Luke 19:28-40 - On Palm Sunday, Don't Mistake the King You Want for the King You Need - April 14, 2019

By all appearances and for all practical purposes, Jesus seems like he’s finally made it today. Palm Sunday is the only day in his entire life when “All Glory, Laud, and Honor” are given to him; the one and only time the crowds come to him – not looking for free food or healthcare (or to kill him), but to hail him as the king who comes in the name of the LORD. Today Jesus looks every bit the King he came to be. The caution for us today is not to mistake the King we want for the King we need.

 

Finally, Jesus is acting like a king should act. Kings send their servants to do their bidding – and Jesus sends two of his disciples to retrieve a colt. Kings don’t ask for permission to use their subject’s property, they demand it – and Jesus tells his disciples to say the Lord needs it. You may think that a donkey doesn’t appear to be a very kingly mode of transportation – Air Force One or at least a white stallion might seem more appropriate – but it’s interesting to note that this is the only time in the Gospels where we hear that Jesus is riding at all; otherwise he got where he was going the old fashioned way: his own two feet. And when you combine this with Zechariah’s prophecy that Jerusalem’s true King would come into the city riding on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9) it’s clear that Jesus is making a statement with this mode of transportation: he was openly claiming to be the King of Jerusalem, the rightful successor of David, who would bring peace to Israel.

 

And the people went crazy. They loved it. This is what they’d been waiting centuries for. Just like cities throw parades for their victorious sports teams today, the people of Jerusalem gave Jesus a welcome fit for a king. They threw their coats down, so that he rode into Jerusalem on a carpet. John says that they took palm branches and went out to meet him. (John 12:13) The palm branch was like the national flag of Israel. As people wave the stars and stripes before the President, so they waved their palms before their king. And this wasn’t blind or undeserved praise. Luke says the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen. They had seen him give the blind sight, feed thousands, defeat demons, heal lepers and, last, but certainly not least, they had seen him bring Lazarus back to life after he had been dead for four days. (John 11)

 

Never before had Jesus received this kind of welcome. Never before had they publicly and boldly proclaimed all that Jesus had done. And, unlike before, Jesus accepts their praise. He doesn’t tell them to keep his miracles to themselves, as he had before. (Luke 5:14) He didn’t turn around and go into hiding as he did after they tried to make him king after he fed the 5000. (John 6:15) He doesn’t tell them my kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36) as he would tell Pilate. In fact, Jesus tells his enemies that this praise is so fitting and necessary that if the crowds didn’t do it the very stones would cry out.

 

Today it looks like the baby born in a stable in Bethlehem and raised in the backwoods of Nazareth has finally lived up to the hype, right? Finally he has the glory, the crowds, the praise; finally Jesus isn’t worshipped by just a few lowly peasants in rural Galilee but by a huge crowd in the capital city; finally it seems Jesus has come to do something more important than just preach and teach, he’s come to take power and control; finally Jesus is acting like the king the people want.

 

This is the Jesus you will find proclaimed in a vast number of churches. This is the powerful, life-changing Jesus who rescues people from their slavery to drugs and alcohol. The Jesus who came down from heaven to deliver people from the prisons of sickness and depression. The Jesus who will save your marriage, entertain and educate your children, get you that promotion and vacation, make sure you have more than enough money for retirement and liberate you from life’s greatest burdens: student and credit card debt. This Jesus sounds an awful lot like a political candidate. And doesn’t this Jesus sound great? Who wouldn’t want this kind of Jesus? This Jesus is helpful, useful, practical, and always relevant. Even the unbelieving world can get behind this Jesus.

 

Finally Jesus was acting the way the people wanted him to…and that’s why that crowd grew so big so quickly – they thought that he was getting ready to reestablish David’s throne in Jerusalem. Just a few verses before our text Luke says the people thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once…because he was near Jerusalem. (Luke 19:11) (That might tell you something about the quick numerical growth of “prosperity gospel” churches.) They were expecting Jesus to be the king they wanted; a king who would throw the Romans out of the Holy Land and restore prosperity and power to Israel. That’s the version of Jesus the world can – and does – gladly accept. No more of this bloody Jesus and his cross. No more of this Jesus who builds his kingdom through foolish things like words and water, bread and wine. The biggest and most successful churches wouldn’t dare mention this kind of Jesus. Why not? Because they know that this Jesus doesn’t sell tickets or fill seats, the world isn’t buying a crucified King.

 

But lest you think this sermon is a diatribe on how wrong the rest of the world is and how right we are, I have a confession to make: the Jesus the world wants…that’s the Jesus I want too. And I suspect the same is true of you. I don’t really want bloody Good Friday Jesus. I want glorious Palm Sunday Jesus. I don’t want a king who is rejected by the world, and says that the world will reject me too if I follow him. (Matthew 10:22) I don’t want a Jesus who picks up his cross and then tells me that if I’m going to follow him I must pick up my own cross, too. (Luke 9:23) I want a Jesus who stops at Luke 19:40. I want a superhero Jesus that I can brag about at parties – not a bloody, beaten, loser Jesus who says that we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God. (Acts 14:22) Is that really true? Consider your prayer life. When you pray do you plead with Jesus to save you from God’s wrath or to save you from health issues and financial insecurity? Do we understand that Jesus distributes his greatest blessings right here at church or do we imagine that coming here is kind of like putting our coins into some divine vending machine which ensures that blessings keep rolling into our lives out there? Perhaps the coldest, hardest evidence is that just like that first Palm Sunday the crowd is here shouting praise to King Jesus in his time of glory, but where will this crowd be on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday when King Jesus bleeds and dies? The truth is that if we want Jesus to be a King who comes to make this life and this world better, then we don’t want the true Jesus, the Jesus of the Bible. And this is more than just a mistake, this is sin, this is idolatry. It’s time to repent.

Repent for your own good; repent, change your mind about the King you want, because idol Jesus, the Jesus the world wants, the Jesus we secretly want, won’t save anyone. There is no salvation to be found in a Jesus whose work ends at Luke 19:40. Oh sure, Jesus has done some wonderful miracles and preached some mesmerizing sermons and fulfilled some OT prophecies. But if Jesus had stopped there, the devil would still control our souls, our sins would still condemn us, and we would still have every reason to fear death – because the yawning gates of hell would still be open. The Jesus who “makes” it in the world doesn’t make it as a Savior.  

 

It’s easy to make mistakes about Jesus on Palm Sunday because the appearances can be deceiving. He appears to march in as David’s legitimate heir who has come to be the earthly King the people want. But if you look past the palm branches and adoring crowds, you can see the real reason Jesus came. Jesus specifically sends his disciples to find a colt which no one has ever ridden. Why does that matter? In the OT, whenever there was an unsolved murder, whenever a dead body was found and no one knew who did it, God commanded the citizens of that city to find a red heifer which had never been yoked, never been used, and slaughter it as an atoning sacrifice. (Deuteronomy 21:1-9) That heifer had to die to bear the burden of the people’s guilt.

 

Jesus isn’t riding into Jerusalem on a war horse to establish his kingdom on earth, he’s riding on a colt as the sacrifice for the sins of the world. He comes not to slaughter his enemies but to be slaughtered. Even as the crowds shout his praises and prepare to install him as King – he knows what really lies ahead: that he is going to be beaten, tortured and crucified. He knows that the palm branches brushing his face today will be replaced by the Roman whip tearing open his back. He knows that each step on that carpeted path is one step closer to Calvary where his hands and feet will be nailed to a cross.

 

On Palm Sunday, it’s easy to be mistaken. It looks like Jesus comes to be the king the world wants. It looks like Jesus belongs on the throne so much that even the stones have to admit it. And the stones would. But they do not cry out today. No, when do the stones cry out? Good Friday! Only after Jesus is lifted up on the throne of the cross; only after the notice is nailed above his head identifying him as The King of the Jews (Luke 23:38); only after King Jesus has given up his spirit do the stones shake and quake and split and shout out the truth oh, sorrow dread! God’s Son is dead! (Matthew 27:50-51 & CW 137:2)

 

And finally, not the Palm Sunday crowds but the Good Friday stones proclaim the King we need. We don’t need a Jesus who hangs out in a palace, we need a Jesus who hangs on a cross. A Jesus who is popular in the world wouldn’t want anything to do with you or me. We don’t have the power, the money, the looks, the talent, the charisma the world values and praises. A Jesus like that would be out of touch and out of reach – just consider how many Christians think that only their pastor can get to Jesus on their behalf! We need a Jesus who meets us where we are; who knows what it is to grieve and weep; who knows what it means to be weak and helpless; who is despised and hated by the same world we are. When we are suffering, we find comfort in a King who suffers too. When we are burdened by sin and haunted by demons, we run to a King who knows sin’s weight and the devil’s fury. More than we need a King who is popular with this world’s elite, we need a King who isn’t ashamed to associate with sinners; because that’s what we are.

 

The Jesus the world wants comes and demands to be served. He expects people to give him the shirt off their backs. He expects them to sacrifice everything for him. This Jesus fits the paradigm of power and glory in this world. But this is not the Jesus I need. I don’t need a Jesus who demands the shirt off my back; I need a Jesus who offers his back to take the beating I deserve from God and covers my shameful nakedness with the robe of his righteousness. I don’t need a Jesus who will take over the world but a Jesus who willingly loses the world to save me. I need the Jesus of Philippians 2 who lets go of heaven to grab hold of me. Let the rest of the world have health and wealth Jesus; I need the Jesus who gave up his health and wealth to defeat sin, death and the devil and win eternal life for me.

 

This is the Jesus who saves the world. A Jesus who never suffered and died could save no one from death. A Jesus who is everything the world wants in a King would be no King at all – he would just be another imposter. The world turns in disgust from this King and his wounds, his blood, his cross, his death. Nothing in the universe is more offensive to the world than Christ the crucified King. The world might not want a Jesus who comes to Jerusalem on a donkey to die, but I do. Because there is nothing in the world I need more than for Jesus to suffer and die for my sins. May the Lord help us this Holy Week to never mistake the King we want for the King we need. Amen.

Luke 20:9-19 - You Be the Judge - April 7, 2019

Many of today’s most popular TV shows are those that welcome and invite audience participation. From sports, where replay after replay invite the viewer to make their own judgment to the myriad of talent competitions and reality TV shows featuring people of questionable talent doing things of questionable value – but hey, you get to decide who stays and who goes. Apparently people like the feeling of power that comes with judging. This fifth Sunday in Lent has historically been called Judica “Judgment” Sunday. Jesus is just days from his cross now, and in our text he calls on us to judge him – and ourselves – correctly.

 

It’s Tuesday of Holy week. Tuesday of Holy week was kind of like media day before the Super Bowl – Jerusalem was packed with pilgrims who had come to celebrate the Passover and Jesus is in the temple courts accepting interviews and challenges from both friend and foe and teaching the people about the events that would soon be happening. The Jewish leaders question his right to be teaching and preaching and so he tells them this parable. A man planted a vineyard and handed it over to farmers – expecting to get his share of the harvest. He sent a servant to collect what was due him and the tenants beat him and sent him away empty handed. He sent another but that one also they beat and treated shamefully and sent away empty-handed. He sent a third and they wounded him and threw him out. Finally, he sent his son. And they took one look at the son and said ‘this is the heir…let’s kill him and the inheritance will be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him.

 

As with any parable, correct identification of the characters is vital to understanding the meaning. Fortunately, we don’t have to guess, because Luke tells us: the teachers of the law and the chief priests…knew he had spoken this parable against them. So, this parable is about Israel, with special focus on Israel’s religious leaders. God is the owner. The people of Israel are the vineyard. The teachers of the law and the chief priests are the farmers. The thing that stands out is God’s grace to these religious leaders. They hadn’t purchased the vineyard with their own resources, nor had they earned their positions as farmers. God simply gave it to them. And, naturally, God – the owner – has every right to share in the profits of his vineyard – but sadly, the farmers refused and preferred to pretend as if the vineyard belonged to them, running God’s servants – the OT prophets – out of town.

 

You be the judge of these religious leaders, Jesus is telling the crowd. See God’s grace to them and see their hate-filled rejection of his grace and his prophets. Even more, see what they are planning to do the Son of the owner of the vineyard. Imagine that. Jesus is speaking to the people and telling them that their leaders are planning to murder him – with the leaders standing right there.

 

How would you judge them? Ah, but you can’t really make that judgment until you first judge the Lord of the vineyard. Namely, what kind of fruit was he expecting the vineyard – the people – to produce under the care of the farmers – the church leaders? I believe this question is the crux of Jesus’ parable. It demonstrates that this parable is not a fairy tale, this is about real live people and their standing with their Savior; this story is about the Church of all time; this parable applies to the pastor and people of Risen Savior. What kind of fruit did the prophets seek? What fruit did Jesus seek? What fruit do faithful pastors seek? Did the prophets seek sacrifices – obedience to rituals? There was no shortage of sacrifices in the OT, but one of God’s prophets, Samuel, said: does the LORD delight in burn offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. (1 Samuel 15:22) Did Jesus come after people’s money or possessions? Jesus never once gathered an offering. Does God send pastors today to teach behavior modification, to help bad people become good and good people, better. If that were true, if the OT prophets, Jesus, or faithful pastors today were only trying to coerce people into obeying the Law, they would never be persecuted. Check out some of the most popular mega-churches and mega-pastors today (not to mention every other religion in the world): they demand everything but the shirt off their people’s backs, week after week they give people “to-do” lists and people love them for it. No, what got God’s OT prophets persecuted, Jesus crucified and faithful pastors today attacked is seeking people’s sins.

 

Throughout the OT all of the prophets had the same message: repent and believe. They pleaded with the people to give their sins to God. Jesus came to seek out the lost sheep – not seeking to get something from the sheep. (Luke 15) He came to serve, not to be served. Jesus still sends men to preach repentance and forgiveness – and this absolutely infuriates several groups of people. There are those who don’t think it’s the church’s or pastor’s business to point out and rebuke their sins and those who think the church should be busy changing the world not changing hearts. There are self-righteous people in every church – who are active and generous and willing – but who are sadly under the impression that their good works cancel out their sins. And yet, the only people they’re deceiving is themselves. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. (1 John 1:8)

 

So you be the judge. Be the judge of the Lord of the Church and of those he sends to tend to it. He came to the vineyard looking to lift the burden of people’s sins. Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28), Jesus invited, but the chief priests preferred to try to work their way into heaven. All Jesus wanted was to be their Savior, the Lamb of God who takes away their sins, but rather than repent of their self-righteousness and build their faith on Jesus, they rejected and killed him. I suppose it might not seem nice to ask you to judge the leaders, but isn’t that exactly what God invites us to do in Isaiah 5: judge between me and my vineyard. What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it? (Isaiah 5:3-4) He gave the vineyard away for free. He wanted the only fruit that sinners can produce…which is: sin. He didn’t just send one prophet or a couple of prophets, but as he says in Jeremiah: from the time your forefathers left Egypt until now, day after day, again and again I sent you my servants the prophets. (Jeremiah 7:25) What more could God have done?

 

 

Well, there is one more thing. The greatest thing. God sent his own Son to seek fruit in the vineyard. You be the judge of love like that. Try to wrap your mind around such love. Would you ever send your child to people with a reputation for violence and murder – ever send them to Iran or North Korea – on the chance they will welcome them with joy? Because that’s exactly what God did. He saw his prophets abused and beaten and he said to himself what shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him.

 

Don’t we have to judge that the Lord of the vineyard loves us more than we would dare to hope? This is that love unknown that we sing about! It was God’s unknown, unfathomable love that caused him to send his Son into this world not to gather up our good works but to gather up our sins. All of them. Not just the small ones, the “white lies,” or that one time we ran a stop sign or the one time we lost our temper– but the big, black ones, the ones we would never tell anyone about, the ones that keep us up at night. That’s the fruit he’s looking for. That’s what he came to earth to suffer, die, and pay for.

 

Is that how we always judge Christ and his Church or has work-righteousness taken root in our hearts, too? Do you think Jesus invites you to come into his presence so that he can get something from you? Do you think discipleship is defined by doing good things for God? Do you view your giving, serving, praying, worshipping as rent payments – as things you do to stay in God’s good graces? If so, it’s no wonder you resent him; it’s no wonder that you would find better things to do on Wednesdays in Lent and blow off Holy Week – because in your mind church is where God piles burdens on you instead of taking them from you. But faith built on what we do for Jesus is no faith at all. In fact, it is unbelief; a rejection of God’s grace.

 

And what will God do to those who reject his grace? Jesus tells us he will come and kill those [farmers] and give the vineyard to others. Isn’t the people’s reaction shocking? How do they react when Jesus tells them that God is going to destroy the leaders who taught that doing good and working harder is the way into God’s favor? Did they rejoice that the Lord would remove these abusive leaders? No, they foolishly shout may this never be! “No Jesus. We’d rather continue to believe that we can earn our way into heaven than accept it as a free gift from you.”

 

Jesus looked directly at them. The English doesn’t do justice to the emotion contained in these words. This word for look is the one used when Jesus looked at the rich young man and loved him. (Mark 10:21) It’s the word for that famous look Jesus gave Peter after the rooster had crowed. (Luke 22:61) They were acting like slaves who wanted to remain in slavery rather than accept freedom. And Jesus pitied them.

 

So Jesus tries one more time to help them judge clearly. He quotes Psalm 118 ‘the stone the builders rejected has become the capstone’ and adds his own interpretation: everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed. There’s a Jewish proverb that states: “If a stone falls on a pot, woe to the pot. If the pot falls on the stone, woe to the pot. Either way, woe to the pot!” Jesus is telling the people one more time that according to Scripture, the one the Jewish leaders reject is actually the key to the whole building. (The picture is of an arch. If you remove the capstone, the whole thing falls down. If you remove Jesus and his atoning death for sinners from religion, that religion is worthless, it falls to pieces.) The point is that with Jesus there is no middle ground; you will either be broken by him now in repentance and faith or you will be crushed by him in judgment. Either way you must die to yourself; to all thoughts of earning heaven on your own.

 

You be the judge: where do you stand? Are you offended that Jesus doesn’t come to give you your best life now or to teach you how to be a better person but to call you to repentance, to expose your sins so that he can take them away from you? If this offends you, then you will be crushed just like those religious leaders, the nation of Israel and all who believe that Christianity is about “doing good” and “trying harder” for God. Or, will Jesus land on you and break you, crushing the pride, the self-sufficiency, the sins right out of you? Will he lead you to confess that you don’t have anything God needs, the only thing you own is your sin, to not say “Lord, look at all the good I’ve done” but instead “Lord, have mercy on me”? Will you fall on Jesus and his merits and build your entire life, your faith, your priorities, your family on him? Will you see that worship is not about you doing anything for Jesus but him serving you with his forgiveness, with his own body and blood? Or will you plug your ears to his calls to repentance, will you gamble that God will be pleased with the filthy rags of your best efforts? Will you risk abusing with God’s grace for so long that he finally takes it from you and gives it to others? This is not reality TV where the worst that could happen is you get kicked off the island; the stakes are eternal life or eternal death. You be the judge. May God grant us all the wisdom to judge correctly. Amen.

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 - A Trip to the Lost and Found - March 31, 2019

A parable is an earthly story with a spiritual meaning. The earthly part is familiar, isn’t it? You’ve maybe lived – or are living it right now. Jesus told this parable to people who were grumbling about the company he kept. He had the audacity to hang out with the society’s outcasts, the riff-raff, the tax collectors and prostitutes, lepers and beggars. They were not good, upstanding, church-going folk; they were sinners…dirty, despicable sinners. They were the last people anyone expected to see in church, much less heaven. But Jesus welcomed them and ate with them. And they hated him for it. So he took them on a trip to the lost and found. It’s actually the third of three related parables. The first two set up the third. In the parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7), a shepherd leaves 99 sheep to search for and save one lost sheep, and when he finds it, he calls his neighbors and throws a party. Then a woman loses a coin and turns the whole house upside down looking for it, and when she finds it she calls her neighbors and friends and…throws a party. (Luke 15:8-10) The pattern is set: something is lost, then it’s found, and there is rejoicing and a party.  

 

There was a man who had two sons. The younger son couldn’t wait for his father to die. He said Father, give me my share of the estate. In other words, “Dad, you’re worth more to me dead than alive, and since you seem unlikely to check out any time soon, just sign over the inheritance check now so I can get out from under your eye and get on with living life my way.” And the father did. He signed over the inheritance to the younger, gave the farm to the older, and kicked back into retirement.

 

Not long after that the younger son hit the road to a far-off country…far from home and family – far from all the rules and guidance and accountability – this younger son did what so many people do in the same situation: he squandered his wealth. How? Wild living, Luke says. Was it alcohol, women, gambling? Who knows? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is that his father’s money, his livelihood was now gone.

 

To make matters worse, there was a severe famine in that whole country. That part is familiar too, isn’t it? Problems tend to pile up. You lose your job and your health insurance at the same time you need surgery and the furnace breaks down and the car needs new tires. The young man has no money and no food; he’s homeless and broke. But he’s still not broken. He’s still determined to prove that he doesn’t need his father or his love and especially his rules. So he goes to work in that far-off country feeding pigs. That’s about as shameful as it gets for a Jewish boy. Pigs were unclean, off-limits. (Leviticus 11:7) Things go so desperate that he craved the pods that the pigs were eating. Even that was off-limits. If you’ve ever wondered what rock-bottom looks like, this is it.

 

Hungry, broke, lost in a foreign country and reeking of pigs, Jesus says, [the younger son] came to his senses. His proud, independent, rebellious will is starting to crack. ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! So he makes a plan. I’ll set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men. And off he went.

 

He probably rehearsed his little speech on the road. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you…” He probably wondered if his father would acknowledge him or just lock the door in his face, as he deserved. In this earthly story, there were no guarantees that his plan would work. All he knew was that after he had tried his hand at making his way through this world on his terms – and the world had coldly used him up and spit him out – he was all out of options; it was either die with the pigs in a foreign country or go home to his father’s house and beg for mercy.

 

Maybe you’ve been there. You’ve tried living life on your terms. You’ve done things your way with no regard for the will of the one who gave you life, gave you his love and a place in his family, and gave you everything you needed for this life and the promise of even more in the next. You’ve looked for happiness and fulfillment in all the places your Father told you not to go. You tried to find yourself in the world and ended up getting lost. You’re broken and alone and out of options – but to go back to your Father’s house with your tail between your legs.

