7 March 2021 - Lent 3 - 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

“For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom.”

There is a natural human inclination toward being religious or spiritual. But this natural kind of religiosity or spirituality - among those whose faith and piety have not been shaped by the divinely-revealed Christian gospel - takes more than one form.

In today’s text from his First Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul writes that there are actually two basic ways in which people who do not know Christ, approach God and the idea of God, or spiritual questions in general. Paul describes these two natural, human religious orientations as the way of the “Jews,” who demand signs; and the way of the “Greeks,” who seek wisdom.

Now, there certainly are Jews who have a more philosophical approach in their spirituality, and there certainly are Greeks who are eager to see and experience miracles. But the apostle chooses to catagorize these two approaches in this way because of the common associations that he had seen in his interactions with people.

Still, you don’t have to identify yourself as Jewish, for Paul’s words to find their mark in your way of thinking about God and the things of God, if you are the kind of person who expects God to prove himself to you through signs and miracles.

You don’t have to identify yourself as Greek, for Paul’s description of the Greeks also to be an accurate description of you, if you are the kind of person who sees God - or the concept of God - as little more than a source of spiritual wisdom and inner enlightenment.

During the earthly ministry of Jesus, the leaders of the Jewish people often demanded a “sign” from him, to validate the authority of his claims and actions. As a rule, they did not evaluate him by measuring his preaching against the objective norm of the doctrine of the Scriptures. But Jesus did not submit to their demands.

St. John tells us in today’s Gospel that on the occasion of our Lord’s cleansing of the temple, the Jewish leaders said to him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”

He was, of course, not speaking about the literal building that stood before them, but about “the temple of his body,” and about the future resurrection of that body.

On another occasion, as reported by St. Matthew, some Pharisees and Sadducees tested Jesus by asking him to show them a sign from heaven. He answered by telling them:

“An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah.”

The “sign of Jonah” to which Christ referred also points to his resurrection: that is, to Jesus’ emergence from the tomb on the third day; just as Jonah, after three days, had emerged from the great fish that had swallowed him.

So, whenever the Jews demanded a “sign” from Jesus, then and there, he pointed them instead to his future resurrection.

And, for Jesus, his pathway to the resurrection went through the cross. There was no detour that would have allowed him to bypass this humiliating death, on his way to victory and glory.

Our sins were atoned for at the cross of Christ, before a holy and righteous God. Indeed, the sins of the whole world were “taken away” from the world at his cross: where the Lamb of God was slain; and where the Son of Man laid down his life as a ransom for many.

For fallen man, there can be no reconciliation or relationship with God, without forgiveness from God and justification before God. And God’s forgiveness and justification cannot be known, apart from the cross. The cross is a fundamental defining reality of the Christian faith.

By all human standards, there is nothing attractive or intriguing about the cross. A Roman cross is not a sign of power - spiritual or otherwise.

A cross is emblematic of shame, humiliation, and degradation. If the religion that we are pursuing is a religion of glorious and powerful signs, then the cross of Christ - and, the crosses that we might bear in this life - are to be avoided, or escaped from, at all costs.

Those who want signs don’t want just any signs. They want signs of strength, not signs of weakness. They want signs of life, not signs of death.

They want a religion that works for them in this world, and that makes things better for them in this world, not a religion that makes things worse.

A religion that demands signs, is also a religion that is imbued with the expectation that God will provide practical and observable earthly benefits to those who believe in him. According to the assumptions of this kind of religion, God will prove himself through miracles, or special interventions, that give special advantages to believers.

The cross, though, is a stumbling block to all of this. If you think you’re on a pathway to success and prosperity with God, the reality of the cross will trip you up.

But, the only genuine pathway to God is a pathway that goes through the cross, not around it.

And for us who follow Jesus by faith, there is likewise no way to bypass the crosses that are laid upon us in this world, because of our faith in Jesus. As he also said to his disciples: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”

The religious assumptions and expectations of “Greeks,” as Paul expresses it - or of those who think like Greeks in regard to spiritual or religious matters - are quite a bit different from this. But they are just as far from the truth as it is in Christ.

Greeks, as Paul characterizes them, do not demand signs. In fact, the philosophical “Greek” mind tended to be somewhat skeptical regarding the possibility of miracles.

They are not looking for signs. They are seeking after wisdom.

