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Reading the Signs of Creation

Luke 21:25-36
Advent 2

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

    It’s rather interesting the way Jesus talks about signs in Scripture.  On the one hand, He says that it is an evil and adulterous generation that seeks a sign.  People that need signs to prove God’s existence or to verify the truth of His Word are only exhibiting their unbelief.  If you insist upon a sign or some special experience, if God has to jump through your hoops before you’ll trust Him or follow Him, that only reveals an absence of faith.  Faith is believing without seeing, knowing that you have a trustworthy Source who is speaking to you.  Sign-seeking is adulterous, going after what fulfills your spiritual lusts and desires.  To those who were seeking a sign, Jesus said that the only one they would be given was the sign of Jonah, a man “buried” in the watery depths but who comes forth to a new life on the third day.  Jonah points us to Jesus, whose death and resurrection is our true and ultimate sign, the sign that our sins have been fully paid for, that He has conquered the power of the grave and brings us resurrection and life immortal.  We need nothing more than that Word of good news, the Gospel, to bring us to faith and save us.

    However, to Jesus’ disciples, to those who believe and don’t require signs, Jesus still actually gives many signs.  Not only did He perform a multitude of miracles in His ministry, signs that proved He truly was the Messiah, not only do we presently see many signs of His loving kindness toward us even in the midst of this fallen and broken world, but He also gives us an abundance of signs of His second coming and the end of this world.null

    In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks in particular about signs in creation, in the sun, moon, and stars, and even climate and weather-related signs.  After mentioning the fig tree and all the trees budding, Jesus speaks of the sea and the waves roaring, nations in distress, and people in perplexity as the powers of creation are shaken.  In other words, nature itself will give us signs that the return of Jesus is almost upon us.

    The problem is that unbelief misreads the signs.  This happens all the time; people see the signs in creation, like earthquakes, like variations in climate and weather, like floods and fires and storms and droughts, and instead of reading these things as a call to repentance and to faithful watching for the Lord of creation to return, they see it as a call to preach the gospel of climate change  and to worship creation itself as their lord.  And so the signs don’t help them.  Signs only help the faithful.

    The world misreads the signs, and so they have the wrong diagnosis of the situation.  They know that there’s a problem, that things aren’t right.  Even unbelievers sense that things are messed up in the world and need to be fixed.  But they misidentify the enemy and the source of the problem.  Virtually every political cause that is out there does this.  For environmentalists, the enemy is fossil fuels and overpopulation.  For feminists, it’s men and the patriarchy.  For socialists, it’s capitalism (and vice versa), for conservatives, it’s progressives (and vice versa), for those feeling oppressed, it’s racial privilege or gender conformity or big corporations or big government.  And the list goes on.  We have this intrinsic spiritual need to set up a system of good and evil that explains why reality is the way it is.  But when we do that apart from God’s Word, we end up with a system that is comprised of half truths (at best), and people end up embracing delusions and lies.  Scripture tells us that the real issue, the real enemies are the devil, the unbelieving world, and our own sinful nature.  But we don’t like that diagnosis.  Because it means that the problem is not just some neatly defined external system or group of people that we can blame.  It’s a deeper, spiritual matter, and it involves a sickness that is actually inside every one of us.  Worldly groups and causes only address symptoms and not the disease.  But Jesus, our coming Lord, gets to the heart of the matter.

    Jesus once commented on people misinterpreting the signs of the times in Luke 12.  He said, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming.’ And so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

    Christians know that when creation seems to be coming apart, that’s because it’s a fallen creation, in bondage to decay under the curse of sin.  Christians aren’t surprised by the upheavals of creation because they know that this creation is passing away, as Jesus said, “The heavens and the earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.”  Just like us, creation is wearing down and wearing out.  It has to die in order to rise again as the new heavens and the new earth, which God is preparing to be our eternal dwelling with Him.  Romans 8 says, “the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God.”  Creation itself trembles with anticipation of Christ’s return, when the hidden things of our salvation will finally be uncovered and brought to fulfillment, and all things will be made new.  Until that day we cling to Jesus’ words, which endure forever, and which will surely deliver what they say.

    So when we see the signs of the end, our reaction as Christians is different from the unbelieving world.  To the faithless, these signs bring pessimism and panic.  Jesus says here that men’s hearts will fail them from fear.  There will be a sense of retreat, that things are spiraling downward.  Our pop culture reflects this with the incredible number of movies and shows that focus on a dystopian future world, after some apocalypse occurs because of disease or war or climate catastrophe.  Creating these scenarios is almost like therapy to deal with this dread of what’s coming.

    Of course, Jesus also warns against another way that people deal try to with this.  He says, “Take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly.”  Some people think to themselves, “Hey, everything’s going downhill; I might as well have some fun while I can.  Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”  Indulging in food and drink and pleasure, throwing yourself into your work or your hobby helps you to forget about this looming future.

    But our reaction as believers is quite different.  For these signs are not just pointing to the end but to a new beginning.  And above all they are pointing to the return of our Savior.  Whereas the world is weighed down with anxiety as things come apart, Jesus tells you that when you see these signs, “look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.”  These signs are actually good news in that they point us to Him.  We can have peace even in the midst of the chaos, because we know what this is all leading to.  We can deny ourselves the sinful pleasures of this world, because we know there is much greater joy and holy delight to come in the presence of our gracious Lord.  Your future is assured in Jesus.  Your merciful Lord is coming.  Your redemption draws near.

    That’s really how we should think of the Last Day, not as doomsday, not only as Judgment day, but as Redemption Day.  For that’s what it is.  It’s a good day that is coming, “the great and dreadful day of the Lord” as Malachi puts it–great for those who are in Christ, dreadful for those who aren’t.  Judgment day has already taken place for us.  For we are baptized into Christ, and He bore all of the judgment against our sin on the cross, on that great and dreadful day, Good Friday.  Remember that there were great signs in creation on that day: the sun was darkened for three hours, and the earth quaked at the death of the Son of God.  For the curse on this old creation was broken, and a new creation was dawning in Christ.  As a result of that, Romans 8 says that we are  “eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”  So the punishment and the condemnation is all done for you now.  It’s all taken care of.  You’re redeemed by the blood of Christ.  It’s just a matter of time before your Redeemer returns to reveal that truth before the world, so that you may enjoy it in all its fullness.  

