SERMONS - JANUARY 2006
1 January 2006 - The Circumcision of Our Lord - Luke 2:21
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived.” With these few words, St. Luke tells us that on the eighth day after his birth, Jesus became a Jew. He became an heir of the covenant that God had made with Abraham; he became subject to the Law that God had revealed to and through Moses. Jewish identity was not strictly an hereditary or genealogical thing. As the Lord told Abraham in Genesis 17, “Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” So, Jesus was circumcised.
I’d like to invite you to spend a few minutes thinking with me about the significance of this - not about the physical act of circumcision as such, but about the religious and ethical meaning of circumcision. Many ancient peoples followed the practice of circumcision. Among the Jews, however, it had a special significance - a significance that God himself had given it.
In Genesis 17 the Lord said to Abraham: “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God. ... As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. ... Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised.”
In Leviticus 12, in conjunction with God’s re-establishment of the nation after its deliverance from Egyptian slavery, he commanded Moses likewise to tell the people that on the eighth day all male children shall be circumcised.
In the words of the great Jewish-Christian scholar Alfred Edersheim, circumcision represented “voluntary subjection to the conditions of the Law, and acceptance of the obligations, but also of the privileges, of the Covenant between God and Abraham and his seed.” There were indeed some significant privileges. These privileges included God’s protection and deliverance of his chosen nation, and the comfort of God’s promises concerning the future Messiah. But circumcision, especially in the time of our Lord, was largely associated with the obligations of the Covenant. In Galatians 5, St. Paul is as serious and clear as he can be when he says: “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.”
“The whole law.” Let’s give some thought to what that means. When God made man, he instilled within his conscience an awareness of that which was morally good and pure, and a desire to live according to God’s will as revealed in this natural law. Even after Adam’s fall, and the sinful corruption of our race, this natural law remains imbedded in the conscience of humanity. It provides an inner testimony about what is right and what is wrong to believer and unbeliever alike. It holds all of us accountable before God for the way we think, speak, and live.
St. Paul speaks of this natural, inborn law, when he writes in Romans chapter 1: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” He continues in chapter 2: “For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them.”
But one of the results of Adam’s fall - for himself and for all of his natural descendants - has been the obscuring and deadening of our sensitivity to this inner law, and to the fullness of what it demands. So, for the sake of ensuring that what he does expect of humanity would always be clearly known, in spite of the moral fuzziness of our corrupted minds, God renewed the revelation of his changeless law in the form of external, written precepts. The fourth-century church Father St. Ambrose observes that the written Law of Moses was issued “to remove all excuse for sin, lest any man might say: ‘I knew no sin, for I received no rule as to what to avoid.’”
And, to make doubly sure that his own people would not forget that there is such a Law, and to help them remember what it requires of them, the Lord also instituted an array of ritual regulations among the ancient Israelites, to serve as pictures or symbols of the ethical righteousness and moral purity that he elsewhere demands in a more direct manner. So, for example, the ceremonial rules against the eating of unclean foods, and the civil statutes that regulated matters of personal and community cleanliness, were intended to point to, and underscore, the deeper ethical realities that were addressed in the moral law - the moral law that was embedded in the human conscience at creation, and that was inscribed on tablets of stone at Mount Sinai.
And all of this - every rule, commandment, prescription, and regulation - comprised the heavy weight of the uncompromisable legal obligation that was placed upon a Jewish boy when he was circumcised. A Jewish boy in his circumcision was brought under the strictures and demands of the divine law in all of its dimensions.
For every Jew in history who had ever been circumcised, however, the weight of the law that was placed upon him was a crushing weight, under which he could not stand. The Law of God, as revealed in the Ten Commandments and in the Old Testament Scriptures, did not vindicate and justify those who were placed under it and pledged to it. Instead, because of their failure to obey it, it condemned them as sinners. The law showed that they were not righteous as God is righteous; that they were not holy as God is holy; that they were not loving and selfless as God is loving and selfless.
In the early church there were some misguided Hebrew Christians who had previously been Pharisees, and who wanted to require circumcision - and all that it entails - of Gentile converts to the Christian faith. But the apostles did not agree with this. As recorded in Acts 15, St. Peter asked these men, “why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” Indeed no one had ever been able to bear that yoke. King David accurately spoke for God when he said in Psalm 11: “For the Lord is righteous; he loves righteous deeds; the upright shall behold his face.” But Isaiah the prophet accurately spoke for all Israel - indeed for all humanity - when he said in chapter 64: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”
With the circumcision of Jesus Christ, however, something different came into play. With Christ, and with his circumcision, for the first time in human history, the yoke of the law was placed on a man who was able to carry it, and who did carry it. For the first time in human history, the obligations of a circumcised man - to embrace the law, to fulfill the law, and to live in the law - were met. In Jesus the Law of God “met its match,” as it were. Jesus was embraced by the law of God in his circumcision, and in his circumcision he embraced that law. And in all that he ever thought, said, and did, he never let it go. In all that he ever thought, said, and did, God’s law never condemned him. Just as the physical mark of his circumcision never departed from his body, so he in his moral behavior never departed from his circumcision. As the son of Mary - our human brother - he was righteous as God is righteous. He was holy as God is holy. He was loving and selfless as God is loving and selfless.