Remember what happened when Paul presented the message of Christ’s resurrection to the Athenians, at the Areopagus. We read in the Book of Acts that “when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’”

People today who pursue a pathway of “new age” spirituality do not care all that much about the Christian story of the resurrection of Jesus. If they think about this story at all, it would likely be for the purpose of reinterpreting it as a myth or parable, which illustrates their belief that Jesus was exalted to a higher plane of enlightenment at the end of his earthly life.

What would be the point of a literal bodily resurrection? The soul moves on after death to ever higher spiritual levels. It doesn’t need that body any more.

If Jesus plays any role in their religious quest for wisdom, it would not be as a redeemer, but as a teacher. But even there, Jesus’ teaching about the purpose and necessity of his death, and his sacramental teaching that his body and blood are given and shed for the forgiveness of sins, are conveniently ignored.

Instead, they would shine a spotlight on New Testament texts like the Sermon on the Mount, which can be appropriated - in isolation from their broader context - as sources of spiritual wisdom: alongside the teachings of the Buddha, various Hindu swamis, and Deepak Chopra.

Those who seek wisdom, don’t want a religion that works for them, in terms of earthly miracles and other material benefits, as much as they want a religion that works in them: enlightening their minds, satisfying their spiritual curiosities, elevating their consciousness, and giving them what they consider to be a comprehensive understanding of the meaning of everything.

Humanity’s fundamental problem, as they see it, is not alienation, but ignorance. The substitutionary death and resurrection of Jesus, and the forgiveness of sins offered by Jesus in his means of grace, are not solutions to this problem. Wisdom is the solution.

But any purported wisdom that ignores God - in his real acts and words, and in his self-disclosure in the person and work of his Son - is not wisdom. It is blind foolishness, masquerading as wisdom.

True wisdom is not based on the mere idea of God, on which the human imagination can then build whatever it chooses. True wisdom is based on the objective revelation of God in human history.

And true Christian wisdom takes shape in our lives, and in our relationships with others, in such a way as to reflect the governing themes of the gospel: love, reconciliation, and forgiveness.

The Christian faith as God reveals it in Christ, through his apostles, does not disdain the genuine divine sign of the resurrection. In fact, it is built on that sign.

The personal transformations in character and temperament that can often be seen in people who have turned away from a life of brazen sin, and who have embraced the Savior who embraces them in his regenerating grace, are often very noticeable. These transformations are a kind of “sign” of the reality of God in their lives.

But the Christian faith does not demand signs like this. By faith we rest in the love and grace of God in Christ, and as forgiven sinners we rejoice in the justification of God in Christ, sometimes even in the midst of great weakness and struggle; and sometimes even in the midst of great suffering in this world.

The hardships that we do often endure do not challenge the legitimacy of our faith, but they confirm it. In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus spoke words of comfort for his disciples specifically for such circumstances:

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”

There is a unique kind of power in such weakness, though. It is the resilient power to withstand the onslaughts of the devil against our faith, even to the point of bodily death, “because of the grace of God that was given to us in Christ Jesus.”

It is the liberating power to love and pray for our enemies, even as they are persecuting us, “because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

These are not the kinds of miraculous signs that the world notices, or respects. But these modest signs in the life of a humble Christian, such as they are, do point to the greater sign of the raising up of the “temple” of the body of Jesus. They point to the greater sign of Jonah: the resurrection of Jesus on the third day.

It is the resurrection of Jesus that brings the saving meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus into focus for us, and that makes all of this possible. It is Jesus’ victory for us over sin and death, that removes from us the fear of death; and that supernaturally gives us the courage to confess him as Lord, to the glory of God the Father, in any circumstance.

St. Paul accordingly writes to the Corinthians, and to us:

“We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”

The Christian Scriptures in their totality do indeed convey a great wisdom to us. The Bible shows us a clear and accurate way of looking at and evaluating the world; of making some degree of sense out of the world; and - with God’s help - of navigating through the challenges and pitfalls of the world.

But what we know to be God’s true wisdom in this respect, is looked upon as foolishness by others - others who do not know God, or his wisdom.

It is foolish, they think - foolish and pointless - to seek to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and to love your neighbor as yourself. It is foolish, they think - foolish and misguided - to forgive your brother seventy times seven times.

