Third Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 3:11–21 | 1 John 3:1–7 | Luke 24:36–49

Text: Luke 24:36-49

How can we know if what we hear is true?  In an age of fake news, deep fakes, and just plain bald-faced lies, it’s really a problem.  Because of these things, people’s trust of institutions and media agencies has plummeted.  A Pew Research study found that “Just 20% of U.S. adults say they trust the government in Washington to ‘do the right thing’ just about always or most of the time.”[1]

So many people want to have it proven to them.  But nobody can actually live out the tagline from the X-Files TV show: “Trust No One.”  We will always trust someone or something.

What does it take to convince us?  Often it has to do with who it comes from—personal contacts have a lot of influence over who we’ll trust.  Scammers take advantage of this when Facebook or email accounts are compromised and they pose as a trusted friend, trying to convince others to click this link or share personal information.

We also defer to “the experts”  This past year, we’ve heard plenty from experts, and easily follow what we’ve been told.  So it’s clear that experts have the qualifications needed to be trustworthy and make decisions about our life.

Another source we trust is medical professionals.  The best of medical science is at their disposal, they’ve gone to school and studied hard, and there have been plenty of malpractice lawsuits to keep things honest.  So when we go to the doctor, we are in the habit of trusting what they say and paying them good money for their advice.

It’s not that we’re wrong to put our faith in friends, experts, and doctors.  As far as God’s work is concerned, He does good to us by these.  I mentioned the negatives because these are all fallible people.

Now I want you compare these areas of trust to something even more important than how we spend our money, lead our lives, or care for our health.  That is our faith.  How can we trust what we know about Jesus?  Did it come from someone we trust?  Did it come from qualified experts like a pastor?  Do we entrust ourselves to a faithful physician?

Actually, to all of these, we have something even better than the avenues we trust today.

36 As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” 37 But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. 38 And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate before them.

On the evening of His resurrection, Jesus appeared to His disciples.  He went to extra pains to convince them of this, too.  It wasn’t a glorious appearance, like when Samson’s birth was announced (Judges 13), or a miraculous sign like Naaman’s cleansing (2 Kings 5).  Instead, it was a very ordinary proof: “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see….He showed them His hands and His feet.”  And then He ate a piece of broiled fish before them.

At this, we might balk at what a boring detail this is.  Why would the evangelist Luke bother recording what kind of food Jesus ate?  Well, why not?!  The detail adds that specific truth to the testimony by the Apostles.  Luke says at the beginning of his Gospel, “it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:3-4 NASB)  Adding that detail about what Jesus ate in their presence also shows the truth of the Gospel account, not afraid to include even the mundane.  I mean, if Jesus suddenly visited your home, would you have some elaborate and significant meal, or just whatever you had for dinner?

This is an eyewitness testimony of the risen Jesus on the very Day of Resurrection!  Maybe we’ll appreciate this better if we compare it to what others—even those hailed as experts—say about Jesus many years later.

Other gospels were written about Jesus, and given the names of James, Mary, Judas, and Thomas.  These texts make the claim that they have secret insight into the teaching of Jesus which He supposedly revealed to His disciples.  The trouble with this is that they were all written well after the first century AD.  What proof does that give?  They were clearly not written by their namesakes.  Since it is impossible that they were written by their pseudonym authors, we should also suspect their teaching.  Especially when they include things like this “Simon Peter said to them, ‘Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.’ Jesus said, ‘Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of Heaven.’” (Gospel of Thomas, 114) 

Several years ago now, a fragment was discovered that said that Jesus had a wife.  It created quite a stir in some circles because it seemed to include information which was omitted from the Gospels which the Church has held for centuries.[2]  But what wasn’t highlighted is that that fragment dated no earlier than the fourth century AD, and was written in Coptic, the language of Egypt.  So, when it comes down to it, are you going to believe the eyewitness of the Twelve and their associates or something that comes from far away, 300 years later?

Finally, an effort was made in 1985 called the Jesus Seminar.  They sought to read the Gospels and determine what they believed were genuine words of Jesus and what had been interpolated and inserted by editors over the centuries.  Together, 50 scholars under Robert Funk, voted using colored beads to determine what were genuine sayings of Jesus.  They considered it inauthentic whenever Jesus made “I am” statements or if, in the scholars’ opinion, the teaching appeared to be serving an agenda of the early Christian community.  They concluded that of the Lord’s Prayer, you could only trust the words, “Our Father” to be from the lips of Jesus. As a Los Angeles Times article from 1988 reported, “Three said it came from Jesus, six said it probably came from him, 10 said it probably did not and five said it did not.”[3]

Yet, in the Gospels, what we have is the eyewitness testimony.  When we compare it to what people say about Jesus more than 100 years later, it’s remarkable.  During his ministry, Peter even appealed to this eye-witness testimony in today’s reading from Acts: He says to the Jewish audience: “But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, 15 and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.”  This is the witness which we have, which the Lord Himself commissioned when He said on the evening of the Resurrection, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.”

I know that we’re used to communicating with people who already conclude that the Bible is God’s true Word, but we should also consider the historical evidence.  The substitutes for the eyewitness testimony are appalling.  In addition to that, the reliability of genuine Scripture compared to other ancient texts can’t be ignored.   Other texts include Homer’s Iliad, the works of Sophocles, and Aristotle.  The New Testament has 5600 manuscripts with 99.5% consistency, while the nearest runner-up is the Iliad with 95% accuracy.  When you talk about dating, the New Testament’s earliest existing (extant) manuscripts date from AD 130, while the oldest Iliad date from 500 years after the original.  If there are errors to be found, they should be found, but in such a wealth of manuscripts, what scholars—even critical ones—have found, is that the New Testament is reliable and consistent.

What does that mean for us?  It’s an incredible comfort in an age of changing truth and the flimsy truth of man.  God has given us in His Son an incredible gift, and we are wise, even from a reasonable standpoint, to commit our lives to the Word of God, which has been well-preserved and well-tested in the Bible we still have today.

With as trustworthy as this Word of Jesus resurrection is, we should be appalled at how little we listen to it.  Our days instead are filled with what we hear on the news, the drivel we read on social media, or to fill our days with complaining about life and people.  In His Holy Word, God has given us a satisfying, delicious feast…but we have asked for peanut butter and jelly.  People of God, He’s given you a tremendous treasure in His Word, which has endured over 3500 years, and will endure into eternity.

The friends and family, the experts, and the doctors all have their place, but they are all passing away.  Remember this, and put your faith in what your God says, read it for yourself, test and see because God will prove His truth to you that you might have faith in Him.  Know your God and His Word better than you know anything else.

In knowing Him, you will have life, and have it eternally.  Amen.

