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5 Reasons for Joy

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

The Ascension of our Lord

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

This is a joyful week for our church.  After a long period of quarantining and lockdown for the sake of the health of our community, and making big changes to our service schedule, we are beginning to take our first careful steps back to a more normal way of doing things.  What a strange thing it is to think that a gathering of 30 people in church is a big group!  We certainly still need to be cautious, we certainly need to continue to pray for the health and well-being of our neighbors, but it is a joyous thing to begin having services with more of us able to gather together and to be able to see some of our fellow members that perhaps we haven’t seen for a while.

And Ascension week is a very fitting time for this to happen.  For this festival is truly a joyous event for all Christians.  We heard in today’s Gospel how when Jesus ascended, the disciples were not sad, as you might expect, but they returned to Jerusalem with great joy.  Today, I would like to have us focus on 5 reasons for joy that the Ascension gives us.

First of all, Jesus’ ascension means that He is King over all that is.  It is written in Ephesians, “(God the Father) raised Christ from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places...  And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things for the Church.”  That’s very good news for you.  Your Lord, Jesus has all authority in heaven and on earth to carry out the Father’s good and gracious will for you.  Everything has been put under His feet, including even death and the devil himself.  And so we rejoice, because our man won, our Redeemer triumphed.  Jesus’ victory is our victory.  The crucified and risen One in whom we believe is in charge; He is Lord of lords, forever.

Very often when we’re not experiencing that joy, it’s because we have forgotten that truth.  We act as if Jesus isn’t in charge, as if things are just random and out of control, and we’ve got to put things right ourselves.  Especially when life is going crazy, and the things we counted on don’t seem so stable anymore, we can begin to doubt whether or not Jesus really is Lord; we can begin to wonder whether or not this Christianity thing is really all it’s cracked up to be.  And then we can begin to try to take control ourselves with our worry and anxiety, and with our attempts to manipulate people and circumstances.  That takes its toll on us.

But the Ascension teaches us that Jesus is, in fact, in control.  Even when chaos seems to be the rule, the Ascension is a reminder that He is still directing all things toward your ultimate well-being.  It is written in Romans, “God works all things together for the good of those who love Him, who are the called according to His purpose.”  You have been called according to His purpose in Holy Baptism.  Therefore you can be confident that whether times are good or bad, the Lord will never forsake you.  The Ascension of Jesus to the right hand of the Father is a call for you to believe that Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords for the Church, for you.

The second joyous thing Jesus’ ascension means is that your salvation is complete and secure in Him.  It is written in Hebrews, “After He had provided purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.”  You could not purify yourself of your sins.  No one amount of “clean” living could truly accomplish that in the sight of a holy God.  But Jesus provided purification for you on the cross.  As it is written, “The blood of Jesus, God’s Son, purifies us from all sins.”

And Jesus’ resurrection and ascension show that the Father has accepted Jesus’ sacrifice.  His being seated at the Father’s right hand demonstrates that Jesus accomplished the mission He was given.  God the Father has embraced and honored His Son’s redeeming work and has received Him to His side.  Your human nature has been fully restored and exalted in the ascended Christ.  Because Jesus has been received into heaven, so will you also who believe in Him.  Jesus’ ascension has paved and opened the way for you to receive everlasting life.  Colossians 3 puts it this way: “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  Your eternal well-being is kept secure in the ascended Jesus.  

So don’t give the devil any room with your doubts about whether or not you’re going to heaven.  When you begin to waver in your Christian hope, when you aren’t sure whether or not you’re saved, just remember Jesus’ Ascension; just remember that you are a member of His body by your baptismal faith and cling to that truth.  You’ve already gone to heaven, for Jesus is at the right hand of God as the Mighty Conqueror.  The Lord, who has begun His good work in you, will bring it to completion in the Day of His return.  Your salvation is complete and safe in Him who is seated at the right hand of the Father.

The third joyous thing that Jesus’ ascension means is that He is interceding for you with the heavenly Father.  It is written, “Christ Jesus, who died, more than that, who was raised to life, is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”  God the Father’s “right hand man” receives your prayers and petitions, and brings them to the Father, interceding on your behalf.  And because of His Son’s righteousness, God the Father hears and acts upon your prayers according to His wisdom and mercy.  It is written in I John, “If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.  And He Himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.”

The fourth joyous thing that Jesus’ ascension means is that He is still present among us to bless us, as He said, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  Jesus is not absent from us.  He is simply hidden from our sight.  For it is written in Ephesians, Jesus “ascended far above all the heavens that He might fill all things” in heaven and on earth.  Jesus is not confined to some physical spot somewhere.  Rather, the ascension means that He who from the beginning filled all things as true God now also fills all things also as true man.  Remember what Jesus did as He ascended.  “He lifted up His hands and blessed them.”  That is the last thing the disciples saw, and that is what you are to see continually by faith.  Jesus is still lifting up His hands to bless you.  Especially when you come to this altar to receive the life-giving body and blood of Jesus, look and see that which only believers can see.  

