SERMONS - MARCH 2011
6 March 2011 - Transfiguration - Matthew 17:1-9
The transfiguration of our Lord was by far the most extraordinary and unusual thing that happened to Jesus during his earthly ministry. Jesus usually kept his divinity hidden, beneath the humble form of his humanity.
His various miracles of healing, or of controlling the forces of nature, certainly did give people a glimpse of his divine power. But before the resurrection, there was nothing comparable to the transfiguration.
When “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light,” the three disciples who were present were able to see, with their own eyes, that Jesus - in his person - was much more than a man.
They had already come to believe, by the working of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, that Jesus was the Son of God. But now they could see it. For them, this was a remarkable confirmation of their faith.
What does the transfiguration of the Lord mean for us? Does it mean anything for us, since we did not personally see it? Should we be on our guard against certain false interpretations of the transfiguration?
These questions are answered, in part, in the words from God the Father, which rang out from heaven that day. The Father said to the three disciples who were there: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
Let’s parse that. When we hear God say, “listen to him,” one of the things we take away from this is that we should not listen to anyone else - at least not in regard to the ultimate meaning of human existence, or in regard to humanity’s salvation from sin and death.
Throughout human history there have been many false christs - both religious and secular - who have claimed that their ideas and teachings would bring true enlightenment to their followers. But such claims, when they contradict the words of Jesus, are not to be accepted.
When God’s Son tells us about our sin - and about the alienation from God and man that our sin causes - he is speaking the unvarnished truth. The disciples, and we, are told by God, “listen to him.”
We are not to listen to those who ignore this fundamental human problem, or who try to explain it away on the basis of secular psychology or humanistic philosophy.
When God’s Son tells us about his grace, and about the reconciliation with God that his death on the cross has accomplished, he is also speaking the truth. When Jesus announces his forgiveness to the world, the disciples, and we, are again told by God, “listen to him.”
We are not to listen to those who teach a humanly-invented process of self-salvation, or self-empowerment, that would put each human ego in the place of God, or that would put human works in the place of God’s redeeming work on the cross.
There’s another aspect of what God the Father spoke from heaven, that should also be emphasized. He did say, “listen to him,” and not to false teachers.
But he also said, “listen to him.” He didn’t say, “watch him,” or “imitate him.”
For the apostles, there was indeed a proper place for watching Jesus, and taking note of the things he did. In today’s reading from his Second Epistle, St. Peter does say that he and his two friends, who were with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration, “were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”
This unique apostolic testimony is important, for its own reasons. But on that mount, God did not say, “watch him.” He said, “listen to him.”
And that’s also important - especially for us, who did not have an opportunity to see what Jesus did during his earthly ministry, or to look at him while he was transfigured. But in spite of this, we can listen to him.
Jesus visibly manifested his divine glory to those three disciples only once. He hasn’t ever manifested it to us in a visible way.
But he speaks to us all the time! And it is in his speaking that he comes to us, as our divine-human Savior, to satisfy all our godly longings, and to meet all our true needs.
We no longer have access to the visible presence of Jesus in this world, as his original disciples did. And we certainly do not have transfigurations taking place before our eyes. We cannot hear Jesus in the way his disciples could, while he walked the earth.
However, St. Peter indicates that the Father’s command, “listen to him,” is fulfilled among us by means of the Scriptures. On behalf of himself, John, and James, he writes that when Jesus “received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.”
“And, we have something more sure: the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.”
It is the voice of Jesus that sounds forth, in our minds and hearts, from the pages of Sacred Scripture. And this regular, reliable, powerful, and divine Biblical voice, is more sure for us, and more capable of building us up in faith, than the extraordinary voice from heaven that was heard on that one, highly unusual occasion.
When he speaks, we listen. We believe what he tells us. Our troubled consciences, and our fearful hearts, are set at rest. And we know and enjoy the peace that only God can give.
Your faith is based on the word of Christ in the Scriptures. It is not based on your being a witness to extraordinary events such as the transfiguration.
And so, the fact that you have never seen something like the transfiguration doesn’t really matter, as far as your faith and salvation are concerned. You know that Jesus is both God and man, and your divine Lord, on a different basis.
