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The Good Shepherd Owns the Sheep

John 10:11-18-27-30

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

Today’s Gospel says that the hireling doesn’t care much about the sheep because he doesn’t own the sheep.  Not much skin in the game, and so when danger approaches, he flees.  But that means that there is one who does own the sheep.  And that is the Good Shepherd, Jesus.  The sheep belong to Him.  That’s one of His main points in contrasting Himself to the hired hand.  The owner cares about things much more deeply than someone who is simply there to earn a paycheck.

But stop for a minute and consider what that means for you.  Jesus owns you.  Usually we think of being owned as a negative thing.  We resist and rebel against the notion that we belong to another.  We want to be free to do whatever we want.  We like saying to others, “You’re not the boss of me.”  We think of being owned as being dominated and put down, as slavery.  

But the truth is that, no matter what we may think, we are dependent creatures; that’s how we’re made.  Our existence and our life doesn’t come from within us; it depends on God.  We can’t belong to ourselves.  We are created to belong to a lord and master.  And if we are not entrusting ourselves to the true God, then we inevitably are entrusting ourselves to some idol.  That’s why when people desert the church and the Christian faith, they don’t really stop being religious.  They are always giving themselves over to some sort of ruling philosophy or spirituality or way of life; they’re always seeking after some idol to serve.  People are always going to be religious about something in their life, even if it’s just their hobby or their exercise regimen.  You can’t help being owned.  In the end, you either belong to the evil one or to God.

And so it is the greatest good news to hear that Jesus is the One who owns us.  We are His treasured possession; we are in His safe keeping.  He is our Lord, not as an angry slavemaster, but as One who offers us life and protection within the safety of His flock.  You have gone from having a hellish master and captor to having a gracious Lord and King.  Martin Luther spoke of it this way, “I . . . was captive under the power of the devil, condemned to death, enmeshed in sin and blindness . . . There was no counsel, help, or comfort until this only and eternal Son of God . . . had compassion upon our misery and wretchedness, and came from heaven to help us. Those tyrants and jailers, then, are all expelled now, and in their place has come Jesus Christ, Lord of life, righteousness, every blessing, and salvation, and has delivered us poor lost men from the jaws of hell, has won us, made us free, and brought us again into the favor and grace of the Father, and has taken us as His own property under His shelter and protection.”  Notice there how real freedom comes from being the property of Jesus.

So you are owned by the Lord twice over, then, once because He made you, and again because He redeemed you and bought you back with His holy precious blood.  As St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 6, “You are not your own, you were bought at a price.  Therefore, honor God with your bodies.”

This is the difference between Jesus and the hireling:  The hired hand, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and runs to save his own hide.  But Jesus doesn’t run away.  He is the one and only true Shepherd and Pastor whom you can always count on.  Whereas we tend to look at things that don’t belong to us and say “Someone else will deal with it; not my problem,” Jesus looks at your situation and says, “That’s My problem. It’s not one I caused–but still, I am their Creator, and they are My creatures, and I love them, and I wish to care for them.”  The Good Shepherd cares for the sheep like no one else because you belong to Him, and He has compassion on you.  He died for you.

Since all of this is so, why then would you live as though you belong to this world, as if the love and approval of other people is more important?  Why, when the Good Shepherd speaks to you, would you wander from divine service and listen to shallow entertaining voices?  Why, when the Good Shepherd leads you to green pastures and still waters, would you prefer to give your attention instead to those who lead you astray into fleeting pleasures and passing things?  Beware of those who say to you, “Don’t be owned; you belong to no one but you.  Live for yourself!”  They do not truly love you; they cannot give you life.  Living for yourself is the way of death.

Today we mark a rather important event which demonstrated how Martin Luther understood this.  By the grace of God he was a pastor and teacher who was not like a hireling.  He did not run away when the wolves came, the false teachers from Rome.  Luther knew personally what it was like to be under the tyranny of the Law, of having to strive to be good enough to be accepted by God and never being able to get there.  He had been freed by the Gospel of the pure unmerited grace of Christ.  And he cared about the church which was under the same tyranny he had been under.  He was a theologian and pastor who wanted to protect Christ’s sheep from the false, works-righteousness teaching of the papist wolves.

And so exactly 500 years ago this very weekend, Luther didn’t flee when he had the chance to save his own skin.  He had been called before the holy Roman emperor himself and asked to recant his writings and his teaching.  Failure to do so meant that he could be put to death as a heretic.  Luther had just been excommunicated by the pope a few months earlier.  There didn’t seem to be a way out for him.  This event turned out to be a two day affair.  On the first day, April 17, 1521, in the presence of the emperor and princes of the empire and church officials in all their finery, when asked to recant, Luther faltered a bit and asked for another day to answer.  When he was brought back the next day, strengthened by God in his faith, Luther gave his now famous reply, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.  I cannot do otherwise, here I stand, may God help me.”  Protected by his prince, Frederick of Saxony, Luther was able to depart, and the Reformation carried on.

This is a good example for us to follow in a world that is hostile to the truth of God’s Word.  When we are presented with opportunities to confess our faith in Christ, we too may briefly falter.  We may be tempted to compromise and go along with the world’s ways in order to keep ourselves out of trouble.  But in the end we know that the only voice that is worth following is the voice of the Good Shepherd.  How can we be ashamed of the Gospel of Christ who has saved us?  Unlike the lords of this world, there is no selfishness in Jesus, only love.  He lays down His life even for wandering sheep like us.  He speaks His words to you not to dominate you or control you, but because He knows what is best for you, because He desires to lead you to eternal life.

In the end, that is what it means to be a Christian–to hear Christ’s Word and follow Him.  And you can’t do that on your own.  He has put us all into one flock, and that is where He has promised to be, wherever we are gathered in His name. Lone sheep are wolf food.  You need to be gathered together in the flock of the Church, around the table the Good Shepherd has prepared.  And the Church is found not where things are hippest or most up to date, nor where things are biggest or oldest, but only where the Word is rightly preached and where that Word is joined to water, bread, and wine as Christ instituted it.  There is no being a Christian apart from the flock which gathers to hear the voice of Christ the Good Shepherd.

And what does the voice of your Good Shepherd say to the sheep? He says things like this: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!  Go, and sin no more.  I do not desire your death, but that you should turn from your wicked way and live.  Rejoice, your King comes to you!  I forgive you all your sins; I will wipe away every tear from every eye; I will never leave you nor forsake you; I give you eternal life and you will never perish; nothing can snatch you out of My hand. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise you up on the Last Day; Behold, I make all things new!”

Those are the things your Good Shepherd says to you. Those words are your life. All other words, even if they’re sometimes helpful, are temporary and un-saving; or, all too often, they turn out to be devilishly deceptive and damning. Do not listen to them. Keep your ears tuned to the voice which is saying to you continually, “Repent! Follow Me!” and “I forgive you!  Do not fear!”