    Jesus urges you today in the Gospel, “Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man.”  Lift up your heads in watchfulness and prayer, keeping your eyes fixed on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith.  For it is only through Him that you are worthy; it is only through Him that you can stand in the final Judgment without fear.  Psalm 130 prays, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?”  Not a single one of us could.  However, the psalm continues, “But with you, Lord, there is forgiveness.  Therefore you are revered.”  Jesus Himself makes you worthy to stand tall in His presence, not in pride because of your merits but because of His cleansing forgiveness, poured out upon you in your baptism.

    So lift up your heads, then, and lift up your hearts to see the sign that the Lord is giving to you today, the holy Sacrament of the Altar.  To the unbeliever it seems like nothing all that important.  But to you who believe and are baptized, it is a marvelous sign.  For it assures you that the One who comes to you now hiddenly with His body and blood for your forgiveness will come again visibly on the clouds with power and great glory to deliver you.  It is written, “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”  And so the church continually prays, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”

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

Peace in Heaven

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Luke 19:28-40
Advent 1

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

    Psalm 24 says, “Who may ascend the hill of the Lord?  Or who may stand in His holy place?  He who has clean hands and a pure heart.”  Well that doesn’t sound like very good news, does it?  That description excludes us all.  Whose hands haven’t been stained by selfish actions?  Whose heart hasn’t been polluted by covetous desires?  God’s Word is clear in Romans 3, “None is righteous, no, not one. . . All have turned aside; together they have become corrupt.. .  They use their tongues to deceive.”  You have no righteousness of yourself, in spite of your best efforts.  Isaiah 64 says that even all of our own supposedly “righteous” deeds are like filthy rags before God.  

    How, then, can any of us ever expect to enter into God’s presence?  The answer and the solution to that problem is revealed in today’s OT reading, where Jeremiah prophesies that the coming Messiah, Jesus, will be called “The Lord Our Righteousness.” That’s where your righteousness is to be found, in Jesus alone.  Only He has clean hands and a pure heart.  Only He has the right to ascend the hill of the Lord and to stand in His holy place.  So it is that in today’s Gospel we see Jesus going up to Jerusalem–where He would cleanse the temple, where He would redeem us by His holy cross.  His clean hands and His pure heart were pierced for us to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  Trusting in Christ, His righteousness becomes our own.  Romans 4 says that to the one who believes in Him, “his faith is counted as righteousness.”  So, we are able to ascend the hill of the Lord and to stand in His holy place solely by Jesus’ merit.  That’s why we begin nearly every service with confession and absolution.  Holding to Jesus and His mercy, we are purified and accepted into the Father’s presence to worship Him.  For Christ the Lord is our righteousness.null

    Today, at the beginning of a new church year, we celebrate again this holy, Christ-centered truth.  We begin once more to recount the true story of salvation in Jesus.  Rehearsing His life and His teaching is the heartbeat of our life.  It’s the way we grow up into His righteousness and get ready for the life of the world to come.  

    Still, it might seem strange that we start out the Advent season by picking up the salvation story so far into it, at the beginning of Holy Week!  You might expect that we’d start at the beginning of Jesus’ life, with more Christmas-y type readings.  But you actually get very little of that in Advent.  For the way the church recounts this story is not purely chronological.  Advent is primarily a season of penitent preparation for Christ’s coming.  Advent begins the same way Holy Week begins to remind us that you can’t disconnect Jesus’ birth from Jesus’ cross.  His coming into the world is inseparably linked to His dying for the world.  Today’s Gospel reading shows us that our Lord comes in lowliness and humility, whether it’s in a manger or on a beast of burden.  As it is written, “Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly, and sitting on a donkey.”  

    Notice how your King doesn’t merely do an obligatory gesture from on high as He passes by, waving and keeping a safe distance from you.  Rather it says that He comes to you, right to where you’re at, past all the facades to the way things really are with you.  He comes to you humbly, on your level, even to the point of sharing in your flesh and blood, to give you mercy, to rescue you and deliver you, to be your life and your help.  Since He comes in this lowly way, you are called to do as the people did here and lay your garments on the road before Him, which means to cast off the works of darkness in your life.  Let your sins be cast aside; lay them down so that He may trample them underfoot.  Humble yourself through repentance, and then through faith in Christ put on His armor of light, walking properly as in the day.

    We see in Luke’s Palm Sunday narrative that there is, actually, a very nice connection here to Christmas.  Perhaps you noticed it when the Gospel was being read.  At Jesus’ birth the angels praised God and said, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!”   And here, the multitude of the disciples praise God saying, “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest!”  The song of heaven becomes the song of earth.  Angels sing of peace on earth; humans sing of peace in heaven.  But that’s really just two sides of the same coin.  For in Jesus heaven and earth are brought together, since He is God and man together Himself.  By becoming man our Lord Jesus brings peace on earth.  Then Christ reconciles us to the Father by offering Himself up as the sacrifice for our sins.  There is literally peace in heaven as the crucified and risen Jesus ascends to the right hand of the Father, and God and man are reunited eternally through the power of His blood.  This is what brings glory in the highest; this is the glory of God the Father, to give His Son for us that we might live with Him in gladness and peace forever.

    One of the things that stands out in this Gospel reading is the detailed information Jesus gives about getting this donkey colt.  Here our Lord demonstrates not just His omniscience, that He knows all things, but that He has carefully planned and prepared for this day.  Scripture says that the kingdom of God has been prepared for you from the foundation of the world, and here we see the Lord carrying out His mission to save you in precise detail.  

    And in particular, we see how important this specific donkey colt is.  It is a colt on which no one has ever sat.  For not just anyone can accomplish this mission; only Jesus can redeem us.  Only He is worthy to be seated on this beast of burden and to bear the burden of our brokenness all the way to the cross.  This colt is to be unloosed and released and brought to Jesus; for our Lord has come to unloose and release us stubborn donkeys from our bondage to death and the devil, so that we may serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

    What happens in today’s Gospel is in fulfillment of a prophecy that goes all the way back to Genesis 49.  There it says that “the scepter shall not depart from Judah.”  In other words, the Messiah King, Jesus, will come from the tribe of Judah.  And then it says of the Messiah, “Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey's colt to the choice vine, he washed his garments in wine and his clothes in the blood of grapes.”  This means that the One who rides this colt does so in order to pour out His blood to atone for the sins of the world.  It is this very blood that is poured out in wine for us in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar.  The King is still coming to us humbly in the Lord’s Supper to save us.  And we are still carrying on the hymn of the people outside of Jerusalem as we sing in the communion liturgy, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the highest!

    Jesus rides this new colt on which no one has ever sat, and then He is buried in a new tomb hewn out of the rock in which no one had ever lain before.  For there also He will do what no one else can do and conquer the power of the grave for us by His bodily resurrection.  And it all will begin with Jesus being laid in a manger which had never been used as a cradle before.  For who would put their baby in a cattle feeder?  Only the humble and lowly Jesus would do these things for us and for our salvation.  There is none other like Him.  There is no other Savior.

