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In the Image of Love, the Holy Trinity

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

    It’s not enough simply to say that you believe in God.  That’s an incomplete confession of faith.  For the term “God” can and does mean any number of things to any different number of people.  “God” for a Hindu or Muslim or Buddhist is something much different than for a Christian.  Most Americans will say that they believe in God, but that God is often just a generic and undefined being.  The true God is certainly more than just the “man upstairs,” as Isaiah learned.  Who is the God you believe in?  Who is the one and only true God?

    That’s where creeds like the Athanasian Creed come in and are so important.  They may seem unnecessarily detailed at times, but they are important both because they defend against falsehood, and because they declare the Scriptural mystery of who the one true God is.  He is the Blessed Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit–one God in three persons.  

    Reviewing very quickly, Scripture makes it clear that there is only one God.  Deuteronomy 6 says, "The Lord our God, the Lord is One."  Isaiah 45 says, "I am God, and there is no other."  Unlike the pagan religions which had many gods that were connected to parts of creation–the god of the moon, the god of the sun, the god of the sea–Christianity confesses only one God, who has created the moon, the sun, the sea, and every living thing, and who is Himself outside of creation.null

    But the Bible also clearly teaches that this one God is three-fold.  Three distinct persons are referred to as God in the Scriptures.  First there is God the Father, the One we are directed to pray to in the Lord's Prayer, the one James refers to as the source of all good and perfect gifts.  Second, there is God the Son, Jesus Christ.  John 1 says, "In the beginning was the Word (the "Word" being a name for Jesus) and the Word was with God and the Word was God . . . and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us."  And third, there is God the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.  In Acts 5 it is said that Ananias lied to the Holy Spirit.  And then the Apostle Peter declared to him, "You have not lied to men but to God."  Clearly then, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all God.

    And therein lies the mystery.  It's not as if each of these three persons are 1/3 God, so that when you put them all together, you've got the one true God.  But of course neither is it true that there are three Gods or even three different forms of God.  No, each of these persons are fully divine, and yet they are so perfectly united and joined together in love that there is only one God.  That is the paradox of the Trinity.

    Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “Why spend all the time and effort on this?  What’s the point?  This isn’t something that’s rationally understandable anyway, so why should we make a big deal out of it?”  Well, for one thing, if we only paid attention to those teachings of the Bible that were logically explainable, I don't suppose that we would baptize or have communion or believe that God became a man in Christ.  Those are mysteries of the faith, too.  But more importantly, this is our God, this is how God has revealed Himself.  Part of worshiping Him is meditating on who He is, even if we can’t fully grasp it all in this life.  There is much to be gained simply in pondering who God is and what He has done for us that the Scriptures declare and the Creeds confess.

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

    Now, keeping in mind that God is a Trinity, listen to Genesis 1:  "Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness . . .'  So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them."  First of all, notice that God says, "Let us make man . . ."  A conversation is going on within God Himself, between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  But also notice what God then created!  Did He make a single, androgenous, self-contained being?  No, He created a relationship of beings who together formed a oneness and a unity.  When God made man in His image, He made them male and female.

    Now, of course, I'm not suggesting that there's anything "female" in the nature of God, like some churches do which ordain women, or which change masculine references to God to feminine ones, even going so far as to baptize in the name of "Mother, Daughter, and Comforter."  God's masculine nature is clearly made known in His self-given name, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds from them both.

    What I am suggesting, though, is that for God to create something in His image meant creating more than one.  Now why didn't He make three of something?  Well, I'll get to that in a minute.  But what's important for us to understand now is that God is and always has been a personal being, one who by nature always relates to another.  Even before the creation of man, there was a relationship of persons within God.  God is Himself a community and a unity of persons.  And that is precisely why the creation of man wasn't complete until Eve came on the scene.  So to be created in God's image is to be made to be in a certain kind of relationship with other people.  God is a relationship of persons.  Man, therefore, is also a relationship of persons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fire of Tongues

Audio Player Audio PlayerActs 2:1-21

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

    Fire can cleanse, and fire can destroy.  Fire can serve good purposes, like keeping us warm or cooking our food; or it can do great harm, as we saw so dramatically in the burning of Trinity Lutheran Church downtown.  God appears to Moses in the burning bush, which is aflame but is not consumed; hell is described as a lake of fire and unspeakable torment.  So we must learn to distinguish between the fire that is from God, and the fire that seeks to work against Him.  

    On the 50th day after Easter, tongues of fire came to rest on the apostles as they were gathered together in the upper room.  Then they began to speak with other tongues as the Holy Spirit gave them utterance.  Simple Galileans, recognizable by their northern accents, spoke with fiery boldness in the mother tongues of all those who were gathered there in Jerusalem from all over the world, proclaiming the wonderful works of God in Christ in dozens of different languages.

    However, we also hear in the Scriptures of another fire of tongues.  James writes this, “The tongue is a little member and boasts great things.  See how great a forest a little fire kindles!  And the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity.  The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell!” (James 3:5-6)

    So there are two kinds of tongues and two kinds of fire here.  First, there is the tongue of the Word of God, whose fire is the Spirit of God.  Second, there is the tongue that is set within our bodily members, whose fire is hell.  The devil always tries to copy and mimic God, but in an upside down and destructive way.  Though both of these are fiery tongues, they stand in diametrical opposition to one another.null

    We know all too well how our tongues and our speech can be used in ways that are contrary to God and that manipulate things to our advantage.  We know the perverse pleasure of sharing in gossip that helps rumors to spread like wildfire.  We know what it’s like to deceive by not quite telling the whole truth, how to say things a certain way to make ourselves look better or cover up our sin.  And we know what it’s like to use our tongues to cut others down rather than to build others up.  Again James writes, “The tongue is full of deadly poison.  With it we bless our God and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the similitude of God.  Out of the same mouth proceed blessing and cursing.  My brethren, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:8-10).  Rather, St. Paul says, “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers” (Ephesians 4:29).  

