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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.)

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.

The Ministry of the Holy Spirit

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Acts 2:1-21; John 14:23-27

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

    There are some who would say that we Lutherans don’t pay enough attention to the Holy Spirit.  We’re always talking about Jesus and what He said and did, but the Holy Spirit barely gets a mention.  Shouldn’t He get equal time?  Shouldn’t we be talking more about the power of the Spirit in our lives?  Well stop and think about that question.  What specifically is the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives?  Romans 1 answers that question when it says, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes.”  The power of the Holy Spirit is not just some generic force to make things happen or to make us better people.  It is the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins in Christ the crucified.  That’s when the power of the Holy Spirit is being exercised, when that Gospel is being proclaimed, bringing people to faith in Christ and sustaining them in the faith.  For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also new life and salvation.null

    So the truth of the matter is that whenever Christ is being preached, you can be sure that the Holy Spirit is present and doing His work.  Jesus said in John 16, “The Holy Spirit will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you.”  And in today’s Gospel our Lord said, “The Holy Spirit will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.”  So you see, the Holy Spirit’s ministry is all about Jesus.  The Spirit’s job is not to be center stage Himself, but to bring glory to Christ.  In fact, if you’re hearing a lot of talk about the Holy Spirit just by Himself, or about healings and speaking in tongues and the Spirit’s power in your life apart from Christ, that actually frustrates the work of the Holy Spirit.  For He is the Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son and who is one with them in God’s purpose of bringing life to the world.

    And the events of Pentecost serve to make this point.  For when all is said and done, what are the main things that happened on Pentecost Day?  Well if you read all the way through the 2nd chapter of Acts, you’ll see that the Gospel of Christ was preached, people were baptized into Christ for the forgiveness of their sins, and the believers gathered together for the liturgy of the Lord’s Supper, the breaking of the bread.  There were other wonderful, miraculous things about Pentecost Day which God gave on this unique and special occasion.  But the key thing about this day is that the Holy Spirit was poured out to deliver the gifts of Christ.

    The first thing to notice about this event is that the believers were all gathered together in one place.  It was the 3rd hour of the day, 9 a.m. on a Sunday morning.  (How about that!)  That’s where the Spirit came, to that gathering, which is a reminder of the verse in Hebrews 10, “Let us not forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the [Last] Day approaching.”  

    And there were two signs which accompanied the coming of the Holy Spirit among this little band of Jesus’ followers.  The first was the sound of a rushing mighty wind.  This wind was the breath of God, breathing His Spirit and His life into His Church.  It is reminiscent of how Adam was created.  God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and Adam became a living being.  In the same way the Holy Spirit is the breath of life and the soul of the body which is the Church.  This rushing wind is also reminiscent of how God caused a wind to blow over the waters after the flood, drying the land and bringing about a new creation.  In the same way, the Spirit blows across the waters of baptism to make us a new creation in Christ.

    The second sign was the tongues of fire that came to rest upon the disciples.  As in the burning bush where God spoke to Moses, as in the pillar of fire that led the children of Israel in the wilderness, so also here, the fire shows that the Spirit of God, the 3rd Person of the Holy Trinity, is present for and with His people to lead and guide them.

    And, of course, there’s a little play on words here: there were tongues of fire, and they were able to speak with other tongues.  The fiery presence of the Holy Spirit made them able to talk in other languages which they had not learned before this.  And please note that these were known languages in the world of that day.  Sometimes, when so-called Pentecostals talk about speaking in tongues–like those in the Assembly of God–they’re generally not talking about any language that would be understood today, just ecstatic babbling.  And that’s not what’s going on here.  The Holy Spirit gave the disciples the ability to speak in tongues so that the visitors who were there in the city from all over the world could hear the Word of Christ in their own native language.  This gift was given for the sake of the Gospel!  The people who heard this said, “We hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.”  Through this miracle, the Holy Spirit was saying to the people, “Jesus is for you.  He is for all nations and languages.  He died for everyone; He is your Savior from sin.  You can be sure of it because you are hearing it in your heart language, your own mother tongue.”

    The same is true for us gathered here today. The word of forgiveness, won by a man who spoke Aramaic and Hebrew, preached by apostles who spoke Greek, confessed by much of the church in Latin, translated by Luther into German, has come to you in your own language, in the English tongue.  That’s God’s gift to you.  There’s no more personal way of saying that Jesus is your Savior than to say it in your own language. The Gospel of Christ is for you.  That’s what it means to be truly Pentecostal.  

    Of course, the very fact that there are all these languages in the world is a reminder of why Jesus had to come and die in the first place.  God caused the confusion of languages at Babel because of our self-exalting sin.  In order to humble people like us, who want to make a name for ourselves, who aren’t content with what we were created to be, God scatters us.  The confusion of languages illustrates what our sin does.  It separates us from others, and most of all, it separates us from God.

