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Jesus the Scapegoat

Leviticus 16; Matthew 4:1-11
Lent 1

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

    Most everyone knows what it means to be a scapegoat.  It means to be blamed for something that you didn’t do, or at least that you only had a very small role in.  A scapegoat bears the full consequences for someone else’s mistakes.  When a sports team or a politician loses, when things go wrong at work or a when a crisis or a tragedy occurs in the world, one of the first things that happens is scapegoating, finding someone to blame and to punish.  But while most people know the term, not very many could tell you the original biblical meaning of the scapegoat.  That Scriptural meaning is to be found in today’s Old Testament reading where the Yom Kippur is described.  

    Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement.”  God had commanded many different sacrifices for various occasions in the Old Testament;” but on Yom Kippur, something special would happen.  Only on this day, the high priest would go into the Holy of Holies behind the veil in the tabernacle, bringing with him with the blood of slaughtered animals to make atonement for the people.  The blood would be sprinkled on the mercy seat above the ark of the covenant.  Through the promise God attached to these sacrifices, He was merciful to His people and covered their sins.  null

    All of the sacrifices of the Old Testament were opportunities for God’s people to look forward in faith to the coming of His Son to be their Savior.  Without the shedding of blood–Christ’s blood–there would be no final and complete forgiveness of sins.  All the blood that was shed in Old Testament times was meant to foreshadow the blood that Christ would shed upon the cross in order to deal with man’s sin once and for all.

    Sad to say, though, among the Jews of Israel, rituals like the Day of Atonement often became occasions for people to think of themselves as doing good works to bribe God into forgetting their sins, buying Him off with their sacrifices.  To this day, even though there is no temple now standing where the animal sacrifices can be made, on Yom Kippur pious Jews afflict themselves with fasting and mourning over their sins.  Their hope is that they can somehow be sorry enough to satisfy God’s righteous wrath against their sins.

    We also are guilty of this when we think that our sorrow over sin is what makes God forgive us, as if His mercy is dependent on our good work of being sorry enough rather than on the cross alone, as if by spiritually beating up on ourselves, we can get God to forget our sins.  That’s especially important for us to guard against during this Lententide.  It is good for us to discipline our bodies and give things up so that we can dwell more fully on His saving Word and prayer and loving our neighbor.  But we must always be on guard against the works-righteous notion that our penitential sacrifices for God are what get us into His good graces. No. The blood of Christ alone does that.

    The Day of Atonement, then, is really all about Jesus, in particular the part about the goats.  You will recall that two goats were to be selected and presented before the Lord.  One would be sacrificed; but the other would not.  Instead, the high priest would lay his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the people, and in this way put all their sins on the goat.  Then the scapegoat would be sent away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man, presumably to perish there in the desert along with the transgressions of the people.  

    This is particularly interesting in light of today’s Gospel.  For just like the scapegoat, we find Jesus in the wilderness, fasting for 40 days and nights, even as Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.  And just as the scapegoat had become the bearer of Israel’s sin, so Jesus here bears the sins of the world.

    For Jesus has just been baptized.  Though He was without sin, yet Jesus submitted to John’s baptism, standing shoulder to shoulder with sinners, that He might be our substitute and stand-in.  There in the water God the Father there made Jesus the scapegoat, laying on His head the guilt of the world, which He would take and carry away.  

    And just as it was a suitable man who led the goat into the wilderness, so also it is written that the Holy Spirit immediately led Jesus up into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  It is the Father’s will that He endure this for us.  Jesus does all of this in our place.  Whereas Adam had succumbed to the devil’s temptation, whereas the children of Israel had grumbled and been unfaithful in the wilderness, whereas we all too often give in to the desires of the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature, Jesus did not.  He took everything that the devil threw at Him and prevailed, for us.  He was and is entirely without sin.  

    And pleanullse note that Jesus does this without using any of His divine powers.  Don’t think this was easy for Him.  Why do you think angels had to tend to Him at the end?  It wouldn’t be of much comfort to us if Jesus had done this with a brush of His almighty hand as God the Son.  Instead He humbles Himself to do this as one of us, our representative, as the Son of Man–weak, hungry, alone, face to face with the devil.  He even allows Satan to cart Him around–to the pinnacle of the temple, and then to an exceedingly high mountain.  Jesus uses nothing but the Scriptures to fight with.  And He wields the sword of the Word powerfully, skewering the devil and fighting off and defeating the him at every turn.  

    “If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”  “Go ahead and give in to your self-seeking desires.  Serve your own appetites.  Who cares what your Father has said.  A little bread is no big deal.”  We would give room to the devil’s words, dialogue with Him, and perhaps even give in.  “You know, that’s true.  I’m not sinning by providing a little bread for myself.”  But Jesus stands firm and is not moved.  His food is to do the Father’s will, which means self-sacrifice.  And so for us, in our stead He simply replies, “It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” Strike one for the devil.

    “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.  For it is written, ‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and ‘In their hand they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”  The devil can play the Scripture-quoting game.  Only for him, it’s just that: a game, a way of shrouding his temptation and making evil and falsehood appear to be good and holy.  Don’t think that just because someone quotes Scripture that they’re using God’s Word rightly.  Every false prophet uses the Bible.  Jesus sees through the devil’s game.  To put God the Father to the test, to make Him give you evidence that He’ll really protect you and be true to His Word, is to act not in faith but in unbelief.  It’s to put yourself above God, making Him prove Himself to you.  For our deliverance, Jesus replies, “It is written again, ‘You shall not test the Lord your God.’” Strike two.

    Finally, the devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, saying, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.”  “You don’t have to suffer and go to the cross.  Let’s team up and you can get to the glory right now.”  We know that temptation to take the path of least resistance, to take the easy way out rather than the narrow way.  But on our behalf, Jesus says, “Away with you Satan!  For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’” Strike three.  The devil’s out.

    The good news for us today is that because Jesus was there as our stand-in, being tempted in our own flesh and blood, His victory over the devil now counts as ours, too.  Whatever the devil had accomplished through the temptation in the Garden of Eden, Jesus has completely undone in His own sinless temptation.  That’s what the hymn is all about when it says, “But for us fights the Valiant One, whom God Himself elected.  Ask ye who is this?  Jesus Christ it is.  Of sabaoth Lord, and there’s none other God.  He holds the field forever.”  On this wilderness battlefield, the devil has been routed.  Through faith in what Christ has done, the sin of Adam your father is no longer what’s most true about you; now the faithfulness of Christ your Brother is your true identity before the Father.  You are children of God through faith in Him.

