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Outward and Inward Sin and Righteousness

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Matthew 5:17-26
Trinity 6

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

    At the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, we have passages like today’s Gospel, where Jesus teaches the full meaning of the Law.  True righteousness, a true keeping of the Law involves not only our outward behavior but also our inward thoughts and motivations and desires.  It’s not only a matter of the hands but also a matter of the mind and heart.  Anger=Murder, Lust=Adultery, Greed=Stealing, and so forth.  This is a message that we need to hear.  For too often we think of ourselves better than we ought to because most of us haven’t robbed a bank or committed adultery or engaged in violence against our neighbor.  We feel self-satisfied and even a bit self-righteous about that.  We’re good people.  Sure, we’re not perfect and we’ve made a mistake here or there.  But all in all, we’ve done well, definitely above average, we think.  And so we need Jesus’ teaching here to remind us that in fact there isn’t a single commandment that we haven’t broken.  We are all murderous, adulterous, lying, covetous thieves.  And that doesn’t even take into account the most important commandments, the first three that have to do with our relationship with God.  Jesus preaches this Law to us so that we might not become like the scribes and Pharisees, trusting in their own goodness and their own clean living.  We need the Law to drive us away from trusting in ourselves to trust in Christ Jesus alone.  The Law is good, but it cannot give us eternal life.  It’s an abuse of the Law to try to do that.  Only Jesus can save us and give us life.

    But there is another more subtle way we can abuse the Law, too, which perhaps is more common for us Lutherans.  We say to ourselves, “Well, since it’s just as much a sin before God if you do it inwardly or outwardly, then it really doesn’t matter if you go ahead and commit the sin with your body since you’ve already done it in your heart.”  We try to justify our behavior by saying that since everyone breaks the commandments in their sinful hearts, then it’s no worse to be guilty of engaging in the outward behavior.  All sins are the same, we say.  But that is wrong and false.  We abuse Jesus’ teaching here by trying to use it make our own outward sins seem not so bad.  null

    Our Lord Jesus teaches us in Scripture that all sins are not equal or the same.  God’s Word teaches that there are different types and different degrees of sin.  What we have done in many cases is that we have taken the correct theological principle that all sins are equally damning, that all sins make us subject to judgment by God–which is true–and then we conclude that all sins therefore are the same and equal.  But that’s clearly not the case.

    For instance, 1 John 5 speaks of sins which lead to death and sins which do not lead to death, faith-destroying sins and those which do not destroy faith.  Sins of weakness are not as damaging to faith, though they still should be considered to be quite dangerous.  Deliberate sins are the worst, when we plan to sin, when we delight in sin, when we know exactly what we’re doing and don’t care.  Jesus Himself said to Pontius Pilate, “Those who delivered me over to you have the greater sin.”  So there are greater and lesser sins, even as Jesus speaks of greater and lesser commandments in today's Gospel.  Or 1 Corinthians 6 speaks of how sexual sin is different because it’s a sin against one’s own body.  Greater damage is inflicted to oneself through such sin.

    Our problem is that we take the idea that all sins are damnable, and then we think therefore that there is no difference if you do it in your heart or if you do it externally.  However, sinfully coveting your neighbor’s wealth is not as horrific as actually going and robbing someone of their life’s savings.  The consequences to your neighbor are vastly different, and the danger to your faith is different.  All sin is dangerous and damnable, but all sin is certainly not the same.  Our bodily behavior matters.  So we may not be able to stop a flash of anger or lust from arising within us from our sinful nature, but we can stop ourselves from dwelling upon it, from scheming for revenge or engaging in sinful daydreams; and we most certainly can control our bodies from doing someone physical harm or from physically watching pornography or engaging in sexual immorality.  And thanks be to God that He is at work through the curbing influence of His Law, keeping us from ruining our own lives and the lives of our loved ones and others.  Even here we see God’s mercy, that He keeps the effects of our sin in check, so that it doesn’t do all the earthly damage to us that it otherwise would do.

    Don't abuse the Law, then, in either of these ways–whether to try to justify yourselves as righteous, or to try to excuse your sin as not so bad.  Jesus said, “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.”  St. Paul said in the Epistle, “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?  Certainly not!  How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?”  God’s forgiveness is not a  license to sin, it’s freedom from sin.  It’s the taking away of sin.  Why would you willingly want to embrace again the very things which once condemned you to hell?  Since the old Adam still hangs around your neck, tempting you to think lightly of sin, the Law is still in force in this fallen world.  Not one jot or tittle will pass away from it till all is fulfilled at Christ’s return.  The commandments still apply to every single one of us, calling us to repent.

    And here’s where the good news fully kicks in.  Jesus says, “I did not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it.”  Jesus came not to undo the Law but to bring it to fulfillment and completion in Himself.  He is our only hope and our only help.  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.”  Only in Jesus is there deliverance from the judgment of the Law.  For only Jesus has kept the Law without fault or failing.  And all of this He did for you and in your place.  So Jesus isn’t only your example.  Rather, He keeps the Law completely and perfectly on your behalf.  Through faith in Him, His righteousness is counted as yours.

    It is written in Hebrews, “He was tempted in all points 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, showing compassion, healing, doing good and teaching the truth to all.  Our Lord lived a holy life as our representative and our substitute, so that our unholy lives would be redeemed.

    And Jesus also fulfilled the Law by completing all of the old ceremonial requirements regarding the Sabbath and the sacrifices and so forth.  Through His holy death and His rest in the tomb, Jesus Himself became your eternal Sabbath rest; and so He says, “Come to Me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”  “I will release from the crushing weight of the Law; I give you the peace of being reconciled with God.”  And by His once-for-all, final sacrifice as the Lamb of God, Jesus cleansed you from your sin and purified you.  All the Old Testament Jewish rules and regulations found their goal in Jesus, who put that all to an end in His crucified body, that the Law might no longer condemn you.  You’ve been put right with God again.  That’s what Jesus was saying on the cross, “It is finished.”  It is accomplished, completed, perfected, fulfilled.  All has been done, as Romans 10 declares, “Christ is the end of the Law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”

    That new life, that sure hope 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.  His death counts as your death.  The hellish judgment he experienced counts for you too.  It’s all done and behind you.  Living in Christ, taking refuge under His wings, you are holy to Him; you are protected and kept safe from the power of sin and Satan and from death itself.

    That’s how the words of Jesus which seemed to be impossible are now, in fact, true in Him:  “Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”  By faith in Christ, your righteousness actually does exceed that of the Pharisees, for it has been given to you freely by God’s grace.  You have the perfect righteousness of Jesus as your own.  The Father has declared it to be so.  He didn’t just demand that you straighten out your life, He gave you a whole new life, the life of Jesus that is full and complete and perfect and everlasting.  Through Christ you will enter the kingdom of heaven.  In fact you have already entered it by faith in Jesus, the King of heaven and earth.  

    So whether you struggle with sins of weakness, or whether you have willfully sinned and rejected and turned away from God, you are not without hope.  Return to faith in Christ; return to the Lord, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  Our Lord has brought you through the Red Sea of baptism, out of the house of bondage.  Your old selves were crucified with Christ, that you should no longer be slaves to sin.  Therefore, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.  That’s what’s real.  For just as you have been united with Him in His death, you will surely also be united with Him in the resurrection of the body when He comes again.  To Him with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all worship, honor, glory, and praise, now and forever.  Amen.

