1 March 2017 - Ash Wednesday - Matthew 3:2

St. Matthew’s Gospel reports that at the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus said: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Can people change? It is often said that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and that a leopard cannot change its spots. So, there is a common sentiment that people cannot change.

But the Alcoholics Anonymous organization, and similar twelve-step programs that help people overcome addictions, are premised on the belief that people can change. And the fairly high success rate for these groups proves that this belief is valid.

At Christmas time, many of us are drawn to the famous Charles Dickens story “A Christmas Carol,” which has been adapted to television several times. Whether we prefer the George C. Scott version, the Patrick Stewart version, the Henry Winkler “American” version, or the Mickey Mouse cartoon version, we all want to believe that Ebenezer Scrooge, and people like him, can indeed change.

In our English New Testament, the word translated from Greek as “repentance” literally means “a change of mind.” So, when Jesus says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” what he is actually telling you is to change: to change your mind and your way of thinking.

He is not just telling you to change your behavior, or to modify your habits, but he is telling you to change yourself on the inside, in the realm of your thoughts, values, motivations, and desires. He certainly believes that such a change is possible. And, he believes that such a change is necessary.

According to the experiential and subjective kind of spirituality that people so often slip into, “repentance,” as a term of religious jargon, is generally associated with a certain kind of interior feeling - the feeling of guilt, or the feeling of remorse, that wells up within us as we listen to a sermon that reminds us of our sins and failures.

But then, after we have felt guilty for a few minutes, the sermon usually goes on to declare that God forgives our sins. The feeling of remorse then goes away, and a feeling of relief takes its place.

And after the sermon and the service, we leave and go home. And everything is the same as before. There has been no real and deep change in mind and thought. There has been no enduring repentance.

St. Paul tells the Corinthians in his First Epistle to them: “We have the mind of Christ.” Do we? Or do we have the same mind, and the same way of thinking and making decisions, that we have always had, without change; without repentance.

On one occasion, as recorded in St. Luke, people were talking with Jesus about an atrocity that had been committed by Pontius Pilate, wherein he had mingled the blood of some Galileans into the sacrifices of the Jews in Jerusalem. Also in the news at that time was a recent natural disaster - a tower falling on some people in the city.

People were wondering about the significance of these two events, and were speculating that the people whose lives were snuffed out through these tragedies were somehow getting what they deserved, in the broader scheme of things. In this context, Jesus said this:

“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

This is serious business. As a sinner, with a sinful nature that spawns within your life all manner of specific sins - in thought, word, and deed - you need to change, on the inside, if you want to have a place in God’s eternal kingdom.

Jesus is not asking you to have occasional feelings of regret that come and go. He is asking you to become a different kind of person. He is asking you - he is commanding you - to become someone who lives for the fulfillment of the will of God and not for the indulgence of the self; who seeks to honor God in your life and not to exalt the self.

If you do change - that is, if you do change your mind and your thinking about God and about your own human existence - God promises that he will relent from the punishment of your sins that he has threatened, and that you deserve, and will instead welcome you into his embrace and heavenly fellowship. In today’s lesson from the Prophet Joel, God, through Joel, makes the following offer:

“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.”

So, that’s the deal. If you do not repent - if you do not make a fundamental change in your thinking and in your mind - you will perish. If you do repent - if, on the inside, you become a new person, who thinks in new and godly ways - you will be saved.

But there’s a problem. It’s actually a pretty big and major problem. Because of our inborn sin, we, in our natural condition, are incapable of repenting, and are even incapable of wanting to repent in the true sense of the word.

Our minds are set on the flesh, not on the things of God’s Spirit. And as St. Paul teaches in his Epistle to the Romans, “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.”

Jesus commands us to repent. But of ourselves we cannot repent. Jesus commands us to change, and to turn away from sin and toward him. But in our own strength we are unwilling to do this, and cannot make ourselves willing.

What is the solution - if there even is a solution? God’s grace is the solution. God gives you the repentance that he demands. God’s Spirit causes the change in your mind that he requires. Paul told the Philippians, and he tells us, “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

On one occasion, as recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus was laying down the law to his disciples, regarding what God’s holiness truly does require. We are told: “When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, ‘Who then can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’”

With the tribe of Ephraim serving as a stand-in for God’s people in general, the Lord spoke to and about Ephraim in these words from the Book of Jeremiah:

“Your future is filled with hope, declares the Lord. Your children will return to their own territory. I have certainly heard Ephraim mourn and say, ‘You disciplined me, and I was disciplined. I was like a young, untrained calf. Turn me, and I will be turned, because you are the Lord my God. After I was turned around, I changed the way I thought and acted.’”

The people of Ephraim say to the Lord, “Turn me, and I will be turned, because you are the Lord my God.” The Hebrew word used here is the same word as is used in the text from the Prophet Joel: “Return to me with all your heart... Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

And as the people go on to say in the Jeremiah text: “After I was turned around, I changed the way I thought and acted.”

