Sunday, March 28, 2021

Palm Sunday/ Sunday of the Passion

Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion (B)

March 28, 2021

Text: Mark 15:38

            And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:38; ESV). 

            In the Gospel according to St. Mark, our Lord’s ministry is bookended with a violent tearing.  At His Baptism by John in the River Jordan, “when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (1:10-11).  Now at His crucifixion and death.  Once again, the Spirit is imparted, only this time, the Spirit who had descended upon Jesus at His Baptism, is unleashed on the world through the breath… same word as Spirit in Greek… through the breath of the dying Lord: “And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last” (15:37).  Then the tearing.  And once again a voice, only this time from below, but the same declaration as that made by the Father at Jesus’ Baptism: “when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God’” (v. 39). 

            The heavens were torn open, the curtain of the Temple torn in two from top to bottom.  Tearing.  Torn.  σχίζω… from which we get the words, “schism,” a tearing or division between parties; “scissors,” an instrument for tearing or cutting; “schizophrenia,” a torn mind.  σχίζω.   The word is onomatopoetic.  It is abrasive.  It is violent.  And that is on purpose.  The violent death of Jesus Christ on the cross, for which He was baptized in the River Jordan, and in which He was baptized in His own blood, tears wide open any impediment to your direct access to God.  The heavens that conceal the throne room of God.  The curtain that conceals Holy of Holies, the Ark, and the Mercy Seat, where God is enthroned between the cherubim.  This is how the writer to the Hebrews puts it: “since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Heb. 10:19-22).  The tearing of Jesus’ flesh unto death results in the tearing open of the curtain and the very heavens.  And the Blood of Jesus that flows from that tear cleanses your conscience, that is, forgives your sins, as you are washed with pure water.  You are baptized into the death of Christ.  Heaven is now open to you.  You have direct access to God.  The Spirit is bestowed on you by the breath of the Lord.  And God declares that you are His beloved Son, with whom He is well pleased.

            The curtain of the Temple was a massive tapestry.  Really, more like a system of tapestries.  About 60 feet tall in Herod’s Temple, and four inches thick (the width of a hand), the curtain was several curtains put together, made of the most precious material, purple, scarlet, and blue, rare colors usually reserved for royalty.  The curtain divided the Holy Place, where the incense altar, the lamp, the table, and showbread were kept; from the Most Holy Place, or Holy of Holies, where God was enthroned on the Ark between the cherubim.  And the curtain was actually given by grace as a safety measure, as a way for the holy God to dwell with His sinful people without killing them.  He was with His people, but not directly.  Because when holiness comes into contact with unholiness, sin, evil… the results are disastrous.  Think, for example, of poor Uzzah the Levite, who simply reached out his hand to steady the Ark when the oxen stumbled bringing it into Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6:5 ff).  Don’t kid yourself.  Uzzah was a Christian.  But he was also a sinner.  And sinners can’t touch holy things, least of all the throne of God, and live.  Unless… well, we’ll get to that.

            So the curtain kept the Ark, and therefore God, safely concealed.  Present, but hidden.  And only the high priest, and he but once a year, on the Day of Atonement, could enter the Holy of Holies behind the curtain, and come into the presence of the Ark.  And he had to come with blood, the blood of the atonement sacrifice for his own sin, and for the sins of the people.  And it was always dangerous.  He could die in there.  Don’t forget Uzzah.  For this reason, when the priest entered, a rope was tied around his ankle, so in case of death, they could pull him out.  And we know this from the Jewish rabbis rather than the Bible.  They were being extra safe.  We do know from the Bible that the priest had to be ceremonially washed with pure water, and wear special clothing, a linen tunic and linen underwear, a linen sash, and a linen turban (Lev. 16:4).  Curiously, no shoes or sandals are mentioned.  The priest was to be barefoot.  Why?  (T)ake your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Ex. 3:5). 

            So the priest would enter the Holy of Holies, incensing the whole way with fire from the incense altar, so that he wouldn’t die.  And he would first take the blood of a bull he had sacrificed for his own sins, and sprinkle it in front of the Ark and on the Mercy Seat… the Mercy Seat, which is the throne of God on top of the Ark, which contains the tablets of the Ten Commandments.  Because the blood of the atoning sacrifice must come between God and the Commandments which the priest had broken. 

            And then he would go out again and sacrifice a goat, this time for the sins of Israel.  This is the goat chosen by lot for the LORD, whose counterpart served as the scapegoat sent out into the wilderness for Azazel.  He would sacrifice the goat chosen for the LORD, and once again bring the blood into the Holy of Holies, and do with this blood as he did with that of the bull.  Because the blood of the atoning sacrifice must come between God and the Commandments which the people had broken.

            Now, you know, this sacrifice had to be repeated, year after year.  And it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (Heb. 10:4).  These things were a shadow of the good things to come, not the true form of these realities (v. 1).  But they were pointing to the perfect Priest to come, who would offer the perfect Sacrifice of Atonement, once and for the sins of all.