    Of course, some will not believe this.  Some are looking for a more glorious Lord, one who brings success and prosperity and worldly honor.  The Pharisees here actually tell Jesus to rebuke His disciples who are praising Him.  For these Pharisees simply cannot accept that one so common as Him could be the promised King.  Do not be led astray and deceived by those who think this way, who are scandalized by suffering, who want the crown of gold without the crown of thorns.  Rather, embrace Him who embraced your humanity fully to redeem you, who is at work even in the midst of your lowliness and your suffering to bring you to share in His resurrection glory.

    And finally, remember what Jesus says here, that if the people would have kept silent, the very stones would have cried out in praise of Him!  John the Baptist also had preached that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from the stones.  This is a reminder that all praise truly belongs to the Lord for our salvation.  For we could do nothing to come to Him.  Until He came to us, we were like stones, cold and lifeless under the curse.  But then by His advent He brought us to life and built us into His own special dwelling, His holy church.  Because Jerusalem rejected the Messiah, they would be destroyed by the Romans, and not one stone would be left upon another, Jesus said.  But for us who believe and are baptized, it is written in 1 Peter 2, “Coming to (Jesus) as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”  All of you together are the Lord’s holy temple.  You are those who proclaim the praises of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.  

    As we enter into this new church year, then, let us continually join in with those who praised Jesus as He entered into Jerusalem.  For your King is coming to you.  He is righteous and having salvation.  “‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!’  Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”

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

Watch and Pray

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

    Most everyone 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 ourselves have 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 are 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 more seriously in a few years, later on.  Right now I’ve got to focus on other things.”  Tell me: how do you know you’ve got a few years to work with?  Do you know the day of the Lord’s return or the day of your death?  How can you give so much attention to your worldly loves and assume that the things of the Lord can be taken care of at some point in the future?  It is a foolish notion to think that you can schedule your repentance and put it off for later.  That is perhaps the most silly 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 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 merely live for the moment; they live with their hearts set on this 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 a bit foolish carrying around those extra jars of oil.  Perhaps they were told stop burdening themselves, 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; they were prepared for the delay. And when the bridegroom finally arrived, they were ready to take part in the marriage feast.

    For the five foolish virgins it was too late. There was no more opportunity to purchase oil. They were unprepared for the feast and unable to enter into the joy of the celebration. The door was shut, and they were excluded.

    What does this mean for you? 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 you should be speculating about the day or the hour.  History is full of failed predictions about the end.  All you 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 you are given to do is to watch, to be ready, to devote yourselves to the worship of Christ and the receiving of His gifts.  

    To watch is to believe and to hope in His promises.  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.

    Right now is the evening of the wedding feast. Right now is the time when you still have access to the oil.  It is available to you in overflowing abundance. 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.  They never say, “Oh, I can skip a couple or three weeks of church.”  For they always desire 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.  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 then 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; not as a burden, though, but as a joyful thing.  For we eagerly are looking forward to the merriment of the wedding feast.

    Your Bridegroom 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.”

    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 ✠

Golden Calf or Lamb of God?

Exodus 32:1-20
Trinity 25

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

    The people of Israel got impatient waiting for Moses to come down from the mountain.  It had been more than a month that he was gone.  They gave up on him even though the Lord had chosen him to lead them.  They decided that the Word of the Lord they had heard wasn’t enough; they wanted to have a god or an image which they could see to go before them, something more like what they were used to from their Egyptian background when they were slaves.  They grew bored with the mighty acts the Lord had done for them in the Passover and the Red Sea.  They wanted something visually stimulating that fit in more with the culture of the day, something that met their needs right now.

    Aaron gave in to the will of the people.  He wasn’t a faithful pastor.  He told them to bring their gold earrings to him, he melted the gold down, and made a golden calf from it.  A golden calf was a sign of fertility, of growth and success.  Then the people said, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!”  This was the kind of worship they liked.null

    Aaron knew deep down, though, that this wasn’t right.  So he tried to make things kosher.  He built an altar before the golden calf and made a proclamation: “Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord.”  In other words, he tried mix two things together, using this calf as part of the worship of the Lord.  He had what you might call a blended service.  He wasn’t abandoning the faith, he thought; he was just combining the faith with what was socially acceptable.  His plan was to use the style of the image, but godly substance.  He tried to please the people and to please the Lord at the same time.

    But that didn’t work too well, did it?  It says here that the people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.  The “play” that is mentioned is the kind of play you would expect to have in the presence of a fertility god like the golden calf, indulgence leading to immorality.  That’s one way to keep the people happy.

    We are of the same stock as the children of Israel.  We have the same fallen nature that they did.  And so we also can be tempted to grow impatient as we wait for the Lord to come down from heaven, to return for the final judgment on the Last Day.  We too can begin to wonder if it’s ever really going to happen, and in the meantime to grow bored with the mighty acts the Lord has done for us in His death and resurrection and in our baptism.  “Yeah, I’ve heard it all before.  Boring.”  The Scriptures urge us to wait on the Lord and to devote ourselves to His teaching and preaching.  But we want something immediately gratifying, that will make us feel the way we want to feel and get us where we want to be in life and meet our needs right now.  We want worship to be what we’re comfortable with and interested in and entertained by.

    And so pastors and congregations can be tempted to try to mix the church and the world in their worship.  But we learn from Aaron’s experience here that even though you call it the worship of the Lord, in the end it turns out to be idolatry.  For instance, mix the teaching of Jesus with political ideology–socialism, captalism, libertarianism, communism, fascism–and you end up with idolatry, where the true God becomes less important than social agendas or national unity or material prosperity.  The Lord isn’t the focus but merely a means to achieve those ends.  Or mix the teaching of Jesus with pop psychology, and you get pastors whose main strength isn’t preaching the truth about sin and the cross but telling humorous stories and delivering sermons about “7 steps toward better relationships” or “Biblical dieting” or “How to be the best version of yourself.”  Again, the Lord isn’t central but just part of the formula for some supposedly greater goal.  Or mix the true worship of the Lord with the ways of cultural media, and you end up with screens in church that inevitably distract from the cross and the altar, with drama performances and singers who give the impression that the front of the church is a stage rather than a holy space where God is truly present in His words and sacraments.  The goal is not communion with the true God, but achieving spiritual and religious “feels.”  That’s really our cultural idol today, anything that gives you all the right feels.  Like the children of Israel, we tend to want what we’re used to in the world, with the emphasis more on visuals than on the Word, on emotion than on truth.  That’s what we’re willing to give up a little gold for.  Go ahead and keep the Lutheran substance, but give me a little worldly style.  The problem is that the worldly style almost always drowns out the Word of truth.

