Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sermon for Palm Sunday (April 13, 2014)

Wordle: Untitled

“The Prayer for Glory” (John 12:28)

Do you have a hard time concentrating?  Does your mind wander?  What seems to be the problem?  Are you worried or anxious about something?  Are you stressed out?  Are you over-booked, so all you can think about is your upcoming appointments but are no good for your present activities and responsibilities?  Do you find yourself complaining inside, “I just can’t seem to think straight these days!”
As we enter Holy Week today, I wonder to myself, “How was Jesus able to think straight in his days?”  What you and I go through is certainly nothing like what Jesus went through.  He knew his death was looming.  It was just around the corner.  And his death was like none other before.  With the weight of the world’s sin upon him, he was going to have to suffer like no human being has ever suffered before.  It’s no wonder that, not long after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus said, “Now is my soul troubled.”
Troubled souls are led to pray.  When our souls are troubled, we pray to be delivered from whatever is troubling us.  When the soul of Jesus was troubled, his prayer was quite different.  He said, “what shall I say?  ‘Father save me from this hour’?”  No.  He knew that there was a greater purpose for what was to come.  And so he said, “But for this purpose I have come to this hour.  Father, glorify your name.”  As Jesus faced the cross, Jesus prayed for glory … not his own, but the glory of his Heavenly Father.
You and I often seek glory for ourselves.  We do something nice for someone.  We may even do it with the thought of love and service.  But sometimes we do things with mixed motives.  That nice thing we did out of love and service?  We get mad if the person for whom we did it doesn’t say “Thank you.”  In all of the things we do for others, there’s a part of us that thinks, “Hey, I’m a pretty good guy for doing this.”  We like to get the glory.  We want credit to be given to us for what we do.  And if no one notices it, we get hurt or angry.
But this is exactly the opposite of what Jesus tells us.  Jesus said, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25)  Whoever loves his life – or for our purposes this morning, we might say, whoever thrives on getting credit, whoever likes to get the glory for what they do – will lose their life for eternity.  Sound harsh?  Yes, but Jesus is teaching us here that those who are always seeking glory and credit don’t really understand or believe in his own selfless sacrifice at the cross.  In the very next verse, Jesus says, “If anyone serves me, he must follow me” (John 12:26).  Follow him where?  To the cross.  To the place of suffering.  Believing in Jesus, we follow him to the cross, where he earned forgiveness for all our sins.  But following Jesus also means following in his footsteps, and that may mean that we also have to suffer and sacrifice as we serve … and not be concerned about success and honor and glory.
“Now is my soul troubled,” Jesus said.  “And what shall I say?  Father, save me from this hour?  But for this purpose I have come to this hour.  Father, glorify your name.”  In this prayer for glory, Jesus sought the Father’s glory.  In seeking his Father’s glory, he did his Father’s will … which was to go to the cross.  The cross of Christ doesn’t seem very glorious.  There was blood there.  There was pain there.  There was a lot of ugliness there, with mocking and shouting from the crowd.  But the cross does indeed display God’s glory, because it’s there where we truly see God’s love, his mercy, his justice, his power, his righteousness, and his holiness in action.
            He did this out of mercy and love for his creation.  He did this so that you would have your sins forgiven.  He did this to display his justice … so that the sin of the world would be judged and condemned in the innocent death of Jesus.  And although Jesus appeared weak upon the cross, yet his power was in action there, too.  Through his death and resurrection, Satan’s power over us is defeated.  Everything that the devil throws at us to incite us against God and turn us against him is brought to nothing.
A little over a year ago, 18 year-old T.J. Lane was in an Ohio courtroom to face sentencing for a shooting that left three high school classmates dead and three others wounded.  Life in prison without parole was the court’s decree.  Lane sat there listening to the court proceedings with a smirk on his face, flipping off the victims’ families, and wearing a white t-shirt with the word “killer” written on it in bold, black, hand-written letters.  Although he had inflicted untold emotional pain upon the families, the truth was … Lane could do no more.  Although he still proudly puffed himself up in the courtroom, he was a defeated enemy.  His mocking threats and violent gestures were empty.[1]
The same goes for Satan’s attempts on our life with God.  Because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we can view Satan the same way.  He is still a “roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).  But that lion is a “toothless” enemy.  His threats and violent gestures are empty.  He has been dethroned and defeated by the Lion of Judah.  All that he does now are the last gasps of one trying to maintain some semblance of power and control over us.  But he has none.  By virtue of our baptism, we belong to God.  We are in his loving care, even when things appear otherwise.
As Jesus prayed, “Father, glorify your name,” he didn’t seek to get the glory for what he was about to do.  Instead, he humbled himself.  We heard this morning St. Paul’s words from Philippians 2 that the Son of God “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”  That’s what our Lord’s whole life was about.  From his conception in the womb of the Virgin, to his crucifixion on the cross of Calvary, Jesus laid aside his rights as God and suffered and died for you and for me.
            Jesus prayed, “Father, glorify your name” … and God the Father answered his prayer.  A thundering voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”  In the entire mission of Jesus up to that point, God had glorified his own name.  In Jesus, the grace, the power, and the blessed purposes of the Father shined brightly.  And in the passion and resurrection of Jesus, his purposes would shine brightly again.[2]
            Jesus never sought his own glory.  Yet, in his High Priestly prayer the night of his betrayal and arrest, Jesus did pray that the Father would glorify him.  But this glory would only come through the cross.  He prayed, “Father, the hour has come; 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.  I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do.  And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:1-5).
            God the Father answered that prayer, too.  Because Jesus humbled himself and was obedient to his Father’s will, even to the point of dying on the cross, God the Father has made the name of Jesus higher and more glorious than any other name.  As St. Paul wrote, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
As we glorify and exalt and worship the name of Jesus, we are glorifying our Heavenly Father who sent his Son to be our Savior.  And we can stop worrying about getting the glory, about taking credit for what we do.  Instead, we can give all the glory to God.  He works all things in us in the first place … faith, repentance, trust, and even the good works that we do.
It’s through Jesus that you and I receive glory – the glory of forgiveness, the glory of eternal life, and the glory of heaven – as Jesus said, “If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also.  If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.”
We don’t pray to receive glory.  But the Father gives it to us as a gift of grace for Jesus’ sake.

