SERMONS - JANUARY 2021
3 January 2021 - Christmas 2 - Luke 2:40-52
In this world, there may not be too many people you can really trust and count on. Usually, however, we do assume that at the very least, we should be able to rely on our closest relatives - parents, children, siblings, and spouses.
They won’t let us down. They won’t turn on us, or take advantage of us. But you know what? Sometimes they will.
As a twelve-year-old boy in a large, strange city, Jesus was dependent on his parents for care and protection. In his state of humiliation, and according to his human nature, he was like any other twelve-year-old child in this respect.
But in their negligence, Mary and Joseph lost track of Jesus, and left him behind in Jerusalem when they departed from the city to return home to Nazareth.
They would have been traveling with a large group of pilgrims. And according to the custom of the time, Mary and Joseph would not have been walking together on this homeward journey.
Men traveled with other men, and women traveled with other women. Boys and girls under the age of thirteen or so, would travel with the women. Boys older than thirteen or so, would travel with the men.
This might explain how Mary and Joseph could have been on the road for a whole day without realizing that they had left Jesus behind. He was around that transitional age for a boy.
So, Joseph probably thought Jesus was traveling with Mary, as he would have on previous pilgrimages. Mary, in turn, probably thought that this year, Jesus was walking with the men, and was under Joseph’s care.
But whatever the reason for their negligence was, they had not made sure that Jesus was safe and sound with one of his parents. And he was not safe and sound with one of his parents. He was all by himself, in a strange city.
Clearly this was the fault of the responsible parties here: Mary and Joseph. This was not the fault of a twelve-year-old boy.
But what did Mary say when she and Joseph finally found Jesus? We read, from today’s text in St. Luke:
“After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. ... And his mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.’”
Mary is exasperated. But she is also evading responsibility for her own shortcomings as a mother. She is actually blaming Jesus for his own abandonment. “Son, why have you treated us so?”
We certainly would have expected more of her. But what we see here is an example of something that is repeated often in human relationships.
Because of the sin of pride that is embedded in all of us, a subconscious self-defense mechanism is triggered whenever objective circumstances, or our own conscience, expose a failure on our part. There is an instinct - a sinful instinct - to blame others for our sins.
Tragically, this blame, more often than not, gets cast in the direction of the person who was harmed or endangered by our actions or inactions. This casting of blame onto our victims, instead of taking the blame for our own failures, is insidious.
It adds insult to injury. In the case of Jesus and his parents, it was bad enough that they had left him in Jerusalem to fend for himself. But this injury is now compounded by Mary putting the blame on Jesus.
In our families, when we do this sort of thing, and treat each other in this way, this has a very destructive affect on the trust and affection that is supposed to be there: between spouses, between siblings, or between parents and children.
But in spite of the obvious harm that comes from this behavior, the tendency to do this is well nigh universal. Even Mary was guilty of this. Certainly you and I are also guilty of this.
This episode shows that Mary, too, was a sinner, in need of a Savior. And when we behave in a similar fashion, it proves that we likewise are sinners, and are in need of a Savior.
In the case of Jesus, as reported in today’s text, when his earthly parents were nowhere to be found, he knew where to turn for the protection and care that he was not getting from them. His instinct was not to get angry with his parents because of their negligence, or to surrender to his human fears, but it was to rely on his Father in heaven.
Jesus went to the one place in Jerusalem that most vividly represented the presence of God with his people, and the protection of God over his people. He went to the temple. And that’s where Mary and Joseph eventually found him.
After three days of searching for the boy, they located him where they should have looked first: “in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.”
And after the unjustified rebuke and accusation that Mary hurled at her innocent son, he calmly and respectfully asked her a couple pertinent questions, too: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Follow the example of Jesus, dear friends, when people you thought you could count on, let you down and fail you, and when they may make the situation even worst by turning on you, and blaming you for their sin. Do not allow yourself to be overwhelmed either by discouragement or by anger.
Go to the temple. Turn to the Lord: your heavenly Father, and your divine protector. When human beings - even the best of human beings - let you down, God will not let you down. His words are ever true, and he is ever faithful to the pledges that he makes to us in the gospel of his Son Jesus Christ.
In a time of stress and disappointment, therefore, we can pray with confidence the words of Psalm 86: “You, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”
The promise that was made to the children of Israel in the Book of Deuteronomy, is a promise that you, too, can claim for yourself in Christ, as a member of Christ’s holy church:
“It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.”
When human flesh forsakes you, God embraces you as his own child, and lifts you up in his love.
And if you have been guilty of a sin like the sin of Mary in today’s text - hurling accusations, and casting the blame for your mistakes onto others - there is hope for you as well.
If you have been negligent in fulfilling your responsibilities toward other people; if you have let people down, when they had the right to think that they could count on you; and especially if you have then blamed these wounded people for your wrongdoing, you do need to try to make that right.
Apologize to the people to whom you owe an apology, ask for their forgiveness, and with God’s help do the best you can not to repeat those mistakes in the future - so that trust and mutual affection can be restored.
But know as well, that this sin was one of the sins that was imputed to Jesus, that was carried to the cross by Jesus, that was atoned for by the suffering and death of Jesus, and that was then left in the grave of death and divine forgetfulness in Jesus’ resurrection. This sin has been forgiven.
In today’s text, Mary’s sin of maternal negligence was imputed to Jesus, too. He was blamed for it.
But notice that he didn’t push back against this accusation, or deflect it from himself. He let his mother’s imputing of her own sin to him, rest upon him.
Mary’s sin was a sin that Jesus allowed to be credited to him. Jesus allowed himself to become guilty, by imputation, of the sin of negligence and carelessness that Mary had actually committed.
In truth, he allowed all human sins - and all your sins - to be credited to him before God’s tribunal, as if he were guilty of them.
He didn’t shake off any of the sins of the human race that were placed upon him, with counter-accusations and defensive self-justifications. He accepted all of them, he let all of them stick to him, and he carried all of them to the cross.
St. Paul explains 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.”
Before God, Mary’s sin is therefore forgiven, because it has now been paid for by fallen humanity’s righteous substitute. Before God, all of her sins are forgiven. Jesus loves her just as much as ever.
Before God, all of your sins are forgiven. They have all been paid for. And therefore you can be certain that Jesus loves you just as much as ever.
And Jesus is still, as it were, in his Father’s house: that is, he is in the living temple of his church, wherever his gospel is preached and his sacraments arer administered.
He is there - he is here - to forgive his people, to restore and heal his people, and to restore and heal the relationships among his people that have become strained or broken because of their sins: sins that include the proud and selfish casting of blame onto the innocent.
Through the Lord’s Supper in particular, Jesus is with us in this temple.