[1] (accessed 15 Apr 2021)

[2] (accessed 15 Apr 2021)

[3] (accessed 15 Apr 2021)

Second Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 4:32-35 | 1 John 1:1-2:2 | John 20:19-31

Text: 1 John 1:1—2:2

In the Introit at the beginning of service this morning, we heard: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation—if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” (1 Peter 2:2-3)

Newborn babes are what Christians are to be like.  What does that mean?

They need to be nurtured by the pure spiritual milk of God’s Word.

Breastmilk from one’s own mother is always best. Although there are manmade alternatives and sometimes circumstances prevent this, the ideal is what God has given in breastfeeding.  The milk grows with the child and gives him the nutrients needed for each stage of development.  Breastmilk also contains personalized antibodies which the mother’s body wisely produces to combat infections.

What that means for us as children of God is that His Word nurtures us and causes us to grow up to salvation.  He feeds us at the breast of our mother, the Church.  In her bosom—not a manmade institution, but where He preserves the preaching of His holy Gospel and His means of grace—this is where we receive that precious spiritual milk of God’s Word.

At every stage, from newborn in the faith (whether you come new to the world, or highly weathered) all the way through temptation and tribulation, through times where you feel the world’s opposition and times of doubt, perhaps even through a time of falling away, but finally unto the end of your earthly life.  God gives each of us in His Word the milk and meat, the Body and Blood, the Confession and Absolution, that we need for each day.

Our wise Father gives us antidotes to the deceitful schemes of the devil, the delusions and excuses we tell ourselves, the apathy we sometimes develop toward His precious gifts.  With His Word and His Holy Spirit, He delivers us from the evil one and keeps us as His children and heirs of eternal life.

Newborn babes are utterly dependent.

Nobody would be so cruel to say a baby ought to feed, change, or dress herself.  Newborns especially need constant care, no matter how much that takes out of the parents. God gives the strength they need, because it’s through mom and dad that He is caring for this fragile little human.

Likewise, the Christian is constantly dependent on God’s care.  Yes, we grow and mature, for we “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” “that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (2 Pet. 3:18; Eph. 4:14).  But God also knows that we are but dust and ashes, that “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” and “nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh.” (Gen. 18:27; Matt. 26:41; Rom. 7:18).

Because of this, we are forever dependent upon God caring for us.  God must feed us (because like children, we only want the sweets that make us feel good in the moment).  We need to be shepherd by the Lord through His servant (not thinking ourselves strong enough to wander apart from the flock, and not charging on ahead in sophomoric foolishness).  Christ must clean us up as often as we make a mess, and we must always be clothed by Him in His righteousness, and not run around naked.

This is to say God knows we always need to be nurtured with the basics:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.

The Holy Spirit speaking through John takes us to the foundation of the Church: The true and trustworthy witness of the Apostles, including Thomas, whom God made to be eyewitnesses of the marvelous works of Jesus Christ.  In Him we have life, which has been revealed to us by God.  Yet it’s more than me-and-Jesus, a personal fellowship with God, but that we also have fellowship with one another—this communion of saints who are called and made into the Body of the Church—with the Father and His Son, in the Holy Spirit. 

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

This must be the number one place that we fail.  Why else would God always be talking about forgiveness of sins, self-deceit, true fellowship with Him, and His Son who takes away the sin of the world? 

Yet, often people in the Church grow weary of hearing about the forgiveness of sins.  Why is the liturgy always the same, and why do we need to confess our sins every week?  Haven’t I already been forgiven?  Wouldn’t that time be better spent singing songs we like and being instructed on how to live a better life? 

If we think the forgiveness of our sins is a light matter that should be shuffled lower in the deck, then we need to read more of God’s Word (and come to Bible study!) and see how serious sin is to God, how deeply it’s broken our fellowship with Him and each other. Then, maybe we’ll better see what a treasure it is to hear these words of peace Christ puts on His servants’ lips: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them [John 20:23]…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.”

It’s also our tendency to minimize sin because of what Jesus did on the cross.  Excellent! Our debt is paid off!  We’re free!  Now any sins I commit aren’t really that bad to God because He’s bought and paid for them already!  But to this self-deceit, He says, that we ought to “walk in the light as He is in the light.”  Our walk before God is necessarily holy and in line with His will—no excuses.  Our thoughts ought to be on the good and salvation of others, not on resentment and wishing them harm.  Our tongues ought to be used for praise and building up, not telling off-color jokes or sniping people in online forums.  Our deeds ought to be for the good of every person we see in need, not just empty talk about showing mercy.

And where we fail, our reaction dare not be, “Oh well. I might do better next time. Just give me a shot of forgiveness and I’ll be on my way…”  It should be, “Dear Lord, I have sinned against you because I have not walked in the light. I have sinned in my heart, with my words, and my actions.”  And to those who are contrite, He speaks this truth to you: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  For those who prefer their self-delusion, their sins remain on them, in the fervent desire that they will turn back, for the Lord says, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” [Matt. 18:3]

Basics, and yet always the essential foundation.  In God’s Word, that precious spiritual milk, “These things are written that you may believe, and that by believing, you may have life in His Name.”  “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.  But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous.”  It’s daily feeding, daily cleansing, and daily being clothed in the spotless robes of Christ.

And from this cradle of the Divine Service, where God gathers His Church, He sends us out indeed to walk and grow.  As fruitful recipients of His forgiveness, we share that His blood was shed for the sins of all people.  We forgive, as we are forgiven.  As we mature, we long for more and more of God’s Word and He supplies it in daily devotions and Bible study.  In this life He supplies and nurtures through His Word, we find all that we need for these days, and in the end eternal life.  Amen.

The Resurrection of Our Lord

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-9 | 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 | Mark 16:1-8

Text: Mark 16:1-9

In our day, despite ignorance of the Bible and a general apathy toward religion, Christianity is so ingrained into the society, that hardly anyone objects to the celebration of Easter.  So long as by Easter you mean spring, sprinkled with subtle hints of ancient fertility rites that involve rabbits, birds, and flowers.

But even still, it passes in polite society to have bare crosses draped in white.  Yes, people say, that’s why Christians revere this as a holiday, because they believe Jesus rose from the dead.  But without serious thought, that belief can be relegated to folk myth.  Really, the important thing is the Easter breakfast and ham dinners.  And my children would remind me of the candy! 

When I was a child, growing up in a home where the Bible was not read, this is what Easter meant to me.  It was right up there with Christmas as far as special days that commemorate something, but the upshot of them was giving of gifts, the special occasion of seeing family, and overeating.

The sad thing about only having a cultural Easter is that you can do all these things, while it doesn’t matter if the man Jesus is still in the grave or not, or even if history remembers him correctly.  It was not this way when Mark wrote his Gospel.  For Christians in the second half of the first century, it was very important whether the things they believed were actually true and trustworthy.  Their livelihoods and sometimes their lives were on the line, depending on where they lived and the bent of the current administration toward this Jewish sect.

