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Your Pilgrim Identity

1 Peter 2:11-20; John 16:16-22
Easter 3

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

    Today’s Epistle encourages you to ask yourselves a very fundamental question:  Who are you?  What is your identity?  The way you see yourself, who you are is what determines the way you live in this world.  So how would you answer that question: Who are you?  Often, we think of ourselves in terms of where we’re from.  We’re south-siders or Wisconsinites or Americans; or we’re Germans or Finns or Swedes, and so forth.  Or perhaps we think of who we are in terms of groups we identify with.  We’re Packers or Brewers fans, we’re workers at a certain company, or veterans of the military.  There’s our family identity–I think of myself as a parent or grandparent or spouse or child.  And in today’s politicized culture, people often see their affiliation with a particular cause as the core of who they are–an environmentalist or an LGBT crusader or a libertarian or what have you.

 null   What is it that really defines who and what you are in this world?  Peter would suggest that the word which best describes your identity in this world is a pilgrim, a sojourner.  To be a follower of Christ is to be a traveler, a voyager.  As God’s baptized people you are on a journey to another place; you are traveling now through foreign territory to a greater destination.  Though the pilgrims of Christ are dispersed throughout the world, yet together in small bands like this one, we journey to the same heavenly goal.  

    We must never forget that this is what and who we are; this is our true and deeper identity.  This world is not home for us.  We are strangers in a strange land.  Like the children of Israel of old, we are on a pilgrimage through this wilderness land to the promised land of God.  It is written in Philippians 3, “Our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”  And Hebrews 13 says, “Here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.”

    The temptation for us is to forget our pilgrim character as Christians.  Since the journey seems so long and is often difficult, we are sometimes enticed to give up the expedition and follow the native ways of this world, to adopt their thinking and their lifestyles.  The lure is always there for you to see yourself in worldly terms, to think of who you are not in terms of Christ and eternity, but in terms of all things that make you feel at home in this world, to see yourself more as American than as Christian, to be more passionate about your favorite sports team or your favorite hangout than you are about being a baptized child of God, to desert your identity as travelers and instead become homesteaders, making this passing, temporary world your home rather than setting your hearts on that inheritance from God that is undefiled and does not pass away.  It is written in Romans 12, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”

    If you feel a bit out of place in this world, that’s actually a good thing; that’s how it’s supposed to be.  Christians are not to be conformed to this culture.  It’s not our goal to fit in with this world.  St. James writes, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?”  For instance, while our culture teaches self-indulgence and doing whatever feels good in its music and television, Peter writes here, “Abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul.”  Such things are more than just diversions from the journey, they actually turn you around and take you in the opposite direction of your destination.  They are traps and snares which try to hijack your making it to the final goal.  They take your eyes off of Christ, who alone is the way, the truth, and the life.  Peter says, “Do not use your liberty as a cloak for vice,” as a cover up and an excuse for sin.  Abstain, stay away from any such thing.

    Now, all of this does not mean that we should stay away from the world altogether and cloister ourselves off in seclusion somewhere.  As pilgrim Christians who are not of the world, God still has given you to live in the world and to be reflections of His light to the world.  Indeed, St. Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians that if you were to try to avoid contact with the ungodly entirely, you would have to leave the world.  And God’s intention for you is not yet to leave the world, but to be the salt of the earth as you travel on your way.

    Therefore Peter writes in the Epistle, “Have your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation.”  Live honorably and with integrity among the pagans and unbelievers and skeptics of this world.  Though they may put down Christians or Missouri Synod Lutherans as being closed-minded or self-righteous or speak ill of you in some other way, let your good conduct show that their accusations are slanderous and false.  Perhaps by observing your behavior, they may be drawn to respect what you believe and want to join you in this pilgrimage, so that in the end they, too, will glorify the true God for what He has done for us all in Christ.  

    That’s one of our primary reasons for wanting to do good works, to lead lives that honor God and His saving Gospel.  It’s not so that we can somehow win our way into God’s favor.  For not only is that impossible, but Christ has already won us into the Father’s favor by His good works and by His death for our sins which has reconciled us to God.  No, we do good works, rather, as it is written in Titus, “to adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.”  The Gospel of Christ is the most precious jewel we could possess.  And we want our lives to be a setting for that jewel which ornaments and glorifies it, which draws others to the Gospel rather than dragging it through the mud and giving others the occasion to call Christians hypocrites.  Out of love for Christ we seek to live honorably and with love toward our neighbor so that others might also know the love of Christ and honor Him.

    One of the ways we adorn the doctrine of God our Savior is by submitting to the laws of the land. Even though as citizens of heaven we are like foreigners in foreign territory here, yet we honor governmental authority, just as we would honor the authorities if we were traveling through another country.  Peter writes, “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.”  Even though civil authority is temporary and of this world, yet the Scriptures teach that it is established by God.  Those in authority are put there by the Lord to punish what is wrong and promote what is right.  And that is good and necessary, even if the ruler is not a Christian.  As long we are not caused to sin by the authorities and their laws, we are bound to obey them as God’s representatives.  This honors God and, Peter says, it puts to silence the ignorance of foolish men who would want to assign evil motives to Christians in this world.

    The other way to adorn the doctrine of God our Savior mentioned in today’s Epistle is to be a good and faithful worker, to be a diligent and honest employee.  And the situation that Peter addresses here serves to emphasize that point.  For he speaks not simply to employees but to servants.  It is written, “Servants, be submissive to your masters with all reverence, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh.”  Now, if that applies in a master/servant relationship, which we wouldn’t describe as being the best situation, how much more does it apply to an employer/ employee relationship.  It is written elsewhere, “Servants, whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men.”  Of course, that’s also a reminder to employers to act not selfishly but as agents of God.  But still, to honor the one in authority, in government or in the workplace or wherever, is to honor the Lord who has established the authorities.  

    That’s how the Epistle can state that it is commendable to suffer wrongly, if you endure grief because of conscience toward God.  If a Christian endures in doing good as a citizen under an unjust ruler or as a worker under a tyrannical boss, that is praiseworthy in God’s sight, because that is the way of faith.  Such a person is seeing and honoring the God who instituted earthly authorities, even if the authorities themselves are dishonoring their God-given offices.  And, such a person is doing as our heavenly Father does, who gives daily bread even to the evil.  Now, Peter says, if you suffer by your own fault–if you break the law or are a lazy worker and have to suffer the consequences–that is of no credit to you.  But St. Peter concludes, “When you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God.”