    That’s what the problem was with the people at Babel.  They didn’t use their tongues to impart the grace of God or glorify Him, but to glorify and exalt themselves.  They said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves.”  Not wanting to receive the identity that God had given them, they engaged in the religion of following their dreams and believing in themselves to get them to the heavens.  But that is a doctrine of the devil.  It is a hellish tongue which teaches you to trust in yourself and to pride yourself in your own choices and achievements.  Still today God confuses and scatters us in our rebellion and tears down our towers, that we might learn humility and be brought to repentance before Him.

    But, of course, our Lord doesn’t stop there.  Then God undoes the destructive, fiery tongue of man with His own constructive, fiery tongue of life.  Pentecost is the undoing of Babel.  At Babel God said in judgment, “Come, let us go down and confuse their language.”  At Pentecost God the Father said in mercy to His only begotten Son, “Come, let us go down and pour out our Spirit on them, so that the words of the Gospel might be clearly proclaimed to them in their own language.  Let their ears be opened so that they may not be confused but may understand and receive the forgiveness and salvation which you, my beloved Son, won for them on the cross.”

    And so it was that there was a sound of a rushing, mighty wind and tongues of fire on those gathered together for worship on that Sunday morning.  God was blowing the breath of His Spirit across the embers of His little band of disciples to stir up the flame of the Church.  Martin Luther said that the artists who have depicted Pentecost missed the point when they drew the tongues of fire on the top of everyone’s heads.  The tongues of fire should be resting over their mouths, he suggested, because the mouth is where the action is with the Holy Spirit.  The church is a mouth house, where the Holy Spirit proclaims the Gospel from the mouth of a preacher, and believers confess that Gospel and sing and pray and extol the Lord and Savior with their mouths.

    Our tongues must be purified with the Spirit’s refining fire to do that.  Recall the prophet Isaiah, who saw the Lord lifted high and exalted upon His throne.  Isaiah said, “Woe is me!  For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.”  Isaiah knew that his lips were soiled by sin and needed to be cleansed.  Then one of the fiery seraphim swooped down to the incense altar and took a fiery coal and touched it to Isaiah’s lips, and he absolved him.  “Your guilt is taken away, your sin is purged,” the angel said.  Isaiah’s mouth was purified by fire.

    That burning coal is a picture for us of the Word and fiery Spirit of our God.  To those who cry out in penitence with Isaiah saying, “Woe is me; for I am lost!”  “Lord, deliver me from my sin,” the Holy Spirit comes with the live coal of Christ’s Word and purifies our lips and cleanses us of our sin.  The same Jesus who purified our human nature by becoming man, the same Jesus who felt the fires of hell for us on the cross and suffered the inferno of God’s judgment to redeem us and save us, the same Jesus who rose from the dead on the third day to give us victory over the grave and everlasting life–He now pours out His Holy Spirit to deliver those gifts of salvation to you through His Word and through the Sacraments.  John the Baptist preached that “Jesus will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”  And truly the Holy Spirit is a cleansing fire, who purges you of all iniquity through the precious blood of Christ.

    That’s what the Holy Spirit was all about at the first Pentecost; and that’s He’s still about today.  We sometimes forget that the main thing that happened on Pentecost was not the signs of the rushing wind and the fire, but the preaching and the baptizing that the Holy Spirit did through the apostles.  Most of Acts chapter 2 is the sermon which Peter spoke that day.  By the Spirit’s power, He condemned the people for their unbelief in Christ and their wickedness in putting Jesus to death.  Yet Peter also proclaimed how God accomplished His saving purposes through Christ's death, and how the Father raised Jesus from the dead as Lord of all and the only Savior.  When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart in sorrow for their sin, and they said to the apostles, “What shall we do?”  Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.  And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–for all whom the Lord our God will call.”  About 3,000 people were baptized that day from all different lands and languages, who carried that Spirit-filled Gospel home with them, spreading it like a prairie brush fire.  And of those who remained in Jerusalem, it is written that they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread in the Lord’s Supper, and to the prayers.

    So we may not have the sound of the rushing of the wind and the tongues of fire any longer–those were one-time signs marking the first outpouring.  But the Spirit is still at work fanning the flame of faith and love to glow brightly among God’s people.  The Holy Spirit continues to be poured out in baptism, which is the new birth of water and the Spirit.  The Holy Spirit continues His ministry of calling people to true repentance and of preaching the life-giving Word of Christ.  And the Holy Spirit continues to place the fiery Word on your tongue by giving into your mouth the body and blood of Christ, the Word made flesh, for the forgiveness of your sins.  In these ways the Holy Spirit opens your lips, that you may pray to God, praise Him, and give Him thanks in true faith.  As it is written, “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

    Pentecost is still continuing.  Not in the ecstatic babbling that goes on in so-called “Pentecostal” churches.  Rather, it goes on whenever the Bible is translated into a new language or whenever a missionary carries the Gospel to people in their own mother tongue.  Just the fact that we can even hear the Gospel in English right now is a sign of the working of the Holy Spirit.  The forgiveness of your sins, purchased for you by a man who spoke Aramaic and Hebrew, preached by apostles who spoke Greek, confessed by much of the early church which spoke Latin, has come to you in your own language, English, a Gentile tongue.  That’s God’s gift to you. There’s no more personal way of saying that Jesus is your Savior from sin and death than to say it in your own language.  Jesus is for you.  You can be sure of it because you are hearing it in your own native tongue.

    Let us then, today and always, speak that language which the Holy Spirit has taught you, the language of faith.  For it is written, “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”  Let us use our tongues to sing and proclaim the wonderful deeds of our Savior, who has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light.  May our prayer ever be, “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful, and kindle in the them the fire of your love.”

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Dr. Burnell Eckardt for some of the above)

Whatever You Ask in My Name

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

    Jesus declares in today’s Gospel, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you.”  That’s a pretty amazing promise, isn’t it.  And it’s true.  But let’s be sure and listen carefully to what Jesus says.  For there are some who misunderstand those words to mean that you can ask for literally anything you want, and as long as you pray it sincerely in faith and add the tag line “in Jesus’ name,” God will grant it to you.  I’m sure you’ve heard this referred to before as the prosperity gospel, health and wealth teaching, “name it and claim it.”  If you pray for something by name and claim it as your own and truly believe God will give it to you, then you’ll receive it–be it a better paying job or healing from some disease or a new car or any number of things. And if you don’t receive it, well, then it’s because you didn’t pray hard enough or have strong enough faith.

