SERMONS - MAY 2013
1 May 2013 - Memorial Service - 2 Corinthians 4:13-18
The Christian faith gives us a unique perspective on life in this world. In at least a basic way, it allows us to understand many of the contradictions that we see all around us.
We see in this world many good and noble things - things of beauty and purity. We see human actions of love and courage.
But we also see in this world many bad and degraded things - things of ugliness and evil. We see human actions of depravity and wickedness.
In individual human lives, we see - and often experience for ourselves - aspirations toward that which is wholesome and uplifting. We value art and music.
We appreciate the laughter of children and the joy of enduring friendships. We cherish those worthy things that contribute toward a rewarding life and a happy life.
But also in individual human lives, we see - and often experience for ourselves - disappointments and unfulfilled dreams. The people and the things we love slip away from us.
And we slip away from those people and things. The health of mind and body fails. And what comes to replace it is weakness and loneliness, grief and sorrow.
How does the Christian faith help us to understand these contradictory realities? By teaching us - as the Holy Scriptures do teach us - a double truth about this world:
First, that the world, and everything in it, were created by a loving and benevolent God, who declared his creation to be “very good”; and Second, that this world, originally created by a good God to be a good world, has now been corrupted by human sin, and by the death that continually flows out of this sin.
I am not talking about a one-for-one equation. The Bible does not teach that there is an exact correspondence between a particular sinful deed on the part of some individual, and a specific bad thing happening.
I am talking about a deep, systemic corruption of creation - “down to the bones,” as it were. And in the case of human life, this inherited corruption is down to the bones literally. And also down to the mind and spirit of man.
The life and death of Lisa Quint illustrates these things in many ways.
She was a woman with a deeper-than-average appreciation for the good things of this world - for fine art and quality music. She was intrigued by history, and had an inquisitive mind in general - seeking always to grow in her knowledge of lots of subjects.
She also had a great capacity for expressing to others her interest in them, and her desire to share things with them. Her loving interest in others was known and enjoyed especially by her children and grandchildren, and in more recent years by her husband Joe.
This was not a self-serving kind of love that drained those to whom it was attached. It was a love that enriched the people who were on the receiving end of it, and that inspired love for her in return.
But in many ways, and at various times, Lisa’s life was also a troubled life. Everything did not always go smoothly. There were times of disappointment, and times of regret.
And a few years ago, an insidious bodily ailment began to attack Lisa. This ailment was unrelenting in its continuous, gradual, and destructive advance through her mind and body.
It slowly robbed her - more and more - of those good and noble things that had been a part of her active and vibrant life. And finally, it took her life.
The Christian faith allows us to understand why the world is the way that it is, and why the lives of people in this world are the way that they are. And the Christian faith also shows us how to transcend the ups and downs of this life, and how to find hope and peace even in the midst of the deep disappointments and failures of this life.
In fact, this is the chief benefit and gift of the Christian faith - or more precisely of Jesus Christ himself. In the person of Christ, God’s eternal Son became a part of this essentially good yet fallen world, and a part of the human race.
He came to redeem and save the human race from sin and death. With his innocent and holy life, he “un-did” the sin that is the source of our mortality and corruption.
With his atoning sacrifice on the cross, he redeemed us before God from the power and guilt of sin. And in his resurrection from the grave, he swallowed up and extinguished death, and won the victory - with his divine might - over the power of death.
Jesus did all these things for the human race, in order to offer now - to every member of the human race - a way out, and a way forward into eternity. He did all these thing for Lisa Quint. He did all these things for you, and for me.
Jesus offers to you his righteousness, his forgiveness, and his life, in his Gospel - the living message of our living Savior. This Gospel Lisa heard and knew. This Gospel Lisa believed.
When the good things of this world began to crumble for her, she was comforted by the promise of the Gospel that at the end of this world, Jesus will usher in new heavens and a new earth - where righteousness will always dwell.
When her bodily strength began to waste away, she was filled with the hope of her own future resurrection. She knew - from the Gospel - that on the last day, Jesus will call forth the bodies of his people from the dust of the earth, to share in his glory.
Lisa knew what St. Paul knew: “that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and bring us...into his presence.”
And even when she began to lose her full ability to reflect on, and mentally grasp, the promises of God in the Gospel, she still knew - as a trusting child of God - that her faith would be protected by Jesus. In her weakness, she rested in his strength.
She rested in the same hope in which St. Paul was resting, when he said:
“Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.”
Lisa knew, by faith, that no one would be able to pluck her from the hand of her Father in heaven. She was confident - with a God-given confidence - that those who believe in Christ, even if they die, will live forever.
She could not yet see with her physical eyes the things that God has prepared for his saints. Yet with St. Paul she knew that “the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.”
Most of us here are still at a stage of life when we are able to enjoy the good and wholesome things that this world does still offer. Art and music, the companionship of family and friends, are experienced and appreciated.
But many of us have no doubt experienced the pain that this corrupted world also inflicts on people. And at a personal level, we have known remorse for mistakes that we wish we could undo, but we can’t.
We have felt at least the beginning of those bodily debilitations that sneak up on everyone eventually, in one way or another, and that make us admit that nothing in this world - not even the best of things - will ultimately endure.
