4 January 2015 - Christmas 2 - Luke 2:40-52

In this world, there are not too many people you can really trust and count on. Usually, however, we do assume that at the very least, we should be able to rely on our closest relatives - parents, children, siblings, and spouses.

They won’t let us down. They won’t turn on us, or take advantage of us. But you know what? Sometimes they will.

As a twelve-year-old boy in a large, strange city, Jesus was dependent on his parents for care and protection. In his state of humiliation, and according to his human nature, he was like any other twelve-year-old child in this respect.

But through some kind of negligence, Mary and Joseph lost track of Jesus, and left him behind in Jerusalem when they departed from the city to return home to Nazareth.

They would have been traveling with a large group of pilgrims. And according to the custom of the time, Mary and Joseph would not have been walking together on this homeward journey.

Men traveled with other men, and women traveled with other women. Children under the age of thirteen or so would all travel with the women. Boys older than thirteen or so traveled with the men.

This might explain how Mary and Joseph could have gone on their way for a whole day without realizing that they had left Jesus behind. He was around that transitional age for a boy.

So, Joseph probably thought Jesus was traveling with Mary, as he would have on previous pilgrimages. Mary, in turn, probably thought that this year Jesus was walking with the men, and was under Joseph’s care.

But whatever the reason for their negligence was, they had not made sure that Jesus was safe and sound with one of his parents. And he was not safe and sound with one of his parents. He was all by himself, in a strange city.

Clearly this was the fault of the responsible parties here: Mary and Joseph. This was not the fault of a twelve-year-old boy.

But what did Mary say when she and Joseph finally found Jesus? We read, from today’s text in St. Luke:

“After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. ... 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.’”

Mary is exasperated. But she is also evading responsibility for her own shortcomings as a mother. She is actually blaming Jesus for his own abandonment. “Son, why have you treated us so?”

We certainly would have expected more of her. But what we see here is an example of something that is repeated often in human relationships.

Because of the sin of pride that is embedded in all of us, a subconscious self-defense mechanism is triggered whenever objective circumstances, or our own conscience, accuse us of a failure to do our duty, or of an overstepping of proper boundaries. There is an instinct - a sinful instinct - to blame others for our sins.

Tragically, this blame, more often than not, gets cast in the direction of the person who was harmed or endangered by our actions or inactions. This casting of blame onto our victims, instead of taking the blame for our own failures, is insidious.

It adds injury to injury. In the case of Jesus and his parents, it was bad enough that they had left him in Jerusalem to fend for himself. But this injury is now compounded by Mary putting the blame on Jesus.

In our families, when we do this sort of thing, and treat each other in this way, this has a very destructive impact on the trust and affection that there is supposed to be between spouses, or between siblings, or between parents and children.

But in spite of the obvious harm that comes from this behavior, the tendency to do this is universal. Even Mary was guilty of this. Certainly you and I are also guilty of this.

This is evidence that Mary, too, was a sinner, in need of a Savior. And when we behave in a similar fashion, it proves that we likewise are sinners, and are in need of a Savior.

In the case of Jesus, as reported in today’s text, when his earthly parents were nowhere to be found, he knew where to turn for the protection and care that he was not getting from them. His instinct was not to get angry with his parents because of their negligence, or to surrender to his human fears, but it was to rely on his Father in heaven.

Jesus went to the one place in Jerusalem that most vividly represented the presence of God with his people, and the protection of God over his people. He went to the temple. And that’s where Mary and Joseph eventually found him.

After three days of searching for the boy, they located him where they actually should have first looked: “in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.”

And after the unjustified rebuke and accusation that Mary hurled at her innocent son, he calmly and respectfully asked her a couple pertinent questions too: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Follow the example of Jesus, when people you thought you could count on let you down and fail you, and when they may even make the situation worst by turning on you, and blaming you for their sin. Do not allow yourself to be overwhelmed either by discouragement or by anger. Go to the temple.

