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Rest for Your Souls

Matthew 11:25-30

 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
 
For all of the leisure time we have in our modern era, for all the hours we spend engaged with our various screens and technologies, it’s amazing how often people complain about being tired and worn out.  It may not only be a physical weariness of difficult or tedious work, but a mental exhaustion, too, information overload.  As the warm weather finally arrives, people are eager to get away from it all and take a trip or a vacation, decompress and recharge.  Of course, as enjoyable as a getaway can be, most people realize they need a vacation after their vacation before they will actually feel rested and refreshed.  We keep seeking after things that will de-stress and rejuvenate us and give us peace, but we never quite seem to get all the way there. 
 
In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about the rest that He gives to those who are tired and burdened.  He is not talking simply about outward, temporary relaxation bur rather inward, lasting restoration and peace, rest for your souls.  So today, we will be seeking first to identify what it is that makes our souls so weary, and then second, to discover where and how we may obtain this rest which Jesus is speaking about, the true rest which continues forever.
 
What is it that exhausts our souls?  For some it is very simply the stress of fulfilling their many responsibilities in life and all the things you have to deal with as a parent and a spouse and a worker and a volunteer and a caretaker.  The anxiety that comes from doing everything that needs to be done can cause more than just bodily tiredness, it can drain a person's spirit.  For others, it is struggling to live up to the expectations and social pressures of family members or friends that makes them inwardly worn out.  They never feel like they quite measure up.  For many, burdens of the soul can be caused by bodily troubles and sicknesses, which wear a person down mentally and can raise the nagging question, "Why is this happening to me?"  And for still others, spiritual weariness comes from the fact that they've been dragging around a load of guilt with them for years and sometimes even decades.  Some failure or something they deeply regret having done won't leave them alone but seems to hang on to them like a ball and chain.null
 
But in the most ultimate and truest sense, the thing that makes our souls "weary and burdened" is the all-encompassing demands laid on us by God's Law.  Now at first we might think that we can handle God's commands.  "Don't murder.  Don't steal.  Don't commit adultery.  Honor your parents.  Remember the Sabbath Day."  Those aren't always easy, but with a little effort we can usually pull that weight.  But then we learn that there's more to it than that.  "Don't murder" also means that we should help our neighbor in all his physical needs, even to the point of loving our enemies.  "Don't commit adultery" also means that we should constantly honor and love our spouse.  "Don't steal" also means that we should help others to improve and protect their possessions.  That’s a lot heavier load.  And then we discover that we can also break God's commandments in our hearts.  Lust is adultery.  Anger is murder.  Greed is stealing.  Now, it takes all of our might just to drag that burden an inch.  And that's not even the end of it.  We're stopped dead in our tracks, drained of all our strength when God says in His Word, "Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven."  And, "You, therefore, must be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect."
 
God's Law is like a gigantic boulder to which we are chained.  And He says, "Pull it!  If you want to get to heaven on your own steam, you must drag it all the way there."  And not one of us can.  Our fallenness burdens our conscience and makes life an exhausting spiritual struggle. 
 
So where do we find rest?  The kind of rest we are speaking about is not to be found in a vacation trip or a six-pack or in any other earthly pleasure.  No, in the Gospel Jesus tells us where real, lasting rest is to be found by saying, "Come to Me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest."  Notice the gift language there.  No purchase necessary.  “I will give you rest.” To those who are weighed down by the burden of anxiety or stress, Jesus says, "Here, let me carry it."  To those who've been dragging around a load of guilt Jesus says, "Here, let me pull it."  To those who've been worn down and worn out by the demands of God's Law Jesus says, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls."
 
A yoke, of course, is a wooden bar or frame by which two draft animals, like horses or oxen, are joined together for plowing.  So it might seem a bit odd at first that Jesus would invite us to come to Him for rest and then say, "Take my yoke upon you," as if it was not rest He was offering but hard labor.  However, that is clearly not Jesus' intent.  What He is saying rather is, "Stop your exhausting and futile efforts to pull that load alone.  Hook up with me; let me do it."
 
One of the parts of a yoke is a piece called an evener.  This evener can be adjusted so that the stronger of the two animals pulls the heaviest portion of the load.  Well, in our case, the evener is adjusted all the way so that we pull the whole load through Christ and by His strength alone.  For only He has the power to move it.  Only He has the power to fulfill the Law of God and to overcome sin.  We are yoked together with Christ by faith, so that His work counts as our own.  He does all the pulling and we get all the credit.  By His grace Christ joins Himself to us in such a way that His righteousness is our righteousness before God the Father.  Jesus bears the yoke of the cross, and so do we.  But He bears the full burden of it; He’s the One carrying the load.  Christ walks beside us day by day in this world and dwells in us by His holy words and sacraments, that He may live His life through us, a life of faith and love that is well-pleasing to the heavenly Father.
 
You see, Jesus' purpose in coming to this earth was to do for us what we had to do but could not do.  Having taken on Himself our human nature, He, the Son of God, began to live a holy life for us.  He overcame temptation.  He loved and gave of Himself for others.  He fulfilled all the requirements of God's Law.  And then He submitted Himself to a cruel and torturous death in our place in obedience to His heavenly Father.  He dragged the weight of the entire world's sin up the Mount of Calvary.  There He was crucified.  Our sins were paid for that day, nevermore to accuse us, nevermore to burden our souls.  Jesus became weak so that we would be made strong.  He became weary to the point of death so that we would have rest and life.  And now that He has conquered death by His glorious resurrection from the grave, we are made certain that this rest He gives is real and this life He bestows is everlasting.
 
Jesus' invitation to each of you today, then, is to renew your faith in Him, the faith by which you are yoked together with Him.  For when He says, "Come to me," and "Take my yoke upon you," that is the same as His saying, "Believe in me.  Place your confidence in what I've done to save you.  Let your heart take refuge in Me.  Trust in me to help pull you through the struggles of this life."  You were yoked together with Christ already in your baptism, where He said to you, "I have called you by name; you are mine.  I will never leave you or forsake you."  Jesus is walking with you even today, every step of the way, through the high points and the low points, through the good and the bad, so that regardless of your circumstances, you may have His restfulness and His peace in your souls, that peace which passes all understanding.  Christ gives you rest along the way by speaking into your ears His comforting words of absolution.  And He offers you refreshment by placing into your mouths His holy body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins, to strengthen you with His real presence, His very life.  
 
