3 April 2011 - Lent 4 - John 9:1-7, 13-17, 34-39

“In her relationships, she’s a user.” “He just uses people, and then throws them away.”

When things like this are said about someone, the person about whom such things are said is not being complemented. A person who shamelessly “uses” another person in the pursuit of a self-serving agenda - and then, as it were, “discards” that exploited person - would generally be considered to be among the more disreputable and despicable members of the human race.

In today’s Gospel account from St. John, we see an example of this kind of “using” of another person on the part of some of the Pharisees. Or at least we see their attempt to “use” an unfortunate and vulnerable person for a self-serving agenda.

Jesus has healed a man born blind. And he had done so on the Sabbath. Before this, that blind man was a poor beggar.

He wasn’t considered to be an important person, or worthy of much attention from people who were busy with all the affairs and activities of a normal life. And so, he was basically ignored.

The Lord’s opponents had never really noticed the blind man before, or cared much about him. But now, all of a sudden, he was an object of great interest.

Now they saw an opportunity to exploit this man, and the circumstances of his healing, as a part of their larger agenda of discrediting Jesus, and of persuading the crowds who were flocking to him that he was actually in league with the devil, and was not a servant of God.

And so they brought in the formerly blind man, and talked to him - no doubt for the first time ever. They were hoping that he might say something that they could use against Jesus - perhaps something that would suggest that Jesus had performed the healing with the use of some kind of sorcery or conjuring.

If the blind man were able or willing to testify against Jesus in such a way, then these Pharisees would certainly use that testimony - and they would use him - for the furtherance of their anti-Jesus agenda. And so they asked the man how he had received his sight.

He told them that Jesus put some mud on his eyes, and that after he had washed off the mud, he could see. The Pharisees brought up the fact that Jesus had done this on the Sabbath.

The Sabbath was a day of rest. But Jesus had not rested. He had worked. He had performed the work of healing the man’s blindness.

The Pharisees were therefore fishing for something specific that they could pin on Jesus, to demonstrate that he was not acting on behalf of God. These men were, of course, important men in the society.

A lot of people would be flattered by the kind of attention they were now paying to the healed man. And a lot of people might have been willing to shade the truth, and tell these powerful and influential men what they wanted to hear, in order to keep their attention and approval.

But that’s not what happened in this case. The man in question wasn’t going to allow himself to be used by the Pharisees.

The Pharisees asked the man: “What do you say about him, since he has opened your eyes?” What was his answer?

Did he say, “he is a sorcerer”? Did he say, “He is a servant of the devil?”

No. He said, truthfully and honestly, “He is a prophet.”

And that was it. He was going to be of no use the Pharisees after all.

And so, in an instant, he was belittled, and ridiculed. “‘You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?’ And they cast him out.”

As far as the Pharisees were concerned, he was a “nobody” once again - unworthy of notice. They had no reason to care about him, or to be concerned about what would now happen to him.

They were “users.” And when they realized that they could not use this poor, formerly blind man for their own purposes, they threw him away.

Is that the way you treat other people? Maybe sometimes? Do we sometimes manipulate other people, to get them to do what is best for us, without thinking about what would be best for them?

Are there certain people whom we generally ignore, except when we want to get something from them? And only then are we nice to them, and attentive to them - until we get what we want.

Perhaps we shouldn’t sit in judgment on the Pharisees too severely, because in some ways - maybe more ways than we care to admit - we too are “users.” In our sin, we live for ourselves.

In our selfishness and envy, we don’t care about other people - except when they can do something for us. And those who are not able to give us something that we want, will probably never get any attention from us.

In today’s text, though, we see an example of God also, in a sense, “using” the blind man - and using the blind man’s suffering - for his own purposes.

“His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.’”

And so, God was, in a sense, going to show the world something about himself, and he was going to prove a point about himself, through the healing of this man. But in order for there to be a display of the Lord’s healing, there had to be an infirmity to be healed.

God is, in fact, always using people, as his instruments in this world, for the accomplishing of his will. Unlike the Pharisees in today’s text, however - and also unlike you and me, when we selfishly “use” people - God is God.

He has the right to “use” us according to his good and gracious will. We are subservient to him as his creatures. That’s really what the whole doctrine of vocation is about.

In our various callings - as we carry out the duties of our employment; as we fulfill the obligations of our civil citizenship and church membership; and as we fill our respective roles in our family - we are “tools” in the hands of God. Our work is the means through which he does his work in this world.

But when God “uses” us, he doesn’t drain us, “use us up,” and then throw us away - as would be the case with a manipulative human being, who “uses” another human being.

Instead, when God puts us into the positions of service which he has providentially prepared for us, he thereby fills us with contentment and joy, and with a sense of meaning and purpose in life.

The Lord enriches us in that godly service. He doesn’t drain us. Our vocations, even when they stretch us emotionally, and bring times of trial and testing upon us, are ultimately good for us.

And on top of all that, God does care about you personally: not only while you are fulfilling the duties of your calling, or serving God’s purposes in some other way, but also apart from your calling, according to who you are as a valued and precious individual.

God always notices you - not just when you succeed in doing what you are supposed to do in this world, but also when you fail, and need his forgiveness. God always pays attention to you in your need, even when no one else is paying any attention to you.

That’s the way it was with the man who had been born blind. The Pharisees had cast him aside, and had begun to ignore him again, because he was not going to be useful to them in their schemes against Jesus.

But Jesus did not ignore him. Jesus sought him out - when no one else was seeking him out.

“Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe,’ and he worshiped him.”

This man has been delivered from his bodily infirmity. His physical sight had been restored.

But that was not his most important need. He needed the salvation from spiritual blindness that Jesus - the Messiah - was able to give him.

Jesus cared about this man’s soul. The earthly ministry of Jesus was on a trajectory toward the cross, where the Son of Man would die for all men; where the divine-human Savior also of this man, would die for this man.

And Jesus was even now speaking words of life and faith into this man, so that the formerly blind man could believe on him, cling to him, and rejoice in his mercy forever.

And Jesus cares about you in this way too. He is certainly not interested in you only to the extent that he can exploit you for selfish ends. He is also not interested in you only insofar as you are pursuing your divine vocation in this world.

Before any of that is set in motion, Jesus is already interested in you as an individual - an individual who has been created by his Father in heaven, and who has been redeemed by him, by the shedding of his blood.

Through your baptism, God individualizes his loving attention toward you. Therefore, even if no one else seems to notice you, or to care about you, Jesus does.

Even if you are a “nobody” from the viewpoint of the powerful and important people of this world, you are never a “nobody” in God’s eyes.

The crowds may pass you by. Jesus will not. Jesus will seek you out.

He knows about your trials and your failures. He knows about your disappointments and your fears.

He knows about these things, and he cares about these things, because he cares about you - just as he cared about the poor and lonely man who had been born blind.

When Jesus notices you, and when - in his Word and Sacrament - he comes to you, he will speak to you about what he has done for your salvation. He will invite you to believe in him.

He will forgive your sins, and open the eyes of your heart to see him for who he is. And he will welcome you into his eternal kingdom.

Jesus did say, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” He does indeed have the whole world in view, as he sends his Gospel out into the world.

But within this larger view, he also has each and every individual lost sinner in view.

Yes, he did die for the whole human race, and offers salvation to the whole human race. That is true.

But what that means at the most personal level is that he died for each and every member of the human race. What that means is that he died for you.

When he thinks of you, he’s not calculating how he might be able to exploit and “use” you to satisfy some selfish desire. He’s thinking about his desire for you to believe his Word, so that you - you - can be saved from your sins through that Word.

Jesus said, “I came into this world, that those who do not see may see.” Amen.

10 April 2011 - Lent 5 - John 11:17-27, 38-53

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus did not correct his mourning friend when she told him this.

And that’s because what she said was true. But her words were true in greater and deeper ways than Martha, on this occasion, likely realized.

Spiritual life is not a “commodity” that Jesus parcels out or disburses to people. Spiritual life is, in a sense, a part of what Jesus is.

Jesus, in his person, is the living God in human flesh. The life of God is in him, and flows out of him. And so, when Christ is received by faith, the very life of God is received, in Christ, by faith.

In describing the eternal divinity of the Son of God, St. John, in the prologue to his Gospel, tells us that “He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”

And so, wherever Christ is present, and is connected to people by the power of his Word, the life of Christ is there, and is filling those who believe in him. Jesus said: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

Jesus was not present in Lazarus’s home, when Lazarus was on his sickbed. And so, in the absence of Jesus, Lazarus physically died. This painful fact is very much on Martha’s mind when she speaks to the Lord.

But Jesus wants to take his conversation with Martha beyond the issues of earthly life and death. God does not give us any absolute promises regarding this earthly body - other than the word of judgment that he spoke to Adam, because of his sin, that he is dust, and to dust he shall return.

But in Christ God does make promises regarding spiritual life - life and fellowship with God that goes on forever. And in today’s text Jesus reiterates those promises, and makes them very personal:

“Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’”

“Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’”

Martha understood the Biblical doctrine of a future resurrection of all flesh. On judgment day, all people will stand before God’s throne, in their bodies: to give an account; to be evaluated; and to hear what will then be pronounced upon them.

This can be a scarey doctrine to believe in. We know that in our fallen nature we are weak and easily tempted, and often falter and fail.

And so, when we think, abstractly, about the coming day of resurrection and judgment, as a future event, we might be afraid of what will happen to us on that day, and of what will be said to us.

But Jesus recasts this doctrine - as far as his people are concerned - into something that is not abstract or frightening. He recasts the doctrine of the resurrection into something that is centered on him, and that focuses on the life that is in him already.

He says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Embedded within this statement is, first of all, an implicit testimony of the Lord to his identity as the divine Redeemer of Israel.

He is the great “I am,” who spoke to Moses from the burning bush. He is the holy and eternal Lord Jehovah, the God of Sabaoth.

Whenever Jesus says “I am” in speaking of himself, that certainly should prompt us to listen with great reverence and attentiveness to what he is going to say next. And what he says next does not disappoint: “I am ... the resurrection and the life.”

Do you want to know how you will fare on judgment day, when your body is miraculously called forth from the grave, and you stand before the judgment seat of God?

Well, how do you fare now, in your relationship with Jesus - who embodies in his person the resurrection - is how you will fare then. If you are alive and acquitted in Christ now, you will be then too.

God, in his holiness and righteousness, will judge all men. But it is precisely that same God - in his forgiving love for humanity - who comes to you now in Christ.

And the God who will raise up your body on the last day is the God who has already raised up your soul by the Gospel, and who dwells within you by the power of his Word. It is through the power of His Word that Jesus establishes and maintains, among his people, the vital supernatural “connection” through which he lives in them, and they live in him.

