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The Greatest of These is Love

1 Corinthians 13

Quinquagesima

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

Once again the church’s calendar and the world’s calendar have intersected a bit this weekend.  And while we don’t let the world determine what goes on in our preaching here, it would probably seem strange if I didn’t meditate a bit this Valentine’s Day weekend on today’s Epistle reading, where St. Paul speaks of the divine character of love.  This may be especially necessary since, ironically enough, a lot of people hate Valentine’s Day–too many stresses and expectations, not only for couples, but also for the single and divorced.  So while the world tries to push conformity to it’s view of love and romance, it’s helpful for us to remember that this day actually has some Christian roots having to do with a real historical man named Valentine.  

From what we can gather, in about 270 A.D. the Roman emperor Claudius issued an edict forbidding marriage to young men.  It was a time of war, and he believed that single men made better soldiers than married men.  And so he canceled all engagements and weddings in Rome.  During this time a Christian bishop named Valentine is said to have invited young couples to come to him in secret to be joined in matrimony and not be denied God’s good gift of marriage.  When Claudius learned of this, Valentine was sentenced to death.  Legend also has it that while in jail, St. Valentine left a farewell note for the jailer’s daughter, who had become his friend, and signed it “From Your Valentine.”  A short time later on February 14th of 270, because of his stubborn faith in the God who is love, he was executed by beheading.

St. Paul begins the Epistle reading by reminding us of the importance of love–that if we don’t have love, even our greatest works will amount to nothing.  Do I speak in the tongues of men and of angels?  If I have not love, all those words amount to nothing more than clanging and clattering.

Do I have deep insight, prophetic powers, the ability to penetrate the deepest mysteries of God?  Can I express Scriptural doctrine with precision and clarity?  Do I possess great knowledge and learning?  If I have not love, even with all of that, I am nothing.  Do I have faith that can move mountains?  Without love, even faith comes under judgment.  It is empty.  Faith without love is faith without God, for “God is love.”  We are saved by faith alone, but faith is never alone.  It lives and breathes the loving God it clings to.

Do I have impressive works, generous deeds of charity?  Have I given richly of my time, my talents, my treasures for the church of Christ? Without love and a holy and right attitude in my heart, I gain nothing.  Even if I offer my body for burning–and what greater act of devotion could there be than to die as a martyr like Valentine did?–and yet have loved only myself and my martyr’s death, then the Law would condemn even my martyrdom as nothing.

God wants more from us than good works.  He wants our love.  In fact that’s really all He wants from us–to love Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves.  But we fall short of that.  For we are born in love with ourselves.  True love is always and entirely directed outward, toward God and our neighbor.  But our fallen hearts are turned inward, toward our own needs and priorities and ideas.  The Scriptural Law of love judges not only the works of our hands, but also the orientation of our hearts; not only our actions but also our motives.  It reveals where love is absent in us, or where we use our good deeds for self-serving purposes.  

Real love, Paul says, is “patient and kind.”  Love is willing to wait a long time, faithfully, right up to the very end.  Love that cannot wait isn’t true love but self-love.  Love never forces its own way, never hurries things along, never manipulates things to get its way.  Love has nothing to lose because its goal is precisely to give itself away.  That’s how love can wait patiently.

True love always returns kindness, even when it is met with hatred and hostility.  It turns the other cheek to those who strike it.  It offers the shirt off its back as well its coat.  It goes the extra mile for the other.  It blesses those who curse.  It returns good for evil.  It prays for the enemy.  It speaks well of those who speak ill of it.  

True love never looks at itself; therefore, it has no basis for comparison with others.  “It does not envy, does not boast, is not proud or rude.”  Love rejoices in the prosperity and success of others. “Love isn’t self-seeking,” therefore it can seek the good of others.

True love “isn’t easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”  Love doesn’t keep bringing up the past mistakes and failings of a spouse or friend or relative as ammunition or leverage.  Instead, love forgives.  Therefore, love is not easily provoked to anger.  Little things don’t bring up the past memory of big things.  Love is merciful and compassionate.

Now that doesn’t mean love is indifferent to right and wrong. “Love does not delight in iniquity but rejoices in the truth.”  This is very important to note in our current context: The love that Paul is talking about is not the feel-good, sin-condoning love of our culture.  True love is sometimes tough love.  You’re not showing love to someone by letting them indulge in sin and not speaking up.  True love grieves over the sin of others.  And love even risks losing a relationship in order to rescue others from their sin.

Real love rejoices in the truth, even when the truth is hard.  Love and truth run together in the same channel.  “Speak the truth in love,” St. Paul says in Ephesians.  Love would just as soon deal with a sinner as a sinner, as our Lord Jesus did, than deal with a phony face, a pious facade that hides the truth.  Love wants to get the truth out in the open, where it can be seen as it is, so that it can be shown mercy and loved without limits or conditions.

True love “bears all things.”  It puts up with everything.  Only love can bear with things as they actually are.  It doesn’t whine about wanting to go back to the good old days, but deals with the present for what it is.  There is no sin, no crime, no disaster so great that love cannot face it, because love is greater than the greatest sin.  As it is written, “Love covers a multitude of sins.”  This is how love can reach out even to the unlovable and repulsive.  Love bears all things.

True love “believes all things and hopes all things.”  It refuses to yield to suspicions of doubt about another but always seeks to put the best construction on everything.  It hopes for the best and doesn’t look for the worst.  Love “endures all things.”  It lasts through thick and thin and keeps it’s commitments.  When all else fails, love doesn’t.

Now, who loves in this way?  Not me, or you.  Only God does.  Our love fails, but His love endures forever.  In fact, God’s love is so perfect that it creates the loveliness in the one He loves.  Romans 5 says, “God demonstrates His own love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”  God doesn’t love us because He found something attractive in us.  God didn’t see us across the room and say, “Wow, I want that beautiful creature to be with Me forever.”  No, “while we were yet sinners...”  While we were yet in the muck and the ugliness of our fall into rebellion against God, that’s precisely when He came to rescue us.  His love is what makes us lovable and lovely again.  He loves us simply because He Himself is love.  St. John writes, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”  Jesus is God’s love reaching down to us, God’s love in the flesh.

Romans 13 says, “Love is the fulfillment of the Law.” And Jesus is that Love who has fulfilled the Law for us, to rescue us from our lovelessness and restore us to the Father by His mercy.  Today’s epistle can only be understood fully and properly when we recognize that Jesus is the Love being lauded and praised; He is real, palpable love for you.  