That is why the day of the divine service is rightly called the Sabbath Day, the day of rest.  For it is especially in the liturgy that Christ gives you true spiritual rest and recreation.  It is here that the Holy Spirit uses His instruments of life to re-create you and renew you in the image of Christ.  Our Lord will finally lead you from here to the eternal re-creation–the new creation–and to the unending rest and peace and joy which is being prepared for you in heaven.
 
Of course, to the world, this may all seem foolish, even childish.  But remember what Jesus said, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babies. Even so, Father, for so it seemed good in Your sight.”  The so-called smart people of this world keep searching for rest in places it cannot be truly found–in the idols of things and people and false spirituality.  Only those who are weak and lowly find real rest in Christ, for He is the One who is gentle and lowly in heart, who comforts the afflicted, who declares sinners to be righteous, who gives rest to the weary and life to the dead.  
 
To conclude, Revelation 14 speaks of heaven and hell in terms of rest.  Of unbelievers, it says this:  "The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; and they have no rest, day or night."  But of believers, yoked together with Christ, it says this:  "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from henceforth.  Blessed indeed, says the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors."
 
God grant, then, that you who are weary will heed Jesus' invitation and come to Him with trusting hearts.  For He gives you the rest of your life–both in this world and in the one to come.
 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Have No Fear, Little Flock

John 10: 11-18, 27-30

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

    “They’re all just a bunch of sheep.”  You’ve heard people use that phrase before.  It’s not meant to be a compliment.  It carries with it the idea of blind allegiance and ignorant loyalty to a person or a cause or an institution.  And I suppose that’s how the world often thinks of Christians and the church–that we’re all just a bunch of people mindlessly holding to the faith, not thinking for ourselves, following a Messiah with some foolish herd mentality.  

    Jesus does refer to you as His sheep, but of course not in the way the world does.  It’s actually quite a good thing in the end that you’re a bunch of sheep in His flock.  What are we to learn from this image that God uses throughout the Scriptures?  There are several points of comparison, but the main point is our total spiritual helplessness and therefore our complete dependence on Christ our Shepherd.  Sheep are not particularly well-suited for survival when left to themselves.  They can’t run fast to flee from a predator. They have no powerful jaws or claws to fight off an attacker.  They’re basically an easy meal for whatever bear or wolf might want to ravage the flock.

    And that’s how it is with us.  The devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.  The grave opens its jaws wide and lunges at us to drag us to the depths.  And sin, like a beast from within, constantly tries to fight its way out and gain dominance in our lives.  And were we left to our own devices, those spiritual enemies would easily win the day and destroy us and leave our bones for the scavenging vultures.  And all the more so because of what the Scriptures say, “We all like sheep have gone astray; each of us has turned to his own way.”  We’ve seen those TV shows featuring the harsh realities of nature and what happens to animals that stray from the herd out in the wild.  That’s exactly how it is with us who stray from God, thinking we can live independently from Him, doing things our own way, according to our own rules.  We wander from the flock.  Little do we realize that in our pride we’re entirely defenseless.  And the predator attacks, and the jugular is pierced, and the evil one would drag our carcass away.  null

    But today’s Gospel is not primarily about the sheep but about the Shepherd.  He is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep, even the foolish, sinful sheep who stray.  Jesus is a Good Shepherd in the way of David before Him.  You may remember when David was applying before King Saul for the job of taking on the Philistine warrior Goliath, the number one thing David put on his resumé was his experience as a shepherd:

    David said to Saul, “Your servant used to keep his father’s sheep, and when a lion or a bear came and took a lamb out of the flock, I went out after it and struck it, and delivered the lamb from its mouth; and when it arose against me, I caught it by its beard, and struck and killed it. Your servant has killed both lion and bear; and this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, seeing he has defied the armies of the living God.” Moreover David said, “The LORD, who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, He will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” And Saul said to David, “Go, and the LORD be with you!” [1 Sam. 17.34-37]

    Jesus, the Son of David, protects us sheep from sin and death and the Goliath Satan by facing them head on for us.  He stands in between us and the predators to shield and shelter us.  He opens up His own body to their slashing and onslaughts to take them down and keep us safe.  

    In this way Jesus is not like a hireling.  The hireling runs away from the fight because he doesn’t truly care about the sheep.  He’s just there to earn a buck.  He doesn’t own the sheep.  It’s not his loss if the flock is scattered a bit.  At the end of the day, he’s going to save his own skin.  But Jesus truly cares about you.  He’s not using you for His own ends, just to dump you somewhere down the line.  You belong to Him.  He wants to have you with Himself for all eternity.  And so He defends you as His own treasured possession.  He puts His own life on the line for you, even to the point of the cross.   Like David, He grabs hold of sin and death by the scruff of the neck, and He drags those predators down into the pit.  They kill Him, and then suppose that with the Shepherd dead, the sheep would be theirs. But in attacking Him, they walked into a trap.  It was beyond their comprehension that the Shepherd could live again, arising from the dead and leaving them behind, crushed and defeated in the pit forever.  They bit into a man and found God.  Seizing their Victim, they themselves became the prey.  As David beat back the lion and the bear with his knife and club, so great David’s greater Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, has turned the wood of the cross into a mighty weapon by which those wolves that threatened us, Satan and death, are slain and crushed.

    Always remember, then, that Jesus alone is your Good Shepherd, your Good Pastor and Bishop.  For He alone is the One to whom you belong as His flock.  As the Epistle said, “For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.”  All of us who bear the title of “pastor” are simply undershepherds of the Chief Shepherd who laid down His life for the sheep.  All trust is to be placed in Him alone.  For in every undershepherd there is a hireling called the old Adam, the sinful nature.  No sure source of confidence there, whether it's your local pastor or the Pope himself.  Our only confidence is in Christ to whom the sheep belong.

    And notice how it is that we know Jesus: through His Word.  Sheep don’t have particularly good vision, but they do have good hearing.  Jesus said, “My sheep listen to My voice and they follow Me.”  Usually when we think of herders dealing with animals, we have in mind something like ranchers who drive their animals and push them to go where they want them to go from behind, forcing them to stay in a tight bunch–lots of yelling and dogs barking and that sort of thing. But here Jesus says, “My sheep follow Me.” Jesus is out in front. The sheep stay together and follow because they recognize His voice, His voice of mercy and forgiveness in the Gospel. There’s no force and coercion involved here, but the gentle invitation of Jesus’ Word. Do you see the difference? We’re not just nameless cattle to our Lord. We are beloved sheep whom He calls each by name. Jesus says, “I know My sheep; and My sheep know Me.” You follow Him, for you love and trust in Him. You stake your life on Him. For You know His voice and you listen to it; it’s unlike any other out there in the world. Your ears perk up at the sound of it. Even though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, you fear no evil; for He is with you. Even if you can’t see Him, if you can hear Him, you know it will be alright; you know it’s safe. You’re in His care. He restores your soul. He leads you beside still and gentle waters to drink of His Spirit in the Word and in Holy Baptism. He prepares a table before you in the presence of your enemies, the Holy Sacrament of the Altar, which draws us into communion with Himself and with His Father; for Jesus and the Father are one. It is for all of these reasons and more that Jesus is the Good Shepherd. It is for all of these reasons and more that we follow Him.

