Friday, December 12, 2014

Vocation and Incarnation

Baccalaureate Service
Concordia University Chicago
December 12, 2014

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

    Last weekend at the Lessons and Carols service, we heard the reading from John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . .  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  This is a foundational truth of the Christian faith–the Son of God took up into Himself your flesh and blood; He became fully human.  He not only became a man, He became man, mankind, all of humanity joined to His divine nature.  This is why the angels sing of peace on earth, good will toward men.  Where the fellowship of God and man had once been ripped apart by sin and the curse, now God and man are rejoined and brought back together again in Christ, literally; for Jesus is both God and man in one undivided person.  Heaven and earth are reunited in Him.

    “The Word became flesh.”  There is the truth that sets you free.  There is no higher honor that God could give to you than to make your flesh His own and to share in your nature.  Jesus is your flesh and blood, your blood brother.  And that is true, of course, not just of you but of every single human being, every person of every tribe and race and nation and language.  There is no human being whose nature Jesus has not shared in.  All of humanity has been graced and exalted by the incarnation, from the unborn in utero to the dying in their last moments.  For Jesus Himself experienced every stage of life on your behalf–a holy embryo in the womb all the way to a holy corpse in the tomb, now bodily risen and glorified for you and for your salvation. 

    This is in great part what gives your vocation meaning, whether your calling is going to be within the church or outside of it–for everyone here.  Those whom you serve are people whose nature the Son of God shares in, whose flesh He has made to be His own.  As a Christian you know that to care for them, to minister to them, to edify their hearts and minds and lives in your work is done as if to Christ Himself.  Now of course, unlike the sinless Jesus, those whom you serve will be ones frankly just like yourself, whose natures are infected with sin, which will manifest itself in many challenging and sometimes painful ways.  But even and especially then, we see in those suffering from sin the One who suffered for sin, who put it to death in His body on the cross in order to take our sin away.  The incarnation of Jesus demonstrates and shows not only that your lives in the flesh are worth living, but that the flesh and blood people around you are worth loving. 

    This is the first half of my message today, that in your various vocations you look at others with Christian faith to see them in the light of the Word made flesh.  Let your work be enlivened by that truth.  Let your desire be that none dismiss Christ in unbelief and thus lose their humanity apart from Him forever, but rather that they come to share fully in the saving reality of who Jesus is and what He has done for them.

    The second half of today’s message is simply the other side of the same coin–that you see
yourself and who you are in the light of the Word made flesh.  Jesus shared in your human life even to the point of death that you may share bodily in His divine resurrection life.  Christ has taken your place in order that you may take His place.  That’s true first of all in the presence of God the Father.  Scripture says, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:26-27).  The Father receives you the same as He receives Jesus.  And that’s also true, then, in the presence of your neighbor.  Your calling is to stand in the place of Christ toward your neighbor, to put on the One who came not to be served but to serve and to give His life, a ransom for many.  The Word became your flesh; and now in baptism you have become His flesh.  Baptized into His body, partaking of His body and blood in Holy Communion, you are His flesh and blood to love and serve others. 

    St. Paul uses this sacramental, baptismal language when he says in Galatians 2, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”  Christ is at work through you in the callings He gives you.  That may be the most readily apparent for you who are going into church work, as you will be given to preach or teach the words of the Word made flesh or uplift them in music.  Pastors actually get to come right out and say it, “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, by His authority, I forgive you all your sins; I baptize you in the name. . .” and so on.  But the fact is that every Christian is given to stand in Christ’s stead according to the duties of your particular calling, to serve as His instruments in both word and deed for the benefit of others and for His glory.

    And once again, at the heart of all of this is the flesh of Christ.  He gives His body and blood for you to consume that you may be filled with His mercy and His life.  And His life is at work in you to offer yourselves to be consumed in merciful, life-giving love.  Romans 12 exhorts us, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.”

    Your vocation is not simply a matter of what you do; it’s about who you are in Christ, and what He is doing through you by His Word and Spirit.  Christ is all in all.  That’s why Jesus can say, “I am the Light of the world,” and then to His Church, “You are the light of the world.”  The light that is radiated is not yours but Christ’s, the love that is shared is not yours but Christ’s, the life that is given is not yours but Christ’s.  It’s all about Jesus, from beginning to end, Alpha and Omega.

    With that in mind, as we give thanks to God for bringing you to this milestone and for the knowledge and skills and wisdom He has imparted to you here for your calling, let me conclude with these words from 1 Corinthians 1.  That Scripture declares, “You are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God–and righteousness and sanctification and redemption–that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

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

Monday, December 8, 2014

Christ and the Burning Bush

Exodus 3:1-14
December 8, 2014
Pastor Aaron A. Koch
Martin Luther High School
Greendale, Wisconsin

    ✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

    *Did you ever notice that today’s reading from Exodus sounds a little like the Christmas account from Luke 2?  There was a shepherd abiding in the field at Mt. Horeb, keeping watch over the flock of his father-in-law Jethro by night.  And behold, the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush.  When shepherd Moses saw it he wondered at the sight; and as he drew near to look, the voice of the Lord came, “I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  And shepherd Moses trembled and hid his face, for the glory of the Lord shone around him, and he was terrified.  And the Angel of the Lord said to Him, “Fear not, for I have surely seen the ill-treatment of My people that are in Egypt and heard their groaning, and I have come down to deliver them.  And now come, I will send you to Egypt, and this will be a sign unto you: this bush that burns with fire and yet is not consumed.” 

