SERMONS - MARCH 2009
1 March 2009 - Lent 1 - Genesis 22:1-18
Think about someone right now whom you would consider a friend. You are more than likely thinking about someone with whom you have a shared experience, or whose life experiences are similar to yours.
The closest friends we have tend to be people like this. That common experience serves as a bonding agent for the friendship, and for a mutual understanding within the friendship.
This is why friendships are often formed and maintained between those who grew up together in the same town, or who went to college together, or who served together in the military.
Your friends are basically the people who can understand you, because they have gone through the same kind of things you have gone through. Accordingly, they are able to look at the world in a way that is very similar to how you look at it.
What should we think, then, of a statement that St. James makes in his Epistle about the friendship that existed between God and Abraham? He writes: “the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’ - and he was called a friend of God.”
How could a mortal man like Abraham be a friend of God? God is, of course, vastly different from Abraham in the nature of his being.
God is eternal, almighty, and all-knowing. Abraham, by comparison, was limited in every way - in his knowledge, and in his power.
So, Abraham, was not God’s peer, or his equal, in respect to these things. But still, Scripture calls him a friend of God.
What common experience did Abraham and God share, so that their relationship could be described in such terms? Well, let’s look at today’s Old Testament lesson from the Book of Genesis. There we may find an answer to that question.
Because God is God, and stands above Abraham as Abraham’s creator, the friendship that Abraham had with God was a friendship that God bestowed on Abraham. Their friendship was planned out by God.
It did not take shape in the way that many of our human friendships begin, through the happenstance of two people getting thrown together in the same class at school, or in the same army unity. Instead, God is the one who caused Abraham to have the kind of experiences that would give Abraham a certain level of commonality with God, and with God’s own experiences.
When God tested Abraham’s faith by telling him to sacrifice his son Isaac, God was giving Abraham just such an experience. God was enabling Abraham to become his friend.
“He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.’”
Abraham was certainly surprised by this request. It would no doubt have seemed to him to go against everything he would expect from God. It would have seemed to be going against God’s own nature.
The God of Abraham was not like the false gods of the pagan nations, with their thirst for blood and human sacrifice. The God who had called Abraham to follow him, and who had promised Abraham that he would give him and his wife Sarah a son, was a God of life, not a God of death.
Any parent - indeed, any decent human being - can understand how difficult it would have been for Abraham to obey such a command. We would certainly not want to be in Abraham’s sandals.
But Abraham’s readiness to obey the Lord demonstrates that he was willing to admit that maybe there were a few things about God, and about God’s plans for the world, that he did not fully understand. So, he trusted in the Lord, believing that the Lord’s will is always good, and he set out to do as God had directed him.
Abraham prepared the wood that would be needed for the sacrifice, and then went with his son to the place that God had designated. We pick up the story there, as the Book of Genesis records it for us:
“And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘My father!’ And he said, ‘Here am I, my son.’ He said, ‘Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.’”
“So they went both of them together. When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.”
It’s difficult even to read this story without getting emotional. What a painful experience this must have been for Abraham.
Even if he believed that God was able to raise Isaac from the ashes - which he did believe - slaying his son and offering his body as a sacrifice to the Lord would certainly have been the most difficult thing he would ever have to do in his life. The agony he endured, in such a severe test of his faith, is almost incomprehensible.
But Abraham passed the test. He demonstrated his willingness to offer up even his own son in death, according to the inscrutable will of God, and according to the necessity of what God had laid upon him. But then, at the last minute, God stopped Abraham from following through with his intention. At the last minute, he spared Isaac. At the last minute, he spared Abraham. We continue reading:
“But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here am I.’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’”
“And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.”
Abraham now had his son back. And God now had a friend. Abraham, through his own experience, now knew - he really knew, at least to some extent - what it was going to be like for God, many centuries later, to send his only Son to the cross, to die for sinful humanity.
The story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac has so many parallels to the story of God’s sacrificing of his own Son, under the just judgment of his own law, in order to redeem us. We notice, for example, the statement that Isaac was the one who carried the wood to the place of sacrifice - just as Jesus carried his own cross to Calvary.
We notice, too, the Lord’s emphatic description of Isaac as Abraham’s “only son.” This really stands out in the text, because we know that from a strictly biological point of view it is not literally true.
Abraham had another son, Ishmael. But Isaac was the “only son” of Abraham as far as the Lord’s special covenant with him was concerned.
And when we read this, we cannot avoid immediately thinking of what Jesus said about himself, as God’s only Son, in the Gospel of John: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Before the events of today’s text transpired, Abraham already knew that the God he served was, as he himself said, “the Judge of all the earth.” But Abraham may not have fully grasped that his God was also the Redeemer of all the earth.
And he almost certainly would not previously have grasped the lengths to which God would be willing to go in order to accomplish that redemption.
But now he knew. Now he had tasted for himself something of the experience that God was going to have, when Jesus would suffer and die for the sins of the world.
Abraham knew that in the fulfillment of God’s will, he could not hold anything back. And God, too, would hold nothing back.
God had allowed Abraham to experience just enough of a commonality with what God himself was someday going to experience, so that Abraham could now be, in a very unique way, his friend.
