5 January 2014 - Christmas 2 - Luke 2:40-52

In the church and in the home, God - through vocation - makes distinctions between teachers and learners.

In the church, God calls qualified men to serve as public teachers of his Word. When St. Paul, in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, asks the rhetorical question, “Are all teachers?”, the obvious answer is No. All are not teachers.

The teachers of the church are to set forth only what the Scriptures set forth. Now, if a pastor’s preaching on some point is not in accord with the Scriptures, then he is not to be heeded on that point, but is himself to be taught and corrected by those who have this responsibility.

But when a pastor’s teaching is Biblically sound, then that teaching is to be accepted and followed. God’s people are in this way to honor the ministry of their pastor.

He is God’s servant, and what he does among them in God’s name is done for their benefit. When he accurately rebukes them for their sins, they are to acknowledge and embrace this correction.

When he announces the absolution of Christ, they are to acknowledge and embrace his words as the words of Jesus himself, and to believe the message of divine pardon and peace that he delivers from Jesus.

In the home, God has set up a similar arrangement. In this setting, parents are the teachers, and children are the learners.

In his Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul tells fathers: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

And mothers share in this duty. Paul elsewhere acknowledges that Timothy was well-served by the instruction in the Scriptures that he had received, in childhood, from his mother and grandmother.

And as in all things, children are to honor their parents. And that means that they are to accept the instruction that their parents give them.

The one exception would be when parents teach their children to do something that God’s Word forbids, or to accept as true something that God’s Word rejects as false. The apostolic principle, “We must obey God rather than men,” does apply to such circumstances, even within the family.

So, if your mother is “Ma Barker,” who wants to teach you how to rob banks, you should not learn such a lesson from her. But if your parents instruct you in the ways of faith and godliness, this they have the right to do. And this you have the obligation to learn.

It is often the case, though, that we chafe under the authority that God has placed over us.

We don’t think we have anything to learn from anyone else. In our postmodern era, we live in a world of opinions, not a world of objective truth.

So, in the spirit of the age, if I have formed an opinion about something, I don’t think I need to listen to anyone who would challenge that opinion. And I deeply resent it, when someone comes along - a pastor, or a parent - and tells me that, according to God’s Word, my opinion is wrong.

How often have you grumbled against something that a pastor preached - such as when he criticized one of your pet sins, or reminded you of the necessity of confessing an unpopular Biblical truth - even when what he said was true?

And how often does a young child or a teenager think that she is smarter than her parents, and knows better than her parents - so that she is justified in defying them, or at the very least in demonstrating disdain for their authority?

These kinds of sins - committed against our God-given teachers, and against the God who gave us our teachers - are not uncommon. Everyone commits such sins, to one degree or another. Everyone, that is, except Jesus.

Jesus, as God in human flesh, was the smartest human being who ever lived. Even in his state of humiliation - when he refrained from the full use of his divine power and knowledge - Jesus’ level of human knowledge was still superior to that of any of his peers.

The reason why, is because Jesus was without sin - also in his humanity. His human nature, while a genuine human nature, was a flawless and perfect human nature.

His human mind was a flawless and perfect human mind. And so, in his boyhood, when Mary and Joseph, and the village rabbi, taught him the Scriptures, he was the best of students.

As a child, he had a child’s understanding, not an adult’s understanding. But he had a perfect child’s understanding.

His capacity to grasp what he was taught from Moses and the Prophets was not distorted by any mistaken interpretations or misapprehensions.

Even at an early age, he could have taught a lot to Joseph and Mary, to his village rabbi, or to anyone else. He certainly knew more than they did.

He didn’t just think that he knew more than his elders. He really did know more.

But in his boyhood, Jesus had not yet been called and authorized by his heavenly Father to function as a prophet or teacher. His calling at that point in his life was still to be a learner.

And so that’s what he did. He learned. He did not teach. He respected those who had been placed over him.

And when Jesus encountered a situation where his teachers did not actually know as much as they might have known - and could have benefitted from some correction, or from fuller knowledge - he, even then, did not set himself up as their teacher. Instead, at such times, he faithfully exercised his calling as a student - by asking questions.

To be sure, there would no doubt be much to learn, indirectly, from Jesus’ questions. But they were still questions, not lectures or sermons.