Turn to the Lord, your heavenly Father, and your divine protector. When human beings - even the best of human beings - let you down, God will not. His words are ever true, and he is ever faithful to the pledges that he makes to us in the gospel of his Son Jesus Christ.

In a time of stress and disappointment, therefore, we can pray with confidence the words of Psalm 86: “You, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”

The promise that was made to the children of Israel in the Book of Deuteronomy, is a promise that you also can claim for yourself in Christ, as a member of Christ’s holy church:

“It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”

When human flesh forsakes you, God embraces you as his own child, and lifts you up in his love.

And if you have been guilty of a sin like that of Mary’s in today’s text - and who of us has not been, at some point or another? - there is hope for you too.

If you have been negligent in fulfilling your responsibilities toward other people, if you have let people down when they had the right to think that they could count on you, and especially if you have then blamed these wounded people for your mistakes, you do need to try to make that right.

Apologize to the people to whom you owe an apology, ask for their forgiveness, and with God’s help do the best you can not to repeat those mistakes in the future - so that trust and mutual affection can be restored.

But know as well, that this sin was one of the sins that was imputed to Jesus, that was carried to the cross by Jesus, that was atoned for by the suffering and death of Jesus, and that was then left in the grave of death and divine forgetfulness in the resurrection of Jesus.

In today’s text, Mary’s sin of maternal negligence was imputed to Jesus. He was blamed for it.

But notice that he didn’t push back against this accusation. He let his mother’s imputing of her own sin to him, rest upon him.

Mary’s sin on this occasion was one of the sins that Jesus allowed to be credited to him. Indeed, he allowed all human sins, and all your sins, to be credited to him.

He didn’t shake any of them off, with counter-accusations and defensive self-justifications. He accepted them all, he let them all stick to him, and he carried them all to the cross.

Before God, Mary’s sin is therefore forgiven, because it has now been paid for by fallen humanity’s righteous substitute. Before God, all of her sins are forgiven. Jesus loves her just as much as ever.

Before God, all of your sins are forgiven. They have all been paid for. And therefore you can be certain that Jesus loves you just as much as ever.

And Jesus is still, as it were, in his Father’s house - the living temple of his church - to forgive his people, to restore and heal his people, and to restore and heal the relationships among his people that have become strained or broken because of their sins - their proud failures, and their selfish castings of blame onto the innocent.

Through the Lord’s Supper in particular, Jesus is with us in this temple.

The body that was sacrificed for all sin, and the blood that was shed for the redemption of all of God’s people, is bestowed upon us here, for the restoration of our relationship and standing with God. The forgiveness that was won for us in the sacrificing of this body, and in the shedding of this blood, is received by faith.

And this body and blood, and this forgiveness, also draw us close to each other, and reunite us in Christ even with those whom we have disappointed and offended - whom we have let down, and accused of things they did not really do.

As God has forgiven us, so too will those whom we hurt and attacked, forgive us - with the help of their Father in heaven - filled as they are with the body and blood of the Savior, and healer, of us all.

We close with these words of encouragement from God himself, spoken through the Prophet Jeremiah:

“Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” Amen.

6 January 2015 - Epiphany - Matthew 2:1-12

We all know the Biblical story of the wise men, who traveled from the east to find and worship the newborn king of Israel. A star guided them to Bethlehem, where Jesus was, and where the wise men worshiped him.

That’s the story, right? Well, not exactly.

St. Matthew’s Gospel does not tell us a whole lot about the star that the wise men noticed, and that prompted them to leave their homeland in search of Christ. There are various theories about what this star was, held by people who do take the Biblical account seriously.

Some think this astronomical phenomenon was a conjunction of planets. Others are of the opinion that it was a comet. Still others say that no natural explanation is adequate, and that the appearance of this star was a miraculous occurrence.

Regardless of the kind of explanation we might come up with, the star certainly did fulfill a divine purpose in the lives of the wise men. God definitely used it to get their attention, and to prompt within them a desire to seek out the newborn king of Israel.

But whatever the star really was, it did not, all by itself, actually lead the wise men to Bethlehem, where Jesus was to be found. When they had nothing more to go by than the star itself, they ended up, not in Bethlehem, but in Jerusalem.