God requires that you turn your mind toward him and his truth, and away from your own pride, greed, lust, and selfishness. He requires that you repent. But he, in his grace, for the sake of his Son Jesus Christ, gets deep down inside of you, and does the turning.

You do turn - you do repent, and change your thinking - because God turns you. This is his gift to you, coming as a prelude to his greater gifts: the gift of his Son; and the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation, which his Son brings and bestows upon you when he comes, through his Word and Sacrament.

Lent is a special season of repentance. This means that it is, or is supposed to be, a special season of changes: real changes, not fleeting changes; changes on the inside of you, and not just in your external behavior; substantial and far-reaching changes; daily changes and enduring changes; changes in your mind and will, in your heart and soul.

“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

The Formula of Concord teaches us:

“It is correctly said that in conversion, God - through the drawing of the Holy Spirit - makes willing people out of stubborn and unwilling ones. And after such conversion, in the daily exercise of repentance, the regenerate will of a person is not idle, but cooperates in all the works of the Holy Spirit, which He performs through us.”

This is what God is asking of you. And this is what God is giving you, through Christ, and for the sake of Christ.

The devil is a furious enemy of God’s forgiven and regenerated saints. He doesn’t want them to change. He wants them to stay the same.

But God works against his schemes. God works for change in the minds and hearts of his children. God works for a lifetime of repentance in the thinking and decision-making of those who belong to his Son, and who are indwelt by his Spirit.

In its discussion of the ongoing blessings of the Lord’s Supper for the Lord’s people, as they partake of this mystery often and with due preparation, the Large Catechism encourages us with these words:

“The indeed called a food of souls, which nourishes and strengthens the new man. For by Baptism we are first born anew. But, ...there still remains the old vicious nature of flesh and blood in mankind. There are so many hindrances and temptations of the devil and of the world that we often become weary and faint, and sometimes we also stumble.”

“Therefore, the Sacrament is given as a daily pasture and sustenance, that faith may refresh and strengthen itself so that it will not fall back in such a battle, but become ever stronger and stronger. The new life must be guided, so that it continually increases and progresses. But it must suffer much opposition. For the devil is such a furious enemy.”

Receiving the Lord’s Supper, in repentance, and for a deeper repentance, is a good way to begin the season of Lent. Receiving the Lord’s Supper throughout the season of Lent, will be a good way to be sustained and renewed by God himself, in your repentance, and in the changes that you make in your life by his grace, and according to his will.

God wants the new life of repentance and faith that he has begun in you to continue. He wants the changes that he has wrought in your mind and heart to remain and to deepen. He wants you to repent and to repent again; and to repent with seriousness and conviction, with sobriety and commitment.

And he wants you to trust in his Son, your Savior, for eternal life. Jesus wants you to turn away from sin, and toward him. Jesus turns you away from sin, and toward himself.

Jesus gives us true repentance By His Spirit sent from heaven;
Whispers this transporting sentence, “Son, thy sins are all forgiven.”

Jesus gives us pure affections, Wills to do what He requires,
Makes us follow His directions, And what He commands, inspires. Amen.

5 March 2017 - Lent 1 - Matthew 4:1-11

A “temptation” is usually understood to be an inducement or influence to do something wrong. That’s certainly an important part of what the word means. But in the original New Testament, the Greek term that is generally translated as “temptation” in our English versions, more literally means a “testing.”

When you are tempted to do, think, or say something contrary to your stated beliefs, values and obligations, your resolve, your moral convictions, and your ethical commitments are being tested. Are they genuine? Will they hold up under pressure?

This kind of testing is not like the exams you might take in school, when your teacher wants to find out what you know and what you don’t know. It’s not so much an intellectual or mental thing.

It’s more like the way a test pilot tests a new jet, as he pushes it to the limitations of its endurance. It’s like the way a man tests the thickness of the ice on a lake, by walking out on it, to see if it can bear his weight.

Temptations, in the Biblical sense of the word, do not simply test your knowledge. They test your strength - your moral and spiritual strength.

And the chief tempter, about whom the Bible speaks, is the devil. He is a real, supernatural being - a fallen angel, who is in a permanent and unredeemable state of antagonism and hostility against God.

He hates God. But since he can’t really get at God, to hurt God directly, he is always trying to hurt God indirectly by hurting those whom God loves. And that means you and me - and the entire human race.

In today’s Gospel, we heard St. Matthew’s account of the temptation that Jesus underwent in the wilderness. Sometimes, when this event is portrayed in religious art, the devil is pictured as a devious-looking monster - with scaly skin, bat wings, cloven feet, horns coming out of his head, and a pointed tail.

But if the devil did come to Jesus in a physical form on this occasion, I doubt very much that he would have assumed the appearance of an overtly frightening creature. He’s much more clever than that.

