11 February 2018 - Transfiguration - Mark 9:2-9

“It is good that we are here.” These were the words of Peter, recorded in today’s Gospel from St. Mark, as he spoke on behalf of himself, James, and John, on the mount of transfiguration.

Of course, it could only be a good thing for them to be there, because the Lord had brought them there. Everything that the Lord does is good.

So, Jesus’ bringing these three disciples to this place, to participate in these events, had to be a good thing, to fulfill a good purpose. But why is it so, that “it is good that we are here”? What was the purpose?

Peter thought that the reason why it was good for him and his friends to be there, was so that they could build tents, or temporary shelters, for Jesus and his two heavenly companions.

It was no doubt very windy on the top of that mountain, so it is understandable why Peter would think that this was something he could do, to make himself useful to God on this occasion. But he was mistaken in his thought that this is why it was good for him and the other two disciples to be there.

In the system of jurisprudence that God established through Moses for the Old Testament nation of Israel, guilt for a crime, or some other matter of legal importance, could be formally established only on the basis of the testimony of two or three witnesses. We read in the book of Deuteronomy:

“A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.”

It’s likely that Jesus had this general principle in mind when he, in today’s Gospel, asked three of his disciples to come along with him, so that they would be able to see and hear what was going to happen on that mountaintop.

There were other occasions, too - such as his raising of Jairus’s daughter, and his agony in Gethsemane - when Jesus did not necessarily want a large number of people to be present, but when he did bring three of his disciples to serve as witnesses of what was going on.

This was for the benefit of people who were not there, and for the benefit of the church throughout history. Having three reliable eyewitnesses meant that there would be legally-binding testimony that the event in question has actually happened. And that’s the way it was also with the transfiguration of our Lord.

The otherworldly glory that was a proper attribute of Jesus’ divine nature, was otherwise hidden from human sight during the time of his earthly ministry. Jesus knew what an overwhelming thing it would be for people, in their human weakness and sinful frailty, even to have a glimpse of this glory.

And so he spared the people with whom he interacted the fear and confusion that would result from such a revelation. Instead, he conducted his ministry during his time on earth according to the unthreatening “ordinariness” of his human nature, in the form of a servant.

But in the transfiguration, Peter, James, and John did get a glimpse of Jesus’ hidden side. Jesus’ divine majesty was revealed to them, even if for just a few minutes. And as we would expect, “they were terrified” - as Mark tells us.

Now, Jesus wanted the church of the future to know that this had happened. That’s why these three witnesses were there - even though it scared them to be there.

They did later report what they had experienced to others - likely including the Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, and Luke, who by divine inspiration then wrote down what they had reported.

Indeed, Jesus wants us to know that his suffering and death - which followed this occurrence - was something that he freely chose to endure. He wants us to know that as the almighty Son of God in human flesh, he was not compelled by the Romans or the Jewish Sanhedrin to do anything that he did not, ultimately, wish to do.

At the deepest level, Christ was not pushed to his cross, externally, by his executioners. He was drawn to his cross, internally, by his own divine love for us - by his own divine love for you.

So, it was good for Peter, James, and John to be there, as witnesses on your behalf, and for your benefit. Their testimony - coming as it does from three reliable witnesses, through the pages of the New Testament - is the Lord’s guarantee to you that this really happened.

It is the Lord’s guarantee that Jesus was more than a great man. He was, and is, your eternal, divine Savior from sin and condemnation.

But there’s more to it even than that. The three disciples in question thought that it was good for them to be there so that they could do something for Jesus and his heavenly companions - that is, Moses and Elijah.

That way of thinking is one of the instinctive reactions that fallen humanity often has, in its confused and misguided perceptions of God, and of humanity’s standing before God.

When children of Adam - like us - consider God’s righteousness, in comparison to our own lack of righteousness, a common reaction is that we try to do something to bridge that gap - perhaps some external religious exercise, or an assortment of good works.

We know that God’s law demands from us more than we have been giving. And so, our misguided conscience impels us to do more, and to try harder, to make ourselves acceptable to God.

The old sinful nature - which is not lacking in a natural knowledge of God’s existence - often tries to invent a religion of self-improvement, or to throw itself into acts of altruism and humanitarianism, that it supposes will somehow protect it from the judgment of a holy God.