    The thing that functions as our tower of Babel today is the internet and our advanced technology.  There’s nothing wrong, of course, with technology or the internet or tall towers of themselves.  But in the hands of sinful human beings, these tools tend to magnify and multiply sin and its power and its consequences.  And even though these things have the potential to bring people together for good, in the end they are always vying to become idols that we love because they serve our desires and because they enable us to a name for ourselves apart from God’s will.  It’s strange and yet not surprising that while technology has made the world seem smaller and more of a global community, we are as tribal and polarized as we’ve ever been–in our politics, in our workplaces, even in our own homes.  For greater power and potential in the hands of sinners inevitably causes greater separation from God and from one another.  Even among those of the same tongue, we’re not always speaking the same language.

    However, you can surely see that Pentecost is the reversal of Babel.  Whereas Babel caused the people to be scattered and separated, at Pentecost all the people of various languages are brought together in Christ.  Even as Jesus was crucified with the accusation above His head written in three different languages, so He redeemed all those of every nation and tribe and people and language, releasing them from their sins by His precious blood.  He has broken down the barrier of sin and pulverized it beneath His feet.  He has put us right with God the Father by His holy death.  And so He has also put us right again with one another.  The walls of hurt and division which separate us are overcome by His mercy and forgiveness.  The risen Jesus sends out His Spirit to draw us together and make us one in Himself.  No tower, no technology, no human achievement can truly unite us and lift us up to the heavens.  Only Jesus can do that.  And the Holy Spirit has come to proclaim that to the world.

    Now there were those on Pentecost who rejected the Holy Spirit, who mocked the disciples speaking in other tongues, and said, “They are full of new wine.”  And yet those mockers were actually more correct than they realized.  For Jesus had once said, “No one puts new wine into old wineskins; or else the new wine bursts the wineskins . . . But new wine must be put into new wineskins.”  The wine of the old testament was poured from the old wineskins of the prophets.  But now in these latter days of the new testament, the apostles are the new wineskins.  For Christ Himself is the great grape cluster who was crushed in His suffering and passion, that He might bring forth the wine of the Spirit.  Here indeed, then, the apostles are filled with this new wine of the Holy Spirit, that they might bring life and joy to the nations.  It is written of the days of the Messiah that “the mountains shall drip with new wine, and all the hills shall flow with it.”  Here we see the beginning of those days, days in which we still live.

    Truly, the prophesy of Joel is still coming to pass, where God says, “On My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days; and they shall prophesy.”  To prophesy here simply means to speak and confess the word of God.  It is what we are doing here today in the liturgy, as we speak and sing and confess the words of God given us by the Holy Spirit.  You are the Lord’s menservants and maidservants, for God’s Spirit was quite literally poured out on you in your baptism.  You are the ones gathered by the Spirit around the altar as one body; for there you receive the true body of Christ.  You are those who look for the coming of great and awesome day of the Lord, who call on the name of the Lord and shall be saved.  For no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.  

    So then, keep and hold on to Jesus’ Word.  For it comes from the Father and is filled with the Holy Spirit.  Through this Word the persons of the Holy Trinity come to you and make their home with you.  By this Word you have peace that the world cannot give, the everlasting peace of Christ.

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

Offering God Service

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John 15:26 - 16:4

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

    The devil doesn’t mind if people are religious, not at all.  In fact Satan actually likes it when people are religious; he’s behind the invention of all the false religions in the world.  For the most powerful form of evil is darkness that appears to be light, evil that seems to be good.  And what could appear to be more good than something which is done in the name of God and spirituality–a Mormon promoting family values, a Muslim seeking to live a righteous life, a Hindu seeking inner peace and balance?  The devil has no trouble with people engaging in religious God-talk; for the devil has been trying to play God from the beginning.  When people tell you that they’re spiritual, remind them that demons are spirits, too, and perhaps they should be just a little bit more specific.  St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10 that what the pagans think they are offering up to their god they are actually offering to demons.  You don’t have to be a Satanist engaging in weird rituals to be worshiping the devil.  Any worship that is not the worship of the true God, the Holy Trinity, any faith that is not faith in Jesus the Savior is fine with the evil one.