For us, as for Lisa, such times are times to hear, and believe, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
There is a reason why good things can still be found in a world that God created. There is also a reason why there are limits on our ability to enjoy these good things, and why we often find pain and suffering in this world, and a troubled conscience, rather than good things.
Jesus is God’s solution to the world’s problem. Jesus is God’s solution to your problem.
As you mourn, he wipes away your tears. As you tremble at the inevitability of your own death, Jesus fills you with his life.
As you wonder - in fear and uncertainty - about your eternal destiny, Jesus forgives your sins, and fills your heart with peace. He says:
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” Amen.
5 May 2013 - Easter 6 - John 5:1-9
The pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem was a place where the blind, the lame, and the paralyzed - in their desperation - would go for healing. From time to time, the water of that pool would bubble up. It was believed that the first person into the water, when that happened, would receive a healing.
The people thought that the reason for this stirring of the water was because an angel would come down from heaven, and make this happen. One suspects today that this pool might actually have been a natural hot spring, since Jerusalem was located in a geologically active area.
Without addressing the validity of the questionable beliefs of those who gathered at the pool of Bethesda - in hopes of a miracle cure - Jesus, as recorded in today’s text from St. John’s Gospel, went out of his way to show genuine mercy to one particular person who was lying there.
Before we say more about this encounter, however, we should take note of the fact that there were many desperate people at this pool, on the day Jesus went there. John tells us that in the five-roofed colonnades that surrounded the pool “lay a multitude of invalids – blind, lame, and paralyzed.” But Jesus did not heal them.
The mission of Jesus on earth did include select examples of miraculous healing. These healings were expressions of his divine and human compassion for those who were suffering; and they were signs of his messianic office.
His healings were fulfillments of Old Testament prophecies, such as this one from Isaiah: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.”
But Jesus did not come into the world to be a healer. His miracles of healing pointed to something deeper, and more important, than the temporary restoration of bodily health and strength.
Everyone who was healed by Jesus did eventually get sick again, or suffer from some new injury. Everyone who was healed by Jesus did eventually die.
Even the daughter of Jairus, the son of the widow of Nain, and Lazarus of Bethany - who were all raised from the dead - did die again, and stay dead.
The wages of sin is death. Sinners get sick, and they get hurt, and they die. None of us can ultimately escape that, because none of us is without sin.
The Lord’s miracles of healing, then - as marvelous as they were in the eyes of those who saw them and experienced them - were not an end in themselves. They pointed to the true and enduring purpose of the Lord’s presence in the world - both then and now.
These miracles pointed to Jesus’ purpose in general, for everyone. But also for the individual who had received a healing, in a very personal way, that healing prompted him to a deeper reflection on who this healer really is; and to a deeper consideration of the spiritual healing of the soul that this man is also offering, and giving.
Each of us needs to remember this, when we pray for a miracle - for ourselves, or for a loved one - but don’t get it. We may not get the specific healing that we ask for, when we ask for it.
But when we approach Jesus in humble trust, we do get the assurance - through the promise and power of his gospel - that on the last day, all of our diseased, disfigured, and dead bodies will arise. Purged of all sin and corruption, our bodies will - on that wonderful day - be more gloriously healed and restored than we could ever imagine now.
When we approach Jesus in humble trust, asking that it would be his will to grant us a miracle of physical healing, we may or may not receive that miracle. But we will always receive from him the miracle of a spiritual healing, as his words of life enter our minds and hearts.
During his earthly ministry, Jesus’ healing of the ailments and infirmities of the body was limited to a few. But Jesus’ healing of the ailments and infirmities of the soul - then and now - extends to all who are touched and enlightened by the rays of his gospel.
Through the prophet Malachi, God predicted and described his sending of his Son into the world, as its justifier and Savior. And he compared the healing light of his only-begotten Son, to the rays of light that come down from the sun in the sky, enlightening all the earth, and banishing all shadows from every corner.
“For you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.”
Our sins are forgiven. Our consciences are cleansed. Our spirits are reinvigorated. Only God can perform these miracles.
And God, in Christ, does perform them for his people. Because these miracles happen so often among us, we might take them for granted, and not see them as miracles.
But each time a sinner destined for perdition is justified in the righteousness of Christ, and is made a citizen of heaven, something stupendous and humanly impossible has happened. Each time a child of Adam is regenerated by the Spirit of Christ, and is given a new godly nature, something of eternal significance has happened.
These supernatural miracles today, prepare us for the coming resurrection miracle. And these supernatural miracles today, fill us with peace and hope, today - so that we can face, and accept, whatever comes our way in this life.
Returning now to our text, we are told that the individual at the pool of Bethesda, whom Jesus did single out from the multitude of sick and ailing people, had been an invalid for 38 years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had already been there a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to be healed?”
When you think of it, that was an odd question. Of course he wanted to be healed!
What invalid would not want to be healed? And besides, his desire to be healed was the only reason why he was lying there at the pool of Bethesda, waiting day after day for the water to stir, so that he might quickly get himself into the water when that happened.
So yes, of course he wanted to be healed. But Jesus knew that.
He asked him this question, not because he didn’t know what the answer would be, but because he wanted this man to “start over” from the beginning, as it were, in his desire for healing - by seeking that healing from one who was actually able to grant it.
Jesus wanted him to start over, and to put his hope not in an angel, or in a hot spring, but in the Author of Life himself, who stood before him. And we know, too, that Jesus would want this man, in the context of his bodily restoration, to perceive in faith the Jesus was also able to give him something more: a deeper healing, at a deeper level.