    But be warned: the devil is going to call into question that identity of yours in Christ.  He said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, let’s see a little proof, a little divine glory.”  And he’ll do the same to you.  “If you are really a child of God, show me some glorious proof.  You don’t look much like a Christian, with all that sin and trouble in your life.” After your baptism, you also are cast into the wilderness of this world with nothing but the Word of God as your defense.  And yet, the Word of Christ is all that you need to put to devil to flight.  Don’t believe Satan’s definition of what it means to be a child of God, where everything is success and victory and exaltation in this life.  Skewer the devil, rather, with the sword of the Spirit.  Trust in the sure words and promises of God.  For Christ truly is your mighty fortress, your refuge and defense against all the power of the evil one.

    In all of this, we see Jesus as our great High Priest, the one who makes sacrifice for us to rescue us–except that Jesus is both the sacrificer and the sacrifice.  The blood He sprinkles on us in baptism to cleanse us is His own.  He is both goats to accomplish our Day of Atonement.  First, He is the one cast into the wilderness, actively obeying His Father’s will in our place, who was tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin.  Then, bearing our sins He is the second goat, passively being offered up on the mercy seat of the cross.  Out of great love for you, Jesus has willingly made Himself to be your scapegoat.  In Him you are free from blame.  And in Him you are free from the need to blame others.  Jesus has covered it all, for you.  

    Therefore, since we have such a High Priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses, and who stands before the throne of the Father in heaven as our mediator, let us come boldly to the throne of grace–let us come boldly to the altar in faith–that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

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

The Sower and the Seed

Luke 8:4-15
Sexagesima

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

    When Jesus told a parable, he didn’t just sit the people down and start telling them a story for no particular reason.  There was almost always some circumstance or event that moved him to tell it.  So, for instance, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, in part, to humble a self-righteous lawyer.  Our Lord tells the parable of the Prodigal Son to explain to the Pharisees why he’s eating with tax collectors and sinners.

    And the context of today’s Gospel is very important, too.  It is written here that a great multitude had gathered before Jesus and that people had come to Him from every city.  Everyone had heard about Him and wanted to see Him.  And so Jesus tells this parable to make something clear, especially to His twelve disciples, who might have been thinking at this point that this was going to be just one big victory procession, everything seemed to be going so well.  Jesus tells a parable that gives a dose of reality.  He says that there are four possible outcomes to the hearing of the Word, and only one of them is good.  For three out of four hearers, the Word of God comes to no effect.  The apostles are going to experience more failure than success, more rejection than acceptance in the long run.  They shouldn’t be fooled by the large crowds coming out to see Jesus.  Big numbers don’t mean anything.  Not all of them were believers.  

    In fact there came a point in Jesus’ own ministry when the crowds stopped following Him; just about all He had left were the 12 disciples, and even one of them would turn away from Him and betray Him.  After the feeding of the 5000, Jesus had been teaching how the bread that He would give for the life of the world was His flesh, and how His flesh was real food and His blood was real drink (John 6:55).  That was too hard for the people to accept; Jesus went from 5000+ down to only 12 followers.  Finally Jesus asked the 12, “Do you also want to go away?”  Peter replied in those familiar words, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”null

    And that’s where we can find some comfort, especially in this little flock called Mt. Zion, when numbers are sometimes disappointing.  What we must finally cling to is not outward signs of success, but the sure promise that the Word of Christ is living and powerful to fulfill its purpose.  Sometimes the purpose of the Word is to reveal the unbelieving heart. That’s why we have those unsettling words in the Gospel, that Jesus spoke in parables so that, “seeing, they may not see, and hearing, they may not understand.”  But above all the Word of God is sent to give life and joy to us descendants of Adam created from the dirt.  God said through the prophet Isaiah, “(My word that goes forth from My mouth) shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.”

    The going forth of God’s Word is like the scattering of seed on all different kinds of soil.  God scatters the seed of His Word recklessly, freely, even on places where there seems little hope of a harvest.  For in His love He desires all to be saved.  The Lord’s Word is alive with His Spirit to give life even to the worst of soils.

    First, like the hardened, foot-worn path, some people become hardened to the Word of God.  Perhaps they’ve been “walked all over” in their lives, mistreated, abused.  Or they’ve been pressed down and wearied by the struggles and difficulties of life.  They say, “Where has God been for me?  Why should I even listen to His Word?”  Or Satan has pressed and hardened some with his lies about the Word as being untrustworthy, or foolish superstition, or that it’s all just a power play by clergy to manipulate people.  And so the Word floats in one ear and out the other, like seed bouncing off a dirt road. The birds of the air snatch it away–which is a reminder of that passage which describes the devil as the prince of the power of the air.  Think of all that flies across our airwaves that seeks to counter the truth of God’s Word.  For the first group, then, the Word doesn’t penetrate the heart and bear fruit and do what it has the power to do.

    Be on guard, therefore, against inattentive and unserious listening to the Word of God.  Martin Luther once wrote that the third commandment is not only violated by those who don’t come to church each week as the commandment requires, but, “it is also violated by that other crowd who listen to God’s Word as they would to any other entertainment, who only from force of habit go to hear the sermon and leave again with as little knowledge at the end of the year as at the beginning! . . . On the other hand, when we seriously ponder the Word, hear it, and put it to use, such is its power that it never departs without fruit. It always awakens new understandings, pleasure, and devotion, and it constantly creates clean hearts and minds. For the Word is not idle or dead, but effective and living.”

    In the second instance, in the planting of the Seed on the rocky soil, there’s the listening that hears and rejoices, believes and thanks God, and yet it’s only a shallow, good-times faith. When the bad-times come along–and they always do sooner or later–the person lets go of the Word and their faith withers and dies. One of the purposes of hearing the Word regularly is to store up in your heart and mind those passages that will see you through the hard times with your faith intact. The Word has the power to do it, if we don’t let it go. So often this happens when tragedy comes–people stop going to church, stop listening to the Word, and then they’re surprised when their faith grows weaker and weaker and finally dies. Remember: faith is never something you can keep alive inside yourself. It only comes from hearing and holding the Word of God.

    Next, our Lord reminds us that even folks who listen to the Word, can still lose it, if they let it get crowded out of their lives by the thorns.  Jesus says these are the cares, riches, and pleasures of life–which is odd because usually when you think of thorns, you think of something that’s painful, something that hurts.  And yet the thorns Jesus mentions include riches and pleasures, things which seem to be the opposite of pain!  But experience teaches that Jesus’ words are true.  For, in fact, the things that often promise us the most pleasure bring us the most pain.  The things of this world  give a temporary happiness but leave us with a lasting sadness and emptiness if they are what we set out hearts on.  These thorns can sedate us into apathy and cause a choking of the Word of God, squeezing it into an ever smaller place in our lives until in the end we don’t really hear it at all.

