Fifth Sunday of Easter (John 14:1-14)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

 Jesus says, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers” (vv. 1-5).

            Let’s test that out.  I’m going to read an excerpt from a sermon, and you tell me if it is the voice of the Shepherd, or of a stranger.  Here goes:

That’s the way it is with God. What we can accomplish on our own is hardly noteworthy. We try our best, but the results aren’t exactly graceful flowing music. However, with the hand of the Master, our life’s work truly can be beautiful…

Next time you set out to accomplish great feats, or small feats, listen carefully. You can hear the voice of the Master—the voice of our Mother/Father God—and feel God’s loving arms around you.  Know and trust that those strong hands are there helping you, helping us all, to turn our feeble attempts into true masterpieces. [1]

Was that the voice of the Shepherd?  I hope not! Unless you were baptized in the name of the some androgynous god.  The Good Shepherd does not call Himself a conductor, tuning and polishing what is beautiful in us.  The true Shepherd does not direct you to your best efforts, because even your best efforts are sin in the sight of God [Isa. 64:6]. This impostor preaches a so-called gospel of ‘you’re good enough and God accepts you as you are.’  She does not enter through the Door, which is Christ.  Instead, she speaks platitudes about a god (whatever “he” or “she” is), rather than giving Christ’s sheep what they need: the healing that comes only by His wounds [1 Peter 2:24].

Here’s another one, and this is going to be harder:

The Gospel that proclaims that we are, like it or not, let off scot-free… You’re washed. You’re forgiven. You’re free. No law condemns you. No celestial finger is wagging at you. You walk in the liberation of the Spirit, Who lives in you, is active in you, and works relentlessly to mute the voices of guilt that still growl inside you…

The Good News has nothing to do with us, but everything of the Gospel is given to us. We are like beggars on the street corner. Jesus pulls us and drops a million dollars in our outstretched hands. Just like that. Not because we’re excellent panhandlers but because he’s got the money and wants to give it away to those who would never have it otherwise.

All we have is His love. And that’s all we need. Because His love is who He is. When we have Him, we have everything.[2]

            This one is harder because it’s gushing with all the right-sounding stuff.  But unlike the first example, a not a matter of using the right words.  It’s in the application of the Gospel.  What this message says is that you should just mute the guilt that nags in the back of your head.  Write it off as the devil.  Why? Because you have been forgiven.  But it’s in that subtly that our weak and wicked flesh wants to plug its ears to the Law’s accusations, even when it’s right.  This is the creeping error of antinomianism, of the Gospel replacing the Law for a Christian. Where it gains the most traction is among Christians who have a checkered past, and whose on-going weakness—thorns in the flesh [2 Cor. 12:7]—haunt them.  They earnestly want to lead a godly life, but they keep finding nothing but sin and death in the mirror.  The answer, though, is not to silence the accusation of the Law, but to confess that God is right [Ps. 51:4] and seek the Lord’s forgiveness and the Spirit’s continued work in confession and absolution and the Body and Blood of Christ.

As children, we learn to be afraid of strangers, because we don’t know their intentions for us.  This is a good warning, because there are many strangers in this world who mean us harm.  False shepherds are no exception.  What they preach is not the voice of the Good Shepherd.  Instead, they speak in the voice of that ancient serpent, the Devil.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber.”

Our Lord calls them thieves and robbers.  Thieves, because they come craftily, sometimes doing such a good job that it fools the sheep.  It’s easy to spot messages of empty platitudes, but Gospely-messages that are laced with cyanide are harder to spot. The thief, like the Devil, quotes Scripture, but through a theological funhouse mirror so that the original intent or full meaning is corrupted.  By a sham gospel, you are led to trust in a different shepherd—one who minimizes the seriousness of sin, or praises you for how much you “do for the Lord,” or who focuses you on how spotless your life is.  But all the time, he steals confidence in Christ’s work from you and replaces it with doubt in your own.  The more that Satan can turn your focus away from the cross of Christ, the better he has set you on the road to hell with him.

There are also the robbers, who like Barabbas [John 18:40], are brazen in stealing sheep away from the Lord.  The robbers work within the bounds of the Church on earth.  Here you find open attempts to undermine the trustworthiness of God’s Word, and being told that we all worship the same “god.”  Here it’s easier for the well-catechized sheep to spot something destructive going on, but the weak are tossed to and fro by these suggestions.

Any teacher who comes to you apart from Jesus can do nothing but thieve and rob.  Recognizing them isn’t a matter of choosing the right name.  Sometimes those who turn out to be thieves have the very best of intentions, be well-educated, and loving people.  They may have even been faithful shepherds in the past.  “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.” (Ps. 146:3)  Put your trust your Good Shepherd and hearing His voice.  Even St. Paul put himself under this same strict judgment: “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” (Gal. 1:8)  The message for the flock is to endeavor to hear only His voice through regular meditation and study of His Word and faithful witnesses to it throughout the centuries.  This is how we can be certain of hearing the voice of our Shepherd, and being cared for by Him.

Why is this important?  Because Satan cannot offer what the Good Shepherd gives.  Thanks be to the true God that He has sent us His Son, because in Him, we are not stolen away, killed, and destroyed.  To us, who have been smothered by evil and death, we bask in what our Good Shepherd gives His sheep:

“The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out… Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep… If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture…I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

It is true, we can be confident of hearing our Shepherd’s voice, because He has called His Church with His voice.  He seeks us out, gathers us into His fold.  His rod defends us against our enemies and His staff guides us through this treacherous world.  And He will lead us out, calling us by name as He gave us His own in the waters of Baptism.  He is with us in the valley of the shadow of death, all the days of our life.  And in Him we have life that abounds beyond present sin and death, endures forever.

