6 January 2008 - Epiphany -Matthew 2:1-12

We all know the Biblical story of the wise men. Three men from the east traveled to the Holy Land to find the newborn king of Israel. A star guided them to Bethlehem, where Jesus was, and where the wise men worshiped him.

That’s the story, right? Well, not exactly. First of all, the Bible does not tell us how many wise men there were. St. Matthew does mention three gifts which the wise men brought - gold, frankincense, and myrrh - and on that basis people have surmised that there was one wise man per gift.

But this is only a guess. There might have been three wise men. There might have been thirty.

Thinking that the Bible refers specifically to three wise men is, though, a relatively harmless mistake. A lack of precision regarding the number of wise men who visited Jesus doesn’t really matter. But it might be a little more dangerous to our faith to make a mistake about the extent to which the wise men were led by a star to Bethlehem.

St. Matthew’s Gospel does describe this star. But we don’t know exactly what it was. There are various theories held by people who do take the Biblical account seriously.

Some think this astronomical phenomenon was a conjunction of planets. Others are of the opinion that it was a comet. Still others say that no natural explanation is adequate, and that the appearance of this star was a miraculous occurrence.

Regardless of the kind of explanation we might come up with, the star certainly did fulfill a divine purpose in the lives of the wise men. God definitely used it to get their attention, and to prompt within them a desire to seek out the newborn king of Israel.

But whatever the star really was, it did not, all by itself, actually lead the wise men to Bethlehem, where Jesus was to be found. When they had nothing more to go by than the star itself, they ended up, not in Bethlehem, but in Jerusalem.

The meaning and message that they read out of the star did not bring them to the house of Joseph the carpenter. Instead, they ended up at the palace of Herod, the despotic Roman puppet king.

Geographically the wise men were close. Jerusalem was only about six miles away from Bethlehem. But theologically, Herod’s home, and Joseph’s home, were just about as far away from each other as they could be.

As significant as the star is in the story of the wise men, it did not, all by itself, lead the wise me to the true king of the Jews and the Savior of all nations. It led them only to a satanic counterfeit.

What did finally put the wise men on the right track - toward the city of David - was the testimony of God himself, through the prophet Micah, to which the religious scholars in Jerusalem directed them: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”

It is true that the star had pointed the wise men in the right general direction. And after the wise men were enlightened by the Biblical message, the star reappeared and once again went before them.

But without the clear and precise testimony of Holy Scripture, which they got only from the writings of the prophet Micah, they would not have found their Savior.

There are, we might say, a lot of “wise men” today, who are also searching for God, and for a relationship with God. This search is prompted by various influences.

Some people are sensitive to the spiritual dimension of humanity - that is, to that non-physical part of us that makes human beings to be something higher than the animals, and that gives human beings the capacity to reflect on the meaning of their existence.

As people like this ponder the deeper meaning of things, they often seek to get in touch with the divine forces that they imagine are present in the universe in which they live.

But this awareness of a higher existence, and of a supernatural dimension, is not enough to bring us to Christ. We can know, intuitively, that there is a God. And we can discern certain things about God through our sensitivity to the natural law that he has imprinted on our conscience.

But the way of salvation is not accessible to us through these intuitions. The way for fallen sinners like you and me to be restored to our fellowship with God cannot be learned through spiritual introspection.

These kinds of spiritual reflections are like stars in the sky, that lead people in a general way toward their spiritual destination. But all by themselves, such meditative reflections can get us only as far as Jerusalem. They will not get us to Bethlehem.

There is an increasing number of scientists today, who are freeing themselves from the intellectual straightjacket of materialism and naturalism. I am personally acquainted with several such scientists in Ukraine.

In Soviet times the official dogma in the universities there used to be that there is no God, no creator, and no transcendent meaning to any of the things that can be observed under the microscope or through the telescope.

These kinds of empiricist assumptions are still fashionable among many scientists even today, in our country. This is a lingering legacy of the so-called “Enlightenment,” and of its reactionary, anti-supernatural philosophy.

But there are also many scientists who realize that materialism and naturalism do not and cannot explain everything. They know there is something more.

