Sunday, February 26, 2017
Luke 18:31-43; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; 1 Samuel 16:1-13
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus explained why He taught in parables saying, “that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.” Now, this is not to say that Jesus intentionally taught in a confusing and paradoxical way so as to prevent His hearers from understanding, but rather, such is the nature of the Word of God – it must be received in good soil, that is, by eyes and ears that have been opened to the Word and therefore both see and hear with faith and bear fruit. You will recall that Jesus concluded the Parable of the Sower saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” We all have ears, but we do not all hear. Likewise, some who do not hear at first may yet hear at another time. The point is that hearing is not merely the physical function of healthy ears, but hearing is faith, and faith bears fruit. Indeed, the hearing Jesus calls for and praises are “those who, hearing the Word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.”
Jesus’ disciples both saw and heard, yet when Jesus taught them concerning His impending suffering, death, and resurrection, “they understood none of these things. The saying was hidden from them.” Again, it may seem on the surface as though they were prevented from understanding. Indeed, in a sense they were, for Jesus also taught them saying, “Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.” The point is this: Eyes that see and ears that hear are given, they are created by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God when and where He pleases. And, as eyes and ears, seeing and hearing, are passive functions, we truly have no control over what we see and hear. Hence, someone who has seen something truly disgusting or repulsive might say today, “I can’t unsee that.” Indeed, you can’t unsee the revelation of Jesus or unhear His Word, but you can close your eyes and stop your ears and tell yourself repeatedly, “I didn’t see that! I didn’t hear that!” But, that doesn’t change the fact that you did. Thus, you either receive the Word in faith, the work of the Holy Spirit, to your great blessing and fruitfulness, or you reject it in unbelief to your judgment. Or, as Jesus put it, “Whoever is not with Me is against Me, and whoever does not gather with Me scatters.”
In today’s Gospel, the twelve disciples, having healthy and functioning eyes that see and ears that hear, are set in contrast with a blind man who can truly see with the eyes of faith. The reading begins with Jesus saying to His disciples, “See.” – “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about he Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.” Then Jesus began to teach them, for the third time in St. Luke’s Gospel, about His suffering, crucifixion, death, and resurrection,” “But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” Though they would certainly see everything happen to Jesus of which He spoke, the disciples were blind to what Jesus was saying until after His resurrection when He “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” Again, we confess concerning the work of the Holy Spirit in creating faith in our hearts, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”
In contrast to the twelve disciples, when a blind man sitting by the roadside begging heard that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by, he cried out to Jesus for mercy. Though he could not see, the blind man had ears to hear the Word of the Lord, and so the Spirit also granted him spiritual eyes with which to see who Jesus truly was. Apparently the blind man had heard of Jesus before and believed that He could heal him of his blindness. Though the crowds told him only that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by, the blind man addressed Jesus with the Messianic title “Jesus, Son of David.” Undoubtedly the blind man recalled the words of the Prophet Isaiah concerning the coming of the Messiah, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.” Interestingly, the crowds and the disciples wanted to shut the man up! They didn’t hear as he heard; consequently, they couldn’t see what the blind man could see about Jesus – that He was the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy, right there in his presence. Jesus stopped and asked the blind man directly, “What do you want Me to do for you?” The man replied, “Lord, let me recover my sight.” Jesus said to him, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.” Because the blind man could already see with the Spirit-given eyes of faith, Jesus granted him physical sight as well. “To the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away.”
