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A Foolish and Offensive Gospel

1 Corinthians 1:18-31
Trinity 5

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

    St. Paul writes in today’s Epistle, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.”  He also says that preaching Christ crucified is a stumbling block.  But why is that?  What is it about the cross of Christ that causes fallen human beings to mock and reject it?

    Two reasons:  First of all, the cross presupposes human sinfulness–not just that we have a few flaws and imperfections, but that there is a syndrome so serious, a corruption so deep in us that we are at a loss to do anything to overcome it.  All our greatest wisdom, all our greatest efforts don’t solve the problem.  Only the sacrifice of the Son of God Himself can remedy the situation.  Only His death provides the necessary cure.  

    And that’s not something that we want to accept.  “You mean I can’t contribute anything toward my redemption?  I’m spiritually blind, dead, and an enemy of God by nature?  That’s not very uplifting or encouraging.  That doesn’t build up my self-esteem.  I don’t accept that.  I’m basically a good person.  It’s not like I murdered somebody or something.  I don’t really need a Savior, just a God who can help me to get through tough times and give me spiritual advice so I can do better in life.  This poor, miserable sinner stuff is a little over the top.”

    That’s what your old Adam believes deep down.  He rejects the message of the cross because he rejects the need for real repentance and real forgiveness.  In fact, it is the way of sinful man to justify and even embrace sin as simply part of who we are.  The world says that it’s all about self-expression and self-fulfillment.  “Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re wrong or sinful.  Your only sin is not to embrace your own beauty, your inner god or goddess.”  I’m hearing that language more and more, especially the goddess stuff for the ladies.  The world teaches you to look for the answers within and to follow your heart.  But then Jesus comes along and actually has the gall to say this, “From within, out of the heart, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a person.” (Mark 7:21-23)

    No, the wisdom of the world is not the wisdom of God.  Worldly “wisdom” absurdly produces evolutionary theories which pose a creation without a Creator, which acknowledges that the matter in the universe, time and space had a beginning but then says that there’s no one who actually started and made it.  Worldly “wisdom” tries to assert that a same-sex union, which by definition cannot produce life, is somehow equal to that of the union of a man and a woman which can create life and forms the God-given basis of the family.  Worldly “wisdom” trumpets the rights of women and then turns right around and says that unborn females, little girls in the womb, can have their lives snuffed out at will, all while calling abortion “women’s health care.”  It’s just plain foolishness, and it’s evil.

    The message of the cross calls us all to acknowledge that such foolishness and evil exists within us, even if our old Adam manifests it differently.  The word of the cross calls us all to repent, to be crucified with Christ, so that our old self may be put to death with Him, and so that we may be raised with Him to new and eternal life.  Let us return to the Lord, our faithful Groom, who loves the Church in spite of herself, who enfolds her with Himself to heal her and restore her and forgive her, who robes her in His own righteousness.  He is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love for us. Let us embrace the foolishness and the weakness of the cross as the very wisdom and power of God to save us.  

    If the world mocks our teaching on sin, how much more foolish is it to the world that we believe in a crucified God?  That’s the second reason why the message of the cross is a stumbling block.  What sort of a God submits to humiliation and cruel torture at the hands of His enemies?  A real God, we think, would just assert His power and show everyone who’s boss.  Why would the church want to emphasize what looks like His worst moment?  And yet it is written, “We preach Christ crucified.”  That’s what saves us, not just that we have a God who is all-powerful–and He certainly is–but that He uses that power to be gracious and merciful and compassionate toward us in Jesus.  That’s why we have a crucifix over our altar and not an empty cross, because we believe according to His Word that precisely there in that humiliating death, Jesus was victorious over our sin; He was conquering death and the devil.  He was being the perfect Man, the perfect husband, laying down His life for you the Church, His holy Bride.

    Don’t forget or become numb to what the cross is; it’s an instrument of the death penalty.  Just consider how strange it would be if some more contemporary instruments of the death penalty were the symbol of our faith.  What if we had over the altar an electric chair or a hangman’s noose or a lethal injection needle?  That would seem crazy, like we were some cult.  The cross is no different from those other means of capital punishment.  In fact, it’s even more inglorious and disgraceful to be crucified.  The Scriptures themselves say, “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.”  And yet in that is the good news, for Galatians 3 says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse, having become a curse for us.”  All that we deserved because of our sin Jesus took in our place, whether the sin we struggle against is sexual immorality or self-righteousness or greed or impatient anger or all of the above.  Jesus became a curse for you.  And so in Him you are forgiven, released, blessed children of God.  The cross may not be “reasonable” or logical or scientific, but it is the wisdom of God.

    Greeks look for worldly wisdom, Paul says.  And that’s the approach that a lot of people have; if what you’re saying about the Christian faith doesn’t make sense to them and their way of thinking, if it’s not scientifically explainable, then they’ll reject it.  But there are other who are very open to religion and spirituality and the supernatural.  And so Paul also says, “Jews request a sign.”  Signs, too, are the way we think God should operate with us.  Mysterious occurrences, miracles, something where we can see God’s glory.  That’s what seems spiritual, that we’re drawn to–religion where we can feel the power of God through mystical experiences.  A lot of your friends and family are drawn to spirituality like that.  But then there’s the cross.  That wasn’t a draw to people–the disciples fled from Him and left Him alone.  He was one from whom people hid their faces.  There He was, the ultimate loser on the cross–no glorious signs at all.  And yet in that weakness God displayed His greatest strength, the strength of His sacrificial love, love that wins by losing, that defeats death by dying.  Because Christ was a loser on the cross, you have lost all your sin and all your guilt.  

    When it comes to signs, remember where God was with Elijah.  He wasn’t in the wind or the earthquake or the fire.  He was in the still, small voice.  So it is for us today.  Paul says, “It pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.”  God is there for you in the still, small voice of the absolution and the sermon.  The weak and foolish death of Jesus, the foolish and unimpressive preaching of the cross–that’s how God has chosen to save you.  Since the world in its self-important pride could not know God through its own wisdom and philosophy, God chose to put to shame the proud by using what seems foolish to them as the means of redemption–a crucified and seemingly defeated God, ordinary words in preaching and water and bread and wine.  That is where God’s glory and power and wisdom are hidden to rescue you and bestow on you His mercy.  

    God chooses what is lowly and even despised to bring to nothing the wise and the strong of this world, so that no one may boast in His presence.  And that includes us, too.  Remember what the Epistle says, “For you see your calling brethren, that not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble are called.”  That’s describing you.  God’s people are not necessarily the smartest in the world’s eyes or the strongest or the most elite.  Look at us; we’re not particularly a group of movers and shakers and big shots, nobody special to the world.  But that is precisely the way of the cross; it’s not about us, it’s about Jesus and what He has done for us and how we are special and treasured by Him.  It’s not what we are in ourselves but what we are in Him that counts.

