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God Has Manifested His Word Through Preaching

Titus 1
Advent 1 Midweek

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

It is written, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. . .  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”  Jesus is the Word of God.  Just as words are spoken to reveal and to communicate something, even so Christ is the One who reveals God to us, for He Himself is God the Son.  He is the One who communicates and gives to us the Father’s love.

In many and various ways God spoke in the Old Testament by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His eternal Son.  God the Father spoke His final Word into the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary.  The Word became flesh and blood, body and soul.

Jesus is the Father’s message to the world, a Word of divine grace, an expression of  how great His mercy is towards us–that He would humble Himself to literally become one of us, that He would sacrifice His flesh and shed His blood to set us free from our sins, that He would rise from the dead to raise us up to everlasting life.  God has manifested His Word in the coming of Jesus.

However, there is still more to the Gospel.  For even though Christ has won our salvation completely, from beginning to end, if that salvation were not revealed and given to us specifically, it would never benefit us.  We would still perish forever in our sins.  Therefore St. Paul says to Titus, “God has in due time manifested His word through preaching.”  What was promised by God before time began, what Jesus, the Word attained for us in time and history, is now manifested and bestowed to us through the preaching of the Word.  Even as God came into the world very concretely as a true man, so now He comes to us very concretely through men proclaiming Him with living mouths and tongues and speech.  The same God who revealed Himself in the flesh reveals Himself to us now in the fleshly speaking and the fleshly hearing of His Word.  Through preaching, the truth of Christmas remains an ongoing, living reality.  Jesus still manifests Himself tangibly and physically; for His own voice is still heard out loud in the Church.

We must always remember that there are two aspects to the Gospel: the first is that Jesus has won for us forgiveness of sins and everlasting life; the second is that the Holy Spirit now gives us those gifts through the Word.  Martin Luther put it this way in the Large Catechism: “Neither you nor I could ever know anything of Christ, or believe on Him, and obtain Him for our Lord, unless it were offered to us and granted to our hearts by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Gospel.  The work is done and accomplished; for Christ has acquired and gained the treasure for us by His suffering, death, and resurrection.  But if the work remained concealed so that no one knew of it, then it would be in vain and lost.  That this treasure, therefore, might not lie buried, but be appropriated and enjoyed, God has caused the Word to go forth and be proclaimed, in which he gives the Holy Spirit to bring this treasure home and appropriate it to us.”  This is what St. Paul is getting at when he says in Titus 1, “God has in due time manifested His word through preaching.”

So it is that Paul reminds Titus why he left him there in Crete–namely, to appoint pastors and preachers in all the cities where the church had been established.  For then the saving Word of Christ would sound forth to save sinners and to sustain believers in the one true faith. It is written in Romans, “How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?  And how shall they hear without a preacher?  And how shall they preach unless they are sent?”  Paul indicates here that the task of preaching was committed to him according to the commandment of God our Savior.  He was sent by Christ, even as Christ was sent by His Father in heaven.  And so it is for all who follow in the apostolic ministry.  For in commanding Titus to appoint preachers, Paul says that in so doing, Titus would be setting in order the things that were currently lacking.  This office of preaching, therefore, is not merely a human arrangement but a divine institution and mandate so that the Word of Christ might be made manifest.

To assist Titus in his task, Paul gives a series of qualifications for those to be selected as ministers.  These qualifications are given not to exalt the man but rather to be as sure as possible that nothing about the man draws attention away from the Gospel of Christ which he preaches.  Later in this Epistle Paul instructs the laity to adorn the Gospel with good works so that others might be drawn to believe it.  So also here he gives instructions for pastors so that nothing in their personal life will get in the way of the Gospel they proclaim.  They are to have an orderly household.  As stewards and managers of the mysteries of God, they must not be hot-headed, drunkards, violent, or greedy, but sober, hospitable, self-controlled, just, and lovers of what is good–all of this so that the man may not be a negative focus, but so that he may fade into the background and Christ may be all in all, as John the Baptizer said of Jesus, “He must increase, I must decrease.”

Finally, Paul describes to Titus what the preacher must do in his preaching.  He must hold fast the faithful word as he has been taught, as it has been handed down to him.  He is not in the business of coming up with new doctrines to proclaim to tickle the ears of the crowds, but must faithfully preach the sound doctrine that He has been given by God to preach.  With that Word of God the preacher must “convict those who contradict sound doctrine,” exposing and rejecting the false teaching of those who add man-made requirements to the faith, opposing those who advocate practices that draw attention away from Christ and His all-sufficient sacrifice on the cross.  Paul told Titus, “Rebuke such people sharply, that they may be sound in the faith.”

But above all, the preacher must set forth the Word of the Gospel in all its clarity and beauty and purity for our salvation.  Christ must be preached and made manifest in all His glory as our merciful Savior and Lord–He who did battle with the devil for us and emerged victorious, He who shared in our humanity in order that we might share forever in His divinity, He who descended to the womb of a Virgin in order that we might be raised to the heights of heaven.  

Since we have been given to know and believe this truth, let us not be like the defiled and unbelieving, who profess to know God but deny Him with their works.  For Titus 1 calls those who believe this Gospel pure.  You have been purified by Him who alone is pure, Jesus, the Holy One of God.  Believe that this is so for you.  You have truly been made clean and holy in God’s sight by the forgiving love of Christ.  Give thanks to God during this Advent season that He has manifested to you His Word, our Savior Jesus.

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

Why Do You Want to Go to Heaven?