[2] Comments here adapted from Lenski, John, p. 871

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (March 30, 2014)

Wordle: Untitled

“That the Works of God Might Be Displayed” (John 9:1-39)

            I didn’t know it was against the Law to make mud pies on the Sabbath.  That’s apparently what the Pharisees believed.  They seemed to be upset about the fact that Jesus made some mud and put it on the eyes of a blind man.
But why DID Jesus use mud and tell the man to go wash?  If he wanted to—and at other times he did—he could just say the word, and the man would be healed.  We don’t know for sure why Jesus did what he did in this case.  We can take an educated guess, though, seeing how the Pharisees reacted.
For one thing, Jesus was probably sending a message about the foolishness of man-made traditions and laws that had been added to God’s Word and by which people thought they were gaining God’s favor.  One of those laws was that you weren’t supposed to knead dough on Sabbath.  That would be work, something you weren’t supposed to do on the Sabbath Day.  “NO MUD PIES!!!”  And so Jesus broke that man-made law by kneading some mud together.  Or perhaps the Pharisees thought that making mud was the work of a bricklayer, again something you weren’t supposed to do on the Sabbath.
When he reached down to the dirt, Jesus may also have been pointing us back to the book of Genesis.  In the beginning, God’s creative power was shown as he took some dirt and made a man.  Here, Jesus’ creative power as God was shown as he took some dirt and made a man see.
Even the place where Jesus sent him to wash has significance.  On the last day of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, water from the spring-fed pool of Siloam was taken and poured out at the temple.  And throughout the feast, a huge menorah gave light in the temple courts.  Perhaps Jesus told the man to wash in the pool of Siloam to emphasize that He is the living water who gives light to blind eyes.  Remember how last week we heard Jesus tell the Samaritan woman at the well that he would give her living water.  And here Jesus says in the hearing of this blind man, “I am the light of the world.”
All this was meant to show “That the Works of God Might Be Displayed” in this man’s life through Jesus.  That was the issue at hand for the disciples, when they asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  That was the common belief in those days.  Not much different than today, either, is it?  When bad things happen to us, our first questions may go something like this: “Have I done something to deserve this?  Is God punishing me for my sin?”  We might also blame our parents for something that has gone wrong in our life, rather than take personal responsibility and admitting our faults.  Moreover, when tragedy strikes, people often begin to wonder where God is in all of it.
Jesus used this occasion to teach his disciples—and you and me—that our circumstances are not necessarily the direct result of any particular sin.  Regarding the blind man, Jesus said, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents.”  That’s not to say they were not sinners.  They were.  And we all live in a broken world where bad things happen…like blindness or other diseases.  Or tragedies, like mudslides that bring death and destruction.  But Jesus explains that this man was born blind so “that the works of God might be displayed in him.”  And that’s the way you can look at anything that happens to you.  God can use the circumstances and events of your life and display his works in you.
The works of God were displayed in showing the blind man mercy (1-7, 13-17).  Jesus first showed mercy to the man by explaining his ailment.  You can be sure the blind man heard what Jesus had to say.  The blind often have a keen sense of hearing, so this man probably hung on every word that Jesus said.  Not only that, but Jesus was right there in his presence, talking to the disciples.  Having heard what Jesus said, you can imagine the relief which he felt after years of guilt and resentment.  He probably thought, like everyone else, that he was being punished for something.  That’s why he was blind.  But Jesus offered him hope, when he mercifully declared, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents.
Also, Jesus showed mercy to this man by giving him attention and touch.  This man is representative of all who are overlooked in the world, all the lonely and hurting whom we pass by without giving a second thought, but for whom Christ also died and rose.  Jesus said, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.”  Notice that Jesus says, “we” must work.  You and I share in Christ’s work as we show mercy to others.  He has given us daylight—every day of our life—to work for him…to serve others with his love and mercy.  There will come a day when no one can work…the day of our death.  Our time is limited here.  Therefore, God calls us to take every opportunity to reach out to others with his love and mercy so that the works of God might be displayed.
The works of God were also displayed in leading this man to Jesus (35-38).  But first, our text says, “They had cast him out.”  The Pharisees kicked him out of the synagogue.  This poor man went seemingly out of the frying pan and into the fire…from blindness with its accompanying guilt to excommunication with its accompanying condemnation.  And all this because of his confession that Jesus was a prophet, acknowledging that his healing came from God.
But Jesus never loses sight of those in whom he has taken a personal interest, and so he seeks the man out.  He earnestly desires to draw this man closer to himself, to lead him to a saving faith.  Likewise, Jesus never loses sight of you!  He has taken a personal interest in you, and he earnestly desires to draw you closer to himself.  And isn’t that obvious, considering all that Jesus has done for you…going to the cross for you, washing you in the waters of Holy Baptism, giving you his very own body and blood in Holy Communion?
            Like the blind man, God can work in the midst of your suffering to draw you closer to Jesus.  As we do the work that God has sent us to do, sharing in Christ’s work, we can bring Jesus to others, too, helping them to endure their troubles and tragedies, their illnesses and ailments…even if physical healing does not occur, even if things don’t get any better.  Jesus is still with us and will give us strength to endure…because he gives us his light to SEE in the midst of our darkness.  With the light of Christ, we can see the bigger picture.  We can see that God is working even when absolutely awful events occur.
            Patricia St. John was an English author who spent over 25 years of her life as a missionary nurse and aid worker in the Middle East and Africa.  At one point, she was in Sudan serving war refugees.  They had suffered terribly and had lost everything, yet those among them who were Christians still gave thanks to God.  One night, she stood in a crowded little Sudanese church listening to those uprooted believers singing joyfully.  This was a life-changing moment for her.  “We would have changed their circumstances,” she said, “but we would not have changed them.” She realized that God “does not always lift people out of the situation.  He Himself comes into the situation … He does not pluck them out of the darkness.  He becomes the light in the darkness.”[1]
The works of God were also displayed when spiritual life was worked in the former blind man (38).  You know, a person can have perfect 20/20 vision, but still not see Jesus…not know the true God…not know who Jesus is.  That’s the way it was for the man in our text today.  Jesus had to come and work spiritual life in this man.  He could now see, but his spiritual sight was still imperfect.  He had been a part of the synagogue.  He had heard the promises of the Messiah.  Perhaps he even trusted in those promises.  Now, Jesus graciously reveals himself to this man.
The understanding of this man about Jesus grew from a man he had never seen but only heard, to a man he saw with his eyes and confessed to be a prophet, to a man in whom he trusted, a man whom he worshipped.  The eyes of his heart were opened, and he truly saw Jesus for the first time…not just as a prophet, but as God.  Jesus received the man into a new life, apart from the old ways, apart from man-made laws and traditions, into a life of faith in Him.
Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.”  That is the terrible judgment that is laid upon those who cling so tenaciously to their own self-righteousness.  For the Pharisees, their hearts were hardened even more.  Even though they could see with their eyes, they were in reality truly blind.  But for the man who was once blind, his heart was opened to faith, he was truly enlightened.  And that is the gift that God gives to all who come to him, acknowledging their own blindness, and receiving true sight to know Jesus as their Savior.
            The faith that God gives assures us that suffering serves a great purpose.  God uses suffering to mold and shape us.  God uses suffering to drive us to his Word and promises.
More important, however, than what our suffering does is what Christ’s suffering has done for us.  Christ’s suffering served a great purpose.  The works of God were displayed at the cross.  The Light of the World endured the darkness of the sin of the world and shined forth when the stone was rolled away from the tomb.
Jesus is the Light of the World for you.  He has put the mud of his creative power on your eyes, so that you can see him for who he is.  You have been washed in the pool of Siloam which we call the font, and the Spirit was poured out upon you so that you might believe and worship Jesus … so you can rightly see how the works of God are displayed in your life.