And as the only genuinely circumcised man who ever lived, Jesus did this, and lived this, on behalf of us all, and for the salvation of us all. The name “Jesus,” given to him at his circumcision, means “The Lord is Salvation.” In Christ’s circumcision, we who believe in him are heirs and sons of the Covenant for his sake. St. Paul writes in Galatians 4 that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” In the previous chapter Paul had written on this same theme: “...for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”
In Colossians 2 St. Paul also writes: “In [Christ] also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”
In view of these inspired remarks, it is often said that for Christians baptism has in a sense replaced circumcision, and that the blessings which were offered to children of the Old Testament through circumcision are offered to children of the New Testament through baptism. While this is true as far as it goes, we should also acknowledge the circumcision that was administered to Christ to be a circumcision that remains as a saving reality for us. That circumcision remains, for as long as Christ remains, as a blessing for those who are connected to Christ in baptism, and who cling to him in faith.
So, from this perspective, our baptism doesn’t “replace” circumcision as much as it connects us to Christ and to his perfect circumcision, which endures forever as a testimony of his perfection under the demands and requirements of God’s law. In our baptism into Christ, Christ’s circumcision, together with everything that comes along with it, is credited to us. Through daily repentance and faith, we live in Christ and in his righteousness. We live, as adopted children and heirs of the Covenant, in his circumcision.
Everything that Jesus did, he did for your salvation. He was circumcised also for your salvation. He placed himself under the law of God in all of its fullness for your salvation. He obeyed the law of God in all of its fullness for your salvation. When God forgives your sin, and clothes you with the righteousness of his Son, he is, therefore, clothing you with the circumcision of Jesus.
Now, in the New Testament era, Christian boys don’t have to be physically circumcised. In fact, Gentile Christians are forbidden to receive circumcision, if they would want to receive it according to its Old Testament religious meaning. St. Paul says in Galatians 5, again with the greatest of seriousness: “I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. ... You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. ... For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” Because Jesus was circumcised for us, we don’t need to be circumcised. Because Jesus bore up under the weight of the law, and in his righteousness was vindicated by it, we too are vindicated in him, and are justified by faith.
Christ is our Savior under the law, and he is our Savior from the condemnation of the law. According to the gracious reckoning of God, when we hear and receive the message of Christ’s forgiveness, it is as if we had obeyed the divine law as thoroughly as Jesus did. According to the gracious reckoning of God, when we are covered with Christ’s righteous in our justification, it is as if we had upheld the Lord’s Covenant as earnestly as Jesus did. According to the gracious reckoning of God, when we return to our baptism in daily repentance, and cling with a living faith to the Savior who there cleanses and restores us, it is as if we were circumcised with the circumcision of Jesus.
“On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived.” Amen.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
8 January 2006 - The Baptism of Our Lord - Mark 1:4-11
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
As a teenager, before I went away to college, one of my chores around the house was to wash the dishes every evening. This was before the rise in the popularity of electric dishwashers, and it was certainly before the time when my family had one. One thing that became very clear to me, during these years of my dish-washing career, was that if you put dirty dishes into clean water, the water gets dirty. And depending on how encrusted with food residue the dishes in question were, the water could get very cloudy very fast.
Once in a while, when I was not paying close enough attention to what I was doing, I would, by mistake, put a plate that was already clean into dirty dish water. And what happened then? The dish got dirty. When you put dirty dishes into clean water, the clean water gets dirty; and when you put a clean dish into dirty water, the clean dish gets dirty.
There is a limited analogy of sorts between the domestic experience of washing dishes, and the spiritual experience of baptism: our baptism, and Christ’s baptism. Today’s Gospel text from St. Mark tells us that many in Judea and Jerusalem responded to the ministry of John the Baptist, who was sent by the Lord to preach a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins. According to the Lord’s invitation, the people came to the water that had been designated as the focal point of the reconciliation between the holy God and sinful man that John was proclaiming. This baptismal washing was a miraculous and sacramental point of contact, between penitent sinners and the forgiving God.
John’s listeners entered the water in humility and repentance, “confessing their sins,” as the text tells us. But when they emerged, their sins, in a sense, remained in the water. Their sins were no longer upon them, because the baptism that they had received was a baptism that was for the remission of sins. Their sins were, in effect, washed off of them by the pardoning mercy of God. Reflecting on this imagery from the perspective of the deep encrustation of humanity’s sinfulness, layered upon our race from the time of the garden of Eden to the time of the river of Jordan, we would say also that the water of baptism in which these penitent sinners had been mystically cleansed was very cloudy.
St. Mark then tells us something else about John’s baptism, and about who received it. We hear: “At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” Everybody else who came to baptism came dirty - they came “confessing their sins.” But Jesus came clean. He came with the deepest sympathy for sinners, and he came with a willingness to be associated with a baptism for sinners, but he came as one who was himself not a sinner. As the epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”
But, when he immersed himself into the baptismal water, in a mystery that defies human comprehension, he took to himself the sins of all others, and allowed himself to be covered over by those sins. He who was perfectly clean went into the water that had been clouded by human sin, and he came out dirty - not in terms of his own personal morality, which always remained unimpeachable, but in terms of what was now imputed or credited to him. Jesus came out of the baptismal water covered, as it were, with the dirt of human sin. With the dirt of our sin.
