5 February 2006 - Epiphany 5 - Mark 1:29-39

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today’s Gospel text tells us about a time when our Lord performed some very worthwhile and wonderful deeds for people. He brought bodily healing to Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, and to many others who came to him, and he drove out many demons from people who were possessed. During his earthly ministry Jesus very often did this sort of thing. When he became aware of a physical need, he usually met it. When he became aware of a personal problem, he usually solved it. When he became aware of a family tragedy, he usually manifested his compassion to those who were involved in it, and alleviated their burden.

And it was often the case that when he did these kinds of things, he became, very quickly, the object of heightened attention on the part of those who clamored for more and more of these miraculous signs. Word would spread rapidly about the wonders he had performed, and others who also wanted to experience a miracle would hasten to come to him, and to ask for what they needed. On many occasions his widespread popularity as a wonder-worker would cause people to have a dangerously distorted perception of who he was, and of the reason for his presence among men.

St. John tells us, for example, about what happened after the miracle of the feeding of the multitude, which he records in chapter 6 of his Gospel: “After the people saw the miraculous sign that Jesus did, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself.” To that crowd, Jesus was a veritable “bread king,” who could be expected to provide a free lunch for everyone, every day.

In today’s story we see something similar taking place. We read: “That evening after sunset the people brought to Jesus all the sick and demon-possessed. The whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons...” Everyone in Capernaum was clamoring to get in to see him, and to be healed by him. We certainly get the impression that the crowd of people who were trying to get close to him that night was much larger, and more enthusiastic, than the crowd of people who had gathered to hear him preach and teach the synagogue earlier that day.

And that was the problem, wasn’t it? Jesus certainly thought so. In his state of humiliation, during his earthly ministry, Jesus took on the form of a servant, and was subject to the bodily limitations to which we also are subject. So, all of this got him tired. He lacked the strength to go on at such a pace. But at a deeper level - at the level of his understanding of his identity as the Messiah, and at the level of his understanding of his mission as humanity’s Savior - he was dissatisfied with the way this was turning out. Again, we read: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: ‘Everyone is looking for you!’ Jesus replied, ‘Let us go somewhere else - to the nearby villages - so I can preach there also. That is why I have come.’”

During his earthly ministry, did Jesus heal many who were sick? Yes. But was that ultimately why he had come? No. During his earthly ministry, did Jesus bring deliverance to many who were demon-possessed? Yes. But was that ultimately why he had come? No. When lots of opportunities for healings and exorcisms were now presenting themselves to Christ, he said, “Let us go somewhere I can preach there also. That is why I have come.”

Mere preaching? Jesus came to preach? What a waste of potential, many no doubt thought. Why would a man with such power waste his time talking, when he could instead really accomplish some down-to-earth concrete things for needy people? To the crowds back then, our Lord’s priorities wouldn’t have made much sense. To the disciples, at that stage of their lives, his priorities probably didn’t make much sense either. But to Jesus these priorities made a lot of sense.

Getting back to the incident of the feeding of the multitude, and the confused interest in Jesus that resulted from it: After Jesus explained to the misguided crowd on that occasion the true meaning of his presence among men, and the kind of salvation that he was actually offering to them, John tells us: “From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him.” And then this transpired - again, quoting John’s Gospel - “‘You do not want to leave too, do you?’ Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.’”

“The words of eternal life” “Words.” “Preaching.” “Eternal life.” Jesus understood the connection. At this later point in his life of faith, Peter understood it too. But do we understand it?

We thank God for the many material blessings that he gives us. We thank God for our health, and for the health of those whom we love. When we are sick, or when our loved ones are afflicted with disease or injury, we pray for healing. We beseech the Lord to heal by means of the physicians who treat us, or by means of the medicines that are administered to us. And, when necessary, we’re also not afraid to ask for something extraordinary and miraculous, when it seems that this would be our only hope.

Are any of these prayers of thanksgiving and petition wrong? No, none of them are. They are each a legitimate part of what we are allowed and encouraged to pray for, when we ask our Father in heaven to give us each day our daily bread - that is, all that we need for this body and life.

