1 February 2015 - Epiphany 4 - Mark 1:21-28

Jesus was not like the other religious teachers of his time.

St. Mark tells us in today’s text that Jesus and his disciples “went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.”

The scribes were the standard religious scholars among the Jews in the first century. They were in charge of copying and preserving manuscripts of the Sacred Scriptures, as well as manuscripts of the writings of the great rabbis of Israel’s history.

These rabbis had commented on the Scriptures, and had offered their opinions on the meaning and application of various passages. Over the generations, these interpretations had been layered on top of each other in such a way that the original meaning and spirit of a Biblical text was often completely obscured.

When Jesus criticized the “tradition of the elders,” or “the tradition of men,” this is what he was talking about. The scribes kept track of all these rabbinic writings, with their competing and sometimes contradictory views.

If someone would ask a scribe a question about some religious subject, he would answer the question by quoting the various rabbinic statements that had been made on that subject. And there was usually not just one commonly-accepted answer to a religious question.

So, a scribe might say, “Well, this rabbi answered your question in this way, but that rabbi answered your question in that way.” And the scribes, as a class, did not understand it to be their role to decide which rabbis of history were correct, and which were not.

It was expected that everyone would basically pick and choose between these varying rabbinic opinions, without the idea that these issues really needed to be settled to the satisfaction of everyone. And in general, that’s the way most people liked it.

The Jewish people of the first century enjoyed religious debates. But they usually wanted to keep their options open, as to which side in these debates they would ultimately take themselves. The teaching of the scribes served this purpose very well.

But the teaching of Jesus was different. Jesus didn’t present an array of possible answers to a religious question that someone might pose to him.

He answered such questions clearly, decisively, and with “authority.” He preached and expounded on the Scriptures with a new kind of freshness and power - and with “authority.”

When Scripture gave one answer to a question, he told people what it was, and he rejected false interpretations - with the “authority” of one who seemed really to know what God’s intent was, in inspiring the passage in question.

We are told in our text that the people in Capernaum were “astonished” by this. We are also told that Jesus’ “fame” spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee.

But the Greek word “akoe” - translated as “fame” - does not necessarily have a positive connotation, as the English word has. It just means that he became known in the region, and that people were hearing about him.

We might assume that the people were pleased finally to find a religious teacher who spoke with authority - unlike the scribes, with their vacillation and lack of commitment. But we should not necessarily assume this.

People in general don’t usually like to be told what they must believe, or how they must live. They don’t enjoy being told that a religious belief to which they hold is wrong, and that they need to change that belief.

That’s the way it was back then, and that’s the way it is now too. Most people today - even religious people - would prefer the approach of the scribes, over the approach of Jesus.

In regard to the various debated questions of theology and ethics in our time, the general tendency is for people to consider a wide range of interpretations and opinions - regardless of how far-fetched some of those interpretations and opinions might be - and then to choose the one that “feels right” to them, albeit in a tentative and non-committed way.

And usually, the belief that is finally chosen is the belief that allows them to conform themselves as much as possible to the current attitudes of the culture.

In this respect, we’ve probably heard of “cafeteria Catholics.” But picking up on the Swedish component of our church’s heritage, we can say that there are also “Smorgasbord Lutherans.” Are you a Smorgasbord Lutheran?

Do you appreciate the inflexible authority with which Jesus speaks, so that you can know the truth of God, and be delivered from religious ignorance and spiritual deception by God’s truth? Do you want to be a Christian whose beliefs are firmly rooted in the Holy Scriptures, as interpreted with authority according to their context and their proper literary sense?

Or do you prefer choosing your beliefs in bits and pieces, from here and there; constructing your own religion from the scribes of our age? Are you an eclectic religious dilettante: bouncing around whimsically from one idea to another; never allowing yourself to be brought to a state of deep conviction regarding something that is bigger and more important than your own feelings and opinions?

Are you anchored to the unchanging foundation of reality as God defines it? Or do your beliefs change every time your mood changes, or the society around you changes?