And finally, the fifth joyous thing Jesus’ ascension means is that He will come again.  The two angels said, “This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come again in the same way you saw Him go into heaven.”  Jesus ascended and a cloud received Him out of their sight.  And Jesus said of His return, “You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”

As you await and look forward to that final Day, take comfort in the fact that even now your place is being made ready in heaven.  Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you.  I go to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.”  Your hope is centered not in this world but in the one to come.  Your life is in Christ.  Therefore, the Scriptures exhort you, “Seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God.  Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. . .  When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.”

So remember these five reasons for joy that the Ascension gives you.  It teaches that Jesus is King over all things for the Church, that your salvation is complete and secure in Him, that Christ is interceding for you before the throne of the Father, that Jesus is present here to bless you with His words and His Supper.  And it teaches that Jesus will come again to bring you to Himself and the place He has prepared for you.  Brothers and sisters in Christ, especially in these times, let us be like the disciples and rejoice in the Ascension of our Lord.

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

Good Cheer in Tribulation

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

The closing words of today’s Gospel reading are certainly ones to treasure and take to heart, where Jesus says, “These things I have spoken to you that in Me you may have peace.  In the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”  I love that passage because it speaks the honest, straightforward truth about the way things are, both the bad news and especially the comforting good news.  

First the bad news, “In the world you will have tribulation.”  No matter how hard you try, you can’t avoid that.  It seems that we’re always searching for some utopia in this world, some spirituality that will give us our best life now, some purchase that will finally make us content, some oasis to keep us safe from all the troubles of life.  But as soon as we think we’ve found such a place, inevitably something breaks into our refuge and messes things up.  There is a sudden illness or death.  You lose your job or there are some unexpected big bills.  A relationship is strained and at the breaking point.  A pandemic occurs and ruins all your best laid plans.  No matter where we go or what we do, tribulation is always right there nipping at our heels.

Even though that is bad news, it is liberating in a way.  Jesus’ words mean that you don’t have to fake that everything’s always wonderful and rosy, that your home life is perfect, that you’re always happy with the decisions you’ve made in life.  No, “in the world you will have tribulation.”  And when Jesus speaks about tribulation, He’s not only talking about dealing with the world that exists around you out there, but also the world that exists within you–your old Adam who rebels against God’s Word and stirs up trouble in your own heart and mind.  

So those first words of Jesus are sobering ones that call you to penitent humility.  But then comes the good news.  Jesus says, “Yes, in the world you will have tribulation.  But be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”  All those things that trouble you now–be it your health, your losses, your brokenness, your sinful flesh–those tribulations Jesus took into His own flesh and bones, and He crucified them at Golgotha.  Jesus knew tribulation of the worst sort, being under such duress in the Garden of Gethsemane that He sweat blood as He prayed, even before His blood was shed.  Jesus said in the days before His death, “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say?  ‘Father, save me from this hour’?  But for this purpose I came to this hour.  Father glorify Your name.”  And the Father’s name was glorified as Jesus was lifted up from the earth on the cross, like the bronze serpent in the wilderness.  It is the glory of Christ to bear your troubles and sorrows to set you free.  Truly, Jesus did overcome the world by taking away the sin of the world.  He conquered death by swallowing it up in His own death and then rising on the third day in glory.  

And all of this He did for you, so that your tribulations will only be temporary, so that they will not overwhelm you who believe.  Jesus’ victory has been given to you, the baptized, as it is written in Romans 8, “We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”  And 1 John 4 says, “This is the victory that has overcome the world–our faith” in Christ the Conqueror.  That is how we can be of good cheer, even in the midst of tribulation.  “If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also, along with Him, freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32).  In Jesus we have the sure hope of the resurrection of the body and all the gifts of the world to come.  And already now we have the comfort and the assurance that all things are in the hands of the Lord who is full of goodness and loving kindness.  Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace,” the calm assurance in your hearts that all things are made right in Christ.

And don’t forget that even tribulation itself can be God’s own instrument to work for your good.  By it He humbles you and brings you to repentance–as He did with the children of Israel, who were turned from their sinful grumbling to repent and cry out to Him for help.  He lays you low that He might lift you up in due time.

We need to remember that the ways of God are not always comfortable or safe.  Everything today seems to be about being safe and staying safe, as if that were the most important thing of all.  But safetyism is just not possible with the Lord.  I’m reminded of the scene in the C.S. Lewis book, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” where the characters are discussing Aslan the Lion, who is a symbol of Christ.  One of the children asks, “Is he–quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”  To which comes the reply, “Safe?  Who said anything about safe?  Of course he isn’t safe.  But he’s good.  He’s the King, I tell you.”  Your God isn’t safe.  For He means to cut out the idols that have made their way into your heart and to fill you instead with His goodness and truth.  He means to put your old Adam to death and to give you a new life in Christ.  That’s not some walk in the park.  In that sense, it’s sort of dangerous to come to church; it always has been.  For our God is a consuming fire, Scripture says.  His Word is like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces, Jeremiah proclaims.  He kills and makes alive.  He’s in the business of death and resurrection, of joining you to the earth-shaking, life-saving realities of Good Friday and Easter.  He actually breaks into this world and joins heaven and earth right here at this altar to give you His divine body and blood for your forgiveness. No, the Lord isn’t safe, but He is good, and His mercy endures forever.  

