1 January 2012 - Luke 2:21 - Circumcision and Name of Jesus

The Old Testament prophesied many things about Jesus, even including several small details - such as that his hands would be pierced at the time of his death, and that his clothing would be divided among his executioners, as Psalm 22 teaches.

The city of his birth - Bethlehem - was predicted through the Prophet Micah. His ancestry, as a descendant of David, was foretold in many places; as was his miraculous conception and birth from a virgin, in the Book of Isaiah.

It therefore might strike us as odd that his literal given name - Jesus or Joshua - is never specifically spoken of in the Old Testament. Nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures does it say that the Messiah will be known as Jesus or Joshua.

There was, of course, a famous figure in Hebrew history named “Joshua” - which is the Old Testament equivalent of the New Testament name “Jesus.” This Joshua was the assistant and protege of Moses. After the death of Moses, he was his successor as the leader of the people of Israel.

But the Old Testament never says that the future Messiah will bear the same name as this ancient hero.

There is one place - in the Book of Isaiah - that might seem to give the future name of the Messiah. On Christmas Eve, we heard that lesson:

“Hear then, O house of David! ... The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

“Immanuel” means “God with us.” It was highly significant for the Lord to tell us, through his servant Isaiah, that when the Messiah would come to be “with us” on this earth, he would be “God” with us, and not only an exalted or enlightened man.

But as it turned out, the Messiah’s actual name was not “Immanuel”- even though the theology that is embedded in that symbolic “name” for Jesus does certainly apply to him.

From another perspective, though, we could say that Jesus’ literal name is predicted everywhere in the Old Testament. The word “Jesus” or “Joshua” means, in Hebrew, “Yah is salvation” - or as we might also render it, “the Lord is salvation,” or “the Lord saves.”

The personal, testamental name of God - Yahweh or Jehovah - is a part of this name. That gets us back to the Isaiah verse, which says that the Messiah would be “God with us.”

Everything in the Old Testament - to one extent or another, either directly or indirectly - testified to the marvelous truth that the coming Messiah would be the Lord himself in human flesh. Throughout the Old Testament, we read again and again that the Lord himself will come to Mount Zion, and that he will reveal himself to his people.

“Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” “For the Lord of hosts reigns on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and his glory will be before his elders.”

In the Exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, we see an acted-out foreshadowing of this coming down of the Lord. God’s own protecting presence was with them, in the pillar of fire by night, and in the pillar of cloud by day.

We see another foreshadowing of the Lord’s personal dwelling among his people in the conquest of Canaan. The power of God was present in the ark of the covenant, as it went before the armies of the Lord, and as God gave those armies victory over their enemies, through the ark.

All these prophesies and foreshadowings were pointing toward the one ultimate coming of God, and toward the ultimate dwelling of God among men, that was finally manifested in the birth of the Christchild in Bethlehem.

When Joshua the companion of Moses - and others of the past who bore the name “Joshua” - would reflect on the meaning of their name, they would, of course, think about the Lord. They were in a sense named after him.

Their name pointed outside of themselves, and directed their attention - and their faith - toward the one who had delivered their people from slavery in Egypt, and who had established them as a nation in their own land.

In the special case of Jesus of Nazareth, however, as he bore that same name, the name did not point to a Lord who was outside of him - above him and beyond him.

For Mary’s child, his name pointed back at himself, and drew the attention of any people of faith who heard it, to his own person. In his case, the name “Jesus” or “Joshua” uniquely identified who he was.

The Christmas season is a time when believers celebrate the incarnation of God’s Son, and the dwelling of God among men, in the person of Jesus. Because of the long history of Christmas in our society, and because of the many ways in which the traditions of Christmas have impacted the larger society, even the unbelievers around us cannot just ignore this holiday.

They cannot completely ignore the story of Jesus and his birth. In the texts of the greeting cards they send, and in the lyrics of the songs they sing, unbelievers often try to come to grips with this story on their own terms.

They try to figure out why the story of Jesus is still worth telling, even in a materialist world. They try to figure out why there is something about this story that still tugs even at them, in a way that they, in their unbelief, cannot really understand.

But beware, my friends, of the sentiments and superficial notions that are often attached to Jesus by our non-Christian and post-Christian neighbors. Jesus did not come to establish peace on earth in a “United Nations” sort of way.

He did not come to teach us to love our neighbor. Moses and the Prophets had already done that. Because our spiritually lost neighbors are basing their interpretations of the meaning of Jesus’ birth on factors other than the actual name of Jesus, they will never get it right.

The most that Jesus can be for them is the greatest of men. But Jesus was and is much more than the greatest of men.

To embrace Jesus as he really is, is to embrace him according to his name. He is Yah - the Lord; Jehovah - in human flesh. And to embrace him according to his name, is, more deeply, to be embraced by him, and by his name.

When the name of Jesus truly impresses itself upon you, you cease to be a confused unbeliever who is looking for God in all the wrong places. You will never find him, until he finds you.

And it is in Jesus - the Babe of Bethlehem - where God does come to you, and where he does find you.

But what does he do to you, when he finds you through that Babe, and in that name? Well, let’s remember the full meaning of the name “Jesus.”

“Jesus” does not mean “the Lord is available.” You are not in charge of your relationship with God, so that you can call upon him when you think you need him for something, and ignore him when you don’t.