But what if all these things were to disappear from our lives - from your life? What if you lost your spouse or children got sick, stayed sick, and died? I used to know a man, who has since passed away, who lost his wife and all his children in an instant, in an automobile accident. If that happened to you, what would your relationship with Christ mean then? Would there be anything left of that relationship? Would any of us conclude, or be tempted to conclude, at such a time, that we have believed in vain? What’s the point of acknowledging Jesus as Lord, and of trying to serve him, if he is so seemingly impotent, or indifferent, that such tragedies or catastrophes would occur without his intervention? If we were to lose all of these things, or all of these people, what would be left?

The preaching of Christ would be left. Remember, that’s what he came for, and that’s what he most deeply desires to do now. Bodily healings - even the most dramatic and miraculous ones - are temporary. Everyone who received a healing from Jesus during his earthly ministry did eventually die, and even those who were raised from the dead did eventually die again. The tomb of Lazarus, for example, can still be visited on Cyprus, where he later served as a pastor and bishop.

The expulsion of demonic spirits from the possessed also does not, in and of itself, have an enduring benefit for the person, if the Word of Christ does not then replace these spirits in the hearts and minds of those they had inhabited. Jesus warns elsewhere: “When an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first.”

St. Peter, who saw and experienced the things that happened in today’s Gospel account, and who also saw and experienced the things that happened on the occasion of the feeding of the multitude, can bring clarity and comfort to us as we ponder these matters. In his first epistle, he writes: “you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; for ‘All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever.’ And this word is the good news that was preached to you.”

As much as we might wish for a healing when we or our loved ones are sick, a bodily healing, even if we do receive it, does not remain forever. An exorcism, too, in and of itself, does not necessarily remain forever. But the Word of the Lord does remain forever. And, as Peter emphasizes, “this word is the good news that was preached to you.” St. Paul says in his first epistle to the Corinthians: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

Remember what Jesus said about his preaching? “That is why I have come,” he declared. And that is why he comes to you, today. Jesus at another time and place said in regard to those disciples who were sent forth to preach in his name: “He who hears you, hears me.” The preaching ministry that Jesus came into the world to carry out is a ministry that he is, accordingly, still carrying out: through the apostolic Scriptures as they are read and pondered; and through the work of faithful pastors and preachers who are called by God to proclaim his message anew in each generation.

Does our Lord still heal the sick? Yes he does. I’ve even heard stories of people who were clinically dead, for significant periods of time, who were miraculously resuscitated in response to prayers that had been offered on their behalf. Miracles like this sometimes do happen.

But the forgiveness of sins, and the spiritual healing that comes through God’s pardoning grace, is a miracle that always happens in the lives of those who listen to the word of Christ with penitent and expectant hearts. Christ’s message about his own death for your sins, under the curse of the law as your substitute, is a message that he wants to have preached to you more than anything else. Dear friends in Christ, I proclaim to you in the name of Christ that your sins are forgiven! The preaching of that message - to you, for your salvation - is why he has come.

Does our Lord still cast out demons? Yes, he does. While every strange phenomenon we encounter or hear about should not immediately be classified as a supernatural possession, some of these phenomena can and should be so classified. And when a demon is oppressing someone in a particularly direct way, the power of Christ and of his Spirit can be brought to bear on such a situation for the deliverance of that person. Miracles like this sometimes do happen.

But the bestowal of true spiritual life, beginning already in this lifetime and extending to and beyond the resurrection on the last day, is a miracle that always happens in the lives of those whose consciences are embraced by the Gospel of Christ, and whose faith in God’s promises is preserved by that Gospel. Christ’s message about his own victory over death and the devil, which he won for you in order to bring you into his kingdom, is a message that he wants to have preached to you more than anything else. Dear friends in Christ, I proclaim to you in the name of Christ that you will live forever with him and all his saints! The preaching of that message - to you, for your salvation - is why he has come.