So as Christians, let us learn to live with and even expect tribulation.  Let it drive you to pray in Jesus’ name.  For He is the one Mediator between God and men who gave His life as a ransom for all.  He invites you to pray using His credentials, as beloved children of the heavenly Father.  Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.  Call upon the Lord in your troubles; trust in Him and cling to Him in times of trial.  For He will deliver you.  The words of Jesus remain powerful and true, “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”

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

Sin, Righteousness, and Judgment

John 16:5-15

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

The disciples are sad because Jesus has told them that He is going away to the Father who sent Him.  The disciples had spent years of their life together learning from Him and being with Him.  So it’s not surprising that sorrow and confusion now fills their hearts.  They don’t understand what’s going on and what Jesus is doing.  Perhaps you’ve felt that way sometimes yourself about the way the Lord works.

But Christ comforts His followers, both then and now, by assuring them that He will never abandon them.  He says, “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.”  Christ comes to you by sending you His Spirit, the Helper, the Counselor.  Just as God the Father made Himself known to mankind through the sending of His Son, so now God the Son makes Himself known to you through the sending of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus comes to be with you by His Word and Spirit.

That is why Jesus says, “It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you.”  By going away through death to rise bodily to His throne above, Jesus completed His work of redeeming you.  Therefore, it is indeed to your advantage that Christ went away to the right hand of the Father and poured out His Spirit on His people.  For the work of Christ and of the Holy Spirit are both essential to your obtaining eternal life.  First, Christ saves you by His cross and resurrection.  And then, the Holy Spirit brings you that salvation and makes it your own through the Word and the Sacraments.  If the Spirit were never sent, then you would never hear rightly of Jesus or be brought to the faith.  But by sending the Helper, Christ delivers to you the fullness of His mercy and love and redemption.  Jesus is no longer visible by sight as He once was, so that He might become visible by faith wherever His people are gathered in His name, wherever the Spirit is delivering Him in words and water and bread and wine.  What an advantage it truly is for the church that Jesus’ voice is now multiplied thousands upon thousands of times in the preaching of the Gospel throughout the world.

And here specifically is what the Holy Spirit has come to do.  Jesus says, “When (the Helper) has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.”  The first way that the Holy Spirit helps you is to give you a proper diagnosis of your condition.  He convicts you of sin.  That may not be pleasant, but it’s absolutely necessary so that you seek the right remedy and cure.  In particular Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will do this “because they do not believe in Me.”  Apart from faith in Jesus, we don’t truly understand the gravity of our situation.  So blinded are we that we can’t even see how bad things are with us.  The Holy Spirit has to the teach us how deeply the cancer of sin has penetrated.  Because we close our eyes to the truth, it’s only when the Holy Spirit has opened our eyes to Christ that we can fully bear to see what He’s saved us from.

And note here that the most damnable sin that a person can commit is not to believe in Jesus.  There is nothing worse than that.  It’s not simply that people are sexually immoral or dishonest or greedy.  Those are but symptoms of our problem.  The real issue, the heart of the situation is that the our old Adam doesn’t love God or trust in Him or have faith in His Son whom He has sent.  Fallen man doesn’t receive Jesus as the only Savior from sin or rely on His all-atoning death on the cross.  Instead, people believe in themselves and look within for the answers and rely on their own wisdom.  They trust in the fact that they’ve done more good than bad to earn some eternal reward.  They may be religious, but their spirituality is self-reliant.  God is just one piece of their formula.  They’ve got no real need for a Jesus who is a Savior from sin, just an advice-giver so that they can make a better life for themselves.  And there is no greater insult to God than to treat Him like that.  Those who love their own lives in this world, who have justified themselves and their behavior, in their hearts are rejecting Jesus.  We all must repent of where this worldly attitude has crept in to our thinking.

Secondly, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will convince the world of righteousness; He will make true righteousness known.  And Jesus says that the Spirit will do that “because I go to My Father and you see Me no more.”  That’s a very clear signal to you of where true righteousness is to be found.  Usually, righteousness is thought of as our own good and moral living, something within us.  But the Holy Spirit says in the Scriptures, “No one is righteous; no, not even one.”  The source of your righteousness, then, is not found within, but outside of yourself in Christ, in Him who is seated at the right hand of the Father.  That’s why the Holy Spirit must make this righteousness of Christ known.  For He is presently hidden from your eyes.

The Holy Spirit, then, is the real preacher in the Church.  He is the One who preaches the Gospel to you so that you may be led into all truth.  St. Paul declares, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ. . .  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed.”  Through the words of the Gospel, the Spirit makes known and gives to you Christ’s righteousness.  He declares you righteous for the sake of what Jesus has done for you.  Though you stand guilty before the court of God’s justice, Jesus steps in and says, “I have already paid the penalty.  I have already served the sentence.  I was executed on the cross for you and for all people so that you would not be condemned but go free and have everlasting life.  It is finished.  It is done.  Case closed.”  And God commutes your sentence; He acquits you fully.  In the Gospel, the Holy Spirit reads you the verdict: “Not guilty.  You are forgiven. You are righteous and holy in Jesus.  He took your place so that you would take His place as children of God.  Do not be afraid.  All is well with you before God–not by your own works, but by the works of Christ, by His grace and mercy and love toward you.”  It is written, “Having been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

And finally, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will reveal judgment to the world.  However, it is not your judgment that He makes known but the judgment of the devil.  For Jesus declares, “The ruler of this world is judged.”  The ruler of the world in its fallen state is Satan.  He governs the world with lies and deception that turn people away from God.  He lures mankind away from Christ and into false religion and artificial spirituality.  But although Satan is the prince of this world, his fall from power has already been secured.  For the Scriptures say, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work.”  Jesus took on your flesh, your human nature, in order to release you from Satan’s power.  He defeated the devil in the wilderness for you.  He crushed Satan’s head by the cross and brought down his kingdom.  The resurrected Christ has now opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.  Believe these words of Christ and know that they are true: “The ruler of this world is judged.”