 

This is a picture of repentance. Repentance is not an act of human will – it is God’s act of breaking the human will. We don’t work repentance. God does. And he does it in a variety of ways. He begins it at the Baptismal font, where he drowns our sinful nature under the waters of his forgiveness. He does it through parents and pastors and teachers and spouses and friends – who lovingly point out our sins to us. He does it regularly through the invitation to repent and the proclamation of the Law in worship. When all else fails he does it through the church’s declaration of excommunication. But quite often God does it through life. When we run away from him he allows us to fail, to suffer, to be humiliated and broken by this cold world. He lets us learn Psalm 32 firsthand: many are the woes of the wicked. (Psalm 32:10) However God does it his message is the same: apart from him we are not only lost, we are as good as dead – now and eternally. And because it is really God’s hand at work in every case, we know that no matter how painful it is, his goal is that we repent and throw ourselves on his grace, his undeserved love.

 

Undeserved love is what we see in the parable. When the younger son was still far off, still little more than a speck on the horizon, his father saw him. Clearly, he’d been watching, waiting, hoping his son would finally see the error of his ways and come home. And when he finally saw him, he didn’t wait, he took off sprinting towards his son (something no self-respecting adult male would do), wrapping him up in his arms, kissing him – this boy that smelled like pig manure. The boy can only get half of his speech out before his father smothers him and orders the servants to bring out the finest robe and family ring and shoes for his blistered feet. And then, following the pattern, he says “let’s throw a party.” For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.

 

 

Here’s the other side of repentance…when God has broken us, when he’s led us to see our lost condition, he won’t have us come to him trying to work out a deal. “Father, if you forgive me now I will turn my life over to you. Give me a chance to earn my way back into your family.” Repentance is not a negotiation. Repentance doesn’t earn forgiveness.  In fact, true repentance understands that God’s grace is so deep that we are forgiven before we utter a word. We don’t ever earn our way home, we are received purely by unearned, undeserved grace.

 

And then there’s the older brother. He’s still out in the field working. He hears the music, the dancing, the singing. He comes near to the house and asks a servant, “Hey, what’s going on?” Your brother has come and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound. And he’s absolutely furious. He refuses to join the party. He wants nothing to do with it. Even when his father comes out and pleads with him, he won’t go. He says Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him! In other words, “I’ll be damned before I celebrate your love along with that undeserving son of yours.” And right there you see the problem, right? This son thought he had earned his father’s love.

 

But the father won’t let him off so easily: my son…you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours (!) was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found. And there the story ends. At the end of the parable, which son is lost? Who finds himself outside of the party? Not the one you’d expect. The good, responsible, upstanding one. The one who did all the right things for all the wrong reasons. And in the end, what keeps him out of the party? Not his brother’s wild living or his Father’s reckless love. Nothing but his own stubborn self-righteousness. In the end, self-righteousness is the reason so many people will find themselves lost in hell forever. They don’t think they need God’s undeserved love because they imagine they’ve earned it. To imagine yourself too good for God’s grace is to be truly lost.

 

What is this parable about? First, it’s about the third son, the one telling the story. The Son who left his royal throne, the home of his Father, emptied himself of all the perks of being the only Son of God, took on our human flesh and humbled himself to be born of a virgin. But there are two big, glaring differences. He didn’t squander his Father’s inheritance, we did. We stole God’s blessings of life and health and wealth and used them to pursue our own selfish, pleasure-seeking purposes. We are why Jesus was born in the pig-pen of this world, surrounded by the slop of sin and death. We are why he was hung between criminals on a cross, mocked and jeered at by the rabble of the streets. We are why he was lost in a way we could never imagine when his Father abandoned him to hell. And unlike the son in the parable, he had to earn his Father’s love. He not only had to live a perfectly obedient life, he had to carry the sins of the world to the cross and hell and die to earn his Father’s favor. And only when he had done it all, perfectly, did God exalt him to his rightful place at the head of heaven’s feast where he rules all things.

 

This parable is about us, too. We were all born as lost sons. Lost in sin. Doomed to die and be lost in hell forever. But God found us. He found us in Baptism, washed away our sins, adopted us into his family, gave us a place in his house, gave us all the rights and privileges of true sons and daughters. And how have we repaid him? How many times have we said, “No, Father, I don’t like your rules or really care about your love. The path you would have me walk is too restrictive and I’d rather run free. I can do without the gifts you offer in Word and Sacrament. Just give me your blessings and go away.” And yet, while God often lets us go our own way – his house is not a prison, he forces no one to stay – he never gives up on us. He never stops working to lead us to repentance – whether through the hammer of the Law or the sheer hopelessness and despair of life in this world apart from him. And the most amazing thing is that no matter how many times we run away he’s always there waiting to welcome us home. Always ready to cover our sinfulness with the robe of Jesus’ perfect righteousness. No matter how far, how long, how badly, how shamefully we have treated our Father – he always, always, always welcomes us back. No questions, no conditions, just full and immediate restoration.

 

Jesus told this parable to those who imagined that they were “in” with God, that they didn’t need to repent, didn’t need to be forgiven and who looked down on those who did. We life-long Christians, who have grown up in the Father’s house, who attend faithfully and give generously and volunteer regularly, run the same risk of finding ourselves on the outside if we ever begin to imagine that the Father’s grace is something we’ve earned rather than something we’ve been freely given.

 

In the end, this parable isn’t really about the lost sons but about the Father’s endless grace. Whether we can more closely identify with the younger son who squandered his Father’s love or the older one who imagined that he had earned his Father’s love – the point of the parable is clear: it’s not about what you think you deserve. Jesus took our place under God’s wrath so that we could take his seat at his Father’s party. The Father sacrificed the Lamb for us. That’s grace. We don’t ever find out if the older son realized his lost condition and went in to celebrate his Father’s boundless love. I think Jesus ends there on purpose. It forces us to ask ourselves: will we? Amen.  

Luke 13:1-9 - Jesus Interprets the News - March 24, 2019

If the season of Lent could be summed up in just one word, that word would be…REPENT. In Hebrew it’s “shuv” – which has the basic idea of turning back or turning around. In Greek it’s “metanoia” – literally “change your mind.” Throughout the Bible repentance refers to a change; a change of heart and mind and a changing of ways…from sin to holiness, from unbelief to faith, from death to life. And today, Jesus weaves this Lenten theme of repentance into current events as he interprets the news for us.

 

Why are we so fascinated by the news? Why do our lives revolve around the morning newspaper, the news feed on our phones? One reason is that it allows us to “play God” – to sit in the safety of our homes and judge the thoughts, words and actions of others. We are invited to join similarly innocent news anchors in assigning blame or shame or criticism or praise as we see fit. It’s an ego boost to see all these “evil” people paraded before our eyes and think: “I may not be perfect…but I’m certainly better than that guy!”

 

One of Israel’s biggest and perennial mistakes was their “entitlement” complex, they felt they had an automatic “in” with God. They knew they were God’s chosen people, his treasured possession. They had the Law, the temple, the prophets, priests and kings chosen by God himself. They had the heritage: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…Moses, Elijah, and David. They had proof that God was on their side: he had rescued them from Egypt, led them through the Red Sea and the wilderness, and planted them in a land that didn’t belong to them. And so they figured: “we’re in no matter what…we’ve got the golden ticket.” And yet, what message did God give Ezekiel for Israel? Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11)

 

The Christians in Corinth had the same kind of “entitlement” complex. They were strong, they were spiritual, they were filled with knowledge and the Spirit, they enjoyed liberty from the Law through the Gospel. They prophesied and saw visions and spoke in tongues. They were young and hip and growing and…they were the congregation Paul had the most trouble with. They were divided. They abused the gift of the Lord’s Supper and each other. They boasted of their tolerance of sin and failed to carry out proper Christian discipline. They were sexually immoral and doubted the resurrection. Which is why Paul issued one of the sternest warnings in the NT: if you think that you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! (1 Corinthians 10:12) That’s why he reminded them of Israel’s history; that they were baptized into Moses and drank from the spiritual rock that was Christ (1 Corinthians 10:2,4) – that Israel too had all the benefits of God’s grace – and yet God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert. (1 Corinthians 10:5) Remember the lessons of the past, Paul was telling them; don’t take God’s grace for granted. He will eventually reject those who reject him, even if they are his chosen people.

 

We need to hear this warning too because we still have a tendency to have an “entitlement” complex, to take God’s grace to us for granted. Don’t we tend to believe that bad things happen to bad people? Every time there is a disaster, some act of war or violence or abuse of power…a tornado, earthquake, or flood – we are inundated with 24/7 streams of speculation attempting to explain what God is trying to tell us. Why did this happen? And the usual answer is: “Well, that’s what happens when you’re gay, addicted to drugs, pro-choice, Islamic – or whatever.” (To be clear, sometimes that is the case. When a drug addict dies from an overdose or a woman dies as the result of a failed abortion, that tragedy is clearly a result of their sin. But these are exceptions, not the rule.) But the one thing that never changes, no matter what has happened in the news, is the comfort that it has nothing at all to do with me. But Jesus challenges that theory in our text.

 

One day, some people came to Jesus with news about a sacrilegious and barbaric act committed by Pontius Pilate. He had slaughtered some Galileans as they were offering their sacrifices in Jerusalem. It was probably no coincidence that this happened to Galileans. Galilee was the wild west of Israel; a hotbed of insurrection, messianic wannabes, political anarchists and terrorists. Pilate was probably hoping to make an example out of them. Saying in no uncertain terms: “If you even think about plotting against my government, this is what will happen to you, too.” Incidentally, crucifixions were political statements too. They were the worst form of punishment the Romans could think of, intended to intimidate, subjugate, and terrify anyone who might even think about questioning or overthrowing the Roman government.

 

So how were Jesus’ disciples to interpret this? From Jesus’ response, it appears that they were expecting him to agree with their own judgment: that God was punishing these Galileans for their sins. But Jesus gets right to the heart of the issue: do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? And then he does the one thing we never want him to do when we come to him for answers: he turns the question back on the questioners: I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.

 

And then to drive the point home even deeper, Jesus adds a headline of his own: a construction accident which didn’t have any political or religious overtones. A tower fell in Siloam killing 18 people. Just a freak accident like those that happen all the time. How was this to be interpreted? Were they more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? Was God paying those people back for some secret sins they had committed? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. And you could substitute any manmade or natural disaster, any tragedy you want; those with political and religious overtones – like 9/11 or the shooting in the mosques in New Zealand, or those without, like the sudden crashes of those Boeing airplanes. How should you interpret that news? Is God punishing these people? Are they getting what they had coming? Jesus says simply: no – meaning that’s the wrong question. When tragedies happen we shouldn’t be asking “why did God allow this to happen?” But “what is God trying to tell me?” Is God trying to tell us something in the daily news? Yes! What ? Repent! No matter what happened to who, every tragedy is a reminder that this entire world is under God’s curse and sooner or later he is going to bring everyone under judgment. So go ahead and watch the news, but remember that the news isn’t about what God is doing to others, it’s about what he’s telling you. And his message to you is clear: repent, otherwise you, too, will perish.

But the simple fact that we are still readers of the news and not reduced to 2 ½ inches in the obituary section of the newspaper is evidence of God’s grace to us. Jesus illustrates this with a parable. A man had a fruitless fig tree that failed to produce for three years. He wanted to cut it down. It was taking up space, wasting land and sunlight. But the gardener intervened. Be patient. Give it one more year. He’ll work on it: aerate its roots, fertilize it. If it bears fruit, great. If not, go ahead: cut it down. This parable was clearly spoken against Israel. She was the fig tree God had planted in the Promised Land and when the Son of God came, looking for fruit, he didn’t find any. For three years Jesus had left his footprints on Israel’s highways and byways. For three years he had worked to seek and save the lost. For three years he had preached and taught and performed miracles. For three years he had searched for repentance and faith in Israel. Israel’s time was running out. But still Jesus was patient, he put up with their unbelief, their hostility, their rejection – because he didn’t want any of them to perish but to return to their God and be saved. (1 Timothy 2:4)

 

And that’s also why God puts up with the world at large today. That’s why he doesn’t seem to be on any big campaign to clean this world up. That’s why he doesn’t give this world what its sin deserves. That’s why in most cases it seems likes he doesn’t interfere or intervene when evil people do evil things and tragedies happen; why he lets planes fall out of the sky and white supremacists shoot up mosques and floods wipe out people’s homes. Each and every disaster is a megaphone through which God is telling the world: Repent. Turn around. Change your mind and your ways. Return to the God who created you. (Which is why it was no coincidence that churches around the country were packed the Sunday after 9/11!)

 

Most importantly, Jesus’ intercession is the only reason that God has put up with us to this day. His pleading with the Father for “one more year” is the only reason we are still alive, still watching the news and not tragic subjects of the news. It’s why we refer to our lifetimes as our “time of grace.” It is the time Jesus has graciously purchased for us to repent, to return to him and be saved from the destruction that is coming. Both parts are important: repenting and returning. Why? Because we are incapable, by ourselves of producing the good fruit God demands from us. Jesus makes this clear in John’s Gospel: I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5) That Jesus is the one who produces good fruit in our lives is clear even in this parable: ‘sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it.’

 

This is the real reason we are still alive, still breathing, still walking and talking in this world – so that Jesus would have one more day to work on our hearts, to dig around our roots with his call to repentance, to fertilize us by pouring his life-giving, fruit-producing power into us through Word and sacrament. To make us the fruitful trees God always intended. What does a fruitful tree look like? Paul says the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23) Are those fruits present in your life? If God is watching the newsreel of your life – and he is – is he pleased with what he sees? If you have to confess with me that many days we’ve been fruitless trees just taking up space in God’s kingdom – then remember this: the call to return to Jesus isn’t primarily a call to come here to be fertilized and energized so that you can go out and prove your fruitfulness, your worthiness to God in your life. If that were true, we’d be better off giving up now. No, the call to return to Jesus – especially in this season of Lent – is to trust that he came to live the life we have not, to bear the fruit we cannot, to be cut down on the cross in our place and to rise to life to justify us, make us worthy and righteous in God’s sight. We need to return to Jesus urgently because every day the one thing we need most is the forgiveness and righteousness only he can offer. Because while full and free forgiveness is no guarantee that we won’t be on a plan that will suddenly malfunction or that some accident will happen that gets us into the daily news cycle – it does guarantee that we will be shielded from God’s wrath on Judgment Day. And in the end, that’s the real tragedy we need to avoid.

 

So…how should we interpret the news – the daily and hourly report of tragic events from all over the world? Jesus says that we can’t, that we shouldn’t try – at least not in the way we’d like to. I hope Jesus has changed the way you consume the news forever. That instead of asking “why did God allow this to happen to those people?” you ask “what is God trying to tell me?” Because now we know the answer to that question: repent! Turn around. Change your mind and your ways. Recognize that every tragedy is a shadow of the far worse tragedy that will befall every impenitent sinner on Judgment Day. And then return. Return to Jesus in faith – the one who shed his blood to shield you from the punishment of eternal death so that you might instead have the gift of eternal life. Amen.

Luke 13:31-35 - Jesus' Desire to Save Confronts and Overcomes - March 17, 2019

Jesus’ long, winding road to the cross was filled with obstacles. Last week, he ran head-on into the prince of darkness in the wilderness. This week, he runs into three more obstacles, all of which would prevent him from carrying out his mission of salvation. We’ll handle the first two together. Religion and politics are always a nasty combination. In the book of Revelation, one part religion and one part politics and a dash of demonic influence is the perfect recipe for the antichrist. (Revelation 13) Whether it’s the emperor cult of 1st century Rome, the medieval papacy, Hitler’s Third Reich, the Islamic caliphate, or any other unholy alliance of religious and political authority, whenever the two get together there is sure to be trouble, persecution and bloodshed.

 

The Pharisees came to Jesus, pretending to be on his side. “Get away from here – Herod has put a bounty on your head. You don’t want to get yourself killed, do you? Get out while you still can.” Of course, the great irony is that the Pharisees had been scheming to do the exact same thing for over a year. (Mark 3:6) They just couldn’t agree on when and how to do it. And Jesus…well he seems blissfully unconcerned. Go tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ It certainly seems like Jesus has his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. That he’s got some inside information. Of course, he did. Jesus knew exactly what was in store for him in Jerusalem. He’d planned it with his Father before creation (1 Peter 1:20) and he’d already predicted several times that in Jerusalem he would suffer, die, and rise again – on the third day. He’s the Lord. No one takes his life from him, he lays it down of his own accord. (John 10:18) He’s already gone head to head with the prince of darkness in the wilderness on an empty stomach and won, he’s got nothing to fear from some two-bit puppet king. No amount of political pressure will keep Jesus from winning salvation for all.

 

Next he takes a jab at religion, represented by the Pharisees. He knows what they’re really thinking, that they’re plotting his death too…that all of their supposed concern for his safety is just smoke and mirrors. In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day – and then the real zinger – for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem! Now there’s a shot: if a prophet of God is going to die, it has to be in Jerusalem, the heart of Jewish religion. Jerusalem had earned a reputation when it came to God’s prophets. We already heard how Jerusalem responded to Jeremiah’s message – they called for his death. (Jeremiah 26) According to tradition, Isaiah was sawn in half in Jerusalem and Zechariah was stoned to death right in front of the temple. (2 Chronicles 24:21) God’s NT spokesmen didn’t fare much better in Israel’s capital. Stephen was stoned to death by the Sanhedrin (Acts 7:54-60) and James was beheaded there. (Acts 12:2)

 

Politics and religion hated Jesus. Politics nailed him for treason, for claiming that he was a king. Politicians like Jesus when they can twist his words and rip them out of context to support their own agenda, but they have no use for the Jesus of Scripture. What good is a king whose kingdom is not of this world; who rules not by law or sword but through the Gospel; who promises health and wealth and security – not in this world, but in the next? It’s no wonder that those who thirst for power and glory here have nothing but hatred for the one who hides his power and glory in humility. But Jesus has turned the tables on political power. King Herod has fallen on the forgotten scrap heap of history – and Pilate would have too, if the authors of the Creed hadn’t credited him with presiding over Jesus’ crucifixion. But Jesus died and rose and not only made history in Jerusalem but redeemed Jerusalem from her history. Jerusalem had put her trust in politics but politics could not save Jerusalem or her people, only Jesus could. Only Jesus did.

 

Religion charged Jesus with blasphemy, for daring to say that he was the Son of God. Religion had no use for Jesus either – as strange as that might sound – because Jesus had come to destroy the legalistic, self-righteous religion that the Pharisees embodied and that comes naturally to all of us. He ignored the hedge of man-made laws they had erected that obscured the holy will of God. He interpreted and explained the Law without any need for their puffed up rabbinical opinions. He unleashed the law in a way even the most pious Pharisees couldn’t handle: be perfect (Matthew 5:48); keep the unchanging Law of God down to the smallest letter, the least stroke of a pen (Matthew 5:18) – in thought, word and deed (Matthew 22:37); don’t try to bargain with God; do the commandments and you will live. (Luke 10:28) Trying hard is not good enough. Self-improvement won’t cut it. The Pharisees knew, deep down in their hearts, that Jesus was right and that God demands more of people than anyone can give. And you might think that it was this sharpening of the law that caused the religious leaders of Jesus’ day to want him dead.

 

But it was the Gospel that made them thirst for Jesus’ blood. They were offended that this authoritative and popular rabbi from Nazareth would dare to offer God’s unconditional love and mercy to the religious losers, to society’s outcasts, to prostitutes and tax collectors. They couldn’t stand that he ate with sinners, that he said the last would be first and the first would be last. (Matthew 20:16), that he boldly taught that repentant sinners, not self-righteous Pharisees would be found “not guilty” in God’s courtroom. (Luke 18:9-14) They hated him because he preached that the way to avoid God’s judgment and find his salvation is not to try hard and do better but to die to yourself, to see your good deeds as nothing but trash (Philippians 3:8), and place your faith completely in his perfect life and atoning death for salvation. But all their resentment wouldn’t stop Jesus from dying for them.  

 

And while Jesus’ determination drove him forward to Jerusalem, his compassion drove him to tears: O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often have I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing. He mourns over his city. He weeps over what politics and religion had done to her. Mostly, he weeps over the people, the unwillingness of their hearts to come to him for forgiveness and protection and salvation. And he wept over their rejection of the prophets he had sent, their rejection of God’s Word, their rejection of him – the Lamb of God who had come to die for them.

 

Jesus reveals something important here: while the people of Jerusalem thought they were just rejecting and murdering men – they were really rejecting Jesus. How often have I longed to gather your children together he says. The hen from heaven had been clucking away for centuries through prophets and priests, through spoken words and bloody sacrifices, calling to his children, but they were not willing. They would not repent. They would not believe. They would not receive the One who had come to save them. It breaks Jesus’ heart. This is his city, his temple, his throne. He came to his own, but his own did not receive him. (John 1:11) And so the house that was once filled with God’s glory would be left empty and desolate. Begun by the Romans in 70 AD, continued every since in war after war – the Promised Land is now little more than a glorified target range for the world’s superpowers and the hill on which God’s temple once stood now holds a mosque.

