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The Son of David Defeats the Goliath Satan

Matthew 4:1-11; 1 Samuel 17

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

    We didn’t sing “A Mighty Fortress” today just because it’s a favorite Lutheran hymn (or even because the Martin Luther brass choir is here).  “A Mighty Fortress” is the appointed hymn of the day because this season of Lent that we have just entered is all about battle and spiritual warfare.  We often think of Lent as being primarily about Jesus’ suffering–and that’s certainly a part of it, especially later in Lent.  But the first three weeks of this season focus especially on our battle against the devil and demons.  Lent reminds us who the real enemy is.  For too often we get caught up in the wrong fights.  St. Paul reminds us, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”  The enemy is not simply the politicians or the criminals or the cultural elites or China or Russia.  The enemy is Satan and sin.  They are the real threat which we need to be defended against and which must be defeated for us.

    Humanity was devastated in this war when we first fell into sin in the Garden of Eden.  Our very humanity was ripped away from us as our first parents were lured away from God, enticed into thinking they could become like God themselves.  Stepping outside of the protective, life-giving fortress of God’s Word, the devil ravaged and plundered them and all of their descendants, right down to us.  By causing you to rebel against God, to go your own self-serving way, the Goliath Satan won a big battle.  As the hymn said, “On earth is not his equal.”  He loves to taunt you and terrify you with the death you deserve because of your sin.  

    However, then suddenly there appears someone new on the field of battle, the Son of David.  He comes to fight on your behalf.  “But for us fights the Valiant One, whom God Himself elected.  Ask ye who is this?  Jesus Christ it is.  Of Sabaoth Lord, and there’s none other God.  He holds the field forever.”  Jesus stands in for you and fights off all the onslaughts of the devil in your place and conquers him decisively.

    It’s all prefigured and foreshadowed and prophesied for us in the fight between David and Goliath.  The children of Israel lived in fear of the Philistine army because the Philistines had this soldier more than nine feet tall on their side, who wore armor heavier than most men could even manage.  For 40 days this Goliath came out and taunted the Israelite soldiers, challenging them, “Send someone out to fight me.  If he defeats me, we will be your slaves.  But if I defeat him, then you will be our slaves.”  No Israelite soldier could be found willing to fight Goliath.  

    But then a young man named David heard this giant who blasphemed God and mocked God's people.  And with the permission of King Saul, David went out to fight Goliath, bringing with him only a slingshot and five smooth stones.  The giant man laughed when he saw David, who was little more than half his size, and tried to intimidate him with some trash talk, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks? . . . Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!”  But David relied not on his own strength, but on the strength of God.  He said, “I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts . . .  The battle is the Lord’s, and He will give you into our hands.”  As the Philistine moved towards David, David ran towards the giant, putting a stone into his sling.  And he slung it and struck Goliath between the eyes, so that the stone sank into his forehead, and the Philistine fell on his face to the ground.

    You are like the army of Israel, intimidated by the devil’s threats, unable to overcome him, unable to find anyone who is worthy to fight the Goliath Satan.  But then the Son of David steps forth, Christ Jesus, to do battle with the blasphemous giant.  He appears to be no match for the devil, for He is there in weak human flesh with no weapons but the five smooth stones of the books of Moses.  Christ fights not with human power but with the power of the living God.  After 40 days the devil rushes in to attack, and with each onslaught Jesus slings back the smooth stone of God’s Word. Satan says, “Forget this silly self-denial that your Father has placed upon you.  Command that these stones become bread.”  But Jesus responds, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’”  Satan says, “Come on!  Let’s see if the Scriptures are really true.  Put on a little display to prove it.  Throw yourself down from this temple.”  Jesus answers, “It is written, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’”  Again, Satan says, “You can skip the suffering and get right to being the glorious ruler of the world if you just fall down and worship me.”  But Jesus gives the final rebuttal, “Away with you Satan!  For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.’” The Son of David reaches into the five books of Moses, and each time he slings the single stone of Deuteronomy.  And the stone sinks into the forehead, and the Goliath Satan falls with his face to the ground, defeated.  Those who refuse to bow before the Lord in life will most certainly bow with their faces to the ground in death.

    When the Philistine had fallen to the earth, David ran and took the giant’s own sword and used it to cut off his head.  In the same way, Jesus, the Son of David, uses the devil’s own weapons to bring about his eternal defeat.  Satan’s favorite tool is death and the fear of death.  He tries to scare you into all sorts of false belief and idolatry to try to get you to evade or ignore death.  In particular he thinks that by crucifying Christ, he will be victorious over Him.  But in fact, it is precisely through death that Jesus brings about Satan’s downfall.  For through the cross the Lord takes away the sin that gives Satan his deathly power over you.  Then Jesus rises to life again to break sin’s curse.  It’s no longer “dust to dust” but “dust to life” for those who trust in Christ.  Your death is now simply a precursor to your bodily resurrection with Jesus.  For He came forth from the grave eternally triumphant over death and the devil for you.  Satan falls into His own death trap.  Jesus, by His cross  and resurrection, has fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy and crushed Satan’s head.  Like Goliath, the devil is decapitated by his own sword.  No longer can the devil cause you any lasting or eternal harm.  For you have been baptized into Christ the conqueror.  The serpent may still hiss and squirm and convulse in his final perishing twitches.  But ultimately he can’t touch you; you have the victory in Christ.

    Finally, when the Philistines saw that Goliath was dead, they fled in fear.  And the Israelites pursued them and routed them.  In the same way, in Christ you now have the power to send the hordes of hell into retreat in the final skirmishes that must yet be fought.  You have the means to master and vanquish the foe.  For the Lord says, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”  “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you.”  “Put on the whole armor of God . . .  Take up the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one.  And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.”  When you are in the wilderness–tempted to feed your own desires rather than to be faithful to God, enticed into putting God to the test to make Him prove Himself to you rather than trusting the promises of His Word, lured to seek after the approval of this world rather than the approval of God–you have at your disposal the very same things that Christ did in the wilderness.  He gives you His righteousness and His salvation as a shield and armor to protect you from the blows of the evil one.  You have the saber of the Word, with which you can run the devil through.  For the Word of God is living and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword.  And when you call upon Christ in prayer and faith, you are calling upon one who can sympathize with your weaknesses, one who was in all points tempted as you are, yet without sin.  He will certainly hear and answer your prayers.  God will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape for you into the mighty fortress of Christ.