One thing you do need to know, is that if you claim to be a follower of Jesus, you are claiming to be a follower of one who teaches with authority, and not like the scribes. Are you really a follower of Jesus?

Do you hear his authoritative voice in the Scriptures? Do you accept as true everything that he says - even when it might challenge you, make you feel uncomfortable, or require a change in you?

A Christian recognizes, and submits to, the authority and truth of Jesus’ teaching. But this is not just an intellectual exercise.

For one man in particular in Capernaum, in today’s text, recognizing the authority of Christ, and experiencing the impact of that authority in his life, was certainly not just an intellectual exercise.

We are told by St. Mark that “there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are - the Holy One of God.’”

“But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him.”

The crowd’s response to this was similar to what it had been a short time earlier, after they had heard Jesus preaching and teaching during the synagogue service:

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

Exorcism, or the casting out of a demon from a possessed person, was not unheard of among the Jews of the first century. But traditional Jewish exorcisms were not performed in the way that Jesus performed this one.

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

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

“I have seen a certain man of my own country, whose name was Eleazar, curing people possessed by demons... The manner of the cure was as follows.”

“He put a ring that had under its seal one of those sorts of roots mentioned by Solomon, to the nostrils of the demoniac; and then drew the demon out, through his nostrils, as he smelt it. And when the man fell down immediately, [the exorcist] adjured the demon to return into him no more, still making mention of Solomon, and reciting the incantation which [Solomon] had composed.”

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

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

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

And that was it. The exorcism was over. The demon was gone.

For the man who had been possessed, this was more than just an unusual event to be gawked at, and wondered about, by a curious crowd at a synagogue. He had been wonderfully liberated by Jesus from forces of darkness and death that had taken control of him.

The possessed man had been powerless to free himself from this horrible affliction. But Jesus had the power to cast out the unclean spirit.

And the word that he spoke to accomplish this, was spoken with an authority that immediately made it happen!

The authority of the teaching and words of Jesus is not just an authority of persuasion, by which he convinces people that he is right, and that those who disagree with him are wrong. Jesus is not really interested in winning arguments.

He is interested in winning souls - souls that he redeemed by the shedding of his blood on the cross; and that he, as the resurrected, living Lord of his church, now claims and draws to himself.

Most people in this world are not possessed directly by a demon. But the natural state in which we all enter this world, is a state of spiritual captivity to the power of sin.

We may not be inhabited by an unclean spirit. But we are by nature sinful and unclean before God, and are in need of the kind of deliverance that only Jesus, by the power and authority of his word, is able to accomplish.

Today, through the proclamation of the law, Jesus does not just preach authoritative sermons that define what a sin is. He authoritatively identifies the sin that is in your life, and that alienates you from God. And thereby he calls you to repentance.

There’s a part of you - the “old nature” part of you - that wants to rationalize away your transgressions - relativizing and justifying them. That’s the part of you that welcomes input from the “scribes,” who do not speak or teach with authority.

But there’s also a part of you - the new nature that God’s Word and Spirit create - that knows that what Jesus says is true. His words do not trigger within you a mere intellectual consideration of the conceptual difference between right and wrong.

Rather, the words of Jesus instill within you a sense of shame and regret for your own sins; and a godly aversion to, and forsaking of, those sins.

And through the proclamation of the gospel, Jesus does not just preach authoritative sermons that describe how the forgiveness of God is delivered to penitent people. He authoritatively gives you God’s forgiveness, by giving you himself - as he speaks words of healing and pardon that reach down into your soul and spirit, and that implant his own divine Spirit within you.

When you ponder certain spiritual questions as matters of intellectual curiosity, the teaching of the scribes is enough. But when you are gripped by the need to know what your standing with God is - in time and in eternity - then only a certain word from God will do.

The teaching of Jesus is a certain word from God, because Jesus is the Son of God - whom the Father sent into the world to save the world.

When he tells you, in your baptism, that you now belong to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, he is not thereby inviting a debate. He is bestowing a new birth, and is making all things new for you.

