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.

Lent IV Midweek

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

Lent III Midweek

Text: 2 Samuel 15:1-14

Additional Reading: Luke 10:25–37

The Fourth Commandment concerns God’s authority on earth. Through father and mother God rules households. Through president, emperor, king, and other civil offices God rules the nations of the world. The authority of father or president is not the authority of a mere man, but it is the authority of God himself. Now if a parent or civil authority commands us to do something contrary to God’s Word, then of course we say, as Peter did in Acts 5, “We must obey God rather than men.” However, such a command does not excuse us from showing honor and respect to the one in authority over us. If God wishes to remove a scoundrel from having charge of a family or a nation, that’s His business to set up and depose and He sees fit. We, for our part, don’t get to act like we’re no longer under authority. We may have to disobey one command because of God’s Word, but anything that’s not a sin, we should gladly do. And even a bad father or ruler is worthy of respect, if not according to his person then at least according to the Fourth Commandment.

But seldom do we even need to say, “We must obey God rather than men.” When’s the last time your parents or the government commanded you to sin?

The 2017 Explanation to the Small Catechism makes a distinction we ought to consider: “We must distinguish between what a government permits people to do and what it compels them to do. When it compels us to act contrary to God’s Word, then we must disobey and live as God intends. When government permits activities contrary to God’s Word (for example, abortion, no-fault divorce, and same-sex marriage), we bear witness by living as God intended.” (Note on Q. 57)

More often, we’re disobedient toward authority because we think the one in authority is doing a bad job and we know better than he or she does. Then we justify rebellion by fixating on the failure of the one in authority to do his duty, while at the same time turning a blind eye to our own duty.

This is how Absalom ended up forming a conspiracy again David, who was both his father and his king. Here’s how it began: Absalom had an older half-brother named Amnon, who was David’s firstborn son. Amnon violated Absalom’s sister Tamar, and David didn’t do anything about it [2 Sam. 13:1-22]. Was it not David’s duty, both as father and as king, to uphold justice and mete out punishment against the evildoer? But no consequence came against Amnon.

So Absalom took matters into his own hands and murdered Amnon. It’s astounding how often breaking the Fourth Commandment goes hand in hand with breaking the Fifth. A child is displeased with mom and dad’s sense of justice, and so takes matters into his own hands and hits a sibling. A group of disgruntled citizens rebel against the civil authorities and start a murderous uprising (case in point with this past year’s protests turned riots). Children despise their parents, and so don’t care for them physically in their old age. So it’s not surprising that Absalom quickly went from breaking the Fourth Commandment to breaking the Fifth.

Absalom fled Jerusalem to another country and was there for three years. Eventually David brought him back to Jerusalem. And two years after arriving back to Jeruslaem, Absalom appeared before his father and king. “He came to the king and bowed himself on his face to the ground before the king, and the king kissed Absalom.” A fine outward show of honor. But immediately after this comes the reading we heard tonight. Absalom does not honor his father and king. He has it out for him. He sneaks around and cleverly wins the hearts of the people, and soothes his conscience by saying, “See, all the people are discontent with my father and they like me and want me to be judge over them.” When you disobey authority don’t you like to talk about your disobedience with others and get them on your side, as if they could erase the Fourth Commandment and justify your disobedience? It’s been three thousand years since Absalom did this, and human nature hasn’t changed a bit.

You heard Absalom’s conspiracy, and how he dragged God’s name into it, pretending he had to repay a vow that he had made to the Lord, when he really just wanted to go public in full rebellion against father and government. Sin begets sin, and knocking over one commandment often knocks other commandments down with it. Absalom misused God’s name, misused the sacrifices that God had instituted in his Word, dishonored his father, murdered his brother, slandered the king’s reputation, coveted his neighbor’s house. And he would go on to commit adultery and take things that didn’t belong to him. And of course in all of this he broke the First Commandment, thinking that he would make a better god than the real one, that he could do a better job with authority and justice and distribution of kingdoms and power.