When we or those we love receive from the merciful hand of Christ the healing of a physical ailment or affliction, we do rejoice in the goodness of God, and are grateful for the love that he thereby has shown us. But when on other occasions we are disappointed, because the blessing for which we pray has not materialized, we are still able - even in the midst of the disappointment - to rejoice in the goodness of our Savior, and to be grateful for the love that he shows us, always and without ceasing, in the Gospel that he still preaches. The preaching of that Gospel, and the bestowal of eternal blessings on you and me through that Gospel, is why he has come. Amen.

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

12 February 2006 - Epiphany 6 - 2 Kings 5:1-14

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Namaan was an Aramean and a pagan. He did not believe in the true God. But, he had a problem. He was afflicted with leprosy. In the Hebrew language, the word used here could mean any number of diseases of the skin, and not just the extremely disfiguring condition that we usually think of when we hear of leprosy. But whatever his medical problem was, it was something that he wanted to get rid of. When, therefore, his wife’s Israelite servant told him that there was a prophet in Samaria who could help him, he was willing to give it a try, and his own master, the king of Aram, was willing to help him in the effort.

As they prepared for Naaman’s trip to Israel, however, Naaman and the king of Aram showed that they held to some assumptions about how “prophets,” and religious practitioners in general, are supposed to behave. These assumptions were soon shown to have been mistaken.

The first assumption was that in Israel, prophets and other religious professionals were under the authority of the king, so that the king could order up the kind of religious belief and practice he wanted, and his clergy would oblige him. That’s the way it worked elsewhere. But not in Israel - or at least that’s not the way it was supposed to work in Israel. And in the case of the faithful prophet Elisha, that’s definitely not the way it worked. But Naaman and his king didn’t know this initially. Therefore, because of their pagan outlook, the king of Aram wrote a letter to the king of Israel, asking him to heal Naaman of his leprosy. And Naaman brought along some very generous material inducements to persuade him to do it, or more precisely to persuade him to command the prophet to do it.

This was, of course, so far off the mark, that the king of Israel didn’t know what to make of it. He suspected that it was some kind of set-up - probably an intrigue to create an excuse for an invasion. Elisha the prophet, when he heard of what was happening, was, however, able to figure out what was going on, and he called for Naaman to be sent to him.

We might chuckle a bit at this part of the story. But how different is Naaman’s distorted understanding of the authority of God and of his spokesmen from our own perspective on these things? We don’t have a despotic king in our country who functions as a pontifex maximus - a “supreme priest” of a national religion. But it certainly does seem that westerners in general, and Americans in particular, are far too willing to modify their religious beliefs and moral convictions in order to accommodate what the civil society as a whole thinks to be normative in any given generation. I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve heard people defend their departures from the teaching of Scripture by saying, “This is the twentieth century!” Or, in the past few years, it goes like this: “This is the twenty-first century!” As if something that is eternal becomes less than eternal every one hundred years or so. Have we ever heard ourselves saying this?

Do we want the church to which we belong to have a prophetic voice in and to our society, and to us? Or do we want it to try to “fit in,” submit itself to the spirit of the age, and not be perceived as weird or out of the mainstream? To many, it’s not natural for a church or religious society to go against the grain of the popular spirituality of the day, or to swim against the tide of modern ethical thinking, whatever that happens to be in any given time and place. This is a lot like Naaman’s way of thinking - his erroneous way of thinking - about how the God of Israel, and a prophet of that God, should behave. But Naaman learned a few things during his visit to Samaria. And maybe we can too.

When Naaman arrived at the prophet’s house, he brought along his chariots and horses. No doubt he thought this would make a big impression. It didn’t. Elisha didn’t even come out of the house to talk to him directly. Instead, he sent a messenger out to Naaman, to tell him what to do. And what he told him seemed downright foolish to Naaman. Naaman - again, still with a pagan mentality, and with a very presumptuous attitude - was surprised that the prophet did not come out to him. He expected that the prophet would be like some kind of master magician, whose personal presence would exude spiritual power that could be manipulated according to the prophet’s will and whim. He expected an exotic and mysterious incantation, or an awe-inspiring occultic ritual. But instead, he was told by Elisha’s servant that the prophet had directed that he go and wash himself in the Jordan River seven times, and then he would be cleansed. That was all. Nothing flashy or spectacular. Naaman, initially, was dissatisfied, and was going to storm off.