The meaning and message that they read out of the star did not bring them to the house of Joseph the carpenter. Instead, they ended up at the palace of Herod, the despotic Roman puppet king.

Geographically the wise men were close. Jerusalem was only about six miles away from Bethlehem. But theologically, Herod’s home, and Joseph’s home, were just about as far away from each other as they could possibly be.

As significant as the star is in the story of the wise men, it did not, all by itself, lead the wise men to the true king of the Jews and the Savior of all nations. It led them only to a usurper and a satanic counterfeit.

What did finally put the wise men on the right track - toward the city of David - was the testimony of God’s Word, through the prophet Micah, to which the religious scholars in Jerusalem directed them: “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”

It is true that the star had pointed the wise men in the right general direction. And after the wise men were enlightened by the Biblical message, the star reappeared and once again went before them. But without the clear and precise testimony of Holy Scripture, they would not have found their Savior.

There are, we might say, a lot of “wise men” today, who are also searching for God, and for a relationship with God. This human religious search is prompted by various influences and experiences.

Some people are more sensitive than others to that inner feeling of “spirituality” that sets human beings apart from lower animals, and that gives human beings the capacity to reflect on the meaning of their existence.

As these folks ponder the deeper, spiritual purpose of things, they generally seek to get in touch with the divine forces that they sense are present, either “out there” in the universe, or inside of themselves, or both. But this awareness of a higher power, and of a higher realm of existence, is not enough to bring us to Christ.

We can know, intuitively, that there is a God. And we can discern certain things about God through our sensitivity to the natural law that he has imprinted on our conscience.

But the way of salvation is not accessible to us through these intuitions. The way for fallen sinners like you and me to be restored to our fellowship with God cannot be learned through introspective meditation or spiritual speculation.

This kind of spiritual sensitivity is like a star in the sky, leading people in a general way toward their spiritual destination. But all by itself, such a sensitivity can get us only as far as Jerusalem. It will not get us to Bethlehem.

There is an increasing number of scientists today, who are freeing themselves from the intellectual straightjacket of materialism and naturalism. I am personally acquainted with several such scientists in Ukraine.

Unlike most scientists in America, these post-Soviet scientists understand that when the Marxist political and social ideology was discredited, the Darwinian scientific ideology was also discredited - since both ideologies were based on the same false philosophical assumptions.

But even in America, many scientists are also finally opening their eyes to see the imprint of an intelligent designer, in the things that they observe under the microscope, and through the telescope.

They realize now that materialism and naturalism do not and cannot explain everything. They know that there is something more.

When they observe the intricate mechanisms of the genetic code, or the vast reaches of the cosmos, they are filled with awe, and with a desire to seek out a deeper, supernatural, and even religious explanation for what they are seeing.

But the message of God’s redemption of the human race in the cross of Christ cannot be read in the solar system or the galaxy. The strings of DNA that govern biological life in this world, do not tell us anything about the eternal life that Christ’s resurrection has made available to us.

The open-minded scientific observation of evidence for intelligent design in creation, is like a star in the sky, leading people in a general way toward a knowledge of God and of the things of God.

But all by itself, the awareness of such evidence can get us only as far as Herod’s palace. It cannot get us to the carpenter’s house where Jesus, our incarnate Savior and Lord, is to be found.

Wise men who look for God only in the experiences of the heart, or only in the mysteries of nature, need to become wiser than they are now. They need to become as wise as the wise men of 2,000 years ago became, when they were enlightened by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures - God’s written revelation to man.

How wise are we? Do we always seek Christ, and the salvation of Christ, where the Word of God tells us to look? Or do we sometimes imagine that our Savior, and our salvation, can be found and obtained in places other than where the Scriptures tell us they are to be found and obtained?

Since his resurrection and ascension, Jesus is no longer present in a localized way in only one place at a time - whether in Bethlehem or anywhere else. But he is encountered in the specific places where he has promised to make himself available to his people.