Like an employee who wants to avoid getting fired by his demanding boss, we look for something to do to make ourselves seem useful and worth keeping around. And so we may often find ourselves thinking what Peter thought, and maybe saying what Peter said, when we understand ourselves to be in the presence of God, and under the scrutiny of God.

Perhaps when you are in church, listening to the Word of God, or perhaps when you are approaching the Lord’s Table, you might be silently saying to Jesus in your own confused way: “It is good that we are here.”

“Let us make something for you.” “Let us do something for you.”

No, dear friends. That is not the reason why it is good that you are here, in the Lord’s presence.

In the ministry of Word and Sacrament by which the divine-human Christ makes himself to be mystically present among us in this assembly, he is not here so that you can build anything for him, or do anything for him.

The works of love that the Holy Spirit prompts us to perform - imperfect though they may be - are for the benefit of our neighbor in need. They are not for the benefit of God.

God doesn’t need our righteous deeds, even if it were possible for us to offer such deeds to him. But of course, in our sinfulness that’s not even possible.

As Isaiah reminds us: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.”

The reason why it is good that we are here, is the same reason that was given to Peter by God the Father, in today’s text, when his booming and reverberating voice sounded forth from the cloud: “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”

Peter, James, and John were not on that mountaintop to build something for Jesus or to do something for Jesus, as they had originally thought. They were there to listen to Jesus. And it was good for them to be there, so that they could listen.

Indeed, for the rest of the time of their Master’s earthly ministry, it was good for them to be seated at his feet, listening to his words - his words of rebuke and correction; his words of forgiveness and hope.

It was good for them to be there at the Last Supper - or what we might call the First Supper - to listen to the words of invitation and promise that Jesus spoke: “Take, eat; this is my body, which is given for you.” “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins.”

It was good for them to be there on Easter evening, to listen to the resurrected Savior when he came to them and said, “Peace be to you.”

It was good for them to be there, on the day of Pentecost and on every day after that - for the rest of their earthly lives - when they were able to continue to listen in faith to the loving and life-giving voice of their Lord, within the fellowship of the church, in the preaching of the gospel and in the administration of the sacraments.

And it is good for you to be here too, in the same way, and for the same reason. In his life, in his death, and in his resurrection, Jesus took your place, and acted in your place and for your benefit. He lived for you, he died for you, and he rose again for you.

Jesus comes to you now in the preaching of the message of the cross, to make himself known to you as your Redeemer. As humanity’s Savior and as your Savior, he does not come to demand and to condemn. He comes to give, and to save.

In the preaching of salvation by grace, by which sinners like you and me are forgiven our many failures and shortcomings, God does not demand perfect righteousness from us. He gives perfect righteousness to us: the perfect righteousness of his beloved Son.

And by God’s grace, we listen to this preaching. We listen when Jesus explains that “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

We listen when Jesus says that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned.”

We listen, and we believe. And in this faith, we live.

In his Epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul writes that, just as “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”

Since this is a place where the gospel of our justification in Christ is preached - through which Jesus abides with us and sustains us - it is good that we are here. Since this is a place where the Lord’s sacramental words bring his body and blood to his people under the form of bread and wine - for pardon and spiritual strength - it is good that we are here.

Jesus is indeed God’s own beloved Son. And therefore we joyfully, and thankfully, listen to him. Amen.

14 February 2018 - Ash Wednesday - 1 John 4:7-14

It doesn’t often happen that Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day fall on the same day. The last time this happened was in 1934. And these two days would not seem to have very much in common.

Valentine’s Day - or more precisely, Saint Valentine’s Day - is about love, and the goodness and wholesomeness of love. The holiday hearkens back to the legend of a third-century presbyter of the church in Rome who, it is reported, officiated at the marriages of Christians at a time when this was forbidden, and was martyred for this defiance.

Ash Wednesday, however, is not about that sort of thing. Or is it? Please listen with me to a reading from the fourth chapter of St. John’s First Epistle, beginning at the seventh verse:

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.”

“In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”

“No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.”

So far our text.

What St. John is talking about here is not the kind of “romantic” love that is often associated with Valentine’s Day. But the original St. Valentine, to the extent that some accurate information about him may have been preserved and passed down to us, was not really a promoter of “romantic” love either.