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


[1] http://www.newcastleucc.org/Sermons/20110213ReceiveTheSpirit-Womens%20Sunday-SusieCraig.pdf

[2] “Gospel Phobia” by Chad Bird. https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-phobia (accessed 5/2/20)

Fourth Sunday of Easter (John 10:1-10)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

 Jesus says, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers” (vv. 1-5).

            Let’s test that out.  I’m going to read an excerpt from a sermon, and you tell me if it is the voice of the Shepherd, or of a stranger.  Here goes:

That’s the way it is with God. What we can accomplish on our own is hardly noteworthy. We try our best, but the results aren’t exactly graceful flowing music. However, with the hand of the Master, our life’s work truly can be beautiful…

Next time you set out to accomplish great feats, or small feats, listen carefully. You can hear the voice of the Master—the voice of our Mother/Father God—and feel God’s loving arms around you.  Know and trust that those strong hands are there helping you, helping us all, to turn our feeble attempts into true masterpieces. [1]

Was that the voice of the Shepherd?  I hope not! Unless you were baptized in the name of the some androgynous god.  The Good Shepherd does not call Himself a conductor, tuning and polishing what is beautiful in us.  The true Shepherd does not direct you to your best efforts, because even your best efforts are sin in the sight of God [Isa. 64:6]. This impostor preaches a so-called gospel of ‘you’re good enough and God accepts you as you are.’  She does not enter through the Door, which is Christ.  Instead, she speaks platitudes about a god (whatever “he” or “she” is), rather than giving Christ’s sheep what they need: the healing that comes only by His wounds [1 Peter 2:24].

Here’s another one, and this is going to be harder:

The Gospel that proclaims that we are, like it or not, let off scot-free… You’re washed. You’re forgiven. You’re free. No law condemns you. No celestial finger is wagging at you. You walk in the liberation of the Spirit, Who lives in you, is active in you, and works relentlessly to mute the voices of guilt that still growl inside you…

The Good News has nothing to do with us, but everything of the Gospel is given to us. We are like beggars on the street corner. Jesus pulls us and drops a million dollars in our outstretched hands. Just like that. Not because we’re excellent panhandlers but because he’s got the money and wants to give it away to those who would never have it otherwise.

All we have is His love. And that’s all we need. Because His love is who He is. When we have Him, we have everything.[2]

            This one is harder because it’s gushing with all the right-sounding stuff.  But unlike the first example, a not a matter of using the right words.  It’s in the application of the Gospel.  What this message says is that you should just mute the guilt that nags in the back of your head.  Write it off as the devil.  Why? Because you have been forgiven.  But it’s in that subtly that our weak and wicked flesh wants to plug its ears to the Law’s accusations, even when it’s right.  This is the creeping error of antinomianism, of the Gospel replacing the Law for a Christian. Where it gains the most traction is among Christians who have a checkered past, and whose on-going weakness—thorns in the flesh [2 Cor. 12:7]—haunt them.  They earnestly want to lead a godly life, but they keep finding nothing but sin and death in the mirror.  The answer, though, is not to silence the accusation of the Law, but to confess that God is right [Ps. 51:4] and seek the Lord’s forgiveness and the Spirit’s continued work in confession and absolution and the Body and Blood of Christ.

As children, we learn to be afraid of strangers, because we don’t know their intentions for us.  This is a good warning, because there are many strangers in this world who mean us harm.  False shepherds are no exception.  What they preach is not the voice of the Good Shepherd.  Instead, they speak in the voice of that ancient serpent, the Devil.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber.”

Our Lord calls them thieves and robbers.  Thieves, because they come craftily, sometimes doing such a good job that it fools the sheep.  It’s easy to spot messages of empty platitudes, but Gospely-messages that are laced with cyanide are harder to spot. The thief, like the Devil, quotes Scripture, but through a theological funhouse mirror so that the original intent or full meaning is corrupted.  By a sham gospel, you are led to trust in a different shepherd—one who minimizes the seriousness of sin, or praises you for how much you “do for the Lord,” or who focuses you on how spotless your life is.  But all the time, he steals confidence in Christ’s work from you and replaces it with doubt in your own.  The more that Satan can turn your focus away from the cross of Christ, the better he has set you on the road to hell with him.

There are also the robbers, who like Barabbas [John 18:40], are brazen in stealing sheep away from the Lord.  The robbers work within the bounds of the Church on earth.  Here you find open attempts to undermine the trustworthiness of God’s Word, and being told that we all worship the same “god.”  Here it’s easier for the well-catechized sheep to spot something destructive going on, but the weak are tossed to and fro by these suggestions.

Any teacher who comes to you apart from Jesus can do nothing but thieve and rob.  Recognizing them isn’t a matter of choosing the right name.  Sometimes those who turn out to be thieves have the very best of intentions, be well-educated, and loving people.  They may have even been faithful shepherds in the past.  “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.” (Ps. 146:3)  Put your trust your Good Shepherd and hearing His voice.  Even St. Paul put himself under this same strict judgment: “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” (Gal. 1:8)  The message for the flock is to endeavor to hear only His voice through regular meditation and study of His Word and faithful witnesses to it throughout the centuries.  This is how we can be certain of hearing the voice of our Shepherd, and being cared for by Him.

Why is this important?  Because Satan cannot offer what the Good Shepherd gives.  Thanks be to the true God that He has sent us His Son, because in Him, we are not stolen away, killed, and destroyed.  To us, who have been smothered by evil and death, we bask in what our Good Shepherd gives His sheep:

“The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out… Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep… If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture…I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

It is true, we can be confident of hearing our Shepherd’s voice, because He has called His Church with His voice.  He seeks us out, gathers us into His fold.  His rod defends us against our enemies and His staff guides us through this treacherous world.  And He will lead us out, calling us by name as He gave us His own in the waters of Baptism.  He is with us in the valley of the shadow of death, all the days of our life.  And in Him we have life that abounds beyond present sin and death, endures forever.

