Fifth Sunday in Lent (John 11:1-45)

The Lord had an existing relationship with the family. He loved them. He cared about Lazarus in his illness, the suffering he was enduring. (v. 5) We should keep this in mind, first of all, as we see what He does.

Because of this love, he stayed two days longer, to the point at which Lazarus died, and two more days passed. Jesus wasn’t at his deathbed, and didn’t arrive until Lazarus had been dead four days. This is unthinkable. It hurts Martha and Mary that Jesus wasn’t there. Martha breaks out in anger mixed with sorrow, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (v. 21) How could the Lord appear so heartless as to not offer the common human comfort in their grief? In their time of need, the Lord was separated from them.

Separation is hard for us, as we well know right now. Those bonds that we have are built on being together: good times around a meal, trips we take together, sharing celebrations, and being there in times of sadness and fear.

This separation though, isn’t as hard as it could be. It has the promise of ending in the near future. We can still call the people we miss on the phone, video chat with them. But, we often have to reassure each other and ourselves, “This is only for a time. I can make it a few more weeks, a month or two… I’m looking forward to when we can be together again.”

Even the President hopes it will be over by Easter. It probably won’t be, and that will make it the most memorable Easter celebration in any of our lives. Separated on a major holiday, unable to gather together for all the regular festivities—breakfast, egg hunts, church, dinner with family.

But death is separation of a much greater degree. No phone calls, no Skype, not even a letter. No hope of it coming to an end in a matter of months or even years. They won’t be coming back for their things, so you’re left to pack up boxes for Goodwill.

And that’s what hurt Martha and Mary so badly. So why, if Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters, would the Lord allow him to die? “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Jesus is glad that He was not there so that they may believe. He loved them as friends, close friends, and because He loved them, He wanted them to believe in Him not just as a devoted peer, but as their God and Savior. This begs the question, What’s the real evil in Lazarus’ illness and death? Being separated by death, or not believing? And what’s this about “Let us go to him”?

Jesus arrives at Bethany in the midst of their grieving. He is hurting too, because death has robbed His friends, torn a brother from two sisters. This is a painful time for the Lord, and it really isn’t realistic to see Him as above it all, just because He knows the end of the story.

He is like us in every way—mortal and bound to time—and yet He is also God in the flesh, come to deliver us from the power of death.

And here at Bethany, our Lord Jesus teaches us how to face separation and lament it, but to face it with confidence and hope. He weeps and His tears sting. He is deeply moved and His heart aches inside His chest. He does not talk in euphemisms, or gloss over the very present pain. He acknowledges it, and doesn’t try tricks to make it easier to bear.

That’s something we see a bit of happening during this separation, trying so hard to make it not as bad as it is. Don’t worry about the fact you’re unemployed, because now you’re free to binge watch on Netflix. It’s no big deal that we can’t be with our family; we can just spend more time on webcam. No need to be sad about longing for the house of God, you can just set up a substitute in your living room.

As well-intentioned as these attempts are to “always look on the bright side of death” (Monty Python), they don’t allow the pain to be felt. Losing someone to death is wretched. The upheaval this time has caused in people’s lives is immense. This has done enormous damage to our country, and it’s going to take a long time—if ever—to pay back $2 trillion. There is no substitute for being able to gather in the actual house of God in the flesh with fellow members of Christ. To deny the graveness of our situation shows how little we believe God is able to do. It betrays our unwillingness to fully commit ourselves into His keeping.

The lesson from our Lord here is to not shy away from calling a thing what it is: death is a curse, grief can’t be sidestepped. We pass through the “valley of the shadow of death” (Ps. 23:4) because there isn’t another way around, and it may be a shadow, but the darkness is felt.

The other lesson our Lord teaches us is how to face dismalness with hope intact. I said earlier that the Lord does not talk in euphemisms, and you may think He was sugar-coating death when He said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” (v. 11). No, what He’s expressing is what death has become for the people of God. Being separated even by death is an easy thing for God, and the Lord shows them it is so.

On many a funeral bulletin, these words have reminded us of that: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (vv. 25-26) It’s beyond all current human experience to acknowledge that as true. But the Lord shows Mary and Martha that in the flesh by going to Lazarus’ four-day-old tomb, praying to His Father (the Maker of heaven and earth), and calling Lazarus out from the tomb. “Nothing is impossible with God,” Gabriel told the young virgin who would conceive by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:37) When Jesus said, “Let us go to him,” as simply as, “I go to awaken him.” He was speaking as plain as the nose on your face.