[1] “He Becomes the Light in the Darkness”, found at

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent (March 23, 2014)

Wordle: Untitled

“The Gift of God” (John 4:5-30, 39-42)
            A couple of years ago I panicked.  Here’s what happened.  I was out to dinner with a friend.  When it came time to pay, I reached to get my wallet, and my pocket was empty.  I looked under the seat and under the table.  Nothing.  I went outside and looked inside, beside, beneath my car.  Nothing.  I mentally retraced all my steps since I left the house.  But I hadn’t been anywhere else.  Figuring I must have dropped my wallet outside and some scoundrel nabbed it and was preparing to use all my credit cards on a criminal shopping spree, I called Julie and told her we need to cancel everything.  And we did.  And I got home, and my wallet was right where I left it, right where I always put it when I empty my pockets at home.  It was left in the most obvious place, and I didn’t even think to look there first.
            Has something like this ever happened to you?  You look all over the place for your eyeglasses, and someone points out to you that they are propped up on top of your head.  You search frantically for your car keys, and finally, there they are, right on the table which you walked by a dozen times.  You desperately hunt all over your house for something you misplaced, only to find that it was in plain sight, right in front of you the whole time.
            But hunting down wallets, eyeglasses, and keys are nothing in comparison to looking for peace, purpose, meaning, comfort, hope, a sense of satisfaction and well-being.  I would venture to say that all but the most pessimistic fatalists are looking to fill their lives with one or more of the things in that list.
            Put yourself in the shoes of the Samaritan woman in this morning’s Gospel text.  After her initial surprise that a Jewish man would ask a Samaritan woman for a drink, Jesus says to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”  The gift of God was right in front of her, and she didn’t realize it.  The refreshing, life-giving power and peace of the Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior of the world, was right in front of her, and she didn’t realize it.  The fulfillment of all her spiritual needs could be met in this man right in front of her, and she had no clue.  
            This gift of God is like no other gift.  It’s free, of course.  There are no strings attached.  Jesus gives himself and his life and salvation to us without cost.  He already paid the price for our sin with his shed blood at the cross.  But there are some other unique things that we can learn about this gift from our text today.
            First, the gift of God is for outsiders.  The Samaritan woman was an outsider.  She was not a part of the covenant community of Israel.  Jews viewed Samaritans as half-breeds, unclean descendants of the remnants of the ten tribes of Israel who intermarried with foreigners who were settled in Samaria after the Assyrians conquered the region some 700 years earlier.  Nevertheless, Jesus speaks to this woman (also contrary to custom, since a Jewish rabbi would not speak to a woman in public).  He treats her with respect.  He offers his gift of eternal life to her.
            You and I are all outsiders until God claims us as his own.  St. Paul writes in Colossians 1 that “you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (Col. 1:21-22).  Paul also tells the Roman Christians that they are “called to belong to Jesus Christ … loved by God and called to be saints” (Rom. 1:6-7).  That describes you who are baptized, you who have been marked with the name of the Triune God.  His gift of eternal life is yours.  You are no longer an outsider.  You are a part of God’s kingdom, God’s family, saints, holy ones in Christ Jesus.
            Second, the gift of God is for individuals.  Jesus didn’t overlook this woman.  He took time to speak with her one-on-one.  This was one of Jesus’ many “divine appointments.”  Of course, Jesus spent time with large groups of people, although the size of those groups dwindled over the course of his ministry because people rejected him and his message.  Yet Jesus also focused his attention on individuals and spends time with them.  I love the way Jesus deals with this woman.  He’s straightforward: “Give me a drink” … and uses this as a springboard into a deeper conversation.  He piques her interest with his talk of living water that will satisfy one’s thirst forever and never run dry.  He is patient, even though the woman’s responses might be perceived as a bit sarcastic.  He lovingly reaches out to her, because he wanted to give this gift to her, and to many others through her. This encounter with one person brought many to faith when she returned to her village and told the people about Jesus.
            We talk a lot about being a member of the Body of Christ in the church, and rightly so.  We are brought into a community, a family of faith.  You are brought into a body, but you are still important as an individual.  Sadly, we sometimes fail to make individuals feel welcome in this community.  Maybe you have gotten overlooked, forgotten in the crowd.  This doesn’t just happen in large congregations.  It happens here, too.  If I or any of us here have failed you in this way, forgive us.  And if any of us know that we have failed to reach out to certain individuals in our congregation – and outside, too – for whatever reason, then we need to repent.  We should not put any obstacles in the way of anyone hearing the Gospel and growing with us into an ever deepening relationship with the Lord through his Word and with each other here in the Body of Christ.
            Third, the gift of God is for manifest sinners.  Jesus brings the woman’s living condition to the fore.  She was probably not the most honorable woman in the community.  She’s had five husbands.  We don’t know why.  We can only imagine.  Some may have died.  Maybe she wasn’t the easiest to live with and her husbands sent her packing.  Maybe some were abusive and she managed to get free of them, although that was next to impossible in those days.  Whatever the case may be, the sixth man she was with was not her husband.  This is clearly wrong.  But notice how Jesus treats her.  He doesn’t berate her.  He doHe continues to reach out to her in love.  He wants to bring her to repentant trust, to give her the gift of God, living water, the refreshment of the Holy Spirit, faith, the forgiveness of sins.
            If Jesus were to meet you at the well, what might come to the fore in your life? Is there anything specific you need to confess?  Don’t hesitate to do so.  And receive in faith the gift of God, the gift that gives refreshment.  We need that refreshment.  There are times of dryness that come into our lives, times of spiritual dryness.  Our souls feel parched.  There are many causes.  Unconfessed sin.  Sinful actions that we willfully continue.  Physical problems.  Emotional problems.  Addictions.  Removing ourselves from God’s means of grace.  Not making use of God’s Word and Sacrament as we ought.  We are so very weak.  But hear the word of the Lord from St. Paul today: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.  For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:6-8).
            Jesus freely offers living water.  He offers your dried up soul refreshment, like taking a drink from an ice cold spring in the middle of a blazing desert.  In the wilderness, the children of Israel were refreshed with water from a rock.  And like that water, this living water Jesus gives is also miraculous.  Our hearts are like rock, lifeless and stony, until the message of Christ crucified for the sins of the world comes to us and gives us faith and eternal life.
            Jesus led the Samaritan woman to faith in himself.  He revealed himself to her as the true Messiah.  He explains that the place of worship is not important.  Worshiping the true God in spirit and in truth is what’s important.  It’s not on Mt. Gerizim, as the Samaritans believed.  It’s not even in Jerusalem, because the true temple, the true place of the presence of God, was sitting right in front of her on the edge of Jacob’s well.  And likewise for you today, the gift of God is right in front of you in places you might not expect.  It’s found in the person of Jesus.  It’s given in the humble means by which he fills you with his living water: words, water, bread and wine.
            Jesus shows his love for outsiders, individuals, sinners of all stripes, and gives refreshment.  He gives living water … the refreshment of the forgiveness of sins and the Spirit-worked faith that he causes to well up within us.  He is the source of that living water.  He is the well that never runs dry.  He is the rock from which that living water flows.  He is the rock of ages who was cleft for us at the cross.  He is the rock of ages who could not be kept in the grave by any lesser rocks standing at the entrance to his tomb.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent (March 9, 2014)

