1 March 2015 - Lent 2 - Romans 5:1-11

“Rejoice in God!” That’s a religious sentiment that is likely to be more popular than unpopular.

Of course, quite a few people today are not interested in being religious. Yet even atheists and agnostics do still want to be able to rejoice in things - even though their rejoicing is attached to happy experiences in this material world, and to their human relationships, and not to anything involving God.

But for people who are religious, and who do believe in God, there is certainly a tendency to want their religion to be characterized by rejoicing. Who would want to believe depressing and sad doctrines, or have depressing and sad spiritual experiences?

The “power of positive thinking” as a religious tenet - popularized by Norman Vincent Peale already many decades ago - remains today as an influential idea in what are often described as “happy-clappy” churches, and in self-described “real, relevant, and relational” churches.

So, “Rejoice in God!” What believer in God could disagree with that? But, in the world as it actually exists, it is often the case that rejoicing in God is easier said than done.

When things are going well - when you have a steady job, good health, and a happy family life - it is easy to rejoice. And if you are religious, it is easy to add rejoicing in God to that general rejoicing.

But what about those times when things are not going well? Do you feel like rejoicing in times of suffering: when you lose your job to a layoff, when you lose your health to injury or disease, or when you lose your family to death, divorce, or some other kind of alienation?

Can you rejoice in God then? Can you rejoice in anything then?

And what about those times when your conscience is forced to come to grips with the harm that you have caused by your sins - harm in your relationships with other people, and harm in your relationship with God? Can you rejoice in God, when you have come to feel that God is displeased with you, is judging and punishing you, and may actually damn you?

If your rejoicing in God is based on the smoothness of your life in this world, or if your rejoicing in God is based on the supposition that there is nothing deep down in your life that God has the right to be unhappy about, then this rejoicing is based on a very superficial foundation.

Adversities in life, even small ones; and the stirrings of conscience, even small ones, can and will easily vanquish that rejoicing, and quickly begin turning it into despair, discouragement, and fear.

But the invitation to rejoice in God is not based on wishful thinking about things that are not actually so. It is based on God himself - on what he does, and on what he gives.

St. Paul invites you to join him, in rejoicing in God. And this invitation does not presuppose that your life is free from suffering or guilt.

Paul invites you to rejoice in God, even if you have been wracked with suffering, and filled with guilt. In today’s lesson from his Epistle to the Romans, he writes that we “rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”

It is not the absence of suffering or guilt that allows us to rejoice. It is the presence of reconciliation that allows us to rejoice - indeed, that impels us to rejoice in God.

And the apostle explains why this is so:

“While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. ... God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

“Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.”

The deepest questions about human existence, are questions about humanity’s standing before God. And these questions get very personal, very fast, when an individual conscience begins to sense that things are not actually so harmonious and peaceful between me and my maker.

We fail to live up to our own standards and goals. What does this mean, then, as far as God’s perfect standards and goals for us are concerned?

And since he made us, he has he right to hold us accountable to live and act in accordance with how we were created to live and act. But we don’t live and act in this way.

We are weak. And what is even worse - when our conscience allows us to admit it - we know that by nature we are ungodly, and have turned ourselves into enemies of God.

But the liberating and healing message that St. Paul proclaims to us today, in the name of God, is that when we were still weak, our Lord Jesus Christ - with his divine power to save - came into our world to be our Savior. When we were still ungodly, the Son of God died for us.

When we were still enemies of God - before we had done anything to reconcile ourselves to him - God reconciled us to himself, by the death of his Son, and by the shedding of his Son’s blood.

And now, as the living Lord of his church, the resurrected Savior, by his Spirit, has bestowed upon us the gift of faith, and had drawn us into his body - where we share his life, and the fellowship of those whose sins he has forgiven.

Within this fellowship, there is now a new confidence in the goodness of God. Within this fellowship, there is now a new enjoyment of a supernatural peace under the justification of God.

We are declared to be righteous through the righteousness of Christ, and under the covering of Christ. His righteousness, as it rests upon us, also sinks into us - and fights against the lingering unrighteousness of our old nature.

His forgiveness - won on the cross for us, and received by a penitent heart - takes away the sins of our old nature. His light and truth - revealed in the gospel - vanquish the darkness and ignorance, the fear and doubt, that arise from our old nature.

And according to the new reality that God, in Christ, has established for us, and in us, we rejoice in God. We rejoice in God when his obvious blessings come upon us.

And, we rejoice in God when his not-so-obvious blessings come upon us, during times of suffering. Knowing, as we do, the peace of God in Christ - which passes all human understanding - we also know that God is with us always, and that he will not abandon us.