If the devil had appeared in such an obviously malevolent form, it would be as it he were announcing to Jesus, “Whatever I say to you is a lie; whatever promises I make to you, I will break.

That’s not the way the devil operates. When he temps someone, he does everything he can to make that person thinks that he can be trusted, and to trick that person into believing that his lies are true.

So, if the devil did appear to Jesus in some physical form, it may have been in the form of a gentle, soft-spoken man, with a smile on his face, and a friendly twinkle in his eye. It may have been in the form of a beautiful, glamorous woman, speaking with an airy, seductive voice.

The devil would have tried to find any way possible to disarm Jesus - to get his guard down - when he tested his moral fortitude, and his faithfulness to the will of his Father in heaven. And that’s the way he approaches you, too, when he tempts you... when he tests you.

When the devil puts pressure on you to abandon your convictions, and to follow his ways instead, he does it in a very subtle and calculated way. He does everything he can to make you think that the choice he wants you to make is a good choice, and that you will not regret it.

He won’t necessary launch a direct attack on your moral standards. But he will twist them, and try to get you to misapply them, and begin the process of making compromises.

Stealing is wrong - except when you are taking something that you really need, from a person who doesn’t need it as much as you do. Bearing false witness is wrong - except when the gossip is really juicy.

Fornication is wrong - except when you really love your boyfriend or girlfriend. Loafing on the job is wrong - except when you are really tired, and your boss is not in the office that day to monitor your work anyway.

Abortion is wrong - except when the baby would not have a happy life, or when it would be really inconvenient to have a baby. Intoxication is wrong - except when you are having a really good time with friends, and everyone else is getting drunk, too.

And the most severe tests come in regard to our faith.

We are told that God is almighty, and that God is love. But if that’s true, why is there so much wickedness in the world? Doesn’t the presence of evil mean that God is either not powerful, or not loving? Or maybe not either?

We are told that the gospel is the power of God for salvation. But isn’t it a sign of the weakness of the gospel, when there are so many people who hear it, and yet choose not to believe it?

We are told that God pours his Spirit into the hearts of his children, by whom they cry out, “Abba, Father.” But I don’t feel the Holy Spirit in me. Sometimes I just feel numb, and empty. Might that mean that God has abandoned me?

When the devil tests you with such thoughts and fears - to see if your faith will buckle and give way under the weight of doubt and discouragement - he wants you to think that if you do turn away from God, it will mean that you are smart and sophisticated.

He appeals to your pride, and to that sinful part of you that wants your life and behavior to be free of the restraints of God’s moral law. And so, Satan promises you freedom from God, if you stop listening to God, and start listening to him.

What he doesn’t tell you, is that freedom from God means enslavement to him. And he absolutely does not have your best interests at heart.

When these temptations come - and they will come - they are powerful. They will overwhelm the frailty of your human resistence and human will-power.

Jesus knew this, too. When God’s Son was tempted in the wilderness, he was tempted according to his human nature - which he shares with us.

Now, the humanity of Jesus was not shot-through with the corruption of sin and death, as ours is. But even though his humanity was a pristine humanity - as good and strong as a human nature on earth could be - he did not attempt to resist the devil’s onslaughts only on the basis of the power of his human will.

Jesus - even Jesus - resisted the devil’s subtle and plausible lies, on the basis of the objective, supernaturally-powerful, divinely-inspired text of Holy Scripture!

During the past 200 years or so, since the advent of the so-called “Enlightenment” in western civilization, the Christian Scriptures have been attacked mercilessly by skeptics and rationalists, in the universities of Europe and America, and even in liberal church-related seminaries and colleges.

Satan, either directly or indirectly, inspires these attacks. And he uses these attacks, to make the Scriptures look foolish and useless in the eyes of gullible people who don’t realize how logically flimsy these arguments against Biblical authority actually are.

These “enlightened” criticisms are really just an outgrowth of the faith-commitment and worldview of the ideology of empiricism and materialism. They are not based on advanced knowledge or thorough scholarship, as is generally claimed.

“I know that the miracles of the Bible didn’t really happen. How do I know this? Because miracles don’t happen.” This is not sound thinking. The conclusion is embedded in the starting assumptions.

But Jesus has a different set of assumptions regarding the texts that he quotes, in response to the devil’s testing. His assumptions are grounded, in part, in the direct and demonstrable connection that exists, between these historical texts, and the very real history of God’s redemption of his people Israel - which the human authors of these texts saw and experienced with their own eyes.

And his assumptions are grounded even more in the miraculous ability of these texts to imprint themselves onto the mind and conscience of man; and in the supernatural testimony that these sacred texts bear - within the mind and conscience of man - of their own divine origin.

For those who listen in faith, the Scriptures authenticate themselves, not only as words that came from the pen of their human authors, but as words that come “from the mouth of God” - to quote one of the passages that Jesus himself cites. When you are tempted, therefore, recall the Scriptures, acknowledge the Scriptures, quote the Scriptures, and believe the Scriptures.

