Sunday, March 22, 2015

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (March 22, 2015)

Lent 5 – Series B (March 22, 2015)
“True Glory” (Mark 10:35-45)

A recent blog post at the Huffington Post, written by a young woman from the “Millennial” generation, listed 34 ways you change as you become an adult (by the way, in case you don’t know what a “Millennial” is, that’s the label recently given to those who reached adulthood around the year 2000; that means that they’re generally in their late 20’s and early 30’s right now).  Here’s the first four of those changes: 1) You don’t feel the need to gossip anymore;  2) Jealousy is futile and starts to fade away as a controlling force in your mind;  3) You handle conflict directly, maturely, and respectfully;  and 4) You know how to apologize and admit fault.
            But is that really true of adulthood?  Adults continue to gossip, get jealous, act immature, hold grudges, and never admit they are wrong.  The article goes on to state this: “Adulthood is a journey into strength and self-empowerment.”  Another blogger – a Millennial himself – writes in response: “Millennials are often labeled as the self-centered, ‘Me’ generation, and I’ve always hated that stereotype because I didn’t really see it.  Now I do.  Millennials think adulthood is more self-empowerment than self-sacrifice … Three of the 34 ‘ways you change as you become an adult’ are focused on others.  Sounds more like these may be ways to become parasites of happiness, not productive, caring adults.  Millennials won’t grow up because we won’t care about anyone but ourselves.  It’s hard to grow up and be an adult when you can’t get out from in front of the mirror.”[1]
            Pretty harsh words, coming from someone from within that generation.  But let’s not just rag on the Millennials.  This applies to every sinful generation.  We are all so self-absorbed that servanthood and self-sacrifice does not come naturally.
            I don’t know how old James and John were at this point.  They may have been in their 20’s or early 30’s.  The “sons of thunder,” they are called.  Two young, brash brothers.  Apparently, they were into self-empowerment, too … so much so that they audaciously asked Jesus for positions of power and authority when he comes into his glory.  Matthew’s Gospel tells us that they even get their mom in on the act … that’s why she appears with them in the picture on today’s service folder (Matt. 20:20-28).  Maybe the boys thought mom could put in a good word for them.
            James and John had a mistaken notion of glory.  They were expecting the glory of an earthly kingdom.  This was a perpetual misunderstanding among the disciples and the Jews in general.  This request happened right before our Lord’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.  The crowd at that event was expecting Jesus to be an earthly king, too.  That’s why they turned their back on him so quickly when they saw him nailed to a cross.  James and John wanted positions of power and honor … to be seated at the Lord’s right hand and left hand.  And lest we come down too hard on them, it appears the other disciples wanted in on the act, too.  That’s why they were so indignant.  They were just upset that James and John got around to asking first.
            What are our notions of glory?  We think of God’s magnificence, his splendor, his majesty and greatness, his holiness, his complete other-ness … and this is certainly included in the Bible’s idea of glory.  We think of the glory of God’s presence … the cloud that filled the Holy of Holies in the tabernacle … the pillar of cloud and fire that led the people of Israel in their wilderness wanderings … the glory of the Lord shining upon the shepherds in Bethlehem … the bright glory of Jesus shining on the mount of Transfiguration.  We might also think of the glory of eternity ... an existence without sin and its effects, no more sadness, no more sickness, no more death, a joyful reunion with those we love who have gone before us, a life lived forever in God’s presence without having to be kept safe in a cleft between two rocks, like Moses when he was given a glimpse of God’s glory in passing.  But there is so much more that can be said about God’s glory.  There are many different words in the Bible that are often translated as “glory” but all have various nuances of meaning.
            The glory of God is demonstrated in his mighty deeds and saving works in Christ Jesus.  As Jesus approached the cross, he declared, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23).  The night of his arrest, he prayed to his Father, “the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you” … “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do” (John 17:1, 4).  The cup which Jesus was about to drink was the cup of God’s wrath over sin and mankind’s rebellion against him.  The baptism with which Jesus was about to be baptized was being immersed in blood and death and grave.  In all this, “the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” … the payment due for the bondage to sin and death to which we have all been subject ever since Adam and Eve first said “No” to God and “Yes” to the devil’s temptation.
