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Deliver Us From Evil

Matthew 4:1-11 (Genesis 3:1-21)

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

Why was the knowledge of good and evil harmful to Adam and Eve?  Why did God not want them to partake of that? What’s the big deal?  What’s wrong with human beings having their eyes opened to whatever they want to look in to? 

In the beginning Adam and Eve knew only good; they experienced only the gifts and the blessing of God’s creation. They did not need to know and understand how evil works, all the ins and outs of what its like to reject God and to live disconnected from His Word.  All they needed to know was that they shouldn’t go there, they shouldn’t depart from His words, and to do so would bring death.  That was enough. 

The Lord gave this command for good reason.  For with created beings like us, to know evil is to be changed and corrupted by it.  Even on the most basic level, you probably know what it’s like to have seen something that you wish you hadn’t seen–an immoral image, an act of gory violence, some traumatic event.  But now there’s no unseeing it. The evil sticks with you and changes how you perceive even good things in your life.  Or on a little bit deeper level, perhaps you’ve done or experienced something that you shouldn’t have.  Even if you’ve repented of it and are forgiven, or even if it happened without your consent, even if you’ve tried to forget it and put it out of your mind, the effects often still remain and burden you.  You’ve become a bit more calloused or jaded.  There is still a sense of being tainted by it all.

God didn’t want Adam and Eve or you or me to know any of this evil.  He wanted us to receive only good things from His gracious hand–rather than being turned in on ourselves, hiding out from our fears, preoccupied with covering up our shame.  The Lord wants us to live in the blessed innocence of knowing only His goodness, nothing more.  That’s not stupidity or naivete, any more than we would call a child stupid or naive because they haven’t seen a bloody mixed martial arts knockout or an X rated movie.  In fact we think of children as being greatly blessed when they are free from all the corrupting influences of life that adults know, when they are just able to be kids.  We envy them; we find joy in seeing their joy in the simple pleasures of life.  Just because we know more and have experienced and seen more doesn’t mean that we’re better off than they are at all.  That’s why Scripture counsels us, “In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20).  

Today we acknowledge that we are those who, like our first parents, have transgressed into the realm of the knowledge of good and evil.  We’ve wanted to be like God, to achieve our own form of self-fulfillment, to have our eyes opened to whatever our hearts desire.  Repent, for that is the way of death.  You know it; you feel it in your bones.  Turn to Christ Jesus.  For He has come to destroy the evil that corrupts our natures.  He has come to make things good and right again.

That’s why Jesus is in the wilderness in today’s Gospel reading.  In the Garden of Eden man exalted himself to be a god in place of God.  However, in the sin-cursed wilderness God humbles Himself to become a man in place of man. 

 Jesus does not eat but fasts and bears the onslaughts of the devil for us that we may be restored to life. In the Garden man tried to win independence from God, to be his own master, to be in charge of his own life.  But in the wilderness, Jesus relies on His heavenly Father, submitting to His will and looking to Him for all that He needs, in order that He might restore us to faith and to a right relationship with God.  

Let us give our attention then to the devil’s temptation of Christ and how Christ won the victory for us over the evil one.  For here we are given to see the only way out of the trap that the knowledge of evil has lured us into.  Only in Jesus is our corruption undone.  

Jesus was tested and tempted in every way just as we are. As God, He couldn’t be tempted. But He set aside that divine privilege here.  He put His bullet proof vest on the shelf, you might say.  This was the Son of God as true Man against the devil, a match promised back in Genesis where God said He would do battle with the devil through the Promised Seed of the woman. The head crusher versus the heal crusher. No referee in the ring. One on one in the wilderness.  He fights for you.

The first temptation is the temptation of the flesh, “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”  “Feed your appetite.  Your Father isn’t providing for you like He should.  Are you sure He loves you?  Take things into Your own hands.  Do what you want for Yourself.  You don’t have to humble Yourself like this and listen to Him.  Come on, Son of God!”  Notice how the devil tries to implant doubt with His temptation.  “If you are the Son of God. . .”  At His Baptism the Father had just said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”  Now Satan wants Him to doubt that.  

This is how the devil subtly attacks you, too.  Satan wants you to doubt the Word of God spoken at your baptism.  “If you really were a beloved child of God, would God allow you to go through the things you’ve gone through?  And look at you, sinner; you don’t much look like a Christian.  Are you sure you’re forgiven?  Are you sure God wants you?” This is the true evil of the devil’s temptation.  It’s bad enough if he can lure you to engage in sinful behavior.  But even worse, he then takes those sins and shoves them in your face and tries to make you think you’re not even a Christian, that you don’t have true faith.  That’s why the greater temptation is the spiritual kind.  In the Small Catechism, Luther placed the three temptations in this order: first, false belief; then, despair; and then, other great shame and vice.  The vices come last; issues of faith come first.

And so when the devil assaults your conscience and reminds you of your sins, use Luther’s technique and add a few more sins to the devil’s list that he forgot about, and then tell him to go to hell where he belongs.  Fight him off by clinging to Christ and His Word.  Know that all of your sins were swallowed up in the wounds of Christ on the holy cross.  Anything that the devil can charge you with, Christ answered for at Calvary.  With the Word and name of Jesus you can put the devil to flight.  In this way Christ truly is your mighty fortress.

Jesus is faithful for our sake.  He wins this battle on our behalf, denying Himself, trusting in His heavenly Father, and fending off this temptation with the Scripture, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”  Our real life comes not simply from food but from God’s words and speaking.  His breath and voice give us life.  “I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine.”  “I forgive you all your sins.” “This is My body and blood given and shed for you.”  Feeding on that Bread of Life, we live.

Jesus quotes Scripture, and so the devil, in his monstrous craftiness also quotes Scripture.  He took Jesus up into the holy city, set Him on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “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 hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’” The devil has here what seems like a pious idea.  God says that His angels will protect you.  So let’s see if it’s true.  Jump from the roof of the temple.  But testing God like that does not flow from faith but from unbelief.  It’s an attempt to manipulate God and make Him do your bidding.  Unbelief demands miracles and signs and outward displays of power to prove that God is really with you.  Beware of those who want you to prove your faith with extraordinary works or signs.  That is the religion of the devil.  Jesus said, “It is written again, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’”

Don’t ever forget that the devil is very good at religion.  He can quote the Bible with the best of them.  But his religion, his Bible-quoting is always a perversion of the truth.  It has the appearance of godliness, but it is devoid of the grace of God, or it perverts God’s grace beyond recognition and mixes it with man-made righteousness.  The devil laughs at the naivete of those who think that it doesn’t matter what religion you are as long as you’re sincere.  The devil is the founder of every sincere false religion out there.  He loves it when people are “spiritual.”  What he doesn’t like is the cross of Christ–if people believe the preaching of the true Gospel, if they receive the Sacraments with penitent faith, if they trust not in their own merits but in the merits of Jesus alone for forgiveness.

