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Bread of Death, Bread of Life

Mark 8:1-9
Trinity 7

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

Even in our age of keto, paleo, low-carb diets, bread is still a basic staple of life.  Our Lord tells us to pray for our daily bread, which of course includes everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body.  And yet we sometimes forget that the reason we eat bread at all is a result of our fall into sin.  Bread is a sign of the curse.  For God said to Adam and to all his descendants, “Cursed is the ground for your sake; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life . . . In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.”

There was no bread in beginning, in the Garden.  Before the Fall Adam and Eve simply ate the fruit of the trees and the vegetation which God had freely given, and which they were given to tend to.  Without any burdensome labor on their part, God provided to them all that they needed to sustain their lives.  There was no exhausting tilling of the fields or grinding the wheat or kneading and baking as with bread.  Food was simply given to them in abundance as a gift from their Creator.

But that all changed when Adam and Eve rebelled against the Lord by reaching out for the one food that He had not given them to eat.  They wanted to do things their own way, be in charge of their own lives, become their own gods.  The devil promised them great things, but that promise turned out to be a lie.  Instead of gaining something, they ended up losing their life with God and were left empty and famished.

We, too, know the temptation to reach for that which God has not given, to consume the things and the philosophies of this world and to trust in them to bring us happiness and contentment.  Satan wants your spiritual diet to consist of satisfying your own desires, focusing not on the Lord and His words but on the pleasures and the honors of this temporal, passing world.  To appease your spiritual hunger, the devil tries to sell you junk food.  He hisses in your ear, “If you would just get better and newer stuff, maybe even a better and newer relationship, if you would just spend more time on self-care and recreation, if you would just buy in to the self-help spirituality of our culture, why then you would be fulfilled.”  But the devil is a liar.  He offers nothing of substance, nothing that lasts, like state fair cotton candy that melts away in the rain.  The more we feed on such things, the more empty and famished we will become.  None of these things can truly satisfy the gnawing hunger of the soul.

And the eating of bread is meant to serve as a reminder of that.  Every time you choose between white or whole wheat, ciabatta or a pita, even a corn tortilla or a gluten-free wrap, you should remember that you’re no longer in paradise.  You may not have to literally sweat for your bread, but you are paying for it in one way or another.  You’re in a fallen, desert world that is vastly different from what God first made.  Romans 8 says that all creation groans under sin’s curse and is in bondage to decay.   Weeds and thistles infest the ground.  Children are brought forth in pain.  There is sickness and hardship, harsh weather and earthquakes.  We can sometimes come up with temporary solutions to these problems with technology or medical advancements.  But in the end, we are all given to eat the bread of death.

However, into this barren world breaks the very Son of God Himself to save you.  For where is Jesus in the Gospel?  He is in the wilderness with a multitude of people who have nothing to eat, those who are feeling the effects of the curse very concretely.  Christ took on your human flesh and blood and put Himself smack dab into the middle of this fallen world in order to rescue you and raise you up.  Man’s sin turned the world from 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 on creation and restore you to paradise.    

Jesus said, “I have compassion on the multitudes.”  That word, “compassion,” in Greek has to do with your inward parts, your heart, your guts.  In other words Jesus feels for you deeply in His inner being with the greatest possible empathy.  So fully does Jesus feel for you in His gut and in His heart that He went so far as to make your problems His problems.  Jesus cares not only for the spiritual but also the physical welfare of these people.  He doesn’t want them to faint on the way. Jesus feels for what happens with your bodies.  He knows what you’re going through.  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 your blood and sweat and tears in order to redeem your bodies and souls and renew the fallen creation in which you live.

That’s what is beginning to take place 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.  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 breaking the power of the curse on the cross.  The wages of sin is death; and so Jesus took those wages you had coming and died your death for you.  Sin’s deathly power was broken and undone in the body of Christ the crucified.  And therefore, because of Jesus’ sacrifice, the gift of life now streams to you from His pierced side, flowing to you from the baptismal font [as it did for young Chloe this day].  For if sin has been undone, so also are the wages of sin undone.  Remember, this miracle occurred on the third day in the Gospel.  That’s Easter language.  Death and hell have been taken away from you, and you have been given a new life to live through the resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus took the seven loaves and gave thanks, broke them, and gave them to His disciples to set before the people.  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.  Still today, Jesus uses the smallest amounts of bread to multiply His grace and feed and fully satisfy the church with His very life-giving body.  He 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 what they started with.  Seven small loaves became seven large baskets.  This is a sign 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, 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.  It’s not just that the Lord is going to restore you to what Adam and Eve knew in Eden.  He is going to exalt you to something much greater and better than that.  The place being prepared for you surpasses even the Paradise of Eden.  For by sharing fully in your humanity, Christ has lifted you up to the very throne and glory of God.  You’re not just going back to paradise, you’re going forward to a new creation.

And all this Jesus has done by turning the curse into a blessing.  He takes the things that once were signs of death and makes them signs of life for you.  The deathly curse of the cross is now for you the thing which brings the blessing of life.  When you see a crucifix, you see your hope and salvation.  And when you come to the altar, cursed bread is now for you the thing which brings the blessed body of Christ in the Sacrament.  Our Lord turns evil for good to redeem you.

So as you eat the daily bread that God provides day by day, be it a dinner roll or a sandwich or even a doughnut after church, remember not only the fall into sin but especially Christ the Bread of Life who has undone the fall into sin and broken the curse.  Every meal is, in that sense, a sacramental sign of God’s grace and goodness toward you.  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.  

In the Gospel, there is no sweating to work your way into God’s favor, no wages or merits to be earned from the Father.  There is only the gift of life in His Son.  As you receive Him who is the Bread of Life,  you are being given a taste of paradise.  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 one who trusts in Him.”  