    Jesus went through all this testing and temptation not just to be your example; He did this in your place, on your behalf.  Here is the key point:  Christ has carried your human flesh into temptation, and He has triumphed. He has prevailed over sin, over the devil, over death, all for you.  Where Adam was defeated in humanity’s first battle, Jesus the Son of David is victorious; in Him the war is won.  And He gives you His victory as a gift through faith in His name.  In Him, the words of the Psalm come true, “You shall tread upon the lion and the cobra; the young lion and the serpent you shall trample underfoot.”

    Truly then, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”  And today you receive not just bread alone, but bread which is Christ, the Word made flesh.  In His preaching and His supper, He Himself comes to dwell within you and strengthen you.  Fellow Christians, in the midst of your testings and temptations and battles, never forget what the Word says, “The battle is the Lord’s.”  “Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.”

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

Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God

Psalm 51; 2 Samuel 12:13-14
Ash Wednesday

    The text for this evening’s sermon is Psalm 51 which we prayed a few minutes ago, and also these verses from 2 Samuel 12: David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”  And Nathan said to David, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. However, because by this deed you have given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also who is born to you shall surely die.”

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

    He was a man of great power and authority, highly respected by the people.  But He had used his position to have an affair with another man’s wife.  He committed adultery.  She became pregnant.  When nothing else seemed to resolve the situation, he plotted to have her husband killed–quite by accident, of course.  The plan worked.  He took her to be his wife.  This man was the ruler of Israel, King David.

    But this was not the end of the story for King David.  God sent a prophet to him named Nathan to confront him with his sin.  Nathan unmasked David’s scheming and deceptive iniquity, cutting him to the heart with words of divine anger and judgment.  David was laid bare as one who had sinned against God.

    What we have before us here in Psalm 51 is David’s penitential plea to God following Nathan’s visit.  These are David’s anguished words of confession.  As we now enter the penitential season of Lent, it is certainly appropriate that we pray and make these words our own and consider well their meaning for our lives.

    The Psalm begins with the only words a sinner can say who wants to be forgiven and delivered from God’s judgment:  Have mercy on me.  God isn’t obligated to forgive you just because you’ve asked.  That's not how it works, as if God is a vending machine, and you just pop in the coin of your confession, and out pops the forgiveness you want. There’s nothing you can do or say to climb your way out of this.  All you can do is appeal to His mercy and pray for His favor.  Your destiny is entirely up to Him.

    “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.”  You appeal to God’s mercy because you know better than anyone else how you’ve fallen short of God’s glory.  What may be hidden and secret from others is all too apparent to you.    Your sin is constantly visible to you, despite your best efforts to forget it or overcome it.

    David continues, “Against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” On the surface of it, King David had transgressed primarily against Bathsheba and her husband.  Murder and adultery are certainly not private wrongs.  And yet David gets to the heart of the matter when he confesses that his sin was pre-eminently against the Lord.  He had ignored God and rejected God’s ways in doing this.  David had made himself to be his own god.  That was the core problem.

    So also, when you sin, it may be against yourself or others, but first and foremost it is against the Lord.  Every broken commandment is ultimately broken in rebellion against God.  When people act selfishly, God is being pushed out of His #1 spot.  When people abuse the Lord’s name, they’re abusing the Lord Himself.  When they fail to remember the Sabbath Day, they’re despising the Lord’s Word.  When they dishonor parents and other authorities, they’re dishonoring God who gave those people their authority.  When they harm their neighbors or fail to help them, they’re rejecting God’s gift of human life.  When they engage in wrongful sexual thoughts or behavior, they’re forsaking God’s gift of marriage.  When they take what belongs rightly to others, they are disregarding God as the Giver of all possessions.  When they gossip, they’re taking away the good name God has given a person.  When they envy and covet, they show dissatisfaction with what God has provided.  Against God and God only have you sinned.

    David explains why this is, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”  Right from the very moment you came into existence, this rebellion against God adhered to your being.  All of humanity has a nature that is stained with the fall.  It’s called original sin, a doctrine confirmed by the experience of every parent trying to raise a 2 year old.  No one is able by nature to have true reverence for God and true faith in God.  All are subject to His eternal wrath.

    What then are you to do?  The same as David did.  “Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to Me with all your heart.”  For now is the time of God’s favor.  Now is the day of salvation.  “Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  The Psalmist pleaded, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love.”  That is what keeps us from despair and gives us strength for repentance, the sure hope we have in God’s love which does not fail.  The Lord does not delight in executing wrath but in showing mercy to those who repent.

    David prayed, “According to your great compassion, blot out my transgressions.”  The imagery here is of a book with a listing of all your sin being completely erased and wiped clean.  And such is exactly what God did for you in His only Son, our Lord Jesus.  Colossians 2 proclaims, “God forgave (you) all (your) sins, having canceled the written code . . . that was against (you); He took it away, nailing it to the cross.”  Jesus erased your name from the document sentencing you to eternal death and put His own name there instead.  On Calvary the sentence was fully meted out.  Your transgressions were wiped away.  For Jesus stood in your place.  Just as the infant son of David was the one who died and paid the price for David’s sins, so also Jesus, the Son of David died for your sins and paid the price for the sins of the whole world.

    Christ never broke any of the commandments, kept the Law from the heart, and yet He was counted as the Great Transgressor in His baptism and crucifixion so that the unholy world might be counted as righteous before God through faith.  To put it another way, the words of this Psalm were made to be the words of Jesus.  He cried out on your behalf, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love.  According to your great compassion, blot out my transgressions.”  He who knew no sin spoke these anguished words of confession in your stead.  For your sake, no mercy was shown to Him on Good Friday, but we know from Easter morning that His cry was heard.  Through Jesus, then, your prayer to God for mercy is answered affirmatively, “Yes, you have My mercy and forgiveness.”

    This forgiveness is cleansing, like a filthy garment being purified.  “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.”  In Old Testament times, when a leper was to be pronounced clean, a hyssop plant was dipped in sacrificial blood and sprinkled on the leper seven times.  Then he was clean.  So you too have been made clean from a leprosy of the soul by the blood of Christ sprinkled on you.  I John 1 proclaims, “The blood of Jesus, (God’s) Son, cleanses us from all sin.”  God’s mercy in Christ is like a renewing shower, a baptismal washing that rinses away the dirt of sin and makes you pure in His sight.  God says through His prophet Isaiah, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.  Though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”

    David prayed, “Create in me a pure heart, O God.”  His prayer was answered when Nathan announced to him, “The Lord has taken away your sin.”  The prophet’s words accomplished what they said.  So also God creates in you a pure heart by the living words of Christ spoken in the absolution, “I forgive you all your sins.”  God’s Spirit creates in you and gives to you a new heart, the heart of Christ.  For His body and blood are truly fed into you with all of their renewing power.  A heart in which Christ dwells by faith is pure.  He lives in you and through you with a willing spirit of service and love towards others.  His gracious presence restores to you the joy of your salvation.