You and I, and indeed all men, have offended God in so many ways. We have transgressed the boundaries that his good and perfect law has drawn for us. We have fallen short of the goals that his good and perfect law has set for us.
God’s holiness cannot tolerate our rebellion. His holiness requires a punishment for sin. But at the same time, his love for us cannot tolerate the thought that all of us would be eternally lost and condemned because of our sin.
The holiness of God requires him to judge sin - your sin and my sin. But the love of God impels him to find a way to judge our sin without thereby also damning us. A substitute for humanity would be needed:
A substitute who would be a true man, to take the place of sinful man under the judgment of God’s law. A substitute who would be true God, so that his sacrifice would be of infinite value, and would cover, once and for all, the sins of all people for all time.
What was needed was what God did, in the sending of his only begotten Son to become a part of the human race, and from within the human race to be the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the human race.
And God did not, at the last minute, hesitate, or draw back from his purpose and plan. He didn’t change his mind.
St. Peter describes the sacrifice of his Lord in this way: by the hands of lawless men, Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.”
Jesus didn’t walk away from Calvary unscathed, as Isaac walked away from the land of Moriah. Jesus saw it all the way through to the end, until the sins of the whole world had been atoned for, and he cried out, “It is finished,” and breathed his last.
As we were reminded by the hymn we sang just a few minutes ago:
A Lamb goes uncomplaining forth, The guilt of all men bearing;
And laden with the sins of earth, None else the burden sharing!
Goes patient on, grows weak and faint,
To slaughter led without complaint, That spotless life to offer;
Bears shame and stripes, and wounds and death,
Anguish and mockery, and saith, “Willing, all this I suffer.”
Abraham learned some very important things about God and his redeeming love for humanity through the experiences that he had in the land of Moriah.
But he is not the only one who can learn something from these experiences. He is not the only one who can benefit from the revelation that God made to Abraham in this way, on this day.
Our text continues: “And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, ‘By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.’”
St. Paul makes an important observation about this text in his Epistle to the Galatians: “the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.”
The events that we have been considering today, and the promise that God made to Abraham at that time, pointed forward to the atoning sacrifice of Christ, and to the promise of forgiveness and salvation that is now freely offered to the world for the sake of Christ.
Through the saving realities that the events in today’s text portray, all the nations of the earth will be blessed by the mercy of God. You are blessed by what God has taught you today, through the experiences of Abraham, God’s friend.
God’s only Son has been given into death for your justification. In his Gospel and Sacraments, God now bestows on you every grace and blessing that his Son won for you by his innocent suffering and death.
And in the same way as Abraham believed God, God now invites you also to believe him, when he tells you that he is at peace with you through the sacrifice of his Son, and that in Christ he will be at peace with you forever.
“the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’ - and he was called a friend of God.” Amen.
8 March 2009 - Lent 2 - Mark 8:27-38
When you are ashamed of something in your life, you try to hide that shameful thing, so that others will not find out about it. When you are ashamed of a person, perhaps a relative who has behaved in an embarrassing manner, you try to dissociate yourself from that person, so that others will not make a connection between the two of you.
I used to know someone whose parents had immigrated to the United States from eastern Europe. This person’s father was a cousin of a notorious Bolshevik in early twentieth-century Russia, a colleague - or better, an accomplice - of Lenin.
This European relative was actually the founder and original director of the Soviet KGB. As a boy I was already interested in history. So, when I heard about this kinship, I asked the gentleman with whom I was acquainted about his infamous relative.
I learned very quickly, though, that this was a subject he had absolutely no desire to talk about. He was ashamed of his father’s cousin - as his father before him had been - and he wanted me to drop the subject. That was the end of the conversation.
In general, do you think that people in our society are ashamed of Jesus? Do they avoid talking about him, or referring to him? Are they embarrassed when someone brings him up in a conversation?
Well, insofar as Jesus is an historical figure, it would seem that people are not really ashamed of him. A television campaign that has been running in various places in the country refers to Jesus, in its criticism of some recent enactments of the Congress in Washington.
Maybe you’ve heard this ad, or heard about it. The ad states that if someone spent a million dollars a day, starting on the day Jesus was born about 2000 years ago, and continuing to today, he would not have spent as much as will be spent by the federal government in the stimulus package that was recently passed by Congress and signed into law by the President.
Now, the pulpit is not the place to comment on the perceived strengths or weaknesses of our government’s current economic policy. But my point in mentioning this it to illustrate that people are not afraid to talk about Jesus in such ways. They are not ashamed of him as a historical figure.
In fact, every time someone refers to an event that happened in the ancient world, and says that this historical occurrence was in a certain year “B.C.,” he is unselfconsciously recognizing Jesus Christ as an historical figure. As we all know, “B.C.” means “before Christ.”
People are also not ashamed of Jesus as a moral teacher. Jesus certainly did have a way with words, and he was able to articulate his ethical beliefs in memorable ways.
In the days before the Civil War, with the tension that then existed between free states and slave states, Abraham Lincoln said in a famous speech, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
But he was quoting Jesus. And he would have freely admitted that he was quoting Jesus.
