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St. Mark's Passion, Part V

Mark 15:21-47
March 20, 2024

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

    Jesus is led away to be crucified.  But He is so weak from the beatings and the flogging He has endured that He can only carry the cross for a short distance.  The lack of sleep, the loss of blood, the weight of the world’s sin causes Him to fall beneath the burden of the cross.  

    And so a man named Simon of Cyrene is compelled to carry Jesus’ cross.  Simon was in the city for the Passover feast and was probably pulled out of the crowd randomly by the Roman soldiers to do this duty.  And yet it wasn’t entirely by chance that this happened.  God chose Simon for this.  You can tell that Simon and his family were part of the church decades later because the names of his sons are included in the Passion narrative--Alexander and Rufus--who would have been known by the early church.  God chose Simon to perform this special task which would give a vivid picture of Jesus’ own words, “If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up the cross and follow Me.”

    So it is for you.  In your baptism you were chosen by God to bear the cross.  You received the sign of the holy cross on your forehead and on your heart to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified.  You are given to carry that cross daily, bearing the burdens of the callings into which God has placed you, sometimes suffering because of faithfulness to the truth of Christ and His saving Word.  

    But notice the fundamental distinction between you and Christ.  Though you take up the cross, yet you do not bear the judgment against sin.  That’s all on Jesus.  He bears the real burden.  He bids you to follow after Him beneath the cross so that you may receive all the benefits of His suffering.  That’s how it is that Jesus can say, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.”  Freed by Jesus’ cross from the crushing weight of sin’s curse, we find it to be a light load that brings rest and peace to our souls.    Jesus is taken to Golgotha, the place of the skull.  And there He is offered sour wine mingled with gall to drink.  This is meant to be a bit of an anaesthetic to dull the pain somewhat.  But Jesus won’t drink it.  For He has not come to escape pain, but to endure it fully to redeem us fully.  He will be conscious and lucid in His agony until the end.

    The soldiers crucify Jesus, driving the spikes through His hands and feet, lifting Him up to hang under the weight of His own body.  The stresses of that will cause His blood flow and breathing to begin to fail, eventually leading to slow, torturous asphyxiation.  

    The charge against Jesus for which He was convicted is placed over His head: The King of the Jews.  It would have been common Roman practice to place the charge over a criminal’s head like this.  For those passing by and entering the city, this would be a strong deterrent and disincentive to engage in unlawful behavior.  A clear message is being sent to one and all: “Here’s what happens to thieves and murderers and those claiming to be the king of the Jews in Roman territory.  Don’t try this yourself.”

    And yet Pilate’s charge is also a wonderful proclamation of the truth, a powerful sermon.  For here Jesus is rightly viewed as the true King of the Jews, crowned with thorns, exercising His royal authority and laying down His life for His people to protect and save them.  For the Jews are not only the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The Bible tells us that they are also all those who share the faith of Abraham, who trusted in God’s promises and was thereby accounted righteous in God’s sight.  Everyone then, who believes and is baptized into the promised Christ is a descendant of Abraham.  It is written, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”  Every believer, then, every one of us Christians is a Jew, in the Scriptural sense of the word.  And Jesus is our King, the King of the Jews.

    Jesus is numbered with the transgressors in order to save transgressors by taking their place. He is mocked with the words, “He saved others; Himself He cannot save.”  In a sense that is true.  He saves others precisely by not saving Himself; His love prevents Him from doing anything but bearing the full darkness of our sin and sickness and death to set us free.

    Creation itself reveals what is happening here.  From the sixth hour until the ninth hour, that is, from about noon until three o’clock, darkness covers the land.  This is no mere eclipse, which lasts only a few minutes.  This is the powers of darkness being given free reign to do their worst to Jesus.  The full and entire judgment against the world’s sin pounds Him, as He cries out, utterly alone, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”  Learn from this the great dreadfulness of your sin.  But, most of all learn from Jesus’ words that hell’s fury has now been taken away from you.  God forsook His Son, so that you would not be forsaken but would live in communion with Him forever.  

    When the centurion sees how Jesus dies, with words of mercy on His lips, commending His Spirit into His Father’s hands; and when the centurion sees the darkness and the other signs in creation, he confesses the truth, saying, “Truly this Man was the Son of God!”  Just a few hours earlier the  Jewish high priest Caiaphas had torn his robes in anger and unbelief at Jesus’ statement that He was the Son of God.  But now the outsider, this Gentile centurion shows forth true faith in recognizing what the Jewish leaders did not: the one on the cross is the Son of God.

    This calls to mind an earlier event where Jesus healed the servant of a centurion.  Perhaps it was this very same Roman centurion.  When Jesus on that previous occasion saw the faith of this Gentile who trusted in His word, Jesus stated, “Many [Gentiles] will come from east and west, and sit down with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.  But the sons of the kingdom [the Jews] will be cast out into outer darkness.  There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  

    Of course, not all of the Jews reject Jesus here.  There are many who believe in Him and mourn His death–like the women who are there at the cross.  And there is also Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy member of the Jewish ruling council, but who had not consented to what they had done in condemning Jesus.  He had become a disciple of Jesus, though secretly, for fear of His colleagues.  Now He takes courage and goes to Pilate and asks for the body of Jesus.  No longer would his respect for Jesus be secret.  But He would not have Jesus’ body carelessly thrown into a pit or a shallow grave by the Romans.  He treats it with reverence and honor.  He asks for the body of Jesus.

    Let us learn to be like Joseph of Arimathea, not only honoring but asking for Jesus’ body.  Martin Luther said that pastors should so preach and teach about the Lord’s Supper that the people would press and require their pastors to serve it to them.  And that truly is asking for the body of Jesus.   In our day Jesus’ body isn’t a corpse in need of burial clothes and a tomb.  In our day His body is risen from the grave and offered to us to eat as the very bread of life in Holy Communion.  So let us also take courage, particularly in those times when you can’t get to church because of illness or hospitalization, and ask for the body of Jesus.  Press your pastor to give you the holy medicine of the Sacrament.  Like Joseph let us continually attend to Jesus’ body and blood.  

   Finally, Jesus is wrapped in a clean linen cloth in His death, in token of the fact that all who die in Him are wrapped in His cleanness and holiness.  Jesus is buried in a new tomb.  For He has come to do something wonderfully new for you by His resurrection.  The tomb in which Jesus is laid to rest is hewn out of a rock, for He Himself is your Rock and your fortress against the power of death.  Take refuge in Him.

