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Beware of False Prophets

Matthew 7:13-23
Trinity 8

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

    Jesus says, “Beware of false prophets.”  Our Lord wouldn’t warn us like this unless there was a real and present danger to us.  In fact, the threat a false prophet poses is worse than that of disease or violent crime or terrorism or financial ruin.  For while those things endanger your earthly lives, false teaching endangers your eternal life.  

    A big part of what makes false prophets so dangerous is that we actually like what they have to say very often.  False teachers tell us what we want to hear.  It is written in 2 Timothy, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”  

    A true prophet preaches repentance.  But false prophets know that condemning sin and warning people to be saved from the coming judgment doesn’t sell too well these days.  It’s so negative and harsh.  Nobody wants to be told that they need to turn from their self-absorbed ways.  What people want is something practical to help them in their families and at work, something uplifting, a spirituality that helps us to feel better about ourselves.  null

    This is what the prophet Jeremiah spoke of in the Old Testament reading.  The false prophets say to those who despise God, “The Lord has said, ‘You shall have peace’ And to everyone who does whatever they want to do, the false prophets say, ‘No evil shall come upon you.’” False prophets will often come across as very inclusive and loving.  But in truth, they let people get away with their self-justification and rationalization of sin.  They let fraudulent spirituality sit unchallenged next to Christian truth to avoid offending anyone.  While they may seem to be so nice, there is nothing caring or loving about tolerating false teaching or ungodly living.  For such things are lethal to the soul and invite God’s judgment.  That is the broad path that leads to destruction.

    False prophets are also a real threat to us because they look like the real thing.  Jesus said, “They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly, they are ravenous wolves.”  False prophets look like sheep of the Good Shepherd.  In fact they may look more godly and holy than a true prophet and preacher of God’s Word.  For while many false prophets will overlook and bless sin--especially in the realm of sexual immorality, many other false prophets will stress very strongly that Christianity is all about your own personal holiness.  They’ll be all about doing good works and being a good person and following these rules and those regulations for right living.  You’ll look at them and say, “They must be from God.  Look at how religious and devoted they are.  Look at how piously they talk.”  The pope with his pomp looks good.  The evangelical preacher giving you step by step instructions on how to become a better you looks good.  The passionate Jehovah’s Witness, the family-values Mormon looks good.  But in the end, they are in the same camp as the Pharisees, who falsely believed that living an obedient life is the way you gain God’s favor.  Those who look within themselves for the answers, those who trust in their own good works to keep themselves close to God or to make themselves better candidates for heaven are just engaging in a more spiritual form of self-absorption.  They’re in love with their own righteousness.  The devil is perfectly happy with that sort of religion.

    Repent, then, of your own succumbing to the spirit of false prophecy.  Confess where you’ve misused your keeping of God’s commands as a way to try to exalt yourself and earn His blessing.  Acknowledge where you’ve ignored God’s Law for the sake of convenience and rationalized away your sin.  Turn from all of that and humbly seek His mercy.  Turn your attention to true prophetic words.

    But how can you be sure of who a true prophet is?  Well, to begin with, there is really only one true Prophet, and that is Christ himself.  He alone speaks the words of God without flaw and without fail.  He is the Word of God in the flesh and the fulfillment of all prophecy.  His alone are the words of eternal life.  Do not put your trust in any man.  I am called and sent by God to be your pastor, but your faith should never be in me or my opinions, but only in the Word of God which I am given to speak.  In the second reading for today, Paul reminded the pastors at Ephesus that false prophets would arise from among themselves.  Good prophets would go bad.  So make sure, first of all, that it is the word of Christ that you are hearing, the holy Scriptures that are being proclaimed to you and not just some pious human wisdom.  The solid rock upon which the Church is built is the words of Jesus.  Everything else is sinking sand.  When what is preached is not a vision of the preacher’s own heart but that which comes from the mouth of the Lord, then you are hearing a true prophet.  

    But you might rightly say, “I’m not a theology major.  False teachers quote the Bible just like genuine teachers.  How do I tell the difference?  How can I tell whether or not someone is misusing Christ’s Word?”  The simplest answer that I can give to you is one I’ve told you many times before:  Know your Catechism by heart.  For there in the Catechism and the Creeds is summarized for you the fundamental teachings of the Scriptures and all that you need to know and believe to be saved.  There is confessed God’s holy Law and Gospel by which you are brought to repentance and to faith in Christ.  There you have what the church has taught and believed from the Word of God since the days of the apostles.  If what someone is preaching sounds a little weird to you, different from the Catechism and the Creeds and the Word of God you’ve heard preached here, then beware of it; flee from it.  

    Jesus says in the Gospel when judging between true and false prophets, “You will know them by their fruits.”  The fruit refers not simply to their lifestyle, since that can be the deceptive clothing of the wolf.  The fruit refers to the doctrine.  What spiritual food do they offer?  What do they hold forth for your souls to feast upon?  Is it solely Christ the Bread of Life, the food that fully satisfies you, or are other “ingredients” and requirements added, like arsenic on your plate?  It is written, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

    I John 4 gives us one test, “Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God.”  A true prophet of God will not shy away from affirming the flesh and blood realities of our salvation, that God the Son became a real flesh and blood human being, that He offered up His body on the cross to save us, that He rose again in the body, tangibly, and that He comes to us now with His real and literal body and blood in the Sacrament.  Those who contradict any of those things are false prophets.

    Here’s one more test: St. Paul said to the Corinthians, “I determined not to know anything among you except Christ and Him crucified.”  If Jesus and His sacrifice are not the center of everything that is proclaimed, if the Passion narrative is treated just as history that you have to give lip service to so that you can get to the real important and relevant stuff, then that prophet isn’t true.  Paul told the pastors at Ephesus “to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”  That blood of Christ is the thread that runs through all true prophecy and preaching.

    And don’t forget this: a false prophet may not know that he is one.  He may be very sincere.  But sincerity is not a reliable test.  Jesus said, “Many will say to Me in that Day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’  And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me.’” It’s not the impressiveness of the works or the success or the numbers that you should go by.  Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.”  

    nullHe who does the will of the Father is Christ Himself.  Consider that night in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus prayed to His Father, “If it is possible, take this cup [of suffering] away from Me.  Nevertheless not My will but Your will be done.”  It was the will of the Father that Jesus lay down His life for you to rescue you from hell.  It was the will of the Father that Jesus be cut down like a bad tree and thrown into the fire of judgment in your place.  It was the will of the Father that Jesus be a sheep in wolves’ clothing, the pure Lamb of God who allowed Himself to be cloaked in sin and evil at Calvary in order to put them to death in His body, so that you might be delivered from all evil forever.  The wolf has been conquered.  You have been cleansed from all sin by Christ’s blood.  You are given entrance into the kingdom of heaven in Christ.  He has ascended to heaven, and holding on to Him like a child on His back, you have ridden with Him there.  The kingdom is yours in Jesus, by faith now, by sight at the close of the age.

