6 March 2016 - Lent 4 - Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

“There was a man who had two sons.” So begins what is commonly called the parable of the prodigal son, as told by Jesus, and recorded in St. Luke’s Gospel.

We are told in this parable that this younger of two sons said to his father, “Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.” And the father then divided his property between the two brothers.

In the context of first century Jewish culture, something like this was unheard of. The universal practice was that a man’s estate was not divided until the occasion of his death.

For the younger son to ask that it be divided before then, was, in effect, to express a wish that the father would be dead, or at least to indicate that the son thought of his father as if he were dead - without an appreciation for his father’s presence and influence in his life, and without an intention to honor his father as he should.

But the father’s love for his son was such, that he acquiesced to this request, rather than blowing up in rage at the presumptuousness and disrespect of it. If this younger son turned out to be prodigal - that is, extravagant in his spending - the father certainly seems to be quite extravagant in his generosity.

Beyond all human expectation, the father loves his son, and gives him what he asks for. And this helps us to understand that in the parable, the father does not represent an ordinary human father, but rather God, who loves his children with a superhuman extravagance and graciousness.

But as it turns out, the younger son is not worthy of that love, and wasted the premature inheritance he had received. In “a far country” he “squandered his property in reckless living.” And then, in his destitution, he “hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs.”

Bob Dylan famously sang: “You’re gonna have to serve somebody. Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”

The truth of this is illustrated in the parable of the prodigal son. The son had effectively renounced his father - treating him as if here were dead - and was no longer interested in serving him. But he could not remain detached.

And so he began to serve another master. But this was a master who had no personal regard or affection for this young man, and who put him to work in a way that was utterly degrading to him. To a Jew, being forced to be a caretaker of pigs was a humiliating defilement.

Now, if the father in the story represents God - that is, the one to whom all people legitimately owe allegiance and service - then this citizen of a foreign land, to whom the prodigal son attached himself, represents any and every false god and idol, which those who turn their back on God do serve, instead of God.

Rejecting the true faith in the true God does not mean that you will now believe in nothing. It means that you will now, in gullibility, believe in anything.

And it means that you will serve any number of false gods that will destroy you, not watch over you and protect you. It means that you will serve idols that will chew you up - morally, physically, and spiritually - and spit you out.

The devil’s promise always is, that if you remove yourself from God’s authority, you will be free. But what the devil always delivers, is the worst kind of slavery and exploitation, and ultimately death.

That’s what the prodigal son experienced. And that’s what you have experienced, if and when you have ever thought and acted like that son: in your mind opposing God; in your heart disrespecting God; doing as you please, greedily and selfishly, without regard for honor and duty, obligation and commitment.

The freedom from God that your sinful pride prompted you to seek, brought only misery - a deep and dark misery. But, like the prodigal son in today’s story, you came to your senses.

Or if you are even now secretly still mired in the degradation of a “far country” that is oh, so distant from your proper home with God, you have a chance right now to come to your senses, to admit the mess you’ve gotten yourself into, and to resolve that you want and need something better.

In today’s story, when the wandering son “came to himself,” he said to himself, “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.’” And he arose and came to his father.

But do notice what this new inner resolve entailed, and what it did not entail. The son - who regretted his foolishness, and the horrible situation he had gotten himself into - was hoping only that his father would give him a job - that is, a chance to work his way back up to a status more respectable than where he now was.

He wanted to be hired on, so that, under the father’s patronage, he could change his life, and become a responsible person once again.

This is a form of repentance - a change in thinking that involves a disdain for the effects of sin in your life, and a desire to reverse those effects by changing the way you live. But this is not yet a true Christian repentance, or a true Christian faith.

It is moralism: a desire to be a better person, a commitment to work hard to make yourself a better person, and a belief that God is a kind of “higher power” or heavenly guide who can help you to become a better person.

Now, this is not a bad desire. It is good as far as it goes. But it does not go far enough.

Still, that’s what many people are thinking when they turn to God, in the midst of a life of sin and of the consequences of sin. They want a better life, and they think - they hope - that God can help them. And so they pray for that help.

But what God has for those whom he loves, and claims as his own, is so much more than that. What the father gave to the returning son was so much more than that.

While the humbled and ashamed son was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

But the father said to his servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.”

True repentance does not only look back on a failed life, with a humble admission that I have not been what I should have been. It also looks forward, with a humble admission that I, by my own efforts, will not be able to make myself truly righteous and fully acceptable to God in the future either.

There’s something wrong with me on the inside, down deep. There is an inborn flaw in me that I cannot ultimately overcome in this life. And so, by my own strength I am lost. In my weakness, I am without hope.

