A New Heaven and a New Earth: Not Mere Fiction

Revelation 21:1-7

Fifth Sunday after Easter

April 24, 2016 – originally preached at St. John’s Lutheran Church, Stewartville, MN

May 15, 2022 – reformed and made new for the people of God at St. Matthew Lutheran Church, Lee’s Summit, MO

Focus:  God is making all things new.

Function:  That the hearers trust in the Word of Christ given for them.

Structure:  Walking through the text.

A New Heaven and a New Earth: Not Mere Fiction

            This is one of my favorite texts in all of Scripture.  And I’m so excited to have the opportunity to share it with you, to preach on this section of Revelation.  It holds glorious words of promise, what Christ has done for you, but also what Christ is still doing for you. 

            But before we get there, let’s just take a step back and look at where we are.  During the season of Easter, we’re spending six consecutive weeks in the book of Revelation.  We started three weekends ago with Revelation chapter 1.  Then we read from chapter 5, and last week chapter 7.  But now today, we jump all the way to Revelation chapter 21.  We’ll stay in chapter 21 next week before finishing two weekends from now with chapter 22, the final chapter of Revelation.

            But that means we skipped a lot.  From chapter 7 to 21.  That’s hopping over two-thirds of the letter, which is why I wanted to summarize it all for you just two weeks ago.  Because now we’ve just flown by the censors and the trumpets.  We bypassed dragons and demons battling with angels.  We miss out on the epic warfare, that ends much faster than the devil thought it would.  We miss the end of the world.  Literally.  That’s in chapter 20.  We’ve skipped past all of the images of what’s going on in the world, in your life, right now.

            But that’s not the point of Revelation, to be an A-to-Z timeline of what happens in history.  Rather, we see the ongoing reality of man intertwined with the kingdom of God, the people who put their hope in the Second Coming of Christ.  That is, God’s victory for us.

1Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.

            Wow!  What a verse!  The former things, the things of this world that we know, and sadly that we still cling to, are no more.  Done, passed away.  People often ask if this is symbolism, it’s just prophecy right?  God isn’t actually going to destroy heaven and earth is He?  Why does heaven have to go?  Chapter 20:11 hints at this really happening: “Then I saw a great white throne and Him who was seated on it. From His presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them.” 

            As we sit before the judgment throne of God, even heaven and earth scatter.  Even they aren’t perfect, they can’t come into His kingdom.  Under the judgment of God, heaven and earth are seen for what they are: broken under us.  Just like we are corrupted by the sin of Adam and Eve, all of the earth is, all of creation is.  Broken.  They were stewards, it was entrusted to them, and they broke it.  We break it.  The heaven and earth of Genesis 1:1 are no longer suitable for the resurrected children of God.

            It’s not just Revelation that tells of the new heaven and new earth.  Jesus said it in Matthew (5:18 and 24:35), Mark (13:31), and Luke (16:17 and 21:33).  Peter said it in 2 Peter 3:10-13.  Isaiah in his 65th chapter (v. 17) says, “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered, or come into mind.”  This is where we get the imagery of the wolf and the lamb lying down together, with the lion eating straw for a meal like an ox.  And he’ll talk about it again in 66:22.

            There’s a lot of debate amongst Christians about “how” this happens.  What happens to the old, and where does the new come from?  We can’t be certain, as God doesn’t bother to explain how He’ll do it, only that He will. 

One of the two most popular theories is that God will simply reform this present heaven and earth, like the Jeremiah 18 passage of a potter reforming his clay.  That seems to fit well with what God is doing, has done, with us.  According to Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”  God isn’t completely wiping us out and making new people, He will raise this body and give it the newness of life!

The world of science fiction has been playing with this sort of idea for generations, with a process called terraforming, which is recreating the surface and atmosphere of a planet so that it might be habitable for new life.  Such stories have flowed from the pens of men like H.G. Wells and Isaac Asimov, and been part of popular movies and series like Star Wars, Firefly, Titan A.E. and Doctor Who.  There are even scientists exploring if it would be possible for man to terraform either the moon or Mars, to make them habitable for human life. 

The other prominent view comes from the 2 Peter 3 text, where Peter says “10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. That makes it sound like this heaven and this earth truly are done away with, not restored, and that God begins anew.

            So, if God will cleanse and reform the earth, or if He’ll completely wipe it out and build a new one, I don’t have the answer, but it’s an incredible promise when you think about what it takes.  The God who created the universe and all that is in it in just six days gets to do it again!

The concept of time is another thing science fiction writers have played with for ages.  Regardless of all of their theories, the simple reality is that God created time.  It is not master over Him, but He is master over it.  This is how Christ can tell the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with Me in Paradise.”  This is how God can look upon us now and see Christ, because we’re already judged, judged righteous on account of Christ.  You may not have died, but you’ve already died.  It’s already the last day.  This is how John can see everything, the heavens, angels and demons, and declare to us that they’re passing away.  Because Christ has already conquered!  It’s fun, mind-blowing stuff. 

And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 

            When asked about going to heaven, I usually redirect, change the language.  Not heaven, Paradise.  A new creation, a new heaven and a new earth.  And Christ promised He was going to prepare a place for us.  This is it.  The only perfect thing we know of is the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve lived pre-sin.  They worked the ground, they cared for the animals.  Everything was bliss.  Paradise isn’t about getting your own cloud or your own planet.

            A new heaven and a new earth.  A new Jerusalem.  But, even though it’s described as a city here, it’s not.  In verses 9-10, which we’ll read together next weekend, an angel promises to show John the Bride of Christ, the Church, and when he does, he shows him the city of the New Jerusalem.  This city is the Bride of Christ.  By the time John wrote this book, Jerusalem was destroyed, Rome had wiped it from the map.  That old Jerusalem was the capital city of God’s holy people, where He dwelled with them from His temple and spoke His Word to them.  Just as we like to say that the Church is a people, so it is with the new Jerusalem.  It is us!  We are the Church, the Bride, the new Jerusalem.  The Church is the place where God will dwell in the midst of His people forevermore. 

That’s why John uses the picture of the bride adorned for her husband.  God has restored us, His creation in a perfect splendor, and just as a father walks his daughter down the aisle and places her hand into the hand of her husband, just as God did in the Garden of Eden as He brought Eve to Adam, so He waits for the day when He gets to present us to Christ.  Spotless, uncorrupted by sin.  Perfect. 

And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

Here God declares His intentions.  Jesus declares His intentions.  God will dwell in the new creation with His people, just like in the Garden.  King among us.  God incarnate with us.  Sharing our lives, sharing our joys.  There truly will be no more pain, no more suffering.  This is the reason why verse 1 said there would be no sea.  When we think of oceans, dread falls on many of us.  Drowning, storms, floods, destruction, devastation.  Noah and the ark.  Water eroding the land.  The sea will give up its dead.  No more.  Will there be water?  It certainly sounds that way, but it will be a life-giving water, not life-taking.

This is the same thing we see in the chopped off verse.  See our text today ends at verse 7.  The text for next Sunday begins at verse 9.  Let’s spend a moment on verse 8.

But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.

We can kind of see why the lectionary didn’t want to end on this verse today.  But it fits.  Revelation was written to a persecuted church, to Christians who were suffering terrible things at the hands of those who hate God and His Word.  And all such things will be destroyed.  Such enemies will no longer be able to harm God’s people, ever again.  Christ has overcome all of His enemies.  And so all who believe in Him, will enter into this Paradise where there is no more pain, suffering, or death.  There is no more sin.  All of those who seek to cling, not to God, but to their own lives on this earth now, will lose it.  Hell, everlasting separation from God, the source of all good things, is the second death.  It is very much real. 

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 

All of your suffering, gone.  Jesus Christ has declared it.  In who He is and what He’s done, the end of the world has already come, the judgment has already happened.  And in this Son of God, crucified for you on the cross and raised from the dead on Easter morning for you, you are His.  Sins forgiven.  Robes washed white in the blood of the Lamb.  You are an heir of Paradise.

And while the words of men are corrupt, while our desires are self-serving, while our ideas are nothing but the misleadings of our own hearts, this Word is true.  And He goes and roots it not in us or our works, but in Himself.  These words are true, and thus John should write them down, because:

And He said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. 

Jesus quotes the Father.  The Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.  Nothing exists apart from Him.  This new creation, the new heaven, the new earth, the new Jerusalem, the place where God dwells with us, is rooted in Christ.  In His Word.  In what He has done for us, in words that sound like His final cry from the cross in John 19:30, “It is finished.”  He has declared it.  And He declared it again in Revelation 16:17, as He announced Satan’s demise with these same words, “It is done!”  These Words are trustworthy and true.

The one who conquers will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son.

 “In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us,” (Romans 8:37).  This is the beauty of all of this.  The beauty of the cross and the empty tomb.  The beauty of life and creation.  The beauty of a new heaven and a new earth.  You are conquerors.  Not of your own doing, but of His.  He has done it.  In the life-giving water of baptism, He has declared you an heir of Paradise.  In faith, in Christ’s work done for you, this Paradise is your promised home.  You live here.  And He is not some distant God.  But even better, He is your Father.  He has called you by name, adopted you as His child into His kingdom, His Paradise.  Amen.  Come Lord Jesus!

God Wins

Revelation 5:1-14

Third Sunday of Easter

May 1, 2022

Focus:  God wins.

Function:  That the hearers rejoice in His victory.

Structure:  Walking through an entire New Testament book.

God Wins

            Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

            A throne, a scroll, seven seals, a mighty angel, elders, a man weeping, the Lion of Judah, the root of David, a Lamb, slain, but standing, seven horns, seven eyes, seven spirits of God, living creatures, and golden bowls full of incense.  All of those are symbols, just in this short section of the Apocalypse of John, or the book of Revelation as we usually call it.  And there are many other symbols in this book.

            The Christian Church today views Revelation as a mystery, as unapproachable because it’s hard to know what all these symbols are talking about.  And, as you’ve heard before, what man doesn’t understand, he fears.  The Church today fears this book.  So my goal today, in this sermon, is that you can leave here no longer afraid of this book.  I want to show you what’s going on in this Word of God so that you love it, and that it does what God gave it to do.

            Twice in the book, an angel will tell John that understanding these symbols “calls for wisdom” or “calls for a mind with wisdom.”  That’s an important note.  When John wrote this letter and sent it to the churches, if it seemed like a bunch of gibberish, a bunch of non-sense, they wouldn’t have kept it.  They’d have thrown it away.  And they certainly wouldn’t have made copies of it and sent them along to other churches, that they also would have this mess of a text.  The early readers actually understood the symbols at hand.  They were able, with minds of wisdom, to unpack these mysteries.  Let me use today’s epistle to unpack a mystery of Revelation so you see how this works.

            Much of history didn’t have books as we do today.  They had scrolls.  And you would write on the one side of the parchment or papyrus, and then roll it up.  This scroll, Revelation’s scroll, was written on both sides.  That is, it was full.  No more room for writing.  This scroll is the full and entire plan of God for our salvation.  And John, getting a glimpse of the heavenly throne room begins to weep, because this plan of salvation is a mystery to him.  It’s right there, but there’s no one who can read it.

