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I'm Not Spiritual, I'm Religious

Easter 1
John 20:19-31 (Ezek 37:1-14, 1 John 5:4-10)
 
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit
 
It’s become a very fashionable cliche’ for people to say nowadays, “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual.”  It’s a way of talking that seems open-minded and non-rigid while still embracing the idea of faith and the divine.  But in truth, I think what is often meant is, “I want to deal with God on my own terms and in my own way, and so I’ll treat my faith like a buffet line at a cafeteria, and take only what I want and what appeals to me.”  St. Augustine once said, “If you believe what you like in the Gospel and reject what you don’t, it’s not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.”  All of this is in the same category as those who say they don’t believe in organized religion.  While it’s true that religious institutions populated with fallen human beings are often going to be a mess, the rejection of any sort of organized religion is in actuality a rejection of any sort of tangible, concrete, real world, real life faith that involves real people.  In the end it’s a rejection of Christianity which is all about God in the flesh.  It’s an incarnate faith in the One who came to redeem human beings and all creation through His bodily death and bodily resurrection.  That’s not just some free-floating spirituality; that’s real doctrine, real people, real, organized, congregation-type religion. 
 
What our sinful nature wants is a generic, easily managed belief system of self-fulfillment.  We like being “spiritual” because it sounds pious, but in fact, being “spiritual” often means taking the body out of the equation in favor of some sort of divine energy within.  The sinful nature loves this because then you can claim to have faith while your bodily life is involved in unfaithfulness: gluttony or overdrinking with the mouth, lusting after others or viewing pornography with the eyes, taking part in ungodly gossip or crude joking with the mouth and ears, physical laziness in carrying out your real-world, organized, ordinary vocations that serve the neighbor. 
 
It’s no coincidence, then, that our “spiritual, but not religious” culture grows more and more sexually immoral, as if one’s bodily behavior or one’s created gender is disconnected from one’s faith in the God who Himself made our bodies.  A purely spiritual faith doesn’t necessarily concern itself with chastity, or for that matter with visiting “orphans and widows in their affliction” and keeping oneself “unstained from the world” as James 1:27 describes it.  But in fact St. James calls the doing of those things “religion that is pure and undefiled before God.”  
 
Focusing only on the soul and “being spiritual” is to miss the whole point of what the human spirit was created to do: namely, to animate one particular human body, to dwell in human flesh, to live in the perfect glory that God meant for us when He made man and breathed life into his physical body.  There are those who think that the ultimate spiritual occurrence would be to have an out of body experience.  But there is actually a term for an out of body experience, the separation of the spirit from the body–it’s called “death.”  And the Bible refers to that as a curse, and our enemy.
 
To be truly alive is to be like Jesus after the resurrection.  For on that first Easter evening, the disciples were locked in a room in fear.  And who came to visit them?  Not a ghost. Not a spirit.  Not an idea in their heads or feelings in their hearts.  Rather it was Jesus, the incarnate God, the bodily resurrected Son, who came to them. He did not come bearing a socially-acceptable, safe, and self-serving spirituality. Rather He came bearing His body, standing in the flesh among them, and He said to them: “Peace be with you.”null
 
This is exactly what they needed to hear out loud in the midst of their fears and guilt and uncertainty about the future as they huddled behind locked doors.  And it’s exactly what we need to hear, too.  Jesus is saying, “Do not be afraid; I took away all your sins and failures in my death on the cross.  I have conquered the grave for you; it has no power over you any longer.  I have reconciled you to the Father.  All is well.  Let not your hearts be troubled.  Peace be with you.”
 
This peace of God comes bodily. It is not an abstract idea, but a fleshly reality in Jesus, the Prince of Peace and the Source of Peace.  Having given the apostles this gift, Jesus goes on to give them the Holy Spirit and the authority to forgive sins: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.” And even here, the Spirit is not given to the apostles spiritually, but rather bodily. For notice how it says that the Lord “breathed on them.” He ordained them in this physical way, just as Jesus touched the sick and sinners to heal and release them.  The apostles would later pass on this authority to forgive sins to other men, not through silent prayer, not through mystical divine energy rituals, but through the physical laying on of hands with the words of God.
 
