SERMONS - MARCH 2012
4 March 2012 - Lent 2 - Romans 5:1-11
We’re all probably familiar with the well-known Groucho Marx gag, where Groucho is a doctor, and a patient comes to him and says, “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” The doctor replies, “Then don’t do that.”
This is funny as slapstick humor. But we wouldn’t think that it was so funny if our actual doctor were to react in such a way, if we were to tell him about a pain that we had.
Pain is a problem. But we know that pain is also almost always a symptom of a deeper problem. When we go to the doctor, we expect the doctor to try to figure out what that deeper problem is, and not just to deal with the symptom.
There is a virtually universal perception among people, the world over, that the human race has problems. The crime and violence that we see all around us, and the deceptions and betrayals that we often experience in our relationships, prevent us from thinking that all is well in this world.
We all have to admit that things are not as they should be. As a consequence of this, we are often unhappy.
Now, being unhappy is indeed a problem. Some people superficially look for a “quick fix,” to solve the problem of their unhappiness. Often, unhappy people will turn to religion.
They feel unhappy. They want to go to a church that will make them feel happy. And there are many churches - or shall we say, many “worship centers” - that are willing to comply with this desire.
They tailor everything they do to the goal of making people feel happy. Ministers with happy personalities deliver happy messages, and lead people in singing happy songs.
But that’s the religious equivalent of a Groucho Marx doctor’s office routine. Humanity’s unhappiness, as such, is not the real problem. It is a symptom of a deeper problem - or of several deeper problems.
Identifying those deeper human problems is a major challenge. Throughout human history, philosophers, educators, social engineers, scientists, and religious thinkers have all made their proposals of what it is - most fundamentally - that makes life in this world to be as stressful, as dangerous, and as un-fulfilling as it usually is.
Some have concluded that the reason why things are not as they should be, is because people are ignorant and superstitious, and need a more enlightened education. Others point us to the way of spiritual enlightenment and new-age meditation. People need to find the natural divinity that is within, in order to be at peace within.
Others again are convinced that the most basic problem is the economic exploitation of the poor by the rich, so that a scheme for redistributing the material wealth of the world is what is needed.
Still others are persuaded that the most basic problem is that people suppress and deny their true feelings and desires. We should not be so inhibited, they say. True happiness will come only when everyone does what he or she wants - when people “follow their hearts,” without caring what others think.
Some of these theories are interesting. But none of them gets to the core of the real problems.
The Christian faith also puts forth a proposal, as to what our common human predicament really is - and what will deliver us from this predicament. We are bold to say that the Christian explanation of humanity’s deepest problems is the right explanation.
We say this, not because we have chosen to accept this explanation, but because it is God himself who has given this explanation. And the Christian explanation - the Scriptural explanation - does indeed get to the bottom of everything.
In today’s second lesson from the Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul gives us a list of humanity’s real problems. And as he gives us this list, he also tells us how God solves each and every one of these problems, in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ.
Pay attention to St. Paul’s list, because in it he describes the natural condition of all people, not just some. He identifies for all of us the fundamental human problems that impact everyone, not just a few.
First, we are reminded that humanity is without excuse before God. We cannot justify our sinful actions. We stand before God in shame and guilt for all those sins that have disrupted our relationship with him.
But when God speaks to us his forgiveness in Christ, and delivers that forgiveness to us in his Gospel and Sacraments; and, when he invites us to believe that what he tells us is true, that disruption comes to an end.
That gap is breached. We are invited in Christ to stand again in the presence of God, without shame and guilt - because Jesus Christ has removed that shame and guilt from us:
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.”
Without Christ, in our natural state, we hate God in our hearts. That’s another major problem.
To be sure, we don’t, by nature, hate the idea of God. The old Adam would love for there to be a God who served his greed and lust by giving him everything he wanted, without judging him, and without demanding obedience from him. But the old Adam hates the only God who actually does exist.
However, when we know Christ by faith, we also then know that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
In our natural, sinful state, we are also morally weak. We are able to form an idea of right and wrong. But that just increases our guilt, because we are too morally weak, of ourselves, to live up to the standards we set for ourselves - not to mention the standards that God sets for us.
And even in our rational deliberation of questions of morality and ethics, we are still ungodly. Our sense of right and wrong, such as it is, is always tainted by selfishness.
People seldom conclude on their own that something that they perceive to be bad for them personally, is actually the right thing - even when it actually is. The morality that we devise for ourselves, apart from God’s revealed law, is almost always self-serving.
