5 April 2009 - Palm Sunday - Mark 15:1-47

On this Palm Sunday, we begin our observance of Holy Week, and we begin our recollection of all the things that transpired with our Lord during the last week of his earthly life. One of those pivotal events - as today’s Gospel reading recounts it - was Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate.

In our American system of jurisprudence, a defendant has the right to remain silent. Someone who is accused of a crime cannot be forced to testify in his own trial.

But very often a defendant does not avail himself of that right - especially if it looks as if he is going to be convicted if he remains silent, without giving his side of the story. And when a defendant is actually innocent of what he is charged with, then he almost never remains silent. He does and says everything he can to persuade the jury and the judge that he is not guilty.

The kind of rights that we enjoy in our American courtrooms were not in place in the trial that Jesus endured before the Roman governor. But even so, it is very telling to see when, during the course of his trial, he was willing to speak, and when he chose not to speak, but to remain silent.

We read in St. Mark’s account: “Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ And he answered him, ‘You have said so.’” In this somewhat oblique way, Jesus was willing to respond to Pilate’s question, and to admit that he was indeed a King.

Other Gospel writers confirm this, in the way they recount these events. Jesus was the King of the Jews, and he was willing to say so in open court. He did not hide this fact, or remain silent when he was questioned concerning his royal standing among God’s people.

But of course, Jesus was a different kind of king than what people like Pilate were used to. Jesus is quoted in St. John’s Gospel to say that his kingdom is “not of this world” - a mystery which neither Pilate nor the Lord’s Jewish opponents could truly grasp.

Today’s Old Testament lesson paints a contrast between the kind of powerful soldier king who rides in triumph in a magnificent chariot, or astride a tall battle stallion; and the kind of king Jesus was. Jesus, as a king, did not reflect any of the boastful arrogance of a typical earthly king.

He did not ride in victory as a conquering ruler. But he entered the city on a donkey - an inglorious beast of burden - in order to do some rough and grueling work.

Through the prophet Zechariah, God exclaims: “Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem...”

And so Jesus was willing to admit that he was a king. But he was a king who had come among his people to bear the heaviest of burdens for them; to lay down his life to save them; and do all that needed to be done to protect them from judgment and damnation.

He had not come in earthly glory and power. He had come, rather, in “the form of a servant,” as the lesson from the Epistle to the Philippians expresses it. He was a king, but he was a servant-king.

But then we notice, with great interest, that immediately after that, Jesus did not reply to Pilate’s next round of questions. What did Pilate then ask him? Take a listen:

“And the chief priests accused [Jesus] of many things. And Pilate again asked him, ‘Have you no answer to make? See how many charges they bring against you.’ But Jesus made no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed.”

Pilate was amazed, because he knew that Jesus was not really guilty of the things he was accused of. He knew that these were trumped-up charges.

He could not imagine why Jesus would not speak up in his own defense, and refute the false accusations that were being leveled against him. Pilate had never before seen anything like this, especially when the potential punishment could be death by crucifixion.

In such a circumstance Pilate would have expected even a guilty person to lie, and falsely to claim innocence. He certainly would have expected an innocent person to tell the truth, and rightly to claim innocence. But he never would have expected an innocent person to say nothing, and to let the false charges go unanswered.

Jesus was acquiescing in his own frame-up. By his silence, he was virtually guaranteeing his condemnation. Pilate could not understand why he would do this.

But we do understand why he would do this, and why he did in fact do this. Jesus in his own person had indeed not committed the many sins that he was being accused of. In fact, he had never committed any sins or wrongdoings of any kind.

The Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that he was “without sin.” The Second Epistle to the Corinthians says that he “knew no sin.”

But, as the Second Epistle to the Corinthians also says, God made him who knew no sin “to be sin” for our sake. The sins of humanity were credited to Jesus, and placed upon Jesus. As humanity’s substitute under the judgment of God’s law, Christ took upon himself all the blame for all the wickedness of all men.

The prophet Isaiah puts it this way: “he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” “he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities.” “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.”

Jesus is indeed the Lamb of God, who takes away - who carries away on his own back - the sin of the world. And that, my friends, is exactly what was going on when Jesus stood before Pilate in perfect, submissive silence, while every imaginable crime and offense was piled onto him by the accusing lips of the chief priests.

Jesus allowed himself to be accused of our sins. Jesus allowed your sins and mine to be credited to him. He did not deflect these charges and accusations by defending himself and proclaiming his innocence.

He permitted himself, rather, to be found guilty. In his love for the world, he actively wanted to be found guilty, in our place, so that we could be declared to be “not guilty” before God, for his sake.

Jesus took our place before that Roman tribunal, so that we can now take his place before the tribunal of God, and be told by the Judge of all the universe that, for the sake of Christ, our sins are forgotten, as if they had never happened, and that they will not be held against us. God says: “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

These are the words that a penitent heart needs to hear. And these are the words that a penitent heart can and will hear, because of the silence of Christ before Pilate.

And remember that it was God who was doing this. As the Book of Acts tells us, Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.”

By means of the circumstances of history that were swirling around Jesus, God caused his own Son to be arrested and hauled in front of the Roman governor. And God is the one who caused the sins of the world to be placed upon his Son.

The chief priests of Israel were, according to their office, the Old Testament version of pastors. In spite of their personal failings and corruption, they were the called and ordained ministers through whom God wished to speak and act.

And God used them, specifically on this occasion, to speak his authoritative word of judgment and accusation over Jesus. In keeping with the Lord’s will to redeem the human race through the sacrifice of his Son, the high priests were exercising what might be called the “binding key,” as they accused Jesus of all the sins that we in fact have committed.