The body that was sacrificed for all sin, and the blood that was shed for the redemption of all of God’s people, is bestowed upon us here, for the restoration of our relationship and standing with God. The forgiveness that was won for us in the sacrificing of this body, and in the shedding of this blood, is received here in repentance and faith.
And this body and blood, and this forgiveness, also draw us close to each other, and reunite us in Christ even with those whom we have disappointed and offended - whom we have let down, and accused of things they did not really do.
As God has forgiven us, so too will those whom we have hurt and attacked, forgive us, with the help of their Father in heaven - filled as they now are with the body and blood of the Savior, and healer, of us all.
And in the forgiveness of Christ, the love of Christ returns, and flows through us to one another. One of the post-communion prayers that we use in our order of service speaks to this:
“We give thanks to You, almighty God, that You have refreshed us through these salutary gifts; and, we implore You that of your mercy You would strengthen us through them, in faith toward You, and in fervent love toward one another; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord.”
Sometimes the people we care about and trust, betray that trust. Sometimes the people who care about us, and trust us, are betrayed by us.
Such sins push us apart, and pull us apart, all at the same time. In this fallen world, this can and does happen among friends.
In this sin-sick world, this can and does happen within families. But there is hope in Christ. There is always hope, and a way back, in Christ.
There is hope for healing and reconciliation, under his grace, for those who have been divided from each other by sin. And even when such reconciliation remains elusive and unfulfilled, there is hope in the love and faithfulness of Christ toward us.
He remains as our companion. He helps us to bear our pain and burdens in his strength, and sets our hearts at peace. “The Lord will not forsake his people; he will not abandon his heritage,” as Psalm 94 comforts us.
St. Matthew’s Gospel describes Jesus as one who is like a mother hen that gathers her brood under her wings. The Book of Proverbs describes the Messiah as a friend who sticks closer than a brother. And especially in this Christmas season, Isaiah the Prophet reminds us that
“To us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
We close with these words of encouragement from God himself, spoken through the Prophet Jeremiah:
“Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” Amen.
6 January 2021 - Epiphany - Matthew 2:1-12
We all know the Biblical story of the Epiphany, involving wise men from the east who traveled a great distance to find the newborn king of Israel. A star guided them to Bethlehem, where Jesus was, and where the wise men worshiped him. That’s the story, right? Well, not exactly.
St. Matthew’s Gospel does not tell us a whole lot about the star that the wise men noticed, and that prompted them to leave their homeland in search of Christ. There are various theories about what this star was, held by people who do take the Biblical account seriously.
Some think this astronomical phenomenon was a conjunction of planets. Others are of the opinion that it was a comet. Still others say that no natural explanation is adequate, and that the appearance of this star was a miracle plain and simple.
Whatever the star may have been, it did fulfill a divine purpose in the lives of the wise men. God definitely used it to get their attention, and to prompt within them a desire to seek out the newborn king of Israel.
Yet the star, all by itself, did not actually lead the wise men to Bethlehem, where Jesus was to be found. When the wise men had nothing more to go by than the star, they ended up, not in Bethlehem, but in Jerusalem.
The meaning and message that they read out of the star did not bring them to the modest house of Joseph the carpenter. Instead, they ended up at the palace of Herod, the despotic Roman puppet king.
Geographically, the wise men were close. Jerusalem is only about six miles away from Bethlehem. But theologically, Herod’s home, and Joseph’s home, were just about as far away from each other as they could possibly be.
As significant as the star is in the story of the wise men, and in the story of the Epiphany, it did not, all by itself, lead the wise men to the true king of the Jews, and the Savior of all nations. It led them only to a usurper, and a satanic counterfeit.
What did finally put the wise men on the right track - toward the city of David - was the testimony of God’s Word, through the prophet Micah, to which the religious scholars in Jerusalem directed them:
“And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”
It is true that the star had pointed the wise men in the right general direction. And after the wise men were enlightened by the details of the Biblical prophecy, and began to head toward Bethlehem from Jerusalem, the star reappeared, and once again went before them, “until it came to rest over the place where the child was.”
But without the clear and precise testimony of Holy Scripture, pointing them specifically to Bethlehem, they would not have found their Savior.
There are, we might say, a lot of “wise men” today, who are also searching for God, and for a relationship with God. St. Paul states in the Book of Acts that
“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, ...gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.”
This human religious search is prompted by various influences and experiences. Some people are more sensitive than others to that inner feeling of spirituality and morality that sets human beings apart from lower animals, and that gives human beings the capacity to reflect on the meaning of their existence.
St. Paul writes in the Epistle to the Romans that “the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness.” As such folks ponder the deeper purpose of things, they generally seek to get in touch with the divine forces that they sense are present: either “out there” in the universe; or inside of themselves; or both.
But this awareness of a higher power, and of a higher realm of existence, is not enough to bring people to Christ.
We can know, intuitively, that there is a God. And we can discern certain things about God through our sensitivity to the natural law that he has imprinted on our conscience.
But the way of salvation is not accessible to us through these intuitions. The way for fallen sinners like you and me to be restored to our fellowship with God cannot be learned through introspective meditation or spiritual speculation.
This kind of spiritual sensitivity and inner moral awareness is like a star in the sky, leading people in a general way toward their religious destination. But all by itself, such sensitivity and such awareness can get us only as far as Jerusalem. It will not get us to Bethlehem.
There is an increasing number of scientists today, who are freeing themselves from the intellectual straightjacket of materialism and naturalism. These scientists can see that the ideology of Darwinism does not actually match the observable scientific facts.
They are opening their eyes to see the imprint of an intelligent designer in the things that they observe under the microscope, and through the telescope. They realize that materialism and naturalism do not and cannot explain everything. They know that there is something more.
When they observe the intricate mechanisms of the genetic code, or the vast reaches of the cosmos, they are filled with awe, and with a desire to seek out a deeper, supernatural, and even religious explanation for what they are seeing. We are not surprised by this, in view of St. Paul’s statement in his Epistle to the Romans that
“What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”
But the message of God’s redemption of the human race in the cross of Christ, cannot be read in the solar system or in the Milky Way galaxy. The strings of DNA that govern biological life in this world, do not tell us anything about the eternal life that Christ’s resurrection has made available to us.
The open-minded scientific observation of evidence for intelligent design in creation, is like a star in the sky, leading people in a general way toward a knowledge of God and of the things of God.
But all by itself, the awareness of such evidence can get us only as far as Herod’s palace. It cannot get us to the carpenter’s house, where Jesus, our incarnate Savior and Lord, is to be found.
Wise men who look for God only in the experiences of the heart, or only in the mysteries of nature, need to become wiser than they are now. They need to become as wise as the wise men of 2,000 years ago became, when they were enlightened by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures - God’s written revelation to man.