Wordle: Untitled

“Stand Your Ground” (Matthew 4:1-11)

To “stand your ground” means to refuse to back down in an argument, to stand up for your rights, or to resist an attack.  In the news recently, protestors in Ukraine were said to have “stood their ground” against riot police.  They refused to move or relocate in order to get their point across.  They wanted to oust their current leaders and put a new government in their place.  Here in our country, most states have a law on the books called the “Stand Your Ground” law.  This law states that if an attempt on your life is being made, you have the right to defend yourself with deadly force.

Now is the not the time or place to argue about international politics or the appropriateness of self-defense.  But what is appropriate is to talk about how Satan makes attempts on your life in Christ with the daily temptations that he places before you.  And you and I often fall to those temptations long before we feel their full force.  Instead of standing our ground, we slide down the slippery slope of sinful rebellion, which ultimately ends in despair, unbelief, and eternal death.  Our sinful hearts are so weak.  Our sinful desires are so strong.  And the devil knows exactly where to hit you.  He knows your weaknesses.  He knows what your Achilles’ Heel is.  He knows what the chinks in your armor are.  That’s where he strikes.

But thanks be to God, you have a Savior who stood his ground for you.  That’s what today’s Gospel lesson is all about.  Fresh from the waters of his Baptism, Jesus is led into the wilderness to face the devil’s temptations.  This was all part of God’s purpose and plan, of course.  Notice that it was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus out to this confrontation.  This was all part of Christ’s work as the Son of God.  Last week, we visited the Mount of Transfiguration, where the Father’s voice came from heaven, “This is my beloved Son” … an echo of the Father’s voice at our Lord’s baptism: “This is my beloved Son.

In light of his baptism, what does it mean that Jesus is the Son of God? What has the Son come to do?  Jesus, the Son of God, came to be the faithful son that Israel failed to be.  “Out of Egypt I called my son,” the Lord said of Israel through the prophet Hosea (Hos. 11:1).  In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel was personified as God’s son.  They were called to be God’s people, God’s nation, called to be faithful, called to be a light to the Gentiles.  Yahweh delivered them from their slavery in Egypt.  He brought them through the waters of the Red Sea.  He led them into the wilderness where he tested them for 40 years, to see if they would be faithful to him (Ex. 16:4; 20:20; Dt. 8:16).

But their record in the wilderness was not good.  It is a history of grumbling against God, complaining, doubting God’s provision and purposes.  A history of doubting God’s protection, wondering whether Yahweh would truly care for them.  A history of putting God to the test.  A history of idolatry, turning from worship of the true God and him alone.  While Moses was on Mt. Sinai receiving the Law, the people were at the base of the mountain worshiping the Golden Calf.  When the 40 years of wandering were up, the people of Israel accommodated themselves to the culture of Canaan and worshiped the false gods of the people who remained in the land.

And so, fresh from the waters of his baptism, Jesus’ mission in the wilderness is to prove that he has come to be God’s faithful Son.  Satan seeks to find a way to divert Jesus off the path of being God’s faithful Son.

After 40 days in the wilderness, Jesus is hungry.  There is no manna coming from heaven.  So Satan tries to get Jesus to doubt God’s provision.  “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.”  He tries to get Jesus to use his own power to serve himself in his time of need rather than relying on his Father’s provision and purposes.  But Jesus stands his ground.  He fully relies on his Father, on his promises, on every Word that comes from his mouth.

From the top of the temple, Satan tells Jesus to throw himself down and see if God will protect him.  Here Satan tries to get Jesus to doubt his Father’s protection, wondering whether the Father will care for him and protect him as his Word promises.  This is an interesting tactic.  Satan quotes God’s Word, yet twists it, takes it out of context, misquotes it.  Psalm 91 says, “For he will command his angels concerning you,” but Satan conveniently leaves out “to guard you in all your ways” … that is, the ways that conform with the will of God.  This happens all the time today with false teachers, proving the diabolical origins of their doctrines.  They use just enough of God’s Word to make their teaching sound somewhat correct, but either subtract from or add to the Scriptures.  This is not unlike the way the serpent deceived Adam and Eve in the Garden.  Once again, Jesus stands his ground.  He will not put his Father to the test.  He will not have his Father prove his promises by doing something foolhardy, like leaping from the top of the temple.