So, when a trial or hardship comes - even if God is not the cause of the trial or the hardship - God will use it, for a good purpose. He will teach us something beneficial through it - about himself and his faithfulness; or about ourselves, and our need for him.

That’s why St. Paul is able to say:

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

You don’t need to rejoice because of your sufferings - since sufferings, in themselves, are sobering reminders of the sinfulness of the world; and are humbling reminders of your own innate sinfulness. And this sinfulness is not something to rejoice over.

But in Christ, you do rejoice in your sufferings - because when God allows you to enter a trial, you never enter it alone. He is with you in the trial; and is at work for you and in you in the midst of the trial - just as he was with his Son; and in his Son was at work for the salvation of the world, in the sufferings of his Son.

Your sufferings - when seen from the perspective of knowing God and his grace - can and should be seen as opportunities to grow in your faith, and to grow in your character as a Christian. And so, Rejoice in God!

When things are going well in this world, rejoice! When things are not going well in this world, rejoice!

When your Savior’s absolving Word is spoken to you in sermon and Supper, rejoice! When your sins are forgiven, and you are clothed once again in the righteousness of Christ, rejoice!

When the peace of God that is yours through faith in his Son, is renewed to you through the message of reconciliation that he proclaims to you, rejoice!

We close with these words, also from St. Paul:

“Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” Amen.

8 March 2015 - Lent 3 - 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom.”

There is a natural human inclination toward religion, or toward a religious or spiritual way of thinking and acting. But there is not just one way in which the religious inclinations of the human heart and mind manifest themselves.

There are, in fact, two basic approaches to matters of religion and spirituality. In today’s text from his First Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul describes these two basic religious orientations as the way of the “Jews,” who demand signs; and the way of the “Greeks,” who seek wisdom.

Paul is not making a statement about Jewish or Greek ethnicity, and he is not making a categorical across-the-board statement either. He himself was ethnically Jewish, and was culturally both Jewish and Greek.

But he is using these frames of reference as a shorthand summary of two basic approaches, or sets of assumptions, regarding the purpose and benefit of religious belief; and regarding the criteria by which a religious idea is evaluated, and either accepted as useful, or rejected as irrelevant.

During the earthly ministry of Jesus, the Jewish leaders often demanded a sign from him, to validate the authority of his claims and actions. They did not evaluate him by measuring his preaching against the objective norm of the Scriptures. But Jesus did not submit to these demands.

St. John tells us that on the occasion of our Lord’s cleansing of the temple, the Jewish leaders said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” He was, of course, not speaking of the literal building that stood before them, but about “the temple of his body.”

On another occasion, as reported by St. Matthew, some Pharisees and Sadducees tested Jesus by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered by telling them: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.” The sign of Jonah also points to the resurrection - that is, to Jesus’ emergence from the tomb on the third day; just as Jonah, after three days, was vomited out of the great fish that had swallowed him.

So, whenever the Jews demanded a sign from Jesus, then and there, he pointed them instead to his future resurrection. And, for Jesus, his pathway to the resurrection went through the cross. There was no detour that would have allowed him to bypass this humiliating death, on his way to victory and glory.

Our sins were atoned for at the cross of Christ, before a holy and righteous God. Indeed, the sins of the whole world were “taken away” from the world at his cross - where the Lamb of God was slain; and where the Son of Man laid down his life as a ransom for many.

There is no pardon from God, or forgiveness before God, apart from the cross. Yet before any of that can be grasped and appreciated, the cross itself must be grasped and appreciated as the most fundamental defining reality of the Christian faith.

But by all human standards, and by the standards of humanity’s innate inclination toward religion and religious belief, there is nothing attractive or intriguing about the cross as such. A Roman cross is not a sign of power - spiritual or otherwise.

A cross is emblematic of shame, humiliation, and degradation. The cross of Christ, and the crosses that we might bear in this life, are to be avoided at all costs, if the religion that is being pursued is a religion of glorious and powerful “signs.”

Those who want signs don’t want just any signs. They want signs of strength, not signs of weakness.

They want signs of life, not signs of death. They want a religion that works for them in this world, and that makes things better for them in this world, not a religion that makes things worse.

A religion that demands signs, is a religion that is imbued with the expectation that God will provide practical and observable earthly benefits to those who believe in him. According to the assumptions of this kind of religion, God will prove himself - and those who preach on God’s behalf will also prove themselves - through miracles, or special interventions, that give special advantages to believers.

The cross, though, is a stumbling block to all of this. If you think you’re on a pathway to success and prosperity with God, the reality of the cross will trip you up. But the only genuine pathway to God is a pathway that goes through the cross, not around it.