David and his servants fled for their lives, and after setting himself up in Jerusalem, Absalom went out hunting for his father. David had troops with him, Absalom had troops with him, and there was a great battle in the forest of Ephraim. Before the fighting started, David ordered the commanders of his army, Joab and Abishai and Ittai, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” David wanted his son to have a good life, and what parent doesn’t desire that for his child? But if David wanted his son to have a good life, he should have kept order and discipline in his family and upheld the Fourth Commandment. The Fourth Commandment says, “Honor your father and your mother, that it may go well with you.” Absalom devoted himself to breaking the Fourth Commandment, and so even though David tried to protect him, the Word of God would stand true and it could not go well for Absalom.

Absalom was riding through the forest on the back of a mule, and as he was passing under a great tree, his thick, luscious hair became caught in the branches. The mule went on, and Absalom was left suspended from the tree. A certain man saw him there and reported it to Joab, “Behold, I saw Absalom hanging in an oak.” “And [Joab] took three javelins in his hand and thrust them into the heart of Absalom while he was still alive in the oak. And ten young men, Joab’s armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him and killed him… And they took Absalom and threw him into a great pit in the forest and raised over him a very great heap of stones.” (2 Sam. 18:1-18) That was the end of Absalom. His life was cut short, he had no son, he received no proper burial, it did not go well with him. And David paid for his own negligence in upholding the Fourth Commandment in that he never got to see his son again, not even his corpse.

Does God forgive sins against the Fourth Commandment? Of course. His Son has hung on a better tree that that of Absalom, and Jesus hung there because of obedience, not disobedience. His blood covers all your sins, and he does not lie buried in stone, but has risen from the dead and exercises authority on earth through his Word. So yes, God forgives sins against the Fourth Commandment.  In fact, it was by our Lord Jesus’ keeping the Fourth Commandment, that we are saved.  As the hymnist Paul Gerhardt writes, “’Yes, Father, yes, most willingly/ I’ll bear what You command Me./ My will conforms to Your decree, I’ll do what You have asked Me.’ O wondrous Love, what have You done!/ The Father offers up His Son, / Desiring our salvation.” (LSB 438, st. 3) We should be warned, however, that sinning against the Fourth Commandment does not bring light consequences. God will uphold his authority by making examples of those who persist in disregarding it. And we should see this as a gracious thing on God’s part. If we learn to disregard the words of those whom God has put in authority over us and don’t see any harm in doing so, we will learn to disregard God’s Word as well and will suffer eternal harm for doing so. Obeying earthly authority certainly does not earn eternal life, but despising earthly authority can quickly turn into despising Christ’s authority and despising His words of eternal life. So, we can be glad that God has set before us the example of Absalom. By warning us with such an example, the Lord is saving our lives and teaching us to respect His authority. The fear of God opens our ears and makes us attentive. And then when the Lord speaks in His authority, He speaks all things for our good, and we learn what a fine thing his authority is, to him be honor forever. And the recipients of His lovingkindness respond: Amen.

Lent II Midweek

Text: 1 Kings 18:20-40

Additional Reading: John 5:1-18

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Second and Third Commandments flow from the First. In the First Commandment the Lord indicates that he is giving us himself. He says, “You shall have no other gods,” which certainly is a prohibition against trusting in any other. But included in the commandment is God’s pledge, “You don’t need any other. For everything you need, look to me, trust in me; I will be your God.” And since God gives us himself, he gives two corresponding gifts which he protects and preserves for our use with the Second and Third Commandments.

In the Second Commandment God says, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.” Again, this is certainly a prohibition, but it points to the gift of God’s Name. It wouldn’t be possible to misuse God’s name if he were not giving it to us to use in the first place. Because God has given us his name, we have the gift of prayer, in which we call upon God’s name and he rescues us from all harm. As he says in Psalm 50, “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”

While the Second Commandment preserves the gift of communicating to God, the Third Commandment preserves the gift of God’s communication to us. In other words, the Second Commandment has to do with God’s ear; the Third Commandment has to do with God’s mouth. God says, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” For the Jews this was a very strict command to rest on Saturday, and in that sense it doesn’t apply to us. Even for the Jews, mere idleness was not the point of the commandment, since human idleness doesn’t make anything holy. A day can only be made holy by the holy things of God, namely, his Holy Word. The purpose of the day of rest has always been for occupation with God’s Word. This Word of God is the gift that God preserves for our use with the Third Commandment. In essence, the Third Commandment means, “I, your God, am going to speak to you, and you shall listen.” And since our God speaks things for our good, both his righteous commands and his glorious Gospel, we see that it is a privilege to hear him as the Scriptures are read and preached.