The “god” that one serves and worships with such morality, is ultimately oneself. But the true God didn’t wait for us to change, before he reached down to us - in the sending of his Son into the flesh - to save us from these self-deceptions and blinding idolatries.
God’s mercy and forgiveness in Christ are not a divine response to anything we did, to make ourselves worthy of his love. God forgives us and loves us in Christ because of who he is:
“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person - though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die - but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
In modern times, it is increasingly foreign to the religious sensibilities even of professing Christians, to believe that God judges sin, and is wrathful against all wickedness and rebellion. People don’t fear God’s punishment for their transgressions.
It is assumed instead that God is “nice.” A part of us might want to believe in a “nice” God as well. But the true God is not a God of “niceness.” God is a God of wrath against sin and evil.
And that, too, is a problem for humanity. It is the biggest and most frightening problem - a problem that is so big, and so frightening, that few people in this world are willing to face up to it, or to think about it.
But the frightening truth that God is a God of wrath against sin, is a problem that we all need to grapple with in our consciences, because by nature we are sinful and unclean. We are, as St. Paul says elsewhere, by nature “children of wrath.”
People in their presumption and arrogance often say, “I could not believe in a God like that.” But what if a God like that is the only God who actually exists?
If and when God does hold back his judgment against us, it is not because he has no wrath against sin. It is because his wrath has been deflected away from us by his Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ - in keeping with his own gracious will and plan.
It was not necessary for Jesus to suffer and die on the cross, to atone for our sins, and to propitiate God, because of the “niceness” of God. He suffered and died for us because of the holiness of God - and because a holy God must judge and punish sin.
He suffered and died because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins,” as the Epistle to the Hebrews soberly reminds us.
But in Christ, as we repent of our sins, and trust in him, we do not fear God’s wrath, because we know by faith that the blood of Christ has in fact been shed for us.
We have not escaped from the wrath of God by wishing it away, or by pretending that it is not there. As our substitute under the judgment of God, Jesus has delivered us from the wrath of God, by absorbing that wrath into himself, for us, on the cross:
“Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.”
Notice that the solution to all these fundamental human problems boils down to one thing - or more precisely, one person: Jesus Christ.
To solve the problem of our guilt before God, Jesus becomes our righteousness. To take away our inborn hatred for God, Jesus fills us with divine love by the gift of his Spirit.
In our moral weakness, Jesus becomes our strength. And for a human race that is born under the wrath of God, Jesus goes to the cross, and dies as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
And so we rejoice in God. We do not rejoice in God in an abstract, impersonal way. We “rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
We rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received, from God, real and deep solutions to our real and deep problems.
Jesus is not like the Groucho Marx doctor character. He doesn’t just treat our symptoms.
As the Great Physician of our souls, he treats, and cures, our fundamental problems - problems that only he can solve; and problems that he has in fact solved, forever. Amen.
11 March 2012 - Lent 3 - Exodus 20:1-17
“And God spoke all these words...” In this way Moses introduces his recounting of the text of the Ten Commandments, that the Lord had revealed to him on Mount Sinai.
We note, as Moses tells us, that God spoke these words. The Ten Commandments were not the result of the evolving moral consciousness of the Hebrew people, and they were not compiled eclectically by Moses - or by anyone else - from the legal codes of other nations.
Instead, these words are the words of God. God was establishing the Hebrews as their own nation - as his own nation - dedicated to him and his service. In giving them the Ten Commandments, God exercised his divine right to govern their religious, moral, and societal life.
Surveys among the general population of our country consistently show a fairly high regard for the Ten Commandments - at least as a concept. Most people, when they are asked by survey-takers if they try to govern their lives according to the Ten Commandments, will say Yes.
Another interesting fact that surveys consistently show, however, is that people usually do not have a very clear or complete understanding of what the Ten Commandments are. When asked by survey-takers to name at least five of the Commandments, respondents usually cannot do it.
All of this makes it all the more important for us to be serious in paying attention to what Moses tells us today: “And God spoke all these words...”
Of course, even before God delivered the Ten Commandments to Moses, it was possible for human beings to have some measure of knowledge of the moral standards by which they were supposed to govern their lives. St. Paul writes in his epistle to the Romans:
“Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.”
This inborn knowledge of the difference between right and wrong, which is inscribed on humanity’s conscience, is often called “natural law.” Even without a knowledge of the Bible in general, or of the Ten Commandments in particular, it is still possible for people to know, at least in a basic way, what is good and what is evil.