But, what is the true difference between the twelve disciples and the blind man in this Gospel? It is this: The blind man knows that he is blind. The blind man confesses that he is blind. The blind man makes no pretense that he can see, has no faith in his ability, has no faith in his faith, but the blind man’s faith is in Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, alone. Through his faith, the blind man could see clearly what the seeing could not. For, what do the seeing see: The son of a carpenter from backwater Nazareth? An itinerant rabbi without a home? A vagabond bunch of fishermen, a tax collector, a zealot, and worse? An insurgent who just might rile up enough frustrated Jews to rise in rebellion against their Roman oppressors? The disciples’ great sin was failing to recognize and confess their own spiritual blindness. And, we have the same problem as they. We become confident of ourselves, like a blind man who thinks he has 20/20 vision, like a beggar who thinks he’s a millionaire. Like Peter on the Mount of transfiguration, we want glory now, we want to erect tabernacles and monuments and churches to enshrine the emotional high of the mountaintop experience and dwell in glory, bypassing suffering, trial, and persecution. But, the glory was only a foretaste. Jesus came down from the mountain of glory and made His way to Jerusalem and to His cross. And, we His disciples must follow Him in His way. There is no other way. Thus, while Peter was still speaking and raving about tabernacles, God acted, the Glory of the LORD tabernacled over the mountaintop and the terrified disciples. God’s voice boomed from the cloud saying, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him.” “Hear Him.” Then the cloud receded. Moses and Elijah disappeared. And, the disciples saw Jesus, and Jesus only. “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For He will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging Him, thy will kill Him, and on the third day He will rise.” The final step as we approach Lent is to see ourselves for what we are: blind beggars who need to see Jesus, and only Jesus. “Let us fix our eyes upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
While the seeing attempted to shut him up, the blind beggar, who could truly see in Jesus what the others could not, begged and pleaded before his Messianic King, “Lord, have mercy on me,” or “Kyrie eleison!” just as we beg and plead in the Divine Service before our Lord and King. That cry, that plea, “Lord, have mercy,” “Kyrie eleison,” is the cry of faith of those whose only object is Jesus. “Lord, have mercy” is the plea of one who confesses that he is pinned to the floor in his sin and guilt and cannot get up. “Lord, have mercy” is the plea of one who has no strength, no sight, no ability to improve his situation. “Lord, have mercy” is the plea of one who knows his own sinful paralysis, his own unworthiness, his own desperate need, and who knows that Jesus is the only answer, the only cure, even should He not heal us in this life. And, “Lord, have mercy” is the plea of one who knows his Lord, who knows where to turn for help, who trusts that his Lord is indeed merciful and willing to help. And so, we plead, “Lord, have mercy upon us. Christ, have mercy upon us. Lord, have mercy upon us,” each and every week in the Divine Service, for we are in need of our Lord’s mercy, and we confess Him to be merciful.
On Ash Wednesday we begin our Lenten descent with Jesus to the cross. We follow Him, not as a weak and defeated leader, not as a sacrificial victim, not as our eyes see, but as our eyes of faith see, as our victorious King and God. King Jesus has already defeated our enemy and has set us free from his evil tyranny, and our God has destroyed the power of death that would ensnare us and keep us in our graves for all eternity. Even still, the way of Jesus, the way of our God, is the way of the cross. Thus, our pilgrimage, the procession in which our King and God leads us, does not bypass suffering, the cross, and death, but it passes directly through them as through an unlocked door. Therefore, let our eyes be open to see Jesus for who He is – our victorious King, Lord, and God. We do not judge Him by what our eyes see, but by what our ears hear. And, we follow Him and walk in His ways, in the way of love and mercy and compassion towards all, that all may hear what we hear, and see what we see, and find healing, forgiveness, and life in the Good Shepherd of our souls Jesus Christ. Even now we receive our King who comes to us in Word and Water, Bread, and Wine, having nothing to offer but our broken and contrite hearts and this plea from our sin-scorched lips, “Kryie eleison!” “Lord, have mercy.” And, He does.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.
Sunday, February 19, 2017
Luke 8:4-15; 2 Corinthians 11:19 – 12:9; Isaiah 55:10-13
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus is the Sower, and the parable you have just heard is His Seed, His Word. Your ears and your hearts are the soil: “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” All soils “hear,” for hearing is passive and receptive, but not all soils are fruitful. Indeed, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” And, no soil is called or fruitful apart from the Seed of the Sower, the Word of the LORD.