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

Am I in the Place of God?

Luke 6:36-42; Genesis 50

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

In today’s OT reading, Joseph said, “Am I in the place of God?”  Joseph’s brothers were afraid that he was going to judge and condemn them.  A long time earlier, you recall, they had plotted to kill Joseph. They saw that their father favored him; and Joseph had told them these seemingly-delusional fantasies of his that one day his family would all bow down to him. And so they took him and threw him in a deep pit, leaving him to die. But then they saw some traders passing by on their way to Egypt, and they decided to sell him. They got twenty pieces of silver for him. And Joseph became a slave in Egypt.

Even in the midst of this web of hatred and betrayal, of suffering and loss, God was at work. He used the evil done by Joseph’s brothers to put Joseph in a position to become a ruler in Egypt, and in that way to save the very brothers who had plotted to kill him.

But now, their father Jacob is dead. And the brothers are fearing that Joseph will, at long last, get his revenge. It must have been tempting for him. Joseph had soldiers and guards to command. He had more money and more power than we can imagine. But instead, he said to his fearful brothers, “Am I in the place of God?”

Let us ponder that question today as it applies to us.  For that is precisely the thing that Jesus is addressing in today’s Gospel reading. When you show no mercy, you act as if you are God in place of God.  When you judge someone not under your authority, you seize the right of God and act as though you are the Lord.  Who are you to condemn? Who are you to withhold forgiveness? That is what Joseph was saying. “Am I in the place of God? Only God has the right to judge you. Vengeance is the Lord’s.  It is my place to forgive and show mercy, and even though you harmed me, I will forgive. And besides all this, I see that while you meant it for evil, God meant it for good.”

We learn something most important in Joseph’s words: God uses even evil for His own purposes; the Lord uses the disordered wickedness of the evil one to accomplish His own good and gracious will.  We should keep that in mind in the midst of all the evil and suffering in the world that we see.  God is not the author of any of it; but He does enter into it to accomplish real good for us.  The ultimate example of this is the crucifixion, where God takes the greatest evil ever perpetrated–the murder of the Jesus His Son–and works that suffering for good: the taking away of the world’s sin, the forgiveness of your sin and mine.

And so both Joseph and his brothers are examples to us: Joseph’s brothers confessed their sin and asked for mercy; and Joseph forgave them readily.  Nothing is better for family unity and reconciliation than openly acknowledging sin when it occurs and freely forgiving sin.

When Jesus says, “Judge not!” we could put His meaning this way: “Stop having an attitude of criticism and fault finding.”  Our lives and relationships are corrupted by this, especially those we know very well–when we’re constantly focusing on other people’s flaws and problems rather than focusing on their strengths and good qualities and explaining everything in the kindest way.  Beware of creating narratives in your head where the other person’s good qualities are minimized and their flaws are magnified.

Now, these words of our Lord, “Judge not” are among the very few verses that unbelievers like to quote, right?  “Judge not” is often misused in a deceitful way to rule out any discipline at all, to take off the table any notion of absolute right and wrong.  But Jesus does not rule out the legitimate use of judging.  A judge and jury in a court has not only the right but the duty to judge; a teacher in a school must judge the students and grade and assess their work, despite recent efforts to avoid real grading; parents have the commandment of God to discipline and judge and correct their children; citizens have the right to judge and debate whether this or that law or this or that candidate is the best one to vote for; pastors have the commandment of God to call people to repentance and to faith in Christ alone; and the whole church, all of you Christians have the command to judge doctrine and discern the spirits, whether they are from God, and to avoid all false teaching. It’s interesting to note that Jesus’ “Judge not” statement occurs also in Matthew 7.  In that very same chapter Jesus tells us to “Beware of false prophets.”  And that requires you to judge whether or not what they are saying is true and according to God’s Word.  In fact, you could make the case that a lot of what has gone wrong in the world is that governing officials and citizens, parents and teachers, pastors and believers have stopped doing the judging that God has told them to do for the good of all.

So Jesus is not declaring anarchy here and the end of all legitimate judgments, or that the commandments no longer apply and we should just be fine with everyone living however they want and rejecting what is true and good.  Rather, what Jesus is doing here is calling out our constant tendency to criticize and find fault in others. In the same way that we naturally cover up our own imperfections, we should be applying the same courtesy to others, as St. Peter says, “Love covers a multitude of sins.”

When we exercise our God-given duty of making judgments in one of our various vocations, that is right.  But to do so outside of that is wrong.  So within our offices, where God has given us authority, we are to exercise judgment in a godly way.  But to our neighbors, where God has not made us judge or put us in any office over that person, then we are to show only mercy.  Our attitude is to be just as Joseph’s: “Am I in the place of God?” “Who am I to judge you?”

Jesus asks, “Can the blind lead the blind?” Jesus warns us about being blind to our own faults. We easily see the speck in our brother’s eye, but do not so easily perceive the log protruding from our own face.  If we are careful to analyze the depth of our own sin, the faults of others will then appear as mere specks by comparison. St. Paul spoke of himself as “chief of sinners,” and that’s how we are to consider ourselves.  And by the way, those who demonstrate that sort of humble attitude are much more likely to actually be able to help others with their specks.

So when we see someone else sinning, even doing some wrong against us, we should learn to see that as a tiny speck of sawdust.  For if God graciously forgives our many sins and is resolved to forget our big beam, how can we not be merciful in regard to our neighbor’s speck?  We should say, “Dear brother, may God who has overlooked my many planks and has forgiven all my sins, may he also forgive your splinter of sin.”

