Freedom by the Blood

Zechariah 9:9-12

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

July 6, 2014

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

July 5, 2020 (edited for the people of God at St. Matthew)

 

Focus: God freed us by His blood.

Function: That the hearers rejoice in the blood of the Lamb.

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

 

Freedom by the Blood

 

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!  Behold, your King is coming to you, righteous and having salvation is He.”

The words of the prophet Zechariah mark a celebration, rejoicing.  They mark the arrival of a King, a King who would bring with Him peace.  This reading fits in remarkably well in the midst of our culture’s celebration of another holiday weekend.

As we come together today, many of you are with your family and friends.  Many others aren’t here because they’ve traveled to see their family and friends.  People are celebrating the land in which they live and the freedoms that they’ve enjoyed.  And even though it wasn’t a normal celebration this year, from what I’ve been told, firework sales were record setting, and the last couple of nights certainly do nothing to disprove that.

The people living in the context of our Old Testament reading could have had a similar celebration.  After generations of wars, including civil war, the remainder of God’s people were conquered by Babylon in 587 BC.  For roughly 50 years, they served in Babylon, many, if not all, of them under poor conditions.  They had been stripped from their homes and from their land.  They were weighed down, they were oppressed.  But in 538 BC, King Cyrus led his Persian army against Babylon, and won.  God had sent him.  We learn that from the book of Ezra, that even Cyrus himself believed it to be true.  God had given him a mission: to set God’s people free.  And so in that same year, Cyrus proclaimed that freedom to God’s children.  They were free to leave Persia and return to their homes in Judah and Jerusalem.

While they may have longed for freedom from Babylon during their exile, they didn’t really have plan for what they would do if it actually happened.  They were allowed to return home.  And yet, most didn’t.  King Cyrus even paid to rebuild the temple, and yet they hesitated and waited for years.  They didn’t have a plan, and when the opportunity was given to them, they hardly took it.  They were free from their bondage, and yet they were lost on how to live as God’s people.

But God had made them a promise: “As for you also, because of the blood of My covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.  Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.”

And God kept His promise.  He reminded them of the blood of the covenant, by which He pledged Himself to be their God, and they His people.  And He never forgot.  It’s what the prophet Zechariah’s name means: Yahweh remembers.  He was still looking out for His people.

So in the midst of their newfound independence mixed with confusion, fear, and chaos, God again provided for His people.  He gave them two prophets: Haggai and Zechariah.  In their recent history, God’s people only knew the prophets for declaring bad things to them.  We even heard that idea in last weekend’s reading from Jeremiah, that the prophets of old prophesied of famine, war, and pestilence.  Isaiah and Jeremiah forecasted the doom of the nation.  Some of the prophets are so negative, you’ll never hear about them in most churches.

But that’s not the case with Zechariah.  Martin Luther said this about him:

“This prophet lived after the Babylonian captivity.  With his colleague, Haggai, he helped to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple and to bring the scattered people together again, so that government and order might be set up in the land again.  He is truly one of the most comforting of the prophets.  He presents many lovely and reassuring visions, and gives many sweet and kindly words, in order to encourage and strengthen the troubled and scattered people to proceed with the building and the government despite the great and varied resistance which they had till then encountered.”

 

It wasn’t often a prophet was sent to encourage and build up God’s people.  But in their newfound independence, delivered by the blood of the covenant, they were lost, like sheep without a shepherd, and encouragement was exactly what God chose to give them.  They had been free for 16 years and they had accomplished nothing.  Many of them, out of fear, hadn’t even left Cyrus’ Persia.

But in the year 520 BC, that’s what Zechariah and Haggai did.  They encouraged the people with God’s Word, inspiring them to return to their homes and rebuild. And they did. And by the year 516 BC, the new temple was complete.  And they celebrated.  They’d been set free.

Even though our text today is the only time Zechariah appears in our lectionary readings, he did leave them with a couple other prophesies to remember.  He warned them of people who would come, false christs, who would claim to be their Savior.  And he warned them that these men would only lead them astray.

And then he told them of the true Christ.  Of the King who would come to them “humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” We celebrate this together every year on Palm Sunday as we rejoice together with the church triumphant shouting “Hosanna!  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Then we also hear the words “He shall speak peace to the nations; His rule shall be from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth.”  We celebrate this together each and every time we meet, as we hear the words of Christ that bring peace to the nations, “I forgive you of all your sins.”

Zechariah also told them about the thirty silver coins and that their Shepherd would be struck.  These events came to pass through Judas Iscariot’s betrayal of the Christ and then His crucifixion.  The King’s blood was shed.

The peace Zechariah proclaimed to God’s people wasn’t the peace they expected.  After generations of war, they expected earthly peace, what we might call a ceasefire.  But that’s not what they needed.  It’s not what we needed.  Instead, God again provided for His people precisely what was needed.  And the Shepherd’s blood was shed.

The blood of the covenant, which Jesus calls “the new covenant in My blood,” is again God taking care of His people.  By His blood you are free.  By His blood your transgressions have been forgiven.  By His blood, your sins have been washed away.  By His blood, you have been made clean.  All of us, and now today Daeson, are white as snow.  We are clean, we are free.

But in our newfound freedom from sin, it’s easy for us to be just like God’s people of old: lost, confused, and afraid in the chaos of this world.  We are in need of a Shepherd.  If you doubt it, try to read through Paul’s statement again.  It’s a tongue twister!  “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…for I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”

In our freedom from sin and death, it’s so easy to get lost and confused.  It’s so easy to allow ourselves to get caught up in the world and the culture around us.  We believe the lies and we give in to the temptations.  We listen to the false christs who lead us astray, telling us there’s a better gospel, a better cause to fight for.  We seek the comforts of this world rather than rely on the only true source of comfort which is God Himself.

For this Paul tells us there is another law at work, another war being waged.  He says, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  The peace that was prophesied wasn’t a ceasefire; it wasn’t even a worldly peace among men.  The peace that was prophesied was the blood of the Lamb.  That our sins are washed away.  That we are free from the bondage of sin and death.  The peace of God is salvation; it is not reconciliation here (point around); it is reconciliation here (point up and down, God and man).

And to help us in the present time, God has provided many gifts for His people.  There’s the gift of baptism, when God looked down on you and called you His own dear child.  There’s the gift of the Lord’s Supper, where He freely forgives us of all our sins.  There’s the gift of the church and this community, where we gather together to be built up and encouraged.  There’s the gift of parents, grandparents, extended family, pastors, and others who help to raise us in the one true faith.  There’s the gift of God’s holy Word, which continues to strengthen our faith as we read it daily.  God has richly blessed His people!

Zechariah closed his prophetic ministry with one more prophecy.  He foretold the coming day of Yahweh.  He told the people that the day would come when “Yahweh will be King over all the earth.  On that day Yahweh will be One and His name One…Jerusalem shall dwell in security.”  When that day comes, we will see clearly, guided by our Shepherd.  We will not only taste the freedom that we have in Christ, we will enjoy Him to the fullest.  And that will be cause for celebration and rejoicing.  Indeed, it already is. Amen.

The Hated and Persecuted

Matthew 10:5a, 21-33

Third Sunday after Pentecost

June 21, 2020

 

Focus:  God delivers His children from this present, evil age.

Function:  That the hearers be willing to suffer harm and hatred to acknowledge Jesus.

Structure:  .

 

The Hated and Persecuted

 

Today’s gospel reading is stunning and difficult to hear.  You can put it on that list titled, “Did Jesus really just say that?”  But He did.  Even though you may not think you’re living it, even though you don’t want it to be true, He still said it, and it’s still true.  “Brother will deliver over brother to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for My name’s sake.”

But before we look at what Jesus said they would do to us, let us first recall what they did to Jesus.  Imagine a Man coming into your town, and even into your home, O sinner.  He would spend hours on end with the very people society had thrown away.  His teaching is divisive, with some really loving Him and others really despising Him.

But even if you question His teaching, it’s hard to question what your eyes have seen.  He has cured every disease imaginable.  Your neighbors who were possessed by demons have been fully restored to their normal selves again.  And on more than one occasion, this Man has even restored life to the dead.

On Thursday evening, He reclined at table with His most trusted friends, His twelve disciples.   That night, they celebrated together the great Jewish feast of Passover, the high point on the Jewish calendar.  It’s a week to remember what God has done for His people and how He has rescued them from the evils of this world.