Are we satisfied with what the Lord has instituted for us? We haven’t been told to wash in a river seven times for the healing of a skin disease, but we have been told some things about God’s way of saving us that would seem equally foolish to human reason - maybe even more so. We are told in God’s Word that a certain other kind of washing, accompanied by the name of the Triune God, has the power to cleanse our conscience from sin. Acts 22: “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.” Hebrews 10: “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” But is this enough for us? Do we, in times of doubt or weakness, turn for strength to the divine promise made to us in our baptism, or do we expect that our faith will be stirred and renewed by an emotionally-charged inner experience, or by a tangible miracle, which we would ask the Lord to accomplish in and for us at such a time, in order to prove himself? And when these expectations do not materialize, do we then think the Lord has let us down, and wonder why he has done so?

Naaman was not satisfied with what the Lord had instituted for him, and for his deliverance from his affliction, until his servant talked him into giving God a chance to do what he had promised. May there always be someone near us, at times when we seek something bigger and better than what God has made available, to remind us that God is the Lord, and that he never short-changes us in the provision that he makes for us.

So, Naaman did as Elisha had commanded. As foolish as it seemed to his reason, and as undramatic as it seemed to his religious sensibilities, he washed seven times in the Jordan. And we know what happened. His flesh was restored and became clean, like that of a young boy. And more than that.

In the verse immediately following the appointed text of our lesson, we read: “Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company, and he came and stood before him. And he said, ‘Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel.’” Naaman’s heart was also changed on that day, not only his skin. His pagan mind was cleansed of its error and presumptuousness. His unbelieving heart was filled with confidence in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who now, for the rest of his life, would also be the God of Naaman.

And by the grace of God that’s what happens for us, when the institutions of Christ are carried out among us. Elisha, the “man of God” in today’s text, was a type or foreshadowing of Jesus Christ. Jesus, as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity in human flesh, is the “man of God” for us in the fullest and most wonderful sense. But as with Elisha, he deals with us through means, and not directly. As with Elisha, Jesus does not “come out” to us in a visible way, to “wave his hand” over us. We do not see him with our physical eyes, or touch him with our physical hands. But when he tells us that his forgiving grace will be at work for us in the means that he has instituted for our salvation - the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments - we can be confident that this is so. And even when the appointed means are simple and unassuming, from the viewpoint of human reason, they are nevertheless filled with the power of God to accomplish what God wants to accomplish for us through them.

For obvious reasons, pastors and theologians have often illustrated this sacred and saving truth by showing the similarity between Naaman’s washing in the Jordan River and Christian Baptism. The Lutheran writer Edward Koehler, for example, has noted that “The water of the Jordan river did not in itself possess the power to cleanse Naaman from leprosy. Yet, since God had promised to heal him if he would wash in the Jordan seven times, the healing power was by this Word of God connected and joined with the water of this river. And Naaman could not have been healed, had he not used this water. But he did, and the Word of God in and with the water cleansed him from his leprosy. In Baptism the Word of God cleanses us from the spiritual leprosy of sin.”

Naaman could not have been healed if he had not used the water that God commanded him to use. Similarly, if we were to despise the water of Baptism that God has commanded us to use, we would likewise not receive the blessing that God has connected to that water by his Word. If we would think we are smarter or more clever that God, and if we would cast aside or ignore the means of grace that he has instituted in favor of religious rituals or mystical experiences that might seem to us to be more awe-inspiring and majestic, our sins would not be forgiven. In a misguided quest for a God whose prophets and ministers would do what we would expect them to do, rather than what God would expect them to do, we would in such a case actually be damned.

When you are tempted to look for God’s comfort and help in those places where popular religious thinking might expect it to be found, the Word and institution of Christ calls you back to where the Lord has actually promised to provide you with this comfort and help. Today, at the beginning of our worship service, Jesus called you back to your baptism, when his words were once again spoken over you: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And the blessings of your baptism were once again renewed to you when you were assured by Christ in his Word, “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.”

