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Spiritual Battle

Luke 11:14-28
Lent 3, Oculi

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

    We usually think of Lent as a time to meditate on the suffering and cross of our Lord, and that is true.  But the Gospel readings for Lent actually focus even more on spiritual warfare with the powers of darkness. These 40 days are very much like the 6 weeks of military boot camp, training to fight the ancient enemy.  The first Sunday in Lent recounts Our Lord’s temptation by Satan in the desert for us.  Last Sunday Jesus healed the demon-possessed daughter of the Canaanite woman.  And this Sunday our Lord is casting out another demon, and then He is accused of being in league with Satan. Lent is about battle.

    The Pharisee’s charge wasn’t quite as strange as it may sound to us.  They were right in recognizing that something supernatural was going on here.  There are only two options: either Jesus was casting out demons by the finger of God or He was doing it by the power of the devil. The idea that Jesus was simply a kind man, a wise rabbi who was trying to show us a better moral way is just not a possibility in Scripture.  The Pharisees recognized that something real and serious was going on.  There were only two options.  Jesus was either a prophet of the God of Abraham, or he was promoting something that was of the devil.

    And what is true for Jesus is true to this day of all prophets, all ministers, and all religions. If someone is not worshiping the Holy Trinity, they are worshiping the devil.  For in truth there are no other gods. There is only the true God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who together with the Holy Spirit is one God.  Everything else is merely an impostor.  The pharisees speak of  “Beelzebub” which was the name of a Canaanite god, Baal. They call him ruler of the demons. Jesus doesn’t mince any words and calls him “Satan.”  There are no other gods, no other ways, no moderate middle. If you don’t worship Jesus you worship the devil, even if it’s simply by being an agnostic.  Jesus says, “He who is not with Me is against Me.”  So even though the Pharisees were completely wrong, even though they accused Jesus of casting out demons by Satan, at least they realized what was at stake, what the options were. In that, they were mostly ahead of us.

    Let this be to us a call to repentance.  For we have so often played the mild-mannered Christian, more distressed about cruelty to animals than we are about abortion, more worried about the honor of the American flag than we are of our God, more expert in the things of this world than in God’s Word, that we’ve nearly forgotten what is real and what truly matters and what’s at stake. We’ve preferred the good opinion of our pagan neighbors to their salvation, not wanting them to be annoyed with us or to think us odd.  We want to fit in and play both sides.  But here is the truth: You either belong to God or you belong to Satan. Those who think they sit on the fence, the undecided who choose the calm, middle way, are as delusional as those who think they can be a non-practicing vegetarian or that a woman can be sort of pregnant. Christianity is not just about being nice and moral; it is founded upon the death of Jesus alone.  Fence-riders belong to the evil one whether they know it or not. Jesus spits them out of His mouth.   It is written in Revelation 3, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew you out of my mouth.”

    Don’t let the demons tempt you to be moderate and lukewarm about spiritual matters, about sin and forgiveness and Jesus the Savior.  There is no middle ground on such matters, for there is no middle ground in eternity.  And also don’t ever think you’re living in neutral territory.  This world remains a battlefield where the enemy seeks to lure you over to the other side through sin and false belief.  Every sin is ultimately a temptation to forsake the true God and love and trust in another.  The Epistle reading speaks of how there is no place in the Christian life for crude joking, which seeks worldly approval and belittles God’s created gifts.  It speaks of how coveting is idolatry, setting your heart on and putting your confidence in money and things.  And it speaks of how no fornicator has any inheritance in the kingdom of God.  To willfully engage in sex before or outside of marriage, digitally or literally, is to cut yourself off from the God who created marriage.  This is no game.  Be watchful and prayerful.  Be on guard.

    Jesus continues in that same Revelation 3 passage, “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.  Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.”

    In those words we begin to see the good news.  God does not give up on you.  God comes to you and seeks you out and calls you back to Himself.  As you repent and turn back to God you are no longer a fence-rider, though you have been tempted that way to be sure.  For you belong to the Lord; you are baptized. And that is no small thing, no minor detail. For Baptism casts out demons. God’s Word and Spirit in the water drives them away.  You will not be spewed out of the Lord’s mouth as you hold onto the words that proceed from the mouth of God.  