After dinner, they sang a hymn, and then they walked together out into a garden where He would spend several hours in prayer that night.  But as He did, soldiers came.  They arrested Him.  They held a secret trial in the middle of the night.  They whisked Him away to be judged by any ruler they could find.  They wanted Him gone; more than that, they wanted Him dead.

They mocked Him, tormented Him, tortured Him.  And that was just the ruler who thought He had done nothing wrong.  But the people pressed on, like a mob, demanding He be crucified.  At the height of the Roman Empire, which was very well versed in finding brutal ways to execute people, crucifixion was about as bad as they had dreamed up.

Death on a cross could take a couple of days.  But for this Man, because He had already been so direly beaten and lost so much blood, death came quicker than normal.  After about six hours of His flesh and bones nailed to that cross, He breathed His last.

This brings us to verse 24-25:

24 “A disciple is not above his Teacher, nor a servant above his Master. 25 It is enough for the disciple to be like his Teacher, and the servant like his Master. If they have called the Master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of His household.

 

One of the greatest temptations to Christians living in this time and in this place of creation history is the sin of trying to fit in to a dying world.  The very idea that the words of Jesus in this text strike us as odd shows just how seductive the comfort, happiness, and success of the world has been on us.  And so you know, I’m right there with you.  As a preacher, I study God’s Word to deliver it to you.  I study the text, so I can show you both the Law’s condemnation of our sin and the Gospel’s forgiveness from right there within the text itself.  And just about always, the sermon preaches to me just as much as it does to you.

A disciple is not above His Teacher.  Look to His life: that He had nowhere to lay His head.  Look to His suffering: all that He endured for your sake.  Look to His death: as He showed His great love for you.  You are not above these things.  We should not be striving for the things this world loves.  We should not be seeking a life that is better than the life Jesus had here.

Instead Jesus says “It is enough for the disciple to be like His Teacher.”  If your master is the mistress of this world, then you will always be reaching for that proverbial carrot on a stick, for a little wealth, a little comfort, a little happiness is never enough.  The lusts of our sinful hearts cannot be satiated.

It is sufficient for the disciple to like His Teacher.  To suffer for the good of the kingdom.  To be mocked for speaking the truth.  To be persecuted for the name of Jesus, “He saves.”  To be beaten for calling people to repent of their sinful appetites.  To even be killed, for daring to speak of forgiveness in this life.  If these things were good enough for our Teacher, they are sufficient also for us.

This brings us back to the difficult words that Jesus spoke at the opening of our text.  For context here, He’s sending out the twelve, the disciples, those who sans Judas would become apostles.  But the text moves from specific to generic.  The earlier you are in chapter 10, the more specifically it speaks of the twelve and their being sent.  But the later you read in the chapter, the more generically it applies to all those who are being sent, which includes every one of us, every Christian.

21 Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, 22 and you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 23 When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next,

 

These things are happening in the world today.  These things are happening all around us, all the time.  We are seeking to begin a partnership here with POBLO, a group within our Synod who has had a lot of success in sharing Jesus with Muslims.  The last time they were here, they brought one of their missionaries with them.  As she spoke to a group of local pastors, she shared her story.

She shared what it was like growing up Muslim in a Muslim nation.  She shared her first interaction with a Christian.  She was having computer problems, and reached out on Facebook for help.  A Christian from the US responded.  And over time, he turned the conversation to Jesus.  As the Spirit planted that seed, and she came to faith, her life was in danger.  Her family tried to take her life, to kill her.  But that same Christian man who helped plant the seed of faith, also helped provide for her transportation out of that country.

There are a couple of groups here in the States who focus on the lives of our persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.  One is called Voice of the Martyrs and the other is Open Doors USA.  Neither organization will offer you numbers.  They don’t want to turn our brothers and sisters into statistics.  Instead, they will tell you their stories, they will even partner you with one of these families for prayer.  Check them out.  Get involved.

As I spoke with a woman named Tanya at the Voice of the Martyrs this week, I was impressed with just how on top of things they are.  They know the stories.  They vet the stories.  They have workers on the ground throughout the world to help as they can.  She even knew that our English word “martyr” is actually the Greek word for “witness.”

And she shared an acronym with me that I wanted to pass along to you.  When Christians pray to God in the midst of suffering and persecution, He responds in one of three ways: H.O.T.  – Home, Out, and Through.  God will either call you home to Himself, He will rescue you out of the situation, or He will be with you as you endure through it.  Should the pandemic ever clear, we have an open invitation from Tanya to visit them down in Oklahoma.

It’s my hope within the next year to bring before you one of these persecuted brothers and sisters in Christ.  I spoke with one such brother a couple of weeks ago.  Karim and his family are currently moving as he prepares to be ordained within the next few weeks and begin his first call in the ministry.  Having grown up in Syria, he believes the temptations of comfort that we face each day are actually more dangerous to faith than the physical dangers he endured growing up.

I am convinced that persecution is coming here.  I’m not a prophet, I won’t claim to be.  But as I watch how quickly our culture is shifting beneath our feet, I remember the Apostle Paul’s words to the young pastor Timothy,

12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.

 

And that’s the answer, and it’s why Jesus says what He said next.  After telling us all that would happen, that we would endure suffering, and be killed, and be hated by all, Jesus tells us to have no fear of them.  More than that, He tells us not to fear anything that can kill the body, but cannot kill the soul.  Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, only God Himself can destroy your soul on Judgment Day.  Jesus calls us to fear Him alone.

But after doing that, He then tells us not to fear God.  The Lord cares for His creation.  A couple of birds, little sparrows, are used as the example.  You can buy them for a Roman coin called an assarion, about a half an hour’s worth of pay.  But who among us would?  We don’t want them.  They’re not even worth that to us.  And yet God cares for them.  God provides for them.

And if the price of two sparrows is an assarion, what is the price of you?  What payment did God make for you?  God has bought you back from this world of sin and death, and He’s done it by laying down His own life.  Trading His life for yours, as He shed His precious blood for you.  What’s worth more: an assarion or divine blood?  If God cares for the things that cost an assarion, how much more will He care for the things that cost His own blood?!

The fear of God is liberating.  As we are called to fear Him alone, it casts out all other fears.  Fears of suffering and persecution, fears of illness and loss, fears of rejection and betrayal.  All of these are cast aside, because we know that our Lord Jesus Christ loves us, forgives us, and saves us.  And once we come to that point, where the fear of God has liberated us from all worldly fears, then the fear of Him passes away, also.  Because as you come before Him, before His judgment throne, you will hear the voice of your Savior Jesus welcoming you home: ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your Master,’ ( – Matthew 25:21).

It’s not a matter of “if” persecution comes, but “when.”  God’s Word promises it, and our Master lived it.  But take heart, dear family, for “when they persecute you in one town, flee to the next.”  This is how the gospel has been spreading for two thousand years.  Every time to you try to eliminate the dandelions in your yard, they just keep spreading, not just in your yard, but also into your neighbor’s.  So it is with the Church, and has been ever since the book of Acts.  It is sufficient to be like our Master, to speak of the good news of the kingdom.

What Does Jesus Give His Disciples to Do?

Matthew 9:35-10:8

Second Sunday after Pentecost

June 14, 2020

 

Focus:  God has compassion on the helpless by destroying our helplessness.

Function:  That the hearers proclaim “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Structure:  .

 

What Does Jesus Give His Disciples to Do?

 

Does it ever feel like every day you find yourself asking, “What can I do?”  We look at the news or the brokenness we see in the world and we grieve.  And we ask, “What can I do?”  Another current event comes and goes and the world screams and demands yet again that the Church jump on their bandwagon, and do exactly what they say.  And we ask, “What can I do?”

Our gospel text today addresses that very question.  We see God Himself give the Church her mission.  But let’s pause and come back to that again in moment.

To really get this, let’s unpack the first paragraph we read together earlier:

35 And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then He said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.”

 

Matthew begins this section by recapping once again what Jesus had been doing with so much of His time.  Traveling from one place to the next.  Going into their synagogues to teach.  Proclaiming the kingdom of heaven.  Healing every disease.  This is the authority of the Christ Matthew has been displaying the past several chapters.  Chapters 5-7 focused on the authority of His spoken Word, that He speaks truth in a way they’ve never seen.  Chapters 8-9 focus on the authority of His deeds, that He can control creation itself.  He can speak to a decaying body, and it’s made well.  He can speak to a demon, and it must obey Him.

The next verse brings us out of the summary into one particular moment in history.  He sees a crowd, and He sees that they’re hurting, and He has compassion.  He loved them and He wanted to help them.