    What is commendable above all is to lay down your life for your faith in Christ.  Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  You may have heard this past week, how yet again ISIS terrorists captured and murdered dozens of Christians simply for their faith in Christ.  Rather than deny Jesus and convert to Islam, they faced death, being shot in the head in one instance, being beheaded in another, their severed heads being placed on their dead bodies and photographed for all the world to see.  The enemies of Christianity think this is a great victory that they are achieving.  But in fact it is the Christians who win.  For by their deaths, they witness to the greatness of their Savior Jesus, who holds them as His own even in suffering and who will raise their bodies from the dead on the Last Day to greater glory.  Only pilgrims can behave as those Christians did.  Only those who aren’t attached to this world, whose citizenship is in heaven can do what they did.  They are a witness and encouragement to us who follow Christ not to lose heart.  “For the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

    It is written in the book of Revelation, “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held.  And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.”

    How long, O Lord?  Jesus answers that question in today’s Gospel when He says, “A little while.” “A little while, and you will not see Me; and again, a little while, and you will see Me.”  “I am about to go the cross to suffer your sins to death in My body and win your full and free forgiveness.  And you are my pilgrim followers.  You are baptized into Me.  So don’t be surprised when those little whiles of affliction come, when you can’t seem to see Me, when life is fierce, when you are sharing in my trials, when it seems like all is lost.  Always remember, it really is only a little while that you must endure.  That pain, that disease, that heartache, that difficult situation is almost over.  Just hang on to Me.  Trust in Me to pull you through it.  It may seem like an eternity, but only three days.  Easter is coming.  Weeping may remain for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”

    This final deliverance, the resurrection on the Last Day, is what you are to focus on.  It is written in Hebrews, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”  Trust in Jesus to carry you through.  For in fact He has already carried you through by dying and rising again.  He’s already conquered all that weighs you down.  It’s just a matter of time for that victory to be revealed.  It’s only a little while more, and then comes the forever, the unending while of dwelling in the majesty of our Lord and the perfect happiness and completeness that His presence brings.  Then comes the time, Jesus says, when “I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you.”  

    So, fellow travelers, do not lose heart.  You can’t see Christ now, but you will.  And you get to behold Christ by faith even now in this place.  After the little while of this past week, you see Him again in His Supper, receiving His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins.  He comes to give your hearts joy that no one can take from you.  He comes to comfort you and strengthen you to complete the journey.  For He is the Way.

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

Easter, the Victory of the Cross

   The Lord is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia! 

   There’s one part of the Easter narrative in the Gospel of John that doesn’t seem to fit; it doesn’t quite end how we would expect.  Mary Magdalene had gone out very early on that Sunday morning to grieve at Jesus’ tomb.  Mary was one Jesus had cast seven demons out of.  She wanted to be where his body was, to remember the teacher who had called her out of darkness, and to struggle to comprehend how it could be that the darkness had overcome him.

    When she came upon the garden tomb, she discovered that its stone covering had been rolled back.  “Grave robbers!” she thought.  Bolting in terror that they might still be lurking about, she ran and awoke two of the disciples with the alarming news:  “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb!”  Perhaps they could still pick up the trail and find where the body had been taken.null

    John outran Peter to the tomb, but Peter was the first to go in.  When Mary arrived, she could see them emerging from the tomb–Peter with a look of puzzlement, John wearing a curious smile.  But rather than starting to search the garden, they simply walked away, saying nothing to her.  Now what?  They had abandoned Jesus when He was arrested; why should she expect them to risk their necks to track down His corpse now?  Alone and powerless, deprived even of the chance to mourn properly, angry at the useless disciples, she broke down and cried.

    Before going home she decided to take a final look into the tomb.  Through teary eyes she could hardly believe what she saw:  two angels seated where Jesus' body had been.  They asked her why she was crying, and she told them the reason, all the while wondering if she was dreaming, or if, under the stress of the moment, her mind was just playing tricks on her.

    Then in the changing light, she turned around and saw a man.  “The gardener!” she thought.  He began to ask her questions, “Woman, why are you weeping?  Whom are you looking for?” Perhaps he knew something.  In grief and hope she blurted out, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will get Him.”  But He answered, to her astonishment, only by speaking her name.  “Mary.”  Her eyes flashed with sudden recognition.  The sheep hear the Shepherd’s voice, and He calls them each by name.  She answered, now with tears of joy, “My Teacher!”  Jesus was alive!

    Now here’s the strange part.  How is this account to end?  In a movie you would expect an embrace and smiles and laughter as they walk off together–a sort of happily-ever-after finish.  Instead, Jesus says quite abruptly, “Do not cling to me.”  Even Mary, the first witness of the Risen Lord, is denied the satisfaction of being able to keep holding on to Him.  And here’s why:

    Things are not the same now.  This is not just a going back to the good old days before the horrors of Good Friday.  Easter is not a cancelling of the reality of the crucifixion, as though Jesus had just turned back time.  Jesus' apparent snub of Mary indicates that there is no going back.  Everything has been changed.  Time has actually been turned forward.  Through His death and resurrection, Jesus is bringing about something altogether better and new, for Mary and for all people.  

    Easter is not the undoing of Good Friday; it is the victory of Good Friday.  It’s not as if the bad guys were winning when Jesus died, but now He gets the last laugh.  This is a vindication here, but the Resurrection reveals that even already on the cross, when Jesus cried out, “It is finished” and breathed His last, He had won.  The world was redeemed.  Salvation was accomplished.  Satan was routed.  Death was undone.  Today, we simply get to see that triumph manifested in glory and celebrate it.

    There may be something about today’s service that seems particularly odd to you for an Easter celebration.  Here we are, observing the Lord’s resurrection, rejoicing in it, singing about it.  And yet, what was it that led the procession today?  The cross of Jesus.  What was it that was held high while the Easter Gospel was read?  The cross of Jesus.  What is it that is the center and focus of your attention over the altar?  The crucified body of Jesus.  What’s up with that?  Shouldn’t we leave the cross behind now?  Jesus is alive!

    Fellow believers, if you remember anything from this morning, remember this: Easter is the victory of the cross, not the undoing of it.  We dare never say to ourselves, “Whew, I’m glad that we can move past all that suffering and death stuff of Lent.  What a downer!  Time for something a little more upbeat.”  Such thinking totally misses the point of Easter.  Just as the crosses now have their black veils removed, Easter unveils the meaning of the cross.  Jesus’ resurrection shows us why Good Friday really is good.  It reveals that Jesus really did pay for the sins of the world.  For the wages of sin is death, but Jesus is alive; and so the wages are paid.  Sin is no more; the gift of the cross is life forevermore!  Jesus’ resurrection means that His cross really did crush the power of the grave. Jesus really is the Son of God.  His words and promises are true.  Death and the devil have no claim over you any more.  You are forgiven; you are free. You are alive in Christ eternally.  Easter shows you that it’s all for real.

    The resurrection demonstrates to all the world that when the jaws of death laid hold of Christ, He ripped those jaws apart and broke them in pieces.  When the grave swallowed Jesus up, He was its poison pill.  When Satan bruised Jesus’ heel, Jesus in turn crushed the devil’s vile head.  Calvary was not an unfortunate setback on the way to victory; it is the victory.  The cross is our sign of triumph.