And for us who follow Jesus by faith, there is likewise no way to bypass the crosses that are laid upon us, because of our faith in Jesus. As he also said to his disciples: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”

The religious assumptions and expectations of “Greeks” - as Paul expresses it - are quite a bit different from this. But they are just as far from the truth.

Greeks, as Paul characterizes them, do not demand signs. In fact, the religiously and philosophically “Greek” mind tends to be somewhat skeptical regarding the possibility of miracles.

They are not looking for signs. They are seeking after wisdom.

Remember what happened when Paul presented the message of Christ’s resurrection to the Athenians, at the Areopagus. We read in the Book of Acts that “when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’”

People today who pursue a pathway of new age spirituality do not care all that much about the Christian story of the resurrection of Jesus. If they think about this story at all, it would likely be for the purpose of reinterpreting it as a myth or parable, which illustrates their belief that Jesus was exalted to a higher plane of enlightenment at the end of his earthly life.

What would be the point of a literal bodily resurrection? The soul moves on after death to ever higher spiritual levels. It doesn’t need that body any more.

If Jesus plays any role in their religious quest for wisdom, it would not be as a redeemer, but as a teacher. But even there, what Jesus taught about the necessity of his death, and his sacramental teaching that his body and blood are given and shed for the forgiveness of sins, are patronizingly ignored.

Instead, a spotlight is shined on the Sermon on the Mount, which can be appropriated as a source of spiritual wisdom - alongside the teachings of the Buddha, various Hindu swamis, and Deepak Chopra.

Those who seek wisdom, don’t want a religion that works for them, in terms of earthly miracles and other material benefits, as much as they want a religion that works in them: enlightening their minds, satisfying their spiritual curiosities, elevating their consciousness, and giving them a comprehensive understanding of the meaning of everything.

Humanity’s fundamental problem, as they see it, is not alienation, but ignorance. The substitutionary death and resurrection of Jesus, and the forgiveness of sins offered by Jesus in his means of grace, are not solutions to this problem. Wisdom, in itself, is the solution.

But any purported wisdom that ignores God - in his real acts and words, and in his self-disclosure in the person and work of his Son - is not wisdom. It is blind foolishness, masquerading as wisdom.

True wisdom is not based on the mere idea of God, on which the human imagination can then build whatever it chooses. True wisdom is based on the objective revelation of God in human history.

And true Christian wisdom takes shape in our lives, and in our relationships with others, in such a way as to reflect the governing themes of the gospel: love, reconciliation, and forgiveness.

The Christian faith as God reveals it in Christ, through his apostles, does not disdain the true divine sign of the resurrection. In fact, it is built on that sign.

And the personal transformations that can often be seen in people who have turned away from a life of brazen sin, and who have embraced the Savior who embraces them in his regenerating grace, are often very noticeable.

But the Christian faith does not demand signs like this. By faith we rest in the love and grace of God in Christ, and as forgiven sinners we rejoice in the justification of God in Christ, sometimes even in the midst of great suffering in this world.

The hardships that we do often endure do not challenge the legitimacy of our faith, but they confirm it. Jesus spoke some words of comfort for his disciples specifically for such circumstances:

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

There is a unique kind of power in such weakness, though: The resilient power to withstand the onslaughts of the devil against our faith, even to the point of bodily death, “because of the grace of God that was given to us in Christ Jesus”; the liberating power to love and pray for our enemies, even as they are persecuting us, “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

These are not the kinds of miraculous signs that the world notices, or respects. But these modest signs in the life of a humble Christian, such as they are, do point to the greater sign of the raising up of the “temple” of the body of Jesus. They point to the greater sign of Jonah - that is, the resurrection of Jesus on the third day.

It is the resurrection of Jesus that makes all of this possible. It is Jesus’ victory for us over sin and death, that removes from us the fear of death; and that supernaturally gives us the courage to confess him as Lord, to the glory of God the Father, in any circumstance.

St. Paul accordingly writes: “But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

The Christian Scriptures in their totality do indeed convey a great wisdom to us. There is a Biblically-taught way of looking at the world, of making some degree of sense out of the world, and - with God’s help - of navigating through the challenges and pitfalls of the world.

But what we know to be God’s true wisdom in this respect, is looked upon as foolishness by others - who do not know God, or his wisdom.

It is foolish, they think - foolish and pointless - to seek to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength; and to love your neighbor as yourself. It is foolish, they think - foolish and misguided - to forgive your brother seventy times seven times.

It is foolish to be willing to lay down your life, rather than to deny Christ before men. It is foolish to live for others and not for yourself, and to want to serve God by serving others.

It is foolish to pay special attention to the weak and the sick, the poor and the needy - to expend time and resources for the benefit of those who can do nothing to pay you back for your efforts, precisely because they can not repay you for your kindness.