But there’s a question that the text demands that we ask.  And it’s a question we aren’t used to asking.  When we hear that they were “harassed and helpless,” immediately ideas come into our mind.  In what ways do you think they were harassed and helpless?  Pause to let people consider.  The text actually demands us to ask two questions: who is harassing them and how are they helpless?

If we don’t get this right, we’ll miss the whole text.  We’ll miss what Jesus was doing, what He would send His disciples out to do, and then by extension, the answer to our original question, “What can I do?”

While Matthew doesn’t pinpoint the particular crowd and their exact situation, we do still know quite a bit.  We know they were Jews living in Roman occupied territory, and that the Romans weren’t particularly kind to the Jewish people.  We know that they looked to the Pharisees and scribes as their religious leaders, and that these men lacked justice and mercy and faithfulness.  It’s likely most among the crowd were poor, slaves, hungry, and overworked.

And yet, is any of this what the text means by saying that they were harassed and helpless?  The way Jesus responds gives us the answer, and it’s “no.”  He didn’t respond by overthrowing Rome, and all their evils.  He didn’t respond by replacing the Pharisees.  He didn’t give them money, or liberate them, or feed them.  He had the power to do all of these things.

But instead, He gave us two illustrations to consider.  First, He acknowledged that they are like sheep without a shepherd.  They don’t have anyone to care for them: to lead, guide, protect, feed, and nourish them.  They are wandering and lost.  They are constantly on the run from wolves that seek to devour them.  But again, just who are these wolves?

Jesus then turns to His disciples and gives them the second illustration: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”  This farming illustration brings everything together.  It has us imagining a field of wheat or corn blowing in the breeze.  It invites us to imagine the farmer out in his field cutting down the crop and gathering it together into his barn.  The harvest is a reference to salvation.  That the crowd that day, and all the people in the world, we are the harvest, ready to be gathered together, brought into God’s everlasting house, His kingdom.

The harvest metaphor answers the question demanded by the text.  The harassment and helplessness of this crowd isn’t about Rome, or slavery, or hunger.  It’s about the battle against sin, death, and the devil.  These are the things that are truly breaking their bodies down.  Hunger, disease, even government, these are all symptoms of sin.

Jesus came into this world to fight against the disease, not to treat the symptoms.  If a person has been involved in a bad accident, and they are bleeding uncontrollably, pain medication may help a little, but it won’t stop them from dying.  They need immediate treatment of a far different kind.

Our world today is churning and people are lashing out.  The year 2020 has been one nightmare scenario after another.  And the world around us is demanding that the Church take action with every event.  And we’re left asking, “what can I do?”

So we finish the text, names aside for now:

10 And He called to Him His twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction…. These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay.

 

Did you catch it?  What the disciples of Jesus are to do when He sends them out is the exact same thing they’ve been watching Him do all this time.  Jesus takes His authority over creation, and He gives it to them.  They can now cast out demons.  They can speak now to an illness and it disappears.  But even these merciful works aren’t the main point.

Time and time again, Jesus takes the attention and the focus of His disciples from here (point all around the room), and He reorients them there (point upward).  Jesus takes our eyes off of the worries, the concerns, and the temporary problems of this world and He points us to the bigger picture of the true concerns over life and death.

Jesus doesn’t send out the 12 into battle against Roman tyranny and oppression.  They will get theirs on Judgment Day.  Instead, Jesus sent out the 12 to wage the fight against sin, death, and the devil.

By the end of the gospel account of Matthew, Jesus sends them out again, telling them to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age,” (Matthew 28:19-20).

Not only does that tell us that the Messiah came for all people, but it also reiterates the job and the work of the disciples that we saw in this text today.  It’s so tempting to focus on the ability to cast out demons, and even for us to wish we could do that.  But if that’s all we see, we’ve missed it.  We’ve missed the point entirely.  Demon-possession is just a symptom.

Jesus gives the disciples something to say.  And it’s the exact same words that we hear from John the Baptist when he began preaching back in Matthew 3:2.  It’s the exact same words that we hear from Jesus when He opens His mouth to preach for the very first time in this book in 4:17.  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

The kingdom of heaven is the reign of a new King.  Once Adam gave into the temptation of the devil, and plunged mankind into the slavery of sin, the devil reigned, death reigned.  That’s our Romans text of the day. Murder, rebellion, chaos, destruction, greed, pride, these things have run amuck ever since.  But Christ came to conquer it all.  And He did so by going straight to the source: me.  He came to overcome the oppression that is my sin, my rebellion, my idolatry.  It’s the cause of my pain, and it’ll be the cause of my death.  But thanks be to God, for in Christ, it will not be the end of me!  By His death and by His resurrection, Jesus has crushed the enemies of sin, death, and the devil.  And He has promised to each of us life with Him in Paradise, where all of this evil that we’ve come to know, and often love, will be no more.

That’s what He gave the twelve to say.  To call people to repent of their sins and trust in Christ.  And by the words of the Great Commission in Matthew 28 just before His ascension, these are the words that Jesus has given you to speak.

You have been sent.  That’s what the word missionary even means, one who is sent.  In the waters of holy baptism, God pours out His Spirit upon you, welcoming you into His family and washing you clean of your sins as He places the gift of faith into you both upon your heart and upon your mind to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified.  In doing all of this, God entrusts to you the work of the family, the work of the kingdom.

So when we ask, “What can I do?” the first and primary answer to that question is to speak the words God has given you to speak: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  We are to help our neighbor see their sin so that they can then see their Savior.  Americans are offended when you tell them that they’re sinners or that they can’t save themselves.  But Jesus never promised that it would be easy to take up your cross and follow Him.

This world is full of evils.  Turn on the news and within seconds you’ll have seen many.  And it’s our task to love our neighbor, to show mercy, and to help care for them however we can.  By all means, care for them!  But we can’t lose focus on what ultimately matters.  If somehow I could guarantee you that the fight of our culture in this moment would actually work, and racism would be stamped out for good, that would be a great thing.  But if we fix our eyes on that, and abandon the higher calling, what good have we actually done?  What good is it to liberate your neighbor from every evil the world says oppresses them if they never repent?  Nearly everyone who saw a miracle of Christ still rejected Him. If we love our neighbors and make their lives worldly wonderful, but they have not Christ, we have not helped them.  They started dead, and they stayed dead.

The answer to the question, both in this text and in our lives, is to be disciples of Jesus.  To do the things He gives us to do.  To love our neighbor by pointing them to Christ.  All of them.  Our spouses, children, grandchildren; people living on our street, in our town; those living in this country; in the world.  We’re called to love them by pointing them to Christ.

The world and her cultures are dead.  Jesus didn’t come to pass out Band-Aids and Tums, but to conquer sin, death, and the devil.  He came to forgive sins by His precious blood spilled for all people on the cross.  He came to raise the dead to new life by the power of His own resurrection on Easter morning.  And He has now called you to work in this harvest field of 7.8 million sheaths of wheat.  “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.”

The Boomerang

Acts 2:1-21

Pentecost

June 8th, 2014

 

May 31, 2020 (edited and preached to the people of God at St. Matthew)

 

Focus: God uses the Holy Spirit to bring us back to Him.

Function: That the hearers would readily work alongside the Spirit in bringing people to the Father.

Structure: Boomerang.

 

The Boomerang

 

We stand accused.  Throughout much of recent history, other Christian church bodies have looked at us Lutherans and pointed a finger.  They’ve accused us with the heresy of Christocentrism.  Now before you get defensive, let me rephrase that.  We’ve been accused of always making Christ the center of everything we do, whether in life or worship.

Well, when you put that way, yep, we’re guilty as charged.  When you put it that way, we’ll admit to that.  We’re more than willing to say that Christ is the center of our faith, He’s the One who gave Himself for us, He’s the One who saves us.  That much is true.  But when we push that too far, when we say that we worship Christ alone, we are risking heresy.

Sometimes we truly take Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2:2 too literally.  “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”  His point was that that was the power of God for us, the Gospel proclaimed in all of its glory.  Paul certainly knew more about God and faith as he wrote thirteen New Testament letters.

We run the risk of heresy here when we ignore and neglect the Trinity.  Three in One, One in Three.  If we do not also maintain our faith in the Father and the Spirit, then the accusation is true.  Think for a moment, when was the last time you prayed to the Holy Spirit?

We tend to defend ourselves by saying that if we worship Jesus, then we’re worshipping the Father because He gave us our Savior.  And if we worship Jesus, then we’re worshipping the Spirit because the Spirit’s job was to bring us to faith in Jesus.  And those things are true, but the Trinity is more than that!