And in accordance with God’s will for our salvation, what they bound on earth was bound in heaven. Jesus really was counted as guilty, not just before Pilate, but before God, whose representative Pilate also was.

Through the authority that God had given to the high priests, by virtue of their spiritual office, the accusations that they threw at Jesus stuck to him. And through the governmental authority that God had given to Pilate, Jesus was condemned and sentenced to die because of those sins.

As is often the case with ministers and magistrates, none of these people really knew what they were doing, or exactly how their offices were being used by God on this occasion. But they were used by God for his purposes nevertheless, in spite of themselves.

The sins that were placed upon Jesus stayed with him, all the way to the cross. And on the cross, he experienced the equivalent of hell itself on account of them. “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?,” he cried. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

He was forsaken by his Father in that moment because the sins of the world had been placed upon him. God’s representatives, the high priests, had in God’s name declared him to be guilty of those sins. God’s representative, the Roman governor, had sentenced him in accordance with that guilt. And so he became guilty of those sins, and died for those sins.

If you ever wonder how offensive your various acts of disobedience toward God actually are, look at the cross. If you ever wonder how seriously God takes his threat to punish the transgressions against his holiness that you have perpetrated, look at what Jesus endured in your place.

Your sinfulness, with all the pain and grief that it brings to you and others, is not a small problem. It is a major problem. It is a humanly unsolvable problem.

But it is a problem that God can solve, and that God did solve in the person of his Son, the divine Lord in human flesh. Jesus died for your sins.

And now, because of this fact, you need not die for those sins. You are forgiven. You are free. For the sake of Christ God has released you from your unpayable debt to him.

For the sake of Christ he has turned his wrath and displeasure away from you, and has made known to you instead his loving, Fatherly heart. You are embraced, in Christ, as a child of God, and are filled with the Spirit of adoption, by whom you cry out, “Abba, Father.”

As his adopted sons and daughters, you are transformed ever more into the image of his only-begotten Son. And your hearts and minds are set at peace.

At the time of Jesus’ trial, the high priests genuinely spoke for God, in his stead and by his authority, when they accused the Innocent One of many sins, and thereby made him to be guilty by the power of the words that God had given them to say.

Today, my friends, be comforted to know that your pastor, by virtue of his office as a called and ordained servant of the Word, also genuinely speaks for God, in his stead and by his authority. But for you who repent of your sins, and trust in Christ for mercy, God has not directed me to bind your sins to you, and to declare the Lord’s damnation to you because of those sins.

He has, instead, commissioned me, and all those who preach the Gospel in his name, to exercise the “loosing key,” and to proclaim to you a release from sin, and a lifting of the weight and burden of sin.

By the power of God’s Word of forgiveness, as you embrace that Word in faith, you are made to be innocent and righteous before God, for the sake of Christ. Your sins, though they be many and great, are removed from you. You are clean.

“Pilate asked [Jesus], ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ And he answered him, ‘You have said so.’ And the chief priests accused him of many things. And Pilate again asked him, ‘Have you no answer to make? See how many charges they bring against you.’ But Jesus made no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed.”

Because Jesus was silent, as he stood before Pontius Pilate clothed in your sin, you now can declare aloud the praises of God and of his mercy, as you are clothed with Jesus’ righteousness. On this Palm Sunday, with a deep appreciation for everything that Jesus had done for you and endured for you, you can join in the chanting of the crowd and say: “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” Amen.

10 April 2009 - Good Friday - Hebrews 2:14-15

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Please listen with me to a reading from the 2nd chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, beginning at the 14th verse:

“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” So far the text.

The fear of death affects us more than we realize. We fear death because of how powerful it is. No one can escape it, but in fear we try to escape it as long as we can. No one can outrun it or maneuver around it, but in fear we do everything we can to put it off and slow it down.

And, because a successful escape from death is so elusive, we become enslaved to that fear. All out thoughts and actions - all our decisions - are shaped and governed by that fear.

We avoid those things in this world that would seem to bring us closer to death, and we embrace those things in this world that would seem to have the power to delay death. But death catches up with us - with all of us - sooner or later.

And death catches up with us, not all at once, but by degrees. Its insidious tentacles creep ever so gradually into our hearts and minds long before the time when we literally expire. We all experience little tastes of death all the time.

When someone you love dies, a part of you dies. That part of your life that found happiness and contentment in the unique relationship that you had with that person is now dead.

A young person is filled with aspirations and plans and hopes for the future. He has the feeling that all his dreams can be accomplished, and that life is filled with opportunities to achieve whatever he wants to achieve.

But as time goes on, the range of options for the future closes in and narrows down. And those youthful aspirations begin to die, one by one.

If a woman who would like to have a child does not have one by a certain time, she will never have one. If a man who wants to rise to an executive position in his business does not get promoted to such a position by a certain time, he never will be.

A baseball player who doesn’t work his way out of the minor leagues by a certain time in life, will never play in the majors. Never.

All of these disappointments, these failures, these closed doors that will never again be opened in this lifetime, are little tastes of death. They negate our dreams and ambitions. They negate us.

And so we fear them - and we fear the death that creeps up on us through them - until death makes its final conquest with each of us when we are laid in the grave.

But of course, at the deepest level of our fear - a level deeper than man’s conscious thoughts usually go - we fear death, and everything that death represents, because death is a constant reminder of our sinful alienation from God, and of our separation from God.

“The wages of sin is death,” St. Paul soberly reminds us. And so, when we die and collect our wage, we are forced to face up to the reality of our sinful corruption, and of all of our misdeeds, by which we earned that wage.

But separation from God doesn’t mean we are alone. The devil takes advantage of every opportunity he has to sink his clutches ever deeper into our lives.