    So do not despair. Do not be afraid. Weak as you are, Jesus made Himself weaker. He made Himself a perfect target for all of Hell’s fury. He drew all their hatred, all their violence, all God’s wrath into Himself. He was stronger than the strong man precisely in His weakness and poverty, in His death. He disarmed the strong man by suffering all the strong man’s strength and attacks. Jesus emptied him of every ounce of poison he had, and now the devil has no strength left. He is spent; he is done. He used everything he had to kill Jesus on the cross. And there is no more.  It is finished.  He has no more accusations. The demons are mute in heaven’s courtroom. The blood of Jesus that they shed damned them to Hell.  For they tried to consume Him and destroy Him.  But whoever consumes the Body and Blood of Jesus in an unworthy manner is guilty of the Body and Blood of Jesus. They have their wages and their payback.  They are judged and condemned.  Jesus could not be consumed in that way.  He broke the jaws of those beasts that tried to devour Him.   And so you are declared innocent and holy. There is nothing left to do, nothing left to prove.  You are pardoned. You do not have to face the charges the demons lay against you. There are no witnesses to accuse you. You are released from the power of the accuser, Satan.  God does not recognize or remember your sins. You are free.  You are forgiven and welcomed as the rightful heir and the beloved of the Father.

    Isn’t it marvelous how our Lord works?  The strong man is defeated by His own tactics being used against him!  It’s worth rehearsing this every Lententide: The devil brought sin into the world by tempting the virgin Eve; and so the Lord brought forgiveness into the world by being born of the virgin Mary.  The devil first overcame man by a tree, and so the devil is overcome by the tree of Christ’s cross. Satan bruises Christ’s heel, but with that same heel the devil’s head is crushed. Christ’s blood, spilt at the hands of the evil one, is precisely what pays for and takes away your sin, and therefore it also takes away the power of the devil to accuse you and hold you captive. It is written in Hebrews, “The Son of God Himself likewise shared in our flesh and blood, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime held in bondage.” Christ has divided and conquered Satan’s kingdom by the power of His holy cross.

    Now it is true that the devil is still roaming about this earth seeking someone to devour. He is real and he is dangerous, but as long as you are in the refuge of Christ, you are safe.  For you belong to God. His Name is upon you in baptism. His promise will not fail. He has not forgotten what He has done, whom He has declared you to be.  You are given to hear the Word of God.  Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it, holding onto it in faith.  For that Word is powerful to drive out the demons, to declare sinners to be a saints. And you are given to eat the Body of Jesus. You drink His Blood. This miraculous eating and drinking is not done in rebellious unbelief like the demons, but in faith.  And so as you consume Him you are given to share in the life of Him who conquered the grave.  This eating and this drinking proclaims the glorious, life-giving death of Jesus. It proclaims the kind of death He died: a  death to end death, a  death that stands in for us, a death that draws us to Him, that destroys the gates of Hell, and shuts the devil’s mouth. This crucified One will come again. For He is truly alive in the body.  He gives Himself as food and drink for your body and soul, to make you whole, to make you His.  In this eating and drinking, He consumes you with His love. The Lord joins you to Himself. You are at one with God, in communion with Him.  All that is His He gives to you; His righteousness innocence, blessedness, His good works.  Everything.  It is a sign of His love for you and a foretaste of things to come.

    So, it can also be said of you: blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts which nursed you; but more than that blessed are those who brought you to the font, that you might be born of God in the body of Jesus.  For in this way, the Stronger Man became your refuge.  The demons cannot have you.  You belong to the Lord.  

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

(With thanks to David Petersen)

Bread for the Dogs

Matthew 15:21-28
Lent 2

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

    The Canaanite woman comes to Jesus alone–no husband, no mother, no sister, no friend to be with her in making her plea.  She comes all by herself to seek the Messiah’s help.  You can imagine how that would have been a bit intimidating, to address such a rabbi in public.  “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.”  Some of you parents and grandparents have children or grandchildren who are in trouble or danger of one type or another, physically or spiritually, or both.  You know the anxiety and the concern this woman had for her child and the passion of her prayers.  She had probably consulted all the doctors and specialists.  Jesus is her final and greatest hope.  

    Think of it that way.  Imagine you had a child or grandchild who had a life-threatening disease, something that was going to be terminal.  But there is a doctor who has developed a new procedure and treatment that could cure them.  Imagine if you were somehow able to talk to this doctor in person and make your case and ask for help.  You’d be passionate in pleading your cause and begging for him to pay attention to your need.  It wouldn’t matter if you had to go to great lengths, and even to be embarrassed in the process.  It would be worth it.  This is how it is with the Canaanite woman.  With boldness she prays and calls out to Jesus; and she does so with faith that He is the Messiah, for she refers to Him as “Lord” and “Son of David.”  We might think that Jesus would be moved by such courageous prayer.  “But,” it is written here, “(Jesus) answered her not a word.”

    Where is her husband in all of this?  What has her husband said?  Has he been silent also?  Does he blame her or the daughter for the demon oppression?  Or does he blame himself?  Is he ashamed of them; is he afraid?  Where are the people who should be helping this woman?