When they observe the intricate mechanisms of the genetic code, or the vast reaches of the cosmos, they are filled with awe, and with a desire to seek out a deeper, supernatural, and even religious explanation for what they are seeing.

But the message of God’s redemption of the human race in the cross of Christ cannot be read in the stars. The strings of DNA that govern life in this world, do not tell us anything about the eternal life that Christ’s resurrection has made available to us.

The conscientious observations of open-minded scientists are like stars in the sky, that lead people in a general way toward a knowledge of God and of the things of God. But all by themselves, such observations of the created world can get us only as far as Herod’s palace. They cannot get us to the carpenter’s house where Jesus, our incarnate Savior and Lord, is to be found.

Wise men who look for God only in the experiences of the heart, or only in the mysteries of nature, need to become wiser than they are now. They need to become as wise as the wise men of 2,000 years ago became, when they were enlightened by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures - God’s written revelation to man.

How wise are we? Do we always seek Christ, and the salvation of Christ, where the Word of God tells us to look? Or do we sometimes imagine that our Savior, and our salvation, can be found and obtained in places other than where the Scriptures tell us they are to be found and obtained?

Since his resurrection and ascension, Jesus can no longer be physically isolated to one particular location on earth - whether in Bethlehem or anywhere else. But he can be encountered in the mystery of his continuing supernatural presence with his people.

Listen again to these familiar words from the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel, addressed to the Lord’s disciples:

“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

“I am with you always, even to the end of the age,” is a promise that is given to the church, and to the ministers of the church, as they preach the saving Gospel that God has revealed, and as they administer the holy sacraments that God has instituted.

The promise of Christ’s presence - or of being able to find Christ - is not given to those who follow self-made religions, or who make up their own spiritual beliefs as they go along in life.

And we read in the epistle to the Hebrews:

“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another...”

We are admonished here not to neglect our life together as a congregation, but to continue to meet together, in order to encourage one another. And the nature of this Christian encouragement is to be understood in the context of what the writer had just described.

We have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus. That holy blood purchased our redemption on the tree of the cross. It was shed on Calvary for the forgiveness of our sins. And now, in the gatherings of the church, it is bestowed on us sacramentally as a testament of God’s enduring mercy toward his people.

We have confidence to enter the holy places by the new and living way that Jesus has opened for us through his flesh. Christ did truly partake of our human flesh in his incarnation. God’s Son, in condescending love, became a part of what he redeemed and saved.

And in the offering of his body on the cross - in our place - he turned away God’s wrath forever. Now, in the gatherings of the church, that holy flesh - that holy body - is bestowed on us sacramentally as a pledge of God’s peace and reconciliation, for the sake of his Son’s all-sufficient sacrifice.

As God’s baptized children, we draw near to him with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. God has marked us as his own in the sacred washing of his font.

As we continue to live the baptismal life - a life of repentance and faith; a life of dying to sin and rising in Christ - we are sustained by the Holy Spirit, who accomplishes all of this in us, and who draws us ever closer to Christ and to each other in the fellowship his Word and Sacrament.

These are the places, my friends - the holy, sacred places - where the Scriptures tell us to search for our Savior and king today. And it is only in the divinely-inspired Scriptures where we can find the directions we need, in order to know this.

Without the guidance of God’s Word, the various stars in the sky that may cause us to think of God and the things of God, will not ultimately get us to these sacred places where God actually meets man.

Without the explicit testimony of God in his Word, we would never find those special places where God’s redemption is made known, and where his forgiveness is distributed.

St. Matthew tells us that when the wise men found Jesus 2,000 years ago - in the location where God, through the prophet Micah, had said he would be - “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”

Dear friends, you who are here today have also found such a location. This Christian gathering, humble though it may be, is where God has promised us that his Son can be found.

Oh, there’s nothing overly special about the specific individuals who are here. And there’s certainly nothing extraordinary or compelling about the personality of the preacher who is stammering in front of you at this very moment.

But this is where Jesus can be found, because in spite of the shortcomings of the people and the preacher, God’s Word and Sacrament are administered here. God’s pledges and promises are heard here. God’s praises are sung here. God’s saving gifts are distributed here.

