SERMONS - FEBRUARY 2007
4 February 2007 - Epiphany 5 - Luke 5:1-11
We all like to be comfortable in our relationships. Of course, when we are beginning a new relationship with someone, there is often a bit of awkwardness, especially at first. This is the way it often goes when a student takes a class with a new teacher, or when a young person begins dating a new girlfriend or boyfriend, or when an individual starts out in a new job with a new boss. At the beginning of a new relationship like this, we don’t want to make any missteps or leave a bad impression. So, we’re always on our toes, and we’re not fully comfortable in the new situation. But over time, as we get to know the other person, and as he or she gets to know us, we usually do become more relaxed. And the relationship usually begins to take on a more fulfilling and enjoyable character.
But sometimes, as such a relationship progresses, we may once again start to become uncomfortable with it. After a while we might find out something questionable or worrisome about the teacher, the girlfriend or boyfriend, or the boss, and begin to get a little nervous. As a humorous example to illustrate the point, think of the 1993 Mike Myers movie with the self-explanatory title, “So I Married an Axe Murderer.”
With all of this in mind, let’s think for a few minutes about the relationship that was developing between Simon Peter and Jesus, and especially about the events that occurred in their relationship in today’s Gospel. Simon Peter had been getting to know Jesus. He had been introduced to him a while back by his brother Andrew, who in turn had been directed to Jesus by John the Baptist, whose disciple Andrew had previously been. We can easily imagine that Peter, a practically-minded fisherman, might have been a bit skeptical of what his brother Andrew was initially telling him about Jesus. How could Andrew be so sure, so quickly, that this Nazarene was indeed the Messiah? It is easy to imagine that at first he was not completely comfortable with all this, and that it took some “getting used to.” But as Peter continued to listen to the preaching of Jesus, and as his mind and heart were touched by this preaching, he became more comfortable with the idea that Jesus was the Messiah, and he became more comfortable with Jesus himself.
But now, as Jesus was preaching in Peter’s hometown of Capernaum, Peter witnessed a miracle that gave him reason to pause and reconsider where this relationship with Jesus was taking him. Peter was an experienced fisherman. He knew when and how to catch fish as well as anyone. Jesus, by comparison, was a rabbi - a religious teacher - and before that he had been a carpenter. What could he know about fishing? That’s why Christ’s directive to Peter to go out into the lake and put down his nets for a catch was so puzzling. But out of respect for Jesus, in spite of his misgivings, Peter did as Jesus told him. And he brought in an overwhelming catch of fish.
This is when Peter became instantly uncomfortable in his relationship with Christ. In that moment he began to see something in Christ that he had not previously noticed in quite the same way: namely, the Lord’s divine power, and the Lord’s divine holiness. Peter in that moment did not become more sinful than he had been. But in that moment, he became more deeply aware of who Jesus really was, and of what that could mean for him if he stayed too close to Jesus. Peter knew in his conscience that human sinfulness and divine holiness mix about as well as old brittle paper and a red hot flame. And he knew that he was a sinner. What he experienced in the miraculous catch of many fish was very unsettling to him. If he allowed this relationship to continue in the direction it had been going, he, too, would eventually be consumed. A genuine fear, arising from his awareness of his own sinful weakness and mortality, immediately possessed Peter, as he contemplated the eternal glory and holiness that he now knew to be residing within Jesus, from where it could burst out to destroy him at any time.
Previously, when God had seemed to be far away from Peter’s day-to-day existence, Peter had perhaps been able to imagine that God might not really notice his shortcomings. So, his sense of his unworthiness before God was not a pressing concern. But now, in Christ, God had caused himself to get “up close” and very personal. This was something that Peter was too afraid to deal with. His relationship with Jesus had now become dangerous and threatening. He wanted to bring it to an end - right then and there - to preserve what was left of his miserable existence. He “fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’”
It can go this way with us, too. God can become someone who, it would seem, lives at a safe distance from us. We are not atheists, of course, and we are certainly not hostile to the church and to the Christian religion. We are comfortable with our memories of Sunday School and childhood Christmas programs. We are comfortable with the emotional boost we get from a rousing rendition of a favored hymn, and with the sentimental feeling we get when we hear the words of a familiar Bible story. We are comfortable with Jesus, at this level, and Jesus seems to be comfortable with us. My sinfulness doesn’t seem to bother him, so why let it bother me?