    And then our Lord reminds us that it is possible to hear His Word in such a way that it bears abundant fruit. He describes those hearts that hear and hold fast the Word as honest and good.  How did those hearts get to be honest and good?  Not of themselves.  All of us are by nature the first three soils.  Only the Word and Holy Spirit of God has the power to till up and clear the soil and renew our hearts.  If, as the Apostle says, faith in Jesus is what purifies the heart, and faith comes by hearing the Word of God, then our hearts will be “honest and good” in no other way than by that Word making its home inside of us, and creating in us a clean heart–the heart of Christ.  

    Here’s really the best way to think of it:  Jesus is Himself the fourth perfect soil.  He is the eternal Word of God, the Seed, having taken root in the earth of our humanity–fully human, but entirely without the rocks and thorns and hardness of sin.  

    This Word became flesh and bore all that has infested your soil.  Jesus was planted in this world by His heavenly Father to save and redeem you.  Behold how this Seed is cast to the earth, how Jesus the Word is thrown onto the wayside, the way of sorrows, where he is dragged to His cross, mocked in His suffering like the caws of scavenging ravens.  But notice that the birds of the air do not devour Jesus’ body, as was often the case with other crucified criminals who would be left for the animals to consume.  This Seed is hurled upon the rocky ground of Golgotha, where he lacked moisture and cried out, “I thirst!”  But in spite of his suffering and thirst, this Seed would not wither away permanently.  And Jesus was even crowned with thorns, the very symbol of Adam’s curse; yet this Seed would not be choked out of existence, but would rise again.  A Seed has to die, if it is to rise out of the earth and bear much fruit.  The fruit of Jesus’ suffering is your salvation.

    In this way our Lord has overcome all that stands against you, all that keeps you from having life, all that keeps you from growing to maturity.  In Christ you are free from hard-heartedness and the rocks of shallow faith and the thorns of this world.  In Christ alone you are the holy fourth soil, pure and righteous and fruitful and forgiven.  In you, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Word of God is implanted.  You have been watered with the Word in your baptism.  And the Word is sown in the soil of your body, placed on your very tongues, in the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.  The power of God to give life is in the Seed.  And the Seed of the Word is in you and with you and for you, the Word of the Father who wants you with all His heart to share forever in His life.

    Let us, then, seek the Lord while He may be found, and call upon Him, for He is near; His Word is here.  Return to the Lord, for He will have mercy on you, and He will abundantly pardon.  His grace in Christ is more than sufficient for you, even in the midst of your weakness.  For His strength is made perfect in the weakness of the cross.  “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”

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

Whatever is Right I Will Give You

Septuagesima
 
 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
 
What is the real difference between the first and the last laborers in the vineyard?  Some might think it’s simply a matter of greed and jealousy, that the first workers didn’t get what they thought they deserved in comparison to the others.  And we can sort of understand their point.  We wouldn’t like it if somebody got paid the same as we did for doing only a fraction of the work.  Nothing seems to arouse our passions more than if there’s even a hint that we are being treated unfairly in money matters.  We love to grouse about overpaid athletes and greedy political and corporate insiders and how we’re not getting paid as much as we’re worth at our job and how high prices have gotten for this or that.  Of course, when we get more than we deserve, a deal that’s more than fair, we’re rarely as vocal about that, unless we’re bragging–which if you think about it is the same as grumbling in an opposite way, just the flip side of an obsession with oneself.  “I’m not being treated fairly” and “Look at what an awesome dealmaker I am” are both attempts at self-exaltation.  But even so, that’s not the primary difference between the first and the last laborers in the vineyard.  It goes deeper than that.
 
The first laborers had an agreement, a contract with the landowner to work for a denarius a day, which was the going rate for a day’s work.  This was a fair day’s wage for a good day’s labor.  The other laborers, though, had no such agreement, no contract.  They didn’t insist upon definite terms.  The landowner simply said, “Go into the vineyard, and whatever is right, I will give you.” null
 
Now if that was you, would you have gone to work for this landowner?  Would you labor for him not knowing what your wages were going to be, if all you had to go on was His promise to do what was right?  It all depends, doesn’t it?  It depends on what kind of person you think him to be–is he miserly or generous, is he a man of good character or bad?  It depends on whether or not you trust him–do you know him, do you have a good relationship with him?  If you didn’t trust the landowner, you probably wouldn’t go into his vineyard.  If you did, you would.
 
That ultimately is the real difference between the first and the last in this parable.  The first were dealing with the landowner on the basis of a contract; the last were dealing with him on the basis of trust in his goodness.  The first wanted to deal with him on what they deemed to be fair.  The last dealt with him on the basis of what he deemed to be good and right.  That’s a big difference.
 
The owner of the vineyard in this parable is God the Father.  By His Word and Spirit He sends out the call of the Gospel to come into His vineyard, which is the church, and for His people to be about the things pertaining to the holy Vine, Jesus Christ.  Some come into the church from the first moments of their life, baptized as infants, remaining faithful their entire lives.  Others are converted as adults.  Some aren’t brought to faith in Christ the Savior until their lives are almost over.  But God gives all the same salvation at the end of the day: full forgiveness of sins, deliverance from death and the devil, everlasting life with Him in heaven.  He does this not because He is unfair, but rather, because He is generous and loving and merciful.  He pours out His gifts on His people abundantly and lavishly.  For the reward at the end of the day is given not based on our work but on the work of His Son, who lived and died and was raised again for us.
 
The problem arises when some in the vineyard of the church begin to think that their length of time and service is what earns salvation, who want God to work on the merit system.  The problem is that this attitude destroys the relationship of love that God wishes to have with His people.  Love has nothing to do with what is owed or deserved.  Real love is a freely given gift with no strings attached.  As soon as we start wanting to deal with God on the basis of what He owes us, it is no longer a relationship of love, but in the end one of manipulation, where we get God to do what we want by pulling the right strings.  We put in the good works, like a coin into the slot, and out comes the blessing.  To treat God like that is really to treat Him as nothing more than a vending machine or a puppet.
 
Besides, it’s foolishness for us to want God to give us what we deserve, anyway.  For here’s what the Scriptures say about our fair wages, “The wages of sin is death.”  Those who end up in hell are really in the end only getting what they asked for, namely, the just and fair payment for their faithless works.  “Go your way,” the landowner said.  Have it your way.  Hell is filled with grumbling and complaining against God.  The damned actually believe that God is wrong, that He’s being unfair to them.  This worsening bitterness and teeth-gritting frustration is a big part of their unending torment. 
 
Do you find yourself considering God to be unfair because of your situation in life or something that’s happened to you?  Are you one whose religion is like a contract with God, a system of rewards for your good deeds?  Do you negotiate with God in your prayers (I’ll do this for you if you do this for me)?  If so, then you are behaving like the first laborers in this parable, and you must repent.  Turn away from ranking yourself above others, turn away from your own works, and turn to the works of Christ.  Believe that it is only and entirely through Him that you receive any blessing from the Father.  Trust in Christ alone to save you from death and hell.  
 
