Sermons

RSS Feed

Beware of False Prophets

Matthew 7:13-23
Trinity 8

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

    Jesus says, “Beware of false prophets.”  Our Lord wouldn’t warn us like this unless there was a real and present danger to us.  In fact, the threat a false prophet poses is worse than that of disease or violent crime or terrorism or financial ruin.  For while those things endanger your earthly lives, false teaching endangers your eternal life.  

    A big part of what makes false prophets so dangerous is that we actually like what they have to say very often.  False teachers tell us what we want to hear.  It is written in 2 Timothy, “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 desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”  

    A true prophet preaches repentance.  But false prophets know that condemning sin and warning people to be saved from the coming judgment doesn’t sell too well these days.  It’s so negative and harsh.  Nobody wants to be told that they need to turn from their self-absorbed ways.  What people want is something practical to help them in their families and at work, something uplifting, a spirituality that helps us to feel better about ourselves.  null

    This is what the prophet Jeremiah spoke of in the Old Testament reading.  The false prophets say to those who despise God, “The Lord has said, ‘You shall have peace’ And to everyone who does whatever they want to do, the false prophets say, ‘No evil shall come upon you.’” False prophets will often come across as very inclusive and loving.  But in truth, they let people get away with their self-justification and rationalization of sin.  They let fraudulent spirituality sit unchallenged next to Christian truth to avoid offending anyone.  While they may seem to be so nice, there is nothing caring or loving about tolerating false teaching or ungodly living.  For such things are lethal to the soul and invite God’s judgment.  That is the broad path that leads to destruction.

    False prophets are also a real threat to us because they look like the real thing.  Jesus said, “They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly, they are ravenous wolves.”  False prophets look like sheep of the Good Shepherd.  In fact they may look more godly and holy than a true prophet and preacher of God’s Word.  For while many false prophets will overlook and bless sin--especially in the realm of sexual immorality, many other false prophets will stress very strongly that Christianity is all about your own personal holiness.  They’ll be all about doing good works and being a good person and following these rules and those regulations for right living.  You’ll look at them and say, “They must be from God.  Look at how religious and devoted they are.  Look at how piously they talk.”  The pope with his pomp looks good.  The evangelical preacher giving you step by step instructions on how to become a better you looks good.  The passionate Jehovah’s Witness, the family-values Mormon looks good.  But in the end, they are in the same camp as the Pharisees, who falsely believed that living an obedient life is the way you gain God’s favor.  Those who look within themselves for the answers, those who trust in their own good works to keep themselves close to God or to make themselves better candidates for heaven are just engaging in a more spiritual form of self-absorption.  They’re in love with their own righteousness.  The devil is perfectly happy with that sort of religion.

    Repent, then, of your own succumbing to the spirit of false prophecy.  Confess where you’ve misused your keeping of God’s commands as a way to try to exalt yourself and earn His blessing.  Acknowledge where you’ve ignored God’s Law for the sake of convenience and rationalized away your sin.  Turn from all of that and humbly seek His mercy.  Turn your attention to true prophetic words.

    But how can you be sure of who a true prophet is?  Well, to begin with, there is really only one true Prophet, and that is Christ himself.  He alone speaks the words of God without flaw and without fail.  He is the Word of God in the flesh and the fulfillment of all prophecy.  His alone are the words of eternal life.  Do not put your trust in any man.  I am called and sent by God to be your pastor, but your faith should never be in me or my opinions, but only in the Word of God which I am given to speak.  In the second reading for today, Paul reminded the pastors at Ephesus that false prophets would arise from among themselves.  Good prophets would go bad.  So make sure, first of all, that it is the word of Christ that you are hearing, the holy Scriptures that are being proclaimed to you and not just some pious human wisdom.  The solid rock upon which the Church is built is the words of Jesus.  Everything else is sinking sand.  When what is preached is not a vision of the preacher’s own heart but that which comes from the mouth of the Lord, then you are hearing a true prophet.  

    But you might rightly say, “I’m not a theology major.  False teachers quote the Bible just like genuine teachers.  How do I tell the difference?  How can I tell whether or not someone is misusing Christ’s Word?”  The simplest answer that I can give to you is one I’ve told you many times before:  Know your Catechism by heart.  For there in the Catechism and the Creeds is summarized for you the fundamental teachings of the Scriptures and all that you need to know and believe to be saved.  There is confessed God’s holy Law and Gospel by which you are brought to repentance and to faith in Christ.  There you have what the church has taught and believed from the Word of God since the days of the apostles.  If what someone is preaching sounds a little weird to you, different from the Catechism and the Creeds and the Word of God you’ve heard preached here, then beware of it; flee from it.  

    Jesus says in the Gospel when judging between true and false prophets, “You will know them by their fruits.”  The fruit refers not simply to their lifestyle, since that can be the deceptive clothing of the wolf.  The fruit refers to the doctrine.  What spiritual food do they offer?  What do they hold forth for your souls to feast upon?  Is it solely Christ the Bread of Life, the food that fully satisfies you, or are other “ingredients” and requirements added, like arsenic on your plate?  It is written, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

    I John 4 gives us one test, “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God.”  A true prophet of God will not shy away from affirming the flesh and blood realities of our salvation, that God the Son became a real flesh and blood human being, that He offered up His body on the cross to save us, that He rose again in the body, tangibly, and that He comes to us now with His real and literal body and blood in the Sacrament.  Those who contradict any of those things are false prophets.

    Here’s one more test: St. Paul said to the Corinthians, “I determined not to know anything among you except Christ and Him crucified.”  If Jesus and His sacrifice are not the center of everything that is proclaimed, if the Passion narrative is treated just as history that you have to give lip service to so that you can get to the real important and relevant stuff, then that prophet isn’t true.  Paul told the pastors at Ephesus “to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”  That blood of Christ is the thread that runs through all true prophecy and preaching.

    And don’t forget this: a false prophet may not know that he is one.  He may be very sincere.  But sincerity is not a reliable test.  Jesus said, “Many will say to Me in that Day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’  And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me.’” It’s not the impressiveness of the works or the success or the numbers that you should go by.  Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.”  

    nullHe who does the will of the Father is Christ Himself.  Consider that night in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus prayed to His Father, “If it is possible, take this cup [of suffering] away from Me.  Nevertheless not My will but Your will be done.”  It was the will of the Father that Jesus lay down His life for you to rescue you from hell.  It was the will of the Father that Jesus be cut down like a bad tree and thrown into the fire of judgment in your place.  It was the will of the Father that Jesus be a sheep in wolves’ clothing, the pure Lamb of God who allowed Himself to be cloaked in sin and evil at Calvary in order to put them to death in His body, so that you might be delivered from all evil forever.  The wolf has been conquered.  You have been cleansed from all sin by Christ’s blood.  You are given entrance into the kingdom of heaven in Christ.  He has ascended to heaven, and holding on to Him like a child on His back, you have ridden with Him there.  The kingdom is yours in Jesus, by faith now, by sight at the close of the age.