    That’s why Paul concludes, “You are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God—and righteousness and sanctification and redemption— that, as it is written, ‘He who glories, let him glory in the Lord.’”  It’s all there for you in Jesus as a gift.  By ourselves we were spiritually ignorant, so He became our wisdom.  We were guilty, so He became our righteousness.  We were impure, so He became our holiness.  We could not redeem ourselves, so He became our redemption.  Everything that pertains to our being saved, all of it is to be found in Christ.  Therefore, when you are baptized into Him, all of those things of His become your own.  Trusting in Christ, you are now wise unto salvation, right with God, set apart and holy, redeemed by His blood.  Jesus is all in all for you.  And so when we boast, we boast only in the Lord.  For everything flows from Him.

    And if we are going to “boast” of ourselves, then Paul says in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians, let us boast of our weaknesses.  For when we boast of our own weaknesses, then we are really boasting of our need for the saving power of God that has been freely given us in the Gospel of Christ.  It’s sort of the opposite of evolution; it’s the survival of the weakest.  We who are weak before God survive through the hidden wisdom of the cross and so are made strong in Jesus.

    This Gospel will always seem foolish and even offensive to the world, even more so in this age of increasing hostility to the church.  But so be it.  “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.  But to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

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

Two Lost Sons

Luke 15:1-3,11-32
Trinity 3

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

    Jesus wasn’t acting the way a respectable rabbi should.  Here He was, consorting with tax collectors and “sinners” and people of bad reputation.  They were drawn by Jesus’ words–His stern message of repentance and His comforting message of forgiveness.  Many were brought to saving faith through Jesus’ words.  He even shared meals with these people, a sign of closeness and fellowship and joy.

    But the Pharisees and scribes complained, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.”  If Jesus were really sent from above, they reasoned, He would understand what sort of folks these are and wouldn’t dirty Himself with their company.  And so they slandered Jesus saying, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34)  

    In their slander, of course, there was a grain of truth.  Jesus is the truest and best friend of sinners.  But in this sense: He came not to ignore sin or condone sin but to take away sin and save sinners.  And in order to do that He was willing to dirty Himself with our uncleanness that we might be cleansed from the muck and the mire of our fallen condition and be restored to the family of God.

    The Pharisees had no clue what Jesus was doing, no understanding of His Father’s mercy.  And so He tells a parable:  A certain man had two sons.  The younger son wanted to have his inheritance right away–basically wishing that his father were dead!  And since it didn’t seem that was going to happen any time soon, and the son wanted to get on with his life, he demands his share of the inheritance now.  

    The boy’s father is unusually gracious. He had every right to punish his son for this rebellion and this insult. But instead he grants his wish.  It must have broken the father’s heart to do that, just as it breaks God’s heart when we turn away from Him and act like we wish He were dead and out of the picture so we can do what we want–when we neglect his Word, when we don’t take our place at His table.  But sons are not slaves.  They are free to go, free even to reject their father and family.

    So the younger son left on an adventure in a far-away country. And like many folks with too much money and time and not enough responsibility, he wasted all of it on prodigal, excessive living.  He was having a good time, living it up.  But then the money ran out, and so did his friends.

    Penniless and alone, the young man found himself in the middle of a famine.  And so he hired on with a citizen of that country, a surrogate father of sorts, who put him to work slopping the hogs.  That’s where sin always leaves us.  It promises fun and power and pleasure.  But after a short time it leaves us far worse off than when we started–broken and empty-hearted down with the swine.

    When the pig feed began to look appetizing, the young man finally came to his senses.  He repented.  He realized what he had lost by leaving his father.  Even his father’s servants were doing better than him.  He was sorry for what he did.

    He prepares his confession: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.  I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”  And then, just in case, he works out a little deal: “Treat me like a servant, a hired hand.”  It seemed like a perfect plan.  His father could save face and he would at least have some bread in his belly.

    But things didn’t go exactly according to His plan.  For the Father had been watching for him every day.  And when the Father saw him, he didn’t wait for the son to come to him.  In great compassion, He ran down the road to his son, embraced him and kissed him.  It must have been some sight, seeing this honorable man scurrying to welcome his son back, even before the son could say a word.

    Finally, the son manages to break free of his father’s embrace long enough to say his little speech.  But the father is already ordering his servants to get a fine robe and a ring and sandals for his boy.  Kill the fatted calf, pour the wine, let the party begin.  The son didn’t even get to bring up his deal about being a hired hand.

    Which serves to make an important point: God doesn’t receive us back and forgive us based on our apology and how sorry we are.  The father embraced his son before the son could say or do anything!  It’s all about God’s love toward us in Christ.  It’s all based on His undeserved grace and kindness toward us.  God rejoices over the sinner who returns home and desires forgiveness.  And so do the angels, the Father’s servants.  God’s passion is to save us.  While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  Through Christ He continues to seek and to save the lost.
    The truth is that, when it comes right down to it, Jesus is the real prodigal son in this parable. It says here that the father gave to the younger son of his livelihood.  Literally, it says he gave to him of his “substance.”  Don’t we confess in the Creed that Jesus is of one substance with the Father?  Then the Son of the Father goes to a far country.  Which is to say, for us and for our salvation the Son descends to earth and becomes man.  Here He blows His wealth and His substance consorting with tax collectors and sinners and the likes of us.  He is prodigal and wonderfully excessive in the way He dishes out His mercy toward us.  He loses it all for you, dying in your place as if He were the rebellious son, the whore, the self-righteous Pharisee, the glutton and the drunkard, to win your forgiveness.  Then Jesus arises and returns to His Father, who exalts Him to His right hand, and gives Him the name that is above every name, rejoicing that He who was dead is alive again, that He who was lost for a time to the grave has been found triumphant over sin, death, and the devil.  

    Once you were dead and lost in sin and rebellion.  But God raised you to life in His Son Jesus.  He gives you the robe of Jesus’ righteousness at the font and puts His family ring on your finger.  He sets the banquet table of His supper to celebrate the return of his rebel children. There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over 99 supposedly righteous ones who don’t see a need for repentance.

    The older brother thought he was righteous. He was out in the field, dutifully doing his work.  He heard the music and the dancing.  A servant brought him the news. “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has received him safe and sound.” But the older brother was angry, and refused to go in to the party.

    So his father came out to him, just as he had come out to meet his younger son on the road.  This too is the grace of God.  He always comes out to meet his children.  He pleads with the older son.  “Come and celebrate.  Your brother has come home.  He was lost, but now is found.”

    But the older son won’t rejoice.  And before you think him to be inconceivably rude, consider a real life prodigal in the early church, the Apostle Paul.  He had people thrown into prison for being Christian and was involved with and approved the murder of Stephen.  If Paul had been involved in the imprisonment or the death of a member of your family, would you rejoice to have him join you at the communion rail?  What the Pharisees couldn’t see was that Jesus wasn’t about the approval of sin but the life-changing forgiveness of sin.