God says to you, “listen to him.” And Peter applies this command to your life here and now, in his invitation to you to pay attention to the Scriptures, “as to a lamp shining in a dark place.”
There are many avenues open for you to hear the voice of Jesus, so that you can “listen to him,” and “pay attention” to him. The public reading of the Bible in church, Biblically-based preaching and hymn-singing, and the instituting words of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper, come most readily to mind, as sacred occasions when we listen to what Jesus wants to tell us.
In our parish, there are also three opportunities each week for participation in a Bible class. Private confession and absolution, and personal counseling on the basis of Scripture, are also always available to you from your pastor. Just make an appointment, or give me a call.
And at home, the devotional reading of the Bible, and of sound spiritual literature, should be a regular part of your daily life. The living Savior, whose glory fills the skies, lovingly comes to you in these ways.
Even though you cannot literally see him - either in his humanity or in his divinity - still, he is there. And he is speaking, to you.
And getting back to what God the Father said on the mountain: he declared, “listen to him.” He didn’t say, “imitate him.”
There is a place for imitating Christ in our life of service to others. On one occasion, Jesus did say to his disciples, “I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”
But there are limits to how this can be applied. There are some things that Jesus alone could do, because of who he was.
People who are a part of the so-called “New Age Movement” usually consider Jesus to have been an “enlightened master,” who had successfully attuned himself to his own inner divinity, and who had cultivated that mystical awareness into a heightened spiritual consciousness.
And because all people have this divinity within them - according to “New Agers” - Jesus can be seen as an example for us to follow in our own journey toward enlightenment, self-empowerment, and the fulfillment of our divine-human potential.
But this is not what Jesus was. And this is not what we are by nature either.
It’s true that the man Jesus was essentially divine, and that there was a true divine nature within him. In the transfiguration, this inner divinity showed itself, and, as it were “emerged” from Jesus.
But he is the only one like this. He is the only man, ever, about whom God the Father would say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
All other people are - as we often confess - “by nature sinful and unclean.” we are not by nature divine.
We are not by nature the masters of our own destiny, with the inherent power to create the future for ourselves that we want - as many religious and secular “New Age” gurus would claim.
As Christians who are saved by grace alone, we know that our lives are in God’s hands, and not in our own. We must always remember this, and find our rest in this - especially when “New Age” advocates of “the god within” would tell us that our hope for joy and meaning in life, is to be found inside of us, and not outside of us - in Jesus.
Jesus, on this mystical mountain, does not demonstrate to us how to find the divinity that is naturally within us, so that each of us can have a little “transfiguration” of our own. That is just a variation of the lie that was told to our first mother in the Garden of Eden: “you shall be like God.”
But when Eve sinned, she did not become like God. And we today are not like God either.
There is no divinity within us - that is, not until Jesus, in regenerating us by his Word, also comes to live within us through his Word. He says: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”
None of this wells up from within us. Rather, God gives himself to us from the outside, by means of his Gospel and Sacraments.
St. Peter, earlier in the epistle from which we read today, expresses this profound thought regarding the life of Christ in us:
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises - so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world.”
When Jesus speaks his promises of peace and forgiveness to you; when you listen to those promises, as God the Father tells you to do; and when you in faith receive those promises, you then also receive Christ. He lives within you, and pledges that he will never forsake you.
Only in the case of Jesus, was there a divine nature, on the inside, from the beginning. For the rest of us - for all fallen human beings - our union with God, and our partaking of the divine nature, is a gift from God - a gift that is offered to all in the word of Christ.
If you close your mind, and refuse to believe what he tells you - about your sin problem, and about his solution to that problem - you will remain in darkness and satanic deception. Eternal death will be your fate.
But when you do listen, and when his words enter you and live within you, he enters you, and lives within you. As you by faith live in Christ, and as Christ lives in you, he covers over your sin, and washes it away.
He reshapes you into his image. He enriches you with his wisdom.
And when you pass from this world, and are drawn fully into the power of your Lord’s resurrection, the glorious “day” about which St. Peter spoke will dawn, and Jesus, “the morning star,” will rise in your heart.