    But that’s certainly not what it means to pray in Jesus’ name.  It is written in James 4, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.  Adulterers and adulteresses!  Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?” (James 4:3-4) So prayer in Jesus’ name is certainly not a blank check to fulfill all your worldly dreams and desires.  We must confess that too often that’s how we utilize prayer, to try to get God to follow our will rather than asking Him to conform us to His will, to get Him to make our dreams and plans come to fulfillment rather than seeking our place in the fulfillment of His plan of salvation.null

    To pray in Jesus’ name means, first of all, that you pray as one who is baptized.  For it is in the water that He put His name on you and gave His name to you so that you may come to the Father in prayer.  In Baptism the Son of God joined you to Himself and made you members of God’s family so that you now have access to the Father as His children.  When someone is baptized, during the ceremony the pastor lays his hands upon their head while the Lord’s Prayer is prayed.  That is meant to be a visual declaration that the gift of calling God “Father” is being given to the one baptized.  Now they, too, are given permission to pray the Lord’s Prayer.  It’s as if Jesus is giving you His username and password at the font.  It’s not identity theft, it’s an identity gift.  In Jesus you are counted as sons of God with all the benefits that entails.  You are given the privilege of coming before the Father with the same status and standing as Jesus Himself!  God hears you just like He hears Jesus.  The name of Jesus opens heaven to you.  It unlocks the door to the Father’s heart.  

    This is so important to remember, because apart from Christ, heaven is closed to you, locked tight.  Your sin is like an impenetrable barrier that separates you from your Creator.  And you can’t break through from this side.  But by coming to you from the Father and taking on your human nature, Jesus broke through the sin-barrier from the other side.  Through His cross and resurrection and ascension back to the Father, He has given you an opening and a portal to heaven.  There is only one way to access God, to come to Him in prayer, and that is through Jesus.  

    Non-Christian religions, therefore, do not lead to the true God, even if they teach that there’s only one God–not Judaism, not Islam, not Buddhism, not the nature religion of Native Americans.  For they all reject Jesus as being the incarnate Son of God and the Savior from sin.  And He is the only way to God, as He said, “No one comes to the Father except through Me.”  Jesus also said in Luke 10, “He who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me.”  These other religions don’t even have God the Father, for they’ve rejected His Son who reveals Him.  

    So listen to today’s Epistle reading and take it to heart: “There is One Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus.”  You can’t come to God the Father directly; you need an intermediary, a go-between.  It is sheer foolishness and arrogance to think that you can just waltz into God’s presence and that He has to listen to you based on your own merits.  That wouldn’t be true even with an earthly authority.  You can’t just presume that because you want to talk to the governor or the president that they’re required to make an appointment with you and listen to you.  You have to have an in, something or someone that gets you into their presence.  How much more so, then, with the King of kings!  There has to be a reason for you to be given an audience with Him.  And don’t ever think that your own merits and good living will do the trick, like some cash bribe to a politician.  God doesn’t do quid pro quo and bargaining; he can’t be bought by anything that you do.

    No, to pray in Jesus’ name means to pray with faith in what He has done to save you, to know that it is only because of His merits that you can come before the heavenly throne with your petitions and prayers.  It is to pray knowing that Christ is your sole passageway to the Father.  Like Moses was for the people of Israel in the wilderness, so Jesus is our intermediary, our go-between, our eternal  peacemaker with God.  As the bronze serpent was lifted up, our Lord Jesus was lifted up on the cross for us, so that everyone who looks to Him in faith may be saved from the venom of sin and be restored to fellowship with the Father.

    Prayer in Jesus’ name, then, is prayer that begins with Jesus and His coming to us–not only in His ministry 2000 years ago, but also as He comes to us now through His words and Spirit.  Christ is still the Mediator between us and the Father.  Christian prayer begins with listening to the Gospel of Christ, listening to and meditating on the words of the Scriptures read and proclaimed, and then on the basis of that Word, speaking back to Him in faith, making requests based on what He has said and promised, praising Him for what He has done.  

    That is the Trinitarian shape of Christian prayer: The Father speaks to us through His Son by the Holy Spirit.  And we speak by the Holy Spirit through the Son to the Father.  First the Father comes to us through Christ with His words of life; and then, having been filled with His life, we are enabled through faith in Christ to pray those words back to the Father and bring our needs and requests before Him.  True prayer is based not on the poverty of our sinful hearts, but on the richness of God’s faithful Word.

    This is our response, then, to those espousing a “name it and claim it” theology.  Godly prayer is shaped by God’s words.  Prayer in Jesus’ name is prayer that proceeds from faith in Him.  And faith never prays “My will be done,” but, “Thy will be done.”  Faith trusts that God’s will in Jesus is good and gracious.  For the name “Jesus” literally means “The Lord saves.” When we pray in Jesus’ name, therefore, we are asking the Father for all of the saving gifts that have been put into that name which is above every name.  All of this and more is the meaning of Jesus’ words, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you.”  

    So, with this right understanding of Jesus’ words, the question must be asked: Do we take Jesus at His Word?  Does this tremendous promise and privilege move us to pray and to seek Him?  All too often, we must confess that we are lazy in our prayer, or we want to pray but are easily distracted from it by other priorities.  The devil, the world, and our own flesh are always seeking to divert us from prayer.  You must therefore prepare yourselves to oppose them.  When they prompt you to think that there’s something else you must do first, then you must say, “No; as soon as the need arises, I will pray.  For when I have need to call upon God, that is the right time to do it.  As God says, ‘Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will glorify Me.’  And if I do not feel ready or worthy to pray, God will make me ready and worthy.  For I know that He loves me, not because I am so good and righteous, but because of Christ, whom I love and in whom I believe.”

