SERMONS - MARCH 2010
7 March 2010 - Lent 3 - 1 Corinthians 10:1-13
“Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”
Church members are often accused by the non-religious of being judgmental, and of thinking that they are better than other people. Sometimes I suppose it’s true. Some church members are probably guilty of religious pride, or of looking down on others.
But today’s lesson from St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians does not give any encouragement to those who may have this kind of smug or superior attitude, by virtue of their membership in a Christian congregation. In fact, it gives a severe warning to them, and to all of us who are likewise outwardly associated with the Christian church.
In many places the Bible does speak a message of warning and judgment against the rank unbelievers of the world, who do not follow God’s ways, and who also do not make any pretense of following God’s ways. But in today’s text, Paul conveys a divine message of judgment against many who are at least externally associated with God and his people.
By means of his recounting of certain aspects of Old Testament history, Paul gives a serious warning to many who have indeed been baptized, and who have partaken of the Lord’s Supper. With the use of imagery that immediately calls to mind the sacraments of the New Testament era, Paul describes the experiences of the children of Israel in this way:
“I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”
All of the people of Israel who participated in the Exodus were beneficiaries of God’s special deliverance. They were all, as it were, baptized. And all of them ate and drank of the miraculous nourishment that God provided.
Paul adds, by the way, that it was actually Christ - the Second Person of the Holy Trinity in his pre-incarnate state - who was the divine companion of Israel during its 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. So, there is much similarity between these ancient Hebrews, and those who are sacramentally associated with Christ and his church today.
Now, even though all of the people back then were delivered by God from Egyptian slavery, and even though all of them were brought together to be their own nation, Paul tells us: “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased.”
Most of them did not remain true to the identify that God had given them in their national baptism, as they passed through the Red Sea. Most of them did not continue as grateful and faithful followers of the God who had faithfully made provision for them - in the manna that fell from the sky and in the water that flowed from the rock.
Instead, they rebelled against God, in their hearts and in their outward actions. They turned away from him. And so he turned away from them, and judged them.
They were judged and punished as unbelievers and as haters of God, because in their hearts that’s what they had become - even though they were still outwardly associated with the community of God’s people, and even though they had previously been recipients of God’s favor and blessing. When they became unbelievers, on the inside, that didn’t matter.
Paul gives a few examples of what it is that they did to bring God’s wrath down upon themselves. But what Paul says does not pertain only to these people, and it does not apply only to our historical curiosity about what happened back then. What he writes, he writes for us, as a warning to us:
“Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”
What kind of faith-destroying sins did they fall into - even though they were, in effect, baptized and confirmed members of the church? Paul tells us:
“Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.”
The idolatry example is an interesting one. This is a reference to the incident with the Golden Calf.
But we need to take note of the fact that the people sincerely thought that the Golden Calf represented the Lord Jehovah, who had brought them up out of Egypt. Or at least this is what was suggested to the people by Aaron, the misguided brother of Moses. In the Book of Exodus, we read:
“Aaron...built an altar before it. And Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.’ And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.”
For their worship of the Lord, the Israelites basically borrowed some of the cultural practices with which they had been familiar in Egypt. Employing these familiar and culturally-relevant religious usages would allow them to feel comfortable in their worship. Or at least that’s what they presumed to think.
They also thought that worship should be fun and entertaining, not stodgy and serious. They “rose up to play,” as the text tells us.
What we have here is an early example of a form of “contemporary worship,” which was based on what the people were familiar with, and on what they already liked to do in their life in the world. But God didn’t like it at all. He called it idolatry.
Faithful worship is not just a matter of saying that we are worshiping God, regardless of what we are actually doing. God is the one who gets to decide what true worship is, and how it is to be carried out.
Faithful worship is a matter of listening to what God wants to say to us, in his message of law and gospel, and then of responding to him in prayers of petition, praise, and thanksgiving that his Word has shaped in us and taught us. Faithful worship does not involve “rising up to play.”
And God will punish such idolatrous worship, because it is a mark of unbelief. It does not flow from his Word, and from the reverence that his Word instills in those who believe the Gospel.
But the list of offenses committed in the wilderness does not end there. Paul also mentions the sexual immorality in which many of the Israelite men on one occasion indulged, with the women of Moab.
These men knew better. They had their own wives at home, whom God had given to them as their legitimate companions. And if they were still single, God would have given them a godly wife from among their own people, with whom they could have been honorably married.