Another example of this sort of thing was when President Jimmy Carter brokered a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt back in the 1970s. In commending the leaders of the two countries for their willingness to establish friendly relations with each other, President Carter, in a speech, quoted Jesus: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
People are also not ashamed to quote other things that Jesus said, such as the Golden Rule: “whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.”
This is a wise statement, and would be recognized as such by anyone. No one is afraid to cite such expressions of Jesus, and to state that such expressions come from Jesus
So, when Jesus warns us in today’s Gospel about being ashamed of him, and about being ashamed of his words, we might think that we have nothing to worry about. We’re not ashamed of Jesus.
We still measure ancient history in terms of that which happened “before Christ.” We don’t mind it when people quote some pithy statement from one of Jesus’ sermons.
But let’s look more closely at how Jesus phrases his warning in today’s text. He says:
“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. ... For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
Jesus does not warn us of the spiritual danger of being ashamed of him in general. Rather, he speaks his warning to those who would be ashamed of him in terms of the gospel that he preaches. He commends those who would be willing even to forfeit their earthly lives, if need be, for his and the gospel’s sake.
The words of the gospel, then, are the words of Jesus that our adulterous generation cannot tolerate. And it is specifically the gospel of Jesus Christ, and our willingness to confess and proclaim the gospel, that Jesus would want us to consider, as we heed the warning that he gives us.
The word “gospel” means good news, or glad tidings. That wouldn’t seem like such an offensive concept.
But remember that the good news of Christ presupposes certain things that our adulterous generation does find threatening and offensive. The good news of Jesus Christ is good news only to people who are in a bad situation.
But the sinful world won’t admit that it is in a bad situation. And therefore it has no use for the gospel.
The unbelieving children of this world will, in fact, get angry with you if you try to preach the Christian gospel to them, because this gospel, before it does anything else, would make them face up to a fearful and dangerous reality that they absolutely do not want to face up to.
My wife and I are in the process of buying a house. We look forward to owning our own little piece of the American dream once again.
In our society people put a great value on their homes, and take great pride in them. Our homes mean a lot to us, and we tend to invest ourselves in them, both financially and emotionally.
So, a person who is in the midst of enjoying the familiar comforts of his home might not be willing to listen to a police officer or a firefighter, who comes to the door to tell this person that he is there to lead him to safety - and that he needs to get out of his home because a flood, or a fire, or a hurricane, or some other destructive force is bearing down on that home, and is threatening to destroy it.
Someone inside his home, in such a situation, might go into a state of denial, and refuse to leave. He could even get angry at the officer who is there to bring him the good news of his deliverance from danger.
If you were such a police officer or firefighter, dealing with a stubborn and misguided home-owner, would you then become ashamed of the message of rescue that you were sent to bring to that person, and to others like him? Would you stop trying to persuade him of his need to go with you to safety?
Would you give up on going to the other houses in his neighborhood, to warn those people of the danger, and to rescue them, because of the discouraging response you encountered at the first house?
I think we would all agree that this would be a very irresponsible reaction on the part of an emergency services officer. If you were such an officer, you would not be quiet. You would not be so easily silenced, even if some of the people who needed to listen to you didn’t want to listen to you.
You would continue to tell the good news of rescue to all the endangered people to whom you had been sent. You would not abandon your responsibility of proclaiming that message. You would not be ashamed of that message.
But what about the good news of Jesus Christ? Will we be silent, and not speak that message to an endangered world? Will we be ashamed of Jesus, and of his words of rescue and hope, so that we will not speak those words to people who mistakenly feel at home in their isolation from God?
The adulterous and sinful generation among whom we live does not want to hear about the rescue that Jesus offers, because this generation - this deceived and irrational generation - refuses to admit that it is headed for destruction without that rescue. The unrepentant world in which we live does not want to hear about the forgiveness of sins, because it refuses to admit that its desires and actions are sinful and in need of forgiveness.
Fallen humanity is so corrupted by its sin that its ability to perceive its own corruption is itself corrupted. Apart from Christ and the transforming power of his gospel, humanity is blind to how desperately it needs the mercy of God, and a relationship with God.
But one thing that the old nature does know, is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is a threat to it. It knows that in Christian baptism the old Adam is drowned, and a new man of faith arises to suppress and supplant the old nature and its ways.
And so there will be hostility, in response to anyone who might challenge the status quo of an unbeliever’s life, and separation from God.
Humanly speaking, it’s easy for you to become “ashamed” of the gospel that Jesus has told you to speak, when you are in an environment where that gospel is so strongly despised, and where it is so adamantly rejected by many who hear it.
It is easy to remain silent when you should say something, or to speak in vague and general terms when you should actually speak very clearly and precisely about humanity’s need for salvation, and about God’s offer of the needed salvation through Christ.
“I don’t want to create an awkward situation,” you might say. “I don’t want people to think I’m some kind of religious nut,” you might think. But Jesus says this in response:
“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. ... For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
However, we can certainly thank God that Jesus is not ashamed of his own words. We can certainly thank God that Jesus was willing to lose his life for the sake of the gospel - so that this gospel could be preached to the world; so that this gospel could be preached to you.
God always finds a way to get his word out, even when we as individuals fail him in our weakness and fear. And God has found a way to get his word to you, right now, as you are listening to this sermon.
