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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 ✠

Watch, Therefore

Last Sunday of the Church Year

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

    We live in a world that loves a comeback story–somebody really messed up their life, or lost badly in sports, or made a terrible decision, or failed at something.  But then instead of that being the end of the story, they change, they turn things around, they humbly learn from their faults and things are made right and good in the end.  Deep down we believe everyone deserves a second chance–for we know how many times we’ve needed second chances.

    And in many ways, that’s very much a Scriptural notion.  We heard in last week’s epistle about how the Lord’s delay in His return is because of His longsuffering patience and His desire that all come to repentance.  He doesn’t want anyone to perish eternally, but for all to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.  We know that parable where even the workers hired at the 11th hour receive the denarius of salvation.  Our God is indeed the God of the second chance, and the third and the fourth and the 490th chance.  He is a God of patience and forgiveness and grace.

    However, there will come a time when 2nd chances will finally run out.  Jesus’ parable of the 10 virgins is an example of that.  They only had one opportunity to get it right.  And when the bridegroom comes late, the oil of the foolish has run out, the storekeepers’ shops are closed, and the door to the marriage feast is shut–and there’s no do-overs or turning back the clock.null

    This, then, is one of the messages of today’s Gospel.  We dare never presume upon the grace of the Lord.  What a foolish thing it is to say, “I’ll take the things of God seriously in a few years, later on.  Right now I’ve got to focus on other things.”  Just as foolish is the notion we can put off our repentance.  That is perhaps the most foolish and dangerous thing of all.  If you are willfully clinging to your sin now, willfully putting off repentance until some nebulous future point, what makes you think your heart will suddenly be repentant later?  Resisting the work of the Holy Spirit is a dangerous game.  It numbs the conscience and deadens faith until finally you no longer feel your need for repentance or forgiveness or Jesus at all.

    Now is the time; now is the day of salvation.  Now is the moment for repentance and watching and receiving the Lord’s gifts.  Now is the time to be wise in the midst of this foolish generation.  

    In the Scriptures, wisdom is not equated with a high IQ or great learning. One may be wise without being academically smart.  Many of you have seen this in folks from generations past, who may not have even finished gradeschool, but who had a humble and insightful wisdom that some with doctorates don’t possess today.  In the Bible real wisdom is seeing things–seeing all of life–from God's perspective, having the mind of Christ as St. Paul puts it.  Our Lord tells the story in Matthew 7 of the wise man who builds his house on the rock. Jesus says, “Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: and the rain descended and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock.”  In other words, the wise man knows that only a life built on the words of Jesus will endure, for even though the heavens and the earth pass away, His words will never pass away.  It is no wonder, then, that Moses prays in Psalm 90 saying, “So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”  Moses’ prayer is not simply that we might be smart, but that we might see our fleeting days from God’s perspective.

    Five of the virgins are wise.  They do not live for the moment.  They live as those who have been invited to a most important wedding event.  They do not know at what hour the bridegroom will come and lead them into the wedding hall.  They do not know when the party would begin.  But they know that the bridegroom is on His way and that they are his invited guests.  So their lives are lived toward that wedding.  Nothing else is as important as that event.  So they are prepared for the wait. They check their lamps. They buy extra oil. Their flasks are full.

    No doubt they seemed kind of foolish lugging around those extra jars of oil, sort of like some bad episode of doomsday preppers. Maybe they were called silly for being so concerned with having enough oil for a long wait.  Perhaps they were told to loosen up and have a good time and not to be so extreme or obsessive. Nevertheless, these wise women paid attention to the oil, and when the bridegroom finally arrived, they were prepared. They were ready to take part in the marriage feast.

    It is now too late for the five foolish virgins. The bridegroom arrives and there is no more opportunity to purchase oil. They are unprepared for the feast and unable to enter into the joy of the celebration. The door is shut and they are excluded.

    What does this mean for us? Jesus' own explanation of the parable says it all, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.”  Watching does not mean that we should be speculating about the day or the hour.  History is full of failed predictions about the end.  All we are given to know is that Jesus’ return will come suddenly and unexpectedly, like a thief in the night, like the flood in Noah’s day, like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  All we are given to do is to watch, to be ready, to devote ourselves to the worship of Christ and the receiving of His gifts.  