            In Roman society, official documents like a last will and testament were sealed with seven seals.  And the only ones allowed to break those seals were either the one who administered it or the heir himself.  In this case, for this scroll, that means only God the Father, whose plan it is, or God the Son who carried it out, could open the seals. 

            But an elder, that is a representative of the Church, tells John that there is One who is worthy to open it.  The Lion of Judah.  Jesus Christ, our conquering Lord, a lion, came from the tribe of Judah, from the line of King David.  Because He conquered, because He shed His blood, He is worthy to open the scroll and reveal to all of us His plan to save us.

            He is also called the Lamb.  The Passover Lamb, sacrificed at twilight that night, whose blood was painted over the doorposts of the home, so that when God descended on Egypt to enact the tenth and final plague of the Exodus over the land, striking down the firstborn sons, if He saw the blood of the lamb on your home, He passed over it.  No harm befell that house.  Jesus is our Passover Lamb.  By His blood, shed for us, shed upon us, given to us in this sacrament, we are covered by the blood of the Lamb.  And when God in His judgment day judges us for our thoughts, words, and deeds in this life, He will pass over our sins because of the blood of this Lamb.

            The Lamb was slain.  Jesus was crucified.  And yet, John saw this slain Lamb standing there.  Because Christ is Risen!  He is risen indeed, alleluia!  Seven is the number for perfection in Revelation.  Horns represent power, eyes represent sight.  So Jesus has perfect power over this creation.  Jesus sees everything in this creation.  And the seven spirits of God, the perfect Spirit of God, is the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus sent into this creation to give us faith, to build the Church.

            As Jesus grabs the scroll from the hand of God the Father, who sits on the throne, all of creation bows down in worship.  Their songs of praise make up the majority of our reading today.  The four living creatures may be four specific angels, the 24 elders are the Church, as you have the 12 Old Testament tribes and the 12 New Testament apostles, and 12+12=24.  They are joined by myriads of myriads of angels.  Ten thousand ten thousands.  Over a hundred million angels.  We don’t know their number, but that’s a lot!

            Again, my goal in today’s sermon is to change how you see Revelation.  To move you from fearing this text, to comfort and hope.  God wins!  That’s it, you can go home now.  That’s the message, truly.  Written to a suffering Church, a persecuted people, despairing as they saw nothing but evil all around them, wondering if Christ really was God, Revelation declares that God is control, that He is victorious over sin, death, and the devil.  That Satan has already lost.  And so, Christians have nothing to fear.  Revelation, first and foremost, is a letter of comfort and hope to God’s people.  Second, it’s a letter of urgency, that because Christ is coming soon, and because we love our neighbor, we want them to know Christ.  And there’s only so much time left to tell them.

Let me take the rest of the sermon to walk you through this letter.  And feel free to use that handout from a local retired pastor, Dale Sveom, to follow along.

            Chapter 1 introduces the setting, that John is writing this revelation that he received while on the prison island of Patmos.  Then we saw last weekend in the text that Jesus is the One who gives this revelation to John.

            Chapters 2 and 3 are all about Jesus addressing each of the seven congregations that He is telling John to send a copy of this letter to.  These seven churches span across Asia Minor, north of the Mediterranean Sea.  Some were planted by Paul, like Ephesus, but others, by others.  Some were faithful churches, and some were on the brink of falling away from God and abandoning the faith.

            Chapter 4 is all of creation praising God for His good work of creating all things.  Likewise then, chapter 5 is all of creation praising God for His good work of salvation, that He is rescuing us from sin, death, and the devil, by the precious blood of His Son Jesus Christ.

            In chapter 6, Jesus opens the scroll.  But as He breaks the seals, suffering occurs in this world, all across the creation.  Revelation’s timeline is consistent, throughout the book.  It’s expressed in many different ways.  1,260 days.  Three and a half years.  Time, times, and a half a time.  The 1,000 years.  They’re all the same.  Most represent the number 3.5.  Seven is the perfect number in Revelation, so seven would be the perfection of time, all of time.  Half of that, 3.5, is half of time.  So the Old Testament era would be seen as a 3.5.  But Revelation focuses on the New Testament era of 3.5.  The timeline of Revelation occurs from the time of Christ’s ascension into heaven, which we’ll celebrate together at the end of this month, until His return, His second coming.

            In between His ascension and His second coming, there will be much suffering in this creation because of the sins of man.  That’s the seven seals.  Man’s inhumanity towards fellow man brings great suffering.  The recipients of this letter were suffering brutally under the heavy hand of the Roman Empire.

            Chapter 7 takes a pause from the suffering to reveal to us the Church.  That 144,000 number, is 12 x 12 x 10 x 10 x 10.  The Old Testament Church, and the New Testament Church, times the number of completeness three times.  The complete and total, full Church of God.  It’s a symbol.  Paradise is not full, it awaits us, and on that day we will stand before the Lord joining the songs of praise, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!”

            Chapters 8 and 9 give us another series of seven sufferings.  We get three of them in the book: the seven seals, the seven trumpets, and the seven bowls.  They’re essentially the same thing.  Repetition to drive home learning.  All three sets or cycles occur between Christ’s ascension and His second coming.  There will be suffering in this world.  There will be suffering that we inflict on one another.  There will be suffering that we have to endure because creation itself is groaning.  There will be suffering because the devil and his demonic hordes haven’t quit yet.  And the seven bowls of chapters 15 and 16 show us that there will also be suffering as God sends His judgments upon this world and upon our sins. 

And many of these, in their symbols, intentionally match the plagues of the Exodus.  Exodus 7:5 declares the purpose of the plagues in that book: “The Egyptians shall know that I am Yahweh, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them.”  God sent the plagues on Egypt as a mercy as well as a judgment.  He could’ve simply wiped them out and given the land over to His people Israel.  But He didn’t.  He sent the plagues to show the Egyptians that their gods that they worshipped were false, and couldn’t save them.  But Israel’s God is true, and real, and was actively saving His people.  We know from the book of Numbers that some of the Egyptians ended up leaving Egypt with Israel.

So it is with suffering in this world today.  God works through these things, whether our own suffering, the actions of the evil devil, or through His own judgments, to call sinners to repentance.  Sometimes we have to hit rock bottom before we realize what we’ve done.  Sadly, most will never repent, and these chapters pick up on that.

Chapters 10 and 11 give us the mission of the Church, that even in persecution, we are to preach the good news.  That as we bear witness, the world will hate us, and seek to kill us.  And sometimes it’ll seem like the world wins.  They will gloat, as Islam does today in the Middle East and Africa, that they’ve killed God’s messengers, only for God to keep raising up new ones who share that good news all the more.

In chapter 12, there’s a woman who is giving birth as a dragon tries to eat her Child.  The woman is the Church, the dragon the devil, and the Child is Jesus.  Satan sought to kill God.  And when he realized he failed, he turned his attention on the Church, the woman.  And when he realized he couldn’t kill the Church either, for “the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it,” (Matthew 16:18) he turned his gaze and his jaws on us, individually.  A lone sheep is an easy feast for Satan.

To help him in this attack on Christians, in chapter 13, Satan summons forth two beasts: the political beast and the religious beast.  Satan will work through the governments of this world, just as God warned us in 1 Samuel 8, Satan will use them to attack Christians and undermine their faith.  And he will work through false religions, be it obvious ones like Islam or Judaism, or more subtly, with the various false teachings within Christianity that seek to weaken our faith and bring us to despair.

And there’s truth to these attacks.  You don’t have to look far, nor do you have to look hard to see governments attack Christians, physically or spiritually.  You don’t have to look far or hard to find false teachings that plague our faith.  Sometimes the political beast and the religious beast work together, like in ancient Rome, as they mandated worshipping Caesar.  Those who didn’t were thrown in prison or killed.  But there are also times when the two beasts don’t work together, and instead fight each other.  All through the New Testament age.

In chapters 16, 19, and 20, we see Satan muster his forces, gathering his two beasts, to wage that last and final warfare against God and His Church.  This is one of the things that Christians today fear the most about Revelation.  Armageddon, a worldwide war that devastates and kills.  John tells us Armageddon is a Hebrew word.  In Hebrew it means “mountain of Megiddo.”  And, the book being full of symbols, can you think of a time when the devil, and earthly governments, and false teachers fought against God on a mountain? Pause.  The cross on the mountain called Golgotha, or in Latin, Calvary.  The devil, the Roman governor Pilate, and the Jewish authorities had God crucified.  But what was supposed to be their victory proved to be their defeat.  Christ is Risen!  He is risen indeed, alleluia!

And so, in those three moments of Revelation, again repetition, of this final battle against God, the battle never takes place.  As Jesus said on the cross, “It is finished!” (John 19:30), so God declares from the throne in chapter 16, “It is done!”  No battle.  Just a declaration of victory.  Satan fighting God is like an ant fighting against you.  There’s no contest.  The battle’s over; the victory’s won.  Christ has already conquered sin, death, and the devil.

Chapter 20 also pictures the devil as bound for a thousand years.  That’s again from Christ’s ascension, or even His cross and empty tomb, until His return.  Satan is bound now.  Imagine like your hands are cuffed behind your back.  You’re still here.  You can still do some things, but your power, your ability to function normally is greatly hindered.  So it is now for the devil.

Chapter 21 gives us a picture of the Church as the New Jerusalem, a new heaven and a new earth.  A Paradise that knows no sin, nor death, nor pain, nor suffering, nor tears.  Where God cares for us all day, every day, forever.  And chapter 22 again gives us that since of urgency, as Jesus tells us three times that He is coming soon.  To which John declares, and you’ve probably noticed I’ve been saying, too, “Amen!  Come Lord Jesus!”

Death is Disarmed and Swallowed Up

1 Corinthians 15:51-57

Easter Sunrise

April 17, 2022

Focus:  God disarmed death by His own death and resurrection.

Function:  That the hearers do not fear death, but welcome the resurrection.

Structure:  .

Death is Disarmed and Swallowed Up

            Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed, alleluia!

The Apostle Paul for us today quotes from two of the Old Testament prophets, Isaiah 25:8 and Hosea 13:14.  Together, their words read:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55 “O death, where is your victory?
    O death, where is your sting?”

When we think of stings, how many of us would first think of bees?  I once heard Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller use this illustration of the devil in his preaching, but it fits just as well for death.  Let’s imagine death as a bumblebee.  Imagine, that as we’re gathered together here this morning, crammed in these pews, suddenly a bumblebee comes crashing through one of these stained-glass windows.  And not just a bee of ordinary size, but this bumble is the three feet long, with stinger as long as your foot.  And, to boot, we’re all deathly allergic to bees.

Death floats around, hovering over us.  Leaving us shaking, terrified beneath it.  What if it stings me?!  But what can we do?  We can flee, but that chaos would only agitate the bee.  We could fight it, but that would definitely agitate the bee.  Our best option seems to be to just keep on living as God has called us to do.

Death is certainly one of our most common fears as men.  And the last two years have only shown how deeply we fear death.  Don’t lose this first image just yet, but I also want you to consider a second image.