(With thanks to David Petersen for some of the Law exposition above)

If They Do Not Hear Moses and the Prophets. . .

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Luke 16:19-31

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

    If there’s one thing that Scripture makes very clear, it’s that many people who think that they have eternal life with God will be surprised to find out that they actually don’t.  Matthew 7 gives one of the starkest examples of that.  Jesus says, “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...”  Or in the parable of the 10 virgins, 5 are left wanting to enter the heavenly wedding feast and thinking they should be let in, but they’re locked out.  

    And in today’s Gospel reading, I am sure that the rich man thought that his status before God was in good shape.  We shouldn’t turn the rich man into a caricature–a greedy monster or some sort of Scrooge kind of character.  He was likely respected and looked up to by the people.  He would have been seen by the average person as having been blessed and favored by God.  The rich man’s money and business may well have provided jobs or built synagogues.  The fact that he didn’t pay attention to the miserable beggar at his gate probably wouldn’t have seemed terribly nullstrange.  Beggars like Lazarus were ones that most people would have wanted to avoid, like a homeless man that we might scurry past and avoid eye contact with on the street.

    To this day most people believe that as long as they do their best trying to live a good life, as long as they do more good than bad, that they’ll go to heaven.  They may not be 100% sure of it, but one thing most people are sure of is that they don’t deserve to be cut off from God forever in hell.  What funeral have you ever gone to, even of someone who never went to church or received the Sacrament, where people didn’t say, “Oh, they’re in a better place now; they’re looking down on us from above,” and other such cliches.  What eulogy didn’t make the deceased sound like a good person at heart, even if they were a bit of a jerk.  Almost everyone thinks they’ll eventually end up in heaven.  And most people, sadly, are in for a rude awakening.

    The rich man in hell knew that his brothers were under the same delusion that he was.  That’s why he wants to warn them.  He realizes that they think they’re fine with God, when they’re not.  They, too, might refer to Abraham as their father and think they’re among the people of God, but they are deceived.  They don’t share Abraham’s faith.  And so they aren’t true children of Abraham.  Let this warning, then, also come to you and me today, so that we don’t end up like the rich man, complacent and falsely secure, putting our faith in the wrong place.  

    That’s really the key difference between the rich man and Lazarus–their faith.  It wasn’t so much about what they possessed, but what possessed them, what had a hold of their hearts.  Even though he may have been a religious person, the rich man’s real confidence was in his own abilities and smarts, his own resources, his own power and standing as a pillar of the community.  Even in the fires of hell, the rich man rejected Moses and the prophets.  Did you notice that?  When the rich man wants to use Lazarus to go back to his brothers from the dead and warn them, Abraham says that Moses and the prophets are more than enough; that Word of God is all that his brothers need.  But the rich man doesn’t think that’s good enough.  He thinks that Scripture is empty, that it doesn’t have the power to bring them to repentance or to save them.  He wants a miracle.  Even in hell his trust is in something else than God’s Word.  Just because he sees heaven and hell doesn’t mean that he’s become a believer.  Death doesn’t change someone from unbelief to faith.  The hard-heartedness of the unbelieving goats perseveres into eternity.  In fact his unbelief actually becomes a part of his eternal torment, as his hard heart grows increasingly more frustrated and angry at the ways of God.

    Lazarus, on the other hand, clung to Moses and the prophets.  The Word of God was his hope.  For you may remember that the name “Lazarus” literally means “God is My Helper” or “My God is Help.”  Even though Lazarus longed for mere crumbs from the table, even though the street dogs licked his wounds, even though in this world Lazarus had nothing–not even his health–in truth, and perhaps surprisingly, Lazarus found what he was seeking.  He found mercy that endures forever.  He received Living Water and Bread from Heaven. He obtained perfect satisfaction and health.  It was all there for him in Moses and the prophets.  For there in Moses and the prophets was the Messiah, Jesus, his Help and his Savior.  

    You recall that when Jesus was walking with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, it is written that “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.”  Moses and the Prophets are all about Jesus.  So Lazarus went to heaven not because he suffered or because he was poor but because he believed Moses and the prophets.  Or to put it more precisely, he believed in the Messiah Jesus whom they prophesied, who would take the sins of the world upon Himself and earn for him God’s favor and a place in heaven.

    Lazarus found there in the Scriptures a man much like himself.  Isaiah prophesies that the Christ is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, despised and rejected by men, one without any attractiveness that we should desire to be near Him.  Jesus Himself said in the Psalms that He was surrounded by unbelieving dogs who mocked Him in His pain, who pierced His hands and His feet.  And yet, Isaiah says, “He Himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses. . .  And by His wounds we are healed.”  The blood that flowed from those wounds cleansed us of our sin and bought our eternal healing, the restoration and resurrection of our bodies to glory on the Last Day.

    Truly Jesus made Himself to be just like Lazarus for us.  For notice how Lazarus is comforted there in the bosom of father Abraham, laying on his chest.  That is a clear picture for us of the first two persons of the Trinity, the eternal Father and Son, as John 1 states, “No one has seen God at any time.”  But, “The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known.”  Jesus is the very heart of the Father; and He has made the love of the Father known to us by coming down from heaven into our poverty and affliction in order to raise us up and bring us back with Himself to heaven.

    Lazarus was a true son of Abraham, not only by blood, but also because he had the same faith as Abraham.  You recall how the elderly, childless Abraham was told by God that he would be the father of many nations, that his descendants would be as countless as the stars.  And even though Abraham had no evidence or experience to go on, he believed God’s promise, and God credited it to him as righteousness.  Abraham was righteous by faith alone.  And so was Lazarus.  Lazarus, too, trusted in God’s promise that He would not forsake the lowly, that no one who puts his trust in Him would be put to shame, that the Lord saves those who have a humble and contrite and penitent heart.  Even when all of the evidence and experience of Lazarus’ life said that God had forsaken him, he still clung to God’s promise.  By that faith he was accounted righteous before God.  He was saved.

    And so it is, then, also for you.  The evidence and experience of your life may seem to suggest that God doesn’t like you, that He’s forgotten you.  Unlike the rich man, you may have this nagging feeling that you’re not going to heaven, that there’s no way to escape hell because of what you’ve done or because of the things that have happened to you.  But don’t judge God by what you see or feel.  Instead, go on His Word and His promises.  Trust that what He says is true and real.  For God does not lie; He does not break His Word.  He will come through for you–maybe not the way you want right now; maybe not even in this life.  But most assuredly He will do so in the life to come.  For He has conquered your sin and death by His own death and resurrection.  By faith in Him, you are accounted righteous before God.  You are holy in His sight, without a single flaw.  The comfort and happiness of heaven is yours, entirely by the grace of God.  You don’t have to earn it by your works.  It’s all a gift of Christ’s love for you.  So while the rich man was unexpectedly surprised by his eternal torment, you will be unexpectedly surprised by the boundless goodness and joy of everlasting fellowship with God.  What He has prepared for you will be an unanticipated marvel and wonder.  