    To watch is to believe and to hope in His promises.  It is to make Christ and His return what you are living for.  The Word of God is the lamp to our feet and the light to our path.  It is filled with the oil of the Holy Spirit, who makes us wise unto salvation and keeps the flame of faith in Christ burning brightly. To watch is to be vigilant about the things of Christ, the life-giving gifts which He purchased for us with His holy and precious blood.

    A church that ceases to watch will lose the Gospel. A church that becomes lazy or complacent regarding God’s doctrine is in danger of losing the teaching of Christ, falling from faith.  Therefore, the Apostle Paul writes to Pastor Timothy and all pastors: “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (I Tim. 4:16). Our watching is not a gazing up into the heavens, but attentiveness to the voice of our Good Shepherd as He speaks to us in His Word.  We are now living in that evil age which Paul spoke about when he said, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from the truth to wander into myths” (II Tim. 4:3). We are to watch by holding fast God’s Word, hearing it, learning it, and taking it to heart.

    This is the evening of the wedding feast. This is a time when the oil is still available. In fact, there is more than enough oil. For the forgiveness of sins purchased by our Savior through His atoning death on the cross is enough for the whole world, for all of you; it covers every single one of your sins–none left out. There is no shortage of supply in His grace and mercy. This oil of the Holy Spirit is distributed now in the preaching of the Gospel and the giving out of Jesus' body and blood in the Holy Supper. The wise cannot get enough of these, for they always give us more of Jesus, and the more we get of Him, the more ready and eager we are to receive Him when He comes again in glory.  And remember that the One who is coming is your Redeemer.  He is the One who in His first coming willingly suffered for you in weakness to break the power of the curse over you. He is the One who loves you and forgives you.  He is the One who comes not in wrath and judgment for you who believe but to bring you the fullness of joy.

    When all is said and done, when we have properly been shaken down to our souls with the urgency of the call to watch and the finality of what will happen on the Day of Christ’s return, we also need to take a deep breath and let it out with a joyous laugh.  Because what we are watching for is a celebration.  The unknown day and hour is not a dreadful time for the faithful; it is the ultimate day of happiness that we eagerly seek and look forward to.  It is the ultimate holiday, the holy Day when the Lord, whom we love and trust in, is revealed, and when we get to be with Him and revel in His presence.  If being reunited with loved ones for the holidays and just spending time together can bring great happiness, how much more will that be true of the return of our Savior?  The Lord who is coming is not like that snooty relative who walks around finding all the flaws in your house and who is eager to give advice on how you should do things better.  Rather He is like the uncle who always brings the funniest gifts and tells the best stories and who you just like hanging around with.  Make no mistake, the One who is coming is your God and your Lord to whom you owe the greatest reverence.  But He has also made Himself to be your flesh and blood.  And so we do indeed need to watch for His coming; but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the merriment of the wedding feast.”

    Our waiting, then, is not a fearful thing, but finally a joyful thing.  It is, after all, our Bridegroom who is coming.  And He says to you, “Assuredly, I do know you in your baptism.  More than you have watched for me, I have watched out for you.  My eyes are on you to save you.  I have redeemed you and claimed you as my own.  You are holy and righteous.  What awaits you is a new heaven and a new earth. No more tears. No more sorrow. No more crying. No more pain. All things made new.  Perfect delight.  The fulfillment of your salvation.”  That’s why we sing and pray:

Now come, Thou blessed One,
      Lord Jesus, God's own Son.
Hail! Hosanna! We enter all
the wedding hall
     To eat the Supper at Thy call. (LSB 516:2)

    This divine service is the Last Day in miniature.  I cry out to you, we all cry out to each other, “Wake, awake!  The Bridegroom is here!  Jesus is coming to you in the Holy Sacrament.  Go out to meet Him at His holy altar.  He comes to you in mercy.  Enter into the joy of the wedding feast.”

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

 

Politics and Religion

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

    You know the saying that if you want to avoid conflict with people, you shouldn’t talk about politics or religion.  Well, Jesus was never one to avoid conflict, and the Word of God for today requires us to talk about both politics and religion.  For God is at work in both arenas–in the left hand kingdom of the Law, and in the right hand kingdom of the Gospel.