It sounds simple for God, but it was not. It cost Him everything to say those words to call Lazarus from the tomb, because it would mean Him going into it. It would take His

innocent suffering and death, His being forsaken and made sin for us all. God in no way diminished how serious our sin is, but He is also the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

The griefs we now bear, can and will be turned around with a Word from the Lord. We go into tragedy and calamity unwillingly, not knowing what the outcome will be. Nevertheless, we go in believing in our God and we know with confidence that He will hold onto us in body and soul. He will keep us, so that “we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea” (Ps. 46:2) Whatever may come, the Holy Spirit convinces us of what He has spoken: that He will never leave nor forsake us (Josh. 1:9), that nothing in all of creation will be able to separate us from His love in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:31-39). Temporal sufferings of living without our spouse, having our celebrations and plans fall to pieces, of loneliness—we bear not because they’re in any way enjoyable, but because we, like Martha and Mary, have come to believe the great things which our God can do.

That’s because He almighty and He loves us, too. Let us pray:

Lord God, You have called Your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go but only that Your hand is leading us and Your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

(LSB, p. 311)

Passion Reading Schedule

Day 1 Matt 26:1-46
Day 2 Matt 26: 47-27:28
Day 3 Matt 27: 29-66
Day 4 Mark 14:1-72
Day 5 Mark 15:1-47
Day 6 Luke 22:1-38
Day 7 Luke 22:39-71
Day 8 Luke 23: 1-56
Day 9 John 18:1-27
Day 10 John 18:28-38
Day 11 John 18:39-19:16
Day 12 John 19:17-42

With all the disruption brought by recent events in the world, this is still a sacred time for us as Christians. Easter draws near, and as our Lord reminded His disciples just before His betrayal, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

So lifting up our eyes, I encourage us to use this time to meditate on our Lord’s passion according to the four evangelists. This reading schedule was published by Redeemer Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne, IN, and I pass it on to you.

In order to help you in this devotion, I will post a video reading the assigned section for the day.

Fourth Sunday in Lent (John 9:1-41)

Times of disaster often bring out the theologian in people. We want to know why bad things happen. This is called “theodicy.” It comes from the Greek words for God and justify, and it cuts two ways. First, it serves to justify God’s right to send suffering, and this is what happens when we try to explain God’s reasoning for a bad thing that’s happened.

In 2010, Pat Robertson of the 700 Club attributed the earthquake in Haiti to making a pact with the devil to be freed from being a colony of France.1 In Hinduism, karma is the explanation given for why things happen to you, but in case the answer isn’t immediately apparent, you can pin the blame on what you did in a so-called “past life.”

Maybe it comes from a fear that secretly God has ulterior, evil motives for how He rules the universe. Or it could come from the idea that God will only do good to those who are good enough, and just maybe you don’t make the cut.

The other side of theodicy is when we demand that God answer us why He done something that causes pain. Why, God, are mothers robbed of their children? Why, God, do you allow a gunman to open fire in a shopping mall? Why, God, is calamity piled upon calamity in some people’s lives, while others go carefree? Why, God, would you let the shameful and unjust things happen which fuel our loved one’s addiction?

This kind of theodicy is what Job dabbled in when his life was overturned by a test from Satan.

2 I will say to God, Do not condemn me;

let me know why you contend against me.

3 Does it seem good to you to oppress,

to despise the work of your hands

and favor the designs of the wicked?

4 Have you eyes of flesh?

Do you see as man sees?

5 Are your days as the days of man,

or your years as a man’s years,

6 that you seek out my iniquity

and search for my sin,

7 although you know that I am not guilty,

and there is none to deliver out of your hand?

8 Your hands fashioned and made me,

and now you have destroyed me altogether. (Job 10:2-8)

Theodicy is what the disciples were delving into when they came upon this blind man:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Under the Pharisees, they had been taught a very simplistic view of sin and its consequences, based on the Lord’s Word: “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me.” (Exodus 20:5) They were simply using inductive reasoning—this man has a malady. Malady is a result of sin. God says he punishes the children for the sins of the fathers, so this man must be under some kind of family curse.