The sick man answered Jesus, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked.
Jesus singled this man out for a physical healing. He focused his attention on this man, and his needs, in a very personal way. It was almost as if the other people were not there.
And there is a lesson there for you - whoever “you” are. In his offering of spiritual healing to you, Jesus also focuses his compassion on you, in a very personal way.
In the moment in which he brings conviction of sin to your conscience - showing you in his law your need for his healing - it is as if there is no one else around. “Jesus, are you talking to me?” Yes, he is talking to you. He wants your attention.
And in the moment in which he soothes your conscience with his pardon - impressing upon you personally your reconciliation with God, which he won for you in his death and resurrection - it is also as if there is no one else around.
We certainly do believe that Jesus died for the sins of the world, and that he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But this does not mean that his love for the world is impersonal.
It means that every single person in the world is an object of his love. When he deals with each one, it is - in that moment - as if there were no others.
Of course, there are others. And Jesus, through his Word of law and gospel, will deal with each of them, too.
But when he does, in each case it will be as if there is no one else. That’s how personal this is.
That’s how personal it was for that one man in the crowd at the pool of Bethesda. That’s how personal it is for you.
Do you wonder sometimes if God notices you in the crowd? Do you ask: “Does God understand my griefs, and my fears?”
“Is he sympathetic to my lonely struggles?” “Does he know my solitary thoughts?” “Is he aware of my private shames?”
The answer to all these questions is “Yes.” Just as with that one man to whom Jesus spoke at the pool of Bethesda, whose needs and disappointments he well understood, so too does he understand you: your needs; your disappointments; your weaknesses; your failures.
And also, just as Jesus reached out to that man, and raised him up, so too does he reach out to you, and raise you up. Through Word and water, in his body and blood, he reaches out to you, and he heals you.
The prayer of today’s Introit - from Psalm 55 - is therefore your prayer, in Christ. The confidence and comfort of today’s Introit is your confidence and comfort, in the one who promises much, and who delivers much.
My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen upon me. But I call to God, and the Lord will save me. Evening and morning and at noon I utter my complaint and moan, and he hears my voice. He redeems my soul in safety from the battle that I wage.” Amen.
9 May 2013 - Ascension - 2 Peter 1:2-7
In the Proper Preface for the Ascension of Our Lord, the church prays as follows:
“It is truly good, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to you, holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord; who after his resurrection appeared openly to all his disciples, and in their sight was taken up to heaven, that he might make us partakers of his divine nature.”
What does it mean for us to be made partakers of Christ’s divine nature? And what does that have to do with his ascension?
Obviously, this phrase, “partakers of his divine nature,” needs a context. It is not referring to the teaching of eastern religious mysticism, that all people have a spark of divinity within themselves, and that this spark of divinity should be “fanned into flame” as it were, by cultivating a divine consciousness through meditation and other techniques.
This phrase is also not referring to the teaching of Mormonism, that a faithful Mormon man, after death, will be exalted to a divine status, and will become a god over his own plant somewhere in the universe. These are not the kinds of things we are praying about, as we prepare to receive the Lord’s body and blood on Ascension Day!
The Biblical basis for this phrase, and the Biblical explanation of its meaning, are to be found chiefly in the first chapter of St. Peter’s Second Epistle, where we read:
“May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.”
“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.”
So far St. Peter.
For a Christian, to become a partaker of the divine nature does not mean that we become divine in any kind of substantial sense. You do not become a fourth Person of the Holy Trinity by believing in Jesus.
But as a Christian who trusts in Christ, and who receives the forgiveness of sins by faith in Christ, you also receive Christ himself. Jesus, as God and man, lives within you.
Indeed, the whole Trinity lives within you in a mystical union that defies rational explanation, but that Jesus himself does describe in St. John’s Gospel, where he says:
“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.”
And Jesus goes on to say: “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”
In the natural human condition in which we come into this world, we are not inhabited by God. Within sinful man, there is a huge empty space where God’s Spirit is supposed to be.
The human race was originally created in the image and likeness of God. And the human race was originally created for intimate fellowship with God, and to be united with God.
But sin messed all that up - in a big way. Adam’s sin pushed God out and away.
Spiritually, Adam’s sin killed Adam. Now, instead of being like God, and being united to God, people by nature are in many ways like animals, living and thinking like the lower creatures of this world.
That all changes, however, when Jesus Christ comes, to forgive and to heal; to restore the image of God in us, and to lift us back up to where we were supposed to be all along: in fellowship with our Father in heaven, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and partaking of the divine nature of our loving Savior.
By faith in Christ, we partake of his divine nature. And we are transformed by his divine nature, into the divine image. In faith, Christ himself is received.
Jesus come to us in his Word and Sacrament. He covers us, and draws us into himself, in Baptism. In the sacrament of his body and blood, he gives himself to us in the most vivid manner, and nurtures us with his own life.
And as Jesus comes, those who know their sin, and their need for salvation from sin, receive that salvation, as Christ’s gift. And in receiving this gift of salvation, they also receive the giver of that salvation.
When Christ is received - when he is taken in deeply, to the depths of soul and spirit - then Christ, from deep inside, makes us to be more and more like himself. That’s what St. Peter says.
