Midweek Lent 1
✠ In the name of Jesus ✠
The second letter of our Lord Jesus in Revelation is to the church in Smyrna. Smyrna was a city in Asia Minor that had become fairly well-to-do because of its firm loyalty to Rome and the Roman empire. Smyrna was the first city in the ancient world to build a temple in honor of the goddess of Rome. There was also a temple built to Tiberias Caesar, and to the Roman Senate. Because of Smyrna’s strong allegiance to the empire, they were rewarded with imperial monies that built a well-known stadium, a noted library, and a large public theater. Rome referred to Smyrna as “the crown” of Asia.
These circumstances presented some trouble for the Christians who lived there. For believers could not take part in the various pagan temple rites that would’ve been common among the citizens of that city. This caused economic hardship to many believers. How were Christians supposed to get a decent job when everyone thought of them as irreligious and unpatriotic for not taking part in the imperial worship? Even though the church would pray for the Caesar as God’s civil authority and would obey the laws and pay the taxes, they would still be looked on with suspicion. Through a serious distortion of what the Lord’s Supper was, rumors abounded that Christians were cannibals, eating the body and drinking the blood of some victim. In this sort of context, it’s easy to see how most believers were poor. Jesus says here, “I know your tribulation and your poverty.”
During certain periods in the early church outright persecution of Christians would take place. All someone had to do during these times was to bring a charge against someone for being a Christian, and they could be imprisoned or put to death. Often those who had been charged as Christians would be given an opportunity to deny their faith or recant it by offering up incense to Caesar and saying “Caesar is Lord.” If they performed that act of worship and loyalty to the Roman emperor, then they could go free. However, if they didn’t, then they could lose their life. Believers could not say, “Caesar is Lord,” but only, “Jesus is Lord.”
One of the groups that was giving Christians trouble in Smyrna was the Jews. Jesus says here, “I know the blasphemy of those say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.” True Jews, true Israelites believe that Jesus is the Messiah and the Savior. But these were blasphemers, in league with the evil one. For the name “Satan” literally means, “accuser.” And they were accusing the Christians to the authorities in order to do them harm. These Jews did not like the pagan worship of the Romans, but they seemed to hate the Christians even more passionately.
One famous Christian from Smyrna who was martyred was a man named Polycarp, who was the bishop of the church in Smyrna. This old man was brought into the stadium before the crowds, who shouted at him, “Away with the atheist!” See, they thought of Christians as atheists, because Christians had a God you couldn’t see and wouldn’t bow down to their gods, whom you could see. But bishop Polycarp turned to the crowd, and with a wave of his hand said to them, “Away with the atheists!” After refusing to renounce the Lord Jesus whom he had served for 86 years, Polycarp was burned to death.
So, how does all of this apply to us? Well, thankfully in one sense, things aren’t so dire for us yet as they were for those in Smyrna. But still, consider this: Roman citizens made a god and a religion out of their empire and their rulers. In a similar vein, are people in this country sometimes more religiously fervent about their patriotism than about Christ and His Word? Do we ever see symbols of our country and symbols of religion being combined and intermingled–angels holding the American flag, or flag draped crosses, or July 4th church services that are more pro-USA than they are pro-Jesus? We must always be on guard against the mixing and confusing of the civil realm and the spiritual realm. For to make any worldly thing, even our country, the object of our worship and highest loyalty, is to commit idolatry.
On the economic side, being a Christian can also present challenges to God’s people today. Refusing to engage in unethical practices like everyone else seems to be doing can close the door to advancement at work. Likewise, having it known that you’re against abortion or homosexuality or living together before marriage, or that you believe that the Bible is literally true and that Jesus is the only way to eternal life can cause you to be ostracized or thought of as extreme. That’s certainly how the cultural elite today want to paint the church. We’re not yet faced with demands to deny the faith or be executed. But we are tempted to compromise and downplay what we believe and go with the flow so that we don’t lose our social or economic standing. Giving such homage to the spirit of the culture is also a form of idolatry that we must be on guard against.