That is the difference between the first and the last, between unbelief and faith.  Unbelievers seek a God who is fair, and when they find Him, they don’t like Him.  Believers seek a God who is merciful and gracious, and when He finds them, they love Him.  (Notice how in the parable, it’s the owner who finds the workers.  He initiates the “hiring.”)  Believers know that it is only by grace that they are even in the vineyard, no matter how long they’ve been there.  They consider it a privilege and an honor to be able to contribute to the health and the growth of the vineyard.  They are not jealous of the newcomer or the repentant restored sinner or the one converted in his dying days, but they rejoice that the same mercy that saved them has also saved another.  Even a faithful lifelong Christian recognizes that of himself he deserves nothing and that it is only because of Jesus that he has forgiveness and life.  As it is written, “The free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).”  And again, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).” 
 
Remember, the landowner said, “Go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.”  The word for “right” in the Greek can also be translated “righteous.”  “Whatever is righteous I will give you.”  That puts a little different perspective on that phrase, doesn’t it.  God is not simply saying, “I will give you whatever is fair,” but, “I will give to you according to my righteous plan of grace.”  “I will give to you what My righteous Son Jesus won for you.”  Or most simply, “I will give you My righteousness.”  It is written in Romans 3, “You are declared righteous freely by God's grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
 
Now this does not mean that we are to be lax and lazy about good works; not at all.  For there is something else about God’s grace here that goes even further, which we don’t often talk about: namely that once God has freely forgiven you and made you a Christian, He does offer rewards for your good works, and that also is a free gift of His mercy.  Listen to what our Lutheran Confession of faith says.  This is from the Apology or the Defense of the Augsburg Confession:  
 
“Here also we add something concerning rewards and merits. We teach that rewards have been offered and promised to the works of believers. We teach that good works are meritorious, not for the forgiveness of sins, . . . but for other rewards, bodily and spiritual, in this life and after this life, because Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:8, “Every man shall receive his own reward, according to his own labor.”  There will, therefore, be different rewards according to different labors. But the forgiveness of sins is alike and equal to all. . .  (For instance,) Paul, in Ephesians 6:2,  commends to us the commandment concerning honoring parents, by mention of the reward which is added to that commandment, where he does not mean that obedience to parents justifies us before God, but that, when it occurs in those who have been justified, it merits other great rewards.”  
Just as disobeying God’s commands can bring great trouble and hardship to people, so also keeping His commands has the promise of great blessings, both for this life and the life of the world to come. This should encourage us to do diligent work in the vineyard.
 
But then, since even this notion of rewards for good works can lead to pride, the Lutheran Reformers go on to remind us of this: “Yet God exercises His saints variously, and often defers the rewards of the righteousness of works in order that they may learn not to trust in their own righteousness, and may learn to seek the will of God rather than the rewards; as appears in Job, in Christ, and other saints” who suffered greatly while doing good.  The Word of God speaks of the blessing and the reward of doing good works, both for this life and the next.  And so we should be moved to do good works.  After all, we aren’t in the vineyard to sit around in the shade but to labor while it is day, before the night comes when no one can work.  But our work is always to be offered in the humility of faith.
 
           It is as we prayed in the Introit, “The Lord will save the humble people, but will bring down proud and haughty looks.”  Or as Jesus said, “The last will be first, and the first last.”  For this is His way.  He who is the first and the greatest humbled Himself to be the last of all on the holy cross.  He Himself is the one who bore the burden and the heat of the day that brings us the generous reward of salvation–handed over to Pontius Pilate at dawn, crucified at the third hour of the day; then darkness covered the land at the sixth hour, noon.  Our Lord died at the ninth hour as the perfect and complete sacrifice for our sin.  He was buried at the eleventh hour of the day just before sundown.  See how the work was all done before you were even brought to the faith.  Hear again those words from the cross, “It is finished.”  For you.
 
Let us then be truly full of good works by trusting in this grace of Christ alone to save us.  Or as St. Paul puts it, let us run in such a way as to obtain the prize of life with Christ.  Let us run with the certainty of faith, setting our hearts on Him, disciplining our bodies and minds, filling ourselves with His words and His life-giving body and blood.  Come and lay hold of the denarius Christ earned for you–not because it’s owed; but simply because it is His pleasure and delight to be generous and loving toward you, to give you whatever is right.
 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Jesus Trespasses into Baptism for Your Trespasses

Matthew 3:13-17
Baptism of our Lord

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

    John the Baptist is back again.  You remember him from Advent, the one preparing the way of the Lord, the one who proclaimed to those who came out to him, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come, the unquenchable fire?”  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”  “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.”  With such words, John the Baptist reminds us that the Christian faith is not always about being nice–though, of course, kindness is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, along with love.  However, love does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth.  And the truth about our sin is not something we want to hear.  The old Adam only wants to hear the truth in watered-down and corrupted form.  “Sure you’ve made mistakes and have your failings, but if you try hard to do what’s right, if your intentions are good, God won’t hold it against you.  Besides, your sins aren’t really that bad.  Nobody’s perfect.”  That’s the kind of talk that the old Adam is drawn to and that he himself engages in; for then he can still find his security in himself and not in God alone.  John won’t let us get away with that.

    Now it is true that, according to Scripture, we are to speak the truth in love.  Our purpose in speaking the truth is always to be for the good of the one who is hearing us; that’s love’s goal.  But hearing the truth about sin, hearing the call to repentance rarely seems loving at the time.  It sounds like judgmentalism and an attack.  We put up our walls and instantly start blaming the messenger of the truth.  But the reality is that John the Baptist actually was speaking the truth in love when he called those coming out to him a brood of vipers, children of the snake of Eden.  For only when they had come to truly see their deathly spiritual condition would they desire the holy cure in Christ and penitently receive His kingdom of pure grace.

    And the same is true for us yet today.  John’s voice still rings through the centuries, calling us away from the fatal loves of this world, from taking refuge in our family heritage or our own spiritual efforts and self-justifications.  He turns us from the way of death, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Jesus the King is here in His words and the sacraments.  Receive Him in humble repentance.  Find your life in Him alone.null

    It’s important that we begin today by remembering all of this about John’s baptism, that it was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  For only then can we begin to understand what’s going on here in today’s Gospel.  John prepared the way of the Lord, but even he didn’t fully grasp the ways of the Lord.  John seems shocked when Jesus comes to him to be baptized, and it is written that John tried to prevent Him, to stop Him from being baptized!  “What are you doing, Jesus?  This is a baptism for those who need to repent.  This is a baptism for sinners in need of forgiveness, not for You, the sinless Son of God.  I should be the one being baptized by You!  Why are you coming to me?  This seems all wrong and improper and upside down.”  