Finally, the third temptation is that of power and honor and glory.  “All these [kingdoms of the world and their glory] I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.”  “You don’t need to go the way of weakness and the cross, Jesus. All this heavy stuff about suffering and sacrifice–just put that out of Your mind.  You can have it all right now.  Just make this one little change, this one little compromise in Your principles and Your plans.”  Whereas we would be mightily tempted to take the equivalent of a billion dollar lottery ticket, Jesus doesn’t entertain such a thought for even a moment.  As our faithful captain, He quickly makes one mighty thrust of the sword of the Spirit, “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’”  And the devil slithers out of the ring, defeated, badly wounded, waiting for an opportune time to try a final revenge attack.  Jesus would not take the path of least resistance.  He took the path to Calvary, the only path that would truly ransom you from the power of the devil.  By the shedding of His holy blood, Jesus released you from Satan’s grip and purchased you as His own.

Today’s Gospel, then, marks the beginning of that victory of our Lord over the devil.  Here’s the key point:  Christ has carried your human flesh into temptation, and He has triumphed. He has prevailed over sin, over the devil, over death, all for you.  Where Adam was defeated, Jesus is victorious.  And He gives you His victory as a gift through faith in His name. Romans 5 states, “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous.”  Jesus was obedient even to the point of death on the cross, for you. Just as Adam and Eve’s clothing was made from an animal God had sacrificed, so Jesus was sacrificed for you by the Father, that through His shed blood you would be clothed with His righteousness.  The risen Lord has taken away the sin that gives Satan his deathly power over you.  Now in Christ you are set free from the fatal desire to know and play around with evil.  You can see that lure for what it truly is.  Now for you who are in Christ, it is “dust to dust to the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”

Seeing, then, that we have such a great High Priest and Redeemer, let us hold fast our confession of faith in Christ. Come boldly to His throne of grace, that you may receive mercy and find grace to help in your time of need.  In the midst of your testings and temptations and battles, believe that in Christ, the victory is already won.  We pray, “Deliver us from evil.”  And the Lord does; and He has.  Through Him the words of the Introit come true for you, “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 ✠

The Lord is Near to Those Who Have a Broken Heart

Jonah 3 and Matthew 6

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

The season of Lent lasts for 40 days, from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday.  Sundays are not counted because every Lord’s Day is a “little Easter” in the Church.  Lent corresponds to the 40 days that our Lord Jesus fasted in the wilderness, in which He overcame the temptations of the devil.  Living by faith in Christ, trusting in the all-sufficient merits of His holy life and His suffering for us, we seek to follow in His way–to put down and mortify sin through repentance, and by faith in Christ to grow in the holy life He has given to us.  Today’s readings instruct us in that, in the meaning of repentance and faith.

To begin with, we learn from the Old Testament reading that true penitence has some very real outward aspects to it.  Sometimes we can be tempted to believe that repenting and believing only has to do with some sort of inward pious or sorrowful feelings that we have.  But the account from Jonah shows us it also involves our bodies, too.  Jonah was sent to Nineveh by God to preach against it because of its wickedness.  He declared, “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”  God’s judgment was about to come down upon them for what they had done.

Amazingly and thankfully, it is written that the people of Nineveh believed God.  You wonder what might happen if Jonah went to one of our big cities today and cried out against its wickedness and violence and immorality.  The cynic in me thinks that he would be quickly dismissed as just another religious crackpot.  But here in Nineveh, the Law of God was not met with rebellion, but it accomplished its primary purpose of leading the Ninevites to repentance.  They proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth, from the least of them to the greatest.  Even the king of Nineveh laid aside his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes.  The king announced to the people: “Cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.”  

Notice here how the repentance of the Ninevites involved their whole selves.  It wasn’t purely a spiritual matter but a bodily matter too.  The two go together.  They fasted and put on sackcloth as a way of humbling the flesh along with the spirit.  They put themselves in the ashes as a sign of death they deserved.  “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Furthermore, their inward repentance  involved the outward turning away from evil, stopping the sinful deeds which they had been doing.  They didn’t just say, “Gee, I’m sorry” while all the while planning to continue the same way of living.  Their belief in God’s judgment was real.  Their desire to change was real.  

Let it also be the same way for us these 40 days of Lent.  Whatever your pet sins may be–gossiping, gambling, gluttony, drinking, the love of money, lust and sexual immorality, anger and losing your temper, grudge-holding, vengeance-seeking, misusing God’s name, laziness, self-righteousness–whatever it is, acknowledge that you have invited God’s just judgment by it.  All of us have deserved nothing but death and hell.  Repent, turn away from your sin and turn to God for mercy and help in Jesus.  That is literally what the word “repent” means, to turn, to turn around from embracing the things that lead to death to embracing Christ and the life that is in Him alone.

Even the Gentile king of Nineveh turned to the Lord in his repentance, declaring, “Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?”  This is the key point:  The Ninevites put their hope not in their own turning, their own works of repentance, but in God’s turning.  They relied on the hope that God would turn away from the judgment He had declared on the city.  They believed the Lord to be good and merciful, and through that faith they were saved.  It is written, “Then God saw . . . that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.”

In a very real way, the message of God to you this day is the same as Jonah’s, “Yet forty days and judgment is coming.”  Yet about 40 days and Good Friday will be here.  As we contemplate that coming judgment, we lose our appetite, so to speak.  When a person is in sorrow or troubled or focused intently on a future goal, very often he won’t be able to eat.  So also, as we enter this 40 day season, we engage in a holy fast, that our hearts and minds and bodies may be more devoted to the Word of God and prayer.  Like the king of Nineveh, we set our hope on the fact that God will turn His fierce anger away from us, so that we may not perish but have everlasting life.  

In fact, we live in the sure confidence that our Lord will turn His fierce anger from us, because He has turned it elsewhere, on His own beloved Son, who bore our judgment for us on the cross.  The Father executed our disaster on Christ in our place by His merciful grace.  And so He relents from bringing it upon us, and He does not do it.  

In all of this we see that the Ninevite king in the days of Jonah was, in a way, a picture of Jesus.  For again, it is written, “He arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes.” Our royal Lord laid aside the robe of His glory, covered Himself with the shame and sackcloth of our sin, and was laid in the dust and ashes of our death to save us.  Moths would eventually consume the cloaks that were put on Jesus in mockery. Rust would destroy the spear that pierced his flesh. But neither could lay a hand on the Lord of life. Death would not the victor be o’er Him who hung upon the tree.  The grave met its match when Jesus laid in its dust.  Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust is no longer the final word. Jesus gives the final word over our enemy: “It is finished.” Jesus rises from the dust, having taken away the stain of sin.  Through Christ God relents from the disaster of judgment that was to come upon us.  He raises you from the ash heap of repentance to be seated with the Prince of Peace as children of God.  

Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.  We know and believe that our true treasure is not worldly acclaim and the praise of men.  For that reward quickly fades.  We don’t give our gifts and pray our prayers and fast our fasts to draw attention to ourselves, but so that our attention and all attention is drawn to Jesus, that we might meditate on His words and share in His love ever more deeply.  Jesus is your treasure.  And above all, you are the Lord’s treasure.  His heart is with you.  You are the focus of His love, which sacrificed all to win you back through the secret and hidden means of the cross.  The Father sees in secret and honors His Son’s work, and He now reveals openly the mystery of the cross through His Word to save you who believe.

This is our joy and our happiness, even on this penitential day.  The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart and saves those of contrite spirit (Psalm 34:18).   The Introit declares to us what the mind of God is toward us: “You have mercy on all, O Lord, and abhor nothing you have made.  You spare  (us) all because you are our Lord, our God.”  God loves us in Christ, in spite of ourselves.  

So even in dust and ashes we rejoice and are glad.  For ashes symbolize something more than death.  They symbolize sacrifice, the burnt offerings of old.  In the Old Testament the ashes of the burned sacrifices for the sins of the people were found outside the camp.  Jesus was crucified outside of Jerusalem, thereby showing the true mercy of God towards His people.  Ashes on the forehead, then, are also a baptismal sign in the shape of a cross, marking you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified, recipients of His mercy.  Later on, when you go home to wash off the stain, let that too be a baptismal reminder, how you have been washed clean in Christ, chosen and purified by Him who is the living water.  And right now, as we fast in regards to the world, Jesus invites us to feast on Him who died and rose for us, to believe in Him, to receive His true body and blood so that we may be forgiven and share in His everlasting life, we in Him and He in us.

This is what it means to lay up for yourself treasure in heaven.  For moth and rust cannot destroy and thieves cannot break in and steal this treasure which Christ has won for you.  Endure patiently in the way of the cross, looking forward with sure confidence to the Easter victory feast–Christ’s resurrection, and our own resurrection when He comes again.

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

The Holy Seed


Luke 8:4-15

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

The weather lately certainly hasn’t been gardening weather.  But I imagine that there are at least a couple among us who have some old garden seeds stored away somewhere in the garage or in the basement or a drawer in the kitchen–maybe some leftover green bean seeds or cucumber or zucchini seeds, or sweet corn or flower seeds.  If you think about it, seeds are really remarkable things.  They can lay around for months, seemingly dry and dead.  And yet consider what they do!  A buried acorn becomes a huge oak tree.  An almost invisible speck produces the lettuce and carrots and tomatoes and other vegetables we eat.  A hard pellet imbedded with complex DNA codes and intricate chemical systems starts a chain reaction when something as simple as water is added to it.

The seed is an important element in several of Jesus’ parables.  One of His shortest ones goes like this, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field, which indeed is the least of all the seeds; but when it is grown it is larger than all garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and nest in its branches.”

The seed teaches us of the hidden way God works.  What appears unimpressive, even dead, is precisely where the action is at.  Seeds are, in a way, a sacrament, an earthly element that contains within it the life-giving Word and command of God.  Seeds bear in them the creative power of God himself.

The Lord God created a perfect world in the beginning teeming with life;  and seeds were a key part of this great creative plan.  In fact, only twelve verses into the Bible, we read: “And God said, ‘Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind.’”  Seeds have always been integral to God’s creation.  And these seeds were there to give food to mankind and all living creatures. Seeds are the ongoing creative work of God to sustain man and beast alike.

But what did man do?  He abused the seed, he took advantage of God’s gift, eating that which was not sown for him.  And after the Fall, God announced the consequence to man: “Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you.”  No more would seeds sprout effortlessly for man.  Now birds would eat what the man has sown–animals no longer living in harmony with man, but in competition. Rocky ground and lack of moisture would make his job harder, making him till and water the ground.  Thorns would entangle the seed and choke it out, requiring constant weeding and hoeing. Good ground would become hard to find, and the man would have to labor hard to eat his bread.

But interestingly, God announces to the devil only a few verses later that a Seed was coming to fix what had been broken.  He tells Satan that the Seed of the woman will crush his head.  The Seed from the body of Eve, the offspring of the very woman who committed the first sin, would come to conquer the Serpent and set the world right again.

The Seed was promised throughout the Old Testament, in particular to people like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  God said to Abraham, “In you and in your seed all nations on earth will be blessed.”  The prophets reminded God’s people of His promise.  It continued through David who reigned over a prosperous kingdom, and through God’s messengers who saw the Temple destroyed and the people taken captive.  Through wars and conquests, occupation and bloodshed, the promise of the Seed remained alive, passing from generation to generation.

And when the ground was ready, the Seed was finally sown. Unlike any other human seed sown by an earthly father in the natural way, this Seed was sown supernaturally by God Himself, through the Holy Spirit.  The angel of the Lord appeared to Mary and sowed the Seed into her womb through speaking into her ears!  The Seed is none other than the Word of the Father, the only begotten Son of God Himself!  And having been planted, that Seed of the Word became flesh; it germinated in the fertile ground of the Blessed Virgin, and grew into a Man, the fulfillment of God’s promise back in the Garden.  Jesus, the very Word of God, crushed the Serpent’s head in a totally unexpected way: by dying, and rising from the dead. For Christ himself told us that unless a “grain of wheat”–a seed–“falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Fellow believers, hear this clearly: The first three soils in today’s Gospel are descriptive of us.  You are the hardened soil of the wayside, sometimes callous to God’s Word, letting it in one ear and out the other without letting it penetrate your heart, acting as if you’ve heard it all before.  You are the rocky soil, on fire for the faith one minute, withered away in unfaithfulness the next.  You are the thorn-infested soil, all caught up in the pursuit of money and the pleasures of this life, anxious about this and that, forgetting the one thing that’s most needful.  Acknowledge this, repent of it, and believe in Christ.  

For this is the purpose of the Word and why it has been sent to you.  First of all, the seed shows the soil for what it is.  There’s never anything wrong with the seed.  But it’s being cast onto the soil reveals the nature of the soil–hard, rocky, thorn-infested, unfruitful  The soil was surely this before the seed fell on it.  But the seed confirms this judgment.  It pronounces it and manifests how things truly are with us.  It does what it was supposed to do.  It shows how the soil is powerless to change itself.  As Isaiah said, “Seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.”