This is how the Spirit brings glory to Jesus, by leading you into the truth of sin and the righteousness of Christ and His judgment of Satan.  The Helper preaches into you Christ’s forgiveness and life and salvation, that you may never be separated from your Lord and His love.  God grant you to know ever more fully and deeply this help and comfort of the Holy Spirit, to whom with the Father and the Son belongs all glory, honor, and praise, now and forever.  Amen.

Time Redeemed

John 16:16-22

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

Seven times today’s Gospel refers to “a little while.”  It seems to be unnecessarily repetitive.  But there is always a reason why Scripture is recorded the way it is.  Seven is the number of this creation, hearkening back to the seven days in the beginning.  For a little while all was very good. Then sin corrupted everything, including time itself.  Now good times seem to go by so quickly; bad times, pandemic times, seem to drag on forever.  We have to really focus sometimes just to remember what day of the week it is.  The joys of living in this creation and in the realm of time have been turned upside down, so that now we generally view aging and the passage of time as an enemy.

We like to reminisce about people that were once in our lives or places and experiences we once had.  But good memories, even though they are pleasant, are also often a cause of sadness, of longing, of wishing we had back what we once had.  But of course, there’s no going back, no recreating those moments.  Time just keeps ticking by, and so every joy that we have in this life, every gladness that this earth can give is short-lived, momentary.  The things that we now enjoy won’t last.  Only temporary is the company of the people we love.  The march of time is relentless.

Jesus said, “A little while and you will not see Me, and again a little while and you will see Me.”  Jesus knows about the evil of the passage of time, and there is His answer to it.  Jesus was with the disciples for a little while.  That time must have seemed to go by so quickly as they lived with Him and heard Him preach and teach.  But much more suddenly than they ever expected, the good little while was over, and then came the arrest in the garden, and the suffering and the cross, and He was buried and gone.  And they had sorrow for a little while as the world rejoiced, just as Jesus had said.  That bad little while must have seemed like forever–Friday, Saturday, even most of Sunday–the longest days of their lives.  

But Jesus had also said, “Again a little while and you will see Me.”  And so it is that on the third day He rises from the grave.  See what a short little while their time of mourning and weeping was!  On Easter Sunday evening there stands Jesus Christ the Lord in front of them, bringing them joy that no one can take from them.

In a way you might say that Jesus turned back the clock.  Because when someone is dead, there is nothing you can do.  It is a helpless experience.  But look, the One who was dead now lives!  However, it’s not really that the clock was turned back.  For Jesus didn’t come just to make things the way they used to be, but to make things altogether new and better.  More correctly put then, He turned the clock ahead.  For the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave is a foretaste of the feast to come and of the everlasting salvation to be revealed on the Last Day.  By the forgiveness of sins which He won for us, Jesus has guaranteed to us who believe resurrection from the dead and eternal life in the age to come–an age in which time can no longer devastate us as it now does.

Jesus continued to show Himself to the disciples Sunday after Sunday.  Following Easter, there was another “little while” where Jesus was departed from their sight.  And the next Sunday, there Jesus was again when Thomas was with them.  They knew He would come back because He had already conquered the grave and then vanished again.  They were not sad during the week, because they expected Him to return.  And He did yet again, on the third Sunday.  There they were in the boat fishing; and that Sunday morning, on the shore, there He stood cooking breakfast.  There it was, Easter all over again.

And so they began to expect Him to return every time He vanished out of their sight.  They knew it would only be a little while, and He’d come to them again.  And then came Pentecost on another Sunday, and Christ returned once more.  But this time not in the way He had been returning before, that is, not to their sight, but in the beginning of the ministry of the apostles, in which they began to preach and to administer the Holy Supper in the power of His Holy Spirit.  

Week after week from Pentecost on, Christ kept returning again in the divine service of His words and sacraments, and His people were joyful again.  And so it is right up to this day.  The life of every Christian is lived in the wake of the resurrection of Christ, which is an eternal, timeless thing.  Every single divine service since then, Christ has been returning to His people.  Just as truly as He did on Easter Sunday, when He came back and stood in the midst and gave them His peace, so does He return here and now for you.

