Sunday, May 31, 2015
John 3:1-17; Romans 11:33-36; Isaiah 6:1-7
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
To those mighty messengers, the holy seraphim, God gave six wings; with two they flew, but the purpose of the other four was to cover up their shameful parts. Even though they were charged to serve in the smoky Temple and to sing God's three-fold praise, even though they were holy, they still they had things to cover up. They still were not fit for the beauty of the fullness of God's glorious and holy presence. So, they humbled themselves, and they covered their feet and their faces, and they sang a song of praise for each Person of the holy Triune God they worshiped: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of your Glory.
Unlike the seraphim, Isaiah could not abide in the presence of this majesty. He was only a man, and he was not holy. The Trinity was too much for him. He mourned for his sinful state, for his lying lips, and for his fearful heart. He was not worthy to sing their song or even to watch them from afar. He was undone, he was damned, and he was headed for destruction without defense. His guilt was too great. His sin was too shameful. He had no wings, he had no fig leaves with which to cover himself. There in the presence of the Truth, he could not lie about who he really was. He could not fake it. He was exposed, he was vulnerable, and he was undone.
But then an angel, a seraphim, flew to the altar at God's direction. He picked up a burning coal, the remnant of the burnt offering, and placed its fire to Isaiah's lips. His guilt was taken away. His sin was atoned for. For, Isaiah partook of that which was sacrificed in his place. It was put upon his mouth, and it made him clean. That which had appeased God's wrath on his behalf was joined to Isaiah so that he, too, could sing God's three-fold praise: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Sabaoth. Now Isaiah, like the seraphim, was holy. The Almighty had declared it to be so. Isaiah had been redeemed. He could call the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnate God of Moses and of Abraham, the only-begotten of His Father from whom the Spirit does proceed, Brother.
How unsearchable are the judgments of God! He judges men who murdered His Son, who mocked His Name, who hid and ran from Him, who stole and lied and caved in, He judges them innocent. He makes them His sons. And, He judges His perfect Son worthy of the price that Justice demands. He places the burdens of all the evil the world has withstood - genocide and slavery, half-truths, bragging, and cowardice, name-calling on the playground, and drunkenness, all the evil in which men have engaged, all their secret sins, all their violence and their vanity; all their greed, malice, and lust - He places all of it upon the Lamb, the Lamb that was born to be a sacrifice. And, the Father raised Him up from the earth on a hellish pole to cleanse men of the serpent's most deadly poison - the first heresy - the lie that God is not true, that God does not care, that we can be like God on our own. But look there! Look with eyes of faith to the agony of grace outside of Jerusalem! There the demons are cast out. There the serpents are driven away. From there proceeds the Spirit of peace who proclaims the Son. There salvation is won and the lips of men are made clean. Songs of praise ring out again: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Sabaoth.
For whoever believes in Him - the One raised up in death, and raised again to life, and raised again to His Father's side, the One the bronze serpent did foreshadow, the One that all burnt offerings were burnt to illustrate, the One who received the praise of the seraphim and sent Isaiah to foretell the Virgin birth, - whoever believes in Him will never perish but will have eternal life. "Whoever," promises our Lord. Whoever - no matter how bad, how despicable, how wrong or mean or stupid or lazy or negligent or resentful or lonely - whoever believes in Jesus Christ, whoever trusts in Him, true God and true Man, whoever looks to Christ, crucified and raised, despite his past crimes, he is forgiven and finds peace, and comfort, hope, and joy.
Jesus Christ was lifted up and was sacrificed for the sins of the world, even for your sins. That is how God loved the world. And, that is how God has loved you. He gave His only-begotten over to the death you should have died. He declared the Innocent One guilty so that He could declare you innocent and righteous. He has had mercy upon you, and His mercy endureth forever! He did not send His Son to condemn the world, but to save it, to save you. And so He has. And that for free, without an examination of your past, without a searching of your conscience, without checking on your pedigree. He has saved you, not by works or righteousness which you have done, but according to His mercy. His Word creates and sustains faith in whoever believes in Him.