For those who were risking their reputation and property based on the proclamation of Jesus, they longed for assurance.  In a time of social and institutional pressure, the young Church, increasingly comprised of second-generation believers, could have wished that they had been born just a little bit earlier, so they could have heard these teaching first-hand and they could have seen the signs and the resurrection for themselves.  Then, perhaps they would have an easier time when skeptics raised objection, and when their beliefs were considered alien by their family and neighbors.

The account of the Resurrection in Mark speaks to those concerns, and if you will allow, I believe it also speaks to our doubts, disappointments, and fears as worshipers of Jesus some 1930 years later.

When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.

Recall what we heard last Sunday when the Passion was read from Mark 15: 46 And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.”  These women had been eye-witnesses of not only the death, but also the burial of Jesus.  Between these verses, 24 hours have passed, and during that time his disciples sat on proverbial pins and needles—despair over the merciless and gruesome death of Jesus, fear over whether Jesus’ associates would also be made into an example, anger at the corruption of justice and truth, and honest confusion about why God had allowed all this to take place.  Nonetheless, they kept the Sabbath rest, and as soon as it was over at sunset on Saturday, they bought spices to complete the burial of Jesus.  But things were far from clear to them at this point.

And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large.

One of the marks of good literature is that the characters are polished and the action progresses smoothly.  The answers come in due time, and everything unfolds to a satisfactory conclusion.  But the Gospel is not this kind of good literature; it’s the truthful account of the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth and His followers.  With a particular attention to detail, it mentions that these three women had wondered, “How are we going to move the stone?”  And for those of us who weren’t there, Mark adds, “it was very large” because it was a tomb for Joseph of Arimathea’s family.[1] 

We are along the road with them, wondering how things are going to work.  The future is unknown to us, wish as we might so that we could plan and prepare!  We are, like these women going to what they suppose to be a closed tomb, going step by step, with only God knowing what will come to pass.

And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed.

Those who have read Matthew and Luke will know that this is an angel of God, so it’s no wonder that they are in fearful awe.  And as students of the Scriptures, we’ll also recognize that when an angel comes on the scene, there is something very important happening, because this kind of appearance does not happen every day.  Every time God sends a glorious heavenly messenger, it has to do with His saving work—whether calling Sodom to repentance, the Exodus, the return of God’s people after the Exile, or the births of John and Jesus.  It’s these places that God uses fiery highlighter on so that we are in awe and pay attention to His Word.

And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed.”

At this point, however, the Gospel shifts from being a simply a recounting of past events that we are watching play out.  Dr. James Voelz points out that the verbs change at this point from past tense to present tense.  Perhaps a closer translation will help: “He is saying to them, ‘Stop being alarmed!’” Like when Alfred Hitchcock turns to the camera and addresses the audience, or an aside in a play, the “fourth wall” is broken, and the message of the angel is also addressed to us who are listening. 

The first hearers were beset with uncertainty and fear.  They’re alarmed by the power the enemies of Christ seem to wield, by the uphill battle there seems to be against the powers of darkness at work in the world.  It’s akin to Jesus’ disciples who were convinced that evil had won over their beloved Rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth.

The angel speaks to us, God-fearing Christians who see the world arrayed against God, His Word and His ways.  We see trouble on the horizon as the powers at work in the world will demand that we choose between what they see as antiquated beliefs about gender and sexuality. That decision will impact our participation in school sports, employment practices, and the ability of Christian doctors to object to hormone therapies.  When we see this rising tide militantly aimed against us and what we believe, it’s scary. 

Stop being alarmed, says the angel.  Why?

You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the Crucified One.[2] He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him.

The world, Satan, and death did their worst against the Nazarene, Jesus.  They thought they had won.  But He is not there, because they did not succeed.  “Why do the nations rage  and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed…He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.” (Ps. 2:1-2, 4) In fact, what they succeeded at was their own downfall.  God reckoned the sins of all on Jesus.  By His death, He destroyed the power of sin and death, and took away Satan’s accusations. 

And do we think that God who defeated evil at its apex, is not able to save His people today?  When we are afraid of what we see happening in the world, we need to go back and study the Scriptures more closely!  Mark how God is able to work all things for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. (Rom. 8:28)  When our relatives and friends wander away and drift into the darkness of life apart from their Savior, remember how strong God’s love is to save, and marvelous ways He calls the unlikely and unsuspecting to Himself—Rahab, Ruth, the Ninevites, Saul who became Paul, and even your pastor.

Then the angel directs them to this: “See the place where they laid Him.” See what?  He’s not there.  Exactly.  The empty tomb is the evidence that all this is true.  So, future disciples who cannot see for themselves may know they have the proof they need.  We do not see anything, but we have the faithful Word of God.  Just as He told you.

Lastly, the angel says to the women:

But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.”

There were a lot of failings of the disciples—unbelief, hardness of heart, infighting.[3]  However, the latest and most public of their sins was Peter’s fall from “If I must die with you, I will not deny you” to “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” (Mark 14:31, 71)  Peter, that rock of the Church, leader of the Twelve, betrayed His Lord, lied, and was immediately called to account by a crowing rooster.  But the angel especially mentioned Peter because even his great failing did not destroy the Lord’s saving work.  He bore that cross, bled and died, and was buried, all for Peter’s great sin, too. 

Personal shame is something that can keep us bound, hidden away even from the Lord.  We may not say it quite like, “How could God ever forgive me for that?” but the effect is the same when we can’t bear to look the people we betrayed in the eye.  Perhaps we even make righteous excuses why we can’t be around them, and weakly make something they’ve done be the reason we stay away.  Yet, beloved, for whom did Christ go to the cross, die, and rise for?  It was for every sinner—man, woman, and child—whose sins are great and small.  It was for murderers, slanderers, idolaters, homosexual and transgender, those who move in together before getting married, those who insult and neglect their parents, for drunks, for the gluttonous, and for all your sins which you know and feel or do not.  God’s angel is telling you that Jesus nevertheless has gone before you, to the cross, down into the grave, risen from the dead, and ascended into heaven as the High Priest who prays for you and by whose sacrifice you have peace with God and man.

The angel points the women and us, not to what our eyes can see—for that moment in time has passed—but to the Words of Jesus, “Just has He said to you.”  Blessed, indeed, are those who hear the Word of God and keep it and treasure it in their hearts, because through His Word comes His Kingdom, His victory over sin and hell, and His unshakable and faithful promise to receive weak and fallible disciples in the riches of His glory. Amen.