    Brothers and sisters of Christ, return to the Lord with all your heart this Lenten season.  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up.  Take comfort in knowing that the sacrifice God is looking for is a broken spirit.  As Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  God will not despise a broken and penitent heart.

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

Sight for the Blind

Luke 18:31-43

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

The disciples in today’s Gospel don’t seem to be particularly bright, do they.  Jesus takes them aside and gives them a heads-up, spelling out for them exactly what’s about to happen:  They are going up to Jerusalem, where Jesus will be mocked and insulted and spit upon and scourged and killed.  And the third day He will rise again.  It couldn’t be laid out any more clearly than that.  But the disciples just don’t have the ability to understand it.  It doesn’t fit in with their way of thinking about Jesus, and so it goes right over their heads; they clearly don’t get it.

But don’t look down on the disciples.  Rather, be warned.  For if it could happen to them when they were right there in the visible presence of Jesus, it can also happen to us.  We shouldn’t look at them and say “How foolish!”  We should rather look at ourselves with some godly fear and humility and ask, “What is it that I don’t get?  What is it about Jesus or about myself that I’m blind to?”  Think about how it sometimes is in your earthly relationships, with a friend or spouse or family member.  You’ve probably had the experience of having a blind spot–something about yourself or something you were doing that you failed to recognize which ended up becoming a big issue.  Isn’t it possible for that to be the case also in your relationship with God?  The fact of the matter is that in our fallen condition, we are all spiritually blind.  Our vision is clouded and darkened to the truth, even though it might be sitting there right in front of us.  

First, without the clear mirror of God’s Law, we don’t see our own sin rightly.  We know we have a few flaws and problems, but we’re blind to how utterly deep the corruption goes in us, and how it taints everything about us.  We can see it a little better in others, all the issues that everyone else has whom we live and work with.  But the justifications and excuses we make for ourselves inevitably obscure our vision and block a clear self-diagnosis.  

And perhaps even worse, apart from the clear proclamation of the Gospel, we don’t see Jesus rightly.  He gets turned into some other figure whom we can fit into our agendas–the Messiah who’s on our side in political causes, the guru who helps us to cope and live a happier lifestyle, the guide who provides the example for how we can make ourselves righteous, the coach who helps us to get where we want to be.  You can tell you have a false Jesus, though, when He’s only a means to an end.  In the Bible, Jesus is the end–He’s the goal; He’s everything that we’re seeking.  He is Himself the Truth and the Life.  He’s not merely our guide to lead us somewhere greater.  For there is nowhere greater than fellowship with God in Christ.

So as we ponder today’s Gospel, let us remember what we confess in the Catechism about the 3rd article of the Creed, “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.  But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts (“enlightened” means that He’s given light to our eyes so that we can rightly see), sanctified and kept me in the truth faith.”  If we do have proper vision about ourselves and about Jesus, it’s entirely a gift of God’s grace by His Word and Spirit.  Remember this, too, as you talk about the faith with others, particularly if they seem to be a little bit unclear and unable to understand what you’re saying.  Have patience; for only the Holy Spirit can open their eyes.

In today’s Gospel, the one with the best vision, who sees Jesus rightly, is the blind man.  Maybe that’s because all that he has to go by is His ears.  It’s the Word that he heard about Jesus that is the key thing for him.  And faith comes by hearing the Word of Christ.  Let us learn to be like this beggar–empty-handed before God, with nothing to give Him that He should accept us, desiring the vision that only He can impart.

The blind man heard a great crowd passing by and asked what it all meant.  When they told him that Jesus of Nazareth was with them, the blind man cried out and shouted with a loud voice, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  This shows that the blind man already had faith in Jesus.  “Son of David” is a title for the Messiah.  This blind man believed the Word that he had heard about Jesus.  Even without earthly sight, the blind man could see Jesus was the Promised One.  He believed that Jesus could heal him; even more, he believed that Jesus was the Christ, who had come to redeem His people.  

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  This is our prayer, too, throughout the liturgy.  Kyrie eleison, Lord, have mercy.  It is the prayer of beggars looking for help and gifts as the King comes near.  “O Christ the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us.”  This is not just a prayer for when you’re in church but for every day.  When you see someone in trouble or acting foolishly, you can pray for them simply by saying, “Lord, have mercy.”  When you yourself are in trouble or need, when you’re about to go into surgery, when a relationship is on the rocks or you don’t know how you’re going to pay the bills, you can pray, “Lord, have mercy on me.”  And even when everything’s going great for you, you’re healthy and prosperous, after your prayers of thanksgiving, it is still good to pray “Lord, have mercy on me” lest you fall into complacency and spiritual laziness or pride and self-congratulation.  Let this prayer be a regular part of the conversation of your heart, so that in the hour of death you may confidently say, “Lord, have mercy,” and know that He will.  His mercy is everything for you.

Now the crowds here don’t much like this prayer of the blind man.  They warn him that he should shut up.  It’s impolite.  He’s being annoying, crying out that way.  It’s like those people who think it’s fine that you’re a Christian, as long as you keep it a purely private matter.  “I don’t care what you believe, as long as it doesn’t bother me.”  But when the exercise of your faith goes against the flow of their desires and plans, or when the confession of your faith becomes a nuisance to them, that’s when people start telling you to shut up and pipe down and don’t carry things so far.

However, faith is stubborn and persistent.  Faith won’t let anything get in the way of life in Jesus or prayer to Him.  Faith doesn’t care what people think or what they will say, because it seeks a gift infinitely greater than worldly approval.  Faith is not ashamed and will not be silenced.  And so the blind man cries out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And notice this wonderful statement in the Gospel.  When the blind man speaks these words, it is written that “Jesus stood still.”  It’s like when you’re doing something, and then people having a conversation nearby say your name.  Suddenly, you tune in to what they’re saying.  In the same way, this prayer of the blind man turns Jesus around and draws His undivided attention.  It stops Him in His tracks.  Isn’t that marvelous!?  Jesus stood still.  He doesn’t mind that proper decorum has been breached.  At the sound of this prayer, Jesus commands that the blind man be brought to Him. 
And He asks him, “What do you want Me to do for you?”  Now why would He ask that?  God knows what you need even before you ask Him.  In fact, He knows your needs better than you do.  But He asks anyway in order that the blind man may exercise his faith with a specific prayer.  Jesus wants to hear from you in your own voice what is on your mind and heart. He wants you to verbalize your desires, like a little child learning to speak to his father and use his words to ask for help.  In verbalizing your prayers, they become concrete and focused.  Prayer is one of the primary ways in which you exercise your faith, that you may learn to look to the Lord for all that you need and see that every good gift comes from His hand.