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


[1] http://www.newcastleucc.org/Sermons/20110213ReceiveTheSpirit-Womens%20Sunday-SusieCraig.pdf

[2] “Gospel Phobia” by Chad Bird. https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-phobia (accessed 5/2/20)

Second Sunday of Easter (John 20:19-31)

In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

Right now we’re all too familiar with barriers.  If you make it to Costco, they have Plexiglass shields between you and the checker.  We’re can all play bank robber and put a mask on and ask the teller to give us money (as long as it’s ours, of course).

There are all kinds of barriers too—gloves so germs can’t get on us, 6 foot circles so we don’t share air, the glass of storm doors to keep us safe from the potential for spreading disease.

After Jesus’ resurrection, there were barriers too.  Last week on Easter, there was the barrier of the stone—“Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” (Mark 16:3), but God overcame that with the might of His angel.  In today’s Gospel, the disciples are behind locked doors so that the they would be safe from fear of the Jews who murdered Jesus.  But this barrier also served to keep out further news of Jesus, whose tomb was empty (John 20:1-10).

Yet, this barrier was overcome by the Risen Lord Himself—“Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’”  Most theologians agree that the Lord Jesus didn’t need the door opened to get in, any more than He needed the stone rolled away to leave the tomb.  But more important than the mechanics is that Jesus came to them in spite of the barrier.

Having overcome this barrier, Jesus ran into another one, not of doors, but also manmade:

24 Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

The Lord had appeared to the ten Apostles, and they reported this amazing news to Thomas, but Thomas chose to believe in the barriers of sight and time, which removed him personally from the night of Easter.  He pragmatically put his own reason over the testimony of the other witnesses—a very human (and very common) barrier to faith.

Before we move on, we have to talk about another barrier, not physical, but spiritual.  It’s the barrier between us and God that is the result of our sin.  This barrier came from both our natural birth into sin (Ps. 51:5, Rom. 7:14-15) and from the sins of our own making.  Yet it is the Lord’s will to overcome that barrier, too.  So, He gives to the Apostles this power to overcome the divide: “’Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.’” 

We see eight days later that Jesus appears again, overcoming the physical barrier.  Right away, He shows His love for Thomas and the others, greeting them with “Peace be with you.”  Then, in divine forbearance, He condescends to Thomas’ weakness: “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” It’s these human barriers which threaten to destroy our fellowship with God.  Yet, they can’t be overcome by any power on earth.  Just as Israel’s armies didn’t lay a hand on the walls of Jericho, but rather it was at God’s command that they fell flat (Josh. 6:1-20), no amount of cajoling, arguing, or browbeating can take down these walls within us.  It is God’s purpose to overcoming them, and—as with all things—He does this by His almighty, creating Word.

Notice the parallels between this scene in the Upper Room and the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:5-9).  God is coming into man’s midst.  In the beginning, lifeless clay must become a living being, so God breathes into his nostrils.  Here, redemption from sin and death has come, and now God breathes anew with His Spirit.  Now man becomes not just a being who lives just span of time, but lives eternally.  This is God’s work to restore what was rent asunder, to break through those barriers.

That Jesus is able to overcome physical barriers is a comfort to us right now, because we are all locked behind closed doors, whether we want to be or not.  The Church is broken up into family units, yet the Lord is still able to come and be in our midst.  This is by no means the norm for the Church to be physically scattered, but neither is it too hard for our Lord to keep His promise that He is with us always, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20).

With that word of peace, our Lord also overcomes the spiritual barriers—the sins which separate us from God, and which alienate us from one another.  We’ve erected barriers by knowing what we ought not to do, and doing it anyway.  We’ve divided from one another by the things which we’ve said and done that make it so we can’t look each other in the eye.  The Lord Jesus has overcome it all by speaking the Spirit-filled Word of forgiveness. “Peace be with you” and He shows us His hands and His side.

We know that this word of peace was given to the Apostles that night to speak—”as the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you”—but that word is given to every Christian to speak to one another.  The peace of Easter doesn’t just stop when we receive it, but as Jesus was sent to us, as the called servants of Christ pass that peace to you, you also pass that peace to those who have sinned against God and perhaps you personally.

These are the barriers which the Lord overcomes, and He does it by His Word.  The Bible truly has everything which God needs us to know.  Not only is it a vast trove of wisdom about the Lord and humanity, but what God has inspired to be written, He has done so to overcome all barriers in you—“that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, and that by believing, you may have life in His Name.”

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

Resurrection of Our Lord (Matthew 28:1-10)

Alleluia! Christ is risen!  Good news beyond comprehension. That’s what Jesus’ resurrection was.  Mary of Magdala and Mary, the mother of James, go to the tomb after resting on the Sabbath.  They come with burial spices to complete what was taken care of with haste as the sun set on Friday.  It wasn’t fitting that their beloved Teacher not be given the honor of a reverent burial and His followers given the dignity of mourning.  But there were the authorities, the seal on the tomb, and the guard posted. What else could they do?

But then something happened which neither of them saw coming: a great earthquake shook the ground and an angel appeared to roll back the stone.  In fear, the Roman soldiers became like dead men, and it was such a fearful sight that the women also needed to be told twice, “Do not be afraid!”

Everything stood against this being possible—the rejection by the highest authorities, the corruption of justice under Gentile dogs, the scourging, the jeering at the cross, how he was marred beyond human semblance as he could barely cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1), and how He breathed His last and was laid into a tomb.  Earthly rulers, natural law, and experience all told the story that death and evil had won the day as Jesus was laid into the tomb. 

It’s such surpassingly good news that it needs to be told very simply and repeatedly.  In short sentences, the Angel delivers the message: “I know you seek Jesus the Crucified One. He is not here. He has risen as He said.  Come, see the place where He lay. And go quickly, say to his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead.’ And behold, He goes ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.”  Short but true messages, “See, I have told you.”  And they do go, filled with fear and great joy.

