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The Last Enemy To Be Destroyed Is Death

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

1 Corinthians 15:12-26; Luke 24:1-12

    The spirituality of our culture can be boiled down to the belief that you should always be positive and nice.  And that even goes so far as applying to the subject of death.  Instead of a funeral, it’s much nicer to call it a celebration of someone’s life.  Obituaries try to speak positively, too, talking about how the deceased is said to have “found peace.”  Our culture wants to talk pleasantly about death as just another step in life’s journey, a natural and even beautiful transition to “a better place.”  But those things are partial truths at best and are often based on false beliefs.

    Scripture, on the other hand, is honest about death in a way that is not very positive or nice.  It speaks of death as a curse. It says that death is not a friend but an adversary.  We heard it in the Epistle: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:26).  It is a nemesis and a foe.  And anyone who tries to sell you on the notion that dying can be a beautiful thing either is a fool who hasn’t actually witnessed what it’s really like very often, or is a false teacher who is not from God.  If you get one of these types coming into your hospital or hospice room, just kick them out.  Don’t waste your time with false prophets.null

    We need to think and talk about death the way Scripture does.  For only then will we fully grasp the joy of Easter.  So let us not talk about death the way the world does—as if the human body God created is merely a container, as if it’s actually good to escape the body into some purely spiritual existence–no, not that!  That’s the way the Corinthians were thinking in the Epistle. They were Greeks, and Greek philosophy said that material, physical stuff was a sort of lower level reality.  What’s really real, what really matters, they said, was the soul.  The body was just a shell, a tin can, something almost that imprisoned the soul.  To be released from that was seen as good.  That’s why they said that there was no resurrection of the dead.  They thought only the soul existed forever.  Why would you want to have a dead body raised, anyway?

    That sort of thinking has infected our own age, too.  People often think of the body as limiting and a hindrance to who they supposedly really are.  They imagine that they can be Christian in their hearts while living bodily like the unbelieving world, rarely being present for the external preaching and Supper of the Lord.  They treat the body as if death is the end of it and only the soul lives on.  Might as well scatter the ashes to the wind; that was just an empty casing, anyway, they think.  The things we do at a time of death reveal much about what we believe regarding the body and eternal life–which is why the women in the Gospel are good examples and role models for us.  They wanted to care for the body of Jesus and treat it with the deepest respect, even though they didn’t yet fully grasp all that was happening that first Easter morning.

    So listen this Easter day, first of all, to what the Scriptures say: God did not create you to die but to live with Him, soul and body, forever.  Death did not exist at all in the beginning; it entered God’s good creation through sin (Rom. 5:12).  You know the Scripture which says, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).  It is only because of the curse that body and soul get ripped apart. In spite of the world’s nice philosophies and all our attempts to stay positive, death is still not natural or good.  Losing loved ones still tears us up inside.  The grave is still something we naturally fear. It is the thieving work of the devil to destroy the life that God has given us (John 10:10).null

    However, it is important to remember that the One who pronounced the curse of death is God Himself.  He did this not only as the just punishment for sin, but also and especially as the way in which He would take away our sin through the death of His own Son (1 John 3:8).  Since Jesus shared in our flesh and blood, His cross and resurrection crushed the devil who had enslaved us, (Heb. 2:14-15) and it destroyed his thieving work (1 John 3:8).   What we celebrate today, then, is the fact that we are now free.  Do not be afraid any longer.  The curse is broken.  Life is restored.  Jesus lives, for you!

    Here’s how much God cares about your bodily life: Not only did He become true man, your true blood brother, not only did He suffer and die in the body for you to break sin’s curse, but He is now bodily risen from the dead–literally, tangibly, physically.  What did the Gospel say?  When the women went to the tomb, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.  His resurrection wasn’t merely a spiritual event.  The very same body that was scourged and nailed to the cross and laid in the tomb was raised up and exited the tomb, restored and exalted and glorified.  Jesus’ resurrection is real and historical and true.  

    This is so important and essential for you to believe.  St. Paul says that if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.  For then death would still be reigning over you; it would still be your master.  But since Christ has been raised from the dead, that means that the curse is undone; He has now become your Lord.  He has redeemed you to be His own, blessed forever in His kingdom.  Think about it: if the wages of sin is death, and death has been overcome by Christ, that means that your sins have been overcome by Him, too, right?  Jesus’ resurrection means that the wages have been paid for you, and all there is for you now from God is forgiveness and mercy and new resurrection life in Christ.  That’s the good news of Easter!

