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)

Lent II Midweek

Text: 1 Kings 18:20-40

Additional Reading: John 5:1-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.



Lent I Midweek

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

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

Text: Exodus 32:1-35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First Sunday in Lent

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Readings: Genesis 22:1-18 | James 1:12-18 | Mark 1:9-15

Text: Genesis 22:1-18

One of the sad realities of life is that people only get woken up to a problem when it affects them personally.  In war, they’re willing to send other sons into war, but hate to send their own.  Slave labor is an atrocity, but when China does it, people turn a blind eye because it saves them money at the store.[1]  We remain armchair theologians until evil and death come knocking on our door and we have to come face-to-face with them and beg God to help us.

In the Old Testament lesson today, God desired to test Abraham.  And it’s not that waiting until his nineties to have a promised son wasn’t a test, but that didn’t really plumb the depths of his heart.  Regrettably, with Sarah giving him Hagar, he had another solution.  If even in name only, Abraham did have an offspring to inherit his household [cf. Gen. 15:1-3].  Rather, when God wanted to test Abraham, He knew where to look to see what was in Abraham’s heart: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”  Your son…no, not the son of the slave woman…your beloved son.  The one I promised and delivered to you.  The son of your old age, the one whom Sarah bore you.  Give him back to Me.

If faith toward God were just a matter of information, He knows the hearts of all and doesn’t need our words.  But believing God, as Abraham did, cannot be separated from how we take His Word to heart in the priorities we set, the choices we make, and the way we treat others.  God wanted to know Abraham’s true devotion, so He asked for that most treasured part of His life.

Each of us has those nerves which are tied to what we consider precious to us above all things.  They are the things for which we fight, the things we move heaven and earth to keep: our reputation, our spouse, our children, our way of life.  Sometimes the things we fight for are not so honorable: our alcohol, our affair, our unhealthy diet, our toys big and small, our laziness.  All the while, we might say we believe in God, and convince others.

But God tests what’s in our heart in a similar way: He asks for or takes that precious thing away.  And in doing that, He strikes a nerve.  Then, feelings of betrayal and anger are aroused in us.  We try reason our way out of it, and figure there must be some way to have our God and eat our cake too.  But like Abraham with Hagar, our half-baked human solution won’t do.  God really is asking for that, because whichever you give up is not really your god.

Too often, however, we choose our precious thing over God.  The work schedule says Sunday, and we roll over without so much as requesting a different schedule for religious reasons.  Our days are filled with so much to do and worry about, who has time to stop, read a little of the Bible and pray?  It’s enough to make ends meet, how could I possibly spare anything to give to the Church or to my neighbor in need? 

The point is that what is precious to us shows us where our heart is.  As Jesus Himself says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:21)

But the same is true for God!  Where His treasure is, there His heart must be also.

The test of Abraham was but a foreshadow of another sacrifice.  “And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

What is precious in God’s eyes?  What would He give anything to obtain?  What fills Him with a longing that never ceases and postpones the close of the age century after century?  Some might say that it’s an obedient humanity.  Whenever at last we get our act together and achieve the end of injustice, oppression, and violence, then we will make our Creator proud.  But that’s not it.

Perhaps we can learn what this is by what price He’s willing to pay to obtain it:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased. (Mark 1:9-11)

It is no messenger, but God’s own beloved Son.  No cheap substitute would do.  No more rams, or goats, or bulls.  The wood was laid upon His Son’s back as He carried it up the mountain.  The knife would not be held back this time, but “nails, spear shall pierce him through; the cross be borne for me, for you.”[2] 

This is what is in God’s heart, and how you know what the treasure of His Kingdom is: 44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, 46 who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Matt. 13:44-46)

The precious treasure God seeks is you.  You, saved from sin, death, and hell.  And not just you, but every person in the world—”He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2 NIV)  He yearns for His Word to take root in your heart and bear fruit in your life here and there in eternity.  He covets your soul and is aflame with jealousy over whatever else captivates you and draws your devotion away from Him.  He will not settle for part of you or share you with the world, and this we know because He held nothing back from your ransom payment: “the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:6)

By this treasure, we know what’s in God’s heart.  By this treasure, given for you, He forgives you for all of your sin, including the ways you have worshipped and treasured the things of this life over Him.  Praise to Him because He is so faithful, so dedicated, and so persistent!  Abraham, together with us, have times when we are doing well, but even that’s not enough.