Then, on a high mountain, Satan attempts to turn Jesus away from worshiping God alone and to worship him.  What hopeless condition would the world be in if the Savior had bowed his knee to Satan and avoided the cross?  What bizarre partnership would that have been with God in the Flesh subservient to the chief of the demons?  But Jesus stood his ground.  Jesus is True God, but also True Man.  As the faithful Son, he humbled himself to live in humble worship of his Father.  He will not acknowledge any other God than his Father.  As True Man, Jesus often referred to the Father as his God (John 20:17; Mt 27:46; Eph 1:17; 1 Cor. 3:23), and he could certainly say that without diminishing his own full deity.  We believe and confess according to Scripture that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit … three distinct persons, yet one God, each person sharing the same divine essence.

Fresh from the waters of the Jordan, Jesus goes into the wilderness, does battle with Satan, and wins.  Where Israel failed, Jesus is God’s faithful Son.  And this is true for you and me, too … for all people.  Where you and I fail, Jesus is God’s faithful Son.  Or, as St. Paul declares in Romans 5, whereas Adam’s trespass brought condemnation to all men, the obedience of Jesus leads to justification and life for all men (Rom 5:18).

Now, what does this mean in light of your baptism?  Fresh from the waters of the font, you are declared a child of God.  All that Jesus accomplished in his perfect life and sacrificial death on the cross is yours.  Your sins are forgiven.  You are made new.  You are given faith to trust in your Savior’s saving work on your behalf.  In Christ, you are God’s faithful son, God’s faithful daughter.

Once you are baptized, you are also sent into the wilderness of a world that is opposed to God and his will and ways.  The devil “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).  Satan only means ill will for you.  He relentlessly tries to get you off the path of living as God’s child.  And you may find yourself veering off that path.  When you do, as God’s baptized child, you know to repent of the ways in which you have fallen for the devil’s lies.  Then, continue to rely on God’s Word and promises.  Trust in God’s care and protection for you and do not put him to the test.  Live in his kingdom as a loyal subject and loyal son or daughter.  Worship God alone.  And recall what true worship is.  True worship is not what you do.  True worship is receiving what God has done.  It is faith.  Pure receptivity.  Receiving all the good gifts that God has in store for you … life that never ends, sins washed away, peace of heart and mind, joy in the midst of sorrow, the hope of the world to come, and strength ... strength to stand up under temptation, as the author of Hebrews says, "Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 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 may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4:14-16).  When you are tempted, approach God's throne of grace with confidence.  Stand your ground as you stand on God’s ground … on holy ground … strengthened in Word and Sacrament.

Jesus stood his ground for you.  He conquered Satan for you.  The devil is a defeated enemy.  He has no claim over you.  God has claimed you in your baptism.  So “resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).  That’s what Jesus did.  The end of the text says, “Then the devil left him.”  But Matthew also gives us this interesting bit of information: “and behold, angels came and ministered to him.”  What was that all about?  How did they minister to him?  We don’t really know.  All we know is that angels were present and served him.  Perhaps, after this battle with the chief of the fallen angels, God the Father knew his Son need some encouragement from the holy angels.

This wasn’t the last battle, though.  Satan kept on attacking.  St. Luke tells us that the devil “departed from him until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13).  You can be sure that Christ’s agony in the Garden was one of those times … and note how another angel appeared there to strengthen him (Luke 22:43).  And at the cross, Jesus surely heard Satan through the voices of those who mocked him, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!” (Matt. 27:40).

Seemingly helpless, Jesus was in complete control.  Nailed to the cross for you and for me, Jesus stood his ground.  And after all his temptations were over, then angels appeared one more time.  But this time, it was not to minister to Jesus.  This time it was to announce, “He is risen!”

But I better not say that too loud.  You might be tempted to shout out an “Alleluia.”  And we’re not supposed to do that during Lent!


Sunday, March 2, 2014

Sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord (March 2, 2014)

Wordle: Untitled

“Jesus Only” (Matthew 17:1-9)