But we are not troubled by this disapproval. We listen instead to what the apostle says to us:

“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful...”

“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”

“He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”

Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom. In Christ, we demand and seek neither. But in Christ we receive both, when we receive Christ.

In Christ we receive life - which is itself a “sign” of the resurrection of the one who gives us this life, by his Holy Spirit. In Christ we receive life - which raises us from the deadness of worldly wisdom, and fills us with the wisdom of the creator of all life, and with the love of the redeemer of all men.

In Christ we are saved from the guilt and power of sin. We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

And ultimately we will be saved from the consequences of sin - in the resurrection to eternal life on the last day. We will dwell forever in the place in his Father’s house, that our Lord has gone now to prepare for us.

There is no earthly sign that shows us what this is like. Jesus Christ shows us what this is like.

There is no earthly wisdom that enables us to look forward to this with confidence and hope. Jesus Christ enables us to look forward to this with confidence and hope.

We conclude with these words, also from St. Paul:

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’”

“Where is the one who is wise? ... Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.”

It pleased God, through the folly of what Paul and all the apostles preach, to save us. Amen.

15 March 2015 - Lent 4 - John 3:14-21

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This very well-known verse of Scripture has brought simple yet profound comfort to millions over the centuries.

But this verse has a context. Knowing that context can help us to appreciate this familiar verse even more deeply, and to be comforted by it even more fully.

God loved the world so much, that he gave his only-begotten Son for the salvation of the world that he loved. But we need to ask: Why did God love the world?

When you ask a young man why he loves his fiancee or his newlywed wife, he will answer by telling you about all her positive and appealing qualities. If you were to ask God why he loves the world, today’s text from St. John’s Gospel would begin to provide an answer - of sorts.

But that answer would be more in the direction of explaining that God does not love the world because of its positive and appealing qualities! Rather, he loves the world in spite of the fact that the world does not deserve to be loved; and in spite of the fact that the world should actually be considered to be quite unlovable - at least from our human perspective.

We read that whoever does not believe in God’s Son “is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Jesus didn’t come for the purpose of condemning the world. He came to an already condemned world.

Those who are invited by God to believe in his Son, and to be saved from perishing through that faith, are not otherwise in a neutral or benign state, as far as their standing before God is concerned. As the gift of God’s Son is brought to them, and before they receive that gift, they are in a state of condemnation.

Through its sin and unbelief, the world has not earned God’s love. It has already earned God’s judgment.

But, the world to which God sent his Son was a world in which a divine promise of salvation had also been echoing since the Garden of Eden. God promised that he would provide for the world a way out from under its condemnation.

In the sending of his Son, God kept that promise. In the sending of his Son, God provided that way of liberation and restoration, for all who would believe.

But apart from Christ, and apart from faith in Christ, the world remains under condemnation. Our text explains:

“This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.”

The condemnation, or judgment, under which the fallen world languishes, is not due to a lack of love for the world on God’s part. It is due to what the world itself loves - or more precisely, to what the people in this world love. And fallen people, in the fallen world, do not love God.

The reference to people loving darkness rather than light needs to be understood according to what St. John had said a couple chapters earlier in his Gospel, when he wrote, with respect to the eternal Logos or the eternal Son of God:

“All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The “light” is a description of the Logos or Son of God - who embodies the goodness of God, as the creator and preserver of the world, and of all life in the world. A knowledge of this divine “light” is, in principle, accessible to man, through reason and conscience.

But, as John also writes, even though “the true light...was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.” And the world certainly did not love him. It hated him.

Humanity hated the light, and loved darkness. Humanity today, in its fallen state, still hates the light, and loves the darkness.

Oh, people by nature might think that they are religiously and spiritually neutral on the question of whether there is or might be a God. And people might even believe in a God whom they have manufactured in their own minds, who does not challenge them too much, or demand too much from them.

But by nature, fallen humanity hates God as he actually exists; and as his existence - in his goodness, purity, and holiness - threatens the pride, and the desire to be in control and to prevail, that inhabits the old Adam in everyone. And so, the world that God loved, and to which God sent his Son, was a world of wickedness, inhabited by wicked people who hated God.

God’s Son, according to his divinity, was already in this world. Indeed, the world had been made through him. But to the extent that the twisted mind of sinful humanity had any conception of this, it hated him too.

When God’s Son came in the flesh, and entered human history, the world as such still hated him. And as Jesus even now remains in the world, and continues to impact it through his Word and church, nothing has changed. The world hates him.

But he, and his Father in heaven, love the world. Why? Not because of what the world is, but because of what God is. God is love.

According to the Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” And so we also believe, with absolute certainty, that Jesus is love too.

“Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” “And God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”

The purposes of God cannot be fathomed. His ways cannot be fully grasped by the human mind - not even by a redeemed human mind.

It is for us simply to believe what God says, to acknowledge as true what God says is true, and to receive, in humble gratitude, what God gives.

God says that he loves the world, even though the world - in its fallen state - hates him. To a certain extent, we can see that the world does hate God - and God’s goodness - just by looking around.

This is an irrational and a self-defeating hatred, a destructive and damning hatred. But it is there. And we can also see that this hatred for God, and for the goodness of God, is chillingly close to us, when we examine ourselves, and take note of the enduring ungodly influences of the old Adam that is within each of us.

But one thing that we would never be able to see by looking around, or by looking within - and that we would never imagine could be true, if God did not specifically tell us that it is true - is that God loves the world anyway, and that God loves me anyway. But this he does tell us.

And to us, he gives his very self - his own Son - to live and die for us; to suffer and rise again for us; to forgive us and restore us; and to transform us from being people who hate God, to being people who love him, because he first loved us.

God’s love for you, God’s desire to rescue you from perishing in your sins, and God’s plan to give you eternal life, are the undercurrent of every word of the gospel that Jesus ever speaks to you.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son. “I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

That whoever believes in him should not perish. “Take, eat, this is my body, which is given for you.”

But have eternal life. “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins.”

The reason for God’s love for you is to be found in God, and not in you. When you falter and fail, and need to turn to him again for forgiveness and for another chance, that is therefore not a time to conclude that God probably does not love you any more.

God does love you, and therefore he will pardon you, and make all things new for you.

When you are reminded of your current weakness, or are frightened of an unknown future, and ask for the Lord’s strength and comfort, you will receive it, because God loves you.

An awareness of all the reasons why you do not deserve God’s love, in itself, has no bearing on whether or not God does in fact love you. If God loved you and all the rest of the world, before you believed in him, he certainly loves you now, as you struggle in your faith.

God, in his Son, gives refreshment to the weary, wisdom to the foolish, reconciliation to the alienated, and spiritual healing to the sick in heart. He lifts the fallen, and guides the lost and the confused.

Whenever you are in need of these things, or anything else in your life of faith, you can confidently ask God for these things, because he loves you. Whenever you hear, read, or meditate on his Word, you can confidently expect God to teach you something that is beneficial for your salvation, because he loves you.

Through believing in the Son whom God sent to the world, the condemnation that your sins invite is lifted, and the fear of perishing in your sin that this condemnation brings along with it, is replaced by the hope of eternal life. Your former presumptions about God, or your former doubts concerning God, are replaced by a divinely-given faith, not just in God’s existence, but in God’s words of promise.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only 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.” Amen.

22 March 2015 - Lent 5 - Mark 10:32-45

Today’s Gospel from St. Mark recounts for us one of the more embarrassing events in the relationship among the disciples, and in the relationship between the disciples and Jesus. Mark’s telling of the story does not give us this detail, but from Matthew we learn that James and John’s mother was actually behind this request of theirs: that in the Lord’s future kingdom, the two of them would be in the most prominent positions of authority and importance, seated at the left and right sides, respectively, of Jesus’ throne.

When the other disciples figured out that James and John were trying to put themselves forward for a higher level of prestige and power in the coming kingdom of Christ - the character of which they totally misunderstood at this point - the other disciples were indignant at them. At this point, they were embarrassed.

And we are embarrassed for them, in part because there is a part of us that would probably have desired the same thing. There’s a part of us that does desire greatness, and power, and control - over both circumstances and people.

We clamor for it. We strive for it. We exalt ourselves, and push ourselves to the head of the line, in our proud ascent to positions of influence where we think we will be noticed and admired by others.

But at the same time, there is another part of us that is inclined to push off our obligations onto others, and that is willing to let other people take care of things that we should actually have a hand in taking care of. We want positions of honor, but not positions of responsibility.

The fallen human psyche, and the sinful human ego, are quite confused in regard to these things. But Jesus brings some moral and ethical clarity to this confusion, especially for those who seek to be his disciples. He says:

“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”

Another important principle to be taken into account, regarding those in positions of authority, is expressed in today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Hebrews. With reference to the high priests of the Old Testament, and ultimately with reference to the high priesthood of Christ, that epistle teaches that

“No one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was. So also Christ did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’”

There are three important points to be learned from these texts. First, a Christian will not proudly try to grab prestige and power for himself, or finagle himself into a domineering position over others.

God is the one who calls us to our stations in life, and to the work that we perform within those stations. And he calls us according to the standards of decency and good order that pertain to both the church and the civil society.