Listen again to these familiar words from the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel, addressed to the Lord’s disciples:

“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

“I am with you always, even to the end of the age,” is a promise that is given to us, with respect to the times and places where the Word of Christ is taught and proclaimed, and where the sacraments that Christ has commanded are administered.

This promise of Christ’s saving and forgiving presence is not given in conjunction with the various “stars” that spiritually curious people follow in this life. This promise, and the certainty that Christ can be found where he has promised to be, are connected to his gospel, and to the places where that gospel sounds forth.

The wise men of the first century wanted to find Jesus, and they were not going to be satisfied with anything or anyone other than Jesus himself. They were not looking for Herod or any member of his household, and Jerusalem was not their final destination.

The wise men of today also want to find Jesus - not a cheap substitute for Jesus, but the real Jesus. They want - they need - the Jesus who forgives sins and justifies sinners; the Jesus who regenerates the spiritually dead and gives them eternal life; the Jesus who heals broken hearts and brings peace and reconciliation.

You cannot find this Jesus just by following a star. At best that will get you close to him in a certain sense. But matters of the soul are not like horseshoes. Close is not good enough.

You can find this Jesus only by hearing, and believing, the message of the Inspired Scriptures; and by going to where the Scriptures tell you this Jesus is available to you and waiting for you, to bestow upon you his gifts, and to receive your praise.

Where Christ’s people are gathered in his name, around his gospel and sacraments, there he is in their midst. And there you too will be, if it truly is Jesus - the King of the Jews and your own King - whom you seek.

You are here in this place, to listen to Christ’s comforting gospel voice, and to receive his healing sacramental touch, because you have been led here by the Scriptures. They supernaturally gave you a desire to be here, and they have supernaturally prepared you for the blessings you will receive here.

You are here where Jesus truly is, to receive his salvation, and to worship him, not because you were led here by a star; but because you were led here, and drawn here, by the revealed Word of your heavenly Father.

When the wise men in today’s text finally made it to Bethlehem, and realized that this was where Jesus would finally and truly be found, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”

And when you also find him - when, in the mystery of God’s pursuing and converting grace, he finds you, and calls you to the fellowship of his church - you too, with all truly wise men of all times and places, will rejoice exceedingly, with great joy.

“As with joyful steps they sped, Savior, to Thy lowly bed,
There to bend the knee before Thee whom heaven and earth adore,
So may we with willing feet Ever seek Thy mercy-seat!” Amen.

18 January 2015 - Epiphany 2 - 1 Samuel 3:1-20

A story is told of the nineteenth-century Mormon prophet Brigham Young. He was walking down a Salt Lake City street, and crossed paths with an unruly boy.

Perceiving correctly that this boy was in need of better parental supervision than he was getting, Young - in an annoyed tone - asked him, “Who is your father?” Looking up at his impromptu interrogator, with a somewhat quizzical expression, the boy replied, “You are.”

Brigham Young was the father of 57 children, by 19 of his 55 wives. He was obviously not able to keep track of all of his offspring, or to discipline them properly.

He learned on that day that he was the negligent father in this case, condemned by his own words. The oddities of Mormon polygamy aside, Brigham Young’s criticism of what turned out to be his own poor parenting was a valid criticism, and was in keeping with God’s Word - even if most of his religious teaching was in error.

Psalm 127 teaches us that “children are a heritage from the Lord.” This is a great blessing, and is also a great responsibility. God takes a personal interest in the spiritual and temporal well-being of the children he has given to us.

We are thankful to him for this gift, when God in his love has bestowed children upon us. And we also know that we are accountable to God for the stewardship of our children’s bodies and souls that he calls us to fulfill in his name, and according to his Word.

The Book of Proverbs instructs parents: “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”

And in the New Testament, St. Paul teaches, in his Epistle to the Ephesians: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

As with many forms of teaching, so also with the teaching that parents offer to their children: A lot of the learning takes root on the basis of the practical examples that are set, and not just from the talks and lectures that are spoken.