    And when you are tempted to think that your prayer won’t do any good, be reminded of Jesus’ promise.  He said, “Ask and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”  He urgently invites you to come to Him as dear children to a loving Father.  If earthly fathers, who are sinners, generally know how to give good things to their children, how much more will our Father in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!  If I told you that there was a rich man or a king sitting on a pile of gold saying, “Ask and you will receive,” you wouldn’t say, “Oh, I’ll get around to it later.”  You’d go right to him and make your request.  How much more should you do so with the King of heaven!  God will never turn away a heart that trusts in Him.  And even if your prayers in Jesus’ name aren’t answered immediately or precisely the way you’d like, they will all be answered for your good.  Sometimes the best thing God can do for you is not to give you what you want, at least not right away.  In the end though all your faithful prayers will be answered “yes” in the resurrection, when Jesus comes again to bring us the richness of heaven and the restoration of our bodies and the fullness of joy and peace.  For it is written in 2 Corinthians, “No matter how many promises God has made, they are all ‘Yes’ in Christ.”

    Therefore, the Apostle Paul exhorts us, “Pray without ceasing.”  Pray silently; pray out loud. Use the morning and evening prayers and the meal prayers given you in the Catechism.  Pray the Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer given you in the Scriptures.  If nothing else, simply pray, “Lord, have mercy.”  You will never have a shortage of things to pray for in this fallen world.  Jesus said it plainly, “In the world you will have tribulation”–both as a result of the curse of sin and death, and because you are seeking to live faithfully as a Christian.  Both of those things are bound to bring you trouble, sooner or later.  However, Jesus goes on, “But be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”  In Him, by His cross and resurrection, the victory is won; all that troubles you has been overcome and defeated.  So pray with boldness and confidence in Him who is the risen Conqueror, who has given you His triumph, who has opened the door of heaven to you.  And believe Him when He says, “Ask and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”

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

Peace Be With You

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John 20:19-31
Easter 1

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

    It was the evening of that first Easter day.  The disciples were all together in one place, all of them except Thomas.  The doors were shut and locked.  They were paralyzed, not knowing what to do.  They had failed Jesus miserably days before.  They saw Him die a bloody death that was manipulated by the Jewish authorities and carried out with precise Roman cruelty.  Now the women were telling them stories of angels and that Jesus was alive again.  What were they to make of that?  The tomb was empty; that was true enough.  Still the disciples were afraid to believe the full truth, afraid for their future, and especially afraid that those who had killed Jesus would surely come for them, now that the rumors of His resurrection were beginning to circulate.

    What is it that you fear, that leaves you paralyzed and uncertain?  What keeps you locked up, bolted in?  We, too, have failed our Lord like the disciples. We may mean well.  We desire to be people of great character and faithfulness, of great study of the Word of God and prayer.  But when confronted with the realities of life, Jesus is generally left standing alone in Gethsemane while we flee in fear.  Even now when we’ve heard of His resurrection, we’re not always sure what to make of it, what it means for us.  We still fear to believe the full truth because other concerns seem to loom larger.  We fear what might happen to us if people find out what our connections to Jesus really are and what we believe; or we fear financial troubles, losing a job, losing a relationship; or we fear ill health or violence or death.  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–wherever it is that you go or whatever it is that you do to hide from your fears, from the world, and especially from God.null

    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 source of the peace Jesus spoke of.  Jesus’ peace is not some hollow, religious wish, but peace with God who has reconciled the world to Himself precisely in the death of His Son.  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.’” Jesus’ breath is the Spirit which delivers His Word.  The Holy Spirit is the breath of the Church that speaks the Word of Christ. You know how it is when you are out of breath.  You can’t talk. You can barely get the words out. Words are pushed by air, breath. The Church’s breath is not her own but Christ’s, the wind of God that blows from the mouth of risen Jesus. He resuscitates His fearful disciples with the Spirit who renews and gives life to the dry bones of sinners.  He breathes upon His Church as He did here, and as He did in a big way at Pentecost. This one is a little Pentecost, for His disciples, the eyewitnesses of His resurrection. Fifty days later, Jesus would breathe out again over His church, this time bringing 3000 people to Baptism where they too received the Holy Spirit.

    “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven.” Jesus’ words and breath deliver forgiveness.  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. In the liturgy of personal confession, the pastor asks, “Do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?” My forgiveness of itself is not going to do you a bit of eternal good. It may make peace between us, but not between you and God.  Only God’s forgiveness can do that. It comes to you from Christ through His called servant, whomever that man may be.  And that man will always be a sinner in need of the peace of Christ no less than those gathered behind locked doors on Easter evening.

    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 speaking to you, “Peace be with you.”  “I forgive you all your sins. . .”

    Of course, the opposite is also true. Jesus says to the apostles, “If you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Forgiveness is a gift freely given by grace and freely received through faith in Jesus. But there is no neutral, middle ground between forgiveness and unforgiveness, as there is no middle ground between faith and unbelief. God forces His forgiveness on no one.  If someone refuses it through unrepentance, forgiveness is withheld, and it is the church’s and the pastor’s right and duty to declare that to be so and even to withhold entrance to the Lord’s Supper from such a person, until they come to repentance, which is the Lord’s desire.

    All of this is what we just spoke from the Small Catechism, “I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.”

    God’s forgiveness is never something just sort of floating about in the air. It is a concrete, real, earthy thing. Words going from a mouth to an ear by the breath and words of the Son of God, who gave His life and rose again so that we would receive the forgiveness of all of our sins and live in the confident freedom of God’s baptized children.

    One last point–a lot of us can identify with Thomas in this narrative, with our doubts and our questions, especially in this supposedly scientific age where we want everything to be proven before we’ll accept it.  A lot of us would like to have the chance to be able to do what he did, actually see Jesus and touch His hands and side and see that it’s all real.  There’s two things I believe we can learn from Thomas.  The first is, don’t stop assembling yourself with the other followers of Jesus, even when  it sometimes starts to feel pointless.  For it’s in this gathered group where Jesus comes to be present, here in divine service where His special work happens–sometimes in ways you realize, often in ways you don’t.  Thomas didn’t know until after he had already missed out.  Skipping church or Bible class means missing out on those gifts of Christ, the gifts you may especially need that week.

    The second thing to learn from Thomas is that, in fact, you do get to do what he did.  You do get to touch 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 for some of the above.)