He did not advocate or encourage the kind of superficial love or infatuation that begins and ends in the fluctuating subjectivity of human emotions, but he believed in and promoted the godly, committed love that inheres in the Lord’s institutions of marriage and the family - which no tyrant has the right to forbid to God’s people.

And for Christians, their ability and desire to love one another selflessly in this way - within their earthly families, and within the family of the church - is built on, and flow out from, the love of God that they have first experienced: in God’s sending of his Son into the world; and in God’s sending of his Spirit into their hearts.

Ash Wednesday, and the Season of Lent, are very much about that! In this holy season we do indeed meditate upon a divine love for humanity that was so broad and so deep, as to prompt God the Father to give his own Son into the most bitter of deaths, to be the atoning sacrifice for all human sin.

We remember a deep and abiding love that prompted God the Son, in human flesh, to give himself into this death - to cloak himself with human sin as humanity’s substitute, and on the cross to absorb into himself the judgment of his own law against that sin.

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Jesus said that. Jesus did that. Lent is about that.

We do not define the meaning of “love,” and then ponder God’s perceived actions or inactions in our life, and wonder if God really loves us or not. People who are going through a trial of some kind often think that the question of whether God loves them or not, is an open question.

But this is completely wrong-headed and backwards. God is the one who defines “love.” God is love. The meaning of “love” - true, genuine love - is “not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

That’s the meaning of “love”; and that’s the quintessential example, and the proof, of God’s love for all of us - whatever we may be going through. It is then on that basis that we examine ourselves, and ask the question of ourselves, whether we are truly loving others according to what “love” really means.

Lent is about our appropriation of the forgiveness that Jesus won for us in his suffering and death, through repentance and faith. And maybe in some ways Lent is also about our lack of appropriating this forgiveness, because of our lack of repentance, and our lack of faith.

And so we soberly reflect on our failure to be what we should be. We humbly reflect on our failure to give all for God, to live always for Christ, and to be led at all times by the Holy Spirit.

We reflect on our failure to love those whom God has given us to love - at home and at church. Our love, such as it is, has often been superficial and self-serving.

It has often run cold. It has not always been directed toward those whom we are called to love.

And, we have sometimes been afraid to love as we should. We don’t want to be hurt, disappointed, taken advantage of, or embarrassed.

And so we do not allow ourselves to become vulnerable to such possibilities, by exercising the kind of self-giving compassion for, and commitment to, others, that come along with genuine love for others.

We erect defensive emotional walls. With a scared and selfish desire to avoid pain for ourselves, we step back from our duty to alleviate the pain of others.

Valentine’s Day, and the message of Valentine’s Day, might be able to do a little to help with this - as we look at our husband or wife - our “Valentine” for the day - and remember that this is indeed the person to whom we have committed ourselves for a special kind of love.

But Ash Wednesday, and the message of Ash Wednesday, can and will do a whole lot more to help us with this. Ash Wednesday opens up for us the beginning of a season in which God’s Word and Sacrament renew to us the message and might of his love in Christ for sinners like us.

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” And even now, Jesus invites us, in our weakness and woe:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

As we, in this season of penitence, admit our failure to love others as God has loved us; and as we ask God to forgive us and help us for the future, God’s unchanging and unvarying love toward us does indeed lift us up into a renewed peace, a renewed life, ... and ... a renewed love.

As a result - in this season, and in every time and season - we will then be able to say that “God abides in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

The Epistle of St. Jude is addressed “to those who are called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ.” And the first wish expressed in the Epistle is: “May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.”

The author, however, goes on to admonish these Christians beloved by God, that they should not be allowing people who teach and practice immorality to participate with them in their celebrations of Holy Communion.

But do note the term that he uses to describe those celebrations of the Lord’s Supper, to which these impenitent and flagrantly immoral persons should not be invited: “These are blemishes at your love feasts.”

The Lord’s Supper, as Jesus instituted it, and as he intends it to be received by communicants in repentance and faith, truly is a “love feast.” This sacrament shows forth and applies our Savior’s love to his people in a unique, and a uniquely impactful, way.

And this then sets the context for the positive encouragement that Jude offers to the church, further on in the Epistle:

“But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith, and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.”

