6 September 2015 - Pentecost 15 - Mark 7:31-37

Sign language consists of certain gestures of the hands and body, which picture or symbolize specific words or thoughts. For those who are unable to hear or speak, sign language is an indispensable means of communication.

But certain kinds of bodily gestures can be useful also to those who are able to hear and speak - not as substitutes for spoken words, but as a means of reenforcing and underscoring the meaning of those spoken words. We’re not talking now about a full acted-out vocabulary of hundreds or thousands of words, as would be the case with the kind of sign language that deaf people use.

But there are various gestures, or symbolic bodily actions, that can help even hearing people to focus their attention on the meaning of the words that someone may be simultaneously speaking to them. In our culture there are lots of gestures like this.

When you recite the Pledge of Allegiance, or sing the National Anthem, you are expected to place your right hand over your heart, as a gesture of loyalty and love of country. When someone is introduced to you, you are expected to reach your hand out toward his, and shake his hand, as a symbol of friendship and good intentions.

In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, Jesus shows that he also has a keen understanding of the basic principles that undergird both an organized sign language, and the use of meaningful physical gestures in general, for the purpose of achieving a higher level of communication. Specifically we’re thinking of the Lord’s interaction with the man who was deaf, and who also had a speech impediment.

The healing that Jesus performed for this man was, of course, accomplished by the power of the word that he spoke: “Ephphatha!” - which means “Be opened!” But the man who received the healing, and who needed his ears to be “opened,” would not have been able to hear Jesus speak that word.

He was deaf, after all. And so Jesus, on this occasion, used a series of gestures and bodily actions, in conjunction with the speaking of the word, in order to communicate to the man the meaning of that word.

We read: “And taking him aside from the crowd privately, he put his fingers into his ears, and after spitting, touched his tongue. And looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’

First, we notice that Jesus took the man aside, and dealt with him privately. This means that the gestures Jesus then used were intended for the personal comfort of that man.

They were a form of communication from Jesus specifically to this person, for his benefit. Jesus wanted the deaf man to know that he was not engaging in these actions to put on a display for others, but to teach something to him about the nature and source of the healing that he was about to receive.

And then we notice what Jesus did, once he had taken this man aside. He put his fingers into the man’s ears, to indicate to him that, by the power of his word, he was going to open his ears, and remove the affliction of deafness from which this person suffered.

And Jesus put his own fingers into the man’s ears - not a swab that had been dipped in some kind of medicine. He was thereby telling him - through this unique kind of sign language - that he himself was his healer. Jesus himself was the “medicine.”

After that, the Lord placed some of his own saliva on the man’s tongue. Remember that this person’s deafness was accompanied by an inability to speak intelligibly. Jesus showed the man, by this action, that he himself was going to solve that problem too.

And then Jesus looked toward heaven - the dwelling place of God - and sighed. The miraculous healing that was going to occur, was going to occur because of God’s love for the man.

Jesus was the Son of God, who was always in prayerful communion with his Father, and whose actions were governed by the will of his Father. As he was performing this healing, he thereby invited the deaf man - through this gesture of prayerfully looking upward to the Lord - to pray to the Lord himself, and to acknowledge that his healing was an act of divine grace.

And finally, after Jesus had helped the deaf man understand what was happening, and why it was happening - through the use of these bodily gestures - he then spoke the word of healing that actually accomplished the miracle this man needed. “Ephphatha!” “Be opened!”

And the ears of the man were opened, so that he could hear. His lips were also “opened,” as it were, so that he could now speak plainly, as the text tells us.

The word spoken by Christ had accomplished this. But the “sign language” that Jesus had used, in conjunction with the speaking of the word, had testified to the divine power of that word; and had served to illustrate - in an acted-out kind of way that the man could grasp - the meaning and purpose of the spoken word.

And so, even though he was deaf, this man was able to know that God was healing him through Christ, so that he could place his trust in God - and in the Son of God.

There are at least two take-aways for us, as we hear this story. The first is the illustration that it presents to us, of the deeper deafness and muteness that handicaps all of us, by nature.

We may not suffer from an inability to hear with our physical ears, but we all come into this world without an ability to hear the voice of God in our hearts. Regarding those among his listeners who did not believe in him, Jesus said:

“This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.”

On another occasion, the Lord rebuked some of his opponents with these words: “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them, is that you are not of God.”

By nature, all of us, as fallen human beings, are dead in trespasses and sins. Dead men do not hear. And dead men do not speak either.

One who is spiritually dead cannot confess a faith that he does not have. But when the Holy Spirit has worked life and salvation into the heart of a penitent sinner who turns to Christ for pardon and peace, the Spirit also draws out of this Christian precisely such a confession.