We shouldn’t think that it is only our generation that has been supposedly “liberated” from sexual repression. There have been plenty of epochs in human history when people did as they pleased, without moral restraint and personal discipline - and when they incurred divine judgment upon themselves, from a God who forbids adultery and everything associated with adultery.
And notice what else is on the list. Some of the Hebrews were grumblers - chronic complainers about Moses and his leadership.
That doesn’t seem so bad, at least not when compared to idolatry and sexual immorality. But Paul thought so. And so did God. He punished it with death.
To grumble against God’s servants, as they are faithfully teaching and applying God’s Word, is to grumble against God himself. To grumble against the church, and against the people in the church who are doing the best they can to serve the Lord - even with their human weaknesses - is to insult the Savior who loves the church as his beloved bride.
All of these things - the false worship, the adultery, the grumbling - are evidence of spiritual hardness and hypocrisy. All of these things give testimony of a heart that is turning away from the Lord, if it has not already turned away completely.
And this is still the case, even when the body is still in church, going through the motions of church. All of these things invite God’s judgment.
You cannot take refuge from this divine judgment in the false security of your outward church membership. You cannot deflect away from yourself the condemnation of God’s law through the recollection of your baptism and confirmation as historical events, if your baptism and confirmation are no longer a living reality in your life.
The Israelites who were on the receiving end of God’s punishment were all a part of God’s people, externally. They had been delivered from slavery with the rest, and were being led through the wilderness like the rest.
But in their hearts they had come to desire that which was evil, and not that which was good and pure. And so they were cut off.
You, too, will be cut off, if you also desire evil, and if you set your heart on that which is ungodly and wrong, and not on that which God’s Word gives and teaches. You will cease to be a part of his church in the true sense - even if you keep up your outward membership. You will cease to be under God’s protection and guidance.
You will be placed instead under his wrath, together with everyone else who is without God: in the company of honest atheists, who have no pretenses about God and faith; and in the company of dishonest religious people, who do have such pretenses.
But is there hope for us, in the midst of these temptations, and in the midst of these struggles? Is there hope for us: if we have actually sinned against the Lord, by a false faith; if we have sinned against the spouse whom the Lord has given us, and against our own body; if we have sinned against the Lord’s ministers, and the Lord’s people?
Yes, there is hope! There is a way to be renewed in our baptism, and to reconfirm our confirmation. There is a way to remain as a part of God’s true church - inside and out.
St. Paul says in today’s text: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” Jesus is our way of escape. Jesus is our hope.
God was indeed displeased with most of the Israelites during the Exodus. But he was not displeased with all of them.
Those who remained with him - not only physically, but also in their hearts and minds - remained under his grace, and were pleasing to him. These were the ones who honestly repented of their sins when the law was preached to them.
These were the ones who believed the Lord’s word of forgiveness and pardon - pictured for them especially in the tabernacle sacrifices that were carried out on their behalf, according to the Lord’s institution. These were the ones who then sought, with God’s help, to walk in his ways, as the fruit of their faith.
In the institutional church of today, there are also many with whom the Lord is still pleased - in whom he delights utterly. He is not pleased with them in this way because they have no sin. We have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
No. God is pleased with the people he is pleased with, because when they do sin, they call out to him in repentance, acknowledging their sin. In humility they turn away from sin. They don’t turn away from God.
And God forgives them, and pardons them, because the blood of Christ, shed for them in the supreme sacrifice of Calvary, has covered over their sins. The righteousness of Christ has been credited to them by faith, so that they stand before God pure and innocent, even as Christ their Savior is pure and innocent.
This is our hope, when we become aware of our hypocrisies and inconsistencies, and when we are brought to conviction regarding our flagrant offenses too - and are troubled in our conscience by these failures. Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and who therefore also takes away our sin.
When you in faith receive the forgiveness that he brings, the fear of God’s judgment - which you otherwise have earned - is taken from you. And the peace of Christ - a peace that the world cannot give, but that God’s Son does freely and fully give, is bestowed on you in its place.
You can know that you, personally, are among those who are pleasing to God, for Christ’s sake, and not displeasing to him. You can know this, because in St. John’s Gospel, Jesus makes these promises to you:
“this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” “whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”
Think about these things, my friends, as you sing the canticle, “O Christ, Thou Lamb of God,” just before your participation in Holy Communion today. If you are a communicant, God is going to feed you with the greater heavenly bread of his Son’s body, and with the more wonderful supernatural drink of his Son’s blood.