Jesus has been patient and kind toward you.  He’s stuck with you.  He’s sometimes had to wait for a long time, hasn’t He?  In your baptism He committed Himself to you for the long haul.  He’s brought you to where you are today, here in His house, where He is present in love for you.  It is written, “The Lord is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish.”  

Jesus is not self-seeking.  Rather He seeks your salvation.  He lives for you.  He turned the other cheek when He was mocked and beaten, to save you from judgment.  He went the extra mile for you, walking the way of the cross, where He offered up His own body to the judgment of hell,  stretching out His arms to embrace you forever.  Truly, Jesus bears all things, even your sin.  He endured suffering and persecution, all for the your sake, His beloved people.

Jesus wasn’t envious, boastful, or proud.  He does not delight in evil, but rejoices in the truth; for He is the Truth.  Our Lord is slow to anger.  He keeps no record of wrongs.  Psalm 130 prays, “If you Lord kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand.  But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be revered.”  His precious blood has fully paid the price for all wrongs to set you free.   You are completely and entirely forgiven.  By faith in His redeeming work, you stand before your heavenly Father holy and righteous.  For through Christ, God remembers your sins no more.  The only record He now keeps is your name written in His Book of Life.

How true it is, then, that Love never fails you.  For Hebrews 13 says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.”  He is the embodiment of love that never changes.  That’s why Paul ranks love greater than faith and hope.  Jesus is love incarnate.  Our faith will one day turn to sight.  Our hope in the promises of God will be fulfilled on the Last Day.  But love, and He who is love, will continue forever in the new creation as the very essence of our lives as God’s people.

That love of Jesus is here for you today, spoken gently to you in His Gospel, given to you tangibly in the Sacrament of His true body and blood.  And Romans 5 calls to mind our baptism when it says, “The love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.”  In this way you have been made to be instruments of His love to a truth-starved and hurting world.  Let us love one another, for love is of God; love is Christ.  “Now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

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

My Grace Is Sufficient For You

2 Corinthians 12:7-10

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

If your life is moving along perfectly, if everything is going your way with your finances and your family and your work and your neighbors, if the pandemic hasn’t really affected you, if you have no stress or sorrows, then this sermon may not be particularly relevant for you.  If God has granted you blessings in those areas of your life, then you should rightly give him thanks and praise; every good gift comes down from Him.  But this sermon is not going to be about how to have a victorious Christian life, where if you just have enough faith, good things will come to you; if you declare God’s blessing on your life and apply the right Biblical principles, then your troubles will go away.  For that is not the way of Christ.  False preachers who talk like that want to avoid the cross, just like the devil tempted Jesus to do in the wilderness.  But the way of Christ is not to avoid suffering and go around it, but to go directly through it for you, to bear the cross fully as the only way to bring you true resurrection and life and victory.  To follow in the way of Christ is to believe, even against what we feel, that God is at work for your good precisely in and through suffering.

In today’s Epistle the apostle Paul was dealing with the church in Corinth that was in danger of being led astray by success-and-glory preachers.  Responding to that threat, Paul says that even though he could boast of revelations and visions of the Lord, that would not be profitable or helpful.  Instead he says that he will rather boast in his infirmities, “that the power of Christ may rest upon me,” that the eyes of everyone may always be focused on Christ and Him crucified.

Paul speaks of one affliction in particular.  Because he had received an abundance of revelations from the Lord, and lest the apostle become puffed up and proud in himself, he says “a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.”  Notice the language that he uses.  Even though this thorn in the flesh was a messenger of Satan, yet Paul speaks of this in the language of a gift; this thorn was given to him by the Lord.

That notion can be a bit troubling to ponder, just as Job struggled to understand why God permitted his suffering.  But it should also bring us great comfort, too.  We are reminded here that the devil, that rabid dog, is on a leash.  If he had free reign, there would be nothing but destruction and death at every turn; there would be no relief anywhere.  But Satan is restrained in such a way that even the evil and the harm he perpetrates cannot overcome the ultimate good that God is working in all things for His called and chosen people.  The devil ends up destroying himself and actually serving God’s purposes.  The affliction by which Satan tries to tear us down actually ends up drawing us closer to Christ and the life we have in Him that cannot be taken away.

Now, what was this thorn in the flesh that Paul had?  Since it’s described as a messenger of Satan, some have thought of it as some sort of demonic spiritual attack.  But I would suggest that since Paul speaks of his flesh, this is something Paul probably experienced as a bodily ailment and affliction.  Various theologians have suggested that the apostle may have suffered from malaria or some other chronic disease.  We know for certain that Paul had very poor eyesight that he suffered from.  He says in his epistle to the Galatians, “I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.”  But whatever it was, all of this is described as a messenger of Satan.

When you are suffering intense stresses or physical problems, perhaps you can identify with that description.  It can feel like the devil sending you a message, trying to slap you around and say, “Oh, you really think that God cares about you, that He’s with you, that He forgives you?  Come on, grow up!  Look at you.  Why would He let this happen to you?  I think it’s time for you to give up on Him.”  When we’re suffering physically or emotionally, that’s the message the devil wants to drive home and lure you to believe.

But notice what actually happens for God’s people.  Paul says that this experience moved him to pray and to plead with the Lord.  So it is for us.  We may say our prayers of thanks when all is going well, but so often complacency sets in and we forget about the Lord and stray away.  And so the Lord makes use of affliction to draw us back to Himself and into His life–not because He wants to do us harm, but like a parent disciplining a child in love, because He wants to do us the greatest good.  He doesn’t want us to be lost.

And then comes the even harder part about all of this: Paul says that he pleaded with the Lord three times that this thorn in the flesh might depart from him.  Three times in fervent prayer he begs for this affliction to be taken away.  You would think if anyone’s prayer would be answered positively, it would be someone like the Apostle Paul.  But our prayers are not answered based on our own merits and worthiness, but on the merits and worthiness of Christ, and the good and gracious will of our heavenly Father.  And in this case, that gracious will meant that the answer to Paul’s prayer was a gentle but firm “No.”  No, Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you.  For my strength is made perfect in weakness.”  The discipline of that thorn in the flesh would endure for his earthly lifetime.  It would be part of the way that Paul was brought to perfect fullness in Christ.