Risen Indeed

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Luke 24:1-12; I Corinthians 15:12-26

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

    That is our glad confession of faith this day.  The Lord is truly, literally risen.  But there are many who do not believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus.  They love that today is April fool’s day, because they think that it’s stupid and irrational to believe in such fairy tale nonsense.  At best, they see Easter as a pious myth that has only spiritual, symbolic meaning that isn’t meant to be taken literally.  Christians are the fools.  

    And besides, the world would say, what good is a fleshly resurrection anyway?  In good new age fashion, they believe that the body and material things are lower level stuff, even evil, and our spiritual existence is where it’s really at.  Our culture tends to look at the body as little more than a container, and all that truly counts is the inner, spiritual aspects of who we are.  Your outward gender and sex are supposedly irrelevant to who you truly are.  Reincarnation is based on this faulty thinking.  You supposedly keep coming back in a different body, until finally you get it right, and then you are able to escape the body and leave it behind permanently and join the one spirit of the universe.  null

    Even many Christians are tempted to think this way about the body.  They think that the goal is for the soul to go to heaven, and the body then is pretty much out of the picture.  A recent survey revealed that only about half of the Christians questioned said that they believed in the resurrection of the body.  That’s horrible!  For we confess the resurrection of the body here every week.  We believe in the God who is the Creator of this material world and of our bodies.  It is true that God’s physical creation has been corrupted because of sin.  But the problem is sin, not God’s bodily creation.  The goal of salvation is the restoration of God’s creation and the redemption of our bodies together with our souls.

    In today’s Epistle St. Paul speaks of the marvelous reality of the resurrection, the actual, literal raising of the dead body of Jesus to life again, a body that still bore the glorious marks of His sacrifice on the cross.  Easter is not just about Jesus living on in our memories or being alive in our hearts.  It’s about the truth that He who was indisputably dead, speared in the side and into the heart just to be sure, is risen in glorified flesh–touchable, tangible, and real.

    Today the church proclaims that it is a fact of history that Jesus the crucified One lives.  Earlier in I Corinthians 15 Paul laid out the evidence and eyewitness testimony for Jesus’ resurrection.  The Lord Jesus appeared risen from the dead to Mary Magdalene, to the apostles, to those on the road to Emmaus, and to more than 500 others–men who were still alive when Paul wrote these words, who could be asked and who did verify these claims, that the same Jesus who was nailed to a cross, was seen and heard and touched by them, raised from the dead.  

    And remember this, too.  If there had been a dead body to produce, the Roman and Jewish authorities would have produced it, and put it on public display, like our government sometimes has done to prove a terrorist has been killed.  They had every reason politically to do everything they could to silence these rumors of resurrection.  That was the point of having Jesus’ tomb securely guarded in the first place. 

    And if you think about it, why would the disciples want to make this up, anyway, and risk punishment and crucifixion themselves?  They’d be next on the arrest list.  The disciples showed clearly they weren’t exactly a bold and faithful bunch when threatened with suffering.  And yet after Easter, when faced with persecution, they consistently preached the risen Jesus and the church grew through much affliction.  Several other supposed messiahs had appeared on the scene and faded away.  But not Jesus.  His bodily resurrection isn’t a myth; it is a matter of history, a matter of fact.

    Now imagine for a moment if the resurrection were not true.  What then?  That’s the terrible question that St. Paul raises in the Epistle for the sake of argument.  Suppose that there is no resurrection of the dead.  Suppose that dead bodies do not rise from the grave.  What would that mean for our faith and our life?

    Well, if Christ is not raised, then my preaching is empty and your faith is empty, Paul says. Then it really is an April fools, and you and I are wasting our time here this morning.  For then that would mean that Jesus’ death on the cross didn’t really do the job on sin.  The curse of death would still remain on us.

    If there is no resurrection of the body, then all those who claim to be Christian but go to church only rarely are right on in their thinking.  After all, it’s only what’s inside that counts, right?  If there is no resurrection, then there is no real need for Baptism, or Absolution, or the Lord’s Supper, or preaching.  Those are all things that go on with the body–with the ears and the mouth and butts in the pew.  If there is no resurrection, then we can have a spiritual life apart from our bodily life.  All this stuff at Church, it’s just outward stuff.  Some of you who skip divine service most weeks have been infected with that worldly false teaching and are being lured to trust in something inside of yourself rather than outside of yourself in Jesus.  You’re being tempted to change the 3rd Commandment to “Remember the Sabbath day whenever there isn’t something else you want to do.”  One of the best tests of faith in the resurrection is what happens the Sunday after Easter.

    If soul and body are not intrinsically connected, then what goes on with our bodies has very little to do with our faith.  You can be a Christian on the inside and live and dress and act however you please on the outside.  You can talk about the faith that you have in your heart and then conduct your physical life no differently than the unbelieving culture.  It doesn’t matter, if there is no resurrection of the body.

    But of course that way of thinking is pure foolishness; and those who live believing that they can separate body and spirit are deceived.  For it is written, “Honor God with your body.”  On the Last Day all the dead will rise, some to everlasting life and joy, others to everlasting death and torment.  Let each of us, then, repent this day of our sin and false belief, and let us cling to the truth of the living Jesus, our Savior.  

    For Christ has indeed been raised from the dead. As the angels announced at the tomb, “He is not here, He has risen!”  Jesus Himself said it on Easter evening, “Why are you troubled? . . . Handle Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have.”  Jesus’ rising from the dead is our deliverance from the powers of darkness.  It is the Father’s seal of approval on the work of His Son.  By raising Him from the dead, God showed that He was pleased with the death of His Son, that He accepts it as the redemption price for the world, that your sins are covered and forgiven by His blood.  You are now reconciled to God in Christ.  Nothing in all creation can undo what Jesus has done.  You who trust in Christ are fully redeemed.  You have new life in Him.

    Jesus is the first-fruits of the dead, which means that He is the beginning of the harvest, the first of many more to rise through Him.  That’s why Easter is such a big deal–it’s not only His victory, it is also your victory, too.  Jesus is the source and spring of our bodily resurrection.  For the Scriptures say that those who believe and are baptized are members of His body.  And where the head goes, the body must surely follow.  Jesus’ resurrection stands at the beginning of this New Testament age, ours comes at the close of the age.  But through our baptismal union with Him they are inseparably connected.  Jesus said, “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 will never die.”  