Follow the example of Jesus, who said - when he was tested - “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”; “Again it is written, You shall not put the Lord your God to the test”; “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”

Your human will, in itself, will not hold up under the temptations that the devil brings to bear against you. He is a master manipulator, with thousands of years of experience. He knows how to find your weak spot, and how to exploit it.

He will use the lingering narcissism and arrogance of your fallen nature against you. He will defeat you and destroy you, by means of these weaknesses that are within you, and are a part of you.

And even while he is defeating and destroying you, you will think that you are winning, and are being liberated and enlightened. Satan is very good at what he does.

But if, in faith, you throw the Word of God up to him; if you resist him, not with your own human determination, but with God’s truth, you will not fail the test.

The Scriptures are the voice of the living God. They will hold up under the storm of temptation. When you take shelter under their divine strength, then - and only then - will you hold up, too.

But in this respect, our situation is different from the situation in which Jesus found himself. In the face of the devil’s threats, he, according to his humanity, was a solitary man, by himself in the wilderness, armed with the Scriptures.

For him, of course, that was enough. But for us, that would not be enough - because of our sin.

Unlike the Lord, we have often failed to flee to the Scriptures, and to find certainty and strength in them, in a time of testing. In the past, we have often betrayed our convictions and principles, under the pressure and enticement of temptation.

And that’s why we are so glad to be reminded today, that we who have been baptized into this man Jesus, have been united in faith to the one who is God in human flesh, for our salvation! In a comparison between Adam and Jesus, St. Paul writes this in today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Romans from:

“If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.”

By faith in the gospel - with its pledge and gift of forgiveness, life, and salvation - we have indeed received from God, for the sake of Christ, an abundance of grace, and the free gift of righteousness. The blood of Christ washes away our sins and reconciles us to God.

The Holy Supper of our Lord confirms to us this pardon and peace. As Jesus’ resurrected and glorified body and blood are bestowed upon us - as a pledge and “down payment” of our own resurrection - we are also assured that, in and with him, we truly will “reign in life” for eternity.

Satan would like to persuade us that this is not true, either. But it is. Let God be true, even if every man - and devil - would be a liar.

By his death, and by his victory over death, Jesus has destroyed the power of the evil one - who by his lies had held humanity captive in the fear of death. But those who now live in Christ, and in the power of his resurrection, are free from this fear. And we can also now recognize the devil’s lies for what they are.

As a forgiven sinner who is covered with the righteousness of Christ, and who is protected by Christ, you do not face your temptations alone. You are not, as it were, a solitary man, by yourself in the wilderness. Christ himself is with you, and in you.

And because of this, you are able to claim, and apply to yourself, the promise of Psalm 91, as we heard it in today’s Introit: “Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place - the Most High, who is my refuge - no evil shall be allowed to befall you.”

And so, we are not just following the example of Jesus. And Jesus does not simply teach us how to go out on our own, to resist temptation.

Jesus is our guardian and companion in temptation. He is resisting the devil with us, and through us. He is continually fortifying us through the truth and power of his Word.

The devil is the “prince of this world.” He is often successful in misleading and deceiving men and nations.

But remember what St. John tells us in his First Epistle, in regard to the Lord’s own presence among us: “Little children, you are from God, and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” And Jesus himself says, “behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

These are among the promises of the New Testament that we are privileged to recall, when the devil would tempt us to think that God has abandoned us.

These are among the promises of the New Testament that we are privileged to believe, when the devil would tempt us to think that God will not welcome us back with open arms, if we have previously abandoned him - but want to return to him now, in humility and repentance.

He will welcome us back. He always will.

And he will never leave us or forsake us in our temptations, as the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds us. We also read in that epistle: “For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”

In our temptations, we will therefore not despair, but we will have hope. We will not surrender, but we will overcome and prevail.

In the midst of all the fiery trials and testings that we face in this life, we will cling to Christ even as he clings to us. We will believe the Sacred Scriptures, and we will confess the Sacred Scriptures.

In this joyful faith, and in this confident confession, we will endure. By the grace of God, and under the protection of Christ Jesus our Savior, we will endure and live forever. Amen.

12 March 2017 - Lent 2 - John 3:1-17

In today’s text from St. John’s Gospel, Jesus tells Nicodemus, and through him he tells us: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

The phrase “born again” is fairly well-known in certain Christian circles. Those within Christendom who emphasize the necessity of being “born again” generally understand the “born again” phenomenon as something which involves a dramatic and emotionally-charged experience of conversion, and which comes about as the result of a decisive act of the human will in accepting Jesus as Savior and Lord.

But does this understanding fully match up with what the Bible says about being “born again”? Is this what Jesus is talking about in his conversation with Nicodemus?