What St. Paul says to the Christians who are under his spiritual care, Christian parents should be able to say to the children who are under their care: “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.”

To be sure, parents should catechize their children, and orally explain God’s Word to them. But one of the most effective ways to reenforce to children that God’s name is to be hallowed, is to hallow it yourself, and to let them see and hear you hallowing it.

One of the most effective ways to remind them that their relationship with God is the most important thing in their lives, is to act as if that’s what you believe regarding your life.

Pray regularly with your children at home. And bring them - don’t send them, but bring them - to the services of God’s house, on every Lord’s Day and festival.

Fathers: If you want to teach your boys how they should love their future wives, the best way for you to do that, is to show your love for their mother, in ways that they can see. Mothers: If you want to teach your girls how they should respect their future husbands, the best way for you to do that, is to show your respect for their father, in ways that they can see.

We teach our children about repentance and forgiveness, not only by conveying to them the Biblical doctrine of God’s forgiveness in Christ, but also by forgiving them, when they have erred; and by admitting to them when we have failed, as parents, and asking for their forgiveness.

Don’t let your pride prevent you from seeing those times when you may actually owe your children an apology for not having handled something in the right way, or for not having set a proper example. Believe me, they can see those times.

And if you are honest with them about sometimes being wrong, they will be more likely, not less likely, to take you seriously when they know that you are right.

And according to the Scriptures, there are times when the physical disciplining of children who have misbehaved in a serious way is both warranted and necessary. We read in the Book of Proverbs:

“Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol.”

And again: “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.”

For parents, and for Christian parents in particular, fulfilling these responsibilities toward the children whom we bring into this world is not an option. And parents especially do need to pay attention to the severe warning that our Lord himself speaks, in regard to those who mislead or misinstruct baptized Christian children.

Jesus said: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

The reality of God’s judgment against those who fail to fulfill their duty toward their children is not, however, something that was first revealed in the New Testament. In today’s text from the First Book of Samuel, a harsh message for the High Priest Eli - in regard to his derelict sons Hophni and Phinehas - was the very first revelation that the Lord gave to the new young prophet Samuel.

God told Samuel: “I declare to [Eli] that I am about to punish his house forever, for the iniquity that he knew, because his sons were blaspheming God, and he did not restrain them.”

We read earlier in First Samuel: “Now the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the Lord. ...the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the Lord, for the men treated the offering of the Lord with contempt.”

We also read: “Now Eli...kept hearing all that his sons were doing to all Israel, and how they lay with the women who were serving at the entrance to the tent of meeting.”

“And he said to them, ‘Why do you do such things? For I hear of your evil dealings from all the people. No, my sons; it is no good report that I hear the people of the Lord spreading abroad.’”

But beyond such a verbal rebuke - for his sons’ profaning of the worship of the Lord, and for their shameful fornications at the tabernacle itself - Eli didn’t actually do anything to restrain them, or to punish them.

He was the high priest. It was his duty to act, even if it meant acting against his own sons. But this he was unwilling to do.

When Samuel recounted to Eli the message that had been given to him by the Lord, Eli did not object to the Lord’s words, or seek to justify himself or make excuses. He resigned himself to whatever the Lord was going to do, because he knew that God is always just and unimpeachable, in all his words and deeds.

We are told in our text that he replied: “It is the Lord. Let him do what seems good to him.”

And so the Lord did punish Hophni and Phinehas. They were killed in battle with the Philistines.

And in this way, Eli was also chastised for his parental negligence. Right after he learned of the ignominious deaths of his miscreant, scoundrel sons - to whose upbringing he had paid too little attention - he too died.

A story such as this serves as a warning to us not to follow the poor example of Eli. A broken heart - or worse - will be the result.

I’ve heard many people say - in their older years - that they regret not bringing their children to church, when their children were growing up. Middle-aged parents who thought, in those earlier years, that they were too busy with other things on Sunday mornings, can often see the sad results of this failure, once their now unbelieving children have reached early adulthood.