Matthew 25:1-13

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

Why do you want to go to heaven?  Seriously.  You might say, “Well, obviously, I don’t want to go to hell, so heaven is clearly the better option.”  But what is it about heaven that makes you want to go there and to be there?  Far too many aren’t really sure about how to answer that.  There is this notion that it will be good and happy.  So that’s nice.  On the other hand, there’s also this notion that it may not be as exciting as some of the things we enjoy on this earth.  Heaven is all holy and stuff, so you better have your fun now while you’re still here.  Such foolish notions actually provide a helpful way to do a little spiritual self-diagnosis.  Whatever it is that makes you want to put off heaven or especially the second coming of Jesus, whatever it is that you think you’d enjoy more or that would make you want to tell God to hold off for a little bit–that’s an idol in your heart and a false god in your life.

But still, what’s going to make heaven 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 much 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.  What we set our hearts on is bodily resurrection.

It is as the Old Testament reading said, “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 physical 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?  No, what truly makes the life of the world to come so good–and this is what we often forget–is that there we will be in communion with God Himself, living forever in the overflow of His lovingkindness.   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 we want to have our share in the resurrection of the body to eternal life?  To be with Jesus, that’s why.  Being together with Him, sharing in the life of our Redeemer makes all the difference.  Only through Him is anything truly good and right.  Just beholding the glory of God face to face will far surpass any earthly experience.  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, or even to see loved ones who have died and are with Christ.  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 from Scripture 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 the 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 Psalm 119 says, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet.”  The oil in the lamp is the Holy Spirit who works through the Word and the Sacraments to create 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.

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’s not God’s fault.  The doors are open.  And God eagerly and gladly supplies everything necessary–oil in abundance, free of charge, no strings attached, all paid for and provided by Christ.  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.  All of you are on the invitation list for the wedding feast.

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, God keeps you in the faith, lamps burning brightly all the way through to the end.

To the foolish all the church stuff may seem unnecessary.  What's the point of having so much oil?  But in other matters this is exactly how the world would expect you to behave.  When taking an SAT test--at least the old fashioned way--you bring extra pencils just in case.  When going on a big cruise or a trip, you make sure that you arrive at the airport early.  Young brides-to-be will often spend countless hours shopping for dresses, trying on make-up, consulting with their hairstylist, deciding on menus and flowers preparing for a wedding.  Doesn’t it make perfect sense then to be even better prepared for the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb in His kingdom?  

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 you 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, . . . 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, but 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.

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

The Least of These My Brethren

Matthew 25:31-46

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

When we hear the Gospel reading for today, the natural reaction of our Old Adam is to take it as a set of guidelines for what we should be doing so that Jesus will allow us into heaven.  On one side of the judgment seat you’ve got those who did charitable works toward Jesus, even though they didn’t know they were doing it for Him.  And on the other side you’ve got those who didn’t do charitable works toward Jesus, and they likewise were unaware of Jesus’ presence in these brethren who were hungry or sick or naked or imprisoned.  The first group is called the righteous and goes into everlasting life.  The second group is called the cursed and goes away into everlasting punishment.

And so our fallen human nature logically concludes that we’ve got to get doing more charitable deeds.  We’ve got to get on the ball and do more to help the poor and the needy so that we can be counted worthy to enter heaven.  It is a constant temptation for us to take the Word of God and turn it into a list of requirements that we can fulfill so that we can make ourselves right with God.  Inherent within us is this false opinion of the Law that we can save ourselves by our own goodness and acts of love.  And so we keep looking for spiritual checklists that we can fulfill: feed the hungry–check; clothe the naked–check; visit the sick–check.  There, I’ve done my part; I’ve made myself a true Christian now.  

But that isn’t putting your faith in Christ; that’s putting your faith in yourself.  That’s not relying on God’s goodness and love, that’s relying on your own goodness and love.  And to do that is contrary to the Christian faith.  Now let me be clear: we should be helping the poor and needy and doing charitable works toward our neighbor.  The Fifth Commandment requires that we help our neighbor in every bodily need.  We should do better about tending to the needs of others and not being so self-absorbed.  But the key point here is that we shouldn’t rely on how well we’ve done that to save us, for the Law always brings judgment.  We never keep it perfectly as we should.  Even your best efforts to show love to your neighbor fall short.  That’s not what’s going to get you into heaven.

In our attempts to keep the Law, we often forget the first and most important commandment:  that we are to have no other gods, that we are to fear, love and trust in God above all things.  If you are doing good works in order to gain eternal life for yourself, is that really loving God?  If you do deeds of charity so that you can feel good about having fulfilled your responsibility, is that really trusting in God?  Or, under a cloak of goodness is there, in reality, a lack of faith in God, an attempt to manipulate God to get what you want?  Don’t take today’s Gospel reading as a listing of the things you’ve got to do to earn your spot at Jesus’ right hand.  For that is precisely the attitude of those on His left.

This Gospel is not so much about good works as it is about faith in Christ.  The focus is on Him and what He has done.  For notice what Jesus says, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”  Jesus isn’t just talking about any old charitable deeds here, but ones done toward His brethren.  So just who are the brothers of Jesus that are referred to here?  St. Matthew would have us understand that these brethren are in fact the preachers of the Gospel.  And the difference between the sheep and the goats is whether or not they received Jesus’ brethren and believed the Gospel that these men proclaimed.

In Matthew’s account of the resurrection of Jesus, the angel at the tomb said to the women, “Go and tell my brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see Me.”  “My brethren” there refers to the 11 apostles, the 12 minus Judas.  At Galilee, Jesus gave the command to these 11 brothers of His, “Go and make disciples of all the nations . . .”  They were to do this by baptizing and by teaching His words.  Matthew 24 states that this Gospel of Jesus will be preached to all the nations, and then the end will come.  In today’s Gospel reading the end is described as “all the nations” gathered before Christ. “The brethren,” then, that Jesus refers to are clearly the apostles whom Jesus sent, and also all those after them who are in the apostolic office of the ministry, those whom Christ has given to baptize and preach the Gospel in His name in all the nations until the close of the age.