It is foolish to be willing to lay down your life, rather than to deny Christ before men. It is foolish to live for others and not for yourself, and to want to serve God by serving others.

It is foolish to pay special attention to the weak and the sick, the poor and the needy; and to expend time and resources for the benefit of those who can do nothing to repay you for your efforts, precisely because they can not repay you for your kindness.

But we are not troubled by this disapproval. We listen instead to what the apostle says to us today:

“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful... But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”

Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom. In Christ, we demand and seek neither. But in Christ we receive both - at a higher and truer level - when we receive Christ.

In Christ we receive life - which is itself a “sign” of the resurrection of the one who gives us this life, by his Holy Spirit. In Christ we receive life - which raises us from the deadness of worldly wisdom; and which fills us with the wisdom of the creator of all life, and with the love of the redeemer of all men.

In Christ we are saved from the guilt and power of sin. We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

And ultimately we will be saved from the consequences of sin - in our resurrection to eternal life on the last day. We will dwell forever in the place in his Father’s house, that our Lord has gone now to prepare for us.

There is no earthly sign that shows us what this is like. Jesus Christ shows us what this is like.

There is no earthly wisdom that enables us to look forward to this with confidence and hope. Jesus Christ enables us to look forward to this with confidence and hope.

And finally, St. Paul also writes:

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’”

“Where is the one who is wise? ... Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.”

It pleased God, through the folly of what Paul and all the apostles preach, to save you. Amen.

14 March 2021 - Lent 4 - John 3:14-21

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This very well-known verse of Scripture - in today’s Gospel from St. John - has brought simple yet profound comfort to millions over the centuries.

But this verse has a context. Knowing that context can help us to appreciate this familiar verse even more deeply, and to be comforted by it even more fully.

God loved the world so much, that he gave his only-begotten Son for the salvation of the world that he loved. But we need to ask: Why did God love the world?

When you ask a young man why he loves his fiancee or his newlywed wife, he will answer by telling you about all her positive and appealing qualities. If you were to ask God why he loves the world, today’s text would begin to provide an answer - of sorts.

But that answer would be more in the direction of explaining that God does not love the world because of its positive and appealing qualities! Rather, he loves the world in spite of the fact that it does not deserve to be loved; and in spite of the fact that the world, in itself, is actually quite unlovable.

We read that whoever does not believe in God’s Son “is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Jesus didn’t come for the purpose of condemning the world. He came to a world that was already condemned.

Those who are invited by God to believe in his Son, and to be saved from perishing forever through that faith, are not otherwise in a neutral state, as far as their standing before God is concerned. As the gift of God’s Son is brought to them, and before they receive that gift, they are in a state of condemnation.

Through its sin and unbelief, and its antagonism and hostility toward God, the world had certainly not earned God’s love. It had already earned God’s judgment, and was under God’s judgment.

But, the world of humanity to which God sent his Son, was a world in which a divine promise of salvation had also been echoing, since the Garden of Eden.

God promised that he would provide for the human race, a way out from under the condemnation from God in his justice, that it had brought upon itself through its rebellion against God in his goodness.

In the sending of his Son, God kept that promise. In the sending of his Son, God provided that way of liberation and restoration, for all who would believe.

But apart from Christ, and apart from the light of life and truth that he is, and that he brings, the world remains under condemnation. Our text explains:

“This is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.”

The condemnation, or judgment, under which the fallen world languishes, is not due to a lack of love for the world on God’s part. It is due to what the world itself loves - or more precisely, it is due to what the people in this world love. And fallen people, in the fallen world, love darkness. They do not love God.

The reference to people loving darkness rather than light needs to be understood according to what St. John had said a couple chapters earlier in his Gospel, when he wrote, with respect to the eternal divine Word, or the eternal Son of God:

“All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The “light” is a description of Christ in his eternal existence as God the Son. He, as God, embodies the goodness of God: insofar as God is the creator and preserver of the world, and of all life in the world. But fallen man is blind to this.

As John also writes, even though “the true light...was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.” And, the world certainly did not love him. It hated him.

Humanity hated the light, and loved darkness. Fallen humanity today, in its corrupted state, still hates the light, and still loves the darkness.

Oh, people might think that they are religiously and spiritually neutral on the question of whether there is or might be a God. And people might even believe in a non-threatening Deity of their own invention, who does not challenge them too much, or demand too much from them.