The gospel, or the good news of Christ, does not merely tell us about the forgiveness of sin that God has provided through the death and resurrection of his Son. The gospel actually imparts that forgiveness to the consciences of those who hear it, in repentance and faith.
And the gospel does not merely inform us of the need for faith, so that the blessings of forgiveness and reconciliation with God can be received. It actually bestows that faith, and works it in us by the miraculous operation of God’s Spirit.
Through the gospel, God’s Spirit transforms the minds of those whom he saves, and makes those who are unwilling to believe, willing. He heals their spiritual sickness.
He opens their closed hearts. And with the enlightenment of his eternal truth, he lifts from them the curse of their spiritual blindness.
As we heard in last week’s lesson from the epistle of St. James, God brought us forth, and gave us spiritual birth, by his word of truth. The words of Jesus carry within them the power of God to save you.
His words are a lifeline, which he throws out to you, and to which you cling with every fiber of your being. His words do not simply tell you of the Lord’s salvation from the adulterous and sinful generation in which you live, but his words accomplish that salvation.
When you believe those words, you are justified in Christ. Your are pure. You are clean. You are rescued.
Jesus is not ashamed of his words. Through the ministry of his church, in the public administration of the means of grace, he is continually bringing his gospel to the highways of the world.
And in the private sharing of his word around a million kitchen tables, across a million living rooms, and along a million walkways, - in all the byways of our personal relationships with other people - Jesus likewise is continually bringing his gospel to a perishing world - one soul at a time.
In this way, through your loving testimony to your friends and relatives, your coworkers and acquaintances - stammering and halting thought it may be - Jesus is working miracles.
As you are refreshed and restored by the Lord’s free forgiveness of your previous silence, you are, in the Lord’s strength, sent out with a renewed assurance that God will work through the things that you are now eager to say. You are not ashamed of your Savior, or of his words.
“O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.” Amen.
15 March 2009 - Lent 3 - John 2:13-22
In the Bible, the temple in Jerusalem represented a lot of important things. It was, of course, the place where the sacrifices that God commanded were offered.
According to the law that God had given Moses for the nation of Israel, a wide array of sacrifices and offerings were to be performed at various times of the year and on various occasions.
At first, of course, these sacrifices were performed at the tabernacle, which was, as it were, a traveling temple. But when the temple became permanently established in Jerusalem, in the form of a permanent structure, that structure then became the place where the sacrifices and offerings were to take place.
But the temple also represented another important thing, closely related to the sacrificial requirements of the ceremonial law. King David, in reference to the tabernacle that existed in his time - and in anticipation of the permanent temple that his son Solomon would build - said this in Psalm 26:
“O Lord, I love the habitation of your house and the place where your glory dwells.” The Temple was the special place where God dwelled among his people.
Certainly the believers of the Old Testament knew that their Lord was not physically limited to this structure. Through Isaiah the prophet God had declared: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest?”
But even so, God had promised to be especially present with his grace in the temple, and had made himself uniquely accessible to his chosen people by means of the temple. The temple stood, then, as a vivid testimony to the Lord’s pledge to abide with them, and to be their protector, guardian, and Savior.
The First Commandment says: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.”
When God’s people, in faith, would seek to heed this commandment, and to honor the God who had saved them from slavery, they would honor him chiefly at his temple.
Worshiping the Lord at this holy place, where he dwelled in his invisible yet real glory, was the complete antithesis to the blind and foolish idolatry of the pagan nations. The prophet Habakkuk said this:
“Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awaken; to a silent stone, Arise! Can this teach? Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in it. But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.”
Jesus, according to his human nature, honored all of the promises and pledges that God’s Word had made regarding the temple. The Psalmist had prophesied of this, speaking in the voice of the Messiah in the form of a prayer to God the Father: “zeal for your house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me.”
That’s why Jesus was so angry when he saw a completely different attitude at work in many of the people he encountered when he came to the temple, on the occasion that is described in today’s Gospel:
“In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen.”
“And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, ‘Take these things away; do not make my Father's house a house of trade.’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’”
We’re not surprised to see that the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem didn’t like this. Who was this man, to presume to regulate the activities of the temple? By what authority does he do this?
That’s what they wanted to know when they asked him: “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” And Jesus gave them a startling answer: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”
They thought, of course, that he was referring to the literal building standing before them. It was a huge, massive structure. So, what Jesus said made no sense to them.
“It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” But, as the text tells us, “he was speaking about the temple of his body.”
The body of Jesus - the human nature of Jesus - was indeed also a sacred temple, within which the eternal God dwelled in his invisible yet real glory. Jesus did have the right to exercise discipline in the literal temple in Jerusalem, since according to his divine nature it was his Father’s house, and therefore his own house.
This was something he had always known, even in his state of humiliation and in his childhood. Remember what he told his mother back when he was twelve years old, and had become separated from her and Joseph:
“Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?”
But now, Jesus is drawing people to an even deeper understanding of who he is, and of what he has come into the world to do for the human race.
