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Jesus, Our Scapegoat

Leviticus 16; Matthew 4:1-11
Lent 1

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

Pretty much everyone knows what it means to be a scapegoat.  It means to be blamed for something that you didn’t do, or at least that you only had a very small role in.  A scapegoat bears the full consequences for someone else’s mistakes.  When a sports team loses, often one person in particular will be blamed–just ask the former Packers special teams coach.  When things go wrong at work or in our family, when a crisis or a tragedy occurs in the world, one of the first things that happens is scapegoating, finding someone to blame and to punish–it’s all the fault of my co-worker or my parents or this or that political leader.  We are experts at this, passing blame onto others so that we don’t get held accountable ourselves.  This ability goes all the way back to Adam, who blamed Eve for eating the forbidden fruit.  Eve herself blamed the devil.  

We usually think of scapegoating, then, as a bad thing, an unfair thing.  But the term, of course, originates in the Bible as something that God instituted and commanded.  When the Lord does it, it is actually a good and blessed thing for us.  So let us consider today how God engages in scapegoating, not to avoid blame–since He most certainly has none–but so that He can take the blame away from us and bear it Himself on our behalf.  It all begins in today’s Old Testament reading where the observance of Yom Kippur is described.  

Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement.”  Though God had commanded many different sacrifices in the Old Testament, on Yom Kippur, something special would happen.  Only on this day, the high priest would go into the Holy of Holies behind the veil in the tabernacle, bringing with him with the blood of slaughtered animals to make atonement for the people.  The blood would be sprinkled on the mercy seat above the ark of the covenant.  Through the promise God attached to these sacrifices, He was merciful to His people and covered their sins.  

All of the sacrifices of the Old Testament were opportunities for God’s people to look forward in faith to the coming of His Son to be their Savior.  Without the shedding of blood–Christ’s blood–there would be no final and complete forgiveness of sins.  All the blood that was shed in Old Testament times was meant to foreshadow the blood that Christ would shed upon the cross in order to deal with man’s sin once and for all.

The Day of Atonement, then, is really all about Jesus, especially the part about the goats.  You recall that two goats were to be selected and presented before the Lord.  One would be sacrificed; but the other would not.  Instead, the high priest would lay his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the people, and in this way put all their sins on the goat.  Then this scapegoat would be sent away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man, presumably to perish there in the desert along with the transgressions of the people.  

This is particularly interesting in light of today’s Gospel.  For just like the scapegoat, we find Jesus sent out in the wilderness, fasting for 40 days and nights, even as Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.  And just as the scapegoat had become the bearer of Israel’s sin, so Jesus here bears the sins of the world.

For Jesus had just been baptized.  Though He was without sin, yet Jesus submitted to John’s baptism, standing shoulder to shoulder with sinners, that He might be our substitute and stand-in.  There in the water God the Father made Jesus the scapegoat, laying on His head the guilt of the world, which He would take and carry away.  

And just as it was someone suitable who was to lead the goat into the wilderness in the Old Testament, it is written that the Holy Spirit immediately led Jesus up into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  It is the God’s will that He endure this for us.  Jesus does all of this in our place.  Whereas Adam had succumbed to the devil’s temptation, whereas the children of Israel had grumbled and been unfaithful in the wilderness, whereas we all too often give in to the desires of the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature, Jesus did not.  He took everything that the devil threw at Him and prevailed, for us.  He was and is entirely without sin.  

And please note that Jesus does this without using any of His divine powers.  Don’t think this was easy for Him.  Why do you think angels had to tend to Him at the end?  It wouldn’t be of much comfort to us if Jesus had done this with a brush of His almighty hand as God the Son.  Instead He humbles Himself to do this as one of us, our representative, as the Son of Man–weak, hungry, alone, face to face with the devil.  He even allows Satan to cart Him around–to the pinnacle of the temple, and then to an exceedingly high mountain.  Jesus uses nothing but the Scriptures to fight with.  And He wields the sword of the Word powerfully, skewering the devil and fighting off and defeating the him at every turn.  

“If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”  “Go ahead and give in to your self-seeking desires.  Serve your own appetites.  Who cares what your Father has said.  A little bread is no big deal.”  We would give room to the devil’s words, dialogue with Him, and perhaps even give in.  “You know, that’s true.  I’m not sinning by providing a little bread for myself.”  But Jesus stands firm and is not moved.  His food is to do the Father’s will, which means self-sacrifice.  And so for us, in our stead He simply replies, “It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” Strike one for the devil.

“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.  For it is written, ‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and ‘In their hand they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”  The devil can play the Scripture-quoting game.  Only for him, it’s just that: a game, a way of shrouding his temptation and making evil and falsehood appear to be good and holy.  Don’t think that just because someone quotes Scripture that they’re using God’s Word rightly.  Every false prophet uses the Bible.  Jesus sees through the devil’s game.  To put God the Father to the test, to ask for signs and miracles, to make Him give you evidence that He’ll really protect you and be true to His Word–that is to act not in faith but in unbelief.  It’s to put yourself above God, making Him prove Himself to you.  For our deliverance, Jesus replies, “It is written again, ‘You shall not test the Lord your God.’” Strike two.

Finally, the devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, saying, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.”  “You don’t have to suffer and go to the cross.  Let’s team up and you can get to the glory right now.”  We know that temptation to take the path of least resistance, to follow the crowd and avoid offending people, to take the easy way out rather than the narrow way.  But on our behalf, Jesus says, “Away with you Satan!  For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’” Strike three.  The devil’s out.