To avoid confusion, and to be reenforced in our Biblically-based convictions about how God delivers his salvation to us, it would be good for us to consider carefully the meaning of our Lord’s words to Nicodemus - and to us.

As we take into account the total witness of Scripture on what it means to be “born again,” may our appreciation of the grace of God in our lives be deepened. And may we be comforted to know today, that we have a saving relationship with God, in Christ, today.

One common mistake that is often made by people as they reflect on their religious experiences, is to confuse the way things appear to be, with the way things actually are.

Before the advent of Copernican astronomy, people thought that the earth was stationary, and that the sun orbited the earth. They thought that the sun literally rose in the morning and set in the evening.

Why did they think so? Because that’s what appeared to be happening, even though that is not what was happening.

And in spiritual matters, we are not able to have an accurate sense of everything that God’s Spirit is doing in us, only on the basis of our human powers of perception and introspection. In order to know what is truly happening in us - when God is working at a level deeper than the level of our will and reason - we need to listen to the Scriptures, and to their explanations of what is going on.

A believer’s will is indeed involved and active in his faith. To have faith in God, is to want what God is offering and giving through the gospel of his Son. But a true faith in the gospel does not arise from an autonomous human will.

Before someone is regenerated, he certainly can make decisions about matters pertaining to life in this world. But in spiritual matters, he has no “free will.” The will of an unbeliever is captive to sin - impotent and blind.

Those who do not know Christ are “by nature children of wrath,” to quote St. Paul. Paul also explains that “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them.”

A desire to believe in Jesus, and to serve him in a life of Christian obedience, does not have its origin in the decision-making ability of an unregenerated mind. It may seem as if that is what is happening when an unbeliever becomes a believer. But that’s not what is really happening.

Rather, as St. Paul teaches in his epistle to the Philippians, “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God liberates our bound will, and enlightens our darkened mind, by the regenerating grace of his Spirit.

In his Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul explains that “when we were dead in our trespasses,” God “made us alive together with Christ. By grace you have been saved.”

There is a reason why Jesus uses the imagery of a second birth to illustrate and explain the beginning of spiritual life within a person.

When you were physically conceived and born, you did not help to bring yourself into existence. Rather, your human life was completely a gift from your parents. Through the procreative process, they brought you into existence.

And that’s the way it is with the existence of your spiritual life, as well. To be born again means to be the recipient of a heavenly gift from the Holy Spirit.

When Jesus says that a person needs to be “born again” in order to see and enter the kingdom of God, he’s not saying that you need to do something. He’s saying that something needs to happen to you: something extraordinary; something miraculous.

Sometimes, when a person is brought to faith, or renewed in faith, by the working of God’s Spirit, his emotions may indeed be stimulated in a very dramatic way. We are not all Stoics.

Especially in cases when the person who is touched by the power of the gospel had been a profligate sinner, or when such a person had previously been overcome with hopelessness and despair, the realization of how uplifting and liberating God’s grace truly is, and how clean his forgiveness makes us, can bring about an exhilarating feeling of newness and joy.

That is, it can bring about a feeling of being “born again.” This is, in fact, exactly how Luther described his feeling, when God impressed upon him, through the Scriptures, the comforting truth of justification, for Christ’s sake, through faith.

Luther had previously thought that whenever the Bible spoke of the “righteousness of God,” it meant the righteousness by which God is righteousness, and by which he judges and condemns sinful man. But as Luther pondered a particular verse in the Epistle to the Romans, God’s Spirit liberated him from this fearful misunderstanding, and showed him what the gospel, or “good news” of Christ, really is.

Here is how he described the way in which he experienced that wonderful discovery:

“It was...a single word in Chapter 1, ‘in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed,’ that had stood in my way. For I hated that word ‘righteousness of God’...”

“Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. ... I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly... I was angry with God...”

“At last, by the mercy of God, ... I gave heed to the context of the words, namely, ‘In [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live.”’ There I began to understand that the ‘righteousness of God’ is that by which the righteous [person] lives by a gift of God, namely by faith. ...”

“Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates. There a totally other face of the entire Scripture showed itself to me.” So far Luther.

This experience was very real and memorable to Luther. But he never suggested that such an experience was to be expected by everyone who believed the gospel. And he also never derived certainty about the presence of God in his life, from how he felt when the gospel impacted him on that occasion in the past.

His certainty came not from his particular way of receiving the gospel, but from the gospel itself. He knew that he was born again because of the regenerating promise of God, which he believed, and not because he felt a certain way when he believed this promise.

The objective certainty of the gospel was especially important to Luther during those times of his life that were characterized by melancholy and depression. And he did go through many such times.

But whether Luther was up or down, optimistic or discouraged, God’s Word, and God’s promise that his Spirit is always working through his Word, remained a constant for him.