    Her first cries may have been bold, but it doesn’t seem to matter.  She is quickly put in her place.  Not only has she come alone, but the Lord also leaves her alone.  He ignores her and answers not a word.  He silently walks on by.

    There is a fine but important line between temptation and testing, between last week’s Gospel and this week’s.  When the devil tempts you, he is trying to lead you away from God.  When the Lord tests you, he is strengthening you and drawing you closer to Himself.  However, by outward appearances, it can be hard to see which is which.  They feel the same.  Even scarier is the temptation to believe that the Lord isn’t really good to you, that He’s moody and erratic in his character like us.  

    Notice that Jesus did not say “no” to the woman’s prayer.  He knows her faith, better than she knows it herself.  He knows what He is eventually going to do.  But for the moment He is silent, and in His silence, trust in Jesus is tested and purified.  Does she trust Him when He seems to ignore her?  Do you trust Jesus when your prayers appear to be unheard and unanswered, when He seems to be turning His back on you and offering you no help at all?

    Faith trusts not in what it sees or experiences.  It clings to Christ alone.  Faith clings to Jesus’ death and resurrection alone and not to whether or not God seems to be coming through for you at the moment.  Even if God never responds to a single word of our prayers in this life, even if He reserves all of His “yes’s” for the resurrection from the dead on the last day, even if all we receive in this life is suffering and silence, faith says, “so be it.”  We still have Christ and His kingdom and His forgiveness and His soon-to-be-fulfilled promises.  We have God’s “yes” even when the silence seems to say “no.”

    Jesus Himself would experience the silence of God the Father in his own ears.  He prayed on the cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” And the Father was silent.  Hell is the place where God is silent, where there is no Word from Him to give life or comfort.  No one came forth to answer Jesus’ “why” question.  Most of His friends and family had forsaken Him, too. There was only the terrible silence of God’s judgment against us, laid on Jesus. We too are given sometimes to hear the silence of God, not as punishment (since Christ endured that for us), but to stretch and strengthen our faith in Him who hung in silence for us.

    The disciples seem to be bit uncomfortable about all this, though it’s unclear exactly why.  Are they embarrassed by her because she keeps crying out and is a nuisance to their comfort, like a panhandler asking for money?  Or are they embarrassed because our Lord is not acting in a way that seems proper to them?  Are they confused by what appears to be His lack of compassion?  Do they want Him to show His power, to prove that He is the Messiah and help her?  Whatever it is, they intervene on her behalf, asking Him to do something to resolve the situation.

    However, just because you have a lot of people praying for you doesn’t mean you’re necessarily more likely to get what you want.  Prayer is about being conformed to God’s will, not God being conformed to your will.  It is good for us to pray for one another; for that is a part of how we love one another and exercise our faith in Christ.  But prayer is powerful not because of our praying but because of the One we are praying to.

    Jesus responds to the disciples’ prayers, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  The woman had addressed Jesus with the faith of an Israelite; but she was still a Gentile, not part of God’s chosen people.  Jesus won’t let her forget that.  And yet, Jesus does not say that He won’t help this poor woman.  He simply reminds her that He had come first to the Jews.  Making disciples of all the Gentile nations would come after His death and resurrection.  

    This is the second way in which God tests and tries our faith in order to strengthen it.  He acts as if we are rejected.  He won’t let us forget that our own merits and qualifications and family lineage are not what give us a place in His kingdom.  Christ teaches us to trust in nothing but Him– not our prayers, not the prayers of the pious and holy, or the saints in heaven, but only in Jesus.

    Now she comes and falls down before Him, desperate and fully submissive, “Lord, help me!”  It is the barest and yet most heartfelt prayer.  And what does Jesus say in reply?  “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”  

     Now that insult is softened a bit by His use of the diminutive word, “little.”  Jesus might well have meant something like a lap dog, something like that which a trendy socialite would carry around in her purse, a support animal.  But still, it’s an insult.  Lacking the presence of her husband, it could actually be taken to mean something far worse: a dog who lets men use her for money.  Who else has she thrown herself down in front of?  How did this demon come into their lives in the first place?

    Demons rarely come uninvited.  We have to deal with them because with every sin, we dangle our fingers in shark-infested waters.  The misuse of the internet can be a portal for demons.  Willfully sinning and compromising what you know to be right can invite the powers of darkness.  To harden your conscience to any sin, so that you can supposedly enjoy your sin and then repent later is to invite them in as well.  There are no victimless crimes, no small sins without consequences.  What do we think of people who don’t properly store their guns or dangerous chemicals in the presence of children?  The same is true with spiritual dangers.  Not only our own lives but also the lives of our daughters, our sons, our spouses, and our loved ones are at stake.  Let us repent of our failings and seek the Lord’s mercy and protection from all evil.