[1] Matt. 27:60

[2] Translation reflects the perfect participle, used as part of the title: “Jesus, the Nazarene, the Crucified One”

[3] Mark 6:6, 6:52, 9:33-37

Sunrise of the Resurrection of Our Lord

Readings: Exodus 15:1-11 | 1 Corinthians 5:6b-8 | John 20:1-18

Text: John 20:1-18

Mary came early to the tomb of Jesus, similar to how we have gathered much earlier than normal for worship this morning.  She was intent to do for her Lord what they had not time for when He died.  She was prepared to show due reverence to her Lord’s body.  The Passover was over.  The Sabbath rest had passed.  And now what was she expecting to find?  The body of her dead Lord.  She had seen it happen, along with Mary and Salome. 

But it wasn’t as she expected.  The stone had been rolled away, so she runs without further investigation and tells Peter and John to report what she fears: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  The three of them all go back to the tomb, John and Peter even running to find out what had happened.  John reached it first, but only stooped to look in and see the linen cloths.  Perhaps he didn’t want to become ceremonially unclean and have to purify himself.  But then Peter comes up, and goes right in, and what he discovers is even more baffling: “He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.”  Mary had said they took the body of the Lord and laid it somewhere.  But what graverobber would bother to fold up the burial linens and fold the face cloth?  After this, John goes in and sees it too. 

All of these facts are recorded, and the disciples saw and believed this much: The Body of Jesus was indeed not there.  But they could not come up with a satisfactory reasonable explanation.  So, Peter and James just went home, believing only what their eyes could see and their minds could piece together. 

Mary stays on, and she too, is struggling to find a reasonable explanation to all these things.  She wept as she looked in at the tomb, which to her, looked all wrong because she was still assuming the Lord she saw die was still dead.  It makes me wonder where her formerly-dead brother, Lazarus was at this time, but in her grief, this did not cross her mind.

The three dear disciples, Mary, Peter, and John show us that reason will not come to the Lord.  Yes, reason is a gift from God which we use and treasure every day, but reason is limited.  Reason comes to conclusions which end in death and do not return.  Reason must submit to its master: the Word of God.   In all of this, John admits his own failing in retrospect, “for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”  Totally unreasonable!  Yet without the Lord’s Word, all we can conclude is that His Body has been stolen because as far as we can tell, death is permanent.

In belief of only the facts, Mary still weeps.  She sees the angels and answers them “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.”  She even sees Jesus Himself with her eyes and supposes Him to be the gardener.

But everything changes when He speaks her name: “Mary.”  Like floodgates opening, she perceives what reason could not reveal: Her Lord is alive!  She sees Him now through faith in His Word and faith in what the Scriptures say! 

Faith comes to us when Jesus speaks our Name, too.  At the font, we hear His voice through the pastor.  _____, I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  This is your Christian Name, wherein the Lord reveals Himself to you.  This is the name by which He will call you forth from your tomb on the Last Day [John 11:43], the name which is inscribed in the Book of Life [Rev. 3:5], as is said in Psalm 87:5-6:

And of Zion it shall be said,

“This one and that one were born in her”;

for the Most High himself will establish her.

    The Lord records as he registers the peoples,

“This one was born there.”

In that Word of Jesus, He reveals Himself to you, and gives you the Holy Spirit so that you believe not just the facts about Him.  You know the Scriptures, as they are fulfilled in your Lord Jesus.  So He is revealed first not in the flesh, but in His Word and in the holy waters of Baptism.

Then, He says to Mary, so overjoyed with seeing Him, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ”  Do not cling to Him yet, because something far better follows His resurrection.  If He were to stay on earth, we would all have to flock to see Him in one place as crowds do with the pope visits.  But He ascends, yes to “my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”  This is the blessed reality that is revealed by Him: He calls us His own by Name and then comes to dwell within us!  Ascended into heaven, filling all things, but especially making you a member of His own Body.

Your risen and ascended Lord lifts you up out of the alienation of sin and the darkness of reason and brings you into Himself where He nurtures and strengthens you.  You need not go to one place to cling to Him, because He is able now to give you His own Body and Blood to eat and drink.  It’s Communion with your Lord, who has called you by Name “to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb. 12:23)  Faith clings to Him where He is: In His Word, which is Spirit and Life [Jn. 6:63] and in the appointed signs which deliver His salvation to you.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Good Friday

Text: John 18-19

Additional Readings: Isaiah 52:13-53:12 | Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9

Pontius Pilate marveled when he had Jesus in his court, because He wasn’t like any other person facing condemnation.  And he’s right.  Jesus is very different from other men, including you and me.

Take Gethsemane for instance:

When Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the brook Kidron, where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, for Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas, having procured a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, went there with lanterns and torches and weapons. (John 18:1-3)

We go to great lengths to avoid calamity: Wearing masks, keeping our distances; fixing recall notices on our cars; having mammograms and prostate exams; covering electrical outlets and putting scissors out of reach.  And if one of those dreaded things happens, especially if it’s something we’ve been trying like crazy to prevent, there’s a double pang because it happened despite what we could do.

But not Jesus.  Gethsemane was a trap.  Judas had betrayed privileged information to the chief priests.  Jesus knew this, and instead of going anywhere else in the area, He knowingly went there and accepted the cup of woe His Father was giving Him to drink.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,

yet he opened not his mouth;

                like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,

and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,

so he opened not his mouth. (Isa 53:7)

Yet, let there be no doubt that Jesus is the same God-Man who changed water into wine, who healed the sick, and raised the dead, who could at once ask His Father for twelve legions of angels.  When He answers, “I am He” they fall down at His majesty.  “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phil. 2:10)  Nevertheless, He, “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant…he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2:7, 8)  Jesus goes to His appointed end, and the Scriptures of God fulfilled.

Another example is when Jesus was before the High Priest:

19 The high priest then questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. 20 Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. 21 Why do you ask me? Ask those who have heard me what I said to them; they know what I said.” 22 When he had said these things, one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” (Jn. 18:19-22)

Who doesn’t say things in private that they would dread being exposed publicly?  Who doesn’t have a different private life than the face they put on before others?  Who wouldn’t be violated by having a part of their lives exposed to scrutiny?  That’s what the High Priest is counting on.  Surely there is some dirt on Jesus, some failing or false word we can find upon which to hang Him.  But Jesus has none. 

  Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?

And who shall stand in his holy place?

               He who has clean hands and a pure heart,

who does not lift up his soul to what is false

and does not swear deceitfully.

               He will receive blessing from the Lord

and righteousness from the God of his salvation. (Ps. 24:3-5)

But as for us, we do have those thoughts we hope God doesn’t see, those harsh words we pray are overlooked, and those things in our nightstand or on our phone or computer we hope won’t be found by others.