But I’ve never heard anyone say that they regret bringing their children to church. If you have children, you will never regret raising them in the Christian faith: teaching them about Jesus, teaching them about the love of God, and teaching them about forgiveness and eternal life.

Now, it is true - as many people unfortunately can attest - that even if someone was raised in a good Christian home, with all of the right influences, he or she may still forsake the faith of the parents, and turn away from Christ. This does happen.

And it illustrates that in the final analysis, each person must stand before the Lord as an individual, and give an account of his own life and faith. You cannot ultimately blame others - your parents or anyone else - for your unbelief.

“Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” There’s nothing in those words about parents - whether good, bad, or somewhere in between.

So, if your children have grown up to be a disappointment to you, this in itself is not, most fundamentally, your fault. This is their fault.

You might not have been the best of parents, but if God’s Word was a part of their life even in a small degree, they knew enough about their sin and need for a Savior, and about the Savior whom God provided in the sending of his Son, to be saved.

But if you are currently raising children, or if you have God-given opportunities to be a positive influence on children for their eternal well-being - such as on grandchildren, or on the children you know through church - then do teach them, set a good example for them, and lead them by word and deed to their Lord, and to the grace that he bestows on his people in his gospel.

With the Lord’s help, fulfill what he has given you to fulfill. If there are some unique circumstances that make it difficult to do this, ask the Lord to give you the wisdom and the strength that you need. And he will.

But of course, none of us have done as much as we should have, in past years or even at the present time, in fulfilling our duty toward the youngest who are among us. To one degree or another, we are all deserving of the kind of chastisement that Eli experienced.

And all of us should consider that God would not be acting unjustly if he were to put a millstone around our necks, and cast us into the sea.

This is why the forgiveness of Christ is so important for people who had, or have, responsibility for the rearing of children; and especially for parents - both the bad parents and the seemingly good parents - because none are truly and fully good.

We have all disappointed our children, and God, by our negligence, our pride, and our failures. But there really is a healing power in God’s forgiveness.

Jesus carried all of our negligence, pride, and failures to the cross. And when he rose from the dead, those sins were left in his grave, never more to rise up and accuse us before God’s justification through Christ.

Dear friends: As you are thinking now of the mistakes you have made, especially in regard to children - who looked up to you, and had the right to expect more from you than they got - please believe the Lord Jesus Christ, when he speaks to you his words of pardon and peace.

All is forgiven through Jesus’ sacrificing of his body for you. All is washed away by the blood of the Lamb, which was shed for you.

In Christ we are children of God. And he is always the perfect Father - always willing to forgive, and to comfort us in our weakness.

You should be humbled by your admission that you have not been what you were supposed to be. But you need not be destroyed by this admission.

Rather, you can be - in Christ, you will be - lifted up and renewed in your devotion to God; and energized in your service to God, and to those whom he now brings into your life.

God has work for you now - especially now, with the clarity of faith that he has given to you in your repentance.

If you did not do right by your children when they were growing up, you can’t go back in time and undo those mistakes. But right now, in the present, you can tell them that you are sorry for those mistakes.

You can invite them right now to find, in Christ, the peace and purpose that you finally do know and embrace. And you can pray for them.

The human mind cannot fathom what God, in his infinite wisdom and might, is able to do in the lives of people who are being fervently prayed for, by penitent and loving parents!

I have seen many examples of recalcitrant adult children remaining aloof from the faith of their parents, until those parents die.

And then, when the adult children see how their parents died, with confidence and joy in God’s love and grace; and when they finally remember - soberly and seriously - the faith that their parents had confessed, this is often when God breaks through, into the hearts and minds of those adult children.

And they stop being recalcitrant. They start to believe again, and to care about the things of God again.

Maybe they didn’t take a seat next to their parents in church, while their parents lived. But they do then take their parents’ seat in church, after their parents have departed from this world in Christ.

So, if you don’t see any changes in your children, keep praying anyway. Keep praying more than ever!

And pray that the example you set now will be used by God to lead your children back to their baptism, and back to their Savior - even if the example that you set in previous years was deficient.