And how thickly was it encrusted on him? How much sin did actually cling to him by imputation? The sin of the whole world. Every sin ever committed by every human being: from the fall of Adam to the time of the Lord’s baptism; from then until now; and, from now to the end of the age.
St. John’s Gospel tells us that John the Baptist said this in regard to Jesus: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” The Greek word translated here as “takes away” means “lifts up” and “carries away.” Jesus came out of the baptismal water loaded down with all of our sins. And with all of humanity’s failures and transgressions credited to him and covering him, he went out from his baptism to begin his three-year public ministry, culminating at his crucifixion. As humanity’s Savior and substitute, he carried our sins on a long and bitter trek to the cross, where ultimately he placed himself under the righteous judgment of his own law that otherwise would have been directed against us. He died there under the weight of what had been clinging to him since his baptism. In the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul expresses this mystery of substitution - this mystery of redemption - in these words: “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
“In him becoming the righteousness of God.” That’s also a part of the story of baptism - Christ’s baptism, and our baptism. From one angle - the angle of humanity’s sin being imputed to Christ - Christ goes into the dirty water clean, and comes out dirty. But from another angle - the angle of Christ’s righteousness being imputed to us - we go into the clean water dirty, and come out clean. Going back to our dish-washing analogy: Dirty water makes a clean plate dirty, but clean water makes a dirty plate clean. And it is Christ who causes the water of baptism to be glisteningly clean. He is the one who caused it to be clean for the penitent Jews who were baptized by the hand of John the Baptist, and he is the one who causes it to be clean for you and me today.
When Jesus was baptized, the voice of God the Father declared: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well-pleased.” And the Spirit, in the form of a dove, descended into this baptismal situation, and onto this baptized Son. In this way the Holy Trinity - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit - sanctified the water of Holy Baptism, so that it could indeed be a sacred washing that was for “the remission of sins.” And it still is that for you.
To be baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is to be connected to Christ’s baptism, and to the approval and delight that the Father there manifested for his only-begotten Son. To be baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit is to receive the Spirit of adoption, and in Christ to be a recipient of this same declaration: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well-pleased.” St. Paul tells us in his epistle to the Galatians: “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”
You go into the water dirty. You go into the water “confessing your sins.” But you come out clean - pure and spotless, in fact. Again, St. Paul explains in his epistle to the Ephesians that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”
Christ’s baptism into your sin, with everything that comes along with it, and your baptism into Christ’s righteousness, with everything that comes along with that, are the defining realities of your life. The question that remains, then, is this: Do you live in this reality? In your life do you underestimate the perfection of God and of the demands of his law? Or do you live every day in the humbling knowledge that Christ took your sins upon himself in his baptism, and that your sins clung to him all the way to the cross? In your life do you take the Lord’s patience with you for granted? Or do you live every day in sober remembrance of the fact that the reason why he died under the curse of the divine law was because your sin was upon him?
In your life do you underestimate how much God loves you and all people? Or do you live every day in the uplifting knowledge that Christ covered you with his righteousness in your baptism, and that his righteousness continues to cling to you in the midst of all fears and trials? In your life do you feel, in your remorse over past mistakes and present weaknesses, that the Lord might not actually be willing to forgive you? Or do you live every day in joyful remembrance of the fact that in baptism you have become a beloved child of God in Christ, with the certain hope of eternal life through your ever-living Savior?
Every day the Word of God is at work to preserve you in the hope and comfort of baptism. Throughout your life of faith, the proclamation of the Gospel comes to you publicly through the ministry of the Lord’s preachers. Throughout your life of faith, the testimony of the Gospel comes to you reflectively from the pages of Holy Scripture. Throughout your life of faith, the gentle urgings of the Gospel come to you meditatively from those elements of the Word of God that have, over the years, been embedded and planted in your memory and conscience. Through the living message of his Gospel, God wants you always to know, as the most vivid and important facts of your existence, that your sins are forgiven, that Jesus is your friend and Savior, and, that you are his dear child and that he is your dear Father. Through the living message of his Gospel, God invites you always to remember Christ’s baptism for you, and your baptism into Christ.
As an example of a ceremonial expression of this divinely-given reality, our church’s Small Catechism recommends a very concrete form of remembrance of baptism, for the beginning and ending of each day. In the section on “Prayers for Daily Use,” it says: “In the morning, when you rise, you shall make the sign of the holy cross, and you shall say: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Then, kneeling or standing, you shall say the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.” “In the evening, when you go to bed, you shall make the sign of the holy cross, and you shall say: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Then, kneeling or standing, you shall say the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer.” This kind of devotional discipline was considered by the Catechism’s author, Dr. Luther, to be very useful and edifying for a Christian.
