Fourth Sunday of Easter (Jubilate)

Readings: Isaiah 40:25–31 | 1 Peter 2:11–20 | John 16:16-22

Text: John 16:16-22

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

There is a caricature of Christianity that says because Christ is risen, we should always be happy, always be looking up, and seeing the bright side of everything.  It’s backed up by dreadful platitudes like, “God has a plan.” And “He never gives you more than you can handle.” This is a deadly lie, because it is dishonest both to our Lord and His suffering, and because it is woefully out of touch with reality.

Yes, Jesus has won salvation for us and forgives our sins, but He has not yet moved us to paradise. St. Paul teaches us to rejoice always, but also to endure suffering. We know that Jesus lives. But the cross we bear is unavoidably real.

This is the lesson our forefathers in the faith have taught us. Adam and Eve had sorrows even after they were spared death and nakedness by God’s intervention and promise; they had to bury their son, Abel. King David had sorrows and horrible consequences for his sins, even after he received the absolution from the prophet, Nathan. His first son by Bathsheba still dies. Even after the events of Easter, the personal appearances of Jesus, the sending of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the apostles still had many sorrows.  Despite that comment Jesus made to Peter, ““If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” John had to carry on the apostolic ministry after all the others had died.

We have sorrows even after Baptism—and the more we bear the Name of Christ and strive to live by His Word, the more we will be attacked and hated by this world’s prince. Jesus predicted this He said: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.”  He told us this ahead of time, so it would not be a shock.

The salvation which our Lord Jesus won for us is real.  We are not saying a platitude to affirm that Christ is risen. I know that my Redeemer lives, what comfort that sweet sentence gives.  This truth gives us joy now. It changes us and puts all the world into perspective.  It’s far from being the once-and-done solution we wish it would be, but it’s what St. Paul describes to us in Romans 5:

“Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame.” (Rom. 5:1-5)

But this salvation is not fully realized before the Christ’s return. Until that Day, we have sorrows and our faith waits for the fullness to come.

These sorrows come upon us simply from living in this broken and unjust world. Misfortune and tragedy happen to us and to our loved ones. We are often victims of injustice at the hands of the powerful and sometimes even at the hands of our friends and families. We cry out to God and ask why this happens, but He does not give us that answer.  Rather, we all go the way of the cross—“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)  The disciple is not above his teacher [Matt. 10:24-25].  Yet, unlike our Teacher, we are not completely innocent. We complicate these sorrows by our sinful choices and our reactions to what God allows or sends. The old man in us is not yet fully crushed. We act in anger, pride, short-sightedness, and selfishness that is not from our heavenly Father, but is as James says, “is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” (James 1:15)  None of us is a completely innocent victim.

Our Lord compares all of this to a woman in labor.

21 When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.

His primary point is that our suffering is temporary. The reward of eternal life with Him which follows our suffering will be so great and joyous that we will forget, in a sense, the suffering which we endured. St. Paul makes the same point when he says “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)  He goes on there to explain how the creation is subject to futility, groaning the day when Christ returns.

There is also a hint in our Lord’s illustration of childbirth that our suffering is a consequence of our sins. It is a holy chastisement from our Father. The pain and danger of labor is the explicit a punishment and consequence for Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden:

“And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, And you shall bruise His heel.” To the woman He said: “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; In pain you shall bring forth children” (Genesis 3:15-16)

The pain and danger of childbirth are a curse upon us. Yet human birth under the Law is the means by which God became a Man for us and saved us—“Yet she will be saved through childbearing,” the Apostle says to all of Eve’s daughters (1 Tim. 2:15). Our Lord Jesus Christ is that Seed of Eve, born of Mary under the Law, with sorrow and pain. His heel was bruised by Satan on the cross until all of the Father’s wrath was appeased and every last accusation of Satan against us disappeared from his mouth and death itself lost its sting.

Only when all of the Law had been completed, did our Lord say, “It is finished” (John 19:30) and so it was. There was no more ransom left to pay, no more that needed to be done to Satan to pry us loose from the strong man’s house. Jesus then submitted to death in obedience to His Father. His Body and His Soul were rent apart. Then, on the third day, He rose again. Even what men in this evil and unjust world had done, God worked for good. The curse of the Law in labor led to the Gospel of peace in resurrection.

Mary, the blessed Virgin and mother of our Lord, is the prime example to us of faith. The angel Gabriel foretells her honor by God, an honor that will bring pain and shame among men. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” In response she says, “Let it be to me according to your Word.” (Luke 1:27-38). She accepts the honor and willingly bears the burden. She is the most blessed of women, and even still, as Simeon said after the Nunc Dimittis, “a sword will pierce through your own soul also.” (Luke 2:35)  Mary must watch her innocent Son be brutalized and slandered and killed in the most horrific way imaginable. She has sorrow. Then she sees Him again. He rises. But again, His visible presence is removed from her and He ascends to the Father. Until she is transferred to glory, Mary gets her Son no differently than we do. She has Him by His promise in His Word and in the breaking of the bread. Until God delivers her from every evil of body and soul, she must wait, she must live in this evil place, in the midst of sorrow, by faith, learning to rejoice in all things.

And so it goes for us as well.  We are truly children of God, born from above in the Baptismal waters, and forgiven of all our sins.  In this, and all of God’s promises, we rejoice always. Yet we also have sorrows now. Our sins deserve punishment, and our flesh will fight against the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. In all this, Christ’s grace is sufficient. We endure all this in faith, hopeful and expectant. We look to His Word for comfort and we look for His return in glory when we will be complete, when our hearts will rejoice and our joy no one will take from us.

Because of this, Christians have a much better reason to celebrate Mother’s Day.  It’s far more than a celebration of human achievement. After all, we know the frailty of that—the broken ties, wombs that cannot bear, and children who have been taken by death.  No, far greater than a celebration of motherhood under the Law and death, we rejoice in the fruit of Mary’s womb.  For by Him, all of you have the gift of eternal life.  You have the joy which no one can take from you. In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

Third Sunday of Easter (Misericordias domini)

Readings: Ezekiel 34:11–16 | 1 Peter 2:21–25 | John 10:11-16

Text: John 10:11-16

The Lord Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd.”  This Sunday in the Church year has come to be known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.”  So, let’s to dig deeper into what this statement of Jesus means.  Let us not just pass over this, and adopt a picture of Jesus that spends the day nuzzling cute little sheep.

I. “I am” – Greek: ego eimi

Jesus is saying that He is true God, together with all that implies.  John’s Gospel is known for seven such “I am” statements.  This is more than your typical metaphor.  It goes back to way God revealed Himself to His people of old.  Most notably, with Moses in Exodus 3, we read:

13 Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ” 15 God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.

The translation which we see in our Bibles, “the Lord” (small caps) is the Hebrew traditional way to render this covenant Name of God, “I am” (especially see Gen. 2:4 creation, Ex. 13:21 deliverance)  It means that this is the living God; the God who is without any qualifiers, who created all things ex nihilo (out of nothing, John 1:3), and He depends on no other.

It’s not apparent from the English, but this is why Jesus gets into such hot water with the Jews in John 8.  If He were nothing more than a raving lunatic, saying He lived before Abraham, they could have overlooked that.  But He says, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am…[and] before Abraham existed, I am.” (John 8:28, 8:58)  He is saying that He is truly God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

II. “Good” – Greek: kalos

The word “good” gets thrown around like an old t-shirt in our day.  “How are you?” “I’m good.”  Jesus caught the rich young man off guard when He replied to the address, “Good Teacher” in Mark 10 by responding, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:17-18)  Well, when you put it that way, it contracts all our measure of good against the “gold standard” which is God Himself.  So also here in the Gospel:

The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.

Since Jesus is the Lord, the “I am,” we should also recall in creation where the Lord God saw what He made and said, “It is good.” (Gen. 1:10 ff.)  But to teach us what this means in action, He contrast what the good Shepherd does compared the hireling.  There’s no personal stake in the sheep’s welfare for the hireling; they are not his sheep, and if they perish, he’ll simply move on to another gig.

Also, lest we think “good” is talking about the quality of His shepherding, what actual shepherd, seeking a livelihood, would lay down his life for the sheep?  This is not a lesson in how to successfully make a living by owning sheep.  If anything it’s the sheep who ought to be shorn and to die so the shepherd and his family have something to wear and eat.

But that is the stark difference with the Good Shepherd, who is Himself God. And this is what God the Shepherd does: “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” (Ezek. 34:11-13)

III. “Shepherd” – Greek: poimein, pastor

God makes clear His definition of a shepherd.  It’s something like David, who wrote the inspired Psalm 23, which we prayed today.  It’s much more than what the spiritual leaders were doing which occasioned the strong rebuke in Ezekiel 34.  It’s more than any person could claim, for, as Isaiah and Peter said, For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” (1 Pet. 2:25)  Only this Good Shepherd, true God and true man can fully fit the bill.  All others are flawed reflections at best.