God is not a peacock, who in Jesus tries to get your attention by making himself attractive to you. He does not market himself to you as a resource for you to take advantage of, in fulfilling your felt needs or solving your perceived problems, if and when you choose to use him in this way.

“Jesus” also does not mean “the Lord is indulgent.” Jesus does not reveal to us a God who is so uncaring about our welfare, that he would remain silent, and issue no warning, when we veer from the pathways of righteousness, and start heading toward a cliff of moral and spiritual destruction.

The name “Jesus” means “the Lord is salvation,” or “the Lord saves.” The entire Old Testament also shows us that God, in his proper work, is a God who saves. The Old Testament therefore shows us, in all its pages, that when the divine Messiah does finally come among his people, it will be to save his people from their sins.

“Behold, this is our God. We have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord. We have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

To be “saved” means to be rescued - just as a man who has fallen overboard, and who is starting to drown in the sea, is rescued by the life preserver that is thrown down to him from the ship.

When God comes to us in Jesus his Son, he is not coming to religious consumers who are leisurely shopping for something to believe in. He is coming to people who are morally and spiritually desperate - whether they realize it or not.

They - we - would have no hope, if God did not give us hope; and if God did not reach down and rescue us.

There was nothing visible and overtly noticeable about the small newborn baby lying in the manger, that would have prompted you to say, if you were there: “This is the almighty creator and preserver of the universe; this is the one who is able and willing to rescue humanity from the power of sin and death.”

But if you were at the stable on that marvelous and miraculous night, there would have been one thing that would have allowed you to know that this baby was your Savior: his name.

This baby Jesus, and this man Jesus - our brother according to the flesh - was and is the Lord Jehovah himself, who has lovingly come down to live among us, and to be one of us.

He has not come for the purpose of judging us. Sinful humanity stood judged already, by our own sinful deeds and by our own rebellion against the goodness of God.

God did not come to us in the person of Jesus to put the finishing touches on his condemnation of the human race. Rather, God came in the person of Jesus to save the human race.

In Jesus, the Lord is indeed “salvation.” He is here among us even now, in the fellowship of his church, to rescue us from sin and death. He is here among us even now, in Word and Sacrament, to do a new and wonderful thing for us in the creation of a new humanity.

We are filled with the Spirit of Jesus. We are being conformed to the likeness of Jesus. We are putting on the mind of Jesus. We are forgiven in the mercy of Jesus. We are justified in the righteousness of Jesus.

When Mary’s baby was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth - in accordance with the Mosaic Law - he was given the name “Jesus.” This name - with everything that this name stands for - was the culmination of the Lord’s promise, repeated throughout the Old Testament era, that he himself would someday live among us, as a man among men.

This special name, and the baby who was clothed with this special name, were the apex of the fulfillment of God’s plan and wish to save his people - and all people - from the sin that otherwise holds us captive.

Jesus! Name of priceless worth To the fallen sons of earth,
For the promise that it gave, “Jesus shall His people save.”

Jesus! Name of wondrous love, Human name of God above;
Pleading only this, we flee, Helpless, O our God, to Thee. Amen.

8 January 2012 - Baptism of Our Lord - Mark 1:4-11

When I was a teenager, one of my household chores was to wash the dishes every evening. One thing that became very clear to me, during these years of my juvenile dish-washing career, was that if you put dirty dishes into clean water, the water gets dirty. Depending on how encrusted with food residue the dishes in question are, the water can get very cloudy, very fast.

Once in a while, when I was not paying close enough attention to what I was doing, I would, by mistake, put a plate that was already clean into the dirty dish water. And what happened then? The clean dish got dirty.

When you put a dirty dish into clean water, the clean water gets dirty. But when you put a clean dish into dirty water, the clean dish gets dirty.

There is a limited analogy of sorts, between the domestic experience of washing dishes, and the spiritual experience of baptism: our baptism, and Christ’s baptism.

Today’s Gospel text from St. Mark tells us that many in Judea and Jerusalem responded to the ministry of John the Baptist, who was sent by the Lord to preach and administer to Israel a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Those who heeded this preaching came to the baptismal water that the Lord had designated to be a point of contact, or “intersection,” between him and them. They came, drawn by the Lord’s invitation, to be cleansed of their guilt before him, by his pardoning mercy.

They came to be renewed in their faith, by his life-giving Spirit. They came to be prepared - in heart and mind - for the appearing of their Messiah.

John’s listeners entered the water in humility and repentance - “confessing their sins,” as the text tells us. But when they emerged from the water, their sins, in a sense, remained in the water. Their sins were no longer upon them, because the baptism that they had received was a baptism that was for the forgiveness of sins.

Their sins were, in effect, washed off of them, and they were now clean before God, and at peace with him. And the water in which these penitent sinners had been mystically cleansed, was now, as it were, very “cloudy” - with the sin that had been loosened from them by God’s forgiveness.

The men, women, and children who partook of John’s baptism 2,000 years ago were all Jewish. But at a deeper level, these men, women, and children represent all of us - Jew and Gentile alike.

The human sinfulness which John called upon them to confess, is the same human sinfulness that has soiled and corrupted us. The forgiveness that God promised them, is the same forgiveness that we need, and that God, by grace, makes available to us. Let’s keep that in mind as we move forward in the story.

And as we do move forward, we see that St. Mark tells us something else about John’s baptism, and about who received it: “At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”

Everybody else who came to this baptism, came dirty. They came “confessing their sins.”