    And so, to do the will of the Father, for a pastor, is to preach that, to proclaim Christ alone as the Savior from sin and death.  And to do the will of the Father, for a hearer, for you, is to believe that Gospel of Christ and stake your whole life on it.  That is the true prophetic Word for you today, the same prophetic Word proclaimed by John the Baptizer, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand; it is here.  Believe the Gospel of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”  The will of the Father was done when you were baptized, squeezed through the narrow way of the cross.  The will of the Father is done as you live in the narrow way of your baptism, dying to your sin and rising to the new life of Christ, the life of faith and love, receiving from God His free gifts and giving of yourself to others in your daily vocations.  And the will of your Father is done as you come to the Lord’s table in simple faith.  For the tree of the cross has borne the most abundant fruit, the body and blood of Christ which gives you His mercy and which will raise you up on the Last Day.

    Beware of false prophets.  Behold the true Prophet, Jesus.  His are the words that give you life.  By His fruits you will know Him.

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

Righteousness Exceeding the Scribes and Pharisees

Matthew 5:17-26
Trinity 6
 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
 
    Jesus speaks some hard words in today’s Gospel: “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” The problem is, our righteousness is exactly that of the scribes and the Pharisees.  It’s the same, for we think that righteousness is primarily about our good behavior and good moral appearances.
 
    To prove this, our Lord points us to our anger.  Anger and indignation is the result of our having been wronged or sinned against in some way.  But what we do in response is the telling thing. It reveals how we view ourselves, and how we view our neighbor. When we are angry, we take the higher position and condemn them as wrong.  And they may very well be in the wrong, especially if they’ve sinned against us.  But have you ever noticed how even when we are at fault, we can still get angry?  We think that they’re over-reacting and blowing things out of proportion and freaking out about some little flaw or mistake of ours.  We turn things around on them.  And so even when we’re at fault, we still find reason to get angry and justify ourselves and look down on them.null
 
    The problem with anger is that if it is not dealt with, if it is not confessed to God and to one another so that it can be taken away, if it is not cleansed from us by the blood of Jesus in His words and Sacraments, it enslaves us.  Satan gets us to brood over it, obsessively, with growing and distorted emphasis on its injustice.  In the court of our minds we hold a secret trial in which we prosecute the wrongdoer. And then we remember all the other offenses that we have suffered from that person.  And that fuels our anger further and our desire for justice. We convince ourselves that we are justified in our judgment of them. We hold the moral high ground against them.  This anger leads to bitterness and resentment.  And so we end up stewing in our own poison.  For we have begun to despise those whom we should love.  We have self-righteously placed ourselves above them.  In other words, we have become the scribe and the Pharisee.
 
    This is spiritual suicide.  For “you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and who ever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”  This sort of stewing, bitter heart eventually overflows in bitter words and leads to hell.  When we despise our neighbors and hold a grudge against them, we don't usually attack them physically.  We do so verbally, emotionally, and spiritually. We talk to others about them to get them on our side so that they will join us in condemning them. We give them the cold shoulder and treat them as being dead to us. That is spiritual murder. And by cutting ourselves off from our brothers and sisters in Christ, we cut ourselves off from Christ as well, which is spiritual suicide. We take the position of the scribes and the Pharisees, and we follow in their righteousness, which is really only an outward righteousness. And unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
 
    Repent, then, and turn to Christ.  For the only righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees is the righteousness of Jesus.  He came not to abolish the Law and the Prophets.  He came to fulfill them–inwardly, outwardly, actively, passively–all for you.  Righteousness is not ultimately about your works but about the works of Jesus done on your behalf.  The Pharisees’ righteousness was about good appearances, though in truth they were whitewashed tombs, inwardly full of dead men’s bones.  But Jesus doesn’t just cake a bunch of make-up on your sinful flesh to make you look good.  He actually takes away your sin and makes you righteous, right with God and restored to Him.null
 
    Jesus fulfilled the Law and brought righteousness to your humanity in two ways.  First, it is written in Hebrews, “He was tempted in all points just as we are, yet without sin.”  Not only did Jesus not do the things that the commandments forbid, He also did do everything the commandments demand.  Not only did He not murder or steal or have impure thoughts, but He also perfectly loved His Father in heaven and His neighbor on earth, doing good and healing, teaching the truth to all, forgiving even His enemies.  Jesus did this not only as an example, but as your representative and your substitute to redeem you.  Jesus gives you His righteous life as a gift through faith in Him.  His keeping of the Law counts for you.  
 
    Jesus also fulfilled the Law for you by suffering its penalties in your place.  “The soul that sins shall die.”  Jesus Himself knew exactly what it was like to be the object of people’s anger and bitterness and resentment.  He heard in His own human ears the words of betrayal, the cries for His death.  Every vengeful thought, every desire for payback was pointed at Jesus on the cross.  But it wasn’t just the murderous judgment of the world but the righteous judgment of God that Jesus suffered at Golgotha.  Since the wages of sin is death, Jesus was put to death by the Father in your place to take the judgment of eternal death away from you forever.  
 
    Only in Jesus is there deliverance from the judgment of the Law.  For only in Jesus do we receive an inward righteousness before God, the righteousness of faith, where we despair of our own goodness and instead rely on Christ alone.  We prayed it in the Introit, “The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusted in Him, and I am helped.”
 
    Our Lord is not one who constantly replays the video of your sins in His mind so that you might get what you’ve got coming.  All anger, even the righteous divine wrath, was fully removed at the cross.  “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”  The Lord has erased all your sins from the video of your life.  He remembers them no more.  
 
    In fact, actually the Lord has done even better than that.  He’s given you a whole new video, a whole new life, the life of the risen Jesus, which is entirely yours in holy baptism.  For St. Paul says in the Epistle that by water and the Word you were buried with Christ and raised with Him to a new life.  That means that His death for sin counts as your death for sin.  It’s all done and behind you.  “There is therefore now no condemnation for you who are in Christ Jesus.”  You are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  His life is yours, the life of mercy, of forgiving your neighbor, letting go of your anger and desire for payback, since Jesus has already taken care of all that.
 