Here’s another way of putting it and thinking about it:  Jesus did not come to make the world more spiritual, but rather to restore and renew and glorify its tangible, concrete createdness.  In a very real sense our bodies right now are only shadows of what they were created to be.  The way the Bible speaks of it, what we look forward to as Christians is not so much us going to some spiritual existence in heaven, but heaven coming to earth, God coming to dwell with His resurrected people in a renewed creation freed from the curse.
 
So when St. Thomas the doubter was present the next Sunday, our Lord Jesus did not offer Him a mystical vision, positive energy, or an aura: rather He offered St. Thomas His very fleshly body, and His wounds, given physically for him to see and touch. Thomas did not look within for a spiritual experience with his eyes closed, but rather stuck his finger into the Lord’s hand and side. And Thomas confessed: “My Lord and my God!” He did not believe in Jesus the ghost or Jesus the literary character. He believed in Jesus: the Son of God, the Son of Man, who took flesh in order to die, who died in order to rise, who rose in order that we too might rise, and do so bodily.
 
There was another son of man from we heard about in the OT reading who had an encounter in the Spirit of the Lord that was anything but a “spiritual” experience. For Ezekiel saw a field of bones. And when the prophet preached the Word to these bones, the breath, that is, the spirit, entered them. But the result was not spiritual, but physical: “I will lay sinews upon you,” says the Lord, “and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live…. And there was a rattling and the bones came together.” And then came sinews and flesh and skin. And when the breath, that is, the spirit entered the flesh, the flesh came to life: “an exceedingly great army.”  The Lord did not speak through Ezekiel promising a vague spirituality, but something starkly physical: “Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves…. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you from your graves, O My people. And I will put My Spirit within you, and you shall live.” (Ezekiel 37)
 
How remarkable this Word is, this promise fulfilled before the doubting eyes of Thomas, whose hands touched the reality, whose eyes saw physically.  Thomas himself would go on to baptize, preach, and administer Holy Communion in the flesh until his dying day.
 
Anyone who would try to “spiritualize” Jesus is attempting to tame Him, control Him, and reduce Him to a moralizing, milquetoast guru, instead of submitting to the Almighty One who conquered death by dying, and who physically rose from the tomb so that we too might rise.
So let me say it once more:  Christianity is not about generic spirituality, but about Jesus: His body and His blood, the water that flowed from His side, and the touch of His nail-scarred, forgiving hands. This is very Good News for you, and part of the good news is that you experience this Gospel physically, through your bodily senses–from your Holy Baptism which you experienced in the flesh through feeling the water and the sound waves of the words; from the preached Law and Gospel and Holy Absolution, receiving by faith that which comes by hearing with your ears; and from Holy Communion, the flesh and blood of Jesus eaten with the mouth by flesh and blood sinners, for forgiveness, life, and salvation.
 
“For everyone,” says John in the epistle, “who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is He who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ.”
 
Fellow believers, fellow religious Christians, our Lord does not compare us to phantoms that run on positive thoughts, but rather to “newborn babies” who “desire the pure milk of the Word.” For Jesus is risen from the dead, and He stood on His feet in the midst of the disciples and said with His mouth words that ring true still today, “Peace be with you.”   This is how we now can confess with our mouths: “I believe in… the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”  For Jesus has come in the flesh to join us to Himself and to make us to be members of His risen body.  May we all confess the same thing about this incarnate One that Thomas did, “My Lord and my God!”
 
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit
 
 (With thanks to the Rev. Larry Beane for much of the above.)

Not a Bread King, the Bread of Life

Lent 4
 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
 
Today’s Gospel concludes by saying that the people tried to take Jesus by force to make Him king.  They had finally found the leader they were looking for from among all candidates that were out there.  Politics and theology were running close together in the people’s minds.  Jesus had developed quite a following through His teaching and His healing.  Now, by feeding the 5000 in this miraculous way, Jesus was the instant frontrunner to lead the people.  While some seemed to understand who Jesus really was when they said, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world,”–referring to the Messiah Moses had prophesied–most seemed to be more interested in the power and the miracles.  They followed Jesus not for salvation, not for forgiveness of their sins, not for reconciliation with God, but rather for free food and health care.  Here’s a guy who could really help my economic circumstances, and my medical needs, and maybe do something about those foreign Roman occupiers, too.  This is about as close as they could get to an election.  The people had spoken.
 