He is, as St. John elsewhere explains it, the eternal, divine Word, who was in the beginning with God, and who was God. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
The glory of the Lord fills all things. God is present everywhere, and sustains everything by his almighty power. But God’s grace toward fallen man is not accessible everywhere.
You can know, as an article of faith, that God is all around you when you hike a mountain trail or go for a walk in the woods. But the presence of God on a mountaintop or in a forest is not a saving presence.
According to his general omnipresence in all corners of the universe, God does not do anything to remove your sin from you, or to remove from his own thoughts about you the righteous wrath that burns against human rebellion and wickedness.
So, if the only way you intend to seek God is to try to find him in the grandeur and beauty of the created world, you will never find a God who is at peace with you. And, quite honestly, you will, through such an approach, never find a God with whom you are truly at peace either.
But the human body of Christ is a living temple of God’s redeeming and forgiving presence among men. Therefore, when you find and embrace God as he makes himself present among us in Christ, you find a God who is at peace with you.
And in Christ, you are able to know a God who in his grace changes you, and regenerates you, and makes you to be at peace with him, by faith.
Those who embrace a religion other than the Christian religion are usually much offended by the claim that the Christian religion is the only saving religion. How dare we think this, let alone say this?
But how can we think, or say, anything but this? No man, no prophet, no religious leader, ever in history, has been a temple of God’s personal presence among men as Jesus was and is.
Jesus is not merely an enlightened individual who knows a lot about God. Jesus is God! He was not simply a man who lived his life under the influence and guidance of God. God was living his life in and through him!
In Christ, God walked the earth. In Christ, God reached out to the people of the earth.
In the words and deeds of Christ, God himself was directly speaking and acting. As Jesus later told his disciple Philip, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”
But God’s saving purpose in establishing a “temple” among us is not fulfilled simply in the act of God becoming man, through the union of the divine and human natures in the person of Christ.
That saving purpose is fulfilled also and especially through what Jesus, as the divine-human Savior, actually did. The epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that “without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.”
To an increasing extent, people today severely underestimate their own sinfulness, and they severely underestimate God’s holiness. They expect God to forgive them, or to ignore their sins, because they imagine him to be extremely indulgent, and basically indifferent to their failings.
Maybe you’ve thought that way about God: going through the motions of asking for forgiveness, and expecting God, in return, to go through the motions of forgiving you - and then sending you on your way to sin some more.
But God does not forgive you, or ignore your sins, because your sins are no big deal to him. Actually they are a very big deal.
Our sins against him and our neighbor offend him greatly. We must therefore never take our sins so lightly, or so easily dismiss them from our minds, without true sorrow over them.
Rather, God forgives you, and releases you from your moral debt to him, because his Son has atoned for your sins by his innocent suffering and death. God forgives you, because in Christ God has taken the guilt and punishment of your sins upon himself. In Christ God himself carried your sins to the cross.
As St. Paul tells us, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” God was in Christ, reconciling you to himself, not counting your trespasses against you.
That’s why the living temple - the humanity of Christ, which he shares with us - needed to be “destroyed,” as it were, in his atoning death on behalf of humanity - just as the literal temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians, when the people of Judah were taken away into 70 years of captivity because of their sins.
But in the same way as that literal temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt when the exiles returned to the holy land, so too the temple of Christ - his human body - was miraculously restored to life again in the resurrection.
As the risen, living Savior, Jesus continues to be the temple of God among men. Through Christ, God continues to make his saving presence known in the earth. And he continues to invite all people to come and worship him, and to know him, at this temple.
But where can this temple be found? How can we gain access to the blessings that are available to us only through this temple - only through Christ? Well, quite simply, Christ is to be found where his voice is heard.
That voice is not heard on the mountaintops or in the forests. To be sure, God, in his general omnipresence, is in those locations.
But God’s saving revelation in Christ does not come to us through those vistas of natural beauty, or through the fresh air we breath in those places. God’s majestic creation, in and of itself, is not his temple.
The voice of Christ is heard, however, where his Gospel is preached, and where his sacraments are administered. Where the Word and sacraments are in use, there Christ is.
There the temple is. And there is where we will go, to partake of the gifts of salvation that only Christ can give.
Martin Luther writes: “The temple is now as wide as the world. For the Word is preached and the sacraments administered everywhere; and wherever these are properly observed, whether it be in a ship on the sea, or in a house on land, there is God’s house, or the Church, and there God should be sought and found.”
According to the loving institution of our Savior, God’s temple among men is here for us in a profoundly comforting way in that sacrament by which he gives us his body - and his blood - and by which he mystically comes to join himself to us.
When you receive the Lord’s Supper, therefore, and partake of Christ’s true body, you are receiving into yourself the living temple of God! In this way you too become, in a certain sense, a temple of God yourself.
God, who dwells in Christ’s humanity through the personal union, now dwells in you through the mystical union. There is a connection between the blessing of the sacrament, as you receive it in faith, and the blessed reality of which St. Paul speaks when he asks:
“do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” Think about this, my friends, when you commune today.
At some point in time, your human mortality will catch up with you. Your bodily life will eventually be “destroyed,” as it were, in physical death.
But also, as with Christ, you will be raised up from death by the glory of the Father. Your own body, as a temple of God, will be restored in the resurrection on the last day. And, with Christ, you too will live forever.
