1 February 2009 - Epiphany 4 - Mark 1:21-28

When is the last time that you were astonished by something? I’m sure there have been a lot of times when something made an impression on you, or when something has been of interest to you. But astonishment is a reaction that you do not often have.

The people at the synagogue in Capernaum were astonished at the things that happened in their midst, as described in today’s text from St. Mark’s Gospel: “they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.”

The scribes, as their name suggests, were the official preservers of the texts of Judaism. This would include the Scriptures, of course, but also the many layers of rabbinic commentary and elaboration that had been piled onto these texts over the generations.

A lot of the rabbinic commentary had the tendency to interpret some of the more profound passages of Scripture as little more than prescriptions for a certain ritual. A lot of the rabbinic elaboration had the tendency to expand small points in a passage far beyond their original importance.

The kind of teaching that a scribe would carry out would therefore often be little more than a list or catalogue of competing opinions about relatively insignificant matters.

If a scribe were to be asked a question about Jewish belief and practice, he would probably respond in a way something like this: “Well, Rabbi A says this, but Rabbi B says that. This school of thought interprets the question in this way, but that school of thought interprets the question in that way.”

There would be very little definite guidance by which an erring conscience could be corrected. There would be very little evangelical certainty by which a troubled conscience could be comforted.

The deeper meaning of God’s Word, regarding the accusations of his law against hypocrisy and self-righteousness in the heart, and the forgiveness and restoration that God offers to those who have fallen, were usually overlooked or minimized, if not explained away altogether.

But the teaching of Jesus was astonishing to the crowd, because his teaching was completely different. He taught with authority.

We see over and over again in the Gospels that Jesus based his preaching and teaching on the Hebrew Scriptures. He corrected the superficial and false interpretations that were often put on various passages, and explained their proper, original meaning.

He also reminded his hearers of important passages that the scribes and rabbis often ignored, in order to make the fulness of God’s revelation known to the people. And he showed how the various Messianic prophecies of Scripture pointed to him.

We don’t know exactly what Jesus was saying on this day in Capernaum. But we do know that he was expounding the Divine Scriptures according to what those Scriptures were actually intended to mean. And this faithful and accurate proclamation of God’s Word was indeed carried out with authority.

The people could tell, as the Holy Spirit touched their hearts and minds through the Lord’s teaching, that what he was saying was authentic. They could sense that a supernatural, heavenly power was at work here.

In spite of the fact that there was still so much about Jesus that they did not understand, they did at least know - on this occasion - that his teaching was something that they should be listening to. And they were astonished by what they heard.

The authority and power of Jesus’ words also went beyond the impact that they had on the people who were listening to his teaching. Something even more astonishing happened in conjunction with the Lord’s visit to the synagogue that day:

“And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are - the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him.”

Exorcism was not unheard of among the Jews of the first century. But traditional Jewish exorcisms were never performed in the way that Jesus performed this one!

The first-century Jewish historian Josephus describes how exorcisms were usually done at the time of Christ. He notes, first, that the rituals, incantations, and other practices associated with exorcism were believed to have been passed down over the centuries from Solomon, who, in his wisdom, has devised these practices.

Josephus then describes an exorcism, performed in the traditional Jewish way, that he himself had witnessed:

“I have seen a certain man of my own country, whose name was Eleazar, curing people possessed by demons... The manner of the cure was as follows. He put a ring that had under its seal one of those sorts of roots mentioned by Solomon to the nostrils of the demoniac, and then drew the demon out through his nostrils as he smelt it. And when the man fell down immediately, he adjured the demon to return into him no more, still making mention of Solomon, and reciting the incantation which [Solomon] had composed.”

That’s the kind of exorcism that the people of Capernaum might have expected. But when Jesus interacted with the evil intelligence that was possessing the man in today’s text, that’s not what they saw or heard.

There was no special root or herb, by which the demon was lured to come out of the possessed person through his nose. There were no incantations. And there was certainly no invocation of the authority of King Solomon.

Instead of all that, Jesus, the Holy One of God, by his own authority commanded the demon to be quiet, and he commanded the demon to depart. And that was it.

The crowd was again astonished: “they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’”

Notice, too, that the demon who was possessing the man knew who Jesus was: “I know who you are - the Holy One of God.” It was also abundantly clear to the demon that Jesus was the enemy of everything that he stood for.

Our translation indicates that the unclean spirit, on behalf of himself and others of his kind, asked Jesus, “Have you come to destroy us?’ This phrase could just as well be rendered in the form of a statement: “You have come to destroy us.”