Before we go any further, though, let’s remind ourselves of how the deadly and death-filled disconnection between God and man came about in the first place. St. Paul teaches us that the wages of sin is death.

It is humanity’s sin that killed it, as far as its relationship with God was concerned. Sin is lawlessness. Sin is rebellion and alienation.

And human sin reverberates into all aspects of our existence, bringing about ever more separation and alienation, between us and God, and between us and other people.

But Christ, who is filled with the life of God, reconnects us to the living God, when his Word engenders within us a penitent and saving faith. It is by the power of his Word, which creates and calls forth the faith that it requires, that Jesus restores the “lifeline,” as it were, between creator and creature.

When Jesus called out to Lazarus in the tomb, “Lazarus, come out,” he was not thereby coaxing the moldering corpse of his friend to muster up enough will-power from within itself, to bring itself back to life.

Rather, the call of the Lord enlivened the corpse, and bestowed upon the corpse the ability to comply with what his Word was commanding. Jesus spoke life into the body of Lazarus, even as he called for evidence that life was now once again there.

Generally speaking, without the Word of Christ, and without a God-given faith in that Word, death and separation remain. God’s judgment remains.

St. John’s Gospel tells us: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”

But when Christ’s Word does enter us, and enlivens us, it carries with it the life-giving pardon and mercy that Jesus earned for us by his own undeserved death, and by his own death-killing resurrection. When his Word enters us, it carries with it the Lord of life himself.

Again, Jesus does not give us supernatural life as if it were a “commodity” - as if it were some kind of supernatural “stuff” that could be poured into people. Christ, who is the resurrection and the life, gives us life, by giving us himself.

And so, according to the new nature that God’s Spirit now engenders in those who do repent and believe in Christ, the one who will raise you up on the last day and judge you, is the one who even now abides within you, and lives his life through you! When you know Christ, and when you are transformed day by day into his image by the working of his Spirit, there will be no major surprises on that ultimate and final Day of Christ.

It is by the power of his Word that Jesus makes this happen - both at the beginning of our Christian pilgrimage, and at every step along the way of that pilgrimage. His Gospel does not just get the process going and then drop off.

His Gospel sustains us and carries us for as long as we struggle against sin, and for as long as we need forgiveness of sin. In other words, for as long as we live in this world, and for as long as we desire to live in Christ while in this world, Christ is always doing his forgiving and life-giving work in us by the power of his Word.

Christ remains with us always, even to the end of the age. And he speaks his Word to us always, even to the end of the age, so that this Word can be believed, and all its blessings continually received.

The Word of Christ, which is filled with the saving power of Christ, does come to us in many marvelous ways. Most obviously, it comes to us when the message of salvation is preached and taught - such as is happening right now from this pulpit.

But the Word of Christ is brought to us also when it is attached to the earthly elements of the sacraments that Jesus instituted for his church. Listen to what St. Paul says about that:

“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

“We were buried...with [Christ] by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

Martha said to Jesus: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” But because Jesus was not there, where Lazarus was at this trying time, Lazarus did die.

And if you or I ever go to a place - to a state of existence - in which we are not where Jesus is, we, too, will die. Our eternal life is guaranteed only in Christ.

Apart from Christ, and outside of Christ, damnation and eternal death is the guarantee. If you throw away the faith that God gave you, you will thereby throw away all the blessings that only faith receives.

“Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”

As we rejoice in the gift of eternal life that is ours in Christ, it is so important for us to stay where Jesus and his Word are, and to make sure that Jesus and his Word are where we are. A church that loses the genuine Word of Christ, loses Christ, and dies - even if many people still go to such a church.

And if you cut yourself off from a gathering of God’s people where Christ and his Word are still present and active, the fact that others still go will not matter for you, as far as your own soul is concerned.

It is, of course, not simply a matter of being in physical proximity to the preaching and teaching of the Word of Christ, and to the administration of the sacraments. Christ’s saving words are spoken, not only to be heard with the ears, but also to be believed in the heart.

But it is not possible to believe the Word of Christ, if you have never heard it. It is not possible to receive the special blessings of baptism, in faith, if baptism itself has never been received.

And so, as we seek to remain in Christ, by faith in Christ, we seek to remain where the Word of Christ is sounding forth. We abide in Christ by abiding in the fellowship of his church, gathered around his voice in the means of grace.

When we do hear and believe that voice, and when the Word of Christ penetrates into us and remains within us, then we will not die, but live. We will know, and experience for ourselves, the truth of Christ’s promise:

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” Amen.

17 April 2011 - Palm Sunday - Matthew 27:11-66

People often call curses down upon themselves, and upon others, in a thoughtless and careless manner. Expressions regarding God’s damning of ourselves and other people have become a part of the common parlance of profane speech in our society, so that people in anger or frustration frequently blurt out such curses, even though they don’t really mean what they say.

On the other side of the equation, people often express wishes for things that they would consider to be good occurrences, to happen. But quite often, these positive wishes are not thought through very carefully either.

What would it be like, for example, if the kids up north got as many snow days off from school each winter, as they would hope for? Can you imagine how much snow would pile up, and how much flooding would come in the spring? There’s the old adage: “Be careful what you wish for. You might get it.”

In today’s passion account from St. Matthew, those among the people of Jerusalem who were opposed to Jesus, and who were calling for his death, at a certain point called down a curse of sorts upon themselves, and upon their children. But they didn’t realize the true significance of what they were saying.