    Just consider the Apostle Paul before his conversion.  He was serving the devil even while he thought he was serving God.  Paul was devoted to living righteously according to the law; he was a rising star among his fellow Pharisees.  And he was so zealous and passionate in his religion that he devoted himself to rooting out and getting rid of those whom he thought to be heretics, particularly these Christians who worshiped Jesus as the Son of God.  He oversaw the stoning to death of a Christian deacon named Stephen.  He was willing even to travel to other countries in order to persecute and imprison those who followed Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  It was only the grace of God that turned Paul’s life around when Jesus appeared to Him on the road to Damascus, bringing him to repentance and faith and a new life.  Only by grace did He come to worship the true God, through faith in Christ alone.null

    Jesus said, “The time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service.”  Today, those words bring to mind Islamic jihad, something that is supposedly a holy killing, a holy war.  The terrorists kill in service to their false god.  The shout of “Allahu Akbar” that you sometimes hear is simply the Arabic way of saying “God is the greatest.”  Those words of themselves are fine and true, but then they are twisted and turned against the true God, used while taking the life of the “infidel” Christian who refuses to renounce Jesus as the Savior or to honor Muhammad.  Unfortunately this sort of killing happens today with great frequency in North Africa and the Far East as well as the Middle East.  Followers of Jesus are specifically targeted because of their faith.  And here’s the thing: the terrorists think that what they’re doing will make the world a better place.  They actually think that they’re serving God.

    Now thankfully, this is something we almost never face.  However, there is a soft persecution that is rising year by year in this country.  And it comes from the religion of progressivism.  Even though progressives and so-called social justice warriors wouldn’t necessarily characterize their beliefs as religious, they are just as puritanical and intolerant of anyone who departs from their orthodoxy as Paul was in his days as a Pharisee.  Jesus said that “they will put you out of the synagogues.”  The equivalent of that today is: they will put you out of the public square where the shape of our cultural life is decided–higher education and politics and entertainment.  Just go to a university today as a professing Christian who believes that Jesus is the only way to eternal life and that the Bible is the truth.  Watch how quickly your free speech and freedom of assembly is shut down and you are cast to the fringes.  And also in politics and TV and movies and social media, if you don’t support so-called “reproductive rights” or gay relationships or transgenderism, if you make any sort of open statement declaring that you think marriage is only between a man and a woman, well then you’re no better than a Ku Klux Klan racist.  You’re a bigot who deserves to lose your job or be driven out of business.  You yourself may not be killed, but your livelihood certainly can be killed.  Many of you who work within the realm of secular culture and government regulations know well the pressure to use politically correct talk or to remain silent about your Christian beliefs in order to avoid problems or a financial hit or a re-education sensitivity training course.  And again, those who try to silence Christians and purge traditional Christian morality and beliefs may actually think that they’re doing something good and loving and positive for the world.  They may well believe they’re serving God by intolerantly enforcing their version of tolerance.

    Progressivism needs to be understood in this way as a religion.  Its Paradise Lost story is global warming.  It’s Gospel is self-expression and sexual freedom.  Its priests are Hollywood celebrities and woke professors and news media elites.  And its Sacrament is abortion, where Jesus’ words of life are demonically turned into words of death, “This is my body–I have a right to do what I want with it.”  The unbelieving world will always be religious.  But its religion is anti-Christ, anti-Christian, anti-truth.  It does not want to listen to the Spirit of truth sent by Jesus from the Father.  

    So do not think that it’s some strange or unexpected thing when trials come upon you or if people make it difficult for you to live as a Christian.  Jesus has told you in advance so that you won’t be surprised, so that you won’t be made to stumble in the faith and wonder what’s going on, so that you won’t be tempted to embrace the world’s religion like everyone else seems to be doing.  It’s not easy being on the outside of what the world is praising and holding up as good.  It’s not easy to be faithful in the midst of rampant unfaithfulness.  However, it is written, “Brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience.”  And today’s Epistle says, “Rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.”  

    Jesus said, “A servant is not greater than his Master.”  If they crucified Him, those who follow Him should not expect a life of ease in this world.  But even in this, faith sees God’s gracious handat work.  For in each of these hardships the Lord is reminding you not to get too comfortable here. Your citizenship is in heaven, your life is hidden with God in Christ.  According to Scripture, it is an honor to partake of Christ’s sufferings.  Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and speak all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.  Rejoice and be exceedingly glad.  For so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”   

    This is what it means to be baptized.  It is to take part in Christ’s death, so that we may also take part in His rising to new life.  Romans 6 says, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?  We were buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”  So first and foremost, baptism means that we share in the benefits of Christ’s death.  We are washed clean of our sin, and we are given eternal life and the sure hope of the resurrection of the body.  But until that Day, your baptism also means sharing in Christ’s sufferings, sharing in the cross.  Baptism means the putting to death of your sinful nature.  That happens through daily contrition and repentance, battling against and drowning your old Adam and the world that lives in you.  But it also happens through the afflictions and trials that you are put through in this fallen and unbelieving world.  God works even through His enemies and the evils they inflict for your ultimate good, so that in the end you may share fully in the joy of Christ’s resurrection.  For it is written, “If we have been united with Him in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection.”

