SERMONS - FEBRUARY 2008
3 February 2008 - Transfiguration - 2 Peter 1:16-21
The Transfiguration of our Lord was an event in the earthly life of Jesus unlike anything else that had ever happened to him. In more veiled ways, Jesus had, of course, often shown forth his divine power, by doing extraordinary things that would certainly be noticed by anyone who was paying attention.
We think, for example, of his walking on water, his calming of the storm, and his healing of many people from a wide assortments of infirmities and diseases. And topping the list of such miracles would certainly be the raising of Jairus’s daughter, and the raising of his friend Lazarus, from the dead.
But nothing like the Transfiguration - with its direct and obvious manifestation of divine glory - had ever happened. St. Matthew describes this one-of-a-kind occurrence in this way:
“And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.”
“And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. ...a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’”
From the moment of his conception, Jesus was always both human and divine in one person. The divinity of Jesus was always there, hidden beneath the humble form of his humanity.
But in the transfiguration, the Lord’s divine glory broke through the covering of his earthly humiliation - even if only for a very short time - and became visible to the three disciples who were there with him.
The various other miracles that Jesus had previously performed served as testimonies and confirmations of his Messianic authority, and of his power to forgive sins. Peter and the other disciples saw those miracles, and believed in him.
But the Lord’s opponents weren’t convinced of anything by his healings and exorcisms. They accused Jesus of sorcery. They claimed that he did these extraordinary things by the power of Beelzebub - which is another name for the devil.
But a sorcerer would definitely not be able to imitate what happened to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration! That kind of thing could only have happened to the true Son of God in human flesh.
So, even more so than his various other miracles, the transfiguration of Christ was able to serve as a testimony and confirmation of his Messianic authority. Peter, James, and John could now be sure - really sure! - that the man they were following was indeed who he claimed to be. They could be certain that their faith in him was not in vain.
And if that were not enough, they also heard the supernatural, booming voice of God the Father, coming from the cloud, identifying Jesus as his beloved Son, and exhorting the disciples to listen to everything that he would tell them.
And note, too, the appearance of Moses and Elijah with Jesus, when the light of his heavenly glory was shining forth. According to his divine nature - even during the years of his earthly humiliation - the Son of God was always ruling and sustaining the universe, in his eternal unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
In other words, even when he was visibly on the earth in the form of a humble servant - eating and drinking, sleeping and rising - he was also filling the heavens with his divine power. And he was enjoying the heavenly fellowship of Moses and Elijah, and of all the departed saints, without interruption.
But now, in the profound miracle of the transfiguration, this heavenly fellowship of God and his people becomes visible to Peter and the others - even if just for a short time. It was as if a crack in the doorway to heaven opened up, and the disciples were able to peek in and see what it was like.
When Jesus had raised Jairus’s daughter and Lazarus from the dead, these miracles had served to reassure the disciples that their Master did indeed have power even over death.
Jesus had promised eternal life and the hope of the resurrection to those who repented of their sins and believed in him. Anyone who had witnessed these miracles would be able to know that Jesus could keep such as promise.
I suppose, though, that there were skeptics and unbelievers who would have tried to refute these miracles too. It’s easy to imagine that some of Jesus’ enemies would have claimed that the people Jesus supposedly raised from the dead weren’t really dead - just unconscious.
But for anyone who had witnessed the transfiguration, there would be no way to deny the reality of heaven, and the reality of Jesus’s divine authority in heaven.
The appearance of Moses and Elijah would have confirmed to Peter, James, and John, that there is indeed life after death, and that Jesus is indeed able to bestow eternal life on those who trust in him. If they weren’t sure of it before, they were certainly sure of it now!
As we think about all this, and try to imagine what these events would have been like, we might wish that we could experience something of what the disciples experienced when they witnessed these things. We feel this way, because when we compare our religious life to theirs, ours, it would seem, comes up lacking.
We’re not able to see Jesus with our physical eyes. We haven’t seen him walk on water or perform any miraculous healings. We haven’t seen him raise anybody from the dead. And we certainly haven’t seen anything like the transfiguration.
Instead, in our religious life, we have to settle for the written descriptions of these things that we find in the Bible. We’re not able to see Moses and Elijah with our own eyes. We have to make do with the stories about them that we read in the Bible.
And we don’t hear God speak to us in a booming, audible voice either. The only way that he speaks to us is through the pages of Scripture. There’s nothing very exciting about that - at least not when compared with what happened to Peter, James, and John.
And in regard to the Scriptures, we certainly can’t fail to notice how many liberal religious scholars and critics there are in our day, who spend a lot of time and energy telling everybody that the miracles of the Bible are actually myths; that Jesus was not the Son of God; that there was no resurrection on Easter; and that we have no hope of eternal life through anything that Jesus said or did.
In the classrooms of secular universities and liberal seminaries, on television and in popular magazines, the Bible is continually getting sliced and diced; folded, spindled, and mutilated. Sometimes it might be hard to continue to believe in the Gospel of Christ, when our sole source of this faith and knowledge is mocked and ridiculed over and over and over again.