            “In the cross of Christ I glory,” we sing.  The cross does not appear very glorious.  But God’s glory is evident under the cross and suffering.  The world cannot see this, but the eyes of faith can. Paul writes in 2 Cor. 4 says, “the god of this world [that is, Satan] has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God … For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4, 6)
            The King is crowned with thorns as he suffers and dies for the sins of the world.  The sign Pilate placed there declared him to be the King of the Jews.  At his right and his left are condemned criminals … sorry excuses for a prime minister or a vice-president, but the ones chosen to “sit” at his right and his left.  One rejected him in mockery, one received him in faith … a plain example of the two types of people in the world.  And consider a further contrast.  James and John asked Jesus for a place in glory prior to seeing the gore of the crucifixion, what most people would view as defeat.  The thief on the cross asked Jesus to remember him in his kingdom, and this while looking at a beaten, bloodied, dying man.  That is faith … seeing the glory of God even in the face of suffering and death.    
            We reflect God’s glory when we humbly serve others in the name of Christ.  Jesus said, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.”  Our lives are not about self-empowerment, but rather self-sacrifice … toward our spouse, our children, our co-workers, our classmates … anyone God has placed in our life and who needs our care and concern.
            It may mean suffering for us, too.  “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus replied after the initial request from the two disciples.  “You will indeed drink the cup and be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized.”  James was martyred.  John was exiled.  But we must remember that suffering does not equal punishment.  Jesus drank the cup of the Father’s wrath over sin, down to the last drop.  “It is finished,” he said.  Our watery baptism connects us to Jesus’ bloody baptism.  In repentant trust, we come to the Lord’s table where we drink of the blood of the New Covenant.  Our Lord forgives our self-absorption and our wish for self-empowerment rather than self-sacrifice.  And through his Word and Spirit, we are empowered to be servants, even if it means we must also suffer.  Like the thief on the cross, God has given us eyes of faith to trust that God has not abandoned us when we suffer or when death draws near to us and our family.  In those times, he is present with you and continues to serve you with his love and mercy.  Jesus will remember you in his kingdom and you will be with him in Paradise.
            The 1989 Oscar-winning film Driving Miss Daisy is set in the American South during the Civil Rights struggle.  Miss Daisy, played by Jessica Tandy, is a wealthy 73 year-old Jewish widow who lives alone in Atlanta, Georgia.  After she wrecks her car, her son decides to hire a chauffeur, an African-American man by the name of Hoke, played by Morgan Freeman.  At first, Miss Daisy refuses his services, but eventually lets him drive her around.  Although Miss Daisy has her prejudices, she gradually begins to accept Hoke as a friend because of his humble, yet dignified, service to her.  In fact, the relationship between Miss Daisy and her chauffeur develops during the film until we are not sure who is serving whom.  Hoke is illiterate, and Miss Daisy teaches him to read.  When Miss Daisy’s housekeeper dies, she decides to cook and clean on her own, and Hoke assists and takes care of the garden.  Hoke ends up having a profound influence on Miss Daisy because of the love and faithfulness he shows.  When dementia begins for Miss Daisy and she takes up residence in a nursing home, Hoke continues to visit and help feed Miss Daisy.  At one point, Miss Daisy – this affluent, white, Jewish woman – tells this formerly illiterate black man, “Hoke, you’re my best friend.”[2]
            Those you humbly serve may never call you your best friend.  But that’s beside the point.  You don’t serve others to gain a friend.  You serve them because Christ has humbly and sacrificially served you.  And you may end up having a profound influence on them as you serve them selflessly in the name of Christ.  After all, even before we were friends of Jesus, he died for us.  Remember St. Paul’s words in Romans 5: “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us … For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Rom. 5:8, 10).  Consider the profound influence his love and self-sacrifice has had on you!  A profound, far-reaching, eternal influence so that you will one day see your Risen Jesus … and no longer just with the eyes of faith, but right before your very eyes, shining as the Lamb of God (Rev. 21:23).