In doing that, of course, we are not condoning sin, nor are we earning merits to save ourselves–Christ has accomplished that for us. We are learning how to be disciples and followers of Jesus, which means loving our enemies and forgiving those who trespass against us.  This is what it means to live as a Christian.  Our Lord says,“Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.” He doesn’t mean be merciful only to people we like, people who are close to us, or people from whom we can expect some good thing in return. He means be merciful to people we can’t stand, people who have hurt us, people that we would like to write off and never talk to again.

And of course, that’s not easy! We don’t want to do it. So when that challenge comes, we have to remember this: We have broken every commandment in one way or another.  We have despised God and His Word. He would be justified in saying, “Why should I not send those wretched hypocrites straight to hell?” But instead, He sends the rain to water our earth, He gives us food from the earth, and makes the sun to shine. He gives us beauty and joy in this world, a body to delight in His creation; and beyond all of that, He sends His Son to redeem us and give us eternal life. That is the kind of mercy He practices, and it is the kind of mercy He wishes for us to learn to practice.

So constantly meditate on how merciful and kind God is to you. If you think God is a harsh judge, then that is how you will treat others. But when you remember that He is merciful, that He is love, then you will want to be merciful and loving to your neighbor as God in Christ is to you.

 So, in the light of that truth, we can now see Joseph’s rhetorical question in a very different way: “Am I in the place of God?”  And the answer actually is “Yes, you are in the place of God, to show mercy even as He does.”  You are in God’s place because God put Himself in your place.  God in Christ took on flesh, and all the judgment for your sin was poured out on Him to set you free.  Jesus suffered all the vengeance of the whole world’s sin on the cross to take it away.  Everything that you had coming, everything that anyone else deserves, too, Jesus experienced that in your place to save you.  The cross has absorbed all vengeance and has freed us to love and forgive even our enemies.  

So in a very real sense, Joseph was in the place of God.  He stood in the stead of Christ, as an icon of Jesus in giving the forgiveness of the Lord to his brothers.  That’s how it is in the church still today, both for pastors and laypeople.  You are in the place of God.  According to my office I stand in Christ’s stead as an icon of Jesus to give you the forgiveness of the Lord in the absolution.  You are forgiven, fully and freely.  And then you also stand in Christ’s stead as an icon of Jesus to give the forgiveness of the Lord to your neighbor wherever God has placed you in this world.  As a member of the body of Christ, you stand in the place of God to forgive and love one another.  For Christ dwells in you by your baptismal faith to be merciful just as your Father in heaven in merciful.

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Christopher Esget)

Fear the Lord, Come to the Feast

Luke 14:15-24, Proverbs 9:1-10

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

In today’s Old Testament reading it is written, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  That’s a Scripture verse you don’t hear much any more.  It certainly doesn’t fit in with the contemporary worldview.  But it is absolutely foundational to a proper understanding of the Christian faith and our relationship with God.  “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

To fear the Lord first of all means just what it says, to have a healthy fear of Him who is your Judge, who holds your life and your destiny in His hands.  Jesus once said, “Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (namely God).  Too often God is conceived of as nothing more than a permissive grandfather, the nice old man in the sky.  It is true, He is the God of love, but for those who insist on living outside of His love, He is the God of great and dreadful wrath. It is written that our God is a consuming fire.  A proper fear of His wrath is the beginning of what makes a person wise.

But just as importantly, to fear the Lord means to have a proper reverence and respect for Him, to recognize the awesomeness of who He is as the Creator and Preserver of all things, and to bow the knee to Him for it.  Someone who fears the Lord looks to the Lord for help and trusts that He will be gracious to us as He has promised.  A God-fearing person believes that the consuming fire was directed toward Jesus on the cross in our place; God’s wrath has been appeased by Jesus’ death, and the Father is now merciful to us for Jesus’ sake.  To fear the Lord, then, also means to love Him for all He has done for us and to worship Him, as the meaning to the 1st commandment states, “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”

Only a person who fears the Lord like this has even the beginning of wisdom.  No matter how well educated, no matter how smart or intelligent someone may appear, if they don’t fear God, they are fools before Him.  We can see little evidences of that around us as the cultural elites publicly flaunt their ungodliness as somehow being good and wise, or in the way even the average person thinks he can live more or less according to the feelings and dictates of his own heart with no sense of divine consequences.  As the fear of God decreases, those in authority are no longer properly honored.  We see much less respect shown to parents in the home and to teachers in school and to police and other authorities, and much more defiance and disrespect.  We think we’re getting so much smarter all while disorder grows and institutions crumble around us.  There’s no fear of the Lord, no belief in His judgment, no reverence for who He is as the Creator and Redeemer.

Where there is no fear of the Lord, people make excuses.  That’s what we hear in today’s Gospel reading.  The invitation to the divine banquet of salvation has gone out.  But it is written, “They all with one accord began to make excuses.”  They all were looking for ways to get out of this Gospel invitation.  They had other things they thought were more important to do.  Honoring the Giver of the feast, being with Him and sharing in the joy of His meal was low on the priority list.  It was something they could live without.

The first man’s excuse is that he has bought land–and the idea here is of a large estate, a big farming operation, or ranch. He will have workers, men under him, and he will have dominion. This was the first sin: man, who was given dominion of the earth by God, instead sought to grasp that dominion apart from God.  Delighting in his own power, he could not bring himself to submit to the greater power; this is at the heart of Lucifer’s fall as well: the desire to wield the power yourself, to become like God.

The next man has bought five pairs of oxen. This would be very expensive, and a typical family farm would only need one pair, not five.  So we can see excess here.  The number five is often used also of the senses, seeing, tasting, touching, hearing, smelling; and many of the senses come in pairs like the oxen: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, two hands. Now what do oxen do on a farm? They turn up the earth; so we can see in this man a devotion to earthly things, a devotion to what his hands can touch and what his eyes can see.  God who is spirit, and beyond being apprehended directly by man’s senses, is disregarded and ignored.