It is “the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” - as St. Paul writes to Timothy.
And how wise are we? Do we always seek Christ, and the salvation of Christ, where the Word of God tells us to look? Are we as firmly committed as the wise men of today’s text were, to going to the place where the Scriptures tell us our Savior can be found, and where our salvation can be obtained?
Since his resurrection and ascension, Jesus is no longer present in a localized way in only one place at a time - whether in Bethlehem or anywhere else. But he is encountered supernaturally in the places where he has promised to make himself available to his people.
Listen again to these familiar words from the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel, addressed to the Lord’s disciples:
“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
“I am with you always, even to the end of the age,” is a promise that is fulfilled chiefly at the times, and in the places, where the Word of Christ is taught and proclaimed, and where the sacraments that Christ has commanded are administered.
This promise of Christ’s saving and forgiving presence is not given in conjunction with the various “stars” that spiritually curious people follow in this life. This promise, and the certainty that Christ can be found where he has promised to be, are connected to his gospel, and to the sounding forth of the gospel.
As the wise men of the first century were instructed by the Scriptures, it became clear to them that they were not really looking for Herod or any member of his household, and that Jerusalem was not their final destination.
As the words of Micah touched their hearts and enlightened their minds, they now wanted to find the Savior of whom this prophet spoke. They wanted to find Jesus. And they were not going to be satisfied with anything or anyone other than Jesus.
The truly wise men of today also want to find Jesus: not a substitute for Jesus, but the real Jesus. They want - they need - the Jesus who forgives sins and justifies sinners; the Jesus who regenerates the spiritually dead and gives those who believe in him eternal life; the Jesus who heals broken hearts and brings peace and reconciliation.
You cannot find this Jesus just by following a star. At best that might get you close to him, in a certain sense. But matters of the soul are not like horseshoes. Close doesn’t count.
You can find this Jesus only by hearing, and believing, the message of the inspired Scriptures; and by going to where the Scriptures tell you this Jesus is available to you and waiting for you, to bestow upon you his gifts, and to receive your praise.
Where Christ’s people are gathered in his name, around his gospel and sacraments, there he is in their midst. And there you too will be, if it truly is Jesus - the King of the Jews and your own King - whom you seek.
You are not here, where Jesus truly is - to receive his salvation and to worship him - because you were led here by a star. You are in this place - to listen to Christ’s comforting gospel voice, and to feel his healing sacramental touch - because you have been led here by the teaching of the Bible concerning what Christians believe, what they do, and where they go.
The Scriptures supernaturally gave you a desire to be here, and they have supernaturally prepared you for the blessings you will receive here.
And the Scriptures likewise instill within you the entire content of the faith that you embrace, and that embraces you: as you grow ever closer to your Lord; as your knowledge of his ways matures; and as your appreciation for his saving truth deepens.
When the wise men in today’s text finally made it to Bethlehem, and realized that this was where Jesus would finally and truly be found, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”
And when you also find him - when, in the mystery of God’s pursuing and converting grace, he finds you, and calls you to the fellowship of his church - you too, with all truly wise men of all times and places, will rejoice exceedingly, with great joy.
“As with joyful steps they sped, Savior, to Thy lowly bed,
There to bend the knee before Thee whom heaven and earth adore,
So may we with willing feet Ever seek Thy mercy-seat!” Amen.
10 January 2021 - Baptism of Our Lord - Mark 1:4-11
In his baptism, Jesus became, in a very clear and decisive way, the friend and companion of sinners. The baptism that John the Baptist had been sent by the Lord to administer, and that Jesus also wished to receive, was a baptism for sinners. St. Mark tells us that
“John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”
But of course, Jesus himself, in his own person, was not a sinner. And this is why John hesitated to administer it to him. In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, we see this exchange between them:
“Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented.”
God’s Son was not sent into the world to live a sanitized existence: never having to see the pain and suffering of the world; or never having to deal with the wickedness and evil of the world - which was the cause of that pain and suffering. During his time on earth, Jesus was, rather, right in the middle of all of that.
To be sure, he himself never sinned. He never partook of the wickedness that surrounded him. But he came to be the friend and companion of many who had in the past partaken of it in one way or another, and who had been victimized by it in one way or another.
He came to be their Savior: to deliver them from the judgment and condemnation that they had earned for themselves before God’s bar of justice, and to deliver them from the inner pain and grief that had been inflicted upon them by the cruelty and callousness of others.
But, while Jesus was indeed the friend and companion of sinners - which was demonstrated clearly in his willingness to receive a baptism that was for sinners - Jesus was not a friend and companion of sin.
He was an enemy of sin. He was, in fact, the most severe and deadly enemy that sin would ever encounter.
And God’s Son did not come into the world only to deliver people from the eternal consequences of sin in the next life. He came to deliver them from the power and mastery of sin in this life.
Jesus loved the human race, and therefore he hated that which had corrupted the human race and filled it with misery and death. He hated sin.
He hates sin now. He hates your sin, now, not just because it is an offense against his holiness, but because it is your enemy, and is harming you.
Some people misconstrue and misapply the truth that Jesus is the friend and companion of sinners, by thinking that this means that they, even as Christians, can willfully continue in sin, without trying to change or resist temptation, and without seeking to grow in faith and in the fruits of faith.
Jesus forgives all manner of wickedness, selfishness, laziness, and pride, it is thought. And so all manner of wickedness, selfishness, laziness, and pride can be freely indulged in, with impunity.
There are many who think like this, or at least they act as if this is the way they are thinking. The rhetoric of the Christian religion may have been learned and repeated. But the essence of the Christian life is absent - or nearly so.
Do you sometimes think like this? Do you sometimes act like this?
This kind of thinking is not actually an acknowledgment of Jesus as the friend and companion of sinners. Instead, it seeks to turn him into a friend and companion of sin. But that is not what he is.
That is not what he was for you, on the day he was baptized. And that is not what he became in you, on the day you were baptized - baptized into him, and into a relationship with him.
In today’s lesson from the Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul talks about the practical consequences of our having been baptized into Christ. He asks:
“Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 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.”
He goes on to say that, in baptism, and in the union with Christ and with Christ’s crucifixion that baptism brings about, “our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.”
In his Epistle to the Ephesians, St. Paul is more direct and more specific as he talks about these things. Here he offers to us and to all Christians, both an encouragement, and a warning:
“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.”
“They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!”
And further on in the same Epistle, Paul continues this thought:
“Be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”
“But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.”
“For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.”
If you willfully and knowingly decide to disobey and defy God, and to embrace what God forbids, Jesus will not be your friend and companion in such a thing. You will walk that pathway, into the darkness, alone.