In the resurrection, you will be transfigured - not with a glory that comes from you, but with a borrowed glory; a reflected glory; a glory that shines upon you, and into you, from Jesus Christ, forever and ever.
“And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. ...a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” Amen.
13 March 2011 - Lent 1 - Matthew 4:1-11
A “temptation” is usually understood to be an inducement or influence to do something wrong. That’s certainly an important part of what the word means. But in the original New Testament, the Greek term that is generally translated as “temptation” in our English versions, refers more literally to a “testing.”
When you are tempted to do, think, or say something contrary to your stated beliefs and values, your resolve, your moral convictions, and your commitments are being tested. Are they genuine? Will they hold up under pressure?
This kind of testing is not like the exams you might take in school, when your teacher wants to find out what you know and what you don’t know. It’s not so much an intellectual or mental thing.
It’s more like the way a test pilot tests a new jet, as he pushes it to the limitations of its endurance. It’s like the way a man tests the thickness of the ice on a lake, by walking out on it, to see if it can bear his weight.
Temptations, in the Biblical sense of the word, do not simply test your knowledge. They test your strength - your moral and spiritual strength.
And the chief tempter, about whom the Bible speaks, is the devil. He is a real, supernatural being - a fallen angel, who is in a permanent and unredeemable state of antagonism and hostility against God.
He hates God. But since he can’t really get at God, to hurt God directly, he is always trying to hurt God by hurting those whom God loves. And that means you and me - and the entire human race.
In today’s Gospel, we heard St. Matthew’s account of the temptation that Jesus underwent in the wilderness. Sometimes, when this event is portrayed in religious art, the devil is pictures as a devious-looking monster - with scaly skin, bat wings, cloven feet, horns coming out of his head, and a pointed tail.
But if the devil did come in a physical form on this occasion, I doubt very much that he assumed the appearance of an overtly frightening creature. He’s much more clever than that.
If the devil had appeared in such an obviously malevolent form, it would be as it he were announcing to Jesus, “Whatever I say to you is a lie; whatever promises I make to you, I will break.
That’s not the way the devil operates. When he temps someone, he does everything he can to make that person thinks that he can be trusted, and to trick that person into believing that his lies are true.
So, if the devil did appear in some physical form to Jesus, it may have been in the form of a gentle, soft-spoken man, with a smile on his face and a friendly twinkle in his eye. It may have been in the form of a beautiful, glamorous woman, speaking with an airy, seductive voice.
The devil would have tried to find any way possible to disarm Jesus - to get his guard down - when he tested his moral fortitude, and his faithfulness to the will of his Father in heaven. And that’s the way he approaches you, too, when he tempts you... when he tests you.
When the devil puts pressure on you to abandon your convictions, and to follow his ways instead, he does it in a very subtle and calculated way. He does everything he can to make you think that the choice he wants you to make is a good choice, and that you will not regret it.
He won’t necessary launch a direct attack on your moral standards, but he will twist them, and try to get you to misapply them. Stealing is wrong - except when you are taking something that you really need, from a person who doesn’t really need it.
Fornication is wrong - except when you really love your boyfriend or girlfriend. Loafing on the job is wrong - except when you are tired, and your boss is not in the office that day to monitor your work anyway.
Abortion is wrong - except when the baby would be unwanted, and not have a happy life, if it were allowed to be born. Intoxication is wrong - except when you are with friends, and everyone else is getting drunk too.
And the most severe tests come in regard to our faith. God is almighty, and God is love. But if that’s true, why is there so much evil in the world?
The Gospel is the power of God for salvation. But isn’t it a sign of the weakness of the Gospel, when there are so many people who hear it, and yet choose not to believe it?
God pours his Spirit into the hearts of his children, by whom they cry out, “Abba, Father.” But I don’t feel the Holy Spirit in me.
Sometimes I just feel numb, and empty. Does that mean that God has abandoned me?
When the devil tests you with such thoughts - to see if your faith will buckle and give way under the weight of doubt and discouragement - he wants you to think that if you do turn away from God, it will mean that you are smart and sophisticated.