You are here, my friends, as a part of this congregation, because this is where God, in his Scriptures, has told you to go. By faith in God’s Word, your search for God, and for the salvation that God offers through his Son, has brought you to where his means of grace are administered and made available.

Let us, then, like the wise men, rejoice exceedingly with great joy. And as we do, let us repeat the prayer that we sang to the Lord a few minutes ago:

Ah, look on me with pity, Though I am weak and poor;
Admit me to Thy kingdom, To dwell there, blest and sure.
I pray Thee, guide and keep me Safe from my bitter foes,
From sin and death and Satan; Free me from all my woes.

And bid Thy Word within me Shine as the fairest star;
Keep sin and all false doctrine Forever from me far.
Help me confess Thee truly, And with Thy Christendom
Here own Thee King and Savior And in the world to come. Amen.

13 January 2008 - Baptism of Our Lord - Matthew 13:13-17

With the exception of Mary, Joseph, and perhaps a few others, it is very unlikely that anybody who knew Jesus as he was growing up would have expected him to end up conducting the kind of public ministry that he did in fact conduct.

He was a carpenter, and the son of a carpenter - or, as we know, the step-son of a carpenter. Just about everybody would have expected him to pursue that craft, to get married and raise a family, and in general to lead a respectable, yet unassuming, life.

That’s why his ministry got the kind of reaction that it got from the “home town crowd” in Nazareth, when he become a preacher instead. “Is not this Joseph’s son?” “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?”

The small-town lifestyle that Jesus was expected to lead would certainly have been an honorable and respectable lifestyle.

And we can almost imagine Jesus himself, according to his human nature, being happy to embrace the “simple life,” as it were, and joyfully to pursue an uncomplicated existence as a good husband and father, with all of the rewards and joys that come from this.

But any such hypothetical potentialities for the earthly future of Jesus evaporated in an instant on the day he was baptized. From that day forward, everything he would publicly do and allow to be done; everything he would publicly say and allow to be said, would be for the happiness and benefit of others.

The kind of personal rewards that he might have experienced as a faithful husband, loving father, and small-town tradesman, were not going to be his lot in life. His was a different calling.

The occasion of our Lord’s baptism was, among other things, the occasion of his public call to begin his public ministry. According to his divine nature, of course, Jesus was, and always had been, the supreme teacher of humanity.

His Spirit, through the revealed oracles of God, had always been impressing his Word onto the hearts and minds of men. He had been the Son of God from eternity, and in his hidden divine majesty had always functioned as such.

But according to his human nature, during his state of humiliation, Jesus did not become a preacher and teacher until he was publicly called to this work by the voice of his heavenly Father. In his description of the boy Jesus in the temple, at the age of twelve, Luke is careful to state that the religious scholars were amazed by his questions, and not by his preaching. He wasn’t “preaching” to them at that time.

Jesus had always been the Son of God. But in his incarnate state he didn’t manifest himself to be the Son of God, or begin his public ministry as the Son of God, until the day on which he was baptized by John the Baptist.

That’s when the voice of the Father rang out from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” That’s when the Holy Spirit descended upon him in the form of a dove, to anoint him for the ministry that he would now begin to carry out.

His preaching, his performance of miracles, and ultimately his offering of himself on the cross and his resurrection, did not occur until after this public call, and because of this public call.

And again, our Lord’s Messianic ministry was carried out, in every respect, for the benefit of others. Jesus lived his life, from that point forward, with an unswerving dedication to doing everything that needed to be done, so that you and I could be saved from the guilt and power of sin, and live forever in a restored fellowship with God.

Whatever life Jesus might hypothetically have lived for himself, and for the fulfilment of his own human dreams and aspirations, was instantly buried and nullified under the supreme obligations of divine duty, in the moment when he was baptized.

And even now, in his ascended glory, Jesus continues to live for others, and not for himself. He protects and takes care of his church. He governs and guides his people.

He forgives them. He justifies them. He teaches them. He makes his home within and among them, and never departs from them. He never stops thinking about, and accomplishing, whatever is good and beneficial for them.