            So it was on a Sunday of Passover week, our Lord Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey to be that Priest, and to make that Sacrifice.  Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.  Hosanna!” the crowds shouted, as they waved their palms and spread their cloaks.  “Save us now!”  And “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (John 12:13).  “Ride on, ride on in majesty!  In lowly pomp ride on to die” (LSB 441:2). 

            But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come… he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.  For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Heb. 9:11-14).  Jesus is the end of the Levitical Priesthood and all other atonement sacrifices.  For He is the everlasting High Priest, and all the Old Testament sacrifices were but a shadow of the reality of His Blood, and the sacrifice of His Flesh, to atone for the sins of the whole world. 

            So when Jesus breathed His last and died on the cross, the curtain of the Temple was ἐσχίσθη, torn.  And that from top to bottom.  In other words, God did it, from above.  Because in the death of Jesus, there is no more need for safety barriers.  The wall between you and God has been broken down in His flesh.  Atonement has been made, and your sins, all of them, are forgiven for Jesus’ sake.  You have been washed with pure water.  You are baptized into Christ.  You are clothed with Him, better than the linen-clad priests of old.  And now heaven itself is torn open to you.  And it is true, is it not?...  that you, a sinner, but forgiven and cleansed, march right up here into the Holy of Holies and touch the Holy Things.  In fact, you eat them and drink them, the very Sacrifice and Blood of Atonement.  There He is, enthroned on the Mercy Seat, and His Blood comes between God and the Commandments you have broken.  And unlike poor Uzzah, you do not die, but live.  In fact, these things you touch and eat and drink, are given for your life, and for the life of the world.

            The curtain of the Temple has been torn in two.  Come, now, with confidence, and enter the Holy Places by the Blood of Jesus.  Come right up and touch God in the flesh.  Come right up and touch God for you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen. 



Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Lenten Midweek IV

Lenten Midweek IV: “Return to the LORD: Return from Denial”[1]

March 17, 2021

Text: Luke 22:54-62

             Return to the LORD your God” (Joel 2:13; ESV).  Return from denial.  We have already spoken of betrayal, namely, that of Judas.  Denial is a particular form of betrayal.  We learn of its nature in tonight’s Holy Gospel.  Denial of Jesus is born of fear.  Fear for safety.  Fear for reputation.  Fear that one has been wrong all along to believe this Jesus to be the Savior.  Peter already shows this fear by following Jesus “at a distance” (Luke 22:54).  He is afraid of being arrested and indicted with Jesus.  And the physical distance, the lurking behind in the shadows, betrays his spiritual distance… his fear of coming fully into the light, confessing that he is a disciple, one who follows Jesus Christ, the Light of the world… even as Peter had said just hours earlier that same night, that he would follow Jesus even “to prison and to death” (v. 33).  Follow me,” Jesus had said when He called Peter as disciple (Mark 1:17).  Now Peter is not so sure.  Because there is a personal cost to following Jesus.  There will be suffering and there will be pain.  The world will reject you as it rejects the Lord.  Better to hang back here by the fire, blend in with the crowd, watch, and see what happens. 

            But you can’t be “kinda, sorta” a Christian.  Either you are, or you aren’t.  And the world recognizes those who belong to Christ, and the world will always demand an answer: “Where do your loyalties lie?  With Jesus?  Or with us?”  First a servant girl: “This man also was with him” (v. 56).  Woman, I do not know him” (v. 57).  Then another from the crowd: “You also are one of them”… “Man, I am not” (v. 58).  Then, about an hour later, another: “Certainly this man was also with him, for he too is a Galilean” (v. 29).  Look, man!  I don’t even know what you’re talking about (v. 60)!  And we know from the other Gospel writers that he even began to invoke curses upon himself and swear that he did not know Him (Matt. 26:74; Mark 14:71).

            And then it happened, as the Lord predicted: The rooster crowed.  It was a sermon of crushing Law.  And the Lord looked at Peter.  And Peter remembered the Word of the Lord: “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times” (Luke 22:61).  He who had boasted… he who was so sure of himself… he who even took up arms against poor Malchus in the garden… he was a coward!  And worse, his turning back, away from discipleship, away from following Jesus, was complete.  He had denied his Lord, his Friend, his Savior.  And he went out and wept bitterly” (v. 62). 

            We weep with Peter.  Because we know we are cut from the same cloth.  We boldly make our promises to Jesus when it is easy.  At Baptism (and for those of baptized as infants, that is particularly easy, because our parents and sponsors make the promise on our behalf).  At Confirmation.  "Do you intend to live according to the Word of God, and in faith, word, and deed to remain true to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even to death? … Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?” (LSB 273).  I do,” we say, and we even have children swear this.  But then we add some words Peter would have been wise to add to his own promises… “by the grace of God.”  This is extraordinarily important, because remaining steadfast in the faith, always… but especially in times of suffering and persecution… is God’s gift of grace to us.  It is never our own work.  Peter’s confidence when he boasted in the Upper Room, was in himself and his own resolve, his own loyalty, his own courage.  Too often that is true of us, as well.  Perhaps it is ironic, and it is certainly a paradox, but you will never remain faithful to God if you think you can remain faithful to God.  You cannot.  You must know that.  And you must know that faithfulness is a gift of God Himself, just as repentance is His gift, conversion is His gift, faith is His gift.  It all depends on Him.