In hindsight, Luther also valued the very personal pledge that God had made to him in his Baptism. Luther knew from Scripture that In his Baptism, God, through the power of his Word, had done something - for him, and in him. Regarding the blessings of Baptism, Luther confesses in the Small Catechism, and we confess with him, that

“It is not the water that does these things, but the Word of God which is in and with the water, and faith which trusts this Word of God in the water. For without the Word of God the water is simply water, and no baptism; but with the Word of God it is a baptism, that is, a gracious water of life and washing of regeneration in the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul says, Titus 3:”

“‘According to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior; that having been justified by His grace, we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. ...’”

On the subject of the regenerating power of God’s Word, St. Peter writes in his First Epistle: “You have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.”

St. James speaks in a similar way in his Epistle, when he reminds us that God “chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.”

Now, we also read things like this in the New Testament: saves you - not as the removal of dirt from the body, but the pledge of a good conscience toward God - through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

“Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.”

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children.”

But, these apostolic statements do not contradict what the apostles say elsewhere about the Word of God having the power to give us a new birth, and a new life with God, because - as St. Paul explains in his Epistle to the Ephesians - in Baptism, Jesus cleanses his church “by the washing of water with the word.”

There is no saving power in water as such. But there is saving power in God’s Word - specifically in the Trinitarian words that Jesus commanded us to speak when we baptize in his name and by his authority.

For all these reasons, Luther clung to the teaching of Scripture that on the day of his Baptism, he had been born again “of water and the Spirit” - which is something Jesus also talks about in today’s text. As flesh born of flesh, he had been given a new beginning with God. A “new nature” was implanted in him that day.

Now, it would seem that at a certain point in his later life, under the influence of misguided teaching and a misplaced faith, Luther had departed from the comfort of his Baptism, and had ceased to enjoy the relationship with God that he had known as a child.

He came to embrace a false gospel of works righteousness. And, most startling of all, under the delusion of his misreading of Scripture, he came to a point where he hated God, rather than finding peace in the grace of God’s forgiveness.

But even if he was no longer believing in God’s mercy, God’s mercy had always been accessible to him. Through Baptism, God had always been calling out to him, and inviting him back. And eventually, Luther heeded that invitation, and was drawn back, in repentance and faith.

We read in Luther’s Large Catechism:

“In Baptism we are given the grace, Spirit, and power to suppress the old man, so that the new may come forth and grow strong. Therefore Baptism remains forever.”

“Even though we fall from it and sin, nevertheless we always have access to it, so that we may again subdue the old man. ... Repentance, therefore, is nothing else than a return, and approach, to Baptism, to resume and practice what had earlier been begun but abandoned.”

Luther’s personal journey can serve as a helpful illustration of the grace of God in someone’s life. But these things are true not only for Luther. They are true also for you.

What Jesus says to Nicodemus, and to Luther, he says also to you: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” You cannot see God’s kingdom, and you cannot enter that kingdom, unless you are born again.

This doesn’t mean that you need to have had a certain kind of standardized conversion experience, with a certain level of emotional fervor, at some point in the past. And this certainly doesn’t mean that you are supposed to have made an autonomous decision for Christ by an act of your unregenerated will.

But it does mean that a miracle needs to have taken place within you, by the working of God’s Spirit through his means of grace; and that the miracle of faith still needs to be taking place within you, today.

A saving faith in Christ arises from the new spiritual life that only God can give. And it is a life that God does give.

He bestows upon us the faith that he requires, through the creative power of his Word. And one of the important ways in which his Word comes to us, and remains with us, is through the sacrament of Baptism.

What Jesus told his disciples on one occasion, we, too, can receive to our own comfort: “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.”

In today’s text from St. John’s Gospel, Jesus also tells us how we can know that a new spiritual birth has, in fact, happened within us.

Sometimes we may feel that God is close to us, and sometimes we may feel that he is far away. It can be unsettling, and maybe a bit frightening, to go through all the ups and downs that we do experience in our life of faith, with the inner struggles and spiritual trials that also often afflict us.

But that’s okay. You’re not supposed to base the certainty of your salvation on such feelings, one way or the other.

Instead, if you want to be certain that God’s Spirit does dwell within you, and that the grace of your Baptism is still abiding with you, listen to the objective and certain promise that Jesus makes to you today:

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

In his gospel, Jesus tells you that he died for you, as your substitute under divine justice. In his gospel, Jesus tells you that he rose again for you, so that you can live forever in fellowship with God. In his Gospel, Jesus tells you that your sins - all of them - are forgiven, and that God’s anger is turned away from you forever for his sake.

When you hear these things, God in his mercy sets your troubled soul at ease, and he fills your heart with peace. When you hear these things, you know that they are true, because God’s promises are always true.

And you can know that these promises are for you, because they are for the world. And you are a part of the world.

To be sure, it is a fallen and sinful world. But it is a world that God loves, and for which he gave his Son. Therefore you can know that God loves you, and that he gave his Son for you, so that you can believe in him, and have eternal life.