But, then why do we use the word, “Pastor,” (which is simply Latin for shepherd) to address those men whom the Lord calls to His service?  Having anyone call you “pastor” s hould make you quake in your boots.  I could take a cue from the Lord and say, “Why do you call me pastor? There is no shepherd but Jesus alone.”

Here to wrap up the discussion of the Good Shepherd, it’s beneficial and necessary to understand the similarities and the differences between the Good Shepherd and those who come in His Name.

Thankfully Scripture does give us other ways to conceive of this office.  Jesus in Luke 12 and St. Paul in 1 Corinthains 4 compare the pastoral office to that of a steward who is in charge of the household: Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes.” (Luke 12:42-43) and “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.” (1 Cor. 4:1-2)  The holy things don’t belong to the steward at all, but to Christ.  In both passages, the measure is not how “nice” or “personable” or “clever” he is, but “faithful” to His Master.

This past week at both our Synod’s seminaries, 101 candidates [45 from Fort Wayne and 56 from St. Louis] for the pastoral office received calls into the Lord’s harvest.  This is an exceeding gift for so many men to be willing, well-equipped, and tested to tend the Lord’s flock.  It’s a tradition, at least at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, is for the seminary president to send the candidates off with this charge:

“Go, then. Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which He hath purchased with his own blood. [Acts 20:28] Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; 3 Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being an example to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away. [1 Pet. 5:2-4]

The Lord bless thee from on high, and make thee a blessing unto many, that thou mayest bring forth fruit, and that thy fruit may remain unto eternal life. [John 15:16] Amen.”[1]

“Amen,” because we can only but trust that God will accomplish what He has promised to do through the Office of the Holy Ministry.  Here, the portion of 1 Peter gives another description of the shepherding office: Feeding the flock, overseeing their welfare, willingly devoting yourself to God’s heritage and—though they themselves are just as thoroughly a sinner—being an example above reproach.  Their commendation comes not from the praise of men who call them reverend or gush over their sermons, but from the Chief Shepherd (Archshepherd, literally).  Because of this, many use the term, “Undershepherd,” but it’s a little clunky for daily use.

Jesus alone is the One who lays down His life for the sheep, and requires nothing in return.  He relies on nothing from the sheep to accomplish this work.  But, the men who serve Him do.  These men and their families have to eat, and so, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” and the laborer deserves his wages” (1 Cor. 9:14, Luke 10:7).

They need their own Sabbath rest, sleep, and time off.  These undershepherds also have other vocations—that of husband, father, son and brother.  These vocations cannot be neglected any more than they can in any Christian’s life.  But of the Good Shepherd, we can be sure from Psalm 121, “Behold, He who keeps Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.” (Ps. 121:4)  Only our Immanuel can promise, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20)

The undershepherds are also, every one of them, fallible men.  They serve a Church which is comprised of fallible people.  This Church together is gathered around Christ, who washes these servants and the flock they serve in His holy, precious blood.  These undershepherds will have faults, they will need to recant of things they’ve said in error, repent of their vanity, apologize for their hot temper, and so on (just think of the example of Peter).  And yet the Lord has been pleased throughout time to accomplish His work through sinful servants.  It is a proof of His power and goodness that He shepherds His people though wicked men. 

Imagine this!  That with this ordering of the Church in mind—with Peter standing right before Him—that He would say, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:18-19)  What treasures are handled by human hands, and what potential there is for abuse and corruption.  But what an Almighty Good Shepherd we have, that He, who laid down His life for His sheep, would continue to enlarge His fold in our midst:

“And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.


Palm Sunday

Readings: Zechariah 9:9–12 | Philippians 2:5–11 | Matthew 26:1-27:66

Text: John 12:12-19

Among the four Gospels, St. John’s provides a unique perspective.  Matthew (Matt. 21:1-9), Mark (Mark 11:1-11), and Luke (Luke 19:28-40) all contribute to the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.  Yet, the Holy Spirit inspired John with additional commentary on events in the Lord’s ministry. We’ll consider three of those today.

16 His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him. 17 The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness. 18 The reason why the crowd went to meet him was that they heard he had done this sign. 19 So the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.”

First, the disciples that day, who witnessed these things first-hand, did not understand their full import.  We often think that if we were there in person, we would have a better time believing, and the Church would have a better time convincing people of the truth of the Gospel.  But it’s not true.  Even the disciples, who were with Him day after day did not understand.  At times, it even says they didn’t understand “because it was hidden from them” (Luke 18:34, also Matt. 11:25)

Now, why would God do this, if He indeed desires not the death of the sinner, and for all to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth? [Ezek. 18:23; 1 Timothy 2:3-4]  It’s because we are not gods; we are mortals, finite, time-bound creatures of God.  It was kept from them that day because it wasn’t time for them to understand yet.  That time did come, and they did reflect on it.  Despite what the Internet would promise us, we will not have all the answers at our fingertips.  With the things of God, we must wait on Him.

Our Lord taught this to Nicodemus, who was convinced that he had discovered by his own wisdom that Jesus was a teacher come from God.  Jesus took that boast right out of him by saying, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)  This is what happens in every Christian’s growth as God’s child.  The adult convert often looks back on their past and says, “Why didn’t I get it sooner?  Why did I squander so many years in sin and rebellion?”  Any Christian who has prayed for a wayward child or friend has been mystified why the Spirit doesn’t move sooner in someone’s life.  But this waiting teaches us to rely completely on God to move and work in our hearts.  We cannot take any credit for it; we can only reflect on it in hindsight and give God the glory!

The crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to bear witness.

The next thing the Evangelist John points out is the witness of the crowd.  Even though the disciples could not yet connect the dots, the crowds did not hesitate to share what they had seen.  A man who had died, and was four days in the tomb, was now alive and walking around again.  Certainly, they couldn’t explain the fine points of doctrine, or argue against heresy in a systematic way.  But, it’s like the man born blind, whom Jesus healed, in John 9, who said, “Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” (John 9:25)  This man bore simple witness to who Jesus was and what He had done.

We are far too preoccupied with convincing others by human reason.  I suppose this is because so many persuaders are around us: advertisers convincing us that we need this or that, the desire to live up to peer or family expectations, the flexing of persuasive muscles on social media by who has the most viral meme.

But when it comes to sharing the good news of Jesus, success does not hinge on our eloquence, but on God’s work.  From the noble St. Paul who was an unskilled speaker (1 Cor. 2:1-5; 2 Cor. 11:6), to Moses who stuttered (Exod. 4:10-16), and Jeremiah who was a youth (Jer. 1:6-7).  But also consider the witness of Rahab in Jericho (Josh. 2:8-14), Ruth in Bethlehem (Ruth 1:6-14, 4:13-17), and the slave girl whose words led to Naaman’s salvation (2 Kings 5:1-3).  Whoever says that Christian witness is an elaborate program of training and traveling long distances is trying to sell you something.  God uses the witness of lowly people like you and I where we already are, who have this treasure in jars of clay [2 Cor. 4:7].  The convincing and persuading belong to Him, the timing of events and saving of lives is His.

19 So the Pharisees said to one another, “You see that you are gaining nothing. Look, the world has gone after him.”

Human power seems mighty.  The devil is a strong foe.  Our sinful nature is pervasive.

We Christians today would say that the world is going against Christ and toward antichrist.  The church after Covid seems all too content to “attend” through a screen.  Membership in many places continues to decline, as people find purpose and community elsewhere  Content creation has given rise to YouTube stars who—for better or worse—are able to contribute their opinions and delivery into the salad bar of bespoke (that is, self-chosen, tailor made) Bible study.

Children are indoctrinated with new racism, misandry (the hatred of men), and socialism at schools and by popular media.  Public policy is directed by a godless, materialistic worldview.  That worldview touts an ability to save our planet from forecasted man-made catastrophe and to upend natural law by redefining gender identity.  This is not about right versus left, but light versus darkness.

Isn’t it interesting that both the enemies of God and His followers today believe they are on the losing side of the battle?  But it is God’s will that is done, and we, as His children, do well to remember that.

Our Father is He who said even to the ocean, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed” (Job 38:11)  It is not an arm-wrestling match between equal forces of good and evil.  Jesus’ arrival at Jerusalem, His innocent suffering and death, crying out, “It is finished!” (John 19:30) changed everything.  It didn’t just turn the tables; it chained the devil [Rev. 20:2] and broke his teeth, as the Church prays in Psalm 3: “For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked.”

