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Sight for the Blind

Luke 18:31-43

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

    The disciples in today’s Gospel don’t seem to be very bright.  Jesus takes them aside and gives them a heads-up, spelling out for them exactly what’s about to happen: They are going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus will be mocked and insulted and spit upon and scourged and killed.  And the third day He will rise again.  It couldn’t be laid out much more clearly than that.  But the disciples aren’t able to see or understand it.  It doesn’t fit in with their way of thinking about Jesus, and so it goes right over their heads.  The disciples clearly don’t get it.

    Let this be a warning to us all.  For if it could happen to them when they were right there in the visible presence of Jesus, it can also happen to us.  We shouldn’t look at them and say “How foolish!”  We should rather look at ourselves with some godly fear and humility and ask, “What is it that I don’t get?  What is it about Jesus or about myself that I’m blind to?”  The fact of the matter is that in our fallen condition, we are all spiritually blind.  Our vision is clouded and darkened to the truth, even though it might be sitting there right in front of us.  null

    First, without the clear mirror of God’s Law, we don’t see our own sin rightly.  We know we have a few flaws and problems, but we’re blind to how utterly deep the corruption goes in us, and how it taints everything about us.  We can see it a little better in others, all the issues that everyone else has whom we live and work with.  But the justifications and excuses we make for ourselves inevitably obscure our vision and block a clear self-diagnosis.  

    And perhaps even worse, apart from the clear proclamation of the Gospel, we don't see Jesus rightly.  He gets turned into some other figure whom we can fit into our agendas–the Messiah who’s on our side in political causes, the guru who helps us to cope and live a happier lifestyle, the guide who provides the example for how we can make ourselves righteous, the coach who helps us to get where we want to be.  You can tell you have a false Jesus, though, when He’s only a means to an end.  In the Bible, Jesus is the end–He’s the goal; He’s everything that we’re seeking.  He is Himself the Truth and the Life.  He’s not merely our guide to lead us somewhere greater.  For there is nowhere greater than fellowship with God in Christ.

    So as we ponder today’s Gospel, let us remember what we confess in the Catechism about the 3rd article of the Creed, “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.  But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts ("enlightened" means that He’s given light to our eyes so that we can rightly see), sanctified and kept me in the truth faith.”  If we do have proper vision about ourselves and about Jesus, it’s entirely a gift of God’s grace by His Word and Spirit.  Remember this, too, as you talk about the faith with others, particularly if they seem to be a little bit unclear and unable to understand what you’re saying.  Have patience; for only the Holy Spirit can open their eyes.
    In today’s Gospel, the one who sees Jesus best of all is actually the blind man.  And so we must learn to become more like that beggar on the side of the road–empty-handed before God, with nothing to give Him that He should accept us, desiring the vision that only He can impart.

    The blind man heard a great crowd passing by and asked what it all meant.  When they told him that Jesus of Nazareth was with them, the blind man cried out and shouted with a loud voice, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  Notice how that prayer showed that the blind man already had faith in Jesus.  The term “Son of David” is a title for the Messiah.  This blind man had certainly heard about the things Jesus had said and done prior to this.  The blind man believed that Word he had heard.  His ears were his eyes.  Seeing Jesus would not have helped the blind man believe in Him.  For faith comes by hearing.  Even without earthly sight, the blind man could see that Jesus was the Promised One.  He believed that Jesus could heal him; even more, he believed that Jesus was the Christ, who had come to redeem His people.  

    “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  This is our prayer, too.  “Let us pray to the Lord: Lord, have mercy.”  “O Christ the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.”  This is your go-to prayer.  For it covers almost every situation possible.  When you see someone in trouble or acting foolishly, you can pray for them simply by saying, “Lord, have mercy.”  When you yourself are in trouble or need, when you’re about to go into surgery, when a relationship is on the rocks or you don’t know how you’re going to pay the bills, you can pray, “Lord, have mercy on me.”  Even when everything’s going great for you, you’re healthy and prosperous, after your prayers of thanksgiving, it is still good to pray “Lord, have mercy on me” lest you fall into complacency and spiritual laziness or pride and self-congratulation.  Let this prayer be a regular part of the conversation of your heart, so that in the hour of death you may confidently say, “Lord, have mercy,” and know that He will.  His mercy is everything for you.

    Now the crowds here don’t much like this prayer of the blind man.  They warn him that he should shut up.  It’s impolite.  He’s being annoying, crying out that way.  It’s like those people who think it’s fine that you’re a Christian, as long as you keep it a purely private matter.  “I don’t care what you believe, as long as it doesn’t bother me.”  But when the exercise of your faith goes against the flow of their desires and plans, or when the confession of your faith becomes a nuisance to them, that’s when people start telling you to shut up and pipe down and don’t carry things so far.

    However, faith is stubborn and persistent.  Faith won’t let anything get in the way of life in Jesus or prayer to Him.  Faith doesn’t care what people think or what they will say, because it seeks a gift infinitely greater than worldly approval.  Faith is not ashamed and will not be silenced.  And so the blind man cries out all the more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

    And notice this wonderful statement in the Gospel.  When the blind man speaks these words, it is written that “Jesus stood still.”  This prayer goes directly to His ears.  It stops Him in His tracks.  It turns Him around and draws His undivided attention.  Isn’t that marvelous!?  Jesus stood still.  He doesn’t mind that proper decorum has been breached.  At the sound of this prayer, Jesus commands that the blind man be brought to Him.  

    And He asks him, “What do you want Me to do for you?”  Now why would He ask that?  Doesn’t He already know?  Of course He does.  God knows what you need even before you ask Him.  In fact, He knows your needs better than you do.  But He asks anyway in order that the blind man may exercise his faith with a specific prayer.  The general prayer, “Lord, have mercy” opens up a whole world of particular prayers and requests.  Jesus also wants to hear the specifics of your lives. He wants to hear from you in your own voice what is on your mind and heart. He wants you to verbalize your desires, like a little child learning to speak to his father and use his words to ask for help.  In verbalizing your prayers, they become concrete and focused.  Prayer is one of the primary ways in which you exercise your faith, that you may learn to look to the Lord for all that you need and see that every good gift comes from His hand.

    In response to Jesus’ question, the blind man answers, “Lord, that I may receive my sight.”  Jesus says to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.”  And immediately he can see.  The blind man’s eyes are opened, and the first sight that he sees is the face of His Savior.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”  The blind man’s heart is pure, for it trusts in Jesus who alone is pure.  Through this faith he is made well; he sees God.

    Now this doesn’t mean that if God doesn’t give you 20/20 vision when you ask for it, then you don’t have enough faith.  It's best not to focus on your believing, but on the One you're believing in.  Faith in Jesus receives everything as a gift, not as a demand that He has to fulfill.  Sometimes God says “no” to what we ask for because he wants to teach us patience or make room for greater gifts.  Sometimes He knows that what we are asking for will harm us and endanger our salvation.  We can’t know the mind of God ahead of time.  So we pray trusting that Jesus will hear our prayers and do what is truly best for us.