Then there’s the trial before Pontius Pilate:

33 So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” 35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

19:9[Later, Pilate] said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. 10 So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” 11 Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” (John 18:33-36, 19:9-11)

It’s hard to stand alone in one’s conviction.  Most of the time such a person will be labelled delusional.  Likewise, it’s hard for a man to be a martyr without others at least to commiserate.  Much more often, we prefer to be on the winning team, even if it’s the underdog.  We seek the approval of those around us, and are feel justified in our choices when we see others doing the same.

But not the Lord Jesus.  He has remained the same throughout His ministry, in declaring Himself to be the promised Son of Man, the Messiah who is Savior of the World.  And now He stands alone. “He came to His own, but His own did not receive Him.” (John 1:11)  He was rejected by the people Israel, and without even His disciples.  Without a single other supporter, He holds to the work His Father gave to Him.  His Kingdom is not of this world. “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.” (John 1:10)

  O Lord, all my longing is before you;

my sighing is not hidden from you.

    10          My heart throbs; my strength fails me,

and the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me.

    11          My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague,

and my nearest kin stand far off. (Ps. 38:9-11)

Yes, Jesus is not like us, and indeed there is none like Him.  Where we flee the consequences and a justly-deserved eternal punishment, the Lord faced them head on in your place and for you:

  Surely he has borne our griefs

and carried our sorrows;

                yet we esteemed him stricken,

smitten by God, and afflicted.

               But he was pierced for our transgressions;

he was crushed for our iniquities;

                upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,

and with his wounds we are healed.

               All we like sheep have gone astray;

we have turned—every one—to his own way;

                and the Lord has laid on him

the iniquity of us all. (Isa. 53:4-6)

For us, who harbor secrets and beg that our mistakes and evils aren’t found out, Jesus of Nazareth was blameless to the heart.  He had no iniquity or deceit, and all who are born anew into Him by water and the Spirit are reckoned righteous by God: “Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek the face of the God of Jacob.” (Ps. 24:6)

He stood alone, bearing witness to the truth.  He made the true good confession and never wavered, and where we are ignorant and vacillate, He remained faithful.  And even now He stands before His Father and makes intercession for you:

Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;

       by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,

make many to be accounted righteous,

and he shall bear their iniquities.

12    Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,

and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,

       because he poured out his soul to death

and was numbered with the transgressors;

       yet he bore the sin of many,

and makes intercession for the transgressors.” (Isa. 53:11-12)

Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

Maundy Thursday

Text: Mark 14:12-26

Additional Reading: Exodus 24:3–11 | 1 Corinthians 10:16–17

Adapted from “The Mystery of the Lord’s Supper” by Johann Gerhard

In the Holy Supper of our Lord, we have a mystery placed before us.  Even though it cannot be explained with specific directions, counted in points for your diet, or given nutrition facts as other meals, the Holy Supper fills us with awe and adoration!

We know that the tree of life was planted by God in Eden, so that its fruit might preserve Adam and Eve and their children in the blessedness of their original immortality that He had gifted to them.  The tree of the knowledge of good and evil was also in that place.  God had given them their eternal life, but this other tree was there to test their obedience and devotion to Him.  But eating became the occasion for their death and eternal condemnation, when they yielded to Satan’s enticement and followed their own wicked desires.

So, in the Holy Supper of our Lord, we have the true tree of life set before us again, whose “leaves will not wither, nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month…Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.” (Ezek. 47:12)  The fruit of the tree of the cross is here given, and its sweetness destroys the bitterness of all afflictions, even death itself!

In the wilderness, the Israelites were fed with manna, called bread from heaven (Ex. 16:4); in the Lord’s Supper, we have the true Bread which came down from heaven to give life to the world (John 6:33, 51).  Here, this heavenly Food is such that, “whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)  The sons of Israel also had the ark of the covenant and the mercy seat, where they could hear the Lord speaking with them (Ex. 25:21-22); but here in the Supper, we have the true ark of the covenant, the most holy Body of Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” (Col. 2:3)  Here we have the true mercy seat in the precious blood of Christ, through which God has made us accepted in the Beloved (Rom. 3:25; Eph. 1:6).

Christ does not simply speak a word from a distance to comfort us; He takes up residence with us (John 1:14).  He doesn’t only feed with manna which appears and is collected; but He feeds us with Himself.  Because He is present, we can say with Jacob, “Surely the Lord is in this place… This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Gen. 28:16-17) and He is the true Ladder upon whom the angels of God ascend and descend (John 1:51).  

In giving us His Body and Blood to eat and drink, He gives us an infallible pledge of our salvation.  What can be more intimately united to the Lord than His own human nature?  Through His incarnation, He has assumed humanity into the Godhead.  His own Body and Blood are inseparable from Him, and yet He deigns to give these to us, unworthy creatures who are nothing but dry bones unless He revives us! (Ezek. 37:1-14)  Since He has so united Himself to us, how could He ever forget those to whom He gives His own Body?  How can Satan gain the victory over us when we are strengthened and made ready for our spiritual conflicts with this bread of heaven?

Christ holds us dear, as we can see because He bought us at so dear a price; He holds us dear since He feeds our souls with so dear and precious a food.  He holds us dear because we are members of His body, of His flesh. “For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church” (Eph. 5:29-30)  This is the sovereign remedy for all the diseases of our souls; here is the only effective cure for mortality.  Men will pay physicians fortunes to extend their mortal lives, but here the true balm for every disease and antidote to death is freely given.

Consider this: What sin is so heinous? The sacred flesh of God makes atonement for it.  What sin is so great, that it cannot be healed by the life-giving flesh of Christ?  The fiery darts of the Devil are quenched in this fountain of divine grace.  What conscience is so stained with sin, but it may be cleansed by the blood of Jesus?

Our first parents were placed in Paradise, a peaceful and delightful garden, a type of the eternal blessedness of heaven, that being mindful of God’s goodness to them, they would render due obedience to their Creator.  But, in this Holy Supper, there is more than a paradise, because here the souls of God’s creatures are spiritually fed with the flesh of the Almighty Creator.

The conscience is cleansed from all its guilty stains in the blood of the Son of God.  The members of Christ, their spiritual head, are nourished with His own Body; the believing soul feasts itself at a divine and heavenly banquet. The holy flesh of the Son of God, so united with the divine nature, which the angelic hosts adore, before which archangels bow in lowly reverence, and before which the principalities and powers of heaven tremble and stand in awe, has become the spiritual nourishment of our souls.  “Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice,” (Ps. 96:11) but still more let the believing soul exult and sing for joy, to whom God gives such an unspeakable gift!  Amen.