But wait! Before we start to feel sorry for ourselves because of the relative boredom and insecurity of our spiritual journey - as compared to that of the apostles - let’s listen again to what St. Peter tells us in today’s epistle lesson.
In matters of faith, we would probably think that the testimony of Scripture provides only the most basic and rudimentary spiritual assurance, with Jesus’ miraculous healings and raisings from the dead providing more assurance, and with the transfiguration providing the most assurance of all.
But that’s not the way Peter looks at it! He writes:
“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.”
“And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
Do you notice that? With all the stupendous things that he had seen and heard during his time with Jesus, even including the transfiguration, Peter says that the prophecies and writings of Scripture are able to make us even more sure of our faith.
Witnessing the miracles, and being present for the transfiguration, were wonderful privileges that Peter and the other disciples had. The fact that they were eyewitnesses of these things - and of all the other important events in the earthly ministry of Jesus - is what sets them apart as apostles.
But as far as the certainty of saving faith is concerned, the testimony of the Scriptures is able to confirm the Messianic authority of Christ, and his power to forgive sins, more than these other things.
As far as the gift of eternal life and the hope of the resurrection are concerned, the prophetic word is best able to preserve us in our faith that Jesus is indeed our Savior, and that someday we will be with him in Paradise.
Let’s not sell God short. He has not left us without anything we need to be saved from our sins, and to be preserved in that salvation, throughout our lives.
If we have a yearning for the kind of experiences that Peter and the other disciples had, with the thought that this would bolster our teetering faith, it only shows that we seriously underestimate the divinely-given power of the divinely-inspired Scriptures that are right here with us all the time.
It’s true, of course, that Peter, James, and John heard the voice of God. But when the message of Scripture is proclaimed to us, that’s God’s voice too.
“For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” - to quote St. Peter again.
In the transfiguration, Peter and the others became very much aware of the fact that Jesus did indeed have a true divine nature, united with the human nature that they had always known about.
And Peter now wants us to look beyond the human nature of the Scriptures - beyond the human writing style and individual personality of each of the prophets who penned them - and to see that the Scriptures also have a divine nature.
Siegbert Becker - a well-known theologian and seminary professor in the Wisconsin Synod in the last century - explained it in this way:
“For just as Christ is human and divine, so the Scriptures, too, are both human and divine. The words are human words spoken and written by men, but they are also divine words spoken and written by God through human agency. The holy writers were His scribes, His penmen, whom He used to produce the sacred Scriptures.”
The words of Scripture are filled with life - the life of the Holy Spirit who inspired them. They probe us, and convict us of our sins. And then they sooth us, and speak the peace of God’s pardon and acceptance to our conscience.
God may not be speaking with an audible voice coming out of a cloud, but he is definitely speaking to your mind and heart - through the Scriptures - all the time.
In the transfiguration, Peter and the others were almost overwhelmed by the brightness of the light - an otherworldly light - that seemed to be coming right out of Jesus. They had never seen anything like that before. But after a few minutes, Jesus appeared to them once again just as he had always looked.
The heavenly brilliance of the transfiguration was temporary - like a bright flash, or like an explosion of light, that comes and goes quickly. But the Scriptures emit a steady and permanent light from God that never burns out, and that illuminates the pathway of our faith for as long as we live.
Again, as St. Peter tells us, “We have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place.”
The divine light of Scripture is not the kind of light you see with your physical eyes. But that doesn’t mean that God’s Word emits no light.
The Scriptures supernaturally enlighten your soul. As a thoroughly reliable lamp from heaven, they show you the Lord’s ways, and warn you of the dangers that will come if you veer off the safe pathway of Christian truth.
In the prophetic Scriptures, by a miracle of God that is more profound even than the transfiguration of Christ, we hear things that others can’t hear, and we see things that others can’t see.
In the prophetic Scriptures, which were not written on the basis of any human interpretation, our belief in Christ’s power to forgive and save is miraculously confirmed.
In the prophetic Scriptures, which were not produced by the will of any man, we are continually made ready for our heavenly life with God, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in our hearts. Amen.
10 February 2008 - Lent 1 - Genesis 3:1-21
Last year we heard a lot on the news about a change in military strategy in Iraq. Various people were pointing out that the old strategy was not working. The insurgents were modifying their tactics in such a way that the American tactics were no longer working effectively against them.
And so, in response to these criticisms, we saw the advent of a new strategy - the “Surge,” as it was called. And according to most reports, that new strategy is now working.
The devil also has a strategy in the spiritual warfare that he wages against us. Unlike the U.S. military in Iraq, however, he has not changed his tactics since he started this war in the Garden of Eden.
The reason why his basic strategy has stayed the same, is because it continues to work. And the response of sinful humanity to the tactics he uses against us has also remained basically the same for all these millennia.
So, if we want to get an idea about what to expect from the devil today, we can consider what he did with Adam and Eve. And if we want to get some insight into how we and other people are likely to react to the devil’s machinations, again, we can look at how our first parents reacted.