However that grammatical point is settled, it is not debatable that the demons knew that the appearance of Jesus in this world meant the end of their control over the minds and bodies of men. With the coming of humanity’s Savior, they were going to be defeated - one soul at a time - one nation at a time - until their final condemnation and imprisonment on the last day.

There would be no compromise between themselves and God’s Son. And there would be no retreat on the part of God’s Son. They were doomed, and they knew it.

The demon in today’s story had a better understanding of these matters than we usually do. In our various rationalizations and half-heartedness, it seems that we are always trying to make compromises between the authority of Christ, which we know we should recognize, and the sinful things that we also want to keep doing.

We often try to balance off and straddle the influence of Christ’s Word and Spirit on the one hand, and the influence of the world, the flesh, and the devil, on the other. We often seem to forget that Christ came to destroy the devil and his kingdom, not to coexist with them.

And if you firmly tie yourself to these dark influences; if you continue to embrace the values and motives of the devil’s kingdom; if your thoughts and actions are continually shaped and governed by a spirit of pride and greed; don’t deceive yourself into thinking that you will be able to get away with that forever.

You won’t. When God decides that the time for the destruction of the devil and his angels has come, they will be destroyed. And their friends and servants will be destroyed with them.

These are the words that Jesus, the righteous judge, will speak to the unrighteous on the final day of reckoning: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

Those words of Christ will be heard on that fearful day by those who do not know Christ, and who do not honor and love his name. When he speaks these words, he will speak them with authority.

These words will therefore have the power to accomplish what they are intended to accomplish. If you love sin, and have wilfully enmeshed yourself in the world of sin and death over which Satan reigns, these words of Christ will damn you on that day. And you will be astonished.

But that day has not yet come. And before that day comes, know that the authority of Christ’s Word is still being exercised today for the sake of salvation, not damnation; for the sake of forgiveness, not judgment; for the sake of eternal life, not eternal death.

Jesus Christ is still teaching with authority in his church. His word is still spoken with the same kind of power with which it was spoken in today’s story, when the Lord’s pardon and mercy are declared to you.

In today’s text, Christ’s Word had the power to remove the demon from the possessed man’s body. For you today - here and now - Christ’s Word has the power to incorporate you into your Savior’s body!

The demon was not welcome where he was, so he had to go. You are welcome in the Lord’s Holy Church, so that’s where the Word of Jesus is drawing you and implanting you.

In fact, that’s what we saw and heard a little while ago, in this morning’s service, when two babies were baptized. The word of Christ was spoken, in conjunction with the application of water at his command.

That word had authority. It caused to happen what Jesus wanted to happen. And so we know that those children, conceived and born as a part of a fallen race, were given the regenerating Spirit of Christ.

They became, in their hearts, believers in the Gospel of Christ. They were forgiven for the sake of Christ.

They were mystically united to Christ, and became a part of his church. As we believed the promises of God that were spoken over them, and as we in faith witnessed this miracle, we were astonished.

And the Word of Christ - with its profound authority - has had its way with all of you, who yearn for the forgiveness and life that only Jesus can give. You have that forgiveness, and that life, by the Word of forgiveness and life that he has spoken to you.

He told the demon, “come out of him.” And he came out of him, by the power and authority of that Word.

He tells you, “Come to me, ...and I will give you rest.” And you do come to him, by the power and authority of that Word.

You are indeed a part of his church. And through the ministry of Word and Sacrament that he continues to carry out in his church for your benefit, he continues to teach you with authority.

When God’s Word is accurately proclaimed - without the traditions of men obscuring its beauty or diluting its purity - Jesus is, by his divine authority, graciously exercising his power to save you, and to preserve you.

When the Lord’s sacramental invitation to his disciples is proclaimed from the altar - the invitation to eat his body and drink his blood for the remission of sins, which he issues by his divine authority to those who confess his name - those of you who are communicants heed that invitation.

And as you heed it - and as you believe everything else that Jesus tells you about God’s desire to be at peace with you, and to heal you, and to fill you with his Spirit - you are astonished.

You are astonished in humility, because the Lord Jesus is using his power to save you, not to destroy you. You are astonished in repentant joy, because you are experiencing the authority of his Word in his mercy, not in his condemnation.

“And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority... And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’” Amen.