    Jesus now says to you, “Come to Me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”  “I release you from the crushing weight of the Law; I give you the peace of being reconciled with God.”  “It is finished, accomplished, completed, fulfilled.  All has been done.”  Romans 10 declares, “Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”
 
    So hear Jesus’ words again with Gospel ears:  “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”  But your righteousness does exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, for you are clothed in the righteousness of Jesus.  By faith you are as spotless and holy as He is.
 
    So when you come to the altar to receive the gift of the Lord’s body and blood, if you have something against your brother or sister, or they against you, this is the place to release it and let it go.  Confess your sins and forgive one another.  Be reconciled in Christ, whose body was sacrificed for you and whose blood was shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.  Here at the foot of the cross, all anger dies.  There is only mercy here and righteousness that far exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.  Our Lord has brought you through the Red Sea of Baptism, out of the house of bondage.  Believe it.  The righteousness of Christ is yours.  In Him you shall enter the kingdom of heaven.  

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
 
(Most of the above is borrowed from the Rev. Jason Braaten at Gottesdienst Online,
gottesdienstonline.blogspot.com/2013/07/righteousness-that-exceeds-scribes-and.html)
 

The Wedding of Samuel Speckhard and Cacia Scheler

"One Flesh"
July 11, 2015

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

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned having a couple of my own relatives in the nursing profession, it’s that you don’t want to have an in-depth conversation about their workday over dinner unless you have a strong stomach.  The nature of the job is that all the realities of the body are being dealt with, and nurses develop a certain comfort level and their own unique sense of humor talking about these things.  There’s no avoiding the truth of our fleshly existence when you’re in the medical field.

    And this is not a bad thing.  For this is the way Lutherans talk theology.  Martin Luther said that a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is.  No spiritualized platitudes or euphemisms.  Lutherans like to speak in direct, physical, tangible, concrete language.  

    And that’s true then also when it comes to marriage.  On days like today you’ll often hear a lot of flowery language about love and happiness and two becoming one.  And that’s all fine.  But it’s a little too Platonic and ethereal if we just stop there; that comes short of what the Bible actually says.  We heard it a couple times in the readings today, “The two shall become one flesh.”  Marriage is the union of heart and mind and body.  There’s no point in avoiding that reality.  For not only is it how God created things to be, but it also teaches us about our relationship with Him, too.null

    God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into His nostrils the breath of life.  But with the creation of Adam, humanity was not yet complete.  Not only is it not good for man to be alone, but man alone does not yet fully reflect the image of the God who is love, the Holy Trinity.  The Trinity is a relationship of persons; those created in the image of God are also a relationship of persons–the Lover, the Beloved One, and the Love that they share together.  Humanity is complete, then, only when Eve comes on the scene.

    God created her differently, from Adam’s side, forming her to be like Adam and of equal worth and humanity, but certainly not the same.  Man and woman are uniquely connected in how they were made.  Then the Lord brought Eve to Adam and presented her to him.  That is the reason behind the tradition of the bride being brought down the aisle to her groom.  The one who escorts her, the father, stands in the place of God the Father, presenting this Eve, Cacia, to her Adam, Samuel.  God brought Eve to Adam, and they became the first husband and wife.

    Man and woman in marriage, then, are not simply two independent partners bound by a piece of paper, a contract.  Rather, what was one flesh at creation now becomes one flesh again, both figuratively and literally.  God Himself gives you to each other in marriage, and that is why you have permission now to give yourselves fully to each other.

    The one flesh union created by God is intended for your mutual happiness and companionship.  There is a very real sense in which the two of you complete each other–not just in some Hollywood movie sense, but in the theological sense of the complementarity of male and female.  Your individual personalities and unique characteristics come together to form a whole that is greater than the both of you.  One of the great gifts God is giving you today is the unique fellowship you will share as husband and wife–the ability to confide in each other, to lean on each other in the challenging times,  to rejoice together in the good times.

    And of course, this one flesh reality of marriage is manifested in the procreation of children who are quite literally one flesh of their father and mother.  When and if God grants it, children are the public testimony of the one flesh union that God has created.  Though our culture tends to downplay it, being fruitful and multiplying is integral to what marriage is all about as God instituted it.  That’s one of the many reasons why an actual marriage in God’s sight can only be between a man and a woman, regardless of what any court says.  God seeks to continue His work of creation through your marriage, that your children may be brought up as you were, in the fear and instruction of the Lord, that they may be baptized and brought to trust in Christ and receive the gifts of His salvation.

    And that then brings us to the even greater reality of what marriage is all about.  Ephesians 5 speaks of the man leaving his father and mother and being joined to His wife and becoming one flesh, and then it says: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”  All along we thought St. Paul was speaking primarily about husbands and wives, when the main point was about Jesus.  It is written, “We are members of His body, bone of His bones and flesh of His flesh.”  Jesus is the new Adam and the Church is the new Eve.  

    “A man shall leave His father and mother and be joined to His wife.”  And so Jesus, the Son of God, left His Father in heaven to be joined to His elect wife, His chosen people.  In order to save us who had fallen into sin, who were cursed to return to the dust in eternal death because of our rebellion, Christ literally joined Himself to our flesh and blood and became man.  Jesus even had to leave His mother Mary behind for a time on the cross.  The second Adam was put into the deep sleep of death for us on the sixth day, Good Friday.  As the first Adam brought death into the world through sin, so Jesus brought life into the world by dying our death for us, taking away our sin and conquering the grave Easter morning.  In the same way that Eve was created from Adam’s side, the Church is created from Christ’s pierced side, from the water and blood that flowed, the living water of Baptism which makes us members of His body, the blood of Christ poured out in the chalice of the Lord’s Supper, by which we are cleansed of all sin.  nullThrough these Sacraments, the Church is Jesus’ radiant bride, dressed in the beautiful white garment of His righteousness.

    Sam and Cacia, that eternal reality is what God has given to form the heart and the foundation of your marriage.  Because Christ has forgiven you freely and without your earning it, you are free to forgive each other without making the other earn it.  In leaving your father and mother, Sam, you are doing as Christ did, that you may give of yourself and lay down your life for your bride.  In receiving him as your husband, Cacia, you are a picture of the Church, who honors her groom and submits to Him and His love and returns that love with a glad heart.  Sam, you die for her.  Cacia, you live for him.