 

And all of it is a Lenten warning to each of us. Do not take God’s grace for granted. Do not say to yourself that you will take repentance and Jesus’ invitation to believe seriously later. Now is the day of salvation. (2 Corinthians 6:2) Jesus still weeps when those who should know better reject his invitation in favor of something else. He weeps when his Church becomes distracted from her mission of proclaiming Law and Gospel and spends her time and energy on endeavors that have nothing to do with the salvation of souls. Jesus weeps when those he has made his own through Baptism and taught the deep truths of God in Sunday school and confirmation enter high school or college and imagine that they’ve outgrown their need for their Savior. He weeps when he causes the history of his redemptive work to be heard in special Lenten services and people who presume to call him Lord have more important things to do than hear what it cost him to save them from their sins. He weeps when Christian parents place athletics and academics and convenience and unique needs over and above their children’s spiritual welfare. He weeps when people who probably couldn’t recite the books of the Bible think that they don’t need to study the Bible here or at home. Now you can get angry or roll your eyes and blow me off – but it’s not me you’re blowing off, it’s Jesus. How often have I longed to gather you…but you were not willing! Jesus gets right to the heart of the matter, doesn’t he: the willingness or unwillingness of our hearts? We’re great at hiding the desires of our hearts under a blanket of excuses ranging from work schedules to children’s bedtimes to weather to darkness – but really, it all comes down to your will. If you really want to do something, you will find a way do it. And Jesus hits us right between the eyes with the uncomfortable truth: often we simply don’t want to be in his house, studying his Word, receiving his forgiveness, taking shelter under his wing – because our minds are on earthly things and we’d rather serve our bellies than our Savior. (Philippians 3:19)

 

Jesus’ invitation isn’t irresistible. He uses simple men and simple means like word, water, bread and wine to call, gather, and protect his people – they are very easy to reject – but the reality is that if we reject them, we are really rejecting Jesus. If we reject them, we’re only hurting ourselves – and, even worse, we are bringing Jesus to tears, we are laying a whip across his back, pounding nails into his hands all over again. If we are not willing to receive Jesus in the humble means he has chosen to come to us and we find ourselves on the wrong side of his judgment on the Last Day it won’t be because Jesus didn’t want us, it will be because [we] were not willing.

 

The good news is that our day of reckoning has not yet arrived. There is still time to repent and believe. Whatever your habits, your priorities, your excuses have been in the past – they can all change today. By suffering and dying, Jesus has both forgiven and freed you from slavery to sinful habits, priorities, and excuses – those sins are gone and buried. Jesus still longs to gather you – no matter how many times you’ve rejected his invitation in the past. He is still stretching out the protective wing of his Word and absolution, his body and blood. Don’t make the same mistake the people of Jerusalem did. They got angry when God’s prophets called them to repent and change their ways. They rejected and killed them for proclaiming God’s Word. They trusted political power to keep them safe and a religion of good works to make them right in God’s eyes. And God paid them back for their unbelief. See the violent, war torn mess that Jerusalem is today, see how the descendants of his chosen nation are hated and hunted around the world, and you are seeing just a sample of the destruction Jesus promises to all who reject his invitation.

 

Politics and religion couldn’t save Jerusalem and they can’t save us, either. Political power cannot protect us from the destruction God will bring on this world – only Jesus can. Religious devotion to rules – even God’s rules – cannot justify us in his courtroom – only Jesus can. Jerusalem wasn’t saved because she rejected her Savior. But Jesus continues to gather the New Jerusalem – the Church – under his protective wing. Jesus desires nothing more than to forgive you, protect you, and carry you through judgment to eternal life; are you willing to let him? You don’t have to do anything to be saved; Jesus has done it all. Now the question is, what do you want to do? What do you want to do after church today: study God’s Word or study a menu? Where do you want to be this Wednesday, next Wednesday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday – watching basketball or hearing what Jesus endured to save your soul from hell? In the end, only those who shelter in his forgiveness now will rejoice when he appears in judgment and say and sing: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. May our Savior’s desire to save us overcome every obstacle in his path – even and especially our own unwilling hearts. Amen.  

Luke 4:1-13 - Jesus Joins Us in the Desert - March 10, 2019

Today the Christian church year chugs into the season of Lent. Every year we follow the exact same path: Advent; Christmas; Epiphany; Lent; Easter; Pentecost. Do you ever wonder why? Why we continue to cover the same ground year after year when it seems that it would be more exciting to focus on more practical and relevant things like marriage, family, finances and mental health? The reason is simple: sin. Your sin. My sin. The sins of the whole world of sinners. The Christian church – and everything that’s done in it throughout the Church year – exists for only one reason: for God to expose and remove sin. As much as people would like to shape the church to suit their own purposes, that’s the one and only mission of the Church. The reason for Lent, the reason for bringing little babies like Paul to baptism, the reason you are sitting there listening to this sermon, the reason we are breaking ground to expand our facilities is to take away sin. That’s why you’re here – or at least, why you should be here. How better to do that than to follow the life of Jesus throughout the year, the one who came to earth with the express purpose of taking away sin? We all were born into the desert of sin, the opposite of the Eden God created for us; helpless to escape it on our own. And that is why Jesus joins us in the desert this morning.

 

Unfortunately, if the devil succeeds in leading us to think that sin is not as serious as God says it is, that it isn’t the biggest problem we face in life, that it isn’t the true reason that one day we will all die; then we won’t see our need for the Church, and even worse, we won’t see our need for Jesus. What good is a Jew who died for sins that no one has? What good is a Church that openly admits that its mission is not to make life in this world better but to expose and forgive your sins if sin is not really a big deal? If we don’t believe sin is a big deal, then we are living a Satanic delusion and there will be side-effects of living a lie. First, we end up just going through the motions. We may bring our babies to be baptized, our children to Sunday school, we sit in those chairs and get up to receive Communion – but not because we really need to, but just because that’s what Christians do (and it keeps grandma happy!). The second is that you will try to redefine and reorient the church’s mission in a more social and charitable direction – you will want it to be a place where you can come to feel good about yourself by doing good, fun things with and for other people. Because, if we’re not here because we need forgiveness, then we must be the good ones, and it’s the people out there who need help and deliverance from us.

 

But if we ever doubt what we already admitted this morning: that we are by nature sinful, that we have disobeyed God in our thoughts, words, and actions, that we have done what is evil and failed to do what is good, that we deserve God’s punishment both now and in eternity…if we ever forget that the devil is real and only tells lies…if we ever forget that hell is a real, terrible place of total separation from God’s grace where it’s just you and your guilt and terror forever…if we ever forget about the big, stinking pile of sin each of us brought here this morning (although we are careful to keep it hidden behind our charming smiles and nice clothes) – then we have lost the only real reason for the Church’s existence and the only real reason to come to church. God put this church here, in this city, in this very place for you – to expose and remove your sin. That’s really the only reason we are here.

 

So a Christian pastor’s primary job – if he is faithful to his call – is to preach to the choir, to you (the “good” people who have come) and announce the deep, dark truth about you. The truth is that you have failed miserably, you have lost the fight – and it wasn’t even close. The devil has succeeded in tempting you to sin (to disobey God) which has earned you God’s penalty of death. You can try to ignore it, but you can’t escape it. This truth is eating you alive. Sin stains your every thought, word and action. Oh sure, we may follow the way of the world and try to claim that we are mostly “good” deep down. But if we ever start to believe it, then we’re even sicker than we think. Luther said that if you doubt your sinful condition you should pinch yourself to see if you’re still flesh and blood. And if you are, read what the Bible has to say about the sinful flesh (Galatians 5:19-21). (LC V:75)

 

Want more proof? Ever been sick? Ever had a body part not work like it should? Ever had a falling out with a friend or relative? What grudge are you still holding in your heart, even here in God’s house? Have you ever been rejected or depressed or saddened by loss? Ever had your body or car or home break down? These things don’t happen to perfect people in a perfect world. They are inescapable evidence of the sin that permeates everyone and everything in the world.

 

Now, if your life, your marriage, your children, your health, your job are all perfect; if nothing breaks down, nothing disappoints, nothing hurts, if everything in your life is perfectly wonderful – then you can relax. Actually, you can leave because we have nothing to offer you. You are (somehow) untainted by sin. You don’t need Jesus or his Church. You will live forever without him. But if you’re not heading for the door then it’s my responsibility to ensure that you know why. It’s not God’s fault. God doesn’t take pleasure in ruining, torturing, tormenting things or people. God is peace, not chaos. God is love, not hate. God is life, not death. So if chaos and sickness and hatred and death have invaded your life and your family, then you need to know that it’s because of sin. Sin which has corrupted you from head to toe. Sin which condemns you to death and hell. Sin which has ripped you out of the lush Garden of Eden dropped you in the dusty desert of this fallen world. And there is nothing you can do about it.

 

But here’s the good news: Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the desert. The good news is that because you could not escape this barren desert on your own, God sent his Son to you. What makes this all the more remarkable is that this happened immediately after Jesus was baptized and the Holy Spirit descended on him, filled him. Usually when we think of being “filled with the Spirit” it means that we’re about to do or say wonderful things; you’re doing miracles, you’re healing and cleansing and converting, you’re winning at life, you’re happy and successful and probably rich. If you’re filled with the Spirit, you’re not – we would think – hungry and alone and facing temptation in a desert. And yet, here Jesus is because this is why Jesus came. He didn’t come to show us how awesome life could be if you just do it right. He didn’t come to gather a cult of followers who would imitate his behavior and repeat his words. He didn’t come merely to temporarily fix some of sin’s symptoms for some people by curing what ailed them. He came to do battle with the source of it all. He came into this world to wage war against the devil.

The devil knew it and the devil came at him with all the power he could muster. But the devil is hopelessly unoriginal; all he could muster were the same old tricks he used in the Garden of Eden. God had told Adam and Eve that he loved them, that his plan was best for them, and that he would always protect them. But the devil succeeded in leading them to doubt God’s Word, test his love, and trash his plan – and eat from the tree and earn death for themselves and all of us. Thus the desert of sin we are born into. Jesus came to turn the tables, to be the Son God intended Adam (and us) to be, to crush the devil’s power to tempt and trap us. And so the prince of darkness went head to head with the prince of heaven and nothing less than the eternal fate of our souls hung in the balance. “If you really are the Son of God, you shouldn’t have to suffer such terrible hunger, why don’t you just use some of that power to make yourself some bread” – in other words, be selfish, just this once, the devil said. Man does not live on bread alone, Jesus answered. God alone – not bread alone – gives and sustains life. “God’s plan calls for you to literally go through hell on a cross to achieve all authority in heaven and on earth – I’ll give it to you if you just bend a knee before me” the devil whispered. Worship the Lord your God and serve him only, Jesus responded. Any shortcut from God’s path only leads to hell. “If God’s Word is as reliable as you claim, then you can throw yourself down from this wall and he won’t let you get hurt” the prince of darkness argued. Do not put the Lord your God to the test, Jesus answered. God’s protection is a promise to be trusted not tested. Isn’t it incredible how Jesus defeated the devil? He didn’t defeat him as God but as man – as your perfect substitute. He didn’t do it by summoning legions of angels or issuing an almighty command. Jesus defeated the devil by, frankly, becoming a child – by maintaining child-like faith in his Father – thus proving himself to be the perfect, obedient Son of God Adam and we were supposed to be, but are not. Jesus did what we fail to do every time we give in to temptation: he emptied himself, humbled himself, trusted completely in God and his Word, whether it seemed or felt right or not. And that simple, child-like trust in God defeated the devil and sent him scurrying back to hell.

 

So as you walk out those doors to continue wandering through this earthly desert, battling sin, death and the devil, take these assurances with you: you are never, ever alone. Jesus is there with you. He’s been there. He’s been alone, starving, miserable, stalked and hunted by the devil. Jesus is on his way to death too! And he’s not just here to empathize with you, coach you, give you a pep talk – just to say, “Oh man, this world is rough, isn’t it” or “There, I’ve shown you it can be done, now do it.” He didn’t come to teach you how to defeat the devil yourself – you, me, we, can’t. He came to defeat the devil for you. Like a Navy Seal dropping out of heaven, Jesus put two rounds in the devil’s skull, and then turns to rescue you, to take you out of this desert and back to paradise. That’s why the Holy Spirit led him to where you are, the desert of sin. He came to destroy the devil’s work (1 John 3:8) and on Calvary’s cross, where he bled and died for the sins of the world, he accomplished his mission once and for all.

 

And while he won this victory for all people of all time – there’s only one place he dispenses those gifts: his church. What do you need if you happen to find yourself alone and wandering in a desert? Food, water and protection. Only here can you find the water of life, where God himself stoops down out of heaven and says “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Only here can you receive the body and blood of Jesus the only food that can both strengthen you for your daily battles and assures you that the victory has already been won. Only here will you find protection from the devil’s lies and attacks – because here is where the Word is preached and taught in truth and purity, the Word which destroys the devil’s lies and sends him sulking back to hell. The Church truly is the holy ark (as Luther said) in which God carries believers safely through this sin-filled desert to life in heaven. Here there is peace and hope and joy in a world that has none of those things. Here there is free and full forgiveness for every sin and every sinner. Here the promise of eternal life is offered to dying people in a dying world.

 

And that’s, finally, why we walk this same path each and every year. Why we stick to the boring old Word and sacraments that many have cast aside. Why preaching and teaching and baptizing and communing are not incidental, optional things we do as part of a greater mission to make this world a better place – Word and Sacrament are our mission! It’s why we are building. It’s why we refuse to let our church be transformed into just another boys and girls club, another social hotspot, another “do-good” charitable organization. Because the church is here for just one reason: to deal with sin. You are here because of your sin. And Jesus is here too. He’s here to take away your sin. That’s Lent in a nutshell. Welcome to Lent in the Lutheran Church. Amen.

Luke 9:28-36 - Jesus Is Transfigured - March 3, 2019

I’d be willing to bet that everyone here – even the children – would be able to explain what Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday are all about. Jesus was born. Jesus died. Jesus rose again. But what about this day: Transfiguration. What is this day all about? Sadly, many Christian churches don’t celebrate the Transfiguration of our Lord anymore for reasons we will briefly touch on. But that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus was transfigured. Why? For our benefit now and eternally, today, we will find out.

 

As we have noted throughout the Epiphany season, all of Jesus’ miracles serve one main purpose: to convince us that he is the Son of God, one with and equal to the Father and the Holy Spirit. And that’s not my opinion but the clear declaration of Scripture. John writes near the end of his Gospel: Jesus did many other miraculous sings in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31) All of the miracles Jesus did during his earthly ministry reveal him as the Son of God, and these miracles reach their climax in the Transfiguration, the one and only time Jesus fully revealed his deity on earth.

 

Unfortunately, it has become disturbingly common today to downplay, distort and even deny these miracles. We are told that enlightened and educated 21st century people no longer believe in miracles, so if the Christian Church wants to maintain its influence and relevance in the world it needs to stop insisting that Jesus actually turned water into wine (John 2:1-11), calmed a stormy sea (Luke 8:22-25), fed 5000 with a boy’s lunch (Luke 9:10-17), and instantly healed sick people with a touch or a word (Luke 6:17-19).

 

We need to stop saying that these miracles actually happened because according to today’s scientific and rational standards, they couldn’t have. But if you buy in to that – and still insist on calling yourself a Christian – then you’ve put yourself in something of a bind. If these miracles didn’t actually happen, what do you do with them? You can’t pretend they’re not there – Christians have taught and believed them for 2000 years. You can’t just cut them out – all you’d be left with is the sad story of a poor, illegitimate Jewish boy who spoke eloquently and seemed to have some potential but wound up ticking off the wrong people and getting himself killed. Hardly an inspiring story. Since false teachers can’t get rid of the miracles, they do the next best thing: repurpose and repackage them; often as parables which teach important lessons that are supposedly more relevant to life in the 21st century; lessons that teach us how we can make this world a better place. Ironically, they are trying to do what Peter tried – establish heaven on earth. This is called the social gospel. Thus the feeding of the 5000 is repackaged as a call to support food stamps and welfare programs and a mandate to the church to open its own food pantry. The healing of the sick is repurposed to give support to Medicare for all and validate faith-healings today. Jesus may not have actually calmed a storm on the Sea of Galilee, but he is saying that we should watch our carbon emissions and do everything we can to stop climate change. Repackaged this way, we are told, makes the church relevant and Jesus’ miracles meaningful (and acceptable) to 21st century Americans.

 

While it is true that most of Jesus’ miracles did relieve the pain and suffering of real people in real ways – this social gospel theory hits a roadblock when it reaches the miracle before us today: Jesus’ transfiguration. There’s no doubt that the transfiguration was a miraculous event: Jesus glowed like the sun from the inside out, Moses and Elijah were there – alive, God spoke from heaven. The transfiguration was a miracle. But this miracle didn’t feed the hungry, cure the sick, or calm any storms. This miracle did nothing for anyone except give three of Jesus’ disciples a glimpse of his true glory as God. It confirmed to their eyes the Word proclaimed by the voice from heaven: this is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him. It’s hard to twist this miracle into some sort of social message – which is why it’s become acceptable in large segments of Christianity to classify “problem” miracles like this one, the six-day creation, the virgin birth, the resurrection, as myths. Things that never really happened, but were instead invented by the early church to pump up Jesus’ reputation so that people would listen to his social and moral message.

 

Such people think that twisting the Word of God like this is brilliant and innovative, but it’s pretty clear that this was happening already in the days of the apostles. Peter confronted this view directly in our second lesson: we did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. (2 Peter 1:16-18) Peter is unequivocal in stating that he and the other disciples saw these things with their own eyes and heard them with their own ears. Peter testifies that Jesus is the Son of God – and that his miracles – especially his transfiguration – prove it.

 

And so, as we stand here today with those disciples and see Jesus in glorious splendor – his face shining like the sun and his clothes as bright as a flash of lightning – we too should walk away with the firm conviction that this Jesus is indeed the one, true God. Because if we leave this mountain today with that conviction, then we will be well prepared for Lent. Then when we see Jesus bleed and suffer and die, we will know that this is not just a man, but the Son of God suffering and dying to take away the sins of the world.

 

Because, once we believe who Jesus is, we will be prepared for what he came to do. Luke introduced our text by saying about eight days after Jesus said this… What had Jesus said? The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. (Luke 9:22) And when Moses and Elijah appeared guess what they were talking about? His departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. In any other circumstance, this would be shocking and disturbing. If you or I were to casually mention that we were preparing for imminent death, it would sound like we were planning to commit suicide, it would be viewed as a cry for help. But in the company of Moses and Elijah it is only proper that Jesus would discuss his impending death. Everything Moses and Elijah preached and wrote pointed ahead to this man and this moment: the promised One of God who would take away the sins of the world (John 5:39); which assures us that the ugly, unjust, brutal events of Jesus’ passion weren’t simply the result of tragic circumstances or the culmination of the plans of some evil men – but that God’s plan from eternity called for Jesus to willingly suffer and die for the sins of the world.

 

In that sense, this preparation was not for Jesus as much as it was for the three disciples. Just like staring at a bright light burns an image on your eyes, so Jesus wanted his glory to be etched on his disciples’ memories. He wanted this view of glory to strengthen their faith in the testing it would undergo when they would later see him fall on his face in the Garden of Gethsemane and pour out his soul to his Father (Luke 22:39-46); when they would deny and abandon him in his moment of greatest need (Luke 22:54-62); when they would see him arrested and hauled off like some violent criminal (Luke 22:47-53); when they would see him mocked and beaten (Luke 22:63-65) and nailed to a cross. When Peter, James, and John finally put all the pieces together after the resurrection, he wanted them to recall this day on the mountain and understand that it had to be this way; that according to God’s plan Jesus had to be betrayed and convicted, whipped and beaten and crucified – because only his blood, the priceless blood of God, could pay the price for the sins of the world.

 

As we prepare to step out of the bright season of Epiphany onto the dark road of Lent, from witnessing the heights of Jesus’ glory to the depths of his humiliation, keeping this image of him in glory on the Mount of Transfiguration in our minds will also help us to understand and believe. To understand that this was God’s plan all along. Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, had to die – not because he was forced to by the treacherous actions of Judas or the murderous intentions of the civil and religious authorities, but because he wanted to die for us; and then, second, to firmly believe that because this man is the Son of God, his bleeding and dying is enough to wipe away all of our sins and give us the hope of eternal life.

 

And before we leave this mountain, we receive a preview of the glory of eternal life. This, in the end, is why we are so adamant, so determined to teach and preach that Jesus’ miracles – from the virgin birth to his resurrection – are true, historical events and not merely myths or parables that can be twisted to be relevant in 2019. We must stand firm on this because there is no real hope to be found otherwise. People today have real needs, real weaknesses, real problems – and they really need help – that much the liberal, social gospel preaching churches have right. But their solutions are all wrong. Real hope for the poor in this world won’t be found in a higher minimum wage or in churches who fill bellies but starve souls. Real hope for the sick in this world won’t be found in creating more effective medicines or providing affordable health insurance for all. The real hope for the future of this world doesn’t lie in curbing carbon emissions or controlling the climate. (Remember: Peter tried to keep heaven on earth – and Jesus didn’t even dignify his foolishness with an answer.) The only real hope that anyone in this world can have is that this Jesus is God’s Son whose death on a cross satisfied God’s wrath and opened the door to eternal life.

 

That’s what Moses and Elijah do – they give us a preview of the glory to come. Do you realize how remarkable it was that Moses and Elijah were there? Moses had been dead for 1400 years (Deuteronomy 34:1-12), and the Lord had taken Elijah out of this world in a whirlwind around 800 years earlier (2 Kings 2) – and yet here they stand before the disciples’ eyes, talking with Jesus about his suffering and death. The lessons they teach can’t be overstated: 1) Heaven is real and all those who have died in faith are living with the Lord there in glory. 2) It teaches us to keep this life in its proper perspective: to remember that this life is preparation for the next; that 70 or 80 years here – whether those years are filled with pain or pleasure – are only a drop in the ocean compared to the glory of the eternal life Jesus has in store for us. So on those hard days – those days of pain and sorrow, those days when you are walking through the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4) – remember this preview of glory on the Mount of Transfiguration; remember and believe that even though this life will never be heaven on earth – the best is yet to come!

 

But you can only have that comfort, conviction and assurance – and that future – if you believe that the Transfiguration of Jesus was a real, historical event now. That’s why we can’t twist God’s Word to fit the social gospel message that we’re told we need to be preaching in the 21st century – no matter how popular or relevant or acceptable it seems. Because the only real hope for every single person in this world is not the social gospel – not creating heaven on earth (Peter tried that and failed miserably). The only hope this world has is Jesus. Jesus, whose transfiguration on that mountain proves his deity, prepares us for his death, and gives us a preview of his glory. May the Holy Spirit grant us the faith to believe that Jesus is our one and only hope now so that one day, when we are standing with him in his glory we too will say: master, it is good for us to be here. Amen.  

