SERMONS - MARCH 2019
3 March 2019 - Transfiguration - Luke 9:28-36
The transfiguration of our Lord was a remarkable and truly extraordinary event. And in a remarkable and truly extraordinary way, the transfiguration demonstrated and illustrated two important things about Jesus and his ministry.
First, it was a revelation of the mystery of Christ’s person: That he was not only a man, but was the Second Person of the Holy Trinity in human flesh.
During Jesus’ time on earth, the glory and power of his divine nature was usually hidden, as Jesus lived under the law in the form of a man, according to the limitations and “ordinariness” of his human nature. But the transfiguration was one of those unusual occasions when the divinity of Christ was manifested.
In today’s Gospel, St. Luke tells us that “as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white.” In St. Matthew’s version, we are told that “his face shone like the sun.”
The light of divine glory was not shining upon him, but was shining out of him: out of his face; and also out of his whole body, so as to cause the clothing that he was wearing to shine as well.
And second, the transfiguration of our Lord was a revelation of the deep and intimate connection between Christ and the Old Testament, with its many types, foreshadowings, and prophesies all pointing to him and his saving work. So, when Jesus appeared in his transfigured state - so that Peter, James, and John could get a glimpse of his divine glory - a portal to heaven was also opened, so that they could also get a glimpse of that supernatural world.
They saw Moses and Elijah, and heard them talking with Jesus. Luke tells us what they were talking about.
They “spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” That is, they spoke of the impending suffering and death of Jesus: where it would happen, how it would happen, and why it would happen.
The transfiguration took place on a mountaintop. During the time of their respective ministries on earth, during their mortal lifetime, Moses and Elijah were closely associated with important events, and important encounters with God, that likewise took place on mountaintops: on Mount Sinai in the case of Moses, and on Mount Carmel in the case of Elijah.
The Book of Exodus reports that on Mount Sinai, Moses received the Law of God in the form of the Ten Commandments, to provide a foundation of unvarying moral law on which all the civil regulations for ancient Israel could be built. But these Commandments would also serve as a concrete testimony to all nations, of the standards of right and wrong to which God holds the entire human race - standards that are inscribed also on the conscience of each human being.
At the very beginning of these Commandments, delivered to Moses on that mountaintop, the Lord said:
“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.”
This uncompromising prohibition of idolatry, and this uncompromising demand for complete loyalty and obedience to God, was then unfolded into all the divine commandments that followed. To break any of those succeeding commandments, would be to break the first one as well.
At a later time, as recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy, God expounded upon the meaning and application of the First Commandment in these words:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
And Jesus, as we know, quoted this text in the New Testament, and thereby put these words, and what they demand, upon the consciences of all of us.
With respect to Elijah, the other personage who appeared with Jesus in the transfiguration, the First Book of Kings tells us about the “dual” of sorts that took place on Mount Carmel, between Elijah, the Lord’s prophet, and the priests of Baal - who were under the patronage of Ahab, the corrupt king of the northern kingdom of Israel, and his pagan wife Jezebel.
On one occasion, Ahab rebuked Elijah as the “troubler of Israel.” And Elijah responded:
“I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father’s house, because you have abandoned the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals.”
And then Elijah challenged Ahab to send the prophets of Baal to Mount Carmel, where - in the presence of a multitude of the people - these prophets and Elijah would each prepare a bull for sacrifice, but not set fire to the sacrifice. Instead, each side would call upon the deity they served to send fire down from heaven to consume the sacrifice.
So, this is what happened. The prophets of Baal went first. From the morning until the mid afternoon, they attempted to call down fire from Baal, and to get some kind of response from their god. But nothing happened.
Then Elijah took his turn. But first he saturated his bull, and the wood on which it rested, with water - which ran over to such an extent that it filled up a trench that Elijah had dug around the place of his sacrifice. Elijah then said this prayer:
“O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.”
We are told that what happened next, was that “the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God.”
But that’s not the end of the story of what happened on this occasion. The narrative continues:
“Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.’ And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there.”
What happened that day demonstrated God’s holiness and righteousness, according to which he received - by the agency of the fire that he himself sent - the propitiatory sacrifice of the bull, which was offered to him in the stead of the people whose sins had offended him.
What happened that day also demonstrated the wrath of this holy and righteous God against all unrepentant idolaters who violate his Ten Commandments - beginning, of course, with the First one, which expressly forbids idolatry. Through the agency of Elijah, God killed those defiant idolaters.
And now, Moses and Elijah - with these momentous mountaintop experiences in their background - are, miraculously, on another mountaintop. And in the glory of heaven, surrounded by the brilliance of the divinity of God’s Son, they are talking with that divine Son about his upcoming departure from this world.
That departure will indeed have some significant connections to the event that took place on Mount Sinai, and to the event that took place on Mount Carmel. Jesus was talking to these prophets of old about his impending crucifixion.
Like the sacrificial bull offered to the God of Israel on Mount Carmel, he was going to be the sacrifice offered to his Father in heaven for the sins of humanity. St. John, in his First Epistle, declares that Christ “is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Jesus would be the pure and sinless substitute for the human race, offered in our place on the altar of the cross. But from another perspective - God’s perspective - he would not be the sinless substitute for the human race, but would become the bearer of all the sins of humanity.
By God’s imputation he would be clothed and smeared with all human transgressions and iniquities. And then on the cross he would place himself under the judgment of the Ten Commandments, against all the violations of those commandments that have ever been committed by any human being in any time or place: violations that had been imputed to him by God; violations that he as God in the flesh, had freely taken onto himself.
St. Paul writes in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians that “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Martin Luther explains this mystery in this way:
“We say: ‘I believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who suffered, was crucified, and died for us.’ This is the most joyous of all doctrines and the one that contains the most comfort. It teaches that we have the indescribable and inestimable mercy and love of God.”
“When the merciful Father saw that we were being oppressed through the Law, that we were being held under a curse, and that we could not be liberated from it by anything, He sent His Son into the world, heaped all the sins of all men upon Him, and said to Him: ‘Be Peter the denier; Paul the persecutor, blasphemer, and assaulter; David the adulterer; the sinner who ate the apple in Paradise; the thief on the cross. In short, be the person of all men, the one who has committed the sins of all men. And see to it that You pay and make satisfaction for them.’”
“Now the Law comes and says: ‘I find Him a sinner, who takes upon Himself the sins of all men. I do not see any other sins than those in Him. Therefore let Him die on the cross!’”
“And so [the Law] attacks Him and kills Him. By this deed the whole world is purged and expiated from all sins, and thus it is set free from death and from every evil.” So far Luther.
The Law that the Lord gave to Moses on Mount Sinai, which convicts us of the sins that we have actually committed, would also convict our divine-human substitute Jesus. And just as the sacrifice that was offered to the Lord on Mount Carmel was received by the Lord, by which his anger against the sins of the nation of Israel was turned away; so too would Jesus’ sacrificing of himself on the cross turn God’s wrath away from the sins of all nations.
He, on the cross, would be consumed from heaven. And in our place he would experience the spiritual horror of this. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?,” he would cry.
Also, just as the actual idolaters at Mount Carmel suffered the just punishment that their idolatry had earned, so that their blood was shed in death; so too would Christ - the idolater by imputation - suffer the punishment that idolatry deserves: the punishment deserved by the prophets of Baal because of their violation of the First Commandment; and the punishment deserved by you and me, because of all the times we have broken the First Commandment, together with all the other Commandments that flow out from it.