In response to Jesus’ question, the blind man answers, “Lord, that I may receive my sight.”  Jesus says to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.”  And immediately he can see.  The blind man’s eyes are opened, and what is the first sight that he sees?  The face of His Savior.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”  The blind man’s heart is pure, for it trusts in Jesus who alone is pure.  Through this faith he is made well; he sees God.

Now this doesn’t mean that if God doesn’t give you 20/20 vision when you ask for it, then you don’t have enough faith.  It’s best not to focus on your believing, but on the One you’re believing in.  Faith in Jesus receives everything as a gift, not as a demand that He has to fulfill.  Sometimes God says “no” to what we ask for because he wants to teach us patience or make room for greater gifts.  Sometimes He knows that what we are asking for will harm us and endanger our salvation.  We can’t know the mind of God ahead of time.  So we pray trusting that Jesus will hear our prayers and do what is truly best for us.

Like all of Jesus’ miracles, this healing wasn’t just talk or an easy wave of the hands.  It cost Him his life on the cross. There Jesus won healing and restoration for you, too, by bearing your physical ailments and infirmities, your sin and pain and sorrow, suffering them all to death in His holy body.  And He shares that miracle with all who cry out to Him in beggar faith.  Jesus hung on a cross in the darkness, blinded by death, in order to bring healing and the light of His resurrection to the world.

Know, then, that the Lord hears your prayers, even when they seem to go unanswered.  Ultimately they have all been answered “yes” in Jesus’ dying and rising.  For now we walk by faith in that truth; but on the Last Day our faith will turn to sight, just like the man in the Gospel.  For on the Last Day every disorder in you will done away with–from failing vision to poor hearing, from arthritis to anxiety and depression, from heart disease to cancer; sin and death will be eradicated completely, and the Great Physician will raise you bodily to share in His own glory and life.  

When the blind man received his sight, he followed Jesus on the road to Jerusalem and the cross.  As we prepare to enter Lent, then, let us follow Jesus, too, and walk with Him on the way of love’s sacrifice.  And let us also remember what happened afterwards on that first Easter evening.  The Emmaus disciples walked the road with Jesus and talked with Him without recognizing Him, blind to who He was.  But when Jesus broke bread with them, then He was no longer hidden to their eyes.  So it is also now.  Here your eyes are opened, and Jesus is made known to you in the breaking of the bread.  His body and blood are given and shed for you.  His forgiveness covers your past and your former blindness.  When the final Easter comes, you will hear Him say to you, “Your faith has saved you; receive your sight.”  And then you, too, will behold the face of God.

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

The Seed is the Word

Luke 8:4-15

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

There’s a reason why Jesus told the parable in today’s Gospel.  He didn’t just randomly decide to tell a story about a sower and a seed.  Something was happening, and the disciples needed to understand what was going on.  It’s important for us to pay attention to the context of this story.

It is written here that a great multitude had gathered around Jesus and that people had come to Him from every city.  Everyone had heard about Him and wanted to see Him.  And so Jesus proclaims this parable to make something clear, especially to the twelve.  They might have been getting a little puffed up, thinking that this was going to be just one big victory procession, everything seemed to be going so successfully.  Jesus speaks a parable that gives a dose of reality.  He says that there are four possible outcomes to the hearing of the Word, and only one of them is good.  For three out of four hearers, the Word of God comes to no lasting effect.  The apostles are sometimes going to experience more failure than success, more rejection than acceptance in the long run.  They shouldn’t be fooled by the large crowds coming out to see Jesus.  Big numbers don’t mean anything.  Not all of them were believers.

In fact, remember that there actually came a point in Jesus’ own ministry when the crowds stopped following Him; all He had left were the 12 disciples, and even one of them would turn away from Him and betray Him.  After the feeding of the 5000, Jesus had been teaching how the bread that He would give for the life of the world was His flesh, and how His flesh was real food and His blood was real drink (John 6:55).  That was too hard for the people to accept; Jesus went from 5000+ down to only 12 followers.  Finally Jesus asked the 12, “Do you also want to go away?”  Peter replied in those familiar words, “Lord, to whom shall we go?  You have the words of eternal life.”

And that’s where we can find some comfort, especially in this little flock called Mt. Zion.  When everything is going great in terms of numbers, we can be tempted to self–absorbed pride; when things are going poorly in terms of numbers, we can be tempted to self-absorbed despair.  But what we must finally cling to in both cases is not outward signs of success, but the sure promise that the Word of Christ is living and powerful to fulfill its purpose.  Sometimes the purpose of the Word is to reveal the unbelieving heart. That’s why we have those unsettling words in the Gospel, when it says that Jesus spoke in parables so that, “seeing, they may not see, and hearing, they may not understand.”  Blindness and deafness to the Word unveils God’s judgment.  But above all, the Word of God is sent to give life and joy to us descendants of Adam created from the dirt.  God said through the prophet Isaiah, “(My word that goes forth from My mouth) shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.”

The going forth of God’s Word is like the scattering of seed on all different kinds of soil.  God scatters the seed of His Word recklessly, freely, even on places where there seems little hope of a harvest.  For in His love He desires all to be saved.  The Lord’s Word is alive with His Spirit to give life even to the worst of soils.

First, like the hardened, foot-worn path, some people become hardened to the Word of God.  Perhaps they’ve been “walked all over” in their lives, mistreated, abused.  Or they’ve been pressed down and wearied by the struggles and difficulties of life.  They say, “Where has God been for me?  Why should I even listen to His Word?”  Or Satan has pressed and hardened some with his lies about the Word as being untrustworthy, or that it’s foolish superstition, or that it’s all just a power play by church officials to manipulate people.  And so the Word goes in one ear and out the other, like seed bouncing off a dirt road. The birds of the air snatch it away–which is a reminder of that passage which describes the devil as the prince of the power of the air.  Think of all the stuff that flies across our airwaves which seeks to counter the truth of God’s Word, to make you doubt it or reject it.  For the first group, then, the Word doesn’t penetrate the heart and bear fruit and do what it has the power to do.