It takes a while for this incomprehensible news to sink in, until they meet Jesus face-to-face on the way.  Then they can see with their own eyes, and hold Him with their own hands.  This is most certainly true.  This is not a myth to be handed down and closely guarded lest the world find out it was actually just a fable (Mt. 28:11-15).

God does not lie.  Everyone else may be questionable, but not God or His messengers.  With Him, you don’t need to worry if He is only telling you the part of the story He wants you to know.  He deals with us honestly and in love.  Unlike the news media, with God you don’t have to wonder about bias of the author or if outside interests are directing what He says.  When He grants “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Mt. 28:18) to His Son, you don’t need to wonder if this is overreach or a plot to grab power while people are vulnerable.  God does not lie, nor does He commit evil.

So, revel in this good news: Death has been beaten!  Sin has been put away!  There is peace with God through the risen Jesus Christ.  “Set your minds on” (Col. 3:2) this fact, when you hear news of rising death tolls.  Life and death are fully in God’s hands, and for all who belong to the Risen Christ death is no more than departing the toils of this world.   Remember God’s angel who said: “He has been raised from the dead” when you hear of the frantic search for a vaccine, that God has the antidote for death itself in His Son!  When you worry what earthly leaders will do that impacts our ability to gather for worship, remember the seal and the watch which could not keep the disciples out, and remember our Lord’s own words: “You would have no authority over me unless it had been given you from above.” (John 19:11)   And finally, when you encounter those who, out of fear, are acting obnoxiously, set before your eyes the blood of Jesus, the blood of the covenant which was shed for the sins of all, which cries out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Lk. 23:34)

This good news beyond comprehension is true, even on Easter 2020, when the Church on earth was scattered.  Yet she is forever one in her Lord, who has triumphed forever over sin, death, and all the powers of evil. Amen.

Good Friday (Isaiah 53:4-5)

One of the strongest illustrations of the Gospel coming out the Reformation is that of the courtroom scene—forensic justification—where God looks upon the guilty sinner and His verdict is “not guilty” because Christ is the One who stood in our place and bore the punishment. This makes sense, because people were often under judgment and penalty. Going to confession was like writing your own ticket, and then finding out how much you had to pay. As plagues ravaged countries, mothers died in childbirth, and war with neighboring states left paths of destruction, people were in real fear of what kind of God they would find. They had been told that Jesus was an angry judge, and to appeal to the mercy of Mother Mary and the merits of the other saints to escape the “temporal” punishments of purgatory.

But another illustration of the Gospel is healing, as in the words of Psalm 107:20: “He sent out His Word and healed them, and delivered them from their destruction.” This is something the Prophet Isaiah wonderfully portrays in chapter 53, verses 4 and 5:

Surely he has borne our griefs

and carried our sorrows;

yet we esteemed him stricken,

smitten by God, and afflicted.

The Hebrew word (חֳלָיֵ֙) rendered ‘grief’ elsewhere describes weakness, illness, or disease. And the word for ‘sorrows’ (מַכְאֹבֵ֖י) specifically means suffering and pain. So if we read these in this way, it becomes “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases.” This is how Matthew connects this passage to a series of healings which Jesus did (Matt. 8:14-17).

During a time of pestilence, of rising death tolls and fears over public health, to hear that God is not aloof to our plight, is truly good news. What does He do for us? He lifts up our illness, our weakness. He bears our pain, our suffering. He makes them His own burden to bear.

Earlier in chapter 52, the Prophet says, “His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind” (v. 14) Imagine a time when you’ve seen someone gravely ill, how disfigured they look from their normal appearance. That’s what disease has done to them. But this is also what Jesus became—the most disfigured, the embodiment of all that sin and death has done to us.

Yet, we thought little of it while things were going well. I’ve heard so many people say how sad and tragic the suffering and death of Jesus is. “We esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” For many, the sufferings of Christ are one of those background events that we pull out during Holy Week and then put back for the rest of the time so we can focus on happier things like joy in the Lord. God doesn’t just want us to be happy; He wants us to be whole.

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” (Luke 5:32) It is good news for us who have or fear having illness in our bodies, whose pains are crushing us. Where are we going to turn for help? Many turn to the medical establishment, and some would move heaven and earth (so to speak) just so that hospital beds and equipment can be kept in abundant supply and well-funded, as if that could spare us from the tide of this plague. No, our help is in the Name of the Lord, who will keep us in body and soul.

But he was pierced for our transgressions;

he was crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,

and with his wounds we are healed.

One of the most poignant signs of the End Times are the judgments executed on daily life and health—tyranny, wars, famine, and plagues. When God takes away His temporal gifts of peace, food, and health, one of two things happens: the godly are repentant and plead with God to remember His mercy, while the ungodly curse at him and cry for the mountains to cover them from inescapable judgment (Luke 23:28-31). What kind of confidence do God’s people have? That Christ is the one who saves us from our just judgment. He was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities. The punishment He bore on the cross brought us peace with God. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) The judgments that come, which deny us the temporal good, are not foreboding threats of eternal wrath for us; they are discipline from our loving Father, sent as He works out His good purposes.

“And with His wounds we are healed…” During His ministry, Jesus healed all manner of diseases and dysfunctions. He said to several people, “Your faith has made you well” (Matt. 9:22; Mark 10:52; Luke 17:19). The Greek word means “to save,” as in your faith has saved you. Salvation and healing are so intertwined because God’s will for humanity is life, not death; wholeness, not disease. When we bear bodily suffering, we often grow weary and wish for a sudden physical healing. Yet it is our faith which has already healed us in the most important way: we are made whole before God for eternity. These bodily ailments—no matter if it is COVID in our lungs, rheumatoid arthritis in our joints, inexplicable spots on our brain, or cancer in our veins—are passing shadows. The physical healing which is truly going to count is when we hear the Son of Man’s voice as He calls us each all out from our graves.