In your baptism - which unites you to his baptism, and to everything that his baptism means - Jesus does not become like you, as far as your sinfulness is concerned. But you, by his redeeming and regenerating grace, do become like him. St. Peter writes in his Second Epistle:
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.”
“For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.”
In the new nature that Christ’s Spirit engenders within you, you, like Jesus, become a hater of sin. You become one who hates your own sin, because of the harm it does in your relationship with God, in your relationships with other people, and inside of yourself.
According to who you are in Christ, you will always fight against sin. You may not always win. Indeed, in this life, if we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But you will always fight.
In your new nature, which bears the image of Christ, you will always hate your sin, even as Jesus hates it. And you will always love him, even as he loves you.
Jesus was baptized, with you and for you, because of his love for you - and indeed because of his love for all men. Because of that love, he became the friend and companion of sinners: penitent and hurting sinners; weak and struggling sinners. And he became your friend and companion.
Under the mystery of God’s righteous demands, and of God’s redeeming mercy, Jesus took your sin - your damnable and miserable sin - off of you, and allowed it to be hung upon himself. He did this in his baptism, in a way that pointed forward to his coming death and resurrection, and in a way that was mystically connected to his coming death and resurrection.
In a sermon on this subject, Martin Luther offers a deep and thoughtful explanation of the saving work that was accomplished for all of us, by and through the baptism of Jesus our substitute.
He explains why it was indeed “fitting” for the righteous Jesus to be baptized with a baptism intended for unrighteous sinners, in order to fulfill all righteousness. Let us listen:
“Isaiah 53 says: ‘The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’ For since we...‘all like sheep have gone astray,’ God found this remedy: He took the sins of all human beings and hung them around the neck of Him who alone was without sin. He thus becomes a great sinner - indeed the greatest sinner of all and the only sinner on earth...”
“Because He has become the Sinner who has all of our sin placed upon Him, He truly does need Baptism, and must be baptized for the forgiveness of sins - not with respect to His own person, which is innocent and spotless, but for the sake of us, whose sins He bears. He plunges [our sins] into His Baptism and washes them away from Himself - that is, He washes them from us, since He has stepped into our person - so that they must be drowned and die in His Baptism.”
So far Luther.
In his baptism, Jesus was humanity’s substitute and Savior - even as he was humanity’s substitute and Savior in his death and resurrection. Jesus earned, and in himself established, an objective forgiveness of all the human sins that he had carried and plunged into the waters of his baptism - leaving them there as he arose from those waters.
And Jesus now distributes the blessings of that plunging and arising, and the transforming reality of that forgiveness, to the world, and to you, in his Word and Sacrament.
Jesus took upon himself the sins of the world, and therefore also your sins, and drowned them in his own baptism. And this lays the foundation for the personal drowning of sin that happens again, every time child of Adam is baptized today, is called to faith today, and becomes a new creature in Christ today.
In his own baptism, Jesus drowned your sins. In your baptism, which Jesus administered to you through the hands and lips of his called servant, he drowned your sins yet again.
And he drowns them still, whenever the power of baptism - his and yours - is manifested in the daily repentance to which God’s Spirit drives you, and in the daily faith to which God’s Spirit calls you.
From one perspective, we might think of our baptism as a “re-enactment” of Jesus’ baptism. And from another perspective, we might think of Jesus’ baptism as a “pre-enactment” of our baptism.
Through your baptism, you are drawn up into Jesus’ baptism, and into everything that was done there for your salvation. And through your baptism, Jesus is drawn down into you. As St. Paul writes to the Galatians:
“For 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.”
There is a reason why the divinely-given formula of Baptism is repeated at the beginning of the rite of Confession and Absolution in which we participate every Sunday, pretty much before we do anything else in the service. It is indeed “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” that we presume to approach God, in humility, and with sorrowful hearts to implore his forgiveness.
It is because of Baptism - the baptism that Jesus received for us, and the baptism that Jesus administered to us - that sins can be forgiven here and now, and are forgiven here and now.
This is what we yearn for, when we, in shame and fear, admit that we need Christ’s pardon and peace. And this is what we receive, when we, in joy and hope, trust in his Word, and by faith have his pardon and peace.
And then, with renewed gratitude for his compassion toward us, and for his desire to be a part of our lives, we welcome Jesus once again to be our friend and companion.
We do not welcome him as a friend and companion of our sin. But we do welcome him as the redeemer, who has once again lifted from us the guilt of sin, and who has once again crushed within us the power of sin.
We together welcome him into our midst, and greet him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, also as he comes among us in his Holy Supper. As the crowds at the Jordan River welcomed him into the company of the baptized, so too do we welcome him: to be our strength and our wisdom, our teacher and our guide, our protector from Satan and our justifier before God.
Within the Jordan’s crystal flood, In meekness, stands the Lamb of God,
And, sinless, sanctifies the wave,
Mankind from sin to cleanse and save. Amen.
17 January 2021 - Epiphany 2 - 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
Americans value their privacy. We are especially sensitive to government intrusions into our personal life.
The Constitution protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures. If a law enforcement agency wants to listen in on our telephone conversations, or snoop around inside our homes, it needs to obtain a warrant.
In our relationships with other people, we also guard our privacy. There are a lot of things that we will not do or say in the presence of others - even if we might do and say those things when no one else is watching or listening.
We don’t like talking about such personal things with others, either. We do not welcome probing questions concerning our private behavior, and we won’t answer such questions.
Such matters are not the business of other people. They don’t have a right to know about these things, and we don’t have an obligation to talk about these things with them.
Even Christians value their privacy among each other. We should not stick our noses into the personal lives of church friends, when our vocations do not give us a legitimate need to know about such things.
A pastor, who does have a calling to be the guardian and guide of the souls entrusted to his care, is still not a private investigator. A pastor should not poke around for information about the personal weaknesses and secret shortcomings of his members, if there is no outward indication that there is a problem that he needs to address with them, or if they have not come to him for counsel and advice.
And even in the context of private confession and absolution, where there is a guarantee of pastoral confidentiality, the pastor is still not authorized by his vocation to compel people to discuss specific secret sins that they choose not to divulge.
But what about God? Does God also need to respect our privacy, in the way that we expect the government, our friends, and our pastor to respect it? The answer to that question is an unqualified No!
The fact that God has created you is the only “warrant” he needs, to be aware of everything you do, say, or think. And the fact that he is omniscient, and knows everything about everybody, means that he knows everything about you, whether you like it or not.
That’s something that Nathanael learned in today’s Gospel from St. John, when God’s Son told him that he had seen him under a fig tree, at a time when Nathanael thought he was having a time of privacy. And that’s something that we need to learn, too.