    If this account and the account of Christmas seem to have some parallels, they should, for it is the same Lord Jesus who is present in both.  This Angel of the Lord is no ordinary angel.  In fact, this was not really an angel at all in the usual sense of that word.  Usually when we hear the word “angel,” we’re thinking of those created, heavenly beings spoken of in the Scriptures who serve God and do His will.  But since the word “angel” also means “messenger” or “one who speaks the words of God,” it can also refer to men, as in Revelation, where the term “angel” is used to refer to the pastors of the churches.  And here, the term “angel” is used to refer to the Son of God Himself, the ultimate messenger and spokesman of the Father.  For Moses consistently refers to this “Angel” as God.  This is the Angel of the Lord, the second person of the Holy Trinity.  This is Jesus Christ before He was conceived and born into this world, sent by the Father to reveal His Word.

    St. John expresses a very similar thought in His Gospel when He refers to Christ as “the Word,” the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us.  As the uncreated, eternal, divine Angel of the Lord, Jesus is both the messenger and the message.  He is God the Father’s Final Word to us, a Word of love and of life.

    So what we have here in this account, then, is the pre-incarnate Jesus speaking to Moses.  Notice how the Son of God here descends to earth as He did at Christmas.  And He does so in a very concrete and physical way.  He appears in a flame of fire and within the branches of a bush.  Didn’t our Lord Jesus call Himself the Light of the world?  Wasn’t He laid in the wood of a manger?  In this bush the eternal and the temporal were joined together in order that the Lord might come into contact with man, just as He did in a complete and permanent way at Bethlehem.  The Lord came down to our level; He took on an earthly form that Moses and, later, we could grasp and receive.  By taking on our flesh, the Creator entered into creation in a such a way that sinful people could approach Him without fear, without being destroyed.  The burning bush, then, is a prophetic event.  It foretells the time when Christ would descend to this world again and permanently take on our human nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

    And this event in Exodus also foreshadows the reason why our Lord would be born at Christmas.  For the Lord Jesus announces to Moses from the bush that He has come to save His people, to rescue them from their enemies, the Egyptians.  In the same way, Christ came down at Christmas to rescue all of mankind.  Joseph and Mary were told, “You shall call His name ‘Jesus,’ for He will save His people from their sins.”  Our Lord descended to deliver us from our enemies who had enslaved us.  He came to release us from the power of our taskmaster, the devil, and to free us from the harsh bondage of sin and death.  By His holy incarnation, Christ became the New Moses, who leads us out of the kingdom of darkness, through the baptismal waters of the Red Sea, and into the light of the Promised Land of the new creation.  The One who appeared in a flame of fire said, “He who follows me shall not walk in darkness, but (shall) have the light of life.”

    When Moses looked at the bush, he saw that it was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed or burnt up.  That tells us two things:  First of all, it teaches us that the union between God and man that took place in the conception and birth of Christ is eternal and everlasting.  Jesus is forever both fully divine and fully human.  Even as the bush never burned up, so the union between God and man in Christ will never end.  He is true man even now as He sits at the right hand of the Father, and He always will be true man, our human brother. 

    Second of all, the fact that the bush was not consumed teaches us that Christ came into our flesh not first of all to bring judgment to mankind but salvation and redemption.  This was not a fire that destroyed.  It was a fire that revealed and proclaimed the words of deliverance and life.  Jesus said, “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”  It is written in the Scriptures that no sinner can see the holy God and live.  But in the burning bush, and in the holy Child of Mary, sinful man can and does see God, veiled in earthly, human clothing.  And trusting in this God in the flesh, man lives forever.  By taking on our human nature, Jesus did not consume and annihilate us.  Rather, He shared in our life so that we may share in His life.  He became like us so that we may become like Him.

    Finally, the Lord Jesus revealed His name to Moses from the bush.  He said, “Thus you shall say to the children of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”  Our Savior is the great I AM, the One who was, and who is, and who is to come, the One who said, “I AM the Good Shepherd.”  “I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  “I AM the Vine; you are the branches.”  He who revealed Himself to Moses in the branches of a bush has now taken on your flesh and blood in order that you might become His branches, that you might be joined to Him and draw your life from Him.  Jesus Christ is that holy vine spoken of in the Psalms that took root in Bethlehem and has now spread throughout the earth.

    Truly, then, the burning bush is a great sign and living prophecy of our Lord’s coming at Christmas.  As you prepare to celebrate this nativity of our Lord, may He who is the Light of the world cause the flame of holy faith to burn brightly in your hearts.

    ✠ In the name of the Jesus ✠

 (*Note: I adapted this first paragraph from the work of another pastor, but no longer remember who that was!)

Friday, September 19, 2014

Modesty is not Prudishness

In a culture where humor is so often reduced to a crass lowest common denominator–sexual double entendre or adolescent innuendo about body parts–it can be hard for a Christian to know exactly how to respond.  To what extent should we go along with such humor in our entertainment or conversation?  We don’t want to seem prudish to friends and family and coworkers and neighbors.  On the other hand, the topic of human sexuality and morality is not something to treat lightly or unseriously. 

