Third Sunday in Lent

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

Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Exodus 34:28, see ESV footnote

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

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

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.

Third Sunday in Lent (John 9:1-7)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Third Sunday in Lent + March 26, 2017
Text: John 9:1-7

Jesus and His disciples are walking to church one Sabbath, and on the way they find a pathetic sight: A blind man lying there begging.  So, they ask Jesus what’s probably been on the mind of every passerby: What did this guy or his parents do to end up in this situation?
But Jesus did not come to unlock the mysteries of God’s hidden wisdom by rooting out the causes from the consequences of sin.  “God sent His son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”[1]  He came to be our Savior.
So, He says, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”  Of course, he and his parents sinned—“no one living is righteous before you”[2]—but that’s not the point.  Jesus isn’t concerned with retribution for sin, but saving sinners out of pure grace.
He does what He came to do—“he spit on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing.”  Jesus makes it look so easy, and suddenly this man’s affliction is taken away.  If only we had Jesus around today like this, think of how much cancer could be healed, deformed children made whole, or disabled people made to get up out of their wheelchairs.
But the greater miracle than healing a man born blind is the faith which is the result of this encounter.  That work of God is even greater than the miraculous healing, and that’s at the center of what Jesus says: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
There were many people who were healed during Jesus’ ministry, but there are also times where He wasn’t able to heal.  Did that mean His almighty power was limited?  No, the limitation was on the part of the people: “And he did not do many mighty works there because of their unbelief.”[3]  It’s true that Jesus is the source of healing.  He is the one who opens the eyes of the blind, makes the paralytic take up his mat and go home, and forgives sin.[4]  Yet in every case, healing comes through believing the Word of Jesus.
Work while it is day means that Jesus and His disciples worked while there was opportunity.  That is, where there is faith.  In the night of unbelief, the works of God cannot be done.
Where there is unbelief, we will be stuck on the questions, “Why is this happening to me? What did I do wrong?”  It’s true that it’s happening because we are sinners living in a fallen world.  But there’s no comfort in that.  There’s also no healing unless we’re brought out of the darkness of our earthly, sinful hearts which blame God for treating us unfairly and holding out on us when He could make things so much better.
Jesus is the one who is the one Sent into the world to save the lost and open your blind eyes, that you might glorify the work of God.  The greater miracle for you is the Holy Spirit’s work of faith.
Harold Buls once wrote, “Don’t ask backward, but forward”[5]  Our sinful, unbelieving heart looks backward to how things might have been or should have been different.  Where there is faith, however, God turns our eyes forward to hope for an expect what He will do to deliver us.
What we see as fundamentally wrong and broken beyond repair, God sees as an opportunity to save—to display His work.  False accusations, sudden death, mistreatment, or abuse—when we experience things like these, we despair because our help on earth has failed.  The courts have ruled against us, people have taken what rightly belongs to us, and the doctors can offer no cure.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”[6]  He who created heaven and earth knows very well how to deliver you from whatever evil.  He knows the way to comfort you in sadness, restore what is lost, and strengthen you to endure the temporary pain and withstand the spiritual assaults of the devil.  Where there is faith in the God who saves sinners, there the works of God are displayed.
In our darkness, the weakness of our faith, cry out, “I believe, help my unbelief!”  The same Savior who brought faith to the blind man will also answer you.  Never think that God is powerless to save or that He somehow overlooked you.  “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.”  Commit yourself into His care, and He will deliver you in His wisdom and out of His love.  Through this faith, may the works of God always be displayed until that last Great Day.  Amen!
[1] John 3:17
[2] Psalm 143:2
[3] Matthew 13:58
[4] John 9, 5:1-17, 8:3-11
[6] Psalm 121:1-2

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

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Third Sunday in Lent + March 19, 2017
Text: John 4:5-26

Jesus gives us a good conscience before God by
hearing our confession and forgiving our sins.

  • The Samaritan woman was doubly guilty.

Samaritans were outcasts of Israel, the prodigals who had set up a rival temple in Samaria.  “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”  They knew they were wrong in God’s sight, but they were too proud to repent and come back. Besides, even if they did, who in Israel would receive them?

  • That’s her ancestry, but her own life is a mess too.

She herself had sin she was hiding from others (but not from God).
She comes to the well when nobody else is around to stare at her or confront her.  13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 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.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”
She needed to be free from human fixes for sin, because they cannot solve the real problem.
We too look for human fixes, spiritual Band-Aids if you will—harmful ones like drugs and alcohol, cutting and fits of rage; constructive ones like psychotherapy and antidepressants.  But none of those can touch the soul and address our spiritual condition.  They leave us guilty before God if they are our only solution.

  • Jesus gave her living water.

The way to peace with God is through confession of sin:
16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” 17 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; 18 for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.”
Psalm 32:3-5: “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.”
Confession can’t be substituted—either by working harder, avoiding personal contact, or by staying away from church.  These things only make things worse.  They draw out the guilt unnecessarily and leave room for Satan to give you reasons why you can worship God in the privacy of your home.
25 The woman said to him, “I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.” 26 Jesus said to her, “I who speak to you am he.”
The absolution which Jesus brings also can’t wait and dare not be uncertain—“Perhaps God forgives me, or I’ll find out if I get into heaven.”  The woman wanted to put absolute truth off until Messiah comes, but Jesus was no prophet.  He was God, and the words which He speaks actually do bring salvation.
The words of Jesus gave her peace with God, as is evidenced by her going and proclaiming him publicly to her neighbors.
28 So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” 30 They went out of the town and were coming to him.

  • Jesus gives you living water.
    • He is well aware of your sin. He knows your depravity better than you do (or want to admit).  “O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar.” (Ps. 139:1-2)
    • A peaceful conscience with God can’t come in the privacy of your own thoughts. The Word of God comes from outside of you, and is best delivered when it is spoken to you by someone else.  That Word is able to speak peace to you when your heart can’t: “Whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God.” (1 John 3:20-21)
    • This is also why Jesus instituted confession and absolution:

20 …he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “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.” (John 20:20-23)
Here in the words spoken by a pastor, your Lord points you back to His death and resurrection, to your Baptism.  In the waters made living by the Word of God, you died to all of your sin, and you were raised to eternal life.  Just as we sang in the 3rd stanza of Rock of Ages:
Nothing in my hand I bring;
Simply to Thy cross I cling.
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die. (LSB 761:3)
Thanks be to Jesus for that blessed washing away of sins.  Amen!