At another point, the Jewish leaders who had made themselves to be Jesus’ enemies, expressed a wish for an ostensibly good thing to happen. But again, they didn’t really understand what they were wishing for.

We read: “So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’ And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!’”

The people in this crowd were so sure that Jesus was deserving of death, that they were willing to be accountable before God’s tribunal for having advocated his death. Jesus’ crime, of course, was that he has declared himself to be the Son of God. That was blasphemy, in their mind.

The Roman governor Pontius Pilate was not shocked by this claim. As a pagan, he might have thought that Jesus was being a little presumptuous in identifying himself as a divine Son.

But individuals like Hercules - Zeus’s purported son, by means of a human mother - were a part of the old Greco-Roman mythology with which Pilate was familiar. So it certainly wasn’t any kind of horrible blasphemy in his ears, to hear Jesus claim to be the Son of God.

It did bother the Jews of Jerusalem, however - or at least the ones in the crowd that day who had been stoked up by the Jewish leaders against Jesus. They wanted to kill Jesus for making such a claim. And finally, Pilate let them have what they were asking for.

When the angry masses invoked a potential curse upon themselves, by saying, “His blood be on us and on our children,” what they meant was that if Jesus did turn out, by some remote chance, to be innocent of the sin of blasphemy, they would be willing to undergo punishment from God for having instigated his execution. And they would even place their children under the same divine judgment.

They didn’t realize what they were saying, in calling down such a curse. Jesus actually was the Son of God. Consequently, in view of the fact that they were complicit in the shedding of his innocent blood, they did deserve to be punished for this crime.

However, what they had somewhat casually spoken in the form of a curse upon themselves, turned out for them to be just the opposite of a curse. The blood of Jesus was indeed going to be upon them and their children. But this would be the greatest of blessings from God, and not a curse from God.

And that’s because Jesus, in his great love for his people, brought about a profound reversal in the meaning and application of these words. He was dying for them on the cross. He was atoning for their sins - including the sin of advocating his death in spite of his innocence.

His blood would be upon them, therefore, not in judgment, but in forgiveness - just as the blood of the Temple sacrifice was sprinkled on people on the Day of Atonement, according to the Mosaic Law.

And as far as the children of these people are concerned - upon whom the curse of Jesus’ blood was also invoked - Jesus was going to send his apostles to them, to bring them a conciliatory message like this, from the First Epistle of St. John: “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

His blood will be upon them, too - the blood of the sacrifice that had been offered for them, to satisfy God’s wrath against their sins. And this blood of atonement will cleanse their hearts, when they repent of their sins, and believe the Gospel of Christ crucified for sinners.

The intended meaning of the curse that the people of Jerusalem called down upon themselves, was that they would be willing to suffer God’s punishment on account of the death of Jesus. But what these words really meant, from God’s perspective, was that they and their children will now have access to the gift of eternal life, that has been made possible for all humanity, on account of the death of Jesus.

And you have access to this gift, too, even if you are not a child of Israel. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and not only the sin of his own people.

His blood is upon you, not to condemn you for your many sins, but to cleanse you of all sin. The “curse” is not really a curse after all. It is a blessing.

As St. Paul writes to the Gentiles in Ephesus: “Remember that you were...separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel... But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

In reference to the ritual of the Old Testament Day of Atonement, and also in reference to the perfect and complete salvation that Christ now brings, the Epistle to the Hebrews assures us that

“If the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls...sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ - who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God - purify our conscience from dead works, to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance.”

In spite of their sin, the people of Jerusalem, 2,000 years ago, were called to salvation by their Savior-King. They were invited by God to receive the forgiveness that Jesus won for them on the cross, by the shedding of his blood.

Their children were and are likewise called to this salvation. The children of all nations are called to this salvation. And so, joyfully and thankfully, according to God’s meaning of these words, we all say, “His blood be on us and on our children!”

St. Matthew also reports in today’s Gospel, that when Jesus was hanging on the cross, “the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, “I am the Son of God.”’”

In a certain sense, the men who said these cruel words were intending to be expressing a wish for something ostensibly good to happen. They said, “let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.”

But what they were wishing for, in their arrogance and ignorance, would not have been the basis for a true faith, if it had in fact happened. If they had gotten their ill-considered wish, they would not have been saved by faith.

They would have been damned forever. All the people of Israel would have been damned. Everyone in the entire world would have perished in an eternal separation from a holy and righteous God.

If Jesus has come down from the cross before the sacrifice for the world’s sins had been paid in full, God’s wrath would abide on humanity. Forgiveness would be impossible.

There would be no blood of Atonement to be sprinkled on you and me for our peace and reconciliation with God. We would all be lost.

The Jewish leaders declared, “let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” Jesus said he was the Son of God because he actually was the Son of God.

But his suffering and death on the cross was not taking place in spite of this fact. It was taking place precisely because of who he was.

In the Book of Acts we are told that God purchased the church with “his own blood.” And we read in Second Corinthians that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.”

God is holy and righteous. He cannot tolerate sin and corruption. But in the person of His Son he reveals to us that he is not a vengeful and vindictive God.

He loves us and seeks us out in order to save us. But he does this in a way that does not violate his holiness and righteousness.

And so, the sacrifice for human sin that he in his holiness demands, he in his love provides. In Jesus, God gives himself into death for our sins. He takes upon himself the judgment of his own law against humanity, by taking humanity’s place on the cross.

The devil would probably cry, “Foul!” It’s not fair, he would say, that God himself pays the price of humanity’s redemption.