The physical act of receiving Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament, in and of itself, is not a guarantee that you are really a part of God’s true church. That’s why Scripture gives us warnings about an unworthy manner of communing.
But when you receive this sacrament with a heart that believes in the Lamb of God, who has taken away your sin, you will receive the sacrament in peace. And you will depart from it in peace. And you will live, and someday die, in peace.
“Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.” “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” Amen.
14 March 2010 - Lent 4 - 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
There are lots of reasons to avoid sin. The first reason that religious people might give is because God forbids us to do things that are contrary to the Ten Commandments.
So, that’s enough of a reason. God is God, and he has the right to tell us what is right and what is wrong.
But there are underlying reasons why God forbids the things he forbids, and why he commands the things he commands. He loves us, and doesn’t want to see us hurt ourselves or each other.
He knows that when we act contrary to his will, we are thereby bringing pain and suffering into our lives - and into the lives of other people. He created us, and so he knows what is good for us.
God does not take pleasure in telling us what to do, and in punishing us for our failures, because of the feeling of power that this gives him. His law is not arbitrary, set up to prove that he is in charge. God has nothing to prove to us.
His law is, rather, a law of life, which promotes what is good for human existence, and which warns and protects against those things that are harmful for human existence.
He designed us to live in a certain way, and to treat each other in a certain way. When we go against that design, and do and say things that we are not supposed to do and say, only harm will result.
When you sin, therefore, you do damage to yourself, and to other people. And you do damage to your relationships with other people.
And very often, in this world, that damage cannot be reversed or undone. If, for example, you are driving carelessly, or under the influence of alcohol, and you kill someone in an accident that you cause, no amount of sorrow and remorse will bring that person back from the dead.
We’re not talking now about whether God is willing to forgive our sins. That’s a different subject - which we will get to in a few minutes.
But we’re talking now about the harm that our sins cause to others, and about how the sins of our past do follow us, and haunt our memories, throughout the remainder of our earthly lives. The sins of our past mark us, in the eyes of this world, and in the eyes of other people in this world.
People who are well-catechized in the doctrine of God’s grace, and who have been taught about God’s willingness always to forgive those who repent, sometimes misapply what they have been taught in a way that actually caters to the destructive impulses of the sinful nature.
This is the notion that they toy with, and sometimes act on: Since God is always willing to forgive sin, committing sin is not such a big deal.
This monstrous misapplication of God’s Word can have the effect of diminishing our hatred for sin, or of minimizing the conscientious aversion to sin that is supposed to govern our thoughts and actions as Christians.
And so, with an attitude of entitlement in regard to God’s grace, we sometimes just go ahead and sin - doing what we know is wrong - with the idea that God will forgive us, and so in the end it will not matter.
It is certainly to be doubted whether such a planned-out intention to sin, and such a planned-out intention to repent after the sin, can actually coexist with a true faith - even a weak faith.
Genuine faith and genuine repentance are not a matter of repeating the right memorized formulas. True faith and repentance pertain to the desires and intentions of the heart.
But even apart from this, such an easy-going attitude toward human sin and divine forgiveness fails to take into account what our sins do to other people in this life. They inflict harm on others that cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be erased and negated by the recitation of the right kind of penitential prayer in church.
When people regard us according to the flesh - that is, when we are judged and evaluated according to the outward things we have done in this world, and the influences we have had on the circumstances of this world - the damage that our sins have caused will remain.
Our reputations will be permanently tainted by other people’s awareness of these sins. Those whom we have hurt with our sins will remain hurt.
These are all valid reasons to avoid sin, and to call upon the Lord for help and strength in times of temptation. It’s not only about the honor of God, and the obligation we have to obey God - even though there is indeed such an obligation.
In this life, and in regard to the earthly relationships that we have with other people, the way in which we are regarded according to the flesh is also important. If you have sincerely repented of your misdeeds before the Lord, the Lord will not remember them.
But history will. And the people in this world who were negatively affected by them will. There will be a lingering public shame attached to you, because of your public sins, for as long as your life in this world lasts.
That’s just the way it is. We have to be honest about it, and face the truth of it.
