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He Looked Up to Heaven and Sighed

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

    Not only when people are physically tired, but especially when they are stressed out and mentally and emotionally tired, they sigh.  We sigh when we’re burdened by something, when we’re weighed down, when we’re struggling to keep on going.  Sometimes the cause of our sighing is within us–be it the physical things we battle like bad knees and bad backs, disease, loss of sight and loss of hearing; or be it the sin within that weighs on you, that attacks your conscience, that makes you say, “Why did I do that or say that?  Why am I such a mess?”  And we can be brought to sighing by things outside of us, too–when people do evil to us and make our life difficult, when family or friends let us down, when all our efforts seem to get us nowhere, when we see the violence of the world and how everything around us seems to fail sooner or later.  Sometimes it’s all just too much, and we sigh; we groan.  Sighing is the fruit of the curse.

    And it affects all of creation.  Romans 8 says that “all creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.”   The recent hurricane and flooding is a living picture of that.  The whole creation is weighed down and broken.  It sighs and groans; and that often only makes our sighing and groaning worse as it brings to us suffering and sickness and death.  Creation itself is in bondage to decay after the fall.

    As we look up to heaven and sigh, it is most helpful to see our Lord Jesus in the Gospel doing the very same thing.  He is really one with us in our troubles.  He shares our burdens.  He too, sighs and groans.  But His sighing is also different from ours.  He feels your pain to be sure. And He knows your emptiness. But there’s more to it than that.  He knows that there’s a cure.  For He has come to be the cure Himself.  His sighs, His groans, His suffering are the very thing that take your sin and your burden away from you.  His sighs breathe His words and His Spirit and His life into you.null

    The friends of the deaf man at least in some small way understood this.  They brought the deaf-mute to Jesus.  They didn’t ignore his deafness or ostracize him.  They didn’t say it was his fault, that it was punishment for something he had done.  They were real friends.  So they brought him to where he could get help.  They brought Him to Jesus.  May God grant to us all such friends, even as we have already been befriended by those who brought us to Jesus at baptism, or who encouraged us to come to church (or get back to church) or receive holy absolution and the Sacrament of the Altar.  And by His mercy may the Lord make us such friends to others.  When’s the last time you invited someone to come with you to church or adults instruction class?

    Even more than his friends, though, the deaf-mute had this going for him: He had Jesus going for him–Jesus with him and for him and on his side.  Jesus took him aside from the multitude, away from the familiarity and the security of his friends and the people he knew.  The deaf-mute’s attention, his trust was to be entirely focused on Jesus now.  So it is with you.  When Jesus deals with you, he calls you to find your security not ultimately in the familiar people or things in this world, not even in your family, but only in Him.  He even goes so far as to say, “Whoever loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37).  

    Jesus did this away from the crowd.  For He wasn’t using this man as a prop for a PR stunt to promote His Messianic career.  He was completely there for the deaf-mute, one on one.  He put His fingers into the deaf man's ears.  He spit and touched the deaf man’s tongue.  He touched him right where his body was broken with a healing touch.  And He said, “Ephphatha.” “Be opened.  Be released.”  There was something almost over the line in Jesus’ actions. We don't want people sticking their fingers in our ears.  And we certainly don't want people spitting and touching our tongues!  Jesus invaded this man’s space.  It was uncomfortably close.

    The Lord can heal with just a Word.  Why then fingers in the ears, spit and hands upon the tongue?  Well, for one thing, this is what his friends had prayed for.  Remember they had begged Jesus to put His hand on him.  That prayer was being answered very concretely.  Be careful what you pray for.  You may receive what you asked, but not in the way you expected.  It may not come in the comfortable, simple way you were hoping for but in the Lord’s way that puts you out of your comfort zone, that teaches you not to trust in your prayers or your friends’ prayers, but only in the Lord who answers your petitions.  He may be invading your personal space, but it’s for your good.

    Jesus heals in this hands-on way, too, because this is the very purpose for which he came, to be the Great Physician who touches our broken flesh with His pure life-giving flesh.  He sticks His fingers in our ears through the preaching of His Word.  In the Bible, the “finger of God” is a reference to the Holy Spirit and His work.  God puts His finger, His Holy Spirit into our ears with the Scriptural words which He Himself inspired.  Only by the power of God’s Word and Spirit can our natural spiritual deafness be turned to a listening ear which understands and believes the things of God.  The Epistle reading said, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”  

    Jesus also spits and touches our tongue in the Sacraments.  Baptism is water and words from the mouth of God, right?  In baptism Jesus says His “Ephphatha” to you, releasing you from your bondage to death and unloosing your tongues to sing the praises of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.  We pray in the Psalms, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.”  Only when the Holy Spirit has opened our ears and freed our tongues can we truly worship Him rightly.  It is written, “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”

    And of course, our Lord Christ touches your tongue very literally in Holy Communion, where He places His body and blood right onto your tongues and into your bodies for your forgiveness.   To the world it is a rather strange thing that you would come forward and kneel at this rail and let me place food and drink into your mouth.  But you do so at the Lord’s Word.  For this is the Lord’s concrete, earthy way of touching you and giving you eternal healing.  And it especially seems strange to the world that you would all drink from the same cup of the Lord.  It seems so untidy in our day and age.  But that’s what the Lord directs us to do.  He says, “Drink of it (the one cup) all of you.”

    Jesus looked up to heaven, and sighed, and said “Ephphatha.”  The cost of our healing is His sacrificial death, and Jesus knows that well.  He sighed and groaned and cried out and was spitefully spit upon for us on the cross.   And yet through that death Jesus is not defeated but victorious.  For in so doing He breaks the power of sin’s curse.  Jesus has overcome all that makes you sigh and groan in this fallen world through the cross.  You have the victory in Him.

    God the Father showed the victory of Jesus’ sacrifice for you on the third day.  This time the Father said “Ephphatha” to the tomb, “be opened,” and He raised Jesus to life in glory.  In the same way, Jesus will speak His “Ephatha” to your graves on the Last Day, and raise you from the dead with glorified bodies to live with him forever in righteousness and holiness.

    This is the light at the end of all tunnels for the Christian. This is the promise that no matter how bad the sighing gets, there really is a better day ahead.  No matter how deaf God appears to the sounds of our cry, in Jesus Christ, he hears, and he will answer us, and restore us, and give us eternal blessing.  In the resurrection there will be no more deafness or pain or trouble or disease any more.  As it is written, “Sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”  The whole creation will rejoice with us as it, too, is released from its bondage.  We eagerly wait for the adoption, the redemption of our bodies.  Until then, the Spirit of Christ helps us in our weakness, aiding our prayers when we don’t know what to say, making intercession for us with sighs and groans too deep for words.