Christ the Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep, meaning He puts His own body between you and the attacking wolf, between you and death.  He takes the attack in Himself.  And when death and hell came to swallow Him up on the cross, they seized a bite that they could not swallow. The teeth of the devil were broken, and now his snarling voice is nothing more to you than an empty threat.  The devourer was devoured, the destroyer was destroyed, the enemy was routed.

And now, Christ the Good Shepherd prepares this table for you right in the presence of your enemies, right in their face.   He feeds you with Himself, so that what happened to the dead body of Jesus on Easter also will happen to your dead body on the last day, the day of resurrection.  He leads you through this valley of the shadow of death and out of it.  You are His and He is yours.

So it’s not just that you belong to Jesus–that’s wonderful enough.  It’s also that He belongs to you.  He has given Himself to you and made Himself your own with His whole being.  He has sacrificed Himself for you.  His life is yours.  And so you need fear no evil.  He is with you.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow you all the days of your life, and you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever as His very own.

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Christopher Esget)

Safely Through the Fire

Daniel 3

The Lord is risen!  He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

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

There is nothing that reveals a person’s faith and character more than when they are facing the threat of death; all facades are stripped away and the heart is revealed.  When our Lord Jesus faced the horror of bearing the judgment of the whole world’s sin on the cross, He didn’t shrink from the task; His heart confidently trusted in His heavenly Father.  And on this day we celebrate the fact that Jesus’ faithfulness was vindicated; He rose again bodily from the grave on the 3rd day in triumph, having accomplished the salvation of the whole world.  As we sang in the hymn, He endured the cross and grave, sinners to redeem and save.

The hearts of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were certainly revealed when they faced the threat of death.  They got into trouble when they refused to bow down to a massive idol that the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar had set up.  In celebration of his conquest of Israel and other nations, Nebuchadnezzar had this sixty cubit, 90-foot tall idol constructed, entirely plated with gold.  King Nebuchadnezzar allowed the people he had conquered to keep their own religions, but he demanded that they must also follow the religion of his kingdom, embodied by this idol, or suffer death.  Faithful Israelites could not possibly do that.  For the only true God had commanded them, “You shall have no other gods.”  So when the music began to play and the order came to bow down, these three men remained standing.  When they refused to obey, even after having been brought before the king himself, they were sentenced to death.  They were thrown into the blazing furnace.

All of this foreshadows what would happen to Jesus when He refused to give homage to the idols of His day.  It was not a golden image which He was pressured to bow down to but ones such as the devil laid before Him, the idol of glory without suffering or the cross.  Jesus was pressured to bow down to the idolatrous self-justifying laws of the Pharisees and the religious institutions of His day that stood opposed to God.  They would have let Jesus go on teaching if He would’ve given reverence to their ways and fit in with their system.  But because He didn’t, because He remained faithful to His heavenly Father’s will regardless of the consequences, they plotted His death.  He was sentenced and crucified.

We, too, can get ourselves into trouble when we refuse to bow down to the idols of our day.  We’re not pressured to give homage to a gold statue either, but to other “deities” of our age–things like the “god” of self-expression and self-fulfillment, which says that the most important thing in life is for a person to do whatever makes them happy and to follow whatever they feel in their hearts, even if it contradicts God’s words and denies our need for repentance.  Say to somebody that what their heart is telling them is not as important as what Scripture is telling them, and see if that doesn’t create some anger toward you.  Or things like the golden idol of financial security, where we go along with and bow down to the ungodly spiritualities of this age in order to keep the income flowing.  How many Christian workers and managers and business owners feel compelled not to express the Christian beliefs and morality that they hold to for fear of negative consequences?  Or  things like the generic god of religious relativism, which rejects Jesus’ claim that He and His words are the only eternal truth and that He is the only way to eternal life.  You’ll be labeled as arrogant and unloving for saying that only Christianity leads to heaven and everything else is false religion. Remember, the thing that got Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into trouble was that they weren’t inclusive of the king’s religion.  The world is perfectly happy when people call themselves Christians, as long as Christ is 2nd or 3rd or 4th on the priority list and you keeping bowing to woke social pressures and worldly philosophies and all the many things that keep you from being here at divine service each week.  Being faithful to God and refusing to fit in with the world’s system can sometimes cause you trouble and even get you cancelled.  But Christians know that it is far better to endure the flames of suffering in this life clinging to Christ than to experience the judgment of hell which our sins have deserved apart from Him.

So here’s the good news–the resurrection of Jesus from the dead assures us that there is deliverance and new life and vindication for all who trust in Him and hold to His words.  Because Jesus literally went through hell for us on the cross, all who take refuge in Him will be rescued from death’s blazing fire and will come out gloriously alive on the other side.  That’s how it was for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  Knowing their God to be the Lord and Giver of Life, they exhibited a most confident faith in Him.  “O Nebuchadnezzar, if we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and He will rescue us from your hand, O king.  But even if He does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”  Did you hear that?  These three men didn’t know if God would protect them from suffering in that moment.  But it didn’t matter.  Better to die to this life than to let go of the One who gives eternal life.  An enraged Nebuchadnezzar heated the furnace seven times hotter than usual.  He had them firmly tied up, and they were thrown into the furnace just as they were, wearing all their clothes.  It was so hot that the men who threw them in were themselves killed; for the unbelieving will not be saved.

But when Nebuchadnezzar looked into the furnace, he didn't see Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego burning to death.  Instead, he stood up and said, “Look!  I see four men walking around, untied and unharmed.  And the fourth one looks like the Son of God!”  Though the King couldn’t understand it, these three men didn’t die in the flames because God was with them.  The Son of God, our Lord Jesus, was there in the furnace to save them from death.  He kept the fire from burning them.  When Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego came out, their clothes were not even singed, and there was no smell of fire on them.  They came out of the flames unbound, alive and well.

What we rejoice in today is that when the time comes that we enter the flames of death, God will save us also who trust in Him, just as He did these men.  We may be put into the grave tied with the ropes of death’s curse, but we will come out unbound, free and well.  How do we know that is true?  Because Jesus took away the burning sting of death for us by His cross and empty tomb.  As the Scriptures say, “Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O grave, is your sting?  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the Law.  But thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”  

Jesus willingly put Himself into the fiery furnace for us, just as He did for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  He went into the place of death and the grave in order to save His people.  At Golgotha, He was scorched by sin and Satan and death.  But that was far from the end of the story.  For His body did not decay in the tomb.  Instead, He conquered death and the devil by rising triumphantly from the grave in the flesh.  Just like the three men, He came out of the tomb unharmed as the victorious Ruler of all.  Jesus put Himself into the furnace of death in order to protect us from its blazing heat and to deliver us from it forever. On Easter morning Jesus, like a fireman, carried us out, safe and well.  His exit from the tomb is also our exit from the tomb.