This positive encouragement, Jude offers also to you: on this Valentine’s Day; on this Ash Wednesday; and on this high occasion when the sacred “love feast” of Jesus is once again set before you.

In your encounter with Christ in this Supper, you can and will be tuned once again toward Christ, in faith and devotion; and will together become reacquainted with the depth and greatness of his forgiving and reconciling love toward you and his whole church.

In your encounter with Christ in this Supper, you can and will be turned once again toward each other - under Christ, and by the working of the Spirit of Christ within you - to relearn from Christ the patient, caring, and generous mutual love to which he has called us in the fellowship of faith.

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” Amen.

18 February 2018 - Lent 1 - Mark 1:9-15

St. Mark tells us in today’s Gospel that after Jesus’ baptism, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan.”

If the Son of God was tempted by the devil, then it should not surprise us that the devil is more than willing to tempt everyone else as well - especially since he is so successful, so often, in his temptation of everyone besides Jesus.

Satan is a real being. He was created as a glorious archangel, to worship and serve God. One of the greatest unanswerable questions of our religion, is the mystery of how and why Satan became internally corrupted, and fell from his original perfection.

How could this happen? How could something that God had created to be perfect and pure, twist itself into something evil and wicked - apart from any outside negative influences?

We don’t know how and why this happened. But we do know that it did happen. We know that many other angels, inspired by Satan, joined him in his rebellion against God.

And we also know - not only by Scriptural revelation, but also by our observations of human history - that there are indeed supernatural forces at work among us, that are committed to the destruction of the human race, and to inspiring as much pain and agony among us as they can.

Satan and his minions hate God. But because God is God, they know that they can’t really touch him. They can’t hurt God directly.

But they believe that they can hurt God indirectly, by hurting that which God loves most. And what God loves most among his creatures, is that segment of his creation that was made in his own image. What God loves most is the human race.

And so, the devil, and all the demons who work in coordination with him, temp all of us. They are very smart in how they do it, too.

These fallen creatures are immortal. During all the time of their existence, they have learned a lot.

Over the millennia they have fine-tuned their techniques, and perfected their tactics. They know what usually works.

One of the things that works, is to bring a temptation to sin into someone’s life in such a way, that the one being tempted by the devil doesn’t even know that he is being tempted by the devil. Satan is very good at creating situations where the one being tempted to do something harmful, doesn’t even know that it would be something harmful.

More often than not, when someone is contemplating the commission of a sinful deed, he’s not thinking to himself, “should I do this evil thing?” Rather, he is thinking to himself, “Should I do this good thing?”

Very seldom does someone actively think, as he is committing his sins, that he is in fact committing sins. He thinks he is doing something beneficial and positive, or at least something neutral and harmless.

He justifies his actions. He persuades himself that he is doing the right thing, under the circumstances. And all the while, the devil is, as it were, whispering into his ear.

With the active cooperation of our own sinful nature, the devil has many successes in tricking us into hurting ourselves and others. Except for those relatively rare cases of direct demonic possession, Satan usually doesn’t have to get his hands dirty at all.

We do all his dirty work for him, as we hurl ourselves into relationships, into actions, and into decisions that are corrupt and corrupting.

It is often only in hindsight that people can see how foolish they were, or how much harm they caused themselves or others. But this wisdom of hindsight is generally not profound enough, or influential enough, to prevent people from falling into the same traps again and again.

During wartime, a smart general will not blindly and impetuously throw his army at an enemy position. He first will reconnoiter that position, and identify the weakest spot in the enemy’s defenses. The attack will then be concentrated at that weak spot.

That’s what the devil does, too. He will probe you, until he finds your weak spot. And when he finds it, he will exploit it - again and again.

That weak spot might be your laziness, your lust, your greed, your pride, your temper, or your envy. He might find an opening for his deceptions in the context of your loneliness, your poor health, your desire to succeed, or your fear of not being accepted or liked by others.

The devil will seek out your vulnerabilities, and exploit them to your moral, spiritual, and physical harm. He will often amplify certain genetic or hereditary weaknesses you may have - which may predispose you toward addictive behavior, or anti-social behavior - to a point where you surrender to those weaknesses, and allow them to tear your life to shreds.

In one way or another, he will lie to you and blind you - in the moment of your temptation - so that you will not know or see what is actually happening. He will find a way to make you think that a bad decision is actually a good decision, and will then prompt you to make that decision.