    In Adam all die–that’s his legacy to you, and it’s your legacy to your children.  But in the new Adam, in Jesus, all shall be made alive–that’s your free inheritance from Him in the family of God.  But there is an order to this being made alive: Christ is the firstfruits, then at His second coming, those who belong to Him.  In other words, Jesus’ bodily resurrection is the beginning of the harvest and the sure guarantee of what is to come.  On the Last Day, the full crop of resurrected believers will be brought in.  Philippians 3 says that we eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body.  And Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.  He who believes in Me will live [bodily!], even though He dies.”

    Because this is true and sure and certain in Jesus, we don’t have to deny the reality of death.  We are free to be honest about it because of Easter.  Death is horrible and powerful, but Jesus is infinitely stronger and has overcome its horror.  null

    And you know that this is true for you personally because you’ve been baptized.  We spoke about it a moment ago: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:3)  His atoning death counts for you!  And then this: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:5). Death doesn’t get the last word over you who believe any more, Jesus does.

    The truth is that, as baptized Christians, you’ve actually already kicked the bucket.  Colossians 3 says, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  The worst of it is over, then.  The judgment part of death has been taken care of by Jesus. All that’s left now is the final putting to death of your sinful flesh so that you may rise again bodily to eternal life. “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:4).

    Martin Luther put it wonderfully when he said, “A Christian enjoys the advantage of already being out of the grave with his right leg. Moreover, he has a mighty helper who holds out his hand to him, namely, His Lord Christ; (Jesus) has left the grave entirely a long time ago, and now He takes the Christian by the hand and pulls him more than halfway out of the grave; only the left foot remains in it!  For his sin is already remitted and expunged, God’s wrath and hell are extinguished, and he already lives fully in and with Christ with regard to his . . . soul, as he partakes of eternal life. Therefore death can no longer hold him or harm him. Only the remnant, the old skin, flesh and blood, must still decay before it, too, can be renewed and follow the soul [in the resurrection of the body].”

    Through Jesus alone we can face death without fear and even embrace it as a positive thing. St. Paul wrote: “To live is Christ, and to die is gain. . . My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil. 1:21,23). We sing with Simeon, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:29-30).  Our funerals, then, are not just celebrations of life.  They are celebrations of life in Christ even as we mourn.  And we don’t find peace in death.  We find our peace only in Jesus, who is the victor over death.

    So don’t be nice about death!  Rather, make fun of it as the defeated enemy that it is.  Say to the grave, “We bury our dead only to mock you, not because they are dead, but because they live, because they are with Jesus, and their bodies sleep while they wait for the resurrection to come.  We bury our dead because they have been sanctified and sealed for the resurrection through the risen body and blood of Jesus given into their bodies in Holy Communion. They go into you, O grave, only that they might follow Jesus out of you and humiliate you and defeat you.  Ha!” (adapted from David Petersen)  

    Let us this Easter Day join in the Scriptural taunt, “‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’... Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:55,57).  Or as the hymn puts it: 

Laugh to scorn the gloomy grave
  And at death no longer tremble;
He, the Lord, who came to save
  Will at last His own assemble.
They will go their Lord to meet
                       Treading death beneath their feet. (LSB 741:7)

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

Lord of the Flies and the Stronger Man

Luke 11:14-28

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

    The Lord knew that the Pharaoh, king of Egypt, would not let the people of Israel go unless he was compelled to do so.  And so the Lord stretched out His hand and sent the 10 plagues upon Egypt.  Beginning with the third and fourth plagues, the plagues of the gnats and the flies, the Pharaoh’s magicians knew that the Finger of God was at work. How? Because they couldn’t replicate them with their demonic arts. They tried everything they could from their little bag of tricks, but to no avail. The finger of God was working to bring His people out from their slavery and from the burdens the Egyptians had placed on them.  The Lord was redeeming them to be His own and to dwell in the land He had promised to their forefathers.

    And so by the plagues, by these great acts of judgment, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and the king of Egypt, the strong man, was overcome in his own kingdom by One stronger than him.  And those oppressed by Pharaoh, those enslaved by the strong man, were led out of their bondage into freedom by the Stronger Man’s mighty arm through the waters of the Red Sea.