8 February 2009 - Epiphany 5 - Mark 1:29-39

Jesus had been making a pretty big splash in Capernaum. As we heard in last week’s Gospel lesson, he became a very noticeable public figure in that town.

He had become famous, both by his preaching - which the people in the synagogue found to be astonishing - and by the extraordinary exorcism he performed on the demon-possessed man.

For us, too, Jesus is, as it were, a public figure whom we very much notice and admire. A worship service, such as the one we’re in the middle of right now, is a public event.

And in a Lutheran church - such as ours - Jesus is the main focus of attention in this public event. We come here, then, with an expectation that Jesus will do the kind of astonishing and extraordinary things that he has promised he will do, when his people are assembled together in his name.

We come here joyfully and eagerly on Sunday mornings. We know that we have sinned, in the preceding week and indeed throughout our lives.

And so we look forward to the public absolution, by which God’s forgiveness is spoken to us, in the stead and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ.

We know that in our thoughts and actions we have wandered away from the Lord, to one extent or another, and that our hearts have in some ways begun to run cold.

And so we look forward to the public preaching of the Gospel, in which we are comforted by our Savior’s promises, and inspired and motivated for a life of service to him and our neighbor.

We know, too, that we have filled our minds with worldly, unspiritual thoughts - fears of an uncertain future, anger and grudges, impatience with those who are in need of our time and attention.

And so we look forward to the cleansing and refreshment that Jesus publicly bestows on us in the gift of his Holy Supper.

The sacrament of Christ’s body and blood is available to us, in a public celebration, on every Lord’s Day and festival. Even if we do not commune every Sunday, it is good to know that the comfort of the Supper is there for us - whenever our devotional discipline would prompt us to receive it, or whenever our conscience would tell us that we need it.

All of these things happen publicly - out in the open for all to see. As the Lord and head of his church, Jesus therefore still is - for us at least - a very public figure.

He is still bringing his Gospel to many people - to large crowds of people. He is still making an impact on the world. In the fellowship of his church, he is very noticeable.

And, in faith, we are glad to have the opportunity to be beneficiaries of the very public ministry that Jesus is still carrying out in these ways. But the presence of Jesus in this world is not limited to those churchly activities that make him to be, as it were, a public figure.

When we leave the place of public worship, and go to our homes, we are not leaving Jesus behind. He goes with us, and continues to be a part of our lives - just as was the case in today’s Gospel lesson.

We are told that when Jesus left the synagogue in Capernaum, he “entered the house of Simon and Andrew.” Jesus now became a part of the private life of the Bar-Jona family. He was welcomed into these intimate, personal surroundings.

And, he became involved with the personal problems and struggles that were taking place in this household. Simon Peter’s mother-in-law was sick, with a fever.

I’m quite certain that this lady was feeling bad, not only because of her physical infirmity, but also because this infirmity was preventing her from helping her daughter to show proper hospitality to an honored guest. That was probably a worse burden for her than the bodily sickness.

And Jesus was sensitive to that. He didn’t ignore this distressed lady. He also didn’t try to cheer her up superficially, by telling mother-in-law jokes, or anything like that.

But very seriously, and very gently, he took the woman by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her. Much to her delight, she was then able to begin waiting on Jesus, and on Peter and all the other family guests who were there.

This woman’s problem hadn’t gotten the attention of other people in town. I doubt very much that anyone outside the Bar-Jona home even knew about it.

It wouldn’t seem to be something that was all that important to anyone either, except perhaps for the person who was sick.

So, we might expect an important public figure like Jesus not to notice this problem. After all, didn’t he have bigger fish to fry?

But he did notice this lady’s sickness. He did care about it. He cared about her.

This problem was important to Peter’s mother-in-law, even if it was not important to anyone else. And this problem was important to Jesus.

So, without making a big deal out of it, and without creating a public spectacle, he healed her. Hardly anyone would have noticed what he did. But what he did brought much joy to this woman.

Jesus, your Lord, is a part of what goes on in your home too. And there is no problem in your family that is too small, or too unimportant, for him to be willing to pay attention to it.

And don’t think that the more serious private problems of your family are off his radar screen. He is there with you, in the family circle, and is aware of everything that is going on.

And this remains true, whether your family circle is filled with solace and peace, or with stress and conflict. When there is stress and conflict, Jesus has a solution for it.

The power of his Word - to rebuke sin and to comfort the penitent - extends beyond the walls of the church, and into your home. Jesus wants very much to bring his Word to bear on whatever problems are besetting the members of your household.