    “In that day the deaf shall hear the words of the book.”  Thanks be to God that He has caused the living melody of the Gospel to sound in our ears, that He sighs His breath and Spirit and life into us.  Even in the midst of the uncertainties of your life, let your confession of faith be like that of the multitude in the Gospel,  “He has done all things well.  He makes both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

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

No Comparison

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

    All of us know how to play the comparison game.  You see or hear about someone or their family, something they’ve done or achieved, and then you line yourself up next to them to see who’s doing better.  In your heart you usually come up with one of two conclusions: either you’re proud and satisfied with yourself or you despair and are depressed about yourself.  The comparison game is not a good game to play, but our sinful nature can’t seem to avoid it.  For the old Adam is always obsessed with the self, and he wrongly judges himself in terms of others rather than in terms of God and His Word.

    Pride can rear its head in the comparison game even in something as simple as watching the news.  We like to complain about how they so often focus on the negative aspects of the human condition; but then we still keep on tuning in, don't we--perhaps in part because next to all that we seem pretty good.  We can virtue signal on social media about how we stand for this or stand against that.  We see the racist neo-nazi driving into a crowd of people or the lawless vandal tearing down statues and starting streetfights, or the addicted celebrity, or the corrupt politician, or the tragically broken transgender person, and we think, “Thank God I’m not like those people.  I’m certainly doing better than they are.”  

    But notice how that’s the way the Pharisee talks.  He mentions God; He even seems to thank God for His good works, but not really.  For notice how it says that the Pharisee prayed with himself.  That’s the only safe way to pray if you’re playing the comparison game–with yourself and by yourself.  The name of God is used by the Pharisee just once; the word I is used four times.  God is not really the focus here; He’s just window dressing for the main attraction, the pious Pharisee.

 null   Now, the Pharisee here seems to be a little bit of a caricature that we can easily make fun of.  But be careful, for as soon as you start thinking, “Thank God I’m not a self-righteous snob like the Pharisee,” then you’ve become the Pharisee yourself.  Then you’re the one looking down on others.  You don’t like it when people act all holier than thou, but the fact that you’ve got to go and point that out shows that you think you’re better than them.  And so you’re caught.

    Repent.  Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall..  He who exalts Himself will be humbled.  Turn away from religion which is all about you and your spiritual self-improvement.  The Gospel is not “God helps those who help themselves.”  That statement is a lie; It’s not in the Bible.  Do not trust in yourself to become good before God; it cannot be done.

    But at the same time, do not give way to despair, either.  For that is the other side of the coin in the comparison game.  People who know they haven’t measured up, who have botched things, compare themselves to others and say, “Look at how I’ve messed up and sinned.  My life is full of mistakes and failings.  I always seem to fall short.  I don’t see any future for me, especially with God.  How could He accept someone like me?  It’s hopeless.”  

    Those who succumb to spiritual despair are really engaging in the very same sin as the Pharisee, oddly enough.  Both pride and despair are obsessed with the self.  The proud person looks at himself and thinks he sees good.  The despairing person looks at himself and sees bad.  But both are engaging in the exact same spiritual activity–navel-gazing, mirror watching.  It’s all about me.  Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves.  Both the proud and the despairing person think that it all depends on them and their efforts and what they do.  For one this is happy, for the other it’s sad.  But they both believe the same thing, and they’re both wrong.  That’s why they both end up despising others, as Jesus said.  The proud person looks down on those he thinks to be inferior to him.  And the despairing person may well despise those he thinks “won life’s lottery” or who supposedly held him down and kept him from being able to become the person he was supposed to be.

    Let go of all the comparing and embrace grace.  “By grace you have been saved.”  God’s grace and mercy alone.  There is no comparison to that.  Nothing can compare to what is freely given to you in Jesus Christ.  The tax collector’s worship is the right kind of worship, that of humble reverence before the Lord.  It’s right because his faith is not in himself in any way but in the Lord’s sacrificial compassion.  It all depends on that.  He doesn’t presume that he has the right to draw near to God on his own merits.  He stands afar off with his face not even lifted up to the King of kings.  He beats his chest in sorrow as if to say, “What have I done?”  And his only plea is, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

    That may not be the kind of worship that draws crowds and makes you feel all tingly, but it is the kind of worship that Jesus seeks and that He praises here.  For Jesus says that it’s the tax collector who goes down to his house justified, right with God.  The tax collector comes before God with no illusions that he has some great virtue that he can offer to God.  No it all hangs on the belief that the Lord is a God of mercy who will not forsake even him, who will forgive him and raise him up, even though he doesn’t deserve it.

    That’s why he came to the temple.  This wasn’t the synagogue.  This was the temple, where the sacrifices were made that God appointed and where blood was shed to atone for sin.  When the tax collector prays “God be merciful to me . . .” the word he uses for mercy has to do with those sacrifices, all of which pointed forward to the coming sacrifice on Good Friday.  So as the tax collector offers this prayer, God is already answering it for him there in the animals being offered on the altar to which the Lord attached His promise of mercy.  The tax collector trusted in that promise, and he longed for the day when the Messiah would come and bring all of these things to their fulfillment.

    Let us also then learn the lesson of the tax collector and take our place with him.  Let us come before the Lord with humble reverence, with sincere repentance and true faith.  For it is written, “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart and saves such as have a contrite spirit” (Psalm 34:18).  If you know the burden of your fallen nature, if you’ve made some poor choices in life, if this world at times wearies you to death, then the Lord Jesus is for you.  Pray “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  And He is, and He will be, and His mercy endures forever.  For He has made the sacrifice for you in the temple of Christ’s body on the altar of the cross.  There the Lamb of God was offered up once and for all.  Through His sacrifice your sin has been fully atoned for.  You are released and forgiven.  You are freed from all the religious score-keeping and comparison games that divide you from your neighbor.  Though Cain and Abel were divided from each other by Cain’s envy and anger, so that the blood of Abel the shepherd covered the ground, yet even this portrays how the holy blood of Jesus the Good Shepherd covers you and atones for you who are made of dust.  “Abel’s blood for vengeance pleaded to the skies; but the blood of Jesus for our pardon cries.”  Notice how it is written that the ground opened it's mouth to receive Abel's blood (Gen. 4:11).  So it is that we open our mouths to receive the blood of Christ that cleanses us of all sin (1 John 1:7).  By it you are reconciled to God.  As it is written, “You who once were far off (as the tax collector stood far off) have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”   

    Now you are given to lift up your eyes and see heaven opened through Jesus.  It is opened because Jesus fulfilled His own words here, “He who humbles himself will be exalted.”  Jesus humbled Himself even to the point of death on a cross.  He didn’t say to His Father, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men”–even though He’s the One who actually could have said that.  Instead, He made Himself to be like us and bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that we, having died with Him to sin, might live for His true righteousness.  And now God the Father has exalted the risen Jesus to the highest place and given Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, even at this altar rail, as He comes to you by grace.

    All of you are freely given to go down to your houses justified and righteous today–not because of what you have done for God, but because of what He has done for you.  “It is by grace you have been saved through faith” in Christ, who is your righteousness.  And this is “not of yourselves,” from within you, “it is the gift of God” from outside of you, “not of works, lest anyone should boast.”  If there’s going to be any boasting, Scripture says, let it be boasting in the Lord.  He baptized you and by His Spirit turned you from a child of wrath to a child of grace.  He comforts you now with His words of mercy and feeds you His own true body and blood, like a holy medicine, to cure you and to prepare your bodies for the resurrection to life everlasting on the Last Day.