So today I wanted to give you another metaphor to think about, another tool to use to think about the ever confusing nature of the Trinity.  No metaphor can truly explain God’s perfection, but this one could still be helpful in understanding how God works to save us.

Have you ever thrown a boomerang?  I haven’t, and because I haven’t I know exactly what would happen if I did.  It would just keep going until it either lost the battle with gravity or until it hit something or someone!  Boomerangs are a precise art form, both an ancient hunting tool, and a modern sport.  It takes skill and precision to make it come back to you.

I want you to think of the work of the Trinity as a boomerang, one that comes back.  God the Father threw it, and like a skilled master, it always returns.  Just as He said through the Prophet Isaiah: “so shall My Word be that goes out from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it,” (Isaiah 55:11).

God the Father sent His Son, who sent the Spirit, who then works through us to share the Gospel, bringing people into the Spirit, who returns them to faith in Christ, who restores their relationship with the Father.  Simple enough?  Let’s walk through it.

Luke’s account of Pentecost really ties this altogether for us.  He helps us to see just how it is that this works in the midst of the fullness of the Scriptures.

It begins with God the Father sending His Son.  You can all quote for me one of the verses that spells that out for us, as it is perhaps the most well-known verse of the Bible.  John 3:16 says: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

This then is what the Gospels are about.  This is what Luke wrote 24 chapters about.  The life of Christ, the ministry of Jesus.  That He took on flesh and became Man for us.  That He died on the cross to forgive our sins.  That He rose from the grave to give us new life.  All of these events lead up to Pentecost.  And it’s all why the Messiah came.

And then the Son sends His Spirit to us.  While still walking among His disciples, Jesus says to them, “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you.  But if I go, I will send Him to you.”  (John 16:7) This, the Helper, the Counselor, the Comforter, the Paraclete, is best known to us as the Holy Spirit.  This is the same thing that Jesus promises the disciples just before He ascends into heaven in Acts chapter 1.

Father sends Son, Son sends Spirit.  The boomerang is still going, still moving farther away from the one who threw it.

Often times the Scriptures speak of God pouring out His Spirit on His people.  And we see this with Pentecost.  The apostles got drenched in the pouring out of the Spirit.  They not only get to prophesy, but they are speaking in tongues.  The twelve of them are speaking, and men from every nation under heaven are hearing their own native language.  Without a doubt, a miracle of God!

This was certainly a special day.  Nothing like it has happened since.  God starts His church with a bang, an explosion, rapid growth for it to really take hold and take off.  From 120 followers one day, to gaining 3000 the next.  That day was truly a blessing in church history, truly a blessing to each of us, as our ancestors heard the gospel.  And even though you may not consider them ancestors by blood, as fellow Christians, it is precisely what they are.

Father sends Son, Son sends Spirit, Spirit works through us.  We are the turning point on the flight of a boomerang.  The point where it “lays over” and starts to return to the thrower.  Luke records Peter preaching that “in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,” (Acts 2:17).  The Apostles did it that day, the celebration of Pentecost, and we as the church have been doing it ever since.  Because to prophesy, on the most basic level, is to share the Word of God, calling people to repentance, telling them about Christ.

But why us?  Why does God, the perfect Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of everything work through us?  We’re cowards, afraid to speak the truth.  We’re weak, easily ready to give in to temptation.  We’re broken, there’s nothing good in us.  And yet, He chooses us.  He loves us and He makes us His own.  He puts the good in us; He is the good in us.  Through the pouring out of His Spirit upon us in our baptisms, we are His family, His children, and He wants us to be involved.  He doesn’t simply look down on us and call us moochers or parasites.  No, He walks with us.  He works alongside us for the sake of His kingdom.  We get to be a part of that, and it’s all because He loves us as His own.

And so we are sent out into the world to do His work and to share His love and to proclaim the faith to others.  The Spirit leads us out and the Spirit brings us back.  He works faith and repentance in our hearts and then leads us to others so He can work faith and repentance in their hearts, too!

And so the boomerang begins to return.  The Spirit’s work points people back to Christ.  He points them to their Savior who died and rose for them.  Jesus told His disciples that “when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about Me,” (John 15:26).  The Spirit brings us to Christ.

Jesus was quite clear that He completes this boomerang throw.  He once said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me,” (John 14:6).  Christ’s goal is to restore us in our relationship with the Father.  He wants to bring us back to Him, just like we were created to be.

The Father sends the Son, the Son sends the Spirit, the Spirit works in and through us to bring men to faith and point them to Christ, who then brings them back to the Father.  Boomerang thrown and returned.

The key focus is the faith we have in God.  A faith He creates, nourishes, and sustains.  This is why Peter says what he does on Pentecost, quoting the Prophet Joel.  “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” (Joel 2:32)  From beginning to end, God wants to be united with the people He created.

This is what we see on Pentecost.  We see the arc of the boomerang, the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in planting the church and growing the kingdom of God.  We see men and women brought to repentance for their sins and joining with the others in the faith.  We see the apostles overwhelmed with the Holy Spirit to the point where it’s the Spirit who is speaking through them.

We’re not guilty of Christocentrism.  We believe and confess God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.  And it is through that relationship that we know we will live with God forever.  And that’s the same confession, same resurrection promise that the Holy Spirit is using you to share with the people around you even today.

 

 

That They May Be One

John 17:1-11

Seventh Sunday of Easter

May 24th, 2020

Focus:  God put His own dear Son on display for all to see.

Function:  That the hearers are one in Christ.

Structure:  This is the problem…this is the response of the gospel…these are the implications.

 

That They May Be One

 

Division abounds all around.  All you have to do is interact with other people to see it.  The hostility we show to one another because our skin tones don’t match has been around for thousands of years.  The disgust men and women show one another simply because they’re men and women.  There are divides between those who have and those who don’t.  We battle over bathrooms and climate change and guns and technology and energy.  Even the things that are supposed to be entertainment, like the love we have for our favorite sports teams, end up creating violence and conflict among us.

Our political state is a fractured mess.  Even in the case of a pandemic, the two parties that compose most of our government somehow can’t agree with each other.  In January, February, and early March, the Republicans were concerned about the virus, and sought to limit it.  The Democrats thought the concern was unnecessary.  Then they flipped.  From mid-March through now, the Democrats have been so concerned about the virus that they believe we need to keep our communities shut down, while the Republicans believe we need to be more concerned about the dangers of shutting down.  The partisan divide is almost unimaginable…but here it is!

On my running route, there’s a sign in front of one of the homes, “And the world’s people came together as they stayed apart.”  I’ve heard the phrase elsewhere as well.  But is it true?  Not even close!  People aren’t just disagreeing, but getting into fights and legal battles all around us over opening or closing, wearing a mask or not wearing a mask, and it just goes on and on.

And then we see all of those squabbles penetrating the Church’s door!  We’ve literally seen our own Synod ripped in two over cultural ideology within the lifetime of many of the people gathered here today.  And we continue to see Christians attacking one another over concerns of the world.  I can’t even begin to tell you all of the terrible things I’ve seen and heard Christians say to one another over the past couple months.

But then we hear the words of Jesus’ prayer, “Holy Father, keep them in Your name, which You have given Me, that they may be one, even as We are one.”  Jesus prays for unity.  Not for the world, but for the Church, for the people of God.  For we are the body of Christ.  We are brothers and sisters in Christ.  We are a family, sons and daughters of the King.  We are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that we may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9).

Jesus prays that we would be one in the name of God the Father.  And God the Father answered this prayer of His Son on Pentecost when He poured out His Holy Spirit, and He continues to pour out that same Spirit upon His Church today. That happens right there (point to baptismal font).  You have been baptized into the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen!  You are a child of God.  We are children of God.  And He calls our focus, our attention, our interests, our desires out of this world and out of our own sinfulness.  Jesus prays that we would have our eyes fixed on God and not the divides of this world.

That’s what this word glory is all about.  One of our seminary professors, Rev. Dr. Glenn Nielsen once described it and preached it on it saying that to glorify something is to put it on display.  So when Jesus says He glorified the Father, the actions and words of Jesus held up the Father for the world to see.  And when Jesus prays that the Father would glorify Him, He is praying that the Father would put Him on display for the world to see.