    And I should point out that this works in the opposite direction, too, where we invest worldly things with almost sacred significance.  Sporting events have their own liturgy of when to do what and how to show reverence to the game, and God forbid if anyone messes with it.  Fans engage in the rituals of their team with great fervor, where even Christians are often much more willing to talk about the things of the sport than the things of the Gospel, exhibiting more passion for the events of Sunday afternoon than Sunday morning.  And the same sorts of things can be said about much of our entertainment–concerts and performances and events–where the goal is to create a communal experience that fulfills the need for something mystical and even spiritual.  

    We all would do well to pay attention to what happened when Moses came down from the mountain and saw what was going on.  He became hot with anger, ground the calf which they had made into powder, scattered it on the water, and made the children of Israel drink it.  Their false god was destroyed, and they were forced to drink up and share in that destruction.  So it will be also on the Day of Christ’s return for all those who have turned their hearts away from Him to other things.  They will have to drink the cup of eternal judgment that is fitting for their idolatrous loves.

    Let this portion of the Scriptures, then, be a call to repentance for all of us.  For whether it has to do with worship or other aspects of our lives, we all know the temptation to go along with the crowd like Aaron did, to conform to the world’s ways of thinking and doing things.  Let us rather be transformed by the renewing of our minds, setting our hearts on things above where Jesus is, seated at the right hand of God.  Let us not simply focus on what is temporary but on what is eternal, what lasts for all times and places and even beyond time.  Seek the treasures of Christ, which cannot be ground to powder or destroyed but which are indestructible and endure forever.

    Those treasures of Christ are the real and proper focus of divine service.  Church is meant to be not like the culture and the world, but like heaven.  Church is where heaven and earth intersect, where Christ Himself is truly present among us in His preaching and body and blood.  That’s why in the liturgy we sing the songs of the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.  Going into church is to be like stepping into another world.  And that occurs not primarily through what we see but through what we hear, as it is written, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.”  That Word of Jesus, the Lamb who was slain and raised again, is the constant center of our attention in worship.  

    Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “The kingdom of God does not come with observation; nor will they say, ‘See here!’ or ‘See there!’  For indeed, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”  Faith isn’t all that impressed with what can be seen with the eyes; faith relies on the ears.  We don’t put our confidence in what is visually appealing, but what appeals to our hearing, the true and pure Word of God.  The kingdom of God is truly in our midst because Christ the King Himself is truly among us right here, even though He remains unseen to ordinary sight.  The kingdom of God is wherever the flesh-and-blood Jesus is–wherever He is speaking His words to His people and giving Himself to them in order that they may have His forgiveness and share in His life.  Being joined to Christ through faith, we have entrance already here on earth into the heavenly kingdom of God.

    Jesus brings to perfect fulfillment for us what Moses did for Israel on the mountain.  Remember that God’s wrath was burning hot against the Israelites because of their idolatry, and He said to Moses that He was going to destroy them all.  But Moses spoke up and interceded for Israel.  He called to mind God’s salvation of Israel and the promises that God had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Moses stepped in the way of God’s wrath in order to save Israel.  And the Lord relented from the harm and the disaster He was going to do to His people, and He did not do it.

    Isn’t that exactly what Jesus has done for you?  When God’s wrath was burning hot against you and the whole world because of sin, the Son of God stepped in the way of that wrath and took it all for you in His own body on the cross.  When Jesus was crucified, He suffered hell for you so that you would be spared and set free.  In Jesus God the Father relents from giving you what you deserve and instead gives you forgiveness and life through faith in Him.  

    Even now Jesus is still stepping in and interceding and speaking up in your defense.  He is your greater Moses, pointing to the blood He shed on your behalf that declares you “not guilty,” calling to mind the divine promises that have been applied to you, that the name of the Holy Trinity is upon you, that you believe and are baptized.  It is written in I John, “If anyone sins we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.  And He Himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”  And Romans 8 says, “Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.”

    So let us then wait patiently for the return of Christ, even if it seems like it’s taking forever.  Let us look forward to the Last Day, not dreading it as a day of doom that we need to fear, but as something to look forward to and eagerly desire.  For our judgment day already occurred almost 2000 years ago at Calvary.  God took care of your judgment on the cross.  It’s over and done with.  Believe in that truth.  All that remains for you now is mercy and life.  Jesus tells you to look up and lift up your heads and watch for His return.  For your salvation is nearer now than when you first believed.  You who are baptized are not those of the golden calf; you are those of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

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

The Truth of Christ Defeats the Lie

John 8:31-36

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

    Jesus said in today’s Gospel, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”  Truth is powerful.  For it liberates you from the slavery of sin.  It releases you from the ignorance of unbelief.  It protects you from the traps and the schemes of the devil, who is the father of lies.

     However, truth is also dangerous.  For since it is so powerful, evil cannot tolerate it.  Evil wars against the truth, always trying to corrupt it.  Darkness hates the light and can’t exist where it shines brightly.  And so it does everything in its power to snuff it out.  Wherever the truth is spoken, evil is right there to stir up trouble, to fuss and shout and make it seem as if the truth is the problem.  The more clearly the truth is spoken, the louder evil will scream.  The famous author George Orwell once remarked, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”  Truth is powerful and good, but there is always warfare against it in this fallen world.null

    And that includes not only the evil that is outside of us in our truth-denying society, but also the evil that is within us, in our old Adam.  We may well nod our head in agreement when we hear “the truth will make you free,” but the closer someone gets to the truth of our sin, the louder we protest and deflect blame, don’t we?  The Psalmist puts it rather clearly when he says, “All mankind are liars.”  We all are skilled at the art of shading and spinning the truth to our advantage, of trying to make our sin seem respectable, of distorting and twisting the truth to justify ourselves and rationalize the way we are.  That’s why an essential element of being a Christian is repentance, coming to terms with the truth and honestly acknowledging that we are by nature enslaved to the Lie, focused on what we want to hear, not what we need to hear.  What we desperately need is to be released from the power of sin and death and the devil.  