15 And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, 18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”

It was not Abraham himself, but the offspring or seed God promised, who has brought that blessing to all nations.  And with such a received by us, we are the children of Abraham, who confidently live in and share the precious treasure God sees in saving all the families of the earth.  And in Abraham’s children of faith, He creates in us a new heart, a clean heart, which treasures God our Redeemer above everything else this world has.  The Holy Spirit teaches us the true value of God over the things of this life, and He teaches us to know God as our loving, almighty Father.  With that renewed heart, we’re able to see that whatever our life has now is just for a time, to enjoy and thank God for it while we have it, and to be able to let it go when God says it’s time.  We are, with Job, able to say, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)

Will we be able to live with such abandon into God’s care in this life?  Perhaps, but even when you still see the treasures of the flesh deceiving you, know that the Lord has treasured you, and He has made you His own possession.  Despite the weakness of your heart, His gracious purpose will be done, through Jesus Christ our Savior.  Amen.


[2] What Child is This (LSB 370, st. 2)

Ash Wednesday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Transfiguration of Our Lord

Readings: 2 Kings 2:1-12 | 2 Corinthians 3:23-18; 4:1-6 | Mark 2:2-9

Text: Mark 9:2-9

Have you ever stared at the sun?  I hope not, because it would burn your corneas and you’d be blind.  Have you ever handled molten rock?  If you did, it would burn your skin irreparably.  Have you ever eaten highly radioactive material?  It would destroy your cells and probably trigger cancer.  In all these cases, there are things which our bodies cannot handle.

There’s one more thing which is too much for us to endure: The glory of God.  The glory of the Triune God outshines the sun and should we find ourselves near it, it would consume us in body and in soul.  This is so serious that even if any of the five senses is exposed, it would destroy us.  Consider these events:

The ears of the Israelites:

18 Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” (Exodus 20:18-19)

The eyes of Moses:

18 Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” 19 And [the Lord] said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” (Exodus 33:18-20)

The hands of Uzzah:

5David and all the house of Israel were celebrating before the Lord, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. And when they came to the threshing floor of Nacón, Uzzah put out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen stumbled. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God struck him down there because of his error, and he died there beside the ark of God. (2 Samuel 6:5-7)

All of these examples show us what the hymnwriter captured so well: “Holy! Holy! Holy! Though the darkness hide Thee, Though the eye of sinful man, Thy glory may not see, Only Thou art holy; there is none beside Thee. Perfect in power, in love, and purity.”[1] 

But while God’s glory shines brighter than we can bear, in the face of Jesus we find His glory to save.  Both of these realities meet on the mount of Transfiguration.

The holy, Triune God does not want us to be consumed by His glory.  He did not want the Israelites to die, so He warned them not to touch Mount Sinai.  He did not want Moses to die, so the Lord covered him with His hand.  He did not want the Levites, like Uzzah, to die, so He gave them certain duties, vestments to wear, and the daily sacrifices.  To sum up His intentions toward us, He says through Ezekiel, “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.”[2]  His desire is not to destroy, but to save.[3]

So since it’s a fact that His glory consumes sinners, God hides Himself.  For Israel, when the glory of the Lord appeared, it was always with a covering:

“God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”

“The glory of the LORD dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud.”

“[The high priest shall] put the incense on the fire before the LORD, that the cloud of the incense may cover the mercy seat that is over the testimony, so that he does not die.”[4] 

In the burning bush, the cloud of fire, and the cloud of incense, God hides Himself so that He is able to dwell among sinners and they are not destroyed.  Actually, out of Scriptures like these, we learn that God dwells among man by two things: covering and sacrifice.

Then comes the Son of God.  He’s no less holy or divine.  His glory is the same as His Father and the Holy Spirit.[5]  And yet, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.”[6]  How can this be?  Through covering and sacrifice.

He covers Himself with human flesh.  “In Him, the fullness of deity dwells bodily.”[7]  Most of the time, we hear how Jesus walked among the people, touched the sick, spoke to them in parables, and embraced little children.  But at the Transfiguration, we’re reminded that Jesus is indeed the same God of the Old Testament.  He is the God who “dwells in inapproachable light” and is “a consuming fire”[8] for those who hate Him.  The Son of God revealed His glory, veiled as it was within human flesh.  At this, Peter, James, and John hit the floor like the Prophet Isaiah.  But like Isaiah, whose lips were cleansed by what was taken from the altar, the three Apostles do not die.[9]

And that’s because of the sacrifice.  “This is My beloved Son,” the Father’s voice declared out of the cloud.  The fulfillment of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, God the Father will sacrifice His Son, His only Son, Jesus, on the mount of Calvary.[10]  The flogging, the thorns, and the spear will not be held back at the last minute, but God will offer up His beloved Son for the sins of the world—for all of your sins.  There on that mountain, the Lord provided salvation.

