3 March 2013 - Lent 3 - Luke 13:1-9

In the history of popular religious thinking, there have been three basic views on the question of whether and how God is being fair, or just, in the human suffering that he either causes or allows.

The first view - which is the oldest and probably still the most common - is that some people are wicked, and therefore deserve to have bad things happen to them; while other people are not wicked, and therefore do not deserve to have bad things happen to them.

When something bad does happen to a person in this world, people who accept this view will probably try to figure out what particular sin that person must have committed, so as to bring upon himself the calamity that he is experiencing - presumably at the hands of a just God, who noticed the sin, and who is now punishing it.

This was the view of most of the people with whom Jesus interacted. Today’s text from St. Luke’s Gospel reports that the people of Jerusalem were specifically trying to figure out why certain people from Galilee, and not others, had recently been killed by an act of human cruelty - at the hands of Pontius Pilate.

They were also trying to figure out why certain people, and not others, had recently been killed by a natural disaster, namely the collapse of a tower. What secret sin had these various people committed, for which God was now making them pay?

The second view - which is the newest - is that no one is intrinsically wicked or evil, but that all people are intrinsically good. Bad behavior is the result of a bad education or bad influences in childhood. But the people who do bad things are not bad people.

This humanistic view emerged in western civilization as a consequence of the so-called Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. This view also stands behind a lot of the new atheism of our time.

The new atheists assume that if there were a just God over this world, there would be no human suffering in this world, because a just God would prevent all of it. Since people are intrinsically good, and do not deserve to suffer, the new atheists believe that the presence of human suffering proves that a just God is not present - and that God does not, in fact, exist.

Of course, the new atheists do no consider that if there is no holy and righteous God, whose personal character and divine standards are able to serve as an objective norm of what is or is not just, then there is no basis for the human conscience to make those sorts of judgments in the first place. Standards of justice or injustice would vary from time to time, from place to place, and from person to person.

It would all be arbitrary and unpredictable. So, if there really is no just God, then there is also no objective norm by which to conclude that the evil things that happen in the world are actually evil, and not good.

An atheist cannot consistently sit in judgment on the ideology and actions of communists or Nazis, criminals or bigots. The categories of “good” and “evil,” of “fair” and “unfair,” would simply not exist if there were no supremely good and fair God to establish the meaning of these concepts.

In a sense, then, the moral and ethical judgment that the new atheists are making in their embracing of hypothetical atheism, is not a rejection of the existence and influence of God, as much as it is a complaint against God, for his lack of being the kind of just God they feel in their conscience he should be. Subconsciously, they are punishing God, by not believing in him.

The third view on the question of whether and how God is being fair, or just, in the human suffering that he either causes or allows, is the view that Jesus sets forth in today’s text. This view does not come naturally to us. We need to learn it. And Jesus does in fact teach it to us, when he says:

“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

“Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Jesus does not teach that only some are wicked and deserving of punishment at the hand of God - and that there is a direct correlation between their specific sins, and their having died in such ways. Jesus also does not teach that everyone is intrinsically good.

He teaches that all people - all Galileans, all Jerusalemites, all people everyone - are by nature sinful.

He teaches that, because of the universality of humanity’s offenses against God’s holiness, all people deserve to be murdered by Pontius Pilate, or by someone like him. All people deserve to have a tower fall on them, or to be the victim of some other natural catastrophe like this.

These are hard words for us, since we tend to have an exaggerated sense of our goodness, and of our acceptability to God. What reason would God have to be unhappy with me?

And so, when something bad happens to you, you probably consider it to be unfair, and an injustice. You ask, “Why me?”

And God answers! He answers by means of what he says to the Prophet Ezekiel in today’s Old Testament lesson:

“Your people say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just,’ when it is their own way that is not just. When the righteous turns from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it. And when the wicked turns from his wickedness and does what is just and right, he shall live by them.”

“Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ O house of Israel, I will judge each of you according to his ways.”

When something bad happens to another person, you should at such a time ask, “Why not me?” Why has God spared me? Why had he diverted from me his wrath and his anger?

It is not because I do not deserve God’s punishment. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

No one, by his own moral strength, does in fact turn from his wickedness, to do what is just and right. In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul soberly writes that

“All, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’”

“‘Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.’”

This is not a very flattering view of human nature. But it is God’s view. And therefore it is the accurate and honest view.

The reason why God spares you, is to give you time and opportunity to be turned from evil, and to be turned to God, and to his mercy and righteousness. In your own strength you cannot turn yourself. You are by nature dead in trespasses and sins.

But God can turn you. In the Gospel of his Son Jesus Christ, who bore all our sins on the cross, and who rose again to fill us with his life, God does turn you.

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”

That’s also something that St. Paul said. Faith receives from God what human effort cannot produce - acceptance by God, righteousness before God, life with God.

God’s desire to forgive us, and to save us from the guilt and power of sin, is the primary evidence of the fact that God is not ultimately fair - or at least that’s what the devil would say. He does not automatically give us what we deserve.

The human race as a whole has failed to be what it was created to be. We have all, in our sinful nature, rebelled against God’s goodness.

But in the mercy of God, through Christ, we all get a do-over. God gives humanity a second chance. God gives you a second chance.

And God does this for us, by means of the greatest injustice that the world has ever seen - the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, the sinless friend of sinners.