There’s something sadistically comforting about understanding why someone else is suffering. You might call it Schadenfreude, taking pleasure in seeing another person’s pain. But I think it really comes down to a vulnerability in each of us. If this man was born blind because of sin, what might befall me? How can I steer clear of having that happen to me or those close to me?

Theodicy is ultimately a dead-end, because it stems from a desire to be master over our life. If anything is teaching us this, it’s the coronavirus pandemic. If not only the fact that it spreads so easily, the steps taken to slow its advance has turned all of our lives upside down. Pointing fingers won’t change it. Yelling about it won’t stop it. It’s here. It’s made an unprecedented impact on the world.

You can acknowledge it as God’s judgment, as all disasters are. But judgment for what, we don’t have a definite answer. It’s impacted people from nearly every country, regardless of religion, occupation, or economic status. If anything it’s a stark reminder that we are all under the power of death.

But the Lord’s response to His disciples’ question can teach us in this matter: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Firstly, it’s not for us to know the inner workings of why God allows or sends evil, why circumstances happen the way they do. That is hidden from us, as it was when Job questioned God’s justice and motives for his suffering (Job 38-41) What Jesus shows in this blind man is God using all things, even the evil of blindness, to arrive at a good purpose: His salvation.

Secondly, so long as we remain in judgments and blame, sin and just rewards, we will never behold Jesus Christ. The focus is not on this man or his parent’s particular sins; it’s on the works of God displayed in Him. What is that work of God? Jesus already answered that in John 6:29: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom He has sent.” For what has He sent Him? To be the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Why do you, man, bother yourself to track down particular sins, when God has given His Son to take sin away from the world.

It would be easy to understand if, at the point the man was healed everything started going better for him. But it doesn’t. It gets worse. He loses his place in the synagogue. He loses His parents. Yet, notice what happens at each of these “turns for the worse”: After he is interrogated by the Pharisees, he says Jesus is a prophet. When he’s forsaken by his parents, and questioned again, he confesses that Jesus is from God and greater than all the prophets before. Finally, after he has gained his sight, but lost his community and his family, he worships Jesus.

This is the work of God, that he believes in Jesus in spite of trials. While we may not be able to ascertain whose sin or what caused this pandemic, this is a time where the work of God will be manifest. In Romans 5, Paul touches on this miracle of faith: “Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Rom. 5:2-5) Not only is God fully in control to provide during necessity and able to rebuild from the ashes, but He is also mighty to keep us in the one true faith and so display His mighty work.

Jesus says next, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.” This is what Jesus and those who follow Him are about: the work of God which is displaying that, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” (2 Cor. 5:19)

Our Lord says the night is coming, when no one can work. Times of pestilence and economic turmoil make it hard to ignore that these are the last days. St. Paul’s words to Timothy ring all too true:

“Understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God…” (2 Tim. 3:1-5)

This is not a time for the Church to only preach the Law, as if people cleaning their act up would save them. We must be ready to preach the Gospel to people, to sinners, just like us who are under the same judgment, whose livelihoods crumble before their eyes, who are scared about the future.

The Lord Jesus says, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” He is still in the world because His people are in the world. There is still hope for those who feel their sin. Until the very last, Jesus is the light of the world, and He makes His faithful, forgiven people, to shine. That’s the kind of light of the world that He is talking about when He urges us not to put that lamp under a basket (Matt. 5:14-16). This is the Word which has saved us: that we deserve the judgements that have come on the world (and worse),

but God in His mercy came to us, opened our blind eyes to recognize Him in His Son, our Savior.

Jesus anointed this man’s eyes and sent him to the Pool of Siloam, which means Sent. Just as Jesus was sent by the Father, as the Light of the World, so He sends us in the world, in the midst of sin, to point to Jesus and announce His grace. May He enable us so to do! Amen.

Third Sunday in Lent (Text: John 4:5-26)

Ignorance about God is a serious problem. Now, very few people would actually say they don’t know much about God. More common is the idea that we know enough about God to get by. You know, as much as country music songs teach us about God and Jesus and the importance of saying prayers. But this view of God can’t get you that far. You end up with a speckled view of the Law and an unclear idea of the Gospel. The country music Jesus considers sins to be mere blemishes on an otherwise angelic person. And the reason you get into heaven is because he overlooked your sins because he loves you…“forever and ever amen.” This vague view of God also doesn’t tell you where to find His grace where He offers it, and when you really need it.