By the authority of his word alone, Jesus was able to remove the demon from the body of the possessed man in Capernaum. Likewise by the authority of his word alone, Jesus is able to remove the guilt and power of sin from your conscience.

This is exactly what he is doing for you, when he absolves you of your sins, through the lips of the called servant whom he has sent to you, to speak his absolution to you.

And when Jesus tells you, in his sacred Supper, that the bread and wine that he is offering to you is the very body and blood that he gave and shed for the forgiveness of your sins, he is not trying to stir up a religious argument about the Real Presence.

His authoritative word is miraculously making his Real Presence happen! And through that word, Jesus is renewing to you the Sabbath rest that is enjoyed by those who know that the Lamb of God has taken away their sin; and who know that the Son of Man will always be their companion and protector in all their human struggles.

The teacher into whom we are baptized, by whom we are absolved, and to whom we are united through the faithful reception of his body and blood, is not a scribe. And he does not teach like a scribe.

Jesus’ teaching is not like a tennis ball, to be swatted back and forth by religious rationalists and skeptics as if they are playing a game with that teaching. His teaching is God’s teaching, which come to us always with a divine purpose, and a divine power, as God himself describes it through the Prophet Isaiah:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Amen.

15 February 2015 - Transfiguration - Mark 9:2-9

On various occasions during his earthly ministry, when Jesus would perform miracles of healing, exorcism, and so forth, he would ask the recipient, or the witnesses, not to spread reports about the incident. He knew that this would result in his being acclaimed as a wonder-worker, which would attract the wrong kind of attention.

He wanted people to listen to his sermons and teachings and to pay attention to his words, and not just to latch onto his miracles. It was, however, an uphill struggle.

The event described in today’s Gospel from St. Mark was not a miracle like these other miracles. It was actually more spectacular and more awe-inspiring than anything else Jesus ever did.

If Jesus was concerned about reports of his miracles getting spread around, he was even more concerned about descriptions of this event getting out and being talked about. So, he brought only three men with him to witness it - his closest and most trusted disciples - and he told them not to speak of what they had seen until after his resurrection.

And what exactly happened? Let’s listen again to St. Mark’s description:

“After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.”

St. Paul tells us in his epistle to the Philippians that Christ Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

During his earthly ministry Jesus usually did not exhibit his divine powers, or make overt use of them. Occasionally, however, he did.

When he instituted the Lord’s Supper, for example, his body in its ordinary human form was seated there in front of his disciples. But at the same time, by virtue of the power of his divine nature - to which his human nature was united - he spoke the presence of his body also into the bread that he was offering to them. And he spoke his blood into the wine that he was inviting them to drink.

And another occasion in which Jesus manifested - in a different way - his divine power and glory, was the occasion that today’s Gospel account describes. From the moment of his conception in his mother’s womb, Christ’s divine nature was always present in, with, and under his human nature. But his divinity was hidden beneath the humble form of his humanity.

He lived, walked, and spoke as a man, and with the appearance of a man, even though he was always more than a man. In the Lord’s transfiguration, however, Peter, James, and John got a glimpse of the divine majesty of their Savior.

He shone forth with heavenly brilliance. A portal to heaven was opened - a “vortex” we might say - and two of the great saints of old, Moses and Elijah, became visible in the company of God’s Son.

St. Mark, and the other Gospel writers who describe this, observe that the brilliant light shone forth from Jesus. It was not a reflected light from some other source, whether natural or supernatural.

Rather, this was a light - a glorious, divine light - that came out of Jesus himself. It was a light that had always been in him, though hidden - because his divinity, with its glory and authority, had always been in him.

In his transfiguration, Jesus did not become something more than what he already was. Instead, what he had always been, and what he always will be, became in that moment manifest, and outwardly discernable, to the three chosen witnesses.

These three men were, of course, scared out of their wits. The text says that Peter did not know what to say, since he and the others were so frightened.