Prudes are wrong in their approach not because they’re against sexual sin, but because they tend to look at sexuality as something that is inherently tainted and sullied by its sensual nature, necessary perhaps for procreation, but something that is far too fleshly and physical to be considered good or godly.  Their attitude doesn’t reflect a belief that human sexuality is a good gift of the Creator, that He is the One who made the one flesh, physical, sexual relationship from the very beginning, before sin ever entered into the world.  They fail to recognize fully that sexuality and sexual activity is a gift to be received and enjoyed within marriage by husband and wife, for their mutual delight and companionship, and for the creation of new human life where God grants it. 

Those on the other end of the spectrum who engage in raunchy humor really have the same problem as prudes.  The raunchy also fail to treat human sexuality as a gift of God.  They diminish it with their humor and treat it merely as a commodity to be manipulated for their own pleasure.  They revel in the fallen world’s caricature of sexuality, in the enjoyment of the misuse of God’s gift.  Human sexuality is not treated as something special and divinely given but merely as an expression of lustful desire.  In the end, by rejecting the goodness of God’s gift, both the prudish and the raunchy commit the very same error.

The attitude of the Christian, then, toward human sexuality is a glad modesty.  On the one hand, crude joking is rejected because it isn’t in keeping with the goodness of the gift God has given.  “But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor coarse jesting, which are not fitting, but rather giving of thanks” (Ephesians 5:3-4).  On the other hand, the sexual relationship within marriage is never treated as something to feel guilty or embarrassed about, since God Himself is the One who joined the husband and wife together and placed them in this relationship (Matthew 19:6).  Scripture even says things that will make some blush.  “Rejoice with the wife of your youth. . . Let her breasts satisfy you at all times; and always be enraptured with her love” (Proverbs 5:18-19).  The Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs) is full of positive sexual references.

1 Peter 3:3-4 speaks with regard to women about this modest approach:  “Do not let your adornment be merely outward—arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel—rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God.”  1 Timothy 1:8-10 speaks of “propriety and moderation.”  And Proverbs 31:30 teaches, “Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised.”  Such modesty in behavior and dress is certainly also to be reflected in a person’s speech and choices in entertainment.

This, of course, applies equally and perhaps even more so to men, whose task it is not to use women for their own pleasure but to lead a life of self-sacrifice and self-giving for them.  This now quaint notion of manliness and gentlemanliness was reflected in the old, traditional marital vows (which have been restored to some degree in our “new” marriage liturgy).  The man says to his bride as he places the ring on her finger: “With this ring I marry you; my worldly goods I give to you, and with my body I honor you.”  Christianity affirms the goodness of the physical aspects of the marital relationship without reducing such things to a juvenile punchline.

And here finally is the most important reason why we wish to treat human sexuality with glad modesty and respect.  The marital relationship is an icon and an image of the nature of God Himself.  The God who is love speaks of creating man in His image precisely at the time when He makes us male and female and gives us to live in the self-giving relationship of marriage (Genesis 1:26-27).  The triad of lover, beloved, and the love that binds them together is a reflection of the Holy Trinity.  The three persons of the Godhead are perfectly united as one in love, even as He reaches out to us in love and self-giving, that we may be joined to Him and share in His divine life.  God is husband to His people (Jeremiah 31:32).  The church is the bride of Christ Jesus.  He loved her and gave Himself up for her to make her holy.  Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies, for the church is the body of Christ.  “The two shall become one flesh.  This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:25-32).  Such mysteries are to be treated with respect and joyful thanksgiving in our bodily speech and conduct.

Modesty in sexual things is not prudishness.  Rather, it is the way of faith, of receiving what is given by our Creator and Redeemer as a good gift.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Feast of St. Mark the Evangelist (April 25)

Mark 14:51-52; 15:46; 16:5-6

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

    St. Mark was just a young man during the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry.  We know this, not only because of the tradition which identifies Mark as the rich young man who at first turned away from following Christ, but also because of a little story that only Mark includes in His Gospel.  Mark inserts this brief account as a way of identifying himself and the contact he had with Jesus at a very crucial moment. 

    Here’s the scene:  Jesus had just been arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The disciples had all forsaken Him and fled from the armed group that came out to arrest Him.  And then Mark writes this,  “Now a certain young man followed Jesus, having a linen cloth thrown around his naked body.  And they laid hold of him, and he left the linen cloth and fled from them naked.”

    Some have suggested that the upper room where Jesus had just met with His disciples was in fact in the house of Mark’s family.  We know that after Pentecost Christians gathered in this house to pray for Peter when he had been put in prison (Acts 12:12).  So it is quite conceivable, after Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet and instituted holy communion on this night in which He was betrayed, that a curious young Mark had followed them from his house to Gethsemane, keeping His distance to spy out more of what was going on.  This would explain why He was only clothed in a linen garment.  He may not have been expecting them to go anywhere at that time of night and hastily wrapped this linen garment around him when they left so that he wouldn’t lose track of them.  But whatever the reason, this young man, Mark, was there at the scene of Jesus’ arrest and only escaped by leaving His garment behind.