    Those who are like the rich man refuse to believe this.  They want a god who rewards people based on merit, and so they get what they deserve, the fire of hell.  Abraham reminds us that even if someone like Lazarus were to rise from the dead, that wouldn’t cause anyone to believe who didn’t already believe Moses and the prophets.  In fact, some have suggested that this Lazarus is the one that Jesus did raise from the dead right before Holy Week.  That miracle caused the rich Pharisees and chief priests to plot Jesus’ death even more fervently.  So beware of desiring miracles and signs, needing to see such things before you’ll believe.  Miracles don’t create faith.  If God gives them, they only confirm the faith that He has already worked through His Word and Spirit alone.  

    Let us, rather, be like Lazarus in spirit–helpless, weak, dependent on the Lord, satisfied with no other food than what comes from His table, eating the crumbs of the Bread of Life that satisfy completely.  And yes, let us be confident of heaven, but not because we think we deserve it or that we’ve earned it by our efforts–if you’re putting your faith in something inside of you, well, good luck with that.  No let us be confident of heaven because of Christ alone and what He has done for us, how He has claimed each of us poor, miserable Lazaruses as His own by water and the word.  And let us set our hearts on that Day when the angels will bear us home and we will be drawn to the Father’s side in Christ, there to bask forever in His goodness and love.

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

Not Many gods, But One God

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John 3:1-17

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

    We tend to take for granted the belief that there is only one God.  And of course, that belief is true; that’s what we’ve come to learn and know from God’s Word–it is written, “The Lord our God, the Lord is One” (Deut. 6:4).  But apart from Scripture fallen mankind has more commonly held to the pagan belief in many gods.  I was reminded of that earlier this week watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster at the theater with its references to Greek mythology and Greek gods.  Fallen man has tended to believe that there are different gods for different areas of life and of the world–the god of the sea, the god of war, the goddess of love and fertility, and so on.   Pagan people believed that they would have success in battle, or better health, or increased wealth if they did the right religious things to cause the gods to bless them.

 Still today, there are those who give reverence to the spirits of trees and animals and mountains as if they were divine, or will pray to their ancestors as if they were gods.  This, by the way, is why we reject praying to the saints.  Looking to them for guidance and calling on them for help in this or that area of life is nothing else than a dressed-up version of the old paganism.  

    And when we talk about belief in only one God, we’re not merely talking about some generic higher power, some impersonal universal force that we can tap into spiritually somehow.  That is the way of Hinduism and new age belief–that in reality we all are gods, we all are little pieces of the one divine soul of the universe.  What a great deceit the devil works, making people think they’re spiritual and wise while they basically worship themselves.

    You’ll notice in all of these false religions that there is a common theme, namely that the divine, the “gods” end up being just a projection of human beings on a higher scale, just a more powerful version of ourselves.  The gods are made in man’s image in other words, or sometimes even in the image of animals and other created things.  St. Paul speaks of this in Romans 1, “Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man–and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things.  Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves”–notice how idolatry and sexual immorality are connected–“(they) exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”  In the end this is what all idolatry is: serving creation--money, pleasure, family, sports--above the Creator.

    This is why we have Trinity Sunday, so that we can take a moment to get all of this right.  For it is only by God’s own revelation of Himself in His Word that we come to know the truth of who He is.  Apart from the Word, we can know that He exists and that He’s powerful; but sin so clouds our minds and hearts that we cannot know Him rightly; the truth is inevitably distorted and we are drawn into devilish deceit.  In fact Scripture specifically says that the worship of gods other than the Holy Trinity is worship offered to demons (1 Cor. 10:20).  null

    We believe in the God who is not simply a higher version of ourselves, not a stronger creature, but One who is beyond creation: God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things, visible and invisible, and in His Son Jesus Christ, our Lord, who for our salvation came down from heaven, was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man, and in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.  The one, true God is triune–one divine Being in three Divine Persons, Trinity in Unity; three distinct Persons, yet not many gods but only one God.  It’s not something you can fully explain–how could you ever expect to fully understand the almighty and eternal God?  You can only believe and confess His Word.

    You may try to picture the Trinity, but be careful.  No analogy really works completely.  Some compare the tri-unity of God to the three phases of water–solid ice, liquid water, gaseous steam.  Liquid, ice, and steam are three forms of one thing, water.  However, God exists as all three at once; He’s not the Father sometimes and the Son sometimes and the Holy Spirit sometimes, like water.  He’s all three all the time from all eternity, as at the baptism of Jesus, for instance.  The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit aren’t temporary modes or phases or roles of God.  They are three distinct, eternal persons in the one Godhead.

    Mathematics and geometry offer a little help.  The triangle has three distinct legs.  Take away any leg, and you no longer have a triangle.  The cube has three dimensions; lose any one dimension and you no longer have a cube.  But that still makes the persons of the Trinity only part of God rather than fully possessing the divine essence.  My favorite analogy is the simple equation: 1 x 1 x 1 = 1.  But at the end of the day, probably the best thing we can do is simply confess what the creeds say on the basis of Scripture and leave it at that.

    First of all, God reveals Himself as Father.  Now there are some who try to say that since God is incomprehensible, it doesn’t matter whether we refer to Him with masculine or feminine terms.  You can call Him “mother” if you want.  “After all, He’s not literally male,” they say.  To which we respond, “Um, actually, yes He is, in Christ Jesus, who is a literal male.”  But there’s something else, too.  We don’t call God Father because He’s like human fathers.  It’s the other way around.  Fatherhood on earth comes from the eternal Fatherhood of God.  As Father, God is the source of all things; He is the head, the provider, the protector, the One who is full of goodness and mercy.  When people try to apply “mother” language to God, inevitably feminine concepts like the cycles of the earth and the circle of life enter in, which again are really nothing other than paganism and the worship of creation rather than the Creator.

    No, we should only name God with the Triune Name He has given us.  He is the Father who begets the Son who sends the Spirit; and He is the Spirit who proclaims the Son who brings us to the Father.  If you think about it, we come to know the Trinity in reverse order like that: the Holy Spirit teaches us of Christ our Savior making us children of the heavenly Father.  In love for this dying world the Father sends His beloved Son into the world, conceived in our flesh by the Holy Spirit to restore us to life.

    Now I think it’s important for me to make a particular point about this here: not everyone who believes that there is only One God has the same God as we do unfortunately.  Our Jewish and Muslim neighbors are not worshipers of the Trinity, and therefore they have a different god.  They don’t even worship the Father.  Jesus was very clear about this when He said, “He who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me” (Luke 10:16).  Since Jesus is God, if someone does not worship Him as God, sadly they have a different and false god.

    But as today’s Gospel reading said, Jesus main purpose in coming into the world was not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.  And so the Son is lifted up, like the bronze serpent that Moses put on the pole to save the snake-bitten camp of Israel.  You recall how the Israelites grumbled against God because of their wanderings in the wilderness; they complained and moaned about the manna they were given to eat–just as we so often can be discontented with how God provides for us, wanting something different, something more.  But Jesus was lifted up with our sin on the cross, lifted up from the grave, lifted up to the right hand of the Father.  Looking in faith to this lifted up Jesus, who became sin for us, we become the righteousness of God and live in Him.