    The older son’s legalism robbed him of his joy.  He is the obedient son, the perfect son, always doing what his father wanted, not out of love, but out of responsibility.  “Look, all these years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command.”  He’s been working so hard all these years trying to earn his father’s love and secure a place in the family.  And when he realizes that his father deals in grace instead of works, he comes unglued.  “All that I've done for you, and you never threw a party for me and my friends.  But when this son of yours came, who wasted your living with prostitutes, you throw a big party.  And now you expect me to come?”  The older son was as lost as the younger one, despising both his father and his brother.

    The father remains gracious as ever, just as God is still gracious with us. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But it was fitting to make merry and be glad; for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost; and is found.”

    A man had two sons.  Both were lost sinners.  One broke the law by disobeying its commands.  The other broke the law by obeying its commands for the wrong reasons. Both break their father’s heart.  Both receive the same fatherly kindness, acceptance, and love.  Both were in need of repentance, a change of heart and mind, to confess their sin against their father, to receive his mercy.

    One son repented.  He confessed his sin against God and his father, and received his father’s undeserved kindness.  And the other?  Well, Jesus deliberately leaves the parable open-ended.  Will the older son repent?  Will he rejoice in the repentance of his brother?  The former Pharisee, the Apostle Paul did.  Will we?  Very often we are more like the older brother than the younger, aren’t we?

    If we try to define our relationship with God by our good living, we will be like the older brother.  We will become resentful and legalistic.  If we try to earn our way into God’s favor, as if God would somehow owe us, we will wind up hating God and resenting His mercy.  We will despise our brother and miss out on the party.

    Only as we repent can we rejoice in the repentance of another.  Only as we see ourselves as lost sinners can we rejoice that Jesus welcomes penitent sinners to His table.  Only as we experience the Father’s embrace in our own lives, can we rejoice in His mercy to those around us.

    “Chief of sinners though I be, Jesus shed His blood for me,” and for you, and for all people, without exception.  It’s all a gift, unearned, undeserved, given out of the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

    Therefore, brothers and sisters of Christ, turn away from your sin; turn back to the Father.  It doesn’t matter whether you are the prodigal son or the obedient son, the prostitute or the Pharisee.  We all are in need of repentance.  Trust in God’s mercy alone.  Know that because of Christ’s sacrifice, the Father will receive you with open arms.  Though you were lost and dead, you are now found and alive in Christ the risen one.  You are sons and daughters of the Father, heirs with Jesus of His forgiveness and life.  Come in to the party of the penitent.  Rejoice that what the Pharisees said of Jesus is still true, “This Man receives sinners and eats with them.”

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

(With thanks to William Cwirla)

No Excuses

Luke 14:15-24
Trinity 2

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

    Last Sunday, we heard about a rich man who would not invite a poor man to his feast. Today’s Gospel tells us about God the Father, the true Rich Man, who lavishes His richness on us poor sinners by inviting us to His feast.  “Come, for all things are now ready,” He says.  The only way someone stays poor in this scenario is if they decline the Lord’s generosity.  And truly, how impoverished people make themselves if they reject the Lord’s feast in favor of the things of this world!  Today’s Gospel is a warning against taking God for granted, subordinating Him to other priorities.

    God the Father sends out the invitation to the banquet of salvation.  It is the heavenly meal of forgiveness and life which Christ His Son purchased by His death for sin and by His victory over the grave on Easter.  God has sent out His Holy Spirit to invite many through the preaching of the Gospel to come to the feast.  All things have been prepared by God; there is no cost or strings attached.  Jesus has won redemption fully and completely.  The Holy Spirit comes purely by grace to draw people to the divine banquet.  Those invited may freely dine on the finest of fare which God has to offer.

    “But,” it is written, “they all with one accord began to make excuses.”  They all had other things they thought were more important than this invitation.  Being with the Giver of the feast and sharing in the joy of His meal was low on the priority list.  Maybe another time.  

    The Lord’s Servant says, “Come, for all things are now ready,” but you say, “I have bought a piece of ground, and I must go and see it. I ask you to have me excused.”  This person is caught up in his property and does not believe that in Christ the meek shall inherit the earth.  He seeks to gain the world and in the process forfeits his soul.  He sees the value of land but does not desire the priceless land of the new creation.  He elects to go and see his newly purchased property, almost like a burial plot, showing his destiny to return to the ground in death. We dare never treasure what we have paid for above that which God has purchased and freely given in Christ.

    The Lord’s Servant says, “Come, for all things are now ready,” but you say, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to test them. I ask you to have me excused.”  How easy it is to put your work before the Lord’s work!  This is why the Lord gave a day of rest – both for you to have time to recuperate, but also for you to see that your work must stop and God’s work begin.  Whenever we think we can do without the banquet of Jesus serving us His Words and Sacraments, we are by definition trusting in our own works, the works of the Law encapsulated in the five books of Moses.  The temptation for us is to value our efforts at good living over and above the grace of Christ.  Rather than trusting in those five yoke of oxen, those 5 books of the Law, we should listen instead to Jesus who said, “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

    The Lord’s Servant says, “Come, for all things are now ready,” but you say, “I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.” Do you see how this last rebel doesn’t even bother to ask to be excused? He just assumes that he can place his priorities ahead of God’s priorities.  Beware, then, of making even family your idol.  Family is a great gift from God, but it becomes a curse when the gift is exalted over the Giver.  This man desires union with his wife more than union with God. He should have brought his wife to the Lord’s Feast instead!

    Here’s the thing: to come to the Feast almost always means setting aside something else the world deems to be more valuable. So what is most valuable to you?  Are you willing to set it aside for the sake of Christ?  That’s what the Holy Spirit is calling you to do.  The Christian religion is not a means to reaching some other greater worldly objective.  It’s not just a tool to teach the kids some morals or help you through the hard times so that you can then get on to with the real business of life. What we’re doing here is your life.  

    Too often we think of church as just one sliver of the pie, but the biggest pieces, our biggest goals are having a comfortable life, being healthier, enjoying our families, having pleasurable and fun experiences, retiring well.  Church then becomes just one little part of the big formula.  But Jesus is not merely a coach trying to help you attain some important goal.  He Himself is the goal.  Communion and fellowship with God is what we seek for its own sake.  There is no higher goal than that for our lives.  That’s the whole pie.  The banquet is everything.  Don’t let your other plans and goals get in the way of that.  The excuses the people in the Gospel make show that they are so caught up in their supposed “real lives” that they miss out on the only thing that matters, the only thing that is actually real.  And they miss out not because God wants to punish and damn people, but because they keep on turning away from Him, keep on going back to their property, work, and family, and so miss out on the gifts God wants to give.  They actually ask to be excused from God's presence, and so finally they are permanently excused from God’s presence forever, where there is only wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Let us all take this to heart and repent.

