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 ✠

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Bread That I Shall Give Is My Flesh

 John 6:1-15

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

    At the end of today’s Gospel, the people said about Jesus, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.”  When they spoke of “the Prophet,” they were referring to the promise that the Lord had made to Moses, when the children of Israel were afraid to hear the thundering voice of God on Mt. Sinai.  The Lord told Moses, “I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth.”
    And in that sense, the people were right.  Jesus is that promised Prophet, the New and Greater Moses, who speaks God’s words to His people, who leads you and feeds you and intercedes for you.  Just consider what happens in today’s Gospel.  In the same way that  Moses led the children of Israel through the Red Sea, so also Jesus goes across the Sea of Galilee (6:1), and a great multitude follows Him.  And why did they follow Him?  Because of His signs which He performed on those who were diseased (6:2), like Moses who had performed great signs in Egypt before Pharaoh.  And just as Moses went up Mt. Sinai with the elders of Israel, and they saw God and ate and drank, so also Jesus here ascends a mountain with His disciples, and in Him the people would see God and eat and drink (6:3).  Furthermore, it is written here that the Passover was near (6:4), the sacrificing of the unblemished Lamb whose blood protects from death.  In this Gospel, then, the Lord is teaching you that He is your greater Moses.  He alone is the One who sustains and leads you safely across the wilderness of this fallen world.  He is the One who comes after Moses, your Joshua, who leads you through death into the Promised Land and eternal life.

    Jesus is not only your Moses, He is also your manna.  He said, “I am the Living Bread which came down from heaven.  If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world (6:51).”  So when we hear of a miracle like the feeding of the 5000, we know that its significance doesn’t end with the earthly bread of that time and place.  No, here is pictured the true Manna, the Bread of Life which is still being distributed to the multitude today, to you in the Sacrament of the Altar.

    Seeing all the people coming to Him, Jesus asks Philip a question to test him.  Now when the Lord tests you, He does so not to find out information about you that He didn’t already know, but ultimately to direct your faith to the right place and strengthen it.  And so the Lord asks, “Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?”  In this way the Lord leads Philip to despair of his own ability to do anything to solve this problem.  “Even if we had 200 days’ worth of wages, we still couldn’t buy nearly enough food.”  The disciples were helpless to do anything.  The first thing about having the right faith is knowing what not to trust in.  The disciples were not to trust in themselves or their own resources.

    It’s the same way with you.   Jesus asks this question to show you that the bread of life is not something that you can acquire with your own spiritual resources and or by your own goodness.  You simply have no ability to come up with what is necessary to attain eternal life.  You must learn to turn way from and despair of your own resources to solve this problem.  You’ve got nothing to barter with to make yourself right with God.  You can’t purchase this heavenly bread.  Rather, God offers it to you freely in Christ.  His forgiveness and salvation are granted to you without cost; for He has paid the price.  As Isaiah 55 says, “You who have no money, come, buy and eat.”

    Only those can receive the bread of life, then, who acknowledge their spiritual bankruptcy before God, who recognize that of themselves they can lay no claim on God’s eternal gifts.  Those who think that they are worthy of the Bread of Life will not be given life at all.  For they are still trying to “buy” their way into God’s good graces with their own spiritual qualifications.  Only to the poor in spirit does the kingdom of heaven belong.  Our righteousness is like the rotting Old Testament manna that was kept overnight; it’s goodness doesn’t last.  Only those who hunger and thirst for the righteousness of Christ will be satisfied.  For His is the food which endures to everlasting life (6:27).

    One of Jesus’ disciples, Andrew, said to Him, “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two small fish, but what are they among so many?”  On the surface it appeared that this bread and fish would be useless to help feed the people.  But with Jesus it was more than enough to do the job.  It’s the same way with the Sacrament of the Altar.  Someone might ask, “What good can a little bread and wine do?  How can these elements help my soul or give me any eternal blessings?”  But in the hands of Jesus, such elements are more than enough.  For what counts is not the impressiveness of the bread and wine but the miracle that our Lord does with them.  You must focus not simply on the elements only but on the Word of the Lord who stands behind them.

    “Then Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’  Now there was much grass in the place.”  The Lord invites you also to do the same thing today, for the Psalm says, “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall lack nothing.  He makes me to lie down in green pastures.”  Right here is your grassy pasture where He calls you to come for rest.  It is here that He leads you beside the still waters of His living Word.  It is here that He prepares a table before you, spread with heavenly food.