Today a servant of God's Word, without wings, at God's direction, takes from the this altar the fiery sacrifice of God and touches its fire to your lips. Your guilt is taken away. Your sin is atoned for. For, you partake of that which was sacrificed in your place: Jesus' Body and Blood. It is put into your mouth and it makes you clean. That which has appeased God's wrath on your behalf is joined to you. Thus you, too, can sing: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Like the seraphim, like Isaiah and Nicodemus, you are holy. You have been redeemed. You call the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Incarnate God of Moses and of Abraham, the only-begotten of His Father from whom the Spirit does proceed, Brother. You belong to God. You have been spared. You have been Named by Him. You belong to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. You have been born from above through water and the Word by the intervention of Love.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.
Monday, May 25, 2015
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
We gather this day in solemn remembrance, in gracious thanksgiving, and in boundless love for those men and women who have shown us the greatest possible love in laying down their lives in selfless sacrifice for us, and for our children, and for our children’s children, and for the unique and sacred rights and freedoms we are blessed to enjoy in this great nation God has blessed us with, the United States of America.
Our honored dead live on for us as icons of the most virtuous of ideals: courage, bravery, selflessness, service, compassion, mercy, and love. They live on as icons for us, for, through their lives, their deeds, and their sacrificial deaths, we see the greatness God created mankind to be, a greatness that is the backbone of this great nation which they died to preserve: service above self; neighbor serving neighbor; giving of what they themselves had received. They were the hands, heart, mouth, and voice of God, carrying out their God-given vocations, their callings, in this world, in selfless, sacrificial service.
Thus, we honor them best with our lives, our words, and our deeds in selfless, sacrificial service to our neighbor, to our community, to our state and nation, and to the ends of the earth. However, this does not mean that you must travel overseas to battle oppressive and murderous regimes and to rebuild infrastructures and homes, but you honor them simply by blooming where you are planted, by serving where you live and where you work and where you play. This is your vocation. This is your calling.
They sacrificed themselves for you, and for your freedom to be you. Yes, you are that special. Therefore, do not squander your freedom, for it was bought with a price, and do not take your freedom for granted, for there are countless who will quickly steal it away from you or swindle you out of it. Truly, those who will not consider the cost of the freedom they enjoy will surely lose it.
And so, today, in solemn remembrance, thanksgiving, and love we consider freedom’s cost. It is a priceless and precious cost – a cost so many of our sons and daughters continue to pay even today. We remember. And, we are thankful. And, we love our honored dead who demonstrated the greatest love possible for us by laying down their lives in selfless, sacrificial service. God bless and keep our honored dead in our hearts, and in our minds, and in our selfless service of others. And, especially, God bless and keep our honored dead in His gracious and merciful care and peace until we stand beside them in His Blessed Country.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.
Sunday, May 24, 2015
John 14:23-31; Acts 2:1-21; Genesis 11:1-9
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The Feast of Pentecost is the restoration of the right and proper order of things: God gives. Man receives and returns thanks and praise to God.
After the flood, Noah’s descendants did not disperse and fill the world as God had commanded, but they settled together in one area, they all spoke one language, and they were unified as one people. It was not long until they conspired to build a tower rising into the heavens that they might make a name for themselves, as gods unto themselves, a transgression akin to the pride and envy of Lucifer’s primordial power-grab and the sin of our First Parents Adam and Eve. Theirs was a transgression of the First and Greatest Commandment, “You shall have no other gods,” and “You shall fear, love, and trust in God above all things” – even, and especially, above yourself.
Men are indeed capable of doing great and mighty things, from harnessing the energy of the atom to the construction of stations in space, from the mapping of the human genome, to the cloning of animal and human cells. Just sixty miles south of here is the greatest city in the world, with its towering skyscrapers and its sinuous, multi-tiered underground labyrinth of subway and service tunnels and sewers. And yet, what is man’s greatness compared with the greatness of man’s Creator? How much greater would man’s works be if they were conceived, consummated, and accomplished in accord with God’s holy will and to His glory?
Do not think that your God and Creator is opposed to man’s achieving greatness, for He is not. Indeed, He, Himself, crowned man King and Queen of all that He had made. But man’s dominion is an authority given and vested by God; man is not great by his own accord, but He has been made to be great like his Creator – great in mercy, great in compassion, great in love for all that God has made, as His stewards and managers, that all the world might know its God and Maker. Thus, God is not opposed to or against man’s achievements in science and technology, his attempts to make the world better, however, when these are ends in themselves, or when they serve the elevation of man apart from God’s will, Law, wisdom, and guidance, they cannot achieve the good they were intended to achieve, for they are a good pursued in the wrong way.