    The truth which sets you free is more than just information that is factually correct, that you can just download into your brain in a confirmation class.  Truth is a person, Jesus Himself.  For He said, “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.”  Our Lord Jesus is the embodiment of divine Truth.  He is eternal and ultimate reality, the One in whom this whole universe holds together, as Colossians 1 says.  He is God in the flesh, who has come into the world to destroy the father of lies forever and to rescue you from the deadly power of sin.  When Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, He said, “Everyone who is of the truth listens to My voice.”  And all Pilate could do was to cynically respond, “What is truth?”  Truth incarnate was standing right there before him, but the Lie had a hold of Pilate, who loved his power and position.  On that Good Friday the Truth appeared to be overwhelmed by the Lie; the darkness seemed to have snuffed out the Light.  But as He died, Jesus spoke the truth that not even death nor the devil could conquer.  Jesus said simply and clearly, “It is finished.”  By His suffering and death, all had been fulfilled and completed and accomplished.  Everything necessary to undo the curse and defeat the Lie had been done.  Even though it didn’t seem like it, the Truth had won the day.  Victory was assured.  The resurrection was a foregone conclusion.  For Jesus had crushed the serpent’s head and had taken away your deadly sin.  That is the truth that liberates you and makes you free.  It is finished; it is all accomplished for you in Jesus.

    Mortal combat between the truth of Christ and the lies of the evil one continues still.  And for long periods of time, it may seem as if the Lie is winning.  In the 1400's there was a man named Jan Hus who lived in Bohemia, in the modern-day Czech Republic.  Jan Hus spoke the truth of God’s Word against the false teaching in the church of his day.  At the Council of Constance, he was condemned by the church as a heretic and burned at the stake.  The truth seemed to have lost.  However, before he died, Hus made this prophetic statement.  The name “Hus” means “goose” in the Bohemian language, and he said, “You are now going to burn a goose, but in a century you will have a swan to whom you will be forced to listen.”  Almost exactly 100 years later, Martin Luther, the trumpeter swan, posted his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg.  

    What is of special note is that one of Jan Hus’s fiercest opponents, a man named Johannes Zacharias, was buried in front of the altar in the Augstinian monastery in Erfurt, Germany.  And it was on that very spot that Martin Luther laid face down as he made his vows as a monk.  How wonderfully ironic that it was on the grave of Jan Hus’s mortal enemy that Luther would begin his journey that led to the Reformation of the church, including some of the very truths that Hus had preached.  Let us be encouraged by this, that the Truth of Christ will always win out.  In spiritually dark times, we may not see or experience that victory.  But it is assured; for the crucified One is risen!  Let us then boldly confess the truth of our Christian faith, regardless of the cost, knowing that it will never be in vain.  The Truth of Christ will always have the last word.

    Martin Luther had no way of knowing whether or not he would end up being executed like Hus.  In 1517 Luther set forth 95 theses for debate which told the truth about the corruption in the Church of his day.  And like any whistleblower working for powerful bosses, his life would be turned upside down after that point.  In 1521 Luther was called before the Emperor himself to recant his teaching or face punishment.  After faltering on the first day of his questioning, Luther returned to make his famous speech in reply, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures and by clear reason (for I do not trust in the pope or councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted.  My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.  May God help me.”  And then as the room erupted into noisy jeers and cheers by the gathered crowd, including some shouting “To the fire with him!” Luther spoke these words, “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”  It was only by the grace of God and the skillful maneuvering of Luther’s prince, Frederick of Saxony, that he was able to escape with his life.  

    The matters in dispute during the Reformation were of the utmost importance.  For they had to do with the nature of the Gospel and God’s grace.  Can the forgiveness of sins be sold as a commodity based on the authority of a pope rather than the Word of God?  Can forgiveness and eternal life be earned by good works?  How does faith fit into the picture?  Is faith a good work which we produce that saves us or is it something that God works in us to receive His saving gifts?  Martin Luther and the other reformers returned simply to telling the truth of Scripture: The Law of God is good, and we must obey His commandments.  But we dare never place our faith in how well we’re keeping the Law, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.  Therefore, our faith is entirely in Jesus and what He has done for us.  We cannot justify ourselves; rather we are justified, declared righteous, freely by God’s grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.  We are saved through faith in Him alone, apart from the deeds of the Law.  Salvation cannot be bought, either with money, or even with good deeds and good intentions.  For it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.  You have been saved by grace alone.

    In teaching this, the Lutheran reformers were not teaching anything new.  It was all there in Scripture.  And it had been taught by the fathers of the Church throughout the Church’s history.  That’s one of the things Lutherans emphasized over and over again.  They were being the true catholics, for they were simply restoring the teaching of the truth of Christ that had been corrupted and suppressed through the centuries.  They weren’t inventing anything or making stuff up.  That’s why they kept the liturgy and everything else that belonged to the Church that didn’t contradict the Word of God.  The Reformation was about a return to the eternal truth of Holy Scripture.  The truth can be denied and suppressed, but in the end it is unconquerable.

    That’s the beautiful thing about the truth.  Unlike a lie, you don’t have to invent it, and you don’t have to “manage” it.  It just is.  Once you know the truth, you simply repeat it and proclaim it and say “Amen” to it.  By contrast, the lie requires a good memory to recall what you made up.  And it requires an army of lies to back up the original lie.  Eventually, the tangled web ensnares the liar, and he is caught.  So it is that Satan was trapped in his own deceit and ensnared by the death he brought into the world.  For through the death of Jesus, the deceiver was undone and his work destroyed.  The lie cannot suppress the truth forever.  For Truth in the flesh is risen from the dead.

    This is why Reformation Day is a great celebration for us, for it is centered in this unconquerable and everlasting truth of Jesus.  Our Lutheran ancestors in the faith courageously spoke the truth to power.  And as a result, many things changed.  The authority of God’s Word was restored to its rightful place, being heard in the language of the people, and the preaching of the pure Gospel rang out again as the delivery of God’s free grace in Christ.  Even in churches that rejected Luther’s reforms there was some change for the better.  Roman Catholic churches have acknowledged that Luther was right about several things and are different today as a result, though sadly the same underlying poison of false teaching remains in place.  In my recent visit to Italy it became clear that the same structure of indulgences and rewards for good works and superstition about saints was still alive and well and being practiced.

    So as much as there for us to celebrate this day, the Reformation must continue if it is to mean anything–and that must continue to happen within Lutheranism, too.  For much of Lutheranism today is a sad parody of what Luther taught.  Lutheran churches don’t always speak the truth confidently and boldly before the world but are too often conformed to the lies of this world.  And so the best and greatest thing that Lutherans can do still to this day is to stubbornly cling to the truth, to preach the fullness of God’s Law that exposes our fallen condition, to announce with gladness that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15), to proclaim without fear that He is the exclusive Truth, the only way to the Father and to eternal life, that by His wounds we are healed (Is. 53:5).  We have no new truths to offer; for the truth of Christ is both ancient and eternal.  We cling to the promise of God that the Church, in her confession of this truth, will even withstand the gates of hell.  It is as we just sang regarding the devil, “One little Word can fell him,” namely the Word of Jesus.