To all of this Jesus says, “Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer.” To live in fear of what men can do to us is not to live in trust of our Creator and Redeemer God. In the Gospel Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” Rather, let us learn to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. For we are of great value to Him. Jesus reminds us here, “I am the First and the Last.” In other words, “I was here before your enemies were, and I’ll be here long after they’re dead and gone. So do not fear them; I will deliver you from them.” “I am the One who was dead and came back to life. They did their worst to me and failed. So also, they may cause you grief or pain or even death, but they can do nothing to separate you from My love.” “You will have tribulation, but it will only be for ten days; in other words, it has a limit and an end when it will all be over.” “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
Smyrna may have been called the crown of Asia, but it wasn’t long before it’s edifices were piles of broken stone, as was the case also with Rome. It was a crown that faded. But Jesus gives a crown that does not fade away, that not even death can touch. For the crown of glory we wear is His own. The life that we have is His own eternal life. That is how Jesus can say to those who are poor, “You are rich.” For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. St. Paul writes, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us.” Not only will we be with our Savior Jesus, but we will be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.
We are given to wear the crown of life because Jesus was given to wear the crown of thorns. He bore our curse and died our death–not only our first death, but also our second death. That is to say, not only did He suffer temporal death but also and especially He suffered eternal death and hell for us on the cross. That second, eternal death is conquered by Jesus’ death and resurrection. It has no power over you any longer. That’s why Jesus says, “He who overcomes [by faith] shall not be hurt by the second death.” Rather, we look forward to the resurrection of the body.
“Whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father in heaven.” To confess Jesus before men is to say “yes” to Him when the world wants you to say “no” or “maybe” or “I’m not sure.” To confess Jesus before men is to be willing to let it be known that Jesus is your Lord and the One you stake your life on. And if you’ve faltered in confessing Jesus in the past, remember Peter, who denied Christ three times but was three times forgiven and restored. So also, all your sins are forgiven, and you are restored in Jesus. He has said an unwavering “yes” to you in your baptism, confessing your name before His Father in heaven. And on the Last Day He will again say, “Yes, this one was born in Zion; this one is Mine.”
“Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.” He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
✠ In the name of Jesus ✠
Baptism of our Lord
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
John the Baptist is back again. You remember him from Advent, the one preparing the way of the Lord, the one who proclaimed to those who came out to him, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come, the unquenchable fire?” “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.” With such words, John the Baptist reminds us that the Christian faith is not always about being nice–though, of course, kindness is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, along with love. However, love does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth. And the truth about our sin is not something we want to hear. The old Adam only wants to hear the truth in watered-down and corrupted form. “Sure you’ve made mistakes and have your failings, but if you try hard to do what’s right, if your intentions are good, God won’t hold it against you. Besides, your sins aren’t really that bad. Nobody’s perfect.” That’s the kind of talk that the old Adam is drawn to and that he himself engages in; for then he can still find his security in himself and not in God alone. John won’t let us get away with that.
Now it is true that, according to Scripture, we are to speak the truth in love. Our purpose in speaking the truth is always to be for the good of the one who is hearing us; that’s love’s goal. But hearing the truth about sin, hearing the call to repentance rarely seems loving at the time. It sounds like judgmentalism and an attack. We put up our walls and instantly start blaming the messenger of the truth. But the reality is that John the Baptist actually was speaking the truth in love when he called those coming out to him a brood of vipers, children of the snake of Eden. For only when they had come to truly see their deathly spiritual condition would they desire the holy cure in Christ and penitently receive His kingdom of pure grace.
And the same is true for us yet today. John’s voice still rings through the centuries, calling us away from the fatal loves of this world, from taking refuge in our family heritage or our own spiritual efforts and self-justifications. He turns us from the way of death, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Jesus the King is here in His words and the sacraments. Receive Him in humble repentance. Find your life in Him alone.
It’s important that we begin today by remembering all of this about John’s baptism, that it was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. For only then can we begin to understand what’s going on here in today’s Gospel. John prepared the way of the Lord, but even he didn’t fully grasp the ways of the Lord. John seems shocked when Jesus comes to him to be baptized, and it is written that John tried to prevent Him, to stop Him from being baptized! “What are you doing, Jesus? This is a baptism for those who need to repent. This is a baptism for sinners in need of forgiveness, not for You, the sinless Son of God. I should be the one being baptized by You! Why are you coming to me? This seems all wrong and improper and upside down.”