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

Abraham Rejoiced to See My Day

Genesis 22:1-14; John 8:42-59
Lent 5

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

    Even though we’ve heard today’s Old Testament reading before, it really is still a bit scandalous and troubling that God would ask Abraham to kill his son Isaac.  This is the son he had waited for 25 years, the son of the promise, the one through whom all nations on earth would be blessed, God said.  It seems almost cruel now to command Abraham to sacrifice him as a burnt offering, like an animal.  Is He just toying with Abraham?  What good is a God who asks you to give up what you love, even people you love?  We want a God who will give us our heart’s desires and help us to fulfill our dreams.  But that’s not the God that Abraham had.  The true and living God speaks of denying yourself and taking up the cross, and sometimes He asks you or causes you to give up what is most dear to you–not because He wants to make your life difficult, but because He wants to make your life eternal.  He wants your heart to be set on things above, to have a treasure that will never pass away, to love Him above all else–even above your own children and family.

    When God calls for such sacrifices from you, that’s when what the heart loves and trusts in is revealed.  Think about the things or the people that you enjoy most and are most attached to in this world.  What if you had to choose between them and God, having them or having Him?  It’s hard enough for us to choose divine service when the competition is extracurricular activities or sleep or recreation or work or just when the weather is unpleasant.  What about when it comes to the truly serious sacrifices, when God asks you to give up even money or family or friends?  

    Christians sometimes think that they would never do what Peter did and deny Christ, that they would go to a martyr’s death before that.  And yet the church can hardly even compete with college basketball.  Just wait for the coinciding of March Madness and Holy Week services.  And if sports aren’t a test for you, I’m sure something else will be.  How will we ever be faithful in the big things when even the little things are such a struggle?  Sooner or later you will be asked to give up what you love, in one form or another.  And then you can either say to God: You aren’t good; you shouldn’t do this to me.  I’ve had enough and I don’t want to have anything to do with you any more.  Or, you can say: I don’t understand at all.  But Father, this much is true and certain; I know that your will for me and mine is only good, and I believe that in the end I will be able to see the good, even though I can’t right now.  Dear Father, I believe; help me and save me from my unbelief.

    It’s rather interesting that nowhere in Scripture are we let in on what Abraham was thinking or feeling about God’s command.  There’s nothing about the inner turmoil he must have been enduring.  That’s not the main thing here; his faith is.  Abraham simply walked by faith; he did what God said to do.  The book of Hebrews tells us that Abraham believed that the Lord could and would raise Isaac from the dead–which still doesn’t make it any easier to put the knife to your own son’s throat.  This must have been tremendously heart-wrenching.  In the Scriptures, God calls Abraham “My friend” (Isaiah 41:8).  And a friend is someone who can empathize with you, who knows and understands what you’re going through.  I would suggest that Abraham is called the friend of God in part because at the sacrifice of his beloved son Abraham tasted something of what God Himself would go through.

    God asks Abraham to do this not only for the testing and strengthening of his faith, but also because this is a picture and a prophecy of what God Himself would be doing on the very same mountain some 2000 years later.  Like Isaac, Jesus is the only Son, the beloved Son of the Father, the One long promised and long awaited, born of a woman who conceived in a way beyond human power.  Just as Abraham saddled his donkey, so a donkey would be saddled, too, for Jesus, and He would ride on it into the city of Jerusalem, which was later built here on Mt. Moriah.  As Isaac carried the wood, so Jesus, too, would have wood laid on His back, the wood of the cross for sacrifice.  As Abraham raised the knife to slay his son, so the cross was raised up from the ground to slay the Son of God.

    And there’s one more point of comparison that we should make.  Just as Isaac did not fight his father, Jesus willingly let himself be bound and nailed to the wood in obedience to His heavenly Father.  When this sacrifice is depicted in Christian art, Isaac is generally portrayed as an able and strong boy.  He certainly could have tried to prevent that which His aged father intended to do.  But he doesn’t lift a finger in self-defense. He allows himself to be tied up, not in order to prevent a last-minute change of mind, but because this is what you do with sacrifices: You bind them, you lay them on the altar, and you kill them. Isaac accepts the will of God as preached by his father, and in that he paints for us a picture of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    So it’s not only Abraham the Father who should receive the attention in this narrative, but also Isaac the son.  He “did not open His mouth but was led like a lamb to the slaughter” (Isaiah 53:7).  And in that, he foreshadowed the much greater Sacrifice, the great patience and restraint which the Lamb of God exercises for us. Jesus, like Isaac, doesn’t raise a finger in His own defense.  They both trust their father; they both trust in God.

    It’s important for us to recognize that Jesus also had to walk by faith.  As a true human being, He had to face suffering and death trusting in His heavenly Father, believing that the Father would vindicate Him and raise Him up, even when by outward appearances He seemed utterly rejected.  The words we pray in Lenten Vespers each week from the Psalms are the words of Jesus, “In you, O Lord, do I put My trust; leave me not, O Lord My God.”  Don’t ever forget this: Jesus’ faith saves you, this commending of Himself into His Father’s hands.  You are saved by Jesus’ believing.  It is this faith of Jesus that the Holy Spirit gives to you, so that together with Christ you also may trust in the Father and commend yourself into His hands.  If you are ever struggling in the faith, just look to Jesus.  Take refuge in Him.  For it is by His faith that you are given the power to believe.

    Abraham didn’t have to go through with killing his son.  Instead of Isaac, God told him to offer up a ram, caught by its horns in a thorny thicket.  In this sense then, you are like Isaac.  You don’t have to make the ultimate sacrifice, because God has provided a substitute sacrifice, the Lamb of God with thorns on His head, willingly caught in the thicket of your sin.  Jesus is sacrificed, and you go free.  You are saved from death, forgiven by the blood of Him who was offered up for you at Golgotha.

    Jesus says in the Gospel, “Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.”  I can’t help but think that it was here on Mt. Moriah that Abraham saw Jesus’ day, that he was given to understand fully the sacrificing of the willing, obedient Son, the meaning of the substitute being offered, the meaning of this being the third day.  As Abraham received his son back from the dead, figuratively speaking, on this day, so did the heavenly Father, literally speaking, on the third day. Abraham laughs with joy, not only to have his son, but also to see the Lord’s salvation.  Abraham saw that God the Father was willing to sacrifice His Son out of immeasurable love for this fallen human race, for him and Isaac, for you and me.  “Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.”