But sometimes, something unexpected happens that has the effect of jarring us out of this kind of spiritual complacency, and out of the “comfortableness” of this kind of relationship with Jesus. Sometimes a turn of events in our life causes us to be reminded of just how powerful and holy God is. Perhaps we have gotten ourselves into some kind of major trouble, so that our conscience cannot avoid contemplating the fearful significance of what we have done. Perhaps we have witnessed a shocking tragedy in the lives of others - something that might appear to be a visitation of divine justice - with the stark realization that what had happened to them could just as well have happened to us. At times like this we may be forced by such circumstances to face up to the fact that God is indeed holy and does not tolerate or condone sin. And at times like this we may be forced to face up to the fact that we are sinful. When our conscience then connects the dots, our reaction may very well be the same as the reaction of Peter, who “fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’”
“Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” That’s the honest testimony of an honest human conscience, as it compares the reality of God’s demands with the reality of human failure. At times such as this, we may indeed become very uncomfortable in our relationship with Christ. If God did not have anything more to say to us except the pronouncements of his law - which always accuse and condemn - the only option we would have, futile though it may be, would be to try to put as much distance as possible between our sinfulness and God’s holiness.
This would be the only option open to us, if in our relationship with God nothing stood between his holiness and our sinfulness. But there is something there, standing like an impenetrable wall of supernatural asbestos. It is Christ’s saving work for us. It is Christ’s suffering and death on our behalf - his atoning sacrifice on the cross in our place - which God makes known to us in his Gospel. God brings the message of the Gospel to us in the wake of the law and as a necessary follow-up to the law. The Gospel is not a message that is limited to telling us that Christ, in his supreme power and holiness, is intimately close to us. That would still be a very frightening message. But it is a message that also includes a bestowal of the benefits of Christ’s saving work for us. We are saved not simply because the righteous Son of God exists, but we are saved specifically because of what the righteous Son of God had done for us and continues to do for us.
To a man whose conscience has been led by God’s law to become serious about God’s holiness, Christ declares that he took to himself, on the cross, all human sin, and that the wrath of God against human sin has already been poured out on the cross. To a woman whose conscience has been led by God’s law to become honest about her failings and shortcomings, Christ declares that in him her sins have been removed from her as far as the east is from the west, and are remembered no more. Christ declares these things to you, about your sins, and about his work of salvation that he has accomplished for you. As your Savior, Jesus does not come to you to threaten you with his holiness, but he comes to you to forgives you with his mercy. You could not remain comfortable in a relationship with Christ that focused only on the power and glory of his divine nature, apart from his saving work for you on the cross. But when he brings the message of the cross to you, your relationship with Christ becomes for you a source of unimaginable peace and unspeakable hope.
The message and salvation of the Gospel are brought to us whenever the preaching of the Word of God and the administration of the sacraments are brought to us. In the Gospel, as we believe its soothing promises, we are truly comfortable in our relationship with our loving Savior. The Gospel takes away our fear of Christ’s power and holiness. Jesus says to us what he said to Peter: “Do not be afraid.” And in the Gospel - as it abides in us, and as we abide in it - we respond as did Peter and his fishermen friends: “when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.”