We see several important things when we read what the Book of Genesis tells us. In dealing with Eve, the devil first sought to plant doubt in her mind regarding God’s Word and will, before he launched out on a frontal assault against God. He asked, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”
Satan knew, of course, that God had in fact not said this, but had merely forbidden humans to eat only from one tree. In the way in which he phrased his insincere question, the devil tried to confuse Eve, and to make her uncertain as to what God’s commandment had really been.
And he does the same thing today. “Did God actually say that you are not allowed to have sexual relations?” He did not say this, but he did say that such intimacy is to be reserved for marriage.
“Did God actually say that you are not allowed to succeed in life?” He did not say this, but he did say that in your efforts to succeed, you must never resort to dishonesty or stealing.
“Did God actually say that you should never be happy?” He did not say this, but he did say that true happiness is to be defined on the basis of that which is noble, honorable, and godly, and not on the basis of the destructive desires of the flesh.
Many times we are led astray from the truth by subtle deceptions like this. Such devilish exaggerations of God’s actual law make God look unreasonable and arbitrary, and they make us feel justified in disobeying him.
And second, we see the devil’s appeal to Eve’s desire to be like God, and to be the mistress of her own destiny. He said, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
He caused Eve to think that God was selfishly keeping something from her that would actually be beneficial to her. In this statement, Satan diminished Eve’s perception of the holiness and goodness of God.
His lying words, when Eve believed them, had the effect of lowering God to Eve’s level - at least in her own mind. She lost her fear of God, and her willingness to submit to God.
In various ways the devil does this now too. We are tempted to think, “God doesn’t really care if you sin. He’s an indulgent and indifferent God who isn’t bothered by any of that.”
But this is a lie. We are still obligated to sing the thrice holy hymn to our creator: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth. Heaven and earth are full of thy glory.”
And as Psalm 99 says, “The Lord reigns; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!”
Don’t misconstrue and misapply the love that God bears toward the world. His love is an undeserved and condescending love, which comes down to us from the heights of his majestic glory.
His love for us does not cause him to stop being God over us. He is not our peer. He is not our equal. Remember, we should fear and love God, and so obey all his commandments.
Any and all temptations we have to think of ourselves as “little gods,” are temptations to idolatry. We must renounce and ignore all of the “New Age” and occultic mumbo-jumbo that would lead us to believe that we each have a “divine spark” within us by nature, or that we have the power to “envision” our realities and speak them into existence.
No. None of this is true. God is God. We are not.
“You will be like God” is a lie that Satan has repeated over and over and over again - to Eve and to all her descendants. It’s a lie that often does appeal to the worst aspects of sinful, human pride. Don’t let this lie appeal to you. Don’t believe it.
We can also notice a few things about the reaction of Adam and Eve to all of this. Their reaction is pretty much like the reaction of all others in human history who have ever succumbed to the devil’s temptations.
In her initial response to the devil’s probing, Eve said, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’”
That’s very interesting, because in the directions that God had given Adam, he did not, in fact, forbid the touching of the fruit of the tree, only the eating of the fruit. It may not seem important, but Eve is misquoting God’s Word, and is adding something that is not supposed to be there.
We must never do that. I wonder how many times we’ve heard that the Bible or the “Good Book” says something that it does not, in fact, say.
Many people imagine that popular sentiments such as “cleanliness is next to godliness,” or “God helps those who help themselves,” are from the Bible. But they are not. They are from “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” written and edited by Benjamin Franklin.
In the face of unexpected temptations, and in preparation for life in general, with all of its trials, it is important to know what God’s Word says - not just to have a general idea, or a vague recollection, but really to know.
It’s easy for the devil to twist the meaning of the Scriptures, and to deceive you in that way, when he knows the Scriptures better than you do. And he knows them very well.
He knows how to misuse them, and how to make them say things they don’t really say. Don’t help him in that process!
Instead, read and study God’s Word. Meditate on God’s Word. Listen attentively when your pastor preaches and teaches God’s Word.
Know God’s Word. And when you confess you faith, base that confession on God’s Word - without adding anything that is not supposed to be there, and without omitting anything that is.
We also read: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.”
Notice how the devil got to Adam. He got to him through Eve.
Adam was actually supposed to be Eve’s “pastor,” as it were. He was the one who had been created first, to be the loving head of his wife. He was the one to whom God had spoken, so that he in turn could teach God’s Word to his wife.
The devil did not honor this divine ordering of the human family. He subverted it. And Eve let him do it.
When Satan wanted to talk to Eve about God, and to give her religious instruction, she should have told him right away that she already had a pastor and religious teacher, according to God’s order, and that she would not receive such instruction from him.
Likewise, when Eve passed on to Adam what the devil had told her, and when she coaxed him to join her in her sin, he should have refused to follow her lead. He should have acted like the spiritual leader in the family that God had appointed him to be, and led her to repentance instead. But he didn’t.
Eve and Adam let each other down. And by allowing themselves to be drawn away from the order of creation by the devil’s allurements, they also let themselves down, and brought upon themselves the worse kind of misery.
Of course, it seemed right at the time. Eve may have liked the feeling of independence and autonomy that the devil’s deceptions gave her - when he successfully plucked her away from God, and away from her husband.
But this feeling of independence and autonomy was an illusion. What was really happening was the first stage of the devil’s enslavement of Eve, and of the whole human race, under the power of sin and death.