Be on guard, therefore, against inattentive and unserious listening to the Word of God.  Martin Luther once wrote that the third commandment is not only violated by those who don’t come to church each week as the commandment requires, but it is also violated by those who do come to church, but only from force of habit or out of compulsion, who listen to it like they would listen to entertainment, and then who leave church no different than when they came in.  On the other hand, Luther said, “when we seriously ponder the Word, hear it, and put it to use, such is its power that it never departs without fruit. It always awakens new understandings, pleasure, and devotion, and it constantly creates clean hearts and minds. For the Word is not idle or dead, but effective and living.”

In the second instance, in the planting of the Seed on the rocky soil, there’s the listening that hears and rejoices, believes and thanks God, and yet it’s only a shallow, good-times faith. When the bad-times come along–and they always do sooner or later–the person lets go of the Word and their faith withers and dies. One of the purposes of hearing the Word regularly–weekly, even daily–is  to store up in your heart and mind those passages that will see you through the hard times with your faith intact. The Word has the power to do it, if we don’t let it go. So often this happens when bad times come–people stop going to church, stop listening to the Word, and then they’re surprised when their faith grows weaker and weaker and finally dies. Remember: faith is never something you can keep alive inside yourself. It only comes from hearing and holding the Word of God.

Thirdly, our Lord reminds us that even folks who listen to the Word, can still lose it, if they let it get crowded out of their lives by the thorns.  Jesus says the thorns are the cares, riches, and pleasures of life–which is odd because usually when you think of thorns, you think of something that’s painful, something that hurts.  And yet the thorns Jesus mentions include riches and pleasures, which seem to be the opposite of pain!  But experience teaches that Jesus’ words are true.  For, in fact, the things that promise us the most pleasure end up bringing us the most pain.  The things of this world give a temporary happiness but leave us with a lasting sadness and emptiness if we set our hearts on them.  These thorns can sedate us into apathy and cause a choking of the Word of God, squeezing it into an ever smaller place in our lives until in the end we don’t really hear it at all.

But then our Lord reminds us that it is possible to hear His Word in such a way that it bears abundant fruit. He describes those hearts that hear and hold fast the Word as honest and good.  How did those hearts get to be honest and good?  Well certainly not of themselves.  All of us are by nature the first three soils.  Only the Word and Holy Spirit of God has the power to till up and clear the soil and renew our hearts.  If, as the Apostle says, faith in Jesus is what purifies the heart, and faith comes by hearing the Word of God, then our hearts will be “honest and good” in no other way than by that Word making its home inside of us, and creating in us a clean heart–the heart of Christ.  

Here’s really the best way to think of it:  Jesus is Himself the perfect fourth soil.  He is the eternal Word of God, the Seed, having taken root in the earth of our humanity–fully human but entirely without the rocks and thorns and hardness of sin.  

This Word became flesh and bore all that has infested your soil.  Jesus was planted in this world by His heavenly Father to save and redeem you.  Behold how this Seed is cast to the earth, how Jesus the Word is thrown onto the wayside, the way of sorrows, where he is dragged to His cross, mocked in His suffering like the crowing of scavenging ravens.  But notice that the birds of the air do not devour Jesus’ body, as was often the case with other crucified criminals who would be left for the animals to consume.  This Seed is hurled upon the rocky ground of Golgotha, where he lacked moisture and cried out, “I thirst!”  But in spite of his suffering and thirst, this Seed would not wither away permanently.  And Jesus was even crowned with thorns, the very symbol of Adam’s curse; yet this Seed would not be choked out of existence, but would rise again.  A Seed has to die, if it is to rise out of the earth and bear much fruit.  The fruit of Jesus’ suffering is your salvation.

In this way our Lord has overcome all that stands against you, all that keeps you from having life, all that keeps you from growing to maturity.  In Christ you are free from hard-heartedness and the rocks of shallow faith and the thorns of this world.  In Christ alone you are the holy fourth soil, pure and righteous and fruitful and forgiven.  In you, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Word of God is implanted.  You have been watered with the Word in your baptism.  And the Word is sown in the soil of your body, placed on your very tongues, in the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.  The power of God to give life is in the Seed.  And the Seed of the Word is in you and with you and for you, the Word of the Father who wants you with all His heart to share forever in His life.

Let us, then, be eager to confess this Word with our mouths before the world.  Let the scattering of the holy Seed continue outside of these walls, out in the daily callings that God has placed you in.  Let the Word accomplish its purpose with your unchurched or de-churched friends and family.  Invite them in to divine service, to adult instruction classes.  Together with them, let us all seek the Lord while He may be found, and call upon Him, for He is near; His Word is here.  Return to the Lord, for He will have mercy on you, and He will abundantly pardon.  His grace in Christ is more than sufficient for you, even in the midst of your weakness.  For His strength is made perfect in the weakness of the cross.  “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”

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

I Will Give You Whatever is Right

Matthew 20:1-16

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

Jesus tells us a parable today that He knows is going to make us grumble if we’re really paying attention.  He is deliberately setting us up by telling a story that strikes us as unfair.  How can we not side with the workers in this story who feel cheated because they worked, in some cases, twelve times as long as other workers – including working at the hottest time of day – only to get paid the same wages?

No labor union would endorse this parable.  Nobody who has ever been treated by a boss unequally compared to other co-workers is likely to be happy with the ending of this tale.  It just sounds like some kind of propaganda designed to justify unfair labor practices, a perpetuation of the power of wealthy business owners to lord it over those who must work with their hands for a living.

The workers who felt cheated “grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’” We can resonate with that, and with the children of Israel in the Old Testament reading, unhappy with the leadership of Moses, who brought them out into the desert with no plan as to how they would drink water.  We would likely be grumbling right along with them.

But when we grumble at what has or hasn’t been given to us, when we grumble because we covet what has been given to others, we are really grumbling at God Himself.  We are saying to Him: “You don’t know what You’re doing; You should be doing things My way.”

But the children of Israel did get water to drink.  For God was with them and had not forsaken them but was testing them.  By God’s grace and mercy, Moses delivered water out of the rock.  We are told in today’s Epistle that “they drank from the same spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ,” who allowed Himself to be struck with a spear on the cross so that living water would wash away the sins even of grumblers.