Thus the LORD confused the language of man and dispersed them over the face of the earth so that they left off building their great city and tower. This was much less an act of judgment than it was an act of mercy and love akin to God’s banishing of our First Parents from the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life. If man were left to pursue his own wicked ends, it would result in his destruction and eternal separation from the source of his life and the reason for his being, communion with his Creator and God.
But God does indeed love the good works of men when they flow from His Holy Spirit. And thus, He would not leave His children in this confused state, but He would gather them together again as one people, one body, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wing. In many types and figures, in prophets and judges and kings, God called His people to repentance, and He gave them one spiritual language. But, still, His children regularly strayed and sought power and glory, strength and might in ways and in things contrary to God’s Holy Law and will and Spirit. Until, in the fullness of time, God sent forth His only-begotten Son into our human flesh, that He would be obedient to God’s holy will and Law, and walk in perfect communion with Him all the days of His earthly life. Then, in one final act of obedience, Jesus submitted to the misdirected “good” deeds of men as they tried and convicted Him, mocked and scourged Him, and crucified Him on the cursed tree of the cross, and He died for the wickedness, guilt, and sin of the creatures who, as God, He had Himself created. As the prophet Isaiah has prophesied, “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!”
In His timeless apologetic for the Christian faith, Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis wrote of man’s wickedness saying, “Wickedness, when you examine it, turns out to be the pursuit of some good in the wrong way.” Indeed, man, created in the image of God, has the desire and the capacity to do good. Men desire to love and to be loved. Men desire both to control and to be controlled. Men desire to create life and to nurture and grow living things, be they plants, animals, or children. And men desire to build houses and cities, roads and bridges, telescopes and rocket ships. And these are all good desires and pursuits in and of themselves. There is nothing wicked about them. Indeed, God Himself does good, loves, controls, builds, and gives life. But, for men, these good desires and pursuits become wicked when they are divorced from God’s holy Law and will and Spirit.
Before His death, Jesus comforted His disciples saying to them, “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. […] …the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my Name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” Jesus kept this promise when the Father sent the Holy Spirit upon His disciples on the Day of Pentecost. We rightly celebrate this day as the birthday of the Church. For, on that day, the confusion of Babel was undone once and for all, as the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles and gave them the ability to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ in all the languages of the world so that men, dispersed to the four corners of the earth, could hear the Good News of God’s salvation in their own language and tongue. For, the Gospel is a message and a language that transcends all languages. It doesn’t matter if it is spoken in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic. It doesn’t matter if it is spoken in German or English (in the KJV, ESV, RSV, NIV, NLT, ASV, NAS, or whatever!), Chinese, or Swahili. For, there is one Gospel, just as there is one LORD, one God, one Christ, and one Holy Spirit. And there is one holy catholic and apostolic Church, one Baptism, one Communion, one body having one head, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.
Pentecost is the reversal of Babel. Only, this time, it is the LORD who has called, enlightened, sanctified, and kept in faith His people by His Holy Spirit. And, though there are still many languages, there is one Gospel which transcends them all and is spoken in all by the guidance and inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit. Though the Church does not celebrate Pentecost anew, or receive the Holy Spirit anew, She prays, nonetheless for the continual sending of the Spirit of Christ, that Her works and deeds may be conceived, consummated, and accomplished in accord with God’s holy will and to His glory. For, like every other human desire and endeavor, apart from the guidance, counsel, and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, even the Church’s works and deeds can lead to wickedness, destruction, and eternal separation from the source of Her life and the reason for Her being, Her own communion with, and Her bringing others into communion with, Her one Creator and God.
For, in the end, the Holy Spirit is not a spirit of numerical growth, although He can cause that. Nor is He a spirit of worldly glory, although He sometimes blesses the Church with glory in the eyes of men that they may see God’s blessing in ways they recognize. Nor is He a spirit of monetary wealth, although He invites you to test how He will measure back to you so much more if you will but give to others in faith. But, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Christ, which is to say that He is the Spirit of compassion and mercy and love; and He is the Spirit of bold confession and unwavering faith. For, the chief work of the Holy Spirit is to draw men to Jesus that they may receive what He has accomplished.