Beware of those who would drive you to fear the encroaching darkness of the world, as if it had power greater than your God.  “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 5:16) And it will shine, because the darkness cannot overcome it [John 1:6]!  Remember the lessons of our forefathers: the Israelites under mighty Pharaoh, God’s people in Exile in Babylon, the Christians of the first few centuries who lived in a similar godless world.  The Lord prevailed and preserved His people then, and today is no different.

In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

Fifth Sunday in Lent (Judica)

Readings: Genesis 22:1–14 | Hebrews 9:11–15 | John 8:42-59

Text: John 8:42-59

Jesus saw through their lip service.  He had been teaching the Jews at the time of the Passover, the same one that was mentioned in last week’s Gospel from John 6.  It all started out with Jesus saying to them, “I am the Light of the World. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  Right out of the gate, at least some of His hearers were skeptical: “You are bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true.” (John 8:12-13)  By the point of today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus has touched quite a few nerves.  He called these men out in a way that only God is able to do.  He isn’t limited by secret thoughts, trying to look put together and acceptable.  He sees what is in us better than we can see it ourselves.

The Jews were offering to Jesus what they knew to be true: “Abraham is our father!” (John 8:39)  And it was true, as far as they could see.  Just because we know what transpired after, we dare not become arrogant and say, “How little you know!”  We also make a confession of faith, and that to the best of our ability.

At the end of the day, however, they are just words.  People have a capability of being surprisingly dualistic, able to say something but only selectively mean it.  Sometimes, we would rather perjure ourselves than to face the shame of having our double-speak exposed.

God is well-acquainted with putting our words—our confession—to the test.  Already in the world, before there was sin, the Lord put the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the midst of the garden, by which He would test the man and woman’s faithfulness [Gen. 2:9, 16-17].  Those sorts of tests continue, as we read last week in Bible study from Judges, that the Lord did not completely drive out the Canaanite nations “in order to test Israel by them, whether they will take care to walk in the way of the Lord as their fathers did, or not.” (Judges 2:20-22) There’s a truth about our humanity there: while only God knows the heart, He also tests the heart to see what is in it, and so He can show us what’s in it.  In this way, He exposes any double-mindedness for what it is, and shows us how much we rely on Him—especially to save us.

It’s that double-speak which Jesus presses back on and exposes within His hearers in the Gospel.  You say that you are Abraham’s children, and yet when the one who is testified to be the Seed of Abraham comes, you want nothing to do with Him.  You believe that the Lord freed you with mighty acts from the slavery of Egypt, but you cannot free yourself from bondage to sin and the Ruler of this world—the devil.

The Jews that day couldn’t have dreamed of murdering Jesus, and they went so far as to say He must be demon-possessed.  But He knew what they were capable of, and what they would do when it came down to the moment.  The point wasn’t that they were any more sinister, that they would “crucify the Lord of glory,” (1 Cor. 2:8) but He was pointing out how very strong our sinful nature wants to be left alone to keep a soul in bondage.

The Lord has the power to push back on our double-speak too.  With our lips, we confess that we believe in an Almighty Father, that we have a heavenly Lord whose Name is Jesus, and that the Holy Spirit gives us breath and life.  But in our lives, we confess man and creature comforts to be the source of life.  If you don’t believe me, consider the things you are afraid of; how you tell yourself “I can get by as long as I have…”; and how you can resent the family, property, government, and other gifts He has given you.

We say that we love Jesus, but take stock of how much time you spend with Him during the week—in worship and devotions, in being taught His Word, in prayer.  “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:21)  You and I treasure and love work and time with our favorite relatives; our favorite diversions; the excitement of the Amazon truck pulling up.  We’re fans of our favorite authors, but could we be called an obsessive fan of the Bible? 

If we all love Jesus, why is only 1/8 of the Sunday attendance regularly in Bible study? [If it needs to be at a different time, let’s make it happen!]  If we love Jesus, what are we doing to teach our children the faith?  There are only two families in Sunday School and that’s only because the moms make it happen.  We say we love Jesus, but our actions often confess at best that other things are more important than Him—be it sleep, or sports, or family visiting from out of town.

In short, we get burned out from the week, and give what’s left to our Lord.

Jesus did not poke the bear just to get a rise out of the Jews, or just to make them feel miserable or angry.  He did it to expose what was bent within them in order to save them.  As St. Paul would later explain to the Corinthian Christians: “I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us. 10 For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret” (2 Cor. 7:9-10)

I don’t point out our deficiencies—yours and mine—to belittle anyone but to expose what is in us that is either the devil’s work or our filthy sin.  Jesus said to the Jews, “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires…when he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”  The devil’s desire is to keep us in ignorance or with a twisted version of God’s Word, to keep you enslaved to your past sins, to make sure your children know nothing but what the television and their unchurched friends tell them.  That’s the kind of thing that Jesus needs to expose in us so that He can save us from it.

When the Lord sees such a people who are evil in their hearts—the Jews that day who fostered murderous thoughts, or us with all that is in us—the Lord’s reaction is shocking.  Where we might deem it necessary to show “tough love” and put those rebels out on their hind ends, that is not what God is up to.  For all our rebellion, how we speak out of at least two sides of our mouth, our neglect to study and keep the Lord’s Word—He gives His all, His devotion is to even His enemies:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.”

God sees the ugliness in you and I with full clarity…and He nails it to the cross.  And not just for past sins, but throughout our lives!  Jesus is our ever-serving High Priest, “He entered once for all…thus securing an eternal redemption…how much more will the blood of Christ…purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” (Heb. 9:12-14, Epistle)  This is what the love of God looks like—“not that we loved Him, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins…and we love because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:10, 19)

This is how the Lord changes us: by adopting us as His dear children, saving us from the wretched and cruel devil’s house.  He gives us His Name and His Spirit creates a new heart within.  So, rather than resembling the devil, with his lying and murdering, we day by day resemble our Father in heaven.  We rejoice to have Him as our God, and praise Him for His goodness and mercy toward us.  We delight in His Word, as the Psalmist who says, the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes; 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.” (Psalm 19:8-10)  Being with our Savior and in the fellowship of His saints is what we look forward to, and even if His teaching may be hard for us, we know that He gives it to us for our everlasting good.  Like our Father, we see our family, our peers, our spouse and children, as fellow souls dearly purchased by Christ’s blood.  Therefore, we make it our aim to ensure that they know the true God, and that they see in us the life of a forgiven sinner who gladly follows Jesus.  And we can be glad that there are already ways to do this, because we are not the first generation of Christians: for teaching our children, that’s exactly what the Small Catechism is—“As the head of the household should teach it in a simple way.”  As the Church has been witnessing through our vocations, knowing our faith so that when people ask us what we believe or why we believe it, we can answer with the hope that is in us [1 Pet. 3:15].

Hard words from Jesus today, but words which He knows we need.  Especially at this time in Lent, as we will soon hear the passion of our Lord, His death and burial, and His resurrection.  May God forbid that this be merely routine, like we sing, “Do we pass that cross unheeding, Breathing no repentant vow?” (LSB 423:2)  Let the sufferings and death of Jesus be a meditation on God’s dedication to save us, even when we are a hard case, that we may glory in that death and resurrection which delivered us from the devil’s kingdom and tyranny.  In the Name of + Jesus.  Amen.

Fourth Sunday in Lent (Laetare)

Readings: Exodus 16:2–21 | Galatians 4:21-31 | John 6:1-15

Text: John 6:1-15

The name, Laetare, comes from the first word of the Introit, Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; that you may nurse and be satisfied at her consoling breast.”

It sounds great to invite people to rejoice, but let’s dwell there for a moment so that we learn the cause for rejoicing.  These verses for the antiphon are at the center of a bigger lesson for today.  (It might be helpful to open the pew Bible to this passage, so you can follow along better.  Isaiah 66:7-13, page 625)

7“Before she was in labor she gave birth; before her pain came upon her she delivered a son.
8Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things?
Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment?
For as soon as Zion was in labor she brought forth her children.
9Shall I bring to the point of birth and not cause to bring forth?” says the Lord; “shall I, who cause to bring forth, shut the womb?” says your God.
10“Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her;
11that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious abundance.”
12For thus says the Lord: “Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip, and bounced upon her knees.
13As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. 

These verses fall in the midst of a controversy.  It’s between those who tremble at the Word of the Lord, and those make themselves the Lord’s enemies.  It would be easy enough if the God-fearing wore red arm bands while the haters of God’s Word wore white, but it’s not that easy.  The controversy is between two groups which outwardly claim the Lord, His City, His Temple, and they allege to be His true people. 

In that much, nothing has changed.  Even a cursory glance at Church history will show parties who claim to have the right to the Name of God.   How can this dispute be settled?  That’s what this portion of Isaiah teaches us.