Maybe, through will power and human persistence, I can become a better person than I was before - at least by outward measurements, and by comparisons with other people.

But I cannot in these ways become everything I am supposed to be before God. I cannot make myself worthy of the love of a perfect and holy God, and deserving of a place in his house and at his table.

So, the prodigal son’s idea would not have worked. But it didn’t need to work. He didn’t need to find a way to work himself back into his father’s favor.

Sons who come home do not become servants. Sons who come home become sons again. All is forgiven. All is forgotten. Alienation is replaced, not by probation, but by restoration.

The parable doesn’t explain why and how this happens. But this happens for real - in our relationship with God - because of the teller of the parable.

Jesus makes this happen, because his obedience covers over our disobedience, and his successes cover over our failures. Indeed, the “best robe” of Jesus’ righteousness is placed upon us, to cover the stains of our unrighteousness.

His blood, shed on the cross for our sins, washes away our shame and guilt. And his resurrection opens up a clear pathway for us, into the presence and fellowship of God - who sees those who trust in Christ through the lens of Christ, and therefore as being perfect in Christ.

As St. Paul writes in today’s lesson from his Second Epistle to the Corinthians: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

In our wastefulness with what God has entrusted to our care, and in our callous disrespect for God’s authority, we do indeed wander away from God. But Jesus reaches out to us - in the far country to which we have wandered in our minds and souls - and in our minds and souls, he calls us to come to our senses, and to come home.

Being invited to the celebratory household meal showed the now-restored son more than anything else, that he was home, and was fully restored to his place at the table. The killing, roasting, and eating of the fattened calf represents the joyous fellowship that God’s people enjoy with their creator and redeemer, and with each other.

This is not a reference to the Lord’s Supper per se. But when Jesus later instituted that sacrament to be a special and miraculous participation in him and in the gospel, for his catechized and confessing people, this was done in light of the first-century cultural understanding that when a host welcomes someone to his table, he thereby welcomes that person, fully and completely, into his life.

God in Christ, and through the gospel of Christ, welcomes and re-welcomes you into his life - not so that you can be his employee, working your way into his good graces; but so that you can be embraced as his son or daughter, by his grace alone, through faith in his Word.

He has again brought you under his protection and guidance. He has again brought you within his house. “And they began to celebrate.” Amen.

20 March 2016 - Palm Sunday - Philippians 2:5-11

The crowds on the first Palm Sunday shouted, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Hosanna in the highest!”

Jesus did indeed come in the name of the Lord - that is, in the name of the God of Israel, Jehovah or Yahweh. He came by the Lord’s authorization, to accomplish the Lord’s purposes.

But of course, he was not himself the Lord, but only a man. Or at least that’s what the crowds in Jerusalem thought.

Jesus looked and sounded like a man. He rode into the city on a donkey, as a man would.

He didn’t look like God, or sound like God, or act like God. So, he wasn’t actually God, was he? He was simply a pious and righteous man, intent on doing God’s will, right?

Well, not so fast! Things aren’t always as they seem.

In today’s lesson from his Epistle to the Philippians, St. Paul makes some very important distinctions to which we must pay close attention, if we are to understand what was really happening on that first Palm Sunday - and on the momentous days that followed. And we must pay close attention to these distinctions also if we are to understand what is going on among us, in the church, today.

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

God’s only-begotten Son - the eternal divine Logos - became a man in the womb of the virgin Mary. The divine Son took to himself a true human nature from Mary. That’s the incarnation.

And then, this divine-human Savior, without ceasing to be divine, set aside the full use of his divine powers. He ceased to live according to the divine form of existence that he, as the Son of the Father, had always known; and he began to live according to a human form of existence.

Christ Jesus had been in the form of the divine master of heaven and earth, but he now took “the form of a servant.” As a real man, he looked like a man and lived like a man, with all the seeming limitations of a man. That’s the humiliation.

The incarnation is absolutely not the same thing as the humiliation. Jesus is no longer in a humiliated state. He is now seated at the right hand of the majesty on high, and is consciously using all of his divine powers to preserve and extend his kingdom among men.

But even in his resurrected and ascended glory, Jesus is still God and man in one person. He will always be God and man in one person. The incarnation was not undone by the resurrection and ascension of Christ, even though the humiliation was.

But returning to our discussion of Paul’s teaching about when the humiliation of Christ began, we would note that when the text says that Christ did not count equality with God a thing to be “grasped,” this does not mean that he was reaching and groping for a divine nature and status that he did not already have.

What it means is that, as God and man in one person, he made a decision - for the sake of our salvation - not to continue to cling to, or hang onto, the equality with God the Father that was already his by virtue of his divine nature.

