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Lord of Death and Life

Trinity 16

Luke 7:11-17

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

    In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus encounters a funeral as He enters the city of Nain.  I think it’s safe to say that none of us like funerals.  It’s uncomfortable being at the visitation or the service, not always knowing exactly what to do or what to say to those who have lost a friend or a family member.  We want to be caring, but we don’t want to say something stupid or cliche.  We’d much rather not have to deal with those situations at all; for they remind us of things we’d rather not think of and the death that is at work within us.  That’s why people revert so easily to fairy tale heavens filled the deceased’s favorite hobbies and myths of how the person is still with us and watching over us.  That’s why we’re OK with the undertaker’s embalming or cremating.  It helps to keep the realities of death at a distance.

    Of course, when someone has lived a good, long and full life, there can be a sense of completion and fulfillment at a funeral.  People are brought together, and we enjoy sharing good memories of the one who has died and honoring the life of that person–and that’s good.  And yet we dare not get lulled into believing, even in those circumstances, that death is somehow normal or OK or even a good thing, and that the only truly tragic deaths are the ones that are premature–a child or a middle-aged person.  Every death is premature; every death is tragic.  For God did not create nullus to die, but to live with Him, body and soul forever.  Death has only entered the picture because it is the curse of sin which we have brought upon ourselves.  Whether someone dies at 9 or 99, it’s still not how God created things to be; that length of time is still just a fleeting moment, as the Psalmist says, “Certainly every man at his best state is but vapor.”  

    That reality does hit us hardest, though, when someone dies before we expected.  And that’s what Jesus was dealing with in today’s Gospel reading.  He comes upon this funeral, just at the time when they were carrying the body out to be buried.  The Lord of Life and this procession of death come face to face.  The one in the casket was a young man, his mother’s only son.  Perhaps there was an accident; perhaps some illness overcame him.  But she had to hold his dead body in her arms.  And she had just been through this not long before.  For she was a widow, who had to bury her husband as well.  Now she was all alone, no one to care for her, no one to provide for her future.  The name of this city, Nain, means “beauty” or “pleasantness.”  But here all we see is the ugliness of death’s curse at its worst–bringing us sadness and fear, separating us from those we love, crushing our hopes and dreams.  

    However, it is written, “The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down . . . He relieves the fatherless and the widow.”  When the Lord sees this widow, He has compassion on her; He is deeply moved with empathy for her plight.  And He says, “Do not weep.”  Don’t cry.  Jesus wasn’t just telling her to be tough, to suppress her emotions.  For Jesus Himself grieved and wept openly at the death of Lazarus.  Rather, St. Paul reminds us that we are ones who do not grieve as those who have no hope.  We do not need to wallow in grief and self-pity and blame, because we have a sure and certain hope in Christ.  And so Jesus speaks with comforting mercy, “Don’t cry, for I have come to conquer everything that saddens you and makes you feel alone and cut off and hurt and helpless.  I am here to wipe away every tear from your eyes.  Behold, I make all things new.”

    Jesus earlier had said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”  “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart.”  You do not face death and loneliness alone but with Jesus, the One who is your Help and your Shield, the One who is merciful to all who call upon Him, the One who is the Resurrection and the Life.  He faces death head on in order to renew your bodies and revive your spirits.

    Jesus comes and touches the open coffin, and those carrying the dead man stand still.  Jesus stops the procession of death dead in its tracks.  With this touch of the coffin, Jesus is putting Himself in the place of the widow.  He is sharing in her heartache and the heartache of all those who have lost loved ones, as it is written, “He is . . . a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”  And by touching the casket, Jesus also is putting Himself in the place of the only son.  For in so doing, according to the Old Testament Law, Jesus is making Himself ceremonially unclean with this young man’s death.  He allows that mortality to come upon Him so that the young man might have His own life in exchange, to make the young man clean and whole.  For remember, the only Son of the Father, Jesus, also became a dead man; He, too, would be held in the arms of His grieving mother Mary.  Jesus did that to save this young man, and all of you as well.

    On the cross Jesus touched your casket; He absorbed your death into His own body to save you from it.  Outside the gate of the city at Nain, and later outside the gate of the city at Jerusalem, Jesus allowed death to pass from you to Him so that you would be restored to life, cleansed and made whole.  The beauty of the city of Nain was made ugly by death, but now our Lord has turned the ugliness of the cross into a thing of beauty for us.  For there we see the fullness of His love; there we see our redemption from death and the sure hope of our bodily resurrection to life.

null    “Young man, I say to you, arise!”  Those are the words of the Creator who brings life out of nothing.  The one who was dead sat up and began to speak.  Jesus presented the young man to His mother.  Just as this son was a gift of God in birth, so now Jesus gives this son again to his mother with the gift of new life.  

    It is the same as in baptism.  Jesus presents children to Christian parents–not just once at birth, but a second time at the font, born again to new life by water and the Word.  Remember, all who are baptized die with Christ.  We are crucified with Him in order that we might also rise with Him to live a new and holy life.

    Even as Elijah stretched himself out three times over the Zarephath woman’s son, God stretched Himself out over you three times with His name at the baptismal font.  He breathed His Spirit into you, granting you a sure and certain hope which transcends all grief and sorrow.  Yes, we must live now by faith, still under the shadow of our physical death.  But the life of Christ will be surely ours by sight in the age to come.  For Romans 6 says, “If we have been united with Him in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection.”

    On the day of our death, our souls will be received into the blessedness of heaven.  And on the Last Day our bodies themselves will be raised from the dead, rejoined with the soul to live in Christ’s glory.  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.”  No longer are we dead in our trespasses and sins.  God has made us alive in Christ by the forgiveness of our sins.

    In response to this miracle, holy fear came upon the people, and they glorified God, saying, “A great prophet has risen up among us,” and “God has visited His people.”  And it’s true; God has visited His people in Christ, the greatest of all prophets, the very Son of God raised up from the dead to bring life and immortality to all who take refuge in Him.  Even today He visits you in His holy Supper.  He is literally here for you with His true body and blood–to forgive you, to raise you up, and to strengthen the faith you need to rely on Him through all your earthly struggles.  

    That’s why, as the Epistle reading said, we bow our knees before God when we come to the altar.  It’s not some ridiculous form of protest, taking a knee; it’s a sign of reverence and respect and honor for the Lord Jesus who is truly present here to fill us with His life.  Real unity is to be found not in sports or even in the flag but at the altar.  Here we are brought into communion with God and with one another.  