    Now why does Mark include this account in His Gospel?  What are we to learn from this little story?  Well, I believe the key to understanding Mark’s point is the linen garment.  The word for this garment in the Greek indicates that this was a very fine piece of cloth, of the more expensive variety.  Mark’s family was well-to-do.  And this particular kind of garment crops up only two times in all of the New Testament.  It is what Mark wore on this evening before Good Friday, and it is what our Lord’s body was wrapped in when He was buried.  It is written in Mark 15, “Then [Joseph of Arimathea] bought fine linen, took Jesus down, and wrapped Him in the linen.  And he laid Him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock.” 

    It is no mere coincidence that this type of linen shows up only two times in the Scriptures, first on the young man, Mark, and then on the Savior, Jesus.  Mark is trying to teach us something.  And here is his point: This expensive garment represents the things of this world–worldly wealth, worldly loves, the passing and fading glories of this life.  This is what Mark is wrapped up in.  And this is what we wrap ourselves in to cover the shame and nakedness of our sin.  Here in this garden is a picture of what we have done ever since the days of Adam and Eve.  We hide from God.  We keep our distance from Him.  We envelop ourselves with earthly stuff and earthly pursuits that help us to ignore the reality of our nakedness and our fallenness before God.  We drape ourselves with the approval of our friends and the praise of people.  We cover ourselves with our own supposed goodness, denying the truth of what still lies beneath.  We trust in our own thinking and our own abilities to protect us from the cold night air of death.  However, we are really only shrouded in deceit.  In the end all of these worldly garments will be stripped from us, exposing us for who we are.

    But in fact such apparel must be stripped from us.  We must be rid of the dark clothing of our rebellion and our unbelief, so that we may receive new, eternal garments.  We must no longer be those who follow our Lord at a distance and then flee at the first sign of conflict.  Rather, we must humbly and penitently follow Him all the way to the cross.  For it is there alone that we find help and deliverance.  There at Golgotha Jesus wears the filthy rags of our sin.  There He bears our shame.  There He is clothed with all of our idolatry and our worldly loves, and He receives in His own body the hellish judgement and wrath that they bring.  Jesus is wrapped in our faithlessness and fallenness, and He suffers them to death on the cross for us.  Jesus stands in our place; He wears our mortal clothing in order that we might be wrapped in His immortality and share in His life.

    Do you see now the connection that Mark is making with this linen garment?  The garment of sin is taken off of Mark–and off of you–and put onto Christ.  The Lord wears your sin all the way into the grave, where He leaves it to rot forever.  No longer does sin have any power over you.  For it is dead and buried in Christ’s tomb.  He paid the full price to redeem you from it.  Satan and the grave cannot harm you any more.  For Christ rose in victory over them on the third day.  His resurrection in the body means that you are entirely forgiven and fully restored to God. 

    Mark records the account of Jesus’ resurrection in such a way as to amplify this truth and to lead us to see the new clothing that we have in Christ.  Very early on that Easter morning, the women came out to the tomb.  The stone had been rolled away from the tomb.  Then Mark records this, “And entering the tomb, they saw a young man clothed in a long white robe sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.  But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed.  You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He is risen!  He is not here.  See the place where they laid Him.’” Notice that Mark describes the angel as “a young man,” the very same Greek word used to describe the young man in the Garden of Gethsemane.  But notice also that this young man is wearing “a long white robe,” a different sort of clothing than the previous linen garment.  What are we to make of this?

    I believe that there are two things going on here.  The first is that Mark wants you who hear this Gospel to see yourselves in that long white Easter robe.  Just as you are to identify with the fearful, fleeing, naked young man in Gethsemane and repent, so also you are to identify with this angelic, shining, white-robed young man and rejoice–believing in your hearts that Christ has indeed been raised from the dead for you, confessing with your mouths the same joyous Easter Gospel that this angelic messenger proclaims.  For so you are saved.

    Through Jesus’ cross and empty tomb, you truly have been changed and made new–from sinners to saints, from unclean to holy, from darkness to light.  Having been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, you are robed in His perfect righteousness, the flowing garment of His forgiving love.  It is written in Galatians, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”  The very life and presence of the crucified and risen Lord is now your clothing.  So it is that in Revelation the faithful are described as “those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb”; and again, “a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”

    And there is a second thing that is going on in Mark’s resurrection account with this young man in the tomb.  Mark refers to the angel in the same way that he had earlier referred to himself in order to reveal His purpose as an evangelist.  For he and the angel were not all that different.  The angel was sent from God to announce the good news of the resurrection; Mark was sent from God to proclaim and declare the Gospel of the risen Jesus.  The angel was a messenger, and Mark was a messenger, one who recorded the saving words and works of Christ so that they might sound forth in and through the Church until the end of the age. 

    You, then, are like the angel, too.  For the words of the Gospel have also been put on your lips, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.  You, too, are given to confess the living Lord, both here in the divine service and out there in your daily callings, so that those who must confront the grave and its immovable stone might know Him who broke down the doors of death and who now brings life to all who believe.