And so it is also for us.  We may know in some sense that we need Jesus when we feel like we’re living a good life and things are going well for us.  But it’s when our sinfulness is driven home to us to the point that we’re terrified of losing our salvation, it’s when everything in life seems to be falling apart that we learn how desperately we need Jesus, and we cling to Him with all our heart and look to Him to rescue us and deliver us.  And to cling to Christ is to be truly strong.  For His is real strength that cannot be conquered or overcome.  When you finally learn to give up on your own wisdom and good choices and good health and the good stuff you’ve acquired, when you realize that of yourself all of that is just dust in the wind, when you’re nothing, then Jesus is everything.  His strength is made perfect for you in weakness.

Remember the apostle Paul, then, when it seems that God isn’t hearing your prayers, that He doesn’t care, or even worse, that He is against you.  Remember, that the good and gracious will of our heavenly Father sometimes answers “no” to your prayers.  You may not understand how or why, but like Paul you are given to say “Amen” to His will, trusting that His strength truly is made perfect in your weakness.

For after all, isn’t that the heart of what we believe about Christ?  His strength was made perfect in His own weakness.  His greatest power was not exhibited when He calmed the stormy sea, though that was great and divine power.  The greatest force of His might was not shown when He cast out the legion of demons from the Gerasene man, though that was a wonderful example of how He came to rescue and deliver us.  Jesus’ ultimate strength was shown when He chose not to use His power in a glorious way, but when He utterly gave up His strength for you on the cross, when He became completely weak with all of your sins and infirmities and sorrows, when He emptied Himself of His divine glory and power and was broken down completely, losing it all, even His very life.  Jesus’ greatest power was shown by using His strength for sacrifice, to redeem you, to win you back, to conquer your enemies, sin and death and the devil.  His perfect weakness was perfect power to save.  

This, then, is the way of Christ for you.  Despairing of yourself in your own weakness, taking refuge in Christ the crucified, you share in and you have His perfect strength, His perfect salvation.  In the weakness of the baptismal water, the Lord clothed you with the strength of His own righteousness.  In the foolishness of the Gospel message preached, that weak little seed scattered on the soil, the Lord saves you who believe; His Word does not return to Him void.  And in the seeming powerlessness of bread and wine, the Lord feeds you and fills you with the divine power of His true body and blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of all your sins, that you may share in His bodily resurrection on the Last Day.  By the power of these things, we who belong to this insignificant little congregation declare with St. Paul, “When I am weak, then I am strong.”

“My grace is sufficient for you,” Jesus says.  In the end, this grace of your Lord Jesus is all that you need.  It is sufficient, more than enough.  For His grace saves you eternally; and it strengthens you to endure every trouble and affliction and cross that you must yet bear in this fallen earthly life.

The hymn writer Paul Gerhardt said it this way:

When life’s troubles rise to meet me,
    Though their weight
    May be great,
They will not defeat me.
God, my loving Savior, sends them;
    He who knows
    All my woes
Knows how best to end them.

God gives me my days of gladness,
    And I will
    Trust Him still
When He sends me sadness.
God is good; His love attends me
    Day by day,
    Come what may,
Guides me and defends me.

From God’s joy can nothing sever,
    For I am
    His dear lamb,
He, my Shepherd ever.
I am His because He gave me
    His own blood
    For my good,
By His death to save me.

(LSB 756:2-4)

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

Water in the Wilderness

Exodus 15:22-25; 17:1-7

Septuagesima

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

Here’s the scene:  Israel had just been brought out by God from their slavery to the Egyptians.  He delivered them through the water of the Red Sea.  But now they are out in the wilderness where there is no water to drink.  For three days they have nothing to satisfy their thirst.  Finally, they come upon a place called Marah where there is some water.  But when they get there, they discover that the water is bitter, stagnant, and they can’t drink it.  Desperate and frustrated, they complain and lash out against God’s servant Moses.

Now isn’t that in many ways a fitting description of how life is in this world after the Fall?  In comparison to the original creation which God made, this sin-cursed world is like a barren wasteland.  People walk through this wilderness world with spirits that hunger and souls that thirst for something that is eternal and real and true.  We search for what can satisfy us and make us content.  And there are times when we think we finally see the answer not too far in the distance, something in this world that can quench our soul’s thirst.  We expend a great deal of energy to get there, working hard to achieve the goals and acquire the things we think will finally make us happy.  We embrace some new self-help philosophy or a political cause; or we indulge our desires and dreams, thinking that will bring us happiness.  But the goal we seek always seems to be just out of reach.  The things we’ve pursued and set our hearts on inevitably let us down.  All such worldly water sooner or later becomes stagnant and undrinkable, or even worse, just a mirage atop the burning sand.  And then comes the bitterness and grumbling, looking for someone to blame, often God or His representatives.

Repent of this.  For despite their grumbling, God did not leave Israel to perish.  He intervened on their behalf.  When Moses cried out to the Lord, the Lord showed him a special tree.  When Moses cast this tree into the waters at Marah, the waters became sweet and drinkable.  The thirst of the Israelites was satisfied and quenched because of the renewing power of the tree.  

Now we don’t know exactly how the tree made the water drinkable–if it was through some natural chemical process or simply and miraculously by the power of God’s Word attached to it.  But we do know this: the tree points us to Christ.  For it is written of Jesus, “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch.”  Jesus is the descendant and Branch of David, who was raised up for us on the tree of the holy cross.  Through Christ our Lord, the rancid cesspool of sin has been changed to the sweet spring of the Gospel for you.  Jesus cast Himself into this stagnant world, descending from heaven to become true man.  And by His bitter death He took away the sin that dehydrates your spirits and saps your strength.  From Mt. Calvary there flows now a pure and healing fountain that refreshes and renews you with the forgiveness and the life of Christ Himself.  Believing in Him, your spiritual thirst is forever quenched, and your souls are eternally satisfied.  Jesus said, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. . .  Whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst.  But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.”  Just as God showed Moses the tree of Marah, so He directs our attention to the cross of Christ, and calls us to rely on Him.  For it is through this crucified One alone that our souls are truly revived.  He gives us to kneel and drink from the limitless pools of His mercy; He fills us with His life-giving Spirit.

In fact the water of Marah is a good picture for us of Baptism, isn’t it.  For in baptism God takes ordinary water and puts the tree of His cross into it, that the power of His death for sin might be applied to you to refresh you with His forgiveness for your whole lives.  To those embittered by what the curse has brought to their lives, God here gives true peace and consolation and contentment.  You have been put right with God.  All is well.

