6 April 2014 - Lent 5 - John 11:17-27, 38-53

The movie “Heaven is for Real” will soon be released in theaters. This film is based on a popular book of the same title, which recounts the experiences of a four-year-old boy who was clinically died for time - while he was undergoing emergency surgery - and who, in death, had an experience of going to heaven, and then of coming back from heaven.

When this movie does come to theaters, many people will no doubt watch it with great interest. We are all curious about what happens to people after death.

Is there something good awaiting us beyond the grave - or at least awaiting some of us? And if our destiny after death is in some way determined by what happens to us before death, or by what we do or refrain from doing in this life, we want to know about that too.

I personally have known at least three people who had near-death experiences similar to the experience of the boy in the movie. These experiences left a deep impression on the people I knew.

One of these people was a man who belonged to the church in which I grew up. He was clinically dead for several minutes as the result of a heart attack.

This man wrote a short book detailing what had happened to him when his soul left his body. In his book, he reported encounters with both the devil and Jesus. I remember reading it with great fascination when I was a teenager.

For this man, the consequences of his experience were positive. After his recovery, his attendance at worship was much more regular and faithful than it had been.

And for the rest of his life - until he died from another heart attack many years later - he was a more devout and earnest Christian, trusting firmly in Christ, confessing Christ, and seeking to live by the Spirit of Christ.

The stories told by those who have been clinically dead, and who have then come back from death, are intriguing. But how do we know that the experiences they had were not at least partly a hallucination, or a vision, and not a real occurrence?

How do we know that their brains did not have enough life left in them to be able to imagine events, or in a sense to dream about events, on the basis of what they had previously believed, and expected to happen at a time such as this?

And how do we know that demonic deception might not be involved? It should not shock us to think that when the devil has an opportunity to deceive an unbeliever into thinking that a heavenly experience awaits everyone after death, he will use such an opportunity.

What better way could be employed - to persuade people that repentance for sin, and faith in Christ, are not actually necessary for eternal life - than to have an unrepentant non-Christian come back from death, with reports of joy and happiness?

Of course, if he had stayed dead for a little longer, a different kind of experience might have kicked in.

In the Bible, there is very little of this kind of testimony, to satisfy our human curiosity about what life after death is like. The Book of Revelation does talk about this sort of thing, of course.

But the literary style of that book is extremely metaphorical, being comprised of a series of “visions,” which were “signified” to John - or revealed to him in the form of “signs” - as the very first verse of the book says.

Probably the best source we have in Scripture, in answer to these questions, would be the Lord’s account of the rich man and Lazarus. This is often called a parable.

But it does not bear any of the earmarks of a traditional parable. And Jesus does not call it a parable.

What we most likely have in that account, is a somewhat picturesque description of real events that took place - in Hades and in Paradise - when the rich man and Lazarus died. That “Lazarus” was, of course, a different “Lazarus” from the man of the same name who is featured in today’s reading from St. John’s Gospel.

But do remember the main point of the story of that other “Lazarus,” and of the rich man. Jesus concludes that narrative with this dialogue:

In reference to his still-living brothers, and in reference to his request that Abraham send Lazarus back to earth to warn those brothers of the eternal consequences of their sin and unbelief, the rich man says to Abraham: “If someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”

But Abraham replies: “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.”

Note that. The inspired writings of Moses and the Prophets - together with the rest of the Scriptures that we have today - prepare us for what comes after death.

But the Scriptures do not prepare us for this, by giving us detailed accounts of the experiences of people who have come back from the dead.

Such people are mentioned in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments. Their miraculous raisings from the dead - through the ministry of a prophet, or through the ministry of Jesus - are described in the sacred text.

Today’s description of the raising of Lazarus of Bethany, is probably the most dramatic of these Biblical stories. It is filled with detail about what Lazarus’s sisters did and said, and about what Jesus did and said.

But there is nothing in this account - absolutely nothing - about what the soul of Lazarus had been experiencing during the four days his body was in the tomb. We probably find that to be a bit odd.

Oh, how we would love to have asked Lazarus all kinds of questions about what he saw and heard “on the other side,” if we were around back then. How spell-binding it would no doubt have been, to hear his descriptions of the afterlife, of saints and angels, and of everything else that heaven holds.

Surely the disciples of Jesus did ask him such questions, we think. And surely he would have been willing to recount his experiences, for the encouragement of people, and for the satisfaction of their deep curiosities and yearnings to know these things.

Now, the Scriptures do reveal what all people need to know, to be delivered from the power of sin and death, and to be restored to fellowship with God forever - on earth and in heaven. St. Paul writes that the sacred writings are able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

But the Scriptures provide no interviews with Lazarus - or with the daughter of Jairus, or with the son of the widow of Nain.

The Holy Spirit, who inspired the holy writings, did not want such material to be contained in them. And there is a reason for that.

That reason is to be found in today’s text from St. John’s Gospel, in an exchange that took place between Jesus and Martha.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

Jesus, in his divine-human person, and in his victory over death and the grave, is himself the resurrection and the life. Do you want to know what eternal life will be like? Find out what Jesus is like.

Do you want to know how to be ready to depart from this world - and to have the certain hope of heaven, and of the resurrection on the last day, when you do depart from this world? Believe in the one who has come into the world:

To redeem us from the power and guilt of sin; to atone for all our transgressions and failures; to offer himself as a perfect sacrifice in the place of all of us; to rise again as the victor over hell and the devil; to reconcile us to our Father in heaven; and to bestow upon us - in his Word and Sacraments - a faith that receives all these things, that clings to all these things, and that lives in the reality of all these things.

Is heaven for real? Yes, it is. But our certainty that this is so is not based on a new book, or on an even newer movie.

