1 April 2012 - Palm Sunday - 1 Tim 2:3-6

In last Sunday’s Gospel, from St. Mark, we heard our Lord say these words to his disciples:

“See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”

As we now enter Holy Week, and hear the various Scripture readings that are appointed for Holy Week, we are seeing all these things play out. The reason why these things happened was because God, in this way, was implementing his desire for the human race to be saved from its sin.

St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to Timothy that God our Savior “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.”

Most people are no doubt glad to think that God desires to save them. But many people - perhaps you - have also wondered why it had to be done in this way.

Couldn’t God, if he is God, have figured out a way to save people that would not have required all the horrible things that happened to Jesus?

And couldn’t God have figured out a way to save people, that would have been more successful and effective? After all, there are a lot of people, by any reckoning, who ultimately do not benefit from God’s desire to save them, and who are not saved.

If God is almighty, and unlimited in what he can do, why doesn’t he actually save all people? And why doesn’t he save people in an easier and quicker way?

These questions, and the Christian religion’s perceived inability to answer them in a satisfactory way, are a part of the reason why many people turn their backs on the Christian faith, and dismiss it as impractical and pointless.

But is it really true that God is absolutely unlimited in what he can do? No, this is not true.

God is not, in fact, completely unlimited in what he can do. He is limited by himself, by his own character, and by his own identity as God.

In the range of options that God has before him, for the accomplishing of his wishes, and for the fulfilling of his will, he actually cannot choose any option that would require him to stop being God. And a large part of what it means for God to be God, is that God is holy.

The prophet Isaiah got a taste of the holiness of God on one unforgettable occasion. He reports his experience:

“I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. ... And one called to another and said: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory! And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.”

According to the typical nonchalant attitude that people today often have toward God and the things of God, some might think that their reaction to seeing something like this would be, “Hey, that’s pretty cool.” But the actual reaction that any mortal man would have, is exemplified by what Isaiah’s reaction was:

“And I said, Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.”

That’s what the holiness of God is like, and that’s what the holiness of God does to sinful man. When it is uncloaked and undiluted, it shatters us, and crushes us.

In our moral and spiritual corruption, we cannot endure God in his holiness. And God, in his holiness, cannot endure us.

If God were to wink at human sin - to accommodate it, to tolerate it - he would cease to be the holy God that he is. But God cannot cease to be holy, without ceasing to be God.

There’s no way around this. St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.”

God’s wrath against ungodliness and unrighteousness is not arbitrary. The fact that he is holy in himself, means that he is wrathful against everything outside of himself that is not holy.

But even with humanity’s inborn enmity against God - which poisons our old nature, and which provokes God’s anger - God does still desire the salvation of all people. In his holiness he must punish human sin, but in his grace and Fatherly love, he wants to save the humanity that he must punish.

Is there a way for both the wrath of God against sin, and the mercy of God for sinners, to exist together, without canceling each other out? There is. And that way, is the way of the cross of Jesus Christ.

In order to save humanity from sin, God entered into humanity, and clothed himself with humanity. More precisely, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity became a man. He did not cease to be God, but he became God in the flesh.

Today’s Introit includes passages from Psalm 118 and Psalm 24. Palm 118 pointed forward to the entrance of Christ into Jerusalem with these words: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Psalm 24 speaks of this entrance as follows:

“Lift up your heads, O gates! And lift them up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory!”

According to his human nature, as a righteous and obedient man, Jesus comes today in the name of the Lord. According to his divine nature, as the eternal Son of the Father, Jesus comes today as the Lord of Hosts himself.

In order to save all other human beings from the judgment of his law against human sin, God became the representative human being, who would stand in the place of all others, and who would receive that judgment in the place of all others.

Because of the unity of the human race, one man could represent all other men before God, and take the blame for what the entire race of men had done in it’s rebellion against God. God himself became that one man.

That’s how God was able to remain holy, and wrathful against the sin of all people, while also implementing his desire for all people to be saved.

God, in the person of Jesus Christ, absorbed his own wrath against human sin into himself. And by absorbing it into himself in Christ, he has thereby deflected it away from everyone else, in Christ.

Today is called the Sunday of the Passion. The passion of Christ - his suffering and death on the cross - testifies to these two fundamental truths.

When you think about the cross today, or in the coming week; or when you gaze upon its image; notice that Christ is suffering and dying. When he took humanity’s sin upon himself, and when he then presented himself before the tribunal of his Father’s heavenly judgment, nothing else could have happened.

But notice also - when you think about the cross, or gaze upon its image - that it is Christ who is suffering and dying, not you. As St. Paul explains in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

And St. Paul, the apostle and preacher, also said this in that Epistle:

“in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

When we read in Scripture that God our Savior desires all people to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth, this means that he desires you to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth - whoever you are.

According to his innate holiness, God would not be able to overlook your sins and save you, but would need to judge and punish you. But God, according to his incarnation, has positioned himself between his wrath and you. In Christ, God’s wrath against your sins has been swallowed up and extinguished.

But all of this is so only in Christ. “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.”

This is a paradoxical mystery: God, in Christ, is no longer angry at you because of your sins; but God, apart from Christ, still is.

If you are “in Christ,” then everything that is objectively true about humanity’s forgiveness in Christ, becomes subjectively true for you personally. But if you remain outside of Christ, or thrust yourself outside of Christ, you will not experience, or benefit from, the salvation that God has provided for humanity in his Son.