But Jesus came clean. To be sure, he came with the deepest sympathy for sinners, and he came with a willingness to be associated with a baptism that was for sinners.

But he came as one who was himself not a sinner. As the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us, “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”

When this pure and righteous man was dipped into the baptismal water, in a mystery that defies human comprehension, he took to himself the sins of all others - sins that had been, as it were, deposited in that water.

He who was perfectly clean, went into water that had been clouded by human sin, and he came out dirty - not in terms of his own personal morality, which always remained unimpeachable; but in terms of what was now imputed or credited to him.

Jesus came out of the baptismal water covered, as it were, with the dirt of human sin; with the dirt of our sin.

St. John’s Gospel tells us that John the Baptist said this in regard to Jesus: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” The Greek word translated here as “takes away” means “lifts up” and “carries away.”

Jesus came out of the baptismal water with all of our dirt stuck to him. With all of humanity’s failures and transgressions credited to him and covering him, he went out from his baptism to begin his three-year public ministry, culminating at his crucifixion.

As humanity’s Savior and substitute, he carried our sins on a long and bitter trek to the cross, where ultimately he placed himself under the judgment of his own law - a judgment and a condemnation that otherwise would have been directed against us.

He died there, under the weight of what had been clinging to him since his baptism.

In the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul expresses this mystery of substitution - this mystery of redemption - in these words: “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

From one angle - the angle of humanity’s sin being imputed to Christ - Christ goes into the dirty water clean, and comes out dirty. But from another angle - the angle of Christ’s righteousness being imputed to us - we go into the clean water dirty, and come out clean.

Going back to our dish-washing analogy, and applying that analogy now in a slightly different way: Dirty water makes a clean plate dirty, but clean water makes a dirty plate clean. And it is Christ who causes the water of baptism - the baptismal water of the Jordan River, and all baptismal water - to be glisteningly clean, so that it can make us glisteningly clean by the power of the Word of God that is attached to it.

Christian baptism is, for us, a point of contact, or “intersection,” between God and us. We come to baptism as we - like the people of John the Baptists’s day - are drawn there by the Lord’s invitation.

Jesus is the one who caused the water of baptism to be clean, and cleansing, for the penitent Jews who were baptized in the Jordan River. And he is the one who causes the water of baptism it to be clean, and cleansing, for you and me today.

An order for the administration of Holy Baptism that Martin Luther prepared at the time of the Reformation, included a prayer that contained these words:

“Almighty, eternal God, ...who through the baptism of your dear Child, our Lord Jesus Christ, hallowed and set apart the Jordan and all water to be a blessed flood, and a rich washing away of sins: we ask, for the sake of this very same boundless mercy of yours, that you would look graciously upon [the one being baptized], and bless him with true faith, in the Holy Spirit...”

When Jesus was baptized, the voice of God the Father declared: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well-pleased.” And the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, descended into this baptismal situation, and onto this baptized Son.

To be baptized in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit today, is to be connected to Christ’s baptism, and to the approval and delight that the Father there manifested for his only-begotten Son.

To be baptized today in the name of the Triune God, is to receive the Spirit of adoption, and in Christ to be a recipient of this same divine declaration: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well-pleased.”

St. Paul tells us in his epistle to the Galatians: “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.”

You go into the water dirty. You go into the water “confessing your sins.” But you come out clean - pure and spotless, in fact - completely covered in the righteousness of Christ, which is imputed to you, and credited to you, for his sake.

Again, St. Paul explains in his epistle to the Ephesians that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.”

There are many people in this world who were baptized in childhood, but who sadly no longer live in their baptism, by faith, in this way. For such post-Christian unbelievers, baptism is recalled only with empty sentimentalism or carnal superstition, if it is recalled at all.

But Jesus is deeply grieved when those who had once belonged to him misuse or ignore their baptism into him, in such a manner. He was baptized into the dirt of our sin, and became dirty for us under the judgment of God.

This cost him greatly. And at great cost, he has provided for us a sacred washing of water, with his Word, so that we could be cleansed.

And so he wants to clean us again today, by the power of his Word; through the proper, reverent remembrance of our baptism; in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Christ’s baptism into your sin, by which he took your sins upon himself and carried them to the cross; and your baptism into Christ’s righteousness, with everything that comes along with that, are the defining realities of your life. And if you are a Christian today, they are present realities of your life, today.

There is indeed only one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. Jesus was baptized only once, for you. You, too, were baptized only once.

But every day, Jesus continues to be your Savior. He continues to forgive your sins, and take them off of you.

And as you repent daily, and trust in him daily, you continue to be his disciple. By faith you continue to live in your baptism.

In true humility, you return daily to the water of your baptism, and leave your sins there. In true joy, you return daily to the water of your baptism, where you are made clean and pure in Christ. Amen.

15 January 2012 - Epiphany 2 - 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Americans value their privacy. We are especially sensitive to government intrusions into our personal life.

The Constitution protects us from illegal searches and seizures. If a law enforcement agency wants to listen in on our telephone conversations, or snoop around inside our homes, it needs to obtain a warrant.

In our relationships with other people, we also guard our privacy. There are a lot of things that we will not do or say in the presence of others - even though we will do and say those things when we are at home, by ourselves.

And we don’t like talking about such personal things with others either. We do not welcome probing questions concerning our private behavior, and we won’t answer such questions.