The good news for us today is that because Jesus was there as our stand-in, being tempted in our own flesh and blood, His victory over the devil now counts as ours, too.  Whatever the devil had accomplished through the temptation in the Garden of Eden, Jesus has completely undone in His own sinless temptation.  That’s what the hymn is all about when it says, “But for us fights the Valiant One, whom God Himself elected.  Ask ye who is this?  Jesus Christ it is.  Of sabaoth Lord, and there’s none other God.  He holds the field forever.”  On this wilderness battlefield, the devil has been routed.  Through faith in what Christ has done, the sin of Adam your father is no longer what’s most true about you; now the faithfulness of Christ your Brother is your true identity before the Father.  You are children of God through faith in Him.

In all of this, Jesus is our great High Priest, the one who makes sacrifice for us to rescue us–except that Jesus is both the sacrificer and the sacrifice.  The blood He sprinkles on us in baptism to cleanse us is His own.  He is both goats to accomplish our Day of Atonement.  First, He is the one cast into the wilderness, actively obeying His Father’s will in our place, who was tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin.  Then, bearing all of our sins He is the second goat, passively being offered up on the mercy seat of the cross.  Out of great love for you, Jesus has willingly made Himself to be your scapegoat.  In Him you are free from blame.  And in Him you are free from the need to blame others.  Jesus has covered it all, for you.  

Therefore, since we have such a High Priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses, and who stands before the throne of the Father in heaven as our mediator, let us come boldly to the throne of grace–let us come boldly to the altar in faith–that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

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

Signaling the Virtue of Jesus

Ash Wednesday
Matt 6:1-6, 16-21

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

There was no internet or social media when our Lord preached today’s Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount.  The average person didn’t dream of “going viral,” and merchants didn’t tell people to “be sure to like us on Facebook and Twitter.”  There were no YouTube personalities and Instagram celebrities.

But even though technology has changed, human nature hasn’t.  In every decade and century and millennium, the fallen old Adam craves attention and loves to be seen by other people in order to be praised by them. The same thing that is true now was true in the first century–we naturally seek reward and approval from others more than God.

Today we call it “virtue signaling”–doing certain things publicly and for show to indicate that you’re a good person and that you support the right things.  In a lot of ways, it’s the contemporary version of being a Pharisee–wearing your righteousness on your sleeve so that others will see you and notice you.  But our Lord says today to beware of practicing your righteousness to be seen by other people.  If that is your motivation for doing such things, then “you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”  For if the goal is a dopamine rush for someone noticing you, well, you have your reward.  But that good feeling only lasts a little while.  It’s not a treasure that endures

.

The righteousness that our Lord offers to us instead is not a passing and phony good feeling but rather eternal life and communion with Him.  Instead of minutes or hours, it lasts forever.  Jesus came to give us this righteousness as a free gift.  And as a result of this gift, we are freed up to do truly good works for the right reasons.

The Old Adam in us is a hypocrite who does religion and good works lovelessly, for himself.  He doesn’t give to the needy because his neighbor is in need; rather he does it in order to “sound the trumpet before [him], that is to say, to “toot his own horn.”  That’s why Jesus says not even to let your left hand know what your right hand is doing when you give.  The old Adam doesn’t pray with his eyes focused upwards on God, but sideways on the neighbor and what he thinks.  That’s why Jesus says, go into your room and close the door when you pray.  The old Adam doesn’t fast and engage in self-denial for the sake of leading a more disciplined Christian life but in order to look super spiritual.  That’s why Jesus says to wash your face and anoint your head and get yourself all put together like usual when you fast.  And of all these good works Jesus says: Let it be in secret.  Trust that God the Father sees.  Let your reward be from Him and not from man.

And I should add another warning here.  The Old Adam can even twist these Gospel words. He says, “Well, since people often do these good works for self-serving reasons, I’m not going to be a hypocrite.  My solution is that I’m not going to give special attention to any of these spiritual disciplines.  No danger of me praying in front of others or fasting or giving away my money to charity and church.  I’m just going to do my usual other stuff.”  But that’s just falling into the ditch on the opposite side of the road.  Jesus doesn’t speak of these things as if they’re optional.  It’s not if but, “When you do a charitable deed...”  “When you pray...”  “When you fast...”  So consider how you will do these things, not only during Lent, but beyond as well–how you will give to support the ministry of the Gospel and your neighbor in need; how you will engage in daily prayer and what resources you might use to do that; how you will discipline your body through fasting and self-denial and bring it into subjection.  Beware of letting the abuse of these practices cause you to abandon them.

Our Lord came to crucify the Old Adam in us, and to give us a new life in Christ, who is the New Adam–to give us a renewed self that is motivated by true righteousness and actual self-giving love.  Though we inherit a mortal curse from our father Adam, we are given immortal blessing in our brother Jesus.

The name “Adam” is closely related in Hebrew to the word “adamah” – meaning “dust or dirt”  He was created from the dirt, and so that is his name.  The Word of God is clear for him and for all of us who have fallen with Adam, “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.”

The ashes that are applied to you on this day are a reminder of that.  But they are more than that.  For ashes are not merely dust; they are what’s left after something has been burned.  And so it is that they remind us of the sacrifices of old, the burnt offerings.  Those burned animal sacrifices were performed in view of the once-for-all, final sacrifice of Jesus, who suffered hell for us to redeem us.  That’s why those ashes are in the shape of a cross.  They are a sign of repentance–not only the sorrow over sin, but also the turning away from sin toward Christ who forgives us and sets us free.  The ashes are more than just dust, for they proclaim the sure and certain hope we have that we will be raised from the dust in the resurrection of the body on the Last Day.

So we receive the ashes on our bodies, not as a work of righteousness to parade before men.  It is not virtue signaling, but an act of humble honesty.  It is an admission of guilt and a cry for help as we stand at the edge of our graves, teetering between life and death.  But above all it is a statement of faith in the One who conquered the grave.  And so on this day we cry out, “Lord, have mercy; Jesus help!”