But then notice this: The Sower casts the Seed, the Father sends His Son right into the midst of all of this for you, into such corrupted soil.  Jesus is the One who has borne this corruption all for you to take it away from you.  For behold how this Seed falls to the earth, how our Lord suffers on the cross.  Jesus, the Word of God, the Seed, is thrown onto the wayside, the way of sorrows, where he is dragged to His cross.  But notice that the birds of the air do not devour Jesus’ body as was often the case with other condemned criminals, who would be left for the animals to consume.  And this Seed is hurled upon the rocky ground of Golgotha, where he lacked moisture.  But in spite of his suffering and thirst, this Seed would not wither away permanently.  He was even crowned with thorns, the very symbol of Adam’s curse, and yet this Seed would not be choked out of existence.  For while the Seed did die, He rose again in victory over the devil and the world and our sinful nature.  

So do you see?  By His holy suffering and death and resurrection, our Lord has overcome all that stands against you, all that keeps you from having life, all that keeps you from bearing fruit.  In Christ you are free from the hardness and the rocks and the thorns.  In Christ and in Him alone you are the holy fourth soil, pure and righteous and fruitful and forgiven.  In you, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Word of God is implanted through preaching.  You have been watered with the Word in your baptism.  And the Word is sown in the soil of your body, placed on your very tongues, in the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.  The power of God to give life is in the Seed.  And the Seed is in you and with you and for you.

And be sure to notice how the Father sows the seed.  He doesn’t just plant it here or there in soils He deems suitable and acceptable.  He scatters the Seed everywhere, on the good and the bad, the worthy and the unworthy, on all of us.  That is the nature of His love, love that extends to all.  And the Word of God does what God intends it to do. Just as the rain and snow fall from heaven, so the Word of the Lord will not return void or empty, but will accomplish the purpose for which it was sent. For even in the midst of thorns and thistles, the prophet Isaiah said that cypress and myrtle trees will grow and replace the briars.  

So even though a sermon from a preacher, or a few words spoken over bread and wine, or an announcement of the forgiveness of sins, or a sprinkle of water and the name of God on a sinner’s head don’t look very powerful, they are indeed the very same Seed that crushed the Serpent’s head: the Word of God which is “living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword.”

The Word of God is truly the most powerful thing in creation.  For it brings life and creation into being.  It is far greater than the power of our fiercest weapons or the energy of the sun.  For only the Word of God overcomes death, makes us worthy to stand in the presence of God, and gives us life beyond the grave itself.

Therefore, fellow Christians, let us thank God for his Word, for his Seed.  As Isaiah said, “Go out with joy, and be led out in peace; the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing before you, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” All of creation rejoices because of the fruit that the Seed bears.  And you are that produce of Christ; you are that fruit that has the seed within it.  In fact Galatians 3 goes so far as to say this, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”  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 for some of the above)

Lord of Justice and Grace

Matthew 20:1-16

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

Is God fair?  If by fair you mean, is God just and righteous, the answer is yes, absolutely.  But if you mean, does he always give us what we deserve, then the answer is no–thankfully so.  For our God is a God of grace as well as justice.  And to illustrate this point, our Lord Jesus tells a parable to teach us how His kingdom works.  

In this story of the workers in the vineyard, a boss goes out in the morning to hire laborers.  As the sun rises, he makes a contract with several laborers for the standard rate of a denarius a day.  And he sent them into his vineyard.  A few hours later, about nine in the morning, he hires another group, but interestingly, their agreement is not for a specific amount but for “whatever is right,” whatever is just and righteous.  And so they went.  The same thing happens at about noon, and then about three.  Finally, at five in the afternoon, with only a single hour left in the workday, the boss hires one last group, and sends them into the vineyard too.

As the sun sets, the foreman brings the workers in to get paid.  The boss says, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.”  The guys that worked one single hour received their pay: “each of them received a denarius,” that is, a full day’s wage.  Imagine that!  They were paid for 12 hours, but only actually worked one hour.  So the guys who worked twelve hours, were really looking forward to getting paid.  Surely, they would receive much more, maybe as much as 12 days pay for a single day’s work (if the pay rate was going to be equal).  At the very least in their minds, they should be getting a lot more than what they originally contracted for. “But each of them also received a denarius.”

Now it would seem that Jesus couldn’t possibly approve of this.  It doesn’t seem fair!  After all, those who worked 12 hours “have borne the burden and the heat of the day,” unlike those Johnny-come-latelies who were sitting idle all day, who then only worked an hour in the evening air, and got paid for twelve hours.  When you look at it from the point of view of “equal pay for equal work,” that sounds outrageous.  Maybe this unfair boss is going to be punished in the story.  Maybe he will be forced to pay his workers more fairly.  Jesus has to fix this, right?

But instead, Jesus sides with the boss.  “Friend,” says the business owner to one of the men who worked twelve long hours for a denarius, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong.  Did you not agree with me for a denarius?  Take what belongs to you and go your way.  I choose to give to this worker the same as I give to you.  Am I not allowed to do what I want with my own things?  Or is your eye evil because I am good?”

That’s an interesting phrase that Jesus concludes the story with, isn’t it?  It’s about the eyes, this grumbling and complaining and discontentment.  It’s about looking at others and making comparisons and finding some reason to be outraged at people and offended at how you’re being treated or how life’s just not fair.  To have an evil eye is to have a covetous eye that is focused always on yourself and what you can gain for yourself.  A person like this can’t be happy for someone else when things go well; they can only engage in grumbling and insults and in pity parties for themselves.  

It’s important to remember in this parable, though, that no one was treated unfairly.  No injustice was done.  The first workers got a fair day’s wage.  That was good and right.  It’s just that the others were the recipients of the landowner’s great generosity.  People might expect that Jesus’ message would be different, that He would side with the workers seeking fairness with management. But Jesus is like the landowner who has every right to do what He wants with His own things and to be generous to whom He wants to be generous.

Now you could make the point here that Jesus is no Socialist, and He does not advocate for the right of workers to make a claim on what does not belong to them, or to violate their contracts.  But, of course, the main point of this parable is not really about politics or economics but about what the kingdom of heaven is like.  Jesus says that in God’s kingdom, “The last will be first, and the first last.”  Jesus says that “fairness” according to the ways of the world is not how His kingdom operates.  In fact, it’s turned upside down.  Those who think God owes them something more than what He’s given are gravely mistaken.  His ways are just and gracious.  Who are we to begrudge His generosity to someone?

Here’s really the key spiritual point to take from the Gospel: the difference between the first laborers and the later laborers is that the first had a specific contract, a legal compact, with the landowner, whereas the last workers had nothing specific, just a promise that the landowner would give them whatever is right.  That’s a big difference, isn’t it.  Would you work for someone without knowing in advance what your wage was going to be?  Well, it depends on the character of the one hiring you.  Is the person greedy or generous?  Are they trustworthy or not?  Is it a stingy next door neighbor wanting to get their lawn mowed on the cheap, or is it grandma and grandpa looking for an excuse to give their grandchild a big gift?

So you might say that the first laborers were operating under the Law, and the later laborers were operating under the Gospel.  The first laborers were relying on their own works, the last laborers were living by faith in the goodness of the landowner.  That’s why the last are first, because their confidence is not in themselves but in the Lord and what He does.  Remember what the landowner said, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”  The Lord is good, and His mercy endures forever.  