Just as He was there for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Christ is surely also there for us always, even in death.  For we are baptized into Him, joined to Him by faith.  The Scriptures say, “Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?  If we were united with Him in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection.”  Through water and the Word, Christ has doused the flames of death and has raised us with Himself to a new life.  The three men were fully clothed before they went into the fiery furnace.  So also we were fully clothed in baptism with the robe of Christ’s righteousness.  And just as the three men came out of the furnace better than when they went in, free and unbound, so also on the Last Day we will come out of the grave better than we entered it, free and unbound from the curse, with no smell of death or hell upon us.  Our waiting souls in heaven will be rejoined with our resurrected bodies, to share in the glory and perfection and immortality of Christ.  As Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.  He who believes in Me will live, even though He dies.  And whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.”  And again Jesus said, “Because I live, you will live also.”  New life for Jesus means new life for you.  His Easter assures you of your Easter and of your eternal release from all sorrow and trouble and pain.

So it is that God says to you all through His prophet Isaiah, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you.  I have called you by name.  You are Mine . . .  When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.  For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

Dear fellow baptized, because Jesus came alive again bodily, you and all believers in Him will surely also come alive again bodily when He returns.  Let us therefore resolve this day to be faithful to our gracious God, just as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were, trusting in Him to the very end.  For Christ gives you this promise, “Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

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

We Wish to See Jesus

John 12:12-33

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

In today’s Palm Sunday Gospel, the Pharisees said to one another, “We are accomplishing nothing.  Look, the world has gone after Him!”  The Pharisees were frustrated.  They hated our Lord and were plotting to kill Him.  They were also plotting to kill Lazarus whom Jesus had just raised from the dead.  The Pharisees had seen how the crowds went out to meet our Lord, shouting, “Hosanna!  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!  The King of Israel!”  Everyone wanted to see our Lord who had raised Lazarus from the dead.  And this annoyed and frustrated the Pharisees who were so full of their own righteousness that they could not stand the grace of God that was revealed and given in Christ.

So, ironically enough, out of the mouths of the Pharisees comes a prophetic word.  “We are accomplishing nothing.”  That was most certainly true.  They were accomplishing nothing by their works before God.  Nor could they do anything to stop the mission of Christ.  Our Lord was firmly set upon His course to the cross.  The world, the devil, and sinful flesh could accomplish nothing against the salvation that He was bringing.

The Pharisees also said, “The world has gone after Him.”  That, too, was most certainly true.  Not only the Jews who had gathered for the Feast of the Passover, but now even some Greeks who were there–they, too wanted to see Jesus.  “The world has gone after Him,” the world whose sins Jesus came to bear.

So it is written in Psalm 2, “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? ...  The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them.  Then He rebukes them in His anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, ‘I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.’”  God has a sense of humor.  He puts words of prophecy into the mouths of those who oppose Him.  The Pharisees speak truth even though they do not understand it.  There is nothing they can do.  The whole world will be drawn to this Jesus.  God the Father will establish Him as King on the holy hill of His cross.  The Father sits on His heavenly throne, chuckling and laughing at those who are frustrated by His gracious will.

Philip and Andrew come to Jesus with a request from these Greeks, “We wish to see Jesus.” But our Lord gives an answer which makes no mention of the Greeks and gives no indication that He will have an audience with them.  Rather, our Lord says something to indicate that soon He was going to die.  For it was only through His death that the Greeks would see Him properly.  Jesus says to Philip and Andrew, “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified.”

Throughout the Gospel of John we are told that Jesus’ hour has not yet come, beginning with His very first miracle at the wedding at Cana.  But now the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  When our Lord speaks of His being glorified, He is speaking not first of all of His resurrection but of His suffering.  That is the hour for which He has come into this world.  It is the hour when the righteous anger of God against sin will be shown for what it is.  But it is also the hour that God’s love will be shown for what it is.  Strangely enough, the Son of Man, Jesus Christ, is glorified on the cross.

That is why Palm Sunday has an odd tension to it.  That is why this day is a day of restrained joy.  Jesus enters into Jerusalem as King; yet He rides not on a stallion but on a donkey colt.  We join in with the people's shouts of “Hosanna!”; yet we realize that He has come in humility to die.  This King’s glory is to be lifted up in love for the world on the throne of the cross, to lay down His life in this world that you might be lifted up to heaven.  Jesus displays His glory and majesty by being the Groom who will let nothing, not even death, stand in the way of rescuing and being with His bride, the Church. 

Therefore, Jesus rides into the holy city on a beast of burden, an animal that carries heavy loads.  For Jesus was to be like that donkey, as it is written, “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.”  Jesus’ soul was troubled here.  For all your burdens were placed upon His back.  He hauled all of your trespasses and transgressions to that hill outside the city walls, where they were dumped and crushed and obliterated and buried forever.  Jesus took it upon Himself, literally, to make things right for you in the sight of your heavenly Father.

The only-begotten Son of God is glorified not by being exalted but first by being humbled.  The power of God for our salvation is shown in the weakness of the only innocent man to walk this earth being executed as a criminal.  The wisdom of God is shown in the foolishness of having the one man who does not deserve to die dying in shame.

“We wish to see Jesus,” is the request.  And the answer our Lord gives is to raise up before us His cross.  For only there is He rightly seen as the Savior.  Nevertheless, this is not an answer that Philip and Andrew expect.  This is an answer beyond their experience.  Our Lord came to do what the sinful mind of man does not expect.  Our Lord came to crucify our experience in this fallen world.  Jesus came to be that kernel of wheat which falls into the ground and dies so that the old might be done away with and a new creation might come forth.  He is the kernel of wheat that falls into the ground and dies so that all might be drawn to Him.

The “death” of a seed is what brings life to the garden.  In much the same way Jesus’ death brings about life for you.  Jesus chooses not to remain a single seed.  He enters into the Garden of Gethsemane, where He anguishes over what is about to come upon Him.  His sweat falls to the dirt like great drops of blood.  Then, after being lifted up for our sins on the cross, Jesus is taken down to the earth, lifeless and limp.  He is buried in a grave, planted in a tomb which is located in the midst of a garden.  However, like good seed sown in good earth, that isn't the end of the story.  Jesus sprouts forth to life on Easter morning.  He produces a harvest of forgiveness and salvation for all who trust in Him.  Through the planting of the one Seed, Jesus, many more seeds are produced, countless people who through Him are brought from darkness to light, from death to life.  Only by first being planted in the depths of darkness and death does Jesus raise us with Himself to light and life.  