Now at this point, Jesus would be the envy of every politician running for office.  His poll numbers were strong, and He had proven he could deliver on his promises.  Church politicians would be thrilled with Jesus, too.  Jesus really seems to have hit upon a successful evangelism program; just look at the crowds!  (Of course, by the end of this chapter, after Jesus had talked about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, He went from having thousands of followers to only a dozen.  But that’s another sermon.)null
 
Just because the majority speaks, it doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily right–whether it’s the 99% or the 51%.  The notion of a democratic republic wasn’t handed down from heaven as the way to run states or countries.  To paraphrase Winston Churchill, democracy is a lousy form of government; it just happens to be the best one available in this fallen world, since power (which inevitably corrupts) supposedly doesn’t get concentrated in the hands of a few.  But majority votes are sometimes not too far from mob rule, as we are seeing in North Africa and the Middle East, where majority rule has meant the persecution of Christians; or in this country where majority votes have meant the normalization of sexual perversity.  So also with the majority in today’s Gospel–other agendas were at work that didn’t belong to Jesus, political agendas that weren’t the Father’s design for His Messiah king. 
 
That’s why Jesus goes to the mountain all alone and shuns the voice of the people.  For Jesus understands that while presidents and prime ministers are elected by the people, kings are not.  The king is who he is by virtue of his birth, by virtue of his person–regardless of the voice of the people.  
 
There is a temptation offered here to Jesus that is not unlike what the devil had offered earlier when he took Jesus up on the mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  “All these I will give you,” the devil said.  But to attain such glory would require a deal with the devil, which our Lord Jesus would never do.  His kingdom is not of this world, it is from above.  And His kingship is not subject to the will of the people but the will of the Father.
 
Jesus was all alone on the mountain, which is the way I’m sure Moses felt in the Old Testament reading as the people grumbled against him.  When they were in Egypt, they groaned against their yoke of slavery.  And once liberated, they groaned against the burden of freedom.  And this is right after God saved the children of Israel by opening the Red Sea to them as an evacuation route, and drowning the army of their enemy.  With very short memories, they now tell Moses they would rather be back in Egypt–note just how fickle public opinion can be!  If the Israelites could vote, Moses would surely have been recalled. 
 
And yet, God does not oust Moses.  The Lord alone is the deciding vote.  He gives the people that which they don’t deserve; in spite of themselves He rains bread from heaven upon them, manna, literally giving them their “daily bread.”  Of course, the children of Israel would later complain even against this generosity of God.  They wished they had more variety in their free meals and not the same old manna every day.
 
Likewise in the Gospel, our Lord Jesus provides miraculous bread for the 5000, even for these people who did not have in mind the things of God but the things of men.  For God gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people.  He send rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous, that we may learn to receive His undeserved gifts with thanksgiving.  
 
And again notice here how this calls to mind the wilderness temptation of Jesus.  Back then, Jesus would not turn the stones into bread to feed Himself, in faithfulness to His heavenly Father.  But now, perhaps very near the same spot where He had earlier been tempted, Jesus does use His power to produce bread, not for Himself but for others in their need.  Jesus is focused not on Himself but on others in the way of love.
 
And this is where we often fall short.  We must confess that we get turned in on ourselves and have sometimes grumbled and complained against God for the way He’s provided for us or hasn’t come through for us as we wanted.  We want God to fit our agenda, and when He doesn’t, we become disappointed or upset.  Too often we let the voice of the majority affect our desires more than the voice of Jesus, the only divine voice of His Word.  It’s the opinion of our peers that drives us, a desire to fit in and keep up with the world, to have the approval of those who are considered important.  We are by nature people pleasers rather than God pleasers.  For this we must repent. 
 
And so must the church at large, which is constantly facing the temptation of watering down its confession and practices to make itself more amenable to the world–with market driven megachurches and success driven preachers.  We must ever be reminded that Jesus is Lord, not public opinion or financial pressures or human votes.
 