He appeals to your pride, and to that sinful part of you that wants your life and behavior to be free of the restraints of God’s moral law. And so, Satan promises you freedom from God, if you stop listening to God, and start listening to him.
What he doesn’t tell you, is that freedom from God means enslavement to him. And he absolutely does not have your best interests at heart.
When these temptations come - and they will come - they are powerful. They will overwhelm the frailty of your human resistence and human will-power.
Jesus knew this too. When God’s Son was tempted in the wilderness, he was tempted according to his human nature - which he shares with us.
The humanity of Jesus was not shot-through with the corruption of sin and death, as ours is. But even though his humanity was a pristine humanity - as good and strong as a human nature on earth could be - he did not attempt to resist the devil’s onslaughts only on the basis of the power of his human will.
Jesus - even Jesus - resisted the devil’s subtle and plausible lies, on the basis of the objective, supernaturally-powerful, divinely-inspired text of Holy Scripture!
During the past 200 years or so, since the advent of the so-called “Enlightenment,” the Christian Scriptures have been attacked mercilessly by skeptics and rationalists, in the universities of Europe and America, and even in liberal church-related seminaries and colleges. Satan, either directly or indirectly, inspires these attacks.
And he uses these attacks, to make the Scriptures look foolish and useless in the eyes of gullible people who don’t realize how logically flimsy these arguments against Biblical authority actually are. These “enlightened” criticisms are really just an outgrowth of the belief-system of empiricism and anti-supernaturalism.
I know that the miracles of the Bible didn’t really happen. How do I know this? Because miracles don’t happen.
This is not genuine scholarship. This is not sound thinking. The conclusion is embedded in the starting assumptions.
But Jesus has a different set of assumptions regarding the texts that he quotes, in response to the devil’s testing. His assumptions are grounded, in part, in the direct connection that exists between these historical texts and the very real history of God’s redemption of his people Israel.
And his assumptions are grounded even more in the power of these texts to embed themselves into the heart and mind of man, and in the testimony that they bear - within the heart and mind of man - of their own divine origin.
For those who listen in faith, the Scriptures authenticate themselves, not only as words that came from the pen of their human authors, but as words that come “from the mouth of God” - to quote one of the passages that Jesus himself cites.
When you are tempted, therefore, recall the Scriptures, acknowledge the Scriptures, and confess the Scriptures.
Follow the example of Jesus, who said - when he was tested - “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”; “Again it is written, You shall not put the Lord your God to the test”; “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”
Your human will, in itself, will not hold up under the temptations that the devil brings to bear against you. He is a master manipulator.
He will use the lingering narcissism, lust, and arrogance of your fallen nature against you. He will defeat you and destroy you, by means of these weaknesses that are within you and a part of you.
And even while he is defeating and destroying you, you will think that you are winning, and are being liberated. Satan is very good at what he does.
But if, in faith, you throw the Word of God up to him; if you resist him, not with your own human determination, but with God’s truth, you will not fail the test.
The Scriptures are the voice of the living God. They will hold up under the storm of temptation. When you take shelter under their divine strength, then - and only then - will you hold up too.
But in this respect, our situation is different from the situation in which Jesus found himself. In the face of the devil’s threats, he, according to his humanity, was a solitary man armed with the Scriptures.
For him, of course, that was enough. But for us, that would not be enough, because of our sin.
Unlike the Lord, we have often failed to flee to the Scriptures, and to find certainty in them, in a time of testing. We have often betrayed our convictions and principles, under the pressure of temptation.
And that’s why we are so glad to be reminded today - as we have witnessed another baptism in our midst - that we who have been baptized into this man Jesus, have been united in faith to the one who is God in human flesh, for our salvation!
Our sins are forgive through the blood of Christ - even though the devil would like to persuade us that this is not true either. By his death, and by his victory over death, Jesus has destroyed the power of the evil one - who by his lies had held humanity captive in the fear of death.
But those who live in Christ, and in the power of his resurrection, are now free from this fear. And we can also now recognize the devil’s lies for what they are.