Now, I’m not trying to rekindle feelings of embarrassment over past wrongdoings, just for the sake of putting a guilt trip on people. All of us who have lived for any amount of time have amassed a lot of memories of things we are ashamed of, and that we wish had never happened.
But I do want to warn people, especially younger people, about the temptations they will face in the future, and about the importance of resisting those temptations. Our sins do so much more damage than we usually imagine or ever realize.
Therefore I want to warn you now - before these things happen - so that hopefully they will not happen. It is still possible for you to escape from the particular sins to which you are being tempted right now, and from the harmful consequences that those sins will definitely bring - if you indulge that temptation.
So, with the Lord’s help, and with the wisdom that he gives to those who trust in him, do whatever you can to avoid giving others something sad and painful to remember about you. As much as possible, let it be so that when you are regarded according to the flesh, you will be judged and remembered as a decent and honorable person.
As Jesus himself says: “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
There is, however, one place in this world - one special and wonderful place - where we will not be regarded according to the flesh. There is a place - a place of refuge and peace - where our past mistakes and transgressions will not be thrown up to us, and held against us - no matter how egregious they have been.
There is a community of people, even in this life, where God’s verdict of forgiveness, and of not remembering past sins, will be implemented and put into effect here and now, and not just in heaven.
St. Paul talks about that place, and that community, in today’s lesson from his Second Epistle to the Corinthians. He writes:
“From now on, ...we regard no one according to the flesh. ... Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
The church of Jesus Christ - his temple and his holy nation - is, as it were, an outpost of heaven on earth. In his glory and power, Christ reigns in heaven from the right hand of the Father.
And Christ reigns in the church as well. He reigns here in and through his Word of reconciliation, and the ministry of the Gospel. St. Paul talks about that too:
“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”
When Christ’s Word declares us righteous, we know that this in the way he actually sees us, and will treat us. And those whose minds and hearts have been impacted and transformed by Christ’s Word, will also see things - and will see other people - as Jesus sees them.
In Christ, and in the church as the body of Christ, we are all given a fresh start; a clean slate; a new beginning - by God, and by each other.
Because Jesus died for you, you are not regarded here - by God, or by God’s people - according to the flesh. You are regarded according to who you are in Christ - righteous and without sin.
Through your baptism into Christ’s death, you now live under his cross. You are accepted by everyone else who is under the cross, and they are accepted by you.
We are all one bread and one body, therefore, with the virgin Mary, the apostle John, Mary Magdalene, and the penitent thief - who called out in faith to the cross next to his: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus remembered him. He didn’t remember his sins, but he remembered him, and embraced him.
And Jesus remembers you and me. In Christ none is condemned: not the Lord’s saintly mother, and not the thief on the cross - whose life had previously been filled with wickedness. In Christ all are justified.
And Jesus, who rose again from the dead to become the living Lord and head of his church, has brought you into his church. In the Gospel he has made you to be a member of the spiritual community of those who are reconciled in Christ: reconciled to God, and reconciled to each other.
It is more and more the case today, that there are many people in our society who have never in their lives been to a Christian church. They were not brought to Sunday School when they were children. And they have never attended a worship service since then.
Many people in our society actually don’t know what goes on inside a church. They don’t know why people go to church.
In their cynicism and ignorance, they often imagine that one of the main reasons why Christians get together is to judge and criticize other people. But the exact opposite is true.
When the church is being what it is called to be in the Gospel, we don’t gather in order to judge each other. We gather in order to accept each other, and forgive each other, and encourage each other, and show our love for each other.
To be sure, we do not ignore the judgments of God’s own law against sin, and against all the pain that sin causes in people’s lives. And so, when God judges, we allow him to be God, and to judge.
And we heed his judgments, chiefly in regard to our own failures. We admit that his judgments are true, and we ask for his forgiveness.
But when God declares his forgiveness, we believe what he says. We believe him when he forgives us, and our conscience finds its rest in that faith.
We also believe him when he forgives our brothers and sisters in Christ. And we, too, forgive them - even if we have been hurt personally by their sins. In the fellowship of the church, “we regard no one according to the flesh.”
In the fellowship of the church, broken or strained relationships are healed and renewed. The personal weaknesses that we might notice in each other are ignored and overlooked. Offenses of the past are forgotten and buried.
That’s a part of what it means to say “Amen” to the absolution that is pronounced by the pastor, in the stead and by the command of Christ.