Jesus would endure this, until the full redemption price for our sins would be paid. And then, with the agony over, he would say, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” And he would breathe his last.
This is what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah were talking about. They were talking about mountaintop experiences - but not the kind of “mountaintop experiences” that people usually mean when they use that term. What they were talking about was not exciting and exhilarating, but serious and sober.
They were talking about God’s Law, the demands of God’s Law, and the threats of God’s Law against those who disobey it. They were talking about God following through on these threats, punishing sin and not ignoring sin.
They were talking about Jesus going down from that mountain, turning onto the road to Jerusalem, and making his way to that holy city of sacrifice and atonement - of reconciliation and forgiveness - so that all of these things would happen to him, for the sake of our reconciliation and forgiveness.
The reason why God is willing to forgive sin, is not because sin does not really bother him all that much. He is greatly bothered by it. He is deeply offended by it. The entire Old Testament teaches us this, both by what God says, and by what God does, in its hallowed pages.
But God is willing to forgive sin. God does forgive sin. He forgives your sin and my sin, because Jesus did bravely and lovingly follow through on the things that he had been talking about with Moses and Elijah.
As you and I turn to him in fear and humility, in regret and repentance, we are able to receive the forgiveness that was earned and accomplished by Christ our substitute. On Calvary he allowed himself to be condemned and punished for our idolatry, and for all our sins; and there offered himself as a sacrifice to redeem us, to restore us, to justify us.
Jesus, as it were, descends from the mountain today: the day of the Transfiguration of Our Lord; the last Sunday in the Epiphany season. And as Lent begins, he begins his journey to Jerusalem.
We, too, as the season of Lent now begins, likewise begin our liturgical journey to Jerusalem with him. In Lent we will travel on the pathway of repentance and faith, to the cross of Christ. There, at the cross, we will watch him die. We will watch him die for us.
That’s not the end of the story, of course. And that’s not the whole story. But that’s the part of the story we will be telling and hearing over the next six weeks. That’s the part of the story that Moses and Elijah were talking about with Jesus, on the Mount of Transfiguration.
“And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” Amen.
2019 March 6 - Ash Wednesday
A common custom for the season of Lent is to give up some luxury or pleasure for those six weeks or so, as a reminder of what Jesus gave up for the sake of saving us from sin, death, and the devil. He, of course, gave up a lot more than a favorite food or a favorite recreation. He gave up his life.
But, the custom of giving up some otherwise innocent pleasure during this season of repentance and humility, as a matter of personal discipline, certainly cannot hurt us. And it might help in prompting us to recall with a deeper reflection what we do believe regarding Jesus and his sacrifice.
In our parish newsletter for the month of March, I suggested in my pastor’s column that instead of giving up something for Lent, the members and friends of the congregation might consider taking on something for Lent. But now I would like to propose yet another idea for this season.
Instead of giving up an otherwise innocent pleasure or luxury for this season, I would invite you, in these moments of reflection tonight, to think of a particular habitual sin that you commit - an outward action that you often do, or a verbal expression that you often speak - that irritates, inconveniences, or hurts other people or maybe just one other person who is close to you.
Think of this sin, and resolve that with the Lord’s help, you are going to stop committing it - not only in the season of Lent, but in perpetuity. If you care about the feelings of the person or persons who are offended or bothered by this sin, and if you care about honoring God in the way you outwardly live your life, stop doing it.
Now, as Lutherans we are accustomed to hearing sermons that speak of the deeply-seated sinfulness with which we all come into this world, and that we can never shed on this side of the grave. And that is indeed the spiritual predicament that affects everyone, making all of us to be in need of God’s grace and forgiveness all the time.
Where this doctrine of original sin chiefly manifests itself is in the sinful thoughts and attitudes that so often arise within our minds and hearts. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount unfolds the hard truth regarding this aspect of the inner life of fallen human beings.
In that sermon he tells his listeners that they are guilty before God of murder, if they have hatred for another in their hearts - even if they never bodily raised their hand against another person. He tells his listeners that before God they are guilty of adultery, if there is lust in their hearts - even if no physical immoral act has been committed with another person.
A part of the humility of our daily repentance and faith as Christians, is that we never allow ourselves to think that this interior corruption will ever be completely eradicated in this life. The old Adam is always a part of who we are in this world - even if the new nature that God’s Spirit has birthed within us now battles against this old Adam on a daily basis.
But as far as specific outward sins are concerned - those actions that people can see, and those words that people can hear, which cause disruptions and offenses in our interactions with others - we are not bound to persist in committing such sins. In fact, according to Holy Scripture, we are bound sincerely to try not to persist in them, but instead to cease and desist in enacting these external transgressions.
As disciples of Christ, we are called to a discipline - a discipline of learning and living - that will result in noticeable changes in how we talk and in how we behave. Recall the story that John’s Gospel tells us about the woman caught in adultery, and about the way Jesus dealt with her and her sin - which was also a capital crime among the Jewish people.
Jesus first dealt with the self-righteous hypocrisy and self-serving double standard of the crowd - which had brought before Jesus only one of the persons who had been caught in adultery, and seems to have been willing to let the man involved in this, get off, without punishment.
That’s when Jesus said to this crowd: “Let him who is without the sin among you, be the first to throw a stone at her.” With muttering and grumbling, the crowd then dispersed. And Jesus then dealt with the woman.
John tells us that Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”
When Jesus told her, “Neither do I condemn you,” this was God’s forgiveness of her sins. As she believed these gracious words of her Savior, she was justified before God through that faith.
In that moment of reconciliation with God, this justification did not depend on her works - past, present, or future. This justification before God did not depend on her performance of good works. This justification from God did not depend on her refraining from evil works.
Her forgiveness and justification, and God’s acceptance of her as his child and heir, depended on the saving and justifying work of Christ.
On the timeline of earthly history, Jesus’ death and resurrection for her and for the whole world had, of course, not yet happened. But according to the eternal plan and foreknowledge of God, his Son’s death and resurrection was already a present reality to him.
And from this reality, within his infinite and eternal mind, God forgave her - even as he forgave all his saints in the Old Testament era, applying to them the merits of the sacrifice of “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” - to quote how the Book of Revelation describes this mystery.
But what I especially want to draw to your attention tonight, is the very next thing that Jesus said to this woman, after he absolved her and spoke his heavenly peace and salvation into her. He said, “go, and from now on sin no more.”
He really expected her to refrain from the outward sin of adultery for the rest of her life. This was not just a matter of pious rhetoric.
This was also not an encouragement of self-righteousness, salvation by works, or pride in one’s own goodness. With what she had been through, and the hard lessons she had learned, she would have no illusions with respect to anything like that.
But, she would not commit this particular sin ever again - or at least she would really and actually be able not to commit it. If she was single, she would be chaste from now on. If she was married, she would be faithful and devoted to her husband from now on.
She was going to stop committing this specific physical sin, out of her respect for herself as a forgiven child of God; out of her respect for other people and for her community as a whole; and out of respect for God, his law, and his redeeming love toward her.
To be sure, for the rest of her life, she would remain capable of slipping into various outward sins, for which she would always need to turn to the Lord for forgiveness. And she certainly would have sinful thoughts, as anyone would - thoughts of anger, thoughts of greed, thoughts of selfishness, and maybe even thoughts of lust.