    Like all of Jesus’ miracles, this healing wasn’t just talk or an easy wave of the hands. It cost Him his life on the cross. There Jesus won healing and restoration for us all by bearing our physical ailments and infirmities, our sin and pain and sorrow, suffering them all to death in His holy body.  And He shares that miracle with all who cry out to Him in beggar faith.  Jesus hung on a cross in the darkness, blinded by death, in order to bring healing and the light of His resurrection to the world.

    Know, then, that the Lord hears your prayers, even when they seem to go unanswered.  Ultimately they have all been answered “yes” in Jesus’ dying and rising.  For now we walk by faith in that truth; but on the Last Day our faith will turn to sight, just like the man in the Gospel.  For on the Last Day every bodily disorder and disability will done away with–from failing vision to poor hearing, from arthritis to paralysis, from heart disease to cancer; sin and death will be eradicated completely, and the Great Physician will raise you bodily to share in His own glory and life.  

    When the blind man received his sight, he followed Jesus on the road to Jerusalem and the cross.  As we prepare to enter Lent, then, let us follow Jesus, too, and walk with Him on the way of sacrificial love.  And let us also remember what happened afterwards on that first Easter evening.  The Emmaus disciples walked the road with Jesus and talked with Him without recognizing Him, blind to who He was.  But when Jesus broke bread with them, then He was no longer hidden to their eyes.  So it is also now.  Here your eyes are opened, and Jesus is made known to you in the breaking of the bread.  His body and blood are given and shed for you.  His forgiveness covers your past and your former blindness.  When the final Easter comes, you will hear Him say to you, “Your faith has saved you; receive your sight.”  And then you, too, will behold the face of God.

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

The Seed is the Word

Luke 8:4-15

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

    In order to understand a parable fully and rightly, you need to know why it is that Jesus told it.  His parables were almost always addressing some particular circumstance or event.  For instance, Jesus doesn’t tell the parable of the Good Samaritan just to give a nice moral teaching but to humble a self-righteous lawyer.  Or He tells the parable of the Prodigal Son in response to the self-righteous Pharisees who were grumbling about Him eating with tax collectors and sinners.

    And the same thing is true about today’s Gospel parable.  Jesus tells it, in part, in order to warn against pride and self-righteousness in His own disciples.  It is written here that a great multitude had gathered around Jesus and that people had come to Him from every city.  Everyone had heard about Him and wanted to see Him.  And so Jesus tells this parable to make something clear, especially to the twelve.  They might have been getting a little puffed up, thinking that this was going to be just one big victory procession, everything seemed to be going so well.  Jesus tells a parable that gives a dose of reality.  He says that there are four possible outcomes to the hearing of the Word, and only one of them is good.  For three out of four hearers, the Word of God comes to no effect.  The apostles are going to experience more failure than success, more rejection than acceptance in the long run.  They shouldn’t be fooled by the large crowds coming out to see Jesus.  Big numbers don’t mean anything.  Not all of them were believers.null  

    In fact, remember that there actually came a point in Jesus’ own ministry when the crowds stopped following Him; all He had left were the 12 disciples, and even one of them would turn away from Him and betray Him.  After the feeding of the 5000, Jesus had been teaching how the bread that He would give for the life of the world was His flesh, and how His flesh was real food and His blood was real drink (John 6:55).  That was too hard for the people to accept; Jesus went from 5000+ down to only 12 followers.  Finally Jesus asked the 12, “Do you also want to go away?”  Peter replied in those familiar words, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

    And that’s where we can find some comfort, especially in this little flock called Mt. Zion.  When everything is going great in terms of numbers, we can be tempted to self–absorbed pride; when things are going poorly in terms of numbers, we can be tempted to self-absorbed despair.  But what we must finally cling to in both cases is not outward signs of success, but the sure promise that the Word of Christ is living and powerful to fulfill its purpose.  Sometimes the purpose of the Word is to reveal the unbelieving heart. That’s why we have those unsettling words in the Gospel, when it says that Jesus spoke in parables so that, “seeing, they may not see, and hearing, they may not understand.”  Blindness and deafness to the Word unveils God’s judgment.  But above all, the Word of God is sent to give life and joy to us descendants of Adam created from the dirt.  God said through the prophet Isaiah, “(My word that goes forth from My mouth) shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.”

    The going forth of God’s Word is like the scattering of seed on all different kinds of soil.  God scatters the seed of His Word recklessly, freely, even on places where there seems little hope of a harvest.  For in His love He desires all to be saved.  The Lord’s Word is alive with His Spirit to give life even to the worst of soils.

    First, like the hardened, foot-worn path, some people become hardened to the Word of God.  Perhaps they’ve been “walked all over” in their lives, mistreated, abused.  Or they’ve been pressed down and wearied by the struggles and difficulties of life.  They say, “Where has God been for me?  Why should I even listen to His Word?”  Or Satan has pressed and hardened some with his lies about the Word as being untrustworthy, or that it’s foolish superstition, or that it’s all just a power play by church bureaucrats to manipulate people.  And so the Word goes in one ear and out the other, like seed bouncing off a dirt road. The birds of the air snatch it away–which is a reminder of that passage which describes the devil as the prince of the power of the air.  Think of all the stuff that flies across our airwaves which seeks to counter the truth of God’s Word.  For the first group, then, the Word doesn’t penetrate the heart and bear fruit and do what it has the power to do.

    Be on guard, therefore, against inattentive and unserious listening to the Word of God.  Martin Luther once wrote that the third commandment is not only violated by those who don’t come to church each week as the commandment requires, but it is also violated by those who do come to church, but only from force of habit or out of compulsion, who listen to it like they would listen to entertainment, and then who leave church no different than when they came in.  On the other hand, Luther said, “when we seriously ponder the Word, hear it, and put it to use, such is its power that it never departs without fruit. It always awakens new understandings, pleasure, and devotion, and it constantly creates clean hearts and minds. For the Word is not idle or dead, but effective and living.”

    In the second instance, in the planting of the Seed on the rocky soil, there’s the listening that hears and rejoices, believes and thanks God, and yet it’s only a shallow, good-times faith. When the bad-times come along–and they always do sooner or later–the person lets go of the Word and their faith withers and dies. One of the purposes of hearing the Word regularly is to store up in your heart and mind those passages that will see you through the hard times with your faith intact. The Word has the power to do it, if we don’t let it go. So often this happens when tragedy comes–people stop going to church, stop listening to the Word, and then they’re surprised when their faith grows weaker and weaker and finally dies. Remember: faith is never something you can keep alive inside yourself. It only comes from hearing and holding the Word of God.