Sunday, March 8, 2015

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent (March 8, 2015)

Lent 3 – Series B (March 8, 2015)
John 2:13-25
            It wasn’t necessarily wrong to be buying and selling animals at the temple.  Many pilgrims at Jerusalem for the Passover celebration came from many miles away.  It was not feasible for them to travel with animals to offer in sacrifice at the temple, so provision was made for travelers to buy animals once they arrived.  Stalls at the base of the temple mount had been constructed where oxen and sheep were kept.  Those who sold pigeons positioned themselves there with birdcages.  The moneychangers would have set up shop at nearby tables, too.  It was not acceptable to buy animals for sacrifice with coins bearing the idolatrous image of the Roman emperor. You had to exchange them for other coins that wouldn’t have been offensive in that way.
            This whole business wasn’t all wrong.  The issue was that the business of buying and selling worked its way from outside the temple precinct, upstairs into the temple courts themselves. The place where pilgrims were to be engaged in prayer and worship had turned into a loud, busy, smelly marketplace.  The lowing of cattle, the bleating of sheep, the clinking of coins, and the haggling of the venders[1] competed with the prayers of the faithful and the chanting of the priestly choir.  It’s apparent that the moneychangers also added exorbitant fees for their services (Mt. 21:13; Mk. 11:17).  It was quite a profitable business, both for the venders and for the chief priests who oversaw the temple rituals.
            This is what got Jesus fired up.  Take a look at the artwork on your service folder.  The artist has covered Jesus’ face.  We don’t get to see whether Jesus was enraged or if he simply got down to business.  I suspect it was the latter.  It would have been out of character for him to be out of control.  Also, it appears as if he’s ready to strike the man on the ground, but the whip was merely to drive the animals out and get the attention of the wrongdoers.  Jesus would not have used the whip to injure anyone.  Jesus was upset about the way in which the temple was being desecrated.  He wanted to uphold the holiness of God’s house, the place of worship, and to place no barriers in the way for all people to hear the Word of God.
            John observes that at that time “many believed in his name when they saw the signs he was doing.”  They saw the healings and exorcisms he had performed.  And then John adds this interesting bit of information: “But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.”  Jesus did not fully reveal his identity to those merely looking for signs but who quickly turned away from him when he turned out to be a different sort of Messiah than they expected.
            The Jewish leaders asked for a sign, but for a different reason.  They wanted him to verify his authority to purge the temple as he did.  They did not believe in him in spite of the signs he was doing (except for some who did believe later, including possibly Nicodemus, whom we are introduced to in the chapter following our text today).  This is the sign that Jesus would give them: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” … not the temple in which they stood, but the temple of his body which stood before them.
            Jesus did not entrust himself to those who were merely looking for signs because he knows what’s in the heart of man.  Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? I the Lord search the heart and test the mind.”  At creation, God wrote the Law on the heart of man, but since the Fall into sin it becomes contorted and twisted in calloused, hardened hearts.  At Sinai, God gave the written Law to Moses – summarized in the Ten Commandments – the revelation of God’s perfect will for the lives of all people, and yet people still rebel against it.  Jesus said, “out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness” (Mark 7:21-22).  In today’s Epistle reading, Paul says that the wisdom of the world is foolishness to God.  Yet that is what we so often rely on.  Too often, we have let the world’s values shape our own to the exclusion of what Holy Scripture says.  And that only leads to eternal death (1 Cor. 1:18).  Yes, Jesus knows what’s in the heart of man.  He knows what’s in your heart and my heart.  He sees the sin in our hearts and lives that get in the way of our worship.  He is well aware of our words and deeds that get in the way of others who would join us in worship.  Zeal for God’s house and God’s honor does not consume us.  We are more zealous about making money, taking vacations, playing sports, or any number of things to which God takes second fiddle.  We are not as zealous for him as his Son was, that’s for sure.
            Zeal for God’s house consumed Jesus.  It fired him up so that he drove out the animals and the moneychangers.  It fired up his opponents so that they ultimately killed him.  But that was the way in which God intended to save us from the penalty for our rebellion against his commandments.  Our sins were laid upon Jesus and consumed him until he breathed his last breath so that God’s wrath over lack of zeal for him will not consume us.
            “We preach Christ crucified.”  The sign of the cross is the sign we look to for forgiveness and salvation.  It’s a stumbling block to those looking for miraculous signs.  It’s foolishness to those trying to figure things out by their own reason.  But it is through the sign of the cross that Jesus entrusts himself to us and gives us faith to believe in him.  “To us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).
            Through the sign of the cross, Jesus has entrusted himself to us.  We sinners entrust ourselves to Jesus and his care.  He is the Lamb who came to take the place of all those other sacrifices which were only previews and shadows (Col. 2:17).  Look at the artwork again on the service folder.  Did you notice the lamb being carried behind Jesus?  In an even greater way, all the sacrifices of the temple are now behind him.  He is the once for all sacrifice.  He was whipped for us, driven out of the city for us, and bore the cross for us.  All the money changing in the world cannot compare with the great price he gave to earn forgiveness for us and everlasting life and a place in his kingdom.
No temple now, no gift of price,
No priestly round of sacrifice,
Retain their ancient pow’rs.
As shadows fade before the sun
The day of sacrifice is done,
The day of grace is ours.

In faith and confidence draw near,
Within the holiest appear,
With all who praise and pray;
Who share one family, one feast,
One great imperishable Priest,
One new and living way. (LSB 530.1, 3)

            Jesus is the true temple.  He is the true center of worship.  John 1:14 says that “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.”  All the fullness of God dwells in him (Col. 1:19).  The earthly temple was soon to be obsolete when he said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”
            In Holy Baptism, Jesus has raised you up.  You were buried and raised with Christ (Rom. 6:1-4).  Joined to him, he has also raised up his Body, the Church, into a house of living stones and placed you as one of those stones.  You, dear Church, are the temple of the Holy Spirit.  You are a house of prayer for all nations.  And this house is not confined to a building, a city, or a nation.  Everywhere and anywhere that God’s Word and the Body and Blood of Jesus are offered and received in faith … there is God’s temple, there is Christ’s body, there is the Church.
            Entrust yourself here to Jesus.  Believe in his name.  May zeal for his house – and all the gifts of life and forgiveness that he generously provides for you here – graciously consume you.
For Christ is ours! With purpose true
The pilgrim path of faith pursue,
The road that Jesus trod;
Until by His prevailing grace
We stand at last before His face,
Our Savior and our God. (LSB 530.4)


[1] Kretzmann, Popular Commentary Vol. 1, p. 418.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent (February 22, 2015)