And we must also be reminded that God is still at work in the midst of all these things, turning even evil for the good.  Even the rebel will of the majority becomes an instrument of the will of God, both for judging and for saving.  Sometimes the worst judgment that can befall a people or a country is for the majority to get its way and suffer by its own doing.  And our salvation also came through the rebel will of the majority.  You recall that when Pontius Pilate placed Jesus and Barabbas before the people, and asked them which one they wanted him to release, there was something of an election.  They shouted for Barabbas to be released and for Jesus to be crucified.  And the murderer was set free while the Lord of life was sentenced to death.  Though this was a grave injustice humanly speaking, yet it was precisely how divine justice would be carried out.  For Jesus had come to take the place of us sinners, to bear the judgment for sins He did not commit, so that we would be forgiven.  And so the voice of the majority was indeed the voice of God the Father Himself, speaking through the people saying, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”  It was the will of God that His Son die for the people in spite of themselves.  Because of that sacrificial love of God, we Barabbases are released from sin and death.  We are now children of God in Him who is the Son of God.
 
When politics and theology become indistinguishable, people die.  In the Gospel, the people were going to take Jesus by force to make Him king.  And in the end the crowds did just that when they forced Him to the throne of the cross, where He was crowned with thorns.  That is where Jesus is lifted up and exalted in all His royal love for us.  It is from the cross that we hear the true voice of God which trumps all other voices:  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”  
 
Jesus said in John 6, “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die.  I am the Living Bread which came down from heaven.  If anyone eats of this Bread, he will live forever.  And the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”  Jesus is our Manna, given over to the cross for the life of the world, given out to you in Sacrament of the Altar.  
 
Thanks be to God for this, that our Lord does not give in to the mobs to become an earthly king.  For His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom to which you belong in baptism.  Jesus is more than a bread King; He is your Redeemer King, the very Bread of Life Himself.  Thanks be to God that His mercy overcomes our sin.  For in spite of our grumbling, our Lord also gives us that which we don’t deserve.  Not only does He give us our daily bread and the things we need to support this body and life, He also gives us the bread of immortality, His own flesh and blood.  Again, Jesus said later in John 6, “I am the Bread of Life.  He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst. . .  Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”  We have our own greater miracle from Christ right here in divine service: the Bread which is His body multiplying His forgiveness to you so abundantly that it never runs out.  Those who eat here are filled and satisfied with the goodness and mercy of the Lord.
 
Let us, then, come continually to where we may truly hear the voice of God–not in majority votes, but in Christ’s Word, in His sacraments, in His preached Gospel.  Let us gladly hear and learn the words of Jesus, for they are the words of eternal life.
 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
 
(Some of the above was adapted from a sermon by the Rev. Larry Beane.)

Spirits, Demons, and Jesus the Stronger Man

Lent 3
 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
 
C.S. Lewis once observed that when it comes to the Devil, there are two mistakes we can make.  One is thinking too much of him, and the other is not thinking enough about him.  Some people conceive of the devil almost as being equal with God, when in fact he is merely a fallen angel, very powerful and utterly evil to be sure, but a creature nonetheless.  People become terribly frightened of the devil and forget that his rebellion has been crushed under the heel of Jesus, who died and rose again in victory over him.  However, others don’t give the devil any thought at all.  They think of Satan as the stuff of fairy tales, at best a figure who is only symbolic of evil, but not a literal being.  They forget that the devil’s goal now is to lure people away from the safe refuge of Christ Jesus; and if Satan can do that by making people think of him as nothing real, just a Halloween caricature, all the better.
 
But I would add that there’s a third mistake we can make which, in a way, combines these first two mistakes.  And it’s something even many Christians do.  We know as believers that there’s more going on than what the eye can see, that there is a spiritual realm beyond the simple grasp of our five senses.  But too often, instead of listening to God’s Word on this subject, we embrace all sorts of superstitious beliefs that also have the effect of doing the devil’s work.  And in particular what I’m talking about here is our pop culture’s belief in ghosts and spirits.  Whether it’s a belief that loved ones who have died are still roaming the earth and interacting with us in our lives, or whether it’s something more sinister and spooky, like spirits of the dead haunting buildings, far too many Christians are open to this false belief rather than hearing and holding to God’s Word.null
 