    We dare not forget, of course, that following Him means that we are given to live as He lived, too, in this world. We heard about this in the Epistle, that Christ left us an example, that you should follow in His steps. Being a sheep of the Good Shepherd’s flock means living a different kind of life, walking the path of the cross. When Jesus suffered, He did not threaten but forgave. So also, it is not for you to seek revenge on your enemies but to do them good. When Jesus was reviled and mocked, He did not revile in return. So also, it is not for you to return evil for evil, but to pray for those who make life difficult for you. As Jesus did, so you also, commit yourselves to God the Father who judges justly. Trust that all these matters are in His righteous hands.

    For we heard in the Old Testament reading that Jesus Himself will come for the weak and the injured and the broken and the sick.  You can probably find yourself somewhere in that group.  None of us is untouched by bodily weakness, or damaged psyches, or challenging family situations, or disappointments or  overwhelming obligations, or nagging addictions and compulsions and lusts.  You are not alone.  All we like sheep have gone astray and are weak, wounded, damaged and frail.  But Jesus says, “I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out and gather them and feed them in rich pasture.   I will bring back what was driven away, bind up the broken and strengthen the sick.”  “By His wounds we are healed.”

    And finally don’t forget that the way our Good Shepherd saved us sheep was by becoming one of us, the Lamb who was slain.  It is written in Revelation 7, “The Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters. . .  They shall neither hunger any more nor thirst any more . . .  And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”  

    So let me say it again:  You’re all a bunch of sheep.  But in this case that’s a good and wonderful thing.  Because you’re the sheep of Christ, the Good Shepherd, who listen to His voice and who follow Him to the eternal life that He alone gives.  His promise stands sure:  nothing, nothing at all can snatch you out of His good and merciful hands.

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

I'm Not Spiritual, I'm Religious

Easter 1
John 20:19-31 (Ezek 37:1-14, 1 John 5:4-10)
 
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit
 
It’s become a very fashionable cliche’ for people to say nowadays, “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual.”  It’s a way of talking that seems open-minded and non-rigid while still embracing the idea of faith and the divine.  But in truth, I think what is often meant is, “I want to deal with God on my own terms and in my own way, and so I’ll treat my faith like a buffet line at a cafeteria, and take only what I want and what appeals to me.”  St. Augustine once said, “If you believe what you like in the Gospel and reject what you don’t, it’s not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.”  All of this is in the same category as those who say they don’t believe in organized religion.  While it’s true that religious institutions populated with fallen human beings are often going to be a mess, the rejection of any sort of organized religion is in actuality a rejection of any sort of tangible, concrete, real world, real life faith that involves real people.  In the end it’s a rejection of Christianity which is all about God in the flesh.  It’s an incarnate faith in the One who came to redeem human beings and all creation through His bodily death and bodily resurrection.  That’s not just some free-floating spirituality; that’s real doctrine, real people, real, organized, congregation-type religion. 
 
What our sinful nature wants is a generic, easily managed belief system of self-fulfillment.  We like being “spiritual” because it sounds pious, but in fact, being “spiritual” often means taking the body out of the equation in favor of some sort of divine energy within.  The sinful nature loves this because then you can claim to have faith while your bodily life is involved in unfaithfulness: gluttony or overdrinking with the mouth, lusting after others or viewing pornography with the eyes, taking part in ungodly gossip or crude joking with the mouth and ears, physical laziness in carrying out your real-world, organized, ordinary vocations that serve the neighbor. 
 
It’s no coincidence, then, that our “spiritual, but not religious” culture grows more and more sexually immoral, as if one’s bodily behavior or one’s created gender is disconnected from one’s faith in the God who Himself made our bodies.  A purely spiritual faith doesn’t necessarily concern itself with chastity, or for that matter with visiting “orphans and widows in their affliction” and keeping oneself “unstained from the world” as James 1:27 describes it.  But in fact St. James calls the doing of those things “religion that is pure and undefiled before God.”  
 
Focusing only on the soul and “being spiritual” is to miss the whole point of what the human spirit was created to do: namely, to animate one particular human body, to dwell in human flesh, to live in the perfect glory that God meant for us when He made man and breathed life into his physical body.  There are those who think that the ultimate spiritual occurrence would be to have an out of body experience.  But there is actually a term for an out of body experience, the separation of the spirit from the body–it’s called “death.”  And the Bible refers to that as a curse, and our enemy.
 
To be truly alive is to be like Jesus after the resurrection.  For on that first Easter evening, the disciples were locked in a room in fear.  And who came to visit them?  Not a ghost. Not a spirit.  Not an idea in their heads or feelings in their hearts.  Rather it was Jesus, the incarnate God, the bodily resurrected Son, who came to them. He did not come bearing a socially-acceptable, safe, and self-serving spirituality. Rather He came bearing His body, standing in the flesh among them, and He said to them: “Peace be with you.”null
 
This is exactly what they needed to hear out loud in the midst of their fears and guilt and uncertainty about the future as they huddled behind locked doors.  And it’s exactly what we need to hear, too.  Jesus is saying, “Do not be afraid; I took away all your sins and failures in my death on the cross.  I have conquered the grave for you; it has no power over you any longer.  I have reconciled you to the Father.  All is well.  Let not your hearts be troubled.  Peace be with you.”
 
This peace of God comes bodily. It is not an abstract idea, but a fleshly reality in Jesus, the Prince of Peace and the Source of Peace.  Having given the apostles this gift, Jesus goes on to give them the Holy Spirit and the authority to forgive sins: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.” And even here, the Spirit is not given to the apostles spiritually, but rather bodily. For notice how it says that the Lord “breathed on them.” He ordained them in this physical way, just as Jesus touched the sick and sinners to heal and release them.  The apostles would later pass on this authority to forgive sins to other men, not through silent prayer, not through mystical divine energy rituals, but through the physical laying on of hands with the words of God.
 
Here’s another way of putting it and thinking about it:  Jesus did not come to make the world more spiritual, but rather to restore and renew and glorify its tangible, concrete createdness.  In a very real sense our bodies right now are only shadows of what they were created to be.  The way the Bible speaks of it, what we look forward to as Christians is not so much us going to some spiritual existence in heaven, but heaven coming to earth, God coming to dwell with His resurrected people in a renewed creation freed from the curse.
 