If anyone ever deserved nothing but goodness and happiness in this life, it was Jesus. But as humanity’s substitute, he patiently endured the worse of suffering - in body and in soul - so that those who believe in him can and will live forever.

It is not easy to endure the suffering that we experience in this world. It is especially difficult to watch tragic and unfair things happen to the people we love and care about.

But whenever bad things do happen - to us, or to others; by means of human cruelty, or by means of natural disasters - they are reminders of the sinfulness of the whole human race. They are reminders of our need to depend on God and him alone to be rescued from the fate we all deserve.

They are reminders of God’s call to us, to repent and believe the gospel - to do so daily and continually, for as long as we sin and are in need of God’s forgiveness. And the tragedies and sufferings of this world prompt us, in faith, to look forward to the new heavens and the new earth, where righteousness - and not corruption - will dwell.

The power of Christ’s resurrection - which was his victory over suffering and death - is with us now, to carry us through the suffering, and the death, that we face on this side of eternity. The power of Christ’s resurrection is with us now, to fill us with a confident knowledge and conviction of God’s goodness and grace.

And the power of Christ’s resurrection will, on the Last Day, energize in each of us our own resurrection in Christ, and our eternal deliverance from all human tragedy. In eternity we will not get what we deserve, but we will get what Christ, our perfect and sinless Savior, deserved.

That’s not fair. That’s not just. Thank God for his merciful unfairness, and for his loving injustice! Amen.

10 March 2013 - Lent 4 - Philippians 3:4b-14

“If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more.” With these words, St. Paul begins the section of his Epistle to the Philippians that was read as today’s second lesson.

He speaks of two things: “confidence” and “flesh.” What do those words mean in this context?

Let’s begin with the word “flesh.” Paul is referring to a couple different things here, when he speaks of his former “confidence in the flesh” as a proudly observant Jew.

First, he is referring to his pure Hebrew pedigree. He is aware of his genealogical connection to the tribe of Benjamin, and of his descent from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Quite literally, his physical flesh is Hebrew flesh. His physical ancestors were all Jews - members of God’s chosen people.

And as a Jew, in his use of the word “flesh,” he is also referring to his circumcision in the flesh - that distinctive mark on any Jewish man, showing that he was under the Law of Moses, and was obligated to obey it. And Paul had indeed obeyed that Law, at least as far as its outward prescriptions are concerned.

Specifically as a Pharisee, he had devoted himself to a minute study of the Law, so that he would know and understand all the outward actions, the lifestyle patterns, and the ritual ceremonies that he - as a Jew - was obligated to follow.

And by the standards of the Pharisees, he did not fall short. According to the righteousness of the Law - in the flesh - he was blameless.

Paul also defended his religion - as an organized system - from those whom he believed were threatening it. And so he persecuted the followers of Jesus, and tried to silence them.

This zeal to maintain the Jewish religion, combined with his personal zeal to live out the Jewish religion in his personal actions, is all included in what Paul is referring to as the “flesh,” in which he formerly had put his confidence.

And what did it mean, that Paul had put his “confidence” in these things? It meant that he derived his sense of who he was, and of what his purpose in the world was, from these things.

He had persuaded himself that his good standing before God depended on his ancestry, on his bodily conformity to the Law, and on his physical oppression of those who would disrupt this - and who would disrupt Paul’s confidence in this.

Paul, at that point in his life, felt that he needed to believe that these were the things that made him special and important. Paul, at that point in his life, placed his confidence in these things.

None of us here are in the same situation that Paul was in, as a young Jewish man in first-century Palestine. We are not tempted to have “confidence in the flesh” in the same way he was.

But we are tempted to have confidence in our own versions of the flesh - whatever that might mean for each of us. We are tempted to have confidence in external, material things - external and material things of religious and moral significance to be sure; but external and material things nevertheless.

What are those fleshly things that you sometimes think define you, and make you to be special and important? What are those fleshly things that you sometimes think make you acceptable to God?

I recall an instance when I was about seven years old, when my great-grandmother was showing an old family Bible to my mother. I was looking on, listening to her descriptions of the ancestors - going back many generations - whose names were written in that Bible.

I also remember noticing certain things about the Bible itself, especially its fascinating engravings of various scenes from sacred history. In particular, I recall that the picture of the crucifixion of Christ and the two thieves printed in that Bible made a deep impression on me.

About a decade later, my great-grandfather gave that Bible to me. And it is a prized possession. It testifies to an honorable and wholesome spiritual legacy, passed on to me by those who have gone before me in my family.

Now, is that what gives me my sense of being connected to Christ, and to his church? Am I Christian because I come from a Christian family?

What about those who do not come from Christian families? Does God invite them only to a second-class membership in his church? Not according to the New Testament!

We are taught there that there is one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.

Is the firmness of our faith perhaps to be measured by our level of intolerance of those who reject that faith? How defensive do we get, when people mock our religion, or when they insult Jesus personally?

Do we take it personally? Do we consider such words to be fighting words? Or, do we allow such sad words to prompt us to speak a blessing, and a prayer?

Jesus says: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

And how do you perceive that your standing before God is measured? Is it measured by how much time and effort you spend working for the church, or by how much money you contribute to the church? Is that what causes God to be pleased with you, and accepting of you?

Are these kinds of things the matters of “the flesh” - the externals of religious practice and identity - in which you have, at least in some ways, placed your confidence?

We are taught in Scripture that to love the Lord our God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.