What happens then is that true knowledge of God is filled in with contrived thoughts about who God is. Phrase like these crop up: “God helps those who help themselves.” You’ve also probably heard something along the lines of, “God is love, therefore he couldn’t possibly hate your sin.” Another popular idea is, “If I have a good feeling after church then I must have gotten something out of it.” You won’t find any of these ideas in the Bible.

In today’s Gospel reading, we meet a woman from Samaria, and the Samaritans had a similar problem. It dated back to the time when the Kingdom of Israel split. Jerusalem, where the Temple was, was in the Southern Kingdom. Without the Temple, you can’t be a faithful to the Lord’s decrees. One of the kings of the Northern Kingdom built Samaria to rival Jerusalem. Since the Samaritans were excluded from the Temple, they started adopting pagan practices to supplement their former temple worship. The resulting religion of the Samaritans was a hodgepodge between Israelite worship and whatever other religious notions came along. That’s why the Evangelist notes, “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (v. 9). Strangely, despite this confused theology, the Samaritans still considered themselves faithful Israelites.

That’s where you come to the Samaritan woman who met Jesus. She has a very vague understanding of the Scriptures, and an even vaguer idea of the Messiah. She’s not like Nicodemus, who was an expert at the Scriptures and recognized Jesus’ signs. But just like Nicodemus, she doesn’t recognize the Messiah, even in broad daylight.

With her patchy knowledge of God, she also faces a dilemma in her personal life. John paints the picture: Near the town of Sychar, close to where the patriarch Jacob lived for many years (Gen. 33:18-20), this is a place where the rich history of God’s people is remembered fondly. Now comes a woman to draw water from this historic well, “given by our father Jacob.” But she comes by herself. Why? Because it’s the middle of the day, when nobody is around [Gen. 24:11]. She’s not trying to beat the dinner rush; there’s something more. It’s the accusing glances she’s bound to receive if she comes in the cool of evening.

But what she finds is Jesus—a man, but even less expected, a Jewish man. Oh, he’s probably going to condemn me for my half-breed ancestry. But, Jesus is very different.

When He speaks with her, He doesn’t address her ancestry or just her behavior; Jesus addresses the condition of her heart: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” You’re thirsty, dear woman. Not just in the bodily way; your soul is parched.

He diagnoses her by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, and He knows what is in her heart. Her coming to this well day after day was an analogy for what living without the true God was doing to her. She is aware of what she’s done wrong, knows she shouldn’t be living this way. She’s ashamed of it, because her conscience accuses her. Yet, she can find no peace. Instead, her vague religion leaves her with Band-Aid fixes for her sin, like coming to the well when nobody is around. Workarounds and excuses lead to more of them, until you’re tangled in this knot you can’t untie. It’s like having to draw water from a well day after day: the task will never be finished and she will never have her thirst for peace quenched.

Jesus diagnoses her real problem, which is her need for repentance, to return to the Lord. So, He says, “Go, call your husband and come here.” If she wants to be done with Band-Aid fixes, she will need to confess her sin. And she does. “I have no husband.” The God of Jacob had confronted her, and the Spirit had led her to make a true confession. Thus, Jesus says, “What you have said is true.”

Imagine what this woman’s life looked like. She’s been divorced 5 times, probably labelled a hussy by her community. Maybe she seeks something to numb the pain of those fractured relationships; she’s given up on getting married again at all. She’s desparate for something to numb the pain, silence the conscience. Her picture of the Messiah, the ideal of what life with God could be, is postponed. Just like when we make excuses—I’ll get back to going to church when this crisis is over, or when I get back from vacation.

Likewise, the Spirit leads you to a true confession of your sins. At the beginning of the service in the Confession and Absolution, we said, ”If You, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with You there is forgiveness; therefore You are feared.” (Ps. 130:3) That is not your self-diagnosis. Your self diagnosis is usually that you’re not that bad, at least compared to others. Sure you’ve made some mistakes this week, but nothing major, nothing too big to handle. Apart from God’s Word, our own self diagnosis leads us to think we can take care of ourselves on our terms.