    Next, our Lord reminds us that even folks who listen to the Word, can still lose it, if they let it get crowded out of their lives by the thorns.  Jesus says these are the cares, riches, and pleasures of life–which is odd because usually when you think of thorns, you think of something that’s painful, something that hurts.  And yet the thorns Jesus mentions include riches and pleasures, things which seem to be the opposite of pain!  But experience teaches that Jesus’ words are true.  For, in fact, the things that often promise us the most pleasure bring us the most pain.  The things of this world  give a temporary happiness but leave us with a lasting sadness and emptiness if they are what we set out hearts on.  These thorns can sedate us into apathy and cause a choking of the Word of God, squeezing it into an ever smaller place in our lives until in the end we don’t really hear it at all.

    And then our Lord reminds us that it is possible to hear His Word in such a way that it bears abundant fruit. He describes those hearts that hear and hold fast the Word as honest and good.  How did those hearts get to be honest and good?  Not of themselves.  All of us are by nature the first three soils.  Only the Word and Holy Spirit of God has the power to till up and clear the soil and renew our hearts.  If, as the Apostle says, faith in Jesus is what purifies the heart, and faith comes by hearing the Word of God, then our hearts will be “honest and good” in no other way than by that Word making its home inside of us, and creating in us a clean heart–the heart of Christ.  

    Here’s really the best way to think of it:  Jesus is Himself the fourth perfect soil.  He is the eternal Word of God, the Seed, having taken root in the earth of our humanity–fully human but entirely without the rocks and thorns and hardness of sin.  

    This Word became flesh and bore all that has infested your soil.  Jesus was planted in this world by His heavenly Father to save and redeem you.  Behold how this Seed is cast to the earth, how Jesus the Word is thrown onto the wayside, the way of sorrows, where he is dragged to His cross, mocked in His suffering like the caws of scavenging ravens.  But notice that the birds of the air do not devour Jesus’ body, as was often the case with other crucified criminals who would be left for the animals to consume.  This Seed is hurled upon the rocky ground of Golgotha, where he lacked moisture and cried out, “I thirst!”  But in spite of his suffering and thirst, this Seed would not wither away permanently.  And Jesus was even crowned with thorns, the very symbol of Adam’s curse; yet this Seed would not be choked out of existence, but would rise again.  A Seed has to die, if it is to rise out of the earth and bear much fruit.  The fruit of Jesus’ suffering is your salvation.

    In this way our Lord has overcome all that stands against you, all that keeps you from having life, all that keeps you from growing to maturity.  In Christ you are free from hard-heartedness and the rocks of shallow faith and the thorns of this world.  In Christ alone you are the holy fourth soil, pure and righteous and fruitful and forgiven.  In you, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Word of God is implanted.  You have been watered with the Word in your baptism.  And the Word is sown in the soil of your body, placed on your very tongues, in the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.  The power of God to give life is in the Seed.  And the Seed of the Word is in you and with you and for you, the Word of the Father who wants you with all His heart to share forever in His life.

    Let us, then, be eager to confess this Word with our mouths before the world.  Let the scattering of the holy Seed continue outside of these walls, out in the daily callings that God has placed you in.  Let the Word accomplish its purpose with your unchurched or de-churched friends and family.  Invite them in to divine service, to adult instruction classes.  Together with them, let us all seek the Lord while He may be found, and call upon Him, for He is near; His Word is here.  Return to the Lord, for He will have mercy on you, and He will abundantly pardon.  His grace in Christ is more than sufficient for you, even in the midst of your weakness.  For His strength is made perfect in the weakness of the cross.  “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”

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

The Lord is Good

Matthew 20:1-16

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

    Let me begin by saying what today’s Gospel is not about.  If your first thought in hearing about the laborers in the vineyard is to try to apply it to politics or economics, don’t.  This is not about socialism or capitalism; it has nothing to do with the rights of workers or employers.  It doesn’t support a conservative or a liberal agenda.  More and more we tend to see everything in terms of politics and rights and power and victimization.  But Jesus is no politician, and his mission is not to empower you in your quest for your rights.  His kingdom is not of this world.  He says here very explicitly, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.”  The way things work in God’s kingdom is quite different from the ways of the world.  Wages are given not based on the merit of the worker but on the goodness of the owner.  Here’s the key saying from the vineyard owner, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”

    God’s unmerited goodness is what we call grace, His undeserved love toward us in Christ that we receive by faith.  Now unfortunately, some take that teaching about grace and use it as an excuse for laziness when it comes to doing good works.  “My salvation isn’t based on my works at all?  Great!  I’m going to take it easy, then, and just enjoy myself and do as I please.”  But that’s just a perversion of God’s grace, and ultimately it’s a rejection of grace.  For God’s Law is still in force.  You should still be loving God above all things–including your money, including your family, including the approval of your friends.  You should still be loving your neighbor as yourself.  The Ten Commandments are still commanded.  They’re not the Ten Suggestions.  God has told us to do them, and so we must.  It’s not optional.null

    But here’s the point: If you do good things in order to gain some eternal reward out of it, is that truly a good work?  Or if you do something good out of fear that if you don’t you’ll be punished, is that truly a good work?  In both cases the good deed is tainted, isn’t it?  It may be good humanly speaking, but it’s not in God’s sight.  For with Him it’s not just the outward act but what’s going on in the heart that counts.  Love and trust in Him is what He seeks.  If heaven is the reward we get for living a good life, we’re hopelessly lost; because then trying to live a good life would end up being a self-serving thing, which in fact is the opposite of doing good before God.

    Let me illustrate it this way: Valentine’s day was just celebrated.  If a husband gets his wife a card and flowers or some other gift only because he feels like he has to or else he’ll be in the dog house, is that really love for his wife?  Or if he does something romantic because what he truly wants is to score some points that he can cash in on, is that really love for his wife?  What he does might be good outwardly speaking, but what makes it real love is when it’s done without thought to rewards or consequences, but simply with a desire for the good and the happiness of the spouse and their marital communion.

    So what God has done is this: He has enabled you to do truly good works by taking the eternal threat and reward entirely out of the mix.  The reward is already yours before you even start working.  It’s been purchased by Christ for you; it’s a done deal, whether you entered the vineyard at dawn or at the 11th hour.  Your reward, your eternal life in Christ is not in doubt.  The denarius is yours through faith, simply by trusting Him.  So now what?  Now you are truly free to do the work God has given you to do from the heart, out of love for Him and love for your neighbor, without any thought of what’s in it for you.  All the tainted motives you might have are taken away in Christ.  Fear of what might happen to you, self-serving goals no longer have a role to play since Jesus has already given Himself to you with every blessing.  You are set at liberty to do good, not because you have to in order to win God’s favor, but precisely because you already have God’s favor in Christ, and because your neighbor needs you.  In a sense you actually are free to do as you please.  Because what pleases the heart of faith is not to go back to the same old shallow, empty, self-serving ways, but to live in Christ, loving and trusting in God and serving others.  That’s why it is written that without faith in Christ, it is impossible to please God.  Only in Jesus are you truly free to do good.

