Biblically-Based Lutheran Sermons 2019
Mount Hope Lutheran Church
Pastor Christian Preus
Baptism of our Lord, 2019
As it was in the beginning is now and ever shalt be, world without end. Amen. We speak these words all the time and words we speak all the time run the risk of passing through our minds without thinking about them. This is just a fact of language. A perfect example is the word Goodbye. It originally meant, “God be with you.” But people said it so often without thinking about what it meant, shortened it and mumbled it too, that the words “God be with you” eventually morphed into a new word and a new meaning, “Goodbye.” The point is when you repeat words enough without thinking about them, they can become pretty meaningless or at least less meaningful. But with these words, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shalt be, world without end. Amen, we need to learn to say them and mean them, think about them.
This is for two reasons. First, because it has to do with God’s glory. That’s what we confess, right? Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, and then we say, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shalt be world without end, Amen. And so thinking about this beautiful phrase, not just mouthing it, but confessing it from the heart, this is keeping the 2nd commandment, it’s giving God glory, and we need to keep in mind what God says about this commandment, that He will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain. The name of God is the most precious word imaginable. The ancient Jews were afraid even to use it because they held it so sacred. Of course, they went too far. They should have used his name, spoken it often. But we have the opposite problem. We are far too free with using God’s name. It should never even occur to a Christian to casually say O my God. Never enter into our minds to blurt out Jesus Christ or God damn it as some exclamation of frustration or surprise. And it wouldn’t, if we were constantly thinking and using the name of our God as we should. And that is actually the point of the second commandment, the negative is obvious, don’t act like a pagan, don’t use God’s name as a cuss word, that’s shameful and God is angry at it, but the positive is a promise, a beautiful promise, that God gives us His name so that we can call upon Him in every trouble, pray, praise and gift thanks.
And this is the second point. It’s not simply that using God’s name gives Him glory, it’s that His glory is to save us, to make us His own, to give us His name, to free us from sin, to spill his blood to wash away our shame and our guilt. And so God reveals his name not to impose some arbitrary rule on us, not simply for the satisfaction of his sovereign glory, but to share his name and his glory with us. And so it is never enough for us Christians not to misuse God’s name, we must use it, it is our highest comfort and honor to use it, to call upon the name of the God who has created us and saved us and sought us out to give us his everlasting glory. This is what we’re confessing with those beautiful words, As it was in the beginning is now and ever shalt be, world without end. The confession of God is always a confession of who we are, because God, the Holy Trinity, revealed His name and reveals it now as the Savior of sinners. This is how He defines Himself, not apart from you, but in your flesh and for your salvation. And this, this is what Jesus’ Baptism teaches us.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shalt be, world without end. How was it in the beginning? St. John answers, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Before time began, in eternity, there was God. But he is not a God who, as Aristotle thought, simply sits there contemplating Himself eternally. He’s the God who is Father and Son from eternity. He’s the God who is love from eternity, because the Father has always loved His Son, the Son has always loved His Father, and the Holy Spirit has always proceeded from this love. And this love is always active, it reaches outside itself, it’s not just a thought, a wish, a contemplation, it’s God and God acts. That’s what we are saying when we confess, “As it was in the beginning.” There was no sin, no devil, no death, no hate, no pain, no filthy desires, no guilty conscience, no murder of innocent children, no sexual depravity, there was only this divine love.
This much should be obvious to every Christian. God is Trinity. God is love. This is how it was in the beginning. But then we continue, As it was in the beginning is now. Is now? Here is where our confession seems absurd. Look at the world. What glory is given to God by our world now? What glory to God is there in the million abortions Americans commit each year, what glory to God by the no-fault divorces, by the cheating and adultery, by our selfish ambitions, by the lust of our hearts, by the pain of cancer, by families ripped apart by sin and betrayal and unbelief? What sense does it make for us to say that God’s glory remains the same now as it was in the beginning, when there was no sin, no death, no pain, no guilt?
Well the Baptism of our Lord makes sense of it. It’s no coincidence that here, at His Baptism, God reveals Himself as Trinity, as eternal love. The Son rises from the waters, the Father speaks His love and approval on Him from heaven, and the Spirit rests on Him in gentleness as a dove. Because here is God’s glory, here is who God is. His glory has always been in His love, and His glory is shown here as the Son loves by obeying His Father’s will to become the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That’s God’s love. This is why we can sing, “But God beheld my wretched state before the world’s foundation, and mindful of His mercy great, He planned my soul’s salvation. A Father’s heart he turned to me, sought my redemption fervently. He gave His dearest treasure.” This is the eternal love of God. That’s what Jesus’ Baptism means. He is baptized to live and to die for you, to do what He planned from before the world’s foundation. Jesus will later call His death His Baptism, so tightly He connects the two. And Jesus here tells John the Baptist that He is baptized to fulfill all righteousness.
And by this He is saying that God joins His glory to ours, His honor to ours, His righteousness to ours. He will do as He is. He will love. He will be righteous not by condemning sinners to hell, not by leaving us in our guilt and abandoning us, so that He can reign alone in majesty and contemplate His own goodness, no, He will be righteous, remain righteous and glorious as in the beginning, by loving us now to His death, by diving into those waters and swearing by Himself that He will bear the sin of the world, that He will become the great sinner, live for us, die for us, suffer His own righteous wrath against our sin, and make us holy and righteous before Him.
That this is who God is, how He reveals Himself, this is what the world, what human reason thinks is so foolish, so stupid, as St. Paul says. The Church chose our Epistle very well today. It answers perfectly to Jesus’ Baptism: “But God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence.” This is not simply to say that Baptism looks foolish, that God chose water to anoint His Son for death, it’s also to say that God Himself looks foolish. His glory is to become a man and humble Himself. His honor is to die for the unworthy. His righteousness is to bear sin.
Immediately after Jesus’ Baptism, in every account we have, Jesus goes into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And the devil models human wisdom for us. He says, “If you are the Son of God, show me by your power, show me by turning rocks into bread, show me by satisfying your own pleasure.” Because this is what sinners would expect from God – what would you do if you had all power? What do you dream in your heart you’d do to your enemies if you had enough money? What wouldn’t you do to protect your reputation if you had all glory in heaven and earth? What pleasure would you not fulfill if you could get away with it? But the God with all power becomes weak, He dies for His enemies, He disgraces Himself on a cross, and this He calls His glory. No human wisdom could think up this God. He must reveal Himself. That’s what Epiphany means. You will not know this God unless He shows Himself to you. And He reveals Himself in His Baptism.
As it was in the beginning is now. That’s what you see in Jesus’ Baptism. Here you have no sin, you have no guilt, there is no death, there is no dishonor, no disgrace, no shame that can claim you, because all of it is thrown on Jesus, on God Himself, on the Son, who pays to His Father by the love of His Spirit what He vowed from the beginning.
It is now. That’s the promise of your Baptism. What Jesus swore of Himself in His Baptism He gives to you in your Baptism. You have died with Christ, you have God’s name, you are His treasured possession, free from sin and death, an heir of eternity, in communion with eternal love. It doesn’t look that way. It doesn’t even feel that way. We see sin and death, feel anxiety and depression, our consciences are burdened by hate and anger and selfish thoughts, and we live in a world where it looks like God has lost all control. But as it was in the beginning is now. God’s love has not waned. It has not changed. From all eternity. What He acted out in history, His incarnation, His Baptism, his bitter agony and death, his resurrection from the dead, He did to take you a poor sinner, born without love for Him, born to die and face God’s judgment, to take you and name you His child in your Baptism, to forgive every sin that burdens your conscience, to make you His own, turn your death into the portal of heaven, teach you how to love and live as Christians. This is God’s unchangeable love. It is as He promises through the prophet Malachi, “I am the Lord. I do not change. Therefore you are not destroyed, O sons of Jacob.”
This is how it is now, and it’s how it will be forever. And ever shalt be, world without end. That also is the promise of your Baptism. In eternity, your glory will not be in your ambitions, in your reputation, in your money, in your own pleasures, in your pride. It will be forever in the Trinity’s love revealed at Jesus’ Baptism. And this we make our glory now. That’s what it means to be baptized, to be a Christian. Our glory is in Christ. Sacrifice your pride every day, sacrifice your ambitions, sacrifice whatever it is that draws you away from this God of love, and find your daily rest in Him. Receive His body and His blood, and see that there is no joy, no glory, no pleasure, nothing, that can compare with the glory you have in your Baptism, that you commune with God Himself, that He gives His glory to you. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shalt be, world without end. Amen.
Pastor Christian Preus
It’s very easy for Christians to become anti-intellectual, because we see the modern intelligentsia, we see academia and college campuses promoting anti-Christian propaganda, championing sexual perversion and abortion and feminism, attacking marriage and family, mocking God’s creation by promoting evolution, associating the history of the Bible with pagan myths, drawing Christians away from the faith, and the list goes on. And so it happens all too often that Christians, in their justified distrust of the progressive propagandists who dominate the universities, and the media for that matter, Christians will become suspicious of higher learning itself, because they see that getting smart or educated in our time usually equates with losing the faith and abandoning the Bible. But this is to react in exactly the wrong way. Being smart, learning the truth, thinking about difficult issues, has never led anyone from the faith. Ever. Being arrogant has. Refusing to humble yourself, your mind and your desires, under the Word of God has. Thinking that you’re smarter than God will definitely make it difficult for you to remain a Christian. But learning never will. In fact, learning is the constant and lifelong duty of the Christian.
Look at the wisemen. They were wise men. Scholars. Very smart, very educated. And they are part of a long history of Christian scholars who studied the world, studied civilization, studied law, studied science, studied history and politics, studied the Bible, and did it all for the glory of God, in order to worship their Lord Jesus. That’s what all the learning of the wise men amounts to. Notice that. They didn’t travel a thousand miles as a matter of course. It’s not as if they did this for every comet that appeared in the sky. Their lifelong goal is summed up in this little sentence, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and we have come to worship him.” To worship Him. That’s the purpose of learning.
I can’t remember where I saw it, I think it was when I was teaching a class at some tiny liberal arts college in Iowa, but on the metopes of the college library, in huge Latin script, were written the words, “Learning for the sake of learning.” I see the same phrase frequently; in fact, I just read an article by that name from the American Counsel on Education. The thought is that you learn not just to get a career, but because learning is an end in itself. Now that sounds really classical and liberal artsy and enlightened, but it’s total nonsense. No one in the history of the world has ever learned for the sake of learning. We learn for a purpose. Sometimes those purposes are bad, sometimes they’re good. Sometimes it’s a little of both. You can learn for the joy of it, because it stimulates you, satisfies curiosity or satisfies pride. You can learn as school children often do, so you get praise or don’t get punished. You can learn, as Herod did in our Gospel lesson, in order to secure your own position at the expense of others. You can learn to get a job and make money. You can learn to help others, as nurses and teachers and mothers often do. But learning is never neutral. We always do it for some reason. And what the wisemen teach us is to learn with clear and unmistakable purpose that the reason for all our learning, finally, is to worship Jesus.
Let me get specific here. The Christian mother who learns to cook, learns to keep a house, learns to tend to crying children, she does these things not for the sake of learning, but to love her neighbor, her children and her husband, and since this is exactly what pleases God in heaven, it’s a form of Christian worship. The Christian electrician who learns how not to get electrocuted when wiring a house should learn it to provide for his family, to help others, to support his church, and so all for the glory of God. This applies to everything you learn, no matter your formal education.
But we will never have this mindset unless we actually spend time, like the wise men, learning God’s Word. And when it comes to learning this, what has happened in the last generation among Christians, including us conservative Lutherans, has been startling. By and large we’re forgetting the Bible. Christians don’t know what it says for the simple reason that they don’t read it. I will never forget teaching a course on classical mythology at a university where I mentioned Joseph and Potiphar’s wife and not a single student out of fifty knew the story. But I can see the same thing happening now, and it’s why I stress so often to read your Bibles, have family devotions at home, eat meals together, put learning God’s Word above sports, above TV, above homework, above everything else we learn. To show ourselves and our children that we humble ourselves under God’s Word and reverence it as the highest treasure in the world.
It makes no sense to decry how bad things have gotten in the world, in the workplace, in the universities, in the media, and then not face the challenge and temptations they pose with the only weapon we have. A mighty fortress is our God, we sing. Rise to arms, with prayer employ you, we sing. We call ourselves the church militant. And St. Paul reminds us that ours is a battle not against flesh and blood but against the powers of darkness posing as the wisdom of this world. And he gives our weapon as the sword of the Spirit, that’s God’s Word. And we have every reason to be confident when we learn and love God’s word at home and at church. There is no philosophy out there, no -ism, whether that be feminism, or socialism, or secular humanism, there is no attack on Christianity, that can stand up against knowledge, humble, faithful, repentant knowledge of God’s Word, love for its beauty and its glory, no wisdom that can compare to the truth revealed to the wise men that the God who created this world has come into human flesh to save it from sin and death and all evil.
So this is our motto. Learning for the sake of worshiping Jesus. This is what the wisemen teach us.
They came from the East specifically to worship the one born King of the Jews. We shouldn’t let this escape our attention. They’re from the East, probably from Persia. If you learn about ancient civilization, you’ll quickly realize that all ancient peoples were what the universities today would call racists. The Persians didn’t care for the Jews, the Jews called all other nations hagoyim, the Gentiles, the Greeks called all non-Greek speakers barbarians and ridiculed them for their practices, the Romans banned Greek philosophers from Rome repeatedly. You get the point. They were ethnocentric, proud of their own cultures and in large part dismissive of other cultures and nations. And so it is a remarkable thing that these wisemen would come to worship not some Persian King, not some King of the East, but the King of the Jews.
But they came because they learned, they studied and they learned from the Old Testament, that the Jews were a special people, not because of their race, but because of their God, the Creator of heaven and earth, who had raised up the Kingdom of Judah and saw it through all its sin and destruction, in order to bring forth a King who would rule over all, the King Isaiah speaks of in our Old Testament lesson, and note, Isaiah is speaking to Judah, to Jews here, in this beautiful prophecy: “Arise shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” This is why the wisemen came to Jerusalem to inquire of the King of the Jews, because as we just sang, he is not only the King of the Jews, but the highborn King of ages, true Son of God and Mary’s Son, who draws his entire creation to Himself. The entire history of the Old Testament, every word of it, points to the reason for Judah’s existence, to bring forth the Savior of the world, the King who comes from the Jews to bring all peoples to himself by his cross, as our Lord Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all peoples to myself.”
And notice the manner of the wisemen’s learning. They are smart, very smart. But they come asking questions, they come humbly. They got the place wrong. They thought they’d find the King of the Jews in Jerusalem, in a palace. Jerusalem, after all, was the city of David, the capital of Judah. But there was another city of David, the city in which David was born, and the wisemen humble themselves and learn again from the word of God, from the prophet Micah, that it will be from Bethlehem that this King will come to shepherd God’s people Israel, to rule over His Church.
And this learning was never just head knowledge for these wise men. Herod had the same head knowledge. He learned too that this King had been born in Bethlehem. But he uses the knowledge for horrible evil. And this we can do too. We can become proud and we can use knowledge, even knowledge about God’s holy Word, to raise ourselves up, to show off our smarts, to look down on others. But the wisemen learned humility from God’s Word, they learned their own sin, their own unworthiness, and they came to kiss the Son, as Psalm 2 says, because they see that only in this Son is God’s anger taken away and sin covered, only in this Son is God’s love revealed. And so the wisemen teach us, not only that learning is good, not only that learning God’s Word is our lifelong objective, but that learning always goes along with worshiping Jesus, with a life that humbles itself under God, and submits all knowledge, whatever it is, to the Word of Jesus, learns to bear his yoke, as he has borne our sins.
The wisemen bear gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And here again we see what the purpose of learning is. We learn of this God who saves us, who becomes a helpless baby to live and die for us, to shed his precious blood, the blood of God Himself to reconcile us to Himself, and make us heirs of eternal life with Him, we learn to love Him. And loving Him means, of course, not simply bearing gifts, but first faith, the highest possible form of worship, first trusting that God is for us, that He is with us, that no matter who we are, no matter our nationality, our family, no matter what sins we have committed and the darkness that has stained our heart, our God’s glory shines on us in Jesus Christ, to forgive us, make us His children, wash us clean and feed us with his own body and blood. And then comes an active love for this God. For Him we can walk a thousand miles, for this God, we can give up our riches, submit our time and our life to him, as did the wisemen, this is a God about whom we want to learn more and more, to meditate on His Word and gives our lives to Him as He has given His for us.