Every year, the season of Epiphany flies under our liturgical radar.  The seasons of Advent and Christmas, on the other hand, make pretty bright blips on our radar screens.  In fact, they flash brightly at us, with all the lights hung on trees and homes, with all the smells of freshly cut evergreens and freshly baked cookies, with all the familiar hymns and carols sung by candlelight.
            But then, January 6 rolls around, the day of Epiphany, and the radar screen goes blank.  The trees come down.  The lights are switched off.  The hymns of Epiphany are vaguely familiar.  But it’s not as easy to sing “O Wondrous Type, O Vision Fair” with the same gusto as “Joy to the World.”
Maybe that’s one reason why the season of Epiphany doesn’t get much attention.  We’re a bit spent after a busy Christmas season.  The New Year begins.  Some of us focus on what we’re going to change about ourselves or how we are going to do better over the next twelve months.  And then, just when the Epiphany season gets rolling, Lent comes along.  This is especially true when Easter happens to come earlier in certain years.  It’s a fairly late one this year.
Epiphany should be a bigger deal for us.  In fact, in Eastern Orthodox churches, it is a bigger deal than in those churches with roots in the Western Catholic tradition, like us Lutherans.  It should be a bigger deal because most of us here are Gentiles, and one of the themes of Epiphany is giving thanks to God that the light of Christ has also come to those of us who are not Jews … like the Magi who bowed their knees to the Christ Child.
            Epiphany should also be a bigger deal for us because of the ongoing themes throughout the entire season.  All the Gospel readings during Epiphany reveal to us that Jesus truly is the Son of God, God in the Flesh.  This manifestation of Christ’s identity began on the First Sunday after the Epiphany when we heard the account of Christ’s Baptism.  There, God the Father’s voice came from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Today, we have one more chance to make a big deal out of Epiphany.  We have before us a big deal in the Gospel reading today:  the Transfiguration.  And echoing what we heard at the Baptism of Jesus, we hear the Father’s voice one more time, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”  Once again, God the Father puts his stamp of approval on his perfect, sinless Son, who stepped in line with us sinners at the waters of the Jordan, and whose divine glory was manifested on that high mountain, “and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.”
Peter, James, and John were privileged to see some spectacular sights on the mountaintop.  The Lord of Glory gloriously shining.  Two departed saints conferring with Christ.  Afterwards, St. Matthew writes, “when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.”  That’s all they needed.  That’s all that mattered.  They had seen a marvelous vision, that’s for sure.  But the only thing they needed at that moment and for the days ahead was Jesus only.  And that goes for us, too.  That’s all we need for our life and for our salvation … Jesus only.
Sometimes, however, there are things that crowd Jesus out of our life.  What crowds Jesus out of your life?  Your daily struggles?  Your daily temptations?  Your time constraints that don’t leave you enough time for daily devotions, daily time in God’s Word and prayer?  All that competes for your attention during a typical day?  Jesus gets crowded out of your life.  When that happens, you cannot be strengthened by God’s Word in the midst of your struggles nor can you fight against temptation, because you have removed yourself from the source of your strength.
There was quite a crowd there on the mountain.  There was such a crowd there that it could be easy to lose sight of what was really going on.  Let’s take a closer look at that crowd for a few moments.
There were the three disciples: Peter, James, and John, whom Jesus specifically chose to be “eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Pet. 1:16).
There was Jesus, of course, whose glory as God Almighty was now briefly shining through his human nature.  Jesus in his state of humiliation did not always use nor reveal his nature as God.  Here, for a time, he did.
There was Moses, the bearer of God’s Law, which our Lord Jesus kept perfectly in our place.  Today’s Old Testament lesson prefigures the Transfiguration.  Moses, Aaron, Aaron’s sons, and 70 elders of Israel went up on the mountain and “saw the God of Israel” just as the disciples were now seeing the God of Israel on the Mount of Transfiguration.  Later, Moses went up on Mt. Sinai to receive the second set of tablets of the Law, because he broke the first set during the whole Golden Calf fiasco.  When Moses came back down, Exodus 34 tells us that “the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.”  Moses’ face reflected God’s glory.  Now here he was on a mountain once again, seeing Jesus, who was shining not with a reflected glory, but with a divine glory that was rightly his own.
            There was Elijah, representing the prophets of the Old Testament who preached about the coming of the Messiah.  Elijah had also spent some time on Mt. Sinai.  In 1 Kings 19, he flees from Queen Jezebel, who threatens to have him killed.  Climbing Mt. Sinai, or Mt. Horeb as it was also called, Elijah received a revelation from God.  Now, the disciples get to see a revelation from God.  They get to see Jesus revealing his divine glory to them, along with a glimpse of what it will be like in the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day.
            Not long before this event, Jesus had told his disciples “that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”  Peter lost sight of this.  He let this vision of glory crowd out Christ’s mission to the cross.  He wanted all this to last, and so he said, “Lord, it is good that we are here.  If you wish I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”  Or in other words, “Come on, Jesus, let’s stay here a while.  We don’t want to think about all that stuff you said a few days ago about suffering and dying.”
            Jesus knew that his mission was not to keep shining there on the mountain.  He didn’t come to be permanently installed as an illuminated monument, like the famous 100-foot-tall Christ the Redeemer statue overlooking Rio de Janeiro.  Jesus knew that this vision of glory couldn’t last.  He knew that the disciples could not keep on looking at his glory.  The glory would distract them from his real mission … his mission of giving his life for the life of the world.
            How easy our desire for glory distracts us from our life with Christ.  When we suffer, we wonder where God is.  When things are tough, we doubt God’s love for us.  You and I are a lot like Peter.  We want to feel glorious and see glorious things, thinking that would finally confirm our faith.  But listen to what Peter said in today’s Epistle.  He states that “we were eyewitnesses of his majesty … we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven … we were with him on the holy mountain.”  But then notice, after talking about all that glory, he says this:  “But we have something more sure, the prophetic word.” (2 Pet. 2)
            It’s not the glory that counts.  It’s the Word of God.  God’s Word is more sure for you than any vision of glory.  God’s Word is more sure for you because even though you may suffer, even though things are tough, even though you may feel guilty over something you have done in your life … all you need is Jesus only, and he is graciously present for you through the promises of his Word.
            The disciples cowered in fear, hearing the Father’s voice.  Jesus touched them and said, “Rise, and have no fear.”  “And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.”  Moses was gone, because Jesus came to fulfill the Law.  Elijah was gone, because the words of the prophets about the Messiah were coming true in Jesus.  All they saw … all they needed … was Jesus only.  All you need is Jesus only.  Rise up.  Have no fear.  Jesus is with you.
In the Lenten days to come, we will begin to contemplate our Lord’s journey to the cross.  Jesus set aside his glory for a time.  He humbled himself and allowed himself to be beaten, mocked, and executed.  He bore your sins at the cross.
            Hanging there on the cross was Jesus only.  But hold on a minute!  Wasn’t there was a bigger crowd around the cross than there was on the Mount of Transfiguration?  Wasn’t he crucified between two criminals?  Wasn’t there a group of Roman soldiers there, gambling for his clothes?  Weren’t the chief priests and the scribes there, mocking him?  And wasn’t his Mother Mary and his disciple John there?
Yes, they were all there.  But let me ask you something.  Have you ever felt lonely in a crowd?  Surely that’s how Jesus felt.  Even with the crowd around him, Jesus was more alone than any human being ever was.  It was Jesus only who was suffering for your sins.  It was Jesus only who was forsaken by his Father because of his wrath over the sin of the world, now laid upon his Son.  It brings us pain to see the Son of God deserted by God the Father.  But we recognize that this desertion was the price for our salvation.
Lift up your eyes … to the cross … and see Jesus only, suffering and dying for your salvation.
Lift up your eyes … one last time this Epiphany season … to the Mount of Transfiguration … and see Jesus only.  See there a preview of what is to come.  A preview of Easter morning.  A preview of the Last Day, when we will see Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, and John, and all the other saints who have gone before us … alive, in the presence of the Risen Jesus … shining in glory for eternity.