    When we forget that, that’s when we’ll start to grumble.  You only complain when you think God owes you, that you deserve better based on what you’ve done.  “I’ve worked harder than that other guy; I’ve done more for the church.  So I deserve better than him.”  “It’s not fair that God is letting me go through this hardship.  I’ve lived a good life and been a good person.”  You can only talk and think that way when you believe it’s your works that run the show with God.  And when your works run the show, then it’s all about you, not Jesus.

    The laborers in the vineyard wanted the landowner to be fair.  But in fact He was more than fair.  A denarius is a good and proper wage for a full day’s work.  That’s exactly what they received.  The landowner wasn’t being miserly; he didn’t stiff them.  It’s just that the landowner was extremely generous to the others.  He treated even the ones hired at the 11th hour as if they had worked all day.  The landowner wasn’t unfair but gracious.  Besides, he had the right to do whatever he wished with His own things.

    Beware of applying standards of fairness to God.  Beware, because generally the fairness argument is just a mask for promoting your own interests.  That’s why we love to grouse about the rich and income inequality.  “They don’t deserve it, and we deserve more for all our hard work; it’s not fair.”  But God doesn’t want to deal with us that way, on the basis of what we deserve, as if we had a contractual arrangement with Him, a business deal, a pre-nuptial agreement.  He wants our relationship to be one of real love, freely given, no strings attached.  As soon as it’s about what we think God owes us, then we’re not seeking to love Him but to use Him.

    We should beware of wanting God to be fair with us, anyway, as I’ve often told you before.  For then we’d be in grave danger.  If you want fair wages, then here’s what the Scriptures say, “The wages of sin is death.”  Those who end up in hell are really in the end only getting what they asked for, namely, the just and fair payment for their faithless works.  “Go your way,” the landowner said.  Have it your way.  Hell is filled with grumbling and complaining against God.  You might think that hell would mostly be about regret.  But regret quickly shifts to anger and blame, especially toward God.  The damned actually believe that God is wrong, that He’s being unfair.  This worsening bitterness and teeth-gritting frustration is part of their unending torment.

    Repent, then, of dealing with God as if He were against you, as if He needed to be negotiated with and badgered into loving you.  Turn away from your anger with Him.  Trust that He is good, that He is merciful and abounding in steadfast love.  He is blessedly unfair with you, pouring out on you the fullness of His generosity in Christ.  He does love you.  He will provide you with all that you need.  After all, if the Father has given you His own Son, will He not also graciously give you all that is good and necessary and right for you?  Remember that the laborers who were hired later in the day went to work without being told what they would be paid, just trusting in the goodness of the landowner.  So you also, even though you can’t see what the future holds, even if life doesn’t seem to be fair–trust in the goodness of your heavenly Father; stake your life on His grace in Jesus.  Know that He will give far more than you could ever dream of.

    Just like the landowner dealt with those hired at the 11th hour, so the Lord treats you as if you did all the required work, from the beginning to the ending of the day.  For what you failed to do, the Lord Jesus has accomplished perfectly on your behalf in His perfect life and death and resurrection.  He Himself is the true Laborer in the vineyard.  He began His work even before dawn on Good Friday, being condemned by the Jewish authorities.  He was questioned by Pontius Pilate at the third hour of the day, flogged, and then crucified.  Darkness covered the land from the sixth hour, noon, until the ninth hour, as a sign of the judgment He bore in your place.  Then our Lord cried out “It is finished!” and died as the perfect and complete sacrifice for your sin.  Behold how He did all the work for you!  He who is the Rock was struck, and water and blood flowed forth from His side for your cleansing and your forgiveness.  He was buried at the eleventh hour just before sundown to sanctify your grave and make it a place of rest from which you will awaken and rise in glory on the Last Day.

    “The Lord will save the humble people, but will bring down proud and haughty looks.”  And so we are not jealous of the newcomer in the vineyard of the church or of the one converted in his dying days, but we rejoice that the same mercy that saved us has also saved another.  Even a faithful lifelong Christian recognizes that of himself he deserves nothing and that it is only because of Jesus that he has forgiveness and life.  As it is written, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.  For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10).”  

    Let us, then, be truly full of good works by trusting in the grace of Christ alone to save us.  Or as St. Paul puts it, let us run in such a way as to obtain the prize of life with Christ, which He Himself has won for us.  Let us run with the certainty of faith, setting our hearts on Him, disciplining our bodies and minds, more than even a dedicated Olympic athlete, filling ourselves with His words and His life-giving body and blood.  Come and lay hold of the denarius Christ earned for you–not because it’s owed to you; but simply because it is His good pleasure to be generous and loving toward you.

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

Jesus, the Greater Jonah

Mark 4:35-41; Jonah 1:1-17
Epiphany 4

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

    Jonah was called by God to go and preach to the city of Nineveh, to cry out against it because of its wickedness.  But Jonah wanted nothing to do with that.  He found a ship going in the opposite direction and got on it.  Nineveh was to the east.  Tarshish, which is probably the southern part of modern-day Spain, was to the west.  Jonah tried to run from God, to avoid God’s will, to flee from the presence of the Lord.  

    We are not unlike Jonah–in two ways.  First of all, we see the wickedness of the world around us, and we know that we should say something and speak up about it where we are called to in the vocations God has given us.  But that’s a risk we prefer to avoid.  It could affect relationships with family or friends.  There could be financial and job consequences.  Best just to keep our mouths shut, we think, keep our heads down and go with the flow, even though we know deep down that “the flow” is eventually going right over the edge of a cliff.null

    And second of all, we’re like Jonah because just as a general rule, by nature we want to go our own way rather than God’s way.  Our old Adam runs from the presence of the Lord.  Now your running may not be so obvious as Jonah’s.  It’s usually more subtle.  You may not be leaving for a far away place.  You may not be staying away from church–although when you do skip church or don’t go to Bible class, a big part of it is to avoid having to face God and His Word in favor of something of your own choosing, right?  The truth is that we want religion that doesn’t require too much of us, one where we can keep God at a manageable distance and stay one step ahead of him and still be pretty much in charge of our own life.  And when God gets too close, when His Word calls for us to go in a direction we don’t want to go, when it involves changes in our life and the forsaking of our favorite idols, that is when we run.  Whatever it is that you do to avoid your responsibilities, wherever it is that you go to hide out and escape from the stations of life into which God has placed you, whenever you engage in excuse-making for your failure to follow His words and heed His calling, that is when you are being just like Jonah here, stowing away in the belly of some ship.

    Of course, you can’t run from the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.  Jonah’s rebellion against the Lord caused a great storm to rage against the ship he was on.  Nothing that the crew tried could save the ship from certain destruction.  The only thing that finally kept the ship from breaking up was the sacrificing of Jonah.  He was thrown overboard, and the sea stopped its raging.  So it is with us.  Our sin causes God’s wrath to rage against us.  There is nothing we can do to save ourselves.  The judgment of the Law is that our eternal death is required.  Only then will the raging cease.