    And so, to do the will of the Father, for a pastor, is to preach that, to proclaim Christ alone as the Savior from sin and death.  And to do the will of the Father, for a hearer, for you, is to believe that Gospel of Christ and stake your whole life on it.  That is the true prophetic Word for you today, the same prophetic Word proclaimed by John the Baptizer, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand; it is here.  Believe the Gospel of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”  The will of the Father was done when you were baptized, squeezed through the narrow way of the cross.  The will of the Father is done as you live in the narrow way of your baptism, dying to your sin and rising to the new life of Christ, the life of faith and love, receiving from God His free gifts and giving of yourself to others in your daily vocations.  And the will of your Father is done as you come to the Lord’s table in simple faith.  For the tree of the cross has borne the most abundant fruit, the body and blood of Christ which gives you His mercy and which will raise you up on the Last Day.

    Beware of false prophets.  Behold the true Prophet, Jesus.  His are the words that give you life.  By His fruits you will know Him.

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

Righteousness Exceeding the Scribes and Pharisees

Matthew 5:17-26
Trinity 6
 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
 
    Jesus speaks some hard words in today’s Gospel: “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” The problem is, our righteousness is exactly that of the scribes and the Pharisees.  It’s the same, for we think that righteousness is primarily about our good behavior and good moral appearances.
 
    To prove this, our Lord points us to our anger.  Anger and indignation is the result of our having been wronged or sinned against in some way.  But what we do in response is the telling thing. It reveals how we view ourselves, and how we view our neighbor. When we are angry, we take the higher position and condemn them as wrong.  And they may very well be in the wrong, especially if they’ve sinned against us.  But have you ever noticed how even when we are at fault, we can still get angry?  We think that they’re over-reacting and blowing things out of proportion and freaking out about some little flaw or mistake of ours.  We turn things around on them.  And so even when we’re at fault, we still find reason to get angry and justify ourselves and look down on them.null
 
    The problem with anger is that if it is not dealt with, if it is not confessed to God and to one another so that it can be taken away, if it is not cleansed from us by the blood of Jesus in His words and Sacraments, it enslaves us.  Satan gets us to brood over it, obsessively, with growing and distorted emphasis on its injustice.  In the court of our minds we hold a secret trial in which we prosecute the wrongdoer. And then we remember all the other offenses that we have suffered from that person.  And that fuels our anger further and our desire for justice. We convince ourselves that we are justified in our judgment of them. We hold the moral high ground against them.  This anger leads to bitterness and resentment.  And so we end up stewing in our own poison.  For we have begun to despise those whom we should love.  We have self-righteously placed ourselves above them.  In other words, we have become the scribe and the Pharisee.
 
    This is spiritual suicide.  For “you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and who ever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”  This sort of stewing, bitter heart eventually overflows in bitter words and leads to hell.  When we despise our neighbors and hold a grudge against them, we don't usually attack them physically.  We do so verbally, emotionally, and spiritually. We talk to others about them to get them on our side so that they will join us in condemning them. We give them the cold shoulder and treat them as being dead to us. That is spiritual murder. And by cutting ourselves off from our brothers and sisters in Christ, we cut ourselves off from Christ as well, which is spiritual suicide. We take the position of the scribes and the Pharisees, and we follow in their righteousness, which is really only an outward righteousness. And unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
 
    Repent, then, and turn to Christ.  For the only righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees is the righteousness of Jesus.  He came not to abolish the Law and the Prophets.  He came to fulfill them–inwardly, outwardly, actively, passively–all for you.  Righteousness is not ultimately about your works but about the works of Jesus done on your behalf.  The Pharisees’ righteousness was about good appearances, though in truth they were whitewashed tombs, inwardly full of dead men’s bones.  But Jesus doesn’t just cake a bunch of make-up on your sinful flesh to make you look good.  He actually takes away your sin and makes you righteous, right with God and restored to Him.null
 
    Jesus fulfilled the Law and brought righteousness to your humanity in two ways.  First, it is written in Hebrews, “He was tempted in all points just as we are, yet without sin.”  Not only did Jesus not do the things that the commandments forbid, He also did do everything the commandments demand.  Not only did He not murder or steal or have impure thoughts, but He also perfectly loved His Father in heaven and His neighbor on earth, doing good and healing, teaching the truth to all, forgiving even His enemies.  Jesus did this not only as an example, but as your representative and your substitute to redeem you.  Jesus gives you His righteous life as a gift through faith in Him.  His keeping of the Law counts for you.  
 
    Jesus also fulfilled the Law for you by suffering its penalties in your place.  “The soul that sins shall die.”  Jesus Himself knew exactly what it was like to be the object of people’s anger and bitterness and resentment.  He heard in His own human ears the words of betrayal, the cries for His death.  Every vengeful thought, every desire for payback was pointed at Jesus on the cross.  But it wasn’t just the murderous judgment of the world but the righteous judgment of God that Jesus suffered at Golgotha.  Since the wages of sin is death, Jesus was put to death by the Father in your place to take the judgment of eternal death away from you forever.  
 
    Only in Jesus is there deliverance from the judgment of the Law.  For only in Jesus do we receive an inward righteousness before God, the righteousness of faith, where we despair of our own goodness and instead rely on Christ alone.  We prayed it in the Introit, “The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusted in Him, and I am helped.”
 
    Our Lord is not one who constantly replays the video of your sins in His mind so that you might get what you’ve got coming.  All anger, even the righteous divine wrath, was fully removed at the cross.  “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”  The Lord has erased all your sins from the video of your life.  He remembers them no more.  
 
    In fact, actually the Lord has done even better than that.  He’s given you a whole new video, a whole new life, the life of the risen Jesus, which is entirely yours in holy baptism.  For St. Paul says in the Epistle that by water and the Word you were buried with Christ and raised with Him to a new life.  That means that His death for sin counts as your death for sin.  It’s all done and behind you.  “There is therefore now no condemnation for you who are in Christ Jesus.”  You are dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  His life is yours, the life of mercy, of forgiving your neighbor, letting go of your anger and desire for payback, since Jesus has already taken care of all that.
 
    Jesus now says to you, “Come to Me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”  “I release you from the crushing weight of the Law; I give you the peace of being reconciled with God.”  “It is finished, accomplished, completed, fulfilled.  All has been done.”  Romans 10 declares, “Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”
 
    So hear Jesus’ words again with Gospel ears:  “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”  But your righteousness does exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees, for you are clothed in the righteousness of Jesus.  By faith you are as spotless and holy as He is.
 