Of course, Jesus was not tangibly present during our confession of sins, to “wave his hand over us,” as it were. But his Word and institution were with us, and are with us now. We know, therefore, that he did truly do his gracious work of forgiving us, and that he is doing this work through his Gospel even now: forgiving us, strengthening us, and renewing us in our faith. Jesus has promised that whoever believes in him will be saved. And so you, who believe in him today, will be saved. You may never in your lifetime have an emotional, mystical experience, and you may never receive what the popular religiosity of our time would identify as a miracle. But when you have the Word and institution of Jesus Christ, you have everything you need. And in Christ, dear baptized and believing friends, you do have this.

And, finally, God also gives you the good confession that he gave to Naaman. There is no God in all the earth but in Israel - in the spiritual Israel that is the Holy Christian church. Where the means of grace are operative is where we want to be, because this is where the chosen people and spiritual nation of God are to be found, and where God himself is to be found. Christ dwells in the fellowship of his church as its loving Lord. He is the loving head of his body. He is the loving bridegroom of his bride. And so he draws us here, to this fellowship, where his means of grace are available and at work, and where they accomplish for us what God wants them to accomplish for us. Amen.

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

12 February 2006 - Epiphany 7 - Mark 2:1-12

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

For most of us, life in this world is filled with problems. Very few people would see themselves to have a problem-free existence. There are always challenges to meet. There are always obstacles to overcome. And we can usually see and experience a certain “layering” or “compounding” of problems in our lives, with one problem leading to, or connected with, another, and with one problem building on, or being influenced by, another. Health problems can often be traced back to stress and worry. Problems in relationships can often be traced back to selfishness or stubbornness on the part of an individual.

In today’s Gospel text, we hear about a man in Capernaum who had a problem. He was paralyzed, so much so that he couldn’t walk, but needed to be carried around on a mat or stretcher. He had friends or relatives who cared about him, of course, and that always makes problems like this a little easier to bear. But the kind of debilitating paralysis from which this man suffered was a severe burden.

When we have problems, we look for solutions. The man in today’s text, together with his friends, was willing to look for a solution to his problem too. Jesus of Nazareth, who had by this time taken up residence in Capernaum, seemed to offer a solution. He had performed many healings in the past. Maybe he could perform one for this man. At least that’s what his friends thought and hoped for when they brought him to the Lord’s house.

But when they got there, they encountered another problem. The crowd was so thick in and around the house, that they couldn’t squeeze themselves or their paralyzed friend through the press of bodies in order to get to Jesus. At least they couldn’t do it in the conventional way. But the paralyzed man’s friends were not conventional thinkers. They solved this problem by getting themselves and their friend up onto the roof, breaking through it, and then lowering the man down in front of Jesus. Since Jesus was a professional carpenter, it is very possible that he had built that roof. But he wasn’t upset about what these ingenious and daring men had done to his workmanship. Instead he was impressed with their faith, and with their confidence that Jesus would be able to solve the paralytic’s problem.

And now, at this point in the story, we are given a glimpse into a deeper problem that was also plaguing the paralyzed man. This was the problem of sin, along with the guilt and alienation from God that sin always brings. We have no way of knowing if there was a direct connection between the man’s sinfulness and his physical condition. Sometimes the sinful choices we make do lead directly to certain negative consequences in our bodily health, but usually we cannot discern such a link. It is likely, therefore, that there was no such direct link in this man’s life either.

But as a general principle, there is indeed a connection between mankind’s sin and mankind’s suffering. Death came into the human race as a result of Adam’s transgression, and the earth was likewise cursed as a result of our first parents’ disobedience. So, whenever we today experience the consequences of those tragedies, we are reminded of the ultimate reason why such things happen. They happen, most fundamentally, because the human race to which we belong is fallen and corrupted, and because the world in which we live is fallen and corrupted.