Yet, as much as God’s name and God’s Word are great gifts of which we are not worthy, we find it all too easy to neglect them. Have you ever become bored with God’s Word? Have you ever thought to yourself, “I’ve heard this a hundred times before; I don’t need to hear it again”? The answer is yes. In spite of the fact that God’s Word is our greatest treasure on earth, we have treated it lightly.

The same goes for God’s name. God’s name is a very precious treasure. The Lord of heaven and earth turns his ear toward us, his unworthy creatures, and not only tolerates, but cherishes our petitions and promises to answer us. For our part, we may get tired of someone—even our own children—needing something from us, but not so with God. He can’t wait for us to call upon Him for help.  But how often do you give yourself over to worry instead of taking up God’s name in prayer? How often do you trust your own plans instead of entrusting yourself to your Father in heaven? And then when life doesn’t go according to your plans, how often do you despair as if all were lost and God’s name had perished?  Or even perhaps the Lord’s Name is on your lips, but your heart and mind are far from Him?

If the Second and Third Commandments flow from the First, then neglect of the Second and Third Commandments will lead to neglect of the First. Neglecting God’s Word and God’s name leads to a weakening of faith in God and opens the door for false gods. We have an example of that from Israel’s history. How did the people go from devoting themselves to the Lord before entering the promised land to worshiping the false god Baal? Well, they neglected the Word of God. They stopped calling upon God. Then they set God aside entirely and turned to another god. At one point they even completely lost the Book of the Law (2 Kings 22:8-13).

But as we heard in the reading, the Lord upholds his name and his Word, and thus shows himself to be the true God. By so doing, he also shows the greatness of his gifts: how His Name is powerful, how His Word is powerful. And by demonstrating the greatness of His Word and his name, the Lord strengthens our faith in him and turns us away from false gods.

Through the prophet Elijah, the Lord proposed a contest on Mount Carmel. Elijah told the wicked king Ahab to gather all Israel and the prophets of Baal. Elijah started with a sermon, calling the people to repentance, “How long will you go on limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The people were convicted, and they didn’t make any reply to this.

Then Elijah set forth the contest. Ultimately this contest would not be between him and the false prophets, but between the Lord and Baal. The prophets would call upon the name of their respective gods, according to the word of their respective gods, “and the God who answers by fire, he is God.” Note that the Lord’s plan is to use the Second and Third Commandments to uphold and prove the First. Invoking the Lord’s name according his Word of God will show him to be the true God.

The prophets of Baal go first, “O Baal, answer us!” Nothing happened. From morning until midday they carried on and received no response. Eventually, they “cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances.” This is what the word of their god demands: that they harm themselves in order to get his favor. False gods cause nothing but pain. Whether it’s Baal, money, political leaders, your own plans, or the work of your hands, if you trust it, you’ll only end up hurt.

Then at “the time of the offering of the oblation” Elijah prepares to call upon the Lord. “The time of the offering of the oblation” refers to the evening sacrifice that the Lord appointed to be offered daily in the temple. Elijah builds an altar of twelve unhewn stones, “according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob,” but also according to the Lord’s instruction for building altars in Exodus 20. In short, Elijah proceeds with his sacrifice according to the Word of God. God’s Word does not harm him, but guides him and gives him access to God. Such is the difference between God’s Word and whatever harmful revelation false gods claim to offer.

Then Elijah prays, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” Elijah calls upon the name of the Lord, according to the Word of the Lord. Elijah upholds the Second and Third Commandments before the eyes of the people. And the Lord himself upholds the First. “Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.”

What does this teach us? This contest does not mean that we can stage similar contests. Elijah was specifically appointed by the Lord to do this; as Elijah says in his prayer, he did this at the Lord’s Word. This event is not something that is in our power to repeat. But the winner of the contest still stands, and thus we can join the people in declaring the outcome in a confession of faith, “The Lord, he is God! The Lord, he is God!”