And in today’s text, St. Paul also teaches us how Christ, and faith in Christ, delivered him from his previous confidence in the flesh - from his reliance on the religious externals of heritage and race, legalism and ritual.

He was delivered from all this, and his heart was turned away from all this, on the road to Damascus - when Jesus stopped him, called him, and changed him. Paul writes:

“If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness, under the law blameless.”

“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

“For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith – that I may know him and the power of his resurrection.”

For the sake of Christ, and for the sake of the totality of everything that Christ is and gives, I, too, am to count all other things as rubbish, in comparison.

Paul, of course, was not ashamed of his Jewish heritage. He also was not ashamed of his previous knowledge of the Scriptures - although he was ashamed of the way in which he had previously misused that knowledge.

But none of those things, in themselves, could be the focus of his faith, or the basis of his sense of who he is in this world - or of who he will be in the next world. And such things cannot be, for us, the focus of our ultimate confidence either.

We are not ashamed of our Christian or Lutheran ancestors - if we have any. We do not think that supporting the church with our time, talent, and treasure is unimportant. It’s actually quite important, in its own way.

But we do not place the confidence of our souls in these things. These things, in themselves, do not save us from sin and death. But Jesus does.

As the Son of God in human flesh, he lived an entire human life under the Law of God, not only with a blameless outward obedience - as was the case with Paul - but also with a perfect obedience of the heart, mind, and will.

Under the First Commandment, for example, Jesus did not simply refrain from physically bowing his body down to idols. He loved his Father in heaven with all his heart, with all his understanding, and with all his strength.

And on the cross, he offered this life - this fully perfect life - as an atoning and redeeming sacrifice for all the sinful pride and presumption of everyone else, whose Savior and substitute he was.

Jesus had an impeccable Hebrew pedigree. He was a descendant of David and of the Patriarchs of old.

His apostles were also all Jewish. But when Jesus sent them forth after his resurrection, to proclaim the arrival of his kingdom, and to baptize people into that kingdom, he sent them to all nations.

God has no grandchildren. A righteous family pedigree does not automatically make you righteous, just as an unrighteous family pedigree does not automatically make you unrighteous.

In your own baptism you are a child of God. In your own baptism, you cling to Christ even as Christ clings to you.

The saving power of your baptism does not, of course, come from the material element of water, but from the Word of God connected with the water. It is the Word of God that regenerates you.

As one who now trusts in Christ, and who is growing into Christ, your life and its meaning are defined by Christ. The blessings of this world that you do enjoy, are seen to be blessings that have come through Christ. And you enjoy them to the glory of Christ.

Christ is overlaid on everything. Christ fills and colors everything.

He is not something that I add on to my old life, like a new patch on an old shirt. He now is my life. Everything is new because of him. Everything is seen as in a new and brilliant light because of him.

Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” “Behold, I make all things new,” Jesus also says.

Setting my confidence on him, and not on the flesh, I am called to live every day in his strength and wisdom. As a Christian, I do not go forward to new adventures and opportunities with fleshly ambition and avarice. I am called to go forward every day in Christ.

And in the gospel of Christ, I am given the desire to “gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith – that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

These sentiments of faith, as expressed by St. Paul, become also our sentiments of faith - as we, like Paul, place our confidence in Christ, and not in the flesh.

This is the God-given confidence by which we press ahead, to understand ever more deeply the revelation of Christ; to live ever more fully in the life of Christ; to be filled ever more joyfully with the power of Christ’s resurrection - and with the hope of our own resurrection.

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Amen.

17 March 2013 - Lent 5 / St. Patrick - Luke 5:1-11

The propers and lessons appointed for this Sunday, as a Sunday of Lent, call on us to acknowledge our sinfulness, our unworthiness before God, and our complete dependence on God’s forgiving grace.

In the Introit, taken from Psalm 51, we admit things like this before God’s tribunal: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”

These are humbling thoughts, but they are accurate thoughts. This is our human condition. We know this from the teaching of Scripture. We also know this from what we see - in ourselves and in the world around us.

The human conscience - when people listen to it - confirms that the natural state of things in this world is not as it should be. Your own conscience - when you listen to it - confirms to you that, apart from Christ and his saving work, things are not right with you, or between you and God.

Today’s lessons also do not allow us to think that the way out of this predicament is through the use of self-improvement techniques, or through an exercise of positive will power. The prayer that is provided for us today by Isaiah focuses our attention instead on God and his salvation:

“I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me. Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.”

Today’s lessons drive us to the cross of Christ, and then open to us the blessings of the cross. God in Christ reconciles the world to himself, and by his forgiveness he “un-does” the breach and the separation between God and man that our sins have caused.

St. Paul, in today’s Epistle from Second Corinthians, proclaims that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them... For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

But without altering or supplementing these Lenten lessons, today we are also commemorating the great missionary St. Patrick, who is sometimes referred to as the Enlightener of Ireland.

The observance of St. Patrick’s Day is usually not associated with themes of humility before God, repentance of sin, and trust in God’s mercy. Usually St. Patrick’s Day is associated with revelry and celebration - often to the point of silliness.

But as Christians, what we chiefly think about concerning St. Patrick would be things like the opening line of his famous autobiographical writing, from around the year 452 A.D. He started out this famous “Confession” with these words: “I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many...”

