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Laugh to Scorn the Gloomy Grave

Luke 7:11-17

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

I’m sure you’ve heard people making reference to “COVID fatigue.”  People are weary of hearing about and thinking about the pandemic and case counts and extensions of mask orders and all the politics that surround these things.  Add to this the demonstrations and riots and conflict, plus all the usual challenges of life, and most everyone is tired of it all.  We look for things that can divert and distract us and give us an escape.  Our minds and consciences can only take so much.

And then you come to church, and what do you hear about?  Sin and death.  Well how is that helpful?  Can’t we talk about something else besides death, pastor?  We’d prefer something more along the lines of a spiritual pep talk to help us “be the best version of ourselves”–or whatever the current cliche is.  Of course, our real, primary focus here in church is not sin and death but forgiveness and life and resurrection.  That’s what is preached here every week, the good news of Christ.  But that good news isn’t something that you will treasure and cling to unless you honestly grasp how serious and real the bad news is.

We must admit that we naturally ignore the realities of sin and death.  We engage in all sorts of things that help us to pretend that the grave is not waiting for us.  And the Bible says in Hebrews 2 that this is a form of spiritual slavery for us, that the fear of death holds us all in bondage, whether in a conscious or unconscious way.  It’s what drives so much of what we do as we cling to life in this fallen world.  Living in fear and denial of death, we enslave ourselves to things that pass away.

I’m sure that the widow in today’s Gospel wanted to escape the realities of death, that she was worn down and weary of it all as she carried her only-begotten son to the grave.  It seemed as though death had won.  It had already taken her husband.  How was she supposed to carry on and survive now that her son was gone?  If it was possible for this grieving mother to switch places with her son, she certainly would have done so.  His body lay there cold and lifeless in the casket.  And she was helpless to do anything about it.

It is not our place to make trades or deals with God, like the bargaining that can so often go on at someone’s sickbed.  And you cannot absorb someone else’s cancer or go back in time and change seats with the person who died in that accident.  It seems unjust that the young would die when the old are ready to go and would gladly take their place.  But this is not in our power; it’s not our choice.  All life is fragile and temporary.

But remember, this isn’t the whole story, not even close.  Death is the devil’s chariot, and he is a charlatan.  He tries to delude us, just as he deceived our mother Eve, with things that seem to be true and real but aren’t–with forbidden fruit that seems pleasing to the eye, with religions and  philosophies that seem so much more reasonable and fairer than Christianity, to make it seem as if evil wins, because death always has its day.

But the truth of the matter is that things are not as they seem.  Death does not win.  For Jesus lives.  And man lives not by bread alone or solely by the latest pronouncements of doctors and scientists.  Man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.  Man lives by the Word of God made flesh, who died in the flesh on the cross, and rose again in the flesh from the tomb.  Man lives by the Word out of God’s mouth and into the waters stirred up in the church’s baptismal font.  Man lives by the Word out of the mouth of God and into your mouths under bread and wine.  That is how man lives, or man doesn’t live not at all, no matter how it might seem.

What we cannot do, Jesus has done. We cannot take the place of another.  But our Lord, Jesus Christ, can and did.  He was not invited to the funeral in Nain.  He did not even seem to know the young man.  Still, He rudely interrupted the procession.  He barged right in and touched the dead.  He broke the taboo.  Even today, we find it a bit uncomfortable for someone to touch a dead body, to touch the body in the casket.  In Jesus’ day that was even more the case; to do that would make you ceremonially unclean.  But Jesus did it anyway.  He broke the Law of Moses, and He paid the penalty for it.  For He who knew no sin became sin.  He was then unclean, and death was transferred, passed from the boy to our Lord.  Life passed from our Lord to the boy.  Jesus was infected; the boy was cleansed.  Life flowed to the boy and pulsed anew in his young veins.  And Jesus, the Lord and Giver of Life, traded places with him, fulfilling the wish and dream of his mother.  What she could not do, He did for her and for him.

Jesus spoke, and the boy arose.  “Young man, I say to you, arise!”  Some time later Pilate would sentence Jesus to the death He took away from this young man.  Jesus died because He touched our dead humanity and took that  mortality into Himself.

We sometimes forget that Joseph, the husband of Mary, had already died by the time Jesus began His ministry.  So there was yet another widow, the mother of Jesus, watching her Son die, holding His dead, bloody, nail-scarred body in her arms, just outside the city.  Yet this Son would not leave His widowed mother grieving.  She would see Him again alive when He left the grave behind, having put an end to the sting of death and the threats of the Law and the power of the devil.

But still, it might seem as though the resurrection in Nain was only temporary, simply a brief respite from death.  That famous boy from Nain is no longer with us, of course.  He died again.  It would seem as though death was merely delayed, that death always wins and always gets its prize.  Even if he lived on this earth another fifty or sixty years, death still came.  The flesh has long been off of his buried bones.  But again, that is only how it seems.

For when Nain’s famous son laid down in death for a second time, he was given back to his mother for the second time.  He had certainly buried his mother before he died the second time.  So when he died again, he was again given back to her in heaven, and this time, he was with her for good.  This time, he would never be taken away, never again separated from her or his father, or from Abraham and Moses and all of the saints who had gone on before them.  For they were all with their Lord.  And if the people in Nain were filled with joy and the fear of God at the resurrection on that day, you can imagine the joy in heaven when that boy saw his mother and his Savior again.

Death only seems to win and take its prize when it comes to the faithful.  But those who believe in Jesus never die.  They are ever alive in Him.  St. Paul says they fall asleep.  They are not dead.  Their souls go to heaven. Their bodies sleep in the grave awaiting the awakening, the resurrection on the Last Day.  For that’s how it was with Jesus.  When He was on the cross and died, it is written that Jesus gave up His spirit, His soul.  And His body went into the grave to wait for the resurrection on Easter Sunday.