    But as they gathered together with Him in the wilderness, many found that their last state was worse than the first. Even though they’d been miraculously delivered from oppression, even though they pillaged and plundered the strong man and his palace as they left–taking with them much silver and gold from the Egyptians as God directed–they quickly forgot the Word and Promise of the Lord. They grumbled and actually longed to be back in Egypt. They became idolaters, worshiping false gods and worshiping the true God falsely. And so the Lord scattered their bodies throughout the wilderness.null

    All this is the background to the Jesus and Beelzebub controversy in today’s Gospel. The Jews accuse our Lord of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub, which in Hebrew means “Lord of the Flies.”  Of course, they meant it as a condemnation. That he is casting out demons by the power of the evil one. That he is some trickster or snake charmer. That he keeps demons as pets so that he can get people’s money by winning their affection and praise.

    But our Lord flips it on them. He asks them by whose authority then do their sons cast out demons?  If Jesus is a trickster, so are they. And then He offers this warning: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” That is, if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then you’re dealing with the Lord, the one who sent gnats and flies for the judgement and destruction of Pharaoh. If it is by the finger of God, then beware, for that Lord of the flies will judge you too, just as he did to those who chased after false Gods and false worship, who rejected His Word and Promise in the wilderness. Jesus said, those who are not with me are against me. Those who do not gather together with me, where I am, scatter. For only those who hear My Word and keep it are blessed.

    So what about you? You, too, have been rescued from your enemies, from the sin that enslaves you, through the waters of Holy Baptism. Our Lord Jesus Christ, the stronger man, has overcome the strong man of sin, death, and the power of the devil by His cross. For just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness so also the Son of man was lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have everlasting life. By water and word, the fruits of His cross were delivered to you, and the demons, the unclean spirits departed, making way for the Holy Spirit.

    But when Jesus gives the finger of God to the devil, the devil doesn’t just go away nicely. Satan is enraged, his heart is hardened, and he chases after you, as Pharaoh did with all his armies at the Red Sea.  When the devil returns he doesn’t come back alone, but with some of his friends, to ensure that this time, he will not be overcome.  And he always comes back at an opportune time.  He waits for a time when you’re weak.  And so you think you’ve cast out a particular sin–gluttony, drinking, lust and pornography, greed, anger and fear, doubt–then all of a sudden the demons are back in force and you find yourself caught up in that stuff even more awfully and dangerously than before.  

    Perhaps it’s because our great weakness is what we consider to be our strength.  We think that we modern people are much more enlightened than ancient folk.  At least the Pharisees understood that there is such a thing as demons, that evil actually exists, that it’s real, and that God has enemies. We, on the other hand, tend to look for natural, psychological causes, social reasons for our problems. And any mention of demons and devils, makes us think of fairy tales and ghost stories. And right there is Satan’s clever ploy. If you don’t even think he’s real, he can operate all the more freely.  But remember this, to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton: “Fairy tales don’t teach children that dragons and ghosts and demons exist. They already know they exist.  Fairy tales teach them that they can be killed and how they are overcome.”  

    Let us never forget, then, that we’re in the midst of a battle, unseen, but very real.  For if we ignore that reality, we’ll become indifferent to the things of God.  If we pay little attention to the reality of sin and Satan, we’ll also pay little attention to Christ and the Gospel.  And then we’ll get caught up with the world’s imaginary versions of good and evil, where it’s all about politics and and social justice and political correctness.  We’ll become more concerned about so-called “tolerance” than faithfulness to God, about tax rates more than abortion rates. We’ll be more worried about our kids and grandkids growing up to be happy and successful than that they grow up to be good and devout.  We’ve nearly forgotten what is real and what really matters. But here is the truth: there is no neutral territory. You either belong to God, or you belong to Satan. You either gather together where God and His Word is, or you scatter. You are either with Him or against Him.  That’s what Jesus says here; there’s no middle ground. Those who choose the “enlightened,” middle way of moderation are deceived.  They belong to the enemy.

    Our only defense in all of this is Jesus and His Word.  He alone is our refuge and our mighty fortress.  In Him there is absolutely nothing that can harm us, nothing that can separate us from God’s love.  The devil would like you to think that he’s a god alongside the true God.  But he’s not.  He’s just a fallen angel–powerful and dangerous to be sure–but nothing more.  He claimed authority over you through sin.  But now in Christ who has taken away your sin, the devil is beneath you.  You belong to Jesus.  Through Christ Satan is underneath your feet.  For Christ crushed His head with His own bruised heel.  In Christ you are restored to your proper place as human beings, with dominion over all creation, including the demons.  