    You are justified, right with God in Christ.  Therefore, humble yourselves before the Lord, that He may lift you up in due time.

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

Deathly Wages, Life-Giving Gifts

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

    “The wages of sin is death.”  I think most understand that passage of Scripture to be referring to physical death.  “Because of our sin, we must die; our bodies are destined to wear out and pass away.”  And that is true.  Were it not for mankind’s rebellion against God beginning in the Garden of Eden, there would be no such thing as death. Don’t forget that.  God did not create us to die but to live in His presence forever, in the flesh.  The fact that the world is so screwed up and full of death now is not God’s fault; it’s our own.  In the beginning, animals did not eat one another; Adam and Eve did not eat the animals.  Food was provided freely by God to all living things from the fruit of the trees and the various plants He had created.  All creatures were thoroughly satisfied with God’s provision.  But then through sin, death entered into the world.  Creation fell under the curse of man’s rebellion.  Life become only temporary.  The ground produced weeds and thistles.  Animal turned against animal.  Man turned against man.  Man became in many ways like an animal.  He would have to toil and sweat for His food.  Work would no longer be a pleasurable activity but burdensome labor.  God’s sentence was “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”

    And yet it might appear to some that what God said would happen didn’t.  The Lord had said, “In the day you eat of it, you shall surely die.”  But Adam and Eve were still alive and kicking for many decades after they ate, even if life had become much more difficult.  So what’s going on here?

    Death from the eternal perspective has to do with a lot more than just the body giving out and the heart stopping and the brain no longer functioning.  Death ultimately has to do with being separated from God, being cut off from His presence and His goodness.  That’s why hell is rightly called eternal death.  For it is the place where God and His grace are absent, and there is only ultimate nothingness and evil and pain.  Hell is the place where those who want to live independently from God get what they asked for.  null

    So while physical death is indeed the consequence of sin, death ultimately is spiritual.  In the day that they ate, Adam and Eve did die.  They were only hollow shells of what they once were, as all of mankind still is.  Ephesians 2 reminds us all people are by nature dead in sin.

    And I think we know that, at least subconsciously.  When the Epistle reading says that “the wages of sin is death,” we know it doesn’t only mean that death is going to be coming to us someday in the future, but that we’re already experiencing it.  We can feel in our bodies that we’re dying, in various troubles and sickness and aging.  And we experience it in our spirits, too.  Every sin is destructive and brings a little bit of death with it.  For instance, laziness brings boredom with God’s creation and an unhappiness with the blessings God provides, always having to seek out some new pleasure or thrill.  Lust and sexual immorality diminish people and ruin families and sear consciences.  Overindulging in food or drink produces health problems and a sluggish spirit.  Impatience leads to anger. Gossiping leads to conflict and broken friendships.  Greed poisons good relationships.  Pride blinds us to our faults and the needs of our neighbor.  Our sins are killing us.  They’re emptying us of life and hollowing us out–like the empty stomachs of the 4000 in today’s Gospel.  Indeed, the wages of sin is death, even before we die.

    However, that’s only the first half of the verse.  The last half trumps the first half when it declares, “The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord!”  Notice the difference in terminology there.  The first half talks about wages, the second half talks about a gift.  The first part talks about what we have earned, the second part talks about what God has freely given without our earning it.  Our working has led to death, but God’s working leads to life through His Son.

    In today’s Gospel we see a wonderful picture of how God worked to save us from death and bring us back into His life.  For there we see Jesus in the wilderness with the multitudes.  Man’s sin had turned the world from the abundance of Paradise into a bleak and harsh place, and so Jesus entered into that bleakness and harshness as a true man in order that He might undo the curse and restore humanity and all of creation.  The Son of God took on your human body and soul and put Himself smack dab into the middle of this fallen, desert world in order to rescue you and raise you up.  

    Jesus said, “I have compassion on the multitudes.”  That word, “compassion,” in Greek has to do with the deepest possible empathy and feeling.  So fully does Jesus empathize with you and feel for you that He went so far as to make your problems His problem.   He knows what you’re going through, whatever it is.  In His great mercy Jesus came into the world to suffer with you and to suffer for you in order to take your suffering away forever.  He made Himself a part of the mud and the blood in order to redeem you and revive the fallen creation in which you live.

    You can begin to see that taking place already in this miracle of the feeding of the 4000.  The curse on Adam had been, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.”  But here the second Adam, Jesus, reverses the curse and produces bread in abundance apart from any sweaty or tiring labor.  In this moment He restores the bounty of the Garden of Eden, where food is received in overflowing measure from the gracious hand of God.  Here you see God the Son beginning to break the curse of decay and death and overcome the fall into sin.  You see a small glimpse of how it was in the beginning and how it will be even more so in the new creation of the age to come.

    Jesus would complete His work of undoing the fall and breaking the power of the curse of death at the pinnacle of His ministry, on the cross.  There Jesus turned the curse into a blessing for you.  The wages of sin is death; and so Jesus took those wages you had coming and died your death for you.  Sin’s deathly curse was broken and undone in the body of Christ the crucified.  And therefore, because of Jesus’ sacrifice, the gift of life now flows to you and to all who believe in Him.  For if sin has been undone, so also are the wages of sin undone.  Death and hell have been taken away from you through the cross.  All that remains for you now is life, full and free, through Jesus’ resurrection.

    That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to the fact that it was on the third day that this miracle was performed in the Gospel.  It is a tradition in the church to fast beginning on Good Friday in observance of our Lord’s holy death and burial.  But then the fast is broken after three days on Easter to partake of the feast of the living and resurrected Christ.  Even so, week by week we fast in spirit with Jesus, bearing His cross in our daily vocations.  But then the fast is broken on the third day, that is, in divine service, as we feast on the living Bread from heaven.  Just as Jesus led these people on a three day journey into the wilderness, so also Jesus leads you on a journey into the wilderness, into your daily callings in this desert world, so that you may learn to hunger for His Word and His righteousness, so that you may see your desperate need for His help and deliverance, and so that you may be filled with His life here on the third day.

    Jesus took the seven loaves and gave thanks, broke them, and gave them to His disciples to set before the people.  In the same way still today, Jesus speaks His words of thanks and consecration and His ministers distribute the blessed Sacrament of the Altar.  The seven loaves were multiplied to feed and fully satisfy 4000 people.  In the same way still today, Jesus uses seemingly insufficient bread, the bread of the curse, to multiply His grace and bless and fully satisfy the church with His very life-giving body.  Jesus said, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven.  If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”

    When all had eaten there was more left over than when they started.  Seven small loaves became seven large baskets.  So it is that the Lord’s love and compassion cannot be exhausted; it never runs out.  There is no sin of yours so great that His multiplying mercy cannot overcome it.  In fact, it’s really just arrogance if you think there’s some sin of yours that can’t be forgiven, as if your sin is stronger than Jesus.  That’s just conceit.  No, not only does Jesus overcome it, He makes things better than before.  The seven loaves stand for the seven days of creation.  The seven large baskets stand for the even greater creation to come at Christ’s return.  Not only is the Lord restoring you to the deathless perfection of Eden, He is exalting you to a status and a state even greater and better than Adam and Eve.  The place being prepared for you in heaven surpasses even the Paradise of Eden.  For all things are fulfilled and brought to their pinnacle in Christ.  