It is based on the fact that Jesus Christ is real. He is the Savior who passed into death, and who has returned from death - with a resurrected heart that is full of love for us; and with resurrected lips that are full of promises for us.

“Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.”

“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.”

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”

“Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”

The voice of Christ that we do hear - in the preaching of his Word, and in the administration of his Sacraments - is a voice that sounds forth on both sides of the grave.

He calls us from spiritual death to spiritual life even now, as we live in the power of Christ’s resurrection now. When our mortal life is over, his voice calls us to our rest, as he enfolds us in his waiting arms.

And on the last day, his voice will call forth our bodies from the grave. And we will live with him forever in glory - free forever from the sting of death, and from all the effects of death.

Heaven is not about pleasure and happiness for its own sake. A heavenly existence will be a truly joyful existence for us, only because Jesus will be in heaven with us.

Heaven is about Jesus, the protection of Jesus, and the fellowship of Jesus. Any purported experiencing of heaven that does not have Jesus at the center, is a demonic fraud.

If you temporarily die, and experience a “heaven” that is without Christ, you have not experienced heaven. You have experienced only the deceptive outer courts of hell.

Any purported experiencing of a heaven that does have Jesus at the center, can, in a limited way, serve to encourage the person who has had such an experience, in his faith in Jesus - as was the case with the man in my home church.

But such a subjective experience - whether it was real, or a vision, or whatever it might have been - would be misused if it were to become a substitute for daily repentance and a daily trusting in the gospel of Christ.

It would be a harmful and spiritually dangerous thing, if the subjective memory of such an experience of heaven, were to become a replacement for gathering with the Lord’s people, in the Lord’s house, on the Lord’s day, around the Lord’s saving and forgiving Word.

A Christian’s true assurance of what waits for him on the other side of death, is built up by the Word of God. If you have lost this assurance, or are lacking in it, forget about the stories of people who were brought back from clinical death.

Listen instead to the Lord’s admonition to repent of the sins that have alienated you from God. And hear instead the Lord’s gracious pardon, spoken with faith-creating power, from the cross and empty tomb of Christ.

St. Paul gives us a warning in his Epistle to the Galatians: “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.”

If I place my confidence and hope for eternity in a certain subjective vision of heaven, and not in the universal message of Christ crucified and resurrected for sinners, then this subjective vision has become for me an accursed alternative gospel, which is distracting me from the objective truth of the Word of God.

In the Lord’s Supper in particular, the objectively true and authentic gospel of the Lord, impresses itself upon the communciants in a very personal way. Jesus, at the point of his now-glorified humanity, touches us in our struggling and weak humanity.

He supernaturally places his body within our bodies. Our sins are forgiven once again. And once again, a pledge and a token of our own resurrection in Christ, is thereby received from Christ.

The second-century church Father St. Irenaeus commented: “Our bodies, when they receive the eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity.”

I will probably go see “Heaven is for Real” when it comes to the theaters. I am curious to know what that little boy experienced, or thought he experienced, when his heart stopped on the operating table.

But I will pray that as long as I live, and when I die, the Lord would preserve in me a more certain faith, and a more certain knowledge of what my destiny after death will be. I pray that these words of Jesus will always be lodged deeply in my mind, and deeply in my heart:

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” Amen.

13 April 2014 - Palm Sunday - Matthew 27:11-66

A few minutes ago, we heard St. Matthew’s version of the story of the passion of Jesus. This story is, of course, about Jesus. But it is not just about Jesus. Other people are also mentioned.

Today I would like to draw your attention to two of those other people, and to how their story fits into the bigger story of Jesus’ suffering and death for our salvation. And I would like to invite you to consider with me how the stories of those two other people can, in a certain sense, be seen also as our story.

First, we have a description of Barabbas, a criminal who deserved crucifixion under Roman law. He was an insurrectionist and a murderer.

He was also probably guilty of many other offenses that the Romans just didn’t know about. But because of the crimes that they did know about, the fate of Barabbas was sealed as far as Roman law was concerned.

He was destined for a cross on Calvary, where he would suffer and die for his misdeeds. But something unexpected happened, which diverted Barabbas from the pathway that he was on. St. Matthew tells us that

“at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, ‘Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?’”

“...the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. The governor again said to them, ‘Which of the two do you want me to release for you?’ And they said, ‘Barabbas.’ Pilate said to them, ‘Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?’ They all said, ‘Let him be crucified!’”

Barabbas had been slated to die. But now, he would live. In his place, Jesus would be nailed to a cross.

It would not surprise me if the very crossbeam that had been designated for Barabbas’s execution, is the crossbeam that is now immediately re-designated for Jesus’ execution. Barabbas would no longer need it.

He was not going to die, as he deserved. He was not even going to stay in prison. He was going to go free.

But Jesus, who had done no evil, was going to die as if he had done evil. He was going to die in the place of Barabbas - for Barabbas’s murders, for Barabbas’s insurrection, and for all of Barabbas’s sins.

Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, was surprised that the crowds had asked for Barabbas to be spared, rather than Jesus. Under the law, it is always a surprise when the guilty go free, and when the innocent are punished.

But that’s what happened in a Roman court that day, in Jerusalem, almost 2,000 years ago. And that’s what happened in God’s court.

After the crowds began to call for Jesus’ blood to be shed, rather than the blood of Barabbas, Pilate asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”

Pilate then did something quite cowardly, and contrary to his duty to administer justice. St. Matthew tells us that

“he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’ And all the people answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’ Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.”

Pilate could not so easily relieve himself of responsibility for the death of an innocent man at the hands of Roman executioners. The blood of Jesus was still on him.

And the blood of Jesus was on the crowds that had demanded his death. They were all guilty of a great human injustice.

But the blood of Jesus was on them in a different way, too - a divine way. The blood of Jesus was likewise on all the descendants of the Jerusalem crowd, and on Barabbas, and on all the nations of humanity, and on you and me.