Here is what Scripture says: It is written in Ecclesiastes 12 that when someone dies, their spirit returns to God–plain and simple.  Hebrews 10 speaks of how it is given to man to die once and then the judgment of heaven or hell–certainly no reincarnation or inhabiting of other bodies or anything like that.  To the thief on the cross, Jesus said “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  And on and on it goes.  Never in the Bible is there a period of time where the spirits of the dead are doing unfinished business on this earth before they can enter into the light or some other such nonsense.  Don’t let Hollywood movie fictions or TV shows about the supernatural and communicating with the dead and ghost hunting and prankster ghosts and good or evil spirits of the departed–don’t let such things lure you into foolishness.  It’s not true.  In fact, it’s occult.  Scripture speaks about attempts at communication and interaction with the dead as wicked and an abomination.  It’s in the same category as witchcraft and sorcery.  
 
For in the end, while most of this is the stuff of hoaxes, if people really are having contact with a supernatural being, it’s not the spirits of the dearly departed, it’s demons that are at hand.  It can’t be human spirits we’re talking about according to Scripture.  It can only be angels or demons.  And angels almost always do their work unnoticed.  For it is their joy to glorify God and to draw you to Christ as they watch over you.  These mighty creatures that God created in the beginning (who never were and never will be human beings, btw)–these mighty creatures would never distract you or draw you away from Jesus and His Word.  But demons on the other hand, that’s all they want to do.  And if they can get you to dwell on this mysterious occurrence or that supposed haunting or some supposed appearance of a deceased spouse or relative, then that’s right up their alley, for then you’re being distracted from God and His words.  People think they’re being “spiritual” by doing this, when in fact they’re just engaging in another form of foolish unbelief.  That’s why I say that this sort of silly superstition combines both mistakes C.S. Lewis spoke of–people are giving too much attention to the occult at the same time that don’t even realize they’re doing so.  For the devil likes to come in disguise, even as an angel of light.
 
Again, it is the goal of the devil and the demons to lure you away from the safe refuge of Christ to something else, anything else, and to keep your attention there away from the Savior.  And if Jesus is center stage, then they’ll try to pervert and distort who He is and what He has said.  That’s what happens in today’s Gospel reading.  Jesus casts out a demon, and what do the unbelievers say?  That somehow He did this good by using an evil power, the power of Beelzebub, another word for Satan.  This is the way of the wicked: to call good evil and to call evil good–we see that all the time in our culture.  The devil is a liar, and like an obnoxious politician at a debate, he’ll do whatever he can to try to shout over the truth of Jesus and to keep you from trusting in Him.  Our Lord does not cast out demons by Beelzebub.  He is the Stronger Man who overcomes the satanic strong man with nothing but a finger, the finger of God, which is the power of His Holy Spirit.  
 
Jesus is warning us here to be vigilant about our ancient enemy.  For once an unclean spirit (a demon) is cast out, if he gets the opportunity to return, he will do so–and it will be even worse the next time.  This is why the Church generally doesn’t baptize a child unless the parents are committed to teaching the child the catechism, the Word of God, and making sure the child is brought to God’s house.  For baptism is truly a form of exorcism.  Luther’s ancient baptismal rite begins this way: “Depart unclean spirit, and make room for the Holy Spirit.”  It is not enough to baptize a child, only to have his tender faith starved by parents who deprive their son or daughter of God’s Word.  In such a case, it is better not to put a target on the child’s back in the first place. Christians are to be continually on guard against the evil one by being devoted to the Word of God and prayer.
 
A good deal of Jesus’ ministry involved battling unclean spirits–and his body, the Church, continues to wage the battle against lying, satanic spirits.  Now demon-possession may indeed be extremely rare.  Typically, the devil and the other fallen angels are more subtle, tempting us behind the scenes, working through our sinful flesh to drive a wedge between us and God, chipping away at the stone, gradually eating away at us until we are alienated from God and don’t even realize it or care.  Remember that the devil’s ultimate goal is to take away your faith in Christ.  And that’s best accomplished not by an obvious frontal assault but by deceptively trying to undermine what you believe, by planting doubt, by turning your attention to other spiritualities that appear holy but are devoid of the Gospel of Christ the crucified.
 