When we, through our sinful rebellion against God, remove ourselves from the protection of God, we are not thereby free. We are instead in bondage to Satan, the lord and master of death.

The Nicene Creed correctly teaches that the Holy Spirit is the divine Lord - the Third Person of the Holy Trinity - and that he is the giver of life. But the sinfulness of human nature pushes the Holy Spirit from the human soul.

Our rebellion against God’s Word dis-invites the Holy Spirit from being a part of our lives. And when the giver of life departs, life departs. Death and fear then enter in, in its place.

Fallen humanity doesn’t understand these things very clearly. But fallen humanity does know that there is something wrong - something terribly wrong - with our situation in this world.

Everybody yearns to live, but everybody dies instead. Everybody has dreams and hopes and aspirations, but eventually, everybody’s dreams and hopes and aspirations come to an end, when our flesh and blood existence comes to an end.

This should not be, our conscience tells us. But what should not be is what is. The unbelieving minds of the children of men don’t understand. The unbelieving hearts of the children of men are afraid.

But in the midst of this tragic and frightening drama, Jesus Christ unexpectedly steps onto the stage: “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”

Have you ever seen one of those typical fantasy movies, wherein a village or community is terrorized by a dragon, until a solitary brave knight enters the dragon’s lair, slays the dragon, and sets the community free from its fear? Well, in the case of Jesus, with his death on the cross, this is not a fantasy. This is what really happened.

The devil, who is the lord and master of death, felt safe and secure inside his lair - that is, within the domain of death, from which he terrorized and enslaved the human race. Like the dragon in the proverbial fantasy movie, the devil was quite sure that no one would be brave enough or strong enough to venture into his lair, to try to do him harm.

But Jesus was brave enough to do this. He did not stand outside the opening of the dragon’s cave, shouting toward the inside of the cave with taunts and idle threats. He entered the cave.

He pressed forward into the heart of the devil’s domain. On the cross, he entered into death itself.

On behalf of all humanity, he faced humanity’s deepest and most enslaving fear. And on behalf of humanity, he defeated death, and set us free from our slavery to the fear of death.

Unlike any other man who might have tried something like this, Jesus succeeded, because he was indeed strong enough to defeat the devil. In, with, and under his human nature, Jesus brought with him, into death, his immortal divinity. God, who cannot be conquered by death, was in Christ, defeating the power of death on the cross.

Jesus Christ was and is the only-begotten Son of almighty God. He was and is the divine-human liberator of the human race, and our true champion. And he defeated Satan as no one else could have done.

Most important of all, Jesus set us free from the guilt of our sin before God, by the offering of himself in our stead. God’s holy requirement of righteousness was satisfied by the perfect righteousness of Jesus. God’s holy requirement of payment for sin was satisfied by the perfect sacrifice of Jesus.

This saving work of Jesus, in relation to God and God’s justice, brought reconciliation between God and man. You and I are now welcome and invited to take our place once again in God’s family, as his children, and under his protection.

The Holy Spirit, who is the giver of life, is now giving life to us once again. He fills us with heavenly peace. And in the new nature that he engenders within us, he causes us to love God even as God first loved us.

But in his death on the cross, Jesus was not aiming his saving work only in the direction of God’s judgments against human sin. He also set his sights on the devil, and for our sake he defeated the devil once and for all.

Satan no longer has a claim on those who are reconciled to God through faith in the Lord’s forgiveness. Satan is therefore vanquished from their lives.

By restoring to us our true identity as children of God, and by giving us the hope of eternal life with God that properly belongs to God’s children, Jesus removes from us the fear of death. Death cannot negate us any longer, because our sense of who we are in Christ does not depend on those things that temporal death can affect.

Temporal death does still make itself known in this world. But death can no longer cancel out our hopes, or destroy our dreams, because in Christ our hopes and dreams reach beyond this world, and beyond this lifetime.

The Holy Spirit, the giver of life, has filled out hearts with a living faith in God’s resurrection promise. We know now, through faith in the Gospel, that death is not the end. In some ways it is just the beginning.

And in regard to the very real disappointments that we do still experience in this life, well, God does something about those too. Christians are still grieved by the loss of loved ones, and they are also still grieved by feelings of loneliness.

But in this life, God knits us together into the fellowship of his church, which becomes a new family for us. And the relationships that God establishes for us in his church, as brothers and sisters in Christ, are relationships that will endure forever.

God’s love in Christ fills us to overflowing. It therefore also fills in the gaps that have been left in our lives by lost human loves, and by the disappointments we have experienced in our human relationships.

Also, when we follow our various vocations in the world, doing the work that God has called us to do for the benefit of our neighbor, we learn by faith to be content with the positions of responsibility that God has given us.

If we don’t advance in our field to more prominent and powerful positions, then that simply means that God has work for us to do in the job we already have. We can glorify him with the humble service that we render in any godly occupation.

It may be so that few people notice us in the humble jobs we may have. But we know that God notices the work we do in his name, and that he gives us the strength and wisdom we need to accomplish the tasks that he has lovingly assigned to us.

So, if we don’t get a promotion at work, or if we don’t move up to the major leagues - literally or figuratively - this, in Christ, is not a negation of who we are as human beings. In Christ, this is not experienced as a taste of death.

Christ fills us with his heavenly life, and he fills us with a sense of purpose that does not depend on worldly success or noticeable achievements. And so, through the Gospel, in this way, the power of death in our lives is undone.

We are emancipated from slavery to the fear of death. We live, instead, in Christ, who died for us.

Through his death on the cross, Jesus destroyed the power of death from the inside. Death is therefore not able to pursue us in the way that it used to. And death cannot hold us captive. In Christ we do not fear death.