Lent Midweek V

Text: 1 Kings 21

Every one of the Ten Commandments protects a gift that God has given, as we’ve been hearing through the season of Lent. The Eighth Commandment protects God’s gift of a good name and reputation, which is a very precious thing, as it says in Proverbs 22, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.” So God doesn’t allow people to testify falsely about each other, slander one another, or gossip about another. Now, if someone casts aside his own good name by public sin, that’s his business, and he can bear the consequences. But we aren’t allowed to take a good name away from anyone, whether by spreading gossip or by telling lies.

The Ninth and Tenth Commandments both protect God’s gift of the right to keep what he has given us. In order to understand these commandments, we must understood what is meant by the word “covet.” The Hebrew word (חָמֵד)that gets translated as “covet” simply means “desire,” and can refer to good or bad desire. Even in paradise there were desirable things, as it says in Genesis 2, “And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is desirable to the sight and good for food.” The same word is used here as in the Ninth and Tenth Commandments. So desire can be good, and the Ninth and Tenth Commandments don’t prohibit desire entirely. They simply prohibit us from desiring the wrong things.

The first instance of desiring the wrong thing happened at the Fall. “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise…” and you know the rest. What made this a bad desire? It was a desire for something that God had not given, and that distinguishes between good and bad desire. It’s good to desire the things that God has given you, that is, to delight in them and find them pleasant. It is good to desire the things which are good for you, as it says in Psalm 19, “the fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the rules of the Lord are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.” (Ps. 19:9-10)  It’s a sin to desire things that God has not given you or that are harmful to you, and it’s this bad desire that we call coveting.

The account of Naboth’s vineyard in 1 Kings 21 began with Ahab coveting. Ahab saw that plot of ground next to his palace and thought, “Oh, it would be such a nice place for an herb garden! I could grow mint and cumin and dill, and look out my window, and see the pleasant little plants growing, and smell the spices blending together in the air and wafting up to my bedroom.” Now Ahab had a palace. He was the king of Israel. What’s one vineyard compared to all the land he already owned and all the wealth he had already accumulated? Yet our sinful nature always desires more and is never content, and when once it fixates on something it is difficult to turn away from it. And so Ahab pines away in his bedroom, moping and refusing to eat, as if Naboth’s vineyard were the only thing in the world that could satisfy him.

Jezebel came to Ahab and couldn’t fathom why Ahab didn’t just take the vineyard: “Do you now govern Israel?” In other words, might makes right. If it’s in your power, then do it. The people of the world hold to this adage, at least while they have the upper hand. Yet the Lord says in Micah 2, “Woe to those who devise wickedness and work evil on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in the power of their hand. They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them away; they oppress a man and his house, a man and his inheritance. Therefore thus says the Lord: behold, against this family I am devising disaster, from which you cannot remove your necks.” Just because you can acquire something does not mean it’s yours to acquire.

It’s important to note how upright Jezebel seemed as she went about her dirty work. Certainly we know she was scheming, but in the eyes of the people Ahab’s acquisition of Naboth’s vineyard seemed entirely legitimate. Jezebel had a fast proclaimed in Naboth’s city, and thus this whole event has a ring of religiosity about it. The elders and leaders of the city, who had to be part of the scheme, could find a false comfort in the Fourth Commandment, that they were just obeying the authorities that God had instituted. How pious of them. Two men are to bear witness against Naboth. Jezebel arranges things according to God’s Word, as it says in Deuteronomy 19, “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” The witnesses are to charge him with cursing God and the king. The punishment for blaspheming God’s name was being stoned to death, as it says in Leviticus 24, “Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him.”

“We were just acting according to God’s Word,” the people could say. Now they knew Naboth. He didn’t give up his vineyard because he actually was a pious man, and everyone knew it. God had made provision in Deuteronomy 19 for when a false charge was suspected. A charge could be appealed to the priests and judges and diligent inquiry be made. The people should have defended Naboth’s reputation, but their silence killed him. Likewise, when people gossip to you about others, you shouldn’t listen to it or believe it or act on it or repeat it. You should rebuke gossipers to their faces and make them blush, “What are you saying that for? It’s none of your business.”

Yet, as Luther writes in the Large Catechism about the Eighth Commandment, “It is a common, pernicious plague that everyone would rather hear evil than good about their neighbors. Even though we ourselves are evil, we cannot tolerate it when anyone speaks evil of us; instead, we want to hear the whole world say golden things of us. Yet we cannot bear it when someone says the best things about others” (I.264). And knowing this about human nature, it’s no surprise that the people are perfectly willing to listen to evil things about Naboth and stone him to death.

So Naboth was out of the way. But why should the vineyard fall to Ahab as opposed to someone else? Because not only did Naboth supposedly curse God; he also cursed the king. It would only be right and just that the king should get the goods of the man who dared to curse him. That would set a fine precedent so that others would not engage in such disrespect, and it would be a fine restitution for Ahab, whose precious reputation had been so slandered by that rogue and scoundrel Naboth. And so you see that in the eyes of Israel, Ahab was perfectly within his right to take possession of Naboth’s vineyard.

Yet this was far from being “right.” We recognize it in Ahab’s case. But we will only be wise if we recognize it in our own. Consider these lines from the Large Catechism, “Such is nature that no one wants someone else to have as much as he does. Everyone tries to accumulate as much as he can, and lets others look out for themselves. Yet we all consider ourselves upright people, and put up a fine front to conceal our villainy. We hunt for and think up clever tricks and shrewd tactics―better and better ones are being devised daily―under the guise of justice. We brazenly dare to boast of it and defiantly insist that it should not be called rascality but shrewdness and foresight” (I.297-298). But understand that no matter how “right” it may seem in the eyes of man, if you desire that which God has rightfully given to another, it is never right.

We see this in Ahab’s case, who, though he appeared to get away with it, was nevertheless convicted by God. The judgment was not a light one: the same thing that happened to Naboth would happen to Ahab. Now there’s comfort in this for us in that no one can truly get away with anything evil against us, no matter how right it looks in the eyes of man. God sees the heart, and knows which desires are right and which are covetous, and he avenges very severely the wrongs that receive no justice from man. Yet this is also a terror for us, for the same reasons. God sees our heart, and he knows which desires are right and which are covetous, and though man may reckon you to be innocent, God will not be fooled.

How shall we escape the wrath of God? Consider the end of the reading. If the Lord showed some amount of compassion to Ahab, who was not sincerely repentant and had no faith, then the Lord will certainly have compassion on those whom his law has made contrite and who do have faith in Christ. You have a greater Naboth, who was slandered and falsely condemned for your salvation, who refused to give up his inheritance and was willing to die for it. His blood does not call out for your blood, but He is risen and His blood calls out for your pardon.