While we have no reason to think that the man’s paralysis was brought on by some specific wicked act or behavior on his part, we can assume that his physical condition was a constant reminder to him of the frail and fallen state in which he and all people live, according to the old Adam that he and all people have inherited. His bodily weakness was a constant reminder to him of his spiritual weakness. His inability to move himself from one place to another was a constant reminder to him of his deeper inability to move himself, by his own moral strength, off of a pathway to hell and onto a pathway to heaven. Just as he needed human friends to transport him from place to place on a mat or stretcher, so also he needed a divine friend to save his soul from condemnation.

The paralytic’s human friends may not have known anything about his troubled conscience. This deeper problem may have been an unspoken problem, which he never discussed with anyone. We sometimes have problems like this too, don’t we? We don’t tell anyone about them, either because we don’t want people to worry about us, or because we are ashamed, or maybe because we just don’t know how to tell anyone about what is bothering us. But God knows about these problems, whatever they are. And God - in the person of Jesus Christ - knew about the paralytic’s deep and hidden problem - that is, his problem of being weighed down by the guilt of sin. We know that Jesus was indeed able to “know in his spirit” what men were thinking and feeling on this day. Therefore we know that he was able to know in his spirit that this man, even in his silence, was a penitent sinner with a troubled conscience.

And so Jesus, before dealing with the more obvious problem, dealt with the more important problem. Before raising his body up from its physical paralysis, he raised his soul up from its spiritual paralysis. Before healing his arms and legs, he healed his conscience. Before speaking a Word of medical restoration to this man, he spoke a word of restoration pertaining to his broken or strained relationship with God. “Child, your sins are forgiven.” This is a more literal, and a more tender, translation of what our Lord actually said. And in the moment that he said this, the man’s sins were forgiven. Jesus had the authority and power to say this, and to make it to be so as he said it. And Jesus graciously used this divine authority and power for the sake of this troubled yet beloved man.

What are the problems that you bring to the Lord’s house today? Are there tensions in your marriage, with your children, or at the workplace? Is your health failing, or is your bodily strength waning? Are you sick, or are you struggling with an addiction? Are you stressed out over the trials you are currently facing, or worried about the uncertainties of the future? Probably at least one of the items on this short list has found its mark in each of us.

And as we come here today, bringing with us these problems, we may also be wondering if Jesus can help us. The answer, of course, is a resounding Yes! He certainly can help. He is able to say to you, according to your circumstances, “Get up, take your mat and walk.” Therefore you may and should pray to him about these things, and ask him to help you with your problems. He will tenderly listen to such a prayer, and will answer it according to his good and gracious will. And even if his answer is to allow the problem to remain in your life for the time being, or perhaps for a longer time, he will be with you as you struggle through it, so that you will not struggle alone. And he will in his own loving way bring out of that struggle something good for you, and for the strengthening of your faith.

But, do you also bring today to the Lord’s house a deeper problem - something that you may not have spoken about with others, but that is nevertheless a very real burden on your conscience? Do you also bring with you today a more fundamental underlying problem, on which the other problems of your life are built, from which they emerge, and of which they are a constant reminder? The answer to this question, of course, is also Yes - for all of us. Our Small Catechism reminds us that “We daily sin much, and deserve nothing but punishment.” Both of these statements are true, and both of them are a part of the deeper problem we all bring with us today.

Even for those who are Christians, the inherited sinful nature, with all of its destructive temptations, clings to us like glue through this life. As a result of this, we do indeed daily sin much. And because of our sins, we do indeed deserve nothing but punishment. Each of our sins - of thought, word, or deed - deserves God’s wrath and displeasure. Not just all of them together, with their cumulative effect, but each single sin deserves this.

But, dear friends, as you humble yourselves before Christ today, put your hope in him, and come with faith and expectancy to his house to seek his help, you are not going to get what you deserve. Instead, you are going to get what the paralytic got. Jesus says to you, “Child, your sins are forgiven.” And your sins are, in this moment, forgiven. Christ died for all of those sins, and he washed away all of those sins in the waters of your baptism. So, when he says this to you, it is true. Jesus has the authority and power to say this, and to make it to be so as he says it. And Jesus graciously uses this divine authority and power for your sake, here and now, as his pardoning and life-giving Word is spoken over you and to you. “Child, your sins are forgiven.” Your fellowship with God is restored. Your fear of God’s punishment is removed. Your joy in God’s salvation is renewed. Your love for God and his ways is rekindled.