    Which brings us finally to the part of the sermon where people expect me to give you advice.  Not my forte, but I’ll do my best.  First, Sam, as the husband, remember this one simple truth: it’s your fault–it is, even when it’s not.  I’m actually being mostly serious.  For you are in the role of Christ, and He counted all of our sin as His own, as His fault.  Though you both will have things to confess and forgive each other for–and saying “I forgive you” out loud is of the utmost importance–it is especially for you to be the man and not to point the finger and blame, but to take any flaws and failings as your own and cover them as Christ did for us.  For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.  Thankfully we have a Savior who bears our burdens with us and for us to deliver us.

    And Cacia, as Sam’s wife, seek your happiness in marriage in the unique ways that he shows love to you, and be a gracious receiver.  Just as it is Christ’s joy to give us joy, so also what makes most husbands happy is when they can make their wives happy and draw their bride freely and willingly to themselves.  So avoid putting up barriers because his attempts to express love may fall short at times, or because you know your own imperfections and don’t feel deserving.  We operate not by merit but by grace.  We haven’t deserved anything from the Lord, and we certainly can’t repay Him, but it is His joy to give to us freely anyway.  Give your husband the joy of freely receiving and responding to his self-giving–just as it is the church’s happiness to receive the love of Christ.

    (Oh, and one more thing, Cacia: while it may be OK for Sam to do the vacuuming, if he ever places the end of the hose anywhere near his forehead, pull the plug as quickly as you can.)

    Sam and Cacia, as you are being joined together today, so are your names–your individual names remain the same, your last names become one.  The name Samuel means “God has heard.”  We rejoice with you both of you today that God has indeed heard your prayers for a faithful spouse; you are His good gifts to each other.  And Cacia, as I recall it, your name was given as a shortened form of the acacia trees mentioned in Scripture.  It was the acacia that was used in the construction of the tabernacle where God’s presence dwelt and to make the ark of the covenant.  As Jesus tabernacled in our flesh, as you who are the temple of His Spirit enter into the covenant of holy matrimony, may He make your new household to be His dwelling place.  May He send His angels to guard and keep you.  And may He richly bless the one flesh union of your marriage for your good and for the glory of His name.

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

Freed From Judgment

Luke 6:36-42
Trinity 4

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

    I’m sure many of you have had the experience of hearing your voice on a recording and saying, “I sound like that?!  That doesn’t sound like me.”  Or you’ve seen yourself on video at some event and you’ve thought to yourself, “Gee, I didn’t realize that’s how I acted.  I didn’t realize my laugh was so annoying.  The camera sure makes me look fat”–or bald, or whatever the case may be.  Sometimes that outside, more objective perspective can give us a better understanding of the way things really are with us and free us from the illusions of our own self-perception.

 null   There’s a spiritual lesson to be learned from that, I think, which ties in with Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel, where He says, “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the plank in your own eye?”  Sometimes from our limited perspective we cannot see our own failings and sins.  We tend to rationalize our flaws, anyway.  We put the best construction on our own behavior and fail to recognize that we’ve got the equivalent of a 2 x 4 sticking out of our eye.  We’ve grown so used to our sin that it becomes like the rims of our glasses that we no longer see or notice.  And yet we can see all the nit-picky problems with others so clearly.  They’ve got this character flaw and that stupid way of doing things.  “If they would just listen to me; but no, they never do.”  Especially when we’re in an argument, it’s easy for us to come up with all the specks in our neighbor’s eye.  And besides, noticing and pointing out our neighbor’s problems makes us feel all the better about ourselves.  It places us above them.

    This is one of the reasons why God gives us His Law, so that we can see from an outside perspective the way things really are with us.  The Law is like a video camera, zeroing in on the plank in our eye, exposing and revealing every prideful thought and hypocritical word and sinful deed that we’ve engaged in.  Through the Law we learn that one of the reasons we’re so good at seeing other people’s sins is because we’ve got first hand knowledge of how the sinful heart and mind works.  Why else would we be so skillful at identifying other people’s problems, right?  By condemning others so readily, we’re really condemning ourselves.  “The camera doesn’t lie,” they say, and neither does the Law.  It tells the painful truth about us.  It judges you and condemns you.  There is no denying the verdict of the Law: You are damned for your sin.

    Repent.  For there is yet hope for us.  For the Law is not God’s final Word to us.  Though we are indeed judged and condemned for our sin, there is One who took the judgment and the condemnation for us, our Lord Jesus.  “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”  Thankfully, Christ Jesus did not come to beat us over the head with all our shortcomings and nag us and hound us into trying to straighten out our life.  Instead, He came to give us a new life, His own life.  All of the specks of sawdust and the planks in our eyes were fashioned into a cross upon which He poured out His life for our sakes.  There Jesus was damned for our sin so that we would be shown mercy for His sake.  And so it is written, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  None at all.  If you are in the risen Jesus, who was already condemned for all the sins of the whole world, then there’s no condemnation left, is there?  He took it all for you.  You are baptized into Christ, and so now you are forgiven and free children of God.  The Lord’s mercy toward you is abundantly greater than His judgment.  Believe that; it is true.  The Gospel is His final Word to you, which fulfills and overcomes the Law every time.null

    To live by faith in this Gospel, then, is to live freed from judgment.  We are freed from God’s judgment of us.  And as His beloved children, we are freed from a life of judging and tearing down others.  To live in the way of condemnation and revenge is to go back to the way of the Law, which is dangerous territory for us.  That’s why Jesus says not to judge, lest we be judged ourselves; not to condemn lest we be condemned ourselves.  Rather, He invites us to live in the forgiveness of the Father and forgive others and give generously to them, even when they don’t deserve it.  For we most certainly have not earned or deserved the Father’s generous mercy either.  And yet He still gives it to us, no strings attached.  Our Father is One who causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, who gives daily bread both to believers and unbelievers.  Living in Jesus as the children of God, we are given to reflect His nature–showing His overflowing goodness to others, be they friend or foe; not holding on to grudges or engaging in gossip, but defending our neighbor, speaking well of him, and explaining everything in the kindest way.

    Now, I should add as a side note here that Jesus is speaking to us in a general way as individuals.  However, there are times when according to our specific vocations we are called on by the Lord to judge.  For instance, a judge in a court obviously is given by God to condemn the guilty, as are other civil officials who make and enforce the Law according to the authority God has given them.  Parents can without sin judge the behavior of their children; indeed, they must teach right and wrong and discipline their children according to God’s command.  Pastors are called to judge and condemn sin as well as proclaim God’s mercy in Christ.  And all Christians are called to judge doctrine, to test the spirits to see whether they are of God, to reject false doctrine that doesn’t agree with the Scriptures.  