For all for whom he died, and for all who are now invited to believe in him as the Son of God and Savior of the world, the blood of Jesus is a covering for sin, and an atonement for sin.

St. John the Baptist tells us that Jesus is the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. And St. John the Apostle, in his First Epistle, tells us that “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

In regard to Barabbas, and all the other sinful and unrighteous human beings who have ever lived - including you and me - St. Peter explains in his First Epistle that “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.”

Barabbas was and is a part of the story of the passion of Jesus. And through Barabbas, so are you.

The condemnation that your sins have earned has been born by another - by Jesus. He was without sin - as even Pontius Pilate, a pagan, could see.

His bearing of sin could be, and was, therefore a bearing of the sins of others. It was the bearing of the sins of Barabbas. It was the bearing of your sins.

And because of Christ, Barabbas, and you, now go free. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” - as we heard in last Sunday’s lesson from the Epistle to the Romans.

There is forgiveness for you - to be believed, and received by faith. Christ, and his gospel, have diverted you from the pathway to damnation that you otherwise would be on.

Someone else was nailed to your cross. Jesus was nailed to your cross. “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

Insofar as the cross is an emblem of God’s judgment against your sin, there is now no cross for you who know Christ. There is no death - no spiritual death, no eternal death - in your future. There is life in your future - eternal life, in Christ, who takes away your sin, and who reconciles you to God.

But there is a different kind of cross, that you will now bear. As a Christian, and as a follower of Jesus - who represents Jesus in and to the world - for as long as you live on earth, you will, to one extent or another, bear the cross of this world’s persecutions against you, and of this world’s injustices perpetrated upon you.

Jesus warned us of this. He said:

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”

In St. Matthew’s telling of the passion story in today’s Gospel, this truth is illustrated by the story of Simon of Cyrene, which Matthew also includes as a part of that bigger story. The apostle writes:

“And when [the soldiers] had mocked [Jesus], they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him. As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross.”

Jesus had been beaten and flogged so severely, that it is a wonder that he could walk at all - let alone carry his cross. And so the Roman soldiers compelled a man they happened to see standing there - Simon of Cyrene - to carry his cross.

They imposed upon Simon a burden that was not his, and that he had a right to expect not to be forced to bear. But he was made to bear it.

Simon endured this injustice, such as it was. As he endured it, however, he was drawn into the larger injustice of Jesus’ passion - that is, Jesus suffering for his sins, and for the sins of the world.

Simon was brought close to Jesus - not just physically, but also spiritually. In St. Mark’s telling of this story, he says that the Romans “compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross.”

Mark’s description of him as the father of Alexander and Rufus, is a description of him as a known person, and as the father of known persons, in the early Christian community.

We have every reason to believe that by the time the Gospels were written, Simon of Cyrene, and his sons, were Christians. In fact, early Christian tradition indicates that Alexander and Rufus did later become Christian missionaries.

Now, we do not know if Barabbas ever became a believer in Christ. There is no tradition that he did, and so probably he did not.

But in the larger story, he still serves as a “stand-in” for those for whom Jesus died as a substitute, because Jesus died as a substitute for the whole human race!

Jesus died for those who would eventually become Christians, and partake - by repentance and faith - of the blessings of his death, for eternal life. And Jesus died for those who would never accept him, but who would persistently hardened their hearts against his gospel, and propel themselves - by their impenitence and unbelief - into hell.

The message of the cross of Jesus, is a message that is intended for all, and is proclaimed to all. The salvation from sin and divine judgment that was won on the cross, and flows out from the cross, is offered to all.

So, the reason why we can see ourselves in the story of Barabbas, is because the human race as a whole is embodied in Barabbas, and in his story within the story.

But we are able to see ourselves in the story of Simon - who carried a cross, and a burden of service, as a follower of Christ - only because we, too, in our own way, are followers of Christ. And just as Simon’s carrying of Jesus’ cross was for the fulfilment of an important divine purpose that he may not have understood at the time, so too are the crosses that we bear.

In ways that are often hidden from us, God uses our suffering, and our afflictions as Christians, to serve this world, and to advance his kingdom. For example, St. Paul writes to the Colossians:

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”

St. Paul reminds us, in his Epistle to the Romans, that “for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”

And, God uses our suffering, and our afflictions as Christians, to purify and strengthen us, and our faith. St. Paul also reminds us in that Epistle that

“we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

Simon of Cyrene was and is a part of the story of the passion of Jesus. And through Simon - again - so are you.

When Jesus says to us, as his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me,” we are not scared by this. In faith we embrace this, because in faith we know that in this way we will be close to Christ, and he will be close to us.

The bearing of a cross in this way is not evidence that Jesus is not with us. It is evidence that he is.

The story of the passion of Jesus, is about Jesus. That’s for sure. But it is not about Jesus alone.

It is about Jesus and those whose sins he bore, and for whom he suffered and died, on the cross. It is about Jesus and those who take up a cross to follow him, who suffer in this world for his name’s sake, and who are in this way drawn close to him.

The story of the passion of Jesus is about Jesus and Barabbas. It is about Jesus and Simon. It is about Jesus and you. Amen.

17 April 2014 - Maundy Thursday - Psalm 111

The Gradual that we sing during Holy Week - between the first lesson and the second lesson - includes this line, from Psalm 111: “He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever.”

The Lord’s redemption - his deliverance from sin, death, and judgment - is sent to his people, in the once-and-for-all-time historic sending of Jesus Christ to his people.

And, the Lord’s redemption is sent to his people, in the sending of the Word of Jesus Christ - to us, here and now - so that we can know about him, and believe in him.