This illustrates one of the reasons why Christ usually hid his glory from view during his earthly ministry, and why he still comes to us in hidden ways - beneath the humble forms of human words, water, bread and wine. If Jesus, in his resurrection glory, were to come to us uncloaked - standing before us in his full divine majesty - we in our mortal and sinful weakness would melt away with fear and trembling.

It would not be a pleasant and inviting experience, which would draw us to him. But it would be a scary and debilitating experience. We would react in a similar way to how Peter, James, and John reacted in today’s text.

This was indeed a frightening experience for them. But it was also a learning experience - or at least it was intended to be. This is especially so in connection with the final component of the event, which St. Mark describes as follows:

“Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: ‘This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!’”

In the future, whenever Jesus would say anything to these men, they were to remember this event, and listen to him. In the future, whenever Jesus would tell them something, they were to recall these things - and thereby know that God himself, with all of his divine authority and truthfulness, was the one who was telling them something.

The words of Jesus were not the words of a mere man, and they were not the words of a mere wonder-worker. They were and are the words of the Son of God - divine words that have the power to move mountains, to destroy worlds, to create galaxies, and... to raise the dead.

But that’s where these three men sometimes failed to do as the voice of God the Father had commanded them. Not long after his transfiguration, Jesus said this to his disciples, as recorded by St. Mark:

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

The disciples, however, did not listen to this. They didn’t really expect the resurrection to happen, even though Jesus told them plainly that it would. And they still refused to believe in it even when Mary Magdalene and the other women reported it to them on the first Easter morning.

The transfiguration of our Lord is something that happened for the benefit of the three men who witnessed it. And it is something that happened for us and for our faith as well.

Jesus told the witnesses not to tell anybody about it until after his resurrection. But once he had been raised from the dead, they were to tell others.

Through the pages of Holy Scripture, they were to tell us. And we have in this way been told. So, we too now know that Jesus of Nazareth is not a mere man, or even a mere wonder-worker, but the true and eternal Son of God.

Likewise, when the voice of the Father speaks at the transfiguration, it speaks also to us: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” But do we listen?

For example, when Christ tells us that we are to love the Lord our God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, do we really pay attention to this? How easy is it to find an excuse to absent ourselves from the Sunday Divine Service, and the public administration of the means of grace, even though God’s Word tells us not to neglect this?

Do we spend time thinking through the important issues of our world, of our community, and of our own lives, in the light of the Holy Bible and its teachings, rather than taking our ethical and moral cues from the popular culture? Do we consistently listen to Jesus in regard to such matters?

Christ also tells us that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. How seriously do we take that to heart? And I’m not necessarily talking about neighbors who are farther away than our own family.

Do we love husband or wife, children and parents, brothers or sisters, with the kind of selfless devotion that Jesus demands? Do we care about the well-being of others - especially others in need - as much as we care about our own well-being?

Do we listen to Christ when he says these things to us? Or are we like Peter, James, and John, letting much of what our Lord says go in one ear and out the other - not paying serious attention to it; not really believing it?

Someday, when all nations stand before Christ’s throne of judgment, those individuals who had consistently refused to listen to Jesus in this life, will finally listen to him, when he says: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” May none of us wait until that day, to begin listening to the Son of God.

We so often do forget that the one who speaks to us in Scripture now, about these things, and many other things, is the almighty God of the universe - the Second Person of the Holy Trinity - and not a mere man. We fail to remember that his divine words have the power to move mountains, to destroy worlds, to create galaxies, and... to forgive sins.

Yes, dear friends, that’s the comfort which is offered to penitent sinners from the Mount of Transfiguration. You can be sure, when you listen to Christ tell you that he has been merciful to you, that this, too, is true, and absolutely to be believed.

Listen to him when he says, “your sins are forgiven.” The Lord of glory, filled with divine splendor and might, is the one who is saying this.

Listen to him when he says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” These words are not spoken by a mere man, or even by a mere wonder-worker.