In order to become our Savior in this world, he let go of this equality with God. That is, he relinquished the active use of his power, and the overt manifestation of his glory, as God. He assumed instead a form of existence that made him, in these respects, to be equal with other men instead.

He was God, and had been in the form of God - immortal and incapable of suffering. But he was also a man, who had become a man in order to redeem humanity from the inside, and to lay down his very real human life as a ransom for all other human beings.

And so, for the sake of being able to live as we live, and to die as we die, Jesus lovingly and humbly embraced a human form, in preparation for his human birth, and in preparation for everything he did and experienced as a man, in our place, as our human substitute.

As St. Paul goes on to say: “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

If Jesus had remained in his divine form of existence, he could not have taken our place under the law. The demands of God’s law are directed toward men. As a set of regulations for human behavior, the law could be obeyed only by a human being - or by a God-man who was living in a human form of existence.

And that’s the form of existence that Jesus did in fact assume, for the duration of his earthly life and ministry. Therefore he could, and did, obey God’s law for humanity, as a human.

And he alone proved himself to be a perfect man - not deserving any punishment for his human failures, because he had no human failures. He alone, of all men, through his obedience, earned a place in heaven for himself.

But he did not take advantage of his worthiness and righteousness in this way - that is, for his own personal benefit. He put his worthiness and righteousness to work for another purpose - namely, in the offering of himself as a sacrifice to his own divine justice on behalf of all other human beings. God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.

Jesus did not have any sins of his own to pay for. He was therefore the only man who had ever lived, whose suffering under divine wrath could therefore be transferred and applied to others.

His meritorious suffering could be, and has been, transferred and applied to us - who, unlike him, have failed in our obligation to obey God fully and purely, and who have thereby earned a place in hell for ourselves, and not a place in heaven.

As a man, existing in the form of a man, Jesus did willingly submit himself to the death of the cross. He became the perfect substitute for us all. He died for us all, so that we, in him, can now live.

And so, through him, and through his death, the sins of all other human beings have been paid for. An atonement for the sins of the entire human race has been accomplished.

Remember that we are talking about a Savior who is God and man in one person. And so, the death of Jesus was, according to the mystery of the incarnation, the death of our self-giving God.

He who was immortal, and could not die, had made himself capable of dying, and did die. This is why St. Paul told the Ephesian elders in the Book of Acts: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood.”

God’s forgiveness and justification in Christ are now proclaimed to all, so that as many as believe this proclamation, and receive what God offers, will be saved.

None of this would have been humanly possible, if Jesus had not assumed a human form of existence. But he did assume such a form. Everything that needed to be done for the salvation of the human race therefore became possible.

And everything that had become possible, was in fact fulfilled, by a Savior who sacrificed himself for us, so that you and I could receive and enjoy what he had earned: a declaration of acceptance and righteousness from God, peace with God, and eternal life in the presence of God.

Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is not in the form of man any longer, with all the limitations that would ordinarily be associated with a human existence. St. Paul writes, in his Epistle to the Ephesians, that Christ has now “ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.”

His humanity is thoroughly permeated with his divinity, and his humanity fully partakes now in the power and glory of his divinity. But, he is still a man.

Even though his human nature now has a glorified form of existence, he remains as our brother according to the flesh. A glorified human nature is still a human nature.

And so, even in his ascended glory, Christ Jesus remains as the lamb slain for sinners, who always intercedes for us. He remains as humanity’s righteous substitute under the law, whose obedience is continuously credited to us, as our righteousness before God.

Jesus still has the humanity that he received from the Virgin Mary. Jesus still is the man who was conceived and born of the Virgin Mary.

The Son of God who is exalted to the right hand of the Father is not a divine person who used to be Jesus - back when he was still on the earth. He still is Jesus. He will always be Jesus, the friend and Savior of sinners.

St. Paul writes in today’s text that “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Jesus Christ is Lord. Jesus Christ, the human son of Mary, is at the same time the God of Israel - Jehovah, Yahweh.

Back in the days before there were laws against nepotism, people who had relatives in positions of power in the government would often benefit from those associations in many ways. Well, you and I now have a relative in a position of supreme power.

Jesus, who shares in our humanity, and who like us is a descendant of Adam, is now seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. There is no limit to what he is able to do for us.

Therefore everything that we need from him - in the struggles and trials of this life, and in our walk of faith - he can and will provide. If we don’t receive something we ask for, it’s not because he is not able to give it. It’s because he knows that we really need something else. And he gives us that instead.

Jesus gives us his forgiveness. Jesus gives us the companionship and guidance of his Spirit. And Jesus gives us himself.