So it is that all Christians die like Jesus.  We are not dead; we live.  For our God is the God of the living.  Our living souls go with Jesus to the Father, and our bodies go into the grave to wait for the resurrection at the final Easter.  Our souls will then be rejoined with our bodies, perfect and immortal and glorified.  And then we will live fully before God as we were created to live.  For Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life, and the one who believes in Him will live again, even though he dies, and whoever lives and believes in Him will never die.

So remember, when we bring up death here in church, we’re not being negative.  Rather we bring it up so that we can make fun of our defeated enemy.  It’s sort of like me bringing up the Minnesota Vikings and how they’ve never won a Super Bowl.  We bring up death to taunt it, to mock it, to declare its defeat in Christ.  You see, as Christians we don’t live in denial of reality, enslaved by our fear of death.  Rather, we face it head on, just as Jesus did with this funeral procession.  For we know that in Him death is neutered and toothless and vanquished.  

So as the hymn says, “laugh to scorn the gloomy grave.”  Say to it, “We bury our dead only to mock you, not because they are dead, but because they live, because they are with Jesus, and their bodies sleep.  We bury our dead because they have been sanctified and sealed for the resurrection through the risen body and blood of Jesus given into their bodies in Holy Communion.  They go into you, O grave, only so that they might follow Jesus out of you and humiliate you and defeat you.”  Let us join in the Scriptural taunt, “‘O death, where is your victory? O Hades, where is your sting?’ . . . Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:55,57).

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

(With thanks to the Rev. David Petersen)

Consider the Lilies

Matthew 6:24-34

✠ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Death always seems to get the last word.  But if death really was ruling and reigning with ultimate power, then there would be no lilies of the field, no colorful birds, nothing beautiful left.  This world would be as barren as a lunar landscape.  However, God did not abandon us when we fell into sin.  In the good that He allows us to experience in this sin-cursed world, we see the signs of His mercy that rescues us from death.  Even though Adam and Eve had betrayed Him, He still loved them.  He walked in the garden after their sin, despite their rebellion and fear.  He came to them in bodily form, foreshadowing that He would take up our form permanently as a real man and pay our price, die our death, that He would stand between us and the devil and perform the duty in which Adam had failed.

So consider the lilies.  They still exist in our broken and fallen world.  They live alongside thorns and thistles that seek to choke them out, with insects, molds, and various diseases, trampled by children and dogs and eaten by deer and rabbits.  Consider the fragility of lilies in this violent world.  And consider also their beauty.

Though it is fleeting, the lilies have a glory from God.  They adorn the earth.  Not everything in this fallen creation is red in tooth and claw.  Not everything is suffering and sorrow.  Consider the lilies.  Consider also chocolate, laughter, music, and good books.  They are signs that God is still at work to free us, to deliver us.

Death does not reign; it is not king.  God walked in the garden with Adam and Eve.  He came where He was needed.  He walked also in the garden of Gethsemane, where He was betrayed again. They came with clubs and swords to take Him away.  They had their way with Him outside the city, in the place of the skull.  He gave Himself over to their evil desires.  Then it was finished.  He was laid to rest, like a kernel of wheat, like the bulb of a lily beneath the ground, in the garden of the dead.  And He rose on Easter morning, sprouting to life unconquerable and immortal, the Victor over death, back out of the grave, undoing what sin had done.  He gave his tomb back, as good as new. Death is not in charge.  The lilies come forth each spring in glory.  Death is dead.  For Jesus lives.

Therefore, since this is so: do not be anxious.  Jesus lives for you.  Jesus loves you.  You may now be suffering many things in this fallen life.  The devil tempts you to waste your energy and effort, to compound your sorrow with worry about various things.  The devil would have you worry about money and how you will pay your bills or how you will retire well.  He would have you be obsessed with fear of viruses and social unrest and political chaos.  He doesn’t want you to focus on the peace you have in Christ; he wants you rather to fret and be afraid of what might happen in this passing and unstable world.  He will fill the broadcast news with tragedies and crimes and disasters. He will fill your social media feed with distortions and propaganda and useless information.  He will try to wear you down, to overwhelm you with sadness, to bury you with the impossibility of it all.

But then Jesus says, “Do not be anxious about your life.”  Doing so only hurts yourself and those whom you love.  Jesus lives.  He will provide.  The lilies do not toil or spin.  The birds do not sow, reap, or gather.  Your Father takes care of them.  Your Father most certainly will take care of you.  He always has taken care of you, not because of your own merits, but because of His Fatherly goodness.  He causes His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and He sends rain on the just and the unjust.  

Today certainly has its troubles.  There is no doubt of that.  The call not to worry is not a denial of the very real troubles that exist in your life.  The demands of school and work need to be dealt with.  That family member needs a phone call, your spouse needs an encouraging word.  Your country needs your prayers; your neighborhood needs your involvement.  But those needs are comparatively small,  nothing to be anxious about.  They are well within your talents and gifts.

You have been placed by the Lord precisely where you are. He has made you who you are. He has given you these particular duties, these particular children and spouses and co-workers and friends and even those who are over you in government.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.  Nothing is gained by obsessing about tomorrow or taking on yourself burdens that are not yours to bear, or giving way to envy, bitterness, or fear.  Sufficient for the day is its own troubles.  You are where He has placed you, like a lily in a field.  You simply are given to respond in your particular place, in your stations in life, as you are able.  Do not be anxious about today’s troubles, whether there is hope for our society and culture, whether your children will be OK, whether the climate is growing warmer or colder.  Do what you have been given to do, and ask for forgiveness for your failings. The Lord will provide. He has put you in place on purpose, deliberately, even if you yourself feel unworthy to the task or cannot understand all of His purposes.  Focus on today, not yesterday and not tomorrow.  Rest in the certainty that Jesus lives, that Jesus is providing, and will always provide. The lilies don’t know what they are doing either; they are just being lilies. That is sufficient.