The last man, pleading marriage, puts his family, his bride, before God, and even the desires of his flesh first. Jesus said, “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”  So we can sum up the three men then as being overwhelmed by pride and a spirit of domination, a love of earthly things, and the idolatry of family and a devotion to fleshly desires.

Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “This would be a good message for so-and-so who isn’t here today.”  He or she shouldn’t have made an excuse not to be here and miss out on this feast.  And that may be true.  But look in the mirror. Do you not see pride and a desire to control in your actions? Do you have an oversized love of earthly things? Are you devoted more to your family and your fleshly desires than to God?

Repent. Give up your need to control others and get your way. Look beyond what your eyes can see and what your fingers can touch and the lusts of your heart. Care less about what your family thinks and more about what God thinks and what He gives.

Jesus told this parable to the Pharisees, but Luke recorded it for you and me.  Through it the Holy Spirit wishes for us to turn from our inverted priorities and to come to Him with holy fear.  For Jesus said to the Jews who refused the Lord’s invitation to the feast of salvation, “None of those who were invited shall taste my supper.”  That is a fearful thought to ponder.  They thought it was based on their own merits when it was solely about the graciousness of the Host.  You do not deserve what the Lord offers, but He gives it freely anyway, without money and without price.

In the end the only ones taking part in the feast are beggars and foreigners.  For only they  were given to see their need for what the Master had to give.  This is what you also must become before God: a hungry beggar, a needy foreigner.  You must be brought by God to see that of yourself you are spiritually empty, wasting away, with nowhere else to turn but to Him.  The divine Law must expose your desperate need so that you will crave the Bread of Life.  Only then will the great supper be not just another thing on your to do list.  It will be the One Thing that you cannot do without, the very source of your life.  For the meal is Christ, who is the Life.

Our Lord Jesus offered up His body on the cross to be “roasted” in the flames of judgment, that consuming fire.  He literally suffered hell in our place at Calvary.  Having rescued us from sin and Satan by His holy death, and being now raised from the dead, Jesus offers Himself to the whole world as heavenly food that we might receive His saving gifts and be nourished by them.

The Gospel cry rings out to you today, saying, “All things are now ready.”  God has done all things for you.  He has taken up your flesh, lived and suffered, died and rose for you.  He has endured hell’s fury and fire in your place.  He has left the enemy spent and dead on his own sword.  He has crushed the serpent’s head and dissolved the chains of guilt and shame that held you.  He has flung open wide the gates of heaven and removed the guards.  The flaming sword keeping man out of Paradise has been doused in the Blood of the Lamb.  The angel of death passes over.  You are safe. There is no one to accuse you, no one to keep you out, nothing to stop you from this victory and joy given for free from on high.  God Himself, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit loves you and invites you to come to the feast.  He wants you there.

So fear the Lord, but do not be afraid.  Do not think yourself unworthy or dwell upon your past sins.  They are gone.  They are forgiven.  If you are weary, heartbroken, lonely, wracked with guilt and uncertainty, hear the words of the Lord:  Come to the feast.  It has been made ready for you to heal and restore you. The greatest and the least, the outcasts and the popular, the cool and the uncool, the wealthy and the poor–everyone is invited!  Leave behind the love of temporary things.  Dwell upon the love of Christ who has loved you beyond all telling.  The highways and hedges of this world are not your home.  He brought you here this day to His House and to His Feast.  The God who is a consuming fire gives you to do the consuming now.  The banquet table is laid before you, His flesh and blood which give you life and the resurrection of the body.  Partake of this holy, life-giving food.  Fear the Lord, which is to say, love and trust in the Lord with all due reverence.  You are reconciled with God and righteous in Christ.  Believe in Him and be saved.  Receive the foretaste of the feast to come.  For blessed is He who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God.  And the kingdom of God is here.

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

(With thanks to Christopher Esget and David Petersen for some of the above)

Not Many Gods, but One God

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.  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.  Even 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 is one of the reasons why we reject praying to the saints and calling on deceased loved ones.  Looking to them for guidance and for help 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.”

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).  

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.  Ice, liquid, 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 to confess what the creeds say and leave it at that.

God reveals Himself first as Father.  This is particularly important in a time when fatherhood is often cast aside as non-essential.  Our society is experiencing a whole host of negative consequences and fallout from the diminishment of fatherhood and all the things that metastisize to fill its place.  Patriarchy isn’t the problem here; sin is the problem.  The answer isn’t matriarchy or some new non-binary gender fluid paradigm.  It’s a return to the Fatherhood of God as it is exercised rightly in the home and church and government.  God is our Father, not our mother.  As Father, He is the source of all things; He is the head, the provider, the protector, the One who is full of goodness and mercy in His Son, the Man Jesus Christ.  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.

We do have a spiritual mother, however–the Church.  The blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of our Lord, is a picture of the Church.  For as she gave birth to our Lord Jesus, so we are born again in the Church through our baptism into His body.  The holy font is the watery womb of the Church.  There we are joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection and given a new life.  

This is what Jesus was speaking about with Nicodemus when He said 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 but should–those are the symptoms of your still birth.  You may have been a perfectly healthy baby, but you were born into the death of your father Adam.  And you can’t fix it or reform yourself.  You must die and rise.  You must be born from above, of water and the Spirit.  That’s creation language, 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. 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.  You are a member of God’s family.  Jesus the Son invites you to pray with Him, “Our Father.”  Our mother, the Church, teaches us these things by the working of the Holy Spirit through the Word.

And so we stick with the Triune Name of God which He has revealed and given to us in His Word.  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.

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 and Mormon 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.

Only the true God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son Jesus to be the medicine of immortality to rescue you from the deadly venom of sin.  He was lifted up on the cross for you to take away your sins, so 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 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.