So when St. Thomas the doubter was present the next Sunday, our Lord Jesus did not offer Him a mystical vision, positive energy, or an aura: rather He offered St. Thomas His very fleshly body, and His wounds, given physically for him to see and touch. Thomas did not look within for a spiritual experience with his eyes closed, but rather stuck his finger into the Lord’s hand and side. And Thomas confessed: “My Lord and my God!” He did not believe in Jesus the ghost or Jesus the literary character. He believed in Jesus: the Son of God, the Son of Man, who took flesh in order to die, who died in order to rise, who rose in order that we too might rise, and do so bodily.
 
There was another son of man from we heard about in the OT reading who had an encounter in the Spirit of the Lord that was anything but a “spiritual” experience. For Ezekiel saw a field of bones. And when the prophet preached the Word to these bones, the breath, that is, the spirit, entered them. But the result was not spiritual, but physical: “I will lay sinews upon you,” says the Lord, “and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live…. And there was a rattling and the bones came together.” And then came sinews and flesh and skin. And when the breath, that is, the spirit entered the flesh, the flesh came to life: “an exceedingly great army.”  The Lord did not speak through Ezekiel promising a vague spirituality, but something starkly physical: “Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves…. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you from your graves, O My people. And I will put My Spirit within you, and you shall live.” (Ezekiel 37)
 
How remarkable this Word is, this promise fulfilled before the doubting eyes of Thomas, whose hands touched the reality, whose eyes saw physically.  Thomas himself would go on to baptize, preach, and administer Holy Communion in the flesh until his dying day.
 
Anyone who would try to “spiritualize” Jesus is attempting to tame Him, control Him, and reduce Him to a moralizing, milquetoast guru, instead of submitting to the Almighty One who conquered death by dying, and who physically rose from the tomb so that we too might rise.
So let me say it once more:  Christianity is not about generic spirituality, but about Jesus: His body and His blood, the water that flowed from His side, and the touch of His nail-scarred, forgiving hands. This is very Good News for you, and part of the good news is that you experience this Gospel physically, through your bodily senses–from your Holy Baptism which you experienced in the flesh through feeling the water and the sound waves of the words; from the preached Law and Gospel and Holy Absolution, receiving by faith that which comes by hearing with your ears; and from Holy Communion, the flesh and blood of Jesus eaten with the mouth by flesh and blood sinners, for forgiveness, life, and salvation.
 
“For everyone,” says John in the epistle, “who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? This is He who came by water and blood – Jesus Christ.”
 
Fellow believers, fellow religious Christians, our Lord does not compare us to phantoms that run on positive thoughts, but rather to “newborn babies” who “desire the pure milk of the Word.” For Jesus is risen from the dead, and He stood on His feet in the midst of the disciples and said with His mouth words that ring true still today, “Peace be with you.”   This is how we now can confess with our mouths: “I believe in… the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”  For Jesus has come in the flesh to join us to Himself and to make us to be members of His risen body.  May we all confess the same thing about this incarnate One that Thomas did, “My Lord and my God!”
 
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit
 
 (With thanks to the Rev. Larry Beane for much of the above.)

4 Brief Meditations on the St. John Passion

John 18:1-27

    The contrast between Peter and Jesus couldn’t be more stark.  Peter had talked big about his faithfulness and devotion to Jesus.  He had flailed around with his sword in the garden, as if he were Jesus’ personal bodyguard.  But now he is suddenly a coward.  Now that Jesus is captured, he is fearful even of a little servant girl suggesting that he is Jesus’ disciple.  Peter is afraid of what might happen to him.  He is afraid to suffer.

    And so are we.  We’re in love with the idea of faithfulness. We look up to the martyrs of the church and believe that we too would rather die than deny Jesus.  But we deny Him in so many little ways, when we fail to speak or act because that might associate us with Jesus in a negative light.  We’re afraid of what might happen to our reputation or our income or our life if we’re stereotyped as one of “those” Christians.  We don’t want to suffer for the name of Jesus.  null

    But Jesus is most willing to suffer for us.  He doesn’t hide from those who come to arrest him.  Rather, Jesus goes forth boldly to meet His captors, fully prepared to drink the cup of judgment given Him by His Father.  Jesus is not like Adam, who hid among the trees in fear.  In this garden Jesus meets his enemies head on, so that we who are the children of Adam may go free.  For this man Jesus is the great I AM, the eternal God revealed in the burning bush to Moses.  His name causes His enemies to draw back and fall to the ground.  For all who do not call on His name in faith will fall to their own destruction.

    Peter would later not deny but confess the name of Jesus boldly on Pentecost with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  In the end Peter would die courageously for the name of Christ.  God grant us His Holy Spirit that we too may confess the name of Jesus with full confidence in Him.  Let us take to heart Jesus’ words, “Be faithful even unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

John 18:28-40

    The Jewish leaders do not want to enter Pilate’s Praetorium, especially during this time of the Passover, lest they be defiled by being in a Gentile building.  But they are already defiled within by their sinful motives and desires.  So also, we are all too often concerned about outward righteousness and appearances, when the Lord looks at the heart and desires the inward righteousness of faith.  To be undefiled is to confess your sins for what they are and to trust in Him who is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleannullse us from all unrighteousness.  

    Jesus stands before Pilate.  Pilate received His authority from God.  And now God in the flesh humbles Himself to be placed under this authority.  The Judge of all men is being judged by a man.  Judgment should be based on truth, but the only thing Pilate can say is “What is truth?”  All fallen human beings are liars, the Psalm says.  But Jesus is Himself the truth.  He is reality.  He is the way things are, the truth of God’s mercy shown to those who have not deserved it.

    Pilate finds Jesus innocent, no fault in Him at all.  But the crowds don’t want Jesus, they want Barabbas.  The violent robber goes free so that Jesus might rob us of our sin by being violently executed.  The one who took life lives; the One who gives life dies.  This is God’s good and gracious will, that Christ should die in the place of sinners.  Jesus goes to death in our place, so that we might live forever in His place, in His kingdom, which is not of this world.  Pilate’s plan to release Jesus fails.  The Passover Lamb will be sacrificed by the Father to take away the sin of the world.

John 19:1-22

    People will sometimes blame their failings on the fact that “they’re only human.”  However, the problem since the fall of Adam is not that we are human but that we are less than human.  Our sin has dehumanized us, turning us in on ourselves rather than outward in love toward God and others.  Beastly thoughts and words and actions often proceed from us.  Survival instincts dominate. So it is written, “Man is like the beasts that perish” (Psalm 49:12).  