    So trust in God in the midst of affliction or persecution.  He has not forgotten you or forsaken you.  He works through the cross and suffering to bring you unimaginable joy and blessing.  This world cannot touch you.  Its threats are meaningless.  The devil and the world may prowl around like a roaring lion seeking whom they may devour; but for those in Christ, all the devil can do is roar and make a lot of noise.  For he has had his teeth and claws pulled out on Good Friday.  Even if you were to be killed for your faith, nothing and no one can stop the bodily resurrection God is bringing you.  So do not be afraid when hardship comes.  Do not think for a moment that your heavenly Father has abandoned you.  For He loves you and has saved you for his own Name's sake.  He has gathered you out of the world's synagogues to be his own Holy Church, the spotless Bride of Christ washed clean in the waters of baptism flowing from the spear-pierced side of her Husband.  He has cleansed you of your filthiness and your idols.  He has replaced your stony heart, creating in you a clean heart of flesh.  He has given you a new spirit by breathing the breath of His Holy Spirit over you again and again as receive Holy Absolution.

    Here, in His Holy Church, the Lord offers to you all He has, for He offers you all that He is. The Lord is your light and your salvation and the strength of your life.  And He is here now to fill you with His forgiveness, love, and mercy.  Jesus is the One who truly offers God the Father service–not by killing others but by sacrificing Himself for you.  That is what the Divine Service is: the Lord's service to you–first performed for you on the cross and now given to you in the Holy Sacrament with His true body and blood.  This is what’s real and lasting and true in the midst of the fake reality of the world.  This is where everything is set right, where the madness of the world and its lies are held at bay. For where Christ Jesus is, there is your home, your peace, your comfort, your joy in all hardships, and your entry into eternal life.

    So take to heart the words of the Epistle, “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be serious and watchful in your prayers. And above all things have fervent love for one another, . . . that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

Joy Comes Through Suffering

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

    An early church father, John Chrysostom once remarked, “A mother to become a mother passes through pain.” That is how God has ordained the Christian life–joy is on the other side of pain, and the joy cannot come except through pain.  In explaining His coming crucifixion, our Lord uses the example of a mother’s pain in childbearing to show the necessity of His suffering on the cross, but also to give them the hope that the resurrection will shortly follow.  And notice how He joins His suffering to theirs, and His joy to theirs. The same is true for you: He invites you to bring your own pain, your own suffering, your own battle with sin and sorrow, to Him. He endures your pain, and will give to you the joy of His resurrection.

    But first, for now, we must experience these words, “Most assuredly, I say to you that you will weep and lament, and the world will rejoice.”  I think very often we forget that’s the way the Christian life works.  We are tempted to think that being a Christian means always being blessed by God in visible ways and being free from worry and hassle and pain and conflict.  And if we are experiencing those things, if we’re not living a “victorious Christian life,” then we must not be true Christians, or God must have left us.  I’ve known a number of people who have given themselves over to bitterness because of some hard circumstance in their life.  They’re angry at God for allowing suffering into their life.  They operate with the idea that if they do their part for God–come to church and so forth–then God will give them a smooth and happy existence.  But that’s not what God has promised His people.  The truth is that the Christian life is marked both by the cross and the resurrection, the curse of death and the gift of life in Christ at the same time.  And so it is a mixture of fear and love, weeping and laughing, heartache and gladness, sorrow and joy, insecurity and confidence–with the cross and suffering experienced as often as not in this life, while the fullness of contentment and happiness is reserved for the life of the world to come.null

    Those are not exactly the words we want to hear.  We want to hear that life in Christ is a life where everything always falls into place.  We want to hear that being a Christian means that we will be treated fairly, that others will always respect us, that life’s bumps won’t be all that hard.  

    Joy is on the other side of pain; but we want desperately to avoid the cross in our lives and to run from the harder parts of our callings and our vocations.  We find it hard to accept the truth of Psalm verses such as these, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes, [O Lord].”  (Ps. 119.71). And again, “Blessed is the man whom You chasten, O Lord” (Ps. 94.12).  For the Lord chastens and disciplines those He loves.  Throughout Scripture, tribulation is described as needful, so that we grow as children of God and learn to depend completely on the grace and mercy of God.

    Repent.  For as the OT reading said, “it is good for a man to bear the yoke in his youth.  Let him sit alone and keep silent, because God has laid it on him; let him put his mouth in the dust–there may yet be hope.  Let him give his cheek to the one who strikes him, and be full of reproach.  For the Lord will not cast off forever.  Though He causes grief, yet He will show compassion according to the multitude of His mercies.”  

