Saturday, April 25, 2020

Misericordias Domini - The Third Sunday of Easter (Easter 3)

John 10:11-16; 1 Peter 2:21-25; Ezekiel 34:11-16

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Whenever I hear a Christian say, “You’ve got to have a personal relationship with Jesus!” I admit that I have a physical reaction. My flesh crawls, my neck hairs bristle, I get angry, or I get depressed. I react this way because, bound up in this seemingly pious, faithful, and biblical statement, is our First Parent’s fall in the Garden of Eden, and every lie and deception of Satan from that point forward, even now. For, just as Satan tempted Adam and Eve to believe and to desire something that the LORD had not promised, instead of what He clearly had promised – The LORD promised that they were made “in His image and likeness” – so, in the statement, “You’ve got to have a personal relationship with Jesus!” Satan tempts you to believe and to desire something that the LORD has not promised, instead of what He clearly has promised – For, you already have a personal relationship with Jesus. In the Incarnation, the Word of God, the Word of Creation, God’s only-begotten Son, begotten of the Father from eternity, took up your human flesh and became a man, became one of us, became your brother. There’s nothing more personal than that! Moreover, the LORD did all of this wholly despite you and your will, and your intellect, and your decision, and your choice. That is part of the significance of the Virgin Conception and Birth. That is part of the significance that Jesus was conceived without the participation of a human father. Your personal relationship with Jesus is a relationship that the LORD chose to have with you when you did not know Him, when you denied Him, when you were serving Satan, while you were still sinners, while you were dead in sin and didn’t even know it. “You’ve got to have a personal relationship with Jesus?” You HAVE a personal relationship with Jesus, thanks be to God alone! Recognize this truth! Receive this truth! Believe this truth! That is to say, repent! But, don’t ever, never ever, rob God and try to take credit for it. For, that is a sure way to wreck it and to lose it.
The phrase “personal relationship with Jesus,” by the way, appears nowhere in the Scriptures. Indeed, this is the way the Scriptures speak of the relationship your God desires to have with you in today’s Gospel: “I am the Good Shepherd. Iknow my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Likewise, from today’s Old Testament lesson: “For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, II myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” And, as the LORD continues, continue to pay attention to the subject of the verbs, listening for who is doing the doing: “And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. […] I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak. […] I will feed them in justice.” Who’s doing the doing? Who’s doing the seeking and the calling and the feeding? Who, I ask you? That’s right. It is all the LORD’s doing. You do not come to Him, but He comes to you. You do not find Him, but He finds you. You do not choose Him, but He chooses you. You are the lost, but the lost can be found. You are the transgressors, but transgressors can be forgiven. You are the dead, but the dead can be raised.
Of all the images our LORD provides us that we may know His nature and His intention toward us, the image of the Shepherd is, perhaps, my favorite. The Shepherd is strong, but He is also vulnerable. The Shepherd loves His sheep with a fierce and selfless love, but He is not their friend. The Shepherd will do what is necessary to protect His sheep, even to the point of sacrificing Himself for them, and He will seek and find the sheep that has strayed and will restore him to the one flock. In Jesus, the LORD says, “I AM the Good Shepherd.” There are many other shepherds. There are even many other good shepherds. But, there is only one Good Shepherd – the Shepherd that is the norm and ideal of what a shepherd should be – and that is the LORD, and your Lord Jesus Christ.
In contrast to all other shepherds, Jesus is the Good Shepherd because the sheep of His flock are His sheep. The Father has given you to Him, and Jesus has purchased and won you in His holy, innocent shed blood, and in His bitter suffering and death upon the cross on your behalf and in your place. When confronted by the wolf, Satan, seeking to devour you, your Good Shepherd threw Himself into the wolf’s jaws and permitted him to tear His flesh and to take His life that yours would be spared. That is why He is the Good Shepherd; “The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” In contrast, other shepherds are but hired hands. The sheep are not theirs, but another’s. They care nothing for the sheep, but only for the honor and prestige the flock may bring them, or for the paycheck they may receive for tending them. Therefore, when the wolf comes, they flee. They will not sacrifice themselves for sheep that are not their own. They will not lay down their lives for someone else’s flock. They care nothing for the sheep, or for the One who owns them, but they care only for themselves and their egos and their bellies.
The hireling shepherds Jesus had in mind were the Pharisees, and they knew it. It was their job, their divine calling, to shepherd the LORD’s sheep, the children of Israel. But, they would not. Though they were given the key to open the Scriptures for the people, the key to unlock the Gospel and set the people free from their sins through faith in the sacrificial Lamb of God’s self-offering, Jesus, not only did they refuse to proclaim the Gospel to the LORD’s flock, but they refused to make use of the Gospel for themselves as well! They had no love for the Father, the owner of the sheep, or for the sheep of His flock. But, their love was for themselves and for power and prestige and wealth. Therefore they played nice with the wolf, the Romans and the Judaizers and, yes, with Satan, in order to secure for themselves a comfortable living. And, when the Lamb of God, Jesus, came, they knew who He was, and they handed Him over to the wolves. It is expedient that one man should die for the people, and the whole nation not perish.
The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. Jesus laid down His life for you. It doesn’t get more personal than that. Your Good Shepherd went like a lamb, silent, to the slaughter, for you. “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth. When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly.” In His death, the wolf thought that he’d made the ultimate kill. But, in His resurrection, your Good Shepherd broke the wolf’s jaws and knocked out his teeth. His greatest weapon, death, was defeated. Therefore, if even death cannot hold you, then what have you to fear? Nothing. Absolutely nothing! The Good Shepherd says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch the out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”
Yes, you have a personal relationship with Jesus, but not because of anything you felt or experienced, decided upon or chose, or even believed, but you have a personal relationship because of the Incarnation of God’s Word of Creation, His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ. Your Good Shepherd assumed your flesh and became a sheep, even the sacrificial Lamb of God, that He might lay down His life for you and die the death you earned, merited, and deserved for your sins. And, being innocent, Jesus took up His life again, destroying the power of death, that your life might be raised up out death too and that you might live with Him forever in a life that cannot die as sheep in His Father’s fold in heaven forevermore. Truly, there is nothing more personal than that. Even now your Good Shepherd is present with His flesh and His blood that He has raised up anew to share with you His victory over death and the grave, His eternal life, sonship with the Father, and a reign with Him over heaven and earth and all things. Here are the mountain pastures of Israel. And, here is the Good Shepherd to feed and shelter His sheep. It doesn’t get anymore personal than this.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Quasimodo Geniti - The Second Sunday of Easter (Easter 2)