Jesus explains what the kingdom of heaven is like by reminding us grumblers that God is in charge; He determines what is fair, and He gives according to His will, His mercy, and His bountiful goodness.  All things belong to Him, and we have no claim on anything.  And really, if God is merciful to someone else, how does that affect us negatively anyway?–any more than if an employer were to give a needy coworker a special bonus just out of the kindness of his heart.  God owns everything.  Is He not allowed to do what He chooses with what belongs to Him?  Who are we to begrudge His generosity?

It’s important to remember in this parable, though, that no one was treated unfairly.  No injustice was done.  The first workers got a fair day’s wage.  That was good and right.  It’s just that the others were the recipients of the landowner’s great generosity.  People might expect that Jesus’ message would be different, that He would side with the workers seeking equal pay for equal work.  However, it turns out that Jesus is like the landowner who has every right to do what He wants with His own things and to be generous to whom He wants to be generous.

You could try to make a political point out of this parable about socialism or capitalism or liberalism or conservatism.  But, of course, that would be missing the main point of this parable, which is not about politics or economics but about what the kingdom of heaven is like.  Jesus says that in God’s kingdom, “The last will be first, and the first last.”  Jesus says that “fairness” according to the ways of the world is not how His kingdom operates.  In fact, it’s turned upside down.  Those who think God owes them something more than what He’s given are gravely mistaken.  His ways are both just and gracious.

Here’s really the key spiritual point to take from the Gospel reading: the difference between the first laborers and the later laborers is that the first had a specific contract, a legal compact, with the landowner, whereas the last workers had nothing specific, just a promise that the landowner would give them whatever is right.  That’s a big difference, isn’t it.  Would you work for someone without knowing in advance what your wage was going to be?  You might.  It depends on the character of the one hiring you, doesn’t it.  Is the person greedy or generous?  Are they trustworthy or not?  Is it a stingy next door neighbor wanting to get their snow shoveled on the cheap, or is it grandma and grandpa looking for an excuse to give their grandchild a big gift?

So you might say that the first laborers were operating under the Law, and the later laborers were operating under the Gospel.  The first laborers were relying on their own works, the last laborers were living by faith in the goodness of the landowner.  That’s why the last are first, because their confidence is not in themselves but in the Lord and what He does.  Remember what the landowner said, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”  The Lord is good, and His mercy endures forever.  

The truth is, we should thank God daily that He doesn’t judge us by what is fair; He doesn’t give us what we deserve.  For we deserve death and hell.   We may be considered good people in a worldly sense.  But how often have we been idle and lazy in doing good works?  Have any of our words or deeds perhaps even done damage to Christ’s vineyard?  We deserve wrath.  “The wages of sin is death.”  However, because of and through the atoning work of Jesus, God shows mercy to us.  He is free to do good to us which we have not merited or deserved.  In the death of Jesus, justice (what is fair) and grace (what is undeserved) come together.  At Golgotha, the just punishment for sin is carried out.  Justice is done; Jesus pays the price.  And at the same time grace overflows.  Your sins are forgiven; you are treated as if you worked perfectly and tirelessly all day.  The merits of Jesus are credited to you.  “The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

He who is the first and the greatest humbled Himself to be the last of all on the holy cross.  He Himself is the one who bore the burden and the heat of the day that brings us the generous reward of salvation.  Jesus was handed over to Pontius Pilate at dawn, crucified at the third hour of the day; darkness covered the land at the sixth hour, noon.  Our Lord died at the ninth hour as the perfect and complete sacrifice for our sin.  He was buried at the eleventh hour of the day just before sundown.  So see how the work was all done for you, simply for you to receive by faith.  Hear again those words from the cross, “It is finished.”

One more point: Very often when we hear this parable of the laborers in the vineyard, those of us who have been lifelong Christians and lifelong Lutherans like to think of ourselves as having worked the whole day.  We didn’t come to faith later in life; we were baptized as infants and have been a part of the church right from the very beginning.  And that’s certainly an acceptable application of this parable–although it is also a warning.  Remember what happened to those hired at dawn!  Let us never grumble at the grace of God shown to sinners and to those who repent and receive the denarius of salvation later in life!  

But there’s another way to think about and apply this parable, too.  And that is that we ourselves are actually among the last workers hired.  Those who have really borne the burden and the heat of the day in the Church have come before us in history.  We’re not the ones who fought the early heresies and formed the Scriptural Creeds of the Church.  We’re not the ones who faced the power of emperors and the power of popes, risking death for our faith (though that day may soon be coming).  We’re not the ones who crossed oceans and sacrificed everything to be able to practice our faith and raise our children according to the truth.  We’re not the ones who preserved the liturgy and penned the great hymns of the Church.  Truly an astonishingly rich heritage has been handed down to us which we are privileged to carry on.  And here we are near the close of the age, at the end of the Day, eagerly waiting for the Last Day, relying on the goodness of the Master, mercifully called to work in the vineyard and to be a part of the one, holy, Christian, apostolic Church.  Truly, it’s all a gift of God’s grace.

Our Lord does what He chooses with what belongs to Him.  And that is true here again today, as Jesus freely chooses to give you His very body and blood, once offered up as the atoning sacrifice for all of your sins.  Here at the altar you all are paid the denarius of salvation, regardless of how long you’ve been in the vineyard.  For in truth we are all those last fortunate workers who just squeaked in, though we do not deserve it.

The Lord is just.  The Lord is gracious.  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

(With thanks to the Rev. Larry Beane)

What do You Do When the Wine Runs Out

Epiphany 2
John 2:1-11

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

What do you do when the wine runs out?  Which is to say, what do you do when the things that brought you pleasure or contentment have reached their end, when the good times are no longer merrily rolling along like they used to and like you assumed they would continue to?  After a long stretch of comfort and ease, sometimes the bottom drops out of life, the happy times turn to sad times, and the joy of life turns to heartache.  Then what?  Just like Cana’s wedding feast was thrown into crisis by this relatively minor embarrassment, we know that it doesn’t always take much to throw our lives out of whack and put us over the edge, to create stress and anxiety and even desperation.  And, of course, sometimes the stuff we’re confronted with is not so minor–financial troubles, broken relationships, a bad diagnosis, the sudden death of a loved one.  What do you do when the wine runs out?

The mother of our Lord shows us the way here.  Whether your concern is something big or something small, the place to turn is to her Son and to trust in Him even when He doesn’t appear at first to care.  Mary knew well who her Son was, how He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, how He was the Son of God and the Savior.  The angel had told her that, and the shepherds.  Simeon had spoken of an hour when a sword would pierce her soul, a mysterious reference to her Son’s death.