That’s not very different from what St. Peter said to Jesus in today’s Gospel from St. Luke: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

And what Jesus said to Peter in response, is also not very different from the calling that the Lord issued to Patrick, three centuries later, to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the benighted people of Ireland. Christ said: “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.”

Jesus does not hold back from calling people to great and important things, until he finds righteous men who are worthy of such callings. Rather, in his grace, he makes righteous people out of sinners - by forgiving them through his shed blood; by regenerating them in the gift of his Spirit, and by clothing them with his own perfect righteousness.

And then he calls those sinners - those forgiven and justified sinners - to do great and important things in his name, and by his strength. Indeed, the only real options he has among men, are sinners who do not know his love, and sinners who do. He calls sinners who do know his love, to use the “net” of his Word and Sacraments to catch men for his kingdom.

He calls Peter. He calls Patrick. And according to the circumstances of your life, he calls you.

Patrick was the first missionary in Christian history, besides the apostles themselves, who went forth to proclaim the gospel in a land that was beyond the confines of the home culture and home land of the missionary. He was impelled by God, and by his love for the Irish people, not only to go beyond his cultural comfort zone, but also to go beyond his political safety zone, in bringing the message of Christ to a foreign land.

If he would be attacked or mistreated, he would have no recourse to the police protection of Rome. He was beyond Rome.

He was the first truly foreign missionary. Before this time, with few exceptions, what missionaries there were, were basically the equivalent of “home missionaries,” who preached and established churches in various places within the Roman Empire - or within the various nations where they already lived.

Today we take it for granted that the great commission pushes and pulls the church of all generations to places beyond the borders of our own country, to extend the kingdom of Christ among the people of other countries. But the church did not always take that for granted.

It fell to St. Patrick to teach us - and to show us - that Christ’s vision for his kingdom extends beyond the people we know, and beyond the places with which we are familiar. “All nations” really does mean “all nations,” not just the “safe” nations that are easily accessible to us.

After the time of Patrick, as the church was inspired and instructed by his example, the kingdom of Christ was in fact extended in all directions, beyond the confines of the political boundaries of Rome. The Irish missionary St. Columba - directly inspired by Patrick - brought the gospel to Scotland.

Irish and Scottish monks brought the gospel to many places on the continent of Europe. St. Boniface - originally from England - preached Christ among the Germans. Cyril and Methodius - originally from Macedonia - established the Christian Church among the Slavs.

American Christians of our own acquaintance, from within our own church body, have preached the gospel to the people of Peru and Chile, to the people of the Czech Republic and Ukraine, to the people of India and Korea.

The church, after the time of the apostles, should always have known that it was the will of God for this to be done. But it didn’t.

St. Patrick - with courage that came from Christ, and in his love for Christ - taught this to us by his example. And he teaches this to us again today.

He reminds us, first, that we are all sinners, who “daily sin much, and deserve nothing but punishment” - as we recall from the Small Catechism. But he also reminds us that when Christ forgives sinners such as we are, he then uses us to reach fellow sinners.

We are like thirsty nomads in the desert, declaring to our fellow thirsty nomads where the oasis, with its refreshing springs, can be found. We are like the injured and the sick, who tell others who are injured and sick where to find the hospital, and the physician who can heal us.

For most of you who are here today, the opportunities that God will give you to speak the gospel to others will be very domestic, and very unofficial - among relatives and peers. God probably will not call most of you to become public ministers of the gospel or teachers of the church; or to go to a foreign land, to share the message of eternal life with those who have never heard it.

But he might. There was a time in my life when I did not expect someday to be a pastor. And then, once I got used to that idea, I still did not expect to be called to be a missionary and teacher of God’s Word in a foreign land - and especially not to the territory of the Soviet Union, with which my own country had been engaged in a hostile “cold war” for fifty years.

I always had a great deal of respect for missionaries. But I also knew that I did not have what it takes to be one myself.

But, as I learned, and as many people have learned over the centuries, God is in charge of such things. Do you remember the story of Moses?

When God called him to his work - which would require confident public speaking - he demurred: “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.”

But then the Lord said to him: “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.”

And don’t forget the conversation that Jesus had with Peter in today’s gospel:

“When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.’ For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.’ And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.”

Whatever Christ may call you to, and whatever people he may send you to - whether near or far - remember that the gospel he wants you to share with others is the gospel that he first wants you to believe for yourself. You speak the gospel with love for your neighbor, and not with a feeling of spiritual superiority over your neighbor.

Patrick, as a forgiven sinner, did not speak down to those to whom he preached. He spoke across to them. We, too, are called to share the life of Christ with a friend, as a friend - and as the greatest act of friendship.

God wants to use you, and your words - which are his divine words - to liberate and enlighten the people he brings to you, and to whom he brings you. But you are a liberator and an enlightener for such people, only because you have first been liberated by the death and resurrection of Christ; and only because you have first been enlightened by the grace of your baptism into Christ.

We close with these words of encouragement from Isaiah:

“Give thanks to the Lord, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the peoples, proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be made known in all the earth. Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” Amen.

24 March 2013 - Palm Sunday - Matthew 21:9-11

When I was a boy, our family would be visited periodically by my mother’s cousin Franklyn. My sisters and I would always look forward to these visits.

Because Franklyn had no children of his own, he would lavish presents on us whenever he came. And he gave us really good presents. I still have a baseball bat that he purchased for me almost forty years ago.