The word Paul used for “sting” can also be translated as “goad.”  And while we rarely ever use that word in English, it actually does an even greater job helping us understand what’s he’s saying.  A goad was a tool used by farmers to drive their plow animals.  They were basically long sticks with sharp, pointy ends.  Metal or wood, didn’t matter.  Imagine the ox or the horse pulling the plow in the field.  And suddenly they stop.  You might use the goad to drive them, to push them, to make them resume their labor.

“O death, where is your goad?  The goad of death is sin, and the power of sin is the Law.”  In this picture, we are the helpless beast.  Sin, our sins are the sharp, pointy sticks.  And the Law of God is the driver, the one holding the sticks. 

Lutherans are familiar with this phrase: the Law kills.  And so the Law of God wields our sins against us.  The Law of God takes this weak sinner, this sinner who is crushed by his burdens, and it keeps poking me, driving me.  This weak sinner just wants a moment’s rest.  And there is none to be had.  My sins keep stabbing.  My sins keep driving me toward death.  The grave is open, staring at me.  And as much as I might try to flee, fight, or run away, the goad has me.  It pokes, it prods, it pushes.  There’s no escape.  Death prepares to swallow me whole.

That’s how Hosea first used this image.  Verse 55 of our text is from Hosea 13:14, where God is speaking through His prophet to declare His judgment against the northern kingdom of Israel.  That because of their constant sin and rebellion against Him, their ongoing adultery of worshipping false gods and abandoning the God who has cared for them as a husband provides all things for His bride, that the Lord would drive them out from Israel, out from the Promised Land, and into death, into Sheol.  And the Assyrian army did just that.  Many Israelites they simply slaughtered.  But those who remained, they captured, chained, fishhooks through the nose.  And as slave drivers, they goaded them eastward, taking them to a land of exile, where they would serve as slaves.

Paul uses these words, now, in reverse.  He almost mocks them.  Hosea 14 had promised restoration if Israel would repent.  And Paul sees these words through that lens of repentance.  More than that, he sees these words through Christ.  Paul sees the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ as disarming the foe that is death.

Let’s use that idea of disarming to revisit both of our illustrations.

Jesus de-stingers the bee.  That giant bumble just floating around us, the enemy of death, it’s still there.  But it’s lost its sting.  It has no power over us anymore.  It can’t harm us.  Death, at most, is now just a nuisance, as it buzzes around filling our ears with its noises. 

Or, in the picture of sin as the goad that drives each of us toward the grave of death, Jesus takes away the goad.  Jesus removes our sins.  And so now, here we are, standing there.  There’s the grave, but there’s nothing pushing us in.  There’s nothing forcing us toward it.

Jesus’ death took away all of our sins.  Every sin every sinner ever committed.  All of them, upon Himself, upon the hill of Golgotha, upon the cross, on Good Friday.  My sin is gone.  Your sin is gone.  They’ve been forgiven!  Removed from us.  And God remembers them no more.

But it’s not only that.  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed, alleluia!  On the third day, God the Father raised His Son from the dead.  Jesus, God the Son, burst forth from that tomb.  Death is defeated.  Death has no power over Him!  Jesus has conquered death.  Jesus is victorious.

And Jesus’ promise to us is fantastic.  Jesus’ promise is that as He lives, we live.  As He rose from the dead, we will one day rise from the dead along with Him.  As the grave failed to hold Him, the grave will fail to hold you.

This is what Paul was describing at the opening of the text.  When the last trumpet blows, a mystery unfolds.  A promise is kept.  Good news is had.  “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.”  Paul is teaching us about the Last Day, the day of Christ’s return, His Second Coming.  And Paul leaves the timing wide open.  “We shall not all sleep.”  Paul truly believed that within his own lifetime, Jesus Christ could possibly return.  And this text encourages us to see it the exact same way.  We may never taste death.  Jesus may return yet this day, or the next, or the day after that.  Only God the Father knows the day of His coming. But whether we die before Christ returns or not, the trumpet sounds. 

You can find a list of all the ways God’s Old Testament people used silver trumpets in Numbers 10.  One of those ways, was to summon the congregation before the throne of God, His house here on earth as He dwelled among His people.  I encourage you to see Paul’s “last trumpet” in this same way.  That God will call all of His people, scattered throughout this creation to Himself on that Last Day.  That each and every one of us, from north, south, east, and west, will be brought to stand before God’s throne in His heavenly throne room.  If you’ve already died, your body will be raised.  If you haven’t died, your body will simply be brought along.  All of us, together, the body of Christ, from every nation, and every tribe, and every people, and every language.

Death thought it had won.  Death thought it had driven us away, swallowing us up forever.  Death thought it had even claimed God Himself.  But it was so very wrong.

Let’s revisit those two illustrations once again.  The first time we did, I described Jesus as disarming death.  But Paul brings in the words of the prophet Isaiah (25:8) to teach us more: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”  Jesus, through His death and resurrection, through His defeat of sin, death, and the devil, Jesus swallowed up death forever.  The enemy now serves Him.

Earlier I mentioned that the giant bumble leaves us all terrified.  As it hovers above us, with a stinger all of our eyes could see, we quivered beneath it.  But not now.  Even though death still lingers.  Because if stings us, what happens?  Does death defeat us?  Not at all!  “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  If death stings, we rise.  This perishable body puts on the imperishable.  This mortal body puts on the immortal.

And that goad?  As it pushes us toward the open grave, where death seeks to swallow us up forever, we need not fear.  Our sins drive us to Jesus.  Yes, on the one hand, we can say that because the Spirit brings us to repentance, so my sin points me to Christ for forgiveness.  But it’s more than.  The consequences of my sin remain.  The punishment for sin is death.  And so as I am driven into the grave, as death thinks that it has won, I rejoice, “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Death has not swallowed me.  Jesus has used death to bring me to Himself, to gather me, body and soul, before His throne in Paradise. 

Whichever ending you prefer for these two illustrations, the outcome is the same: we need not fear death.  Death has no power over us.  Because Christ is victorious.  Christ has defeated death.  And death now serves a new master.  So the Psalmist could declare: “Precious in the sight of Yahweh is the death of His saints,” (Psalm 116:15).  Just as Satan thought he had won when he nailed Jesus to the cross, only to have it be his undoing, so also Satan thinks he’s won when he drives us into the grave, but it’s just another loss for him.  Because the deaths of His saints, place us forever in His care, in the Paradise that He is preparing for us even now.

Nowhere else in this epistle does Paul use the word “trumpet,” and yet he still calls this the “last trumpet.”  The final vision of Scripture, that God gives to John, that we know as the book of Revelation, contains a vision of seven trumpets.  As the angels of God blow those seven trumpets, various events of suffering fall upon creation, stretching from the time of Christ’s ascension into heaven until the time of His return.  But the seventh trumpet, the last trumpet, is the return of Christ.  It’s the victory of God over death and the devil forevermore.  Here those words for yourself (from Revelation 11):

15 Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever.” 16 And the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, 17 saying,

“We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, for You have taken Your great power and begun to reign.  18 The nations raged, but Your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding Your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear Your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.”

19 Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of His covenant was seen within His temple.

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed, alleluia!  And on the Last Day, when that final trumpet sounds, He will gather us before His throne, raised imperishable and immortal, where we will live with Him forevermore.  Amen, come Lord Jesus!

Jesus Dies

Luke 23:44-56

Good Friday

April 15, 2022

Focus:  God died on the cross.

Function:  That the hearers entrust their bodies and souls to the Father’s care.

Structure:  Walking through the text.

Jesus Dies

            “When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, ‘Certainly this man was innocent!’”

            Over these past few weeks together, we’ve seen how Pontius Pilate came to that same conclusion, that he found no guilt in Jesus, certainly no crime punishable by death.  But Pilate came to that conclusion after spending time with Jesus, after interrogating Him.  That’s not what happened for the centurion.  He asked Jesus no questions.  His role was to observe and to guard.  To observe and bear witness to the execution, to see it carried through.  And to guard the prisoner, that no one might try to free Him, taking Him down from the cross.  So what had he seen?  What could cause a hardened Roman veteran whose eyes had seen bloodshed and execution before, what could cause him to declare Jesus’ innocence? 

            Luke records hardly anything at all of the events that occur in the moment of Jesus’ death.  If you want that, Matthew 27 is the account to look at.  Instead, Luke invites us to consider all that we know about the crucifixion account, all the things that the centurion likely witnessed throughout the day.  As the trial before Pilate and the final breath of Jesus would’ve all occurred in the time of one working shift, the centurion would’ve seen most of it, if not all of it.

            As the procession from Pilate’s headquarters began, an immediate difference would’ve struck anyone.  We might picture a typical execution, of that criminal’s family or friends gathering around them, following them to the place.  Most criminals dark enough to be executed, however, likely wouldn’t have had many people around them.  Family too ashamed to look at them.  Close friends, likely criminals themselves, wouldn’t want to come near the soldiers.  And yet, as they led Jesus through the streets outside the city, “there followed Him a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for Him,” (Luke 23:27).  At the very least, this Man was noteworthy, well-loved, and respected by many.  Barabbas wouldn’t have seen such an escort.  The centurion may have even heard the words Jesus spoke to the women, not out of concern for Himself, but out of concern for them.

            Preparing the cross for mounting, the centurion would’ve seen the sign affixed to the top of it.  Written clearly in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek, so that all in the area could read it, it declared His crime: “The King of the Jews.”  And as they raised Him up upon the cross that morning, they also raised up two other crosses, one on His left and one on His right.  The centurion would’ve bore witness at the early hours of the crucifixion, from nine o’clock in the morning onward, how these two thieves both mocked Jesus, reviled Him to His face, as Matthew and Mark both recall.  And yet, as the day wore on, before the sun had reached its peak, one of these two men repented, and from his seat of execution, looking toward his fellow Prisoner who had done no wrong, he pleaded that Jesus would remember him when He comes into His kingdom.  As the centurion heard these words, there would’ve been no need to fear a rebellion from these two men.  They were already as good as dead.  Obviously, the throne of the cross wasn’t ushering in a new worldly kingdom.  But then, he would’ve heard the words of Jesus, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

            And as he stood there, he would’ve witnessed the various groups gathering to mock Jesus, to taunt Him with their cruel words.  He would’ve seen the groups walking past, wagging their heads as they shouted at Him.  And then, he also would’ve heard the words of Jesus, “Father, forgive them, for the know not what they do,” (Luke 23:34).  To hear a Man being executed pray to a God on behalf of the ones who were killing Him…who does that?

            The centurion would’ve seen the soldiers casting lots over His garments.  He may have cast the stones himself a time or two.

            And then comes the only event of creation that Luke records.  From the sixth hour until the ninth hour, from noon until three, darkness covered the whole land.  That word “land” can refer either to a region, or to the whole earth.  Now there are many suggestions on what this darkness looked like.  I’ve heard locusts, as a swarm of those insects can block out the light of the sun as they move through and devastate a crop.  A strong storm in the region is another theory.  

            But Luke does add an additional detail.  He doesn’t just call it dark, but he says that the sun’s light failed.  The Greek word here is “ἐκλιπόντος,” which gives us our English word “eclipse.”  And that’s made an eclipse that afternoon a popular theory as well.  But in Greek, the word refers to a need that comes from lack.  Creation needs the light of the sun…but it simply wasn’t there.