The verse from Psalm 111 that is included in the Gradual also says that the Lord “has commanded his covenant forever.” We might translate the Hebrew word “bereeth” as “testament” instead of “covenant,” since what is being described here is something that God does, and institutes, unilaterally.

The Lord’s “new covenant” or “new testament” - in his Son - is not some kind of “deal” or “contract” between God and man, that has been worked out as a result of a negotiation between him and us. Rather, God has commanded this covenant.

He alone determined its content, character, and blessings. And then he set it in motion in this world through Jesus - calling us and all people to embrace it, by embracing Jesus, and his promises.

The other verses of Psalm 111 - not included in the Gradual - elaborate on the meaning and impact of the Lord’s redemption and testament. In one of those other verses, the Psalm declares:

“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation.”

This verse reminds us of the communal nature of our reception of the Lord’s salvation, and of our thankful acknowledgment of that salvation. The redemption that God has sent, and the testament that God has commanded, are experienced and partaken of by us - most fundamentally - in the company of the upright.

The personal dimension of our faith - which is very real - is an outgrowth of what is given to us in the congregation, and of what happens to us when we have been called together - with fellow believers - around the Word of Christ.

There is a reason why Jesus met with his disciples as a group, on the first Maundy Thursday. By design, the men with whom he observed the Passover that evening were a “band of brothers.”

They were a spiritual family. They were not isolated individuals who came and went as they pleased, without an ongoing sense of connection to Jesus and to each other.

And the reason why they gathered with their Lord and with each other on that evening, for the institution of the Lord’s Supper, is the reason why we are gathered here, with our Lord and with each other, for yet another observance of that same Supper.

The specific place where God sends redemption to his people - so that this redemption is accessible to them - is the place where he sends Jesus, and where Jesus is accessible.

For us, that place is the place where two or three have been brought together in Jesus’ name, and where he is there in the midst of them - as he himself says.

And the specific place where the testament that God commands is most vividly manifested for us, is the place where Jesus says, “Do this,” to his gathered disciples.

“Do this” includes speaking and hearing the Words of Jesus: This is my body, which is given for you; this cup is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins.

And “do this” includes eating his body, and drinking the blood of the Lord’s New Testament - to which the forgiveness of sins is attached by a divine decree, and as a divine gift. Forgiveness of sin is indeed what the covenant or testament of God is all about.

Psalm 111 also states that “He has caused his wondrous works to be remembered; the Lord is gracious and merciful.” There is a close connection between these words, and the words that Jesus spoke in his institution of Holy Communion, when he said that we are to celebrate and receive that sacrament in “remembrance” of him.

It is more clear in the original Greek than it is in English translations, that this remembrance of Christ is not something that we bring to the Supper. It is something that we take away from the Supper.

We do not cause this remembrance to take place. As the Psalm says, it is God who does this.

The Lord’s Supper - as the sacramental embodiment of the New Testament of the Lord - is sent, and given, so that we who partake of it will always remember Jesus’ bodily sacrificing of himself for us, on the cross.

In the Lord’s Supper, as Jesus’ blood is supernaturally delivered to us, and received by us, we are reminded that it was through that blood that our sins were atoned for under God, and have been washed away by God.

This is not just a detached, cerebral reminder, in the way of being reminded of some appointment by a cell phone alarm. It is a gracious rekindling and renewal of faith - not only in the mind, but also in the heart.

The redemption that God sends, continually, in the Lord’s Supper, is an application of the redemption that God sent, decisively, in the historic sending of Jesus, and in the historic death and resurrection of Jesus. The wondrous work that God has accomplished in Christ - of which the Lord’s Supper does remind us - is the work of redemption.

Jesus Christ redeemed us from slavery to sin, from the spiritual death that accompanies sin, and from the divine judgment that we have called down upon ourselves because of our sin.

And as the Psalm declares, the Lord is gracious and merciful. He is gracious and merciful precisely in his not holding our sins against us. He gives us another chance. He gives humanity another chance.

Because of its sinfulness, the human race has turned God into its enemy. In his holiness and righteousness, God does rebuke and punish human sin. He rebukes our sin, and threatens to punish our sin.

God, in his holiness, would not want us to forget that he destroyed the earth with a flood, because of the incessant evil of all people on earth - except for Noah.

God, in his righteousness, would not want us to forget that he sent fire from heaven upon Sodom and Gomorrah, because of the perverse wickedness of those who dwelt there - except for Lot.

But God, in Christ, refuses to be the enemy of those whom he created in his image - for fellowship with God, and not for alienation from God; for life, and not for death.

God does not accept the “status quo” that was put into effect by the fall of Adam, with humanity on one side of the divide, and God on the other.

In Christ, God reveals himself to be: the father of the prodigal son, who waits with a broken yet hopeful heart for the return of the one whom he loves. In Christ, God reveals himself to be: the loving shepherd, who searches for the one lost sheep, until he finds it.

This is God’s new testament - his covenant of grace with the world. This is his invitation to the world.

Psalm 111 also declares that “The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy.” Jesus suffered and died, precisely because the works of God are just.

The suffering and death of his Son was a just work of God, because God’s justice cannot ignore sin, but must judge it. In Christ, humanity’s substitute, God did justly judge humanity’s sin.

And now, also in Christ - specifically in Christ’s resurrection - God declares that the judgment that had been poured out on Jesus is now lifted.

Jesus’ work of sacrificing himself for the sins of the world is finished. Jesus’ work of shedding his blood for the forgiveness of sins has been accepted in God’s tribunal as sufficient and complete.

When God, in Word and Sacrament, now declares that the sins which Jesus carried to the cross are fully pardoned, so that they no longer stand as a barrier between us and God, this declaration is trustworthy - because all God’s precepts, and declarations, are trustworthy.