In your lives you are tempted to fret and to strive to build your own towers into the heavens that you might control all the seemingly out of control things in your life and world. You think that by electing the right candidate, by passing the right law, by spending money the right way, and by defending the right ideology you will make the world a better place, a safer place, a place that values what you value and condemns what you condemn. But, whatever you desire and love, if it is not in accord with God’s holy Law, will, and Spirit, and is not conceived, consummated, and accomplished by the Holy Spirit, it is wickedness and mindless babel. And so, let us pray today, and every day, “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful, and kindle in them the fire of Your love.” And, the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ will give you His peace – peace, not as the world gives, that your hearts need not be troubled or afraid.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.
Sunday, May 17, 2015
John 15:26 – 16:4; 1 Peter 4:7-14; Ezekiel 36:22-28
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
“You also will bear witness about me,” says Jesus. Now, likely you believe that Jesus means that you will speak about Him to others, that you will evangelize people by sharing the good news about Jesus. Yes, surely He does mean that. However, that is not all, or even the most important thing that Jesus has in mind when He says that you will bear witness about Him, for, the word translated as witness here, μαρτυρεῖτε, truly means martyr. Thus, what Jesus is truly saying to you is that you will be martyrs, you will be martyrs for Him. You will die for Him. Indeed, all Christians die as martyrs for their faith in Jesus Christ. After all, what did you think Jesus meant when He said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me?” He wasn’t kidding. The way of Jesus is the way of the cross. Jesus’ way passes through suffering and death, not around it, into life with His Father in heaven. That is the way that you are called to follow as Jesus’ disciple. You will bear witness about Jesus. You will be a martyr and die for your faith in Jesus. That is your purpose and your calling. And, that is why Jesus chose you and called you out of the nations, the Gentiles, and the hoi polloi. Jesus chose you and called you to deny yourself, to die to your self, and to follow Him, giving witness to Him by being a martyr and by dying for Him.
Indeed, this was the purpose and the calling of the nation of Israel in the first place. Don’t think for a moment that there was anything peculiar or special about Israel. There was not. Abraham was a pagan, a polytheist worshipping many gods of wood and stone when the LORD chose Him and called Him to pack up and head out for an unknown land that the LORD was going to give to him. Moses and David were lowly shepherds when the LORD chose and called them. Later, Peter and Andrew, James and John…, they were fisherman. Matthew, he was a tax collector. What were you when Jesus chose you and called you to be His disciple, to take up your cross and follow Him, to be a martyr for your faith in Him, and to die for Him? Were you an adulterer or a fornicator? Were you an addict, a thief, or a murderer? Or, were you just, you know, your average white bread kind of sinner? The point is, there was nothing peculiar or special about you. Like Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus’ disciples, you were an idolater and a worshipper of false gods, even if your false god may have been yourself. Yet, the LORD in His mercy and grace chose you and called you to follow Him. And, don’t think that this was some choice that you made. It wasn’t. Jesus Himself declares that you did not choose Him, but He chose you. And, no one can come to Jesus at all, unless the Father calls him.
Truly, the LORD made this abundantly clear in our Old Testament lesson today from the Prophet Ezekiel: “Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy Name, which you have profaned among the nations.” The LORD’s prime motive in rescuing Israel from exile was not love, mercy, or grace – though He is the essence and epitome of those things – but the LORD’s prme motive in rescuing Israel from exile was concern for His holy Name. Just as the LORD had chosen and called Abraham, Moses, and David, His Israel, that she should be a light to the nations, to the Gentiles, and glorify the Name of the LORD, so has the Lord Jesus has chosen and called His disciples, His Church, and you, not for your own sake, but for the sake of His holy Name, a Name which you, too, have profaned among the nations.