Wordle: Untitled

First Sunday in Lent – Series B (February 22, 2015)
Mark 1:9-15

            After Jesus was baptized, the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness.  Threw him out there.  Expelled him.  Sounds like something a school principal does to a habitually naughty student.  Not something the Third Person of the Holy Trinity does to the Second Person.  I thought they were supposed to be on the same team.
            Well, they are.  The Spirit sent him out there to do battle with Satan.  This was a divine appointment.  Satan’s appearance was no surprise.  God is never caught off guard.  This was all part of the plan.  Jesus was sent to act as faithful Israel.  Israel passed through the waters of the Red Sea and spent 40 years in the wilderness.  Jesus passes through the waters of the Jordan and spends 40 days in the wilderness.  Whereas Israel was unfaithful, Jesus is faithful.  And Jesus came to serve as the substitute not just of Israel, but of all mankind.  He came to stand up to Satan’s temptations in our place and to prove himself as the faithful Son and perfect Savior.
            Mark’s account is very short.  We don’t get the details of the various temptations that Matthew and Luke give us.  Turn stones into bread.  Throw yourself down from the temple.  Bow down and worship me.  In each case, Jesus answers not with his own divine power, but with the Word of God.  He didn’t come to rely on his power as God for his own purposes, but to rely on his Father in heaven.  And so he says, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God … You shall not put the Lord your God to the test … You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Matt. 4:7-10).
            Those temptations ought to be familiar to each of us.  We are often not content with the daily bread God has given us.  We often neglect every word that comes from the mouth of God in Holy Scripture.  We put God to the test when we do stupid, harmful, reckless things.  It might not be like jumping off the high point of the temple and expecting angels to catch you.  It’s more like seeing how reckless you can be by sinning against your conscience, almost daring God to see if he means what he says about the faith-destroying effects of willful, perpetual, deliberate sin (Heb. 10:26).  And we also have a tendency to put everything else in our life before God, thereby proving that, like the people of Israel, we also have our own Golden Calves.
            Matthew, like Mark, tells us that after the temptation in the wilderness angels came and were ministering to Jesus.  What does that mean?  We’re not really sure.  Perhaps they cared for his physical needs after spending so much time in the wilderness, hungry and exhausted.  Certainly, Jesus had also felt the full force of Satan’s temptations and stood up to each one of them … unlike you and me.  You and I fall so soon, even before we feel the full brunt of temptation’s force.
            Mark adds this interesting detail: “And he was with the wild animals.”  Now what was that all about?  Again, we’re not really sure.  I can’t read Mark’s mind, but just like the Transfiguration was a preview of Easter and the Resurrection on the Last Day, I contend that Mark’s description of the aftermath of the temptation of Jesus is a preview of Paradise restored and the peaceful reign of the Messiah that he came to bring.
            In God’s perfect creation, Adam was with the wild animals. Lions and tigers and bears (oh, my) were no threat to him.  All was peaceful.  Along comes Satan.  He tempts Adam and his bride to disobey God’s command to not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  Adam falls into sin, bringing death and disorder into creation.  It’s no longer perfect.  It’s broken.  Mankind’s perfect relationship with God is destroyed.  Adam’s sin brings separation from God.  And that means death in this life, including death from wild animals.  Including death at the hands of one’s own brother, as soon occurred east of Eden.  And it means death in the life to come, that is, eternal separation from God and his love.  Adam is expelled from the Garden of Eden, and God placed the cherubim – angels – with a flaming sword guarding the entrance to the Garden and the way to the Tree of Life.
            Centuries later, the promised Savior arrives on the scene.  He does battle with Satan, not in a garden, but in the desert.  He is the Second Adam who does not fall into Satan’s trap.  He remains faithful and obedient to his Heavenly Father.  Angels appear not as a threat to keep him away from the Tree of Life, but to serve him.  And he is with the wild animals, even as the First Adam was before the Fall.  The wilderness with Jesus in it becomes a picture of Paradise, the way things were meant to be.  True Man is obedient to his Heavenly Father.  True God is served by his creation.
            This is also a picture of the future peaceful reign of the Messiah.  In Isaiah 43, the Lord describes it this way: “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?  I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.  The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches” (Is. 43:19-20).  And in Isaiah 65, he says, “Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind … The wolf and the lamb shall graze together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent’s food” (Is. 65:17, 25).
            A wild beast was caught in a thicket and served as a substitute for Isaac.  The Lamb of God was nailed to the Tree of Life on Calvary and served as our substitute.  He goes to death.  We go free.  There he trampled upon the wild animals that signify all evil forces, as we sang earlier, “You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot” (Introit, Ps. 91:13).  Back in the Garden of Eden, God declared that dust would be the serpent’s food.  The devil would grovel for the rest of his existence until his head would be crushed at the cross by our victorious Savior.  Yes, the devil still prowls around looking for someone to devour, but he is a defeated enemy.  The serpent has been defanged.  In Christ Jesus, he has no power to accuse you of your sin or to defeat you.  The victory of Jesus belongs to you.  Your baptism is the guarantee of that.
            On this side of the veil, though, we still feel the effects of sin.  We are both tempted and tested.  How can we tell the difference?  The word for “tempt” and “test” is the same in the Greek.  Take heart in what the Apostle James writes.  He says, “Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.  Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one.  But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.  Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:13-15).  God gives tests only to strengthen our faith, never to tear us down.  Temptations never come from God.  They come from Satan, the sinful world around us, and our sinful flesh.  Satan wants to use those temptations to drive us to unbelief and despair.  God will never do this.  He will, though, permit trials in our life to draw us closer to him and strengthen our faith.
            But what do we do when real temptation comes?  Draw strength from God’s Word.  Run to the Sacrament where Jesus is present for you with his Body and Blood to “strengthen and preserve you in body and soul to life everlasting.”  Know that you are not left to fight the battle alone.  The author of Hebrews, in chapter 2, says, “Because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:18).  In chapter 4, he says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we might receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16).  And Hebrews 12 teaches that a great cloud of witnesses surrounds you, the saints of old, cheering you on from the sidelines.  They fought the good fight.  They finished the race.  They know how difficult it was.  “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us , looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2).
            And when that “wild animal” that is our old sinful nature takes over and we do fall to temptation, this does not call for perpetual hand-wringing or self-flagellation.  Simply listen to Jesus who says, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”  Turn from your sin.  Trust in Jesus who died for the ways in which you have fallen to temptation.  Receive forgiveness in his victory in the wilderness and all the way to the cross and the empty tomb.  Come to the altar to the presence of Jesus.  This is our Paradise in the wilderness.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord (February 15, 2015)