    Finally, Jesus said, “Before Abraham was, I am.”  They were ready to kill Jesus for saying that.  He was unmistakably laying claim to being the Lord Himself in the flesh, the great I AM.  It was as though He said: Yes, I am the one who called Abraham from his homeland.  I am the one who gave him the promises.  I am the one who spoke to Moses in the burning bush.  I am the one who led the children out of their bondage in Egypt.  I am that one.  But now I’ve come among you to do something far greater.  For I’ve come to be your Great High Priest and to sacrifice My own self in your place, that you may have an eternal inheritance.  You claim Abraham as your father.  Then rejoice with him, since you, too, have been given to see My day.”

    The God who asked of Abraham the unthinkable is the God who came to do the unthinkable Himself.  The Lord Jesus continues to be your Lamb, just as you sing to Him when you come to His table.  His Body and Blood there are unquestionably “for you.”  And so He Himself is with you; He is on your side.  Like Abraham, you have been made to be the friend of God.  That is a tremendous comfort to hold onto, especially in those times when He asks you to make great sacrifices.

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

(With thanks to the Rev. William Weedon and other brother pastors)

Bread King or Bread of Life?

John 6:1-15
Lent 4

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

    Today’s Gospel concludes by saying that the people tried to take Jesus by force to make Him king.  They had finally found the leader they were looking for from among all candidates that were out there (a feeling that most of us may not share this election year).  Politics and theology were running close together in the people’s minds.  Jesus had developed quite a following through His teaching and His healing.  Now, by feeding the 5000 in this miraculous way, Jesus was the instant frontrunner to lead the people.  While some may have understood who Jesus really was when they said, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world,”–referring to the Messiah Moses had prophesied–most seemed to be more interested in the power and the miracles.  They followed Jesus not for forgiveness of their sins, not for reconciliation with God, but rather for free food and health care.  Here’s a guy who could really help their economic circumstances and their medical needs. The salvation they were looking for was deliverance from foreign Roman occupiers.  This is about as close as they could get to an election.  The people had spoken.
    Now at this point, Jesus would be the envy of every politician running for office.  His poll numbers were strong, and He had proven he could deliver on his promises.  Church politicians would be thrilled with Jesus, too.  Jesus really seems to have hit upon a successful evangelism program; just look at the crowds!  (Of course, by the end of this very same chapter, after Jesus had talked about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, He went from having thousands of followers to only a dozen.)

    Just because the majority speaks, it doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily right–whether it’s the 99% or the 51%.  The notion of a democratic republic wasn’t handed down from heaven as the way to run states or countries.  To paraphrase Winston Churchill, democracy is a lousy form of government; it just happens to be the best one available in this fallen world, since power (which inevitably corrupts sinners) supposedly doesn’t get concentrated in the hands of a few.  But majority votes are still sometimes not too far from mob rule, giving the power of the law to the lawless and the immoral and the godless.  In a similar way with the majority in today’s Gospel, other agendas were at work that didn’t belong to Jesus, political agendas that weren’t the Father’s design for His Messiah king.

    That’s why Jesus goes to the mountain all alone and shuns the voice of the people.  For Jesus understands that while presidents and prime ministers are elected by the people, kings are not.  The king is who he is by virtue of his birth, by virtue of his person–regardless of the voice of the people. 

    There is a temptation offered here to Jesus that is not unlike what the devil had offered earlier when he took Jesus up on the mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.  “All these I will give you,” the devil said.  But to attain such glory would require a deal with the devil, which our Lord Jesus would never do.  His kingdom is not of this world, it is from above.  And His kingship is not subject to the will of the people but the will of the Father.

    Jesus was all alone on the mountain, which is the way I’m sure Moses felt in the Old Testament reading as the people grumbled against him.  When they were in Egypt, they groaned against their yoke of slavery.  And once liberated, they groaned against the burden of freedom.  And this is right after God saved the children of Israel by opening the Red Sea to them as an evacuation route, and drowning the army of their enemy.  With very short memories, they now tell Moses they would rather be back in Egypt–note just how fickle public opinion can be!  If the Israelites could vote, Moses would surely have been recalled.

    And yet, God does not oust Moses.  The Lord alone is the deciding vote.  He gives the people that which they don’t deserve; in spite of themselves He rains bread from heaven upon them, manna, literally giving them their “daily bread.”  Of course, the children of Israel would later complain even against this generosity of God.  They wished they had more variety in their free meals and not the same old manna every day.

    Likewise in the Gospel, our Lord Jesus provides miraculous bread for the 5000, even for these people who did not have in mind the things of God but the things of men.  For God gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people.  He send rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous, that we may learn to receive His undeserved gifts with thanksgiving.  

    And again notice here how this calls to mind the wilderness temptation of Jesus.  Back then, Jesus would not turn the stones into bread to feed Himself, in faithfulness to His heavenly Father.  But now, perhaps very near the same spot where He had earlier been tempted, Jesus does use His power to produce bread, not for Himself but for others in their need.  Jesus is focused not on Himself but on others in the way of love.

    And this is where we often fall short.  We must confess that we get turned in on ourselves and have sometimes grumbled and complained against God for the way He’s provided for us or hasn’t come through for us as we wanted.  We want God to fit our agenda, and when He doesn’t, we become disappointed or upset.  Too often we let the voice of the majority affect our desires more than the voice of Jesus, the only divine voice of His Word.  It’s the opinion of our peers that drives us, a desire to fit in and keep up with the world, to have the approval of those who are considered important.  We are by nature people pleasers rather than God pleasers.  For this we must repent.

    And so must the church at large, which is constantly facing the temptation of watering down its confession and practices to make itself more amenable to the world–with market driven big box churches and success driven preachers.  We must ever be reminded that Jesus is Lord, not public opinion or financial pressures or human votes.

    And we must also be reminded that God is still at work in the midst of all these things, turning even evil for good.  Even the rebel will of the majority becomes an instrument of the will of God, both for judging and for saving.  You recall when Pontius Pilate placed Jesus and Barabbas before the people, and asked them which one they wanted him to release, there was something of an election.  They shouted for Barabbas to be released and for Jesus to be crucified.  And the murderer was set free while the Lord of life was sentenced to death.  Though this was a grave injustice humanly speaking, yet it was precisely how divine justice would be carried out.  For Jesus had come to take the place of us sinners, to bear the judgment for sins He did not commit, so that we would be forgiven.  And so the voice of the majority was indeed the voice of God the Father Himself, speaking through the people saying, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”  It was the will of God that His Son die for the people in spite of themselves.  Because of that sacrificial love of God, we Barabbases are released from sin and death.  We are now children of God in Him who is the Son of God.

