Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15–20 | 1 Corinthians 8:1–13 | Mark 1:21–28

Text: Mark 1:21-28

That Sabbath in Capernaum was a remarkable day.  Jesus and his disciples came to the synagogue service, and Jesus began to teach.  In an age when anybody with a webcam and some provocative things to say calls themselves a teacher, it might not sink in how significant Jesus’ teaching was.  We heard in the Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy 18:15-20 that God would raise up a prophet like Moses to whom the people should listen.  Yet, that same passage also warns of false prophets, and the death sentence earned by their folly.  But that threat didn’t stop many from assuming the teaching role.  This came to a head during the days of the prophet Jeremiah, when the false prophets told people “no disaster will come upon us, nor shall we see sword or famine” (Jer. 5:12)  Meanwhile, Jeremiah proclaimed the Word of the Lord, which said that judgement was coming and to go willingly into exile.

During and after the Exile, in order to have a repeat of what happened, the Mishnah emerged with trusted rabbis commenting on the Law of Moses.  Instead of anyone presuming to say, “Thus says the Lord,” they would instead cite the authority of these Tannaim, or teachers.  However, the focus of these commentaries was on how every Israelite and the community as a whole, would walk faithfully and so avoid God’s wrath.

22 And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.

The people marveled at the teaching of Jesus because it stood out.  It came with authority of its own.  And immediately, that authoritative teaching is challenged:

23 And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, 24 “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him.

The demon identifies Jesus as none other than the Prophet Moses had foretold: The Holy One of God.  Demons were purportedly exorcised by playing on the lyre (David and Saul) or burning herbs and dunking people in water. They had folk cures, exorcisms, purification rituals.  Yet, all the previous things people had tried had limited success. 

But when Jesus came into that synagogue at Capernaum, His word simply worked.  No incantations, no strange-smelling brews.  He simply said, “Be silent, and come out of him!”  He commanded the unclean spirit, and it actually obeyed Him!  Never before had something like this happened!

Even King Saul, who was afflicted by an evil spirit from the Lord, only found relief when David played.  But that was a partial remedy, and only seemed to work as long as David played.  When his hands got tired, Saul would start hurling spears at David again (1 Samuel 16:14-23; 18:10-11). 

Just as it was in Jesus’ day, we have our experts who have the cures to every ailment you could imagine.  Although we defer to highly-educated experts and the cures they prescribe may have unpronounceable names, they still only offer partial relief.  They may have a knack for physiological ailments that previous generations lacked, but they completely overlook the spirit of a person. They treat our bodies like a machine that needs repair, and for that they only have partial or temporary success.

Yet, we put our faith in them.  Sometimes the medical community is able to “fix” the problem and “get results.”  But don’t forget that sometimes, they are simply dumbfounded.  Don’t forget the times when they diagnose things wrong and give an ineffective or harmful cure.  Like the scribes, they have the ability to help, but in a limited way and with clouded understanding.

But enter Jesus, Lord of Life, Lord over Satan, Lord over all things.  By a Word, He puts even demons to flight.  If you thought the world was struggling to engage COVID-19, they would be completely clueless on demon possession.  And we’re no stronger in our own ability: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 6:12)  But not Jesus.  He speaks; and it happens—no matter how big or bad the enemy is.  Even our arch-enemy, Satan, must flee at the Lord Jesus’ command (James 5:7).

The congregation gathered in Capernaum marveled because they heard the Lord’s teaching, they heard His command, and they witnessed the convulsing, the crying out, and the exit of the demon.  But now, we are those for whom it’s said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)  Now, the same Lord works by His powerful Word, but it is only apparent to the eyes of faith.

This past week, we had a former member who was sick in the hospital with a serious infection.  Many of you know Mike personally.  In order to help his body combat the infection, the doctors induced a coma.  Talk about going out on a ledge!  But our congregation prayed for him.  The God of life heard our prayers, and is restoring his health.  He called this week to, “Thank your church and for the prayer chain you put me on.  It works, by the way, and I’m testifying to that.  I’m doing much better. A few more days of therapy and I can go back home to my loving wife and my loving God.”  We don’t believe in the effectiveness of prayer because of this one instance, but because of the powerful Word of God: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Matt. 7:7-8)  Prayer works because Jesus, Lord of Life, does His work.