Now, this Word from the LORD should help to put things in perspective for you. Indeed, that is precisely what it was spoken to do. You, and I, and all people have profaned the Name of the LORD, and the LORD’s Name will be vindicated. The LORD’s Name was first profanced when our First Parents believed and trusted in the Word of one who was not the LORD, and acted according to a will that was not the LORD’s will. Because of our sin, we interpret this rebellion as a minor infraction, even an exercise of our God-given free will, certainly not meriting the harsh judgment of the LORD, separation from His presence and temporal and eternal death. However, we believe this way because our sin corrupts our knowledge of the LORD and of Jesus. We would make the LORD in our image, according to our likeness. But, it is the other way around. Thus, the LORD has spoken, “I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God.” The LORD is before all things and the very source, origin, and sustenance of all things. Apart from the LORD there is nothing, just as in the beginning.
Thus, it is sinful, prideful, arrogance to believe that the LORD acts for your sake. He does not. But, the LORD acts for the sake of His holy Name – a holy Name that has been fully revealed in Jesus Christ. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Yes, The LORD loves the world, but not because the world is loveable. Rather, the LORD loves the world because the LORD is love – that is part of the LORD’s holy Name. You are loved, not because of your faith, your piety, your works, or your prayers, but you are loved because God is love, and because Jesus is the love of God incarnate, poured out for you as a sin-offering to vindicate the LORD’s holy Name which you have profaned. You were bought with a precious and priceless price. You are not your own, but you are the LORD’s. Your life and breath, your possessions, your reason, skills, and talents are the LORD’s. This is the proper perspective and context for your life. The LORD redeemed Israel out of exile for the sake of His holy Name. And, the LORD has redeemed you from sin, death, and the devil for the sake of His holy Name.
And, yet, still you suffer. And, you will suffer; your Lord Jesus has promised precisely that. Indeed, today your Lord teaches you saying, “The hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.” If you read or watch the news, you know that the Word of the Lord in this matter is profoundly true. Yet, it is not only the graphic and horrible executions of Coptic and Ethiopian Christians in Libya at the hands of ISIS of which the Lord speaks, but it is political, financial, social, and cultural persecution and martyrdom that Jesus promises His Church and Her members will suffer for the sake of the LORD’s holy Name. While you may not be cast out of the synagogues, there are forces at play today, and increasing and intensifying daily, that would force you to pray, worship, and practice your faith strictly and only within the confines of the church building or your own home. The same forces seek to eliminate all religious, and particularly Christian discourse from the public square. Faithful, Biblical, orthodox Christian speech is rapidly being classified as hate speech. Yes, truly the hour is coming when whoever kills you, when whoever arrests you, when whoever taxes you, forces you out of business, slanders you, mocks you and ridicules you, does not tolerate you, and hates you will think he is offering service to god – but that god is Satan, under the guise of equality, fairness, and tolerance.
Yet, that is not all that Jesus has said or promised. Jesus has also promised to send you a Helper, the Holy Spirit of God. The Holy Spirit will bear witness about Jesus, and He will equip you and help you to bear witness about Jesus with your words and deeds, with your life, and, ultimately, with your death. Jesus has told you about the suffering that will befall you at the hands of men and the world so that “when their hour comes you may remember that [He] told them to you.” Likewise, St. Peter also teaches you saying, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the Name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”
It is not for your sake, but for the sake of His holy Name that the LORD has called you and redeemed you. You are His. Your life is His. Your possessions are His. Your works are His. And your witness, your martyrdom, your death is His. The LORD has redeemed you from all your idols. Therefore, do not submit yourself once again to their slavery. You are free – truly free. You are free to stop living for your self and for the pursuit of your selfish pleasures and desires. You are free to live for Christ, as Christ’s life lives in you and through you, making you fruitful with His life-giving fruits that benefit others and glorify the LORD’s Name. Therefore, St. Peter exhorts you to “be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers” and “above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” For, the LORD will vindicate His holy Name, and the LORD’s holy Name will be vindicated through your witness, through your martyrdom and death. For, the LORD has given you the Helper, His Holy Spirit on account of the death and resurrection of Jesus so that you are clean from all your uncleannesses and from all your idols. The LORD has given you a new heart and a new spirit – the heart and spirit of Jesus – that you may walk in His statutes and obey His rules.