    So hear again what Jesus says, and take it to heart this Reformation weekend, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.  And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”

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

Created Male and Female

Genesis 1:26-27
Trinity 21

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

    The way that Satan attacks God is by attacking those who are made in the image of God.  We need to recognize, especially in today’s cultural context, that the devil’s #1 goal is to corrupt and pollute and ultimately destroy our humanity.  The way Satan lashes out at the Creator is by assaulting the crown of God’s creation, human beings.

    In particular, the devil is now attacking the most basic reality of our humanity, namely, that we are created male and female.  And here’s the way he does it: it starts with a lie that has actually been around for millennia.  The lie goes like this: material things are bad, or at least unimportant, and spiritual things are good.  The body is supposedly just a shell that you eventually cast aside; the soul is what counts.  It’s not outward things like maleness or femaleness but inward things that matter.  But do you see how that philosophy is a rejection of the Creator?  For what did God declare about His creation?  He said that it was good, even very good!  This is the way we should think of physical, bodily, material things; for they are created by God.  They’re not lower level stuff; they are good just as much as our souls are.  To be sure this fallen creation now groans under the curse of decay and death because of sin.  But the problem is sin, not the material creation.  Besides, if you think about it, sin is as much a matter of the soul as it is of the body; for all sin begins in the heart.

    Body and soul are one; they go together.  Too often we try to separate them into different categories, body over here, soul over there, and the soul just sort of rattles around in this bodily container for a while till death when it is set free.  But that’s not how it is.  Remember how Adam was created?  God formed him from the dust of the ground and breathed life into him.  That life is the soul.  It’s not as if there are some pre-existing souls floating around up in heaven somewhere, and when a woman gets pregnant, God sends a soul down to the little unborn baby.  Sadly, in fact, that’s how many people try to justify abortion.  They say the baby doesn’t have a soul until later in the pregnancy or until they’re born; so killing the unborn child is OK.  But of course that’s wrong.  At the moment of conception, God creates a new human person, including a new human soul.  The soul is the life of the body, the unique person that God creates.  null

    This means that the soul is not just a generic spirit.  If you’re a man, you have a male soul.  If you are a woman, you have a female soul.  None of this silliness that a man can be trapped in a woman’s body, or vice versa.  The soul is the life of that particular male or female body.  It is a demonic lie which tries to separate soul and body as if they’re two separate things, or as if they could be mismatched.  To say so is to rebel against the Creator and reject His creation of the body.  Now it’s true that under the curse, all sorts of things can go wrong with our bodies, as well as our minds, and so sometimes people will struggle with various feelings.  But since that’s a consequence of sin, it’s not something a person should embrace but something they should fight against with God’s help.  The way of faith is not to trust our feelings or the deceitfulness of our sinful hearts, but to trust God’s creative Word and His creating work.  That is what is for sure and certain, unlike our feelings which are always shifting.

    So let me put this in practical terms: when it comes to the current transgender fad–dare I call it the transgender contagion–we should never call someone by a designation of sex other than the one God gave them.  We don’t choose our own identity, it is given to us by God.  So if a man has supposedly transitioned to being a woman, it is not for us to deny reality, to deny the Creator, and call that man a “she.”  It’s Bruce, not Caitlyn, despite the game of pretend that’s being played.  If we call a person by their preferred pronoun which is contrary to their creation, we are joining in on a lie and giving support to the devil’s attempt to corrupt our humanity.  It’s pure hypocrisy to say transgender ideology is wrong, and then when confronted with an actual example of it to join in on the make-believe.  Christians refer to reality as God defines it, not as man defines it.  

    Now, I should hasten to add here, that in all things we should act with compassion and not behave like jerks.  In many of these cases there are serious spiritual and bodily and mental issues in play.  We want to help the people involved if at all possible and work to bring them back to the way of faith in God’s creative and redeeming work.  Since the people involved are created in the image of God, we’re not there to put them down but to help lift them up to fullness of life in Christ.  But that simply can’t be accomplished by affirming the mutilation of the body with surgeries and the pollution of the body with opposite sex hormones, especially when this is tragically being perpetrated on children.  Faith in the Creator means embracing our bodily creation by Him.

    “Male and female He created them.”  Two sexes, two genders, complementary to one another and created for one another for the one flesh union of holy marriage.  Which brings us to another way in which the devil seeks to degrade our humanity, namely through same sex unions and so-called same sex marriages.  Again, the only way this can be embraced and accepted is if you deny the way in which God created our bodies.  Only male and female form the wholeness and the fulness of what our humanity is.  And only male and female can be God’s instrument in creating new life.  Same sex unions are by definition contrary to the Creator, for they are sterile and non-creating–not for reasons of health or age which couples sometimes face–but by their very nature.  God’s Word says that one of the primary purposes of marriage is that man and woman be fruitful and multiply.  Same sex unions do not reflect the image of God, the Holy Trinity, for they cannot create that triad of life.

    So again, let me put this in practical terms: you may well believe correctly that homosexual unions are sinful, just as any sexual union outside of God-given marriage is sinful.  But how do you deal with this when you are confronted with it in your day to day life?  If a man refers to his “husband” or a woman to her “wife,” do you join in with using that terminology?  The language and the words we use are important–for they either express the truth of the living words of God in Holy Scripture or the lying words of the evil one.  It’s one thing to have to live under the ungodly laws of the land–and we do obey the civil laws insofar as we aren’t caused to sin.  As Scripture says, our default position is to “live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18).  But above all, as Scripture also says, we must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).  You should never talk as if these so-called marriages are actually real in anything more than a purely legal sense.  Before God, they are nothing but a rebellious illusion.  And we want no part in that.