    When politics and theology become indistinguishable, people die.  In the Gospel, the people were going to take Jesus by force to make Him king.  And in the end the crowds did just that when they forced Him to the throne of the cross, where He was crowned with thorns.  That is where Jesus is lifted up and exalted in all His royal love for us.  It is from the cross that we hear the true voice of God which trumps all other voices:  “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”  

    Jesus said in John 6, “Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which comes down from heaven, that one may eat of it and not die.  I am the Living Bread which came down from heaven.  If anyone eats of this Bread, he will live forever.  And the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world.”  Jesus is our Manna, given over to the cross for the life of the world, given out to you in Sacrament of the Altar.  

    Thanks be to God for this, that our Lord does not give in to the mobs to become an earthly king.  For His kingdom is an everlasting kingdom to which you belong in baptism.  Jesus is more than a bread King; He is your Redeemer King, the very Bread of Life Himself.  Thanks be to God that His mercy overcomes our sin.  For in spite of our grumbling, our Lord also gives us that which we don’t deserve.  Not only does He give us our daily bread and the things we need to support this body and life, He also gives us the bread of immortality, His own flesh and blood.  Again, Jesus said later in John 6, “I am the Bread of Life.  He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst. . .  Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”  We have our own greater miracle from Christ right here in divine service: the Bread which is His body multiplying His forgiveness to you so abundantly that it never runs out.  Those who eat here are filled and satisfied with the goodness and mercy of the Lord.

    Let us, then, come continually to where we may truly hear the voice of God–not in majority votes or so-called scientific consensus, but in Christ’s Word, in His sacraments, in His preached Gospel.  Let us gladly hear and learn the words of Jesus, for they are the words of eternal life.

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Larry Beane)

Spiritual Battle

Luke 11:14-28
Lent 3, Oculi

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

    We usually think of Lent as a time to meditate on the suffering and cross of our Lord, and that is true.  But the Gospel readings for Lent actually focus even more on spiritual warfare with the powers of darkness. These 40 days are very much like the 6 weeks of military boot camp, training to fight the ancient enemy.  The first Sunday in Lent recounts Our Lord’s temptation by Satan in the desert for us.  Last Sunday Jesus healed the demon-possessed daughter of the Canaanite woman.  And this Sunday our Lord is casting out another demon, and then He is accused of being in league with Satan. Lent is about battle.

    The Pharisee’s charge wasn’t quite as strange as it may sound to us.  They were right in recognizing that something supernatural was going on here.  There are only two options: either Jesus was casting out demons by the finger of God or He was doing it by the power of the devil. The idea that Jesus was simply a kind man, a wise rabbi who was trying to show us a better moral way is just not a possibility in Scripture.  The Pharisees recognized that something real and serious was going on.  There were only two options.  Jesus was either a prophet of the God of Abraham, or he was promoting something that was of the devil.

    And what is true for Jesus is true to this day of all prophets, all ministers, and all religions. If someone is not worshiping the Holy Trinity, they are worshiping the devil.  For in truth there are no other gods. There is only the true God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who together with the Holy Spirit is one God.  Everything else is merely an impostor.  The pharisees speak of  “Beelzebub” which was the name of a Canaanite god, Baal. They call him ruler of the demons. Jesus doesn’t mince any words and calls him “Satan.”  There are no other gods, no other ways, no moderate middle. If you don’t worship Jesus you worship the devil, even if it’s simply by being an agnostic.  Jesus says, “He who is not with Me is against Me.”  So even though the Pharisees were completely wrong, even though they accused Jesus of casting out demons by Satan, at least they realized what was at stake, what the options were. In that, they were mostly ahead of us.

    Let this be to us a call to repentance.  For we have so often played the mild-mannered Christian, more distressed about cruelty to animals than we are about abortion, more worried about the honor of the American flag than we are of our God, more eager to talk about our favorite politician or celebrity than we are to talk about Jesus, more expert in the things of this world than in God’s Word, and we’ve nearly forgotten what is real and what truly matters and what’s at stake. We’ve preferred the good opinion of our pagan neighbors to their salvation, not wanting them to be annoyed with us or to think us odd or extreme.  We want to fit in and play both sides.  But here is the truth: You either belong to God or you belong to Satan. Those who think they sit on the fence, the undecided who choose the calm, middle way, are as delusional as those who think they can be a non-practicing vegetarian or that a woman can be sort of pregnant. Christianity is not just about being nice and moral; it is founded upon the death of Jesus alone.  Fence-riders belong to the evil one whether they know it or not. Jesus spits them out of His mouth.   It is written in Revelation 3, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew you out of my mouth.”

    Don’t let the demons tempt you to be moderate and lukewarm about spiritual matters, about sin and forgiveness and Jesus the Savior.  There is no middle ground on such matters, for there is no middle ground in eternity.  And also don’t ever think you’re living in neutral territory.  This world remains a battlefield where the enemy seeks to lure you over to the other side through sin and false belief.  Every sin is ultimately a temptation to forsake the true God and love and trust in another.  The Epistle reading speaks of how there is no place in the Christian life for crude joking, which seeks worldly approval and belittles God’s created gifts.  It speaks of how coveting is idolatry, setting your heart on and putting your confidence in money and things.  And it speaks of how no fornicator has any inheritance in the kingdom of God.  To willfully engage in sex before or outside of marriage, digitally or literally, is to cut yourself off from the God who created marriage.  This is no game.  Be watchful and prayerful.  Be on guard.

    Jesus continues in that same Revelation 3 passage, “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.  Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”

    In those words we begin to see the good news.  God does not give up on you.  God comes to you and seeks you out and calls you back to Himself.  As you repent and turn back to God you are no longer a fence-rider, though you have been tempted that way to be sure.  For you belong to the Lord; you are baptized. And that is no small thing, no minor detail. For Baptism casts out demons. God’s Word and Spirit in the water drives them away.  You will not be spewed out of the Lord’s mouth as you hold onto the words that proceed from the mouth of God.  

    So do not despair. Do not be afraid. Weak as you are, Jesus made Himself weaker. He made Himself a perfect target for all of Hell’s fury. He drew all their hatred, all their violence, all God’s wrath into Himself. He was stronger than the strong man precisely in His weakness and poverty, in His death. He disarmed the strong man by suffering all the strong man’s strength and attacks. Jesus emptied him of every ounce of poison he had, and now the devil has no strength left. He is spent; he is done. He used everything he had to kill Jesus on the cross. And there is no more.  It is finished.  He has no more accusations. The demons are mute in heaven’s courtroom. The blood of Jesus that they shed damned them to Hell.  For they tried to consume Him and destroy Him.  But whoever consumes the Body and Blood of Jesus in an unworthy manner is guilty of the Body and Blood of Jesus. They have their wages and their payback.  They are judged and condemned.  Jesus could not be consumed in that way.  He broke the jaws of those beasts that tried to devour Him.   And so you are declared innocent and holy. There is nothing left to do, nothing left to prove.  You are pardoned. You do not have to face the charges the demons lay against you. There are no witnesses to accuse you. You are released from the power of the accuser, Satan.  God does not recognize or remember your sins. You are free.  You are forgiven and welcomed as the rightful heir and the beloved of the Father.