And so, the news that cousin Franklyn was coming was always met by cheers and rejoicing. The welcome that Jesus received in Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday was not much different from this.

Jesus - a descendant of the royal family of Israel - had developed a reputation as an awe-inspiring wonder-worker. He had been very generous in distributing miracles to needy people.

The hungry had been fed. The lame had been made to walk. The blind had been given their sight.

The demonically-possessed had been delivered. And even the dead had been brought back to life.

So, when the people of Jerusalem learned that Jesus was coming to their city, the reaction was what we would expect. “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”

Jesus was indeed coming “in the name of the Lord,” and they were downright giddy about it! The crowds knew that the power of the Lord had been working through him for the benefit of many people. And now that he was coming to Jerusalem, they expected that this divine power would be manifested also for their benefit.

Those with political and patriotic inclinations expected him to overthrow the Roman occupation. Those with a more religious orientation hoped for a purge of the corrupt temple leadership. Those with more practical and mundane concerns were looking forward to the healing of their diseases, and the filling of their stomachs.

They thought that Jesus was the Messiah. And they thought that these were the kind of things the Messiah would do - “in the name of the Lord.” But in just a few days, they realized that they were not going to get what they wanted from Jesus.

They had welcomed him with rejoicing. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” But now they were deeply disappointed. Where was the divine, miracle-working power they had heard about?

And when their disappointment turned to anger, they turned on him. Before the week was through, some of the people who had welcomed Jesus with unbridled enthusiasm on Palm Sunday, may very well have been among those who called for his crucifixion at his trial, and who taunted him while he hung on the cross.

Jesus had not done what they expected. Jesus had not given them what they wanted.

They no longer believed that he he was the Messiah. They no longer believed that he had come “in the name of the Lord.”

A key error that they had made, was in their interpretation of what it would mean for the Messiah to come “in the name of the Lord.”

Jesus was not coming only in the power of the Lord, so that he would be able to do everything they wanted him to do for them. Rather, coming “in the name of the Lord” meant coming for the purposes of the Lord - to accomplish what the Lord wanted done.

The people of Jerusalem did not have the right to set God’s agenda. God, from all eternity, had set the agenda for what Jesus would accomplish in Jerusalem that week.

Jesus had indeed come “in the name of the Lord.” He had come to procure for the people of Jerusalem, and for all humanity, what they truly needed.

He himself said it this way: “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” He also said: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus had not come to give to the people an assortment of miraculous “bobbles” and “trinkets,” for their life in this world. He had come to take away from their hearts their misguided reliance on the things of this world.

He had come to bestow upon them, through repentance and faith, a whole new life; and citizenship in a new world, and a new heavenly kingdom.

They didn’t understand this. But he came anyway, “in the name of the Lord,” to accomplish this for them. And for us.

Does Jesus come to you - today - “in the name of the Lord?” And if so, what does that mean?

We are all willing to pray to Christ in a time of need, to ask him for a certain blessing that we want, or for success in a certain endeavor. When we have identified a desire that we believe he can satisfy, we don’t hesitate to ask him to come to us - “in the name of the Lord,” and with the Lord’s power - to help us.

And I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that. But there is a problem, if that’s the full extent of how and when we recognize the coming of Christ into our lives.

We should welcome him, and say “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” also when he comes into our lives to accomplish God’s purposes. In fact, that is chiefly when we should welcome him.

And God’s purposes for sending his Son into our lives are often quite a bit different from the purposes for which we may be quick to invite him.

Listen to what the Lord says in today’s Old Testament lesson from the Book of Deuteronomy: “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.”

Would you ordinarily be inclined to invite Jesus to come “in the name of the Lord” to wound you, and to kill you? Probably not. But when he comes into your life “in the name of the Lord” - that is, to accomplish the Lord’s purposes - that’s what he comes to do.

With the severe judgments of his law, he attacks all the pretensions and pride of your old nature. He attacks your idolatrous reliance on anything other than him and his Word, for salvation. And he humbles you.

God’s Son comes, as Scripture says, to wound and to kill. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

But Jesus also comes to heal and to make alive! After he has humbled you in heart and conscience, his forgiving and restoring grace immediately lifts you up to the heights of his mercy.

He knows that your old sinful nature is always turning on him and rejecting him, just as the crowds of Jerusalem turned on him and rejected him. But still loves you - just as he still loved them, and came to them.

And so he comes into your life, to accomplish the purposes for which his Father in heaven sent him. He creates in you a new nature.

He comes to heal your soul, and to make you truly alive by the gift of his Spirit. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

Today’s Gradual quotes from Psalm 111: “He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever.”

Through your baptism into Christ, you are the people of God. In Christ, God has sent redemption to you.

And the covenant that God establishes with his church is an eternal covenant. God will forgive your sins when you turn your heart toward him, because in the death and resurrection of Christ, he has already turned his heart toward you.

In a few minutes, Jesus will come to you “in the name of the Lord” yet again, and in a very special way. The church has always recognized an intimate connection between Jesus’ coming to Jerusalem, to offer himself as the sacrifice for human sin; and his coming in the sacrament of his body and blood, to distribute to communicants the blessings and benefits of that sacrifice.

As we welcome him into our midst today in his Holy Supper, we join in the song of the people of Jerusalem: “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosannas in the highest!”