    The one who rose triumphant on Easter remains the crucified One.  That’s why it is written that we preach Christ crucified.  He reveals Himself to the twelve by showing them His wounds; His hands and side are marked by scars.  It is the Lamb who was slain who has begun His reign.  It’s not as if Jesus just hit the rewind button on Easter and went back to the time before His suffering.  No, Jesus’ suffering and death moves us forward to something altogether new and better.  It is the only way through to the new creation.

    So hear the Easter Gospel clearly: The way to heaven and to resurrection life is through the cross of Jesus alone.  That is good news, the best of news.  But it is bad news for your old Adam.  For it means that only by dying with Jesus will you be raised to everlasting life.  Only by crucifying your flesh with its sinful passions and desires will you know real life and joy in Christ.  The way of Good Friday and Easter is the way of repentance and faith.

    That way was begun for you in your baptism.  We spoke of it last evening at the Vigil.  “Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?”  In one sense you’ve already died.  The worst part of death is over for you in Jesus. In Baptism was begun a life a drowning your old sinful nature, so that the new life of Christ might emerge and arise in you to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.  “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”  Like Peter and John, we too must enter the tomb of Jesus and come out new, changed.  That is the baptismal pattern given to us: burial and resurrection, dying to ourselves, rising in Christ to love; repenting and believing.

    Finally, our baptism will come to its fulfillment in our literal, physical dying and rising in Christ.  For it is written, “if we have been united with Him like this in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection.”   Jesus died; and so will we.  But Jesus conquered death and rose to life immortal; and so will we in Him.  We will share in His glory with new bodies that are no longer subject to the sickness and pain and deterioration and death that we now endure.  Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.  He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies.  And whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.”  Jesus is our head; and we who believe and are baptized are members of His body.  Where the head goes, the body will follow.  Jesus rises on Easter; you and I will surely follow on the Last Day.  In the resurrection of Christ as the crucified One, we see that our suffering too will have its end in life with God.

    That is your great comfort and joy this day.  The crucified One lives.  And He says to you, “Behold, I make all things new!”  He took your death to be His death, so that His life would be your life.  You will shine with the brightness of His righteousness in your own resurrected bodies because He passed through the valley of the shadow of death with you.  The Church is never about going back to the “good old days,” as Mary Magdalene learned, but going forward to the new day, the eternal and unending day of life with Christ in the new creation.  Mary could not hold on to Christ in the old way.  But in this age of the resurrection, the Church throughout the world is given to hold on to Jesus in a new way, in the Sacrament of the Altar.  Here especially, Good Friday and Easter come together as one for us.  It is the body and blood of Christ that was sacrificed on the cross that we receive.  And yet it is the living, risen body and blood of Jesus that is now given into our mouths and into our bodies, the sure guarantee of our own bodily victory over death.  The risen Jesus is among us still, giving us forgiveness and new life.

    God grant you faith to see as Mary’s eyes were opened to see, and to seek the risen Lord here in His words and His supper each and every week–why would you want to miss it!?  For the day is fast approaching when your faith will be turned to literal, glorious sight, when you will behold Jesus returning in resurrected majesty.

    The Lord is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Dr. Rick Stuckwisch for a sermon of his on how the resurrection is the victory of the cross, which is borrowed from here; as well as a Christian Century article on Mary Magdalene and the resurrection for which I can no longer find the reference)

Served By the Suffering Servant

Mark 10:32-45
Lent 5

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

    Our Lord Jesus once asked His disciples, "Who is greater, the one who sits at the table or the one who serves?"  The obvious answer was the one at the table who's being waited on.  Those of you who are Downton Abbey fans know that it’s not the cooks downstairs and the footmen and the maids and the butler who are the greatest, but the masters and mistresses upstairs who are being served.  And even today in the world's way of thinking, the more people you have tending to your needs and doing what you want, the greater you are–the politicians and celebrities with their entourages, the successful businessman with dozens or hundreds of employees to carry out his wishes, and so on.  However, Jesus then says, "I am among you as one who serves."  In the kingdom of God, the ways of the world are reversed.  It's not the one who receives the service but the one who gives the service who is greater.  As it is written, "It is better to give than to receive."

    That is how God is.  That is what the Scripture means which says that God is love.  God is by nature a giver and a server.  Many people hold to the false notion that God created mankind in order that He might have creatures who would serve Him (as if God needed anything).  But in fact it's really the other way around:  God created man in order that He might serve man, breathing into people the breath of His life and pouring out on them all the blessings of His creation.  God is glorified in giving Himself to man, not in man giving Himself to God.null

    So then, one could define sin as the refusal to be given to by God–to reject His gifts in the way that He wants to give them and to try to acquire them in your own way or by your own doing.  That’s why the Pharisees received Jesus’ harshest condemnation; they didn’t want to receive what God was freely giving them in Christ.  That's why it's such a wicked thing to push your good works and good living into God's face, as if by those things you could merit His favor.  Doing that turns God into the receiver rather than the giver, the lesser rather than the greater.  Besides, you can't give anything to the God who created everything, anyway.

    So let it be clearly understood that, strictly speaking, you have not gathered here today to serve God.  Rather, you are gathered here for God to serve you, to receive the forgiveness and life and salvation which He alone can give.  The Lutheran reformers said that the highest form of worship is faith.  And faith is nothing but given to by God.  Faith humbly receives the gifts of the Lord, extolling them and glorifying Him with prayer and praise and song for being a gracious giver God.  The true worship and service of God is to revere Him as the One who is greater, that is, as the One who serves, the One from whom all blessings flow.  

    It’s worth repeating: God doesn't need your good works; but your neighbor does.  Your good living is to be directed not upwards but outwards to your fellow man.  God serves you here in order that He may serve others through you out there.  Therefore, when it comes to your daily lives out in the world as family members and citizens and workers, the words of Christ are also to be the words of you who are members of the body of Christ:  "(I) have not come to be served but to serve."

    However, you must admit that doing that doesn't come naturally.  Your Old Adam would much rather be a receiver than a giver.  You know very well how to handle relationships and manipulate things to get what you want.  What's important to you is that your desires are being met, your goals are being fulfilled.  Others can often be used to achieve those ends.  Though it may be in subtle or subconscious ways, all people by nature seek to be served rather than to serve.

    The Gospel gives a crass example of this.  James and John come up to Jesus and with ignorant boldness say, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask. . .  Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory."  James and John thought that they could use their connections with Jesus as a way of gaining power and security in life.  Like some people today, they were using religion as a means for personal advancement, as just another way of getting what they want out of life.  They still didn't get what it meant to be a follower of Christ.