But even if we don’t follow a particular external discipline, or if we follow a different one, the enduring gift of baptism remains as a daily invitation to us, and as a daily source of strength for us. Every morning when you rise, the reality of Christ’s baptism into your sin renews to your faith the blessings of the atonement that Christ accomplished for you on his cross. Every evening when you retire, the reality of your baptism into Christ’s righteousness renews to your faith the blessings of the ministry of the means of grace, through which the Word of God continues to speak to you heavenly promises of heavenly life.
“And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. ... At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’” Amen.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
15 January 2006 - Epiphany 2 - John 1:43-51
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Nathanael was a man on an important quest. He was looking for God, or at least for a more meaningful understanding of God, and for a more personal relationship with God. And as a devout Jewish believer in first-century Palestine, this quest for God took the form of a search for the Messiah.
There was quite a bit of discussion about the Messiah in first-century Palestine. The loss of the Jewish people’s political independence, and the Roman oppression of the nation, had already prompted more than one Messianic movement among the Jews. But these movements differed from each other in various ways. The Essenes, for example, were a puritanical type of group, and they were expecting a puritanical type of Messiah, who would introduce a time of holiness and righteousness on the earth. The Zealots, by comparison, were a nationalistic and activistic type of group. They were expecting a nationalistic and activistic type of Messiah, who would introduce a worldly kingdom in which the Jews would be vindicated as God’s chosen people, and in which their pagan enemies would be suppressed.
This was the religious milieu in which Nathanael lived, and this was the spiritual context of his quest. Were the Essenes correct in their expectations, so that the Messiah would be the kind of person they were awaiting? Or were the Zealots the ones who were accurate in their Messianic hopes? Or, perhaps, were they both wrong, or partly wrong, so that the kind of Messiah who would come would be something different from either scheme?
Nathanael’s search for God and for God’s Messiah naturally led him to a search of God’s Scriptures. There were various Rabbinic interpretations of the many passages that pointed toward a future Messiah and a future Messianic age, and it could be a confusing challenge for someone to unravel all of these interpretations. But even so, Nathanael was not overly discouraged by this. He pressed ahead and studied, to know what Moses and the prophets had really said, so that he would thereby be able to know God’s own truth. But it wasn’t easy. These things were not immediately as clear to him as he might have wished.
And Nathanael was not alone in his heartfelt search for God and for the truth of God’s Messiah. He had friends of a similar religious disposition. One of them was a man named Philip. Philip too had been thinking about these things, and had been searching the Scriptures. Philip likely had also been a devout listener to, and maybe even a follower of, John the Baptist. We get the impression that Nathanael and Philip often talked with each other about the theological ideas of their time, and about their mutual spiritual journey in and around those ideas.
But sometimes Nathanael’s quest was a very personal and private quest. As was often done by devout Jewish men of his day, Nathanael, it seems, would spend time, for devotional reflection, under his family fig tree. Such a tree provide a place that was relatively cool and shady, and also a place that was far enough away from the noise and distractions of the household. Here Nathanael could pray and think.
And what exactly did he pray and think about? We don’t know. Perhaps his times of private reflection were times when he dealt with fears and apprehensions that he did not want to share with Philip or other friends, lest they think that his faith was weak and uncertain. Perhaps his times of private reflection were times when he dealt with feelings of guilt and unworthiness. As a student of the Scriptures he knew what God expected in his law, and he consequently also knew of his failures to measure up to these expectations.
We can easily imagine such questions swirling around in his mind and conscience: Will God help me in my needs, and strengthen and clarify my faith? Will he be merciful to me? Will the Messiah know and care about my private struggles? Or will he be distant and impersonal, too busy or uninterested to notice what a solitary man like me is praying about and thinking about?
As St. John’s Gospel relates to us, in the midst of such questions and ponderings - in the midst of such a search for God and for God’s Messiah - Philip found Nathanael, and excitedly said to him: “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael was skeptical. Were there any Messianic prophecies connected to Nazareth? He wasn’t aware of any. But Philip was certain. “Come and see,” he said. And this certainty was intriguing to Nathanael. So, he went. Maybe Philip had found the Messiah. Maybe he would find the Messiah. Maybe his search was over.
As he approached Jesus, Jesus said something in his hearing that was a bit strange. He spoke of Nathanael, with what was probably a friendly teasing tone, as one who already was acquainted with him: “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.” Or as other translations render it, “in whom is no guile.” “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.” This startled Nathanael. Jesus had not been at the tree. Jesus had not been a part of this very private experience. Jesus had not been involved in the things he had been praying about and thinking about. Or had he? Again, we don’t know exactly what Nathanael had been pondering under the fig tree, before Philip called him. But it must have been something of great spiritual and personal significance. Jesus’ testimony of his acquaintance with it, without even mentioning what it was, was all that was necessary.
Nathanael believed in Christ. He knew then that he had found the Messiah. Or more accurately, he knew then that the Messiah had found him. Jesus saw Nathanael before Nathanael had seen Jesus. Jesus knew Nathanael before Nathanael had known Jesus. Jesus cared about Nathanael, and about his most private struggles, before Nathanael had even met him, and Jesus invited him into the fellowship of disciples.
