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.

Fifth Sunday in Lent (John 11:1-45)

The Lord had an existing relationship with the family. He loved them. He cared about Lazarus in his illness, the suffering he was enduring. (v. 5) We should keep this in mind, first of all, as we see what He does.

Because of this love, he stayed two days longer, to the point at which Lazarus died, and two more days passed. Jesus wasn’t at his deathbed, and didn’t arrive until Lazarus had been dead four days. This is unthinkable. It hurts Martha and Mary that Jesus wasn’t there. Martha breaks out in anger mixed with sorrow, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (v. 21) How could the Lord appear so heartless as to not offer the common human comfort in their grief? In their time of need, the Lord was separated from them.

Separation is hard for us, as we well know right now. Those bonds that we have are built on being together: good times around a meal, trips we take together, sharing celebrations, and being there in times of sadness and fear.

This separation though, isn’t as hard as it could be. It has the promise of ending in the near future. We can still call the people we miss on the phone, video chat with them. But, we often have to reassure each other and ourselves, “This is only for a time. I can make it a few more weeks, a month or two… I’m looking forward to when we can be together again.”

Even the President hopes it will be over by Easter. It probably won’t be, and that will make it the most memorable Easter celebration in any of our lives. Separated on a major holiday, unable to gather together for all the regular festivities—breakfast, egg hunts, church, dinner with family.

But death is separation of a much greater degree. No phone calls, no Skype, not even a letter. No hope of it coming to an end in a matter of months or even years. They won’t be coming back for their things, so you’re left to pack up boxes for Goodwill.

And that’s what hurt Martha and Mary so badly. So why, if Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters, would the Lord allow him to die? “Lazarus has died, and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” Jesus is glad that He was not there so that they may believe. He loved them as friends, close friends, and because He loved them, He wanted them to believe in Him not just as a devoted peer, but as their God and Savior. This begs the question, What’s the real evil in Lazarus’ illness and death? Being separated by death, or not believing? And what’s this about “Let us go to him”?

Jesus arrives at Bethany in the midst of their grieving. He is hurting too, because death has robbed His friends, torn a brother from two sisters. This is a painful time for the Lord, and it really isn’t realistic to see Him as above it all, just because He knows the end of the story.

He is like us in every way—mortal and bound to time—and yet He is also God in the flesh, come to deliver us from the power of death.

And here at Bethany, our Lord Jesus teaches us how to face separation and lament it, but to face it with confidence and hope. He weeps and His tears sting. He is deeply moved and His heart aches inside His chest. He does not talk in euphemisms, or gloss over the very present pain. He acknowledges it, and doesn’t try tricks to make it easier to bear.

That’s something we see a bit of happening during this separation, trying so hard to make it not as bad as it is. Don’t worry about the fact you’re unemployed, because now you’re free to binge watch on Netflix. It’s no big deal that we can’t be with our family; we can just spend more time on webcam. No need to be sad about longing for the house of God, you can just set up a substitute in your living room.

As well-intentioned as these attempts are to “always look on the bright side of death” (Monty Python), they don’t allow the pain to be felt. Losing someone to death is wretched. The upheaval this time has caused in people’s lives is immense. This has done enormous damage to our country, and it’s going to take a long time—if ever—to pay back $2 trillion. There is no substitute for being able to gather in the actual house of God in the flesh with fellow members of Christ. To deny the graveness of our situation shows how little we believe God is able to do. It betrays our unwillingness to fully commit ourselves into His keeping.

The lesson from our Lord here is to not shy away from calling a thing what it is: death is a curse, grief can’t be sidestepped. We pass through the “valley of the shadow of death” (Ps. 23:4) because there isn’t another way around, and it may be a shadow, but the darkness is felt.

The other lesson our Lord teaches us is how to face dismalness with hope intact. I said earlier that the Lord does not talk in euphemisms, and you may think He was sugar-coating death when He said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” (v. 11). No, what He’s expressing is what death has become for the people of God. Being separated even by death is an easy thing for God, and the Lord shows them it is so.

On many a funeral bulletin, these words have reminded us of that: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (vv. 25-26) It’s beyond all current human experience to acknowledge that as true. But the Lord shows Mary and Martha that in the flesh by going to Lazarus’ four-day-old tomb, praying to His Father (the Maker of heaven and earth), and calling Lazarus out from the tomb. “Nothing is impossible with God,” Gabriel told the young virgin who would conceive by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:37) When Jesus said, “Let us go to him,” as simply as, “I go to awaken him.” He was speaking as plain as the nose on your face.