And that’s exactly what the Father did.  The Father answered His Son’s prayer.  He glorified His Son by putting Him on display for all of us to see.  Jesus prayed these words during Holy Week, specifically on Maundy Thursday, no more than a few hours before He was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Jesus was put on display, not as the conquering hero, but in human courts, before the Sanhedrin, and King Herod, and Pontius Pilate.  Jesus was put on display with a wreath upon His head, but not one made of laurel like the crown given to the Olympic victor, but with a crown of thorns that drew blood from His flesh.  Jesus was put on display on a pedestal with men on his right and his left, but those men weren’t wearing medallions of silver and bronze, but stripped bare for public execution.  On Good Friday, God the Father glorified His Son.  He put Jesus on display for the world to see and believe as He forgave all of us for all of this (motion around).

And as we come off the celebration of the Ascension this past week, we know that the Father continues to answer His Son’s prayer, as He continues to put Jesus on display.  Jesus ascended from this earth, up out of this world, into the heavenly throne room.  There He sits as our King for all to see.  It’s from there that He displays what a true King looks like, as He rules and governs His creation each and every day.  The Father puts His Son on display, “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” (Philippians 2:10).  Jesus is glorified as all of creation, even the angels and demons bow before Him.

And on this very day, the Father continues to glorify His Son, putting Him on display in your presence (point to the bread and wine).  In just a few moments today, the very body and blood of Christ will be lifted up before you for all to see.  And then that same body and blood of our risen Lord will pass across your lips, bringing you the gift of life that only God can give.

Because that is a true statement that Jesus Himself lifted up in prayer before His Father.  True life is found only in God: “this is eternal life, that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.”  It’s a theme of Jesus’ teaching, that apart from Him there is no life, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:53)

It is precisely because we live in the midst of a broken, divided, and dying world that Jesus prayed this prayer for our unity.  The Son glorifies the Father, and the Father glorifies the Son.  And we have been gathered together into this eternal family to put Them on display for others to see.  We conclude with the words Jesus used to end the High Priestly Prayer:

20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me. 22 The glory that You have given Me I have given to them, that they may be one even as We are one, 23 I in them and You in Me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that You sent Me and loved them even as You loved Me. 24 Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, may be with Me where I am, to see My glory that You have given Me because You loved Me before the foundation of the world. 25 O righteous Father, even though the world does not know You, I know You, and these know that You have sent Me. 26 I made known to them Your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which You have loved Me may be in them, and I in them.”

Our Hidden Life

Colossians 3:1-4

Easter Sunday

April 12, 2020

 

Focus:  God is our very life.

Function:  That the hearers seek the things that are above.

Structure:  .

 

Our Hidden Life

 

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed, alleluia!  I’ve been waiting a long time to say that, and look forward to saying it with you again in person very soon and very often.  As we celebrate Easter today, we can’t do that without having first gone through Holy Week.  Christ can’t rise from the dead if He hasn’t first died.  We can’t proclaim one without the other.

During that first Holy Week, it was just seven days ago.  Jesus rode the donkey into town in the midst of a crowd cheering and celebrating and calling out that He would save them.  Things settled a little after that.  He overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple, and cursed a fig tree, but by and large, the next few days were filled with Jesus teaching.  Sometimes in the temple, sometimes in public, sometimes privately to His disciples.

Then on Thursday, after teaching them that the Passover feast they and their families had been celebrating going back nearly a hundred generations was really all about Him, the sacrifice began.  It began with a betrayal at the kiss of one who had lived with Him the past three years.  It continued with a secret overnight trial where the council deliberately sought false charges.  It proceeded into the hands of the public officials in charge of that area of the Roman Empire.  It endured a beating, the pounding of nails, and the asphyxiation of crucifixion.

The sacrifice of Good Friday ended with the body of that Man limp and lifeless.   Lowered from a tree, the people who had adored Him wrapped His body in burial cloth and placed Him in a tomb.  A heavy stone was pushed against the entrance to seal it off.  It was just days ago that they were celebrating, and now they were mourning.  It was all over, even in His own words, “It is finished.”

The Sabbath day came and went.  Friday night and Saturday were filled with tears and fear, embarrassment and loss, even a sense of wondering, “what do we do now?”  They didn’t know.  They didn’t have the answer to the questions barraging their minds.  They were taking it just a moment at a time.  And so come Sunday morning, the women went to the tomb to finish Jesus’ burial.

That’s when they found out the good news!  After an earthquake, an angel of God overwhelmed the Jewish guards at the tomb, and he appeared before the women and told them one of the greatest messages the human ear has ever been privileged to hear: “He is not here, for He has risen, as He said.”

Easter Sunday. Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed, alleluia!  Jesus is risen from the dead!  This is the turning point in human history.  Our sins have been forgiven by His blood on the cross.  And now, we are raised with Him in His resurrection.  To call it a promise doesn’t really communicate it fully.  Yes, it’s a promise, but it’s more than that!  It is reality.  That’s one of the things our text from Paul to Colossae is dealing with.

The text actually is kind of odd for Easter morning.  It encourages us to look past Easter, to look beyond the reality of Christ rising from the dead.  Skip ahead, forty days into the future.  On May 21st, we will celebrate the Ascension of Jesus Christ.  Our resurrected Lord is just that, our Lord.  He sits now, even now, at the right hand of the Father in the eternal throne room.  He is King over creation.

That means what He says goes.  If He says you’re forgiven, you’re forgiven.  If He says you have life in Him, you have life in Him.  If He says He has destroyed death for you, death has no power over you.  It’s good to be king, but it’s even better to have a Good King.  Jesus reigns over His creation, caring for all of us.  As He told His disciples in the last verses of Matthew’s gospel account, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me.”

And since we believe that all of Scripture is God’s Word, here is what your King has said: “you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  That is a profoundly deep statement.  Here you sit in your living room, on your couch, wherever you are, and everything around you says you’re alive, that this is what life looks like.  But your King says otherwise.

You have already died.  This happened on the day of your baptism, or on the day when the Holy Spirit granted you faith through the hearing of the Word.  This is what Romans 6 is all about.  Read it today, be blessed by God’s Word this day.  In your baptism, you died.  Your sinful nature, your rebellion against God was forcibly drowned.  You were crucified with Jesus, your sins put to death.  Paul summarizes the argument in verse 11: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Your life is in Christ.  More than that, it’s hidden in Christ.  That means that what you see now, what you see before you, what you’re used to calling life because the world calls it life, isn’t life.  I know that’s a bit confusing, so let me put it a different way.  According to Scripture, there is no life apart from Jesus.

Consider these words from John 5:28-29 – “28Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice 29and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”

Or from John 6:3 – “So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.’”  And now from our text today, Colossians 3:4 – “When Christ who is your life appears.”

This world was created to be our place of life.  As God made Adam and Eve and placed them into the garden to care for it, He was there.  God was present with them.  The very author of life Himself.  They were alive because of Christ.  After our fall into sin, we died, creation died. And we’ve been groaning ever since.  We lost out on our Lenten series this year, and didn’t get to finish talking about the trees.  Had we, today’s sermon would’ve connected the Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden to Jesus Himself, dying on the tree and rising again.

From cover to cover, your life is in Christ.  And apart from Him, there is no life.  So Paul’s words in today’s text, although they sound strange to our broken ears, are very true.  Your life is hidden in Christ.  Where He is, seated at the right of God, that’s where your life is.  He has created it, He has died for it, He has redeemed it, and now He is holding on to it securely until the day when He brings you before the judgment throne.  And on that day, Paul says, “you also will appear with Him in glory.”

That day you will no longer know good and evil, just good.  On that day, you will no longer know the taste of death, or the sufferings of pain, sin, and the frailty of your body.  On that day, you will know fully what God created you for.  As you live forevermore with Him in His Paradise, worshipping Him and caring for His new creation.

And so now, in this time, Paul is encouraging us to rethink our lives.  Just as he said in his letter to the church in Rome, that we should consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to Christ, here he says it again.  Instead of focusing on the things of this world, we are called to seek the things that are above.

Many Christians in the history of the Church have erred here.  When told to seek the things above, rather than the things of this earth, we’ve often fallen into the trap of Gnosticism, believing that all things spiritual are good, and all things physical are bad.  It plays out as we desire to rid ourselves of the body, to escape this pain-riddled, broken flesh, and go to heaven where many believe they will be only spirits, floating in the clouds, or even become angels.

But these things couldn’t be much further from the truth.  It is not this body that is the problem.  It’s our sin.  It is not this body that leads to death, but my sin.  To curse the body is to curse Christ’s work.  He died and rose again not just for your soul, but to raise your body from the brink of death.  Everything about Easter is connected to the resurrection, and not just Christ’s resurrection, but also both the promise and the reality of your body and soul resurrection to new life with Him in Paradise.