Second, if someone finds himself in a position of authority or responsibility, he will - from within that position - seek to serve others, according to what his actual responsibilities are. Humility before God is the key to remaining humble in one’s office or station, even if it is a high-profile office or station.

Remembering that God is not impressed by us, or wowed at our greatness, will help us to avoid being impressed by ourselves, or wowed at our own greatness. But God does use us. And he has the right to use us as he sees fit.

And third, if someone is in fact entrusted with a responsibility or a duty to serve, according to God’s will and vocation, then that responsibility or duty cannot be shirked. Sometimes the conferring of such responsibilities takes place in a way that is public, specific, and formal - such as an election, or an installation.

Sometimes it is not, such as the general calling to love and to serve that has been given to all Christians, along with the freedom in Christ that has been given to all Christians. St. Paul writes to the Galatians, and to us:

“You were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”

And St. Peter encourages us with these words: “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly... Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.”

Our congregation - both as a gathering of worshipers, and as a structured organization - presents a clear example of an arena within which God calls people to serve one another, in humility, and with eagerness.

I am the only ordained minister of Word and Sacrament here, and I am also the only person who is paid a salary for his work here. These two facts give me a unique set of responsibilities.

Principally, of course, this means that God calls me to be Biblically accurate in my preaching and teaching, to be reverent and dignified in my liturgical leadership, to be faithful in my sacramental ministrations, and to be sensitive and caring in my pastoral counseling.

But because there are no other full-time paid employees in the church, I also see it to be my responsibility to do certain other things, that are not directly related to my training and work as a pastor, but that do need to be done - such as preparing and printing the bulletins for each service.

Some members of the congregation serve in part-time unpaid positions, to which they have nevertheless been formally elected or appointed. This would include elders, trustees, church council members, Ladies Guild officers, and newsletter staff. These positions are voluntary, but are also structured, with clearly-defined duties that those who serve in them are expected to perform in certain ways.

But then there is also the general category of all baptized members of the congregation, many of whom may not have a special position of responsibility, but who are all addressed by St. Peter: “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another.”

A lot of the things that need to be done around here - often small things, but important things - are not the responsibility just of the pastor, or of those who hold an elected office. They are the responsibility of all of us, and of each of us.

And the calling that God may issue to you, to take care of a small matter that needs to be taken care of, does not have to be something as formal as an ordination ritual or a congregational election. Your noticing of a blank line on a sign-up sheet - where your name can fit - may be all the calling that you need, to take your turn in helping out with the many beneficial things that are done in our midst:

Setting up before Sunday refreshments, and cleaning up afterwards; sprucing up the church grounds and cleaning up the church building; teaching or assisting with Sunday School; preparing the Communion ware and the Communion elements for the Lord’s Supper. And the list can go on.

Again, quoting St. Paul: Brothers, “through love serve one another.”

These are not glorious jobs that will get a lot of attention. In fact, people may not even know that you are helping out with these tasks.

But we do not serve our neighbors in this world, or our Christian brothers and sisters in our congregation, in order to get praise from men. We serve in these kinds of ways - these humble and almost unnoticeable ways - because God has called us to serve, and to love as we serve.

The laziness, callousness, and indifference, which impede our faithfulness in such service; and the selfishness and pride which infuse a desire for praise and glory into our holding of offices or positions of responsibility, are major problems. They are not just practical problems - preventing things from getting done - but they are spiritual problems.

Jesus set the example for us. He tells us himself that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” But we do not follow his example - at least not as consistently as we should. I do not follow his example. Neither do you.

What God the Father called Jesus to do, Jesus did well. Of course, God calls us to do different things from what Jesus was called to do. But whatever it is that God does call us to do, he has the right to expect us to do it well also.

Whether this call comes through a formal installation into an office, or through his bringing to our attention a need that must be met - and that we are able to meet - faithful and humble service is what God should get. But that’s often not what he gets.

For all have sinned and fall short. You and I have sinned and fall short, and continue to sin and fall short.

That’s why it’s so important to remember that Jesus did not fall short. He did offer faithful and humble service, in what God sent him to do.

He succeeded fully in the task that he was called upon to perform. He fulfilled his mission, and did his duty. For “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

He gave his life into bitter death for our sins - for our many failures to give of ourselves to those whom the Lord has called us to serve. Jesus immersed himself in a baptism of suffering in our place. He drank a cup of divine judgment: judgment against the sins of the world that the Son of Man took upon himself, and carried to the cross.

With the price of his own body and blood, Christ our Lord paid the ransom for each and every one of us - to liberate us from our captivity to the guilt, power, and consequences of sin. He redeemed us - that is, he bought us back.

And he brought us home to God - to where we had always belonged - and to the forgiving embrace of a God who is now reconciled to us in his Son.

