1 March 2020 - Lent 1 - Genesis 3:1-21

The devil generally follows a certain well-rehearsed strategy in the spiritual warfare that he wages against the human race. He has not made any fundamental changes in his tactics since he started this war against humanity in the Garden of Eden millennia ago.

The reason why Satan’s basic strategy has stayed the same, is because it continues to work; and because human beings in every generation continue to be vulnerable to it and to succumb to it - as they allow the devil to draw them away from God, and to keep them disconnected from God.

The descendants of Adam and Eve, as a category, have not, in their human nature, become wise to Satan’s ways. They are still just as gullible, and just as foolish, as they have ever been.

So, if we want to get an idea about what kind of techniques the devil might be planning to use against us, in his attacks on our faith and our salvation, we can and should carefully consider the techniques he used against Adam and Eve.

And studying how Adam and Eve reacted to the devil’s machinations in the Garden of Eden, can perhaps give us some insight into how and why we react as we do, to the machinations that Satan brings into our lives.

We notice several important things when we read what today’s lesson from the Book of Genesis tells us. In dealing with Eve, the devil first sought to plant doubt in her mind regarding God’s Word, before he launched out on a full frontal assault against God’s Word. He asked, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”

Satan knew, of course, that God had not in fact said this, but had merely forbidden humans to eat only from one tree. In the way in which he phrased his insincere question, the devil tried to confuse Eve, and to make her uncertain as to what God’s commandment had really been.

And Satan does the same thing today. “Did God actually say that you are not allowed to have sex?” No, he did not say this; but he did say that such intimacy is to be reserved for marriage.

“Did God actually say that you are not allowed to succeed and prosper in life?” No, he did not say this; but he did say that in your efforts to succeed and prosper, you must never resort to dishonesty or stealing, or fall into an idolatrous love of money.

“Did God actually say that you should never be happy?” No, he absolutely did not say this; but he did say that true happiness is to be found and defined in that which is noble, honorable, and godly, and not in satisfying the selfish and destructive desires of the sinful flesh.

Many times we are led astray from the truth by subtle deceptions like this. Such devilish exaggerations of God’s actual law make God look unreasonable and arbitrary. And they make us feel justified in disobeying him.

And second, we see the devil creating within Eve a desire to be like God, and to be the mistress of her own destiny. And then we see the devil using that wrong desire against her. He said,

“You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

He caused Eve to think that God was selfishly keeping something from her that would actually be beneficial to her. His sly words diminished Eve’s perception of the holiness and goodness of God.

But instead of raising Eve to God’s level, Satan’s lies, when Eve believed them, had the effect of lowering God to Eve’s level - at least in Eve’s mind. She lost her fear of God, and her willingness to submit to God.

Of course, it seemed right to Eve, at the time. Eve may have liked the feeling of independence and autonomy that the devil’s deceptions gave her - when he successfully plucked her away from God and his authority.

But this feeling of independence and autonomy was an illusion. What was really happening was the first stage of the devil’s enslavement of Eve, and of the whole human race, under the power of sin and death.

Don’t fall for this when the devil tries it with you. Satan wants you to think that you are “taking charge” of your own life, when you turn your back on God’s Word. But that’s not what’s really happening. What’s happening is that the devil is taking charge of your life, in order to destroy it.

In various ways the devil still plays these kinds of tricks on people. We may very well be tempted to think, at least subconsciously:

“God is a God of love. That means that he will bless me in all I do, as long as it feels right to me, and will not judge me. He is an indulgent God, who accepts everyone, and tolerates everything.”

But this is a lie. We are still obligated to sing the thrice holy hymn to our creator: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth. Heaven and earth are full of Your glory.”

And as Psalm 99 says, “The Lord reigns; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!”

Don’t misconstrue and misapply the love that God genuinely does bear toward the world. His love is an undeserved and condescending love, which comes down to us from the heights of his majestic glory.

But his love for us does not cause him to stop being God over us. He is not our peer, or our equal. Remember, we should fear and love God, and so obey all his commandments.

Any and all temptations we have to think of ourselves as “little gods,” who can make up our own rules about what is right and wrong, are temptations to idolatry. We must also renounce and ignore all the “New Age” and occultic mumbo-jumbo that would make us believe that we have the power to “envision” the realities we want to exist, and then to speak them into existence.

No. None of this is true. God is God. We are not God.

“You will be like God” is a lie that Satan has repeated over and over and over again - to Eve and to all her descendants. It’s a lie that often does appeal to the worst aspects of sinful, human pride. Don’t let it appeal to you. Don’t believe it.

We can also take note of a few things about the reaction of Adam and Eve to all this. Their reaction is pretty much like the reaction of all others in human history, who have ever succumbed to the devil’s temptations.

In her initial response to the devil’s probing, Eve said, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’”

That’s an interesting answer, because in the directions that God had given Adam, he did not, in fact, forbid the touching of the fruit of the tree, only the eating of the fruit. It may not seem all that important, but Eve is misquoting God’s Word, and is adding something that is not supposed to be there.

We must never do that. I wonder how many times we’ve heard that the “Good Book” says something that it does not, in fact, say.

Many people imagine that popular axioms such as “cleanliness is next to godliness,” or “God helps those who help themselves,” are from the Bible. But they are not. They are from “Poor Richard’s Almanac,” written and edited by Benjamin Franklin in the eighteenth century!