But people still violate the moral decrees that are written on their hearts by their Creator. As St. Paul describes the rebellion of the unbelieving world, he observes that
“They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice.”
“They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”
“Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.”
Because of the sinfulness that infects our race, people have a clouded and distorted perception of the natural law. And even when people do have an accurate understanding of what would be the moral thing to do in a particular situation, they often refuse to listen to the testimony of their conscience, but follow instead the destructive impulses of their flesh.
Any human attempt to discern what God requires and what God forbids, only on the basis of natural law, will not ultimately succeed. It is too easy for us to twist and distort this law in our own selfish interests; to rationalize our disobedience against the Lord’s requirements; and to ignore those aspects of God’s standards that we don’t like.
And so, after God had called the Israelites out of Egyptian slavery, and as he was preparing them to take possession of their own land, he clarified and reiterated, in an objective and written form, his unchanging and timeless requirements.
It would be harder to make excuses now. It would be harder to plead ignorance of what God really wants. It would be harder for a sinful man to deceive himself into thinking that he is actually doing, saying, and thinking what God demands.
The law as God makes it known in the human conscience, and on tablets of stone, serves more than one purpose. Its first purpose or use is as an outward curb on overtly wicked behavior.
A society cannot survive without at least some measure of community discipline, and without a mutually agreed-upon set of standards for public behavior.
It is sometimes said that we should not legislate morality. But this is an absurd statement.
Every civil law is an expression of public morality. Every civil law is an expression of what is considered to be either proper or improper ethical behavior in the society.
God’s law - especially as it comes to all people by means of natural law - provides to all human societies a basic guide to what is necessary for the preservation of social order. The divine prohibition of murder, for example, is intended to guide a society and its citizens in protecting people’s lives and safety.
The divine prohibition of stealing is intended to guide a society and its citizens in protecting people’s property. The divine prohibition of adultery is intended to guide a society and its citizens in protecting the institution of marriage - which is the basic building-block of human civilization.
There is, of course, still a lot of injustice in the world. There is no human society in this sinful world that collectively follows the guidance that God provides as fully or consistently as it should.
It is easy for us to see examples of our own society’s failures in this respect: its failure to protect human life, in allowing elective abortion; its failures to protect marriage - both as an institution, and in many sad individual cases.
Yet the testimony of the human conscience is always there, to spur human societies on to necessary improvements and reforms, if only the populations and governments of those societies would listen to that testimony.
But the law of God does not exist only for this civil use. It also fulfills a very important and very personal role in the lives of individuals.
When we hear and reflect on God’s commandments - particularly in their inescapably objective, written form - the Holy Spirit convicts us in a very personal way, of our very personal transgressions.
Perhaps according to the external standards of societal order, if we refrain from committing overt crimes, we might be judged to be good and “righteous.”
But according to the loftier and more serious requirements of the divine law - which address us at the level of our deepest desires, and not only at the level of our observable actions - we cannot, by our own thoughts, words, and deeds, be judged to be good and “righteous” in the eyes of God.
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explains the true and deeper meaning of the Ten Commandments, taking away from the hypocrites of his day - and from us - the ability to make any kind of pretentious claim to having truly obeyed them. He says:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.”
Again: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
A society can still be preserved in its outward orderliness even when its citizens have angry or lustful thoughts - as long as they do not act on those thoughts. But the hidden heart of a man or a woman cannot stand innocent before the tribunal of God’s judgment, on the basis of the true inner meaning of the law that Jesus here unfolds.
And so, according to this second, spiritual use of the law of God, the law reveals to our conscience the impossibility of making ourselves righteous before God by our obedience. “For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.”
The law shows us instead our need for a Savior. It drives us to the cross of Christ. It prepares us for the message of forgiveness that Jesus proclaims, to be received by faith. As St. Paul says in his epistle to the Galatians:
“Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.”
One of the reasons why Jesus Christ is able to be the Savior we all need, is because he did, without any shortcomings or failures, obey God’s law to the letter.
He was a law-abiding member of the civil society of which he was a part. But even more important than that, every single thought of his mind, every single desire of his heart, and every single intention of his will, was pure and perfect.
Throughout his life, Jesus obeyed all of the law, all of the time. He never bore false witness, but always told the truth. That unvarnished truth-telling is partly what got him in trouble with the authorities.