Our reaction to these intrusions would be that such matters are not the business of other people. They don’t have a right to know what we do when no one else is around. And we don’t have an obligation to explain our personal behavior to them.

Christians also value their privacy among each other. We would try to avoid sticking our noses into the personal lives of church friends, when our vocations do not give us a legitimate need to know about such things.

Even a pastor, who does have a calling to be the guide and guardian of the souls entrusted to his care, is not a private investigator. A pastor should not go on a “fishing expedition,” poking around for information about the personal weaknesses and secret shortcomings of his members, if there is no outward indication that there is a problem that he needs to address with them, or if they have not come to him for counsel and advice.

And even in the context of private confession and absolution, where there is a guarantee of pastoral confidentiality, the pastor is still not authorized by his vocation to compel someone to discuss specific sins that he chooses not to divulge.

But what about God? Does God also need to respect our privacy, in the way that we expect the government, our friends, and our pastor to respect it? The answer to that question is an unqualified No!

The fact that God has created you is the only “warrant” he needs, to be aware of everything you do, say, or think. And the fact that he is omniscient, and knows everything about everybody, means that he knows everything about you, whether you like it or not.

That’s something that Nathaniel learned in today’s Gospel, when Jesus told him that he had seen him - at a time when Nathaniel thought he was having a time of privacy under a fig tree. And that’s something that we need to learn too - or at the very least, that we need to be continually reminded of.

And because God is God, and is a lot smarter than we are, he also has the right to criticize us, and correct us, and rebuke us, when we do, say, or think things that are wrong. Everything in our life is his business - not only those things that pertain to our public actions, but also, and especially, those parts of our life that we try to hide from others.

Nothing is hidden from him. And that includes the kind of things St. Paul is talking about in today’s lesson, from his First Epistle to the Corinthians:

“The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. ... Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? ... But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.”

Notice the line of argument Paul is using. He admits that our bodies can be misused for sexual immorality. But, in view of the wisdom of our Creator, Paul admonishes us that this is not what our bodies are meant for.

I heard a story one time about a man who brought his computer to a computer repairman. He told the repairman that he needed to have his cup holder fixed.

The repairmen was puzzled as to what he meant, until he pointed to the broken CD rom drive tray on his computer. The man had thought that this was a cup holder, and had been placing his coffee cup on it, until it broke.

Now, if your inclination is to laugh at how uninformed and foolish this man was, realize that the devil is laughing at you in the exact same way, when he sees you foolishly misusing your body for purposes for which it was not designed.

God did not design your body to be an instrument for selfish, carnal pleasure. And that’s not referring just to sexual immorality.

If you take drugs, get drunk, or overeat, in order to give yourself a physical sensation of “feeling good,” apart from any higher moral purpose, then you, too, are using your body for a reason that contradicts God’s will.

And eventually, in one way or another, your body will also “break.” A harmful, indulgent lifestyle will inevitably result in personal harm to you - bodily harm, emotional harm, and spiritual harm.

And even if someone is able to sustain the illusion in his own mind, that he has not actually hurt himself through his pleasure-seeking lifestyle, until the day he dies; on that day, this illusion will come crashing down.

And on the day of resurrection, when all people will be called forth from their graves, to give an account of themselves to the Lord, those who despised God’s wisdom, and rejected God’s rightful claim on their bodies and their souls, will rise in shame and disgrace. They will rise with immortal bodies that are deeply scarred with the marks of a life of sin, and that are destined for the fire of hell.

Again, St. Paul writes that “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” The reason why God has given you your body, is so that you can glorify and serve the Lord with it. And that doesn’t refer just to “religious” activities.

When you fulfil your callings in life by physically working to support yourself and your family, and by providing tangible help to those who are in need of it, you are thereby glorifying God. When you receive food and drink in thanksgiving to the Lord, in order to strengthen and sustain yourself for such duties, you are thereby glorifying God.

And when a man and a woman are united in an honorable marriage, and when they - within marriage - respectfully and tenderly enjoy and celebrate their love for each other, in emotional and physical ways, they do so without any shame before God. They, too, are thereby glorifying the God who joined them together in marriage.

“For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’” And when God adds an additional blessing, and causes their love to become fruitful with children, the joy of marriage is deepened and expanded, and the goodness and wisdom of God is appreciated even more.

These kinds of things - these wholesome things - are what God has in mind for you, as far as your sexuality is concerned, and as far as your bodily life in general is concerned. But you will deprive yourselves of these pure and noble joys, and ultimately you will deprive yourselves of a relationship with God in general, if you do not heed what St. Paul also says in today’s lesson. He goes on to write:

“Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”

According to God’s will, sexual intimacy is intended to draw us out toward the one to whom we are committed in marriage, into a whole life of mutual devotion and shared happiness. Sexual intimacy is being satanically perverted, when it is abused in such a way as to continually draw us back into ourselves - to feed an ever more consuming compulsion for pleasure and self-gratification, that will eventually destroy us.

Again, we have no right to privacy as far as God is concerned. He sees and knows everything.

That undeniable truth can be troubling to us, when we are trying to hide our secret sins from him. But that undeniable truth is of great comfort to us, when we repent of our secret sins.

Does God know that I am really sorry for how I have lived? Does he know that I do truly regret my misusing of my body, and of my bodily life?

Does he know that I really want to change, and to commit myself to living in the way that he wants me to? Does he know how much I need his forgiveness, and his help?