But recognize the parallels between the congregation at Capernaum and us: We, like them, are gathered together on the day of worship.  The Lord Jesus is in our midst with His rule over death, devil, and hell.  He is here for the healing of those buffeted by Satan and burdened with the weight of living in a world cruelly ruled by death.  So, we must also see the parallels in the remedy He brings: When Jesus speaks, it works; it accomplishes that for which He says it [Isa. 55:9-11].  And from the very start of the service—provided we believe He is able to do this—He is there releasing us from our sins.  A preview of the Judgement Day is given: You are forgiven because Christ has borne it all for you.

And here, we sit nearly two thousand years later with our unique afflictions, and our weakness.  This incredible, Almighty Lord is here with us, and yet so easily we fail to recognize His presence and His benefits!  Just leave me be, and I’ll find a way somehow.  Everyone else seems to, after all.  But the Holy Spirit, using the example of the Capernaum synagogue worshippers has something to teach us.  More than meets the eye is at work with the Lord Jesus.

A few centuries after our Lord cast out unclean spirits with a word, a bishop by the name of Cyril of Jerusalem was teaching newly-initiated Christians.  About the Lord’s Supper, he said,

Since then He Himself declared and said of the Bread, This is My Body, who shall dare to doubt any longer? And since He has Himself affirmed and said, This is My Blood, who shall ever hesitate, saying, that it is not His blood?…Wherefore with full assurance let us partake as of the Body and Blood of Christ: for in the figure of Bread is given to thee His Body, and in the figure of Wine His Blood; that thou by partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, mayest be made of the same body and the same blood with Him. For thus we come to bear Christ in us, because His Body and Blood are distributed through our members; thus it is that, according to the blessed Peter, we became partakers of the divine nature.[1]

So when we are gathered (synagogue’d) under the powerful Name of Jesus, we have an assurance that He is at work for our good.  It’s true that God is with each of His children every day and in every place.  But in this place, we intentionally set aside the rest of our earthly life and dwell for a time in the special presence He promises in worship.

Our worship also ties us back in tradition to 300’s when Cyril was teaching those who have gone before us in the faith.  I’ll share last excerpt from him, because it’s a reminder to us to be aware of what is happening—invisible to the eyes, but visible to faith—in the service.  This is about the preface before Communion:

After this the Priest cries aloud, “Lift up your hearts.” For truly ought we in that most [awe-full] hour to have our heart on high with God, and not below, thinking of earth and earthly things. In effect therefore the Priest bids all in that hour to dismiss all cares of this life, or household anxieties, and to have their heart in heaven with the merciful God. Then ye answer, “We lift them up unto the Lord:” assenting to it, by your avowal. But let no one come here, who could say with his mouth, “We lift up our hearts unto the Lord,” but in his thoughts have his mind concerned with the cares of this life At all times, rather, God should be in our memory but if this is impossible by reason of human infirmity, in that hour above all this should be our earnest endeavour.[2]

This reminds us of the peril of leaving our trust in our own lives, and all other earthly helps.  They are all impotent, and the Lord Jesus alone can save.  Lord Jesus, hear our prayer and break our ties to temporal concerns while we are here in this place with You!  Crush our idolatrous ways which rely on our own or others’ help.  Fill us with awe at your Word, by which you cast out the devil, and rescue us from his evil plans and our own foolishness!

By His authoritative Word, by the blood of His Cross, by His trampling Satan under His feet, and by the means of grace He delivers that victory to us—you and I have unshakable peace.  Amen.

[1] Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 22.1–3

[2] Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 23.4

St. Timothy, Pastor and Confessor

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Readings: Acts 16:1–5 | 1 Timothy 6:11–16 | Matthew 24:42–47

Text: 1 Timothy 6:11-16

Today, we commemorate Timothy, a young man of a mixed Jewish-Greek marriage, whose believing grandmother Lois, and mother Eunice, nurtured in him a messianic faith that was kindled when St. Paul came to Lystra (2 Tim. 1:5, Acts 16:1-5).  He went with Paul on his journey, as an example of God’s mercy to Jews and Gentiles alike.  Later, he worked in Berea and Macedonia, and from the two letters written to him, we also know that he was formally ordained into the ministry of the Gospel (2 Tim. 1:6).  Today’s epistle reading comes from spiritual-fatherly advice of Paul.