We tonight, even in our mournful sadness, are still able to look beyond the events that are commemorated on Good Friday, to see the victory of Easter in two days time.

So too in Christ, in our life of faith, we are able to look beyond death, and to see the life that awaits those who are filled with the incorruptible resurrection hope that is ours in God.

We close with the words of a well-known hymn by Martin Luther:

It was a strange and dreadful strife When Life and Death contended;
The victory remained with Life, The reign of Death was ended;
Holy Scripture plainly saith That Death is swallowed up by Death,
His sting is lost forever. Amen.

O Christ, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us, and grant us your peace. Amen.

12 April 2009 - Easter - 1 Cor. 15:1-11

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

We are gathered here today, singing the songs that we are singing, and listening to the lessons from the Bible to which we are listening, because we believe that something truly extraordinary and miraculous happened approximately 2000 years ago in the city of Jerusalem.

We believe that Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross for our sins, that he was buried, and that, on the third day, he rose bodily from the grave.

But why do we believe these things? This is an important question for us to ask ourselves, because there is an increasing number of people in our world who are asking us this question.

In our post-modern age, people are less and less willing to believe in things that they have not actually experienced themselves, with their own five senses. A strong spirit of skepticism and cynicism runs through the philosophy of post-modernism.

Those who try to persuade others that something beyond their personal experience is true and important, are usually regarded as hucksters of one kind or another, who have a hidden agenda.

“If I haven’t seen it with my own eyes, or touched it with my own hands, then I’m not going to believe it.” That’s often the default assumption of the people with whom we live in our society. So, what are we going to say to them?

Why do we believe in Jesus’ atoning death, and in his resurrection? Well, as we ponder that question, let’s consider the reasons why St. Paul believed in these things.

Paul was not one of the original twelve apostles. He was not a disciple of Christ during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry. He did not personally see the things that took place during the Lord’s earthly life, or at the end of his earthly life.

But he still believed in these things, and he was quite certain that they really happened. And he tells us why, in today’s lesson from the First Epistle to the Corinthians:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures...”

Paul readily admits that his faith in these things is not based on his own sensory experience. He says instead that the knowledge of these things was “delivered” to him, and that he had “received” this knowledge by means of the testimony of others.

But notice this too, especially in regard to what he says about the death of Jesus: It’s not just the historical event itself that he confesses to be real and true. He also expresses here his faith in the meaning of that death. It was “for our sins.”

There were people who did experience the objective historical fact of the death and burial of Jesus with their own physical senses.

The Lord’s mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, and the apostle John were with him on Calvary. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus took care of his body after he expired.

But none of these people experienced the meaning of their Savior’s crucifixion with their physical senses.

No one, whether friend or foe, was able to see with their eyes the sins of the world on Jesus, as he hung from the cross. No one, whether friend or foe, was able to see the wrath of God being absorbed into Jesus on account of those sins.

Those who were eyewitnesses to the suffering and burial of Jesus, and who also believed that Jesus had died for them, did not believe this on account of what they had seen and touched. They believed it because the meaning of Jesus’ death had been “delivered” to them too, by means of the testimony of God’s Word, and by means of the faith that God’s Word has instilled in them.

The saving meaning of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection cannot be separated from those historical events. If these events did not really happen, then these events can have no meaning.

But it is possible to be aware of the historical events - even through first-hand personal experience - and still miss their meaning. And that’s because the meaning is not perceived through sensory perception, but through faith in the Word of God.

A few people were eyewitnesses to the death of Jesus. Most people were not. But the meaning of Jesus’ death - as an atoning sacrifice for human sin - is accessible to all who have access to the Word of God, whether or not they personally saw the historical event itself.

Strictly speaking, no human being saw the actual resurrection of Jesus. Nobody was present in the tomb at that moment when his body was reanimated and glorified, and when it passed through the shroud and cloths with which it had been wrapped.

The historical testimonies that we do have, are eyewitness accounts of encounters with Christ after the resurrection took place. It stands to reason, of course, that if a person who was dead is now alive again, then the only conclusion is that this person has been raised from the dead.

But no one actually saw the act of resurrection take place. They only saw the consequences of that act of resurrection, namely the presence of the living Christ.

And St. Paul does say that he, too, was privileged to see the risen Savior, in the special appearance that Jesus made to him on the road to Damascus.

But as with the death of Christ, so also with the resurrection of Christ: the meaning of this miracle would not necessarily be self-evident to those who might have had a first-hand encounter with the resurrected Lord.

As St. Paul explains it, he believed that Jesus died for our sins “in accordance with the Scriptures,” and that Jesus was raised on the third day also “in accordance with the Scriptures.” This means two things.

First, the Scriptures - specifically the Old Testament Scriptures - had predicted the death and resurrection of Israel’s Messiah. Anyone who had carefully read those Scriptures should therefore have been expecting these things to happen.

Jesus, too, during the years of his earthly ministry, often tried to explain to his disciples that he would be killed, and that he would then rise again. Unfortunately, the disciples never paid very close attention to these words.

But also, St. Paul’s statement means that the Scriptures are what give us the meaning of these events.

The sensory perception of those who were there at the time can serve as proof that these things did happen. But it is only the Scriptures - God’s own revelation and message to mankind - that can tell us that these events needed to happen.

It is only the Scriptures - God’s revelation and message to you - that can tell us that these events happened for a specific reason.

Jesus tried to explain these things to his disciples too. He told them that the Son of Man would be lifted up from the earth - on the cross - to draw all men to himself, and to offer eternal life to all men. But again, they didn’t listen very carefully at those times either.