One of the most intense and intimate ways in which the Gospel of Christ draws Jesus close to us, and us close to him, is through the Lord’s Supper. St. John Chrysostom had some interesting things to say about the joy-filled friendship that Jesus renews with us in this sacrament, and about the boldness and courage that he instills in our otherwise fearful hearts through our participation in his body and blood. He wrote: “this also Christ has done, to lead us to a closer friendship, and to show his love for us: he has given to those who desire him, not only to see him, but even to touch and eat Him, and fix their teeth in his flesh; and to embrace Him and satisfy all their love. Let us then return from that table like lions breathing fire, having become a terror to the devil - contemplating our Head, and the love which he has shown for us.” These are powerful and truthful words about a deep and powerful relationship - a relationship between forgiven sinners and the Savior who has forgiven them - a relationship in which we, by God’s mercy, are very comfortable, and will be so forever. Amen.
18 February 2007 - Transfiguration - Luke 9:28-36
When God became man, in the person of Jesus Christ, he also took on the form of a servant. In our catechism terminology we call this the “humiliation” of Jesus. This doesn’t mean that Jesus was extremely embarrassed or insulted - as the more popular usage of the term “humiliation” would suggest. Rather, this means that he lived in such a way as to hide his divine glory, and that during his earthly ministry he usually did not display, or use, his divine power. He never stopped being God, of course. Throughout his time on earth he never ceased to be the omnipotent sustainer of the universe, in his eternal unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit. But during that time his divine majesty was usually hidden and unnoticed.
This was in fact necessary, so that he could walk among men as a man, eating and sleeping, laughing and crying. This was necessary so that he could place himself under the rigorous demands of the law, and live a perfect human life for us and in our place, in accordance with the law. This was necessary so that people would listen calmly and thoughtfully to his preaching about the coming of his kingdom, and not be frightened away from him because of their exposure to his supernatural glory.
There were a few times, though, when the divine power of Christ was manifested, even if in small and discrete ways. We think of his miracles - walking on water, healing the sick, raising the dead, changing water into wine. Another miracle showing forth his divinity was his institution of the Lord Supper. His body, with blood coursing through its veins, was sitting there at the table, visible to his disciples. But by the power of his Word, Jesus spoke his body also into the blessed bread that he offered to the disciples, and he spoke his blood into the consecrated wine that he invited them to drink. We see here that his body and blood did not always need to be in one place at a time, as is the case with all other people.
Probably one of the most profound manifestations of Christ’s divine glory that took place during the time of his earthly ministry was his transfiguration, as we heard it described in St. Luke’s Gospel a few minutes ago. Matthew and Mark also tell us about this event, as well as St. Peter in his Second Epistle, but Luke gives us a few details that the others don’t mention. For one thing, Luke tells us that the reason why Jesus went up on the mountain that evening was to pray.
Our Lord’s prayer life was an important part of his work and ministry. His regularity and fervency in prayer also set an example for us. But his prayers were different from ours. Jesus very often prayed for his disciples - and ultimately for us - but he never prayed with his disciples. He teaches us how to pray by giving us the words of the “Our Father,” be he never prays the “Our Father” with us. The reason for this difference is that when Jesus prays, it is a matter of one Person of the Divine Trinity communicating with the other Persons of the Divine Trinity. Christ’s prayers were events that, in a certain sense, happened within the Godhead, and not between God and his creatures. And so, Jesus is not our companion in prayer. He is instead the object and recipient of our prayer - together with the Father and the Spirit.
When the Lord went up on the mountain, therefore, it was for the purpose of communing with his Father and the Holy Spirit. He went there, in effect, to act out in prayer who he was, as a member of the glorious Holy Trinity. And in the context of this unique kind of praying, Jesus began to take on an outward appearance that testified to who he really was. The glory that Peter, James, and John saw on that mountain was not a glory that descended upon Christ from the outside, but it was a glory that emanated from within him.
In his transfiguration Jesus did not become something that he was not already. But in a way that he had not done before, he now revealed to the three disciples who were with him a brief glimpse of his divine majesty, which otherwise would have overwhelmed them. He also revealed to them, in a small way, the fellowship with the Triune God that the saints in glory continually enjoy, as they dwell in the light of God’s heavenly love.