Jesus alone is the overarching “shelter” that protects us from the wrath of God. Under that shelter - that is, within Christ - we do not know God as a wrathful God, but as a loving Father. But outside of that shelter - outside of Christ - the storms of divine judgment will wash us away, and destroy us.

There is enough room under that shelter for every human being who has ever lived, or who ever will live. “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.”

Building on this objective truth, St. Paul - and all faithful preachers of the gospel - are inviting you and everyone else to come under this shelter, and to be united to Christ by faith, when they proclaim:

“We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

If you refuse to accept the salvation that God is actually offering in the Christian church - because you’re holding out for a form of salvation that does not presuppose God’s holiness and wrath against human sin - you are going to wait for a very long time.

There is no such salvation, because there is no such God.

If you refuse to repent of your sins and put you trust in Jesus for forgiveness, because you are holding out for a form of salvation that indiscriminately sweeps every human soul into a big dustpan of heavenly pleasure - and that does not require either repentance or Jesus - you are going to wait for eternity.

Because “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved,” as St. Peter tells us.

And St. Peter, who experienced Jesus’ friendship and companionship in this world, and who also experienced - in a very personal way - Jesus’ love and forgiveness, knows what he is talking about. Anyone today who, in ignorance, tells you something different, does not know what he is talking about.

Peter’s friend and brother apostle, St. John, writes in his First Epistle:

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

The Sunday of the Passion, and Holy Week, is a good time for Christians, in their weakness, to be renewed in this alone-saving faith. This is a good time for us, in the midst of the many distractions that have drawn our hearts away from Christ, to be called back to the cross of Christ - and back to our only hope.

This is also a good time for those who do not know Christ - or who once did know him, but no longer do - to receive the salvation that God wants to give; and, in Christ, to be reconciled to the God who has been reconciled to them.

God our Savior “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.” Amen.

5 April 2012 - Maundy Thursday - 1 Corinthians 10:16-17

Tonight we are commemorating a meal that took place almost 2,000 years ago, in an upper room in a house in Jerusalem, unnoticed by almost everyone - except for the dozen men who were there. Human history does know of events like this - events that happened in relative obscurity, but that set in motion, over time, a series of impacts and influences on an ever-widening scale, so as to effect an ever-widening range of people.

George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River set in motion a series of events that resulted in an American victory in the Revolutionary War, which set in motion a series of events that resulted in the westward expansion of the United States, which set in motion a series of events that resulted in the Mexican War and the Gadsden Purchase, which set in motion a series of events that resulted in the settlement and eventual statehood of Arizona.

As happy residents of Arizona, we probably spend very little time thinking about Washington’s crossing of the Delaware. Even though we would recognize that this event did set in motion a whole lot of things that eventually resulted in what we now experience in our lives here, we would also recognize that this event is very remote from our day-to-day experience.

Is the institution of the Lord’s Supper like this? Does its importance lie in the fact that it served as the first influence in a series of influences, that have now resulted in the religious life and the religious worship that we experience today? Is the original Lord’s Supper something that is remote from our actual religious life?

Some within the larger Christian world seem to think so - or at least they come close to thinking so - when the words “in remembrance of me” - which Jesus did speak on that occasion - are the words to which they pay the most attention. Many today remember Jesus, and the events of the Last Supper as they understand it, in a way that it similar to the how Arizonans remember Washington’s crossing of the Delaware.

But this is not the proper way to grasp the enduring impact of what happened at the Last Supper. We should not concentrate on Jesus’ words, “in remembrance of me,” without paying even closer attention to his words, “do this.”

And, what is the “this” which we are to do, in remembrance of him? At the Lord’s invitation and command, we are to celebrate and receive - here and now - the sacramental miracle of Jesus’ personal presence in his church, by means of the sacramental miracle of his personal presence in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.

We are to celebrate and receive Jesus’ gift of himself - and the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation, which Jesus always brings. In the Lord’s institution narrative, the words, “Take, eat; this is my body,” come before the words, “do this.” The words, “drink of it, all of you; this cup is the New Testament in my blood,” come before the words, “in remembrance of me.”

The Lord’s Supper is indeed rooted in history. But by the power of Christ’s Word, the Lord’s Supper is not locked away in history, accessible to us today only through a sequence of backward-looking memories.

Rather, the Lord’s Supper is transported from the upper room, almost 2,000 years ago - across all limitations of time and space - to where we are. It becomes, and always is, a present reality for God’s people.

The Lord’s Supper is not a dead memory, lodged in the back of the church’s mind. It is the vibrant, sacramental heartbeat of the church.

In this evening’s lesson from the First Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul rhetorically asks: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?” It is the blessing of the bread and wine, with the living and life-giving Words of Christ, that makes his Supper to be here for us, and that makes the benefits of his Supper to be available to us.

You do not believe Jesus into the bread and wine. Jesus speaks himself into the bread and wine. The presence of his body and blood does not depend on what you or anyone else believes.

This is both a comfort and a warning. It is a comfort to those who repent of their sins, and who approach this sacrament with a humble faith, because they are thereby assured that this Supper is a pure gift to them, from their forgiving and loving Savior.

But it is a warning to hypocrites, who approach this sacrament without repentance or faith, and who thereby have a real encounter with Christ as their judge, as they eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus to their condemnation.

Without the Word of Christ, there would be no sacrament. It is the Word of Christ, spoken over the earthly elements, that gives you the certainly that the body and blood of Jesus are present, distributed, and received, in those earthly elements.