    Isn’t it marvelous how our Lord works?  The strong man is defeated by His own tactics being used against him!  It’s worth rehearsing this every Lententide: The devil brought sin into the world by tempting the virgin Eve; and so the Lord brought forgiveness into the world by being born of the virgin Mary.  The devil first overcame man by a tree, and so the devil is overcome by the tree of Christ’s cross. Satan bruises Christ’s heel, but with that same heel the devil’s head is crushed. Christ’s blood, spilt at the hands of the evil one, is precisely what pays for and takes away your sin, and therefore it also takes away the power of the devil to accuse you and hold you captive. It is written in Hebrews, “The Son of God Himself likewise shared in our flesh and blood, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime held in bondage.” Christ has divided and conquered Satan’s kingdom by the power of His holy cross.

    Now it is true that the devil is still roaming about this earth seeking someone to devour. He is real and he is dangerous, but as long as you are in the refuge of Christ, you are safe.  For you belong to God. His Name is upon you in baptism. His promise will not fail. He has not forgotten what He has done, whom He has declared you to be.  You are given to hear the Word of God.  Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it, holding onto it in faith.  For that Word is powerful to drive out the demons, to declare sinners to be a saints. And you are given to eat the Body of Jesus. You drink His Blood. This miraculous eating and drinking is not done in rebellious unbelief like the demons, but in faith.  And so as you consume Him you are given to share in the life of Him who conquered the grave.  This eating and this drinking proclaims the glorious, life-giving death of Jesus. It proclaims the kind of death He died: a  death to end death, a  death that stands in for us, a death that draws us to Him, that destroys the gates of Hell, and shuts the devil’s mouth. This crucified One will come again. For He is truly alive in the body.  He gives Himself as food and drink for your body and soul, to make you whole, to make you His.  In this eating and drinking, He consumes you with His love. The Lord joins you to Himself. You are at one with God, in communion with Him.  All that is His He gives to you; His righteousness innocence, blessedness, His good works.  Everything.  It is a sign of His love for you and a foretaste of things to come.

    So, it can also be said of you: blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts which nursed you; but more than that blessed are those who brought you to the font, that you might be born of God in the body of Jesus.  For in this way, the Stronger Man became your refuge.  The demons cannot have you.  You belong to the Lord.  

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

(With thanks to David Petersen)

Bread for the Dogs

Matthew 15:21-28
Lent 2

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

    The Canaanite woman comes to Jesus alone–no husband, no mother, no sister, no friend to be with her in making her plea.  She comes all by herself to seek the Messiah’s help.  You can imagine how that would have been a bit intimidating, to address such a rabbi in public.  “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.”  Some of you parents and grandparents have children or grandchildren who are in trouble or danger of one type or another, physically or spiritually, or both.  You know the anxiety and the concern this woman had for her child and the passion of her prayers.  She had probably consulted all the doctors and specialists.  Jesus is her final and greatest hope.  

    Think of it that way.  Imagine you had a child or grandchild who had a life-threatening disease, something that was going to be terminal.  But there is a doctor who has developed a new procedure and treatment that could cure them.  Imagine if you were somehow able to talk to this doctor in person and make your case and ask for help.  You’d be passionate in pleading your cause and begging for him to pay attention to your need.  It wouldn’t matter if you had to go to great lengths, and even to be embarrassed in the process.  It would be worth it.  This is how it is with the Canaanite woman.  With boldness she prays and calls out to Jesus; and she does so with faith that He is the Messiah, for she refers to Him as “Lord” and “Son of David.”  We might think that Jesus would be moved by such courageous prayer.  “But,” it is written here, “(Jesus) answered her not a word.”

    Where is her husband in all of this?  What has her husband said?  Has he been silent also?  Does he blame her or the daughter for the demon oppression?  Or does he blame himself?  Is he ashamed of them; is he afraid?  Where are the people who should be helping this woman?

    Her first cries may have been bold, but it doesn’t seem to matter.  She is quickly put in her place.  Not only has she come alone, but the Lord also leaves her alone.  He ignores her and answers not a word.  He silently walks on by.

    There is a fine but important line between temptation and testing, between last week’s Gospel and this week’s.  When the devil tempts you, he is trying to lead you away from God.  When the Lord tests you, he is strengthening you and drawing you closer to Himself.  However, by outward appearances, it can be hard to see which is which.  They feel the same.  Even scarier is the temptation to believe that the Lord isn’t really good to you, that He’s moody and erratic in his character like us.  

    Notice that Jesus did not say “no” to the woman’s prayer.  He knows her faith, better than she knows it herself.  He knows what He is eventually going to do.  But for the moment He is silent, and in His silence, trust in Jesus is tested and purified.  Does she trust Him when He seems to ignore her?  Do you trust Jesus when your prayers appear to be unheard and unanswered, when He seems to be turning His back on you and offering you no help at all?

    Faith trusts not in what it sees or experiences.  It clings to Christ alone.  Faith clings to Jesus’ death and resurrection alone and not to whether or not God seems to be coming through for you at the moment.  Even if God never responds to a single word of our prayers in this life, even if He reserves all of His “yes’s” for the resurrection from the dead on the last day, even if all we receive in this life is suffering and silence, faith says, “so be it.”  We still have Christ and His kingdom and His forgiveness and His soon-to-be-fulfilled promises.  We have God’s “yes” even when the silence seems to say “no.”

    Jesus Himself would experience the silence of God the Father in his own ears.  He prayed on the cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” And the Father was silent.  Hell is the place where God is silent, where there is no Word from Him to give life or comfort.  No one came forth to answer Jesus’ “why” question.  Most of His friends and family had forsaken Him, too. There was only the terrible silence of God’s judgment against us, laid on Jesus. We too are given sometimes to hear the silence of God, not as punishment (since Christ endured that for us), but to stretch and strengthen our faith in Him who hung in silence for us.

    The disciples seem to be bit uncomfortable about all this, though it’s unclear exactly why.  Are they embarrassed by her because she keeps crying out and is a nuisance to their comfort, like a panhandler asking for money?  Or are they embarrassed because our Lord is not acting in a way that seems proper to them?  Are they confused by what appears to be His lack of compassion?  Do they want Him to show His power, to prove that He is the Messiah and help her?  Whatever it is, they intervene on her behalf, asking Him to do something to resolve the situation.