The answer to all of those questions is an unqualified Yes! Even if you never share this private remorse, and these personal thoughts, with another human being, God, who knows all, does know your heart. And he does forgive.

For the sake of his Son Jesus Christ, who died for all of your sins - the public ones, and the private ones - God restores you into his peace. And God prepares you to receive in life the kind of blessings that he wants you to have, in place of the pain and suffering that you have brought upon yourself by your misuse of his gifts.

You belong to Christ. Your body, too, belongs to Christ, and not to yourself.

Remember what St. Paul said: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.” And Jesus, who did buy you with the price of his own body and blood, now graciously and lovingly takes possession of that which is his.

As St. Paul also writes, “he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. ...your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God.”

Jesus has given to his church the sacrament of his body and blood for the purpose of blessing us through it, in the most intimate and personal of ways, with his healing and forgiveness. Just as people can abuse their own bodies in a sinful way, so too can communicants abuse the body of Christ in this Supper, by receiving it without true repentance and faith.

That’s why the Scriptures do not issue a general invitation to everyone to approach the Lord’s altar. They say instead that a communicant must examine himself, and that a communicant needs to know by faith what is really happening in this sacrament, and who is truly present in this sacrament.

For you who, in repentance and faith, will be communing today, know that your Lord Jesus Christ will be truly present for you, and will mystically unite himself to you for your great comfort. Especially today, as you have been pondering the sins of the body, know that the body of Christ - and his most precious blood - are offered to you as a remedy for these sins.

On the cross, Christ purchased you with his body and blood. And here and now, Christ forgives you, and restores you, through that same body and blood.

God’s forgiveness is, of course, offered to people in all the ways in which the message of Christ comes to them. The Lord’s Supper is not the only place where we can be assured that God has taken away our sins, and is giving us another chance in life.

But the uniquely “physical” character of the Lord’s Supper, and the physical way in which the Gospel comes to us through this Supper, is, perhaps, particularly helpful and encouraging to those who have been struggling with the kind of physical sins about which St. Paul warns us today.

And as we rise from our Communion with the Lord, we will do so with a renewed hope in a glorious resurrection at the end of the world - a resurrection to eternal life - which Christ has promised to those who know him by faith now. As St. Paul reminds us, “God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power.”

As we come to our Lord in repentance, and as we seek the forgiveness and life that he promises to give us in Word and Sacrament, we pray, in the words of the hymn that we sang a short time ago:

Destroy in me the lust of sin,
From all impureness make me clean.
Oh, grant me power and strength, my God,
To strive against my flesh and blood!

Create in me a new heart, Lord,
That gladly I obey Thy Word,
And naught but what Thou wilt, desire;
With such new life my soul inspire. Amen.

22 January 2012 - Epiphany 3 - Mark 1:14-20

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” This is what Jesus preached to the people he encountered during his earthly ministry.

To “repent” means to undergo a total change in thinking. In this context, it means to forsake all desires and aspirations that would lead you away from God and his will. It means to turn away from all sin, with a disgust for that sin, and for yourself as a sinner.

And, to “believe in the gospel” means to trust in the good news of the salvation from sin that is available to you from Christ. For those who realize how bad their moral and spiritual state really is without Christ, the message of his forgiving and restoring mercy truly is “good news.” That’s what the word “gospel” means.

“Believing” this gospel is not just having a certain cerebral opinion about Jesus. It describes what we hold to be true at the deepest level of our convictions, which undergirds our understanding of everything else, and which causes everything else to make sense.

This kind of faith is what unites us to God, in Christ. It is the means by which we receive from God the forgiveness of our sins, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and a totally new and different kind of supernatural life - a life that, in Christ, will never come to an end.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” This wonderful message - this wonderful invitation - would have been heard by relatively few people, if the only one preaching it was Jesus, and if the only time-frame in which it was preached was his three-year earthly ministry in the land of Israel.

But God did not want this message to be heard only by the people who were around Jesus during that limited period of time. He wanted it to be heard by people of all nations, in all corners of the world, for as long as the world endures.

And that’s why Jesus said what he said to Simon Peter and Andrew, in today’s Gospel from St. Mark:

“He saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.”

Peter and Andrew were in this way gathered into the company of the disciples of the Lord, so that they could begin the process of learning from him what the message of the gospel truly is; and so that they could learn from him how to go out and preach that message to other people, in other places.

When Jesus came across Peter and Andrew in today’s story, it was just as they were plying their trade as fishermen, by throwing their fishing net out into the water - with the expectation that it would descend down upon a school of unwary fish and entrap them, so that they could be drawn up out of the water.

Jesus took advantage of this circumstance to illustrate to these men - and to us - the nature of the ministry he was going to prepare them for. Someday, as they went out to preach to people, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel,” this act of preaching would in some ways be like the act of casting a net into the lake.

When they cast their net out onto the Sea of Galilee, they were functioning as fishers of fish. Now, as they will go forth to cast the Word of God upon people, and to preach the good news of Christ to them, they will be functioning as fishers of men.

In order to understand the fishing analogy that Jesus uses - to illustrate what is really happening when the message of repentance and faith is preached to people - we do need to take note of the difference between net fishing and line fishing. In line fishing, bait is used to trick and persuade a fish to swim toward the hidden hook at the end of the line, and to chomp down on it.