The pastor’s declaration, “This is the true body of Christ; this is the true blood of Christ,” are his official “amen” to what Jesus has said. The pastor’s distribution formula doesn’t make the body and blood of Christ to be present in the bread and wine. His words are, instead, a confession of faith in what the Words of Jesus have accomplished.

The Formula of Concord - one of the official creedal statements of our church - quotes Luther as saying this:

“If I were to say over all the bread there is, ‘This is the body of Christ,’ nothing would happen. But when we follow his institution and command in the Supper and say, ‘This is my body,’ then it is his body, not because of our speaking or our declarative word, but because of his command, in which he has told us to speak and to do, and has attached his own command and deed to our speaking.”

The true meaning of the Lord’s Supper is not based on your memory of Christ. Rather, your memory of Christ is based on the true meaning of the Lord’s Supper - a meaning which is established by the Word of Christ.

The remembrance of Christ is not something that you bring to the sacrament. It is something that you take away from the sacrament - because of the renewal in faith that God brings about for you in this sacrament: in the mystical union of your body and soul with the body and blood of his Son.

This is why it is so important to preserve the Word of Christ, so that the sacrament that is carried to us by that Word is also preserved; and also so that the church - which finds its life in this sacrament - is preserved.

Those church traditions within Christendom that publicly declare in their confessions of faith, in effect, that for them, “this is my body” means “this is not my body,” are church traditions with which we can have no sacramental fellowship.

If the seeds of rationalism that inspire their skepticism on this point, are allowed to grow, and spread consistently into other articles of faith, it would ultimately mean the end of all distinctly Christian belief. We cannot go down that dangerous pathway, or give aid and encouragement to those who are going down that dangerous pathway.

St. Paul teaches that the bread and cup of the Supper are a communion of the body and blood of Christ, and not just of the Spirit of Christ, or of the influence of Christ.

The divine Christ whom we know by faith, is a Christ who is also the son of Mary. The incarnation is eternal and permanent. Wherever Christ is, his divinity and his humanity are always both there.

The Lord’s Supper is not a sacrament of Christ’s divinity alone. It is a sacrament of his divinity and of his humanity.

We know that this is so, because he says that this is so. “This is my body.” “This is the New Testament in my blood.”

But if his Words are changed in an erring church, by means of a public change in the declared meaning of those words, then there is no sacrament. This is not because his Word in such a case has become false or powerless, but because his Word in such a case has been effectively silenced.

Again, Luther is quoted in the Formula of Concord:

“The true body and blood of Christ are orally eaten and drunk in the bread and wine, even if the priests who distribute them or those who receive them do not believe or otherwise misuse the sacrament. It does not rest on human belief or unbelief but on the Word and ordinance of God - unless they first change God’s Word and ordinance and misinterpret them, as the enemies of the sacrament do at the present time. They, indeed, have only bread and wine, for they do not also have the words and instituted ordinance of God, but have perverted and changed it according to their own imagination.”

Ever since the incarnation, when God became a man in the womb of the Virgin Mary, Jesus has been our brother according to the flesh. As our brother - as our representative under the law of God - Jesus went to the cross, and died for us.

As our brother - as the firstborn of all creation - Jesus, in his resurrection, broke the chains of death that otherwise would have held us captive. And as our brother - as the divine-human Savior of the world - Jesus comes to us now, to forgive our sins, to renew us in faith, and to fill us with his life.

All of this he does in the Gospel in general, in whatever way that Gospel comes to us. But most vividly, and most intimately, he does all of this in particular in the special Gospel sacrament of his body and blood.

The Gospel is intensified in this sacrament. By means of this sacrament - with the deeply personal impact that it has on us - the Gospel of Jesus Christ embraces us more firmly than at any other time, and it impresses itself upon us more deeply than at any other time.

As the living Christ draws us to himself in this way, he also draws us to each other. St. Paul writes: “Because there is one bread, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”

We are one in the confession of the one Christ. The 16th-century Lutheran theologian and church leader Martin Chemnitz pointed out that “fellowship at the Lord’s table is a testimony of consensus, harmony, and unity in doctrine and faith, as Paul says: ‘We who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.’”

The unity in faith to which we testify in our sacramental participation together, is not merely a cerebral unity in common thoughts - although a conscious, mental grasping of the real presence of the real Jesus is a fundamentally important component of a proper preparation for the sacrament.

But in addition, in our communing together, we are also bearing witness to our love for each other, and to the unity in love that always accompanies a genuine unity in faith.

This is not necessarily a unity in the feeling of love. But it is a unity in a mutual commitment to each other in Christ: to help each other in times of need; to uplift each other in times of discouragement; to be patient with each other in times of personal weakness; and to forgive each other’s failings and faults at all times.

Our sharing in the Lord’s Supper is a testimony to these things. But before it is that, it is also the source of these things.

We love, because God first loved us. The Lord’s Supper is a sacrament of God’s love. It pours into us God’s love for us, and it then gives us a godly love for our brothers and sisters.

It teaches us how to love each other as Christ loved us. It forgives us when fail to learn and implement this joyous lesson as faithfully as we should. And it then teaches us this joyous lesson again.

We close with these words from the much-loved hymn by Samuel Kinner:

Lord Jesus Christ, Thou hast prepared A feast for our salvation,
It is Thy body and Thy blood; And at Thy invitation
As weary souls, with sin opprest, We come to Thee for needed rest,
For comfort and for pardon.