In the context of the letter, Paul had just finished telling our Colossian brothers and sisters in Christ to not allow others to disqualify their faith because of food, drink, festivals, new moons, Sabbaths, visions, angel worship: earthly things.  Don’t put your faith and confidence in those things.  But instead, as the body, they were to hold fast to their Head, to Jesus.

We don’t cast off all of creation.  We don’t cast off all earthly things.  God has chosen to work through earthly things for your good.  Jesus works through the waters of baptism to give faith, forgiveness, and life, as He buries you with Himself.  Jesus works through bread and wine in this place to continue to proclaim to you the good news that your sins have been washed clean in the flood of His blood.  But notice, these earthly things come from above, from Jesus.

We are called, as the Church, as Christians, as living ones, to seek the things that are above.  That is, we are called to seek Jesus.  We are called to seek the One who died to forgive us and who rose to give us life.  Paul will continue the letter in the section to come by sharing with us what that looks like.  Again, open your Bible together today in your home, and read his exhortation.

Paul tells us to put aside our sins.  To put aside our sinful desires and our idolatry and our living for ourselves.  He calls us to put on the new self, in the image of its creator.  In doing so, we put away all divisions that the eyes of the world see.  In His Church, there is no American or Chinese.  There is no black or white.  There is no slave or free.  There is no rich or poor.  We are His people, one people, united in Christ.

And so he gives us a list of things to do, attributes to have in ourselves and to build in our children.  We are told to bear with each other, to forgive one another, and to love one another.  And then in some of the best known words of the letter, he says:

16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.

These things are the things above, because these are the good gifts that come from Jesus.  We cast off our sins, repenting each day, and clinging to Jesus who has given us all that we have and all that we are.  He has even given us all that He has, as He has given His life to give us life.  Brothers and sisters in Christ, “you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.”  This is both a promise, and your reality.

Protected by the Blood of the Lamb

Exodus 12:1-14

Maundy Thursday

April 9, 2020

 

Focus:  God protects and delivers His people from death.

Function:  That the hearers trust in God above all things.

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

 

Protected by the Blood of the Lamb

 

As we shelter in place, our Old Testament account includes a stay-at-home order given by God Himself.  After His people, the nation of Israel, had suffered at the hands of Egypt for years, they finally repented.  They finally chose to give up their idolatry and place their trust in the Lord.  And they called out to Him to save them and deliver them.

God began a series of ten plagues that may have lasted for months, maybe even a year.  These plagues caused innumerable devastation to people, livestock, and harvest alike.  They were direct assaults on the false gods and idols of the Egyptian way of life, a way of life the Israelites had come to call normal, too.  And as the plagues were peaking, as they reached their critical point, God commanded His people to stay at home where they would be specifically protected by Him, by the blood of the lamb.

The Passover account, the tenth plague, the plague of the firstborn, is a call from God to His people that they would radically trust in Him above all things.  Imagine it!  Strip away your hindsight and your greater knowledge of Scripture, and imagine it.  Here you have seen nine plagues.  And this man Moses, who grew up in Pharaoh’s house, is at the center of it all, claiming to speak for Yahweh.

And one day, he tells you, all of you, to gather together at twilight and to slaughter lambs for your households.  You’re to take the blood, and paint the doorposts of your home.  You’re to take the meat and roast it, together with herbs and unleavened bread.  You’re not to eat dinner in your normal way, but do it fully dressed for travel, standing up, and with your staff in your hand and your sandals on your feet.  You’re to remain in your home, for a great destruction is coming.  That on this very night, God would strike down the firstborn son in every household in the land.  But if He saw that blood of the lamb on a home, He would pass over it, sparing your family from the grief of death.  And then the stay-at-home order would be immediately lifted, and you would flee from the land of Egypt and all its idols, never to return.

Would you do it?  It sounds crazy!  But the people had seen the other wonders of God, and they trusted that this word would be true, also.  And they did as they were commanded.  And that night, it happened just as God said it would.  The firstborn died throughout the land, but the homes of God’s people were spared.

They were called not only to trust in God above all things, but more specifically to reorient their lives around God, around His provision, His care, His protection, and His Promised Land so that this wouldn’t happen again.  They were to create a brand new calendar that started with the miracles of God, and revolved around God and what He did to deliver them.  This constant reminder would help them not return to their old, normal ways of sinful idolatry.

They weren’t to cling to the comforts of Egypt they had grown used to; they weren’t to cling to their own strength in numbers and military might that would only grow in the years to come.  God called them to leave Egypt behind, not just physically, but in every way.  Leave their idols, the ones the plagues had just killed and devastated, leave those things behind.

This was a genuine struggle, and again and again in the years to come, the people would grumble and complain against God and long for the ways of life they remembered from their time in Egypt.  They complained about the lack of food, and then despised the new food God placed on the ground for them daily.  They complained about the difficulty of the journey, and sought to overthrow God and Moses as their leaders.  They had received a wealth of gold when the left Egypt, and they melted it down to make a large statue of a golden calf to worship as their newest god-of-the-day.

But, as the heart of that new calendar, every year, they were to celebrate the Passover together, as a weeklong festival to remember what God had done for them, saving them by the blood of the lamb.  Fathers were to teach their households about all that God had done to deliver them.  They were to recount the story again and again, so that their children would be prepared to pass that same story on to their own families someday.

There are many parallels to our present day situation, to the lot we find ourselves facing.  We have been commanded to stay at home during a time of plague, well pandemic.  And yet, we are still called by God to trust that we are protected by the blood of the Lamb.

The Passover celebration, the sacrifice of the one year old lambs without blemish, pointed God’s people forward to an event that would happen roughly fifteen hundred years in the future.  That as Jesus celebrated the Passover once again with His disciples, He would change it forever, replacing the blood of the lamb in the account, with His own blood, shed upon the cross, as the perfect Lamb of God.

Jesus had spent a lot of time over the preceding weeks and months preparing His disciples for His own death.  He foretold it at least four times by Matthew’s count alone, and we can watch as the disciples’ response changes from anger and rebuke, to sorrow, and then eventually to fear of their own deaths as their normal way of life was taken away.

Jesus, our Lord, our Savior, the One we follow in all things, the very One we believed to be God in the flesh, died.  He died for us.  By His death on the cross, by His shedding of His own blood, God’s rightful judgment against your sin and your idolatry has passed over you and landed on His own firstborn Son.  He died the death we deserved.  He died to forgive our sins.

But as His body lay there in the tomb, ripped and mangled beyond our imagination, something miraculous happened.  As the earth quaked, an angel rolled the stone away and the women found the tomb empty and the body gone.  And the angel spoke to them saying, “He is not here, for He has risen, as He said.” – Matthew 28:6.  And now, simply by believing this account to be true, you will live forever in the blood of the Lamb.

It sounds crazy!  But the disciples had seen the wonders of God.  And now they had seen Him alive again after they knew He was dead.  And so we see them in the span of two months, from before Holy Week to just after Pentecost, going from a group that was terrified of death, to a group that could stare death in the face unphased.  In fact, you might even say they were willing to welcome death, as Paul would go on to say, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain.” – Philippians 1:21.

We are called to radically trust in God.  Imagine it!  As Paul once said, focus on Christ and Him crucified.  Imagine the radical call you have been given as a child of God to trust in Him above all things!  Think of the how the gospel of Christ tells us to face our fear of death.

Death has no power over you.  You have the promise of Jesus Christ, that even in your death, you have life.  That even as this body may draw its final breath, Jesus has already planned the time when your body would rise and breathe again.  No enemy on this earth has power over you.  Poverty cannot harm you.  A virus cannot harm you.  The devil himself cannot harm you.  Because even if these things think that they have victory in the moment by ceasing the beating of your heart, you have the promise from God Himself that your heart will beat forevermore.  Because you have been made new in the blood of the Lamb!

We, too, are called to reorient our lives around God Himself, around His provision, His care, His protection, and His Promised Land.  A couple weeks ago, I preached on how this pandemic has stripped away our idols.  It has removed our normal way of life from us.  It has laid us bare before the Lord.  And so as we reorient our lives around God, leave your idols there, dead in the dust.  Don’t look forward to your old normal life being restored, don’t pray for the comforts of life to return.  Don’t long for our medicines, and technology, and government to be our saviors that can somehow prolong our lives, because in the end, they can’t.  They can’t defeat death, and the resurrection isn’t for them.