    And we don’t like anyone drawing this to our attention, either.  Better if they can be ignored or shut up.  This is the behavior of those who are less than men.  It is the behavior of the chief priests and the officers when they see Jesus.  He is a threat to their territory and domain.  And so they growl  for His crucifixion.  null

    But before they can cry out their desires, Pontius Pilate speaks words that were more true than he realized.  He presents a bloodied and beaten Jesus and says, “Behold the Man!”  Here is the One who is truly and fully human, who is not degraded and corrupted by His own sin.  Here is the only real Man, who lays down His life for fallen creatures like you to raise you up as the people of God, His own beloved bride, His Church.  He willingly allows Himself to be treated inhumanely to rescue you, to restore your humanity, to give you to share in His life and His glory.  By His wounds you are healed and forgiven.

    Behold the One who wears thorns on His head as a crown, to redeem you from the curse on the ground which you were created out of.  Behold the Ram whose horns are caught in the thorny thicket of sin, who is offered up in the place of you Isaacs as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Behold the woman’s Seed who is crucified at Golgotha, the place of a Skull, whose cross is driven like Jael’s tent peg into the skull, whose pierced feet crush Satan’s head and defeat the power of death.

    This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.  The chief priests don’t like this inscription that Pilate placed over Jesus’ head, and they ask him to change it.  But the earthly authority whom God has established proclaims the truth.  “What I have written, I have written.”  Jesus truly is the King of the Jews, that is, the King of all those who are the true children of Abraham.  He reigns in mercy over His baptized ones, over all you who believe in His promises, and who are credited with His righteousness by grace alone.

John 19:23-42

    It is Friday, the sixth day of the week.  It is the day not only of man’s creation in the beginning, but now also of His redemption and re-creation.  For here is the new Adam who is put into the deep sleep of death, that the new Eve might be created from His side.  The sacramental water and blood that flow from His pierced heart are most certainly what gives the church her life.  “We are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones” (Ephesians 5:30).

    The new Adam bears the shame and the nakedness of our sin, which the fig leaves of our denial and excuses cannot hide.  Jesus is exposed and laid bare on the tree of the cross.  As the first Adam and Eve were clothed with the skins of sacrificed animals, so we who are tnullheir children are covered with the seamless garment of Christ, as it is written, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27).  His bloody death covers our shame and atones for our sin.  

    In the sweat of His face, Jesus cries out “I thirst!”  He who is the fountain of life is parched like the dusty ground.  His tongue sticks to the roof of His mouth (Psalm 22:15).  He is given sour wine, vinegar for His thirst (Psalm 69:21).  Our Lord endures this scornful gesture that we might hunger and thirst for His righteousness and drink deeply of the Living Water that He gives and so be honored with Him in His resurrection.

    Jesus is buried in a garden, an indication of the greater Eden to come.  For in Christ paradise is restored and all creation is made new.  The work has now been completed.  “It is finished,” Jesus said.  The Sabbath is at hand.  “And God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.”  “And God saw everything that He had made, and indeed, it was very good.”

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

Not a Bread King, the Bread of Life

Lent 4
 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
 
Today’s Gospel concludes by saying that the people tried to take Jesus by force to make Him king.  They had finally found the leader they were looking for from among all candidates that were out there.  Politics and theology were running close together in the people’s minds.  Jesus had developed quite a following through His teaching and His healing.  Now, by feeding the 5000 in this miraculous way, Jesus was the instant frontrunner to lead the people.  While some seemed to understand who Jesus really was when they said, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world,”–referring to the Messiah Moses had prophesied–most seemed to be more interested in the power and the miracles.  They followed Jesus not for salvation, not for forgiveness of their sins, not for reconciliation with God, but rather for free food and health care.  Here’s a guy who could really help my economic circumstances, and my medical needs, and maybe do something about those foreign Roman occupiers, too.  This is about as close as they could get to an election.  The people had spoken.
 
Now at this point, Jesus would be the envy of every politician running for office.  His poll numbers were strong, and He had proven he could deliver on his promises.  Church politicians would be thrilled with Jesus, too.  Jesus really seems to have hit upon a successful evangelism program; just look at the crowds!  (Of course, by the end of this chapter, after Jesus had talked about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, He went from having thousands of followers to only a dozen.  But that’s another sermon.)null
 
Just because the majority speaks, it doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily right–whether it’s the 99% or the 51%.  The notion of a democratic republic wasn’t handed down from heaven as the way to run states or countries.  To paraphrase Winston Churchill, democracy is a lousy form of government; it just happens to be the best one available in this fallen world, since power (which inevitably corrupts) supposedly doesn’t get concentrated in the hands of a few.  But majority votes are sometimes not too far from mob rule, as we are seeing in North Africa and the Middle East, where majority rule has meant the persecution of Christians; or in this country where majority votes have meant the normalization of sexual perversity.  So also with the majority in today’s Gospel–other agendas were at work that didn’t belong to Jesus, political agendas that weren’t the Father’s design for His Messiah king. 
 
That’s why Jesus goes to the mountain all alone and shuns the voice of the people.  For Jesus understands that while presidents and prime ministers are elected by the people, kings are not.  The king is who he is by virtue of his birth, by virtue of his person–regardless of the voice of the people.  
 
There is a temptation offered here to Jesus that is not unlike what the devil had offered earlier when he took Jesus up on the mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  “All these I will give you,” the devil said.  But to attain such glory would require a deal with the devil, which our Lord Jesus would never do.  His kingdom is not of this world, it is from above.  And His kingship is not subject to the will of the people but the will of the Father.
 
Jesus was all alone on the mountain, which is the way I’m sure Moses felt in the Old Testament reading as the people grumbled against him.  When they were in Egypt, they groaned against their yoke of slavery.  And once liberated, they groaned against the burden of freedom.  And this is right after God saved the children of Israel by opening the Red Sea to them as an evacuation route, and drowning the army of their enemy.  With very short memories, they now tell Moses they would rather be back in Egypt–note just how fickle public opinion can be!  If the Israelites could vote, Moses would surely have been recalled. 
 
And yet, God does not oust Moses.  The Lord alone is the deciding vote.  He gives the people that which they don’t deserve; in spite of themselves He rains bread from heaven upon them, manna, literally giving them their “daily bread.”  Of course, the children of Israel would later complain even against this generosity of God.  They wished they had more variety in their free meals and not the same old manna every day.
 