Listen to him when he says:

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

And for those of you who are communicants at his altar, listen to him, and believe him, when he tells you - just as he told his disciples on the night in which he was betrayed - that the bread he offers is his true body, given into death for you; and that the wine he invites you to take is his true blood, shed for you for the remission of sins.

The Lord’s Supper is a not an empty symbol of something from long ago and far away. It is a miracle, established for Christ’s church - and for you - by the divine power of the divine Savior who first instituted it, and who - as the resurrected Lord of his church - makes it happen here and now as well.

“...he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters - one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’ (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.) Then a cloud appeared and enveloped them, and a voice came from the cloud: ‘This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!’” Amen.

18 February 2015 - Ash Wednesday - 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12

Please listen with me to these inspired words from the first chapter of St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Thessalonians, beginning at the fifth verse:

St. Paul writes: This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering – since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

So far our text.

Surveys indicate that fewer and fewer people in America believe in the existence of hell. This is understandable, in view of the general loss of faith that characterizes our society.

Of course, no one eagerly embraces a belief in hell. But we - who submit to the authority of Scripture - are compelled to this belief, because Scripture teaches that hell is real.

Because we do believe in hell, we also want to be sure that we will not end up there. And this is because the Bible in general, and Jesus in particular, give us many very unpleasant descriptions of what hell is like.

It is described as a place of torment and flames, as a lake of burning sulfer, as an exile to outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, and as a condition in which the worm of those who are there does not die. I don’t think I even want to know exactly what that means.

These descriptions, or pictures, employ sensory images of sensory suffering. Hell, then, is often conceived of as a place where we are in physical pain, or physical discomfort to an extreme.

What makes hell to be “hell,” in this understanding, are the nasty, bad things that are happening there. And so, because we do not want these bad things to happen to us after we die, we do what we can, in this life, to avoid going to hell.

We want to go to heaven instead, where good and happy things happen to people.

But as our text instructs us this evening about the real agony of hell, we are led to see that these physical descriptions are more in the way of figurative illustrations of what hell is like in certain respects, and are not literal descriptions of the essence of hell.

What makes hell to be “hell,” is not simply a matter of physical suffering. Hell is “hell,” because hell is being “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”

To be separated from God, in the sense of being separated from the glory of his gracious and loving presence, is the true agony of hell. This kind of alienation from God - in soul and spirit - is much worse than any external tortures of the body could ever be.

The loneliness of hell – experienced eternally by those who hate God, and are completely cut off from his fellowship – is beyond our earthly comprehension.

The inner agony of it can be imagined, to some extent, by means of the physical imagery that Jesus employs in his descriptions of what hell is like. And those picturesque descriptions are bad enough.

But the true suffering of hell - being “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might” - is more painful, and more destructive, than those physical sufferings, all by themselves, would be. Indeed, in today’s text, Paul says that the separation from God that is hell, is a just punishment of eternal destruction for those who live and die in enmity against God and the people of God.

When human reason envisions hell merely as a place of torment - because of the bad things that are happening there - then human reason usually attempts to devise methods of avoiding that torment.

Usually, what human reason comes up with, is the notion that if we do good “things” to others in this world, then good “things” will be done to us, and happen to us, in the next world. And it is imagined that those who do bad “things” to others in this world, are the ones who will have bad “things” done to them, and happen to them, in the next world.

This is a belief in justification and salvation by works, plain and simple.

But if we take St. Paul’s words to heart, and understand that what the agony of hell really is, is being separated from personal communion with God, then human reason will have a hard time figuring out how that can be overcome. Indeed, human reason cannot in the least figure out how to achieve the kind of intimate fellowship with God that constitutes the antithesis of hell.

We know, according to the natural knowledge of God, that God is “out there” - looking down on us, and evaluating us. But how can we get God to be “in here” - in our lives, and in our hearts?

How can our human efforts bring him down to us, and make his glory and his might to be personally present with us, and in us?

If we are going to avoid hell - according to what hell really is - that is what has to happen. But in our human weakness, we cannot make that happen.