He will not change his mind, and at some point in the future demand more payment than what Jesus has already offered. Your sins - which were placed upon Christ - have already been fully paid for.

This will not be undone. Your salvation is ready and waiting for you.

You can know that this is so, because God says that it is so. And therefore you can confidently believe that it is so - and be transformed and saved in that faith.

Psalm 111 also states: “He provides food for those who fear him; he remembers his covenant forever.”

Fearing the Lord is a fruit of a genuine faith. It is a component of a genuine faith, insofar as a genuine faith is a humble and respectful faith.

Among other things, fearing the Lord means acknowledging his revealed will, and his authority, in your life. And that includes submitting to the Lord’s desire for you to know his truth, to believe his truth, and to confess his truth.

To such disciples, Jesus says: “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

And to such disciples, on the night in which he was betrayed, Jesus gave his body for them to eat, and his blood for them to drink. God, in Christ, provides this food for those who fear him.

Jesus himself is - in his person - the bread of life who has come from heaven. So, even those who do not commune in the sacrament, do partake of Jesus by faith - whenever and wherever the Word of Jesus is preached, read, or meditated upon.

But in a special way - which accentuates Christ’s intimate human companionship with us in our human struggles - the Lord’s Supper is given as a unique manifestation of the gospel, and as a unique sacrament of the unity of the church in the gospel.

The Lord’s Supper is given as a unique banquet - by which our faith is sustained and strengthened; and in which our faith is refocused on the one who gave his body into death for us, and who shed his blood for us.

Psalm 111 helps us to appreciate the sacrament that Jesus left for his church on the first Maundy Thursday. Psalm 111 helps us to be prepared to receive the redemption that the Lord sends to us; and to benefit from the covenant that the Lord has commanded for us.

We close now with a fuller excerpt from this Psalm, for our meditation and reflection, and for our self-examination and preparation for Holy Communion:

“I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation. Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them.

“Full of splendor and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. He has caused his wondrous works to be remembered; the Lord is gracious and merciful.”

“He provides food for those who fear him; he remembers his covenant forever. He has shown his people the power of his works, in giving them the inheritance of the nations.”

“The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy; they are established forever and ever, to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness. He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever.” Amen.

18 April 2014 - Good Friday - Matthew 27:39-43

Please listen with me to a portion of St. Matthew’s account of the passion of Jesus, as recorded in the 27th chapter of his Gospel:

“The chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, “I am the Son of God.”’” So far our text.

Unassuming people often have an ability to do things that others - based on outward appearance - would never guess they had. For example, a relatively small person who has studied martial arts - and who has learned the important principles of leverage - can successfully defend himself against a much more bulky and muscular attacker.

In other realms of life, too, a person’s abilities can be underestimated. The ability of Jesus to be a Savior was severely underestimated by those who mocked him, as he languished on the cross. “He cannot save himself,” they said.

And this outward perception of Jesus’ inability to save, was combined with certain erroneous assumptions they had about God, and about how and when God could be expected to act. “Let God deliver him now, if he desires him,” they said.

The combination was enough to blind the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders to what Jesus was actually accomplishing.

This is the way they thought this out: If Jesus was able to save anyone, then he would certainly be able to save himself - and would save himself. And if Jesus really was the Son of God, and was approved by God, then God would certainly save him.

This all made a lot of sense to them. And their observation, that Jesus was neither saving himself, nor was being saved by God, confirmed in their own minds that Jesus was not a Savior of any kind. He was not the Son of God, by any definition.

But none of these perceptions or assumptions were accurate, or valid. Jesus Christ did die on the cross in order to save us.

God the Father wanted him to do it. As the Son of God, he himself wanted to do it. He was able to do it, and he did do it.

As the substitute for humanity, the Son of God absorbed into himself the judgment of his own divine law again the sins of humanity. It was possible for all human sin to be imputed to him, or placed upon him, because he had no sin of his own for which his death would be a payment.

In his own person he was, as it were, a “clean slate,” as far as the stain and marks of sin are concerned. So, there was room for all of our sins to be “written” onto him, and to cover him.

As God, hidden in human flesh, Jesus definitely was able to save others. As a sinless human being, the price for sin that he paid - the shedding of his blood to the point of death - was a price that could be credited to others, since it was a price that he did not need to pay for himself.

The ability of a person to accomplish important things can often be underestimated, by those who don’t know as much as they think they know about the person in question.

And as we see in our text, the ability of Jesus Christ to accomplish important things can also often be underestimated, by those who don’t know as much as they think they know: about Jesus, or about God, or about God in Jesus - fulfilling his will, and accomplishing his purposes, in his own mysterious way.

You cannot really know what God is doing, until and unless he tells you what he is doing. A true knowledge of what God was doing on the cross was inaccessible to the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders, just by means of looking at what they could see.

Of course, if they had listened to David, in Psalm 22, or to Isaiah, in chapter 53 of his book - and if they had believed what they heard in those divinely-inspired texts - they would have known. But they had not listened. And so they did not know.

The chief priests, the scribes, and the elders had not listened to David, when he - serving as a prophetic mouthpiece for Jesus himself - described the Messiah’s death in this way:

“All who see me mock me; ... they wag their heads; ‘He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’ ...”

“Dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet, I can count all my bones, they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” So far David.

The chief priests, the scribes, and the elders had not listened to Isaiah, and so they did not know that what that ancient prophet had described regarding their Savior, was being fulfilled right there, right in front of them:

“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; 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. ...”

“It was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief... Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” So far Isaiah.

What appeared to be impossible, God was actually doing. What Jesus seemed incapable of performing, he was accomplishing.

Jesus was saving. He was saving others. He was saving all others: from the wrath of God on account of their sin; and from a Satanic bondage to the power of sin.

And God accepted this saving sacrifice of his Son. He approved it, and he approved of his Son in the offering of it.