It sounds simple for God, but it was not. It cost Him everything to say those words to call Lazarus from the tomb, because it would mean Him going into it. It would take His

innocent suffering and death, His being forsaken and made sin for us all. God in no way diminished how serious our sin is, but He is also the God who raised Jesus from the dead.

The griefs we now bear, can and will be turned around with a Word from the Lord. We go into tragedy and calamity unwillingly, not knowing what the outcome will be. Nevertheless, we go in believing in our God and we know with confidence that He will hold onto us in body and soul. He will keep us, so that “we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea” (Ps. 46:2) Whatever may come, the Holy Spirit convinces us of what He has spoken: that He will never leave nor forsake us (Josh. 1:9), that nothing in all of creation will be able to separate us from His love in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:31-39). Temporal sufferings of living without our spouse, having our celebrations and plans fall to pieces, of loneliness—we bear not because they’re in any way enjoyable, but because we, like Martha and Mary, have come to believe the great things which our God can do.

That’s because He almighty and He loves us, too. Let us pray:

Lord God, You have called Your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go but only that Your hand is leading us and Your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

(LSB, p. 311)

Fifth Sunday in Lent (Genesis 22:1-14)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Fifth Sunday in Lent + April 7, 2019

Text: Genesis 22:1-14

Genesis 22:2: “[God] said, ‘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.’”

We should be horrified at this

1) Because of what is being asked, and

2) Who is asking.

This is disgusting! An outrage!  And for God to ask for it?!  But over against the wrenching feelings in his gut that told him this was wrong, Abraham obeyed because of Who was asking.

  1. We also are told to believe God and trust what He says because of Who is speaking, even if it seems outrageous to our ears.
  2. In the world, when we are told that immoral things are acceptable and even good.
  3. We are flooded with examples of same-sex relationships that are supposed to validate them from Doc McStuffins[1] (a show for preschoolers which featured a “two mom” family in 2017) to Star Trek Discovery, which glorifies an intimate relationship between two men.
  4. Lawmakers harden their hearts against God and lead astray the ignorant by legalizing and encouraging murder under the guise of healthcare and destruction of gender distinctions and family structure under the banner of civil rights.
  5. We are told to believe and embrace some disgusting things, things contrary to nature, which even a healthy conscience says are wrong.  But who is telling us this?  Should we obey people, or God?
  6. Lest we become proud of how we haven’t been fooled by the world, we in our lives have made excuses for why it’s not so bad when we sin.
    1. The Lord condemns gossip, but we think He doesn’t mind our gossip, like when we get together and badmouth people who aren’t there to speak for themselves.  After all, we have their best interests at heart because we’re “good Christian” people.  But no matter how good our intentions are, we are going about it a sinful way, and we need to repent.
    1. There’s a lot in this world to be angry about—about what we hear on the news, corruption, the way people treat each other, and how people have treated us.  But the Lord says in Psalm 4:4, “Be angry and do not sin.”  When we feel anger over these things, we may be getting angry over genuinely bad things, but in our sin we go beyond our place.  We plot ways to make them see their error, ways that we can get an advantage over them.  But really what we need to do is get down on our knees and confess our pride and let God be right.  God will have His righteous anger, and act in the way that He knows is best.
  • But most of all in believing God over our understanding, we are to believe the Word of God that’s spoke in Confession and Absolution
    • Matthew 18:18-20: “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.””  – The Lord says an incredible thing here.  The keys are given to the Church, to be shared between each other.  And when we share that forgiveness, it isn’t just a human act—“whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”—that forgiveness is valid before God.
    • John 20:22-23: “The Lord Jesus breathed on His disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” – The keys of the Kingdom are exercised publicly.
    • Reason would say, “Why should I believe that this word of forgiveness has any power beyond the person speaking it?”  “Who is the pastor to forgive sins?” But faith answers, Amen even when our reason says we don’t deserve it, or others don’t deserve it.  We believe this because of Who has spoken this Word.
  1. A faith that lives by God’s Word is called complete.
    1. James later says, “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’” Abraham’s faith was completed by this work, as a matter of proof that his faith was living and active.
    1. Abraham’s faith was completed by his works.  How is our faith completed?  What sort of works does the absolution result in?  If we are absolved and immediately go out and condemn another, how have we taken grace to heart?  If we are absolved of our wretched thoughts, words, and deeds, and go out and freely do it again, are we actually letting the Holy Spirit sanctify us?  If our Christianity is only good on Sunday morning, but doesn’t change the rest of how we raise our families or live as citizens, are we really being salt and light as the Lord calls us?
    1. Abraham is an example for us, the man of faith.  The point is that faith in God and His Word changes who we are—how we think, how we speak, how we act.
      1. Biblical examples of this: Abraham went from being a pagan to a forefather of faith.  Peter started as a timid fisherman but God made him into a bold apostle.  Paul went from being a zealous enemy to a humble and powerful witness.
      1. God works these changes in your life as well, according to His own plan.  These are the fruits of faith. It isn’t going to be the same for everyone, because God has specific callings and situations for each of us.