This, then, is Jesus’ answer for the “little whiles” of your life.  There will be those times when you can’t seem to see Jesus, when the world seems to be coming apart at the seams, when your life is full of trials and never seems to give you a respite, when you feel completely out of place in this decaying culture, when being a Christian makes you an object of mockery or worse.  But Jesus reminds you here, “It really is only a little while that you must endure.  That pain, that disease, that heartache, that difficult situation, this worldly age is almost over.  Just hang on to Me.  Trust in Me to pull you through it.  It may seem like an eternity, but only three days.  Your Easter is coming.  Weeping may remain for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”  

Your life in this world is a series of little whiles–the times when Jesus is vanished from your sight, when there may be weeping for you and rejoicing for the world; and then the times when He comes to you again and you see Him by faith and He restores to you the joy of your salvation, a joy no one can take from you.  Remember the wonderfully consoling thing that Jesus says here, “I will see you again.”  You’re not invisible to Him.  He sees and knows and cares.  And He will see you face to face on the Last Day, when all the little whiles will finally be over, and you will enter the unending while of the new creation, in which there is no night, no counting of days and of time, but only the everlasting light and life of Christ.

So do not be sorrowful about the passage of time, about people and places that you miss and long for.  Do not fear in the face of sickness and violence and evil.  The Lord has conquered it all by His cross and He lives that you may share in His victory forever.  An eternal 8th day is coming for you beyond the 7 little whiles of this life.  Every longing, every fear, every grief among God’s people will be put away; and you know it because Christ has risen from the grave, and a new timeless creation has begun in Him.  It is written in Romans 8, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us.”   Truly, the Lord is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him (Lamentations 3:25).

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Dr. Burnell Eckardt)

I Know My Sheep

John 10:11-18, 27-30

Easter 2

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

If you truly know yourself, how easily anger or greed can rise up within you, how hard it is for you to turn away from your sinful urges, how quickly fear and despair can take over, how weak you are in the face of death and the devil–if you really know yourself, then the words in today’s Scripture reading do not sound all that comforting.  For our Lord says: “I am the Good Shepherd; and I know My sheep.”

So is that really good news or bad news?  The Lord knows everything about you, every thought, every desire, every word you’ve muttered under your breath, every hidden thing you’ve done in secret.  So where is the good news in these words, when Jesus says, “I know My sheep”?  How does His knowing us make Him the Good Shepherd?

Well, when Jesus talks about knowing us, He’s not just talking about having the facts on us. He’s talking about something much more personal, knowing us in a way that understands and embraces us.  That’s why Jesus’ words are actually good news in the end.  For what our Lord knows about us, He can heal.  What He grasps, He can subdue and overcome.  What He embraces and takes in, He can suffer to death and bury and destroy in His own body.  

We do not have a Jesus who knows us only intellectually while never actually feeling and enduring and bearing what we go through.  And our Lord doesn’t have mere information about our heartache and our stress and our depression and our fears, all the while keeping his distance.  Rather, we have a Jesus who commits Himself entirely to us, who shares in our flesh and blood and drinks down every drop of anxiety and temptation that is in us, who understands and takes in everything we are.  We have a Jesus who sympathizes with our weaknesses, who was tempted in all points just as we are.  And though He Himself was without sin, He endured your sin and experienced your suffering and underwent your judgment and your death to redeem you from it all on the cross.

Our Lord truly knows you.  He knows what lies within you.  But He doesn’t shun you; instead He sticks with you as your truest Friend.  That is what makes Him the Good Shepherd, the Good Pastor.  For since our Lord knows you in the fullest sense of that word, He can truly heal and help you, and see you through your troubles and temptations, and lead you safely to the new life that He has prepared and won for you.  Our Lord knows you precisely so that He might be merciful to you.  Our Lord sees you as you truly are, so that He might forgive and restore you entirely.

In fact, Jesus draws a connection between the way He knows you and the way the Father knows Him.  He says, “As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep.”  The Father knows His Son Jesus fully and perfectly with self-giving love, and Jesus knows the Father fully and perfectly, returning that pure love. 

Now Jesus extends His unity with the Father to you.  He knows and embraces all that you are so that you might embrace and receive all that He is.  He shares in your brokenness so that you might share in His perfect holiness.  What belongs to you belongs to Him, and what belongs to Him belongs to you.  A certain prayer of Martin Luther goes, “Lord Jesus, I am Your sin; You are my righteousness.”  Christ has taken up and taken away your uncleanness; and in turn you have taken up and taken on His purity.  Because He knows you and you know Him like that, you are completely united with one another.  And since you are one with Christ through the working of the Holy Spirit, you are also one with the Father.  In other words, you have been drawn into the very life of the Holy Trinity, God Himself.  It is all of this and more that Jesus means when He says, “I know My sheep, and My sheep know Me.”  

And it is particularly through your ears that you know your Good Shepherd.  Jesus said, “My sheep listen to My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.”  That’s the way you know the Good Shepherd–you recognize His voice, that special sound of the Gospel which He speaks into your ears.  There are all sorts of voices out there clamoring for your attention now, on TV and on the internet and in the popular culture, preying on your insecurities, wanting you to walk not by faith but by fear, to focus on the wolf rather than on the shepherd.  These worldly voices entice you to follow their version of spirituality, to achieve righteousness by your own works, even by your own perfect keeping of COVID-19 rules and guidelines.  As I watch the news and scan social media, it's clear that the Pharisees are still scolding and looking down on those who they think are less righteous than themselves.  They want you to define who you are and your purpose in life by anything other than the Word of the cross.  But just as sheep won’t follow an unfamiliar voice, so also the Holy Spirit leads you to know that such voices are not from the Lord.  Only the one-of-a-kind Gospel voice of the Good Shepherd causes the ears of a Christian to perk up.  That’s the only voice that rings true and beautiful in your ears.  It’s the voice you hear in absolution and the preaching of Jesus’ Word.  It is the voice of Him who does not flee when the going gets tough, who is not scared off by what He knows of you, but who seeks you out and gathers you to Himself.  