The grace of God is announced to all of you, according to God’s will. According to God’s will all of you then live in that grace, in union with Christ, and in a forgiving and patient unity with each other.
That’s what goes on in church, when God’s people gather around the message of reconciliation. And that’s what we would invite those who are currently not a part of the church, to come and experience with us.
We would echo the words of St. Paul, in the invitation to faith that we continually speak to each other, and in the invitation to faith that we speak to those who are still on the outside of God’s holy community:
“We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
And so, “From now on, ...we regard no one according to the flesh. ... Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Amen.
21 March 2010 - Lent 5 - Luke 20:9-20
Many of the illustrations and parables that Jesus used in his sermons had a positive and happy impact on his listeners. He often told heart-warming stories that illustrated the joy of salvation, or the contentment that comes from being a part of God’s kingdom. The parable of the prodigal son who returned to his father’s house, which we heard in last week’s Gospel, is an example of this.
But some of the illustrations and parables that Jesus used in his teaching were intended to have an unsettling and even frightening effect on those who heard them. Not everything that Jesus wanted his audience to think about was positive and happy. There are some sobering and hard-to-accept truths associated with sinful humanity’s existence in this sinful world, which Jesus also wants people to think about and face up to.
Today’s text from St. Luke describes one of those times when the words of Jesus were not intended to comfort people, or give them a good and happy feeling. His words today are intended instead to get people to think about the seriousness of their spiritual problems, and about how seriously God takes those problems.
I’d like to focus especially on the second part of today’s discourse. Jesus looked directly at the scribes and priests with whom he had been speaking. Quoting from Psalm 118, he then said to them:
“‘What...is this that is written: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.’”
There were no labor union contracts or government labor laws in those days, to guarantee the safety of construction workers. In the ancient world, the labor force on a major construction project was often comprised of conscripted workers, or even slaves, who were forced to their jobs by the government.
The lives of these workers were generally not valued very highly by the foremen who supervised the construction project. Measures to promote safety and prevent accidents were few. Injuries and deaths on the job were frequent.
The kind of tasks that are done today by one man operating a massive crane were done in Jesus’ time by hundreds of men, pushing and pulling large blocks of quarried stone across improvised roadways and up improvised ramps. When it came time to drop one of those huge stone blocks into place, well, everyone had better make sure he was out of the way.
Because of the physical momentum of hundreds of men pushing and pulling, you could be pretty sure that if you slipped at just the wrong moment, and ended up under the block, the descent of that block could not be halted to give you time to crawl out from under it.
Quite simply, you would be crushed. If you were at the wrong place at the wrong time, there was no mercy for you. There was no way out.
Throughout the entirety of Jesus’ lifetime, the temple in Jerusalem was continually under construction. Even though the main building was finished and in use by then, there were still some unfinished parts of the larger temple complex - especially the outer courts and outer walls.
Jesus was in Jerusalem for the events described in today’s Gospel - when he spoke of himself as the stone that the builders had rejected, and when he spoke of what would happen when this stone would fall on someone.
Now, the temple was visible from almost anywhere in the city. The kind of construction accidents that no doubt happened there from time to time would immediately have come to the minds of Jesus’ listeners when he spoke of these things.
These were horrible incidents. Those who witnessed them, and those who heard about them, would shiver with trepidation and anguish to consider what the poor man who was crushed in such a way had gone through.
Jesus deliberately called forth such images with his words. He wanted his listeners to think soberly about what it would be like for an impenitent person to be crushed by the irreversible momentum of divine justice.
It is not a pretty picture. When an unbeliever dies in his sins, he will not be able to get out of the way of that massive cornerstone that is being dropped into place for the construction of God’s kingdom.
The weight of divine judgment will come down on him in an instant, when God’s Son comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead. All of his excuses and self-justifications will be as nothing. They will be ground into dust.
That’s the kind of encounter a careless construction worker has with a heavy cornerstone, as it is being dropped into place. That’s the kind of encounter an impenitent and unbelieving person, after the end of his mortal life, has with Christ, the almighty Lord of the universe. “When [that stone] falls on anyone, it will crush him.”
Let’s shift now to a consideration of another category of less deadly construction site accidents.
At a modern construction site you will usually see lots of sturdy metal scaffolding, and an abundance of safety netting, to catch a hapless worker who might lose his balance and fall. Not so at an ancient work site.