With a newly-focused, God-given faith, Nathanael declared to him who earlier had been identified only as the son of Joseph: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God.” Nathanael declared to him who earlier had been identified only as coming from the small and insignificant town of Nazareth: “Rabbi, ...you are the King of Israel.” Nathanael’s life would never be the same, and indeed his life would no longer be his own. The “search” for God’s Messiah, so to speak, was over.
Dear friends in Christ, you are Nathanael. You, like him, are on a search for God, or at least for a better knowledge of God and his ways. Oh, you may not express it exactly in those words, but a Christian’s quest for deeper meaning and purpose in life is, actually, a quest for God and his truth.
Here in the melting pot of American diversity, you have heard a lot of ideas about God - no doubt a larger number of competing and contradictory ideas than the original Nathanael ever heard - and they are sometimes confusing to you. But you are also here in this sanctuary, with your Christian friends, hoping that something in one of today’s lessons, in one of today’s hymns, or in today’s sermon will touch you - and them - in a beneficial way. Spiritual matters like this are not always as clear to you as you might wish them to be. You want God to show you more plainly what you should believe. You want God to help you, and to strengthen your faith.
And, like the original Nathanael, you also have your own “fig tree,” where personal thoughts that you never express to anyone else pass through your mind and conscience. Oh, I doubt that any of you has a literal fig tree under which you sit, but like Nathanael you have your times of private reflection. You have your times of private fear and anguish. You have your times of private remorse and regret. You have your times of private doubts and insecurity.
You don’t want anybody else to know about these things. Maybe you would be embarrassed, as a church member, for others to know about the weakness of your faith, or about the uncertainty that you sometimes experience. Maybe you would be ashamed for others to know about some of the things you have done in the past, and to know about the struggles that you still endure and in which you often fail. So, you tell no one, and no one knows. No one is there to see you in these private moments. No one else is a part of them.
No one, that is, except for Jesus. Before you searched for him, he had already searched for you. Before you found him, he had already found you. Before you knew him, he had already known you. And he continues to be a part of everything that is going on in your life, before you realize it and whether or not you ever realize it. In his living Word he assures you, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree.” I saw you in the midst of your personal prayers and thoughts. I saw you in your private moments, when you thought no one else was there.
Your Savior knows every weakness, but he strengthens you. He knows every fear, but he comforts you. He knows every anguished thought, every doubt of conscience, every shameful secret. He knows all, but he forgives all. He covers all with his loving righteousness. He heals all.
Dear friends in Christ, as one forgiven sinner to another, as one “Philip” to another, as one “Nathanael” to another, I can say to you: “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote.” We have found Jesus. Or, more accurately, Jesus has found us. Are you still not sure? Do you still have doubts? Is your faith weak? That’s Okay. “Come and see!”
Come in repentance to the table where he meets you in person, hidden but truly present under the forms of bread and wine, and see your Savior. Come in humility to his body and blood, given and shed for your forgiveness, and see the Messiah that God has sent to you. And as you come and see, and hear his words of love and pardon, you too will also believe and confess: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” Amen.
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
22 January 2006 - Epiphany 3 - Mark 1:14-20
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In one of the most significant statements that he ever uttered, Jesus said: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” This sentence established the trajectory for his whole public ministry, and it succinctly summarized his entire public doctrine. Each phrase in it is filled with meaning. Let us, therefore, consider what our Lord is telling us here, as we hear and ponder these powerful words.
“The time is fulfilled.” The original Greek uses a special word for “time,” “kairos,” that carries with it the idea of a unique moment or season in which a unique occurrence of some kind can and will happen. The text does not use the more ordinary word for “time,” “khronos,” from which the English word “chronology” is derived, which would call to mind the continuous passing of minutes, days, weeks, years, and centuries. Rather, the text indicates to us that Jesus wants his listeners to know that a unique opportunity, not previously available, is now presenting itself to them. This special moment or season was long in coming, and faithful people in the past could see it coming, but it had not yet actually arrived - until now. Now it “is fulfilled.”
Another connotation of the Greek word that is used here is that this unique moment or season, with its unique opportunity, will not always be there. A special time to act, or be acted upon, has arrived, but this special time will at some point in the future come to an end. This is, on the one hand, a warning: “Don’t delay, and don’t miss the opportunity you now have.” But on the other hand, this is also an invitation: “All is now ready. The heavenly blessings you need are now available to you. The season of the revelation of God’s love for you has come.”
And what exactly has come? “The kingdom of God is at hand.” That’s what our Lord is talking about. The famous Lutheran Biblical scholar R. C. H. Lenski wrote that “the kingdom of God” is “the supreme concept of the New Testament.” That’s quite an assertion, but it is borne out when we see how often Jesus speaks of this kingdom in his sermons and parables. And in the Lord’s Prayer, among the relatively few short petitions that he wants us to speak, he includes one in which we are to ask that God’s kingdom will come.