During his earthly ministry Jesus did not usually do things like this. He usually lived and worked in the humble form of a man. For our sins, and as our substitute, he suffered and died in the humble form of a man. But the Savior who lived and died in this way was indeed a divine Savior - the eternal God in human flesh. He was and is the eternal Creator, who, to accomplish our salvation, became a part of his creation - a very humble and almost unnoticeable part. And yet, he never stopped being, at the same time, the all-glorious and almighty God. And he never will stop being who he has been from all eternity. Peter, James, and John, at the very least, would certainly not forget this. May we also not ever forget this.
In order to live and die under the law as a man, it was necessary for Jesus, in his state of humiliation, to take on the form of a servant. But after his resurrection, when he gave his church the great commission to preach the Gospel to all creation, it was then time for him to be exalted. Being in the form of a man, who is outwardly present in only one place at a time, would now not be compatible with the promise he made to his disciples - a promise that as they take his Word and sacraments to all nations, he will be with them - with all of them - even to the end of the age.
And so, in his ascended glory Jesus has now laid aside the form of a servant. In heaven, the wondrous miracle that the three disciples saw on the mountain of the transfiguration is basically what the saints and angels see all the time. In his exaltation to the right hand of the divine majesty, Jesus as God and man is present wherever he wants to be. And where he wants to be, is with us.
When his saving Word is preached, he is there in that preaching. When his Holy Sacrament is administered, he is there in that administration. When his people call upon him in their need, at any time and place, he is there to comfort and sustain them. He will never leave us or forsake us.
We would likely think that the disciples of Christ may have become sluggish and weak in their belief that Jesus was actually the true God in human flesh, if they weren’t able to see tangible evidence of it from time to time. We know that one of them, Judas, did eventually lose whatever faith he may have had. But let’s not forget that Jesus brought only three of his disciples along with him to the mountain, to see him transfigured. All the other disciples were expected to remain in the faith, and to continue to believe in Christ, without having witnessed this extraordinary event. And the way in which the faith of all the disciples was to be preserved was the way of heeding and believing Christ’s Word. Today’s text says as much. “A voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!’”
Indeed, “listen to him!” This declaration from God the Father was not only for the instruction and encouragement of those three men who had witnessed the miraculous occurrences of that day. It was also for the many others who had not witnessed them. And it was for you and for me.
It is, perhaps, easy for our faith to become sluggish and weak, as we go along in life never experiencing anything overtly miraculous or obviously supernatural. We might think that our faith would be bolstered and strengthened if something unusual like this were to happen to us. But that’s not the way in which the disciples’ faith was kept alive. And that’s not the way in which the Holy Spirit preserves us in the faith either.
If something like witnessing the transfiguration would be necessary to prove the identity of Jesus to a skeptical mind or a doubting heart, and thereby to create faith in such a mind and heart, then there would be only three men who could ever be saved. But that’s not what Jesus had in mind when he brought those three men up there with him.
We do not perceive Jesus to be in our midst with our natural senses, but this does not mean that he is not here. He is, in fact, where he has promised to be: with his people; speaking and working through the means of grace; abiding in us as we abide in him and in his Word. We don’t have to see this in order for it to be true - just as all of his disciples did not need to see his heavenly glory with their own eyes in order for his divinity to be a fact.
Christians at different times in history have sometimes seen glimpses of extraordinary and miraculous things, on occasions when it was God’s will for such things to happen. But most Christians in history have not seen and experienced such supernatural phenomena, just as most of the disciples did not see and experience the events of the transfiguration. And we will probably not see and experience such things during our earthly lifetime either.
But that doesn’t really matter. Jesus, the divine-human Savior of the world, is still who he has always been. He does what he has always done. He cares about the things he has always cared about. You are still invited by God to “listen to him,” as he comforts you through the Scriptures with his message of victory over sin and death. His voice still rings out to you, as he proclaims in his Holy Absolution the full forgiveness of all your sins. Your faith in who he is, and in his continuing presence with you, is still sustained by the words of peace and reconciliation that he speaks to you in the preaching of the Gospel.