Keeping the Words of Jesus

John 14:23-27

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

In our “spiritual, but not religious” culture, meditation is something that is fairly fashionable.  Meditation is something that most people will accept as a positive form of spirituality.  The problem is that meditation can be about any number of different things.  Of itself it’s really neutral; it doesn’t even necessarily have anything to do with the divine.  Meditation is defined by its focus, by what you are meditating on.

The fact is that everybody meditates, whether they realize it or not.  Meditation has been described as passive thinking, where the mind focuses on a particular thought, and then that thought takes over and leads to a stream of related thoughts and ideas.  Daydreaming is a form of meditation, where you aren’t actively in control of your thoughts, but your mind has wandered to a particular place and you are focusing there almost without even realizing it.  (Hopefully there isn’t too much of that going on right now!)  Worry is a form of meditation, where your mind constantly returns to a particular source of stress and concern and keeps running through all the possible things that could go wrong and how you might deal with it over and over again.  You don’t have to tell yourself to worry.  But your mind is focused on that worry and it takes over the direction of your thoughts.

Our problem as fallen human beings is that it’s much easier to meditate on the things of the world more than on the things of God.  Paying attention to a 3-hour sporting event or a 2-hour movie comes much more naturally than paying attention to a 1-hour church service, even though it gives eternal gifts.  We focus our minds on the wrong things.  We meditate on how we’d like to get back at that person who wronged us.  We meditate covetously on that dream vacation.  We meditate lustfully on one who is not our spouse.  We meditate greedily on all the better stuff we want to get for ourselves.  We meditate on days past that our hearts long to go back to.  We let our hearts and minds get all wrapped up in and dominated by things that pass away.

Even most religious meditation has gone wrong; you may run into this in exercise programs like some forms of yoga.  The spirituality of the world teaches you that meditation is about focusing within yourself, getting in touch with your inner spirit, drawing upon the resources and the strength you have inside, or else getting in touch with some sort of cosmic life force that has nothing to do with the true God.  In the end all of that is nothing but self-worship and a spiritual running around in circles.

Holy Scripture gives us the proper object of our meditation.  It says first of all in Philippians 4, “Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy–meditate on these things.”  Don’t let your mind be filled with the junk of pop culture which seeks to infiltrate your homes and your lives.  Dwell upon the good gifts of God and the virtuous and noble things He has caused and allowed to be in existence in this world.

In particular in today’s Gospel Jesus tells us of the #1 focal point for our meditation.  He says, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word.”  That word “keep” is very important.  It means in the original language “to hold onto, to treasure, to cling to,” like Mary who “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.”  It doesn’t simply mean “obey.”  It involves taking Jesus’ words to heart, meditating upon them, inwardly digesting them, trusting in them, following them.  “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word.”

The best way to think of this is the way you would treat a love letter or a Valentine’s Day card–or even an email or a text from someone you really care about.  When you get a communication like that, you don’t just skim through it and quickly throw it away or delete it.  You dwell upon every word.  You consider what every word is saying.  You read between the lines.  You remember most of it by heart.  You treasure it and hold onto it and refer back to it again in your heart and mind.

So it is with the words of Jesus.  If you love Him, you want to hear what He says to you, not just once and that’s enough, but over and over again, always uncovering more of the meaning that is there in His words to you.  No guy would ever say to his girl, “I love you, but I don’t want to listen to you.”  In the same way, no Christian would ever say, “I love Jesus, but I don’t want to listen to His words and preaching.”  To be Christian is to hang upon Jesus’ words and to draw your life from them continuously–not simply showing up for church and then zoning out, but meditating on and pondering Christ’s teaching and letting it form your faith and your way of living.

Martin Luther once compared the Word of God to a spice which releases the fullness of its flavor and aroma the more it is crushed and broken apart.  In the same way the sweet aroma of Scripture is released more and more as we meditate upon it and break it apart and consider each life-giving word.  This is why we need regular, even daily contact with the words of God.  They help in forming those paths and patterns in your mind and heart and spirit that conform to God’s truth–which is especially important in a world which is daily preaching and  peddling lies to you.  “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word.”

Now, you might be asking yourself, “Why all this stuff about meditation on Pentecost?  I haven’t heard anything yet about the Holy Spirit.”  Well, I’ve been talking about meditation on the Word because the Holy Spirit comes to you through that Word.  Jesus said, “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.”  The Holy Spirit made sure that the disciples remembered and wrote down for us the things that Jesus said and did truly and correctly.  And now the Holy Spirit is all about bringing those words and deeds of Jesus to you, teaching you all things about Jesus through the Scriptures so that you may be filled with His light and life.

That’s the central thing that happened on Pentecost.  There were the miraculous signs of the coming of the Holy Spirit–the rushing wind and the tongues of fire.  But the main event which the Holy Spirit brought about was that the Word of God was preached and confessed, not only in the Hebrew or Greek tongue, but in the native tongue of countries well beyond Israel.  For indeed this Gospel of Christ the crucified is for all the nations.  

The Word of God is filled with the Holy Spirit.  That’s what we mean when we say that the Scriptures are inspired by God.  Literally, that means they are God-breathed, full of the breath and Spirit of the living God.  Jesus said, “My words are Spirit and they are life.”  To hear those words and consider them, to meditate on them in true faith is to be instructed by the Holy Spirit Himself and to receive in them the life of Christ.  

Jesus said this about the one who loves Him and keeps His Word, “My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.”  Through the words of God which the Holy Spirit teaches, Jesus comes to be present in and with the believer.  And where Jesus is, there the Father also makes His home.  The Father loves all those who love His Son.  The Father loves you who love and trust in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.  You are never alone, no matter how isolated you may sometimes feel.  For the Blessed Holy Trinity has made His home with you.