    “And Jesus took the loaves, and when He had given thanks He distributed them to the disciples, and the disciples to those sitting down; and likewise of the fish, as much as they wanted.”  Here is the great miracle, that as the disciples handed out this food given them by Christ, there was always more and more.  The more they handed out, the more there was.  First there were five loaves in the basket.  Then, as this was distributed, the disciples would reach in and find more and more loaves ready to be given out.  And likewise with the fish.  Thousands upon thousands of people were fed, and the food never ran out.  Everyone was filled and satisfied; no one was left out.  The Lord more than covered all of their needs.

    Isn’t this also how it is with the gifts that Christ gives in Holy Communion?  In bread and wine He multiplies His body and blood, and through His ministers He distributes them to His people, that you may receive all that you want of Him who is the Living Bread from heaven, and that your souls may be thoroughly satisfied with His mercy.  There is always more and more of this Bread of Life to be given out.  For this bread is the flesh of God Himself; and there is no limit to God.  He offered up His body for you on the cross to purchase your forgiveness.  And now He offers up His body to you in Holy Communion that you may receive that full and limitless forgiveness.

    Like the five loaves and the two fish, our Lord’s love is ever-expanding.  It’s reverse mathematics; the more that He gives, the more that He has yet to give.  It can’t be measured; you can’t put a boundary around it.  So when you come to the Lord’s table in penitence and faith, you need never fear that the sin you bring is bigger than the Lord’s forgiveness.  The cross covers it all, and then some.  The shed blood of the Passover Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world.  When you eat the Living Bread from heaven in the Sacrament, you receive the fullness of Christ’s pardon, all that you could ever want.  And there is still more even beyond that.  For when you eat this Supper, you are partaking in the very life of God Himself.  Jesus said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day (6:54).”

    After the 5000 were fed, Jesus told the disciples to gather up what remained, so that nothing would be lost.  We also do the same thing here in Holy Communion.  What remains after the Supper is gathered up and placed into the tabernacle there on top of the altar.  From there it is carried out to our hospitalized and shut-in members.  In that way the Lord’s love also reaches out to them in their need so that they might be drawn in and joined with us in this same holy communion.

    Finally, when the disciples gathered up what remained, they filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves.  Five loaves became twelve baskets–more than when they started.  Five is the number of the Law, for there are five books of Moses.  Twelve is the number of the apostles.  In this miracle, then, we see a transition, from the old Israel, guided by the Law of Moses, to the New Israel, the Church, built on the doctrine and ministry of Christ’s apostles, as we say in the Creed, “one holy Christian and apostolic Church.”  It is written in Acts 2 of the early church,  “They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers (Acts 2:42).”  This is what the 5 becoming 12 means for you: You have been freed from the judgment of the Law by Christ, who fulfilled it all for you; and your life is now to be found in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking and receiving of the Bread of Life, and in the prayers and liturgy of the church. 

    The multitudes back then wanted Jesus to be king–but only to keep their bellies filled and their appetites fed.  But you know that Jesus is much more than that.  He is the King who goes off to the mountain by Himself where He will be crowned with thorns, that His flesh might become the life of the world.  That’s the real Jesus–your Redeemer-King and your Manna from above.

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

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Lord is Good

Matthew 20:1-16

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

    Lutherans are often accused of not being very good at promoting good works, of getting people to lead a more Christian life.  I don’t usually harp on all the things you should and shouldn’t be doing but on the fact that we’re saved by God’s grace alone and that good works do not make us right with God.  To some that sounds like saying we can live however we please.  But, of course, we’re not saying that good works aren’t necessary; they are.  God’s Law is still in force.  The Ten Commandments are still commanded.  They’re not the Ten Suggestions.  God has told us to do them, and so we should.  In fact, we must.

    However, this also must be pointed out: If you do good things in order to gain some eternal reward out of it, is that truly a good work?  Or if you do something good out of fear that if you don’t you’ll be punished, is that truly a good work?  In both cases the good deed is tainted, isn’t it?  It may be good humanly speaking, but it’s not in God’s sight.  For with Him it’s not just the outward act but what’s going on in the heart that counts.  Love and trust in Him is what He seeks.  If heaven is the reward we get for living a good life, we’re hopelessly lost; because then living a good life would end up being a self-serving thing, which in fact is the opposite of doing good before God.

    Let me illustrate it this way: Valentine’s day was just celebrated.  If a husband gets his wife a card and flowers or some other gift only because he feels like he has to or else he’ll be in the dog house, is that really love for his wife?  Or if he does something romantic because what he truly wants is to score some points that he can cash in on, is that really love for his wife?  What he does might be good outwardly speaking, but what makes it real love is when it’s done without thought to rewards or consequences, but with a desire for the good and the happiness of the spouse and their marital communion.