I asked the kids in catechism class the other week whether we can look up into heaven like the wisemen and so find Jesus. The answer of course is no. And the wisemen again teach us this very thing. They found Jesus by listening to His Word. That’s how they knew to follow the star to Jerusalem, how they ended up finding Him in Bethlehem. And this is how we find our Lord Jesus, how He finds us. To be wise, to learn, to be divinely educated, this is to receive the Epiphany of our Lord, which is what we celebrate today. Epiphany, God’s revelation to us, His word to the nations, His enlightening us of His love in Christ Jesus, telling us who we are and what our purpose is, that this Child, true Son of God and Mary’s son, has redeemed us from all sin with his holy precious blood and his innocent sufferings and death, that we may be His own, belong to Him, learn from Him, love Him, live our lives for Him and receive our strength from Him, as a branch is to the tree, His life supplying our life, so that our souls never rest until they rest in Him forever.
Lord grant this to us all. Let us pray:
Thou, mighty Father in Thy Son didst love me ere Thou hadst begun This ancient world’s foundation. Thy Son hath made a friend of me, And when in spirit Him I see, I joy in tribulation. What bliss is this! He that liveth to me giveth life forever; Nothing me from him can sever. Amen.
Pastor Christian Preus
Epiphany 3, 2019
Faith is nothing if it isn’t humble. Christ calls it God’s glory that the eternal Son becomes a man and humbles himself and suffers the torment of the cross. The Son of God sweats blood in the Garden and says, “Not my will be done, but thine,” and this humility God calls His glory. This is also why Jesus calls the faith of the centurion the greatest. The centurion’s faith is strong, it’s glorious, because the centurion is weak and humble. That’s the paradox of Christian faith. The centurion’s prayer has traditionally been prayed before taking the Lord’s Supper. Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only the say the Word and my soul will be healed. And then the word, this is my body, this is my blood. And you, who are unworthy, who have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, who know your unworthiness, know your sin and your shame, know that it is ridiculous and absurd that the holy God should come to you and love you and forgive you and make His home in you, you who have no confidence in yourself that you can stand before God and live, you are exalted to heaven at the Word of your Savior, “Take eat, this is my body. Take drink, this is my blood.”
The centurion’s faith is humble. That’s why it’s great. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t act. Faith does act. As Luther says, “O this faith is a living, busy, powerful thing!” Faith is confident. You are a child of God. This is not your own doing, it is the gift of God, not of works, so that no one can boast. But you are a child of God. And this is something to boast of, to be confident in. Not in yourself, of course, that’s not humility, but in God. Humility and confidence are not contrary to each other. You can be utterly humbled, shown by God’s law that you deserve nothing from Him but punishment, you can be totally uncertain of yourself, and yet know and be confident that you are the apple of God’s eye, His delight, His child. Because the ground of this confidence is outside of you. It’s in your Baptism. God doesn’t lie. He named you His child. Be proud of it, be confident in it. It’s in the absolution you heard this morning. God doesn’t lie. He never has. And He told you again your sins are forgiven, he created the office of pastor for the specific purpose of telling you that the Son of God did not die in vain, but has suffered specifically for you to remove your sin and reconcile you to God and give you eternal life in Him. It’s in the Holy Supper. God cannot lie. This is the body and blood of the God who took on your flesh to redeem you a lost and condemned creature, to purchase and win you so that you may be His own. That’s your confidence. Faith is nothing if it isn’t confident.
And that’s why faith acts. Because it’s humble and confident. The greatness of this centurion’s faith is not only that he’s humble but that He expects everything good only from the good God. And these two things belong together. Humility and confidence. The centurion pointed at the very same time to his own unworthiness, the objective state of his humility, not just that he felt humble, but that he was, objectively, unworthy of God’s attention, he points to this and at the very same time points to the source and ground of his confidence, that if Jesus speaks it, it is so. The centurion doesn’t even need to see it. He only needs to hear it. He acts. Say the word, he says. Say the word, we say.
The argument is called an argumentem a fortiori. The argument from the lesser to the greater. We know how it works with authority on earth. If the cop writes me a ticket because I’m speeding on CY – which never happened by the way, I mean, I did speed and I did get pulled over, but I never got a ticket for it – but I obey. I pay the ticket. Because I’m under authority. If I tell my children to eat their supper, they are bound to do it on pain of punishment. If I tell them to go to church they do it. Because they understand that I am their father and I am to be obeyed. The world can’t work without this authority. The centurion ordered around his soldiers and they obeyed implicitly. This is what happens on earth with authority with men. How much more with God. Christ has all authority in heaven and on earth. He orders and it is done. He speaks and it is so.
But He doesn’t speak as the law speaks, as a cop who gives a ticket. That’s not the authority the centurion appeals to. He appeals to who Jesus is. He is the God of mercy. In the Garden of Gethsemane, as Jesus prays to His Father, he says, “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.” Notice what Jesus calls His authority, His all-encompassing authority over all flesh. His authority, his Kingdom, his reign on this earth consists in taking poor sinners who are not worthy that He should enter under their roofs, and exalting them. What manner of love is this, the apostle asks, that we should be called children of God? But so we are. He imposes nothing on us. He instead imposes everything on Himself, bears our sin and our shame, and promises by His own blood to be our God and use His almighty power only for our good. That’s His authority.
This is why faith acts, because in humility our confidence is in this God. And we pray, “Thy will be done.” That’s what the leper prayed. “If you are willing, O Lord, you can make me clean.” This appeal is senseless, stupid, ridiculous, unless we know the will of this God. I do not pray, “Thy will be done” to a God I don’t know. I don’t pray Thy will be done either to a God who insists on throwing me into hell to be separated from Him forever. I can’t. I learn to agree with God’s judgment, that hell is my desert, what I have earned by my sin, but there is no way for me to say, “Thy will be done” except to the God who I know from His beautiful and everlasting Gospel has taken my hell on Himself and has loved me to His death.
Thy will be done is the humblest and most confident prayer imaginable. The petition only Christian faith can pray. To will simply means to want. And you want all sorts of things. Your flesh wants bad things, wicked things, things that you don’t even want to admit out loud. And your spirit, because you’re a Christian, wants good things, beautiful things, things we bring before God every day and every Sunday. But we commend all our wants to God. The evil things for him to forgive and wash away and free us from. The good and beautiful things for him to do with as he wishes.
This is especially important when we are bearing a cross, when we suffer, when we can’t understand why God hasn’t given us something good, why mom or dad is dying of cancer, why children have rebelled and left the faith, why you are lonely, why you suffer with a sin you’ve prayed God to remove from you and you still are tempted with. Thy will be done, we say. Three times the Apostle Paul prayed that God would remove the thorn from his flesh, some awful torment that God placed on him, and God said, “My grace is sufficient for you. For my strength is made perfect in weakness.” And in the face of things we can’t understand faith acts, it prays, and it trusts in the will that God has revealed, the will that is sure and certain, that He who has not spared His own Son but has delivered Him up for us all, how will He not in Him freely give us every good thing?
Faith acts. When you wake up in the morning, do you pray? Do you? Do you thank God that He has kept you safe in the night? Do you commend yourself to His care? Do you ask that His will be done among you, that you bear patiently whatever He gives you? Pray. Do it. You’re God’s child. He loves you. He cherishes you. He cares what happens in your life more than you do. He does. And He knows better than you do what is good for you, what you can bear, and why you need to bear it.
We are asked the question in our catechism, “How is God’s will done?” And we answer, “God’s will is done when He breaks and hinders every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature, which do not want us to hallow God’s name or let His kingdom come; and when He strengthens and keeps us firm in His Word and faith until we die. This is His good and gracious will.”
Whatever else you ask for in life, whatever is going on in your life, whatever you are suffering, whatever you are enjoying, whatever you wish for the future, when you pray, “Thy will be done,” you are to focus your heart and your mind and confidence on this, that this is not simply the most important thing, but the only thing, from which everything else flows, all crosses and all joys, life itself, that God’s will is to destroy the plan of the devil and this world and your sinful flesh, which would drag you into misery and unbelief and hell, God’s will is to keep you a Christian, to draw you to Himself to find your confidence in His Word until you die, so that, as St. Paul says, whether you live or die, you are the Lord’s. This is His priority, His will from everlasting to everlasting. And to think of that, that God’s priority, the Almighty’s will and desire, has everything to do with you and your good, that He doesn’t want to lose you, but wants you to remain His child and to defend you from every evil and to teach you to live and love as He has lived and loved you, this is to see into the very heart of God.
We pray Thy will be done to learn to want what our Father wants. And our Father wants us to be His own. To know that in Christ He has made us worthy to live and die as His children, to call upon Him in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks, to commend everything to Him. If that means suffering, we bear it. If it means happiness, we thank Him. His priority is ours. We are His children. That’s the legacy of our Baptism. He is our dear Father. He said, “I am willing.” He says it. He wants it. Christ’s blood is proof of it. Your Baptism is the guarantee of it. He wants you in his heaven. He wants to keep you from sin and give you a godly life of good works. He wants to forgive every sin that burdens your conscience. He wants to declare you righteous on the last day by the blood of Jesus in whom you believe. He wants you to join and sing forever with the heavenly host. He wants to beat down the devil under your feet. He wants to comfort you in every sadness. And so we pray, Thy will be done from the heart in humility and confidence. God grant it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Let us pray:
Lord, as Thou wilt, deal Thou with me;
No other wish I cherish.
In life and death I cling to Thee;
Oh, do not let me perish!
Let not Thy grace from me depart
And grant an ever patient heart
To bear what Thou dost send me.
Pastor Christian Preus
Epiphany 4, 2019
The disciples follow Jesus into a boat. In Mark’s Gospel it says that Jesus compelled them, forced them into a boat. Jesus made them get in. And of course getting into the boat meant danger and trouble. Following Jesus means danger and trouble. That’s the unavoidable message. And it speaks against any preacher who would tell you, like Joel Osteen, that being a Christian will bring you nothing but a good and happy life here on earth. That flies in the face not only of the Bible but of the obvious experience of every Christian who faces pain and trouble in this world, like the disciples in our Gospel. Now that being said, in the Bible the boat is actually the safe place. Noah’s ark was the only safe place in the world when God wiped men off the earth, because, as He says, the imagination of their hearts was only evil continually. Think of that, the ark was the only safe place in the whole world. And in the history of Jonah, it may not seem like it, but the boat is the safe place. You’ve got two choices - you can be in the boat, or you can be in the water where you drown and die or get eaten by a giant fish. You want to be in the boat.
This is why we have traditionally called the place in the church where the people sit the nave. Nave (or navis) is the Latin word for ship, it’s where you get the word navigate and Navy. Now in a normal church, not that our church isn’t normal, in a normal church the nave, where the people sit, actually looks like a ship, long and narrow. But the reason it’s called a nave, a ship, isn’t just because of the shape of it, it’s because of the ark, and Jonah, and our Gospel for today. The church is a safe, secure place. But it’s a safe place surrounded by trouble, by a flood of sin, by the storms of the world, by the winds of false doctrine.
And that means that when you enter the church, when you follow Jesus into the church, you will at the very same time be in the most danger and the safest you could possibly be.
Christianity is filled with these paradoxes. It’s beautiful. Because we live by faith and not by sight. Seriously, with whom would you rather be in time of trouble than with the Creator of heaven and earth? And yet this Creator explicitly tells you, in the world you will have trouble. He says a disciple is not above his master. If they persecuted the Lord they will persecute those who follow him. He says, pick up your cross and follow me. Following Jesus means trouble. He says so. This is what the history of our Gospel pictures, “When Jesus got into the boat, His disciples followed Him. And behold there arose a great storm.” There arose a great storm. You are baptized, Christ is your Lord, what He is and what He did, is yours. You know the truth that makes you free. And that means the devil hates you, and he attacks you with deception, with lies, to make you doubt your heritage, that God has paid by his own blood for your sins, that you are really God’s child with the promise of eternal life. It means as St. Paul confesses, that you are opposed to the sinful world and the sinful world to you, “Forbid it Lord that I should boast except in the cross of my Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world has been crucified to me and I to the world.” It means you feel and recognize the severity of sin, God’s anger against it, what it does to you, to people and to their lives. And all this causes a storm in life.
This is always the way of the Christian church. The Christian Church didn’t begin at Pentecost. It began in the Garden of Eden. And the Christians who followed Jesus from the beginning of the world saw that following Jesus brought trouble. Abel was murdered for his faith, he’s the first Christian martyr. Noah was mocked and his confession was despised by the entire world. Abraham spent his life lonely in a foreign land. Jacob fled for his life from his own brother. Moses dealt with a rebellious people for forty years in the desert. David has King Saul trying to kill him and then thirty years later his own son Absalom trying to overthrow him. And they suffered all these things because they were Christians. It wasn’t senseless suffering. They suffered as Christians and because they were Christians.
That’s how we get the psalms. They are hymns of suffering and overcoming suffering through faith in Jesus. How long, O Lord, we cry, Will our glory be put to shame? How long will the wicked prevail against us. Or the words of our Introit, Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. Praying the psalms strengthens faith. It’s how faith acts. It teaches you to recognize that there is suffering in your life and to commend it to God and His will and confess, even when it looks the opposite, that God’s goodness will prevail, that his mercy endures forever, that he sends crosses in your life to draw you to him.
I don’t think there’s a question I hear more often as a pastor than, why is there suffering in my life? It’s the universal question. We all ask it. I’m reading the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov right now and that’s the huge question, what sense can be made of the suffering of children? How does it contribute in any way to the good? How does God allow this? And when we look at the news lately, with state after state legalizing and celebrating partial birth abortion, with the Governor of Virginia even advocating killing a child after it’s born, we cry out How long, O Lord, and ask, why? Why this suffering? And why the suffering in my own life?
Now this can become a practice in self-indulgence. Dostoevsky calls it lamentation or laceration. People feeling sorry for themselves and imagining they’re always the victim, blaming God and other people for their problems, and getting a high from it. This is a danger. Especially among Christians. And especially in our culture where we’re taught to magnify and talk about all our problems as if we were the center of the universe. No, the point of recognizing that we Christians suffer in this life is to turn ourselves away from self-pity, away from any form of self-indulgence, not to lacerate ourselves and dwell on our miseries, but to recognize that God sends our crosses, and our help is in the Lord who made heaven and earth, that He will deliver us from all our distresses, and crown us with joy and gladness.
This is why the Lord Jesus doesn’t allow his disciples to behave like cowards. They say, Save us Lord, we are perishing! And he rebukes them, before he rebuked the storm, he rebuked them. This is beautiful. The storm is still raging around them, they’re still seeing with their eyes that things aren’t good. And before He does anything to still the storm, He tells them to be brave, not to be cowards, not to be men of little faith, to trust that He will be their God and protect them and get them through even when it looks the opposite. Your translation has Jesus say, “Why are you afraid?” But the Greek says, “Why are you being cowards?” It’s as if he were saying, Don’t you know you have to suffer if you follow me? Are you really going to doubt and turn inward and make this all about yourselves when a little trouble comes? Don’t do it. When suffering comes, turn to the suffering of your Lord Jesus. This is the lens through which you see life. I determined to know nothing among you but Christ crucified.
Let me give you three reasons why God allows suffering. These won’t answer all our questions, that will happen in the resurrection, but they’ll tell us God’s answer to the questions we should be asking.
God wants us to hate sin, to avoid it, to fear God’s wrath and not do anything against his commandments, and suffering will teach us this, when we see the heaven-crying sin of abortion, when we see the pain unfaithfulness brings, gossip brings, refusal to reconcile with a brother brings, drunkenness, laziness, sexual perversion, when we suffer because we see these sins around us or we see them in ourselves, we learn that God hates these sins and we learn why. And we realize the beauty of the cross, that God would see a world so wretched, so full of sin and suffering, and love it still, become one of us and take the punishment for the sins he hates, all because of his love for the sinners he wants to be his children.
And when we suffer because of doubt and cowardice, when the devil attacks you with anxiety at what lies before you in life as if you are not the prized possession of the almighty God, as if your life were not in your loving God’s control, it’s again Christ’s cross that strengthens, his suffering that makes you bold, because here he crushes the devil’s head, eviscerates his deceptions, seals the fact that God’s blood cannot lie. If it is God’s will to suffer for you the pangs of hell, if He has loved you so, he will not and cannot forsake you or turn his child away.