As we would want our faith to be guarded against unexpected temptations, and as we would want to be prepared for the challenges and trials of life in general, it is important for us to know what God’s Word says: not just to have a general idea, or a vague recollection, but really to know.

It’s easy for the devil to twist the meaning of the Scriptures, and to deceive you in that way, when he knows the Scriptures better than you do. And he knows them very well.

He knows how to misuse them, and how to make them seem to say things they don’t really say. Don’t help him in that process!

Instead, read and study God’s Word. Meditate on God’s Word. Listen attentively when your pastor preaches and teaches God’s Word.

Know God’s Word. And when you confess you faith, base that confession on God’s Word - without adding anything that is not supposed to be there; and without omitting anything that is.

We also read in today’s text: “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.”

And when our first parents were finally confronted by God, and called to account for what they had done, look at how they answered.

God asked Adam, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.”

Then the Lord said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

Talk about passing the buck! Adam did not forthrightly take the blame for his sin. He passed the blame onto Eve, and even onto God himself. “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree.”

And Eve’s performance was no better. “The serpent deceived me,” she said. She should have admitted, “I wilfully allowed myself to be deceived by the serpent, even though I knew better.” But there was no such honesty.

It’s no different today. When you’re caught in a sin, is your first reaction to admit your fault, or to find someone else to blame? I think we all know the answer.

When you are to blame for what you have done, God knows it. When you lie to him, or try to trick him into thinking that someone else is really responsible, it just makes him angrier.

Don’t treat God as if he doesn’t know as much as you do about what’s going on. He does. And he also knows a whole lot more.

He knows that Satan is trying to hurt you and destroy you whenever he tempts you to sin. He knows what’s really at stake when you play with fire in this way.

And so, don’t lie to God, or try to evade his scrutiny. Repent, honestly and humbly. Admit your fault. If there are others who are also partially to blame, God will find them on his own, and deal with them himself.

Just take the blame for whatever it is you actually did. Even if others coaxed you to do something that was wrong, since you knew that it was wrong, you are to blame for your own actions, not them.

And, ask the Lord for his mercy and forgiveness. He will show it to you, and give it to you.

We’ve noted that the devil hasn’t changed his strategy for all these many generations, because that strategy does usually work. By continuing to use it, he continues to succeed in bringing pain and suffering into the lives of sinful men, and in further alienating the human race from its Lord and creator.

But Satan’s strategy doesn’t always work. Even in the case of Adam and Eve, it worked only for a time. Their sin was inexcusable, but God still brought a word of promise and hope to them, even after they had fallen into the devil’s trap.

God’s Word had been clear. Once they had turned their back on his Word and had believed the devil instead, Adam and Eve did not deserve God’s help. But they got it anyway.

God spoke these words to the devil in such a way as to make sure that Adam and Eve could overhear them: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

The offspring of the woman - the virgin-born Savior of the human race - would someday redeem Adam and Eve, and all their descendants, from the power of Satan. In his death for all human sin - including the sins that had just transpired in Eden - this Savior would indeed be bruised by the devil.

His suffering would be real, just as the offense of human sin against a holy God is real. But in his resurrection, this Savior would bring deliverance and enlightenment to those whom the devil had deceived.

He would bruise the devil’s head - giving him an incapacitating blow, as it were - and thereby set humanity free from its enslavement to Satan’s lies. The coming Savior would win the victory over sin, death, and the devil. And he would offer the fruits of that victory - forgiveness and eternal salvation - to all who repent and believe the gospel.

This is the promise God made to Adam and Eve. And this, in essence, is the same promise that God makes to you.

The Savior who prophetically brought God’s grace to our first parents in Eden, is the Savior who has now come among us as our brother according to the flesh, and who supernaturally lives among us as the head and Lord of his church.

His Spirit speaks to us in the gospel to assure us of his pardon and reconciliation. In his absolution we are cleansed of all guilt; and all dread of God’s wrath is taken from us.

Jesus battled Satan for us, and was victorious over him for us. Jesus was bruised for our iniquities. And for our deliverance, he bruised our enemy, and freed us from his clutches.

In their embarrassment, Adam and Eve had fashioned for themselves inadequate coverings made of leaves. We, too, are not strangers to such foolish attempts to cover over sin, and to hide it from God’s judgment.

We may think that if we pretend that we have not actually sinned, God will be deceived and will not notice that we have. Or we may think that if we do a bunch of good works as a follow-up to our sin, God’s attention will be drawn to the good works and he will forget about the sin. But such cover-ups never work.

Even so, God will also forgive these foolish attempts, when we repent of them, just as he forgave the foolishness of Adam and Eve in this respect. As a substitute for the aprons they had made of leaves, God gave them adequate coverings.

The text tells us, “the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins, and clothed them.” Implicit in this brief sentence is a testimony to the first death that ever occurred on earth.

God himself slew an innocent animal - an animal that had not sinned against him - so that the skin of that animal could be used to cover the shame of Adam and Eve. What a moving illustration this is of our justification before God, for the sake of Christ’s innocent death on our behalf.

When God forgives us, he places the righteousness of Jesus upon us like a garment. This righteousness covers the shame and guilt of our sin, so that we can stand before God without fear and trembling, but with confidence and hope.