And the Lord does indeed help us; He comes to our rescue.  For He redeemed you and called you by name, when His name, the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit was placed upon you–when, not only your head, but your very soul was washed in baptismal water, cleansed, and given the gift of eternal life.

That’s why we have the ancient custom of tracing that sign of the cross on your forehead at your baptism, as we say in the baptismal liturgy: “Receive the sign of the holy cross both upon your forehead and upon your heart to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified.”  Remember that as you wash off the ashes later.  You are cleansed in Christ, marked and signed and redeemed by His holy cross.

It is also the custom for the pastor to make the sign of the cross upon your forehead on your deathbed.  The sign of the cross is even made on your casket at your burial, tracing the sign of the holy cross upon you one more time until the Crucified One rouses you from your body’s slumber and raises you in the flesh to everlasting life, which is the fulfillment of your baptism.

Believing and living in this truth, we are freed from being dependent on the clicks and the likes and the back-patting and the praise of people; we are freed to be God-pleasers rather than man-pleasers, storing up treasure not on earth but in heaven.  Instead of signaling our own virtues, we point to and praise the virtues of our Savior, who sacrificed all to win you back through the hidden and secret means of the cross.  Hidden in secret beneath the goriness of the crucifixion is the glory of God and the love of God for you.  The Father sees in secret and honors His Son’s work, and He now reveals openly the mystery of the cross through His Word.  Through the foolishness of the preaching of Christ crucified, He saves you who believe.

So trust in Him.  Trust that He sees you and knows you and that He will give you openly the reward of Christ on the Last Day.

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

The Power of the Seed

Luke 8:4-15
Sexagesima

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

In His parable about the sower and the seed, Jesus is teaching us again about the kingdom of God.  Through the common symbols in this story–a farmer, seeds, various kinds of soil–He is teaching us about higher and greater things.

As we move farther and farther away from being an agricultural society though, and as children are less educated, especially about where food comes from, you wonder how long it will be before future preachers will have to explain what a seed even is.  Then again, if you have never seen a seed germinate and sprout, it may actually add to the wonder of our Lord’s story.  For what if you knew nothing about seeds, and I handed one to you, and told you that if you put it in the dirt and put water on it, in a few decades it could possibly feed 1000 people?

You might think that this sounds like superstition; it doesn’t sound possible.  For how does a little seed know what to do?  Where do the stem, the roots, and the leaves come from?  And what about the fruit?  And how does it seem to work perfectly all the time – if it has the right conditions to grow?

The original listeners of our Lord’s story all knew that if you plant seeds, they will grow and become food, if they were placed in good soil and watered.  People were more connected to where food came from.  They didn’t just figure that it magically appeared on the store shelves.

But what a wondrous thing a seed is if you’ve never seen or heard about it before!  Many of us planted seeds in a little paper cup in school when we were children, perhaps a sunflower seed.  We observed with wonder as the little stem burst forth out of the dirt and started to grow leaves.  And if we stuck with it long enough, the sunflower might have grown to be taller even then our dads, with a flower bigger than a grown-up’s face – and in time, it would have a bunch of new seeds in the middle – which we could plant and start the process again – with no limit to the potential number of plants that would come from that original seed.

This sense of wonder should equally apply to the Word of God.  For the seed in our Lord’s story symbolizes the Word of God.  Just as the little seed contains microscopic DNA instructions embedded in the cells, which start working like a computer program when water signals the seed to do its thing – so too does the Word of God contain power – true power to bear everlasting life by germinating faith in Christ.  The DNA of salvation is carried within the preached Word of God.  How it works exactly, we don’t know any more than the original hearers of Jesus knew how seeds germinate and mature.  They didn’t know about DNA in the first century.  But they knew that the seed had some kind of hidden power: power to feed an countless people – so long as there was water and good soil.

The Kingdom of God also begins with water: baptismal water that sets in motion the activation of the Word of God.  Water and the seed of the Word are placed onto and into the dirt.  And you are that dirt.  For you are sons and daughters of Adam who was created from the dirt and dust of the ground.  From this watered Seed faith sprouts.  It starts out small.  Its beginnings are humble.  But it grows.  And with the right conditions, a seed will transform into a large plant, multiplying itself a hundredfold.

In our Lord’s story, the sower of the seed tosses it everywhere.  He doesn’t discriminate.  He doesn’t try to predict what soil will ultimately be good soil.  Likewise, preachers do not discriminate.  We cannot predict who will hear the Word and come to faith.  We cannot see into hearts.  We cannot point to any group or category of person and project who will be good soil and believe, and who will ultimately prove to be bad soil, and the Word of God will die in their hearts.  We don’t know, so we just sow our seeds everywhere, recklessly and at times desperately.  Sometimes we preach convinced that nobody is listening, that nobody cares, that our words are being wasted.  But the Word, of course, is never wasted.  It carries out the purposes of God regardless of appearances.  And when we least expect it, sometimes in surprising ways, the Word takes root and grows in the hearts of our hearers.

First, Jesus speaks of the seed sown “on the path.”  It was trampled on, like those who mock the Word of God and try to trample it down through lies and distortions, hardening people’s hearts to what it says like a footworn path.  The seed was carried away by birds.  This is like the devil coming and snatching away the Word of God because it never had the chance to take root.  

Second, Jesus speaks of other seed that falls amid rocky soil.  It doesn’t get enough moisture and dies.  This is like those who initially hear the word “with joy.”  But their faith is shallow, built in large part on feelings and how well God seems to be coming through for them at the moment.  But the Word itself has “no root.”  And as soon as difficult times come–relationship troubles, financial difficulty, a bad health diagnosis–this person loses his or her faith.