Not everything that St. Paul was writing to Timothy was groundbreaking: “godliness with contentment is great gain…But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” (1 Timothy 6:6, 9)  Again, at the end of the reading, he says, “he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion.”  The importance of a temperate life and that God is exalted high above the world—these were not foreign ideas and even the greatest Greek minds like Plato and Aristotle would agree.

The incredible thing about the Blessed and Only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords is how He reaches us.  The immortal One, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see sends His Holy Spirit to reveal Himself in our midst.  We might expect Him to come in angelic visions or for awesome signs to occur when He reaches out to someone.  I mean, that’s how it happened for St. Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9).

But as we commemorate St. Timothy, it’s clear that the immortal, invisible, sovereign God comes through words on human lips.   The way He has made Himself known is incredible: in the flesh.  Not just the Incarnation, but also in human messengers.  For Timothy, it was his grandmother Lois and his mother Eunice, and then the missionary Paul.  Through their nurture in the faith, Timothy came to know this God and Savior personally, not just as a rich tradition of his forebearers.

Now, who was it for you?  Who was it in your life who nurtured you in the faith?  It could have been several people.  But the example of Timothy reminds us that the evangelistic task is put into the hands of believing men and women.  How will your family, friends, and neighbors know of Christ unless someone who knows Christ tells them?  Without that light, all they will see is unapproachable light, and not the flesh and blood of the Savior who came that they might dwell with Him in glory and eternal peace.

Together with everyday believers, another part of the way the Sovereign and Incarnate God comes to us is through the ministry of the servants He calls.  He puts His sacred and saving word on the lips of a man.  Upon this man—who has no other worthiness except for Christ’s call and the Spirit He bestows for the task—He puts the words of eternal life (John 6:63).  Spoken by a man, He releases sinners from their bondage, consecrates bread and wine as His Body and Blood, teaches and builds up His beloved people, and more.

Yet, today, there are many distorted views of this part of how the Lord has ordered His Church.  Flash forward two centuries, and you’ll find that a lot of history influences how we understand this ministry.  We see a lot of human failings in it—the judgmental attitudes, abuses of trust, a teaching that nobody can come to God except by an approved priest.  So, among Christians, there’s a desire to avoid those human failings by avoiding what it means to have a pastor.

One of the places this is lived out is in the practice of the Lord’s Supper.  The pastoral ministry is the nexus of for a lot of misunderstandings and conflicts of conscience that sinners have with the Lord.

Some see the Sacrament as something that the pastor just serves a dispenser.  It is enough for me to have my private belief and of course I’m worthy to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus because I haven’t been that bad of a sinner. Don’t get in the way of me and Jesus.

And if it isn’t up to a pastor to determine my eligibility, then I’m in control of the way I live.  If it’s a shame to God’s Name, no matter. Jesus did for all my sins, right?  So if I live like the unbelievers around me, but call myself a Christian then that’s ok, right?  But no way will I let a pastor judge me and tell me what I should do.  What business does he have telling me what’s right?  “Only God can judge me!” we hear ourselves say.

Sometimes, we come to the Sacrament merely as a matter of doctrinal agreement.  If I personally know that it is Jesus’ Body and Blood, then that’s all I really need.  As long as I’m personally served, well and good.  I don’t really know what the Church body teaches, or what the person sitting next to me believes.  Just let me come to the Sacrament and go in peace without thought of others.

Pastors, for their part, also have their own misconceptions.  Young pastors might think their duty is fulfilled when they present to the congregation a steady diet of orthodox teaching.  No matter if people even know what that means, much less if they agree with it.  In the language of the Parable of the Sower, this is like strapping on a gas-powered seed broadcaster, and hoping you hit enough good soil.  As long as the pastor knows he’s giving them something more substantial than the box church down the street, then he’s done his job.

When it comes to the Lord’s Supper, pastors are tempted to oversimplify, and assume that anyone who bears the “Missouri Synod” stamp of approval should commune.  On the other hand, telling people no might make you feel uneasy, so you just put an explanation in the bulletin and call it a day.  That way, if anyone communes for whom it would be harmful, you can just place the blame on them for not listening.  Pastors will be tempted to tell people what satisfies their itching ears, or quiets a conscience that really should be nagging. And if you do, there will be gain in the world, but what happens to the hearers?