    So now, even though we see the signs of death in us and around us, we are also given to see the signs of Christ’s life in us and around us as well.  For even as sin has its fruit in death, so forgiveness has its fruit in life, and in the fruit of the Spirit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  Though man ate of the tree that brought death, there is now the tree of life, the cross, from which he may eat and never die, never to be separated from God and His goodness again.  

    So then, just like the 4000, we also are given a glimpse of Paradise here in this place.  As you receive the bread of life, you are being given a taste of heaven.  For heaven is where Christ is; and Christ is here for you.  “The poor shall eat and be satisfied.”  “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who trusts in Him.”  

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

Outward and Inward Sin and Righteousness

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Matthew 5:17-26
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✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

    At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, we have passages like today’s Gospel, where Jesus teaches the full meaning of the Law.  True righteousness, a true keeping of the Law involves not only our outward behavior but also our inward thoughts and motivations and desires.  It’s not only a matter of the hands but also a matter of the mind and heart.  Anger=Murder, Lust=Adultery, Greed=Stealing, and so forth.  This is a message that we need to hear.  For too often we think of ourselves better than we ought to because most of us haven’t robbed a bank or committed adultery or engaged in violence against our neighbor.  We feel self-satisfied and even a bit self-righteous about that.  We’re good people.  Sure, we’re not perfect and we’ve made a mistake here or there.  But all in all, we’ve done well, definitely above average, we think.  And so we need Jesus’ teaching here to remind us that in fact there isn’t a single commandment that we haven’t broken.  We are all murderous, adulterous, lying, covetous thieves.  And that doesn’t even take into account the most important commandments, the first three that have to do with our relationship with God.  Jesus preaches this Law to us so that we might not become like the scribes and Pharisees, trusting in their own goodness and their own clean living.  We need the Law to drive us away from trusting in ourselves to trust in Christ Jesus alone.  The Law is good, but it cannot give us eternal life.  It’s an abuse of the Law to try to do that.  Only Jesus can save us and give us life.

    But there is another more subtle way we can abuse the Law, too, which perhaps is more common for us Lutherans.  We say to ourselves, “Well, since it’s just as much a sin before God if you do it inwardly or outwardly, then it really doesn’t matter if you go ahead and commit the sin with your body since you’ve already done it in your heart.”  We try to justify our behavior by saying that since everyone breaks the commandments in their sinful hearts, then it’s no worse to be guilty of engaging in the outward behavior.  All sins are the same, we say.  But that is wrong and false.  We abuse Jesus’ teaching here by trying to use it make our own outward sins seem not so bad.  null

    Our Lord Jesus teaches us in Scripture that all sins are not equal or the same.  God’s Word teaches that there are different types and different degrees of sin.  What we have done in many cases is that we have taken the correct theological principle that all sins are equally damning, that all sins make us subject to judgment by God–which is true–and then we conclude that all sins therefore are the same and equal.  But that’s clearly not the case.

    For instance, 1 John 5 speaks of sins which lead to death and sins which do not lead to death, faith-destroying sins and those which do not destroy faith.  Sins of weakness are not as damaging to faith, though they still should be considered to be quite dangerous.  Deliberate sins are the worst, when we plan to sin, when we delight in sin, when we know exactly what we’re doing and don’t care.  Jesus Himself said to Pontius Pilate, “Those who delivered me over to you have the greater sin.”  So there are greater and lesser sins, even as Jesus speaks of greater and lesser commandments in today's Gospel.  Or 1 Corinthians 6 speaks of how sexual sin is different because it’s a sin against one’s own body.  Greater damage is inflicted to oneself through such sin.

    Our problem is that we take the idea that all sins are damnable, and then we think therefore that there is no difference if you do it in your heart or if you do it externally.  However, sinfully coveting your neighbor’s wealth is not as horrific as actually going and robbing someone of their life’s savings.  The consequences to your neighbor are vastly different, and the danger to your faith is different.  All sin is dangerous and damnable, but all sin is certainly not the same.  Our bodily behavior matters.  So we may not be able to stop a flash of anger or lust from arising within us from our sinful nature, but we can stop ourselves from dwelling upon it, from scheming for revenge or engaging in sinful daydreams; and we most certainly can control our bodies from doing someone physical harm or from physically watching pornography or engaging in sexual immorality.  And thanks be to God that He is at work through the curbing influence of His Law, keeping us from ruining our own lives and the lives of our loved ones and others.  Even here we see God’s mercy, that He keeps the effects of our sin in check, so that it doesn’t do all the earthly damage to us that it otherwise would do.

    Don't abuse the Law, then, in either of these ways–whether to try to justify yourselves as righteous, or to try to excuse your sin as not so bad.  Jesus said, “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”  St. Paul said in the Epistle, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?  Certainly not!  How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?”  God’s forgiveness is not a  license to sin, it’s freedom from sin.  It’s the taking away of sin.  Why would you willingly want to embrace again the very things which once condemned you to hell?  Since the old Adam still hangs around your neck, tempting you to think lightly of sin, the Law is still in force in this fallen world.  Not one jot or tittle will pass away from it till all is fulfilled at Christ’s return.  The commandments still apply to every single one of us, calling us to repent.

    And here’s where the good news fully kicks in.  Jesus says, “I did not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it.”  Jesus came not to undo the Law but to bring it to fulfillment and completion in Himself.  He is our only hope and our only help.  For only in Jesus do we receive an inward righteousness before God, the righteousness of faith, where we despair of our own goodness and instead rely on Christ alone.  We prayed it in the Introit, “The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusted in Him, and I am helped.”  Only in Jesus is there deliverance from the judgment of the Law.  For only Jesus has kept the Law without fault or failing.  And all of this He did for you and in your place.  So Jesus isn’t only your example.  Rather, He keeps the Law completely and perfectly on your behalf.  Through faith in Him, His righteousness is counted as yours.

    It is written in Hebrews, “He was tempted in all points as we are, yet without sin.”  Not only did Jesus not do the things that the commandments forbid, He also did do everything the commandments demand.  Not only did He not murder or steal or have impure thoughts, but He also perfectly loved His Father in heaven and His neighbor on earth, showing compassion, healing, doing good and teaching the truth to all.  Our Lord lived a holy life as our representative and our substitute, so that our unholy lives would be redeemed.