    So when you come to the altar to receive the gift of the Lord’s body and blood, if you have something against your brother or sister, or they against you, this is the place to release it and let it go.  Confess your sins and forgive one another.  Be reconciled in Christ, whose body was sacrificed for you and whose blood was shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.  Here at the foot of the cross, all anger dies.  There is only mercy here and righteousness that far exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees.  Our Lord has brought you through the Red Sea of Baptism, out of the house of bondage.  Believe it.  The righteousness of Christ is yours.  In Him you shall enter the kingdom of heaven.  

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
 
(Most of the above is borrowed from the Rev. Jason Braaten at Gottesdienst Online,
gottesdienstonline.blogspot.com/2013/07/righteousness-that-exceeds-scribes-and.html)
 

The Wedding of Samuel Speckhard and Cacia Scheler

"One Flesh"
July 11, 2015

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

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned having a couple of my own relatives in the nursing profession, it’s that you don’t want to have an in-depth conversation about their workday over dinner unless you have a strong stomach.  The nature of the job is that all the realities of the body are being dealt with, and nurses develop a certain comfort level and their own unique sense of humor talking about these things.  There’s no avoiding the truth of our fleshly existence when you’re in the medical field.

    And this is not a bad thing.  For this is the way Lutherans talk theology.  Martin Luther said that a theologian of the cross calls a thing what it is.  No spiritualized platitudes or euphemisms.  Lutherans like to speak in direct, physical, tangible, concrete language.  

    And that’s true then also when it comes to marriage.  On days like today you’ll often hear a lot of flowery language about love and happiness and two becoming one.  And that’s all fine.  But it’s a little too Platonic and ethereal if we just stop there; that comes short of what the Bible actually says.  We heard it a couple times in the readings today, “The two shall become one flesh.”  Marriage is the union of heart and mind and body.  There’s no point in avoiding that reality.  For not only is it how God created things to be, but it also teaches us about our relationship with Him, too.null

    God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into His nostrils the breath of life.  But with the creation of Adam, humanity was not yet complete.  Not only is it not good for man to be alone, but man alone does not yet fully reflect the image of the God who is love, the Holy Trinity.  The Trinity is a relationship of persons; those created in the image of God are also a relationship of persons–the Lover, the Beloved One, and the Love that they share together.  Humanity is complete, then, only when Eve comes on the scene.

    God created her differently, from Adam’s side, forming her to be like Adam and of equal worth and humanity, but certainly not the same.  Man and woman are uniquely connected in how they were made.  Then the Lord brought Eve to Adam and presented her to him.  That is the reason behind the tradition of the bride being brought down the aisle to her groom.  The one who escorts her, the father, stands in the place of God the Father, presenting this Eve, Cacia, to her Adam, Samuel.  God brought Eve to Adam, and they became the first husband and wife.

    Man and woman in marriage, then, are not simply two independent partners bound by a piece of paper, a contract.  Rather, what was one flesh at creation now becomes one flesh again, both figuratively and literally.  God Himself gives you to each other in marriage, and that is why you have permission now to give yourselves fully to each other.

    The one flesh union created by God is intended for your mutual happiness and companionship.  There is a very real sense in which the two of you complete each other–not just in some Hollywood movie sense, but in the theological sense of the complementarity of male and female.  Your individual personalities and unique characteristics come together to form a whole that is greater than the both of you.  One of the great gifts God is giving you today is the unique fellowship you will share as husband and wife–the ability to confide in each other, to lean on each other in the challenging times,  to rejoice together in the good times.

    And of course, this one flesh reality of marriage is manifested in the procreation of children who are quite literally one flesh of their father and mother.  When and if God grants it, children are the public testimony of the one flesh union that God has created.  Though our culture tends to downplay it, being fruitful and multiplying is integral to what marriage is all about as God instituted it.  That’s one of the many reasons why an actual marriage in God’s sight can only be between a man and a woman, regardless of what any court says.  God seeks to continue His work of creation through your marriage, that your children may be brought up as you were, in the fear and instruction of the Lord, that they may be baptized and brought to trust in Christ and receive the gifts of His salvation.

    And that then brings us to the even greater reality of what marriage is all about.  Ephesians 5 speaks of the man leaving his father and mother and being joined to His wife and becoming one flesh, and then it says: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”  All along we thought St. Paul was speaking primarily about husbands and wives, when the main point was about Jesus.  It is written, “We are members of His body, bone of His bones and flesh of His flesh.”  Jesus is the new Adam and the Church is the new Eve.  

    “A man shall leave His father and mother and be joined to His wife.”  And so Jesus, the Son of God, left His Father in heaven to be joined to His elect wife, His chosen people.  In order to save us who had fallen into sin, who were cursed to return to the dust in eternal death because of our rebellion, Christ literally joined Himself to our flesh and blood and became man.  Jesus even had to leave His mother Mary behind for a time on the cross.  The second Adam was put into the deep sleep of death for us on the sixth day, Good Friday.  As the first Adam brought death into the world through sin, so Jesus brought life into the world by dying our death for us, taking away our sin and conquering the grave Easter morning.  In the same way that Eve was created from Adam’s side, the Church is created from Christ’s pierced side, from the water and blood that flowed, the living water of Baptism which makes us members of His body, the blood of Christ poured out in the chalice of the Lord’s Supper, by which we are cleansed of all sin.  Through these Sacraments, the Church is Jesus’ radiant bride, dressed in the beautiful white garment of His righteousness.

    Sam and Cacia, that eternal reality is what God has given to form the heart and the foundation of your marriage.  Because Christ has forgiven you freely and without your earning it, you are free to forgive each other without making the other earn it.  In leaving your father and mother, Sam, you are doing as Christ did, that you may give of yourself and lay down your life for your bride.  In receiving him as your husband, Cacia, you are a picture of the Church, who honors her groom and submits to Him and His love and returns that love with a glad heart.  Sam, you die for her.  Cacia, you live for him.

    Which brings us finally to the part of the sermon where people expect me to give you advice.  Not my forte, but I’ll do my best.  First, Sam, as the husband, remember this one simple truth: it’s your fault–it is, even when it’s not.  For you are in the role of Christ, and He counted all of our sin as His own, as His fault.  Though you both will have things to confess and forgive each other for–and saying “I forgive you” out loud is of the utmost importance–it is especially for you to be the man and not to point the finger and blame, but to take any flaws and failings as your own and cover them as Christ did for us.  For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.  Thankfully we have a Savior who bears our burdens with us and for us to deliver us.