As forgiven sinners who are justified in Christ, and protected by Christ, we do not face our temptations alone. Christ himself is with us, and in us.
And so, we are not just following the example of Jesus. Jesus is also following his own example - not for himself, but for us - as our guardian and companion in temptation.
He is resisting the devil with us, and in us. He is continually fortifying us through the truth and power of his Word.
The devil is the “prince of this world.” He is often successful in misleading and deceiving men and nations.
But remember what St. John tells us, in regard to the Lord’s own presence among us: “Little children, you are from God, and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”
And Jesus himself says, “behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” These are among the promises of the New Testament that we are privileged to recall, when the devil would tempt us think that God has abandoned us.
These are among the promises of the New Testament that we are privileged to believe, when the devil would tempt us to think that God will not welcome us back with open arms, if we have abandoned him, but if we want to return to him now, in humility and repentance.
He will welcome us back. He always will. And he will never leave us or forsake us in our temptations, as the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us.
We also read in that epistle: “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” In our temptations we will therefore not despair, but we will have hope.
In the midst of all the fiery trials and testings that we face in this life, we will cling to Christ even as he clings to us. We will believe the Sacred Scriptures, and we will confess the Sacred Scriptures.
In this joyful faith, and in this confident confession, we will endure. By the grace of God, and under the protection of Christ Jesus our Savior, we will endure and live forever. Amen.
20 March 2011 - Lent 2 - Romans 4:1-8, 13-17
People often have the idea that the religion of the Old Testament was a religion of law, while the religion of the New Testament was and is a religion of grace and faith. There is some truth to this. But it is not as true as many might think.
In the days of the Old Testament, God did establish a new, separate nation, which was called to serve and honor him alone. Through Abraham, and later especially through Moses, God did institute for his chosen nation a wide array of laws and rituals that would regulate the civil and religious life of the people.
With Abraham, God instituted the rite of circumcision, which the Patriarch and all his descendants were to undergo as a sign of the covenant that the Lord had made with them.
At the time of the Exodus from Egypt, God directed Moses to build on this, and to set up a comprehensive system of political and ceremonial laws, which the Israelites were strictly commanded to follow.
Through circumcision, a man was now inaugurated into this detailed system of rules and regulations. For a faithful Hebrew, obeying these laws and precepts was not optional.
God had commanded such obedience, and expected these things to be done by those who identified themselves as his people. In the New Testament, however, we see a marked contrast to this.
Jesus himself, of course, was an observant Jew. He didn’t always follow the traditions that had been devised in more recent centuries by the Jewish rabbis.
But he faithfully adhered to the genuine Law of Moses in his daily life. He performed all the works of the law that he, as a Jewish man, was obligated to perform.
But after the resurrection of Christ, and after the founding of the Christian church on the Day of Pentecost, those from other nations, who were now baptized into Christ, were not required to obey the precepts of the Mosaic law.
St. Paul was the most prominent champion of the Christian’s freedom from these external legal obligations. He and the other apostles explained that the prescribed sacrifices of the Temple were a foreshadowing of the supreme sacrifice of Jesus - the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
The kosher regulations - which required that only certain approved kinds of food be taken into the body - were a reminder of a deeper truth, that our souls should receive in faith only the pure, saving message of Christ. The regulations regarding the Sabbath day also pointed forward to the eternal rest that we now have by faith in Jesus.
Therefore, for those who trust in Jesus’ death on the cross for the forgiveness of their sins, and who have found rest for their troubled hearts in the mercy of Jesus, the temple rituals, the laws regarding forbidden food, and the Sabbath regulations, no longer apply.
They did apply, up until the coming of Christ. But now that Christ has come, and has fulfilled these requirements for us, we are no longer obligated to perform these works, in order to fulfill God’s will in our lives.
Those who are baptized into Christ are circumcised in their hearts, by faith. They are no longer required to be circumcised in their bodies.
St. Paul therefore writes to the Colossians, and to us: “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”
To be sure, Christians do still recognize the authority of the moral law in their lives. The moral law - which is summarized in the Ten Commandments - applies to all societies, and to all human relationships. When we sin, we stand convicted under God’s judgment according to this universal, moral law.