But she was not going to let her unclean thoughts play out into that particular unclean act ever again. She really could, as a practical matter, restrain and discipline herself in that regard. And we believe that, with the Lord’s help, she did restrain and discipline herself in that regard.
Jesus knew that this was possible. Jesus told her to make that possibility a reality. “Go, and from now on sin no more.” That’s what he said.
And so, I ask you again tonight, to think of a particular thing you habitually do or say, that you know is wrong, but that you have not taken as seriously as you should have before now. As you acknowledge that this sinful action really is sinful and wrong, and that you should stop doing it; and as you recognize God’s will and ability to erase it from your life, commit yourself to this: In this holy penitential season, with God’s help and by his strength, you will simply not do or say this thing any more.
When you feel the temptation to do it, catch yourself before it comes out. In that moment of weakness, pray for wisdom and fortitude, for a stronger faith and for a greater and more selfless love for God and other people.
Accept the help that your Savior gives you in that moment of weakness. And restrain yourself from doing or saying that thing that annoys, inconveniences, or hurts the people who care about you.
You don’t have to do this thing. No one is holding a gun to your head, compelling you in that moment to act or speak in a loveless and selfish way, in a godless or wicked way. So, whatever it is, just don’t do it.
Sins of the heart and mind do usually pop up in such a way that we cannot prevent them ahead of time. Those are the kinds of sins that will always keep us humble, and always keep us on our knees - in the season of Lent and in all times and seasons.
And the ever-present challenge of those interior sins will never allow you to feel self-righteous. Your righteousness before God is and always will be exclusively the righteousness of Christ, which God places upon you continually through the promise of forgiveness that he makes to you, and that you believe. This is why St. Paul write to the Galatians that
“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.”
But as far as outward infractions are concerned - with all the harm to other people that outward infractions can and do cause - Jesus did say, “from now on sin no more.”
He said it to the woman caught in adultery, in regard to her specific outward sin of adultery. He says it to you tonight, in regard to that specific, habitual, sinful action or verbal expression that is all too often a part of your life, that all too often invades and poisons your relationships, and that you have been thinking about tonight with remorse and regret.
And in his means of grace, Jesus supernaturally empowers you to do what he tells you to do - or not to do what he tells you not to do.
Jesus saved you from all your sins - all your sins of thought, word, and deed - by some very specific outward deeds that he actively performed for you, and by some very specific outward words that he spoke for you.
He suffered and died to atone for all your sins. He didn’t just think about suffering and dying, but he actually did suffer and die.
He also spoke words that gave meaning to his actions: “Father, forgive them”; “you will be with me in paradise”; “it is finished.” He didn’t just think about these words, but he spoke them.
With all the strength he had left - which wasn’t much at that point - he still spoke those words of pardon and comfort, which assure us that there is always hope for us, always a second chance for us, and always a way of salvation open to us.
In the Lord’s Supper, which is available in our congregation on every Lord’s Day, and also on special days such as this day - God’s forgiveness in his Son is ever renewed to us. And as Luther reminds us in the Small Catechism, “where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.”
And so, in the sacrament of his body and blood, given into death and shed for us, Jesus continually bestows upon us forgiveness, life, and salvation. What that means, as far as the practical living out of our lives as Christians is concerned, is fleshed out for us in the Large Catechism, where Luther also instructs us:
“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 [of the Altar] 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. When he sees that we oppose him and attack the old man, and that he cannot topple us over by force, he prowls and moves about on all sides.”
“He tries every trick and does not stop until he finally wears us out, so that we either renounce our faith or throw up our hands and put up our feet, becoming indifferent or impatient. Now to this purpose the comfort of the Sacrament is given when the heart feels that the burden is becoming too heavy, so that it may gain here new power and refreshment.”
And again, we read in the Large Catechism:
“We must make a distinction here between people. Those who are lewd and morally loose must be told to stay away [from the sacrament]. They are not prepared to receive forgiveness of sin, since they do not desire it and do not wish to be godly.”
“But the others, who are not such callous and wicked people, and who desire to be godly, must not absent themselves. This is true even though otherwise they are feeble and full of infirmities. ... No one will live so well that he will not have many daily weaknesses in flesh and blood.”
We close with these words from St. John’s First Epistle:
“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments.” Amen.
10 March 2019 - Lent 1 - Luke 4:1-13
There are mysteries involved in our Lord’s temptation in the wilderness, as described for us in today’s Gospel from St. Luke, that we cannot fully grasp. On the one hand, we are compelled by God’s Word to confess that Jesus is indeed the true and eternal God. Not only is he without sin, but he is incapable of sinning.
But on the other hand, we are compelled by the Scriptural account to acknowledge that the temptation he endured was a real temptation, and not a sham. These seemingly contradictory beliefs must be held in tension.
They cannot be fully reconciled with the demands of human reason and logic. But in at least one respect we can understand what was, and was not, happening on this occasion.
The manner in which Christ experienced temptation was different from the manner in which we experience temptation. The devil does often tempt us. But with us, the devil’s external temptations are always “aided and abetted” by similar temptations that well up from within us - from our own sinful nature.
Our sinful flesh is always in collusion with the devil, as a willing accomplice in his attempts to deceive us and draw us away from God and God’s will. In the case of Christ, though, there was no internal “ally” of the devil, and no sinful “co-conspirator” within him - because Christ had no sinful nature.
As the virgin-born Redeemer of fallen humanity, his humanity was pure and clean, without the corruption that infects the rest of us. So, his temptation was exclusively external - with the devil coming to him from the outside. And yet, it was indeed a real temptation. But the next question would then be: a temptation to what, exactly?
The devil is sly. Before his own fall and corruption through pride, he was a glorious, angelic being, created with significant powers of reason and observation. Since his fall, he has had many centuries of experience in dealing with both God and people. And he has learned some things from that experience.
In regard to the divine-human Christ, the devil was certainly smart enough to know that he could not tempt God, as God, to sin. The focus of his temptation was accordingly on the humanity of Christ. And more particularly, it was on the humanity of Christ in his state of humiliation.
During our Lord’s earthly ministry, his divine majesty was usually hidden and unnoticed. This was necessary, so that he could walk among men as a man, eating and sleeping, laughing and crying. This was necessary, so that he could place himself under the rigorous demands of the law, and live a sinless human life of righteousness and obedience, for us and in our place, in accordance with the law.
Christ was eventually exalted and glorified in his resurrection and ascension, so that now he no longer limits himself in the way that he formerly did. But this exaltation did not happen until he had fulfilled the requirements for human salvation.
While in the form of a servant, it was necessary for him to suffer and die under the curse of the law - as the substitute for all who have not obeyed this law and who thereby deserve God’s curse.
If Jesus had “jumped the gun,” as it were, and had begun to live outwardly according to his divine glory before experiencing the degradation of the cross, then the very real anguish that he endured for us on the cross would not have occurred.
Our many transgressions against God’s holy law would not have been atoned for. Our guilt would not have been borne, in suffering, by a sinless substitute.
And that means, dear friends, that we would all still be living and dying in our sins. Each of us - you and I - would still be enslaved to the power of sin, death, and the devil, without hope and without God in the world.