He did not hate his neighbors, but loved all men - even his enemies. He was chaste and pure in all his relationships with all women.
He honored his Father, by fulfilling his heavenly Father’s will in going to the cross for our salvation. From the cross, he honored his mother Mary as well, by arranging for her to be taken care of by the apostle John.
Jesus’ zeal for the First three Commandments - pertaining to God and the honor of God - is reflected especially in today’s Gospel from St. John. We see there his righteous anger that the Temple - which is supposed to be a house of prayer - had been turned into a den of thieves.
Therefore, when Jesus offered his life on the cross for all of us, the sacrifice that he offered was a pure, acceptable, and fully sufficient sacrifice.
The life of Christ had passed the test of the Ten Commandments in every way. It was without any spot or moral blemish. For this reason, the death of Christ could and did serve as a substitute for the death that all of us deserve to suffer, under the judgment of God’s law.
His sacrifice was able to, and did, atone for the shortcomings and failures of all people. It placed his perfect righteousness over humanity’s unrighteousness.
Jesus’ sacrifice atoned for, and covered over, all of your sins. It won for you the complete forgiveness of God, for your disobedience of his law.
As you now cling to Christ in faith, and trust in his word of pardon, everything that he is, and has, becomes yours. His obedience - his obedience specifically of the Ten Commandments - is credited to you.
“And God spoke all these words...”
He spoke all these words, in order to clarify and reiterate the natural law that had already been placed in the conscience of all men. He spoke all these words, so that those words could serve as an outward guide for the civil order of the nation.
He spoke all these words, so that those words would reveal to each man’s heart his personal sinfulness and need for a Savior. And he spoke all these words, as a description of the flawless and perfect obedience of his own Son, who lived under the law for our sakes, and who saved us from the condemnation of the law. Amen.
18 March 2012 - Lent 4 - Numbers 21:4-9
Last week’s Old Testament lesson was the text of the Ten Commandments. We were reminded then that the full text of the First Commandment includes these words:
“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.”
Through the centuries many have taken this to mean that it is a sin, in itself, to make artistic representations of things or people, for use in a religious context. But this cannot be the Lord’s intended meaning.
Soon after the Ten Commandments were delivered to Moses on stone tablets, Moses was commanded to construct an ark in which these tablets were to be housed. And God’s directions to Moses for the ornamentation of the top of this ark included these words:
“You shall make two cherubim of gold; of hammered work shall you make them... The cherubim shall spread out their wings above, ...their faces one to another...”
Cherubim are angelic beings who exist “in heaven above.” And God explicitly commands Moses to make two images of them, for a religious purpose.
These golden statues are not, of course, to be used as objects of worship. And that is the point of the First Commandment.
God does not forbid the use of symbolic artwork and statuary in a setting of worship, for purposes of ornamentation and education, or as devotional aids that remind us of our faith.
What he forbids is allowing such an image to be the focus of our faith, with the idea that God personally dwells within it, so that he is served by the worship of the image as such.
Today’s lesson from the Book of Numbers recounts another time when God commanded Moses to make an image, for a religious purpose.
The people of Israel has begun to grumble against God - and against Moses, his servant. Instead of being grateful for the manna that the Lord was giving them for their sustenance, they declared: “we loathe this worthless food.”
We pick up the story there:
“Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.’”
“So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.”
Martin Luther refers to this incident in his defense of the use of crucifixes in Christian churches. In response to certain fanatics in his time who were going from church to church destroying religious statues, paintings, and stained glass windows, he wrote:
“I do not entirely reject images, chiefly not the figure of the crucified Christ. We have an image of Christ in the Old Testament, the brazen serpent lifted up by Moses in the wilderness, that all who had been bitten by the fiery serpents and looked at this brazen serpent should become well.”
“We, too, should do this. In order to become well in our souls, we should look at the crucified Christ and believe in Him.”
Today’s Old Testament lesson can certainly be applied in that way - that is, as a repudiation of the notion that Christians who see a benefit in being reminded of their faith in Christ, by gazing upon a crucifix, are thereby guilty of idolatry.
But that is not the chief application of this text. Its chief application to our context is the application that Jesus makes in today’s Gospel from St. John:
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
The Old Testament “type,” or “shadow,” deals with people who had been bitten by poisonous snakes, “looking,” with their eyes, at the bronze serpent.
The New Testament “fulfilment,” or “reality,” deals with people who had been spiritually afflicted by their sins - and by God’s judgment against their sins - “believing” with their hearts in Christ crucified, for forgiveness and salvation.