The apostle Paul says: “Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you - unless you believed in vain.”

He also says: “by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.”

The “gospel” that St. Paul preached is the good news that God’s Son was crucified for our sins, was buried, and was raised from the dead on the third day, so that the grace of God can now be spread abroad to us all: to call us to faith, and to make us to be what God wants us to be.

God’s grace - his unconditional favor and love - causes God’s pardon and forgiveness to be brought to us. That pardon and forgiveness cancel out the debt of righteousness that we owe to God, but that we could never pay ourselves.

That pardon and forgiveness wash away all our sins in God’s sight, and cover us instead with the righteousness of Jesus.

But the grace of God does not only change our standing with God - as important as that is. It also changes us.

With Paul each of us can also say: “by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.” The Holy Spirit presses the grace of God into us at the deepest level, when God’s good news is proclaimed and believed.

According to the gospel, Jesus died on the cross. As an historical event, this is true. And by virtue of God’s testimony to this truth, you are able to know that it happened, even though you were not there to see it for yourself.

But God’s grace, through the gospel, impresses much more than this upon you. Not only did Jesus die, but he died for your sins. This means that you now have a clear conscience before God.

This means that you will no longer be weighed down by the guilt of knowing that you have disobeyed God and earned his displeasure. This means that you will no longer fear your own death, because the revelation of God’s fatherly heart toward you, through the death of his Son, has taken away that fear.

According to the gospel, Jesus also rose from the grave. As an historical event, this, too, is true. And by virtue of God’s testimony to this truth, you are able to know that it happened, even though you were not there to see it for yourself.

But God’s grace, through the gospel, impresses much more than this upon you. Not only did Jesus rise again, but he rose again for you, so that eternal life is now yours. This means that you, who know Christ by faith, will live forever - beyond the grave - and that ultimately your own body will be resurrected from the dust of death on the last day.

This means that Jesus, as the living Lord, is alive now also in your life, and that he is keeping the promise he makes from his heavenly throne: “Behold, I am making all things new.”

Whenever Jesus bestows his forgives upon you in his Holy Absolution, he is making all things new in your cleansed conscience. And you are then sent by his grace back out into the world, to “walk in newness of life” by the power of his resurrection, and to serve him and your neighbor by means of the good works that God has prepared for you.

Whenever Jesus feeds you with the sacrament of his body and blood, he is likewise making all things new for you, in your relationship with him. On the cross, he saved you by the sacrifice of his body, and by the shedding of his blood. But because of his resurrection, his body and blood are now continually available to you, as a pledge of your own resurrection.

When you in faith receive your Lord through these salutary gifts, his body and blood bind you ever more strongly to the benefits that were won for you in his death and resurrection. They bind you ever more strongly to him, as your living and faithful Savior.

And they bind you ever more strongly to your fellow-believers, in mutual love and service. All of this is by his grace, received as a gift from your crucified and risen Lord.

These are the reasons why we believe that something truly extraordinary and miraculous happened approximately 2000 years ago in the city of Jerusalem. These are the reasons why we believe that Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross for our sins, that he was buried, and that, on the third day, he rose bodily from the grave.

We believe in these events, because the grace of God has enveloped us in these events, and connected us to these events. And we believe in these events, because the gospel of God has filled our hearts with a living faith in everything that these events mean, for us, and for all people.

God can be trusted. He is not a huckster, with a hidden agenda. So, when he tells us that these events - which are admittedly beyond our personal experience - are nevertheless true and important, we can believe him.

When he explains to us, in the Scriptures, the reasons why these things happened, and what their meaning for us is, we can believe him then too. And by his grace, we can become - in this life and in the next - what God wants us to be.

For all of these reasons, each of us can say with the confidence that God’s grace has given us: I have not believed in vain. I have received what was delivered to me. By the grace of God I am what I am. Amen.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

19 April 2009 - Easter 2 - 1 John 1:1-2:2

St. John, the son of Zebedee, was probably the youngest of the Lord’s disciples. In the Fourth Gospel, which St. John authored, he did not refer to himself by his given name, but he described himself as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”

This suggests that there was a special relationship between them - something akin to the relationship between a father and a son, as compared to the more brotherly kind of friendship that Jesus had with the other disciples, who were, it would seem, closer to him in age.

Among the apostles, John was special also in another important way. When Jesus was arrested, and sentenced to death by crucifixion, the other disciples scattered and fled in fear.

When Jesus was nailed to the cross, and hung there in agony, the other disciples were nowhere to be found. They had abandoned him during this most traumatic time in their Lord’s earthly life.

But not John. He was there. He stuck it out with his Lord - with his friend - to the bitter end.

It’s easy to imagine why the others fled, and hid themselves. They feared arrest themselves. They certainly didn’t want to experience the same fate that Jesus was experiencing.

And they also didn’t want to see the terrible things that were being done to Jesus. They knew that crucifixion was a horrible way to die.

If your best friend was going through that kind of torture, you would have a strong temptation to try to block it out of your mind, and at a psychological level to pretend that it wasn’t really happening. You wouldn’t want to face it, and therefore you might make yourself unavailable to your suffering friend.

But John was willing to face up to his fears, and he was able to overcome his temptation to turn away. He was there at Calvary, watching his Savior die, grieving with his Savior’s mother who was also there.

As we know, Jesus entrusted his mother to John from his cross, and gave him the responsibility of taking care of her for the remainder of her life. Jesus - ever the dutiful son - needed to have a true friend with him at this most difficult time, so that he could do this. And John did not let him down.

John didn’t psychologically block out the reality of Jesus’ suffering. He saw it. He smelled it. He touched it.