In our saving knowledge of the precious promises of God in Christ, we escape from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. And in that escape from this corruption, we are then in a position to hear these words of encouragement from St. Peter:
“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.”
In this life, Christians are never completely like Christ. Sin always clings to us, seeking to detach us from our restored fellowship with God.
Whenever sin rears its ugly head, it needs to be hammered down - by repentance, and by a renunciation of that sin. The desire and power to renounce sin comes from Christ, who forgives the sin, and once again washes it away.
This all shows that Christ is still there, fighting for you, and fighting against sin within you. This all shows that Christ is still there, renewing your mind, fortifying your heart, and making you to be a partaker of his divine nature.
But what does this have to do specifically with the Ascension of Christ? Why is it the Proper Preface for Ascension Day that focuses on this mystery, rather than the Proper Preface for some other festival or season?
Well, at Christmas we rejoice in the wonder of God’s gracious condescension, and his lowering of himself to our human level of existence. Not only did God’s Son become a human being in the womb of the Virgin Mary, but he took on the humble form of a servant.
During his time on earth, Jesus set aside the regular use of his divine power. And he placed himself under the requirements and obligations of the law that had been given from heaven to govern the lives of ordinary people. He obeyed that law, as a man among men.
Jesus, in his state of humiliation, assumed a form of existence in which he could get tired and hungry, just as we do; in which he could laugh and cry, just as we do; and in which he could bleed and die, just as we do.
And he did bleed and die, as the sacrifice for all human sin. He bled and died for all of us, who break the law that he obeyed.
That God would become human, and that God would live - and die - as a human, is a profound mystery. It is the mystery of the humiliation of Jesus, for the sake of our salvation.
And also for the sake of our salvation - as we acknowledge today, on the great festival of the Ascension - Jesus in his humanity, after his resurrection from the grave, was exalted to the right hand of the Divine Majesty.
During the time of his humiliation, the divine glory of Christ was mostly hidden. And Jesus, while he dwelt here among us, was just as frail and weak, in his humanity, as we are in ours.
But now, in his exaltation, his humanity has been elevated to a full participation in the glory of his divine nature. Jesus’ human nature - which he shares with us - is now permeated with divine power, and with the omnipresence of God.
This is important for him. And it is also important for us.
The Lord Jesus, as God and man, is the mediator between God and men. That means two things.
In Christ the mediator, God came down to us men, to redeem us. And in Christ the mediator, God now draws us men up to himself: so that we would become more and more unlike the animals of this world; and so that we would become more and more like the heavenly God who indwells us, and is transforming us.
You and I are human beings. In the substance of our existence, we are not divine. But Jesus opens up a way for us to come back to God, and to be united to God, by virtue of the fact that he is both divine and human.
He is the go-between. He is God’s pathway to us, and our pathway to God. He is the point of contact and connection between God and us.
And in his exalted state, he can be, and is, all those things for all Christians, wherever in the world they may be. As God and man, he comes to all of us - simultaneously - in his gospel. As God and man, he enters into all of us.
You do not have to stand in line, waiting for your turn to have Jesus dwell in you for just a moment, before he goes on to the next person in line. All Christians are indwelt by the glorified and ascended Christ, all the time.
There is a certain kind of natural “compatibility,” we might say, between our forgiven and justified humanity, and Christ’s inherently sinless humanity. Through faith in the gospel of Christ, the humanity of Christ comes into our humanity.
And when the humanity of Christ comes into our humanity, it always brings with it the divinity of Christ. And that is how it can be so, that you and I - mere mortals; but redeemed and forgiven mortals - are made to be partakers of the divine nature.
On Ascension Day, and on every day of the year, we rejoice that the mediator between God and men fills the heavens. And we rejoice that the mediator between God and men also fills the hearts and minds of his people. We rejoice, and we sing:
We thank Thee, Jesus, dearest Friend,
That Thou didst into heaven ascend.
O blessed Savior, bid us live
And strength to soul and body give.
The man who trusts in Him is blest
And finds in Him eternal rest;
This world’s allurements we despise
And fix on Christ alone our eyes.
Through Him we heirs of heaven are made;
O Brother, Christ, extend Thine aid
That we may firmly trust in Thee
And through Thee live eternally. Amen.
12 May 2013 - Easter 7 - John 17:20-26
In today’s text from St. John, we get to “listen in” to what is usually called the “High Priestly Prayer” of Jesus. Jesus prayed this prayer on the night of his betrayal, in conjunction with the Last Supper.
His earthly ministry, and the time of his bodily presence with his disciples, was soon coming to an end. In the prayer Jesus reflects on this.
And in the prayer he also looks forward to what will come next for his disciples, in a time when his tangible, physical presence will be removed from them.
In the High Priestly Prayer, Jesus is not praying with his disciples. There is actually no place in the entire New Testament where Jesus is portrayed as praying with his disciples.
He prays for them, as in today’s text. He also teaches them how to pray, such as when he gave them the Lord’s Prayer. But he is never recorded as praying that prayer, or any prayer, with them.
When Jesus did pray - to his Father in heaven - his prayers were not the same as his disciples’ prayers, or ours. When you and I pray, we are mortal humans praying to the Triune God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Even if our prayer is consciously addressed to just one Divine Person in the way it’s formulated, this does not mean that the other two Divine Persons are not also the recipient of the prayer. This awareness of the unity of God, as we call upon him, is reflected in the way we word the Collect for the Day.