And because God is God, he also has the right to criticize us, correct us, and rebuke us, when we do, say, or think things that are wrong. Everything in our life is his business - not only those things that pertain to our public actions, but also, and especially, those parts of our life that we try to hide from others.
Nothing is hidden from him. And that includes the kind of things St. Paul talks about in today’s lesson from his First Epistle to the Corinthians:
“The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. ... Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? ... But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.”
I heard a story one time about a man who brought his computer to a computer repairman. He told the repairman that he needed to have his cup holder fixed.
The repairman was puzzled as to what he meant, until the man pointed to the broken CD rom drive tray on his computer. The man had thought that this was a cup holder, and had been placing his coffee cup on it, until it broke.
Now, if our inclination is to laugh at how uninformed and foolish this man was, realize that the devil is laughing at us in the exact same way, when he sees us foolishly misusing our bodies for purposes for which they were not designed.
God did not design your body to be an instrument for selfish, carnal pleasure. And that’s not referring just to sexual immorality.
If you take drugs, get drunk, or overeat, in order to give yourself a physical sensation of “feeling good,” apart from any higher moral purpose, then you, too, are using your body for a reason that contradicts God’s will.
And eventually, in one way or another, your body will also “break.” A harmful, indulgent lifestyle will inevitably result in personal harm to you - bodily harm, emotional harm, and spiritual harm.
Even if someone is able to sustain, in his own mind, the illusion that he is not actually hurting himself through his pleasure-seeking lifestyle, until the day he dies; on that day, this illusion will come crashing down.
Speaking of the unbelieving gentiles, St. Peter writes in his First Epistle that they live “in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.”
On the day of the general resurrection, as we read in the Book of Daniel, “those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
Concerning what will happen on that day, St. Paul soberly reminds us in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”
Again, as St. Paul writes in today’s text, “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.” Elsewhere in First Corinthians, he writes: “I discipline my body and keep it under control.”
The reason why God has given you your body, is so that you can glorify and serve the Lord with it. And that doesn’t refer just to “religious” activities.
When you fulfil your callings in life by physically working to support yourself and your family, and by providing tangible help to those who are in need of it, you are thereby glorifying God. When you receive food and drink in thanksgiving to the Lord, in order to strengthen and sustain yourself for such duties, you are thereby glorifying God.
When you engage in wholesome recreations that involve bodily activity, such as making music, creating art, or playing sports, you are likewise glorifying the God who made your body, as you rejoice in his goodness.
And when a man and a woman are united in an honorable marriage; and when they - within marriage - respectfully and tenderly enjoy and celebrate their love for each other, in emotional and physical ways, they do so without any shame before God. They, too, are thereby glorifying the God who joined them together in marriage, until death parts them.
“For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’” And when God adds an additional blessing, and causes their love to become fruitful with children, the joy of marriage is deepened and expanded, and the goodness and wisdom of God is appreciated even more.
These kinds of things - these uplifting and good things - are what God has in mind for you, as far as your bodily life in this world is concerned. But you will deprive yourselves of these pure and noble joys, and ultimately you will deprive yourselves of a relationship with God, if you do not heed what St. Paul also says in today’s text. He goes on to write:
“Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
According to God’s will, sexual intimacy is intended to draw us out of ourselves, and out of our loneliness, toward the one to whom we are committed in marriage, and into a whole life of mutual devotion and shared happiness with that person.
Sexual intimacy is being satanically perverted, when it is abused in such a way as to draw us back into ourselves, to feed an ever more consuming compulsion for selfish pleasure that will eventually destroy us.
Again, we have no right to privacy as far as God is concerned. He sees and knows everything.
That undeniable truth can be troubling to us, when we are trying to hide our secret sins from him. But that undeniable truth is of great comfort to us, when we repent of our secret sins.
When your conscience has been convicted of sin - whatever the sin may have been - and you do repent, you may ask, silently and secretly: Does God know that I am truly sorry for how I have lived, in violation of what he has called me to? Does God know that I deeply regret my misusing of his gifts, in violation of what he has created me for?
Does God know that I really want to change, and to follow his will in how I live from now on? Does God know how much I need his forgiveness, and his help?
The answer to all of those questions is an unqualified Yes! Even if you never share this private remorse, and these personal thoughts, with another human being, God, who knows all, does know your heart. And he does forgive.
For the sake of his Son Jesus Christ, who died for all of your sins - the public ones, and the private ones - God restores you to his peace. And God prepares you to receive in life the kind of blessings that he wants you to have, in place of the pain and suffering that you have brought upon yourself.
You belong to Christ. Your body, too, belongs to Christ, and not to yourself.
Remember what St. Paul said: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.” And Jesus, who did buy you with the price of his own body and blood - given and shed for your redemption - now graciously and lovingly takes possession of that which is his.
As St. Paul also writes, “he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. ...your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God.”
To this end, Jesus has given to his church the sacrament of his body and blood for the purpose of blessing us through it, in the most intimate and personal of ways, with his healing and forgiveness.
Now, just as people can abuse their own bodies in a sinful way, so too can communicants abuse the body of Christ in this Supper, by receiving it without true repentance and faith. That’s why Paul writes, elsewhere in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, that
“Whoever...eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.”
Take note: many of you are weak and ill in your body. Some of you have died according to your body.
But for you who will be communing today in repentance and faith, and who know from the Word of Christ who comes to you in this sacrament and why, you will not receive this Supper to your harm. You will receive it for the purposes for which Jesus instituted it.
The Lord Jesus Christ will be truly present for you today as your Savior and not as your judge. He will mystically unite himself to you for your great comfort.
Especially today, as you have been pondering the sins of the body, you can be comforted to know that the body of Christ - and his most precious blood - are offered to you as a remedy for these sins.
On the cross, Christ purchased you with the price of his body and blood. Here and now, Christ forgives you, and restores you, through the miraculous bestowing of that same body and blood upon you.
God’s forgiveness is, of course, offered to people in all the ways in which the gospel of Christ comes to them. The Lord’s Supper is not the only place where we can be assured that God has taken away our sins, and is giving us another chance in life.
But the uniquely “physical” character of the Lord’s Supper, and the physical way in which the gospel comes to us through this Supper, is, perhaps, particularly helpful and encouraging to those who have been struggling with the kind of physical sins about which St. Paul warns us today.
As we then return from our communion with the Lord to the vocations that God has given us in this world, we will do so with a renewed hope in a glorious and bodily resurrection to eternal life, at the end of this world - which Christ has promised to those who know him now by faith. As St. Paul reminds us, “God raised the Lord, and will also raise us up by his power.”