Sunday, February 16, 2014

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany (February 16, 2014)

Wordle: Untitled

“Abandon Hope?” (Matthew 5:21-37)

            One of the themes of the Sundays after Epiphany is how Jesus shows his divine authority through his teaching.  The crowds were often amazed at his teaching.  In fact, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount – from which today’s Gospel reading is taken – St. Matthew writes, “when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matt. 7:28-29).
            The Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes … the “Blessed ares.”  There, the blessed life of a disciple of Christ is described.  Contrary to the powerful and mighty of the world, Christ’s disciples are poor in spirit, meek, and lowly.  They will be persecuted.  Nevertheless, united to Christ’s life and love, they are citizens of the kingdom of heaven.  God’s Word and Spirit rules and reigns within them.  As a baptized, believing child of God, this describes you.
            Our Lord goes on and describes his Church as “salt” and “light.”  He calls you to be a seasoning and preservative influence in the world.  Shining your light – which is the light of Christ in you – you do good works in his name.  People will give glory to your Heavenly Father when they see your good works.
            Jesus then explains that he came to fulfill the Old Testament Scriptures.  He fulfills the entire Law of God.  At the same time, there is no relaxing of God’s commandments.  His Law remains righteous and holy.  And, as Jesus said, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20).  The scribes and Pharisees were incredibly diligent in keeping the letter of the Law.  The trouble is, they were self-righteous and lacked true repentant faith and trust in Christ.
            If being a part of God’s kingdom were all about keeping the Law, every one of us would be in trouble.  We might as well put a sign up outside the church which reads, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”  That’s actually a line from the Inferno, a poem from the 14th century by the Italian poet Dante.  It’s the inscription on the gates of Hell.
            There’s nothing funny about hell, of course.  But I did get a kick out of something I saw in Philadelphia. This was on one of our Higher Things trips.  Philadephia has a museum dedicated to the works of the French sculptor Auguste Rodin.  Outside the museum is a beautiful pillared gateway and garden that is a popular location for weddings.  However, our guide on the tour bus pointed out that at the same time the lovestruck couple is saying their vows, right on the other side of the garden is Rodin’s sculpture “The Gates of Hell” with those infamous words “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”  Not exactly what you want to have associated with your nuptial festivities.
            Dante’s fanciful poem describes nine circles of torment in hell.  Three of those circles correspond to three of the issues in our text today.  Dante names the three circles under consideration “Anger,” “Lust,” and “Fraud” and describes the particular punishments that the eternally condemned face there for their sins.
            Anger corresponds to our Lord’s words about hateful, spiteful words spoken towards your brother in Christ.  What are you really saying when you call your brother – or anyone else, for that matter – a “fool”?  What did the psalmist say?  “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Ps. 14:1; 53:1).  When you call someone a “fool” you’re essentially wishing they would go to hell.  Maybe you’ve gone so far as to say that to their face.  This is murder.  In fact, it’s worse than murder.  Do you really wish this upon someone for whom Christ gave his life?
            Lust corresponds to our Lord’s words about forbidden desires.  This is the rationale we often use: “It doesn’t hurt to look.”  But it does.  This is adultery.  You have adulterated the good gift that God guards in the Sixth Commandment. You have mixed in impure desires.  You have a desire in your heart for something that only belongs within the bonds of marriage.  “And you want me to do what, Jesus?  Poke out my eye and cut off my hand?  I might as well abandon all hope right now.”
            Lust leads to brokenness in marriage, too, and results in divorce.  Divorce was very easy for a man in those days.  A woman had little recourse.  A man could dismiss his wife simply because she left his dinner in the oven too long.  This easy, no-fault divorce system created many adulterous marriages.  This is exactly what Jesus is criticizing.  Truth be told, this is not unlike our own day and age.  This is not to deny that divorce can be painful, nor that there can be innocent parties.  Maybe some of you who have been through ugly divorces can relate to that sign in the popular wedding venue at the Philadelphia Rodin museum.  You tried and tried to work things out, but it just seemed so hopeless.
            Fraud corresponds to our Lord’s words about oaths.  Instead of swearing an oath to God about one matter or another, people would substitute something connected to God, such as heaven, earth, or Jerusalem, or even their own head.  That way, if you didn’t keep your oath, you had an easy way out. “Well, I really didn’t swear to God, so it’s okay.”  Taking an oath is not absolutely forbidden.  You do it in a marriage ceremony or in a court of law.  But here Jesus is criticizing oaths that people take without the intention to ever truly keep them.  Jesus means for us to be people of our word.  To be honest.  To keep our promises.  Not to feel the need to swear an oath in trivial matters.  Let your “Yes” be “Yes” and your “No” be “No.”  Sadly, promises are constantly being broken among us … in our marriages, in our business dealings, among friends and family and other relationships.
            So what do we do?  Abandon hope?
            No.  We repent.  Return to the Lord in faith and trust.  Receive the forgiveness that Jesus won for you.
            Jesus received angry, hateful words from the mob while suffering and dying for you.  He suffered the pains of hell while bleeding and dying in agony for your sins.  He paid the price for your sins, down to the last penny, every single debt that you owe.  Now you are reconciled to your Father in heaven.
            Jesus is the faithful groom of his Bride, the Church.  He calls you his beloved.  You are united to him in Holy Baptism and by faith.  You are a member of his Body.  He will never cut you off from him and his love.
            And God always keeps his promises to you.  He made a solemn oath to David that he would establish one of his descendants as King forever (Ps. 89:3-4; 132:11).  He swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that all nations would be blessed through them.  And all this was fulfilled in the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.  Here’s how the prophet Micah put it:  “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance?  He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love.  He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot.  You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.  You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old” (Micah 7:18-20).
            Forgiveness, life, salvation, eternal life all belong to you now in Christ Jesus.  St. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1 that “For all the promises of God find their yes in him.  That is why it is through him we utter our Amen to God for his glory.  And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (2 Cor. 1:20-22).  A guarantee of what?  Of the promise of the Second Advent of Jesus and the promised new heaven and new earth.  But don’t be impatient.  Listen to St. Peter: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).  All is fulfilled in Christ Jesus.  Our Lord’s delay in returning is for more people to hear the Good News of Jesus, repent, and receive the promise of eternal life even now (John 3:16; 1 John 2:25).
            Abandon hope?  Not a bit!  Remember, it’s not about how well you keep the Law of God.  Jesus has kept it for you.  Persevere in hope!  Rejoice that you have a faithful Savior!  Forgiven, fed with his Body and Blood, go forth from this altar today with his gifts given to you to reconcile with one another, to live a chaste and decent life, and to keep the promises you make in all the relationships in which God has placed you.