Our Lord humbled himself during his earthly ministry, and took on what St. Paul calls the “form of a servant.” During these years he accordingly conducted himself, most of the time, within the limitations of an ordinary human existence, being bodily in one place at a time, and so forth. So, when he was at the house in Capernaum, it was hard for the paralytic to get to him. He was blocked in by the crowd, and the paralytic’s friends needed to resort to extraordinary methods to get their companion into the presence of Christ.

Today, however, this problem is one that we will never face. Since his resurrection and ascension, our Lord is now in a glorified state, and he continually makes use of all his divine powers. Jesus Christ, as the divine-human Lord of heaven and earth, is present everywhere. Therefore, wherever his Word of hope and forgiveness is spoken and heard, read and meditated on, he is there - truly and fully there - to help us with our problems. He is there - truly and fully there - to forgive us. A physical crowd of people is no longer able to impede us or keep us from coming into the presence of our Savior.

Those of you who are communicants will soon have the opportunity to know what this means in a very vivid way. From his holy altar Christ will bring his own body and blood to you, and in so doing he will truly bring you into his loving and healing presence. You will be right there in front of him, not separated from him by a crowd of people or by anything else. He will be right there for you, speaking to you, touching you, uniting himself to you. And as you receive his precious body and partake of his sacred blood, these words will once again echo in your ears and in your hearts: “Child, your sins are forgiven.” Amen.

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

26 February 2006 - Transfiguration - Mark 9:2-9

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

on various occasions during his earthly ministry, when Jesus would perform miracles of healing, exorcism, and so forth, he would ask the recipient, or the witnesses, not to spread reports about the incident. He knew that this would result in his being acclaimed as a wonder-worker, which would attract the wrong kind of attention. He wanted people to listen to his sermons and teachings and to pay attention to his words, and not just to latch onto his miracles. It was, however, an uphill struggle.

The event described in today’s Gospel lesson was not a miracle like these other miracles. It was actually more spectacular and more awe-inspiring than anything else Jesus ever did. In fact, Jesus didn’t really do anything on the Mount of Transfiguration. Instead, something extraordinary happened to him. If Jesus was concerned about reports of his miracles getting spread around, he was even more concerned about descriptions of this event getting out and being talked about. So, he brought only three men with him to witness it - his closest and most trusted disciples - and he told them not to speak of what they had seen until after his resurrection.

And what exactly happened? Let’s listen again to St. Mark’s description: “After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.”

St. Paul tells us in his epistle to the Philippians that Christ Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” During his earthly ministry Jesus usually did not exhibit or make overt use of his divine powers. Occasionally, however, he did. When he instituted the Lord’s Supper, for example, his body in its ordinary form was seated there in front of his disciples, but at the same time, by virtue of the power of his divine nature - to which his human nature was united - he spoke the presence of his body also into the bread that he was offering to them, and he spoke his blood into the wine that he was inviting them to drink.

And another occasion in which Jesus manifested in a different way his divine power and glory was the occasion that today’s Gospel account describes. From the moment of his conception in his mother’s womb, Christ’s divine nature was always present in, with, and under his human nature. But his divinity was hidden beneath the humble form of his humanity. He lived, walked, and spoke as a man, and with the appearance of a man, even though he was always more than a man. In the Lord’s transfiguration, however, Peter, James, and John got a glimpse of this divine majesty of their Savior. He shone forth with heavenly brilliance. A portal to heaven itself was opened - a “vortex” we might say - and two of the great saints of old, Moses and Elijah, became visible in the company of God’s Son.

St. Mark and the other Gospel writers who describe this observe that the brilliant light shone forth from Jesus. It was not a reflected light from some other source, whether natural or supernatural. Rather, this was a light - a glorious, divine light - that came out of Jesus himself. It was a light that had always been in him, though hidden, because his divinity, with its glory and authority, had always been in him. In his transfiguration Jesus did not become something more than what he already was. Instead, what he had always been, and what he always will be, became in that moment manifest and outwardly discernable to the three chosen witnesses.