    Jesus is the Stronger Man who overcomes the strong man.  He 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 also outmaneuvered and outflanked the devil, turning the devil’s own weapons against him and utterly destroying him.  Jesus deceives the deceiver.  He 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.  It is written in Hebrews 2, “The Son of God Himself likewise shared in our flesh and blood, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime held in bondage.”

    Now, therefore, you are no longer slaves; you are free.  Satan is defeated and undone and humiliated.  Christ the Conqueror has rescued us from the realm of darkness and brought us into His own kingdom of goodness and righteousness and truth.  Our Lord has cast out our unclean spirits at the baptismal font and made our bodies the temple of His Holy Spirit.  And if you have strayed from your baptism, foolishly thinking you could co-exist with the demons, then return to the font in repentance and faith.  For the demons must flee from you there.  They cannot stand to be in the presence of Christ.  He is the One who welcomes you back, speaking His powerful, forgiving words into our ears.  He is the One who feeds you with His holy, life-giving Flesh and Blood to sanctify you and fortify and strengthen your spirits.  Gathered together with Jesus in His church you are safe and secure from the crafts and the assaults of the wicked one.

    “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.”  Just like our Lord’s mother, we too are blessed as we cling to the Word made flesh, as we hold to His powerful, life-giving words.  For just like Mary, we too carry the Lord’s physical presence in our Body as we partake of the sacrament of Holy Communion.  And we too hold the Lord in our bosom, you might say, as the Word of God is preached into us and rests in our hearts.  Blessed are you who hold to God’s Word and abide in it.  For no lasting harm can come to you from the evil one.  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, and to the font, pulpit, and altar where your salvation is given to you personally.  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 on the Last Day.

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Jason Braaten, whose sermon notes were adapted for much of the above.)

Strength in Weakness

2 Corinthians 12:7-10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    In this vein Martin Luther once famously commented, “May God in His mercy save me from a Christian Church where there are only saints.  I want to be with that little company and in that Church where there are faint-hearted and weak people, the sick, and those who are aware of their sin, misery, and wretchedness and who feel it, who cry to God without ceasing and sigh unto Him for comfort and help.”

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

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

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

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

    The hymn writer Paul Gerhardt said it this way:

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

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

From God’s joy can nothing sever,
    For I am 
    His dear lamb,
He, my Shepherd ever.
I am His because He gave me
    His own blood 
    For my good,
By His death to save me.
    (LSB 756:2-4)

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

Water in the Desert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Not only does this teach us that God will provide for all of our temporal needs.  Even more, it teaches us that God will provide for all of our eternal needs in His Son.  For in the Epistle St. Paul makes a very interesting statement in connection with this story.  He says, “(Our forefathers in the wilderness) all drank the same spiritual drink.  For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ.”  The Scriptures specifically tell us to see the Lord Jesus in this Old Testament story.  We are to perceive the real presence of Christ in and with that rock.  

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

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

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

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

The Gift of Marriage and Christ our Bridegroom

Epiphany 2

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

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

    Today’s Gospel depicts Jesus taking part in and adding to the joy of a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee.  While this Gospel certainly deals with much more than marriage, I’m going to follow the lead of Martin Luther when he preached on this passage and speak today especially about the divine gift and institution of marriage.  

    We live in a culture in which human sexuality has been cheapened and degraded.  We’ve become accustomed to humor being reduced to sexual double entendre or adolescent innuendo about body parts.  We’re saturated in an environment where almost everything is sexualized–from TV shows to the internet to casual conversations with friends and co-workers.  How are we as Christians to deal with this?  We don’t want to seem uptight and puritanical to people.  But at the same time, human sexuality and morality is not something to treat lightly or unseriously.