But some will object to reading all this into Isaiah.  How can you say that Jerusalem stands for the Christian Church?  I mean, it’s found on a map, and since 1947 it’s been part of a country called Israel!  Doesn’t that mean that the city of Jerusalem holds some dear place in God’s heart, in His plan for the fullness of time?

St. Paul explains this, himself a Jew, one who had the highest regard for Jerusalem and the activity God was doing in the Temple and on Golgotha outside the city. Still, however, he comes back to the controversy of two parties claiming a place and, with that, claiming God’s blessing.  The party claiming Jerusalem the city, the ancestry, the traditions, the Temple itself, are also saying that in order to be saved, you must obey at least some parts of the Mosaic Law.  Yet in doing that—even though they are claiming the right of children of God with the outward trappings—they are insisting that their human birth and outward obedience to God’s commands gives them the right to become children of God.  They are willing to fight those who claim, “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)

21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. 24 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written, “Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband.”

We’re naturally attracted to outward proofs, and that’s how God operated for Israel under Moses.  He gave them outward signs: circumcision, the Temple rites, national borders, a city for His Name to dwell.  But as is the case with sinful man, it was abused.  Rather than be seen as an inexpressible gift for God, whom “heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain” (1 Kings 8:27)—for Him to locate His presence and bestow His undeserved favor upon the sons of Israel—it was turned into a source of pride.

But what’s needed is more than to say, you’ve got it wrong; now do this instead.  God goes further by making it clear that those who are truly His people are not able to boast even of their faith.  Listen to this analogy of birth:  You are born of water and the Holy Spirit.  You, the barren one, break forth and cry aloud even though you do not labor!  And despite all the effort and alleged holiness, it’s the children of promise who are named before God.  It’s the children who believe in the promised Son of God who are of the true Jerusalem.  Those who are enslaved in the blindness of the old covenant—who actually hate the Word of God—are slaves in the present Jerusalem.

“But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.”  This is where we properly call the Church our mother—not a human institution, but the work of God.  You, hear the Word of God and keep it, who have the gift of faith in Christ, the Church is your mother.

So Paul continues,

28 Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. 30 But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” 31 So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.

One of the dreams of our age is for there to be peace in the Middle East.  There actually hasn’t been outward peace in that region since the days of King David and Solomon, about three thousand years ago.  But since the time when Christ was born, this is a major reason why: People are clamoring over the city of Jerusalem and claiming it as their holy site.  Jews, Christians, and Muslims have all gotten wrapped up wanting to find God in a place.

Jewish Zionist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries certainly haven’t helped this either.  The fruit of their labor is seen in the fact that a nation-state by the name of Israel exists today.  It’s also believed by many Christians that rebuilding a brick-and-mortar Temple in Jerusalem—where the Muslim Dome of the Rock currently sits—will usher in the return of Christ.

Yet those who are still yearning for the earthly city are blind to the work which God actually is doing.  Why long for the Jerusalem who rejected God’s Christ, because He did not bring a kingdom on their own terms, a salvation that could be worked for, and He made it dependent completely on divine work!

Let’s return to the antiphon from the beginning of service: “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; that you may nurse and be satisfied at her consoling breast.”  Jerusalem is a picture of the Church, what we confess in the Creed as the Communion of Saints.  Rejoice where the Church is, where she gives birth to sons and daughters who are “born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” 

So if the present Jerusalem is a place of slavery, and the Jerusalem from above is free, who is our mother, where can we look for God in the world?

This we learn in the Feeding of the 5,000 which we heard from John 6 today.  This miracle appears in all four Gospels. It richly reveals Jesus as the fulfillment of the ministry of Moses, the presence and provision of the Lord amid His people, and it affirms that man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word which comes from the mouth of the Lord [Deut. 8:4].

Consider the miracle itself, though: He sees the large crowd, and tests His disciples by asking, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?”  Philip gives the event-planner answer and says there isn’t a catering service or a budget in the world that could pull off suddenly feeding this multitude (Matthew tells us it was 5,000 men besides women and children).  In the wilderness which prefigured this, God made the bread to appear on the ground in the morning.  But where does the food come for this?  From a boy “who has five barley loves and two fish.”  He takes these, gives thanks for them and by these five loaves and two fish, He gave the people their fill.  Let the words of Isaiah echo in your mind, “that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious abundance.”  That God in Christ will provide for His people.

God is located not simply in city, but where He puts His Word and promises His presence: Where the Church gathers and is bestowing His forgiveness, “there I am among them” (Matt. 18:20).  Where disciples are born of water and the Spirit in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, “behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:19-20)  Where, not the sacrifice of bulls and goats, but the Lamb of God is feeding His redeemed people, we rejoice in this reality that is known to faith from Hebrews 12:

22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:22-24)

All who believe in Christ, who hold fast in faith to God’s Word, are the true members of Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem.  We don’t yet see these things, which is hard when we are being called pretenders by the unspiritual and deceived.  Irish theologian J. Alec Motyer (1924-2016) explains:

Zion is looking forward to blessings still in store; to rejoice with Jerusalem is to share this forward look. To love her is to prize what she stands for: the city where the Lord dwells in holiness, mercy, and law. We are to live in the benefit of divine mercy, enjoy the richness of divine fellowship and fashion our lives in obedience to the divine word. To mourn over her is to lament the sins of the visible church, its shortcomings, its weakness and ineffectuality in the face of the world and the presence within of compromisers and apostates, but to do so as a fellow-sinner, longing for the blessings and the perfection yet to come.[1]

All these blessings are ours now, but our eyes will have to wait to see them.  That’s why we can rejoice even now!  Even under disappointments, suffering, and hoping for what is unseen.  Beloved in Christ, believe the words and promises of God, and be consoled as children of God, nourished with the pure spiritual milk at the bosom of your mother, the Church.  Your God will not fail to provide, and you will eat and be satisfied.  Amen.

[1] Motyer, J. Alec. The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary. Intervarsity Press, 1993. pp. 537-38

Third Sunday in Lent (Oculi)

Readings: Jeremiah 26:1–15 | Ephesians 5:1-9 | Luke 11:14–28

Text: Ephesians 5:1-9

The art on the bulletin cover is unsettling.  It’s disturbing to think of a demon possessing a person.  It’s grotesque because that’s not what the human body was made for.  The demon, whether it was visible or invisible—doesn’t belong there.  Neither should it have been for the man himself: the tongue was not made to hang loosely, nor the vocal folds to be absent of words.

Looking at it from this perspective, in His ministry, Jesus healed the other members of sin-broken people: ears were opened so that they could hear the Word, eyes were opened so that they could do their proper function of beholding God’s beautiful creation and witnessing the saving acts of God, lame feet were healed so that one might follow the Savior and go about the work He gives every day.  He raises the dead and gives them back to their relatives in order to show that death is not natural and is not the way the world is supposed to be.

Another part of the body upon which Jesus works is the heart.  Now, when we hear ‘heart’ today, we think of it as the seat of the emotions. That’s not how the ancients thought of it.  The heart—lev in Hebrew and kardia in Greek—is the core of a person.  Sometimes this is translated, “the inner man,” but not in the sense that we have a “ghost in the machine.”  For our present life, our heart is tied to soul, mind, and body.  They’re all bound up together, and God is the only surgeon who can treat one without breaking the others.

That’s what Jesus does—He operates on the heart.  More accurately, He creates a new heart—“And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, 20 that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” (Ezekiel 11:19-20)  This is the same thing we earnestly pray for after the sermon and before Holy Communion: “Create in me a clean heart, O God and renew a right Spirit within me. (Ps. 51:10)

God the Holy Spirit’s work is that change of heart.  It’s a necessary change, too.  When it comes to malfunctions and diseases of the body, people are good at recognizing them.  You go to the optometrist if your eyes don’t see clearly; the gastroenterologist for digestive issues; the neurologist for non-responsive muscles and seizures.  But diagnosing the heart is another matter.  Psychology can get at some of the processes of the mind, but doesn’t get to the Biblical heart of a person.  That takes the ministry of the Spirit to “make ye straight what long was crooked” (Comfort, Comfort, Ye My People, LSB 347, st. 4).

That is what St. Paul is doing in the beginning of Ephesians 5:

1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.

We human creatures of God were first made in His image and likeness, so it is reasonable that we should resemble our Creator.  But in so many ways we do not.  That requires the diagnosis of the Great Physician, and His benchmarks that He gives us in His Word.

There are several things the Apostle Paul mentions which are “out of plumb” with our humanity:

  • Sexual immorality (Greek: porneia) is the distortion of “in the beginning, He created them male and female, and the man shall cleave to His wife and the two shall become one flesh.” (Gen. 2)  It’s when that one-flesh union, or a part of it is divorced (pun intended) from the rest of the intended unity between husband and wife.  While the word, porneia, specifically referred to prostitution, people have been innovators when it comes to ways to “get the milk without buying the cow”—from the damage birth control has done, to the volume of explicit content that is available on TV and other screens.