Glory be to Him who has saved us and gives us healing here in time and in eternity. Amen!

Maundy Thursday (Matthew 26:17-30)

Normally, Maundy Thursday is a night I look forward to as a pastor—imagine that, a holiday in the Church year dedicated to the Lord’s Supper! I love the hymn, “Soul, Adorn Yourself with Gladness.” It brings me to tears as we sing, “Jesus, bread of life, I pray You, Let me gladly here obey You. By Your love I am invited, Be Your love with love requited; By this Supper let me measure, Lord, how vast and deep love’s treasure. Through the gift of grace You give me As Your guest in heav’n receive me.” (LSB 636:8)

But this year, that joy is covered over by the health restrictions, and threats to all those who disregard the directives—both legal and to our health. This year, we will not be observing the Supper Jesus founded “On the night in which He was betrayed.” And that hurts—both as a Christian, and as your pastor.

Everything about the Gospel text reminds us that Jesus was with His disciples, and that they were taking part in an ancient tradition—the Passover—which had been celebrated year in and year out since when Moses led the sons of Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground.

It’s that way for us too, because this Eucharist (the ancient name for this meal from Jesus giving thanks) has been revered as the Passover fulfilled by Jesus’ disciples for centuries! In house churches, catacombs, through times of war and peace, this meal has been a constant source of grace, strength, and hope. But always together. This is a strange year indeed.

But do our present circumstances overturn what we commemorate on this night?

26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

Our Lord explained what He was doing that night, with this meal: He breaks bread and says it is His Body. He takes a cup of wine, and says “This is my Blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” So we will look at these two things: the Body of Christ, and the New Covenant in His Blood.

What is the Body of Christ? “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” (1 Cor. 12:12-13) The one Body of Christ is what we confess when we say, “I believe in…the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints.” (Apostles’ Creed) It is the assembly of believers which spans space and time—from every century and from all tribes, nations, and languages. This is the mystical Body of Christ, the Church.

There is also the Body of Christ in, with, and under the bread of the Lord’s Supper. Through what we call for short the sacramental union, Jesus feeds the members of His Body, the Church. For some, it’s easier to conceive of the Body of Christ, the Church, more than the Body of Christ in the bread of the Eucharist.

But is either one affected by this new virus and restrictions? We learned from Jesus raising Lazarus that even death cannot separate a member from the mystical Body of Christ—“Whoever believes in me, though He die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26). Neither will circumstance change the bread which we break, which is the Body of Christ. Though we are made to fast from it for a time, Christ remains our life as He promises, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven, if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.” (John 6:51)

Our Lord also says, “This is My Blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” He says this in connection with the sacrifices offered under the previous covenant with Moses, and in connection with the covenants He made before with Abraham. Covenants which God makes are sure.

With Abraham in Genesis 15, He made a covenant promise that Abraham would be the father of a multitude. In the custom of “cutting” covenants, Abraham cut the animals in two, and normally the two parties passed through together, solemnly promising that if either broke the covenant they would be rendered as the slain animal. In this case, God is the only one who passed through, in a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch (Gen. 15:17). God made a unilateral covenant, that not even death, famine, oppression, war, unfaithfulness, or any other upheaval could overturn. Over 2,500 years, God kept His covenant so that Abraham’s Offspring was born, was sacrificed instead of Isaac, and made a blessing for all the families of the earth.

So, when Jesus says that in this Supper is the blood of the covenant, poured out for many, this is God’s unilateral covenant—full of God’s faithfulness and rich with the forgiveness of sins. Whether the outbreak continues for a few weeks more or extends much further, this covenant in Jesus Blood will not be moved. We still have its benefits by virtue of the blood which Jesus shed upon the cross, the Word of the Cross which has been preached and received by us in faith, and our being crucified and risen with Him in Baptism.

This doesn’t change our longing for what Jesus has given for our good. We feel the weight of our sins as we are pressed hard with isolation, altered schedules, scarcity of certain needs, and close quarters. The threat of death is very present, and we do nobody any favors by disregarding the restriction guidelines.

But in our hungering for the Sacrament in these strange times is not an emergency of our faith. Jesus has eaten this anew with us, because He has brought us into the Kingdom of His Father, through His Body offered on the cross and the blood of the covenant he poured out. Confident in His promise and power to keep us, we will patiently wait to celebrate the feast, and we will humbly submit to the current conditions. Casting our cares on the Lord, He will sustain us through this point in time. COVID-19 will pass away. All of these measures and their impact will pass away and be recorded in history books. But the Body of Christ will go on as it does eternally—both the Church and the Bread we break. His Covenant will endure through every season until the earth remains no more (Gen. 8:22).

We pray:

Abide with us, Lord, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent. Abide with us and with Your whole Church. Abide with us at the end of the day, at the end of our life, at the end of the world. Abide with us with Your grace and goodness, with Your holy Word and Sacrament, with Your strength and blessing. Abide with us when the night of affliction and temptation comes upon us, the night of fear and despair, the night when death draws near. Abide with us and with all the faithful, now and forever.

(LSB p. 257)

Palm Sunday (Passion According to St. Matthew)

Matthew 26:1-35

Jesus is surrounded by failures. The woman who anoints him does a beautiful work, Judas who betrays him, the eleven other disciples who claim to be faithful but later abandon him.

And this is nothing unique to this moment in time. Among people, we are a mixed bag. We have good intentions at times, evil at others. We do some good things, but other times we’d rather just look out for ourselves. We show good judgment and self-control, but we also can be incredibly stupid. If we’re judging the success of Jesus’ passion, it best not be by looking at those around Him.

The one constant in all of this is where this mixed bag of men and women have hope, where the Church in every age is built on the rock. It’s on Jesus and the covenant He makes: “Take eat; this is My Body” “Drink of it, all of you, for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” The covenant is the unbreakable promise of God to men with all of our failures. Jesus’ Body broken on your behalf; Jesus blood poured out for the remission of sins.