    However, just because you have a lot of people praying for you doesn’t mean you’re necessarily more likely to get what you want.  Prayer is about being conformed to God’s will, not God being conformed to your will.  It is good for us to pray for one another; for that is a part of how we love one another and exercise our faith in Christ.  But prayer is powerful not because of our praying but because of the One we are praying to.

    Jesus responds to the disciples’ prayers, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  The woman had addressed Jesus with the faith of an Israelite; but she was still a Gentile, not part of God’s chosen people.  Jesus won’t let her forget that.  And yet, Jesus does not say that He won’t help this poor woman.  He simply reminds her that He had come first to the Jews.  Making disciples of all the Gentile nations would come after His death and resurrection.  

    This is the second way in which God tests and tries our faith in order to strengthen it.  He acts as if we are rejected.  He won’t let us forget that our own merits and qualifications and family lineage are not what give us a place in His kingdom.  Christ teaches us to trust in nothing but Him– not our prayers, not the prayers of the pious and holy, or the saints in heaven, but only in Jesus.

    Now she comes and falls down before Him, desperate and fully submissive, “Lord, help me!”  It is the barest and yet most heartfelt prayer.  And what does Jesus say in reply?  “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”  

     Now that insult is softened a bit by His use of the diminutive word, “little.”  Jesus might well have meant something like a lap dog, something like that which a trendy socialite would carry around in her purse, a support animal.  But still, it’s an insult.  Lacking the presence of her husband, it could actually be taken to mean something far worse: a dog who lets men use her for money.  Who else has she thrown herself down in front of?  How did this demon come into their lives in the first place?

    Demons rarely come uninvited.  We have to deal with them because with every sin, we dangle our fingers in shark-infested waters.  The misuse of the internet can be a portal for demons.  Willfully sinning and compromising what you know to be right can invite the powers of darkness.  To harden your conscience to any sin, so that you can supposedly enjoy your sin and then repent later is to invite them in as well.  There are no victimless crimes, no small sins without consequences.  What do we think of people who don’t properly store their guns or dangerous chemicals in the presence of children?  The same is true with spiritual dangers.  Not only our own lives but also the lives of our daughters, our sons, our spouses, and our loved ones are at stake.  Let us repent of our failings and seek the Lord’s mercy and protection from all evil.

    The Canaanite woman is likely aware of how Jacob wrestled all night with God, as in the OT reading.  She also knows her own unworthiness to demand things of God.  And so she says, “Yes, Lord.”  Yes, I am a dog.  But then she shows not only a persistence as great as Jacob’s, but also a keener insight into God and His promises.  No, she is not one of the children, but she does belong in the house.  She doesn’t want the children’s bread anyway; she wants the Master’s bread, and that belongs to His pets as well as to His children.  “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their Master’s table.”  She is not a sheep of Israel or a child, but neither is she a pig or some wild animal.  She belongs in the house.  He is her Lord.  Even an apparent insult is a precious Word of God to her, and by faith she holds Jesus to that Word.  Like Jacob, she won’t let Him go until she receives a blessing.  Jesus marvels at her faith and rewards it.  Her daughter is healed.

    The circumstances of the affliction or the location of her husband don’t matter.  This woman needed a Savior, an advocate with the Father, someone who would send the demons away and provide the bread that gives life.  She found all of that in Jesus of Nazareth.  She held God to His promises even more fervently than Jacob.  She contended with God and man in Christ and prevailed.  Her faith was great because Jesus was everything for her. Faith is great that clings to a great Jesus.  And He is indeed greater than the Law that separated Jew from Gentile, greater than the demon that possessed the Canaanite’s little girl, greater than your sin and your death.  

    God’s Law, of course, calls us something far worse than “dogs.”  It calls us sinners, ones who have played with fire and danced with demons far too often.  Let us acknowledge this.  Repent and throw yourself upon the mercy of Christ with the Canaanite woman.  “Yes, Lord, I am, a poor miserable sinner; but you came into the world to save sinners, and so I trust in You and will not turn my heart from You but will cling to You persistently for deliverance from Satan and sin, for full forgiveness and new life.”  The Lord Jesus not only can save you, He has saved you.  He was attacked by the powers of darkness for you and in your place to release you and set you free.  You are the apple of His eye, His holy and beloved ones, His radiant and forgiven children.  Trusting in Christ you don’t simply eat the crumbs that fall under the table, you have a place reserved for you at God’s table as His sons and daughters.  Here is the cure to heal your soul and to send the demons away.  Come, receive the Bread of Life at the table of the Master, His body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.

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

(With thanks to David Petersen and William Cwirla)

The New Adam Defeats the Old Foe

Matthew 4:1-11; Genesis 3
Lent 1, Invocavit

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

    Jesus is tempted three times just as Adam and Eve were.  The old evil Foe has no new tricks.  He uses the same three temptations in the wilderness as he did in the garden: food, doubting God’s Word, and self-exaltation.  Three temptations, but it’s always the same lie: Jesus’ Word isn’t enough.

           Worship your desire. Worship yourself.  Fear, love, and trust in anything or anyone besides Jesus. That’s the devil’s game. It worked on Adam and Eve. They lost. It works on us too. In Adam we all lost.

           But the devil’s temptation tactics don’t fool Jesus. And it’s not that since Jesus is God temptation is no big deal for Him.  He is God, but He does not use His divine power here.  That’s the whole point.  He faces temptation for us as true man, a perfect, obedient human being who loves and trusts in His heavenly Father.  As a real human being Jesus faces the same temptations as the first Adam, not in a garden but in a cursed wilderness, to show you that He is the new and greater Adam.  It’s precisely Jesus’ obedience as one of us that saves us and gives us the victory.

           As it was with Adam and Eve, so it is with Jesus.  The devil starts his temptation with appetizers. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.”  The devil isn’t concerned about a fair fight; he attacks when Jesus is weak and hungry, like a predator going after a wounded animal. Beware. He’ll attack you the same way, when you’re isolated and alone, when you’re beaten down by the troubles and the pressures of this life.  He will prey on your hungers and fleshly desires and try to make it seem as if you just want to do something that is natural and good.  The devil knows what the ancient Romans knew and politicians and marketing experts know today: if you give the people bread and circuses, as long as their desires and appetites are satisfied and they’re entertained, you can get them to go along with almost whatever you want.  The devil is an expert party planner, catering lies for our every desire, promising satisfaction but only giving emptiness. How easily we turn God’s good gifts into idols: work, sports, sex, food, technology, even worship–making it all about ourselves.