God continued to be present with the children of Israel in the wilderness.  He gave them victory over the Amalekites in battle.  He gave meat to eat and manna day by day.  But there were times when they began to doubt the Lord’s goodness and waver in their trust in Him.  Very soon they faced a situation similar to that at Marah.  They came to a place called Rephidim, where they camped.  But again there was no water there for the people to drink.  The Israelites grumbled against Moses, saying, “Why is it you have brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?”  By speaking to Moses in this way, they again showed their distrust in God’s care.  Moses said to them, “Why do you contend with me?  Why do you tempt the Lord?”  Such faithlessness invited God’s judgment upon the people of Israel.  

So it is with us.  Despite the way in which God provides for us day by day with all that we truly need, despite our having received God’s goodness in Christ and having passed through the Red Sea with Him in our baptism, there are still times when we begin to doubt whether God really cares for us, whether He really will provide for all of our needs of body and soul, whether the faith is really true and worth following.  Like Israel, we can tempt the Lord and test His patience by questioning His presence among us.  

But the Lord remains merciful.  When Moses cried out to the Lord, the Lord told him to go before the people bringing with him his wooden staff.  God told him to strike the rock there with his staff, so that the people might drink.  And when Moses did this, water gushed forth from the rock.

This teaches us that God will provide for all of our day to day needs.  Even more, it teaches us that God will provide for all of our eternal needs in His Son.  For in the Epistle St. Paul makes a very interesting statement in connection with this story.  He says, “(Our forefathers in the wilderness) all drank the same spiritual drink.  For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ.”  The Scriptures specifically tell us to see the Lord Jesus in this Old Testament story.  We are to perceive the real presence of Christ in and with that rock.  

Now how was it that the rock provided water for Israel?  Moses struck it with His staff.  How can we not think of how Christ also was struck in a similar way on the cross?  It is written in the Gospel of John, “When they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs; but one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out.”  Just as Moses struck the rock with his staff and water flowed, so also Christ, the Rock of Ages was struck with a staff-like spear, and water and blood flowed forth from Him for the salvation of His people, water that fills the font for our cleansing, blood that fills the chalice of His supper for our forgiveness.  

On the cross Christ said, “I thirst” for you, so that in your thirst you might drink deeply of Him.  Jesus took your thirst into Himself, receiving the withering judgment of sin in His body.  In so doing the power of sin has been undone, and now there flows from Christ an everlasting stream of living water to purify and refresh and sustain all of you who believe in Him.  It is as the old hymn says, “Let the water and the blood from Thy riven side which flowed be of sin the double cure.  Cleanse me from its guilt and power.”  And truly the Lord has done that for you.  He is indeed your Rock in the midst of the desert of this world.  And the river of life will continue to flow to you from Him in the Sacraments until He comes again to bring you into the Promised Land.

Let us take heed, then, to the Scriptures.  These things were written down as examples for our learning, so that we might not suffer God’s judgment.  Remember how the Epistle said that God was not well pleased with most of Israel; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.  Such is the judgment that came upon them because of their unbelief.  So let us not grumble as the Israelites did, or complain as the laborers in the Gospel did who thought God was somehow not being fair with them.  For the truth is, God is much better than fair with us, He is merciful to us.  He gives us what we don’t deserve, the free gift of forgiveness and life in Christ.  Let us find our refuge in Him alone.  For it is written in Isaiah, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” And of our eternal dwelling place in heaven, Revelation 7 says, “Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. . .  For [Christ] the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water.  And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

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

Rise and Have No Fear

Matthew 17:1-9

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

Because God is merciful, He does not permit us to see everything.  We’re already fearful and phobic enough about so many things.  And so God limits our vision.  We cannot look into the future.  We don’t see the warfare going on around us between angels and demons.  We can’t see viruses and bacteria.   Nor can we see the air, or electrical waves, or even things hidden by walls.  We couldn’t live day to day if everything were visible to us.  It would overwhelm us and paralyze us.

We confess in the Creed that God is the “maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.”  And that means that He is Lord over all that is, both seen and unseen.  And one of the things that in mercy He keeps us sinners from seeing is His own glory.  For even a glimpse of God Almighty would be more than we could handle.  The people of Israel even became afraid of the face of Moses after he spoke with God on Mount Sinai, to the point where Moses had to wear a veil to keep them from seeing his face shining with the reflected glory of God.

And as much as we think that we would like to see beneath the veil, God knows that we are not really equipped to see Him as He is.  Consider the very genuine reaction of terror from Peter, James, and John when our Lord Jesus Christ unveiled Himself on the Mountain of Transfiguration.  Unlike Moses, whose face only reflected God’s glory, our Lord Jesus Christ is God, and shines with the very glory of God.  

The three disciples also saw something normally hidden to us: those who have departed this life in the faith.  Normally, they are part of the “invisible” realm.  Scripture warns us against even trying to communicate with the dead.  But Jesus allows Peter and James and John to see Moses and Elijah in a heavenly vision.  Both of them were there talking to Jesus.  And the disciples are given to behold the glory of the Son of God that Moses and Elijah already knew.  Jesus “was transfigured before them, and His face shone like the sun, and His clothes became white as the light.”

Transfiguration is the Latin version of the Greek word “metamorphosis.”  Both words mean the same thing, “to change form.”  The ordinary Jesus that they knew so well revealed His hidden nature as the fully divine Son of God.  And they perceived this now-revealed form as pure radiant energy, as a blast of light like the sun.  St. Peter called this incident to mind in our epistle reading, saying that he and James and John were “eyewitnesses of His majesty.”

One of the earliest preserved paintings of Jesus that we know of is an icon of Him from the sixth century.  I’ll show it to you in Bible class today.  In it you can clearly see how the two halves of our Lord’s face are intentionally different, reflecting His two natures: divine and human.  And this is what the disciples saw that fearful but joyful day of Transfiguration.  Jesus unveiled His face to show them the glory of God.  It was still the truly human face of Jesus.  But in and through His true humanity, His divine glory shone forth.  

It is important for us to recognize and cling to the fullness of who our Lord Jesus is.  For the Transfiguration means that not only was Jesus one of us, a real man who could stand in for us; it also means that Jesus’ death on our behalf was a God-sized death.  It wasn’t simply the death of a good man and a great teacher, it was the death of God Himself, which is a big enough death to include you and me and every last person on earth without exception.  It contained the power to atone fully for your sins and my sins and the sins of the whole world.

Jesus says not to tell anyone about His transfiguration yet, not until after His resurrection.  Only then would they fully understand it and be able to talk about it rightly.  For now, this vision was given to them to strengthen them for the faith-shaking events that would soon be coming during Holy Week.  They needed to remember that the glory of God is hidden beneath His true humanity, even beneath suffering and the cross.  For only in this way would they be able to truly see God without fear and to share in His glory forever.