Like most of the disciples, we didn’t see the transfiguration. But the Christ who was transfigured, and who at that time showed forth his divine power and glory, is the Christ we do know by faith as our powerful and glorious Savior from sin, death, and the devil.
“[Jesus] took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. ...a cloud came and overshadowed them, and [the three disciples] were afraid as they entered the cloud. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!’” Amen.
25 February 2007 - Lent 1 - Luke 4:1-13
There are mysteries involved in our Lord’s temptation in the wilderness that we cannot fully grasp. On the one hand, we are compelled by God’s Word to confess that Jesus is indeed the true and eternal God. Not only is he without sin, but he is incapable of sinning. But on the other hand, we are compelled by the Scriptural account to acknowledge that the temptation he endured was a real temptation, and not a sham. These seemingly contradictory beliefs must be held in tension. They cannot be fully reconciled with the demands of human reason and logic.
But in at least one respect we can understand what was and was not happening on this occasion. The manner in which Christ experienced temptation was different from the manner in which we experience temptation. The devil does often tempt us. But with us, the devil’s external temptations are always “aided and abetted” by the temptations that well up from within us - from our own sinful nature. Our sinful flesh is always in collusion with the devil, as a willing accomplice in his attempts to deceive us and draw us away from God and God’s will.
In the case of Christ, though, there was no internal “ally” of the devil, and no sinful “co-conspirator” within him, because Christ had no sinful nature. The text tells us that Jesus was “tempted by the devil,” and that’s exactly what happened. His temptation was exclusively external - with the devil coming to him from the outside. And yet, it was indeed a real temptation. But the next question would then be: a temptation to what, exactly?
The devil is sly. He was created as a glorious, angelic being, no doubt with significant powers of reason and observation. And since then, he has had many centuries of experience in dealing with both God and people. And he has learned some things from that experience. In regard to Christ, the devil was certainly smart enough to know that he could not tempt God, as God, to sin. The focus of his temptation was accordingly on the humanity of Christ. And more particularly, it was on the humanity of Christ in his state of humiliation.
In last week’s sermon we observed that during our Lord’s earthly ministry, “his divine majesty was usually hidden and unnoticed. This was in fact necessary, so that he could walk among men as a man, eating and sleeping, laughing and crying. This was necessary so that he could place himself under the rigorous demands of the law, and live a perfect human life for us and in our place, in accordance with the law.” We also noted last week that Christ, in his resurrection and ascension, was finally exalted and glorified, so that now he no longer limits himself in the way that he formerly did. But this exaltation did not happen until he had fulfilled the requirements for human salvation. While in the form of a servant, it was necessary for him to suffer and die under the curse of the law, to redeem us all.
If Jesus had “jumped the gun,” as it were, and had begun to live outwardly according to his divine glory before experiencing the degradation of the cross, then the very real anguish that he endured for us on the cross would not have occurred. Our many transgressions against God’s holy law would not have been atoned for. Our guilt would not have been borne, in suffering, by a sinless substitute. And that means, dear friends, that we would all still be living and dying in our sins. Each of us - you and I - would still be enslaved to the power of sin, death, and the devil, without hope and without God in the world.
This was all no doubt in the devil’s mind when he tempted the Lord in the wilderness. Satan wanted Christ to lay aside the state of humiliation into which he had entered. He wanted him to start acting like God, and not like a weak and humble man. Satan knew that if he could get Christ to abandon his mission of suffering and dying for us before that mission had been accomplished, then he would be able to keep us all in his hellish captivity, and prevent us from being reclaimed by our divine Creator. Satan’s attacks on Christ were, therefore, really attacks on you and me - on the whole human race - and on the possibility of our being delivered from his clutches.
When Satan tried to get Jesus to use his divine powers to create bread for himself, to put an end to his physical hunger, he was thereby trying to get Jesus to turn aside from the pathway of human suffering on which he had set out. The devil appealed to him to act according to his divine nature, and explicitly called to his mind the fact that he had a divine nature. He said: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” The devil didn’t want Christ’s ministry to be defined by the preaching of repentance and forgiveness, with only incidental occurrences of miracles. He wanted his ministry to be defined by the miracles, with, perhaps, only incidental occurrences of the preaching of repentance and forgiveness.