He has told you these things so that, when their hour comes you may remember that He told them to you. That hour has come, and it is coming, and it comes even now. But, do not fear. You are not alone. The Helper, the Holy Spirit of God is with you. He will sanctify, equip, and keep you through trial and tribulation and even death. Moreover, your Lord Jesus is with you, and He has suffered before you and for you, and He lives and reigns victorious over heaven and earth, and He will preserve and keep you through suffering and death with His victorious life, Word, and promise. Even now He has prepared a feast of love and life and forgiveness for you, in the presence of your enemies, that you may not faint, but be strengthened and persevere. Come, eat and be strengthened. Come, drink and be forgiven. Come, and live in Jesus’ life – life victorious over death and the grave.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.
Sunday, May 10, 2015
John 16:23-33; James 1:22-27; Numbers 21:4-9
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
There is power in prayer, but from whence does that power come? Is there power in the one who prays; is there power in you? Is there power in the words that you pray? Is there power in your faith as you pray? Or, is there power in the One to whom you pray, power in the Name in which you pray? Surely, it is the latter. Indeed, there is power in prayer, just as there is power in absolution. And, as the power of absolution does not lie in you – in the words of your confession, or in your faith, or in your piety – but, the power of absolution lies in the One to whom you confess, so too does the power of prayer lie in the Words, the promise, the faithfulness, and the righteousness of your LORD, to whom you pray, who alone is righteous, and who has promised both to hear and to answer your prayers in Jesus’ Name.
St. James has written, “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” Unfortunately, St. James has commonly been misunderstood to mean that it is your righteousness and the fervency of your faith that makes your prayers to be efficacious and powerful. This creates at least two serious problems. First, if the efficacy of your prayer depends upon your righteousness, then there is no hope that your prayers will ever be heard, let alone that they will be effective. Second, if the efficacy of your prayers depends upon the fervency of your faith, then you will either despair that you have not believed fervently enough, or, perhaps worse, you will come to believe that your faith is indeed fervent and strong, so that your faith will be in your faith and not in Christ who alone is righteous. But, the efficacy of your prayer does not depend upon your righteousness – except that you are declared to be righteous by the LORD because of your faith in Jesus Christ His Son. And, likewise, the efficacy of your prayer does not depend upon your faith – except that you have the gift of faith created in you by the Holy Spirit of God.
Moses was a righteous man. Well, he was not righteous in himself, but the LORD declared Him to be righteous because he trusted in Him, his faith and his trust were a work and gift of the Holy Spirit. Thus, when the people were bitten by poisonous serpents, they cried out to righteous Moses to pray to the LORD on their behalf, that He would remove the snakes. And so, Moses prayed, and his prayer was effective – it was heard and it was answered. Moses’ prayer was heard and answered by the LORD because the LORD counted Moses as righteous. And, perhaps, so that the people, and even Moses himself, did not get the idea that it was their righteousness or their faith that made their prayers efficacious, the LORD did not give them what they prayed for – the LORD did not take the snakes away. In fact, people continued to get bit and to die from the poisonous serpents! However, the LORD did answer Moses’ prayer, though in a different way. The LORD instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and to raise it up on a pole. Then, whoever had been bitten by a poisonous serpent, when they looked upon the bronze serpent raised up on the pole, would not die from the snakebite.
You see, the LORD did not give them what they wanted, but He gave them what they needed. The people wanted physical safety and relief from suffering, but the LORD knew that they needed faith and trust in Him and in His Word. The reason the LORD sent the serpents in the first place was because the people did not trust in the LORD to care for them. They even accused the LORD of intentionally leading them out of slavery in Egypt to starve to death in the wilderness! Remember what they said, “There is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” They grumbled against the LORD. They did not fear, love, and trust in the LORD above all things. They even despised His providence and accused the LORD of evil. Therefore, it was out of mercy that the LORD sent the fiery serpents to bite them. It was loving and merciful discipline so that the people would see their sin and repent. And, they did! But, still, all they cared about was a release from the poisonous serpents. Though they repented, they did not understand that what they lacked was faith and trust in the LORD and in His Word. That is why the LORD did not take the serpents away, but He did give them a way out so that, though they might still be bitten and suffer, they would live if they trusted in the LORD and in His Word and looked upon the bronze serpent raised up on the pole.