And so, as we come to our Lord in repentance, and as we seek the forgiveness and life that he promises to give us in his Word and Sacrament, we pray these words from a well-known hymn:
Renew me, O eternal Light, And let my heart and soul be bright,
Illumined with the light of grace That issues from Thy holy face.
Destroy in me the lust of sin; From all impureness make me clean.
Oh, grant me power and strength, my God, To strive against my flesh and blood.
Create in me a new heart, Lord, That gladly I obey Thy Word.
And naught but what Thou wilt, desire; With such new life my soul inspire.
Grant that I only Thee may love And seek those things which are above
Till I behold Thee face to face, O Light eternal, through Thy grace. Amen.
24 January 2021 - Epiphany 3 - Mark 1:14-20
In one of the most significant statements that he ever uttered, Jesus said: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” This sentence, as recorded in today’s text from St. Mark’s Gospel, established the trajectory of our Lord’s whole public ministry, and it succinctly summarized his entire public doctrine.
Each phrase in this sentence is filled with meaning. Let us, therefore, consider what Jesus is telling us here, as we hear and ponder these powerful words.
“The time is fulfilled.” The original Greek uses a special word for “time,” “kairos,” which carries with it the idea of a unique moment or season in which a unique occurrence of some kind can or will happen.
The text does not use the more ordinary word for “time,” “khronos,” from which the English word “chronology” is derived - which would call to mind the continuous passing of minutes, days, weeks, years, and centuries. Rather, the text indicates to us that Jesus wants his listeners to know that a unique opportunity, not previously available, is now presenting itself to them.
This special moment or season was long in coming, and faithful people in the past - in the Old Testament era - could see it coming. But it had not yet actually arrived - until now. Now it “is fulfilled.”
Another connotation of the Greek word that is used here, is that this unique moment or season, with its unique opportunity, will not always be there. A special time to act, or be acted upon, has arrived, but this special time will at some point in the future come to an end.
This is, on the one hand, a warning: “Don’t delay, and don’t miss the opportunity you now have.”
But on the other hand, this is also an invitation: “All is now ready. The heavenly blessings you need are now available to you. The season of the revelation of God’s love for you has come.”
One thinks also of St. Paul’s words, in Second Corinthians:
“We appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says, ‘In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.’ Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.”
He, too, uses the Greek word “kairos.”
Returning to Jesus’ statement, what exactly has come? He says: “The kingdom of God is at hand.” That’s what our Lord is talking about.
It has been said that “the kingdom of God” is “the supreme concept of the New Testament.” That’s quite a claim.
But it is borne out when we see how often Jesus speaks of this kingdom in his sermons and parables. And among the relatively few petitions that Jesus teaches us to offer in the Lord’s Prayer, he includes one in which we are to ask that God’s “kingdom” will come.
Jesus makes it clear that this divine kingdom is wholly unlike other kingdoms with which we may be familiar. As he testified before Pontius Pilate, as recorded in John’s Gospel:
“My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”
While misguided Christians through the centuries have sometimes forgotten this, the kingdom of Christ and of God is not a kingdom of bodily violence, external coercion, or emotional manipulation. We cannot force or bait someone, by worldly means, into God’s kingdom.
We cannot compel someone to enter God’s kingdom against his will, or entice someone into entering God’s kingdom by appealing to the “felt needs” of his selfish sinful nature. An entirely different set of rules and norms applies in Christ’s kingdom. Luther explains this very nicely in his Large Catechism:
“What is the kingdom of God? ... That God sent his Son, Christ our Lord, into the world, to redeem and deliver us from the power of the devil; to bring us to himself; and to rule us as a king of righteousness, life, and salvation; against sin, death, and an evil conscience. To this end he also gave his Holy Spirit, to deliver this to us through his holy Word; and to enlighten and strengthen us in faith, by his power.”
This hidden yet very real reign of God, among and within men, is indeed now very near. As Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” On another occasion, as recorded in St. Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus was conversing with a group of Pharisees, he said:
“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
And who was in the midst of those Pharisees when Jesus uttered these words? Jesus was! The kingdom of God is at hand because Jesus is at hand.
The kingdom of God is at hand because Christ, the incarnate Son of God and the Savior of men, has now become a part of our human story, and will remain a part of it until the end of this age.
In his very person, he embodies the kingdom for which he stands, and in which he reigns. He is the king - the king of kings - and where the king is, so too is the kingdom. That’s not the way it is with earthly kingdoms.
The claimants to the thrones of various European nations that have now become republics, live in exile, without any regal power, in a host of other countries. At one time the Queen of Hungary was living in Chicago, and the Czar of Russia was living somewhere in Florida.
But with the kingdom of Christ, Jesus makes his kingdom to be present by the power of his Word, whenever and wherever his Word is proclaimed and believed.
It might be observed, though, that, from our human perspective, Jesus doesn’t seem to be projecting his kingly influence and authority into our world very effectively. Human suffering remains. Injustice prevails.
The wicked prosper, and the poor are crushed down. Is Christ really a king, reigning within a kingdom, if things like this, which are clearly against his will, unrelentingly go on?
But remember, the kingdom of Christ is “not of this world.” And, accordingly, its influence is projected among men in ways that are different than the ways in which we experience the influence of other kingdoms.
In the kingdoms of this world there is much human suffering and injustice. But in the kingdom of God, in which we live by faith, we know that Christ has suffered for us, in the supreme injustice of his innocent death, once and for all time.
Therefore, as citizens of his kingdom - even in the midst of the suffering and injustice that we experience in this world - we are filled with the joy and peace of the salvation that is ours in him.
In the kingdoms of this world there is much poverty and despair. But In the kingdom of God, in which we live by faith, we know that Christ, the friend of the poor who himself had no place to lay his head, has been resurrected to a full use and manifestation of all his divine glory.
In his ascended glory at the right hand of the Father, Jesus now controls and governs all things for the benefit of his church. Therefore, as citizens of his kingdom - even in the midst of the poverty and despair that we experience in this world - we are filled with the riches of God’s grace, and with an eternal hope that looks beyond the horizons of this life, to the life to come.
St. Paul writes in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”
God’s kingdom - which offers such mercy and such marvels to humanity - truly is “at hand.” But how do we become citizens of it, and enter it? How does it envelope and embrace us?
Jesus says: “Repent and believe in the gospel.” So, we don’t buy our way in. We don’t talk our way in.
Rather, we “get in,” as it were, when we acknowledge and believe that what God says about us and our sin is true; and when we acknowledge and believe that what God says about himself and his grace is true.
To “repent” means to change or turn the mind - that is, to change one’s entire way of thinking. It means that we turn away from the sins and sinfulness of the past and the present, and embrace something else for the future.