On your own, you will not be able to grasp what is really going on, or be able to resist him. He is smarter than you. He is more powerful than you.

He has much less to lose than you do, since his eternal fate is already sealed. But he is very good at hiding that fact from you.

He is very good at distracting you from thoughts about God, and about God’s good and gracious will, precisely at those moments when such thoughts would serve you best - and would serve him least.

The only time when the devil’s attempts to lead someone into sin and self-destruction ended in complete failure on his part, was in his encounter in the wilderness with Jesus of Nazareth - the Son of God, and our brother according to the flesh.

The devil probed Jesus at the point of the bodily weakness of his hunger, to see if he could get him to misuse his divine power by turning stones into bread. That didn’t work.

Satan also attempted to find a weak spot, based on the percentages, in the area of the common human desire to get attention from others; and in the area of the common human love for worldly power. But the devil’s attempts to get Jesus to jump off the pinnacle of the temple, and to bow down to him so as to be given all the kingdoms of the earth, did not work either.

Jesus resisted him, and remained as a man without sin. But he resisted him not just for himself, and for the preservation of his own personal integrity. He resisted him also for you. He resisted him in your place, and for your benefit.

When the devil assaults your conscience and tempts you, your human resolve and understanding - your own will and reason - are not enough of a barrier to throw up against him for your protection. He will always be able to maneuver his way in, and to slither around the feeble will, and finite reason, of even the most worldly-wise of human beings.

But when the devil assaults your conscience and tempts you, and you by faith thrown up against him the successful resistence of Christ as your shield, that shield will hold. As Christ, with his righteousness, stands between you and your tormentor, you will be protected.

We read in the First Epistle to the Corinthians that God “will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape.” Jesus - with everything he is for you, everything he has done for you, and everything he does for you now - is the way of escape.

As a man without any sin of his own, Jesus became the man - the God-man - who could and did carry the sins of others to the cross. He carried your sins to the cross.

Jesus carried to the cross all your failures to resist the devil, and all your defeats under the devil’s assaults. When Christ died for those sins, and when he rose again to demonstrate God the Father’s acceptance of his sacrifice, he did this for you.

As St. Paul writes to the Romans, Jesus our Lord “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” In Christ, we are now justified and forgiven. In Christ, we are now liberated from the devil’s power to twist us, to manipulate us, and to destroy us.

As you are now in Christ, and as Christ is now in you, you see and understand many things, in regard to which you were previously blind and ignorant. God’s Word has shined a spotlight on the devil’s tactics, and has exposed them.

The Holy Scriptures have been given to you as a sure measuring rod of objective, inspired truth, by which you can tell the difference between a Satanic temptation to evil, and a God-given opportunity for good.

Indeed, the inspired Scriptures are “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be...equipped for every good work,” as we are told in the Second Epistle to Timothy.

And while you were weak and unable to resist Satan’s allurements by the strength of your own will and reason, in Christ you are now strong. You are strong in the strength of the one who told Satan, “Be gone!”

You are strong in the strength of the one who rose from the grave, and who lives - invincibly - forevermore. You are strong in the one who is with you now, who is guarding you, and who for your sake is telling Satan once again, “Be gone!”

And so, in your temptations, cling to Christ - because Christ is clinging to you. He is clinging to you in the day of trial.

He is clinging to you in the darkness of your fears and uncertainties. He is clinging to you at all those times when the devil comes once again, and tries once again to pull you away from the love and light of God.

If you do let go of your Savior, and turn aside from his gospel, you will thereby be letting go of all of the protections and blessings that are now yours in him. The devil will once again have free reign with you.

The devil will once again succeed, unimpeded, in bringing you down. May this never be.

Satan is wily in his attacks, on individuals loved by God, and on their godly relationships. He is clever, beyond any human cleverness that might be brought to bear in resisting him, or even in figuring out what he is doing.

As we have been reminded of this sobering fact today, let us heed today the Lenten call of our Lord, that this is a time for us to stop allowing the devil to have as much influence in our lives as we have been allowing him to have. This is a time for our eyes and our ears to be opened once again.