It would be like a judge in a court of law assessing an exorbitantly high fine to a guilty defendant, according to the dictates of the civil law, and then coming down from the bench and paying the fine himself.

But you know what? God is God. He writes the rules of this game, not Satan.

He can do whatever he wants to do, to be as gracious to us as possible, to give us everything that he demands of us, and to give us blessings for the sake of Christ that we do not, in our own persons, deserve.

And so, it is precisely because Jesus really was the Son of God, that he did not come down from the cross. It is precisely because he really is the Son of God that he offers to you the salvation that he won for you on the cross.

Because he stayed on the cross, contrary to the wishes of the Jewish leaders, there is a Gospel for us to preach and believe.

Because he stayed on the cross, all the way to the bitter end, there is a sacrament for us to receive in faith, as we hear our Savior say to us: “This is my body, which is given for you; this cup is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins.”

We do not have the Gospel, and the sacrament, and the blessings of eternal life that are bestowed on us through these gifts, because we wisely called these heavenly blessings down upon ourselves.

We have these blessings because God, in his infinite mercy for lost sinners, resolved in Christ to give us what we do not deserve, and to make available to us what we - in the blindness of our sin - had not asked for.

We do not have the forgiveness of sins, and the hope of heaven, because we thoughtfully wished for these things, but because God wished for us to have them. God fulfilled his wish by sending his Son to the cross.

And in his Gospel and sacrament, God is still fulfilling his wish, by sending his Son into our hearts and into out lives, through the faith-creating power of his Word.

And so we sing, today and always, “Hosanna!”

Blessed is he whose blood is upon us, for our forgiveness. Blessed is he who remained on the cross, until the price of our redemption was paid.

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!” Amen.

21 April 2011 - Maundy Thursday - Matthew 26:26-28 (ESV)

The institution of the Lord’s Supper by Jesus, on the night in which he was betrayed, is recorded in three of the Gospels - in Matthew, Mark, and Luke - and in St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. But in these four inspired accounts, the descriptions of exactly what Jesus said are not the same.

None of these inspired writers contradict each other. But they each provide different details of what the Lord’s wording was. We need to read all of them in order to know all of what Jesus said.

One thing that all of the sources do all tell us is that Jesus declared, in regard to the bread he was offering his disciples, “This is my body.” They all also tell us that he declared the cup of wine that he was inviting them to drink to be his blood of the testament, or the New Testament in his blood.

This is obviously the chief and foundational truth of the Lord’s Supper, since these words, as Jesus spoke them on that night, are not left out by any of the writers. Everything else that they quote Jesus to have said on this occasion, in regard to his body and blood, presupposes this profound miracle: that the blessed bread and wine in this sacred meal are the body and blood of God’s Son.

All the accounts, despite the variations in what they report on other points, concur in reporting that Jesus said these words, and that by the power of these words, he made this happen.

St. Matthew’s version, which we heard read a few minutes ago, is the only one of the four that tells us, in so many words, that Jesus said that the blood he was offering to the disciples was the blood that is shed “for the forgiveness of sins.” St. Mark’s account, by comparison, says simply that his blood is “my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”

But those early Christians who may have known about the institution of the Lord’s Supper only from Mark’s version, or Luke’s or Paul’s, would still have had a basis for believing that God’s forgiveness of their sins was offered to them in the sacrament.

In Psalm 62, the Psalmist acknowledged the mystery of what we might call God’s twofold voice: “Once God has spoken; twice have I heard this: that power belongs to God, and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love.”

When God speaks, he either speaks from his almighty power, which rightly makes sinners quake in fear of his judgment; or he speaks from his steadfast love, which heals and restores those who have turned away from their sins to seek the Lord’s face.

We can say that there are two possible kinds of “encounters” that people can have with God. One option is that we can encounter God in his wrath, as God’s law demands righteousness, and as it condemns the obstinate and hard-hearted because of their unrighteousness.

The Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that “we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

The other option - God’s preferred option - is that we can encounter God in his grace, for the sake of Christ, as his Gospel gives the righteousness of Jesus to us, and as his pardon releases us from all guilt and fear. In this respect, Psalm 86 guides a penitent sinner to call upon the Lord in these words:

“Gladden the soul of your servant, for to you, O Lord, do I lift up my soul. For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you. Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer; listen to my plea for grace. In the day of my trouble I call upon you.”

At the risk of oversimplifying, but to make an important point, I’ll suggest that a basic rule of thumb for your soul is this: an encounter with God, and with the Word of God, that you survive, is an encounter with his forgiveness.

And that’s because, outside of his forgiveness, God is not neutral about sin, or indifferent to sin, or ignorant of sin. Outside of his forgiveness, he is burning with anger against sin.

In Psalm 130, all humanity, as it were, asks: “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?”

There is a simple yet profound reason why God’s anger against sin has not become his anger against you personally - corrupted as you are by sin. There is a reason why God has not in fact marked your iniquities, so that you are, as it were, still standing in his presence.

The reason is this, as St. Paul summarizes it in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

God made his Son to be sin for you. His Son died on your cross, under the judgment that your sins earned for yourself. And now, in Christ, and in the body and blood of Christ, you get what he earned for you.

Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. But Jesus’ blood has been shed for you.

In the Lord’s Supper Jesus gives this blood to you. Therefore, in the Lord’s Supper, Jesus gives you the forgiveness of your sins.