    And Jesus also fulfilled the Law by completing all of the old ceremonial requirements regarding the Sabbath and the sacrifices and so forth.  Through His holy death and His rest in the tomb, Jesus Himself became your eternal Sabbath rest; and so He says, “Come to Me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”  “I will release from the crushing weight of the Law; I give you the peace of being reconciled with God.”  And by His once-for-all, final sacrifice as the Lamb of God, Jesus cleansed you from your sin and purified you.  All the Old Testament Jewish rules and regulations found their goal in Jesus, who put that all to an end in His crucified body, that the Law might no longer condemn you.  You’ve been put right with God again.  That’s what Jesus was saying on the cross, “It is finished.”  It is accomplished, completed, perfected, fulfilled.  All has been done, as Romans 10 declares, “Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”

    That new life, that sure hope is entirely yours in holy baptism.  For St. Paul says in the Epistle that by water and the Word you were buried with Christ and raised with Him to a new life.  His death counts as your death.  The hellish judgment he experienced counts for you too.  It’s all done and behind you.  Living in Christ, taking refuge under His wings, you are holy to Him; you are protected and kept safe from the power of sin and Satan and from death itself.

    That’s how the words of Jesus which seemed to be impossible are now, in fact, true in Him:  “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”  By faith in Christ, your righteousness actually does exceed that of the Pharisees, for it has been given to you freely by God’s grace.  You have the perfect righteousness of Jesus as your own.  The Father has declared it to be so.  He didn’t just demand that you straighten out your life, He gave you a whole new life, the life of Jesus that is full and complete and perfect and everlasting.  Through Christ you will enter the kingdom of heaven.  In fact you have already entered it by faith in Jesus, the King of heaven and earth.  

    So whether you struggle with sins of weakness, or whether you have willfully sinned and rejected and turned away from God, you are not without hope.  Return to faith in Christ; return to the Lord, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  Our Lord has brought you through the Red Sea of baptism, out of the house of bondage.  Your old selves were crucified with Christ, that you should no longer be slaves to sin.  Therefore, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.  That’s what’s real.  For just as you have been united with Him in His death, you will surely also be united with Him in the resurrection of the body when He comes again.  To Him with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all worship, honor, glory, and praise, now and forever.  Amen.

(With thanks to David Petersen for some of the Law exposition above)

If They Do Not Hear Moses and the Prophets. . .

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Luke 16:19-31

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

    If there’s one thing that Scripture makes very clear, it’s that many people who think that they have eternal life with God will be surprised to find out that they actually don’t.  Matthew 7 gives one of the starkest examples of that.  Jesus says, “Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me...”  Or in the parable of the 10 virgins, 5 are left wanting to enter the heavenly wedding feast and thinking they should be let in, but they’re locked out.  

    And in today’s Gospel reading, I am sure that the rich man thought that his status before God was in good shape.  We shouldn’t turn the rich man into a caricature–a greedy monster or some sort of Scrooge kind of character.  He was likely respected and looked up to by the people.  He would have been seen by the average person as having been blessed and favored by God.  The rich man’s money and business may well have provided jobs or built synagogues.  The fact that he didn’t pay attention to the miserable beggar at his gate probably wouldn’t have seemed terribly nullstrange.  Beggars like Lazarus were ones that most people would have wanted to avoid, like a homeless man that we might scurry past and avoid eye contact with on the street.

    To this day most people believe that as long as they do their best trying to live a good life, as long as they do more good than bad, that they’ll go to heaven.  They may not be 100% sure of it, but one thing most people are sure of is that they don’t deserve to be cut off from God forever in hell.  What funeral have you ever gone to, even of someone who never went to church or received the Sacrament, where people didn’t say, “Oh, they’re in a better place now; they’re looking down on us from above,” and other such cliches.  What eulogy didn’t make the deceased sound like a good person at heart, even if they were a bit of a jerk.  Almost everyone thinks they’ll eventually end up in heaven.  And most people, sadly, are in for a rude awakening.

    The rich man in hell knew that his brothers were under the same delusion that he was.  That’s why he wants to warn them.  He realizes that they think they’re fine with God, when they’re not.  They, too, might refer to Abraham as their father and think they’re among the people of God, but they are deceived.  They don’t share Abraham’s faith.  And so they aren’t true children of Abraham.  Let this warning, then, also come to you and me today, so that we don’t end up like the rich man, complacent and falsely secure, putting our faith in the wrong place.  

    That’s really the key difference between the rich man and Lazarus–their faith.  It wasn’t so much about what they possessed, but what possessed them, what had a hold of their hearts.  Even though he may have been a religious person, the rich man’s real confidence was in his own abilities and smarts, his own resources, his own power and standing as a pillar of the community.  Even in the fires of hell, the rich man rejected Moses and the prophets.  Did you notice that?  When the rich man wants to use Lazarus to go back to his brothers from the dead and warn them, Abraham says that Moses and the prophets are more than enough; that Word of God is all that his brothers need.  But the rich man doesn’t think that’s good enough.  He thinks that Scripture is empty, that it doesn’t have the power to bring them to repentance or to save them.  He wants a miracle.  Even in hell his trust is in something else than God’s Word.  Just because he sees heaven and hell doesn’t mean that he’s become a believer.  Death doesn’t change someone from unbelief to faith.  The hard-heartedness of the unbelieving goats perseveres into eternity.  In fact his unbelief actually becomes a part of his eternal torment, as his hard heart grows increasingly more frustrated and angry at the ways of God.

    Lazarus, on the other hand, clung to Moses and the prophets.  The Word of God was his hope.  For you may remember that the name “Lazarus” literally means “God is My Helper” or “My God is Help.”  Even though Lazarus longed for mere crumbs from the table, even though the street dogs licked his wounds, even though in this world Lazarus had nothing–not even his health–in truth, and perhaps surprisingly, Lazarus found what he was seeking.  He found mercy that endures forever.  He received Living Water and Bread from Heaven. He obtained perfect satisfaction and health.  It was all there for him in Moses and the prophets.  For there in Moses and the prophets was the Messiah, Jesus, his Help and his Savior.  

    You recall that when Jesus was walking with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, it is written that “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.”  Moses and the Prophets are all about Jesus.  So Lazarus went to heaven not because he suffered or because he was poor but because he believed Moses and the prophets.  Or to put it more precisely, he believed in the Messiah Jesus whom they prophesied, who would take the sins of the world upon Himself and earn for him God’s favor and a place in heaven.

    Lazarus found there in the Scriptures a man much like himself.  Isaiah prophesies that the Christ is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, despised and rejected by men, one without any attractiveness that we should desire to be near Him.  Jesus Himself said in the Psalms that He was surrounded by unbelieving dogs who mocked Him in His pain, who pierced His hands and His feet.  And yet, Isaiah says, “He Himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses. . .  And by His wounds we are healed.”  The blood that flowed from those wounds cleansed us of our sin and bought our eternal healing, the restoration and resurrection of our bodies to glory on the Last Day.