    But then comes the Gospel in which we learn of a new Jonah, one who takes our place under judgment and who saves us from its surging storm.  For here is Jesus in the very same circumstance as Jonah, in the midst of a tempest on the sea.  Just as Jonah was sleeping in the ship, so also here Jesus is sound asleep in the boat despite the commotion of the wind and the waves.  Our Lord was weary and worn out from the day’s work and teaching.  He took on our very flesh and blood and subjected Himself to all of the exhausting effects of sin on our behalf.  

    Jonah’s shipmates awakened him and asked him to call on his God, that they might not perish.  So also the disciples woke Jesus with the prayerful plea, “Lord, save us!  We are perishing!”  Jonah’s shipmates cast lots to see for whose cause this trouble had come; and the lot fell on Jonah.  In the same way, the Lord Jesus took our place under the Law.  Though the storm of judgment was brought on by our own doing, Jesus allowed the lot to fall on Him, that He might receive the punishment in our place.  In other words, Christ became as if He were the sinner fleeing from God.  He became Jonah for us, in order that we might be forgiven and brought back to the heavenly Father and restored to fellowship with Him.  

    Jonah was cast overboard, and the storm stopped.  Jesus was cast over to death not on the sea but on the cross.  In view of that impending sacrifice, and with His authority as the Almighty Son of God, Jesus rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.  Christ is not only true man but also true God.  He is the One through whom all things were created.  By His Word the wind and the waves were called into being in the beginning; and by His Word these fallen elements of creation are subdued and tamed.  “Quiet, be still!”  And there was perfect peace on the water.

    Jonah was three days in the belly of the great fish before being vomited onto dry land.  So also our Lord Jesus was three days in the belly of the grave.  Having paid for our sins by the shedding of His blood, Jesus then came forth from the depths of death victorious over the grave, bringing His resurrection life to all who believe in Him.  By the holy cross, the storm of God’s judgment has subsided for you.  Through Jesus there is a great calm, the full forgiveness of your sins.  “Be still and know that I am God.”  In the risen Christ you now have perfect peace and reconciliation with the Father.  

    And that perfect peace is yours in the water.  For it is through holy baptism that you are placed into Christ.  It is by water and the Word that Christ became your refuge, like the great fish was for Jonah.  Most of you know that the fish has long been a  symbol in the church for Jesus–you see it in a couple place in this building.  The Greek word for fish is IXTHUS.  And those letters form an acronym in Greek for the phrase, “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.”  So it is that Jesus is our great fish.  He saves us from the watery depths of death by taking us into Himself, protecting us in His body, joining us to His death.  And then He sets us forth on the shores of new and eternal life, joining us also to His resurrection.  

    It is written in Romans 6, “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.”  The old, fleeing Jonah was buried in the water, and a new Jonah came forth whose first destination was Nineveh.  So also the rebellious fallen nature in us was buried at the font, and we came forth from the water as new people with a new direction, ones who share in and who are given to live the very life of Christ Himself.  In fact that is the substance of the Christian life–to drown the sinful nature through repentance, so that the new man, Christ, may daily emerge and arise in us to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

    As we await the day when our old nature will be put off from us forever, there will be times when our faith will be tested.  There will be times when it seems as if the storm of judgment still threatens to do us in.  Sicknesses and pains in our body, sorrows in our hearts, troubles in our family, strained relationships, financial problems all can make us feel as if we’re going to go under and never come up again.  And as this tempest rages around us, it might seem as if our Lord is sleeping, as if He’s paying no attention to us and doesn’t even care.  “Why don’t you do something, God?  Don’t just sit there.  The ship’s about to go down!  Help me, if you care!”  That’s the temptation we face: to doubt God’s goodness toward us in Christ, to fear the things that are going on around us and inside of us rather than revering and trusting in God above all things.  

    Jesus said to His disciples, “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?”  At least they had little faith and called on His name in their time of need, “Lord, save us!”  If their faith had been greater they would have recognized that the only way they could go down was if Jesus would go down, if the wind and the waves would prove stronger than He who created them.  Jesus was unthreatened by the storm, sleeping soundly, trusting in His Father’s care.  In fact, there was probably no place safer in all of Israel that night than right there on that boat.  For Jesus was on that boat, He who is Creation’s Master, He who is the refuge and the fortress of His people.  

    Remember that when it seems as if the wind and the waves in your life are going to overwhelm you.  Remember who their Master is.  Remember these words of faith from Romans 8, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future nor any powers, neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”  

    You’re in the same boat with Jesus.  He has received you into the ship of the church.  The only way that you can go down is if He goes down.  And the fact is that He has conquered the storm and every threatening evil by the power of His cross and resurrection.  You are safely sheltered in His holy wounds.  His risen presence surrounds you as an impenetrable stronghold, so that not even death can snatch you out of His hands.  Therefore, cast all your cares on Him, for He cares for you.  Our Lord Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, ruling over all things for the sake of the Church.  He has promised to work all things together for the good of those who love Him, for you who are the called according to His purpose.  He has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”  He has given you the Sacrament of His body and blood to strengthen you in that confidence, that you might be certain that He truly is with you, that He forgives you, that He loves you.  

    Believe that truth; trust in His Word.  For though this fallen creation may groan all around you, though you may groan inwardly under the power of the curse, yet the Word of Jesus overcomes the wind and the waves and brings calm to your heart.  We are those who live with a sure hope in Christ and a sure destiny in our voyage.  We eagerly await the redemption of our body, the resurrection to come on the Last Day.  And so we boldly confess with St. Paul, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”