He first made His home with you by pouring His saving Word onto you in Holy Baptism, marking you with His own name as His treasured dwelling place.  And the Large Catechism says, you have enough to meditate on in your baptism for the rest of your life.  The Lord makes His home with you as He speaks His life-giving Word out loud right into your ears in the absolution and in the spoken meditation we usually call the sermon.  In fact hopefully the Word of God will cause you to meditate on even more than the sermon can say.  I’ve had people thank me for something they thought I said in the sermon, some good Scriptural insight, but which I hadn’t directly addressed.  That’s how meditation on the Word can works, where the Spirit opens the Scriptures and applies them to you in just the way that you need.  And God also makes His home with you in the Sacrament of the Altar.  For there you receive and eat the Word made flesh, the body and blood of Christ sacrificed for you on the cross for the full forgiveness of your sins.  By the power of the Word, Christ is truly present here and comes to make His home in your very flesh and bones.  Truly, God has given you so much to meditate on and ponder, so much to draw your hope and salvation from, so many ways to keep His Word and live from it.

But none of it would do you any good apart from the working of the Holy Spirit.  Only the Spirit of Christ can make your meditation on His words fruitful and beneficial.  Without Him the sermon will seem useless, the liturgy will seem like dead ceremony.  We cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ our Lord or come to Him.  The Holy Spirit must open our understanding and enlighten us with the Gospel, as it is written, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”  

And finally, Jesus teaches us here that through that Gospel we receive peace.  The only meditation that gives real and lasting and indestructible peace is meditation on His words.  Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”  There is no reason to fear any more.  For Jesus has conquered your death by the holy cross.  He absorbed into His body all that makes you fearful and restless, and He crucified it.  Isaiah prophesied, “The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him.”  You have been reconciled to the Father in Christ.  You are at peace with God.  And if you are right with Him, then you can face whatever is going on in your day to day life with His strength and with the confidence that He is with you and will guide you through His Word.  This is not worldly peace which fails; this is peace given by the Spirit of God which never fails and which endures forever.  

Now may this peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen.

That You Should Not Be Made to Stumble

1 Peter 4:7-14; John 15:26 - 16:4

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

Setting proper expectations is a very important thing in life if you want to be content.  If you have unrealistic expectations for something, and then it fails to meet those expectations, you’re unhappy.  If you’re more realistic and expectations are met or exceeded, then you’re quite happy.  You’ll sometimes hear it said that you should manage your expectations.  You can have great hopes and dreams, but you should also be careful not to set yourself up for a fall.

In a very real way, that’s what Jesus is doing for us in today’s Gospel reading when it comes to the Christian life in this world.  For we sometimes have the notion that if we just work hard and stay positive and have enough faith, everything’s always going to work out well for us.  The marriage will be wonderful, the job will be fulfilling and pay nicely, the family will stick together, people will always think well of us, we’ll be able to enjoy a prosperous retirement, our health will be good all the way until we reach a ripe old age, and then we’ll die painlessly and peacefully in our sleep.  

But when those things don’t all pan out, then we can become disillusioned and disappointed.  And with our faulty expectations, the worst part is that we can begin to stumble in our faith and question God and think He’s not coming through for us.  We can stray from the Church because it’s supposedly not giving us what we need.  You remember in the parable of the sower how the seed that was planted in the shallow, rocky soil sprung up quickly, but then it also withered away quickly because it lacked moisture.  It wasn’t deeply rooted in God’s words and promises.  Which is to say, as soon as times of testing came and God wasn’t fulfilling people’s expectations, they fell away.  

So out of love for us, the Lord in His Word gives us a heads up and tells us what’s coming, so that we know what to expect as His disciples.  “These things I have spoken to you, that you should not be made to stumble.”  The Epistle reading says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12 ESV).  We should expect troubles in this life–first, simply because we live in a fallen, sin-cursed world that is full of death and disease and decay.  All creation groans, and so do our bodies.  Our expectation should not be depressive and pessimistic, for reasons I’ll point out in a moment.  But we should not be shocked either when a bad diagnosis comes, or when nature convulses with a destructive storm or earthquake, or when animals and insects annoy and destroy.  For we know that this old creation is passing away.

However, today’s readings are especially talking about the troubles and suffering we might have to endure because we are disciples of Jesus.  And it’s not something we can necessarily escape, even within our own homes.  Jesus says in Luke 12, “Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division. For from now on five in one house will be divided: three against two, and two against three. Father will be divided against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”  Holding to Christ and His Word may mean family division.  Family is important, but it’s not the most important thing.  Don’t be surprised if friends or family turn against you for what God has given you to believe.  You are called to love the Lord more than your parents or children or grandchildren.  Expect that this might bring you heartache.

And in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus doesn’t mince any words when speaking to His disciples, “They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service.”  Being put out of the synagogues means that you may well lose your place or your status in certain groups or clubs or circles of friends because of your Scriptural beliefs. You may well lose your job or be demoted because of the faith that you confess.  People are already being browbeaten into keeping their mouths shut when it comes to speaking out against abortion or gay marriage or transgenderism, even on social media, lest their be negative repercussions.  There is a secular, progressive orthodoxy that is not to be contradicted, or else.

Note that Jesus talks in these spiritual terms about those who oppose Him and His Church, that the people who do so are religious about it, even thinking that they are offering God service, upholding some sort of distorted and corrupted notion of goodness and love.  Today’s Pharisees and Puritans are not so much the old time Bible thumpers but the enforcers of the new secular spirituality.  You most hold to their doctrine and their creed purely, or else you’re rejected and cancelled.  You can always tell what the dominant cultural and religious beliefs are by who or what you’re not allowed to criticize without consequence.