But net fishing is totally different from this. Peter and Andrew were not trying to coax fish into their net. They were trying to drop the net down on top of the fish in such a way that they would be caught in it, by surprise, without any effort on their part.

And when the message of repentance for sin, and faith in the gospel of Christ, is preached to someone, supernaturally, that is what is happening.

The preaching of God’s Word in this way does certainly engage the mind and will of the person who is listening to it. But as the message of Jesus does engage us, it is not as if our old sinful nature is being baited by him, or is being cajoled into making a decision to “chomp down” on the gospel as an act of free will.

Rather, as the message of Jesus is preached, the Spirit of Jesus is working to transform our souls, to bring conviction to our hearts, and to re-create our mind and will by his own divine power.

As St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Philippians, “Therefore, my beloved, out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” And as Paul says elsewhere, “the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

If you repent of your sins, and want to be rid of them, it is the Holy Spirit who has brought you to this conviction. And if you trust in the gospel of Christ for forgiveness and eternal life - and are dedicated to believing in him and serving him - God himself has worked this in you, by means of the gospel.

The gospel creates the faith that it calls for. For someone who does believe, the gospel that was preached to him was like a net, that had miraculously dropped down over his mind and will, and regenerated him.

Peter and Andrew were prepared by Jesus - together with the other apostles - to become the first pastors and preachers of the Christian church. And so, the fishing for men that they engaged in, in their public preaching ministry, was not the same as what ordinary Christians are called to do.

But ordinary Christians do still have a very extraordinary faith to share - with their friends, neighbors, and coworkers, as God gives them opportunities to speak of Jesus with the people they know. And when they do speak the Gospel in these informal and unofficial ways, they, too, are fishing for men.

They, too, are casting a net of divine grace over the conscience of the one with whom they are sharing the message of salvation, with a prayer that God will do his own special work of conversion in that person’s life.

It doesn’t depend on your cleverness or powers of persuasion. You are not responsible for making yours friend believe the message you share with them.

What God has put into your hands - what he has placed upon your lips - is the privilege of confessing the truth of Jesus Christ. Whether and how that truth will become embedded in the heart and mind of the person who hears it, is God’s responsibility.

Truly, you cannot be a Christian believer, unless you are also a Christian confessor. St. Paul writes that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Once you have been fished out of the sea of unbelief and spiritual darkness, by the power of the gospel, you, too, become a proclaimer of the gospel. You, too - according to your calling in life - become a fisher of men.

In your speaking of God’s Word to those whom the Lord brings into your life, you join your voice to the voice of your Savior, as he declares: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

But please do notice that is was not just Peter and Andrew who were told by Jesus in today’s Gospel, “follow me.” Jesus also called James and John.

And when he called them, they were not in the process of casting their fishing net into the water. They were doing something else with their net - something that can serve to illustrate another important aspect of what the church needs to do, as it goes forth to fish for men for the Lord’s kingdom.

“And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him.”

Before throwing the net of the gospel out over people, and before preaching it, it is important to “mend” that net - to make sure that the whole message of Christ is there, and that there are no gaps or holes in what people are told about God’s salvation.

And since it is the gospel alone that grasps people, and pulls them up into the kingdom of God when that gospel is heard and believed, a fisher of men needs to make sure that the “good news” of Christ will indeed be brought to bear on everyone for whom it is intended.

As the message of Christ is dropped down over humanity, there must not be any holes or gaps in that message, which would create a situation where people whom God intends to catch in the net are not caught in it, but escape and swim away.

Both of these important points, as to why we always need to have a fully mended and intact net, are made by Jesus in a more direct and explicit way in his Great Commission. He says:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

The word “all” appears three times in this statement. It’s the same word in the Greek, too.

Jesus has “all” authority. He has the right to tell us what to do, and how to do it. And he has the divine power to accomplish - through our preaching - what he wants to accomplish.

And, Jesus tells his church to go forth with the gospel to “all” nations - to cast the net of his Word on everyone: of every ethnicity, every color, and every race of men.

The invitation to repent and believe in the gospel, and to become a part of God’s church on this earth, is not to be withheld from anyone - even if it might take some effort on the part of the church, to bridge the cultural and linguistic gaps that currently separate people, and that make communication of the gospel difficult.

And finally, Jesus instructs us that we are to teach these nations “all” that he has commanded. This includes the full truth about God’s holiness, and the full truth about man’s sinfulness.

This also includes the full truth of the good news of Christ, who lived for us, who died for us, who rose again for us, and who comes to us now in his Word and Sacrament - to reclaim us for his kingdom, to fill us with his grace, to wash away our sins.

Purity of doctrine is to be of concern to us. If God has revealed it, we are to believe it, and teach it. The gospel net that we cast out over humanity is to be an intact net, reflecting the whole counsel of God.

You don’t have God’s permission to ignore an unpopular moral demand that his law makes on you - or on those to whom you speak. You don’t have God’s permission to mute the exclusive claims of Christ - on you and on everyone else - when he says: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

And of course, we are also to remember what St. Peter tells us: always be prepared “to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.”

When you call upon someone to repent, and to believe in the gospel, it is not because you arrogantly want to be proven right in your religion. It is because you genuinely care about that person - as a fellow human being created by God and redeemed by Christ - and eagerly desire that person to be saved from sin and death, and to live with God forever.

Having a comprehensive vision for the mission of the church - and having a comprehensive vision for the mission of our own little congregation - is likewise to be of concern to us.