“When therefore [Jesus] was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.” Amen.
22 March 2009 - Lent 4 - John 3:14-21
The movie “The Poseidon Adventure” - both the original 1972 version and the 2005 remake - tells an interesting story. Most of you have probably seen one or both of these films.
As you recall, a large trans-Atlantic luxury liner called the Poseidon is hit by a monstrous rogue wave, which capsizes the ship. The survivors then find themselves basically at the bottom of the upside-down ship, standing on what used to be the ceiling of one of the main upper-deck rooms.
Most of the people decide to stay where they are - to wait and see what happens. They don’t sense themselves to be in imminent danger.
They aren’t sure what to do, so they decide to do nothing. They don’t want to make a mistake that would doom them to death by going to the wrong place, so they make what seems to be the neutral choice.
But a small, adventurous, and wise group of passengers decides to leave the others, and to move toward the top of the capsized ship - that is, toward what used to be the bottom of the ship. They know that those who would stay where they are now, are doomed already. There is no neutral choice to make.
To do nothing would be to remain in the doomed condition in which everyone now finds himself. The water will eventually find its way in, and start killing people, from the bottom of the ship on up.
The only way to be saved from this fate, and to live, will be to leave that location, and to move up - ahead of the rising water - toward that part of the ship that is still sticking up above the surface of the sea.
Jesus says in today’s Gospel text: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned.”
This is good news to those of us who are aware of our sin, and who sense the distance that our sin creates between us and God. We rejoice to hear that God sent his Son into the world to save the world, because we know that we need this salvation.
There are many people in the world, however, who feel themselves to be in a neutral state regarding God and the possibility of a relationship with God. They are not yet persuaded that they need salvation from sin.
At the same time, they don’t completely dismiss the possibility that some advantage may come from having a deeper spiritual life, or some kind of religious commitment. But they’re not yet ready to make that commitment. They’re still considering their options. They’re just waiting, perhaps, to see what happens.
Those who understand themselves and their spiritual state in this way would no doubt be pleased to know that Jesus said: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world.” That’s good. They don’t have to make a decision, at least not right away.
Jesus is not here to condemn them, so they will be O.K. until they get ready to decide what to do in regard to their souls - if they ever decide. Until then - if that time ever comes - they’ll just stay neutral.
But the words that Jesus speaks today do not give people that kind of latitude, or that kind of “breathing space,” as it were, in considering what their options might be, either for or against God and what he offers. Listen to the totality of that key thought in what Jesus is saying:
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
It’s very true that Jesus did not come into the world to condemn the world. There was no need for that, because the world is already condemned. And those in the world, who are still in their natural state of unbelief and rebellion against God, are already condemned.
There is no neutral state as far as God and a relationship with him are concerned. You are not born in a spiritually neutral condition, but you are born as a part of a condemned race.
We’re all a part of the same humanity. We are connected to each other, across the generations, and across all races and ethnicities of men.
Among other things, that means that you were in Adam - in his genes, in his humanity - when he sinned against God in the garden of Eden. And it means that Adam is in you - in your genes, in your humanity - from the very moment of your conception, reliving his rejection of God’s Word in you, and through you.
St. Paul comments on this mystery - this frightening and sobering mystery - in his Epistle to the Romans: “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” Likewise in his First Epistle to the Corinthians: “in Adam all die.”
And so, we are by nature children of wrath, and at enmity with God. We are, by nature, condemned.
It’s not as if God singled each of us out for condemnation, arbitrarily and heartlessly. No, it’s not like that at all. Rather, we are conceived and born into a condition - a circumstance - in which condemnation is what we are destined for, unless something would happen to change that trajectory.
Like the passengers who elected to remain where they were, in the bottom of the overturned Poseidon cruise ship, people may think they are remaining neutral by choosing to do nothing; to believe nothing. But they are not remaining neutral.
They are remaining under condemnation, because of their sin - their inherited sinfulness in general, and the actual sins that they choose to commit every day.
Jesus, with profound grief and disappointment, describes the state of those who reject God and what he offers in this way: “the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light.”
For those of us who know Christ, this would have been our fate too, if there had not been a divine intervention in our lives, and a change in the direction in which we, and everyone else, were being pushed by our sin and unbelief.
You and I did not “luck out.” We were conceived and born in the midst of the same moral muck and mire that covers and contaminates everyone else. There is no room for pride here, or for self-congratulation that we are saved, and not condemned.
The difference between us and those who remain under condemnation is simply this: we have been supernaturally rescued from the fate that otherwise would have been ours and theirs together.
The hand of divine forgiveness in Christ, extended to the world from heaven, miraculously took hold of us, and pulled us out. God disrupted our journey down to destruction, and drew the eyes of our faith up instead - up to the cross, on which Christ is lifted up for the salvation of all.
Like those adventurous few in the movie - who did not remain in the circumstance of doom in which they and all the others found themselves - we, in Christ, have been led up and out of this situation, and have found a way of escape. We have been led up and out, to a new life, and to a new beginning with God.
We have, in a word, been saved. And that is indeed what Jesus was sent into the world to do. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to Timothy that “God our Savior...desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.”