    Jesus alone can be trusted with our death, for it is written, “Death no longer has mastery over Him.” And death therefore no longer has mastery over anyone who is in Him by faith.  Jesus’ death is our death to sin. His life is our life before God the Father. The preaching of His death and resurrection is not some pious hope or merely some inspiring religious message, but it is the power of God for salvation to all who believe.

    Christ has glorified your bodies.  For not only did He purify you by taking on your very flesh and blood in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, not only did He bear your sins in His body on the tree, but He has broken the curse of death by rising in the flesh on the third day.  And now He baptizes your bodies into His death and life.  He speaks His Word of forgiveness into them.  He feeds your bodies with His own life-giving Body and Blood.  God claims your bodies as His temple.  He honors them with His presence and works through them to bless others.  And though these bodies will one day die and decay, God has promised to raise them and glorify them at Christ’s return.  He will change our lowly bodies to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subdue all things to Himself.

    So do not be led astray by all of the real April fools who would try to get you to doubt the Word of Christ and His resurrection.  The devil will continue flinging such excrement until the day of Judgment.  If there is no resurrection, if the body isn’t saved, then neither is the soul.  And so St. Paul says, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.”  If Christianity is only good for this life, if all Jesus is good for is to help us feel good about ourselves, cope with life, give our kids a little morality, then we are of all people the most pitiful.

    But Christ is risen from the dead.  Your greatest enemy has been defeated by the cross.  What’s the worst that can happen to you?  What is there left to be afraid of in this world if death is defeated and all sin is forgiven?  What do you have to fear of poverty, sickness, violence, cancer, hunger, persecution?  Christ has conquered and overcome it all for you.

    There is now great meaning to your life because Christ is risen.  There is meaning even in suffering and sorrow and affliction. And because of what we celebrate this day, your future is bright in Christ; it is brimming with promise.  Suffering will give way to resurrection.  Jesus Christ is risen today.  He is alive and among us to give Himself to us, even from this very altar.  He is our meat and drink indeed.  Faith lives upon no other.  Truly, this is the day which the Lord has made.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it.  

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

You Have Kept the Good Wine Until Now

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John 2:1-11
Epiphany 2

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

    The Apostle John writes his Gospel in such a way that there is often a twofold meaning in his words. On the one hand, John will narrate the true, literal words and actions of Jesus. But on the other hand, he will often do this in such a way as to emphasize a deeper point about Christ and His redeeming work. That is the case with today’s Gospel.  There is the straightforward, explicit meaning; but there is also a deeper, implicit meaning which shows us the ongoing significance of Christ’s miracle and how it still continues in the church.

    We know the story well, how the wine ran out at this wedding feast, how at His mother’s prodding, Jesus was moved to help out, how the servants filled six stone jars with water which Jesus then miraculously changed to wine, how when the new wine was taken to the master of the feast, he was pleased but also bothered that it wasn’t served first; for it was better than any of the other wines.

    So, what are we supposed to learn from this?  Well clearly we learn that Jesus is truly God. For no mere man can change one substance into another without doing something to it along the way.  Water gets turned into wine every year in vineyards and wineries throughout the world, as rainwater produces grapes and juice and fermentation makes the wine.  But here Jesus compresses all of that power of His creation into this one moment.  It is as we sang a moment ago: Jesus is “God in flesh made manifest.” This miracle reveals Jesus to be the divine Lord of the elements of creation, who cares even about the little things, like beverages at weddings feasts.

    We also clearly learn in this Gospel that Christ approves of marriage and honors it. For if He didn’t uphold marriage, He wouldn’t have sanctioned it here with His presence.  Especially in our current cultural context–where marriage is being redefined into nothingness, where people behave as if they’re free to join themselves together sexually without God first giving them to each other, where people cast marriage aside when it no longer fits their plans for self-fulfillment–with the casualties of the sexual revolution piling up all around us, we must constantly be reminded that matrimony is a holy thing, established by God Himself before sin ever entered the world. The Lord is the One who joins together a man and a woman and makes them to be husband and wife. Therefore, the marriage relationship should be held in the highest regard.

    Consider, after all, how the Lord has given two commandments that uphold this holy estate. In the 6th Commandment, the Lord seeks to protect marriage from adultery and to maintain the faithful unity of husband and wife. And in the 4th Commandment, He establishes the marital relationship as the foundation of the family and commands that the husband and wife be honored by their children.  We must learn, then, from our Lord’s presence at the wedding feast of Cana how He fully approves of married life.  Those who are single should honor God and this institution by remaining chaste. And those who are married should treat their spouse as a gift from the Lord Himself.

    And last of all, we clearly see from this Gospel that alcohol is not inherently sinful.  Alcohol can definitely be misused for self-indulgent purposes that unleash the sinful nature; drunkenness is clearly a sin.  Nevertheless, all of those who would call the good gifts of God’s creation evil must reckon with the fact that Jesus here produced about 150 gallons, the equivalent of more than 700 bottles, of vintage wine for the people to enjoy. We do better simply to follow the words of St. Paul in I Timothy: “Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because the word of God and prayer make it holy.”

    All of this is the straightforward meaning of today’s Gospel. And yet John clues us in that there is still much more for the church to grasp in this account.  For John calls this miracle a “sign.” And signs point beyond themselves to something else, to a larger reality. This changing of water into wine, then, is a sign of something much greater.

    We begin to perceive what that something greater is in the very opening words of this passage: “on the third day.”  In this way the believer is told right from the start that the events at Cana are directly connected with the death and resurrection of Jesus, who rose from the grave “on the third day.” This sign points us to Christ’s greater work of overcoming the consuming power of the grave and restoring all of creation to its original newness and abundance.

    When Jesus was told by His mother that the wine ran out at the wedding banquet, Jesus responded to her with these strange words: “What does your concern have to do with Me? My hour has not yet come.” When Jesus refers to His “hour” in John’s Gospel, it is always a reference to His impending crucifixion. So why would Jesus make that connection?  What would running out of wine have to do with the cross?