    Since Jesus does all of this for us, we know now that all is well.  Even funerals have joy at their center for those who are in Christ;  for He is alive and has taken away death’s sting.  So do not weep; our Lord has said, “I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly.  Because I live, you will live also.”  Jesus will surely visit you yet again at His return to do for you what He did for this young man, and even more–much more.  And so we go on confessing in the Creed, “I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

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

First

Trinity 15

Matthew 6:24-34

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

    In today’s Gospel we hear these words from Jesus, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness...”  Don’t be obsessing and worrying about all the other stuff; seek Him first.  This is similar to the first commandment where the Lord says, “You shall have no other gods.”  Perhaps some of you remember learning it as it is recorded in Exodus 20, “You shall have no other gods before Me.”  Or more literally in Hebrew, “You shall have no other gods in My face.  Get them out of here.  I alone am the true God who rescued you from your slavery.  I am Your Lord and Redeemer.  I don’t want to see any other gods or have you bowing down to them.  They are no good for you.  You belong to Me.  I love you.  You are My own precious and beloved people.”

    Too often, though, we hear the “seek first” words of Jesus or the “before Me” part of the first commandment,  and we take it to mean simply that we should put God first.  We can have other things that we love and trust in, other small-g gods, as long as we don’t let them become more important than the true God.  So we wrongly hear the first commandment as saying, “You shall have no other gods before Me; they need to be after Me.  As long as I’m first, we’re OK.”  But that’s not what the commandment means.  

    The falseness and the silliness of that understanding is revealed when we think of our relationship to God in marital terms.  The Lord often referred to Himself as the husband of His people.  Jesus, we know, is the Groom of His beloved Bride, the Church.  So imagine how ridiculous it would be for a husband to say to his wife, “I don’t want any other guys coming before Me.  But as long as I’m first, you can love and be with other guys.”  No spouses who truly love each other would say that.  It’s not just a matter of being first.  It’s a matter of being the only one.  That’s what the first commandment is about, “You shall have no other gods before Me.  I alone am your God; you are My people.”  The Lord is a jealous God, in the best sense of that word.  He wants to protect you from the lies of the false gods who try to entice you.  He wants what is best for you.  He defends you.  He wants you to be His own and to live under Him in His kingdom in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.null

    But still we act as if just putting God first is enough.  As long as I go to church each week, then I can devote myself to my other pet idols during the week.  As long as I give my 10% tithe in the offering plate, then I can use my other money to serve and worship the various other gods that I love.  We think that as long as we do things which try to demonstrate that the Lord is #1 for us, then we’ve kept this commandment.  But the Lord doesn’t just want to be first on a long list.  He wants to be the heart and center of the whole list–your family, your work, your recreation, your food and clothing, and yes, your money.  He wants you to receive all those things as good gifts from Him to be used and managed for His glory and the good of others.  The notion that we can serve Him on a part-time basis while serving other things the rest of the time is a lie.  Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters.  For either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” You cannot serve both the Lord and money.

    It is written, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”  Love of money causes us to compromise our principles and beliefs, to do things we shouldn’t do in order to fulfill our desires.  Love of money, for instance, causes us to see children as a burden to our finances rather than a divine blessing.  This is a big problem in our culture, with the average age of the population going up and family sizes going down.  God says, “Be fruitful and multiply,” but we listen to the culture and severely limit the children that God would give so that we can purchase and do all the things we want.  You cannot serve God and mammon.  

    Your security and comfort is either going to be in Him or in your finances and your stuff.  Martin Luther comments in the Large Catechism how we tend to choose the latter: “He who has money and possessions feels secure and is joyful and undismayed as though he were sitting in the midst of Paradise.  On the other hand, he who has no money doubts and is despondent, as though he knew of no God.  For very few people can be found who are of good cheer and who neither mourn nor complain if they lack mammon.  This care and desire for money sticks and clings to our nature, right up to the grave.”  We think that there is security in mammon; we think that it will give us what we want.  But that is a lie.  To serve mammon means eventually to pierce yourselves through with many sorrows.  It is to have a life that may look good but at its heart is full of worry and anxiety.

    Repent, then, of your misplaced trust in undependable mammon and depend on Him who is the sure Rock of our salvation.  Learn from God’s Word to turn away from worldly loves to the source of real Love.  “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Let your heart trust not in temporary created things but in the eternal Creator.  Turn from your anxieties and doubts to your Father in heaven, who will provide for you.

    Don’t ever forget that the Lord has power to supply whatever we need in ways that we can’t always understand or that we don’t expect.  Just consider the Old Testament reading.  I’m sure the last thing that the widow thought she needed was the prophet Elijah coming to her house in the midst of a famine, another mouth to feed.  And yet she trusted in the Lord’s word that the jar of oil and the bin of flour would not run out.  And they never lacked for bread.  And who would’ve expected that it would be a poor widow, of all people, that the Lord would make use of to provide for Elijah?

    Let us trust, then, that our lives are in the Lord’s hands and that He will care for us according to His good and gracious will, even when it seems like we’re getting to the breaking point.  Let us not engage in worry but in prayer.  Worry produces stress, but prayer produces peace.  For it dwells upon the sure words and promises of God, like those in today’s Gospel.

    Prayer says such things as, “Father in heaven, you know all the things I need, even before I ask for them.  You feed the birds of the air, and not one of them falls to the ground apart from your will.  Help me to trust that I am more valuable in your sight than the birds and that you will feed and sustain me even in the midst of my troubles.  And dear Father, you splendidly clothe the lilies of the field, even though they are little more than the grass.  Give me to believe that you will also clothe me and take care of me.  Keep me from worrying about tomorrow, and give me a thankful heart for the gifts you give day by day, my daily bread, and everything that is necessary to support this body and life.  The world is passing away, but your Word of mercy and life will never pass away.  It will save and sustain me forever.”

    Faith can only pray in this way because of what Jesus has done.  For He is the One who has made you children of the heavenly Father and has given you a place in the family.  Jesus calls you to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness because He Himself is the Righteous One who seeks first your salvation.  God has made you His first priority.  The King seeks after you and pursues you to rescue you.  The Eternal Son of God took on your perishable flesh and blood so that you would be redeemed.  Jesus bore in His own body all the corruption and the decay and the mortality that your sin brings, and He put it all to death on the cross.  In Christ the old undependable, perishable order of things has passed away and all things have become new in the power of His bodily resurrection.  In Him all of the false loves of your old self are forgiven and done away with, and you are given a new love and faith toward Him. This is how the Lord seeks after you and demonstrates His love toward you first, in that while we were still sinners, He died for us.  We love and seek Him first because He first loved and sought us.  And He hasn’t stopped seeking you out.  Christ continues to come to you in the ministry of His Word to bless and keep you.  Surely His goodness and mercy shall pursue you all the days of your life, and you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

    Trusting in Jesus, knowing all that He has done and prepared for us, our worries and fears are calmed.  For if God has provided so bountifully for our eternal needs, certainly He will care for us in all the necessities of this temporal life.  And even when the hard times do come, even if it’s all taken away and God’s care seems to have vanished, we know that we who are His baptized people are not forsaken.  We believe that even when terror and tragedy, sickness and death come, He who created us can and will also recreate us in the resurrection of the body on the Last Day.  So literally nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ.  It is as Romans 8 says, “If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also along with Him graciously give us all things?”  If you have Jesus, you have it all, for in Him all things hold together.