Already in Matthew 10 Jesus said to the disciples whom He sent out to preach, “He who receives you receives Me.”  Jesus had bound Himself to them so that their words were His words.  To welcome them was to welcome Christ Himself.  In fact, Jesus said, “Whoever gives one of these little ones [the least of these My brethren] only a cup of cold water because he is My disciple, I tell you the truth, he certainly will never lose his reward.”  That act of giving a cup of cold water was noteworthy not because it was a good work that merited anything but because it was a sign of faith, that the hearer believed the Gospel of Jesus which His brothers, the apostles, had spoken.

Jesus’ still says to His preachers and His missionaries, “He who receives you receives Me.”  For such men are called and ordained by Christ to be His representatives and ambassadors.  You know that when a pastor says, “I forgive you all your sins . . .” he is not speaking for himself but in the stead and by the command of Christ.  When he says, “This is My body,” that is not his voice but Christ’s.  The same thing is true of holy baptism.  Martin Luther said, “To be baptized in God’s name is to be baptized not by men but by God Himself.  Although it is performed by men’s hands, it is nevertheless truly God’s own act.”  The fellow whom Jesus uses to do that is really secondary; he’s covered up in robes to show that he represents not himself but the Lord.  To receive a brother of Jesus, then, a preacher of Christ, is to receive Christ Himself–not because of the merits of the minister but because Christ is truly present in the ministry of His words and sacraments for your salvation.

So let us consider again the scene in today’s Gospel: Jesus is seated on the throne of His glory for the final judgment.  All the nations are gathered before Him, all the nations to whom He sent His apostles and preachers to make disciples.  Jesus says, “I have sent to you My brethren, the messengers of the Gospel.  I have given them to be My mouth and hands, to speak My words and to shower on you My mercy and forgiveness and righteousness.  You on My right have received them and their message.  You have believed the Gospel, which was made known by your care for those who proclaimed it to you.  You may not have been aware of it, but whatever you did for these My brethren who acted in My stead, even the least of them, you did for Me.  But you on My left did not receive my preachers or their message.  You trusted in your own wisdom and works.  You did not believe the Gospel, which was made known by your failure to show any regard for those who proclaimed it.  You may not have been aware of it, but whatever you didn’t do for these My brethren who were acting faithfully on My behalf, you didn’t do for Me.”

That the brethren would be sick or hungry or naked or in prison was a very real possibility, particularly in the days of the apostles, though it certainly remains the case in every generation of this fallen and rebellious world.  Jesus told the 12, “I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.”  The Apostle Paul ended up in jail several times for his preaching.  He spoke of sometimes having plenty and sometimes being in want.  But He also gave thanks to God for those who received the Gospel and believed it faithfully, churches like the congregation in Philippi who on more than one occasion sent material aid to provide for his necessities.

So, you see, this passage is chiefly about those who embrace and those who reject the Gospel of Christ.  It’s not primarily a call to do works of mercy, though we very much need that reminder, too.  It’s ultimately about faith in the Gospel of Christ and the concrete signs of that faith, be it in a missionary or a congregational setting.  This faith is brought to perfection on the Last Day, when the sheep seem blissfully unaware of the things they have done.  For faith focuses not on one’s own deeds, but on the deeds of Christ.  “When did we do all these things?  All we did was believe the Gospel!”  Faith forgets itself that it may forever remember and retain Christ and His eternal gifts.

Our Lord Jesus won those gifts for you by becoming needy in your place.  He was weak and hungry in the wilderness.  On the cross He said, “I thirst.”  He Himself took your infirmities and bore your sicknesses in His own body on the tree.  He was treated like a stranger amongst His own people.  He put Himself into the bondage of your hellish prison so that He might burst the bars of your captivity from the inside out by His mighty resurrection.  Through Christ you are set free from death and the devil; you are released from your sins; you are cleansed and forgiven in Him.  He made Himself to be the least of the brethren so that you might receive the greatest of His mercies.  It is He who showed the truest and highest charity, paying with His own blood to redeem you, that you might live in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.  For Christ is risen from the dead; He lives and reigns to all eternity as your King and your Savior.

On the Last Day Jesus will certainly say these very words to you who believe, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  The Father has indeed blessed you by giving you the new birth of water and the Spirit into His heavenly family.  You are now His sons and daughters in Christ.  All that He has is yours.  Christ has given you to share in His everlasting inheritance.  And like any inheritance, it’s not yours because you’ve worked for it, but simply because you’ve been adopted into the family.  In fact, this inheritance was being prepared for you from the beginning of creation, before you were even around.  It’s all a gift, given to you through the merits of Christ.  Believe that Gospel.  Trust in that promise.  For just as Jesus will come on the Last Day with all His holy angels, so also He is here even now with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven to bring you His kingdom in the Sacrament of His body and blood.  Come, you blessed of the Father, receive the kingdom; receive the King.

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

Asleep in Jesus

I Thessalonians 4:13-18
Third Last Sunday in the Church Year

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

The Apostle Paul says to the Christians in Thessalonica, “I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep.”  In other words, Paul doesn’t want them to be unaware about what the future holds for the Christians there who have died.  The Thessalonians were eagerly expecting the return of Christ.  These converts, who had been turned away from their pagan idols to the true and living God, were taught by Paul to wait and look for God’s Son from heaven, the second coming of Jesus to save them from the final judgment.  In fact, so great was their anticipation of the Last Day that some of these Thessalonians were even forsaking their jobs and their daily work, expecting the return of Jesus to be at any moment.  In the verses right before today’s epistle, Paul had to remind the Christians in Thessalonica, “work with your own hands, as we commanded you.”  And again, “if a man is not willing to work, neither shall he eat.”