God is everywhere. The right hand of God is everywhere. Jesus is, accordingly, everywhere.

When his word tells us that he lives in his church, protecting it and taking care of it, then that is exactly where he is, and that is exactly what he is doing. When Jesus promises that he is with us always, to the very end of the age, this promise can be believed.

Not only as God, but also as man, he is not limited to being in only one place at a time. His humanity can be, and is, wherever his divinity is.

Christ Jesus can be wherever he wants to be, in a billion different places simultaneously. And where he wants to be is with us - with each of us - as our divine-human Savior and friend.

Where he also wants to be, in a unique and miraculous way, is in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. He is a man, for us men, also in this sacrament.

In our human frailty, he mystically unites himself to us through this sacrament, precisely at the point of his humanity - his now glorified humanity - in and through his now glorified body and blood.

He comes to us in this Sacred Supper, also “in the name of the Lord” - by the Lord’s authorization, to accomplish the Lord’s purposes. And so we welcome him as he comes, repeating the words that were chanted by the crowd in Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

But he comes not only as a man who has been authorized by God to perform saving deeds, but also as a man who is God - God and man in one person. He comes to do what only God can do - forgiving our sins; renewing to us the new life that comes from his regenerating Spirit; restoring in us his image and likeness.

“Hosanna in the highest!” Amen.

24 March 2016 - Maundy Thursday - Luke 23:44-46

“It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last.”

For the past six weeks, in our midweek Lenten services, we have been meditating on the seven last words of Christ from the cross.

We considered the first word, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” From these words, we learn that the Lord is willing to forgive even before we are willing to repent and seek his forgiveness.

This means that our repentance - as necessary as it is in preparing our hearts for the coming of God’s mercy in Christ - does not in any way earn the forgiveness we seek, or serve to persuade Jesus to forgive us. By faith we receive his forgiveness as a gift - a gift that liberates us from the power of death and from everything that would keep us alienated from God.

Jesus came to put an end to all that for a humanity whom God still loves so deeply. Jesus came to forgive. Jesus did forgive.

We considered the second word, spoken by Jesus to the penitent thief who was dying beside him: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

It was not too late for this man, whose life was a total wreck, and a moral shambles, to become what God had always meant for him to be. It was not too late for this man to be cleansed of all the stains of his misdeeds, and to be healed of all the scars of his rebellion against the goodness of God.

It was not too late for this dying man to be born again, and to have the certain hope of eternal life with Christ, because of Christ, whose death - taking place there right before his eyes - was purchasing and redeeming him for God in that very moment. And therefore it is never too late for any of us, either.

We considered the third word, spoken by Jesus to his mother Mary and to his disciple John: “Woman, behold your son. Behold your mother.”

We learn here that the love that we bear toward one another in Christ is like unto that of the members of a family - indeed it is the love of a family, the eternal family of God into which we have all been adopted by the regenerating Spirit of God’s only-begotten Son.

As my brother or sister in Christ, your problem is my problem. Your need is my opportunity to serve and love you, to take care of you, and to help you bear your burdens, as Christ has served all of us by laying down his life as a ransom for many.

We considered the fourth word: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Indeed, the genuine sense of being forsaken by God, which Jesus felt according to his humanity, was and is the just hellish penalty for all human sin.

Jesus felt this, and experienced this on the cross, because he had taken all human sin upon himself. And clothed in that sin - your sin and my sin - he, in our place, had placed himself under the judgment of his own law.

He experienced hell for you on the cross, so that you never need to experience it for yourself, on account of your transgressions. He clothed himself in your sin, so that you can now be clothed in his righteousness before God, by faith. Your sins, which have earned a place in hell for you, are, in Christ, removed from you as far as the east is from the west.

We considered the fifth word: “I thirst.” Jesus, in his true humanity, and because of his great suffering, was exhausted. But he needed just a small bit of refreshment for his parched tongue and lips, so that he could shout out, as loudly as possible, the one important thing that he wanted to say next.

And that was the sixth word: “It is finished.” Everything that needed to be done for our salvation was now accomplished.

Jesus had lived a perfect life in our place. Jesus had offered this perfect life to his Father as a sacrifice, to atone for all of our deep flaws and imperfections.

Jesus has experienced the equivalent of hell itself, as our substitute under divine judgment. And now, the preaching of the message of Christ’s finished work for the salvation of the human race will be proclaimed to the human race, so that all who repent and believe will be saved.

We are not saved by our own works. No further sacrifices or payments to God are required. We are saved by the work of Christ, which he completed, once and for all time, and for eternity, on his cross.