We eat this bread and drink this cup, Thy precious Word believing
That Thy true body and Thy blood Our lips are here receiving.
This word remains forever true, And there is naught Thou canst not do;
For Thou, Lord, art almighty.

Grant that we worthily receive Thy Supper, Lord, our Savior,
And, truly grieving over our sins, May prove by our behavior
That we are thankful for Thy grace, And day by day may run our race,
In holiness increasing. Amen.

6 April 2012 - Good Friday - Isaiah 53:1-13

“Who has believed what they heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”

It is often possible to figure out the meaning and purpose of a certain event, by simply watching that event. For example, if you were to see a young man down on one knee, holding up toward a young women a small box with a diamond ring in it, you know what is happening. A young couple is getting engaged to be married.

But the meaning and purpose of what happened on the cross, on the day Jesus of Nazareth died, is not self-evident. In fact, if you would try to figure out what is going on, on the cross, just on the basis of what you see, you would never understand.

The best explanation you would be able to come up with, is that this man must have done something to get the wrong people angry at him. The best lesson you would be able to learn - just from such external observations - would be that you should avoid doing whatever it is that this man did, to get himself into this kind of trouble.

The only way for any of us to know what is really happening, and why it is happening, is to listen - in faith - to the explanation that God gives in the Scriptures. If you refuse to listen to that explanation, or to believe it, the things that are commemorated in the Christian Church on this day will remain, for you, either an irrelevant curiosity to be ignored, or a morbid horror to be avoided.

But this is not what God wants. He wants you to listen to what he has to say about the crucifixion of Christ - indeed, to what he has been saying about it for a multitude of centuries.

Approximately 600 years before the crucifixion actually occurred in history, the Prophet Isaiah, by divine inspiration, was already telling the people of Israel what this event would mean. He was already telling them what it did mean for them even then - if they would only hear and believe the promise and prophesy of their God, in regard to it.

But most did not believe. Most did not care. And so the Prophet, in sadness, asks: “Who has believed what they heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”

So few listened. So few listen today, too. Please don’t be among them tonight.

Isaiah begins with some observations that could in fact be made by anyone who would have been there, witnessing the death of Jesus:

“he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces, he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”

If you would see a man being mocked, beaten, and dragged off to a degrading execution, the things that Isaiah says here would be self-evident. And, based on the common assumptions that people often have about what a good God does to evil people, it would be easy to reach at least a tentative conclusion that such a man must have been evil, and was likely getting what he deserved.

What Isaiah says next, however, is definitely not self-evident:

“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities.”

God’s explanation of what is really going on, on the cross, can be frightening at first. But it is true.

Jesus did not suffer because he was evil. Jesus suffered because we are evil, and because he had taken our place, as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Isaiah had begun his account by asking, “to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” The phrase, “the arm of the Lord,” is an old Hebrew way of saying that the Lord himself is doing something. His own “arm,” as it were, is making something happen.

As Isaiah goes on to say, “he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief.”

It was God who made this great substitution happen: his Son dying in your place; suffering for you under the judgment that your sins had called down from heaven.

Your conscience may tell you from time to time - even apart from any divine revelation - that you have done and said things of which you should be ashamed. Your conscience may even tell you that there is a God in heaven who is rightfully displeased with these failures.

But your conscience, by itself, cannot know - and therefore cannot tell you - that God himself, in the person of His Son, has actually done something about your sins: so that those sins would be forgiven before him; so that those sins would be removed from you, and not condemn you or be held against you; and so that the pain and grief in your life that has been caused by those sins, would be healed, and a joyous fellowship with God be given to you instead.

God does tell you about this. He is telling you about this right now, in the words of his servant Isaiah. And he is inviting you - he is imploring you - to believe what he is telling you.

As far as your soul is concerned, he does not want the suffering of his Son to have been in vain. He does not want you to ignore, or avoid, the deliverance that is yours.

He wants you to listen to him, and to join your voice to the voice of Isaiah, in confessing:

“upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

God also tells us: “by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” To have the knowledge of Christ in the truest sense, is to know him by faith.

And to know Christ by faith, is to know him as one who accounts you as righteous before God, by giving you his righteousness. To know him, by faith, is also to know him on the basis of what God tells you about him.

The purpose of the suffering and death of Jesus was not self-evident to those who may have witnessed that suffering and death, without an explanation of what was happening. There is no way to understand the meaning of the cross, apart from the message of the cross.

But in the message of the cross, the meaning of Christ’s life and death is revealed, and understood. And in the message of the cross, the meaning of your life in Christ - a life that will never be snuffed out - is also revealed and understood.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world, through him, might be saved.”

“Who has believed what they heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” Amen.

8 April 2012 - Easter - Mark 16:1-8

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

A common theme in horror movies, is a scenario where the hero of the movie tries to kill a villainous psychopath, werewolf, vampire, or monster, and thinks that he has succeeded - until he is surprised by a new attack from that villain, and realizes, in horror, that the villain is not dead after all.

I don’t think I have ever suggested that you should put yourself in the place of Satan, or to try to see the world in the way he sees it. That would usually not be a very spiritually safe thing to do.

But today, just for today, I will suggest that you do so, and that you try to imagine what Satan was thinking, and how he reacted, when Jesus rose from the dead. From Satan’s unique perspective, Easter is a horror movie.