Therefore, if you do believe in him today - even if your faith is weak and trembling - you are saved, today. You have the life of God in you, today. You are a regenerated person, and are in a “born again” condition, as you cling to the promises of Christ today.

Who you are here and now, as a child of God, does not depend on your ability to remember a certain kind of religious experience in the past. But it does depend on the Word of God: as you hear, read, and meditate upon the gospel of Christ here and now; and as your Baptism remains with you, through your dying to the self, and through your rising in Christ, here and now.

We close with these words from today’s Introit, from Psalm 105:

“Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually! ... He remembers his covenant forever, the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations.” Amen.

26 March 2017 - Lent 4 - John 9:1-7, 13-17, 34-39

“In her relationships, she’s a user.” “He just uses people, and then throws them away.”

When things like this are said about someone, the person about whom such things are said is not being complimented. A man or women who shamelessly “uses” another person in the pursuit of a self-serving agenda - and then, as it were, “discards” that exploited person - would not be considered even by our secular society to be a decent human being.

In today’s Gospel from St. John, we see an example of this kind of “using” of another person on the part of some of the Pharisees. Or at least we see their attempt to “use” an unfortunate and vulnerable person for a self-serving agenda.

Jesus has healed a man born blind. And he had done so on the Sabbath.

Before this, that blind man was a poor beggar. He wasn’t considered to be an important person, or worthy of much attention from people who were busy with all the activities of life. And so, he was basically ignored.

The Pharisees in Jerusalem had never really noticed the blind man before, or cared much about him. But now, all of a sudden, he was an object of great interest. “We can use this man,” they thought.

They saw an opportunity to exploit this person, and the circumstances of his healing, as a part of their larger agenda of discrediting Jesus, and of persuading the crowds who were flocking to Jesus that he was actually in league with the devil, and was not a servant of God.

And so they brought in the formerly blind man, and talked to him - no doubt for the first time ever. They were hoping that he might say something that they could use against Jesus - perhaps something that would suggest that Jesus had performed the healing with the use of some kind of sorcery.

If the blind man were able or willing to testify against Jesus in such a way, then these Pharisees would certainly use that testimony - and they would use him - for the furtherance of their anti-Jesus agenda. And so they asked the man how he had received his sight.

He told them that Jesus put some mud on his eyes, and that after he had washed off the mud, he could see. The Pharisees brought up the fact that Jesus had done this on the Sabbath.

The Sabbath was a day of rest. But Jesus had not rested. He had worked. He had performed the work of healing the man’s blindness. The Pharisees were therefore fishing for something specific that they could pin on Jesus, to demonstrate that he was not acting on behalf of God.

These men were, of course, important men in the society. A lot of people would be flattered by the kind of attention they were now paying to the healed man.

And a lot of people might have been willing to shade the truth, and tell these powerful and influential men what they wanted to hear, in order to keep their attention and approval. But that’s not what happened in this case.

The man in question wasn’t interested in ingratiating himself with these powerful people. And he wasn’t going to allow himself to be used by them.

The Pharisees asked the man: “What do you say about him, since he has opened your eyes?” What was his answer?

Did he say, “he is a sorcerer”? Did he say, “He is a servant of the devil?” No. He said, truthfully and honestly, “He is a prophet.”

That answer would be of no use to the Pharisees. The formerly blind man would be of no use to them.

And so, in an instant, they turned on him, and belittled and ridiculed him. “‘You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?’ And they cast him out.”

As far as the Pharisees were concerned, he was a “nobody” once again - unworthy of notice. They had no reason to care about him, or to be concerned about what would now happen to him.

They were “users.” And when they decided that they could not use this poor man for their own purposes, they threw him away.

Is that the way you treat other people? Maybe sometimes? Do we sometimes flatter and manipulate others, to get them to do what is best for us, without thinking about what would be best for them?

Are there certain people whom we generally ignore, except when we want to get something from them? And only then are we nice to them, and attentive to them - until we get what we want.

Perhaps we shouldn’t sit in judgment on the Pharisees too severely, because in some ways - maybe in more ways than we care to admit - we, too, are “users.” In our sinfulness, we live for ourselves.

In our selfishness and envy, we don’t care about other people as we should - except when they can do something for us. And those who are not able to give us something that we want, will probably never get any attention from us.

In today’s text, though, we see an example of God, in a sense, also “using” the blind man - and using the blind man’s suffering - for his own purposes.

Jesus’ disciples “asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.’”

And so, God was, in a sense, going to show the world something about himself, and he was going to prove a point about himself, through the healing of this man. But in order for there to be a display of the Lord’s healing, there had to be an infirmity to be healed.

God is, in fact, always using people, as his instruments in this world, for the accomplishing of his will. Unlike the Pharisees in today’s text, however - and also unlike you and me, when we selfishly “use” people - God is God.

He has the right to “use” us according to his good and gracious will. We are subservient to him as his creatures. That’s really what the whole doctrine of vocation is about.