We close with these words from St. Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians:

“For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God, and not to us.” Amen.

25 January 2014 - Epiphany 3 - Mark 1:14-20

St. Mark reports in today’s text that after John the Baptist was arrested, and his public ministry was thereby brought to an end, Jesus then began his public ministry in earnest, “proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’”

This is essentially what John the Baptist had been doing, as he fulfilled his calling from God to prepare the people of Israel for the appearance of the Messiah.

Earlier in his Gospel, Mark tells us that John had been “baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

And before the coming of John the Baptist, for centuries upon centuries, God had been continually raising up prophets and preachers, through whom his people were called to repentance of their sins; and were then comforted by the gift of divine forgiveness, through faith in the promised Savior.

This coming Savior, throughout the centuries, was described variously as the Seed of the woman and the Son of the virgin, as the great Prophet, as the royal heir of David, as the Son of Man, and as the Suffering Servant who would bear the sins of the people.

And it was not just to the Hebrews that such preaching was directed in those earlier times. In today’s Old Testament lesson, we are reminded of the story of God’s sending of Jonah to the city of Nineveh.

Nineveh was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, which was not a political friend to Israel. Still, God wanted his Word to be preached to the people in this foreign land and city.

And he went to great lengths to see to it that his reluctant servant Jonah would fulfil his mission to be that preacher.

In today’s Introit from Psalm 113, we are also reminded of the Lord’s worldwide vision for the spreading of his truth and his true worship, and for the suppression of all falsehood and idolatry. We sang: “From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the Lord is to be praised!”

Of all human beings who have ever lived, and of all preachers who have ever preached, Jesus is unique - since he, in his person, is the salvation of the world. His perfect life, his atoning death, and his glorious resurrection, purchased our salvation; and established for us the justification that alone bring reconciliation between a holy God and sinful man.

Insofar as Jesus is the Savior of the human race, and the only-begotten Son of God in human flesh, he is definitely not “one among many.”

Only Jesus can say, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

And only Jesus can say, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son, and believes in him, should have eternal life. And I will raise him up on the last day.”

But insofar as Jesus is a preacher and herald of the kingdom God, he is - in a sense - “one among many.”

This is not because he - in his person - is not special. But it is because the message that other preachers proclaim about Christ, is the same powerful, divine message that Christ proclaims about himself.

Martin Luther pointed out that “The office of preacher or bishop is the highest office, which was held by God’s Son himself, as well as by all the apostles, prophets, and patriarchs. God’s word and faith is above everything, above all gifts and personal worth.”

When Jesus told Simon and Andrew in today’s text, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men,” it would be through the message of Christ - essentially the same message that Jesus himself was also preaching during his earthly ministry - that this “fishing of men” would take place.

Some people may imagine that those who were alive 2,000 years ago, and who had an opportunity to hear Jesus preach personally, would have a greater advantage than people today, as far as their ability to believe in Jesus with a strong faith is concerned. But this is not so.

First of all, there were many people who did hear Jesus preach with their own ears, but who did not believe in him. They hardened their hearts to his words - just as many today harden their hearts to the words of Christian pastors and missionaries.

But also, the content of what Jesus taught during his time on earth, is the same as what the faithful pastors and preachers of our time also teach. St. Mark reports that Jesus preached that “the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” That’s what we preach.

Now, it is important to make sure that the preaching to which you submit yourself, is in the fact the same - in content - as the preaching of Christ and his apostles. God’ Spirit, by divine inspiration, has given us the Scriptures, to serve as a rule and norm of doctrine in the church.

So, if a particular preacher’s message does not comport with the gospel that Jesus taught, then that false message is not to be believed, and no divine power is to be attributed to it.

It doesn’t matter if the preacher in question has a large following, or is dynamic and charismatic in his delivery. It doesn’t matter even if such a false teacher’s ministry is accompanied by miracles, or purported miracles.

Many will say to Jesus on judgment day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” But Jesus will respond, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”

But when a called public servant of the Lord today does preach the same gospel that Jesus and his apostles preached, believe him. Accept what he says.