As St. Paul writes to the Galatians: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” And as Paul writes to the Romans,

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”

Our own self-made flimsy aprons of human righteousness would never suffice to make us acceptable to God. But the righteousness that Jesus has - and that he gives to us - does suffice. His righteousness, which flows from his perfect life and innocent death, is a perfect righteousness.

When God covered Adam and Eve with the skins that came from the shedding of a substitute’s blood - a type of Christ and his righteousness - they, too, were justified. They, too, were assured of God’s grace. They, too, were invited to approach God, once again, in faith.

The devil doesn’t change his strategy in his attacks upon us. But God likewise doesn’t change his strategy in saving us from the devil’s assaults, in making us to be new creatures in Christ, and in protecting us from future spiritual danger.

What he did for Adam and Eve, he still does for us. The grace that he showed to them, he shows to us.

The Savior in whom they were invited to believe, is the Savior in whom we are invited to believe. The righteousness with which he covered them, is the righteousness with which he covers us. Amen.

8 March 2020 - Lent 2 - Romans 4:1-8, 13-17

People sometimes think that the religion of the Old Testament was a religion of law, while the religion of the New Testament was and is a religion of grace and faith. There is some truth to this. But it is not as true as many might think.

In the days of the Old Testament, God did establish a new, distinct nation, which was called to serve and honor him alone. Through Abraham, and later especially through Moses, God did institute for his chosen nation a wide array of laws and ritual observances that would regulate the civil and religious life of the people.

With Abraham, God instituted the rite of circumcision, which the Patriarch and all his descendants were to undergo as a sign of the covenant that the Lord had made with them.

At the time of the Exodus from Egypt, God directed Moses to build on this, and to set up a comprehensive system of political and ceremonial regulations, which the Israelites were strictly commanded to follow.

Through circumcision, a man was now inaugurated into this detailed system of rules and precepts. For a faithful Hebrew, obeying them was not optional. God had commanded such obedience, and expected these things to be done by those who identified themselves as his people.

In the New Testament, however, we see something quite different being emphasized. Jesus himself, of course, was an observant Jew.

He didn’t always follow the human traditions that had been devised in more recent centuries by the Jewish rabbis, and that had been tacked onto the divine precepts. But he faithfully adhered to the genuine Law of Moses in his daily life. He performed all the works of the law that he, as a Jewish man, was obligated to perform.

But after the resurrection of Christ, and after the founding of the Christian church on the Day of Pentecost, those from other nations, who were now baptized into Christ, were not required to obey the precepts of the Mosaic law.

St. Paul was the most prominent champion of the Christian’s freedom from these external legal obligations. He and the other apostles explained that the prescribed sacrifices of the Temple were a foreshadowing of the supreme sacrifice of Jesus - the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

The kosher regulations - which required that only certain approved kinds of food be taken into the body - were a reminder of a deeper truth, that our souls should receive in faith only the pure, saving message of Christ. The regulations regarding the Sabbath day also pointed forward to the eternal rest that we now have by faith in Jesus.

Therefore, for those who trust in Jesus’ death on the cross for the forgiveness of their sins, and who have found rest for their troubled hearts in the mercy of Jesus, the temple rituals, the laws regarding forbidden food, and the Sabbath regulations, no longer apply.

They did apply, up until the coming of Christ. But now that Christ has come, and has fulfilled these requirements for us, we are no longer obligated to perform these works, in order to fulfill God’s will in our lives.

St. Mark quotes something that Jesus said on one occasion about the Mosaic dietary regulations, and about how those regulations were being interpreted as meaning more than they were really intended to mean, with respect to the people’s right standing before God and acceptance by God. And as he quotes Jesus, Mark adds his own parenthetical commentary on the long-term significance of what Jesus was saying:

“‘Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’”

The Epistle to the Hebrews also tells us about the genuine Sabbath rest of the heart, into which we enter when we receive and grasp the comforting gospel of salvation through God’s grace by faith in Christ, rather than by human works:

“There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest...”

Likewise, those who are baptized into Christ are circumcised in their hearts, by faith. They are no longer required to be circumcised in their bodies. St. Paul writes to the Colossians, and to us, that

“In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses.”

And to the Colossians, he also writes:

“Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”

To be sure, Christians do still recognize the authority of God’s moral law in their lives. The moral law - which is summarized in the Ten Commandments - applies to all societies, and to all human relationships. When we sin, we stand convicted under God’s judgment according to this universal, moral law.

But the external ritual requirements, and the rules for outward conduct, that were given to Abraham and Moses specifically for the nation of Israel, no longer apply to us in Christ. God no longer demands our conformity to these precepts. He does not punish us for ignoring them, or reward us for obeying them.

But as we look to the Old Testament, and to what it was that made the people of the Old Testament truly acceptable to God, we do need to look beyond the covenant of circumcision that God made with Abraham. We need to look beyond the national covenant that the Lord made with Moses.

In today’s text from the Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul explains why it is that the basic character of the relationship that God’s faithful people had with him in the past, before the coming of Christ, and the basic character of the relationship that they have with him now, after the coming of Christ, is not really all that different. In fact, it is fundamentally the same. St. Paul asks,

“What does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ ” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness... For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.”

