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The True Israel

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Luke 19:41-48

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

    We hear news stories pretty regularly about the middle East and in particular the nation of Israel.  Not only does their long-standing conflict with the Palestinians continue, but Iran proclaims openly that they’d like to wipe Israel entirely off the map–a pleasant thought as I prepare for my Holy Land tour next April.  But it raises the question: is what happens in Israel today something that relates to our Christian faith at all?  Israel and the Israelites are obviously central to the Biblical account of salvation.  But what should our theological attitude be toward what’s going on with Israel in the Middle East today?  

    There are some supposedly Christian preachers and authors who want to make a big deal out of current events.  They see happenings in the Middle East as the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy.  They view the nation of Israel as a key player in the end times.  They believe that before Christ can return, a whole series of geopolitical events must play themselves out, including the rebuilding of the temple.  But all who preach and believe such things are mistaken and in error.  For they are failing to see that all prophecy centers on Christ and is fulfilled in His life and death and resurrection.  All prophecy that is not centered in Christ and fulfilled in Him and His church is false prophecy.  This is especially true when it comes to the prophecies pertaining to Israel.  null

    The people of Israel were indeed the chosen people of God.  They are the descendants of Abraham, to whom God gave the promise that all peoples on earth would be blessed through him.  But that promise came to life in the birth of the Israelite Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah.  Through Christ the blessing of the forgiveness of sins comes to all the nations.  All that God gave to Israel, from the tabernacle to the sacrifices to the Sabbath all pointed forward to a culmination in Jesus.  Even the prophecies pertaining to the land of Israel, that geographic territory, were all given so that there might be a particular place where the promises of God might come to pass in Christ.  What makes the holy land holy is not that the ground itself is sacred, but rather that God Himself walked that ground in the person of Jesus and there accomplished our salvation by His holy cross.

    And so today in this New Testament age, the true Israel is no longer a reference to a nation or a territory.  It is rather a reference to the church, to those who are the people of God in Christ. Romans 9 says that not all who are Israelites according to the flesh are the true Israel, but rather “the children of the promise are counted as the seed,” as the children of Israel.  In other words, those who are believers in the promised Messiah are the true Jews, the real Israel.  Jesus is the whole people of Israel embodied in one man.  And so when we believe and are baptized into Him, we ourselves become Israelites, God’s chosen people, children of God in Him who is the Son of God.  

    Therefore, when we pray the Psalms and refer to Israel, we are not referring to a nation but to the church, to the faithful of the Lord.  And when we refer to Jerusalem, as we will be doing in today’s closing hymn, we are referring not to a temporal, passing city, but the holy city above, the heavenly Jerusalem, the eternal dwelling place of God’s redeemed believers.  

    So to get back to where we started, when it comes to events in Israel and the Middle East today, we have no theological stake in what the political outcome is.  It doesn’t affect our Christian faith one way or the other.  Our country may have a strategic or political stake in the matter, but that’s an entirely different story.  The only thing the turmoil in Israel and the Middle East and throughout the world should remind us of as Christians is that in this world we will find no lasting peace.  That is to be found only in Christ.  Wars and rumors of wars, the persecution and killing of Christians–all of that is meant to alert us to the fact that Christ will come again soon, and that we should be praying daily for His return to bring our salvation to its completion.

    In today’s Gospel, Jesus mourns what will become of Israel and of Jerusalem in particular.  The name Jerusalem literally means “city of peace.”  But when He, the Prince of Peace had come to her, she refused Him.  Like a rejected groom, He weeps for her and her fate.  In the year 70 A.D., just forty years after this Gospel, Jesus’ prophetic words will be fulfilled.  Jerusalem will be attacked and laid siege by the Romans.  Thousands upon thousands will be killed in horrific fashion.  Above all, the temple will be utterly destroyed and laid waste.  All that is left of the temple still today is one portion of an outer wall, the wailing wall, which still calls to mind Jesus’ weeping.

    This was the judgment of God.  The Romans were His instrument in executing the sentence.  For Israel had spurned the Messiah.  They did not know the time of their visitation, when God Himself visited them and walked among them.  It was their day, and they missed it.  The things that made for their peace with God were hidden from their eyes by their own unbelief.  

    It’s not as if they weren’t religious.  St. Paul says in the Epistle that they were passionate for God, but they tried to get right with Him on the basis of their own keeping of God’s Law.  They foolishly trusted in their own obedience rather than humbly and penitently relying on the grace of God revealed to them in Christ and receiving His righteousness as a free and undeserved gift.  And so they ended up rejecting the very one their Law prophesied.  All their religious passion was for nothing.  They wanted something flashier and more glorious than this lowly Jesus.  In fact it offended them to think that’s how God would visit them.  They stumbled at this stumbling stone of the Gospel, and so the stones of the temple and the city were demolished around them.  The weeping of God eventually becomes the judgment of God for those who will not repent.

    This is a clear and sobering call to repentance for you still today.  For the Jews had it all, everything they needed to recognize and receive the Messiah when He came.  Don’t we also?  Indeed, we have even more!  Let us not, then, take these things for granted and stumble as they did.  What happened to Jerusalem in the 1st century is a miniature picture of what will happen to all the unbelieving world on judgment day.  Consider, then, how things stand with you.  Are you relying on the fact that you’re a good person to get you into heaven rather than Christ alone?  Then your religion is like the false religion of the Jews, and you must repent.  Do you look for God primarily in mysterious signs or supernatural occurrences instead of in His humble but sure Word?  Is divine service something you can do without for weeks at a time?  Then you are like the Israelites who did not know the time of their visitation, and you must repent.  Are you one who wants to use religion as a way of gaining earthly blessings?  Then you are like those who bought and sold in the temple, and you must repent.

    Turn away from all that, and turn to Him whose heart still weeps out of love for His people.  Trust in Him who continues to cry out, “If you would know, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace!”  Christ Himself is your Peace, who visits you humbly, just as He did with Israel–in water and words, bread and wine.  He is the One who brings reconciliation between you and God, the One who gives the peace that passes all understanding.  This is your day, right now, the day of your visitation, as it is written, “Behold, now is the acceptable time; now is the day of salvation.”  This is the moment in which Christ is coming to you in His Gospel sounding in your ears.  Believe in Him; trust in what He has done; seek His righteousness.

    For our Lord has cleansed the temple.  When Jesus drove out the moneychangers in righteous anger and purified the temple as a house of prayer, that was a sign of what He was about to do at Calvary.  For there on the cross Jesus Himself experienced the righteous anger of God against the world’s sin and drove it out in the temple of His body.  Jesus made Himself unclean in your place.  He took all of the greed and the self-righteousness and the callousness and every other sin and made it His own dirty mess.  And by His holy suffering and death He cast it out and away from you forever.  He buried it all permanently in the grave.