    Part of the connection is revealed in the word used here to say that the wine failed and ran short.  It’s the very same word in Greek that is used in Romans 3, where St. Paul writes, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  The reason that the things of this creation fail us and run short is because we ourselves have failed and come up short in keeping God’s Law and living according to it. This has not only brought mortal judgment on us; it has brought a curse on all things. Even the blessings of God’s good creation are temporary.  Sooner or later all of our stuff will fail us.  The Scriptures say that the world in its present form is in bondage to decay and is passing away.

    So, when the wine ran out, that drew attention to the hour of Christ’s suffering and dying in order to redeem His sapped and fallen creation. Jesus reminds His mother that if she is going to appeal to him for a miracle, she must also deal with the cross, where He will break the curse of decay and death forever. Already here, then, Jesus was beginning to bring about the redemption of creation, which would come to fulfillment on Good Friday and Easter. For He was reversing the draining force of sin so that there was bounty and joy once again.

    In order for this creation to be made new again, the curse on it had to be removed.  And that curse was broken through the flesh of Christ sacrificed on Calvary.  Galatians 3 declares, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’”  Jesus took the curse into Himself so that by His death sin’s draining domination over us and over creation would be undone.  All that saps the life out of this fallen world He has subdued and destroyed by His holy cross.

    The fact that this miracle occurs on the third day not only points forward to the resurrection, but also points back to the 3rd day of creation when God brought forth the fruit-bearing plants from the earth.  Jesus performs this sign with the fruit of the vine in fulfillment of the prophecies of the Messiah’s kingdom.  It is written in Amos, “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when . . . sweet wine will drip from the mountains and flow from the hills.” No running short there! And Isaiah foretold a day when the Lord would swallow up death forever. Of that day he said this, “The Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine–the best of meats and the finest of wines.” In this miracle, then, we begin to see the very kingdom of God and the new creation breaking in, which will be revealed in all its glory on the Last Day.

    The six water pots were filled to the brim. For the fullness of time has come.  Jesus fulfills all that was written in Moses and the Prophets.  Out of the water of the Old Testament promises we draw the finest wine of Jesus Himself.  The number six points us to the day of man’s creation in the beginning.  And it points us to the day of our recreation on the sixth day, Good Friday.  The water and the wine in this miracle, then, are signs of the water and the blood which flowed from Jesus’ side and which flow to us now in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.  The six jars were used for ritual washing.  Likewise, the Scriptures say that Holy Baptism is the washing of regeneration, and that the blood of Jesus cleanses us of all sin.  Our Lord renewed the gifts of creation at Cana’s wedding feast, and now He renews us through His sacramental gifts in water and wine, so that we might be restored to the sweetness of life with God.  

    You must learn to see and believe, then, that the miracle of Cana still goes on; the wedding banquet continues.  The heavenly groom, Jesus Christ, comes in the Divine Service to His churchly bride to comfort you with His love.  By water and the Word He has made you His own.  And in Holy Communion you become one with Christ as He gives you His life and all that He is.  He who showed Himself to be Lord of the elements at Cana now shows Himself to be Lord of the elements on the altar.  He causes His blood and body to be present under the wine and the bread, and through this miracle He recreates you in Himself.  These elements of creation won’t fail you; for they deliver to you the Lord Himself who will never fail you or leave you.  His grace doesn’t run out; there is always enough and more.  That is why the Scriptures say, “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.”

    Know, then, that the Lord here is giving you a vintage sign:  at Cana, at Calvary, and on the altar–a sign of His glory, glory revealed in His love for you.  As always, He has saved the choice wine for last.  He has given His best; and it is all for you.  Come, then, in faith to His table, that you may partake in the great wedding feast when He returns.  For it is written in Revelation 19, “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!”

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

This is Jesus, the King of the Jews

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Matthew 2:1-12

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

    Sometimes you’ll hear detractors of Christianity say that Christians merely took over a pagan winter solstice holiday when they established Christmas.  These detractors will suggest that the older and more authentic religion is the pagan one, and Christians are just copycats who made stuff up about Jesus.  But that is most certainly not the case.  

    In the days of the early church it was a common belief that great people died on the same date that they had been conceived in the womb and given life.  Most believed that Jesus died on March 25th, the date of the Passover of that year.  And so if that’s his conception date, then his birthday would be December 25th.  And thus we have the date of Christmas.  

    However, there were some who believed that the date of the Passover was April 6th the year that Jesus died.  9 months after that would place His birth on January 6th.  To this day Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate their Christmas on what we observe as Epiphany [or sometimes on January 7].  And so we have the 12 days of Christmas, stretching between these dates.  And in a very real sense, even in our tradition, January 6th is the Gentile Christmas.  For it is the first time that non-Jews are given to see the Messiah Jesus, who is their Savior and our Savior, too.

    “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” they ask.  It’s important to note that these Wise Men, these Magi, were almost certainly not worshipers of the true God prior to this time.  They weren’t kings themselves, despite what the old hymn says.  They were likely assistants to a king, counselors, advisers.  And their title as Magi would suggest that the “wisdom” they offered to the king came at least in part from occult magic, astrology, the seeking of power and knowledge from various sources other than the Word of God–“reading the tea leaves” so to speak, reading the stars, and other pagan things.

    Of course, they would have had written wisdom, too, and among that wisdom was probably some portions of the Old Testament Scriptures.  For remember where these Magi came from, from the East, from Babylon and Persia east of Israel–the place where the Israelites had been carried away captive as exiles centuries earlier.  Several of those Israelite captives became counselors to the king, Wise Men of sorts–people like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego who wouldn’t bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image, or Daniel who was thrown into the lion’s den for continuing to pray to the Lord against the official edict.  And those Jewish Wise Men would certainly have brought with them not only the practice of their faith but scrolls containing the words of Moses and the prophets.  