Admittedly, I’ve engaged in a little speculation about what the life of Jesus of Nazareth might have been like, if he had not been baptized, and if he had not answered the call of his Father to begin his public ministry on that day. But what about your life?

What would your life have been like if you had never been baptized? What kind of existence would you be leading, if you had never been introduced to the grace and forgiveness of God, and if the seed of faith had never been planted within you by God’s Spirit?

We don’t have to engage in as much speculation to answer that question, because in our human experience we know what an existence without the grace of God is like:

Endless inner striving for un-achieved happiness. Ceaseless struggles for un-attained fulfillment and contentment. An inescapable captivity to passions and impulses that lead only to pain and sadness.

Take your pick. None of it is good. And God’s Word also tells us what life without the Gospel is like.

St. Paul says in Second Corinthians, in regard to “those who are perishing,” that “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”

In Ephesians Paul speaks of those who are “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”

That’s the kind of life you could have expected without baptism, and without the faith and regeneration that baptism brings. That’s what the devil - your sworn enemy - no doubt expected from you.

But something happened one day that the devil didn’t like, and that put your life on an entirely different pathway. On the day you were baptized, God interrupted the devil’s plans and expectations, and changed the direction of your life forever.

On that day God called you to a life of repentance and faith, and with that call came the supernatural power to lead such a life. God called you to be a part of his family, and with that call came the forgiveness and reconciliation that makes this spiritual adoption possible.

In his baptism, Jesus identified with you, and took your grief and pain upon himself. Now, in your baptism, Jesus invites you to identify with him, and to receive the imputation of his righteousness.

In his baptism, he gave up the potential joys and pleasures that he might have experienced on this earth, so that in your baptism, he can deliver you from the pointless and meaningless existence that would otherwise have been yours, and give you an eternal hope.

In his baptism, Jesus was called by God to step out on a pathway in life that most people did not expect him to follow. In your baptism, you, too, were called by God to step out on a pathway in life that the devil, and this sinful world, would not have expected you to follow.

But God’s ways are always best. That’s true for the earthly life of Jesus, and the unique saving work that he accomplished for us. And that’s true for you too, and for the baptismal life that God has bestowed upon you.

And just as the Lord’s baptism impacted and defined the rest of his earthly life, so too your baptism, according to the Lord’s gracious will, impacts and defines the rest of your life.

You can’t put your baptism behind you, as you move on to other things - or at least you can’t do this and retain the blessings of your baptism. You can’t disconnect yourself from your baptism, and begin pursuing instead a life without daily repentance and faith, and still stay connected to God.

Rather, according to God’s saving will, the grace of your baptism goes with you in every decision that you make, and with every step that you take. The call of your baptism echoes in your conscience every moment of every day.

No one explains the blessings of this baptismal life better than St. Paul, in today’s epistle lesson from Romans. Listen again to what he says there:

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

“For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. ... For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

That’s what God gives you in your baptism. That’s the life to which God calls you by means of your baptism. That’s what God himself works and accomplishes within you through your baptism.

He that believes and is baptized Shall see the Lord’s salvation;
Baptized into the death of Christ, He is a new creation.
Through Christ’s redemption he shall stand
Among the glorious heavenly band
Of every tribe and nation.

With one accord, O God, we pray: Grant us Thy Holy Spirit;
Look Thou on our infirmity Through Jesus’ blood and merit.
Grant us to grow in grace each day
That by this Sacrament we may
Eternal life inherit. Amen.

20 January 2008 - Epiphany 2 - John 1:29-42a

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” In this short but profound sentence, St. John the Baptist preaches one of the richest and fullest sermons about Jesus that appears in the Bible.

In just a few words, he tells us pretty much everything we need to know about Jesus in order to be saved and have eternal life. Let’s take a few minutes to unpack this sermon.

John begins by saying, “Behold.” That is, Look. Look at that person coming toward us. And as you look, know that the one at whom you are looking is the Lamb of God.