    For some people, politics is almost a religion in itself; they daily pay attention to the latest news and polls and political talk shows, acting as if everything important hangs on who gets elected–as if Jesus isn’t still at the right hand of the Father as Lord of all and King of kings.  Others are just as religious in avoiding politics altogether; they don’t care to be bothered with what’s going on in government, and they shirk their duties as citizens.

    And it goes the other way, too.  Some are very political in their religion.  They see their religion as a means to accomplish political goals in the kingdoms of this world.  For them being Christian is all about “social justice” or getting certain laws and policies enacted and trying to set up the kingdom of God on this earth, as if sin and evil could be overcome and a perfect world could be established by the right laws and political structures.  But the kingdom of God is not of this fallen world; we know that no utopia can be established that is comprised of and run by sinful human beings.  We are only pilgrims here, this is not our home.  And so while Christians do work for the good of their fellow man in this life, the church is especially about proclaiming repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Christ so that people might have eternal life with God.  One of the results of the fall is that we tend to confuse politics and religion and their God-given place in our lives.null

    That certainly happens in today’s Gospel reading.  The Pharisees try to entangle Jesus in His talk.  They don’t like many of the things He’s been saying, so they see if they can trip Him up and cause Him problems publicly–sort of like a questioner at a political debate trying to make a candidate say something that will cause him to look foolish or lose popularity.  

    The Pharisees, who were very serious religious types, get together with some Herodians, who were political types, supporters of King Herod and the Roman political structure.  The Pharisees had nothing in common with the Herodians except that they both wanted to get rid of Jesus–politics makes strange bedfellows.  After trying to flatter Jesus, they asked the question, “Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”  Of course, here’s the trap.  If Jesus says “no,” it is not right to pay taxes to Caesar, then He is guilty of treason against Rome and the political Herodians would be the first to report Him.  If Jesus says “yes,” it is right to pay taxes to Caesar, then He is guilty of disloyalty to Israel, and the religious Pharisees could use that to turn the common people against Him.

    They must have thought they were pretty smart; they must have thought they had Jesus cornered.  Just as we like to think we’re pretty smart, too, the way we can turn everything into a complicated ethical dilemma as soon as the Word of God starts getting a little too close for comfort and condemning us for our sin.  We’re good at changing the subject or coming up with questions about the latest issue of the day that distract from the main issues of repentance and forgiveness, of who Jesus is and what He’s done for us.   Don’t play tricks with God; don’t try to avoid His words to you with the clever language of lawyers and loopholes.  He knows the way you try to evade Him and who He is and what He says.

    Repent.  Jesus will not be distracted.  He will not be caught in men’s feeble traps.  He asks the Pharisees and the Herodians to show Him the tax money.  And He says to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?”  They said to Him, “Caesar’s.”  The coin had a portrait of Tiberias on the one side, and a picture of him seated on his throne on the other.  The inscription declared Tiberias to be the great ruler.  Then Jesus said, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”  And they marveled at His words and went their way.  You get the sense that Jesus wants to get beyond mere politics to the ral business of theology, the things of God.

    But first things first.  Politics does have its place.  Romans 13 says that God has established those who are in civil authority, whomever they might be.  Therefore, we are to honor them, pray for them, follow the laws of the land–as long as they do not cause us to sin–and yes, we are to pay our taxes.  No Christian says that since God is his King, he doesn’t have to obey earthly rulers.  God has given them their authority, even if they don’t use it wisely, whether we like them or not, whether they’re Christian or not.  Tiberias was a pagan and no believer.  “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.”  

    Now if the civil authorities try to cause us to sin–to deny His Word in some way, to do things that are morally wrong or that go against our faith in Christ, then we are duty bound to disobey Caesar.  We only honor Caesar for God’s sake.  And if Caesar wants us to deny the God who gave him his civil authority, we must obey God rather than men, as Peter says in the book of Acts.  And so we don’t submit to Caesar’s sinful definition of marriage just because it’s “the law of the land”; we don’t endorse the legal expendability of life in the womb, and we will do nothing whatsoever that condones or supports those things.  But even then, if the day comes when the church is persecuted for standing firm for her beliefs, we recognize that God is even at work there.  He works all things, even the evils of ungodly government for our eternal good, for the purification of the church and for the strengthening of our confession of the faith.  The church has always been strongest in times of persecution, when living at odds with the world.  For God accomplishes His greatest good through suffering, most especially through the cross of our Lord Jesus.