And when we suffer because of the world, our reputation tarnished because of gossip, our pride offended because of arrogant words spoken against us, our passions aroused because of the temptations to sex and wealth and fame and the acceptance the world offers, if only you agree with it and follow it instead of Jesus, once again it’s the cross of Jesus that relieves you, to sing as we did last Sunday, Hence all earthly pleasure, Jesus is my treasure, Jesus is my choice. Hence all earthly glory, naught to me thy story, told with tempting voice. Pain or loss or shame or cross shall not from my Savior move me, since He deigns to love me. I can learn to give up my reputation with men if it means I have a good reputation with God, I can learn to give up wealth, if it means to have the wealth of Jesus’ blood. I can learn to endure pain, if it means finding my rest in Jesus. That’s the point. And it’s a spiritual exercise. This danger, this suffering of Christians, we want our flesh put down, we want to look forward to heaven, we want to be forced to pray from the heart to our God, we want to learn to hate all sin, we want to be constantly drawn to Christ our Lord.
And by suffering we learn what the disciples saw that day. They saw it. Who is this man that even the winds and sea obey him? He is God in human flesh. He is the Creator of heaven and earth. But we see by faith what the disciples didn’t see with their eyes that day. It didn’t look like that man sleeping in the boat was in charge. That’s why they were cowardly. And in the suffering of this life, it won’t seem to your eyes that a man suffering on a cross is in charge of your life. But he is. This is where he takes charge. Where he proves that he is not only the almighty God, but your God, who uses his almighty power for you, to bear your sins and take them away forever, to give you everlasting joy not in your sinful pleasures but in His love and in one another, to keep you safe in the ark of his church, to forgive your trespasses, lead you out of the temptation of the world, and deliver you from every evil. In the world you will have trouble, Jesus says, but take courage, I have overcome the world. Not sin or death or the devil, not things present or things to come, not powers or authorities, nothing can stand against the power of our Lord Jesus; we are safe, secure, like that boat was in the raging sea, no matter how it looked different, we are safe because Jesus is with us, with God on our side, with His body given and blood shed, with his instruction and word and wisdom, with His Spirit, his commandments, his promise that He is with us, with His Church, always even to the end of the age. Amen.
Pastor Christian Preus
The Transfiguration shows Jesus as He really is. He is the God of all glory in human flesh. He appears to his disciples here as we ourselves will see Him in heaven. This is a beautiful thing. St. John says it. “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” We will see Him as He really is. That’s how Peter and John and James saw him then and see Him now. But we need to explain this, what it means. Our Lord Jesus is God. He is. And because He is God, because the Son took on human nature, He shares His divine attributes, His divine power, with his human nature. That’s why His body shines like the sun in the Transfiguration. It’s why the body and blood of Christ can be present here in the Lord’s Supper. It’s why Jesus, God and man, can literally be with us always even to the end of the age. Not like we say that our Grandma or Grandpa is still with us in spirit, even though they’ve passed away. Not a sentimental presence. A real presence. Because the flesh and blood of Jesus are inseparably and personally united to God Himself, to the person of the Son, where the Son is, there is Jesus, all of Him.
This is the first thing to wonder at. And we should. God has so exalted our human nature that it now shares in His divinity, is one Person with Him in Christ. That’s why St. John says what He says, “But we know that when He appears we shall be like Him.” Because God’s a man, and that man Jesus is God. What we look forward to is something beyond our comprehension, that we will be like God. Not in the way the devil tempted Eve in the Garden, when he tempted her to sin, told her to desire to know good and evil, to be like God, to take what God had not given her. No, it’s the opposite. We will be like God, because we will take and receive what God has given to us, what He earned for us, what He took on our flesh and suffered and died to give us; we will be perfectly conformed to Jesus Christ, there will be no pride, no arrogance, no selfish ambition, no grudges, no fear of evil, no doubts, no hatred, no fights in the family, no temptation to sexual lust, no shame. We will be consumed only with love, the love of the Holy Trinity, and our bodies and souls will be and do as God created them to be and do forever. We will find ourselves completely in God’s image, see Him, love Him, know Him, as He really is, with a never-ending and always growing wonder that we are found worthy to be His children and live in His Kingdom. All because our God is a man, and we have received from His fullness, and grace for grace.
This is what we look forward to. We look forward to it. This is important. It’s in the future. The mistake Christians so often make is to wish about the past. Wish they could change this or that. Some stupid mistake, some awful decision, some horrible sin, if we could only go back and change it, we think, how much better our life could be. Everyone here knows what I’m talking about. All of us have done it. But it’s always a mistake. The past is there for us to learn from, not to repeat, not to torture ourselves and think and wish a thousand times we could change it. That’s a practice in selfishness and futility. We’re not God. And not even God permits Himself to change the past. Instead, the Bible consistently tells us to look forward to the goal. Look forward to what God puts before us. What we will do, who we will be, as God’s children in this world and in the world to come. And this is precisely what the Transfiguration teaches us to do.
It’s history. It’s in the past. And so we learn from it. You were not there. You shouldn’t dream of being there. And again, we do this. If only I could see Jesus as He really was, then my doubts would go away, then I would live the life I want to live, then I could be full of confidence. No. That didn’t happen for John, for James, for Peter either. They fell into temptation even after they saw Jesus in all His glory. Peter denied Him. They all abandoned Him to death. No, we look at the Transfiguration to learn from the past what we will have in the future.
Because the Transfiguration is not simply Jesus showing that He is God in human flesh. It shows what Jesus does as God in human flesh. Jesus talks to Moses and Elijah. St. Luke tells us what He was talking about. His exodus. His departure from this world. His death on the cross for sinners. Just as God showed His almighty power in the exodus, made the Red Sea part, and saved His people from certain death at the hands of their enemies, so God comes in human flesh to save us by His exodus, to open the way to the promised land, to everlasting life, by using His power again for us. Think of that. When Jesus appears in all His glory on that mount of Transfiguration, He talks about us, how He will use His power to take our sins on Himself and bear them in His body, to suffer hell for us, so that He can free us from the guilt of our sin and make us children of God.
We need to learn to contrast Mount Sinai and the Mount of Transfiguration. On Mount Sinai God gave His law. No one could approach the mountain except Moses. And not even Moses could see God’s face, only his backside. Moses had to wear a veil over his own face, because it shined and terrified the people after he came down from the Mount. This is the glory of God without Jesus. It’s terrifying. And it still terrifies. It demands perfection. You shall be holy as the Lord your God is holy. And it’s not simply your words and your actions God knows and judges but your secret thoughts and sins, that you hide from your closest friends and even from yourself. And so you can’t look this God in the face. Shame and guilt and fear prevent it. As the hymn puts it, “The Law You gave to Moses came with a glory bright, And judgment still imposes on sinners in Your sight; My head in shame is bowing and sorrow whelms within, Because this light is showing My every secret sin.”
But on the Mount of Transfiguration, what do you see. You see God’s glory shining again in the face of Jesus. It’s a brighter light, more glorious than the light on Mount Sinai. But Peter is not afraid. He’s bold. He can stare straight into Jesus’ face. He’s filled with joy. Why? Because here is the God-man who smiles on sinners, who climbs a Mount not to give the law but to pay what the law requires from us, to take away our guilt and our shame by spending his righteousness and glory on us.
This is why Jesus tells Peter, James, and John not to tell a soul about what they had seen until He was risen from the dead. It’s only after the crucifixion that we can confess with Thomas, My Lord and my God. Here you know not simply God, but your God, not simply His glory, but the glory that serves You, the same glory the three disciples saw with their eyes on the Mount and we will see with our own eyes in the resurrection, that God is not our enemy, but our friend and our Brother, that He lays down His life for us, sheds His blood for us, rises from the dead to talk with us, to call us by name as He did Mary in the garden, to be with us always, as He promised, to feed us with living food and make us partakers of His divinity.
St. Peter tells us about the Transfiguration. Not so that we can imagine we were there. But to point us to the sure Word of God that teaches us what this history means for us and our future. Peter was there. He saw Jesus in all His glory. But what He records isn’t the spectacular feelings and the awe he experienced. No, he records only the Father’s voice: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him. Listen to Him. His Word is the word of Scripture, of the Bible, which you can hold in your hands, read, and see, and hear from this pulpit and at that altar. It is more sure than any sight of Jesus shining like the sun. Because it tells you why He shown like the sun. Listen to Him. The Bible is not a book of fables and myths. It is the sure word of Jesus your Savior. It records history, what actually happened in time and space. And it centers on this one beautiful fact, that your God has become one with you and lived for you and died for you, to make you one with Him.
Look forward to the goal. The goal is to see Jesus in His glory. It’s not to leave behind the past. It’s to glory forever in the past. That your God has loved you to His death. That He has taken away all your shame and sin. That He has put His name on you in your Baptism. That He has blessed you through this vale of tears. That He has given you everything you need. That He has given you joys and helped you through the hard times. That He has kept you in the faith, kept you a child of God. That He has fed you with His body and blood. This is the foundation for your future here on this earth, to fight the good fight of faith, to dedicate yourself to reading and hearing the Word of your God, to pray to Him every morning and evening and everywhere in between, to live lives striving to obey Him as dear children obey their dear Father, to sacrifice our sinful pleasures to the pleasure of life lived under His grace, to love Him and one another, until you see Him in the glory which He has had from everlasting, the glory He spent with His blood to make you fit to be children of God, the glory He shares with you now and will be yours for everlasting and everlasting. Lord, grant this to us all. Amen.
Pastor Christian Preus
It was St. Chrysostom who some 1600 years ago insisted that a parable, the kind of story Jesus so often tells, has one major point to it, that we shouldn’t be so concerned with all the details of a parable, but with the general message that it tells. Now this is very good advice for us to take to heart whenever we read the words of Jesus. His parables are about the Kingdom of God and each parable stresses one thing or another about this Kingdom. If you get too bogged down in the details, you may end up missing the forest for the trees, as they say. And so this is the first thing we need to stress this morning. This parable of the workers in the vineyard has one major point, that the Kingdom of heaven is ours, it belongs to us, by grace alone, solely because of God’s love for us, without any merit or worthiness in us. [Kids, I’m going to teach you a word. Grace means “undeserved love,” when we say we’re saved by grace, we’re saying that God doesn’t decide to love us because of how good we’ve been, but that He loves and forgives people who don’t deserve it at all, who’ve been bad, whose hearts were turned against him, who were his enemies, he loves us still. That’s grace.] Now we Christians should never grow tired of hearing this talk of grace. It’s God’s glory to love those who don’t deserve it and it’s our pride to be so loved. The Christian confesses: I know that I am unworthy, that my sins, as the psalmist says, are grown above my head, that I have been lazy and unmindful of God, that my sinful mind has hated my enemies and my sinful heart has lusted after this world’s treasures, my every sin reminds me of what David had to confess, that I am born in iniquity and in sin my mother conceived me, and so what pride can I have, except here in my God, in his grace, that He has loved a world so full of sin, that He chooses not to destroy me but to love me and prepare a Kingdom for me by the shedding of His precious blood, and then He calls me and coaxes me and compels me by His precious Word to live in His Kingdom, under His rule, where I am safe from sin and death and the devil, here in time and forever in eternity.
That is the basic message of this beautiful parable from our Lord Jesus’ own lips. The Kingdom of God is ours by grace. And we need to keep it in our minds as we get into the details. Because the details, which didn’t fall from the Holy Spirit unawares, the details at every point explain this grace of God and how it applies to our lives in the here and now.
The first detail is a warning. Jesus likes to give warnings to us. He’s our Lord and our teacher. And it’s a bad teacher who doesn’t warn his disciples against things that hurt them. What will harm you above all else in this world is to imagine in your heart that your God is fair. He’s not fair. And you don’t want Him to be fair. You want Him to be gracious. I remember being forced to sing a song in grade school, one of those religious ditties that we never teach our children at our church or our school, thank God, that said, “I don’t want to be a Pharisee. A Pharisee? Cuz they’re not fair, you see! I just want to be a sheep, bah, bah, bah, bah…” and so forth. Now besides the fact that teaching children such songs is totally counterproductive, since they’ll grow out of them faster than they grow out of their shoes, and the songs they should be learning are the great hymns that they will sing all their life with their families and churches and finally at their deathbed, that give them comfort in times of trial and pain, the kind of hymns we’re singing this morning actually, besides this, the message of this song is completely and totally wrong. The Pharisees were fair, you see. That’s the point. And Jesus wasn’t. Jesus is the one who told the criminal on the cross, who hadn’t done a good thing in his life, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Is that fair? Jesus welcomed prostitutes, home-wreckers, tax-collecting thieves, to eat with him, forgave them without them doing a thing to earn it. Is that fair? Of course not. And that’s what the Pharisees grumbled about constantly. He receives sinners and eats with them. It’s an offense. God should be fair. He should reward those who do good and punish those who do evil. He should give a denarius to those who worked all day and a couple pennies to those who worked for an hour. But He doesn’t.
And if you want to be a sheep, a Christian, you will adore precisely this about your Shepherd, that he lays down His life for the unworthy, for the sinner, that He gives not according to our works but according to His grace. Now, to be clear, what is fair, and what the Pharisees didn’t get, and what our sinful flesh will never understand, why it needs to be put to death every day in repentance and faith, what is fair is that God send us all to hell, you and me and everyone, away from his presence forever. The law of God is relentless. It is unchangeable, the reflection of God’s own nature and holiness. It demands that we pay for our sins. That’s what’s fair. You don’t want God to be fair.
Those workers in our parable who demanded they be rewarded for their works, who appealed to basic fairness with the owner of the vineyard, they were miserable. That’s the warning. To be a Christian is to love the God of grace. It brings contentment. It brings love for one another. It makes us delight that the sinner sitting next to us who we think should be better, should work harder, should stop annoying us, that this sinner receives the same love of God that we receive, eats the same body and blood given and shed for him, that God makes no distinction, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
Just look at these workers demanding their fair treatment. They agreed to a denarius, but they’re not content when they get it. They’re filled with resentment against God, they despise their neighbor, they’re told to leave, because those who despise grace don’t belong in God’s Kingdom, and then they complain all the way out. Their hearts are eaten up, their souls are consumed by self-pity and self-righteousness, and wounded pride. This is no way to live. It’s an awful life. And this arrogance, this self-righteous attitude, this enemy of the gospel and of grace, it sits still in our sinful flesh and the devil will be happy to kindle it in us. He wants us to envy one another. He wants Christians to turn against Christians. He wants us judging one another, refusing to forgive one another, holding grudges against one another, thinking we are the righteous ones because of our conduct and in comparison to others. Root it out of your heart. The second you feel resentment because you’re working harder, because you’re the better Christian, because you’ve conquered some sin, because you know more theology, return to the Lord your God, and see you have never expected fairness from Him when you came grieved by your sins, ashamed at your conduct, no, you begged for mercy from the God who promised it to you and sealed it with His blood. And you have never received more joy or more contentment or confidence or security, than when you despaired completely of yourself and received from your Lord’s hand double for all your sins. You love the God of grace. And the God of grace has been so unfair that He has taken all your pain and punishment on Himself and made you a child of God.
Now this is pure joy to know this. And this is the second detail. The Kingdom of God is compared to a vineyard. It’s not compared to a mine, or a factory, or a mill. It’s compared to a beautiful place, full of life, with the sole purpose of producing wine that brings joy to the hearts of men and of God. This isn’t an insignificant detail. Elsewhere Jesus compares His Kingdom to a wedding feast. He compares it to places of joy and happiness. This is why our Lord uses wine in the Supper. What we get in the vineyard, in the church, is not simply what we need for this life – you don’t need wine to live – but the joy of everlasting life. It’s a supernatural joy. And the blood of Jesus He gives in that wine is not simply to get us through the day or the week, but to give us an everlasting joy, to know that we are joined in mystical union with the God of hosts, who swallowed up the demands of the law by drinking the cup of His own wrath and then forgives us and loves us as children of His Father.
The last detail is that everyone works in this vineyard. If you are a Christian you work, period. We aren’t saved by our works. We’re saved by grace. But God’s grace calls us precisely to work. This is what the parable is getting at when the owner of the vineyard scolds the men who were idle all day and didn’t come in till the eleventh hour. There’s no room for idleness in the Kingdom of God. He calls us to work. Now this work includes providing for your family and your church, of course, by working some sort of a job. If a man doesn’t work, neither shall he eat. The Apostle Paul says that he who does not work to support his own family is worse than an unbeliever. But your job, as an employee or as a mother or father or child, is never, ever, disconnected from your call into the vineyard, into the Church. You work as a Christian, period. Your whole life, every bit of it, is as a worker for your Lord Jesus, to do all things for Him and in obedience to His commandments.
But notice how this work is described. It’s a beautiful thing. The pagan, unsatisfied workers who agreed to a denarius, they complain that they worked in the heat and the others, that is, the Christians, worked in the cool of the day. That’s because it’s a miserable thing to work simply for yourself, or worse, to work to make God pay you what you deserve. What does it get you? A denarius at the end of the day, right. To fill your belly till you return to the grave, for dust you are and to dust you shall return.