    For the wonderfully good news in today’s Gospel is that the Lord’s desire is to have a full house for His feast.  That is the overwhelming message here–the incredible love, the deep desire to bring His fallen people back to Himself.  You are the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind.  You are nothing but a beggar before God, like Lazarus last week.  But see how God treats His beggars!  Not like that other rich man, but as One more benevolent than we can fathom.  He invites the maimed, and makes them whole again.  He invites the lame, and teaches them to walk in His ways.  He invites the blind, and makes them see by the light of His Word.  All by forgiveness. The feast is the Supper of the Lord, His death for your life, His suffering for your rescue.

    Our Lord Jesus offered up His body on the cross to be “roasted” in the fire of judgment at Calvary.  Jesus offers Himself now to the whole world as heavenly food that we might receive His saving gifts and be nourished by them.  This holy food is served up and offered wherever the gospel is preached.  When you believe the gospel, you partake of Christ, and this nourishes and strengthens your soul.  It tastes of forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and blessedness.  When you are surrounded by death, sin, disease, hard times, let this be your hunger and thirst.  Especially those who are under great affliction are the ones who find this food so delightful.  When terrified and fearful hearts and consciences hear in the gospel that Christ suffered and died for their sins, that He allowed himself to be prepared and served up as food for all hungry and thirsty souls–when you believe this and take it to heart, then your distressed conscience is comforted and your troubled soul is revived.

    You poor beggars have God Himself as your Rich Man, and He compels you to come in.  It’s His heart’s desire to have you with Himself.  So stop making excuses.  Stop trying to serve two masters. No longer make yourself poor by chasing after the world’s riches.  See how He even begs you to receive His gifts! “Come, for all things are now ready,” and even your silly excuses are now forgiven in the Body and Blood of Jesus.

    The Spirit’s call goes out to you again this day.  Jesus says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the Last Day.”  The banquet table is laid before you.  Partake of this holy, life-giving food.  Believe in Christ and be saved.  Receive the foretaste of the feast to come, the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom which will have no end.

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

(With thanks to Christopher Esget)

Blessed or Cursed?

Luke 16:19-31
Trinity 1

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

    If you lived at the time of the rich man and Lazarus, if you were there with them before they died, which of those two would you have described as being blessed by God?  And which of the two would you have described as being cursed by God?  Clearly, the rich man is the one who looked blessed, didn’t he.  Life was good for him.  He had great clothes, he ate whatever he wanted.  He probably was one who was looked up to as a successful man, a pillar of the community, one whose business fueled the local economy and provided jobs.  The fact that he didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the bum outside his gate would not have been particularly unusual.  By all appearances it would have seemed that God was with the rich man.  

    On the other hand, Lazarus clearly looked cursed, didn’t he.  He had no money and had to beg.  His clothes were in tatters.  His health was terrible.  In fact it was so bad that he had open sores that the street dogs would come up and lick to taste the blood.  How disgusting is that? He was the one you would have avoided when you walked down the street.  By all appearances it seemed that God was ignoring him, too, that God had forsaken and forgotten him.

    But then both of these men die.  Death peels away the thin veneer of their earthly lives and their earthly circumstances to reveal the truth of the matter.  And it turns out that the one who looked blessed was in fact cursed.  The rich man ends up in hell.  And the one who appeared to be cursed turns out to be the one who was blessed.  Lazarus is in heaven.  

    I believe that there is a comforting truth that we can learn from that and from Lazarus.  If life isn’t going all that great for you–if you’ve got some health problems or family problems or work problems or whatever, if things just seem to be turned against you in life, that’s not a sign that God doesn’t care for you, and you shouldn’t take it that way.  And of course, the reverse is true, too.  If life is just wonderful for you–you feel good and have a plenty of money and people respect you and everything’s pretty much going your way, that doesn’t mean everything’s great in your relationship with God, either.  Don’t judge God’s attitude toward you based on your outward circumstances in life and by your experiences, be they good or bad.  We see from the rich man and Lazarus that doing that can be terribly misleading.  It is written that we walk by faith in God’s Word and not by sight or experience or feeling.  God’s Word endures forever.  Our earthly circumstances change and will eventually be done away with and gone forever.

    So beware of those who tell you that if you just follow certain Biblical principles for living and lead a truly Christian life that God will grant you all these earthly blessings and that you’ll have a wonderful marriage and better health and more wealth.  If you are really committed to Christ, then you’ll have a happier and more successful life.  Tell that to Lazarus.  See, because what is the implication then if your life is hard and full of suffering?  That you’re not a real Christian?  That you don’t truly have faith, or at least not enough faith?  That’s exactly the kind of thing that the devil loves to use to drive you to despair and to drive you away from Christ.  Better to stick with Jesus who said, “Whoever would come after me, let him deny himself and take up the cross and follow me. . . He who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

    So, did Lazarus go to heaven because he was poor and miserable?  No, for again, it’s not based on your outward circumstances one way or the other, just as the rich man didn’t go to hell because of his wealth.  After all, Abraham was a pretty wealthy man in his day, and the Gospel says here that he’s in heaven.  

    The real difference between the rich man and Lazarus is not in what they owned, but in what owned them, what had a hold of their hearts.  The one thing that the rich man didn’t possess was faith in the one true God.  The rich man didn’t rely on and trust in God.  He didn’t think he needed to; he was doing great all on his own.  He trusted in himself and his own abilities, in his prestige and power and money.  That’s where his heart was.  He lived independently of the Lord in his life, and so he got to live independently of the Lord in his death.  That’s what hell ultimately is, not only the fire, which is bad enough, but especially the separation from God and anything that is good, the utter emptiness of being forever abandoned.  God does not wish for anyone to go to hell.  But if someone insists on living without God and the preaching of His life-giving Word, He’ll give them what they want for all eternity.

    Lazarus, on the other hand, knew full well that relying on himself was foolishness.  He knew what a maggot sack he was.  He was driven to look outside of Himself to trust in the Lord for help and relief and rescue.  “Lazarus” literally means “God is My Help.”  It’s a different form of the name “Eliezer.”  Against all the evidence of his life to the contrary, Lazarus still believed that the Lord was good and merciful and that He would help and comfort and save him.  Through His Word the Lord possessed Lazarus’ heart.  Lazarus heard the Scriptures, and he believed in the Christ whom they spoke of.  

    In this way Lazarus showed himself to be a true son of father Abraham.  For we learn from the Old Testament reading that when the childless, aging Abraham heard the promise that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky, it is written, “Abraham believed the Lord, and the Lord accounted it to him for righteousness.”  In the same way, Lazarus and all of you are declared righteous before God through faith in His Word.

    That’s really the point of the final exchange between Abraham and the rich man–it’s all about faith in God’s Word.  The rich man, you recall, had the idea of sending Lazarus back from the dead to his brothers to warn them so that they’ll repent.  Sounds like a decent idea on the surface.  But Abraham replies, “They have Moses and the Prophets (the Old Testament Scriptures); let your brothers listen to them.  For if they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they won’t be persuaded even if someone were to rise from the dead.”  Special signs and miraculous occurrences don’t convert anybody.  It might impress them for a while and get them jazzed up.  But that fades eventually.  After all, remember what happened when the children of Israel were in Egypt?  They saw the plagues that God caused; they saw the parting of the Red Sea; they saw the fearful presence of God on Mt. Sinai.  But were they faithful?  No, not long afterwards they returned to their stiff-necked, unbelieving ways.  The lasting power of God to save us is not in signs but in His Spirit-given Word.  It is written that saving faith comes not by anything that we see, but by hearing that Word and that preaching of Christ.