So how do we fight an enemy we can’t see?  How do we guard ourselves against such a crafty enemy who is more powerful than we are?  The answer, very simply, is to take refuge in Christ.  For He is the Stronger Man who overcomes the strong man.  He is the One who not only won the victory for us in the wilderness, the Son of David slinging the smooth stone of the Word and felling the Goliath Satan.  He is also the One who outmaneuvered and outflanked the devil and utterly destroyed Him through the cross.  He turned the devil’s own weapons against him.  Jesus overcomes the crafty one with His own divine and holy craftiness, sneaking into the devil’s kingdom of death, allowing Himself to be crucified, and then from the inside nuking and laying waste to the devil’s power, rising from the dead in glory on the third day.  
 
Satan is defeated and undone and humiliated.  Christ is the Conqueror has rescued us from the realm of darkness and brought us into His own kingdom of mercy and love and goodness.  Our Lord has cast out our unclean spirits at the baptismal font and made our bodies the temple of His Holy Spirit.  He has spoken His powerful, forgiving words into our ears.  He feeds us with His holy, life-giving Flesh and Blood to sanctify us and fortify and strengthen our spirits.  We come to this church week by week because we need it all the time, to be strengthened against the crafts and assaults of the devil and to be equipped to resist them.
 
There is only one way to be safe from evil: to be with Jesus, our fortress and our refuge.  Jesus says, “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.”  We gather with Jesus right here.  And like the mute person who was gagged by the demon, when Jesus casts out our demons, our tongues are loosed, and we give praise to God for his gifts.  We are given to tell the marveling multitudes just who it is who has delivered us.  And we can also raise our fists at the devil and give him the “finger of God” and curse him to hell in the name of the Lord Jesus.
 
The Epistle reading said: “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.”  Your days of being imprisoned to Satan are over.  You have been released from your shackles and led out of the dark prison into the glorious light of Christ!
 
And this blessing from God is for all of you who hear and believe and hold on to His Word.  Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.”  Holding on to Christ’s words, you are blessed and you are safe.  So if you are concerned or fearful about strange or unexplained experiences in your life, remember that all things are sanctified and made holy by the Word of God and prayer.  At the name of Jesus, the demons must flee.  Call upon His name, not only here in this place, but also in your homes.  Read the Word and pray out loud so that both the angels and the demons can hear.  God’s Word cleanses and blesses and makes holy.  God’s Word sets you apart as His own, and it sets apart your dwellings as the place where God dwells.  Don’t allow the things of demons into your homes, only the things of God.  It used to be a common practice to have house blessings of Christian homes, especially when someone was just moving into a house.  And on at least one occasion that I was involved with, when there were some unusual and frightening things happening in someone’s home, when the Word of God and prayer were brought to bless that house, those things stopped happening.  
 
It is written that God has not given us a spirit of fear but a spirit of power and love and self-control (2 Tim 1:7).  So cling to the Word of God spoken and given to you in your baptism.  Let the words of God continually be in your ears and on your tongue.  And be filled by the Holy Spirit with the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for the forgiveness of all your sins.  For the Scriptures say, “Greater is He who is in you (Jesus), than [the evil one] who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). 
 
And if you want to be close to departed loved ones, don’t try to do that in superstitious ways.  Meet them instead at the altar.  For if they died in the faith, they are with Christ, and Christ is here.  Here is where the communion of saints is.  Let the highest love of your heart always be fixed on Jesus.  For through Him, nothing can snatch you from the hand of God.  For on that hand of God are the fingers that cast out demons and that point you to the cross where your salvation was won.  You have been liberated from all your sins by the Lord Jesus Christ.  You are now free to walk in love as children of light.  Let your eyes ever be toward Christ, who plucks your feet out of the net, who conquers your enemy, and who will deliver you from all evil in the resurrection of the body.
 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Revelation 2: To the Church in Smyrna