And finally, remember what Jesus says here, “My sheep follow Me.”  We walk after Him in His ways, according to His commands; for we have died with Him to sin so that we might live for righteousness.  And then Jesus says, “I give them eternal life; and they shall never perish.  No one can snatch them out of My hand.”  There is no predator, not the devil who prowls around like a roaring lion, nor even the jaws of the grave, that can steal you sheep away from your Good Shepherd.  You are perfectly safe in His care, even if the face of viruses and disease, even when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death.  For Jesus has already walked this path and triumphed.  We will surely follow Jesus through death to our own resurrection with Him on the Last Day.  It is written, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, . . . nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Therefore, knowing the kind of Good Shepherd we have, we rest safe and secure in His hands, even in the midst of this fallen and troubled world.  He’s not like a hireling who’s just aiming for the six figure paycheck or the nice retirement or the approval of the crowds.  No, Jesus is the One who leads you beside the still waters to drink of His refreshing words and Spirit.  He guides you with the rod and staff of His Law and His Gospel.  He prepares a table before you in the presence of your enemies, giving His holy body and blood in the Sacrament for your forgiveness.  And so we say with the Psalmist, “I will fear no evil, for You are with me . . . Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

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

(With thanks to John W. Fenton)

Peace Be With You

John 20:19-31

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

The disciples were in a self-imposed quarantine.  They were afraid of what might happen to them if they were to venture outside.  To this fearful, socially distanced group, Jesus appears risen from the dead. You can’t blame the disciples for being afraid; we would have been, too.  They’d seen their Teacher and Friend crucified.  Surely they as Jesus’ top lieutenants would be the next targets of the authorities.  

They had heard the news from Mary Magdalene that Jesus was alive; she said she had seen Him and touched Him.  Peter and John had investigated the tomb. Nothing there. The grave clothes were folded neatly, the head covering off to the side. Everything was in order. Clearly not the work of grave robbers.  Yet still, the disciples are locked up in this little room in fear. Death is conquered. Jesus is risen. And still they are afraid. They knew about the resurrection of Jesus, but they hadn’t yet seen, heard, and touched Him. That makes all the difference in the world, being gathered together in Jesus presence, in person, in the flesh. Dead men don’t rise, ordinarily. They weren’t ignorant. The news just seemed too good to be true.

What is it that you fear, that leaves you paralyzed and uncertain?  What keeps you locked up, bolted in?  It’s not just viruses and governors’ orders that do that.  We fear financial troubles, losing a job, losing a relationship.  We fear rejection by friends or family.  We fear violence.  We fear aging and losing our faculties.  And so we lock ourselves into our own little safe zones–in work, in TV and social media and video games, in drinking and comfort foods, in our hobbies and constant need for entertainment and activity–whatever it is that you do to hide from your fears, from the world, and especially from God.

But Jesus breaks through such artificial barriers.  The crucified One comes to the disciples in their locked room.  His risen body now shares fully in the glory of His divine nature, all-powerful, omnipresent.  And so locked doors are no barrier to Him.  Remember the stone was rolled away from the tomb not to let Jesus out but to let the witnesses of the resurrection in.  Jesus doesn’t need to knock–they wouldn’t have opened the door anyway.  He simply appears, as though He was there all along though not seen–just as He is with us, here and now.  You can’t see Him, but His presence is very tangible and real, in that little room and in this one, and wherever two or three are gathered in His Name.  

And the very first words Jesus speaks to them after His resurrection are not words that berate them for their unbelief; they are gentle words of absolution.  “Peace be with you.” That’s not just some generic greeting.  Jesus’ words give what they say: calm, wholeness, forgiveness.  “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”  Jesus is saying to them and to you, “It’s going to be OK.  I am not here to give you vengeance but mercy.  I do not hold your sins against you.  They have all been paid for and answered for and put away forever.  Everything is as it should be.  I have reconciled you to the Father.  All is well.  Do not fear.  Be at peace.”

With Jesus’ words come also His wounds, the nail marks in His hands and feet, the spear wound in His side.  But why the wounds?  The rest of His body had been restored and glorified; why keep these wounds after the resurrection?  Firstly, they mark Him as the crucified One. Had Jesus appeared without wounds, there might have been doubt that it really was Jesus.  Maybe it was an impostor.  The wounds mark Him for certain. That’s what Thomas wanted to see. “Unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails and place my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” Pretty strong statement, but then, dead men don’t ordinarily rise, so we probably shouldn’t point fingers at doubting Thomas.