Don’t fall for this when the devil tries it with you. Husbands and wives need to know the order for their relationship that God has established.
The same goes for parents and children, and for pastors and laity in the church. The devil can and will produce much mischief in the family - and in the family of God - when the harmonious order that God has established is subverted.
Satan wants you to think that you are “taking charge” of your own life, when you turn your back on the people and offices that he has established for your benefit and protection.
But that’s not what’s happening. What’s happening is that the devil is taking charge of your life, in order to destroy it.
And when our first parents were finally confronted by God, and called to account for what they had done, look at how they answered.
God asked Adam, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
Talk about passing the buck! Adam did not forthrightly take the blame for his sin. He passed the blame onto Eve, and even onto God himself. “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree.”
And Eve’s performance was no better. “The serpent deceived me,” she said. She should have admitted, “I wilfully allowed myself to be deceived by the serpent, even though I knew better.” But there was no such honesty.
It’s no different today. When you’re caught in a sin, is your first reaction to admit your fault, or to find someone else to blame? I think we all know the answer.
When you are to blame for what you have done, God knows it. When you lie to him, or try to trick him into thinking that someone else is really responsible, it just makes him angrier.
Don’t treat God as if he doesn’t know as much as you do about what’s going on. He does. And he also knows a whole lot more.
He knows that Satan is trying to hurt you and destroy you whenever he tempts you to sin. He knows what’s really at stake when you play with fire in this way.
And so, don’t lie to God, or try to evade his scrutiny. Repent, honestly and humbly. Admit your fault. If there are others who are also partially to blame, God will find them on his own, and deal with them himself.
Just take the blame for whatever it is you actually did. Even if others coaxed you to do something that was wrong, since you knew that it was wrong, you are to blame for your own actions, not them.
And ask the Lord for his mercy and forgiveness. He will show it to you, and give it to you.
We’ve noted that the devil hasn’t changed his strategy for all these many generations, because that strategy does usually work. By continuing to use it, he continues to succeed in bringing pain and suffering into the lives of sinful men, and in further alienating the human race from its Lord and creator.
But Satan’s strategy doesn’t always work. Even in the case of Adam and Eve, it worked only for a time. Their sin was inexcusable, but God still brought a word of promise and hope to them, even after they had fallen into the devil’s trap.
God’s Word had been clear. Once they had turned their back on his Word and had believed the devil instead, Adam and Eve did not deserve God’s help. But they got it anyway.
God spoke these words to the devil in such a way as to make sure that Adam and Eve could overhear them: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
The offspring of the woman - the virgin-born Savior of the human race - would someday deliver Adam and Eve, and all their descendants, from the power of Satan.
In his death for all human sin - including the sins that had just transpired - this Savior would indeed be bruised by the devil. His suffering would be real, just as the offense of human sin against a holy God is real.
But in his resurrection, this Savior would bring victory and deliverance to those whom the devil had deceived. He would bruise the devil’s head - giving him an incapacitating blow, as it were - and thereby set humanity free from its enslavement to Satan’s lies.
The coming Savior would win the victory over sin, death, and the devil. And he would offer the fruits of that victory - forgiveness and eternal salvation - to all who repent and believe the Gospel.
This is the promise God made to Adam and Eve. And this, in essence, is the same promise that God makes to you. The Savior who prophetically brought God’s grace to our first parents in Eden, is the Savior who has now come, and who supernaturally lives among us as the head and Lord of his church.
His Spirit speaks to us in the Gospel to assure us of his pardon and reconciliation. In his absolution we are cleansed of all guilt, and all dread of God’s wrath is taken from us.
Jesus battled Satan for us, and was victorious over him for us. Jesus was bruised for our iniquities. And for our deliverance, he bruised our enemy, and freed us from his clutches.
In their shame, Adam and Eve had fashioned for themselves inadequate coverings made of leaves. We, too, are not strangers to such foolish attempts to cover over sin, and to hide it from God’s judgment.
We may think that if we pretend that we have not actually sinned, God will be deceived and will not notice that we have. Or we may think that if do a bunch of good works as a follow-up to our sin, God’s attention will be drawn to the good works and he will forget about the sin. But such cover-ups never work. Never.
But even so, God will also forgive these foolish attempts, when we repent of them, just as he forgave the foolishness of Adam and Eve in this respect. As a substitute for the aprons they had made of leaves, God gave them adequate coverings.
The text tells us, “the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them.” Implicit in this brief sentence is a testimony to the first death that ever occurred on the face of the earth.
God himself slew an innocent animal - an animal that had not sinned against him - so that the skin of that animal could be used to cover the shame of Adam and Eve. What a moving illustration this is of our justification before God, for the sake of Christ’s innocent death on our behalf.
When God forgives us, he places the righteousness of Jesus upon us like a garment. This righteousness covers up the shame of our sin, so that we can stand before God without fear and trembling, but with confidence and hope.
Our own self-made righteousness would never suffice to make us acceptable to God. But the righteousness that Jesus has - and that he gives to us - does suffice. His righteousness, which flows from his perfect life and innocent death, is a perfect righteousness.