    Truly Jesus made Himself to be just like Lazarus for us.  For notice how Lazarus is comforted there in the bosom of father Abraham, laying on his chest.  That is a clear picture for us of the first two persons of the Trinity, the eternal Father and Son, as John 1 states, “No one has seen God at any time.”  But, “The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known.”  Jesus is the very heart of the Father; and He has made the love of the Father known to us by coming down from heaven into our poverty and affliction in order to raise us up and bring us back with Himself to heaven.

    Lazarus was a true son of Abraham, not only by blood, but also because he had the same faith as Abraham.  You recall how the elderly, childless Abraham was told by God that he would be the father of many nations, that his descendants would be as countless as the stars.  And even though Abraham had no evidence or experience to go on, he believed God’s promise, and God credited it to him as righteousness.  Abraham was righteous by faith alone.  And so was Lazarus.  Lazarus, too, trusted in God’s promise that He would not forsake the lowly, that no one who puts his trust in Him would be put to shame, that the Lord saves those who have a humble and contrite and penitent heart.  Even when all of the evidence and experience of Lazarus’ life said that God had forsaken him, he still clung to God’s promise.  By that faith he was accounted righteous before God.  He was saved.

    And so it is, then, also for you.  The evidence and experience of your life may seem to suggest that God doesn’t like you, that He’s forgotten you.  Unlike the rich man, you may have this nagging feeling that you’re not going to heaven, that there’s no way to escape hell because of what you’ve done or because of the things that have happened to you.  But don’t judge God by what you see or feel.  Instead, go on His Word and His promises.  Trust that what He says is true and real.  For God does not lie; He does not break His Word.  He will come through for you–maybe not the way you want right now; maybe not even in this life.  But most assuredly He will do so in the life to come.  For He has conquered your sin and death by His own death and resurrection.  By faith in Him, you are accounted righteous before God.  You are holy in His sight, without a single flaw.  The comfort and happiness of heaven is yours, entirely by the grace of God.  You don’t have to earn it by your works.  It’s all a gift of Christ’s love for you.  So while the rich man was unexpectedly surprised by his eternal torment, you will be unexpectedly surprised by the boundless goodness and joy of everlasting fellowship with God.  What He has prepared for you will be an unanticipated marvel and wonder.  

    Those who are like the rich man refuse to believe this.  They want a god who rewards people based on merit, and so they get what they deserve, the fire of hell.  Abraham reminds us that even if someone like Lazarus were to rise from the dead, that wouldn’t cause anyone to believe who didn’t already believe Moses and the prophets.  In fact, some have suggested that this Lazarus is the one that Jesus did raise from the dead right before Holy Week.  That miracle caused the rich Pharisees and chief priests to plot Jesus’ death even more fervently.  So beware of desiring miracles and signs, needing to see such things before you’ll believe.  Miracles don’t create faith.  If God gives them, they only confirm the faith that He has already worked through His Word and Spirit alone.  

    Let us, rather, be like Lazarus in spirit–helpless, weak, dependent on the Lord, satisfied with no other food than what comes from His table, eating the crumbs of the Bread of Life that satisfy completely.  And yes, let us be confident of heaven, but not because we think we deserve it or that we’ve earned it by our efforts–if you’re putting your faith in something inside of you, well, good luck with that.  No let us be confident of heaven because of Christ alone and what He has done for us, how He has claimed each of us poor, miserable Lazaruses as His own by water and the word.  And let us set our hearts on that Day when the angels will bear us home and we will be drawn to the Father’s side in Christ, there to bask forever in His goodness and love.

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

Not Many gods, But One God

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John 3:1-17

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

    We tend to take for granted the belief that there is only one God.  And of course, that belief is true; that’s what we’ve come to learn and know from God’s Word–it is written, “The Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deut. 6:4).  But apart from Scripture fallen mankind has more commonly held to the pagan belief in many gods.  I was reminded of that earlier this week watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster at the theater with its references to Greek mythology and Greek gods.  Fallen man has tended to believe that there are different gods for different areas of life and of the world–the god of the sea, the god of war, the goddess of love and fertility, and so on.   Pagan people believed that they would have success in battle, or better health, or increased wealth if they did the right religious things to cause the gods to bless them.

 Still today, there are those who give reverence to the spirits of trees and animals and mountains as if they were divine, or will pray to their ancestors as if they were gods.  This, by the way, is why we reject praying to the saints.  Looking to them for guidance and calling on them for help in this or that area of life is nothing else than a dressed-up version of the old paganism.  

    And when we talk about belief in only one God, we’re not merely talking about some generic higher power, some impersonal universal force that we can tap into spiritually somehow.  That is the way of Hinduism and new age belief–that in reality we all are gods, we all are little pieces of the one divine soul of the universe.  What a great deceit the devil works, making people think they’re spiritual and wise while they basically worship themselves.

    You’ll notice in all of these false religions that there is a common theme, namely that the divine, the “gods” end up being just a projection of human beings on a higher scale, just a more powerful version of ourselves.  The gods are made in man’s image in other words, or sometimes even in the image of animals and other created things.  St. Paul speaks of this in Romans 1, “Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man–and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.  Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves”–notice how idolatry and sexual immorality are connected–“(they) exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”  In the end this is what all idolatry is: serving creation--money, pleasure, family, sports--above the Creator.

    This is why we have Trinity Sunday, so that we can take a moment to get all of this right.  For it is only by God’s own revelation of Himself in His Word that we come to know the truth of who He is.  Apart from the Word, we can know that He exists and that He’s powerful; but sin so clouds our minds and hearts that we cannot know Him rightly; the truth is inevitably distorted and we are drawn into devilish deceit.  In fact Scripture specifically says that the worship of gods other than the Holy Trinity is worship offered to demons (1 Cor. 10:20).  null

    We believe in the God who is not simply a higher version of ourselves, not a stronger creature, but One who is beyond creation: God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things, visible and invisible, and in His Son Jesus Christ, our Lord, who for our salvation came down from heaven, was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man, and in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.  The one, true God is triune–one divine Being in three Divine Persons, Trinity in Unity; three distinct Persons, yet not many gods but only one God.  It’s not something you can fully explain–how could you ever expect to fully understand the almighty and eternal God?  You can only believe and confess His Word.

    You may try to picture the Trinity, but be careful.  No analogy really works completely.  Some compare the tri-unity of God to the three phases of water–solid ice, liquid water, gaseous steam.  Liquid, ice, and steam are three forms of one thing, water.  However, God exists as all three at once; He’s not the Father sometimes and the Son sometimes and the Holy Spirit sometimes, like water.  He’s all three all the time from all eternity, as at the baptism of Jesus, for instance.  The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit aren’t temporary modes or phases or roles of God.  They are three distinct, eternal persons in the one Godhead.

    Mathematics and geometry offer a little help.  The triangle has three distinct legs.  Take away any leg, and you no longer have a triangle.  The cube has three dimensions; lose any one dimension and you no longer have a cube.  But that still makes the persons of the Trinity only part of God rather than fully possessing the divine essence.  My favorite analogy is the simple equation: 1 x 1 x 1 = 1.  But at the end of the day, probably the best thing we can do is simply confess what the creeds say on the basis of Scripture and leave it at that.