    Jesus had said of His body, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.”  Though the temple in Jerusalem remains destroyed, Jesus could not remain in the grave.  He is now bodily raised in everlasting glory and honor, the new and eternal dwelling place of God for you.  Jesus is your temple.  The risen body of Christ is full of holiness and righteousness and cleansing.  Baptized into Him, those things are all yours.  The Church is the body of Christ.  And therefore you are the temple of Christ’s Spirit, who dwells in you through your baptismal faith. You are safe from divine judgment.  For you are in Him who took the judgment for you.

    “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace!”  Brothers and sisters in Christ, O Israel of God, this is your day; this is the time of your visitation.  Don’t miss out because you’re looking for the wrong thing,  or because you’ve got more important things to do.  Here are the things that make for your peace, the body and blood of Christ, offered up for you for the forgiveness of your sins, for your peace, for your rest, for your restoration to the Father.  God grant you to be like that faithful remnant in the Gospel that was very attentive to hear Jesus, that by His grace you may be brought to dwell eternally in the new Jerusalem above.

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

Beware of False Prophets, Love Christian Doctrine

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

    The church at large today sadly often takes its cue from the world.  And the world just wants everyone to be nice and to agree to disagree and accept all beliefs and not be sticklers about insisting on the truth.  And so in the church, pure doctrine is not usually treated as something that’s essential.  As long as we all believe in Jesus, it is said, there’s no need to get too worked up about the other details.  “Doctrine divides, the Gospel unites” is the slogan.  Or, “Deeds, not creeds.”  “Let’s just focus on love and missions and community.”  The problem with that is that it’s the creed that creates the deed.  Holding to the pure Word of God is what produces pure and real love in His sight.  Christian doctrine, Christian teaching, is what drives Christian living and creates the Christian community.  The mission that we have is to confess and proclaim the doctrine of Christ.

    So if someone tries to pit doctrine against love or doctrine against Christ, the response to that is simply this: Doctrine is Christ.  All Biblical teaching ultimately centers on Jesus.  Or to put it another way, Biblical doctrine is the Gospel of Christ unfolded in all its articles. If you love Jesus, you love Christian doctrine.null

    Here’s my favorite way to illustrate this point: It is commonly said that all that really counts is that a person believes the simple Gospel as it is given to us in John 3:16, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”  And that is very true; that sums it up well.  But there are a few things that this verse implies that we should make clear and explicit.

    Such as, who is this God who loved the world?  Is it the same god that the Muslims worship or Hindus or other religions worship?  Well, no. The Scriptures make it clear that there is only one true God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, the God who is 3 in 1. So in the very first word of John 3:16, we are already into what the Bible teaches about the doctrine of the Trinity.

    This verse also speaks about people perishing.  Well, why is it that people are going to perish? The Scriptural answer is that it is the curse of man’s rebellion against His Creator.  Man is a fallen creature under God’s judgment. All of our supposed righteousness is filth before God.  We need to be called to repentance.  And so John 3:16 also involves an understanding of the doctrine of original sin and the fallen nature of mankind.

    Then this verse talks about the only-begotten Son. What does “only begotten” mean? And who is the Son? Is Jesus only a divine being? Is He also human? The answer according to the Scriptures is that He is fully God and fully man in one sinless person, the only Son of the Father. John 3:16 involves the doctrine of the two natures of Christ.

    Then this verse speaks about having eternal life.  How do we attain that? Is that something that’s based on my works and efforts and achievements? No, the Bible teaches that this is something solely and completely won for all people by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and His resurrection from the dead. John 3:16 involves an understanding of the doctrine of redemption.

    Then this verse speaks about believing in Christ. What does that mean? What is faith? Is it my decision or my commitment to Christ? Is it something I add to the work of Christ to complete my salvation? No, according to the Scriptures faith is a gift worked by the Holy Spirit whereby we trust in Christ and receive His free and full salvation. And how is that gift given? God’s Word teaches that it is born in Baptism, sustained through the preached Word of Christ, and nourished in the sacred meal of Christ’s true body and blood. John 3:16 involves the right doctrine of faith and of the Sacraments.

    There’s even more that I could say, but I hope by now you see my point. Doctrine and Jesus, doctrine and the Gospel cannot be separated. You mess with one, you mess with the other. You can’t disagree on doctrine and agree on the Gospel. It all hangs together. Now this is not to say that the Gospel is something so complicated that only a theologian can grasp it. For even a little child can receive it. The Gospel is indeed wonderfully simple and clear. And yet it is not simplistic or shallow or trivial. It is the mystery of God which we are always growing into ever more deeply and richly, the doctrine of the eternal Word made flesh, Jesus Christ our Lord.

    Therefore it follows that we will want to be on guard against anything that infringes upon or attacks that Word.  For in the end such things are an attack on Christ and our salvation in Him. That’s why Jesus warns us in today’s Gospel, “Beware of false prophets.” Be on guard, because they’re not going to appear false; they’re going to be appealing and offer a real pull away from the truth. Jesus says here that they come to you in sheep’s clothing. They come looking rather pious and good.  They are preachers and teachers in the church. They have the signs of the office, perhaps even a collar and a robe and a stole and a chasuble. But they don’t teach the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; they are wolves, even if they don’t fully realize it. Notice what Paul said in the Acts reading, “Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, (twisting the Scriptures) to draw away disciples after themselves.” The devil comes an angel of light, Scripture says, and so do his false prophets.

    I can’t help but make a reference here to the practice of ordaining women to be pastors. Though Jesus treated women with profound respect and had many among those who followed him, yet it was 12 men whom He chose to be the first apostles and pastors. Even though the Roman world of that time commonly had female priestesses among the various pagan religions, and that was culturally accepted, yet the New Testament clearly prohibits women from speaking the Word of God to the assembly and being pastors and bishops of the church.

    And yet today this issue is dealt with not on the basis of God’s eternal Word but on the basis of politics and “rights.”  What the Lord said through the prophet Jeremiah certainly applies to women’s ordination, “I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran.” They are by definition false prophets. For a pastor is there to stand in the stead of Christ to speak the Groom’s words of forgiveness and life to His beloved bride, the Church. A priestess simply cannot stand in Christ’s place in that way. And in attempting to do so she denies the nature of God and perverts the male/female, groom/bride relationship into a female/female relationship. It’s not a coincidence that in nearly all the church bodies that ordain women, there is also a condoning and a sanctioning of homosexual relationships. Of course, that rejection of God’s Word is also done in the name of love.

    But really, what is the truly loving thing to do, to let people take the broad way of the world that leads to destruction, or to patiently and compassionately and consistently call people back to the narrow, difficult way that leads to life in Christ? Which is the more caring outcome: temporary happiness and unity in this world, or eternal joy and reconciliation with God in the world to come? The narrow way of Christ is the way of real love.