And now, tonight, for Maundy Thursday, we consider the seventh and last word of Jesus as spoken from the cross: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

This is actually quoted from the Old Testament. As was so often the case, Jesus gave definition to what was going on around him, through him, and in him, by quoting Scripture. This last statement by our Lord, before he bowed his head in death, is from Psalm 31, where we read this prayer of a distressed believer:

“Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily! Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me! For you are my rock and my fortress; and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me; you take me out of the net they have hidden for me, for you are my refuge. Into your hand I commit my spirit.”

After all that he had gone through - fulfilling the will of his Father, enduring the abandonment by his Father, and now once again being restored to a conscious awareness of the love and fellowship of his Father - Jesus calls out to his Father for deliverance from this suffering, and for a rescue from the agony of the cross.

His atoning work was finished. His blood had been shed. He can depart now, and know the peace of death. He prays for this. And this is a godly prayer, because his appointed time on earth is at an end.

He has finished his course. He has run his race. He is ready to rest from his earthly labors, and to die. And he does then die, commending his spirit to the Father whose will and purposes he had fulfilled to the very letter.

But when people like you and me face death, or ponder our mortality, we do not often have within us the kind of peace that Jesus had. We are often not ready to die - or at least we don’t feel that we are.

We know our many imperfections and flaws, and we are also aware of those deeper and darker shames that make us, in ourselves, unworthy of fellowship with a holy God. We daily sin much - in thought, word, and deed - and deserve God’s punishment.

And so, when we think about these things, and also think about the inevitability of our death, we are often afraid. Our consciences are often troubled.

Painful memories of all of our failures and missteps come flashing into our minds. Regrets over hurts inflicted on others that we cannot undo also come to mind, and weigh us down with grief.

When this happens, we are not able to bring ourselves to pray, as Jesus prayed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” - because there is a part of us that fears that God would reject our spirit, and damn our spirit.

But there is a remedy for this. There is a cure for a troubled conscience. There is divine help for those who are afraid to face God, because they do not know what God will say or do.

Tonight we celebrate Jesus’ institution of this remedy, this cure, and this divine help, which our Savior makes available to his people when they are aware of their weakness, when they feel overwhelmed by their fears, and when they are attacked by doubts about God’s willingness to forgive them.

On the same night in which he was betrayed, in conjunction with the Jewish Passover, Jesus established a sacrament which would vividly implement for his people the new covenant with God, or the New Testament from God, that would be established by the shedding of his blood.

On the night of the first Passover, in Egypt, the angel of death was abroad in the land, and brought death to all the firstborn of Egypt. This was a fearful thing.

As the Hebrews huddled in their homes, perhaps hearing in the distance the wailing cries of their Egyptian neighbors - as each house, one by one, was visited by this angel - they might have wondered:

What will happen when that angel comes to my house? Will I, too, perish? I know that I do not deserve any favors from God, whom I have offended by my idolatry, disobedience, and grumbling. Will he punish also me? Will he take me, or my eldest, away in death?

But the people of Israel did not suffer from this fate that night. Their firstborn were not slain by the judgment of God. And the reason why, is because the Hebrew houses were protected by the blood of the Passover Lamb, which had been smeared on the doorposts of those Hebrew houses.

The angel of death “passed over” every house where such blood was present, so that in those homes there was no judgment, and no death. There was instead only life and hope, for those who were under the covering of that blood.

This was the Old Testament of God, by which the people of Israel were set apart from all other nations, and eventually placed in the land that had been promised by the Lord to their forefather Abraham. What we celebrate tonight is the Lord’s establishment of the New Testament.

Those from all nations who know Christ by faith, and who have become the new Israel of God through their baptism into Jesus - the true Seed of Abraham - are included in this New Testament. They are protected by the blood of Christ, which was shed for them, and which washes away all their sins.

You, my friends, are protected. As you repent of your sins, and turn away from them, you are protected. As you acknowledge your weakness, and plea for God’s help to keep you from sinning, you are protected.

As you embrace the promises of Christ, and heed his invitation to come to him for rest, you are protected. And you are protected - protected by the blood of the New Testament - when you hear and believe these words of your Lord tonight:

“Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you. Drink from it, all of you; this cup is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins.”

You are protected, and are safe, and are set free by God’s Spirit from all fear and doubt, as you humbly heed the loving mandate of the host of this Sacred Supper: “Do this in remembrance of me.”

The American Lutheran theologian C. F. W. Walther once said, concerning this sacrament:

“The first Christians celebrated it almost daily; especially in times of persecution, in order to be daily ready for death. ... The Holy Supper was regarded as the most glorious divine Armory, in which one receives the most invincible weapons for the spiritual battle. ... The holy Supper with the body and blood of Jesus Christ is the new Tree of Life, which stood in Paradise, which Christ has now again planted in His kingdom of Grace. ...”