    Which brings us to the second half of Jesus’ statement, which is really the more important.  “Render unto God the things that are God’s.”  Well, everything is God’s, so give Him everything.  Psalm 24 says, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.”  Paying taxes is really nothing, then.  God wants all of you–all you are and all you have.  He doesn’t just want a couple of hours on a Saturday night or a Sunday morning and some money put into the plate so you feel like you’ve done your duty.  And then you get back to your real life out there.  He wants to be your real life everywhere, 100% of the time, at the heart of all you are and all you do.  He Himself is your life, isn’t He?  The Source, the Creator, the Redeemer.  To render to God the things that are God’s, then, means to honor Him as the true owner of everything you have and to manage it in a way that is pleasing to Him.  That starts with the 10% that should go in the offering plate here to support the mission of the church, but it continues with the other 90% that you are given to use and manage out there for the good of your neighbor and the glory of God.

    Remember, it’s all about the image.  The coin bore Caesar’s image, so it was given to Caesar.  And what bears God’s image?  You do.  You are in the image of God.  And so you are given to God.

    But also remember this.  You do not give yourself to God.  You are brought to God in Christ. For while you are in God’s image, Jesus actually is the image of the invisible God Himself according to Colossians 1.  The image of God was broken in us through sin, and it is restored only in Christ. Just as an image of a president is pressed into a coin, so Christ Himself is the image of God “coined” in our human flesh.  And as money is offered up to pay taxes, so Jesus was offered up to God to pay for our sins on the cross, rendered to the Father as a sweet sacrifice. Jesus purchased and redeemed you, not with gold or silver but with His holy, precious blood.  And there was even an inscription that was placed over Jesus head at Calvary by an agent of Caesar himself.  It read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”  There is Jesus on His throne for you.

    You see, when it comes to settling accounts with God, you can do one of two things: either you can render to Him your own works and your own goodness, which always fall short, or you can trust in the works and the sacrifice of Christ rendered to the Father as the full and complete payment for your sins.  So then at its heart, to render to God the things that are God’s is simply to rely on Christ and believe in Him.  It is to point to Christ the crucified and say, “There is my salvation.  He alone is the offering that wins for me everlasting life.”  To put it another way, we render to Caesar obedience, but we render to God the love and trust of our hearts.

    And there is still more.  For through your baptism into Christ, the Lord put His own inscription on you, His own Triune name.  On you, whose image was tarnished and corrupted, Jesus stamped the sign of the cross and joined you to Himself.  In Jesus the very image of God is restored to your humanity.  You are now God’s holy coinage, His cherished treasure.  What shall we render, then, to the Lord, for all His benefits to us?  We offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving, calling on the name of the Lord.  And living in Christ, we offer up our bodies by the mercies of God as living sacrifices by loving our neighbor.

    For we know that we are now citizens of heaven.  We are as foreigners who are only passing through to our true homeland.  So we don’t have to live as if we’re so attached to the things of this life.    You are citizens of this country only for a short time; you will live under Christ in His kingdom for all eternity.  Set the deepest love of your hearts, then, on that better, heavenly country.  Let your highest attachment not be to the American flag but to the holy cross.  Let that be the real joy and delight of your hearts.  St. Paul wrote in the Epistle, “We eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body.”  By the all-encompassing power of the Lord, these lowly bodies of ours will undergo a wonderful and mysterious transformation on the day of resurrection, so that they will be like the glorious body of Jesus after His resurrection.  Your bodies will finally no longer be threatened by all of the troubles and the sin and the sickness and the death they experience in this world.  Rather, you will live before God amidst the holy pleasures of the new creation eternally.

    Let us, therefore, render unto Caesar what is his and to God what is His.  Let us above all else, give allegiance to the eternal Father, and to Jesus who is Lord over all things for the sake of His church, holding to His saving Word and to our catechism and creeds which faithfully confess that Word.  Let us raise up the holy crucifix of Christ as our great flag, the banner of salvation.  For though it is a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness for Gentiles, Christ’s cross remains the power of God and the wisdom of God and the only way to enter His everlasting, unshakable kingdom.