At the end, just before he expired, Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” And the spirit of Jesus was indeed accepted, and welcomed in heaven, when our Lord’s mortal life came to an end.

In his death - and in his resurrection on the third day following - Jesus established, as an objective reality for all people, a justification, or an accounting of righteousness, before God; and an amnesty decree, or a pardon, from God, that would now be offered and distributed to penitent sinners through his gospel.

By means of this gospel - whenever it is preached, read, sacramentally enacted, or meditated upon - Jesus is able to do great things in the lives of those who are touched by the gospel. There is much power in God’s Word.

When that Word is attached to the water of baptism, Jesus - through that Word - is able to regenerate and create faith. When that Word is attached to the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus - through that Word - is able to deliver his body and blood to communicants, and to forgive their sins.

But just as those who mocked Jesus at Calvary could not see what was really going on there, so too are we incapable of seeing the things that Jesus is willing to do, is able to do, and actually is doing, when his gospel comes to us here.

When we witness the administration of the means of grace - that is, the Lord’s Word and Sacraments - we observe no overt demonstrations of divine activity, and no obvious manifestations of divine glory. So, we might conclude that God’s glory is actually to be found in other things, and that God is truly at work in other places.

Out of a sense of proper religious decorum, we do not - like the mocking crowd at Calvary - sneer at the humble outward form of the ministry of Word and Sacrament, when we notice that there is not very much going on there to impress the eyes.

But do we understand, and believe in, the great things that God is actually doing in the means of grace - and in the lives of people through the means of grace?

It would have been necessary for the crowd at Calvary to have paid attention to what David and Isaiah had said about what was happening there, in order to have understood what was happening there. And we today need to listen to what the apostles, and Jesus himself, say about what is happening here, among us.

St. Paul wrote these things: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”

“Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.”

“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?”

And Jesus said this: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word, and believes him who sent me, has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.”

On this Good Friday - as you recall, with special attention, the atoning sacrifice of Christ - know that God, through his Word, is reaching out to you, and is drawing you to himself, in order to bestow upon you all the blessings that Jesus won for you in his suffering and death.

On this Good Friday, and on every day of the year, know that Jesus is truly able to come to you with open hands - to embrace you, to forgive you, and to unite himself to you - through the unassuming channels of Word and Sacrament that he has designated for this purpose, and that he wills to use for this purpose.

This is the stuff of faith, my friends - a real saving faith. And as the Epistle to the Hebrews teaches us: “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Amen.

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

20 April 2014 - Easter - Matthew 28:1-10

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

St. Matthew tells us that on the first Easter morning, an angel appeared at Jesus’ tomb, rolled back the large stone that had been sealing it, and then sat on that stone.

St. Luke and St. John add the detail that there was also a second angel with him, but Matthew’s narrative does not mention the second one. He concentrates on just one of the angels - apparently the one who did the talking that morning.

He reports that the angel’s appearance “was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.” For weak and sinful mortals - like all of us - this would be frightening. And it was frightening.

It was frightening to each of the two groups of people who interacted with the angel: the guards, who had been placed at the tomb by the order of Pontius Pilate; and the women - followers of Jesus - who also came to the tomb that morning.

The guards saw the angel. But they were unable - or unwilling - to process what they were seeing. So, they “tuned it out.” In fact, they were so afraid of the angel, and of what his appearance might mean, that they fainted.

Remember that these were Roman soldiers. They had no doubt seen a lot of scarey things in their lives, without fainting from fright.

But this was different. This was supernatural.

And for them - pagan unbelievers as they no doubt were - this was completely incapacitating. Matthew tells us that, for fear of the angel, “the guards trembled and became like dead men.”

Their minds and hearts were now closed off to anything that might be done or said by the angel. They would not be impacted by anything that might happen as a result of the angel’s presence and message.

Physically, they were like dead men. Spiritually, they were dead men.

The angel’s interaction with the women had a different result, however. They were also frightened by the appearance of the angel.

In this respect they were like the soldiers. They, too, were weak and sinful mortals.

But before they fainted, or ran away, they listened to the angel speak these words: “Do not be afraid.”

These words stabilized them, and calmed their fears. Or at least these words calmed their fears enough, so that they were able to continue listening to what the angel had to say.

“I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.”

“He is not here, for he has risen.”

The resurrection of Jesus was not simply a mystical experience in the hearts of his followers - meaning that the “spirit” of Jesus was living on in their memory, even though Jesus himself, in his person, was still literally dead. This is not what the resurrection means.

What the angel said, is that Jesus was literally alive - in such a way that his body was no longer in the tomb.

And this could be immediately verified by the women. He had, after all, rolled back the stone, so that they could enter the tomb and see for themselves that Jesus was gone.

Now, there is a mystical component to the resurrection. The living Christ is present in the hearts of those whom he has embraced with his gospel, and who have embraced him in faith.

But this mystical union of the believer with Christ is a mystical union with the resurrected Christ. The objective truth of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is the foundation upon which a true faith, and a certain salvation, can be built.

Before long, the women who heard what the angel told them, were also able to verify his message in a way that was even more persuasive than seeing that Jesus was not in the tomb. They saw that Jesus was alive.

He came right up to them. He allowed himself to be embraced by them, and he spoke to them.

“Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid.’”

This was not a hallucination. The women - as a group - saw him, and touched him, and heard him. The risen Christ was now a reality in their lives.

As the Son of God in human flesh - a now-glorified human flesh - he accepted their worship. And he calmed their remaining fears, once and for all.

Jesus had died for their sins. Their sins were now forgiven. He had died to bring them eternal life. They would now live forever.

In his resurrection, as the Second Adam, Jesus was inaugurating a new humanity - into which penitent sinners from all nations would be baptized.