            My theory, and it’s just that, a theory, is that this parallels an Old Testament event.

21 Then Yahweh said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness to be felt.” 22 So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was pitch darkness in all the land of Egypt three days. 23 They did not see one another, nor did anyone rise from his place for three days, but all the people of Israel had light where they lived. – Exodus 10:21-23

            Jesus Christ is the light of the world.  Revelation twice describes Paradise as not needing a sun, because we have Christ to give us light.  And so here, at the moment of Christ’s death upon the cross, the light of the world was being snuffed out.  Not even the fireball that is the sun could penetrate this moment of darkness in creation, as even the creation itself was mourning the death of her Creator.

            If you need one supernatural event, one miraculous thing to happen at the cross that might bring a sinner to repent, a darkness that can be felt, like that of the ninth plague, could certainly do it.  Consider also here that the three gospels that record this darkness for us all move straight from the darkness to Christ’s death.  They don’t record events or conversations as happening in that stretch of darkness.

            Whatever that darkness may have been, the centurion then heard the words that Jesus called out, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit!”  That He would even use His final breath to give over, to entrust His soul to another.  For the centurion, this was a day full of the unexpected, both for his eyes and for his ears. 

            I skipped over the temple curtain.  I love the meaning of it, but the centurion likely wouldn’t have had a clue at that moment, that that had happened a couple miles away.  Luke himself skips over various other things, like Jesus declining to drink the wine mixed with myrrh upon the cross, the conversation where Jesus entrusts His mother Mary’s care to His disciple John, and then the events described by Matthew in the moment of His death: the earthquake, the rocks splitting, and the tombs being opened.

            Matthew and Mark both record the centurion saying, “Truly this Man was the Son of God!”  Those words are a profound confession of faith from this Roman soldier, and that’s of great importance as Mark wrote his letter to the Roman people.  But Luke focuses on another set of words the centurion spoke in that moment, “Certainly this Man was innocent!”

            It’s the Greek word “dikaioj,” which we usually translate as righteous, right, or just.  Luke uses that word of Zechariah and Elizabeth in chapter 1.  He uses it again of Simeon in the temple in chapter 2.  Several times Jesus uses it in the gospel referring to people who thought they were righteous and had no need of a Savior (5:32, 15:7, 18:9, and 20:20).  Jesus also used it to refer to His second coming, to the “resurrection of the righteous,” (14:14).  The centurion uses it to describe Jesus.  And then just verses later, Luke uses it to describe Joseph of Arimathea, “a good and righteous man.”

            Hear the words of our Old Testament reading again, from Isaiah 53:10-11, spoken about our Savior Jesus Christ:

10 Yet it was the will of Yahweh 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 Yahweh shall prosper in His hand.
11 Out of the anguish of His soul He shall see and be satisfied;
by His knowledge shall the righteous One, My Servant,
    make many to be accounted righteous,
    and He shall bear their iniquities.

            There was only, and has only ever been, one righteous Man.  Jesus Christ.  Only One who was just.  Only One who was innocent.  And Isaiah declares that this righteous One will “make many to be accounted righteous.”  He does so by bearing our iniquities. 

Imagine all of your sins as bricks that you have to carry around with you.  From before we were even born, our piles were growing.  The weight of our sins bearing down upon us.  Suffocating, crushing, killing us.  And the righteous One, who Himself had committed no sin, and so He carried no bricks, He took our sins, our bricks upon Himself.  Our load became light, free of any weight at all.  But God in the flesh, the righteous One, took upon Himself the load of sins of every person ever, a load that suffocated Him, crushed Him, and killed Him upon the cross.

            In a way, it really doesn’t matter what sins we struggle with.  Murder, is brick.  Smiling defiantly when your parent gives you an instruction, another brick.  Spending your time on the social media gossip sites, another brick.  Spending your time pleasing yourself, instead of serving your neighbor, another brick. 

            Every sin, every brick, was laid upon Him.  Whatever they are.  Whatever they were.  Whatever they will yet be.  The righteous One has made the rest of us righteous.  Not by our good deeds, not by our works, but by His blood.  By His death.  And so it is that the one who turns to that cross, who bears witness to that cross, that man, that woman, that child, is made righteous in the blood of Christ.  But the one who can’t look upon the cross, the one who denies Jesus, that person chooses to continue to carry around their own burden, their own bricks, their own sins.  And they will stumble.  They will fall.  And the weight of their sin will crush them.

            The sacrifice of Jesus, the shedding of His blood, made Joseph of Arimathea truly righteous, and Zechariah, and Elizabeth, and Simeon, and the centurion, and you, and me.  And now this day, we can cry out the same words that our Savior spoke, “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit!”  We entrust ourselves to God the Father, that He will care for us this day and every day.  Go home, and read the words of Luther’s Small Catechism, as he describes in the 1st Article of the Apostles’ Creed all the ways that God the Father provides for us here and now.  And then read his descriptions of the 2nd and the 3rd Articles, of how God the Son and God the Holy Spirit care and provide for us this day, and every day, for the rest forever, even in the resurrection of the righteous.

            We entrust ourselves into His care, as He daily and richly provides us with all the gifts we need, gifts like daily bread, forgiveness, the resurrection, and so many others.

Covenants and a Curtain

Matthew 26:26-29 and Mark 15:21-25

LSHKC Chapel

April 11, 2022

Focus:  God has forgiven all of our sins.

Function:  That the hearers live in Christ’s new covenant, as His forgiven people.

Structure:  Old Testament themes fulfilled in Jesus.

Covenants and a Curtain

            Yesterday marked the beginning of Holy Week.  In our Lutheran circles, any sermon at any time of the year, usually isn’t considered a good sermon if it doesn’t include Christ’s death on the cross that forgives all of our sins, and His resurrection that gives us life and hope.   So as we focus on those same themes together today, I want to show you a couple of connections with the Old Testament that maybe you’ve never heard or considered before.

            Let’s begin in Genesis 15.  God had called a man named Abram, Abraham, to leave behind his family and everything that he knew, and move to a new land, wherever God would lead him.  And in that new land, God made a covenant with him.  Covenants aren’t common among us today, and so we don’t understand them all that well.  Probably the best-known example from history is from the feudal period of the middle ages.  In that time, a king would often have more territory under his rule than he could personally oversee and care for.  And so he would promote men that he trusted and they would be called “lords.”  And he would make what’s officially called a suzerainty covenant with his lords.  A blood pact.  They were his servants, who would rule over a smaller part of his kingdom.  But, should they betray him, should they break the covenant, the penalty was the shedding of their blood, a swift execution.

            Covenants are made in blood.  And, when broken, since they were made in blood, the penalty for breaking a covenant is the shedding of blood.  In Genesis 15, God Himself makes a covenant with Abraham.  Abraham gathers several animals, sacrifices them, cutting them in half, and then aligning their halves opposite one another in two rows, with the blood in between.  To ratify this covenant, to sign this agreement, the two parties would then walk through the blood together.  But in this particular case, in this very moment, the Lord put Abraham to sleep, the same word, the same thing that He had once done to Adam in the Garden of Eden so that He could make for him a bride.  God walked through the blood alone.

            It’s often seen as the same covenant being “re-upped” with Moses on Mount Sinai, with the giving of the Ten Commandments.  And the terms of that first covenant were this: He is our God, we are His people.  We are to follow His ways, not our ways; we are to keep His commandments and trust in Him above all things.  God’s old covenant with us demanded us to be perfect.

            And under this covenant, God pledged that He would dwell in the midst of His people.  First, they had the portable tent called the tabernacle for their years of wandering in the wilderness.  And then, after settling down for some time in the Promised Land, King Solomon would build the first temple.  The design was roughly the same idea.  God’s throne, the ark of the covenant, sat in the very middle of His people, of His nation.  He would dwell with them, and He would speak to them from that spot. 

            But because of our sins, because we fail to be perfect as His Law demands, God placed a curtain, or a veil, between His throne and His people.  Jewish tradition holds that the curtain was four inches thick!  It separated His holiness from our sin.  We couldn’t come before the holy God and live.  God declared this to Moses in Exodus 33:20, “you cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.”

            Another way to put it is that the rule under the old covenant for us sinners before the holy God was death, and that the exception would be life and forgiveness.  Isaiah saw God and lived.  Moses saw God and lived.  But that was not the norm.

            Now let’s move to the New Testament, to Holy Week.  And Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, willing dies on the cross to take away our sins.  Jesus’ blood was shed for us.  First, from the flogging, when Pilate’s soldiers whipped His back with what history calls a cat o’ nine tails.  Then there was crown of thorns that was forced down upon His head.  The rod that they used to repeatedly strike Him.  The hammer that was used to pierce those nails through His hands and through His feet.  And the spear that was thrust up into His side to see if He was already dead.

            The blood that flowed from the veins of Christ was the necessary bloodshed to pay the cost for the broken old covenant.  Abraham never walked through the blood.  God alone did.  And so His blood alone would be sufficient to pay the price.  And so He offered it up, willingly, on a day known to us as Good Friday.

            But Jesus taught us that there was something more to this.  That this blood of His wasn’t just for that purpose, but another.  “Drink of it, all of you, for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”  On the night before, the night of His betrayal, a day we call Maundy Thursday, Jesus gave us a new covenant. 

            And the terms of this covenant are so precious to us.  Hear His words again, “this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.  I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.”  The terms of this new covenant are two things: our sins are forgiven.  All of them.  And, there’s a kingdom.  For you.  The Father’s kingdom is for us.  We will be with Jesus there, feasting together with Him there.

            Nothing in the new covenant requires us to do anything.  It’s all about what God has done for us already.  When the covenant of old laid upon us those requirements, we failed to keep them.  But now, in this new covenant, God wants you to know how much He loves you.  What He has done for you, where we would fail.  It’s His gift of salvation to us, for us.

And notice how the covenant is made.  Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  He is the perfect sacrifice, His is the blood to be shed to cut this new covenant.  The flogging, the crown, the rod.  His blood already beginning to fall.  And then the soldiers force Jesus to take up His cross, which would rest upon His shoulders, across His back, beginning to be soaked in His blood.

We might assume that it was out of weakness, that Jesus’ body was already so badly beaten, that Jesus couldn’t bear the burden alone, that He was struggling to make His way to Golgotha, up the hill, outside the city, to the place of His execution.  You’ll see it that way in every film made about Christ’s passion, Jesus stumbling along the way.  The gospel writers never actually say that.  John 19 says Jesus bore “His own cross.”  Matthew 26, Mark 15, and Luke 23 all tell us about another man, Simon of Cyrene, that is conscripted by the soldiers, forced to carry the cross of Jesus.  At this point, most imagine the two men bearing the weight together.  Luke even says that Simon was “behind Jesus.”

Ponder that, for a moment.  Simon, who we see nowhere else in Scripture, carrying the cross of Jesus that is already coated in His blood, walking behind Jesus, as blood continues to drip from His wounds.  Jesus, the Lamb of God, the sacrifice to cut the new covenant with this world, with us sinners.  Jesus, God in the flesh, and this otherwise unknown man, walking together, through the blood of the sacrifice.  Some of the soldiers, even the crowd, likely did the same.  The new covenant, cut in the blood of Christ.  The new covenant with terms of forgiveness and a kingdom. 