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

Saved From Sin's Slavery Through Christ Alone


John 8:31-36, Romans 3:19-28
Reformation

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

    “Whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.”  Martin Luther knew well the meaning of those words.  He knew what it was like under the old papal system to feel enslaved to the Law, to be in captivity to his sins and unable to set himself free.  The thing he most felt was the burden of an angry God on his back, driving him, demanding a holy life and penance for sin.  So much did he want to escape his slavery that, instead of a becoming a lawyer like his father wanted, he thought becoming a monk might do the job.  If he just devoted himself fully to being righteous and worshiping God, perhaps then he could break free and the shackles would come off.  But things didn’t get better; in some ways constantly being reminded of the demands of a righteous God, constantly going to confession under the requirement of confessing every single sin only caused him to feel his chains all the more.  This attempt at righteousness by his own efforts and works became a torture.  “Whoever commits sin a slave of sin.”

    The same thing is true for us, too; only we tend to experience this in an opposite way.  In our culture, the wrath of an angry God isn’t what runs the show.  For us it’s the absence of any wrath at all that’s runs things, spiritual permissiveness, being free to do as we please.  And that supposed freedom is where we experience our slavery.  For the sins that we enjoy promise us freedom and happiness, but they only ensnare us and bind us and imprison us in the long run.  Our desires and passions end up ruling us.  The technologies that make us feel like we’re lords of our own lives end up being what we serve, what we chain ourselves to for hours a day.  Gluttony enslaves us to our belly and our food, as does alcoholism to drink.  Lust enslaves us to our passions, to pornography, to adulterous behavior that tears people apart.  Laziness enslaves us in a cycle of dependency and pessimism and excuse-making and blame.  Gossiping enslaves us to the never-ending game of one-upsmanship, and really only ends up tearing everyone down, including the gossiper.  Greed enslaves us to our possessions and all the things we have to do to get and hold on to our stuff.  Pride chains us to having to keep up our image and prop up the facade, when deep down we know it’s just hypocrisy.  And on and on it goes . . .  We may not be running for the monastery like Luther, but we, too, often find ourselves grasping at straws because we know that things aren’t right with us, that we’re not truly free.  “Whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.”  And the wages of sin is death. null

    Repent.  God doesn’t just accept your best efforts as being sufficient to make yourself right with Him.  He doesn’t just say, “Try your hardest, be sincere, do what is in you, and that’s good enough.”  What does His Word say?  “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  It is a misuse of the Law to try to justify yourself.  We can often be successful in justifying ourselves and our behavior before others in this world.  But that just won’t fly before God.  Besides, if you’re trying to do a good deed so that you can get some sort of reward for yourself–in this world or the next–is that really a good work at all in God’s sight?  What did the Epistle say?  It said the purpose of the Law is “that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the Law no flesh [no one] will be justified in [God’s] sight.”  You can’t free yourself from the slavery of sin by your own doing.

    So what is our only hope of being saved and set free?  St. Paul writes in the Epistle, Since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” we are “justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  Pay close attention to those words.  Don’t let them become passe’ because it’s familiar Lutheran talk.  You are justified freely by His grace–freely!  God grant that we never lose our gratitude for that!  It’s a gift of God to you, without any strings attached.  That’s what grace is, an undeserved gift of love.  God justifies you, He declares you righteous, He puts you right with Himself solely and completely based on the works of Christ Jesus His Son–not what you have done for God but what Christ has done for you.  

    And here is in particular is what Christ has done for you: the Epistle says that the Lord Jesus redeemed you.  In other words, He bought you back.  He found you in your slave chains, being driven and abused by sin and Satan, and He asserted Himself as your rightful owner, your gracious Master.  He purchased you out of your slavery with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.  He went so far as to trade places with you.  He allowed Himself to be enslaved, captured and condemned as if He were the sinner, guilty of every wrong that’s ever been done and every failure to do what’s right.  He was your stand-in on the cross to set you free, so that you stand in His place in “the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).  Through His death, Jesus conquered your slave masters so that they have no eternal power over you any more.  In the Son of God, Jesus, you are truly free–released, forgiven, alive–as Jesus Himself said, “If the Son sets you free, then you are free indeed.”