With the rabble around Jesus in His Passion, He is one constant. When we thrive in the Holy Spirit or foolishly yield to our flesh, Jesus is our one constant. It is to Him that we return, and in Him we are saved. Amen.

Matthew 26:36-56

In a script for a play, everything is determined. The actors follow the stage directions, they say the lines assigned to them, they react the way they are supposed to. This is a bit like how it was with the Scriptures.

Jesus, the Son of Man, knew the part that He had to play. It was laid out before Him, and everything had been going according to the prescribed events. He had taught the people what He needed to teach, performed the great signs which signaled the Messiah’s arrival. Now was the most difficult part—that of the “Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief…one from whom men hid their faces, despised, and rejected.” (Isa 53:3). He pleaded with the Author that, “if it be possible, let this cup pass from me” But He was willing to play His part: “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Jesus submitted Himself to the definite plan of God, the Script-ures.

The others played their part, too. The disciples grew sleepy keeping watch because of the weakness of their flesh. Judas and his crew came out to arrest Jesus with a kiss. Peter, thinking he would creatively turn the tide, attacked the servant of the high priest. But no matter what the desire of sinful actors, whether it be to seemingly save Jesus or have Him destroyed, the Scriptures of the prophets must be fulfilled.

And even though the Scripture prescribed that He would be betrayed and rejected, they also announce that, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isa 53:4-6) Amen.

Matthew 26:57-75

There are some times when telling the truth will get you into more trouble. Other times, you might tell a white lie and think it will save you from worse consequences. From experience, we know that it’s right to tell the truth, if nothing else than the quote attributed to Mark Twain: “If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.” But we inevitably make things complicated by lying or telling a selective truth. Many broken marriages and conscience-stricken addicts can show the foreboding consequences of lying.

Here we see both. Telling the unedited truth winds up getting Jesus the sentence of death, while Peter weasels his way out of trouble with a thrice-told bald-faced lie. And what does Peter’s false testimony gain him, but a selfish benefit of being spared ridicule. Trying to save his own hide, he does nothing. But it was right that Jesus told the truth, because that telling of the truth, though it cost Him His life, was the very testimony that must be said. In His confession, He received the just consequences for us, for the Psalmist says with alarm, “all mankind are liars” (Ps. 116:11).

His testimony also gained for us what no mere man’s truth could. In confessing that He was the Christ, the Son of Man, His Word was that of the “mediator of a new covenant…the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Hebrews 12:24) It is now His testimony that He gives before the Father, where He speaks on our behalf and we are declared innocent and righteous. Amen.

Matthew 27:1-31

The last words that Jesus spoke before being nailed to the cross were, “From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (26:64) There was no more for Him to say, because He had preached the Kingdom of God, He had confirmed it with signs. Now it was left to others how they would respond and what they would do.

Judas said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood” but without faith, he carried out sentence on himself. Pilate asked, “Are you the King of the Jews?” and marveled at how Jesus made no answer to defend himself. The crowds cried for Barabbas instead of Jesus, cried out for His death, so confident of their rejection of this King that they said, “His blood be on us and on our children.” The soldiers dressed Jesus up in mock royal robes and said, “Hail, King of the Jews” as they abused Him. This is how they all responded—Jew and Gentile—to the Word of the Lord and His Christ.

This was all as it had to be, for God to save sinful man. In order to save those who rejected the Lord, the Lord’s Servant had to be rejected. Even though Jesus was silent then, He had been spoken of before, “He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth…Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush Him; He has put Him to grief…the will of the Lord shall prosper in His hand.” (Isa. 53:7, 10) This is how God saved them because that was is His gracious will—to save His enemies and account them righteous. This is God’s will: to save you. 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)

Fourth Sunday in Lent (John 9:1-41)

Times of disaster often bring out the theologian in people. We want to know why bad things happen. This is called “theodicy.” It comes from the Greek words for God and justify, and it cuts two ways. First, it serves to justify God’s right to send suffering, and this is what happens when we try to explain God’s reasoning for a bad thing that’s happened.

In 2010, Pat Robertson of the 700 Club attributed the earthquake in Haiti to making a pact with the devil to be freed from being a colony of France.1 In Hinduism, karma is the explanation given for why things happen to you, but in case the answer isn’t immediately apparent, you can pin the blame on what you did in a so-called “past life.”

Maybe it comes from a fear that secretly God has ulterior, evil motives for how He rules the universe. Or it could come from the idea that God will only do good to those who are good enough, and just maybe you don’t make the cut.

The other side of theodicy is when we demand that God answer us why He done something that causes pain. Why, God, are mothers robbed of their children? Why, God, do you allow a gunman to open fire in a shopping mall? Why, God, is calamity piled upon calamity in some people’s lives, while others go carefree? Why, God, would you let the shameful and unjust things happen which fuel our loved one’s addiction?

This kind of theodicy is what Job dabbled in when his life was overturned by a test from Satan.

2 I will say to God, Do not condemn me;

let me know why you contend against me.

3 Does it seem good to you to oppress,

to despise the work of your hands

and favor the designs of the wicked?

4 Have you eyes of flesh?

Do you see as man sees?

5 Are your days as the days of man,

or your years as a man’s years,

6 that you seek out my iniquity

and search for my sin,

7 although you know that I am not guilty,

and there is none to deliver out of your hand?

8 Your hands fashioned and made me,

and now you have destroyed me altogether. (Job 10:2-8)

Theodicy is what the disciples were delving into when they came upon this blind man:

As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Under the Pharisees, they had been taught a very simplistic view of sin and its consequences, based on the Lord’s Word: “I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate Me.” (Exodus 20:5) They were simply using inductive reasoning—this man has a malady. Malady is a result of sin. God says he punishes the children for the sins of the fathers, so this man must be under some kind of family curse.