In all these examples, us fallen creatures set up an idea of God and how He dwells among His people that doesn’t really fit with the Words of our Lord.  As uncomfortable as it may be, He desires a much more from those who follow Him and those who serve Him.

He says in the Gospel reading today, “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? 46 Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes.” (Matt. 24:45-46) The Immortal, Invisible, Only Sovereign, sets up men as servants to watch over his household.  It’s their duty to give His household the portion they need at the proper time—sometimes the reproof of His Law, and other times the comfort and strengthening of His Gospel.  Yes, they’re ordinary men, who can err, but it’s the Lord’s wisdom and His promise of how He works that this ministry does incredible, eternal things.

He also says in John 21 to Peter the “chief” of the Apostles: “Feed my lambs…tend my sheep…feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-17)  The job of the pastor is to tend and feed, and the role of the sheep is to be tended.  That means it’s actually a good and necessary thing to be corrected and brought back into the fold when a sheep is wandering in dangerous territory.  Yes, of course, Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who knows His own, but He does His tending with human hands.  So, neither should the pastor neglect the flock when he sees danger (John 10:12-13), nor should the Lord’s sheep think they’re doing fine out in the field by themselves.

Finally, Paul tells Timothy in his second letter, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2 Tim. 4:1-2) Almighty God reaches us not only through the comfort spoken by the Gospel, but sometimes it’s necessary that He reprove and correct us.  Yes, of course, the pastor could be off-base, but that really shouldn’t be our first thought.  Because we believe that the one who dwells in unapproachable light makes Himself known through human means, our first thought really ought to be that maybe the Lord is trying to get our attention and we should pay attention.  If we have doubt, we check His Word, because He will never lead us astray.

How amazing that the Holy One comes into our midst and doesn’t just inform us with sacred understanding, but He actually cares for us—through the love and words of Christians, and the faithful ministry of pastors like St. Timothy.  What a comfort it is to know that our Good Shepherd cares for us each day, not just by imagining Him to be with us, but in the flesh and blood of His people and the pastoral care of men who follow in the example of St. Timothy.  Amen.

The Confession of St. Peter (observed)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Readings: Acts 4:8-13 | 2 Peter 1:1-15 | Mark 8:27-35

Text: Mark 8:27-35

Human opinions abound.  In politics, in reaction to the pandemic, in parenting, in education.  In each of these arenas, we each have strong convictions.  Sometimes our views are so firmly held that we have difficulty even interacting with someone of an opposing view.  We might have heard things like, “I can’t stand to be around him because he’s a Trump supporter” “The pandemic is just a ruse for a Marxist takeover of the country.”  “I just can’t see why anyone would or wouldn’t vaccinate their children.”  “Children ought to be in public school so they can learn with others.”  All of these are opinions, and they carry a lot of freight.  In fact, they may have gotten your blood pressure up just at the mention of some of them…

The trouble with human opinions, no matter what they are, is that they are fallible. They’re subject to change and subject to error.  We’d rather not admit that, but that is something that’s true.  In our quest for ultimate truth and permanence, we look to this ideology, that solution, this individual as the be-all-end-all, but we’re only deluding ourselves and on the road to disappointment.

On the other hand, there is God’s truth.  “Your Word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path.”  “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.’” (Ps. 119:105; Isa. 40:8; Rev. 1:8)  Who God is and His ways do not change with the morals or opinions of the day.  He is not a different God for the Midwest versus the Northwest.  Look outside and see that the same sun and moon still rise and set on dictatorships and democracies alike.  God is the same, despite the tumult in our hearts, or the battles we wage.

And that unchangeable truth of God has been revealed among men.  Jesus asked His disciples who men say that He is? “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” All of these were human opinions, based on observation and experience.   29 And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.”  That’s the divine truth, shining in the midst of man’s darkened understanding! 