According to the Lord’s will it cannot be any other way, for those who approach in repentance, and whose hearts have been drawn in faith to the Word and promise of their Savior. When Jesus bestows his body and blood on you, it can never be a neutral or indifferent thing.

Hypocrites and unbelievers, if they manage - in Judas-like fashion - to finagle themselves a place at the Lord’s Table, will encounter the Lord in his wrath. They will experience a foretaste of judgment day, even if they don’t realize it at the time.

The penitent and believing, however, who yearn for the Lord’s forgiveness, and for reconciliation with God, will receive what they yearn for. The Spirit of God himself has placed this yearning into them, and the Son of God will fulfill it by the gift of himself, in the blessed bread and wine of his sacrament.

The body and blood of Jesus, because of who Jesus is, is always intended to be for the forgiveness of sins. When Jesus miraculously gives his body and blood to his faithful people, and miraculously unites them in this way to his death and resurrection, he thereby also, and always, miraculously forgiveness them, and sets their hearts at peace.

The offer of the forgiveness of sins is imbedded in the declaration that his body and blood - given into death and shed for you - is in the bread and wine.

The giving of the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is, of course, not the only way in which forgiveness comes to us from God. Whenever the message of Christ is present and active, God’s power to forgive is also present and active.

But Jesus did institute his special Supper for a reason. In the Lord’s Supper, the Lord himself touches our weak and trembling humanity at the point of his own humanity. In our frailty he sustains us most vividly by his strength.

In a uniquely “incarnational” way, he impresses his Gospel of forgiveness upon us in the Supper, by impressing himself upon us, and by uniting himself to us - as he feeds us with his body and gives us to drink of his blood.

When the institution of the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood is recounted, and when this Holy Supper is proclaimed and preached about to weary and troubled consciences, they do want it. And when the body and blood of Jesus are offered to them, they, in faith - and in the joy of God’s forgiveness - do receive it. Amen.

22 April 2011 - Good Friday - Psalm 22

On the cross, even in the midst of his writhing agony, Jesus was still thinking about the Scriptures, meditating on the Scriptures, and quoting the Scriptures. The Gospels of Matthew and Mark each report that one of the things he cited from the Bible was the first verse of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

That’s a thought that each of us may very well be able to relate to. There have been times in our life when we have experienced significant set-backs or suffering, and when it felt as it God had forsaken us.

At such times we may very well have called out in exasperation to the Lord, with words similar to those quoted by Jesus: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The chief emphasis of this question - when we ask it - would probably be on the word “forsaken.” “Why have you forsaken me?”

The assumption that we would probably bring to such a question, as we would address it to God in the midst of our trials and disappointments, is that God is not ever supposed to forsake people. Shouldn’t everyone be able to count on him always to stay around?

Don’t all of us have the right to expect him always to provide the blessings and help that people need, when they need it? Isn’t that what God’s role is?

Isn’t that why people believe in him in the first place - so that he can take care of their problems, and clean up their messes?

When he doesn’t seem to be doing this, and when he seems instead to have walked away from us, and turned his back on us, we would therefore question him about this. And as we question him, we are, between the lines, perhaps also scolding him.

In our accusatory and indignant questioning of God, we may in effect be demanding that God would mend his ways, and start fulfilling his duty toward us once again.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why don’t you go back to taking care of me - and of everyone - as you are supposed to do?

But do we really have a reason to assume that God will never forsake anyone, under any circumstances? Has he given the human race such a pledge?

Actually he has not. In fact, he has given us the exact opposite kind of warning. In the Book Deuteronomy, the Lord himself spoke these words to Moses, not long before Moses died, and not long before the people of Israel entered into the Promised Land:

“Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers. Then this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me, and break my covenant that I have made with them. Then my anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide my face from them, and they will be devoured.”

God’s warning and threat is unmistakably clear. He will not tolerate idolatry and rebellion among his people. He will not stand by and put up with disobedience of his law, and the breaking of the covenant that he has made with them.

And so, at those times when you feel that you have been forsaken by God, is it not true that he actually does have valid grounds for forsaking you - if that is in fact what he has done? Are you really exempt from the universal condemnation of humanity that the Prophet Isaiah testifies to?

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way.” Isn’t that a quintessential definition of idolatry? “We have turned every one to his own way.” We have departed from God’s way.

Whenever you live for yourself, for the fulfillment of your own ambitions, and for the satisfaction of your own will, are you not in these things turning to your own way? Whenever you ignore God’s calling on your life, and your duty toward him and others as his Word defines it, have you not thereby departed from God’s way?

Don’t defend yourself with the boast that others are just as bad if not worse than you are. Don’t give yourself the false comfort that you don’t commit your little idolatries all the time, but only some of the time.

St. James writes: “Whoever keeps the whole law, but fails in one point, has become accountable for all of it.”

According to God’s law, and the demands it makes on all of us - to live as we were created to live - we don’t have any claims on God. God has claims on us.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If it’s actually so that God has “forsaken” you at certain points in your life, the reason for this would not be a mystery, if you are honest about your sin.

Why has he forsaken you? Because, in your heart, you have forsaken him.

But that does get us back to Jesus on the cross. According to his human nature, he, too, cried out to his heavenly Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

From the Book of Deuteronomy we know that God does in fact reserve the right to forsake people, and we know the reason why he does so, when he in fact has done so. Jesus knew that too.

So, when Jesus asked that question, it was not with the false assumption that God is never supposed to forsake people. When people, in their hearts, are idolaters; and when they rebel against the Lord’s covenant, and forsake the Lord; then, according to the Lord’s threat, he will forsake them.