The time is coming, Jesus says, when people will think that they’re doing God’s work by killing Christians who don’t tow the cultural line.  That’s how it was with Saul before his conversion to being the Apostle Paul, right?  He thought he was serving God.  Saul was devoted to living righteously according to the law; he was a rising star among his fellow Pharisees.  And he was so zealous and passionate in his religion that he devoted himself to rooting out and getting rid of those whom he thought to be heretics, particularly those Christians who worshiped Jesus as the Son of God.  He oversaw the stoning to death of a Christian deacon named Stephen.  He was willing to travel long distances in order to persecute and imprison those who followed Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  It was only the grace of God that turned Paul’s life around when Jesus appeared to Him on the road to Damascus, bringing him to repentance and faith and a new life.  Only by grace did He come to worship the true God, through faith in Christ alone.

So don’t be surprised but expect the modern equivalents of Saul to come around today, those who consider it a good and holy thing to fight against Christ and His Word, who reject Him as God in the flesh, who hate the teaching that there is no salvation except in Him and His righteousness alone, who love their own spirituality above all.  Jesus said in the Gospel, “These things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me.”

But then in the midst of all this, have this expectation, that God is working all things together for the good of His people, as He has promised.  Note how in the Epistle, Peter says that the fiery trial is to test you.  That’s not just to see if you pass the test of faith, but that through the fire, your faith will be purified and strengthened, like molten iron is purified by fire and the dross is removed.  That’s why it is written in James 1, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.”  God is doing good for you and in you through these things.  

So it is that Peter says in today’s Epistle, “Rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.”  Christ suffered all the way to death for you to take away your sins.  He completed that task fully.  Now, being baptized into Him, you share in His sufferings which put to death your old Adam.  And Romans 6 says that if we have been united with Him in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection.  If we share in His humiliation, we will also share in His exaltation.

That’s how we can follow the example of the saints and rejoice in trials and persecutions.  Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute and say all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account.  Rejoice and be exceedingly glad.  For so they persecuted the prophets who were before You.”  And where are the prophets now?  They are comforted in the presence of the Savior and Redeemer whom they prophesied.  God sees your suffering and will not abandon you but will vindicate you.

Jesus said, “A servant is not greater than his Master.”  If they crucified Him, those who follow Him should not expect a life of ease in this world.  But remember that in following Him, you are walking the path that leads through the grave and out the other side alive.  The Lord reminds you not to get too comfortable here. Your citizenship is in heaven, your life is hidden with God in Christ, safe and secure.  The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.  So while we’re realistic about what to expect in this world and in this life, we still live with confidence and joy, for we have a sure hope and expectation of the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.  

In fact, the whole universe shares with us in this hope.  It is written, “The earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God.”  That’s you!  Whatever your expectation is of what heaven and the new creation is going to be like, your expectations are going to be exceeded.  You will be filled with overflowing joy in that place where Christ is all in all.  

So trust in God in the midst of affliction or persecution.  For Christ has overcome the world and conquered the evil one.  “If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified.”  Do not be afraid; do not think for a moment that your heavenly Father has abandoned you, even in death.  For He loves you and has gathered you out of the world’s synagogues to be His own Holy Church, His new creation by water and the Word.

And who knows?  Perhaps like Saul, one day your enemy will become your brother or sister in the faith.  This is our prayer in Christ, who prayed for His enemies, who offered God the Father true service not by killing others but by sacrificing Himself for you to save you.  And now He gives Himself to you in the Sacrament that you may share in His life.  This is where everything is set right, where the madness of the world and its lies are held at bay.  For where Christ Jesus is, there is your home, your peace, your comfort, your joy in all hardships, and your entry into eternal life.

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

Hidden with Christ in God

Acts 1:3-11; Luke 24:44-53
The Ascension or our Lord
May 26, 2022
Joint Service of Mt. Zion and Our Father’s Lutheran Church
Greenfield, WI

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

Back in 1961 when the Soviet Union sent their first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit in space, he is said to have remarked that he didn’t see Jesus when he was up there–implying that Christianity must not be true and there must not be a heaven.  Later, it was revealed that this was actually just a propaganda statement from Kruschev and the Kremlin, and that Gagarin was in fact an orthodox Christian.  But that old Soviet atheistic foolishness serves as a reminder that there is often a lot of confusion regarding what the Bible teaches about heaven and especially about the ascension of our Lord.  For when Jesus ascended to the Father’s right hand, it’s not that He went from one place to another, as if He were taking a trip above the atmosphere, but rather that He was taking our human nature into divine glory.

We know, of course, that it’s not as if we could go up into space and find Jesus in some confined physical spot.  For heaven is not simply above the clouds somewhere.  Rather, heaven is that unseen realm where God is, an infinite and eternal realm that is not limited to space and time, that is beyond space and time.  The Creator transcends His creation.  That’s the point of Jesus going up–He is the Lord above us, ruling over all things.

But Jesus is not gone from us and far away.  We know from the Scriptures that God is present everywhere, and therefore, so is His “right hand.”  So when we confess that Jesus bodily ascended to the right hand of the Father, we are not saying that He left us, but rather that He is present everywhere, both as God and now also as man.  His human nature shares fully in His divine omnipresence and glory.  St. Paul writes in Ephesians that Jesus “ascended far above all the heavens that He might fill all things.”  The ascension of our Lord, then, emphasizes not Jesus’ absence but rather His presence, especially for the church and in the church.  Jesus is at the right hand of the Father as King reigning over all things for the sake of His people.

This glorified presence of Christ actually began already at Easter.  Just consider His resurrection appearances:  The disciples are gathered together with the doors locked, but suddenly Jesus is there and stands among them.  He had been there all along, but now He reveals Himself to them visibly.  They are given to touch His hands and side.  Or what about His appearance to the Emmaus disciples?  Jesus makes Himself known to them in the breaking of the bread and then simply vanishes from their sight.