    The Jews returned to Israel a few decades later.  But the Gentile Magi surely would have retained copies of those words over the years, such as this prophecy in Numbers 24, “A Star shall come out of Jacob, a [royal] Scepter shall rise out of Israel...”  Now the Magi probably only understood that to be about the birth of an important earthly king.  But when the special star or heavenly body appeared at the time of Jesus’ birth, God by His grace still used their imperfect and muddled wisdom to lead them to seek out Him who is Wisdom in the flesh, the King of the Jews, Christ our Lord.  

    And that’s one of the first points that we should take out of this Gospel today–by the grace of God, He draws even people like this to Himself: semi-pagan astrologers and Magi, people who are enmeshed in false belief and false religion, and He calls them away from that to the Truth.  He draws Gentiles like us who fall so easily into superstitious thinking, who are more enthralled with the notion of ghosts and aliens than with divine service–we who are tempted to look for guidance and happiness in all sorts of things other than God’s words revealed and given to us in Scripture, who love to get enmeshed in mystical and spiritual speculation, who wonder if there really is something to fortune tellers and palm readers and those people who claim to channel deceased loved ones.  Even people like us, with our muddled hearts and brains, God yet draws to Himself through His Word, in spite of ourselves, because of His grace and mercy, the very grace and mercy that caused the Lord to become flesh in the first place to redeem and save us, to lead us into all truth.  This manifestation, this epiphany of Jesus to the Wise Men, then, is good news for us, for it shows Jesus to be the fulfillment of Simeon’s words, “a Light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the Glory of God’s people Israel.”

    You can tell that the Magi were thinking in terms of an earthly king, because the first place they go in Israel is to the capital city, to Jerusalem.  “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?”  That’s where they expect to find Him.  But the Messiah King is not one who comes surrounded by the finery and the glories of the capital.  He comes rather in the lowliness of the humble village of Bethlehem, the “house of bread.”  For Jesus has come to be for us the Bread of Life.

    Our fallen nature thinks God is to be found in places of power, that true religion is about that which brings health and wealth and success and happy feelings.  But that’s not where Jesus is at.  Herod has all that.  Jesus, on the other hand, ends up having to flee from Herod’s murderous scheme, carted by Joseph and Mary to exile in Egypt for a time, living an ordinary and common life for us.  The life of the true King is marked from the beginning by suffering and the cross.  That’s where Jesus is, not surrounded by earthly glory, but robed in humility for us.  True religion in this world is also marked by this humility of Jesus.

    Now it’s interesting to note in this story the difference between the Gentile wise men and the Jewish priests and scribes.  On the one hand, the Jews who possessed the Scriptures in their fullness and knew the prophecies of the Messiah were greatly troubled at the thought that the Messiah was born.  It says here that King Herod and all Jerusalem were shaken by this news.  Why would that be?  You would think they might be glad, joyful.  You would think that they would want to personally escort the wise men to Bethlehem so that they could see for themselves.  Instead, they’re more concerned about how this might upset their lives and the political structure.  Instead, they quote the Scripture they know so well and stay home.  

    In many ways, they represent a good chunk of American Christianity.  Some of the most “spiritual” people I know are ones who love to go off on this or that religious or moral topic, but who rarely if ever see the need to come to divine service.  Far too many people think that if you just learn enough facts of the Bible, or learn enough morality from the Bible, then you will have God as well.  You can stay at home with your private spirituality and forsake the presence of Christ in the flesh in His gathered Church.  But such people are sorely deceived.  They are not Christian.  We, too, must guard against priding ourselves on our Bible knowledge and instruction rather than glorying in the One whom the Bible is all about, our Savior Jesus.  We must be careful not to let the Word of God simply become window-dressing in our lives lest we stop praying and meditating upon it.  

    The Magi are our example here.  They receive the Word of God properly, in such a way that they are moved to seek out Christ in the flesh.  The Magi rely on the written Word, but they are not content with the Bible for its own sake.  They cling to it for the sake of Christ to whom it leads them.  That is always the purpose of the Word, to lead us to the Word made flesh, Jesus.  He is there for us, too, concretely and tangibly in the preaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments, no less so than He was for these Wise Men.

    “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?”  That title, “the King of the Jews” might well spark some connections and meditation in your hearts and minds.  It’s actually a title that only shows up in two places in the Gospel–here at the beginning of Jesus’ life, and later at the end of Jesus’ life.  The two situations are parallel.  King Herod was envious and tried to protect His power when Jesus was born, seeking to have Him killed; He ordered the deaths of all the boys two years old and under in Bethlehem.  So also in the Passion narrative we hear of how the Roman ruler Pontius Pilate knew that the Jews had handed Jesus over to him because of envy.  They, too, wanted to protect their position and power.  In both cases it’s the Gentiles who see Jesus more clearly as He is.  Pilate finds no fault in Him, and Pilate’s wife even calls Jesus a just Man.  But in the end, Pilate caves to the pressure, and in fulfillment of God’s will, perhaps to mock the Jewish leaders, He places over our Lord’s head the inscription “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”  

    So near the end of Matthew’s Gospel, we are given a crystal clear answer to the Magi’s question near the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel.  “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?”  He is there, the humble Child, God in the flesh, the light of God's love broken into the darkness of our sinful world, revealed in lowliness for us.  And above all, He is there on the cross, with the inscription over his head declaring, “This is Jesus, the King of Jews.”  He is the King who is given gold for His royal nature but who chooses to wear the crown of thorns.  He is the King who is given incense, used at the time of prayer and sacrifice, who answers our prayers by being the sacrifice for the sins of the world.  He is the King who is given myrrh, a spice used for Jesus’ burial in the grave, which He would conquer in His victorious resurrection.  This Jesus, the King of the Jews, has come to redeem all people–wise men from the east, Roman conquerors from the west, Jew and Gentile, you and me.  Behold your King.

    God grant that His Word would continually accomplish its purpose of leading you to the Word made flesh, that with the Magi we might come and kneel before Jesus week by week as he gives His gifts to us, His true body and blood offered up for the forgiveness of our sins.  For just as the Wise Men returned home by a different path, walking along a new way, so God gives you also to return to your heavenly home by a different path than the old ways of this world.  We return home by Christ Himself, who is the Way.  Arise and shine, for your light has come.

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