    Before we conclude, it should be noted that St. Mark was not always perfectly saintly following his conversion.  Once he was taken along as an assistant on a missionary journey.  But he soon got cold feet and returned home.  Perhaps he was still a bit spoiled from his wealthy upbringing and couldn’t handle the stresses of this work.  The sinful nature that had earlier caused him to turn away from Christ on the road and flee from Him in the Garden still dogged him here.  But Mark now lived in the forgiveness and the renewing mercy of Christ.  Eventually he would return to assisting in missionary work.  In fact, he became steadfast and faithful in these tasks, for St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry.”  We see in Mark, then, a wonderful picture of God’s love for us, how the Lord doesn’t forsake us when we fall and when we fail, but He forgives us and lifts us up and gives us a new start.  Later, Mark would serve as an assistant to the Apostle Peter, under whose guidance the Gospel of Mark would be written.  By the grace of God alone, Mark has his place as an evangelist in the church.

    It is traditional in Christian art for Mark to be depicted as a lion.  Some say this is so because His Gospel begins with the roaring voice of John the Baptist in the wilderness.  Others say it is because Mark’s Gospel is one of action, stressing the powerful works of Christ.  But perhaps one could say most of all that Mark is depicted as a lion because He sets so clearly before our eyes the One who is Himself  the Lion of the tribe of Judah, namely, Jesus, our Lord and our Redeemer.

    For this, brothers and sisters in Christ, let us all give thanks to God.

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

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Gardener

John 20:10-18

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

    Mary Magdalene is standing near the tomb in the garden weeping.  That sounds a lot like Eve, doesn't it? Wasn’t it in the garden that Eve, with Adam, fell away from God? In so doing didn’t she bring a curse of pain and sorrow upon herself? Wasn’t death the result of her and her husband's sin? In her helplessness and hopelessness and loneliness, Mary Magdalene, the daughter of Eve, weeps.

    So it is for all the children of Eve, for all you who are dust to dust. Everything is only temporary in this vale of tears. Nothing lasts. It is written, "All people are like grass and all their glory is like the flower of the field. The grass withers and the flower falls." Even the vitality of youth is permeated by the degenerative power of death. It's the hollowness that you still have after you've taken in your fill of all this passing world has to offer. It's the so-called "fun" you rationalize that ends up taking from you more than it gives. It's the camaraderie you seek by going along with the crowd that turns out to be a sort of crowded isolation. There's ultimately no avoiding the brokenness of mortality. In the end you are left right where Mary is, bent over, staring through wet eyes into the mouth of the grave.

    But note what Mary sees. Not only does she see that Jesus' tomb is empty, but she also beholds two angels sitting where the Lord had been. And these messengers of the Lord ask her, "Why are you weeping?" It's almost as if they said, "There's no need for tears any more. For the crucified One whom you seek has risen. He who bore the curse of the world's sin has redeemed you from the curse forever. He who was held by the jaws of the grave has shattered those jaws and has destroyed death's power over you. He who did battle with the kingdom of darkness has crushed the devil's head by His holy cross, setting you free from hellish bondage. Do not cry. For Jesus is alive for you as the triumphant conqueror and the Lord of all."

    Mary turns around now and sees Jesus. But she doesn't yet know that it's Him. She mistakes Jesus for the gardener. And yet she really isn't mistaken, is she. Jesus is the Gardener. For He is the Second Adam. And was not the first Adam the caretaker of Eden's garden? So also Jesus is risen to restore you, His people, to Paradise. This New Adam walks in the garden in the cool of the new day and reveals Himself to the daughter of Eve. What He brings to her and to you is not judgment but justification, not sin but righteousness, not death but life. Jesus completely reverses and totally undoes the fall. It is written, "As in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive."

    Jesus is not only the Gardener, He is also the Seed which is planted in the garden. He is the promised Seed of Eve which overcomes the serpent. Jesus had said that unless a seed falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, then it is fruitful. So it was that Jesus was crucified and planted in the garden tomb.  He is the New Vine of the garden, which has arisen out of the earth, bearing abundant fruit, making you alive in Him, giving you to share in His resurrection.  As Jesus said, "Because I live, you will live also."

    Jesus makes Himself known to Mary simply with one word. The sheep know the Shepherd's voice, and He calls them each by name. “Mary.”  In the joy of this sudden recognition, Mary cries out "Teacher!"

    Has not the Teacher also revealed Himself to you by calling your name at the baptismal font? Indeed, by water and the Word He drew your name into the name of the Holy Trinity.  He united you with Himself and thereby made you a child of God. So it is that Jesus says, "My Father and your Father, my God and your God."  Do you see what that means? You are given the same status now as Jesus.  All that Christ is and has He has made yours: release from sorrow, abounding forgiveness, indestructible life and joy. By virtue of your baptism into Jesus' death and resurrection, you are now His kin, His own flesh and blood, restored to communion with God and with one another.  Believing in Him you shall share in the everlasting inheritance of His new creation.

    Therefore, it is written, "'Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. . . God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.' Then He who sat on the throne said, 'Behold, I make all things new.'"