Wordle: Untitled

The Transfiguration of Our Lord – Series B (February 15, 2015)
“Exalted on the Mountain” (Psalm 99)

The Lord reigns; let the peoples tremble!
He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
The Lord is great in Zion;
he is exalted over all the peoples.
Let them praise your great and awesome name!
Holy is he!
The King in his might loves justice.
You have established equity;
you have executed justice
and righteousness in Jacob.
Exalt the Lord our God;
worship at his footstool!
Holy is he!
Moses and Aaron were among his priests,
Samuel also was among those who called upon his name.
They called to the Lord, and he answered them.
In the pillar of the cloud he spoke to them;
they kept his testimonies
and the statute that he gave them.
O Lord our God, you answered them;
you were a forgiving God to them,
but an avenger of their wrongdoings.
Exalt the Lord our God,
and worship at his holy mountain;
for the Lord our God is holy! [1]

            It was not all that long ago (about seven weeks to be exact) that we once again celebrated the Incarnation of Our Lord.  The Son of God humbled himself and took on human flesh.  Born in a stable in Bethlehem, the place the prophet Micah said was “too little to be among the clans of Judah” (Micah 5:2).  Born to a poor virgin girl from the village of Nazareth, the place of which Nathanael asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).  From his hometown, he traveled throughout Galilee, where he preached, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).  In the fishing village of Capernaum, he showed how the kingdom of God was at hand in him.  He taught with divine authority.  He cast out demons, proving his power over the forces of evil.  He healed the sick, proving his power over the brokenness that sin had brought into the world.  And yet looking at him, there was nothing that would have distinguished him from the rest of the people.  Dusty robes.  Calloused hands.  Body odor.  Dirty feet.  He didn’t appear very exalted.  On the contrary, he appeared quite humble.
            For a moment, that all changed.  Jesus led three of his disciples upon a high mountain. There he no longer appeared as a humble man.  Now, he was exalted.  He was transfigured.  Changed.  The dust of the roads of Galilee and Judea that dirtied his garments disappeared in the shining radiance of his divine glory.  Clear evidence of his dual nature as True Man and True God in the same person.
            On the mount of Transfiguration, Jesus is flanked by Moses and Elijah, two of the greatest saints of the Old Testament, now appearing in glory.  Both Moses and Elijah had previously encountered God on another mountain, Mt. Sinai to be exact.  Moses stands as a representative of the Law.  Elijah stands as a representative of the prophets.  Jesus has come to fulfill all that the Law and the Prophets had promised, that God himself would come to save his people from sin, death, and hell and give them an everlasting kingdom.
            “The Lord reigns; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake” the psalmist says.  In the presence of God, you better tremble.  You have every reason to shake in your boots when the holy God shows himself.  You are sinful.  God is not.  “Holy is he.”  Therefore the disciples were “terrified” when they viewed this sight on the mountain.  And this was not the first time they were afraid in the presence of Jesus.  After Jesus calmed the storm, the disciples “were filled with great fear” (Mark 4:40).  During another storm, they saw him walking on the water, and they “were terrified” (Mark 6:50).  And after a miraculous catch of fish arranged by Jesus, Peter recognized his own unholiness and fell at the Lord’s knees and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:16).
            One of God’s attributes is omnipresence.  He is present everywhere.  Yet in the tabernacle and later in the temple, Yahweh promised that his presence would be located in the Holy of Holies, the place behind the curtain where the Ark of the Covenant would be situated.  There, the Lord God would be “enthroned upon the cherubim,” flanked by the sculpted angels on the mercy seat that sat on top of the ark.  From there, the Lord promised to meet with Moses and speak to him and tell him what to say to the people (Ex. 25:22).  On the Day of Atonement, the high priest would sprinkle sacrificial blood from bulls and goats over the mercy seat, thus covering over the sins of the people (Lev. 16:11-19).
            Peter wanted to build three tabernacles, one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.  But that would not have been appropriate.  Jesus is the tabernacle.  He is the presence of God.  “In him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,” St. Paul writes (Col. 1:19).  There is no more need for tabernacles and temples.  And here he is, exalted for a moment with his own divine nature shining, not a reflected glory that needed to be veiled as it was for Moses was when he came down the mountain.
            Actually, the glory of Jesus also had to be veiled for a time when he came down the mountain.  He had an appointment with another mountain, not one as high as this one, but one much more important.  This one was not really a mountain, but a raised elevation outside the walls of Jerusalem.  This one looked up to Mt. Zion where the temple stood in its glory, although a fading glory, for with Jesus it ceased to serve its purpose.  On Mt. Calvary, Jesus was not flanked by Moses or Elijah.  On Mt. Calvary, Jesus was not enthroned between two cherubim.  Instead, he was enthroned as the King of the Jews between two accursed criminals.  This was the Holy of Holies.  There, his blood was shed at the mercy seat of the cross.  There, on the cross, Jesus was lifted up above the earth, his footstool.  And from that cross, his blood dripped down upon his footstool to redeem the sins of the whole world.
            “The King in his might loves justice.  You have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob,”  the psalmist declares.  “You were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings.”  In Jesus, the justice of God over our unholiness has been met.  The wages of sin has been paid in full in the death of the sinless Son of God.  Our wrongdoings were avenged by the terrible price that God himself paid for them … the death of his only Son.  That is God’s equity.  That is the way he displays his righteousness.  He is indeed a just God, but he is also a forgiving God.  “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).       
            This is what we will be further contemplating in the coming season of Lent.  The voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.”  Each Wednesday night we will listen to the seven words or statements of Jesus from the cross.  We will learn from them and have our faith nourished by them.  The Transfiguration of Jesus was a preparation of sorts for Jesus as he faced the cross.  It prepared him for his journey down the mountain and gave the disciples a preview of the resurrection, something they did not fully understand until after the fact … besides which, Jesus told them not to say anything about it until he had risen from the dead.  For us, the Transfiguration is therefore a fitting conclusion to the Epiphany season and a preparation for our Lenten journey to Good Friday, knowing that the joy of Easter is always in view.
            “The Lord is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples.”  Zion is the hill on which Jerusalem sat, where the temple was built, the place where God promised to dwell with his people.  With Jesus as our temple, Zion is his Church.  He dwells among us.  The table of the Lord becomes the Holy of Holies where the very body and blood by which he redeemed us is given to us to eat and drink for forgiveness, life, and salvation.  And one day we will be brought into the eternal Zion, the new Jerusalem, where we will sing our eternal Alleluias with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven (Rev. 21:1-4).
            “Exalt the Lord our God; worship at his footstool! Holy is he!”
            “Exalt the Lord our God and worship at his holy mountain; for the Lord our God is holy!”
            Kneel down today at his footstool and receive the body and blood of your exalted King.  Worship him in Zion.  Holy is he … and you are made holy through him.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Ps 99:1–9). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany (February 8, 2015)

Wordle: Untitled

Epiphany 5 – Series B (February 8, 2015)
Mark 1:29-39

            During the season of Epiphany, the Scripture readings teach us how Jesus manifested himself as God in the flesh.  Hymn 394 summarizes this in these words: “Manifested by the star / To the sages from afar, / Branch of royal David’s stem / In Thy birth at Bethlehem … Manifest at Jordan’s stream, / Prophet, Priest, and King supreme; / And at Cana wedding guest / In Thy godhead manifest; / Manifest in pow’r divine, / Changing water into wine … Manifest in making whole / Palsied limbs and fainting soul; / Manifest in valiant fight / Quelling all the devil’s might.”  And each stanza concludes, “Anthems be to Thee addressed, / God in man made manifest” (LSB 394).
            Today’s Gospel reading shows us Jesus exercising his divine power on behalf of those who were “sick with various diseases” or “oppressed by demons.”  This follows up on last week’s reading where Jesus was in the synagogue in Capernaum on the Sabbath where he had cast out a demon.  After the service was over, he goes to the house of Simon Peter and Andrew and heals Peter’s mother-in-law of her fiery fever.  And take note that all of this is done on the Sabbath … the day when no work was supposed to be done.  Jesus would soon come into conflict with the Pharisees over this very issue.
            But this was a way in which Jesus taught that the Sabbath rest that God promised was found in Jesus himself.  He exercises his authority over all the effects of sin in the world, both the presence of illness and the existence of evil forces.  When sundown came, after the Sabbath was over, the whole city came out to be helped by Jesus.  Now that the Sabbath was over, they felt free to carry their sick friends and family to Jesus so they would not be “working” on the Sabbath, the day of rest.  And Jesus continues to be merciful and compassionate to those who need his help.  Likewise, Jesus is merciful and compassionate to us today, as well.  Jesus does his work among us at all times.  He never rests from his labor but continues to sustain us and even heal us.  It’s not normally in a miraculous way as in the days of his earthly ministry … although we certainly don’t limit him to doing miracles only back then.  But today he heals through the means he has given us … our body’s natural curative abilities and the gifts and talents he gives to doctors and surgeons and nurses and pharmacists.  He raises us up from our sick beds so we may serve others with the same love and compassion that he has shown to us.
            What about when God does not heal?  You’ve prayed and prayed and your illness is not taken away.  Your chronic condition worsens and you feel like such a burden to your family.  There are no easy answers.  God promises to hear our prayers (Ps. 50:15; Prov. 15:29).  He promises to answer them according to his will (Is. 65:24; John 14:13-14; 15:7; 1 John 5:14).  He also promises to work all things out for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28).  We trust that our suffering serves a greater purpose to draw us closer to him, even as the suffering of Jesus on the cross was the means by which we are delivered from sin, death, and hell.  We may not be raised from our sickbed, but we can still serve others as a witness to Christ’s mercy and compassion through his saving death and resurrection.  It can be humbling, no doubt, but we also can allow others to serve us with Christ’s mercy and compassion in the midst of our suffering.
            Jesus is more than simply a famous healer.  His healing ministry has a much greater significance.  The bodily healings he performed foreshadow forgiveness and resurrection.  He sends fevers away, and in his sacrificial death on the cross he sends our sins away.  He lifts up the sick, and his resurrection is the guarantee that he will one day lift us up from the grave.  Jesus demonstrates how he overcomes all the effects of sin and evil in the world.  His healings and exorcisms are a preview of the wholeness he will bring in the new creation.  This is a preview of the coming eternal kingdom of God.  The life and ministry of Jesus was the fulfillment of Zechariah’s words in the Benedictus, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people” (Luke 1:68).  And Jesus continues to visit us with his redemptive power as we hear and believe the message of the Cross and eat and drink the fruits of the Cross for the forgiveness of all our sins.  He has brought us into his kingdom.  He manifests the presence of his kingdom among you today in Word and Sacrament.