St. Paul writes: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” And he also writes: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.”

When Jesus comes to you in the gospel, and through the gospel touches your heart through the personal comfort of his forgiveness, he thereby heals the spiritual deafness and spiritual muteness of your heart. He gives you a faith that is now willing and able to listen to his word, and to declare his word.

The second take-away for us, is to see in the physical actions of Jesus in today’s text, an example of the sort of thing that he still does today, through the means of grace. Jesus continues to employ a certain kind of “sign language” in his church, as he brings the gospel to his people, in a special way, in Holy Baptism and Holy Communion.

Those who are physically deaf and mute are not the only people who can benefit from the kind of ceremonial gestures and symbolic actions that Jesus employed in today’s text. We, who were spiritually deaf and mute - before God regenerated us, and opened our hearts to his salvation - benefit greatly from having the message of his gospel reinforced to us, and underscored for us, through the use of outward signs that accompany the spoken message.

In his institution of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Jesus - for the benefit of those who receive these sacraments - commanded his church and its ministers to carry out certain outward actions and gestures as intrinsic components of these sacraments.

Baptism involves the physical application of water to the body of a person, in conjunction with the speaking of the Trinitarian words that Jesus commanded to be spoken. Now, insofar as Baptism is, by the power of these words, a conferral of the gospel, it is not a symbol.

Baptism is the reality of God the Father bestowing the Holy Spirit upon the baptized person, so that his Spirit can wash away the sins of that person through the blood of his Son.

When it was time for Saul of Tarsus to be baptized into Christ - in Damascus - Ananias said to him: “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.”

But within the rite of Baptism, the act of applying water to the body does also serve as an outward, visible picture of the inner supernatural cleansing of the soul that is also taking place in the sacrament. That’s why the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews writes:

“Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.”

Those of you who were baptized in adulthood - and who can therefore remember what it felt like to have that “pure water” running down over you - can also remember the great joy that came to you then, as you believed the promises of God: that your sin and guilt, too, were at that same moment being washed away for the sake of Christ.

Even if you cannot remember your baptism in this way, you can still be comforted to know that this is indeed what happened to you - because God’s Word tells you that this is what happened to you.

And you can be reminded of this, each time you witness a Baptism - when you see the outward washing of water, and when you believe in the inner washing of God’s Spirit. That’s the “picture” that the outward ceremony of Baptism paints for us, as the true, inner gift of Baptism is simultaneously bestowed upon the soul of the recipient.

The Lord’s Supper, too, is not in itself a symbol. It is the reality of Christ - God and man - coming to us in his body and blood; and intimately uniting himself to us: to forgive our sins, and to strengthen within us the hope of eternal life.

But the physical act of eating the consecrated bread and drinking the blessed wine, which is a necessary component of this sacrament, does also illustrate - in a very vivid way - what it is that is happening, at a deeper level, in and through that eating and drinking.

In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks these words of comfort to his disciples: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. ... I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.”

In the ordinary course of life in this world, the eating of literal bread satisfies your bodily hunger; and the drinking of literal wine quenches your bodily thirst. So, too, when you by faith receive Christ into your life - supernaturally “eating” him, as it were - your starving soul is filled with his grace and forgiveness, and your parched spirit is refreshed and rejuvenated with his peace and righteousness.

By the power of Jesus’ words - which he spoke on the night in which he was betrayed; and which his called servant speaks in his stead here and now - the body and blood of Jesus are truly present in the bread and wine of his Supper. And therefore Jesus himself - the Bread of Life from heaven - is truly present.

In this sacrament he comes to you, and speaks to you, personally. He invites you to believe in him, and put your trust in him, once again.

And when you physically feel the bread and wine entering into your body, you know that, in this moment, Christ himself is also entering into you - to renew his claim on your soul as his own precious possession; and to make your heart to be his own dwelling-place once again.

For someone who has no access to the sacraments - like the thief on the cross - the spoken Word all by itself is able to bring Christ and his gospel to a sin-stained and spiritually-hungry soul.

But isn’t it wonderful to consider that Jesus wishes to bring his gospel to us in all of its dimensions, also in these sacramental ways - ways that involve a special “sign language” that he addresses to us personally, as he comes to us in the washing of Holy Baptism, and in the eating and drinking of the Sacrament of his body and blood?

You should never underestimate your need for the sacraments that Christ has established for you - just as you should never underestimate your need for the proclaimed gospel. But in the sacraments, your appreciation of God’s love for you is deepened, and your grasp on the mercy of Christ is strengthened, by means of the multifaceted manner in which each sacrament - in its own way - impacts you, and engages you.