But by nature, fallen humanity hates the real God as he actually exists. God as he actually exists - in his goodness, purity, and holiness - threatens the pride, and the desire to be in control and to prevail, that inhabit the old Adam in everyone.

And so, the world that God loved, and to which God sent his Son, was a world of wickedness, inhabited by wicked people who hated God.

God’s Son, according to his divinity, was already in this world. Indeed, the world had been made through him. And as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, he was sustaining and upholding the world continuously. But the twisted mind of sinful humanity hated him as well.

When God’s Son came in the flesh, and became a man, the world as such still hated him. And as Jesus even now continues to impact the world through his Word and church, nothing has changed.

Filled as it is with anger and hatred, pride and selfishness, lust and greed, the world hates him - even as it seems to hate itself, too. But he, and his Father in heaven, love the world.

Why? Not because of what the world is, but because of what God is. The First Epistle of John teaches us:

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

According to the Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” And so we believe that Jesus is love, too.

Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” And “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.”

The purposes of God cannot be fathomed. His ways cannot be fully grasped by the human mind - not even by the regenerated human mind.

It is for us simply to believe what God says, to acknowledge as true what God says is true, and to receive, in humble gratitude, what God gives.

God says that he loves the world, even though the world - in its fallen state - hates him. To a certain extent, we can see that the world hates God, and that it hates the goodness of God, just by looking around.

This is an irrational and a self-defeating hatred, a destructive and damning hatred. But it is there.

And we can also see that this hatred for God and his goodness is chillingly close to us, when we examine ourselves, and take note of the enduring ungodly influences of the old Adam that is still within each of us.

But one thing that we would never be able to see by looking around, or by looking within - and that we would never imagine could be true, if God did not specifically tell us that it is true - is that God loves the world anyway, and that God loves me anyway. But this he does tell us.

And to us, he gives himself - in the person of his Son - to live and die for us; to rise and live again for us; to forgive and restore us; and to transform us from being people who hate God, to being people who love him - because he first loved us.

God’s love for you, God’s desire to rescue you from perishing in your sins, and God’s plan to give you eternal life, are the undercurrent of every word of the gospel that Jesus ever speaks to you, in sermon and Supper.

But the reason for God’s love for you is to be found in God, and not in you. So, when you falter and fail, and need to turn to him again for forgiveness and for another chance, that is therefore not a time to think that God has probably changed his mind and lost his patience, and does not love you any more.

God has not changed his mind. He still loves you, and therefore he will pardon you, make all things new for you, and guide and teach you moving forward. He says through the Prophet Malachi:

“For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.”

When you are reminded of your current weakness or are frightened of an unknown future, and ask for the Lord’s strength and comfort, you will receive it, because God loves you.

Your personal awareness of all the reasons why you do not deserve God’s love, and of how you have failed and disappointed him, has no bearing on whether or not God does in fact love you. If God loved you and all the rest of the world, before you believed in him, he certainly loves you now, as you struggle in your faith.

God, in his Son, gives refreshment to the weary, wisdom to the foolish, reconciliation to the alienated, and spiritual healing to the sick in heart. He lifts the fallen, and guides the lost and the confused.

Whenever you are in need of these things, or anything else in your life of faith, you can confidently ask God for these things, because he loves you. Whenever you hear, read, or meditate on his Word, you can confidently expect God to teach you something that is beneficial for your salvation, because he loves you.

Through believing in the Son whom God sent to the world, the condemnation that your sins have brought down upon you is lifted. The fear of perishing in your sin that accompanies this condemnation, is replaced by the hope of eternal life.

Your former presumptions about God, or your former doubts concerning God, are replaced by a divinely-given faith and confidence: not just a certain faith in God’s existence, but a humble confidence in God’s words of promise.

“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. Whoever believes in him is not condemned.” Amen.

21 March 2021 - Lent 5 - Mark 10:32-45

Today’s Gospel from St. Mark presents to us one of those times when Jesus told his disciples what was going to happen to him when he went to Jerusalem. But as was usually the case when he tried to talk to them about this, they didn’t pay attention.

In today’s account, however, their lack of paying attention was particularly noticeable, and one would think that it would have been particularly annoying to Jesus.

We read:

“And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.’”