We do rejoice this day, and sing “hosanna in the highest,” as we remember Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem - to die and rise again for our redemption. We sing “hosanna in the highest,” as we receive in faith the true body and blood of our crucified and risen Savior, in accordance with the Lord’s saving purpose for us.

Jesus comes to us, not to satisfy our worldly desires, as we define them; but to fulfill our true spiritual needs, as the Lord defines them. We rejoice in his coming. And we sing: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Amen.

28 March 2013 - Maundy Thursday - Luke 22:7-20

A “covenant” is a solemn, enduring agreement between two parties. A covenant is not just a temporary arrangement, pertaining to a temporary need, but it is imbued with the character of permanence.

Sometimes, such a covenant is described, alternatively, as a “testament.” The word “testament” is used to describe a covenant that is, we might say, “lopsided” in its provisions, in that it is the kind of covenant that involves one party obligating himself to do things for another party, but without requiring a reciprocal obligation from that other party - except to receive what is given by the testator.

A “last will and testament” is a good example of this. A person who has died is thereby bestowing his legacy on his heirs.

But the heirs are not being required to bestow anything on the deceased person in return. They cannot bestow anything on him, because he is dead.

This evening’s Old Testament lesson from the Prophet Jeremiah, and this evening’s Gospel from St. Luke, both talk about solemn covenants between the Lord and his people. Some translations speak of these covenants as “testaments,” because when God makes a covenant with men, he tells them what he is giving them, and he tells them how to receive what he is giving, but he does not tell them what he needs from them.

God is God, after all, and he needs nothing from us. But in his old testament to the children of Israel, and now in his new testament to the Christian church, God solemnly promises to give his love, his grace, and his blessing; and he solemnly implores those to whom the testament is directed, to receive his love, his grace, and his blessing.

One of the important aspects of a covenant or testament is the aspect of remembrance. Again, a covenant is an enduring and permanent agreement.

It is easy for us to forget many of the pledges and promises that we make to others. I am guilty of this myself.

At my house, I have a particular book that I at some point borrowed from someone, with the understanding that I would return it when I was through with it. But I cannot remember now whose book it is.

Several books have gone missing from my library over the years under similar circumstances. I loaned these books to people, who agreed to return them when they were through with them.

But I cannot remember now who these people were. And I assume that the reason why the books have not been returned, is because the borrowers have also forgotten who the owner of the books actually is.

But if there were a “covenant” of sorts attached to the borrowing of books, there would also be a remembrance of who the owner of the book is. My wife can tell you what happens when someone forgets to return a borrowed book to the city library.

The city library attaches a “covenant” to the borrowing of books. The library keeps track of who has a book; it reminds that person of the date by which the book needs to be returned; and if the book is not returned by that date, a fine is assessed - as punishment for violating the provisions of the covenant.

Your relationship with God is more like a “testament,” which goes from one party to another; and is not so much like a traditional “covenant,” which requires essentially equal obligations from both parties. Your relationship with God is based on his pledges and gifts to you, and is not based on your pledges and gifts to him.

And besides, you have no doubt broken most if not all of the pledges and promises you have made to God over the years anyway. I know I have.

I forget how guilty and ashamed I felt when I sinned in the past - when I had promised the Lord that with his help I would amend my life. And so I sin again. And again. And again.

If I were not a pastor - with all of the extra external motives for going to church that this position of responsibility brings - I would probably also be inconsistent and half-hearted in remembering the pledges I made when I was confirmed, when I promised to be regular in worship, and generous in the support of the church.

When we were confirmed, we all promised to be willing to suffer all - even death - rather than abandon Christ, his pure gospel, and his orthodox church on earth. But for so many of us at various times in the past - and for so many others at the present time - it didn’t take something as severe as the threat of death or dismemberment to cause us to forget this promise, and to walk away from God or his Word.

But even when we forget, God does not forget. He remembers his covenant. And an irony in the new covenant, or new testament, is that one of the things he remembers, is to forget.

God remembers to forget our sins - that is, he remembers to forgive them, and to remove them from us, for the sake of his Son, our Savior Jesus Christ - who sacrificed his body on the cross for us, and who shed his blood for our redemption.

In the new testament that he has given to the church through his Son, God, our Father in heaven, remembers the death and resurrection of his Son. He remembers the justification of sinners that this death and resurrection earned and procured.

And therefore, he does not remember the sins of those who repent and believe in their Savior. He told Jeremiah, and through Jeremiah he tells us:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. ... For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

When Jesus instituted for his disciples the sacrament of his body and blood, he told them that this was the “new covenant” or the “new testament.” “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”

According to the new testament in Christ, God promises to give forgiveness, life, and salvation through Jesus. He does not forget this covenant. He remembers it.

And he gives what he pledges to give - in the gospel in general, and in the Lord’s Supper in particular.

In the gospel in general, and in the Lord’s Supper in particular, we too are called to remember this covenant.

We are not called to remember a covenant of obligations we have to God, by which we are to earn our own salvation and acceptance with him. But we are here called to remember a covenant - a testament - where God gives what he has promised to give, and where God implores us to receive what he gives - into our minds, into our hearts, into our lives.

When Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, he instituted for us a remembrance of this new testament. We don’t bring our memories of Jesus to the Lord’s Supper. That’s not what it means to “do this” in remembrance of him.

Rather, we come to this Supper in our weakness of faith, in our moral frailty, and in our propensity to forget. And this Supper then renews to us the memory of God’s pledge, God’s promise, God’s gift.