These three men were, of course, scared out of their wits. The text says that Peter did not know what to say, since he and the others were so frightened. This illustrates one of the reasons why Christ usually hid his glory from view during his earthly ministry, and why he still comes to us in hidden ways - beneath the forms of human words, water, bread and wine. If Jesus came to us uncloaked, standing before us in his full divine majesty, we in our mortal and sinful weakness would melt away with fear and trembling. It would not be a pleasant and inviting experience, which would draw us to him, but it would be a scary and debilitating experience, which would cause us to flee in fear. We would react in the same way as Peter, James, and John reacted.

This was indeed a frightening experience for them. But it was also a learning experience - or at least it was intended to be. This is especially so in connection with the final component of the event, which St. Mark describes as follows: “Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: ‘This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!’” In the future, whenever Jesus would say anything to these men, they were to remember this event. In the future, whenever Jesus would tell them something, they were to recall these things, and thereby know that God himself, with all of his divine authority and truthfulness, was the one who was telling them something. The words of Jesus were not the words of a mere man, and they were not the words of a mere wonder-worker. They were and are the words of God himself - divine words that have the power to move mountains, to destroy worlds, to create galaxies, and... to raise the dead.

But that’s where these three men sometimes failed to do as the voice of God the Father commanded them. Not long after his transfiguration, Jesus said this to his disciples, as recorded by St. Mark: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.” The disciples, however, did not listen to this. They didn’t really expect the resurrection to happen, even though Jesus told them plainly that it would. And they still refused to believe in it even when Mary Magdalene and the other women reported it to them on the first Easter morning.

The transfiguration of our Lord is something that happened for the benefit of the three men who witnessed it, and it is something that happened for us and for our faith as well. Jesus told the witnesses not to tell anybody about it until after his resurrection, but once he had been raised from the dead, they were to tell others. Through the pages of Holy Scripture they were to tell us, and we have in this way been told. So, we too now know that Jesus of Nazareth is not a mere man, or even a mere wonder-worker, but the true and eternal God. Likewise, when the voice of the Father speaks at the transfiguration, it speaks also to us: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”

Do we listen? When Christ tells us that we are to love the Lord our God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, do we really pay attention to this? How easy is it for us to decide to spend that little bit of extra money we have on ourselves, instead of donating it to, say, world missions? How easy is it to find an excuse to absent ourselves from the public administration of the means of grace, even though God’s Word tells us not to neglect this? Do we spend time thinking through the important issues of our world, of our community, and of our own lives, in the light of the Holy Bible and its teachings, rather than taking our ethical and moral cues from the popular culture?

Christ also tells us that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. How seriously do we take that to heart? And I’m not necessarily talking about neighbors who are farther away than our own family. Do we love husband or wife, children and parents, with the kind of selfless devotion that Jesus demands? Do we listen to Christ when he says these things to us? Or are we like Peter, James, and John, letting much of what our Lord says go in one ear and out the other, not paying serious attention to it, not really believing it?

Well, I think we all know the answer. We so often do forget that the one who speaks to us in Scripture about these things - and many other things - is the almighty God of the universe, and not a mere man. We fail to remember that his divine word has the power to move mountains, to destroy worlds, to create galaxies, and... to forgive sins.

Yes, dear friends, that’s the comfort which is offered to penitent sinners from the Mount of Transfiguration. You can be sure, when you listen to Christ tell you that he has been merciful to you, and that he has filled you with a new spiritual life, that this, too, is true and absolutely to be believed. Christ’s absolution is not merely a wish that sins would be forgiven, but it is a powerful imparting of the forgiveness that he won for you in his life, death, and resurrection.

Listen to him when he says, “your sins are forgiven.” The Lord of glory, filled with divine splendor and might, is the one who is saying this. Listen to him when he says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” These words are not spoken by a mere man, or even by a mere wonder-worker. Listen to him when he says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned...” Listen to him, and believe him, when he says this. These words are intended for you.

“...he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters - one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.) Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: ‘This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!’” Amen.

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.