Jesus makes it clear that this divine kingdom is wholly unlike other kingdoms with which we may be familiar. As he testified before Pontius Pilate, recorded in John 18: “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” While Christians through the centuries have sometimes forgotten this, the kingdom of Christ and of God is not a kingdom of violence or coercion, manipulations or flattery. We cannot force or bait someone, by worldly means, into God’s kingdom. We cannot compel a conscience to enter it against its will, or trick people into entering it by appealing to the “felt needs” of their old Adam. An entirely different set of rules and norms apply in Christ’s kingdom.
Luther explains this very nicely in his Large Catechism: “What is the kingdom of God? ...that God sent his Son, Christ our Lord, into the world to redeem and deliver us from the power of the devil, to bring us to himself, and to rule us as a king of righteousness, life, and salvation against sin, death, and an evil conscience. To this end he also gave his Holy Spirit to deliver this to us through his holy Word and to enlighten and strengthen us in faith by his power.”
And this hidden yet very real reign of God, among and within men, is now very near. As Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” On one occasion recorded in Luke 17, When Jesus was conversing with a group of Pharisees, he said: “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” And who was in the midst of those Pharisees when Jesus uttered these words? Jesus was! The kingdom of God is at hand because Jesus is at hand. The kingdom of God is at hand because Christ, the incarnate Son of God and the Savior of men, has now become a part of our human story, and will remain a part of it until the consummation of all things. He embodies the kingdom for which he stands, and in which he reigns. He is the king - the king of kings - and where the king is, so too is the kingdom.
It might be observed, though, that Jesus doesn’t seem to be projecting his kingly influence and authority into the world very effectively. Human suffering remains. Injustice prevails. The wicked prosper, and the poor are crushed down. Is Christ really a king, reigning within a kingdom, if things like this, which are clearly against his will, unrelentingly go on? But remember, the kingdom of Christ is “not of this world.” And, accordingly, its influence is projected among men in ways that are different than the ways in which we experience the influence of other kingdoms.
In the kingdom of God, Christ has suffered once and for all on the cross. Therefore, those who suffer in this world can know, in his kingdom, the peace of his salvation. In the kingdom of God, Christ in his complete innocence placed himself under the severest wrath of the law against human sin. Therefore, those who are victims of injustice in this world can know, in his kingdom, a release and pardon from the guilt of all their sins. In the kingdom of God, Christ, the friend of the poor, was himself so poor as to be buried in a borrowed grave, but in his resurrection he emerged triumphant from the shackles of death, and now fills all things in the richness of his divine glory. Therefore, those who are poor and without hope in this world can know, in his kingdom, the true and living hope of an everlasting and Christ-filled life.
This kingdom, in all of its extraordinary marvelousness, is at hand. But how do we become a part of it? How do we enter it? How does it envelope and embrace us? Jesus says: “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” We don’t buy our way in. We don’t talk our way in. Rather, we “get in,” as it were, when we acknowledge and believe that what God says about us and our sin is true, and when we acknowledge and believe that what God says about himself and his grace is true.
The word “repent” means more broadly to change one’s whole way of thinking - one’s way of processing ideas - one’s way of making decisions. It means that we turn away from the sins and sinfulness of the past and the present, and embrace something else for the future. Human feelings are certainly involved in repentance - feelings of guilt, regret, and sorrow. But human feelings do not exhaust the meaning or application of the word “repent.” When Jesus says, “Repent,” he’s not addressing just your feelings. He’s addressing the totality of your being: your mind, your will, your conscience. He wants you to think different thoughts - as St. Paul says, to “put on the mind of Christ.” He wants you to wish for different things - as St. Paul says, to “desire to live a godly life.” And, the Spirit of Christ works and instills in you, by his supernatural convicting and transforming power, those changes for which Christ calls.
And Jesus says, “Believe in the gospel.” The word “gospel” means “good news.” It is good news to a sinner to be told that God is at peace with him and will not punish him for his transgressions. The way into God’s kingdom is by believing that Jesus has the authority to say, “Your sins are forgiven,” and the way into God’s kingdom is by believing that Jesus is therefore speaking the truth when he says to you, “Your sins are forgiven.” And he does say this to you, in your baptism, in holy absolution, in the Lord’s Supper. He says it, and he means it. This gospel of forgiveness in Christ is the gateway and the portal into the kingdom of God. It is also the foundation and source of every spiritual blessing and of every spiritual gift. It is, as St. Paul says, the “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”
Dear friends in Christ, your are citizens of God’s kingdom, which is “at hand” here for you. Now is the time - the moment or season appointed by God - for you to repent. Now is the time - the moment or season appointed by God - for you to believe in the gospel. The words that Jesus addressed to the paralytic, and that he addressed to the sinful woman, are words that he addresses to you right now: “Your sins are forgiven.” By his suffering you are saved. By his atoning death you are justified. By his resurrection you are enriched and enlivened.