Third, Jesus speaks of seed that does take root and sprouts, but then gets choked out by thorns, and it bears no fruit.  This is like the people who hear God’s Word, who may even come to church fairly regularly.  But then they go out and get distracted by the “cares and riches and pleasures of life.”  These are all the things that make us anxious and fearful and stressed out, and it’s also all the distractions that this world offers–the phone screens, the never-ending sports, the mindless media entertainment–all of this leads to a faith that fails to bear the fruit of good works in God’s sight.

Hearing all this, it’s easy to see ourselves unfortunately in the first three soils, isn’t it–at times having a shallow faith, or distracted from the Word, or hard-hearted and cold to its message.  When we hear of the fourth soil, the good soil in which the seed sprouts and grows up healthy and strong, those who hear the Word with a noble and good heart who bear fruit one hundred fold, it’s hard for us to look in the mirror and say, “That’s a description of me.”  This parable most certainly is call for us all to repent.

But let your repentance be the kind that turns you to Christ.  For at the end of the day, the good seed in the good fourth soil in this parable is a description of Jesus.  He is the eternal Word of God, the Seed, who has taken root in the earth of our humanity–fully human but entirely without the rocks and thorns and hardness of sin.  He has sprung up from the grave and yielded a crop a hundred fold, bringing you the abundant fruit of forgiveness and new life.

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

In this way our Lord has overcome all that stands against you, all that keeps you from having life, all that keeps you from growing to maturity.  In Christ you are free from hard-heartedness and the rocks of shallow faith and the thorns of this world.  In Christ alone you are the holy fourth soil, pure and righteous and fruitful and forgiven.  In Him you have a noble and good heart, as we pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”  In you, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Word of God is implanted.  It is sown in the soil of your body even today, preached into your ears, placed on your very tongues in the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.  The power of God to give life is in the Seed.  And the Seed of the Word is in you and with you and for you, the Word of the Father who wants with all His heart for you to share forever in His life.

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

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Larry Beane)

You Made Them Equal to Us!

Matthew 20:1-16
Septuagesima

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

One way of understanding today’s Gospel is that it’s a debate about equality, and whether or not equality is a good thing.  The laborers who had worked all day in the vineyard did not favor equality.  For when those who worked fewer hours were paid a full day’s wage by the landowner, their complaint was  “You made them equal to us!”  They didn’t like that.  

And to some extent we can understand their complaint.  It doesn’t seem particularly fair to reward everyone equally for unequal work–sort of like a group project in school where one or two people do all the heavy lifting, but the slacker in the group still gets an “A” grade.  Imagine if everyone in the Olympics was rewarded equally after the competitions, and the person who fell three times in a skating event received the same medal as the one who performed all the jumps flawlessly.

In this sense we can rightly say that sometimes equality is not good.  Coercing and forcing equal outcomes and rewards is fundamentally unjust, no matter how the socialists and Marxists want to spin it.  It is good and just that the one who works harder, takes more risk, has more responsibility is given a higher wage.

But then what’s going on in today’s Gospel parable?  Well to begin with, Jesus is not speaking about politics or economics here.  Nothing that He says here has to do with being a republican or a democrat, a social justice warrior or a free-market capitalist.  This is not about the kingdoms and power structures of this world.  For what does Jesus say?  “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.”  So let us zero in today on what Jesus is teaching us about the way things work in God’s kingdom, how He desires to treat us, and what that means for us who have been called to work in the vineyard of His church.

“You made them equal to us!”  The complaint was accurate; that’s what the landowner did.  So in what ways are we all equal in God’s sight?  Firstly, we are all equally created by God, knit together by Him in our mother’s womb, and therefore equal in dignity and worth as human beings, made in the image of God–whoever we are, wherever we come from.  But as Scripture makes clear, that image has been broken in each one of us.  We are also equal before the Lord in this respect, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Not a single one of us can lay claim to some sort of heavenly reward or say that God owes us anything.  In fact, quite the contrary.  The wages we have earned by our work, the equal wages of sin is death.  If God were to be just and fair with us and give us what we deserve, eternal death is what we’d all receive.

This is where we begin to see the difference between the first laborers in the vineyard and the later laborers.  For the first, they thought that anything good they received was based on their work, what they did.  They were operating under the principles of a contract; a day’s wage for a day’s work–that’s what a denarius is.  But notice how it was for the later workers.  The landowner said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.”  Now if that was you, would you go and work for this man, without any idea of what you’d be paid?  Well it 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 don’t trust the landowner, you probably won’t go into his vineyard.  If you do, you will.

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 the Law, a legal agreement; the last were dealing with him on the basis of the Gospel, faith 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 huge difference.

Remember, the Lord is not unfair with the first men.  He is just very generous to the others.  The Law was not broken.  The first received a just and fair wage.  He tells them, “Go your way.”  “You want it to be all your way, based on your work, fine.  Take it and go.  But I wish to be gracious to these others and bring them joy.  If that makes you grumpy, too bad.”  Hell is filled with grumbling and complaining against God.  The damned in their pride actually believe that God is wrong, that He's somehow cheating them, that His grace is unfair.  This worsening bitterness and teeth-gritting frustration is 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 trusting in 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.  

Unbelievers seek a God who is fair, and then 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 to be able to work in the vineyard and contribute to its health and growth.  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.  They’re glad to say to the Lord, “You have made them equal to us!”  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 (Eph. 2:8-9).”

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

So to bring this full circle, Jesus is like that classmate who is the only one in your group who understands the material and who gives you to share in His perfect score on the project.  He is like the gold medal winner who invites you up onto the podium to share in His glory.  He is the one who gives you “whatever is right,” that is, His own righteousness and undeserved love as a gift.