If Jesus died for someone, then the invitation to follow Christ is to be issued to that person. And more precisely, that person is to be invited to follow Christ with us, as a part of our church - regardless of his or her past or present mistakes, flaws, and shortcomings.

The church - and that means our congregation - is a place of reconciliation and peace. Even when conflict is raging all around us, Jesus calls us to be his body, and his family, where they will know that we are his disciples, because we love one another.

No one is to be shut out, or cut off from the message of Christ. The net of the gospel is to be cast over everyone.

At this point, you may be admitting to yourself that you have failed to live up to what it means to be a fisher of men, according to your vocation, as Jesus would want you to be. You may be acknowledging before God that you have compromised his Word in your words - and in your actions as well.

As Jesus calls all of us to repent, you are repenting of these failures, right now. But as Jesus also invites all of us to believe in the gospel, he is giving you his forgiveness right now; he is renewing your faith right now; he is assuring you of his presence with you, and is fortifying you for his service, right now.

He is, in this moment, casting his net over you. He is gathering you up into his kingdom once again. He is claiming you, once again, as his very own, with whom he will abide always - to the very end of the age, and forever.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Amen.

29 January 2012 - Epiphany 4 - 1 Corinthians 8:1-13

We are in an intensely political season in our country right now. The political rhetoric of the various presidential candidates, and of politicians in general, has been amplified and intensified.

In America, that rhetoric always includes references to “rights” and “freedoms.” As participants in the American political drama - as voters - we, too, will often think about, and talk about, the rights and freedoms to which we are entitled as citizens.

We demand that our individual rights and personal freedoms be respected by our elected leaders, and by the institutions of government in which they serve. And it doesn’t really matter to us, whether other people agree with us in the things that we want to do as Americans, or if they don’t.

We have the right to do as we please, and we have the freedom to say what we want to say. This love for liberty is a very “American” attitude. And I suppose as far as civil matters are concerned, we wouldn’t want it any other way.

But, you are not just an American. You are also a Christian.

In fact, you are chiefly a Christian. That spiritual and religious identity is more foundational, and defines you at a deeper level, than your identity as an American.

And sometimes, the political and cultural values of Americanism - the insistence that our rights and freedoms be respected - need to give way to a different set of values.

The values that govern our relationships with other Christians, in the fellowship of the church, are not marked by an insistence on our right to do as we please, or on our freedom to say what we want.

These Christian values are marked instead by an awareness of our obligations toward our brothers and sisters in Christ, and by an overriding sense of duty to help other Christians grow in their relationship with Christ, and in their understanding of God and his ways - especially if they are, at present, weak in their knowledge and faith.

Our attitudes and actions, our words and deeds, must, of course, always be governed by the unchanging moral law of God. The Ten Commandments are not the Ten Suggestions.

If God’s law forbids a certain course of action, or if God’s law commands a certain course of action, then our understanding of our ethical obligation to God and man, in regard to that particular point, is thereby settled. But many of the ethical questions that we need to consider in our relationships with others, are not answered by an explicit divine command: “You shall not do that,” or “You shall do this.”

Should we, then, apply our “American” values to such situations, and just do as we please? Is this a time to claim and exercise our personal rights and individual freedoms, regardless of what other people think, and regardless of whether others are misled or discouraged by what we want to do?

Or, is this a time to listen instead to what St. Paul tells us in today’s lesson from his First Epistle to the Corinthians? The specific topic that Paul addresses, is the question of whether a Christian should eat food that has been sacrificed to idols - that is, food that had previously been used as an offering in idolatrous worship, and that had been ritually dedicated to the false gods of paganism.

The question is not whether a Christian may himself participate directly in idolatrous worship. That is clearly forbidden by the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.”

The question is also not whether a Christian may, if he wishes, eat meat. This is clearly allowed by God, as we recall what the Lord told Noah after the flood: “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you.” The Bible does not require vegetarianism.

But what Paul is discussing is something that is on the periphery of those two black-and-white questions - something in the borderland between what God forbids, and what God allows. He is discussing a situation where, in the perception of those who are weak in faith, a person exercising his right to eat meat, may be misunderstood to be endorsing - and even participating in - the worship of false gods.

The reason why eating meat could give this impression, is because much of the meat that was available in the marketplace in a pagan city in those days, was meat that had been slaughtered ritualistically, in dedication to various patron deities of the city.

There would likely also have been prayers for the false gods to whom the butchered animal was sacrificed, to bless and protect those who eventually would eat this meat. So, the idolatry was in this way connected to the meat, by pagan butchers and priests who sincerely believed that when someone did eventually eat it, that act of eating would unite the eater to those gods, and to the worship of those gods.

Now, the position of knowledgeable Christians, with an informed and strong faith, is that the power of the true God overrides any such pagan rituals. We know that the cattle on a thousand hills belongs to the Lord.

If a pagan butcher or priest says otherwise, that doesn’t make it so. Therefore, a Christian may eat whatever meat he has. It doesn’t matter what kind of mumbo jumbo may have been spoken over it.

There is only one God. And that one God - who created the animal, and who has given us permission to eat meat from the animal - will bless us through the eating. The true God will satisfy our hunger, and will fill us with thanksgiving to him as the source of all good things in this world.

That’s what a mature Christian, strong in faith, will think. But that is not necessarily the understanding that one would find in a new Christian - recently delivered from the false worship of false gods.