And here’s what that all means for your day to day life: Living in the way of Christ, we are to die to ourselves in this world in order that we may share with Him in His resurrection.  Jesus said, “The man who loves his life will lose it.”  Love is not always a good thing.  The Pharisees are not without love.  They love their own lives.  The fallen nature of man loves to satisfy its own appetites.  The love of money, the love of power, the love of glory in this world and the praise of men–hearts set on these things are dead to God.  The sinful nature loves to have its way and hates to suffer anything.  This world is full of those who are literally loving themselves to death.

But, Jesus said, “The man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”  Hate is not always a bad thing.  To hate what is contrary to the will of our most gracious God is a holy hatred.  Such hate is the gift of God.  Psalm 97 says, “The Lord loves those who hate evil; He preserves the lives of His saints; He delivers them from the hand of the wicked.”  The saints of the Lord are those who are freely given the righteousness of Christ through faith, those who rely not on their own goodness but on His alone.  The wicked from whom the Lord preserves His saints are the devil, the world, and even our own sinful flesh.  To hate the sin which still hangs around our necks is a blessing from God.

Our whole Christian life in this world is a constant return to our Holy Baptism where the Holy Spirit leads us to hate what God hates and to love what God loves.  No one can go through this life without hating some things and loving other things.  The difference between life and death is in what we hate and what we love.  The Pharisees loved their lives.  They loved their acts of righteousness, and they hated our Lord and the righteousness He freely brought to this world.  The Lord grant that we may hate our lives in this world and love Him who is our righteousness, life, and salvation.

Our Lord had many admirers.  There were many who were fascinated by His words and eager to see the marvelous signs He performed.  Perhaps these Greeks in the Gospel who asked to see Jesus were like that, people who would admire Jesus without really knowing or caring about why He had come.  

So to make matters clear our Lord speaks of His cross.  His death means the death of the sinner.  His death means judgment on this world.  His death means the driving out of the devil, who is the prince of this world.  Those who would follow Jesus must follow Him to the cross.  They must die with Him and be raised with Him.  They must die to this life and be raised to a new life in Him.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  And our Lord replies, “I’ll see you at Calvary.”  That is where you are to look.  And where is it that you may behold Christ the crucified but in the Sacrament of the Altar?  For the Lord who came in His flesh and blood to Jerusalem comes also to you now in His flesh and blood to give you the forgiveness of sins which He purchased on the cross.  He “saddles” the bread and wine and rides right to where you are, that He might unite you to Himself in holy love and fill you with His life.  So it is that before receiving the Sacrament today, you will sing some of the very same words that were shouted to Jesus on the first Palm Sunday, “Hosanna in the highest!  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest!”  Let us then hold forth our own cross-shaped palms today as symbols of our worship and faithful reception of Christ our King.  For it is Christ’s glory to come into the holy city to give His life for you that you may live.

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

(with thanks to Michael Hill)

Tasting Death, Tasting Life

John 8:42-59; Genesis 22:1-14

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

If I were to ask you the question, “Is Abraham dead?” your first thought would probably be, “Of course he’s dead.  The Bible even tells us where he is buried.”  That’s what the Jews thought in today’s Gospel.  They said that Abraham and the prophets were all dead.  But consider how on another occasion Jesus said that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and  Jacob is not the God of the dead but of the living.  In this greater sense, Abraham is not dead but very much alive with God.  Jesus said, “Whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.”  And in today’s Gospel our Lord says, “If anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.”

That last statement greatly angered the Jews Jesus was talking to.  They thought He was being arrogant and sacrilegious, making Himself out to be greater than Abraham (which of course He is).  And they also misunderstood what Jesus meant when He said, “If anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.”  For they changed one word in His statement.  They replied, “You say, ‘If anyone keeps My word he shall never taste death.’” They changed the word “see” to “taste.”  But our Lord wasn’t talking about tasting death.  He doesn’t mean, “Whoever keeps My words will never end up in the grave or experience the death of the body.”  For that will surely happen to all people until the close of the age.

And in fact in a way that is actually a good thing!  For how else can we escape this body of death until it dies and is planted in the ground so that it might rise again renewed?  And how else will we finally and forever be purified and cleansed of sin, unless the flesh that it so fiercely and stubbornly adheres to is killed?  And so you die with Christ.  And so your body is buried, so that it might rise with Christ better than you ever imagined, fully restored to life with God.  St. Paul says it this way: “The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power” (1 Cor 15:42-44).

All of this is according to the Lord’s wonderful and mysterious mercy.  For after the disobedience of Adam and Eve, God pronounced the death sentence on all creation–not simply in anger, and not simply to punish; but also to purify and renew and re-create.  For in pronouncing this curse, the Lord was also pronouncing the way in which we would be redeemed.  In Christ, death actually becomes a blessing, because He, the very Son of God, tasted death for us to take away its poison from us.  It is written in Hebrews, “We see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.” Jesus drank the lethal cup of judgment against our sin for us so that we might taste and see that the Lord is good and take refuge in Him and have everlasting life.  

Even though Jesus escaped the hands of the Jews here on this day when they tried to stone Him, He didn’t hide Himself or escape death on the cross.  He endured the death we must endure.  He died a real death.  He is the true Seed of Abraham who was planted and buried in the earth in order that He might sprout and rise and produce the harvest of our salvation.  And if it is our hope to live with Him, we must also die with Him.  For our life is tied to His in the waters of Holy Baptism.  As it is written in Romans 6, “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.  If we have been united with Him in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection.”  We who hold to Jesus must taste death.  And that is good, and according to God’s mercy.  For only through death is there real resurrection.  Only through death do we attain our goal–life in the kingdom of God.

So when our Lord Jesus says that anyone who keeps His word will never see death, He means simply that those who hold to Him will never see the full wrath, the full fury, the full punishment and curse of death.  In other words, we will never see eternal death and hell.  And we will never see God with His back turned against us.  So while we will taste of death, we will not see it or experience it in all its infernal horror.  Blessed, then, are your believing loved ones who have died in Christ–spouses, parents and grandparents, children, friends–for they are not truly dead but are alive in the Lord, as alive as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

“If anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.”  What a tremendous promise that is!  Let us therefore hold tightly to Jesus’ words and promises and cling to the eternal gifts that they deliver.  Ponder and meditate on the Word of Christ, for in so doing you will not see death but rather you will see Him who is Life incarnate, the Life of God enfleshed for your redemption.

That, of course, is the underlying reason why the Jews rejected Jesus–they couldn’t accept that He was (and is) God in the flesh.  They were still in bondage to the lies of their father, the devil.  The thing that caused them to pick up stones to kill Jesus was when He said, “Most assuredly I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.”  I AM is the name of God revealed to Moses in the burning bush.  I AM is Yahweh, the Lord God Almighty. That’s who Jesus was claiming to be by saying this.  They considered that to be blasphemy.  But in truth, Jesus had not only seen Abraham and the prophets, He is the very Son of God who gave them life, who spoke to them and guided them.  