The collect is usually addressed specifically to God the Father. Sometimes it is addressed specifically to the Lord Jesus Christ - as was the case in today’s service.
But the Collect always ends with a Trinitarian doxology, which explicitly acknowledges the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as all being involved, in all our praying.
The three Divine Persons are absolutely inseparable, existing as they do as the one God whom we worship. As far as we are concerned, they do not act independently. And as far as we are concerned, they do not hear and receive prayers independently.
The prayers of Jesus were not like this, however. In his case, one Person of the Godhead - the Son - was communicating with another person of the Godhead - the Father. Jesus’ prayers were prayers that took place inside God.
We human beings don’t get to join in such prayers. But sometimes we do get to “listen in” on them - as in today’s text. And in this way we get a glimpse into God’s thoughts, and God’s plans.
Just before the section of the High Priestly Prayer that today’s text quotes, Jesus had prayed these words to his Father, in regard to his disciples:
“I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.”
Jesus did not pray that his disciples would be preserved from the trials and suffering that characterize this world. Christians live in the world - as Christ’s ambassadors and representatives. They do not live above, and outside of, the world.
And not only are Christians in this world, enduring the same kind of struggles and difficulties that everyone else endures; but they are also hated by this world, with a special kind of demonic intensity.
Insofar as this world is corrupted by sin, spiritually blind, and morally perverse, then to that extent the world hates the light and truth of God. And it hates those who embody and represent that light and truth; and who spread that light and truth to more and more people, in the preaching of the gospel of Christ among all nations.
Jesus does not pray his disciples out of the world. He prays them directly into it - full speed ahead, into the gaping jaws of persecution and martyrdom.
And he prays them into a world of lost sinners, for whom he died and rose again; lost sinners who need to hear the life-giving promises of his word, so that they can be justified and regenerated, through faith in those promises. He prays his disciples into a world that needs to know that the God who originally created it, still loves it.
God will judge the world because of its sin and rebellion. That day is coming. But God also gives the children of this world a way of escape from this coming judgment - the way of repentance, and faith in his Son.
To this end, as ambassadors of Jesus - after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension - the disciples’ lips will be the lips of Christ, speaking his words of forgiveness and hope. The disciples’ hands will be the hands of Christ, performing works of compassion, mercy, and goodness, even in a world that is otherwise filled with hardness of heart, greed, and evil.
In the portion of Jesus’ prayer that was included in today’s reading, we hear an additional thought, in which we should take a very personal interest. Again, Jesus prayed to his Father:
“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
The words of salvation that Jesus spoke to his disciples during his earthly ministry were for their eternal benefit. But those words were not only for their benefit.
The gospel of Christ was for the original apostles, to hear and believe for themselves. And that gospel was also for them to hear and remember, with the supernatural help of the Holy Spirit, so that they could preach that gospel to everyone else, for the eternal benefit of all who would hear and believe their testimony.
Also with the special help and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the apostles wrote down what they had seen and heard from Jesus. With the New Testament, therefore, the church of all times and places is now graced with the remembrance of the apostles in permanent, written form.
It’s as if the apostles are still among us, and still teaching us, from the pages of these Scriptures.
In his prayer, Jesus mentioned that he had given the word of God to his disciples. Through the objective content of this word, the disciples would be preserved in the truth of God. Through the supernatural power of this word, the disciples would be preserved in faith in that truth - and in the unity with God, and with each other, that this truth, and this faith, produce.
And what Jesus prayed about, in this respect, still applies today, since we still have the apostolic word of God in the Scriptures.
The church of the apostles did not have God’s permission to preach or believe anything other than the content of what Jesus had given to them. The church of today likewise does not have God’s permission to preach or believe anything other than the content of what the apostles have given to us, in the Scriptures.
The Christian unity that Jesus prays for, is not a human unity that we create, by means of diplomatic skill and negotiated compromises. It is, rather, a divine unity that God creates, by means of the word of truth that Jesus gave to the apostles. And that they have given to us.
The pathway to true Christian unity is a pathway of thoughtful acceptance of the Scriptures, and a pathway of humble submission to the Scriptures. When God, through the word of the apostles, impresses upon you the reality of your sin, and your need for Christ, do not try to evade what God is telling you. Admit that it is so.
When God, through the testimony of those who actually saw Christ die, tells you that Christ died for you, and that your sins are forgiven, do not dismiss it as “too good to be true.” Know instead that this is the truth, and that this is why God’s Son came into the world.
The Swedish theologian Gustaf Wingren said this about the ministry of the apostles, and about the ministry of those who teach and lead in God’s name today:
“The apostolic ministry in our day is not the responsibility of any successors to the apostles, but is still exercised by the apostles themselves... The instrument through which the original and unique apostolic ministry is continued today is the writings of the New Testament.”
“These alone speak to us with apostolic authority, and our ministry is merely a ministry of expounding and interpreting them, a ministry subordinate to the word of Scripture.”
You are one of beneficiaries of Jesus’ prayer, when he prayed for those who would believe in him through the word of the apostles. Because Jesus allows you to “listen in” on this prayer, you are able to know what to expect from him, and how to recognize his blessings when they come.
You are able to know what his will is for you, so that you can focus the desires of your heart on what you know he wants you to have.