 

 

Luke 6:27-38 - Get Even with Love - February 24, 2019

How would you complete these sentences? Revenge is __________. Don’t get mad, _____________. Is there anything sweeter than getting even with someone who’s wronged you? Oh, it feels so good to cut that social media bully down to size with our own slanderous screed; to lay on the horn, shake your head, and flip the bird at that guy who cut you off on the beltline; to spill a couple shovels-full of snow on the sidewalk of the guy who dumped his slushy mess on your driveway. Or maybe it’s the kind of revenge that lives on after we’re gone: writing a spouse or child out of your will for the way they’ve treated you while you were alive – it doesn’t get any sweeter than that, does it? Vengeance is so common in our society that we might think it’s a constitutional right. Someone disrespects you, you disrespect them back – that’s only fair. As usual, Jesus turns our idea of “fairness” on its head, he urges us to get even in a way no human mind ever would have conceived. (1 Corinthians 2:9) Jesus encourages us to get even…with love.

 

Jesus is still speaking to his disciples, disciples who had just heard that those who are poor, hungry, sad, and hated are blessed and those who are rich, well fed, happy, and popular are under God’s judgment of woe. (Luke 6:20-26) Jesus knew that they were living in a society where eye for eye, tooth for tooth (Leviticus 24:20) was the appropriate reaction to personal conflict. But for his disciples Jesus outlines a very different method for dealing with enemies: I tell you who hear me: love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on the cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.

 

It’s clear enough (and perhaps a little alarming) what Jesus is commanding: return love for hate, blessings for curses, prayers for mistreatment; if someone takes your dignity or property, let them have it and more. But we tend to be skeptical, we tend to think that Jesus can’t be serious, that he seems to be advocating lawlessness and chaos – that he’s freeing unbelievers to do whatever they want to Christians without fear of retaliation. So it’s just as important to understand what Jesus is not saying as what he is. 1) He’s not saying that we cannot speak up in our own defense when we are wronged. Jesus himself did this when he stood trial before Annas. When one of the temple officials struck him, he didn’t hit him back, but he did say: if I said something wrong…testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me? (John 18:23) 2) Jesus is not saying that we cannot defend ourselves or our loved ones from harm. The 5th commandment demands that we do so. 3) Jesus is not encouraging lawlessness. He is not denying parents, teachers, police officers or judges the right to exact punishment as God’s representatives. 4) He is not requiring us to support free-loaders by our charity. 2 Thessalonians 3:10 still stands: if a man will not work, he shall not eat. Jesus is telling us that personal vengeance is sinful. He is telling us to love our enemies. Still sounds impossible, doesn’t it? It is. This kind of love is impossible for us…unless it’s been given to us first. Have we received that kind of love?

 

Paul seems to think so: you see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man…but God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8) If you think there is someone in your life who deserves your vengeance rather than your love, imagine how God must have felt about us. He created us, body and soul, gave us talents and abilities, family and possessions – but we misuse and abuse those gifts, and we are quick to question, doubt, blame him when he doesn’t give us what we want. He reveals himself to us in his Word and invites us to regularly receive his gifts of grace – but we despise his Word, we either don’t read it or we place ourselves in judgment over it, and we invent all kinds of excuses to avoid receiving his gifts. In the 10 Commandments God has laid out his will for our lives in every situation – but we do the opposite, we treat them like suggestions, we live as if we know better than God. In thought, word, and action we’ve treated God as our enemy: we despise his love, curse his name, rob him of his possessions and incessantly ask him for more. And how did God get even with us? He sent his Son to save us. And he did it by allowing humanity to do its very worst to his Son – curse him, slap him, whip him, spit on him, parade him through the streets of Jerusalem, strip him naked, nail him to a tree, and sit back in smug satisfaction as he died in front of their eyes. And how did Jesus respond? Father, forgive them. (Luke 23:34) If you ever wonder how God should have treated us – look to the cross. That’s what we deserved. If you ever wonder how God has treated us – look to the cross. See God’s Son hanging there in your place; suffering for your lovelessness; dying for the times you took vengeance into your own hands. That is how God got even with you.  

 

We know that, we believe and confess that, right? Then why is it so hard for us to love our enemies? Why are we so quick to suggest that Jesus can’t actually mean what he says? The biggest reason is that we’re looking the wrong direction: instead of looking at what our God has done for us, we’re looking at (and judging) whether an individual deserves our love or not. It’s real simple. They don’t – but you don’t either, and the fact that God has given us love we don’t deserve is the only reason we can return love for hate, blessings for curses, prayers for mistreatment, our cheeks to violence, and charity to thieves. So when that question pops up in your mind, “why should I love my enemies?” It’s not because they deserve it, it’s because God loved you.

 

Jesus knows how tempting it is to simply adhere to the world’s behavioral standards: if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ lend to ‘sinners,’ expecting to be repaid in full. The way of the world is to do good to your friends and evil to your enemies. But Jesus says, “That’s not how it’s going to be with my disciples. If you want to get even with your enemy, you’re going to break all of society’s rules, you’re going to be different, you’re going to love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.” This marks you as a child of the Most High God who is kind and merciful even to the ungrateful and wicked.

 

Here’s where Jesus’ ethic of love is truly divine. Put yourself on the other side for a moment. You’re the one who wronged someone else. You’ve dragged someone’s name through the mud on social media, and they respond by complimenting your charming family, your beautiful home, or whatever. You’re the one who dumped snow on your neighbor’s driveway, and one day you wake up and he’s cleared your driveway for you. You cut someone off on the Beltline, then break down, and they stop to help. You’ve shown nothing but ingratitude and spite – all but ignored – a relative while they were still alive, and then they die and leave you a generous inheritance. How do you feel? Paul described it as having burning coals dumped on your head. (Romans 12:20) That’s what we call contrition – sorrow over sins. It would lead you to grieve over your sins; to confession and repentance – which, NOT coincidentally, is exactly what God intends his kindness to us to lead to. (Romans 2:4) If you really want to get even with an enemy, really cut them to the heart, really break them – show them kindness when they don’t deserve it. Treat them the way God has treated you. And maybe, just maybe, your kindness will lead that person to repent of their sins and seek God’s forgiveness (Matthew 5:16) – and then you will be truly even: you will be reconciled to each other and to God by the blood of Christ.

 

Jesus concludes: Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into our lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Imagine a trick or treater showing up at the house of a grumpy old man, expecting at best one or two of those gross black and orange wrapped candies and at worst, a stern warning to get off his porch and never come back. And instead, he brings out a huge bowl full of full-size (not fun-size) candy bars and he doesn’t just give you one, he dumps the whole bowl into your bag and when your bag is full he says “shake it around a little to make more room” and pours even more in. When we look at all that God has given us already, both materially and spiritually, we can’t deny that God has been more than generous to us – if you ever doubt that, when you get home, just stop for a second, look in your fridge, your pantry, your closet, your garage, look at your family; his spiritual blessings far outweigh our sinfulness and lovelessness, his material blessings go above and beyond our daily needs.

 

But the sinful nature keeps kicking up concerns, doesn’t he? “If I love and bless and pray for my enemies; if I turn the other cheek and give away my property, who is going to watch out for me and my well-being? How do I know I will have enough to survive and provide for my family? How can I be sure that evildoers will be punished if I don’t see to it myself? How can I let myself be taken advantage of like that?” You’re not alone if those things concern you. Our sinful natures can invent thousands of reasonable, rational arguments for taking vengeance into our own hands. The answer to those concerns is the same as any concern we have about life in this world: know, believe, and trust God’s promises.

 

What if the love you show an enemy just makes them hate you more? So what? How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. (1 John 3:1) If we give generously to those who can’t or won’t repay us, won’t we risk losing the roof over our heads and the clothing on our backs? Look at the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, they don’t labor or spin or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds and clothes them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Hasn’t he promised to give you everything you need for life? (Matthew 6:25-34) What about justice, fairness? If I don’t retaliate the world is going to walk all over me. Trust Paul’s words: do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. (Romans 12:19) If vengeance is called for, God will take care of it, if not now through his representatives, then on Judgment Day – and he holds the power to not only kill the body but cast the soul into hell. (Luke 12:5) Whatever your specific concern might be, remember that you cannot lose anything that God didn’t give you in the first place (not even your life!) and, just as importantly, you cannot ever lose the reward Jesus has won and reserved for you in heaven. Let God worry about taking care of you now. God’s love for you is unconditional, and that frees you to love your enemies, turn the other cheek, be generous with what he has given you because you know that your true reward is safe in heaven – purchased and won for you by Jesus Christ, your…and your enemies’ Savior.

 

The morally and ethically rotten world around us is destroying itself over its thirst for vengeance. Everywhere you turn, it seems, someone is trying to get even with someone else for something that was done or said – sometimes over things that happened decades, if not centuries ago – all in the name of justice. That is the way of the world. But that is not the way of Jesus’ disciples. We are to be different because, through faith in Jesus – as dearly loved children of the Most High God whose true reward is safe in heaven – we are different. We get even with our enemies the same way God has gotten even with us: with love. Amen.

Ecclesiastes 1:1-14 - Without Jesus, Everything Is Meaningless - February 17, 2019

He had it all. He reigned during Israel’s golden age – the peak of her economic and political prosperity. Neighboring countries paid her tribute. Peace reigned within her borders. His subjects were physically and financially secure. (1 Kings 4:25) And he didn’t just have it all as the King of Israel, God had given him priceless personal blessings. He was an educated man: a botanist, zoologist, astronomer, philosopher, poet, politician and songwriter. (1 Kings 4:30-34) God called him the wisest man who would ever live. (1 Kings 3:12) And yet, with all of that, this was Solomon’s assessment of life: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” Says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. Not exactly a glowing review. But when you think about it, he’s right, isn’t he? What’s the point of saving for retirement, of working day after day for years, of having children, of getting married, of getting a high school diploma or college degree? What’s the point of waking up in the morning and getting out of bed and going to school or work; what’s the point of eating, sleeping, breathing, what’s the point of anything – if, in the end, we die and everything we’ve worked for is gone? Nothing. Without Jesus, everything is meaningless.

 

In the realm of education – of all ages – there’s no point to wasting any time, effort, or money on it at all, apart from Jesus. Why not? Why isn’t it worth learning to spell and add and read and write? Why isn’t it worth it to learn a trade and social skills and the value of personal responsibility and individual achievement? In one of his thousands of proverbs, Solomon wrote: the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom. (Proverbs 9:10) As Paul told Timothy, only Scripture is able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:15) Jesus Christ, the Lord God incarnate, is the beginning, and the middle, and the end of true, lasting wisdom – because he is the only one who can give this life meaning and save us from eternal death. (1 Corinthians 1:24) Apart from him, everything we know or trust or teach or learn is meaningless; apart from him education becomes idolatry.

 

Now, I might be wrong, but I doubt that any of us were thinking of idolatry when we confessed our sins earlier. I doubt that anyone here had to confess to having a little shrine to Buddha at home. I doubt that we think of idolatry as our pet sin or are aware of all the idols in our lives. But ignorance is no excuse. You can diagnose the idols in your life by considering your priorities, the things or people or activities that you simply could not live without. Luther explains “A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress.” [1] Who or what is the greatest source of good in your life? To whom or to what do you turn first when trouble strikes? Whatever it is, that is your god. Especially for Christians, the devil likes to twist God’s good blessings into idols: family, health, reputation, wealth, home, job, possessions, convenience, leisure, hobbies, pets. And you might want to jump out of your chair right now and scream, “Yes, I value those things, but don’t you dare call them idols.” Really? Do they ever take priority over the one, true God? If God takes them away do you question his power, wisdom, and love? What makes anything an idol is not what it is, but the place we give it in our hearts and lives. I would contend that education has become one of the most prominent idols in America today – in that it is seen by many as the source of all good and the solution for every evil.

 

An example of idolatrous education is found in our Gospel lesson. There was nothing more precious to the Pharisees of Jesus’ day than the Law of Moses. They valued their obedience to the Law (as they defined it) above all things. They passionately studied and taught and learned the Law and sincerely tried to obey it. But for all of their passion and sincerity, Jesus said they did not have the word or love of the Father. Why not? Because they did not believe the one [God] sent. (John 5:38) Their educational system had become an idol because they trusted it for salvation; as a ladder by which they could climb into heaven rather than a mirror which showed them their depravity. (John 5:45; Romans 3:20) For all the time they spent studying God’s Law, they remained blind to their sin, their pride, their self-righteousness. And as a result, they were blind to their Savior.

 

It’s scary how easily a blessing can become an idol, isn’t it? What could be greater, better, purer than the laws given by God himself? What could be better than devoting your time and energy to knowing and obeying God’s will? But if you trust it to get you to heaven you might as well be bowing down to Buddha – because no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by observing the law. (Romans 3:20) In the same way, education is a blessing, but education apart from Jesus is idolatry. It’s not just the education that takes place in Jewish synagogues or Islamic mosques. Though they would like you to believe otherwise, government-run schools today are religious schools, indoctrinating children in the religion of secular humanism. (Secular humanism teaches that there is no God, that evolution explains the origin of the world, that humans are inherently good, that we are accountable to no one, and there is no such thing as moral absolutes.) And the scariest thing of all is that these idols don’t just lurk out there – they can lurk in our own parenting and teaching, too. If we think our job is to raise children of good “character” then we have taught our children to trust the law for salvation. If by word or example we are teaching them that getting good grades so that you can get into a good college so you can get a good job and good money and good stuff is the source of happiness, then education has become god. If our children can recite the 10 commandments but haven’t a clue about justification, redemption, and forgiveness, then we have raised little Pharisees.

 

Why is it so important to have Jesus at the center of everything for us and our children, especially in the early, formative years of their lives? Because Jesus did what none of us could ever do: he actually obeyed the law, fulfilled it, completed it to God’s satisfaction in our place. To be a Christian doesn’t mean obeying all the rules, making all the right decisions, going to the right school, or having perfect church attendance – it means trusting in Jesus alone for salvation. It means believing that God in his grace has credited his perfect obedience to your account and sacrificed him on a cross as the payment your sins. It means living and dying confident that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because…Christ Jesus [has] set [us] free from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:1-2) It means being willing to suffer anything, deny anything, give up anything for ourselves and our children – except for Jesus, because Jesus alone is the way, the truth, and the life. (John 14:6)

That’s exactly what the Pharisees in Jesus’ day refused to believe. They believed they were serving God by their sincere and devoted efforts to keep the law but they were really serving the devil. This is why Jesus condemned their educational efforts, saying: you diligently study the Scriptures because you think that by them you possess eternal life. These are the Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. (John 5:39-40) He came to them to bring them forgiveness of sins and peace with God – and they rejected him, despised him, assaulted him and crucified him. Apart from Jesus, everything we do is meaningless – because apart from Jesus, every path leads to eternal death.

 

This focus on the Gospel – on what Jesus has done for us instead of what we do for him – is what, more than anything else, sets confessional Lutheran schools apart from any other – even other Christian schools. Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide – Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone – every WELS pastor and teacher is sworn to those biblical principles. They are carefully trained to properly divide between Law and Gospel (2 Timothy 2:15): so that children see themselves clearly – as lost and condemned sinners – and understand the Gospel clearly – that Jesus came to save sinners. (1 Timothy 1:15) Bible history and catechism lessons ground children in historic, biblical Christianity and equip them to see Jesus on every page of the Bible. Through weekly chapels, daily devotions, and the memorization of hymns and Scripture Jesus’ words and works are forever etched on their hearts and minds. God’s absolute, unchanging standard of right and wrong and the mercy God has shown us in Jesus form the basis for discipline and conflict resolution in a Lutheran classroom – not the latest, greatest philosophy of some faceless, godless bureaucrat. History traces God’s efforts to bring the saving gospel to the world, math and science are taught as ways of exploring and understanding the wonderful world God has created. Reading, writing, music and athletics are done to the glory of the God who gave us each diverse and valuable talents and abilities. The difference is not that there is no sin and no sinners in a Lutheran school – just ask anyone who ever taught in or attended one. The difference is that Jesus, his cross, and the forgiveness he won there are at the center in everything in a Lutheran school.

 

Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived, and he was right: without Jesus, everything, everything we do – and everything we do for our children – is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. If they are not convinced by the power of the Holy Spirit that salvation is theirs by grace alone, through faith alone, in Jesus alone – then it doesn’t matter if they will go on to make billions of dollars, if they become tech titans or professional athletes, if they cure cancer, or if they are happy because one day they will die and go to hell. But with Jesus, everything, even the most basic things like learning to read and write are eternally meaningful. (Revelation 14:13) I am not going to tell you that you must send your children to a Lutheran school. It would be legalistic and contrary to the freedom we have in Christ for me to guilt you or command you into sending your children to or supporting Lutheran schools. On the other hand, Sunday school, confirmation class, and Lutheran schools are tools to help parents, not replace them. In the end, God will hold us parents – and especially us fathers – responsible for raising our children in the training and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). Is Jesus at the center of your life? Consider the message you’re sending if you drop your kids off for Sunday school and leave, forfeiting the opportunity to sit at Jesus’ feet yourself. It all comes down to priorities. Your priorities tell you what your God is. What are yours? As you consider the best way to keep Jesus at the center of your and your children’s lives; as you consider what can (and maybe should) be sacrificed and what can’t be find your strength and motivation in Jesus’ promise: seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things (all the good things you and your children need for life in this world) will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33) Amen.


[1] LC 1:1

Luke 6:17-26 - It's Not What You Think - February 10, 2019

Have you noticed that Epiphany is an action-packed season of the Church Year? There were the mysterious Magi who followed the star to Bethlehem to worship Jesus as their Savior, too. (Matthew 2:1-12) The heavens opened, God spoke, and the Spirit descended at Jesus’ baptism. (Luke 3:15-22) Then he miraculously saved a wedding from disaster in Cana (John 2:1-11), escaped murder by his friends and neighbors in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30), and filled Peter’s nets with fish. (Luke 5:1-11) With the Epiphany emphasis on Jesus’ power to perform miracles, to satisfy needs, to heal and provide and fix and solve – we might get the wrong impression; that if you follow Jesus all the problems in your life will suddenly disappear, that every problem will be solved and need satisfied, that your life as a disciple will be one of unbroken happiness and joy. Or, even worse, you might conclude that if those things aren’t true for you that either your faith isn’t strong enough or Jesus isn’t really God and doesn’t really love you. And so today, in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus reveals the stark truth about this life and true life; it’s not what you think.

 

Jesus says that in this life it’s better to have poverty than wealth; hunger than satisfaction; weeping than laughter; persecution than popularity. And, let’s be honest, it sounds like absolute nonsense. It’s like Jesus is describing an alternate universe. Then again, you may have noticed that most of what we say and do here is what the world considers “nonsense.” We stand before living, newborn babies and declare that they are dead in sin. (Psalm 51:5) We stand before the caskets and urns of dead old people and declare that they are only sleeping. (Matthew 9:24) We pour regular tap water into a bowl and call it the fountain of life (Titus 3:5-6), we eat and drink bread and wine and confess it to be the very body and blood of Christ. (Matthew 26:26-27) You believe that your sins are forgiven before God in heaven when a pastor says so here on earth. (Matthew 16:19)

 

The point is that it’s not really about what you or I or anyone else thinks. It’s about what God says. God says that newborns are dead and dead believers are alive. God says that water and Word give life and bread and wine forgive sins. God says that confessed sinners are justified and self-righteous hypocrites are damned. What God says: that’s the reality – and not what you and I can think, reason, feel, or see. And who are we to argue? When God said let there be (Genesis 1) the universe and everything in it came into being! When God sent his Son to earth to make the lame walk, the dead come alive, and free those possessed by demons – that’s what happened. When God through his servant says that you are forgiven, justified, saved – right here and right now – you are.

 

Fine, you might say, but that’s not what Jesus is talking about in this Sermon on the Plain. He’s talking about things that hit really close to home: our wealth, our health, our happiness and social status. These things are important to us – not just for one hour on Sunday mornings, but every minute of every day. So just what is Jesus driving at? Consider the context. People had flocked from all over Israel to see Jesus. Why? To hear him and to be healed of their diseases. But Luke makes it clear that not all of these people were disciples, believers. At least some were coming simply to benefit from his divine power, to have their temporary needs satisfied and be sent on their way happy. And Jesus knew that his disciples might get the wrong idea about the Christian life from these miracles. And so he presses pause on the healing and explains how the blessings of this life relate to true life.

 

The Bible is painfully clear that God didn’t send his only Son into the world to make you or me or anyone else rich, well-fed, happy, or popular. He didn’t come to establish a utopia – a paradise – on earth. Make no mistake – it’s not that he couldn’t have, that he tried and failed. The One who created everything with just his Word, who cast out demons, healed the sick and raised the dead – certainly could have spoken and this earth would have become an instant paradise once again. Jesus could have established another Eden, planted the tree of life in it, put you there – and it wouldn’t have required him to die on a cross. You could’ve lived free of disease, crime, poverty, hunger and sadness and eaten from that tree of life and lived forever. Then why didn’t he do that? For the very same reason that God kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden in the first place.

 

The only way to understand life now is to remember what happened in the Garden in the beginning. God gave Adam one simple command. You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die. (Genesis 2:17) Adam ate and the death he earned by his disobedience wasn’t just the separation of his body and soul – it was a separation from God. From the moment Adam sunk his teeth into the forbidden fruit he forfeited perfection and lost his perfect relationship with God. And his sin had consequences: the man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever. So the LORD God banished him from the Garden of Eden. (Genesis 3:22-23) God kicked Adam and Eve out of the perfect bliss of Eden so that they wouldn’t have to endure the curse of sin, of separation from him forever. The thorns and thistles and pain in child birth and enmity between believers and unbelievers and war between the sexes would remind them that the world wasn’t the problem; they were. In other words, God kicked them out of paradise to lead them to repentance – he did it out of love.

 

Why doesn’t Jesus just give us everything we think we might want for happiness in this life? Why doesn’t he just snap his fingers and turn this world into paradise once again? Because even if Jesus recreated the paradise on earth we think we want – we would still be under God’s curse – because we have not continued to do everything written in the Law. (Galatians 3:10) He could cause us to live forever. But it would be an awful existence; because we wouldn’t be forgiven, we wouldn’t be justified, we wouldn’t be saved. Worse than the living dead, we would be the living damned. It would be hell on earth. It would be the very life God wanted to spare us from by driving Adam and Eve out of the Garden. And that is why Jesus says that in this life poverty is better than wealth, hunger than satisfaction, weeping than laughter, and persecution than popularity: because that’s the reality of our standing with God. The broken world around us, the consequences of sin that touch our lives are vivid reminders that the world is not the problem, we are. Weeping, begging, hunger for God’s grace and mercy are the only proper response – because only then will we appreciate the real reason Jesus came to earth.