But Jesus’ wounds are more than proof that He’s actually risen, they are the very source of the peace Jesus spoke of.  From those wounds alone come our forgiveness, our life, our salvation.  It is written in Isaiah, “He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and by His wounds we are healed.”  Jesus retains the scars from His wounds, then, because that’s how we recognize Him for who He is, that’s how we know Him to be the Savior, whose glory it is to lay down His life in love for us, whose “rich wounds yet visible above” are our peace.  It’s only when the disciples saw the wounds of Jesus that they knew gladness and joy.

Once more Jesus says, “Peace to you.”  With His first word of peace Jesus absolved His disciples and took away their fear.  Now with His second word of peace He sends them to absolve others and take away their fears.  “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”  As Jesus was sent from the Father to speak on the Father’s behalf, so now Jesus was sending His apostles to speak on His behalf and to give out the gifts that He had just won.

And how will this group of fearful disciples manage this task? What will propel them out the door into the world?  It is written, “Jesus breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’” The Holy Spirit is the life-breath of the Church who enables them to speak the Word of Christ.

Jesus says to them, “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven.” You don’t have to search for forgiveness from God. You don’t have to look to heaven, or in your heart. Look for the mouth of the minister and listen with your ears. Forgiveness is something spoken and heard out loud from outside of you.  No self-medicating here; this isn’t some pop culture notion about forgiving yourself.   Forgiveness comes from God as a gift and is simply received and believed.

So when the absolution is spoken to you, think of it as a resurrection appearance of Jesus to you.  For that’s what it is.  Through those whom He has sent to speak in His name, Jesus Himself is saying to you, “Peace be with you.”  “I forgive you all your sins. . .”

And think of the Lord’s Supper as a resurrection appearance of Jesus, too.  After all, what did Thomas do?  He touched Jesus’ hands and side.  Isn’t that happens when you come to the Sacrament?  You touch the nail marks by receiving the body of Jesus, wounded for your salvation, risen from the dead, and fed into you to give you unconquerable life.  You touch Jesus’ side by grasping the cup which contains the very blood which flowed from His side which cleanses you of all sin.  Before you come forward for the Lord’s Supper, Jesus presents His wounds to you as the host and cup are lifted high and the words are spoken, “The peace of the Lord be with you always.”  The same risen Jesus is here with His words and His wounds, so that you might confess of Him with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”

Blessed, then, are you who have not seen and yet have believed.  For by believing you have life in Jesus’ name.

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

(With thanks to the Rev. William Cwirla)

Easter in the Flesh

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

I’m sure there are some folks in the world who might wonder why it is that we would desire to meet together like this today.  Why go through all the hassle and strangeness of trying to worship in a parking lot?  Why not just stay home and pray and read the Bible individually?  And why during these last few weeks have many of you who can safely do so, why have you been coming here to meet in our groups of 10 or less to receive the Lord’s Supper inside the church?  What is it that compels us to gather like this in person, bodily, in the flesh?  

The answer very simply is Easter.  The answer is the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead.  For Jesus’ rising was not just a virtual thing, a spiritual matter.  It wasn’t a ghost or a hologram that came out of the tomb and appeared to the disciples.  Notice what the Easter Gospel says.  When the women went to the tomb, “they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.”  They didn’t find a body, because Jesus’ dead corpse was raised and glorified!  Jesus’ resurrection wasn’t merely spiritual, it was physical.  The same body that was born of the blessed Virgin Mary, the same body of the man who lived a holy life on our behalf, the same body that suffered and bled and died on the cross to pay for our sins–that body of the eternal Son of God was raised from death in victory over the grave for us.  The Christian faith is a bodily thing.

The Scriptures make it clear that this same risen Jesus is truly present among His gathered people.  For Jesus said, “Where two or three [or 10 or 100] are gathered together in My name [around My preaching and My supper] there I am in the midst of them.”  The church by its very nature is the bodily gathering of God’s people around His words and His supper, where He is bodily present for us.  The Biblical word for church means those who have been called out of this world and gathered together in His saving presence.  And so, here we are–not gathered in the way we would prefer to be certainly, but still gathered together by Christ and with Christ around His Word.

The resurrection of Jesus means that your body matters to God.  It’s not just a mere container for your soul; it’s an integral part of who you are and whom He has created you to be.  That’s why He cares about how you live your bodily life.  That’s why He cares about redeeming and exalting your body together with your soul.  Otherwise, why would He have taken on your flesh and blood and become a true man in the first place?  Why else would He have risen with flesh and bones?   The Christian faith is a concrete, tangible, physical faith.  It deals with stuff that really happened; it deals with the real world of material things, bodily things, the things of this creation.  

So virtual stuff, stuff that we can watch on a screen, is fine as a temporary measure in times like these.  We thank God for that ability and that technology that can keep us somewhat connected, and that the Word of God can be heard in that way.  But the communion of saints is not a virtual communion; it is the living body of Christ.  There is no such thing as virtual communion, just as there is no such thing as a virtual hug.  In the same way that a virtual hug over long distances leaves you longing for the real thing, when you can truly embrace the ones you love, so virtual church away from the Lord’s altar leaves you longing for the real thing, when we can be together in the flesh, where Christ embraces our bodies, speaking His life-giving words into our ears, touching us in the Sacrament of His body and blood, uniting us with Himself and one another as we eat and drink for the forgiveness of our sins.  Our God is the God of creation, the God who redeems and restores our bodies, who will raise us up at the Last Day just as He was raised up, literally, in the flesh.  