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

You Can Make Me Clean

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✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
 You may have noticed that the word “clean” comes up a number of times in today’s Scripture readings.  And it’s a word that also shows up in a number of ways in our contemporary culture, too.  You hear, for instance, about the concept of “clean eating,” avoiding overly processed foods, eating organic, pesticide-free, non-GMO.  Eating in this way is intended to make you more clean and healthy.  Or, there are several shows on Netflix and cable that are about cleaning and tidying up your life.  Being disorganized and cluttered gives a sense of uncleanness, and so methods are given (that are sometimes almost spiritual in nature) to put your life in order and make things clean and right again.  Or when it comes to exercise, you’ll commonly hear references to the technique of taking a “cleansing breath.”  As you breathe in and then exhale out your anxiety and stress and negativity, this technique is supposed to help cleanse you in body and in soul.
 Whether people are overtly religious or not, we all have this inherent sense that there is something unclean about us and that we need to be purified.  And so our eating and our exercising and our tidying and our doing of good works and our positive thinking is often an attempt to address that, to cleanse ourselves.  But if we’re honest, we can never completely shake the sense that things still aren’t quite how they should be with us, that what the confession says is true, “we are by nature sinful and unclean.”  We are all in the position of the leper in today’s Gospel reading, who comes before Jesus with the prayer, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”null
 Now usually we think of our need for cleansing from God only in spiritual terms.  But what our Lord gives involves the body, too.  We see that fact with both Namaan in the Old Testament and the leper in the Gospel.  Their being made clean involved their whole being, flesh and spirit.  To be sure, uncleanness is first of all a spiritual matter.  The Bible sometimes calls demons unclean spirits who seek to defile us as well.  Sin and the allurements of the world are described in Scripture as pollutions–you take part in them and you’re left feeling tainted and infected and corrupted.  And then there are also the sins that have been perpetrated on you, against your will, that leave you feeling contaminated.  Verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse can leave a person feeling desecrated and soiled.  We need cleansing from Jesus not only for the sins we’ve committed, but also for those that have been committed against us. 
 But again let’s not lose sight of the fact that the cleansing Jesus gave was also a fleshly cleansing and healing and restoration.  We need our whole selves to be cleansed, soul and body.  This quickly becomes apparent when we’re dealing with physical sicknesses and diseases; the body isn’t naturally sanitary and hygienic.  Doctors and nurses are dealing with wounds that ooze, limbs that swell with fluids, cancer that eats away at healthy tissue, mucous and phlegm that congest, bowels that malfunction.  It’s no wonder that medical personnel are constantly using the hand sanitizer.  They know better than most that what they’re dealing with is uncleanness, viruses and bacteria and disorders that require very tangible, fleshly help to bring about some sense of cleanness and order back to the body.  A hospital patient’s comments about their messed-up hair or lack of make-up or decent clothing are often a commentary on this deeper feeling. “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
 What an excellent prayer that is which the leper prays!  He doesn’t presume to tell Jesus what to do but comes before Him humbly.  However, He also expresses full confidence and faith in Jesus, that He surely has the power to help Him if He wants to.  And then what an excellent response our Lord gives to him!  Jesus says, “I do want to."  "I am willing; be cleansed.” (8:3)  Here the Lord’s heart is opened to the leper and to us all, and we see His great desire to make us clean in both soul and body.  This is the very reason why the Son of God was made man, to purify you from all that ails your flesh and spirit.  For notice what Jesus does here.  It says that He put His hand on the leper and touched him.  That’s the last thing you would normally want to do with someone who has a contagious disease, not at least without getting gloved and masked up.  But Jesus makes direct contact with this man in his uncleanness, because, as it is written later in this same chapter, “He Himself took our sicknesses and bore our infirmities” (8:17).  This is your Savior, the One who took into His own flesh all that attacks your flesh.  He knows, He has felt your sickness in the deepest way possible.  In His scourging and on the cross, His body was opened up and laid bare to every pathogen that threatens our life.  He died a bloody, infected, unclean mess.  However, by that very death, He conquered all your sickness and your disease and the grave itself.  For in the body of God made flesh, all corruptions of the flesh met their match and their end.  It is written in Psalm 16 that Jesus’ body did not see decay or corruption in the grave.  By the wounds of Christ you are healed and cleansed.  The One crucified and now risen in the flesh is your cure.
 Believing that doesn’t come naturally to us.  The ways of God often seem insufficient or foolish or strange to our minds.  That’s certainly how it was with Naaman in the Old Testament reading.   Naaman thought He knew the way that God and His prophets should behave.  Naaman was an army man, and so He assumed God would act according to his power thinking.  He traveled all the way from Syria to Israel because he heard that there was a man there who might be able to cure him of his leprosy.  But after making this lengthy trip, things did not go according to his plan.  Elisha, the man of God, didn’t even come out to greet Naaman.  Instead he sent out his servant.  Naaman wouldn’t even be able to meet the prophet whom he had come to see.  He had all this silver and gold and clothing which he thought he could use to secure Elisha’s blessing, but the prophet would have none of it.
 All Naaman got from Elisha was words, words through his servant telling him to go and take seven baths in the Jordan river.  At that, Naaman lost his temper.  “You mean I came all this way and that’s it?!  I thought the prophet would come out and wave his hands around and call on his God and do something spiritual and heal my leprosy.  All I get is a command to bathe?  I could’ve done that at home, and in much clearer water than this measly river.  That’s it, I’m leaving.”
 We too can be tempted to be like Naaman, especially in those times when God isn’t meeting our expectations, when He doesn’t seem to be coming through for us.  “I’ve come all this way, Lord, seeking health and happiness and a successful life in this world.  I’ve tried to jump through all the right hoops, but I am still weighed down with all sorts of problems and troubles.  And all you’re giving me is words and Scriptures from your servant?  Give me some spiritual advice and techniques and power that will work for me right now.  If not, I’ve had enough.  I’m going home.”
 Fortunately for Naaman, he had wise servants.  They said to him, “If the prophet had told you to do some great and difficult thing, you would have done it.  Why not, then, trust in this little thing and do it?”  We’re always more inclined to think that great religious deeds are what really make us holy and bring us closer to God and obtain His blessing.  But the key factor is whether or not God’s creative and healing Word is present, even connected to simple water.
 Naaman did according to the word of God spoken by Elijah, and when he came up out of the water the 7th time, his leprous skin had been healed and cleansed completely, like that of a little child.  You might say that Naaman was born again, freed from his disease to live a new life.  Having washed once for each of the 7 days of creation, Naaman came out of the water a new creation, a new person, through the hidden power of the words connected with the Jordan water.
 That’s how it is also for us.  God heals and cleanses and recreates us not through impressive visible power, but through simple words and promises connected to the baptismal water.  This is what we heard last week in Ephesians 5, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.”  It is written in John 3, “Unless one is born (again) of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”  We must turn and become as a little child, Jesus said, (like young Korben today), utterly dependent, forsaking our adult merits and wisdom, completely on the receiving end of God’s gracious giving.  Laying aside any claim to our own worthiness, we stake everything on Christ and His holy Word.  For wherever the Word is, there God is present to cleanse and save.  And the Word is in the water!  Remember that Jesus Himself later entered into these same Jordan waters.  There He was baptized into our sin and death so that through our baptism into Him we might receive His mercy and His life.
 So here’s the point for you to take to heart today: Our Lord has said also to you what He said to the leper, “I am willing; be cleansed.”  At the holy font, He gave you the sure hope that your lowly body will be transformed to be like His glorious body (Philippians 3:21).  In divine service He continues to speak those words in the absolution, words of forgiveness which are life to you and health to all your flesh (Proverbs 4:22).  And here at the altar, you receive the blood of Jesus which cleanses you from all sin (1 John 1:7).  Here for you is the medicine of immortality and the guarantee of health and wholeness that will be yours in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. 
 Jesus can make you clean.  He is willing.  Be cleansed.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

To Fulfill All Righteousness

Matthew 3:13-17
The Baptism of our Lord

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

    We know that Jesus grew up like any other faithful Jewish boy, going to the synagogue weekly, and to the temple for the various feasts.  And so praying and singing the psalms would have been a regular part of His life, all the way to the end even as He prayed from the Psalms on the cross.  But that raises an interesting question: Would Jesus also have also prayed the penitential psalms, those Psalms that ask for God’s mercy and forgiveness?  For instance, could the sinless Son of God pray Psalm 51, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your unfailing love; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out My transgressions”?  It’s pretty easy for us to picture Jesus praying parts of Psalm 69 to His Father like this, “Those who hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of my head. . . Because for Your sake I have borne reproach . . . Zeal for Your house has consumed me.”  The New Testament even says that those words apply to Jesus.  But what about verse five of that same Psalm, “O God, You know my foolishness; and my sins are not hidden from You”?