“And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came up to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’”

Jesus unfolded for his closest followers and friends all the horrible details of what will be done to him. He will be betrayed by the leaders of his nation, and will be humiliated by pagans. He will be tortured and finally killed.

Jesus then also shared with his disciples his promise that after three days, there will be a glorious reversal and a miraculous vindication. He will rise from the grave.

Now, Jesus had every right to expect that after hearing all this, his disciples would have sensed the importance and gravity of what he was telling them. Jesus would have had every right to expect that they would be absorbing and reflecting on his words with a serious-minded sobriety.

With all that he had done for them, and with all that they had heard and seen from him, the Lord had certainly earned that kind of respect and devotion from his disciples.

When James and John then responded to his words with the statement, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” we can easily imagine that Jesus would have expected them to ask him for something appropriate to the occasion: perhaps for a deeper understanding of why all this was necessary, or perhaps for a humble faith that could accept and endure all the unexpected things that Jesus had just told them about.

But that’s not what they were going to ask for.

We know from St. Matthew’s version of this incident that James and John’s mother actually put them up to this, and that she was the one who actually started the conversation with Jesus. But that doesn’t get them off the hook.

They didn’t have to go along with their mother’s improper and disrespectful idea of what to ask for. But they did go along with it. And so St. Mark, in his version of the story, tells us how this conversation progressed:

“And [Jesus] said to them, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking.’”

Not only was their request totally inappropriate for the situation at hand - in view of what Jesus had been talking about - but it would have been an inappropriate request in any situation. They were thinking about Jesus’ future glory and power, and they arrogantly wanted to share in that glory and power in a way that would outshine and outrank all the other apostles.

They said this right in front of the other apostles! And Jesus said: “You do not know what you are asking.”

They didn’t know what they were talking about, not because they hadn’t had an opportunity to learn about Jesus’ kingdom, and about the nature and character of his mission in this world, but because they had refused to take advantage of the opportunities Jesus had given them to listen to him, as he had on many occasions tried to explain these things.

James and John didn’t want Jesus to be a Savior, with all that this would entail, but they wanted him to bypass all that, and go directly to being a ruler. And, of course, they wanted to rule with him - over the world, and over the other apostles.

They had their own ideas of who Jesus was, of what purpose he could serve in their lives, and then of what purpose they could serve in his life. And all of this, having been spun out of their own sinful pride and selfish hearts, was completely self-serving.

But many people today are just like this, so we probably shouldn’t be too harsh in our criticism of James and John. Few people approach Jesus with a desire to learn from him, and to be changed by him. How often do we approach Jesus with such humility and openness?

Oh, people do often appropriate Jesus - or the idea of Jesus, as they imagine him to be - with the expectation that he will fulfill the purposes they have designed for him. But they don’t expect him to reveal to them his own purposes, which might be, and usually are, different.

People often expect Jesus to bless and prosper the plans and projects they have come up with. They don’t expect him to question them, as to whether their plans and projects might be misguided or ill-conceived.

People often expect him to endorse their own preconceived beliefs and values, usually shaped by the popular culture and the fads of the time. They don’t expect him to correct and replace those beliefs and values with his revealed truth.

And again, what many in the world do in these respects, we too may often do. For us, is the Lordship of Christ a matter of reality, or only a matter of rhetoric?

Are we willing to accept whatever he wills and commands, and to believe whatever he teaches, even if it is contrary to what we want or think? Or do we assume that Jesus has an obligation to do what we think he should do, so that we have the right to punish him with unbelief, if he does not come through as we expect him to?

The truth of the matter - in today’s account from Mark, and in the struggles of our lives - is that Jesus is truly and rightly in charge. Jesus was in charge of James and John’s lives.

And they would be called by Christ to suffer and make sacrifices as his apostles, as his spiritual kingdom would be spread to all nations through their ministry and through the ministry of the other apostles. A time of glory may come, but not before a lifetime of pain and persecution would come first.

Jesus makes it plain to the apostles that their work in this world must not be marked by jockeying for power and prestige, as would be the case with unbelievers who are governed by the spirit of this world. They would instead need to realize the importance of Jesus’ words to them:

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you.”

And, of course, Jesus is in charge of your life, too. To be sure, you may still ask him for things. But what you ask for, and how you ask for it, will be guided by a conscience that has been formed and informed by the Word and example of Christ, and not by the proud and presumptuous impulses of the sinful flesh.