But Jesus was not an idolater. He had never broken God’s law, and he had never violated the Lord’s covenant with Israel. In fact, he was completely faithful in fulfilling it.

In regard to his own personal righteousness, there could be no just accusation against him. “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.”

For Jesus, therefore, the emphasis in his question was not on the word “forsake,” but on the word “me.” We know why God forsakes sinners. What Jesus asked was, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Of all people, why would Jesus be the one, in this ultimate sense, to be forsaken by God? In his profound humiliation on the cross, that’s the question Jesus asks. The Prophet Isaiah gives the answer:

“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows... He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities. ... All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

In a verse from St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians that was quoted in last night’s message, and that could be quoted every hour of every day of Holy Week, we read: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

God takes no please in forsaking those who forsake him. His holiness demands it, however. If God did not turn away from human sin, whenever he saw it, he would not be the righteous God that he is.

The only God who exists is a God who loves holiness and goodness, and who hates wickedness and injustice. But the only God who exists is a God who loves the human race too, and each member of it.

And that remains true, even though we are all infected with sin, and wreak of sin in ourselves. But God - in his love for righteousness, and in his love for us - does have a solution.

We see this solution when we see the cross, on which God’s own Son died for us. We hear this solution when we hear God’s own Son call out in unspeakable grief, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

According to God’s eternal plan, Jesus’ righteous humanity was, as it were, clothed and covered over with everyone else’s sinful humanity. On the cross, our sins covered over his sinlessness.

Our rebellion, and our disobedience of the Lord’s law and covenant, were all credited to him. He willingly took all of these sins upon himself.

On the cross, therefore, when God the Father looked upon his Son, what he now saw was our idolatry and wickedness. God did not see the “real Jesus.”

He saw the “real us.” God saw the full and tragic reality of all the many ways in which humanity has forsaken him.

And so, in keeping with the requirements of his holiness, and in keeping with his threats - which are never idle - God the Father forsook his Son.

For that moment, Jesus sunk to the depths of hell itself for us. For that moment, Jesus experienced for us what our sins deserve.

In the resurrection of Christ, God has declared his full acceptance of the sacrifice that Jesus offered. The Father’s forsaking of his Son in human flesh, on account of human sin, is now over.

And if you are in Christ, and know him by faith, God’s forsaking of you is also now over. Isaiah explains that too: “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one...make many to be accounted righteous.”

The righteous one, Jesus Christ, makes you to be accounted righteousness, when he clothes and covers over your sins with his own personal sinlessness. And that’s exactly what he does when his Gospel is preached to you, and when you believe what he tells you - about himself, and about you.

In his living Word, Jesus, your crucified and living Savior, gives himself to you, and wraps himself around you. He hides your sins under his goodness, so that when God the Father now sees you, he sees Jesus.

In Christ, God doesn’t see your many idolatries - of which you now repent. In Christ he doesn’t see your rebellions against his law - which, with the help of the Holy Spirit, you seek now never again to repeat.

And so, in Christ, God does not forsake you. As far as your standing before God is concerned, that already happened, by proxy, on Calvary’s cross.

Jesus, in your place, cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Because he experienced this for you, you will never actually experience this, as you abide in him, and as he abides in you.

Because he asked this agonizing question while he was enduring hell for you, you will never need to ask this question.

Apart from Christ, I would still be a straying and rebellious sheep - who turns to my own way; who forsakes God; and who provokes God to forsake me. But now, in Christ, and by the grace of Christ, everything is different.

In the message of the cross, and in the forgiveness that I know by faith in Christ, God now assures me that he will never forsake me. Because Jesus died for me, the Lord is not my accuser. Instead,

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” Amen.

24 April 2011 - Easter - Matthew 28:1-10

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

All four Gospels tell the story of Easter. The theme of this wonderful story is that a certain man, who was dead, is now actually alive.

One of the Gospels, however - St. Matthew - also tells another story - a sub-plot, if you please. The theme of this second story is that certain men who are alive, are, in another sense, actually dead.

St. Matthew writes: “And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men.”

These guards had been posted at Jesus’ tomb by the order of Pontius Pilate. The chief priests and Pharisees had asked the Roman governor to place them there, so that the disciples would not be able to steal Jesus’ body, and then claim that he had risen from the dead.

It is unlikely that these Roman soldiers really understood what was going on around them. They were likely all pagans, who couldn’t grasp the theological controversies regarding Jesus that were stirring up all the Jews of Jerusalem.

But we can also assume that they probably didn’t care about these controversies either. Whether or not Jesus was the Son of God didn’t make any difference to them.

In the world in which they lived, they dealt with real, concrete things. Each of these soldiers had to think about his job, and about his physical life. Each of them was concerned about his friends, his regiment, his duty as a soldier.

All this religious “mumbo-jumbo” doesn’t have anything to do with the real world, they thought. But then something happened that had the potential to shake them out of that complacency - something that could not be ignored.

When the angel appeared at the tomb of Jesus, this was real, by any definition of “real.” They all saw him, so this was not a hallucination only on the part of one soldier.

And they were all frightened of this angel. They all passed out and fainted, they were so afraid. They “trembled and became like dead men,” the text tells us.

And remember, these were hardened and experienced Roman Legionnaires! They didn’t scare easily. But this heavenly visitation was different from anything else that had ever happened to them.

And it was obviously a supernatural occurrence. The appearance of this angel “was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.”