Submit to the authority of what he says - not to his personal authority, but to the authority of the divine Word that God has called him to proclaim, and that he does faithfully proclaim.

When Jesus called the apostles to follow him, and when he told them that he would make them to be fishers of men, he set in motion a process that continues to this day.

To be sure, the apostles were in many respects unique among the ministers of the Christian church. The apostles were called directly by Christ; while the ministers who have come after them are called through the church of Christ.

The apostles had a divine guarantee of infallibility in their preaching; while the preaching of their successors is always to be tested against the apostolic Scriptures, before it is accepted. The ministry of the apostles was accompanied - as a matter of course - by miraculous confirmations of the truth of their message; while miracles today - when they do occur - are extraordinary occurrences.

And for the apostles, the whole world was their “parish”; while ministers today are called to carry out their work in specific places, or among specific people. And they should not overstep the boundaries of their call by interfering in the ministry of other pastors or missionaries.

All Christians have been entrusted with the Word of God, both so that they can believe it for their own salvation, and so that they can share it with others. But in addition to this, God has instituted a public preaching office for his church - and indeed for the whole world, into which God sends his called servants: to make disciples of all nations, by baptizing them, and by teaching them to observe all that Christ has commanded.

To the extent that Jesus was a preacher on earth, his work was a continuation of the work of John the Baptist. To the extent that Jesus was as preacher on earth, his work was continued after his ascension by the apostles.

And the apostles’ work is continued today - in our nation, and in all nations - by those men who are called, through the church, to proclaim and teach the whole counsel of God; and who faithfully fulfill that calling.

What Jesus preached, and what all orthodox pastors preach today, is first a message of repentance. To “repent” means to change your mind, or your thinking.

When repentance is spoken of in contrast to faith in the gospel - as is the case in today’s text - it means more precisely to turn your mind away from sin, and away from anything and everything that separates you from God.

When your pastor’s sermons - or the sermons of any pastor - correctly shine a spotlight of divine judgment on a secret pet sin of yours that you would rather not deal with, you cannot wiggle yourself out from under this judgment with the excuse that your pastor is just a man - and not Jesus - and therefore you don’t have to listen to him.

You do have to listen to him, because the word of law that he has spoken is not his own word, but is God’s Word. This is especially the case when the pastor personally has no idea of how and in what way that word of law is impacting your mind and heart.

God knows, and that’s what matters. And if Jesus would return to the earth in a visible way, and preach a sermon to you, he would say the same thing.

And he would also say what he said to those who were able to hear him in person, in the first century, when he invited them to “believe in the gospel.” The term “gospel” means “good news,” or “glad tidings.”

To those who have admitted their sin; who have faced up to the pain that their sin has caused in their lives and in the lives of others; and who in their conscience tremble before the possibility of divine punishment and damnation on account of their sin - it truly is good news to hear that their sin is forgiven through the cross of Christ; and that by faith they are now accounted as righteousness and holy in Christ, before God’s tribunal.

This might seem almost too good to be true. You might wonder if it is true that all your sins have been washed away, and will no longer accuse you in God’s sight.

You might think your pastor’s statement that it is true, could simply be wishful thinking. And you might wish that Jesus could come back to the earth, to tell you himself, so that you could really be sure.

But you can really be sure without that happening, because the gospel that your pastor preaches to you comes from Christ, and not from himself. When your pastor preaches the unchanging gospel of salvation through faith in Jesus, it is just as certain and believable as it was when Jesus preached this gospel.

If Jesus were to come back visibly to this world, and preach a sermon to you, he would say the same thing about himself that you pastor says to you about him. Jesus would say - indeed, through the divine words that your pastor repeats, he does say:

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.”

Through these words of Christ, as those who are called by Christ speak them to you today, you are “fished” out of the deep sea of despair and hopelessness. The “net” of the gospel is dropped down to the darkness of your regret and fear; and it pulls you up into the light of Christ, and into the life of his Spirit.

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’”

“Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew...casting a net into the sea... And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.’” Amen.