We, too, need this vision of Jesus.  We need to know how the story is going to end to help us endure through the hard times.  In His Transfiguration Jesus gives us a glimpse of the end of the story–and it’s not just His story, it’s the story of all those who are baptized into Christ.  1 John 3 says, “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”  In other words, when you look at Jesus here, you are seeing your own future in Him.  And St. Paul says in Romans 8 that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us.”  The glory of God is hidden for you, too, even under suffering and the cross.

But don’t only look at Jesus here.  Even more importantly, listen to Jesus.  The Father’s normal silence was broken here, and His voice came from heaven, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!”  You may not yet see His glory in the same way that the disciples did, but He does come to you in His glorious Word: the Word of His mercy, the Word of life and salvation, of forgiveness and eternal joy.  He comes to you robed in light, for He is the Light of the World, which you see with the eyes of faith.  

“When the disciples heard this,” says Matthew, “they fell on their faces and were terrified.”  Like the people who saw the glory of God on the face of Moses, their natural reaction was one of fear.  But this is not all bad, for it is written, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  Jesus even said that we should not fear the people and the things that can only kill the body, but rather fear God who can destroy both soul and body in hell.  What is it that you fear more than God?  What is it that runs your decision-making and vetoes His Word?  Repent of it.  For in the midst of all our misdirected fear, Jesus comes to us to comfort us. “Rise and have no fear,” He says to the disciples.  And His words bring about what they say.  Whatever it is that you fear–violence, viruses, rejection by your peers, government tyranny, anti-government extremists, economic uncertainty, social instability–Jesus says to you, “Rise and have no fear.  I am with you; I am on your side.  And if that is so, who can be against you?  What do you need to be afraid of?”

Note how it says that Jesus came to the disciples and touched them.  It’s that human touch of the divine Jesus that brings comfort.  It’s the human touch of Jesus that you receive in preaching and the Sacraments.  He makes tangible contact with you in a way that doesn’t terrify you but consoles you and raises you up.  You kneel here with your heads bowed, and He comes to you with His true body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins.  And He lifts up your heads and your hearts and says, “Peace be with you.”

“And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.”  When it comes right down to it, that’s all we need to see as well–Jesus only.  In seeing Him, we see the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form.  In Him we see our salvation in the flesh.  In Him we see the glory of God that doesn’t terrify us but comforts us and draws us to Himself in mercy.  Don’t look to your own works and your own merits to get you into God’s good graces.  Don’t look to other spiritualities or other authorities to make things right.  Along with the disciples, see Jesus only–as He said, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6)

Moses and Elijah now return behind the veil.  The radiant face of Jesus becomes the familiar face of their Teacher once more.  And the voice of the Father will be found again only in the Scriptures.  The veil is put back in place–but Peter and James and John know what they saw.  It’s no cleverly devised myth.  It’s the prophetic Word of Scripture confirmed and fulfilled.  And Peter reminds you that you will do well to pay attention to this Word as to a lamp shining in a dark place.

Where do you come into contact with this transfigured Jesus?  In His Word.  For the Psalmist says that the Holy Word is a “lamp to my feet” and a “light to my path.”  Peter says, “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation."  Rather, the Word of God was given to the writers of the Scriptures as they were “carried along by the Holy Spirit.”  In the written Word of God we experience the Word made flesh, Jesus.  That’s where the light is for you.  Pay attention to it.  Or as the voice of the Father said, “Listen to Him.”

Listen to Him as if your life depends on it–because it does.  Listen to Him, for He has the words of eternal life.  Where else would you go?   Come and step behind the veil today, and by the power of His words receive the radiant body and blood of your Lord, that you also may be transfigured with Him.  For it is written in 2 Corinthians 3, “We all, with unveiled face”–you can’t receive the Sacrament without taking off the mask, can you?–“beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory.”

So remember, in His mercy God will not permit you to see everything.  But He will allow you to see everything that you need for eternal life–even Jesus Christ our Lord.

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Fr. Larry Beane)

When the Wine Runs Out

John 2:1-11

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

We don’t usually picture Jesus at a party, do we.  But that is exactly where we find our Lord today, taking part in a celebration, a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee.  It is likely that either the bride or the groom was a relative of His mother and therefore also of Jesus Himself.  I am sure that in this gathering of family and friends Jesus didn’t sit stoically on the sidelines but joined in the conversation and the merriment of such a joyous event as a marriage.  While Jesus is without sin, He remains fully human as well as fully divine.  He takes part in the common aspects of human life to sanctify them and us.  He shows here that He fully approves of marriage and blesses it.  For He Himself created and instituted marriage in the beginning.

Marriage is not honored nearly as highly as it ought to be.  More and more people see it not as a good and necessary and foundational thing–a God-given estate–but as an optional legal formality and perhaps even a trap and a prison.  Most people think it’s perfectly normal and fine for unmarried people to have sexual relations and to live together apart from marriage.  But when people join themselves together sexually without God first giving them to each other, they are rejecting Him and degrading His gift of marriage.  And too often even within marriage, husbands and wives don’t love and respect each other the way they should.  But Jesus shows us the proper attitude that we should have.  Here at Cana He gives His stamp of approval to marriage by gracing it with His presence.  Whether we’re married or single, we also should honor marital life highly, both by how we talk about it and by how we conduct ourselves in the body.

Now at this particular wedding feast, a problem arose.  They ran out of wine.  Sure, there are worse things that could happen, but still this was a significant problem, something akin to having the caterers or the DJ call you up at the last minute and say they’re not going to show up.  It’s a social embarrassment.  When our Lord’s mother becomes aware of the host’s problem, she tells Jesus, “They have no wine.”  That statement is really a request, isn’t it.  She’s not just giving Jesus information; she’s asking him to intervene and help.

In doing this Mary is an excellent picture of how the church should pray to Christ in faith.  For she lays the needs of her host before Jesus boldly and with confidence that He can and will help.  In the same way we also should pray to Christ firmly trusting in Him and believing that He will hear us and respond.  And Mary persists in this faith even when Jesus appears to brush her off.  Though He answers her a bit roughly, she simply turns and tells the servants, “Whatever He says to you, do it.”  It doesn’t matter to her exactly what His words will be, for she knows and trusts that whatever He says will be good.  So also should we trust and be confident, even in those rough times, that the Lord’s answer to our petitions will be for our good.