Jesus uses the sacraments, with their special kind of “sign language” - their special ceremonial actions and physical gestures - to focus your attention more intently on the meaning of the words that he speaks; and to emphasize and underscore for you, the true miracle that he is working - for you, and in you.

He speaks, and, listening to His voice, new life the dead receive,
The mournful, broken hearts rejoice, the humble poor believe.

Hear Him, ye deaf; His praise, ye dumb, Your loosened tongues employ;
Ye blind, behold your Savior come, and leap, ye lame, for joy. Amen.

13 September 2015 - Pentecost 16 - Mark 9:14-29

Lord, “I believe; help my unbelief.”

What does it mean to believe, or to have faith? The Epistle to the Hebrews answers that question, when it says that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

But this only prompts us to ask another question. What are the things that are hoped for, regarding which faith is the assurance?

And who decides what those hoped-for things will be? Many if not most people assume that the answer to that question is, that we decide.

We decide what it is that we want from God. We decide what we are going to pray for, and what we expect God to give us.

And therefore we try, as hard as we can, to believe that God can, and maybe will, give us this hoped-for thing. Such a faith is, after all, what God expects from us, as we do our part in convincing him to grant us the desired blessing.

But such a faith can never be a very certain faith, or a very confident faith. Try as we might, we can’t really manufacture this kind of assurance, or this kind of conviction.

There are many people in this world who have lost whatever faith they may have thought they had, because when they prayed for something, and tried to infuse that prayer with as much faith as they could muster, they still didn’t get what they had prayed for.

And these people were not praying for wicked or evil things, either. They were praying for their marriage to be saved, but they still ended up in divorce court. They were praying for their gravely ill child to be cured, but the child still died.

They had tried to believe that God would answer these prayers. They had tried to work up enough faith within themselves, so as to make themselves feel certain that what they wanted to happen, would happen - thereby prompting God, according to the formula, to cause it to happen.

But it did not happen. So, their sad conclusion was that their faith - such as it was - had been in vain. And now they no longer believe in God.

As hard as they had tried to have faith, God had not responded to their faith, or rewarded it. And so they are not going to try again.

Can you see yourself in this? Have you had such a reaction, or have you been tempted to have such a reaction, when your faith did not “work,” and when God did not respond to your faith as you had hoped?

In today’s text from St. Mark, Jesus has an interesting conversation with a man whose son is possessed by a demonic spirit. This conversation is about faith. Let’s listen in.

“And they brought the boy to [Jesus]. And when the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth.”

“And Jesus asked his father, ‘How long has this been happening to him?’ And he said, ‘From childhood. And it has often cast him into fire and into water, to destroy him. But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.’”

“And Jesus said to him, ‘If you can! All things are possible for one who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’”

“All things are possible for one who believes.” That might seem to be an indictment against those who don’t believe in God strongly enough, or persistently enough, and for that reason don’t get what they ask God to give them.

But we need to stop here, and go back to the beginning of our subject - because the basic assumptions about faith that we have been recounting, while commonly-held, are not true.

When you pray - as a Christian - you are not actually trying to get God to respond to your faith, and to grant to you what you hope for in faith. God’s actions are not a response to faith. Faith is a response to God’s actions - more precisely, God’s actions in his Word.

When God makes a promise or a pledge to you, and when you - in response - believe that what God says will come to pass, that is faith. When God declares to you that something is true, and when you believe God as he tells you this, that is faith.

The chief example of faith that is presented to us in the Scriptures, is the example of Abraham. We read in the Book of Genesis:

“The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: ‘Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’ But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless... Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.’”

“And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: ... ‘Your very own son shall be your heir.’ And he brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ And [Abram] believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”

Abraham’s faith did not come first, followed by a blessing from God. No. God’s promise came first, and Abraham then believed the promise. And he was justified before God - counted as acceptable and righteous - in and by that faith.

Abraham, during his life on earth, experienced only a small part of the fulfillment of this divine promise. He saw his son Isaac born, contrary to any human expectation.

But Abraham believed the whole promise of God. He knew that everything God had said would come to pass, even though he did not personally experience most of it. And he believed it, even before he had experienced any of it.

Many centuries before St. Paul wrote it down, Abraham was already following this Pauline principle: “Let God be true, but every man a liar.”

Abraham may not have understood exactly how God’s promise would be fulfilled. But he was willing to trust God to fulfil his Word as he saw fit. And God has fulfilled his promise to Abraham - and is continuing to fulfil it - in marvelous and wonderful ways.

Isaac was Abraham’s offspring in the literal sense. Jesus was Abraham’s Offspring, or Seed, according to God’s plan of salvation for Israel - and for all other nations.

And in Christ, you are among Abraham’s offspring. You are among the uncountable spiritual descendants of Abraham, about whom the Lord spoke to Abraham.