The comforts of this world, and acceptance by this world, are not among the things that Jesus prayed for, for his disciples. If God providentially blesses you with earthly success anyway, and with godliness in the midst of that success, you certainly won’t refuse such a blessing.
But when such success does not come; when the world rejects you, and hates you; just remember that Jesus did not promise you anything different. In fact, in the prayer that he did speak, he indicated that, in this world, that’s what you should actually expect.
But in the midst of the trials and hardships that will come your way, you can draw strength and confidence from what he did pray for, for you.
He prayed that the word of God would be preserved to his true church, and would do its saving and enlightening work in the minds and hearts of his people, until the end of the world. And that prayer will be fulfilled.
He prayed that this heavenly and divine word would work to bring about true spiritual unity for his church.
Because of Jesus’ prayer, God’s Word will always be at work to keep you united to God, through your trust in that word. In this way Jesus will keep you united to his one holy catholic and apostolic church - his mystical body and bride.
And by means of the word of God, Jesus himself will fulfill his own prayer, by teaching you to know ever more deeply, and to confess ever more clearly, the revealed faith of his church - in unity with him as the head and bridegroom of his church.
Jesus prays: “O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” Amen.
19 May 2013 - Pentecost - Genesis 11:1-9
After the great flood, the Lord told Noah and his sons: “Be fruitful and multiply, teem on the earth and multiply in it.” The word translated here as “teem” means “swarm,” or “move around.”
God was hereby telling this family - this remnant of humanity - to spread out, and in time to establish themselves all across the globe. This was similar to the original commission that God had given to Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.”
But the descendants of Noah did not do as they had been told. The sinful nature that had been introduced into humanity in the garden of Eden, and that had inspired the unrestrained wickedness that precipitated the great flood, was still within them.
God told them to do one thing. They decided to do something else - something that seemed to them to be more sensible and more desirable. That’s the way it still is with the human race.
Today’s text from the Book of Genesis reports that the descendants of Noah migrated as a group, and settled as a group in the plain of Shinar. And when they got there, they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks. ... Let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”
It didn’t matter to them that the Lord had told them to disperse over the face of the whole earth. Instead of trusting in him, and following his plan for the repopulation of the world, they wanted the feeling of human security, and human power, that would come from staying together, and building a great city together, and exercising their prideful ambition together.
They all spoke the same language. And they were all living under the equivalent of a “one world government.”
The nineteenth-century British statesman Lord Acton said: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” If Lord Acton knew this, God also certainly knows it.
That’s no doubt one of the reasons why God had told Noah and his sons to disperse, and spread out. The differing human societies and sovereign governments that would, in time, be established among the separated peoples, would keep each other in check; and would prevent any one government from becoming an absolute government that controlled all people in the world.
Human sinfulness virtually guarantees that those who exercise an unchecked power, will abuse that power. So, the best way to prevent abuses of such unchecked power, is to keep individuals from having such unchecked power in the first place.
That’s one of the benefits of the kind of human dispersion over the face of the whole earth that God willed. But the people who had settled on the plain of Shinar underestimated their natural capacity for corruption and wickedness.
And they also overestimated their natural capacity for true, supernatural greatness. They wanted to “build” their way into heaven, as it were.
And so God brought this rebellious scheme to an end, and confused the language of the people, to compel them to disperse - for their own good. We read:
“And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said,
‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.’
So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.”
Throughout human history, there have been many arrogant attempts to undo on this earth - at least in part - what God did at the plain of Shinar; and to reunite the human race into one political body. It is said that at a certain point in his military career, Alexander the Great wept, because there were no more kingdoms for him to conquer and absorb into his empire.
Islam, in its original and more conservative forms, is much more than a “religion” in the conventional sense. It has a clear and universal political vision - to make the whole world “Muslim,” bearing the universal imprint of Sharia law.
During one period of history, the Mongol invasions - down into China, and across into Europe - seemed unstoppable. In the Victoria era it was said, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.”
And more recently, Marxist Communism set its sights on the whole world, proclaiming that it had a materialist and atheist solution to all conflict and inequality, in all countries.
Why are we talking about this on the Day of Pentecost? And why is the story of the Tower of Babel appointed to be read on the Day of Pentecost?
Because on the Day of Pentecost, God himself set into motion his own way of reversing the effects of what happened at Babel. But before we consider what God’s reversal of Babel means, we need to make sure we are clear on what it does not mean.
The Day of Pentecost did not inaugurate a new political configuration for earthly societies or human governments. The kingdom of Jesus, while very real, is also very other-worldly in its character and essence. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he said.
St. Paul explains in the Book of Acts that God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God...” What happened on the Day of Pentecost didn’t change that.
But it did change the ability of all the nations of mankind to “seek God.” And it did change the nature of their accessibility to God - because God, through the ongoing mission of the Christian Church, was now going to be seeking them!
In the Great Commission, Jesus had told the disciples to go forth and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them. On the Day of Pentecost, with the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, Jesus endowed the church with the courage, the fortitude, and the faith, to fulfill this commission.
And in the bestowal on the apostles of a supernatural ability to speak the praises of God in the distinct languages of many places, God put forth a vivid picture of what the church of Jesus Christ on earth was going to look like.