This is an important point. The Book of Genesis tells us of a time when God made a promise to Abraham concerning his Seed; when Abraham believed that promise; and when God declared Abraham to be righteous and accepted in his sight by that faith.

But when did this happen? Did it happen after the time when Abraham was told to be circumcised, and to conform himself and all the males in his household to this requirement? No, it did not!

God made this promise, and Abraham believed this promise, before the covenant of circumcision had been inaugurated. In a certain sense, Abraham was justified by faith, and knew himself to be at peace with God because of God’s mercy, while he himself was still a “gentile” - before he had become a “Jew,” as it were, by circumcision.

The covenant of faith - whereby God makes promises, and his people believe those promises - is older than the covenant of circumcision. The covenant of faith - in which a loving God gives, and we in humility receive what he gives - takes precedence over the covenant of circumcision.

The Old Testament national law was just that - the law of the nation of Israel. But behind that national law, and behind the requirement to obey it, was the faith of Abraham, the founder of the nation.

Now that the New Testament gospel has been sent forth to all nations, the requirements of the national law of Israel have been left behind, and have not been sent forth along with it.

But God does want all nations to hear and believe his promises - just as he had always wanted Abraham, and all the physical descendants of Abraham, also to hear and believe his promises. These promises are now explicit in identifying Jesus Christ as the true and ultimate Seed of Abraham, who came to bring salvation to the world.

Abraham’s own understanding of all the implications and details of the Lord’s promise to him was no doubt limited. He knew that somehow, his “Seed” would bring the blessing of God to all nations, and not just to the nation that would come forth physically from him. God had told him that, and so he believed it. But it is unlikely that he knew exactly how this would be done.

Yet Abraham didn’t need to know and understand everything that God had in mind, before he was willing to believe God’s word. He knew that God was good, and that any hidden plan of God was likewise good. And so, Abraham trusted in the Lord.

God didn’t need to earn Abraham’s confidence by explaining everything to him. His pledge that he would bless Abraham, and all people through Abraham, was enough.

And this was the kind of faith that always animated the genuine believers among God’s people, throughout the Old Testament era. A right standing with God, and the hope for an eternity with God, did not come through an individual’s outward conformity to the Mosaic law.

If there was no true, inner faith, then there was no true, eternal salvation. St. Paul explains this in his Epistle to the Romans:

“For no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.”

The true children of Abraham, therefore, were not simply those who traced their ancestry back to him, and who shared the genes of Abraham. Abraham’s children were and are those who share the faith of Abraham, “who is the father of us all, as it is written, ‘I have made you the father of many nations.’”

This faith - this personal confidence in God - came before the ritual law was instituted. This faith - this personal trusting in God that justifies before God - still remains, even though the ritual law has been laid to rest on account of Christ.

Abraham’s faith - and the faith of those who follow his example today - is not a faith that presumes to offer anything to God, as if God’s favor can be earned by our works, or as if we can ingratiate ourselves with God by flattering him or appeasing him.

The faith of Abraham is, rather, a faith that receives what God offers. It is a faith that humbly relies on God’s utter and complete faithfulness, in keeping his promises.

And the chief promise that God makes, and that God does keep, is his pledge to forgive our sins, for the sake of his and Abraham’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. King David was one among many in the Old Testament who knew this, and who rejoiced in this. And so Paul reminds us that

“David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.’”

The law of Moses does not justify us. The law of Moses did not justify the people of the Old Testament either.

It did regulate their national life, and it taught them, in shadows and symbols, about the coming Savior. But neither we nor they are made right with God through the obedience of the law.

The moral law - which does remain among us in the Christian era - does not vindicate us, either. In fact, it judges us even more severely than the external regulations of the Old Testament would, since it addresses the motivations and thoughts of the heart, and not only the outward actions of the body.

God’s moral law, as embodied in the Ten Commandments, exposes that inner defilement that comes out of us - flowing from our sinful nature - of which Jesus spoke. And it drives us to repentance. Indeed, God’s moral law condemns the world, because of the world’s sin. But the law also shows us our need for Christ, and for the blessing that only he brings.

It prepares us to hear and believe the promises of God - since it strips away all illusions that we might be able to become right with God, through anything other than the forgiving grace of God.

If the people of Israel had been able to save themselves from the power and guilt of sin by the works of the law, then we would be able to do so today, as well. But we cannot. And the people of Israel could not. Abraham could not.

It was through the promises of God in Christ - the ultimate Seed of Abraham - that Abraham was saved from sin and death. He was saved, and justified, by faith, and not by the works of the law.

It was through the promises of God in Christ - the coming Messiah - that the ancient Israelites were saved from sin and death. They too were saved by faith, and not by the works of the law.

And today, it is through the promises of God in Christ - the divine-human Savior who has come, and who calls all nations through the gospel - that you and I are saved from sin and death.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Amen.

12 March 2020 - Funeral for Jack Colville

In the coming years there will be a lot things around here that will make me think of Jack. I will think of him whenever I lead my congregation in prayer from this altar, since the book stand on which my book of prayers rests, was made by him. I will think of him whenever I teach a Bible class in the fellowship room, since he made the lectern behind which I stand for those classes.

Jack loved to make things with his hands: out of wood, out of metal, and even out of cloth. I recently learned that he enjoyed making clothing, in particular speciality items that were hard to buy in a store, such as outfits for square dancing.