As Paul writes in his Epistle to the Galatians: “In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. ... And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”

The nature and character of faith is defined, and shaped, by that to which faith is attached. You do not form and fashion your faith as an inner act of will, and then look for something to believe in.

Rather, God’s Word births your faith within you. God’s promises create your faith, and draw out your faith. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

A prayer that is spoken in faith, is a prayer that asks God to do what he has promised to do. A prayer that we can be unswervingly confident in offering, without any doubt or hesitation, is a prayer to God, that what he has declared will happen, will happen - that his kingdom would come, and that his will would be done.

A humanly-contrived faith, which demands of God things that he has not pledged to give or do, is not really faith. It is presumption - an arrogant and proud presumption.

But we are not justified before God by presumption. We are justified before God by faith.

We read in today’s Gospel that the father of a possessed boy had heard that Jesus of Nazareth had the power to cast out demons. He hoped, therefore, that Jesus could cast out the demon who was tormenting his son.

But he wasn’t sure. That uncertainty was evident in the tentative and hesitant way in which the father asked Jesus for help: “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.”

He got a gentle rebuke from Jesus for saying this. We can almost imagine the expression that would have been on Jesus’ face when he said, “If you can! All things are possible for one who believes.”

All things were possible for Jesus, who certainly believed - who knew - that whatever he asked of his Father, he would receive. And all things were now possible for this man, too, because Jesus had said so.

And so the man said: “I believe; help my unbelief!” The man believed in Christ and in Christ’s Word.

When Jesus told him in that moment that all things are possible - which meant, in that context, that his son’s deliverance from demonic possession is possible, and would happen - the man believed this. His faith was a true faith, and it was a faith that was indeed going to receive what it was hoping for.

But it was also a weak faith - a faith that was distracted by the observation that his son’s problem was so serious, and so chronic, that human reason would never expect a successful exorcism. His reason might still have been doubting if this invisible, menacing influence in his son’s life, really was a demonic spirit.

Maybe his son was just a little crazy. Maybe his coming to Jesus for help was foolish and pointless. There was a part of him - the “old Adam” part of him - that did not believe.

But, even though the divinely-created faith in the man’s heart, was paralleled in his mind by human doubt and human unbelief, he still received what his faith expected. Even with his struggles and inner conflicts, he truly yearned to believe what Jesus had told him.

And that faith was able to received the spiritual healing and the supernatural deliverance for his son that his son needed. Jesus did comfort and bless him in his belief, weak and halting though it may have been. And Jesus helped him with his unbelief.

The cry of this man, “I believe; help my unbelief!”, is also our cry. It is our confession, and our prayer.

In Christ, we do not try to manufacture a faith in what we want God to give us, and then use prayer as a coercive technique to force God’s hand - to appease, flatter, or cajole God into giving us what we want.

Instead, as God’s Spirit teaches us and guides us, we listen, before we pray. We listen to God’s Word, and receive into ourselves from God what he wants to tell us - and what he wants us to want.

And then we believe. Then we pray.

And if our faith is weak, as was the faith of the father in today’s text; and if our prayer is a stammering and weak prayer, we need only recall these words that the Lord elsewhere addressed to St. Paul - and through him to us - “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

When God tells us that our sins are a dangerous poison - and when he identifies our sins, and draws our attention to them by the proclamation of his law - we believe him. And we repent of those sins - even if an entire world of wicked men all around us, lives nonchalantly in those same sins, without an apparent flicker of conscience.

If God tells us that something is wrong, then we believe that it is wrong - even if that belief is weak and wavering. We know that God has the right to shape our morality, and to demand an honest accounting from us when we have failed him - even if myriad voices all around us, are telling us that we are old-fashioned fools at best, or hateful bigots at worst.

Lord, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

And when God tells us that Jesus Christ is our Savior from sin - who atones for our transgressions; who forgives us and sets our conscience at peace; and who permanently delivers us from the captivity and delusions of Satan - we believe that too.

In a world that is steeped in empiricism - where nothing is real if it cannot be seen or touched - we believe that what God tells us about things that are invisible to us now, are nevertheless true.

In matters of human history, you can recognize the contemporary effects of events of the past, that you did not see for yourself when they happened. None of you were alive at the time of the Civil War, or in the days of Abraham Lincoln.

You were not there when he freed the slaves. But you can see that there are no more slaves in America today. And you know why.

You were not in Jerusalem around the year 33 A.D., when Jesus died on the cross, and rose from the dead. You were not yet born when your Savior won for you, and for all men, reconciliation with God, and justification before God, by his victory over death and the grave.