This has become so prevalent in our era, that it’s increasingly difficult to avoid it and protect our children from being influenced and have their sexuality misshapen by it. By a kind of saturation of it, we have become partially numb to this abuse of what is meant to be private between a man and his wife.

  • Impurity (uncleanness) – Sexual immorality isn’t the only thing that results from our deformed humanity.  This same word, uncleanness, is used in Romans 1:24 to describe people following the lusts of their hearts, dishonoring their bodies after having exchanged the truth of God for a lie and serving the creature rather than the Creator.

To identify what’s wrong here, we again return to the creation of man and woman.  We are embodied souls. Our body is part of our existence, so much so that, when we are adopted as God’s children in Baptism, our body actually becomes a temple for the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19).  Uncleanness (even in much of the Levitical law) describes the misuse or dysfunction of the glorious creation of God which is the human body. “My body, my choice” echoes the cry of servants who have appropriated their Master’s property for their own benefit.

  • Covetousness – The Greek word literally means being filled with having. This is a deformity of our will.  It’s so important—and slips past our notice—that it also is called out by the last of the Commandments.  To lust after something God hasn’t given you truly is sin.  It’s not a matter of how much you have, but contentment with what your Creator has provided.  Whatever the historical reasons, this malady isn’t cast in such a negative light in our culture, but it is equally enslaving.  Because we are surrounded by it and it’s nearly all we’ve known in our lifetimes, it’s hardly noticed.  Covetousness drives the consumer market, the loan industry, credit card debt, and casinos.
  • The next are distortions of how we use our tongue: Filthiness (obscenity, deformity, ugliness), foolish talk (lit: the words of fools), and crude joking (ribaldry).  These describe taking a sick satisfaction with, or approval of, the way things are in this world.  St. James puts it condemningly-well when he writes,

“So also the tongue is a small member, yet hit boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” (James 3:5-10)

From all this (and there is certainly more), it’s clear how much we need to be worked over in order to resemble God’s creation of us.  For me, it would be like holding up an X-ray of a healthy spine next to mine with scoliosis which is severely bent.  God, through His Word, holds this perfect overlay up and it shows all that is deformed in us.

It’s all too common for us to resemble the image of our father Adam, and the other people around us.  Seeing that the society around us either turns a blind eye or celebrates these maladies as good, it’s that much harder for beloved children of God to live in between our new birth in Baptism to when our time in these evil days comes to an end [Eph. 5:19].  No wonder He must continually call us back to what we were created for and what we, as His children, are destined toward.

But what shall we do?  Wouldn’t it be great if we could put the proverbial genie back in the bottle on these things?  I’m afraid that won’t be enough for a couple reasons.  One, as several of the Church’s teachers have noted, humanity is gradually getting worse—weaker in self-control, more depraved, willing to let slide what was previously outrageous (see Augsburg Confession, XXIII 14.  The second reason, connected to that, is that St. Paul says that outward prohibitions may stop the action for a while, but comments, “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:23)  What we need is change on the inside, a new heart.

The first thing we do is repent and admit that we have gone with the crowd (even if up until now you didn’t know any better!), and that we have followed the desires of our sinful minds and hearts. 

The second is to ask the Lord to drive out what is evil and grotesque within us—the evil spirit that is at work in this age, as Paul described earlier to the Ephesians: “the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (Ephesians 2:1-3)  Remember that disturbing bulletin cover art?  Yes, that’s what needs to happen to us when we have been enslaved by the devil’s lies and our own lusts.  And by His Word and the Holy Spirit, the Lord Jesus is the stronger man of the Gospel reading (Luke 11:14-28), and we are those plundered from the devil and the world, for God to adopt us as beloved children!

Third, we need to pray every day for the Holy Spirit to create that new, clean heart within us.  He is called the Holy Spirit because His work is to make God’s people holy, which He does from the inside, out. 

We will sin and we will fall short of the glory God has created us for.  We are not able to achieve perfection, and God doesn’t demand that of us.  That isn’t an excuse to give in or give up the struggle.  Fight the good fight, press on toward the goal of the upward call in Christ Jesus [1 Tim. 6:12, Phil. 3:14].  That is, knowing that your God created you for better, do your best to flee sexual immorality, avoid uncleanness, foster contentment, and bridle your tongue. Yet, it’s even in our weakness, our deformity, our cries of “I believe, help my unbelief” [Mark 9:24], our groaning over failing for the thousandth time in our wretched body of death [Rom. 7:25] that the beauty of our Savior shines.

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32) Sinners have a Savior.  So, be a sinner and confess your sins, believing that Jesus has the power to save you from what you’ve been, what you can’t seem to shake, and even death from which none of us can escape.  Except, we will in Jesus who has both broken the power of sin and of death.

Finally, St. Paul started this all out by telling us, “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”  This is the key to our life: That Christ has loved us in our abysmal condition and gave Himself up that we might be beautiful in God’s sight, called “The Redeemed of the Lord” with renewed hearts and minds.  We are about to sing Psalm 51:10-12 in the Offertory, but would you please pray with me the verses which follow:

“Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.  Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.  For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.  The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem; then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.”  Amen.

Reminiscere (Second Sunday in Lent)

Text: Matthew 15:21-28

Last Sunday, we heard Jesus teach us about His victory over the Devil on our behalf, and how we draw comfort in our own temptations and weakness as the Devil assaults us.  Today, He teaches us about prayer.  When it comes to the great examples of prayer in the Bible, you might name Abraham who interceded for Sodom, or David who penned a bulk of the Psalms the faithful still prays, or Solomon with his grand dedication of the Temple in 1 Kings 8.  But for this lesson, our Lord takes us completely out of Israel, to the land of Tyre and Sidon—a place previously cursed by the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel (Isa. 23; Jer. 25:15-26; Ezek. 28:1-10).  There, the Lord is approached by a woman of that land.

But what we find in this woman is not what the prophets cursed.  Far from the pride of the King of Tyre, this woman is worthy in the way the Lord sees worthiness. She doesn’t presume to come to Jerusalem. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t have need.  She is earnest about saving her daughter from demon possession.

The evangelist Matthew speaks against the woman, so that he would highlight her marvelous act, and celebrate her praise all the more. It’s intentional that she is called a Canaanite woman.  This should bring to mind those wicked nations which the Lord drove out before Israel, who from their foundations violated the laws of nature. They are the ones who burned their sons in the fire to gain prosperity from Molech, who went into cult prostitutes of Ashtoreth to attain a blessing on the harvest, and who shed their own blood to get the attention of their Baal.  And being reminded of these, consider the power of Christ’s coming. For God’s people of old, the Canaanites were cast out, so that they wouldn’t spread their perversions to God’s people.  But what about those people of the land who spiritually “went out” from their father’s house?  The likes of Rahab, Ruth, and Naaman.  These foreigners appeared so much better disposed than the Israelites, who had actually been witnesses to the Red Sea crossing.

Having come to Christ, this woman from Canaan said nothing but “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon,” and by her cries she made quite a spectacle. It must have been a pitiful sight to see a woman crying aloud in so great affliction, and that woman a mother entreating for her daughter, and even for a child in such evil condition.  She didn’t dare to bring her daughter in person to the Lord, but she brought herself to entreat the Lord for mercy.

And she tells her affliction only and leaves it to His compassion.  She doesn’t venture to demand the way He should grant her relief, saying, “Come and lay your hand upon her,” and, “Come down before my child dies.” [Matt. 9:18; John 4:49]

But after describing her daughter’s calamity and how intense the condition is, she appeals to the Lord’s mercy and cries aloud.  She also doesn’t even say, “Have mercy on my daughter,” but, “Have mercy on me.” You can see in her how she takes her daughter’s torture to heart!  She bears in her prayer the sleepless nights and agony that love engenders.

“But he did not answer her a word.”  This is certainly not the response we expect to hear in a lesson about prayer.  He had permitted many to come to Him and be healed—even the Gentile centurion of whom He commended his faith.  But to this woman—running to Him and entreating Him, to her who had been educated neither in the Law, nor in the Prophets, and was exhibiting so great reverence—to her He doesn’t give her so much as an answer.

Who wouldn’t have been offended by this? The reports had gone out about Jesus, that He went about the villages healing.  Now this woman, when she had come to Him, He utterly repels. And, unless our hearts are covered in unfeeling fat, who would not have been moved by her affliction, and by the plea she made for her daughter?  She had approached Him with such humility, not demanding, but she begging that she might find mercy, giving a heartfelt account of her own affliction; yet she is met with silence.