This was a recreation that Jack and his wife Mary had greatly enjoyed together, in their younger years. And Jack made at least some of the clothes that they wore for those occasions.

And, whenever I look in the mirror, and notice that my hair is starting to get a little long, I will think of Jack. And that’s because he was not afraid to point out to me, when my hair was beginning to look a bit shaggy, that it was time for me to get a hair cut.

Jack Colville was a dapper man. He always wanted to be dressed well, and to be well-groomed, for any occasion in which people were expected to look their best. His hair was always neat and in place. And he expected his pastor’s hair to be neat and in place, too!

Now, he didn’t say this in a disrespectful way or with a judgmental tone. It was light-hearted and with a bit of a twinkle in his eye. But, by the following Sunday, the hair had been cut.

According to Scripture, the idea of being properly-dressed is an image that applies also to one’s spiritual condition, and one’s standing before God. The prophet Isaiah employs this imagery when he says:

“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.”

And in the New Testament, St. Paul clarifies what this means when he writes, in his Epistle to the Galatians, that

“In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”

In the hymn that we sang at the beginning of today’s service, this imagery was used to illustrate how sinful human beings like us are able to face eternity with hope, and to stand before a holy God without fear of his judgment - a judgment that we well-deserve because of our disobedience of his will.

It is because the righteousness of our Savior Jesus Christ has been credited to us, and has been draped over us, so as to cover our sin and shame. We sang:

When He shall come with trumpet sound, Oh may I then in Him be found,
Clothed in His righteousness alone, Faultless to stand before the throne.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand; All other ground is sinking sand.

This was Jack’s faith. This was Jack’s life. As far as his relationship with God, and his presentability before God, were concerned, he knew that he could not make his own clothing - as he could for his square-dancing hobby in this world. He knew that he could not make himself look neat and clean in God’s eyes, by his own efforts, or by his own wardrobe choices.

Jack was aware of his personal failings. He was honest about his mistakes and missteps in life. He didn’t think that he could clean himself up adequately, so as to have a life of righteousness that would meet God’s standards.

But he did know, on the basis of God’s own promises, that God himself would, and could, make him clean by the blood of Christ, who died in the place of fallen humanity, and who thereby earned full pardon and forgiveness for fallen humanity.

This universal human predicament, and this universal human need for a covering for sin that must come from God himself, is described by the Prophet Isaiah, in the prayer that he addresses to the Lord on behalf of us all:

“Behold, you were angry, and we sinned; in our sins we have been a long time, and shall we be saved? We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.”

“But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Be not so terribly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever.”

Jack believed in God’s forgiveness of our iniquity - in God’s forgiveness of his iniquity - with all his heart. And by means of that faith, Jack received this forgiveness - this clothing of Christ’s righteousness - from God, as a gift of God’s mercy. As St. Paul writes in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians:

“For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

As Jack’s mortal life was slowly ebbing away, during the last several months of his time in this world, God’s gift of righteousness in Christ - God’s gift of a supernatural robe of righteousness that covers over all human sin - became profoundly precious to him.

According to the teaching of God’s Word, the Lord’s Supper is a powerful means through which God continues to renew this gift to his people, and through which he strengthens the faith that receives this gift.

When Jack was no longer physically able to attend public worship, he cheerfully welcomed visits at home from me. And he especially welcomed the opportunities he had on those occasions to receive from his pastor the body and blood of his Savior, for the forgiveness of his sins.

In this way he was preparing for death. In this way he was preparing for eternal life.

In his life in this world, Jack was a dapper man. And in death - as his soul rests in the embrace of Christ; and as his body rests in the earth, awaiting the day of resurrection - Jack is still, if we may use the term, “dapper.”

He is clothed with the perfection of Jesus, his Savior. We close with these words from the Revelation to St. John, as John describes the saints of God as they now live before him:

“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”

“Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you know.’”

“And he said to me, ‘These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’” Amen.

15 March 2020 - Lent 3 - John 4:5-26

“There came a woman of Samaria to draw water. Jesus said to her, ‘Give me a drink.’ ... The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?’ ... Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, “Give me a drink,” you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’”

This description of a conversation that Jesus had with a Samaritan woman, from today’s Gospel from St. John, tells us a lot about Jesus, and about his attitude toward some of the social mores and cultural taboos of his time. At this period in history, respectable Jewish men did not speak with strange women in public.

Like the more conservative cultures of the Middle East even today, it was considered immodest and improper to do this. And when Jewish men did speak with women - usually their female relatives, in private domestic settings - they would not do so in order to give them any level of serious religious instruction.

The attitudes of the time dictated that theological conversations were properly to be conducted only among men. Women were not perceived to be capable of grasping the finer points of a discourse regarding God and the things of God.

And Jews in general - both men and women - refrained from any unnecessary conversation with Samaritans in general. The Jews looked upon the Samaritans as a religiously and ethnically impure people, who claimed to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but who did not properly conform to the Law of Moses in that worship.

But Jesus broke all these taboos. He did speak with a strange woman in public - and a Samaritan woman at that! And he spoke with her about religious matters - about God and salvation.

He was willing to break social conventions regarding the interactions of men and women, and of Jews and Samaritans, if it meant that he would have an opportunity to share with her a message about the “water of life,” and to invite her to repent of her sins and put her trust in him as her Savior.