    "You don't know what you are asking," Jesus says.  "Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?"  "We can," they answer.  Jesus says to them, "You will . . . , but . . . these places belong to those for whom they have been prepared."  James and John were still thinking of Christ's kingdom as one of political power or glory.  They didn't yet grasp that the real way of the kingdom of God involved a cross.  It meant being humbled and being a servant on this earth.  That's what Jesus was referring to when He spoke of the cup and His baptism, as He said in the Garden of Gethsemane, "Father, if it is possible, take this cup away from me.  Yet not my will but yours be done."  What James and John were unwittingly asking, then, was to be participants with Jesus in His suffering.  The places prepared at Jesus’ right and left hand were for the criminals crucified with Him.  James and John would indeed suffer as followers of Christ.  All of the apostles would be persecuted for the cross.  In fact all, except John, would be killed as martyrs for the faith.  But to be given places of honor in God’s kingdom was not something they could ask for or earn.  They were gifts of God’s grace.

    After this incident, Jesus gathered the disciples together and spoke to them.  Jesus has also gathered you together here today, and He speaks the very same words to you:  "Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all."  Jesus here takes the thinking of the world and stands it on its head.  In the world people seek to climb to the top of the ladder of success or power.  But amongst the people of God, greatness is defined by people lowering themselves to the bottom of the ladder in service to others.  The one who is higher in God’s eyes is the one who puts himself lower.

    Martin Luther put it this way: Christians live outside of themselves.  You live in God by faith, and you live in your neighbor by love.  By faith you get to stand in Jesus’ place and receive His righteousness as your own.  By love you get to stand in your neighbor’s place and make his needs your own.  Faith looks up to God and offers Him nothing; love looks down to the neighbor and offers Him everything.


    This is the way of Jesus, who didn’t come to rub elbows with the movers and the shakers but to be present with lowly sinners in order to lift them up.  Jesus "gave His life as a ransom" for you.  That means that you had been kidnaped.  You were in the clutches of self-obsessed sin and death and the devil, unable to free yourselves.  But Jesus came from heaven and freed you from your bondage by paying the full ransom price.  He redeemed you, as the Catechism says, "not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death."  His blood sets you free.  Jesus succeeded in this rescue mission precisely in the moment when in the world's eyes He had failed.  His greatest victory took place in the time of His greatest humility.  For in this total giving of Himself, He defeated the devil and brought you back to God.  On the cross our Lord showed Himself to be a God of love, a God who gives, a God who serves with everything He has. Having risen from the dead,  He now lives forever as your conquering Savior and Lord.  You belong to Him; for you were bought at the price of His own life.

    And not only did Christ serve you in this marvelous way some 2000 years ago, but He continues to serve you still today as you gather here each week for Divine Service.  The divine Lord Himself, Jesus Christ, serves you His words and His sacraments so that you might receive today the forgiveness that He purchased for you on the cross long ago.  Jesus is truly present among you right now in the flesh, not to be served, but to serve, and to give you His life and His Holy Spirit.

    So then, the words of Jesus are also for you, "You will drink the cup I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with."  You come forward and drink the cup of Christ, receiving His suffering and death in His body and blood.  However, there is not judgment in that cup but forgiveness; for the judgment was already fully meted out on Good Friday.  It is now for you who believe a cup of grace.  Likewise, when you are baptized, you are buried with Christ, the Scriptures say.  However, that burial occurs so that you may be raised with Him to the new life of Easter.  Your baptism is not only a cold flood of death, but a water of rebirth and resurrection.

    Brothers and sisters of our Lord, you have been given the very life of Christ Himself, a life of service.  Having freed you from the fear of death, Christ is working in you to die to yourselves for the benefit of others.  Having assured you of your eternal destiny above, Christ is working in you to humble yourselves so that others might be lifted up and helped.  Having given you the very Spirit of God, Christ is working in you to become great–not in the way of James and John but in the way of a servant, taking up the cross laid on you in the Sacraments and following Him, going the way that leads through suffering and death into joy and everlasting life.  In Jesus you now live not to be served but to serve; for He gave His life as a ransom for you all.

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

Wrestling With God

“Wrestling with God”
Genesis 32:22-32; Matthew 15:21-28
Lent 2, March 1, 2015
Pastor Aaron A. Koch
Mt. Zion Lutheran Church
Greenfield, Wisconsin

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

    As a Christian you believe that Jesus is one who will never betray your trust in Him.  He will never forsake you or turn against you.  You can count on Him to keep His Word, to be faithful to you and stand by you.  That’s what you believe.  And that’s right and good.  But sometimes you know that only by faith and not by sight or experience.  Sometimes it’s like in today’s Old Testament and Gospel readings.  For in both of those readings, God acts as if He were the enemy.  He doesn’t appear to be the faithful friend, but an adversary, first of Jacob and then of the Canaanite woman.  It’s bad enough when other people are against you, we sort of expect that.  But sometimes it can even seem that God Himself is fighting against you, that through the experiences and circumstances of your life He’s slapping you down.  Why would He do that?

    We must always remember that God deals with us in two different ways–through His Law and through His Gospel.  Those aren’t just theological words, those are the realities of how we experience God’s coming to us.  The Law brings judgment; the Gospel brings mercy.  With His Law, God holds a gun to our head, so to speak, so that our predicament as sinners before His holiness hits home with terrifying reality.  Like Isaiah when he stood before the Lord and said, “Woe is me, I am a dead man,” so also we haven’t really dealt with reality until we’re scared to death that God is going to be our worst enemy.  He holds your life in His hands.  His Law undoes all of your defenses and lays you bare–no excuses, no escape, nothing to bargain with at all.  There’s no more playing games with such a God.  For, as Martin Luther said, “Where there is no fear, there is no humility.  Where there is no humility there is pride, and where there is pride, there is wrath and judgment.”

    But God behaves this way toward us, humbling us, laying us low, not to harm us but to save us.  The Law ends up serving the Gospel.  God “kills” us in order that He might raise us from this cursed life to real life.  We need to know the terror of death before we can truly live.  And so God slays us sinners with the Law in order that He might recreate us holy in Christ with the Gospel.  Through His damning Law God clears out and creates a place for His mercy in our fallen hearts where there was no place before.  And this is what He wants–hearts stripped of all pretense and self-sufficiency, directed only toward Him, seeknulling and taking refuge in His mercy in Christ.  It is written in Hosea, “Come, let us return to the Lord; for He has torn us to pieces, but He will heal us; He has injured us, but He will bind up our wounds.  After two days He will revive us; on the third day He will raise us up that we may live in His sight.”

    Like a gloved and masked surgeon approaching you with his scalpel ready to make his incision, God calls you to faith in Him even when it appears that He’s harming you.  This faith is something that the Holy Spirit creates in you, giving you to believe that God’s true nature is one of love and mercy, and that his attitude toward you is favorable in Christ, even when everything that you feel and see seems to say otherwise.  This is what it means to say that we walk by faith and not by sight–trusting in His mercy that we can’t always see against His judgment that we often see all too clearly, believing that His promises are greater than His threats.