As citizens of our own nation, we pay our taxes; we fulfill our civic duty when we are called upon for things like jury duty; and we vote in elections. We obey the law, and we work through the political process to advocate for better laws - for the well-being of ourselves and our neighbors.
Being a follower of Jesus does not detract from this, but it actually strengthens within us these traits of good citizenship. We want our country to be a just and good country. We pray for that, and we work for that.
But as Christians, regardless of what our earthly citizenship may be, we now look at the rest of the world in a different way. We do not yearn for any kind of one-world government that would violate God’s own arrangement of peoples and nations in their distinctiveness.
We know what fallen human nature is capable of, also on a global scale. And so we do not want to remove the checks and balances that exist among sovereign nations, and that are often used by God, providentially, for the suppression of wickedness.
But as we look to the world, we do yearn for a restored unity of all people in a different way: in God’s way; in the way of the Great Commission; and in the way of the Day of Pentecost.
St. Paul says in his Epistle to the Philippians that “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” But we do not wait in idleness.
The Holy Spirit who was poured out in Jerusalem, has also been poured out on us. He regenerates us, so that we, who were first born of the sinful flesh of Adam, are now born again of water and the Spirit.
In today’s text, the people had wanted to make a name for themselves, by thrusting themselves up into heaven with their tower. In baptism, the Spirit of Christ lowers himself down from heaven to our weak humanity, and places the Triune Name of God upon us.
God’s Spirit convicts the world because of its sin, and he convicts us of sin, and drives us to repentance. He also engenders the gift of faith within us, by which we know Christ, and cling to Christ, for forgiveness, life, and salvation.
The Holy Spirit teaches us how to pray, and he guides our prayers, by means of the Word of God. And when we in our weakness do not know how we should pray, he “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” That’s the way St. Paul describes it in his Epistle to the Romans.
The Holy Spirit bears his fruit within us, remaking us into the image of God through Christ, and making us to be ever more godly and like Christ - in thought, word, and deed. And the same Holy Spirit who enabled the tongues of the apostles to speak the languages of other people, also turns our hearts toward other people, and toward the spiritual needs of all other people, in all corners of the globe.
He gives us a desire for all of them to have what we have in Christ - a life of peace with God through Christ, and a life of hope toward God in Christ. And he gives us a willingness to make ourselves and our resources available to Christ, and to his church: for the faithful spreading of the gospel of Christ in Word and Sacrament, and for the firm planting of the church of Christ in all places where people dwell.
When men, women, and children from all nations do seek God in the gospel of Jesus, and when they are found by God in that gospel, we know and experience a loyalty toward them, and an affinity for them, that transcends our national patriotism and our party politics.
It bothers us when Christians in other countries are persecuted and imprisoned for their faith. We pray and work for their relief, and for their release.
It bothers us when the lives of people in other nations are snuffed out by warfare and disease, before they have had an opportunity to hear the message of their Savior Jesus, who died for them, and who loves them. We do not say that such things do not matter to us, because we are Americans, and these unfortunate and suffering people are not Americans.
We cannot say this. We cannot think this. The Spirit of Christ, living within us, will not allow us to think this.
For us, in the fellowship of the Christian Church, the events of the Tower of Babel have been reversed. Not in every way, but in some very important ways.
The righteousness of Christ, covering all his people, unites all his people - to him and to each other. Matters of language, culture, and government, at the deepest level, do not divide us from each other, because they do not divide us from Christ.
There is a new kind of kingdom at work among all nations. There is a new, united humanity living in that kingdom - with Christ, the second Adam, as its head.
This is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh... And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Amen.
26 May 2013 - Trinity Sunday - John 8:48-59
Imagine a married man saying something like this:
“I know that I did marry a woman, but after all this time I can’t remember which one. So, as far as who I will spend my time with now is concerned, I suppose one woman is just as good as another.”
What married woman would tolerate hearing such a thing from her husband? But God does very often hear this sort of thing from many people who were baptized as Christians, but who now do not know - or care - which God they actually serve and worship.
The “civil religion” of our society does still reflect a belief in the existence of God. We are “one nation, under God.” “In God We Trust” is engraved on our money.
But which God is this? I suppose we should not expect everyone in America to understand very much about the God who created this world, and who sustains it by his power.
But what about those who have been baptized into the Name of God - to whom God has revealed his Name? Do they know? Do they care?
Do you know which God you believe in? Do you care?
You can’t just say, “I believe in the one God who exists.” Lots of people say that, but when they then go on to describe that one God, these descriptions differ markedly.
A citizen of the United States might say, “According to the Constitution, there is only one president of our country.” And that is true.
But if that citizen then goes on to describe the one president of the United States as a blonde Republican woman, this proves that he does not, in fact, know who that one president is.
When the apostles and the other early Christian missionaries brought the message of Jesus to the non-Jewish nations, they were thereby introducing these people to what, for them, was a strange idea: namely, that there is only one God - who has created all things, and still sustains this universe; who in the person of his Son has redeemed our fallen world; and whose Spirit is working and active - by means of the gospel - in regenerating sinners, in calling them to faith, and in uniting them to the new fellowship of the church.
For the pagans of the Roman Empire and beyond, this was indeed a new idea. And it was not understood or grasped very well by some of them.
For the first few centuries of Christians history, one heresy after another rose up among people who wanted to use their own reason and imagination in answering the questions, “Who is this one God? What is he like?” Sometimes they also blended a few of their previous pagan notions into their new belief in one God.