    In particular, here’s a situation that some of you may have had to face, and I’m sure it will be happening with greater frequency in the future: what do you do if you’re invited to a same-sex wedding?  This isn’t easy, because it may well be a family member or relative, a co-worker or client or friend who’s doing the inviting.  There’s a lot at stake in how you handle this.  As Christians we want to be clear that we don’t hate anyone or wish ill on anyone; there are no “phobias” at work.  “Phobia” means “fear”; this isn’t about fear for Christians but truth.  And if we really love the people involved as we should, we want to speak the truth for their eternal good.  You’re not loving someone if you’re “supporting” them in their sin and false belief.  It’s not kindness to show up and smile politely at actions that threaten to cut them off from God forever.  (E.g., 1 Cor. 6:9-10)

    So let me put the matter as clearly as I can.  There is simply no way in good conscience that a Christian can attend and be a part of the celebration of a so-called same sex wedding.  To do so is wrong and against God’s will.  First of all, examine what your motives have to be for taking part if you know that the whole thing is forbidden by God.  If it’s that you fear harming a relationship, doesn’t that mean that you fear people more than God, or put another way, that you love people and care about what they think more than God?  We like to fool ourselves into believing that if we can just maintain the relationship, that eventually we’ll be able to bring people around to the truth of God’s Word.  But in reality we just keep putting things off, and that time is always at some unspecified point in the future.  Meanwhile, our actions speak volumes to the contrary.  Jesus said, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me, and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.”  Or perhaps you fear some job-related, financial consequence.  There might be some blowback from a co-worker or client.  And so you try to play both sides and serve two masters.  But again Jesus clearly says, “You cannot serve God and money” (Matthew 6:24).  “One who is faithful in very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in very little is also dishonest in much” (Luke 16:10).

    Some might say, “But didn’t Jesus eat with sinners?”  And the answer is, of course He did!  There is no sinner that Jesus would not engage with, including sexual sinners, and the same should be true for us.  But what was Jesus doing when He sat at table with them?  What was his message when He spoke to them?  It was this: “Repent, and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1:15).  Jesus came calling sinners to repentance.  He came to seek and to save the lost.  He never condoned sin; He forgave sin.  But a same sex wedding is by its very nature an unrepentant approval of sin.  Now, if you can go to a same sex wedding ceremony and call the couple involved to repentance (not to mention everyone else who is approving of this rejection of the Creator), then that would be an exception to the rule.  But of course, that’s not going to happen.  When you go to a wedding, you’re obliged to be pleasant and nice, to laugh at the jokes, to congratulate the couple and the rest of the family, to give them a gift celebrating their union, to act as if everything is just fine and wonderful.  But the flowers and the fancy clothes are only covering rebellion against God.  And this is made all the worse if it takes place in a church, a blasphemy of God’s name.  It’s not angels that are rejoicing in these events, it’s demons.  And we should never join in with the worship of demons.

    We need to wake up to what’s happening.  These things are some of the defining issues of our times.  They are a test that you may well soon be faced with.  It’s easy to justify our actions and take the broad easy road rather than the narrow way.  But let us take the early Christian church as our example.  All they had to do to save their lives and their means of making a living was to offer a pinch of incense to Caesar and acknowledge him as Lord instead of Jesus.  They easily could have rationalized such actions by saying that they were doing those things insincerely, just going through the motions of idolatry, merely mouthing a curse against Christ to save their skins.  But they didn’t.  They would rather lose their lives than to do that.  And that’s how the church grew.  It didn’t grow based on the lukewarm compromise of those who loved their lives in this world, but because of the passionate faith of those who believed in a Creator who could and would raise their bodies from the dead to glory, even if they were mauled by lions or burned at the stake.  That sincere faith and love of God inspired others and eventually won over an empire.

    So let us, then, commit ourselves never to offer the modern pinch of incense to the gods of this world but steadfastly to hold to our confession of faith in the God of creation, the blessed Holy Trinity.  For we have a God who not only created us and our physical natures, but when we had fallen into sin and under the curse of death, He reaffirmed the goodness of His creation by entering into it Himself!  The Son of God, Jesus Christ, took up our human nature in order to restore our humanity again.  What does Scripture say?  “The Word became flesh.”  Notice the Gospel writer uses the most blatantly earthy word possible there–not just “body” but “flesh.”  And when Jesus shared in our flesh, He made it holy.  Through Him all things were made in the beginning, and through Him all things are recreated by the power of His death and resurrection.  Jesus died in the flesh to purge our human nature of its sin, and He rose again in the flesh so that we might also share in His bodily resurrection to glory in the new creation to come.  In the midst of our earthly groaning, we eagerly wait for the redemption of our bodies through our blood brother in the flesh, Jesus (Romans 8:23).

    The devil may do His worst to try to turn God’s creation upside down and corrupt and pollute it.  But Satan has been defeated.  For Jesus has cleansed your humanity forever by joining it to His own divine nature.  Your human nature is now holy and pure in Christ.  Even if you have polluted yourself in the past through various sins, your sins are forgiven and washed away from you forever through faith in His holy, precious blood.  Our maleness and femaleness is an image of how God is a husband to His chosen people, how Christ the holy Groom gives Himself and lays down His life for His elect Lady.  The Church is the baptized Bride of Christ, chosen and precious to Him.  

    So whatever you were before, you are now set apart and sanctified as God’s holy people, His beloved.  And His Word is still powerful to accomplish what it says.  Jesus said to the man in the Gospel “Your son lives,” and he did.  So also He says to you, “Your sins are forgiven.  Fear not.  I have called you by name; you are Mine.”  And it is so.

    Therefore, fellow believers in Jesus, in the midst of the spiritual warfare that we are in on every front, put on the breastplate of His righteousness and the helmet of His freely given salvation.  Take up the sword of the Spirit for the battle, which is the Word of God.  And in all circumstances raise the shield of faith in Christ, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one.  

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

A Located God

Genesis 28:10-17
Trinity 19

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

    How would you answer the question, “Where is God?”  Many would say, “God is in heaven,” or “God is in my heart,” or “God is in nature,” or “God is everywhere.”  Those answers are certainly not wrong; and yet, they are not the best answers that we can give as Lutheran Christians.  For a god who is just everywhere is a god who is really nowhere.  A god who is merely everywhere is nowhere in particular for me.  I’m no closer to him in one place than in another.  OK, He’s everywhere, but how do I have access to Him?  How do I see Him and hear Him and come into contact with Him?  It’s like He’s always just two feet away but on the other side of a solid brick wall, and there are no doors to get through.

    We learn from passages like today’s Old Testament reading that our God is One who is not merely everywhere but one who puts Himself somewhere, in specific places for His people.  He’s not just “out there,” above and beyond us; nor is He “in here,” coming to us from within ourselves.  Rather, God has located Himself in particular, identifiable places for us and for our good.  He’s not above locating Himself right where we’re at.null

    In the Old Testament account, Jacob was on a last-minute trip out of the country.  He took this trip for two reasons.  First, he was running for his life.  By deceiving his blind father Isaac into thinking he was the older son, Jacob had just stolen the family blessing from his brother Esau.  You may recall how Jacob used the goat skin on his arms to accomplish the deception.  Hairy-skinned Esau was furious about this and consoled himself by making plans to kill Jacob.  However, while Jacob was fleeing from his brother’s anger, he used this opportunity to go to the land of his mother’s family and find a wife.  For Jacob’s parents didn’t want him to marry one of the local pagan Canaanites.  So Jacob was making this journey certainly with a mixture of emotions–both with fear for his life because of his brother, but also with some degree of anticipation because he was hopefully about to get married and establish his own household.