And now, living in that confidence, we are freed to do truly good works, without calculating what’s in it for us or what reward we’re going to get out of it.  Instead of ranking ourselves above others and sneering at equality with them, we give attention to the words of St. Paul when he says, “Count others more significant than yourselves.”  1 Corinthians 12 speaks about how it is in the body of Christ, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor. . . God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”  We are all one body in Christ, we have all equally received the denarius of grace.

Let us then attend to the work of the vineyard of the Church and be full of good works by trusting in the grace of Christ alone to save us.  Let us run in such a way as to obtain the prize of life with Christ.  Let us fight the good fight 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 good pleasure to be generous and loving toward you.

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

You Have Kept the Good Wine Until Now

John 2:1-11
Epiphany 2

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

We tend to think wrongly about miracles.  We think of them as basically just a bit of divine magic.  Jesus heals someone, or calms a storm, or in today’s case, He does something fun and produces 150 gallons of fine wine.  And our focus is directed almost entirely on the supernatural event rather than on the One who makes it happen and what it means about Him.  We become more enthralled with the spectacle of what Jesus does than with who He is.  And then we begin to wonder, “Well, where’s my miracle?”  We begin to desire something spectacular and miraculous more than we desire the words and the presence of God. We seek an extraordinary experience from Jesus more than we seek Jesus Himself.

And so it’s good to remember that the miracle in today’s Gospel is called a sign.  A sign’s purpose is to direct our attention to something more than itself, to the real presence of the Creator and the Redeemer of the world.  Jesus’ miracles aren’t examples of how if you ask Jesus the right way, you’ll get your miracle too. The miracles aren’t little bits of Jesus interfering with the normal course of events, with the expectation that He’ll do the same for you if you just believe in Him enough.  After all, almost nobody believed in Jesus in today’s Gospel until after the water became wine anyway.  Signs like these reveal Jesus for who He is, namely, the Word who created all things and who upholds everything in Himself.  John even says at the end of his Gospel that Jesus did many more signs, but he wrote down seven of them in His Gospel so that you might believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and have life in His name. And if we take John seriously, (which we should) once you believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, there’s no need for miracles any more, is there?  Because you already have the One to whom the signs are pointing.  There’s nothing wrong with praying for God to intervene in our lives to heal or help, even miraculously so if that is His will.  But we always do so with the understanding that we already have everything that we need in the risen Jesus and His words.

So let’s consider this miracle, with our eyes squarely fixed on Jesus to whom this sign is pointing.  First of all, this miracle is not primarily about marriage and how Jesus approves of marriage–although, of course, He does.  He’s the one who invented and instituted marriage.  It’s worth reminding ourselves of that in a world where most people think that it’s just fine to join themselves together sexually without God first joining them together in marriage.  A man and a woman are not to give themselves to each other in this way until God has given them to each other.  It’s as simple as that.  Think of how much heartache and trouble would be avoided if people simply honored marriage in that way.  Marriage is God’s good gift.  To reject it in favor of your own ways of finding sexual fulfillment is to reject God.  Scripture begins with the wedding of Adam and Eve and ends with the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end.  And it is especially that marriage of Christ and the Church that the wedding feast at Cana is meant to be a sign of for us.

This miracle is also not about divinely approved drinking, though Jesus certainly is no prohibitionist.  In fact the religious types in His day called Him a glutton and a drunkard, and no doubt they had this incident on their checklist.  150 gallons of wine at a time when the people had already emptied the supply is hardly an endorsement for the use of grape juice.  But this, too, is only incidental.  Wine represents joy, “wine that gladdens the hearts of men” as Scripture puts it.  This is more than Jesus eliminating the middle man and saving them a trip to the liquor store.  This is about joy overflowing in the age of Messiah, when, as Amos said, “the mountains shall drip with sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it.”  

So back to the story.  Mary tells Jesus, “They have no wine.”  We don’t know how she found out, or if someone in charge tipped her off.  But this rather indirect statement is intended to be a pretty big hint for Jesus, “You could do something about this, if you wanted.”  Jesus seems a little put off by the suggestion, though.  “Woman, what does that have to do with Me?”  Then Jesus says one of those rich, pregnant phrases:  My hour has not yet come.  That term, “hour,” in John’s Gospel refers to the moment when Jesus will bring glory to the Father by laying down His life on the cross for us.  This is a big reminder to us that there is much more to miracles than we realize; they are always connected to His sacrificial death.  For miracles are a setting right of what has gone wrong in this fallen world, even something relatively trivial like running out of wine.  And things are only truly set right when Jesus conquers the curse at Calvary.  

Whatever else Jesus might have said, or whatever look He gave Mary, she seems confident that He will do something, so she says the last words ever recorded from her in the Scriptures:  “Do whatever He tells you,” which isn’t bad advice all the way around.  If you want to know what Mary would tell us today, it’s the same thing:  “Do whatever my Son Jesus tells you.”

So Jesus has them fill six stone jars with water, then draw some of it out, and bring it to the master of the feast.  And when he tastes it, it’s as if he’s popped open a vintage $1000 bottle of wine at a fancy restaurant.  “You have saved the best for last.”  That wasn’t meant to be a compliment, by the way.  The master of the feast was basically calling the bridegroom stupid, wasting the good stuff on people who wouldn’t appreciate it because their taste buds were dulled; the guests had already “well drunk.”  This is how our Lord operates, though.  Even to people who don’t deserve it and who won’t always appreciate it as they should–people like us–He still pours out and offers His gifts, out of love and mercy and grace.