But the psalmist says, “Arise, O Lord, Confront him, cast him down; Deliver my life from the wicked with Your sword, With Your hand from men, O Lord, From men of the world who have their portion in this life, And whose belly You fill with Your hidden treasure. They are satisfied with children, And leave the rest of their possession for their babes. As for me, I will see Your face in righteousness; I shall be satisfied when I awake in Your likeness.” This is to say what St. Paul tells us in our Epistle. That we run the race with purpose, with certainty of what lies ahead of us. An imperishable crown of life that will not fade away. Not simply for the pleasures of this world, where moth eats and rust destroys. No, we work under the God of grace, who gave water from a rock to his thirsty people and gives us the water of life that cleanses from all sins. And this lightens every load. Our work is in the vineyard in the cool of the evening. Our Lord Jesus says, “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and lowly of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Now look here at what Jesus says, that he does place a yoke on us, that’s to have us work, he does teach us, so that we learn from him, but it is not an awful burden. It’s how we find rest for our souls. And that’s because the work in this vineyard, all your work, all your life, is a work of joy; it begins and ends with the God of grace. This is the light and easy yoke of the Christian. What do we do in Christ’s Church, in the Kingdom of heaven? We hear Christ’s Word, we believe His Gospel, we receive into ourselves the body and blood of God Himself, we despise our sin and run to the God who forgives it freely for Christ’s sake, and in all this the God of grace gives us confidence that we are children of God, the apple of His eye.
I know life can be hard as a Christian. Believe me, I know. Working through family problems, difficulty at work or at home, sins that fester, anxiety and pain, facing down temptations of every kind, all while we pray, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done.” This is why Jesus says that many are called but few are chosen. It looks, it feels, hard, and if left to ourselves we’d certainly ruin it all and give up the race. But this is also why Jesus’ parable is so comforting. He knows our weakness. He knows that we need his grace. He doesn’t leave us to ourselves. He calls us into His vineyard, gives us purpose in everything we do by rewarding us freely with life and mercy we could never have earned. He earned it. He bore the heat of the day. He shows Himself to be the God of grace. Not only does He cover us with His righteousness and make us perfect before Himself in heaven, He even cleanses all our works, like a father who sweeps the floor again after his little son does an awful job at it. He smiles at us, even at our imperfect works, because His grace covers every imperfection. That’s His grace. Complete and total. And life lived under His rule is the only life worth living
Pastor Christian Preus
St. Paul had a thorn in his flesh. That’s a metaphorical way of saying he had pain. A thorn in the flesh hurts. And Paul was hurting. What his pain was, we don’t know. He doesn’t tell us. Some have thought it was a disease in his eyes, because in his letter to the Galatians he hints twice that there’s something wrong with his vision. Others think Paul suffered from a constant temptation, some lust of the heart that wouldn’t go away or some constant anxiety. But we don’t know. What we do know is that he asked God to take his pain away three times. And God said no three times.
The pain of Christians is different from the pain of unbelievers. It doesn’t look that way always. The sun sets and the rain falls on the just and the unjust, and pain comes to Christian and unbeliever alike. The difference isn’t in the level of physical pain or the rate of mental diseases or cancers or anything like that. The difference is that the unbeliever can only see his pain as meaningless. It’s the brain sending and receiving signals throughout the body. That’s it. Who’s to blame? It’s the random process of evolution that randomly causes it all. This is why the atheist French existentialists Camus and Sartre had to write tracts on why not to commit suicide as the obvious solution to pain without purpose. And it’s the reason the progressives in Europe and our own country are pressing hard for euthanasia, not only for old people in pain, but even for young people who just don’t want to live with pain anymore. Pain hurts. It has no purpose. And life has no purpose in the end. So why live with pain? That’s the question people actually ask, because that’s the mindset without God.
But pain does have purpose. That’s what the Christian knows and the heathen and the practical atheist can’t know. If life has meaning, pain has meaning. The Christian knows life has meaning, because God exists, He created life, He lived our life, He experienced our pain, He died in suffering, and He destroyed what made life meaningless by shedding his blood to take away all sin. More that this, Jesus rose again from the dead to live the human life forever, God united to man forever, and life, human life has meaning. And so does our pain.
God actually sends pain to us. There’s no getting around this. God’s in charge. He rules all things in heaven and on earth. His will is done. This is the struggle of the Christian, precisely in this, knowing that God is in control, knowing this God loves us, and yet we still have pain. God sends it. Why?
Well He doesn’t do this to his Christians because he’s mad at us or because he’s punishing us. That can’t be. All his anger and all his punishment of your sin he has poured out on himself on the cross of his suffering. When you receive the absolution, when you take the Lord’s Supper, when you hear the Gospel, you are not only hearing that your sins are forgiven, you are hearing God’s promise that he will not punish you for your sins here in time or forever in eternity, that he is not angry with you, that he will not make you suffer for the things you’ve done.
But that doesn’t mean he won’t make you suffer. He will. Whom he loves he disciplines. Just as Christ suffered so do His Christians. We, as St. Paul says, are being conformed to the image of our Lord. St. Peter even insists that if you don’t suffer you are illegitimate children, fake Christians. It’s the common experience of all Christians that we suffer in this world. It’s God’s good and gracious will for your life.
Pain and suffering are of course here on this earth because of sin. Read through Genesis chapters 1, 2, 3, and 4 and you’ll see it plainly. Adam and Eve sin and only then does pain come, pain in childbearing, pain in work, pain in marriage, pain in relationships, pain at unbelieving children, pain at death. That’s the history of Genesis. And that’s where it ends for the unbeliever. That’s all the significance of pain. Punishment and a curse from a God they don’t acknowledge.
But the reason God sends us Christians pain is not to punish us, not to curse us, but to save us and bless us. He turns what is a curse for the unbelieving world into a fertile ground of his grace and blessing for His Christians.
He calls his Word a seed. The Word that makes you a Christian, that keeps you a Christian, he calls it a seed. And God plants that seed in hearts that can’t receive his Word without Him preparing our hearts to receive it. And that takes pain. Why is there good soil? Soil needs to be plowed to take the seed deep down and produce fruit. Plowing means digging up the ground, removing rocks and uprooting thorns and weeds. And if the soil could talk it would ask the farmer exactly what we ask God when we’re in pain. Why are you doing this? It hurts. Every rock dug up, every weed uprooted tears me up. But obviously the soil won’t be good unless it suffers this pain. The seed can’t take root and thrive without this pain.
Now I want to focus on a specific pain unique to Christians and universal to us, one that we all suffer. It’s the pain at seeing the unbelief in the world, and that often means the pain of seeing the unbelief in people we love very much. Not that we can see unbelief, but we can see its fruits – we can see the denial of the faith by what people say and what people do. We are our Father’s children, and as he wants all to be saved, so do we. And so it tears us up to see people reject the Word that would bring them eternal happiness and relief from sin and everlasting union with God.
Our Gospel lesson records Jesus’ parable of the sowing of the seed and its rejection by the world, and the Church pairs this lesson very appropriately with our epistle and its talk of the Christian’s pain. It is a painful thing to see the devil rip the seed of the Word from the heart of your loved ones, friends, siblings, even children. It’s a painful thing to witness someone who we’ve seen with our own eyes rejoice at the Gospel fall because God sent him pain, tested him, as Jesus puts it, and he couldn’t understand it or take it. It’s a painful thing to see friends and loved ones and family members succumb to the cares and pleasures of the world and give up on the treasure of knowing the God who died for them.
St. Paul had this pain. Maybe this was his thorn in the flesh. He talks about it. He says he has continual pain in his heart at the unbelief of his fellow Jews. He goes so far as to say he could wish that he be damned in their stead, that if only they would believe, he’d suffer hell for them. I’ve often wondered at Paul’s pain here. It’s a pain born only from Christian love. It’s Christ who suffered hell, who took the pain and punishment of all the unbelieving world on Himself, into His eternal Person. And it’s Christ’s disciples, His Christians, who mimic this pain by grieving over unbelief and experiencing the hell of thinking we could lose those we love to the devil.
But this is where Jesus’ words to St. Paul are so comforting. My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in weakness. What power? What is God’s power? This is, in the Greek, the exact same word, this word “power,” the exact same word St. Paul uses when he speaks of the Gospel. For I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God for salvation to all who believe. That’s the power God makes perfect in weakness. When we see that the Word of God seems to have no effect, that people reject it, when we are made weak because we can’t seem to do anything about it, we have to realize that it is the power of the Gospel that has kept us Christians. It has. Nothing else. Not my works, not my will power, not my superior character and wisdom, only this beautiful treasure that God will not let me forget, what He has planted deep down in my soul, that God is my brother, that He has borne my every pain, that He has suffered for me and has shed His blood not only for me, but for all whom I love, that He loves them more than I do and has proved it by his cross, and this Word that has won me, a poor miserable sinner, and made me a child of God, this Word certainly has the power to win those who are now rocky and thorn-infested soil.
The foolishness of it all, the utter ridiculousness of throwing seeds on a road, on rocks, into thorns, this is Jesus’ illustration of the absurdity of our God’s commitment to sinners, even those who have rejected Him. Remember He is the one who prayed for his torturers and mockers, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He is intent on saving the world. That’s why He died for the world. And you know the power of His Gospel, the strength and comfort it gives to you in your weakness. Don’t doubt its power. Pray for those you love who are not Christians. Pray for them and don’t stop, and if you have stopped, start again, don’t stop confessing the truth to them of the God who saved the world He created from the depths of sin and from the fear of death. And then pray again that God’s Word would take root. The same Gospel that comforts you in your pain has the power of God’s own blood and mercy to save all who hear and believe it.
Just look at this Word of God. Read your Bibles and see what it has done. By it Jesus defeated the devil and all his temptations. By it the adulterer David, the thief Matthew, the denier of Christ Peter were humbled and brought back to faith in Jesus. By it the apostles and martyrs suffered the loss of all things, even gave up their lives, for the joy of knowing that not even death could end their gladness, because they were baptized into Christ.
This is why no matter the pain we suffer as Christians, whether it is physical or caused by spiritual struggle, we confess and believe God sends it to us to drive us to His Word, to His power, made perfect in our weakness. This is why Paul boasted in his pain. He could have boasted about his revelation of heaven. He was there. He saw all the joys and the painless and sinless existence before God that awaits all who are found in Christ. He saw things it isn’t lawful for a man to utter. And then he returned to this world and again suffered pain, his thorn in the flesh. And he boasted of this, of his suffering. Because in his suffering he learned the power of God. He learned what angels desire to look into. Think of that, the angels who enjoy eternal bliss in heaven desire to look into the power of this Gospel that we have. This is what gave Paul hope, what gives us hope, not only for ourselves but for this world.
I know how bad it’s become. The temptations of the world and the devil just seem to increase. Cat Stevens sang, “It’s a wild world.” And then Cat Stevens went from being a pot-smoking, fornicating hippy to a radical Muslim enthusiast. That about sums up our world. It’s a wild one. So many temptations. And as we pray for those the world has enthralled and led away from the faith, as we suffer this pain and watch ourselves so that we aren’t tempted with the same, we need to see that whatever pain we suffer we suffer because our God loves us. He hasn’t abandoned us. If we are faithless, he is faithful, he cannot deny himself.
God never says that he won’t give you more than you can handle. People think the Bible says that, but it never does. At least it doesn’t word it like that. It says he’ll always give you a way of release, to fight against temptations. And the point here is that God does give you more than you can handle. You can’t keep yourself a Christian. You can’t convert your loved ones to the faith. You can’t deal with your pain or your weakness by yourself. That’s the point. But God never gives you anything He can’t handle. And so when He sends pain into your life, He’ll handle it. He’ll give you His power. He’ll show you by His Word, by His body and blood shed for you, that He is intent on saving you and all whom you love, that you have joy in Him even in, especially in, the pain of this life. And it’s a joy that will never end. Pain will end. Temptations will be a thing of the past. The devil will not always attack. Sin will not be remembered. Because your God has conquered them all, endured them all, and He conquered them through His suffering. The word of His pain is our strength. It is the power that overcomes the world. As his disciples languished in pain, our Savior said to them, “In the world you will have pain, but be of good courage, I have overcome the world.” And He overcomes it by the pain and death that will end all pain and death and that you now partake of as you cling to His Word. It endures forever, it’s powerful to save, trust in it, confess it, pray for it, and leave the rest to God, to keep you throughout this life until you see your Savior’s face in heaven. God grant it to us all. Amen.
Pastor Christian Preus
Luke 18:31-43; 1 Corinthians 13
I grew up listening to the oldies, the songs of the sixties that my mom constantly played in our 86 Suburban. I still remember the radio station, 95.7 FM, WZTR, Milwaukee. There came a time that I had listened to so many oldies that they all blended together and I realized they all said basically the same thing. They were all about love. This guy loves that girl, this girl broke that guy’s heart, all you need is love, what the world needs now is love sweet love. And it turns out this is always the case with songs and with poetry. Most of it’s about love. The ancient poets sang about it and the modern poets continue the long tradition. People are obsessed with love.
But rarely do the singers or poets define love. They talk and talk about it, but what is it? Most times it’s what the Greeks called eros, where we get our word erotic. It’s a romantic love, the love that fills the teenager with butterflies and makes her feel good as she gets attention from the cute boy. Or it’s a lustful love, the love that gives me satisfaction, because it’s centered on me and the way it makes my body feel. Or it’s a selfish love, what our modern Oprahs have euphemistically named self-esteem, where the goal is to find fulfillment for myself, not for others.
The Greeks had four words for love. Eros was sexual love. Storge was the love of affection for others, like a child for his mother. Philia was the familial, brotherly love and affection between friends and siblings and spouses. And agape was the love of God, a completely selfless love, self-sacrificial and self-giving. So they distinguish between these four kinds of love.
We, by contrast, have only one word for love, and we try to capture all these different kinds of love under this one word. And this leads to a lot of confusion in our conversations about love today. Just think about it. We use the same word for a teenager’s uncontrollable urge for sexual gratification as we use for a mother’s affection for her child. We use the same word for a man’s lust for another man as we use for a husband and wife’s commitment to each other in marriage. We use the same word for our passion for watching football or for skiing or hunting as we use for Christ’s passion on the cross. We use love for so many different types of emotion and feeling, that the word has become close to meaningless.
A great example of this confusion is the rally cry, “Love wins.” It was first, I think, the title of a book by a heretic named Rob Bell who declared in direct contradiction to the Bible, that no one goes to hell forever and that everyone, no matter what he believes or does, will end up in heaven. Because God’s love wins. Later love wins became the hashtag slogan for the LGBTQ community after the Supreme Court forced homosexual marriage on all 50 states in 2015. Just this week the global Methodist Church voted by a slim majority, mostly because the Methodists of Africa and Asia were there and still believe the Bible is the Word of God, the Methodists voted to affirm that marriage is between one man and one woman and to forbid their clergy to officiate at so-called homosexual weddings. The outrage from the American progressives both inside and outside the Methodist Church has focused in on this one word – love. They announced that the Africans and Asians were against love. And the hashtag lovewins was accompanied all over the internet by statements like, “We’ve still got a lot of work to do,” which of course means that the progressive Bible-deniers need to teach the Africans and Asians to stop believing what the Bible says about love.
But the Africans and Asians at the Methodist convention clearly thought that love had won out. They use the same word, “love,” but with a different meaning. Lovewins could be their hashtag. They voted for agape, not unrestrained eros, not sexual freedom. They upheld the hard love of God’s Word. When I was a child I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child, but when I became a man I put off childish things. It is a childish thing to define love according to what I desire. That’s literally how my one-year-old son thinks. My son Isaac asks for beer every time he sees me drink it. He runs up with a cup and grunts at me. His reasoning is simple. I want beer. Dad should give beer to me. But that’s not the way love works. Love sometimes says no to our desires.
The fact is that the only way we get a consistent, objective meaning for love is if we get it from God, who is love. We have to define love not according to what our culture today wants, because that will change based on our desires, but according to what the Bible says, because the Word of the Lord endures forever. Our Epistle lesson uses the word agape for love all the way through. It’s the love of God for us and the love we then return to God and to one another. It’s a selfless love. And that means we don’t define this love, base what this love is, on our selfish desires. No, among all the things love does, being patient and kind, and all the things it doesn’t do, not envying or boasting or being arrogant or rude, all things that make us check our own desires, we have this beautiful description of agape, of God’s love and our love as Christians – Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.