Jesus didn’t come to get rid of poverty and hunger and sadness – no State of the Union promises or Green New Deals for him – he came to get rid of sin, death, and God’s curse. Jesus came to gather up the pieces of the commandments we have broken and put together a perfect life of obedience. He came to take our sin and rebellion upon himself to the extent that when God looked at earth on Good Friday, the only sinner he saw was Jesus. (2 Corinthians 5:21) When he was nailed to a cross and God unleashed all of his wrath over sin, all of his curses meant for sinners on Jesus – then, and only then, was God’s justice satisfied, his wrath quenched, his curse removed. By his perfect life and hellish death, Jesus won true life for you; life in an eternal kingdom, filled with riches beyond imagination, an endless feast hosted by Jesus himself, a place of unbroken joy where God himself calls us his beloved children.

 

And when the Holy Spirit works on your heart to see, understand, and believe that this is true life, then you will see the reality of this life. Luther describes this awakening so beautifully in The Bondage of the Will: “Scripture represents man as one who is not only bound, wretched, captive, sick, and dead, but in addition to his other miseries is afflicted, through the agency of Satan his prince, with this misery of blindness, so that he believes himself to be free, happy, unfettered, able, well, and alive. For Satan knows that if men were aware of their misery, he would not be able to keep a single one of them in his kingdom, because God would at once pity and help them in their misery and cries for help.” [1]

 

The Devil either wants to fill you so full of wealth, food, happiness, and popularity now that you don’t see or feel the real misery of your sin or he wants you to see Jesus as nothing more than a cosmic genie who came to give you those things. The devil wants you to believe that you are rich in good works, not to confess your spiritual poverty; to be satisfied in your own goodness, not hunger for God’s righteousness; to laugh at your sin, not weep over it; to value what other people say about you more than what God says about you. But the awful reality is that if we believe that because we are rich, well-fed, happy and popular everything is alright between us and God – then the devil has won, then we are already lost.

 

Because it’s all a delusion. Popularity and laughter and happiness are mirages that are gone as soon as you have them. We may eat at the best brunch buffet in Madison this morning – but we’ll have to eat again later tonight. Money can’t buy everything – especially the most important things. And, sooner or later, we die and it’s all gone. Most importantly – and this is Jesus’ main point here: our circumstances of life now are not an accurate measure of our standing with God. Only the cross is. We deserved to hang there – because we are all poor, miserable sinners; but Jesus hung there in our place. That’s the truth the devil doesn’t want you to see or confess.

 

And that’s why Jesus preaches this shocking sermon, wakes us up to the truth and turn the world upside down for us. He lets us in on the secret that what made Eden paradise was not the climate, the food, the happiness, or the fact that men and women got along. What made Eden paradise was the fact that Adam and Eve were perfect and had a perfect relationship with God. That’s what Jesus came to restore. And he has. He kept all the commandments for you – and gives you the credit. He suffered the death your sins deserved – and your record is wiped clean. In Christ, when God looks at you, he’s as pleased with you now as he was when he first created Adam and Eve and called them very good. (Genesis 1:31) Now, if you were all-powerful, if you could give your child anything, would you give them riches, food, happiness, and popularity in a world that is infested with sin and sickness and ends in death? Of course not. If you could give someone you love anything at all – it would be a one-way ticket out of this world to a place where there is no sin, death, or the devil. And that’s exactly what God has given us in Jesus – a one-way ticket out of this life to true life with God. That is, finally, why he came.

 

In Luther’s day, when plagues and famine and disease and death were every day realities people would say “In the midst of life we are surrounded by death.” That’s what the devil would like you to think. This is THE life. This is as good as it gets. Eat and drink and be as merry as you can now because tomorrow you die and life will be over. Martin Luther turned that saying around. “In the midst of death we are surrounded by life.” [2] This place – where sin, death and the devil stalk us, hurt us, kill us and our loved ones – this is not true life. True life is with God and he gives us signs of true life even in this world of death. He gave you new life in the life-giving water of Baptism. He restores your life day after day with his forgiveness. He gives you the body and blood of his Son which preserves you to life everlasting. It’s not what we think; it’s even better. Amen.


[1] LW 33:130

[2] LW 13:83

Luke 5:1-11 - Jesus Called Peter for You - February 2, 2019

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each report how shortly after Jesus began his public ministry he began to call disciples to follow him, learn from him, and eventually be sent out as full time ministers to preach the Gospel in his name. (cf. Matthew 4:18-22; Mark 2:13-17; Luke 5:1-11; John 1:35-51) We hear these accounts several times each year. And often when you read these texts or hear them preached, the emphasis is that just as Jesus called disciples to preach the Word and gather other people into the church then, so he calls us to gather other people into the church now. That that is such a common interpretation is less about the actual words of Scripture, however, and more about our own narcissistic and legalistic tendencies. Narcissistic in the assumption that the Bible is about me (and you) instead of Jesus; legalistic in assuming that the main message of the Bible is the law – what God is telling to do (law) rather than what he has sent Jesus to do for us (gospel). Without belaboring the point, this morning, instead of considering how we are called to be like Peter, we will consider that Jesus called Peter for us, for you.

 

Just last week, Jesus had narrowly survived attempted murder at the hands of his own hometown friends and neighbors. They wanted nothing to do with him or his message of forgiveness and grace. One would think, then, that Jesus might be a little “gun-shy.” That he might stop preaching or only do it in secret or, at the very least, that he would be very careful about when and where and to whom he preached. But Jesus doesn’t do that. He doesn’t continue his preaching in a corner, in hiding, in secret. Why not? Because he knows Paul’s logic of salvation: if the Gospel isn’t preached, no one can hear; if no one hears, no one can believe; if no one believes, no one will be saved. (Romans 10:13-15) He knows that while he will suffer, die and rise to save the world – no one in the world will receive salvation if they don’t hear this good news. So Jesus not only continues to preach himself – in spite of any hostility or obstacles, but he calls prophets and apostles and in the centuries after them, pastors so that the Gospel of salvation would reach every corner of the world. But first, before he changes Peter the fisherman into Peter the apostle, he’s got to get Peter ready for the job.

 

And so we don’t find Jesus hiding behind locked doors but standing by the Lake of Gennesaret, with the people crowding around him and listening to the Word of God. Peter, James and John were there, and they had fished all night with nothing to show for their efforts. Now they were cleaning up their nets so that they could go home and rest and do it all over again that evening. But Jesus spoils their plans. Peter knows Jesus. His brother Andrew had introduced them a year or so earlier. (John 1:41) Peter had witnessed Jesus’ power at the wedding at Cana. (John 2:2) Peter has put his faith in Jesus as the Messiah. (John 2:11) Peter is already a Christian, but he’s not yet an apostle.

 

And now Peter is back in his day job. Maybe Jesus had sent his disciples away for a time; maybe Peter had left in order to go back to work to provide for his family (Luke 4:38) – we don’t know. But what we do know is that this day Jesus stepped into Peter’s boat and asked him to put out a little from shore so he could use his boat as a pulpit. But it’s when Jesus finishes preaching that things get really interesting. He shocks Peter with another request: put out into deep water and let down the nets for a catch.

 

Peter could have protested. He could have said “Lord, we’ve fished all night and caught nothing, can’t we just go home and rest.” He could have taught this carpenter-turned-rabbi that if you want to actually catch fish you don’t do it in deep water and you don’t do it in the middle of the day. He could have pulled rank on Jesus, saying “Listen, Lord, this is my boat and I’m the professional fisherman. You stick to preaching and leave the fishing to me.” But he didn’t. In spite of the obvious, logical reasons for refusing, Peter obeyed. Even more important is why he obeyed: not because the command was rational or reasonable – but because of who was issuing the command. Did you catch that in Peter’s response? Master we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets. So Peter does. And Luke reports the miracle in such an understated fashion that it’s almost a minor detail – which, in this context, it is. But miracle it is, nonetheless. The one who spoke on the fifth day and filled the earth’s seas and oceans with fish (Genesis 1:21) now summons his finned creatures to Peter’s nets. And not just a few (so that it might’ve just been chalked up to beginner’s luck) but enough to break the nets and nearly sink two boats. (I doubt any of the fishermen here, even on the days when they’ve stretched the truth to its limit, ever claimed that the fish they caught nearly swamped their boat!)

 

But we need to look beyond the nets tearing at the seams with fish to see the more important work Jesus was doing there. Jesus wasn’t there to catch fish, he was there to catch and call Peter to full-time service in his kingdom. This miracle was not intended to make Peter a famous fisherman so that he could get his own TV show, but to end his fishing career completely. Jesus is revealing his glory – his power as the Maker and Lord of creation – to Peter right in his own boat as a none-too-subtle reminder that he is Peter’s Lord, too.

 

And this realization scares the living daylights out of Peter. In the middle of a huge pile of flopping fish, on a sinking boat, this big, tough fisherman falls down at Jesus’ feet and begs him “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” Now, it’d be hard to blame Peter if he was anxious about getting all those fish into shore safely, you couldn’t fault him if he was afraid of sinking, drowning, or dying. But that’s not what Peter was afraid of. He’s afraid of Jesus, afraid of his power and holiness and righteous wrath, afraid that Jesus was in his boat with him, a sinner. And Peter was right to be afraid.

 

Fear is a window into our souls. It is a form of worship. What are you afraid of? The answer to that question is the same as the answer to another question: who/what is your god? The First Commandment teaches us to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. But how many other things do we fear more and before God? Are you afraid to hurt, to suffer, to lose something or someone, to be left behind or forgotten? Are you afraid of the past, the present, the future? Are you afraid of what you’ve done or what you might do? Are you afraid to fail, to succeed, are you afraid of being average, everyday, ordinary? Are you afraid of crime, terrorism, climate change, political and economic uncertainty? Are you afraid for your children and grandchildren’s future? Are you afraid of pain, afraid that disease might take your mobility or your mind, afraid of dying, afraid of the devil? Whatever you are afraid of, that is your god. And that fear will result in worship – it will change how you think, behave, and live.

Peter had the right kind of fear that day as he was waist deep in fish in a boat that was sinking from under him. He is afraid of Jesus and he’s afraid because he knows he’s a sinful man – not that he’s made some mistakes in the past, but that he is sinful through and through. The last thing sinners want is to hang around with Jesus because Jesus is holy. For all of the talk today that Jesus just wants to be your buddy, your friend, your life-coach – the more important reality is that he is your Lord and Judge. (John 5:22, 27) No matter what other issues and concerns might be causing us anxiety or fear at any given moment, this one concern should trump them all: At any given moment, Jesus should judge us, condemn us, send us to hell because we are sinful men, women and children (and we prove it every day). For that reason alone, we should all be terribly afraid of Jesus – we should be afraid to come here, into his presence – because he should judge us, convict us, damn us to hell for our sins.

 

But he doesn’t. Instead of judging and damning you for your sins, Jesus takes your sin from you, makes it his own, carries it to the cross. Instead of condemning you, he is condemned. Instead of casting us out of his presence he is cast out of his Father’s presence. Instead of banishing us to hell, he endures hell in our place. Instead of judging us, Jesus suffers for us, dies for us.

 

Jesus conveyed all of this good news to Peter in just three words: don’t be afraid. [1] Don’t be anxious or fearful in my presence. I’m not angry. I didn’t step into your boat this morning to judge you, condemn you, or destroy you. I know you’re a sinful man and I’ve come specifically to take care of that for you. I’ve come so that you can escape the death you deserve and live with me forever in heaven.” Today Jesus says the same to you. Don’t be afraid. Did you hear it earlier when you confessed that you deserve nothing but God’s punishment now and eternally? “God, our heavenly Father, has been merciful to [you] and has given his only Son to be the atoning sacrifice for [y]our sins.” You will hear it again when Jesus invites you to come to his table – the closest we will get to his presence this side of heaven (which should rightly make us think twice and examine ourselves) – to receive his body and blood with the words “the peace of the Lord be with you always.” (John 20:21) Don’t be afraid. Why not when we know we have every reason to be afraid as sinful, guilty men, women and children? Because when the only thing you truly fear is God himself, then there’s nothing left fear. Because then God says to us: “There’s no reason for you to fear me or my wrath. Because I have poured out my wrath on my Son instead, crucified him for you, in your place.”

 

And then he gives more evidence to prove that we have nothing to fear. He says, “I’m not going to speak to you in a voice that thunders from heaven, I’m not going to send my heavenly hosts to shock and awe you. Instead, I’m going to send people like Isaiah and Peter to speak to you. Sinful men – just like you. Don’t be afraid. Look at Peter’s example to see my love for sinners who fall again and again. Open your Bible, read his letters and the books penned by his fellow apostles – those who were first-hand witnesses of my life and death and resurrection for sinners like you. I commissioned them to write to you so that you might know and believe that I lived and died and rose so that you have nothing to fear.” Last he says “Here is your pastor, whom I have sent not primarily to frighten you with the reality of your sinfulness but to bring the good news to you, to absolve your sins in my name, to baptize you, to give you my body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins.”

 

Jesus is not content to let the good news of his words and work sit hidden on a shelf or buried in a cave somewhere. He wants it to be preached to you. He wants his Word to be heard by you. He wants you to believe them. He wants his word and promises to echo in your ears and take root in your heart because he loves you. Jesus’ love for you, that’s what you should see in Peter’s call to apostleship. Jesus loves you so much that he not only lived and died and rose for you, but he calls sinners like Peter and the other apostles and pastors today to tell you about his love so that you would know it, believe it, and have eternal life in his name. Peter’s call today is just like everything else Jesus does: it’s not about you, but it is for you – and that’s good news indeed! Amen.

 


[1] Two Greek words: Μὴ φοβοῦ

Luke 4:14-30 - One Word, Two Reactions - January 27, 2019

Our theme this morning is less a theme than it is an assertion, a challenge: when the Word of God is preached, there are only and always two reactions: faith and unbelief. There is no middle ground. There can be no cold, analytical, detached reception of the Word. You either hear the Word and rejoice in God’s mercy to sinners or you reject God’s grace and want to silence it. Whenever the Word of God is preached, it gets results, it always gets a reaction because it is living and active. It is the sharp doubled edged sword of Law and Gospel that never lays there dead, like a cadaver on an exam table. Try to cut into the Word of God and it will cut into you, dividing your soul and spirit, joints and marrow, the thoughts and attitudes of your heart. (Hebrews 4:12) Whenever the Word of God is proclaimed there are always two reactions, both in Israel and in us.

 

Now, you might be thinking: I’ve heard many sermons and opened up my Bible and read it many times – and quite often, I’ve had no reaction; nothing has happened. That is symptomatic of one of the biggest issues in the church today: the church has grown weary of the Word. Complacent. Bored even. Both preachers and hearers take the Word for granted and look for new and greater things. As hearers, our ears have been dulled by the noise of the world. Movies and music and media are engineered to make us sit down, turn our brains off and be passively entertained and amused. But hearing the Word of God demands active listening. It’s not like listening to your spouse recount their day while the TV is on, it’s like listening to the doctor tell you if the test results mean that you will live or die. Then there is “itching ear syndrome.” (2 Timothy 4:3) We want the church to have amazing programs and powerful, moving music and messages that are relevant, that give meaning to our lives, that solve all our problems and answer all our questions, to tell us what we can do to make our lives better – and the Word of God doesn’t scratch the itch. Finally, never-ending breaking news and weather alerts and viral videos have changed our brains; shortened our attention spans, weakened our ability to focus and concentrate and meditate. And so, if something can’t be expressed in a 30 second video or 144 characters, we turn it off and tune it out. The result is that many Christians are more likely to have a shallow faith based on bumper stickers and clever slogans and Facebook memes than a firm understanding of the deep and unchanging Word of God.

 

And then you have preachers who have lost faith in the power of the Word; who trust their own wit and wisdom, their own personality and likeability to do what only the Word can do. They use the Word as a means to an end rather than the means of grace. An instrument – or weapon – to manipulate and mobilize and organize and patronize. Want to start a community social program? There’s a Bible verse for that. Want to raise money? Beat people over the head with Scripture. Want to trumpet your righteous cause and vilify the opposition? Scripture is cited on both sides of almost any social issue. And this misuse and abuse of the Word can infect even our hearts, the hearts of those who stand on the Reformation motto of Scripture alone. Preachers preach and hearers hear the Word expecting it to change the world and the people out there rather than do what God promises it will do: change us. It’s stupid really. It’s stupid to sit here for an hour and expect it to change the world out there – instead of changing us. As stupid as taking a Tylenol and expecting someone else’s headache to go away. And as a result, we become judges and critics of the Word rather than servants and students, measuring it in terms of visible results rather than invisible repentance.

 

Martin Luther warned his generation that the Word of God is like a passing downpour. It falls for a while in one place and the soil soaks it up. But then the soil becomes saturated and the water runs off and the clouds move on. [1] Luther predicted the day when the Gospel would move on from Europe to other nations and continents – which has in large part happened. And some would say that the Gospel downpour is leaving our country as we speak. But for now, God has blessed us with the downpour of his blessings in the Word – and let us never take that for granted or grow bored with it. Because the Word remains the living and active wisdom and power of God. And whenever it goes out from human lips into human ears and minds and hearts, it does things. It kills and makes alive. It knocks us off our thrones and picks us up off of our knees. It fills the starving and sends the rich away empty. (Luke 2:53) There is no neutrality when it comes to the Word of God. There is either faith or unbelief.

 

That was true in Jerusalem at the Water Gate at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah (c. 445 BC). The people were assembled as one man (Nehemiah 8:1), packed tightly together, demanding to hear the Word of God. They listened as Ezra read from the books of Moses and the Levites [gave] the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read. (Nehemiah 8:8) Men, women, and children stood – stood! – and listened for six hours, from early morning till noon, to hear words that hadn’t been heard in Jerusalem in over 70 years. No comfortably padded chairs. No heating or air conditioning. No roof over their heads. They wept when they heard the Word. It cut them right to the heart. They repented. They believed. They recognized how utterly sinful they were and how incredibly gracious God was. When Ezra praised the LORDall the people responded, “Amen! Amen!” They wanted to hear more. The Word was working. It was a holy day.

 

It was also a holy day in Nazareth, when Jesus, the hometown boy turned rock-star, miracle-working rabbi, returned to his hometown synagogue on the Sabbath. The place was packed. They all wanted to hear from Jesus. The attendant handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah to Jesus and he found Isaiah 61. He read it out loud: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. And then he stopped and sat down. The place went silent. You could have heard a pin drop. What was he going to say? Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. People had wondered for centuries who Isaiah was talking about. Was he talking about himself? (Acts 8:34) Was it John? Was it someone else? Who was this Anointed One? And Jesus tells them: it’s me. This prophecy is about me. And they get to hear the good news from his own lips with their own ears. And, at first, they all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.

But then the devil elbowed his way into their minds and made reason their master rather than faith. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. They remembered that Jesus had played in their streets with their kids, traveled with them to Jerusalem – that for 30 years Jesus walked and talked and lived like anyone else. Wait a minute…who does this guy think he is? He leaves home, runs around with that rebel cousin named John, and now he comes back and thinks he’s the Messiah? Well, we’ll see about that. Prove it, Jesus! You’ve performed miracles for other people, perform one for us. Prove yourself here and we’ll believe you, but until you prove it we are going to reject your message.

 

Jesus knew what they were thinking. I tell you the truth…no prophet is accepted in his own hometown. He reminded them that there were lots of widows in Israel but God sent Elijah to the widow at Zarephath and there were lots of lepers in Israel but Elisha healed Naaman the Syrian. He was sending them both a fact and a warning: if you reject the Word, don’t expect miracles. Faith doesn’t come from seeing miracles but from hearing the Word. (Romans 10:17) If you continue in your unbelief, God will take his Word away from you and give it to people who want to hear it. And with that, Jesus’ hometown congregation had heard enough. They were filled – not with faith, but with rage. Let’s get rid of this guy! We don’t need to sit here and listen to this Jesus call us unbelievers and tell us that we need him to save us from ourselves. They drove him out of town and tried to throw him off a cliff. If you actually listen to what the Word says to and about you, you can’t remain neutral. You either hear it with joy or you try to push Jesus out of your life.

 

Of course, Jesus slips away because it wasn’t the time or place for him to die, but this was a bitter foretaste of the rejection to come. He was Anointed by God to save God’s people, but God’s people rejected him. Three years later they would finally succeed in getting rid of Jesus for good – they would arrest and convict, beat and crucify and kill him as a criminal. But only because he allowed them to. Because only by dying could he pay for the world’s sin, death and unbelief. He told them God had sent him to die to save them from their sins – and so they wanted him dead. Do you see how irrational unbelief is?

 

But today isn’t about Ezra and Nehemiah or Jesus’ childhood friends. Today is about you…and me. Are we more like those people in Jerusalem or the people in Nazareth? We are both! We have split personalities when it comes to the Word of God; we are both glad hearers and angry despisers. Our old Adam rises up in rebellion against the Word, rejects its demand to rule our hearts and minds, resents the Law that exposes our sin and the Gospel that says God sent a Savior because we couldn’t save ourselves. It’s our old Adam that just wants to stay in bed on a frigid Sunday morning, that searches for excuses to avoid hearing the Word, that counts the seconds until the “Amen.” The old Adam hates church. He can’t wait to get as far away from the Word as possible because he knows that the Word means his death. He must be coerced, compelled, threatened, forced to hear it. He’s why you and I do not gladly hear the Word of God and obey it.

 

But the New Man in you is different. The New Man is a faithful listener. The New Man would gladly stand in a crowd outside the Water Gate in Jerusalem and listen to the Word of God for six hours – and thinks nothing of driving through a little snow and cold to sit in a padded chair in a climate-controlled sanctuary for an hour. That’s the real you. The you who was born in Baptism. The you that died and rose with Christ. The you who rejoices at every opportunity to hear and study and read God’s Word, who is amazed that God would send his Son to live and die and rise for you, so that he might call you his child.