In our various callings - as we carry out the duties of our job or profession; as we fulfill the obligations of our civil citizenship and of our church membership; and as we fill our respective roles in our family - we are “tools” in the hands of God. Our work is the means through which he does his work in this world.

But when God “uses” us, he doesn’t drain us, “use us up,” and then throw us away. Instead, when God providentially puts us into the positions of service which he has prepared for us, he thereby fills us with contentment and joy, and with a sense of meaning and purpose in life.

The Lord enriches us in that godly service. He doesn’t drain us. Our vocations, even when they stretch us emotionally, and bring times of trial and testing upon us, are ultimately good for us, and for those whom we serve in the Lord’s name and by his strength.

And on top of all that, God does care about you personally: not only while you are fulfilling the duties of your calling, or serving God’s purposes in some other way, but also apart from your calling, according to who you are as a valued and precious individual.

God always notices you - not just when you succeed in doing what you are supposed to do in this world, but also when you fail, and need his forgiveness. God always pays attention to you in your need, even when no one else is paying any attention to you.

That’s the way it was with the man who had been born blind. The Pharisees had cast him aside, and had begun to ignore him again, because he was not going to be useful to them in their schemes against Jesus.

But Jesus did not ignore him. Jesus sought him out - when no one else was seeking him out.

“Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe,’ and he worshiped him.”

This man has been delivered from his bodily infirmity. His physical sight had been restored. But that was not his most important need. He needed the salvation from spiritual blindness that Jesus - the Messiah - was also able to give him.

Jesus cared about this man’s soul. The earthly ministry of Jesus was on a trajectory toward the cross, where the Son of Man would die for all men; where the divine-human Savior also of this man, would die for this man.

And Jesus was even now speaking words of life and faith into this man, so that the formerly blind man could believe on him, cling to him, and rejoice in his mercy forever.

And Jesus cares about you in this way, too. He is certainly not interested in you only to the extent that he can exploit you for selfish ends. He is also not interested in you only insofar as you are pursuing your vocation in this world, and are accordingly being “used” by him in that sense.

Before any of that is set in motion, Jesus is already interested in you as an individual - as an individual who has been created by his Father in heaven, and as an individual who has been redeemed by him, by the shedding of his blood on the cross.

Through your baptism in the name of Jesus and by his authority, Jesus individualizes his loving attention toward you. Therefore, even if no one else seems to notice you, or to care about you, Jesus does.

Even if you are a “nobody” from the viewpoint of the powerful and important people of this world, you are never a “nobody” in God’s eyes. The crowds may pass you by. Jesus will not. Jesus will seek you out.

He knows about your trials and your failures, your shames and your regrets. He knows about your disappointments and your fears, your dreams and your aspirations. He knows about these things, and he cares about these things, because he cares about you - just as he cared about the poor and lonely man who had been born blind.

When Jesus notices you, and when - in his Word and Sacrament - he comes to you, he speaks to you about what he has done for your salvation.

He declares that he came to seek and to save the lost, and to give his life as a ransom for many. He declares that he came to seek and to save you, and to give his life as a ransom for you.

He invites you to believe in him. He forgives your sins, and opens the eyes of your heart to see him for who he is. He welcomes you into his eternal kingdom.

Jesus did say, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” So, he does have the whole world in view, as he sends his gospel out into the world. But within this larger view, he also has each and every individual lost sinner in view.

Yes, he did die for the whole human race, and offers salvation to the whole human race. But what that means at the most personal level, is that he died for each and every member of the human race. What that means, is that he died for you.

When he thinks of you, he’s not calculating how he might be able to exploit and “use” you to fulfill some self-serving agenda that will ultimately not be of any real benefit to you. Rather, he’s thinking about his desire for you to believe his Word, so that you can be saved from your sins through that Word.

Being used by God and by Jesus is not a degrading and humiliating experience. It is, instead, an uplifting thing, which liberates us from our own selfish tendency to want to “use” others.

Being used by God and by Jesus connects us to our Creator’s loving purposes for us, so that we are able to see his love, and to become conduits of his love to others.

Jesus said: “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.”

Those who use others selfishly and callously, and then throw them away, thereby demonstrate that they do not see. As clever as they may think themselves to be, they are actually blind - blind to the goodness of God and to the goodness of God’s ways.

But those who understand that in the circumstances of their earthly existence, God is using them - for his glory, and for his healing and redemptive purposes - do see.

They see who God really is, and they humbly submit to him. And they see who they really are, in their relationship with God - as his servants, and as his children.

And as they see, they know, that in the person of his Son Jesus, God is embracing them personally, is blessing them personally, and is comforting them personally. And he will never throw them away.

We close with these words of Jesus, as recorded elsewhere in the Gospel according to St. John:

“All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. ... This is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son, and believes in him, should have eternal life. And I will raise him up on the last day.” Amen.