Death does not reign; it is not king.  The lilies prove it.  They are not moved by the troubles of this fallen world.  They belong to the Lord.  He provides according to His promise.  He takes care of them.  And you are worth so much more to Him than they are.  You are worth more than lilies.  If He takes care of them, He will surely take care of you.  So let your heart be at rest. Let go of your anxiety. The Lord has claimed you in the waters of Holy Baptism.  He has sent His Son to die for you.  He is not going to quit on you.  He will provide. You do not need to attain some level of perfection in your life in order to get God to pay attention to you and care for you.  Your Father loved you and chose you as His own even before you were even conceived and born.  He will take care of you as surely as He takes care of the lilies.  In Jesus you are perfect right now.  And in Jesus you will be perfected in the resurrection of your bodies, reflecting the glory of God that is greater than Solomon, greater than the lilies, where there is no more sorrow or pain or death.

The grass of the field is thrown into the oven, the Gospel says.  But out of the oven, after the violence of reaping and thrashing, after the mixing and kneading and resting of the dough, after the refinery of fire, out of the oven comes bread for the day, food for the eater.  The Lord does provide.  He goes where He is needed, even to the hellishness of Calvary, for you.  He stopped death, conquering the grave.  Out of that oven tomb comes the Bread of Life for you, that you might partake of His Body and be one with Him.  He is needed here, by you today.  And so He comes to you.  This Jesus is the Living Bread from heaven, who comes to feed you with Himself, to clothe you with His righteousness, to calm your hearts, to give you peace.  Death does not reign.  Life reigns.  For Jesus lives.

✠ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

(With thanks to the Rev. David Petersen)

Health to All Their Flesh

Luke 17:11-19

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Racial tension isn’t just a contemporary issue.  Unfortunately it’s been around since the early chapters of Genesis, especially since the days following the tower of Babel, when people stopped seeing themselves as all of the same human race, when they set themselves against each other according to language and skin color and family lineage.  Ethnic tension was certainly an issue in Jesus’ day between the Jews and the Samaritans.  The conflict was cultural and religious, too.  For the Samaritans had intermarried with pagans after Assyria conquered them in 722 B.C.  In several important ways the Samaritans had corrupted the faith of the Old Testament.    

Maybe you noticed this tension in last week’s Gospel.  After telling the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus asked the lawyer which of the three men had proved to be a neighbor to the man dying in the ditch. Instead of the natural response, “The Samaritan,” the lawyer just says, “The one who showed mercy.”  He couldn’t even bring himself to say the word!  Jews used the word “Samaritan” as a curse.

The church in her wisdom has given us today’s Gospel reading right after the Parable of the Good Samaritan, because strangely enough the Samaritan is again the good guy, the one to imitate. This time it’s not a parable but a real event. Jesus is traveling, and comes within earshot of ten lepers. If you think 6 feet of physical distancing is bad, these lepers had to engage in the ultimate social distancing.  Their contagious disease caused them to be quarantined from the rest of society.  They were required to shout “Unclean! Unclean!” to keep people back.  Because they were constantly shouting, they were frequently hoarse, and so would bang on pots and shake rattles to warn people away.  And I imagine that, just like the people who saw the man who’d been mugged and left for dead in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, anybody who heard the deathly rattle of the lepers moved far away as quickly as possible.

But when Jesus comes on the scene, instead of shouting, “Unclean!” they muster the last strength of their voices to shout, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  Now how would you have reacted?  When someone says, “Can I ask you a favor?” do you cringe a bit, and begin preparing possible excuses?  Well, now imagine the person is contagious with a deadly disease.  Perhaps you’d help your friend.  Probably you’d help your family, although if it’s a bit messy, you may well prefer to hire someone else to do what needs to be done.  But it’s not always our first instinct to stay and answer the cry for mercy.

So the center of this account today is not the thankfulness of the Samaritan leper.  It’s Jesus. It’s the Man who doesn’t say, “You know, somebody should really do something about that?” but who instead says, “I will do something.”  The good news of Christ is this: God the Father looked down into the disaster of our world, the sickness and rebellion of our human race, and said to His Son, “It’s time to have compassion.” And the Son said to His Father, “Yes.”  He sent no angel to help.  He did not fly in emergency supplies and parachute them down in crates.  The Son came into the hellhole Himself.  Like the Good Samaritan, He went into the ditch, with bandits lurking around the corner, and gave up His own room, His own animal, His own money, to rescue the dead man.  When He saw lepers, He did not run away or ignore them, but made Himself unclean to bring about their cleansing.

Perhaps you have an ugly secret you’ve kept hidden for years.  Some of you may be struggling right now with an ongoing sin, an addiction, a resentment, a lust, a hatred, that you cannot seem to quit. Your weakness and your shame you keep hidden in the darkness and behind closed doors, but the voice in your head still shouts at you, “Unclean! Unclean!”

And you are convinced that if your parents or spouse or children, if your friends, if your pastor knew the truth, they would reject you, run from you like they would from a leper.  But as it is for the lepers, so for you: God the Son became man, took on the form of a slave, came to breathe the deathly air of your contagion, came to know your darkness, and He does not turn away from your uncleanness. With the Lord there is healing and forgiveness: forgiveness for everything the Epistle listed as your old works of the flesh: sexual immorality, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness–all of it.  With the Lord there is release from those slaveries, forgiveness for everything you are and have done and have been.