All human beings by nature are in a state of condemnation, not because of anything that God has done, but because of what we have done - collectively and individually. By the wicked things that we and all our ancestors have done and said and thought, we have separated ourselves from a holy God - from his protection and fellowship.
Therefore, when God in Christ decided to do something in response to this problem, he didn’t bring unjust condemnation to those who are supposedly in a natural state of moral and spiritual neutrality. It would have been impossible for him to have done that, because that’s not the kind of state we are in by nature!
It would have been possible for God, in Christ, to bring a just condemnation to a rebellious race that deserves his wrath, because we do in fact deserve it. But he didn’t do that either - mostly because it would have been redundant. We were already under condemnation.
But what God did do in Christ was to bring to those who are under condemnation - through no fault of his - a way out - a rescue - a change in their trajectory toward destruction.
Apart from Christ we are not neutral in regard to God. Apart from Christ the world is not neutral. It is hostile to God and antagonistic toward God.
But in Christ, God brings reconciliation and liberation to those who are by nature stuck in the deception of unbelief. In Christ God brings enlightenment to those who are by nature stuck in the blindness of sin.
He changes our hearts, and changes our lives, and draws us ever deeper into our reunited fellowship with him and with his Son. As Jesus says, with great joy and satisfaction: “whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God.”
Dear friends, God does not want you to be condemned. He does not want you to remain in the condemned state of existence in which you came into this world. He does not want you to exit this world - and enter into the next - still under this condemnation.
When you leave this world, and indeed while you yet live in it, God wants you to be saved from this condemnation. He wants your eyes to be opened to the reality of his unmeasurable love for you, and for all people.
He wants you to be healed of your unbelief. By his grace, your heavenly Father has made this salvation available to you, and is even now offering and giving it to you, to be received by faith in his Son.
Picking up on something that Jesus mentions in the first part of today’s Gospel, and that the Old Testament lesson also discusses, Luther on one occasion shared some interesting thoughts about the way in which sacred art - especially a crucifix or some other depiction of the crucifixion - can aid us in that faith. He says:
“I do not entirely reject images, chiefly not the figure of the crucified Christ. We have an image of Christ in the Old Testament, the brazen serpent lifted up by Moses in the wilderness, that all who had been bitten by the fiery serpents and looked at this brazen serpent should become well. We, too, should do this. In order to become well in our souls, we should look at the crucified Christ and believe in Him.”
But whether or not you have a picture or statue of your Savior to look at as a reminder of the Gospel, believe that Gospel! Believe the Lord’s pledge that he does not want you to be condemned. Believe his promise that he will save you from this condemnation, for the sake of Christ and his atoning death.
“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Amen.
29 March 2009 - Lent 5 - Mark 10:35-45
The human brain is in many ways like a computer, with a massive memory bank.
When you come across something unusual, that is not exactly like anything you have previously experienced, your brain will run through its stored-up memory of experiences that are somewhat similar to the new experience, in order to find an analogy, so that the new experience can be interpreted and understood.
When you cannot find an analogy to the new things you are experiencing, you become confused, or fearful. Or, you become willing to admit that you have now experienced something new and unprecedented, with no analogy to anything you have ever experienced before.
An illustration of how this mental process works can be seen in the opening segment of the old “Superman” TV show - for those of us who can remember seeing that show. “Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s Superman!”
The disciples Peter, James, and John, during the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, were forced to go through a similar kind of mental process, as they sought to evaluate and understand some of the unusual experiences they were having.
These three men were among the twelve apostles - men who were being especially trained and groomed by Christ to be the first leaders and pastors of the Christian church, that he would soon establish.
But in addition to that, Peter, James, and James’s brother John comprised what might be called the “inner circle” of the apostles. It would seem that they were being prepared by the Lord for positions of leadership among the apostles.
And Jesus also relied on them himself, for companionship and support, and to serve as eyewitnesses to some of the more extraordinary things that he did.
These were the three who were with Jesus at the time of his transfiguration, when he manifested his divine glory and appeared with Moses and Elijah. They were the only ones invited to go in and witness the Lord’s raising of Jairus’s daughter.
And in the Garden of Gethsemane, these were the three disciples - the three friends - whom Jesus would ask to come along with him and stay close to him during the time of his agonizing prayer, before his arrest.
How did these men interpret the unique role that they seemed to be playing in the ministry of Jesus? What could the special experiences that they were allowed to have be compared to, in other arenas of human life, so that the purpose of these special experiences could perhaps be understood?
What kind of special status or standing were these three men going to have, as a result of the special attention that Jesus seemed to be paying to them? Those were the kinds of questions that were being asked by at least two of them: James and John.
In the Garden of Eden, the serpent tempted our first mother to eat the forbidden fruit with these words: “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God...”
To be like God. That temptation worked in the Garden of Eden, and it has worked ever since, in causing sinful humanity to be puffed up with pride, and to be filled with a love of power and a driving desire to be in control.
We want to be like God. We want to be in charge. We want other people to look up to us, and to be subservient to us.
And this desire is so pervasive, and so universal, that people have a hard time imagining that there’s something wrong with it. This inborn lust for power over others permeates everything we think and do, in subliminal ways that we don’t even recognize.