This was all no doubt in the devil’s mind when he tempted the Lord in the wilderness. Satan wanted Christ to lay aside the form of a servant that he had assumed, and to remove himself from the state of humiliation into which he had entered. He wanted him to start acting like God, according to the grandeur of his divine nature, and to stop active like a weak and humble man, according to the limitations of his human nature.
Satan knew that if he could get Christ to abandon his mission of suffering and dying for us, before that mission had been accomplished, then he would be able to keep all of us in his hellish captivity, and prevent us from being reclaimed by our divine Creator.
Satan’s attacks on Christ were, therefore, really attacks on you and me - and on the whole human race - and on the possibility of our being delivered from his clutches.
When Satan tried to get Jesus to use his divine power to create bread for himself, to put an end to his physical hunger, he was thereby trying to get Jesus to turn aside from the pathway of human suffering on which he had set out. The devil appealed to him to act according to his divine nature, and explicitly called to his mind the fact that he had a divine nature.
He said: “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” The devil didn’t want Christ’s ministry to be defined by the preaching of repentance and forgiveness, with only incidental occurrences of miracles. He wanted his ministry to be defined by the miracles, with, perhaps, only incidental occurrences of the preaching of repentance and forgiveness.
With that kind of ministry, the crowds would, of course, listen very attentively to any sermons that Jesus might preach about the availability of physical health and worldly wealth - especially if such sermons were accompanied by the supernatural bestowal of these practical benefits.
But the devil would not have to worry very much about the people under such a ministry being unduly influenced by an occasional sermon about sin and repentance that might also be preached. Under those circumstances it is unlikely that anyone would bother to pay very much attention to such a sermon.
But do notice how Jesus answered. He said: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’”
As the Son of God in human flesh - and in the state of humiliation that he had embraced in order to be our Savior - Jesus quoted the teaching of Scripture regarding what was proper for man to do or not to do. “Man shall not live by bread alone.”
Jesus was a man, and was living, according to God’s will, in the humble form of a man. And that’s the way it was going to stay. Jesus would not comply with the devil’s wishes. He would fulfill his mission. Our salvation from sin and death would be accomplished.
We think, too, of the temptation to jump off the pinnacle of the temple, which the devil also tried. Satan certainly had a flair for predicting what kind of religious performance would get the attention of a crowd.
We can easily imagine how many people in a big city like Jerusalem would have been attracted to Christ, in profound awe and with great enthusiasm, if he had done what the devil suggested:
“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”
That kind of performance - at the temple, no less! - would draw a bigger crowd than any contemporary chancel drama or clown Communion service ever could! But Jesus refused to give it even a passing thought. He replied with another quotation from Scripture: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”
Christ had not come to draw people to himself through showing off, or through putting on a spectacular performance. He had, instead, come to draw people to himself through his cross - with all of its shame and scandal - so that in repentance and faith their sins could be forgiven, and their spiritual life could be restored.
Jesus draws you to himself through his cross, as the message of the cross is proclaimed to you in his name. That is where the true yet hidden power of God is to be found.
By the working of God’s Spirit in your heart, soul, and mind, you are regenerated, and made to be a new creature in Christ. By the authority of God’s Word, which you believe, you are forgiven and justified in Christ. St. Paul writes in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians:
“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
If Jesus had thrown himself down from the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, he would never have been lifted up on the tree of Calvary outside Jerusalem. The crowds of the temple court, in amazement and wonder, would have carried him away on their shoulders. And that would have been the end of his saving mission.
But Christ was not going to let the devil trick him into a premature departure from his state of humiliation. He was going to ignore the devil’s reminders to him of his divine power. That power, real though it was, would remain hidden and unused, at least for now.
Instead, Jesus was going to continue to live and act as a man, not only there in the desert, but throughout the remainder of his earthly ministry. With only a few exceptions - such as what we heard about last week, in the account of Jesus’ transfiguration - he was going to live and act as a man all the way to the cross.
Do you see what the devil was trying to do in his temptation of the Lord? Do you see what your loving Savior prevented him from doing?
In view of this, can you see what kind of stunts the devil is pulling now, to distract you away from Christ and his gospel, and to draw you off of the pathway of Christian discipleship on which God has placed you?
He probes you for your human weaknesses, and then he exploits those weaknesses. He tries to lure you into traps by flattering you or frightening you into doing things with far-reaching harmful consequences that you would not see at the time.
And can you see what Jesus is doing now, to guard and protect your spiritual life, to keep the purpose of his saving work ever before you, and to strengthen you in your faith? Jesus gives you God’s Word.
He provides you with the Holy Scriptures - which he continually quoted against Satan’s temptations - so that you can be armed with God’s truth as a defense against the devil’s lies. And he speaks to you personally and sacramentally, absolving you and forgiving you when you do stumble and succumb, and refreshing you with his own life for the continuing struggle.
Think about these things. And as you do, listen also to what St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians:
“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles; but to those who are called - both Jews and Greeks - Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
In the wilderness, Satan tried to get Jesus to conclude that the life of humility and suffering that he had willingly embraced was “foolishness” - especially since he was the Son of God, and didn’t have to live this way. And it’s true that Jesus didn’t have to live this way.
But Jesus wanted to live this way. For your sake and mine, Jesus wanted to be weak and “foolish” - to be impoverished, humiliated, shamed, and eventually killed - so that in him, we can be enriched with God’s grace, be exalted to heaven, be glorified in the resurrection on the Last Day, and live forever.
If Jesus had succumbed to any of the devil’s temptations, none of this would have been possible. But he did not succumb. He remained faithful to his mission.
All of the benefits of the saving work that he accomplished in his state of humiliation are therefore available to you, as you draw strength from your crucified and risen Savior in the face of the temptations you endure. All of the benefits of his saving work are in fact yours, as you cling in faith to his Word.
“And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.” Amen.
17 March 2019 - Lent 2 / St. Patrick - Philippians 3:17–4:1
“Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” In his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul expands on this thought, when he adds: “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
So, Paul is not egotistically putting himself forward as the ultimate guide and leader, but is exhorting us to join him in being guided and led by Jesus.
In today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Philippians, Paul zeroes in on the importance of following him, as he follows Christ, with respect to how we define the purpose and ultimate meaning of our lives. In speaking of those who do not follow the way of Christ, he notes that
“many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”
We are all baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. We have all received the regeneration and adoption of Christ’s Spirit. And we all know the reconciliation and peace with God that accompanies Christ’s justification.
Hence we all share a common calling as citizens of Christ’s heavenly kingdom, and together have the privileges and duties of that common calling. But each of us is also given our own specific callings, by which we serve God - through serving our fellow man - from within specific relationships and positions of responsibility that are unique to us.
Elsewhere in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, Paul explains that “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.”
In that same Epistle, he also says: “Let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.”
So, we seek, with the Lord’s help, to imitate Paul - as Paul imitates Christ - in all those things that are common to all Christians.
As Jesus followed the way of the cross, to die for our sins, so we also daily die to self in repentance, as we acknowledge our sin and need for forgiveness. As Jesus rose from the dead in victory over the power of sin and death, so we also daily rise by faith in Christ’s promises, and live in him.
As we await our deliverance from this world, and our ultimate transformation in Christ, we already, in this world, know the grace of Christ, and the common calling that we all have in Christ, in whatever station in life we may find ourselves.