 

And so, that means that your life is a never-ending struggle between the old man and the new. It is a weekly struggle to get to church. A minute by minute struggle to pay attention. A daily struggle to open up the Bible at home and read it. An ongoing struggle against the devil’s temptations to become bored and complacent with the good news of God’s grace for sinners. It means that we need to repent for allowing the Old Adam to gain the upper hand, for treating God’s grace as old news or fake news, for refusing to receive the gifts Jesus wants to give us, for treating the Word as something optional or secondary in our lives, even for wanting to shut Jesus up and get rid of him. We need to drag the old Adam here kicking and screaming and repent because that is how God puts him to death.

 

But then we rejoice. We rejoice that Jesus is the Anointed One of God who continues to send messengers to preach the good news that he lived and died and rose again – for you! Your sins are forgiven. You stand justified before God. You are his child through baptism. You have a place in his heavenly mansion. That’s the Word of God. It might make you mad or glad, sad or joyful, you may want to hear more or you might just want me to shut up – because the Word always gets both reactions. In the end, our reaction isn’t as important as the fact this Word is God’s truth and God’s people are made holy by that truth. (John 17:17) Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. Amen.


[1] LW 45:352

John 2:1-11 - Jesus Reveals His Glory - January 20, 2019

Surveys and experience show that we are living in the most biblically illiterate time in American history. This means that fewer Americans than ever are familiar with the stories, people, and message of the Bible. And yet, many people who don’t know how many books are in the Bible are familiar with this story. Why? Perhaps because this story is referenced at most Christian weddings. Or maybe it’s because of the interesting topics: a wedding, a party, wine, a problem, a miraculous solution and fairy-tale ending. Given the variety of themes, which is most important? In a brief internet search, I found some interesting sermon themes: Mary: Miracle Mother, What Do You Do with 180 Gallons of Wine?, Wine: The Devil’s Cup and maybe my favorite: Transformer. With all those options, which direction should we go this morning?

 

Each of those themes are an example of someone injecting his own personal agenda into Scripture – which is not the way God commanded his Word to be interpreted or preached. (If I were to stand up here and say that today we are going to focus on proper planning for wedding receptions, you should rightly get up and leave.) The only way to read the Bible correctly is to follow where it leads, to let the Holy Spirit’s agenda, his purposes, guide us. In order to discover the Spirit’s agenda in relating this wedding story, we have to start at the end. Not just the end of this story, but near the end of John’s gospel. There he writes: Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these (signs) are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31) There you have it. That’s our theme, our goal.

 

So, how do we get there? Having been baptized in the Jordan River, endured 40 days of temptations by Satan in the desert, and begun calling disciples to follow him – Jesus arrived in the town of Cana in north central Galilee, not far from Nazareth, his hometown for a wedding. Apart from the fact that Mary, Jesus and his first disciples were on the guest list, we don’t know many wedding details. Was it a large or small wedding? How was Jesus related? Where were they registered? DJ or band? John doesn’t tell us. But what he does tell us is important: the wine was gone.

 

Big deal, shut it down and send everyone home – that’s not unusual. In those days, when family and friends had to walk miles to attend a wedding, the reception didn’t just last an afternoon or evening. Depending on the resources of the groom, the reception could last up to a week. Since wine was an essential part of meals, running out of it was simply not an option; it was a major embarrassment for the bride and groom. With 2000 years of hindsight, it might appear normal that Mary would come to Jesus with this problem. But remember that Jesus hadn’t performed any miracles yet; wouldn’t it be strange to expect Jesus to break the seal on his divine power for something as insignificant as a wine shortage at a wedding. But Mary knew that there was more than meets the eye with her Son. She had not forgotten that visit from Gabriel 30 years earlier, the strange visits of the shepherds and the wise men, or Jesus’ remarkable behavior as a 12 year old boy. She had treasured all those things in her heart. She may not have expected a miracle, but she did know that if anyone could help – it was Jesus.

 

That’s why his reply sounds somewhat out of place: Dear woman, why do you involve me? My time has not yet come. It sounds harsh and disrespectful to our ears. But Jesus was not being harsh; he was being polite, but firm. By calling her woman and not mother, Jesus was gently reminding Mary of her proper relationship to him – now that he had begun his public ministry. As far as his ministry and his mission of redemption were concerned, Mary was not his mother but a sinner who needed his salvation as much as anyone else. Gently but firmly, He reminds her that He is God’s son first, hers second. And Jesus was not going to reveal his glory according to Mary’s wishes, but according to his Father’s divinely determined schedule.

 

Can you see yourself in Mary? You love Jesus. You believe he is your Savior. You know that no matter the problem, Jesus can fix it. And so we bring all of our problems, issues, questions, and requests to Jesus, no matter how big or small, knowing that he hears us. “Lord, please take this sickness or disease away. Lord, please save my marriage, my family, my mind. Lord, I’m worried about my children, can you send a sign to straighten them up right now? Lord, this job is frustrating and soul-sucking, should I stick it out or risk finding something else, could you show me the way to go? Lord, your name and your Word are ridiculed by this evil world – show me that you are still in control. Lord, we beg you to do _______ or take away ___________ or give us ____________.” No matter what it is, no matter what you are asking for, have no doubt, Jesus hears you – you have his Word on it. (John 14:13)

 

And that’s an excellent habit – to take everything to Jesus in prayer. That’s exactly what Mary did here, and Jesus didn’t rebuke her for asking for help. He gently rebuked her for expecting him to abide by her schedule. We know what that’s like too, don’t we? To grow impatient. To grow frustrated. To hold Jesus to our schedule instead of submitting ourselves to his. Who exactly do we think we are when we suggest that the Creator doesn’t know what he’s doing in the lives of his creatures? Who are we to demand that Jesus act how we want, when we want? At times like that, Jesus takes us aside too and gently rebukes us: My time has not yet come. “I am the Lord, you are my servant. I am the sinless Son of God, you are a sinful human creature. You took your first breath (and you will take your last) on my schedule, and in between I will act when I decide – and not a moment before. Until then, repent and trust.”

 

When Jesus puts us in our place, Satan tempts us to throw our hands up in despair. He whispers “See…Jesus isn’t really all-powerful; he doesn’t really love you.” But Mary didn’t do that. [She] said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” She’s no miracle mother, but she does have one important thing to teach us. If you paid very close attention to Jesus’ words, did he deny her request? No, he said not yet. In faith, Mary clung to those words (one word in the Greek), trusting that her Son would act when the time was right and as evidence of her faith, left the servants in his charge. The lesson? Pay close attention to Jesus’ Word, no matter the situation, Jesus has given you a promise, maybe just a word that you can hang onto in faith.

But we always want more than that, don’t we? We want to know why Jesus doesn’t act, doesn’t reveal his glory as we would like him to. I’ve often struggled with that, too. When you read the Gospels, it can seem that whenever Jesus shows up, people are healed, problems are solved, tragedies are averted, even the dead are raised – immediately. But just remember that a lot of those people were suffering, waiting for a long time before Jesus showed up. One man was a cripple for 38 years (John 5:1-15), a woman had bled for 12 years (Luke 8:43-48), Jesus even allowed his friend Lazarus to lay in the grave for three days before calling him to life. (John 11) Why does Jesus often wait to answer prayers? Because the purpose of his miracles is not merely to solve a temporary problem, but to create and strengthen faith that he is the Son of God who will save us from all our problems once and for all. He often waits so that we that we put our faith in him alone. That was true in Cana. The last drop of wine had been poured. The servants knew there was no more. Perhaps the guests beginning to grumble. Maybe the couple was poor and couldn’t afford any more. But the bottom line was that there was no more wine – and this was a problem only God could solve.

 

As amazing as this miracle is, notice how quietly Jesus carries it out: Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.” They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

 

That’s not a very dramatic ending, is it? No spectacular conclusion. No grand unveiling of Jesus as the one who saved the day. No teary-eyed thankyou speech from the bride. Why not? Because this story isn’t primarily about marriage or motherhood or even Jesus’ willingness to help in even the ‘minor’ problems of life. This miracle was about Jesus giving his disciples a snapshot of his glory so that they understood they weren’t just following the latest, greatest rabbi but the long promised Messiah. It was about Jesus providing evidence for us, for the first time but not the last, that he was not merely a man, but the Son of God. And that’s not my interpretation, that’s the Holy Spirit’s: This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed at Cana in Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him.

 

Jesus’ timing may not always be our timing, but His timing is always best for us, our faith, and our salvation. God’s people waited thousands of years for God to keep his promise of a Savior, but when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law. (Galatians 4:4-5) Jesus often refused to perform miracles for his critics, but at the right times he revealed his divine glory to his disciples so that they had a firm foundation for their faith. Throughout his ministry Jesus used often that phrase my time has not yet come to refer to his suffering and death. And then, one afternoon on a hill outside Jerusalem, his time did come; for Mary, for his disciples, for you and for me. At the time the Father had appointed from eternity, [Jesus] humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:8)

 

Jesus hid his glory to become a man, to trade places with us before God’s judgment, to accept the condemnation our sin (including our sins of failing to trust Jesus’ timing) deserved, to grant us forgiveness and life through faith. But when the time was exactly right and the payment for sin completed, he took back his glory and rose from the grave to prove to the world that he is the victorious Lord over sin, death, and hell. Still today, when Jesus lets us wait for him to reveal his glory, he is really driving us to the means of grace where his glory is hidden in word and water, bread and wine for the strengthening of our faith. (Romans 1:17) And because that is all true, when Jesus seems to be hiding his glory in your life, hold onto the evidence you find in His Word – trust that his timing is best for you, for your faith, for your eternity.

 

This miracle is not primarily about weddings, moms, alcohol or social blunders. It’s to teach us that Jesus operates on his timetable, not ours; and he reveals it not to satisfy our curiosity or our desires, but to strengthen our faith – all so that when Jesus works the greatest miracle of all: raising the dead to life – we can be certain that we will have a seat at his grand wedding banquet in heaven. Amen.

 

Luke 3:15-22 - Why Was Jesus Baptized? - January 13, 2019

All three synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – report that Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River. Clearly, the Holy Spirit – the real author of Scripture – wants us to know that Jesus was baptized. Jesus was baptized. Do you find that strange? If you don’t think that is strange, just remember what John’s baptism was all about. John [preached] a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3:3) Why did the sinless Son of God need this baptism? For what did he need to repent and receive forgiveness? Why did Jesus, the Master, need his servant, John, to baptize him? What impact does Jesus’ baptism have on us and how does it relate to our baptism? All of these questions and more we will summarize under the theme: why was Jesus baptized?

 

Our text begins not with Jesus, but with his baptizer: John. John was a man’s man, a prophet’s prophet. He was a wilderness man who wore camel’s hair and ate locusts (Matthew 3:4-6), who boldly called people from all walks of life to repentance, who challenged the authority and teachings of the religious leaders, and even, as our text relates, fearlessly spoke the truth about sin to powerful King Herod and got himself thrown into jail for it. Just as people have always done with bold, powerful, revolutionary leaders, they were tempted to make him out to be more than he was; they were wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ, the Savior they had been waiting for, longing for, hoping for.

 

But John’s work was not that of the Christ, his work was not to save the world from sin. John’s work was to preach and baptize, to prepare and point. John preached to people to repent of their sins and he baptized them for the forgiveness of their sins. Now this was something new and novel. Before this, throughout the OT, if you wanted forgiveness you had to sacrifice an animal. You were forgiven because that animal bled and died as payment for your sins. (Leviticus 4) John preached something new and different. Not blood but water. Not a sacrificial death but a bath. Not something done at the Temple but in the Jordan River. John’s ministry formed a sort of bridge between the Old and New Testaments. He pointed people away from sacrificial animals to the sacrificial Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world once and for all. (John 1:29)

 

And John makes it clear that his ministry is not about him but about the one more powerful than [him who would come]. Sinners came to John to be baptized to get ready to meet Jesus. And then came that fateful day when Jesus stood before John in the water of the Jordan. Luke doesn’t record it, but Matthew tells us that John initially objected, saying that he needed to be baptized by Jesus – not the other way around. (Matthew 3:14) That’s what we would think too, right? The greater should baptize the lesser; the sinless one should baptize the sinner. But Jesus didn’t come obey our sense of propriety. He came to obey his Father’s will. Over and against John’s objections, Jesus said, let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness. (Matthew 3:15)

 

That verse is the key to understanding Jesus’ baptism. It was necessary to fulfill all righteousness. It was necessary for Jesus to get drenched in the water of a sinner’s baptism and be treated like someone who had sins that needed forgiving because he had to become one with us, with all our humanity – including our sin. He took a bath in our dirty bathwater because he didn’t only carry our sins: God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

 

At first this may appear to be at odds with what John had said about Jesus. John had taught that Jesus would appear with a winnowing fork in his hand to clear the threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. You can imagine John’s surprise, perhaps even disappointment, when Jesus shows up and asks to be baptized alongside the unwashed masses. This was hardly the fork-wielding, fire and brimstone judge that he was expecting – the one who would finally bring judgment on the godless and immoral people of Israel – not to mention the pagan nations around her. Was John wrong? Not at all. That day is coming. But according to God’s plan of salvation, before Jesus could judge the living and the dead he had to be judged; he had to humble himself and become obedient to death on the cross. Before the wheat could be gathered into the barn and the chaff burned, Jesus himself had to endure the unquenchable fire of God’s wrath over sin in our place on the cross.

 

It’s good for us to see Jesus baptism and his crucifixion as two sides of the same coin. (Later he even refers to his death as the “baptism” he must undergo (Mark 10:38)) His work, his public ministry, begins with the Spirit descending, the voice of the Father testifying; it ends with the Spirit departing, the voice of the Father falling silent. His work begins with him standing in solidarity with sinners, shoulder to shoulder with prostitutes, tax collectors, and all manner of society’s rejects; it ends with him hanging between thieves on a criminal’s cross. His work begins with water; it ends with water and blood flowing from his side. At the Jordan, the heavens are opened to him; on Calvary heaven is closed to Jesus but opened to every sinner who believes.

 

And even though Jesus’ baptism by John is not the same as our baptism, it sets the stage and lays the foundation for it. The sinless Son of God walked into that dirty Jordan River and purified it so that you might be purified from all sin. What happened to Jesus in his baptism is also what happened to you. The heavens were opened to Jesus; heaven was opened to you; the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus and the Holy Spirit descended on you – not in the form of a dove – but through the Word of God; as the Father declared his love for Jesus, so he declared over you “you are my son [or daughter], whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

 

In being baptized, Jesus took our place – he took on our sin, our guilt, our punishment, our death. When we were baptized, we took Jesus’ place – we were baptized into his perfect life, his death, his resurrection. (Romans 6:1-7) In our lesson from Titus, Paul spells out exactly what God does for sinners like us through baptism: when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared (there’s the word for epiphany!) he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing (baptism!) of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:4-7)

Because there is so much confusion regarding the purpose and meaning of baptism today, we’re going to take a few minutes to expose some common false teachings and practices. 1) There are many who say that infants and children aren’t sinful, don’t need forgiveness and shouldn’t be baptized until they are old enough to decide for themselves. 2) Closely related is the idea that baptism is something that we do for God – kind of like a spiritual “pledge of allegiance” where people who had just been living for themselves, now dedicate their lives to God. 3) There are also many, perhaps even right here, who view baptism as nothing more than a symbolic ritual, that some words are said and someone gets wet, and that’s about it. 4) Finally, there are an awful lot of parents and grandparents who see baptism as kind of a lifetime lucky charm – that as long as you get your child or grandchild baptized it doesn’t matter how you raise them, whether you ever bring them to worship and Sunday school, whether when they grow up they ever hear the Word or receive the Sacrament – because they’ve been baptized, they’ve got the force field of holy water around them, they will be saved – whether they believe in Jesus or not. Of course, given the powerful meaning and purpose of baptism, given that God works to save sinners from hell in baptism – we can understand why Satan would work so tirelessly to confuse and cloud and pervert the meaning and blessings of this sacrament.

 

But, by God’s grace and led by his Word, we are not going to accept his deceit, we are going to repent if we have ever treated baptism in those ways, we are going to expose his lies under the brilliant light of Scripture. 1) Does God ever deny baptism to or exempt babies and children from baptism? No, David testifies in Psalm 51 that we are all sinners from the moment we were conceived – babies need forgiveness as much as anyone else. (Psalm 51:5) Jesus gave the explicit command to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:19) And Peter explicitly told the crowd on Pentecost that the promise [of baptism] is for you and your children. (Acts 2:39) 2) Is baptism our “pledge of allegiance” to God? What did Paul write? Paul called it a washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:5) Were any of us active participants in our first birth? Absolutely not, we were passive – and some of us may have fought against it. The exact same is true of the rebirth of baptism. 3) Is baptism just an ancient, empty ritual which makes for a good excuse to throw a party and makes grandparents happy to see a family tradition continued? In speaking to Nicodemus, Jesus didn’t mince any words about the importance and necessity of baptism: I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the spirit gives birth to spirit. (John 3:5-6) 4) Does baptism remain effective even if through the irresponsibility of the parents or the recklessness of the baptized person their faith later flickers out and dies from neglect of the Word and Sacrament? Remember what Jesus said in Mark 16: whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:16) In other words, it is not the lack of baptism which damns, but the lack of faith – which will always be the result if someone cuts themselves off from God’s grace in Word and Sacrament – yes, even if that person had at one point been baptized. (John 15:5)

 

Don’t let the devil’s deceptions regarding baptism cloud your faith or rob you of the rich blessings God has given you in this sacrament! Why was Jesus baptized? He was baptized to take our place. He was baptized to take upon himself our sin, our guilt, the death and the hell we deserved. His baptism was his public anointing, God’s announcement to the world that this man from Nazareth, this baby of Bethlehem, is, in fact, his Son (and thus true God) and the One commissioned by God to be our Savior. Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan is what gives the power to the water in which we were baptized. We were baptized into Jesus’ place, his perfectly innocent life – the only life that can stand up to the scrutiny of Judgment Day; his death – by which we, too, have died to sin (Romans 6:3-4); his resurrection – so that we will rise just as surely as he rose on that first Easter. In baptism, Jesus pours out the Holy Spirit on us, creates faith in our hearts, tears us out of Satan’s power and adopts us into God’s family. In baptism, God the Father looks at us in a totally different way – completely apart from anything we do or say – instead of seeing us as the wretched sinners we are, he sees us clothed in the righteousness of his perfect Son – and declares “I love you. I have called you by name. You are mine.” And, furthermore, baptism is not just a onetime event – it’s something we are reminded of every time we worship in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit – every time we pray “our Father” – hopefully every time we look in the mirror, so that every second of every day when we can be confident that our identity and our eternity don’t depend on who we are or what we have done, but on whose we are and what Jesus has done! If you have been baptized, you belong to the one true God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! And that is true whether life is good or bad, whether you are sick or healthy, whether you have just taken your first breath or are about to take your last. Because of the blessings God has given you through his washing with water and the Word, your baptism is the single most important thing that has ever happened in your life.

 

All because Jesus was baptized to take your place in life and your place on the cross under God’s wrath and you were baptized into Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection – his place in God’s family. This is no ordinary water. This water is your life and your salvation. God grant that we always cherish this Sacrament for the amazing gift that it is. Amen.

Matthew 2:1-12 - The Other Christmas - January 6, 2019

Today is Epiphany. Also known as the “Christmas of the Gentiles.” Both Christmases essentially consist of God’s work: first God sending a Savior into the world and then revealing him to be the Savior of the world. The first Christmas consisted of baby Jesus swaddled in a manger visited by shepherds who had been called in from the fields by the angelic host sent by God. This second Christmas finds Jesus as a toddler playing at his mother’s feet in a house in Bethlehem visited by magi who were guided from the east by a star God had placed in the sky. The first Christmas was for Israel, for descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The second Christmas was for the world, the nations, the Gentiles, for you and for me – just as Isaiah predicted 700 years earlier: nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. (Isaiah 60:3) And so, this “other” Christmas is really our Christmas.

 

The word “Epiphany” means “appearing,” usually referring to the appearance of a king or a god. The magi had come from the east to Jerusalem because God had caused a star to appear in the sky – which they understood to be a star announcing the birth of a king. Who were they? While we can’t say with certainty, they were probably Persian court astrologers who carefully studied the sun, moon, and stars for changes and movement and signs – especially (before the invention of the calendar) to determine when to plan or harvest or travel. The parallel with the first Christmas is interesting, isn’t it? The people who wound up worshipping Jesus weren’t seekers, they weren’t running around looking for Jesus, determined to welcome him into their lives – rather, in both cases God brought them to their Savior. God shocked the shepherds out of fields where they slept with their flocks with the glory of the angelic host and used the day-job of the magi – studying the stars – to bring them to the feet of their Savior.

 

When they get to Jerusalem, they go right to Herod’s palace. That’s logical, right? Herod was the king of Judea – where else would you go to find the newborn “king of the Jews” but to the current “King of the Jews?” But despite their supposed wise reasoning, they got it all wrong: Jerusalem was the wrong city, the palace was the wrong house, and Herod was the wrong king. Here we see the grand contrast between God’s ways and man’s ways which is woven throughout Scripture. The magi expected to visit “man’s king”; the star pointed to God’s king. Man’s king lives in palaces, in capital cities, in splendor and glory. God’s king lives in a humble house, in a second-class suburb, in poverty and humility. Man’s king strives to become a god. God’s king becomes a man. Man’s king expects his subjects to bleed for him; God’s king bleeds and dies to save his subjects. And so again, just like at the first Christmas in the manger, just like boy Jesus at the temple – we are reminded that God works salvation in the most hidden, mysteryious, humble ways. Not the way of power and might – but the way of poverty and lowliness. God’s hidden ways are seen most clearly in a peasant virgin who becomes the mother of God, in a manger that becomes the cradle of a king, in a cruel cross that becomes his throne, in the fact that a tomb proves his victory not his defeat.