For notice where it is that Jesus is heading at the beginning of the Gospel.  He is on His way to Jerusalem.  It will be His final visit to this city.  He is going there to die for you, on your behalf.  He goes bearing the uncleanness of the world on the cross, cleansing you from it by His purifying blood.  He bears the curse of sin that you feel not only in your hearts but also in your bodies, too.  He goes to release you from disease and uncleanness in your flesh.  It is written, “Surely He has borne our sicknesses and carried our sorrows, and by His wounds we are healed.”  

We cry out, “Jesus, Lord have mercy,” and He does.  He says, “Go, show yourself to the priest.  Come into My presence with boldness and confidence.  I am your Great High Priest who has offered the final sacrifice for you to cleanse you.  You may not be able to see it yet, but I declare it to you now: you are clean, you are forgiven, you are healed and whole and freed from all that troubles you.  Believe it; it is true.  Walk by faith; for down the road you will see it all with your own eyes, as the lepers did, when I come again in glory.  Have faith in my words of mercy and life.”

The second part of today’s Gospel deals with our reaction to God’s mercy in Christ, what it works in us.  Only one of the ten returns. “And he was a Samaritan,” Luke tells us.  For the original hearers, that might have been the most dramatic sentence of the whole story.  It’s like being an author in Nazi Germany and making the good guy a Jew.

Jesus keeps on overturning everyone’s expectations; in the Gospel tax collectors, sinners, and Samaritans are the heroes, while the most pious and upright become the villains. It’s no surprise why Jesus was a threat and they wanted to kill Him.  Jesus came to overthrow our natural expectation that salvation is found in what we do and where we come from. Salvation is to be found in Him alone.  

The closing words of today’s Gospel, “Your faith has made you well,” are more accurately translated, “Your faith has saved you.”  In other words, the Samaritan is saved not merely from leprosy but from death and hell.  He is rescued from the grave, and he is given a place among God’s people at the heavenly banquet.  For Christ Jesus came not only for Jews but also for Samaritans; He came for rich and poor, immigrants and natives, men and women, black and white, for every tribe and people and language.  There is one human race, for we are all connected on the family tree of Adam.  And God the Father has grafted us into His family tree through our baptism into His Son Jesus.  The Father has adopted us as His own children, giving us the church as our mother.  This means that all Christians around the world are brothers and sisters in a way that transcends even the blood lines of our birth family.

This is what truly brings us together.  Think about how even within this band of 10 lepers, the differences between Jew and Samaritan faded away because of their common condition and their desperate need.  When we all learn to see ourselves as desperately in need of God’s mercy in Christ, no matter who we are, then our other differences will be put into their proper context, and we will rejoice to share in a common salvation with those of any race or ethnicity who cling to Jesus as their Great High Priest and Redeemer.

So hear His words to you today: Your faith has saved you.  Which is to say, the One you have believed in has saved you, redeemed you, made you His own.  You now belong to Christ, by faith in God’s grace, by His working.  So when St. Paul says in today’s Epistle, “Walk by the Spirit,” he is not issuing you a set of laws and regulations by which you obtain salvation. This is who you now are: a person who has received the Holy Spirit; and so you have been given love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  You are a person who has crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. This is not yet complete, for the old Adam still struggles within us, fighting to drag us back.  But that’s not the true you.  Daily drown your old nature.  Confess your sins.  Bow before Jesus here in the flesh.  Receive His body and blood.  That is your true Eucharist, your true thanksgiving.  Rejoice to be nourished with this holy food which cleanses you from every stain of sin and which makes you who you truly are.  By the declaration of God you are no longer unclean but clean, children of God in Jesus.  “O Give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good; and His mercy endures forever.”

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

(With thanks to the Rev. Christopher Esget)

Changing the Question

Luke 10:25-37 (Trinity 13)

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

 Imagine you were living centuries ago, in medieval times.  If you were to ask the question, “What shall I do to inherit the royal crown and become king?” most people would probably think you were being silly or foolish.  After all, there’s nothing you could do to gain that inheritance.  You’d have to be a member of the royal family.  No matter how good you are, how sincere you are, how hard you work, you cannot inherit the crown unless you have the right bloodline.  It’s something you’re born into.  

Unless, of course, you were planning treason and rebellion.  For there actually is one thing you could do to inherit the kingdom: go to war.  Kick out or kill the old ruler and make yourself king (or queen).  The kingdom and the crown can only change hands like that by violence and force.

This is why the lawyer’s question to Jesus in today’s Gospel is also quite silly and foolish, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  There’s nothing he can do to inherit.  It’s who you are and who your family is that matters with an inheritance.  The lawyer’s question seems pious, but in reality it betrays a treasonous and unbelieving heart.  For the only way you can gain the kingdom of God by your own doing is to try to kick God off of His throne and take over yourself.  And that’s what every attempt at earning eternal life by your own goodness is–it’s making war against God.  It’s a coup attempt that tries to replace His grace with your own righteousness.  Such revolts against the King of kings will not succeed.  His kingdom only comes to you as a freely given inheritance.  It is bestowed by God the Father on His royally born children, all those who believe and are baptized into Christ His Son.

The lawyer clearly doesn’t get this.  So since the lawyer is stuck on what he must do, Jesus turns the question around and asks him, “What is written in the Law?’ The Law is where you go to find out what you should do.   And to his credit the lawyer answers well, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  That’s right. That’s true.  Love God; love one another. Simple and straightforward.

But then come these daunting words from Jesus, “Do this and you will live.”  That is a pretty unsettling statement.  For it implies, “Don’t do these commandments, and you will die.”  Will we really live eternally based on what we’ve done?  Do we who are obsessed with ourselves and our own dreams and self-preservation love God with every fiber of our being, always, above all things?  And do we love our neighbor selflessly, gladly, willingly, from the heart?  Or are we sometimes annoyed by their constant needs?  “Do this and you will live” is a dire threat.  The lawyer’s test has backfired.  He is dead, and he knows it.