    So what God has done is this: He has enabled you to do truly good works by taking the eternal threats and reward entirely out of the mix.  The reward is already yours before you even start working.  It’s been purchased by Christ for you; it’s a done deal, whether you entered the vineyard at dawn or at the 11th hour.  Your reward, your eternal life in Christ is not in doubt.  The denarius is yours through faith, simply by trusting Him.  So now what?  Now you are truly free to do the work God has given you to do from the heart, out of love for Him and love for your neighbor, without any thought of what’s in it for you.  All the tainted motives you might have are taken away in Christ.  Fear of what might happen to you, self-serving goals no longer have a role to play since Jesus has already given Himself to you with every blessing.  You are set at liberty to do good, not because you have to in order to win God’s favor, but precisely because you already have God’s favor in Christ, and because your neighbor needs you.  In a sense you are free to do as you please.  For what pleases the heart of faith is not to go back to living in the same old shallow, empty, self-serving ways, but to live in Christ, loving and trusting in God and serving others.  That’s why it is written that without faith in Christ, it is impossible to please God.  Only in Jesus are you truly free to do good.

    When we forget that, that’s when we’ll start to grumble and complain, like the children of Israel in the wilderness, like the laborers in the vineyard who worked all day.  You only grumble and complain like that when you think God owes you, that you deserve better based on what you’ve done.  “I’ve worked harder than that other guy; I’ve done more for the church.  So I deserve better than him.”  “It’s not fair that God is letting me go through this hardship.  I’ve lived a good life and been a good person.”  You can only talk and think that way when you believe it’s your works that run the show with God.  And when your works run the show, then it’s all about you, not Jesus.

    The laborers in the vineyard wanted the landowner to be fair.  But in fact He was more than fair.  A denarius is a good and proper wage for a full day’s work.  That’s exactly what they received.  The landowner wasn’t being miserly; he didn’t stiff them.  It’s just that the landowner was extremely generous to the others.  He treated even the ones hired at the 11th hour as if they had worked all day.  You might say that it was by grace that they received their denarius.  The landowner wasn’t unfair but good and gracious.  Besides, he had the right to do whatever he wished with His own things.

    Beware of applying standards of fairness to God, as if the clay can tell the potter how to do his job.  Beware, because generally the fairness argument is just a mask for promoting our own interests.  That’s why we love to grouse about the rich and income inequality.  “They don’t deserve it, and we deserve more for all our hard work; it’s not fair.”  But whether or not that's the case, that's not how God wants to deal with us, on the basis of what we deserve, as if we had a contractual arrangement with Him, a business deal, a pre-nuptial agreement.  Rather, He wants our relationship to be one of real love, freely given, no strings attached.  As soon as it’s about what we think God owes us, then we’re not seeking to love Him but to use Him.

    We should beware of wanting God to be fair with us, anyway, as I’ve often told you before.  For then we’d be in grave danger.  If you want fair wages, then here’s what the Scriptures say, “The wages of sin is death.”  Those who end up in hell are really in the end only getting what they asked for, namely, the just and fair payment for their faithless works.  “Go your way,” the landowner said.  Have it your way.  Hell is filled with grumbling and complaining against God.  You might think that hell would mostly be about regret.  But regret quickly shifts to anger and blame, especially toward God.  The damned actually believe that God is wrong, that He’s being unfair.  This worsening bitterness and teeth-gritting frustration is part of their unending torment.

    Repent, then, of dealing with God as if He were against you, as if He needed to be negotiated with and badgered into loving you.  Turn away from your anger with Him.  Trust that He is good, that He is merciful and abounding in steadfast love.  He is blessedly unfair with you, pouring out on you the fullness of His generosity in Christ.  He does love you.  He will provide you with all that you need.  After all, if the Father has given you His own Son, will He not also graciously give you all that is good and necessary and right for you?  Remember that the laborers who were hired later in the day went to work without being told what they would be paid, just trusting in the goodness of the landowner, that He would give them "whatever is right."  So you also, even though you can’t see what the future holds, even if life doesn’t seem to be fair–trust in the goodness of your heavenly Father; stake your life on His grace in Jesus.  Know that He will give far more than you could ever dream of.