    Martin Luther puts it this way in the Large Catechism: “The Lord Jesus has redeemed me from sin, from the devil, from death, and all evil. For before, I had no Lord nor King, but was captive under the power of the devil, condemned to death, enmeshed in sin and blindness.  For when we had been created by God the Father, and had received from Him all manner of good, the devil came and led us into disobedience, sin, death, and all evil, so that we fell under His wrath and displeasure and were doomed to eternal damnation, as we had merited and deserved.  There was no counsel, help, or comfort until this only and eternal Son of God in His unfathomable goodness had compassion upon our misery and wretchedness, and came from heaven to help us.  Those tyrants and jailers, then, are all expelled now, and in their place has come Jesus Christ, Lord of life, righteousness, every blessing, and salvation, and has delivered us poor lost men from the jaws of hell, has won us, made us free, and brought us again into the favor and grace of the Father, and has taken us as His own property under His shelter and protection, that He may govern us by His righteousness, wisdom, power, life, and blessedness.”

    This is where Martin Luther finally found his liberty.  Before, he had understood the righteousness of God to be referring to God’s righteous demands on us, what we must do to get into God’s good graces.  But then, when studying the Scriptures, he came to understand the truth of the Gospel in Romans 1, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes . . .  for in it the righteousness of God is revealed.”  In other words, the Gospel makes known the righteousness of God, not as demands on you, but as a gift to you.  God gives you His righteousness, so that through faith in Christ, you are clean and guiltless in His sight.  Believe that.  God declares it to be so through Jesus and what He has done for you.

    That understanding of the Gospel, which had largely been lost, made all the difference for Luther.  And so began the Reformation and the restoration of the Gospel to its rightful place in the Church, a heritage we are beneficiaries of down to this very day.

    We summarize this belief with the four so-called “solas” of the Reformation: Grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone, and Christ alone.  Eternal life and a right relationship with God are a pure gift of His grace alone, not because of anything we have done.  We receive that grace by faith alone, apart from our decisions and spiritual efforts.  Our faith is in Christ alone and in no one and nothing else.  And God brings us to faith and keeps us in the faith through His life-giving Word alone and not by anything that comes from within us; all our teaching comes from Scripture and not man-made wisdom or tradition.  To sum this all up, all the glory for our salvation belongs not to us but to God and His abundant mercy.  All boasting on our part is excluded.  Romans 3 states, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith [in Christ] apart from the deeds of the Law.”

    So hear the Word of God to you this day clearly: you have been set free in Jesus.  And remember, then, what you have been freed for: You are freed from slavery to sin so that you might have a new life, the life of Christ in the household of God.  Jesus said, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.”  To abide in Jesus’ word is to continue to receive His Word in the many ways that it comes to you and find your life in it.  It is to live in the gift of your baptism, where the Word of God was applied to you with the water, drowning the old Adam and bringing you forth to a new life.  It is to hear the preaching and teaching of the Gospel, by which the Word is applied to you and its gifts are given to you.  And it is to receive the Lord’s Supper, where the Word made flesh is truly present, giving you His flesh and blood for the forgiveness of sins.  Our freedom from sin’s slavery is freedom for life with God.  That’s what we set our hearts on; that’s our goal: to be with the One who made us and redeemed us, to live in fellowship with Him, to bask in His presence, to glory in His gifts to us, to worship Him forever.

    The Reformation was about standing against anything that stood in the way of that: whether it’s the Pope with His man-centered works-righteousness, or whether it’s radical reformed churches that reject the words and promises of Christ in the sacraments and instead make it all about man-centered personal spiritual experiences.  False teaching on both sides had to be rejected.  No, Jesus said, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.”  The Word in the water, the Word proclaimed from the pulpit, the Word in the bread and wine.  Abide in this, continue in this, trust in this, and you are Christ’s disciple, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free–free children of God who will abide in His house forever.

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

Created By the Word

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Genesis 1:1 - 2:3
Trinity 21

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

    “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” All things have a beginning except God.  He alone is eternal and uncreated.  We reject the evolutionist belief that the stuff of this universe has always been here and somehow formed itself into what we see now.  For then we would be declaring the universe to be eternal, making a god out of creation rather than the Creator.  That is the very definition of idolatry.

    The God who created all things out of nothing is the Triune God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–three eternal Persons in one divine Being.  Even in the beginning, we have a glimpse of God in His three-in-oneness. The Father creates. The Word of the Son is spoken. The Spirit of God hovers over the water. The Father creates through the Word, His Son, and He does it by the Holy Spirit who is in and with the water. You can see here that creation and baptism are intimately connected with one another.  Both are beginnings, creation and new creation, the work of the Father through the Son in the Spirit with the water.