But Jesus responds, “Permit it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” This is proper; this is right. For this is why I have come–to stand with sinners in order to save sinners.
A pastor friend of mine described what Jesus was doing as a divine trespass. Usually when we think of trespasses and sins, we think of how we’ve crossed over a boundary and have gone where we shouldn’t go. By crossing the line, we attempt to enter into God’s territory and do things our own way as if we’re in charge. But here Jesus does just the opposite. He crosses out of divine territory and into the territory of fallen man. He trespasses for our good out of His realm as God into the mud and muck of our sin as fallen creatures. He doesn’t just make Himself to be like us by becoming human–that we celebrated at Christmas. Now He goes the final step, the full trespass, and He makes Himself like us by even allowing Himself to be dirtied with our sin.
Today, the Son of God is numbered with the trespassers, so that we trespassers may be restored to being children of God. Saying it most starkly, today Jesus becomes Sin with a capital S. And if that sounds blasphemous, listen again to these words from 2 Corinthians, “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Jesus became a sinner so that you would become saints. He had no sin of His own; but He made your sin His own, as if He had committed it all. Isn’t that what John said after Jesus baptism, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes 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.”
You see, at His baptism Jesus was not just interacting in some shallow way with the common man. He is not like Hollywood actors or politicians who go and serve at the local soup kitchen to “identify” with those less fortunate than themselves. Rather, Jesus is more like a very rich man who gives up all his advantages and stands in line with the beggars, and becomes dirt poor and dirty Himself. He goes so far as to take your place and put Himself into your bondage in order that He might burst the bars of your captivity and conquer your satanic captor. As Isaiah prophesied, God’s Servant Jesus will “bring out prisoners from the prison, those who sit in darkness from the prison house.” Our Lord’s Baptism and His holy cross are inseparably connected. For on both occasions He is there as your substitute. He trades places with you to set you free from the power of death and to give you the glorious liberty of His everlasting life.
This is why we hold baptism in such high regard. This is why it is such a powerful act of God and a true Sacrament. Our Lord Jesus has put Himself into it! He who paid the penalty for our sins on the cross has “trespassed” into the water and sanctified it with His real presence. Christ is in the water to make baptism a fountain of grace and forgiveness and life. Baptism and the cross still go together, for your salvation, even as they call you to die to yourself and rise with Christ to newness of life.
There are those who hold baptism in low esteem and consider it to be a mere ceremony or human act of dedication. They say that Jesus was merely setting an example for us here. And so the Small Catechism poses the question, “How can water do such great things?” like rescuing from death and the devil and giving eternal salvation to all who believe. The answer: “Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water.” Do you see? It's not mere water that does these wonderful things. It is the Word of God that is in the water that is the key thing, the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, whom our hearts cling to and trust in. His presence makes baptism a life-giving, faith creating event. As Titus chapter three says, “[God the Father] saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior.” He who needed no baptism put Himself into the River in order that your baptism might be a holy cleansing. What was washed away from you in your baptism was washed onto Jesus and absorbed by Him in His baptism, that He might take it away from you and conquer it forever.
That’s why the heavenly Father is so pleased with His Son here. Jesus faithfully and humbly obeys His Father and gives Himself in love to accomplish your redemption. And therefore, in Jesus, the Father is perfectly pleased with you as well. At the holy font you truly were Christened, incorporated into Christ’s body, made to be the temple of the Holy Spirit that descended upon His body. You’ve become part of the divine family, children of the heavenly Father. For it is written, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” No longer are you the brood and offspring of the serpent. You are sons of God in Christ, forgiven and redeemed and holy children, well-pleasing to Him in Jesus. God the Father is happy with you; He rejoices in you, His baptized ones.