Today we commemorate the Confession of St. Peter because it stands out against the backdrop of differing opinions and earthly observations.  There’s unshakable truth in what God the Father in heaven reveals to Peter.[1]  But there’s also contrast within Peter himself, because like us, he is a man.  He’s liable to err and can be just as proud about his way as any of the rest of us:

31 And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

He made a true confession one minute, but as soon as Jesus started explaining the implications that He is the Christ, Peter started telling Jesus how it had to be.  This does not come from God, and especially when you’re dealing with who Jesus is and what He did to save us and bring us out of Satan’s kingdom and into His own.  Yet if Peter, the mighty spokesman for the Apostles, could so quickly be hoodwinked by Satan, then it shows that we are in like company.

This is the experience of every Christian: being both a fallen human being, flesh and blood, easily made a fool by Satan, and also one to whom the mighty, saving truth of God has been revealed.  Yet even though we’ve had God’s truth revealed to us, we still so often set our minds on the things of man rather than the things of God. 

So the Lord taught Peter and teaches us: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.

Any one of us who follow Jesus must do exactly that: follow Him. That means denying ourselves, including our most firmly held opinions and deeply engrained experiences and rather to learn from Him.  It means when we don’t agree or don’t like where we see Him taking us, denying our limited and fallible understanding, and trusting where He is leading us.

“Let him…take up his cross and follow me.”  With so much that is unsure in us and the world, how can we be sure of this word?  It’s because through the cross of the Christ—the suffering many things, being rejected and killed, and rising after three days—God has assured us that it doesn’t depend on us.  The Son of Man suffered on His cross for the sins of all people, especially you.  You, with your doubts, your opinions right and wrong, the words you’ve said which have hurt and driven away others, you with the false beliefs and the ways you’ve profaned God’s name by how you’ve lived.  The blood of Jesus’ cross covers it all.  So when He calls you to follow Him, it’s in that kind of guarantee. 

Nowhere else on earth will you be able to find such certainty than in unchangeable God revealing Himself in our midst.  It’s a good thing there actually is a place for absolute truth and certainty, especially for us poor, unclean men and women.  So thanks be to God who still reveals His perfect will among us!

This is what He is doing here in the Divine Service.  We come in, worn out from the previous week—mistakes, things cancelled, another week family didn’t call, worried about the country, scared that those you love might get deathly ill or lose their job, remembering sharp words you exchanged with family.  Into your many and various burdens, the Word of God speaks: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord, Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  You won’t find the grace you need in the opinions of others, but if God who knows your every fault still blesses you with peace by His nail-pierced hands, then you know it’s certain even in heaven.

And soon He will bid you come to His table.  Here a lot more denying of self takes place.  One could ask, as Jesus did, “What do men say that this is?”  There are several answers: It is our reenactment, simply a memory tool (Baptist).  It’s an unbloody sacrifice offered to God (Roman Catholic).  It’s a special time to reflect on what we all have in common (Methodist).  We don’t take our cues from human opinions or shared experience, but from the Lord’s own words, which He has revealed to us.

That’s one of the reasons we speak the words of His testament every time there’s the Lord’s Supper.  It’s not that we forget the words so much with our minds, as we’re slow to understand what Scripture has said [Luke 24:25].  In His Testament, He tells us to eat bread of which He says, “This is My Body given for you.”  He says drink the cup, “This is My Blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matt. 26:26-28, Luke 22:19-20)  This is deep, and it’s a word that is true no matter what we think of it. The Apostle Paul told those who took it without examining themselves, that it’s given for sinners and without rectifying divisions among each other, ate and drank judgment upon themselves (1 Cor. 11:17-34) 

A disciple is one who learns from his teacher, not the other way around.  God doesn’t need to be taught by us, and there is no need to “improve” on what He says and does.  It is what He says it is, regardless of what we think of it, or the means He gives it, or the man he chooses to administer it.  It doesn’t need to be ratified by our vote, and it is not made holy by how much pomp we might add to it.  The certainty is in the Words of Jesus that He joins to these humble means, because God is able—with the “low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are”[2]—to give heavenly comfort and strength, union with Christ Himself through this meal He holds.

We confess here in this place those things which are true and eternal.  We hold to a salvation which God has revealed from heaven and put upon our lips.  He enables us to not only speak those words, but for them to transform our minds from the faulty things of man, to the perfect goodness and lovingkindness of God our Savior.  Amen.

[1] Matt. 16:16-17

[2] 1 Cor. 1:28

Baptism of Our Lord

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Readings: Genesis 1:1-5Romans 6:1-11 | Mark 1:4-11

Text: Mark 1:4-11

Now, you may think this is ten days late, but today we’re going to talk about beginnings. 