Perhaps many of the hearers were offended, but she was not put off. Even Jesus’ own disciples had heard enough.  They may have sympathized with this woman, but they followed what they supposed was the Lord’s lead: “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.”  They assumed that the silence meant the Lord had rejected her.

But Christ’s response was not rejection.  Instead, He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  What did the woman do, after she heard this? Did this silence her, and did she desist? Or did she relax her earnestness? No, she was the more insistent! But often, that’s not how we respond.  When we fail to obtain, we just give up.  Instead, when by appearances it seems God has brushed off the needs of His children, this ought to make us the more urgent.

And yet, who wouldn’t be perplexed by the Lord’s response to her? His silence could have been enough to drive her to despair, but His answer was not meant to crush her, but press her for a fuller confession of faith.  This woman was not perplexed, but she was driven by a conviction that the Lord has mercy on the humble and contrite.  So, she is not afraid to make herself shameless with a good kind of shamelessness.  Call it godly self-abasement.  Before this, if you look carefully, she had not been so bold to come right in front of Jesus.  She went from crying out after the group to kneeling right in front of the Lord, humbly yet insistently.  She worships, “she came and knelt before him,” and prays, “Lord, help me.”

In this, the Canaanite woman shows a greater confidence than the apostles. She displays faith in a hand which grasps onto the Lord, like Jacob, and will not let go [Gen. 32:22-32].  She acknowledges that He was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but true as that is, she confesses Jesus to be Lord, and the Lord who reveals Himself in the Psalms, “For the needy shall not always be forgotten, and the hope of the poor shall not perish forever.” (Psalm 9:18)  “Help me,” therefore, “Lord.”

In our impatience, we think this must be enough of a test of her faith.  She has endured silence, being told that God didn’t send His Christ for Canaanites.  But then He presses her with one more apparent rejection. Not even with all this was He satisfied, but He makes her perplexity yet more intense again, saying, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

With these words, He strikes her more sharply than He did by His silence. No more does He refer the cause to another, nor say, “I am not sent,” but the more urgent she makes her plea, so much the more does He seem to solidify His denial. And He calls them no longer “sheep,” but “children,” and her “a dog.”

Here we see her faith in the Lord shine, even over against adversity and what in the moment appears as rejection.  What does she say next? Out of His own words she frames her plea. “Why, though I be a dog,” said she, “I am not an alien.”  For, “Yes, that food is necessary for the children,” she reasons, “yet neither am I forbidden, being a dog.  But if, they ought to be partakers, neither am I forbidden, though I be a dog.”  Whoever has tried to feed children at a table can understand what she’s talking about.  And how much did Israel act like the age of children who reject their food and throw it on the floor!

It was for this that Christ had put her off, for He knew she would say this; for this did He deny the grant, that He might exhibit the conviction of her faith.

For if He had not meant to give, neither would He have given afterwards. But this is similar to the account of the centurion, where He says, “I will come and heal him,” that we might learn the godly fear of that man, and—for our benefit—hear him say, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word.” [Matt. 8:8]  Also, as He did for the woman who had an discharge of blood, saying, “Someone touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out from me,” [Luke 8:46] that He might make her faith manifest, “she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed,” and His praise of her is also a lesson to us: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” [Luke 8:47-48]

The Lord did not want so great virtue in this Canaanite woman to remain hidden. He did not speak to her in insult, but calling her forth, and revealing the treasure laid up in her.  “O woman, great is your faith!” This is why He put her off, that He might proclaim aloud this saying, that He might crown the woman, before the Jews and before us as well.

“Be it done for you as you desire.” If we marveled before at who the Lord answered in prayer, now He shows how powerful a thing prayer is.  In effect, He is saying: “Your faith indeed is able to effect even greater things than these; nevertheless, Let it be done for you as you desire.”  This was akin to that voice that said, “Let there be…and it was.” [Genesis 1]  For when we pray to the Lord, this is who we are asking, and we all too often forget His almighty power and His willingness to answer our faith in Him.

“And her daughter was healed from that hour.”[1]  Do you see how this woman too contributed to the healing of her daughter? Asking in faith, she received.  To this end, Christ didn’t just say, “Let your daughter be healed,” only but, “Great is your faith, be it done for you as you desire,” to teach us that the words were not used at random, nor were they flattering words, but great was the power of her faith.

The certainty of this faithful prayer and its answer, He left to the issue of events: Her daughter was healed that very hour.

But notice how, when the apostles had failed, and had not succeeded, this woman had success. This is the great outcome of persistence in prayer. To think He would even be asked by us, guilty as we are, on behalf of those who belong to us. May this rid us of the thought that God regards the prayers of so-called holy people more than He does the pleas of poor sinners like you and me!

Who was Jacob in this life but a younger brother and a scoundrel?  What claims did this Canaanite woman hold before the Lord?  Yet the Lord displays His grace, His gift of faith, and the wonderful outcome of His answering prayer.  He is not to be pictured as a vending machine for whatever we want when we want it.  Prayer to Him is not to be understood as a magic formula ending with, “in Jesus’ Name.”  Prayer is of faith—knowing the character of God who shows mercy and fulfills His promises, holding Him to it, waiting on Him—and that faith results in His answer: 7 Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Matt. 7:7-8)  Amen.

The bulk of this sermon was adapted from Homily 52 by St. John Chrysostom(Schaff, Philip, ed. 1888. Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew. Vol. 10. New York: Christian Literature Company.)

[1] Based on the ESV footnote which translates the Greek more precisely


Readings: 1 Samuel 16:1–13 | 1 Corinthians 13:1–13 | Luke 18:31-43

Text: Luke 18:31-43

These two accounts in St. Luke’s Gospel are arranged very intentionally.  The disciples are placed side by side with a blind beggar.  The disciples are sighted, but blind to see who Jesus is.  The beggar is blind, but has faithful eyes which see who Jesus is.  So we have the comparison of the blind man’s sight, and the sighted men’s blindness.

Another contrast in this portion of the Gospel is the two titles of Jesus: Son of Man and Son of David.  Jesus speaks of Himself as the Son of Man.  The title, “son of man” is used throughout the Old Testament to refer to a human being.  It is “ben Adam,” a descendent of the first man, Adam.  And that carries with it a lot of baggage: the first man sinned and died, bringing sin to all his descendants, and “death spread to all men because all sinned.”[1]  The sons of man are dishonest and corrupt in their loyalties, so that God must point out that He, “is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind.”[2]  And the sons of Adam—all of them—return to the dust from which they were taken, as Moses says in Psalm 90, “You return man to dust, and say ‘Return, O sons of man!’”[3]

We too are among those sons of Adam, which is why the Lenten season begins with the visual and tactile reminder: “Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.” (Genesis 3:19)

But when Jesus uses this term, He chooses to identify with these sons of Adam.  He truly shares in the mortal existence of the sons of man.  It’s precisely what He does as a son of Adam that’s important: Jesus, Son of Man, is born without sin and He does not sin.  He loves the Lord His God with all His heart, soul, and strength, and does not worship any idols.  And even though He is without sin, He suffers to be “delivered over to the Gentiles…[to] be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon”…flogged and killed.  This Son of Man dies, but “on the third day” rises again.  It’s in foreshadowing this that Daniel is given the vision of the Son of Man who comes on the clouds of heaven and presents himself before the Ancient of Days (Dan. 7:13)

Therefore, as Jesus, the Son of Man, goes, so do the sons of Adam with Him.  The sinless Son of Man knew no sin, so that the sons of Adam would be reckoned free from sin.[4]  He suffers, bleeds, and goes down to the grave with the sons of man.  But on the third day, He rises from the dead, “never to die again.”[5]  And He brings the sons of man with Him, out of their graves.  He ascends into heaven with the Father, and the sons of Adam follow Him and return to the presence of God.

The blind man, on the other hand, uses another name for Jesus: Son of David.  And this is more than Solomon or Nathan,[6] or any of David’s other descendants.  This is He of whom King David wrote in Psalm 110, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’[7]  This is the Anointed One, the Messiah, of whom Isaiah wrote: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[8]

So the blind man cries out after Jesus saying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  And who he thinks this Son of David is comes out when he asks for a remarkable thing: “Lord, let me recover my sight.”  It may seem obvious that he wants to see again, but nowhere among any of the prophets, was a blind man ever given his sight.[9]  There had been healings, resurrections, and miraculous feedings, but none had ever opened the eyes of the blind.  That was reserved for the promised Son of David, God in the flesh.  This blind man understands by his faith far better than the disciples who Jesus really is.

And it really is only understood by faith.  In the clearest language possible, Jesus told His disciples, “everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. 32 For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. 33 And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.”  But at that time, it was hidden from them.  Only after His resurrection, and the giving of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, did these things become clear.