“O adorable, comforting mystery! The holy flesh of God, which the angels adore and the archangels reverence, becomes a Food for sinners! Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad, but still more the believing soul, which enjoys such great gifts!”

The gospel of Christ crucified for sinners prepares you for life, and for death. Whenever you hear Jesus say to you, as he forgives you, “My peace I give to you,” and “Do not be afraid”; and whenever you believe those words: you thereby receive what those words bestow.

And you are ready to die, whenever the Lord does call you from this world. Again, the gospel makes you ready, in whatever form the gospel comes to you, so that you can believe it and be comforted by it. But the Lord’s Supper, which is a very special form of the gospel, intensifies and accentuates this comfort.

Jesus himself was facing death when he instituted this sacrament. Through your participation in this sacrament, you are united to him in his death; and, by anticipation, also in his resurrection.

And so, he is with you. He is with you every day of your life, to guide you, and to bless you with his love. He will be with you when you die, to be your advocate, and to welcome you into the place he has gone to prepare for you.

And someday, you will rise in him as well, and live forever in the new heavens and the new earth, which will be the eternal homeland of God’s new holy nation.

We can say, with St. Paul: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

And while we live, and finally when we die, we can and will say, in Christ, and with the confidence and hope that Christ has given us:

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Amen.

25 March 2016 - Good Friday - John 18:35-38a

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

According to the ecclesiastical calendar, as Holy Week and Easter are calculated this year, today is Good Friday. As we all know, this day, whenever it fall each year, commemorates the trial, conviction, and crucifixion of Jesus.

But also according to the ecclesiastical calendar, today is the festival of the Annunciation of our Lord. This festival, which occurs every year on March 25, commemorates the visit of the angel Gabriel to the young maiden Mary, announcing to her that she had been chosen by God to become the mother of his Son. This was the day that the miracle of our Lord’s conception took place, when the eternal Son of God entered into the human race, and became a part of human history, in the womb of his virgin mother.

It might seem to us that there would be very little connection between the story of the conception and birth of Jesus, with all of its joy and hopefulness, and the story of the trial and execution of Jesus, with all of its anguish and grief. But there is a connection.

Jesus himself, as he stood before Pontius Pilate, made the connection. In St. John’s account of this trial, we read:

“Pilate answered, ‘... Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?’ Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.’”

“Then Pilate said to him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world - to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate said to him, ‘What is truth?’”

God’s Son entered into a world that was governed by lies - human lies and demonic lies. And the world in which he lived was a world that was thoroughly enshrouded in the darkness of these deceptions.

On one occasion, as Jesus was debating with some men who rejected him and his ministry, he said:

Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.”

“He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.”

Jesus always told the truth. He told the truth about God’s holiness, and about man’s sin and corruption.

He told the truth about God’s commandments, and about the demands that they make on the thoughts of the heart, and not only on the outward actions of the body. He told the truth about man’s disobedience, hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and love of power; and about the death and destruction that people bring upon themselves by these sins, whether subtle or brazen.

Jesus also told the truth about God’s infinite mercy, and about God’s desire to be reconciled to his fallen and rebellious creation. He told the truth about the liberation and life that humans receive from God, and enjoy in God, through repentance and faith.

And he told the truth about the divine forgiveness, the divine peace, the divine cleansing of a guilty conscience, and the divine welcome into the kingdom and family of God, that are offered to all people in the message of the gospel.

In direct opposition to all the lies that self-serving people tell, and that misguided people believe, Jesus always told the truth. In direct opposition to the supernatural deception that holds the hearts and minds of fallen humanity captive to the father of lies, Jesus always told the truth.

And this is what got Jesus into trouble. Those who hated the truth, hated him. As various people believed and told their respective lies, they became the instruments of his death.

Satan himself entered into Judas, who betrayed him. Because of their prideful desire to preserve their status, and to maintain their influence over the nation, the Jewish leaders convicted Jesus on false changes, and turned him over to Pontius Pilate.

Because of his cold-hearted desire to maintain Roman control over Palestine, and to maintain his own political standing in the imperial chain of command, Pontius Pilate knowingly condemned an innocent man to a cruel and tortured death.

At the deepest level, the world into which Jesus was born, and the world that killed Jesus, is the same world in which we live today. Human beings, in their fallen condition, still believe the same lies that they believed 2,000 years ago. And human beings, in their fallen condition, still hate Jesus.