    Jesus says that you will know false prophets by their fruit. The fruit refers not simply to their loving or pious lifestyle, since that can be the deceptive clothing of the wolf. Nor does the fruit refer to how successful they are, either, since this world often crowns false teachers with great success and prosperity. The fruit refers to the doctrine. What spiritual food do they offer? What do they hold forth for your souls to feast upon? The pure Bread of Life or something else?  It is written, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

    So if you want to know whether a teacher is true or false, just ask yourself: Does he direct me to the shifting sands of my own decisions and commitments, or does he direct me to the solid rock of Christ’s commitment to me and His sure baptismal promise which I have received? Does he direct me to my own good works as a way of purifying myself or gaining eternal life, or does he direct me to the all-sufficient sacrifice of Christ on the cross? Does he only speak of things in spiritual terms, or does he emphasize the concrete realities of the faith, that Christ took on our flesh and blood, that He was raised from the dead in the body, that He comes to us now in His true body and blood for our forgiveness in the Sacrament, that we will be raised in the body on the Last Day? Does he minimize the seriousness of sin, or does he preach the Law in all its fullness in order to maximize the glory of Christ, the Savior from sin?

    Here’s another test: St. Paul said to the Corinthians, “I determined not to know anything among you except Christ and Him crucified.” If Jesus and His sacrifice are not the center of everything that is proclaimed, if the cross is just sort of an add-on or a tag line without much real relevance to today, then that prophet isn’t true. In the 2nd reading Paul told the pastors at Ephesus “to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” That blood of Christ is the thread that runs through all true prophecy and preaching.

    Or finally you could go at it in this way: “Is the teaching of this man in keeping with the faith of the Scriptures confessed in the creeds? Is it consistent with what I’ve learned of sin and of Christ and of faith in the Small Catechism? Does it square with the preaching of the Word of God that I hear in my church?” If not, then beware of it, flee from it.

    Flee to Christ; take refuge in Him. For the truth of God’s Word is simply this: The good tree in the Gospel that bears good fruit is the cross. It is written, “Christ Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we having died to sins, might live for righteousness. By His stripes we are healed.” Jesus walked the narrow and difficult way which only He could walk. For only He could bear the sins of the world and make full payment for them. He is Himself the Way and the Truth and the Life. Jesus is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing; He is a sheep in wolves’ clothing. He is the pure Lamb of God who allowed Himself to be cloaked in darkness and evil at Calvary in order to put them to death in His body, so that we might be delivered from all evil forever. In His cross and resurrection, He destroyed the lies; He ripped apart the wolves forever. Sin, death, and the devil have been conquered and undone for you. Believing in Christ you are saved and safe forever. You are forgiven for Jesus’ sake. In this very hour you are given to eat from the sacred tree you, to receive the holy fruit of His blood and His body, which cleanses you of your sin and gives you everlasting life. In Him you shall rise bodily on the Last Day to the fullness of life in His kingdom.

    Enter, then, by the narrow gate which is the cross. For though the cross involves death to sin and self, it is also the entrance to light and life. It is the only gate that leads to the resurrection. Jesus is your true Prophet and the fulfillment of all prophecy. You will know Him by His fruits.

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

The Word of Christ is Everything

Luke 5:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

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

    In today’s Gospel Jesus does something which goes against all sensibility and logic.  He tells Simon Peter, “Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a catch.”  This appears to be utterly foolish.  For anyone who is even casually familiar with fishing knows that you don’t catch fish out in the deep but in shallower areas where the fish congregate and feed.  Especially when you’re fishing with nets, you want to go where your nets can actually reach the fish.  What Jesus suggests here seems entirely unreasonable.  It goes against all that experience would teach.  

    Furthermore, Simon informs Jesus that they had just been fishing all night without success.  They put to use all of their skills and techniques and knowledge as fishermen and hadn’t caught a thing.  It just wasn’t a good day to fish.  Besides, what’s the point of going out now during the heat of the day, which is the worst time to fish?  What Jesus said made no sense.null

    However, Simon has at least a fledgling faith in Jesus which trusts what He has to say.  And so even though it seems pointless, Simon Peter says, “Nevertheless, at Your Word I will let down the net.”  Because you say so, because it’s your words, I will do it, even though I’ve got my doubts.  And when Simon and his friends do so, they catch such a great number of fish that their net begins to break.  In the end they fill up two boats full.

    So even though today’s Gospel seems to be all about fishing, the real heart of the account is  the Word of Jesus.  Nothing happens apart from that.  The Word may seem foolish to human reason and logic, but in truth it is powerful and effective to do what is says and deliver what it promises and save those who believe.

    St. Paul writes in the Epistle, “The Word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.”  They think of the Gospel and the Scriptures as a story for the naive and the gullible and the shallow-minded.  No one who’s got any real intelligence and education is going to go for that.  They regard it as if it were mere superstition.  The Word of God is constantly being mocked in the world as backward or outdated or even hateful.

    St. Paul says more specifically, “Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness.”  Some people are like the Jews, who want to see miraculous signs and proofs, who are after divine displays of glory and powerful evidences of God’s presence in their life.  If your religion can make me blessed and successful and healthy and wealthy and happy, then I’ll go for it.  But if there’s suffering and sacrifice and a cross involved, then forget it.  The cross is the big stumbling block for the Jews.  For the Old Testament rightly says that anyone who is hung on a tree is cursed.  How, then, could such a one who died such a dishonorable death be God?  Where’s the glory in that?

    And some people, Paul says, are like the Greeks who seek after wisdom.  They want everything to be rationally and scientifically explainable.  They won’t believe it unless they can understand it with their senses and their mind.  If it’s not reasonable to their way of thinking, if for instance it speaks of the utter helplessness of man before God, then it’s only worthy of being ridiculed or ignored.  If my goodness and merits and efforts don’t contribute toward my being saved, if I’m entirely dependent on someone else to gain eternal life–that makes no sense.  I’ll find some other spirituality that’s more logical to me.

    We know well the temptation of wanting to follow such worldly spiritualities, to walk by sight and not by faith, to have a religion that’s based on human wisdom and glory rather than God’s wisdom and the cross.  But just like Peter, by God’s grace we have been brought to trust in Jesus’ Word, even in the midst of all our weakness and doubts.  We have been brought to know that though the Word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  It is written, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek.”

    In order to humble the proud and those who are wise and strong in their own eyes, our Lord chooses to hide His power behind that which seems foolish and weak.  In that way His saving wisdom and strength will be perceived only by lowly, penitent believers to whom He reveals Himself.  After all where has human wisdom really gotten us?  Technology and science can do wonderful things, no doubt about it.  But has man’s wisdom eliminated crime and violence?  Is there any less loneliness or sadness or depression in the world?  Have people stopped dying?  Man’s wisdom is quite limited; we dare not rest our hopes there.

    Rather, Paul says this, “Since the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.”  Think of what an odd way that is for God to operate!  First of all, He chooses to bring His salvation through mere words.  Nothing flashy or glorious, just talking, speaking.  And the focus of the speaking is an instrument of the death penalty, of all things.  The Gospel message is that a suffering, tortured man is the Savior.  We preach Christ crucified, Paul says.  That’s why we display a body on the cross here.  Our hope for eternal life is in His death.  What could be more weak and foolish and even offensive than that?  And yet, Paul says, the weakness of God is stronger than men, and the foolishness of God is wiser than men.  That weak, foolish cross still far surpasses all our intelligence.  For it alone conquers sin and death and the devil.  The greatest blessing of God is hidden behind that curse.  He does what runs counter to our thinking to accomplish His purposes, so that no one may boast in His presence, but that we may boast in the Lord alone and glory in His mercy.