When Jesus answered His mother, He said, “Woman, what does your concern have to do with Me?  My hour has not yet come.”  That’s a little bit of a strange reply, isn’t it?  What does that mean, “My hour has not yet come”?  Throughout this Gospel of John, Jesus’ “hour” is a reference to His impending death.  The hour in which He will manifest His glory is when He will offer up His life on the cross in love for the world to save it.   So the fact that the wine ran out is somehow related to the necessity of Christ’s death.  

And the relationship is this:  The reason that the things of this creation fail us and run short is because of the destructive entry of sin into the world.  It is only since the fall of man that these things happen.  The word that is used here to say that the wine failed and ran short is the very same word in Greek that is used in Romans 3 where St. Paul writes, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”   We ourselves have failed to fear, love, and trust in God as we should.  We ourselves have come up short of reflecting the image and the glory of God in our hearts in our lives.  This has not only brought judgment on us; it has brought a curse on all things that He has made.  And so now the blessings of this creation don’t last.  The wine runs out, clothes wear out, cars rust, pandemics and diseases strike at our health, lawlessness overcomes order, even marriage vows end with the words “until death parts us.”  The Scriptures say that the entire world in its present form is in bondage to decay and is passing away.

So, when the wine failed at Cana, that drew attention to the hour of Christ’s suffering and dying in order to redeem His sapped and fallen creation.  Jesus reminds His mother that if she is going to appeal to him for a miracle, she must also deal with his death.  Miracles don’t come cheaply.  They all are anchored in the cross and point there.  

Through this first miracle of our Lord, then, the changing of water into wine, Jesus was beginning to bring about the redemption of creation.  For He was reversing the draining force of sin so that there was bounty and joy once again.  

In order for this to be fully accomplished so that all of creation would be made new, the curse had to be removed and broken.  And Jesus accomplished that in His flesh at Calvary.  Galatians 3 declares, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’”  Jesus took the curse into Himself so that by His death sin’s crippling domination over creation would be undone.  He has subdued and destroyed all that brings deterioration and degeneration.  His holy cross conquered and did away with the impermanence of this old order of things.  

It is written here that the miracle of the changing of water into wine occurred on the third day.  So it is that our Lord performed the greatest miracle of all on the third day by rising from the grave in everlasting triumph over death.  The risen body of Christ is the beginning of the new order of things.  In Him and through Him creation is renewed and revitalized.  We perceive that now only by faith.  But we see signs of it in miracles such as this.  For it was prophesied of the Messiah’s kingdom that there would be an abundance of wine.  The prophet Amos said, “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when . . . sweet wine will drip from the mountains and flow from the hills.”  And Isaiah foretold a day when the Lord would swallow up death forever.  He said, “The Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine–the best of meats and the finest of wines.”  In this miracle, then, we begin to see the very kingdom of God and the new creation breaking in, which will be revealed in all its glory on the Last Day.

The water pots were filled to the brim. For the fullness of time has now come.  Jesus fulfills all that was written in Moses and the Prophets.  Out of the water of the Old Testament promises we draw the finest wine of Jesus Himself.

Indeed, just as Jesus used six stone jars in this miracle, so also it was on the sixth day of the week, Good Friday, when He broke sin’s curse.  And just as in the beginning the creation of man took place on the sixth day of the week, so now man is recreated by the water and the blood that came forth from Christ's holy side at Calvary.  Do you see what the water and the wine are signs of at Cana?  They are nothing else than the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which flow to us from the cross of Jesus.  This Gospel tells us that the six jars were used for ritual washing and cleansing.  And don’t the Scriptures say that Baptism is a washing of regeneration?  Likewise, it is written that the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.  Our Lord renewed the gifts of creation at Cana’s wedding feast, and now He renews us through His sacramental gifts in water and wine, so that we might be restored to the sweetness of life with God.  As it is written, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.  Old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new!”

You must learn to see and believe, then, that the miracle of Cana is still going on; it hasn’t stopped.  The heavenly groom, Jesus Christ, is here in the Divine Service for His bride, the church.  He who showed Himself to be Lord of the elements at Cana now shows Himself to be Lord of the elements on the altar.  He causes His blood and body to be present under the wine and the bread, and through this miracle He recreates you with His abounding forgiveness and His indestructible life.  These elements of creation won’t fail you; for they deliver to you the Lord Himself who will never fail you or divorce Himself from you.  His grace doesn’t run out; there is always enough and more.  His wine-blood gladdens your hearts.  So it is that the Scriptures say, “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.”  “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, that she should be holy and without blemish.”

Dear bride of Christ, the Lord has given you a vintage sign:  at Cana, at Calvary, and on the altar–a sign of His glory, glory revealed in His love for you.  Both then and now, He has saved the choice wine for last.  He has given His best; and it is all for you.  Come, then, in faith to His table, that you may partake in the great wedding feast when He returns.  For it is written, “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” (Rev. 19:9)

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

The King of the Jews

Matthew 2:1-12

Mt. Zion Lutheran Church/Our Father’s Lutheran Church Joint Epiphany Service

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

“Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?”  That is the question of the Wise Men from the East.  It’s important to note that these Wise Men, these Magi, were probably not worshipers of the true God prior to this time.  They were royal counselors and advisers.  And their title as Magi suggests that the wisdom they offered to the king came at least in part from occult magic, astrology, the seeking of power and knowledge from various sources other than the Word of God–“reading the tea leaves,” reading the stars, and other pagan things.

Of course, they would have had written wisdom, too, and among that wisdom was portions of the Old Testament Scriptures.  For remember where these Magi came from, from the East, from Babylon and Persia east of Israel–the place where the Israelites had been carried away captive as exiles centuries earlier.  Several of those Israelite captives became counselors to the king, Wise Men of sorts–people like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who wouldn’t bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image, or Daniel who was thrown into the lion’s den for continuing to pray to the Lord against the official edict.  And those Jewish Wise Men would certainly have brought with them not only the practice of their faith but scrolls containing the words of Moses and other parts of the Old Testament.  

The Jews returned to Israel a few decades later.  But the Gentile Magi surely would have retained copies of those words over the years, such as this prophecy in Numbers 24, “A Star shall come out of Jacob, a [royal] Scepter shall rise out of Israel. . .”  Now the Magi probably only understood that to be about the birth of an important earthly king.  But when this heavenly body appeared at the time of Jesus’ birth, God by His grace still used their imperfect and muddled wisdom to lead them to seek out Him who is Wisdom in the flesh, the King of the Jews, Christ our Lord.  