But you know in your conscience today, that you are reconciled to God. You know - even if in trepidation and weakness - that as the absolution of Christ reaches into you, grabs hold of you, and soothes you, you, today, are justified by faith. And you know why.

You know - even if your knowledge is tempered by human fear - that there is a church on earth that will never cease to exist for as long as this world exists; where Christ dwells among his people, as he washes away their sins in Holy Baptism, and nurtures their faith in Holy Communion.

Jesus has pledged, without qualification, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” And in response, you believe his pledge.

You are sometimes tempted not to believe it, when Jesus does not feel close. But you do believe it.

And Jesus - who is really with you - both when you feel him, and when you don’t - helps you to believe it.

The church of Christ on earth has outlived many diabolical movements that are now on the dust heap of human history; but that, during their ascendancy, were quite certain that they would kill and bury the church once and for all, through their brutal persecutions of God’s people.

But they did not. The church has outlived Roman imperialism and Barbarian pillaging, National Socialism and Soviet Communism.

It will also outlive militant secularism and militant Islam. And you know why!

Faith in Christ, though weak, survives. God’s Word in this world will never be silenced, until the end of this world.

Christ’s disciples will continue always to be making more disciples, of all nations, by baptizing and teaching. And this means that faith - a true confidence in God, and a true trusting in God - will never be eradicated from this world, or disappear from this world.

And as the gospel of Christ crucified and risen again, remains as a part of your life, and as a part of you, faith will never disappear from your life, or from you.

Lord, “I believe; help my unbelief.” Amen.

20 September 2015 - Pentecost 17 - James 3:13–4:10

“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”

Humility is not usually considered to be a very useful worldly virtue. The concept of “humility” is often associated with the concepts of weakness and fear. The world honors and rewards bold and assertive people, strong and ambitious people, and not humble people.

But the idea of humility does not need to be equated with weakness and fear. If someone is humble, what this means is that he knows what his true place is. And with a proper sense of obligation, he seeks to fulfil the duties of his station in this world.

A humble person understands and accepts the limitations that are placed upon him. He is aware of the legitimate authorities that are above him, and he willingly submits to those authorities - even as he is also aware of the responsibility that he bears, with respect to those who may be under his authority in some realm of life.

A humble person does not arrogantly challenge his superiors, or pridefully attempt to insert himself into a higher status than what properly belongs to him. If advancement is to come, it will come because those who have the power to bring it about see and reward his faithfulness in his current position, and not because he has pushed himself into a role or position that still rightfully belongs to someone else.

A helpful analogy to this true concept of humility is the attitude of a good soldier. A soldier who understands and accepts his place in the command structure is willing to take orders from his commander.

He doesn’t question or defy his orders, with the presumption that he is smarter, and knows better, than his officer. Rather, he submits to his orders, and does his duty according to them.

This is a description of a good soldier. This is a description of a “humble” soldier, in the proper sense of the term. This is definitely not a description of a weak or frightened soldier!

But in this world of sin, there are not as many “good soldiers” as there should be. Human nature being what it is, people are almost never satisfied with what they have, or with their current situation.

They always want more - more stuff, more power, more control. They - we - are arrogant and impatient, greedy and selfish. We are not humble.

And we are not at peace. Even with all our intrigues and schemes for self-advancement - even with all the using and abusing of others as we step on them, while climbing our way to the top - there is frustration and disappointment, because we never feel as if we really are at the top.

A compulsive craving for power and wealth is a hunger that is never satisfied. The more you try to fill yourself with it, the emptier you know yourself to be.

And this pathway - paved with betrayals and deceptions - is a very lonely road to travel. When you push others aside so that you can go to the front of the line, you end up being there all by yourself - alienated from others, antagonistic toward others, despised by others.

St. James, as it were, rubs our faces in these destructive realities of our sinful lives, in this sinful world, when he writes:

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. ...”

“You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”

Jesus was not a friend of the world in this sense, but he was a friend of sinners in the world. And he was a humble friend of sinners.

In his prophecy of Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, before his arrest and crucifixion, the Prophet Zechariah said: “Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

But Jesus, though he was humble, was not weak or afraid. He was strong, and determined, and focused on the fulfilling of his duty as the world’s Savior.

In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, we read that Christ “was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.’”

Jesus did not wiggle himself out of the degrading things that he endured as the Lamb of God, suffering and dying as he took away the sins of the world. He faced these things head-on.

And he did not retaliate against those who inflicted such humiliating things upon him. He did not devote himself to scheming how to get even with them.

Instead, he forgave them. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” he prays from the cross.

As an anguished wretch of a man, dying for all other men, he cries out, “It is finished.” And with these words - which decree the completion of his atoning sacrifice - he also forgives you.