But notice another important detail: what happens at the moment of Jesus’ death?  The temple curtain is torn in two, from top to bottom, from God to man.  The curtain, the veil, that separated us sinners from the holiness of God so that we would not simply die by accidently coming before His throne, that curtain is gone.

And so Jesus declares to His disciples forty-two days later, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” (Matthew 28:20).  Jesus, God in the flesh, our Judge on the Last Day, is with us always.  He is present even now, even here.  Among us.  Immanuel, God with us.  And yet, we live!  His death on the cross took away all of our sins, the sins of the entire world spanning across history.  Gone!  Removed from us!  We can come into the presence of the holy God and live.  And that’s precisely where we are.  We are always with the Lord. 

Or, to put it the other way: in the old covenant, the rule was death, and the exception was forgiveness and life.  But, now, in the new covenant, the rule is forgiveness and life, and the exception is death.  You, and me, and all people, are in the presence of God this day.  So He has promised.  And because of His death on the cross, our sins are forgiven.  And because of His resurrection from the tomb on Easter morning, we have life and hope forevermore. 

Yours is the kingdom of God.

Jesus is Vilified as Evil

Matthew 27:11-31

Lenten Midweek 6

April 6, 2022

Focus:  God takes our place in death, that we might join Him in life.

Function:  That the hearers lay all of their sins on Christ.

Structure:  .

Jesus Is Vilified as Evil

            A couple of weeks ago, in the sermon “Jesus is Accused,” we spent some time on Jesus’ response to those accusations.  Surrounded by the crowd of religious leaders, outnumbered perhaps 100 to 1, with all sorts of accusations said against Him of unknown evils, we know how we would’ve responded.

            But Jesus didn’t respond that way.  Jesus didn’t respond at all.  He didn’t defend Himself that day, in order that the day would come, the Last Day, when He would be able to defend us before the heavenly judgment throne.  He remained silent amongst His accusers, so that His blood would be spilled, for He knew this was the way God would grant us forgiveness from all of our sins that the devil uses to accuse us.

            That theme carries on in today’s reading.  We’ve moved now into the early morning hours of Good Friday, and those same religious leaders have now dragged Jesus before the throne of Pontius Pilate.  And, altogether, they again begin throwing their wild accusations against Jesus hoping something, anything would stick. 

            Pontius Pilate hears it all.  And he turns to Jesus who sits there in that continued state of silence.  And Pilate is baffled.  “Do You not hear how many things they testify against You?”  And even at that, Jesus remains silent.  Before Pilate.  The governor.  The judge.  The one who has the authority over Him, either to crucify Him or to release Him.  Jesus speaks not a word. 

            As a governor, as one who judges, Pilate was likely used to all sorts of criminals and their crimes.  All sorts of crazy and convoluted accusations.  And again, just as we noted two weeks ago, Pilate would’ve been fully aware of the way men respond when accused.  Anyone dragged before him would’ve been quick to defend themselves.  To deny the accusations.  To try to excuse their wrongdoings.  To justify themselves before his throne.

            But Jesus speaks not a word. And Pilate is greatly amazed.  That’s a response he’d probably never seen before, even in all of his years of politics.

            In the spirit of tradition, Pilate had taken up the task of pardoning one of his Jewish prisoners, releasing them back into the crowd of Jews every year at Passover, as the Jews flocked to Jerusalem to celebrate their chief feast.  This year, this day, Pilate gives them the choice, that he could release Barabbas or Jesus.  Was Barabbas his only captive? If he had others, was there a reason that he picked this particular man?  Did he pick someone whose crimes were so great, that surely the crowd wouldn’t choose his release?  It’s truly impossible to know. 

            All Matthew offers to us is that Pilate had figured out the crowd.  He had realized that Jesus wasn’t guilty of the crimes they suggested, and that they were only delivering Him up to Rome because they were envious.  They envied Jesus; Pilate saw a rivalry at work; a great zeal and religious fervor.

            If Pilate did hand-select Barabbas as the other option, it’s fascinating.  It would’ve been a calculated risk.  The Jewish religious leaders were terrified of Rome, and constantly worried that the crowds at Passover would push things a little too far and bring down the wrath of the Roman army upon them, putting an end to their perfectly designed little lives of luxury.  But in fairness, Pilate had the same fear.  He feared that the Jews would get out of hand, and that his own superiors would see it necessary to send in the army.  And if that happened, Pilate would be out, he’d lose his power because he couldn’t hold his people in line.  That Jewish fear proved true, when Rome sacked Jerusalem within their lifetime.  Pilate’s fear proved true, when he had had to resort to violence against a Samaritan uprising at Mount Gerizim a few years later, a move that cost him his office.  And yet, here, on Good Friday, Pilate offered them an insurrectionist, a man known amongst them all for his part in stirring up trouble, and even spilling blood as he did.

            Again, if Pilate hand-selected him as an offering, it’s fascinating.  It’s as though he thinks he knows the limit and the bound of the crowd’s hatred.  That surely, they wouldn’t pick Barabbas.  Surely, they would calm down, they’d see the foolishness of the day, ask for Jesus to be released, and then go back to their feasting.  Pilate appears to have thought he was in a game of chance where he could call their bluff.

            But if that’s true, he lost that round.  Not only had the chief priests worked the crowd, stoking the hatred and the zeal for the death of Jesus, Pilate didn’t realize that he was also up against the weight of thousands of years’ worth of evil.  An enemy unseen by the naked eye.  And so the crowds demanded the release of Barabbas.  Regardless of Pilate’s motivations in this moment, his reaction is certain, he would’ve been as amazed by this crowd’s envy as he was by Jesus’ silence. 

And then crowd pressed further, “Let Him be crucified!”  The shock of Pilate isn’t hard to imagine. He’d found this man innocent.  He saw no justification in even arresting Him and holding Him.  And now, they shouted for His death.  Pilate rightly asks, “Why?  What evil has He done?”

In one way, we know the answer to that question.  We know the truth.  We know that Jesus committed no wrongs.  That He is the only one to have ever perfectly kept the Jewish laws, the laws handed down in the Old Testament by His Father.  Jesus truly was perfect.  They were falsely accusing Him.   They were vilifying Him as evil.  When given the choice, their actions declared that they believed Jesus was a worse criminal, a hardened threat, than a man known for murder.  Given the choice, they wanted Him to be crucified, and for the murderer to go free.

Jesus may not have committed any evil, but we all have.  And while we may wonder sometimes how the crowd could’ve been so vehemently against Him, we need not look any further than ourselves.  It’s my sin that called out that day.  It’s your sin that called out that day.  And our lives are full of sin.  Our thoughts, our words, our deeds.  When given the chance, we would rather love this world than give it up.

The depths of our sins and evils, the depths of all the evil in the history of this world, all at once cried out against Him.  I don’t want to know what that moment looked like.  I don’t want to know just how hardened those hearts were.  The darkness of that morning was far deeper than the pitch blackness that would cover creation as the God who created it perished upon it.  Pause

Pilate, again, with his fear of a riot, consents to their demands.  He releases the murderer and he orders Jesus to be crucified.  But before he did, he did one other thing.  Pilate took some water, and he washed his hands.  It was a symbolic gesture, but we know it’s meaning, because he declared it to them all, “I am innocent of this Man’s blood.”  It’s just a side note today, but that’s a lazy excuse, and one that will not hold before the judgment throne of God.  The power of the sword had been entrusted to Pilate.  And he will have to answer to God for how he wielded it, even against God Himself.  It’s another sin that nailed Him to the cross.

The important note about what Pilate said and did is actually the response of the crowd.  Pilate declared that he was innocent of this act.  And the Jews claimed the full responsibility for it.  The crowds responded boldly, “His blood be on us and on our children!” 

Yes!  It is!  That’s precisely the point!  I know they didn’t get it.  I know they think that they were merely accepting responsibility for the order of one Man’s execution, and they were willing to have the responsibility also attributed to their children.  But I also know that they were right.  In perhaps the greatest moment of irony in the history of creation, they were exactly right.

With minutes, the blood of Jesus would begin to flow, first from His back and upper body as He was scourged, then from His brow from the crown, then His head from the beating, then from His hands and feet from the pounding of the nails, and finally from His side, as He was pierced to prove His death.

It’s entirely possible that some of that blood that very day did indeed even splatter on the crowds who’d gathered.  That out of their envy and evil, they would cheer for His blood to cover them, while we also today cheer for His blood to cover us!  Because it does.  

All of our sins were nailed through His flesh, pounded into that wood.  We lay all of our sins on Jesus, upon His cross.  We call it confession.  That I admit before God, and before one another, that I have sinned in thought, word, and deed.  That I have not loved God above all things; and that I have not loved my neighbor as myself.  The two chief commandments, the very purpose for our even being in this world right now.  Too often I am my own god.  The universe is centered on me.

And His blood covers us!  His blood covers over all of our sins.  We call this the sacraments.  It’s true in that one moment of baptism, as you’re born again, raised from being dead in your sins, born again as a child of God.  There is forgiveness that day, without a doubt.  But it happens again and again.  It really ought to happen every time you come here.  It’s what this building is for.  It’s why you call a pastor.  It’s the primary focus of our coming together.  Your sins are forgiven by the declaration of Christ Himself in the words that we’ve come to call the absolution: “Almighty God in His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sins.  As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority, I therefore forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.”   

And then the very blood of Christ Himself is upon us and our children, as His blood, which flowed from His side, fills the chalice from which we drink in the Lord’s Supper.  The forgiveness won upon the cross that very day is made yours tangibly each and every time you approach this table.  You can see it, smell it, touch it, and taste it.  Christ for you.

            Given the choice, our sins cried out against Jesus as a dangerous threat, because to our sinful nature, that’s exactly what Jesus is.  Our sinful nature is now drowned in the blood of Christ, a blood that flows richly and freely over us.  Now this murderer (*point to self) gets to go free!  Amen.  Come Lord Jesus.

A Forever Exodus

Isaiah 43:16-21

Fifth Sunday in Lent

March 13, 2016 (first preached to the people of God at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Stewartville, MN)

April 3, 2022 (edited and preached to the people of God at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Lee’s Summit, MO)

Focus:  God pours out His judgment not on us, but on His Son.

Function:  That the hearers praise Yahweh among the nations.

Structure:  Walking through the Text.

A Forever Exodus

            One of the most powerful and profound attacks on our faith, one of the most doubt provoking questions your family and friends have probably already asked you, is this: how can you believe in a God who does evil?  How can you believe in a God who kills people?  How can you believe in a God who does x?

            There is a great need in the Church today for apologetics, which is a study of how to defend our faith.  We need to talk about our doubts, to ask and answer the difficult questions of our day.  Too often we don’t, we think that we can ignore them, and they’ll just go away.  But they don’t.  They linger, and we get discouraged, and our doubts begin to grow as we find ourselves wondering if anyone in the Church actually has answers.