            This is vital.  Because none of us knows how we will respond when it is our head on the chopping block, when we face arrest, imprisonment, beatings, the loss of all earthly goods and honor, death, as the price of following Jesus.  How will it go when we stand before the earthly judge, when we have to face down the firing squad, or stand with the noose around our necks?  What if you have the option?  Just say what Peter said, “I do not know Him,” and you can go free.  It is worth thinking about, because the day may be coming sooner than we bargained for.  You are all worried about being Republicans or Democrats, while the world is baring its teeth at you for being a Christian.  And that is what you are. 

            In the Early Church, when the Christians were brought before the judge, all they had to do was deny Jesus and burn a little incense to Caesar, and they would be set free.  Some of them succumbed.  It was so easy.  But so many of them, the blessed martyrs, not by their own strength, but by the grace of God, responded to every question with, “I am a Christian!”  And they were killed for it.  Impaled.  Beheaded.  Torn apart by wild beasts.  Burned alive.  Crucified.  When it came to new ways to impose cruel death, there was no limit to the Roman imagination.  But these martyrs went willingly, as the Holy Spirit gave them to will and to do (Phil. 2:13).  And dying, they lived.  They loved not their lives even unto death (Rev. 12:11).  They heeded the warning, and trusted in the promise: “Everyone who [confesses] me before men, I will also [confess] before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 10:32-33).  There is so much at stake.  God grant us faithfulness, and faithful confession in the decisive moment.  Because, truth be told, our track record isn’t always all that good, even now, when it comes to facing only mockery, or rejection by the woke mob, or strained relationships with loved ones, as the price of confessing Jesus.  That is crushing Law.  But it is true.  I shudder to think of my own sins of denial, and hanging back in the shadows, when following Jesus and confessing Him may bring me pain.  But the rooster is crowing.  This is a gracious thing.  He is calling us to repent.

            And then… this is painful, but it is a pure act of grace… The Lord looks at us.  It is that look, our Lord’s beholding us in grace, that calls to our remembrance His Word, thus bringing us to repentance.  It calls us back from denial.  It calls us back to faith.  See, it all depends on Him.  St. Augustine makes the point that it is not simply that the Lord turned His head and cast His bodily eyes upon Peter.  “In mercy,” he says, “the Lord silently and secretly approached, touched the heart, recalled the memory of the past,” that is, the Word He had spoken, and “with His own internal grace visited Peter, stirred and brought out into external tears the feelings of his inner man,” which is to say, repentance.[2]  And so He does for us.  He looks upon us and calls to our minds His Word.

            But that isn’t all.  If the story ended there, it wouldn’t be much different than the story of Judas, and it wouldn’t give us any comfort.  We go out and weep our bitter tears, but the Lord accomplishes our salvation.  He takes our denials, our fears, our betrayals, and all our sins to the cross, and He dies for them.  And then He rises from the dead, having paid our debt in full.  And you know what happens next.  He appears to Peter and to all the Apostles, and to many others of His disciples, this Lord Jesus, the One who was crucified, and is now risen and living.  And in one of those appearances, by the Sea of Tiberias, as you remember, He takes Peter aside.  And three times He asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (John 21:15-17).  Now, why three times?  One time for each denial.  And three times Peter makes his good confession: “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.”  And thus having been called back by the gracious Word and look of Jesus, Peter is forgiven and restored.  And he is given the charge: “Feed my lambs… Tend my sheep… Feed my sheep.” 

            And so you, and so me.  The Lord has looked upon us and brought His Word to our minds.  He has brought us to repentance for all our denials, and He forgives us all our sins.  Do you love Him?  Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.  And so the charge: Speak His Word.  Confess Him, and do not deny.  Don’t follow at a distance.  Follow Him all the way.  He will carry you.  Through suffering.  Through persecution and the cross.  Through to the throne of His heavenly Father, where He will not deny you, where He will confess you as His own.  He will carry you through to your heavenly reward, to eternal life, and resurrection from the dead.  He is faithful.  That is why this same Simon Peter, who denied Him and was restored, could write in our Epistle: “after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10).

            The Lord will keep us faithful, even unto death.  It was only a few short years ago when 21 orange-clad Christians knelt on a Libyan beach, the knives of their ISIS captors pressed against their throats.  One of them, by the way, the only non-Egyptian of the group, was told he could go, but he chose, instead, to kneel with his brothers.  “I am a Christian,” he said.  Peacefully they knelt as the cameras rolled, and at the decisive moment, they all cried out, “Ya Rabbi Yassou!  “O my Lord Jesus!”  And in the very next moment they looked upon the One who had ever been looking upon them. 