    Interestingly, the Gospel of John in the New Testament begins just like Genesis, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  Through Him all things were made.”  The Word is Jesus, the Word made Flesh. Through the living Word of His Son, God created everything out of nothing. “Let there be light,” the Word says, “and there was light.” The Word is powerful and creative.  He brings about what He says.  Through the Word all things were made–water and sky, plants and trees, fish and birds, animals and man. All creatures owe their existence to Christ the Word, whether they know Him or not.  In fact, it is written in Colossians 1 that not only were all things were created through the Son of God but that in Him all things hold together still.  Jesus is the Logos, He is the logic, the wisdom of the universe.  The Laws of nature, the intricate complexities of the smallest strand of DNA to the largest galaxy, the beauty and the orderliness and the liveliness of creation all find their source in Him.  

    One of the many reasons we reject the theory of evolution, then, is because it’s opposed to this Scriptural truth of the centrality of Christ.  It imagines that all this beauty and order and life can be produced by chance random processes, that chaos can order itself, without any person doing the designing and organizing and sustaining.  To use a familiar example: if I were to say that an auto assembly plant exploded, and out of that Big Bang, after a long, long time, came a perfectly assembled car, you’d think I was a little nuts.  And yet what evolution proposes is infinitely more improbable than that; for our eyes, our brains, our DNA are vastly more complex in their design than a car.  Not only does evolution fail to say where all the stuff in the universe came from (which is no small matter); the key question that evolution has yet to explain is:  how can life come from something that’s not alive, as evolution proposes?  Such a thing has never ever been done in the laboratory in even the most rudimentary way.  We know that life only comes from another living thing, and that the Source of all life is God.  The fact that there are similarities among living things is not a sign that we have the same ancestors, but that we have the same Creator.  Our God is like a great artist who in His creatures shows a definite style to His work.  

    Of course, there are some who try to embrace both sides of the debate:  Believe in God and believe in evolution.  They propose that God created all things through the process of evolution.  But that is mere fantasy and a delusion when compared to Scripture.  For not only do the time frames not work–7 ordinary days of evening and morning vs. billions and billions of years–but the way in which all life, especially human life, comes into being couldn’t be more different.  For the evolutionist, to get to human beings like you and me, death has to be in existence right from the start.  It’s a necessary factor in the process of only the strong surviving and supposedly developing into higher and higher forms of life.  There’s all sorts of death and bloodshed before human beings ever come on the scene.  But there is no death at all in Genesis 1 and 2, not even among the animals.  Full-fledged human beings are present before there is any death.  What does Scripture say? “The wages of sin is death.”  First God creates human beings, and then there’s death after they fall into sin.  Evolution turns that Scriptural truth completely upside down and replaces it with a lie.  For by denying that death is the wages of sin, it denies the need for a Savior from sin.  It denies Christ.  It undermines the Gospel which says that Christ took the wages of death upon Himself to free us from the curse of sin when He died in our place on the cross.  Denying the Biblical narrative of creation undermines and contradicts belief in Jesus.  For Jesus is the creative Word made flesh who alone breaks the curse of sin on this fallen world by His death and resurrection and brings the new creation.

    It is only after the fall of mankind in the Garden that we see and experience death and disorder and decay all around us. It is written, “The whole creation groans.” The groanings can be heard in the earthquakes and tornadoes and hurricanes and fires that turn order into a pile of disordered rubble. Many creatures no longer multiply as they once did. Species go extinct.  Weeds grow in our garden. Our attempts to rule over and use this creation often end up harming creation.
    
    Above all, we see that death and disorder in ourselves.  Our first parents, Adam and Eve, turned away from God’s creative and ordering Word and believed the father of lies, who said that God is not to be trusted.  The Lie turned the creature against the Creator.  Turned inward on ourselves, the image of God is broken in us.  There is disorder in our homes and our relationships with others.  There is disorder in our hearts, where what we desire and what we know is right are  in conflict.  There is disorder in our bodies, where sickness and bodily ailments take their toll, leaving us finally in the disordered dust of the grave.  