    First of all, God reveals Himself as Father.  Now there are some who try to say that since God is incomprehensible, it doesn’t matter whether we refer to Him with masculine or feminine terms.  You can call Him “mother” if you want.  “After all, He’s not literally male,” they say.  To which we respond, “Um, actually, yes He is, in Christ Jesus, who is a literal male.”  But there’s something else, too.  We don’t call God Father because He’s like human fathers.  It’s the other way around.  Fatherhood on earth comes from the eternal Fatherhood of God.  As Father, God is the source of all things; He is the head, the provider, the protector, the One who is full of goodness and mercy.  When people try to apply “mother” language to God, inevitably feminine concepts like the cycles of the earth and the circle of life enter in, which again are really nothing other than paganism and the worship of creation rather than the Creator.

    No, we should only name God with the Triune Name He has given us.  He is the Father who begets the Son who sends the Spirit; and He is the Spirit who proclaims the Son who brings us to the Father.  If you think about it, we come to know the Trinity in reverse order like that: the Holy Spirit teaches us of Christ our Savior making us children of the heavenly Father.  In love for this dying world the Father sends His beloved Son into the world, conceived in our flesh by the Holy Spirit to restore us to life.

    Now I think it’s important for me to make a particular point about this here: not everyone who believes that there is only One God has the same God as we do unfortunately.  Our Jewish and Muslim neighbors are not worshipers of the Trinity, and therefore they have a different god.  They don’t even worship the Father.  Jesus was very clear about this when He said, “He who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me” (Luke 10:16).  Since Jesus is God, if someone does not worship Him as God, sadly they have a different and false god.

    But as today’s Gospel reading said, Jesus main purpose in coming into the world was not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.  And so the Son is lifted up, like the bronze serpent that Moses put on the pole to save the snake-bitten camp of Israel.  You recall how the Israelites grumbled against God because of their wanderings in the wilderness; they complained and moaned about the manna they were given to eat–just as we so often can be discontented with how God provides for us, wanting something different, something more.  But Jesus was lifted up with our sin on the cross, lifted up from the grave, lifted up to the right hand of the Father.  Looking in faith to this lifted up Jesus, who became sin for us, we become the righteousness of God and live in Him.

    Jesus on the cross is the antidote, the antiserum for the venom of sin and death.  The way antiserum is made is by exposing something to the poison, and when it survives you draw antiserum from it.  Jesus was willingly exposed to the poison of our sin in His death on the cross.  He drank in that poison, surviving and conquering it, rising from the dead to be the antidote of death itself.

    Think about that!  What if you had a vial that contained the cure for every disease known to man–AIDS, cancer, heart disease, paralysis.  There actually is such a thing.  It has a label on it that reads “Jesus Christ crucified for your sins and raised for your righteousness.”  And it’s all yours for free.  You don’t need approval from your primary care physician.  You don’t need health insurance.  It is all there for you for free in the word of absolution, in the water of your Baptism, in the bread that is Christ’s body and the wine that is His blood.  God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son Jesus to be the medicine of immortality, that whoever believes in Him by the working of the Holy Spirit will not perish but have everlasting life.  That’s the Trinitarian love of God for you.

    That Trinitarian love was given to each of you at the font (as it was this day for Madeline) by water and the Spirit.  That’s creation language there, when the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters in the beginning and brought life to the world.  That’s what the Holy Spirit is doing still today, bringing new creation and new life to fallen human beings through water and words.

    Jesus put it by saying that you must be born again.  Your first birth was a still birth, spiritually speaking.  All the sins that bug you, or that don’t bug you, those are the symptoms of your still birth.  You may have been a perfectly healthy baby, but you were born into the sin and death of your father Adam.  And you can’t fix it or reform yourself.  You must die and rise.  You must be born from again, from above, of water and the Spirit.  Your first birth made you a mortal child of Adam.  Your new birth in Jesus makes you an immortal child of God.  You are in Christ, and so you are a new creation.  The old is gone; the new has come.  Sin is past, righteousness and resurrection are yours.  You are a member of God’s family.  Jesus the Son invites you to pray with Him, “Our Father.”  And the Holy Spirit helps you in your weakness, making intercession for you with groanings too deep for words.  

    This is why we joyfully confess the doctrine of the Holy Trinity today.  For it is our very life; He is our very life.  This is why we hold tenaciously to Scriptural confessions of faith like the Athanasian Creed and reject anything that is contrary to it.  It’s not out of an arrogant intellectualism.  Rather, we know that this is the only true God who is love; this Jesus is the only one who is the way, the truth, and the life.  And no one comes to the Father except through Him.  Here’s the only medicine that can heal you.  All the others are just quacks.  Ultimately it is out of love for our neighbor that we reject all false religion, so that they may know and believe the saving truth of the Holy Trinity–the Father who reaches out to us fallen creatures in mercy, whose Son takes on our nature and bears our judgment and saves us, whose Holy Spirit delivers to us all the saving gifts of Christ in the preaching of the Gospel and the holy supper.  It’s all from the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit; and back again in the Spirit, through the Son, to the Father.  This is our God.  This is our Lord.  We desire no other.

    Blessed, then, be the Holy Trinity and the Undivided Unity: let us give glory to Him because he has shown mercy to us!  For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.

Your Good Intentions, God's Good Will

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Acts 1:1-11/John 15:26 - 16:4

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

    You know the saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”  We like to hold to this notion that if we intended to do the right thing, that somehow makes our sins and our failings less problematic and less horrific.  “Oh, he meant well.”  As if that makes any real difference.  Jesus shows the foolishness of this way of thinking in today’s Gospel when he says, “The time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service.”  Does is it really make it any better that someone is intending to do a good and holy work when they kill a disciple of Jesus?  Of course not!  In fact, in some ways that makes it worse.  So don’t comfort yourselves with the thought that you were trying to do something good when you sinned, or that your heart was in the right place, or some other nonsense.  That’s just another way of trying to justify yourself.  That is not the way of repentance.

    Jesus’ main focus here, though, is on how Christians are going to get treated.  He is warning his disciples that they are going to be sinned against with the best of intentions.  People will think that by casting them out of the synagogues and persecuting and even killing them, that they’re doing something God approves of, that they’re actually serving God by doing so.  People may actually intend to be doing something spiritual and good and holy, when all the while they’re opposing God.

 null   That’s what jihad is, something that is supposedly a holy killing, a holy war.  The terrorists kill in service to their false god.  They think this is what God wants, to blow up unbelievers, to behead and take the life of the infidel Christian who refuses to renounce Jesus as the Savior or to honor Muhammed.  We see this all too often, not only in things like the recent Manchester bombing, which was targeted against the general population, but especially in things like the killing of Coptic Christians in Egypt just a couple of days ago.  Dozens of followers of Jesus were specifically targeted because of their faith.  And unlike much of the day to day violence that we hear about, the terrorists think that what they’re doing will make the world a better place.  The Egyptian gunmen left Islamist leaflets among the dead bodies; some evangelism program!  They actually think that they’re serving God; but all their good intentions obviously don’t make their works any less horrific.