            The crowds pressed around him.  Jesus tirelessly sought to meet their needs.  The next morning, he went to a desolate place to pray.  This is only one of three times Mark mentions Jesus praying, and it usually revolves around some significant moment or crisis.[i]  What was the crisis here?  Probably the shallow and superficial response of the people … that they were only seeking him to have their physical needs met.  Perhaps here Jesus sought to pray to seek “guidance from the Father about what he should do in view of the responses he is getting to his ministry.”[ii]
            Consider the weight that was upon Jesus.  The pressure of the crowds.  The constant attention that people demanded.  Remember, Jesus is not only fully God, but fully man.  He needed rest and refreshment, too.  He needed solitude to pray and to recharge his batteries, so to speak.  If our Lord Jesus needed, this, how much more do we need this and should take time out of our busy lives to pray and refresh and recharge.  We have heavy responsibilities placed upon us, too.  Like he did for the disciples, Jesus invites us to “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest awhile” (Mark 6:30).  It may not be a weekend at a mountain retreat or a desert hermitage.  It might be just a few moments in the corner of your bedroom.  But when you consider all the things in life that weigh heavy upon us, it’s refreshing to spend time in God’s Word and prayer.
            Nothing compares, however, to the weight of responsibility placed upon Jesus.  The press of the crowd was only a preview of the pressing weight of the world’s sin soon to be placed upon him at the cross.  The solitude he sought was only a preview of the solitude that he endured as he suffered and died for the sins of the world.  Yet even from the cross, in the darkness of desolation, he prayed faithfully to his Father.  Jesus was faithful to the end for you and for me, acting as our substitute all the way to the bitter end.
            The disciples search for Jesus.  When they found him, they said, “Everyone is looking for you.”  Do you hear the veiled rebuke?  “Where have you been, Jesus? We have been looking all over for you? All these people are asking for you.  We’re kind of tired of telling them, ‘We don’t know where he is!’”
            And do you hear a hint of sadness in Jesus’ response?  “Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.”  Jesus came to preach the Good News of the forgiveness of sins through him.  He did not come to be a miracle worker.  He did not come to be a general who would lead the people in rebellion against the occupying Roman Empire.  He came to call people to repentant faith in himself in preparation for his saving death and resurrection. The people were only coming for healing.  They weren’t coming to hear Jesus’ preach about repentance and the presence of God’s kingdom.  This is one reason why Jesus would not have the demons use his name.  The demons who declared him to be the Son of God did not do so in repentant faith.  I suppose this is not all that different to people today who flock to healing rallies and revivals or people who listen to false teachers today who tell them what their itching ears want to hear.
            To preach.  That is why Jesus came.  And that is why we gather here.  To hear God’s Word preached.  To hear and receive the Good News of the forgiveness of sins through Christ’s death and resurrection … in our ears and in our mouths.  When that Good News is preached, our souls are healed.  When that Good News is preached, the demons tremble and flee.  And one day, after the feverish pace of life is over and we rest in our graves, Jesus will come and take us by the hand and raise us up and we will worship in his presence for eternity.  Amen.

[i] 6:46 after feeding of the 5,000; 14:32-41 in Gethsemane before his arrest and crucifixion
[ii] Witherington, quoted in Voelz’ Matthew commentary

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (February 1, 2015)