The words of Jesus have brought the Samaritan woman to repentance. It doesn’t stop there, though. The Spirit does not just lead you to a true knowledge of your sins; He also leads you to truly know that God is gracious and merciful toward sinners. The Samaritans, with their confused theology had also lost where to seek God’s grace. On the one hand, the Scriptures state that God is to be found in His Temple, but on the other hand the Samaritans didn’t have the Temple. The woman had confessed her sin to God, and now her question is, How can I seek God, whom I have offended? As a Samaritan, she doesn’t have access to the Temple. What hope is there for her?

Where is God to be found? The answer is good news for the Samaritan woman: The hour is coming where it’s no longer a matter of mountains, temples, or animal sacrifices. In the past, these things were important because they formerly were where God was found. However, the hour has come for those things to be fulfilled. Those things were a shadow, but the substance belongs to the One who is standing before her. And it is the Messiah whom the Spirit points to. All who would worship the Father in Spirit and truth worship in Christ. He is the temple where fullness of deity dwells bodily. All the animal sacrifices end in the one sacrifice made on the cross. God is no longer found in a building, but He is found in the flesh—Jesus.

That is the good news for you, also! In Christ, you are able to approach God, whom you have offended by your sins, and with all boldness pray, “Almighty God, have mercy upon us, forgive us our sins, and lead us to everlasting life.” Every day of your baptized life in Christ, your Heavenly Father gives you His Holy Spirit. The Spirit calls you by the Gospel, to repent of your sins and believe in your Savior.

Jesus approached this woman, who was wandering like a sheep without a shepherd, with compassion. He holds up the gifts of living in the Kingdom—He is the gift of God, the One who gives water that springs up to eternal life. “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk

without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live” (Isa. 55:1-3a) He holds these gifts up so that she can compare what she has now with what God has prepared for those who love Him [1 Cor. 2:9].

Learn from the compassion of the Lord. He tells her what He has to give and the Holy Spirit works a spiritual thirst in her. This teaches us how to share our faith, especially with those who have wandered or have serious doubts. It starts with meeting her where she’s at—she understands shame and guilt, but with a hazy knowledge of God’s will it just festers inside her.

The Law of God came and cut her to the heart. Yet, Jesus’ words are not just more “should-and-didn’t” pangs of guilt toward which we eventually become callous. They’re aimed at honing in on a specific sickness in her life. That sickness can’t be treated by avoiding others. It can’t be fixed by her own solutions. This much to tell us when we talk to people who have neglected their faith, and not come to church in quite a while. They know they should. Guilt. They get busy with other things, which at times can be overwhelming and lead to more trouble. More guilt. In most cases, what you’re meeting is someone who has plenty of guilt already, but it’s become unclear what direction that guilt is coming from, and like the Samaritan woman, they need guidance back to the living waters which Jesus gives. What Jesus offers them in Word and Sacrament is what they aren’t getting out there. They’re not stupid; they’re starving. They’re withering away without God.

And that’s what has brought us here…both here in person and online, to quench that thirst which the world cannot:

“As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
“Where is your God?”
These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I would go with the throng
and lead them in procession to the house of God
with glad shouts and songs of praise,
a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.”

(Psalm 42:1-6)

Your salvation is here in Jesus Christ. Amen.

Second Sunday in Lent (John 3:1-17)

This Lent, we have the privilege to walk through several stories in the Gospel of John, which demonstrate to us the power of God for salvation to all who believe. We’ll stop in John 3 today, where we meet Nicodemus who learns the grace of the Kingdom of God. Next Sunday, we’ll hear about how important forgiveness of sins is for entrance into the Kingdom. Then we’ll ponder the nature of sin with the man who was born blind. Finally before Palm Sunday, the Lord will bring us down to the very grave before raising us up with Lazarus, whom He calls forth from the tomb. That brings us to the Palm Sunday procession in John 12, which was largely populated by people who had seen Lazarus rise.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, because he thinks he can identify the things of God. After all, he’s a trained expert in them. It stands to reason if you want to know about God, you study the Scriptures and that makes you well-qualified to know what God is doing. But Jesus points out the fatal flaw in man-knowing-God. Human understanding doesn’t recognize the fullness of God’s work of salvation. It can behold the miracles, but not the fuller reality behind them. “You must be born again.”

Without being born again, people profane God’s Name. Without being born again, they just go through the motions of religion because its what their family does, or it’s to get their spouse off their case, but they are only inspired by the order and the moral example the Bible gives. Likewise, without being born again, people shun religion and say it’s nothing but judgmental people. They turn away from God because they either view Him as an angry judge or as something that people in the dark ages made up in the name of social control.