The truth is, we should thank God daily that He doesn’t judge us by what is fair; He doesn’t give us what we deserve.  For we deserve death and hell.   We may be considered good people in a worldly sense.  But how often have we been idle and lazy in doing good works?  Have any of our words or deeds even done damage to the vineyard?  We deserve wrath.  “The wages of sin is death.”  However, because of the work of Jesus and His sacrificial death, God is free to show mercy to us.  He is free to do good to us which we have not merited or deserved.  In the cross of Jesus, justice (what is fair) and grace (what is undeserved) come together.  At Golgotha, the just punishment for sin is carried out.  Justice is done; Jesus pays the price.  And at the same time grace overflows.  Your sins are forgiven; you are treated as if you worked perfectly and tirelessly all day.  The merits of Jesus are credited to you.  “The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

He who is the first and the greatest humbled Himself to be the last of all on the holy cross.  He Himself is the one who bore the burden and the heat of the day that brings us the generous reward of salvation.  Jesus was handed over to Pontius Pilate at dawn, crucified at the third hour of the day; darkness covered the land at the sixth hour, noon.  Our Lord died at the ninth hour as the perfect and complete sacrifice for our sin.  He was buried at the eleventh hour of the day just before sundown.  See how the work was all done for you, simply for you to receive by faith.  Hear again those words from the cross, “It is finished.”

One more point: Very often when we hear this parable of the laborers in the vineyard, those of us who have been lifelong Christians and lifelong Lutherans like to think of ourselves as having worked the whole day.  We didn’t come to faith later in life; we were baptized as infants and have been a part of the church right from the very beginning.  And that’s certainly an acceptable application of this parable–although it is also a warning.  Remember what happened to those hired at dawn!  Let us never grumble at the grace of God shown to sinners and to those who repent and receive the denarius of salvation later in life!  

But there’s another way to think about and apply this parable, too.  And that is that we ourselves are actually among the last workers hired.  Those who have really borne the burden and the heat of the day in the Church have come before us in history.  We’re not the ones who fought the early heresies and formed the Scriptural Creeds of the Church.  We’re not the ones who faced the power of emperors and the power of popes, risking death for our faith (though that day may soon be coming).  We’re not the ones who crossed oceans and sacrificed everything to be able to practice our faith and raise our children according to the truth.  We are not the ones who preserved the liturgy and penned the great hymns of the Church.  Truly an astonishingly rich heritage has been handed down to us. And here we are near the close of the age, at the end of the Day, eagerly waiting for the Last Day, relying on the goodness of the Master,  privileged to work in the vineyard and to be a part of the one, holy, Christian, apostolic Church.  Truly, it’s all a gift of God’s grace.

Our Lord does what He chooses with what belongs to Him.  And that is true here again today, as Jesus freely chooses to give you His very body and blood, once offered up as the atoning sacrifice for all of your sins.  Here at the altar you all are paid the denarius of salvation, regardless of how long you’ve been in the vineyard.  For in truth we are all those last fortunate workers who just squeaked in, though we do not deserve it. The Lord is just.  The Lord is gracious.  The Lord is good.  Blessed is the one who trusts in Him.

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Larry Beane for some of the above)

The Gift of Marriage in Christ

John 2:1-11; Ephesians 5:22-33

Epiphany 2

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

In today’s Gospel Jesus is taking part in and adding to the joy of a wedding feast, even providing the finest vintage wine for the occasion.  While this Gospel certainly deals with much more than marriage, I’m going to follow the lead of Martin Luther when he preached on this passage and focus especially on the divine gift of holy matrimony.   

 Marriage was a topic that needed to be addressed in Luther’s day, and it’s certainly no different today.  On the surface, it might seem that our situation is completely different.  When it comes to marriage and sexuality, his time and ours would appear to be almost exact opposites.  After all, in the 1500's some of the most honored and looked-up-to people would have been those who were celibate, monks and priests and nuns who had taken a vow of chastity.  Such people were looked upon as especially spiritual and examples to follow for living a good life.  In our time the most honored people, who are thought of as living the good life, are often those who flaunt their sexuality, who might have several sexual partners over time, and who present their sexual freedom as part of what it means for them to live a truly fulfilled life.  Someone today who is celibate or who waits till marriage is generally looked at as a bit unusual or naive or just boring.

And yet, when it comes right down to it, the problem in our day and in Luther’s day with regard to sexuality is at its root the very same problem.  For in both cases God’s good gift of marriage is looked down on and sometimes even rejected outright.  Whether you’re living a celibate life in order to achieve some supposedly higher state of holiness before God, or whether you’re sleeping with someone you’re not married to, even with the best of intentions and justifications, the sin is still the same: you’re rejecting the goodness and the necessity of God’s institution of marriage.  It is within that sanctified estate that His good gift of sexuality is to be enjoyed.  So it’s the same thing: whether a person is prudish about sex and considers it somehow to be dirty, or whether they’re indulgent about sex and are fine with whatever consenting adults want to do, it’s two sides of the same coin.  God’s gift of marriage is being degraded and cast aside.  

However, in today’s Gospel we see that Jesus approves of marriage and blesses it and the sexual relationship within it as good and holy. Marriage is not just a human arrangement or a mere legal matter or piece of paper.  It’s a divine joining together of a man and a woman, an act of God making two people one flesh. That’s why it’s called holy matrimony.  Remember, God created marriage and joined Adam and Eve together before the fall into sin. He’s the One who created us male and female.  God instituted this for the mutual delight and companionship of husbands and wives, and for the creation of new human life when He grants it.  So whether you’re married or single, God teaches you in His Word to honor marriage highly, especially in how you talk about it with friends and family and co-workers.  Raunchy joking about sex does not honor marriage; belittling your spouse does not honor marriage.  Rather, we should remember the great good that God works through this holy estate.

First of all, in marriage (as in all our vocations) God works to protect us from selfishness.  He places a flesh and blood spouse directly before our eyes, with specific and real needs.  God calls us out of a self-absorbed life that invents its own good works into a devoted life that takes care of the spouse He has given.  A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed Himself for her.  That’s why if a husband is starting to whine that his wife is hard to deal with or that she’s not meeting his “needs,” he should look in the mirror and slap himself in the face.  His job is not primarily to be a receiver but a giver, sacrificing himself for her.  It’s time to man up and focus on how to draw her to yourself again.  And likewise, if a wife is lamenting that her husband is not turning out to be the man she hoped he would be, she should remember this: God’s call to submit to your husband and to respect him is not dependent on how romantic or manly or communicative he’s been lately.  Honor him as your head as the church honors Christ.  With a gentle spirit, keep looking to him to be the man God has called him and declared him to be.  It is God’s intent that through this mutual self-giving, His people would be built up and that selfishness would be put down.