    It’s just like when the Lord came to Elijah.  We expect God to be in the miraculous and the mighty.  But the Lord was not in the strong wind for Elijah, nor was He in the earthquake or the fire.  Instead the Lord came to him in a still, small voice.  In that unimpressive fashion, the Lord was there in mercy to speak with Elijah.  So it is still today.  The Lord does not come to us in impressive signs or with high sounding wisdom, but in the simple Word of Christ crucified for sinners.  The still, small voice of the absolution, the preaching of the Gospel is where the Lord is in power for you.  Through that spoken Word He is present to save you and perform what He has promised.  

    Which then brings us to the preachers of this foolish message, where the same theme applies.  If you come to a South Wisconsin District pastors conference and look around, we’re not a very impressive bunch of guys.  Nothing too glorious there to see.  You may even wonder, “What was the Lord thinking in ordaining these people?”  And yet, what the Epistle said applies not only to Christians in general but preachers too: “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty.”

    That’s the way it was with Simon Peter.  When he saw the miraculous catch of fish given by Christ, he also saw more clearly his own sinfulness by comparison, and he said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”  Simon was one who was often weak, often foolish.  And yet the Lord said to him, “Do not be afraid.  From now on you will catch men.”  Just as Simon was able to catch these fish solely by the power of Christ’s Word, so now Jesus was making Simon into one who would draw in people solely by preaching Christ’s powerful Word.  In this way others who are weak and foolish would be made wise unto salvation through faith in Jesus.

    That’s the whole point of this catch of fish.  It all happens at the Word of Christ.  Beforehand, Jesus Himself had been “casting the net” so to speak as He preached the Word to the people from Simon’s boat.  Jesus turned that boat into a mighty cathedral.  He Himself is not afraid to launch out into the deep and let down His nets for a catch.  Just as the Spirit of God hovered over the deep in the beginning at creation, so our Lord goes to the deep; to the very depths of sin and death our Lord goes.  That’s what Jesus’ death and burial were about.  He descended to the murky darkness of the abyss in order to pull up His catch of sinful men and to raise you to the light of His resurrection life.

    And now Jesus bids His Simons to continue to cast the net of the Gospel to draw people into the boat which is the church, where He is present to save.  That is the simple and “unreasonable” way in which our Lord accomplishes His mission.  It’s not done through special marketing programs.  Jesus doesn’t use a bait and lure to try to fool people into being Christian.  It’s only the net of His Word which “catches” you and draws you in.  It’s the simple means of baptizing and teaching that makes disciples; it’s the preaching of the Word of Christ crucified that has the power to save.  When that takes place, any church becomes a sturdy ship, a mighty ark of Christ.

    So let us hear clearly for ourselves the words of Christ spoken to Simon Peter: “Do not be afraid.  You are forgiven.  I have taken on your very flesh and blood to make you holy.  Your sins have been paid for by my cross, so that now you can stand before a holy God and live.  Do not fear.  You are Mine.  You are reconciled to the Father through Me.”  And then let us say, “At your Word, Lord, even though I am weak and sinful, nevertheless I believe that I am righteous in your sight; I trust in Your promise.  At Your Word, even though all my senses can grasp here is bread and wine, yet because you have said so I believe that in them you give me Your true body and blood for the forgiveness of my sins, so that I may be filled with your life.  At Your Word, Lord, I let down all my defenses, I forsake all my ways of thinking and doing things to follow you.  I trust in Your mercy and lovingkindness.  You are my light and my salvation.”

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

To Save Sinners

Luke 15:1-10
Trinity 3

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

    There is a show that was on Discovery Channel called “Dirty Jobs.”  Perhaps you’ve seen it.  The guy who hosts the show joins people doing all sorts of stinky, nasty, gross jobs such as cleaning out the inside of septic tanks or pig farming or sifting through garbage. No matter what the job, the guy always tries it out. No matter how dirty or smelly or disgusting, there he is with his camera crew experiencing some “dirty job.”

    In today’s OT reading, the prophet Micah asks “Who is a God like our God, who pardons iniquities and . . . tramples them underfoot?”  Most gods you hear about won’t have anything to do with the nitty gritty details of this earth and its people.  Most religions are all about trying to figure out how to escape the septic tank and get back to a clean and holy God.  But not so with our God!  Not the true God!  The Lord is not afraid to come down here Himself, in the flesh, into the filth of our sins and transgressions and iniquities.  Jesus doesn’t shy away from the grime of our sins but comes right into the midst of it.  Far worse than cleaning a septic tank, the “dirty job” that Jesus does is to enter a world covered in the stench and slime of sin to save the very sinners who made this disgusting mess!  Jesus, true God and true man, comes into this world uninvited, unasked for, to glop around and be covered in the foulness of our sin and then to wash it all away by the blood of the cross.  Jesus comes to save this sinful, decomposing world by taking all the mess onto Himself and dying on the cross. There is no other God or human being who does that.  Buddha didn’t do it.  Mohammed didn’t do it.  Moses doesn’t do it. Only the true Son of God comes in the flesh to this dirty world to save us from our sins.null

    Just as the shepherd goes mucking around through the undergrowth looking for that lost sheep, so Jesus comes to save sinners.  But you’ll notice, He’s not here to save those who aren’t sinners.  He’s only looking for sinners.  After all, those who aren’t sinners don’t need a Savior, do they?  Jesus comes for the lost sheep, and heaven rejoices over that one repentant sinner more than the 99 who need no repentance.

    But you might be saying, “Wait a second! Aren't all people sinners?  Doesn’t everyone need repentance?” Well, the Bible certainly says so.  But most people actually don’t think so. Sure, most everyone will admit that they’re not perfect and could probably do a little better.  But notice how usually sin gets reduced to “bad choices” or “just the way I’m wired” or “a bad habit that I’m working on.”  Few think that they deserve temporal and eternal punishment, as our confession says.  However, those who are sinners know that it’s true–that they don't love and trust in God as they should, or love their neighbor as themselves, that they tend to put themselves first and sometimes even despise others. Those who are sinners know that they have nothing going for them except God’s mercy in Jesus Christ.  

    On the other hand, those who “have no need of repentance” are those who don’t think they’re really such bad people when it comes right down to it. They’re confident they’ve got God figured out and are pretty good at doing what He says. Those who have no need of repentance are those who virtue signal and do good to impress others and are quick to condemn those who aren’t quite as good as they are. They say, “Well sure, I’ve made a few mistakes, but I try my best to live a good life.” Those who have no need of repentance are those who don't really believe that their sins are bad enough that the Son of God has to die for them. They trust in themselves and don’t seek or desire Jesus’ help.  And so they’ll be on their own on the Last Day.