Jesus treated women as equal members of the human family. He cared about them and their salvation as much as he cared about the souls of men. And he respected them.

He knew that they were capable of understanding God’s Word, and of exercising a personal faith in God’s Word, just as much as any man. And he didn’t care if he would come in for some criticism from the religious leaders of his people because he believed this, and was willing to act on this belief by speaking to women - even Samaritan women.

Jesus didn’t govern his behavior so as to please the prejudiced and misogynist leaders of his nation. He governed his behavior so as to please his Father in heaven, who wills all people to be saved, and who loves all people equally.

If you are woman, do not allow yourself to be misled by the modern anti-Christian propaganda that the God of Christianity is a deity who was invented by a woman-hating patriarchal culture; and that the God of Christianity is a God who considers you to be inferior to men.

This is not what the God of the Bible is like. This is not what Jesus, the Son of God, is like.

His love and concern for you, and for your spiritual well-being, is no less intense than is his love and concern for any man. It is certainly no less intense than was his love and concern for the woman at the well.

And his wish that his people study his Word, know his Word, and understand his Word, applies to female Christians just as much as to male Christians.

Jesus does not let any bigotry or prejudice, emerging from the heart of sinful men, stand in his way, as he comes to you with his pardon and grace. The quality and character of his interaction with the Samaritan woman proves this.

And, as an aside, that’s also why we should not think that his decision to entrust the apostolic office to twelve qualified males, and to call only men to be preachers and sacramental administrants in his church, was a temporary concession to the limitations and weaknesses of the cultural of the first century - so that this restriction need not be followed by the church today, as it exists in a more enlightened and open-minded culture.

If Jesus believed that women pastors were proper for his church, he would have called women to be pastors. The fact that he did not do so, even though he was willing to cross other cultural lines in regard to the roles of men and women, demonstrates that a male-only pastoral ministry is rooted in something deeper than the limitations and weaknesses of his first-century Jewish culture.

It is, in fact, rooted in God’s enduring created order for the whole human family, in all times and places, as St. Paul explains this in his First Epistles to the Corinthians and to Timothy.

Within the order that God has established for our life together as his people, the attitude that Jesus showed toward men and women during his earthly ministry does set an example for how we today should treat each other, in his name.

All of us - men and women - were created by God. All of us - men and women - were redeemed by the blood of Christ.

Therefore all of us - regardless of our sex - are deserving of honor and respect from each other. Within the fellowship of the church, we are called by Christ to love and care about all, because God, in Christ, loves and cares about all.

After speaking to the woman at the well of the gift of “living water” that he would like her to receive from him, Jesus continued his conversation with her. When his questions about her husband - or husbands - made her uncomfortable, she did what we often do, when a conversation that we are a part of goes in a direction that makes us uncomfortable: she changed the subject.

The woman wanted to divert the conversation away from such a personal and sensitive point, to a safer topic - namely a liturgical, ceremonial question. She said:

“Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”

Jesus said to her:

“Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. ... The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

Jesus elsewhere criticizes the “vain repetitions” of those who think that the number of times they repeat a prayer makes an impression on God. Jesus also criticizes those who think that the external trappings of worship are worship. Quoting Scripture, he says:

“Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

But the alternative to such “vain repetitions” that is often proposed in popular Christianity doesn’t really solve the problem, but instead creates even more problems. When Jesus says in this discourse that “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth,” this is often taken to mean that we must be sincere in our worship - that we must really mean what we are saying.

But there is a big difference between the idea of truth, and the idea of sincerity. There are a lot of people in this world who are very sincere in the mistaken beliefs that they hold.

When I lived for several years in the former Soviet Union, I was personally acquainted with people who used to be very sincere in their communism. But they were wrong in what they sincerely believed back then.

The particular people I am talking about later became Christians - a couple of them Lutheran pastors, no less! And they were then very sincere in their Christianity.

The difference between their old way of believing and their new way of believing, was not a difference in sincerity. The difference is that what they later came to believe was true.

And the reason why they knew that it was true, is not because they believed it sincerely, but because they believed it on the basis of what God’s Spirit has revealed to them in the gospel, through the Holy Scriptures. That’s what Jesus is explaining to the woman at the well.

God wants to be worshiped by Jews and Samaritans - and by Gentiles of every description - on the basis of the divine Word, and not on the basis of human felt needs. His Spirit informs, shapes, and guides our spirits, so that we ask for the things that God wants us to have, and so that we thank him for the things that he has actually given us.

God welcomes our petitions and our thanks. But most fundamentally, what he wants is for us to believe what he tells us.

The woman at the well was not going to be able to avoid thinking about her immortal soul indefinitely, even though she tried to change the subject. God was not actually going to let her do that, at least not for long.

God’s Spirit, through the voice of Jesus, was going to continue to probe her mind, and to prick her conscience. God was not going to give up on her until she had turned away from her sin in repentance, and until, by the working of his Spirit, she had embraced the truth that he was offering to her.

Through his Son, God was offering her the forgiveness of her sins, the cleansing of her conscience, and a new life in Christ. He was offering her the water of life.

Only when she would embrace this gift, would she truly be able to worship God in spirit and truth. Only then would she worship a God whom she had actually come to know.