The other disciples were able only to imagine the suffering that Jesus endured on the cross, since they were not there to experience it first-hand. But John knew exactly what had happened. And what he knew no doubt haunted him.

As difficult as it was for him to remain with Jesus in this situation, he was willing to be there for him, and for his mother, when they needed him most. And this willingness - this courage - sets an example for all of us.

There are lots of things in life that we would rather not deal with. We would like to avoid the painful trials and unpleasant challenges that often come our way - even when we have a duty to face those trials and challenges.

I know of several people who at some point became victims of a debilitating or degenerative disease, and who were then abandoned by their spouses. These cowardly husbands and wives didn’t want to deal with the difficulty of watching someone they loved waste away.

And so, to protect themselves emotionally, they made a decision to stop loving the suffering husband or wife. They turned away from their wedding vows, and from the person who was supposed to be the love of their life, at the time when that person needed them most.

To their shame, this was essentially the pathway chosen by most of the disciples, during the time of Jesus’ suffering - even after boastful pledges and vows that they would never do such a thing.

In comparison to this, though, I know of many other people who were willing to stick it out with their suffering spouse when a time like this came. For years and even decades, I have seen a devoted spouse remain as the companion and friend of a husband or wife, who was on a long and emotionally draining downward spiral of physical or mental disintegration.

These people knew that God had called them to faithfulness - for better, for worse, in sickness and in health. And they drew strength from that calling, and from the God who had issued that calling, as they did their duty - their loving duty - toward the spouse in need.

Even when it became painful to continue to love someone who was in pain, that love remained. And they remained, where they needed to be, as a part of the life of a husband or wife who was now depending on them in very important ways.

This was essentially the pathway chosen by St. John, even when the other disciples fled. He stayed with the Lord. He saw it all. He felt it all. And he was grieved to the bone by what he saw and felt.

We can’t even imagine the joy that John would then have experienced when Jesus rose from the dead, and appeared to his disciples alive once again. Jesus came back from the dead with words of heavenly peace, to calm their troubled minds.

Jesus came back from the dead with words of divine forgiveness, to sooth their guilty consciences. Jesus came back from the dead with words of renewal and restoration, to inspire their timid hearts.

John was overjoyed beyond words to embrace his Master once again, and to see that the suffering that Jesus had endured was now behind him. We might think that John’s joy would be fulfilled if he could just soak up this blessed fellowship with the risen Lord, and be personally filled with it over and over again.

But the joy of knowing Christ’s resurrection for his own eternal benefit - as deep as that joy was - was not the completely fulfilling joy for John that we might expect it to be. His own receiving of grace and love from his Savior was not enough to make John as joyful as he knew he could be.

In his First Epistle, from which we read a few minutes ago, St. John tells us what else he needed to do, so that his Christian joy would be truly fulfilled. He writes:

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life - the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us - that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”

“We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.” John’s joy in knowing that Jesus had successfully atoned for his sins - and for the sins of his fellow disciples - was not enough. The joy that he experienced in seeing the victory of Christ over the grave, so that he and his fellow disciples could now receive eternal life from their Savior - was not a completed joy.

John’s joy would not be complete until he had responded to the promptings of the Holy Spirit within him, to write down these things, and to share them with others. His joy would not be complete until he had invited others - indeed, until he had invited the whole world - to enter into the fellowship of those who know the risen Lord, by repentance and faith.

The epistle that John penned in this way, and for this reason, is addressed also to you. John’s joy is completed when you hear these words of hope and invitation. John’s joy is completed when you hear these words of pardon and restoration.

And his joy is complete when you believe these words, and thereby enter into spiritual fellowship with him and all the saints of God, in heaven and on earth.

You might wonder, though, if God is really interested in you in that way. Your conscience may be telling you that God is disgusted with you because of the shameful actions of your past.

When I was recounting the examples of certain people who, in fear and selfishness, abandoned those who were depending on them, perhaps you saw yourself in some of those descriptions. The exact scenario might not have been the same, but maybe you are thinking now about obligations in life that you have spurned; about responsibilities and duties that you have ignored; about loved ones whom you have betrayed and wounded.

You might be asking, “Would St. John’s joy really be completed if he were to have spiritual fellowship with someone like me?” Well, let me tell you that the answer to such a question is an unequivocal yes!

Look at the people with whom John did have fellowship - intimate spiritual fellowship - during his lifetime! The other disciples - the very men who had turned their backs on Jesus at the time of Jesus’ deepest need for their companionship - were the men now embraced by John in Christian love and unity.

And that’s because Jesus embraced these men with his forgiveness and acceptance. Jesus went out of his way to make sure that these disciples knew that he forgave them, and that he was at peace with them, when he appeared to them after his resurrection.

The resurrection of Christ was, as it were, a new beginning for Jesus. He was dead, and now he was alive again.

The resurrection of Christ was also a new beginning for those who had betrayed him, and turned away from him in his suffering and death, but who were now covered by his righteousness, and cleansed by his grace.

The words of honesty and comfort that John no doubt spoke to his penitent colleagues back then, to assure them of their Lord’s love, are words that he speaks also to you today:

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Notice, too, that John uses the first person plural at this place in his epistle. He writes:

“that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; ... And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”

The unity of John and the other apostles has been restored by the Gospel to such an extent that they now speak with one voice, in their apostolic invitation to us to join them in the grace of God’s forgiveness.

John himself is speaking and writing here. But he is speaking and writing in unity with people who had been eyewitnesses of the events of Jesus’ life, who had betrayed Jesus and run away from him at the time of his death, and who now are fully reconciled to Jesus - and to John for Jesus’ sake.