Throughout the 40 days between His resurrection and ascension, Jesus came out of His glory to appear to His disciples and to eat, talk, and walk with them.  He did this for their benefit to show that He had truly risen from the dead in the flesh.  Jesus’ ascension is really no different from those other times when He then removed Himself from their sight.  It’s not that He went away.  Rather, He appeared out of glory, and He returned to glory.  But His final removal from their sight had to be so convincing that they would no longer expect Him to return until His final appearing.  Being lifted up from the earth and covered with the cloud, along with the message of the angels, was to convince the disciples that Jesus would no longer be visibly present among them.  

You will not see Jesus until He comes again on the clouds in great power and glory on the Last Day.  This age of the church in which we live is the age not of the eyes but of the ears.  Although you can’t see Christ, you can hear Him whenever His Word is preached and taught in its truth and purity.  Although you can’t behold Christ visibly, you can come into tangible contact with Him wherever His sacraments are rightly administered–in the watery cloud of baptism, at the throne of His altar.  He is unseen and yet truly bodily present among His people, veiled behind words and water, bread and wine.  He makes Himself accessible to you in His glorified flesh here in divine service.  Faith believes His promise, “I am with you always, even to the close of the age.”

If we’re honest with ourselves, though, we must admit that we often struggle to believe this.  For we sinners are people of the eyes, aren’t we.  If we can’t see it, experience it, feel it, it doesn’t seem real or true to us.  Out of sight, out of mind with the Lord.  All the visually impressive and entertaining things of this fallen world, screens everywhere, distract us and catch our eyes and divert our attention.

And when we don’t see and pay attention to God, we then act as if He doesn’t see or pay attention to us.  We’re usually better behaved when we know we’re being monitored or there are cell phone or security cameras recording us than we are when the only One who sees is the Lord.  Too often we live as if Christ is absent, that He’s not a very present help in time of need.  We can be tempted to doubt that He really is in control or that He really cares.  We see the chaos and the violence in the world around us, we experience the disorder in our lives and even in our own bodies, and we wonder, “If Christ really is ruling all things, why is this happening?”  We are like the disciples who got sidetracked with when the earthly kingdom of Israel was going to be restored.

Repent of such thinking.  Turn away from your own wisdom and from merely what your eyes can see.  Trust again in the sure and comforting truth of the Ascension that is spoken into your ears today.  See by faith the last thing that the disciples saw of Jesus.  It is written, “He lifted up His hands and blessed them.”  That is  how you should picture what our ascended Lord is doing even now, lifting up His hands to bless His people with the gifts He won for you in His death and resurrection.  

At His ascension, Jesus entered a cloud–not an ordinary cloud, though.  It was rather like the pillar of cloud that led the children of Israel through the Red Sea and in the wilderness.  It is the very presence of God.  Jesus has taken up your humanity into God’s presence and reunited you with God in Himself. You’ll hear it in the preface before communion today, that Jesus ascended in order to make you partakers in His divine life.

In a very real sense, then, you have already ascended into heaven.  For you are baptized into His ascended body.  Therefore, you also are at the right hand of the Father as sheep of the Good Shepherd.  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.”  You’re already there, because Jesus is already there, and you are in Him.  Colossians 3 puts it this way: “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

I know of nothing that can make you more confident in your faith than that.  When you begin to waver in your Christian hope, when you aren’t sure about whether or not you’re going to heaven, when you wonder if He’s paying attention to your troubles and needs, just remember the Ascension; just remember that you are a member of Christ’s body by your baptismal faith.  And He is at the right hand of God as the victorious Ruler of all.  All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him who conquered all sin and death by His cross and resurrection.  You are more than conquerors through Him who loves you.  Jesus is the Father’s right hand man.  Therefore, He is truly able to work all things together for the good of those who love Him, for you who have been called according to His purpose.  He cares for you.  Even in the midst of the ups and downs of your life, He who began His good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of His return.

Until then, Jesus stands before the Father as your Great High Priest and ministers on your behalf.  That’s what He’s doing right now.  In the Old Testament, one of the special garments that the High Priest wore when he appeared before God in the temple was something called an ephod, an apron-like vest that hung from the shoulders and over the chest of the High Priest.  Precious onyx stones were attached to this ephod, in which were engraved the names of the twelve tribes of Israel.  So on his shoulders and over his heart the High Priest carried the names of God’s people.  Every time he entered the temple into the presence of God, he placed the whole people before the eyes of the Lord. This one man embodied all of Israel as he carried their names into the Holy of Holies to offer sacrifice for them and plead their forgiveness.

This Old Testament High Priest and his ephod are a living prophecy of our ascended Lord Jesus Christ.  He is the great High Priest who put on our human nature when He came to minister among us.  But unlike the Old Testament priest, Christ didn’t just wear our human nature like clothing and take it off when He finished His work.  No, He actually became flesh, became human, united the ephod of our humanity to Himself forever.

On His shoulders and over His heart Christ carries the names of God’s baptized people.  Having made His sacrifice, Jesus is now ascended to the temple of heaven for you, where He places you and the whole Church before the eyes of His Father and prays for you.  This one Man Jesus embodies all of you as He carries your names into the heavenly Holy of Holies.  He intercedes for you and speaks on your behalf before the Father.  And if Jesus says to the Father that your sins are forgiven and paid for, then you’d better believe your sins are forgiven and paid for.  It is written in 1 John 2, “We have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous.  He Himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.”

So then, brothers and sisters of Christ, take comfort in this ascension of Christ your King, who is working all things together for your eternal good.  “Seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God.”  Come to the Sacrament today and enter heaven, the place of Christ’s bodily presence.  And then on the Last Day, “when Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.”

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