In fact it was the voice of Christ that Abraham heard in today’s Old Testament reading, the voice which called out to Abraham telling him not to harm Isaac when he was about to sacrifice him.  For it was the Angel of the Lord (with a capital A) who spoke to Abraham–that is, the Messenger of the Father, the Son of God.  This was no created angel, for He said to Abraham, “You have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me,” that is from God Himself.

Though the Jews prided themselves on being descendants of Abraham and called him their father, they were not truly his children; for they did not share in his faith.  Jesus said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.”  By faith Abraham trusted in God’s promises and was given to see what was coming in Christ.  And I believe one of the ways God showed Abraham what was coming was in this very account of the offering up of Isaac.  Not only was God testing Abraham’s faith here in order to strengthen it, He was also giving a living prophecy of what He would do with His own Son.

Just consider all that is being beautifully and mysteriously foreshadowed here in the Old Testament reading.  Isaac was the only son, the beloved son of Abraham, conceived in a miraculous way.  So also God the Father gave His only begotten and beloved Son, miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit in the Blessed Virgin.  It was a donkey that carried Abraham’s supplies to Moriah, even as it was a donkey that carried our Lord into Jerusalem.  When Abraham had come to Moriah on the 3rd day, he said, “We will worship and then we will come back to you.”  Jesus said to His disciples, “In a little while you will see Me no more, and then after a little while, you will see Me.”  I will go away and then I will come back to you in the power of the resurrection on the third day.  Abraham laid the wood on Isaac his son, who carried it to the top of the mountain.  Even so the Father laid the wood of the cross on His Son Jesus, and it was carried to the top of Mt. Calvary, the place of sacrifice.  Just as Isaac was laid on the wood and bound, so Jesus was bound to the wood of the cross.

But the time for sacrificing the son would not come in Abraham’s day, but in Jesus’ day.  After God stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son, he looked up and saw a male sheep, a ram caught in the thicket by its horns.  Abraham offered it in place of his son.  Even so, Jesus has offered up Himself in your place so that you would be set free from the judgment of death.  The Lamb of God purposely caught His head in the thorny thicket of your sin to take it away and to release you from your bondage to sin and death.  In Christ the words of Abraham are fulfilled for you, “God Himself will provide the Lamb.”  Abraham named that place, “The Lord will Provide.”  For on that holy mountain God provided for your salvation in His only Son, Jesus.  Truly then, Abraham saw Jesus’ day and was glad.

We also are given to see Jesus’ day and be glad.  For this is the Lord’s Day right now, where He gives Himself and shows Himself to you as the great I AM–“I am the Resurrection and the Life.”  This is the day you are given to taste Life in the Sacrament of His holy body and blood, so that you might never see death.  Our Lord Jesus is here to forgive you and transfigure your death-riddled flesh, so that one day, you may stand before the Father in your renewed and resurrected flesh, vindicated and honored with Christ.  

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

(With thanks to John Fenton for some of the above)

The Stronger Man

Luke 11:14-28

Lent 3

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

It is the way of the unbelieving world to call what is good evil and what is evil good.  Euphemisms are often employed to accomplish this.  The freedom to kill an unborn child is called “reproductive rights” or “women’s health care,” as if there was only one person’s rights and health at stake.  The rejection of God’s gift of natural marriage and the joining together of same-sex partners is called “marriage equality,” as if the nature and purpose of those unions were somehow the same.  The mutilation and drugging of the body in an attempt to change one’s sex is called “gender reassignment,” as if God’s assignment and creation doesn’t count.  And if anyone ever speaks out about these things, even in the gentlest way, because we care about people’s humanity and the consequences of what’s happening, they are portrayed as hateful and bigoted, or just weird and stupid.  Meanwhile those promoting these things are the ones who are supposedly loving and open-minded and sensible.  

And it’s not just the cultural stuff; we see this even within the church, regarding Gospel teaching.  Those who uphold doctrinal faithfulness to Christ and His saving Word regarding the Sacraments or sin and repentance or salvation by faith in Christ alone–they are often called unloving and legalistic; while the theologians and pastors who compromise the faith are called inclusive and mature and groundbreaking.  (Just consider Pope Francis.)

And lest we think this is something new, listen to what the Lutheran pastor George Stoeckhardt preached about this over 100 years ago: “Within Christendom everywhere there are blasphemers who pass off Christ’s Word and work as the devil’s work, as wickedness.  Christ’s salutary teaching they call a poisonous, pernicious teaching, which merely produces harm, hurt, dissension, disturbance. . . When believing Christians confidently boast of the grace of their God, this is labeled insufferable pride.  Christians, who are ardent in spirit and demonstrate diligence and zeal in their Christianity are often chided as being foolish, crazy, possessed.  Christians, seeking to save their fellowmen from destruction and rebuking sin, are regarded as a hostile, hateful clan.  Yes, mockery and blasphemy increase the nearer we come to the end.”

This all began, of course, with our Lord Jesus.  In today’s Gospel Jesus is doing something good.  He is casting out a demon from a man who had been made unable to speak by it, freeing him from this dark power.  When the demon had gone out of the man, he was able to talk again.  The crowd that saw this marveled at the wonderful thing that Jesus had done.

But there were some there who hated Jesus, who out of envy couldn’t stand or accept the goodness of Jesus.  And so they called good evil.  They said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebub, the ruler of the demons.”  Beelzebub means “Lord of the flies.”  In other words they were saying, “The only reason Jesus can cast out demons is because He gets His power from Satan.”  They tried to raise suspicions about Jesus in those who saw what He did.

By doing this, though, the ones who accused Jesus of being of the devil showed themselves to be of the devil.  For isn’t it the way of the devil to plant doubt and work against faith in Jesus?  And they further showed that they were in league with Satan by testing Jesus and asking for a sign from heaven; isn’t that exactly what the devil did in the wilderness when he asked Jesus to throw Himself down from the temple and let the angels catch Him?  Besides, they already had a sign from Jesus in the casting out of the demon.  But unbelief always wants something more and different than Jesus and what He gives.

Beware of sign-seeking.  Jesus would later say to this same crowd that it is an evil generation which seeks a sign, which wants to walk by sight and not by faith, which trusts experiences and emotions and superstition more than Christ and His Word.  Jesus said the only sign that would be given them is the sign of Jonah, the sign of a man submerged three days in the belly of death but who rose from the depths to new life.  The sign which faith clings to, then, is the sign of the cross, Christ crucified and risen to save us sinners.