    Those who are sinners and know it crowd around Jesus to hear Him and His Word.  But those who supposedly have no need of repentance complain that Jesus receives and eats with such people. On another occasion, the Pharisees were grumbling about this same thing. And Jesus said: “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. I didn’t come to call righteous people but sinners to repentance.”  Jesus doesn’t tell those sick with sin to keep their distance, lest He become infected.  The Great Physician came precisely to overcome that distance, to call them to repentance for the forgiveness of their sins, which He would bear in His own body.  He Himself is the Cure.

    And please also be sure to note this:  Jesus did not come to condone sin or approve of sin.  He didn’t come just to pat us on our heads and say that we’re fine just the way we are.  Rather, He came to rescue us from what we are as fallen human beings.  He came to get into the slimy pit that we’ve fallen into in order to lift us up and out to a new life.  This is the problem with so much of what passes for tolerance and love today: people think they’re being loving by saying sinful behavior isn’t sinful.  But that’s really the opposite of love.  For if they deny the sin, they are also denying the need for the forgiveness of sins, right?  And to deny the forgiveness of sins is to deny Jesus who purchased that forgiveness with His blood.  The truly loving thing to do is to acknowledge the sin-cancer and the uncleanness for what it is so that the Great Physician can do His healing, cleansing work.  Jesus doesn’t come to us saying, “It’s OK; no big deal.”  Instead He says, “I still love you; I forgive you; I take your sin away.”

    Jesus calls us all to repentance.  Repentance means doing a one-eighty, away from the way of death to the way of life in Christ.  It means that the Spirit, by the preaching of the Word, turns you away from your sins to faith and trust in Christ. Repentance is something that the Lord works in you by His Word.  You can’t repent on your own. You can’t just decide to turn away from your sins. Rather, Christ Himself calls you out from your sins by His Word.  Sheep wander away.  Coins roll under the dresser and lay there.  In both cases it takes the shepherd or the woman to find that sheep or coin.  In the same way, it is the Lord who must come to us in our sins and die for them on the cross.  It is the Lord who must come to us through the water and Word of the font.  It is Christ who seeks us out and calls us back to Himself by the preaching of the Gospel and the speaking of holy absolution.  It is Christ who draws us to His table to eat and drink His body and blood.  These things are His gifts for sinners. Those who supposedly have no need of repentance have no need for any of these things.  They may as well stay away.  But you, if you have nothing going for you but Jesus, do like those tax collectors and sinners: come to hear Jesus.  Live in your baptism, daily drowning the old Adam with all sins and evil desires, and rise as a new man to the new life which you have in Christ.  To live in your baptism is simply to believe the truth that Micah preached: The Lord has trampled all your iniquities underfoot.  He casts all your sins into the depths of the sea.

    So this Gospel reading is not just for those who have wandered away from church, the straying sheep of our families and our friends and our members that aren’t here.  It applies to us all.  The danger is the same, namely that we stop thinking of ourselves as sinners desperately needing a Savior.  *That is the real reason why people stop coming to church.*  They think they’ve got their spiritual lives handled without Jesus’ preaching and the Sacrament.  They think they’re beyond needing to be ministered to with Christ’s Word.  They think their efforts at good living are better than all the churchgoing hypocrites anyway.  And that is precisely the temptation we all are faced with–to think that our good living is the key rather than Jesus’ good living and dying and rising again for us.  We never stop needing the holy medicine He freely gives in this hospital called the Church.

    So listen carefully. If you think you have need of repentance, then repent of that!  Turn away from such foolishness!  Despair of your self-satisfied pride!  But, if you are a sinner, then rejoice! If you are one who has nothing to persuade God of how great you are; if you are pretty sure that your life is the septic tank God should plug His nose at and avoid, then rejoice!  For Christ Jesus came into the world to save such sinners as you and me.  It is for such sinners that Jesus slogged through the filth and the muck and was nailed to the cross. It is for you that Jesus has given His life and rescued you by His words and sacraments.

    This is the dirty job that Jesus does.  He takes upon Himself the mess of our sin, so that we may take up and wear the garment of His righteousness.  No other "god" would do that. But the true God does.  It is no wonder when the tax collectors and sinners heard of this that they ran to Jesus and congregated around Him. He spoke pardon for their sins.  He spoke peace to their hearts.  And so it is also with you.  Jesus has sought you out and found you and pardoned you.  Jesus has scoured the earth for you by the Word of His Gospel, and He possesses you in faith.  Jesus even dines with you today.  Come to His table and feed on His holy body and blood in faith, knowing that there is joy in heaven over you.  Draw near to Jesus knowing that He receives you with His grace and mercy.  You are the lost sheep and Jesus Christ has found you.  You are the lost coin and Jesus has recovered you.  And so today, too, there is joy in the presence of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Mark Beutow)

No Excuses, Come to the Feast

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Luke 14:15-24

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

    Last Sunday we heard about a Rich Man who had lavish meals every day, but the beggar Lazarus was left to starve in plain view of the Rich Man’s table. This week it’s exactly the other way around:  the rich man is generous beyond measure, but the people actually refuse to come to his banquet table.

    If you’ve ever hosted a large meal, like a wedding reception, you know how much planning and preparation is involved: sending invitations, making sure you have enough food and drink for everyone, lining up the music and the servers.  In the same way, when it comes to the banquet of salvation and the wedding feast of the Lamb, our Lord has planned and prepared and accomplished everything perfectly.  But what happens in the story Jesus tells is that when the big day arrives, everyone who was invited rejects the invitation to the meal.

    It is written, “They all with one accord began to make excuses. The first said to him, ‘I have bought a piece of ground, and I must go and see it. I ask you to have me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to test them. I ask you to have me excused.’ Still another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’ ” Excuses, excuses.null

    Notice how each invited guest is occupied with something else dearer and more important to him.  So when the master, who represents God the Father, learns that all those invited to his banquet have rejected it, he orders that the outcasts be brought in: the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind.  Remember how Lazarus the beggar was not invited to Rich Man’s table?  Well, the table of this rich man, the Lord’s table, is surrounded by beggars.  And here is the key point for us: the Lord’s table is precisely and only for beggars, and so if we want to be at that table, we must learn to see ourselves as spiritual beggars.

    The three excuses made by the people who were originally invited show that they don’t regard themselves as beggars at all.  Instead, they are wrapped up in the things of this world. The first man’s excuse is that he has bought land, and the idea here is of a large estate, a big farming operation, or ranch. He will have workers, men under him, and he will have dominion. This was the first sin in the beginning: man, who was given dominion of the earth by God, instead sought to grasp that dominion separately from God.  This is the temptation of the devil still: the desire for you to exercise  power independently from God, to become like God yourself.