In the Beginning – Genesis 1:1-5

The Old Testament reading is the very beginning of the Bible.  In fact, that’s the first Word written in the Torah—b’reshith bara Elohim,[1] In the beginning, God made.  This sets the scene as we creatures of God are growing in the grace and knowledge of our Creator.  God is there making.  The Father is creating, the Spirit is hovering over the unordered waters, and out of that primeval mass, God the Word goes to work: “Let there be light,” and there was light. As we heard from John on Christmas Day, “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men.” (John 1:3-4)

God creates through the Word, and the light is good.  Then God does something else: “And God separated the light from the darkness.”  Where God is creating, it is good, and where God is, there is light and life.

God speaks, and life results, so that by the end of 6 days, God looks at all His work and says, “Behold! It is very good!” (Gen. 1:31) He rests on the 7th day, stops speaking & creating.  What will become of this creation, so newly made?

We know – Another voice spoke, which set the creature against its Creator.  The first of many failed attempts to be like God, for that speaking brought death, and.  Their eyes looked upon evil and called it good.  Darkness enshrouded the sons of God, the sons of light.

The Lord hovered over the waters again in the flood, but that time he brought destruction and salvation.  He waited for the creatures to come back, but they would not.  He preached their destruction through Noah, but to no avail.  So the Spirit took away life, and everything that had the breath of life perished (Gen. 7:22)…but God saved Noah and his family.  But God was not done speaking…

In the Beginning of the Gospel – Mark 1:4-11

The Gospel of Mark begins much like the first Book of God’s Word: “The beginning…of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”  The beginning of the good news is a new creation account. 

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

God the Father is there.  God the Spirit hovers over the waters, the ordered creation—yet disordered and made chaotic by sin and the devil—the waters of the Jordan.  There is no more delay, no more silence.  The heavens are “torn open”—not for judging wicked man as in the Flood, not for prophetic visions (Ezek. 1:1)—but for creation and life:

God speaks again, but this time He speaks to a Man.  He does not say, “Let there be” because He is not creating from nothing.  He is recreating, restoring, returning life that the devil and sin stole away.

He indicates where this new creation is to be found: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  You are life.  You are very good.  You are Jesus, “who will save His people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:21)  And as God first separated the light from the darkness, so He is doing again.

In Your Beginning – Romans 6:1-11

The reason we celebrate this Baptism of the Lord God is because He has also made that new creation ours.  The Epistle from Romans 6 says,

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

We are brought into those new-creation waters when we are baptized into Jesus Christ, in the Name of the God the Father who creates, God the Son who redeems, and God the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies.  St. Paul writes about Baptism in Titus 3, and says, “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” (Titus 3:5) There, it says very clearly that these waters are a washing of re-genesis and newness-from-above.  All that belongs to the old creation is made new—or at least it is the beginning for us.

The beginning of your good news of Jesus Christ is that God has saved you by giving you a new birth by water and the Spirit, and heirs of a new creation that is to be complete when the Lord Jesus comes again on the clouds of heaven.

But we ask, can’t He come any quicker?  Why does He leave us in this old creation?  This sin-rotten flesh?  It is His mercy that He does shorten our time in this life, because He hears our groaning, and He sees our weakness.

St. Paul urges us about the weakness of our flesh, because our flesh is drawn toward the darkness: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”  How can we, who are a new creation through Christ, go on living as if something monumental and eternity-changing didn’t happen in the baptismal font?  That would be to despise the restoration for which the creation has been longing for millennia!  That would be to reject the revelation of God’s mighty work in the Jordan, on the cross, in the empty tomb, and as He now stands interceding for the saints at the right hand of God!  How can we, the children of light, dwell in the darkness of fallen man, reveling in blasphemy, astrology, choosing partners after our own lusts, and every manner of evil we see embraced around us?  “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor. 6:11)  This is the beginning to which He daily brings you, so that you may die to the darkness and live in the light.