All of this is an ongoing reality for us who are in God’s kingdom, and who live under the loving Lordship of Christ. The words “repent” and “believe” are both, grammatically speaking, in the present tense. Dr. Lenski, referenced earlier, suggests that a more literal translation, albeit a more awkward translation, would be: “The season has been fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Be repenting and be believing in connection with the gospel.” In the very first of his Ninety-Five Theses, posted on the Castle Church Door in 1517, Luther said: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Repentance is not just something that we did in the past, because our need for repentance is not just in the past. And believing in the gospel is likewise not just something that we did in the past. Believing in Christ - clinging to and living in his promises - is like breathing. It is the respiration of the soul. It is going on constantly, and if it ever stopped, we would die.
But in Christ, and in the faith-creating and faith-sustaining ministry of the gospel that Christ continues to bring to us, it doesn’t stop. When we sin, we do repent. And when Christ forgives, we believe. Christ gives himself to us, and we receive him. Christ draws us ever deeper into the kingdom of his love, and we are carried along by his grace and incorporated ever more fully into him.
These things were true for the people who were alive during Jesus’ earthly ministry, and these things are true for you and me, here and now, as we hear Jesus speak to us through the pages of Holy Scripture. The special season of the revelation of God’s kingdom - the special season for repentance and faith - has not yet ended. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Amen.
29 January 2006 - Epiphany 4 - Mark 1:21-28
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, one of the official creedal statements of our church, we read: “on account of original sin...human nature was not only subjected to death and other bodily ills, but also to the reign of the devil. ...this horrible sentence is pronounced: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers.” ...human nature is enslaved and held captive by the devil, who deceives it with ungodly opinions and errors and incites it to all sorts of sins. ...we, by our own powers, are unable to free ourselves from that slavery. World history itself shows how great is the strength of the devil’s rule. Blasphemy and wicked teachings fill the world, and in these bonds the devil holds enthralled those who are wise and righteous in the eyes of the world. In others even greater vices appear.”
This is not a pretty picture. But it is an accurate picture of the condition of fallen man: of his internal condition, where he is lacking in righteousness and faith and is antagonistic toward God, and of his external condition, where he is under the thralldom of supernatural powers of which he is usually not even aware. This realm of powers and principalities is a realm that the self-styled “modern” and “enlightened” people of the recent past usually had no interest in exploring. The scientific worldview, it was imagined, had exposed these “archaic” beliefs as so much “mythology,” with no basis in reality. Today, however, with the ever-growing fascination with angels, spirits, and “new-age” mystical experiences that we find in so many of our friends and neighbors, there is, it seems, a new openness in our generation to a consideration of these things. But even with this new interest among twenty-first century people, those who ponder these questions without the guidance of the Scriptures severely underestimate the power of Satan and his minions, over the world, and over them.
Sometimes the devil, or the unclean spirits that serve him, operate in a more direct way in the lives of individuals. The Gospel lesson for today describes one such instance, in which a man was demonized, or under the control of such a spirit. Taking into account the various New Testament examples of this kind of bodily obsession, the Lutheran theologian Franz Pieper writes that “by it the devil, under God’s sufferance, takes possession of a man by personally dwelling in him, so that the demoniac, bereft of the use of his reason and will, becomes the involuntary instrument of Satan. The human personality no longer functions; the devil in person becomes the acting subject. The demoniac is no longer responsible for his actions.” Most of the time, though, evil spirits are content to work indirectly and “behind the scenes,” exploiting their unholy alliance with humanity’s sinful nature, which is a willing accomplice with them.
But whether the devil and his angels are working directly and perceptively, or indirectly and sneakily, they are always striving for the same goals, and are always working for the same results. Again, as Dr. Pieper explains, “The activities of the evil angels are...evil throughout. Scripture describes them, for our information and warning, very clearly and in full detail. All endeavors of the wicked angels are aimed at harming man in his body..., in his temporal possessions..., and particularly in his soul... The entire state of unbelief - among heathen nations as well as in external Christendom - is a work of the devil... All who do not believe the Gospel are thinking and doing what the devil wills; they are completely in his power... And the fact that men do not know this, yes, even deny the existence of the devil, is likewise due to the operation of the devil.”
But why should this be of concern to us, who profess Christ? Haven’t we already been delivered from Satan’s dominion, so that we are no longer in spiritual danger? Well, let’s not forget that the devil does not believe in the abstract Calvinist doctrine of “eternal security,” often expressed in popular shorthand terms as “once saved, always saved.” The devil knows that it is possible for a believer in Christ to be lured away from his Savior, and to become once again an unbeliever.
Satan was no doubt paying close attention to Jesus when he warned, in his parable of the sower, of the person “who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy,” but who “has no root in himself” and endures only “for a while,” so that “when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.” The devil is very accommodating to those whom he thinks may be in this category, and he is more than willing to bring into their lives the kind of tribulation or persecution that can, he would hope, topple a temporary faith.
And, this tribulation or persecution can come to such people in subtle ways. It can come to you in subtle ways. Do you sometimes think up clever excuses - that you yourself don’t really believe - to avoid a God-given responsibility that you have in your place of work, in your family, or in your church? This is a subtle but very real spiritual tribulation in your life, which threatens your faith. Do you sometimes come up with what seem to you to be ingenious ways to rationalize your sins - sins of greed, of lust, or of pride, - so that you can avoid thinking about them, and dealing with them? When you say, “I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto Thee all my sins and iniquities,” do you mean “all,” or do you mean “most?” This self-deception is the devil’s persecution of your conscience.