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

Friday, April 18, 2014

Meditations on the Scriptural Stations of the Cross

1) Luke 22:39-46
Jesus Prays in the Garden of Gethsemane


    Already here, it is written that our Lord is in agony.  He is not yet being physically beaten or scourged.  And yet He suffers deeply in both body and soul.  For He is in a very real sense carrying the weight of the world.  Gethsemane means “olive press” where olive oil was pressed out.  Jesus experiences here the greatest of pressing and pressure, as even the blood is pressed out of His body with His sweat that falls to the ground.  He knows the suffering that lies before Him.  Above all, Jesus does not wish to be cut off from His Father whom He loves with perfect love.  That the Father would turn His back on Him at the cross was an unbearable thought.  But this Jesus does for you.  He submits Himself to the Father’s will out of love for you, that you may share in His love with the Father.    
    Remember Jesus’ agony when you yourself are in mental or emotional anguish, when the weight of the world seems to be pressing down on you, when you are pressed or depressed, and there seems to be no way of escape.  Remember Jesus, who did not escape, who will not let you be tempted or tested beyond what you can bear.  He is your escape.  He is your rest and your refuge.  He drank the cup of judgment, so that now there is no condemnation for you who are in Christ Jesus.  You are given to drink the cup of salvation.  The cup of God’s mercy overflows to you in Jesus.

 2) Mark 14:43-50
Jesus is betrayed by Judas



    Swords and clubs are instruments of power and force and coercion.  They are what the chief priests and scribes and elders wield to lay hold of Jesus.  They are what even Peter tries to use to defend Jesus.  But for both it is in vain.  God’s kingdom cannot be established by the use of force and worldly power.  God’s kingdom cannot be stopped or undone by the use of force and worldly power.  For His kingship is exercised not through coercing His subjects but through the giving of Himself for His subjects.  In love He rules the hearts of His people through faith.  We dare never put our trust in the powers of this world to establish or save the church.  We dare never behave as Peter did and think the success of the Gospel is dependent on our wisdom and strength.  The Gospel thrives precisely in apparent weakness and defeat.
    Even in the midst of the physical roughness here, the most hurtful thing that is done is Judas’ betrayal.  This cuts to the heart, even for Jesus who knew in advance what would be done.  As a true man, Jesus feels the human hurt of having a friend and follower stab Him in the back, all with a smile and a kiss, all while His companions flee for cover.  Remember this when people deceive and betray and use you for their own ends, when they bring you to tears.  Jesus has been there for you, He is with you in your hurt to deliver you, to vindicate all who take refuge in Him.

3) Mark 14:55-65
Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin


    “As a lamb before its shearer is silent, so He opened not His mouth.”  For Jesus had not come to defend Himself against false accusations but to defend us against the true accusations that the devil would lay against us.  He allows Himself to be condemned in our stead. 
    Put under oath, Jesus does speak the truth of who He is, the Christ, the Son of the Blessed, who will come again on the Last Day for judgment.  But here in His first coming, He allows Himself to be placed under judgment, that there might be deliverance from the final judgment for all who take shelter under His wings. 
    Jesus had used His spittle to heal, to give sight.  Now He is spit upon by those who are blind to who He is–that He is the true temple, where God’s presence dwells in bodily form.  He will be  destroyed in death and then raised up in glory on the third day, that the people of God might have an eternal dwelling in Him. 

4) Luke 22:54-62
Jesus is denied by Peter


    Peter has three chances to confess that he knows Christ.  Three times Peter fails.  He would have to live for a while with the awful emptiness of his disloyalty and failure.  We know that weakness of the flesh, too, when we deny Jesus with our words or behavior, seeking to avoid negative consequences to our reputation or our income or our life.  Apart from Christ, Peter can do nothing, in spite of his good intentions.
    Jesus had told Peter this would happen.  When it occurs, as the rooster crows, as Jesus is condemned by the Sanhedrin, He turns and looks at Peter who is there in the courtyard.  Jesus did this not simply to cut brash Peter down to size, but also to teach Peter that His love would remain despite Peter’s sin.  This was not a look of anger, but of sorrowful compassion.  Peter would call Jesus’ words to mind and weep.  But he would also realize that Jesus didn’t reject him even though He knew this about him ahead of time.  So also with you–Jesus knows you and how you will stumble and falter.  And yet He doesn’t reject you; He sticks with you despite yourself.  The rooster’s crow is not only a call to repentance but also a call to faith in Jesus, who looks on you with constant love.

5) Mark 15:1-15
Jesus is judged by Pilate


    The name Barabbas means “son of the Father.”  But this Barabbas did not act like a child of God, but of the evil one.  He was a murderer in the rebellion.  And so Barabbas represents us.  For all sin ultimately is rebellion against God.  It is the attempted murder of God, to get Him out of your way so that you can run things the way you want without any interference or consequences.  This is what the chief priests were doing.  They handed Jesus over because of envy, because He was a threat to their plans and their power.  They were a more pious version of Barabbas, rebelling against God in the name of religion and good order, very literally seeking to murder God.
    And the Father allows them to succeed.  And their success is their undoing.  Evil is overcome by getting its way.  The wicked fall into their own trap.  Sin and death and the devil are overcome by the crucifixion of Jesus.  Justice is satisfied by this injustice.  Christ takes our place in death so that we may be real Barabbases, real sons of the Father through Him.  The Savior is made to be sin so that we are made to be true children of God in Christ.