           Not so for Jesus. He denies himself. He fasts 40 days. That’s one of the reasons people fast from certain foods or give up things for Lent.  But be careful how you do that.  It’s not to score points with God or to engage in self-improvement.  Lenten practices are intended to get the focus off of ourselves and onto God and our neighbor.  So whatever you do, do it to discipline your body in repentance and faith.  If you’re giving up certain foods, use the money you’ve saved for charitable giving.  If you’re giving up screen time, use that time for more meditation on God’s Word and to serve your neighbor.  Jesus came to serve.  That is why He who is the Bread of Life refuses to make bread for Himself against the Father’s will.

    “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”  Jesus overturns the dust of Adam’s death by clinging to the living words of God.  Jesus does what Adam and we failed to do.  Jesus fights the devil. He resists the temptation. He stands firmly on the Word of God. All of this…for you. Jesus said in John 4, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work.”  That’s His bread and yours–God’s Word. “It is written.” He knows and trusts that the Father will provide all He needs.

           Where the first Adam ate and brought death, the second Adam does not eat and brings life, so that you who hunger and thirst for righteousness might be filled with His words of truth and life.  The devil’s lies are no match for the Word of Christ. In the end the devil will have to flee.

           But the tempter doesn’t give up right away.  Next, the devil takes Jesus to the top of the temple. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you’ and ‘on their hands they will bear you up lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

           See how cleverly the devil twists Scripture?  He even uses God’s own word to try to plant doubt. It worked on the first Adam. “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’”  Notice how the devil twists and changes God’s Word to make it sound like it’s forbidding more than it is.  Did God really say, “On the day you eat of that tree, you will die?”And by mixing a little truth with his lie, he makes his lie all the more convincing.  

          This temptation is particularly insidious. Luther observed that this temptation to forsake the Lord’s clear Word is the worst and most dangerous. It’s a temptation to put God’s Word and promise to the test as if it’s not entirely trustworthy. With this temptation the devil scratches itching ears, muddling God’s Words with our emotions and opinions. With this temptation the devil has blown his foul breath of false teaching into countless churches and led many astray.

           Did God really say “male and female” for marriage?  Surely He’s not against “love.”  And by the way, how can you trust the Bible anyway?  Did God really say that all Scripture is His inspired words?  How can you trust things written down by men?  Did God really say, “Baptism now saves you?” or, “This is my body and my blood?”  How can earthly things possibly convey heavenly blessings? . . .  Understand the devil’s tactics here.  See how the devil just wants to implant doubt, to get you to trust your own thinking over God’s thinking and His clear words.

    Notice how Jesus doesn’t get into a theological debate with the devil in response.  And neither should you.  After all, the devil is a whole lot smarter than you.  Just hold to God’s Word.  Even Jesus simply says, “It is written, You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”  Period.  Take refuge in God’s Word; don’t call God into question as if you are above Him or in any position to judge Him.

    Finally, the devil took Jesus up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory...if you will fall down and worship me.”  It’s a regurgitated temptation, the same one that got Adam and Eve to bite.  The devil comes at us this way too.  Power.  Praise from the world. You can be like God.  Just bow down to whatever or whoever you have to in order to get what you want out of life.  The devil loves the way most people do religion–just choosing the parts they like.  My kingdom come.  My will be done. Do it yourself spirituality. Do it yourself morality. You can have it all, if you just make this compromise and reject that divine Word, if you just bow down and worship me.

           But Jesus doesn’t take the bait. He stands firm, refuses the self-exalting power grab. The devil would’ve promised him anything to bend the knee and avoid the cross. But Jesus will bend the knee to no one except His Father.  “It is written, you shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.”  The only way Jesus is enthroned as King of kings is by his coronation on the cross. No cross, no Kingdom.  And so He becomes the Man of Sorrows, the broken, bleeding man, the beggar King who rules by dying and rising.

            That’s why Divine Service isn’t conditional like the devil’s worship is. Jesus doesn’t say, “If you worship me, then I’ll give you” such and such.  It’s exactly the opposite. Christ gives you everything in His preaching and Supper, and the response of faith is that we worship Him.  It’s not a transaction, it’s a gift.

            In all these temptations–food, doubting God’s Word, self-exaltation–the first Adam failed.  But not Christ; He is the new Adam who overcomes the old foe.  The lord of lies is no match for Lord of life.  That’s what Luther means in that line of the hymn, “One little Word can fell him.” That one little word is liar.  Tell the devil who he is and then tell him exactly where he can go.
           Where the first Adam said “yes” to the devil’s lie, Jesus says no, three times. Jesus resists and stands firm.  And what makes that such good news is that Jesus does not stand alone in the wilderness.  He stands with you, as your substitute. You are there in Him.  His temptation is your temptation; His victory is your victory.  Everything Jesus does is for you. He was Born for you, grew in wisdom and knowledge for you, was an obedient teenage boy for you, baptized for you, sent out into the wilderness for you, tempted for you.  His righteous obedience is yours.  That’s why it is written, “You shall tread on the lion and the cobra…the young lion and the serpent you shall trample underfoot.”  You share in Jesus’ head-crushing victory at Calvary.

           The first Adam could not defeat the devil. But the second Adam, Jesus, can and did defeat him by the holy cross, so that the devil, who overcame mankind by the tree of the garden, might likewise by the tree of the cross be overcome.      

           In the first Adam we were cursed to return to the dust. In the second Adam we are raised from the dust by His bodily resurrection.  In the first Adam we were cast out of Paradise into the wilderness in sin and death. In the second Adam we’re brought through the wilderness to a new creation: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  In the first Adam we were cursed with the food of sweaty labor. In the second Adam, we’re blessed by His sacrificial labor in the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  Whoever eats of this Bread will live forever.  In the first Adam we were tempted and fell. In Christ’s temptation, in His life, death and resurrection, we stand victorious over sin, death and the devil.  

           You are the Baptized. And that means the devil will come after you too, just as he did with Jesus right after His baptism.  You will be tempted by your appetites, by your craving for power and control, by your desire to test and doubt God’s Word.  But you need not fear the devil or his lies. The serpent’s head is crushed. The devil is thrown down.  You are in the Mighty Fortress.  You are Christ’s and Christ is yours.  Christ stands firm for you in the wilderness, on the cross, and today by His words and body and blood. And He holds the field forever.