Now we know the truth to be our Lord Jesus. He is the way, the truth, and the life. And to speak of truth is to speak of something objective, something that never changes. The love our culture promotes changes. That’s beyond dispute. 10 years ago every major candidate for presidential office, Republican or Democrat, thought marriage should be between one man and one woman. Now it would be impossible to win the presidential primary in the Democrat party without affirming that it is the most reprehensible thing in all the world, for which we should be utterly ashamed, to say that marriage is only between one man and one woman. Instead we’re told that everyone in every culture in every time since the beginning of recorded history has been wrong, and only the progressive Europeans and Americans are correct. Well, they’ve been correct for precisely 7 years, and who knows what love will be in 7 more years. I don’t mean to be flippant here or political for that matter. Only to illustrate that a truth that changes is worth nothing. Because it will just change again. You can’t base your life on a truth that changes. You can’t base your confidence on a truth that changes, or your hope of things to come. If you want to know who you are, why you’re here on this earth, how you should act, why life matters, you need a truth that is eternal and will never change forever.
This is the truth Jesus speaks today in our Gospel and the truth the blind beggar loves with all his heart. God has spoken. Nothing can change what He says. Jesus Himself, before He took on flesh in the womb of the virgin Mary, inspired the prophets to preach that He would come, that He would be mocked and spit upon and betrayed and killed and rise again the third day. Nothing can change this truth. Jesus Himself submits to it. And let’s be clear about what this truth is. It’s God’s love through and through. But love does not rejoice at wrongdoing. God does not rejoice at sin, at the violation of his creation and his love. Every infraction of love, and that, to be clear, isn’t only the things we Christians are so righteously opposed to in our culture, homosexuality and abortion and fornication, but also our gossiping, our pride, our apathy toward God and His Word, our tempers, our lust, our cowardice in the face of temptation, all of it, God’s love cannot abide, will never rejoice in. You shall be holy as your Father in heaven is holy. And this same love of God rejoices in the truth of God’s love for sinners, which never ignores sin, but puts it on our Lord Jesus. Our Lord Jesus has the spittle of sinners on His sacred face, He bears shame and disgrace, He suffers hell and torment, because His love required this of Him, that His love must win, that sin must be paid for, and that God pays it. That’s love.
Of what this paltering world calls love, I will not know, I cannot speak, I know but his who reigns above, and his is neither mild nor weak. Hard even unto death is this and smiting with its awful kiss. What was the answer of God’s love of old when in the olive grove, in anguished sweat his own Son lay, and prayed O take this cup away? Did God take from him then the cup? No child his Son must drink it up. (Brand, Ibsen)
And blind Bartimaeus, that’s the name of this beggar, he knows it. And nothing can stop Him from confessing it. Love rejoices in the truth. He loves his Lord Jesus. He loves the God who became a man. And so he prays the prayer we learn to pray, what we will pray so often now in the Lenten season, “Lord, have mercy on me.” The greatest part of our Gospel is in blind Bartimaeus’ refusal to let anyone stop him from calling out to his Savior. Stop it, they say. Don’t be so foolish. You’re blind, you don’t know better. Jesus is not such a man that you can trouble Him with your problems. No, the blind man refuses even to think it. The disciples didn’t understand, despite all their learning, after three years with Jesus, they still trusted in their eyes, and refused to understand that this Jesus must suffer and die a miserable death to save them. They were blind to it. But the blind man saw it. They tell him Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. But he doesn’t call Jesus, Jesus of Nazareth. He confesses who Jesus is. He is the Son of David. He is the King Micah prophesies will come out of Bethlehem to shepherd His people Israel. He is the God-man who will have mercy on sinners. And so the blind man sees what no one else does.
And this we need to take to heart. Your senses will not get you where you need to be. Your desires will not show you what love is. Jesus will. His Word will. And it is only when you are blind to everything else, blind to your pride, blind to your unworthiness, blind to everything the world sees and declares right and loving, that you will see what the blind man saw. They tell him not to cry out to Jesus, not to be a beggar. That’s the devil, that’s your pride, that’s your anxiety. The blind man defies them all. Because he sees what no eye can see. That God’s glory is to have mercy on sinners. That because He commits Himself to die for us, He commits Himself to listen to our prayers for mercy on our bodies and our souls.
Joshua once called out to God to make the Sun stop and give light for an extra day. Man spoke and God listened and gave light. The blind man cried out, Son of David have mercy on me, and the Sun of Righteousness stopped and gave light to his eyes. This cry of mercy stops the Sun of Righteousness in his tracks, God listens to man. He stops and pays attention to us, and gives us light, to know His love, to find our salvation in Him, and to learn to love one another.
Jesus speaks with confidence in our Gospel. He knows the truth of the Bible and He speaks it whether people understand it or not. And the blind man imitates Him. He speaks with confidence. He prays in confidence. He brushes off those who mock his confidence. Because he knows the truth. And this is our calling as Christians. We don’t confess to be right, we don’t pray to nurse our pride. That’s not what Bartimaeus did and it’s not what Jesus did. But we are confident. We confess the truth and we pray to our God because we know our need and we love the God who has loved us to His death.
Pray because you know the truth. And that means humility. We are approaching the Lenten season. On Wednesday we will gather again to hear that we are dust and to dust we shall return. And our prayer will be over and over again, Lord have mercy. Have mercy on our nation. Have mercy on those lost in errors’ ways. Have mercy on our families. Have mercy, dear Lord. And this prayer is powerful. We Christians have prayed it since the world began and we’ll pray it till the world ends. It’s powerful because it stands on the truth that will never change, on the God who has guaranteed by His own blood that His mercy will never fail, on the love of God and the truth that endures forever. Let us pray:
Grant, Lord, I pray,
Thy grace each day
That I, Thy Law revering,
May live with Thee
And happy be
Before Thy throne appearing.
Pastor Christian Preus
Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights. Why did he do that? The whole idea of fasting seems to us American Lutherans a hopelessly medieval practice, something for monks, something the pope used to force on his followers. And here we do have a point. The practice of fasting has been terribly abused. In Luther’s day the Pope and his priests taught fasting could earn grace and forgiveness from God. And Luther complained that people were taught to fast and yet were never taught to be good husbands and wives, or obedient children, to to work hard at their jobs, or to be respectful to authority, actual good works that God actually commands, that affect our everyday lives. Instead to be religious meant to fast and pray the rosary and make a pilgrimage to Rome, things God never commands. So Lutheranism and Protestantism in general is steeped in an anti-fasting tradition. We don’t tell people they have to fast. That’s catholic.
But this really does need some clarification. We have to remember first of all that to be a Lutheran means to be a Christian, to follow Jesus, and we follow Jesus by following the actual words of Jesus in the Bible. We can’t just say, well I’m a Lutheran and Lutherans don’t have to fast. That’s what we call begging the question. Do we need to fast? That’s the question. And it’s Jesus who needs to answer. Not the last 100 years of American Lutheran tradition. Jesus. That’s the Christian way, the Lutheran way.
Let’s look at what Jesus actually says about fasting. We heard on Wednesday that he condemns the practice of bragging about your fasting, he says, When you fast, don’t be like the hypocrites who disfigure their faces, so that they may be seen by others, but anoint your head and wash your face, which is all to say, when you fast, don’t brag. Notice, though, He doesn’t say if you fast. He says when you fast. He simply expects it to happen. It’s the same thing when the disciples of John the Baptist come to Jesus and ask why they fast and Jesus’ disciples don’t. Jesus says his disciples don’t fast now, because Jesus is with them and it’s a happy time, but when Jesus is taken away then they will fast. So again, Jesus says there will be times when his followers fast. Fasting comes up again when Jesus returns from the Mount of Transfiguration and finds that his disciples couldn’t cast a demon out of a boy. So Jesus casts the demon out, and his disciples ask him why they couldn’t do it - here they’ve been casting our demons for years and this one they couldn’t cast out - and Jesus tells them this kind of demon can only be cast out by prayer and by fasting. And besides all this we know Jesus Himself fasted, here before his temptation, and other times when he was praying by himself.
Jesus, in other words, not only fasts Himself but expects it of his disciples. And this is reflected even in Lutheran tradition. Despite all the abuses of fasting in the Roman Catholic Church and their horrible teaching that it can merit something from God, still Luther approved of fasting, fasted himself, and fasting even makes it into our Small Catechism, we memorize this in the section on the Lord’s Supper: Who receives this sacrament worthily? Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training, but he is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Fasting is fine outward training, we say, and Luther could have added, not only fine, but godly, something Jesus himself did and approves of.
The old Latin proverb says, Abusus non tollit usum. The abuse of something doesn’t take away its proper use. Everything good can be abused. Sex outside of marriage doesn’t make sex inside marriage bad. People getting drunk doesn’t make alcohol bad. Granola heads worshipping the environment doesn’t make the environment bad. Sinners will abuse everything good. Even church, even the Lord’s Supper, even fasting. But fasting isn’t catholic any more than praying is Catholic. Both come down to us with approval from our Lord Jesus.
Now we’ve talked a lot about fasting without actually saying what it is, why Jesus did it, and why we should do it. So that’s what we’ll do now.
What is fasting? It’s giving something up. In Jesus’ time that usually meant food, but it could be alcohol or anything else the body craves. And this practice, if you look at why it’s done in the Old and New Testaments and when it’s done, you’ll see fasting never happened just for itself, it was never some self-contained religious thing that was just there to make a person feel holy. No, Christians did it at specific times and for specific reasons. Look at King David. When do you see him fasting? It’s after he commits adultery with Bathsheba and kills her husband Uriah, when God tells him that his son born from his adultery will die, that’s when David fasts. But that fasting was accompanied by constant prayer. He didn’t want to eat. He had higher concerns than his belly. That’s the point. He wanted a better thing, and it consumed his life, that his son would live, that God would have mercy. So fasting and praying and reflecting on the God of mercy went together. Look at another famous example. The people of Nineveh, who fast when Jonah preaches that God will destroy their city. Once again their fasting wasn’t a thing in itself. They were praying, calling on God for mercy, mourning over sin, and eating was totally secondary to their minds.
But the best example is Jesus Himself. Why does he fast? Well our Gospel tells us. Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. So he fasts because he’s going to be tempted by the devil. I think most people look at this and think Jesus is purposely becoming weak here and vulnerable. And there’s something to that. He was hungry after forty days. He was weak. And it’s a comfort to us to know that he faced down the devil in our place, becoming weak and vulnerable like us but doing what we could not do, so that we conquer in him. It’s why we can sing, “Satan here this proclamation, I am baptized into Christ, drop your ugly accusation, I am not so soon enticed, now that to the font I’ve traveled all your might has come unraveled, and against your tyranny, God my Lord unites with me.” God my Lord unites with me. That is, he took on my flesh and weakened himself to bear my sin and be in my place, and as my substitute, in my place, a man like me, he conquered you, devil, and He’s given his victory to me.” And this is all true. His fasting did make him bodily, physically weak, and He did conquer the devil in or place. But the purpose of his fasting wasn’t only to make him weak. Remember fasting is never alone.
No, Jesus is fasting precisely to meet the devil in the strength of God’s Word. For forty days he’s meditating on God’s Word. For forty days he’s got better things to do than eat. For forty days He’s praying to his Father for strength to meet the devil’s temptations. For forty days He’s telling His body that bread isn’t as important as God’s Word, that he’d rather go without food than without hearing the voice of His Father. For forty days he’s teaching his soul that His Father is never to be tested but always to be trusted. For forty days he’s training his heart and mind to worship God alone as the giver of all good things and to trust that His good will will be done. His fasting doesn’t serve its own purpose. It serves the purpose of strengthening his soul. And that doesn’t happen without prayer and God’s word. That’s why Jesus so beautifully answers the devil’s temptations. Every time with the word of God, with a quote from the Bible. Because this is what he’s been thinking about, meditating on, for forty days. That’s the point of his fasting.
Now we come to why we should fast. And here I’m not telling you to fast for forty days. I’m not telling you anything specific at all. I don’t have the authority to do that. Neither does the Roman Pope, by the way, because Jesus never says a word about when, how, how often, how long you should fast. So there can be no order not to eat meat on Fridays. Besides, that’s just an excuse to eat deep-fried fish, which is hardly a fast, right? But there is this fact, that Jesus fasts and that he says his disciples will fast. Let’s take that seriously.
Fasting is simply giving something up. It’s to teach ourselves self-control, to deny the body something we want, so that we don’t make a god out of it. But it’s always, and this I can’t stress enough because the Bible stresses it constantly, fasting is always combined with prayer and the study of God’s Word. Otherwise it’s useless. At least it’s useless for faith. It might be quite helpful to deny yourself food if you want to lose weight, but there’s nothing specifically Christian about that, right? Giving up alcohol is exactly what an alcoholic should do, but I know many people who’ve done it without praying to Jesus or believing in him. Fasting can be done, in other words, by atheists, by Jews, by Hindus. It’s not Christian at all unless you combine your fasting with fighting the devil, as Jesus teaches us.
Now the devil doesn’t appear to us as a serpent as he did to Eve. He doesn’t appear in bodily form as he most likely did with Jesus in the wilderness. But he does tempt us with the same sort of things as he tempted Jesus. Turning bread into stones is the temptation of the devil to satisfy our bodies over our souls. There’s nothing wrong with satisfying your body, of course, God wouldn’t tell you to pray for daily bread if satisfying your body’s needs were bad. But it’s this preferring the body’s immediate needs over your body and soul’s need for God and heaven, this is what the temptation is. And this temptation is everywhere. Parents, do you ever not feed your children? Do they go a day without food? I hope not. Don’t make your children fast for an entire day. But do you go a day without giving them God’s word, without praying with them? Jesus answers the devil by telling him, “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” That’s how you defeat the devil. Teach your kids not just with words but by example, by regular church attendance and regular prayer at home and regular reading of the Bible, that God’s Word is more important than food, that just as you would never think of denying them food for their bodies you wouldn’t dream of denying them food for their souls. And this goes for all of us, not just parents. We need to teach this to ourselves. And this itself will be a fast for you. When you devote time to prayer, to reading God’s word, you’ll be giving up time for other stuff, whether that’s TV or sleeping in or whatever. That’s a fast. It happens naturally. Fasting and feeding the soul go together.
Jumping off the pinnacle of the temple is the next temptation, to which Jesus responds, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” Once again, the devil doesn’t appear in bodily form to tempt us to put God to the test, but it is the devil’s temptation. And we do feel it. Probably the most common one the devil uses over and over again for Christians, because we know our God’s grace, we know His love, we know that He is more ready to forgive than we are to ask for it, we know that He has guaranteed our forgiveness by His own blood, so the most common temptation the devil pushes is to test God’s forgiveness, to pursue some pet sin, to drink the drink that puts you over the edge, to say the words that cut down your neighbor, to look at the filth on the internet to satisfy your lust, all with the thought that God will just forgive you anyway. What does Jesus respond? Don’t put the Lord your God to the test. Don’t do it. It’s the devil’s lie that since you’re a sinner you can’t keep yourself from outward sin. You can’t stop the sin of your heart, that’s true, but you can certainly stop your finger from clicking or your tongue from flapping. Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overcome you that is not common to man. God is faithful. He will not allow you to be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of release, so that you may be able to endure it. Or as St. Paul says in another place, “You stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear.”
But look to whom Jesus says, “Don’t put the Lord your God to the test.” He says it to the devil. And this, this, is something we need to learn to do. Say it to the devil. In time of temptation. It’s how we sing, right? Satan I defy thee, we sing. Satan here this proclamation I am baptized into Christ. Satan, you wicked one, own now your Master. Satan’s the tempter. That’s what he’s named in verse 3 of our Gospel. The tempter. Call him that, and you’ll be putting whatever sin you’re tempted to do in perspective. It’s not what I’ve been called to do. That’s what we say. I’m a child of God. I’m not the devil’s slave. For you died and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. That’s what happened to you in your Baptism. And once again, this battle with the devil will work with fasting. Are you gossiping on Facebook? Fast from it. Is the internet causing you to stumble into sexual sins? Fast from it. Is alcohol getting you drunk? Fast from it. But don’t just fast. Replace it. Pray, Jesus says to his disciples when they’re in the Garden of Gethsemane, Pray, that you not be led into temptation.