    And Cacia, as Sam’s wife, seek your happiness in marriage in the unique ways that he shows love to you, and be a gracious receiver.  Just as it is Christ’s joy to give us joy, so also what makes most husbands happy is when they can make their wives happy and draw their bride freely and willingly to themselves.  So avoid putting up barriers because his attempts to express love may fall short at times, or because you know your own imperfections and don’t feel deserving.  We operate not by merit but by grace.  We haven’t deserved anything from the Lord, and we certainly can’t repay Him, but it is His joy to give to us freely anyway.  Give your husband the joy of freely receiving and responding to his self-giving–just as it is the church’s happiness to receive the love of Christ.

    Sam and Cacia, as you are being joined together today, so are your names–your individual names remain the same, your last names become one.  The name Samuel means “God has heard.”  We rejoice with you both of you today that God has indeed heard your prayers for a faithful spouse; you are His good gifts to each other.  And Cacia, as I recall it, your name was given as a shortened form of the acacia trees mentioned in Scripture.  It was the acacia that was used in the construction of the tabernacle where God’s presence dwelt and to make the ark of the covenant.  As Jesus tabernacled in our flesh, as you who are the temple of His Spirit enter into the covenant of holy matrimony, may He make your new household to be His dwelling place.  May He send His angels to guard and keep you.  And may He richly bless the one flesh union of your marriage for your good and for the glory of His name.

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

Freed From Judgment

Luke 6:36-42
Trinity 4

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

    I’m sure many of you have had the experience of hearing your voice on a recording and saying, “I sound like that?!  That doesn’t sound like me.”  Or you’ve seen yourself on video at some event and you’ve thought to yourself, “Gee, I didn’t realize that’s how I acted.  I didn’t realize my laugh was so annoying.  The camera sure makes me look fat”–or bald, or whatever the case may be.  Sometimes that outside, more objective perspective can give us a better understanding of the way things really are with us and free us from the illusions of our own self-perception.

 null   There’s a spiritual lesson to be learned from that, I think, which ties in with Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel, where He says, “Why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the plank in your own eye?”  Sometimes from our limited perspective we cannot see our own failings and sins.  We tend to rationalize our flaws, anyway.  We put the best construction on our own behavior and fail to recognize that we’ve got the equivalent of a 2 x 4 sticking out of our eye.  We’ve grown so used to our sin that it becomes like the rims of our glasses that we no longer see or notice.  And yet we can see all the nit-picky problems with others so clearly.  They’ve got this character flaw and that stupid way of doing things.  “If they would just listen to me; but no, they never do.”  Especially when we’re in an argument, it’s easy for us to come up with all the specks in our neighbor’s eye.  And besides, noticing and pointing out our neighbor’s problems makes us feel all the better about ourselves.  It places us above them.

    This is one of the reasons why God gives us His Law, so that we can see from an outside perspective the way things really are with us.  The Law is like a video camera, zeroing in on the plank in our eye, exposing and revealing every prideful thought and hypocritical word and sinful deed that we’ve engaged in.  Through the Law we learn that one of the reasons we’re so good at seeing other people’s sins is because we’ve got first hand knowledge of how the sinful heart and mind works.  Why else would we be so skillful at identifying other people’s problems, right?  By condemning others so readily, we’re really condemning ourselves.  “The camera doesn’t lie,” they say, and neither does the Law.  It tells the painful truth about us.  It judges you and condemns you.  There is no denying the verdict of the Law: You are damned for your sin.

    Repent.  For there is yet hope for us.  For the Law is not God’s final Word to us.  Though we are indeed judged and condemned for our sin, there is One who took the judgment and the condemnation for us, our Lord Jesus.  “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”  Thankfully, Christ Jesus did not come to beat us over the head with all our shortcomings and nag us and hound us into trying to straighten out our life.  Instead, He came to give us a new life, His own life.  All of the specks of sawdust and the planks in our eyes were fashioned into a cross upon which He poured out His life for our sakes.  There Jesus was damned for our sin so that we would be shown mercy for His sake.  And so it is written, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  None at all.  If you are in the risen Jesus, who was already condemned for all the sins of the whole world, then there’s no condemnation left, is there?  He took it all for you.  You are baptized into Christ, and so now you are forgiven and free children of God.  The Lord’s mercy toward you is abundantly greater than His judgment.  Believe that; it is true.  The Gospel is His final Word to you, which fulfills and overcomes the Law every time.null

    To live by faith in this Gospel, then, is to live freed from judgment.  We are freed from God’s judgment of us.  And as His beloved children, we are freed from a life of judging and tearing down others.  To live in the way of condemnation and revenge is to go back to the way of the Law, which is dangerous territory for us.  That’s why Jesus says not to judge, lest we be judged ourselves; not to condemn lest we be condemned ourselves.  Rather, He invites us to live in the forgiveness of the Father and forgive others and give generously to them, even when they don’t deserve it.  For we most certainly have not earned or deserved the Father’s generous mercy either.  And yet He still gives it to us, no strings attached.  Our Father is One who causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, who gives daily bread both to believers and unbelievers.  Living in Jesus as the children of God, we are given to reflect His nature–showing His overflowing goodness to others, be they friend or foe; not holding on to grudges or engaging in gossip, but defending our neighbor, speaking well of him, and explaining everything in the kindest way.

    Now, I should add as a side note here that Jesus is speaking to us in a general way as individuals.  However, there are times when according to our specific vocations we are called on by the Lord to judge.  For instance, a judge in a court obviously is given by God to condemn the guilty, as are other civil officials who make and enforce the Law according to the authority God has given them.  Parents can without sin judge the behavior of their children; indeed, they must teach right and wrong and discipline their children according to God’s command.  Pastors are called to judge and condemn sin as well as proclaim God’s mercy in Christ.  And all Christians are called to judge doctrine, to test the spirits to see whether they are of God, to reject false doctrine that doesn’t agree with the Scriptures.  