“You must be born again” says that we are born incapable of recognizing God’s work, rightly knowing how God thinks, or even understanding how to read His Word (even if it’s in plain English). By the Holy Spirit we see the fullness of God’s heart. He doesn’t just love the people who meet certain criteria. He loves these people of the flesh—sinners with real lives that have real doubts, guilt, fear, etc. He loves the world, and if you are in the world, He loves you.

His love, though, doesn’t come to us merely on human terms; it come on God’s terms. If it were on human terms, it would be subject to our biases—who we think is worthy of His kingdom. The recognition of God’s love in Christ is wider than human expectation, and it is better.

Unfortunately for us, hearing these words in 2020, “love” has been mutated into a strange version of its original intent. Love is a strong feeling, love is permissiveness, love is…altogether human. But we heard this in last week’s Epistle reading, “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) Human love takes that to mean a blank check, that between the Old and New Testaments, God had a change of heart and decided to not be so hard on people. Instead what it really

means is that God loved us enough that, in spite of our wretchedness, our rejecting Him, that He still gave the sacrifice of His only-begotten Son. That was what we truly needed to be saved.

Our salvation being the result of God’s work alone is called monergism—meaning God alone has the power to save. And this makes us uncomfortable. It makes us uncomfortable to be out of control of something so important. The Spirit moves where He wills. “He creates faith when and where it pleases God in those who believe” (Augsburg Confession V).

Because God doesn’t hold out on His salvation based on what we’ve done, we can take confidence that He forgives the sins of all who have been born again. But how do we know when we’re born again?

“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” This refers back to the incident with the fiery serpents in Numbers 21, when God sent serpents to bite the people who grumbled against the Lord so that they died.

It means that all who feel the pangs of death and acknowledge that they have offended not just social standards or their own expectations for themselves, but have sinned against God. All who believe this—not only that He exists and He saves theoretical sinners, but that He has saved you, a sinner, have eternal life.

Today it’s all too common to over-simplify this message, and cheapen the Gospel into Good news for bad situations, regardless of sin. But how much this harms people, because if sin is not serious, then why was Christ condemned? If sin doesn’t actually lead to us perishing, then why was God’s Son treated so cruelly?

Today the Church is challenged two-fold: one that God receives sinners, and two that God calls sinners to repent. If you lose either of those points, you miss out on the Gospel. This is why the cross remains such an enduring and powerful symbol for God’s Church. It’s more than two lines to form the lower-case ‘t’ on “co-exist” bumper stickers. The cross shows the darkness in all people, and what God did to bring us back to Himself. Every human attempt to do this has resulted in disillusionment or delusion. Some get “burned out on religion” because all they hear is a demand to do more, be better, and stop sinning. Others will want a message that says God just wants us to accept each other as we are.

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Lent 1 – Midweek Series “Denying Eyes” (Mark 14:26-31; 66-72)

He was so sure that he would succeed where others failed. He could feel the zeal welling up within him. “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” Lord, how could you say that we will all fall away? What an awful thing to happen! “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” But Peter said all the more, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.”

What did Peter think of his own dedication versus that of others? He was sure that he would succeed where others had failed. That kind of optimism comes from an underestimated view of his own strength. If you’re older or have chronic illness, you understand this. At the start of the day, you are sure that you can take on the world, like you did before. You have 10 things on your list and you’re going to get them all done. By the time dinner rolls around, you realize that you only got a few things done and had to take a nap. But for Peter, more than anything, he was sure that he could rise above the Word of God speaking about the plan of God and the failure of His people. It seemed so obvious to him, so simple. Those who came before just didn’t try hard enough, or they lacked conviction. But Jesus was quoting the prophet Zechariah, “Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the man who stands next to me,” declares the Lord of hosts. ‘Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered’” (Zech. 13:7) That’s quite a tide to think you can stand against. It happened just as the Lord said it would:

And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came, and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” And he went out into the gateway and the rooster crowed. And the servant girl saw him and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” But again he denied it. And after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