He covets, or desires, what is good: Your sincere repentance and to clothe you in His own righteousness.  It occupies Him day and night, and in that you are saved.  In Jesus Christ alone is forgiveness of sins and the fulfillment of the Law, and to His saving work we turn our attention in the coming Holy Week. To him be glory forever. Amen.

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Readings: Jeremiah 31:31–34 | Hebrews 5:1–10 | Mark 10:35-45

Text: Mark 10:35-45

In Jeremiah 31, the Lord says in coming days that He will make a new covenant with His people.  He says that in this new covenant, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord.” (Jer. 31:33-34)

So, that begs the question, how does the Lord write His Law on our hearts?  We know from secular studies about teaching that there are different kinds of learners: visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and reading/writing.  Some have an ear that will remember what was said or have a keen memory for things that are sung.  For others, it may be having a picture to illustrate or associate with the lesson.  Kinesthetic learners absorb by interacting hands-on.  Read/writing learners retain what they read and can cement it by writing notes. 

As a side note, the Christian Church throughout the centuries has employed these different modes—singing our faith; using the visual arts; making use of labyrinths and rosaries; and meditating on the heard and written Word of God. 

But back to the question of how God writes His Law onto our hearts.  He tried the spoken and written form from Sinai, and the problem was that sin in us only rebelled when God exposed it.  He’s given tactile examples of His work through signs like circumcision and leading His people through the Red Sea, yet somehow those illustrations often don’t make it to the heart.  He gave visuals like the serpent lifted up on a pole, and the people turned it into an object of worship, called it Nehushtan, and made offerings to it (2 Kings 18:4).  And as Jesus so aptly points out, God sent many prophets to speak into the ears of the people, but their hearts were hard and unwilling to listen (Matt. 23:29-35).

Now that all the typical methods of learning are exhausted, what remains?  From the Epistle reading, we hear:

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, 10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.

It isn’t simply a matter of how to make a righteous, obedient people, but a question of Whom.  Jesus appeared, not as another Law-giver like Moses, because the Law Peter calls a “yoke…that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear, but we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 15:10-11).  Jesus came to intercede for sinners, stiff-necked and spiritually dead as we are.  He came to bring life and immortality to light by His work, which we call the Gospel.  In the “days of His flesh,” He manifested that the way to God is not simply taught through words or kept by threats of punishment.  The way to God is through suffering, as it says, “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience through what He suffered. And being made perfect, He became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey Him.” (v. 8-9)

We hear this, and we think God must be some kind of sadist, who delights in squeezing the evil out of people by making the do without, bearing agony in their soul and body, and then hiding His face from them in their greatest time of need.  That is what suffering is without Christ.  It leads people to cry out, “If God is good, why does He allow evil to happen?”  But you will never receive a satisfactory answer to a question like this.

The way to God doesn’t come in answer to our questioning the suffering (and accusing God of causing it or being unjust to us).  It comes through the suffering which God did inflict on His own Son, Jesus Christ.  Suffering is evil. Death is evil.  Sin is evil.  But when they meet in God’s Holy One, they all become holy.  It’s in Him that suffering is given meaning and purpose.

In the Gospel, James and John asked the Lord Jesus, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  To which, He asked them, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?…The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.”

To have a share in the Kingdom of God is to be trained by suffering before we enter into glory, just as our Savior was.  You and I share in that through Baptism: “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.” 

In Christ our Lord, our suffering and death are made holy and good.  Wait!  Did the pastor just say that?  Yes, for the child of God, who lives in the One who “learned obedience…and was made perfect by what He suffered”  These things are good in God’s sight.  Consider these passages:

From King David, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” Ps. 116:15

From Elihu teaching Job, “He delivers the afflicted by their affliction and opens their ear by adversity.” (Job 36:15)

James is so bold to say, Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4)

And as St. Peter wrote to us, 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 25 For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” (1 Peter 2:21-25)

The way in which God teaches and plants His instruction home in us, is after the image of Jesus, the Crucified One.  But He was not only crucified, dead, and buried.  On the Third Day, God raised Him from the dead, to live victorious over the sin and death of this world.  That’s the victory which He gives to you while you are suffering.  God is not a sadist, but a Savior, because “after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”

For this, His good and gracious purpose, may He strengthen and keep you now and unto eternity.  Amen.

Palm Sunday

Readings: Zechariah 9:9–12 | Philippians 2:5–11 | Mark 14-15

Text: Mark 14-15

The Passion of our Lord is stark and cruel.  There’s no painting it with a nice gloss to make it more attractive.  It forces us to gaze deeply and uncomfortably at something grotesque: an innocent Man arrested and falsely accused, with no one to come to His aid either in heaven or on earth, who had nothing but love for all people beaten and mocked and killed.

As we have just faced this again, it is helpful for us to deeply examine what is happening as the Lord Jesus gives up His life.  Words are important, but often we use them carelessly and without thinking very deeply about what they mean.  Here are a few examples:

Godforsaken, as in, “Who would want to live in this godforsaken place?”  We call something godforsaken when it’s desolate and undesirable.  But has God in fact forsaken a place because its condition is adverse?  Has God forsaken you because your days are unpleasant toil, your marriage is a painful mess, or you can’t seem to catch a break no matter how hard you pray?

If you want to see what godforsaken looks like, look to Jesus, who is betrayed by His friends.  He is said to be God’s Son, yet God does not come to His aid.  He is falsely accused in the name of God, and yet nothing silences those mouths.  He is innocent, and yet injustice prevails, the Roman judge saves his own hide and releases a murder.

With His dying breaths, Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk. 15:34) because He truly was forsaken, despised and rejected, cut off from His people.  The answer to His cry, “Why have you forsaken me?” is so that no other believing child of God would ever have to wonder—He hasn’t!  And you can be sure of this because God has set His seal on His beloved, Jesus. That way, we can confidently believe what He says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5 citing Joshua 1:5)

Damn – “Damn it, them, those…”  Oh how we love to fix our problems in the utmost!  Yes, we might try to soften it and supposedly make it kid-safe with darn or dang, but the force is the same: We want whatever it is gone from our life (and the earth for that matter)—the group we see as harmful, the implement that doesn’t work right, the person who’s hurt and angered us.  But we don’t have that kind of authority, to go condemning him or her or this or that.  Only God does.

And what is God doing, He who does indeed have that power and authority?  He doesn’t condemn the sinner; He damns His Son. He condemns Him as the singular worst sinner.  For all the lies, cheating, murders, fornication, slander, idolatry—Jesus is damned.  It was so that He would not damn you who believe.  “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21) 

“Why won’t God answer me?!”  When you pray and pray, and the answer doesn’t seem to come, you might ask this.  And while those who mock God and put Him to the test shouldn’t think they’ll have an answer, the Passion points us to our Lord Jesus’ experience.  Throughout His passion in Mark, heaven is silent.  “He said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.’”  But there is no answer; only the snores of His disciples.  He faced abuse before the Council, and when He declared Himself to be the Christ, the Son of the Blessed who will come on the clouds of heaven (Mk. 14:62), God allowed Him to be abused.  As He hung between heaven and earth, with passersby wagging their head and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself,” there was only darkness.  All on earth appeared to abandon Him, and heaven seemed not to care.