He forgives you, as the law of God makes you ashamed of your self-asserting arrogance. He extends to you the pardon that his suffering and death won for you, as you - in repentant honesty - see way too much of yourself in St. James’s description of those who love the world, and who love their status and power in the world, rather than loving God and his truth.

In his resurrection, Jesus was finally vindicated and exalted by God the Father. But it was done in God’s way, and not in the world’s way.

As the risen Lord - as the victor over sin and death, and over all his cosmic enemies - Jesus does not now “show off” before the world, boastful and proud. No. As the ascended Lord and master of the universe, he uses his unhindered divine power to present himself to all his people, all around the globe, in his Word and Sacraments.

Through the humble and unassuming outward forms of human speech, water, bread and wine, the glorious King of Kings comes among us as the living Savior, with a heart that is filled, not with greed and selfish ambition, but with love - love for a world of arrogant sinners; love for you and me.

And when this love does indeed touch us, and cleanse us, and transform our hearts, St. James continues to speak to us, and in God’s name he sends us forth from this encounter with Christ in a new direction, with new motives, and with new goals. He gives us these admonitions, with these promises embedded within them:

“Scripture...says, ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. ... Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”

In today’s Introit from Psalm 37, we instructed each other in song with these words: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.”

Faith is Christ is not a heavenly means to an earthly end. It is not the manipulative religious mechanism that we employ in order to flatter or cajole God into giving us the things of this world - the stuff, the power, and the control - that we desire.

The Christian religion is not a tool that we use for the fulfilling of our carnal ambitions, under a superficial cloak of sanctimonious piety. The Christian religion is, instead, the negation of all carnal ambition.

Faith in Christ is a humble thing, with a humbling effect. And it is the evidence that God has placed a new defining desire into your heart, mind, and will - namely, a desire for Christ.

You now delight in Christ, and in the earthly callings into which he places you. You delight in Christ, and in the eternal rewards that he promises you.

And when you delight in the Lord, and desire the Lord, the Lord will indeed give you the desires of your heart. Because the Lord will give you himself, when it is him that you desire.

A humble desire for Christ is not a consuming compulsion that can never be filled. By the grace of God, his Spirit continually fills us with Christ.

And where there is this fullness - this fullness of Christ - there is peace, and contentment. There is true wisdom from God, so that we learn how to navigate through the snares and perils of this world, without being entrapped and destroyed by them.

The prayer that God’s Spirit gives us, is the prayer of the Psalmist: O Lord, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”

To be sure, whatever earthly blessings God wants to give his children in this life, they will receive and accept, with humble gratitude. The opportunities he gives us to serve him and our neighbor, in fruitful employment, we will take, in humble thanksgiving.

But whether we are given little or much, and whatever our standing in this world may be, we are satisfied. We have the risen Christ! And when we have him, we have everything we need.

In Christ, God also raises us up - up from the selfish passions, the self-serving ambitions, and the destructive cravings of this fallen world. St. Paul writes to the Colossians:

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.”

“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

And St. James adds these thoughts:

“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.”

“But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.”

“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”

In closing, we return to the words of today’s Introit:

“Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way, over the man who carries out evil devices!”

“Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.”

“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” Amen.

27 September 2015 - Pentecost 18 - Mark 9:38-50

The apostle John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us.”

What does it mean to cast out demons in the name of Jesus? What does it mean to do anything in the name of Jesus?

Many seem to have the idea that the act of saying “in the name of Jesus” is like an incantation, or a magic formula, so that if you enunciate the sound of that phrase, you can make things happen - almost like a form of witchcraft or spell-casting. One of the main ways in which this misunderstanding is applied, is in the area of prayer.

It is though that if you tack the phrase “in Jesus’ name” on the end of any wish list that you present to God, God is somehow compelled to grant your requests. But if you omit that concluding phrase, then God will not listen to your petitions.

It’s almost like a children’s game of “Simon says.” “You didn’t say ‘Simon says.’” “You didn’t say ‘in Jesus’ name.’” So, the prayer doesn’t count!

But this is not a correct understanding of what it means to do something, or ask for something, “in Jesus’ name.” Listen with me to these words of the Lord, spoken to his disciples in St. John’s Gospel:

“You did not choose me, but I chose you; and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.”

Asking God the Father for something in prayer - on the basis of having received from God the gracious gift of his Son; and the gracious bestowal of a new heart and mind through the working of his Spirit - is asking God for something “in Jesus’ name.”

To do something - anything - in Jesus’ name, is to do something on the basis of the gospel that the name “Jesus” stands for and proclaims.

Remember that “Jesus” literally means, “the Lord saves,” or “the Lord is salvation.” That’s why Joseph was told at the time of the Lord’s conception: “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."