And that’s one of the first points that we should take out of this Gospel today–by the grace of God, He draws even people like this to Himself: semi-pagan astrologers and Magi, people who are enmeshed in false belief and false religion, and He calls them away from all of that to the Truth. He draws Gentiles like us who fall so easily into superstitious thinking, we who are tempted to look for guidance and power in all sorts of things other than God’s words, we who love to get enmeshed in mystical and spiritual speculation about the spirits of the dead and the supernatural.  Even people like us, with our muddled hearts and minds, God still draws to Himself through His Word, in spite of ourselves, because of His grace and mercy.  It is that grace and mercy that caused the Lord to become flesh in the first place to redeem us and save us, to lead us into all truth.  This epiphany of Jesus to the Wise Men, then, is good news for us, for it shows Jesus to be the fulfillment of Simeon’s words, “a Light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the Glory of God’s people Israel.”

You can tell that the Magi were thinking in terms of an earthly king, because the first place they go in Israel is to the capital city, to Jerusalem.  “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?”  That’s where they expect to find Him.  But the Messiah King is not one who comes surrounded by the finery and the glories of the capital.  He comes rather in the lowliness of the humble village of Bethlehem.

Our fallen nature thinks God is to be found in places of power, that true religion is about that which brings health and wealth and success and happy feelings.  But that’s not where Jesus is at.  Herod has all that.  Jesus, on the other hand, ends up having to flee from Herod’s murderous scheme, carted by Joseph and Mary to exile in Egypt for a time, living an ordinary and common life for us.  The life of the true and eternal King is marked from the beginning by suffering and the cross.  That’s where Jesus is, not surrounded by earthly glory, but robed in humility for us.  True religion still today is also marked not by political power and victories, but by this humility of Jesus.  The church is not dependent on what happens in the capital but on what happens right here in divine service.

It’s very important to note in this story the difference between the Gentile wise men and the Jewish priests and scribes.  On the one hand, the Jews who possessed the Scriptures in their fullness and knew the prophecies of the Messiah were greatly troubled at the thought that the Messiah was born.  It says here that King Herod and all Jerusalem was troubled by this news.  That seems a little strange, doesn’t it?  You would think they might be glad, joyful.  You would think that they would want to personally escort the wise men to Bethlehem so that they could see for themselves.  Instead, they’re more concerned about how this might upset their lives and the political structure.  Instead, they quote the Scripture they know so well and stay home.  

This still happens today.  Far too many people think that if you just learn enough facts from the Bible, or learn enough morality from the Bible, then you're all good.  You can stay at home with your private spirituality and forsake the presence of Christ in the flesh in His gathered Church.  But such people are sorely deceived; they are not Christian.  We also must guard against priding ourselves on our Bible knowledge or our good living rather than glorying in the One whom the Bible is all about, our Savior Jesus.  We must be careful not to let God’s Word simply become window-dressing in our lives lest we stop praying and meditating upon it.  

The Magi are our example here.  They receive the Word of God properly, in such a way that they are moved to seek out Christ in the flesh.  The Magi rely on the written Word, but they are not content with the Bible for its own sake.  They cling to it for the sake of Christ to whom it leads them.  That is always the purpose of the Word, to lead us to the Word made flesh, Jesus.  He is there for us, too, concretely and tangibly in the preaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments, no less so than He was for these Wise Men.

“Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?”  That title, “King of the Jews” might well spark some connections to Holy Week in your hearts and minds.  It’s actually a title that only shows up in two places in the Gospel–here at the beginning of Jesus’ life, and later at the end of Jesus’ life.  And the two situations are parallel. The Jewish King Herod was envious and tried to protect His power when Jesus was born, seeking to have Him killed; He ordered the deaths of all the boys two years old and under in Bethlehem.  So also in the Passion narrative, we hear of how the Jewish leaders handed Jesus over to Pontius Pilate because of envy.  They, too, wanted to protect their position and political power.  In both cases it’s the Gentiles who see Jesus more clearly as He is.  Pilate finds no fault in Him, and Pilate’s wife even calls Jesus a just Man.  But in the end, Pilate caves to the pressure, and in fulfillment of God’s will, perhaps to mock the Jewish leaders, He places over our Lord’s head the inscription “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”  

So near the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we are given a crystal clear answer to the Magi’s question at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel.  “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?”  He is there, the humble Child, God in the flesh, the light of God’s love broken into the darkness of our sinful world.  And above all, He is there on the cross, with the inscription over his head declaring it.  He is the King who is given gold for His royal nature but who chooses to wear the crown of thorns.  He is the King who is given incense, used at the time of prayer and sacrifice, who answers our prayers by being the sacrifice for the sins of the world.  He is the King who is given myrrh, a spice used for Jesus’ burial in the grave, which He would conquer in His victorious resurrection.  This Jesus, the King of the Jews, has come to redeem all people–wise men from the east, Roman conquerors from the west, Jew and Gentile, you and me.

God grant that His Word would continually accomplish its purpose of leading you to the Word made flesh in this new year, that with the Magi we might come and kneel before Jesus week by week as He gives His gifts to us, His true body and blood offered up for the forgiveness of sins.  For just as the Wise Men returned home by a different path, walking along a new way, so God gives you also to return by a different path than the old ways of this world.  You are given to return home by Christ Himself, for He is the Way and the Truth and the Life for you.  Behold your King!

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

All-Powerful Weakness

Matthew 2:13-23

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

As we approach the end of the Christmas season on this 9th/10th day of Christmas, we recognize that it is a season of great mysteries.  There are so many things about it which to human logic seem would to contradict each other but are true nonetheless.  A virgin has a baby.  God, whom all the heavens cannot contain, lies contained in a manger.  The exalted King of the universe is first worshiped by lowly shepherds.  And in today’s Gospel, we are presented with another mystery directly related to those:  In Christ, God is both weak and all-powerful.  He is controlled by circumstances, and yet He is in control of everything.  Today we are going to look more deeply at this reality and discover that within this mystery there is a great deal of comfort to be found for our own seemingly contradictory lives.

One thing that comes through loud and clear in this passage is that Jesus was vulnerable, at risk of being hurt or killed.  First, He has to be whisked away in the middle of the night to escape the murderous reach of King Herod, as the angel warned Joseph.  Just imagine that, the Son of God having to escape under the cover of darkness and flee to Egypt!  And then, even after Herod dies, Jesus isn’t completely safe, since Herod’s son Archelaus is on the throne in Judea.  And so, being warned in a dream, Joseph took the child and His mother north, to an area outside of Archelaus’ territory in Nazareth of Galilee.  Clearly, as a true human being, Jesus was vulnerable to danger and death.  By all appearances, it would seem that circumstances were beyond His control.