In today’s text from St. Luke’s Gospel, we hear the story of the boy Jesus in the temple at Jerusalem. Mary and Joseph had left for home after their Passover pilgrimage in the holy city - each thinking that Jesus was also somewhere in the larger group of travelers, likewise on his way home.

But he was not. We might think it strange that they would not know that he was not actually among the band of pilgrims on their way back to Galilee.

But we need to realize that, according to the custom of the time, when a lot of people from a town or region traveled together for a religious visit to and from Jerusalem, they actually traveled in two separate groups: the women and younger children in one group; and the men and older boys in another. This is the way Jewish families divided themselves, and sat separately, also in the synagogue.

Jesus, as a twelve-year-old, was at a transitional age, where he could have been traveling either with the women and the younger children, or with the men and the older boys.

It would seem, then, that Mary initially thought he was with Joseph and the other men; while Joseph initially thought he was with Mary and the other women. When they realized that he was actually with neither of them, they returned to Jerusalem as quickly as they could, to look for him.

We know how the story goes from there:

“After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when his parents saw him, they were astonished.”

Notice how Jesus engaged the rabbis and teachers at the temple. He was listening to them, and asking them questions.

His questions - posed in response to their comments - were filled with wisdom and insight. Indirectly, the rabbis’ understanding of God’s Word was no doubt sharpened in some significant ways, as they reflected on the content of the questions Jesus was asking.

But as Jesus sat and talked with these elders of Israel, they were clearly in the position of teachers, and he was clearly in the position of a learner. He did not step outside of the role that had been given to him, by divine vocation, as a twelve-year-old Jewish boy.

Jesus did a similar thing with respect to his mother Mary, even when she was in need of some gentle doctrinal correction. Luke’s account continues:

“And his mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.’ And he said to them, ‘Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’”

Mary referred to Joseph as Jesus’ father. In most practical ways, of course, Joseph was Jesus’ father - or at least he functioned as such.

He was raising Jesus in a pious and God-fearing home. He was teaching him the carpenter’s trade. He was providing a stable and loving environment for Jesus to grow up in.

And as today’s text tells us, during the remaining years of Jesus’ childhood - during his teen years - he was “submissive” to Mary and Joseph.

But Joseph was not Jesus’ father. He was his guardian and step-father, yet it was important for Mary to be reminded - especially here, at the temple - that her son was not also Joseph’s son, but was the Son of God; and, that Jesus had no human father.

Jesus had come into the world as the Son of God, to fulfill a divine task, and to do what only God could do. In the future, at the time of his official inauguration into his public ministry, Jesus would be declared to be the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

Jesus someday would also become the greatest of teachers, who would teach others with extraordinary and remarkable authority - and with a divine power that could change hearts. But, Jesus was not yet that.

He was not yet a teacher. And according to his office as Mary’s twelve-year-old son, he was definitely not his mother’s teacher. She was - or was supposed to be - his teacher.

And so, when she told him - in reference to herself and Joseph - “Your father and I have been searching for you,” Jesus responded by asking her a carefully-worded question: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

In respectfully asking this question, Jesus had not set himself up as his mother’s teacher.

He did know more than she knew on this particular dogmatic point. And an important point it was! But he did not embarrass her, or overtly correct her.

To be sure, the necessary correction was sort of “put out there.” But this was done indirectly, and obliquely. And without being formally taught by her son, Mary learned from her son.

We are told that she did not fully understand what he meant at the time. But later on, after she had pondered these events - and these words - she did understand.

Many years after the events described in today’s text, when the time came for Jesus to become the chief teacher of Israel - and ultimately of all nations - he faithfully fulfilled that calling.

When the time came also for Jesus to fulfill his office of priest, and to offer himself on the cross as the true and ultimate sacrifice for all human sin, he faithfully fulfilled that duty as well.

Because Jesus was faithful in this saving work - and in all his callings and duties - your lack of faithfulness in your callings and duties is forgiven, through his blood.

And his righteousness is imputed to you, by faith, so that it can cover over your unrighteousness, and hide your sins from the judgment of God.

So, when you - in thought, word, or deed - dishonor your teachers, know that Jesus honored his teachers. And that he did this for you.

When you have failed to show proper respect for the ministry of your pastor, or for the authority of your parents; and when you have, as it were, set yourself up as their teachers, without God’s permission or call, know that Jesus - on your behalf - resisted any such temptation.

He learned from his pastors - asking them questions, but not preaching to them. He learned from his mother, asking her questions, but not lecturing her.