    Jesus on the cross is the antidote, the antiserum for the venom of sin and death.  The way antiserum is made is by exposing something to the poison, and when it survives you draw antiserum from it.  Jesus was willingly exposed to the poison of our sin in His death on the cross.  He drank in that poison, surviving and conquering it, rising from the dead to be the antidote of death itself.

    Think about that!  What if you had a vial that contained the cure for every disease known to man–AIDS, cancer, heart disease, paralysis.  There actually is such a thing.  It has a label on it that reads “Jesus Christ crucified for your sins and raised for your righteousness.”  And it’s all yours for free.  You don’t need approval from your primary care physician.  You don’t need health insurance.  It is all there for you for free in the word of absolution, in the water of your Baptism, in the bread that is Christ’s body and the wine that is His blood.  God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son Jesus to be the medicine of immortality, that whoever believes in Him by the working of the Holy Spirit will not perish but have everlasting life.  That’s the Trinitarian love of God for you.

    That Trinitarian love was given to each of you at the font (as it was this day for Madeline) by water and the Spirit.  That’s creation language there, when the Spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters in the beginning and brought life to the world.  That’s what the Holy Spirit is doing still today, bringing new creation and new life to fallen human beings through water and words.

    Jesus put it by saying that you must be born again.  Your first birth was a still birth, spiritually speaking.  All the sins that bug you, or that don’t bug you, those are the symptoms of your still birth.  You may have been a perfectly healthy baby, but you were born into the sin and death of your father Adam.  And you can’t fix it or reform yourself.  You must die and rise.  You must be born from again, from above, of water and the Spirit.  Your first birth made you a mortal child of Adam.  Your new birth in Jesus makes you an immortal child of God.  You are in Christ, and so you are a new creation.  The old is gone; the new has come.  Sin is past, righteousness and resurrection are yours.  You are a member of God’s family.  Jesus the Son invites you to pray with Him, “Our Father.”  And the Holy Spirit helps you in your weakness, making intercession for you with groanings too deep for words.  

    This is why we joyfully confess the doctrine of the Holy Trinity today.  For it is our very life; He is our very life.  This is why we hold tenaciously to Scriptural confessions of faith like the Athanasian Creed and reject anything that is contrary to it.  It’s not out of an arrogant intellectualism.  Rather, we know that this is the only true God who is love; this Jesus is the only one who is the way, the truth, and the life.  And no one comes to the Father except through Him.  Here’s the only medicine that can heal you.  All the others are just quacks.  Ultimately it is out of love for our neighbor that we reject all false religion, so that they may know and believe the saving truth of the Holy Trinity–the Father who reaches out to us fallen creatures in mercy, whose Son takes on our nature and bears our judgment and saves us, whose Holy Spirit delivers to us all the saving gifts of Christ in the preaching of the Gospel and the holy supper.  It’s all from the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit; and back again in the Spirit, through the Son, to the Father.  This is our God.  This is our Lord.  We desire no other.

    Blessed, then, be the Holy Trinity and the Undivided Unity: let us give glory to Him because he has shown mercy to us!  For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.

Your Good Intentions, God's Good Will

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Acts 1:1-11/John 15:26 - 16:4

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

    You know the saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”  We like to hold to this notion that if we intended to do the right thing, that somehow makes our sins and our failings less problematic and less horrific.  “Oh, he meant well.”  As if that makes any real difference.  Jesus shows the foolishness of this way of thinking in today’s Gospel when he says, “The time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service.”  Does is it really make it any better that someone is intending to do a good and holy work when they kill a disciple of Jesus?  Of course not!  In fact, in some ways that makes it worse.  So don’t comfort yourselves with the thought that you were trying to do something good when you sinned, or that your heart was in the right place, or some other nonsense.  That’s just another way of trying to justify yourself.  That is not the way of repentance.

    Jesus’ main focus here, though, is on how Christians are going to get treated.  He is warning his disciples that they are going to be sinned against with the best of intentions.  People will think that by casting them out of the synagogues and persecuting and even killing them, that they’re doing something God approves of, that they’re actually serving God by doing so.  People may actually intend to be doing something spiritual and good and holy, when all the while they’re opposing God.

 null   That’s what jihad is, something that is supposedly a holy killing, a holy war.  The terrorists kill in service to their false god.  They think this is what God wants, to blow up unbelievers, to behead and take the life of the infidel Christian who refuses to renounce Jesus as the Savior or to honor Muhammed.  We see this all too often, not only in things like the recent Manchester bombing, which was targeted against the general population, but especially in things like the killing of Coptic Christians in Egypt just a couple of days ago.  Dozens of followers of Jesus were specifically targeted because of their faith.  And unlike much of the day to day violence that we hear about, the terrorists think that what they’re doing will make the world a better place.  The Egyptian gunmen left Islamist leaflets among the dead bodies; some evangelism program!  They actually think that they’re serving God; but all their good intentions obviously don’t make their works any less horrific.

    Or closer to home, this is also what the so-called social justice warriors are trying to do to Christians more and more these days.  If you don’t fully support so-called “abortion rights” or gay “marriage” or transgenderism, if you refuse to use your bakery or your photography or your floral arranging skills to participate in a same-sex ceremony, thereby endorsing it as good and acceptable, if you make any sort of open statement that you think marriage is only between a man and a woman, well then you’re no better than a Ku Klux Klan racist.  You deserve to be shunned and driven out of business.  You yourself may not be killed, but your livelihood certainly can be killed.  Many of you who work within the realm of secular culture and government regulations know well the pressure to use politically correct talk or to remain silent about your Christian beliefs in order to avoid problems or a financial hit.  And the thing is, those people who would speak against traditional Christian morality may actually think that they’re doing something moral and good and loving.  They may well believe they’re serving God by enforcing their version of tolerance, which is ironic in itself.  But again, good intentions don’t make anything right.    

    Let us then apply the same standard to ourselves.  For the truth is, most of our sins are done with good intentions, too.  We have this idea that engaging in our own particular sins may actually be for the good, that it can be justified in our case, that it will make things better.  It will satisfy us or relieve us and it won’t really hurt anybody.  We give in to metaphors, like I’m just bursting to get this gossip out, or I’m just bursting with sexual desire and I need some outlet, or I’m just bursting with these angry feelings and I need to vent.  Well, we’re not steam kettles; we don’t need to vent.  We need to repent. (David Petersen)  The reality is that sin begets more sin.  When we give in to these things, it doesn’t alleviate our lust or our anger or our greed or our pride; it feeds it.  It leads us to justify our behavior.  It hardens our hearts.  All our good intentions only lead to hell.