 And so he does what lawyers often do.  He looks for a loophole. “And who is my neighbor?” he asks.  He still wants to argue his way out of damnation.  But he is not nearly as clever as he thinks. For every Sunday school student knows the answer to that question.  Who is my neighbor?  Everyone is your neighbor.  Every single person you come across.  You’re supposed to love all people as yourself.  There are no exceptions, no escape clauses, no one else to pass the blame onto.  The Law exposes you.  You have not fulfilled its demands.  You will not live.

Except, notice this: our Lord does not actually answer the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbor?”  We know the answer is everyone.  But Jesus uses the parable of the Good Samaritan to pose a new question, a very different question: “Who was neighbor to (the man)?”  The answer to that question is not everyone.  Everyone was not neighbor to the man in the ditch! Only One was. This points us to the Lord Jesus Himself.  He is the doer and the giver of inheritances.  He is the One who has mercy, who was neighbor to the man who fell among thieves. The Son of God did what the Law could not.

The priest and the Levite were powerless, bound by all the rules about not being clean if they touched blood or a dead person. They could not help, even though they should have.  But Jesus our Samaritan was full of mercy and compassion. He dirtied Himself with our fallen condition, coming in the likeness of sinful flesh.   He shared in our suffering and made our problems His own, to the point that He Himself would be beaten mercilessly and robbed of His clothing and left for dead on the cross.  He knew the cost to rescue us from sin and Satan, but He went down into the ditch of death anyway to make us clean.  He bound up our wounds in His own wounded flesh.  He poured on His own sacramental oil and wine.  He picked us up and carried our burdens.  He walked while we rode.  He paid for everything by His precious blood.  He sees to our ongoing care in the church while we heal.  And He is coming back.

Then Jesus says: “Go and do likewise.”  Now most people simply take that to mean that you should do like the Samaritan did.  And that is true; as Christians we are given to show forth the love of Christ and help our neighbor in need no matter who they are, especially within the stations of life where God has placed us.  But that’s not actually Jesus’ main point here.  Jesus’ main purpose is to move the lawyer and us away from trying to justify ourselves and thinking we can earn the inheritance.  For we heard in the Epistle, God gave His inheritance to Abraham not by the law but by promise.  Jesus is not just giving us a lesson in the Law here.  He is showing us Himself and how the kingdom of heaven comes to you by grace.

Jesus is teaching you to see yourself as the one beaten up on the side of the road, and to seek mercy from Him, the only One who can truly help you.  He has changed the question from what you must do to what He has done for you.  Who has been neighbor to you?  Who fulfilled the Law entirely for you?  Jesus Himself and Jesus alone.  That’s true mercy.  That’s the inheritance of heaven given by promise.

In the end the Kingdom of God does come to you through violence, the violence of the cross.  However, in His death the Lord is not toppled from His throne.  The devil thought He could take the crown by killing Christ.  Instead Satan himself was conquered, and the risen Jesus has opened the kingdom to all believers.  God the Father has adopted you as His own through baptism.  You are brothers and sisters of Jesus.  He has given you the crown of life.  You truly are heirs of heaven.

So remember how the mercy of God is revealed here in the changing of the question from “Who is my neighbor?” to “Who was neighbor to (the man)?”  The focus is not on us but on Jesus.  He has done what you and the Law could not.  He was moved by His own compassion to come and help you who had been robbed by sin and Satan and left for dead.  You have been rescued by Christ and cared for and raised up by Him.  He is the One who has truly loved you as Himself all the way to the end.  Who was neighbor to the one who fell among thieves?  The One who had mercy, the One who was crucified with thieves for you.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

(With thanks to the Rev. David Petersen for some of the above)

Sorrow and Sighing Shall Flee Away

Mark 7:31-37

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

What is it that makes you sigh and groan?  You sigh when you’re burdened and worn out by something, when you’re struggling to keep on going, when you’re frustrated and just tired of it all.  It might be a nagging physical problem you’re dealing with.  It might be a nagging conscience that won’t let you forget foolish things you’ve done or said.  And it might be a nagging situation that is outside of your control–a pandemic with no apparent end in sight, tragic violence and senseless destruction like what occurred in Kenosha this week, people in your life who mistreat you or let you down.  Sometimes it’s all a little too much, and you sigh; you groan.  Sighing is a fruit of the curse.

And all of creation is affected.  Romans 8 says that “all creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.”   The recent Gulf hurricane and its aftermath is a living picture of that.  The whole creation is weighed down and broken.  Creation itself sighs and groans in its bondage to decay after the fall.

As we look up to heaven and sigh, it is most comforting to see our Lord Jesus in the Gospel doing the very same thing.  He really is one with us in our troubles.  He shares our burdens.  He too, sighs and groans.  But His sighing is different from ours.  He knows your pain to be sure.  And He feels your weariness.  But there’s more to it than that.  He knows that there’s a cure.  For He has come to be the cure Himself.  His sighs, His sufferings are the very thing that take your sin and your burden away from you.  His sighs breathe His words and His Spirit and His life into you.

Jesus took this deaf-mute aside from the multitude, away from the familiarity and the security of his friends and the people he knew.  That had to have been a little unsettling for him. There was only Jesus now to rely on.  The deaf-mute’s attention, his trust was to be entirely focused on Him.  So it is with you.  When Jesus deals with you, he calls you to find your security not ultimately in familiar people or the things in this world, not in getting things back to “normal,” whatever that means, but only in Him.  It may be unnerving not to have your usual safety blankets and crutches, but when Jesus heals and saves you, He calls you to trust and to be devoted to Him entirely.

But then even more importantly, Jesus invites you to see that He is devoted to you entirely.  Jesus calls this deaf-mute aside from the crowds because this wasn’t for show; He wasn’t going to use Him as a prop for political purposes.  Jesus was completely there just for this man, one on one.  Likewise with you; when Jesus deals with you, you’re not just a generic face in the crowd.  He cares about you individually.  He comes to you and helps you as someone uniquely created by Him.  