    So Jesus’ words here don’t mean that we should approve of sin and ungodly teaching or be OK with it.  It is for us to stand up for the truth of God’s Word, especially when it is publicly rejected.  We are to do so with humility and love; but it is for us to confess the truth, especially living in an age and a culture of lies.  It’s not judging to say something is immoral and wrong which Scripture says is immoral and wrong.  The Supreme Court and our society are entirely in error on the topic of gay marriage.  That’s not sinful judging; that’s just telling the truth.  Homosexual behavior is sin; approving of and condoning homosexual behavior is sin.  And lest we forget the log in our own eyes, a man and a woman living together or having a sexual relationship outside of marriage is sin; tacitly condoning those relationships so as not to offend family or friends or business associates is sin; divorce for unbiblical reasons is sin, husband and wife trying to lord it over each other and enjoying cutting down the other spouse and reveling in making a stinging remark is sin, encouraging division in the marriages of others with meddling and gossip is sin.  The breakdown of marriage certainly didn’t start with the acceptance of same-sex marriage.  

  null  Pointing all this out is not the church’s main message, but we can’t let that truth of the Law be watered down either.  For since the most important thing in the church is the forgiveness of sins and the Gospel of Christ, we have to be able to call sin what it is so that we all will see our need for that forgiveness and cling to Christ alone for mercy and life.  It’s certainly not sinful judging to stand up for the pure teaching of the Word and to speak against anything which undermines the truth of the Gospel of Christ the crucified, that we are saved through faith in Jesus alone.  The truth needs to be spoken precisely for the good of our fellow man.  Again, Scripture says that we are to speak the truth in love–not simply out of a desire to be right or to win an argument–but because we seek the ultimate good of our neighbor and the glory of God.  It is written in Galatians 6, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.”

    We are the children of the God of mercy, who are given to extend that mercy to our fellow man.  St. Peter said, “Love covers a multitude of sins.”  As God’s love covers our sins and takes them away, so we are given wherever we can to cover over our neighbor’s sins and failings, to help him to be brought back to God, and to put the best construction on everything.  Such godly love builds up the neighbor and brings peace.  And even when we are called to judge according to our vocation, we do so for the good of others, that they may not be lost to sin and false belief, but that they may be led to repentance and faith in Christ our Savior.

    So today’s Epistle, then, is not so much meant to be new Law, but rather a description of what it means to live by faith in Christ.  Put yourself in the position of the other person, rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep.  Walk humbly and do not be wise in your own opinion.  First take care of your own problems, and then with a repentant and humble attitude you will best be able truly to help and love your neighbor.  “First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck that is in your brother’s eye.”  Bless even those who persecute you and cause you trouble.  Love your enemies.  Do not repay evil for evil, but overcome evil with good.  Do not seek vengeance and payback, but trust that God will take care of things in His own way and in His own time.

    And when you struggle to do this–and you will–return to Him who has already done all of this for you.  Jesus put Himself in your position to redeem you.  He associated with the poor and humble.  While you were yet sinners and enemies of His, Christ died for you.  Our Lord on the cross did not avenge Himself but blessed those who did evil to Him, saying, “Father forgive them.”  He overcome evil with the ultimate good of His self-sacrifice.  In Him you are forgiven and holy and loved.  Jesus is your Joseph, who reveals Himself to you not as an avenging judge but as your strong and loving brother.  He comforts you and speaks kindly to you.  He is with you; He is on your side.

    And just as Joseph provided grain for his brothers and an abundant meal at his table, so our Lord Jesus gives to us of the finest wheat.  Mercy in good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over is poured out upon us.  Come, dine at His table.  Be freed from judgment.  Receive His true body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins.

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

The Wedding of Luke Wieting and Hannah Koch

June 20, 2015

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

    Almost everything about a wedding is positive and beautiful–colorful flowers, good music, nice clothing. The bride is pretty, the groom is handsome, the bridesmaids look lovely, the groomsmen look . . . more or less presentable.  Everything about a wedding looks good.  And of course, believing that marriage is a divine institution, that's as it should be; it is fitting to adorn God’s gift in this way and in this place.

    But then, there's one part of the marriage liturgy that is the fly in the punchbowl of all the beauty, that breaks the bubble, that won't let us drift into fairy tale lala land with its happily ever-afters.  It’s right there in the vows: for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.  And to top it all off, here’s the kicker: you pledge to love and to cherish "until death parts us."

    Why do we have to mention death at a marriage ceremony at all?  In our hymnal the funeral liturgy does immediately follow the marriage liturgy.  But I don’t think that’s meant to be a commentary on anything going on today. null 

    When you say “until death parts us,” that’s a reminder first of all, that contrary to popular opinion, marriage isn’t forever.  It is for your whole life in this world, to be sure; I certainly wouldn’t want you to miss that point.  But it isn’t forever; we’re not Mormons.  Jesus made it quite clear that there is no marriage in the life of the world to come.  It may sound like heresy to point that out on a wedding day, but there is some perspective in this, that we don’t make an idol out of God’s good gift of marriage and family.

    “Until death parts us” is also important because it speaks honestly about who it is that you’re marrying.  Only sinners die.  I know you both recognize that while the two of you may be perfect for each other, neither of you are perfect.  The parting of death creeps backwards into marriage–in little fights and unkind words, in selfishness and impatience and unforgiveness–whatever threatens the unity and the beauty and the life that God has given in marriage.

    But there is actually something good in the phrase “until death parts us.”  For especially here in church, it calls to mind another death which changes everything.  If it is true that by means of death we are parted, it is also true that by means of Christ's death we are rejoined and raised up in Him who is the Church’s Groom, never to be parted from His side.  

    Jesus’ side was opened for you on the cross.  He who is the New Adam has taken the mortal curse of the Old Adam and made it a source of immortal blessing for you.  Jesus was put into the sleep of death so that the New Eve, the Church, might be given life.  The blood and the water that poured forth from His spear-pierced side is what enlivens her and sanctifies her, so that she truly is without spot or wrinkle, holy and without blemish.  And so you are holy and without blemish in Him, for that scarlet water flowed over you in holy baptism, and your robes were made white in the blood of the Lamb, like a white wedding gown.  That holy blood continues to flow into the chalice for you in the Sacrament of the Altar.  The blood of Jesus, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin.  

    Only sinners die; and that’s why Jesus died.  He who knew no sin became sin for us that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.  Now there is a husbandly action if there ever was one.  Jesus made His bride’s sin His own, covered it, and took it away from her by His sacrifice.  There’s the love of the True Groom that makes her beautiful, that she may share in His bodily resurrection and life.  We are members of His body, bone of His bones and flesh of His flesh.

    This is a great mystery, Paul says.  This is what the marriage of man and woman–and only man and woman–is an image and picture of: the man Christ Jesus and His elect Lady, the Church.  And beginning today you two are given to walk in this truth by faith as husband and wife.  Luke, you have a holy and radiant bride.  Even in those times when you can’t see it, believe it.  Always look at her in that way, for that is what she is in Christ.  Treat her in that way for Jesus’ sake.  Hannah, you have a holy, Christ-like husband.  Even in those times when you can’t see it, believe it.  Always look to him in that way, for that is what he is in Christ.  Treat him in that way for Jesus’ sake.  