And along with this, another problem developed.  Some Thessalonians were unsure of what would happen to those Christians who died before the Last Day.  They saw Christ’s second coming as being right around the corner, and they wondered what would happen to their fellow believers who had passed away before that time.  Were they going to miss out on the blessings of Christ’s return if they weren’t alive in the body?  Many pagans of that time believed that once you died, that was the end of it for your body.  And so Paul says to them, “I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep.”  

But before we consider the teaching of Paul on this subject, we must first ask ourselves, how do we compare to these Thessalonian Christians?  What can we learn from them about ourselves?  We might be tempted to scoff at them a little bit.  “Those extremists, leaving their jobs to wait for the end.  How ridiculous!”  And yet, it seems to me that we can be guilty of the opposite error.  They may have forsaken their work to focus on Christ’s second coming, but we tend to forsake Christ’s second coming to focus on our work and the things of this world.  When is the last time you thought about Jesus’ return in a serious way?  The Scriptures command us to be prepared for it, to watch for it daily.  But we tend more eagerly to watch what’s happening with our money, or to watch our favorite shows and celebrities, or to set our eyes on politics or sports–my goodness, the never-ending sports.  While the Thessalonians did indeed carry things to an extreme, the fundamental point they had right:  we are always to be watching and preparing for the return of our Lord Jesus.  As we carry out the callings that God has given us, we are to lift our eyes and await the coming of the Son of God from heaven.  For each day could indeed be the Last Day of this world.

In the same way, we might be tempted to look down upon the Thessalonians’ lack of knowledge regarding those who have died in the faith–especially those who may have thought that you had to be alive in the body at Jesus’ return to experience His salvation.  And yet, again, we often make the opposite error.  We tend to give all our attention to the soul or the spirit while neglecting the fact that God also redeemed our bodies in Christ. We forget that the soul of a believer going to heaven is really only a temporary circumstance as we await the Last Day.  Our true and full hope regarding everlasting life is the resurrection of the body, the undoing of the curse of sin and death, the conquering of the grave.  The Word became flesh to save us in the flesh.

Paul speaks these words of God so that we will not grieve or sorrow as those who have no hope.  Most face death without any real hope, only uncertainty.  With no sure foundation they are left only with fear as life ebbs away.  Some may try to comfort themselves with all sorts of false hopes.  Some, for instance, believe in reincarnation, that once we depart these bodies in death, we will be reborn into new bodies in this world.  But that belief in reincarnation is simply a lie and an illusion.  For it says plainly in Hebrews 9, “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.”  The soul is the life of a particular body, a particular flesh-and-blood person, and it cannot simply hop around from one body to the next, regardless of what you see in the movies.  Soul and body are a unit, belonging uniquely to each other.  The only thing that rips them apart is death.

Others try to comfort themselves with the false hope that everyone goes to heaven, or to something like it, after death.  They deny the reality of hell for those who reject or ignore Christ or who keep Him at arms length and go their own way.  But the Scriptures are very clear on this.  Hell is real, and it is the destiny of every sinner who has not sought refuge in Christ, in His holy cross, in His words, His body and blood.  For only in Jesus is there deliverance from everlasting judgment.

So it is that Paul focuses our attention squarely on Christ.  The Epistle says, “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.”  Our hope is built surely and solely on what Christ has done for us.  He died and rose again.  Therefore, we who have been baptized into His body also die, for the sinful nature must finally be put to death, but we too will rise again to new life through the power of Christ’s resurrection.  For Christ is the head of the body, the Church.  Where the head goes the body must follow.

That’s why Paul refers to those Christians who have died as those who are asleep.  Believers who sleep in death will eventually awaken in the resurrection on the Last Day.  Therefore, it is quite fitting that places of burial are called “cemeteries,”  which comes from the Greek word, “to sleep.”  Many older and rural churches, you may know, had their cemeteries right next door, right on the property.  And for Easter, theses churches would often begin their services at the cemetery, the place where their fellow believers were asleep in Christ, and then process to the place of worship to celebrate the sure hope of the resurrection in Christ, the awakening to everlasting life.

Now this sleep refers only to the body and not to the soul.  The Bible makes it very clear that the spirits of the faithful who have died go to be with Christ in heaven.  Jesus said to the repentant thief on the cross, “Today, you will be with Me in Paradise.”  The soul does not sleep but is comforted in the presence of God as it awaits the Last Day and the fulfillment of all things.  Then at the close of the age, God will bring with Him the souls of His people to be raised from the dead in bodies that are new and immortal and imperishable.  In the resurrection, God’s people will share in the glory of Christ so that we will no longer experience sickness or sorrow or pain or death, but only the perfection of life that the Lord Jesus won for us.  It is written in 1 Corinthians, “The perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality . . .  Then the saying that is written will come true, ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’  Where, O death, is your victory; where, O death, is your sting? . . .  Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

This is why Christians throughout history never engaged in the practice of cremation.  While God can certainly resurrect even from our ashes, we never want to give the impression, especially to our unchurched family and friends, that God is done with the body, as if our only hope is for the soul, as if the resurrection of the body isn’t something real. Rather than speeding along the breakdown of the body with fire, we commend the body into God’s hands, the God who conquered the power of death for us.  The same God who created us from the dust in the beginning can certainly also resurrect and recreate us from the dirt into which our casket has been planted and raise our renewed bodies to live in the awesomeness of His very presence.  Since we believe in creation, we also believe in our recreation and resurrection through Christ, who “will change our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body.”