When the people did look, what they saw, externally, was a ordinary-looking man. With their bodily eyes they did not see the purity of his own soul, and they also did not see the sins of humanity clinging to him. With their physical vision they did not behold the shadow of Calvary’s cross hovering over him.

But when John said, “Behold, the Lamb of God,” he was calling upon the people who were there with him to look at Jesus also with the eyes of faith, and not only with their physical eyes. The Word of God concerning Jesus, which John was proclaiming, would enable them to have a supernaturally-given perception of who he really was.

Sometimes the Bible uses the idea of “seeing” or “beholding” as a synonym for faith, or as a synonym for the believer’s confidence in God and reliance upon God. The epistle to the Hebrews tells us: “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.”

Psalm 34 encourages us with these words: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant, and their faces shall never be ashamed.”

And so, my friends, listen to what John the Baptist is also telling you, today. Look to Jesus in faith. As God’s Word enlightens you, see him for who he is. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

He is the Lamb of God. In the Old Testament there are two important points of reference regarding the image of a Lamb, which John the Baptist no doubt had in mind when he identified Jesus as the Lamb of God.

The first is from the Passover. The Lord commanded each Hebrew household to slaughter a lamb, and to smear its blood on the doorposts of their homes, in preparation for the last and most severe plague that he was going to bring on the land of Egypt.

The angel of death would go forth over the land and slay the firstborn of every Egyptian family. But when that angel saw the lamb’s blood smeared on the Hebrew houses, he would “pass over” those families and spare them.

Because of these lambs, the Lord’s judgment against the stubborn and unbelieving Egyptians would not touch the Israelites. The firstborn of the Hebrew families would not be required to shed their blood under God’s judgment, because the lambs had already shed their blood for those families.

God also commanded that the Passover festival be observed by Israel as an annual reminder of this deliverance. Each year, as devout Jewish families obeyed that command, the Passover lamb remained at the heart and center of the Passover ritual.

It is certainly not a coincidence that the death of Jesus occurred in conjunction with this Passover festival. It is certainly not a coincidence that he instituted his Holy Supper during the Passover meal that he was sharing with his disciples.

The message of the Gospel, which we are invited to believe for our salvation, is that Jesus is indeed our Passover Lamb, who was sacrificed for us. His blood covers us.

When God in his holiness sees that blood, his judgment against human sin does not rest upon us, but passes over, leaving us untouched and unpunished. In Christ, and because of Christ, we live.

The other Biblical source for the “Lamb” imagery is the prophet Isaiah:

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.”

John pointed to Jesus as the one destined to die in the place of sinful man. He was and is the pure and spotless Lamb.

His atoning sacrifice would be for the benefit of all the straying, rebellious sheep - that is, for the benefit of all of us. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

And Jesus is the Lamb of God. He comes forth from God: as the eternal Son of God, he is begotten of the Father before all worlds; as the incarnate Savior, he is sent by the Father in time into the womb of the virgin Mary.

The lambs that Hebrew families would slaughter for the observance of the Passover festival were lambs that came from their own flocks, or that were purchased with their own money. But Jesus is the Lamb that God provides.

Indeed, according to his divine nature, Jesus is the Divine Lamb himself. In Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity became the perfect and holy Lamb, to be sacrificed for humanity’s salvation and forgiveness.

The mystery of the cross is that God is both the offerer, and the receiver, of the sacrifice. God saves us from beginning to end. God saves you from beginning to end.

In Christ - God and man in one person - God takes the place of each sinful human being, and places himself under the judgment of his own law. God himself suffers and dies in order to satisfy the demand of his own holiness. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

He takes away the sin of the world. Humanity’s sin was, as it were, strapped onto Jesus’ back. Human sinfulness was imputed to him, or credited to him, and he carried it away to the cross.

When Jesus died and was buried, that imputed sin was buried with him. But when he rose again, the sin stayed in the grave, never more to rise up and accuse those who by faith are risen with Christ, and belong to Christ.

Luther describes this “great transfer” in these words:

“It is extremely important that we know where our sins have been disposed of. The Law deposits them on our conscience and shoves them into our bosom. But God takes them from us and places them on the shoulders of the Lamb.”