The ancient patriarch Job prayed to the Lord: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” And in light of this, as Job pondered his presumptuousness and pride, he also prayed: “I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

St. Peter said this, in a sermon recorded in the Book of Acts:

“What God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.”

“Times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord.” That sounds like the exact opposite of hell. That sounds like heaven.

It is, in fact, the essence of heaven. To be in the presence of the Lord, and to be eternally refreshed by the presence of the Lord, is, quite simply, to be in heaven.

God is the one who makes this happen, on the basis of the salvation for us that his Son fulfilled on our behalf - in his life, death, and resurrection. Jesus lived, died, and rose again, so that our sins could be blotted out.

And as St. Peter makes plain, it is by the blotting out of our sins, and not by human works that we consider to be good and worthy of reward, that we are transported into the presence of the Lord. We are made worthy for heaven by Christ, and by what Christ gives.

This blotting out of sin needs to be received, of course, in order for it to be enjoyed. Receiving is not doing. But receiving is receiving. And the receiving comes through the repenting.

To repent is to turn away from sin, and to turn toward Christ. And at a deeper level - according to the converting and regenerating grace of God - it is to be turned away from sin by the convicting power of the law, and to be turned toward Christ by the saving power of the gospel.

Repentance for sin - a real, deep despising and hatred of your sin - is deliverance from hell, and from the fear of hell. Turning again toward Christ - trusting Christ, embracing Christ, relying on Christ - is the hope of heaven.

In a sense, believing Christ, and having Christ, is to have the blessings of heaven already now. Fellowship with God through Christ is the essence of heaven.

And fellowship with God through Christ is what Christians are already enjoying by faith. Jesus said in the Gospel of St. John:

“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.”

People today who do not believe in Christ, but who do still believe in hell, do not want to go to hell.

People today who do not care about the forgiveness of sins that Christ offers, but who are scared of the agony of hell, will try to do whatever they can to escape that agony.

But actually, those people are, in a sense, in hell already. They are already, in heart and mind, “away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”

If they die in that state, hell will be a continuation, and an intensification, of what they already have - or more precisely, of what they don’t have.

St. Paul describes their condition in his Epistle to the Ephesians, when he says that unbelievers are “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world.”

But he also says in that Epistle, in regard to you who have repented of all your sins, and who do know the Lord’s mercy and forgiveness, that “in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near, by the blood of Christ.”

You have been brought near to God by the blood of Christ. You did not bring yourself near, through your own efforts, but you have been brought near by Jesus, and by the gospel of Christ crucified for sinners.

In the gospel, God has removed from you all that would destine you for hell. And he has bestowed upon you all that now destines you for heaven.

As you have received Christ, and have received eternal life and heaven in Christ, so too - on this Ash Wednesday, and in this Lenten season - receive him again. As you have repented of your sins, and been washed in the waters of Holy Baptism, so too - on this Ash Wednesday, and in this Lenten season - repent again, and be washed again in Holy Absolution.

As you have trusted in the Savior who suffered and died for you - offering his body as a sacrifice for your sins, and shedding his blood for your redemption - so too, on this Ash Wednesday, and in this Lenten season, trust in him again. Receive again, in his Holy Supper, the body that was given for you into death, and the blood that was shed for you, as God’s testament to you that your sins are forgiven.

This is a divine testament to you that in Christ, you are now an heir of life, not of death; and that your eternal destiny is a destiny of fellowship with Christ, and not of separation from Christ.

When you have Jesus, you don’t have to be afraid of hell. When you repent of your sins, and receive the forgiveness and life that God gives through Christ, you already have heaven.

Through faith in Christ, even now, you are already in the very presence of the Lord, and you are already surrounded by the glory of his might.

When life in this world ends, you will not, therefore, enter upon something that is completely new for you. But you will then see what you now only believe.

The eternal life that Jesus has already given you will continue on. Your fellowship with Jesus will continue on. Forever. Amen.

22 February 2015 - Lent 1 - Genesis 22:1-18

Think about someone right now whom you would consider a friend. You are more than likely thinking about someone with whom you have a shared experience, or whose life experiences are similar to yours.