    The next man has bought five pairs of oxen.  This would be rather expensive, and a typical family farm would only need one pair, not five.  So we can see excess here.  The number five is often used also of the senses, seeing, tasting, touching, hearing, smelling; and many of the senses come in pairs: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, two hands.  Now what do oxen do on a farm?  They turn up the earth; so we can see in this man a devotion to earthly things, a devotion to what his hands can touch and what his eyes can see.  God who is spirit, and ordinarily beyond being apprehended by man’s senses, is disregarded and ignored.

    The last man, pleading marriage, puts his family, his bride, before God, and even the desires of his flesh first.  But 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.”  

    Now look in the mirror.  Do you see yourself in any of these three people?  Do you see pride and a desire to control in your actions?  Do you have an inappropriate love of earthly things?  Are you devoted more to your work or your family or your fleshly desires than you are to God?  Do you rationalize not being here in church every week because other things are supposedly more important?

    Repent.  Give up your need to control others and get your way.  Look beyond what your eyes can see and what your fingers can touch and what your work can get you and satisfying the lusts of your heart.  Care less about what your family thinks or your boss thinks and more about what God thinks and what He gives.

    Jesus told this parable to the Pharisees, but Luke recorded it for you and me.  Through this Word the Holy Spirit wishes to turn us from our inverted priorities and to come to Him always as beggars. We do not deserve what the Lord offers, but He gives it to us freely anyway, without money and without price.

    The Gospel cry rings out to you today, saying, “All things are now ready.”  How foolish it would be to let the things of this world ever hinder you from coming to the feast and entering into Christ’s presence and His kingdom.  It is well worth sacrificing everything in order to squeeze through and enter this kingdom by its narrow gates!  Remember what Ecclesiastes says about the things of this world and this fallen life, “All is vanity, meaningless, and a chasing after the wind.”  But not so with the things of Christ.  What He gives endures and brings real peace and joy.  This is not some drudgery you are called to but a festive banquet of salvation!  Whoever dismisses the world and sets his heart on Christ discovers that God is a gracious and friendly Father who will not remember your sins in eternity, who sets you free from being fixated on the burdensome cares of this life, who daily and richly provides and refreshes you in body and soul.  Whoever dismisses the world and sets his heart on Christ for the first time truly begins to live, truly experiences what it means to be at peace.  In this kingdom there is freedom from the shackles of sin, and the light of God’s grace scatters all the darkness of our hearts.

    So come to the feast; the Lord has done all things for you.  Jesus offered up His body on the cross to be “roasted” in the fire of judgment.  He literally suffered hell in your place at Calvary.  Having rescued you from sin and Satan by His holy death, and being now raised from the dead, Jesus offers Himself to the whole world as heavenly food that you might receive His saving gifts and be nourished by them.  Because of what Jesus has done, there is no one left to accuse you or condemn you, no one to keep you out, nothing to stop you from this joy given for free from on high.  God Himself, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit loves you and invites you to come to the feast.  He wants you to be with Him there.

    And do not think yourself unworthy of this feast because you are spiritually poor, maimed, lame, or blind.  You are precisely the ones Jesus has invited and that He wants.  Your sins are gone.  Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, for I have carried the burden for you.  My yoke is easy and my burden is light.  In Me, you will find rest for your souls.”  If you are weak, heartbroken or lonely, dealing with guilt and uncertainty, hear the words of the Lord:  All things are ready; it is finished.  This feast has been made ready for you.  The greatest and the least, the outcasts and the popular, the cool and the losers–everyone is invited.  Leave behind the love of temporary things.  Dwell upon the eternal love of Christ who has loved you beyond all telling, whose mercy makes you new.  Find your real life in Him.

    Jesus said, “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.  For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed.  He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.”  And if Christ dwells in you, then the sin and death which trouble you ultimately cannot harm you.  He will indeed bring you who believe through the grave to the resurrection of the body at the close of the age.

    So hear again the Spirit’s call that goes out to you this day and heed it, “Come, for all things are now ready.”  You are reconciled with God and righteous in Christ.  The banquet table is laid before you, in the Word, in the Supper.  Partake of this holy, life-giving food.  Believe in Christ and be saved.  Receive the foretaste of the feast to come.  For blessed is He who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God.

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

(With thanks to Christopher Esget, David Petersen, and CFW Walther for some of the content herein.)

The Rich Man and Lazarus

 
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✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
 
 Unbelief makes a person blind.  All the while he thinks he’s being religious and doing the right thing, he can’t see that he’s really still self-absorbed and in rebellion against God.  Just consider the rich man in today’s Gospel.  Even after he dies, even after he knows that he has separated himself from God forever, notice that nothing really changes with him.  The same beggar that he apparently ignored while he was alive, he now still treats selfishly, wanting to use and control him for his own purposes.  “Send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.”  “Send Lazarus back from the dead to my brothers, so that they don’t also come here to this place of torment.”  Lazarus was still not fully a person in the rich man’s mind, just someone who could be used to do something he wanted done.
 
 Of course, it is a good thing that the rich man was thinking of his brothers.  He could at least care about his own flesh and blood.  But even here, we see most profoundly how the rich man was still an unbeliever.  For after he begs Abraham to send Lazarus back to his brothers, he completely rejects Abraham’s holy reply.  Abraham says to him, “They have Moses and the prophets; let [your brothers] hear them.”  In other words, “Your brothers have the Scriptures, the Word of God, which alone has the power to bring about true repentance and saving faith.  That’s what they desperately need to listen to.”  But the rich man actually has the gall to contradict our father in the faith.  “No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”  The rich man is still the rebellious child, thinking he knows better.  No, father Abraham.  I don’t believe you; I don’t trust in the power of God’s Word to help in this situation.  My brothers need something better, something more than the Scriptures.  No, they need to see a miracle, something to shake them up to really make them repent.null
 
 This reveals the rich man’s fundamental problem.  He doesn’t have faith in God’s Word, before or after death.  Take note of this; this is key:  It’s not as if once an unbeliever dies, he suddenly becomes a believer, but it’s just too late.  No, the lack of love for God and the lack of trust in God remains.  During his life, even though the rich man probably would have gone to hear God’s Word on the Sabbath as a good citizen, he was blind to its message, blind to the presence and power of God there to save, and blind to the Messiah it spoke of.  And so he was also blind to the need of his neighbor laid right there at his gate.  All he could see were the things that helped out his business, how his religious living helped to give him a good reputation and honor in the community, how secure he felt having the things he had come to possess.  In the end, because he lived without the Lord in any real way, he also dies forever without the Lord.  He only sees from the greatest distance and never experiences or knows the Lord’s goodness that had been freely offered him.
 
 There is a rich man also in every one of you, your old Adam; and he too is blind.  All he can see is what he wants to see, what fits in with his way of thinking, what serves his purposes.  When there’s a problem, your fallen nature thinks, “if only my spouse or my friends or co-workers would just see things my way, then everything would be better; everything would be right.”  Ironically, we selfishly want everyone else to repent of their selfishness.  Your old Adam is always trying to lead you to avoid those who can’t do anything for you.  He finds his security and happiness in having a cushion in the bank account, and can’t seem to feel any love for God when the finances go south.  It is that old nature in you which likes religion, but only to the extent that it brings success or makes you look good to others and feel better about yourself.  It is that part of you which still believes that a key factor in how you get into good standing with God somehow has to do with the fact that you’ve lived a pretty decent life.
 