    Or closer to home, this is also what the so-called social justice warriors are trying to do to Christians more and more these days.  If you don’t fully support so-called “abortion rights” or gay “marriage” or transgenderism, if you refuse to use your bakery or your photography or your floral arranging skills to participate in a same-sex ceremony, thereby endorsing it as good and acceptable, if you make any sort of open statement that you think marriage is only between a man and a woman, well then you’re no better than a Ku Klux Klan racist.  You deserve to be shunned and driven out of business.  You yourself may not be killed, but your livelihood certainly can be killed.  Many of you who work within the realm of secular culture and government regulations know well the pressure to use politically correct talk or to remain silent about your Christian beliefs in order to avoid problems or a financial hit.  And the thing is, those people who would speak against traditional Christian morality may actually think that they’re doing something moral and good and loving.  They may well believe they’re serving God by enforcing their version of tolerance, which is ironic in itself.  But again, good intentions don’t make anything right.    

    Let us then apply the same standard to ourselves.  For the truth is, most of our sins are done with good intentions, too.  We have this idea that engaging in our own particular sins may actually be for the good, that it can be justified in our case, that it will make things better.  It will satisfy us or relieve us and it won’t really hurt anybody.  We give in to metaphors, like I’m just bursting to get this gossip out, or I’m just bursting with sexual desire and I need some outlet, or I’m just bursting with these angry feelings and I need to vent.  Well, we’re not steam kettles; we don’t need to vent.  We need to repent. (David Petersen)  The reality is that sin begets more sin.  When we give in to these things, it doesn’t alleviate our lust or our anger or our greed or our pride; it feeds it.  It leads us to justify our behavior.  It hardens our hearts.  All our good intentions only lead to hell.

    So let us repent; let us give up on trying to justify ourselves and instead look to Christ who alone can justify us and save us from hell and put us right again.   For this is precisely what the Ascension of our Lord is meant to teach us and give us.  Our justification before God is accomplished and complete in Him who sits at the right hand of the Father.  Though our good intentions fail us and fall short, the Lord’s good intentions toward us and His good will toward us does not fail.  It lifts us up to new and real life.  null

    First of all, the Ascension of Jesus teaches us that God the Father has accepted Christ’s sacrifice for our sins on the cross, no matter what our intentions may have been.  The Ascension means that Jesus accomplished the mission He was given.  It is written in Hebrews, “After He had provided purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.”  If Jesus had not been successful in doing what He had been sent to do, He would not have been welcomed home.  However, God the Father has honored His Son’s redeeming work and has received Him to His side.  And that shows that the blood of Jesus has truly cleansed you of all sin.  You really are fully forgiven and redeemed.  Jesus has covered it all for you.  The ungodly think they offer service to God by killing, but Jesus offers service to God the Father and to you by dying.  That is the true service of God, to love and to sacrifice oneself for the sake of another.  This Jesus has done for you to rescue and deliver you.

    And here’s where it gets even better still:  by receiving Jesus to His side, the Father also receives you to His side.  For you are in Christ; you are members of His body.  In welcoming Jesus, He has also welcomed and accepted you.  Think about that: God accepts you.  He accepts you because of Jesus.  God is for you in Christ.  And if God is for us, who can be against us?  You have God’s favor.  Jesus has ascended and is preparing a place for you at the Father’s side.  You are welcome in God’s own household.  

    And since you are baptized members of Christ’s body, in one sense you have already ascended to heaven. That’s how sure your salvation is.  It’s not just a future thing, it’s a present reality.  We sang it in the hymn, “He has raised our human nature on the clouds to God’s right hand.  There we sit in heavenly places, there with Him in glory stand.”  Ephesians 2 says, “Even when we were dead in trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ . . . and raised us up together and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”  So heaven is already yours.  You’re already there, because you are in Jesus.  Colossians 3 says, “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  Your eternal well-being is secure in the One at the Father’s right hand.

    Jesus’ ascension also means that He is praying and speaking for you with the heavenly Father right now.  It is written in Romans 8, “Christ Jesus, who died, more than that, who was raised to life, is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”  Whether it’s individually, or especially as we gather for divine service, Jesus is the One who is leading our prayers.  That’s one of the reasons why pastors wear robes, to cover ourselves up and to show that it’s actually Jesus who is the One leading us and serving as our Priest.  When we offer up our petitions, Jesus receives them and prays them and brings them to the Father on your behalf.  Jesus is the one and only Mediator between God and man; for He alone is both God and man.  God the Father hears and acts upon your prayers according to His wisdom and mercy because of His Son, your Brother, Jesus.  The next time you pray, think of that.  You are never praying alone, even when you’re by yourself.  Jesus is there with you as you pray in faith.  Since you are a child of God now together with Him, He prays the words “Our Father...” together with you.

    Remember: just because Jesus has ascended does not mean that He’s gone from us.  For He said to the apostles, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  Jesus is not absent.  He is simply hidden from our sight.  For it is written in Ephesians, Jesus “ascended far above all the heavens that He might fill all things” in heaven and on earth.  Jesus is not confined to one physical spot somewhere.  For since God is present everywhere, so also is His right hand where Jesus is seated.  So the ascension means that He who from the beginning filled all things as true God now also fills all things as true man.  Our Lord makes Himself specially present in the flesh for us, with His true body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins.  The Word and the Sacraments are the portal where heaven and earth come together and you can come into contact with the risen and ascended Jesus.  The right hand of God is here in this place.

    And finally, consider this Ascension truth:  in Jesus, Man is now sitting on the throne of God.  One of our guys, one of us, our true blood Brother is there.  We have a Friend in the highest of places.  He’s the One who is in charge.  So no matter what is happening in your life right now, it’s going to be OK in the end.  Jesus has got this.  Scripture promises that He is ruling over all things for the sake of His church, for you.  It is written in Romans 8, “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”   You are the called in Holy Baptism, who have been brought to love God because He first loved you.  In love He has told you in advance that things aren’t always going to be easy.  Christians are going to be persecuted just as our Lord was persecuted and suffered.  For even if the unbelieving world claims to worship God, it is not the true God.  Jesus said that they do not know the Father or Him.  So we will not be shocked or surprised when suffering comes.  We live in the sure confidence that as we share in Christ’s cross in this world, we will certainly also share in His bodily resurrection and His ascension glory in the life of the world to come.  The road to heaven has been paved for you by Christ.  In fact the road to heaven is Christ, who has walked the entire way for you.

    So then, brothers and sisters of Christ, set your minds on things above, where He is seated God’s right hand, and not merely the things of this world.  Rejoice in Jesus’ ascension.  For it is a great source of confidence and hope for you.  Jesus is Lord of all things.  He is Lord of your lives.  He is interceding for you and preparing a place for you.  And the Lord, who has begun His good work in you, will bring it to completion in the Day of His return.  The One who calls you is faithful, and He will do it.

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