This is a time to be renewed in faith - faith in the only one who can help us and deliver us. This is a time for us to repent of all half-heartedness, all flippancy regarding the things of God, and all presumption regarding our ability to protect ourselves from the devil’s schemes.

Now is the time to listen to what St. James tells us:

“Submit God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. ... Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”

And now is also the time to listen to what St. Paul tells us, in his Epistle to the Romans:

“I want you to be wise as to what is good, and innocent as to what is evil. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.” Amen.

25 February 2018 - Lent 2 - Romans 5:1-11

The term “justification” represents and embodies an extremely important concept in the Christian faith. But it is not always easy for Christians to understand the meaning of this term according to its Biblical usage, because they are accustomed to using this term in a different way in modern English.

When I do something questionable, which others might not think was the correct thing to do, I would be said to be “justifying” my actions when I then attempt to persuade those other people that what I did was actually proper. According to this common usage of the term, a “justification” is a “defense,” particularly in a context where people might be skeptical about the rightness of the thing that is being defended.

But when the Bible uses the term “justification,” it is usually not referring to this sort of thing. In Scripture, “justification” is a juridical term, calling to mind a courtroom setting.

An example of how the word is used in the Bible can be seen in Proverbs 17, which describes God’s displeasure with corrupt human judges, and with unjust verdicts in human legal proceedings: “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.”

So, to be “justified” in this sense means to be acquitted, or to be declared to be “not guilty.” In human affairs, this kind of justification is an authoritative declaration that changes the relationship between the defendant and society.

Instead of having the status of someone who is accused of a crime, the justified person now has the status of someone who is officially recognized as righteous and innocent in the eyes of the law. Instead of being under suspicion as a law-breaker deserving punishment, the justified person is now reconciled with, and accepted by, society.

In today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul tells us about our justification before God: why we are justified, and what our justification means in our daily life as Christians. But in order to appreciate fully how important God’s justification truly is, we should first think for a few moments about the desperate and tragic situation in which humanity finds itself, before and apart from this divine justification.

St. Paul does describe the frightening natural condition of humanity, according to the circumstances in which we all come into the world. He says that we were “weak,” “ungodly,” and “sinful.”

As sinners, we were by nature inclined to do what God forbids and to avoid what God commands, and were captive to destructive thoughts and behaviors. As those who were ungodly, the deepest desires of the old Adam in us were for things that are harmful rather than helpful, evil rather than good.

As those who were spiritually weak and powerless, we were both unable and unwilling to change: to become righteous rather than sinful, pious rather than ungodly. And St. Paul doesn’t stop there.

Humanity’s fundamental sin problem involves not only our inborn sinful corruption, and what we are in ourselves; but it includes also our sinful alienation from our Creator, because of our rebellion against him and his ways. As St. Paul says, we were by nature “God’s enemies.”

Unbelievers may seem to us, and to themselves, to be religiously and theologically neutral. But that’s not the way it really is.

At the deepest level, those who have not believed God’s justifying word of pardon in Christ, are hostile to the true God. And the old nature that still clings to us, and is a continuing source of temptation from within us, is likewise hostile to God.

But God, in his unmeasurable love for his creation, did not abandon the human race, or us as individuals. He does not leave us in this condition and state, and on the pathway to hell onto which we have put ourselves. St. Paul writes:

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. ... God shows his love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. ... While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.”

What we were powerless to do, God did in and through Christ, the divine-human Savior of the world. In the stead of all disobedient human sinners, and as their substitute under God, Jesus lived a perfect, obedient life; and offered a perfect, atoning sacrifice.

The sin of humanity was imputed to Jesus. He carried that sin to the cross, and died for it there under the judgment and condemnation of his own divine law. And in the other half of this great exchange, the righteousness of Christ is now imputed to us.

As our consciences convict us - so that we repent of our sin, and yearn for God’s help and pardon - we are comforted to know that for the sake of his own great mercy toward us, our holy God does now count the perfection of Christ as our perfection; he counts the sinlessness of Christ as our sinlessness; he counts the righteousness of Christ as our righteousness.

All of these saving realities stand behind the justification that God pronounces to us through the gospel, in and because of Christ. And when we believe what God says, we have what he offers.

When the Spirit of God lovingly kindles within us a faith that clings in hope to the divine promise of forgiveness and acceptance, the justification that Christ won on the cross for all people becomes, individually, our own justification.