A great crowd of soils was gathered around the Sower, all having ears to hear, and the Sower began to sow, Jesus began to preach. Now, an enlightened, wise, and efficient sower sows his seed only in the best of soils. Not so our Lord Jesus. Jesus sows His Word-Seed indiscriminately, equally, and liberally upon all types of soils, without any regard to the type or condition of the soil whatsoever – “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and spout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My Word be that goes out from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Ah, did you catch that? Men of wisdom count success only in that which produces the desired result of a fruitful harvest, but the LORD counts success even when soily ears and hearts do not bear fruit. How can such foolishness be? The Word of the LORD never fails; it always accomplishes its purpose. Either it is received in Spirit-created faith and bears fruit, or it is hindered, refused, and rejected in unbelief. Isn’t it amazing that the all-powerful and all-sufficient Word of God can be hindered, refused, and rejected? And yet, the LORD “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” And so, the Lord sows indiscriminately, equally, and liberally upon all types of soils, without any regard to the type or condition of the soil whatsoever. Indeed, one of the purposes for which the Word of the LORD goes forth, Jesus warns, is that “seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.” For, when the Word of the LORD is rejected, the soily heart of a man returns to what it was before – hard, dead, and fruitless. Nevertheless, in the divine mercy, patience, and forbearance of the LORD, He keeps on sowing, even when His Word-Seed is hindered, refused, and rejected in unbelief.
And so here is an aspect of this parable that typically goes unrecognized and unconsidered: Who does the plowing? At least in three of the conditions of soil Jesus names, all but the trodden path, the soil has already been broken up and plowed, prepared to receive the goodly Seed. But, who has done the plowing? As Luther explains in the Small Catechism, it is the Holy Spirit who has His hand on the plow: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” Indeed, the Holy Spirit is the active person in and through the Word-Seed of the LORD, Jesus Christ, the Sower and the Seed. Thus, the plowing, the sowing, the fruit-bearing, and, ultimately, the harvest, are the LORD’s. Indeed, the fact that there are various soils in various states of preparedness is indicative that the Sower has been this way before. The present condition of the soils reflects what has been done with the goodly Seed the Sower has sown yesterday, today, and tomorrow for as many tomorrows as the LORD may in His mercy grant, desiring that all might be saved.
For, once the Holy Spirit has plowed, once the Sower has sown His goodly Seed, there is work to do – work in cooperation with the Holy Spirit in retaining what has been plowed and sown. Mind you, and mind you strongly and assuredly – WE DO NOT COOPERATE IN ANY WAY IN OUR JUSTIFICATION OR IN THE PRESERVATION OF OUR JUSTIFICATION, but that is purely and entirely the work of the Holy Spirit who has “called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” Nonetheless, as we confess in the Formula of Concord concerning Free Will, “As soon as the Holy Spirit has begun His work of regeneration and renewal in us through the Word and holy Sacraments, we can and should cooperate through His power, although still in great weakness (FC II, 65).” Just a few verses following today’s parable, St. Luke records Jesus’ exhortation, “Take care then how you hear.” And then, in the following chapter, Jesus warns, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
We see this in action as Jesus describes the conditions of three types of soil, two of which, although initially receptive to the goodly Word-Seed, even resulting in living and growing faith, nevertheless remain fruitless. Working backwards, there is the thorny soil – “those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.” That is to say that the Word of the LORD and faith have competition in such soily hearts, all the things, people, pursuits, and passions that you are tempted to place before the LORD and His Word. These are the things that keep people from the Word and the Sacraments on Sunday, that keep them from taking time for meditation on the Holy Scriptures and prayer, that tempt them to set up idols that demand their fear, love, and trust before and above God. Faith in such hearts gets choked out and strangled. While it may continue, it does not and cannot bear the fruits of faith and thus is counted as no faith at all.
Then there is the rocky soil – “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.” Surely, lack of root and moisture are just as dangerous to young and growing faith as are thorns and weeds. Again, faith is present, alive, and growing, but it is not being nourished. Such it is with Christians who neglect their faith and starve it by not drinking deeply from the well of God’s Word and receiving His Sacraments. Either ignorantly or willfully they refuse to put on the armor of God and so they remain weak and defenseless against the attack of the Evil One. And, when trial and tribulation, disease, unemployment, death come upon them, they have no deep and strong root and so are uprooted and swept away in the torrential flood of despair. Likewise, when the wisdom of the world attacks their faith like the scorching sun, having not the moisture of the Word of the LORD, their faith withers and dies.