            Be not afraid, beloved.  Fear not for your safety.  Fear not for your reputation.  Fear not for your salvation.  The Lord is looking upon you.  He is speaking to you, and by His Word He sustains you.  Yet a little while and you, too, will see Him.  Until then, do not deny, but confess.  His faithfulness will keep you to the end.  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] Quoted in Treasury of Daily Prayer (St. Louis: Concordia, 2008), p. 339.  Augustine doesn’t think the Lord looked bodily upon Peter at all, being inside the house while Peter was outside.  Maybe, maybe not.  Still, the point is well taken that it wasn’t simply a bodily look.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Fourth Sunday in Lent (B)

March 14, 2021

Text: Num. 21:4-9; John 3:14-21

            For God so loved Israel, that He commanded Moses to make a fiery serpent of bronze and set it on a pole, that everyone who was bitten, but looked at the bronze serpent, should not perish, but have life. 

            The people had sinned.  They became impatient.  They grumbled.  Against God.  And against God’s man, Moses.  And the charges they brought against God and Moses are nothing short of astounding.  They were angry that God freed them from slavery in Egypt.  And they actually said of His salvation that it is anything but.  That He only saved them so He could murder them in the wilderness.  Yes, they were making the argument that God’s salvation is, in fact, damnation, and the bondage from which He freed them is their salvation.

            And then, this worthless bread.  The Hebrew word actually is “bread,” לֶחֶם, (you know, as in בֵּית־לָחֶם, Bethlehem, “House of Bread”), not just food in general, as our English translation has it.  Because they are complaining about something specific; namely, the manna, the bread that miraculously appears on the ground like dew every morning except for the Sabbath, free for the taking, delicious, like wafers made with honey (Ex. 16:31).  In fact, they say there is no bread… except for this worthless bread God sends us each day (Num. 21:5).  Never mind the quail God had sent on another occasion when the people grumbled about the bread (Ex. 16:13; Num. 11:31-35).  Like a hungry teenage boy (no offense) with his head in a refrigerator full of food his parents bought him, complaining that there is nothing to eat.  And there is no water, they complain, although we know of the miraculous rock struck by the staff of Moses that gushed forth water (Ex. 17; Num. 20).  St. Paul tells us that rock followed them in their wandering, and that the Rock was Christ (1 Cor. 10:4).  And it should not be lost on us that Christ was struck by a staff, a soldier’s spear, and out came blood and water (John 19:34).  So to sum up Israel’s charges: God’s salvation is bad.  We preferred slavery in Egypt.  And we really hate the food.  We’d rather starve than eat it. 

            God sent the fiery serpents with their mortal burning bites as a chastisement for His grumbling children.  It was a wake-up call.  Why serpents?  Isn’t it obvious?  Adam and Eve weren’t content with the food God had given them, either.  A serpent came along and offered them other food, the food God had not given them to eat, and the bite was mortal, and it ignited the burning fires of hell.  God sent serpents to expose the demonic nature of the people’s sin, a sin that flows from rejection of God and His Word, or in other words, unbelief.  It is not that the people didn’t believe there is a God.  It is that they believed He was out to get them.  They did not believe in His salvation. 

            But in spite of it all, God loved His people, and His love moved Him to hear their cries for mercy, and do something about their misery.  The bronze serpent is a conundrum for many Christians.  Aren’t we not supposed to make graven images (Ex. 20:4)?  Well, the issue is, we are not to make them so as to worship them, as idols (v. 5).  That is a relief if you were worried about having a crucifix, or pictures of Christ, or even graven images of your family members on the walls at home.  You are not to worship a crucifix or a picture of Jesus, but you are to worship the One that image represents.  And when those images aid your faith in the One they represent, God be praised.  God commanded Moses to make the graven image of the serpent, so Moses was bound to obey.  And, by the way, some centuries later, under the reign of Hezekiah, the bronze serpent became an idol for the people, so faithful King Hezekiah destroyed it (2 Kings 18).  He broke it in pieces.  Because now it had become the kind of graven image prohibited by the Commandment.

            But there is something even more perplexing about the bronze serpent.  How is it that simply looking at that image, the image of sin, of death, and even of the devil, could give life?  Well, certainly not just the image does these things.  It is the image included in God’s Command and combined with God’s Word that does these things.  It is God’s Promise that those who look upon the image will live.  That Promise cannot fail.  Not everyone looked at the image.  Not everyone had faith in God’s Promise.  So they died.  But to look upon the image… that is faith!  It is faith that trusts God, that believes this Word of God in the image.  Do you see what God has done by means of the serpents, and the bronze serpent on the pole?  The people didn’t believe.  The serpents bit them.  God gave His Promise, which Moses preached.  The people then believed and looked toward the Promise.  And so they lived.  This is Law and Gospel.  It is repentance and forgiveness.  It is death and resurrection. 