Listen to the words of St. Paul, from his first epistle to the Corinthians: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” And listen to the warning of St. Peter’s first epistle: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” He wants to devour you.
In today’s Gospel text, the devil also wanted to devour the poor man who was possessed on that occasion by an unclean spirit. This spirit had taken control of his body, and no doubt wanted to take more and more control of every aspect of his life until he had completely destroyed him. In the face of such diabolical power, what hope did this man have? What hope would any of us have?
His hope, and our hope, is the humble man from Nazareth. Satan fears very little in this world. He is especially not afraid of fallen humanity or of any resistence that we might feebly try to throw up in his way by our own strength. But Satan does fear, and cannot withstand, the word of this man. The devil who inhabited the afflicted person in today’s lesson knew who Jesus was. He could see what the mortals there present could not see, namely that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity was standing in the midst of them. He saw, he shuddered, and he shrieked.
St. Mark tells us what happened: “Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an evil spirit cried out, ‘What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are - the Holy One of God!’ ‘Be quiet!’ said Jesus sternly. ‘Come out of him!’ The evil spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek. The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching - and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him.’”
The word of Jesus was the word of him who had created all angelic spirits, including the ones who later fell from their pristine state. It was the word of him who upholds the universe. So, when this man from Nazareth - this man who speaks with authority - says to the forces of darkness, “Come out of him,” they come out.
This same kind of word, coming from this same man, was also spoken in regard to you, in your baptism. And since your baptism endures in your life as a continuing testimony of God’s forgiveness and mercy toward you, this authoritative word from Jesus is also continually spoken for your benefit, in and through your baptism. The reason why a baptized person is asked to renounce the devil and all his works and all his ways, is because baptism, by the power of God’s Word, has the power to vanquish the devil from the lives of those who abide in their baptism in repentance and faith. For you, therefore, who repent of your sins right now, I can assure you that the devil is vanquished, and that in Christ you are set free from his deadly grip. Do not fear that he will overcome you, or that in your weakness he will overpower you. Christ your Lord, who speaks with authority, has told him to depart, and depart he must. There are, sadly, some Christians who are only temporary believers, and the devil might be hoping that you are one of them, especially if he has seen you stumble. But as you cling each day to the mercy of Christ - as you cling today to that mercy - you will not be one of them.
The word that Jesus speaks to your Satanic foe on your behalf is a word that he speaks with authority. By his word he is able to cast the devil out of places where he does not belong. And, the word that Jesus speaks to you - to your troubled conscience, to your struggling faith - is also a word that he speaks with authority. He speaks the devil out of your life, and he speaks himself into it. He speaks his righteousness upon you. He speaks his regenerating Spirit into your mind and heart.
The devil, of course, doesn’t like this at all. He wants you to doubt Christ’s willingness always to forgive you. He wants you to be distracted away from listening to this man from Nazareth, and to the marvelous things that he wants to say to you. But the word that Jesus speaks, he speaks with authority. And in spite of the devil’s attempts to trip you up, this authority has the power to capture your attention, to instill faith in you, and to save you. Dear friends, Jesus died for your sins, and in the shedding of his blood on the cross, he has reconciled you to your Father in heaven. Believe this, and the devil will flee.
In a few minutes, Jesus is once again going to say something else, also with his divine authority, that the devil doesn’t want to hear, and that the devil doesn’t want you to hear or believe. But Jesus is nevertheless going to speak this powerful word, which the devil cannot silence. In the Large Catechism we can hear our church confess its faith in the man from Nazareth and in what that man will speak, for us and to us, at his altar. Listen to this confession. And as you listen to it, say a quiet “amen,” and by God’s grace embrace this confession as your own:
“With this Word you can strengthen your conscience and declare: ‘Let a hundred thousand devils, with all the fanatics, come forward and say, “How can bread and wine be Christ’s body and blood?” etc. Still I know that all the spirits and scholars put together have less wisdom than the divine Majesty has in his littlest finger. Here is Christ’s word: “Take, eat, this is my body.” “Drink of this, all of you, this is the New Testament in my blood,” etc. Here we shall take our stand and see who dares to instruct Christ and alter what he has spoken. It is true, indeed, that if you take the Word away from the elements or view them apart from the Word, you have nothing but ordinary bread and wine. But if the words remain, as is right and necessary, then by virtue of them the elements are truly the body and blood of Christ. For as Christ’s lips speak and say, so it is; he cannot lie or deceive.’”
In the joy of faith, when we hear and believe wonderful things like this, we too, like the crowds of old, are amazed at this man’s teaching. Christ’s body, given into death on the cross for our sins, is given now into our mouths. Christ’s blood, shed as the price of humanity’s redemption, is truly bestowed upon us at this altar for our forgiveness. We are amazed, because Jesus of Nazareth speaks with an authority that the devil - with all of the frightful power that he has in this world - cannot endure. Jesus of Nazareth speaks with an authority against which the devil cannot, and will not, prevail. Amen.