John 20:19-31; 1 John 5:4-10; Ezekiel 37:1-14

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Who were the people of great faith in the Bible? Truly, there are only a very few that are so designated. There was Abraham who “believed the LORD, and the LORD credited it to Him as righteousness.” There was Jacob, who wrestled with the LORD and would not let go. Even though the LORD wounded him, Jacob would not let go without the LORD’s blessing. There was Mary who, at the angelic announcement that she would conceive and bear the Son of God, faithfully replied, “LORD, may it be to me according to your Word.” And, there was the Canaanite woman, whom Jesus first ignored, and then rejected, and then insulted, but who refused to let go and give up so that, finally, Jesus exclaimed of her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” Yes, there are a few others, but precious few. Indeed, most of the people of faith in the Bible are not people of great faith, but they are people of little faith, of weak faith, and of struggling faith, faith tempered by lukewarmness, hypocrisy, and not a small amount of doubt. And, that’s a good thing! That’s a good thing for you! For, are not you such a person of faith?
“Lord, I believe! Help me in my unbelief!” Those were the words of a father who brought his demon-possessed son before Jesus to be healed. However, the man was lukewarm in his faith. He said to Jesus, “If you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus mildly rebuked the man saying, “‘If you can’! All things are possible for one who believes.” Now, of course, this is true. Your Lord Jesus said so! But, does that make you feel any better? It doesn’t make me feel any better, at least, not if I understand Jesus’ words in the way they are commonly misunderstood.
You see, these words of Jesus are commonly misunderstood to mean that you simply have to believe more, or to believe better, and then, then the miracles will really begin to happen for you! This is the misunderstanding that drives televangelists like Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, Paul Crouch, Oral Roberts, T. D. Jakes, and Joel Osteen. They preach and teach a “Name It, and Claim It” doctrine in which the onus is on you to really, really believe and makethe miracle happen. Faith becomes a force – “Use the Force Luke! – whereby you can get what you want, rather than an abiding trust in God even during times of trials and suffering. But on the other hand if you think positive thoughts or just have “enough faith,” then you can have health, wealth, and happiness now, when you want it, on your terms. But, this doctrine is unbiblical in at least two ways: First, it makes faith a work that you do instead of the gift of God the Holy Spirit worked in you. Second, and worse, it places man above God, in that man manipulates and controls God by his work of faith.
So, what does Jesus mean when He says “All things are possible for one who believes?” Well, it’s pretty self-explanatory when you jettison the nonsensical and unbiblical misunderstanding that faith and belief is a work that you perform. It most definitely is not. Belief is something that you come to, or are lead to, based upon evidence and your personal experiences. That is why some things that you used to believe as a child, you no longer believe, and, likewise, you may come to believe new things, and other things, throughout your life. However, Christian belief, commonly called faith, has its origin in the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God: “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ.” Jesus Himself teaches, “No one can come to me unless the Father calls him.” Thus, we confess in the Small Catechism, “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.” Thus, “all things are possible for one who believes,” not because belief is a work that you do, but because of the object of your belief, Jesus.