 Repent of this.  Take your place not with those whom the world loves, but with humble Lazarus.  Return to your baptism and drown the old ways.  Your old Adam is not the real you, not in God’s sight.  He has given you a new life in Christ.  That is your true identity; that is who you are, a beloved child of God.  With empty, open hands, receive the good gifts God freely places into them.
 
 Lazarus is one who most certainly heard Moses and the prophets in true faith.  Stripped of all the entanglements of this world, there was nothing to blind him to his true condition or the only place where there was real help for him.  The Word of God was his hope, as his name indicated– “Lazarus” which is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Eliezer, meaning “God is My Help.”  Even though Lazarus longed for crumbs from the table like a dog, even though the street dogs were his company and licked his wounds, even though in this world Lazarus had nothing–not even his health–in truth, Lazarus found what he was seeking.  He found mercy that endures forever.  He received Living Water and Bread from Heaven. He obtained perfect satisfaction and health.  It was all there for him in Moses and the prophets.  For there in Moses and the prophets was the Messiah, Jesus, his Help and his Savior. 
 
 In the Scriptures, Lazarus found a Messiah whom he could identify with.  Isaiah prophesies that the Christ is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, despised and rejected by men, one without any attractiveness that we should desire to be near Him.  Jesus Himself said in the Psalms that He was surrounded by unbelieving dogs who mocked Him in His pain, who pierced His hands and His feet.  And yet, Isaiah says, “He Himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses. . .  And by His wounds we are healed.”  The blood that flowed from those wounds cleansed us of our sin and bought our eternal healing, the restoration and resurrection of our bodies to glory on the Last Day.
 
 Truly Jesus made Himself to be just like Lazarus for us.  For notice how Lazarus is comforted there in the bosom of father Abraham, laying on his chest.  That is a clear picture for us of the first two persons of the Trinity, the eternal Father and Son.  John 1 states, “No one has seen God at any time.”  But, “The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known.”  Jesus made the love of the Father known and manifested it to us by coming down from heaven into the midst of our poverty and affliction in order to raise us up and bring us back with Himself to the Father’s embrace and the true riches of heaven, which do not pass away.
 
 Lazarus was a real son of Abraham, not only by blood, but also because he had the same faith as Abraham.  Remember how the elderly, childless Abraham was told by God that he would be the father of many nations, that his descendants would be as countless as the stars.  And even though Abraham had no evidence or experience to go on, he believed God’s promise, and God credited it to him as righteousness.  Abraham was righteous by faith alone.  And so was Lazarus.  Lazarus, too, trusted in God’s promise that He would not forsake the lowly, that no one who puts his trust in Him would ever be put to shame, that the Lord saves those who have a humble and contrite and penitent heart.  Even when all of the evidence and experience of Lazarus’ life said that God had forsaken him, he still clung to God’s promise.  By that faith he was accounted righteous before God.  He was saved.

    And here’s where it all comes home, then, also for you.  The evidence and experience of your life may seem to suggest that God doesn’t like you, that He’s forgotten you.  You may have this nagging feeling that you’re not going to heaven, that there’s no way to escape hell because of what you’ve done or because of the things that have happened to you.  But don’t judge God by what you see or feel.  Instead, go on His Word and His promises.  Trust that what He says is true and real.  For God does not lie; He does not break His Word.  He will come through for you–maybe not the way you want right now; maybe not even in this life.  But most assuredly He will do so in the life to come.  For He has conquered your sin and death by His own death and resurrection.  Through faith in Him, you are accounted righteous before God.  You are holy in His sight, without a single flaw.  The comfort and happiness of heaven is yours, entirely by the grace of God.  You don’t have to earn it by your works.  It’s all a gift of Christ’s rich love for you.  Believe it

    Those who are like the rich man refuse to believe this.  They want a god who rewards people based on merit, and so they get what they deserve, the fire of hell.  Abraham reminds us that even if someone like Lazarus were to rise from the dead, that wouldn’t cause anyone to believe who didn’t already believe Moses and the prophets.  In fact, some have suggested that this Lazarus is the one that Jesus did raise from the dead right before Holy Week.  That miracle caused the rich Pharisees and chief priests to plot Jesus’ death even more fervently.  So beware of desiring miracles and signs, needing to see such things before you’ll believe.  Miracles don’t create faith.  If God gives them, they only confirm the faith that He has already worked through His Word and Spirit alone.  

    The unbelieving rich man is given no name by Jesus.  But like Lazarus, you have been given a name by God in holy baptism as His beloved child.  The Lord did more than dip the tip of His finger in the water; He reached in with His whole self and doused you with His Spirit, that you may know that God is your Help.  Let us, then, be like Lazarus in spirit–poor, weak, dependent on the Lord, satisfied with no other food than what comes from His holy table, eating the rich crumbs of the Bread of Life that satisfy completely.  Then you may die unfearing; for God’s own angels will bear you home to His side in Christ.  And in the resurrection you will with your own eyes behold the Son of God’s glorious face, your Savior and your fount of grace.  

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

Baptized into the Holy Trinity

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John 3:1-17

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

    What does it mean to be a “born-again Christian?”  Most of those who use that term for themselves mean that they’ve had some sort of special, life-changing experience where they’ve “found Jesus” or committed their lives to God and have begun a new life and a new way of living.  Usually they can point to the exact day when their born-again experience occurred.  And certainly God’s Word has the power to make drastic changes in the lives of people, as they are brought from unbelief to faith, as they are rescued from the power of sin through Christ to live for righteousness.

    What I find interesting, though, is that many born-again Christians deny the very thing that gives the new birth.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus says that unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.  But when Nicodemus doesn’t get it, Jesus explains more directly by saying, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”  Jesus is, of course, referring to baptism there.  As our first birth is from the watery womb of our earthly mother, so our rebirth in Christ is from the watery font of our heavenly mother, the Church.  Jesus connects the Spirit with the water.  That’s the place where the Spirit is poured out upon us very concretely through the Word and Name of God.  But strangely some say that baptism is simply something we do out of obedience to Christ, and what really counts is our commitment, our decision to believe and follow Jesus, and that sort of thing.  They don’t believe baptism actually really does or gives us anything.  In the end it’s just a nice ceremony.null

    So on this Trinity Sunday, as we rejoice in the truth of who the only real God is, we will focus especially on the meaning of our baptism into the Name–notice that it’s singular, but also threefold–the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And I suppose right there is a good place for us to begin.  What does it mean to be baptized in God’s name?  First of all, it means that God is the one doing the baptizing.  When people reject the power of baptism, it’s often because they think that what we are doing is the main thing.  But baptism is not something we do for God; it’s something He does for us.  It’s done in His name, by His authority, which means that ultimately it’s done by Him to you and for you.  Martin Luther says in the Large Catechism, “To be baptized in the name of God is to be baptized not by men, but by God Himself.  Therefore, although it is performed by human hands, it is nevertheless truly God’s own work.”  