When something is accomplished or done in the name of Jesus, it is because Jesus himself - as he makes himself known to his people through his name - has caused it, and brought it about, according to his will and plan.

In today’s text from St. Mark, we are told of the activities of a man who is not from among those who are closely following Jesus, and traveling in his company. But, this man is using the name of Jesus to cast out demons.

The closer disciples of Jesus don’t like this. But Jesus rebukes them for this parochialism.

Jesus actually has a relationship with that man, by means of his name, even if he does not have a close, interactive human relationship with him, as he does with Peter and Andrew, James and John. If Jesus’ name - with its supernatural grace and power - is a part of that outsider’s life, then Jesus is a part of that outsider’s life.

During Jesus’ state of humiliation, he walked the earth in “the form of a servant,” and appeared in “the likeness of men.” But he did not stop being God.

He did not stop sustaining the universe together with the Father and the Holy Spirit. And he did not stop working salvation within the larger nation of Israel, and forgiving sin, through the power of his name.

The Jews of the first century had access to the Sacred Scriptures of the Old Testament. They had access to the Messianic images and types, and the Messianic promises and prophecies, of the Old Testament.

And many of them believed in those images and types, and in those promises and prophecies - even if their faith was not fully formed; or was weak; or was partially misguided by the errors of the Pharisees and the scribes.

Many of those who were around when the Messiah walked the earth, and who experienced his gradual disclosing of himself to his people and to the world, were already believing in him for their salvation, by means of their faith in the prophecies of the Messiah - even if they did not yet fully grasp that it was to Jesus of Nazareth that those prophecies were pointing.

The “unaffiliated” man who was casting out demons in the name of Jesus, was already believing in Jesus, too. The full implications of this faith may not yet have been clear to him. But implicitly, he was a disciple of the Lord.

He had Jesus’ name. And Jesus’ name had him, and was working in and through him.

We can be pretty sure that the outlying exorcist in today’s story was not superficially misusing the name of Jesus - as if it were a magic formula. And we can be pretty sure of this, because of what happened on a different occasion, as recorded in the Book of Acts.

In the Acts passage, some would-be exorcists were presumptuously misusing Jesus’ name, without a genuine connection of faith to Jesus. St. Luke writes that while the apostle Paul was in Ephesus, where he had performed some authentic miracles and exorcisms in Christ’s name,

“some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, ‘I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.’ Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this.”

“But the evil spirit answered them, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?’ And the man in whom was the evil spirit, leaped on them, mastered all of them, and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded.”

That wasn’t happening in today’s account. The disciple beyond the disciples in today’s text was actually casting out demons by the name of Jesus, without hypocrisy or superstition.

The demons were overpowered by this name, as he spoke it. And Jesus did not criticize any of this.

To be sure, the exorcist under the disciples’ suspicion had not yet arrived at the point of fully embracing everything that the life and ministry of Jesus stood for. But then again, those disciples who were following Jesus closely, and who were a part of his “in group,” were themselves a long way from really understanding these things.

It was only after the resurrection that they could accurately be said finally to have “gotten it.”

Again, the name of Jesus embodies the gospel of Jesus. His “name” is his revelation of his saving will and purpose, and of his divine person and redeeming work. There is power in that revelation.

And it is this name, or this gospel, that creates the church. The church does not create the gospel.

Jesus does not establish his church on some basis other than the gospel, and then tell the church to figure out what the gospel is, and teach it. Rather, Jesus establishes his church on the foundation of the gospel.

He preaches his church into existence. He puts his name out there - in his proclamation, and in his ministry - and the church then coalesces around his name.

The Lutheran doctrine of the church emphasizes that the marks of the church are the preaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. We do not latch onto the organizational or structural features of the external church - its clerical hierarchy or its administrative connections - as its defining features.

If we did this, it would imply that the content of the church’s proclamation is negotiable, and that changes in that proclamation would not diminish the “churchiness” of the church. But that would not be Lutheran!

And that would not be in accord with what Jesus himself says, when he declares that those who abide in his word are truly his disciples; and when he teaches that he is present wherever two or three are gathered together in his name - that is, around his gospel.

In today’s account, the closer disciples of Jesus were concerned that someone who was not a part of their group - their own enclosed “church” - was using the name of Jesus; and was being blessed by, and was blessing other people through, that name. But they were thinking in a totally backwards way.

The presence of disciples of Jesus - in any particular time and place - is discerned on the basis of the presence and power of Jesus’ name. The presence of the gospel, with its saving power, is not discerned on the based of a previous discernment that the church is there.

The nascent church of Jesus, even during the time of the Lord’s earthly ministry, was actually bigger than the relatively small circle of chosen apostles. The church of Jesus was - and is - as big as the reach of the name of Jesus.