He wants to heal broken hearts and broken relationships. He wants to purify poisoned souls and poisoned atmospheres.

He wants to do all those things, and he is able to do all those things, because with his Word and Spirit he is present with you in your homes, where these problems are also present.

We remember the old saying, “No one knows what goes on behind closed doors.” That’s partially true.

Other people outside your immediate family may not know about the problems - the private and personal problems - that you and your family members are facing.

And in the case of your own family life, you might try to make sure that this saying is true. Perhaps you don’t want other people to know about the painful or shameful things that go on behind the doors of your home.

And so, you make every effort to put up a good front, and keep up good outward appearances. You are glad to think that no one else knows what is really going on. But Jesus does know what goes on behind closed doors.

And when there are problems behind closed doors, he does something about them - just as he did something to solve the personal and private problem that Peter’s mother-in-law was experiencing behind the doors of her house.

When you are in church, and when Jesus is carrying out his public work of absolving, preaching, and distributing the sacrament, you can indeed call upon him, and seek his face. He is here, and he will help you.

He will guide you and heal you, and forgive you. He is guiding you and healing you, and forgiving you, right now.

But when you go home, he doesn’t stay here. He follows you.

When you enter through the doorway of your house, and close the door, you are not closing him out. He is already in there with you.

So call upon him, also at home. Call upon him in the midst of the argument you’re having with spouse, children, or parents.

Stop the fighting, and in humility seek his face. And listen when he says: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.”

Call upon him in the midst of your struggles with a checkbook that won’t balance, or with a credit card that you can’t pay off.

Stop the worrying, and in hope seek his face. And listen when he says: “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

Call upon him when you mourn, when you’re scared, when you’re lonely. And listen when he says: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Call upon him in the privacy of your home. He is there. And if God’s Word has a place in your family circle, he will help you at home.

When you’re at home, recall the Lord’s promises. Be refreshed in your faith in those promises by the devout reading of the Scriptures, and other sound spiritual literature.

Prayerfully meditate on those promises, as you ask him once again to guide you and heal you, and forgive you. He will listen.

He will guide you in your faith. By his Word he will help you to trust in his gracious promises, and in his providential care in the private times of your life.

He will guide you in the fruits of your faith. By his Word he will help you to grow into the image of Christ, and to put on the mind of Christ, in the ways you act and react in the private times of your life.

He will heal the bitterness that so often builds up in strained personal relationships. This kind of bitterness, often compounded by many emotional scars of pain and disappointment, is a spiritual toxin that is more harmful than any physical disease.

But Jesus will heal it. He absorbed all that bitterness, and all that pain, into his own body on the cross. And by the shedding of his blood, he redeemed you from that bitterness and pain.

On his cross he saved you from your public transgressions - the ones that are out in the open, and that a lot of people know about. And he saved you from your private transgressions - the ones that are behind closed doors - the ones that only your family members know about.

And now, as the crucified and risen Savior, he forgives all failures. He pardons all sins. As with Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, he will take you by the hand, and lift you up, so that you can be restored to spiritual soundness, and serve him with a quiet conscience.

And in regard to all these things - these personal and hidden struggles, concerning which you seek the Lord’s help - don’t be afraid to get in touch privately with the Lord’s servant - the pastor - whom the Lord has provided for you specifically for times such as these.

When you know that you need some extra help, ask your pastor to talk with you, confidentially, and to give you that help from the Word of God.

Jesus uses him publicly in church, as an instrument for the carrying out of the Lord’s public ministry. And in private settings he is also available to be an instrument and mouthpiece of your Savior. That’s his job, in fact.

But whether you seek the Lord’s help directly, in your own prayerful study of the Scriptures, or through the input of the pastor or some other Christian friend, know that Jesus really does care about whatever problem or struggle you and the members of your family may be dealing with.

As far as he is concerned, you have no secrets. But also as far as he is concerned, you do have a caring Savior who can and will do what needs to be done, to lift you up, and to carry you through - in whatever private trial you or your household may be facing.

“And immediately [Jesus] left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew... Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told him about her. And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them.” Amen.

15 February 2009 - Epiphany 6 - 2 Kings 5:1-14

What are you willing to believe? In general, people are willing to believe the things that they are already accustomed to believing - things that they already assume to be true.

The rub comes when we might consider changing our beliefs. What kind of influences would make you become willing to believe something different from what you previously were willing to believe?

As many of you know, I am a student of the American Civil War - a Civil War “buff.” This war is a tragically fascinating thing to study.