    So Jesus’ words here don’t mean that we should approve of sin and ungodly teaching or be OK with it.  It is for us to stand up for the truth of God’s Word, especially when it is publicly rejected.  We are to do so with humility and love; but it is for us to confess the truth, especially living in an age and a culture of lies.  It’s not judging to say something is immoral and wrong which Scripture says is immoral and wrong.  The Supreme Court and our society are entirely in error on the topic of gay marriage.  That’s not sinful judging; that’s just telling the truth.  Homosexual behavior is sin; approving of and condoning homosexual behavior is sin.  And lest we forget the log in our own eyes, a man and a woman living together or having a sexual relationship outside of marriage is sin; tacitly condoning those relationships so as not to offend family or friends or business associates is sin; divorce for unbiblical reasons is sin, husband and wife trying to lord it over each other and enjoying cutting down the other spouse and reveling in making a stinging remark is sin, encouraging division in the marriages of others with meddling and gossip is sin.  The breakdown of marriage certainly didn’t start with the acceptance of same-sex marriage.  

  null  Pointing all this out is not the church’s main message, but we can’t let that truth of the Law be watered down either.  For since the most important thing in the church is the forgiveness of sins and the Gospel of Christ, we have to be able to call sin what it is so that we all will see our need for that forgiveness and cling to Christ alone for mercy and life.  It’s certainly not sinful judging to stand up for the pure teaching of the Word and to speak against anything which undermines the truth of the Gospel of Christ the crucified, that we are saved through faith in Jesus alone.  The truth needs to be spoken precisely for the good of our fellow man.  Again, Scripture says that we are to speak the truth in love–not simply out of a desire to be right or to win an argument–but because we seek the ultimate good of our neighbor and the glory of God.  It is written in Galatians 6, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.”

    We are the children of the God of mercy, who are given to extend that mercy to our fellow man.  St. Peter said, “Love covers a multitude of sins.”  As God’s love covers our sins and takes them away, so we are given wherever we can to cover over our neighbor’s sins and failings, to help him to be brought back to God, and to put the best construction on everything.  Such godly love builds up the neighbor and brings peace.  And even when we are called to judge according to our vocation, we do so for the good of others, that they may not be lost to sin and false belief, but that they may be led to repentance and faith in Christ our Savior.

    So today’s Epistle, then, is not so much meant to be new Law, but rather a description of what it means to live by faith in Christ.  Put yourself in the position of the other person, rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep.  Walk humbly and do not be wise in your own opinion.  First take care of your own problems, and then with a repentant and humble attitude you will best be able truly to help and love your neighbor.  “First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck that is in your brother’s eye.”  Bless even those who persecute you and cause you trouble.  Love your enemies.  Do not repay evil for evil, but overcome evil with good.  Do not seek vengeance and payback, but trust that God will take care of things in His own way and in His own time.

    And when you struggle to do this–and you will–return to Him who has already done all of this for you.  Jesus put Himself in your position to redeem you.  He associated with the poor and humble.  While you were yet sinners and enemies of His, Christ died for you.  Our Lord on the cross did not avenge Himself but blessed those who did evil to Him, saying, “Father forgive them.”  He overcome evil with the ultimate good of His self-sacrifice.  In Him you are forgiven and holy and loved.  Jesus is your Joseph, who reveals Himself to you not as an avenging judge but as your strong and loving brother.  He comforts you and speaks kindly to you.  He is with you; He is on your side.

    And just as Joseph provided grain for his brothers and an abundant meal at his table, so our Lord Jesus gives to us of the finest wheat.  Mercy in good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over is poured out upon us.  Come, dine at His table.  Be freed from judgment.  Receive His true body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins.

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

Spiritual Meditation

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

    In our culture where people like to claim that they’re “spiritual, but not religious,” meditation is something that is fairly fashionable and hip; it's something that most people will accept as a positive form of spirituality.  The problem is that meditation can be about any number of different things.  Of itself it’s really neutral; it doesn’t even necessarily have anything to do with the divine.  Meditation is defined by its focus, by what you are meditating on.

    The fact of the matter is that everybody meditates, whether they realize it or not.  Meditation has been described as passive thinking, where the mind is focused on a particular thought, and then that thought takes over and leads to a stream of related thoughts and ideas.  Daydreaming is a form of meditation, where you aren’t actively in control of your thoughts, but your mind has wandered to a particular place and you are focusing there almost without even realizing it.  (Hopefully there isn’t too much of that going on right now!)  Worry is a form of meditation, where your mind constantly returns to a particular source of stress and concern and keeps running through all the possible things that could go wrong and how you might deal with it over and over again.  You don’t have to tell yourself to worry.  But your mind is focused on that worry and it takes over the direction of your thoughts.

    Our problem as fallen human beings is that we tend to meditate on all the wrong things.  We let the focus of our mind get directed to all the wrong places.  We meditate on how we’d like to get back at that person who wronged us.  We meditate covetously on that dream vacation.  We meditate lustfully on our neighbor’s spouse.  We meditate greedily on all the better stuff we want to get for ourselves.  We meditate on days past that our hearts long to go back to.  We let our hearts and minds get all wrapped up in and dominated by things that pass away.

    Even most religious meditation has gone wrong; you may run into this in exercise programs like some forms of yoga.  The spirituality of the world teaches you that meditation is about focusing within yourself, getting in touch with your inner spirit, drawing upon the resources and the strength you have inside, or else getting in touch with some sort of cosmic life force that has nothing to do with the true God.  In the end all of that is nothing but self-worship and a spiritual running around in circles.null

    Holy Scripture gives us the proper object of our meditation.  It says in Philippians, “Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy–meditate on these things.”  Don’t let your mind be filled with the junk of pop culture which seeks to infiltrate your homes and your lives.  Dwell upon the good gifts of God and the good and virtuous and noble things He has caused and allowed to be in existence in this world.

    In particular in today’s Gospel Jesus tells us of the #1 focal point for our meditation.  He says, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word.”  That word “keep” is very important.  It means in the original Greek “to hold onto, to treasure, to cling to,” like Mary who “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.”  It doesn’t simply mean “obey” as one translation puts it.  It involves taking Jesus’ words to heart, meditating upon them, inwardly digesting them, trusting in them, following them.  “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word.”