Secondly, in marriage God works to protect us from lust.  The book of Proverbs consistently refers to sexual enticements, pornographic enticements, as one of the chief ways in which people are led into ruin.  In marriage God seeks to protect us from the destructiveness of lust.  St. Paul (who himself was single) counsels all who suffer from lust to marry, for this is God’s good and gracious provision for rendering proper affection one to the other.  This is also one of the reasons why Paul counsels spouses not to withhold themselves from each other for lengthy periods of time.  One of God’s blessings in marriage is the dampening and controlling of lust.

Thirdly, in marriage God seeks to protect us from loneliness.  Through the working of the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh, we can easily become isolated and cut off.  In marriage God is at work to protect us from that.  When it is His will, He gives us a companion for comfort and camaraderie in life.  In the Garden of Eden, God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.”  Adam received Eve as the God-given companion that brought them both completeness.  Such is God’s intention for marriage also today.

Fourthly, through marriage God works to rescue us from doubt.  Although we would like to believe that we always make good decisions in life, we know that sin clouds our heart and mind.  So how can we be certain that we have chosen the right partner?  Through marriage God guards against such doubt by giving you the certainty that He is the One who married you to your spouse; that person is the one the Lord Himself has given you to love and to be committed to, even if they’re far from perfect.  And what the Lord has done stands far above any feelings you may or may not have or any later wondering whether you should have chosen differently.  A man and woman may in freedom choose to marry each other, but what really and finally counts is that it is the Lord who unites them, working through the authorities that He has established.  In this way God protects marriage from doubt with the certainty that He is the One who has made the union.

Fifthly, in marriage God seeks to protect us from the delusion of self-sufficiency.  We tend to think that we can do just fine on our own apart from God.  Without the calling of serving a spouse in marriage (or serving our neighbor in any of our vocations), sinners would perceive even less need for God.  In marriage God protects us from such misguided self-reliance.  He gives husbands and wives the holy calling of serving each other in Christ.  And when husband and wife fail each other, as is bound to happen, God puts His law to work.  He confronts their self-centeredness and their faltering service.  He afflicts their consciences and disturbs their self-sufficiency.  In short, God drives them to depend on Him.  He drives them back to Himself, to find forgiveness, strength, and hope in Christ.  Confession and Absolution, the preaching of the Gospel, and the Body and Blood of Christ become their lifeblood, making them right with God and able to serve each other again.

Finally, through marriage God works to preserve society.  Without this institution, the basic unit of society, the family, would crumble.  We see this happening around us, where conflict and chaos and self-will replace His order of family self-giving.  To prevent such evil, God established and blessed marriage from the beginning and said, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.”  With that creative word, God continues to bless the union of husband and wife so that children are conceived and born.  This, by the way, is one of the key reasons why gay marriage simply cannot and does not exist in God’s sight.  Every child has a father and a mother, male and female.  Every father and mother is given a divine responsibility toward their children and toward one another within the commitment of marriage. Homosexual relationships can only fake that and cannot produce children.  So-called gay “marriage” is fundamentally sterile and lifeless, not because of health reasons or age, but by the very nature of what it is.  God’s purpose in marriage is for husband and wife to serve not only each other but also their children by protecting, providing for, and nurturing them in the training and instruction of the Lord.  Founded upon God’s gift of the family, human society can be more  peaceably ordered.  And this in turn gives a good context for the saving Word of Christ to be preached and taught both in the church and the home.

All of this is God’s good gift.  And all of this is meant to drive us to the greater reality that marriage points to.  The fact of the matter is, to one degree or another, all marriages are broken marriages; for it is two sinners who are united, whose only hope is in the forgiveness of sins that comes from Jesus.  And whether a Christian is single or married, divorced, widowed, young or old, as members of the Church we all are in a marital relationship that rescues and saves us.  For the Church has been united with her holy Groom, Jesus. She is the betrothed of Christ.  In the Epistle today Paul spent a lot of time talking about husbands and wives and marriage.  And then he concludes his comments by saying, “What I’m really talking about though is Christ and the Church.”  Earthly marriage is a sign of the greater and perfect love that God has for His people and the heavenly union that exists between them.

From all eternity, before marriage was instituted, it was planned that Christ would lay down His life for His woman, sacrifice Himself for the church, to save her from her fall into sin.  Adam was put into a deep sleep, and Eve was created from his side.  So also Jesus was put into the sleep of death on the cross, that this new Eve might be created from the sacramental blood and water that flowed from His side.  St. John calls the church “the elect Lady,” chosen and redeemed by Christ.  For Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her by the washing of water with the Word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having any spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.  For all of you whom sin has contaminated, or whose marriages and families are broken, Jesus shed His blood to cleanse you of every sin; He sanctified you and made you holy for Himself by the water and the Word of Baptism.  You stand before God spotless and perfect in the family of His Church, His holy bride.

Just as husband and wife are given in marriage to become one flesh, so our Lord unites Himself to us and makes Himself one flesh with us–one flesh to the extent that you are now members of His body through baptism.  So if He is the Son of God, then you are called sons of God.  If He holds in His hand the riches and treasures of heaven, those treasures are also yours to hold and take to heart.  If He is the Righteous One, then you are declared righteous before God.  If the death He dies no longer holds Him in the grave, then neither can death hold you in the grave.  The Bride shares in everything that belongs to the Groom.  That’s how marriage works with Jesus.  What is His is now yours, too.

This is the joy of the eternal wedding feast that we are given a glimpse of in the Gospel.  The ritual washing water of the Law is turned into the joyous wedding wine of the Gospel.  The best is saved for last, and that best is Jesus–His forgiveness and mercy and life–which are all for you.  Even now in Divine Service the heavenly groom, our Lord Christ, comes to His bride to comfort her.  He speaks to you His words of love.  He remembers the commitment He made to you at Baptism. He gives Himself to you in Holy Communion that you may share fully in His life.

So set aside your doubts and fears and sorrows.  For it is written, “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.” Come in faith to His table, that you may share in the joy of the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb in His kingdom that has no end.

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

(Some of the points above are based on an article written in Gottesdienst by the Rev. Chaplain Jonathan Shaw.)

The Perfect Humanity of Jesus

Luke 2:41-52, Epiphany 1

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

It’s easy to misunderstand what is going on in today’s Gospel of the boy Jesus in the temple.  We think that He was able to amaze the teachers with His understanding because He was (and is) God.  As the only-begotten Son of the Father, He is omniscient and therefore He knows all the answers.  It’s a piece of cake for Him to do this.  Except that is not actually what is going on here.  For notice how it says that the 12 year old Jesus was listening to them and asking them questions.  And it’s not that Jesus is just playing along; He’s truly learning.  For it is written here that He increased in wisdom as well as stature.  Just as Jesus was growing up in body, so also He was growing up in mind as a true human being.  So Jesus doesn’t impress the teachers here by pulling out His divinity card.  Rather, right there before them 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.  