In Jesus Christ, God dwells among us through a new and perfect covering and sacrifice.  More than veiling His glory through a passing mist or smoke of incense, the covering Jesus brings lasts for eternity: All who believe in Him are covered with His perfect and pure life: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ.”[11]  This is the better and perfect covering!  And He has made a better sacrifice—one that doesn’t need to be offered day after day and year after year.  The holy and precious blood of God’s Son is shed for you and for all, and it washes away every impurity.[12]

And through this, the Triune God has made His dwelling more intimately than even the Garden of Eden when He walked among His people.[13]  Our Lord promises, “Where two or three are gathered in My Name there I am among them” and “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age”[14]—not based on your obedience but upon His calling you to believe, and because He dwells not just next to us, but shares human flesh with us!

So we gather here in His Name and God is with us—Immanuel.  While we are gathered here, we hear, see, and touch His glory.  We hear God speak from the Scriptures through which He creates and strengthens faith.  We hear the absolution, but it’s not merely the pastor’s forgiveness; but God’s.   We see and touch—and even taste—His glory in His Supper.  “Take, eat; This is My Body…take, drink; This is My blood.”  Make no mistake, the bread we take is God’s body and the wine we drink is God’s blood.  Far from being consumed in wrath, He says, “This is for you, for the forgiveness of sins.”  So the Scripture is fulfilled which says, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory.”

So Christians are covered in Christ, cleansed from all impurity before God.  That brings up a question in our modern context.  Since the last part of the 20th century, there has been a push toward making worship more casual.  “Worship with a relaxed fit” is the motto of one Baptist church I’ve seen.[15]  Now let me make it clear that there is nothing condemnable about orders of worship or what congregants decide to wear.  Christ our Lord has fulfilled the time of divinely mandated details for worship, and He has saved us from being consumed and condemned by Law and sin.  Having fulfilled them, He has changed the approach to festivals, seasons, and types of clothing, from condemnation for getting it wrong to freedom to bask in Christ’s all-sufficient work.[16]  Through Him and what He has done, we are freed to worship the Father in the Holy Spirit and truth.[17]

Now, that also means that we are freed to fully appreciate our great God and Savior.  The God in whose presence no wicked person may dwell, has given Himself for us.  His Son, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”[18]  So those who worship are opened to acknowledge Him with reverent awe and holy joy. 

That’s why we stand at the Name of the Holy Trinity at the beginning of service and on hymn stanzas marked with the triangle.  We are delight in the Triune God who has redeemed us and mark ourselves with the sign of the precious mark of salvation—the cross and His Name.  Filled with awe at our heavenly King who has come to dwell in our lowly midst, when He speaks to us in the Gospel, we stand and sing Hallelujah and confidently speak our faith in what our God has done.  We are free to stand or kneel as we choose during the prayers, and free to kneel or stand when our Lord uses His servant to give us His holy Body and Blood.  We are free to joyfully sing the Scriptures and songs of praise to the Lord.

And all of this is pleasing to God not because of our voices or our clothes, or anything in us.  It is pleasing to Him through a faith which believes in God’s beloved Son and listens to Him.  Through Him, God has made His glory to shine brighter than anything in this creation ever could.  In Christ Jesus, we have the hope of glory,[19] not mediated by a covering, but seeing Him face-to-face, free from sin and freed from death.  To God alone be the glory: In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] “Holy, Holy, Holy” (LSB 507:3)

[2] Ezekiel 33:11

[3] see John 3:17

[4] Exodus 3:4-5; Exodus 24:16; Leviticus 16:13

[5] John 17:5

[6] John 1:14

[7] Colossians 2:9

[8] 1 Timothy 6:16, Hebrews 12:29

[9] Isaiah 6:1-6

[10] Genesis 22

[11] Galatians 3:27

[12] Hebrews 10:1-14

[13] Genesis 3:8

[14] Matthew 18:20, 28:20

[15] Highland Baptist Church, Clovis, NM

[16] Colossians 2:16-23

[17] John 4:23-24

[18] Philippians 2:6-8

[19] Colossians 1:26-27

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

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

Text: Mark 1:21-28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 23.4

St. Timothy, Pastor and Confessor

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

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

Text: 1 Timothy 6:11-16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Confession of St. Peter (observed)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

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

Text: Mark 8:27-35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] Matt. 16:16-17

[2] 1 Cor. 1:28