It’s easy to imagine that Satan does see himself as a hero of sorts - just as Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Pol-Pot saw themselves as heroes. In the devil’s own mind, he is a hero of self-assertion; of the will to power over others; of defiance of authority.

God’s Son, when he came into the world, was a threat to that. Jesus was a threat to Satan’s domination of this world - and of all the people in it.

This was so, partly, because he stood for something completely different in his attitude toward the world. Jesus said on one occasion that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

But Jesus was even more of a threat to Satan, because, if his will were to come to pass, he would bring Satan’s rule in this world to an end. And Satan knew that.

“I know who you are” was a common exclamation of Satan’s demonic minions, from within the people they were possessing, before Jesus cast them out.

Satan is proud of his wiley cleverness, and of his ability to lie his way into control over almost any situation, and over almost any person. He is a liar and the father of lies, who calls good evil, and evil good.

And people very often believe him. How often have you believed him? Are you believing some of his lies right now?

Well, that can all come to an end, because Jesus came to bear witness to the truth; to expose the devil’s lies; and to set the human race free from the spiritual blindness in which the devil has kept it captive.

He came to set the human race free from the fear and power of death - which was, and is, the devil’s chief influence over the frail hearts of fallen man.

And so - like a predictable horror movie script - it quickly became clear to Satan that Jesus must die. From Satan’s perspective, and in his world, Jesus was an intolerable villain, who must be killed, before he could do any enduring harm.

Satan had been attempting to kill Jesus for a long time. He inspired King Herod to try to slay him when he was still a little child. That didn’t work.

He tried to trick Jesus directly, into throwing himself down from the pinnacle of the Temple. That didn’t work either.

But what finally did work is reported to us by St. Luke:

“Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve. He went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers, how he might betray him to them. And they were glad, and agreed to give him money. So he consented, and sought an opportunity to betray him to them.”

Through the devil’s manipulation of Judas, and through everything that this manipulation set in motion, Jesus did die. His bold yet gentle voice in Israel was silenced.

His healing and forgiving touch was removed from among the suffering and the weak. Satan was successful.

Or so he thought. This is where the true “horror” of this horror movie, for Satan, really kicks in. Jesus did not stay dead.

He rose from the grave, more powerful than ever. And it then dawned on Satan, that when he thought he was manipulating Judas for his purposes, Jesus was actually manipulating Satan, for his purposes.

All along, Christ’s inevitable death had always been a crucial part of God’s plan for the redemption and liberation of the human race. St. Peter told the crowd in Jerusalem:

“This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”

And the Epistle to the Hebrews declares:

“Since...the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver all those who, through fear of death, were subject to lifelong slavery.”

As a result of Christ’s death - and resurrection - those who know him by faith now, have eternal life. They have become new creatures in Christ.

Their hope is in God. For them, death has lost its sting, and they no longer fear it.

They are certain - with a certainty that God’s Word has instilled in them, and that God’s Spirit has sealed to them - that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate them from the love of God, in Christ Jesus their Lord.

This Easter “horror movie” - which the devil has been forced to watch in utter helplessness - will have a sequel. And this sequels will be just as unsettling - to the devil - as the original.

St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, not only that Christ has been raised from the dead, but also that Christ - in his own victory over death and the grave - is the “firstfruits” of all those who have died in him:

“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. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ.”

“Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father, after destroying every rule, and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

Regardless of what Satan does to the children of God in this world - to discourage us, to frighten us, to test us, and ultimately to bring our bodily life to an end - we will not stay dead. On the Last Day, we shall rise. And that, too, will horrify him.

Today, in a few minutes, there will be, as it were, a vivid promotional “trailer” to that upcoming movie sequel. In the temporal gap between the first horror movie that the devil was forced to watch, about the resurrection of Christ; and the second one, about our resurrection, there is the sacrament of Christ’s Holy Supper.

Here the resurrected Lord feeds us with his glorified body and blood - the ransom price that he paid for our redemption.

In repentance and faith, we, through our participation in this sacrament, receive our living Savior. And we receive the forgiveness, life, and salvation that he has accomplished for us.

And, as we receive Christ - in the power of his resurrection - we also receive a pledge and down-payment of our own resurrection. Those who live in Christ, and who die in Christ, will - in Christ - live again, forever.

We have the promise of Jesus himself, on which to base that hope. He says:

“Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.”

“Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.”

At those times in our ongoing life of Christian discipleship when we, in the Lord’s Supper, receive the body and blood of Christ in faith - and when Jesus thereby renews his claim on us - we may often think about the joy that there is among the angels in heaven, over the repentance and salvation of sinners like us.

We have probably never thought about what the reaction of the devil might be. But Satan - the enemy of God, and of those whom God loves - is forced to watch all of this.

As he sees what is going on in the fellowship of Christ’s church - the regeneration of those who were spiritually dead; the absolution of those who are penitent; the hope of the resurrection being instilled in those who formerly were captives to the fear of death - he is watching what is, to him, a horror movie.

Because of the living power of the living Christ, all of those whom Satan, in his twisted mind, would consider to be villains - who pose an intolerable threat to him and his reign - are not staying dead.

We are coming back to life, and we are alive. And in Christ, we will never die again.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen.

15 April 2012 - Easter 2 - John 20:19-31

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors were locked where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews. The disciples of Christ, as they huddled together on the evening of that first Easter, were afraid.