The closest friends we have tend to be people like this. That common experience serves as a bonding agent for the friendship, and for a mutual understanding within the friendship.

This is why friendships are often formed and maintained between those who grew up together in the same town, or who went to college together, or who served together in the military.

Your friends are basically the people who can understand you, because they have gone through the same kind of things you have gone through. Accordingly, they are able to look at the world in a way that is very similar to how you look at it.

What should we think, then, of a statement that St. James makes in his Epistle, about the friendship that existed between God and Abraham? He writes: “The Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’ - and he was called a friend of God.”

How could a mortal man like Abraham be a friend of God? God is, of course, vastly different from Abraham in the nature of his being.

God is eternal, almighty, and all-knowing. Abraham, by comparison, was limited in every way - in his knowledge, and in his power.

So, Abraham, was not God’s peer, or his equal, in respect to these things. But still, Scripture calls him a friend of God.

What common experience did Abraham and God share, so that their relationship could be described in such terms? Let’s look at today’s Old Testament lesson from the Book of Genesis. There we may find an answer to that question.

Because God is God, and stands above Abraham as Abraham’s creator, the friendship that Abraham had with God was a friendship that God bestowed on Abraham. Their friendship was planned out by God.

It did not take shape in the way that many of our human friendships begin, through the happenstance of two people getting thrown together in the same class at school, or in the same army unit or navy crew. Instead, God is the one who caused Abraham to have the kind of experiences that would give Abraham a certain level of commonality with God, and with God’s own experiences.

When God tested Abraham’s faith by telling him to sacrifice his son Isaac, God was giving Abraham just such an experience. God was enabling Abraham to become his friend.

“He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.’”

Abraham was certainly surprised by this request. It would no doubt have seemed to him to go against everything he would expect from God. It would have seemed to be going against God’s own nature.

The God of Abraham was not like the false gods of the pagan nations, with their thirst for the blood of human sacrifices. The God who had called Abraham to follow him, and who had promised Abraham that he would give him and his wife Sarah a son, was a God of life, not a God of death.

Any parent - indeed, any decent human being - can understand how difficult it would have been for Abraham to obey such a command. We would certainly not want to be in Abraham’s sandals.

But Abraham’s readiness to obey the Lord demonstrates that he was willing to admit that maybe there were a few things about God, and about God’s plans for the world, that he did not fully understand. So, he trusted in the Lord, believing that the Lord’s will is always good, and he set out to do as God had directed him.

Abraham prepared the wood that would be needed for the sacrifice, and then went with his son to the place that God had designated. We pick up the story there, as the Book of Genesis records it for us:

“And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, ‘My father!’ And he said, ‘Here am I, my son.’ He said, ‘Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’ Abraham said, ‘God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.’”

“So they went both of them together. When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.”

It’s difficult even to read this story without getting emotional. What a painful experience this must have been for Abraham.

Even if he believed that God was able to raise Isaac from the ashes - which he did believe - slaying his son, and offering his body as a sacrifice to the Lord, would certainly have been the most difficult thing he would ever have to do in his life. The agony he endured, in such a severe test of his faith, is almost incomprehensible.

But Abraham passed the test. He demonstrated his willingness to offer up even his own son in death, according to the inscrutable will of God, and according to the necessity of what God had laid upon him.

But then, at the last minute, God stopped Abraham from following through with his intention. At the last minute, he spared Isaac.

At the last minute, he spared Abraham. We continue reading:

“But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here am I.’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’”

“And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.”

Abraham now had his son back. And God now had a friend.

Abraham, through his own experience, now knew what it was going to be like for God, many centuries later, to send his only Son to the cross, to die for sinful humanity.

The story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac has so many parallels to the story of God’s sacrificing of his own Son, under the just judgment of his own law, in order to redeem us. We notice, for example, the statement that Isaac was the one who carried the wood to the place of sacrifice - just as Jesus set out toward Calvary carrying his own cross.