The scaffolding then was made of wood, and could often be quite rickety. And the concept of safety netting had not even been dreamt of yet.
And so, there were lots of falls at those old work sites. And when someone fell against the stonework, he would be hurt - severely so in most cases.
Thoughts of such crippling injuries no doubt came to mind among the Lord’s listeners when he said: “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces.” A worker who has had such an experience will not be the same again.
Broken bones did not often mend well in ancient times. For a crippled worker who had been injured by a fall onto a large block of stone, his self-sufficiency, for the rest of his life, would probably be gone.
He was, and in many ways would remain, a broken man: dependent on others, and unable to take care of himself and support himself by his own labor.
These things are not pleasant for people to think about. But according to Christ, who used these images in his preaching, they are necessary for people to think about. They are necessary for you to think about.
We noted that in the case of a hardened unbeliever, God’s righteous judgment crushes and pulverizes him when Christ the judge falls on him. But an encounter with God’s law will not leave you and other Christians unscathed either.
If you sin against God and violate his will, you will end up being broken. When you in this way fall onto the hard, unyielding cornerstone of Christ and his holiness, it will break you.
Jesus breaks your pride when he impresses on you the demands of his law - as he does through the Sermon on the Mount, for example. Here he says: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
This demand and this expectation are still in effect. God has not compromised his holiness, just because the human race has always rebelled against his holiness.
And when Jesus speaks in this way - when he speaks in this way to you - your spiritual self-sufficiency, and your lack of reliance on God, are indeed broken. Your moral self-satisfaction, and your opinion that you are “good enough” as you are, without the need to change, are shattered.
And there are many circumstances in this world that God uses for the same purpose - that is, to humble you, and to awaken you from the slumbering deception that everything is O.K. in your life, even without God and the authority of his Word to protect and govern you.
The failures and disappointments that we experience in this world often have the effect of making it very clear to us that we cannot ultimately rely on ourselves - on our own cleverness and strength. At such times the words of Proverbs 3 can be appreciated with a new and vivid clarity:
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.”
The reason why God breaks us in these ways, is not as a prelude to a final, damning judgment. It is as a prelude to our being recreated into the image of his Son. Remember, falling on the cornerstone is not the same as having the cornerstone fall on you.
Those who are crushed under the weight of the cornerstone, are those who are condemned forever, in their unbelief and unrepentant wickedness. But those who are merely broken by their fall onto the cornerstone, are those whose lives are destined by God’s grace to be reshaped, and reconfigured, to become what they need to be, to be a part of God’s kingdom.
Unlike the hardened and obstinate souls on whom the cornerstone has fallen - crushing and pulverizing them with divine wrath - those who have fallen on the cornerstone, and who have been broken by that fall, can live on, joyfully, in renewed fellowship with God.
God breaks us with his law, precisely so that he can heal us with his Gospel. Jesus “disassembles” the self-centered life that we have constructed, so that he can reassemble our life in his own image, and conform us to his pattern of love and truth.
When you, with your lingering pride and selfishness, fall onto the cornerstone that is Christ, God does intend in this way to destroy that pride and selfishness. But he doesn’t intend to destroy you.
He intends to destroy the pride and selfishness that infect you, for your own good, so that your relationship with him - in the end - will be what it is supposed to be.
The purpose of these inner wounds and injuries, such as they are, is to allow you then to heal properly, so that your priorities and commitments will become what they are supposed to be. Christ teaches us some necessary lessons about faith, and reliance on God, when we are, as it were, “broken” on him.
And when we learn those necessary lessons, and are raised up in humility from this fall by the promises of the Gospel, we rejoice in the “tough love” that God has thereby graciously shown to us. In the hindsight of faith, the way in which God has used such trials and tribulations for his good purposes, and for our own spiritual and moral betterment, becomes clear.
In this clarity of faith, we know that God is not to be blamed or accused for his having broken us. He is to be thanked.
And his forgiveness in Christ is to be sought. That’s when we speak, as our own, the words of King David in Psalm 51:
“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.”
And such a prayer, spoken at such a time for such a reason, is always answered with an unqualified “Yes.” As St. James reminds us, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”
He gives the grace of his forgiveness. He gives the grace of eternal life.