Finally there is the temptation of pride. That’s what worship of the devil is. The devil is the prince of pride. A beautiful description of hell, if that’s possible to say, is found in the Russian author Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, where a monk says that hell is unbridled pride, where the devil doesn’t care that he can’t win, doesn’t care that God has redeemed the world, doesn’t care that God is superior. He is so consumed with self-importance that even if God offered him an olive branch, even if God would welcome him to join his side, leave behind sin and evil, forgive him, he wouldn’t want it, he’d rather suffer, because then he can keep his pride. And this, this is exactly what he tries to excite in us. Why has God blessed that man and not me? Why has he put pain in my life? If I ruled the world, I’d do better. I’d see that the wicked got what’s coming to them and the innocent never suffered. I’d right the wrongs. No. God will. And He’ll do it in His time and in His way. And every objection to that is simply self-worship, no matter how pious it seems. Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord. He is the King of righteousness. He is the provider of every good thing. Or as Jesus puts it, “Away from me Satan, for it is written, You shall worship the Lord your God and Him alone shall you serve.”
And it is precisely in worshipping him, the Lord alone, that we will find our protection from the devil and our strength to live the Christian life. Jesus’ last statement to the devil is not just an example for us to follow but his command to us to trust in Him. Worship this God, the true God, and Him alone. He is the One who has defeated the devil in your human flesh. With might of ours can naught be done, soon were our loss effected. But for us fights the valiant One, whom God Himself elected. Ask ye who is this? Jesus Christ it is. Of Sabaoth Lord. And there’s none other God. There’s none other God than this one, who defeated the devil in our place, who overcame all his temptations, who lived the righteous life that now robes us in purity, who shed His blood and bruised His heel when He crushed the devil’s head. This is the God who holds the field forever. He is our Brother who fights for us.
So fight against the devil. Fight him with the word of your Savior. Fast and give up whatever you need to give up that leads you into temptation. Conquer with your Lord Jesus. But when you fail, don’t ever, ever listen to the devil’s worst temptation, that God does not forgive and love you. God has really said it. It is finished. This is my body given for you, my blood shed for you. Would Jesus allow himself to be tempted, would God submit himself to fast in the wilderness and study the Word he himself inspired, would he face down the devil in your place, if He were not for you, if He were not only God, but your God, your Savior? If the Son so loveth me, God must have compassion. He’s by our side upon the plain with His good gifts and spirit. And Christian faith cries out, no matter what, through life and death and temptation, His Kingdom remains our forever and ever. God grant it to us all. Let us pray:
Lord Jesus who dost love me,
Now spread thy wings above me,
And shield me from alarm
Though Satan would devour me,
Let angel guards watch o’er me.
This child of God shall meet no harm.
Pastor Christian Preus
Jesus engages here in what we today call apologetics. Apologetics means defending the faith, using reason and common sense to defend the truth of what the Bible says. This is what Jesus is doing. People are explaining away the fact that He just cast a demon out of a man. The man couldn’t hear and couldn’t talk. Now he can. They couldn’t deny what was right in front of them, so they tried to explain it away. This is what unbelievers do. Jesus must be doing it by the power of Beelzebub, the prince of the demons. That’s their explanation. Now I want first to stress here that Jesus doesn’t shy away from arguing with them. He doesn’t turn the other cheek here. You do that if you get personally insulted, not if the truth of Christianity is at stake. Then you argue. Jesus hears Himself and the Christian truth mocked, and He responds by refuting them with sound reason and Scripture, and then challenging them to explain how it is that this miracle really took place.
Second, what we need to see is that Jesus isn’t just responding to the scoffers, to the blasphemers, who mock God, he’s responding in front of the crowd, in front of everyone. Our Gospel tells us there are three types of people Jesus is dealing with. Some wondered at what Jesus did. That’s because they were Christians and believed in Him. Some wanted more proof, wanted a sign from heaven. That’s because they were weak and riding the fence as to whether they should follow Jesus or not. And some were scoffers, because they hated Jesus. And Jesus speaks in front of all. This is a lesson for us. When we defend the faith to scoffers, it may seem useless, because they’re not convinced, but when others are there, they need your confession. They need it. Our children need it, and our neighbor needs it.
Let me tell you a story to illustrate. Yesterday I yelled downstairs because I heard my son yell, “You don’t know what you’re talking about!” I thought he was yelling at a sibling, and that’s no way to talk to your brother or sister, so I yelled down and said Don’t talk like that to the people you love. He responded, “To the TV?” Well, it turns out Dad was wrong, and my son was yelling at some show he and his brothers and sisters were watching on PBS kids. I wonder where he learned that from? Some nature show was talking about a certain toad that evolved millions of years before the dinosaurs, and my son refuted the scoffer. He argued with the TV. And the beauty is that the scoffer couldn’t even hear it. So what’s the point at yelling at the TV? Because all his brothers and sisters were listening to the scoffer, that’s why. And when scoffers scoff in front of believers, we should argue with them, even if it doesn’t help the scoffer, because it will help those around us who believe or are weak. That’s why Jesus responds the way he does. For the sake of his sheep. And that’s the point of apologetics, of defending the faith, so that those who believe or are doubting the truth aren’t led astray by lies and attacks on Christianity. We need to learn to do this, whether in watching TV or listening to the radio or in our everyday conversation. We always defend the faith, we don’t take insults to Christianity; we take insults to ourselves, not to the truth. Always be ready to give a defense for the faith that is in you.
Now let’s take a look at Jesus’ words. He makes a common-sense argument, one so obviously true that everyone will have to agree. A kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. A house divided falls. Satan doesn’t fight against Satan. If people want to scoff at Christianity, deny Jesus is the Son of God, if they want to deny that the reason He does miracles is because the Kingdom of God has come among them, they’ll have to find another way to do it.
But Jesus isn’t done. He backs up common-sense with history and the Bible. “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, surely the Kingdom of God has come upon you.” The finger of God is a reference to our Old Testament text. Look what happened there. When Moses came to Pharaoh and told him to let the Lord’s people go, he performed miracles. Even before the plagues, he has Aaron drop his staff and it becomes a serpent. But Pharaoh calls his magicians and they do the same thing. They drop their staffs and the staffs become snakes, whether through some magic trick or through the power of the devil. So Pharaoh can explain away the miracle and hardens his heart. Then God sends the first plague, the waters turn to blood. And again, Pharaoh calls his magicians, and they do the same thing, turn water red, and Pharaoh again explains the miracle away. It’s only at the third plague, when God sends gnats, when Aaron strikes the dust of the ground and it turns into flying pests, it’s here that Pharaoh’s magicians can’t copy it, can’t replicate it. And they turn to Pharaoh and say, “This is the finger of God.”
The point is that eventually you can’t deny that God is at work. No other explanation suffices. No reasonable objections or natural explanations hold water. The Stronger Man is at work. And Jesus is telling everyone, the scoffers and the believers and the doubters, all of them, that here, at His miracle, they’re faced with a decision. Either you are with Him or you are against Him. Either you’re going to harden your heart like Pharaoh and deny what’s right before your eyes, or you’re going to have to bow down and accept that this man is God almighty, deny yourself, and follow Him.
In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus calls this the crisis that faces humanity. It’s translated judgment in our English Bibles, but the Greek has the word crisis. And we are all faced with it. It’s exactly what Jesus is arguing here. We are faced with a choice that involves our bodies and our souls, all of us. The miracles recorded in the Bible are history. People witnessed them. They tried to explain them away, but they didn’t deny they happened. And the great miracle, the great sign, that God has come into the world in Jesus Christ our Lord, is His resurrection. It’s history. Jesus was dead. He rose three days later, and hundreds witnessed Him alive. He ate with them, talked with them, showed them his hands and his feet, they touched Him, He taught them. And this is the crisis, the choice, that faces all humanity, what Jesus sent his apostles to the ends of the earth to teach, what we ourselves have heard, why St. Paul says, “Today, when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the day of rebellion,” why Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.” There is no other alternative. If we believe the historical truth of what we just confessed, that “Jesus was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried and the third day rose from the dead,” then we must know what Jesus tells us here, “Surely the Kingdom of God has come among you.”
And this has everyday, complete and total, application to our lives in the here and now. That’s the end, the goal of arguing for the truth of the Bible. It’s not to be intellectually right, to just win an argument to satisfy our pride and our own opinion. No, this is the fight for the truth that sets us free, for the words of eternal life, for meaning of life and death and everything we say and do. The Kingdom of God is not an abstraction. It’s not somewhere up in the sky, in heaven. It’s here, as Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God does not come with observation, but is among you,” right here. It’s the actual rule of God, an active thing, that Jesus has captured your heart, the Holy Spirit has convinced you of the truth of His resurrection. This isn’t just head knowledge, some recitation of facts, but the truth of history that rules our souls and our minds, so that we are devoted to the Lord who bought us with His blood and conquered the devil and our sin and gives us new lives to live in faith toward Him and fervent love to one another.
This is why Jesus describes his conquering of the devil the way he does. He calls the devil a strong man. He calls himself the stronger man. And when the Stronger Man defeats the devil, when He makes Christians of us, He says he despoils the devil, He takes from him his armor in which he trusted. Now, the Greek here for armor is panoplia, it literally means “all weapons.” It’s not just the devil’s armor that Jesus takes away, but his weapons, his temptations, his lie that we belong to him, that our sins are our happiness, that life is to be lived for ourselves, because today we eat, drink, fornicate, and are merry, and tomorrow we die. Jesus takes these weapons from him.
Now how does Jesus do it? He does it by His Word. That’s why he responds to the woman in our Gospel, “No, rather, blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.” It’s our Baptism that gives us the confidence to say we are children of God, that our sins are forgiven, that we are not slaves to sin but free to love as our God has loved us, because we bear the name of the Holy Trinity. It’s the body and blood of our Brother and God, placed into our mouths, that makes us certain that we live forever by the life of our Lord given up to death and raised on the third day. It’s every word that proceeds from the mouth of God that instructs us in what is good and pleasing to our Creator and tells us to pray to our Father in heaven as dear children ask their dear father. These are our weapons. They are, as St. Paul describes them, the sword of the Spirit, the breastplate of righteousness. That’s how we beat back the devil, as we sing, “Rise to arms, with prayer employ you, O Christians, lest the foe destroy you.”
This is what Jesus stresses. We live by God’s Word. Period. We either fight with God’s weapons or the demon comes back with seven other demons more wicked than himself and takes back his home. We either fight with God’s Word, or we lose. This is why Martin Luther refused to baptize the children of those who never came to church and thought of baptism as some lucky charm. Baptism will do no one any good unless he also hears the Word of God and keeps it. That’s what we’re baptized to do. What children of God want to do.
The house, Jesus says, is swept clean. That’s Jesus’ description of the one who has been baptized, from whom the devil has been cast out, but who begins to think only of this world, who has no interest in defending the truth of God’s Word because it has no practical bearing on life. Everything is fine, so long as I have a decent job and the kids are happy. Everything is nice and clean because I have my retirement built up. Christian faith is swept under the rug because the sun is shining, spring is coming, and I have my health. Jesus can wait till I need Him. No. That’s the house, that’s the man, the woman, the child, whose last state is worse than the first. He who is not with me is against me, he who does not gather with me, scatters.
It’s not as if the devil leaves and then you’re neutral, choosing for yourself to choose Jesus or to choose the devil, no, there is no neutral state. Either you love your lord the devil, who is the prince of this world, or you love your Lord Jesus Christ who has made your enemies, your sin and your death and the devil, His enemies and has triumphed over them by His cross. There is no middle way. This is why it really bugs me when I hear Christians say they love to sin. Know you don’t. You love Jesus. I know what Christians mean when they say this, that it gives them a sick sort of pleasure to look at porn or get drunk or gossip or brag about themselves. But this is never the way the Bible talks about the Christian’s life or his love. St. Paul when he talks about his own sin and the devil’s temptations says I do what I don’t want to do, and don’t do what I want to do. He says he has a law in his members, in his flesh, that wars against the law of his mind. He identifies himself as a Christian, that’s his I, who he is, and the sin that he falls into, he says he hates, even though his flesh loves it: “It is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.”
Of course the devil still tempts us. Of course we still have sin. But we don’t love sin, that would mean loving the devil. No, we have a higher love; as St. Paul says in our Epistle, you were once darkness, in the past, but now you are light, now, and this has real consequences. That’s why Paul’s next words are “walk as children of the light,” why he says, “be imitators of God,” and then points us to the love of Christ for us. And he gets ridiculously specific what this means for your lives. Sex outside of marriage, being greedy for money, he says don’t even let it be named among you, let alone done among you, and then says don’t cuss, don’t use filthy talk, don’t make nasty sexual jokes; and Paul doesn’t say this just to make us feel guilty, but to warn us, that this is not the life we have been called to, not the life of those who look forward to heaven; because Jesus is our Lord, not the devil; Jesus has actually taken away our sin and conquered the devil by his death and resurrection. And this is everything; We love our God, who has loved us, we trust in the Stronger Man, our Lord Jesus, who has again and again lifted us up from our guilty consciences and set us in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake, as we pray in Psalm 23.
This is what we just talked about last week. Yes, God allows the devil to tempt us, but He allows it only to test us and strengthen us.
It’s really a beautiful thing. God’s using the devil. That’s how you should see every temptation you face. Just remember the Word you confess is true, your God exists, He entered this world in human flesh, He lived and died and rose again. He did it. He’s in control. The devil is the strong man. He’s stronger than you. He’s arrogant. He wants to win. He wants especially the Christian to think fulfilling our lusts or getting drunk or gossiping about our family or being lazy at work or hating those who do us wrong, that these are nothing, won’t harm us at all, just the way normal people live their lives. But the beauty of our God using and abusing the devil, is that these temptations, so long as we have and keep the word of our God, these temptations do nothing but drive us back to our Lord, to pray to Him, to ask Him for strength, to tell Him of all our troubles, to fight against sin, to receive forgiveness at His hand when we fail, to learn to love what is good and hate what is evil. God uses the devil’s weapons against him and for us. And we need to realize that the devil with all his temptation is, as we sing, of all his pow’r shorn. He’s done for, no matter how he rages. The Stronger Man always wins. That’s the truth and promise of Christ’s resurrection. Though devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us, we tremble not, we fear no ill, they shall not overpower us. All his weapons in which he trusted, his panoplia, Christ our Lord has taken away.
And that is why Jesus ends our Gospel the way he does. Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it. This is where the devil fails, no matter how many devils attack, no matter the trials of life, you have and keep the Word of our God, you pray, “Thy Kingdom come,” you know Christ’s Kingdom and rule, and the gates of hell will never prevail against you. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me; I give them eternal life and they will never perish, and no one can snatch them from my hands. Grant this Lord, to us all. Amen.
Pastor Christian Preus
Maundy Thursday, 2019
As the Jews sat captive along the streams of Babylon, they prayed Psalm 137,
“How shall we sing the Lord’s song
In a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand forget its skill!
6 If I do not remember you,
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth—
If I do not exalt Jerusalem
Above my highest joy.”
This should be very familiar to us. They aren’t talking about Jerusalem as a mere place, a home they grew very fond of, not like the poet Ovid wrote about his desire to come out of exile on the Black Sea to his house in Rome or how we would write about wanting to come back home to Casper. They remember Jerusalem, they exalt her above their highest joy, they refuse to forget her, refuse to be happy without her, because here their God met them in His Temple, here they heard the promise of their Savior, here they had the blood of the covenant sprinkled on their heads and sang psalms to the God who loved them. And they are saying from the depths of their heart that life isn’t worth living, there is no joy worth having, without this God.
Jesus calls the Lord’s Supper the new covenant, the new testament, in His blood. He tells us to do this in remembrance of Him. And so we sing Psalm 137 as a new song, with new meaning. We call ourselves foreigners, pilgrims on earth, say our citizenship is in heaven, and we would rather our tongue cling to the roof of our mouth than to forget our Lord Jesus, or exalt anything in our life above His body and blood pierced and shed on the cross and given us here in the Holy Supper. We remember not simply Jerusalem but Calvary, not the Temple of Solomon but the true Temple, the body of our Lord Jesus Christ, not the sprinkling of the blood of animals, but the shedding of God’s blood for us.
Look at how specific this is, where our faith, our lives, are centered. Not on jobs, not on sports, not on family problems, not on house or home, not on some generic God up in the sky, but on our Lord Jesus. The Gospel, that Jesus Christ is God Himself in our human flesh, that He lived for us and died for us and rose the third day, that He has borne our sins as the Lamb of God, that He has united us to our Father in heaven and to one another by His incomparable love, this is our joy. And we are here this evening because the Holy Spirit will not allow us to forget it.