“All things are possible for one who believes” in Jesus, for whom all things are possible. It is not your believing that “makes all things possible,” but it is what you believe in that “makes all things possible.” That is why the LORD credited Abraham with righteousness. Abraham wasn’t righteous, but he believed and trusted in the Word and promise of the LORD, which is righteous. Thus, Abraham received an imputed righteousness, an alien righteousness, a righteousness that came from outside of Him, received through faith, which itself came from outside of Him and was created within Him by the Holy Spirit of God through the Word of God. Likewise, Jacob had great faith in the LORD who wrestled with him, who even seemed to be against him at the time. I know, someone will want to say, “See, Jacob had to hold on. That was a work!” No, you are wrong! It was the LORD’s Word and promise to which Jacob clung and would not let go. That Word and promise was given to Abraham and Isaac before Jacob’s birth. It was the source, the origin, and the substance of Jacob’s faith, and entirely the work and gift of the Holy Spirit of God. Likewise, Mary believed, received, and conceived by the Spirit-bestowing Word of God, and the Canaanite woman, like Jacob, refused to let Jesus go, even when He seemed to be against her.
But, then there’s Thomas. Doubting Thomas, as he has come to be known. I like Thomas. Thomas is a saint I can believe in. I am Thomas. Thomas is me. Is Thomas you too? If you’re honest with yourself, I suspect he is. When the other disciples told Thomas that they had seen the Lord, Thomas infamously exclaimed, “Unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into His side, I will never believe.” You see, I don’t think that Thomas’ faith was all that weak or lukewarm. Rather, Thomas knew his faith and its limitations. He didn’t have faith in his faith, but he had faith in Jesus, and only Jesus. He knew that it would require Jesus, and only Jesus, for him to truly believe. He needed to hear, and to see, and to touch His Jesus. He was only being honest. Truly, Thomas’ faith was very much like the faith of the father with the demon-possessed son who pleaded with Jesus saying, “Lord, I believe! Help me in my unbelief!” Thomas had faith, but he didn’t have faith in his faith; and neither should you. Faith doesn’t save. Faith in Christ saves. But, again, it is not faith that saves you – only Christ does that – but you receive Christ’s salvation through faith, as through a channel or a means, by grace, that is, as a free gift, wholly apart from your works, and your worth, and your merit.
Thomas knew what he needed. I know what I need. Do you know what you need? You need Jesus. You need His Word, which you receive by hearing, which creates faith in you, which clings to and trusts in His Word. But, you also need Jesus’ wounds; that is, you need to see, and touch, and taste Jesus’ glorified and holy wounds that your faith and belief may be strengthened and preserved through good times and bad times, though death unto the resurrection to eternal life. Yes, it is true what Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” still, Jesus lovingly and mercifully and graciously invited Thomas to come and touch and handle His wounds. Still, Jesus lovingly and mercifully and graciously invites you to come and touch and handle His wounds. And, maybe Thomas did. Probably he did. But, not before he confessed, “My Lord and my God!” a confession even greater than St. Peter’s! In tribute to this, do you know what I say silently to myself each and every Divine Service as I kneel before the consecrated Body and Blood of Jesus in this Holy Eucharist? I say, “My Lord and my God!” just like Thomas.
I am Thomas. Thomas is me. Is Thomas you too? I pray that he is. Weak faith? Maybe. Struggling faith? Likely. Faith that receives Jesus and all His benefits and clings to Him only? Definitely. Yet, all of these are faith – faith that receives Jesus and clings to Him and benefits from all of His blessings: the forgiveness of sins, salvation, eternal life, sonship with the Father, and a reign with Jesus in His kingdom that has no end. In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus invites you saying, “Come here. Put out your hand. Touch My wounds. Handle them. Eat My resurrected and glorified body. Drink My holy blood shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. Do not disbelieve, but believe.”
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

The Feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord (Easter Sunday)