Of course, that doesn’t mean the ministry of the Great Physician will always be comfortable.  After all, Jesus put His fingers right into the deaf man's ears.  He spit and touched the deaf man’s tongue.  Imagine the immediate unhinged response He would get for doing that today.  Jesus touched this man right where his body was broken with a healing touch.  And He said, “Ephphatha.” “Be opened.  Be released.”  Even apart from the sanitary aspect of this, there was something almost over the line in Jesus’ actions.  He was invading this man’s space and right in his face when He talked.  It was uncomfortably close.

The Lord can heal with just a Word; that’s how He sometimes did it.  Why then fingers in the ears, and spit and hands upon the tongue?  Well, for one thing, this is what his friends had prayed for.  Remember they had begged Jesus to put His hand on him.  That prayer was being answered very concretely.  Be careful what you pray for.  You may receive what you asked, but not in the way you expected.  It may not come in the comfortable, simple way you were hoping for but in the Lord’s way that puts you out of your comfort zone, that teaches you not to trust in your prayers or your friends’ prayers, but only in the Lord who answers your petitions.  He may be invading your personal space, but it’s for your good.

Jesus heals in this hands-on way, too, because this is the very purpose for which he came, to be the medic who touches our broken flesh with His pure life-giving flesh.  He sticks His fingers in our ears through the preaching of His Word.  In the Bible, the “finger of God” is a reference to the Holy Spirit.  Only by the power of God’s Spirit-filled Word can our natural spiritual deafness be turned to a listening ear which understands and believes the things of God.  The Epistle reading said, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”  

Jesus also spits and touches our tongue in the Sacraments.  Isn’t baptism water and words from the mouth of God?  In baptism Jesus says His “Ephphatha” to you, releasing you from your bondage to death and unloosing your tongues to sing the praises of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.  We pray in the Psalms, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.”  Only when the Holy Spirit has opened our ears and freed our tongues can we truly worship Him rightly.  It is written, “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”

And of course, our Lord Christ touches your tongue very literally in Holy Communion, where He places His body and blood right into your mouths for your forgiveness.   To the world it is a rather strange thing, especially in these times, that you would come forward and partake of this supper.  But you do so at the Lord’s Word.  For this is the Lord’s concrete, earthy way of touching you and giving you eternal healing.  

When Jesus sighed, He looked up to heaven.  For He knew well that the divinely required cost of our healing is His sacrificial death.  He would sigh and groan and cry out and be spitefully spit upon for us on the cross.  And yet through that death Jesus is not defeated but victorious.  For in so doing He has broken the power of sin’s curse.  Jesus has overcome all that makes you sigh and groan in this fallen world through the cross.  You have the victory in Him.

God the Father showed the victory of Jesus’ sacrifice for you on the third day.  This time the Father said “Ephphatha” to the tomb, “be opened,” and He raised Jesus to life in glory.  In the same way, Jesus will speak His “Ephphatha” to your graves on the Last Day, and raise you from the dead with glorified bodies to live with him forever in righteousness and holiness.

This is the light at the end of all tunnels for the Christian. This is the promise that no matter how bad the sighing gets, there really is a better day ahead.  No matter how deaf God appears to the sounds of our cry, in Jesus Christ, He hears, and He will answer you, and restore you, and give you an eternal blessing.  In the resurrection there will be no more deafness or disease or trouble or violence any more.  As it is written in Isaiah 51, “Sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”  The whole creation will rejoice with us as it, too, is released from its bondage.  We eagerly wait for the adoption, the redemption of our bodies.  Until then, the Spirit of Christ helps us in our weakness, aiding our prayers when we don’t know what to say, making intercession for us with groans too deep for words (Romans 8:26).

“In that day the deaf shall hear the words of the book” (Isaiah 29:18).  Thanks be to God that He has caused the living melody of the Gospel to sound in our ears, that He has breathed His Spirit and life into us.  Even in the midst of all the uncertainties of your life, let your confession of faith be like that of the multitude in the Gospel,  “He has done all things well.  He makes both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

No Comparison

Luke 18:9-14

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

All of us know how to play the comparison game.  You see or hear about another person, perhaps something they’ve done or achieved, things that are going on in their life.  And then you line yourself up next to them to see who’s doing better.  In your heart you usually come up with one of two conclusions: either you’re proud and satisfied with yourself, or you despair and are depressed about yourself.  The comparison game is not a good game to play, but our sinful nature can’t seem to avoid it.  For the old Adam is always obsessed with the self, and he wrongly judges himself in terms of others rather than in terms of God and His Word.

Pride can rear its ugly head in the comparison game even in something as simple as watching or scrolling through the news.  We see rioters and looters and vandals, we see the corrupt politician or the hypocritical celebrity or the sexually deviant person, and we think, “Thank God I’m not like those people.  I’m certainly doing better than they are.” 

But notice how that’s the way the Pharisee talks.  He mentions God; He even seems to thank God for His good works, but not really.  For notice how it says that the Pharisee prayed with himself.  That’s the only safe way to pray if you’re playing the comparison game–with yourself and by yourself.  The name of God is used by the Pharisee just once; the word I is used four times.  God is not really the focus here; He’s just window dressing for the main attraction, the pious Pharisee.

Now, the Pharisee here seems to be a little bit of a caricature that we can easily make fun of.  But be careful, for as soon as you start thinking, “Thank God I’m not a self-righteous snob like the Pharisee,” then you’ve become the Pharisee yourself.  Then you’re the one looking down on others.  You don’t like it when people act all holier than thou, but the fact that you’ve got to go and point that out shows that you really think you’re better than them.  And so you’re caught.