    The Christian approach to this should not be prudishness, which tends to look at sexuality as something that is inherently tainted by its sensual nature, necessary perhaps for procreation, but something that is far too fleshly and physical to be considered good or godly.  Those who are prudish don’t believe that human sexuality is, in fact, a good gift of the Creator, that He is the One who made the one flesh, physical, sexual relationship from the very beginning, before sin ever entered into the world.  They fail to fully recognize that sexuality and sexual activity is a gift to be received and enjoyed within marriage by husband and wife, that God created it for their mutual delight and companionship, and for the creation of new human life when He grants it.null

    However, those on the other end of the spectrum who engage in raunchy talk and immoral behavior actually have the exact same problem as the prudish.  For they also fail to treat human sexuality as a gift of God.  They diminish it to a juvenile punchline and belittle it by engaging in sexual relationships without God’s blessing.  To them waiting until you’re married is weird and chastity is something to mock.  Human sexuality is not treated as special and divinely given but is distorted to be merely the fulfillment of a personal need or desire.  So in the end, by rejecting the goodness of God’s gift of marriage, both the prudish and the raunchy commit the very same error.

    But in today’s Gospel we see that Jesus blesses marriage and the sexual relationship within it as good and holy.  Marriage is not just a human arrangement or a mere legal matter or piece of paper, it’s a divine joining together of a man and a woman, an act of God making two people one flesh.  Whether you’re married or single, God teaches you in His Word to honor marriage highly, especially in how you talk about it with friends and family.  Through marriage God  seeks to protect us from the evils of selfishness, loneliness, lust, doubt, and self-sufficiency.  And He works through it to preserve society, so that the saving Gospel of Christ may be preached.  Let’s go through each of those points individually:

    *First of all, selfishness threatens to destroy us.  In marriage God works to protect us from this.  He places a flesh and blood spouse directly before our eyes, with specific and real needs.  God calls us out of a self-absorbed life that invents its own good works, into a devoted life that takes care of the spouse He has given.  A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed Himself for her; a wife is to submit to her husband as to the Lord.  In this way, God both builds up His people and beats down selfishness.

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

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

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

    Fifthly, self-sufficiency threatens to destroy us.  We tend to think that we can do just fine on our own without God.  Without the calling of serving a spouse in marriage, sinners would perceive even less need for God.  In marriage God protects us from such misguided self-sufficiency.  He calls husband and wife to the holy vocation of serving each other in Christ.  And when husband and wife fail each other, God puts His law to work.  He confronts their self-centeredness and their faltering service.  He afflicts their consciences and disturbs their self-sufficiency.  In short, God drives them to depend on Him.  He drives them back to Himself, to find forgiveness, strength, and hope in Christ.  Confession and Absolution, the preaching of the Gospel, and the Body and Blood of Christ become their lifeblood, making them right with God and able again to serve each other.

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

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

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

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

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

    So set aside your doubts and fears and sorrows.  Jesus rejoices over you, to have you as His own.  Come in faith to His table, that you may partake in the eternal wedding feast.  As it is written, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb!”

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

*These points are borrowed from the Rev. Chaplain Jonathan Shaw.

Jesus' Perfect Humanity

Epiphany 1

Luke 2:41-52

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

    Many Christians–myself included–grew up with a wrong understanding about today’s Gospel of the boy Jesus in the temple.  We think that He was able to amaze the teachers with His understanding because He was (and is) God.  As the only-begotten Son of the Father, He is omniscient and therefore He knows all the answers; no big deal for Him to do this.  Except that’s not actually what is going on here.  For notice how it says that the 12 year old Jesus was listening to them and asking them questions.  And it’s not that Jesus is just playing along; He’s truly learning.  For it is written here that He increased in wisdom as well as stature.  Just as Jesus was growing up in body, so also He was growing up in mind as a true human being.  So Jesus doesn’t impress the teachers here by pulling out His divinity card.  Rather, right there before them is perfect humanity, a boy who loves His heavenly Father and who is absolutely enthralled with pondering the Scriptures, who has no sin to cloud His understanding and insight.  null

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

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

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

    This is so important for you to remember and cling to, especially in those times when you seem to have lost track of Jesus like Joseph and His mother did.  All too often we can become complacent in our faith, thinking that we’ve got it all figured out; and then we take our eyes off of Jesus to focus our attention on the things and the people and the honors of this world, being conformed to this world (Romans 12).  Everything seems to be going along fine until we get a rude awakening, when we’re confronted with the truth about ourselves, and suddenly Jesus seems to have become far, far away from us, we’ve been walking without Him for so long.  That’s when the fear strikes you that perhaps you’re the one who is lost, and you don’t know how to get back to Him.  Well the good news of today’s Gospel is that Jesus in the temple is already at work to bring you back into God’s holy presence–as Mary and Joseph were brought back–and to find you and reconcile you to the Father in Himself.  That is His Father’s business.