“If sin rested on me and on the world, we would be lost; for it is too strong and burdensome. God says: ‘I know that your sin is unbearable for you; therefore behold, I will lay it upon My Lamb and relieve you of it. Believe this! If you do, you are delivered of sin.’”

“There are only two abodes for sin: it either resides with you, weighing you down; or it lies on Christ, the Lamb of God. If it is loaded on your back, you are lost; but if it rests on Christ, you are free and saved. Now make your choice! According to the Law, to be sure, sin should remain on you; but by grace sin was cast on Christ, the Lamb.”

Where are your sins right now? If in your own mind you boast of your goodness in comparison to others, or if you take pride in your moral accomplishments, you are thereby actually clinging to your sins, and causing them to remain on you.

But if you humbly repent of your sins, and cling instead to the promise of God’s forgiveness in Christ, then your sins are not on you. God assures you instead that they were taken from you and carried to the cross by Christ. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

And it was indeed the sins of the world that were carried to the cross. This doesn’t mean that all people are now destined for heaven regardless of their state of repentance and faith. But it does mean that as far as God is concerned, the forgiveness of all sins has been earned and accomplished by Christ, and that this forgiveness is therefore genuinely offered to all people through the Gospel.

When people harden themselves against God’s grace and the working of his Spirit, they are thereby rejecting a salvation that already exists for them. It’s like a pardon or a declaration of amnesty that a fugitive refuses to believe, and from which he therefore does not benefit.

But when a person does believe the Gospel, his faith is not helping to cause his forgiveness to come into existence. His faith is, rather, receiving a forgiveness that was already there for him - and for everyone - in the cross of Christ.

The Law accuses us of sin, and points out the reality of our transgressions. It thereby drives us to our knees in repentance. The Gospel then relieves us of the burden of sin, as it points out the reality of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and as it engenders within us a faith that trusts in that Lamb.

When your conscience troubles you, and you wonder if God is actually willing to forgive you, the answer is always yes. Because God is willing to forgive the whole world - that is, all humanity - he is therefore willing to forgive you, whoever you are. If you are as part of this world - and you are - then you are included.

If the Bible taught that Jesus died only for those who eventually persevere in their faith, this would be of no comfort to you in times of spiritual trial, since in your troubled mind you couldn’t be sure that you will in fact persevere.

But, thankfully, the Bible does not teach this. It teaches instead that Jesus died for everyone. This message of a salvation that has been provided for the world, and that is offered to the world, is a message that has the power to create within you the faith that it requires.

The Gospel does not demand perseverance in faith. Rather, it is the Gospel that produces perseverance in faith. The Holy Spirit always works through the Gospel, to create and strengthen the faith that saves those who believe.

And remember, too, that we don’t have faith in our faith. We have faith in Christ. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

The Lamb of God comes to us in his Word, so that we can behold him in faith, and receive forgiveness from him. This is especially true, in a deeply comforting way, in the Words of Institution of the Lord’s Supper - which is, as we might say, “the lamb’s high feast.”

The sacred body of the Lamb of God, slain for the salvation of the world, is mystically brought to you in the blessed bread of this sacrament. The blood that flowed from his wounded side is supernaturally present for you in the cup from which you drink.

It is with purpose that the church’s Communion Liturgy guides us to welcome Christ into our midst through the words of a sacred canticle that is directed specifically to the Lamb of God, as the Lamb of God.

That’s who descends to us in this Supper. That’s who offers himself to us in the consecrated bread and wine.

We pray for his mercy, and the Lamb of God has mercy on us. Jesus gives us what we do not deserve for the sake of his grace.

We pray for his peace, and the Lamb of God grants us the peace that only he can grant. This peace comes from the knowledge that Jesus has removed our sin from us, and has taken it away forever.

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Amen.

27 January 2008 - Epiphany 3 - 1 Cor. 1:10-18

One of the more common grounds for divorce is “irreconcilable differences.” Of course, other terms that could be used to describe that kind of marital problem might be “uncompromising stubbornness” or “inconsiderate selfishness.”