            And this whole episode is nothing less than a prophetic picture of our Lord Jesus Christ and His love, not just for Israel, but for the whole world.  For “as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up”… on the cross, for the sins of the world (John 3:14; ESV).  For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (v. 16; KJV).  Whoever looks upon the Son given into death, believing the Promise that this lifting up is for the forgiveness of sins, does not die, but lives.  And not just lives to die another day, as was the case with the Children of Israel, but lives eternally… eternal life in Christ, who was crucified, and is risen from the dead.

            We have sinned.  Here we are in the wilderness of this world, and we become impatient.  We grumble.  Against God.  Against His preachers and His Church.  Against His means of providing for our salvation and feeding us.  This bread, this manna… we’re tempted to call it worthless.  Just a little wafer, not even made with honey, and a little sip of sickly-sweet wine.  This water from the Rock… just a splash or three, just a drop on the tongue, cannot possibly quench our thirst, can it?  And is this really God’s salvation?  Or is He out to kill us?  Though the Light has come into the world, we are in peril of succumbing to Old Adam’s love for the darkness.  God sends fiery serpents to chastise us.  Suffering.  The preaching of God’s Law.  Death.  These call us to repent, to turn from our grumbling unbelief and sentimental pining after Egypt, to Jesus, lifted up, like the serpent on the pole.  God promises life through Him.  When we look to Him, we do not die, but live. 

            But there is yet one more thing that bothers us about the bronze serpent: How are we to compare Christ, who is the Image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15), with this serpentine image of sin, death, and the devil?  It is, as St. Paul says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21; ESV).  Jesus becomes the picture of the serpent, that the image of God be restored in us.  He who knew no sin, had no sin of His own, became our sin by taking it into Himself.  So when we look at Christ on the cross, we do see our sin.  We see our death, the death and hell our sins deserve.  And we see the eternal fate to which Satan would lead us.  But so also, we see God’s love for us.  Remember that the “so” in “God so loved the world,” is not an indication of His warm fuzzy feelings for us.  We like to think it means that, because it makes us feel all warm and fuzzy inside.  But that isn’t salvation, and this love is not about feelings.  The “so” may indicate the extent to which God loves us, and that is all the way to the giving of His Son into death on the cross.  But it is even better translated, “God loved the world in this manner”…  In other words, this is the way He loved the world, what He did in loving us… He gave His only-begotten Son.  To be our sin.  To die for our sin.  To be lifted up on the cross for our sin.  To pay the capital penalty.  To undergo the sentence.  For us, and for our salvation.  And in so doing, to crush the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15). 

            God so loves the world, loves you, and loves you in this manner: He gave His Son Jesus to die for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins.  And when you believe in Him, you are not condemned, and you will never perish.  You have eternal life.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.               

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Lenten Midweek III

Lenten Midweek III: “Return to the LORD: Return from False Witness”[1]

March 10, 2021

Text: Matt. 26:57-68

             Return to the LORD your God” (Joel 2:13; ESV).  Return from false witness.  Our Lord Jesus was the victim of false witness, false testimony, at the hands of the Chief Priest and Jewish Council, who had recruited false witnesses from the crowds specifically for the task.  They wanted people to come into the trial and lie about Jesus, to condemn this innocent Man, so they could put Him to death.  And the witnesses were willing! 

            Now, we know the biblical command that no one shall be put to death without the testimony of two or three witnesses (Deut. 17:6).  But even these liars had trouble making their testimony agree.  Finally, two of them agreed that He had said, “I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days” (Matt. 26:61; ESV), in other words, accusing Him of plotting domestic terrorism.  But we know from this past Sunday that is not at all what He said.  He was speaking of the Temple of His Body.  Destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up (John 2:19).  He was speaking about His death and resurrection. 

            The Chief Priest wants Him to answer for the charges.  He wants to know what He has to say for Himself.  And His answer is… silence!  He doesn’t say a word.  Because, in spite of the injustice of the whole affair, He will not derail His saving mission, which necessarily leads to the cross and death.  That is, the Temple of His Body must be destroyed by crucifixion, so that after three days, He may raise it up.  That is how He will accomplish our redemption.  And this is all part of it, this suffering false testimony and injustice.  He suffers this for our sake. 

            But when He is adjured by the living God to confess plainly whether He is the Christ, the Son of God, even though it will lead to even greater suffering, He speaks the truth: “You have said so” (Matt. 26:64).  Yes, I AM.  And now the whole Council is witness.  And they accuse Him of blasphemy, because He claimed to be God.  And, of course, He did.  But it wasn’t blasphemy.  It is the truth!  Nevertheless, the Chief Priest, Caiaphas, tore his robes and they all declared that He should be put to death.  We know from our Old Testament reading (Lev. 24:13-16) that the penalty for blasphemy is death by stoning, and the whole congregation would have to own the execution by participating in it.  But these cowards sought a more excruciating death at the hands of the Romans, thus keeping their own hands clean.  And so He was mocked, and beaten, and abused, as they prepared to deliver Him to Pilate. 