What He says is no breaking news: Everything that is written is all of the Scriptures, from Moses to Malachi.  Moses spoke of a prophet from among your brothers.  Joshua spoke face to face with the Lord of Sabaoth—the commander of the Lord’s army.  Samuel anointed the man after God’s heart.  David sang of His sufferings and how evildoers would pierce his hands and feet.  Isaiah foretold the Lord’s servant who would be pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.[10]  All the Scriptures were to be fulfilled, as Jesus was handed over, suffered, died, and rose on the third day.

But the disciples understood none of this.  They were content to have a Messiah to talk and eat with, who challenged social norms and said things that made you think.  That must be why He came—to be a role model and teacher.  But they did not grasp what He truly came down from heaven to do, because they didn’t truly understand their sin.  They think far too highly of themselves, so they only need a little help from Jesus.  That’s why St. Luke puts them right up beside a blind beggar.

You see, the disciples are a lot like us.  We confess with our mouths, I, a poor, miserable sinner, but too often, we make a confession that doesn’t dig very deep.  We don’t really believe our sins are that bad, because there are other people who are worse.  I only fudge the numbers on my taxes, but I’m no tax evader!  Sure I called the President an idiot, but it’s not like I plotted to kill him!  The Sports Illustrated models are nice, but I’m not like the guy who got caught with child pornography.  As another pastor put it, “We damn ourselves by our faint confession.”[11]  We are also blind men and women who really only want a Savior who only saves us from socially acceptable sins.


If your sins aren’t that evil, why must the Son of Man be “delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, [and killed]”?  If your sin is not that bad, then God paid too high a price for your life.  Maybe He should ask for a refund.

Don’t you see this from the Word of God? We are poor and miserable, “we are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned in thought, word, and deed by what we have done and by what we have left undone.”  Martin Luther aptly confessed before his death, “We are all beggars.”  The blind beggar is us, chasing after the Lord for mercy.  And casting aside every voice that says, “You’re a good person” and “Just believe in yourself,” we fall down on our knees before the Son of David and say, “Christ, have mercy upon me, a sinner.”[12]  And He asks us what we want Him to do for us.  He attentively listens as we say,

…forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we may delight in your will and walk in Your ways to the glory of Your holy name.

We ask Him for the forgiveness which flows from His betrayal and mocking and shameful treatment and being spat upon and flogged and killed.  And He hears and answers each of us: “Your faith has saved you” (v. 42).

We, the Twelve, and the blind beggar are all the same.  We all need God the Father to open our eyes to see ourselves in the unchanging and holy mirror of His Law, to see Jesus for who He is, and see the mercy which He gives.  He is the Son of Man, who came to “raise the poor [sons of man] from the dust and lift the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people.”[13]  He is the Son of David, who came, not only open the eyes of the blind, but also to bestow the Lord’s favor and raise the dead to eternal life.

And He comes to you here, today.  He came in the waters of your Baptism to nail your sins to His cross, and raise you to new life.  There, the Holy Spirit opened your eyes to see.  And He continually keeps your eyes open to see your Father’s mercy in His beloved Son.  And by His mercy to us, son of Adam, will follow the Son of Man where He has gone, to be with your God forever.  Upon receiving such priceless gifts, our lives become like that of the crowd who glorified God and gave Him the praise.  Amen.

[1] Romans 5:12

[2] Numbers 23:19

[3] Psalm 90:2

[4] Genesis 15:6; 2 Corinthians 5:21

[5] Romans 6:9

[6] The human ancestry of Christ: 1 Chronicles 3:5, Luke 3:3:31

[7] Psalm 110:1, cited in Luke 20:42-43

[8] Luke 4:18-19, citing Isaiah 61:1-2 and 42:7

[9] cf. John 9:32

[10] Deuteronomy 18; Joshua 5:13-15; 1 Sam 13:14; Psalm 22; Isaiah 52-53

[11] Pastor David Peterson, Sermon for Quinquagesima, March 10, 2013

[12] Liturgical Kyrie and Luke 18:13

[13] Psalm 113:7-8


(About 70 Days to Easter)

Readings: Exodus 17:1-7 | 1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5 | Matthew 20:1–16

Text: Matthew 20:1-16

The way of the world is based on merit.  You get what you deserve, you don’t get what you don’t pay for.  Years of service ought to be recognized and compensated.  For example, in 2005, Delphi Automotive Parts filed for bankruptcy protection.  As part of the auto industry bailout a few years later, the pensions of union employees at Delphi was preserved while 20,000 non-union employees lost their justly-deserved retirement.  The fact that this case was appealed all the way up to the US Supreme Court (and their petition was denied) testifies to the fact that this is not how the world is supposed to work.[1]

That’s the world.  The Kingdom of Heaven is different, and we need to be ready to accept God’s ways on God’s terms, because, as James reminds us, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” (James 1:17)

One’s place in the Kingdom is not determined by their work, or dedication, or accomplishments.

  • When you are in the Kingdom, it is nothing like the world we live in now.  Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.”  Picking up on this, look at how many stores and credit cards have membership programs and perks.  How many points do you have?
  • But Jesus has a terrible loyalty program!  This newbie who comes in at the 11th hour ends up with Platinum status!  It’s just not fair…if we’re judging by the world’s standards.
  • When Christians come together, as we are now, we leave the world to come into the Kingdom.  It’s a preview of our death.  We walk through the doors of the sanctuary and all that stratifies us, all that we’ve done, whatever our family background might be—it’s all forgotten because it doesn’t matter.  Just like when you die.  And like the Transfiguration last week, there’s only Jesus. [Matt. 17:8]

This isn’t to say God is being stingy.  What He gives us is far more than what money can buy.  Peace with God, a clean conscience, being able to look death in the face and know that you have the victory.  As the hymn by Johann Franck puts it, “He who craves a precious treasure Neither cost nor pain will measure; But the priceless gifts of heaven God to us has freely given. Though the wealth of earth were proffered, None could buy the gifts here offered: Christ’s true body, for you riven, And His blood, for you once given.” (Soul, Adorn Yourself with Gladness, LSB 636:3)

But, what would it be like if we did rank up in God’s favor?  How would you know?  Would you receive a special card like Starbucks when you attained a certain level?  It doesn’t happen.  So, you’d be left to figure it out from your circumstances.  If things were good, you would consider yourself blessed and approved by God.  If ill fortune came—your health takes a turn for the worse, your car unexpectedly breaks down, your job is downsized, or family strife cuts you off from those you love—then you’d be left to conclude you had somehow gotten on God’s bad side.

  • If you want to learn more about this outlook on God, listen to Job’s friends, who can’t help but conclude that Job’s life is a wreck because he did something offensive to God. (e.g. Job 4:7-11)

This Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard teaches us God’s way and the proper place for merit.  The vineyard stands for the Church, and being “hired” is the calling of the Holy Spirit to faith—from spinning your wheels and living selfishly toward a futile end to living to glorify and obey God as your Lord.  But the end result of that calling does not depend on the labor we put in.  It’s a lesson in what “grace” truly means: Undeserved favor.  12 hours, 9, 6, or 1 hour of work?  The reward is all the same!

“You are saved by grace through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8)  It’s not about your own doing, your works, your accomplishments.  It is about Jesus Christ—what He has done, what He has merited, what He has accomplished! 

The world has “only two essentially different religions: the religion of the Law, that is, the endeavor to reconcile God through man’s own works, and the religion of the Gospel, that is, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, belief wrought through the Gospel by the Holy Ghost that we have a gracious God through the reconciliation already effected by Christ, and not because of our own works.” (Christian Dogmatics, F. Pieper I, 10)

This gives tremendous comfort to us in His Kingdom, in the vineyard as we labor.  When we come through those doors—whether it was our parents carrying us or we came ourselves—we came into the Kingdom in the Baptismal font.  I said it was a preview of our own demise, and it was and is: “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.” (Rom. 6:3-4)  And having come into the Kingdom through the death and resurrection of Jesus, He has given you an eternal place in His Kingdom.

And that difference of God bringing us into His Kingdom by grace impacts who we are and how we live when we go out of this place.  Hear again from St. Paul:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5)

How can you be confident as you suffer?  How can you have strength to press on when you are weak?  How can you, riddled by habitual sins or haunted by your past, have a clear conscience?  Because Jesus has done all to secure your place as a child of God: “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

We don’t look to ourselves for assurance, because that leads to pride when things are good, and despair when they’re bad.

God has given us what is just: We are justified by the blood of Christ, baptized into His death and resurrection, nourished by His Word, renewed and strengthened by His Body and Blood, carried home by angels when He takes us from this vineyard of labor.  And then on the Judgement Day, we will receive not what we have earned, but what Christ has earned for us.  And that will never be taken away.