    Now it may well be that Lazarus was indeed raised from the dead, that this is the same Lazarus who was the brother of Mary and Martha, whom Jesus called forth from the tomb.  And what happened in that case?  Well, many people did come out to Jesus, but not only for His sake but also, the Scriptures say, to see Lazarus, to get a glimpse of this dead guy raised back to life–you don’t get to see that every day.  However, the chief priests, instead of having a change of heart, were moved by all of this to get rid of Jesus.  Not many days later the crowds were chanting for Jesus’ death, and He was crucified.  So whether it was Lazarus’ resurrection or Jesus’ resurrection, the rich religious leaders were not moved to faith by such a miracle.

    “Let them hear Moses and the Prophets.”  After Jesus’ resurrection, when He was walking with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, Luke 24 says that, “beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, He expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.”  Listening to Moses and the Prophets and all the Scriptures saves us because they’re all about Jesus the Savior.  They teach us in every part of how He suffered for our sins and how He rose again to deliver us from all evil.

    In fact, even this very story of Lazarus teaches us of Jesus.  Just consider how much Lazarus pictures Christ for us.  In order to rescue us Jesus put Himself at the mercy of the rich and powerful of His day, the chief priests and the leaders of the people.  Jesus was treated by them as if He were a low-life bum so that He might take away the judgment of God from us on the cross.  In Psalm 22 Jesus says of those who beat and crucified Him, “Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me, they have pierced my hands and my feet.”  These dogs “licked” Jesus wounds, so to speak, by their mocking of Him.  Yet the blood that flowed from those holy wounds bought our forgiveness and cleansed us from our sin.  Isaiah said, “Surely he took up our sicknesses and carried our sorrows . . .  And by His wounds we are healed.”   "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree).”  That is why it is written, “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who though He was rich, yet for your sakes became poor, so that you, through His poverty, might become rich.”  And now, like Lazarus, Jesus has risen and ascended to the bosom of the Father in heaven.  Though He appeared to be defeated, He is vindicated and reigns over all things for you, that you also might be brought to the comfort of His side in heaven.  

    So don’t judge your life by how you feel or what you see.  Judge it by what God’s Word says–that though you are a sinner, Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.  Judge it by your baptism, where God put His holy name on you with the water and claimed you as His own, an action which He won’t change or go back on.  Judge it by the Lord’s Supper, in which He feeds you His own body and blood, that you may be filled with His forgiveness and life.  Take your place with Lazarus in humble penitence and firm faith.  Say with Him, “God is My Helper; I trust in His Word; the Lord Jesus is the One who saves me.”

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

In the Image of Love, the Holy Trinity

Isaiah 6:1-8; Genesis 1:26-27

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

    Sometimes when I’m talking with folks who don’t come to church or who have stopped coming to church, they will try to reassure me that they still believe.  They still believe in God.  They’re not like those foolish atheists; they just don’t see a need for organized religion, or they don’t trust the legitimacy of the Bible, or whatever.  But they’ll always try to justify themselves by saying that they still believe in God.  I think next time I hear that line, I’m going to respond to them by saying, “Congratulations, you’ve just attained the faith level of demons!”  Demons aren’t atheists, either, right?  They believe in God.  James 2:19 says, “You believe that there is one God.  You do well.  Even the demons believe—and tremble!”

    More than once the Bible speaks of coming before God with fear and trembling.  We need to return to that starting point again.  We need to be like Isaiah in the Old Testament reading who thought he was a dead man in the presence of God.  “Woe is me!  For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.  For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”  Merely believing that God exists is not Christian faith.  All creation bears witness to the existence of the Creator.  And our own conscience teaches us that there is a moral Law and One whom we are accountable to, Romans 2 says.  Christian faith begins with repentance, an acknowledgment of the woe that we deserve, and the Spirit-worked desire to turn away from the sin that brought that woe.  Coming before God is no casual thing.  As Isaiah experienced, it literally shakes things up.  

    So Christian faith begins with repentance, and most importantly it continues with turning toward God, looking to Him for mercy and help, calling on His name.  Which brings us to the focus of this Holy Trinity Sunday: who is the true God whom we are to turn to?  What is His name?  For the term “God” can and does mean any number of things to any different number of people.  “God” for a Hindu or Muslim or Jew or Buddhist is something much different than for a Christian.  Most Americans will say that they believe in God, but that God is often just a generic and undefined being.  The true God is certainly more than just the “man upstairs.”  Who is the God you believe in?  Who is the one and only true God?

    It’s not without reason that the seraphim cry out three times in praise of God, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts.  The whole earth is full of His glory!”  The one true God is a threefold God, the Blessed Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit–one God in three persons.  It is this God who in the beginning said, “Let us make man in our image.”  Or as we heard in the reading, “Who will go for us?”

    Scripture makes it clear that there is only one God.  Deuteronomy 6 says, “The Lord our God, the Lord is One.”  Isaiah 45 says, “I am God, and there is no other.”  Unlike the pagan religions which have many gods connected to different parts of creation, Christianity confesses only one God, who has created all things, and who is Himself outside of creation.

    But the Bible also clearly teaches that this one God is three-fold.  Three distinct persons are referred to as God in the Scriptures.  And therein lies the mystery.  For it’s not as if the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are each 1/3 of God, so that when you put them all together, you’ve got the one true God.  But neither is it true that there are three Gods or even three different forms of God.  No, each of these persons are fully divine, and yet they are so perfectly united and joined together in love that there is only one God.  That is the mystery of the Trinity.

    It is well worth our time to stop and ponder this mystery.  For meditating on the nature of God and who He is and what He has done for us is, in fact, the very heart of worship.  Faith delights in contemplating such things.  We will be happily spending all of eternity dwelling on this God and thinking on the rich depths of the wisdom and beauty the Lord.  

    The doctrine of the Trinity is actually quite practical: The better we understand what God is like, the better we’ll understand what we’ve been created to be and to do.  For man was created in God’s image, right? Mankind was made to be a reflection of God’s being.  So understanding Him is going to tell us something about ourselves.

    Keeping in mind that God is a Trinity, listen to Genesis 1: “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”  Notice what God created when He made man in His image.  Did He make a single, androgenous, self-contained being?  No, He created a relationship of persons who together formed a oneness and a unity.  When God made man in His image, He made a single human nature with multiple persons.

    God is and always has been a personal being, one who by nature always relates to another.  Even before the creation of man, there was a relationship of persons within God.  God is Himself a community and a unity of persons.  And that is precisely why the creation of man wasn’t complete until Eve came on the scene.  So to be created in God’s image is to be made to be in a certain kind of relationship with other people.  God is a relationship of persons.  Man, therefore, is also a relationship of persons.