6) John 19:1-5
Jesus is scourged and crowned with thorns


    Sin has dehumanized us, turning us in on ourselves rather than outward in love toward God and others. Beastly thoughts and words and actions often proceed from us. Survival instincts dominate. So it is written, "Man is like the beasts that perish" (Psalm 49:12).
    "Behold the Man!" Pilate says.  Here is the One who is truly and fully human, who is not degraded and corrupted by His own sin. Here is the only real Man, who lays down His life for fallen creatures like you to raise you up as the people of God, His own beloved bride, His Church. He willingly allows Himself to be treated inhumanely to rescue you, to restore your humanity, to give you to share in His life and His glory. By His wounds you are healed and forgiven.
    Behold the One who wears thorns on His head as a crown, to redeem you from the curse on the ground which you were created out of. Behold the Ram whose horns are caught in the thorny thicket of sin, who is offered up in the place of you Isaacs as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
    This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews, that is, the King of all those who are the true children of Abraham. He reigns in mercy over His baptized ones, over all you who believe in His promises, and who are credited with His righteousness by grace alone.


7) John 19:14-17
Jesus carries His cross


    Golgotha, Place of a Skull.  What happens with the skull, with the head, is a key theme of salvation and deliverance in Scripture.  The very first explicit promise of the Gospel in Scripture is that the Redeemer would crush the serpent’s head.  When God gave victory over the enemies of His people, there were many times when the taking of the enemy’s head was a sign of triumph.  Goliath was decapitated.  Jael pounded the tent peg through the temple of Sisera’s head. 
    Now, our final and ultimate deliverer carries His weapon, His cross to the Place of a Skull.  There He drives His cross into the Skull like a sword, to defeat the power of death, to destroy the work of the devil.  Though Jesus’ feet are pierced, yet those same feet crush Satan’s head and pulverize the power of the grave. 
    This is why Jesus bears His cross.  This is why He allows Himself to be delivered over to be crucified, to deliver you from the powers of darkness and bring you as His own into His kingdom of light, where you will serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

8) Mark 15:21

Jesus is helped by Simon of Cyrene


    Jesus is so weak from the beatings and the flogging He has endured that He can only carry the cross for a short distance.  The lack of sleep, the loss of blood, the weight of the world’s sin causes Him to fall beneath the burden of the cross. 
    And so a man named Simon of Cyrene is compelled to carry Jesus’ cross.  Simon was in the city for the Passover feast and was probably pulled out of the crowd randomly by the Roman soldiers to do this duty.  And yet it wasn’t entirely by chance that this happened.  For God chose Simon to perform this special task which would give a vivid picture of Jesus’ own words, “If anyone would come after Me, he must deny himself and take up the cross and follow Me.”
    So it is for you.  In your baptism you were chosen by God to bear the cross.  You received the sign of the holy cross on your forehead and on your heart to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified.  You are given to carry that cross daily, bearing the burdens of the callings into which God has placed you, sometimes suffering because of faithfulness to the truth of Christ. 
    But notice the fundamental distinction between you and Christ.  Though you take up the cross, yet you do not bear the judgment against sin.  That’s all on Jesus.  He bears the real burden.  He bids you to follow after Him beneath the cross that you may receive all the benefits of His suffering.  That’s how it is that Jesus can say, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.”  Freed by Jesus’ cross from the crushing weight of sin’s curse, we find it to be a light load that brings rest and peace to our souls.


9) Luke 23:27-31
Jesus encounters the women of Jerusalem


    The faithful women mourn what is happening to Jesus, to their Lord and Teacher.  They are powerless to stop it.  But Jesus tells the women not to weep for Him but rather to weep for themselves at what is coming, great tribulation for the faithful.  If persecution and suffering come when Jesus is present, how much more so when He is no longer seen by the enemies of the Gospel!  Weep for a world that is dry wood without the Gospel, that brings upon itself disorder and chaos and pain by its faithlessness, that invites God’s judgment, even as Jerusalem was overrun in the year 70 A.D. and blood flowed in the streets.  How much more easily the dry wood burns than the fresh green wood!  Both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.
    Jesus’ cross is green wood for us, flowing with life, bearing the fruit of salvation for us.  Weep only for where that fruit is rejected.  Weep only that the ingratitude for God’s mercy finally brings judgment and death for those who refuse Him.  Pray for those who are unrepentant, that they  may be granted penitent hearts and be restored to God through Christ, and may eat of the green tree of life.

10) Luke 23:33-34
Jesus is crucified


    Jesus is numbered with the transgressors, treated as a common criminal and worse, just one of three men receiving the death penalty.  There He is, not above it all, distant, keeping His hands clean, but right in the middle of it all, being dirtied with our sin, that we might be cleansed forever.
   Our Lord Jesus is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, even for the very ones who crucified Him.  “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” 
    Sin makes us ignorant.  We don’t know what we’re doing.  Even when we do know we’re doing something wrong, we don’t grasp how deeply we are hurting others and ourselves.  We don’t know how we are slapping God in the face.  But Jesus prays for us, anyway, “Father, forgive them.”  Here is the ultimate picture of God’s love for us, that He dies for sinners, even for His enemies, His persecutors.  Before we could ever ask Him for help or seek His forgiveness, He was already there to save and redeem us.  He doesn’t require us to change before He’ll love us.  His forgiving love is the very power that changes us. 
    Jesus’ prayer to His Father is surely heard, and so your are surely forgiven.  He has borne the nakedness of your shame so that you may be covered with His garments of mercy.