Human feelings are certainly involved in repentance - feelings of guilt, regret, and sorrow. But human feelings do not exhaust the meaning or application of the word “repent.”
When Jesus says, “Repent,” he’s not just addressing your feelings. He’s addressing the totality of your being: your mind, your will, your conscience.
He calls upon you to think different thoughts - or as St. Paul says in First Corinthians, to put on “the mind of Christ.” He calls upon you to wish for different things - or as St. Paul says in Second Timothy, to “desire to live a godly life.”
And the Spirit of Christ, who indwells you and regenerates you, works and instills within you - by his convicting and transforming power - those changes for which Christ calls.
And Jesus says, “Believe in the gospel.” The word “gospel” means “glad tidings” or “good news.” It is indeed good news to a sinner, to be told that God is at peace with him, and will not punish him for his transgressions.
The pathway into God’s kingdom is the pathway of believing that Jesus has the authority to say to people, “Your sins are forgiven”; and of believing that Jesus is therefore speaking the truth when he says to you, “Your sins are forgiven.”
And he does say this to you, in your baptism, in Holy Absolution, and in his Holy Supper. He says it, and he means it.
This gospel of forgiveness in Christ is the gateway into the kingdom of God. And this gospel brings with it every other spiritual blessing that God bestows upon those who are citizens of his kingdom. “For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation,” as the Small Catechism reminds us.
This gospel is, as St. Paul writes to the Romans, “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”
Dear friends in Christ: You are citizens of God’s kingdom, which is “at hand” here, for you. Now is the time - the moment or season appointed by God - for you to repent. Now is the time - the moment or season appointed by God - for you to believe in the gospel.
The words that Jesus once addressed to the paralytic man, and that he once addressed to the sinful woman, are words that he addresses to you right now: “Your sins are forgiven.” By his suffering you are redeemed. By his atoning death you are justified. By his resurrection you are enriched and enlivened.
All of this is an ongoing reality for us who are in God’s kingdom, and who live under the loving Lordship of Christ. Repentance is not just something that we did in the past, because our need for repentance is not just in the past.
In the very first of his famous Ninety-Five Theses, Luther declared: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”
And believing in the gospel is likewise not just something that we did in the past, because our need for the gospel is not just in the past, either. The content of the gospel is Christ himself - his person and work, his obedience and love.
We never rise above, or move beyond, our need for Christ, in every moment of every day. And so we rejoice in the promise that Jesus makes in St. John’s Gospel:
“If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”
Repentance and faith are always the present signs of our present life in Christ. They are the respiration of the soul.
We continually breathe out our sins, and breathe in God’s forgiveness. This is going on constantly. If it ever stopped, we would spiritually die.
But in Christ, and in the faith-creating and faith-sustaining ministry of Word and sacrament that Christ continues to bring to us, it doesn’t stop. When we sin, we do repent. And when Christ forgives, we do believe.
Christ gives himself to us, and we receive him. And Christ draws us ever more deeply into the comfort of his embrace, and into the safety of his kingdom.
These things were true for, and available to, the people who were alive during Jesus’ earthly ministry, and who heard him preach in person. And these things are true for you and me, and are available to you and me - here and now - as we hear Jesus speak to us through the pages of Holy Scripture, and through the voice of the public ministry of his church.
The special season of the revelation of God’s kingdom - the special season for repentance and faith - has not yet ended. God’s invitation is still in effect.
God’s grace is still available. In his grace, God’s Son is still reaching out to you and to all people, and is still preaching to you and to all people:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Amen.
31 January 2021 - Epiphany 4 - Mark 1:21-28
In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, one of the official creedal statements of our church, we read:
“On account of original sin, ...human nature was not only subjected to death and other bodily ills, but also to the reign of the devil. ... This horrible sentence is pronounced: ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers.’ ... Human nature is enslaved and held captive by the devil, who deceives it with ungodly opinions and errors and incites it to all sorts of sins. ...”
“We, by our own powers, are unable to free ourselves from that slavery. World history itself shows how great is the strength of the devil’s rule. Blasphemy and wicked teachings fill the world, and in these bonds the devil holds enthralled those who are wise and righteous in the eyes of the world. In others even greater vices appear.”
So far the Apology.
This is not a pretty picture. But it is an accurate picture of the condition of fallen man: of his internal condition, where he is lacking in righteousness and faith and is antagonistic toward God; and of his external condition, where he is manipulated by supernatural powers of which he is usually not even aware.
This realm of “powers and principalities” is a realm that self-styled “modern” and “enlightened” people, with their materialist worldview, often have no interest in exploring. They consider it all to be nothing more than superstitious nonsense.
But there is a growing number of people in our time who do not believe that the natural world is the only real world. There is an ever-growing fascination with angels, spirits, and “new-age” mystical experiences; and a new openness to belief in a supernatural realm, inhabited by supernatural beings.
But even with this new interest in such things among twenty-first century people, those who naively ponder and probe these matters without the guidance of the Holy Scriptures, severely underestimate the seductive and deceptive power of Satan and of his minions: over the world, and over them.
Sometimes the devil, or the unclean spirits that serve him, operate in a direct way in the lives of individuals. Today’s Gospel from St. Mark describes one such instance, in which a man was demonized, or under the control of such a spirit.
The Lutheran theologian Francis Pieper writes that when this happens, the devil thereby “takes possession of a man by personally dwelling in him, so that the demoniac, bereft of the use of his reason and will, becomes the involuntary instrument of Satan. The human personality no longer functions; the devil, in person, becomes the acting subject. The demoniac is no longer responsible for his actions.”
Most of the time, though, evil spirits are content to work indirectly and “behind the scenes,” exploiting their unholy alliance with humanity’s sinful nature, which is a willing accomplice with them. But whether the devil and his angels are working directly and perceptively, or indirectly and sneakily, they are always striving for the same goals, and are always working for the same results. Again, as Dr. Pieper goes on to explain,
“The activities of the evil angels are...evil throughout. Scripture describes them, for our information and warning, very clearly and in full detail. All endeavors of the wicked angels are aimed at harming man in his body..., in his temporal possessions..., and particularly in his soul...”
“The entire state of unbelief - among heathen nations as well as in external Christendom - is a work of the devil... All who do not believe the gospel are thinking and doing what the devil wills; they are completely in his power... And the fact that men do not know this, yes, even deny the existence of the devil, is likewise due to the operation of the devil.”
So far Dr. Pieper.
But why should this be of concern to us, who profess Christ? Haven’t we already been delivered from Satan’s dominion, so that we are no longer in spiritual danger?
Well, let’s not forget that the devil knows what we too should know, namely, that it is possible for a believer in Christ to be lured away from his Savior, to renounce his faith and expel the Holy Spirit from his life, and to become once again an unbeliever.