But Jesus’ hour had not yet come there in Cana.  The countdown had begun at Jesus’ baptism.  He had three years to live.  He knew His time was short.  The clock was ticking, the battle with the devil had been joined, and He was on His way to redeem fallen mankind.  And then Mary comes at Him with this trivial request, “They have no wine.”  He had a mission to fulfill from His Father.  What did it matter to Him if this wedding reception wasn’t quite as spectacular and successful as the planners had hoped, and the bar ran out of supplies?

So Jesus answers his mother rather abruptly and seems to reject her request.  He really says something worse then “no.”  He says it’s not His concern.  And yet, Mary believed.  She believed that despite Jesus’ seeming apathy about the whole matter, He would still be the One who Helps.  She clung to that truth about her Son; this is what He does–He rescues and helps.  That faith is perhaps an even greater miracle of God than turning water into wine.  After all water gets turned into wine all the time in vineyards and wineries.  It just takes a few months.

The mother of our Lord could hardly have been more indirect with her request, “They have no wine.”  It really wasn’t a request at all; just stating a fact.  The petition was only implied– sort of like  a mother telling her husband or children, “The garbage is full” or “Your bed hasn’t been made.”  What Jesus’ mother was saying of course was: “Do something about this problem.”  Jesus knew what she meant.  And despite appearances, He does not ignore His beloved mother, even as He does not ignore us because of our shyness about praying or our fearfulness or our lack of adequate words.  He hears the prayers of His people.  He knows what we want and what we need.  And, most importantly, He knows what is good.

Jesus is not rude to His mother, but He is direct: “What does your concern have to do with Me?” which is to say, “I’ve got bigger things on my plate.  How is this My problem?”  Not only was this request inconsequential, the people at this party were probably already a little tipsy, anyway.  They didn’t need more wine.  Nor would they appreciate it.  And some of them would surely overdo it.  Who knows what evil would result from more wine.  So whatever it was that Mary was hoping for, at first she was denied.  Jesus did not offer to run to the liquor store.  He did not lament the sadness of a poorly planned wedding and an embarrassed couple.  He did not even bother to lecture her on moderation.  He simply told her that her concern and her request were insignificant in the face of His looming betrayal and suffering and death.

But her response to this rebuke couldn’t be better.  She believed.  Despite the rejection, she believed that Jesus was good, that Jesus would rescue her and the couple in some way.  Because that is what Jesus does.  That is who Jesus is.  This is His story: He is always rescuing people.  So despite the rejection, she believes that nothing, nothing that concerns her is outside of His concern, that no request she makes is actually trivial, and that He hears her and answers her every prayer.  With perfect faith she gives the servants the best advice the world has ever heard: “Whatever He says to you, do it.”  And what a surprise He has in store.

He gives them wine like the world has never known.  The volume was somewhere around 150 gallons of wine.  So we’re talking hundred and hundreds of bottles of wine.  As to the quality, we can only imagine, though we know it was better than the good wine the bridegroom provided at the beginning, the stuff used for their champagne toast.  Jesus gave them the best wine, and an awful lot of it, more than they could have consumed in a single night.  And so what if some was abused and some was wasted and some was thought to have come from the bridegroom?  God gives His gifts to people for them to enjoy them.  He never gives His gifts in hopes that we’ll attach a plaque and remember Him or send a thank you note.  He does not do these things for His pleasure, because it makes Him feel good to help.  He does them for us, because we have need, because He delights in making our hearts glad.  He was not in Cana merely to enjoy Himself.  He was there for the wedding, to give of Himself, to provide His blessing; for that is what we truly need.

And so to this day we rightly pray with Lady Israel, in the way of the blessed Mother of Our God: “They have no wine.”  None of our prayers are trivial to Him.  It’s good to lament to Him and to look to Him for everything: “This life is hard, Lord.  I am sad and tired.  I am unmotivated and frustrated.  I am angry.  I wish, O God, that the world was not always undermining and corrupting what is good.  I wish my job was better, that my home life was more peaceful.  I wish that these annoying pains in my body would go away.  I wish that I could just have a good night’s sleep.  I wish, O God, that there was more wine.”

And what does God say to our little petitions?  It seems, more often than not at first, that what concerns us doesn’t really concern Him.  But we learn in today’s Gospel to trust Him still.  He never ignores His beloved for whom He laid down His life.  He will do what is good.  He will do what is right.  He will surprise you.  Pray away, in boldness and confidence.  Nothing is insignificant to Him if it concerns you, His baptized people.  And if He holds out for a while, do not despair.  If you wait long enough and seek your Lord’s help through your troubles, you will find that the last wine is better than the first.  All your prayers are answered “Yes” in Him.

The Gospel says that Jesus manifested His glory in this miracle.  But John points to an even greater glory of which this miracle was a sign.  In John 12, Jesus refers to His looming crucifixion when He says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”  It is the glory of Christ to give Himself for you in love, to sacrifice His life that you might live.  It was water and wine that were poured out at Cana.  But at Calvary it was water and blood that flowed from Christ’s side to sanctify and cleanse you, that you should be holy and without blemish.  Christ loves you as a groom loves His bride.  He gave Himself up for you that you might be raised up with Him.

There will always be a lack in this world.  Things will always come up short in the end., just like we ourselves do, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  The wine will always run out.  But Jesus came precisely to redeem this sin-cursed world which fails us, and to make all things new and right again.  That’s why it is prophesied in Amos that in the new creation to come, “The mountains shall drip with sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it.”  By the death and resurrection of Christ on the third day–as this miracle occurred on the third day–you are redeemed and restored and given to share in His glory.

God is good.  He knows you and what is good for you.  He will not fail.  You will have wine, your heart will be glad–if not now in all the fullness you desire, then you will have it in the Kingdom to come.  In the meantime, while you wait, remember Mary’s words to the servants. “Do whatever He tells you.”  What He tells you is: “Take, eat.  Drink of it, all of you.  Do this in remembrance of Me.”  Eat the Body of Jesus.  Drink His Blood given and shed for the forgiveness of your sins.  Hear the Word of absolution and have the balm of His resurrection applied generously to your heart.  For this Lord of Life loves you.  It is written, “As the bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.”

