Source, radiating even through His clothes so that they became intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them.

            Now, no fact of this magnitude can be established without the evidence of two or three witnesses (e.g. Deut. 17:6).  And so we have Elijah and Moses, Peter, James, and John; two from the Old Testament, three from the New.  And so heaven and earth meet in Jesus.  Elijah and Moses appear from heaven, the Law and the Prophets bearing witness that all the Old Testament Scriptures are about Jesus and His saving work.  Elijah, who never died, but was taken up in the whirlwind (2 Kings 2).  Moses, who was buried by God Himself (and the angels, Jude 9), and no one knows the location of his grave to this day (Deut. 34:6), who enters the Promised Land for the first time on this very occasion.  Both had met with the Lord on mountains before: Moses on Mt. Sinai in the great giving of the Law (Ex. 19 ff.) and when God showed Moses His backside (Ex. 33), Elijah in the still, small voice (1 Kings 19).  Now here they are again.  And we know from St. Luke just what it is they are discussing with Him.  They are discussing His exodus (Luke 9:31), His journey to Jerusalem and the cross to save us from our sins.  And it is worth noting that these heavenly guests were recognized by the earthbound disciples, in spite of the fact that there were no Polaroids available, and no “Hello, my name is” stickers were distributed beforehand.  So we will know and recognize our loved ones in heaven, and not only that, we will know and recognize many people we did not know on this earth, throughout history and from every nation, tribe, people, and language.  And we will recognize that we’ve been in communion with them the whole time.  And that will be glorious.

            The three earthbound disciples are extraordinarily important here, for they will give eyewitness testimony in their preaching and their writing.  But for now, they are utterly stupefied by what is happening.  Peter, who is known for speaking without thinking, wants to stay on this mountain, which is heaven on earth.  He wants to bask in the glow of the Lord’s divine glory, and spend eternity with the Old Testament saints.  Well, one can hardly blame him, and that is ultimately the goal, isn’t it?  So he wants to erect three tents for the exalted dignitaries.  He suggests celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles so he can have unending holiday joy.  But his suggestion is misplaced.  We don’t need three tabernacles, because the true Tabernacle of God’s presence with His people has arrived in the flesh of Jesus Christ.  And so God’s answer to Peter is the cloud… the glory cloud, the Shekinah, the presence of God that led Israel through the wilderness (Ex. 13:21-22), that covered Mt. Sinai (Ex. 19:16) and descended on the Tabernacle to speak with Moses face to face (Num. 9; Ex. 33:7-11), the cloud that filled the Temple at Solomon’s dedication so that the priests could not do their work of ministering (1 Kings 8:10-11).  And the point is, where Jesus is, there is heaven.  Because where Jesus is, there is God. 

            And then there is the voice of the Father.  He repeats what He said at the Baptism of our Lord, so that Epiphany is book-ended with this all-encompassing statement: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him” (Mark 9:7; ESV).  Seeing the divine light isn’t enough.  God has spoken.  And in His speaking, He gives His beloved Son.  Jesus is His Word.  Jesus is God, the eternal Son of the Father.  And Jesus is the Prophet like unto Moses, of whom Moses spoke, to whom we are to listen (Deut. 18:15).  Jesus is the One to whom Elijah pointed.  All the Scriptures, and the whole history of God’s people, in fact, the whole history of the world comes down to this: Jesus.  God’s Son.  Listen to Him.  Trust Him.  Receive His salvation.  Live in Him.

            And to underscore the point, upon the Father’s speaking, all at once, the grand vision disappears.  And suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them but Jesus only” (v. 8).  But Jesus is enough.  In fact, Jesus is everything.  And you have Jesus, and everything Jesus has come to give, in listening to Him. 

            We may wonder why this grand event happens at this particular point, and in this particular way.  We may wonder what good it does for Jesus and the disciples, besides simply being spectacular, and we may wonder what good it does for us when we weren’t there to see it. 