    Just like the landowner dealt with those hired at the 11th hour, so the Lord treats you as if you did all the required work, from the beginning to the ending of the day.  For what you failed to do, the Lord Jesus has accomplished perfectly on your behalf in His perfect life and death and resurrection.  He Himself is the true Laborer in the vineyard who brings you the generous reward at the end of the day.  He began His work even before dawn on Good Friday, being condemned by the Jewish authorities.  He was questioned by Pontius Pilate, flogged, and then crucified at the 3rd hour.  Darkness covered the land from the sixth hour, noon, until the ninth hour, as a sign of the judgment He bore in your place.  Our Lord cried out “It is finished!” and died as the perfect and complete sacrifice for your sin.  See how He did all the work for you!  He who is the Rock was struck, and water and blood flowed forth from His side for your cleansing and your forgiveness.  He was buried at the eleventh hour just before sundown to sanctify your grave and make it a place of rest from which you will awaken and rise in glory on the Last Day.

    “The Lord will save the humble people, but will bring down proud and haughty looks.”  And so we look not for fair wages but mercy and grace from God.  We know that it is only by the Lord’s goodness that we are even in the vineyard, no matter how long we’ve been there.  We consider it a privilege to be able to contribute to the health and the growth of the vineyard, which is Christ’s church.  We are not jealous of the newcomer or of the one converted in his dying days, but we rejoice that the same mercy that saved us has also saved another.  Even a faithful lifelong Christian recognizes that of himself he deserves nothing and that it is only because of Jesus that he has forgiveness and life.  As it is written, “The free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).”  And again, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.  For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10).” 

    Let us then be truly full of good works by trusting in the grace of Christ alone to save us.  Or as St. Paul puts it, let us run in such a way as to obtain the prize of life with Christ, which He Himself has won for us.  Let us run with the certainty of faith, setting our hearts on Him, disciplining our bodies and minds, more than even a dedicated Olympic athlete, filling ourselves with His words and His life-giving body and blood.  Come and lay hold of the denarius Christ earned for you–not because it’s owed; but simply because it is His good pleasure to be generous and loving toward you.

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

Saturday, January 25, 2014

You Can Make Me Clean

When we think of the term "unclean" in Scripture, we usually associate it with matters of the soul. Unclean spirits attack and torment. Sin pollutes us. The sins perpetrated on us leave us feeling contaminated. 

But in a hospital visit today, it struck me that Scriptural uncleanness also has a very palpable and physical meaning, too. For in Matthew 8, a leper comes to Jesus saying, "Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean." (8:2) Think about what sickness and disease do to us. No matter how well-bathed, no matter how good your hygiene, you feel unclean. Bodies decay and stink, wounds ooze, limbs swell with fluids, cancer eats away at healthy tissue, mucous and phlegm congest, bowels malfunction. The average hospital visitor feels strongly the need to disinfect upon leaving. Nurses and doctors know better than most that what they’re dealing with is uncleanness, viruses and bacteria and diseases that require very tangible fleshly help to bring about some sense of cleanness and order to the body. A patient’s comments about messed-up hair or lack of make-up or decent clothing are commentary on this deeper feeling. "Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean."

And in response Jesus says, "I am willing; be cleansed." (8:3) What marvelous words those are! Here the Lord’s heart is opened to us and we see His great desire to make us clean in both soul and body. This is the very purpose for which the Son of God was made man, to purify you from all that ails your flesh and spirit. Later in this chapter, it is written, "He Himself took our sicknesses and bore our infirmities." (8:17) This is your Savior, the One who took into His own flesh all that attacks your flesh. He knows, He has felt your sickness in the deepest way possible. In His scourging and on the cross, His body was opened up and laid bare to every pathogen that threatens your life. He died a bloody, infected, unclean mess. But by that very death, He conquered all your sickness and your disease and the grave itself. For in the body of God made flesh, all corruptions of the flesh met their match and their end. Jesus’ body did not see decay or corruption in the grave (Ps. 16:10). By the wounds of Christ you are healed and cleansed. The One crucified and now risen in the flesh is your cure.

"I am willing; be cleansed." This our Lord spoke to you in your baptism, washing you, giving you the sure hope that your lowly body will be transformed to be like His glorious body (Philippians 3:21). Every divine service you hear those words. For in the absolution God speaks words that are life to you and health to all your flesh (Proverbs 4:22). And the blood of Jesus, God’s Son, which you receive at His table, cleanses you from all sin (1 John 1:7). It is surely the medicine of immortality and the guarantee of health and marvelous wholeness that will be yours in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.

Jesus can make you clean. He is willing. Be cleansed.