We notice, too, the Lord’s emphatic description of Isaac as Abraham’s “only son.” This really stands out in the text, because we know that from a strictly biological point of view it is not literally true.

Abraham had another son, Ishmael. But Isaac was the “only son” of Abraham as far as the Lord’s special covenant with him was concerned.

And when we read this, we cannot avoid immediately thinking of what Jesus said about himself, as God’s only Son: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Before the events of today’s text transpired, Abraham already knew that the God he served was, as he himself said, “the Judge of all the earth.” But Abraham may not have fully grasped that his God was also the Redeemer of all the earth.

And he almost certainly would not previously have grasped the lengths to which God would be willing to go in order to accomplish that redemption.

But now he knew. Now he had tasted for himself something of the experience that God was going to have, when Jesus would suffer and die for the sins of the world.

Abraham knew that in the fulfillment of God’s will, he could not hold anything back. And God, too, would hold nothing back.

God had allowed Abraham to experience just enough of a commonality with what God himself was someday going to experience, so that Abraham could now be, in a very unique way, his friend.

In the Old Testament, Abraham was God’s only “friend” in this sense, because God never again asked another person to do this. Abraham was the only one.

You and I, and indeed all men, have offended God in so many ways. We have transgressed the boundaries that his good and perfect law has drawn for us. We have fallen short of the goals that his good and perfect law has set for us.

God’s holiness cannot tolerate our rebellion. His holiness requires a punishment for sin. But at the same time, his love for us cannot tolerate the thought that all of us would be eternally lost and condemned because of our sin.

The holiness of God requires him to judge sin - your sin and my sin. But the love of God impels him to find a way to judge our sin without thereby also damning us. A substitute for humanity would be needed:

A substitute who would be a true man, to take the place of sinful man under the judgment of God’s law; a substitute who would be true God, so that his sacrifice would be of infinite value, and would cover, once and for all, the sins of all people for all time.

What was needed was what God did, in the sending of his only begotten Son to become a part of the human race, and from within the human race to be the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the human race.

And God the Father did not, at the last minute, hesitate, or draw back from his purpose and plan. He did not change his mind.

St. Peter describes the sacrifice of his Lord in this way: by the hands of lawless men, Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.”

Jesus didn’t walk away from Calvary unscathed, as Isaac walked away from the land of Moriah. Jesus saw it through, all the way to the end: until the sins of the whole world had been atoned for; and he cried out, “It is finished,” and breathed his last.

Abraham learned some very important things about God and his redeeming love for humanity through the experiences that he had in the land of Moriah. More than ever, he learned to trust in God, and to put his faith in him.

And he was justified before God. His own sin was forgiven through an implicit faith in the coming sacrifice of the Son of God - the Lamb of God that the Lord himself would, and ultimately did, provide.

But Abraham is not the only one who can learn something from these experiences. He is not the only one who can benefit from the revelation that God made to Abraham in this way, on this day.

Our text continues: “And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, ‘By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.’”

St. Paul makes an important observation about this text in his Epistle to the Galatians: “The promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.”

The events that we have been considering today, and the promise that God made to Abraham at that time, truly did point forward to the atoning sacrifice of Christ, and to the promise of forgiveness and salvation that is now freely offered to the world for the sake of Christ.

Through the saving realities that the events in today’s text portray, all the nations of the earth will be blessed by the mercy of God. You are blessed by what God has taught you today, through the experiences of Abraham, God’s friend.

God’s only Son has been given into death for your justification. In his Gospel and Sacraments, God now bestows on you every grace and blessing that his Son won for you by his innocent suffering and death.

In the same way as Abraham believed God, God now invites you also to believe him, when he tells you that he is at peace with you through the sacrifice of his Son, and that in Christ he will be at peace with you forever.

And when you share the faith of Abraham, and thereby know God as Abraham knew God, then you also share something else that previously was unique to Abraham. Jesus says to his disciples:

“No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”

“The Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’ - and he was called a friend of God.” Amen.