    The best to think of this is the way you would treat a love letter or a Valentine’s Day card–or maybe today we should add a facebook message or a text from someone you really care about.  When you get these communications, you don’t just skim through it and quickly throw it away or delete it.  You dwell upon every word.  You consider what every word is saying.  You read between the lines.  You remember most of it by heart.  You treasure it and hold onto it and refer back to it time and time again in your heart and mind.

    So it is with the words of Jesus.  If you love Him you want to hear what He says to you, not just once and that’s enough, but over and over again, always uncovering more of the meaning that is there in His words to you.  No guy would ever say to his girl, “I love you, but I don’t want to listen to you.”  In the same way, no Christian would ever say, “I love Jesus, but I don’t want to listen to His words and preaching.”  To be Christian is to hang on Jesus’ words and to draw your life from them continuously–not simply showing up for church and then zoning out, but meditating on and pondering Christ’s teaching and letting it form your faith and your way of living.

    In what was once the study room of Martin Luther in Wittenberg, Germany, one can observe still today a rut in the wood floor there.  It is said that the rut was slowly worn in as Luther would pace back and forth while meditating on the words of Scripture and repeating them out loud to himself.  He would roll them over and over again in his mind until they became like polished stones in a tumbler.  Luther himself compared the Word of God to a spice which releases the fullness of its flavor and aroma the more it is crushed and broken apart.  In the same way the sweet aroma of Scripture is released more and more as we meditate upon it and break it apart and consider each life-giving word.  This is why we need constant, even daily contact with the words of God.  They help in forming those ruts and paths and patterns in your mind and heart and spirit that conform to God’s truth–which is especially important in a world which is daily preaching and  peddling lies to you.  “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word.”

    Now, you might be asking yourself, “What does all this stuff about meditation have to do with Pentecost?  I haven’t heard anything yet about the Holy Spirit.”  Well, I’ve been talking about meditation on the Word because the Holy Spirit comes to you through that Word.  Jesus said, “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.”  The Holy Spirit made sure that the disciples remembered and wrote down for us the things that Jesus said and did truly and correctly.  And now the Holy Spirit is all about bringing those words and deeds of Jesus to you, teaching you all things about Jesus through the Scriptures so that you may be filled with His light and life.

    That’s the central thing that happened on Pentecost.  There were the miraculous signs of the coming of the Holy Spirit–the rushing wind and the tongues of fire.  But the main event which the Holy Spirit brought about was that the Word of God was preached and confessed, not only in the Hebrew tongue, but in the native tongue of countries well beyond Israel.  For indeed this Gospel of Christ the crucified is for all the nations.  

    The Word of God is filled with the Holy Spirit.  That’s what we mean when we say that the Scriptures are inspired by God.  Literally, that means they are God-breathed, full of the breath and Spirit of the living God.  Jesus said, “My words are Spirit and they are life.”  To hear those words and consider them, to meditate on them in true faith is to be instructed by the Holy Spirit Himself and to receive in them the life of Christ.  

    Jesus said about the one who loves Him and keeps His Word, “My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.”  Through the words of God which the Holy Spirit teaches, Jesus comes to be present in and with the believer.  And where Jesus is, there the Father also makes His home.  The Father loves all those who love His Son.  The Father loves you who love and trust in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.  You are never alone, no matter how isolated you may sometimes feel.  For the Blessed Holy Trinity has made His home with you through the Word.

    He first made His home with you by pouring His saving Word onto you in Holy Baptism, marking you with His own name as His treasured possession and dwelling place.  Martin Luther said that you have enough to meditate on in your baptism alone for the rest of your life.  The Lord makes His home with you as He speaks His life-giving Word out loud right into your ears in the absolution and in the spoken meditation we usually call a sermon.  In fact hopefully the Word of God will cause you to meditate on even more than the sermon can say.  I’ve had people thank me for something they thought I said in the sermon, some good Scriptural insight, but which I hadn’t directly addressed.  That’s how meditation on the Word can works, where the Spirit opens the Scriptures and applies them to you in just the way that you need.  And God also makes His home with you in the Sacrament of the Altar.  For there you receive and eat the Word made flesh, the body and blood of Christ sacrificed for you on the cross for the full forgiveness of your sins.  By the power of the Word Christ is truly present here and comes to make His home in your very flesh and bones.  Truly, God has given you so much to meditate on and ponder, so much to draw your hope and salvation from, so many ways to keep His Word and live from it.

    But none of it would do you any good apart from the working of the Holy Spirit.  Only the Spirit of Christ can make your meditation on His words fruitful and beneficial.  Without Him the sermon will seem useless, the liturgy will seem like dead ceremony.  We cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ our Lord or come to Him.  The Holy Spirit must open our understanding and enlighten us with the Gospel, as it is written, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”  

    And finally, Jesus teaches us here that through that Gospel we receive real peace.  The only meditation that gives lasting and indestructible peace is meditation on His words.  Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”  There is no reason to fear any more, not even when you’re facing death itself.  For Jesus has conquered your death by the holy cross.  He absorbed into His body all that makes you fearful and restless, and He crucified it.  Isaiah prophesied, “The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him.”  You have been reconciled to the Father in Christ.  You are at peace with God.  And if you are right with Him, then you can face whatever is going on in your day to day life with His strength and with the confidence that He is with you and will guide you through His Word.  This is not worldly peace which fails; this is peace given by the Spirit of God which never fails and which endures forever.  

    Now may this peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen.

The Wedding of Luke Wieting and Hannah Koch

June 20, 2015

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

    Almost everything about a wedding is positive and beautiful–colorful flowers, good music, nice clothing. The bride is pretty, the groom is handsome, the bridesmaids look lovely, the groomsmen look . . . more or less presentable.  Everything about a wedding looks good.  And of course, believing that marriage is a divine institution, that's as it should be; it is fitting to adorn God’s gift in this way and in this place.

    But then, there's one part of the marriage liturgy that is the fly in the punchbowl of all the beauty, that breaks the bubble, that won't let us drift into fairy tale lala land with its happily ever-afters.  It’s right there in the vows: for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.  And to top it all off, here’s the kicker: you pledge to love and to cherish "until death parts us."