Revelation 2:8-11
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.”null

    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 ✠

Whatever is Right I Will Give You

Septuagesima
 
 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
 
What is the real difference between the first and the last laborers in the vineyard?  Some might think it’s simply a matter of greed and jealousy, that the first workers didn’t get what they thought they deserved in comparison to the others.  And we can sort of understand their point.  We wouldn’t like it if somebody got paid the same as we did for doing only a fraction of the work.  Nothing seems to arouse our passions more than if there’s even a hint that we are being treated unfairly in money matters.  We love to grouse about overpaid athletes and greedy political and corporate insiders and how we’re not getting paid as much as we’re worth at our job and how high prices have gotten for this or that.  Of course, when we get more than we deserve, a deal that’s more than fair, we’re rarely as vocal about that, unless we’re bragging–which if you think about it is the same as grumbling in an opposite way, just the flip side of an obsession with oneself.  “I’m not being treated fairly” and “Look at what an awesome dealmaker I am” are both attempts at self-exaltation.  But even so, that’s not the primary difference between the first and the last laborers in the vineyard.  It goes deeper than that.
 
The first laborers had an agreement, a contract with the landowner to work for a denarius a day, which was the going rate for a day’s work.  This was a fair day’s wage for a good day’s labor.  The other laborers, though, had no such agreement, no contract.  They didn’t insist upon definite terms.  The landowner simply said, “Go into the vineyard, and whatever is right, I will give you.” null
 
Now if that was you, would you have gone to work for this landowner?  Would you labor for him not knowing what your wages were going to be, if all you had to go on was His promise to do what was right?  It all depends, doesn’t it?  It depends on what kind of person you think him to be–is he miserly or generous, is he a man of good character or bad?  It depends on whether or not you trust him–do you know him, do you have a good relationship with him?  If you didn’t trust the landowner, you probably wouldn’t go into his vineyard.  If you did, you would.
 
That ultimately is the real difference between the first and the last in this parable.  The first were dealing with the landowner on the basis of a contract; the last were dealing with him on the basis of trust in his goodness.  The first wanted to deal with him on what they deemed to be fair.  The last dealt with him on the basis of what he deemed to be good and right.  That’s a big difference.
 
The owner of the vineyard in this parable is God the Father.  By His Word and Spirit He sends out the call of the Gospel to come into His vineyard, which is the church, and for His people to be about the things pertaining to the holy Vine, Jesus Christ.  Some come into the church from the first moments of their life, baptized as infants, remaining faithful their entire lives.  Others are converted as adults.  Some aren’t brought to faith in Christ the Savior until their lives are almost over.  But God gives all the same salvation at the end of the day: full forgiveness of sins, deliverance from death and the devil, everlasting life with Him in heaven.  He does this not because He is unfair, but rather, because He is generous and loving and merciful.  He pours out His gifts on His people abundantly and lavishly.  For the reward at the end of the day is given not based on our work but on the work of His Son, who lived and died and was raised again for us.
 
The problem arises when some in the vineyard of the church begin to think that their length of time and service is what earns salvation, who want God to work on the merit system.  The problem is that this attitude destroys the relationship of love that God wishes to have with His people.  Love has nothing to do with what is owed or deserved.  Real love is a freely given gift with no strings attached.  As soon as we start wanting to deal with God on the basis of what He owes us, it is no longer a relationship of love, but in the end one of manipulation, where we get God to do what we want by pulling the right strings.  We put in the good works, like a coin into the slot, and out comes the blessing.  To treat God like that is really to treat Him as nothing more than a vending machine or a puppet.
 
Besides, it’s foolishness for us to want God to give us what we deserve, anyway.  For here’s what the Scriptures say about our fair wages, “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.  The damned actually believe that God is wrong, that He’s being unfair to them.  This worsening bitterness and teeth-gritting frustration is a big part of their unending torment. 
 
Do you find yourself considering God to be unfair because of your situation in life or something that’s happened to you?  Are you one whose religion is like a contract with God, a system of rewards for your good deeds?  Do you negotiate with God in your prayers (I’ll do this for you if you do this for me)?  If so, then you are behaving like the first laborers in this parable, and you must repent.  Turn away from ranking yourself above others, turn away from your own works, and turn to the works of Christ.  Believe that it is only and entirely through Him that you receive any blessing from the Father.  Trust in Christ alone to save you from death and hell.  
 