When God covered Adam and Eve with the skins that came from the shedding of a substitute’s blood, they, too, were justified. They, too, were assured of God’s grace. They, too, were invited to approach God, once again, in faith.
The devil doesn’t change his strategy in his attacks upon us. But God likewise doesn’t change his strategy in saving us from the devil’s assaults, in making us to be new creatures in Christ, and in protecting us from future danger.
What he did for Adam and Eve, he still does for us. The grace that he showed to them, he shows to us.
The Savior in whom they were invited to believed, is the Savior in whom we are invited to believe. The righteousness with which he covered them, is the righteousness with which he covers us. Amen.
17 February 2008 - Lent 2 - John 3:1-17
During the Republican party primary contests of the past several weeks, commentators have been talking about the “Evangelical” vote, and about which candidate the “Born Again Christians” in the Republican Party would support.
The phenomenon of “born again” Christianity - which is both a religious and a social phenomenon in the American context - takes its name from the words that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus in today’s Gospel text. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
The “Evangelical” branch of Protestant Christianity takes this to be a description of a dramatic and emotionally-charged experience of conversion, which they would consider to be indispensable for anyone who wants to be a true Christian. Together with this understanding of what “born again” means, there is also an assumption that this kind of conversion experience comes about as the result of a decisive act of the human will, in the acceptance of Jesus as Savior and Lord.
The scheme goes something like this. God offers salvation to people through the Biblical message about Christ. He then waits for a response.
If the person who hears the Gospel decides to believe it, and is willing to say a prayer in which he accepts Jesus and invites God to come into his heart, then he will be “born again.” If the person who hears the Gospel decides not to believe it, then he will remain in his unregenerate state.
A mistake that Evangelical Christians make in formulating their doctrine of conversion is that they confuse the way things appear to be with the way things actually are.
Before the advent of Copernican astronomy, people used to think that the sun literally rose in the morning and set in the evening. Why did they think so? Because that’s what appeared to be happening.
Likewise, because people didn’t feel the earth rotating under their feet, they had no idea that something like that was really going on. They had no idea that the sun was stationary, and that it was the earth, not the sun, which was in constant motion.
It’s the same way in spiritual matters. The human will is indeed involved in saving faith. But a true faith in the Gospel does not arise from an autonomous, free human will. A desire to believe in Jesus, and to serve him in a life of Christian obedience, does not have its origin in the decision-making ability of an unregenerated mind.
It may seem as if that is what is happening when an unbeliever becomes a believer. But that’s not what is really happening. Rather, as St. Paul teaches in his epistle to the Philippians, “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
There is a reason why Jesus uses the imagery of a second birth to illustrate and explain the beginning of spiritual life within a person. When you were physically conceived and born, did you help to bring yourself into existence? No, you did not.
Rather, your human life was completely a gift from your parents. Through the procreative process, they brought you into existence.
You therefore received the gift of your existence from your parents in a completely passive way. Your cooperation in your own conception and birth was neither necessary nor even possible. You didn’t do anything to bring yourself into existence, or to help in bringing yourself into existence.
And that’s the way it is with the existence of your spiritual life. To be “born again” means to be the recipient of a heavenly gift from the Holy Spirit.
When Jesus says that a person needs to be “born again” in order to see and to enter the kingdom of God, he’s not saying that you need to do something. He’s saying that something needs to happen to you. Something extraordinary. Something miraculous.
Sometimes, when a person is brought to faith, or renewed in faith, by the working of God’s Spirit, the emotions may indeed be stimulated in a very dramatic way. We are not all Stoics.
Especially in cases when the person who is touched by the power of the Gospel had been a profligate sinner, or when such a person had previously been horribly deceived by false teaching concerning the way of salvation, the realization of how wonderful God’s grace truly is can bring an exhilarating feeling of newness and joy.
That is, it can bring about a feeling of being “born again.” This is, in fact, exactly how Luther described his feeling, when God revealed to him, through the Scriptures, the wonderful truth of justification by faith.
Luther had previously thought that whenever the Bible spoke of the “righteousness of God,” it meant the righteousness by which God is righteousness, and by which he judges and condemns sinful man. But as Luther pondered a particular verse in the Epistle to the Romans, God’s Spirit liberated him from this fearful misunderstanding, and showed him what the Gospel, or “Good News” of Christ, really is.
Here is how he described the way in which he experienced that wonderful discovery:
“I had indeed been captivated with an extraordinary ardor for understanding Paul in the Epistle to the Romans. But up till then it was...a single word in Chapter 1, “in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed,” that had stood in my way. For I hated that word “righteousness of God”... Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. ...”
“I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly...I was angry with God, and said, ‘As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the [Ten Commandments], without having God add pain to pain...and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!’ Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. ...”
“At last, by the mercy of God, meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, ‘In [the gospel] the
righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.”’ There I began to understand that the ‘righteousness of God’ is that by which the righteous [person] lives by a gift of God, namely by faith.”
“And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely, the...righteousness with which [a] merciful God justifies us by faith... Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me.” So far Luther.