But when He uttered a loud cry and breathed His last, heaven declared with certainty that His suffering and the despair He endured were not in vain: “The curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”  God spoke with actions that the sacrifice of His Son was acceptable in His sight, now more than all whole burnt offerings and incense.  Heaven may have been silent during that hour, but the Father and His holy angels were keeping eager watch, to give the pronouncement that access to God is opened by Christ—“God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal. 4:4-6) In the Passion, behold what God has done for each one of us.  Repent of your blasphemous thoughts of God’s way toward you, and see in His Son delivered up that He will never leave or forsake you, that you who believe have passed out of judgment, and that He now delights to hear you call Him Father in prayer.  Amen.

Midweek Lent IV

Text: 2 Samuel 11

Additional Reading: Luke 19:1-10

The Sixth and Seventh Commandments protect gifts of God. The Sixth Commandment protects the gift of chastity. The Seventh Commandment protects the gift of possessions. Neither chastity nor earthly goods come from ourselves. Both come from the Lord.

Concerning chastity, it says in Proverbs 19:14, “House and wealth are inherited from fathers, but a prudent wife is from the Lord.” Spouses are a gift of God. Or alternatively, some have a special ability to remain unmarried and yet not burn with lust. This also is a gift from the Lord, as we hear in Matthew 19: the disciples are reflecting on certain advantages of remaining unmarried and Jesus says, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.” The Sixth Commandment protects the gift of chastity, both for the married and the unmarried. For the married, chastity means being faithful to one’s spouse and not seeking others. For the unmarried, chastity means celibacy. The Sixth Commandment protects this chastity by forbidding people to take for themselves those whom God has not given them.

Concerning possessions, we may be inclined to think that through our work, we determine how much we have. It certainly says in Proverbs 20:4, “The sluggard does not plow in the autumn; he will seek at harvest and have nothing.” God grants us no license to be lazy. However, David prays to the Lord in 1 Chronicles 29, “Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all.” And we have this paradox in Proverbs 11:24, “One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.” Or as we sing in the Magnificat, “he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.” (LSB 231, Luke 1:53)  These all show that possessions are a gift of God, not something that we acquire. The Seventh Commandment protects the possessions that God has distributed in His wisdom by forbidding people to take for themselves things that God has not given them.

Now it is God’s nature to be giving and gracious and wise. He is our Father in heaven who has all His creations at His disposal and apportions them according to His good pleasure and our need. God is not a socialist. He’s not interested in everyone having an equal share. One man has a beautiful wife, one man has a homely wife, another man has no wife. One man has millions of dollars, one man has no more than his daily bread. God doesn’t care about appearing “fair” in man’s eyes; He cares about being a good Father. And for this we can be glad. Since God is a good and gracious Father, we can be content with what He has given us, knowing that it is exactly what we need, and—more importantly—knowing it is from Him. Nothing makes chastity or possessions more precious than knowing our Father in heaven is the One who has given them.

Yet it is our nature, sinful as we are, to be discontent with what God has given us and to think we could distribute things better. We would much rather take than wait for God to give, or be content with what God has already given. Let’s see how that played out with David: He saw Bathsheba and wanted her. He inquired about her and found out, “Is this not Bathsheba, daughter of Eliam, wife of Uriah the Hittite?” She is not available for marriage. She is already married. And she’s certainly not available for the mutual violating of chastity. Yet he took her to himself, and it doesn’t seem that she resisted.[1] When she conceived, David didn’t show any remorse for his action. Perhaps he figured he was entitled to her as king, or entitled to her because she consented, or entitled to her simply because he wanted her. Man is very skilled at justifying himself, except that in the end he can never justify himself.

David thought that he had successfully covered up the affair. “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.” That was all too far from both of their minds.  The Lord sent the prophet Nathan to David to confront him about his sin, and Nathan did so through a parable:

“There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”

It’s an unfortunate flaw of our fallen nature that we’re able to see clearly in situations that don’t involve us but are often blinded by our own desires in the situations that do. Fortunately, the Lord provides the preaching of his Word to bring us to our senses. David sees very clearly that the rich man in the parable did wrong. He took from someone else, as if God had not already given him so much. And David pronounces his own sentence, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die, and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

Nathan responds, “You are the man!” and then speaks on behalf of the Lord: “I gave to you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your arms and I gave to you the house of Israel and Judah. And if this were too little, I would add to you as much more.” The Lord’s emphasizes his gracious and giving nature, to which David had become blind until this rebuke. The Lord continues by identifying David’s sin, “Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in my sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and you have taken his wife to be your wife and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me, and you have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.” There’s the sin. David took for himself what the Lord had not given. In doing so, he despised the Word of the Lord and he despised the Lord himself. And as for the consequence of David’s sin, the Lord is going to teach him anew who has the right to take and who has the right to give: “I will take your wives before your eyes and I will give them to your neighbor.” This is a just consequence, and useful for man. It is good for us to receive reminders that God is the giver and taker, even if those reminders sting.

We’ve seen that God is a good Father, that He gives graciously, that He justly chastens us for our good when we need correcting. We also see that our Father forgives our trespasses. David has now been brought to a knowledge of his sin and his heart is contrite. As David would later sing in Psalm 51, reflecting on this event, “A broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” He heard a gracious Word from the Lord: “Nathan said to David, ‘The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child who is born to you shall die.’”

David heard the Absolution. His sin has been forgiven. There will still be consequences. Those don’t negate the forgiveness of sins; that’s important to remember. And while the consequence of David’s sin was hard to bear, the death of his child pointed to God’s greatest gift of all. The Lord said in Ezekiel 18, “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son.” So why did David’s son die for David’s sin? Because the Son of David would die for David’s sin and for the sin of the whole world. Our Lord Jesus Christ is descended from David according to the flesh. And as it says in that very well-known passage of Scripture, which we heard again this past sunday, “God loved the world, so that He gave his only-begotten Son.” That’s the sort of giving God you have. Paul expands on this in Romans 8, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

Thus we see that in Christ we learn to be content. What more could we want than him? And God has freely given him to us. And he has freely given us himself. If we should lose all we have on earth, nevertheless in Christ we can boldly say with Job, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” That’s because the Lord will never take himself away from us. He has given Himself to us forever. And if we have Him, then we can be content with all else, come what may. Amen.

[1] Deuteronomy 22:23-24