            My encouragement to you today is to ask your questions.  There’s truth in that old phrase, “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.”  Ask away!  If it’s bothering you, ask me, ask Pastor Otto.  That’s part of what we’re here for.  We may know the answer right away, we might have to get back to you.  And some answers truly are known only to God.  But go ahead, ask.  This is an open invitation. 

            That question of God killing people is a worthwhile question to ask. It’s one we absolutely have to consider and discuss.  It’s a good question.  It gets us talking about how the whole of Scripture fits together.  How it connects to life.  How it’s all a part of God’s plan.  We get to talk about the holiness of God, the depths of our sin, and death with its impending judgment; we get to talk about the temple curtain, which is so unknown among Christians today, despite how vastly important it is to our faith.

            Asking questions is a good thing.  It helps us grow.  And this question fits right in today, as the prophet Isaiah starts our Old Testament reading by reminding the people of some of the judgments of God, of some of the death they witnessed.  He reminds them of the Exodus, of Pharaoh’s army wiped out, drowned, snuffed out like a wick in the Red Sea.

            God worked through miracles to judge Egypt.  But that’s only after He worked through Egypt to judge a faithless and sin-filled Israel with slavery under the thumb of a cruel king.  Repeatedly throughout history, God has worked through the things of this world to bring His final judgment upon sinners.

            But there was a key turning point in the course of the history of creation.  About 4,000 years in, something happens that takes us from being Jews or Israelites, and instead makes us followers of the Way, or Christians as we’ve now come to be called.  And here, 700 years before it ever happened, Isaiah prophesied about it.

            “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old.” 

            This was a problem for them.  And sometimes it still is for us.  We look back to the “good old days.”  We look back to the glory of the past and we long for it.  It was no different for the people of Isaiah’s day, nor in the New Testament age.  John the Baptist said this to the crowds who gathered around him.  Jesus said it to the Jews.  Paul to the Romans. 

Just because you were born of Abraham doesn’t mean you have God’s salvation.  Stop boasting in your history.  Don’t look back to the Exodus from Egypt and think that’s good enough for you.  That somehow that’s your salvation.  It’s not.  Don’t count on it.

In fact, the very people who saw all those miracles in Egypt abandoned God shortly after.  And so did the generations that followed them.  And all of this led to Israel being destroyed as a nation.  And not much later Judah, too.  They abandoned God and paid the price for their sins.  The Jews did it, the Pharisees did it, the Romans did it.  And we still do it today.

Too often we focus on the past.  We dwell on the sin our brother committed against us.  The time our friend wronged us.  The time our spouse deceived us.  The time our boss abused us.  We said we forgave it, but we hold on, we dwell on our grudge. 

And sometimes we take it even further.  The world believes that revenge is a dish best served cold.  But in eyes of God, revenge isn’t yours to be had.  You have no right to revenge.  Revenge is a sin, it’s hate, it’s a grudge, it’s murder.  It doesn’t fit the Christian life.  And yet we’ve all done it.  We’ve all held that grudge, we’ve all gotten revenge.  We’ve all taken our eyes off of the new thing for the former things and find ourselves deserving God’s judgment.

But that’s the joy of Isaiah’s prophecy: “Behold, I am doing a new thing.”

Don’t focus on the past, don’t focus on the old Exodus.  There’s a new one coming.  And in the beauty that is Biblical prophecy, there were several new exoduses coming.  First, the exodus closest to Isaiah’s life would happen less than 200 years later, when God raised up a new king in Persia, who would grant the captive people of God the ability to go home. To depart from Babylon, back through 500 miles of wilderness to their homeland.  And throughout that journey, God would indeed provide life-giving water in the midst of the wilderness.  He would provide for their daily needs.  Just as He promised.  A new thing, and a good thing indeed!

But that exodus was topped by the next exodus.  The exodus of the Christ from Jerusalem.  Slavery and captivity in Egypt and Babylon were only temporary.  There was a greater problem overshadowing us all.  The problem of sin, of our rebellion against God that leaves us lacking in His presence.  It leaves us damned in the judgment.

But rather than pouring out His judgment upon us, God did a new thing.  He has rendered judgment.  The judgment of God, the punishment we earned for our sin, rebellion, and revenge is poured out.  But the full and total power of His wrath fell not on us, but on His own Son.  The wrath of God, the punishment of death for our sin was given to Jesus Christ as He walked a new exodus, out of the city of Jerusalem, up the hill to Golgotha.

But He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed.” – Isaiah 53:5

God did a new thing and provided another exodus for us, this time in the death and the resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ.  He raised Jesus from the dead and in doing so has given us an everlasting promise involving a life-giving water.  That in our baptisms we would be buried with Christ, that we would be united with Him both in His death and also in His resurrection.

            As wonderful as that exodus is, it’s not the last.  On the Last Day, there will be one final exodus, the consummation of the exodus theme of Scripture as we depart from sin, death, and the devil.  When Christ returns for His people, He will bring us before the very judgment throne of God.  But He Himself has already claimed our punishment.  The judgment of God has already been hammered into the Christ without holding back.  And so on that day, we will receive the very life-giving water Christ promised the woman at the well (John 4).  The fullness of life with God in Paradise each and every day for the rest of forever.

            And that’s how our Old Testament reading of Isaiah’s prophecy ends today, with God saying that He will “give drink to My chosen people, the people whom I formed for Myself that they might declare My praise.”  We were created for Him, by Him, to be with Him.  And in the life-giving waters of baptism that we rejoice in this day, we sing praise to the Lord in the presence of all the nations.  We live each and every day of our lives now on this earth glorifying God by telling of His good deeds to the world around us.  By sharing the good news of the exodus from sin, death, and the devil.  These life-giving waters aren’t meant to be a secret, but a gift for the nations that leads to a holy Paradise.

Jesus is Accused

Matthew 26:57-68

Lenten Midweek 4

March 23, 2022

Focus:  God endured the accusations of this world that He would rescue us from our accuser.

Function:  That the hearers live without fear of accusation.

Structure:  This is the historical situation in the text…here is the meaning for us now.

Jesus is Accused

            We continue to move throughout Holy Week.  Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem.  Fig Monday, Teaching Tuesday, and Spy Wednesday were spent in the temple courtyard as Jesus taught the crowds that had gathered around Him.  On Maundy Thursday, they celebrated the Passover, sang a hymn, and went out to the Mount of Olives where Jesus prayed and was then arrested.

            That’s where we pick up today.  Jesus is led off to come before Caiaphas, the high priest.  With such a prominent title, came a prominent home.  The high priest had to live in close proximity to the temple, so as to be there on a regular basis to care for the things of God.  And, it was a nice house.  It even had its own interior courtyard, where it appears all of these things took place.

            And that courtyard was filled with people.  Despite it being in the middle of the night.  We can’t say the exact time for sure, but it was already evening when they ate the Last Supper, then they walked a couple miles out to the garden, where Jesus prayed three times, for what seems to have been an hour at a time.  Conservatively, it’s around 11pm, if not later?  In ancient cultures, when the sun went down, you returned home and started preparing to rest that you would be ready to work the next day.  But not this night.  Caiaphas’s home was a busy place in the wee hours of the morning.

            And this was nothing short of a kangaroo court.  The Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, was only to meet during the day, according to the Jewish oral traditions known as the Mishna.  And typical Sanhedrin meetings were to be held in the temple.  As they continued to fear the crowds, a night meeting, and a night trial, would mean most of this would occur when the people were snuggled snugly in their beds, completely unaware until morning.  And much can happen in just a few short hours.

            And much did happen night.  Jesus was brought before Caiaphas, the high priest.  And gathered together there at his home were the scribes and the elders.  And, the Sanhedrin, which itself was composed of seventy men.  While we can’t be sure that they all attended, this was a sizable gathering, nonetheless.

            And we learn quickly that they started firing off accusations against Jesus.  One after another, a man would accuse Jesus of some heinous crime.  Against the state.  Against the Temple.  Against God.  We don’t get a list.  It’s not there.  But what Scripture does tell us is that they already knew they wanted to put Him death.  And so they were looking for something, anything that they could make stick, any charge they could make up against Him.

            But they found nothing.  Just one false accusation after another.  No two witnesses could agree.  That might seem odd to us at first, since they already knew their intent, but Old Testament law required it.  Hear that word from Deuteronomy 17:6-7,

On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

            The stories were so fabricated, they couldn’t even come together on the details.  No story matched another.  They were all lies, as our Lord Jesus Christ sat there in the midst of the court of public opinion, accusing Him without merit.  Finally, two men came forward with accusations that were similar to each other, that Jesus had once said, “I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.”  But even that was made up, and they couldn’t get their details straight.  For Jesus actually said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” (John 2:19).  He didn’t say He would tear the temple down, He only claimed He could rebuild it quickly.  And we know today that He was referring to the temple that is His own body, which was raised on the third day!

            Imagine a shift in this room.  Where suddenly, everyone turns against you, with vicious scowls on their faces.  They want blood, and you know it.  And one by one they start hurling accusations at you, about some atrocious thing that you’ve done, all untrue.  They’re just looking for an excuse to kill you.

            In that moment, how would you respond?  We would all seek to defend ourselves in one way or another.  Some of us might rise and fight, getting physically violent as we try to get out of the situation.  Some might simply flee.  And others would use words to defend themselves, to deny the accusations, while others still might try to flip the script and turn the accusations around on these false accusers.

            But would any of us be so strong, and so bold, as to do what Jesus did?  He remained silent!  In the midst of an angry gathering bent on spilling His blood!  Outnumbered roughly 100-to-1.  Silent.  He made no reply.  No defense for Himself.

            We fail to do that even on the simple days.  When two of your children get in trouble, and you call them out on it, and the older one blames the younger sibling, instantly, you know what you’ll hear next, “Nuh-uh!”  “I didn’t do it!  He did it!”  Or when our spouse, or our boss, or our friend accuses us, we rush to make excuses, to make a defense for ourself.

            But these small accusations aren’t the only ones we face, nor are they the most significant.  We have an accuser before God.  That’s what the Hebrew word “Satan” means.  “Accuser.”  We see this picture in Job 1-2.  The devil walks into the throne room of God and starts tossing about his accusations.  He did it to Job, and he wants to do it also to you. The devil seeks to the destroy all that the Lord loves, and so he seeks to destroy you and me, because the Lord loves us, His creatures. 

            But this time, the accusations aren’t false.  We’ve given the devil more than enough ammunition to destroy us forever.  For one sin is all that it would take to bring about our deaths and our destruction.  For one sin before a holy and perfect God is enough to condemn.  Damnation is justice.  And so the devil seeks to stand before the Lord and to hold your sins over you. 

But the Lord has kicked him out!  I shared that with you in last Wednesday’s sermon, that God has thrown down the accuser, that Satan can no longer waltz into His throne room.  Because Jesus remained silent.  Because Jesus refused to defend Himself, He now defends us.  Jesus’ refusal to defend Himself allowed the accusations to pile on.  He allowed Himself to be led off to Pontius Pilate.  He allowed Pilate to pass judgment upon Him for crimes that even Pilate realized Jesus hadn’t committed.  For your sins, and for mine.  Because of the cross of Christ.  Because of His blood shed for us the devil is thrown down, defeated, disbarred and banished from the heavenly court.