We are taught in the Epistle to the Romans that “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death.” Indeed,
“We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”
But also, specifically within the station in life in which we do find ourselves through divine providence and divine vocation, we imitate St. Paul as he imitates Christ, by faithfulness to whatever it is that God has called us to. As we are instructed in the Epistle to the Hebrews,
“Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.”
Our ability to be faithful in our specific callings, and to endure the trials that accompany those callings, does not come from our own strength. We take to heart what Paul says in his Epistle to the Philippians:
“It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life.”
Today we are commemorating the life and example of St. Patrick of Ireland. This might seem strange at first, because St. Patrick’s Day is usually associated with the celebration of Irish culture and national identity, and a Lutheran church is usually not thought of as a church of Irish heritage.
Now, I don’t know the genealogy of everyone in this congregation, but I do know that almost two dozen members here are in fact of Irish ethnicity, in whole or in part. But even apart from that, before St. Patrick’s Day was an Irish day, it was a Christian day - that is, a special day when the church catholic honors one of its most remarkable sons and servants.
And remember that we are heirs of the Lutheran Reformation, which was just that: a “reformation” of the one church of Christ on earth, and not the creation of a new sect with no connection to, or continuity with, the generations of Christian history that had gone before.
So, St. Patrick is one of us. There’s a little bit of Irish in us all. And the way we see it, there’s a lot of “Lutheran” in St. Patrick.
Patrick was one of those noteworthy persons in church history who did indeed follow the example of St. Paul, not only in terms of his faith as a Christian, but also in terms of his vocation as a missionary.
Not everyone needs to be a missionary as Paul was, in order to be properly imitating Paul. But Patrick was a missionary. He imitated the apostle in both faith and vocation. And Patrick’s story is an important story for us to know.
Patrick was raised in a Christian family in the Celtic Church of Britain, and had been baptized. His father was a deacon in the church, and his grandfather had been a presbyter or pastor.
But as Patrick in later years reflected upon his spiritual condition in his youth, he said that at that stage of his life he did not truly know God. In his heart he was not embracing his baptism and its blessings, in daily repentance and faith.
But even though he had forgotten God, God had not forgotten him. God providentially allowed a series of events to take place that would jar Patrick from his spiritual indifference, and that would recall him to Christ and to faith in Christ.
When he was sixteen years old, Patrick was kidnaped by Irish pirates, and was sold into slavery in Ireland, which was at that time a thoroughly idolatrous and godless land. He languished there as a swineherd, in forced servitude. In his autobiography, written many decades later, Patrick stated:
“At that time, I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity in Ireland, along with thousands of others. We deserved this, because we had gone away from God, and did not keep his commandments. We would not listen to our presbyters, who advised us about how we could be saved.”
“The Lord brought his strong anger upon us, and scattered us among many nations even to the ends of the earth. It was among foreigners that it was seen how little I was.”
“It was there that the Lord opened up my awareness of my lack of faith. Even though it came about late, I recognized my failings. So I turned with all my heart to the Lord my God, and he looked down on my lowliness and had mercy on my youthful ignorance.”
“He guarded me before I knew him, and before I came to wisdom and could distinguish between good and evil. He protected me and consoled me as a father does for his son.”
As Patrick segues from this personal testimony of his conversion and faith, to a discussion of the motivations that then impelled him into his calling as a missionary, he goes on to say this:
“That is why I cannot be silent - nor would it be good to do so - about such great blessings and such a gift that the Lord so kindly bestowed in the land of my captivity. This is how we can repay such blessings, when our lives change and we come to know God, to praise and bear witness to his great wonders before every nation under heaven.”
Patrick did eventually escape from Ireland, and was able to return to his family in Britain. But he had returned a changed man; a new man in Christ.
And there was now also a tug in his heart that was pulling him back to the land where God’s grace had converted him, so that he could be the instrument of God for the conversion of thousands who were still living there in spiritual darkness.
He received a theological education in preparation for such a ministry, and was then ordained and sent by the Celtic Church in Britain to become for Ireland the mouthpiece of Christ, and to proclaim to the Irish people: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”
There are two highly significant things to notice, concerning the way Patrick went about this. First, he did not go to Ireland by himself. He was accompanied by brother missionaries who would assist him in the evangelizing and catechizing of the Irish people.
These brother missionaries lived together, prayed together, and together demonstrated to the Irish people how Christians live. The lessons they taught their converts about the Christian life were not merely by means of lectures or catechism classes, but were by example.
It is of particular interest to us to know that Wilhelm Loehe, the famous Franconian or Bavarian Lutheran churchman and promoter of missions in the nineteenth century, looked to the example of the Celtic missionaries in early church history, in how he organized his mission efforts for the American Indians in Michigan.
Pastor Loehe did not just send one or two ordained pastors to go to Michigan, as isolated individuals, to preach the gospel to the Indians. Rather, he recruited a large number of Confessional Lutheran families to accompany and assist the pastors, and to establish with them Lutheran communities where they would live out their faith, and in so doing show the Indians how Christians live.
Even the names that were chosen for these Michigan communities were calculated to help teach the faith, and to teach who and what Jesus is to those who believe in him. Frankenmuth means “courage of the Franconians.” Frankenhilf means “help of the Franconians.” Frankenlust means “joy of the Franconians.” And Frankentrost means “consolation of the Franconians.”
A second important thing to notice in St. Patrick’s missionary efforts, is the way in which he and his coworkers began each day. There were plenty of sorcerers and pagan priests in Ireland who did not welcome what St. Patrick was doing. His mission work was a direct threat to them, their beliefs, and their power and influence.
And because they were in fact in league with demons, they invoked these evil entities to come against Patrick and his fellow missionaries, and supernaturally to hinder and silence them. The pagan Irish practitioners of witchcraft also thought themselves to have the power to manipulate the forces of nature in the service of their evil designs, with their spell-casting and curses.
Patrick was, of course, very familiar with St. Paul’s sober exhortation and warning, in his Epistle to the Ephesians:
“Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil.”
And so every day, before Patrick and his coworkers left their enclave to go forth for the work of that day - in preaching and teaching, baptizing and absolving - they together sang a particular hymn, often called “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” This hymn invoked the true God - the Holy Trinity - and, as it were, musically tied this God and his Word around them, as a shield against all the demonic forces that would bear down upon them and rise up against them.
This hymn recounted and confessed the fundamental truths of the Christian faith. This hymn recalled God’s authority as Creator, over all the forces of nature, and over all creatures. This hymn invoked the help and protection of Christ, as they went forth that day in the name of Christ.
We sang a translation of this hymn today, at the beginning of the service. We bound to ourselves - as St. Patrick always did - the strong name of the Trinity.
What was the result of Patrick’s work? Well, even if his work had not resulted in a large measurable number of conversions, we would still recognize him as successful, as long as he was faithful. And he was faithful.
But, as it so happens, there was also a large number of conversions as a consequence of his faithfulness. The Lord was very merciful to the people of Ireland.
When Patrick began his mission work, there were hardly any Christians in Ireland. When Patrick concluded his labors and departed from ths world, there were hardly any pagans in Ireland.
In God’s strength, and driven by the love for the people of this island that God’s Spirit had planted within him, he had literally converted a nation. There’s nothing else like it in the entire history of Christian missions.
And in the succeeding generations, missionaries from Ireland went forth to bring the gospel to other benighted peoples.