            In the context of our Lord’s ministry, Jesus is about to set His face to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51), where He will suffer and be killed for the sins of the world.  To strengthen Him for His saving work, and to fortify the disciples for the coming ordeal, there is this little glimpse of Easter.  Jesus and His disciples are about to come down the mountain where great sadness and suffering await them.  But Jesus is the Father’s beloved Son.  God will not abandon His soul to Sheol, or let His Holy One see the corruption of the grave (Ps. 16:10).  Jesus will rise from the dead.  And the Word of Jesus will sustain His disciples through all suffering and death to the resurrection of their own bodies on the Last Day.  That is the encouragement.  That is the good accomplished by God giving this gift at this particular time and in this particular way.

            And so us, because we find ourselves in the same situation.  It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if we could simply bask in the glory of the risen Christ, in the very presence of God, and in the fellowship of all His saints, no suffering, no sorrow, great joy, where everything is always right and always good?  That reality does await us in heaven, and most fully, and more specifically, in the resurrection.  But for now we have to wait.  We have to descend the mountain and live our lives here in this fallen world.  At the very least, like Peter, we’d like to make everyday a holiday, where we can forget about our troubles, and lose ourselves in the festivities.  So we try to do that.  We eat too much or drink too much and obsess over creature comforts and the pleasures of the flesh.  We’re trying to make an imitation heaven on earth.  So also in the Church.  We wonder, why can’t we skip from the mountaintop of Christmas to the mountaintop of Easter?  Why can’t we just concentrate on the happy occasions in Jesus’ life, and skip all the depressing talk about sin and suffering and cross and death.  But I think you know that doing that would reduce the very happiest occasions to nothing more than empty tinsel and Easter grass.      But it cannot be.  You cannot stay on the mountain, much less build a paper mountain here for yourself.  Jesus descends the mountain to suffer and die for the forgiveness of your sins.  So He bids you take up your cross, here and now, and follow Him.  There is suffering to be borne in this life, in this world.  You will suffer for your faith in Christ at the hands of the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh.  You will suffer in your love for others, as you bear with them in their sin and weakness.  You will suffer sickness and heartache and death as your own body fades, for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  But through it all, God is doing His work of mortifying your flesh and conforming you to the image of Christ the crucified.

            And beloved, if you have died with Christ, and you have in Holy Baptism, you will also be raised with Christ.  The Transfiguration is a glimpse of your coming glory with Him.  It is a taste of Easter and your resurrection on the Last Day.  God gives you just a peek behind the veil.  This is given to strengthen you as you bear the cross now, awaiting what is already yours in Christ, but not yet revealed. 

            Sometimes we wish we could see what Peter, James, and John saw.  But as Peter reminds us, we actually have something even more sure: The Scriptures, the prophetic Word, to which we do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place (2 Peter 1:19).  We have the Word of Jesus Christ, God’s own beloved Son.  And we are to listen to Him, as the Father bids us.  And rather than looking for glorious visions and spectacular mountain top experiences, we are to fix our eyes on Jesus only.  Everything else disappears into the background.  We are to look for Him where He has promised to be for us: Where He speaks in Scripture and Proclamation and Absolution, where He tabernacles among us with His true Body and Blood in the Feast.  For as it was with the Emmaus disciples, so it is with us: He opens up the Scriptures to us, to show us all the things concerning Himself.  And then we recognize Him in the Breaking of the Bread (Luke 24).  That He is here.  Really and substantially.  Bodily.  He is here for us.  And suddenly there we are with Him on the mountain, with angels and archangels, Elijah and Moses, Peter, James, and John, and all the company of heaven.

            Jesus is all that matters.  It all comes down to Him.  Now we put away our alleluias for a time and descend the mountain into the Lenten valley.  So be it, as long as Jesus is with us.  Let us take up our cross and follow our Lord as He journeys toward His suffering and death for our sakes.  It will get dark, but we know where this leads.  Easter is coming, as surely as Jesus is God’s Son.  We will take up our alleluias again, and that forever, in the brightness of that Resurrection Day.  For then we will see Him as he is.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.