    So let us repent; let us give up on trying to justify ourselves and instead look to Christ who alone can justify us and save us from hell and put us right again.   For this is precisely what the Ascension of our Lord is meant to teach us and give us.  Our justification before God is accomplished and complete in Him who sits at the right hand of the Father.  Though our good intentions fail us and fall short, the Lord’s good intentions toward us and His good will toward us does not fail.  It lifts us up to new and real life.  null

    First of all, the Ascension of Jesus teaches us that God the Father has accepted Christ’s sacrifice for our sins on the cross, no matter what our intentions may have been.  The Ascension means that Jesus accomplished the mission He was given.  It is written in Hebrews, “After He had provided purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.”  If Jesus had not been successful in doing what He had been sent to do, He would not have been welcomed home.  However, God the Father has honored His Son’s redeeming work and has received Him to His side.  And that shows that the blood of Jesus has truly cleansed you of all sin.  You really are fully forgiven and redeemed.  Jesus has covered it all for you.  The ungodly think they offer service to God by killing, but Jesus offers service to God the Father and to you by dying.  That is the true service of God, to love and to sacrifice oneself for the sake of another.  This Jesus has done for you to rescue and deliver you.

    And here’s where it gets even better still:  by receiving Jesus to His side, the Father also receives you to His side.  For you are in Christ; you are members of His body.  In welcoming Jesus, He has also welcomed and accepted you.  Think about that: God accepts you.  He accepts you because of Jesus.  God is for you in Christ.  And if God is for us, who can be against us?  You have God’s favor.  Jesus has ascended and is preparing a place for you at the Father’s side.  You are welcome in God’s own household.  

    And since you are baptized members of Christ’s body, in one sense you have already ascended to heaven. That’s how sure your salvation is.  It’s not just a future thing, it’s a present reality.  We sang it in the hymn, “He has raised our human nature on the clouds to God’s right hand.  There we sit in heavenly places, there with Him in glory stand.”  Ephesians 2 says, “Even when we were dead in trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ . . . and raised us up together and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”  So heaven is already yours.  You’re already there, because you are in Jesus.  Colossians 3 says, “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  Your eternal well-being is secure in the One at the Father’s right hand.

    Jesus’ ascension also means that He is praying and speaking for you with the heavenly Father right now.  It is written in Romans 8, “Christ Jesus, who died, more than that, who was raised to life, is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”  Whether it’s individually, or especially as we gather for divine service, Jesus is the One who is leading our prayers.  That’s one of the reasons why pastors wear robes, to cover ourselves up and to show that it’s actually Jesus who is the One leading us and serving as our Priest.  When we offer up our petitions, Jesus receives them and prays them and brings them to the Father on your behalf.  Jesus is the one and only Mediator between God and man; for He alone is both God and man.  God the Father hears and acts upon your prayers according to His wisdom and mercy because of His Son, your Brother, Jesus.  The next time you pray, think of that.  You are never praying alone, even when you’re by yourself.  Jesus is there with you as you pray in faith.  Since you are a child of God now together with Him, He prays the words “Our Father...” together with you.

    Remember: just because Jesus has ascended does not mean that He’s gone from us.  For He said to the apostles, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  Jesus is not absent.  He is simply hidden from our sight.  For it is written in Ephesians, Jesus “ascended far above all the heavens that He might fill all things” in heaven and on earth.  Jesus is not confined to one physical spot somewhere.  For since God is present everywhere, so also is His right hand where Jesus is seated.  So the ascension means that He who from the beginning filled all things as true God now also fills all things as true man.  Our Lord makes Himself specially present in the flesh for us, with His true body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins.  The Word and the Sacraments are the portal where heaven and earth come together and you can come into contact with the risen and ascended Jesus.  The right hand of God is here in this place.

    And finally, consider this Ascension truth:  in Jesus, Man is now sitting on the throne of God.  One of our guys, one of us, our true blood Brother is there.  We have a Friend in the highest of places.  He’s the One who is in charge.  So no matter what is happening in your life right now, it’s going to be OK in the end.  Jesus has got this.  Scripture promises that He is ruling over all things for the sake of His church, for you.  It is written in Romans 8, “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”   You are the called in Holy Baptism, who have been brought to love God because He first loved you.  In love He has told you in advance that things aren’t always going to be easy.  Christians are going to be persecuted just as our Lord was persecuted and suffered.  For even if the unbelieving world claims to worship God, it is not the true God.  Jesus said that they do not know the Father or Him.  So we will not be shocked or surprised when suffering comes.  We live in the sure confidence that as we share in Christ’s cross in this world, we will certainly also share in His bodily resurrection and His ascension glory in the life of the world to come.  The road to heaven has been paved for you by Christ.  In fact the road to heaven is Christ, who has walked the entire way for you.

    So then, brothers and sisters of Christ, set your minds on things above, where He is seated God’s right hand, and not merely the things of this world.  Rejoice in Jesus’ ascension.  For it is a great source of confidence and hope for you.  Jesus is Lord of all things.  He is Lord of your lives.  He is interceding for you and preparing a place for you.  And the Lord, who has begun His good work in you, will bring it to completion in the Day of His return.  The One who calls you is faithful, and He will do it.

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

The Last Enemy To Be Destroyed Is Death

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

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

    The spirituality of our culture can be boiled down to the belief that you should always be positive and nice.  And that even goes so far as applying to the subject of death.  Instead of a funeral, it’s much nicer to call it a celebration of someone’s life.  Obituaries try to speak positively, too, talking about how the deceased is said to have “found peace.”  Our culture wants to talk pleasantly about death as just another step in life’s journey, a natural and even beautiful transition to “a better place.”  But those things are partial truths at best and are often based on false beliefs.

    Scripture, on the other hand, is honest about death in a way that is not very positive or nice.  It speaks of death as a curse. It says that death is not a friend but an adversary.  We heard it in the Epistle: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:26).  It is a nemesis and a foe.  And anyone who tries to sell you on the notion that dying can be a beautiful thing either is a fool who hasn’t actually witnessed what it’s really like very often, or is a false teacher who is not from God.  If you get one of these types coming into your hospital or hospice room, just kick them out.  Don’t waste your time with false prophets.null

    We need to think and talk about death the way Scripture does.  For only then will we fully grasp the joy of Easter.  So let us not talk about death the way the world does—as if the human body God created is merely a container, as if it’s actually good to escape the body into some purely spiritual existence–no, not that!  That’s the way the Corinthians were thinking in the Epistle. They were Greeks, and Greek philosophy said that material, physical stuff was a sort of lower level reality.  What’s really real, what really matters, they said, was the soul.  The body was just a shell, a tin can, something almost that imprisoned the soul.  To be released from that was seen as good.  That’s why they said that there was no resurrection of the dead.  They thought only the soul existed forever.  Why would you want to have a dead body raised, anyway?

    That sort of thinking has infected our own age, too.  People often think of the body as limiting and a hindrance to who they supposedly really are.  They imagine that they can be Christian in their hearts while living bodily like the unbelieving world, rarely being present for the external preaching and Supper of the Lord.  They treat the body as if death is the end of it and only the soul lives on.  Might as well scatter the ashes to the wind; that was just an empty casing, anyway, they think.  The things we do at a time of death reveal much about what we believe regarding the body and eternal life–which is why the women in the Gospel are good examples and role models for us.  They wanted to care for the body of Jesus and treat it with the deepest respect, even though they didn’t yet fully grasp all that was happening that first Easter morning.