For example, St. Columba - who wrote the hymn that we sang just before the sermon - brought the gospel to Scotland in the sixth century. He and his companions following the model that Patrick had established, in his mission work in Columba’s homeland in the fifth century.
As individual Christians, as members of this congregation, and as members of our larger church body, we have continual opportunities to support, and to help carry out, the mission work that still needs to be done today: among our relatives and friends, in our community and nation, and around the world.
Let the courage and devotion of St. Patrick inspire you in this. According to your individual callings, follow the example of St. Patrick, as he followed the example of St. Paul, as he followed the example of Jesus Christ.
And let us encourage others - in our congregation and in our synod - firmly to believe in Christ, and confidently to confess Christ to those who are still in the darkness of spiritual death and ignorance, fear and confusion; and who are still captive to the lies of Satan and the self-destruction of sin.
And together with Patrick, let each of us receive - directly from Christ, in his Word and Sacrament - the blessings of forgiveness, life, and salvation that all men need, and that God wants all men to have. Let us repent of our sins, and let us trust in the Savior sent from heaven, who promises to bring us to heaven when our time on earth has ended.
St. Paul writes in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians:
“Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, ‘I believed, and so I spoke,’ we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart.”
Christ is the world’s Redeemer, The lover of the pure,
The font of heavenly wisdom, Our trust and hope secure,
The armor of His soldiers, The Lord of earth and sky,
Our health while we are living, Our life when we shall die. Amen.
24 March 2019 - Lent 3 - 1 Corinthians 10:1-13
“Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.”
“Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”
Church members are often accused by the non-religious of being judgmental, and of thinking that they are better than other people. Sometimes I suppose it’s true. Some church members are probably guilty of religious pride, or of looking down on others.
But today’s lesson from St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians does not give any encouragement to those who may have this kind of smug or superior attitude, by virtue of their membership in a Christian congregation. In fact, it gives a severe warning to them, and to all of us who are likewise outwardly associated with the Christian church.
In many places the Bible does speak a message of warning and judgment against the flagrant unbelievers of the world, who do not follow God’s ways, and who also do not make any pretense of following God’s ways. But in today’s text, Paul conveys a divine message of judgment against many who are at least externally associated with God and his people.
By means of his recounting of certain aspects of Old Testament history, Paul gives a serious warning to many who have indeed been baptized, and who have partaken of the Lord’s Supper. With the use of imagery that immediately calls to mind the sacraments of the New Testament era, Paul describes the experiences of the children of Israel in this way:
“I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”
All of the people of Israel who participated in the Exodus were beneficiaries of God’s special deliverance. They were all, as it were, baptized. And all of them ate and drank of the miraculous nourishment that God provided.
Paul adds, by the way, that it was actually Christ - the Second Person of the Holy Trinity in his pre-incarnate state - who was the divine companion of Israel during its 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. So, there is much similarity between these ancient Hebrews, and those who are sacramentally associated with Christ and his church today.
Now, even though all of the people back then were delivered by God from Egyptian slavery, and even though all of them were brought together to be their own nation, Paul tells us: “Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased.”
Most of them did not remain true to the identify that God had given them in their national baptism, as they passed through the Red Sea. Most of them did not continue as grateful and faithful followers of the God who had faithfully made provision for them - in the manna that fell from the sky and in the water that flowed from the rock.
Instead, they rebelled against God, in their hearts and in their outward actions. They turned away from him. And so he turned away from them, and judged them.
They were judged and punished as unbelievers and as haters of God, because in their hearts that’s what they had become - even though they were still outwardly associated with the community of God’s people, and even though they had previously been recipients of God’s favor and blessing. When they became unbelievers, on the inside, that past reality didn’t matter any more.
Paul gives a few examples of what it is that they did to bring God’s wrath down upon themselves. But what Paul says does not pertain only to these people, and it does not merely satisfy a historical curiosity we may have about what happened back then. What he writes, he writes for us, as a warning to us:
“Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.”
“Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”
What kind of faith-destroying sins did they fall into - even though they were, in effect, baptized and confirmed members of the church? Paul tells us:
“Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, ‘The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.’ We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer.”
The idolatry example is a reference to the incident with the Golden Calf. But we need to take note of the fact that the people sincerely thought that the Golden Calf represented the Lord Jehovah, who had brought them up out of Egypt.
Or at least this is what was suggested to the people by Aaron, the misguided brother of Moses. In the Book of Exodus, we read:
“Aaron...built an altar before it. And Aaron made proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.’ And they rose up early the next day and offered burnt offerings and brought peace offerings. And the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.”
For their supposed worship of the Lord on this occasion, the Israelites borrowed some of the cultic practices with which they had been familiar in Egypt. Employing these familiar and “culturally-relevant” religious usages would allow them to feel comfortable in their worship. Or at least that’s what they presumed to think.
They also thought that their worship on this occasion should be fun and entertaining, not sober and serious. They “rose up to play,” as the text tells us.
What we have here is an early example of an extreme form of “contemporary” worship, which was based on what the people were familiar with, and on what they already liked to do in their life in the world. But God didn’t like it at all. He called it idolatry.
Faithful worship is not just a matter of saying that we are worshiping God, regardless of what we are actually doing. God is the one who gets to decide what true worship is, and how it is to be carried out.
Faithful worship is a matter of listening to what God wants to say to us, in his message of law and gospel, as that message comes to us in sermon and song, in readings and rituals. And faithful worship is then a matter of responding to him in prayers of petition, praise, and thanksgiving that his Word has shaped in us, and taught to us.
Faithful worship does not involve “rising up to play,” in fulfillment of a misplaced craving for fun and entertainment in church. Faithful worship does not involve telling God what we think in our arrogance, or what we want in our selfishness, without first listening to him.
St. Paul exhorts us in his Epistle to the Colossians: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
God will punish idolatrous worship that does not focus on the Word of Christ, flow from the Word of Christ, or exhibit a proper reverence for the Word of Christ. Such presumptuous worship is no worship at all, but is a mark of unbelief.
But the list of offenses committed in the wilderness does not end with Paul’s condemnation of the idolatry of the Israelites. Paul also mentions the sexual immorality in which many of the Israelite men on one occasion indulged, with the women of Moab.
These men knew better. They had their own wives at home, whom God had given to them as their legitimate companions. And if they were still single, God would have given them godly wives from among their own people, with whom they could have been honorably married.
We shouldn’t think that it is only our generation that has been supposedly “liberated” from “sexual repression.” There have been plenty of epochs in human history, when people did as they pleased: without moral restraint and without personal discipline; without respect for those who are lustfully used and exploited, and without self-respect.
There have been plenty of epochs in human history, when people thereby called down upon themselves the judgment of a God who forbids adultery and everything associated with adultery.
And notice what else is on the list. Some of the Israelites were grumblers - chronic complainers about Moses and his leadership.
That doesn’t seem so bad - at least not when compared to idolatry and sexual immorality. But Paul thought so. And so did God. He punished it with death.
To grumble against God’s servants, as they faithfully teach and apply God’s Word, is to grumble against God himself. To grumble against the church, and against the people in the church who are doing the best they can to serve the Lord - even with their human weaknesses - is to insult the Savior who loves the church as his beloved bride.
All of these things - the false worship, the adultery, the grumbling - are evidence of spiritual hardness and hypocrisy. All of these things are evidence of a heart that is turning away from the Lord, if it has not already turned away completely. And this is still the case, even when the body is still in church, going through the motions of church.