    That’s how Job could say in His suffering, in the loss of his property and his loved ones, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.”  “Though he giveth or he taketh, God His children ne’er forsaketh.”

    Living in that confidence, we are freed to use our money and possessions for the good of all, especially those of the household of faith, as the Epistle directs us.  We don’t have to cling tightly to our mammon.  We can give it away, because it’s not our god; it’s a gift of God and an instrument to be put to His use.  Let loose of your mammon.  Give away the security and power you think it gives you.  Turn the idol of mammon on its head; make it bow down to the true God and put it to a godly use, not only here but also out in the world.

    “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” which is to say, “Seek Christ the King, the Righteous One, and all the things you need will be added to you in Him.”  By faith we see that it’s not just a matter of putting the Lord first.  It’s a matter of seeing that Jesus is your first and middle and last.  He is the Alpha and the Omega, your all in all.  He is your entire salvation and life, from beginning to end.  Not only does God promise to feed you your daily bread, but here and now He feeds you with His very body and blood under the bread and the wine for the forgiveness of your sins.  Not only has God promised to clothe you, but He has already robed you in the white garment of Christ’s righteousness in your baptism.  

    And on the Last day you will forever be rid of your mortal clothing, this perishable flesh and blood, and you will put on your new and everlasting clothing in the resurrection of the body, as it is written, “The perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. . .  Then the saying that is written will come true: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ . . .  Thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  It is because of this certainty that we take to heart the words of St. Paul, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”

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

Your Jesus Has Made You Well

Luke 17:11-19

Trinity 14

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

    Jesus said to the Samaritan in today’s Gospel, “Your faith has made you well.”  Now those words are easily misunderstood, particularly in today’s religious context.  Often when people talk about faith, they turn the focus inward.  The emphasis is on something that’s inside of you, something that you’re doing spiritually.  And so a statement like “Your faith has made you well” could sound like there’s some inward characteristic you have that healed you.  Basically, you healed yourself.  And that’s not at all what Jesus is saying here.

    All too often we think of faith as some special power within us.  It’s all about my believing, my praying, my spirituality.  The power is within me.  That’s the way the world thinks of these things.  “Just look within yourself for the answers,” they say.  “You can do anything if you just have faith and believe.”  But that’s wrong.  Faith is not some power you harness to achieve your own personal goals in life.  That’s not the way the Bible talks.  Such thinking is faulty for several reasons, but especially because it puts the focus on the believer rather than on the One who is believed in.  It locates the ability to save in man’s doing rather than in God’s doing.  It gives the credit and the glory to the one who has faith rather than the One to whom faith clings.  

    You must understand that faith is nothing by itself–nothing.  The power of faith comes from that which it trusts in.  Faith is defined not by its own qualities but by the qualities of what or who it relies on.  And in the realm of Christianity, faith relies on Christ alone.  Faith by itself is like an empty glass.  If you’re thirsty, I might give you the most ornate crystal glass in the world, but if there’s nothing in it, it’s not going to quench your thirst one bit.  It’s not the glass but what’s in it that finally counts.  That’s also how it is with faith.  It’s not the faith itself but what the faith holds to, what or who you believe in that really matters.  Your faith is just the cup.  It’s the content of your faith–what it contains and embraces–that’s most important.  The essential thing is not your trust but where your trust is directed.  null

    That’s why the familiar statements, “You gotta have faith,” or “My faith saw me through” are really meaningless by themselves.  They don’t say what you’re believing in!  Faith in what? in yourself? in your doctor? in your bank account? in the government? in the forces of nature? in your horoscope?  You see, when it comes right down to it, everyone has faith of some kind, even atheists.  Everyone puts their trust in something.  It’s just that not everyone has Christian faith.  Some people believe in science and technology–they think that will give them purpose and provide all the answers they’re looking for.  Others believe in a generic sort of God, not the God of the Scriptures but a false god of their own making that fits in with their own philosophy of life.  Still others trust in worldly idols of power or prestige or possessions or their own wisdom and abilities.  But Christian faith is directed toward Christ Jesus, the eternal and only Son of the Father, who together with the Holy Spirit is the one true God.  That is what the Scriptures mean when they speak of faith:  to fear, love, and trust in this God above all things.  So there is true faith and there is false faith.  There is misplaced belief, and there is properly placed belief.

    Now Jesus’ words to the leper should be much clearer.  When Jesus said, “Your faith has made you well,” He was not saying that the leper had worked up this thing called “faith” within himself that had healed himself or earned God’s blessing.  Rather, Jesus was saying that by God's Word and Spirit this leper was brought to put his faith in the right place, the only place that could truly bring healing and deliverance from the deteriorating power of sin.  It is as if Jesus said, “Your faith is the correct kind.  You believed that I could help you, and rightly so.  For I alone have the power to save–and not only from temporal bodily ailments, but even from eternal death.  By the Father’s grace you have trusted in Me, the fountain of life.  And so you have been made well.”

    True faith isn’t just a generic belief that God exists.  True faith actively and specifically desires Christ, trusting in Him and in all that He has done.  A person can't have faith without desiring Christ in divine service.  Faith seeks after Christ where He is to be found, in His words, His preaching, His supper.  It calls upon the Lord in time of need and looks to Him and thanks Him for all good things.  

    The ten lepers in the beginning of the Gospel are a good example of this.  They stood afar off because they knew of their uncleanness, even as we all should know of the uncleanness of our hearts.  Yet they still were bold to cry for help, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!”  So also, we should all be bold to do the same, letting our “Lord, have mercy’s” be full of faith.  The lepers firmly trusted in Christ and were confident He would heal them.

    *That is one of the chief lessons of today’s Gospel, that we should commend ourselves into God’s hands and trust Him for everything, for He will surely supply it.  We should look to Him for all our needs and know that He is our only source of help.  Do not doubt but instead say, “I know that for Christ’s sake God will hear me and give me what I ask.  And even if He doesn’t do it in the way or at the time I prefer, He will do it in His own time and in His own way.”