    But Jesus responds, “Permit it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  This is proper; this is right.  For this is why I have come–to stand with sinners in order to save sinners.  

    A pastor friend of mine described what Jesus was doing as a divine trespass.  Usually when we think of trespasses and sins, we think of how we’ve crossed over a boundary and have gone where we shouldn’t go.  By crossing the line, we attempt to enter into God’s territory and do things our own way as if we’re in charge.  But here Jesus does just the opposite.  He crosses out of divine territory and into the territory of fallen man.  He trespasses for our good out of His realm as God into the mud and muck of our sin as fallen creatures.  He doesn’t just make Himself to be like us by becoming human–that we celebrated at Christmas.  Now He goes the final step, the full trespass, and He makes Himself like us by even allowing Himself to be dirtied with our sin.  

    Today, the Son of God is numbered with the trespassers, so that we trespassers may be restored to being children of God.  Saying it most starkly, today Jesus becomes Sin with a capital S.  And if that sounds blasphemous, listen again to these words from 2 Corinthians, “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”  Jesus became a sinner so that you would become saints.  He had no sin of His own; but He made your sin His own, as if He had committed it all.  Isn’t that what John said after Jesus baptism, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  You might say that Jesus stole your sins from you; He took them away.  The only way they can damn you now is if you steal them back and insist on continuing in them and keeping them away from Jesus.  Either your sins are on Him or they’re on you.  And Jesus says today, “They’re all on me.  I took them.  Believe that; deal with it. You don’t get to hold on to them any more; you don’t get to keep beating yourself up over them.  I became your pride, your greed, your lust, your immorality, your jealousy, your impatience, your laziness and weakness.  And in turn you have become My righteousness, My holiness, My glory.  Today I begin My sacred journey toward Calvary, bearing and carrying the sin of the world, so that I may destroy it there by My death and the shedding of My blood.”  

    You see, at His baptism Jesus was not just interacting in some shallow way with the common man.  He is not like Hollywood actors or politicians who go and serve at the local soup kitchen to “identify” with those less fortunate than themselves. Rather, Jesus is more like a very rich man who gives up all his advantages and stands in line with the beggars, and becomes dirt poor and dirty Himself.   He goes so far as to take your place and put Himself into your bondage in order that He might burst the bars of your captivity and conquer your satanic captor.  As Isaiah prophesied, God’s Servant Jesus will “bring out prisoners from the prison, those who sit in darkness from the prison house.”  Our Lord’s Baptism and His holy cross are inseparably connected.  For on both occasions He is there as your substitute.  He trades places with you to set you free from the power of death and to give you the glorious liberty of His everlasting life.

    This is why we hold baptism in such high regard.  This is why it is such a powerful act of God and a true Sacrament.  Our Lord Jesus has put Himself into it!  He who paid the penalty for our sins on the cross has “trespassed” into the water and sanctified it with His real presence.  Christ is in the water to make baptism a fountain of grace and forgiveness and life.  Baptism and the cross still go together, for your salvation, even as they call you to die to yourself and rise with Christ to newness of life.

    There are those who hold baptism in low esteem and consider it to be a mere ceremony or human act of dedication.  They say that Jesus was merely setting an example for us here.  And so the Small Catechism poses the question, “How can water do such great things?” like rescuing from death and the devil and giving eternal salvation to all who believe.  The answer: “Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water.”  Do you see?  It's not mere water that does these wonderful things.  It is the Word of God that is in the water that is the key thing, the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, whom our hearts cling to and trust in.  His presence makes baptism a life-giving, faith creating event.  As Titus chapter three says, “[God the Father] saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior.”  He who needed no baptism put Himself into the River in order that your baptism might be a holy cleansing.  What was washed away from you in your baptism was washed onto Jesus and absorbed by Him in His baptism, that He might take it away from you and conquer it forever.

    That’s why the heavenly Father is so pleased with His Son here.  Jesus faithfully and humbly obeys His Father and gives Himself in love to accomplish your redemption.  And therefore, in Jesus, the Father is perfectly pleased with you as well.  At the holy font you truly were Christened, incorporated into Christ’s body, made to be the temple of the Holy Spirit that descended upon His body.  You’ve become part of the divine family, children of the heavenly Father.  For it is written, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”  No longer are you the brood and offspring of the serpent.  You are sons of God in Christ, forgiven and redeemed and holy children, well-pleasing to Him in Jesus.  God the Father is happy with you; He rejoices in you, His baptized ones.

    Brothers and sisters of Christ, heaven has been opened to you.  The “No Trespassing” sign for sinners has been torn down.  You’re allowed in because of the Divine Trespass of Jesus.  You have crossed the Jordan with Jesus into the Promised Land.  This is real.  You are a child of God in Jesus.  You are precious in God’s sight.  You are His beloved.  Stay close to the river of baptism.  Come back to it daily in repentance and faith.  For your Life, your Jesus, is in the water.  

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

Partaking in Christ's Sufferings

1 Peter 4:12-19; Matthew 2:13-23
Christmas 2

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

    Today’s Epistle begins by saying, “Do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you.”  And yet we still do think it’s strange when bad things happen to us, don’t we?  We’re still shocked and surprised when we have to go through trials and afflictions and sufferings.  For we generally live in denial of the way things are with us and with this world.  We suppress the truth of our original sin and the curse on this creation.  And we pretend that we can be Christians in this world without having to suffer the consequences of following Christ.  So when things go wrong, we get frustrated and angry as if some strange and unfair and totally unexpected thing were happening to us.  Today’s readings help to set matters straight for us.

    First of all, we need to recognize that very often we suffer as a result of our own foolishness.  It is written in 1 Peter, “Let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people’s matters.”  And yet we do.  We murder by daydreaming about payback for those who have hurt us; we steal by getting things under false pretenses; we commit sexual sins in heart and mind if not also in body; we gossip about others and stick our nose in where it doesn’t belong.  We commit all manner of sins that have all manner of spiritual and physical consequences.  So much of the suffering we have to deal with in our lives is self-inflicted, whether it’s in our health or in our finances or in our relationships.  We like to rationalize our behavior and make excuses and deflect blame.  But the Scriptural saying holds true, “You reap what you sow.”  It is written in Galatians, “He who sows to His flesh will of the flesh reap corruption.”  Man very often blames God for the deadly consequences of his own sin.null

    Of course, it is true that some of what you suffer isn’t your fault.  Some of it is the collateral damage of other people’s foolishness.  It’s not just that people make “mistakes” or “bad choices”; they sin.  And sin always has ripple effects.  Sometimes you get caught in that wake, which very often feels more like a tsunami.  Often it’s those who are the most vulnerable who bear the brunt of other people’s behavior.  We shouldn’t be surprised that living as a sinner among sinners in a fallen world, we’re going to have to regularly deal with the aftereffects of the fall in trials and afflictions.