All of that false worship is still fresh in his memory. His former beliefs may still haunt him. He may not have progressed very far yet, in his understanding of all the ramifications of his new faith.

If such a new and weak Christian sees you indulging in what he still thinks of as an act of honoring false gods, and of seeking and accepting blessings from them, this will - for him - be source of great confusion, or great offense, or both. St. Paul writes: “take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”

If you are a Christian, animated by the Spirit of Christ in your attitudes and actions, you cannot, in such a circumstance, insist on your right to do as you please, and to eat that meat boldly and publicly, just because you know better. You need to be concerned about the conscience and faith of those who are watching you, and who may not yet know better.

The principle that arises from St. Paul’s example of a judicious and loving use of Christian freedom - in regard to the matter of meat that has been sacrificed to idols - is a principle that applies in so many arenas of our life together as a Christian congregation. There are a lot of things that you are allowed to do by God’s Word, that you will not do, because your love for your weak brother or weak sister is stronger than your love for yourself.

When the circumstances require it, you will forego your freedom to do something that God allows, because of the way in which your action may be interpreted by those who do not yet understand the things of God as well as you do.

You don’t want your public actions to contribute toward their confusion or discouragement - or even toward their departure from a faith that they do not yet hold to very strongly. Rather, you want your public actions always to serve to encourage them in their ongoing maturation and growth in faith.

For example, in the language you use in conversation, and in the kind of jokes you tell, you do, of course, need to think about what the Ten Commandments require of you in all circumstances: no blasphemy, no cursing, no improper swearing. But in addition to that, you also need to think about the specific person with whom you are speaking or jesting.

Where is she coming from? What is her background? What are the temptations she is dealing with? What effect will your words have on her?

Will your way of speaking and joking bring some innocent joviality into the conversation? Or will your way of speaking be interpreted as an encouragement to sin, or as an indecent mockery of holy and pure things?

The consumption of alcohol is another area where Christians must use this kind of discernment, and not just insist on their freedom to have a drink, whenever and wherever they want to have one.

We know, of course, that Jesus miraculously made wine at the wedding of Cana. In fact, he made “good” wine.

And when St. Paul wrote that a bishop or pastor in the church must not be addicted to too much wine, this obviously means that there is nothing wrong with a moderate use of wine.

But God does forbid intoxication, and a lifestyle of intoxication. Earlier in Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, where he says that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God, the list of examples that he gives includes sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, greedy people, swindlers - and drunkards.

If a weak Christian has struggled with alcohol abuse in his past, and is perhaps still struggling in this way, so that - in his own mind - he can’t help but to associate the use of alcohol with the abuse of alcohol, then you need to consider whether the law of love would require you to refrain from having a drink in his presence.

Your right to have a drink does not override your obligation to encourage your brother in his devotion to Christ. And it does not override your responsibility not to be an instrument in leading your brother into temptation.

In all these kinds of things, we are, in truth, seeking to follow the example of Christ, and the example of how he treated people - especially those who were weak and struggling. The Book of Isaiah had said of him: “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.”

But we often falter and fail in following Jesus’ example. We are often insensitive and selfish.

We are often callous and arrogant. And the weak in faith often suffer confusion and discouragement, and are tempted to sin, because of us.

In many cases, we show ourselves not to be Christians who are strong in faith, with the capacity to show a loving deference to the weak; but we show ourselves instead to be the ones who are weak and immature. We fall back quickly to a self-serving demand for our individual rights and personal freedoms.

And we neglect our responsibilities and duties toward others. We forget that the soul of a brother or sister in Christ is more important that our own liberty.

But this is something that Jesus never forgot. For the weak brother and sister - for you and me - he never demanded his rights and freedoms.

He lived totally for others. He died for others. He died for all others. And he rose again, for others - for you and for me.

Under the evaluation of the Law of God, which Jesus always obeyed, Jesus was perfect and righteous. He did not deserve to die. He had the right to live, and to prosper.

But Jesus did not think of his rights under the Law, or of his freedom to do as he pleased within the Law.

Rather, as he himself said: “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.”

The will of God the Father, in sending his Son to this world, was for the salvation of our fallen and rebellious race; our selfish and demanding race; our insensitive and unloving race. Jesus, in obedience to this divine will, did not think of his wants and wishes, as he hung on the cross.

He thought of our needs - our need to have our transgressions and offenses against God paid for and atoned for; our need to be forgiven and reconciled with God; our need to be born again, by the gift of his Spirit, so that we will be like Christ, and so that we will live forever.

And even now, as he is seated in glory at the right hand of his Father, Jesus is still thinking about us and our needs. He is interceding for us.

And in his divine power and mercy, he remains also among us, coming to us in his Word, and in his body and blood, restoring us in faith, filling us with his life.

As the holy one of God, he has the right to enjoy the beauty and happiness of heaven, and not to be bothered with your problems here on earth. But as the embodiment of God’s love, he never ceases in dealing with your problems: calming your guilty conscience with his forgiveness, strengthening your weak heart with the promises of his Gospel, overcoming your fear of death with the victory of his resurrection.

Jesus is not an American. And while you are Americans, the values of Americanism - the demand for individual rights, and the insistence on personal freedoms - are not the values that ultimately govern the most important relationships of your life.

And, thank God, these are not the values that govern Jesus, in his relationship with you. Amen.