            The Eighth Commandment: “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.  What does this mean?  We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.”[2]  Now, at its most basic level, this Commandment is addressing false testimony in court, or in legal proceedings, thus, for example, Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin.  But so also this applies to those who swear an oath when they take up political office, to civil servants, magistrates, members of the military, police officers… even doctors who take the Hippocratic Oath.  It applies to pastors who take ordination vows.  Husbands and wives when they swear faithfulness.  You, when you sign your tax forms.  And you, when you promise faithfulness unto death before God and His people at your Baptism and Confirmation.  In fact, in all of life, this has to do with keeping your word, telling the truth, speaking good rather than evil. 

            My high school band teacher (who was also my vice principal, and by the time I graduated, my principal) had a profound influence on my life as a teenager.  He always used to say to us, “If you say you’re going to be somewhere, you’d better be there, unless you’re dead!  And even then!”  “If you say you’re going to do something, you’d better do it, unless you’re dead!”  (And I could tell you some stories about some students who weren’t there when they said they would be, and they weren’t dead… yet… but that is for another time).  This is something we should say to all teenagers, and especially Christian teenagers, and Christians of all ages.  Because, whether he knew it or not, Mr. McGlothlin was reflecting on the Eighth Commandment and St. James’ admonition, echoing our Lord Jesus, to simply let your yes be yes, and your no, no (James 5:12; cf. Matt. 5:37).  Keep your word.  Tell the truth.  Don’t speak falsely, for that is to give false testimony, and your neighbor is depending on your words being truthful.

            And there are other ways we transgress this Commandment.  We gossip.  We slander.  We lie.  Even sometimes speaking the truth is a breaking of this Commandment.  For God gave this Commandment to protect our neighbor’s reputation.  And while we are called upon sometimes to give testimony about a neighbor’s wicked deed (for example, in court), those situations are the exceptions to the rule.  We are not called to serve as our neighbor’s prosecutor in the court of public opinion.  We are not called to speak evil of people, yet we do it all the time.  Dr. Luther gets to the heart of fallen human nature when he says in his Large Catechism: “it is a common evil plague that everyone prefers hearing evil more than hearing good about his neighbor.  We ourselves are so bad that we cannot allow anyone to say anything bad about us.  Everyone would much prefer that all the world should speak of him in glowing terms.  Yet we cannot bear that the best is spoken about others.”[3]  Why is that, by the way?  Because in our twisted understanding of justification, if I can know and declare my neighbor to be unrighteous, that, in my mind, makes me more righteous.  It justifies me.  Gossip, slander, is always an exercise in self-justification.

            And even when we don’t speak it, we think evil of our neighbor in our minds and hearts.  This is, in fact, the most common way we give false testimony, when we judge our neighbor in our own opinion of him.  When we do not extend charity toward him in his words and actions.  When we fail to put the best construction on everything.  Now, I’m not talking about judging things as true or false, right or wrong, according to God’s Word.  That we should do.  But I’m talking about when we fail to judge ourselves by the same standards we use to judge our neighbor, refusing to even see the log in our own eye, much less remove it, so that we can help our neighbor remove the speck from his (Matt. 7:1-5).  This, too, is really an exercise in self-justification.  And this is what Jesus means when He says, “Judge not, that you be not judged” (v. 1). 

            Now, you have transgressed this Commandment.  You know the guilt of it.  And you have suffered the transgression of this Commandment against you.  You know the pain of it.  And the answer to that guilt and that pain is not to justify yourself over against your neighbor by thinking or speaking evil of him, which is just more of the same guilt and pain.  Repent of all of that.  That is not the justification you need.  The justification you need is always and only the justification that comes from Jesus’ bearing the guilt and pain of false testimony to the cross, where He puts it to death.  For your forgiveness.  And for your neighbor’s forgiveness.  See, He doesn’t speak evil or think evil of you, or of your neighbor.  No, He speaks you righteous.  Forgiven.  Beloved.  And that is how He thinks of you.  And He speaks your neighbor righteous.  Forgiven.  Beloved.  That is how He thinks of your neighbor.  And that is how He judges us.  Because He has taken away all our transgressions of this Commandment, and every Commandment, and given His faithfulness to us in exchange.  He has kept His Word.  He was where He said He would be.  He did what He said He would do.  Even though He died!  In fact, in His dying.  The Temple of His Body was destroyed.  And in three days He raised it up.  And He is still where He said He would always be for us: in His Word and in His Sacraments.  And He is still doing what He said He would always do for us: Forgive our sins and give us life.

            Jesus is our Example in this, and He is also our Substitute.  His active righteousness is credited to our account, and His suffering and death accomplishes the forgiveness of our sins, as St. Peter says: “to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.  He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.  When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.  He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.  By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:21-24).