Mark 16:1-8; 1 Corinthians 5:6-8; Job 19:23-27

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The stone has been rolled away. The tomb is empty. Death has been defeated. Jesus is risen. You are no longer in your sins. That, dear Christian, and only that, is the “new normal,” inaugurated nearly 2000 years ago in Jerusalem. But, it’s all too easy to forget that. It’s easy to doubt that when the economy is crashing, when the fear of disease is palpable, when unemployment is through the roof, and when there seems to be no end in sight. It’s easy to forget the “new normal” of the empty tomb and fear another “new normal,” one in which we are no longer able to celebrate holidays with our extended family, travel across state lines, gather in worship, or even to hug each other or to shake each other’s hands; one in which your retirement income is gone, where education is before a screen with no office hours, study halls, or friends; where sports are played in empty stadiums, if they are played at all. That’s the “new normal” of fear and unbelief, but that is not the “new normal” for you, O Christian.
That was also the “new normal” that enslaved the minds and hearts of the women who visited Jesus’ tomb early this morning. The “new normal” for them was that Jesus was dead. Their teacher, their King, their Messiah, their hope was dead, and surely those who killed Him would come for them next. The women visited Jesus’ tomb to anoint His dead body, to prepare Him for burial. Their greatest concern was not that they wouldn’t find Him there, but rather the large and heavy stone that sealed His tomb. That was normal even before Jesus’ death, but His death brought a newness and a finality to it, making it for them a dark and hopeless “new normal.”
When they arrived at the tomb, they were surprised, they were terrified, to see that the stone had already been rolled away. Still they did not believe, however. The “new normal” for them, introduced by Jesus’ death, was simply too much for them. It stopped their ears to what they had heard, it blinded their eyes to what they had seen, how everything foretold by the Law and the Prophets, how everything taught by Jesus, had been fulfilled. Fearfully they entered the tomb to approach Jesus’ body, if it was even there and not stolen away by His enemies, when they were greeted by a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe. That was certainly not normal. “Do not be alarmed,” the angel said, “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here.”
The women approached the tomb in fear and, sadly, despite the angel’s announcement, they fled the tomb in fear as well, because they could not comprehend, and they did not believe the “new normal.” “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you,” said the angel, but “they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s what fear does, it paralyzes you and prevents you from doing what you have been given and called to do. Fear imprisons you and every aspect of your life so that you cut off communication with others, even with those closest to you. This is the enemy’s strategy, as the prophet had declared, “‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered’.”
The historic Gospel for Easter Sunday ends, not with joy, but with fear, not with shouts of “Alleluia!” but with silence. The women are seized and silenced by trauma and fear so that they were robbed of hope and couldn’t remember the words of Jesus that had comforted them when He was with them. They were overcome with what their eyes saw now and with what their ears heard now, and without the sound mooring of God’s word, they were confused and frightened and they didn’t know how to interpret what they were experiencing. We are at risk of the very same at this moment in time. Apart from God’s word and promises we have no mooring and must succumb to despair.
The Old Testament patriarch Job had good reason to despair, had he not the sound mooring of God’s word and promise. Though he had lost his wealth, his health, and his family, and though he suspected, no, he knew, that the LORD had permitted it, Job confessed, “The LORD has given, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the Name of the LORD.” And, though his flesh had been reduced to ashes, Job was strengthened to persevere by the LORD’s promise of a Redeemer and the resurrection of his body so that he confessed, “I know that my Redeemer lives…, and after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold.” Job confessed this truth nearly 2000 years before the birth of Christ, because of the word and promise of the LORD. That this comfort and confidence might be extended to others, to you, Job deeply desired that these words were written that they would be inscribed in a book, that with an iron pen and lead they would be engraved in rock forever.
In these uncertain times, there is great temptation to give yourself over to fear, to take matters into your own hands, to make rash and hasty decisions that may prove harmful as time goes on. Thus, this Easter Day be reminded that everything the women and the disciples thought about Good Friday, based upon what their eyes had seen and their ears had heard, unmoored from the Lord’s word and promise, was simply, plainly, and tragically wrong. What they fearfully believed was the “new normal,” that Jesus was dead and their hope was ended, couldn’t have been further from the truth. Jesus’ crucified body on the cross was not the “new normal.” Jesus dead body lying in the tomb was not the “new normal.” But, the stone rolled away and the empty tomb, that was, and is, and ever shall be the “new normal,” no matter what may befall you in this world and life. The stone has been rolled away. The tomb is empty. Death has been defeated. Jesus is risen. You are no longer in your sins. That, dear Christian, and only that, is the “new normal.”
Is the “new normal” a change in the way you live your lives? Good! The resurrection of Jesus Christ has changedeverything indeed! Jesus’ empty tomb is the “new normal” for you and for all who believe. As St. Paul teaches, the old leaven of sin and guilt has been cleansed from you in Jesus’ blood. You really are unleavened. You are a new lump. “Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” Do not let fear paralyze you and keep you silent. Do not let our forced separation keep us from reaching out to each other in the ways that we can, and praying for each other more than ever before. Do not love your life in this world so much that you fearfully forget the words and promises of our Lord, fulfilled in Jesus’ own resurrection and the empty tomb, and so sacrifice the comfort and peace of God’s word and promise which proclaim and offer life that cannot die in Jesus Christ who is risen! The tomb is empty. That is the “new normal” in Jesus Christ. Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia! We go forth in peace in the Name of the Lord. Amen!
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Good Friday Tenebrae Vespers