    That is the way of the Christian because that is the way of Christ.  Jesus is the one who gave His cheek to the ones who struck Him, who was full of reproach, who was laid in the dust of death.  And yet He was not by any means cast off forever.  For He was raised again the third day.  That is the source of our forgiveness and our salvation; His pains bring us life and joy.  And this, then, is also the pattern of our lives in Christ.  Jesus is saying to His disciples, “Don’t be surprised at the trials that will come upon you as if this were something strange.  For I am about to go the cross to suffer your sins to death in My body and win your full and free forgiveness.  And you are my followers.  You are baptized into Me.  And so you are given to carry My suffering and death in your bodies, in order that you might also carry My life in your bodies and have the relief and comfort that only I can give.  So blessed are you who mourn, for you will be comforted.  Blessed are you who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for yours in the kingdom of heaven.”

    “A little while, and you will not see Me; and again, a little while, and you will see Me.”  There will be those little whiles in your life when you can’t seem to see Jesus, times when you want to just check out and give up.  But He reminds you here that it really is only a little while that you must endure.  That pain, that disease, that heartache, that challenging situation is almost over.  Just hang on to Him.  Trust in Him to pull you through it.  It may seem like an eternity, but only three days.  The day of resurrection is coming.  Weeping may remain for a night, but joy comes in the morning.

    Again, it’s like a pregnant woman awaiting the time of her delivery.  The wait may seem like forever, or the labor like it’s never going to end.  But inevitably, the time of the birth does come, the little while is finally over, the little one arrives, and Jesus says, “she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.”  

    So it is also for believers as we await the final delivery on the Last Day.  You were conceived and given new life in the womb of the church by water and the seed of the Word.  You are continually nourished through your holy mother by preaching and the supper.  You are given to grow and mature in the faith like a developing unborn child.  But there are times when things get a little uncomfortable in this womb, especially as the end nears.  And the “labor” of this life can be very traumatic.  But then comes the delivery of the new life.  Then comes your deliverance in the resurrection of the body on the Last Day, and there is nothing but joy and fulfillment–the former sorrows will not even be remembered, but will fade as fog evaporates in the light of day.

    So fix your hearts on Jesus, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Don’t bow to the temptations of the devil and the world and your flesh to give up on Christ, to surrender to the moment.  Rather, trust in the Lord to carry you through.  For He has in fact already carried you through by dying and rising again.  He’s already conquered all that weighs you down.  It’s just a matter of time for that victory to be revealed.  It’s only a little while more, and then comes the forever, the unending while of dwelling in the majesty of our Lord and the perfect happiness and completeness that His presence brings.  Then comes the peace that far surpasses our human understanding.  Then comes the time when the sufferings of this present life will not even be able to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed in us.  For we know that when (Jesus) is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.

    And even before that last day arrives, our Lord comes to us every little while.  After the little while of waiting, Jesus appeared to the disciples on Easter evening.  Then He was hidden from them for a little while until He returned a week later, showing Himself to doubting Thomas.  Then another little while, and on the next Sunday He appeared to the disciples on the sea shore after they had been fishing.  And on it goes.  Our Lord continues to come to His people every little while in divine service, revealing Himself to us in His words and His supper to comfort and strengthen us.  Here in this little while of the liturgy, we get a taste of eternity, the timelessness of being in Christ’s presence.

    Jesus said, “You now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you.”  The Lord sees you again at His table, that He may give Himself to you and fill you with immortal joy.  The Lord sees you, in mercy.  You are not invisible to Him.  He knows all that’s going on with you.  He loves you.  He watching out for you, watching over you.  So do not lose heart.  In those times when you are in the shadows, repeat those words to yourself that Jesus has given to His disciples, “A little while.”  Just a little while and your heart will rejoice in beholding Christ, and your joy no one will take from you.  

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

The Women's Witness of the Resurrection

John 20:1-18

Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

    There is a feature of the Easter account that we all know very well, but that we don’t always understand the significance of.  And it is this: the first witnesses of the resurrection were women.  Now with our 21st century ears we hear that, and it doesn’t seem particularly noteworthy.  But in the 1st century this would have really stood out.  For women were not considered to be reliable witnesses.  Jewish rabbis at the time explicitly said that the testimony of a woman, especially in a court of law, was not to be considered valid.  While this was not Jesus’ stance toward women, it was the thinking of the time.  So what can we learn from the fact that in every one of the four Gospels, it is the women who are the primary witnesses of Easter?

    First of all, this helps to authenticate the resurrection of Jesus, that this is a real, historical event and not some legend.  After all, if you were going to make up and invent a story, the last thing you would do at that time would be to give women such a prominent role in your tale.  And, in fact, those who rejected and mocked Christianity in the first century often pointed this out about the Easter story, that it was based in part on the unreliable testimony of hysterical women.  The idea of bodily resurrection was something the first century world already scoffed at, and this feature of the narrative just made it an even easier target for lampooning.  null

    And yet the early Christian church didn’t adjust their story to make it more palatable to the world.  They didn’t take out the part about the women and jump right to the men, to Jesus’ later appearances to the disciples.  No they stood by the women.  They didn’t even photoshop Mary Magdalene out of the picture–the one who, if she wasn’t formerly a prostitute, certainly had a shady past.  And yet there she is, not just in the background but prominently featured particularly in John’s account of Easter.  The early Christian community stood by the account we have in the Gospels from the very beginning.  They didn’t change how the story happened because this wasn’t a concocted story in the first place.  This is how it actually occurred, and no amount of rejection or persecution could make them deny this life-changing truth.  