    But here’s where Jesus enters into the picture.  Here’s where our suffering is redeemed by the Son of God, who shared fully in our humanity and bore our infirmities and sins and carried all of our afflictions.  For Peter’s main point here is not about suffering because of sin but suffering because of Christ who has taken away our sin and saved us.  He says, “Rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings. . . If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter.”  Holding to the words and the ways of Christ is to be in conflict with the words and the ways of this world.  We should not think it strange or be shocked when we suffer as followers of Jesus, for it is precisely through suffering that He redeemed us.  Not only should we not be surprised at suffering for Jesus’ name, we should in fact rejoice that we have been given that privilege, that we have been granted a portion in Christ’s cross and its blessings.  In Acts chapter 5, in the early days of the church, the apostles were beaten for preaching the name of Jesus.  Afterwards, it is written, “So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name.  And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.”  To be a disciple of Jesus is to take up the cross daily and follow Him, holding to the faith in spite of the cost.

    From the very earliest moments of His life, we see that the way of Christ is the way of the cross.  Not only was He born in the most humble circumstances, as we heard at Christmas.  But from the very start, the infant Son of God was vulnerable and under assault.  The people of this world will try to destroy anything that threatens the worldly power and treasures they hold onto.  And King Herod was no different.  Seeing Jesus as a future rival to His throne, he took the horrific and tyrannical step of trying to destroy Him by killing all the infant boys in the city of Bethlehem, even up to two years old!  Jesus and His family had to flee for refuge to a foreign country, Egypt.  Even upon their return to Israel, they had to change their destination out of fear of Herod’s son, Archelaus.  There was nothing glorious or easy or free of suffering even in the earliest days of Jesus’ life.  If that is true of our Lord, we should not be surprised if it is true also for us.  For Jesus said, “A disciple is not above his Teacher.”  

    There is some comfort to be taken in this, however.  Looking at Jesus’ childhood, it appeared that things were rather out of control.  Joseph and Mary may well have wondered just what was going on.  Simeon had spoken of how Jesus would be a sign that would be spoken against.  But I’m sure they still expected that the Messianic promises regarding Jesus might have meant something more glorious than living as refugees in Egypt and shuffling around from this place to that.  And yet even though they couldn’t see the whole picture at the time, all of this took place in fulfillment of Scripture and to carry out God’s eternal plan of salvation.  What seemed out of control was still under God’s gracious direction.  And so it is also for all of you who are baptized into Christ.  No matter what’s going on in your life, you can still be confident that your times are in His hands.

    For Jesus, that detour to Egypt fulfilled God’s plan in Hosea 11, where He said, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”  Hosea’s prophecy was originally spoken concerning the entire nation of Israel who had been slaves in Egypt.  That is why it was important that Jesus also would be called from Egypt, too.  For it was His task to be the embodiment of God’s people, to do perfectly and without sin what Israel had failed to do.  After being delivered from their slavery, the children of Israel had grumbled against God and rebelled against Him.  They did not live as His holy people or glorify His name among the nations.  But now the Child of Israel, Jesus, has come to do that perfectly, accomplishing God’s will completely on behalf of Israel and all people.  So in the seemingly minor detail of the calling of Jesus out of Egypt, we see that He was fulfilling the Law for us, actively doing all that was necessary to rescue us.  Jesus is the new Jacob, the new Israel, going down to Egypt and coming up again to be our Redeemer, to bring us into the Promised Land of life with God.

    So also in the prophecy that Jesus would be a Nazarene.  It was more than just political circumstances that were at play in Jesus living in Nazareth.  In the Old Testament we learn that the Messiah would be humble and ultimately even despised.  And if there was ever a lowly and despised town in Israel, one that you didn’t want to admit you were from, it was Nazareth, near Gentile territory.  Even one of Jesus' own disciples once said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  That is why Jesus was a Nazarene.  He was to bear affliction and rejection and the most horrific sufferings of the cross for you to cleanse you of all sin.  

    This is our comfort, then, in our own suffering.  Through such suffering our lives are being conformed to Christ.  In Him we trust that even when everything seems to be out of control, He is at work for our eternal good and our salvation.  Our suffering humbles us and empties us of our self-righteous foolishness and teaches us to look to the Lord for help.  And it reminds us of how He suffered for us.  The cross becomes all the more precious to us, that we have a God who loved us to that extent, who shed His blood for us, who has promised to never leave us or forsake us in our afflictions.  We learn to see that He is our only Help and our only Hope.

    The baby boys of Bethlehem suffered and died because they were under the wicked Herod’s authority.  But their suffering was redeemed because even more so their suffering was for the sake of Christ, who became a weak baby boy for them to rescue them.  Though it certainly didn’t seem so at the time, the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem were given to share in Christ’s glory as the first martyrs for His name.  Though their lives were violently cut short, they are blessed in Jesus, having been delivered so quickly from the burdens of this fallen world.  Being close to Christ does mean sharing in His sufferings.  But it is the opposite of being in the wake of those people who bring you trouble by what they do.  Here through partaking in Christ’s suffering, He brings you to glory.

    So in the midst of your afflictions, especially those trials you undergo for believing God’s Word and doing what is right in God’s sight, take to heart the words of God to you in Romans 8: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”  Not only back in bible times but also still today, God is active in human history working out His good and perfect will for the sake of His church.   And so we trust that despite any appearances to the contrary, God is with us and graciously at work in our lives.  For we are the called ones, chosen in Holy Baptism, made to be the forgiven children of God.  Even in the midst of our human vulnerability, God is carrying out His almighty will for our benefit.

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

    Come, then, to the altar of the Lord’s love.  You are here given to partake of Christ's sufferings in a most blessed way.  If the almighty Lord would go so far as to take on your vulnerable human flesh, to die in the flesh and shed His blood, and then give you His resurrected flesh and blood for the forgiveness of your sins, certainly you can trust Him even in those times when there seems to be no reasonable answers to your questions.  For in the end, the answer to all of those questions, the solution to all of those problems is the One in the manger and on the cross and under the bread and the wine.  This is your strength for living in the new year.  And if you must suffer according to the will of God, commit your souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator.

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

Your Brother in the Flesh Stands Up For You

St. Stephen's Day, December 26th
Acts 68 - 7:2a, 51-20
 
✠ In the name of Jesus ✠
 
Even if you’ve regularly observed St. Stephen’s Day over the years, it is still a little bit jarring to hear readings like those appointed for today.  In a season normally associated with merriment and good cheer, in the midst of our specially decorated churches, it seems strange at first that this 2nd day of Christmas, the season marking Christ’s birth, should be devoted to meditating on a martyr’s death.  The message of the angels was, “Peace on earth, good will toward men.”  There doesn’t appear to be either peace or good will in Stephen’s bloody murder. 
 