    A wavering heart that doesn’t believe, that isn’t convinced it will receive what it asks for, will certainly receive nothing.  For our Lord God can give such a heart nothing, even though He would dearly love to do so.  It is as if you have a glass in your hands, but refuse to hold it still and keep waving it back and forth.  I can’t pour anything into it.  If I have a bottle of fine wine and you won’t hold your glass still to let me pour some for you, I’m not going to waste it and pour it all over the floor.  That’s the way it is with an unbelieving, wavering heart.

    On the other hand, if you do not waver, but wait and endure–God loves to give to people like that, as we see in the case of the ten lepers.  They wait patiently and never doubt that Christ will help them.  That is why they get exactly what they believe.  Let us take careful note of that, so that we too learn to trust God’s goodness implicitly, never letting our hearts falter, but patiently expecting what we pray for, be it health when we are sick, food when we are poor, righteousness when we are unrighteous and full of sin, or life instead of death, because God truly loves to pour out His blessings on us.

    The Lord will sometimes make you wait, to see if you continue believing and praying.   That’s how it was with these lepers.  Jesus didn’t heal them right away.  Instead, He simply said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.”  “Go to the temple in Jerusalem so that you can have yourselves legally declared clean by the religious leaders.”  But Jesus sent them off without any apparent change in their condition.  Then the Gospel says, “And as they went, they were cleansed.”  As they held to Jesus’ words and proceeded down the road, then they were healed.  These men had faith in the promise implicit in Jesus’ directions even without any evidence.  They believed that they had been made well by Jesus, even though they couldn't see it yet.  And in the end, it was revealed to have been true.  Jesus’ words accomplished what they said, first in a hidden way, then in a revealed way.

    And that is exactly how it is also for you.  When you cry out to Jesus in your need, He calls back to you with His words of life.  Of your uncleanness He says, “You are forgiven and cleansed in the waters of your baptism.”  Of your physical health He says, “By my wounds you are healed.  I have taken away all your diseases by my suffering.  Death cannot harm you.”  Of your struggles and difficulties He says, “I have delivered you from them all by my Easter triumph.”  Yet, by all appearances, it may not seem to be that way.  You may still find yourself facing many of the same things.  Nevertheless, just as He did with the lepers, Jesus sends you on our way.  He calls you to walk down the narrow road that leads to everlasting life holding only to His words.  To be a Christian is to trust in Jesus’ promises even without any visible evidence, to believe that you have been cleansed and healed and delivered, even if you can’t always see it yet, to walk by faith not by sight.  For in the end His words toward you will be shown to have been true all along.  Jesus’ words always do what they say–first, in a hidden way, “down the road,” in a revealed way.

    We know that Jesus’ words deliver these things to us because of the destination of His journey.  Not only did the lepers go to Jerusalem to show themselves to the priests, the Gospel says that Jesus was going there as well, to be our Great High Priest.  The ten went to get a new lease on life; Jesus, however, went there to give up His life.  His very purpose in coming into this fallen world was to make that ultimate sacrifice to release us from sin and suffering, from death and the devil.  So it was that Jesus breathed in our sin-poisoned air; He was afflicted with our afflictions in order that He might save and rescue us, as it is written, “Surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows.”  When Jesus comforted someone, He took their sadness on Himself; when He healed someone, He took their sickness on Himself; when Jesus forgave someone, He took their sin on Himself.  And Jesus has done that for you all.  All of the weight of the fallen world was laid on Jesus’ shoulders, and He carried that load to the cross, where it perished with Him.  Your sin and sorrow and sickness have been overcome, left dead and buried in the tomb from which Christ arose in triumph.  

    Believing in Christ, you have everything now.  Through Him you have healing in the midst of sickness, holiness in the midst of weakness, victory in the midst of things which overwhelm you, even life in the midst of death.  By faith you have it all in Christ, a truth that will be revealed to all creation at the close of the age.  That is why St. Paul could confidently say, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.”

    “Your faith has made you well.”  You can be sure you’re understanding the word “faith” correctly when you can insert the name of Jesus in its place.  Since faith is defined by what it trusts in, you should be able to replace it with “Jesus,” and it should still be saying the same thing.  “Your faith has made you well.”  “Your Jesus has made you well.”  Same thing.  That’s Christian faith.  

    Let us then be like the Samaritan, who returned to give praise and thanks to the Lord, worshiping at His feet.  And let us receive the words that Christ spoke to the cleansed leper as being spoken also to us, “Your faith has made you well.  Your Jesus has saved you.”

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

* This paragraph and the following two paragraphs are adapted from a sermon by Martin Luther in The House Postils, Vol. 2, p. 423.

You're Not the Samaritan

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Trinity 13

Luke 10:25-37

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

    I imagine that when you heard the reading of the parable of the Good Samaritan, many of you thought to yourselves, “I know this one well enough.  Don’t have to listen too carefully; the meaning of this one is easy: you’re supposed to help out strangers and be nice to your neighbor, even if you don’t like him.  It’s basically the golden rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  We should all try harder and not make excuses and be more like the Samaritan.”  And that is true as far as it goes.  We should be kind to one another and help those in need.  However, that’s actually not the main point of today’s parable.  Jesus is doing much more than just telling us to give it more effort in doing good works.  Even the unbelieving world can get on board with a message that we should be kinder and nicer, right?  No, today’s Gospel is about much more than that.

    We know that because of the reason why Jesus tells this parable.  He tells it to an expert in the law who was trusting in his own keeping of the law to make himself righteous before God.  The lawyer tests Jesus by asking Him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  And since the man wants to know what he must do, Jesus asks him what the Law says.  And the man correctly summarizes it: Love the Lord your God with everything that you are, and love your neighbor as yourself.  Jesus tells him, “If you want to gain eternal life for yourself by your own doing, hey, go for it.  Do that and you’ll live.”  But, of course, the question left hanging out there is, “Can you do that?”null

    Just think about what the Law demands of you.  It requires that you love the Lord your God with all of your heart and soul and mind and strength.  It doesn’t say “some” or “most” but “all,” everything that you are, no exceptions, no failures, God at the heart and center of everything. 

    And then, there’s more.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  The Law recognizes that we know how to love ourselves; that comes quite naturally.  We are to love our neighbor in the same way that we look out for ourselves.  And we must do that freely, gladly, from the heart, even if our neighbor is someone we don't really like.  James 2 reminds us, “Whoever keeps the whole Law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.”

    This summary of the Law is what Jesus presents the lawyer with.  And you can tell that it made the lawyer uncomfortable and a little defensive, because he then tries to justify himself.  Isn’t that what we do when the Law backs us into a corner?  We come up with excuses and exceptions and defenses and justifications like “I did the best I could, a lot better than most people.”  The lawyer asks a self-justifying question, “Well, who is my neighbor?”  Maybe if that category can be narrowed down a bit, perhaps to just family and friends, he can claim that he kept that commandment. 