And so, what Jesus says in today’s text, he says also to you:

“But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”

And, Jesus was and is in charge of his own life - under, and according to, the will and plan of his Father. As Jesus lived out his saving and redeeming mission during his time on earth - and as he even now exercises his authority as the Lord, Shepherd, and supreme Teacher of his church - James and John are not going to determine how he sets up his kingdom. And you and I are not going to redefine and alter the mission and message of his church.

Jesus says:

“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The powers of sin, death, and the devil had, in a sense, taken humanity captive, separated humanity from the joys of its spiritual home with God, and made us to be slaves to darkness, loneliness, and despair.

Jesus came into this world to serve the true needs of humanity, to redeem and buy back humanity from its captors, and to restore and reconcile us to our Father and creator. The price of this redemption - this redemption of all of us - was his own perfect and pure life, and his own blood poured out on the altar of the cross.

In, with, and under this rescue mission, Jesus also drank deeply of the cup of divine wrath, as rebellious humanity’s substitute under the judgment of the law. Jesus was baptized in the fire of divine anger against the sinfulness of humanity, which he had taken upon himself by imputation.

He served us by doing for us what we could never do for ourselves, and by winning back what we had seemingly lost for good.

Even in his present resurrected glory, however, Jesus has not stopped serving. The service that he provides now, though, he does through means.

Humanity as a whole was, as it were, ransomed and liberated by his death and resurrection. But each individual human being now needs to know of this liberation, to be raised up personally, to have his chains broken off of him, and to be led out of the prison.

Jesus literally comes to the rescue for this, too. He bestows the hard-won gift of his forgiveness and peace upon penitent sinners through his preached Word, and through the sacraments that he established to name and nurture us as his own. He thereby raises us up, and brings us out of the darkness and into the light.

And Jesus continues to show compassion to the hurting, provide companionship to the lonely, and give succor to the weary and the hungry, also through means. He does this through his people, and through their works of love for their needy neighbor, in his name. He does this through you, and me.

So, we’re not ready to sit down yet, whether it be at the right and left hand of Jesus, or anywhere. We’ve got work to do - because Jesus has work to do through us, and through our words and deeds.

Lord Jesus, think on me And purge away my sin;
From earth-born passions set me free And make me pure within.

Lord Jesus, think on me, With many a care oppressed;
Let me Thy loving servant be And taste Thy promised rest. Amen.

28 March 2021 - Palm Sunday - Mark 15:1-15

“Now at the feast [Pilate] used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked. And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas. And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he usually did for them. And he answered them, saying, ‘Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead. And Pilate again said to them, ‘Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?’ And they cried out again, ‘Crucify him.’ And Pilate said to them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him.’ So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.”

Barabbas, as we hear about him in today’s text from St. Mark’s Gospel, is a somewhat enigmatic figure. We don’t know a lot about him. But there are a few things that we do know.

The first thing we know is that he was an insurrectionist. This means that he was a flagrant denier of the authority of those who had been placed over him in the realm of civil government.

Jesus had taught that we are render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. But Barabbas didn’t think that Caesar had any claim on him. He opposed Roman rule, actively and violently.

And this leads to the second thing we know about Barabbas. He was a murderer. His being described with this term suggests that he had killed someone, not just in a street battle, but deliberately and personally.

He had made a decision that the life of another person - probably a Roman soldier standing at his post - had no value that he was obligated to respect. He had concluded that he was within his rights to sneak up behind that person to slit his throat or stab him in the back.

Third, we also know that Barabbas was a robber. That’s a detail that St. John’s Gospel gives us. So, not only did he have no regard for the lives of others, but he also did not respect the property of others.

And a final thing we know about Barabbas is the meaning of his name. “Barabbas” means “Son of the Father.” That’s interesting.

Jesus, of course, had previously described himself as the Son of the Father. In St. John’s Gospel, he says: “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”

John adds the comment that “This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.”

But there is some sense in which today’s text invites us to see this insurrectionist and murder also as a son of the Father. His name is used, and our attention is drawn to his name and to what it means.