But even so, we can understand the concept of “irreconcilable differences.” All too often in this sinful world, people who have some kind of relationship with each other - in a family, in a circle of friends, or in a business - reach a point in their relationship where they have come to feel that they have “irreconcilable differences,” so that their relationship must come to an end.

And, sadly, this happens all-too-frequently also in Christian congregations and in Christian church bodies. Religious institutions are not immune from the possibility of splits and divisions that arise from the belief that there are “irreconcilable differences” among the members.

Can such disunity and divisiveness be prevented? When we look at the history of the church as a whole, and at the history of specific church bodies and congregations, we might be skeptical that such problems can be avoided.

But St. Paul is not so pessimistic. In spite of the sinful weakness that clings to all of us, and in spite of the temptations to divisiveness that are always there, Paul lays out for us the key to overcoming these temptations, and to preserving the unity of the church.

He writes in today’s lesson, from his First Epistle to the Corinthians: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.”

We see, first of all, that Paul does recognize the possibility of unity and peace among the members of the church. And we see what form that unity is supposed to take.

Paul is not talking simply about an external, superficial unity - characterized perhaps by mutual indifference to the deeper questions of Christian faith and life, or by an attitude of “agreeing to disagree” about what should be believed and done. Christian unity is not based on a commonality in emotions, or on a shared sentimentality.

As the apostle appeals to us to agree with each other, and not to be divided, he calls on us instead to be “united in the same mind and the same judgment.” Some other translations of this text word it this way: “perfectly united in mind and thought”; “united with the same understanding and the same conviction”; “united in thought and purpose”; “having the same kind of thinking and the same purpose.”

You get the general idea. The unity of the church is preserved when Christians embrace and confess the same objective teachings, and when they share a mutual commitment to the same mission and purpose.

Splits and divisions can be avoided if the members of the church adhere to the same standards of faith and practice, and if they agree to follow those standards to resolve any problems that may arise.

It’s that simple. And it’s that hard!

The next question that naturally arises, of course, is, how the church is to determine what its standards of faith and practice are supposed to be. St. Paul does not leave us guessing on that point either.

In the verse that immediately precedes the portion of his epistle that was read as our lesson today, he had said: “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” There’s something supernatural and even miraculous in the creation and preservation of the Christian church.

Ultimately, you didn’t establish your fellowship with Christ and his church by the powers of your own will and discernment. If you are a member of Christ’s body by faith, it is because God called you to this faith, and because his Spirit made you to be a part of this living, spiritual temple.

And the preservation of the unity of the church is likewise, at the deepest level, a work of our faithful God, and not a human achievement. That’s why Paul appeals to us “by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” that we all agree, and that there be no divisions among us.

As we all learned from our catechism, in Biblical usage the Lord’s “name” is more than a particular term that is used to invoke him, or to distinguish him from other beings. Rather, the Lord’s “name” is everything by which he makes himself known to us, and by which he establishes and maintains his presence among us.

When Jesus says in Matthew 18 that where two or three are gathered in his name, he is there among them, he is referring to a gathering around his Word, by which he reveals himself and his will to his church.

And so, when St. Paul implores us to remain united, and to avoid divisions, “by the name of Jesus Christ,” he is not only testifying to the authority by which he gives us this directive, but he is also showing us the way by which this directive can be fulfilled.

When he reminds us of the one baptism instituted by Christ, by which we were all incorporated into the Lord’s church, and when he reminds us of the preaching of the cross, by which we are all forgiven and justified, he is holding up for us the only foundation on which the church, and the unity of the church, are built.

There’s a big difference between this divine plan for Christian unity, and the common human assumption that the members of a church - or of any other organization - establish their defining principles, and define their mission, through a process of negotiation and compromise.

The Democratic and Republican party platforms are hammered out behind closed doors every four years. Representatives of the various special interest groups and caucuses within each party vie against each other in their struggle to have the dominating influence. Like the making of hot dogs, the writing of a political party platform is something that the rank-and-file members of each party probably don’t want to see.

The church is not like this, though. Or at least it’s not supposed to be. The faith and practice of the church is handed down by the Lord of the church - enshrined in Scripture, and witnessed to in the church’s creeds and confessions.