It is on this basis of the certainty of the resurrection that Paul offers comfort to the Thessalonians regarding their brethren who died.  He says, “This we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep.”  In other words, those Christians who are alive at Christ’s second coming will not be the first to experience the effects of His return; rather those who have gone before us in the faith will.  Departed Christians are not at a disadvantage when it comes to the Last Day, and therefore, Paul says, you need not sorrow over them as if they’ll miss out on something when Christ comes again.  First, the dead will be raised, then the living will be changed and made new, though this will all happen with instantaneous speed.  It is written in I Corinthians, “Behold, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed–in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.  For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”  That is the hope which Christ has given you in the face of death.

“The Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God.  And the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.  And thus we shall always be with the Lord.”  Some have tried to say that this refers to some sort of rapture that will occur before the Last Day, where some are caught up and others are left behind.  But that is a false teaching.  Being caught up to meet the Lord in the air is a reference to our sharing in Jesus’ victory over the devil, who Scripture refers to as the “prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2).   This is the visible, final return of our Lord at the close of the age, when Satan will be cast down forever and we shall bodily be raised up forever.  And we shall always be with the Lord, sharing in and reflecting God’s perfect goodness and beauty and truth, all to His glory and honor and praise.

Until then, do not become impatient, like those who engaged in the idolatry of the golden calf.  But rather wait on the Lord Jesus and His timing.  And do not become complacent like those in the days of Noah and Lot, but rather devote yourself to the Lord’s Word and His Supper.  Comfort one another at times of death not simply with generic hopes of “a better place,” but with the concrete truth that the resurrection of the body is coming.  For the day is near when Jesus will be visibly revealed like the lightning that lights up the heavens, and He will bring your salvation to its fulfillment.

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

Paralyzed No More

“Paralyzed No More”
Mark 2:1-12

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

The man on the mat was paralyzed.  His legs didn’t work at all; perhaps his arms didn’t work so well, either.  He couldn’t move or get Himself anywhere.  He was stuck.  He’s a picture of all of us in one way or another, sooner or later.  To one degree or another we feel the paralyzing effects of sin’s curse in our physical health.  Our bodies are wearing down.  The legs don’t work like they used to.  We will all know the full effects of paralysis in death.  

And there are other aspects to it beside the physical ones.  Many people whose bodies are just fine still find themselves paralyzed and immobilized–by fear and uncertainty, by hopelessness and despair of God’s help.  They’re stuck and can barely move.  Sin can paralyze us that way, too.  Instead of boldly confessing our faith and loving our neighbor, we fear what’s going to happen to us or what others will think of us, and so we just do nothing and stay in our safe zones.  Or we’re trapped in bad habits and addictions that enslave us, that keep us in bondage, turned in on ourselves instead of outward, leading lives of faith and love.  We must all confess that we are like that man on the mat needing Jesus’ help.

The paralytic was carried by four of his friends to Jesus.  In the same way, we can’t we move one step toward God by our own power or reason or strength; we’re immobilized by sin and death.  We must be carried, like babies brought to baptism, or like the people you might invite and bring to church or to adult instruction class to hear the healing and life-giving Word of Christ.  You wouldn’t say to a paralyzed man lying on the ground, “You need to get yourself to a doctor, son.”  Neither should you say to a fallen sinner, “You need to find your own way to Jesus. You need to give your heart to the Lord and decide to follow Him.”  No, we all need help from outside of us.  That’s why it’s so important for you to provide that help by speaking the words of Christ and getting people to Jesus who are paralyzed and immobilized in sin.

The four men who help the paralytic picture for us the four evangelists, the four Gospel writers–Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John–who carry us to Christ through their accounts of His life and words.  It is only through the preached Gospel of Christ that we receive the help that we truly need.

And we see here that what we need is often different than what we think it is.  It is written that Jesus sees their faith, their determined trust in Him that ignored the crowd and that was literally willing to go through the roof to get to Him, and He does a rather surprising thing.  He says to the man on the mat, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”  He absolves him.  Do you think that’s what the four friends had in mind when they took such great risks to get their friend to Jesus?  An absolution?  Not very likely.  They were expecting a healing, a miracle.  They were hoping Jesus would lay His hands on their friend and say the healing word and their friend was going to walk home.  I wonder if, at this point, they were feeling a little bewildered and disappointed.  And besides, isn’t Jesus embarrassing the paralytic by implying that He needs forgiveness, making an example of him in front of everyone, blaming the victim?  Some people might say that Jesus’ words were almost cruel.

I think that’s why many people today are a little bit bewildered and disappointed and maybe even a bit offended with what happens in church and in the liturgy.  People are looking for advice, for something practical that can help them out right now and make their life better in this world, for spiritual and emotional excitement, for something out of the ordinary and supernatural.  But what’s the main thing that happens here each week?  Well, for one thing, we start off the service with the confession of sins–there’s a great way to welcome people–you poor, miserable sinners.  And then Jesus comes to you and says to you–not just once but several times in several ways–“I forgive you all of your sins.”  

“But I have problems,” we say.  “I know that. Your sins are forgiven.”  “But I need answers.”  “No you don’t. Just ask Job. You need mercy.. Your sins are forgiven.”  “My life’s a mess. Don’t you have a program or something?”  “I don’t deal in programs. Just death and resurrection. Your sins are forgiven.”  “How about a miracle? I could sure use a miracle!” “You already have it. Your sins are forgiven.” (Cwirla)  Though we don’t always see it, forgiveness is the best and most practical gift our Lord can give.  For it addresses not just our perceived needs, but our real and deeper needs.

We don’t often recognize that Jesus performed His greatest miracle first in this story, when he absolved the paralytic.  The healing was marvelous and wonderful.  But the forgiveness went right to the heart of the matter and gave the paralyzed man an eternal blessing.  Jesus asked the question, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say ‘Arise, take up your bed, and walk’?”  Though it may not seem like it, it’s actually harder to forgive sins (in the fullest sense of the word the way Jesus does), because forgiveness involves both soul and body.  It’s possible to cure the body but not the soul.  Doctors can restore the body temporarily while the inward curse of death remains.  We still haven’t gotten to the root of the problem.  But forgiveness does.