The way that the Scriptures speak of this is that the Son of God emptied Himself of His divine powers for us.  We call this Jesus’ state of humiliation, that period of time where our Lord did not always or fully use His divine knowledge and might.  Only after His death on the cross and burial did Jesus then enter His state of exaltation, as He bodily rose from the dead and ascended to the Father’s right hand.  Certainly now He does always and fully exercise the powers of His divine nature as both God and man.  But here in today’s Gospel, Jesus has emptied Himself for us in order to redeem us.  It is written in Philippians 2: “[Christ Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.  Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

So consider what is going on here.  Having been raised in a pious household, Jesus had been hearing and learning the Scriptures all His life and was growing up with a clear-minded, innocent, accurate grasp of them as a fully human boy.  Now here He is in the temple, and He is just reveling in the discussion of the things of God, demonstrating marvelous insight, growing in the holy words of the Scriptures.  Would that all our tweenagers and teenagers would be like that, right?  Imagine such a 12-year-old boy today in Sunday School or Bible class.  Here is Jesus doing that, all without making use of His divine powers–He whom all the Scriptures point to.  Here in Jesus, perfect 12-year old humanity is being revealed.  That is what is bringing amazement to the teachers.

We also are given to marvel and to be amazed at all this.  For Jesus our Savior was doing this for us and for our children and our grandchildren.  He was living a perfectly human life in our place, unstained by sin from beginning to end, so that He might cleanse us of our sin, so that we might be given to share in His love of the Word, and so that we might be made perfectly human again through faith in Him.

This is so important for you to remember and cling to, especially in those times when you seem to have lost track of Jesus like Joseph and His mother did.  All too often we can become complacent in our faith, thinking that we’ve got the religion stuff all figured out; and then we take our eyes off of Jesus to focus our attention on the things and the people and the honors of this world.  Everything seems to be going along fine until we get a rude awakening of some kind, when we’re confronted with the truth about ourselves.  And suddenly Jesus seems to have become far, far away from us, we’ve been walking without Him for so long.  That’s when the fear strikes you that perhaps you’re the one who is lost, and you don’t know how to get back to Him.  Thankfully, the good news of today’s Gospel is that Jesus in the temple is already at work to bring you back into God’s holy presence–just as Mary and Joseph were brought back–and to find you and reconcile you to the Father in Himself.  That is His Father’s business.

As Joseph and Mary were anxious at being separated from Jesus, so Christian parents also should be anxious that their children not be separated from Jesus in this ungodly world.  That should be our greatest concern for them–more important than fearing that they may not be smart or popular or athletic or get a good job, more important even than their physical welfare.  For nothing worse can happen to anyone than that they wander from Jesus and are cut off from Him and the life He alone can give.  And so our fears in particular are for our loved ones who have strayed away from the Lord and who may not even seem to care, who have loved this world and their own philosophy of life instead of the wisdom of Christ.  We shouldn’t just give up and say “Oh well, it’s not my business.”  We shouldn’t just pretend that they’re not acting like unbelievers when they have no time for the preaching of Christ or His holy supper.   We should care and be anxious for them and pray for them and speak to them about Christ.  

For Jesus lives through these growing up years, including adolescence and early adulthood–those times when people often stray away from the faith–Jesus lives through all the stages of our life to sanctify them for us, and to make the way back for those who have strayed, so that His life might be theirs again, so that the words of the Psalmist might be in their mouths, “Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways.  According to your mercy remember me, for Your goodness’ sake, O Lord.”  Our Lord fills up this and every phase of our life with His perfect life so that we might never lose hope for those who have lost track of Jesus.  He lives to restore our humanity and to reclaim us and draw us back to Himself.

For what is clear here is that while Joseph and Mary lost track of Jesus, Jesus Himself was never lost.  He was always right where He was supposed to be.  He was in His Father’s house and about His Father’s business.  Jesus would not only learn and do the carpentry work of His guardian-father Joseph, but also and especially the work of His heavenly Father, where wood and hammer and nails will be to be put to a different use.   Jesus will continue His work until it perfected 21 years later outside Jerusalem as He says, “It finished.”  This is, after all, the Passover feast, and the Lamb of God is in the holy temple.  His shed blood causes death to pass over you.  By His holy cross He takes away your sins.  You are redeemed; you are forgiven.

For three days Mary felt the loss of her Son here, when He had to be about His Father’s business.  All these things that happened she would keep in her heart, even though she didn’t understand them yet.  Mary may well have 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 once more 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 temple was destroyed and in three days it was raised up again.  Jesus had to be about His Father’s business like this to deliver Mary and Joseph and the whole world from the curse.

Today we are given to see that the Son of God empties Himself so that we might be emptied of our sin.  In Jesus we are being restored to our true selves.  By His Spirit, we are being made to be all that we were first created to be–not in the way of the world, which thinks you are becoming all you can be by pursuing self-fulfillment and achieving your dreams–no, you are being recreated in the way of Christ, increasing in godly wisdom, in love for the Lord, in kindness and compassion for others.

So remember this:  You may sometimes lose track of Jesus, but He never loses track of you.  He has inscribed you on the palms of His fully human hands.  The Lord has given you His saving name, and He has not withdrawn it.  His words and promises always remain true; you can count on them.  Trust in them.  For Jesus increased in wisdom and stature in order to give you stature and standing before God, to bring you back into the Father’s favor, to make you wise for salvation through faith in Him.  Here is your lost humanity restored.  You can count on this Jesus, who already as a Boy is applying Himself to His saving work for you.  It is written, “In Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him” (Colossians 2:9-10).

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

Joseph, Guardian of Jesus

Matthew 1:18-25

Advent 4

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

When it comes to the history of salvation, the role of Mary is quite clear.  She is the bearer of God, Jesus’ real mother, the one through whom our Lord became truly and fully human.  But Joseph is a little harder one to get a handle on in terms of his relation to Jesus and what we are to learn from him for our faith.  For this reason Joseph usually gets much less attention.  When you see pictures of the nativity, he’s often more in the background or off to the side, not quite as close to Jesus as Mary is, which makes sense, since Joseph is not the true biological father of Jesus–even though Joseph would have related to Jesus in every other sense as his earthly father, providing for him, raising him, teaching him, and so forth.  Joseph took that role very seriously–an excellent example to all step-fathers and foster fathers and every father.  Joseph is content to have a different place and a quieter role than the mother of our Lord.  You may know that the Scriptures do not record a single word that Joseph said, not even one.  What counts with Joseph is not what He said but what He did.  And that’s where can learn some important things from Him.