Therefore, in avoiding division, and in preserving unity, we shouldn’t listen to each other as much as we should listen together to Christ. Certainly we should always be sensitive to each other’s fears, and patiently bear with each other’s personal weaknesses. But in principle, the closer we all get to Christ - in believing his Word, and in following his ways - the closer we get to each other.

If it becomes evident that there are differences in faith among the members of a church, the response should not be to initiate a process of negotiation and compromise. Rather, everyone should examine his or her own thinking in the light of the Holy Scriptures, and be willing to accept the Lord’s correction and guidance.

As St. Paul says in Second Corinthians, in the struggle between God’s revealed truth and the deceptions of the devil, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”

If it becomes evident that there is a division among the members of a church in how a problem should be addressed, the response should not be to assume that the opinion of the majority will automatically prevail. Rather, everyone should humbly examine his or her own approach in the light of how Jesus dealt with problems, and in the light of how he and his apostles would direct us to deal with problems.

The attitudes of pride, stubbornness, and a desire for personal vindication and victory, must not be allowed to govern Christians in such matters. Instead, as St. Paul says elsewhere in First Corinthians, “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” That’s a clear word from God, which is directed squarely at the conscience of each of us.

As you consider that fact, please ask yourself these questions: How faithful have I been to this directive? How often have I employed carnal tactics in dealing with spiritual problems, instead of relying on the name and revelation of Jesus?

How often have I ignored denials of Biblical truth by those who should have known better, without saying anything to encourage in them a better confession of faith? How often have I looked the other way when the law of Christian love was violated, instead of offering a word of Biblical admonition to the offending party?

How often have my actions been motivated by a desire to be right, rather than by a desire to exalt the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and submit to his revealed will? How often have I refused to forgive those who have hurt me, thereby helping to perpetuate a spirit of disunity and alienation among God’s people?

In general, regarding the ongoing temptations to disunity that the church always faces in this world, how often have I been a part of the problem, and not a part of the solution?

The devil wants to tear us apart from each other. And more significantly, he wants to tear us apart from Christ.

The devil wants to pollute our Christian morality with his falsehoods, and to corrupt our Biblical ethics with worldly alternatives. The devil wants to obscure the plain teaching of Scripture regarding the way of salvation that God has provided for humanity, and regarding the sacred means by which God most certainly delivers his grace to his church.

The devil is actually quite pleased when people invent their own religious doctrines, on the basis of what seems plausible and rational. He knows that anything we come up with on our own, will invariably draw us closer to his deceptions, and farther from God’s truth.

He likes it when people fabricate various kinds of artificial religious unity - apart from the teachings of God’s Word - because he knows that such artificial unity actually disunites us from the divine Source of all true unity.

The devil wants us to ignore what saint Paul tells us today. And in times of testing, he wants us to reach the conclusion that we have “irreconcilable differences” with each other. He knows that when we become alienated from each other, and from Christ, he can then step in and reclaim us for himself.

But Jesus is not going to let that happen. He will continue to bring to us his name - his revelation of his divine person and his divine grace.

He continues to place his name and Word upon us, in his declaration of full forgiveness for all our failures. He continues to place his name and Word within us, as he teaches us his saving truth, builds up our Christian character, and conforms us to his image.

By the working of God’s Spirit, we put on the mind of Christ, and are filled with the love of Christ. By the working of God’s Spirit, we are drawn every day, in repentance and faith, to the one cross of Christ, which is our only hope. And as we are drawn together to the cross, we are drawn also to each other.

That’s how the unity of Christ’s church is preserved. That’s how Christ protects his people from the divisiveness that would destroy them.

Among Christians who kneel together at the same altar, there need never be any “irreconcilable differences.” The forgiveness that we receive from God, and that we then pass on to each other in Christian love and forbearance, has the power to bring reconciliation to every division.

The truth of God’s Word, as we learn it and meditate upon it, has the power to enlighten every confused and misled mind. The peace of God’s Spirit, as it transforms our hearts and souls, has the power to heal all bitterness, and to bring to an end all carnal strife.

“I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.” Amen.