Sometimes, when you come to church, the lessons that are read, the hymns that are sung, or the prayers that are said, may touch on things that make you squirm in your seat a little bit.

Maybe there are some areas of your life that you think are not quite ready to be probed by God. And you feel uncomfortable when God seems to want to start probing them.

Perhaps there are certain sins you think you’re not quite ready to give up. Perhaps there are certain obligations you think you’re not quite ready to fulfill. So, when the Holy Spirit begins to prod you on these matters, maybe you’d like to change the subject.

But it’s not easy to do this, at least not here. Worship services that are based on God’s Word, and that are constructed around what God wants to say to the human race, are the kind of worship services that will indeed often probe and challenge us.

In a liturgical church such as ours, we don’t get to change the subject, or to make the service be about us and about what we are comfortable discussing. Jesus is in charge of the conversation he is having with us - just as Jesus was ultimately in charge of the conversation he was having with the Samaritan woman.

And in that conversation, after all these other things had been discussed, she made this statement to Jesus: “I know that Messiah is coming... When he comes, he will tell us all things.” Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”

Yes, indeed. The Messiah - who is Christ Jesus our Lord - does “tell us all things.”

Jesus tells us that women and men are to be treated with equal respect, because he died for both, and loves both. Jesus tells us that the objective truth of his Word - his message of law and gospel directed to our conscience - is to govern and shape our worship.

And there’s one more very important thing that Jesus tells us, as he tells us “all things.” It was also one of the first things he told the woman in today’s story. And he tells it also to you and me:

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

By his grace, as those who are baptized into Christ, you do know the gift of God. As God’s children, you do know who it is who is speaking these words to you.

In faith you therefore also know that the water of life is always available to you. And so you humbly ask for it - whenever you pray for forgiveness, for help, for strength, for courage, or for any spiritual blessing from your Lord.

And in sermon and Supper, Jesus gives you this water, which continues to flow to you and through you. It is, in truth, the Spirit of Christ, who continually flows to and through you, and who keeps your faith alive, as you in faith partake of his means of grace.

It is the Spirit of Christ who keeps your faith focused on the cross of Calvary, where your sins were atoned for by your Savior; and who keeps your faith focused on the empty tomb, where your victory over death was accomplished by your Savior.

It is the Spirit of Christ - the living, supernatural water of God - who leads you to see your continuing need to repent of your sins; and who also continually washes those sins away for the sake of Christ.

That Spirit - that living water - refreshes your weary soul, and reinvigorates your mind and will, for a life of faith in God, and of service to God. And as Jesus himself promises:

“Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty forever. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Amen.

22 March 2020 - Lent 4

St. Paul exhorts Timothy: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”

If anything counts as an “out of season” occasion in the life of the church, and in the life of our county, it is the circumstance in which we now find ourselves, as we are dealing with the alarming spread of the highly contagious coronavirus.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the President of the United States, have asked everyone in America to refrain from gathering in groups of more than ten; and also to follow careful precautions calculated to prevent viral contamination when we do interact with others.

Schools and restaurants are closing. Huge segments of the economy are shutting down. Many people are now out of work. And in a way that is unprecedented in modern history, churches of all confessions are suspending their ordinary public services.

This virus spread as quickly and as widely as it did, in part because of modern technology - specifically modern transportation technology, with jetliners carrying infected people from the virus’s starting point in China to all inhabited continents, before anyone knew what was happening.

And in their efforts to continue to minister to their members during this difficult time, churches and pastors are now turning to modern technology - specifically modern communication technology, with the use of Internet services and online Bible studies.

However, for sacramental churches - such as ours - which recognize the importance of the Lord’s Supper in the life of the believer, and which recognizes the importance of the gathering of God’s people around the means of grace, we know that Internet services cannot truly fulfill the mandate that Christ gave his disciples when he said, “This do in remembrance of me.” And online Bible studies, as useful and beneficial as they are, do not fully comply with the exhortation that the Epistle to the Hebrews gives us:

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.”

Some Christians are uncomfortable with the call of the civil authorities for all gatherings - including religious gatherings - to be limited to ten or fewer persons. They are thinking that this might be an improper intrusion of the civil government into the life of the church; and are thinking that compliance with this request might represent a hasty surrender to fear, rather than a firm reliance on God’s protection.

They are wondering if this is a time to invoke instead the words of St. Peter, “We must obey God rather than men,” and to defy this governmental request by holding their regular public worship services as before. This is a real struggle for some. And we can understand why this would be a difficult thing for some to accept, because it is difficult for us to accept.

But in the final analysis, the leaders of our churches have not seen it this way. We do not value our liturgical assemblies, and our regular worship services, any less than others do. We do not value the personal contact we have with each other, in the fellowship of our congregation, any less.

But we also value, care about, and love, our neighbors. And as St. Paul reminds us in his First Epistle to the Corinthians:

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

In these troubled times, we must not allow ourselves to be consumed by fear: fear of each other, or fear that God might not take care of us. Rather, as the church of God in this world, we are called by God to love the world as he does; and to love those with whom we share public space in the world. We have been called to take to heart what Paul tells us in his Epistle to the Philippians:

“In humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

Our congregations are making provision for the ministry of Word and Sacrament to continue, among and for the members of our churches, so that God’s gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation can be continually offered and received even during this time when regular congregational activities are suspended.