Likewise, He hears our groans under the weight of darkness, as we cry to Him day and night.  “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb. 4:15-16) 

Fear not, and be of good courage, children of God, children of light, brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus Christ.  God has called you out of darkness into His marvelous, eternal light (1 Pet. 2:9). Your sinful flesh will pass away. The devil will surely be cast out. “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, 42 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” (Matt. 13:41-43)

This is your beginning, but you will rise with Christ so that there will be no end.  Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] The Hebrew name for the Book of Genesis is Bereshith, the first word. Interestingly, Genesis, which means to bring forth, would be an accurate translation of the second word, bara, which is uniquely used of God’s creation out of nothing (ex nihilo).

Second Sunday after Christmas

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Readings: 1 Kings 3:4–15 | Ephesians 1:3–14 | Luke 2:40–52

Text: Psalm 119:97-104

When we see the boy Jesus in the Temple at 12 years of age, it’s clear he had an acuity for Scripture.  After all, He was “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.”  We might be quick to chalk this up to Jesus’ divine nature.  Of course He had insight into the Word of God and it came easy for Him to answer questions because He was true God.  But I would argue that his ability has little to do with His divine nature, because the reading ends with Jesus submitting to His human parents and “52 And [He] increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man.”

What we see in this 12-year-old boy isn’t just a prodigy who is gifted with a religious aptitude.  Rather, what we see in this sinless boy is a picture of what man is meant to be, were it not for our sin.

Why does this Boy stand out so much?  While you may know some people who are particularly gifted in understanding Scripture, none of them can hold a candle to this Child, because He is the example of how each and every person is made to receive the Word of God.

This is what we see in the Psalm reading for today from 119:97-104:

    97          Oh how I love your law!

It is my meditation all the day.

    98          Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,

for it is ever with me.

    99          I have more understanding than all my teachers,

for your testimonies are my meditation.

    100        I understand more than the aged,

for I keep your precepts.

    101        I hold back my feet from every evil way,

in order to keep your word.

    102        I do not turn aside from your rules,

for you have taught me.

    103        How sweet are your words to my taste,

therefore I hate every false way.

sweeter than honey to my mouth!

    104        Through your precepts I get understanding;

King David wrote Psalm 119 under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and all 176 verses express the desire of the regenerate man to dwell on the words of His God.

We find this difficult to accept…both in the boy Jesus and in the inspired words of David.  How could someone find so much delight in God’s Law?  Is this some kind of religious ego trip that he is wiser than his enemies and the aged?  What kind of goodie-two-shoes does this guy think he is that he treasures the Bible more than the finest cuisine earth can offer?

But if we notice a difference between us and the Boy Jesus, or us and David, then what we’re actually seeing is what sin has done to our affections, our hunger, our will.

Man is made to meditate on God’s Word.  Our picture of meditation is clouded by eastern mystics chanting “om” and rendered difficult by our fast-paced lives where it’s increasingly difficult to just be present in the moment.  These things in the present are more appealing to us.  They’re the things we can accomplish, the items we can check off.  Buying something gives a boost, as opposed to God’s Word which can make us wiser, but our flesh would rather have immediate gratification. 

Man is given understanding from God’s Word.  While men run after answers of the origin of life, and fight over what gives our existence meaning and purpose, God has already spoken to us, not only in commandments but through His Son.  The Commandments tell us how to love God rightly and truly love our neighbor in the proper way.  If someone is looking for how to order their life, what to do with their day or their stimulus payment, God’s Word gives the clearest instruction: Love God above everything else, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Man is made to walk in what his God commands.  My dad always used to tell me as a child how important it was to use the tool the way it was intended.  Sure, a pair of channel locks can be used to drive a nail, but a hammer is what’s really made for the job.  The same goes for human beings: we are made to walk in God’s commands: You shall have no other Gods, keep the Sabbath holy, honor your father and mother, help and support your neighbor in every physical need, do not commit adultery, and so on.  These are what we are made to do, and it just works when we do it this way.  Yeah, there are some creative substitutions, but ultimately they aren’t following our Maker’s instructions.

So hopefully it makes sense and speaks to your heart that “man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Dt. 8:3)  Yet, as Christians, this isn’t our only experience.  We’ve got two narratives running at the same time.  On the one hand, we delight in the Law of God. We know it’s right.  We know we should read our Bible every day.  We know we should pray without ceasing.   On the other hand, we’re too tired and too busy.  We’re apathetic because our prayers never get answered the way we think they should.