Sunday, February 2, 2014

Sermon for the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Our Lord (February 2, 2014)

Wordle: Untitled

“Purified and Presented” (Luke 2:22-32)

            A painful, bloody mess.  No, I’m not talking about the condition of the Denver Broncos after the Super Bowl today.  I’m talking about childbirth.
           One of Bill Cosby’s monologues deals with the topic of childbirth.  He quotes another comedian, Carol Burnett, who, when asked to describe the pain of childbirth, said, “Take your bottom lip and pull it over your head.”  Cosby goes on to tell how he and his wife attended Lamaze classes to prepare for the birth of their first child.  They supposed they were both ready when the moment arrived.  When the moment did arrive, all their training went out the door.  His wife screams.  Cosby says, “But dear, you need to breathe.”  She says, “SHUT UP! YOU DID THIS TO ME!”  And then, as Cosby says, “She reached up, grabbed my bottom lip, and pulled it over my head.”
            When I was born, I don’t believe my mother hurt my dad physically by doing anything similar to his bottom lip.  But I do remember him saying that his feelings were hurt because my mom cried out … not for him, but for her mama.  And morphine.
            Childbirth is a painful, bloody mess.  Mother, child, doctor, and attendants all need to get cleaned up afterwards.
            In the Old Testament, childbirth was symbolic of impurity.  It made a woman unclean.  She could not come near the temple or come in contact with any of its sacred objects.  That’s why God provided a purification ritual in the ceremonial law.  Mary and Joseph were fulfilling their duty to offer a sacrifice as Leviticus 12 demanded.  Normally it would be a lamb and a turtledove or pigeon, but the law allowed for two birds if the family was poor.  Evidently, this was case for the Holy Family.  The priest would offer these on behalf of the mother, and she would be cleansed of her impurity.
            There were other instances of ritual purifications.  It was required for those with skin diseases, those who had eaten unclean animals, those who had touched a dead body, or those who had come in contact with anything declared to be unclean according to the law.  It was also required of homes that had mold and mildew on the walls.
            All this was an outward sign of the corruption of creation because of the curse of sin.  And all that pain and blood in childbirth is a reminder of the Fall into sin.  God did indeed promise a Savior immediately after the Fall … the Promised Seed of the Woman who would one day crush the head of the Tempter.  Yet there would also be consequences.  Part of the curse over creation is pain, in particular the pain of childbearing (Gen. 3:16).  The curse was passed down from generation to generation.  Sinful nature passed from parents to child.  And condemnation.
            When you and I think of uncleanness today, we are more likely to think of dirt and mud and grease.  Impurities are those microscopic organisms in your tap water, those chemical preservatives in your food, those extra elements in a diamond that ruin its clarity and change its color.  But you and I have sinful impurities that make us unclean and unfit to stand before God.  Impurities plague us from within … selfishness, lust, bitter anger, hatred of those who have wronged us and a desire for revenge, and so on.  Uncleanness fouls us from without … relationships outside of God’s will, shady business deals, harmful substances to which we are addicted, images that we let into our eyes and minds from the television and the computer, and so on.
            Not only was it necessary for the new mother to be purified in the Old Testament.  It was also necessary to present your firstborn son before the Lord.  As St. Luke says, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord.”  This was a reminder of how the Lord had spared the firstborn among the Israelites as long as they had placed the blood of an unblemished lamb upon the doorposts of their homes.  In succeeding generations, they were to offer a sacrifice in order to redeem – or buy back – their firstborn sons from the Lord (Ex. 13:12-16).  This is why Hannah offered a sacrifice for Samuel.  Although three-year old Samuel was free to return home with his mother, Hannah had made an earlier promise that she would give her son to the Lord to serve in the tabernacle.  It seems strange for us to hear this story about a woman who had been so desperate for a child to then leave her three year-old only son behind, the one for whom she had prayed for so long.  Yet she trusted the Lord would care for him.  She trusted that the Lord would also give her more children.  And he did.  Three more sons and two daughters (1 Sam. 1:21-28; 2:21).
            But why was all this purification and presentation necessary for Jesus?  Born of miraculous means, he inherited no sin from his mother.  Mary’s firstborn Son, he does not need to be redeemed.  He is the pure and holy Son of God.  So what exactly is going on here?
            This was a further way in which Jesus fulfilled the Law for us so that he could be our substitute.  The reading from Hebrews today says that “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. 2:17).  Remember, “to propitiate” is just a fancy way of saying “to cover over.”
            In the worship of the tabernacle, part of the high priest’s garments included a turban with a gold plate fastened to it.  On that gold plate were engraved the words “Holy to the Lord” (Ex. 28:36).  The high priest was to stand before the Lord and represent the people.  He was to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people to cover over their sins so they could be God’s holy people, consecrated, set apart to bear witness to his salvation that he “prepared before the face of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”  But every high priest first needed to offer sacrifices for himself.  And the blood of bulls and goats can never truly take away sin (Heb. 10:4).  A truly sinless priest and perfect sacrifice was still necessary.  That’s where Jesus comes in.  The sinless Son of God could wear the label “holy to the Lord” and need no other sacrifice for himself.  He offered himself at the cross to cover over your sins ... speaking of painful, bloody messes!  But now as your risen and exalted Savior, with the scars of those wounds from which his precious blood flowed, he represents you before the Father in heaven.
            In Holy Baptism and by the gift of faith that receives the work of your High Priest Jesus on your behalf, you are purified of all your impurity and uncleanness.  You are presented before the Lord as holy for a life of service.  Paul says in Romans 12, “I appeal to you, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable before God, which is your spiritual worship” (Rom. 12:1-2).  Paul helps us understand this when he says earlier in chapter 6 of Romans, “Present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments of righteousness” (Rom. 6:13).  We can only present ourselves before the Lord because Jesus was presented before the Father as our great High Priest.  You are now a priest, called to a life of sacrifice and service on behalf of your neighbor.  There is no gold plate upon your forehead.  But the sign of the cross made there and the baptismal water sprinkled there marks you as one bought back, redeemed, holy to the Lord.
            Simeon was “waiting for the consolation of Israel.”  It was revealed to Simeon that he would see the Lord’s Christ before he died.  At the purification of Mary and the presentation of Jesus, this promise came true.  Simeon held “the consolation of Israel” in his very own arms.  He looked at the Infant Jesus and saw the Lord’s salvation with his own eyes.  And so he could sing, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace.”
            At the Lord’s altar this morning, you will receive “the consolation of Israel” in your hands and in your mouths.  We will sing, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace.”
            You can depart from this place consoled and comforted no matter what painful, bloody messes you may find yourself in or what you may have made for yourself.
            You can depart from this place prepared for your death because you are forgiven and at peace with God through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
            You can depart from this place empowered to serve as one of God’s priests – purified and presented as holy to the Lord.