This tells us something about faith. Faith in Christ is the spiritual equivalent of looking at something. Faith in Christ is not a work that we perform.
Physically looking at something is the means by which we passively receive a mental impression of the thing at which we are looking. Faith is the means by which we passively receive the reality of Christ, and his mercy, into our lives.
For the people of Israel, God attached a promise of physical healing to the bronze serpent. And he invited them to receive this healing - passively, by his grace - by looking at that serpent with their bodily eyes.
For us, God attaches a promise of spiritual healing and eternal life to his Son Jesus Christ, and to the message of the cross on which Jesus was “lifted up” for us. And God invites us to receive this healing - passively, by his grace - through faith.
This is the main thing that impresses us, when we read the account from the Book of Numbers - in light of what Jesus later says about it. But there is also something else in that Old Testament account that we should not miss.
When the people repented of their sin against God and Moses - a sin that has resulted in the Lord’s sending of the poisonous snakes as a punishment - they asked Moses: “Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.”
They wanted to be rid of the serpents. In addition to God’s forgiveness for the sin itself, they also wanted to be delivered from the consequences of their sin.
But that didn’t happen. God allowed the serpents, at least for a while, to remain among them.
And the people would continue to receive painful bites from the serpents, at least for a while. But God did give them a remedy for the bites, so that they would no longer perish as a consequence of those bites.
This is a microcosm of the whole story of human sin - and of the effects of human sin.
When Adam and Eve defied God, embraced the lies of the devil, and fell into sin, an immediate consequence of this is that they became mortal. Someday, they - and all their descendants after them - would now physically die.
And the earth itself was also cursed because of their sin. By the sweat of his brow, Adam would now eat his bread. The earth would bring forth thorns and thistles for him.
After their fall, Adam and Eve were forgiven. They heard and believed the promise of the Seed of the woman, who would come someday to crush the serpent’s head for their salvation. God was reconciled to them, and they trusted in him once again.
But the consequences of their earlier fall into sin remained. They - and we - are still destined for bodily death.
In Christ we do have the hope of the resurrection of our bodies on the last day. But as far as this life is concerned, we are no longer immortal.
And the earth likewise remains under a curse. Christians are not transplanted to a different planet, where everything is always fair, just, and happy. We stay here with everyone else - in this fallen and corrupted world - sharing the earthly experiences of all our human brethren.
In the midst of these common human experiences - which are often painful experiences - we do look by faith beyond the horizons of this world, in the sure and certain hope of a new world yet to come. And as we live now in the hope of the resurrection, we invite our fellow human travelers on earth to join us in this hope, by believing in our common Savior.
That’s what the great commission is all about, as we fulfill it - according to our respective callings - one soul at a time. But this does not erase the curse of sin that mars the earth, and that affects all who are still residents on earth.
This applies, too, not just to the universal inborn sinfulness that infects all of Adam’s descendants. It also applies to the personal sins of each of us.
For us who repent of these sins, and believe in the gospel of Christ, that gospel delivers us from the fear of damnation, and fills our hearts with peace and hope.
The eternal consequences of our sins are removed by the Lord’s absolution. But the temporal consequences of our sins often do remain in this world, and in our lives.
If you murder someone, or kill someone through negligence, God will forgive that sin. But the person whom you have killed will remain dead. If your sinful words and actions have brought outward harm to yourself, or to others, that harm is not automatically erased when the sin is forgiven.
Our sins often alter the trajectory of our lives, and permanently change the nature of our relationships with people, in ways that cannot be reversed or corrected on this side of eternity. A particular sin often sets in motion a sequence of events that result in continuing hurt to ourselves and others - even after we have repented of the sin.
This is a sad truth of the enduring brokenness of this world, and of life in this world. We often wish that we could go back in time, and undo things that we deeply regret having done. But we cannot.
All around us, while we live here, is the evidence of past rebellion against God, past disobedience of God’s law, and past rejections of God’s ways. These things continue to bite at us, to humble us. God does not take them away.
To a prayer of repentance, asking God to forgive our sins, God will always respond with “yes.” But to a prayer of shame, asking God to erase the lingering consequences of our sins, God will usually respond with “no.”
But in the midst of it all, God does give us a remedy to our discouragement and weakness. He continually gives us his Son Jesus Christ, who in his suffering bore all our griefs, and who has promised never to leave us or forsake us in our griefs.