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Sam Schuldheisz)

He Arose from His Throne and Laid Aside His Robe

Jonah 3:1-10; Matthew 6:1-21
Ash Wednesday

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

    We enter today into the 40 day season of Lent, a number which corresponds to the time that our Lord Jesus fasted in the wilderness, in which He suffered and overcame the temptations of the devil for us.  Living by faith in Jesus, we seek to follow in His way–to put down and mortify our sin through repentance, and to grow in the holy life He has given to us purely by grace.  Today’s readings instruct us in that, in the meaning of repentance and faith.

    To begin with, we learn from the Old Testament reading that true penitence has some very real outward aspects to it.  Sometimes we can be tempted to believe that repenting and believing only has to do with some sort of inward sorrowful or pious feelings that we have.  But the account from Jonah shows us it also involves our bodies, too.  

    Jonah was sent to Nineveh by God to preach against it because of its wickedness.  The Ninevites were enemies of Israel; they were idolaters who were known for their cruelty.  They would sometimes skin their enemies alive and hang the skins on the city walls as a warning to their adversaries.  You can see why Jonah wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of prophesying to them and ran in the opposite direction.  But the Lord brought him back, and Jonah declared to the city, “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”  They were given their own Lenten season. God’s judgment was about to come down upon them for what they had done.

    Amazingly, it is written that the people of Nineveh believed God.  You wonder what might happen if Jonah went to one of our big cities today and cried out against its wickedness and violence and immorality.  Here in Nineveh, the Law of God was not met with rebellion, but it accomplished its primary purpose of leading the Ninevites to repentance.  They proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth.  Even the king of Nineveh laid aside his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes.  The king announced to the people: “Cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.”  

    Notice here how the repentance of the Ninevites wasn’t purely a spiritual matter but a bodily matter too.  The two go together.  They fasted and put on sackcloth as a way of humbling the flesh along with the spirit.  They put themselves in the ashes as a sign of death they deserved.  “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”  Furthermore, their inward repentance  involved the outward turning away from evil, stopping the sinful deeds which they had been doing.  They didn’t just say, “I’m sorry” while all the while planning to continue the same way of living.  Their belief in God’s judgment was real.  Their desire to change was real.  

    Let it also be the same way for us these 40 days of Lent.  Whatever your pet sins may be–gossiping, gambling, gluttony, drinking, the love of money, lust and sexual immorality, anger and losing your temper, grudge-holding, misusing God’s name, laziness, self-righteousness and conceit–whatever it is, acknowledge that you have invited God’s just judgment by it.  All of us have deserved nothing but death and hell.  Repent, turn away from your sin and turn to God for mercy and help in Jesus.  That is literally what the word “repent” means, to turn, to turn around from embracing the things that lead to death to embracing Christ and the life that is in Him alone.

    Even the Gentile king of Nineveh turned to the Lord in his repentance, declaring, “Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?”  This is the key point:  The Ninevites put their hope not in their own turning, their own works of repentance, but in God’s turning.  They relied on the hope that God would turn away from the judgment He had declared on the city.  They hoped in the Lord’s mercy, and through that faith they were saved.  It is written, “Then God saw . . . that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.”

    In a very real way, the message of God to you this day is the same as Jonah’s, “Yet forty days and judgment is coming.”  Yet about 40 days and Good Friday will be here.  As we contemplate that coming judgment, we lose our appetite, so to speak.  When a person is in sorrow or troubled or focused intently on a future goal, very often he won’t be able to eat.  So also, as we enter this 40 day season, we engage in a holy fast, that our hearts and minds and bodies may be more devoted to the Word of God and prayer.  Like the king of Nineveh, we set our hope on the fact that God will turn His fierce anger away from us, so that we may not perish but have everlasting life.  

    And our hope is certain.  We live in the sure confidence that our Lord will turn His fierce anger from us, because He has turned it elsewhere, on His own beloved Son, who bore our judgment for us on the cross.  The Father executed our disaster on Christ in our place by His merciful grace.  And so He relents from bringing it upon us, and He does not do it.

    In all of this we see that the Ninevite king was, in a way, a picture of Jesus.  For again, it is written, “He arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes.” Our royal Lord laid aside the robe of His glory, covered Himself with the shame and sackcloth of our sin, and was laid in the dust and ashes of our death to save us.  Moths would eventually consume the cloaks that were put on Jesus in mockery. Rust would destroy the spear that pierced his flesh. But neither could lay a hand on the Lord of life. Death would not the victor be over Him who hung upon the tree.  The grave met its match when Jesus was laid in its dust.  Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust is no longer the final word. Jesus gives the final word over our enemy: “It is finished.” Jesus rises from the dust, having taken away the stain of sin.  Through Christ God relents from the disaster of judgment that was to come upon us.  He raises you from the ash heap of repentance to be seated with the Prince of Peace as children of God.  

    Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.  We know and believe that our true treasure is not worldly acclaim and the praise of men.  For that reward quickly fades.  We don’t give our gifts and pray our prayers and fast our fasts to draw attention to ourselves, but so that all attention is drawn to Jesus, that we might meditate on His words and share in His love ever more deeply.  Jesus is your treasure.  

    And above all, you are the Lord’s treasure.  His heart is with you.  You are the focus of His love, which sacrificed all to win you back through the secret and hidden means of the cross.  The Father sees in secret and honors His Son’s work, and He now reveals openly the mystery of the cross through His Word to save you who believe.

    This is our joy and our happiness, even on this penitential day.  The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart and saves those of contrite spirit.   The Introit declares to us what the mind of God is toward us: “You have mercy on all, O Lord, and abhor nothing you have made.  You spare  (us) all because you are our Lord, our God.”  God loves us in Christ, in spite of ourselves.  

    So even in dust and ashes we rejoice and are glad.  For ashes symbolize something more than death.  They symbolize sacrifice, the burnt offerings of old.  In the Old Testament the ashes of the burned sacrifices for the sins of the people were found outside the camp.  Jesus was crucified outside of Jerusalem, thereby showing the true mercy of God towards His people.  Ashes on the forehead, then, are also a baptismal sign in the shape of a cross, marking you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified, recipients of His mercy.  And in the midst of the Lenten fast, Jesus invites you to feast on Him who died and rose for you, to receive His true body and blood for your forgiveness, so that you may share in His everlasting life.

    That is what it means to lay up for yourself treasure in heaven.  Store up and take to heart the gifts of Christ.  For moth and rust cannot destroy and thieves cannot break in and steal this treasure which Christ has won for you.  Endure patiently in the way of the cross, looking forward with sure confidence to the Easter victory–Christ’s resurrection, and your own resurrection when He comes again.

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