The “remembrance” of Christ, in this new testament of grace and forgiveness, is not what we bring to the Lord’s altar. It’s what we receive there. And its what we take away from there - for a renewed life of faith in Christ, and for a re-energized life of service to others in the love of Christ.

God remembers his covenant. In the Lord’s Supper, he graciously causes us to remember his covenant.

O Lord, in this wondrous Sacrament You have left us a remembrance of Your passion. Grant that we may so receive the sacred mystery of Your body and blood, that the fruits of Your redemption may continually be manifest in us; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

29 March 2013 - Good Friday - Hebrews 7:26-28

Our text is written in the 7th chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, beginning at the 26th verse:

“For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.”

So far our text. In the name of Jesus. Amen.

That “God sacrificed his own son in place of humans who needed to be punished for their own sins might make some Christians love Jesus, but is an obscene picture of God. It is almost heavenly child abuse... I do not want to express my faith through a theology that pictures God demanding blood sacrifices in order to be reconciled to us.”

These are the words of the well-known religious scholar John Dominic Crossan. They reflect the opinion of an increasing number of people, who do not overtly reject the Christian religion, or Jesus, but who do reject the classic Christian doctrine of the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ.

But the witness of Scripture, in both testaments, is very consistent in portraying God as a just and holy God whose wrath is kindled against his willfully rebellious creatures - who knew better, and who know better now. From the perspective of the justice and holiness of God, the Scriptures do not present to us a benign Santa-Claus type of Deity.

There are many passages in the Old Testament that report that “the anger of the Lord was kindled against” this or that person, nation, or people - because of their sins. And as the Epistle to the Hebrews elsewhere says, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”

To those who complain about God’s way of being holy and just - and who think they cannot tolerate a wrathful God whose anger against human sin needs to be appeased - God responds through St. Paul, who writes in the Epistle to the Romans: “who are you, O man, to answer back to God?”

We don’t get to manufacture the kind of God we want to believe in, and then find our comfort in the indulgence and flattery of that God. The only God we get to have, is the one and only God who actually exists.

And that God says in his Word - regarding Christ, the true priest who offers himself on the cross as a perfect sacrifice on behalf of the world - that “it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens,” who “once for all...offered up himself.”

But what of the charge that this is a cosmic form of child abuse? Do we have a situation where God, in his divine rage, pours out punishment on an innocent mortal man? It would seem as if a God who would do this is petty and vindictive, and cruel and unjust to the extreme.

That is, it would seem this way, if we were Arians. But we are not Arian heretics. We embrace the Nicene Creed as a testimony of the Biblical truth that the Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, is himself “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God.”

Within the mystery of the divinity of Jesus, we do not see God only as the one who pours out wrath against the human sin that humanity’s Savior and substitute has carried to the cross.

We also see God as the one who absorbs his own wrath into himself. We see God in Christ, who willingly places himself under his own law’s judgment against human sin, in the stead of sinners.

As St. Paul explains it in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” God was in Christ, doing this.

God - in the person of Jesus, in whom “all the fulness of deity dwells bodily” - was doing this.

In this way, the demands of divine justice are met. But God himself is the one who meets his own demands.

The sins of those who are now forgiven in Christ do not go unpunished. God does not just ignore these sins, as if they did not bother or offend him.

But God, in his own way, does something to remove those sins from our account, and remove them from us, by taking them upon himself, and by suffering and dying for them. And the church of God is thereby purchased - purchased with his own blood, as St. Paul says in the Book of Acts.

God did not make an innocent man suffer. He, as an innocent man, willingly suffered himself.

The sacrificial death of Jesus is not a picture of God’s vindictiveness. It is a picture of God’s grace and love.

As St. John explains it in his First Epistle, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

This is the same apostle who had written in regard to this eternal divine Son: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

According to the Trinitarian character of God, God sending his own Son, is God sending himself. It is God who is both sending, and coming.

It is God who is demanding and receiving the atoning sacrifice, and it is God who is offering that sacrifice. For your salvation, for your reconciliation with God, for your forgiveness, God does everything.

Indeed, there is a full Trinitarian dimension to what happened on the cross. Again, the Epistle to the Hebrews tells us that “the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God,” will “purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”

And so, where Crossan and others see an “obscene” picture of God - a form of “heavenly child abuse” as they call it - we see a picture of a fully self-giving God.

He gives himself to the human race by becoming a human - and by living, without sin, among us and for us. And he gives himself for the human race, by taking our sins upon himself, and by sacrificing himself in our stead; so that we - through faith in him - can and will live in fellowship with God, and not in fear of God.

O Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us, and grant us your peace. Amen.

31 March 2013 - Easter - 1 Corinthians 15:19-26

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

“If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” With these words, the apostle Paul, in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, addresses a first-century version what has also become an all-too-common error in our own time.

The assertions of modern skeptics and rationalists have dismantled, in the minds of many, a belief in the miracles that are reported in the Bible - including that most central of miracles, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Those who have come under these anti-supernatural influences, if they have not rejected the idea of a “Christian religion” altogether, are compelled by these influences to redefine the emphasis and focus of the Christian faith. If they still want to think of themselves as Christians in some sense, they must now turn that faith into a religion that is primarily directed toward this natural world.