What is especially tragic about it is the enormous death toll. And the main reason for this huge loss of life is that the generals - especially at the beginning of the war - used battlefield tactics that were obsolete, in comparison to the advancements that had been made in the effectiveness of the weaponry that was then being used.

Before the Civil War, in the days when soldiers carried inaccurate smooth-bore muskets, with a limited range, a frontal assault against an entrenched enemy position would not have resulted in a large number of casualties.

But in the face of the rifled muskets and breach-loaded rifles that had been developed by gun-makers by the time of the Civil War - with their greater accuracy and longer range - such a charge was essentially an act of mass suicide.

And yet, the generals on both sides ordered such charges over and over again. Why? Because those were the tactics they were used to, and that they had come to believe in.

Those were the tactics they had learned at West Point in their student days. Those were the tactics that had worked in the Mexican War twenty years earlier.

Sometimes there are very dangerous and deadly consequences for those who are not willing to change their beliefs. This certainly holds true in matters of earthly warfare.

And it also holds true in matters of spiritual warfare - in the struggle between God and his adversary for your soul.

As today’s lesson from the Second Book of Kings tells us, Naaman, a successful and famous Syrian general, became afflicted with leprosy. The physicians of the day knew of no cure for this.

But the wife of Naaman had a Hebrew servant girl, who gave Naaman the idea that a certain prophet in the land of Israel might be able to do what the medical science of the day could not do. So, with his own king’s blessing and encouragement, Naaman decided to pay this prophet a visit.

Naaman, of course, knew a lot about priests and prophets, and religious rituals, and such things. Or at least he thought he did. He was accustomed to how “religion” was done in his own country.

First of all, as in other pagan lands, the king was the chief religious leader and priest of the nation - the pontifex maximus, as the Romans would later call their emperor. The professional priests, soothsayers, and religious practitioners worked under the king, and did his bidding.

And second, the success of a religious practitioner’s charms or spells was seen to depend on that person’s expertise in performing the rituals, and in teasing out from the gods the desired blessings. So, a spell-caster who could produce observable results could become a very rich man, as his achievements in this field would attract people willing to pay for the services of a proven miracle-worker.

And, of course, Naaman knew how this sort of thing was done. There would be an elaborate ritual, with lots of hand-waving, perhaps some dancing, reciting of incantations, and so forth.

Among the pagans, these sorts of gyrations were calculated to make an impression on the deity whose attention was sought. And they made an impression on any mortal observers as well.

So, with clear expectations of what would happen, based on lots of experience, Namaan set out for Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. And he brought a lot of silver and gold with him - 750 pounds of silver and 175 pounds of gold - to pay for the healing.

But Naaman was puzzled and even angered by what he encountered when he got to Israel. It was not what he expected.

First, the king of Israel didn’t have any idea what was going on when he read the letter that the king of Syria had sent along with Naaman, asking for his general’s healing. He feared that Naaman’s king was trying to provoke an international incident of some kind, in order to have an excuse for an invasion or some similar action.

In Israel, the true prophets of the Lord were not under the thumb of the kings. The faithful ones actually criticized the kings for their many sins and heresies, on a regular basis.

In Israel, no king, no politician, nobody at all dictated to God, and to God’s ministers, what should or should not be preached, or done in God’s name. God himself was in charge of such matters.

Before Naaman had had enough time to digest all that, however, the prophet Elisha heard about his visit, and sent word to his frightened king that he should send Namman to him for the healing he needed. So, Namaan went to the home of Elisha.

Naaman was an important person in Syria. He was a favorite of the king, and was accustomed to being treated with a high level of respect and deference. In Syria a man could no doubt lose his life for insulting a person like Naaman.

I wonder what Naaman thought, therefore, when Elisha didn’t invite Naaman into his home, or even step outside of his house to speak to Naaman. Instead, he sent a lowly messenger to speak to the Syrian general on his behalf, and to tell him what he must do in order to be cleansed.

Naaman had been humbled by his affliction, but not so much that his pride would not have noticed this slight. But his irritation with Elisha’s lack of deference to him was soon replaced with outright anger, when he heard what it was that Elisha told him to do.

It wasn’t what he expected at all. It wasn’t what he had traveled so many miles for. Let’s back up for a minute and read the inspired account of all this, as we have it in today’s lesson:

“Elisha...sent to the king, saying, ‘...Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.’ So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stood at the door of Elisha’s house. And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, ‘Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.’”