But the external ritual requirements, and the rules for outward conduct, that were given to Abraham and Moses specifically for the nation of Israel, no longer apply to us in Christ.
God no longer demands our conformity to these precepts. He does not punish us for ignoring them, or reward us for obeying them.
But as we look to the Old Testament, and to what it was that made the people of the Old Testament truly acceptable to God, we do need to look beyond the covenant of circumcision that God made with Abraham. We need to look beyond the national covenant that the Lord made with Moses.
In today’s text from the Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul explains why it is that the basic character of the relationship that God’s faithful people had with him before the coming of Christ, and the basic character of the relationship that they have with him now - after the coming of Christ - is not really all that different. In fact, it is fundamentally the same.
St. Paul asks, “what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ ” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness... For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.”
This is an important point. The Book of Genesis tells us of a time when God made a promise to Abraham concerning his Seed; when Abraham believed that promise; and when God declared Abraham to be righteous and accepted in his sight by that faith.
But when did this happen? Did it happen after the time when Abraham was told to be circumcised, and to conform himself and all the males in his household to this requirement? No, it did not!
God made this promise, and Abraham believed this promise, before the covenant of circumcision had been inaugurated. In a certain sense, Abraham was justified by faith, and knew himself to be at peace with God because of God’s mercy, while he himself was still a “gentile” - before he had become a “Jew,” as it were, by circumcision.
The covenant of faith - whereby God makes promises, and his people believe them - is older than the covenant of circumcision. The covenant of faith - in which a loving God gives, and we in humility receive what he gives - takes precedence over the covenant of circumcision.
The Old Testament national law was just that - the law of the nation of Israel. But behind that law, and behind the requirement to obey it, was the faith of Abraham, the founder of the nation.
Now that the Gospel has been carried forth to all nations, the requirements of the national law of Israel have been left behind, and have not been carried forth along with it.
But God does want all nations to hear and believe his promises - just as he had always wanted Abraham, and all the physical descendants of Abraham, also to hear and believe his promises.
These promises are now explicit in identifying Jesus Christ as the true and ultimate Seed of Abraham, who came to bring salvation to the world. Abraham’s own understanding of all the implications and details of the Lord’s promise to him was no doubt limited.
He knew that somehow, his “Seed” would bring the blessing of God to all nations, and not just to the nation that would come forth physically from him. God had told him that, and so he believed it. But it is unlikely that he knew exactly how this would be done.
Yet Abraham didn’t need to know and understand everything that God had in mind, before he was willing to believe God’s word. He knew that God was good, and that any hidden plan of God was likewise good.
And so, Abraham trusted in the Lord. God didn’t need to earn Abraham’s confidence by explaining everything to him.
His pledge that he would bless Abraham, and all people through Abraham, was enough. And this was the kind of faith that always animated the genuine believers among God’s people, throughout the Old Testament era.
A right standing with God, and the hope for an eternity with God, did not come through an individual’s outward conformity to the Mosaic law. If there was no true, inner faith, then there was no true, eternal salvation.
The true children of Abraham, therefore, were not simply those who traced their ancestry back to him, and who shared the genes of Abraham. Abraham’s children were and are those who share the faith of Abraham, “who is the father of us all, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations.’”
This faith - this personal confidence in God - came before the ritual law was instituted. This faith - this faith that justifies before God - still remains, even though the ritual law has been laid to rest on account of Christ.
Abraham’s faith - and the faith of those who follow his example today - is not a faith that presumes to offer anything to God, as if God’s favor can be earned by our works, or as if we can ingratiate ourselves with God by flattering him or appeasing him.
The faith of Abraham is, rather, a faith that receives what God offers. It is a faith that humbly relies on God’s utter and complete reliability in keeping his promises.
And the chief promise that God makes, and that God does keep, is his pledge to forgive our sins, for the sake of his and Abraham’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. King David was one among many in the Old Testament who knew this, and who rejoiced in this.
St. Paul reminds us that “David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.’”
The law of Moses does not justify us. The law of Moses did not justify the people of the Old Testament either.