    This is what we witness in today’s readings.  God comes to Jacob as a nameless stranger who fights and wrestles with him.  Jacob probably would’ve hoped for God to come to him in a more gentle manner.  For Jacob was already under a lot of stress.  He was about to meet his brother Esau.  Esau you recall was the one whom Jacob had tricked out of the inheritance and the family blessing some 14 years earlier.  This would be the first time they’ve seen each other since then.  Jacob didn’t know if Esau would receive him or try to do harm to him and his family.  And in the midst of all this, God comes and wrestles with Jacob until the break of day.

    But He does so for Jacob’s good.  For despite appearances, He is making Himself accessible to Jacob here.  The Lord is with him to wrestle away his fears and to strengthen Jacob’s faith in the promises He had made to him.  So it is that Jacob clings to the Lord and will not let Him go until he receives a blessing from Him.  That’s faith, that’s what the Lord wants.  Though He seemed like an enemy, God was ultimately there as Jacob’s ally.  For He blessed him there.  Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, which means “struggles with God.”  For he struggled with God and men and prevailed by faith.

    In the same way, there may be times in your life when you want God to come gently and softly, and instead you get the God who fights and wrestles with you.  But trust Him; He knows what He’s doing.  Rejoice that He’s there, that He’s with you.  He’s putting your sinful nature to death. Like Jacob, hold on to Him tightly.  Cling to His promises; wrestle with His Word.  Don’t let Him go until He gives you a blessing.  That’s what He wants.  That’s why He seeks you out and comes to you.  Be a true Israelite, struggling with God and prevailing by faith.  Believe that behind the awful judgment of the Law, the Lord is indeed good to you, and His mercy endures forever.

    That’s what the Canaanite woman in the Gospel believed.  Jesus certainly treated her as if He were her enemy, didn’t He.  According to the standards of political correctness, Jesus acted like a racist!  This Gentile woman comes to Him believing that He can help.  Though she’s not from Israel, yet she believes that He is the Messiah, calling Him Son of David.  She prays to Him, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David!  My daughter is severely demon-possessed.”  She doesn’t pray for herself but for her daughter.

    But Jesus doesn’t even answer her.  He acts as if she is not even worth listening to, turns His back on her.  All she gets is silence.  It’s like when we pray to God, when our need is serious, but there seems to be no answer to our prayer.  Then the struggle and the wrestling begins. Then the temptation arises in your hearts to think that God is loveless (at least toward you), that He doesn’t really care, that there’s no point in seeking His help.  The Psalmist knew this struggle when He prayed, “To You I cry, O Lord, my Rock.  Do not be silent to me, lest, if you are silent to me, I become like those who go down to the pit.”

    Jesus goes on emptying this Gentile woman of herself so that He might fill her up with His goodness and life.  He behaves as if He’s not for her, saying that He’s only for the Jews.  And then, even when she kneels before Him and begs for help, He seems to give her a mortal blow, calling her a little dog who shouldn’t get the children’s bread.  

    But this Canaanite woman shows herself to be a true Israelite.  Like Jacob of old, she won’t let Jesus go until she receives a blessing.  She clings to the Lord’s words, and she’s not going to let Him wriggle out of them.  Out of His very own words she forms a plea.  “Yes, you are right; I have no right to your mercy.  I am a dog.  Yet, if that is what I am, then give me what a dog gets; give me some table scraps, and that will be more than enough to see me through.”  And Jesus delights in being caught in His words and to give to the woman not just crumbs but the whole loaf, all that she desired.  She struggles with God and man in Christ and prevails.  Jesus says to her, “O woman, great is your faith!  Let it be to you as you desire.”  Behind the enemy’s mask, Jesus now breaks through and is revealed to be her truest Friend.

    So it is with you, too.  God’s Law deals us a mortal, lethal blow.  “Lord, your judgement against me is that I am damned sinner.  Yes, Lord, it is true.  I deserve nothing good from you.  I have no right to your mercy.  Yet, if I am a sinner, give me what you have promised to sinners.  It is written, ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.’  Grant me that salvation.  It is written, ‘The blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.’  Grant me that forgiveness.  It is written, ‘I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.’  Lord, grant me that life.  I’m not letting go until you keep your promises to me.”  And Jesus is delighted to have you hold Him to His words.  That is what faith is, to cling to Christ and His words, even when everything else seems to be against you, even contrary to what you see.  For Christ gives you not just crumbs, but the whole loaf, His entire self, His true body and blood offered up for you on the cross, now given for you for the forgiveness of your sins.  No longer are you mere dogs, scrounging around for scraps.  You are children at the table of the Lord.

    That is so because Jesus traded places with you and put Himself in the position of the Canaanite woman.  He was treated as if He were the unwanted street dog, whipped and rejected by men.  He too heard the silence of God in His ears when He prayed to the Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?”  No answer came back as He suffered our sins and our hell to death.  And yet He remained faithful, trusting in and holding on to His Father’s love, and He was vindicated in the end, rising from the grave in victory on the third day, so that with the Canaanite woman, we too might share in His vindication and His victory in the resurrection.

    Brothers and sisters of Christ, our God is in the business of death and resurrection.  He cuts you so that He may heal you.  He kills you so that He may make you alive through His Son.  Through tribulation He produces perseverance and character and hope which does not disappoint.  Trust Him, then, with your death.  Trust Him with your life in Christ.

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

 

On Earth Peace

Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols
Luke 2:1-20

Peace on Earth?
    Every year at Christmas we hear the phrase “Peace on earth, good will toward men.”  But that peace never seems to be real, at least not among the peoples of this earth.  Peaceful feelings may exist for a time, an absence of major conflicts may last for a while, but sooner or later, the peace is gone, and the fighting and the violence comes back.  International relations are unstable, the threat of terrorism still looms, and particularly now we see that racial tensions are rising.  We can point to political and social causes for these things, ideological errors and falsehoods.  But we must acknowledge that the root cause is man’s fall into sin.  In the fall peace and fellowship with God was broken, and as a result peace between human beings was also broken.  Sin brings division to all our relationships–between spouses and family members, between co-workers and neighbors, between ethnic groups.  Curved in on ourselves, we blame and bicker and snipe.  Our God is a God of order and beauty, and so the devil loves to work in concert with our fallen natures to stir up disorder and ugliness and animosity among people.  He wants to tear down God’s good creation, instigate rebellion against the authorities God has instituted, and reek havoc on those once made in the image of the God who is love. null

    So what exactly is being referred to here in the Christmas story?  Where is this peace on earth, good will toward men to be found?  It is to be found in the Christ-child and only in Him.  For He alone is the one who restores us to fellowship with God the Father.  And therefore, He alone is the One who restores us to true fellowship with one another.  Jesus Himself is Peace on earth, God’s good will toward fallen sinners, the perfect embodiment of His love and His desire to save us.