Oh, they might not hate the make-believe Jesus that many people have invented for themselves to believe in, who never threatens anyone, and never offends anyone. But the Jesus whom we see writhing in agony on the cross tonight, dying at the hands of an unjust world because he would not stop telling the truth to that world, well, that Jesus they hate.

In their moral and spiritual blindness they do not want to understand the real Jesus, or to acknowledge the truth of what he says. If they could kill him all over again, they would.

Indeed, they do sometimes kill those who represent him, and who remind them of him. At the very least, they want to silence him, and to silence those who speak on his behalf.

They hate Jesus, and they hate the truth that he was born into this world to proclaim. But Jesus still loves them.

And through his church - through us - Jesus still speaks to them. He speaks his truth to them.

You know, none of us was born into this world believing the truth, either. That which is born of the flesh is flesh.

In our physical conception, as sons and daughters of Adam, we were born of sinful flesh. We were therefore born believing lies, and prone to believe more lies - until the intervention of Christ, through his gospel.

In the washing of water with the word, he who is the way, the truth, and the life, brought us onto a new pathway, filled us with a new hope, and spoke to us his truth. And by the working of his Spirit, we believed this truth. We believed in him.

And whenever we hear the Word of God, in law and gospel, Jesus, by his Spirit, teaches us to believe his truth, even today. He teaches us to admit our sins, and to turn away from them, even today. He teaches us to trust in him, and to rejoice in his forgiveness, even today.

And, as St. Paul writes, “Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ we also believe, and so we also speak.”

In the name of Christ, we speak the truth of Christ. Through us, Christ speaks. By means of his church, Jesus is still speaking the truth.

One fundamental component of this truth is that, while the deceivers and the deceived sinfully worked together to condemn and kill Jesus, they were also instruments of a larger plan.

God makes good things come out of bad circumstances. God made the redemption of the human race come out of the treachery that was brought to bear upon Jesus, on the occasion of his unjust death.

St. Peter explained this in his sermon on Pentecost, when he preached to the people of Jerusalem that “Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”

Tonight, on Good Friday, Jesus is not only a martyr to the idea that a man should always tell the truth, even when doing so is dangerous. That is an admirable ethical principle, and Jesus certainly did live and die according to that principle.

But the truth of the crucifixion of Jesus goes so much deeper than that. The message of the death of Christ bestows upon us so much more than that.

As Jesus bore witness to the truth that he had been born to proclaim, he also, in keeping with the deeper purpose and meaning of his message, gave his life as a ransom for many. As the Prophet Isaiah had said centuries earlier:

“He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. ...”

He had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring... Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.”

When Jesus had said to Pilate, “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world - to bear witness to the truth,” Pilate asked him in reply: “What is truth?”

My friends, this is truth. This is what we believe, though the world hate us for believing it. This is what we proclaim to the world, so that many more in the world can also believe it, and be saved.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Amen.

O Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us, and grant us your peace. Amen.

27 March 2016 - Easter - 1 Corinthians 15:19-26

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

There are pivotal events in human history that really do make a difference, so that if these events had not happened as they did, the world in which we now live would be a very different place. This remains true even if we do not know about these events. They effect us nevertheless.

Can you imagine, for example, what the political and cultural landscape of North America would have been like over the past century and a half, if at the Battle of Gettysburg Pickett’s Charge had succeeded, so that the Union would have lost the Civil War? Can you imagine what the world would be like today, if the United States Navy had not defeated the Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway?

On a cosmic scale, and with eternal ramifications, the victory of Christ over the power of sin and death on Easter was also such a pivotal event. If Christ had not risen from the grave on that first Easter morning, almost two millennia ago, everything would be different.

There are, of course, many people who do not know or care that Jesus rose from the grave. But the significance of his resurrection - even for them - is not erased by their ignorance or indifference.

When Jesus rose from the dead, something of monumental importance happened to him; something of monumental importance happened to the human race; and, ultimately, something of monumental importance happened to you.

Jesus, the eternal Son of God in human flesh, had carried the sins of the world to his cross. He willingly became the substitute for all of us, and placed himself under the judgment of his own holy law against all our transgressions. He humbled himself fully, and endured the most degrading of deaths, in order to redeem us, and atone for our sins.

But now, in his resurrection, all of this degradation is reversed. The sacrifice that he offered for us has been fully accepted in the courts of divine justice. The time of his humiliation is over.

In his resurrection, Jesus was not simply resuscitated, and restored to the kind of life he had formerly known - as were Jairus’s daughter, the son of the widow of Nain, and Lazarus, when they were raised from the dead.

Jesus did not simply come back from death. He moved beyond death to a higher and permanent glory. He did not simply evade for a time the clutches of the grave. But for all time he won the victory over the grave.