Even if the world thinks that it’s foolish, God had indeed saved the best vintage for last.  The Epistle to the Hebrews says that in the former days, God spoke to His people by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son.  John begins his gospel by saying, “The Law came through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”  This miracle is a commentary on that.  One greater than Moses and the prophets is here.  The Son of God has appeared.  The Word through whom all things were made has become Flesh and dwells among us.  It is the age of Messiah; the end times have begun–the best for last.

John tells us that this sign happened “on the third day.”  That phrase ought to take you back to Genesis, and the third day of creation, when the Word called forth vegetation from the earth, including the grapevines which still today produce our Cabernets and Merlots and Zinfandels.  It was a kind of “resurrection day,” the day life first rose and sprang up from the earth.  And of course, every Christian who hears that phrase “on the third day,” immediately thinks: “Easter!”  The third day is resurrection day in Christian vocabulary, when He who is the source of the new creation Himself sprang forth from the tomb.  This wedding, then, is a foretaste of the feast to come in the resurrection.

There were six stone jars waiting to be filled.  Six is not quite a fulfilled seven.  The Law of Moses can only get you so far, but not far enough.  Washing water, but not wedding wine.  You may try to keep the Law, and you should, but your commandment keeping will always come up short.  Moses can tell you to wash your hands before dinner, but only Jesus can fill your glass with joy–the joy of undeserved kindness, of sins forgiven freely, of deliverance from death and condemnation.  Man was created on the 6th day.  And on another 6th day, that Good Friday, Jesus recreated and redeemed mankind by His sacrifice and the cleansing blood and water that poured from His side.

“You have saved the best for last.”  In the fulness of time, when everything was perfectly aligned, God uncorked His finest vintage, He sent His Son to be born of a virgin mother to redeem fallen humanity from sin and death.  We are like that wedding feast run dry.  Without joy, without cause for celebration, without wine.  Sin has left us parched and weary, and the best we have by our own spirituality is six stone jars full of commandments, and how-to manuals, and principles for living that cannot impart life, that cannot save.

However, into our dry and dreary lives, Jesus has come.  He took up your humanity in His conception and birth.  He came to have fellowship with you, to sit at the table with you.  And He brings the good stuff, the finest vintage there is.  God saves the best for last.  When people have drunk their fill of principles and methods and how-to rules, when they’ve had all the commandment-keeping and positive thinking philosophy that they can swallow, Jesus comes to bring true joy, a joy that can be found nowhere else but in Him.

The wedding at Cana is still going on; it continues among us. We have the sacramental sign of water, which is more than water, the baptismal washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.  We have the sacramental sign of bread and wine which is more than bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ given and shed for our forgiveness. In that sense, then, we see miraculous signs all the time, signs that reveal the real presence of Christ among us, that we might believe in Him and have life in His name.  He reveals to you His glory, the glory of His death that  makes you His own. This is His wedding party where He is the Groom, and the master of the feast, and the wine, and you all together are His Churchly Bride.

Our Lord has one more vintage that He will give to you on the Last Day.  Soon this world’s party will permanently run dry, and Jesus will appear in glory to raise the dead to life.  And then with a new, resurrected body and a life forgiven and restored and joy overflowing, you will see that God truly has saved the best for last for you in Jesus.

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

(With thanks to the Rev. William Cwirla)

Losing Track of Jesus

Luke 2:41-52

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

The Gospel of Luke gives us more detail about Jesus’ childhood than any other Gospel.  Luke begins his Gospel by telling us that his account is an orderly and careful narrative based on eyewitness testimony.  We get a strong hint as to who one of those eyewitnesses is in today’s reading.  Luke points out that “His mother kept all these things in her heart”–just as earlier we heard at Jesus’ birth when the shepherds came that “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.”  Luke is able to give us these details because Mary was there for it all, and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit Luke recounts her true story.  

This story has the ring of truth to it all the more since Mary doesn’t make herself look particularly good.  She, along with Joseph, lost track of Jesus for an entire day before they even noticed that He wasn’t there!  Think about that.  Mary and Joseph were faithful parents, but also parents of a sinless child–one who did what He was supposed to do, who honored and obeyed and never rebelled against His mother or father.  So perhaps they became a bit lax here.  You can understand how it would have been easy for them to take for granted that Jesus was where He was supposed to be on that journey home–in the large caravan of family and friends that they were traveling in for safety’s sake.

Have you ever done that–taken Jesus for granted and not paid attention to Him like you should?  It can be easy to get lax and lazy about looking to Christ, meditating on His Word, praying to Him. You figure you know enough about Jesus; you don’t really need Bible class, you went to Sunday School!  It’ll be fine if you don’t have daily devotions or give attention to Jesus’ Word for a while.  As you travel through life and go along with the crowd you turn your attention elsewhere and leave Jesus behind.  Next thing you know, you’ve journeyed a long way from your Lord.  Perhaps the fear has even struck you, “What if there’s no way back and I’m cut off from Him?  What if I’m the one who’s lost because I lost Him?”  You can understand Mary’s panic that she had lost track of the Savior Himself.  Perhaps the anxiety we often feel in our own life comes from the distance we’ve built up between ourselves and Jesus.

And then Mary does something that we also do in the midst of our worry and anxiety and stress; she says to Jesus, “Why have you done this to us?”  Even though it’s our own neglect or failings, we still want to blame the Lord for what we endure, as if the sinless One has somehow not done the right thing by us.  When we go through hard or stressful times, we can be tempted to say, “Lord, why did you do this to me?” as if the consequences of our fall into sin were His fault.  Of course, you can also hear the good motherly tone in Mary’s voice, which is not simply expressing anger but relief at finding Him, and wonder at what He was doing there.