In his faithfulness, and in his loving service for us, Jesus is not just our example. He is our Savior.

And Jesus our Savior continues to serve us, under the humble earthly forms of water, bread and wine; and through the humble voices of fellow Christians into whose mouths Christ has placed his own gospel-words of life, hope, and pardon.

The one who served us by giving his life as a ransom for us, serves us now too, by distributing to us the benefits of his sacrifice. He serves us now, through humble and unassuming means that make no impression on the unbelieving world at all.

He serves us now as he - in his Word and Sacraments - pulls us back to himself, and to God, whenever we have again wandered away into pride, into a desire for glory and prestige, or into an attitude of indifference toward those whom God calls us to serve.

Jesus teaches us about humility and service, by word and example. Then Jesus, in humility, forgives us for our lack of humility.

And then - for us who have been restored by grace to our standing with God, and who have been renewed by grace in our callings from God - Jesus teaches us about humility and service, by word and example.

“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”

“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Amen.

29 March 2015 - Palm Sunday - Mark 15:1-47

During the last week of our Lord’s earthly life, the chief priests of the Jewish people took a great interest in what people were saying about Jesus. In fact, they expended some effort in trying to control what people were saying about him - and who was saying it - as they worked to impose onto the worship and exclamations of others their own sense of propriety, and their own unbelief regarding Jesus and his claims.

On the first Palm Sunday, when Jesus entered into Jerusalem, and then proceeded to the Temple in the heart of the city, he was welcomed and followed by a crowd of both adults and children. Specifically in regard to the way in which this crowd of people of all ages was praising Jesus at the House of the Lord, St. Matthew tells us:

“The blind and the lame came to [Jesus] in the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’, they were indignant, and they said to him, ‘Do you hear what these are saying?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Yes. Have you never read, “Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise”?’”

The chief priests were indignant especially because Jesus was allowing small children to sing his praises. Forming an opinion about Jesus, and deciding either to glorify him, disdain him, or ignore him, was “grown-up” business, they thought.

Of course, they didn’t like it that Jesus was being hailed as the Messiah by anyone. But in particular, they felt that it was totally out of place for children to be doing this.

Shouldn’t they be taught their proper place in the religious world - that is, that they are to be seen and not heard, and maybe not even to be seen? Isn’t Jesus going to teach them this, and put them in their place?

No, he is not going to do this. Because what these children are doing is completely in accord with God’s will. The chief priests might not like it, but God does.

Jesus responded to the objections of the chief priests by quoting from Psalm 8. He said: “Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?”

Indeed, the praise, and the faith, of small children, are held up by Jesus elsewhere as examples for adults to follow. Even though children are afflicted with original sin from their conception, as are adults; and need the gospel just as much as adults do; still, there is a sense in which a child’s devotion to God, and trust in God, bear the marks of a simplicity and humility that adults would do well to imitate.

We all remember the incident in which Jesus was the one who was “indignant” - not because children were being allowed to approach and praise Jesus, but because they were kept away from him. On that earlier occasion,

People “were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.’ Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.’ And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.”

The worship of the crowds on Palm Sunday - directed toward Jesus, the Son of God and the son of David - was a correct and proper worship. Jesus was coming in the name of the Lord, to do the Lord’s work for their salvation.

Even if the crowd did not fully understand all that this entailed - and the crowd certainly did not understand all that this entailed - it was good, right, and salutary for them to be welcoming their Savior in this way.

Despite the critical opinion of the high priests - with their vested political interests, and their spiritually hardened hearts - It was good for the people that day to be praising Jesus. It was good for the children to be praising Jesus.

Before an entire week had passed, the high priests were at it again, seeking to control - once again - what came out of the mouths of a crowd in Jerusalem, with respect to Jesus. This time, though, the generational make-up of the crowd was different.

The trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate was strictly a “grown-up” affair. Adults were making adult decisions about what they thought of Jesus; and about what they were going to say to and about Jesus.

This “grown-up” situation excluded the presence and influence of children. This “grown-up” situation excluded the simple devotion to God, and the humble trusting in God, that believing children would have contributed, if they had been there. And this “grown-up” situation was an evil and shameful situation.

Adults may have been making adult decisions. But they were not making the right decisions. And the high priests - with their malevolent agenda, and adult-like scheming and conniving - were pushing and prodding these grown-up rejecters of God, and haters of God, every step of the way.

Today’s Gospel from St. Mark reports that there was a custom at this time in history, according to which one prisoner in Roman custody during each year’s Passover was pardoned and released, as a gesture of clemency. Pilate proposed that the pardon this time around would be granted to Jesus - who was not actually guilty of any crime.