            We must be cautious, for this serpent prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour (1 Peter 5:8).  God may have banished him from coming before the judgment throne, but Satan hasn’t quit fighting back against all that God loves.  Jesus shed His blood for you.  And in your baptisms, you were marked with the sign of the cross, both upon your forehead and your chest to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified.  And that mark, which is a seal of God’s protection over you, is also a giant bullseye target for the devil, telling him who belongs to God, who the Lord loves. 

            And so his accusations having failed in heaven above, he turns his accusations to us, individually here and now.  He seeks to hold your sins over you, to convince you that God’s forgiveness wasn’t really for you.  That when the pastor spoke those words of Absolution, it was only for the other people, the good ones, the ones who are truly repentant, the ones whose sins are smaller than yours, not as bad as yours.  “Now you’ve done it!  God can’t really forgive you for that one!”  “Oooh, you did it again did you?  God certainly won’t forgive you this time!”

To all of this, Martin Luther penned in his Letters of Spiritual Counsel, “So when the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!’”

The devil’s accusations have no power over you.  Open your hymnal sometime, and read that third verse of God’s Own Child I Gladly Say It, #594.  The devil is undone in your baptism, because Jesus, by His death on the cross, has taken away all of your sins.  There’s nothing left for Satan to accuse!  I quoted it last week, but let me say it again,

Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?  It is God who justifies.  Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the One who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who is indeed interceding for us. – Romans 8:33-34

Unfortunately, the devil isn’t the only one who seeks to accuse us.  More and more, we are finding ourselves besieged by a court of public opinion.  As they hurled their taunts and their lies as Jesus, so they will to us.  Remember the words of our Lord:

If the world hates you, know that it has hated Me before it hated you.  If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. – John 15:18-19

And again, as He prayed to His Father,

I have given them Your Word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. – John 17:14

Speaking the truth about Jesus in the midst of a world of hardened hearts usually doesn’t go well.  When the sinful nature is accused, it lashes out.  And so as we seek to share Christ, others must first recognize their sins before the gospel has any value to them.  And they will often respond with anger and hatred.  They will seek to make you go away, so that their conscience is no longer afflicted by the law of God.  And they may use all sorts of means to do it. 

But I would encourage you not to listen to your sinful nature, not to rush to defend yourself when the world seeks your harm.  Doing so only shows that we have a love for this life.  Do not fear their hate nor their accusations.  Know that Christ has already endured it all, and so we can treat them as Christ treated them.  Love your accuser.  Love your enemy.  Pray for those who persecute you, that the Lord would grant them the ability to hear His Word, that they too may know that Christ is their sure defender.

Repent or Perish

Luke 13:1-9

Third Sunday in Lent

March 20, 2022

Focus:  God calls all people to repent or perish.

Function:  That the hearers repent and live.

Structure:  Heavy hook.

Repent or Perish

            Do you think that these Ukrainians are worse sinners than all the others because they suffered in this way?  Pause.  Now, you might be thinking, “Pastor, what are you saying?  Are you trying to be a jerk?”  Not intentionally.  Instead, I’m trying to show you how ridiculous the words of Jesus’ are even to us in our gospel text together today.

            “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” 

            There’s no history of the event recorded here anywhere outside of this conversation.  But there’s enough here that we can piece together the details.  Jesus has long been wandering from town to town preaching, teaching, and healing wherever He goes.  And there are constantly crowds gathering around Him longing to hear Him, and to touch Him.  And at this particular moment, some of the people who’re gathered in the crowd tell Jesus about a recent tragedy.

            Some Jews from Galilee, so, Galileans, had made the journey through the wilderness down to Jerusalem.  Once there, they’d purchased the appropriate sacrificial animals in the temple courtyard, and they brought them before the priest.  When we read the Levitical laws about these sacrifices, if you’re making the sacrifice, if this was your offering, you’d bring the animal near the altar of burnt offerings, you’d lay your hand upon the head of the beast, and you’d kill it right there in the temple courtyard.  The priest would then takeover, taking the blood of the animal and throwing it on the altar, or at the base of the altar, and then carving up the animal and placing the appropriate parts on the altar to be burned as your offering.

            The sacrificial system was literally a bloody mess.  And these people in the crowd before Jesus are saying that Pontius Pilate, Roman governor over the province of Judea, raided God’s temple.  That his soldiers, by his order, had come into the temple courtyard that particular day and killed these Galilean Jews, shedding their blood at the same time that they were standing before God offering the sacrifices that He had commanded of them.  Their blood, was now mixed with the blood of beasts, at the foot of the altar.

            It’s an outrage!  The nerve of Pilate, and his soldiers, to do such a blasphemous thing!  And Jesus, this Man is our deliverer, our Savior.  The crowd expected Jesus to overthrow Rome.  I can’t say for sure if this was a test or not.  If they were trying to see how Jesus might react to such government overreach, to such a terrible deed.  But whether they were testing Him, or if this was just an honest conversation, the outcome is just as shocking either way.  They would’ve expected Jesus to be livid.  They wanted to hear His plan for retaliation.  Maybe this would be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back, maybe this would start the downfall of the Roman Empire!

            And instead, Jesus said, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?  No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” 

            Stunning!  Unbelievable!  How can that be Your response with everything that’s going on?  How can You not be seeking justice?  This is Rome’s fault, why are pointing a finger at me?!

            To make matters worse, Jesus offered up His own example next.  It’s another event that we know nothing about, as there’s again no record of it outside of this conversation.  But a tower, built by the hands of men, collapsed.  And eighteen died.  And Jesus says the same thing:

Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

We might find ourselves asking the same thing right now: this is Russia’s fault, why are you pointing a finger at me?  It doesn’t matter if it’s government overreach, or a freak accident.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a tornado, an earthquake, a tsunami, an apartment building collapsing, or a war.  Jesus here teaches us that there’s no gain to be had in trying to figure out whose fault it is.  Were the Galileans worse sinners?  Had they committed some atrocious sin before the Lord that brought about their deaths?  No!  But, unless we repent, we will all likewise perish.

            Any suffering.  Any death.  Whenever we see such things, Jesus calls us to remember our own sinful condition.  I am a sinner.  That’s my first love.  Even from the womb of my mother I rebelled against the God who formed me and gave me life.  I’ve been fixated on myself, my own needs, and my own desires.  I’ve hurt more people than I can remember.  I’ve lied, cheated, stolen, cursed, and killed. 

            Paul reminds us in Romans 5:12, “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned,” and also in Romans 3:10-13,

‘None is righteous, no, not one; 11 no one understands; no one seeks for God.  12 All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’  13 ‘Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.’ ‘The venom of asps is under their lips.’

            We all deserve the same reward for our actions.  Every.  Last.  One.  Of.  Us.  Soldier?  Civilian?  King?  Stockbroker?  Worshipper?  Homeless person?  We have sinned against God.  And our sins deserve death.  We deserve His judgment.  That would be justice.  A global flood to just sweep us all away. 

            As you read your way through Scripture, I’d encourage you to keep your eyes open for this detail: whenever and wherever the Lord brings about His judgment in this world, He leaves witnesses.  He leaves behind a remnant who are able to learn from the judgment endured by others.  When the Flood wiped out perhaps billions of people, God spared eight, that they might learn to repent and to serve Him.  When God rained down fire and brimstone on Sodom and Gomorrah, He spared Lot and his family.  They clearly didn’t deserve it when you read Genesis 19, but He spared them anyway, that they might learn from the judgment of others.  When God poured out the Ten Plagues of His wrath upon Egypt and her false gods, He spared the lives of many of those faithless Egyptians anyway, that they might repent, and know His mercy. 

When God used the wretched Assyrian army to destroy the people of Israel, He spared Judah, that they might repent and live toward Him.  And as they would go on to ignore Him anyway, God would use Babylon to wipe out Judah, but preserving for Himself a remnant of that people, that they might repent and be restored.

Every death in this world is the rightly deserved judgment of God against our sins.  When I die someday, however that death comes, assuming Christ doesn’t first return, I’ve earned that death.  That’s the reward for how I’ve chosen to live my life.  That’s the reward earned by all sinners.  He could smite me down right here, right now, and He’d be perfectly justified to do so.  The only thing I deserve in this life and in this world is death.  It’s only by His mercy that I draw this breath.  (take a breath).  It’s only by His mercy if any of us wake up tomorrow morning.  Every breath and every day is a gift. 

And so Jesus tells a parable.  The man is God.  The fig tree is us, each and every one of us.  And the vinedresser is Jesus.  God planted us; He created us here in this place to serve Him, to care for His creation.  And we bore no fruit.  We loved ourselves instead of one another.  We cared for our own needs, instead of the needs of His creation and His creatures.  And so God visits His creation with that judgment.  We don’t deserve our spot here.  I’m a waste of space.  He was prepared to strike me down, but the vinedresser interceded on behalf of this fruitless tree.  Jesus, standing between God and men, intercedes for us.  As that divine hand of God’s judgment, that we rightly deserved, was about to fall upon us, Jesus stepped in the way.  And instead, He takes that judgment upon Himself.  My judgment, and yours. 

It’s His blood that covers our sins, removes them from us.  And He pours that manure on us, that is, He showers us with His own blood, poured out upon the cross.  We are spared, that we may repent.  God uses one death to give the rest the opportunity to repent of their sins and to trust in Him alone.

John the Baptist, speaking earlier in this book (3:8-9), said it this way:

Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

            Whenever we see death or suffering in this world, we are to remember that that is what we deserve, too.  And rather than boast, or seek revenge, we are to humble ourselves, and be thankful for Christ’s death upon the cross.  That we can know, that even when the consequences of our sin, even when death does finally take us, that our Savior Jesus Christ has already tagged this tree (point to self) to be planted anew in His new creation.

            I know many of you are wondering how to respond to war.  And I admit, it’s a difficult conversation.  This text is filled with the hidden will of God.  I don’t know why one person dies today and not another.  I don’t know how God will use any given death to call someone else to repent.  That’s His will, and not for us to know, nor to try to figure out.

            So it is with war.  Every government on this earth has the power of the sword given to them by God Himself.  That means that God will use them as agents of death, avengers against sin.  Trying to figure out which side is right, which side is good, when all sides are lying, when all sides are sinners isn’t even my task.  Nor is it yours.  We aren’t governments.  We don’t have the power of the sword.  And the trouble is: every government that God vests with the power of the sword to thwart evil is also evil itself.  And on the day of judgment, they will have to answer to Him for how they wielded that sword.  Maybe the Lord is working through Russia to judge the Ukraine.  Maybe it’s the opposite, maybe He’s giving Russia over to their own pride, and He will raise up other governing swords to cut theirs down. 

It sounds convenient, or even silly to us, but it’s as God did with Moses on Mt. Sinai.  He offered Moses a sign, to know that it was God who was sending him to Pharaoh.  “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain,” (Exodus 3:12).  The sign that was supposed to convince Moses to trust God and to go and stand before the most powerful man in the world, wouldn’t show up until after he had gone.  In the same way, we don’t know where God’s judgment is falling in this world until after it comes.  When a war is ended, we can say with confidence that the Lord worked.  That He judged some, and that He spared a remnant, and that they would have an opportunity to see their own wickedness and repent.