In today’s Epistle from First Corinthians, St. Paul says: “If in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

Jairus’s daughter, the widow’s son, and Lazarus did later die again. In fact, the second grave of Lazarus, who in later years became a bishop or pastor on the island of Cyprus, can be visited today.

In the case of Jesus, however, the one and only grave that he ever had became permanently vacant on the third day. Jesus rose, never to die again.

And he lives today, among us, hidden but truly here. He comes to us mystically and miraculously in his Word and Sacraments. He makes his presence known to us in the life-changing and healing power of his forgiveness.

When Jesus rose from the dead, something of monumental importance happened to him. And when Jesus rose from the dead, something of monumental importance also happened to the human race.

When Adam rebelled against God and sinned in the Garden of Eden, he placed himself and all his posterity into a satanic trap, from which man cannot set himself free. Adam’s transgression infected our race with the corruption of death, for which the best of human cleverness cannot formulate an antidote.

But in the resurrection of Christ, God himself opened for the human race a way out of this trap, and provided a cure for this malady. In his victory over death, Jesus has become the new Adam - the founder and head of a new humanity.

Everybody now has an opportunity for a second chance - a second chance to be reconciled with God, and to live forever. By breaking the bonds of death, which had held all humanity captive, God’s Son changed the rules.

He lifted humanity’s disqualification to be in fellowship with the living God. Adam and his descendants get a “do-over.”

The whole human race has been redeemed in Christ. In Christ, God has now issued an invitation to the whole human race, to come home, and to live again.

St. Paul explains the significance of this marvelous new beginning in this way: “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.”

The apostle says, “in Adam all die.” All of you are on a pathway to death, because all of you are by nature “in Adam,” by virtue of your conception and birth.

As the sinful seed of a sinful ancestor, you were in Adam when he broke God’s law. And Adam is in you, when you break God’s law today.

But the apostle also says, “in Christ shall all be made alive.” And that’s why we make the third startling claim, that when Jesus rose from the dead, ultimately something of monumental importance also happened to you.

According to the time-line of human history, none of us were alive 2,000 years ago. We all know that. But we are not thinking only of natural, linear realities. We are thinking also of supernatural and timeless realities.

If you are, by faith, in Christ, then in a mystical but very real sense you were a part of what happened back then. And what happened back then is a part of you now.

St. Paul writes in his epistle to the Colossians that you were “buried with [Christ] in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses..., God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.”

Because of the mysterious and timeless way in which God applies the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection to the human race, even Adam and Eve had a chance to repent and believe in the promise of humanity’s Savior - the Seed of the Woman who was to come.

And they did so believe. Their shame before God was mercifully covered with the animal skins - emblematic of Christ’s righteousness - that God himself had prepared for them.

And you also are invited to repent and believe in your crucified and risen Savior. Through your baptism, which is a supernatural point of contact between Jesus and you, you were written into the story of Christ’s resurrection.

Through your baptism, the living Christ was written into the story of your life. His righteousness covers you.

In regard to our earthly citizenship, it is not a good thing for people to be ignorant of those pivotal events of human history that have had an important impact on the shape of the nation and world in which we live. But in regard to matters that pertain to our eternal destiny, it is the saddest of all sadnesses for someone not to know, or not to care, about the Lord’s resurrection, which is the most pivotal event of all time.

Those who keep themselves disconnected from what Jesus has done for them and made available to them, through unbelief or indifference, are most to be pitied. Please, do not be among them.

In his resurrection, Christ has achieved a divine victory over the power of sin and death. His sacrifice for our transgressions is complete and fully accepted by his Father in heaven.

In his resurrection, Christ has become the founder and head of a new, reconciled humanity. He therefore offers a second chance, and a new beginning with God, to the whole human race.

And when you know Christ, by faith, according to the timeless mystery of God’s forgiving grace, his death on the cross becomes your own death to sin. His resurrection to eternal life becomes your own resurrection to a new life with God.

You who are in Christ, and who belong to Christ, are filled with the power and hope of his resurrection even now. The grave will therefore not be able to contain you.

After your physical death, your body will sleep in the dust of the earth for a while, as the world winds down and sputters toward the conclusion of its allotted time. But on the last day, when the trumpet sounds and the graves are opened, you shall rise.

St. Paul says: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

We close with these words from a well-known hymn by C. F. W. Walther:

Oh, where is thy sting, Death? We fear thee no more;
Christ rose, and now open is fair Eden’s door.
For all our transgressions His blood does atone;
Redeemed and forgiven, we now are His own. Amen.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!