God is willing to be at peace with you for the sake of Christ, and to join you to the fellowship of his church by his pardoning Word. It doesn’t matter how grievously you have sinned, or failed to live up to your obligations.

You are forgiven for the sake of Christ. In Christ you are welcome to return to the fellowship of God’s church.

It is certainly true that the “fruits of repentance” should be present in your life. This means that those whom you have hurt and betrayed deserve your sincere apology. And they have a right to expect you to do what you can now, to make things right with them again.

That’s what “walking in the light” as a follower of Christ will now mean for you. God’s forgiveness will, in its very nature, inspire within you a desire to love and serve again, to the extent that it is still possible.

But God’s forgiveness toward you, and his acceptance of you, don’t depend on this. God’s forgiveness depends on the death and resurrection of his Son on your behalf.

And because the death and resurrection of Christ stand forever as the ultimate realities of the universe, God’s invitation to you remains in full force. It is in full force - for you - right now.

As with the apostle John, so also with us today, something is lacking in our joy when we are not able to share the peace of Christ with others. As Christians our joy is incomplete, if we are not able to proclaim the message of St. John’s epistle - and of all of Holy Scripture - to a world that so desperately needs to hear that message.

And so, as you join your fellow redeemed in the fellowship of Christ, the joy of those who are already a part of the Lord’s church will be made “complete” - by you and your faith! God’s saints will not turn you away.

They will not merely tolerate you or grudgingly endure your presence among them. They will welcome you with open arms, and open hearts - even as they, too, have been welcomed in the name of Christ, in spite of their own sins and failures.

We already know the wondrous joy of fellowship with God for ourselves, as Jesus comes to us and blesses us in so many ways through his Word and sacraments. But the presence of a new Christian among us, or of a wandering Christian who has come home to the church, makes our joy complete.

St. John concludes the section of his epistle from which we read today with some words that will serve as an apt conclusion for us now too:

“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Amen.

26 April 2009 - Easter 3 - Luke 24:36-49

One of my seminary professors said something one time that I have never forgotten. He said: “Preaching is the most important thing you do as a pastor, because when you preach, you are wrestling for men’s souls.”

The other activities of a pastor are important in their own way. But preaching - the public and authoritative proclamation of God’s message - is most important.

And of course, a recognition of this fact immediately causes us to consider another urgent question: What is the content of Christian preaching supposed to be?

What kind of message is able to give a sermon the power it needs to have, to be able to overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil in the invisible struggle for souls that is taking place when a preacher preaches?

If someone were to try to figure out what the content of Christian preaching is supposed to be by listening to the kind of preaching that actually takes place on a typical Sunday, in the various churches of our land, he would walk away very confused.

First, he would notice that some preachers almost never mention the Bible. They don’t take time to try explain what the Bible teaches, or to apply the teachings of the Bible to the lives of their listeners.

Such preachers don’t think the Bible is very important. Instead, their sermons are based on current events, or modern political and social movements, or the preacher’s own ideas and theories.

Such preachers are certainly not following the example of Jesus. Whenever Jesus taught his disciples, or the crowds, his messages were always based on Scripture.

He drew the attention of his listeners to the writings of the Old Testament, and explained the true spiritual meaning of those inspired writings. That’s what he was doing in today’s Gospel from St. Luke:

“he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead...’”

As the eternal God in human flesh, Jesus certainly had access to the highest mysteries of esoteric truth. He knew a lot more about the universe, and about God’s own thoughts and plans, than what is recorded in the Scriptures.

But in his preaching and teaching, Jesus didn’t supplement the Bible with answers to the many curious questions that the unsettled human mind might have about spiritual matters. Instead, he expounded the Scriptures. He showed his listeners what the Scriptures had to say about him, and his saving work.

He didn’t tell them everything they might have wanted to know, above and beyond what the Scriptures reveal. But he did tell them what God wanted them and all people to know, on the basis of the Scriptures that God’s Spirit had inspired.

When you today would seek out a church and a preacher, to satisfy your need for spiritual guidance in life, and for a connection with God, make sure you avoid any and all teachers who avoid the Bible in their sermons.

The old Adam within each of us is not necessarily irreligious. Even unregenerated people have an interest in “spirituality.”

But more often than not, it is a self-defined spirituality - intended to enhance the desires and ambitions of the selfish sinful nature - that people choose and cultivate, and not the spirituality that the Bible teaches and conveys.

A self-defined spirituality basically just tacks a superficial religious flourish onto a self-serving lifestyle that someone has already decided to lead.

But a genuine spirituality - as God and his Word would define it - is not something we “add into the mix” of a life that has already been shaped and formed on the basis of worldly and carnal factors.

A true Christian spirituality is, rather, a deeply transforming power that works against all the competing influences of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

It turns the desires and ambitions of the sinful nature on their head, and draws us off in totally different directions, not only in what we do, but in why we do anything that we do.

And a true Christian spirituality flows out of the Holy Scriptures, and draws us back again to the Holy Scriptures. As we heard in last Sunday’s reading from the Gospel according to St. John, the content of that inspired document was “written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

And so, in considering what kind of preaching and teaching we would embrace, let us remember St. Paul’s admonition to the young preacher and pastor St. Timothy. What Paul said to him is as fitting to the circumstances of our day as it was to the circumstances of his own day:

“preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”

There is plenty of myth-filled preaching out there today. Avoid it. And instead, heed the words of the Lord Jesus when he says: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

But once we have ruled out the kind of preaching that ignores Scripture, and that seldom if ever quotes from the Bible, there is still another distinction to be made, if we would place ourselves under the kind of preaching that Jesus wants us to hear and believe. Listen again to his words in today’s Gospel from St. Luke:

“Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’”

“and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed.” This is what we would refer to as the preaching of law and Gospel, and the proper distinction between law and Gospel.