    As Joseph and Mary were anxious at being separated from Jesus, so Christian parents also are anxious that their children not be separated from Jesus in this ungodly world.  Our fears in particular are for our loved ones who have strayed away from the Lord and who may not even seem to care, who have loved this world and its wisdom instead of the wisdom of Christ.  We shouldn’t just give up and say “Oh well, what can I do?  I’ll just pretend like they’re not unbelieving pagans who have no time for the preaching of Christ or His holy supper.”  We should care and be anxious for them and pray for them and speak to them about Christ.  For Jesus lives through these growing up years, including adolescence and early adulthood–those times when people all too often stray away from the faith–Jesus lives through all the stages of our life to sanctify them for us, and to make the way back for those who have strayed, so that His life might be theirs again, so that the words of the Psalmist might be in their mouths, “Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways.  According to your mercy remember me, for Your goodness’ sake, O Lord.”  Our Lord fills up this and every phase of our life with His perfect life so that we might never lose hope for those who have lost track of Jesus.  He lives to restore our humanity and to reclaim and draw us back to Himself.

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

    For three days Mary felt the loss of her Son here, when He had to be about His Father’s business.  All these things that happened she would keep in her heart, even though she didn’t understand them yet.  Mary may well have recalled this day in the temple as she stood at the foot of her Son’s cross, and lost Him again, this time to death and the grave, only to receive Him back once more on the third day, risen from the dead.  Here Jesus said, “Why did you seek me?”  Later angels would announce to the women at the tomb, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”  The temple was destroyed and in three days it was raised up again.  Jesus had to be about His Father’s business like this to deliver Mary and Joseph and the whole world from the curse.

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

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

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

The Blessed Name

Numbers 6:22-27; Luke 2:21
The Naming and Circumcision of our Lord (Dec. 31/Jan.1)

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

    New Year’s [Eve] has never really struck me as a particularly cheerful holiday in spite of all its festivities.  For we’re marking another year gone by.  And while it is good to reflect on the blessings of God in the year past and give Him thanks, to think about the growth of our children or grandchildren and the new things that have happened and our hopes for the future, more often than not, we don’t like the passage of time.  It takes away what’s familiar and comfortable to us.  It takes away friends and family.  In the end it takes away our health and our life.  And so Psalm 39 prays, “Lord, make me to know my end, and what is the measure of my days, that I may know how frail I am. Indeed, You have made my days a mere handbreadth, and my age is as nothing before You; certainly every man at his best state is but vapor.”  It seems to me that some of the excesses of the New Year’s celebrations carry a good deal of this melancholy undertone.  

    So rather than simply marking the new year today, the church marks the naming and circumcision of Jesus.  This is the [Eve of the] 8th day of Christmas when these things occurred for our Lord.  And in particular I would like to have us meditate on the fullness of the name revealed in the blessing that our Lord speaks to His people, the Benediction given in today’s Old Testament reading.  In our lifetimes we have heard this Benediction spoken hundreds if not thousands of times.  But we don’t always fully consider what these words mean.  We don’t always realize all that our Lord is doing for us with these words.  And so as we observe the naming and circumcision of our Lord, we will focus our attention on this threefold blessing in which our Lord gives His name to us.null

    First of all, please note that the benediction is not a mere wish, like when we say, “Have a nice day.”  It’s not “May the Lord bless you and keep you.”  It’s “The Lord bless you and keep you.”  It’s an actual giving of a gift.  It’s a real bestowal of what the words say.  God Himself is active through these words.  In the Old Testament reading God directed the priests to speak this benediction; and then He said, “So I shall bless them.”  And it’s the same way still today.  Though the benediction is spoken by a man, it should be understood as the voice of God Himself to you.

    Specifically, God says that He will put His name on His people through this triple blessing.  And so for us, the benediction is intimately connected to our baptism.  For that is the place where God first put His threefold name on us and claimed us as His own.  Just like we place our names on things that are important to us, that we don’t want to lose or have stolen, so the Lord marked us with the sign of the cross, and in the water He inscribed His name on us as His own treasured, precious possession.  He doesn’t want to lose us.  And so we have on us the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

    In a very real way, then, the benediction re-applies and confirms us in our baptism.  Even as we became His people with the threefold application of His name, so also we depart divine service with the threefold application of His name, to live as His people out in the stations of life where He has put us.