Brothers and sisters of Christ, heaven has been opened to you. The “No Trespassing” sign for sinners has been torn down. You’re allowed in because of the Divine Trespass of Jesus. You have crossed the Jordan with Jesus into the Promised Land. This is real. You are a child of God in Jesus. You are precious in God’s sight. You are His beloved. Stay close to the river of baptism. Come back to it daily in repentance and faith. For your Life, your Jesus, is in the water.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
Today’s Epistle begins by saying, “Do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you.” And yet we still do think it’s strange when bad things happen to us, don’t we? We’re still shocked and surprised when we have to go through trials and afflictions and sufferings. For we generally live in denial of the way things are with us and with this world. We suppress the truth of our original sin and the curse on this creation. And we pretend that we can be Christians in this world without having to suffer the consequences of following Christ. So when things go wrong, we get frustrated and angry as if some strange and unfair and totally unexpected thing were happening to us. Today’s readings help to set matters straight for us.
First of all, we need to recognize that very often we suffer as a result of our own foolishness. It is written in 1 Peter, “Let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people’s matters.” And yet we do. We murder by daydreaming about payback for those who have hurt us; we steal by getting things under false pretenses; we commit sexual sins in heart and mind if not also in body; we gossip about others and stick our nose in where it doesn’t belong. We commit all manner of sins that have all manner of spiritual and physical consequences. So much of the suffering we have to deal with in our lives is self-inflicted, whether it’s in our health or in our finances or in our relationships. We like to rationalize our behavior and make excuses and deflect blame. But the Scriptural saying holds true, “You reap what you sow.” It is written in Galatians, “He who sows to His flesh will of the flesh reap corruption.” Man very often blames God for the deadly consequences of his own sin.
Of course, it is true that some of what you suffer isn’t your fault. Some of it is the collateral damage of other people’s foolishness. It’s not just that people make “mistakes” or “bad choices”; they sin. And sin always has ripple effects. Sometimes you get caught in that wake, which very often feels more like a tsunami. Often it’s those who are the most vulnerable who bear the brunt of other people’s behavior. We shouldn’t be surprised that living as a sinner among sinners in a fallen world, we’re going to have to regularly deal with the aftereffects of the fall in trials and afflictions.
But here’s where Jesus enters into the picture. Here’s where our suffering is redeemed by the Son of God, who shared fully in our humanity and bore our infirmities and sins and carried all of our afflictions. For Peter’s main point here is not about suffering because of sin but suffering because of Christ who has taken away our sin and saved us. He says, “Rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings. . . If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter.” Holding to the words and the ways of Christ is to be in conflict with the words and the ways of this world. We should not think it strange or be shocked when we suffer as followers of Jesus, for it is precisely through suffering that He redeemed us. Not only should we not be surprised at suffering for Jesus’ name, we should in fact rejoice that we have been given that privilege, that we have been granted a portion in Christ’s cross and its blessings. In Acts chapter 5, in the early days of the church, the apostles were beaten for preaching the name of Jesus. Afterwards, it is written, “So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.” To be a disciple of Jesus is to take up the cross daily and follow Him, holding to the faith in spite of the cost.
From the very earliest moments of His life, we see that the way of Christ is the way of the cross. Not only was He born in the most humble circumstances, as we heard at Christmas. But from the very start, the infant Son of God was vulnerable and under assault. The people of this world will try to destroy anything that threatens the worldly power and treasures they hold onto. And King Herod was no different. Seeing Jesus as a future rival to His throne, he took the horrific and tyrannical step of trying to destroy Him by killing all the infant boys in the city of Bethlehem, even up to two years old! Jesus and His family had to flee for refuge to a foreign country, Egypt. Even upon their return to Israel, they had to change their destination out of fear of Herod’s son, Archelaus. There was nothing glorious or easy or free of suffering even in the earliest days of Jesus’ life. If that is true of our Lord, we should not be surprised if it is true also for us. For Jesus said, “A disciple is not above his Teacher.”
There is some comfort to be taken in this, however. Looking at Jesus’ childhood, it appeared that things were rather out of control. Joseph and Mary may well have wondered just what was going on. Simeon had spoken of how Jesus would be a sign that would be spoken against. But I’m sure they still expected that the Messianic promises regarding Jesus might have meant something more glorious than living as refugees in Egypt and shuffling around from this place to that. And yet even though they couldn’t see the whole picture at the time, all of this took place in fulfillment of Scripture and to carry out God’s eternal plan of salvation. What seemed out of control was still under God’s gracious direction. And so it is also for all of you who are baptized into Christ. No matter what’s going on in your life, you can still be confident that your times are in His hands.