Likewise in the Gospel, our Lord Jesus provides miraculous bread for the 5000, even for these people who did not have in mind the things of God but the things of men.  For God gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people.  He send rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous, that we may learn to receive His undeserved gifts with thanksgiving.  
 
And again notice here how this calls to mind the wilderness temptation of Jesus.  Back then, Jesus would not turn the stones into bread to feed Himself, in faithfulness to His heavenly Father.  But now, perhaps very near the same spot where He had earlier been tempted, Jesus does use His power to produce bread, not for Himself but for others in their need.  Jesus is focused not on Himself but on others in the way of love.
 
And this is where we often fall short.  We must confess that we get turned in on ourselves and have sometimes grumbled and complained against God for the way He’s provided for us or hasn’t come through for us as we wanted.  We want God to fit our agenda, and when He doesn’t, we become disappointed or upset.  Too often we let the voice of the majority affect our desires more than the voice of Jesus, the only divine voice of His Word.  It’s the opinion of our peers that drives us, a desire to fit in and keep up with the world, to have the approval of those who are considered important.  We are by nature people pleasers rather than God pleasers.  For this we must repent. 
 
And so must the church at large, which is constantly facing the temptation of watering down its confession and practices to make itself more amenable to the world–with market driven megachurches and success driven preachers.  We must ever be reminded that Jesus is Lord, not public opinion or financial pressures or human votes.
 
And we must also be reminded that God is still at work in the midst of all these things, turning even evil for the good.  Even the rebel will of the majority becomes an instrument of the will of God, both for judging and for saving.  Sometimes the worst judgment that can befall a people or a country is for the majority to get its way and suffer by its own doing.  And our salvation also came through the rebel will of the majority.  You recall that when Pontius Pilate placed Jesus and Barabbas before the people, and asked them which one they wanted him to release, there was something of an election.  They shouted for Barabbas to be released and for Jesus to be crucified.  And the murderer was set free while the Lord of life was sentenced to death.  Though this was a grave injustice humanly speaking, yet it was precisely how divine justice would be carried out.  For Jesus had come to take the place of us sinners, to bear the judgment for sins He did not commit, so that we would be forgiven.  And so the voice of the majority was indeed the voice of God the Father Himself, speaking through the people saying, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”  It was the will of God that His Son die for the people in spite of themselves.  Because of that sacrificial love of God, we Barabbases are released from sin and death.  We are now children of God in Him who is the Son of God.
 
When politics and theology become indistinguishable, people die.  In the Gospel, the people were going to take Jesus by force to make Him king.  And in the end the crowds did just that when they forced Him to the throne of the cross, where He was crowned with thorns.  That is where Jesus is lifted up and exalted in all His royal love for us.  It is from the cross that we hear the true voice of God which trumps all other voices:  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”  
 
Jesus said in John 6, “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die.  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.”  Jesus is our Manna, given over to the cross for the life of the world, given out to you in Sacrament of the Altar.  
 
Thanks be to God for this, that our Lord does not give in to the mobs to become an earthly king.  For His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom to which you belong in baptism.  Jesus is more than a bread King; He is your Redeemer King, the very Bread of Life Himself.  Thanks be to God that His mercy overcomes our sin.  For in spite of our grumbling, our Lord also gives us that which we don’t deserve.  Not only does He give us our daily bread and the things we need to support this body and life, He also gives us the bread of immortality, His own flesh and blood.  Again, Jesus said later in John 6, “I am the Bread of Life.  He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst. . .  Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”  We have our own greater miracle from Christ right here in divine service: the Bread which is His body multiplying His forgiveness to you so abundantly that it never runs out.  Those who eat here are filled and satisfied with the goodness and mercy of the Lord.
 
Let us, then, come continually to where we may truly hear the voice of God–not in majority votes, but in Christ’s Word, in His sacraments, in His preached Gospel.  Let us gladly hear and learn the words of Jesus, for they are the words of eternal life.
 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
 
(Some of the above was adapted from a sermon by the Rev. Larry Beane.)

Spirits, Demons, and Jesus the Stronger Man

Lent 3
 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
 
C.S. Lewis once observed that when it comes to the Devil, there are two mistakes we can make.  One is thinking too much of him, and the other is not thinking enough about him.  Some people conceive of the devil almost as being equal with God, when in fact he is merely a fallen angel, very powerful and utterly evil to be sure, but a creature nonetheless.  People become terribly frightened of the devil and forget that his rebellion has been crushed under the heel of Jesus, who died and rose again in victory over him.  However, others don’t give the devil any thought at all.  They think of Satan as the stuff of fairy tales, at best a figure who is only symbolic of evil, but not a literal being.  They forget that the devil’s goal now is to lure people away from the safe refuge of Christ Jesus; and if Satan can do that by making people think of him as nothing real, just a Halloween caricature, all the better.
 
But I would add that there’s a third mistake we can make which, in a way, combines these first two mistakes.  And it’s something even many Christians do.  We know as believers that there’s more going on than what the eye can see, that there is a spiritual realm beyond the simple grasp of our five senses.  But too often, instead of listening to God’s Word on this subject, we embrace all sorts of superstitious beliefs that also have the effect of doing the devil’s work.  And in particular what I’m talking about here is our pop culture’s belief in ghosts and spirits.  Whether it’s a belief that loved ones who have died are still roaming the earth and interacting with us in our lives, or whether it’s something more sinister and spooky, like spirits of the dead haunting buildings, far too many Christians are open to this false belief rather than hearing and holding to God’s Word.null
 
Here is what Scripture says: It is written in Ecclesiastes 12 that when someone dies, their spirit returns to God–plain and simple.  Hebrews 10 speaks of how it is given to man to die once and then the judgment of heaven or hell–certainly no reincarnation or inhabiting of other bodies or anything like that.  To the thief on the cross, Jesus said “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  And on and on it goes.  Never in the Bible is there a period of time where the spirits of the dead are doing unfinished business on this earth before they can enter into the light or some other such nonsense.  Don’t let Hollywood movie fictions or TV shows about the supernatural and communicating with the dead and ghost hunting and prankster ghosts and good or evil spirits of the departed–don’t let such things lure you into foolishness.  It’s not true.  In fact, it’s occult.  Scripture speaks about attempts at communication and interaction with the dead as wicked and an abomination.  It’s in the same category as witchcraft and sorcery.  
 