    And when God puts His name on you with the water, He is marking you as His own.  Just as we put our names on items that are valuable to us, that we don’t want stolen or lost, so also God puts His name on you; for you are so valuable to Him that He gave up His only Son to the death of the cross and purchased you not with gold or silver but with His holy precious blood.  You belong to God in baptism.  You are His children.   You bear the family name–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

    So baptism most certainly is not just a pious ceremony.  It actually gives you the greatest of blessings.  For it joins you to Christ Himself.  That’s why it’s a new birth, a being born again.  Your first birth was a stillbirth, spiritually speaking.  You were born in the darkness, dead in sin.  All of the sins that bug you and all of the sins that don’t bug you (but should!) are symptoms of that.  Your earthly birth ends in death.  So you need a new birth that doesn’t end in death.  You need to be reborn in Christ, born from above.  Baptized into Christ, you share in His eternal life.  Jesus uses the language of water and the Spirit.  That’s creation language, as when the Spirit hovered over the waters in the beginning.  So also now He blows across the waters of baptism with the Word of Christ to recreate us.  Word and water and Spirit bring about new life.

    And please notice how this works:  Just as you had nothing to do with deciding to be born the first time–that was your parents’ doing–so also it is not your decision or commitment that causes you to be born the second time–that is God your Father’s doing.  All the glory for your being born again belongs to Him.  

    But someone might say, “I thought we were saved by Christ, not by Baptism.”  To which we respond: “Indeed, we are saved by Christ, and Christ alone.  And that is exactly why Baptism saves us, because Christ has put Himself and His gifts into it through His Word.”  Baptism is not separate from Christ; rather it encompasses all that He is and all that He has done for us.  That’s why I Peter 3 says, “Baptism now saves you.”  Romans 6 says that you are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection.  Therefore, when you are baptized, you are being given in the here and now the benefits of what Christ did long ago.  You were entirely under the power of Satan and the grave, and eternal death was to be your destiny.  But when you were baptized, you were wonderfully drenched with the forgiveness and life that spring forth from Good Friday and Easter.  You were transferred into the kingdom of light.  That’s why the sign of the cross is made both on the forehead and on the heart of those being baptized, to mark them as ones redeemed by Christ the crucified, and to show that through Baptism that redemption is being given to them right then and there.

    We rejoice to baptize people of all ages, including infants.  After all, infants are included in Christ’s command to baptize all people.  Nowhere in His command or anywhere else in the Scriptures is there even a hint that baptism is to be limited to a certain group of people on the basis of their age–especially since baptism in the New Testament is compared to circumcision, which was done to those 8 days old.  Now the Bible does record primarily adult baptisms.  But that is so because the church was new and expanding into pagan territories where there were many adult converts.  And even then the Scriptures tell us that the entire household of the adult convert was baptized, which would certainly include at least some young children or infants.

    Secondly, we also baptize infants because they are fallen sinners who need God’s grace.  They may appear to be quite innocent.  They don’t really have the ability to sin outwardly in all the ways adults do.  But David speaks quite clearly in Psalm 51 about their inward condition, “Surely I have been a sinner from birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”  And children are also accountable to God for their sin; there is no such thing in Scripture as an “age of accountability.” Therefore, we rejoice that although infants cannot yet fully understand the Gospel in its spoken form, they can be given the Gospel in its baptismal form for the forgiveness of their sin.

    And thirdly, we baptize infants because they too can believe.  We must remember that faith is not primarily an intellectual thing, but a matter of the heart.  To say that infants cannot have a heart of faith which trusts in Christ and receives His gifts is to limit the work of the Holy Spirit.  Just as an infant can rely on and trust in a nursing mother and a caring father and know their voice, so an infant can have true faith in God the Father and know His voice.  When it comes right down to it, no one can believe, right?–including all you adults–except by the Holy Spirit.  That is His doing.  So then, the question to be asked is not “Can infants believe?” but “Can God give His gifts to infants?”  And the answer is most certainly “Yes.”  Infant baptism illustrates in a most beautiful way that we are pure receivers of God’s gracious working.

    God’s own powerful, life-giving Word is in the baptismal water.  That’s how baptism can do such great things.  There is the preached Word of the Gospel.  There is the poured Word of baptism.  There is the eaten Word of Holy Communion.  It’s always the Word of God that does the good stuff.  

    It’s like someone who receives a package in the mail which has something very valuable inside.  If a person were to judge by external appearances, the package would seem like nothing special, just cardboard and brown paper wrapping.  But upon opening it, a person would find that it was no ordinary package at all, but one that contained precious diamonds or some other great treasure.  So it is with Baptism.  Judging by external appearances, it seems to be nothing special, just a few handfuls of water.  But when faith looks inside this package, it finds that it’s no ordinary water at all, but water that contains the greatest treasure, the very Word of God made flesh, Jesus Christ.

    So you can see what a terrible tragedy it is that some see Baptism only in terms of its watery wrapping and not in terms of the great treasure that lies inside.  Or they say, “We are saved by faith alone and our external works contribute nothing.”  True enough.  However, Baptism is not our work but God’s.  And if He has chosen to use something external and ordinary like water to give us His grace, who are we to reject His choice?  Furthermore, faith doesn’t exist by itself but must have something external which it clings to and takes hold of.  And that something is the baptismal waters which contain the life-giving Word of God.  So to say that Baptism saves us and that Jesus saves us  is to say the same thing.  We are saved through faith alone, for faith clings to the water in which Jesus our Savior has put Himself.

    Keep baptism and faith together.  Baptism is not a magic spell, as some suppose, which saves a person regardless of what he believes.  Baptism calls for trust in the blessings which it gives.  And by water and the Word the Spirit creates that very faith in people’s hearts.  Unfortunately, some do fall from the faith and reject what God has done for them in Baptism, and thus they return to their former state of damnation.  The Scriptures say, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved, but he who does not believe will be condemned.”  Likewise, baptism is not a license to live however you please.  For Paul says in Romans 6, “Shall we go on sinning that grace may abound?  Certainly not! . . . We were buried with Christ through baptism so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”  And that new life is none other than the life of Christ, a life of faith and love.  

    All of this and more is what it means to be “born again.”  So if someone wants you to point to the specific day you were born again, fluster them real good and tell them the day of your baptism.  And if you don’t know what that date is, go home today and find it out.  For it is on that date that the Holy Trinity gave Himself concretely to you with all the blessings of His holy name.  He is the Father who loved you so that He gave His only begotten Son to die for you, conceived in the flesh by the Holy Spirit.  And through the working of the Holy Spirit, you are brought to faith in Christ who gives you everlasting life and restores you to the Father forever.  Let this one true faith always be on your lips.  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 whom be glory forever and ever.  Amen.

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