They were not afraid of the Jewish people as a whole - which, of course, would have included the disciples themselves. Rather, they were afraid of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem: the high priest; the members of the Sanhedrin; all those who has been complicit in Jesus’ sham trial, and in his death.

The disciples’ fear was not unreasonable. They had seen what the corrupt leadership of their nation was capable of. But in the midst of their fear, Jesus appeared among them. John reports:

“Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.”

These men were very much aware of the fact that Jesus had died. To be sure, earlier that day Mary Magdalene and the other women had claimed that Jesus was now alive. Peter and John had gone to the tomb, and had seen that the body of the Lord was no longer there.

But even so, they didn’t quite know what to think. Now, however, they knew that the report of the women was true. They knew why the body of Jesus was no longer in the tomb. The body of Jesus - Jesus himself - was alive; mysteriously and gloriously alive!

And, he was their rabbi and master once again, too. He didn’t appear and say to them, “Any questions?” He was in charge of his encounter with the disciples. And there were some very definite things that he wanted to say to them, and do for them.

Remember that the disciples were huddled together in fear. Jesus knew that. The first thing he said to them specifically addressed their unsettled and fearful hearts: “Peace be with you.”

On an earlier occasion, Jesus had described the new kind of peace, or Shalom, that he would bring into the world, and into the hearts and minds of his followers:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

Many people, in their religious superstition, seek to discern how God feels about them, or even to reach a conclusion about God’s existence, on the basis of their external circumstances.

So, when things are going well for me in this world, that means that God probably does exist, or at least that he is favorably inclined toward me. But if things are going badly for me in this world, then God probably doesn’t exist - or if he does, he’s angry at me for some reason.

The external circumstance in which the disciples found themselves, on that first Easter evening, was a circumstance of their being in fear for their lives. They knew that the Jewish leaders harbored ill will toward them.

Jesus came and spoke his peace into that situation. But that didn’t mean that he had changed those external circumstances.

He did not come among the disciples and say, “Peace be with you, for I have made the high priest stop hating you. Peace be with you, for I have caused the Sanhedrin to start thinking about something other than arresting you and punishing you.”

No. When Jesus spoke his peace to them, their external circumstances, and the danger that they felt themselves to be in, remained as before.

The peace that was now theirs was because Jesus - the Prince of Peace - was now among them. His words of life and hope were penetrating into their hearts, to a level deeper than their fear and their anxiety.

John tells us that “the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” In their gladness - their exuberant gladness - they no longer gave any thought to the question of whether they might be on the high priest’s “hit list.”

None of that really mattered any more - because Jesus, who had died to redeem them, had now risen from the dead to absolve them. Jesus had made them glad - truly and deeply glad - not because he had changed their external circumstances, but because he had changed them.

They were no longer afraid, not because the things in this world that had frightened them were gone, but because their hearts were now oriented toward another world, where there is no more death or fear of death - a world that had decisively broken in upon them in the appearance of their resurrected Lord.

Not long after this encounter with Jesus, once they had begun to preach the message of Christ in Jerusalem, the disciples were in fact arrested - and beaten - by the command of the high priest and the council. But on that occasion, they were not afraid.

Eventually all of them - with the exception of John the apostle - were killed for the sake of their faith, by rulers in various places who were just as cruel and unjust as the Jewish leaders were.

But even when that happened to each of them - when their earthly lives were taken from them - at the deepest level, they were not afraid then either. They knew that the risen Christ was with them - and that they, in him, would live forever.

Once the fear of death is removed from the human breast, nothing else can really make us afraid again. Christ had removed that fear from them.

And Christ will remove that fear from you, too. John continues his account:

“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.’”

Jesus had been sent by the Father to accomplish what needed to be accomplished for humanity’s salvation, and to proclaim that salvation to his disciples.

When Jesus instituted the sacrament of his body and blood, he told his disciples even then that his blood was being shed for them for the remission of their sins. God’s forgiveness of our sins is what restores our fellowship with God - a fellowship that human sin has broken.

When people are out of fellowship with God, they are disconnected from his life, and from his protection. Without that life, there is only death; without that protection, there is only fear.

When our eyes are not on God, they are on the world, and its many threats. When our hearts are not resting in God and in his peace, they are anxious and unsettled, and are very much aware of the mortal dangers that await us in the world.

God’s forgiveness - through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son - does not remove us from the world, or from the threats and dangers of the world, such as they are. Christians are still in this world, and they experience the things that everyone else experiences in this world.

There certainly are many good and wholesome things that can be experienced in this life - remnants of the goodness of God’s original creation. But in this life there is also much heartbreak, much pain, much suffering.

Christians in many places endure deliberate persecutions, brought upon them by evil and godless men. Christians also endure the sicknesses and natural disasters that are common to all men.

And sometimes they do not endure. Sometimes they do not physically survive.

If life in this world is the only life there is, then life in this world will be filled with fear, all the time.

But when God’s forgiveness brings to us the wonderful reunion with God that we do experience by faith in Christ, we are able to look beyond the threats and dangers of this world, to a new world. This is a world to come, but it is also a world that is with us already - in a hidden way - through the Word of Christ, and in the Spirit of Christ.

Jesus not only will be the Lord of Life, but he is already the Lord of Life. In the midst of the fear of death - and sometimes in the midst of death itself - we already know the gift that Jesus gives to his people, which he elsewhere describes in this way: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

Jesus, in his resurrection, was really there with his disciples. He spoke words of pardon and peace to his disciples. And then he told his disciples that they would now be sent forth - into a hostile and scary world - to speak his words of pardon and peace to all nations.