Forgiveness is harder because it requires the cross.  There is a price to be paid to purchase this healing, the price of our Lord's body sacrificed in your place and His blood shed to redeem you and His soul tormented that you might be set free from death and hell.  Jesus became paralyzed with your sin, helpless, immobile as He was nailed to the cross.  He was then carried and lowered into the depths of the grave on your behalf to break its power over you.  But He also would arise and walk so that you would rise with Him in the body to life that is free from disease and paralysis and heartache and pain.  It is all of this and more that Jesus is declaring to you when He says, “Your sins are forgiven.”  You are loosed from them, released, set free.  They’re not your burden anymore.  Jesus took them and answered for them, and that’s the end of the story.  Let your conscience be clear.  Jesus’ words to the paralytic and to you aren’t cruel.  They may be humbling when He speaks real, life-giving forgiveness to your real, deadly sins.  But this is in fact the greatest gift that He can give to you and the only source of lasting comfort.  God is not angry with you.  You need not be angry with Him for whatever it is you have to endure.  Be at peace.  All is well in Jesus.

In order to show that His absolution was real, Jesus does go on to perform the more visibly obvious miracle.  He looks down at the paralyzed man lying there on his stretcher and says, “Arise, take your bed, and go to your house.”  Jesus’ words do what they say.  The man arose, and immediately he took his pallet within sight of a whole house full of people walked out.  And the people were astonished and glorified God.  “We’ve never seen anything like this.”  It was just a small foretaste of the astonishment that the disciples would have at the resurrection of Jesus Himself, when people like Thomas, who had never seen anything like it before, would kneel and say of the risen Jesus, “My Lord and My God!”  That’s how the world knows for certain that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.  He got up and walked out of His tomb three days after He died to pay for your sins.

Our Lord Jesus is still alive to bring you His healing forgiveness at His table.  Here is the remedy that heals you, the medicine of immortality, the living body and blood of Jesus given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins, to enliven you and make you whole.  Here is the gate of heaven, where you commune with God.  Surely God is in this place, and like Jacob, you have been given to know it.  Here you partake of Him who is the Life in the flesh, who incorporates your bodies into His own, and who will therefore raise you from the grave just as He was raised.

So be of good cheer.  You are paralyzed no more.  Christ has spoken to you His words of life. You are forever free.  Your sins are forgiven you.  And where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation and the resurrection of the body.

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

Do Not Worry About Tomorrow

Matthew 6:24-34
Trinity 15

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

We live in an anxious world, don’t we.  Most of us, I think, have the sense that things are not as stable and sure as they used to be.  A lot of it has to do with COVID and how that has upended virtually every single aspect of our lives. Then there’s the news media which seem to have as one of their purposes to make you fearful and anxious about something, especially your health and safety. We’re anxious about the economy and finances and prices going up and job stuff.  With not enough people working for various reasons, those of you who are working are often stressed from being overworked.  As we pass the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we’re anxious about international threats and political division and governing officials who don’t exactly instill confidence, while our nation’s position in the world declines.  We’re anxious about loved ones who struggle with various needs, about what the future holds for our children and grandchildren.  We’re anxious about the church and how she will survive in an increasingly hostile culture.  

Into all of this, Jesus comes today with the words, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” That sounds a little bit odd to our ears.  Some would say it’s irresponsible.  At the very least, most people would say it’s a little quaint or naive in today’s world.  But Jesus’ words stand.  He doesn’t back down.  He says, “Look at the birds of the air, for they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?  Which of you by worrying can add a single hour to the span of his life?”  

Now some of you might be thinking about this analogy that Jesus draws.  If you’re a bird watcher, you know they work very hard to make a living. They spend a good portion of their waking hours looking for food.  Jesus knew that too. So the point is not that you should be apathetic and lazy and just sit back and not work.  The point is that sparrows do not worry about the future like we do.  They feel no urge to try to foresee the future.  They work hard and sing, and then they nest down for the night, but they do not worry.  They are provided for by their Creator.  And if your heavenly Father takes care of them, how much more will He take care of you who are of much greater value, you who are created in the image of God?

Jesus is saying here that worry is a symptom of a spiritual problem.  Worry is the opposite of faith and prayer.  Worry is what we do when we doubt that God is really in control or when we aren’t sure that He actually cares and is paying attention.  And so we try to take over His job with our worrying and anxiety.  We think it all depends on us and our plans and our managing of the situation, that it’s all in our hands.  When we’re worrying, we aren’t trusting in Him, are we.  When we’re worrying, usually we’re trying to control what is ultimately uncontrollable.

Unbelief worries, but faith prays.  Faith doesn’t deny that there are real problems to deal with; it doesn’t pretend everything will be all rosy if we just try to stay positive.  But faith knows that in the end, everything is in God’s hands, not ours.  And so it looks to Him for help and deliverance  and mercy, confident that He will work all things together for our good just as He has promised us.  By faith we trust in the Scriptures which say, “If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare His own Son but delivered Him up for us all [on the cross], how will He not also with Him freely give us all things that we need?”  Jesus Himself says, “Come to Me all you who are weary and burdened [and anxious], and I will give you rest.”  

So don’t doubt but trust that your lives are in the Lord’s hands and that He will care for you according to His gracious will, even when it seems like you’re getting to the breaking point.  Do not engage in worry but in prayer.  Worry produces stress, but prayer produces peace.  For it dwells upon the sure words and promises of God.