Jesus’ response to His mother indicates that they should’ve known all along that He would’ve been in His Father’s house.  “Why did you seek Me?” He said.  This was an easy one.  And yet it clearly illustrates how we fallen human beings tend to search for God and seek His presence in the wrong places.  We think we can get closer to Him by going out into nature.  We think we can get closer to Him through spiritualized self-help philosophies, in superstitious experiences, in the emotions of the heart.  But that’s not where God has promised to be with His grace.

The Lord is to be found in His temple.  And Jesus begins to reveal to us here that the temple, the true and abiding dwelling place of God is not a building but the eternal flesh of Christ.  Jesus is Himself the temple.  For it is written that in Christ all the fullness of God dwells in bodily form.  Therefore, if you wish to seek God, you must seek Christ and nothing else.  And if you are seeking Christ, you must look for Him according to His human nature; in those physical, audible, concrete places where He is present for you.  Seek Him in His Word and preaching.  Listen for His help in confession and absolution.  Find Him in the supper of His body and blood, given for your forgiveness and healing.  Jesus is still about His Father’s business, teaching us and comforting us and giving out His gifts of life and deliverance and hope.

The human nature of Jesus here is the key thing.  You may be wondering, if Jesus is God–and He is–why would He be asking the teachers questions, as the Gospel says.  How could He grow in wisdom if He already knows all things? Well, remember that prior to His resurrection, Jesus was in what we call the state of humiliation.  In other words, He didn’t make use of His divine knowledge; He had emptied Himself of His powers as God.  So when Jesus amazes the teachers, it wasn’t as if He was cheating and using His divine omniscience.  Rather, right there before the teachers is perfect humanity, a boy who loves His heavenly Father and who is absolutely enthralled with pondering the Scriptures, who has no sin to cloud His understanding and insight.  Jesus had been hearing and learning the Scriptures all His life and was growing up with a perfect, sinless grasp of them as a true human being.  Jesus was living that perfect and holy life for us so that He might give us His holiness as a gift and make us perfectly human again.  In Jesus, we learn to love the Word of God and to ponder it and meditate on it just as He did.

All of this happens when Jesus is at the age of twelve.  At this age, Jewish boys would begin to leave the society of women and enter the society of men. The rabbis instructed Jewish fathers to be gentle with their boys until age twelve, and then begin to teach them the way of manly living, including strict discipline if necessary. Probably at this point, Joseph would have begun serious teaching of his carpentry trade to Jesus. The twelve-year old Jesus was now being treated as a man, and that is why He went up with Joseph to Jerusalem for the Passover.

The point is, a Jewish boy begins to do his work at age 12. And at twelve, we see Jesus already apply Himself to His proper work – not only the things of His guardian-father, Joseph, but especially the things of His heavenly Father.  For He says to Mary His mother, “Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” Conceived without the aid of a man in the womb of the blessed virgin Mary, God the Father is Jesus’ Father–in a way that is different than God is our Father. Jesus is the only-begotten Son of God, of one substance with the Father.  Jesus is the Son of God by nature; we are children of God by grace through faith in Him.

So now Jesus begins to apply Himself to the work that the Father has given Him to do, and He will keep on working until that work is perfected.  In Jerusalem 21 years later, He will say, “It is finished.”  Remember that Jesus is in the temple, the place where sacrifices would occur.  It was the time of the Passover, when the lamb would be offered up and it’s blood shed in remembrance of how death passed over God’s people in Egypt.  Jesus is the Lamb of God, whose shed blood causes eternal death to pass over you, whose holy cross takes away the sins of the world.  

So twice Mary would have to feel the loss of her Son, when He had to be about His Father’s business.  Mary surely recalled this day in the temple as she stood at the foot of her Son’s cross, and lost Him again, this time to death and the grave, only to receive Him back again on the third day, risen from the dead.  Here Jesus said, “Why did you seek me?”  Later angels would announce to the women at the tomb, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”  The cross and resurrection were etched into Jesus’ entire life.  Jesus had to be about His Father’s business, dying and rising, to rescue Mary and you and me and the world from sin and death.  He is alive to lift you from emptiness and despair and to give His life and His mercy to you.

You may sometimes lose track of Jesus, but He never loses track of you.  He grows in wisdom and stature to perfectly restore your humanity and to bring you back again into the Father’s good graces.  Jesus lived your whole life for you, even the challenging years of young adulthood, in order to give you new life with God.  Your hold on Him may grow weak; but His baptismal hold on you is strong and sure.  He put His saving name on you, and He’s not going to go back on His Word.  You can count on this Jesus, true God in the flesh, who already as a Boy is applying Himself to His work on your behalf.

So then, brothers and sisters of Christ, let us now be about our Father’s temple business in this new year.  Let us not be conformed to this world and drift with the crowd away from Christ Jesus.  But rather let us be transformed by His words and sacraments, treasuring them up in our hearts, growing up into Him who is our Head.  By the mercies of God, offer up your bodies as living sacrifices in love for one another, holy and acceptable to God in Christ.  Seek the Lord in His holy house, until we finally come to the stature of the fullness of Christ on the Last Day.

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

Your Brother in the Flesh Stands Up for You

Acts 6:8 - 7:2a; 7:51-60
St. Stephen’s Day

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

It really is a little bit jarring to hear readings like those appointed for this day, St. Stephen’s Day.  In a season normally associated with merriment and good cheer, in the midst of our specially decorated churches, it seems strange at first that this 2nd day of Christmas, the season marking Christ’s birth, should be devoted to meditating on a martyr’s death.  The message of the angels was, “Peace on earth, good will toward men.”  There doesn’t appear to be either peace or good will in Stephen’s bloody murder.