St. Luke quotes him as saying this: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

In today’s text, what we hear from Jesus is this: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.”

From the era of the apostles all the way down to our own generation, the voice of Christ has continually rung out from his church to this frightening world, proclaiming to people in this world:

“Peace be with you.” “The Lord has put away your sin.” “Your sins are forgiven.”

Now, those who cling to their sins, and who refuse to look up from their fear to the grace of God, will not know that grace. They will remain in their fear of death, and they will die.

To them, the church is not authorized by its Lord to apply the forgiveness that his life, death, and resurrection have brought about for humanity. “If you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld,” the Lord says.

But the disciples to whom Jesus appeared on the first Easter evening did not cling to their sins. They did not abide in their fear.

Instead, the voice of the living Christ in their midst drew their humble and penitent hearts to his forgiveness. And that voice dissipated their fear.

The voice of the living Christ in your midst can and will do the same thing.

When your pastor - or any pastor - absolves you of your sins, don’t think that this is something that comes from him. He speaks in the stead and by the command of our living and forgiving Lord Jesus Christ.

He speaks by virtue of the authorization that Jesus gives in today’s text: “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven.”

And it is definitely not a coincidence that the pastor’s liturgical announcement, “The peace of the Lord be with you always,” comes immediately after the Lord’s own words of consecration and invitation: “Take, eat; this is my body.” “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.”

Jesus appears among us, sacramentally, in his body and blood. And when Jesus appears, he brings peace.

If you come to this sanctuary on a Sunday morning in fear - afraid of what might happen to you in this world - you need not leave here in fear. In Christ, you will not leave here in fear.

This doesn’t mean that the world will cease to be a threatening and dangerous place. It is not the mission of Jesus to change the world in this way - or at least he will not do so until he brings this world to an end, on the Last Day. But by the healing and uplifting power of his Word and Sacrament, he will change you.

If you have wandered from the truth and from trusting in the truth, or if your countenance is cast down, Jesus will bring you back to God, and he will lift your hearts toward God. What might happen to you in this world won’t really matter any more: because you will know, once again, that whatever might happen - whatever you might suffer - cannot separate you from God, and from the life of God, the protection of God, and the love of God.

Christ will give you a faith that is able to sing something like this:

Though devils all the world should fill, All eager to devour us,
We tremble not, we fear no ill, They shall not overpower us.

“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’” Amen.

22 April 2012 - Easter 3 - Luke 24:36-49

What we refer to as the Old Testament was the Bible of Jesus. This means two things.

First, it means that the written texts of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms, were recognized by Jesus as the inspired Word of God. In the ways that he quoted these texts, he demonstrated that he believed them to be conveying the very voice of God.

He made it clear that he believed that these texts had the authority to clarify any misunderstanding, to rebuke any error, or to prove God’s viewpoint on any subject. The phrase “it is written” was Jesus’ way of saying that the issue at hand in a dispute - whatever it may have been about - was settled.

All of the important points that Jesus made in his preaching and teaching, he made in the context of his expositions and explanations of these Hebrew Scriptures.

As God’s Son in human flesh, Jesus, conceivably, could have known everything that the Hebrew Bible teaches - and much more, to boot - in more direct ways. According to his divine nature, Jesus himself - theoretically, at least - didn’t need the Scriptures.

But in actual fact, Jesus did study, and memorize, and meditate on the Scriptures. And he did define and shape his life and ministry on the basis of the Scriptures.

If the Son of God himself considered these writings to be of such importance to him, then these Scriptures should certainly be important to us.

But the Old Testament was, and still is, the Bible of Jesus in yet another way. It is the Bible of Jesus also because it is the Bible about Jesus.

Jesus is the content of the Hebrew Scriptures. Everything in the Old Testament works together, either directly or indirectly, in pointing forward to Christ, and in planting the promise of Christ into the hearts of God’s people.

When Jesus did come, he came as the seed of Abraham - the true heir of all the promises that God made to Abraham. They all funnel down to him.

He came as the personal embodiment of God’s kingdom on earth. And he came as the living Temple of God - in whom God dwells bodily among men.

Jesus, on one occasion, told his confused religious opponents: “You search the Scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life. And it is they that bear witness about me.”

Today’s Gospel from St. Luke is yet another testimony from the New Testament - from the lips of Jesus himself - to this profoundly important truth. After his resurrection, the Lord said to his disciples:

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me, in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms, must be fulfilled.”

What Jesus is describing here is the totality of the Jewish canon of Scripture. It is all, in the final analysis, about him. And everything it said about his life, death, and resurrection, has come to pass.

All the things that happened to Jesus, had to happen. They had to happen, because this was the way God had decreed to save us from our sins.

And they had to happen, because the Scriptures had said that they were going to happen. And the Scriptures - as the written Word of God - do not lie or deceive.

People today are very skeptical that a collection of ancient writings can really have that kind of authority, and that kind of reliability. But unbelievers have always been skeptical of this.

The writings of the ancient Christian Fathers are filled with examples of the debates that they had with pagan philosophers over the truthfulness of the Scriptures. Critics from outside the church have been pointing out the difficult passages, and the passages that seem at first to contradict each other, for many centuries.