That is the difference between the first and the last, between unbelief and faith.  Unbelievers seek a God who is fair, and when they find Him, they don’t like Him.  Believers seek a God who is merciful and gracious, and when He finds them, they love Him.  (Notice how in the parable, it’s the owner who finds the workers.  He initiates the “hiring.”)  Believers know that it is only by grace that they are even in the vineyard, no matter how long they’ve been there.  They consider it a privilege and an honor to be able to contribute to the health and the growth of the vineyard.  They are not jealous of the newcomer or the repentant restored sinner or the one converted in his dying days, but they rejoice that the same mercy that saved them 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, “The free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).”  And again, “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 (Ephesians 2:8-9).” 
 
Remember, the landowner said, “Go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.”  The word for “right” in the Greek can also be translated “righteous.”  “Whatever is righteous I will give you.”  That puts a little different perspective on that phrase, doesn’t it.  God is not simply saying, “I will give you whatever is fair,” but, “I will give to you according to my righteous plan of grace.”  “I will give to you what My righteous Son Jesus won for you.”  Or most simply, “I will give you My righteousness.”  It is written in Romans 3, “You are declared righteous freely by God's grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
 
Now this does not mean that we are to be lax and lazy about good works; not at all.  For there is something else about God’s grace here that goes even further, which we don’t often talk about: namely that once God has freely forgiven you and made you a Christian, He does offer rewards for your good works, and that also is a free gift of His mercy.  Listen to what our Lutheran Confession of faith says.  This is from the Apology or the Defense of the Augsburg Confession:  
 
“Here also we add something concerning rewards and merits. We teach that rewards have been offered and promised to the works of believers. We teach that good works are meritorious, not for the forgiveness of sins, . . . but for other rewards, bodily and spiritual, in this life and after this life, because Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:8, “Every man shall receive his own reward, according to his own labor.”  There will, therefore, be different rewards according to different labors. But the forgiveness of sins is alike and equal to all. . .  (For instance,) Paul, in Ephesians 6:2,  commends to us the commandment concerning honoring parents, by mention of the reward which is added to that commandment, where he does not mean that obedience to parents justifies us before God, but that, when it occurs in those who have been justified, it merits other great rewards.”  
Just as disobeying God’s commands can bring great trouble and hardship to people, so also keeping His commands has the promise of great blessings, both for this life and the life of the world to come. This should encourage us to do diligent work in the vineyard.
 
But then, since even this notion of rewards for good works can lead to pride, the Lutheran Reformers go on to remind us of this: “Yet God exercises His saints variously, and often defers the rewards of the righteousness of works in order that they may learn not to trust in their own righteousness, and may learn to seek the will of God rather than the rewards; as appears in Job, in Christ, and other saints” who suffered greatly while doing good.  The Word of God speaks of the blessing and the reward of doing good works, both for this life and the next.  And so we should be moved to do good works.  After all, we aren’t in the vineyard to sit around in the shade but to labor while it is day, before the night comes when no one can work.  But our work is always to be offered in the humility of faith.
 
           It is as we prayed in the Introit, “The Lord will save the humble people, but will bring down proud and haughty looks.”  Or as Jesus said, “The last will be first, and the first last.”  For this is His way.  He who is the first and the greatest humbled Himself to be the last of all on the holy cross.  He Himself is the one who bore the burden and the heat of the day that brings us the generous reward of salvation–handed over to Pontius Pilate at dawn, crucified at the third hour of the day; then darkness covered the land at the sixth hour, noon.  Our Lord died at the ninth hour as the perfect and complete sacrifice for our sin.  He was buried at the eleventh hour of the day just before sundown.  See how the work was all done before you were even brought to the faith.  Hear again those words from the cross, “It is finished.”  For you.
 
Let us then be truly full of good works by trusting in this 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.  Let us run with the certainty of faith, setting our hearts on Him, disciplining our bodies and minds, 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; but simply because it is His pleasure and delight to be generous and loving toward you, to give you whatever is right.
 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Jesus Trespasses into Baptism for Your Trespasses

Matthew 3:13-17
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.null

    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 ✠

Partaking in Christ's Sufferings

1 Peter 4:12-19; Matthew 2:13-23
Christmas 2

✠ 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.null

    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 ✠

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