The holy Child Jesus has indeed brought peace between God and man.  For God and man have been brought together again quite literally in Jesus.  That’s why He is the only Way for you to be reconciled to God; He alone bridges and rejoins heaven and earth in Himself.  But Christ Jesus was delivered and born of woman in order that He might be delivered into the hands of sinful men; He shared in our flesh and blood precisely so that He might suffer in the flesh and shed His blood for the forgiveness of our sins–that’s God’s good will toward men.  Already in the manger, the swaddling cloths He is wrapped in point us to the burial cloths He will be entombed in, that He is One destined to be despised and rejected by men.  The wisdom of the church’s calendar reminds us today that those who follow and cling to this Jesus can expect the possibility of similar despising and rejection in this world.  Our Lord said in Luke 12, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”  Peace with God means enmity with the world.  The righteousness of Christ given as a free gift will always be at odds with the righteousness that man tries to achieve for himself through his own goodness and spirituality.
 
We see this division, this enmity very clearly as Stephen stands before the Sanhedrin.  Stephen speaks the truth to them, the truth of how they resist the Holy Spirit, who calls them to repentance, to turn from their works to Christ’s that they might be saved.  Earlier at Pentecost, the hearers of Peter’s preaching were cut and pierced to the heart, and they said, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”  They were brought to repentance and were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins.  Now, these members of the Sanhedrin are also cut to the heart it says by Stephen’s preaching.  But a different word is used here showing that their stony hearts were not pierced, like seed on the hardened path.  For it says they gnashed their teeth at him–gritting their teeth and growling like the beasts their sin had reduced them to.  One cannot help but think about our Lord’s words regarding those who reject Him in unbelief–for them there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth forever.null
 
Stephen also testified to the truth of what he saw in that moment: the heavens were opened and Jesus was standing at God’s right hand.  The Sanhedrin–the same council that had condemned our Lord–when they heard Stephen say this, they stopped their ears, literally putting their hands to the sides of their heads, and they rushed at him with one accord, cast him out of the city, and stoned him to death. 
 
There are several things we should learn from this.  To begin with, we must confess that we also don’t like it when our sin is laid before our eyes and we are called to turn from it.  Our old Adam is a one-man Sanhedrin, who tries to silence the ones calling us to repentance–either by verbally stoning them and attacking them or just by covering our ears, so to speak, ignoring the truth.  God grant that when you are confronted with His Word of truth and cut to the heart, you will be pierced and given repentance, that He will unclench your jaw and unstop your ears, and create in you a clean heart and renew a right spirit within you.
 
Most clearly, though, we learn from Stephen’s martyrdom how this fallen world, with the powers that uphold its false spiritualities, is a Sanhedrin to Christ’s church.  The world does not want to hear the words of God and wants to silence the voice of those who confess the Christian faith and the saving name of Jesus.  Whether it’s in matters of the teaching on creation or sexuality and marriage or, above all, in matters of salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, the world stops its ears to the truth, it mocks and marginalizes the faithful, and where possible it tries to cast them out as hateful blasphemers of the cultural dogma and underminers of society.  We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we’ve yet been persecuted in any way approaching that of the early church (though that’s certainly a different story for Christians today in the Middle East and elsewhere).  But many of you have been given to glimpse and to experience not just disagreement but the utter disdain the world has for you and your beliefs and your Lord Jesus who said, “If the world hates you, know that it hated Me before it hated you” (John 15:18).
 
So let us take to heart the words of 1 Peter 4, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”  
 
Stephen was blessed by God in this way, rejoicing even in the face of his mortal enemies.  It is written that his face was like the face of an angel.  What does that mean?  Well, where are the angels’ faces turned?  Jesus said that they always see the face of His Father in heaven.  The angels reflect His glory.  So it is also with Stephen.  His face reflects the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  We become like that which we fix our eyes on.  Wasn’t Stephen like Jesus here, asking forgiveness for his enemies, commending his spirit into God’s hands?  We have the sure promise of Scripture, “When [Jesus] is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.” 
 
Stephen speaks as one baptized.  For He is filled with the Holy Spirit; and he saw the heavens opened, as they were at Jesus’ baptism.  The heavens are opened for all who are baptized into Him, for you who are born of water and the Spirit.  And in these opened heavens, what does Stephen see but Jesus standing at God’s right hand.  Ordinarily, we use the language of the creed, that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God, the position of ruling and reigning.  But here He is standing.  This is important to note.  For consider that Stephen is on trial here.  This is a courtroom scene.  Though he is condemned to death by the Sanhedrin, there is One who stands in his defense, who intercedes and speaks on His behalf before the court of the Most High, and who will deliver Stephen from the judgment of ungodly men.
 
And so it is also for you.  Jesus stood in for you in death as your substitute, and now He stands up for you as your Intercessor and Advocate and Defender.  It is written in Romans 8, “Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: ‘For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.’  Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”  Sin and Satan and the world may condemn and attack you, but you have a mighty Defender and Advocate before the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous.  He Himself was cut to the heart for you, pierced with a spear, and the blood and water that flowed cleanses you and protects you.  The hymn may say, “Stand up, stand up for Jesus”–and Stephen certainly did that.  But what finally counts in the end is that Jesus stands up for you, the incarnate and risen Lord, who has human feet and legs to stand with, your blood Brother, the Almighty Son of God.  
 
And if I may carry this one final step: standing is also a sign of honor.  Jesus here honors Stephen; He stands as if to receive Stephen out of this world and unto Himself.  The psalmist prays, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.”  So it is for you.  Jesus honors you.  He stands for you, as a Gentleman for His elect Lady, His holy Church.
 
This is where we find our strength to confess the faith boldly as Stephen did, whether it affects our social standing or our economic standing or our very lives.  We confess Jesus before men in the sure confidence that He will rise to His feet and confess us before His Father in heaven.  
 
Though it may not appear so, Stephen was granted a blessed end.  Though it was not painless, it was blessed, for he fell asleep in Christ, looking to Him who is the Victor over death.  God grant that whether our end is violent or peaceful, that we may die as Stephen did, with our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  He is your Brother in the flesh who stands up for you.
 
✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

Your King is Coming to You

Matthew 21:1-19
Advent 1

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

    It is written in the Psalms, “Wait on the LORD; Be of good courage, And He shall strengthen your heart; Wait, I say, on the LORD!”  “Evildoers shall be cut off; But those who wait on the LORD, they shall inherit the earth.”  And it is written in Isaiah, “Those who wait on the LORD Shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

    Yet even with those great promises of God, we are not a people who like to wait, on God or anything else.  Everything needs to be available within a couple of clicks.  People better answer our calls or texts without delay.  Christmas is four weeks away, so we’d better start celebrating and playing all the music and doing all the shopping right now.  What is it about the world–and even that bit of the world that resides in us–that can’t wait, that must do all the celebrating in advance so that by the time the actual holiday comes, you’re weary of the songs and the artificial cheer and you’re ready to move on, especially if things don’t quite live up to expectations?null

    I think the answer is to be found in the fact that for the world, there is no certainty about the future.  All they see looming in the distance is decay and death.  So what’s the point of waiting?  With the world it’s life, then death, so you’d better have your fun now before your time’s gone.  But that’s not the way of the church and the people of God.  For us, what we see in the distance is something far better than anything we will know in this world.  Christians know that the pattern that Jesus has laid down for us is death, then life, first humility, then exaltation, first repentance, then forgiveness and reconciliation and joy.  That’s why we have Lent before Easter, and it is why we have Advent before Christmas.  We can delay our gratification; we can afford to wait.  For we wait on the Lord, who will in the end give us the greatest joy and happiness in the fulfillment of His promises.  

    The world celebrates holidays backwards.  But the church has it right.  That’s why it’s not yet the Christmas season but the Advent season.  This is a time of penitent and hope-filled preparation.  This is a time not for mere sentimentality but to dwell more fervently on the Word of God to make ready the way of His coming to us–which is the reason for the additional midweek Advent services.  And even though we will follow the tradition of many churches of putting up the Christmas decorations on the third Sunday in Advent–which is called “Gaudete” or “Rejoice Ye” Sunday–we won’t light all the lights and candles until Christmas Eve.  We eagerly anticipate Christmas, but now’s not the time for the full celebration.  We don’t sing the “Glory Be to God on High” yet in the liturgy.  That’s the song of the angels at Jesus’ birth.  Now’s the time for waiting and discipline and preparing for the coming of our Lord in the flesh to save us.

    That’s why we have the somewhat unusual Gospel that we do today.  Advent means “coming” or “arrival.”  This Gospel teaches just how it is that our Lord comes to us–humbly, whether on a beast of burden or in a lowly manger.  Jesus comes not simply to be born; He is born to humble Himself even to the point of death on a cross, to give His life as a ransom to rescue us from sin and death and the devil.  “Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly and sitting on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

    Note that there are two donkeys that Jesus rides, an older one, the mother, and a younger one, a colt, the mother’s foal.  These two donkeys represent God’s Old and New Testament people.  First, Jesus rides the old, to show that He is the fulfillment of all that Israel was about and all that its prophets foretold.  Then Jesus rides the new, which is born from the old, the new Israel, which is the church.  Our Lord comes to make all things new by dying and rising again.  Out of the old order of death comes a new order of invincible life for us in Jesus.  He unites all believers, from the Old Testament and the New, from every nation and race, together as His true and everlasting Israel.

    And let us not forget that we are the donkey, a very stubborn animal, hard-headed, set in our sinful ways, eager to go our own direction.  And so Christ must ride us and gently but firmly drive us toward the cross.  He drives us to die with Him, to die to ourselves, so that we may also rise with Him to new life, real life.  He drives us to repentance through the Law so that through the Gospel we may have His full and free forgiveness.

    The people spread their clothes on the road before Christ.  This is a fitting sign of their repentance and their faith in Him.  For we must all lay aside our clothing.  St. Paul exhorts us, “Let us cast off the works of darkness and let us put on the armor of light.”  You too, then, must cast your clothes on the road before Christ, laying aside the stubborn works of your sinful nature.  For that is how you repent and prepare the way of the Lord.  Do not engage in gluttony and drunkenness.  Do not indulge in immoral passions and lusts.  Do not give way to strife and division and envy and pride.  For these things choke you off from the life of God.  

    Instead receive by faith the clothing that only God can provide.  “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”  For He is your righteousness, as Jeremiah says.  Jesus wore all of your dark, sin-stained clothing and made it His own so that you would be free from it.  Jesus Himself became the beast of burden, bearing and carrying the sin of the whole world to the cross.  He became Sin for you, so that you would become righteous before the Father by His holy sacrifice.  Jesus perished in the darkness so that you would wear His garments of light and live as children of the Day.   

    That’s the sort of king you have in Jesus, not one who coerces and forces His subjects to serve Him at the tip of a sword or with guns and bombs, but one who lays down His life to serve His subjects, who draws you to Himself through His self-giving.  Every other king sends out soldiers into battle to fight on His behalf.  But this King goes into battle Himself to fight on your behalf.  He rides not on an armor-clad stallion, but an animal of peace–for He comes to bring you peace, as the Christmas hymn sings, “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.”  This King will ascend His throne not by wearing a crown of gold but a crown of thorns, not by defending Himself but by becoming defenseless, dying so that you may live and escape from the enemy’s grasp.  This is the King who is coming to you.

    And notice that He’s the One doing the traveling.  You don’t have to go out searching for Him.  Jesus searches you out and comes to you.  You can’t get to God through your own spirituality or works or emotions.  But God can and does come to you in His grace, 100% of the way.  Without our asking or help, He came down from heaven right to where we’re at, right into our very body and soul, taking up our human nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin.  He even went so far as to come into contact with the slime and the slop of our sin and death on the cross so that we would be cleansed and rescued from them by His precious blood.

    And our Lord still rides into this Jerusalem, this Mount Zion, meekly and humbly.  The gates of the city through which He enters among us are His words and sacraments.  There in simple water, in spoken and preached words, mounted upon bread and wine, the Lord Jesus comes to you to bring you His forgiveness and life, that He might live in you and you in Him forever–no Christmas-special glitter and fanfare, just beast-of-burden humility and love. So it is that before receiving the Sacrament, we sing the Sanctus, which contains the very same words that were shouted to Jesus in the Gospel, “Hosanna in the highest.  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”

    Let us all , then, come forth to meet our King Jesus with heartfelt Hosannas, casting our prayers and praises like palm branches on the path before Him.  Hosanna means “Save now.”  “Save us, Lord.”  It is a penitent cry of praise which is confident that the Lord will help us who wait on Him.  We know that Jesus comes to us here, to give us poor beggars His royal and divine treasure.  While the world madly rushes by with its mobbed stores and Black Fridays and small business Saturdays and Cyber Mondays, as people anxiously spend their money on treasures that wear out, here in churches that are too often ignored, that which does not wear out is freely obtained.  Here are gifts for you with an eternal guarantee, warrantied by Christ’s own blood.  Let us receive Him who alone gives real peace and lasting comfort and happiness, who comes to you humbly and lowly.  “Daughter of Zion, behold, your King is coming to you.  He is righteous and having salvation!”

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

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