God has declared you in Christ to be “not guilty.” And in faith you gladly hear, and thankfully embrace, that declaration. You also rejoice in the reconciliation with God that God himself has accomplished for you.

The reason why we are justified by faith, and not by works - or by a combination of faith and works - is because of the nature of what justification is. Again, it is a pronouncement that is spoken to us, not a process that is worked out within us.

There certainly are sanctifying processes that the Holy Spirit carries out in the lives of God’s people. St. Paul tells us that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

God’s Spirit births within us a new nature, which desires to serve God, and which struggles against the wicked impulses of the old nature that still lingers in the shadows of our life. God’s Spirit causes us to put on the mind of Christ, as the living word of Christ ever more deeply imbeds itself into our minds.

And God’s Spirit, who dwells is us, also bears his fruit through us, as we grow - under his transforming influence - to be more like Christ in our inner character, and in how we think about and treat others.

God certainly does do all of these wonderful things, in us and among us. But this is not justification. And justification is not based on these things, either.

All of the spiritual blessings that do result from a restored relationship with God, depend on one thing, which must be in place before they can begin: namely, the restoration of the relationship!

And that longed-for restoration of the relationship between God and man - which was first severed in Eden - is what God does when he justifies us.

Justification is the doorway into these other blessings, and it is the fountainhead from which they all flow. Without justification, none of them would be there. With justification, they all are there.

Justification is a pronouncement, a message, a promise. And the only way to receive a promise - of any kind - is to believe it.

So, when God tells you something, believe what he says! When God announces to you in the gospel that for the sake of the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, your sins are lifted from you, and the righteousness of Christ is credited to you, believe him!

God will, over time, take care of the other problems in your life - your continuing weaknesses, shortcomings, and struggles. But those problems are not the immediate subject of the conversation God is having with you, when he is telling you why and how your sins are forgiven, and why and how you are reconciled to him for time and for eternity.

And as St. Paul also says: When with God’s help we do believe that promise, and are justified by this faith, then we also “have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Remember that St. Paul is a Jew, who is thinking like a Jew. What he has in mind here is the Hebrew concept of “shalom.”

“Shalom,” which means “peace,” is not defined merely as the absence of conflict. It is a positive idea. Ideally, when we are experiencing “shalom,” we are enjoying a state of harmony, in which all things are “fitting together” in the way they are supposed to.

In this fallen world, under the curse of sin, the trials and tribulations that continually afflict us, do not allow us - in an external way - fully to experience that kind of peace.

But the “shalom” of God that accompanies the justification of God, is a peace that we are able to experience in our hearts - even in the midst of bodily stress and earthly conflict - as we by faith stand fearlessly before God, under the protective covering of the forgiving grace that he has made known to us in his Son.

Indeed, in all the arenas of our human existence - as we deal with the upsetting challenges that we so often face both within ourselves and in our relationships - the stable and stabilizing reality of this spiritual “shalom” is there, to calm us and strengthen us.

God’s justification of sinners is, as it were, a part of an ongoing conversation that he is having with us. Even as Christians, we do often stumble and fall short of the glory of God. We do often test God’s patience with us.

When these things happen - and they happen on a daily basis - God’s Spirit, testifying and working through the divine law, convicts us of our wrongdoing; and warns us of the danger of our departures from God’s commandments.

But then, as we repent of the sins that his law has thereby brought to light - again, on a daily basis - God absolves us. Through the Words of Institution of his Son’s Holy Supper, he speaks the remission of sins upon us and into us, as we are fed with Christ’s body and given to drink of his blood.

Through the living message of our living Savior, God once again justifies us. On the basis of the innocence of Christ, God once again acquits us. Because of the sinlessness of Christ, God once again declares us to be “not guilty.”

Your relationship with God is restored and renewed by the power of his Word. Your eternal destiny - in the heavenly mansions of your heavenly Father - is made sure by the truthfulness of his Word.

Dear friends in Christ, as you today, in humility and repentance, yearn for God’s help and grace, I can declare to you with confidence, and in God’s name, that Jesus died for your sins, and rose again for your salvation. I can declare to you with confidence, and by God’s authority, that in Jesus you are justified.

You are forgiven. God is reconciled to you. We are forgiven. God is reconciled to us.

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