What race is Jesus?
    It’s interesting to see how the Nativity and other Scriptural scenes are portrayed in artwork in various countries around the world.  Very often Jesus is depicted as being of the same ethnicity as that country–in a Chinese painting Jesus looks oriental, in an African portrayal Jesus is black, or for that matter, in a German or Scandinavian portrait Jesus looks like a blue-eyed European.  That used to bother me a little, because the Christmas narrative is a true story, real history, and Jesus is a middle-eastern Jew.  To depict the Nativity in some other way seemed to me to be making it into a bit of a fairy tale that we can mold and shape and change to fit our desires and needs.  But the account of Jesus’ birth is no myth.  What I read to you is for real.  Luke emphasizes that point by even giving you some of the historical details about who the Caesar was at that time and the census and the tax and the governor of that particular region.  The Christmas story is an actual, literal account about the real Jesus and His birth.

    And yet the more I think about it, the more I believe that those paintings may have it right, in this sense: The angel came with the message of good news for all people, “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  The Savior Jesus is born to you, for you; He is yours.  He’s your kind, humankind.  When the Son of God took on our human nature in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary, He did not just became a man.  He became man.  He took all of humanity into Himself in His incarnation.  For He came to bear the sins of all humanity in His body.  That includes every nation and tribe and people and language.  Though Jesus was indeed a Jew, His birth reveals the truth that there is in fact only one human race–only one race!–the fallen children of Adam.  And in this newbnullorn baby in the manger, every sinner is redeemed and restored to God.  Jesus is the embodiment of all people from every corner of the globe, and in His body all people are put right with God again.  And so when Jesus is portrayed as African or Oriental or European, theologically speaking that’s true.  By becoming man, Christ becomes one with all people to deliver all people.  The Savior is born to you, for you.  He’s one of you, your very flesh and blood, your true human brother.  There’s no one that’s left out of the new life that comes from His holy birth.  He’s like you in every way, except without sin, that you might become like Him in every way and share in His divine glory.

    That alone is the basis for the peace of which the angels sang.  Only in Jesus, the Word made flesh, is there "peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled."  We sinners are no longer under God’s wrath; we are at peace with Him again through His self-giving mercy.  The warfare between heaven and earth is now ended.  The case of God against the human race is set aside, and His love for the world is revealed.  Our flesh has been joined to God.  Heaven and earth are at peace.  God and man are brought back together in Jesus, for Jesus is God and man together in one person.  Baptized into Christ, we are put right with God.  

    And living in Christ, we are put right with each other, too, restored to each other by forgiveness and love.  In Jesus the human race is reborn.  All believers in His name are made to be brothers and sisters, whoever we are, wherever we come from. Christ came for you all to rescue you, to forgive you.  Our Lord took on flesh and blood so that He might sacrifice His flesh and shed His blood to cleanse you and make you holy, His own special people.  He was willing to deal with the indignities of His lowly birth, His humble life, His suffering and death, in order that you might be dignified and exalted and lifted up with Him in His resurrection to everlasting life.  The only peace on earth that lasts forever is the peace of Christ, forgiven sinners united as one in His holy body.

Seeing as Children
    At Christmas time, our attention often turns to the children, as we enjoy the wonders of the holy day by experiencing and seeing things anew through their eyes.  This is good for us to do at all times, as Jesus said that unless we turn and become like little children–dependent on God, trusting His Word, thankful for His gifts–we will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  What better way to turn and become like little children than to turn to the Christ-child Himself and to see yourself in Him.  For you are in Him.

    With that in mind let me draw this all together and to a close by reading a simple poem which speaks of the Christ who was born for us all, as one of us:

Some children see Him lily white,
The baby Jesus born this night.
Some children see Him lily white,
With tresses soft and fair.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
The Lord of heav'n to earth come down.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
With dark and heavy hair.

Some children see Him almond-eyed,
This Savior whom we kneel beside.
Some children see Him almond-eyed,
With skin of golden hue.
Some children see Him dark as they,
Sweet Mary's Son to whom we pray.
Some children see him dark as they,
And, ah! they love Him, too!

The children in each different place
Will see the baby Jesus' face
Like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace,
And filled with holy light.
O lay aside each earthly thing
And with thy heart as offering,
Come worship now the infant King.
'Tis love that's born tonight!    
    (written by A. Burt, W. Hutson)

    To all of you, whoever you are, wherever you come from, whatever you’ve done, know this:  Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  In Him you are forgiven; in Him you are put right with God and with one another.  All is well.  “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”  Merry Christmas!

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

Watching for Christ

Matthew 25:1-13

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

    “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to go now.”  Those are the words of a country song that was popular a few years ago.  And it says something uncomfortably true for many people.  “Sure I want eternal life in the world to come, but I’m not yet ready to let go of life in this world, not until I’ve done this or experienced that or been present at a big upcoming family event.  Maybe after that.”  I would suggest this is one way you can diagnose the false gods that are in your life.  Whatever it is that you’re looking forward to or have your heart set on more than the return of Christ is vying to become an idol in your life.  Even good gifts of God like marriage and family or vacation trips or sporting events or sharing good times with friends can become the stuff of our idolatry when we love them more than the One who is the Giver and the Creator.  null

    It’s worth pondering the question, “Why exactly is it that you want to go to heaven?   What’s going to make it so great?”  Actually, the Bible never really talks about “going to heaven” as the primary goal of the Christian.  To be sure, God’s Word clearly teaches that the souls of those who die in the faith go to be with the Lord.  But there is still more that God has prepared and planned.  The truth of Scripture is expressed in the Creed, when we say that we look for the “resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.”  Our real hope is tangible, fleshly, and focused on the Last Day.  On that final day, we won’t be going to heaven, heaven will be coming to us.  With the return of Christ, heaven and earth will be rejoined and all creation will be made new through Him.

    So with that in mind, let me ask the question again a little differently: why do you want to have your share in the resurrection of the body to eternal life?  The answer may seem obvious: we don’t want to suffer the torment of hell, and we do want to experience that good existence which is spoken of in passages like today’s Old Testament reading.  “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth . . .  No more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. . .  The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”  Notice there that eternity is described in bodily terms, a new creation.  * It will be a world where no family is ever gathered around a coffin again, a world where even in the animal kingdom there will be no more blood-red teeth or claws.  God’s plan for this creation will not be delayed forever.  It will become what He intended it to be in the beginning: a world without fear, without sin, without death.

    But is even that really our ultimate goal, simply to have a pleasant place to exist for eternity?  What is it that truly makes the life of the world to come so good?  It is this–and this is what we often forget–there we will be in communion with God Himself and will live forever in the overflow of His lovingkindness.   As it is written in Revelation, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men. . .  God Himself will be with them and be their God.”  Why do Christians want to go to heaven?  To be with Jesus, that’s why.  Being together with Him, sharing in the life of the Redeemer makes all the difference.  Only through Him is anything truly good and right.  In Him is perfect peace and contentment and gladness.  If your idea of heaven isn’t centered in life with Christ, if it’s primarily about a place that fulfills all your own personal pleasures and dreams, you’re missing the point.  What makes eternal life to be real life is the presence of your Creator and Savior and Lord.  