The Lord has given us his name, and we can call upon it with certainty that he will answer and repent with the people, “Lord, forgive us our neglect of your precious gifts.” The Lord has given us his Word, and we can hear it with certainty that it is true. The Word of the Lord says that his Son has borne your sins, defeated them in his death, given you peace with God by his blood. Our Father in heaven has accepted Christ’s sacrifice as certainly as he accepted Elijah’s and pardons you as certainly as he pardoned the people of Israel. The contest on Mount Carmel has shown the true God, and shown that the true God is gracious to his people. He has given himself to us. And along with himself, he has given the great gifts of his name and his Word. Make use of these gifts as God commands, knowing that they do not come from some Baal who only means harm for you, but from your Father in heaven who delights to hear your prayers and deliver you, who delights to reveal himself to you in his Word for your good. By the name of God you will receive an answer to your cries, and by the Word of God you will receive divine wisdom and eternal life. So thanks be to God for the gift of his name, and thanks be to God for the gift of his Word. Amen.

Lent I Midweek

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Readings: Psalm 81:1-16 | Exodus 32:1-35 | John 8:31-59

Text: Exodus 32:1-35

At Mount Sinai, as recorded in Exodus 20, God Himself spoke to the people of Israel, saying, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves. You shall have no other gods before me.” The Lord prefaces the First Commandment (and all the commandments) with the Gospel: He is the one who has plagued Satan and his host, who has redeemed us with an outstretched arm, who has promised us an inheritance and given Himself to be our God. When we hear the Lord’s preface to the First Commandment and then hear, “You shall have no other gods,” it seems to follow so obviously. Why would I need other gods? This one God is over all and has done everything for me: given me life and breath and redemption, bound himself to me with an oath, provided for all my needs of body and soul. No other gods, indeed! What good would they be? What could they add that’s not already ours in the Lord?

And then we come to tonight’s reading. The Lord had summoned Moses onto the mountain, and Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights. It says in Exodus 24, “Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.” The Lord was still very clearly with His people and had not abandoned them. Yet what did we hear? “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, ‘Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’” (v. 1)

It is notable that they don’t demand one god, but gods, plural. Polytheism, belief in multiple gods, seems native to our corrupt nature. This is likely due to the devil’s initial temptation, (literally translated) “and you shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5) which was the first suggestion that there could be more than one deity. Man acted on that temptation, and has been inclined toward faith in multiple gods ever since.

Over the course of human history this has often manifested itself in various pantheons, that is, various sets of gods. But I caution you not to think of polytheism as some quaint doctrine of the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, Canaanites, or Norsemen. This inclination toward other gods, plural, infects all human hearts. In our day, pagans often trust some combination of mammon, good works, science, and luck. For Christians, it’s more often a trust in God AND. God AND money. God AND my mostly moral life. God AND fate. God AND the medical establishment.  God AND my own powers and abilities. For God’s people, the blasphemous pantheon includes the Lord, but as one among others. So we heard that after Aaron made the golden calf, he proclaimed, “Tomorrow shall be a feast” – to whom? – “to the Lord.” “See, we still have the Lord,” the people could say. “We’ve merely supplemented and filled in some gaps.”

How quickly we forget that the Lord is the only God we need. He is the Lord our God who brought us out of the domain of darkness, out of the house of slaves [Col. 1:13-14]. We shall have no other gods, because we don’t need any other gods. But what is the consequence when people break the First Commandment? The Lord spells it out in the First Commandment itself: “You shall have no other gods before me,” that is, “You shall have no other gods in front of my face.” The consequence for having other gods is that the Lord turns away His face, or consumes people from before His face, or sends people away from His face, as we see throughout the Scriptures, and as the Lord intended in tonight’s reading. When we hear the Lord’s verdict against Israel’s idolatry, we hear His judgment against us as well: “Let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.”

But then “Moses implored the Lord His God.” Notice, he didn’t argue that the Lord had misjudged the people. They really had turned aside quickly. Nor does Moses argue that the punishment is too severe. We deserve no less than what the Lord has threatened. To what, then, can Moses appeal? To several things, and they’re the same sorts of things to which Christ appeals on your behalf when you have committed idolatry.