And last of the three unfruitful soils, there is the hard-packed soil of the path – “those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the Word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.” Do not think as the Calvinists and Enthusiasts do that some are predestined to be the path and cannot be plowed and planted, believe, bear fruit and be saved. No, but we were all the path at one time, and some of us have likely returned to path-like status one or more times throughout our pilgrimage. No, there is hope even for the path, for the Sower continues to sow His Word-Seed even where it has been rejected in the past – Thanks be to God for His grace and mercy and patience! Perhaps what you should ponder more when considering the path is that the devil is eager to steal the Word of the LORD from your hearts. He doesn’t want you to believe, and he uses a multitude of very creative and inventive tactics to keep the Word from implanting itself within your hearts and minds: distractions, pleasures, and entertainment; boredom, work, and pragmatism; the false wisdom of men which we consider enlightenment and scientific fact; personal pettiness concerning the pastor, his personality, voice, preaching style, etc.; self-righteousness which tempts you to puff yourself up with pride while looking down on others with disdain and contempt, instead of pity, mercy, compassion, and love. Again, unlike the Calvinists and Enthusiasts, we must not believe that if we have once believed that we cannot fall from faith. No, the devil is just as relentless in seeking to devour you as your LORD is in saving you. Yet, there is still hope for those who have fallen away, for the Sower keeps on sowing until the day and hour the LORD has appointed for the harvest. Therefore, you must “take care how you hear” and keep your hand to the plow without looking back.
But, “some [seed] fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” Remember, faith also “grew” in the thorny and rocky soil, but remained fruitless. Only the soil of faith that produces fruit does Jesus call “good soil.” Moreover, the good soil not only produces fruit, but it produces a miraculous abundance of fruit, a “hundredfold.” This is in accord with the teaching of St. James that “faith apart from works is dead,” and “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” It’s very simple, plain, orthodox, confessional, Lutheran, Christian doctrine that faith – true, living, and saving faith – always produces fruit, good works that serve the neighbor and glorify God. It is enough, it is sufficient for justification that you have faith, but faith is never alone, but is always active, always working, always bearing fruit. Thus, Jesus teaches concerning the good soil, “they are those who, hearing the Word, hold it fast in a an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.”
Again, the Holy Spirit plows and prepares the soil your heart. And, Jesus, the Sower, sows the Seed of His Word into your heart and makes it fruitful. The LORD is Sower and the Seed. You are the soil, and you are His, your faith is His work, and the fruit you bear is His fruit which serves your neighbor and gives glory to the LORD alone. While your faith, your New Man, indeed cooperates with the work of the Holy Spirit in and through you, your Old Man, your sinful and corrupted flesh cooperates with the devil to return the soil of your heart to the hard-packed path once again. There is nothing that you can do to change the condition of your soily heart, but the Holy Spirit must continually plow, the Son must continually sow, and so you are preserved in faith unto salvation by holding the Word of the LORD fast in an honest and good heart and bearing fruit with patience. Thus, the Christian faith and life is one of humility, repentance, and perseverance through all adversity: through trial and tribulation, through the thorny temptations of the flesh, the passions, and desires; through the rocky, faith-compromising vices of boredom and complacency, self-righteousness, pride, and idolatry. These are natural to your Old Man, and the LORD will permit them to befall you that, by the Holy Spirit, your faith may be strengthened, that the rocks may be uprooted, the thorns pulled out, that the root of your faith may grow deeper and stronger in Him, and you bear His fruit, a hundredfold, to the glory of His Holy Name.
O God, the strength of all who put their trust in You, mercifully grant that by Your power we may be defended against all adversity; through Jesus Christ, You Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit one God, now and forever.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.
Sunday, February 12, 2017
Matthew 20:1-6; 1 Corinthians 9:24 – 10:5; Exodus 17:1-7
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The kingdom of heaven is not a noun, but it is a verb. When we hear or read the word kingdom in an English translation of the Scriptures, we typically think of a place or a thing, however, the word used here is not a place or a thing, but it is an action. Indeed, a more accurate translation of the kingdom of heaven would be the reigning of heaven. Thus, when Jesus begins His parables saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like…,” you should hear Him saying “The reigning of heaven is like [thus and thus]….” In today’s parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, the reigning of heaven “is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard” – the entirety of the parable is meant to communicate something about what the reigning of heaven is like.