    It would be easy to think that Jesus could not possibly have prayed those words.  But I would suggest to you today that one of the things the baptism of our Lord teaches us is that Jesus must have prayed those psalms in their entirety–not because He had any sins of His own to confess, but because He bears our sins in His flesh and makes them His responsibility and confesses them as if He were guilty of every single one of them.null

    It was a strange sight for John the Baptizer, to see the Messiah, the One he had been preparing the way for, stepping down into the water to be baptized.  The people were coming out to John in response to his preaching of repentance confessing their sins.  John’s baptism was a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  And yet here is Jesus with His feet in the murky Jordan waters asking John to baptize Him.  You can understand why at first John tried to prevent Him and didn’t want to do it.

    We probably would have done just as John did.  For the truth is, we don’t necessarily want Jesus getting down into the mess and the muck of our everyday life in this world.  Better to keep Him at a distance all shiny and clean; better to keep Him here at church unstained by our lives out in the “real” world.  We, too, try to prevent Him, keep Him away from the coarseness of our workplace or the imperfections of our home life.  It bothers us and unsettles us a bit when Jesus gets down into the nitty gritty of our existence.  For then there’s no more hiding the way things are with us.  Jesus’ entry into the water means things are going to be stirred up and changed, everything out in the open.  And that means repentance for us; that’s never easy.

    But it is good.  For Jesus enters the water to take our place.  Jesus said to John, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  In doing this Jesus was fulfilling the Father’s righteous plan to save sinners by trading places with us–the holy for the unholy.  Jesus receives this baptism for sinners in order that He might become the Sinner, the only sinner.  Like a great sponge He absorbs the whole’s world’s sin into Himself, and counts Himself guilty of it all, so that we would be counted righteous in God’s sight.  It is written in 2 Corinthians, “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”  Jesus takes our curse of death so that through Him we might have the blessing of His divine life.  Here in the water is where it all starts.  Jesus begins His ministry here by accepting and taking this burden on Himself, as John would later say, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away, who carries away the sin of the world.”

    You might say that Jesus stole your sins from you; He took them away.  The only way they can damn you now is if you steal them back and insist on continuing in them and keeping them away from Jesus.  Either your sins are on Him or they’re on you.  And Jesus says today, “They’re all on me.  I took them.  Believe that; deal with it. You don’t get to hold on to them any more; you don’t get to keep beating yourself up over them.  I became your pride, your greed, your lust, your immorality, your jealousy, your impatience, your laziness and weakness.  And in turn you have become My righteousness, My holiness, My glory.  Today I begin My sacred journey toward Calvary, bearing and carrying the sin of the world, so that I may destroy it there by My death and the shedding of My blood.”  

    It’s interesting to note that after Jesus persuaded John to baptize Him, it says that John “allowed” Him or permitted Him.  It’s the same word that Jesus Himself later uses when He says, “Let the little children, permit, allow the little children to come to Me.”  That word in Greek is closely related to the word meaning to be forgiven, released, let go of our sins.  The point for us is this: Because Jesus was permitted to be baptized, there is now forgiveness and release for us in the water of baptism.  By the power of His Word and Spirit, all our sins washed away.  They have been taken up by Christ and carried to the cross where they were paid for and destroyed forever.  You are forgiven, pure and holy in Jesus’ name.

    Proof of what Jesus’ began to accomplish in His baptism is shown by the signs that appeared that day.  As soon as Jesus was baptized, the Gospel says behold–pay attention to this–the heavens were opened to Him.  That’s what Jesus accomplishes: He opens the heavens by His taking on and taking away the sin of the world.  Heaven was closed to us fallen creatures.  There was no entrance permitted for us by our own efforts or striving.  But now the heavens are opened to Him, the righteous One, and to all who are baptized into Him and who share in His righteousness by faith.

    Then it is written that “the Spirit of God descended like a dove and alighted upon Him.”  That imagery of the dove is important, particularly as it connects this event to Old Testament events involving water and new life.  In the very beginning we hear that the Holy Spirit was hovering, like a bird gliding over the face of the waters.  The Holy Spirit was there with His creative power to bring life to the world that was being made.  And then we hear of Noah sending out a dove from the ark, hovering over the waters, and then bringing back a freshly plucked olive branch, as a sign of the new creation that Noah and his family would enter after the flood.  The Holy Spirit coming in the form of a dove points to Christ as the bringer of the new creation.  It’s all there in Him.  Through our baptism into Christ we receive the same Holy Spirit which He was anointed with.  The Holy Spirit alights upon us to bring us new life, to make us new creatures, and to give us entrance into the new creation to come.

    Finally, it is written that a voice came from heaven, the Father’s voice declaring, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”  God the Father was most pleased to see His Son obediently humbling Himself in love like this to save us, beginning His journey to the cross.  Because of what Jesus has done, all the baptized now hear this very same voice of our heavenly Father saying, “You are My beloved Child; in you I am well pleased.  I see no fault, no blemish in you–only my perfect and holy son or daughter.  You may feel like a bruised reed or a smoldering wick, worn down and at the breaking point.  But I will never cast you aside or forsake you; find your rest in My Son.  I have called you by name; you are Mine.  You belong with Me.  Nothing in all creation can separate you from My love.”  

    All three persons of the Trinity are present here at Jesus’ baptism.  That’s why you are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, so that you may receive all the mercy that is wrapped up in the Holy Trinity’s saving name.  Jesus has put Himself in the water for you.  And so your baptism is a cleansing, life-giving flood.  Jesus has put Himself in the water for you.  And so all your sins are taken away.  Jesus has put Himself in the water for you.  And so you have a place in the Father’s house forever.

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

The King of the Jews

The Epiphany of our Lord
Matthew 2:1-12

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

  null   “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?”  That is the question of the Wise Men from the East.  It’s important to note that these Wise Men, these Magi, were probably not worshipers of the true God prior to this time.  They weren’t kings themselves, despite what the old hymn says.  They were likely assistants to a king, counselors, advisers.  And their title as Magi would suggest that the “wisdom” they offered to the king came at least in part from occult magic, astrology, the seeking of power and knowledge from various sources other than the Word of God–“reading the tea leaves,” reading the stars, and other pagan things.