 

And, while the star is what brought the magi to Jerusalem, it was the Word of God which brought them to Bethlehem. To Herod’s shame, he did not know where Scripture said the Savior would be born, he had to ask the religious experts. And even though they clearly lack faith in Scripture, they knew what the prophet Micah said: in Bethlehem in Judea. (Micah 5:2) Bethlehem in Judea. Literally, the “house of bread.” It was a little afterthought of a town 5 miles away from Jerusalem – where the real “power” was. But with the birth of Jesus, Bethlehem lives up to its name. It was the “pantry,” the “breadbox” in which the living bread from heaven (John 6:25-59) was born and raised.

 

So off the Magi go to little Bethlehem, urged on by Herod – whose claim to want to join them in worship veiled a heart that was bent on murdering this little threat to his power. (Matthew 2:16) And, to the great joy of the magi, the star appears again in the sky, like a divine GPS, verifying Micah’s prophecy, guiding them to the very place where the child was. No more manger crib for Jesus; now he’s in a house with his parents. Imagine the look on Mary’s face when she opens the door and sees magi standing there – whether three or more, we don’t know – with their camels (or donkeys or horses – we don’t know that either) stomping in the yard - and they ask to see her son and then bow down and worship him. Imagine her surprise when they present him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. These Magi realize what Herod and all his chief priests and teachers of the law – people who should have known better – missed completely: this child is the true King of the Jews, the God of the universe, the Savior of the world.

 

Some people see symbolism in their gifts, and if you’d like to see the gold as a gift fitting for a king, incense as a fitting offering to God, and myrrh (an ingredient used in embalming) as predictive of the fact that this child would die for the sins of the world – there’s nothing really wrong with that. But in all likelihood, these were simply gifts of great value, gifts fit for a king. Even more, just as God promises all of us, so God provided his Son’s daily bread – in this case, indirectly providing the means that allowed Joseph to follow God’s command to flee to Egypt. (Matthew 2:13) In it all, we see the triumph of faith over sight, of the wisdom of God over the wisdom of man. What the magi saw was a little child, perhaps a year or so old, playing at his mother’s feet. But they didn’t believe their eyes. They believed the sign of the star and the prophetic Word of God – and through eyes of faith they saw God’s Son and their Savior and offered him gifts worthy of his position and power.

 

This is the real, central message of Epiphany: by God’s grace alone, through faith in the Word alone, the outsiders are now the insiders. Those who stood outside of Israel, outside of God’s chosen people and his promises – are now in the presence of Israel’s greatest King, the promised son of David. This is the great “mystery” which Paul wrote about in his letter to the Ephesians; that in Jesus the Gentiles are now fellow heirs with Israel of the promise of salvation in Christ. (Ephesians 3:6) The first Christmas was for the Jews, the chosen, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But this Christmas is for the nations, for the Gentiles, for those who at one time were not God’s people – but who now are the people of God. (1 Peter 2:10) And in Jesus, these two distinct groups are united, joined as one body, one people, one Church.

 

Gathered here this morning you are a lot like those magi from the east. No, I didn’t see anyone park their camel outside nor did I notice anyone hauling in bars of gold or baggies of incense; but you, too, have been guided to the Christ child by signs given by God himself; not a star in the sky but Word and Sacrament. Through these means, God has called you in from the darkness, has shined the light of faith into your heart, so that you are no longer outsiders, but insiders – brothers and sisters of Jesus, children of God, heirs of heaven. You have been led to the house where God’s Son, the King of the world, is present with you and for you under the signs of water, word, bread and wine. Presence just as real and tangible – and hidden – as that little child at Mary’s feet.

 

Just like the magi we confess that it was not by our own thinking or choosing that we believe in Jesus Christ as Lord or came to him. But the Holy Spirit has called us by the gospel, enlightened us with his gifts, sanctified and keeps us in the true faith. The world may laugh at the Word as an ancient artifact of the past, at Communion as hocus pocus, at Baptism as nothing more than a symbolic show. But we are living evidence that these things are the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew then for the Gentile. (Romans 1:16) And one day all the wisdom and knowledge of man will eventually bow, like these magi, with faces on the ground before the one who is the wisdom of God in human flesh. One day every king of this world will bow before the King of kings. (Isaiah 49:7) There is a Day coming when at the name of Jesus every knee [will] bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)

 

Like the magi, you too bring your gifts and leave them here for your King. The gifts of your time, your treasure, your talents, your prayers, your praise, your living and working outside of those doors, even your repentance (Psalm 51:17) – these are your gold and incense and myrrh – the concrete evidence of your heart’s conviction that Jesus Christ is your Lord and Savior, your joyful offering of thanks and praise to the one who came to live, die, and rise for you.

 

The magi were going to return to Herod. But having been warned in a dream not to…they returned to their country by another route. They did return home, not by the way of Herod – the way of human wisdom and power – the way of death; but by the way of Jesus – God’s wisdom and God’s power – which leads to life. You too will leave your Savior’s feet here and go back to your home, your family, your job, your life. You will leave your Savior’s feet here and go out into the world. And you too will have your choice of two ways to go: the way of man’s king or the way of God’s king; the way of this world or the way of the kingdom of God; the way of power and glory and reason or the way of weakness and humility and faith; the way that depends on your wisdom, your reason, your strength, your blood, sweat and tears or the way that depends completely on God’s wisdom, on Jesus’ strength, his life, his blood, sweat and tears shed for you; the way that leads to certain death or the way that leads to eternal life.

 

Jesus, in his grace, has not left that decision up to you. He chose you, claimed you in baptism. He will feed you and strengthen your faith for life’s struggles here at his table with his body and his blood. His Word will continue to be a bright star which will guide you through this dark world to his glorious presence – and your glorious home – in heaven. He has put you on a new road, a new way, the way of forgiveness, the way of resurrection, the way of life. The world is done with Christmas, packed it away for another year. But for us, the celebration goes on – because today is the other Christmas, and this Christmas is just for us. Amen.  

Luke 2:41-52 - The Wisdom of God: Hidden in Plain Sight - December 30, 2018

Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men. Doesn’t it sound strange to find a twelve-year-old boy and wisdom in the same sentence? 12 year olds grow in many ways: in appetite, in body odor, they grow out of their shoes and jeans – but wisdom? We usually associate wisdom with age, right? Wisdom comes from trial and error, from facing success and failure, with gray hair, with time spent in life’s school of hard knocks. The last thing you would expect from a 12 year old is wisdom, right? And yet, that’s what this morning’s Gospel delivers to us: wisdom wrapped in a 12 year old package; the wisdom of God: hidden in plain sight.

 

That’s how Mary and Joseph lost him. In his OT law, God commanded all Israelite men to come to Jerusalem for three great Feasts, including the Passover (Exodus 34:23; Deuteronomy 16:16) – and faithful Israelites often turned this into a family pilgrimage, with women and children coming too. Up until the age of twelve, boys walked with the women. But at twelve, they could walk with the men or the women. So it was probably one of those cases where, “I thought he was with you,” and “no, I thought he was with you.” Where he was was actually in the temple with the teachers for the equivalent of his “examination” – where he would be tested to see if he had learned enough at home and at the synagogue to become a fully-fledged man in Israelite society. And perhaps that lends some insight into why the Holy Spirit included this story – and only this story – from Jesus’ childhood. It shows us that even before he reached the age where he was required by law to be personally obedient to it, he was already obeying it as our perfect substitute.

 

But, as we learned on Christmas, this was no ordinary twelve year old. This is God in human flesh. The God who set the universe in order, the planets in their orbits, who governs all things in ways we cannot understand but can faintly perceive as the “laws of nature.” There was more wisdom in the tip of that child’s finger than in the gray heads of all the teachers in all of Israel. And yet he humbles himself to sit there to be examined by Israel’s teachers, answering their questions, impressing them with his answers. And…being obedient to his parents as one would expect from any other child. But he is not any child. He is God’s Child, his only-begotten Son chosen and anointed to save the world from sin, death, and hell. Of course, you wouldn’t know that just by looking at him. He looks like any other twelve year old. He blends in with us…because he is one of us: Immanuel, God with us. (Matthew 1:23)

 

That’s the mystery of God with us, isn’t it? It raises more questions than answers. Why? Why is the wisdom of God, the Son of God spending his time in the temple, growing in wisdom and stature, obediently following the will of his earthly parents and his heavenly Father? Spoiler alert: he’s doing it for you and for me. His Father sent him to earth to be born under the law, to redeem those under the law (Galatians 4:4-5) – that was the work his Father had given him and so that’s what he busied himself with. We call this Jesus’ active obedience. His obedience to two commandments stands out here: the third – remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy; and the fourth – honor your father and mother. Have you ever despised preaching and God’s Word or dishonored or angered your parents and others in authority? So have I. So there Jesus is in the Temple, his Father’s house, joyfully hearing and studying God’s Word for all the times we haven’t. There he is as a twelve year-old-boy – obedient to his parents, never talking back, never skipping his chores, never refusing what Mary made for dinner – because we’ve done all those things and more. Jesus’ lived an entirely perfect life – from the womb, to the manger, the home, the workshop, the temple, the cross, the tomb – for us because we haven’t. He lives the perfect life God demanded from us. He lives as a man all the way to the point of death – in order to save all of us from death.

 

But all that is hidden, isn’t it? All of that is cloaked under the flesh and blood of a twelve-year-old boy. God had promised Adam and Eve and their descendants that he would send someone to save them from themselves (Genesis 3:15) and this child is the one to do it. And he doesn’t look like much, does he? Certainly over the course of his life we get small glimpses of what lies beneath the surface – his miracles, his Baptism, his Transfiguration, ultimately his death, resurrection, and ascension. But like the last Christmas gift to be opened, the gift of Jesus is largely hidden, hidden in plain sight, to be revealed only on the Father’s timeline. There is the wisdom of God hidden in plain sight: an apparently normal twelve year old boy growing, learning, obeying – and, at the same time, an anything but normal boy from Galilee stunning the teachers with his answers and maintaining perfect obedience to both his earthly parents and heavenly Father.

 

If this twelve-year-old boy is what God’s plan of salvation looks like – why doesn’t everyone see it? Why didn’t Mary understand that Jesus had to be in his Father’s house? Why did some of these same teachers cry for Jesus’ death only 20 years later? Why are so many people today so slow to see baby Jesus, boy Jesus, fully grown Jesus as the wisdom of God in human flesh? (1 Corinthians 1:24) Often, because we are like your typical foolish children, we want to do it ourselves, we want to attain wisdom on our own, apart from God. Isn’t that what Adam and Eve were after in the Garden of Eden? They wanted to know good and evil, wisdom that God – in his wisdom – didn’t want them to have, because standing over creation and judging between good and evil is not our job, but his. But Adam and Eve decided they knew better than God and handed that arrogance down to us. Just as they disobeyed God’s clear Word and decided to eat the forbidden fruit – so often we imagine that we are judges of the world, of our lives, of God himself – that we get to decide for ourselves what is right and what is wrong based on our own wisdom. We so easily become our own gods. And, honestly, pretty terrible gods: self-centered, lazy, short-sighted, always lacking information, constantly changing our standards and morals from day to day. With Adam and Eve we’ve traded away the image of God (Colossians 3:10; Ephesians 4:24) to join the animal world, following our own natural instincts and desires rather than the God to which we owe our very existence. Even we – the few, the proud, those who come to church on the Sunday after Christmas – must confess that we have trusted our own wisdom instead of the wisdom of God, our Creator and Redeemer.

 

 

 

And that’s precisely why God became man and cloaked himself in the flesh of a twelve year old boy. The Apostle Paul says that the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. (1 Corinthians 1:25) God sent a boy to do a job only God could do. God sent his Son, born of a woman, cradled in a manger, raised in a household, obedient to father and mother – to save this world from the chaos, darkness, and destruction of sin by his perfectly obedient life and sacrificial death which washes away the sin, and foolishness, of the world.

 

Now, it would be easy for us to just smile and maybe chuckle a little bit at this story. To think that this makes for a good Sunday School lesson but isn’t really worth our time if we’ve been confirmed and spent long years in the trenches of Christianity. We might smirk at the temple teachers, thinking themselves so wise and learned, being astonished that this seemingly “average” twelve year old could know the Old Testament better than they do. “If only they knew who they were talking to” – we might scoff. We might shake our heads at Mary and Joseph – “who in the world would lose their child, much less the Son of God?” We might like to think that we are better, smarter, wiser than that. But are we?

 

Aren’t we just as likely to miss God when he’s busy working in his hidden and foolish ways? As parents, we wouldn’t dare miss an appointment for our children’s immunizations and check-ups – but are we as urgent about Baptism, about teaching our children to know the Word of God and pray to their heavenly Father, to make any and every sacrifice necessary to ensure that they are daily growing in the wisdom of God and not just in the wisdom of the world? We can’t help talking about a new diet or exercise plan, a new medicine, a new “hack” that has improved our lives in some way – but are we as eager to talk about how we called upon the Lord in the day of trouble, how he answered and delivered us from sickness or disease or disaster? (Psalm 91:15) We are always searching and planning for our next meal – we complain that we are “starving to death” if we happen to miss lunch, but do we experience the same pangs of hunger and thirst for forgiveness and the assurance of eternal life when we miss the Lord’s Supper – the only food that can cleanse us from our sins and fill us with the assurance of salvation? Aren’t we often tempted to view the Church as just another human organization – a charity, even – instead of the one place on earth that God comes to bless his people with his gifts and his grace in Word and Sacrament?

 

We shouldn’t shake our heads at the temple teachers or Mary and Joseph and their apparent foolishness. Because when God confronts us with his wisdom, hidden in plain sight, hidden in humble and unlikely places – we are often just as blind to it. Did you notice that Jesus’ response to Mary’s anxiety is really a lesson we all need to learn? They thought they had to search high and low for their son, God’s Son – when he was in the only logical place for him to be: his Father’s house, where the Word and Sacrament are. This is where we find Jesus because the opposite is actually true: this is where he finds us. The truth is that he was never lost – we were – and so he cloaks his wisdom in humility and foolishness to find us.

 

That’s the wisdom of God hidden in plain sight – wisdom that the world considers pure foolishness. The wisdom of God is swaddled in a manger, “lost” at the temple, growing in wisdom and stature as a twelve-year-old boy. The wisdom of God is later despised and hated by the same teachers who were once so amazed at his understanding, whipped and beaten and condemned by the authorities of the world, crucified by the very people he came to save, risen from the empty tomb, ascended to his Father’s right hand in glory. The wisdom of God is hidden in plain sight today in the pages of Scripture and hidden “in, with, and under” bread and wine and water. Don’t miss the wisdom of God hidden in plain sight – because the wisdom of faith that clings to Jesus as true man and true God, as both Mary’s Son and the Son of God, as a twelve year old boy and the God of the universe, as the God-man who suffered and died and rose to redeem us from our sins – that is the only wisdom which is able to make you wise for salvation. (2 Timothy 3:15) May God grant us the humility to perceive his wisdom hidden in human flesh. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.   

John 1:14 - The Word Became Flesh - December 25, 2018

Ever since the very first Christmas, people have been trying to capture the essence of Christmas. They try to capture it in a photo, a song, a movie, in decorations and traditions. Maybe the clearest example of this attempt to capture Christmas is the snow-globe – Christmas with snow and everything! But try as they might, all their attempts fail. One cannot capture Christmas in a mismatched sweater picture, a grainy movie, or a child’s toy filled with artificial snow. Only the words before us this morning, the inspired Words of Scripture have truly captured the essence of Christmas. When you get past the lights and the gifts, the family and the food, even the angels and shepherds, the stable and the manger; when you scrape away the sentimental music and the short-lived traditions and the less than ideal circumstances, this is what remains: the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.

 

This baby lying in a manger is the same Word who was with God and was God in the beginning. (John 1:1) This baby is the wisdom of God that designed and engineered the universe – from the largest galaxies to the smallest atoms. This is the Word who called forth day and night, sun, moon and stars, land and sea, plants and trees, fish and animals – out of nothing. This is the Word that breathed life into a lump of clay and shared with mankind his image – his immortality, his holiness, his love. This Word has always been, ever is, and ever will be. That Word, when the time had fully come (Galatians 4:4), was conceived in the womb of a virgin and born to dwell among us. When you capture this, hold on to this, then you have captured the full and real and unchanging essence of Christmas.

 

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. But what does this mean? We could spend every second of every day exploring and expanding on what this means and still not reach the end. The shepherds – who were there – could only repeat the things they had heard and seen. (Luke 2:17) Mary herself could only ponder things so far above her understanding that her heart must have nearly burst. (Luke 2:19) On that first Christmas, it took angels – those might messengers of God – to explain the meaning of all of this. And you and I? We can barely scratch the surface of this divine mystery.

 

No other religion in the history of the world has ever conceived anything even close to this Mystery. Sure, Greece and Rome had their myths of gods and goddesses occasionally “appearing” on earth. Sure, there is the false hope that someday humans will become immortal, all-powerful gods in Mormonism and secularism. All religions have prayers, miracles, commandments, creeds, codes of conduct, and worship. But only Christianity stakes the claim that God became man. You could not make such a religion up and get away with it, not even 2000 years ago. But it stands because it happened. In Bethlehem of Judea. At the time when Augustus was Caesar, Herod was King, and Quirinius was governor. It happened at a specific time in a specific place, with witnesses and consequences – just like any other piece of history. The Word became flesh.

 

Why? The Word became flesh because that’s what we are. Flesh. While we try to avoid and deny our flesh and all its limitations and implications and pretend to be “enlightened,” and “wise,” and “good,” and “true,” with our lofty ideals and supersized egos, but the Word willingly took on our humanity. We strive to be more than human, “supermen and superwomen” – to control not only our lives but the lives of those around us, but the God of the universe is content to become a baby; content to play in his mother’s lap and look into the eyes of shepherds. We are human, sinful humans – to be specific, fallen sons and daughters of Adam. The only-begotten Son of God became what we are (without the sin, of course) – because, left to ourselves, we are lost.

 

He came to be with us under the Law (Galatians 4:5), the holy Law of God that condemns us, that shuts our mouths, that fills our hearts with terror at the consequences of our sin, that keeps us awake at night and makes even Christmas anything but a wonderful time of year. But he came full of grace and truth. He came not to judge us but to save us; not to take us captive but to set us free; not to bring more rules for us to follow but to fulfill all the rules we haven’t. He came to save sinners – of which I am the worst…and so are you. (1 Timothy 1:15) He came to be your Shepherd and your friend, to lay down his life for you. (John 10:11; John 15:12) The Word became flesh to save you, all of you, your body and your soul by suffering the consequences of your sins and giving you eternal life as his free gift. (Romans 6:23)

 

John says: we have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John was not there in Bethlehem. He came to know and follow Jesus much later. He was an eyewitness to His transfiguration – that moment where Jesus revealed his full glory as God to sinful human eyes. (Matthew 17:1-8) With his own ears he heard the voice from heaven declare him to be the Son of God. He was there to see him die in the darkness of Good Friday. (John 19:26-27) And he was among the first to see him absent from the empty tomb. (John 20:3) He stood gaping as the Word made flesh ascended into the clouds to his Father’s right hand. (Acts 1:1-11) John witnessed Jesus’ glory, glory covered in humility, glory wrapped in our humanity.

 

In Jesus, the Word became flesh to reverse the spiral of history – to reverse what the first man had done. The image of God, so disfigured and tainted by Adam, is now restored. We are fully what God intended us to be from the beginning because he is fully us. At the hand of John the Baptist he was baptized into our place and when we were baptized, we were baptized into him. So as we follow the course of Jesus’ life through the Christian church year – from manger to tomb – we are actually tracing our life’s story. His birth, his obedience, his suffering, his dying, his rising – is our birth, our obedience, our suffering, our dying, our rising. Your sin became his. His glory becomes yours.

 

 

 

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We may wish we could have been there. We may wonder what it was like that first Christmas. But there is no need for us to go to Bethlehem – unless you want to go as a tourist. You will not find the flesh and bones and blood of Christ there. But don’t worry – the Word no longer invites us to meet him in a stable; he invites us to meet him

in the Word we can read and understand, in, with, and under the bread and wine we can taste, in water we can see and touch. That’s where the Word made flesh encounters our flesh, where our sins are forgiven, where we die and rise to new life. Because the Word became flesh we don’t have to go groping about blindly for God on earth (as so many do) or in heaven (as if we could, anyway!) because he comes down to us to dwell with us still today. He dwells among us in Word and Sacrament to serve us. He dwells among us to save us. He doesn’t make his dwelling with the rich and the famous, the proud and the happy, the good and the righteous – in Fortune 500 boardrooms or White House situation rooms. He makes his dwelling with us: the weak and the lonely, the sad and the tired and the distressed and the dying. He comes here to serve us – and then he equips us with beautiful feet to bring the good news that the salvation of our God has come to others. (Matthew 20:28; Isaiah 52:10)

 

Long after the gifts are opened and forgotten, after the decorations are packed away, after the holiday joy gives way to a new work week – this is what endures. God is with us in this baby born of Mary. He dwells among us so that we too may see his glory, hidden then in human flesh and blood, hidden now in Word and Sacrament, soon to be revealed in power and glory. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. Whatever else you do today, hold on to this. Because this is Christmas. Amen.

Revelation 12:1-6 - A Wondrous Sign of Wondrous Love - December 23, 2018

The nativity of our Lord, the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, is usually depicted as an idyllic, peaceful, almost beautiful scene, isn’t it? Proud new parents, cute lambs and goats, a nice clean barn, glorious angels and respectable shepherds. The reality was probably far from beautiful. Mary and Joseph were probably more than a little upset that no one would spare room for a woman in labor. A stable where farm animals live is hardly a sanitary place to rest, much less give birth. Initially those angels, those messengers of God, inspired fear, not joy (Luke 2:9) and shepherds – who lived and slept outside with their flocks – were hardly the first people you would invite to see your newborn child. And yet, as bad as the physical realities of Jesus’ birth was, there is an even more horrifying spiritual reality playing out behind the scenes. In Revelation 12 we get to see Christmas from God the Father’s perspective. It’s still a story of a woman giving birth to a son, but it’s the stuff of nightmares. A baby-eating monster is there, just waiting for dinner to be served. Before we hear the beauty of the Christmas story from the lips of children, let’s spend a few moments considering the reality behind our Savior’s birth. Because when we do, we will see how Jesus’ birth is a wondrous sign of God’s wondrous love.