The Lord’s Supper will continue to be available to communicants who desire to receive it, albeit in smaller groups or privately, and with prudent health precautions. The preaching and teaching of the gospel will continue to be offered, through electronic media and in other ways as well.

But as far as our ordinary liturgical life is concerned, we are making changes - unprecedented yet necessary changes. For the sake of the bodily health of our members, and especially for the sake of the bodily health of all the other people with whom we have contact in this world - some of whom are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus - we are not going to “insist on our own way” in the days ahead.

As we are inspired by God’s love for us, to love our neighbors as ourselves, we are not going to “insist” even on God’s ordinary way, but will accommodate ourselves to something extraordinary, for these extraordinary times.

I hesitate to draw the comparison, but Christians under persecution, by necessity, “make do” with small-scale and private gatherings. Even apart from the coronavirus pandemic, there are no public worship services for Christians in places like North Korea or Saudi Arabia, for example.

I know that we are not being persecuted and threatened, as members of the Christian church, by our government. We cannot be thankful enough for the freedom and peace that we enjoy in this land.

But there is a sense in which we are being “persecuted” and threatened, as members of the human race, by the coronavirus! Indeed, all human beings - all who have inherited the sin of Adam; all who have been redeemed by Christ - are being so persecuted and threatened.

We love our fellow humans as we join them in enduring the uncertainties and inconveniences of this pandemic. And as we endure these things with them, we can and will confess Christ to them, and invite them to join us in trusting in Jesus as humanity’s Savior from sin and death.

As we have opportunity, and as we see the special needs of our neighbors - including our unbelieving neighbors - we will live out our faith in Christ among them and for their benefit, as we help them, encourage them, and invite them to join us in trusting in the mercy and goodness of God to see us through this trial.

We will remember what St. John teaches us in his First Epistle: “Jesus Christ the the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” And again, St. John writes:

“We have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. ... There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”

Indeed, when our neighbors see what we are willing to give up for them in love, maybe that will serve, at least in part, to draw them to Christ. But otherwise, if what our neighbors see, or think they see, is a selfish stubbornness on our part - a stubbornness that insists on everything staying the same as before - would that draw them? Would that not rather repel them?

During this time, when that which is familiar and normal in your spiritual life has been temporarily “laid down,” please make sure that you “pick up” what is now available to you, for the sustaining and strengthening of your faith. Do not let the unusualness of Internet services cause you to ignore internet services. Do not let the unusualness of online Bible study cause you to ignore online Bible study.

The reception of the Lord’s Supper is a great comfort, especially in scary and uncertain times. But this is never to be a matter of compulsion, and that has not changed. Martin Luther addresses pastors in the Preface to his Small Catechism with these words:

“You must not make any law about this... Only set forth clearly the benefit and harm, the need and use, the danger and the blessing, connected with this Sacrament. Then the people will come on their own without your forcing them.”

If you have communed regularly in the past, but feel at the present time that you might want to wait until the coronavirus threat has passed - or has at least been reduced - before you commune again, no one will judge you.

This is not a despising of the Sacrament, but is a temporary refraining. But this should also be accompanied by prayers that the time will soon come when you can once again, without these distractions, receive the special blessing of this Holy Supper.

Indeed, we should all pray - fervently and often - for the Lord’s grace, so that our faith with not only not weaken, but will be renewed during this time of testing in the church and in the large society.

We should all pray - fervently and often - that God’s people in these uncertain times will indeed be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world,” and will have opportunities to share with friends and relatives a message of hope in Christ: for those who are paralyzed by their fears; and perhaps also for those who do become infected, and may be facing death.

What opportunities might we have - as Easter approaches - to share with those around us a message of life in the midst of death; of comfort in the midst of despair; and of forgiveness and peace in midst of the guilt that weighs on burdened consciences, and the inner turmoil that unsettles troubled souls?

In the midst of so much that is confusing and uncertain, there are some truths - eternal truths - that are most certain, and that can be believed with unswerving confidence. We also need to remember this for ourselves, because in our human weakness we will inevitably be alarmed by some of the things that we see happening around us.

We will experience moments of doubt that God is still with us and is watching over us. And we will, as always, also be convicted, by God’s law, of our sins: as we admit that in these stressful times we have often done what we should not have done, and have often not done what we should have done.

But for us - for you - there are pledges and promises that are offered to you by God in his Word; and that you - as a child of God - can claim for yourself: on every day of this pandemic; and on every day of your life after this pandemic has passed. What Jesus has always told us in ordinary times, he tells us also now, in these extraordinary times: “Take heart; your sins are forgiven.”

And the Psalmist seems to have been going through the same kind of external instabilities and turmoil that we are going through right now, when he, by divine inspiration, wrote these words of comfort for us:

“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’ For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.’”

Of course, we don’t know how all of this is going to end: for the world, for the country, for the church, or for each of us personally. Some of us may no longer be dwelling in this world by the time this deadly disease passes. But even if the worst that the coronavirus can do to us, does happen, we will be safe - eternally safe - in the arms of our Savior. He tells us:

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.’”

For most of us, however, we will pass through this trial, and will come out at the other end of it, with our earthly lives still intact, and with our earthly vocations still in effect. But we will emerge with a reinvigorated faith in the God of all comfort, who has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” Amen.