Prayer says such things as, “Father in heaven, you know all the things I need, even before I ask for them.  You feed the birds of the air, and not one of them falls to the ground apart from your will.  Help me to trust that I am more valuable in your sight than the birds and that you will feed and sustain me even in the midst of my troubles.  And dear Father, you splendidly clothe the lilies of the field, even though they are little more than the grass.  Give me to believe that you will also clothe me and take care of me.  Keep me from worrying about tomorrow, and give me a thankful heart for the gifts you give day by day, my daily bread, and everything that is necessary to support this body and life.  The world is passing away, but your Word of mercy and life will never pass away.  It will save and sustain me forever.”

Faith prays in that way because of what Jesus has done.  For He is the One who made us children of the heavenly Father.  Remember, Scripture says that we're not children of God by nature but children of wrath.  But in Christ we're brought into the family as God's children.  In order that we would be delivered from a world that is falling apart and winding down to its end, the eternal Son of God entered into this fallen world as one of us, as our brother.  Jesus took upon Himself the curse that our sin has brought on creation.  All the deterioration and the degeneration and the death He endured for us on the cross.  In so doing, Jesus caused death itself to die.  Jesus destroyed the sin that makes everything only momentary and impermanent.  In Christ it is written, “The old order of things has passed away . . .  Behold, I make all things new.”  Jesus came forth from the grave in power, bringing with Him a new creation that will never deteriorate or fall or perish, for death no longer has dominion over Him.

Trusting in Jesus, knowing all that He has done and prepared for us, our worries and fears are calmed.  For if God has provided so bountifully for our eternal needs, certainly He will care for us in all the necessities of this temporal life. And even when the hard times do come, even if it’s all taken away and God’s care seems to have vanished, we know that we who are His chosen, baptized people are not forsaken.  We believe that even when terror and tragedy, sickness and death come, He who created us can and will also recreate us in the resurrection of the body on the Last Day.  So literally nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ.  And if we have Christ, then we have everything; for all things belong to Him, and in Him all things hold together.  That’s how Job could say in His suffering, in the loss of his property and his loved ones, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  “Though He giveth or He taketh, God His children ne’er forsaketh.”

“Do no worry about your life,” Jesus says.  Work hard, yes.  Plan ahead, certainly.  But don’t worry.  You’re not an atheist who thinks that we’re just drifting aimlessly through space, completely vulnerable to the random changes and chances of life.  You’re not an agnostic who doesn’t know who God is, whether he loves you or hates you.  You’re children of the heavenly Father, who has loved you to the point of giving you His own Son with all of His righteousness as a gift.  

Today with His words, Jesus is inviting you to trust–and it’s not a blind trust in fate or invisible forces or the universe—but trust in the one true God who loves you, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Nothing else can save you–not your busy schedules and feverish activity, not all your righteous works, not your investment portfolio and comprehensive insurance.  Nothing can save you other than His grace, His suffering and death for you and for your salvation.  Martin Luther once wrote: “Cast your worries upon God’s back, for God has a strong neck and strong shoulders.  He can easily carry the load.  Moreover, he has commanded us to commit our cares to Him, and loves it when we do.” 

To assure you of this, the Father who gives you your daily bread now feeds you with Jesus’ very body and blood under the bread and the wine for the forgiveness of your sins.  The Father who clothes you and cares for your body robes you in the white garment of Christ’s righteousness in your baptism.  It is because of that certainty of who we are in Christ that we take to heart the words of Philippians 4, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”

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

The Martyrdom of John the Baptist

Mark 6:14-29

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

Before John the Baptizer was born, the angel said that he would go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah.  Elijah was one who confronted kings and called them to repentance.  That’s how it was also with John the Baptist.  He was jailed for daring to criticize King Herod Antipas and telling him that it was not lawful for him to take his brother’s wife as his own.

This King Herod Antipas was the son of the infamous Herod the Great, who murdered not only several of his own sons to preserve his throne, but who also tried to assassinate the very Son of God Himself in His infancy in the massacre of the Holy Innocents at Bethlehem.  Herod Antipas would carry on his father’s murderous ways.  Though he was already married, he had taken up with Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Philip.  To add to the royal sleaze, Herodias was also his niece, the daughter of another sibling.  King Herod was imprisoned to his desires–his desire for power and prestige and dominance over his brother, his sexual desire for this woman.

And so John the Baptist preached the truth to Herod, telling him that he was committing adultery by doing this.  Herodias’ hated John for this, and she wanted him dead.  But interestingly, it seems that King Herod himself knew that John was a just and holy man.  He feared John and didn’t wish to harm him.  Today’s Gospel reading says that, surprisingly, Herod heard John gladly.  It’s not unlike those today who know that Christian teaching is good, that Christian morality is right, who may even be willing to talk with a pastor about religion.  But they just can’t bring themselves to actually embrace the faith and leave behind worldly ways.  They resist repentance and refuse to let go of their favorite sins.  God save us from such a hypocritical hearing of His Word, where we listen to it willingly but then refuse to repent and believe it and live by it.

Herod had put John the Baptist in prison–in part to protect John from his wife Herodias.  Jesus was well aware of what was happening to His forerunner.  Soon after John was imprisoned,  Jesus said about him, “Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.”  John no doubt knew what awaited him.  After all, from the time he baptized Jesus, he had proclaimed that Jesus was the Lamb of God, the Lamb destined for sacrifice.  If John was the forerunner who prepared the way for Jesus, that meant that he would go ahead on the way the Lord Himself would travel, the way of suffering and death.  John knew it wouldn’t end well for him in this world.  He said of Jesus, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”   John had now decreased to the point of living in a dungeon, soon to perish.  But even in prison, remember how Jesus sent John’s disciples to him with this comforting message, “Go and tell John that the dead are raised up, and the poor have the good news preached to them.”  Even behind bars John is not forgotten or forsaken by the Lord.