As Jesus and His disciples celebrated the great act of God’s deliverance in the Old Testament, they were remembering who is Lord over life and death.  Today, we so desperately seek to believe that we are in control, that somehow we have a say over life and death.  COVID-19 in a fast and brutal way has reminded us that we aren’t in control.  The world around us seeks to save itself, they seek the tonic that overcomes death.  And as they do, they are given over more and more, crushed under the fear of death.  But as the Church, as the people of God, as an Easter people, we don’t need the salvation the world is trying to offer.

In this new Passover meal, which Christ gave to us literally with His own body and blood, we have the tonic that defeats sin and death and grants life.  This memorial meal, which we are told to eat and drink often, is the Lord’s gift that calls us out of ourselves and our idols, to reorient ourselves again and again around His promises and His faithfulness.

The purpose of this building and of your pastors is to provide you with God’s Word and Sacraments.  Churches around the world right now are proving that you can, and should, hear God’s Word outside of these walls.  As the Israelite fathers did, you can teach your children about God at home.  You can tell them of His wonders, His love, and His sacrifice.  You can pass these stories on from generation to generation and share them with your neighbor.  Countless generations of Christians have done this very thing, even without printed Bibles in their homes.  As Pastor Luther gave the Small Catechism as a tool to fathers five hundred years ago, so our pastors today are filling our homes with tools parents can use to share God’s Word faithfully.

But we are called by the New Testament to gather together as the body of Christ.  We are called by the New Testament to encourage one another all the more, especially as we see the Last Day drawing near.  And what strengthens us more than the Word of God?  What is more encouraging than the forgiveness of sins?  What is more central to the gathering of the body of Christ than the very body and blood of Christ Himself?

As this is a time for all of us to examine our lives, repenting of our idols and sins, and praying to God to lead us forward in faithfulness, we can do that same thing together as His family here in this place.  It’s my prayer for you and for all people that this time of separation will lead us to not take the gifts of God for granted, that we will once again cherish the gathering of God’s people together around His Word and Sacrament, finding comfort, encouragement, strength, and forgiveness in the place where He offers it all in His own body and blood.  May our longing for the Lord’s Supper today encourage us to place it at the center of what we do moving forward.  And may the Lord in His mercy put an end to this stay-at-home order quickly.

Triumph Over Death

Isaiah 50:4-9a

Palm Sunday

April 5, 2020

 

Focus:  God rode into Jerusalem to conquer death for us.

Function:  That the hearers humble themselves before God and one another.

Structure:  Walking through the Text.

 

Triumph Over Death

 

Today is a wonderful example of why I cherish having the lectionary, the pericopes, that we use together.  We have a system drawn up that selects three readings from God’s Word every week, that ends up repeating after every three years.  The goal is to prevent your pastor…me…from preaching whatever comes to my mind, and instead to help you see the depth and beauty that can be found throughout God’s Word.

Why is that so important to me today?  This has been one of the hardest times of sadness and struggle in my life, and this season may only just be beginning.  Just this week, we’ve seen pastors arrested for holding worship services, including one in this nation.  I’m watching as Christians rip into each other over their disagreements on how to handle a time of crisis.  And I’m separated from all of you, the very people God has called me to love and serve.  I have so much to say, the good, the bad, and the ugly.  The lectionary calls me out of this, and even away from this pandemic, to preach Christ crucified for you from everywhere in Scripture.

So today is the day our churches celebrate Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday, or in some places both!  Our Sunday School teachers were preparing and teaching the kids how to sing our opening hymn, “No Tramp of Soldiers’ Marching Feet,” so that they could sing with all of us as they processed through the aisles waving their palm branches in a wonderful celebration.  That’s the focus of Palm Sunday, looking at the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.  Passion Sunday looks at the fullness of Holy Week, taking you through all of the major events, with an emphasis on Christ’s suffering and death.

That’s what all three of our Scripture texts today do: they point you to the sufferings of Jesus.  They point you to the humility and the humiliation of Jesus.  That, even though He’s God, and could’ve smote that ravenous crowd chanting for His crucifixion, instead He laid aside His own life, out of love for those very people.

Our Old Testament text has so many connections to Holy Week, and to our Savior.  After all, that’s exactly who these verses are about.  Isaiah wasn’t prophesying about himself, although some of those things did fit his life.  He was prophesying about the Savior, the Messiah who was to come.

This Messiah would hear before speaking.  Rather than doing His own will, whatever seemed fitting to Himself, Jesus listened to the Father first.  And He spoke whatever the Father gave Him to speak.  Jesus, the Son, obeyed His Father’s will.

What does that mean for us?  If you were here, I’d let you answer that question!  Think of the Garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus prays and the disciples sleep.  He knows the pain He’s about to endure.  He knows the tragedy that the next twenty hours will bring upon Him.  He knows He’s about to die.  And yet even as He prays, He says, “not My will, but Yours, be done.” – Luke 22:42.  That Jesus is willing to do the Father’s will means that He was willing to even endure death on the cross out of love for you and for all of His creation.  It means your sins are forgiven and that you have life in His name.

God speaks in the Old Testament text, saying, “I have set My face like a flint.”  This pairs well with Luke’s report in 9:51, that “He set His face to go to Jerusalem.”  Flint is a stone, it’s solid, firm.  Jesus firmly set His face to go through with the Father’s will for me and for you.

Which brings us to the Triumphal Entry, the celebration of Palm Sunday.  And I want to encourage you to think about it a little differently today.  What was the purpose?  What was the point of Jesus riding into Jerusalem?  The foal of a donkey fulfilled an Old Testament prophecy, but there’s even more to the picture than that!

Conquerors, kings, military champions have in many parts of history been known to ride on a horse in a procession or a parade through a place they had just conquered.  It was a celebration of victory.  And if the ruler were particularly cold and ruthless, he would even force the citizens of that place to lay on the ground that his horse might walk over them, signifying their total subservience to him.

As Jesus rode into Jerusalem, this cultural custom was likely in the mind of the people.  They were in full celebration mode!  Their king was here!  This was a declaration of victory, conquest over their enemies.  And we can see that in their actions.  They wave branches, like they’re fanning a king on hot summer’s day.  They call out in the Hebrew tongue, “Hosanna, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”  Hosanna means “save us now.”  They wanted salvation from their oppressors, primarily Rome.  They wanted a new kingdom.

But it’s their other gesture that I want you to ponder today.  They covered the road for Jesus.  They covered it with their own cloaks and with branches they had cut from trees.  Most likely for them, this was a gesture of honor to their King.  They wanted to keep Him free of the dirt and grime of the road.  It’s not unlike the thought of rolling out the red carpet today.

But as we think of the full picture, what more might these things signify?  What did Jesus actually come to conquer?  Isaiah hinted at all of this as well.  The beard-pulling, the spitting, the striking, the disgrace?  As Jesus rode into Jerusalem, He knew full well what it all meant.  He knew that He rode to His death on the cross.

And so we have the prophet’s words, “Who will declare Me guilty?”  Your first thought may be “no one.”  Jesus was perfect, no one could rightly call Him guilty.  And yet He was.  In His death upon the cross, it was our sin and our death that declared Him guilty!  It was all that you’ve ever said, and done, and thought in your open rebellion against God’s Word, His love, and His creation.  And it wasn’t just yours, but mine, and all the nearly eight billion people currently living, and those who’ve already lived, and those who haven’t even been created yet.  Collectively, each and every sin in the history of creation landed upon Jesus on the cross that day.  Each sin declaring Him guilty and crying out for His death.

That is what Jesus came to conquer!  Your sin, your death, everything about your rebellion, everything about your rejection of God.  And there’s nothing better than this gift from God!  That’s why we can still call it “Good Friday,” because it is on that day that we hear the good news that our sins have been forgiven in the blood of Jesus Christ.

I said I wanted you to consider the cloaks on the road differently today.  A cloak is normally wrapped around a person, much like my alb today.  It provides warmth, it helps to aid and protect life.  But those cloaks lying on the road for the donkey to trample?  They were empty, they were cold, they were lifeless.  Jesus riding into Jerusalem to die on the cross has this neat image of what He truly came to conquer.  The donkey didn’t walk over Roman soldiers, but dead branches, and empty, deserted garments.  The donkey rode over symbols of creation dying.  Of our dying.  And that is what Jesus came to conquer!  He ushers in a new kingdom not of this world, a place where He is forever your King, a place where you get to live forever apart from the enemies of sin and death.