Repent.  Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.  He who exalts Himself will be humbled.  Turn away from religion which is all about you and your spiritual self-improvement.  The Gospel is not “God helps those who help themselves.”  That statement is not in the Bible.  Do not trust in yourself to become good before God; it cannot be done.

But at the same time, do not give way to despair, either.  For that is the other side of the same coin in the comparison game.  People who know they haven’t measured up, who have botched things, compare themselves to others and say, “Look at how I’ve messed things up and sinned.  My life is full of mistakes and failings and regrets.  Nothing seems to be the way it should be.  I don’t see any great future for me, especially with God.  It’s hopeless.”  

Those who succumb to spiritual despair are really engaging in the very same sin as the Pharisee, oddly enough.  Both pride and despair are obsessed with the self.  The proud person looks at himself and thinks he sees good.  The despairing person looks at himself and sees bad.  But both are engaging in the exact same spiritual activity–narcissism, mirror watching.  It’s all about me.  Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves.  Both the proud and the despairing person think that it’s all about them and their efforts and what they do.  For one this is happy, for the other it’s sad.  But they both believe the same thing, and they’re both wrong.  That’s why they both end up despising others, as Jesus said.  The proud person looks down on those he thinks to be inferior to him.  And the despairing person despises those who are above him, those who have supposedly held him down and kept him from being able to become the person he was supposed to be.

Let go of all that comparing and instead embrace grace.  “By grace you have been saved.”  God’s grace and mercy alone.  There is no comparison to that.  Nothing can compare to what is freely given to you in Jesus Christ.  The tax collector’s worship is the right kind of worship, that of humble reverence before the Lord.  It’s right because his faith is not in himself in any way but in the Lord’s sacrificial compassion.  It all depends on that.  He doesn’t presume that he has the right to draw near to God on his own merits.  He stands afar off with his face not even lifted up to the King of kings.  He beats his chest in sorrow as if to say, “What have I done?”  And his only plea is, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

That may not be the kind of worship that draws crowds and makes you feel all tingly, but it is the kind of worship that Jesus seeks and that He praises here.  For Jesus says that it’s the tax collector who goes down to his house justified, right with God.  The tax collector comes before God with no illusions that he has some great virtue that he can offer to God.  No, it all hangs on the belief that the Lord is a God of mercy who will not forsake even him, who will forgive him and raise him up, even though he doesn’t deserve it.

That’s why he came to the temple to pray.  This is where the sacrifices were made that God had appointed and where blood was shed to atone for sin.  When the tax collector prays “God be merciful to me . . .” the word he uses for mercy has to do with those sacrifices, all of which pointed forward to the coming sacrifice on Good Friday.  So as the tax collector offers this prayer, God is already answering it for him there in the animals being offered on the altar.  The tax collector trusted in God’s promise of sacrificial mercy, and he longed for the day when the Messiah would come and bring all of these things to their fulfillment.

Let us also then learn the lesson of the tax collector and take our place with him.  Let us come before the Lord with humble reverence, with sincere repentance and true faith.  For it is written, “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart and saves such as have a contrite spirit.”  If you know the burden of your fallen nature, if you’ve made some poor choices in life, if this world at times just wearies you to death, then the Lord Jesus is for you.  Pray the same prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  And He is, and He will be, and His mercy endures forever.  For He has made the sacrifice for you in the temple of Christ’s body on the altar of the cross.  Through the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, your sin has been fully atoned for.  You are released and forgiven.  You are released from all the religious score-keeping and comparison games that divide you from your neighbor.  You are free now simply to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.”  Through Jesus you are reconciled to God, and in Him you are reconciled to each other.  It is written, “You who once were far off (as the tax collector stood far off) have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”

Now you are given to lift up your eyes and see heaven opened through Jesus.  For He fulfilled His own words here, humbling Himself even to the point of death on a cross.  He didn’t say to His Father, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men”–even though He’s the One who actually could have said that.  Instead, He made Himself to be like us and shared in our death so that we would share in His life and His bodily resurrection.  God the Father has now exalted the risen Jesus to the highest place and given Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow.  And that is what you do, even at this altar rail, as the Lord comes to you with His mercy.

Here, then, is the good news–all of you are given to go down to your houses today justified and righteous.  “It is by grace you have been saved through faith” in Christ, who is your righteousness.  This Gospel casts out both pride and despair.  For the Epistle said, this is “not of yourselves,” from within you, “it is the gift of God” from outside of you, “not of works, lest anyone should boast.”  If there’s going to be any boasting, let it be boasting in the Lord.  For even your good works are ones that He has prepared beforehand for you to walk in.  It’s all from Him.

You have been turned from children of wrath to baptized children of grace.  You are justified, right with God in Christ.  Therefore, humble yourselves before the Lord, that He may lift you up in due time.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

The Time of Your Visitation

Luke 19:41-48

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

The key saying of our Lord in today’s Gospel as He weeps over Jerusalem is this: “You did not know the time of your visitation.”  Our Lord visits His people.  The God who fills all of time and space comes to His people in particular times and places to deliver and redeem them.  Just like when beloved family or friends come to visit from out of town, and we don’t want to miss the opportunity to be with them in the flesh, so we should be careful not to miss the time when our Lord is here for us in the flesh.

However, in our sin we sometimes become rather casual about the Lord’s visitation.  We take it for granted that His coming to us in preaching and the Sacraments will always be available.  “I’ve got so many other things to be doing on the weekend.  Church will always be there.”  If there’s anything you should be learning from the current COVID situation, it’s that that’s not necessarily the case.  There are members of our church right now who have been cut off from receiving Holy Communion for months, not by their own choice–that’s bad enough–but because they’re physically not allowed because of community regulations or facility rules.  I’ve got stories to tell about the ridiculous application of these rules prohibiting spiritual care to shut-ins, but I’ll restrain myself.  The point is, don’t take it for granted that church is always going to be here the way it has been.  Whether it’s because of a health crisis, or whether it’s because of our culture’s growing hostility to the Church and God’s Word, with all the legal and financial and social pressures that brings, we shouldn’t assume anything.  Jesus promised that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church, and that is most certainly true.  But that doesn’t mean that His visitation will always continue to be the same in every place.