“But Naaman was angry and went away, saying, ‘Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?’ So he turned and went away in a rage.”

Naaman was not yet ready to change what he believed. But if he had remained in this state of stubborn refusal to do as Elisha had directed him to do, he would have become increasingly disfigured and consumed by the leprosy that was afflicting him, until it brought him to a miserable death.

He would not have been healed. However, Naaman had at least some servants in his retinue who were wiser than he was. We continue in our reading of the text:

“But his servants came near and said to him, ‘My father, it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it? Has he actually said to you, “Wash, and be clean”?’ So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.”

Naaman finally saw the folly of his ways. He ceased to be so self-assured, arrogant, and presumptuous, and humbled himself instead before the Word and power of the God of Israel.

He admitted that maybe he didn’t know as much as he thought he knew about how something like this would be done. He now listened to what Elisha had said.

He did what Elisha had told him to do. And he was healed.

If we would continue our reading in the Second Book of Kings, in the verses that follow the end of the appointed text of today’s lesson, we would see that Naaman learned some important things on this day. He learned that the grace of God cannot be purchased, when Elisha declined to accept the gold and silver that Naaman had brought.

And, most important of all, he was led to see and believe that the God of Israel is the only true God. He renounced the false gods of Syria, and pledged to worship only the God of Israel - who was now recognized to be, in truth, the God of the whole world.

Contrary to what he had expected, he knew now that the Lord Jehovah is not simply a convenient healer of leprosy. He is a God who puts his claim on a man’s entire life - on every man’s life - in body and in soul.

And he is a God - a redeeming and forgiving God - whom Naaman would now trust, for the remainder of his days, in all things - for physical and for spiritual healing.

What are you willing to believe? I had a conversation one time with a man who told me that he was a Lutheran because he was raised to be a Lutheran.

I replied, “What if you had been raised to be an unbeliever? Would that mean that you should remain such for the rest of your life, in spite of the claims of the Gospel on your life?”

He didn’t answer. He believed the right things, I suppose. But he believed them for the wrong reasons.

Naaman was raised to be a worshiper of Rimmon, and the other deities of Syria. But the Holy Spirit caused him to become a believer in a totally different kind of religion, and in a totally different way of salvation.

Back in Syria, Naaman didn’t know anyone else who believed these things - except perhaps for his wife’s Hebrew servant girl. Everyone else he knew would have thought that he was weird or even crazy for worshiping a God that no one else worshiped.

But he was willing to change his beliefs, because God had touched and changed his heart.

Would you be willing to change your beliefs, if God’s Word would impress upon you that what you currently believe is wrong? Would you be willing to change your ways, if God in his Word told you to make such a change, even if most of the people you knew would think you were weird or crazy?

Let’s explore an example of this sort of thing that we should all consider. In our ethically lax society, it is increasingly difficult to find people who still think that the proper sequence of events in a relationship between a man and a woman is: first, dating, followed by marriage, followed by living together, followed by intimacy.

It seems as if just about everybody today thinks that the order is supposed to be this: first, dating, followed by intimacy, followed by living together, followed by marriage - maybe.

I have known and talked with people who still identify themselves as Christians, but who have adopted the world’s approach toward such relationships - both in what they approve of for others, and in what they shamelessly embrace for themselves.

This has to change. It doesn’t matter that you’ve never before believed in chastity, honor, and self-respect - if that is in fact the case.

It doesn’t matter that everyone you knows believes in a life of self-indulgent impulsiveness and moral license. If you have embraced the world’s way of looking at this, you’ve got to change what you believe.

If you don’t, your conscience will be seared, and closed off to God and his Spirit. The spiritual leprosy of this sin - even if you don’t want to call it sin - will consume you.

And, if it’s necessary, you’ve got to be willing to change what you believe about how God brings his deliverance and help to people who have come to see their need for his deliverance and help.

Naaman was indignant when God’s prophet told him to wash in the Jordan River, in order to be healed of his leprosy. In your own mind, do you, at least in some respects, react in a disdainful or nonchalant way, when God’s Word tells you where and how he will bring his grace to you?

Baptism seems so simple and ordinary. There’s nothing flashy about it. No ecstatic ravings, no outward excitement.

It’s not easy for people, based on what they see and hear with their bodily senses, to come to the belief that anything supernatural is really happening. How can the muttering of a few words, and the splashing of a few drops of water, do anything?