    It’s only then that we hear the story of the  Good Samaritan.  So it’s important to understand: Jesus tells this parable not to help the lawyer with his own moral improvement, but rather to cut him down to size and nail him as a sinner, to nuke all of his self-justifying thinking and to get him to see that he’s in bad shape and needs to be rescued and saved.  So don’t get the idea that the Samaritan is you in this story.  You are not the Samaritan, Jesus is.

    Our Lord Jesus is saying to the lawyer and to all of us today, “Repent.  You are the man laying on the side of the road.  You are the one who has been robbed of the glory in which you were created.  Sin and Satan and world have beaten you and left you in the ditch, physically alive, but spiritually dead.  The Law cannot help you.  It can diagnose your condition, but it offers you no medicine.  Like the priest and the Levite, it passes by on the other side.  Only I, Jesus, your Good Samaritan can rescue you.  I have come to you as a foreigner from the outside, the Son of God from heaven. Though I  am despised and rejected by the Jewish leaders, I have come to show you mercy and compassion.

    “As one who shares in your flesh and blood, I am here to take your place.  For I myself will be robbed and stripped of My clothing; I myself will be beaten mercilessly and left dead on a cross, buried in a grave.  But this is the way I will defeat your enemies.  This is the way I will take away their power over you.  I will take the whole curse into my body, your sickness and sin and hurt and death.  And by My divine blood I will break the curse; through My resurrection, I will give you new and immortal life.  You cannot win this fight by your own strength.  But do not fear; I am fighting for you.  When death and the devil grab hold of My weak flesh, they will learn all too soon that they have grabbed hold of the almighty God; and I will tear them limb from limb and utterly destroy them.  I am here with you.  Lean on Me. You are safe; you are forgiven; there is nothing now that can separate you from My love.”

    The Good Samaritan Jesus comes to you and He cleans up the wounds of your sin in the waters of baptism.  He pours on the oil of His Holy Spirit to comfort you and the wine of His blood to cleanse and purify you in Holy Communion.  He gives you lodging in the Inn which is His holy church.  There you are continually cared for through the preaching of His words of life.  For although your sins are fully forgiven, yet the wounds of sin are not fully healed.  We still live with their effects in this world, don’t we.  The Church is the hospital where those wounds are tended to by the Great Physician, lest they become infected.  The innkeeper is the pastor; Jesus provides the innkeeper with two denarii, so that the Lord’s overflowing compassion might continue to be given to you in the ministry of the Gospel.  Jesus promises to pay whatever it takes to restore you.  For in fact He has already paid the full price, fully atoning for your transgressions by His sacrifice on the cross.

    In particular, those two denarii also point us to the resurrection of Jesus.  A denarius would pay for one day’s room and board.  A two denarii stay, then, would mean that the man would be up and about on the third day.  This is what Jesus has done for you.  He paid not with gold or silver but with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death, and He rose on the third day so that you may share in His bodily resurrection and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.  It is as we heard in the OT reading: “After two days He will revive us; on the third day He will raise us up, that we may live in His sight.”

    The lawyer had asked the question “Who is my neighbor?”  And the answer to that is “everyone.”  But notice how Jesus changed the question.  He changed it from the Law to the Gospel.  He said, “Who was neighbor to the man?”  Who is neighbor to you?  The answer to that question is just one; it’s Jesus.  He is the One who had mercy, who loved you as Himself.  He is the One who kept the Law for you, in your place, so that in Him you may inherit eternal life, as the Epistle said, “The Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”

    Repenting and believing in Jesus, He now lives in you and through you to love and be the neighbor to others.  He frees you to “go and do likewise”–not because you have to in order to be saved (if you're doing it to save yourself, it's not really a good work anyway, is it?)  No, you are freed to go and do likewise in showing mercy simply because your neighbor needs you.  Since Christ became weak for us and bore all our infirmities and sorrows, we learn to see Him in those who are weak and suffering.  And we show love for Him by loving them.

    You’re not the Samaritan; but Jesus is.  You don’t have to justify yourself; Jesus has taken care of that for you.  You are in the family of God.  And so the promised inheritance is yours in Jesus, a free gift, won by His death, delivered by water and the Word, sealed by His body and blood.  As you rest and recover here in the Inn, be strengthened in the certainty that soon, very soon your Good Samaritan will return to you as He has promised.  The risen Jesus will come again to take you to be with Himself in the place that He has prepared for you in His everlasting kingdom.

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

He Looked Up to Heaven and Sighed

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

    Not only when people are physically tired, but especially when they are stressed out and mentally and emotionally tired, they sigh.  We sigh when we’re burdened by something, when we’re weighed down, when we’re struggling to keep on going.  Sometimes the cause of our sighing is within us–be it the physical things we battle like bad knees and bad backs, disease, loss of sight and loss of hearing; or be it the sin within that weighs on you, that attacks your conscience, that makes you say, “Why did I do that or say that?  Why am I such a mess?”  And we can be brought to sighing by things outside of us, too–when people do evil to us and make our life difficult, when family or friends let us down, when all our efforts seem to get us nowhere, when we see the violence of the world and how everything around us seems to fail sooner or later.  Sometimes it’s all just too much, and we sigh; we groan.  Sighing is the fruit of the curse.

    And it affects all of creation.  Romans 8 says that “all creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.”   The recent hurricane and flooding is a living picture of that.  The whole creation is weighed down and broken.  It sighs and groans; and that often only makes our sighing and groaning worse as it brings to us suffering and sickness and death.  Creation itself is in bondage to decay after the fall.

    As we look up to heaven and sigh, it is most helpful to see our Lord Jesus in the Gospel doing the very same thing.  He is really one with us in our troubles.  He shares our burdens.  He too, sighs and groans.  But His sighing is also different from ours.  He feels your pain to be sure. And He knows your emptiness. But there’s more to it than that.  He knows that there’s a cure.  For He has come to be the cure Himself.  His sighs, His groans, His suffering are the very thing that take your sin and your burden away from you.  His sighs breathe His words and His Spirit and His life into you.null

    The friends of the deaf man at least in some small way understood this.  They brought the deaf-mute to Jesus.  They didn’t ignore his deafness or ostracize him.  They didn’t say it was his fault, that it was punishment for something he had done.  They were real friends.  So they brought him to where he could get help.  They brought Him to Jesus.  May God grant to us all such friends, even as we have already been befriended by those who brought us to Jesus at baptism, or who encouraged us to come to church (or get back to church) or receive holy absolution and the Sacrament of the Altar.  And by His mercy may the Lord make us such friends to others.  When’s the last time you invited someone to come with you to church or adults instruction class?