That sign of the cross has been given to you in your baptism, etched into your very bodies by water and the Word.  In the OT reading, when the plagues of lice and flies came, the Egyptians recognized, “This is the finger of God.”  So also at the font, the finger of God was at work for you to deliver you from your slavery to the evil one; the pastor’s fingers inscribed the cross on the forehead and on the heart. The Epistle reading said, “You were once darkness . . .”  However, Jesus has shined into your darkness and washed away your sins and rescued you from the devil’s domain, bringing you into His own realm of mercy and grace.  So the Epistle goes on to say, “But now you are light in the Lord.”  You have been released from the devil’s grip.  You have been conveyed into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son; you are possessed by His Holy Spirit.  Now your mute tongues are loosed to sing the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.

But there are people still who want to call that good evil.  They label baptism and the liturgy of Christ’s preaching and supper as being mere ceremony; they want signs and visual excitement, not divine service.  Or they berate Christians as being intellectually foolish and psychologically weak.  But in the face of such demonic testing, we remember that it is written, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty.”  In a world that wants signs from heaven, we know that Jesus Himself is our sign from heaven.  He is all that we need.  For again it is written, “We preach Christ crucified, an offense to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.”  

Jesus is that Stronger Man who overcomes the strong man, the devil.  But our Lord shows His strength not with an all out display of force as we might expect.  For that is not the way the devil slithered into this world in the first place and gained the upper hand in the heart of man.  Satan came in disguise, as one who had man’s best interest at heart.  He overcame man in the Garden through trickery and deception, calling evil good.  And so in order to overcome the devil and rescue man, the Lord chooses to use Satan’s own devices against him.  Christ snares the devil with divine trickery and deception–not evil disguised as good this time, but good disguised as evil.  Jesus gives Himself over to being beaten and bloodied and crucified.  He perishes as if he were an evil criminal.  But in this way Jesus invades the enemy’s domain of death.  He parachutes in behind enemy lines and demolishes all of the devil’s armor in which he trusted.  Christ infiltrates the devil’s kingdom and conquers him by means of the very death which the devil brought into the world.  He turns the devil’s weapons right back in his own face and destroys him.  Man is released and set free.  The power of the devil to accuse you of sin and hold you captive has been taken away by Christ right along with your sins.  It is written in Hebrews, “The Son of God Himself likewise shared in our flesh and blood, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime held in bondage.”  Christ has divided and conquered Satan’s kingdom by the power of His holy cross.  

And Jesus makes it clear to the crowds and to us that there can be no sitting on the fence in this matter.  Our Lord says, “He who is not with Me is against Me, and he who does not gather with Me scatters.”  There are no Switzerlands in the warfare of the soul, no neutral, moderate position when it comes to Christ; no agnostic or undecided.  Either you take refuge in Him who is the Stronger Man, or you refuse Him and seek other shelter that draws you back into the devil’s hands.  Either Jesus is on the throne of your heart, or the devil is.  There are no third options, somewhere between faith and unbelief.  The “sensible,” middle-of-the-road position is unbelief.

You see, even though the devil has been defeated and man’s salvation has been won–fully and decisively–he still runs about making like he is strong, acting like he still controls death.  He seeks to lure people away from the protection of the mighty fortress of Christ, leading them into doubt and despair.  And many fall for the trap, believing the strong man rather than trusting in the Stronger One.  And so the evil spirits return to many a person from whom they were cast out.  For the Holy Spirit given in baptism has been grieved and rejected.  “The last state of that man is worse than the first.”

And so our Lord urges us here to remain steadfast in the faith.  He says, “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.”  To keep the Word of God is simply to hold on to it, to cling to it, to treasure it and trust in its promises.  Those who do so are blessed, as the mother of our Lord was blessed.  For the Word of God is living and active and powerful to save.  It is the channel of the Holy Spirit.  It drives away the onslaughts of the evil one.

Ultimately, to keep the Word of God is to hold on to Christ.  For He is the Word made flesh.  Blessed are those who hear Jesus and cling to Him; for He is your refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  The chains of guilt which bound you have dropped from our wrists.  You are free.  In Christ, the dominion of evil is ended.  By his glorious resurrection from the dead, our Lord Jesus has won the decisive victory. He is the champion and his scars are his trophies. Jesus is the victor and He shares the spoils with all of you.  Blessed are those in whom the Word of Christ dwells richly through holy absolution and preaching.  Blessed are those who trust in Christ and who are filled with His true body and precious blood.  Over such the devil has no power.  He can’t touch you.  For you are in the Strongest One, the Lord over death and the devil.  Let your eyes ever be toward Christ, who plucks your feet out of the net, who conquers your enemy, who is your sure defense, and who will deliver you from all evil in the resurrection.

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

What Faith Looks Like

Matthew 15:21-28

Lent 2

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

Increasingly it seems, faith is falling out of fashion. People might be OK with a generic spirituality.  But a person with faith is supposedly someone who isn’t very logical or smart.  A person with Christian faith is supposedly without tolerance, someone who has a closed mind.  It is said that faith is blind, faith is irrational, faith is for the foolish and unscientific.  For now, you may exercise your faith at home or here at church, but it dare not make an appearance anywhere else.  That’s why many politicians have made the subtle shift of language from “freedom of religion” (as the Constitution puts it) to something different, “freedom of worship.”  Worship is something that government can limit to home and church.  Religion on the other hand encompasses your whole life in this world.  The only acceptable form of faith today is what is personal and subjective.  If your faith leads you to make any judgments about what’s true and what’s false, what’s right and what’s wrong for all people, you best not share those views publicly, for if you express those things, then you open yourself up to being judged and ostracized and cancelled.

But the culture’s view of faith as mere private sentimentality is a caricature and a distortion.  Today we are given a picture of true faith, Biblical Christian faith, in the account from Matthew’s gospel about a woman whose daughter is sick and assaulted by a demon.  We’re not told all the details.  We may wonder for instance why this woman came alone.  Where was her husband?  Where were her friends?  Is she the only one left who has any hope left in God to help her daughter?  We don’t know these things.  What we do know is that this woman is extraordinarily persistent.  

Let’s review the account again.  A woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Jesus, saying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.”  But He answered her not a word.  That stonewalling may well have been enough to cause us to be embarrassed and to give up, but she continues to press Jesus for help.  She keeps on crying out for mercy, and the disciples are scandalized.  Why won’t Jesus help?  He always helps.  So they intercede on her behalf.  “Send her away,” they say; which means “Release her,” help her, give her what she asks so she can go.

But Jesus replies that He wasn’t sent to help Gentiles, only Jews.  Today’s social justice warriors would call him a racist.  Undeterred, she prostrates herself before Jesus, worshiping Him, saying, “Lord, help me!”  She completely humbles herself and throws herself on His mercy.  And then He proceeds to call her a dog.  That likely would have been the breaking point for you or me.  The world would label Him a patriarchal sexist and tell us that we’re justified in abandoning our hope in Him.  