Peter wouldn’t be the last to deny His Lord under the threat of persecution. During the first centuries of the Church, the Roman rulers found various times to blame the Christains for their crumbling Empire—Nero, Domitian, Trajan, Valerian, Diocletian, and so on. Some bravely went to the lions or the pyre. Ignatius of Antioch wrote letters to strengthen the churches as he was brought to his execution under Hadrian. Later persecutions were not as noble. Under one in the 250’s AD, under the Emperor Decius, all Christians were compelled to prove their loyalty to the empire by offering incense to the pagan gods of the Empire. If you did, you would receive a libellus, a short note, which allowed you to escape arrest. Some Christians consented, others like Pope Fabian refused and were killed. Still others, desiring to save their life or that of their family, bought the libellus. Novatian of

Rome took great offense, and believed that such deniers should never be readmitted to the Church. It’s easy to look at others and judge their denials and see their faults.

What makes Peter’s denial that much more shameful is who it’s before. Not a powerful kings, nor a soldier threatening his children at knife-point. No, a lowly servant girl who has no more power over him than any other bystander. While Jesus is in the court, confessing under oath that He is the Christ, the Son of the Blessed (Mark 14:61-62), Peter is outside taking an oath on the lie that he does not know Jesus.

This goes to show that it’s easier to sit in a comfortable pew among another Christians and sing “Onward, Christian soldiers, marching off to war!” than to live it.

Today, how we deny Him is by failing to speak about Him when it could save someone’s soul. When someone says to us that they think all religions are about the same, we don’t say anything because we say we’re afraid of “ruining” the relationship. When someone says they’re joining a church body like the ELCA, which openly promotes ungodly living and says that people are saved apart from faith in Christ,1 we feel more comfortable to say “God bless you there” and leave them to the wolves.

We don’t defend His name when it’s blasphemed and tossed around like a dirty rag. Perhaps we are afraid of becoming a byword along with Him. Maybe they’ll think you’re a religious nut; maybe you don’t care because you’re already nuts!

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;

12 if we endure, we will also reign with him;

if we deny him, he also will deny us;

13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful—

for he cannot deny himself.

So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, 33 but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 10:26-28)


Jesus was denied by the Father, counted the greatest sinner. Even for the most first-class denier. With the Lord is plentiful redemption, and He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities (Ps. 130). For Peter there was plentiful redemption, when on Easter he heard the general absolution (John 20)

19 On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.

, but one morning on the shore of Galilee, he had a personal reconciliation with the Lord (John 21:15-18).

“15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” 19 (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.””

After that were many times where timid Peter boldly confessed Christ, on Pentecost, before the Sanhedrin, before strangers in Cornelius’ house.

You are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:10). He is able to put His Word in your mouth, give you boldness and confidence, and love for your neighbor. Love Him who has showed you unwavering faithfulness, even to the point of His death upon a cross. May He sanctify your hearts, minds, and lips to confess Him in all that you do in this life. Amen.

First Sunday in Lent (Matthew 4:1-11)

Jesus’ ministry begins not in a lush garden in the presence of God as it was in the beginning, but in the wilderness of a world that is under the curse of sin and death. His ministry after being baptized in the Jordan and declared to be the Son of God, goes immediately into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil for forty days. Forty for the days for the flood of Noah by which God judged the wickedness of men (Genesis 6-8), forty for the years during which God bore with the stiff-necked generation before bringing their children into the Promised Land and the whole time fed them with bread from heaven (Psalm 95:8-11, Exodus 16). Forty days for the time in which Moses was on the mountain receiving the Word of God (Exodus 34:27-28). Forty for the days Goliath came and taunted Israel and defied the Living God (1 Samuel 17). Forty days for God showing forbearance to a twisted generation, that they might be saved.

This was the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the capstone of all of God’s dealings with the sons of men since Adam and Eve brought sin into the world. It was the beginning of a new creation, “As one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Rom. 5:18-19) The Son of God, Jesus, stands in the wilderness as the New Adam to work righteousness and bring salvation where the First Adam and his children were cursed. It’s quite appropriate that Genesis 3 and Matthew 4 are read together.

Jesus stands in for all humanity when He is tempted by the devil, and listen to the temptations He faced, because each time He is tempted to forsake the Word of God for temporal, selfish gain: “If you are the Son of God…” does not mean that the devil wasn’t listening at His Baptism, when the Father declared from heaven, “This is my beloved Son.” It means that Satan is up to His old tricks of lying and murdering (John 8:44), attempting to pry God and man apart. In fact this is what the Greek name for the devil, diabolos, means—he who divides, casts apart.