    Even more than his friends, though, the deaf-mute had this going for him: He had Jesus going for him–Jesus with him and for him and on his side.  Jesus took him aside from the multitude, away from the familiarity and the security of his friends and the people he knew.  The deaf-mute’s attention, his trust was to be entirely focused on Jesus now.  So it is with you.  When Jesus deals with you, he calls you to find your security not ultimately in the familiar people or things in this world, not even in your family, but only in Him.  He even goes so far as to say, “Whoever loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37).  

    Jesus did this away from the crowd.  For He wasn’t using this man as a prop for a PR stunt to promote His Messianic career.  He was completely there for the deaf-mute, one on one.  He put His fingers into the deaf man's ears.  He spit and touched the deaf man’s tongue.  He touched him right where his body was broken with a healing touch.  And He said, “Ephphatha.” “Be opened.  Be released.”  There was something almost over the line in Jesus’ actions. We don't want people sticking their fingers in our ears.  And we certainly don't want people spitting and touching our tongues!  Jesus invaded this man’s space.  It was uncomfortably close.

    The Lord can heal with just a Word.  Why then fingers in the ears, spit and hands upon the tongue?  Well, for one thing, this is what his friends had prayed for.  Remember they had begged Jesus to put His hand on him.  That prayer was being answered very concretely.  Be careful what you pray for.  You may receive what you asked, but not in the way you expected.  It may not come in the comfortable, simple way you were hoping for but in the Lord’s way that puts you out of your comfort zone, that teaches you not to trust in your prayers or your friends’ prayers, but only in the Lord who answers your petitions.  He may be invading your personal space, but it’s for your good.

    Jesus heals in this hands-on way, too, because this is the very purpose for which he came, to be the Great Physician who touches our broken flesh with His pure life-giving flesh.  He sticks His fingers in our ears through the preaching of His Word.  In the Bible, the “finger of God” is a reference to the Holy Spirit and His work.  God puts His finger, His Holy Spirit into our ears with the Scriptural words which He Himself inspired.  Only by the power of God’s Word and Spirit can our natural spiritual deafness be turned to a listening ear which understands and believes the things of God.  The Epistle reading said, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.”  

    Jesus also spits and touches our tongue in the Sacraments.  Baptism is water and words from the mouth of God, right?  In baptism Jesus says His “Ephphatha” to you, releasing you from your bondage to death and unloosing your tongues to sing the praises of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.  We pray in the Psalms, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.”  Only when the Holy Spirit has opened our ears and freed our tongues can we truly worship Him rightly.  It is written, “No one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.”

    And of course, our Lord Christ touches your tongue very literally in Holy Communion, where He places His body and blood right onto your tongues and into your bodies for your forgiveness.   To the world it is a rather strange thing that you would come forward and kneel at this rail and let me place food and drink into your mouth.  But you do so at the Lord’s Word.  For this is the Lord’s concrete, earthy way of touching you and giving you eternal healing.  And it especially seems strange to the world that you would all drink from the same cup of the Lord.  It seems so untidy in our day and age.  But that’s what the Lord directs us to do.  He says, “Drink of it (the one cup) all of you.”

    Jesus looked up to heaven, and sighed, and said “Ephphatha.”  The cost of our healing is His sacrificial death, and Jesus knows that well.  He sighed and groaned and cried out and was spitefully spit upon for us on the cross.   And yet through that death Jesus is not defeated but victorious.  For in so doing He breaks the power of sin’s curse.  Jesus has overcome all that makes you sigh and groan in this fallen world through the cross.  You have the victory in Him.

    God the Father showed the victory of Jesus’ sacrifice for you on the third day.  This time the Father said “Ephphatha” to the tomb, “be opened,” and He raised Jesus to life in glory.  In the same way, Jesus will speak His “Ephatha” to your graves on the Last Day, and raise you from the dead with glorified bodies to live with him forever in righteousness and holiness.

    This is the light at the end of all tunnels for the Christian. This is the promise that no matter how bad the sighing gets, there really is a better day ahead.  No matter how deaf God appears to the sounds of our cry, in Jesus Christ, he hears, and he will answer us, and restore us, and give us eternal blessing.  In the resurrection there will be no more deafness or pain or trouble or disease any more.  As it is written, “Sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”  The whole creation will rejoice with us as it, too, is released from its bondage.  We eagerly wait for the adoption, the redemption of our bodies.  Until then, the Spirit of Christ helps us in our weakness, aiding our prayers when we don’t know what to say, making intercession for us with sighs and groans too deep for words.

    “In that day the deaf shall hear the words of the book.”  Thanks be to God that He has caused the living melody of the Gospel to sound in our ears, that He sighs His breath and Spirit and life into us.  Even in the midst of the uncertainties of your life, let your confession of faith be like that of the multitude in the Gospel,  “He has done all things well.  He makes both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

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

No Comparison

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

    All of us know how to play the comparison game.  You see or hear about someone or their family, something they’ve done or achieved, and then you line yourself up next to them to see who’s doing better.  In your heart you usually come up with one of two conclusions: either you’re proud and satisfied with yourself or you despair and are depressed about yourself.  The comparison game is not a good game to play, but our sinful nature can’t seem to avoid it.  For the old Adam is always obsessed with the self, and he wrongly judges himself in terms of others rather than in terms of God and His Word.

    Pride can rear its head in the comparison game even in something as simple as watching the news.  We like to complain about how they so often focus on the negative aspects of the human condition; but then we still keep on tuning in, don't we--perhaps in part because next to all that we seem pretty good.  We can virtue signal on social media about how we stand for this or stand against that.  We see the racist neo-nazi driving into a crowd of people or the lawless vandal tearing down statues and starting streetfights, or the addicted celebrity, or the corrupt politician, or the tragically broken transgender person, and we think, “Thank God I’m not like those people.  I’m certainly doing better than they are.”  

    But notice how that’s the way the Pharisee talks.  He mentions God; He even seems to thank God for His good works, but not really.  For notice how it says that the Pharisee prayed with himself.  That’s the only safe way to pray if you’re playing the comparison game–with yourself and by yourself.  The name of God is used by the Pharisee just once; the word I is used four times.  God is not really the focus here; He’s just window dressing for the main attraction, the pious Pharisee.

 null   Now, the Pharisee here seems to be a little bit of a caricature that we can easily make fun of.  But be careful, for as soon as you start thinking, “Thank God I’m not a self-righteous snob like the Pharisee,” then you’ve become the Pharisee yourself.  Then you’re the one looking down on others.  You don’t like it when people act all holier than thou, but the fact that you’ve got to go and point that out shows that you think you’re better than them.  And so you’re caught.