You’d think that something like this would get them to thinking. Maybe something important is going on here.

Maybe I should reassess my beliefs, and values, and priorities. Maybe I have dismissed as unimportant, things that are actually most important of all.

That’s what we might expect. But that’s not what happened.

The soldiers remained committed to their previous belief system, oriented toward themselves and their earthly comfort. They stubbornly closed their eyes and ears to the truth.

They made a willful decision to believe that the angelic visitation they had experienced doesn’t matter; that the supernatural power of God doesn’t matter; that the raising of Jesus from the dead doesn’t matter.

Matthew tells us what happened:

“Some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers and said, ‘Tell people, “His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.”’ ... So they took the money and did as they were directed.”

For money, they lied to the world about what had happened. For money, they lied to themselves, knowing that what they were saying was not true.

Their life in this world - their ultimately meaningless life - would go on as before. But in soul and conscience, they were, and would remain, dead.

They “became like dead men” not only in a physical way, from fainting in fright. They “became like dead men” also morally and spiritually.

After a while they woke up from their having passed out at the tomb. But they never woke up from the death of their soul and conscience.

They knew that the angel was real, and that everything the angel stood for was and is real and true. They knew it.

But in order to remain in a lifestyle with which they were comfortable, and to avoid the unsettling effects that repentance and faith would have on that lifestyle, they pretended that the angel was not real. They pretended that God had not given them a chance to be saved from their sins.

They pretended this, all the way to their own graves. They pretended it all the way to hell.

And there are many unbelievers in the world today, who also know that what the Christian church proclaims today is true. They may not have been visited by an angel, but the Word of God has probed their hearts.

The reality of the living Christ has been shown to them by God’s Spirit. They have heard the voice of God.

But they have not listened to it. They have made a decision to ignore it, and not to believe it.

Their problem is not that they don’t know that it’s true. Their problem is that they hate the truth, or are frightened of it, or simply refuse to deal with it.

They are unwilling to allow the truth of the resurrected Christ to work the changes in them that would indeed take place, if that truth would be embraced.

In the midst of this life, or what passes for life, they, too, are dead in spirit. Like the soldiers at the tomb, they are “like dead men,” in soul and conscience.

Maybe some of you sitting here right now are in this situation. You’ve heard the story of Jesus’ victory over sin and death for years.

There’s something inside of you that has always told you that it’s true, and that it really does matter that it’s true. But there’s also something inside of you that has prevented you from truly believing it.

You love the comfortable lies that you currently believe, more than you love the truth.

But you know, it doesn’t have to be that way. Starting today, it can stop being that way.

And that’s because the other story that we hear today - the chief story - is not about living men who are actually dead. It is about a dead man who is now truly and actually alive.

The resurrection of Jesus - God’s own Son in human flesh - is his victory over sin for us. He breaks the power of those sins that have held us captive. He forgives the guilt of those sins that have kept us in fear and dread of God.

All the lies that we have told ourselves, and that we have tried to believe, are overpowered today by the unassailable truth of Jesus’ words from the cross, “It is finished.” Spiritual darkness and hopelessness are dispersed today by the heavenly brilliance of the angel’s words at the empty tomb, “He has risen.”

The earthly life of Jesus was real - more real than many of the things that we consider to be real in this world. And in its perfection, it was unlike the life of anyone else who ever lived on the face of the earth.

The death of Jesus was also real - more real than many of the things that we consider to be real in this world. His death was a representative death, endured in our place, because of our sins.

And, the resurrection of Jesus was and is also real - more real than all of the things that we consider to be real in this world.

The raising of Christ from the dead did happen in this world. His tomb in Jerusalem was truly empty on the first Easter morning.

But the raising of Christ from the dead also ushers in a new kind of reality - for those who are genuinely touched by it, and filled with its power. The resurrection of the Lord opens for us a portal to a new world.

This new world exists parallel to the old, familiar, sinful world - for now. Those who know the Lord by faith, and who have therefore been transported by the Gospel into this new world, are a part of both worlds.

But the new world, which has been inaugurated through the resurrection of Jesus, is more “real” than the old world. This new world is a world where God’s people, created in his image, are restored to be what they were meant to be, in harmony with him and with each other.

It is a world where all sin is covered over and washed away. It is a world where there is no more fear of death, and in the deepest sense, where there is no more death, period.

And unlike the old world of sin and death, this new world - this world of life, over which the living Christ reigns - will endure forever.

The new reality that the resurrection of Jesus has inaugurated is not something just for the future - for after bodily death.

For those who hear the voice of Christ now, and who believe his life-giving voice now, Christ is in them now. His resurrection is with them now.

Jesus says: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”

When we entered through the doors of the church this morning, some of us may have been like the soldiers in today’s story - attached to this world of sin, believing in the lies of this world, and trapped in the death of this world.

But when we all leave here today, may none of us leave like the soldiers. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is real - truly and genuinely and eternally real!

We have encountered the living Christ here today, by the power of his Word, in a way that we cannot ignore. We know that this is true. And by his grace, we will also believe in what we have always known to be true.

We will no longer be able to believe the old comfortable lies with which we are familiar, because the truth of Christ has liberated us from this deception. We will no longer be able to pretend that the Savior of the human race is not truly alive, calling us to come and find rest in him.

And so, as the living Lord of the church has given to his people a living faith in him, those people - all of us included - boldly cry out to all the earth: “Christ is risen!” “He is risen indeed!” Amen.