    So listen this Easter day, first of all, to what the Scriptures say: God did not create you to die but to live with Him, soul and body, forever.  Death did not exist at all in the beginning; it entered God’s good creation through sin (Rom. 5:12).  You know the Scripture which says, “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23).  It is only because of the curse that body and soul get ripped apart. In spite of the world’s nice philosophies and all our attempts to stay positive, death is still not natural or good.  Losing loved ones still tears us up inside.  The grave is still something we naturally fear. It is the thieving work of the devil to destroy the life that God has given us (John 10:10).null

    However, it is important to remember that the One who pronounced the curse of death is God Himself.  He did this not only as the just punishment for sin, but also and especially as the way in which He would take away our sin through the death of His own Son (1 John 3:8).  Since Jesus shared in our flesh and blood, His cross and resurrection crushed the devil who had enslaved us, (Heb. 2:14-15) and it destroyed his thieving work (1 John 3:8).   What we celebrate today, then, is the fact that we are now free.  Do not be afraid any longer.  The curse is broken.  Life is restored.  Jesus lives, for you!

    Here’s how much God cares about your bodily life: Not only did He become true man, your true blood brother, not only did He suffer and die in the body for you to break sin’s curse, but He is now bodily risen from the dead–literally, tangibly, physically.  What did the Gospel say?  When the women went to the tomb, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus.  His resurrection wasn’t merely a spiritual event.  The very same body that was scourged and nailed to the cross and laid in the tomb was raised up and exited the tomb, restored and exalted and glorified.  Jesus’ resurrection is real and historical and true.  

    This is so important and essential for you to believe.  St. Paul says that if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.  For then death would still be reigning over you; it would still be your master.  But since Christ has been raised from the dead, that means that the curse is undone; He has now become your Lord.  He has redeemed you to be His own, blessed forever in His kingdom.  Think about it: if the wages of sin is death, and death has been overcome by Christ, that means that your sins have been overcome by Him, too, right?  Jesus’ resurrection means that the wages have been paid for you, and all there is for you now from God is forgiveness and mercy and new resurrection life in Christ.  That’s the good news of Easter!

    In Adam all die–that’s his legacy to you, and it’s your legacy to your children.  But in the new Adam, in Jesus, all shall be made alive–that’s your free inheritance from Him in the family of God.  But there is an order to this being made alive: Christ is the firstfruits, then at His second coming, those who belong to Him.  In other words, Jesus’ bodily resurrection is the beginning of the harvest and the sure guarantee of what is to come.  On the Last Day, the full crop of resurrected believers will be brought in.  Philippians 3 says that we eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body.  And Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.  He who believes in Me will live [bodily!], even though He dies.”

    Because this is true and sure and certain in Jesus, we don’t have to deny the reality of death.  We are free to be honest about it because of Easter.  Death is horrible and powerful, but Jesus is infinitely stronger and has overcome its horror.  null

    And you know that this is true for you personally because you’ve been baptized.  We spoke about it a moment ago: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:3)  His atoning death counts for you!  And then this: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom. 6:5). Death doesn’t get the last word over you who believe any more, Jesus does.

    The truth is that, as baptized Christians, you’ve actually already kicked the bucket.  Colossians 3 says, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  The worst of it is over, then.  The judgment part of death has been taken care of by Jesus. All that’s left now is the final putting to death of your sinful flesh so that you may rise again bodily to eternal life. “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:4).

    Martin Luther put it wonderfully when he said, “A Christian enjoys the advantage of already being out of the grave with his right leg. Moreover, he has a mighty helper who holds out his hand to him, namely, His Lord Christ; (Jesus) has left the grave entirely a long time ago, and now He takes the Christian by the hand and pulls him more than halfway out of the grave; only the left foot remains in it!  For his sin is already remitted and expunged, God’s wrath and hell are extinguished, and he already lives fully in and with Christ with regard to his . . . soul, as he partakes of eternal life. Therefore death can no longer hold him or harm him. Only the remnant, the old skin, flesh and blood, must still decay before it, too, can be renewed and follow the soul [in the resurrection of the body].”

    Through Jesus alone we can face death without fear and even embrace it as a positive thing. St. Paul wrote: “To live is Christ, and to die is gain. . . My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (Phil. 1:21,23). We sing with Simeon, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:29-30).  Our funerals, then, are not just celebrations of life.  They are celebrations of life in Christ even as we mourn.  And we don’t find peace in death.  We find our peace only in Jesus, who is the victor over death.

    So don’t be nice about death!  Rather, make fun of it as the defeated enemy that it is.  Say to the grave, “We bury our dead only to mock you, not because they are dead, but because they live, because they are with Jesus, and their bodies sleep while they wait for the resurrection to come.  We bury our dead because they have been sanctified and sealed for the resurrection through the risen body and blood of Jesus given into their bodies in Holy Communion. They go into you, O grave, only that they might follow Jesus out of you and humiliate you and defeat you.  Ha!” (adapted from David Petersen)  

    Let us this Easter Day join in the Scriptural taunt, “‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’... Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 15:55,57).  Or as the hymn puts it: 

Laugh to scorn the gloomy grave
  And at death no longer tremble;
He, the Lord, who came to save
  Will at last His own assemble.
They will go their Lord to meet
                       Treading death beneath their feet. (LSB 741:7)

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

Lord of the Flies and the Stronger Man

Luke 11:14-28

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

    The Lord knew that the Pharaoh, king of Egypt, would not let the people of Israel go unless he was compelled to do so.  And so the Lord stretched out His hand and sent the 10 plagues upon Egypt.  Beginning with the third and fourth plagues, the plagues of the gnats and the flies, the Pharaoh’s magicians knew that the Finger of God was at work. How? Because they couldn’t replicate them with their demonic arts. They tried everything they could from their little bag of tricks, but to no avail. The finger of God was working to bring His people out from their slavery and from the burdens the Egyptians had placed on them.  The Lord was redeeming them to be His own and to dwell in the land He had promised to their forefathers.

    And so by the plagues, by these great acts of judgment, Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and the king of Egypt, the strong man, was overcome in his own kingdom by One stronger than him.  And those oppressed by Pharaoh, those enslaved by the strong man, were led out of their bondage into freedom by the Stronger Man’s mighty arm through the waters of the Red Sea.

    But as they gathered together with Him in the wilderness, many found that their last state was worse than the first. Even though they’d been miraculously delivered from oppression, even though they pillaged and plundered the strong man and his palace as they left–taking with them much silver and gold from the Egyptians as God directed–they quickly forgot the Word and Promise of the Lord. They grumbled and actually longed to be back in Egypt. They became idolaters, worshiping false gods and worshiping the true God falsely. And so the Lord scattered their bodies throughout the wilderness.null

    All this is the background to the Jesus and Beelzebub controversy in today’s Gospel. The Jews accuse our Lord of casting out demons by the power of Beelzebub, which in Hebrew means “Lord of the Flies.”  Of course, they meant it as a condemnation. That he is casting out demons by the power of the evil one. That he is some trickster or snake charmer. That he keeps demons as pets so that he can get people’s money by winning their affection and praise.