King Herod knows that John is a man of God.  But Herod gets himself ensnared by the salacious dancing of Herodias’ daughter from her previous marriage.  The lust of his eyes and his groin draw him to do something truly foolish, to offer the young dancing woman anything she wants, up to half the kingdom.  We may mock the silliness of what he says and does here.  But don’t our sinful desires also lead us to do ridiculous and foolish things?  Haven’t you ever looked back on something in your life after the fact and said to yourself, “What was I thinking? What have I done?”  And regarding Herod’s particular sin here, how many today have threatened their marriages and their families and gotten themselves ensnared by the salaciousness of pornography with all the corruptions it brings?  How many who know better still indulge themselves with adulterous flirtations and even affairs with co-workers and friends?  All such things are the way of death.

And then, when Herodias finally has the chance to get her revenge on John, when her daughter comes back with the request for John the Baptist’s head on a platter, why did King Herod go through with it?  He didn’t want to do it; he was exceedingly sorry he made the offer.  He realized how stupid he had been.  But, it is written, “because of those who sat with him, he did not want to refuse her.”  In other words, he preferred pretending like he was a man of his word instead of honoring the Word of God.  He cared more about looking good in front of his friends than he did about doing what was good in the sight of God.  

Is that not often our problem?  We want everyone to think we’re better than we really are.  Too often we’re so much more concerned about pleasing others than we are about pleasing God.  What God thinks takes second place to what people think.  And so we end up compromising and acting against our consciences and what we know to be right.  

Let us, then, listen to the preaching of John and repent.   For the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.  The hour of salvation is now.  For despite your self-justifying and posturing, the truth is that the Lord still desires to save you and to have you with Himself.  The truth is that He kept the Law in your place and died the death of the unrighteous in order to make you a righteous person. The truth is that in Him your conscience is cleansed, your soul is spotless and pure as new-fallen snow–all of it accomplished by His steadfast and unfailing love for you.  

Herod tried to use John’s death to make himself look good and cover up his foolishness.  But the death of Jesus actually does cover your foolishness and your sin; the shedding of the blood of Christ actually does declare you to be good and holy in the sight of God.  That’s who you are now by faith in Him.

Remember that Jesus, too, stood before this same King Herod.  Herod was in town for the Passover during Holy Week.  Pontius Pilate sent Jesus to Herod for questioning.  The king had gladly received John, but Jesus doesn’t get the same treatment.  When Jesus wouldn’t perform any miracles for Herod or answer any of his questions, Herod and his men mock Jesus and dress Him up in a gorgeous robe as some sort of fake royalty and send Him back to Pilate.  

So Herod had a hand in the deaths of the two greatest men who ever lived.  Again Jesus had said, “Among those born of women there has not arisen any greater than John the Baptist.”  “Nevertheless,” Jesus continued, “He who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”  Our Lord Jesus made Himself dead last and utterly least in the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus became the lowest of the low and the Servant of all in order to save us.  John’s death was quick and relatively painless, but the death of Jesus dragged on for hours under torture–torture that He bore in order to redeem His torturers, people like Herod and Pilate, like you and me, and the entire fallen world.  John’s disciples manfully came forward to collect his decapitated body and bury it in a tomb.  But Jesus’ disciples fled, and it was left to Joseph of Arimathea to bury the Savior in a borrowed tomb.  Truly, Jesus went to the lowest depths for us and for our salvation.  That is why He is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, with the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow.  He alone is King of kings.

Let us, then, learn to live and die as John did, always with Christ in view.  When you face death, whether from ordinary causes or at the hands of an enemy enslaved to his passions, let the words which Jesus spoke to John ring in your ears, “The dead are raised up, and the poor have the Gospel preached to them.”  In the end our enemies can only do us good.  For John was mercifully removed from the shallow world of lies and vanity.  He was brought early to the perfect gladness that Christ won for him.  John, who leaped for joy in his mother’s womb in the presence of Jesus, now is born into eternal life and leaps joyfully in heaven where the Lord is present forever before his face.  Though sometimes our cry is “How long, O Lord?” still we are able smile at an enemy like death.  For the Lord brings good out of that evil so that we are drawn into his nearer presence, where we wait for the day of vindication and the resurrection of the body.  

So let us be like John, full of courage and zeal, willing to decrease all the way unto death so that Christ might increase and be all in all for us.  For that is your calling in baptism.  The Epistle said it: “Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?”  Dying to our passions and to our love of the approval of others, we are raised with Christ to live a new life, a life that bears witness to Him who is our life.  That is what many Afghani Christians are doing right now.  Reports have come out of Afghanistan that they are requesting prayers not primarily to be rescued–since that’s unlikely for most–but especially that they may remain faithful to Christ in the face of the threat of death for themselves and their children.  As it was for John, and for our Lord Jesus, so it also remains for the church today.  We pray that we may take Christ’s words to heart, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

One last thing: what do you think John’s disciples did after he was buried?  They did what John had taught them to do; they went to Jesus and followed Him.  And that’s what we do, too.  If John was the forerunner, then we are the afterrunners, following after the One John pointed to as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  We go the altar of our Lord, where a very different sort of dinner party is prepared, a true Kingly feast where He bestows upon us not just half but the fullness of His kingdom, where He lavishes His mercy and forgiveness upon us with His sacrificial body and blood, where He gives us to reign with Him as kings and priests.  In the confidence and assurance of what Christ gives to us here, we say “Let the world hate us, mock us, even kill us if the Lord wills it.  It harms us none.  Baptized into Jesus, we are sons of God in whom He is well-pleased and whom He will never forsake.  For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection.”  

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