We are content with nothing else than this Jesus. The news has been abuzz this week with the burning of the cathedral of Notre Dame. It’s a tragedy, without doubt. 800 years of history charred. But it’s also a reminder for us Christians. Why were the people in Paris devastated? Why was France in mourning? It’s certainly not because they went to church there. Notre Dame has been almost nothing but a tourist trap for decades. In secular Europe, France is the most secular of all, and Paris especially. Whatever Christian meaning Notre Dame has for them, it’s a relic of the past, a piece of history. They’ve forgotten. And that is the real tragedy of Notre Dame, that the love of Jesus that burned in the builders of that great sanctuary 800 years ago has long since been snuffed in their descendants, long stopped passing from mother to daughter and father to son, long stopped ringing through the halls of that sacred place. They stopped singing the new song.
Why did the captives on the streams of Babylon sing of Jerusalem? It wasn’t just because this was the honest desire of their heart, of course it was, but because they didn’t want to forget, they didn’t want their children to forget, their grandchildren to forget, because they knew that in Babylon they would be tempted to forget, and this was unthinkable to them. And this is what we in Casper, Wyoming, at Mount Hope Lutheran Church, have to confess. May our right hand forget its skill. May our tongue cling to our mouth, if we forget our Savior, if we don’t pass our Jesus’ love for us and our faith in him down to the next generation. This place is no Notre Dame. Churches built in the 60s in the United States aren’t known for their stunning beauty. But we have here what God’s children have always yearned for, always sung of, always remembered, something far more beautiful than Notre Dame, the Gospel of our Lord Jesus and His body and blood given for us.
People do forget their Jesus. It’s the devil’s aim, what he did to Judas. It’s the leaning of our own flesh and blood, lazy and apathetic; we have the same flesh as the apostles who fell asleep in the garden of Gethsemane instead of praying that they not be led into temptation. Love grows cold. Knowing who Jesus is, remembering why He is this great treasure, falls away from nations and from families and from entire churches. They forget. There are those who sit by the streams of Babylon and think they’re still in Jerusalem. People can come to a church here in America, and never here a word about Jesus. In fact, if you don’t mind me preaching a little false doctrine, here’s what the Bishop, or President, of the ELCA, the largest Lutheran body in North America, recently said as she defined the Gospel for her church body, and I’m quoting her, this is what she said:
“Here's the gospel. Human beings are part of the creation. Human beings are connected to everything in the cosmos. Human beings are connected to God. We are not doomed to alienation. That God is more present than we are to ourselves gives us a path to reconnect with God, each other and all of creation. The judgment is that we do not even perceive that the One who created all things is intimately present. The promise is that the One who created all things is intimately present. We--all created things--are family.”
There’s a definition of the Gospel that doesn’t mention Christ, doesn’t mention sin, doesn’t mention the cross or the resurrection, doesn’t even mention faith or forgiveness or love, nothing Christian at all, nothing about Jesus. I don’t even know what it means, or how it could give me hope when I have sinned or when I feel pain or fear death or wonder about my future. It doesn’t define God, tell me why I should love him or why He loves me. It’s empty. And that’s religion, that’s life, without the Jesus of the Bible.
And that’s why we remember our Jesus tonight. Our lives are not empty. No matter what problems we have, what sins we still fight, what pain we suffer as Christians in this sinful world. We know the God who died and rose again and speaks very specifically to us. Our Lord’s Gospel is so beautiful, Christ is so wonderfully our God, that what He does for us changes our lives, so that we pray with the captives in Babylon that we never forget Him whether in our happiness or in our sadness.
It can’t be otherwise. He has all power, knows all things – all things, John says, have been handed over to Him by the Father. There is nothing outside His control. He is the only true God in human flesh. And what does He do with His omnipotence, His eternal power over all things, what does He do with His omniscience, His knowledge of everything, with His complete control over all creation?
He gets down on His knees and washes His disciples’ feet. That’s what He does. He knows that Judas will betray Him. He knows all the disciples will run away and abandon Him. He knows none of them is worthy of Him, and He humbles Himself to touch their dirty feet and serve them. What greater sign could He give us that He loves us to His end? What objection could we make? That He is too high and mighty for us? That His majesty separates us lowly sinners from Him? That our sins are too great for Him to forgive? He washed Judas’ feet! His betrayer! He insisted to Peter, the one He knows will deny Him and abandon Him, that He would have nothing to do with him unless Peter, this weak and stubborn and ignorant man, would allow Him to serve him. That’s our God. The objection of our reason, of our feelings, of our sinful flesh, that we should be the ones serving God and not He us, Jesus strikes down with all His power. He is the God who serves sinners, who debases Himself and humbles Himself, who will do anything for them, and the greater the sinner the greater God’s insistence that He must serve you, that this is what He has come to do.
There is something far greater than this sign of Jesus’ washing dirty feet. Our Gospel mentions it with a single word. During the Supper. That’s when Jesus washes their feet. He serves them in the same hour that He gives them His body and blood to eat and to drink.
We insist on the true teaching of Christ’s body and blood given to us in the Supper not because we want to be right, not because we want to fight over insignificant details, but because we insist on Jesus. And He insists on serving us. Just as it goes beyond reason, above anything we could think naturally about God in His might and power, that He would kneel down and wash dirty feet, so it goes beyond our reason that this same God would put His body and blood into our mouths. But He does.
It’s impossible, I know. A human body isn’t capable of such things. It can’t be in more than one place at one time. It’s impossible. But with God all things are possible. With the God who united our human flesh and soul to His eternal person, so that we can point to that man suffering on the cross and say, There is my God, who made heaven and earth, with this God, who humbles Himself to die for us, all things are possible. His body walked on water. Bodies can’t do that. His body rose from the dead. His body suffered hell for all the world. His body passed through walls to speak forgiveness to His terrified disciples. His body is the body of God Himself, and He uses it to serve us. With all His power, all His knowledge, He decides on this, that He will make us see that He is ours and we are His. Everything He has He gives us. He couldn’t say it more emphatically, to remove all doubt from us, all fear that we aren’t worthy of His love. “I insist on serving you. I put my body and blood into your mouth so that you believe and know for certain that my death is your death, my resurrection yours, my kingdom, my heaven, my everlasting life, my righteousness, everything I am and do, is yours. Your sins I bore, I shed my blood for them, and this blood I give to you. Your death is conquered, my body was pierced, it died, and it lives forever, and I give this body to you.”
The captives on the streams of Babylon sang together. I don’t know what petty fights they had in Jerusalem before they were captured and brought to Babylon. I don’t know the hard feelings they had against one another, but since they were sinners, I’m sure they were many. But they sang together there in captivity. They were united and they loved each other, even if they didn’t particularly like each other. Jerusalem, the promises of their God, united them. And it is far more the case for us today. We are united into one body, we find our identity, who we are, together in Christ. We hear His voice as one flock. We hope for one heaven. We take the same body and blood into our mouths. We are strangers and pilgrims together in this world, and we are bound together by a blood that runs thicker than any family. There is, the Proverb says, a friend who is closer than a brother. Brothers bicker and fight – I know, I have ten of them – but Christian brothers forgive and forget and solve their problems by God’s Word, forget their grudges, reconcile with one another, love the brother or sister in Christ for whom our God shed His blood. That’s what we do as we remember our Lord Jesus together throughout life.
Today is called Maundy Thursday. They tried to change the name to Holy Thursday because Maundy Thursday is too negative, I think. Maundy means command, and we don’t want to talk about commands, do we? We’re Lutherans. But yes, yes, we do. Jesus’ command is that we love one another, as He loved us. And when He spoke that to His disciples he very specifically wanted them to serve by handing down His Word, to preach His death, as He had preached it to them, “as I have loved you,” He says, “so you love one another.” And this is the command we observe tonight, commit ourselves to tonight. To sing and confess the new song of Jesus’ love, to hand it down to our children and grandchildren, to make it our priority, our highest joy, to never forget it. Because our Lord Jesus, our God, has loved us beyond all comprehension, He has loved us to the end, He serves us still in His body and blood, forgives us and welcomes us into a life with Him that has no end. Beloved, if God has so loved us, let us also love one another.
Let us pray:
Let me never Lord forsake Thee,
E’en though bitter pain and strife,
On my way should overtake me,
Yet may I through all my life
Walk in fervent love to Thee
In all woes for comfort flee,
To thy birth, thy death, they passion,
Till I see thy full salvation.
Pastor Christian Preus
Good Friday, 2019
Jesus said, “It is finished” first, then He gave over the Spirit, and finally water and blood poured from his side. That’s the last sequence of events on the cross and that will be the order of our sermon this evening.
First, Jesus said it is finished. And he says it right after he has tasted the spoiled wine, the vinegar, which, John tells us, He drinks so that all Scripture might be fulfilled. Psalm 69 prophesies Jesus’ sufferings some thousand years before they took place, “I looked for someone to take pity, but there was none; And for comforters, but I found none. They also gave me gall for my food, And for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” And this is what is meant, first of all, when Jesus says, “It is finished.” Everything that was written about him, that he would be betrayed and handed over to the Gentiles, that they would pierce His hands and his feet, divide his garments among them, every last detail from the virgin birth to his last drink of vinegar, was already written and He had now done it all. It is finished.
This is to say two things. First, that Jesus confirms the Bible as His own Word. He spoke it. He was bound to finish it. God doesn’t lie. He doesn’t break promises. And so His Word, the word of the Bible that God Himself submits to all the way to death, will not lie or deceive, not even in the most insignificant detail, like Jesus’ tasting sour wine on the cross. The Bible is simply and beautifully true in everything it says, and Jesus insists on it down to his last breath.
But second, and this is just as important, it means that all of Scripture is about Jesus and finds its fulfillment in His death. The creation of the world, the calling of Abraham, the choosing of Israel, the Exodus from the Red Sea, all the histories we’ll read tomorrow night at Easter Vigil, find their significance here. The other night I read to my children 1 Chronicles 29. It seemed utterly irrelevant. It ended with the death of King David. He lived, it says, to a ripe old age, full of joy. Who cares? Why does it matter? Why should I read this to my children and not some fairy tale that ends the same way?
It was David who sang the words of Moses, “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.11 Who considers the power of your anger, O God, and your wrath according to the fear of you? 12 So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. Return, O Lord! How long? Have pity on your servants!” David died in joy because through all the toil and the trouble, all the vagaries of his life that you can read about in the Bible, his suffering and his sin and his fight of faith against unbelief and his loss of children and his persecution and pain, things every Christian suffers today in one way or another, he knew God would answer him, would have pity on His servants, would come to redeem him, would establish the throne of God’s kingdom forever on Mount Calvary and would give him to dwell in the house of the Lord forever. All of Scripture points to Christ our Lord, He’s the hope of all the saints, their expectation, and their trust. And so when Jesus says, it is finished, He fulfills all of their hopes and all of His promises to them and to us.
But it means much more, of course. The prophecies aren’t just details, like Jesus drinking vinegar before His last breath. We just heard the greatest of these prophecies, from Isaiah, that God would be bruised for our iniquities, that the punishment for our peace would be placed upon Him, that by His stripes we would be healed. That though we have gone astray like sheep, turned, every one of us, to our own way, followed our own desires and pleasures, the Lord has laid on our Jesus the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted for us, led like a lamb to the slaughter, stricken for our transgressions. It pleased God to bruise Him (it pleased Him!), to put Him to grief, to make His soul an offering for sin, so that He would have and own us as His children.
This is finally what it means that it is finished. The debt has been paid. If all our sins were on that one Man, if the One died for all, then all died, and we are at peace with God. Think of the anger that we have against sin, against those who sin against us. How dare he say that! How dare he do that! And our first thought is not for compassion. But here God lays on Himself the iniquity of us all, all the nasty things we wouldn’t tell a soul, that are in our heart and in our past. His anger burns against all of it, and yet He takes on our flesh and becomes sin for us, He owns it as His own and takes the punishment, so that we become righteous in Him.
We call this the atonement. We become at one with God. Martin Luther once said that the true preaching of Good Friday must include these two very obvious deductions from God suffering on the cross. The first is that our sin is really that great. There can be no poohpoohing of sin, no antinomian, lackadaisical attitude about our sin – we’re all human, everybody makes mistakes, don’t worry about it – no, God’s anger burns so intensely against sin that it took the life of God to quench that anger. So we take sin seriously, we avoid it, we teach against it, we mourn over it as we see the hate and pride and lust and selfishness in ourselves. But the second deduction is just as important. If God died for our sin, if He died our death, sin cannot claim us and death cannot end us. You can’t argue with what happened on that cross. God died in your flesh and blood. And with such a price paid, with such blood spilt, the blood of God, there can be no doubt that it is finished, there is nothing left for you to do, as the Psalm says, “Be still and know that I am God,” “I have done it.” It’s over. It’s finished.
That’s not to say Jesus is done when he says, It is finished. He’s done paying for our sins, but He’s not done. He sends forth His Spirit. The translation says, “He gave up His spirit,” and it’s unfortunate that the word spirit isn’t capitalized. It’s not as if the Gospel’s just saying Jesus breathed His last. That’s not it at all. Jesus gives His Spirit out, the third Person of the Holy Trinity, the Spirit that brings us to faith, the Spirit that convinces us of exactly what our God has done for us, the Spirit who preaches Christ crucified.
I recently had a conversation with a man who didn’t know whether he was saved or not. He repeatedly and consistently pointed inside himself for proof of the Spirit’s power, whether that was his humility, his enthusiasm for God, his sincerity, his speaking in tongues, his commitment or choice for Jesus. But this isn’t what the Spirit points us to, He doesn’t point us to ourselves and our fickle feelings. We’ll get no certainty from our sinful hearts. The Spirit comes from Christ’s cross and He speaks to Christ’s cross. He speaks to what happened outside of us, in history, the sure fact, that the Son of God bled and died for us. Jesus gave His Spirit to us at His last breath from the cross, and so the Spirit preaches, He uses words, the words of the Gospel, so that, as John insists, we believe and trust in our Lord and His cross alone. The Spirit won’t be disconnected from Jesus. He will give nothing but Jesus and His cross.
And finally this Spirit works through water and blood. It’s no coincidence that from our Lord Jesus’ side flowed water and blood, and we are now washed with the water of Baptism and drink the blood shed for us. Jesus was in complete control of every detail of His death. He said it would happen and it happened as He said. They will look on Him whom they pierced. And they did. They saw water and blood flow from His side. And what our Lord Jesus finished, our forgiveness, our atonement, our everlasting life, He now gives us in water and blood. And so it is very fitting that we this night who have been baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection and have been given everything He has won for us and the name of children of our Father, by His Spirit’s power, once again come to our Lord’s altar and receive the blood He shed for us. It is finished, Jesus said, and He says it again tonight through the Word of His Spirit, through the body that was pierced and the blood that poured out, given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of your sins. Amen.
Pastor Christian Preus
Easter Sunday, 2019
We know from the other Gospel accounts that Mary Magdalene was not the only woman who came to Jesus’ tomb that first Easter morning. Another Mary was there, and a woman named Salome, and a woman named Joanna, and other women whose names we don’t have. And we know why they were there from the other Gospels too, to anoint Jesus’ dead body. It was a beautiful act of devotion, thoughtful, but thoughtless at the same time. They hadn’t had time to anoint his body on Good Friday, because night was coming on and no work was to be done on Saturday, on the Sabbath. So they waited till Sunday, at the earliest possible time, to give this dead body its due and stop the stench of death from getting too bad. But they were also thoughtless, as grief often does to a person, and so they forgot the obvious, that no matter how devoted and genuine their feelings toward Jesus, they couldn’t get to him, because there was a huge rock blocking his tomb, between them and his dead body.
Those who analyze the origins of religions will tell you that religion is rooted in emotional need, that people believe what they believe because they have an inner need to believe it. People fear death, so they imagine a God who offers life after death. People feel guilt, so they imagine a God who forgives. And, no doubt, this is how most religious people operate. God and heaven are a placebo, or as Marx insisted, the opiate of the masses, something to fill their emotional needs. They believe religion into existence, because they can’t do without it.
But that’s not the case with these women. They’re as far from fideism as possible, as far as possible from imagining up religious stuff to make themselves feel better. They’ve seen the cold, hard reality. They stood by and watched as their Lord bled and died. They saw the breath leave his body, the water and blood pour from his lifeless side. He was dead and they saw the tomb in which he was buried. They wanted him alive, they had an emotional need for him to be alive, but the fact of his death was indisputable, they had no religious hopes that He was somehow spiritually alive, and they didn’t comfort themselves with religious clichés, like “He lives within my heart.” No, Jesus was dead. And it was this fact that decided their emotions, not their emotions that decided anything. He was dead, so they mourned and wept and came uselessly with spices to anoint a dead body they couldn’t even get to, because it was locked under a massive rock. And when they come to the tomb and see that the rock is rolled away and that Jesus’ dead body isn’t there, their emotions don’t let them dream up anything but the most natural and unreligious conclusion. Someone took the dead body away.