    But our Lord flips it on them. He asks them by whose authority then do their sons cast out demons?  If Jesus is a trickster, so are they. And then He offers this warning: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” That is, if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then you’re dealing with the Lord, the one who sent gnats and flies for the judgement and destruction of Pharaoh. If it is by the finger of God, then beware, for that Lord of the flies will judge you too, just as he did to those who chased after false Gods and false worship, who rejected His Word and Promise in the wilderness. Jesus said, those who are not with me are against me. Those who do not gather together with me, where I am, scatter. For only those who hear My Word and keep it are blessed.

    So what about you? You, too, have been rescued from your enemies, from the sin that enslaves you, through the waters of Holy Baptism. Our Lord Jesus Christ, the stronger man, has overcome the strong man of sin, death, and the power of the devil by His cross. For just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness so also the Son of man was lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have everlasting life. By water and word, the fruits of His cross were delivered to you, and the demons, the unclean spirits departed, making way for the Holy Spirit.

    But when Jesus gives the finger of God to the devil, the devil doesn’t just go away nicely. Satan is enraged, his heart is hardened, and he chases after you, as Pharaoh did with all his armies at the Red Sea.  When the devil returns he doesn’t come back alone, but with some of his friends, to ensure that this time, he will not be overcome.  And he always comes back at an opportune time.  He waits for a time when you’re weak.  And so you think you’ve cast out a particular sin–gluttony, drinking, lust and pornography, greed, anger and fear, doubt–then all of a sudden the demons are back in force and you find yourself caught up in that stuff even more awfully and dangerously than before.  

    Perhaps it’s because our great weakness is what we consider to be our strength.  We think that we modern people are much more enlightened than ancient folk.  At least the Pharisees understood that there is such a thing as demons, that evil actually exists, that it’s real, and that God has enemies. We, on the other hand, tend to look for natural, psychological causes, social reasons for our problems. And any mention of demons and devils, makes us think of fairy tales and ghost stories. And right there is Satan’s clever ploy. If you don’t even think he’s real, he can operate all the more freely.  But remember this, to paraphrase G.K. Chesterton: “Fairy tales don’t teach children that dragons and ghosts and demons exist. They already know they exist.  Fairy tales teach them that they can be killed and how they are overcome.”  

    Let us never forget, then, that we’re in the midst of a battle, unseen, but very real.  For if we ignore that reality, we’ll become indifferent to the things of God.  If we pay little attention to the reality of sin and Satan, we’ll also pay little attention to Christ and the Gospel.  And then we’ll get caught up with the world’s imaginary versions of good and evil, where it’s all about politics and and social justice and political correctness.  We’ll become more concerned about so-called “tolerance” than faithfulness to God, about tax rates more than abortion rates. We’ll be more worried about our kids and grandkids growing up to be happy and successful than that they grow up to be good and devout.  We’ve nearly forgotten what is real and what really matters. But here is the truth: there is no neutral territory. You either belong to God, or you belong to Satan. You either gather together where God and His Word is, or you scatter. You are either with Him or against Him.  That’s what Jesus says here; there’s no middle ground. Those who choose the “enlightened,” middle way of moderation are deceived.  They belong to the enemy.

    Our only defense in all of this is Jesus and His Word.  He alone is our refuge and our mighty fortress.  In Him there is absolutely nothing that can harm us, nothing that can separate us from God’s love.  The devil would like you to think that he’s a god alongside the true God.  But he’s not.  He’s just a fallen angel–powerful and dangerous to be sure–but nothing more.  He claimed authority over you through sin.  But now in Christ who has taken away your sin, the devil is beneath you.  You belong to Jesus.  Through Christ Satan is underneath your feet.  For Christ crushed His head with His own bruised heel.  In Christ you are restored to your proper place as human beings, with dominion over all creation, including the demons.  

    Jesus is the Stronger Man who overcomes the strong man.  He not only won the victory for us in the wilderness, the Son of David slinging the smooth stone of the Word and felling the Goliath Satan.  He also outmaneuvered and outflanked the devil, turning the devil’s own weapons against him and utterly destroying him.  Jesus deceives the deceiver.  He overcomes the crafty one with His own divine and holy craftiness, sneaking into the devil’s kingdom of death, allowing Himself to be crucified, and then from the inside nuking and laying waste to the devil’s power, rising from the dead in glory on the third day.  It is written in Hebrews 2, “The Son of God Himself likewise shared in our flesh and blood, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime held in bondage.”

    Now, therefore, you are no longer slaves; you are free.  Satan is defeated and undone and humiliated.  Christ the Conqueror has rescued us from the realm of darkness and brought us into His own kingdom of goodness and righteousness and truth.  Our Lord has cast out our unclean spirits at the baptismal font and made our bodies the temple of His Holy Spirit.  And if you have strayed from your baptism, foolishly thinking you could co-exist with the demons, then return to the font in repentance and faith.  For the demons must flee from you there.  They cannot stand to be in the presence of Christ.  He is the One who welcomes you back, speaking His powerful, forgiving words into our ears.  He is the One who feeds you with His holy, life-giving Flesh and Blood to sanctify you and fortify and strengthen your spirits.  Gathered together with Jesus in His church you are safe and secure from the crafts and the assaults of the wicked one.

    “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.”  Just like our Lord’s mother, we too are blessed as we cling to the Word made flesh, as we hold to His powerful, life-giving words.  For just like Mary, we too carry the Lord’s physical presence in our Body as we partake of the sacrament of Holy Communion.  And we too hold the Lord in our bosom, you might say, as the Word of God is preached into us and rests in our hearts.  Blessed are you who hold to God’s Word and abide in it.  For no lasting harm can come to you from the evil one.  Nothing can snatch you from the hand of God.  For on that hand of God are the fingers that cast out demons and that point you to the cross where your salvation was won, and to the font, pulpit, and altar where your salvation is given to you personally.  You have been liberated from all your sins by the Lord Jesus Christ.  You are now free to walk in love as children of light.  Let your eyes ever be toward Christ, who plucks your feet out of the net, who conquers your enemy, and who will deliver you from all evil in the resurrection of the body on the Last Day.

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Jason Braaten, whose sermon notes were adapted for much of the above.)

Strength in Weakness

2 Corinthians 12:7-10

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

    If your life is moving along perfectly, if everything is going your way with your finances and your health and your family and your work and your neighbors, if you have no stress or sorrows, then this sermon may not be particularly meaningful for you.  If God has granted you blessings in those areas of your life, then you should rightly give him thanks and praise; every good gift comes down from Him.  But this sermon is not going to be about how to have a victorious Christian life, where if you believe hard enough, good things will come to you; if you declare God’s blessing on your life and apply the right Biblical principles, then your troubles will go away.  For that is not the way of Christ.  False preachers who talk like that want to avoid the cross, just like the devil tempted  Jesus to do in the wilderness.  But the way of Christ is not to avoid suffering and go around it, but to go directly through it, for you, to bear the cross fully as the only way to bring you true resurrection and life and victory.  To follow in the way of Christ is to believe, even against what we feel, that God is at work for your good precisely in and through suffering.null

    In today’s Epistle the apostle Paul was dealing with the church in Corinth that was in danger of being led astray by glory preachers.  Responding to that threat, Paul says that even though he could boast of revelations and visions of the Lord, that would not be profitable or helpful.  Instead he says that he will rather boast in his infirmities, “that the power of Christ may rest upon me,” that the eyes of everyone may always be focused on Christ and Him crucified.