The holy Child Jesus has indeed brought peace between God and man.  For God and man have been brought together again quite literally in Jesus.  That’s why He is the only Way for you to be reconciled to God; He alone bridges and rejoins heaven and earth in Himself.  But Christ Jesus was delivered and born of woman in order that He might be delivered into the hands of sinful men; God’s good will toward men is manifested in how He was willing to be despised and rejected by men to win our forgiveness.  The wisdom of the church’s calendar reminds us today that those who follow and cling to this Jesus can expect the possibility of similar despising and rejection in this world.  Our Lord said in Luke 12, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”  How’s that for an inspirational message from Jesus!  Peace with God means enmity with the world.  The righteousness of Christ given as a free gift will always be at odds with the righteousness that man tries to achieve for Himself through his own spirituality.

We see this division, this enmity very clearly as Stephen stands before the Sanhedrin.  Stephen speaks the truth to them, the truth of how they resist the Holy Spirit, who calls them to repentance, to turn from their works to Christ’s that they might be saved.  Earlier at Pentecost, the hearers of Peter’s preaching were cut and pierced to the heart, and they said, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”  They were brought to repentance and were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins.  Now, these members of the Sanhedrin are also cut to the heart it says by Stephen’s preaching.  But a different word is used here showing that their stony hearts were not pierced–like seed on the hardened path.  For it says they gnashed their teeth at him–gritting their teeth and growling like the beasts their sin had reduced them to.  One cannot help but think about our Lord’s words regarding those who reject Him in unbelief–for them there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth forever.

Stephen also testified to the truth of what he saw in that moment: the heavens were opened and Jesus was standing at God’s right hand.  The Sanhedrin–the same council that had condemned our Lord–when they heard Stephen say this, they stopped their ears, literally putting their hands to the sides of their heads, and they rushed at him with one accord, cast him out of the city, and stoned him to death.

There are several things we should learn from this.  To begin with, we must confess that we also don’t like it when our sin is laid before our eyes and we are called to turn from it.  Our old Adam is a one-man Sanhedrin, who tries to silence the ones calling us to repentance–either by verbally stoning them and attacking them or just by covering our ears, so to speak, ignoring the truth.  God grant that when you are confronted with His Word of truth and cut to the heart, you will be pierced and given repentance, that He will unclench your jaw and unstop your ears, and create in you a clean heart and renew a right spirit within you.

Most clearly, though, we learn from Stephen’s martyrdom how this fallen world, with the powers that uphold its false spiritualities, is a Sanhedrin to Christ’s church.  The world does not want to hear the words of God and wants to silence the voice of those who confess the Christian faith and the saving name of Jesus.  Whether it’s in matters of the teaching on creation, or sexuality and marriage or, above all, in matters of salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, the world stops its ears to the truth, it mocks and marginalizes the faithful, and where possible it tries to cast them out as hateful blasphemers of the cultural dogma and underminers of society.  We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we’ve yet been persecuted in any way approaching that of the early church.  But many of you have been given to glimpse and to experience not just disagreement but the utter disdain the world has for you and your beliefs and your Lord Jesus who said, “If the world hates you, know that it hated Me before it hated you” (John 15:18).

So let us take to heart the words of 1 Peter 4, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”  

Stephen was blessed by God in this way, rejoicing even in the face of his mortal enemies.  It is written that his face was like the face of an angel.  What does that mean?  Well, where are the angels’ faces turned?  Jesus said that they always see the face of His Father in heaven.  The angels reflect His glory.  So it is also with Stephen.  His face reflects the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  We become like that which we fix our eyes on.  Wasn’t Stephen like Jesus here, asking forgiveness for his enemies, commending his spirit into God’s hands?  We have the sure promise of Scripture, “When [Jesus] is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”

Stephen speaks as one baptized.  For He saw the heavens opened, as they were at Jesus’ baptism.  The heavens are opened for all who are baptized into Him, for you.  And in these opened heavens, what does Stephen see but Jesus standing at God’s right hand.  Ordinarily, we use the language of the creed, that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God, the position of ruling and reigning.  But here He is standing.  This is important to note.  For consider that Stephen is on trial here.  This is a courtroom scene.  Though he is condemned to death by the Sanhedrin, there is One who stands in his defense, who intercedes and speaks on His behalf before the court of the Most High, and who will deliver Stephen from the judgment of ungodly men.

And so it is also for you.  Jesus stood in for you in death as your substitute, and now He stands up for you as your Intercessor and Advocate and Defender.  It is written in Romans 8, “Who shall bring a charge against God’s chosen ones? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: ‘For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.’  Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”  Sin and Satan and the world may condemn and attack you, but you have a mighty Defender and Advocate before the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous.  He Himself was cut to the heart for you, pierced with a spear, and the blood and water that flowed cleanses you and protects you.  It is good that we stand up for Jesus and confess our faith in Him as Stephen certainly did here.  But what finally counts in the end is that Jesus stands up for you, the incarnate and risen Lord, who has human feet and legs to stand with, your blood Brother, the Almighty Son of God.  

And if I may carry this one final step further: standing is also a sign of honor.  Jesus here is honoring Stephen; He stands as if to receive Stephen out of this world and unto Himself.  The psalmist prays, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.”  So it is for you.  Jesus honors you.  He stands for you, as a Gentleman for His elect Lady, His holy Church.

This is where we find our strength to confess the faith boldly as Stephen did, whether it affects our social standing or our economic standing or our very lives.  We confess Jesus before men in the sure confidence that He will rise to His feet and confess us before His Father in heaven.  

Though it may not appear so, Stephen was granted a blessed end.  Though it was not painless, it was blessed, for he fell asleep in Christ, looking to Him who is the Victor over death.  God grant that whether our end is violent or peaceful, that we may die as Stephen did, with our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  He is your Brother in the flesh who stands up for you.

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

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