And yet as we read through this passage we discover that all of this occurred in fulfillment of prophecy, according to God’s plan.  What at first appeared to be an unwanted vacation in Egypt turned out to be a fulfillment of Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”  God's eternal will was here being carried out.

And this is not just some minor prophetic detail.  The fact that the Messiah was to come out of the land of Egypt was a significant part of God’s plan to save mankind.  For Hosea’s prophecy was originally spoken concerning the entire nation of Israel.  You recall that the Israelites were once a nation of slaves under the rule of the Pharaoh in Egypt.  But despite their condition, God chose them to be His own people and powerfully saved them from their bondage.  He brought them safely out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and finally led them into the Promised Land.

That is why it was important that Jesus also would be called from Egypt.  For it was His task to be the embodiment of God’s people, to do perfectly and without sin what Israel had failed to do.  The children of Israel had grumbled against God and complained and rebelled against Him.  They did not live as His holy people or glorify His name among the nations.  But now the Child of Israel, Jesus, has come to do that perfectly, accomplishing God’s will completely on behalf of Israel and all people.  So in the seeming minor detail of the calling of Jesus out of Egypt, we see that He was fulfilling the Law for us, actively doing all that was necessary to rescue us.  Jesus is the new Jacob, the new Israel, going down to Egypt and coming up again to be our Redeemer.

And we also find that there was an important reason for why the holy family had to live in Nazareth in Galilee.  Though political circumstances seem to have put them there, God reveals to us that all of this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophets, “He will be called a Nazarene.”  Again, we see that God was working in and through the complexity of human events to accomplish His good and perfect will.

But why would it be that Jesus had to be a Nazarene?  Well, in the Old Testament we learn that, paradoxically, the Messiah would be humble and ultimately even despised.  And if there was ever a lowly town in Israel, one that you didn’t want to admit you were from, it was Nazareth.  Because it was an obscure little town and very near Gentile territory, Nazareth and its inhabitants practically became interchangeable with the word “despised.”  Even one of Jesus' own disciples once said, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  That is why Jesus was a Nazarene, because the Messiah was to be humble and despised.

All of this, then, brings us to the cross.  For if there is anything in the Scriptures which epitomizes both the all-powerfulness of God and the weakness of God, it is the crucifixion of Jesus.  On the one hand we know that the cross was a part of God’s plan from the beginning.  It was His almighty will that the events of Good Friday take place.  And yet, when it actually happened, God the Son was utterly helpless.  This time He didn’t escape from the murderous authorities.  There He was, so horribly vulnerable to the taunting and the nails and the spear and the death–completely despised and rejected.  Nevertheless, through that all-powerful weakness, God paid the full price for our sins and brought eternal life to all who dare to worship and place their confidence in Him.

And that brings us finally to the place where we can apply all of this very directly to our own lives.  For since we have been joined to Christ by water and the Word, this mystery of Christ’s power and weakness shows in our own lives as well.

We see that first of all in the paradox that we are at the same time both saints and sinners.  No matter how much we may desire to lead God-pleasing lives in thought and word and deed, we know the truth of what St. Paul said in Romans 7, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”  That’s no excuse, but the reality is that we are constantly vulnerable to the attacks and temptations of sin, of failing to do what we should, and of doing what we shouldn’t.  At first glance it would seem as if we are under the same eternal curse as the rest of this fallen world.  And yet God’s almighty Word has declared us righteous and holy for the sake of Christ.  We are saints in God’s sight.  Time and time again in Scripture, the Christians at various churches are referred to as “the saints” in this or that place–because of the holiness of Christ which has been placed upon them and which they trust in.  And so it is with you; you who believe are the saints at Mt. Zion, for you are forgiven and holy in Christ.  Even in that Romans 7 passage where St. Paul is lamenting his sinful condition, he points us to our sure hope when he says, “O wretched man that I am!  Who will save me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord!”  Though you are sinners, you are nevertheless declared to be pure and righteous in Jesus.

The almighty weakness of our lives as children of God also shows itself in everyday events.  Much of what happens to us is beyond our control and seems quite random.  Some have had loved ones die recently.  Others have been having a rough time of it in their families, with their spouse or children or parents.  Still others have been struggling with tough situations at work or in their neighborhoods.  There often doesn’t seem to be much order or purpose to the way things happen.

And yet into the midst of this messy and complex world comes God’s Word to us in Romans 8: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”  Not only in Jesus’ day, but also still today, God is active in human history working out His good and perfect will.  God is certainly not the cause of sin or evil or trouble.  But nevertheless, God is not above delving into this sinful and fallen and troublesome world to direct all things for the sake of His chosen ones.

And so we trust that despite any appearances to the contrary, God is with us and graciously working in our lives.  For we are the called ones, chosen in Holy Baptism, made to be the forgiven children of God.  Even in the midst of your human vulnerability, God is working out His almighty will for your benefit.

As you look back on your lives, I’m sure that you can think of an example where that was the case.  A time of trouble or suffering strengthened your faith in God.  A seeming setback turned out to be an opportunity for something new and better.  A chance meeting brought you your spouse or a good friend.  Whether or not you realize it, you have all experienced God's gracious working in your lives.

And in those times when you can’t make sense of things, when you feel like the parents of Bethlehem, whose infant children were slaughtered before their eyes, when there seems to be no valid purpose or meaning to what’s going on in your lives, God points your eyes again to the cross.  For there in that greatest display of God’s all-powerful weakness, there in that senseless and yet most meaningful death of Jesus, you are assured that God’s love for you is limitless and unshakable.  There is nothing in all of creation that can separate you the love of God in Christ.

In fact, the Lord comes so near to you with His love that He actually gives Himself into you in the Sacrament of the Altar.  He imparts to you His very own life with His body and blood.  If the almighty Lord would go so far as to take on your vulnerable human flesh, to die in the flesh and shed His blood, and then give you His resurrected flesh and blood for the forgiveness of your sins, then certainly you can trust Him even in those times when there seems to be no reasonable answers to your questions.  For in the end, the answer to all of those questions, the solution to all of those problems is the One in the manger and on the cross and under the bread and the wine.  It may not all make logical sense to you, but it is the truth of the mystery of the Gospel.  There in that marvelous paradox of Christ is your strength to live for 2021.

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

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