This was the righteousness that he exhibited, in those circumstances. This is the righteousness with which he makes you to be righteous before God today.

Exodus 20: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”

1 Thessalonians 5: “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; and to esteem them very highly in love, because of their work.”

Romans 3: “All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” Amen.

19 January 2014 - Epiphany 2 - John 1:29-42a

When John the Baptist pointed to Jesus, in today’s text from the Gospel of John, he declared him to be the “lamb” of God. The Baptist was thereby drawing on a whole array of images that would have had great meaning to a Jewish audience.

It was a lamb that was the designated animal to be killed and eaten at the Passover, when the children of Israel were delivered from slavery in Egypt; but when the Egyptians were punished for their oppression of the Hebrews. The blood of the Passover lamb was smeared on the doorposts of each Hebrew home, as a protective covering from the judgment of the angel of death.

According to the liturgical and sacrificial system that the Lord established for his people through Moses, a lamb was the designated sacrifice to be offered every morning and every evening, as a part of the daily worship of the nation.

This was emblematic of the ongoing sacrifice for sin that was continually necessary - and of God’s desire to be continually reconciled to his people in forgiveness, through his acceptance of that daily offering.

And the Messiah himself was predicted by Isaiah the Prophet to be as a lamb led to the slaughter: uncomplaining in his suffering, as he would carry the sins of many upon himself, and endure in his own flesh the penalty that all human sin incurs under the judgment of God.

“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. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.”

Jesus is the lamb of God. All of the Old Testament references to the death of the lamb, and to the lamb of sacrifice, pointed ultimately to him and his work.

And he is the lamb of God who takes away sin. The idea of taking away sin, and the idea of forgiving sin, are closely related ideas.

The New Testament word translated into English as “forgive” means literally to “send off,” or to “lift off and send away.”

The moral offenses that we have committed against God’s goodness result in a burden of guilt and shame that descends upon us. Our sins weigh us down, and they mar and damage us as they press into us and disfigure us.

To be forgiven of these sins would mean to have these sins lifted off of us, and extracted from us. What a relief that would be, in mind, heart, and conscience.

But this is the problem: your sins, and my sins, were and are real offenses against God, which alienate us from him.

God, in his holiness, cannot pretend that our sins do not bother him. And we cannot pretend that our sins have not created a debt of righteousness that we really do owe to God.

These concerns may seem strange to our ears - or at least they may seem strange to the ears of the people around us. The God of popular culture and is not a God who judges and punishes sin.

Or if he does punish sin, it’s the sin of people like Osama Bin Laden, or Adolf Hitler, and not our insignificant and unimportant sin. But the benign and harmless God of popular culture is not a God who actually exists.

When you have committed a sin against God’s law, you have done something that needs to be answered for. If you were to ask the holy and righteous God of the universe if he could just look the other way, and pretend that it never happened, the answer would be No.

He cannot look the other way, because he sees and knows all things. And he cannot pretend that it did not happen, because it did happen.

You rebelled against him and disobeyed him. You set something in motion that cannot just be wished away. Someone has to pay for this.

By rights it should be you. In the normal course of divine and human events, each sinner would be accountable for his own sin, and would be liable for the punishment that his sin deserves and invites.

If your sin were somehow to be lifted off of you, and sent from you, it would not just evaporate or disappear. It would continue to exist as an objective offense against God’s will, and would still have to be paid for by someone.

Whether we like it or not, that’s the way it works when we are dealing with a holy God, who in the demands and expectations of his law says what he means, and means what he says.

He takes his commandments seriously. And he takes our breaches of his commandments seriously.

So, in order for the forgiveness, or sending off, of your sin to work, your sin needs to be sent to another place where it will still be judged, and where the righteousness of God will still be appeased and satisfied by another’s payment of its penalty.

That penalty is death. As God warns through the Prophet Ezekiel, “the soul who sins shall die.”

If your sin remains upon you, you shall die. If your sin is transferred to another, and is imputed to another as if it had been committed by that other one, then that other one must die.

Jesus is the lamb of God, who takes away sin. He is the righteous one from God, without sin or blemish himself in his own person and life.

But according to the benevolent and gracious plan of God for human salvation, and because of his extraordinary and merciful intervention in the normal course of events, the sin that is taken off of others, is placed upon Jesus. By imputation, he becomes guilty of the sin of others, and those others thereby have the righteousness of Jesus credited to them.