With this kind of ministry, the crowds would, of course, listen very attentively to any sermons that Jesus might preach about the availability of physical health and worldly wealth - especially if such sermons were accompanied by the supernatural bestowal of these practical benefits. But the devil would not have to worry very much about the people under such a ministry being unduly influenced by an occasional sermon about sin and repentance that might also be preached. Under those circumstances it is unlikely that anyone would bother to listen to such a sermon.
But do notice how Jesus answered. He said: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’” As the Son of God in human flesh - and in the state of humiliation that was necessary for him to experience in order to be our Savior - Jesus quoted the teaching of Scripture regarding what was proper for man to do or not do. “Man shall not live by bread alone.” Jesus was a man, and was living according to God’s will in the humble form of a man. And that’s the way it was going to stay.
We think, too, of the temptation to jump off the pinnacle of the temple, which the devil also tried. Satan certainly had a flair for predicting what kind of religious performance would get the attention of a crowd. In our own time Satan could no doubt have a very successful career as a “Church Growth” consultant, identifying the kind of religious entertainment that worldly people want, and coming up with clever methods of delivering it.
But in any case, we can easily imagine how many people in a big city like Jerusalem would have been attracted to Christ, in profound awe and with great enthusiasm, if he had done what the devil suggested: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’” That kind of performance - at the temple no less! - would draw a bigger crowd than any contemporary chancel drama or clown Communion service ever could! But Jesus refused to give it even a passing thought. He replied with another quotation from Scripture: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Christ had not come to draw people to himself through his divine power, by putting on a “show” as only God could do. He had, instead, come to draw people to himself through his cross - with all of its shame and scandal - so that in repentance and faith their sins could be forgiven, and their spiritual life could be restored. If Jesus had thrown himself down from the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, he would never have been lifted up on the tree of Calvary outside Jerusalem. The crowds of the temple court, in amazement and wonder, would have carried him away on their shoulders. And that would have been the end of his saving mission.
Christ was not going to let the devil trick him into a premature departure from his state of humiliation. He was going to ignore the devil’s reminders to him of his divine power. That power, real though it was, would remain hidden and unused, at least for now. Instead, Jesus was going to continue to live and act as a man, not only there in the desert, but throughout the remainder of his earthly ministry. With only a few occasional manifestations of his divine glory to his disciples - such as we mentioned last week - he was going to live and act as a man all the way to the cross.
Do you see what the devil was trying to do in his temptation of the Lord? Do you see what your loving Savior prevented him from doing? In view of this, can you see what kind of stunts the devil is pulling now, to distract you away from Christ and his Gospel? And can you see what Jesus is doing now, to protect your spiritual life, to keep the purpose of his saving work ever before you, and to strengthen you in the true faith?
Thank about it. And as you do, listen also to what St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians: “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles; but to those who are called - both Jews and Greeks - Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
In the wilderness, Satan tried to get Jesus to conclude that the life of humility and suffering that he had willingly embraced was “foolishness” - especially since he was the Son of God, and didn’t really have to live this way. And it’s true that Jesus didn’t have to live this way. But Jesus wanted to live this way. For your sake and mine Jesus wanted to be weak and “foolish” - to be impoverished, humiliated, shamed, and eventually killed - so that in him, we can be enriched with God’s grace, be exalted to heaven, be glorified in the resurrection, and live forever.
If Jesus had succumbed to any of the devil’s temptations, none of this would have been possible. But he did not succumb. He remained faithful to his mission. All of the benefits of the saving work that he accomplished in his state of humiliation are therefore available to you, as you draw strength from your crucified and risen Savior in the face of the temptations you endure. All of the benefits of his saving work are in fact yours, as you cling in faith to his Word.
“And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.” Amen.