There’s something sadistically comforting about understanding why someone else is suffering. You might call it Schadenfreude, taking pleasure in seeing another person’s pain. But I think it really comes down to a vulnerability in each of us. If this man was born blind because of sin, what might befall me? How can I steer clear of having that happen to me or those close to me?

Theodicy is ultimately a dead-end, because it stems from a desire to be master over our life. If anything is teaching us this, it’s the coronavirus pandemic. If not only the fact that it spreads so easily, the steps taken to slow its advance has turned all of our lives upside down. Pointing fingers won’t change it. Yelling about it won’t stop it. It’s here. It’s made an unprecedented impact on the world.

You can acknowledge it as God’s judgment, as all disasters are. But judgment for what, we don’t have a definite answer. It’s impacted people from nearly every country, regardless of religion, occupation, or economic status. If anything it’s a stark reminder that we are all under the power of death.

But the Lord’s response to His disciples’ question can teach us in this matter: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Firstly, it’s not for us to know the inner workings of why God allows or sends evil, why circumstances happen the way they do. That is hidden from us, as it was when Job questioned God’s justice and motives for his suffering (Job 38-41) What Jesus shows in this blind man is God using all things, even the evil of blindness, to arrive at a good purpose: His salvation.

Secondly, so long as we remain in judgments and blame, sin and just rewards, we will never behold Jesus Christ. The focus is not on this man or his parent’s particular sins; it’s on the works of God displayed in Him. What is that work of God? Jesus already answered that in John 6:29: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom He has sent.” For what has He sent Him? To be the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Why do you, man, bother yourself to track down particular sins, when God has given His Son to take sin away from the world.

It would be easy to understand if, at the point the man was healed everything started going better for him. But it doesn’t. It gets worse. He loses his place in the synagogue. He loses His parents. Yet, notice what happens at each of these “turns for the worse”: After he is interrogated by the Pharisees, he says Jesus is a prophet. When he’s forsaken by his parents, and questioned again, he confesses that Jesus is from God and greater than all the prophets before. Finally, after he has gained his sight, but lost his community and his family, he worships Jesus.

This is the work of God, that he believes in Jesus in spite of trials. While we may not be able to ascertain whose sin or what caused this pandemic, this is a time where the work of God will be manifest. In Romans 5, Paul touches on this miracle of faith: “Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Rom. 5:2-5) Not only is God fully in control to provide during necessity and able to rebuild from the ashes, but He is also mighty to keep us in the one true faith and so display His mighty work.

Jesus says next, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.” This is what Jesus and those who follow Him are about: the work of God which is displaying that, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” (2 Cor. 5:19)

Our Lord says the night is coming, when no one can work. Times of pestilence and economic turmoil make it hard to ignore that these are the last days. St. Paul’s words to Timothy ring all too true:

“Understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God…” (2 Tim. 3:1-5)

This is not a time for the Church to only preach the Law, as if people cleaning their act up would save them. We must be ready to preach the Gospel to people, to sinners, just like us who are under the same judgment, whose livelihoods crumble before their eyes, who are scared about the future.

The Lord Jesus says, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” He is still in the world because His people are in the world. There is still hope for those who feel their sin. Until the very last, Jesus is the light of the world, and He makes His faithful, forgiven people, to shine. That’s the kind of light of the world that He is talking about when He urges us not to put that lamp under a basket (Matt. 5:14-16). This is the Word which has saved us: that we deserve the judgements that have come on the world (and worse),

but God in His mercy came to us, opened our blind eyes to recognize Him in His Son, our Savior.

Jesus anointed this man’s eyes and sent him to the Pool of Siloam, which means Sent. Just as Jesus was sent by the Father, as the Light of the World, so He sends us in the world, in the midst of sin, to point to Jesus and announce His grace. May He enable us so to do! Amen.

Third Sunday in Lent (Text: John 4:5-26)

Ignorance about God is a serious problem. Now, very few people would actually say they don’t know much about God. More common is the idea that we know enough about God to get by. You know, as much as country music songs teach us about God and Jesus and the importance of saying prayers. But this view of God can’t get you that far. You end up with a speckled view of the Law and an unclear idea of the Gospel. The country music Jesus considers sins to be mere blemishes on an otherwise angelic person. And the reason you get into heaven is because he overlooked your sins because he loves you…“forever and ever amen.” This vague view of God also doesn’t tell you where to find His grace where He offers it, and when you really need it.

What happens then is that true knowledge of God is filled in with contrived thoughts about who God is. Phrase like these crop up: “God helps those who help themselves.” You’ve also probably heard something along the lines of, “God is love, therefore he couldn’t possibly hate your sin.” Another popular idea is, “If I have a good feeling after church then I must have gotten something out of it.” You won’t find any of these ideas in the Bible.

In today’s Gospel reading, we meet a woman from Samaria, and the Samaritans had a similar problem. It dated back to the time when the Kingdom of Israel split. Jerusalem, where the Temple was, was in the Southern Kingdom. Without the Temple, you can’t be a faithful to the Lord’s decrees. One of the kings of the Northern Kingdom built Samaria to rival Jerusalem. Since the Samaritans were excluded from the Temple, they started adopting pagan practices to supplement their former temple worship. The resulting religion of the Samaritans was a hodgepodge between Israelite worship and whatever other religious notions came along. That’s why the Evangelist notes, “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (v. 9). Strangely, despite this confused theology, the Samaritans still considered themselves faithful Israelites.

That’s where you come to the Samaritan woman who met Jesus. She has a very vague understanding of the Scriptures, and an even vaguer idea of the Messiah. She’s not like Nicodemus, who was an expert at the Scriptures and recognized Jesus’ signs. But just like Nicodemus, she doesn’t recognize the Messiah, even in broad daylight.