John 18:1 – 19:42; 2 Corinthians 5:14-21; Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
“Behold my Servant,” saith the LORD. That is how the LORD thinks of His Messiah, His Anointed One, His Christ: “My Servant.” And, that is how the LORD’s Son thinks of Himself, as the Servant of the LORD. And, how does the Servant serve the LORD? What does the Servant do? He humbles Himself and becomes obedient unto death, even death upon a cross. For, to be a servant is to be selfless. The servant is not interested in his own interests, but in the interests of His Master. You are the interest of Jesus’ Master. God the Father loves you, and He sent His Servant Son to lay down His life to redeem you, to win you back from your sin and from its just wage, death. God the Father loves you, and He loves His Servant Son also. Therefore, the sacrifice of His Servant Son is His sacrifice as well.
The Father’s Servant “shall act wisely; He shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted,” both in His crucifixion and death, and in His resurrection and life. This is the Theology of the Cross: God has chosen what is foolish in this world to shame the wise, what is weak in this world to shame the strong, what is low and despised in this world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are. From the lowly seed comes the majestic tree, but not without the destruction of the seed. And, “if a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” This is the Theology of the Cross, which is “folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” When they gazed upon Jesus, they saw only weakness and lowliness. They despised Him and considered Him nothing. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son from Nazareth?” “Do we not know His origin, His birth, and His parents?” “He is nothing. We know Him. We have no use for Him.” And, when the LORD struck, and smote, and afflicted Jesus, they thought He was getting His just desserts. Yet, it was our griefs and sorrows Jesus carried. It was for our transgressions that He was wounded. It was for our iniquities that He was crushed. By His chastisement and stripes we are healed and find peace with God. This was the LORD’s will for His Suffering Servant, whom He loves, because He loves you.
Jesus is the LORD’s Suffering Servant. He served His LORD by laying down His life for you. “It was the will of the LORD to crush Him; He has put Him to grief; when His soul makes an offering for guilt, He shall see His offspring; He shall prolong His days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in His hand.” You are His offspring. Jesus died that you might prosper. He “bore the sin of many, and [made] intercession for the transgressors,” that is, for you. Jesus paid the debt you owed. He suffered the wrath that was justly yours. He was obedient to the Law of the LORD in perfect love, fulfilling it for you and giving you the credit. Truly, the Gospel message of Good Friday is the Word of Jesus from the cross, “Tetelestai,” “It is finished,” It is fulfilled,” the old has passed and the new has come: forgiveness, salvation, and everlasting life.
Jesus is the LORD’s Suffering Servant, and you are the LORD’s servant too. Jesus’ New Commandment to you on Holy Thursday was to love one another as He has loved you. But, it was Jesus’ death on Good Friday that gives you the freedom to do that, the freedom to love as you have been loved, not out of fear and coercion of the Law. Before Jesus’ death, the Law loomed over you like a cruel, unloving, and merciless taskmaster. It demanded perfection of you, and you were literally damned before you started, before you even tried to keep it and to do it. But, now Jesus has tetelestai, Jesus has fulfilled the Law’s demands for you in His perfect and holy obedience and in His suffering and death on the cross. Tetelestai, it is finished, it is fulfilled, for you. The old has been fulfilled and has been made new, and that means you have been made new as well.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come.” The change that has been wrought in you is servanthood, love. There is a change in which you view your fellow man, be he your brother, your neighbor, your friend, or your enemy. “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh.” We regard no one according to the flesh because our flesh has been redeemed in Jesus Christ who died in the flesh fulfilling the Law’s demands for all. Christ has “died for all, therefore all have died.” So also, Christ has been raised for all that all may live in Him. There is a world of advice and exhortation out there for you making demands upon you as to how you should live, what you should do, how you should talk and dress and eat and raise your families and vote and really every other aspect of your life. Not all of those things are bad in and of themselves, but what do the Scriptures say? What does your Lord Jesus say? “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” And, what does Paul say? “The love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and He died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for Him who for their sake died and was raised.”
Jesus died for you to set you free from the threatening coercion of the Law, that you might no longer live for yourself, but to Christ and to your neighbor. The Suffering Servant Jesus served and suffered that you might become the LORD’s servant in Him. He has even given you this ministry, this service, the ministry of reconciliation. What does this mean? This means that, as Christ has reconciled us to Himself, so now does He send you as His ambassador to implore others to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.
Jesus died so that you might live. The life you live is His life. Jesus lives for you, with you, and through you to the glory of our Father. Tetelestia: It is finished – all that was necessary to make you right with God, all that was necessary to redeem you from sin and death, all that was necessary to free you from slavery and condemnation under the Law is finished, completed, and fulfilled in Jesus’ death on Good Friday. Jesus took all of that upon Himself and He died for you and asyou and was buried. However, He did not remain in that tomb, but He rose from the dead on the third day just as He had said. To remain in sin and worldly, fleshly, and material desires, pleasures, and pursuits is to remain in death and the tomb; it is to return to a rotting, stinking, filthy corpse. But, Jesus has died and has been raised that you might live forHim and as Him. And, while this new life is not always easy, Jesus promises to be with you through it all. When you give to others, you give with His gifts. When you forgive others, you forgive with His forgiveness. When you love others, you love with His love.
You are not the same. In Christ you have been reconciled with God; therefore, be reconciled with your brother, your sister, and your neighbor. You are a new creation in Christ, and so also your brother, your sister, and your neighbor. You are blessed to be a blessing. This is why we call this day good. Jesus’ death is for you and as you. Jesus’ resurrection is foryou and as you. In Christ, you are a new creation. Glory be to God alone.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Holy (Maundy) Thursday