That’s what it’s really all about in the end. That’s the reason why God does what he does in the lives of those who belong to him, but who in this world - in their thoughts, words, and deeds - are often still very far from what they are destined to be as God’s children.
In love, God goes to work on us, and does what he needs to do, so that we will become what he wants us to be. He causes us to fall onto Christ, and to be broken by Christ, so that in Christ we will become what we ourselves, as Christians, really do want to be.
“‘What...is this that is written: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.’” Amen.
28 March 2010 - Palm Sunday - Philippians 2:5-11
The crowds on the first Palm Sunday shouted, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest!” Jesus did indeed come in the name of the Lord - that is, in the name of the God of Israel, Jehovah or Yahweh. He came by the Lord’s authorization, to accomplish the Lord’s purposes.
But of course, he was not himself the Lord, but only a man. Or at least that’s what the crowds in Jerusalem thought.
Jesus looked and sounded like a man. He rode into the city on a donkey, as a man would.
He didn’t look like God, or sound like God, or act like God. So, he wasn’t actually God. Was he? He was simply a pious and righteous man, intent on doing God’s will. Right?
Well, not so fast. Things aren’t always as they seem.
In today’s lesson from his Epistle to the Philippians, St. Paul makes some very important distinctions to which we must pay close attention, if we are to understand what was really happening on that first Palm Sunday - and on the momentous days that followed. And we must pay close attention to these distinctions also if we are to understand what is going on among us, in the church, today.
The first thing we notice is that Paul is talking about “Christ Jesus.” That is, he is talking about the son of Mary, with a human nature and a human name. The reality of the incarnation is already assumed, before St. Paul begins to say the things that he then goes on to say.
Before the events that Paul describes in today’s text, the Word has already become flesh. The Second Person of the Holy Trinity has already taken to himself a human nature, thereby bringing into existence the divine-human person, Christ Jesus.
This is important, because it means that when Paul says that “Christ Jesus” was originally in the “form” of God, he is talking about the divine-human person “Christ Jesus,” and not just about the pre-incarnate Son of God, in the existence that he had before the union of the divine and the human in the womb of the Virgin Mary.
The extraordinary point that Paul is making is this: In the first moment of the incarnation, when the eternal Godhead first took to himself a human nature - inside the womb of the Virgin Mary - Christ Jesus fully exercised and exhibited the divine glory and the divine power of his divine nature.
His divinity was not yet hidden under the lowly form of his humanity - as was the case when he was later physically born, walked the earth, ate and slept, and appeared as a man like other men. In this first moment of the union of his two natures in one person, his divinity was still shining forth in its full glory and power.
Without ceasing to be God, he had become a man. But he was not yet in the form of man. He was still in the form of God.
How this could be - inside the womb of Mary - is beyond our human comprehension. But this is what the apostle says:
“Christ Jesus, ...though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”
When the text says that Christ did not count equality with God a thing to be “grasped,” this does not mean that he was reaching and groping for a divine nature and status that he did not already have. What it means is that, as God and man in one person, he made a decision - for the sake of our salvation - not to continue to cling to, or hang onto, the equality with God the Father that was already his by virtue of his divine nature.
In order to become our Savior in this world, he let go of this equality with God. That is, he relinquished his active experiencing of this equality with God. And he assumed a form of existence that made him, in effect, to be equal with other men.
He was God, and had been in the form of God - immortal and incapable of suffering. But he was also a man.
And so, for the sake of being able to live as we live, and to die as we die, he lovingly and humbly embraced a human form, in preparation for his birth, and in preparation for everything he did as a man, in our place, as our human substitute. As St. Paul goes on to say: “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
If Jesus had remained in his divine form of existence, he could not have taken our place under the law. The demands of God’s law are directed toward men. As a set of regulations for human behavior, the law could be obeyed only by a human being - or by a God-man who was living in a human form of existence.
And that’s the form of existence that Jesus did in fact assume. Therefore he could, and did, obey God’s law for humanity, as a human.
And he alone proved himself to be a perfect man - not deserving any punishment for his human failures, because he had no human failures. He alone, of all men, through his obedience, earned a place in heaven for himself.
But he did not take advantage of his worthiness and righteousness in this way - for his own personal benefit. He put his worthiness and righteousness to work for another purpose - namely, in the offering of himself as a sacrifice to God’s justice on behalf of all other human beings.