It did regulate their national life, and it taught them, in shadows and symbols, about the coming Savior. But neither we nor they are made right with God through the obedience of the law.
The moral law - which does remain among us in the Christian era - does not vindicate us either. In fact, it judges us even more severely than the external regulations of the Old Testament would, since it addresses the motivations and thoughts of the heart, and not only the actions of the body.
God’s moral law condemns the world, because of the world’s sin. But the law also shows us our need for Christ, and for the blessing that only he brings.
It prepares us to hear and believe the promises of God - since it strips away all illusions that we might be able to become right with God, through anything other than the forgiving grace of God.
If the people of Israel had been able to save themselves from the power and guilt of sin by the works of the law, then we would be able to do so today as well. But we cannot. And the people of Israel could not. Abraham could not.
It was through the promises of God in Christ, the ultimate Seed of Abraham, that Abraham was saved from sin and death - by faith, and not by the works of the law.
It was through the promises of God in Christ, the coming Messiah, that the Israelites were saved from sin and death - by faith, and not by the works of the law.
And today, it is through the promises of God in Christ - the divine-human Savior who has come, and who calls all nations through the Gospel - that you and I are saved from sin and death.
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Amen.
27 March 2011 - Lent 3 - John 4:5-30, 39-42
“There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink.’ ... The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?’ ... Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ ...”
“The woman said to him, ‘I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I who speak to you am he.’ Just then his disciples came back. They marveled that he was talking with a woman...”
Over the past several decades, there has been a very disruptive debate in Christendom over the proper roles of men and women in the church. A focal-point of this debate has been St. Paul’s teaching in his epistles concerning male headship, and concerning female submission to this headship.
St. Paul’s further teaching that only men may be authorized to teach, and lead in prayer, in the gathered assembly, is often dismissed by people in our modern age as a relic of an earlier and ignorant time, when men in general supposedly considered women in general to be inferior to them in all respects.
In the world of the first century, such an attitude may very well have been quite common, among both Jews and Gentiles. Such an attitude can no doubt be found among some in our time too.
But is that an accurate description of what St. Paul and the other apostles would have thought concerning women? Is that why they taught that a woman may not exercise spiritual authority over a man, or that a bishop or pastor needs to be the kind of person who is able to be a “husband of one wife”?
Was the example that Jesus set for them, an example of looking down on women as inferior and unimportant - as would have been common among other men of his era?
Today’s text from St. John demonstrates for us that this was definitely not the way Jesus thought about, or treated, women. Jesus was willing to break the social taboos of his age regarding the roles and relationships of men and women, if those taboos stood in the way of the Gospel.
At that time in history, respectable Jewish men did not speak with strange women in public. Like the more conservative cultures of the Middle East in our own time, it was considered very immodest and improper to do this.
If the woman in question had a somewhat sullied reputation, this made the prohibition of social contact with her even more stringent.
And when men did speak with women - usually their own female relatives in domestic settings - they would not do so in order to give them any level of serious religious instruction.
The attitudes of the time, among the Jewish people, dictated that theological conversations were properly to be conducted only among men. Women were not perceived to be capable of grasping the fine points of a discourse regarding God and the things of God.
But Jesus broke all these taboos. He did speak with a strange woman in public - and a Samaritan woman at that! And he spoke with her, even though she was a morally disreputable person.
Her history of serial marriages, and her present cohabitation with a man outside of wedlock, certainly would have marked her as someone that no self-respecting Jewish man would ever want to be seen with, let alone talk to.
But Jesus did not let these social prohibitions stand in the way of bringing to this woman a message about the water of life, and about the salvation from sin that the Messiah was offering to the world.
Jesus treated women as equal members of the human family. He cared about them and their souls as much as he cared about the souls of men. And he respected women.
He knew that they were capable of recognizing their sin, and of repenting of their sin. He knew that they were capable of understanding God’s Word, and of exercising a personal faith in God’s Word, just as much as any man was.
And he didn’t care that he might come in for some criticism for this religious “egalitarianism” from the religious leaders of the day.