    Each of the three parts of the benediction correspond to the three persons of the Holy Trinity.  First, we receive the blessing of the Father with these words, “The Lord bless you and keep you.”  Notice that He’s the one who does the keeping.  While we do cling to Him by faith, the greater truth is that He is keeping and holding on to us.  He keeps us in the faith through His Word and Spirit so that we may endure in the faith to the end and be saved.  It’s like a father holding on to the hand of his little child as they walk together across a slippery patch of snow and ice or down the stairs.  The child may be holding on to Dad, but what really counts is that Dad is holding on to his child, especially when the child slips.  That’s the only thing that will keep the child from falling.  So also, God the Father holds on to us, so that even when we slip, we won’t fall away from Him.  That’s how the Father blesses us–not only does He give us life and sustain our lives in this world, but He also gives us everlasting life in Christ, and by the Holy Spirit He keeps us with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.  James 1 reminds us, “Every good and perfect gift comes down from above, from the Father of lights.”

    Second, we receive the blessing of God the Son with these words, “The Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you.”  Jesus is the face of the Father, as He said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.”  In the humble Jesus in the manger, in the Word made flesh who willingly submits to the Law of circumcision, we see God in His mercy and love, who comes to redeem us by fulfilling the Law in our place.  The words about the Lord making His face shine on you especially calls to mind Jesus’ transfiguration, where the Scriptures say that His face “shone like the sun.”  Every benediction you hear is a little transfiguration event where Jesus' face shines for you.  It is written in 2 Corinthians, “It is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”  

    For the Lord to make His face shine on us means for Him to accept us and look upon us favorably.  And how could God look on us any more favorably than to send His Son into our flesh and blood to save us from sin and death and to restore our humanity by His cross and resurrection?  Because Christ’s face has shined on us in self-giving love, we are now given to shine in His glory in the resurrection to come.  That is how He is gracious to us–this all comes to us without any merit or worthiness in us but purely out of His grace and goodness.

    Thirdly, we receive the blessing of God the Holy Spirit with these words, “The Lord lift up His countenance on you and give you peace.”  Countenance is another word for the face, or more specifically, for the attitude or the expression that is on the face.  So a lifted-up countenance would be a sign of God’s good will toward you.  The opposite would be for Him to turn away from you with an angry countenance and forsake you in hell.  Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, God reveals that His countenance and expression is lifted up toward you because of Jesus.  The Father turned away from Christ on the cross in order to turn toward you in love.  

    This is how the Holy Spirit gives you peace.  The word for peace is “shalom.”  It has to do with health and wholeness, with being put right again.  Through the working of the Spirit, you are put right again with God, and with one another.  You are given eternal health and wholeness and life in Christ.  When Jesus spoke of sending the Holy Spirit, He said, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you.  Not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled; neither let them be afraid.”

    There’s one final thing to consider regarding this benediction.  And that is the name of God that is used here.  Our translations have it as Lord.  But it is actually the name Yahweh, the name God revealed to Moses in the burning bush.  “Yahweh bless you and keep you; Yahweh make His face shine on you and be gracious to you; Yahweh lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.”  Yahweh means I AM.  It’s the name of the Creator who has always existed, who is, who was, and who will be.  And yet it’s a name that seems also somewhat incomplete.  I am . . .  what?  The good news for us today is that Jesus came to reveal the name of God completely.  He fills in the blank for us.  For He said, “I am the Good Shepherd; I am the Light of the World; I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; I am the Vine.”  I am Jesus, which means, “Yahweh saves.”  Though you are cursed under the Law and condemned to eternal death, I am the One who came to redeem you from the curse by being cursed in your place, hung on the tree of the cross.  Even as I first shed blood for you in my circumcision to fulfill the Law, so I poured out my blood for you at Golgotha to cleanse you from all sin.  Now you are released from the curse, forgiven, set free.  You are children of God in Me, the Son of God.

    The benediction has been put on God’s people for thousands of years.  And God will continue to bless us with His saving name in the year 2017 and to the very close of the age.  It is one thing that is constant and sure in the midst of this changing and decaying world, even as Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  God grant you His heavenly benediction in the year to come, that you may know His great blessing for all eternity.

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