    An early church father, St. Augustine, gives some helpful thoughts on the Trinity.  He began with the verse, “God is love.”  Now love, he said, isn’t something which involves only one person.  In fact it has three aspects:  the one who loves, the one who is loved, and the love itself.  Augustine equated these three aspects of love to the three persons of the Trinity.  So, for instance, at the baptism of Jesus, the Father’s voice came from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son,” and then the Holy Spirit came to rest on Him.  The Father is the One who loves, the Son is the One who is loved, and the Holy Spirit is the Love itself, that love being an actual person.  So within God there is a relationship of outward reaching love that draws the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit together in a perfect unity.

    That’s why it’s just not right to lump modern-day Judaism and Islam into the same category as Christianity and call them all monotheistic, as if we all worship the same God.  We don’t.  The Trinity is of a very different nature.  The Christian God of the Old and New Testaments is very different from those who have rejected Jesus as the Son of God.  Jesus said, “He who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me.”  If you think about it, the other so-called monotheistic religions cannot have a god who is love within Himself.  For love by its very nature requires more than one person.  The Muslim Allah cannot be a god who is love; for he’s all by himself.  Poor guy is lonely.  Only Christians can say, “God is love,” the blessed Holy Trinity.

    We can see from this, then, just how highly God has exalted marriage, that He made it the first relationship to reflect His image.  Adam was the one who loved, Eve was the beloved, and together they shared in a love from God that drew them together as one.  Marriage also is a Trinitarian thing, the third part usually being concretely represented in the children God gives.  To be created in the image of God, therefore, means that we are to be reflecting divine, self-giving love–not only in marriage, of course, but in all our relationships–the kind of love that caused God to create us in the first place, a love that seeks to extend itself and reach out and give and sacrifice in order to draw others into a harmonious unity and a God-pleasing oneness.

    Now, understanding that such is the image of God, we must admit that as we look at ourselves and the world around us, it’s often difficult to see that image being reflected in our relationships.  We should not forget or ignore the fact, therefore, that since the creation of Adam and Eve, mankind has fallen into sin.  The image of God has been corrupted and broken in us.  We no longer reflect who He is.  And that, at its essence, is what sin really is–a degrading of our Maker by failing to mirror His goodness, a rebellion in thought, word, and action against the nature of God, in whose likeness we were intended to be.  God is loving and self-giving, we are often self-centered and proud.  God is characterized by unity and oneness, we are often characterized by division and a stubborn attitude of self-sufficiency and self-will.  Such a corrupted image of God is doomed to eternal separation from Him.

    Fortunately for us, it is in God’s nature to love even the unlovable.  As we heard in the Gospel, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”  And Romans 5 says, ‘God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  You might say that God was just being Himself when in His love He initiated His plan to rescue you.  In the sending of Jesus, God was reaching out in a complete and ultimate way in order to draw you back into unity with Himself.  On the cross Jesus received the full judgment for your corrupted natures.  And then by His resurrection from the grave, Jesus restored the image of God to your humanity.  Therefore, all who are joined to Christ by faith share in that restored image and are made right with God.  That’s what Baptism and Holy Communion are all about.  You are baptized into Christ.  You are fed with His very body and blood; that burning coal from the altar, aglow with the divine life of Jesus is put to your lips.  And your iniquity is taken away and your sin purged.  Through those means, God makes you one with Christ and recreates you in His likeness.  As Colossians 3 says, “(You) have put on the new nature [of Christ] which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.”  We look forward, therefore, with eager expectation to the second coming of Christ, when that newness will be fully revealed in us, when the vestiges of our corrupted natures will be forever destroyed, when we will perfectly reflect the image of God and fully share in the unity of His love.

    So, you see, to reflect upon the doctrine of the Trinity is not just a once-a-year exercise in intellectual gymnastics.  It is rather to meditate on the God who is love and who is life for us all.  To begin to understand God is to know what you were created to be by the Father and who you are in Christ by the working of the Holy Spirit.  It is to be drawn into the Father’s love given you through His Son, poured out upon you by the Holy Spirit, so that you may share forever in His divine life.  Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the undivided Unity.  Let us give glory to Him, for He has shown mercy to us.  For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things; to Him be glory forever and ever.  Amen.

Babel and Pentecost

Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21

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

    One of the political issues that is front and center again this election year is immigration and the security of our borders.  There is a debate about how we should deal with those who illegally cross our border–from nations all over the world–and to what extent any help can be given that won’t contribute to disorder and lawlessness.  I bring this up today, not because you need to hear more about politics, but because the very fact that there are all of these different people groups and languages and cultures can be traced back to the historical event of Babel that we heard in today’s OT reading.  For a period of time after the flood there was just one language and one culture.  But man’s sin brought God’s judgment, and as a result of that confusion and scattering, we see all the various languages and people groups and ethnicities that have formed and developed over time.  Our troubles in communicating with one another–which sometimes even happens when there is no language barrier–and the disunity and disorder we see among the nations and within nations is an ongoing testimony to the effects of Babel.

    The people of Babel were descendants of Noah.  They had been given the same command by God that was given to Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.”  But the people of Babel didn’t want to fill the earth.  They said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”  These people sought their identity and security not in God’s Word and command but in their own man-made organization, in their own numerical strength, in their own achievements.  They rejected the Lord as their God and instead made an idol out of themselves.  They said, “(Let us) make a name for ourselves.”  They began to build a tower that would be so great, the generations to come would revere their name forever, they thought.  It would reach to the heavens, signifying their supposed ability to achieve immortality by their own works.  This tower under construction stood there as a corrupt monument to their self-idolatry and their rebellion against God.

    We, of course, are descendants of the people of Babel; we are of the same stock.  Our fallen flesh doesn’t find its identity and security in God’s Word or commands but in our own personal attributes and accomplishments and groups of like-minded people with like-minded backgrounds that we belong to.  Our heart’s desire, too, is to attain a certain degree of immortality for ourselves by the things we’ve done and built and achieved, so that our name might be remembered fondly for generations to come.  We harbor self-exalting dreams about people saying wonderful things about us after we’re dead, as if we’ll even know or care at that point.

    And on a larger scale, consider how we’ve surpassed the desires of the people of Babel.  Not only have we built skyscrapers that would dwarf their tower, but we’ve escaped the bonds of earth entirely and now routinely send rockets into space and explore the galaxy with our satellites and probes.  And just this past week, more amazing advancements in artificial intelligence were unveiled, including one that can do accurate translations, in real time and with proper voice inflections, of two people talking to one another in entirely different languages.  Man seems to be close to overcoming Babel.  We ourselves may not personally have had much of anything to do with all of the many amazing technologies that have been invented in our lifetimes, but we still somehow credit ourselves with being more advanced than human beings who have gone before us.  We have this inflated view of our humanity, that we’re always progressing upward, that our potential is unlimited, that we can do anything given enough time and resources.  Humanity still idolizes itself.  And our technological achievements–which are not bad of themselves–they end up becoming corrupt monuments to a human race which trusts not in God but in itself to reach to the heavens, to become immortal.