Jesus did not have any sins of his own to pay for. He was the only man who had ever lived whose suffering under divine wrath could therefore be transferred and applied to others - to those who, unlike him, have failed in their obedience, and who have thereby earned a place in hell for themselves, and not a place in heaven.
As a man, existing in the form of a man, Jesus did willingly submit himself to the death of the cross. He became the perfect substitute for us all. He died for us all.
And therefore, through him, and through his death, the sins of all other human beings have been paid for. An atonement for the sins of the entire human race has been accomplished.
God’s forgiveness and justification in Christ are now proclaimed to all, so that as many as believe this proclamation, and receive what God offers, will be saved.
None of this would have been humanly possible, if Jesus had not assumed a human form of existence. But he did assume such a form. Everything that needed to be done for the salvation of the human race therefore became possible.
And everything that had become possible, was in fact fulfilled, by a Savior who sacrificed himself for us, so that you and I could receive and enjoy what he had earned: a declaration of acceptance and righteousness from God, peace with God, eternal life in the presence of God.
It’s important to maintain a distinction between the incarnation, on the one hand, and the humbling of the divine-human Savior to the form of a servant, on the other. The eternal Son of God did not humble himself simply by becoming a human being.
The incarnation itself is not the humbling. Rather, it was after the incarnation was already an established, miraculous fact, that Christ Jesus - the incarnate Lord - made a gracious and loving decision to humble himself, to “let go” of the full use of his divine power and glory, and to assume a lowly and humble form of existence that was in accord with his human nature.
The reason why it’s important not to confuse these two things, is because Jesus is no longer in the form of a servant. He has now re-assumed the form of God, with the full exercise of all his divine prerogatives.
He reigns in unlimited power and glory from the right hand of the Father. But, he has not stopped being a man - a human being like us.
He is not in the form of man any longer, with all the limitations that would ordinarily be associated with a human nature. But he is still a man. His humanity is thoroughly permeated with his divinity, and his humanity partakes now in the power and glory of his divinity.
But even though his human nature now has a glorified form of existence, he remains as our brother according to the flesh. A glorified human nature is still a human nature.
And so, even in his ascended glory, Christ Jesus remains as the lamb slain for sinners, who always intercedes for us. He remains as humanity’s righteous substitute under the law, whose obedience is continuously credited to us, as our righteousness before God.
Jesus still has the humanity that he received from the Virgin Mary. Jesus still is the man who was conceived and born of the Virgin Mary.
The Son of God who is exalted to the right hand of the Father is not a divine person who used to be Jesus - back when he was still on the earth. He still is Jesus. He will always be Jesus, the friend and Savior of sinners.
St. Paul writes: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Jesus Christ is Lord. Jesus Christ, the human son of Mary, is at the same time the God of Israel - Jehovah, Yahweh.
Back in the days before there were laws against nepotism, people who had relatives in positions of power in the government would often benefit from those associations in many ways. Well, you and I now have a relative in a position of supreme power.
Jesus, who shares in our humanity, and who like us is a descendant of Adam, is now seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. There is no limit to what he is able to do for us.
Therefore everything that we need from him - in the struggles and trials of this life, and in our walk of faith - he can and will provide. If we don’t receive something we ask for, it’s not because he is not able to give it. It’s because he knows that we really need something else. And he gives us that instead.
Jesus gives us his forgiveness. Jesus gives us the companionship and guidance of his Spirit. And Jesus gives us himself.
God is everywhere. The right hand of God is everywhere. Jesus is, accordingly, everywhere.
When his word tells us that he lives in his church, protecting it and taking care of it, then that is exactly where he is, and that is exactly what he is doing. He doesn’t have to be in only one place at a time.
Christ Jesus can be wherever he wants to be, in a billion different places simultaneously. And where he wants to be is with us - with each of us - as our divine-human Savior and friend.
Where he also wants to be, in a unique and miraculous way, is in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. He is a man, for us men, also in this sacrament. And he mystically unites himself to us in this sacrament, precisely at the point of his humanity - in and through his body and blood.
He comes to us then, also in the name of the Lord - by the Lord’s authorization, to accomplish the Lord’s purposes. And so we welcome him then, repeating the words that were chanted by the crowd in Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday.
But he comes also as God, because he is God. He is God and man in one person. He comes to do what only God can do - to forgive us, and to save us from our sins.
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest!” Amen.