The very first thing that you should take away from Jesus’ kingdom parable is that He is the actor in it; Jesus is the one reigning in and through His kingdom. Jesus begins the parable with a master hiring workers for his vineyard. Without the master there is no vineyard and no work. Moreover, those hired were not hired because they applied, or because they had certain skills or talents, but they were hired because the master went out and hired them. Though Jesus says that the master agreed with the laborers for the typical daily wage of a denarius, this is simply His master story-telling in action, for He concludes His parable with the master giving the same to all, not because of their labor or merits, but because of his grace saying, “I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you.” It is clear that Jesus Himself is the master in this parable, even as He is the sower of the seed in the two agriculturally themed parables which precede it in Matthew chapter 13: The Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Weeds. Jesus is the sower and His Word the life and faith creating and bestowing seed; we are the more or less receptive soil. Jesus is the master “who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.” We are those standing around idle and passive, unable to earn or merit anything but death. Thus, the reigning of heaven is undeserved, unmerited grace, completely and entirely the work of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who has called us out of sinful idleness to fruitful service in His kingdom.
Indeed, this is how Luther understands and confesses the Second Petition of The Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come.” God’s kingdom comes,” Luther confesses, “when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.” God’s kingdom, God’s reigning, comes to us – not the other way around; we do not come to it – and we receive God’s kingdom, God’s reigning, by bearing His fruits, when we “lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.” There were no workers in the master’s vineyard prior to the master’s call, just as there was no fruitful soil until the sower sowed his seed. We all stand in sinful idleness, which is death, having no ability whatsoever to become fruitful or alive. We are Lazarus, dead in the tomb four days so that we stinketh. Were it not for the Word of the LORD calling us, and the Holy Spirit delivered through that Word creating faith in our hearts, we would remain the hard packed soil of the path, we would remain Lazarus’ stinking, rotting, decaying corpse decomposing in the tombs of our own making, the true wages we have earned, merited, and deserved for our works, the best of which, apart from grace, are no better than filthy rags. Oh how we value and idolize and worship the false god of equality, while there is truly only one thing that we are equal in: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; and the wages of our sin is always, and only, death.
Equality with those hired first in the day is what the workers hired last in the day received – they each received a denarius regardless of how long they worked. Cleverly, however, the master had the workers hired last paid first, and then those hired earlier in the day. Those hired last do not complain, but they receive their wage and go contentedly on their way, while those hired first “began to grumble at the master of the house, saying ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat’.” Here our Lord gets directly at the root of what causes us so much misery and suffering in our lives and in our world: Greed, jealousy, entitlement, which bear the fruits of resentment, hatred, and lack mercy, charity, and, worst of all, love. And, all of that is but the sin-sick and diseased-unto-death fruit of idolatry, a failure to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. All of this is endemic of your false delusion that you have anything that you can offer to God, anything of value that is truly yours of which you may boast or earn or merit or place your trust in.
What did Lazarus have to contribute to his resurrection? What did the soil have to contribute to its fruitfulness? What did unemployed, idle workers have that would earn them a denarius, let alone much less or anything at all? What did the heavens and earth contribute to their creation? Nothing! God creates ex nihilo, that is, out of nothing. Likewise the Holy Spirit creates faith in men’s hearts when and where He pleases through the goodly seed of the Word of God, which the Sower sows here and there equally, without discrimination, and causes to be fruitful when, and where He pleases. The vineyard is the Lord’s. The seed is the Lord’s. The fruit is the Lord’s. But, the good news is that you get to bear it, and that the Lord will credit you for it – which is something considerably different than insisting that you have earned it and merited it. That is to steal from God, an absurd and blasphemous notion, but one that you are tempted to do daily and often do willingly or unwillingly in sinful rebellion or ignorance.