John 13:1-15, 34-35; 1 Corinthians 11:23-32; Exodus 12:1-14

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps you have forgotten, but the Passover was the final of ten plagues the LORD visited upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians before Moses lead the Israelites in Exodus across the Red Sea in pilgrimage to the Promised Land. First there was the plague of blood, as the Nile River was turned to blood and everything that lived in it died. Then there were the plagues of frogs, gnats, and flies, a plague upon livestock, and a plague of boils. Next there was the plague of hail, then locusts, and then the plague of darkness. The tenth and final plague was the plague upon the firstborn which figures central in the Passover and its subsequent feasts of remembrance. The LORD told Moses that He would strike the firstborn of both man and beast in all of Egypt, but He gave Moses a sign by which the LORD would pass over the homes of the children of Israel if He saw that their doorposts and lintels were marked by the blood of a sacrificial lamb.
The LORD promised Moses and the Israelites, “The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.” There are two key phrases in this promise that I wish to emphasize for you: First, the blood was a sign for the people. Second, when the LORD saw the blood, He promised that His wrath against their sin would pass over them and they would be spared. The blood was a sign for the people – a physical, visible sign of the promise the LORD had made to them. The sign of the blood was meant to give them confidence and peace that the LORD looked upon them, not in wrath, but in mercy and love. Moreover, the blood was a sign that the LORD Himself gave to them. Apart from His Word of promise, the blood would mean nothing and do nothing at all, but because of the Word and Promise of the LORD it was a powerful, meaningful, and effective sign doing precisely what the LORD in His Word and Promise promised. Though it is tempting to see the blood as a work of the people, who had to smear the blood on their doors and lintels, you must remember that doing so was only efficacious because of the LORD’s Word and Promise which He attached to the blood. It was a work of the LORD, and a blessed sign and sacrament for the people that the people could trust in and have confidence that the LORD would look away from their sins and spare them.
Our Lord Jesus Christ celebrated His last Passover meal with His disciples on the night in which He was betrayed by Judas into the hands of sinful men. It was this night, commemorating and bringing into living remembrance the final plague of deliverance from slavery in Egypt and the sign the LORD gave that He would pass over the sins of His people. Jesus did what fathers of Jewish households and rabbis of synagogues and temples have done ever since the first Passover, He taught His disciples, His family, remembering God’s mighty acts of deliverance, His faithfulness, and His promise to His children still. Only, this time, Jesus as the father and rabbi of His people, reinterpreted the Passover and Exodus in terms of Himself. Jesus was the New Moses leading His people in exodus, not out of slavery and bondage to Pharaoh in Egypt, but in exodus out of slavery to sin, death, and the devil. By the power of His creative and life-giving Word, the bread they ate was His body, and the wine they drank was His blood. They ate no lamb that night, but the Lamb that God Himself provided, His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ. As they drank His blood in, with, and under the wine He blessed, His blood marked the doorways and lintels of their bodies and souls and the wrath of God against their sin passed over them, even as the fullness of His wrath fell upon Jesus and consumed Him in the fire of His wrath until it was finished and there was nothing left to fall on them, and there is nothing left to fall upon you.
You see, the Lord’s Supper, is still a sign for you. The Lord’s Supper is a sign that it is finished, that all that was necessary to redeem you from sin, death, and the devil has been accomplished, fulfilled, and completed by Jesus in His suffering, death, and resurrection. It is a sign that you may have confidence and peace that the LORD looks upon you, not in wrath, but in mercy and love. The Lord’s Supper is not your work, but it is the Lord’s work and gift to you; and because it is His work and gift it cannot fail, but you can trust in it with confidence for forgiveness, life, and salvation. Your Lord Jesus says that you should receive it often. How often? Well, how often do you eat and drink and breathe? Do not think that the Supper will not be special if you receive it too often. That is a sophism of the devil. The Supper is not like fine China to be used a few times each year, but it is the Daily Bread for which your Lord has taught you to pray, it is the holy manna in the wilderness of this world that you may persevere and not faint as you make your pilgrimage to the Promised Land of Heaven with God.
Interestingly, this meal, which was first instituted by the LORD for the comfort and perseverance of His people following a series of plagues that the LORD inflicted upon Egypt, is a meal that we have not been able to eat and drink together since the outbreak of the current plague beset upon our nation and world. We have discussed at length ways in which we might offer the Supper to those desiring that are safe and responsible and are in accord with the authorities, without compromising the integrity of the institution and proper administration of the Sacrament in accord with Jesus’ words, but at this time we agree that is best that we continue our fast from the Supper and be sustained by the Word of the LORD and prayer. We must avoid, however, the rationalization that would suggest that the Lord’s Supper is somehow of secondary importance and that the Word is all that we truly need. We must not set God’s Word against, or in opposition to, His Sacraments any more than we would set Jesus’ divine nature against, or in opposition to, His human nature. Additionally, we must resist rationalizations that would, for the sake of receiving the Supper, bend, change, or deviate from Jesus’ clear words of institution and administration of the Lord’s Supper. Remember, the Lord’s Supper is a sign the LORD has given us that we should have confidence and peace that, because of Jesus’ sacrificial death and blood, the LORD passes over our sin and gives us instead Jesus’ righteousness and life. We must never introduce or eliminate elements of the Lord’s Supper that might cause us to doubt or to lose confidence in that promise.
There were many times when the LORD’s people were unable to pray their prayers and make their sacrifices because of famine, pestilence, war, and exile. The LORD provided for His people through those times by His life-giving Word. Nonetheless, the people longed and hungered for the fulness of the LORD’s gifts and rejoiced when they were restored to them and could receive them again together. This is a time of fasting for the Lord’s Church once again, a time for repentance and fasting in the sure and certain hope that He will, in His time, restore us once again. Last night Jewish families around the world commemorated the Passover deliverance of the LORD mostly in their homes, just like you, the final words of their service being, “Next year in Jerusalem,” proclaiming their hope that they will one day worship again at a restored temple in Jerusalem. As each Sunday passes in which we must fast from the Lord’s Supper, let our cry be, “Next Sunday in this sanctuary,” in the sure and certain hope that the Lord will restore us and that we will, in His time, eat the Lord’s body and drink His blood together once again, a sign for us that we should have confidence and peace that the LORD passes over our sins because of Jesus’ sacrificial death on our behalf.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Palmarum (Palm Sunday) - The Second Sunday of Passiontide