I want to leave you today in the same way that Paul spoke as he wrote to our brothers and sisters living in first century Philippi.  “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.”  Paul lifts up Christ’s humility, Paul exalts Jesus’ humble nature, and calls on us to cherish this in our minds, to live this way.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, humble yourselves.  Live the life you’ve been given not for yourself, but for others.  Live in order to point people to Christ.  Point your fellow Christians to God’s Word, to His comfort, to their forgiveness in the blood of Jesus.  Live your life in such a way that you point those who aren’t Christian to the hope that is in you.  Be ready to share with them whatever you have, in order that may hear of all that God has done for them through you.  And as you do any and all of these things, trust in God above all else.  Trust that He will provide for you, that He will love you, and that He will raise you up to a life that never ends.

 

Repentance in the Face of Death

Isaiah 42:14-21

Fourth Sunday in Lent

March 22, 2020

Focus:  God does not forsake His people.

Function:  That the hearers abandon their idols for the true God.

Structure:  .

 

Repentance in the Face of Death

 

In some ways, at this point, we know what we’re up against.  Our governments, health experts like the CDC, and many others are pointing us to the realities that we face with the coronavirus.  It has escalated to the state of a pandemic.  It has all but brought our economies to a screeching halt.  Our adults are working from home.  Our children are learning at home.  People in some communities can’t even leave their homes.

And, for the most part at this point, we know what this virus does.  Common symptoms include fever, coughing, and shortness of breath.  It can attack the lungs and cause severe complications.  It is proving much more dangerous to the elderly and those with weakened immune systems.  And it is claiming the lives of an estimated 1-2% of those it infects.

Another thing that we can say: this pandemic is a call to repent.  I don’t want to overstep my bounds here.  We don’t know the hidden will of God.  We can’t say for certain that God sent this thing upon the earth.  We can’t claim that it’s happening because of one particular sin.  We can’t label the grand crimes of our governments as though they are to blame.  If someone gets infected, it does no good to tell them it’s because of the sin of x, y, or z in their lives.

But regardless of whether God sent it or didn’t, regardless of whether it’s a response to a specific sin in our lives or our communities or not, it’s nevertheless a call to repentance.  Because the reality of it is, sin brought death into this world.  Had Adam and Eve restrained themselves and followed God’s commands, this wouldn’t have happened.  God created them to live forever!  It’s in our rebellion against our Creator, it’s in our sins that we fall into despair, pain, and death.

That’s what our Old Testament reading today is about.  It’s about a God who is patient and loving.  A God who created the universe through the power of His Word.  A God who has endured unknown centuries of hatred, rebellion, and idolatry against Himself.  In the days of Noah after the Flood, God made mankind the promise that He would never destroy the world again by a flood.  And that promise endures even to this day as we look to the skies.

And yet, again and again we insult God, we commit adultery against Him by chasing the things of this world or the creations of our own minds and fantasies.  Like a parent is pained and grieved when they see their child do something so foolish, we are constantly grieving the Lord with our sins.  And so God cries out in His agony, as He mourns our refusal to have anything to do with Him, as He grieves our constant desire to see how intimately we can connect ourselves to a dying world.

And His patience with sin does not endure forever.  You see, our God is also a just God.  As you think of a judge or a court, many today do not view our system as just, because we hear of those who use their power or influence to get away with terrible crimes like rape or murder.  But God is just!  Through Isaiah, God speaks of a time to come when He will bring about His justice.  He will bring about His wrath upon this sinful and fallen creation.

And so the text is a call to repentance.  Being face to face with death is a call to repentance.  Living in the present age is a call to repentance.  Our ways are empty.  As we turn back again and again to our sins, as we trust in the very idols our own hands have made, we are all put to shame by the realization that these things do not endure the test of time.

And so here and now, these things are being stripped away.  Our constant focus on striving to advance in our careers or education to the extent that we’ve abandoned our families and the neighbors around us?  In this moment, it’s stripped away.  Our constant need to be involved in one activity or another to the point where parents in this generation wish they could claim a paycheck as chauffers?  In this moment, it’s stripped away.  Our constant idolization of celebrities and professional sports?  In this moment, it’s stripped away.

What you are left with right now is that old-fashioned idea: there is a hole in all of us.  No matter how much you try to cover it up, no matter how many things you try to squeeze into it, no matter what you do to try to ease that feeling of emptiness, it just doesn’t work.  At this moment, our idols have been stripped away.  And we are left bare.

And then we hear God call out to us.  He calls the deaf to hear and the blind to see.  Those are both pictures of unbelief.  God calls us wicked sinners to repentance.  He calls us to faith, that we might trust in Him and what He is doing for us.

That is quite literally the center of the text today.  “These are the things I do.”  It’s God who will lead the blind away from their sin and to true peace and joy and life.  It’s God who takes the darkness of sin and death and turns them into light that shines upon His creation.  It’s God who takes the rough places, the difficult terrain, the hills and valleys, and He makes it all smooth and straight and clear.

Because God delighted in lifting up His Law.  That is His Word spoken to us, His commands for how we should live, how we should care for the world around us, how we should love our neighbor.  God delighted in glorifying these things, that is, causing us to look at them.  Because His Law showed us our idols.  His righteousness revealed to us that we were living in darkness.  But then we hear what is perhaps the most beautiful line in the reading, “I do not forsake them.”

Just as God once lifted up His Law that we might look at it.  So He has now lifted up His Son that we might look at Him!  God kept His promise.  He did not endure our sin forever and without end.  He did execute His justice and pour out His wrath, but instead of devastating us, a punishment we justly deserve, He took it upon Himself.  Jesus, the Son of God, experienced the full force of God the Father’s righteous wrath upon the cross.  And as He hung there upon the cross, He cried out in His pain on our behalf.

God leads the blind to the cross where all of their sins are forgiven.  God shines the light of Jesus on the world inviting everyone to come home.  God makes the path to heaven clear; He removes the obstacles of sin, death, and the devil by paving the path in His own blood.  Through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, through His blood poured out for all people, your sins, your rebellion, your idolatry, everything is forgiven.  You have peace in the Lord.

The Lord has not forsaken you in this dark day.  Jesus Christ is still the light of this world.  His gifts are still being poured out upon His people.  He hasn’t stopped caring, He hasn’t stopped loving, He hasn’t stopped providing.  God does all of this for you each and every day through the blood of His Son Jesus.

And in the midst of all of the fear and the panic that we see all around us, the Christian can be calm.  We have no fear of death, because we know that if we die today, we will be in Paradise with our Creator and our Savior.  And there is no better place to be!

It’s my hope that in the days, weeks, and the months to come, God’s people in this place will be asking what they can do.  And if you’re asking that about yourself, my answer is “nothing.”  It’s God who does the work for you.  He provides for you.  He saves you.  You cannot do these things yourself.  And God will work through your pastor to continue to bring you His Word and Sacraments, even now, especially now.

But if you’re asking on behalf of your neighbor, there will be so many things that you can do.  One of my dear brothers and friends in this battle against death and the devil, Rev. Jason Swan, shared these words with his congregation in Seattle:

We continue to strongly encourage the entire church community to remember their neighbor. Things like regularly calling and checking in on family, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances should be a vital part of daily living, but especially during times like this health crisis in Western Washington. We should be ready to aid in any way we can while keeping in mind the best practices and procedures recommended by the CDC and Public Health. There may be significant need and opportunities to help provide meals and childcare to peoples and families affected by extended school closures. Those who are or may be without work will need support and charity coming from our time, talents, and treasures in the weeks and months ahead. Shopping local and supporting the arts and small businesses in our community in a safe way following the guidance from Public Health is also vital during this time. The more we can prepare as the body Christ to love and care for our neighbor, the better we can maintain the work of the ministry of the saints here at Atonement in the short and long term.

 

Love your neighbor.  Talk to them, see how they’re doing.  See if they have any needs.  Communicate more than the normal “Hi, how are you?” and “Ok.”  People are in need.  Some need assistance in getting food or other basic supplies; run an errand, mow a lawn.  Some are crushed financially; walk alongside them however you can.  Some will be despairing because of isolation; call them, write them, talk to each other across the street.  Some will be driven insane by the feeling of being cooped up with their families in their homes; encourage them to share God’s Word with one another.

Some are already terrified because they are face to face with their own idols being stripped away and all they see is death coming to take away everything from them; bring to them the sure and certain hope that you have in the promise of a resurrection, of live, and Paradise, all of which are gifts of Jesus to His people.

In the midst of the regular call of God that His creatures would repent, know that the Lord has not forsaken you.  Do not fear, for He is faithful.  He has kept His promise, and given you forgiveness and life through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.