Wordle: Untitled

Epiphany 4 – Series B (February 1, 2015)
Deut. 18:15-20; Mark 1:21-28

            The traveling rabbi enters the seaside village of Capernaum.  Four of his fisherman followers accompany him.  Just before this he had invited these sun-baked, calloused, rugged men to learn from him.  He had great plans for them to be “fishers of men.”  His authoritative call impelled them to leave their business behind and travel with him and sit at his feet.
            Now it is the Sabbath.  The day to set aside all work so that you can go to the synagogue and let God’s Word do its work in you.  The traveling rabbi enters the synagogue in Capernaum to teach, and the people are astonished at his teaching.  Like the fishermen-followers of Jesus, they noted that his teaching was with authority, not like the scribes they were accustomed to hearing from.
            A recent commentary on this text says that Mark’s language here gives the sense that Jesus was “exuding” authority.  How did Jesus exude authority?
            First, let’s consider how people exude authority today.  In the office, you dress for success.  Wear a suit and a power tie.  Stand up straight, no matter how tall or short you are.  Look confident.  Make eye contact.  Use a clear, direct, commanding voice.  On the football field, you send the Legion of Boom out to crush Tom Brady and the Patriot’s offense (I promise, that is my only Super Bowl reference today).
            How did Jesus exude authority?  Was there something about his appearance?  Probably not.  The prophet Isaiah described the coming Messiah this way: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Is. 53:2).  Other than his appearance on the Mount of Transfiguration, his divine presence was not noticeable.  He looked like an ordinary human being.  Yet he taught with authority, and “not as the scribes,” Mark states.  In other words, he spoke his own words and never quoted other rabbis, as would have been the custom of other teachers in those days.
            Jesus is the “prophet” promised in today’s reading from Deuteronomy 18.  As they prepared to enter the Promised Land after their wilderness wanderings, Moses says to the people: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers – it is to him you shall listen – just as you desired of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’”  Back at Sinai, the people had heard the fearful thunder and flashes of lightning and smoking mountain and they were terrified.  When God speaks unveiled, fear and terror strike sinful human beings.  No one can stand before his glory and live.  Even in the Old Testament, when God spoke, it appears that he veiled himself in some way, sometimes as the Angel of the Lord, once as a burning bush, at other times as pillar of cloud or fire.
            And so, God promised one final prophet to come of whom he said, “I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.”  “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers – it is to him you shall listen.”  At the Mount of Transfiguration, this is exactly what the voice from heaven said.  Surrounded by Moses and Elijah, two of the great prophets of the Old Testament, God the Father said “This is my beloved Son … listen to him” (Mark 9:7).  Jesus is that prophet like Moses … but more than a prophet, of course: “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail th’ incarnate Deity,” to quote a famous Christmas hymn.  He is the very Son of God who speaks the words his Father gave him, the authoritative words we listen to in the Scriptures today.
            The authority of Jesus is challenged by demonic forces.  Here in our reading, it is challenged in the synagogue, no less.  The very place where God’s Word was read and explained.  Other than our Lord’s temptation a few verses earlier, this is the first place where opposition to Jesus’ teaching arises.  The man with unclean spirit cries out, “What have you to do with us?”  That is to say, “We have nothing in common with you!”
            We gather here, safe and snug in our pews, and look out at the evil in the world today.  We forget that here in the Church is where opposition to Jesus and his teaching begins.  The devil attends church, too, you know.  Now, his opposition is not as obvious as in our text, where demons cry out with loud voices.  It’s much more subtle.  False teaching and false teachers infect our ranks.  The devil wants us to doubt and question the truthfulness and authority of the Scriptures.  He also loves to cause division … division between fellow Christians, and division over the teachings of the Scriptures.  Both are a poor witness to the unity that Christ desires for his Church.
            You and I are also tempted to ask, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”  Our sinful nature is moved to say that we have nothing in common with Jesus.  God’s judgment and wrath convict us, like that terrifying voice from Sinai, and we ask, “Have you come to destroy us?”  We fail to hear and believe the words of Jesus which teach us, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).  Jesus has plenty in common with us.  Hebrews 2 says, Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery … Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:14-17).  The sinless Son of God came to share in flesh and blood with you in order to be the perfect atoning sacrifice for your sins and mine.  He came to call all of us back into God’s kingdom by faith in him.  God had said through Moses that the prophet who presumes to speak a word that he was not commanded to speak should be put to death.  And the great divine prophet Jesus came, speaking nothing but truth in the name of the Father, and was unjustly put to death on a cross … a death he endured willingly, lovingly, so that you and I might be given life eternal.
            Jesus did not come to destroy us, but came instead to destroy the evil forces arrayed against him and against his redeemed people.  He muzzled the demon in our text and cast him out, a preview of the day in which the devil and all that is opposed to God will be eternally silenced and cast into outer darkness.  1 John 3:5 says that Jesus “appeared in order to take away sins,” and then verse 8 says, “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”  And Jesus said that on the Last Day, “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace” (Matt. 13:41-42).
            The authority that Jesus displayed is the authority of his Word.  With a word he created the world.  With a word he silences demons and casts them out.  The one who ordered all things comes to destroy the one who brought disorder.  The unclean spirit is cast out by the one bearing the clean Spirit, given to him at the Jordan.  At the font, you were given the clean Spirit.  Now, you can sing, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.  Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.  Restore unto me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with your free Spirit.”  The Holy Spirit cleanses you, forgives you, brings you in and keeps you in God’s kingdom.  He makes you a new creation now and keeps you ready and watchful for the day when Jesus returns in glory and the new creation will come in all its fullness.
            The night before his crucifixion, Jesus prayed to his Father, “Glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:2-3).  And then, before his ascension, he told his disciples, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” by baptizing and teaching them in the authoritative name of the Triune God.  Jesus silences the demons, but he sends forth his Church, cleansed and redeemed, filled with his clean Spirit, to boldly declare him as the Holy One of God.  Trust his authoritative Word today that gives what it says … the forgiveness of sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.