            You have been healed, as St. Paul was, to be now a good and true witness.  That is, our Lord’s suffering as a victim of false witness, and His taking that false witness into Himself to atone for it and bury it forever, changes how you now regard and speak of your neighbor.  Now you speak well of him, defending him when he needs defending, saying only good things about him, guarding his reputation, and promoting him to others.  And you speak the truth to him, especially regarding Jesus and His Word.  And when you give your word to him, you keep it.  You let your yes be yes, and your no, no.  And you look upon your neighbor now as he is in truth, as God looks upon him… as one beloved by God, created in His image, for whom Christ died, forgiven and righteous for Jesus’ sake.  You don’t read into his words or actions.  You clarify where necessary and seek reconciliation.  And where he is weak or has sinned, you forgive, you pass over his iniquity, knowing that love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8).  That is putting the best construction on everything.

            In fact, let me challenge you with this tonight, as those freed by the blood-bought forgiveness of all your sins in Christ the crucified.  Engage in good gossip.  Actively seek to say good things… true, but good… about your neighbor.  Do this for all… for each one… but especially when you notice a neighbor whose reputation needs a little boost among your brothers and sisters.  You can do this, and believe it or not, it won’t kill you.  You’ve already died with Christ, and you live with Him.  His life is in you.  Speak of your neighbors as Christ speaks of them.  And speak to your neighbors about how Christ speaks of them: that for Christ’s sake, they are righteous, forgiven, and beloved.  They are created by God in His own image, redeemed by God to be His own, precious to Him.  That is the opposite of false witness.  That is God’s truth in all its fulness.  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] Catechism quotes from Luther’s Small Catechism (St. Louis: Concordia, 1986). 

[3] LC I:264, McCain.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Third Sunday in Lent

Third Sunday in Lent (B)

March 7, 2021

Text: John 2:13-25

            It is not so much that Jesus is angry.  He may be, but that is not the emotion our Gospel ascribes to the Lord.  It is that He is zealous.  His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me’” (John 2:17; ESV. Cf. Ps. 69:9).  And what is it that ignites His zeal?  It is all those things that distract from, interrupt, and hinder the whole purpose for which the Temple stands: The Holy Communion between God and His people.  Jesus fashions the whip of cords to drive out the cacophony, the chaos, the greed of filthy lucre, and above all, the misdirected faith in a sacrificial system that was never meant to be an end in itself, but was always and only meant to point to Him.  But here is the thing about this kind of cleansing.  It can never be accomplished by a simple scrubbing or dusting, or a general tidying up.  Nor does it work to pull the old trick I suspect most of us do when the guests are on their way: Stuff all the clutter into another room and close the door.  Maybe that’s just me.  But this kind of cleansing requires something much more drastic.  Burn the house down and rebuild.  Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (v. 19). 

            Jesus is speaking, of course, about the Temple that is His Body.  He is speaking about His death and resurrection.  Jesus’ Body is the true Temple.  It is the true dwelling place of God with men.  As St. John tells us, the Word, who is God (1:1), became flesh, and dwelt, made His tent, tabernacled among us (v. 14).  That is what it means that the eternal Son of the Father became a flesh and blood human being in the womb of the Virgin Mary, the great mystery of the incarnation.  The majestic building was but a shadow of the full reality as it is enfleshed in Jesus.  He is the One who, in the pristine paradise of Eden, walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8).  And He has come to restore that sin-shattered bliss.  The Temple, and the Tabernacle before it, was given as a stop-gap measure, to be the mediated presence of God with His people.  Because God is holy, and Adam’s fallen children are decidedly not, there can be no direct contact between God and sinners without killing the sinners.  So God is enthroned on the Ark within the Holy of Holies, separated from the people by a thick curtain, and by the Holy Place, and by the incense, all contained within a building only the priests ever enter, and then a courtyard, with the altar of sacrifice.  And by the blood of sacrificial animals, the priest is to make atonement before God for the sins of the people, bringing the blood into the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement.  And then he is to bring God’s thrice-holy Name, His blessing, and His holiness out to the people on the basis of that blood atonement, speaking upon them the Aaronic Benediction: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Num. 6:24-26).  The blood presented before God results in the blessing and sanctification of the people.  That is, God forgives their sins.  And He dwells with them.  And the priests and the people feast on the sacrifice, all that is not burnt up on the altar or discarded as unclean outside the camp.  And that is the Fellowship.  That is the Communion.  And though it is a real Communion for God’s Old Testament people, it is nonetheless a shadow of the reality upon which it is based.  And that reality is Christ.  He is the Holy of Holies.  He is the throne of God.  And He is the Sacrifice.  His is the Blood of atonement presented before God for the forgiveness of our sins.  And He is the Lamb upon which we feast. 