    Or to use that helpful metaphor: Hannah, look to Luke to lead the dance of your marriage, even if you think at times that you know the steps better than he does.  And Luke, lead the dance, even when she doesn’t seem particularly eager to follow your lead.  For you are ever in the role of Christ, drawing His bride to Himself.  Jesus didn’t stop with us at the baptismal font, but continuously calls us to Himself by His Word and Spirit.  So also your days of wooing and drawing her to yourself have only just begun.null

    Perhaps above all else, the best way that you will image Christ and the Church in your marriage is by extending His forgiveness to one another when you fail and when you fall short.  “God demonstrates His love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”  “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another...”  As in all your vocations, your calling in marriage is to die to yourselves in love for the other.  “Love covers a multitude of sins.”  The deeper beauty of Christian marriage is made known with the cross in view, as the husband lays down his life for his bride, and the bride lives her life for him.

    The forgiveness of Christ, the self-giving of His holy cross is where we find the greatest beauty today.  And so not even the mention of death dampens our joy, for it points us to Jesus and His lovingkindness; it directs us to His self-sacrifice as our holy Groom.  The Lord is faithful; He will never leave you or forsake you.  He is there for you in sickness and in health, for better or worse, to love and to cherish, even beyond the parting of death to the resurrection of the body.  There in the new creation we shall delight in His presence.  There He shall dwell with us and we shall be His people, His Church, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared, Scripture says, as a bride adorned for her husband.  And so despite my earlier comments, you two will, of course, be together forever as the people of God in the presence of your Redeemer Jesus.  

    The last time I was in this pulpit was for a home schooling gathering many years ago, at our opening Vespers.  Who would have thought, when we were gathered back then for science and geography presentations and talent shows–when you, Luke, were doing Victor Borge routines with your brother, and Hannah was casually impressing with her piano skills–that we would come to this day of joy and music at your marriage?  We give thanks to God for His providence and for His gracious will in bringing the two of you together.  

    And remember that you are receiving a twofold gift today.  Not only are you being granted a husband or wife; you are being given a spouse who confesses the Christian faith together with you.  What a gift that is!  This is a great happiness to us.  Always remember that the person you are seated next to, whom you have just committed yourself to, is a chosen one of God in baptism, declared righteous and beautiful in His sight.  Always see each other as God sees you: one redeemed by Christ the crucified, one who is a forgiven and beloved child of God.  Don’t let the world lure you away from the goodness and truth and beauty of this Gospel that is at the heart of your lives.  Christ is everything for you, and you are everything to Him.

    So Luke, we are glad to welcome you to the family, even as our Hannah has been graciously received by your family.  All of us here rejoice with you both.  We give thanks to God for what He is doing for you today; you are His good gifts to each other.  On this last day of spring, as you now enter a new season of your life, may the Lord richly bless your marriage and the new home you are establishing in His name.

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

Your Pilgrim Identity

1 Peter 2:11-20; John 16:16-22
Easter 3

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

    Today’s Epistle encourages you to ask yourselves a very fundamental question:  Who are you?  What is your identity?  The way you see yourself, who you are is what determines the way you live in this world.  So how would you answer that question: Who are you?  Often, we think of ourselves in terms of where we’re from.  We’re south-siders or Wisconsinites or Americans; or we’re Germans or Finns or Swedes, and so forth.  Or perhaps we think of who we are in terms of groups we identify with.  We’re Packers or Brewers fans, we’re workers at a certain company, or veterans of the military.  There’s our family identity–I think of myself as a parent or grandparent or spouse or child.  And in today’s politicized culture, people often see their affiliation with a particular cause as the core of who they are–an environmentalist or an LGBT crusader or a libertarian or what have you.

 null   What is it that really defines who and what you are in this world?  Peter would suggest that the word which best describes your identity in this world is a pilgrim, a sojourner.  To be a follower of Christ is to be a traveler, a voyager.  As God’s baptized people you are on a journey to another place; you are traveling now through foreign territory to a greater destination.  Though the pilgrims of Christ are dispersed throughout the world, yet together in small bands like this one, we journey to the same heavenly goal.  

    We must never forget that this is what and who we are; this is our true and deeper identity.  This world is not home for us.  We are strangers in a strange land.  Like the children of Israel of old, we are on a pilgrimage through this wilderness land to the promised land of God.  It is written in Philippians 3, “Our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”  And Hebrews 13 says, “Here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.”

    The temptation for us is to forget our pilgrim character as Christians.  Since the journey seems so long and is often difficult, we are sometimes enticed to give up the expedition and follow the native ways of this world, to adopt their thinking and their lifestyles.  The lure is always there for you to see yourself in worldly terms, to think of who you are not in terms of Christ and eternity, but in terms of all things that make you feel at home in this world, to see yourself more as American than as Christian, to be more passionate about your favorite sports team or your favorite hangout than you are about being a baptized child of God, to desert your identity as travelers and instead become homesteaders, making this passing, temporary world your home rather than setting your hearts on that inheritance from God that is undefiled and does not pass away.  It is written in Romans 12, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”

    If you feel a bit out of place in this world, that’s actually a good thing; that’s how it’s supposed to be.  Christians are not to be conformed to this culture.  It’s not our goal to fit in with this world.  St. James writes, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?”  For instance, while our culture teaches self-indulgence and doing whatever feels good in its music and television, Peter writes here, “Abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul.”  Such things are more than just diversions from the journey, they actually turn you around and take you in the opposite direction of your destination.  They are traps and snares which try to hijack your making it to the final goal.  They take your eyes off of Christ, who alone is the way, the truth, and the life.  Peter says, “Do not use your liberty as a cloak for vice,” as a cover up and an excuse for sin.  Abstain, stay away from any such thing.

    Now, all of this does not mean that we should stay away from the world altogether and cloister ourselves off in seclusion somewhere.  As pilgrim Christians who are not of the world, God still has given you to live in the world and to be reflections of His light to the world.  Indeed, St. Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians that if you were to try to avoid contact with the ungodly entirely, you would have to leave the world.  And God’s intention for you is not yet to leave the world, but to be the salt of the earth as you travel on your way.

    Therefore Peter writes in the Epistle, “Have your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation.”  Live honorably and with integrity among the pagans and unbelievers and skeptics of this world.  Though they may put down Christians or Missouri Synod Lutherans as being closed-minded or self-righteous or speak ill of you in some other way, let your good conduct show that their accusations are slanderous and false.  Perhaps by observing your behavior, they may be drawn to respect what you believe and want to join you in this pilgrimage, so that in the end they, too, will glorify the true God for what He has done for us all in Christ.  