God has called us out of the world (the literal meaning for the word “Church”/Greek: ecclesia), where our temporal merits all fade away, but where the eternal merits of Jesus are paid out to us.  Now look here for your Father’s favor.  Now look here for your home which will not be taken away.  Look here for that peace which cannot be shaken by the storms and changes of this life.  And when those things do assault you, remember your Almighty Father, who rules over all things, and trust His good and gracious will for you: “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?” (Romans 8:32)  Amen.

[1] Steyer, Robert. “Supreme Court declines to hear PBGC Delphi ERISA case” Pensions & Investments. 18 Jan 2022, Accessed 9 Feb 2022.

The Transfiguration of Our Lord

Readings: Exodus 34:29–35 | 2 Peter 1:16–21 | Matthew 17:1-9

Text: Matthew 17:1-9

There was a temptation for Peter, James, John, and the disciples to think of Jesus as merely human.  True, they had seen His miracles, and heard Him call Himself the end-times “Son of Man.”[1]  But they also knew His mother and family, they had seen him eat and drink, get tired, and use the latrine.  Their minds could not conceive of a man who was also God and the Christ.

We have the opposite temptation, to think of Jesus as only God.  It’s true, we just confessed, “He was incarnate by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried.”  But we also sang “Your lightnings lighted up the world; the earth trembled and shook,”[2] we prayed for Christ to have mercy upon us, and we praise “Thou that sittest at the right hand of God the Father.”[3]  Our minds have trouble conceiving of a God who “increases in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man,”[4] or who doesn’t know the day or the hour,[5] or who cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[6]

            But whether we stumble over His humanity or His divinity, we, together with Peter, James, John, all stumble over the cross.  And that’s what happens on the mount of Transfiguration.  To help us better understand, we have two models: Moses and Elijah on the one hand, and Peter and the 2 disciples on the other.  They’re put side by side, so that we, the saints on earth, can learn to become the saints in heaven.

            In Moses and Elijah, we see those whose sanctification is complete.  They stand in the Lord’s presence forever.  In their earthly lives, they bore witness to the coming Savior—Moses in the Law, and Elijah standing in for all the Prophets.  Both exited this life in an extraordinary way—only God knows where Moses is buried, and Elijah was taken in a flaming chariot to heaven.  Yet the words of St. John’s Revelation, also echo for them: they now “rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.”[7]

            From Moses and Elijah, we learn how to rightly view the passion and death of Jesus.  First, we see it in how they talk with Jesus about it.  Luke’s Gospel adds the detail that they were speaking about Jesus’ “exodus,” about to be accomplished in Jerusalem.[8]  They speak of the passion with thanks and praise, because they are living in what Christ has done for them.  They are standing there in God’s presence because God’s Son has taken their sins away.  He has destroyed death for them, so that they can live with Him forever.  So, they are joyful to be able to see the world’s salvation about to take place.

            Second, we see Moses and Elijah rejoice in God’s will.  They say a glad “Amen” to how God has planned to save the human race.  They acknowledge that, even though His ways are higher than their ways, His will is always good.[9]  They are certain that God has never lied or deceived or forsaken, just as He said.  So, when they hear that the Christ “must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised,”[10] they praise God for His saving work.

            Finally in Moses and Elijah, we see God’s children at home.  The Son of God has prepared a place for them in what He is about to do on the cross.  These saints in glory have finished their wanderings, they have been taken out of the land of their sojourning, and they have crossed the Jordan into the eternal land of promise.[11]  In other words, God has given them all that He promised during their lives.  “Surely goodness and mercy followed them all their days of their lives,” and now they “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”[12]

            But in Peter on the mountain, we see the struggle of God’s people in this life.  Moses knew this struggle when he broke faith with God at the waters of Meribah.[13]  Elijah knew it on Mount Horeb, when he was positive that all Israel had gone after Baal.[14]  And it’s our struggle too, as “strangers and pilgrims”[15] in this life.

            First, when Peter sees this blessed sight, he wants to hold onto it tight.  “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”  He’d be happy to have just these six on the mountaintop forever.  If only we could come to worship, be surrounded by the Word of God, and never have to leave!  But this is not God’s will.  Jesus already said what the will of God is: that He “must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things…be killed, and on the third day be raised.”  He can’t stay on the mountain, because then the world would never be saved.  Peter is again filled with satanic thoughts, which delight in the things of man, not the things of God.

            And it’s the same for us, because our sinful flesh fights suffering and death.  When someone we love gets very sick, what do we pray for?  Do we pray that this disease would mean their release from this vale of tears?  We usually pray for them to continue in this life with us.  And when God’s will for us is painful suffering, do we pray, “Not my will, but thine be done”[16]?  No, we pray for God to take away all crosses, so we can get back to our life.

            But actually, the suffering and death of our Lord remind us that our life does not belong to us.  God led His beloved Son to that suffering and death, and raised Him from the dead.  His will is good, because at the Father’s heart is love.  He loves each of us in Christ with the same fervor.  And that means that our life is completely in God’s care.  Should He send or permit us to suffer? He will use it for good: “And 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.” (1 Pet. 5:10)  Should we get sick, or even die?  Our life and caring for the needs of our loved ones rests in His hands.  “So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” (Rom. 14:8)

            That brings us to the second thing we see in Peter: He thinks he has a better plan than God.  Say no to suffering and being killed, Jesus.  Forget Good Friday and get straight to Easter.  Surely You can save another way.  Just live forever and keep teaching, healing, and doing miracles.  If you are the Son of God, pray for God to just forgive everyone.

            These same kinds of blasphemies come out of our minds when we think about God’s election and evangelism.  We may not despise the cross itself, because by it we are being saved.[17]  But, we don’t like what it means.  When we look at the massive number of people who don’t know or refuse to believe in Jesus, we are tempted to think: If God really loved the world, He could have done something more to make the world believe and have eternal life.  Then, we wouldn’t have to mourn for our grandchildren and friends who renounced their childhood faith.  But, in fact, His Spirit moves where He wills (John 3:8), God calls whom He wills, and He puts His children in the world to show His mercy in word and deed.  The power to change hearts rests with Him.

            Finally, we also see in Peter, a child of God longing to be at home with the Lord.  Even if his way of getting there is misplaced, Peter wants to “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”  He longs to stay on the mountain with the heavenly host, surrounding Jesus.  His heart is in the right place…sort of.  But what Peter wants to hold onto is only the smallest fraction of what God has laid up for His people.  Yes, we will be with the Lord, but there won’t just be five saints around the Lord’s throne.  When the Lord brings His people home, there will be a “great multitude which no one can number.”[18]  It won’t just be on an isolated mountaintop, but there will be “a new heavens and a new earth” and “the dwelling place of God will be with man.”[19]  Then, unlike the fleeting joys we have in this life, it won’t be a passing moment.  The sorrows and tears of this life will be gone, and death will be swallowed up forever.[20]

            The Lord is merciful and gracious toward His people.  He helps us in our longing for the promised life to come.  After Peter had been silenced and terrified, his Heavenly Father spoke these clear words: “This is My beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.”  And the great vision at once disappeared, but Jesus remained.

            “Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and have no fear.’ And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.”  “Listen to Him,” the words still rang.  He came to Peter and the others—struggling as sinners by birth and saints by faith—and raised them up with His Word.  He strengthened them with the Word they needed to reach where Moses, Elijah, and all the saints rest.

And that’s the same way He cares for us.  When our flesh and the devil lead us into doubt and sin, Jesus raises us.  Rise from the dust, O man, and have no fear.  He speaks to us:

I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.[21]

Take; eat.  This is my Body which is given for you.  Do this in remembrance of Me.  Take; drink.  This is my blood which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.  Do this as often as you drink it in remembrance of Me.[22]

These are the words of God’s beloved Son, here for you today.  Listen to Him.  Amen.

[1] Daniel 7:13-14

[2] Psalm 77:18

[3] Gloria in Excelsis, LSB 188

[4] Luke 2:52

[5] Mark 13:32

[6] Matt. 27:46

[7] Rev. 14:13

[8] Luke 9:31, “departure” is exodus in Greek

[9] Isaiah 55:9, Romans 8:28

[10] Matthew 16:21

[11] Hebrews 11:13; Deuteronomy 10:19, 29:5

[12] Psalm 23:6

[13] Numbers 20:10-13

[14] 1 Kings 19:10

[15] Heb. 11:13

[16] Luke 22:42

[17] 1 Corinthians 1:18

[18] Revelation 7:14

[19] Revelation 21:1-4

[20] Isaiah 25:9

[21] John 20:22-23 & Matthew 28:19

[22] Matthew 26:26-28