This experience was very real to Luther. But he never suggested that such an experience was to be expected by everyone who had faith in the Gospel. And he also never derived certainty about the presence of God in his life from how he felt when the Gospel impacted him on that occasion.
His certainty came not from his particular way of receiving the Gospel, but from the Gospel itself. He knew that he was born again because of the regenerating promise of God, which he believed, and not because he felt a certain way when he believed this promise.
The objective certainty of the Gospel was especially important to Luther during those times of his life that were characterized by melancholy and depression. And he did go through many such times. But whether Luther was up or down, optimistic or discouraged, God’s Word, and the promise that the Holy Spirit would always work through God Word, remained a constant for him.
In hindsight, Luther also valued the very personal pledge that God had made to him in his Baptism. By the power of Christ’s Word that resides in this sacrament, he knew that he had been born again on that day, of water and the Spirit. And, he knew that his Baptism had always pursued him, throughout his life. Through his baptism God had never stopped calling out to him.
Even if he, for a time, had turned his back on the Gospel, and had hated God rather than trusting in the grace of God’s forgiveness, God’s forgiveness was always accessible to him. It was always available, to be re-appropriated, whenever he would return to his Baptism in repentance and faith.
We read in the Large Catechism:
“In Baptism we are given the grace, Spirit, and power to suppress the old man so that the new may come forth and grow strong. Therefore Baptism remains forever. Even though we fall from it and sin, nevertheless we always have access to it so that we may again subdue the old man. But we need not again have the water poured over us.”
“Even if we were immersed in water a hundred times, it would nevertheless be only one Baptism, and the effect and signification of Baptism would continue and remain. Repentance, therefore, is nothing else than a return and approach to Baptism, to resume and practice what had earlier been begun but abandoned.”
Luther’s personal spiritual journey can serve as a helpful illustration of the regenerating grace of God, and of how the Gospel impacts people when God brings a spiritual awakening to them. But these things are true not only for Luther. They are true also for you.
What Jesus says to Nicodemus, and to Luther, he says also to you. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” You cannot see God’s kingdom, and you cannot enter that kingdom, unless you are born again.
This doesn’t mean that you need to have had a certain kind of stereotyped conversion experience at some point in the past. This doesn’t mean that you need to have experienced a certain level of emotional fervor at a particular time in your religious life.
And this certainly doesn’t mean that you are supposed to have made some kind of a decision for Christ by an act of your unregenerated will. But it does mean that a miracle needs to have taken place within you, by the working of God’s Spirit through his means of grace.
Faith arises from a new spiritual life that only God can give. And it is a life that God does give.
It is not earned, or achieved on the basis of religious efforts or exercises. Like your original conception and birth, your spiritual life is bestowed on you. It’s not something you do. It’s something that happens to you, wonderfully, and miraculously.
In today’s text from St. John’s Gospel, Jesus also tells us how we can know that a new spiritual birth has, in fact, happened within us.
Like Luther, sometimes we may feel that God is close to us, and sometimes we may feel that he is far away. It can be confusing, and maybe also a bit frightening, as we go through the ups and downs of a lifetime of religious experience.
But that’s okay. You’re not supposed to base the certainty of your salvation on such feelings, one way or the other.
Instead, if you want to be certain that God’s Spirit does dwell within you, and that the grace of your Baptism is still abiding with you, listen to the objective and certain promise that Jesus makes to you today: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
In his Gospel, Jesus tells you that he died for you, as your substitute under divine justice. In his Gospel, Jesus tells you that he rose again for you, so that you can live forever in fellowship with God. In his Gospel, Jesus tells you that your sins - all of them - are forgiven, and that God’s anger is turned away from you forever for his sake.
When you hear these things, God in his mercy sets your troubled soul at ease, and he transforms your heart. When you hear these things, you know that they are true, because God’s promises are always true.
And even if you hear these things through an emotional cloud of grief, or discouragement, or guilt, or doubt, God’s Spirit impresses it on your mind and spirit that they are so, and that God does indeed love you in this way.
You are a part of the world - the fallen and sinful world. But it is a world that God loves, and for which he gave his Son. God loves you, and he gave his Son for you, so that you can believe in him, and have eternal life.
Whoever you are, God invites you to believe in his Son. Whatever sins you may have committed in the past, God invites you, by faith, to have eternal life.
Therefore, if you do believe in him - even if your faith is weak and trembling - you are saved. You have received the gift of a new spiritual life. If you were to die today, you would live forever in the company of all God’s saints.
And, by faith, you can be certain that the grace and promise of your baptism will always be with you, and will always be available to you. You have indeed been born again, of water and the Spirit. Amen.
24 February 2008 - Lent 3 - John 4:5-26
The roles and relationships of men and women. The purpose and character of worship.
It sounds like the agenda for a conference on modern controversies in the Christian church, doesn’t it? Well, I suppose it could be that. But it is also a description of two of the topics Jesus touches on in today’s text from St. John’s Gospel.
Now, if the issues of our Lord’s time, and the issues of our time, are essentially the same issues, then perhaps we should all be a little more attentive to what Jesus would teach us in regard to those issues.