With her patchy knowledge of God, she also faces a dilemma in her personal life. John paints the picture: Near the town of Sychar, close to where the patriarch Jacob lived for many years (Gen. 33:18-20), this is a place where the rich history of God’s people is remembered fondly. Now comes a woman to draw water from this historic well, “given by our father Jacob.” But she comes by herself. Why? Because it’s the middle of the day, when nobody is around [Gen. 24:11]. She’s not trying to beat the dinner rush; there’s something more. It’s the accusing glances she’s bound to receive if she comes in the cool of evening.

But what she finds is Jesus—a man, but even less expected, a Jewish man. Oh, he’s probably going to condemn me for my half-breed ancestry. But, Jesus is very different.

When He speaks with her, He doesn’t address her ancestry or just her behavior; Jesus addresses the condition of her heart: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” You’re thirsty, dear woman. Not just in the bodily way; your soul is parched.

He diagnoses her by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit searches all things, and He knows what is in her heart. Her coming to this well day after day was an analogy for what living without the true God was doing to her. She is aware of what she’s done wrong, knows she shouldn’t be living this way. She’s ashamed of it, because her conscience accuses her. Yet, she can find no peace. Instead, her vague religion leaves her with Band-Aid fixes for her sin, like coming to the well when nobody is around. Workarounds and excuses lead to more of them, until you’re tangled in this knot you can’t untie. It’s like having to draw water from a well day after day: the task will never be finished and she will never have her thirst for peace quenched.

Jesus diagnoses her real problem, which is her need for repentance, to return to the Lord. So, He says, “Go, call your husband and come here.” If she wants to be done with Band-Aid fixes, she will need to confess her sin. And she does. “I have no husband.” The God of Jacob had confronted her, and the Spirit had led her to make a true confession. Thus, Jesus says, “What you have said is true.”

Imagine what this woman’s life looked like. She’s been divorced 5 times, probably labelled a hussy by her community. Maybe she seeks something to numb the pain of those fractured relationships; she’s given up on getting married again at all. She’s desparate for something to numb the pain, silence the conscience. Her picture of the Messiah, the ideal of what life with God could be, is postponed. Just like when we make excuses—I’ll get back to going to church when this crisis is over, or when I get back from vacation.

Likewise, the Spirit leads you to a true confession of your sins. At the beginning of the service in the Confession and Absolution, we said, ”If You, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? But with You there is forgiveness; therefore You are feared.” (Ps. 130:3) That is not your self-diagnosis. Your self diagnosis is usually that you’re not that bad, at least compared to others. Sure you’ve made some mistakes this week, but nothing major, nothing too big to handle. Apart from God’s Word, our own self diagnosis leads us to think we can take care of ourselves on our terms.

The words of Jesus have brought the Samaritan woman to repentance. It doesn’t stop there, though. The Spirit does not just lead you to a true knowledge of your sins; He also leads you to truly know that God is gracious and merciful toward sinners. The Samaritans, with their confused theology had also lost where to seek God’s grace. On the one hand, the Scriptures state that God is to be found in His Temple, but on the other hand the Samaritans didn’t have the Temple. The woman had confessed her sin to God, and now her question is, How can I seek God, whom I have offended? As a Samaritan, she doesn’t have access to the Temple. What hope is there for her?

Where is God to be found? The answer is good news for the Samaritan woman: The hour is coming where it’s no longer a matter of mountains, temples, or animal sacrifices. In the past, these things were important because they formerly were where God was found. However, the hour has come for those things to be fulfilled. Those things were a shadow, but the substance belongs to the One who is standing before her. And it is the Messiah whom the Spirit points to. All who would worship the Father in Spirit and truth worship in Christ. He is the temple where fullness of deity dwells bodily. All the animal sacrifices end in the one sacrifice made on the cross. God is no longer found in a building, but He is found in the flesh—Jesus.

That is the good news for you, also! In Christ, you are able to approach God, whom you have offended by your sins, and with all boldness pray, “Almighty God, have mercy upon us, forgive us our sins, and lead us to everlasting life.” Every day of your baptized life in Christ, your Heavenly Father gives you His Holy Spirit. The Spirit calls you by the Gospel, to repent of your sins and believe in your Savior.

Jesus approached this woman, who was wandering like a sheep without a shepherd, with compassion. He holds up the gifts of living in the Kingdom—He is the gift of God, the One who gives water that springs up to eternal life. “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk

without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live” (Isa. 55:1-3a) He holds these gifts up so that she can compare what she has now with what God has prepared for those who love Him [1 Cor. 2:9].

Learn from the compassion of the Lord. He tells her what He has to give and the Holy Spirit works a spiritual thirst in her. This teaches us how to share our faith, especially with those who have wandered or have serious doubts. It starts with meeting her where she’s at—she understands shame and guilt, but with a hazy knowledge of God’s will it just festers inside her.

The Law of God came and cut her to the heart. Yet, Jesus’ words are not just more “should-and-didn’t” pangs of guilt toward which we eventually become callous. They’re aimed at honing in on a specific sickness in her life. That sickness can’t be treated by avoiding others. It can’t be fixed by her own solutions. This much to tell us when we talk to people who have neglected their faith, and not come to church in quite a while. They know they should. Guilt. They get busy with other things, which at times can be overwhelming and lead to more trouble. More guilt. In most cases, what you’re meeting is someone who has plenty of guilt already, but it’s become unclear what direction that guilt is coming from, and like the Samaritan woman, they need guidance back to the living waters which Jesus gives. What Jesus offers them in Word and Sacrament is what they aren’t getting out there. They’re not stupid; they’re starving. They’re withering away without God.

And that’s what has brought us here…both here in person and online, to quench that thirst which the world cannot:

“As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
My tears have been my food
day and night,
while they say to me all the day long,
“Where is your God?”
These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I would go with the throng
and lead them in procession to the house of God
with glad shouts and songs of praise,
a multitude keeping festival.
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.”

(Psalm 42:1-6)

Your salvation is here in Jesus Christ. Amen.