And Jesus suffers under the judgment of the sin that has been placed upon him, and that he takes away from the sinner who committed the sin. He takes it away, all the way to the cross.

He sacrifices himself there, to atone for that sin. He pays the price for that sin.

Only then is there a satisfying of the debt of righteousness that had been incurred by that sin. Only then is God’s judgment lifted from the one who committed the sin. Only then is a reconciliation established between God and the forgiven sinner.

Those who pride themselves on being religiously tolerant and open-minded, and who put those “coexist” bumper stickers on their cars, chafe at the idea that there is salvation only in Christ. But in view of everything we have been reminded of, regarding the holiness of God and the sinfulness of man, how could Jesus not be the only way?

Who else, in the history of human religion, has ever claimed to be the lamb of God? But without a lamb, there can be no transfer of sin, and no sacrifice for sin.

Without a transfer and a sacrifice, there can be no forgiveness. And without forgiveness - without the taking away of sin - there can be no reconciliation and eternal life with God. There can be no salvation.

The only kind of God who conceivably saves people apart from Christ, is a God who is not himself righteousness, who does not command us to live in righteousness, and who is not offended by our lack of righteousness.

But again, such a God does not exist. And the God who does exist, is a God to whom we are all accountable - including those who do not now believe in his existence.

But just as the whole world is accountable to God for its sin, so too is Jesus the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the whole world. Within the mystery of God’s gracious will toward the world in and through his Son Jesus, the sin of humanity was, in Christ, taken off of humanity, and deposited upon him - so that he could carry it to the cross and die under its condemnation.

Because of Jesus’ willingness to take human sin upon himself, and answer for it on humanity’s behalf before his Father in heaven, humanity’s forgiveness is already an objective reality in Christ. Even before anyone believes in this truth, this truth is, well, true.

Humanity’s forgiveness through the suffering and death of Jesus, is itself the fundamental message of the gospel, which all penitent sinners are invited to believe for their salvation. The gospel conveys to all who hear it, the Lord’s universal decree of amnesty - which has its basis in the fact that Jesus really did take away the sin of the world.

We are invited to believe this because it is true. It is not true because we believe it. Faith does not create forgiveness. Faith receives forgiveness.

Jesus is the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Faith receives Jesus, and the forgiveness of sin that is to be found only in Jesus.

There is no one for whom Christ did not die. There is no one whose sins were not lifted off in Christ, and atoned for in Christ, and forgiven in Christ.

The invitation of the gospel accordingly excludes no one. But, apart from this gospel, and apart from faith in the gospel, no individual benefits from the finished work of Jesus.

Everything that John says about Jesus as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, is indeed objectively true. But it is not subjectively received by the individual, to his personal benefit, for as long as the individual remains in impenitence and unbelief, and remains disconnected from Christ.

In Christ, all sin is taken away. But outside of Christ, all sin abides on the transgressor, and the transgressor abides in his sin - with all of its damning consequences.

When you are brought under the conviction of God’s law, and when the judgment of God against your own sin is impressed upon your conscience, you might wonder if there is a way out for you. You might wonder if there is a way of forgiveness for you, and if you are included in God’s decree of amnesty.

At such a time, and in such a circumstance, the answer is always Yes - not because God looks the other way, or just makes your sin disappear, but because God put your sin onto Jesus, and because Jesus, in your place, died for your sin; and by his death alone extinguished its power, and lifted its curse.

And John speaks to you today, when he says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”

This kind of beholding is not just a detached gawking at Jesus. It is the beholding of faith.

It is a kind of beholding that draws you to Christ, and that opens you up to Christ. It is a beholding of Christ that immediately leads to a following of Christ. Remember what today’s text also reports:

“John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.”

Behold him, my friends. Follow him as he calls to you, in his gospel. Receive him as he comes to you, in his word and sacrament.

As he calls, and as he comes, faith receives everything that he gives. Sins are forgiven. Eternal life is granted.

To Christ the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, and who takes away your sin, a hopeful and confident prayer is chanted by us this day. As we prepare to partake of the body and blood of Christ, given and shed to take away our sin - and as we remember that sacrifice, and reflect upon it - we pray to our loving Savior: Have mercy upon us; have mercy upon us; grant us your peace.

And the prayer is answered. Mercy is showered upon us by the lamb of God. Peace is bestowed upon us by the one who takes away the sin of the world.

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Amen.