    And there is another thing we can learn from the women being the first witnesses of the resurrection.  Their central role in this points to the fact that Jesus’ resurrection is the undoing of the fall of mankind.  You recall how in Genesis, it was Eve who was tempted by the devil in the Garden, and after she succumbed and ate, she passed some along to her husband with her and he ate.  Though both Adam and Eve were equally guilty, it was from the woman to the man that death came.  That was the path by which the curse traveled and the grave gained its power over us.  “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”  

    So now on Easter morning, our Lord Jesus does a wonderful “in your face” to our ancient enemy.  He mocks the devil whom He has defeated by purposely giving the good news first to the women to then give to the men.  Jesus reverses and destroys the devil’s work.  Just as the fall came through Eve to Adam, so now word of the raising up of mankind comes from Mary Magdalene to Peter, and to John and to all the disciples.  Here in this Garden where Jesus had been buried, the announcement that the tomb is empty and that the curse of death is broken is carried by the women to these men who would be ordained by Christ to be the first preachers and apostles of the Easter Gospel.  Here we are given to see that in the risen Jesus creation is redeemed from the fall and all things are restored and revitalized.

    In this true story of the resurrection, Jesus is shown to be the new Adam for us, the one in whom humanity has a new birth and a new beginning.  And we need this new life desperately, don’t we.  For our old life from the first Adam is riddled with death even from our youth.  It’s the hollowness that we still have even after we’ve taken in our fill of all this passing world has to offer. It’s the camaraderie we seek by going along with the crowd that turns out to be a sort of crowded isolation.  It’s the deterioration of our bodies and the brokenness of our relationships which happens often in spite of our best efforts.  There’s ultimately no avoiding the truth of our mortality.  In the end you are left right where Mary was: bent over, staring through tearful eyes into the gaping mouth of the grave.

    But note what Mary sees.  Not only is Jesus’ tomb is empty, but she also sees two angels sitting where Jesus had been.  And these messengers of the Lord ask her, “Why are you weeping?”  It’s almost as if they said, “There’s no need for tears any more.  For the crucified One whom you seek has risen.  He who bore the curse of the world’s sin has redeemed you from the curse forever.  He who was held by the jaws of the grave has shattered those jaws and has destroyed death’s power over you.  He who did battle with the kingdom of darkness has crushed the devil’s head by His holy cross, setting you free from hellish bondage.  So don’t cry.  Jesus is alive for you as the triumphant Lord of all.”

    Mary then turns around and sees Jesus.  But she doesn’t yet know that it’s Him.  She mistakes Jesus for the gardener.  And yet she really isn’t mistaken, is she.  Jesus is the Gardener.  For He is risen to restore you to Paradise.  This New Adam walks in the garden in the cool of the new day and comes to this daughter of Eve.  What He brings to her and to you is not judgment but justification, not sin but righteousness, not death but life.  Jesus totally and completely undoes the fall.  We heard it in the Epistle, “As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”

    Jesus reveals who He is to Mary simply with one word.  The sheep know their Shepherd’s voice, and He calls them each by name. “Mary.”  In the joy of this sudden recognition, Mary cries out “Teacher!”  She goes to Jesus and falls before Him, clinging to His feet, the same feet she had once anointed with fragrant oil and with repentant tears.  The Teacher who had received her and had forgiven her sins was alive!  Now it is tears of joy that she cries.  

    But interestingly, Jesus tells her, “Do not cling to me.”  Why would He say that to her and ruin this Hollywood moment?  Here’s why: Things are not the same now.  This is not just a going back to the good old days before the horrors of Good Friday.  Easter is not the undoing of the crucifixion.  In truth Easter is the victory of the crucifixion.  It’s the result of what He accomplished on the cross.  The resurrection of our Lord shows that His death really did pay the wages of sin completely.  By the cross He swallowed up death and conquered the grave and redeemed the world and routed the devil.  Easter is simply the glorious revealing of that fact.  So Jesus is not snubbing Mary here; but He is indicating that things will never be the same again.  Everything has been changed.