First, Moses appeals to the Exodus, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” The Lord delivered His people. No one made him do it. He chose to do it, and He chose to take the people as His own. Likewise Christ has come in the flesh, borne your sin, crucified it in His own body on the cross, and left it for dead, while He rose from death. The Lord has baptized you and said in Isaiah 43:1, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” And the Name by which He has called you is His own. You have been baptized in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Thus, Jesus intercedes, “Dear Father, do not be angry with them, not after We took such pains to deliver them and have taken them to be Our own.” And the Father is pleased to grant such a petition for the sake of His Son.

Second, Moses appeals to the Lord’s reputation, “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’?” The Lord has concern for His Name and reputation, that His Name be hallowed on the earth—and that Name is hallowed when it glorifies God as the Savior of man. And so Christ prays, “Father, do not destroy them, lest the devil have reason to boast against Us, saying, ‘He only saved them so that He could do them harm.’” And the Father is pleased to grant this petition as well for the sake of His Son.

Third, Moses appeals to the Lord’s promises, “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven.’” So Christ appeals to the Lord’s promises on our behalf, “Father, we have sworn to do our Christians good and not harm [Jer. 29:11], so let us be gracious to them and forgive their sin.” Again, the Father grants this petition for the sake of His Son.

Now I don’t want to give the impression that God the Father is an angry god of justice and Jesus His Son is some other god of grace, and the two balance each other out like yin and yang. The Father and Son are one, together with the Holy Spirit. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit desire the same things; their will is one. So the point of these prayers of intercession on our behalf is not to say that God is changeable or at odds with himself, but to show that our entire hope for life and salvation rests in the Lord alone. Apart from God Himself taking up our cause, what can we plead but guilty and face our justly deserved punishment? But Jesus has done as Moses did and said, “Blot me out of your book, that they may have forgiveness.” [cf. verse 32] Jesus died on the cross and suffered for man’s idolatry, and at the same time showed just how great a God the true God is. He holds nothing back, but gives himself to us fully, even His very life for ours.

“I am the Lord your God,” Jesus says, “who brought you out of the devil’s kingdom, out of the house of slaves. You shall have no other gods.” And we say, “Amen, God help us, for why would we need any other gods than You?” To the only true God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be praise and thanks, now and forever. Amen.

Ash Wednesday

Readings: Joel 2:12-19 | 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 | Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Text: Joel 2:12-19; Job 13:23

Our forefather Job asked the Lord in the midst of his suffering, “How many are my iniquities and my sins? Make me know my transgression and my sin” (Job 13:23). This seems like a dangerous question and request. Don’t we know enough of our sins without seeking to know more of them? What would we learn about ourselves if the Lord made us know our transgression and sin? Certainly there is more to know, more than we can fathom. David prays in Psalm 19, “Who can discern his errors? Declare me innocent from hidden faults.” The Apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4, “I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted.” The prophet Jeremiah speaks the Word of the Lord, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can know it?” From such passages we learn that we only know some of our sins. Indeed, we cannot fully grasp the depth of our depravity. We have a load of iniquity of which we are not even aware.

Now one might ask, “Why would I want to know it? I’ll simply pray like David, ‘Declare me innocent from hidden faults,’ and leave it at that. I’ll pray the Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer in which we plead guilty of all sins, even those we are not aware of. Ignorance is bliss.” It is good generally to confess that you’re a sinner, and it is perhaps understandable on a human level that we wouldn’t want to feel the pain of knowing just how bad we are. But we must pray with Job, “How many are my iniquities and my sins? Make me know my transgression and my sin.”

Why must we pray this? Because it is all too easy to let our confession of sin turn into the gentle sentiment which states, “No one’s perfect.” The world readily grants this. Saying that no one’s perfect may confess that we’re all in the same boat, and none of us lives up to his own ideal. But if our confession of sin becomes nothing more than that, it will leads to two dire consequences for Christians.