For Jesus, that detour to Egypt fulfilled God’s plan in Hosea 11, where He said, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.” Hosea’s prophecy was originally spoken concerning the entire nation of Israel who had been slaves in Egypt. That is why it was important that Jesus also would be called from Egypt, too. For it was His task to be the embodiment of God’s people, to do perfectly and without sin what Israel had failed to do. After being delivered from their slavery, the children of Israel had grumbled against God and rebelled against Him. They did not live as His holy people or glorify His name among the nations. But now the Child of Israel, Jesus, has come to do that perfectly, accomplishing God’s will completely on behalf of Israel and all people. So in the seemingly minor detail of the calling of Jesus out of Egypt, we see that He was fulfilling the Law for us, actively doing all that was necessary to rescue us. Jesus is the new Jacob, the new Israel, going down to Egypt and coming up again to be our Redeemer, to bring us into the Promised Land of life with God.
So also in the prophecy that Jesus would be a Nazarene. It was more than just political circumstances that were at play in Jesus living in Nazareth. In the Old Testament we learn that the Messiah would be humble and ultimately even despised. And if there was ever a lowly and despised town in Israel, one that you didn’t want to admit you were from, it was Nazareth, near Gentile territory. Even one of Jesus' own disciples once said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” That is why Jesus was a Nazarene. He was to bear affliction and rejection and the most horrific sufferings of the cross for you to cleanse you of all sin.
This is our comfort, then, in our own suffering. Through such suffering our lives are being conformed to Christ. In Him we trust that even when everything seems to be out of control, He is at work for our eternal good and our salvation. Our suffering humbles us and empties us of our self-righteous foolishness and teaches us to look to the Lord for help. And it reminds us of how He suffered for us. The cross becomes all the more precious to us, that we have a God who loved us to that extent, who shed His blood for us, who has promised to never leave us or forsake us in our afflictions. We learn to see that He is our only Help and our only Hope.
The baby boys of Bethlehem suffered and died because they were under the wicked Herod’s authority. But their suffering was redeemed because even more so their suffering was for the sake of Christ, who became a weak baby boy for them to rescue them. Though it certainly didn’t seem so at the time, the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem were given to share in Christ’s glory as the first martyrs for His name. Though their lives were violently cut short, they are blessed in Jesus, having been delivered so quickly from the burdens of this fallen world. Being close to Christ does mean sharing in His sufferings. But it is the opposite of being in the wake of those people who bring you trouble by what they do. Here through partaking in Christ’s suffering, He brings you to glory.
So in the midst of your afflictions, especially those trials you undergo for believing God’s Word and doing what is right in God’s sight, take to heart the words of God to you in Romans 8: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” Not only back in bible times but also still today, God is active in human history working out His good and perfect will for the sake of His church. And so we trust that despite any appearances to the contrary, God is with us and graciously at work in our lives. For we are the called ones, chosen in Holy Baptism, made to be the forgiven children of God. Even in the midst of our human vulnerability, God is carrying out His almighty will for our benefit.
And in those times when you can’t make sense of things, when you feel like the parents of Bethlehem, whose infant children were slaughtered before their eyes, when there seems to be no valid purpose or meaning to what’s going on in your lives, God points your eyes again to the cross. For there in that greatest display of God’s all-powerful weakness, there in that senseless and yet most meaningful death of Jesus, you are assured that God’s love for you is limitless and unshakable. There is nothing in all of creation that can separate you from the love of God in Christ.
Come, then, to the altar of the Lord’s love. You are here given to partake of Christ's sufferings in a most blessed way. If the almighty Lord would go so far as to take on your vulnerable human flesh, to die in the flesh and shed His blood, and then give you His resurrected flesh and blood for the forgiveness of your sins, certainly you can trust Him even in those times when there seems to be no reasonable answers to your questions. For in the end, the answer to all of those questions, the solution to all of those problems is the One in the manger and on the cross and under the bread and the wine. This is your strength for living in the new year. And if you must suffer according to the will of God, commit your souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