But the ancient orthodox Fathers patiently responded, by answering these questions on a proper basis - that is, according to the authority of the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures. They clarified the confusion; they confessed and explained the truth.
And they continually showed Christians - who might otherwise be disheartened by all the controversy - that there is an important and direct correlation between an informed faith in God as he actually exists, and eternal salvation in the kingdom of this one and only true God.
As the Athanasian Creed states: “Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith. Whoever does not keep it whole and undefiled will without doubt perish eternally.”
This creed - together with the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds - emerged from that time of turmoil and teaching, acknowledging and setting forth the Biblical teaching on the God who is both One and Three. In its liturgy, the church also sang the truth into the ears and hearts of the faithful, with words like these: “Thou only, O Christ, with the Holy Ghost, art most high in the glory of God the Father.”
In the heated conversation that Jesus was having with some of his opponents in today’s text from St. John, he said: “I honor my Father, and you dishonor me.” The Father and the Son are distinct.
We confess that from eternity, the Son is begotten of the Father - even as the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son. In addition to this mystery of the Trinity, we confess that when the time came for God to redeem the world from sin and death, the eternal Son took to himself a human nature, so that he is now both God and man.
And in addition to this mystery of the incarnation, we also confess the mystery of the humiliation of the incarnate Christ. The Son of God - during his earthly ministry - lived according to the limitations of his humanity, and not according to the glory of his divinity.
Only in this way could he take humanity’s place under the demands of the law, and satisfy them. Only in this way could he die for our sins.
Only in this way could the infinite God come close to us, share our human suffering, draw us close to him, and embrace us for eternity.
These are the three important distinctions that need to be kept in mind, if we are going to understand what the Bible teaches about the true God; about Jesus as God and man; and about Jesus as suffering servant and Savior - by whose life, death, and resurrection you and I are reconciled to God, and are forgiven.
This is the one God who exists. He is holy and righteous, but he is not distant.
He is eternal and immortal in himself, but in his love for us he made himself capable of dying. And he did die - and rise again.
He is a God who judges the world, and who does not ignore human rebellion and wickedness. As Jesus says in today’s text, “there is One who seeks [my glory], and he is the judge.”
But he is a God who pardons and acquits those individuals who are covered by Jesus’ righteousness. Them he does not condemn.
He is a God who reestablishes peace with us through Christ; and who - through Christ - removes our sin from us as far as the east is from the west.
No other imagined God does these things. No other imagined God is conceived of as being able to do these things, or as wanting to do these things.
If the “one God” in whom you believe is not the God who does these things, and who offers this kind of salvation, then the God you think you believe in does not exist. Or, even worse, that supposed “one God” is a Satanic deception.
Jesus was accused in today’s text of having a demon. Perhaps the contrived gods in whom many put their contrived faith, really are demons.
Satan is not necessarily all that interested in getting people to believe in him according to who he really is. He is actually much happier to have people believe in him as their “one God.”
But when the devil - in his deceptions - redirects toward himself, the worship that properly belongs only to Father, Son, and Spirit, he does not, in so doing, pretend to be a God who atones for sin, or who forgives sin. Instead, he either weighs people down with ever more demands and unrelieved guilt, or he fills them up with ever more pride and self-satisfaction.
The devil, according to who he really is, does not love you. And when he pretends to be the one God who exists, he does not pretend to be a God who loves you either.
But one way for you to know that the real God of the universe is reaching out to you - and that it is not the devil or any other false alternative - is to recognize his saving message that he did so love the world as to give his only-begotten Son.
The Triune God gives. He gives his grace and favor. He gives himself.
His Spirit continually gives the gospel to you, in Word and Sacrament. And he gives you the faith by which you receive the gospel, and all its benefits.
He gives the body and blood of his Son in human flesh, to his penitent and believing children, for their forgiveness and renewal in faith.
That’s the God to whom your baptism united you. That’s the God whom you worship, and to whom you pray and sing, when you worship, pray, and sing to God through your baptism - on the basis of the Name that was placed upon you in Baptism.
The God who makes himself known in Baptism, is a God who makes and keeps promises. He is not just the creator - although he definitely is that - but he also establishes and maintains relationships with his creatures.
He is Jehovah - the Great “I Am” - the Lord. As Jehovah, he steps out of the mist of divine mystery, to make his Name known to us in his Son.
Jesus said to his opponents in today’s text: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” They did not believe him.
But they did understand him. That’s why “they picked up stones to throw at him.”
But by God’s grace, you do believe him. You know him.
Your relationship with God in Christ exists on his terms, however. He is in charge of it. He is God.
He gets to criticize you, and to change you into his image. You do not get to criticize him, or to change him into your image.
When the relationships that God has established with his creatures are strained or broken, his Divine Spirit restores them - by driving his people to a true repentance; and by lifting them up once again in a true faith.
He is the God of Abraham, and the other patriarchs. He is the God of David.
He is the God who is Jesus, and who therefore has become your God, by purchasing you with the price of his own blood; and by filling you with his own life and wisdom.
We conclude with these words from St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians:
“We know...that ‘there is no God but one.’ For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth..., yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and for whom we exist; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we exist.”
“No one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says, ‘Jesus is accursed!’ And no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” Amen.