Edward Koehler has some interesting thoughts in answer to that question - based in part on what we have been discussing today regarding Naaman and his healing. He writes:

“The water of the Jordan river did not in itself possess the power to cleanse Naaman from leprosy. Yet, since God had promised to heal him if he would wash in the Jordan seven times, the healing power was, by this Word of God, connected and joined with the water of this river.”

“And Naaman could not have been healed, had he not used this water. But he did, and the Word of God in and with the water cleansed him from his leprosy. In Baptism the Word of God cleanses us from the spiritual leprosy of sin.”

It is very commonly thought that God’s role among men is to punish the ungodly, and to justify the righteous - that is, to commend those who obey his law, and to declare them to be just and right in his eyes on the basis of their works of obedience. A lot of people believe this.

But, as St. Paul asks in his epistle to the Romans: “what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.”

“And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness, just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.’”

if you think that you can earn your way into God’s favor by your own works, or if you assume that God seeks to reward you for your personal sinlessness, you, like Naaman, have got to change your beliefs.

Proverbs 14: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.”

For Naaman, God’s healing power was available to him by divine grace, through the means that God had laid out for him, namely through washing in the Jordan River. For you, God’s forgiveness - his spiritual healing and cleansing; his acceptance - is available to you by divine grace, through the means that he has laid out for you.

God’s Word in preaching and in sacrament calls you, in repentance, to believe in something very different from what many people believe. Perhaps his Word is calling you to believe in something very different from what you yourself have been believing.

But God’s way is the way of life and salvation. It is genuine. It is true. And God’s way brings to you blessings that are so far greater than what any self-chosen way of faith and life could ever bring.

God changes all of us by the power of the Gospel of his Son Jesus Christ. Jesus is our Savior from sin. We are not our own saviors.

Jesus died for our sins on the cross. We therefore need not suffer and die for our own sins. Those sins are forgiven. We are free from the judgment that they would bring upon us.

And in the Gospel, by which this restoration and reconciliation are made known to you, God also gives you a new heart and a new mind. New expectations. A new hope.

When you have had a saving encounter with God’s powerful Word, you don’t look at things in the same way any more. You don’t think about things in the same way. Your beliefs, whatever they may have been apart from Christ, are changed.

“So [Naaman] went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.” Amen.

22 February 2009 - Transfiguration - Mark 9:2-9

“It is good that we are here.” These were the words of Peter, as he spoke on behalf of himself, James, and John, on the mount of transfiguration.

Of course, it could only be a good thing for them to be there because the Lord had brought them there. Everything that the Lord does is good.

So, Jesus’ bringing these three disciples to this place, to participate in these events, had to be a good thing. The only alternative is that it was a bad thing for Jesus to arrange for these men to be witnesses of the glory of the Lord, and of the miraculous appearance of Moses and Elijah. And that was certainly not the case.

But why is it so, that “it is good that we are here”? Peter thought that the reason why it was good for him and his friends to be there was so that they could build tents, or temporary shelters, for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses.

Peter wanted to do something, to make himself useful to God, as it were, on this occasion. But he was mistaken in his thought that this is why it was good for those three men to be there.

In the system of jurisprudence that God established through Moses for the Old Testament nation of Israel, guilt for a crime, or some other matter of legal importance, could be established only on the basis of the testimony of two or three witnesses. We read in the book of Deuteronomy:

“A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.”

It’s likely that Jesus had this in mind when he asked three of his disciples to come along and see the extraordinary things that were going to take place. For the benefit of the church, throughout its history, there would thereby be a thoroughly reliable and morally-binding testimony that the transfiguration did really occur.

The Lord’s divine glory was otherwise hidden from human sight during the time his earthly ministry. Jesus knew what an overwhelming thing it would be for people, in their human weakness, even to have a glimpse of this glory.

And so he spared most of them the fear and confusion that would result from such a revelation, and instead conducted his ministry according to the ordinariness of his human nature, in the form of a servant.

But in the transfiguration, these three witnesses did have such a glimpse of Jesus’ hidden side. Jesus’ divine majesty was revealed to them, even if for just a few minutes. And Jesus wanted the church of the future to know that this had happened.

He wanted us to know that his suffering and death - which followed this occurrence - was something that he freely chose to endure. He wanted us to know that as the almighty Son of God in the flesh, he was not compelled by the Romans or the Jewish Sanhedrin to do anything that he did not, ultimately, want to do.