2 And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”

The first temptation casts doubt on God as Creator of heaven and earth. Will He indeed do good for His creatures? Can a man truly turn His life over to the care of God and not have to be ready to grab the proverbial wheel at any moment? Command these stones to become loaves of bread—take your life in your own hands, because how could it be God’s will for you to hunger? Not only “if you are the son of God,” but If this God really loved, He wouldn’t let you suffer with sweat and hunger, thorns and thistles, and after all your labor to return to the dust.

It had worked on the Israelites before (we’ll hear this two Sundays from now): [They said to Moses] “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” (Ex. 17:3) It works on us, too, because as soon as the money runs short, we’re convinced it must be the end. We lock down and go into survival mode, believing only in what we can measure and touch, relying only on our reason and strength to see us through.

What does God say to that? 4 But he answered, “It is written, “ ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ” Yes, you are dust and flesh, fragile and at the breath of the Lord you whither (Isaiah 40:6-8). When He hides His face, you die and return to the ground (Ps. 104:27-30). But what of it? Did He not create you from the dust by a Word? Are you afraid that He cannot sustain you? Or are you more in love with this present life than the God who gives and who takes away? Do you not remember that apart from Him there is no God, no life, no resurrection?

The second temptation follows this:

Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “ ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and “ ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’ ”

If God truly claims you as Son, He won’t let anything bad happen to you. If He is truly Almighty, then no matter what choice you make, His will is done. This questions God’s care for His children, with the implication that if something harm does come, He must not be as almighty as all that. If you further dissect Psalm 91 by this man-centered approach, you will read “For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence… A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.” Then, where is the justice in the cancer which separates loving spouses from each other, the SIDS which takes a sweet child from his parents, or viruses indiscriminately sickening droves of people? Why won’t you help, God? Don’t you see us languishing?

God, what do you have to say to that? 7 Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’ ” That is, you have seen the life you have as something that belongs to you, as if you were king or queen over your own domain. We demand that God justify His actions to us. How dare God not serve me, but we have it backwards. He is the Lord, we are the servants. He the Benefactor, we the beneficiaries. He the Protector, we are guarded and kept by Him from eternity.

The devil’s final temptation:

“Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9 And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

Here the devil promises Jesus His supposed heart’s desire. Don’t you want all nations to honor you, all to hail the name of Jesus? I can it to you that thing you desire most, the Liar claims. All you have to do is worship me, trust in my power, celebrate my works and walk in my ways. Better than that, I can give it to you with all that nasty, painful suffering and death.

We understand this temptation not necessarily as worshipping the devil, but bargaining with God. Our heart’s desire, the thing we would do anything to have, we can achieve by other means. This is the draw of witchcraft, palm reading, psychics, and Ouija boards. You can have the help you want, the ultimate good you see for your life. But it comes at a price. “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36) The devil’s lie is that “where there’s a will there’s a way” and where God doesn’t satisfy, there are other options. If the Words of Jesus are not to your liking, devote yourself to the teachings of demons—whether in bald-faced paganism, or in a guise of Christianity by picking a church that won’t judge what you don’t want to repent of.

What does God say to this? 10 Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “ ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’ ”

Jesus remained steadfast, when we are flighty. He remained strong where we are weak. He remained true, when we’ve been duped. “Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: ‘I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god…Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any.” (Isa. 44:6, 8)

If you have been tempted, if you think sometimes God is too far removed to help, behold Him “who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). He was tempted in the flesh so that He can help us in our weakness. Where we fall, He has the power and willingness to save—to forgive, renew, and rescue.

And if you are so afflicted, He gives you a pledge of His help by giving you His own Body and Blood to eat and drink. This very Body and Blood is the one which felt hunger, felt Satan’s temptations and lies, felt the sting of allegiance sworn but then broken, the humiliation of being jeered at, who felt bodily agony and breathed His last.

This is what He gives to you, who falter under the weight of your sins, who groan at the onset of death, and whose hearts are rent asunder by loss. He gives it to you to comfort and strengthen you, because His Body did not remain in the grave. He rose again to life free of sin, death, and devil. He rose, never to die again (Rom. 6:9), and so will you.

So, come to the altar now, with all your weakness, that you may put on Christ’s strength, in the forgiveness of your sins and the promise of eternal rest. Amen.