            When Jesus says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” the Jews, of course, think He is talking about the building.  And that misunderstanding will persist all the way up to the false charges that lead to our Lord’s death.  But it is this misunderstanding that exposes, on a grand scale, that by the time of Jesus, the Jews had entirely missed the point.  And that is why Jesus drives out animals and overturns bankers’ tables.  They had become entrenched in this idea that the sacrifices were effective ex opera operato, of the work being worked, the mere outward performance of the work, even apart from faith.  That is, that the animal sacrifices were an end in themselves, and that the act of sacrificing earned atonement for the people before God.  They go it all wrong.  The sacrifices the people made were pictures of the once-for-all Sacrifice God would make in giving His Son into death to atone for the sins of all people.  And these animal sacrifices were the sacramental way that God bestowed upon His Old Testament people all the saving benefits of the Sacrifice of Jesus yet to come. 

            The problem was not that there were animals for sale.  After all, if you were travelling a long way to Jerusalem to make the sacrifice, the last thing you wanted to do is bring your goat or your sheep from home, or have to keep track of a couple of turtledoves or pigeons.  So you brought the equivalent in money and made your purchase on site.  The money-changers, too… the problem isn’t that there is such a thing.  The worshipers came from all over the place, and they needed to exchange their currency for that used in the Temple, and to pay the Temple tax (in other words, to pay their offering, even if it was compulsory).  And it isn’t all that different than when we travel internationally (back when that was a thing) and we have to exchange our American dollars for the local currency. 

            This is also not to say that we can’t have youth group fundraisers or ladies’ aid bake sales in the Church, as has sometimes been suggested on the basis of this text.  The problem is where all this was taking place.  The market was in the Court of the Gentiles, which was the only place non-Jews were allowed to worship and Commune with the one true God.  It was a cacophony in the middle of their sanctuary.  It would be like holding the Farmer’s Market and a livestock auction right here in the nave during the Divine Service.  Believe it or not, Jesus is against that sort of thing. 

            The correspondence with our worship life is at least three-fold.  First, we should avoid anything that causes cacophony in the congregation, particularly during the Divine Service.  That is, we should avoid chaos, and anything that distracts, interrupts, or hinders our prayers and our attention to the gifts God is giving.  This is what St. Paul means when he says no one should speak in tongues unless they have an interpreter, and not everybody should speak all at once (1 Cor. 14:26-33).  Our God, he says, is not a God of confusion, but of order (v. 33).  And so, all that we do in our corporate worship should be well-ordered, reverent, and focused on the things of God. 

            Second, we dare never make the Church a business.  We need your offerings to do the work of mission, and in the New Testament, those offerings are voluntary, not compulsory.  But the purpose of offerings is never to make money, or save the institution that is our congregation or denomination.  We are not about money, we are about the Gospel.  And we have to trust one another to be good stewards of our own money, to provide for the needs of the poor and the work of the Church, and as a congregation, to be good stewards of the offerings that are given. 

            And third, and most importantly… never, NEVER, should we regard our offerings, our worship, our Church attendance, or our service in the Church… or any other sacrifice that we may make… as effective ex opera operato, of the work being worked apart from faith in Christ, or as in any way earning God’s favor or making atonement for our sins.  Those three things: 1. Chaos, 2. Filthy Lucre, 3. Works-Righteousness, our Lord Jesus must drive out from this House of God. 

            And there are other things that need cleansing, of course.  All our sins of thought, word, and deed, our angry words, our bitter despising of one another, our dishonesty, our lust, our covetousness.  These are all part of the cacophony.  Repent of all of that.  But to clean all of that out is not simply a matter of dusting or scrubbing or sweeping under the rug.  To be cleansed, the Temple must be destroyed, and rebuilt in three days.  That is, for the true and full cleansing of this Temple… of this House of God, and of you, who are a Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19)… the Temple that is Jesus’ Body must be crucified, dead, and buried… the Sacrifice of atonement for all our sins, and the purchase price of our redemption… and after three days, rise again, perfect, clean, glorified, whole.  That as it is with the Temple that is His Body, so it may be with us and with the whole holy Christian Church in heaven and on earth.

            And that is, by the way, the great sign of our Lord’s authority to do these things.  He died, and He is risen from the dead.  He who has the authority to lay down His life and take it up again (John 10:18), has the authority to clean house.  Zeal for the Lord’s House consumed Him.  In Zeal, He did these things, to make us into His House, by His Body given for us, and risen, and living for us.  I’m all for our building project.  But the stones and mortar and majestic edifice, the animals, the money, and even the liturgy, the whole religious system, are not the point, and never were.  The point is Jesus.  These things serve their purpose only when they point to Jesus, and deliver Jesus.  Whenever they do not, they must be driven out.  Jesus is the once-for-all Sacrifice for sins.  Jesus is the source of all our holiness.  And the Body of Jesus, who is God, is the location of our Communion with God.  Direct Communion.  No more stop-gaps.  The Day is coming when the veil will be removed, and we will see that the Temple is the Lord God, the Almighty, and the Lamb (Rev. 21:22).  And once again, in pristine paradise, we will walk with Jesus in the cool of the day.  Until then, there is the Supper.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.