    Time now has actually been turned forward.  Jesus’ death and bodily resurrection have inaugurated the era of the new creation.  Easter means that we are looking forward to something much better than the Garden of Eden.  Through Christ, creation itself will be resurrected and freed from its bondage to decay and death.  Tomorrow the world will have its semi-pagan earth day celebration.  But we know that the real earth day is today.  For Easter means that the groaning of  creation under the curse has its end, and what was intended for this earth from the beginning will come to its awesome fulfillment in Jesus.

    The good news for you today is that you have your place in this because you are baptized into Christ, who is the source and spring of the new creation.  Jesus actually revealed Himself to you in the same way He did to Mary, by calling your name at the baptismal font.  By water and the Word He drew your name into the name of the Holy Trinity.  He united you with Himself and thereby made you a child of God.  That’s why Jesus says to Mary, “My Father and your Father, my God and your God.”  Do you see what that means?  Penitent believers are now family with Jesus.  All that Christ is and has He has made yours: release from sorrow, abounding forgiveness, indestructible life and joy.  In Christ you are restored to communion with God and with one another.  

    Finally I must note what a wonderful change of message occurs with Mary Magdalene in the Gospel.  She goes from a frantic “They have taken away the Lord!” to a joyous “I have seen the Lord!”  At first she had thought the soldiers who were guarding the tomb had moved Jesus’ body.  They would have absolutely no reason to do that, but it was the only way she could make sense of things.  She didn’t yet know that when Jesus rose, the soldiers became paralyzed with fear and then fled away.  That, too, is more evidence of the resurrection.  Both Jesus’ friends and enemies acknowledged that the tomb was empty.  Jesus’ cowardly disciples certainly couldn’t have stolen the body.  And if the body had been moved by the well-armed authorities, the location of His corpse immediately would have been pointed out by them when the disciples started preaching that Jesus was alive.  This whole Christianity thing would have been nipped in the bud.  But the authorities didn’t do that; they couldn’t.  For there was no dead body any more.  

    No, Christ Jesus is indeed risen from the dead and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  There is more of Easter to come, more rising from the dead.  Our Lord has led the way through the grave, so that those who die in Him will also rise with Him when He comes again.  The Lord will swallow up death forever.  He will wipe away the tears from all faces.  You can be sure of it, for the Lord has spoken it.  

    Let us all, then, do as Mary Magdalene did and gladly confess this truth, both here and before the world:  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Not To Be Served But To Serve

Mark 10:32-45

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

    Human beings are generally unhappy when we don’t have what we want.  Our search for happiness, we think, is to try to get what we want.  But if we do get what we want, then that brings a new set of desires that must, in turn, be pursued, and so on and so on in a restless circle of wanting and getting and wanting again.  There is no real happiness in that.  The whole direction of grasping, wanting, and getting is actually the reverse of the way in which happiness is found.

    The secret of happiness is to be found in God and His ways–the God who has nothing to get and everything to give.  God has his happiness in giving away His gifts.  We need to remember that God didn’t create us to get something from us that He needed or wanted.  God was already complete in Himself, in the perfect self-giving that exists between the persons of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The reason God made us is so that His giving might grow and increase.  He created and designed us not to serve Him like household slaves but so that He would have creatures upon whom He could pour out His blessing.  We are designed to be recipients of His gifts.  That’s what makes Him happy.

    So also for us, real happiness comes from sharing in those ways of God.  The Lord created and equipped us for the same sort of giving to one another, and so for the same sort of happiness.  This is seen particularly in God’s creation of husband and wife and the one flesh intimacy of marriage.  God designed the giving of spouses to each other, the shared life of mutual giving.  null

    The action of giving is something that by definition grows.  It’s counterintuitive, but the more that is given, the more there is to give, and the greater the happiness.  Therefore, God ordained that children should come from the giving of husband and wife to each other. Marriage, family, and society place us in the middle of many opportunities for giving, and so for happiness.  That is God’s design.  That is God’s happiness that He wanted to share with us.  All He asked of His creatures was that they should receive His gifts from Him, allow themselves to be given to, and then find their happiness in the same way, in giving to others.

    But all of this was ruined by our fall into sin–our proud refusal to be given to by God and our selfish refusal to give to others.  We turned it all upside down.  Now we want to get from others what we want out of them, and to give to God, to push our spirituality and our good works up to Him as if He somehow needed those things from us, as if we thereby impressed Him and merited His favor.  When we twisted ourselves around like that–away from receiving God’s gifts, doing things our own way instead, and away from giving to getting from others, our happiness was destroyed.  No more the happy, quiet mind and contentment; no more the joy in the gifts and the giving; now the fretful, coveting, grumbling restlessness of grasping, wanting, getting, and wanting again.

    God could have said, “They don’t want my gifts.  They don’t want Me.  Fine.  I’ve had enough of them!”  But instead of simply drawing God’s wrath, our sin drew from God even more and greater giving–the sending of His own Son to save us.  In today’s Gospel Jesus tells His disciples the sort of giving He’s going to be doing, the giving of His life at the hands of the very sinners He came to save.  Here is the ultimate expression of the nature of our giver God, not only that He becomes man, but that He then lays down His life in our place to redeem us from our sin.