    That’s one of our primary reasons for wanting to do good works, to lead lives that honor God and His saving Gospel.  It’s not so that we can somehow win our way into God’s favor.  For not only is that impossible, but Christ has already won us into the Father’s favor by His good works and by His death for our sins which has reconciled us to God.  No, we do good works, rather, as it is written in Titus, “to adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.”  The Gospel of Christ is the most precious jewel we could possess.  And we want our lives to be a setting for that jewel which ornaments and glorifies it, which draws others to the Gospel rather than dragging it through the mud and giving others the occasion to call Christians hypocrites.  Out of love for Christ we seek to live honorably and with love toward our neighbor so that others might also know the love of Christ and honor Him.

    One of the ways we adorn the doctrine of God our Savior is by submitting to the laws of the land. Even though as citizens of heaven we are like foreigners in foreign territory here, yet we honor governmental authority, just as we would honor the authorities if we were traveling through another country.  Peter writes, “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.”  Even though civil authority is temporary and of this world, yet the Scriptures teach that it is established by God.  Those in authority are put there by the Lord to punish what is wrong and promote what is right.  And that is good and necessary, even if the ruler is not a Christian.  As long we are not caused to sin by the authorities and their laws, we are bound to obey them as God’s representatives.  This honors God and, Peter says, it puts to silence the ignorance of foolish men who would want to assign evil motives to Christians in this world.

    The other way to adorn the doctrine of God our Savior mentioned in today’s Epistle is to be a good and faithful worker, to be a diligent and honest employee.  And the situation that Peter addresses here serves to emphasize that point.  For he speaks not simply to employees but to servants.  It is written, “Servants, be submissive to your masters with all reverence, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh.”  Now, if that applies in a master/servant relationship, which we wouldn’t describe as being the best situation, how much more does it apply to an employer/ employee relationship.  It is written elsewhere, “Servants, whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men.”  Of course, that’s also a reminder to employers to act not selfishly but as agents of God.  But still, to honor the one in authority, in government or in the workplace or wherever, is to honor the Lord who has established the authorities.  

    That’s how the Epistle can state that it is commendable to suffer wrongly, if you endure grief because of conscience toward God.  If a Christian endures in doing good as a citizen under an unjust ruler or as a worker under a tyrannical boss, that is praiseworthy in God’s sight, because that is the way of faith.  Such a person is seeing and honoring the God who instituted earthly authorities, even if the authorities themselves are dishonoring their God-given offices.  And, such a person is doing as our heavenly Father does, who gives daily bread even to the evil.  Now, Peter says, if you suffer by your own fault–if you break the law or are a lazy worker and have to suffer the consequences–that is of no credit to you.  But St. Peter concludes, “When you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God.”

    What is commendable above all is to lay down your life for your faith in Christ.  Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  You may have heard this past week, how yet again ISIS terrorists captured and murdered dozens of Christians simply for their faith in Christ.  Rather than deny Jesus and convert to Islam, they faced death, being shot in the head in one instance, being beheaded in another, their severed heads being placed on their dead bodies and photographed for all the world to see.  The enemies of Christianity think this is a great victory that they are achieving.  But in fact it is the Christians who win.  For by their deaths, they witness to the greatness of their Savior Jesus, who holds them as His own even in suffering and who will raise their bodies from the dead on the Last Day to greater glory.  Only pilgrims can behave as those Christians did.  Only those who aren’t attached to this world, whose citizenship is in heaven can do what they did.  They are a witness and encouragement to us who follow Christ not to lose heart.  “For the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

    It is written in the book of Revelation, “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held.  And they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” Then a white robe was given to each of them; and it was said to them that they should rest a little while longer, until both the number of their fellow servants and their brethren, who would be killed as they were, was completed.”

    How long, O Lord?  Jesus answers that question in today’s Gospel when He says, “A little while.” “A little while, and you will not see Me; and again, a little while, and you will see Me.”  “I am about to go the cross to suffer your sins to death in My body and win your full and free forgiveness.  And you are my pilgrim followers.  You are baptized into Me.  So don’t be surprised when those little whiles of affliction come, when you can’t seem to see Me, when life is fierce, when you are sharing in my trials, when it seems like all is lost.  Always remember, it really is only a little while that you must endure.  That pain, that disease, that heartache, that difficult situation is almost over.  Just hang on to Me.  Trust in Me to pull you through it.  It may seem like an eternity, but only three days.  Easter is coming.  Weeping may remain for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”

    This final deliverance, the resurrection on the Last Day, is what you are to focus on.  It is written in Hebrews, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”  Trust in Jesus to carry you through.  For in fact He has already carried you through by dying and rising again.  He’s already conquered all that weighs you down.  It’s just a matter of time for that victory to be revealed.  It’s only a little while more, and then comes the forever, the unending while of dwelling in the majesty of our Lord and the perfect happiness and completeness that His presence brings.  Then comes the time, Jesus says, when “I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you.”  

    So, fellow travelers, do not lose heart.  You can’t see Christ now, but you will.  And you get to behold Christ by faith even now in this place.  After the little while of this past week, you see Him again in His Supper, receiving His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins.  He comes to give your hearts joy that no one can take from you.  He comes to comfort you and strengthen you to complete the journey.  For He is the Way.

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

Easter, the Victory of the Cross

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

   There’s one part of the Easter narrative in the Gospel of John that doesn’t seem to fit; it doesn’t quite end how we would expect.  Mary Magdalene had gone out very early on that Sunday morning to grieve at Jesus’ tomb.  Mary was one Jesus had cast seven demons out of.  She wanted to be where his body was, to remember the teacher who had called her out of darkness, and to struggle to comprehend how it could be that the darkness had overcome him.

    When she came upon the garden tomb, she discovered that its stone covering had been rolled back.  “Grave robbers!” she thought.  Bolting in terror that they might still be lurking about, she ran and awoke two of the disciples with the alarming news:  “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb!”  Perhaps they could still pick up the trail and find where the body had been taken.null

    John outran Peter to the tomb, but Peter was the first to go in.  When Mary arrived, she could see them emerging from the tomb–Peter with a look of puzzlement, John wearing a curious smile.  But rather than starting to search the garden, they simply walked away, saying nothing to her.  Now what?  They had abandoned Jesus when He was arrested; why should she expect them to risk their necks to track down His corpse now?  Alone and powerless, deprived even of the chance to mourn properly, angry at the useless disciples, she broke down and cried.

    Before going home she decided to take a final look into the tomb.  Through teary eyes she could hardly believe what she saw:  two angels seated where Jesus' body had been.  They asked her why she was crying, and she told them the reason, all the while wondering if she was dreaming, or if, under the stress of the moment, her mind was just playing tricks on her.