As the Sovereign Ruler over his eternal kingdom, Jesus was establishing a new, holy nation, of which believers from all the peoples on earth would be citizens.

The women were now going to be a part of this. Jesus’ other disciples were likewise now going to be a part of this.

All other people in this world - alienated from God because of their sins, and languishing in a state of spiritual death because of their sins - were now going to be invited to become a part of this.

In Christ’s name, and by his direction, the issuing of this divine invitation - to all nations - is what the Christian church has been doing ever since. That’s why there is a Christian church.

It is indeed the Christian church, and the ministers of the church, who have the task of bringing the message of Christ’s resurrection to all peoples. This is no longer the job of angels.

But in many cases, before the church even has a chance to tell someone that Jesus has risen from the dead, and that salvation is therefore available to him, one whom the church would approach with this message reacts in the way that the soldiers reacted to the appearance of the angel.

What hardened unbelievers think the church stands for, is so far outside of their experience, and so frightening to them, that they, as it were, become “like dead men” - as far as listening to the Christian message is concerned. They “tune out” the preaching of the gospel, before they have even begun to hear the gospel.

To be sure, a Christian preacher today does not have a visible glory that would frighten those who see him, as an angel would.

But people do still sense that the message he proclaims - concerning a holy and righteous God - is a message that will be a threat to the old nature of sin - and to a lifestyle that flows out of that old nature of sin.

And so, those who are still spiritually enslaved to this old nature, are unable - or unwilling - to process this message. They may not physically faint. But in effect, they do faint.

Their eyes and ears are closed to what God would have them see and hear. Their minds and hearts are closed to what God would have them know and believe.

They are “like dead men.” They are dead men.

Is this you? Might this be you?

In your fear of God’s holy demands upon you, and in your fear of God’s righteous judgments upon you, are you like those who are dead? Are you... dead?

Wait! Please wait, and please keep listening. Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid!

Jesus is risen from the dead. He is not in his tomb. He is alive.

His death on the cross for your sins has been accepted by God. The barrier between you and God that your sins created has been broken down in Christ.

The gift of a new life - a new eternal life - is now held out to you. The way to heaven - for you - is now opened.

Does this message threaten your life - your life without God, and without God’s love? Oh, it certainly does!

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is indeed a direct attack on the hopelessness of your life without God. It is a direct attack on the meaninglessness of your life without God.

The victory of God’s Son over the shackles of the grave clearly threatens everything that enslaves you, and blinds you, and that destroys you - one sin at a time; one disgrace at a time.

It clearly threatens everything that you think you are without God.

The message of Christ’s life beyond death, is indeed an attack on death. It is an attack on your death: your spiritual death; your eternal death.

When you believe this message, God will change everything. God will change you.

God will change your way of thinking, and your way of living. What had become familiar to you, and what had seemed normal to you - your idolatrous habits of pride and greed, lust and lethargy - will now seem strange and foreign.

These old habits will be seen as the foreign traits of a now-foreign person - someone who doesn’t really exist any more. And that’s what they will be, to one who has become a new creature in Christ, and who has been filled with the power of Christ’s resurrection.

What you will have in the place of all those things - those former things; those death-filled things - is Christ.

As Jesus met the women on the road, he will meet you on the roadway of your life. And he will become your companion on that roadway.

He will speak to you. Sacramentally, in time, he will allow you to embrace him - as his true body and blood are brought to you. And he will embrace you.

You will become a part of his church. You will become a part of everything he is doing in this world.

And you will become a part of what he is preparing for his people, for the next world - where death and suffering are no more; and where sin is no more.

“For fear of [the angel] the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.”

Do not be afraid. Jesus is alive.

Do not be afraid. Jesus is your Savior from sin and death.

Do not be afraid. Jesus is with you, and will be forever.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Amen.

27 April 2014 - Easter 2 - John 20:19-31

It is often very difficult to understand why people believe the things they believe, or why they disbelieve the things they disbelieve.

It’s hard for me to fathom how a fanatical suicide bomber can submit his conscience to the pronouncements of his religious leaders, to such an extent that he feels certain that he will go directly to paradise, when he dies in the process of killing other people.

How can he be so unwavering in his belief that his god approves of such an action, and will reward it?

At the same time, there are many Christians who are frustrated when the friends and loved ones with whom they have repeatedly shared the gospel, continue to see no need in their lives for what Jesus offers them - even when it is abundantly clear to just about everyone else that they are very much in need of what God wants then to have.

Why do they harden themselves against the wonderful and life-giving love that their Savior bears toward them, and refuse to believe in it?

In our interaction with the larger world of ideas, we all have a “mechanism” of one kind or another by which we determine which ideas we will believe and accept, and which ideas we will disbelieve and reject. That is, we all have a sort of “screen” through which we filter the various claims and assertions that come our way, even if we are not consciously aware of that filtering process.

Those whose screen is very loosely-woven - so that a lot of things get through it - are usually thought of as gullible. Those whose screen is very tightly-woven - so that hardly anything gets through it - are usually thought of as skeptical.

Thomas the apostle was basically a skeptic. His screen was tightly-woven. He was not willing to believe anything - or so he thought - unless he could experience it for himself with his physical senses.

In response to the other apostles’ report that they had seen the risen Lord, he said: “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” But as wise men often say: Never say “never.”

Thomas had a “checklist,” so to speak, of the proofs he thought he would need in order to believe what had been reported to him. We note that this checklist included the physical touching of Christ and his wounds.

According to Thomas, it would be necessary for him to place his finger into the marks of the nails, and to place his hand into the Lord’s side, in order to be willing to believe that Jesus was no longer dead.

At this point, Thomas himself had not seen or heard the risen Christ. And therefore he would not believe the testimony of his friends, that Jesus was alive.