    Psalm 2 says that God looks down from heaven at man’s lofty plans to be like Him, and He laughs.  He interferes and messes up man’s machinery, to expose the clay feet of our technological idols.  He doesn’t send an earthquake to topple the tower.  He confuses their language, so they can’t understand each other any more, so that they couldn’t carry out their plans. They called the place Babel; later it was called Babylon, the city that typified man’s ambition to be like God–whore Babylon, luring men to their death with her luxuries, her wealth, her power.  

    One people with one language wasn’t a good idea, the way God saw it.  He knew what would happen when sinners learned to cooperate in their sin.  Unity isn’t always a good thing.  Remember that when politicians talk about how we all need to “come together.”  God knew the harm we would do in our desire to be like God.  And so to protect us from ourselves, God confused our language and scattered us.  Our many languages keep us from being perfectly efficient at getting the job done.  They keep us slightly off balance.  And that’s good for us.  So the next time you hear something besides English being spoken, or you’re flipping through page after page of a foreign language in some instruction manual, remember the people of Babel.  Think of our own worship of technology.  And give thanks to the God who protects us from ourselves and our ambitions in order to save us.

    And here is how the Lord saves us:  At Babel God the Father had said to His Son, “Come, let us go down and confuse their language.”  But now God the Father says, “Come, let us go down and pour out our Spirit on them, so that the words of the Gospel might be clearly proclaimed to them.  Let their ears be opened so that they may not be confused but may understand the truth.  Let them receive the forgiveness and life which you, my beloved Son, won for them.”  So it was that the disciples were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in a variety of languages.  The confusion of Babel was lifted.  The different languages remained–that was still necessary–but the Holy Spirit gave the disciples the ability to speak them.  Everyone heard the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection in his own mother tongue.  The Word made flesh was revealed through the words of the flesh and blood languages of the day.  The Gospel broke through Babel’s language barrier.  That’s what speaking in tongues is all about–communicating the wonderful works of God in Christ to people in their heart language.  This miracle was saying to the people, “Jesus is for you.  He is for all nations and languages.  He died for everyone; He is your Savior from sin.  You can be sure of it because you are hearing it in your own native tongue.”

    The same is true for us gathered here today. The forgiveness of your sins, won by a man who spoke Aramaic and Hebrew, preached by apostles who spoke Greek, confessed by much of the church in Latin, has come to you in your own language, in English, a tongue that wasn’t even in existence that first Pentecost.  That’s God’s gift to you.  There’s no more personal way of saying that Jesus is your Savior from sin and death than to say it in your own language.  The Gospel of Christ is for you.  You are forgiven and holy in Him.

    In contrast to Babel, the Holy Spirit took the scattered peoples and brought them together and unified them through the Word of Christ.  These new believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ words and teaching, to the breaking of bread in the Lord’s Supper, and to the prayers.  Babel consisted of man’s rebellion, Pentecost of God’s mercy and forgiveness.  At Babel, people were one in sin for doing evil.  At Pentecost, people were made one in Christ for the glory of God and the good of one another.  Babel was marked by confusion and differing languages, Pentecost by understanding and a common language of faith in Christ.  

    And so now, we also, who come from various language backgrounds speak a common language, the language of the faith. We all together say and confess, “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth . . . And in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God . . . I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life.”  This is a language taught to us by the Spirit.  For the Scriptures tell us, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.”

    This language is spoken in common by all of God’s people of all times and places.  Be it in Swahili or Chinese or German or French, be it in the 4th century or the 10th or the 16th or the 21st, the spiritual language of the Creed is spoken by the baptized.  Throughout the world and throughout the centuries, the Spirit has worked and still works a miracle of tongues–namely, that the faithful have been given a single, common speech and confession, “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

    Remember that we have much more in common with our fellow Christians in Africa or Asia than we do with unbelievers next door to us.  For whatever cultural or national unity we might have with unbelievers will fade away, but our unity with people from all nations and languages in Christ our Redeemer will endure forever.  

    In the end, this is the one global activity that God approves of: Worship in the name of Jesus.  We don’t make a name for ourselves, God gives us His saving name.  God’s passion and desire is to gather the nations, not around a tower made of bricks and tar, not around the latest in technology and AI computers and robots, but around the cross which He has raised up, around the words and body and blood of His crucified and risen Son.  The Church is given to do this not only in one language, but in many languages.  This is the heart of missionary work and a true speaking in tongues.  

    We all look forward to the day when the entire church will again be one people with one language: the day we see Jesus face to face in the Resurrection on the Last Day.  Then we will stand before the throne of the Lamb of God and His Father, and worship Him in a new tongue, together with believers of every nation, tribe, people, and language.  To this God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be all worship and honor and glory and praise, now and forever.  Amen.

(With thanks to the Rev. William Cwirla)

Ascended To Be With us Always

Luke 24:44-53; Acts 1:1-11

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

    You would think that the disciples would be sad and sorrowful when Jesus ascended.  For by all appearances, He was gone; He went away.  And yet it is written that after the ascension of our Lord, the disciples return to Jerusalem with great joy, continually praising and blessing God in the temple.  Why would that be?  And why is the Ascension a cause of rejoicing also for us?

    When Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father, it was not as if our Lord had gone far away, separated from us in some confined physical spot above the clouds somewhere called “heaven.”  For remember, heaven is the unseen realm where God is, an eternal and infinite realm not limited to space and time.  We know from Scripture that God is present everywhere, and therefore, His “right hand” is everywhere.  So when we confess that Jesus ascended bodily to the right hand of the Father, we are not saying that He left us, but rather that He has entered into that unseen glory of His heavenly Father, as both true God and now also as true man.  St. Paul writes in Ephesians, Jesus “ascended far above all the heavens that He might fill all things.”  The ascension of our Lord, then, emphasizes not Jesus’ absence but rather His presence, especially for the church and in the church.

    This glorified presence of Christ began even before the Ascension, at Easter.  By the power of His bodily resurrection, Jesus was already exalted to heavenly majesty and filled all things.  The stone was rolled away not to let Jesus out but to let the disciples in, so they could bear witness to the empty tomb.  And consider Jesus’ resurrection appearances.  The disciples are gathered together with the doors locked, but suddenly Jesus comes and stands among them.  He had been there all along, but now He reveals Himself to them visibly.  They are given to touch His hands and side.  Or what about His appearance to the Emmaus disciples?  Jesus makes Himself known to them in the breaking of the bread and then simply vanishes from their sight.

    Throughout the 40 days between His resurrection and ascension, Jesus came out of His glory to appear to His disciples and to eat, talk, and walk with them.  He did this for their benefit to show that He had truly risen from the dead in the flesh.  Jesus’ ascension is really no different from the other times after Easter when He removed Himself from their sight.  It’s not that He went away.  Rather, He appeared out of glory, and He returned to glory.  But His final parting showed that they shouldn’t expect any more of those appearances until the Last Day.  The pillar of cloud that received Jesus, along with the message of the angels, was to convince the disciples that He would no longer be visibly present among them.  