    Repent.  Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall..  He who exalts Himself will be humbled.  Turn away from religion which is all about you and your spiritual self-improvement.  The Gospel is not “God helps those who help themselves.”  That statement is a lie; It’s not in the Bible.  Do not trust in yourself to become good before God; it cannot be done.

    But at the same time, do not give way to despair, either.  For that is the other side of the coin in the comparison game.  People who know they haven’t measured up, who have botched things, compare themselves to others and say, “Look at how I’ve messed up and sinned.  My life is full of mistakes and failings.  I always seem to fall short.  I don’t see any future for me, especially with God.  How could He accept someone like me?  It’s hopeless.”  

    Those who succumb to spiritual despair are really engaging in the very same sin as the Pharisee, oddly enough.  Both pride and despair are obsessed with the self.  The proud person looks at himself and thinks he sees good.  The despairing person looks at himself and sees bad.  But both are engaging in the exact same spiritual activity–navel-gazing, mirror watching.  It’s all about me.  Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves.  Both the proud and the despairing person think that it all depends on them and their efforts and what they do.  For one this is happy, for the other it’s sad.  But they both believe the same thing, and they’re both wrong.  That’s why they both end up despising others, as Jesus said.  The proud person looks down on those he thinks to be inferior to him.  And the despairing person may well despise those he thinks “won life’s lottery” or who supposedly held him down and kept him from being able to become the person he was supposed to be.

    Let go of all the comparing and embrace grace.  “By grace you have been saved.”  God’s grace and mercy alone.  There is no comparison to that.  Nothing can compare to what is freely given to you in Jesus Christ.  The tax collector’s worship is the right kind of worship, that of humble reverence before the Lord.  It’s right because his faith is not in himself in any way but in the Lord’s sacrificial compassion.  It all depends on that.  He doesn’t presume that he has the right to draw near to God on his own merits.  He stands afar off with his face not even lifted up to the King of kings.  He beats his chest in sorrow as if to say, “What have I done?”  And his only plea is, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

    That may not be the kind of worship that draws crowds and makes you feel all tingly, but it is the kind of worship that Jesus seeks and that He praises here.  For Jesus says that it’s the tax collector who goes down to his house justified, right with God.  The tax collector comes before God with no illusions that he has some great virtue that he can offer to God.  No it all hangs on the belief that the Lord is a God of mercy who will not forsake even him, who will forgive him and raise him up, even though he doesn’t deserve it.

    That’s why he came to the temple.  This wasn’t the synagogue.  This was the temple, where the sacrifices were made that God appointed and where blood was shed to atone for sin.  When the tax collector prays “God be merciful to me . . .” the word he uses for mercy has to do with those sacrifices, all of which pointed forward to the coming sacrifice on Good Friday.  So as the tax collector offers this prayer, God is already answering it for him there in the animals being offered on the altar to which the Lord attached His promise of mercy.  The tax collector trusted in that promise, and he longed for the day when the Messiah would come and bring all of these things to their fulfillment.

    Let us also then learn the lesson of the tax collector and take our place with him.  Let us come before the Lord with humble reverence, with sincere repentance and true faith.  For it is written, “The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart and saves such as have a contrite spirit” (Psalm 34:18).  If you know the burden of your fallen nature, if you’ve made some poor choices in life, if this world at times wearies you to death, then the Lord Jesus is for you.  Pray “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”  And He is, and He will be, and His mercy endures forever.  For He has made the sacrifice for you in the temple of Christ’s body on the altar of the cross.  There the Lamb of God was offered up once and for all.  Through His sacrifice your sin has been fully atoned for.  You are released and forgiven.  You are freed from all the religious score-keeping and comparison games that divide you from your neighbor.  Though Cain and Abel were divided from each other by Cain’s envy and anger, so that the blood of Abel the shepherd covered the ground, yet even this portrays how the holy blood of Jesus the Good Shepherd covers you and atones for you who are made of dust.  “Abel’s blood for vengeance pleaded to the skies; but the blood of Jesus for our pardon cries.”  Notice how it is written that the ground opened it's mouth to receive Abel's blood (Gen. 4:11).  So it is that we open our mouths to receive the blood of Christ that cleanses us of all sin (1 John 1:7).  By it you are reconciled to God.  As it is written, “You who once were far off (as the tax collector stood far off) have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”   

    Now you are given to lift up your eyes and see heaven opened through Jesus.  It is opened because Jesus fulfilled His own words here, “He who humbles himself will be exalted.”  Jesus humbled Himself even to the point of death on a cross.  He didn’t say to His Father, “God, I thank You that I am not like other men”–even though He’s the One who actually could have said that.  Instead, He made Himself to be like us and bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that we, having died with Him to sin, might live for His true righteousness.  And now God the Father has exalted the risen Jesus to the highest place and given Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, even at this altar rail, as He comes to you by grace.

    All of you are freely given to go down to your houses justified and righteous today–not because of what you have done for God, but because of what He has done for you.  “It is by grace you have been saved through faith” in Christ, who is your righteousness.  And this is “not of yourselves,” from within you, “it is the gift of God” from outside of you, “not of works, lest anyone should boast.”  If there’s going to be any boasting, Scripture says, let it be boasting in the Lord.  He baptized you and by His Spirit turned you from a child of wrath to a child of grace.  He comforts you now with His words of mercy and feeds you His own true body and blood, like a holy medicine, to cure you and to prepare your bodies for the resurrection to life everlasting on the Last Day.

    You are justified, right with God in Christ.  Therefore, humble yourselves before the Lord, that He may lift you up in due time.

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

Deathly Wages, Life-Giving Gifts

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

    “The wages of sin is death.”  I think most understand that passage of Scripture to be referring to physical death.  “Because of our sin, we must die; our bodies are destined to wear out and pass away.”  And that is true.  Were it not for mankind’s rebellion against God beginning in the Garden of Eden, there would be no such thing as death. Don’t forget that.  God did not create us to die but to live in His presence forever, in the flesh.  The fact that the world is so screwed up and full of death now is not God’s fault; it’s our own.  In the beginning, animals did not eat one another; Adam and Eve did not eat the animals.  Food was provided freely by God to all living things from the fruit of the trees and the various plants He had created.  All creatures were thoroughly satisfied with God’s provision.  But then through sin, death entered into the world.  Creation fell under the curse of man’s rebellion.  Life become only temporary.  The ground produced weeds and thistles.  Animal turned against animal.  Man turned against man.  Man became in many ways like an animal.  He would have to toil and sweat for His food.  Work would no longer be a pleasurable activity but burdensome labor.  God’s sentence was “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”

    And yet it might appear to some that what God said would happen didn’t.  The Lord had said, “In the day you eat of it, you shall surely die.”  But Adam and Eve were still alive and kicking for many decades after they ate, even if life had become much more difficult.  So what’s going on here?