God invites us to look upon his Son; to dwell by faith in his Son; to trust in the healing power of his Son.
We don’t do this through physically gazing upon a crucifix, insofar as a crucifix is an object or thing - although an artistic portrayal of the passion of Christ can indeed be a great reminder to us of what Jesus did to save us. Rather, we look upon Christ - with the eyes of faith - as he comes to us, and speaks to us, and reveals himself to us, in his Word and Sacrament.
That is where God’s institution has placed him for us, and that is where he can be found. Whenever you are bitten or stung by a painful residue of a past failing, or whenever something reminds you of your old sins, look there for Christ, and believe in Christ.
Whenever a life circumstance rekindles a memory of a time and place where you did and said things that you now deeply regret, the Savior who comes to you in his Holy Absolution, and in his Holy Supper, will rekindle your memory of other things.
“Do this in remembrance of me,” he says: In remembrance of my life lived for you, and of my life sacrificed for you on the cross; in remembrance of my resurrection, and of my promise that I will raise you up on the last day.
As you look in faith to Christ, and receive Christ and his mercy through faith, Christ will renew your hope in the joyful future that he has prepared for you. And knowing about this joyful future now, gives you joy now - joy in the midst of grief; hope in the midst of sadness; light in the midst of darkness.
“‘And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’ 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. Whoever believes in him is not condemned.” Amen.
25 March 2012 - Lent 5 - Hebrews 5:1-10
For as long as we live in this world, we are continually learning - or at least we should be. And the deepest kind of learning usually takes place in the crucible of experience.
There are, of course, certain factual data that are important to know, and that have to be learned - with the mind - by means of listening to a lecture, or reading a book. In our Christian faith, the objective facts of sacred history need to be learned in such ways.
But we internalize the practical and personal side of these objective facts in a more experiential way. As we humbly remain in ongoing contact with the ministry of Word and Sacrament, the gift of faith in Christ - which the Holy Spirit works in us - is continually renewed.
But there is an important sense in which we learn how to exercise that faith, and to be obedient to God as a fruit of that faith, in those times of struggle - and hardship - that drive us to God and his Word. Or at least that’s the way it’s supposed to work.
We are able really to learn how to cling to God, and how to submit to God’s will, when we are placed in a circumstance where all false gods, and all false sources of hope, are yanked away from us.
Basically, we learn how to trust God, and how to obey God, when there is nothing left for us besides such trust and obedience - in a time of great trial, or a time of great deprivation.
In his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul speaks very personally of this kind of learning. He speaks of a time earlier in his ministry when he learned, through hard experience, how to rely on God alone:
“we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced... For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.”
“But that was to make us rely, not on ourselves, but on God, who raises the dead. He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope, that he will deliver us again.”
In today’s text from the Epistle to the Hebrews, we are told that Jesus, too - according to his human nature, during his time on earth - also learned obedience in the midst of his trials:
“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.”
When Jesus entered adolescence, Luke tells us that he “increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man.” In adulthood, Jesus continued to learn.
This kind of growing and learning on Jesus’ part is a sign of his true humanity. Even if sin had never entered into the human race, babies would still be born as babies, and would still grow and mature, over time, to adulthood - physically and psychologically.
Jesus was at one point young and inexperienced. But he matured. He grew.
Without any corrupting influence of sin, his pure potential, over time, was actualized and perfected. According to his human nature, and in a genuinely human way, he gradually became the man he was born to be.
Through his unchanging personal identity as God and man, but also through the things he had learned, he was - at the end of his earthly life - everything that he needed to be: to be our divine-human substitute under the law, and to be the atoning sacrifice for our sin.
The focus of today’s text is not on Jesus’ learning in general, or his experiences in general. It says specifically that he learned obedience, through what he suffered. This does give us an indication of the unique sinlessness of Christ, and of the sinlessness of his learning process.
Times of suffering are indeed times of learning for all of us. A time of suffering is often a time of negative learning: “I’m never going to do that again!”
A time of suffering is, sadly, often an occasion when we learn despair - when we feel hopeless, or when we admit that we brought the suffering upon ourselves.
Most tragic of all, however, is when a time of suffering becomes an occasion when we learn to be resentful - when we become embittered against whoever it is we blame for the suffering. And in an era when the fear of God has been pretty well erased from the conscience of man, God - more often than not - is the one who is blamed.