All of these things invite God’s judgment. You cannot take refuge from this divine judgment in the false security of your outward church membership. You cannot deflect away from yourself the condemnation of God’s law through the recollection of your baptism and confirmation as historical events, if your baptism and confirmation are no longer a living reality in your life.
The Israelites who were on the receiving end of God’s punishment were all a part of God’s people, externally. They had been delivered from slavery with the rest, and were being led through the wilderness like the rest.
But in their hearts they had come to desire that which was evil, and not that which was good and pure. And so they were cut off.
You, too, will be cut off, if you also desire evil, and if you set your heart on that which is ungodly and wrong, and not on that which God’s Word gives and teaches.
You will cease to be a part of his church in the true sense - even if you keep up your outward membership. You will cease to be under God’s protection and guidance.
You will be placed instead under his wrath, together with everyone else who is without God: in the company of honest atheists, who have no pretenses about God and faith; and in the company of dishonest religious people, who do have such pretenses.
Is there hope for us, in the midst of these temptations, and in the midst of these struggles? Is there hope for us, if we have sinned against the Lord, by a false faith; if we have sinned against the spouse whom the Lord has given us, and against our own body; if we have sinned against the Lord’s ministers, and the Lord’s people?
Yes, there is hope! There is a way to be renewed in our baptism, and to be reconfirmed in our confirmation. There is a way to remain as a part of God’s true church - inside and out.
St. Paul says in today’s text: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.”
Jesus is our way of escape. Jesus is our hope. He is able to lead you through the temptations that surround you, and to guard your soul from those temptations, as he instructs your conscience and bolsters your faith.
If you have succumbed to the temptations, and fallen into sin, he is able to lift you out, and cleanse you, and restore you by his forgiveness. And if your heart has been hardened, and stained with sin, he is able to create in you a clean heart, and to renew a right spirit within you.
God was indeed displeased with most of the Israelites during the Exodus. But he was not displeased with all of them. Those who remained with him - not only physically, but also in their hearts and minds - remained under his grace, and were pleasing to him.
These were the ones who honestly repented of their sins when the law was preached to them. These were the ones who believed the Lord’s word of forgiveness and pardon - pictured for them especially in the tabernacle sacrifices that were carried out on their behalf, according to the Lord’s institution.
These were the ones who then sought, with God’s help, to walk in his ways, as the fruit of their faith.
In the institutional church of today, there are also many with whom the Lord is still pleased - in whom he delights utterly. He is not pleased with them in this way because they have no sin. All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.
No. God is pleased with the people with whom he is pleased, because when they do sin, they call out to him in repentance, acknowledging their sin. In humility they turn away from sin. They don’t turn away from God.
And God forgives them, and pardons them, because the blood of Christ, shed for them in the supreme sacrifice of Calvary, has covered over their sins. The righteousness of Christ has been credited to them by faith, so that they stand before God pure and innocent, even as Christ their Savior is pure and innocent.
This is our hope, when we become aware of our hypocrisies and inconsistencies, and when we are brought to conviction regarding our flagrant offenses too - and are troubled in our conscience by these failures. Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, and who therefore also takes away our sin.
When you in faith receive the forgiveness that he brings, the fear of God’s judgment - which you otherwise have earned - is taken from you. And the peace of Christ - a peace that the world cannot give, but that God’s Son does freely and fully give - is bestowed on you in its place.
You can know that you, personally, are among those who are pleasing to God, for Christ’s sake, and not displeasing to him. You can know this, because in St. John’s Gospel, Jesus makes these promises to you:
“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.” “Whoever comes to me I will never cast out.”
Think about these things, my friends, as you sing or speak the words of the canticle, “O Christ, Thou Lamb of God,” the next time you are preparing to receive Holy Communion.
In our congregation, the Lord’s Supper is available on every Lord’s Day, in one form or another. In that sacrament, God nurtures you with the more deeply satisfying “spiritual food” of his Son’s true body, and with the more wonderful “spiritual drink” of his Son’s true blood.
The physical act of receiving Christ’s body and blood in the sacrament, in and of itself, is not a guarantee that you are really a part of God’s true church. That’s why Scripture gives us warnings about an unworthy manner of communing, and the judgment that comes with that.
But when you receive this sacrament with a humble and penitent heart that trusts in the Lamb of God, who has taken away your sin, you will receive the sacrament in peace - as Jesus grants you his peace. And you will live, and someday die, in that peace, and not under God’s judgment.
“Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did.”
“Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” Amen.
21 March 2019 - Lent 4 - 2 Corinthians 5:16-21
There are lots of reasons to avoid sin. The first reason that religious people might give is because God forbids us to do things that are contrary to the Ten Commandments.
So, that’s enough of a reason. God is God, and he has the right to tell us what is right and what is wrong.
But there are underlying reasons why God forbids the things he forbids, and why he commands the things he commands. He loves us, and doesn’t want to see us hurt ourselves or each other.
He knows that when we act contrary to his will, we are thereby bringing pain and suffering into our lives - and into the lives of other people. He created us, and so he knows what is good for us.
God does not take pleasure in telling us what to do, and in punishing us for our failures, because of the feeling of power that this gives him. His law is not arbitrary, set up to prove that he is in charge. God has nothing to prove to us.
His law is, rather, a law of life, which promotes what is beneficial for human existence, and which warns and protects against those things that are harmful for human existence. St. Paul writes to Timothy: “We know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully.”
God designed us to live in a certain way, and to treat each other in a certain way. When we go against that design, and do and say things that we are not supposed to do and say, only harm will result.
When you sin, therefore, you do damage to yourself, and to other people. And you do damage to your relationships with other people.
And very often, in this world, that damage cannot be reversed or undone. If, for example, you are driving carelessly, or under the influence of alcohol, and you kill someone in a traffic mishap that you cause, no amount of sorrow and remorse will bring that person back from the dead.
We’re not talking now about whether God is willing to forgive our sins. That’s a different subject - which we will get to in a few minutes.
But we’re talking now about the observable and measurable external harm that our sins cause to others and to ourselves. Sins of our past that had an impact on other people, or that were noticed by other people, mark us in this world in perpetuity, and mar our relationships in this world in perpetuity.
In this life, we remember those sins. And other people remember them, too.
Consider for a moment those celebrities, broadcasters, and politicians who have been in the news over the past couple years, whose bad behavior from many years ago is finally catching up with them, and is bringing an end to their careers.
The failures and transgressions of our past may not be as widely known, but they are no less damaging to our reputations among those in this world who do know about them.
We are in these ways regarded by the world “according to the flesh.” That is, we are evaluated and judged according to the harmful words we have said, which as a matter of history cannot be unsaid; and we are evaluated and judged according to the harmful deeds we have done, which as a matter of history cannot be undone.
As far as the fleshly world is concerned, it doesn’t matter if we regret these words and deeds. When we are regarded according to the outward human flesh of our sinful human existence, our failures are never forgotten.
People who are well-catechized in the doctrine of God’s grace, and who have been taught about God’s willingness always to forgive those who repent, sometimes misapply what they have been taught in a way that actually caters to the destructive impulses of the sinful nature.
This is the notion that they toy with, and sometimes act on: Since God is always willing to forgive sin, committing sin is not such a big deal.