For in the end, while most of this is the stuff of hoaxes, if people really are having contact with a supernatural being, it’s not the spirits of the dearly departed, it’s demons that are at hand.  It can’t be human spirits we’re talking about according to Scripture.  It can only be angels or demons.  And angels almost always do their work unnoticed.  For it is their joy to glorify God and to draw you to Christ as they watch over you.  These mighty creatures that God created in the beginning (who never were and never will be human beings, btw)–these mighty creatures would never distract you or draw you away from Jesus and His Word.  But demons on the other hand, that’s all they want to do.  And if they can get you to dwell on this mysterious occurrence or that supposed haunting or some supposed appearance of a deceased spouse or relative, then that’s right up their alley, for then you’re being distracted from God and His words.  People think they’re being “spiritual” by doing this, when in fact they’re just engaging in another form of foolish unbelief.  That’s why I say that this sort of silly superstition combines both mistakes C.S. Lewis spoke of–people are giving too much attention to the occult at the same time that don’t even realize they’re doing so.  For the devil likes to come in disguise, even as an angel of light.
 
Again, it is the goal of the devil and the demons to lure you away from the safe refuge of Christ to something else, anything else, and to keep your attention there away from the Savior.  And if Jesus is center stage, then they’ll try to pervert and distort who He is and what He has said.  That’s what happens in today’s Gospel reading.  Jesus casts out a demon, and what do the unbelievers say?  That somehow He did this good by using an evil power, the power of Beelzebub, another word for Satan.  This is the way of the wicked: to call good evil and to call evil good–we see that all the time in our culture.  The devil is a liar, and like an obnoxious politician at a debate, he’ll do whatever he can to try to shout over the truth of Jesus and to keep you from trusting in Him.  Our Lord does not cast out demons by Beelzebub.  He is the Stronger Man who overcomes the satanic strong man with nothing but a finger, the finger of God, which is the power of His Holy Spirit.  
 
Jesus is warning us here to be vigilant about our ancient enemy.  For once an unclean spirit (a demon) is cast out, if he gets the opportunity to return, he will do so–and it will be even worse the next time.  This is why the Church generally doesn’t baptize a child unless the parents are committed to teaching the child the catechism, the Word of God, and making sure the child is brought to God’s house.  For baptism is truly a form of exorcism.  Luther’s ancient baptismal rite begins this way: “Depart unclean spirit, and make room for the Holy Spirit.”  It is not enough to baptize a child, only to have his tender faith starved by parents who deprive their son or daughter of God’s Word.  In such a case, it is better not to put a target on the child’s back in the first place. Christians are to be continually on guard against the evil one by being devoted to the Word of God and prayer.
 
A good deal of Jesus’ ministry involved battling unclean spirits–and his body, the Church, continues to wage the battle against lying, satanic spirits.  Now demon-possession may indeed be extremely rare.  Typically, the devil and the other fallen angels are more subtle, tempting us behind the scenes, working through our sinful flesh to drive a wedge between us and God, chipping away at the stone, gradually eating away at us until we are alienated from God and don’t even realize it or care.  Remember that the devil’s ultimate goal is to take away your faith in Christ.  And that’s best accomplished not by an obvious frontal assault but by deceptively trying to undermine what you believe, by planting doubt, by turning your attention to other spiritualities that appear holy but are devoid of the Gospel of Christ the crucified.
 
So how do we fight an enemy we can’t see?  How do we guard ourselves against such a crafty enemy who is more powerful than we are?  The answer, very simply, is to take refuge in Christ.  For He is the Stronger Man who overcomes the strong man.  He is the One who not only won the victory for us in the wilderness, the Son of David slinging the smooth stone of the Word and felling the Goliath Satan.  He is also the One who outmaneuvered and outflanked the devil and utterly destroyed Him through the cross.  He turned the devil’s own weapons against him.  Jesus overcomes the crafty one with His own divine and holy craftiness, sneaking into the devil’s kingdom of death, allowing Himself to be crucified, and then from the inside nuking and laying waste to the devil’s power, rising from the dead in glory on the third day.  
 
Satan is defeated and undone and humiliated.  Christ is the Conqueror has rescued us from the realm of darkness and brought us into His own kingdom of mercy and love and goodness.  Our Lord has cast out our unclean spirits at the baptismal font and made our bodies the temple of His Holy Spirit.  He has spoken His powerful, forgiving words into our ears.  He feeds us with His holy, life-giving Flesh and Blood to sanctify us and fortify and strengthen our spirits.  We come to this church week by week because we need it all the time, to be strengthened against the crafts and assaults of the devil and to be equipped to resist them.
 
There is only one way to be safe from evil: to be with Jesus, our fortress and our refuge.  Jesus says, “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.”  We gather with Jesus right here.  And like the mute person who was gagged by the demon, when Jesus casts out our demons, our tongues are loosed, and we give praise to God for his gifts.  We are given to tell the marveling multitudes just who it is who has delivered us.  And we can also raise our fists at the devil and give him the “finger of God” and curse him to hell in the name of the Lord Jesus.
 
The Epistle reading said: “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.”  Your days of being imprisoned to Satan are over.  You have been released from your shackles and led out of the dark prison into the glorious light of Christ!
 
And this blessing from God is for all of you who hear and believe and hold on to His Word.  Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.”  Holding on to Christ’s words, you are blessed and you are safe.  So if you are concerned or fearful about strange or unexplained experiences in your life, remember that all things are sanctified and made holy by the Word of God and prayer.  At the name of Jesus, the demons must flee.  Call upon His name, not only here in this place, but also in your homes.  Read the Word and pray out loud so that both the angels and the demons can hear.  God’s Word cleanses and blesses and makes holy.  God’s Word sets you apart as His own, and it sets apart your dwellings as the place where God dwells.  Don’t allow the things of demons into your homes, only the things of God.  It used to be a common practice to have house blessings of Christian homes, especially when someone was just moving into a house.  And on at least one occasion that I was involved with, when there were some unusual and frightening things happening in someone’s home, when the Word of God and prayer were brought to bless that house, those things stopped happening.  
 
It is written that God has not given us a spirit of fear but a spirit of power and love and self-control (2 Tim 1:7).  So cling to the Word of God spoken and given to you in your baptism.  Let the words of God continually be in your ears and on your tongue.  And be filled by the Holy Spirit with the body and blood of Christ, given and shed for the forgiveness of all your sins.  For the Scriptures say, “Greater is He who is in you (Jesus), than [the evil one] who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). 
 