The LORD fixed His Word of promise to a physical object, even the emblem of their suffering, a bronze serpent, with the promise that, if they looked upon the bronze serpent, they would live. Similarly, you and I have been bitten by the poisonous serpent Satan. We each have been conceived and born with the corruption of original sin – sin that is real sin and personal sin, sin that leads only and always to death. However, the LORD has provided for you and for me, and for all the people who will ever live, a way that we can, despite our sin, live and never die. No, He did not take our sin away – that is to say, we still sin, daily, and much, in thought, word, and in deed – but, the LORD has given us a way to escape the penalty of sin, which is death. This time, the LORD did not command a bronze serpent to be raised up on a pole, but, instead, the LORD gave His only-begotten Son, Jesus, to be crucified and hanged upon the cross for our sins and for the sins of the entire world, that anyone and everyone who looks to Him in faith and trust may live, even though they die, and have their sins forgiven.
Thus, Jesus, before His crucifixion and death, taught His disciples, His Church, you and me, about prayer. Jesus said, “In that day,” that is, the day of Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, “you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my Name, He will give it to you. […] Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” “In Jesus’ Name” is not some magical incantation that manipulates the LORD to answer your prayer; beware that you never think or believe such a thing! But “in Jesus’ Name” means that you should pray for all and only those things that Jesus would pray for and would have you pray for, all things that are in accord with the LORD’s Word and will. Thus, it should be obvious that this precludes prayers for new Cadillacs and winning lottery tickets, right? Additionally, however, all material and worldly things must take a lesser status in your prayers, for Jesus drew His sustenance, not from bread alone, but from every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God, and Jesus had no home or place to lay His head, knowing that His true home was with His Father in heaven. This is what Jesus means when He says that you should ask that your “joy may be full.” What is the source of true joy? Is it worldly, material possessions? Is it comforts and pleasures of the flesh? Is it reputation and esteem among men? Is it health and well-being? No. Even if you are blessed to have these things, you know that they are fleeting. To strive and struggle to obtain, keep, and maintain them is a losing battle that only brings suffering for you and for others. Rather, you should receive them as gifts from the LORD and give thanks for them. But, beware not to make these things idols and false gods. For, true joy is the forgiveness of sins, the washing away of the guilt of your sin, reconciliation with the Father, and life that never ends. That is what Jesus would have you pray for, that your joy may be full – that you may be full of true joy, not all manner of cheap, imitation, false, and fleeting joy.
Therefore, St. James also wrote, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before, God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Truly, St. James says quite a lot here. First, though it is popular today to say, “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual,” St. James suggests that there is a religion that is “pure and undefiled before God,” and that is a religion of selflessness and service, visiting orphans and widows in their affliction and remaining unstained from the world. Second, the practitioner of this “pure and undefiled” religion will bridle their tongues. Clearly, this is wise counsel of the highest degree. It is St. James, after all who speaks at length of the evils of the tongue. However, this counsel has a relation to the topic of prayer today as well. The prayers of the righteous man will not consist of “meaningless repetition” and “many words,” but they will consist of the righteous Words of our righteous Lord and God. Therefore, the best possible prayer is the prayer that our Lord Jesus has taught us. First, learn this prayer and all that it encompasses, and then, learn from it how, and for what, to pray.
Yes, there is power in prayer, for there is power in the One who has commanded you to pray and has promised to hear and to answer your prayers. And, yes, “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” For, Jesus is the righteous man, and His Words are effective, His faith is fervent. These He shares with you who are baptized into Him, and who trust in Him for forgiveness, life, and salvation. Look to Jesus in your time of trouble and distress, and give Him thanks and praise for His providence, goodness, grace, and mercy. Let your prayer be like that of the tax collector in the temple, “Lord, have mercy upon me, a sinner.” For, that man, and not the Pharisee, went down to his home righteous and justified. In this way, you are the righteous man, when you trust not in your own providence, faith, and righteousness, but in the LORD and His Word alone. Then will you be a practitioner of the “pure and undefiled” religion, and your joy will be full. Even now, He who was lifted up for you is present with His Words and with His Wounds to fill you to overflowing. Come, eat and live. Come, drink and be forgiven. Be fulfilled. Be joyful in the Lord who has done all things well, who has made all things new, even you.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.