He wants to be a part of our contemporary conversation. And, he wants us to listen in on the conversation he had, with the woman at the well.
“There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink.’ ... The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?’ ... Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’”
One of the major controversies that has been disturbing various branches of Christendom over the past several decades is the debate over what the proper roles of men and women should be in the church. St. Paul’s teachings about male headship, and about female submission, are often dismissed as relics of a time in history when men in general considered women in general to be inferior to them in all respects.
The push for the ordination of women as pastors in many churches has come about in part under the influence of secular feminism, but also in part on the basis of a sincere belief that the Spirit of the Gospel, and the example of Christ, should be seen to override St. Paul’s more insecure and culturally-conditioned attitude toward women.
It is not possible to go in-depth on all the various aspects of this debate right now. Let it suffice at the present to point out that this is not a fair or accurate characterization of St. Paul’s actual attitude toward women.
But today’s text from St. John does illustrate one important point that is often raised in the contemporary debate: namely, that Jesus was indeed willing to break man-made social taboos regarding the roles and relationships of men and women, if those taboos stood in the way of the Gospel.
At this time in history, respectable Jewish men did not speak with strange women in public. Like the more conservative cultures of the Middle East even today, it was considered very immodest and improper to do this. And if the woman in question had a somewhat sullied reputation, this made the prohibition of contact with her even more stringent.
And when men did speak with women - usually their female relatives in domestic settings - they would not do so in order to give them any level of serious religious instruction.
The attitudes of the time dictated that theological conversations were properly to be conducted only among men. Women were not perceived to be capable of grasping the fine points of a discourse regarding God and the things of God.
But Jesus broke all these taboos. He did speak with a strange woman in public - and a Samaritan woman at that! He spoke with her, even though she was not a respectable person in her community.
Her previous serial marriages, and her present cohabitation with a man outside of wedlock, certainly would have marked her as someone that no self-respecting Jewish man would ever want to be seen with, let alone talk to. But Jesus did not let these social prohibitions stand in the way of bringing to this woman a message about the water of life.
He was not afraid to be seen as an immoral person himself, if it meant that he would have an opportunity to invite this woman to repent of her sins, and to put her faith in him as her Savior.
Jesus treated women as equal members of the human family. He cared about them and their salvation as much as he cared about the souls of men. And he respected them.
He knew that they were capable of understanding God’s Word, and of exercising a personal faith in God’s Word, just as much as any man. And he didn’t care if he would come in for some criticism over this approach from the religious leaders of the day.
Jesus didn’t govern his behavior so as to please them. He governed his behavior so as to please his Father in heaven, who wills all people to be saved, and who loves all people equally.
If you are woman, do not allow yourself to be misled by the modern anti-Christian propaganda that the God of Christianity is a deity who was invented by a woman-hating patriarchal culture, and that the God of Christianity is a God who endorses your oppression, and who concurs in the diminishing of your value as a human being. This is not what God is like. This is not what Jesus, the Son of God, is like.
His love and concern for you, and for your spiritual well-being, is no less intense than is his love and concern for any man. And it is certainly no less intense than was his love and concern for the woman at the well.
He does not let any bigotry or prejudice, emerging from the heart of sinful men, stand in his way, as he comes to you with his pardon and grace. The quality and character of his interaction with the Samaritan woman proves this.
That’s why we should not think that his decision to entrust the apostolic office to twelve qualified males, and to call only men to be preachers and sacramental administrants in his church, has anything at all to do with the temporary cultural attitudes about men and women that were current in the first century. If Jesus believed that women pastors were proper for his church, he would have called women to be pastors.
The fact that he did not do so, even though he was willing to cross many other cultural lines in regard to the roles of men and women, demonstrates that a male-only pastoral ministry in the church is rooted in something deeper than the bigotries and prejudices of any particular culture.
It is, rather, rooted in God’s enduring created order for the human family, which is applicable to all people in all times and places. It is rooted in God’s wise and loving will for order and harmony in his church universal.
The attitude that Jesus showed toward men and women during his earthly ministry does set an example for how we today should treat each other, in his name. All of us - men and women - were created by God.
All of us - men and women - were redeemed by the blood of Christ. Therefore all of us - regardless of our gender - are deserving of honor and respect.
But Jesus’ concern for the woman at the well did not alter his commitment to the order of creation. Neither does our aspiration to be like Christ - in the way he treated this woman - cause us to ignore the Biblical mandate that a bishop or pastor is to be the husband of one wife, and the Biblical mandate that a woman is not to teach or exercise authority over the man. God still wants you to have a spiritual father, to minister to you pastorally and sacramentally.
Jesus continued his conversation with the woman at the well. When his questions about the woman’s husband - or husbands - got a little too close for comfort, she did what we often do in similar circumstances, where we have been made to feel uncomfortable. She changed the subject.
The woman wanted to divert the conversation away from such a personal and sensitive point, to a safer topic - namely a liturgical, ceremonial question. She said:
“Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.”
“...the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”
It is often pointed out that God does not want to be worshiped with rote prayers that are repeated mindlessly from week to week. And we would agree.