For now, though, we must deal with our flesh that is riddled with sin and sickness and death.  We are fallen creatures; our created humanity has been corrupted.  And this Coronavirus is actually a pretty good metaphor for what sin does to us.  It cuts us off from one another; it isolates us; it often makes us fear one another and see each other as a potential threat or competitor.  Sin turns us in ourselves and puts us in a defensive posture of self-interest, guarding our own stuff, losing patience and lashing out at others.  And worst of all, sin is a fatal virus that cuts us off from God.  The deadly pandemic began in the garden.  It is a contagion that makes us delusional, that causes us to rebel against God’s Word, to think that we can live better without Him.  But as the book of Proverbs says, His words are life to those who find them and health to all their flesh.  Apart from Jesus’ words, there is no life; only death and being cut off.

I’ve seen quite a few commercials lately that are advertising something they’re calling contactless delivery.  That’s a selling point now, no human contact.  How awful!  It may be temporarily necessary, I understand, but how awful!  I’ve preached to you before how one Scriptural way to understand hell is that it is utter isolation and aloneness, being forsaken and cut off from God and all that is good, utter emptiness and loneliness.  Sure, we all like a little time to ourselves now and again.  But it is not good for man to be alone.  That’s not how God created us to be.  We are made to be in communion with God and one another.

And that’s what Jesus has come to restore for us and has given to us at Easter.  We are reconciled and reunited with God and each other in the risen and living Christ.  Jesus is not about contactless delivery or social distancing at all.  He who is without sin, without disease, comes with no mask, no personal protection, and He touches our diseased human nature.  Remember the stories of Jesus’ healing of the sick?  A leper once came to Him begging Him for help, and it is written that Jesus stretched out His hand and touched Him (Matthew 8:3).  Think about that!  Highly infectious lepers, of all people, were supposed to be quarantined and isolated.  But Jesus breaks into the quarantine in order to bring the cure to our diseased bodies and souls.

And the cure is His own pure and holy body and soul.  Here’s how it works: Jesus was  willingly infected on your behalf.  He willingly absorbed into Himself every single bit of your sin virus, so that in His death the disease itself would die.  The risen Jesus has become the cure for you, for He is now immune from death.  As we just said in Romans 6, “We know that since Christ was raised from the dead, He cannot die again.  Death no longer has mastery over Him.”  By your baptism into Christ, by your faith in Him, you now share in His immunity.  As it is written, “The death He died, He died to sin once for all.”  The grave is now a toothless enemy for you.  For though you may still die, eternal death and hell are defeated, and you shall rise again, just as Jesus did.  For he said, “Because I live, you shall live also.”  “I am the Resurrection and the Life.  He who believes in Me will live, even though He dies.  And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.”  

You could compare it to how a vaccine works.  A vaccine introduces into your body certain elements of a particular virus, exposing you to it in a non-lethal way, so that your body produces anti-bodies.  And then when you’re exposed to the full-fledged virus, you have the defenses to fight it off.  It can’t harm you any more.  In a much deeper and greater way, Jesus does that for you.  He introduces death to you in a non-lethal way by joining you to His own death for sin.  As it says in Romans 6, “Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?”  You’ve been safely exposed to death through Christ.  So now when you face your own death, in Christ it cannot touch you.  For He took it all into His body and destroyed its power by dying and rising again.  Receiving Jesus by faith, hearing His Word, partaking of His body and blood, you have the antibody against death.  He has already conquered death for you, and so sin and Satan and the grave can’t harm you any more.  He is your sure defense against every physical and spiritual pathogen.  As Romans 6 continues, “If we have been united with Him like this is His death, we shall surely also be united with Him in His resurrection.”

This is the great comfort and joy of Easter for us, just as it was that first Easter day for the disciples who were sequestered away in fear.  Jesus’ resurrection means that your sins have truly been paid for.  For the wages of sin is death, but now death has been undone, and there is forgiveness and new life.  Jesus’ resurrection means that you can trust His Word; He prophesied this, and His words have come to pass.  If He is trustworthy in something so important as this, then you can also have confidence in everything else that He says, too.  And Jesus’ resurrection means that you also will rise bodily from the grave on the Last Day.  For Christ is the firstfruits, the first of many more who will be raised at His coming.

So this is why we gather, this is why we assemble.  We can’t help but be near the One who is our source of life and healing.  Our God is in the business of gathering us to Himself so that we may have perfect fellowship with Him and share in His life and live in His presence.  God the Father created your body, God the Son by His blood redeemed your body, God the Holy Spirit by Holy Baptism has sanctified your body to be His temple, so that you may have your part bodily in the new creation to come.  

So this pandemic can temporarily stop many things, but it can’t stop the permanency of Easter.  His tomb is forever empty.  Nothing can undo His eternal victory over the grave.  And nothing can stop the fellowship that you have with one another in Christ.  As we look forward to the day when the quarantines are lifted and we can get back inside church together, let us much more look forward to the Last Day when we shall all be bodily gathered together around the throne of God, in the visible presence of the Lamb who was slain, who has begun His reign.  He is raised and is alive forevermore, so that you may have life and have it abundantly.

The Lord is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

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