As a Jew, Barabbas was a member of God’s chosen nation, and in that sense was a son of the Old Covenant and of the God of the Old Covenant. But clearly he was a prodigal son. He had broken the Fourth, Fifth, and Seventh Commandments, and thereby had broken the First Commandment as well.

His crimes were also capital offenses under Roman law. And he had been caught, and was accordingly destined for crucifixion. The cross on which he was to be nailed was already prepared.

But now, a most unexpected and undeserved reprieve has changed the trajectory toward death that he was on. Now, Barabbas will not die. Another will die in his place, and he will go free.

Have you ever considered that the very cross that Jesus carried to Calvary, was more than likely the cross that Barabbas was originally supposed to carry? Jesus took Barabbas’s place even in that literal way. Also the nails that were supposed to be driven into Barabbas’s hands and feet, were now driven into Jesus’ hands and feet.

In Barabbas and in his story, we see a very fortunate man. But also in Barabbas and in his story, we see a picture of other men. We see a picture of all men. We see a picture of ourselves.

In his speech to the Athenians, recorded in the Book of Acts, St. Paul said:

“The God who made the world and everything in it...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. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘‘In him we live and move and have our being,’ as even some of your own poets have said, ‘‘For we are indeed his offspring.’”

So there is a sense in which all the descendants of Adam can be thought of as “offspring” or children of God. All human beings are, in this sense, “Barabbas” - that is, sons of the Father. And all human beings, by nature, are like Barabbas also in that they are prodigal sons of their creator, turning against him and rejecting his ways.

In our hearts, if not in our bodily actions, we are insurrectionists, proudly rebelling against God’s rightful authority over us. Through Jeremiah the Prophet, the Lord says that he is bringing judgment upon his people “because they have forsaken My law which I set before them, and have not obeyed My voice, nor walked according to it, but they have walked according to the dictates of their own hearts.”

Does that describe you?

And, like Barabbas, we are murderers. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

So, you don’t have to raise your hand physically against another, for the hatred and animosity that is in your heart to be counted by God as a damnable sin.

And the Fifth Commandment not only forbids us from harming others, but also requires us to help and protect others, and to do what we can to keep them safe. Yet how often have we made sacrifices, or gone out of our way, to fulfill such an obligation of love for a vulnerable or threatened person?

And like Barabbas, we too are robbers - in will and mind even if not in outward actions. The Ninth and Tenth Commandments forbid not only stealing, but also coveting - that is, desiring what belongs to others, and not respecting their right to enjoy what God has given them.

This is a sin of the heart, closely allied to greed, envy, and jealousy. It is the opposite of contentment with what God has given you, and invites the anger of God.

But we are Barabbas also in that we, too, have been reprieved from the punishment we deserve for our many sins: not before the bar of Roman justice, but before God’s tribunal. Jesus died for our sins, so that we need not die, but can live forever in a reconciled fellowship with God.

In the Prophet Isaiah’s vivid description of Christ, the suffering servant, we are told:

“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned - every one - to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

I mentioned that we don’t know very much about Barabbas. One of the things we don’t know about him, is what he did with his life after his pardon and release.

Once Jesus had died in his place, so that he was not obligated to die for his own sins on Calvary, did he repent of how he had lived, and humbly receive God’s forgiveness? Did he become a changed man?

Or did he live as before, committing the same crimes as before, so that the Romans probably caught up with him again and executed him at some point in the future?

Did Barabbas allow the sacrifice that Jesus had made for him, go to waste, in time and in eternity? Or did he appreciate that sacrifice, and in faith receive its benefits? Again, we don’t know.

But what about you? What difference does it make to you that Jesus died on your cross, and as your substitute suffered for your sins under the judgment of God’s law?

Holy Week is a very good time for you to think about this. As we remember the suffering and death of Jesus, it is a very good time for you to consider what his death means to you, and to heed the exhortation that St. Paul gives us in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians:

“Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves.”

Because you are a creature of God, you are, in a certain sense, the offspring of God. And because God loves you, he sent his Son to die for you, and invites you to repent of your sins and to trust in Christ for your salvation.

But are you a child of God also in that deeper sense of having received a supernatural adoption into God’s eternal family through faith in his only-begotten Son? Are you able to rejoice personally in these words of comfort from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians?:

“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’”

As we head into Holy Week together, let us listen together to what St. John writes in his First Epistle:

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”

“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”

“So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.” Amen.