This is the conflict between our sinful nature and the new us, the regenerated person who the Holy Spirit has made.  “the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” (Gal. 5:17)  This is the weakness we have, and it is our sinfulness that keeps us from being what we see in the Boy Jesus.  But what we see in the Boy Jesus also gives us hope, because that Boy also grew up to be our Savior, to offer His life and a ransom for us, to do what the Law demands, to shed His blood for all the ways that we fall short of the glory of God. Yet, not only is He our substitute, who did love the Law flawlessly, but He encourages us by showing what God is capable of accomplishing in a human being—if even in glimpses this side of the Resurrection.

The first hymn we sung this morning is a prayer for the Christian who longs for God’s regenerative work which He began in Baptism—“the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6).  Turn back to the hymn and follow along:

589 Speak, O Lord, Your Servant Listens[1]

1          Speak, O Lord, Your servant listens,
    Let Your Word to me come near;
Newborn life and spirit give me,
    Let each promise still my fear.
Death’s dread pow’r, its inward strife,
Wars against Your Word of life;
    Fill me, Lord, with love’s strong fervor
    That I cling to You forever!

Here, we acknowledge our need for God’s Word, because without it, we can’t survive: “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” (Ps. 63:1)  But what can we do when our weak flesh, the world around us, and the devil all challenge us saying, “Where is your God?” (Ps. 42:3)  So we pray the God, by His Holy Spirit, would fill us up, strengthen us in faith and keep us steadfast against all that would tear us from our Lord and Savior, Jesus!

2          Oh, what blessing to be near You
    And to listen to Your voice;
Let me ever love and hear You,
    Let Your Word be now my choice!
Many hardened sinners, Lord,
Flee in terror at Your Word;
    But to all who feel sin’s burden
    You give words of peace and pardon.

Mary, Martha’s sister gives us a beautiful illustration of that, on the day when she sat at Jesus’ feet simply desiring to listen to Him teach.  Nothing else mattered, even the immediate work of receiving the Lord to their house.  It all had to be set aside in order for the Sabbath rest to be truly holy.  What made it holy wasn’t the mandate to stop work, but the opportunity to solely delight in the Word of God.

3          Lord, Your words are waters living
    When my thirsting spirit pleads.
Lord, Your words are bread life-giving;
    On Your words my spirit feeds.
Lord, Your words will be my light
Through death’s cold and dreary night;
    Yes, they are my sword prevailing
    And my cup of joy unfailing!

When God says that we do not live on bread alone, it flies in the face of experience and science.  Experience tells us those specific things which sustain day-to-day life, and biology tells us what’s needed to preserve life.  We’ve got this covered, God—whoever you are.  If you drop out of the scene, we can get by somehow. I mean, don’t millions live that way, and what can be so wrong about how they live?

But what our Creator says is true: There is no life apart from His Word.  From the moment He creative all there is by speaking, “Let there be…” He continues to be our source, our ground of being.  And if that’s what our existence is built upon, then what is death?  What are the dark times we witness?  “Darkness is as light with you,” says our soul (Ps. 139:12)

4          As I pray, dear Jesus, hear me;
    Let Your words in me take root.
May Your Spirit e’er be near me
    That I bear abundant fruit.
May I daily sing Your praise,
From my heart glad anthems raise,
    Till my highest praise is given
    In the endless joy of heaven.

Given the treasure that God gives men and women in His Word—the defense against darkness, life for our death, an understanding heart—this drives us to pray to God to make us more like the boy Jesus.  But know when you and I pray for this, our heavenly Father gladly answers this prayer, because this is what He is bringing us to in the world to come.  But don’t use the here and now, how you’ve always done it, as an excuse.  No matter how young or old you are, you are blessed by the time you spend in God’s Word.  Let us pray:

Eternal God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, grant us Your Holy Spirit who writes the preached Word into our hearts so that we may receive and believe it, and be gladdened and comforted by it [for] eternity.  Glorify Your Word in our hearts. Make it so bright and warm that we may find pleasure in it, and through Your inspiration think what is right. By Your power fulfill the Word, for the sake of Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord. Amen.

[1] A compilation of the hymn, “Wohl dem, der Jesum liebet” by Anna Sophia von Hessen-Darmstadt