Matthew 26:1 – 27:66; 21:1-9; Philippians 2:5-11; Zechariah 9:9-12

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
This is a strange Palm Sunday, to be sure. Normally this would be a festive and celebratory day with better than average attendance. There would be a processional with children waving palm branches and the congregation singing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor to Our Redeemer King.” Instead, there are no people here at all. There is no processional, no children, and no singing. The only palm branches are the few I blessed earlier as a symbol of our perseverance and hope throughout this pandemic that things will eventually return to normal and that we will gather here once again to receive the Lord’s gifts and to return to Him thanksgiving and praise, after this Lent of all Lents.
However, I would posit that there is something we can learn from this somber, stripped down, bare as bones Palm Sunday observance. Perhaps we can come to see how easily we can misunderstand the meaning of Biblical events, particularly when the culture and customs were so very different, and we are removed by nearly 2000 years of history. Why did the crowds receive Jesus that day in the way that they did, laying down their cloaks, waving palm branches, and singing, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”? Why did Jesus ride on a donkey? Why did he bring a second animal along? Wittingly or unwittingly, all of this worked together in the Lord’s providence both to fulfill prophecy and to galvanize Jesus’ opponents so that He might accomplish the purpose for which His Father had sent Him, to suffer and die as the Passover Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world.
The crowds received Jesus as their king on Sunday, but He would quickly prove to not be the kind of king they were looking for by Friday. They waved palm branches in the air and laid their cloaks on the road before Him. Palm branches and cloaks really had nothing to do with messianic prophecy or the God of Israel, but they had everything to do with political and military victory over tyrannical worldly oppressors. In 140 BC the Jews revolted against the Seleucid King Antiochus Epiphanes who had prohibited their worship in the temple. Upon victory, the people celebrated by waving palm branches as they paraded the high priest back into the temple. The palm branches had become a symbol of Jewish independence and a breaking free from tyrannical oppression, not unlike Americans waving flags at a Fourth of July parade. At the time of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Israel had been ruled by the Roman Empire for almost one hundred years. The crowds believed that they were welcoming and celebrating a national and worldly king who would set the people free from Roman rule and restore glory and power to Israel once again. Perhaps it is a good thing that there is no holy parade processing down this aisle today. Perhaps it is a good thing there are no palms and celebrative singing. Perhaps, on this Lent of all Lents, we will be better able to reflect upon the kind of king our Jesus truly is, a king whose kingdom and people are not of this world.
The donkey, however, is another matter. King David had his son Solomon ride into Jerusalem on his own donkey to be anointed his successor and king. Solomon was in effect riding upon King David’s throne into the midst of his people. This is really where the messianic title Son of David originates. Moreover, God had promised David that his seed would reign on the throne of David forever. Thus, though they were confusing the role of the Son of David, they correctly ascribed that title to Jesus proclaiming, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” Hosanna means “save us.” Were they asking Jesus to save them spiritually from their sins, death, and damnation? Most likely not, but they wanted Jesus to save them from Roman oppression and tyranny. However, Jesus had another purpose in mind for riding on a donkey, the messianic prophecy of Zechariah, “Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Jesus does not come to make war against the kings of the earth, but to make war against the devil, and His kingdom is the kingdom of heaven.
Needless to say, when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, He entered a powder keg set to explode. The people were in a nationalistic frenzy anticipating their overthrow of their Roman oppressors. The combination and confusion of both nationalistic and religious messianic zeal would not fail to capture the attention of either the Roman government or the Jewish Sanhedrin, not to mention the High Priest Caiaphas, the Galilean King Herod, and the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate. For three years Jesus had refused to let himself be taken by His opponents saying, “My hour has not yet come.” Now His hour has come, and Jesus, the Lamb of God, goes willingly, knowingly, silently, but intentionally, to slaughter.
And so, Jesus rides into that mob-like crowd with their sin-warped hopes, desires, and expectations, humble and mounted on a donkey, in lowliness, to be crowned their King. He entered the Holy City Jerusalem, not to be served but to serve, and to lay down His life for the world. His throne was not bedecked with gold and jewels, but of wood and nails. His royal crown was made of twisted, savage thorns, His robe a torn, muddied, and bloodied shroud. He was the Son of David, but He was also David’s Lord. He was sinless, but He was condemned and executed as a sinner. He was the Son of God the Father, but He died that we Barabbases, the sons and daughters of sinful human fathers, might live and be free. The LORD’s passion is for you; it has only and ever been for youBehold, your King comes to you; righteous and having salvation is He, humble and mounted upon donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
As we together reflect upon His Passion this Holy Week, may we remember that it was in divine and holy love that the LORD has visited His people. He came to His own, who could not and would not come to Him, to restore them to Himself. Even though they rejected Him, mocked Him, scourged Him, and crucified Him, He came to them to lay down His life for them, to die for them, that they might live through Him, in Him, and with Him. In His dying Words He plead the Father’s forgiveness, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and through Jesus, they, and we, are forgiven. All this He gladly suffered.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Lenten Vespers in the Week of Judica (Lent 5)