He was stubborn, and actually quite arrogant, in thinking that the validity of their claim depended on the physical sensations of his finger and his hand.

On that first Easter evening Thomas could not see or hear Jesus. But Jesus saw and heard Thomas! Notice what Jesus said to Thomas a week later, when he appeared again among his disciples - this time with Thomas present:

“Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.”

Jesus was aware of everything that Thomas had said! He had heard Thomas give his checklist of proofs which supposedly needed to be satisfied.

Jesus is now reciting these things back to Thomas! And as he does this, and as he stands before Thomas and speaks to him, that checklist - with its requirements of physical touching - is swept away from Thomas’s mind.

Artists often portray Thomas as fulfilling all the requirements of the checklist when Jesus finally did appear to him. Paintings of the scene usually show Thomas putting his finger and hand into the wounds of Christ.

But in today’s text, St. John doesn’t tell us that this is what happened. Instead, in an immediate reaction to the Lord’s words, we read that Thomas spoke some words of his own: “My Lord and my God!”

The truth of Jesus’ resurrection had burst through Thomas’s otherwise tightly-woven screen. Thomas became capable of believing something that he claimed he would never believe. And he did in fact believe it.

Christ, who stood before Thomas, and who spoke to Thomas, impressed upon Thomas not only the truth of the resurrection itself, but the truth of everything that he had taught and accomplished for Thomas’s salvation. Jesus impressed upon Thomas the truth of who Jesus really was.

He was and is the eternal God in human flesh. And he is also Thomas’s God and Lord. This had become very personal, very fast - and with life-changing, eternal consequences for Thomas.

And then Jesus spoke these words, which were intended for the benefit of people like you and me: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Do you believe in the resurrection of Christ? I suppose the chances are fairly good that you do believe that this happened, in view of the fact that you are sitting in this place at this time.

But the next question is an important one: Why do you believe this? Why you believe something is almost as important as what you believe, because the reason you have for believing something will indicate the true nature and character of that faith.

Some people would say that they believe in the Christian religion because they were raised by their parents to believe it. This is understandable.

But is this an adequate basis for someone’s religious convictions? It is likely that most of the fanatical suicide bombers who have been in the news over the past several years were taught the beliefs that inspired and guided them, by their parents.

The impressions that were left on you by your parents’ belief system cannot ultimately be the reason why you currently believe the things you now hold to be true.

And if your parents left on you a bad impression of their religious faith - because of their religious hypocrisies or misunderstandings, or because of their misuse of religion as a tool for psychological abuse - that is not a legitimate reason for your disbelief today.

Thomas might have learned his skepticism from his parents. Parents are sometimes wrong.

What parents teach their children - either by intent or by implication - is not always true. And that goes for religious leaders too.

No human being - of any religious heritage - should allow his conscience to be bound to the pronouncements of a fanatical mullah who encourages suicide bombing, or of a conservative rabbi who denies that Jesus is the Messiah, or of a liberal minister who rejects the morals and miracles of the Bible, or of a pragmatic preacher who says that pure doctrine is unimportant.

As we stand before the tribunal of God’s eternal truth, we cannot, in the final analysis, rely on the personal authority of the clergy under whose ministry we may have sat at some point in our lives, as we give an account of what we believe or disbelieve.

For this, there must be something more authoritative and more reliable than either parents or religious leaders. There has to be a higher standard by which we can test and measure the ideas that are presented to us - even by people we love and admire.

We need to have a genuine, infallible “screen” - provided by God himself - through which we can filter all the claims and assertions that come our way.

Through his tangible encounter with Jesus, Thomas’s heart and mind were changed, and he believed and confessed the truth. But since the ascension of Christ, we don’t have access to the kind of tangible interaction with Jesus that Thomas was able to have.

Does God provide for us a way to know what to believe, and what not to believe? Is there something that he uses today to give us the same kind of confidence and certainty that Thomas had, so that by God’s grace we will know and believe the truth, and will mark and avoid that which is false?

According to St. John, there is! In the narrative of today’s Gospel, he says:

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

What John declares here applies primarily to his Gospel, but by extension it also applies to all Scripture as written by the prophets and apostles of the Lord.

The Bible as a whole, and John’s Gospel in particular, do not answer every question we may have, or satisfy all our religious curiosities. But the Scriptures do answer our deepest and most important questions.

They teach us what to believe, and what not to believe, about God, and about our relationship with God. They show us what is necessary for us to know about Jesus - and about what he did and allowed to be done - so that we can be saved from sin and death, through faith in him.

And the Scriptures bring with them the might of God’s Spirit, to impress upon us supernaturally the truth of what they say. St. Paul says in his Second Epistle to Timothy:

“Continue in what you have learned, and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it; and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God...”

Through the living message of the apostolic and prophetic Scriptures, God changes you. He changes how you decide what to believe and what to disbelieve.

He gives you a certainty - a deep and abiding certainty - that Jesus truly did die for you, and did atone for all your sins. He gives you a confidence - a deep and abiding confidence - that Christ rose on the third day, and thereby won for you the victory over hell and the grave.

When the divine light of his Word pierces through the haze of human gullibility; when the divine power of his Word pierces through the hardness of human skepticism; and when his Word touches you, it miraculously eliminates from your mind whatever human checklist of necessary “proofs” you may have concocted.

The Word of God - as it comes to you in sermon and sacrament - causes the heavenly voice of Jesus to become a familiar voice to you. It thereby gives you the discernment to be able to recognize voices that are foreign to Christ and his gospel - so that you will not heed them.

The witness of the Scriptures has made you capable of believing things you would otherwise never believe. You have become a new creature in Christ. You have put on the mind of Christ.

And the life you now live in the flesh, you live by faith in the Son of God, who loved you, and gave himself for you.

“[Jesus] said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’”

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” Amen.