It just seems so natural that we don’t even give it a second thought. And it is natural - according to our old fallen nature.
We shouldn’t be too surprised, then, that James and John interpreted the special training that they were receiving from Jesus, and the special attention that he was paying to them, through this grid.
“Jesus is going to the top. And he’s going to take us with him!” According to the assumptions and selfish aspirations that are common to all of us, who wouldn’t react in the same way?
Of course, these brothers did have one notable rival for being chosen by Jesus to be the chief viceroys in his kingdom - Peter. Their friend Peter, who was in the “inner circle” of disciples with them, seemed also to be in the running to be a “top boss” someday.
So, in a moment when they thought that Jesus might be receptive to a request for the two of them to be launched to the head of the line, they raised the subject with him.
“And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’”
As an experienced parent, I especially notice how James and John began their conversation with Jesus. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Their attempt to get him to agree to what they were going to ask him to do, before he even knew what it was, sounds too familiar.
And it was a tacit admission on the part of James and John that they weren’t so sure that Jesus would grant their request, if he had time to think about it. If possible, they wanted to manipulate him into granting it before he realized what it was.
That kind of maneuvering often if not always accompanies our own jockeyings for power, in the organizations and associations and relationships in which we find ourselves, and in which we seek to rise to the top. We might call it a strategy for success, or an attempt to put the best foot forward.
But often if not always it involves some degree of stretching the truth, or withholding the truth, or worse. And that’s basically what James and John tried to do too.
The reason why Jesus had been treating them in the special way in which he had been treating them, was totally different from the reason why certain people might be given special treatment in any other organization or association or relationship, with which James and John might have been familiar.
Peter, James, and John were not being groomed to become big shots and bosses in the “Church of Jesus Christ, Incorporated.” They were not going to be made into lords and masters, before whom everyone else must bow.
The analogies to their experience with Jesus, that James and John thought they had found in the sinful world, and in the various corrupt institutions of the sinful world, were not legitimate analogies at all. Jesus was not following the playbook that everybody else was following.
He was doing something new and different. He was doing something revolutionary, intended to turn the world, and the spirit of pride and ambition that governs the world, on its head.
What he was doing, and why he was doing it, would soon become evident to James and John, and to all the Lord’s disciples, when Jesus would submit himself to the agony of the cross, and willingly sacrifice his life.
“And Jesus called them to him and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you.”
“But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Jesus had not come into this world in order to conform himself to the world, and to its expectations. He came to overturn a world that, since Eden, has been thoroughly infected by the love of power, and to establish in its place a totally new way of thinking and acting among men.
He did not come to stand over humanity in arrogance and pride, but to lower himself, to the lowest point that fallen humanity had reached. In profound humility he came to take the place of fallen humanity under the judgment of the divine law, and to win divine forgiveness for us by the purity and perfection of his sacrifice.
He came to release us - to release James and John - to release you - from the guilt of sin, and from the power of sin. He came to enlighten you by his truth and self-giving love, and thereby to set you free, in the gift of faith, from your inborn bondage to the perverse desire to be like God.
Don’t look for an analogy to Jesus, or to what Jesus does, in any other relationship or experience you have had in this world. You won’t find it.
Admit that the things of his kingdom are totally different from all your previous experiences. Admit that the calling you have now received from Christ is totally different from anything else you have ever aspired to, or tried to achieve in this world.
And receive, from Christ, the transformation that he brings to your mind and heart in his Word and Sacrament.
He taught James and John a better way, and he changed them into followers of that better way, by the power of his Gospel. And he will teach you a better way, and change you into followers of that better way, also by the power of that same Gospel.
In Christ many of us are called to positions of leadership of one kind or another - in the family, in society, in business, in government, and in the church.
But in Christ, a call to leadership is a call to service, not a call to domination. A selfless concern for the welfare of those for whom we have responsibility, is to govern our thoughts and actions, not a desire to be noticed and recognized.
The spirit of pride that entered the human race in the Garden of Eden still does infect us and contaminate us. It has not yet been purged from us - as will happen ultimately in the resurrection on the last day.
So, until then, we will stumble and fall, and often mix into our vocation the unsavory salt of selfish ambition and love of power.
When such thoughts and motives well up in you, and when you act and speak in accordance with such thoughts and motives, God wants you to recognize it to be the failure that it is. The world will not criticize you for these failings, because these failings are in the way of the world.
But fulfilling your calling in a spirit of pride, rather than in a spirit of service and sacrifice, is not in the way of Christ and his kingdom, to which you now belong.
At those times, and even now at this moment, remember that Jesus, who came to give his life as a ransom for many, still gives himself for you, and to you, in forgiveness. He comes to you especially in his Holy Supper, with its uniquely personal way of applying the Gospel to those who partake of it in repentance and faith.
In his Gospel, Jesus your Ransom gives himself to you yet again: for your pardon and reconciliation with God; for your release from the guilt and power of sin; and for the sake of your ever-continuing transformation into his image and likeness.
We close with some words from St. Paul, who certainly was a leader among God’s people, but who also said this in his Epistle to the Philippians:
“Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus...” Amen.