 

Whether you know the book of Revelation like the back of your hand or you’ve never read it before, you must understand that it is what we call ‘apocalyptic literature.’ Apocalyptic literature, like impressionistic art – is not intended to convey how things literally were – there was not a literal dragon standing there in front of Mary – but rather it uses vivid imagery and symbolic language to describe a hidden reality.

 

So what does the imagery and symbolism mean? Given that the child being born is Jesus, we might conclude that the pregnant woman is Mary. However, the fact that she is wearing a crown of twelve stars (related to the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles) and that she has the moon as a footstool (symbolizing authority) – this woman is not Mary, but the Church – all believers of all time. Genealogically, Jesus was the child of Israel, the descendant of Adam, Abraham, and Isaac – who is still received by all believers. (Luke 3:23-37; Romans 9:5) Later in this chapter we are told that the enormous red dragon is that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray (Revelation 12:9) – and the fact that he wants to replace God in human hearts is symbolized by the seven heads and seven crowns he wears. (The Greek word for crown – diadem – refers to that which was worn by pagan leaders who wanted to be worshiped as gods.) Satan is real and he is really powerful and he wants to rule us in God’s place, and the truth is that if Christmas is the only time you hear the Word of God – you are under Satan’s power, whether you realize it or not! (Matthew 12:26-30)

 

Satan knew from the beginning that Jesus would come to destroy his power to rule mankind (Genesis 3:15), and so he wanted to strike as soon as possible – he wanted to devour Jesus the moment [he] was born. And Scripture tells us how Satan repeatedly tried to have Jesus murdered. He led Herod to slaughter all the baby boys in Bethlehem. (Matthew 2:16-17) He tempted Jesus to commit suicide in the wilderness. (Matthew 4:1-11) He so consumed the heart of Judas that he betrayed his Savior. (Luke 22:3) But through it all, God kept his child safe – in the end, snatched [him] up to God and to his throne in his ascension (Acts 1:1-11) where Jesus is not only safe from the devil’s power, but rule[s] all the nations with an iron scepter. (Ephesians 1:19-23) Finally, the woman and the 1,260 days. The woman is, as we’ve said, the Christian Church – and the 1,260 days represent the NT era – the time in which the Church wanders here on earth, but is fed and preserved by God in Word and Sacrament – before God takes her home on the Last Day.

 

So what’s the point of all this? How is the reality that Satan was licking his chops at Jesus’ birth a sign of God’s love for us? Well, would you ever intentionally place your child in such a dangerous situation? Today we keep our kids in car seats almost until they can drive themselves and on our health insurance until they’re 26. We do all we can to protect our children. But God the Father intentionally sent his Son to face this unspeakable danger. Why? God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16) God sent his Son into the devil’s backyard to save us. God loves you so much that he sent his Son into a situation none of us would ever put our children in. Is that how you measure God’s love for you? Or does your estimate of God’s love fluctuate with your bank account, your health, the number of gifts under the tree or size of the problems in your life? If you don’t belong to a Christian church, do you notice that Christians don’t necessarily seem any happier, healthier, or wealthier than the rest of the population – and then think “where is the evidence that God loves those people?” Those are inaccurate and – actually – Satanic measures of God’s love. It’s wrong and sinful to measure God’s love by our earthly circumstances. Whenever you hear the Christmas story, don’t just see the barn and the animals – see the devil standing there, ready to devour God’s Son – that is how much God loves you!

 

The divine twist in the story of salvation is that while God ensured that the devil could never destroy his Son – the Father himself did. God the Father took our sins against the 10 commandments, our failure to love him above all things and love our neighbor as ourselves, he took our sins of doubting God’s love for us – he took it all and laid it on his Son and hung him on a cross and consumed him in the wrath that we deserved. As wondrous a sign of God’s wondrous love as the manger is, it pales in comparison to the love he showed by sacrificing his only Son in our place on the cross. With evidence like that, evidence written not just in black and white, not just in words coming from some guy in a robe or from little children, not measured in health or wealth or happiness – but written in the blood of God’s Son dripping down a wooden cross – how could we ever doubt that God our heavenly Father loves us dearly?

 

So keep this in mind as you hear the Christmas story from the lips of children. Don’t forget that while the scene might appear peaceful and the songs are sweet – God loved you so much that he not only risked his Son’s life, he took his Son’s life – to spare and save yours. A truly wondrous sign of his wondrous love! Amen.

Zephaniah 3:14-17 - Joy Instead of Judgment - December 16, 2018

The word ‘advent’ means coming and in the season of Advent the Church looks forward to the coming of the Lord. Knowing that an authority figure is coming has the potential to incite one of two reactions: fear or joy. When you’re a child and you hear the garage door going up, you have a very different reaction if mom says “hey, dad’s home,” versus “just you wait, now dad’s home.” If your boss tells you that he wants to see you in his office right before quitting time on Friday your reaction will depend on whether you’re expecting a promotion or the company has begun a round of lay-offs. When you see flashing red and blue lights on the highway, how you react depends on whether you need help slowing down or help getting out of a ditch. The Lord is coming. Is our natural reaction fear or joy? It’s not even close, is it? The Lord knows who we are and what we’ve done, how could we not be afraid?

 

If we could travel back to the time of Zephaniah, we would run into an entire nation who had every reason to fear the Lord’s coming. After God had given Israel the Promised Land, he warned them repeatedly that if they turned away from him he would uproot them from the land and turn them into the laughing stock of the world. (2 Chronicles 7:19-22) Well, Judah failed to listen and failed to obey and had turned from the true God to false gods – idols like Baal and Molech whose worship practices included religious prostitution and child sacrifice. (Zephaniah 1:4-5) They scoffed at the prophets God sent to warn them to change their wicked ways and proudly boasted that God would not do anything to them – either good or bad – and like hardened atheists they made their wealth, real estate and businesses into their gods. (Zephaniah 1:12-13) And so, for 2/3s of his book, the only message Zephaniah has is one of judgment. But in the closing section of this book, the Zephaniah’s message takes a very unexpected turn. To the few faithful believers – those who took the Lord’s warnings seriously and repented of their sins – the Lord offers a message of pure, unadulterated joy. Joy instead of judgment – that is the gist of what Zephaniah has to tell us today.

 

Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O Daughter of Jerusalem! That sounds similar to the holly, jolly music we hear on the radio these days, right? Do you see the problem, though? Those four verbs sing…shout aloud…be glad and rejoice are all commands. Why on earth would God have to command us to rejoice during “the most wonderful time of the year”? Why do morning shows and health professionals have to issue suggestions for dealing with holiday-related stress and depression? [1] Why has it become trendy to skip Christmas altogether and take a vacation instead? There are several reasons. 1) For one, God has written his law on our hearts and put a conscience in our heads that reminds us every time we don’t measure up. We know that we rightly deserve judgment, not joy, from God. (Romans 2:14-15) 2) Second, we often search for joy in all the wrong places. More than any other time of year, hidden idols are exposed: alcohol and excess, decorations and gifts, vacations and family and friends – while these things are gifts of God, they are not God. If we seek happiness and joy from anyone or anything other than God, we are, in fact, worshipping an idol. [2] And, when they take the place of the Giver, they do not bring true joy. If you doubt that, wait for December 26. See the trees lining the curb, the return lines at the stores, the grumpy, hung-over people at work, listen for the complaints about family and friends, notice how many people dig themselves into debt for just a day or two of holiday cheer. If you’ve been looking for joy in the gifts rather than the giver, then the command to rejoice is first a command to repent – to turn your heart away from artificial sources of joy and turn to God. Lastly 3) there’s a little part of each of us that thinks the good news of Christmas is just too good to be true. We are constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the lawyer to read the fine print, to find out that there are strings attached – because nothing in this world is free. By nature we simply cannot grasp that forgiveness and peace and joy are free and unconditional gifts of God to us. No matter how many times we’ve heard the angels’ announcement that today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you (Luke 2:11) – we still think, “no way, that’s too good to be true.” And do you know what all three reasons have in common? They crush our joy because they place our focus on us and our earthly situation instead where our focus should be at Christmas: on the Lord and what he has done for us!

 

That’s why it’s so important that we make the Lord the center of our Christmas celebration. Because when our joy is in the Lord, then it won’t matter if our home looks like something out of a Hallmark movie, if we can afford the best and shiniest gifts, if there’s an empty place at the table or in our hearts, if failing health or financial stress or a family conflict cast a shadow over the celebration – we will be filled with joy regardless of the outward circumstances. Why? Because the Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. Let’s be blunt: the best the world can offer is a brief reprieve from reality, a momentary illusion that life isn’t short and hard and painful. But the Lord confronts reality head-on and sweeps the ugliness away forever – starting with the reality of the punishment we deserve. Make no mistake – we have earned God’s judgment. (Romans 2:12-13, 16) But the Lord has taken it away. Not arbitrarily, not like the police officer who says “well, it’s Christmastime, I’ll let you go with a warning today.” No, God redirected our punishment to his Son. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21) So that now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1) God will never punish you for your sins because he punished Jesus in your place. If that’s not a reason to rejoice – then there’s no reason to ever rejoice.

 

And the gifts just keep on coming: he has turned back your enemy. By suffering God’s wrath in our place, Jesus has crushed death and the devil. They are defanged, powerless. They are like a cat that has had its teeth removed – they can gnaw at you, but they cannot hurt you. And now, because the Lord, the King of Israel is with [us] we are never alone, he is always with us, guiding and guarding our lives so that we no longer need to fear evil – whether it’s the evil of sickness or poverty or hardship or pain or loneliness or death – none of them can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:39) Even as the days grow shorter and the shadow of death looms larger – we find our joy in the Lord, for instead of the judgment we deserve, he has given us the joy of salvation.

And while our joy centers on what God has done for us – listen to where the Lord finds his joy: On that day they will say to Jerusalem, “Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.” Our joy is in what the Lord has done for us, but the Lord’s joy is in us! Isn’t that amazing?

 

Again, Zephaniah speaks to a sinful tendency we have: our tendency to be afraid to come into God’s presence, whether on the day of his return in glory – or even here, in worship. We know that God is present, we even begin worship by invoking his name. But don’t we often feel like Isaiah: woe to me…I am ruined. For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty. (Isaiah 6:5) And that fear is paralyzing – not only does it rob us of joy, not only does it hinder our energy and enthusiasm in carrying out the work God has given us, but sometimes it keeps us from worshipping, praying, studying Scripture altogether. Certainly when the Lord comes in judgment he will burn up [unbelievers] with [the] unquenchable fire of hell. (Luke 3:17) But that’s not why he comes to us now. Just as Jesus did not come on Christmas to bring judgment but salvation, so he comes to us here not to scold us for our sins, but to take them away. When we’re here, we’re not the only ones singing – God is singing over us! [3] The Bible says that there is rejoicing [in heaven] over one sinner who repents. (Luke 15:10) God rejoices in our repentance because he is not like us – who often only grudgingly give out forgiveness – he take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that they turn from their ways and live. (Ezekiel 33:11) Nowhere is God’s joy more evident than in the Sacraments. In Baptism, he takes a helpless little sinner – and instead of casting him away as he deserves – washes his sins away and makes him his child. In Holy Communion the Lord invites the weary, the downtrodden, the desperate, the despairing – sinners like you and me – to come to his table to receive his body and blood – for the forgiveness of sins and the assurance of salvation. Don’t walk up here filled with shame or guilt, as if God is hovering with his arms crossed with a look that says “You again? You need my forgiveness again? When will you ever learn?” – come up here with joy, because nothing gives the Lord greater joy than forgiving your sins.

 

Let’s close with Zephaniah’s beautiful description of Christmas: he will quiet you with his love. Isn’t that an amazing picture – especially when the stress and expectations and busyness and commercialization of these days threaten to kill your joy? It’s amazing because it’s so relatable. When a baby wakes up in the middle of the night screaming, what does a parent do? Scream back? “Shut up, I’m trying to sleep here.” Issue a threat? “If you don’t stop crying right now, I’ll give you something to really cry about!” No. The parent takes that baby in his arms and gently rocks her, sings to her, speaks to her, assuring her of his love. That’s what God does for us on Christmas. He comes as a tiny baby – to take away our fear, to quiet our anxious hearts, to assure us of his tender love. God’s attitude toward us is like a grandparent at Christmas – you love your children and grandchildren dearly – in spite of what they’ve done, in spite of their failings and the times they have forgotten all about you – you still want to heal their wounds and dry their tears and calm their fears, you want to give them joy and peace – the very best you can offer. And even though you may not always be able to – God in Christ always does! Nothing gives him greater joy that seeing his children joyfully receiving the gifts he freely offers.

 

Just like the gifts of hope and the peace Jesus brings us this Advent season, his gift of joy is unexpected. When we hear that he is coming we tend to be fearful because we know we deserve judgment. Today, through Zephaniah the Lord has taken away our fear with the promise that he comes to us to give us joy instead of judgment – this isn’t like the artificial, worldly joy that’s long gone by December 26th…the joy we have in the Lord – and the joy he has in us, lasts into all eternity. If that doesn’t bring you joy this Christmas, than, truly, nothing will. Amen.

 


[1] http://www.mhawisconsin.org/holidaystress.aspx

[2] Martin Luther writes “A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress.” LC 1:2

[3] (Did you know God sings? Probably not, because this is one of only three verses in the Bible (that I could find: Psalm 68:6; Mark 14:26) that describes God singing.)

Malachi 3:1-4 - Peace Requires Preparation - December 9, 2018

Imagine you went to bed tonight and when you woke up, it was suddenly Christmas Day. Would you be ready? Are the gifts bought and wrapped, the cookies baked, the decorations perfectly arranged, the house cleaned, the bags packed, the car gassed and ready? If Christmas was tomorrow would you continue to sit there calm and quiet – at peace – or would you break out in a cold sweat and start tapping your foot anxiously, praying for this sermon to end? I doubt if any of us are completely ready for Christmas just yet. We need time to prepare, and we hope that if we are well-prepared, we will have a measure of peace when that day comes. The fact that Jesus came 2000 years ago in humility is proof that he will come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead. This morning, Malachi asks a chilling question: who can endure the day of his coming? The answer, of course, is: only the one who is prepared. For the one who is prepared, even if it is tomorrow, it will be a day of peace. The question we must ask, then, is how do we prepare?

 

Malachi lived and worked about 100 years after God had brought his people back from exile in Babylon. Upon their return there was something of a spiritual revival. They rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and the Temple of the Lord. They enthusiastically celebrated the feasts and festivals and joyfully brought their offerings and sacrifices. Unfortunately, this enthusiasm was short-lived. Soon enough spiritual apathy and indifference returned. They brought blind and lame animals to be sacrificed instead of the flawless specimens God demanded. (Malachi 1) They began to intermarry with the godless nations around them and thought nothing of using divorce and violence, lies and fraud to settle their personal issues. (Malachi 2 & 3) To make matters worse, instead of exposing and rebuking this wickedness, the priests encouraged and supported it. To top it off, when the people observed their culture spiraling toward destruction, they pointed the finger of blame at their Lord: where is the God of justice? (Malachi 2:17) Malachi’s response is, essentially: “Oh, don’t you worry, he’s coming and you will meet him, face to face. Are you sure you’re ready for that?”

 

And Jesus did come. He came in a manger to bring salvation. And he’s coming again, this time to bring judgment. Are we ready? Are we at peace? The reality is that spiritual apathy and indifference is just as prevalent in 2018 as it was in 400 BC. We see evidence of spiritual apathy when we prioritize Christmas decorations and gifts over preparing our hearts with Word and Sacrament, when we present our offerings to God as if it is a chore and a burden rather than a joy and a privilege, when we use and abuse our spouses rather than cherish and treasure them as gifts from heaven. Apathy can be heard when we gripe about the obvious lovelessness and immorality in the world around us, and pretend as if those same sins don’t show up in our hearts and lives, and in the fact that even though God chose us in Baptism, guides us in his Word strengthens us with his Sacrament and gives us eternal life – we demand more, tangible, material evidence of his love – we demand he give us this earth too. We teach spiritual apathy to our children when we drop them off for Sunday school and then leave – as if learning the truths of Scripture is only for children.

 

Jesus is coming, the fire of his judgment will expose any and all apathy and indifference in your heart and mine: who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? Who of us could say we’re ready? What would you expect his response to be? “Tough, you knew I was coming, you know that I demand perfection not just your best effort, you had plenty of time to prepare – if you’re not ready, then get out of my sight and join the weeping and gnashing of teeth in hell.” That would only be fair. Thank the Lord that he is not fair. Instead of judgment, he promises to send a messenger – actually two – to prepare us: see, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come, says the Lord Almighty.

 

The first is a clear reference to John the Baptist. (see Matthew 11:7-15; Mark 1:1-4; Luke 7:24-28) God sent him to prepare the hearts of Israel by preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3:3) John’s work and message are representative of the work of every single prophet, apostle, pastor and teacher God has ever sent. John preached undiluted law and unconditional Gospel. He called on everyone – from corrupt tax collectors and soldiers to outwardly pious religious leaders (Luke 3:7-15) – to repent – because he understood that it didn’t matter whether a person was wearing prison orange, their Sunday best, or a pastor’s gown – in God’s eyes we are filthy and unclean. (Isaiah 64:6) And then, he baptized all those who repented, announcing that their sins had been forgiven, fully and freely for the sake of Christ – no matter who they were or what they had done. John’s work then is every pastor’s work today: to proclaim Law and Gospel, repentance and the forgiveness of sins to all people.

 

The second stage cannot be carried out by any man, but only by one who is both God and man, the Lord you are seeking, Jesus Christ himself. He will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. I don’t think we mind throwing a load of clothes into the washer, but imagine being the clothing! That’s the picture: Jesus is the launderer – we are the clothing; he is the refiner – we are the silver. You don’t have to work in a laundromat or refinery to see that this stage of preparation is much more comprehensive, much more personal, and much more painful than a simple confession and absolution in church. Whether it’s self-righteousness, pride, an unhealthy attachment to this world, our trust in ourselves, our strength, our good works, despair or doubt or unbelief or apathy or indifference – it all needs to be removed if we are going to be ready to receive Jesus with peace rather than terror when he returns. Since this involves the death of the sinful nature that lives within all of us, this purifying is a painful, lifelong process. Jesus may use the soap of disappointment or disease or job loss to remind us just how weak and helpless we really are – and how much we need to rely on him. He may use the fire of tragedy or disaster or death to burn out of our lives things and people we love – but which stand in the way of faith. Over the course of a lifetime he may use the general misery of life in this world to convince us that this world is not going to get any better so that we long for our perfect home in heaven.

 

 

This may not seem like good news, it may not seem like a message of peace, but it is. It is proof of his love for us. Think of how a loving parent disciplines their child – bringing them short term pain for their long-term gain. Your Lord loves you too much to let you face Judgment unprepared. So he sends messengers like John to preach Law and Gospel, and he works behind the scenes in your life to refine and purify you to receive him as your Savior now so that you can have peace when he comes as Judge.

 

Of course, there is no true peace to be found merely in the fact that we sit and listen to a preacher shout Law and Gospel in our direction or that we groan under the pain of the Lord’s refining and purifying work in our lives. Because no matter how effective the preacher and the pain are, they cannot provide perfect cleansing; they cannot give us perfect peace. Sin is stitched so deeply into the fabric of our being that it cannot be removed by a million confessions or a lifetime of pain. As God drilled into the Israelites through his requirement of thousands of animal sacrifices, the process of removing sin calls for blood, it requires death. In his mercy, God spared us this part of the process and laid it on his own Son. True peace doesn’t come through what Jesus does to us, but what he has done for us. To see the fire it took to remove the impurity of your sin from your record, look at the cross, where Jesus hung, bleeding from head and hands and feet, enduring the blazing fire of God’s wrath for your sins and the sins of the world. To understand what it took to cleanse the stain of sin from your soul, see that soldier plunge his spear into the side of God’s lifeless Son, unleashing the blood (John 19:34) which purifies us from all sin. (1 John 1:7) However humiliating it is to confess your sins, however much it hurts when Jesus cuts your ties to this dying world – know that you are not and never will suffer the punishment for your sins – Jesus already did that. Repentance and pain are how the Lord leads you to trust in him, purifies your faith in him!

 

And this process reaps real results here and now. Just as you don’t wash clothes simply for the sake of making them clean or refine ore simply for the sake of having a lump of pure gold or silver – you do it so that they become useful again – so God hasn’t saved us from destruction so that we could just sit around and wait for Jesus to arrive. Malachi concludes: Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years. The Hebrew word for offering (mincah) doesn’t refer to a sin offering but rather a thank offering. Imagine that: God promises to humble us with repentance and make our lives painful and he expects us to thank him for it! Really? What else could we do? Even with our imperfect earthly parents, we (hopefully) eventually thank them for disciplining us, for causing us temporary pain to bring about long-term gain. How much more shouldn’t we thank God for the pain that leads to eternal life? How do we thank him for the gift of salvation? Through our offerings, our hymns of praise, our confession of faith, our attendance in worship and the time we set aside for daily devotion and prayer - yes. But it’s so much more than that. Having been purified by Jesus’ blood, our whole lives are living sacrifices (Romans 12:1) which are acceptable to the LORD. Your diligence at school and work, your love for your family and friends, your preparations for Christmas, whatever you will do when you leave here and when you wake up tomorrow – it’s all acceptable to the LORD because it comes from you: purified, prepared believers. You, dear friends in Christ, are the real results of the Lord’s purifying process.

 

Peace requires preparation. That’s how it works in this world – before any big day, party or gathering. That’s how it works when it comes preparing to receive Christ when he comes. We often make the mistake of viewing this life (or some part of it) as the “main event.” It’s not. Every moment of this life is preparation for the party to come. But even now, in the middle of this troubled life, we have peace – the peace God’s angels sang about on Christmas Eve. We know that in spite of the stains and impurities that are inherent in us, God has declared peace with us through Christ. We know that when Jesus returns or calls us home the trouble will be over once and for all – and we will experience perfect, permanent peace. And until then, we know that the Lord uses pain in our lives for our good, to lead us to believe him as our Savior today so that we can have peace when he comes as Judge. Thanks be to Jesus for this gift of peace. Amen.