Jesus didn’t govern his behavior with an eye toward pleasing them, or conforming to their haughty bigotries and judgmental prejudices. He governed his behavior so as to please his Father in heaven, who wills all people to be saved, and who loves all people equally.
To those of you who are women: Do not allow yourself to be misled by the modern anti-Christian propaganda that the God of the Bible is a deity who was invented by a woman-hating patriarchal culture.
It is simply not true that the God of Christianity is a God who oppresses women - so that enlightened, spiritual women should now turn away from the worship of the Christian God, and worship in his place a more “female-friendly” pagan “goddess.”
Jesus reveals to us a God who does not approve of any cultural attitude, anywhere in the world, that would in any way diminish your value as a human being.
This is not what God is like. This is not what Jesus, the Son of God, is like.
His love and concern for you, as a woman, and for your spiritual well-being, is no less intense than is his love and concern for any man. He does not let any bigotry or prejudice, emerging from the heart of sinful men, stand in his way, as he comes to you with his pardon and grace.
That’s why we should not think that Jesus’ decision to entrust the apostolic office to twelve qualified males, and to call only men to be preachers and sacramental administrants in his church, has anything at all to do with the cultural attitudes about men and women that were current in the first century.
In the way that he treated women, and in how he taught his disciples to treat women, Jesus was not intimidated by the bigotries and prejudices of his own first-century culture. If Jesus thought that women apostles and pastors were proper for his church, he would have called women to be apostles and pastors for his church.
The fact that he did not do so, even though he was willing to violate other illegitimate cultural mores regarding the relationships between men and women, demonstrates that the male-only pastoral ministry that St. Paul calls for in his epistles is rooted in something deeper than the bigotries and prejudices of the first century.
It is rooted instead in God’s enduring created order for the human family, which is applicable to all people in all times and places. It is rooted in God’s wise and loving will for order and harmony in his church universal.
The attitude that Jesus displayed toward men and women during his earthly ministry does set an example for how we today should treat each other, in his name.
All of us - men and women - were created by God. All of us - men and women - were redeemed by the blood of Christ.
Therefore all of us - regardless of our gender - are deserving of honor and respect. The various gifts and abilities with which the Lord has endowed us are to be recognized and employed with equal appreciation, to his glory, according to his will.
And when we sin, and are in need of the Lord’s pardon, all of us are to be assured that we have equal access - together - to the forgiveness of sins.
But Jesus’ concern for the woman at the well did not alter his commitment to the order of creation. Even now, in twenty-first century America, he still wants you to have a “spiritual father” - a male pastor - to preach his Word to you, to administer his sacraments to you, and to be the guardian and overseer of your soul.
And when your pastor, in the stead and by the command of Christ, does in fact deliver the means of grace to all of you in this way, Jesus is thereby delivering to you, and filling you with, the living water of his Holy Spirit, about which he speaks in today’s text.
Men and women, because of the sin that they share, also share a thirst for the Lord’s mercy. Men and women, because of the spiritual death that resides mutually in their old nature, share a mutual need for the life-giving renewal and strength that only God can give.
The living water that Jesus offered to the woman at the well was not needed only by her, or only by women. We all need that living water.
And Jesus gives us that living water, and fills us with it, when we in faith “drink in” his forgiveness, and when we “drink in” the hope of the resurrection that is carried to us by his resurrected body and blood in his Holy Supper.
When we receive Jesus, and what he gives, he quenches the thirst of the human soul. And he quenches it for eternity. “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever,” Jesus says.
All of us - men and women together - are equally thirsty for what only Jesus can give. And we are equally delighted in receiving together the water of life, freely, from our Lord.
Jesus does not call all of us to the same works of service, or to the same offices in his church. In our redemption, we remain what God in his wisdom and love had made us to be in our creation, as male and female.
But as Christ approaches each of us, as men and women; and as he approaches us collectively, in our ordered life together as members of his new human family, he approaches without favoritism, and without prejudice or bigotry.
The perfect and even-handed love that impelled him toward the cross, impels him now to come with equal fervor to all of us, and to each of us, in his Word and Sacrament.
“For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Amen.