But instead, this woman doesn’t grumble or slink away; she agrees with Him. “Yes, Lord; indeed I am a dog, but dogs, they get scraps from the table.”  She has Jesus trapped in His own words, and demands that He throw her a bone and help her and her daughter.  In many ways she is like a dog with its teeth clamped onto one of those pull toys, and she isn’t going to let go.  She clings to Jesus with all her strength.

And this is what Jesus wanted and was working toward all along.  “O woman, great is your faith!”  And what is this faith that He commends?  We have a clue in what she calls Him: “Son of David.”  She knows who Jesus is.  She’s listened to the reports about Him.  Doubtless she’s heard accounts of how many people He has healed, how He has fed thousands, made the lame to walk and the blind to see.  Her confidence is in the Word which she has heard about Jesus.  And by calling Him “Son of David,” she reveals her trust in the Scriptural promises about a Son of that great king who would reign forever and bring peace.

So her faith is not blind.  It is not irrational.  Faith is, in the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Her faith is not in what she hopes for—the healing of her daughter—but rather her faith is the One who can give her what she hopes for and is confident that He will do it.  Too often faith is talked about as if our believing is the main thing.  If we just believe hard enough, then we’ll get what we hope for.  But that’s just putting your faith in your own faith.  In a sense, that’s trusting in yourself.  But Christian faith is not about you but the One you believe in.  The Canaanite woman’s faith is great because it is in Jesus.  Her faith is not in herself or her feelings but in the Word, the message about Jesus.

Very often faith goes against what you are feeling.  What this woman is experiencing in Jesus’ responses is contrary to what she has heard.  But her faith, her confidence in what she has heard about Jesus, overrides what she is currently experiencing.  And that, I suspect, is the point behind this whole episode.  It’s a hard lesson, to learn patience, and humility, and confidence in the Word, and to hold onto it tightly.  It’s a lesson that we all must continually learn until we draw our final breath.

Faith is not irrational or blind.  It begins with confidence in what has already been said and done in Christ.  What has happened in our language is a redefinition of faith to mean experiences, emotions, and ideas that dwell entirely in the realm of the subjective.  And so it is common to hear about “faith communities” and “people of faith” across all religions and philosophies, making every kind of faith equally valid, and leading to a kind of spiritual mish-mash where all beliefs and spiritualities are thought of as different flavors of the same ice cream, different paths to the same destination.  But our faith is in Him who said, “I am the way and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father except through Me.”

Looking back to early Christian history, the Roman Empire was brilliant in this regard.  When they conquered a new people, the local deity went into the pantheon and became part of the group of gods that were offered worship. All gods were acceptable as long as you paid homage to the Roman ones and to Caesar, too.  Very interestingly, many of the early Christian martyrs were considered atheists, which sounds strange to our ears.  But they were called “atheists” for not believing in the pantheon of the Roman gods, but only in one God, who could not be seen and who wasn’t worshiped by means of a visible idol or statue.  For instance, St. Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John and one of the early Christian martyrs, when he was given an opportunity to escape being thrown to the wild beasts, he was told by the proconsul to say, “Away with the atheists,” meaning the Christians.  But the bishop calmly looked out on the pagan crowd and instead said of them, “Away with the atheists.”  For there is one God alone who is to be worshiped, and one faith alone that can save, for there is only one Mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ.

So it doesn’t matter if a Muslim believes fervently, or a Hindu, or a Mormon.  For it is not the quality of the faith but the quality of the object of faith that matters, what faith believes and trusts in.  The object of faith for us Christians is Christ Jesus.  Faith in anything else may be well-intentioned and fervent, but it has a false and untrustworthy object.

The greatness of the woman’s faith in today’s Gospel, then, was not merely an inner quality of persistence, for one can be persistently, stubbornly wrong.  It was not mere optimism, either; for one can whistle happily while sauntering right into disaster.  No, the greatness of the woman’s faith was in the greatness of the object: her confidence was entirely in Christ Jesus, that He was, in fact, merciful.  That mercy that she had heard about, that Word was what she would not let go of.

You can have faith, strong, fervent faith that you will beat your cancer, get the job you want, have the child you’ve been longing for, or finally meet that person of your dreams.  But a strong faith is no guarantee that you’ll get these things, and neither is a failed outcome a sign of a lack of faith on your part.

No, as Christians our faith is entirely in one thing, what the woman asked for today: Mercy. God’s kindness, pity, and rescue.  And the foundation of our faith is entirely built upon Christ Jesus, His death, His resurrection.  He is the One who cried out to His Father on the cross and was answered not a word, in order that your prayers would always be heard–forsaken in His suffering so that you would never be.  He is the One who was treated like an unwanted street dog, whipped and beaten in order to deliver you from punishment.  And He is the One who continued to cling to His Father and to entrust Himself into His hands even in death, and who was vindicated in the resurrection and exalted for His great faith and faithfulness, all for you and on your behalf.  To trust in this crucified and risen Jesus is not blind or irrational; for who He is and what He has done is testified to by many eyewitnesses.  It is credible.  You are not a fool to believe it, but wise beyond measure.  For it is the one thing above all that matters.

So do not fret if world counts you a fool or a bigot for clinging to Christ and His Word.  Rather rejoice, for the Lord remembers you when you are weak and lowly and despised.  He shows you the greatest mercy, not just throwing you crumbs but giving you a place at the table and feeding you with the very Bread of Life, His true body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins.  O woman, O Church of Christ, great is your faith, because great is your Jesus.  Let it be to you as you have desired of the Lord.

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

(with thanks to the Rev. Christopher Esget)

Lead Us Not Into Temptation

Lent 1

Genesis 3:1-21; Matthew 4:1-11

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

In today’s readings we hear of the two watershed battles of human history.  In both cases, the battle is about faith.  The battle is about whom you will believe.  For you will believe either the words of God or you will believe the words of the Deceiver.  There is no third option. To say you don’t know or that you’re not sure is already to side with the Deceiver.  God speaks His words.  Are they to be trusted or not?  That is the only question that ultimately matters.

Eve had heard God’s words.  She knew that He had marked the tree of the knowledge of good and evil off-limits.  That was God’s territory, and they were not God.  They were His beloved creation who were to know only good and receive the good things their Creator had given.  God had spoken words about that tree: “In the day you eat of it, you shall surely die.”