    So it’s no wonder, then, that the final prayer in the Bible and the constant prayer of the church is “Come, Lord Jesus!”  That is our faith’s greatest desire, to be with Him, in an even greater way than we desire to be with loved ones for the holidays that we haven’t seen for a long time.  When the sorrows and the fears of this world press hard against us, and we don’t know if we can hold up much longer, we pray: “Come, Lord Jesus!” When change and decay in all around we see, and it seems as if the very foundations are being shaken, we pray: “Come, Lord Jesus!” When we feel the devastating effects of our own sinful flesh, we pray: “Come, Lord Jesus!  Come quickly to deliver us!”  Or as the Psalmist prayed, “My soul longs, yes, even faints for the courts of the Lord; My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” (Psalm 84:2)

    By faith we long for that Day, but we know that it will not be a day of joy for everyone. There are those who are unprepared for it, who really don’t welcome it.  Many would see Jesus’ return as an unwelcome disturbance of their plans, who love this world and don’t want to let go of it.  For them that Day will come like a thief in the night bringing sudden destruction, and there will be no escape. To meet that day without faith in the Savior and love for being with Him is to meet it as a Day of Doom.

    What makes the wise virgins truly wise in this parable is that nothing was more important to them than being with the Bridegroom.  Everything else was secondary.  It was all about Him.  For the foolish, being with the Bridegroom was just another thing to squeeze in with the other priorities of life if possible.  And so the wise were well prepared, while the foolish were unprepared.

    Having faith in the Savior and wanting to be with Him is the main point of today’s Gospel parable.  Those who were wise staked everything on Him.  The lamp’s flame represents faith.  The lamp itself is the Word of God, as it is written, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet” (Psalm 119:105).  The oil in the lamp is the Holy Spirit who works through the Word and the Sacraments to create and sustain faith in Christ and keep the flame of faith burning brightly.  Because the foolish virgins gave little attention to the Word of God and the Sacraments, their flames went out.  And they ended up being shut of the wedding feast, shut out of life in the new creation forever, even hearing the Lord say those awful words, “I do not know you.”  That’s a description of hell right there–hearing Jesus say that He doesn’t know you and that you can’t be with Him; all that’s left is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  And there’s nothing that the wise can do for them on the Last Day.  One person’s oil cannot be given to another.  No one can believe for another.

    The five foolish ones did not endure in the faith to the end. They thought the bare minimum was enough; but tragically, it wasn’t.  It didn’t have to be that way.  For God eagerly and gladly supplies everything necessary–oil in abundance, free of charge, no strings attached, all paid for and provided by Christ.  After all, there is not one soul for whom God’s Son did not shed His blood.  There is not one human life whose sins were not atoned for on Golgotha’s wood.  There is not one human being whose death wasn’t destroyed by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  All of you are forgiven and redeemed entirely for the sake of Christ.  

    Your heavenly Father longs to be with you.  Much more than our desire for God is His desire for us.  That’s really the whole point of being at church, isn’t it?–to be with God and He with you, concretely, tangibly, in the flesh.  He delights in you through Jesus and wants you to be with Him.  Christ shares in your humanity so that you may share in His divine glory.  By His external, preached Word and Spirit, God keeps you in the faith, lamps burning brightly all the way through to the end.

    To the world it may seem unnecessary and even silly, but the extra oil of the wise is a reminder that faith never thinks in the way of having the bare minimum, any more than you would want to spend the least amount of time possible with someone you love.  Why wouldn’t we want to receive communion every week?  Being with Christ in divine service and being with Christ in eternity go together, and the cause of joy is the same in both cases–His presence, His mercy.  This is what makes the wise so single-minded:  You know that the One who is coming is the true, heavenly Groom who is perfect love in the flesh, the One who “gave Himself up for His beloved church, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water and the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, . . . that she should be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:26-27).   

    We eagerly watch for the Last Day, for when St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, he told them that God did not destine them for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we might live with Him.  That holds true for you too who believe and are baptized.  You are not destined for wrath; you are destined for life with Christ.  The Introit proclaims, “The ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing, with everlasting joy on their heads . . . and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”  And Christ declares in the Old Testament reading, “I will joy in My people.”  That’s heaven, the Lord rejoicing in you.  Anyone who thinks that’s going to be boring, or that something else might be more important or exciting simply doesn’t have a clue.  The Lord’s passion and desire for you is that you may live with Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

    “Behold the Bridegroom is coming; go out to meet Him!”  Go out with the brightly burning lamps of faith in the present darkness of this world.  Be filled by the Holy Spirit with Jesus’ words and body and blood.  Possess these life-giving gifts in abundance from the Lord.  And as you go out to meet Jesus here in divine service week by week, then it will be no surprise at all but a most natural and joyous thing when you go out to meet Him on the Last Day.  The hymn sings it well:

Zion hears the watchmen singing
And all her heart with joy is springing;
She wakes, she rises from her gloom.
For her Lord comes down all-glorious,
The strong in grace, in truth victorious.
Her star is ris’n, her light has come.
Now come, Thou blessed One!
Lord Jesus, God’s own Son!
Hail! Hosanna!
We enter all
The wedding hall
To eat the Supper at Thy call.

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

(With thanks to the Rev. William Weedon whose words on this text were borrowed in a couple of paragraphs)

God's Right and Left Hands

Matthew 22:15-22; Philippians 3:17-21

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

    I think all of us are looking forward to Wednesday, when all the political commercials and ads will thankfully and mercifully stop.  Today I won’t be adding to the promoting or tearing down of candidates.  But our appointed readings are timely as they encourage us to consider and rightly understand the place of politics and religion.

    God rules in this world in two distinct ways, through government and through the Church.  Today’s readings teach that although these two kingdoms are very different from one another, both of them are from God.  He is the ultimate authority behind each.  Lutherans usually refer to these two kingdoms as God’s left hand and right hand kingdoms.  With His left hand, God appoints civil authorities to maintain order, to defend its citizens, to punish wrongdoers and to praise those who do what is good and right.  In this kingdom of the left hand, the Law holds sway.  Coercion and the threat of penalties and prison are used to keep the peace.  But in God’s right hand kingdom, the Gospel holds sway.  The church operates not by threat but by gentle invitation, not by penalties but by the forgiveness of sins.  Peace comes through Christ’s death on the cross which reconciles us to God the Father.  It is not a temporary peace between people but an everlasting peace with God.  The Church is not ruled by the sword but governed by the preaching of God’s Word alone.null

    Jesus directs us to give proper honor to both kingdoms when He says, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  First of all, give the governing authorities the honor and obedience that is due to them.  For Romans 13 says, “The authorities that exist have been established by God.”  They may sometimes not properly exercise their authority; they may not even realize that they have a divine calling.  But Christians are to honor those in office as servants of God nonetheless.  For by honoring that office, we are really honoring God Himself.  We may or may not like a particular governing official.  In Jesus’ day Tiberias Caesar was not a particularly honorable fellow.  But if God has allowed a person to be established in office, then we are to honor him for God’s sake, obeying whatever laws are in force, as long as they do not cause us to sin against God.  If that happens, then it is written, “We must obey God rather than men.”