    Then in the changing light, she turned around and saw a man.  “The gardener!” she thought.  He began to ask her questions, “Woman, why are you weeping?  Whom are you looking for?” Perhaps he knew something.  In grief and hope she blurted out, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will get Him.”  But He answered, to her astonishment, only by speaking her name.  “Mary.”  Her eyes flashed with sudden recognition.  The sheep hear the Shepherd’s voice, and He calls them each by name.  She answered, now with tears of joy, “My Teacher!”  Jesus was alive!

    Now here’s the strange part.  How is this account to end?  In a movie you would expect an embrace and smiles and laughter as they walk off together–a sort of happily-ever-after finish.  Instead, Jesus says quite abruptly, “Do not cling to me.”  Even Mary, the first witness of the Risen Lord, is denied the satisfaction of being able to keep holding on to Him.  And here’s why:

    Things are not the same now.  This is not just a going back to the good old days before the horrors of Good Friday.  Easter is not a cancelling of the reality of the crucifixion, as though Jesus had just turned back time.  Jesus' apparent snub of Mary indicates that there is no going back.  Everything has been changed.  Time has actually been turned forward.  Through His death and resurrection, Jesus is bringing about something altogether better and new, for Mary and for all people.  

    Easter is not the undoing of Good Friday; it is the victory of Good Friday.  It’s not as if the bad guys were winning when Jesus died, but now He gets the last laugh.  This is a vindication here, but the Resurrection reveals that even already on the cross, when Jesus cried out, “It is finished” and breathed His last, He had won.  The world was redeemed.  Salvation was accomplished.  Satan was routed.  Death was undone.  Today, we simply get to see that triumph manifested in glory and celebrate it.

    There may be something about today’s service that seems particularly odd to you for an Easter celebration.  Here we are, observing the Lord’s resurrection, rejoicing in it, singing about it.  And yet, what was it that led the procession today?  The cross of Jesus.  What was it that was held high while the Easter Gospel was read?  The cross of Jesus.  What is it that is the center and focus of your attention over the altar?  The crucified body of Jesus.  What’s up with that?  Shouldn’t we leave the cross behind now?  Jesus is alive!

    Fellow believers, if you remember anything from this morning, remember this: Easter is the victory of the cross, not the undoing of it.  We dare never say to ourselves, “Whew, I’m glad that we can move past all that suffering and death stuff of Lent.  What a downer!  Time for something a little more upbeat.”  Such thinking totally misses the point of Easter.  Just as the crosses now have their black veils removed, Easter unveils the meaning of the cross.  Jesus’ resurrection shows us why Good Friday really is good.  It reveals that Jesus really did pay for the sins of the world.  For the wages of sin is death, but Jesus is alive; and so the wages are paid.  Sin is no more; the gift of the cross is life forevermore!  Jesus’ resurrection means that His cross really did crush the power of the grave. Jesus really is the Son of God.  His words and promises are true.  Death and the devil have no claim over you any more.  You are forgiven; you are free. You are alive in Christ eternally.  Easter shows you that it’s all for real.

    The resurrection demonstrates to all the world that when the jaws of death laid hold of Christ, He ripped those jaws apart and broke them in pieces.  When the grave swallowed Jesus up, He was its poison pill.  When Satan bruised Jesus’ heel, Jesus in turn crushed the devil’s vile head.  Calvary was not an unfortunate setback on the way to victory; it is the victory.  The cross is our sign of triumph.

    The one who rose triumphant on Easter remains the crucified One.  That’s why it is written that we preach Christ crucified.  He reveals Himself to the twelve by showing them His wounds; His hands and side are marked by scars.  It is the Lamb who was slain who has begun His reign.  It’s not as if Jesus just hit the rewind button on Easter and went back to the time before His suffering.  No, Jesus’ suffering and death moves us forward to something altogether new and better.  It is the only way through to the new creation.

    So hear the Easter Gospel clearly: The way to heaven and to resurrection life is through the cross of Jesus alone.  That is good news, the best of news.  But it is bad news for your old Adam.  For it means that only by dying with Jesus will you be raised to everlasting life.  Only by crucifying your flesh with its sinful passions and desires will you know real life and joy in Christ.  The way of Good Friday and Easter is the way of repentance and faith.

    That way was begun for you in your baptism.  We spoke of it last evening at the Vigil.  “Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?”  In one sense you’ve already died.  The worst part of death is over for you in Jesus. In Baptism was begun a life a drowning your old sinful nature, so that the new life of Christ might emerge and arise in you to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.  “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”  Like Peter and John, we too must enter the tomb of Jesus and come out new, changed.  That is the baptismal pattern given to us: burial and resurrection, dying to ourselves, rising in Christ to love; repenting and believing.

    Finally, our baptism will come to its fulfillment in our literal, physical dying and rising in Christ.  For it is written, “if we have been united with Him like this in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection.”   Jesus died; and so will we.  But Jesus conquered death and rose to life immortal; and so will we in Him.  We will share in His glory with new bodies that are no longer subject to the sickness and pain and deterioration and death that we now endure.  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 is our head; and we who believe and are baptized are members of His body.  Where the head goes, the body will follow.  Jesus rises on Easter; you and I will surely follow on the Last Day.  In the resurrection of Christ as the crucified One, we see that our suffering too will have its end in life with God.

    That is your great comfort and joy this day.  The crucified One lives.  And He says to you, “Behold, I make all things new!”  He took your death to be His death, so that His life would be your life.  You will shine with the brightness of His righteousness in your own resurrected bodies because He passed through the valley of the shadow of death with you.  The Church is never about going back to the “good old days,” as Mary Magdalene learned, but going forward to the new day, the eternal and unending day of life with Christ in the new creation.  Mary could not hold on to Christ in the old way.  But in this age of the resurrection, the Church throughout the world is given to hold on to Jesus in a new way, in the Sacrament of the Altar.  Here especially, Good Friday and Easter come together as one for us.  It is the body and blood of Christ that was sacrificed on the cross that we receive.  And yet it is the living, risen body and blood of Jesus that is now given into our mouths and into our bodies, the sure guarantee of our own bodily victory over death.  The risen Jesus is among us still, giving us forgiveness and new life.

    God grant you faith to see as Mary’s eyes were opened to see, and to seek the risen Lord here in His words and His supper each and every week–why would you want to miss it!?  For the day is fast approaching when your faith will be turned to literal, glorious sight, when you will behold Jesus returning in resurrected majesty.

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

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Dr. Rick Stuckwisch for a sermon of his on how the resurrection is the victory of the cross, which is borrowed from here; as well as a Christian Century article on Mary Magdalene and the resurrection for which I can no longer find the reference)

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