At the deepest level, Christ was not pushed to his cross, externally, by his executioners. He was drawn to his cross, internally, by his own divine love for us. By his own divine love for you.

So, it was good for Peter, James, and John to be there, as witnesses on your behalf, and for your benefit. Their testimony - coming as it does from three reliable witnesses, through the pages of the New Testament - is the Lord’s guarantee to you that this really happened.

It is the Lord’s guarantee that Jesus was more than a great man. He was, and is, your eternal, divine Savior from sin and condemnation.

But there’s more to it than that. The three disciples in question thought that it was good for them to be there so that they could do something for Jesus and his heavenly companions - Moses and Elijah.

That way of thinking is, however, one of the instinctive reactions that fallen humanity often has, in its confused and misguided perception of God and of humanity’s standing before God.

When children of Adam - like us - consider God’s righteousness, in comparison to our own lack of righteousness, a common reaction is that we try to do something to bridge that gap. Perhaps some external religious exercise, or an assortment of good works.

We know that God’s law demands from us more than we have been giving. And so, our misguided sinful conscience impels us to do more, to try harder, to make ourselves acceptable to God.

The sinful nature often tries to invent a religion of self-improvement for itself, or to throw itself into acts of altruism and humanitarianism that it supposes will somehow protect it from the judgment of a holy God.

Like a employee who wants to avoid getting fired by his demanding boss, we look for something to do to make ourselves seem useful and worth keeping around.

And so we may often find ourselves thinking what Peter thought, and maybe saying what Peter said, when we understand ourselves to be in the presence of God, and under the scrutiny of God.

Perhaps when you are in church, listening to the Word of God, or perhaps when you are approaching the Lord’s Table, you might be saying to Jesus in your own confused way: “It is good that we are here.”

“Let us make something for you. Let us do something for you.” “Let us earn God’s favor, and turn away God’s anger, by words and actions that, we hope, will make a positive impression on you.”

No, dear friends. That is not the reason why it is good that you are here, in the Lord’s presence. In the Ministry of Word and Sacrament by which the divine-human Christ makes himself to be mystically present among us, in this assembly, he is not here so that you can build anything for him, or do anything for him.

The works of love that the Holy Spirit prompts us to perform - imperfect though they may be - are for the benefit of our neighbor in need. They are not for the benefit of God.

God doesn’t need our righteous deeds, even if it were possible for us to offer such to him. But of course, in our sinfulness that’s not even possible. As Isaiah reminds us, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.”

The reason why it is good that we are here is the same reason that was given to Peter, by God the Father, when his booming and reverberating voice spoke forth from the cloud: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”

Peter, James, and John were not there to build something for Jesus or to do something for Jesus, as they had originally thought. They were there to listen to Jesus. And it was good for them to be there, so that they could listen.

Indeed, for the rest of the time of their Master’s earthly ministry, it was good for them to be seated at his feet, listening to his words - his words of rebuke and correction; his words of forgiveness and hope.

It was good for them to be there at the Last Supper - or what we might call the First Supper - to listen to the words of invitation and promise that Jesus spoke: “Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you.” “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins.”

It was good for them to be there on Easter evening, to listen to the resurrected Savior when he came to them and said, “Peace be to you.”

It was good for them to be there, on the day of Pentecost, and on every day after that - for the rest of their earthly lives - when they were able to continue to listen in faith to the loving and life-giving voice of their Lord, within the fellowship of the church, in the preaching of the Gospel and in the administration of the sacraments.

And it is good for you to be here too, in the same way, and for the same reason. In his life, and in his death, Jesus took your place. He lived for you, and he died for you.

Jesus comes to you now in the preaching of the message of the cross, to make himself known to you as your Redeemer. He does not come to demand and to condemn. He comes to give, and to save.

In the preaching of salvation by grace, by which sinners like you and me are forgiven our many failures and shortcomings, God does not demand perfect righteousness from us. He gives perfect righteousness to us: the perfect righteousness of his beloved Son.

And by God’s grace, we listen. We listen when Jesus explains that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

We listen when Jesus says that “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.”

We listen. And we believe. And in this faith, we live. In his epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul writes that, just as

“we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”

Since this is a place where the Gospel of our justification in Christ is preached - through which Jesus abides with us and sustains us - it is good that we are here. Since this is a place where the Lord’s sacramental words bring his body and blood to his people - for pardon and spiritual strength - it is good that we are here.

Jesus is indeed God’s own beloved Son. And therefore we joyfully, and thankfully, listen to him. Amen.