This monstrous misapplication of God’s Word can have the affect of diminishing our hatred for sin, or of minimizing the conscientious aversion to sin that is supposed to govern our thoughts and actions as Christians.
And so, with an attitude of entitlement in regard to God’s grace, we sometimes just go ahead and sin - doing what we know is wrong - with the idea that God will forgive us, and so in the end it will not matter.
It is certainly to be doubted whether such a planned-out intention to sin, and such a planned-out intention to repent after the sin, can actually coexist with a true faith - even a weak faith.
Genuine faith and genuine repentance are not a matter of repeating the right memorized formulas. True faith and true repentance pertain to the desires of the heart. And we cannot desire evil, and still count ourselves as God’s people.
St. Paul writes to the Romans: “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”
And St. John writes in his First Epistle: “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that [the Son of God] appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you.”
But even apart from this, such an easy-going attitude toward human sin and divine forgiveness fails to take into account what our sins do to other people in this life. They inflict harm on others that cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be erased and negated by the recitation of the right kind of penitential prayer in church.
When people regard us “according to the flesh” - that is, when we are judged and evaluated according to the outward things we have done in this world, and the outward affect we have had on this world - the damage that our sins have caused will remain.
Our reputations will be permanently tainted by other people’s awareness of these sins. Those whom we have hurt with our sins, will remain hurt.
These are all valid reasons to avoid sin, and to call upon the Lord for help and strength in times of temptation. It’s not only about the honor of God, and the obligation we have to obey God - even though there is indeed such an obligation.
In this life, and in regard to the earthly relationships that we have with other people, the way in which we are regarded “according to the flesh” is also important.
If you have sincerely repented of your misdeeds before the Lord, the Lord will not remember them. But history will. And the people in this world who were negatively affected by them, will.
There will be a lingering public shame attached to you, because of your public sins, for as long as your life in this world lasts.
Now, I’m not trying to rekindle feelings of embarrassment over past wrongdoings, just for the sake of putting a guilt trip on people. All of us who have lived for any amount of time have amassed a lot of memories of mistakes of the past that we are embarrassed to think about, and that we wish had never happened.
But I do want to warn people, especially younger people, about the temptations they will face in the future, and about the importance of resisting those temptations. Our sins do so much more damage than we usually imagine or ever realize.
Therefore I want to warn you about this now - before these things happen - so that hopefully they will not happen. It is still possible for you to escape from the particular sins to which you are being tempted right now, and from the harmful consequences that those sins will definitely bring if you were to surrender to those temptations.
So, with the Lord’s help, and with the wisdom that he gives to those who trust in him, do whatever you can to avoid giving others something sad and painful to remember about you. As much as possible, let it be so that when you are regarded “according to the flesh,” people will have generally positive thoughts about you.
It’s not a bad thing when it can accurately be said of people, at the end of their earthly lives: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them!”
And as Jesus himself also says: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
There is, however, one place in this world - one special and wonderful place - where we will not be regarded “according to the flesh.” There is a place - a place of refuge and peace - where our past mistakes and transgressions will not be thrown up to us, and held against us, no matter how egregious they have been.
There is a community of people, even in this life, where God’s verdict of forgiveness, and of not remembering past sins, will be implemented and put into effect here and now, and not just in heaven.
St. Paul talks about that place, and that community, in today’s lesson from his Second Epistle to the Corinthians. He writes:
“From now on, ...we regard no one according to the flesh. ... Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
The church of Jesus Christ - his temple and his holy nation - is, as it were, an outpost of heaven on earth. In his glory and power, Christ reigns in heaven from the right hand of the Father. And Christ reigns in the church as well.
He reigns here, in and through his Word of reconciliation, and the ministry of the gospel. St. Paul talks about that, too:
“All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”
When Christ’s Word declares us righteous, we know that this is the way he actually sees us, and will treat us. And those whose minds and hearts have been impacted and transformed by Christ’s Word, will also see things - and will see other people - as Jesus sees them.
In Christ, and in the church as the body of Christ, we are all given a fresh start, a clean slate, and a new beginning: by God, and by each other.
Because Jesus died for you, you are not regarded here - by God, or by God’s people - “according to the flesh.” You are regarded here according to who you are in Christ: righteous and without sin, born from above with a new nature and a new life.
Through your baptism into Christ’s death, you now live under his cross. You are accepted by everyone else who is under the cross. And they are accepted by you.
We are all one bread and one body, therefore, with the Lord’s mother Mary, with the apostle John, with Mary Magdalene, and with the penitent thief - who called out in faith to the man dying on the cross next to his: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus remembered him. He didn’t remember his sins, but he remembered him, and loved him, and forgave him.
And Jesus remembers you and me. In Christ, no one is condemned: not the Lord’s saintly mother, and not the thief on the cross - whose life had previously been filled with wickedness.
In Christ, all are justified. All who believe in him have become, through him, “the righteousness of God.”
And Jesus, who rose again from the dead to become the living Lord and head of his church, has brought you into his church. In the gospel he has made you to be a member of the spiritual community of those who are reconciled in Christ: reconciled to God, and reconciled to each other.
Today’s Gospel from St. Luke recounts the familiar story of the prodigal son. The father in the story represents God the Father, who forgives and forgets the trespasses of his humble and penitent children. The older son in the story represents you.
God wants you to do as he does, and to forgive those who have caused offense - even if it was a personal offense that hurt you. And in the same way, God wants those whom you have offended to forgive you. And he helps them to do so, for real, so that you don’t need to feel any shame or embarrassment when you are around them.
There are many people in our society who have never been inside a Christian church. This is a sad consequence of the de-Christianization of our culture.
They were not brought to Sunday School when they were children. And they have never attended a worship service since then.
They don’t know what goes on inside a church. They don’t know why people go to church.
In their cynicism and ignorance, they often imagine that one of the main reasons why Christians get together, is to judge and criticize other people. But the exact opposite is true.
When the church is being what it is called to be in the gospel, we don’t gather in order to judge each other. We gather in order to accept each other, forgive each other, encourage each other, and show our love for each other.
To be sure, we do not ignore the judgments of God’s holy law against sin, and against all the pain that sin causes in people’s lives. And so, when God judges, we allow him to be God, and to judge.
And we heed his judgments, chiefly in regard to our own failures. We admit that his judgments are true, and we ask for his forgiveness.
But when God declares his forgiveness, we believe what he says. We believe him when he forgives us, and our conscience finds its rest in that faith.
We also believe him when he forgives our brothers and sisters in Christ. And we, too, forgive them - even if we have been hurt personally by their sins. In the fellowship of the church, “we regard no one according to the flesh.”
In the fellowship of the church, broken or strained relationships are healed and renewed. Personal weaknesses are overlooked, with mutual forbearance. Offenses of the past are forgotten and buried.
That’s a part of what it means to say “Amen” to the absolution that is pronounced by the pastor, in the stead and by the command of Christ.
The grace of God is announced to all of you, according to God’s will. According to God’s will all of you then live in that grace, in union with Christ, and in a forgiving and patient unity with each other.
That’s what goes on in church, when God’s people gather around the message of reconciliation. And that’s what we would invite those who are currently not a part of the church, to come and experience with us.
We would echo the words of St. Paul, in the invitation to faith that we continually speak to each other, and in the invitation to faith that we speak to those who are still on the outside of God’s holy community:
“We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
And so, “From now on, ...we regard no one according to the flesh. ... Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Amen.