Jesus himself criticizes the “vain repetition” of those who think that the number of times they repeat a prayer makes an impression on God. Jesus also speaks judgment on those who think that the external trappings of worship are worship.
Quoting Scripture, he says, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
But the alternative to such “vain repetition” that is often proposed in popular Christianity doesn’t really solve the problem, but instead creates even more problems.
When Jesus says in this discourse that “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth,” this is often taken to mean that we must be sincere in our worship - that we must really mean what we are saying.
But there is a big difference between the idea of truth, and the idea of sincerity. There are a lot of people in this world who are very sincere in the mistaken beliefs that they hold.
Having lived for several years in the former Soviet Union, I am personally acquainted with some people who used to be very sincere in their communism.
They really believed in communist ideology, and were not just going along with the system - as many people were.
But they were wrong - from beginning to end - in what they sincerely believed back then.
The particular people I am talking about are now Christians. And they are now very sincere in their new Christian beliefs.
The difference between their old beliefs and their new beliefs is not a difference in sincerity. They were and are sincere in their adherence to both belief systems.
The difference is that what they believe now is true. And the reason why they know that it is true, is not because they believe it sincerely, but because they believe it on the basis of what God’s Spirit has revealed to them in the Gospel.
Back when my eastern European friends sincerely believed in the writings of Marx and Lenin, and praised Marx and Lenin accordingly, they were worshiping idols, under a Satanic deception. Now, as they sincerely believe God’s Word, and praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit accordingly, they are worshiping the only God who really exists - “in spirit and truth.”
That’s what Jesus is explaining to the woman at the well. God wants to be worshiped by Jews and Samaritans - and by Gentiles of every description - on the basis of his Word. His Spirit informs and shapes and guides our spirits, so that we ask for the things that God wants us to have, and so that we thank him for the things that he has actually given us.
God wants our adoration, our thankfulness, our reverence. But most fundamentally, he wants us to believe what he tells us.
The woman at the well was not going to be able to avoid thinking about her immoral life indefinitely, even though she tried to change the subject. God was not actually going to let her do that, at least not for long.
God’s Spirit, through the voice of Jesus, was going to continue to probe her mind, and to prick her conscience. God was not going to give up on her until she had turned away from her sin in repentance, and until, by the working of his Spirit, she had embraced the truth that he was offering to her.
He was offering her the forgiveness of her sins, the cleansing of her conscience, and a new life in Christ. He was offering her the water of life.
Only when she would embrace this gift, would she truly be able to worship God in spirit and truth. Only then would she worship a God whom she had actually come to know.
Sometimes, when you come to church, the lessons that are read, the hymns that are sung, or the prayers that are said, may touch on things that make you squirm in your seat a little bit.
Maybe there are some secret or not-so-secret areas of your life that you think are not quite ready to be probed by God. And you feel uncomfortable when God seems to want to start probing them.
Perhaps there are certain sins you think you’re not quite ready to give up. Perhaps there are certain obligations you think you’re not quite ready to fulfill. So, when the Holy Spirit begins to prod you on these matters, maybe you’d like to change the subject.
But it’s not easy to do this, at least not here. Worship services that are based on God’s Word, and that are constructed around what God wants to say to the human race, are the kind of worship services that will indeed probe and challenge us.
In a liturgical church such as ours, we don’t get to change the subject, or to make the service be about us and about what we are comfortable discussing. Jesus is in charge of the conversation he is having with us - just as Jesus was ultimately in charge of the conversation he was having with the Samaritan woman.
And in that conversation with the woman, after all these things had been said, she made this statement to Jesus: “I know that Messiah is coming... When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”
Yes, indeed. The Messiah - who is Christ Jesus our Lord - does tell us all things.
Jesus tells us that women and men are to be treated with equal respect, because he died for both, and loves both. But he also tells us that the distinction between men and women in God’s created order has not been erased, and that it is therefore God’s will that this distinction be honored in matters pertaining to pastoral leadership in the church.
Jesus tells us that vain, mindless worship is not worship at all. If your mind and heart are not engaged in the hymns you sing and in the prayers you speak, you are not engaged. But he also tells us that the truth of his Word - his message of law and Gospel directed to our conscience - is to govern our worship, and not the whims and passing fads of our own religious curiosity.
And there’s one more very important thing that Jesus tells us - as he tells us all things. He says to the woman in today’s story, and he says also to us: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
By the grace of God, in the power of the Gospel, you do know the gift of God. As a baptized child of God, you do know who it is who is speaking these words to you.
And in faith you therefore know that the water of life is always available to you. Jesus gives you this water. And as he gives it, it continues to flow to you, and through you.
It is, in truth, the Spirit of Christ, who continually flows to and through you, and who keeps your faith alive. It is the Spirit of Christ who keeps you focused on the cross of Calvary - where your sins were atoned for - and who keeps you focused on the empty tomb - where your victory over death was accomplished.
It is the Spirit of Christ - the living, supernatural water of God - who leads you to see your continuing need to repent of your sins, and who also continually washes those sins away for the sake of Christ. That Spirit - that living water - refreshes your weary soul, and reinvigorates your mind and will for a life of faith and service to God.
And as Jesus himself promises, “whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Amen.