    But Jesus’ disciples don’t get it.  Their grasping, getting ways are still running the show.  James and John come up to Jesus and say, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.”  For the moment Jesus indulges their presumptuousness and says, “What do you want me to do for you?”  “Grant that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on your left, in Your glory.”  They figured Jesus was going places.  And they were hitching their wagon to Him.  They wanted to be first in line.  They aspired to be His top advisers and top power brokers when Jesus got to be in charge.  This may seem to us like an over-the-top request, but it’s the same with us when we are tempted to use religion as a means for self-advancement and self-fulfillment, when we go to church so that we can get some worldly blessing out of it.  Then it’s not so much about loving God but serving yourself, trying to have a successful life and to get where you want to be.  

    Jesus was indeed going places.  But James and John didn’t grasp where it was that Jesus was going, even though He had just told them.  Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you ask.  Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”  Jesus there is referring to His suffering and cross.  He would drink the poisonous cup of judgment against the world’s sin.  He would be swept away in the cold flood of death.  There were two people who would be placed at Jesus’ right and Jesus’ left hand–namely, the two criminals who were crucified with Him.  They were the ones for whom those places had been prepared.

    James and John wanted to be with Jesus in His glory.  And it is Jesus’ glory to die for sinners in order to save them.  It is His glory to lay down His life that we may live.  It is His glory to be the God who is love, who gives Himself completely for us that we might be drawn in to His life.

    If you want to share in Jesus’ glory, then, you must share in His death.  You must die to yourself and your desires.  Repent.  Return to your baptism into Jesus’ death.  Be emptied of all your own merits and righteousness so that Christ may fill you with His righteousness and His life.  

    Jesus said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.”  After all, what can you truly give to Him who is the Creator and the source of all that is good?  Jesus came not to get something from you but to give something to you, to give His life as the ransom price for your soul.

    For you were kidnaped, captured by the devil and the power of the grave.  A price was demanded that neither you nor any other creature could pay for your release.  In time you would have been executed by your abductors and given over to eternal death.  But Christ has paid your ransom, not with gold or silver but with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.  He offered His life for yours.  He set you free and then destroyed your kidnappers by the power of His resurrection.  All this He did purely by grace, as a gift, for you.

    So make sure you don’t get it backwards.  We receive from God and give to others.  You need not spend all your time fretting about pleasing God; you are already pleasing to Him in Jesus.  The thing that truly pleases God is for you to trust in His goodness and to believe in His Son in whom He is well pleased.  The true worship of God that glorifies and pleases Him is faith, simply to receive His love and forgiveness and life and to extol and praise and give thanks for these unmerited gifts.  

    Jesus gave up His life for you at Calvary, and now He gives out His life to you in divine service.  It is as Jesus told James and John, “You will drink the cup I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you will be baptized.”  For them, that meant they would suffer and be persecuted for being Jesus’ disciples.  And so it is also for you.  But this also refers to the Sacraments.  You have been baptized in Christ’s baptism, cleansed by His death.  And He gives you to drink of His cup.  Because it was a cup of judgment for Jesus, it is now a cup of mercy for you, the cup of His own life-giving blood.  Jesus is still the One who comes not to be served but to serve, to give Himself to you in preaching and the supper for your good, your redemption.

    And here’s a final key point from today’s Gospel:  Jesus’ servanthood doesn’t stop here in church.  It continues through you out there in the world.  Just as God uses ordinary things like water and words and bread and wine to give His saving gifts, so also He uses ordinary Christians in your ordinary stations in life as a means by which He serves the world.  In this sense, you yourselves are God’s Sacraments to the world.  Christ is present in, with, and under you His people to show forth His love to the neighbor.

    Christians live outside of themselves.  You live in God by faith, and you live in your neighbor by love.  By faith you get to stand in Jesus’ place and receive His righteousness as your own.  By love you get to stand in your neighbor’s place and make his needs your own.  Faith looks up to God and offers Him nothing; love looks out to the neighbor and offers Him everything.  A Christian receives God’s Service in church and then gives God’s service to his neighbor in whatever stations of life God has put him.  

    In this way your daily work becomes a sort of worship, the life of faith toward God and love toward others.  As your sinful nature is put to death in acts of service, the Lord works life and good for your neighbor, even as He worked the ultimate life and good by offering up His own flesh for our sins on the cross.  Through His Church, Jesus continues to be the Son of Man who came not to be served but to serve.  

    It is better to give than to receive.  God knows that, and He wants you to have your happiness in knowing it too.

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

(With thanks to Dr. Norman Nagel for some of the above)

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