Christian tradition has it that Joseph may have been a decade or more older than Mary at the time they were engaged, a widower who was getting married for the second time.  That may be where the many brothers and sisters of Jesus came from that the Scriptures mention.  Of course, this is just speculation.  The Scriptures simply don’t tell us much about Joseph.  He disappears from the Gospels after Jesus was twelve years old. By the time Jesus was thirty, when He was invited to the wedding at Cana, only His mother is with Him. When Jesus was crucified, He entrusted His mother to the care of one of His disciples, indicating that certainly Joseph had already died.

Joseph was a quiet and humble believer.  We know Joseph not by his words but by his works. He was a builder by trade, a carpenter, whose rough, calloused hands knew the wood and the nail, foreshadowing the wood and the nails that would be so central to Jesus’ redeeming death.  Like his namesake in the Old Testament, Joseph was a dreamer of sorts. Three times an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream–at the conception of Jesus, in their flight to Egypt to escape Herod, and their return to Nazareth. Three times, Joseph was commanded by the angel to do something, and three times Joseph arose and did what the angel had told him to do.

That’s how we should remember and honor St. Joseph, as a man who believed the Word of God and whose works reflected his faith. He did as the Word of God commanded him, no matter what the cost, no matter how great the inconvenience.

We hate to be inconvenienced, don’t we?  When somebody throws off our plans and our agenda, we can get angry, resentful, agitated.  Living as a Christian, though, often involves being inconvenienced and changing your plans.  It may involve losing out on some money and profit because you insist on being honest in your personal and business dealings.  It may involve breaking off a relationship because you hold to the morality of the Scriptures.  It may involve missing out on some recreation or activities or work because learning the Word of God and being at divine service every week comes first.

Christianity isn’t a convenient religion that you just sort of slip into your greater life plans.  There will be times, there ought to be times, when your Baptism gets in the way of what you’d like to do, when your faith in Christ causes you to change your plans, when being children of God means that you are going to do something different.  To the extent that you resist that, you must repent.  Your old nature must be drowned and die and a new man daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity.

If you find yourself feeling put out and pressed upon when asked by God’s Word to do something you’d rather not do, that’s a good time to think of Joseph–engaged to Mary, planning their wedding, quietly working his carpentry business.  And while all the wedding plans are taking shape, Mary comes with the news that she’s pregnant with a child conceived by the Holy Spirit.  You can imagine what must’ve been going through Joseph’s mind when he heard that explanation.

Now to his credit, Joseph was a just and a decent man.  He did not want to openly shame Mary.  He wanted to protect her name and her standing in the community. And so he decided to break off the engagement privately instead of publicly. That would give Mary an opportunity to marry the rightful father of her child and shield her from public shame.  It was the right thing to do.

But while he was considering this, an angel of the Lord came to Joseph in a dream with a different plan.  “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for He will save his people from their sins.”

The angel offers no evidence, no scientific proof for how a virgin girl can conceive a child. He simply states it as a fact. The Child conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. His name tells what He will do–Jesus, Yeshua, which means “the Lord is salvation.”  His name says who He is and what He will do.  He the Lord who will save His people from their sins. He is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah. “The virgin will conceive and bear a son.”  The promised virgin was Joseph’s fiancé, Mary.  Her Son is Emmanuel, God with us.  Notice, it’s not God above us and far away from us, God watching us from a distance.  That’s not where peace and harmony come from.  It’s God with us, reconciling God and man in Himself, God sharing in our very flesh and blood in order that He might die in the flesh and shed His blood for the forgiveness of all our sins.  Here was the long-awaited “seed of the woman,” promised in Eden–the One who would defeat the devil by dying, the One through whom comes life and peace and forgiveness to all who cling to Him by faith.

Joseph could only be a by-stander to all this.  God alone must be the Father of the Son of God.  “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son.”  This child is fathered by no man.  Otherwise, He would have been sinful, filled with the sin of Adam his father.  But this child is Emmanuel, God with us, God come to dwell in human flesh. He is God’s Son and Mary’s Son, fully divine and fully human at the same time. Joseph could only be the foster father, the step-father.  He would raise this Child who was His Lord.  He would provide for this Child who was his Creator.  He would protect this Child who was His Savior.  How inconvenient and strange and incredible of God to do it this way!

Wedding plans would have to be altered. Any thought of a romantic wedding night was completely out the window.  It is written, “He did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son.”  There can be no doubting the divine Fatherhood of this Child.  Whatever dreams Mary and Joseph might have had would have to be put pushed aside. Their lives would never be the same because of Jesus.

Joseph too would have to bear the scandal of the Incarnation together with Mary, his wife, the whisperings and the rumors.  If he ever had doubts, we do not hear of any. If he ever wavered in his trust, the evangelists do not tell us. What they do tell us is that Joseph awoke from his dream and did as the angel had commanded him. He took Mary to be his bride. And when her Child was born, he called His name Jesus.

God’s plan required Joseph’s faithful “yes,” as much as it required Mary’s “yes.”  Mary said yes to the Word of God.  Joseph said “yes,” too.  This was the work of God through the Word.  The Word of God created faith in Joseph, and Joseph believed the Word and did as the Lord had commanded him.  Had Joseph refused in unbelief, the prophecy concerning Christ would have been compromised.  Though Mary also was of David’s line, Joseph was the legal “Son of David,” making Jesus a legal “Son of David.”  And so it was to Bethlehem, the city of David, that the tax census under Caesar Augustus brought Mary and Joseph at the time her Child was due to be delivered.  All of this took place, “in order to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet.”

God never seems to do things the easy way. When God comes to be with us to save us, He comes by way of a virgin mother engaged to a carpenter.  “Marvel heaven, wonder earth, that our God chose such a birth.”  He comes in the way of weakness and humility, the manger crib and the cross, water and words and bread and wine.  He is still Emmanuel, God with us right here with His true body and blood to bring us His divine life.  That is His way, until the Last Day–He hides His glory behind humility–the Son of God is concealed as Mary’s son, the carpenter’s stepson.  He comes in that way for our sake, so that in His lowliness we will not be afraid of approaching Him, but will receive Him as our Savior.  It is as we heard in the Old Testament reading, when the people were fearful of seeing God in all His glory, and so they wanted to have Moses speak on God's behalf--here we have God like Moses, but God in our flesh speaking to us so that we can approach Him.  After all, what is more approachable than a little baby?

And so as we are now on the doorstep of the Christmas celebration, we thank God for the gift of St. Joseph, for his quiet and humble faith, for his readiness to receive God’s gifts no matter how inconvenient or inconceivable they might be, for his hearing God’s Word and his willing obedience to take Mary as his wife, so that Jesus might rightly be called Son of David, born in Bethlehem.

And we pray that God would grant us the faith of Joseph, to trust God and His life-changing Word, to faithfully do what we are called by God to do, to cling to the One named Jesus, who saves us from our sins.

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

(With thanks to the Rev. William Cwirla for much of the above)