    In our country, of course, we have an unusual situation in that we get to choose our Caesars.  We get the government and the taxes we elect.  So to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” for us means to do the best job we can as citizens to be informed and to choose wise and competent leaders and to vote for laws that are good and right.

    It’s tremendously important for us to make a proper distinction between Caesar and God.  We sometimes tend to confuse the two. We either turn God into Caesar, as if God were merely the top law enforcer, a morality cop.  Or we turn Caesar into God, as if getting the right people elected would solve all our problems and bring the kingdom of God on earth.  We either reject the gift of government, or we expect too much from it.

    Jesus speaks in terms of both God and Caesar, and He speaks of the two properly distinguished–not separated, as some people think, but properly distinguished. You don’t cease to be a Christian when you walk into a voting booth or take public office, as if your faith doesn’t matter there–if you don’t act on your beliefs, someone else’s false beliefs will take their place, right?  Likewise, you don’t cease to be a citizen of this country when you walk into a church.  It’s just that you have another higher citizenship in Christ.

    With His left hand of power, God gives us temporal blessings, 1st article gifts, daily bread. He ensures that we have roads and sewers and policemen and firemen, and everything that protects our body and life.  With His right hand of grace where Jesus is seated, the Father gives eternal blessings, 3rd article gifts, forgiveness, life, salvation.  God’s left hand punishes and restrains, it keeps a lid on our sin and keeps us more or less in line.  The policeman that pulls you over for speeding, the judge who sentences the criminal is an extension of God’s left hand.  With his right hand, God comforts and consoles us in Christ.  Preachers and teachers of the Word are an extension of God’s right hand, giving forgiveness, eternal life, and peace with God.  God’s left hand works to make people outwardly good.  God’s right hand works to make people inwardly holy.

    God is both left-handed and right-handed.  The left and right hands of God work in different and opposite ways–and we don’t always see how they are connected.  For instance, it was during the time of the pagan Roman empire, when there was relative peace throughout the world and a common language spoken, that Jesus was born.  This allowed the Gospel to be carried far and wide after Jesus’ ascension.  We can see that now, but back then, I’m sure the Israelites wondered why God allowed them to be oppressed by the Romans.  So also today, all we can do is believe that God is working with both hands toward the redemption of His people.  With His left hand God causes kings and kingdoms to rise and to fall.  He has caused our nation to rise for a few centuries in history, and when He is through with us, He will bring this nation down, as He has all the great nations of the past, like the Romans.  God doesn’t explain why or what He is up to.  We are simply given to trust that the God who sent His Son to die for the world knows best how to manage the kings and kingdoms of this world.  It’s all in God’s left and right hands, and He orders everything “for us and for our salvation,” working all things toward the day when Jesus appears and every president and governor and congressman must bow down before the King of kings and Lord of lords.

    And that brings us to the second and really more important half of Jesus’ statement.  “Render unto God the things that are God’s.”  Well, everything is God’s, so give Him everything.  Psalm 24 says, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.”  Paying taxes is really nothing, then.  God wants all of you–all you are and all you have.  He doesn’t just want a couple of hours on a Saturday night or a Sunday morning and some money put into the plate so you feel like you’ve done your duty.  And then you get back to your real life out there.  He wants to be your real life everywhere, 100% of the time, at the heart of all you are and all you do.  He Himself is your life, isn’t He–the Source, the Creator, the Redeemer?  To render to God the things that are God’s, then, means to honor Him as the true owner of everything you have and to manage it in a way that is pleasing to Him.  That starts with the 10% that goes in the offering plate here–that act of worship is very important–but it continues with the other 90% that you are given to use and manage out there for the good of your neighbor and the glory of God.

    Remember, it’s all about the image.  The coin bore Caesar’s image, so it was given to Caesar.  And what bears God’s image?  You do.  You are in the image of God.  And so you are given to God.

    But also remember this.  You do not give yourself to God.  You are brought to God in Christ. For while you are in God’s image, Jesus actually is the image of God.  The image of God was broken in us through sin, and it is restored only in Christ.  It is written in Colossians, “(Jesus) is the image of the invisible God.”  As an image of a president is pressed into a coin, so Christ Himself is the image of God “coined” in our human flesh.  And as money is offered up to pay taxes, so Jesus was offered up to God to pay for our sins on the cross, rendered to the Father as a sweet sacrifice.  Jesus purchased and redeemed you, not in the currency of this world, but in the currency of God, His own blood.  And there was even an inscription that was placed over Jesus’ head at Calvary by an agent of Caesar himself.  It read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”  Not by offering up your own merits, but through Christ alone you are put right with God.  To render to God the things that are God’s, then, is simply to rely on Christ and believe in Him.  It is to point to Christ the crucified and say, “There is my salvation; He is my offering that settles my account with God.”

    And there is still more.  For through your baptism into Christ, the Lord put His own inscription on you, His own Triune name.  On you, whose image was tarnished and corrupted, Jesus stamped the sign of the cross and joined you to Himself.  You are now God’s holy coinage, His cherished treasure.  What shall we render, then, to the Lord, for all His benefits to us?  We offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving, calling on the name of the Lord.  And living in Christ, we offer up our bodies by the mercies of God as living sacrifices in love toward our neighbor.

    You are now citizens of heaven.  You are pilgrims in this world, foreigners who are only passing through to our true homeland.  So you don’t have to live as if you’re so attached to the things of this life, or even the outcome of elections.  You are citizens of this land only for a short time; you will live under Christ in His kingdom for all eternity.  Set the deepest love of your hearts, then, on that better, heavenly country.  St. Paul wrote in the Epistle, “We eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body.”  Our natural birth leads to death.  But our supernatural rebirth into Christ leads to the resurrection of our bodies to share in Jesus’ Easter glory.  By the all-encompassing power of the Lord, these lowly bodies of ours will undergo a wonderful and mysterious transformation, so that they will be like the glorious body of Jesus after His resurrection.  Your bodies will finally no longer be threatened by all of the troubles and the sin and the sickness and the death they experience in this world.  Rather, you will live before God amidst the holy pleasures of the new creation eternally.

    Until that final Day comes, always remember that Jesus is reigning at the right hand of the Father as Lord of all.  The future of the nations, the future of the church, your future rests in both of His nail-scarred hands.  And there is surely no safer place to be.  

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

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