But the chief priests successfully persuaded the crowd to call instead for the release of Barabbas - who was a real criminal. Mark describes what happened:

“The crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he usually did for them. And he answered them, saying, ‘Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead.”

“And Pilate again said to them, ‘Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?’ And they cried out again, ‘Crucify him.’ And Pilate said to them, ‘Why? What evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him.’”

Oh, for the gentle and faithful voices of some children, calling out “Hosanna to the Son of David” on this occasion, rather than “Crucify him!” But it was not to be.

A true penitential faith in God on the part of the adults in the crowd that day - and an honoring of God’s Son among the people that day - were not to be.

But this should not surprise us. The goodness of God, as manifested especially in the life and ministry of Jesus, grates against the pride and selfishness of the sinful human heart.

This was true for the crowd in Jerusalem during Jesus’ trial, and this is true for us today. And when fallen men and women have had many years of adult life to cultivate and develop their attachments to power and money; to earthly comforts and worldly pleasures, the call of God that sounds forth to all nations - to repent of all sin, and to believe the gospel of Jesus Christ for forgiveness and salvation - is met with hostility and anger.

The only way for someone to respond differently than this - to respond in faith and true worship, as was the case with the crowd on the first Palm Sunday - would be for God to teach someone a different response, and supernaturally to shape a difference response within him, through the working of his Spirit in the heart and mind.

For a man or a woman to acknowledge God’s truth, and to acknowledge the One whom God sent into the world to be its Savior, God himself must bestow - through a new birth - a simple and childlike devotion to God and to Christ, and a humble and childlike trusting in God and in Christ.

“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it,” Jesus said. And Jesus still says this.

One of the great blessings that we have in our congregation is the presence of children - lots of young children, out of whose mouths the Lord has prepared praise, as Jesus reminds us.

Their presence among us - as they worship and grow with us - helps us to understand more clearly than might otherwise be the case, that through the power of the gospel, God has created for us here a situation that is like the wholesome events of the Lord’s entrance into Jerusalem, and not a situation that is like the disgraceful events of Jesus’ trial before Pilate.

We give expression to this explicitly in our Communion Liturgy, as we join our voices to the voices of the adults and the children from that first Palm Sunday, and praise Jesus correctly and properly. As he, in his body and blood, once again enters into his spiritual Holy City, and into the living temple of his church, we joyfully welcome him.

And we exclaim: “Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!”

To be sure, the young children who belong to our congregation, as baptized members, are, as they should be, in a process of learning - from their parents, and from those other adults who may help their parents during church.

Our youngest members are learning how to sing and pray, when the adults sing and pray. They are learning how to listen quietly to the Scripture readings and the sermon, when the adults listen quietly to the Scripture readings and the sermon. They are learning the Christian faith, and the Christian life.

But there is another sense in which we adults are learning from them. There is a sense in which we are learning - through their example - a simple devotion to the Lord, and a humble trusting in the Lord.

From their youthful example, we can be reminded of the joy and rejuvenation that accompany faith. And from the relative lack of complication in their lives, we can be reminded of the justification and forgiveness of God that is ours in Christ - by which we stand as pure and innocent before God. Christians of all generations are beloved children of God, through the gracious adoption of the Spirit of God.

In a description of the peace and reconciliation that characterize the Messianic age and the kingdom of Christ - which we by faith are already experiencing within the fellowship of the church - the Prophet Isaiah states:

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.”

Little children lead us, as it were, in our worship of Jesus today - just as they led the crowd on the first Palm Sunday in their worship. Little children help us to avoid the kind of idolatrous darkness and spiritual blindness that characterized the crowd at Jesus’ trial - where no child was to be seen or heard, and where no childlike love for God was to be seen or heard either.

But the faith and joy that we have in Christ, and that young children exemplify for us, does not come from these children - or from any other mortal. Today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that it is “the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God,” that purifies our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.

The Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that Jesus Christ himself - personally and powerfully - “is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance.”

Through their baptism, Jesus has “called” the youngest and most precious members of our congregation to himself, and has incorporated them into his new covenant. Through our baptism, Jesus has “called” all of us - all of us who cling to him, and who hope in him - to a confidence that through faith in his Word, we have received, and will someday fully enjoy, the promised eternal inheritance.

Hosanna, loud hosanna, The little children sang;
Through pillared court and Temple The lovely anthem rang.
To Jesus, who had blessed them, Close folded to His breast,
The children sang their praises, The simplest and the best.

“Hosanna in the highest!” That ancient song we sing,
For Christ is our Redeemer, The Lord of heaven our King.
Oh, may we ever praise Him With heart and life and voice
And in His blissful presence Eternally rejoice. Amen.