    This is how it is.  The Word brings life.  The Lie brings death.  The Word says, “Be fruitful and multiply.”  The Lie says, “Children are a burden, not a blessing.  Better not have too many.  Separate the sexual relationship from the creation of life.”  The Word says, “The two shall become one flesh.”  The Lie says, “You don’t need God to join you together in the life of marriage to have sex.  Follow your heart’s desires and needs and passions.”  The Word says, “Male and female He created them.”  The Lie says, “Male and male is fine; female and female is fine.  People should be free to love whomever they want, even to live according to whatever gender they choose.”  The Word says, “Have dominion over creation; fill the earth and subdue it.  Continue God’s creative and ordering work.”  The Lie says, “Human beings have no more right to life than the animals, perhaps even less than they do.”  The Word says, “God is your Father; you shall be as He is.”  The Lie says, “The animals are your ancestors; you shall behave as they do.”  The Lie says, “You’re fine just the way you are; no need to change.”  The Word says, “Repent, and believe the Gospel.”  

    And here is that Gospel: Just as He did in the very beginning, yet again 2000 years ago God spoke His Word into the chaos and darkness of this fallen world.  The Father spoke His Word by the Spirit to a young girl named Mary, and the creative Word was made Flesh in her womb. The creative and ordering Word who made all things and set them in order in the beginning was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary in the person of Jesus.

    Jesus entered this world bearing our humanity to set things in order once again, to battle the darkness and the disorder. He healed the diseased. He cast out demons. He brought mercy and forgiveness to tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners, calling them out of darkness into His marvelous light.  He brought order to our disordered humanity.  He undid the damage of the Lie and took the curse of the Law against our rebellion.  Jesus took into Himself the disorder and the darkness and the decay and the death and He put it all to death in His body on the cross.

    When Jesus rose bodily from the grave on the first day of the week, a new creation dawned. It is the chief reason that Sunday is called the Lord’s Day in the new testament. The resurrection marks the beginning of a new creation. Just as light first shone into the darkness on the first day of the old creation, so the light of Christ broke through the darkness of our death on the first day of the week. A new creation has broken in even as this old one is passing away.

    And the creation account itself in Genesis actually foretells and foreshadows this saving work of Christ.  For notice how the days are marked: it’s not morning and then evening the way we usually think of it, but first evening and then morning.  First it’s darkness, then it’s light.  First it’s the shadow of death, then it’s the light of life.  Jesus dies in the darkness of Good Friday to subdue creation, which literally shook at His death, and then He rises at the dawn of Easter on the first day of the week to be the Light of the world, to put an end to death and to bring about a new creation.

    Man was created on the sixth day, and then God rested on the seventh.  In Jesus who is the new Adam, man was redeemed and recreated on the 6th day of the week, Good Friday.  He then rested in the tomb on the seventh day, having finished His work of redemption.  And He rose again to bring about an eternal eighth day, a day of unending light and life.  The Scriptures say that in the new creation there will be no night.  For the Lord God will be its light at all times, and the Lamb will be its lamp.  We will need no rest; for He Himself is our rest and our peace.  For from Him flows mercy and forgiveness and life.  In Jesus the image of God is restored to us.  In Jesus our lost humanity is given back to us, and we are made fully human again, prepared body and soul to live in the joys of God’s presence.

    And again, all of this is accomplished by the words of God.  He speaks, and it is so.  “Let there be light,” and there was light.  Jesus says to the nobleman in the Gospel, “Your son lives,” and indeed he lives and is well.  Jesus’ Word accomplishes what it says.  And so it is for you.  Jesus speaks His Word to you, and His Word creates what He says.  “Be still and know that I am God.”  And your hearts and minds are stilled and calmed.  “I forgive you all your sins.”  And your sins are truly removed from you as far as the east is from the west.  “This is My body; this is my blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”  And indeed, by that Word, the bread actually is His body and the wine actually is His blood, that you may be cleansed and filled with His life and light.  God’s creative Word is still in effect for you.  Like the nobleman in the Gospel, trust in that Word.  Cling to it.  Believe it that you may receive its blessing.  For only the Word of Christ can recreate you and put you back in order again.  It is written, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come.”  “Then God saw everything that He had made in Christ, and indeed it was very good.”

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

(The first paragraphs above are adapted from a sermon by the Rev. William Cwirla.)

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