11) Luke 23:39-43
Jesus promises Paradise


    Jesus was mocked so thoroughly that even one of those who was crucified with Him joined in, telling Him to save them if He was the Christ.  Of course, that’s exactly what Jesus was doing.  But this criminal couldn’t see that.  Even in death he was not repentant for his sins but was full of anger and denial.  He was a goat at Jesus’ left hand.
    But there is also a sheep at Jesus’ right hand.  Learn from this second criminal how to come before God.  Do not complain in bitter anger at God for the crosses in your life, many of which are caused by our own foolishness; for those crosses are for the putting to death of your old sinful nature.  Look to Christ in repentance; trust in Him.  His steadfast love endures forever.  Pray with the thief on the cross, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”
    How gladly the repentant thief must have received Jesus’ reply, words that will apply to you and to all Christians on the day of your death, “Today, you will be with Me in Paradise.”  Those two words, “with Me” define for us what Paradise is.  It is to be with Christ.  Where Christ is, there is heaven, where the curse of sin and death is no more, where there is no sorrow or pain or crying.  It is to be restored to communion with God in a way that is even closer and deeper and better than what Adam and Eve knew in the Garden.  To be in Christ’s merciful presence is to have the fullness of life and joy and peace.  As the Psalm says, “At your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”  

12) John 19:25-27 
Jesus speaks to Mary and the disciple

    When we suffer, we tend to turn inward on ourselves, to meditate on our pain, even to wallow in it.  We find it hard to get outside of ourselves and focus on others.  But not our Lord Jesus.  Behold His love!  In His final hours He is thinking not of Himself, but is making sure that His mother is cared for properly.  Jesus had other brothers and sisters who might have looked after Mary.  But the Scriptures remind us that not even they believed that Jesus was who He said He was.  And so our Lord places His mother into the care of John, who stood by Him with Mary in her hour of need, even as John is placed into her care as her son.  It was important that Mary be placed into the hands of one who was faithful to Christ.
    For Mary is a picture of the Church, which has given birth to us all in baptism as members of the body of Christ.  And John is a picture of the Church’s pastors, who in turn care for her in the ministry of the Word and the Sacraments.  These words of Jesus apply also to us, then, as pastor and congregation, “Woman behold your son.” “Behold, your mother.”  Our Lord cares for us from the cross, setting the solitary into the family of the church and bringing comfort to those who mourn.

13) Luke 23:44-46
Jesus dies



    Darkness covers the land at midday, in token of the darkness of judgment that Jesus was enduring.  It’s as if the sun itself could not bear to look at the death of the Son of God and hid its face.
    Jesus’s final words, though, are confident words of faith and trust in His Father.  They are from Psalm 31.  “In you, O Lord, I trust. . . quickly deliver me! . . . For you are my rock and my fortress . . .  You will bring me out of the net they hid for me, for you are my stronghold.  Into your hands I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, God of truth. . .  I will rejoice and be glad in your faithfulness.”  After Jesus’ other anguished words on the cross, here Jesus expresses assurance in His Father’s love and faithfulness.  He breathes His last, certain that the Father will deliver Him and raise Him up again.
    As one who is not only fully divine but also fully human, Jesus has a spirit, a human soul.  At this moment of His death He entrusts His spirit to His Father.  He dies like a child falling asleep in the arms of his father.  Remember these words of Jesus when the time comes for you to breathe your last breath.  Remember that by entrusting Himself to the Father, Jesus has entrusted you to the Father.  Your spirit even now is held safely in His hands.  As the baptized you live in Christ, and He is in the Father.  When you are experiencing affliction in your last days and last moments, you also are given to pray these words with peaceful trust and to breathe your last knowing that God will deliver you, too, and raise you up again.  “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit.”

14) Mark 15:42-47
Jesus is buried

    Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the Sanhedrin, the very group that had condemned Jesus to death.  Perhaps he had spoken up but was greatly outnumbered at Jesus’ trial.  Perhaps he had not spoken up at all.  But here he takes courage, and goes to Pilate the governor, and asks for the body of Jesus, that Jesus might be given an honorable burial, and not be left for the vultures.
    It may be that you identify with Joseph, feeling outnumbered in your life when it comes to the things of Jesus, sometimes remaining silent for lack of courage.  Let us then stand with Joseph now and take courage.  In the light of Jesus’ death, we see that nothing else is so important as our Lord and His holy cross, even in the face of untrustworthy civil authorities.  Let us ask for the body of Jesus, seeking the Holy Sacrament of His body and blood every week, that we may honor His Word and be honored by the gifts that He gives to us in His Supper. 
    Jesus is buried in a new tomb hewn out of rock.  For He has come to be Rock of our salvation by conquering the grave, bringing new life out of death.  By being laid in the tomb, He has truly made your grave a place of Sabbath rest, of peace, from which you will awaken in the resurrection to everlasting life.  And so we say with the Psalmist, “In God is my salvation and my glory; The rock of my strength, and my refuge, is in God.”


All Images © 2013 Nicholas Markell | Eyekons
The Holy Bible, New King James Version Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc.