Fourth Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 4:1-12 | 1 John 3:16-24 | John 10:11-18

Text: John 10:11-18

There are many shepherds in the Bible.  It’s a recurring theme, almost like God’s trying to teach us something.  We come across the first one very early with Abel “who was a keeper of sheep,” who was also killed by Cain.

Cain & Able

The next prominent one is Jacob, who tended Laban’s sheep out of his love for Rachel. Laban’s flocks and herds were blessed under his care, even though Laban dealt shrewdly with Jacob.

Jacob

Then, we come to Moses, who after fleeing Egypt, for 40 years watched his father-in-law, Jethro’s, sheep in Midian.  After his call, Moses led the Lord’s people through the Red Sea and in the wilderness. And under Moses, the people confessed, “He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand.” (Ps. 95:7)

Moses

Then most prominent of all shepherds is King David, the youngest of 8 brothers, who no one paid regard because he was the youngest and kept the sheep.  But yet whom God sought out “For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Sam. 16:7)

David

All of these were righteous men, men who had a heart for God and for the people of God.  One might also call these men good, but there is one more shepherd whom I haven’t mentioned: The Lord Jesus.  He is truly called the Good Shepherd, and for good reason: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”  While Abel, Jacob, Moses, and David all tended literal sheep, we realize here that He’s not just talking about a dedication to livestock.  He’s talking about a devotion to mankind, to you.  Because what is the flock He shepherds?  “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. 16 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.”

He shepherds the Lord’s flock, which is a picture of His people.  This should be no surprise to us, when we remember that Moses and David both went from shepherding sheep to shepherding God’s people.  Abel and Jacob were spared this, but Moses and David both found out that shepherding the people of God takes a fair bit more care and a healthy measure of longsuffering.  Moses often found out how fraught with trouble this work was several times, even before leaving Egypt.  But he especially felt this after the golden calf incident: “See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13 Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” (Ex. 33:12-13)  Sheep, at least, can be herded except for the occasional stray, but often the whole congregation rose up against Moses and accused him of wrongdoing and drove him to frustration and anger on many occasions.

David, too, came to realize the great responsibility of shepherding God’s people as king.  The people who had previously asked for Saul to rule over them, were glad for David’s rule…at least until they forgot him and made Absalom king and exiled David.  David was by no means blameless in this, because of his own failings, but after David turned from the blindness of sin, he realized what personal cost there is for tending the Lord’s flock—the sunset of David’s rule was marked by uprising, insults aimed at the king, and plagues.

We are likened to a flock, but a flock that is a lot of work.  From Isaiah 53, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way”  Even the people of God are like that: stiff-necked, stubborn sheep. 

We need a better shepherd—a Good Shepherd.  “The Good Shepherd gives His life for the sheep.” And, “…the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”  He is a Shepherd better than Abel: His innocent blood was shed by those who resisted God and refused to hear His rebuke.  Yet, even though He was slain, His blood cries up to heaven not for vengeance, but as a plea to God for grace (cf. Heb. 12:24).  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)

He is a shepherd better than Jacob, who tends the flock not in expectation of the beautiful Rachel, but in order that He might make ugly Leah His own.  This, we have trouble understanding, but He exemplifies what God sets His love on: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.” (Romans 5:6-8)

He is also a shepherd better than Moses, because He faced off with Satan Himself.  He resisted the temptation to which we fell.  Then, He led the devil captive when he thought he had victory over him by putting to death the Son of God.  Yet, in His death and resurrection, He led Satan to his own destruction, destroying him and all his host, clogging their chariot wheels and driving them into confusion and panic!  Thus, our Good Shepherd leads you through the waters of Holy Baptism, where He destroys the devil’s hold on you and delivers you from the bonds of death.  Then, He also bears with you in your stiff-necked rebellion, He makes intercession for your great sins, and makes the once-for-all offering which alone is able to make atonement and find God’s gracious favor for sinners.

For as noble as David was, the Good Shepherd Jesus is David’s greater Son.  He rules as king over His people, bringing blessing and greater and greater rulership over His people—even in their weakness.   He brings into reality the inspired Psalm of David:

1  The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
     He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
    He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
     for his name’s sake.

4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
     I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
     your rod and your staff,
     they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me
     in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
     my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
     all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
    forever.

And even better than these human examples, He shows us what kind of devotion He has for you: “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.”

The comparison He makes shows a dedication which He has in the cause of our salvation.  He teaches us by offering the alternative: a hired servant who cares more about a stable paycheck than he does for the goods of his master.  If any of you have owned a business, you’ve experienced the personal dedication you have for your business—its potential success or failure occupies you, keeps you up at night, eats away at your free time.  It’s that dedication which the Good Shepherd has for His flock—that His every attention is toward the salvation of His flock.  So, He bids us to pray, “Thy Kingdom come,” so that we know He answers by giving His all to saving sinners, to gathering the sheep of His hand, calling those who are not yet of His fold.  He is the sole-proprietor, the One and only Savior of His people, who hesitates not to give His live for the sheep.  And yet, unlike men with their business, He does not get overwhelmed at the magnitude of the work.  Instead, He says truly, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”  With the surety of Almighty God who calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies His people, He is able to gather His flock around Himself.  What we see in His work is caring for His flock.  Having laid down His life, He now speaks and the sheep hear His voice.  He brings us each, calls us by Name (like we talked about on Easter), and He gives to us blessings beyond our comprehension.

Let us pray.

O God, Your infinite love restores to the right way those who err, seeks the scattered, and preserves those whom You have gathered. Of Your tender mercy pour out on Your faithful people the grace of unity that, all schisms being ended, Your flock may be gathered to the true Shepherd of Your Church and may serve You in all faithfulness; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Amen.

Third Sunday of Easter

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

Text: Luke 24:36-49

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[1] https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2020/09/14/americans-views-of-government-low-trust-but-some-positive-performance-ratings/ (accessed 15 Apr 2021)

[2] https://www.huffpost.com/entry/jesus-wife_n_5124712 (accessed 15 Apr 2021)

[3] https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1988-10-18-mn-4561-story.html (accessed 15 Apr 2021)

Second Sunday of Easter

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

Text: 1 John 1:1—2:2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Newborn babes are utterly dependent.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Resurrection of Our Lord

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

Text: Mark 16:1-9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stop being alarmed, says the angel.  Why?

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

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

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

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

Lastly, the angel says to the women:

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

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

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

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


[1] Matt. 27:60

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

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

Sunrise of the Resurrection of Our Lord

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

Text: John 20:1-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And of Zion it shall be said,

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

for the Most High himself will establish her.

    The Lord records as he registers the peoples,

“This one was born there.”

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

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

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

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

Palm Sunday

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

Text: Mark 14-15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fifth Sunday in Lent

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

Text: Mark 10:35-45

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To have a share in the Kingdom of God is to be trained by suffering before we enter into glory, just as our Savior was.  You and I share in that through Baptism: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fourth Sunday in Lent

Readings: Numbers 21:4–9 | Ephesians 2:1–10 | John 3:14–21

Text: John 3:14-21

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”  John 3:16—it’s one of the best loved passages in all of Scripture.  It appears everywhere from signs in the background at baseball games to the bottom of soda cups at the Christian-owned In-N-Out Burger chain.[1]  Christians love this passage because it is the whole Gospel of Jesus in a nutshell.

            But let’s think more deeply about what this verse really means: “God loved the world.”  Yes, the same world that built the Tower of Babel to make a name for themselves,[2] the same world that builds temples to demons and worships the creature rather than the Creator,[3] the world which today writes off belief in God as obsolete superstition, and the same world that persecutes Christians because they refuse to acquiesce to the progressive values of the day.   God loves the world of people like Charles Manson and Adolf Hitler, Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi, abortionist Kermit Gosnell and every unborn baby who loses his or her life.  God loves the world, despite the evils people commit against each other.

            God loves the world, including those who slander the president or governor, complain behind a person’s back, are prone to outbursts of anger and cursing, divorcees, the resentful or greedy, those cheat on their spouse in heart or in fact, and the unforgiving.  That’s when it amazes us that God even loved us, though we’re guilty of breaking Hs holy Law, and completely unworthy of His kindness.  “God so loved the world”—including you and me—“that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

There’s a problem in this world with the word “love.”  It’s widely believed that love is purely emotional and self-serving.  But this kind of love can’t make it through “for better or for worse, for rich or for poor, in sickness and in health.”  No wonder so many marriages end in divorce with this idea of love.  At best, it’s not much more than infatuation that doesn’t look much deeper than a handsome face or pretty hair.  At worst, love is just a synonym for lust and used as a means to get one’s own way.

Yet even as we condemn the world for being so wayward, we need to take a look in the mirror.  We also have this self-serving idea of love in our relationship with God.  When we hear that God loves us, we want that to mean God will provide everything our hearts desire, no questions asked.  God loves me, so He gives approval and affirmation to our lifestyle.  He should be proud of how I’ve lived my life, and He should know that every time I sinned, I was justified in doing it.  That’s the kind of love the sinful flesh seeks from God.

But here in the Gospel, God’s Son shows us how much greater the true love of God is.  First of all, love is always directed outward, never in on self.  Love looks for what the other needs, and then strives with all its might to make that happen.  So, when love sees poor, sinful creatures, it must act to rescue them.  Love also doesn’t wait for the beloved to ask, but it acts spontaneously and willingly.  As the Epistle makes clear, sin hasn’t just made human beings weak; it’s made them dead.  Dead people can’t ask for anything, or seek anything in God.  “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” (Eph. 2:4-5).  Love counts the other’s gain as the highest good and never balks at the cost.  Hear the words of the God who loves: “The Son of Man came not be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”[4]

The world’s version of love is deadly, because it’s equated with acceptance of whatever another person chooses.  That’s not true!  Silence and indifference is more evidence of hatred rather than love.  God’s hatred lets the rebellious go their own way: “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity…those who exchanged the truth of God for a lie.”[5]   God’s love has not let the rebellious and dying world go its own way, and the very fact He speaks against the sin of man is evidence that He has compassion on us.

This was true in the Old Testament reading from Numbers 21.  God was leading and providing for the people He chose for Himself to be His treasured possession.[6]  But they got impatient and grumbled against God and Moses, the man God had given them.  Then, the Lord sent fiery serpents that bit the people so that they died. 

God was not overreacting.  The people had fallen into unbelief, and in their unbelief, they had no share in the inheritance He promised to Abraham.  To bring it into New Testament wording, if they rejected the gifts of God, they would perish in their sins.  And God would not have that.  It was the love of God that sent those fiery serpents among the people to wake them up and warn them!  When the people cried out that they had sinned, God then commanded Moses to lift up the bronze serpent, “and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.”[7]  If God had not loved them—if He had hated them, as the people complained—they really would have died in the wilderness, without food and water…or salvation.

This is God’s love at work, which our Lord Jesus reveals in the Gospel. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For in this way[8] God loved the world…”  That little word “for” connects the bronze serpent to the cross, and the cross as the emblem and seal of God’s love.  This is the manner in which God loves the world: “I am He…I kill and I make alive” [9]  He kills the Old Adam, the sinful flesh in us. He disarms and destroys the devil’s work.  And then He makes alive through Jesus, the Crucified and Risen One. But it’s all moved by His love for the lost and rebellious people of the world.

The cross demonstrates God’s love for every person—especially you.  God’s love might seem strange as it did to the Israelites, but rest assured that His chastisement is meant to bring each of us to the cross.  When you consider your life and say that it should have gone or be going a different way, remember God’s love.  When you grow impatient with the trials He puts you through and you envy those around you, repent of your unbelief!  Repent of worshiping the temporal stuff of this life—be it food or drink, a nice house, a new car, the perfect job, or a dream vacation.

The thing God treasures above all things for you is that you have fellowship with Him, believing in His Son.  If you find yourself arguing with Him that He’s mismanaging your circumstances or putting unbearable people in your path, remember anew His eternal plans for you.  God is your Almighty Father in heaven, who rules over all and gracious works all things for your good.  You, who believe in His Son, have been called according to His good purpose, and He will not fail to save you from destruction and keep you in eternal life. If that means suffering for a time in this vale of tears, so be it.  It is God’s good will for you.  He is preparing you for much more than broken life in this world; He has a new heavens and new earth stored up for you. 

Now we see what love the Father has for every person in the world.  It is a selfless, self-giving love, that pours out the life of His Son on the cross, that a world of dying sinners may live.  This is the love He has for all people—even the ones we despise.  God’s love is not content to see any person perish.  He desires that everyone would believe and behold Jesus,[10] lifted up on the cross for them, so that they receive the eternal life prepared in full for them. Amen.


[1] https://pix-media.priceonomics-media.com/blog/807/ScreenShot2014-09-04at3.16.43PM.png

[2] Genesis 11:1-9

[3] Romans 1:19-25

[4] Matthew 20:28

[5] Romans 1:24-25

[6] Deuteronomy 7:6

[7] Numbers 21:8

[8] What is often understood as “God so loved” is not a matter of degree, like God loved the world so much.  Rather, it’s indicates the manner in which God demonstrates His love.

[9] Deuteronomy 32:39

[10] 1 Timothy 2:3-4

Third Sunday in Lent

Readings: Exodus 20:1–17 | 1 Corinthians 1:18–31 | John 2:13–22

Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

St. Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians, who were a gathering of people from largely Greek backgrounds, yet they were called together to belong to God through Jesus Christ.  But in being called to belong to Him, they often found themselves at odds with the world around them.

They were at odds with their pagan neighbors whose values were based on the stories of the gods, the direction of Fate, the moral lessons of poets and philosophers, and often what was deemed acceptable by their position in society.

They were at odds with those who believed that reason was the way to better mankind, and that we could unlock the mysteries of life by contemplating and arguing for the right way to “walk” (Peripatetic tradition).

And though outsiders may have classified them as members of a Jewish sect, they were at odds with mainline Jews because they believed that Jesus was the Christ.

So, Paul traces the lines which divide them from their fellow man: “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”  The thing which separates Christians from both the religious and the reasonable is the cross. 

19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles

By the cross, God exposes the human folly of self-made salvation.  Many will seek assurance from religious rites, tradition, miracles, and mystical experiences.  When the Apostle says “Jews,” [1] he’s not only talking about the Semitic people; but all who are tracing a partly-true, but man-made religious path to God.

Many also, especially today, tout the wisdom of reason, the certainty of empirical evidence, and avoiding the ignorance, narrow-mindedness, and superstition of the past.  These are today’s “Greeks,” who may be willing to dip a toe in the supernatural, but are ready at the slightest sign of weirdness to flee to the safety of a closed, material universe.

And both of these paths will give a person a kind of peace. A temporal peace, at least.  God is spirit, and the way to know Him is through the spiritual realm.  God has also given us our reason, abilities, an ordered universe, and He has revealed Himself through human language.  But neither of these have ever been meant to be a do-it-yourself solution. 

The cross crushes both of these, because it’s in Jesus Christ that all human striving comes to a dead stop.  It shows that man’s use of religion results in the debacle where they crucified the Lord of Glory in order to preserve worship on their terms.  The reasoned pagans like Pontius Pilate stood dumbfounded at Jesus’ unwillingness to save His own life.  The battalion of soldiers stripped and mocked Him as a king with no army.  Then they publicly humiliated Him, gloated at His mortality, and wrote Him off as a criminal.

It’s not just about seeing the right signs, or hearing a bulletproof argument.  The Apostle says further in chapter 2, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Cor. 2:14)

But this is confused for us, because in our day, we live on the other side of hundreds of years of Christendom.  Starting with the days of Constantine in the 300’s AD, society was so intertwined with the Christian Church that it was difficult to distinguish Church from civilization.  Baptism and citizenship were nearly synonymous in most places.  Biblical morals became the good morals of society.  The Church thrived as an institution that normed and united people over vast regions.  However, it wasn’t that there were necessarily more people in the Kingdom of God because of this outward influence. People then, as now, still fall into these two classes: the natural person, and the person in whom the Holy Spirit dwells.  Both so-called “Jews” and “Greeks” fall into the natural category, even though they outwardly might blend in with the latter.  That’s one of the pitfalls of the idea of Christendom in the world.