First, when we do not purposefully examine ourselves according to God’s Law, we end up with an inaccurate picture of ourselves. This is dangerous business, and can lead into outright unbelief from which we would need to be reconverted. David, for instance, in the midst of his affair with Bathsheba, was not judging himself by God’s Law, but by what he could or couldn’t get away with. Once he had sufficiently covered things up in the eyes of man, he supposed that he had nothing further to worry about. He thought he was righteous when he was not. (2 Samuel 11)

And this is where an inaccurate picture of ourselves will always lead us: into self-righteousness. We may then be free from pangs of conscience, but we would not be free from the pangs of hell. It is far better that we hear God’s judgment against our sin now while there is time to repent than to hear his judgment on the Last Day when the door has been shut. Thanks be to God, He sent Nathan the prophet to David to preach the Law to him and confront him with his sin. It was through that Law that David regained an accurate picture of himself, saw his unrighteousness, and recognized his need for salvation. (2 Samuel 12:1-14) May the Lord show such love to us as well.

Second, when we purposefully remain ignorant of our sins by gazing into the Law of God as little as possible, we also devalue Christ. He who is forgiven much loves much, and he who is forgiven little loves little [Luke 7:41-48]. Everyone has much to be forgiven, it’s merely a question of whether we recognize it or not. If we think we’re not that sick, we won’t be very diligent in seeking a cure. If my sins aren’t bothering me, and I reason that I should let sleeping dogs lie, what importance will I place on coming to church to hear the Gospel and receive the Sacrament? He who will not feel his wounds will learn to scorn the wounds of Christ. But he who will feel his wounds will sing for joy in Christ, as David does in Psalm 103, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy.”

You see that there is much danger to be avoided by praying with Job, “How many are my iniquities and my sins? Make me know my transgression and my sin.” But someone might say, “If I stare deeply into the mirror of God’s Law, I’m not going to like what I see. Not only is it going to cause me pain when I realize how grievously I have offended against God, but I have a suspicion that my condition is so horribly beyond cure that I would lose all hope of salvation.”

It is true that our condition is a miserable one. Even a quick glance at the Ten Commandments reveals this. Going in order, you see that your heart has trusted things that are not God and doubted the love of him who died for you. You have neglected prayer and been thankless after receiving God’s good gifts. You have regarded God’s Word with less interest than you pay to your favorite book or show. You have dishonored those whom God has placed in authority over you. You have been angry and had bloody thoughts against those who have wronged you. You have regarded marriage according to its troubles instead of according to God’s institution, and have desired those whom God has not given you. You have not been content with the possessions that God has given you. You have delighted in hearing bad things about others and spread gossip. You have craved things that belong to other people as if God didn’t know how to take care of you.

Well, there it is. You are in a wretched state, as as far as man is concerned you are beyond cure. Yet what did you hear in the reading from Joel? “Return to the Lord your God.” Why? Because you’re not that bad, we caught it early, it’s only stage 1 sin? No. You are that bad, and we all have been from conception. But return to the Lord your God. Why? Because it’s your only option and there’s a million in one chance that God might actually do something for you? It’s true that the Lord is our only option, but there’s no doubt about what He will do. So return to the Lord your God. Why? “Because He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Don’t turn to the Lord because of any merit in you. Don’t turn to the Lord with a faint wish that He might do something. Turn to the Lord because of who He is and what He has done for you in Christ, and with full confidence that since He is gracious, He will be gracious to you.

And so we lament with Saint Paul, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” but we confidently confess with him as well, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” We may be wretched, so wretched that we are like Lazarus shut up stinking in the tomb, who cannot even weep over his own sins rightly but only reap the wages of sin which is death. [John 11] We may be wretched and entombed, but Jesus comes to our tomb, and weeps for us, and breaks the doors of death with his death, and resurrects us with the call of his resurrected voice. “Live!” He says, “I forgive you all your sins. Come forth!” And He removes the bandages, and your flesh is clean, and the stink is gone, and you are alive in him.

So do not fear to pray, “How many are my iniquities and my sins? Make me know my transgression and my sin.” During the season of Lent we will study the Ten Commandments, and this prayer will be answered. But Lent will not end in despair, rather, we will come to Christ the mercy seat, to the grace of God hanging on the cross, to whom be glory and honor forever. Amen.