Times of suffering in this way become times when we learn to turn away from God, and when we learn to be angry at God. At such times, people generally think - subconsciously - that they can hurt and punish God, by withholding their faith from him.
And they want to hurt God, because they believe that God has hurt them, by not fulfilling the duty they have always presumed was his - that is, of keeping them safe and happy in all circumstances.
This is, of course, unspeakably foolish arrogance. It is wicked blasphemy, arising from the absurd notion that people know enough about God and his ways to sit in judgment on his character, or to question his purposes.
And it also presupposes - falsely - that people know as much about themselves, and their true needs, as God does.
But it is not just brazen defiers of God who slip into this kind of thinking - into this kind of harmful “learning” - in a time of suffering. We are all guilty of this.
Some editions of the Small Catechism close with this little rhyme:
Let each his lesson learn with care,
And all the household well shall fare.
But in the crucible of human experience, during times of trial in this world, we do not, in our own strength and wisdom, learn our lesson with care. Or at least we do not learn the lessons of trust in God, and obedience toward God, that we are supposed to learn.
And therefore we would not fare well at all - in time or in eternity - if this would depend on the soundness and faithfulness of our learning.
But for our sake, and to our benefit, Jesus, in his suffering, did learn his lesson with care. And because he learned his lesson well in our stead, we do fare well, in and through him.
The lesson that Jesus learned in his suffering was not a lesson of despair. He learned obedience through what he suffered.
Obedience. Obedience toward God - not resentment against God, or blaming and accusing God.
He learned obedience through what he suffered - what he suffered according to God’s plan for the redemption of our fallen race. What he learned in his suffering, he learned with complete acceptance of his necessary yet painful place at the heart and center of that plan.
To be sure, the lesson that Jesus learned was not an easy lesson to learn. The obedience that he learned, he learned in a context of much stress and foreboding.
Today’s text tells us that “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death.”
When we hear these words, we think, of course, of the Lord’s agony in the Garden of Gethsemane: when he implored his Father to take the cup of suffering from him, if it were possible for him to do so; but when he also submitted himself to his Father’s will.
He was willing to undergo everything that was necessary, to redeem the human race from the power of sin and death. And if that meant bearing the sins of all, being forsaken by God on the cross because of those sins, and dying on that cross as the substitute for everyone else, then so be it.
In this suffering, Jesus was not just thinking about himself. Chiefly, he was thinking about his Father, and his Father’s will.
But he was also thinking about all those people who would be saved from the blindness and captivity of the devil, and who would become a part of his kingdom forever, because of his suffering.
Jesus was thinking about the disciples whom he had known on earth. And he was also thinking about you. Soon before the agony of Gethsemane, he had prayed for his disciples - and for you - in these words:
“Holy Father, ... Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word.”
And so, when we are told that, in the context of his suffering, “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears,” we should think also of this prayer - and of the unmeasurable love for you and all his church - with which he offered that prayer.
For you, the prayers of Christ have been answered, and fulfilled. Your sins have been paid for according to God’s will. The word of the apostles - which is the Word of God - has also been brought to you: in the Lord’s baptismal washing, in the preaching of his gospel, and in his mystical Supper.
Jesus consecrated himself for you. He committed himself to doing everything that needed to be done for your forgiveness and justification before God, and for your sanctification in his Spirit.
And by faith, you are now sanctified in truth - in the truth of his obedience, which he learned in suffering; in the truth of everything that his obedience accomplished for you, in time and in eternity.
And as you are sanctified in him, you learn in him, and grow in him. You are even now maturing in faith and discernment, in knowledge and wisdom.
As you live by faith in his promises - abiding in his Word, and partaking of his body and blood - you trust in him, and seek to follow his will. He gives you all of this.
Even in your trials - in fact, especially in your trials - Jesus teaches you what he learned in his trials.
As your companion in suffering, he gently yet persistently teaches you that God’s ways and God’s commandments are always good - not because God has proven this to you according to your human way of measuring such things, but because of who God is. He teaches you to believe - to know - that all things do work together for good, for those who are called according to God’s purpose.
God has proven his eternal love for you, not by making your suffering go away, but by drawing your attention, within your suffering, to the suffering of his Son - his Son’s suffering endured once and for all time, for all sin. And Jesus, who washes away all your sins, then teaches you obedience, through what you suffer.
In the suffering of Christ, eternal peace and joy are established for you, and offered to you. In his death, eternal life and salvation are now yours, by faith.
“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” Amen.