Even in our country, we are a nation with roots in Christendom, but increasingly it’s clear that people’s heart is not with Christ.  Even still, there’s a confusion between the genuine people of God and moral agnostics.  In the Ten Commandments (actually, “The Ten Words”[2]), given from Mt. Sinai, the bulk of what we hear is do’s and don’ts.  The natural man who lives on—even in believers—is convinced that the right set of rules will make a people who please God.

We like that, because if people will just keep these rules, life is easier for everyone.  It isn’t just the honoring of father and mother that leads to long life in the land (Ex. 20:12).  If people would just worship the true God, invoke His Name, join together in worship, submit to authority, protect life, uphold marriage, respect property and income, speak about others with dignity and respect, and not lust after what belongs to another—then we’d all be a lot happier.  This was expressed in the popular song by Canadian rock group, Nickelback, “If everyone cared and nobody cried/ If everyone loved and nobody lied/ If everyone shared and swallowed their pride/ Then we’d see the day when nobody died… Amen. Amen. I am alive.”[3]

It’s true that human society thrives on principled people, stable families, justice, and equity.  History has shown this to be true, and many skilled philosophers have affirmed good ethical systems.  But this is not the same thing as the Christian Church.

Today, in the Name of Christ, people campaign to keep monuments of the Ten Commandments in front of courthouses, fight to end abortion, bring prayer back in school, and resist the tide of transgenderism.  While all of this helps curb the perverse human will, these things can never save.  They have their place, and in that way the children of God are a blessing to an increasingly lost humanity.  Paul commands us in Philippians 2, “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, 15 that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.”  But the only light that can save is the light of Christ Himself, who was offered up for all people.

The Church is “the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel.” (Augsburg Confession, VII) You can have a group of like-minded, conservative people whose values align with God’s Word, but that doesn’t make them the Church.  “We preach Christ crucified,” Paul says, because this is what we need—us, who have sinned against God and neighbor in thought, word, and deed.  So there’s us, who are of little account, not powerful or many, sometimes able to influence but often not heard: God has elected you.  Sinners of all different backgrounds, classes, political opinions are gathered to Christ because His Spirit has taught them not the trust in their abilities, or values, or anything else under the sun to save, but hold fast to Jesus who can and does.

We live in times that are more and more like that of our first-century brethren in Corinth.  History shows that the Christian ethic did eventually win over the “bread and circuses”[4] of Roman hedonism.  And to have that again would be nice from a temporal standpoint, but what’s really key is that the Church is here to uphold God’s holy Law and declare the precious forgiveness in Christ to as many as are called with us out of the world.  May God grant this in our age, with a fruit that lasts for ages to come.  Amen.


[1] These verses don’t use the definite article, “the” which leaves it open to a variety of religious paths to God.

[2] Exodus 34:28, see ESV footnote

[3] “If Everyone Cared” written by Chad Kroeger, Michael Kroeger, Ryan Peake, and Daniel Adair

[4] Juvenal, Romans 2nd century satirist (Latin: panem et circenses)

Second Sunday in Lent

Readings: Genesis 17:1–7, 15–16 | Romans 5:1-11 | Mark  8:27-38

Text: Mark 8:27-33

During this season of Lent, the faithful follow Jesus year after year to the cross.  It’s a devotional practice which spans centuries and connects us with that great cloud of witnesses who “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:1-2)

For as often as some of us have “done” Lent, you’d think we’d be experts at it.  But today’s Gospel reading shows us that the journey to the cross was a bumpy one, even for the disciples who followed Jesus face-to-face.  Today, we sometimes live under the assumption that if we just had more information, we would be more convinced and more sure of something.  If we just had more time devoted to God, read, sang, and prayed more, we would automatically better know Jesus. While that’s true in the sense that we ought to make these a priority, the foundation to that is that our maturing in the faith is God’s working in us.