And so Jesus had to tell John and his colleagues, “the one who is not against us is for us.” Those who believe in my name, who use my name, and who are blessed by my name, are for us, and with us - even if they are not, at the present time, walking in our circle of close association.

Jesus says, in effect, “If someone has my name, then he, too, has me. And I have him. And he is a part of my church, and is among my people.”

On and after the Day of Pentecost, thousands of people living in and near Jerusalem became visibly associated with the apostles, and outwardly united with the apostolic church in every sense of the term. The person about whom John was complaining in today’s text was no doubt among them.

So, this did all get sorted out in the end - as all concerned grew in their faith and understanding.

We are committed to the congregation to which we belong, because we are persuaded that here, the gospel of Jesus is proclaimed fully and faithfully. It is the name of Jesus - preached, applied, and at work for the deliverance of souls from demonic darkness - that draws us to our church, and that keeps us in our church.

Even if we are still in a learning and growing process - and who among us is not? - we are drawn to that name. And therefore we are drawn to this church - because where the name of Jesus is spoken, and where his gospel is unfolded and expounded upon, we know that Jesus himself is there with his love and grace.

But in principle, we would recognize that this is so in any gathering of professing Christians around his name. We believe that wherever the gospel of Jesus is proclaimed - in some recognizable form - Jesus is there; and the love and grace of Jesus are there.

The forgiveness of sins that Jesus won on the cross is there. The hope of everlasting life that Jesus set in motion by his resurrection, is there.

Even if errors which contradict the gospel are there as well, threatening the faith of the Christians in that place, we still recognize that the truth of the gospel is, in itself, more powerful than the errors; and that a saving faith can still be created and sustained by the name of Jesus in that gathering.

Formal church fellowship involves a mutual recognition of the totality of what is taught between churches. And so from our perspective, the presence of that kind of error in a church - side-by-side with the truth of God - would preclude such fellowship.

But it does not preclude a belief that faith - though weakened and confused - can be present in the hearts and minds of anyone who has the name of Jesus in his life; who is learning from that name; and who is growing into that name.

We believe that we best honor the name of Jesus by remaining steadfast in the faith that has been delivered to the church, once and for all time, by Jesus’ apostles. And as our consciences are captive to the Word of God, for us that means that we are committed to a Confessional Lutheran church.

But we do not think that salvation flows from our church. We believe - we know - that salvation flows from the name of Jesus.

And that means that if you would ever have an opportunity to speak with a dying person who had a weak or confused faith, or maybe who had no faith at all, you would not seek to comfort him with a message about the glories of your church. Such a message would not create or strengthen faith.

You would seek to comfort him - and prepare him for death - with a message about the mercy and forgiveness of Jesus. And you would, in love, allow yourself to be a conduit, through whom the name of Jesus could once again - or for the first time - be placed upon him.

We do not resent it when mighty works are done in the name of Jesus for others and among others. Instead, we are happy for others, whenever and wherever the name of Jesus is among them - and to the extent that the name of Jesus is among them - because this means that Jesus is among them, showing his mercy; helping and healing; vanquishing evil, and promoting good.

Insofar as the gospel of Jesus is in this way at work in the lives of other people, we rejoice for them. And we rejoice with them, because we ourselves know what a wonderful thing it is, for the name of Jesus to be a part of our life; and for the mighty, saving works of Jesus to be performed in us.

You were baptized in the name of Jesus - that is, by his authorization, and according to his commission. And thereby you were united to Jesus’ death and resurrection. He did this for you, through the power of his name.

As you abide in your baptism - in repentance and faith - you daily die to sin and self, and daily rise in him. And, his name abides in you, always forgiving you, always renewing you, always sanctifying you.

In the name of Jesus - that is, in his stead and by his command - your pastor comforts you, in your penitence, with Jesus’ absolution. Everything that Jesus has done for you is poured over you, and into you, whenever his cleansing and refreshing words of forgiveness are spoken to you.

In the name of Jesus - that is, according to his Word and institution - you are catechetically prepared for, and are then invited to, the feast of redemption that Jesus ordained for his church. As you are drawn to Jesus’ name, so too are you drawn to his Supper - where he is present with his body and blood, to bestow upon you the eternal blessings that were won for you in the sacrificing of his body, and in the shedding of his blood.

And when you depart from this world, you depart in Jesus’ name - clinging to his Word; and knowing that everything which his name did for you during your life on earth, was preparing you for this moment. When Jesus’ name remains upon you, his name carries you through all the trials of this life, and into the bliss of the next life.

These blessings are available to mankind, whenever and wherever the name of Jesus is at work - among people we know, and among people we do not know; in our church, and in other churches.

John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us.” Amen.