So what can we do?  Remember the Lord’s Prayer.  Remember the petition “Thy will be done.”  And pray it constantly.  Pray for those who suffer.  Pray that God gives them the opportunity to repent, and that He indeed sends His Holy Spirit upon them to soften their hard hearts.  And instead of taking up a sword made of steel and gun powder, take up the sword that is His Word, treasure it in your heart, and share it with others.  And remember God’s Word:

19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.  – Romans 12:19-21

Love your neighbors.  Whichever side they’re on.  God created them.  He loves them.  And as we saw in our Old Testament reading today, “As I live, declares the Lord Yahweh, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” – Ezekiel 33:11.

Jesus is Arrested

Luke 22:47-53

Lenten Midweek 3

March 16, 2022

Focus:  God provides for and nourishes His Church.

Function:  That the hearers trust in Christ alone in the midst of the hour of darkness.

Structure:  This is the historical situation in the text…these are the meanings for us now.

Jesus is Arrested

            Fear is at the heart of our reading today.  It’s why the temple officers and elders did what they did.  It’s why the disciples did what they did.  It’s probable that it’s even why Judas did what he did…although I can’t guarantee that one.

            Again and again, the gospels tell us about how the Pharisees and the scribes despised Jesus, they thought He was blaspheming against God, and they even wanted to put Him to death.  But they couldn’t…because they were afraid.  They were afraid that if they moved against Jesus, the crowds would revolt against them.  For the crowds loved to hear Jesus preach, and to see Him in the streets.  The crowds brought Him their sick, even their dying.  And Jesus preached, taught, and healed.

            The Scriptures don’t tell us Judas’s motivation.  We don’t know why he did it…why he betrayed his Friend, his Master.  We just know that he did.  One of the theories that seems most fitting to what we do know from Scripture is that Judas feared to lose the life he had become accustomed to.  Being a disciple of Jesus had an air of importance to it.  Keeping the moneybag had given him access to extra money to sneak into his own pocket.  But now, Jesus’ interactions were getting more chaotic.  Crowds were getting worked up.  If things didn’t calm down, the Roman army might be sent to make them “calm down”…and that only happens by bloodshed.  So if Jesus were just swooped out of sight, hidden away for a few days until the Feast of Passover passed, maybe they would release Him again, and Judas’s new life as a part of this community could continue just as it had.  This theory makes sense of Judas’s repentance when he learns that they plan to kill Jesus.

            And then there’s the rest of those disciples.  They also don’t want this new way of life to end.  When the troops come to arrest Jesus, Peter thinks his way of life is endangered, and so he draws his sword.  He fights in fear of loss.

            What we know from Luke’s gospel goes like this.  On Maundy Thursday, into the evening hours, Jesus and His disciples had celebrated the Passover meal together.  But, instead of the normal routine and pattern, instead of telling them about the Exodus account, about the Passover Lamb, about the blood on the doorposts and the plague of the firstborn, as any head of household was to do that night, Jesus instead told them about how He was shedding His blood for them.  He changed the story they had all grown up hearing year after year after year.

            And, when the meal was over, He taught them some more, and they departed out to the Mount of Olives, just east of Jerusalem.  At some point in all of this, Judas slipped out and went to make good on his word.  He had conspired already to show the chief priest where Jesus could be found out of sight of the crowds.  And now was that chance.  The Garden of Gethsemane was a regular olive press, busy around the harvest time, but quiet and vacant much of the rest of the year.

            Jesus went and He prayed three times.  And His disciples couldn’t manage to stay awake for any of those prayers.  And finally Jesus tells them instead to “Rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation.”  He had been praying, and now it was their time to pray.  To pray that the Lord would protect them.  Not necessarily physically, but body and soul, to protect them from temptation.  From what temptation?  From all that was about to happen.  From violence at the sight of swords and clubs in the garden, from denials around campfires, from doubt at all they’d see, from unbelief as Jesus would be killed, from fear as they clung to their earthly lives.

And as He telling them to pray, Judas arrived.  But he didn’t come alone.  He was leading with him a crowd of men.  Some were elders from among the people.  Some were officers tasked with overseeing peace and law in the temple.  And he marched right up to Jesus, and kissed Him.

We don’t know how the ancient Israelites’ kiss of greeting actually happened, what it looked like.  But we know it was a greeting, a friendly gesture, a sign of love among people.  And instead, Judas very intentionally had perverted it into a sign of betrayal, that the One whom he kissed was the One they were there to arrest.  This is not love.

And seeing things beginning to unfold, the disciples acted on a knee-jerk reaction.  This was their Messiah.  This was the One who was going to help them topple the Roman Empire and set up a life of luxury for them.  And in that moment, fear struck, and they reacted to save their lives.  They asked, “Lord, shall we strike with the sword?”  And not even waiting for the answer, one of them did, drawing his sword from his thigh, he swung at the head of the high priest’s servant.  It’s not hard to imagine what he was aiming for.  He wasn’t trying to cut off an ear.  He missed.  Or the man dodged.  We don’t know.  But what we do know is that the disciples once again failed to pray with Jesus, and they entered into temptation, into fear, and they responded in that moment with violence.  This is not right.

The next detail in the text is absolutely fascinating.  One of the men who just came out to arrest Jesus, one of the men bearing a sword or a club to take Jesus captive, one of these had his ear chopped off.  And as we can imagine him bleeding and screaming, Jesus yells, “No more of this!”  And He goes to His arrester.  He goes to the screaming man.  And He reaches out His hand.  And He touches his ear.  And He heals him.  He heals even the one who would arrest Him.  And then, what about the perspective of that man?  The Man you came to arrest, whose servant just struck off your ear, causing you shooting and agonizing pain.  That Man just restored your ear as good as new.  Pause.  None of the gospels tell us how he responded to that act of mercy.

Instead, Jesus proceeds to challenge and question His arrestors.  “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs?  When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on Me.”  Sunday.  Monday.  Tuesday.  Wednesday.  Thursday.  Jesus hadn’t been hiding all week.  He was spending most of His time in the temple teaching anyone and everyone.  These men now veiled by the cloak of darkness, they were there.  They’d seen Him teaching.  Some, maybe all had listened themselves.  Yet they did nothing.  They didn’t act.  If Jesus were abusing the house of God, they should’ve acted.  And now, now in the darkness, here they were…with swords, and clubs.  Like they’d come out to arrest a criminal.

The word He used there for “robber” is the same word used to the describe those thieves on the cross, and the robbers who left the man for dead in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and the one who seeks to break into the sheepfold of God and rob Him of His flock, as well as the word John used for that insurrectionist Barabbas, whom they would demand released by Pilate instead of Jesus.  So it seems to be more than just a pick-pocket, but a thief who has no qualms about wounding or even killing his victim.  That’s how they’re coming out to arrest Jesus.  In the cover of darkness.  This is not justified.

In our Bible study here this morning we studied a text that never shows up in the lectionary, Revelation 12, which is about a woman giving birth, and a dragon.  The woman is the Church, the Child is the Christ, and the dragon is the devil.  And as she was giving birth, the dragon was right there, trying to devour the Child.  The devil sought to destroy the Christ, to undo, to upend God’s plan of salvation for His creation. 

The devil was at work that night, on Maundy Thursday.  The devil infiltrated the Twelve, and deceived Judas.  The devil used fear to stoke the flames among the priests.  And he, the ever-crafty serpent, orchestrated an attack against God that led to God Himself, Jesus, being nailed to the cross.  In that moment, watching God die, the Enemy that he hated, the devil began his victory celebration prematurely.  What he thought was his victory, what he thought was God’s demise, was actually his own demise. He had failed. 

The cross is the devil’s undoing.  The cross takes away all of his power over you and me.  Because John tells us that the great red dragon is Satan, and he says that this “accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before God,” (Revelation 12:10).  The devil’s true strength was in that accusation.  That was his skillset.  That he would stand before the judgment throne of God and accuse you of your sins.  That you aren’t worthy.  That God should punish you rather than admit you into His kingdom.  But now, your accuser has been thrown down!  If you’re in court, and your accuser is cast out, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect?  It is God who justifies.  Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the One who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who is indeed interceding for us.” (Romans 8:33-34).

And what it means for you and for me right now is that the devil’s power has been defeated.  And he knows it.  So the chapter continues.  Recognizing that he failed to best God in battle, he turns his attention to the woman, to the Church, to the Bride of Christ.  Killing her would be the next best thing because it would render Jesus’ sacrifice as in vain.  He would still undermine God’s plan to save His Church. 

But to that we read,

13 And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time.

The devil tried to attack the Bride of Christ.  But Christ cared for her.  He prepared a place for her.  He nourished her for 3 ½ years.  Seven is God’s number of perfection.  So the perfection of earthly time, all of creation’s history could be represented by seven years, but this is 3 ½ years, only half that time.  It’s the New Testament era.  Jesus will nourish His bride from the time of His ascension into heaven, until the time of His return on the Last Day.  He has prepared a place for you, the Church, where you can gather together, where He nourishes you by His Word and Sacraments, and by mutual encouragement.  Satan cannot defeat her!

And realizing that, Revelation 12 ends with the devil turning his attention then to the others born of the Church, that is to her members, to you and to me.  That he may not be able to kill body of Christ, but he can isolate her members, and sever them from Christ one at a time.

Indeed, the devil’s attack on the Church, and on her members still rages.  Right now, in this world, Christians are enduring what Christ endured on Maundy Thursday.  There is no love in the way Christians are treated in what seems to be the majority of African nations, as they are stripped from their homes and their families, arrested, if not just outright killed in the streets.  There is no righteousness in what China is doing as they arrest pastors and burn down Christian churches.  And if they Bible on your phone or in your home, if you’ve even searched the internet for something Christian, they’ll arrest you, too.  In Finland, Lutheran Bishop Juhan Pohjola, and Parliament member and doctor Paivi Rasanen are on trial for upholding God’s Word on the sanctity of marriage.  A ruling is expected by the end of the month.  And in Canada, churches were burned, and pastors were arrested over the course of the pandemic and even in the past month in the events in Ottawa.  Is any of this really justified?

You may have noticed, Canada’s awfully close to home.  And it’s no secret that our culture is shifting all around us.  Not long ago, preaching the gospel was expected.  Then, it became unpopular.  Now, it’s despised. 

Pray that you may not enter into temptation.  That if this culture continues to go down this path, you may not have a heart calloused by hatred.  That if this government imposes penalties or prisons upon you and your family because of your faith, you may not respond in violence.  That if they seek to strip away God’s Word and again close His churches, you may not fall into despair, or hunger for His Word, for you will have committed it into your heart.

Jesus said to them all, the devil included, “This is your hour, and the power of darkness.”  And even though he is now defeated, and his plots to overthrow God’s throne have been foiled, and none of his schemes against the Church prevailed, for the Lord nourished her through it all, even now the devil still lashes out with his great fury against isolated lambs of the flock, seeking someone to devour.  The days are growing darker, as the day of Christ’s return draws closer.  Indeed, Satan, this is your hour, and the power of darkness.  Amen, come Lord Jesus!