Fifth Sunday in Lent (Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11:17-27)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Fifth Sunday in Lent + April 2, 2017
Text: Ezekiel 37:1-14, John 11:17-27

You’ve heard it said, “Seeing is believing.”  This works most of the time.  You wouldn’t buy a car if the dealer refused to show you the one you were buying.  You wouldn’t work long for an employer who promised you a paycheck but never actually came up with the money.
However, sometimes our faith—what we believe—is opposed to what we see.  Think of what we confessed in the Creed—we see God’s visible creation, but not His Son and what He did for us, and while we’ve seen a portion of the holy Christian and apostolic Church, we haven’t seen the Spirit or the rest of it.  Nevertheless, we believe in these things because God’s Holy Spirit is at work in us—His Word tell us this is all true.
Think about the valley of dry bones:
The hand of the Lord was upon me, and he brought me out in the Spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of the valley; it was full of bones. And he led me around among them, and behold, there were very many on the surface of the valley, and behold, they were very dry. (Ezek. 37:1-2)
Sight sees dry, dead bones.
Then the Lord asks a question: And he said to me, ‘Son of man, can these bones live?’ And I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’”  That’s faith’s answer, because what our eye sees and what our mind knows would say flat-out “No.”  But what the rest of the vision shows is that God is able by His Word to do what we may not see or yet see.  Even death itself is not too great an obstacle to God.
This is the same thing we see in the raising of Lazarus.  21 Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.’ 23 Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ 24 Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’”  It’s faith over sight.  Sight sees a lifeless body, a closed tomb.  Faith sees that God is able to do all things good—even if it should be to raise the dead.
25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”
There again the Lord asks a question.  It can only be answered with faith, by the Holy Spirit at work in a person’s heart.  Do you believe that God is Almighty, that He is who He says He is, and He can do what He speaks?
Faith answers affirmatively.  Yes, I believe because the Holy Spirit tells me God does not lie.  He is not limited in what He can do.  Everything which we confess in the Creed is true, even though we’ve seen very little of it.  All of the Bible is true, even though we may not fully understand some things, and haven’t seen others.  We believe that God has given us nothing but truth to cling to.
Doubt and unbelief will put limits on what God can do—sometimes thinking He can only do as little as our own imaginations.  “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’”[1]  All looks lost, and judging by man alone, it may well be.
God’s people Israel today say can’t bring the people of this generation to faith.  We need to spice things up to “get the young people.”  They’ll only come if you throw out the liturgy and model yourself after a rock concert.  We believe in market analysis and hearsay from false prophets and hypocrites who claim to know the Scriptures but deny the power of God.
God’s people look to themselves and say, “I’m tired and worn out from all that I’ve been through.”  I believe in the doctors who tell me all that’s wrong with my health, and the gurus which tell me I need to take some “me time” and focus on myself for a while.  I believe in my calendar which is packed with far too many “important” things to fit in serving my neighbor or taking up a job at church.
Yet faith comes first, then sight.  Look and believe what God did to dry, dead bones.  Look at what He did to a man dead in the tomb for four days!  Why do we doubt that He can sustain His Israel, the Church?  Why would we believe He’s more at work where we see impressive things happening, and not at work everywhere His Word is preached—including Bethlehem?
We are people who have the gift of the Holy Spirit, who joy in the forgiveness of sins, who are members of the holy Christian and apostolic Church.  We are God’s people, and our hope is in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.  Death is an easy thing for God to overcome by His Word.  So, can He not also dispel our sloth and hopelessness?
Even though we do not see the dead raised, we believe that His Word goes out and accomplishes His purpose.[2]  He calls the weary to rest, He convicts the indifferent, He raises those in spiritual death.
Now, come you weary people of God, to the feast which your Lord has prepared for you at His table.  This is the Body and Blood of your Risen Lord, and by it He will strengthen and preserve you in body and soul to life everlasting.  And faith says: Amen.
[1] Ezekiel 37:11
[2] Isaiah 55:9-11