    Why do we have to mention death at a marriage ceremony at all?  In our hymnal the funeral liturgy does immediately follow the marriage liturgy.  But I don’t think that’s meant to be a commentary on anything going on today. null 

    When you say “until death parts us,” that’s a reminder first of all, that contrary to popular opinion, marriage isn’t forever.  It is for your whole life in this world, to be sure; I certainly wouldn’t want you to miss that point.  But it isn’t forever; we’re not Mormons.  Jesus made it quite clear that there is no marriage in the life of the world to come.  It may sound like heresy to point that out on a wedding day, but there is some perspective in this, that we don’t make an idol out of God’s good gift of marriage and family.

    “Until death parts us” is also important because it speaks honestly about who it is that you’re marrying.  Only sinners die.  I know you both recognize that while the two of you may be perfect for each other, neither of you are perfect.  The parting of death creeps backwards into marriage–in little fights and unkind words, in selfishness and impatience and unforgiveness–whatever threatens the unity and the beauty and the life that God has given in marriage.

    But there is actually something good in the phrase “until death parts us.”  For especially here in church, it calls to mind another death which changes everything.  If it is true that by means of death we are parted, it is also true that by means of Christ's death we are rejoined and raised up in Him who is the Church’s Groom, never to be parted from His side.  

    Jesus’ side was opened for you on the cross.  He who is the New Adam has taken the mortal curse of the Old Adam and made it a source of immortal blessing for you.  Jesus was put into the sleep of death so that the New Eve, the Church, might be given life.  The blood and the water that poured forth from His spear-pierced side is what enlivens her and sanctifies her, so that she truly is without spot or wrinkle, holy and without blemish.  And so you are holy and without blemish in Him, for that scarlet water flowed over you in holy baptism, and your robes were made white in the blood of the Lamb, like a white wedding gown.  That holy blood continues to flow into the chalice for you in the Sacrament of the Altar.  The blood of Jesus, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin.  

    Only sinners die; and that’s why Jesus died.  He who knew no sin became sin for us that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.  Now there is a husbandly action if there ever was one.  Jesus made His bride’s sin His own, covered it, and took it away from her by His sacrifice.  There’s the love of the True Groom that makes her beautiful, that she may share in His bodily resurrection and life.  We are members of His body, bone of His bones and flesh of His flesh.

    This is a great mystery, Paul says.  This is what the marriage of man and woman–and only man and woman–is an image and picture of: the man Christ Jesus and His elect Lady, the Church.  And beginning today you two are given to walk in this truth by faith as husband and wife.  Luke, you have a holy and radiant bride.  Even in those times when you can’t see it, believe it.  Always look at her in that way, for that is what she is in Christ.  Treat her in that way for Jesus’ sake.  Hannah, you have a holy, Christ-like husband.  Even in those times when you can’t see it, believe it.  Always look to him in that way, for that is what he is in Christ.  Treat him in that way for Jesus’ sake.  

    Or to use that helpful metaphor: Hannah, look to Luke to lead the dance of your marriage, even if you think at times that you know the steps better than he does.  And Luke, lead the dance, even when she doesn’t seem particularly eager to follow your lead.  For you are ever in the role of Christ, drawing His bride to Himself.  Jesus didn’t stop with us at the baptismal font, but continuously calls us to Himself by His Word and Spirit.  So also your days of wooing and drawing her to yourself have only just begun.null

    Perhaps above all else, the best way that you will image Christ and the Church in your marriage is by extending His forgiveness to one another when you fail and when you fall short.  “God demonstrates His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”  “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another...”  As in all your vocations, your calling in marriage is to die to yourselves in love for the other.  “Love covers a multitude of sins.”  The deeper beauty of Christian marriage is made known with the cross in view, as the husband lays down his life for his bride, and the bride lives her life for him.

    The forgiveness of Christ, the self-giving of His holy cross is where we find the greatest beauty today.  And so not even the mention of death dampens our joy, for it points us to Jesus and His lovingkindness; it directs us to His self-sacrifice as our holy Groom.  The Lord is faithful; He will never leave you or forsake you.  He is there for you in sickness and in health, for better or worse, to love and to cherish, even beyond the parting of death to the resurrection of the body.  There in the new creation we shall delight in His presence.  There He shall dwell with us and we shall be His people, His Church, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared, Scripture says, as a bride adorned for her husband.  And so despite my earlier comments, you two will, of course, be together forever as the people of God in the presence of your Redeemer Jesus.  

    The last time I was in this pulpit was for a home schooling gathering many years ago, at our opening Vespers.  Who would have thought, when we were gathered back then for science and geography presentations and talent shows–when you, Luke, were doing Victor Borge routines with your brother, and Hannah was casually impressing with her piano skills–that we would come to this day of joy and music at your marriage?  We give thanks to God for His providence and for His gracious will in bringing the two of you together.  

    And remember that you are receiving a twofold gift today.  Not only are you being granted a husband or wife; you are being given a spouse who confesses the Christian faith together with you.  What a gift that is!  This is a great happiness to us.  Always remember that the person you are seated next to, whom you have just committed yourself to, is a chosen one of God in baptism, declared righteous and beautiful in His sight.  Always see each other as God sees you: one redeemed by Christ the crucified, one who is a forgiven and beloved child of God.  Don’t let the world lure you away from the goodness and truth and beauty of this Gospel that is at the heart of your lives.  Christ is everything for you, and you are everything to Him.

    So Luke, we are glad to welcome you to the family, even as our Hannah has been graciously received by your family.  All of us here rejoice with you both.  We give thanks to God for what He is doing for you today; you are His good gifts to each other.  On this last day of spring, as you now enter a new season of your life, may the Lord richly bless your marriage and the new home you are establishing in His name.

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

Deliverance From Fiery Judgment

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

    Several years ago when my family was out in Wyoming camping, my son Philip came upon a rattlesnake.  It wasn’t a big one; just a couple of rattles on its tail.  But it was still a threat.  We got hold of one of the hands working there, and with the sharp blade of a spade shovel he took care of the threat.  But imagine if you were camping and there were hundreds of rattlesnakes everywhere you turned. That’s what the Israelites were facing in today’s Old Testament reading.  Still in the middle of their wilderness wanderings, the people of Israel found themselves surrounded by poisonous snakes wherever they went, even in their tents.  There was no escape.  The whole community was infested with these creatures, so that it wasn’t long before a great many of the Israelites had died.