And if you want to be close to departed loved ones, don’t try to do that in superstitious ways.  Meet them instead at the altar.  For if they died in the faith, they are with Christ, and Christ is here.  Here is where the communion of saints is.  Let the highest love of your heart always be fixed on Jesus.  For through Him, nothing can snatch you from the hand of God.  For on that hand of God are the fingers that cast out demons and that point you to the cross where your salvation was won.  You have been liberated from all your sins by the Lord Jesus Christ.  You are now free to walk in love as children of light.  Let your eyes ever be toward Christ, who plucks your feet out of the net, who conquers your enemy, and who will deliver you from all evil in the resurrection of the body.
 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Revelation 2: To the Church in Smyrna

Revelation 2:8-11
Midweek Lent 1

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

    The second letter of our Lord Jesus in Revelation is to the church in Smyrna.  Smyrna was a city in Asia Minor that had become fairly well-to-do because of its firm loyalty to Rome and the Roman empire.  Smyrna was the first city in the ancient world to build a temple in honor of the goddess of Rome.  There was also a temple built to Tiberias Caesar, and to the Roman Senate.  Because of Smyrna’s strong allegiance to the empire, they were rewarded with imperial monies that built a well-known stadium, a noted library, and a large public theater.  Rome referred to Smyrna as “the crown” of Asia.

    These circumstances presented some trouble for the Christians who lived there.  For believers could not take part in the various pagan temple rites that would’ve been common among the citizens of that city.  This caused economic hardship to many believers.  How were Christians supposed to get a decent job when everyone thought of them as irreligious and unpatriotic for not taking part in the imperial worship?  Even though the church would pray for the Caesar as God’s civil authority and would obey the laws and pay the taxes, they would still be looked on with suspicion.  Through a serious distortion of what the Lord’s Supper was, rumors abounded that Christians were cannibals, eating the body and drinking the blood of some victim.  In this sort of context, it’s easy to see how most believers were poor.  Jesus says here, “I know your tribulation and your poverty.”

    During certain periods in the early church outright persecution of Christians would take place.  All someone had to do during these times was to bring a charge against someone for being a Christian, and they could be imprisoned or put to death.  Often those who had been charged as Christians would be given an opportunity to deny their faith or recant it by offering up incense to Caesar and saying “Caesar is Lord.”  If they performed that act of worship and loyalty to the Roman emperor, then they could go free.  However, if they didn’t, then they could lose their life.  Believers could not say, “Caesar is Lord,” but only, “Jesus is Lord.”null

    One of the groups that was giving Christians trouble in Smyrna was the Jews.  Jesus says here, “I know the blasphemy of those say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”  True Jews, true Israelites believe that Jesus is the Messiah and the Savior.  But these were blasphemers, in league with the evil one.  For the name “Satan” literally means, “accuser.”  And they were accusing the Christians to the authorities in order to do them harm.  These Jews did not like the pagan worship of the Romans, but they seemed to hate the Christians even more passionately.

    One famous Christian from Smyrna who was martyred was a man named Polycarp, who was the bishop of the church in Smyrna.  This old man was brought into the stadium before the crowds, who shouted at him, “Away with the atheist!”  See, they thought of Christians as atheists, because Christians had a God you couldn’t see and wouldn’t bow down to their gods, whom you could see.  But bishop Polycarp turned to the crowd, and with a wave of his hand said to them, “Away with the atheists!”  After refusing to renounce the Lord Jesus whom he had served for 86 years, Polycarp was burned to death.

    So, how does all of this apply to us?  Well, thankfully in one sense, things aren’t so dire for us yet as they were for those in Smyrna.  But still, consider this: Roman citizens made a god and a religion out of their empire and their rulers.  In a similar vein, are people in this country sometimes more religiously fervent about their patriotism than about Christ and His Word?  Do we ever see symbols of our country and symbols of religion being combined and intermingled–angels holding the American flag, or flag draped crosses, or July 4th church services that are more pro-USA than they are pro-Jesus?  We must always be on guard against the mixing and confusing of the civil realm and the spiritual realm.  For to make any worldly thing, even our country, the object of our worship and highest loyalty, is to commit idolatry.  

    On the economic side, being a Christian can also present challenges to God’s people today.  Refusing to engage in unethical practices like everyone else seems to be doing can close the door to advancement at work.  Likewise, having it known that you’re against abortion or homosexuality or living together before marriage, or that you believe that the Bible is literally true and that Jesus is the only way to eternal life can cause you to be ostracized or thought of as extreme.  That’s certainly how the cultural elite today want to paint the church.  We’re not yet faced with demands to deny the faith or be executed.  But we are tempted to compromise and downplay what we believe and go with the flow so that we don’t lose our social or economic standing.  Giving such homage to the spirit of the culture is also a form of idolatry that we must be on guard against.

    To all of this Jesus says, “Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer.”  To live in fear of what men can do to us is not to live in trust of our Creator and Redeemer God.  In the Gospel Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.”  Rather, let us learn to fear, love, and trust in God above all things.  For we are of great value to Him.  Jesus reminds us here, “I am the First and the Last.”  In other words, “I was here before your enemies were, and I’ll be here long after they’re dead and gone.  So do not fear them; I will deliver you from them.”  “I am the One who was dead and came back to life.  They did their worst to me and failed.  So also, they may cause you grief or pain or even death, but they can do nothing to separate you from My love.”  “You will have tribulation, but it will only be for ten days; in other words, it has a limit and an end when it will all be over.”  “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”  

    Smyrna may have been called the crown of Asia, but it wasn’t long before it’s edifices were piles of broken stone, as was the case also with Rome.  It was a crown that faded.  But Jesus gives a crown that does not fade away, that not even death can touch.  For the crown of glory we wear is His own.  The life that we have is His own eternal life.  That is how Jesus can say to those who are poor, “You are rich.”  For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  St. Paul writes, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us.”  Not only will we be with our Savior Jesus, but we will be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.

    We are given to wear the crown of life because Jesus was given to wear the crown of thorns.  He bore our curse and died our death–not only our first death, but also our second death.  That is to say, not only did He suffer temporal death but also and especially He suffered eternal death and hell for us on the cross.  That second, eternal death is conquered by Jesus’ death and resurrection.  It has no power over you any longer.  That’s why Jesus says, “He who overcomes [by faith] shall not be hurt by the second death.”  Rather, we look forward to the resurrection of the body.

    “Whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father in heaven.”  To confess Jesus before men is to say “yes” to Him when the world wants you to say “no” or “maybe” or “I’m not sure.”  To confess Jesus before men is to be willing to let it be known that Jesus is your Lord and the One you stake your life on.  And if you’ve faltered in confessing Jesus in the past, remember Peter, who denied Christ three times but was three times forgiven and restored.  So also, all your sins are forgiven, and you are restored in Jesus.  He has said an unwavering “yes” to you in your baptism, confessing your name before His Father in heaven.  And on the Last Day He will again say, “Yes, this one was born in Zion; this one is Mine.”

    “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

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