    This, in part, is what the Ascension is meant to teach us.  We will not see Jesus until He comes again in a cloud with power and great glory on the Last Day.  This age of the church in which we live is the age not of the eyes but of the ears, of hearing and holding to the Word and preaching of Christ, who is unseen and yet truly present among His people.  Right before He ascends, He sends out His apostles to preach repentance and the forgiveness of sins.  The glory of Christ is not visible but hidden in that preaching of the Word.  Until the second coming we walk by faith, not by sight, believing Jesus’ words, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

    If we’re honest with ourselves, though, we must admit that we struggle to believe this.  For we sinners are people of the eyes, aren’t we.  If we can’t see it, experience it, feel it, it doesn’t seem real or true to us–out of sight, out of mind with the Lord.  There’s so much else that distracts us and catches our eyes in this fallen world.  And when we don’t see God, we then act as if He doesn’t see us.  Think about it: we’re usually better behaved when we know there are security cameras around or a cell phone is recording us than we are when the only One who knows and sees is the Lord.  Too often we live as if Christ is absent in our day to day lives, that He’s not a very present help in time of need, that He doesn’t see.  Even while we confess that He is seated at the right hand of the Father, we are tempted to doubt whether or not He really is in control, the King of creation.  We see the chaos in the world around us, we experience the disorder in our own lives and even in our own bodies, and we wonder, “If Christ is really ruling all things, why is He allowing this to happen?”  

    Repent of such thinking.  Turn away from your own wisdom and from merely what your eyes can see.  Trust again in the sure and comforting truth of the Ascension that is spoken into your ears today.  And if you must go with your eyes, then consider what the last thing was that the disciples saw of Jesus.  It is written, “He lifted up His hands and blessed them.”  That was the final vision and image of Himself that Jesus gave to His church. Therefore, that is how you also are to picture what our ascended Lord is doing even now, lifting up His hands to bless His people with the gifts He won for you in His death and resurrection.  Jesus is enthroned as King over all things, and He is at work in your life to bring you to share in His royal inheritance.

    Pay attention to the cloud.  Remember how in the Old Testament the Lord was present in the pillar of cloud to shield the Israelites from the attacking Egyptians and to lead them through the Red Sea safely to the other side.  The Son of God went down into the depths for His people and destroyed the threatening armies of hard-hearted Pharaoh.  And in an even greater way our Lord Jesus went down into the depths of death for us and blazed the trail through.  By passing through the waters of baptism, we are set apart to be His people.  We walk with Him to the resurrection of the body on the other side, and our enemies are left dead on the shore.  Sin and Satan and worldly powers can do us no lasting harm.  For just as the Lord was present with Israel in the cloudy pillar throughout their journeys, so the Lord is with us in His words and sacraments to lead us to the Promised Land of eternal life.

    So when the enemy threatens, stay close to the cloudy pillar.  Take refuge in Christ.  For He says to you this day, “All that I accomplished for you on Good Friday and Easter I now give to you.  Forgiveness of sins, everlasting life, and redemption are yours.  Receive them all as a free gift.  Though you are still in the midst of the battle, look up to me and see my hands outstretched over you.  Know that through Me your victory is assured.  At the end of the day, the devil who dogs you, the sin that grabs at you, the disease and the death that frightens you–all of them will be defeated enemies.  Just look to Me and cling to Me.  You are safe under the shelter of My wings.  I will work all things, even the evil things, for your good.  For you are those who love Me and whom I have called in baptism to be My own.  It is My good and gracious will to save you.  Nothing in all creation can separate you from My love.”

    That’s why the disciples weren’t sad when Jesus’ ascended, but instead they rejoiced.  And we also rejoice this day, because all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to our Redeemer.  One of us, our Man is on the throne, one who is on our side, our true human brother, Jesus.  He is there at the Father’s right hand as our advocate, our lawyer.  It is written, “Christ Jesus, who died, more than that, who was raised to life, is at the right hand of God (the Father) and is also interceding for us.”  Jesus is speaking on our behalf with the Father even now.  Jesus has won for us the Father’s favor through the shedding of His blood.  Since that is so, since Jesus is on our side, who now can bring a charge against us or condemn us?  Not even the devil himself!  It’s all been answered for by Jesus, and the Ascension shows that the Father has accepted the payment Jesus made.  God the Father has embraced and honored His Son’s redeeming work and has exalted Him and received Him to His side.  

    And here’s where it gets even better still:  by receiving Jesus to His side, the Father has also received you to His side.  For you are in Christ, aren’t you?  You are members of His body.  In that sense, then, you have already ascended to heaven. That’s how sure your salvation is.  It’s not just a future thing, it’s a present reality.  We sang it in the hymn, “He has raised our human nature on the clouds to God’s right hand.  There we sit in heavenly places, there with Him in glory stand.”  And that hymn is based on the words of Ephesians 2: “Even when we were dead in trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ . . . and raised us up together and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”  You’re already in heaven, because Jesus is already there, and you are in Him.  Colossians 3 puts it this way: “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  

    What else could give you greater confidence and certainty of faith than that?  Jesus ascended on high so that this Gospel would be preached to you and to all the nations in His name.  And what is done in Jesus’ name is in truth done by Jesus’ Himself.  In the Acts reading Luke spoke of all the things that Jesus began to do and teach before His ascension. That means that even after His ascension He continues to do and teach.  Jesus is still very much with us and among through the ministry of His saving Gospel.  

    That’s why being at divine service is so important.  For this is where the ascended Lord makes Himself accessible to you in the flesh, in His glorified human nature.  People sometimes say, “Well, since God is everywhere, I can worship Him anywhere.  Being at church isn’t necessary.”  But those who think that way are missing the point.  As a wise man once put it, water is everywhere in the air, but if you want a drink to quench your thirst, you need to go to a well or a fountain.   In the same way, the Lord who is present everywhere locates Himself and makes Himself accessible for you with His grace.  The fountain flows from the pulpit and the altar and the baptismal font.  Here is where you come into His presence with thanksgiving.  For here is the gate of heaven.  The right hand of God is extended down into the chancel.  Here is the throne of the King of creation, who comes to you with His true body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.  By receiving this holy sacrament, you are made to be partakers of His divine life.  Heaven and earth come together here in Jesus who ascended in the flesh to be with you always.

    So then, be rid of all your doubts and fears, and believe this Ascension Gospel.  Jesus is Lord over all things for the sake of His church, for you.  Your salvation is complete and secure in Him.  Christ is interceding for you before the throne of the Father.  Jesus is present here to bless you with His words and supper.  And the Lord, who has begun His good work in you, will bring it to completion when He returns on the clouds.  Let us all, then, rejoice in the Ascension of our Lord.

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