The Christian religion is still understood to be a force for change in the lives of individuals, and not just social and economic structures. But the change that is now looked for, is a change in how someone now conducts himself in this life, and in how he treats other people in this life.

There certainly is a lot of material in the New Testament to draw on, in reconstructing the Christian religion as a religion that is defined by the effort to live as Christ lived, and to treat others as Christ treated them. Jesus, in his interactions with the poor and the needy, with societal outcasts and misfits, demonstrated a wealth of compassion toward them.

And even if the accounts of his miraculous healings are dismissed as myths and legends, there is still enough left in his words to inspire in us a high degree of love and consideration for our fellow men.

This will affect the way we live. Those who know us, and who spend time around us, can indeed hope for good things from us, to the extent that we do treat them as Jesus treated the people he knew.

And those who seek to imitate Christ in how he treated people, would also be expected to imitate Christ in other ways: in the personal virtues of humility, patience, and loyalty.

And we ~should~ live in such a way as to fulfill these hopes, and live out these virtues, as far as they go. People in this world ~should~ expect to be treated well, and with kindness and generosity, by Christians.

But the inspired words of St. Paul still stand. “If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

If the Christian faith did not in fact give us a hope for what happens after death, people would not on that account stop thinking about what will happen to them after death. There is an inborn sense within all people, that there is something wrong and unnatural about death.

There is an inborn feeling in people that they should live forever. They are troubled by the fact that they don’t.

This is why people in ordinary circumstances will do almost anything to avoid death. This is why people grope for an understanding of what will ultimately happen to them.

This is why there is a growing interest in our society in ghost stories, in spiritism, and in seances - which corresponds to the diminishing influence of classic, Biblical Christianity, and of its explanations of life and the afterlife.

Even without Christ, and the message of the resurrection of Christ, people do in fact think about the end of their life on earth. They think about it.

And at a very deep level, if not consciously and overtly, they fear it. And that fear of death then colors and taints everything else that they do and think.

This fear of death, to the extent that this fear haunts us, colors and taints everything that we do and think. If our religious beliefs do not stretch our hopes beyond the things and relationships of this world, then we will hesitate to give fully of ourselves: to other people, or to the causes we believe in.

If there is danger - physical or emotional danger - we will draw back. We will always be in “survival” mode, and not in “service” mode.

We will look to ourselves, and to what will keep us alive. We will not look to our fellow humans - our fellow children of Adam - and to what they need from us. We will not make sacrifices, if those sacrifices might result in a diminishing of the quality of our life, here and now.

If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, that “hope” - that misguided and ultimately meaningless hope - will keep us captive to the things of this life, in heart and mind.

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”

This makes all the difference. And this will really affect the way we live.

The resurrection of Jesus - his actual, bodily resurrection - did happen. The eyewitness testimony to this miracle has echoed, through the church, for 2,000 years.

Reliable people saw him alive after he was dead. And their testimony is true. They never changed their story, and they were willing to die for that story.

But the echo of their testimony is not a fainting echo. It is an echo that is itself alive, and is just as strong and powerful now as it was when Mary Magdalene and the other women first announced to Peter, and the other apostles, that Jesus was alive.

This living testimony comes to us in the preaching of the gospel - in the invitation to repent of our sins, and to embrace the mercy that is offered in Christ. This living testimony comes to us in the voice of Christ himself, when he absolves us, and when he speaks his body and blood into the sacramental bread and wine that we eat and drink.

This living testimony to the resurrection is imbued with the Holy Spirit - the Spirit of Truth, who impresses upon those who hear it that it is true.

The resurrection is true for Jesus. He was dead, and he became miraculously alive - alive and glorified.

But the resurrection is also true for us. It is true for those who are in Jesus, and are united to him by faith. Because he lives, those who are found in him will live in him.

He is the firstfruits. We, too, will rise from the dead on the last day, when the full harvest of Jesus’ redemption is brought into God’s kingdom.

And in the “between” time - between mortal death now, and the resurrection at the end of the world - our souls in heaven will rest in Christ, and wait in Christ, until they are clothed again with their glorified bodies. This is a hope that lifts our minds and hearts beyond the concerns of this world, and beyond the obligations and opportunities of this world.

This life, with all of its dangers and threats, is not all that there is. This life, from which we must all eventually depart in death, is not the end.

Our resurrection hope in Christ, liberates us from our captivity to “survival” mode in this world. The resurrection hope that the gospel of Jesus Christ instills into us, frees us from living, and dying, in fear.

We are liberated to live for others, to serve others, and to sacrifice for others. And even if it is sacrifice unto death, we know now, in Christ, that death is a portal to life.

Temporal death for those who know Christ, is a portal to eternal life in Jesus - whose blood has washed away our sins; and whose forgiveness has brought peace and reconciliation with God forever.

And so, while our hope in Christ is not in this life only, or for this life only, our hope in Christ does have a profound effect on this life. As we, in love, serve our neighbor and fulfill our duties; and as we, in thanksgiving, partake of the blessings of God’s creation in this world, we do so in a carefree and confident way.

For as long as life is ours, we will enjoy life. When death comes, we will accept death. We know that Christ, who has won for us the victory over death, accepts us, and will raise us up.

So let us keep the festival Whereto the Lord invites us;
Christ is himself the Joy of all, The Sun that warms and lights us.
By His grace He doth impart Eternal sunshine to the heart;
The night of sin is ended. Hallelujah! Amen.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.