29 And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” 30 And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.

Peter had all the right information, and he even said the right words.  We commemorated his confession of faith with this text a little over a month ago (January 18th), and while what he said was true, that wasn’t the be-all-end all of following Jesus.  Peter, years later, will teach that, throughout one’s life, everyone who follows Jesus must “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18).

Mark’s Gospel especially highlights this by comparing it to the change from blindness to sight.  But it’s as easy as, “I once was blind; but now I see”—and never look back. Today’s reading comes just after the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida (vv. 22-26):

22 And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. 23 And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” 24 And he looked up and said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” 25 Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.

The Lord heals the man’s eyes, but they aren’t altogether well at first.  Isn’t Jesus Almighty?  Yes, of course. But the lesson in this healing isn’t Jesus’ omnipotence, but rather His bearing with our present lingering blindness and gradually maturing our faith so that we see Him for Who He is, and His cross for what it truly is.  This is the point where our Lord takes us from saying the right words, to truly understanding what those words mean.

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

Ignorance of Jesus as the Christ who bears the sins of the world is more than a matter of opinion.  On this hangs whether death for us will bring release from toil and eternal joy, or eternal torment of as enemies of God.  This is the number one thing for every soul to know, but where do you hear about it?  Not in the world.  It isn’t being shared with the same urgency we hear news of earthly things.  The President vowed, “There is no time to waste when it comes to tackling the crises we face,”[1] and what he defines as crises are “COVID-19, the economy, racial justice and climate change”[2]  Nowhere in such lists will you hear the crisis of sinners dying apart from the world’s Savior.

This is something which the Holy Spirit must enlighten us to.  Over the past couple years, it’s become an ideal that people become “woke” to the injustice and oppression that is allegedly all around.  This is the enlightenment of the social justice warrior, who seeks to open the eyes of others.

But Jesus deals with a blindness that is literally diabolical.  The words of Jesus make us “woke,” or rather, enlightened to the plan of Satan to keep in the blindness of sin people of all colors, nationalities, and especially those confused about “gender identities.”  In this blindness, he and his demonic host do much more damage than the wild behavior of demoniacs in the Gospels.  He shrouds people in ignorance of God’s Word, which shows us not to be victims of oppression by other men, but under the dominion of Satan and we ourselves to be lost and condemned because of sin.  And only in His Word will we come to believe Jesus’ atoning sacrifice to be the only way to everlasting peace with God.

34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

God has saved us from the blindness and darkness of this present world.  Yet being delivered from sin and from death, we have also been delivered from the futility of the world and our own sinful flesh.  This is the part of following Jesus that’s especially hard, because it means continually being reminded that we are not masters and experts of our own lives.

The image of a Christian who has been liberated by God isn’t one who stands tall, but following  our Lord Himself, bearing the cross.  The world will mock and call you backward, closed-minded, and foolish.  The devil will tempt you by saying your suffering means God has forgotten you.  Your sinful flesh will hate what God says must happen.  “Let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” As much as the mockery, beatings, rejection, and drinking the cup of wrath hurt Jesus, it was by these that He has delivered you from the destruction of the world, the devil, and your own sin.  It is the Lord who works in you to will and do what is good [Phil. 2:13], and He helps you to let go of your ways, flee Satan’s ways, and the world’s ways.

When the world passes away, there won’t be anything you can give to save your soul, but what the Lord has already given for you.  And standing in His redemption, when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels, we will be able to stand tall, not in ourselves, but confidently in our Lord and Savior who has gone before us and prepared the way. Amen.


[1] https://www.businessinsider.in/politics/world/news/track-all-of-bidens-executive-orders-and-actions-as-president/articleshow/80391592.cms

[2] https://www.npr.org/sections/inauguration-day-live-updates/2021/01/20/958630029/heres-what-biden-plans-to-do-in-his-1st-day-as-president