    The reason this happened is clear.  It was Israel’s sinful grumbling and complaining against the Lord.  Numbers 21 says, “The people spoke against God and against Moses: ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?’”  The people became thankless towards their God, who miraculously delivered them from their slavery to the Egyptians through the Red Sea.  When things got a little difficult, they turned against the Lord.  And on top of that, they failed to acknowledge that they were the cause of their own difficulty.  God had already brought them to the borders of the Promised Land of Canaan by this time.  Moses had led the people there and had sent spies into the land to bring back a report, so that Israel could prepare to enter the land and conquer those who dwelt there as God commanded.  But when the people heard about the Canaanites and how strong they were, they became afraid.  They didn’t trust that God would give them victory over these people.  They refused to enter the Promised Land, and so the Lord caused them to wander in the wilderness for 40 years.null

    Still God provided for Israel each day, sending them bread from heaven in the morning, which they called “manna.”  But they came to despise even this blessing, saying, “our soul loathes this worthless bread.”  You can see why God’s anger was kindled against them to send these serpents among them.

    Do we ever behave like the Israelites did here?  Have you ever become blase’ about how Christ saved you from your slavery to sin and death?  Have you ever taken for granted how He brought you through the Red Sea of baptism and made you His own people?  When things start to go badly in your lives, you also may be tempted to grumble against God and blame Him for your difficulties or else act thanklessly towards Him.  Like Israel, we tend to forget the terrible state of affairs from which God has rescued us.  And, like Israel, we tend to forget that the cause of our difficulties in this wilderness world is not God but our own stubborn rebellion against Him and His Word, which has put us under sin’s curse.

    Yet God provides for us each and every day, giving us all that we need to support this body and life.  But even then we still sometimes become bored with the same old job, the same old roof over our head, the same old people to live with, the same old husband or wife, the same old groceries on the table.  How often haven’t we or our families complained about what was for dinner or about not having anything enjoyable to do.  Boredom with God’s gifts is a sign of creeping unbelief.  We wish for something better, something different, something more.  Like Israel, we can despise the abundant blessing God has given us and incur His wrath.  Beware of wishing for something new.  You might get it, and it might be something along the lines of fiery serpents.

    Those deadly snakes in the Old Testament reading are a reminder to all of us that our root problem can be traced back to the snake of Eden, Satan.  The serpent’s fangs sank into our first parents with his poisonous lies.  That lethal venom still courses through our veins, causing all of humanity to convulse with reminders of its terminal condition.

    The judgment that Israel experienced brought them to repentance, which is the ultimate purpose of the judgment of the Law for us all.  The people turned to the Lord and prayed for deliverance.  And the Lord showed them great mercy.  He provided them with a solution to their problem.  “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it up on a pole, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.’”  By looking to this lifted-up snake and trusting God’s words, the people were saved.

    Now if you think about it, this solution really seems sort of odd.  Why of all things a snake?  Hadn’t they seen enough serpents already?  Why not something, for instance, that would be a better symbol of God?  The answer to that question lies in the fact that God fights fire with fire.  The solution He provides is of the same stuff as the problem.  Fiery snakes were the trouble; a fiery snake is the answer.  The serpent on the pole had the dual function of calling to mind the cause of the crisis, Satan and their sin, as well as showing the incredible love that God had for Israel in providing for their rescue from otherwise certain death.

    Of course, the full weight of this passage hits home for us when we understand that the snake corresponds to Jesus Christ.  John chapter 3 says: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so the Son of Man (Jesus) must be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.”  In His unfailing mercy God has also provided us with a solution to our problem.  The lifted-up snake in the Old Testament reading was a living prophecy of what Christ was to come and do in being lifted up on the cross.  Looking to the crucified Christ and trusting God’s words of forgiveness, the venom of sin is cleansed from our blood and we are restored to a right relationship with God.  The problem is focusing inwards and on ourselves; the solution is focusing outwards and on the cross.  For on it our punishment was executed.  By it our sins are canceled, and we are restored to God.

    And don’t gloss over the fact that the snake and Jesus are parallel in this instance.  For that is precisely where the heart of the Gospel is.  That wonderful passage, 2 Corinthians 5 says, “God made Jesus who knew no sin to be sin for us, that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”  Also in our situation, God fights fire with fire.  The solution is of the same stuff as the problem.  The terminal trouble is our sin, the healing solution is sin on a pole, Jesus on the cross.  He was actually made to be the problem so that we would be freed from the problem.  God treated Jesus as if He were the devilish serpent himself on the cross, so that you would be treated as His beloved child.  Jesus put Himself on the level of the devil for you.  It almost sounds blasphemous to call Jesus sin.  For He was certainly without sin of Himself.  But because He made our sin His own, His death now means that our sin is dead, powerless to do us any eternal harm.  By dying and rising again, Jesus crushed the serpent’s head.

    You might compare it to the true story of the hunter who was out with his friend in a wide-open area of land in southeastern Georgia.  Far away on the horizon he noticed a cloud of smoke.  Soon he could hear the sound of crackling.  A wind came up, and he realized the terrible truth: a brushfire was advancing his way.  It was moving so fast that he and his friend could not outrun it.  The hunter began to rifle through his pockets.  Then he emptied all the contents out of his knapsack.  He soon found what he was looking for–a book of matches.  To his friend’s amazement, he pulled out a match and struck it.  He lit a small fire in a circle.  Soon they were both standing in the middle of a large circle of blackened earth, waiting for the firestorm to come.  They did not have to wait long.  They covered their mouths with their handkerchiefs and braced themselves.  The fire came near–and swept right by them.  But they were completely unhurt; they weren’t even touched.  For the fire would not burn where fire had already been.

    The judgment of the Law is like the brushfire.  We cannot escape it.  But if we stand in the burned-over place, where the Law has already burned its way through, then we won’t be hurt.  The death of Christ is the burned-over place.  The Law already burned its full judgment there on the cross.  There we huddle, hardly believing we’re safe there, yet relieved that it is true.  The Law is powerless against us; Christ’s death has disarmed it. (Zahl, “Who Will Deliver Us?” p. 42)

    This is why we have no problems displaying crosses with the body of Christ on them.  For there we see where the fire has already burned.  There we see our safe place and our refuge; there we take our stand.  We preach Christ crucified, so that looking to Him in faith we may live, relieved and joyful.  

    And finally, what better way is there for you to look to Christ in the midst of all the fiery serpents of this world than to receive the holy supper of His body and blood for your forgiveness with prayerful faith.  As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.  Here is the antivenin that undoes sin’s toxin; here is the medicine of immortality, given and shed for you.

    Trust then in these words of Christ from the Gospel and know that they are true for you, “In the world you will have tribulation.  But be of good cheer.  I have overcome the world.”  

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

Posts