Satan was no doubt paying close attention to Jesus when Jesus spoke, in his explanation of the parable of the sower, of “those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away.”
The devil is very interested in those people whom he thinks may be in this category. And he is more than willing to bring into their lives the kind of testing that Jesus describes, and that can, as the devil would hope, topple a temporary faith.
And, this kind of testing can come to people in subtle ways. It can come to you in subtle ways.
Do you sometimes think up clever excuses - that you yourself don’t really believe - to avoid a God-given responsibility in your workplace, in your family, or in your church? This is a subtle but very real spiritual testing in your life - brought about by your own lazy flesh and its ally Satan - which weakens your connection with God and your vocation from God, and threatens your faith.
Do you sometimes come up with what seem to you to be ingenious ways to rationalize and justify your sins - sins of greed, of lust, or of pride - so that you can avoid thinking about those sins as sins, and so that you can avoid dealing with them?
When you pray, “I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess to You all my sins and iniquities,” do you really mean “all,” or do you mean “some” or “most”? This kind of self-deception is a very serious and dangerous testing of your faith in God and in his authority over you, which arises from within your own sinful nature, in cahoots with the devil.
Listen to the words of St. Paul, from his First Epistle to the Corinthians: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed, lest he fall.”
And listen to the warning of St. Peter’s First Epistle: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” The devil wants to devour you.
In today’s Gospel, the devil also wanted to devour the poor man who was possessed on that occasion by an unclean spirit. This spirit had taken control of his body, and no doubt wanted to take more and more control of every aspect of his life until he had completely destroyed him.
In the face of such diabolical power, what hope did this man have? What hope would any of us have? His hope, and our hope, is the man from Nazareth.
Satan fears very little in this world. He is especially not afraid of fallen humanity or of any resistence that we might feebly try to throw up against his wiles, by our own reason or strength. But Satan does fear, and cannot withstand, the word of this man.
The demon who inhabited the afflicted person in today’s text knew who Jesus was. He could see what the mortals there present could not see, namely that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity in human flesh was standing in the midst of them. He saw, he shuddered, and he shrieked.
St. Mark tells us what happened:
“And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, ‘What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are - the Holy One of God.’”
“But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him.”
“And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’”
The word of Jesus was the word of the God who had created all angelic spirits, including the ones who later fell from their pristine state. It was the word of the God who upholds the universe. So, when this extraordinary man from Nazareth - this man who speaks with authority - says to the forces of darkness, “Come out of him,” they come out.
This same kind of word, coming from this same man, was also spoken in regard to you, in your baptism. And since your baptism endures in your life as an ongoing testimony of God’s forgiveness and mercy toward you, the power of this authoritative word from Jesus continues to liberate you and protect you, in and through the continuing reality of your baptism.
The reason why a baptized person is asked to renounce the devil, and all his works and all his ways, is because baptism - by virtue of the Word of God that is spoken within it and through it - has the power to vanquish the devil from the lives of those who are baptized, and who abide in their baptism in repentance and faith.
For you, therefore, who repent of your sins right now - who repent of all of your sins - I can assure you that the devil is vanquished, and that in Christ you are set free from his deadly grip.
Do not be afraid that he will overcome you, or that in your weakness he will overpower you. Christ your Lord, who speaks with authority, has told him to depart, and depart he must.
There are, sadly, some Christians who are only temporary believers. And the devil might be hoping that you are one of them, especially if he has seen you stumble. But as you cling each day to the mercy of Christ - as you cling today to that mercy - you will not be one of them.
The word that Jesus speaks to and against your Satanic foe on your behalf is a word that he speaks with authority. By his word he is able to cast the devil out of places where he does not belong.
And, the word that Jesus speaks to you - to your troubled conscience, to your struggling faith - is also a word that he speaks with authority. He speaks the devil out of your life, and he speaks himself into it.
He speaks his righteousness upon you. He speaks his regenerating Spirit into your mind and heart.
The devil, of course, doesn’t like this at all. He wants you to doubt Christ’s willingness always to forgive you and renew your faith. He wants you to be distracted from listening to this man from Nazareth, and to the marvelous things that he is saying to you.
But the word that Jesus speaks, he speaks with authority. And in spite of the devil’s attempts to trip you up, the authority of Christ’s word has the power to capture your attention, and to save you.
Dear friends, Jesus died for your sins, and in the shedding of his blood on the cross, he has reconciled you to your Father in heaven. This is the message of salvation that Jesus speaks to you. Believe this message - believe it now - and the devil will flee.
On every Lord’s Day and festival at Redeemer, we have an opportunity to hear Jesus speak some very special words, which he - as always - also does speak with divine authority. The devil doesn’t like to hear those words, either. And he doesn’t want you to hear them, or to believe them.
But in our midst, through his called servant, Jesus nevertheless speaks those powerful words, which the devil cannot silence. And in the Large Catechism, we can hear our church confess its faith in this man from Nazareth, and in the truthfulness of the Word that this man speaks at his altar, for our forgiveness, life, and salvation.
Listen to this confession. And as you listen to it, say a quiet “amen,” and by God’s grace embrace this confession as your own.
“With this Word you can strengthen your conscience and declare: ‘Let a hundred thousand devils, with all the fanatics, come forward and say, ‘How can bread and wine be Christ’s body and blood?’ ... Still I know that all the spirits and scholars put together have less wisdom than the divine Majesty has in his littlest finger.”
“Here is Christ’s word: ‘Take, eat, this is my body.’ ‘Drink of this, all of you, this is the New Testament in my blood.’ ... Here we shall take our stand and see who dares to instruct Christ and alter what he has spoken.”
“It is true, indeed, that if you take the Word away from the elements or view them apart from the Word, you have nothing but ordinary bread and wine. But if the words remain, as is right and necessary, then by virtue of them the elements are truly the body and blood of Christ. For as Christ’s lips speak and say, so it is...”
So far the Catechism.
In the joy of faith, when we hear and believe wonderful things like this, we too, like the crowds of old, are amazed at this man’s teaching.
Christ’s body, given into death on the cross for our sins, is given now into our mouths, for our deliverance from the devil’s false claims on us. Christ’s blood, shed as the price of humanity’s redemption, is truly bestowed upon us at this altar, for our forgiveness before God.
We are amazed, because Jesus of Nazareth speaks with an authority that the devil cannot endure. Jesus of Nazareth speaks with an authority against which the devil cannot, and will not, prevail.
Though devils all the world should fill, All eager to devour us.
We tremble not, we fear no ill, They shall not overpower us.
This world’s prince may still Scowl fierce as he will,
He can harm us none, He’s judged; the deed is done;
One little word can fell him. Amen.