It’s not enough for a preacher to be familiar with the text of the Bible, so that he can pull quotations out of it here and there to bolster his argument - whatever that argument may be. Remember that the devil quoted from Scripture in his attempt to lead Jesus into sin, during the time of his temptation in the wilderness.

The ability to quote something out of context from the Bible does not mean that the point you are trying to make is a valid point.

As Christian believers, our ears should be attuned, not just to sermons that quote from the Bible, but to sermons that quote “rightly” and correctly from the Bible. St. Paul encourages St. Timothy along these lines when he says: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”

The way in which Scripture is used needs to be according to the natural pattern and rhythm of the ongoing conversation that our holy and merciful God is having with sinful and redeemed humanity, through the Scriptures.

And that conversation can be described, at the most fundamental level, as a conversation in which God is demanding from us repentance of sin, and in which God is announcing to us, and bestowing upon us, the forgiveness of sin.

That’s why Jesus told the apostles “that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations,” and not simply that sermons which quote from the Bible should be proclaimed.

The Bible is not merely a resource, from which preachers may draw a few catch phrases in constructing sermons that are actually about their own pet subjects.

The Bible is to govern the sermons that are preached among God’s people, so that the things that Jesus says are of fundamental importance are the things that come through in the preaching as being of fundamental importance.

Unbelievers who may be seeking a spiritual pathway to self-actualization will not think that repentance and forgiveness of sins are very important.

Weak Christians, too - who have been misinstructed or under-instructed in what God’s Word says, or who have allowed themselves to be overly influenced by the entertainment culture in which we live - may not see the importance of the preaching of repentance and forgiveness of sins.

But according to Jesus, as he gives the disciples their marching orders, the proclamation of law and Gospel is of the essence of Christian preaching.

To be sure, Christian sermons can and should deal with a wide array of topics. In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, we read:

“in our churches all the sermons deal with topics like these: repentance, fear of God, faith in Christ, the righteousness of faith, consolation of consciences through faith, the exercise of faith, prayer..., the cross, respect for the magistrates and all civil orders, the distinction between the kingdom of Christ...and political affairs, marriage, the education and instruction of children, chastity, and all the works of love.”

But all of these topics, and many more, are always to be dealt with in the language of law and Gospel. And so, for example, whenever we hear a sermon about a certain duty that we are obliged to fulfill, we would be reminded of our failure to fulfill that duty, which drives us to repentance for that failure.

And we would be reminded of Jesus’ perfect fulfillment of that duty, on our behalf, on account of which God pardons our failure, and counts us in Christ as having fulfilled that duty.

Therefore, whatever the subject matter of any given sermon may be, the undercurrent that is to run through all of it, is the undercurrent of the preaching of repentance and forgiveness of sins. That’s why the Apology of the Augsburg Confession also takes note of the words of Jesus that we are now considering, and then elaborates on those words as follows:

“The proclamation of repentance, which accuses us, terrifies consciences with genuine and serious terrors. In the midst of these, hearts must once again receive consolation. This happens when they believe the promise of Christ, namely, that on his account we have the forgiveness of sins. This faith, which arises and consoles in the midst of those fears, receives the forgiveness of sins, justifies us, and makes alive. For this consolation is a new and spiritual life.”

This, my friends, is the kind of preaching that I know I must always hear. I am always preaching to myself, and not just to you, whenever I stand up here and declare before you the message of law and Gospel.

Every week I come here with an accumulation of sins that I have amassed in seven days of pride, selfishness, negligence of responsibility, wastefulness, and lack of charity. I need to be called to repentance, because these sins have placed dangerous obstacles in the way of my relationship with God. And they threaten that relationship.

And, in my regret and sorrow over my sins, I also need to be comforted by the Lord’s pardon. Every week I look at the image of the cross that rises here before us, and I hear the message of Christ’s death and resurrection for my salvation.

And as God’s Word and sacrament reveal his love and mercy to me, and impact me with that love and mercy, I am calmed in my fears, and renewed in my faith and hope.

Jesus knew that this was the kind of preaching I would need. And Jesus knew that this is the kind of preaching you would need too.

As you walk along the pathway of life, struggling against the temptations that come your way, and sometimes not struggling but succumbing, you too need to hear the preaching of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.

You don’t need sermons of shallow moralizing, or sermons that promote salvation by works or self-help techniques, based on an improper use of the “law” passages of Scripture. You shouldn’t want such sermons, because this is not what Jesus has commanded the pastors of his church to preach.

You also don’t need sermons that assure you of God’s indulgence, or sermons that claim that he is indifferent to your sin, based on an improper use of the “Gospel” passages of Scripture. And you shouldn’t want such sermons either, because this is likewise not what Jesus has commanded the pastors of his church to preach.

Instead, what you need is what you are privileged to have: the preaching of repentance and forgiveness of sins.

Don’t ever underestimate the danger of your sins. Your sins pollute and poison your soul, and cause you in your heart to turn away from God.

God therefore calls upon you to turn away from your sins, and to seek his face.

And don’t ever underestimate God’s willingness to forgive you, to wash away your sins in the blood of Christ, and to cover over your sins with the righteousness of Christ.

Dear friends in Christ, you are forgiven! For the sake of Christ, God does not hold your sins against you.

Jesus died for those sins - as the Scriptures said he would - and he carried them to his grave. And when he rose from the grave on the third day - as the Scriptures said he would - he left those sins there.

In Christ, and for the sake of Christ, they will therefore never again rise up to accuse you. You are released from the power of sin. You are absolved from the guilt of sin.

“He said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’” Amen.