    Paul speaks of one affliction in particular.  Because he had received an abundance of revelations from the Lord, lest the apostle become puffed up and proud in himself, he says “a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure.”  Notice the language that he uses.  Even though this thorn in the flesh was a messenger of Satan, yet Paul speaks of this in the language of a gift; this thorn was given to him by the Lord.  

    That notion can be a bit troubling to ponder, just as Job struggled to understand why God permitted his suffering.  But it should also bring us great comfort, too.  We are reminded here that the devil, like rabid dog, is on a leash.  If he had free reign, there would be nothing but destruction and death at every turn; there would be no relief anywhere.  But Satan is restrained in such a way that even the evil and the harm he perpetrates cannot overcome the ultimate good that God is working in all things for His called and chosen people.  The devil ends up destroying himself and actually serving God’s purposes.  The affliction by which Satan wants to tear us down actually ends up drawing us closer to Christ and the life we have in Him that cannot be taken away.

    Now, what was this thorn in the flesh that Paul had?  Since it’s described as a messenger of Satan, some have thought of it as some sort of demonic spiritual attack.  But I would suggest that since Paul speaks of his flesh, the delivery of this message is something Paul probably experienced as a bodily ailment and affliction.  Various theologians have suggested that the apostle may have suffered from malaria or some other chronic disease.  We know for certain that Paul had very poor eyesight that he suffered from.  He says in his epistle to the Galatians, “I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.”  And he concludes that epistle by saying, “See with what large letters I write!” as if to emphasize how bad his vision was.  But again, whatever it was, all of this is described as a messenger of Satan.

    When you are suffering intense stresses or physical problems, perhaps you can identify with that description.  It can feel like the devil sending you a message, trying to slap you around and say, “Oh, you really think that God cares about you, that He’s with you, that He forgives you?  Come on, grow up!  Look at you.  Why would He let this happen to you?  You really should just give up on Him.”  When we’re suffering physically or emotionally, that’s the message the devil wants to drive home and lure you to believe.

    But notice what actually happens for God’s people.  Paul says that this experience moved him to pray and to plead with the Lord.  So it is for us.  We may say our prayers of thanks when all is going well, but so often complacency sets in and we forget about the Lord and stray away to focus on all cares, riches, and pleasures of life that today's Gospel reading mentions.  And so the Lord makes use of affliction to draw us back to Himself and into His life–not because He wants to do us harm, but like a parent disciplining a child in love, because He wants to do us the greatest good.  He doesn’t want us to be lost.

    And then comes the even harder part about all of this: Paul says that he pleaded with the Lord three times that this thorn in the flesh might depart from him.  Three times in fervent prayer the apostle begs for this affliction to be taken away.  You would think if anyone’s prayer would be answered positively, it would be someone like Paul, this great missionary and preacher of the Gospel.  But, of course, our prayers are not answered based on our own merits and worthiness, but on the merits and worthiness of Christ, and the good and gracious will of our heavenly Father.  And in this case, that gracious will meant that the answer to Paul’s prayer was a gentle but firm “No.”  No, Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you.  For my strength is made perfect in weakness.”  The discipline of that thorn in the flesh would endure for his earthly lifetime.  It would be part of the way that Paul was brought to perfect fullness in Christ. 

    And so it is also for you.  You may know in some sense that you need Jesus when you feel like you’re living a good, upright life and things are going well for you.  But it’s when your sinfulness is driven home to the point that you’re terrified of losing your salvation, it’s when everything in life seems to be falling apart that you learn how desperately you need Jesus, and then you cling to Him with all your heart and look to Him to rescue and deliver you.  And to cling to Christ is to be truly strong.  For His is real strength that cannot be conquered or overcome.  When you finally learn to give up on your own wisdom and good choices and good health and the good stuff you’ve acquired, when you realize that of yourself all of that is just dust in the wind, when you’re nothing, then Jesus is everything.  His strength is made perfect for you in weakness.

    In this vein Martin Luther once famously commented, “May God in His mercy save me from a Christian Church where there are only saints.  I want to be with that little company and in that Church where there are faint-hearted and weak people, the sick, and those who are aware of their sin, misery, and wretchedness and who feel it, who cry to God without ceasing and sigh unto Him for comfort and help.”

    Remember the apostle Paul, then, when it seems that God isn’t hearing your prayers, that He doesn’t care, or even worse, that He is against you.  Remember, that the good and gracious will of our heavenly Father sometimes answers “no” to your prayers.  You may not understand how or why, but like Paul you are given to say “Amen” to His will, trusting that His strength truly is made perfect in weakness.null

    For after all, isn’t that the heart of what we believe about Christ Himself?  His strength was made perfect in His own weakness.  His greatest power was not exhibited when He calmed the stormy sea, though that was great and divine power.  The greatest force of His might was not shown when He cast out the legion of demons from the Gerasene man, though that was a wonderful example of how He came to save and deliver us.  Jesus’ ultimate strength was shown when He chose not to use His power in a glorious way, but when He utterly gave up His strength for you on the cross, when He became completely weak with all of your sins and infirmities and sorrows, when He emptied Himself of His divine glory and power and was broken down completely, losing it all, even His very life.  Jesus’ greatest power was shown by using His strength for sacrifice, to redeem you, to win you back, to conquer your enemies, sin and death and the devil.  His perfect weakness was perfect strength, perfect power to save.  

    So then, this is the way of Christ for you.  Despairing of yourself in your own weakness, taking refuge in Christ the crucified, you share in and you have His perfect strength, His perfect salvation.  In the weakness of the baptismal water, the Lord clothed you with the strength of His own righteousness.  In the foolishness of the Gospel message preached, that weak little seed scattered on the soil, the Lord saves you who believe; His Word does not return to Him void.  And in the seeming powerlessness of bread and wine, the Lord feeds you and fills you with the divine power of His true body and blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of all your sins, that you may share in His bodily resurrection on the Last Day.  By the power of these things, we who belong to this insignificant little congregation declare with St. Paul, “When I am weak, then I am strong.”

    “My grace is sufficient for you,” Jesus says.  In the end, this grace of your Lord Jesus is all that you need.  It is sufficient, more than enough.  For His grace saves you eternally; and it strengthens you to endure every trouble and affliction and cross that you must yet bear in this fallen earthly life. 

    The hymn writer Paul Gerhardt said it this way:

When life’s troubles rise to meet me,
    Though their weight
    May be great,
They will not defeat me.
God, my loving Savior, sends them;
    He who knows
    All my woes
Knows how best to end them.

God gives me my days of gladness,
    And I will
    Trust Him still
When He sends me sadness.
God is good; His love attends me
    Day by day,
    Come what may,
Guides me and defends me.

From God’s joy can nothing sever,
    For I am 
    His dear lamb,
He, my Shepherd ever.
I am His because He gave me
    His own blood 
    For my good,
By His death to save me.
    (LSB 756:2-4)

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