John 10:22-38; Leviticus 19:1-2a, 10b-19a, 25b

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
In St. John’s Gospel, “the Jews” who continually oppose Jesus and seek to entrap Him and kill Him are not the common folk generally referred to as “the crowds,” but they are Jewish legalists, Judaizers, who held to the letter of the law while ignoring its spirit. Thus, in their attacks against Jesus they often appealed to the law as they interpreted it – the Sabbath law, cleanliness laws, dietary laws, temple laws, etc. – accusing Jesus of their transgression. Accordingly, the Jews picked up stones to stone Jesus to death because He said, “I and the Father are one,” a transgression of the law, blasphemy. Except, that Jesus was telling the truth.
Jesus was telling the truth when He said, “I and the Father are one.” The works that He did – healing the sick, causing the blind to see and the mute to speak, casting out demons, and raising the dead – were in fulfillment of the prophetic Word and bore witness that Jesus was telling the truth, that He was the Christ of God, even God Himself in their midst. “I have shown you many good works from the Father,” Jesus said, “for which of them are you going to stone me?” Jesus’ works were good and lawful. More than that, they were in fulfillment of Messianic prophecy. There was nothing that they could accuse Jesus of. If they were going to entrap and accuse Jesus of anything they were going to have to twist and bend and distort the law in order to do it.
“It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God,” they answered Him. They displayed their hypocrisy and the malevolence of their hearts by appealing to the law, God’s Word, to accuse and condemn Jesus, the very Word that He was fulfilling before them and that bore witness to Him telling the truth. When Jesus said, “I and the Father are one,” He was simply stating a fact, the truth. Everything that Jesus said and did was wholly in accord with the Word and law of God so that Jesus and the Father were, in Word and deed, truly one.
The Jews hypocritically and malevolently used the Word of God to entrap Jesus. Quoting Psalm 82, Jesus exposed their hypocrisy saying, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came – and Scripture cannot be broken – do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?” In saying “you are gods,” the Psalmist is speaking particularly to those given authority to rule in accordance with the Word of God for the sake of weak and the needy in opposition to the wicked. The Jews regularly used the Word and law of God in order to justify themselves and their own deeds and to condemn others. For example, the Jews used the Sabbath law in order to justify their lack of love and mercy in not helping those in need, but then condemning Jesus because he did heal the sick and help people in need on the Sabbath.
Jesus concluded saying, “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” Everything that Jesus was doing was in fulfillment of the Father’s will, Words, and law. If they would not believe Jesus, then they should see that His works were fully in accord with the Father’s will, Words, and law. The truth, however, was that they had no love for Father or for His Word. The truth was, they were not among Jesus’ sheep.
“I told you, and you do not believe,” said Jesus. “The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of may hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”
Jesus was telling the truth. Those who love the Father love His Word, and the Father’s Word is fulfilled in Jesus. To follow the Father’s Word is to follow Jesus. To follow Jesus is to follow the Father. Jesus and the Father are one. Those who are baptized into Jesus have God as their Father. Thus, the Church has confessed that God became man so that men might become God. This Jesus has accomplished for you in His incarnation, obedience, humiliation, suffering, and death. Believe it for Jesus’ sake.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.