And the emotions they feel because they can’t get to this dead body, and then the emotions they feel when they can’t find this dead body, because it seems someone moved the rock and stole it away, all these emotions of sadness and despair change only when the fact of Jesus’ death is answered by the fact of Jesus’ resurrection. It’s only when He who was dead shows Himself alive by many and various proofs, only when He speaks to them, when he shows His nail-scarred hands and feet, that the emotions of grief and despair and sorrow are changed to emotions of fear and wonder and joy at seeing Jesus alive.
This is what marks Christianity. It’s not based on emotion. Feelings don’t determine it. The fact of Jesus’ death and resurrection does. I’ve often heard people wonder how a person is supposed to choose between all the religions of the world, all making claims to the truth. But the question is off from the start. There are only two religions. One that is based on fact, and all others based on emotional need.
Our Christian faith is based on fact. St. Paul hangs everything on the resurrection of Christ, on the fact that it happened. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. … If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead…” Paul ushers in a host of witnesses, including most who are still alive, over 500 people, who, on numerous different occasions, witnessed Jesus alive after His death. On the strength of historical certainty, the indisputable fact of an empty grave and hundreds of eye-witnesses, Paul and all the other apostles, who themselves saw this man who was dead alive again, base their faith and emotions, our faith and emotions, on this historical fact that cannot be denied. As surely as Christ died, He rose from the dead.
Nowhere will you find it more emphatically than here that Christian faith is not determined by what we feel about God, what we earnestly desire from Him, but only by what He has done for us in our history. Look again at the women at Jesus’ tomb. The beauty of it is that their emotions are worse than useless. Their emotions can’t get the rock moved away. Their emotions can’t find Jesus’ body, once they realize that it isn’t in the tomb. Their emotions get them absolutely nowhere. And so it goes with us. It doesn’t matter that I want heaven. It doesn’t matter that I want forgiveness. It doesn’t matter that I fear death. None of these emotions can do a thing to determine reality.
But Jesus does. His death and His resurrection do. Dead men don’t talk, but Jesus does. He speaks.
St. John focuses in on one woman in particular, Mary Magdalene. What’s amazing about John’s account is that he never even says why Mary came to the tomb, doesn’t care to mention the spices, and he never mentions anyone else being there, except when Mary says, “We don’t know where they’ve laid Him;” instead the attention is exclusively on Mary and her one concern – her Lord’s dead body is gone. That’s the fact. She says it three times, to the disciples, to the angels, and then to Jesus. She’s singularly focused on the absence of Jesus’ dead body. And again, it governs all her emotions. She runs to the disciples, tells them the body’s gone, then she frantically runs back to the tomb, falls down, and cries. She’s asked twice, “Who are you looking for?” And twice she answers with desperation, “They’ve taken him away.” “Tell me where you’ve put him.”
This is how far emotion gets Mary. Jesus is alive, speaking to her, and she doesn’t even recognize him. And this is how far emotion gets us. My desire for Jesus to be alive doesn’t make it so. My desire for heaven doesn’t make it exist. My desire for forgiveness doesn’t take away my guilt. No matter how much I want these things, cold, hard reality is what it is.
Now I’ve not said all this to bash emotions. It’s quite the opposite. I say all this to exalt Christian emotions to heaven. This is a happy day, objectively, not because I want it to be or you want it to be, but because God makes it a happy day. This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it. There’s Christian emotion. No matter what other emotions fill your heart today, no matter the guilt that attacks your conscience, no matter the fear of death, of yours or the ones you love, no matter the crosses you bear or the temptations you feel, God gives you the divine right today to confront it all with the emotion He gives because of the fact of Jesus’ resurrection. What Saint Paul says will remain forever, as Jesus is forever, faith, hope, and love, these three, they aren’t flighty, they aren’t dreams, they aren’t worked up by our own felt needs. They include emotions, but these emotions are certain, founded on certainty.
You don’t have to hope that Jesus is alive, Jesus’ resurrection establishes your hope. You don’t have to dream of forgiveness from God, Jesus’ resurrection proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that your sins, what separated you from God and deserved His wrath and anger, are washed away in the blood of Jesus, borne by Him, and buried in the tomb. You don’t have to imagine up a heaven, Jesus, alive and breathing, ascends to His Father and calls Him your Father; He so unites Himself to you, so identifies with you, because yours were the sins He bore and yours was the death He died and yours is the flesh and blood He wears in His death and resurrection, that He who has been God from eternity is not ashamed to call Himself your brother and call your God His God.
The resurrection of our Lord Jesus is everything because it takes His suffering and death, this horrible event, what was uncertain, what was a scandal, to everyone, what filled them with senseless emotion, the women with grief and the disciples with fear, what spurred on the mockery of Christ’s enemies and confirmed the nihilism of Pilate, what made the devil shout in triumph, the resurrection takes what looked like defeat and sorrow and death and shows it to be God’s victory and our everlasting glory. They mocked him, told him to come down from the cross, if He really was the Son of God, told him to save himself since he saved others, and here in the resurrection is our God’s answer to the world. Jesus is the eternal God in our human flesh, He shed His blood willingly, He suffered and died, so that He could rise again and take every false emotion, every silly religious feeling in our hearts, and replace it with the certainty that it was God’s blood shed for us there on the cross, God’s body that was pierced for us, our sins and our death removed from us forever, our eternal life secured in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting.
And we respond with the Christian emotion and confidence of Mary, as she saw her Lord alive, without any doubt, and said “Rabboni,” my teacher. Teach me, Lord Jesus, train my emotions, train my heart to trust in You, instruct me in the truth, that since death could not hold You it will not hold me, that since You endured my sins and faced my doubts and despair on your cross, Your Father is my Father and You are my God and my Brother, that since You have died for me You will never forsake me, but I will finally awake from death in your likeness, to live forever with You and see Your glorious face. And so we pray in the surety and Christian faith of our Lord’s resurrection, ‘I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord.’ O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, and His mercy endures forever. Amen.
Now may the peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, Amen.
Pastor Christian Preus
Quasimodo geniti, 2019
Last week, as you all know, some wicked men, in devotion to their false and evil god Allah, strapped bombs to their chests and walked into Christian Churches in Sri Lanka. The Muslims killed hundreds of Christians, purposely, for no other reason than that they were Christians, and they did it on Easter Sunday as these Christians celebrated Jesus’ victory over death. Now terrorist attacks are meant to instill terror. That’s the objective. To make people afraid, afraid of dying, afraid of living life as normal, afraid to go to church even. And that’s exactly what’s happened in Sri Lanka. Most Christians there are Roman Catholic, and the Roman Catholic Bishop canceled all services today in Sri Lanka. No Lord’s Supper will be eaten and drunk for the forgiveness of sins, no Gloria in excelsis will be sung with the angels throughout that country. For the first time in hundreds of years, think of that, for the first time in hundreds of years there will be no church on Sunday on that island. And the people of our little Lutheran church there in Sri Lanka are afraid to have church too. The government has warned against it.
Now I don’t know how serious the continued threat in Sri Lanka is, and I’m not going to judge the specifics here, whether they should have church today or not – it’s obvious we wouldn’t have church here at Mount Hope if a sniper were sighted on our roof and the police had to be called in to take care of him. We’d wait till he was taken care of. That’s not a matter of cowardice at all. It’s a matter of wisdom and common sense, the same reason we take precautions here at Mount Hope to secure our building during services. But this decision in Sri Lanka does bring up an obvious problem, and it’s not just their problem, it’s ours. And that is our fear of death. If we fear death the most, if it’s the most awful thing we can think of, then this sinful life on earth is our god, it’s what we love and trust in the most. And that’s simply not Christian. It’s exactly the opposite of what those Christians who were slaughtered last Sunday came to church to celebrate. We sang last week, “Grim death with all its might, cannot my soul affright; It is a powerless form, howe’er it rave and storm.” We’ll sing today, “Lord thee I love with all my heart,” we’ll sing “Yea, heaven itself were void and bare, if Thou Lord were’t not near me.” We confess with our tongues that we don’t fear death, that above all things we love and trust not our sinful life on this earth, but our Lord Jesus who has spent his life and taken it up again to give us sinless life with Him forever. And it’s precisely at times when death threatens that God tests our confession. Are they empty words, or do we believe and live what we confess?
We could read no better Gospel than the one we heard this morning to answer this question. That’s the irony of canceling church this Sunday in Sri Lanka for fear of death. Look at the apostles. They were in the upper room because they were afraid to die. That’s what our text says. Peter denied Jesus out of fear. The rest of the apostles abandoned Jesus out of fear. They didn’t want to die. That’s it. The reason they’re hiding in that upper room with locked doors is because they’re afraid of the Jews, afraid of persecution, afraid of death. Now we’ll see a totally different side of these same apostles on Pentecost. Then, they are bold. Then they don’t hide behind closed doors. Then they confess Christ openly in front of everyone. Then they are willing to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from their Lord Jesus. And that, by the way, is the promise all of us made at our confirmation, that we would suffer anything, death included, so long as we don’t lose this Jesus, so long as we are not robbed of his body and blood given and shed for us. This is the confidence of the Spirit, what we will sing shortly, “Laugh to scorn the gloomy grave, and at death no longer tremble, He, the Lord, who came to save Will at last His own assemble. They will go their Lord to meet, Treading death beneath their feet.”
But the Spirit is not given first at Pentecost. The Spirit gives gifts on Pentecost. He makes the apostles speak in different languages. He gives them eloquence and the power of miracles. And we don’t have these. I can’t speak in tongues. Well I can, but I worked hard to learn Latin and Greek, the Spirit didn’t give me the supernatural power to do it. And I can’t work miracles. Those gifts of the Spirit were for a time, to establish Christ’s Church after Jesus’ resurrection, but as St. Paul clearly says, “As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease.” No, if we are to find the Spirit’s power today, we won’t find it at the Pentecostal church where people pretend to speak in languages that don’t exist and look inside themselves to find the Spirit’s gifts.
It’s John’s Gospel, what we just heard, that tells us of the Spirit’s work that lasts forever. Those disciples were terrified and cowardly because of death. They were clinging to their miserable lives as if this sinful world and its pleasures were all there is. And the Spirit gives them boldness. The Spirit gives them joy. And He’s not a Spirit disconnected from Jesus. He’s not a Spirit distant from our Lord’s words, the words we hear today. Jesus is there, the man who Thomas confesses without doubt is God and Lord. This Jesus who shows His pierced hands and side, out of which blood and water flowed at His last breath, this Jesus who conquered death after paying it’s awful wages on the cross, He speaks a single word, “Peace,” to these cowardly men and removes all fear from them. What do you have to fear if you have peace with God? What can death do to you, when your God has already suffered it for you? What sin can steal your peace, when your God has borne it and bled on it, given up His eternal peace to speak peace to You? If God is for you, who can be against you? Whenever I am afraid, we confess with the Psalmist, whenever I am afraid, I will trust in You. In God (I will praise His word), In God I have put my trust; I will not fear. What can flesh do to me? This is what Jesus gives when He gives His Spirit. Confidence. The conviction that your sin and your death are erased forever. God, your God, is Lord over death.
It’s not simply that Christ is alive. It’s that He rose from a death that was our death. He bears the wounds of God’s love for us. And His Spirit points to those wounds and convinces us that it is impossible for such a God to allow death to remove us from Him, to take away the peace He has won for us.
Now I haven’t said all this as if Christians don’t fear death. It’s quite the opposite. Christ means everything to us because we know what death is. The heathen, the practical atheist who lives life as if God doesn’t exist, who holds on to some naïve thought that death is nothing, that it’s just the end, so eat and drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die, live life for the moment, carpe diem, seize the day, don’t think about death, think about life – the heathen can ignore death. The generic religious American who gives lip-service to God and Jesus, but thinks nothing of Him except for the occasional false comfort of some heaven open to everyone which the Bible never promises – he can ignore death and live life blissfully ignorant. But we can’t. This is the yoke our Lord places on us as we come to him weary and heavy-laden for the rest only He can give.
It’s the irony of all ironies that we Christians, who know that our God conquered our death, fear death more than anyone. Because we actually think of it. And you should. You shouldn’t lie to yourself. Death is horrible. And you do fear it. You buy medicine at outrageous prices to prevent it. You cover up old age with makeup and cream. Your sinful flesh despairs at the thought of the people you love dying and dreads the end of your own life on this earth.
Now, there is no real separation between our sin and our death. That’s what the Christian knows and what makes death our great enemy. Our sin and our death are so obviously connected. Why do I love life so much? If it’s because God gives it to me, the same God who bled and died for my sins and turned my death into the portal to everlasting life with Him, then wonderful, enjoy it, live it to its fullest, live it with Jesus, hear His word and love Him as He has loved You, and there’s no fear of death here. But if I take pleasure in my sin, if I forget my Lord Jesus and think of myself, then my love of life is nothing but a fear of death. And this is exactly what happens to us Christians. Why do you sin? Why do you selfishly love life so much? Why does your flesh cling to the false hope that daily pleasures give you, as if you can’t live without them? Why are you so upset when someone or something robs them from you? Why do you dread the day when old age or disease take your pleasures from you? Why do you get depressed and anxious? Because your sin, forget everyone else’s sin, your sin, convinces you to forget your Lord Jesus, to live life for yourself, to obsess over your future, and this self-obsession is an obsession with death. He who loves his life will lose it, Jesus says. And the only reason a Christian fears death, the only reason you fear death, why I fear death, is because we are thinking so much about our life as if it were our own and not the life God made and bought back by His blood. I am the resurrection and the life. Jesus says. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live.
The apostles were afraid of the Jews. Afraid of death. Because they loved their life in the wrong way. But that’s not all. It never can be for the Christian. They were afraid of God. And this is what we need to see above all. Their sins put Him on the cross. They abandoned Him. They lived life for themselves. And I suppose the last person they wanted to see was the God they had betrayed. There is something worse than death. That they knew full well. Even as their flesh feared death so much, their soul feared this much more, they had heard Jesus Himself say it, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” And here this same God whom they should have loved, who called them His friends, whom they could not love enough or fear enough to put trust in Him above love for their pitiful little lives, this God who can destroy both body and soul in hell and threatens it against all of us sinners, this God stands before them. I don’t think anyone has feared death or hell more than those disciples that night.
So stand in their shoes. Look on with them at your Lord Jesus. Remember all your fears of death and hell, all your guilt, all your sin, all the moments lived for yourself, all your forgetting of your God, know what it deserves from this holy and righteous God, and hear Him speak again that beautiful word, from the same lips that cried out on the cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?,” and now say, “Peace.” He knew their sins and their fear of death, and He knows yours. And He comes, moved by His grace alone, He comes with His body pierced for you, and He speaks no word of condemnation, no word of punishment, no word of anger, no word of hell. He’s swallowed it all in Himself. He speaks peace, forgiveness. And He makes sure of it. Makes sure that these cowardly men will become courageous by His Spirit and commands them to speak forgiveness to all who hate their sin and fear their death. So hear it and believe it. What your God bought with His blood He insists on giving you. What He suffered He refuses to allow you to suffer.
This is why I hope and pray that our little Lutheran Church in Sri Lanka had service this morning. I hope they heard this Gospel and tasted of Christ’s body and blood. They are afraid of death. Their own countrymen, their own brothers and sisters in Christ were killed in their own cities, and their flesh is terrified of death. But in that little church and here in ours, we have the One who conquers our death, removes our fear, and gives us courage to live life as Christians, who when we are afraid, run to the God whom we love with all our heart, who will never depart from us, who will bring us to see His glorious face forever, as surely as He gives His body and His blood to us this day and speaks peace everlasting. Vows made to You are binding upon me, O God; we confess with the Psalmist, I will render praises to You, For You have delivered my soul from death. Have You not kept my feet from falling, That I may walk before God In the light of the living?
Thanks be forever to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, who alone does wondrous things.
Let us pray,
Yea Lord was thy rich bounty gave, my body soul and all I have in this poor life of labor. Lord, grant that I in every place, may glorify thy lavish grace, and serve and help my neighbor. Let no false doctrine me beguile, let Satan not my soul defile. Give strength and patience unto me, to bear my cross and follow Thee. Lord Jesus Christ, my God and Lord, my God and Lord, in death thy comfort still afford.
We are a confessional Lutheran congregation of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS). Committed to teaching the truth of God’s Word, with Christ crucified for sinners at the center, our worship follows the historic liturgy of the Church. We sing the great hymns of past and present that reflect the reverence, dignity, and joy of the Christian confession.