Truly we are equal in the eyes of the LORD, but not because of our works or merit, or even because of our faith. Equally, we are hopeless sinners. Equally, we are forgiven in the blood of Jesus, who chooses to give to the last the same as the first. Do you begrudge the LORD His generosity? Is the LORD not allowed to do what He chooses with what belongs to Him? First or last – what concern is this of yours? It is the LORD who is the First and the Last, the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End – and, frankly, everything in between. Take what belongs to you – not what you have earned, merited, and deserved, but what the LORD has freely and graciously given you at the cost of His Son – and go in His peace bearing His fruits, chief of which is love and its fruits: mercy, compassion, charity, kindness, forgiveness.
The kingdom of heaven is a kingdom of grace. The reigning of heaven is a reigning of grace. The workers thought that they were earning their wages, but in the end all received the same, without works or merit, by grace. The only thing that you earn or merit for your works is death: “The wages of sin is death.” Thanks be to God that He doesn’t give you what you deserve! Instead, the LORD gives the first and the last, all whom He calls to faith and fruitfulness in Jesus Christ, eternal life in His kingdom. Being in the LORD’s kingdom means bearing the LORD’s fruits in good times and in bad, in times of prosperity and in times of dearth, in times of joy and in times of sorrow. Think about it – Jesus is the vine and you are His branches. Branches only produce fruit because they remain connected to the vine; the life of the vine flows through them and makes the branches fruitful. The fruit you bear – your good works, love, mercy, etc. – are the LORD’s fruit, not your own, no more than you would say that the grapes are the fruit of the branch. No, grapes are universally called the fruit of the vine. Moreover, vines often have to endure and persevere through drought and flood, through disease and blight. If the vine suffers these things and endures, so do the vine’s branches. Nevertheless, the life of the vine continues to sustain and preserve the branches and make them fruitful.
“These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” So what. What is that between Me and you, thus saith the LORD? Let such thoughts be far from your hearts and minds and mouths. When you do think and speak them, repent. As we prayed in today’s Collect, we justly deserve the consequences of our sins, but we pray that we might be mercifully delivered by the LORD’s goodness to the glory of His Name. We are all runners in the same race and, if we finish, if we die in the grace of the LORD, we all receive the same prize, eternal life with our Holy Triune God in heaven. What an absurd and scandalous grace we enjoy and bask in! That is why it is all the more absurd and scandalous that you should judge others as less worthy than yourself, that you look down your nose at them and their misdeeds and consider yourself superior – you hypocrite! Rather, in this race, if you see your brother stumble, help him to get up and finish the race. You will not forfeit first prize. There is no first prize, or last prize, but there is only the perfect and holy life of Jesus for all who finish the race. Oh, the temptations to quit midway are enormous and relentless, but the LORD has provided this hospital, this Church for you to bind up your wounds when you are injured and sick, pouring on holy wine and oil and water in forgiveness, to strengthen your faith, and to equip you with His gifts that you may persevere, more than that, that you may help others to persevere. Indeed, we’re all in this together, for we, like those who have gone before us, are under the same cloud of the LORD’s glory, have passed through the same sea of Holy Baptism, eat the same spiritual food and drink the same spiritual drink. Yet, as the LORD was not pleased with most of them, even so the LORD will not be pleased by those who fail to produce His fruits, leading “godly lives here in time and there in eternity.”
The kingdom of heaven is a kingdom of grace. The reigning of heaven is a reigning of grace. Come, eat and drink deeply of the fruit of the True Vine Jesus Christ, our Spiritual Rock who is with us, and be renewed in His grace, cleansed from your sins, strengthened in your faith, and equipped and sent to be fruitful with His fruits. Let His life flow through you and make you fruitful, for He is your life, there is none other, and bear His fruits of love, mercy, grace, charity, compassion, and forgiveness and so enliven others to the glory of His Name.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.