    Death from the eternal perspective has to do with a lot more than just the body giving out and the heart stopping and the brain no longer functioning.  Death ultimately has to do with being separated from God, being cut off from His presence and His goodness.  That’s why hell is rightly called eternal death.  For it is the place where God and His grace are absent, and there is only ultimate nothingness and evil and pain.  Hell is the place where those who want to live independently from God get what they asked for.  null

    So while physical death is indeed the consequence of sin, death ultimately is spiritual.  In the day that they ate, Adam and Eve did die.  They were only hollow shells of what they once were, as all of mankind still is.  Ephesians 2 reminds us all people are by nature dead in sin.

    And I think we know that, at least subconsciously.  When the Epistle reading says that “the wages of sin is death,” we know it doesn’t only mean that death is going to be coming to us someday in the future, but that we’re already experiencing it.  We can feel in our bodies that we’re dying, in various troubles and sickness and aging.  And we experience it in our spirits, too.  Every sin is destructive and brings a little bit of death with it.  For instance, laziness brings boredom with God’s creation and an unhappiness with the blessings God provides, always having to seek out some new pleasure or thrill.  Lust and sexual immorality diminish people and ruin families and sear consciences.  Overindulging in food or drink produces health problems and a sluggish spirit.  Impatience leads to anger. Gossiping leads to conflict and broken friendships.  Greed poisons good relationships.  Pride blinds us to our faults and the needs of our neighbor.  Our sins are killing us.  They’re emptying us of life and hollowing us out–like the empty stomachs of the 4000 in today’s Gospel.  Indeed, the wages of sin is death, even before we die.

    However, that’s only the first half of the verse.  The last half trumps the first half when it declares, “The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord!”  Notice the difference in terminology there.  The first half talks about wages, the second half talks about a gift.  The first part talks about what we have earned, the second part talks about what God has freely given without our earning it.  Our working has led to death, but God’s working leads to life through His Son.

    In today’s Gospel we see a wonderful picture of how God worked to save us from death and bring us back into His life.  For there we see Jesus in the wilderness with the multitudes.  Man’s sin had turned the world from the abundance of Paradise into a bleak and harsh place, and so Jesus entered into that bleakness and harshness as a true man in order that He might undo the curse and restore humanity and all of creation.  The Son of God took on your human body and soul and put Himself smack dab into the middle of this fallen, desert world in order to rescue you and raise you up.  

    Jesus said, “I have compassion on the multitudes.”  That word, “compassion,” in Greek has to do with the deepest possible empathy and feeling.  So fully does Jesus empathize with you and feel for you that He went so far as to make your problems His problem.   He knows what you’re going through, whatever it is.  In His great mercy Jesus came into the world to suffer with you and to suffer for you in order to take your suffering away forever.  He made Himself a part of the mud and the blood in order to redeem you and revive the fallen creation in which you live.

    You can begin to see that taking place already in this miracle of the feeding of the 4000.  The curse on Adam had been, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.”  But here the second Adam, Jesus, reverses the curse and produces bread in abundance apart from any sweaty or tiring labor.  In this moment He restores the bounty of the Garden of Eden, where food is received in overflowing measure from the gracious hand of God.  Here you see God the Son beginning to break the curse of decay and death and overcome the fall into sin.  You see a small glimpse of how it was in the beginning and how it will be even more so in the new creation of the age to come.

    Jesus would complete His work of undoing the fall and breaking the power of the curse of death at the pinnacle of His ministry, on the cross.  There Jesus turned the curse into a blessing for you.  The wages of sin is death; and so Jesus took those wages you had coming and died your death for you.  Sin’s deathly curse was broken and undone in the body of Christ the crucified.  And therefore, because of Jesus’ sacrifice, the gift of life now flows to you and to all who believe in Him.  For if sin has been undone, so also are the wages of sin undone.  Death and hell have been taken away from you through the cross.  All that remains for you now is life, full and free, through Jesus’ resurrection.

    That’s why it’s so important to pay attention to the fact that it was on the third day that this miracle was performed in the Gospel.  It is a tradition in the church to fast beginning on Good Friday in observance of our Lord’s holy death and burial.  But then the fast is broken after three days on Easter to partake of the feast of the living and resurrected Christ.  Even so, week by week we fast in spirit with Jesus, bearing His cross in our daily vocations.  But then the fast is broken on the third day, that is, in divine service, as we feast on the living Bread from heaven.  Just as Jesus led these people on a three day journey into the wilderness, so also Jesus leads you on a journey into the wilderness, into your daily callings in this desert world, so that you may learn to hunger for His Word and His righteousness, so that you may see your desperate need for His help and deliverance, and so that you may be filled with His life here on the third day.

    Jesus took the seven loaves and gave thanks, broke them, and gave them to His disciples to set before the people.  In the same way still today, Jesus speaks His words of thanks and consecration and His ministers distribute the blessed Sacrament of the Altar.  The seven loaves were multiplied to feed and fully satisfy 4000 people.  In the same way still today, Jesus uses seemingly insufficient bread, the bread of the curse, to multiply His grace and bless and fully satisfy the church with His very life-giving body.  Jesus said, “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.”

    When all had eaten there was more left over than when they started.  Seven small loaves became seven large baskets.  So it is that the Lord’s love and compassion cannot be exhausted; it never runs out.  There is no sin of yours so great that His multiplying mercy cannot overcome it.  In fact, it’s really just arrogance if you think there’s some sin of yours that can’t be forgiven, as if your sin is stronger than Jesus.  That’s just conceit.  No, not only does Jesus overcome it, He makes things better than before.  The seven loaves stand for the seven days of creation.  The seven large baskets stand for the even greater creation to come at Christ’s return.  Not only is the Lord restoring you to the deathless perfection of Eden, He is exalting you to a status and a state even greater and better than Adam and Eve.  The place being prepared for you in heaven surpasses even the Paradise of Eden.  For all things are fulfilled and brought to their pinnacle in Christ.  

    So now, even though we see the signs of death in us and around us, we are also given to see the signs of Christ’s life in us and around us as well.  For even as sin has its fruit in death, so forgiveness has its fruit in life, and in the fruit of the Spirit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  Though man ate of the tree that brought death, there is now the tree of life, the cross, from which he may eat and never die, never to be separated from God and His goodness again.  

    So then, just like the 4000, we also are given a glimpse of Paradise here in this place.  As you receive the bread of life, you are being given a taste of heaven.  For heaven is where Christ is; and Christ is here for you.  “The poor shall eat and be satisfied.”  “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who trusts in Him.”  

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

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