    Of course, they would have had written wisdom, too, and among that wisdom was probably some portions of the Old Testament Scriptures.  For remember where these Magi came from, from the East, from Babylon and Persia east of Israel–the place where the Israelites had been carried away captive as exiles centuries earlier.  Several of those Israelite captives became counselors to the king, Wise Men of sorts–people like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who wouldn’t bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image, or Daniel who was thrown into the lion’s den for continuing to pray to the Lord against the official edict.  And those Jewish Wise Men would certainly have brought with them not only the practice of their faith but scrolls containing the words of Moses and the prophets.  

    The Jews returned to Israel a few decades later.  But the Gentile Magi surely would have retained copies of those words over the years, such as this prophecy in Numbers 24, “A Star shall come out of Jacob, a [royal] Scepter shall rise out of Israel. . .”  Now the Magi probably only understood that to be about the birth of an important earthly king.  But when the special star or heavenly body appeared at the time of Jesus’ birth, God by His grace still used their imperfect and muddled wisdom to lead them to seek out Him who is Wisdom in the flesh, the King of the Jews, Christ our Lord.  

    And that’s one of the first points that we should take out of this Gospel today–by the grace of God, He draws even people like this to Himself: semi-pagan astrologers and Magi, people who are enmeshed in false belief and false religion, and He calls them away from all of that to the Truth.  He draws Gentiles like us who fall so easily into superstitious thinking, who are more enthralled with the notion of ghosts and mysterious occurrences than with divine service–we who are tempted to look for guidance in our own mystical experiences and feelings rather than in God’s clear words in Scripture, who wonder if there really is something to astrology and fortune tellers and palm readers and people who claim to channel deceased loved ones.  Even people like us, who are prone to get enmeshed in all sorts of spiritual foolishness, with our muddled hearts and brains, God still draws to Himself through His Word, in spite of ourselves, because of His grace and mercy.  It is that grace and mercy that caused the Lord to become flesh in the first place to redeem us and save us, to lead us into all truth.  This epiphany of Jesus to the Wise Men, then, is good news for us, for it shows Jesus to be the fulfillment of Simeon’s words, “a Light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the Glory of God’s people Israel.”

    You can tell that the Magi were thinking in terms of an earthly king, because the first place they go in Israel is to the capital city, to Jerusalem.  “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?”  That’s where they expect to find Him.  But the Messiah King is not one who comes surrounded by the finery and the glories of the capital.  He comes rather in the lowliness of the humble village of Bethlehem, which means simply “house of bread.”  For this Jesus is for us the Bread of Life.

    Our fallen nature thinks God is to be found in places of power, that true religion is about that which brings health and wealth and success and happy feelings.  But that’s not where Jesus is at.  Herod has all that.  Jesus, on the other hand, ends up having to flee from Herod’s murderous scheme, carted by Joseph and Mary to exile in Egypt for a time, living an ordinary and common life for us.  The life of the true King is marked from the beginning by suffering and the cross.  That’s where Jesus is, not surrounded by earthly glory, but robed in humility for us.  True religion in this world is also marked by this humility of Jesus.

    It’s very important to note in this story the difference between the Gentile wise men and the Jewish priests and scribes.  On the one hand, the Jews who possessed the Scriptures in their fullness and knew the prophecies of the Messiah were greatly troubled at the thought that the Messiah was born.  It says here that King Herod and all Jerusalem were shaken and troubled by this news.  That seems a little strange, doesn’t it?  You would think they might be glad, joyful.  You would think that they would want to personally escort the wise men to Bethlehem so that they could see for themselves.  Instead, they’re more concerned about how this might upset their lives and the political structure.  Instead, they quote the Scripture they know so well and stay home.  

    In many ways, they represent a good chunk of people who think of themselves as Christians.  Some of the most “spiritual” people I know are ones who love to go off on this or that religious or moral topic, but who rarely if ever see the need to come to divine service.  Far too many people think that if you just learn enough facts of the Bible, or learn enough morality from the Bible, then you will have God as well.  You can stay at home with your private spirituality and forsake the presence of Christ in the flesh in His gathered Church.  But such people are sorely deceived; they are not Christian.  We must guard against priding ourselves on our Bible knowledge rather than glorying in the One whom the Bible is all about, our Savior Jesus.  We must be careful not to let God’s Word simply become window-dressing in our lives lest we stop praying and meditating upon it.  

    The Magi are our example here.  They receive the Word of God properly, in such a way that they are moved to seek out Christ in the flesh.  The Magi rely on the written Word, but they are not content with the Bible for its own sake.  They cling to it for the sake of Christ to whom it leads them.  That is always the purpose of the Word, to lead us to the Word made flesh, Jesus.  He is there for us, too, concretely and tangibly in the preaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments, no less so than He was for these Wise Men.

    “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?”  That title, “King of the Jews” might well spark some connections to Holy Week in your hearts and minds.  It’s actually a title that only shows up in two places in the Gospel–here at the beginning of Jesus’ life, and later at the end of Jesus’ life.  And the two situations are parallel.  King Herod was envious and tried to protect His power when Jesus was born, seeking to have Him killed; He ordered the deaths of all the boys two years old and under in Bethlehem.  So also in the Passion narrative, we hear of how Pontius Pilate knew that the Jewish leaders had handed Jesus over to him because of envy.  They, too, wanted to protect their position and power.  In both cases it’s the Gentiles who see Jesus more clearly as He is.  Pilate finds no fault in Him, and Pilate’s wife even calls Jesus a just Man.  But in the end, Pilate caves to the pressure, and in fulfillment of God’s will, perhaps to mock the Jewish leaders, He places over our Lord’s head the inscription “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”  

    So near the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we are given a crystal clear answer to the Magi’s question at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel.  “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?”  He is there, the humble Child, God in the flesh, the light of God's love broken into the darkness of our sinful world.  And above all, He is there on the cross, with the inscription over his head declaring, “This is Jesus, the King of Jews.”  He is the King who is given gold for His royal nature but who chooses to wear the crown of thorns.  He is the King who is given incense, used at the time of prayer and sacrifice, who answers our prayers by being the sacrifice for the sins of the world.  He is the King who is given myrrh, a spice used for Jesus’ burial in the grave, which He would conquer in His victorious resurrection.  This Jesus, the King of the Jews, has come to redeem all people–wise men from the east, Roman conquerors from the west, Jew and Gentile, you and me.  Behold your King.

    God grant that His Word would continually accomplish its purpose of leading you to the Word made flesh in this new year, that with the Magi we might come and kneel before Jesus week by week as he gives His gifts to us, His true body and blood offered up for the forgiveness of our sins.  For just as the Wise Men returned home by a different path, walking along a new way, so God gives you also to return to your heavenly home by a different path than the ways of your old life and the old ways of this world.  You are given to return home by Christ Himself, who is the Way.  Arise and shine, for your light has come.

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