Sunday, February 5, 2017
Matthew 17:1-9; 2 Peter 1:16-21; Exodus 34:29-35
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
“...and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” That is how St. John recounted his experience on the Mount of Transfiguration: John confessed that he had beheld the Shekinah Glory of God in the person of Jesus, and he lived to tell about it. Surely that experience defined John’s apostolic ministry in a deep and profound way. Hence John began his Gospel, not with the familiar infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke concerning Joseph and Mary, angels, shepherds, wise men, and a Bethlehem manger, but with the eternal, primordial being, and with the creative work of the Holy Trinity, and with the Shekinah Glory of God becoming a man, living in our midst as one of us, as our brother.
This was the same Shekinah Glory of God beheld by Moses on Mount Sinai that caused his own face to shine so that it must be veiled before he spoke to the people of Israel. Moses beheld that glory first in the burning bush, before which he was commanded to remove his sandals, for he stood upon holy ground. And yet, the glory of the LORD could only be seen and experienced through means, and not directly, for sinful man may not see God and live. Thus, when Moses asked to see the full glory of God, he was given to see only God’s backside, and that only after the LORD first hid him in a cleft in the rock. The Patriarch Jacob wrestled with a man all through the night until that man put his hip out of socket. When daylight arose and he realized that man was God, Jacob exclaimed in fearful wonder, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.” Likewise Isaiah trembled in fear and despaired of his life when He beheld the Shekinah glory of God in a vision saying, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” The LORD absolved Isaiah, sending a Seraph with a burning coal taken from the altar of sacrifice to touch Isaiah’s lips to atone for his sin and to cleanse him of his guilt. What these men of faith each knew and confessed was expressed concisely by the Preacher to the Hebrews: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” “for our God is a consuming fire.”
And so, when Jesus led Peter, James, and John up the mountain and was transfigured before them so that “His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became white as light,” and “there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with Him,” they were amazed. Peter, always quick to speak, excitedly suggested that they build three tabernacles for the holy trio and preserve that glorious mountaintop experience. But, when a bright cloud tabernacled over them and the LORD Himself spoke from the cloud saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him,” “they fell on their faces and were terrified” before the presence of the Shekinah glory of the LORD. Shortly before His Transfiguration, Jesus had asked His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Then Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” But, now, on the Mount of Transfiguration, God Himself answers the question and shows the disciples precisely who Jesus is as His Shekinah Glory shines from, in, and through Him, the express “image of the invisible God” as a man.
The presence of both Moses and Elijah with Jesus at His Transfiguration is pregnant with meaning. First, Moses, who brought the Ten Commandments of the LORD to the people of Israel, is symbolic of the entirety of the Law of God. Likewise, Elijah, the greatest of the Old Testament prophets is symbolic of all the prophets of the Holy Scriptures. Together, Moses and Elijah stand for the Law and the Prophets, that is, for the testimony of the Holy Scriptures, which, Jesus instructed the Emmaus disciples, all testify about Him. Second, both Moses and Elijah died, or were translated to heaven, in unusual ways: Moses died and was buried in a secret location by God Himself! Elijah was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind! Yet, on the Mount of Transfiguration both men are present, alive, and conversing with Jesus in the fullness of the Shekinah Glory of God, a preview of the promise of life beyond death fulfilled. Additionally, whereas because of his sin and the rebellion of the people of Israel, Moses was permitted to see, but not to enter, the Promised Land of Canaan, now he stands upon that promised ground in the presence of the LORD in His glory. Third, Moses and Elijah were not merely having a casual conversation with Jesus, but St. Luke tells us that they were discussing with Him “His departure which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” The Greek word translated as departure is exodus. Thus, Moses, the leader of the Exodus out of captivity and slavery in Egypt is discussing with Jesus the exodus He is about to lead, through His death and resurrection in Jerusalem, out of captivity and slavery to sin, death, and Satan.
The Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ stands at the end of Epiphanytide as a final manifestation of Jesus as both God and man in one person before we descend with Him down from the mountain and prepare to enter Jerusalem to die throughout Lent and Passiontide. Our Lord grants us this preview and foretaste of His glory, this mountaintop experience, that we may believe in Him and that our faith may be strengthened and persevere as we journey with Him through trial and tribulation in the Valley of the Shadow of Death in which we live our lives, that we might resist temptation and be comforted and persevere through Satan’s furious and hateful assaults. This purpose of His Transfiguration, too, follows upon Jesus’ question to His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” For, immediately following Peter’s bold confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” Jesus “began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” This preview and foretaste of Jesus’ glory is offered to strengthen and encourage His disciples, to strengthen and encourage you, that, when the horrible and humiliating events of Jesus’ arrest, trial, scourging, crucifixion, death, and burial occur, and when trials and tribulations, heartaches, diseases, tragedies, and deaths occur in the lives of Jesus’ disciples, and in your own lives, you and they will remember and be comforted in the knowledge that Jesus foretold this and that “we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
As Moses lead the Israelites in the Exodus out of Egypt by the blood of the Passover Lamb, so now Jesus, the Passover Lamb of God leads His Israel, that is all of His Father’s children through faith in His Son, by the shedding of His own holy, innocent blood poured out upon the world from Calvary’s cross. And, as Elijah was taken up into heaven in a whirlwind, so was Jesus taken up in a cloud forty days after His resurrection to be seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven where He now rules over heaven and earth and all things until He comes again in glory as Judge and King.
Nevertheless, Peter did not fully understand until the Holy Spirit was poured out upon him and the Church at Pentecost. Peter wanted to enshrine the glory, to preserve it, to bask in it now, to avoid the suffering and humiliation that must come before the glory. Because of our sinful concupiscence, we all desire the same; even Jesus experienced the temptation to avoid the cross according to His human nature as He prayed to His Father, “Take this cup from Me.” However, Jesus resisted and overcame even this temptation for you and for all saying, “Yet, not My will, but Your will be done.” Truly, among our greatest temptations is to seek glory now in our lives and in our faith and in our church, and to shrug off and reject the crosses our LORD has chosen for us to bear that His power might be made perfect in our weakness. Peter could not make a tabernacle for the LORD anymore than David could build Him a house. For, truly, Jesus’ flesh and blood body is the Tabernacle and Temple of the Shekinah Glory of the LORD of which He said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Glory of the LORD does not reside in a house built by human hands, wisdom, and strength, but in the flesh and blood body and person of Jesus Christ, a tent and tabernacle made without human hands. Within the Tabernacle of Jesus stand Moses and Elijah, Peter, James, and John, the repentant thief on the cross, your mother, grandfather, daughter, and all the saints that have gone before us, all those who have come out of the great tribulation having washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
And yet, life in the Tabernacle of Jesus’ flesh and blood are not only something yet to come, but it is a Tabernacle and life that you live in even now in the Valley of the Shadow of death, for you have been baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection. You have, even now, one foot, so to speak, firmly planted in that heavenly Tabernacle, while having also one foot buried in the grave. But, we look forward to that day, by the assistance of the Holy Spirit and in the certainty of faith, when we will stand with both feet firmly planted in the tabernacle of Jesus in the full presence of the Shekinah Glory of God in heaven. Again, you have been provided this preview and foretaste of Jesus’ glory that your faith may be strengthened and that you may persevere through temptation and even death. Thus, St. Paul confesses that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”
Like Moses, Jacob, and Isaiah, Peter, James, and John were terrified by the presence of the Shekinah Glory of the LORD shining from, in, and through Jesus. However, whereas Isaiah had a seraph touch his lips with a burning coal from the altar of sacrifice, Jesus, the sacrificial Lamb of God Himself reached out and touched His disciples and raised them up, casting away all their fear. Jesus is what the burning coal on the altar foreshadowed for Isaiah. He is the one who take the guilt of our sin away, atoning for our sins.
“And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.” Jesus alone remains. Our trust is not in Moses or Elijah, our trust is not in works or even our faith, but our trust in in Jesus alone, crucified, risen, ascended, and returning. Behold, our Lord is coming, even as He is present with you now, tabernacled in bread and wine, that you may eat His flesh and drink His blood in the midst of our Satanic foes in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and be preserved, kept, strengthened, and protected in faith unto life everlasting, that you may be made partakers of His Divine Nature. To God alone be the glory, in Jesus Christ His Son our Lord, through His Most Holy Spirit.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.