The fifth-century theologian St. Augustine had one of the greatest intellects in human history. He, too, would likely have been one of these critics - if God has not given him a new heart and a new mind in Christ. This brilliant yet humble man, In regard to the authority of the canon of Scripture in his life, said this:

“To those writers alone, who are called canonical, I have learned to offer this reverence and honor: I hold most firmly that none of them has made an error in writing. Thus if I encounter something in them which seems contrary to the truth, I simply think that the manuscript is incorrect, or I wonder whether the translator has discovered what the word means, or whether I have understood it at all.”

All pious and orthodox Christians throughout history have had the same attitude toward Scripture. If Jesus thought this way about the Bible, how can we think any differently?

We know that what the Scriptures say about human fallenness and divine grace is true. We know that what they say about Christ - God’s remedy for our sin - is true.

We know that what they say about the life that Christ now lives in us, and through us, is true. We know that what they say about the eternal destiny of those who know Christ is true.

The Lord directed the Prophet Isaiah to declare to the people: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”

Jesus said: “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”

The inspired Scriptures are a testimony to Christ, not only in their content, but also in their form - as genuine human literature. Luther once said: “Holy Scripture is God’s Word, written and, so to speak, lettered and put into the form of letters, just as Christ, the eternal Word of God, is clothed in humanity.”

The Lutheran theologian Siegbert Becker elaborates on this analogy: “just as Christ is human and divine, so the Scriptures, too, are both human and divine. The words are human words spoken and written by men, but they are also divine words spoken and written by God through human agency.”

In the incarnation of Christ, God saves humanity from within humanity, by means of the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. In the Scriptures, which testify to Christ, God speaks to humanity from within humanity, by means of the inspired literature of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms - and of the Apostles and Evangelists as well.

Something miraculous and supernatural took place, when the Holy Scriptures were brought into existence in this way. And something miraculous and supernatural also takes place today, when the Christ-centered meaning of the Bible’s message is impressed upon your mind and heart, and when you thereby see Christ - and your own salvation through Christ - in that message.

St. Paul writes: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” The true meaning of Scripture is not accessible to the unregenerate mind.

Human reason can discern the grammar and syntax, the vocabulary, and the literary style of Scripture. But Christ and his forgiveness are discerned, and believed, only when God supernaturally opens our minds, and removes from us the spiritual blindness of sin and unbelief that otherwise darkens and deadens our hearts.

That’s also what happened in today’s text. St. Luke continues:

“Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer, and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’”

When people tell us that they have tried to read the Bible, but that they can’t understand it, and that it doesn’t make any sense to them, we should not be surprised by this.

Without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the Scriptures will never be seen as more than a curious collection of odd stories and ancient myths, with no bearing on our lives today. But with that illumination - with Christ opening our minds to understand the Scriptures - we will see Christ.

We will see, and admit, that the atoning death of Christ was necessary, because we are sinful - and have both offended God, and alienated ourselves from God. And we will see, and rejoice, that the sacrifice of Christ was accepted by his Father, and that the way of forgiveness and reconciliation is now open to us through his rising from the grave.

This illumination does not come to our minds and hearts in isolation from the Gospel and the Sacraments, or in isolation from the ongoing gathering of the church of Christ around these means of grace. Scripture is properly and fruitfully read and heard only from within our baptism.

As we live by faith in Christ, and as we are gathered together in the family and community of Christ, the Bible really does start to make sense. In the light of Scripture, we are also able, increasingly, to make sense of what goes on around us in this world.

And we are able to make sense of what is going on inside of us: as we struggle against temptation, with the help of Christ; and as we grow in likeness to Christ by the fruits of his Spirit, whom he has given to us.

But the Bible is not being used correctly, if it is read merely as an object of private religious curiosity - in a context where the reader is deliberately separating himself from that community of faith to which the Spirit of Christ always draws people, and in which the true message of the Bible is always proclaimed and reenforced.

Apart from the faith and fellowship of the church, the Christ-centered focus of the Scriptures will likely be missed. The Scriptures will be presumptuously probed for answers to questions that God did not intend them to answer.

The deepest problems that fallen humanity faces in this world - the problems of meaning and existence before God - will be overlooked. And so the real solutions to those problems that the Scriptures present to us will not be noticed.

The eternal blessings that the Scriptures offer, in their offering of Christ, will not be received.

In our reading of the Scriptures, in our meditation upon the Scriptures, and in our listening to the Scriptures in public worship, we “want to see Jesus,” as certain men once said. Let us be guided and encouraged, therefore, by the example of King David, and by the kind of prayers for enlightenment and true understanding that he offered in Psalm 119:

“Make me understand the way of your precepts, and I will meditate on your wondrous works. My soul melts away for sorrow; strengthen me according to your word! Put false ways far from me, and graciously teach me your law!”

“Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes; and I will keep it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law, and observe it with my whole heart. ... Incline my heart to your testimonies, and not to selfish gain! Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways.”

“My eyes long for your salvation, and for the fulfillment of your righteous promise. Deal with your servant according to your steadfast love, and teach me your statutes. I am your servant; give me understanding, that I may know your testimonies!”

“Let my cry come before you, O Lord; give me understanding according to your word! Let my plea come before you; deliver me according to your word.”

We, too, should pray for enlightenment and true understanding in these ways, with the confidence that God will answer such prayers, and will reveal his Son to our minds and hearts in his Scriptures.

Jesus said: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer, and on the third day rise from the dead; and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Amen.