The Deceiver, who is the father of lies, starts by implanting the seeds of doubt about God’s words.  “Did God really say?”  “Why would He give you such a command?  I mean, that makes no sense; come on.”  And then the old Liar moves to bold contradiction: “You will not surely die.”  There is the subtle suggestion that God doesn’t really love you and is trying to hold you back.  And then the devil promises something more: “In the day you eat of it, your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

So who will be believed?  When you hear words temptingly contradicting the words of God, who have you listened to?  It is always a battle of dueling words, vying for the trust of your heart. Eve, and Adam with her, made their choice.  They ventured out on the words of the Deceiver, and so they ate.  And then in horror they discovered what happens when you turn your back on God, when you ignore what He has said, when you listen to the Deceiver and do things you think are your own way, only to discover that they are actually the Deceiver’s way.

God had said: “In the day you eat of it, you will surely die.”  He did not lie.  Having turned from faith in God, who is Life, and from His Words, which give life, they plunged themselves and all their descendants with them, into death.  Death is more than simply the gradual and inevitable corruption and decay of our bodies.  Death is first and foremost unbelief, the rejection of God’s Words and therefore the rejection of God’s life which is given through His words, not being in communion with Him who alone is Life.

The evidence of their death is that they can no longer love and trust in God above all things.  They try to hide from Him.  Nor do they love each other any longer.  Their fingers are pointed in blame, always away from themselves, always someone else’s fault.  “The woman whom you gave me, she gave me of the tree, and I ate.”  Notice Adam doesn’t just blame Eve but even God Himself.  Eve says, “The serpent deceived me.”  In other words, “The devil made me do it.”

We are exactly like our first parents–hiding from confrontations with God, blaming others for all our problems, wanting to do things our own way, regardless of what God says, desiring something more, something different, something supposedly better than God’s words.  The words of judgment that came down on our first parents also come down on us, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  You’ve cut yourself off from God.  Repent.

For there is yet great hope for you.  For with the words of judgment come words of promise, a word about a woman’s seed, a word about a bruised heel, a word about the crushed head of the serpent.  Those words of God are a beacon of hope to hold onto.  Even in the face of this rebellion, God will not forsake those whom He has made, but will send a Savior.

Which brings us to today’s Gospel, where nothing seems to have changed, but everything is changing.  The setting is different–no longer a paradise, but a wilderness–but the temptation is the same.  There is the Seed of the Woman, the Virgin-Born, the long-promised Jesus.  There is the Deceiver, and he is up to his old bag of tricks.  As he broke Adam and Eve’s trust in God, so now he seeks to break this Man’s trust in God.  He does it again with words.  God had just declared Jesus to be His beloved Son in His baptism at the Jordan.  Satan now invites him to doubt that word. “Some fine beloved Son you are! He sends you here in the wilderness to starve?  You’d best wake up and smell the coffee, Jesus.  There is no one going to look after you in this world if you do not look after yourself.  Make these stones bread!”  But Jesus rebuffs the attack.  “It is written, man shall not live by bread alone.”  And the rest of the verse?  “but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”  Jesus was saying: “I trust my Father; to His Word I will cling; He will not abandon me to the grave, and I will not doubt Him.”  Jesus is the second Adam, not eating but fasting in order to save you.  Remember Jesus when you are tempted by the desires of the flesh that war against God’s Word.  Remember how He conquered all such temptation for you.

Satan then tries another tactic.  “So, you trust your Father?  How splendid.  I’m all for trusting your Father.  Here, let’s show everyone how much you trust your Father.  Jump!  They’ll all believe in you when they see how your Father’s angels rush to hold you up in their hands so that you will not even dash your foot against a stone.”  The Deceiver dares even to take up the promises of God into his mouth in order to twist them and pervert them and use them to shake Jesus’ trust.  But Jesus will not give in to this temptation either.  He does not need to show off His trust in the Father, to demonstrate it as though it were something He was uncertain of.  He simply takes the Word of God at its face value: You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.  Remember Jesus when you are tempted to prove that God’s Word is really true with special signs or outward displays of power or success.  To test God is to disbelieve Him.  That is the religion of the devil.  Remember Jesus’ trust which has conquered all such temptation for you.

Satan is desperate now.  Here is one on whom every attack he has attempted has failed, and the failure is bitter for him.  So he shows Jesus all the glory of this world’s kingdoms in an instant of time: “Yours!” he cries.  “All yours!  I’ll give them to you.  Skip the cross and the suffering the Father has laid on you.  Go straight to the glory.  You deserve it.  Just do this one little thing.  Kneel down here in front of me and worship!”  To which the response comes: “Away with you, Satan!  It is written, you shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.”  Remember Jesus when you are tempted to take the easy way out, the broad road that leads to destruction rather than the narrow way of the cross.  Remember Him who knows your afflictions and by His suffering has conquered all such temptation for you.

In this way Satan is defeated by the Man who would not let go of God’s words, who clung to His promises, and whose trust in His Father was unshakable in the wilderness.  It would prove to be unshakable also in the Garden of Gethsemane where the tempter tried again, but in His anguish Jesus prayed to His Father, “Not My will but Your will be done.”  Jesus’ trust proved to be unshakable even and especially on the cross where in His bloody affliction, He would pray, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”  He would be bruised and bleed and die precisely to fulfill the words and promises of His Father, to crush the serpent’s head.  For by His crucifixion, Jesus took away the sin and the death that gave the devil power over you.  Now you are set free.

Today the battle is the same as ever.  Satan would still seek to lead you away, promising you all sorts of happiness and good times, while only desiring to drag you down to hell with him.  But as you are faced with clinging to the words and promises of God or giving heed to the lies of the Deceiver, you know that you do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with your weakness; rather you have a High Priest who was tempted in every respect the same as you, and yet was without sin.  In fact He was tempted in ways greater than you will ever face.  Only Jesus, who doesn’t give in to temptation at all, comes to knows its full and cumulative weight pressing down. Jesus felt that pressing down all the way to death, and still did not falter–all for you.  Draw near with confidence, then, to His throne of grace and find help in your time of need.  His throne of grace is right here: the altar. The Savior comes to you today in His words and in His Supper as the sure sign that the promises of God will not fail you even as they did not fail His Son; do not despair but trust in Him by the power of the Holy Spirit, and your trust will not be in vain.  Our Lord’s words do not lie or deceive.  He who is risen from the dead will also raise your mortal, sin-plagued bodies to a new life of holiness and immortality and glory.

In your time of temptation, flee to Jesus.  Take refuge in Him who is your mighty fortress, whom Satan could not conquer.  In Christ, and only in Him there is full and free forgiveness for all the times you have fallen and have yielded to the Tempter. In Jesus and only in Him there is strength for the ongoing battle. And, yes, in Him and only in Him there is full, final and lasting victory.  As it is written, “You shall tread upon the lion and the cobra; the young lion and the serpent you shall trample underfoot.”

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

 

(with thanks to the Rev. William Weedon)

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