Dear bride of Christ, both at Cana and this very day, our Lord has saved the choice wine for last.  He has given His best, and it is all for you.  The servants knew.  The disciples believed.  Let us be numbered among them.  For it is written, “Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” (Rev. 19:9)

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

(With thanks to Erik Rottman and David Petersen)

The Blessed Name

Numbers 6:22-27; Luke 2:21

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

New Year’s Eve has never really struck me as a particularly cheerful holiday in spite of all its festivities.  For we’re marking another year gone by.  And while it is good to reflect on the blessings of God in the year past and give Him thanks, to think about the growth of our children or grandchildren and the new things that have happened and our hopes for the future, more often than not, we don’t like the passage of time.  It takes away what’s familiar and comfortable to us.  It takes away friends and family.  In the end it takes away our health and our life.  And so the Psalmist prays, “Lord, make me to know my end, and what is the measure of my days, that I may know how frail I am. Indeed, You have made my days a mere handbreadth, and my age is as nothing before You; certainly every man at his best state is but vapor.”  It seems to me that the New Year’s celebrations carry a good deal of this melancholy undertone.  

So rather than simply marking the new year today, the church marks the naming and circumcision of Jesus.  This is the [Eve of the] 8th day of Christmas when these things occurred for our Lord.  And in particular I would like to have us meditate on the fullness of the name revealed in the blessing that our Lord speaks to His people, the Benediction given in today’s Old Testament reading.  In our lifetimes we have heard this Benediction spoken hundreds if not thousands of times.  But we don’t always fully consider what these words mean.  We don’t always realize all that our Lord is doing for us with these words.  And so as we observe the naming and circumcision of our Lord, we will focus our attention on this threefold blessing in which our Lord gives His name to us.

First of all, please note that the benediction is not a mere wish, like when we say, “Have a nice day.”  It’s not “May the Lord bless you and keep you.”  It’s “The Lord bless you and keep you.”  It’s an actual giving of a gift.  It’s a real bestowal of what the words say.  God Himself is active through these words.  In the Old Testament reading God directed the priests to speak this benediction; and then He said, “So I shall bless them.”  And it’s the same way still today.  Though the benediction is spoken by a man, it should be understood as the voice of God Himself to you.

Specifically, God says that He will put His name on His people through this triple blessing.  And so for us, the benediction is intimately connected to our baptism.  For that is the place where God first put His threefold name on us and claimed us as His own.  Just like we place our names on things that are important to us, that we don’t want to lose or have stolen, so the Lord marked us with the sign of the cross, and in the water He inscribed His name on us as His own treasured, precious possession.  He doesn’t want to lose us.  And so we have on us the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

In a very real way, then, the benediction re-applies and confirms us in our baptism.  Even as we became His people with the threefold application of His name, so also we depart divine service with the threefold application of His name, to live as His people out in the stations of life where He has put us.

Each of the three parts of the benediction correspond to the three persons of the Holy Trinity.  First, we receive the blessing of the Father with these words, “The Lord bless you and keep you.”  Notice that He’s the one who does the keeping.  While we do cling to Him by faith, the greater truth is that He is keeping and holding on to us.  He keeps us in the faith through His Word and Spirit so that we may endure in the faith to the end and be saved.  It’s like a father holding on to the hand of his child as they walk together across a slippery patch of snow and ice.  The child may be holding on to Dad, but what really counts is that Dad is holding on to his child, especially when the child slips.  That’s the only thing that will keep the child from falling.  So also, God the Father holds on to us, so that even when we slip, we won’t fall away from Him.  That’s how the Father blesses us–not only does He give us life and sustain our lives in this world, but He also gives us everlasting life in Christ, and by the Holy Spirit He keeps us with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.  James 1 reminds us, “Every good and perfect gift comes down from above, from the Father of lights.”

Second, we receive the blessing of God the Son with these words, “The Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you.”  Jesus is the face of the Father, as He said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.”  In the humble Jesus in the manger, in the Word made flesh who willingly submits to the Law of circumcision, we see God in His mercy and love, who comes to redeem us by fulfilling the Law in our place.  The words about the Lord making His face shine on you especially calls to mind Jesus’ transfiguration, where the Scriptures say that His face “shone like the sun.”  And it is also written in II Corinthians, “It is the God who commanded light to shine out of darkness who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”  

For the Lord to make His face shine on you means for Him to accept you and look upon you favorably.  And how could God look on you any more favorably than to send His Son into your flesh and blood to save you from sin and death and to restore your humanity by His cross and resurrection?  Because Christ’s face has shined on you in self-giving love, you are now given to shine in His glory in the resurrection to come.  That is how He is gracious to you–this all comes to you without any merit or worthiness in you but purely out of His grace and goodness.

Thirdly, we receive the blessing of God the Holy Spirit with these words, “The Lord lift up His countenance on you and give you peace.”  Countenance is another word for the face, or more specifically, for the attitude or the expression that is on the face.  So a lifted-up countenance would be a sign of God’s good will toward you.  The opposite would be for Him to turn away from you with an angry countenance and forsake you in hell.  Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, God reveals that His countenance and expression is lifted up toward you because of Jesus.  The Father turned away from Christ on the cross in order to turn toward you in love.  

This is how the Holy Spirit gives you peace.  The word for peace is “shalom.”  It has to do with health and wholeness, with being put right again.  Through the working of the Spirit, you are put right again with God, and with one another.  You are given eternal health and wholeness and life in Christ.  When Jesus spoke of sending the Holy Spirit, He said, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you.  Not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled; neither let them be afraid.”

There’s one final thing to consider regarding this benediction.  And that is the name of God that is used here.  Our translations have it as Lord.  But it is actually the name Yahweh, the name God revealed to Moses in the burning bush.  “Yahweh bless you and keep you; Yahweh make His face shine on you and be gracious to you; Yahweh lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.”  Yahweh means I AM.  It’s the name of the Creator who has always existed, who is, who was, and who will be.  And yet it’s a name that seems also somewhat incomplete.  I am . . .  what?  The good news for us today is that Jesus came to reveal the name of God completely.  He fills in the blank for us.  For He said, “I am the Good Shepherd; I am the Light of the World; I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; I am the Vine.”  I am Jesus, which means, “The Lord saves.”  Though you are cursed under the Law and condemned to eternal death, I am the One who came to redeem you from the curse by being cursed in your place, hung on the tree of the cross.  Even as I first shed blood for you in my circumcision to fulfill the Law, so I poured out my blood for you at Golgotha to cleanse you from all sin.  Now you are released from the curse, forgiven, set free.  You are children of God in Me, the Son of God.

The benediction has been put on God’s people for thousands of years.  And God will continue to bless you with His saving name in the year 2023 and to the very close of the age.  It is one thing that is constant and sure in the midst of this changing and decaying world, even as Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  God grant you His heavenly benediction in the year to come, that you may know His great blessing for all eternity.

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