    Jacob is a lot like us, isn’t he.  For the fact of the matter is that as we walk the journey of our lives, few of us have it all together, either.  Rather, our lives are generally more like Jacob’s–a mixture of good things and bad.  We move through life trying to make the best out of what we’re confronted with.  In some ways we’re running from our past with a little bit of fear of what’s going to happen to us.  In other ways we’re looking forward to the future with anticipation.  Our lives, too, are usually a little more mixed up and complicated than we’d like them to be.

    And quite honestly, we, like Jacob, are often the cause of our own problems.  Deception is an art that we also can practice.  We too know how to put the goatskin on our arms, so to speak, to use manipulation and subtlety to make things go our way.  But there are times when that subtlety backfires on us and things happen that we didn’t foresee.  Our lives are often muddled because of the fact that, like Jacob, we are fallen human beings, unable to know God rightly or even take one step towards Him.  A great canyon lies between us and God that we are incapable of crossing.

    However, to this far from perfect man named Jacob, in the middle of his mixed up life, God came in grace.  During the night God gave Jacob a special vision in which he saw a ladder extending from heaven down to where he was.  And please notice that this ladder wasn’t for climbing!  The only ones on this ladder were angels ascending and descending.  The whole point of the ladder is that God and God alone bridges the gap between Himself and sinners.  He comes all the way to us, because we’re incapable of moving even one inch towards Him.  

    God came down to Jacob and gave Him two wonderful promises.  First of all, the Lord confirmed to him the same promise that was given to his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac, namely, that all the earth would be blessed through him and his seed.  And we know that God kept that promise.  For Jacob’s other name was Israel, and out of the descendants of Israel came Him who is the promised Seed, our Lord Jesus, the Messiah.  Through Him all the world is indeed blessed.  

    And in the meantime, God made a second promise to Jacob–to be with him wherever he went, to protect him, and to bring him safely back home.  The Lord said, “I will not leave you.”  God broke into Jacob’s world, then, also for the purpose of comforting him and putting his mind at ease–not because Jacob deserved it, but because of God’s awesome mercy in using even ordinary fallen people like him to carry out His plan of rescuing mankind from sin and its grave consequences.

    The good news for us is this:  God has also broken into our world in a decisive way for our good, just as He did for Jacob.  Listen to John chapter 1 where Jesus spoke about Himself: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you shall see the heavens opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”  Jesus purposefully used the very imagery of this Old Testament reading to describe Himself and His mission.  Jacob’s ladder is a prophecy of Christ.  For Christ is the true ladder between heaven and earth.  He is the One who has bridged the gap between God and us.  He is the One who, being true God, came down right to where we're at and took on our human flesh in order to rescue and comfort us.  The omnipresent, everywhere God located Himself for us in Jesus Christ, the descendant of Jacob, so that we could know what God is like and so that we could hear and receive His saving promises.

    Jacob responded appropriately, in the way of faith, by receiving God's promises for what they were, and by worshiping Him there.  Jacob understood what a wondrous thing God had done in stepping into the world in that place.  And so He set up the stone which was at his head as a pillar, and he called that place "Bethel," which means, "House of God."  For God wasn't just everywhere for Jacob.  He was in that particular location for him.  Jacob rightly said, "How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!"  

    And God’s promises to us center in this:  that this located God, Jesus Christ, stood with us and in our place to rescue us.  He did this by living a sinless life for us and by being executed on a cross to receive our punishment as our stand-in.  God Himself not only came down to where we're at and bridged the sin-gap in Jesus Christ, but He also received in His own person, His own body, the penalty for our fallenness.  Having now risen again to life and ascended to the right hand of the Father, Christ has promised and assured us that in Him we are completely delivered from judgment; we are restored to a right relationship with God through Him.×

    Just as was the case with Jacob, God has given us promises which calm our fears and ease our minds, even right now in the middle of our mixed-up lives.  God has said that He will continue, even today, to put Himself in particular places for us, to help and comfort and guide us.

    The words that God spoke to Jacob He speaks to us at the holy font, "I am with you and will keep you wherever you go . . . I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you."  The Lord is there for you in and through holy baptism.  For when He commanded it, Jesus said, "I am with you always, even to the close of the age."  "I have called you by name; you are mine."  The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is truly present in that water to choose people as His own, to create faith and forgive sins.  Whenever a pastor baptizes someone according to Christ's mandate, you can say with certainty, "God is there; right there."

    The Lord is also truly present in His words.  The Scriptures aren't just some nice history book with a few teachings about morality.  Rather, they are the living words of Christ through which the Holy Spirit brings us to repentance and grants us saving faith in Christ.  Wherever God's Word is, wherever it is preached and taught rightly, you can say without a doubt, "God is there; I heard the voice of God today."

    And God is really present in the Sacrament of the Altar.  Christ's very body and blood are there under the bread and wine.  Through this Supper God reconfirms His promise of forgiveness and life and strengthens us to live as His own dearly loved people.  It was angels that ascended and descended on Jacob's ladder.  So also, as we come into the Lord's very presence in communion, we join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven to laud and magnify God's glorious name.  As we gather around the Lord's altar, we can say the words of Jacob with complete assurance and boldness, "The Lord is in this place."

    All of this is nothing more than a restatement of Jesus' words, "Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them."  God is not just everywhere.  He has located Himself somewhere, in particular places for us.  Sure, you can pray to God at home or in your fishing boat.  But it’s only in divine service that the Lord is here in the flesh for you. That’s why we prayed in the Psalm “(O Lord,) one day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.”

    Jacob said, "'Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.'  And he was afraid."  So it is that you are called today to believe with Jacob that the Lord is truly here and to have that due sense of fear and reverence that comes with being in the very presence of your Maker.  As it is written, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."  When God calls us to faith in Him, He calls us to believe not only in what Christ did long ago but also what He does among us still today.

    Which brings us, then, to conclude with our original question.  Where is God?  He is in Christ for us.  And where is Christ?  He is here, in His words and sacraments.  This is the Portal through which we hear and come into contact with our Lord.  Therefore, we say together with Jacob, “How awesome is this place!  This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”

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