Remember what Martin Luther said to his countrymen about the Gospel, how it is like a passing rain shower.  Luther said, “Let us remember our former misery, and the darkness in which we dwelt. Germany, I am sure, has never before heard so much of God’s word as it is hearing today . . .  If we let it just slip by without thanks and honor, I fear we shall suffer a still more dreadful darkness and plague.  O my beloved Germans, buy while the market is at your door; gather in the harvest while there is sunshine and fair weather; make use of God’s grace and word while it is there! For you should know that God’s word and grace is like a passing shower of rain which does not return where it has once been. It has been with the Jews, but when it’s gone it’s gone, and now they have nothing. Paul brought it to the Greeks; but again when it’s gone it’s gone, and now they have the [Muslim] Turk. Rome and the Latins also had it; but when it’s gone it’s gone, and now they have the pope. And you Germans need not think that you will have it forever, for ingratitude and contempt will not make it stay. Therefore, seize it and hold it fast, whoever can; for lazy hands are bound to have a lean year.”

Note there that gratitude is the key thing; not taking God’s Word and the Holy Sacrament for granted but being thankful for it and treasuring it.  Last week we had a church member who was away for many months who was finally allowed to come back to divine service.  Sitting in the pew before the service, she expressed how thrilled and thankful she was just to be able to be here in the Lord’s house.  If we would see things rightly, that would be our constant attitude.  Remember that in OT Israel there was for a time what the prophet Amos called “a famine of the Word.”  And Jesus Himself said in John 9, “I must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; the night is coming when no one can work.”

Jesus knew that the night, the darkness was going to come upon Jerusalem.  For they did not know the time of their visitation, when God Himself visited them and walked among them.  Just forty years after this Gospel in 70 A.D., Jesus’ words were fulfilled.  Jerusalem was attacked and laid siege by the Romans.  Hundreds of thousands were killed or died from famine and plague.  Those not worth anything to the empire were executed, adult and child alike.  The strong men were kept alive and forced to work in mines or become slaves.  The Jewish historian, Josephus, wrote that 97,000 young men were taken away as slaves.  And the temple was utterly destroyed and laid waste.  All that is left of the temple still today is the wailing wall.

This was the judgment of God.  The Romans were His instrument in executing the sentence.  For Israel had rejected the Messiah in His humility and lowliness.  It was their day, and they missed it.  The things that made for their peace with God were hidden from their eyes by their own unbelief and desire for glory.  The weeping of God eventually becomes the judgment of God for the self-righteous and the unrepentant.  To reject His visitation in mercy is to invite His visitation in vengeance.

Let this be a clear and sobering call to repentance for us today.  For what happened to the Jews in Jerusalem in the 1st century is a miniature picture of what will happen to all the unbelieving world on judgment day.  Consider, then, how things stand with you.  Are you more religious about politics or sports than you are about Christ and His Word?  Are you more passionate about social issues than you are about people believing in Christ crucified to save sinners?  Are you relying on your own good living to bring you into God’s favor rather than Christ alone?  Are you looking for God to show you impressive signs rather than trusting in His humble but sure words and supper?  Are you like those who bought and sold in the temple, using religion as a way of getting God to bless you financially?

Turn away from all of that, and turn to Him whose heart still weeps out of love for you, His people.  Trust in Him who continues to cry out, “If you would know, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace!”  Christ Himself is your Peace.  He is the One who brings reconciliation between you and God; He is the One who gives you the peace that passes all understanding.  This is the day of your visitation, as it is written, “Behold, now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation.”  This is the moment in which Christ is coming to you in His Gospel sounding in your ears.  Believe in Him; trust in what He has done; seek His righteousness.

For our Lord has truly cleansed the temple.  When Jesus drove out the moneychangers in righteous anger and purified the temple as a house of prayer, that was a sign of what He was about to do at Calvary.  For there on the cross Jesus Himself experienced the righteous anger of God against the world’s sin and drove it out in the temple of His own body.  Jesus made Himself unclean in your place.  He took all of the greed and the self-righteousness and the pollution of every sin that you’ve done or that has been done to you, and He made it His own dirty mess.  By His holy sacrifice He took it away from you and cleansed it from you forever.  

Jesus had said of His body, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  Though the temple in Jerusalem remains destroyed, Jesus could not remain in the grave.  He is now bodily raised in glory as the new and eternal dwelling place of God for you.  Jesus is your temple.  The risen body of Christ is full of holiness and cleansing and life.  Baptized into Him, those things are all yours.  You are now members of the body of Christ.  And therefore you are the temple of Christ’s Spirit, who dwells in you through your baptismal faith. You are safe from divine judgment.  For you are in Him who took the judgment for you.

So open your eyes; wake up to what the Lord is doing!  He is coming to visit, both now and on the Last Day.  That is bad news for the unrepentant.  But for all of you who believe, it is the greatest good news.  This is your day; this is the time of your visitation!  Don’t miss out.  Here are the things that make for your peace, the body and blood of Christ, offered up for you for the forgiveness of your sins, for your peace, for your rest, for your restoration to the Father [We rejoice that  Elizabeth and Madelyn and Harper will be receiving this gift for the first time today.]  And so we say with Zechariah, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people” (Luke 1:68).  May the Lord always grant you attentive ears and open eyes to see His visitation, so that by His grace you may dwell eternally in the new Jerusalem above.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

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