    The Canaanite woman is likely aware of how Jacob wrestled all night with God, as in the OT reading.  She also knows her own unworthiness to demand things of God.  And so she says, “Yes, Lord.”  Yes, I am a dog.  But then she shows not only a persistence as great as Jacob’s, but also a keener insight into God and His promises.  No, she is not one of the children, but she does belong in the house.  She doesn’t want the children’s bread anyway; she wants the Master’s bread, and that belongs to His pets as well as to His children.  “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their Master’s table.”  She is not a sheep of Israel or a child, but neither is she a pig or some wild animal.  She belongs in the house.  He is her Lord.  Even an apparent insult is a precious Word of God to her, and by faith she holds Jesus to that Word.  Like Jacob, she won’t let Him go until she receives a blessing.  Jesus marvels at her faith and rewards it.  Her daughter is healed.

    The circumstances of the affliction or the location of her husband don’t matter.  This woman needed a Savior, an advocate with the Father, someone who would send the demons away and provide the bread that gives life.  She found all of that in Jesus of Nazareth.  She held God to His promises even more fervently than Jacob.  She contended with God and man in Christ and prevailed.  Her faith was great because Jesus was everything for her. Faith is great that clings to a great Jesus.  And He is indeed greater than the Law that separated Jew from Gentile, greater than the demon that possessed the Canaanite’s little girl, greater than your sin and your death.  

    God’s Law, of course, calls us something far worse than “dogs.”  It calls us sinners, ones who have played with fire and danced with demons far too often.  Let us acknowledge this.  Repent and throw yourself upon the mercy of Christ with the Canaanite woman.  “Yes, Lord, I am, a poor miserable sinner; but you came into the world to save sinners, and so I trust in You and will not turn my heart from You but will cling to You persistently for deliverance from Satan and sin, for full forgiveness and new life.”  The Lord Jesus not only can save you, He has saved you.  He was attacked by the powers of darkness for you and in your place to release you and set you free.  You are the apple of His eye, His holy and beloved ones, His radiant and forgiven children.  Trusting in Christ you don’t simply eat the crumbs that fall under the table, you have a place reserved for you at God’s table as His sons and daughters.  Here is the cure to heal your soul and to send the demons away.  Come, receive the Bread of Life at the table of the Master, His body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.

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

(With thanks to David Petersen and William Cwirla)

The New Adam Defeats the Old Foe

Matthew 4:1-11; Genesis 3
Lent 1, Invocavit

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

    Jesus is tempted three times just as Adam and Eve were.  The old evil Foe has no new tricks.  He uses the same three temptations in the wilderness as he did in the garden: food, doubting God’s Word, and self-exaltation.  Three temptations, but it’s always the same lie: Jesus’ Word isn’t enough.

           Worship your desire. Worship yourself.  Fear, love, and trust in anything or anyone besides Jesus. That’s the devil’s game. It worked on Adam and Eve. They lost. It works on us too. In Adam we all lost.

           But the devil’s temptation tactics don’t fool Jesus. And it’s not that since Jesus is God temptation is no big deal for Him.  He is God, but He does not use His divine power here.  That’s the whole point.  He faces temptation for us as true man, a perfect, obedient human being who loves and trusts in His heavenly Father.  As a real human being Jesus faces the same temptations as the first Adam, not in a garden but in a cursed wilderness, to show you that He is the new and greater Adam.  It’s precisely Jesus’ obedience as one of us that saves us and gives us the victory.

           As it was with Adam and Eve, so it is with Jesus.  The devil starts his temptation with appetizers. “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.”  The devil isn’t concerned about a fair fight; he attacks when Jesus is weak and hungry, like a predator going after a wounded animal. Beware. He’ll attack you the same way, when you’re isolated and alone, when you’re beaten down by the troubles and the pressures of this life.  He will prey on your hungers and fleshly desires and try to make it seem as if you just want to do something that is natural and good.  The devil knows what the ancient Romans knew and politicians and marketing experts know today: if you give the people bread and circuses, as long as their desires and appetites are satisfied and they’re entertained, you can get them to go along with almost whatever you want.  The devil is an expert party planner, catering lies for our every desire, promising satisfaction but only giving emptiness. How easily we turn God’s good gifts into idols: work, sports, sex, food, technology, even worship–making it all about ourselves.

           Not so for Jesus. He denies himself. He fasts 40 days. That’s one of the reasons people fast from certain foods or give up things for Lent.  But be careful how you do that.  It’s not to score points with God or to engage in self-improvement.  Lenten practices are intended to get the focus off of ourselves and onto God and our neighbor.  So whatever you do, do it to discipline your body in repentance and faith.  If you’re giving up certain foods, use the money you’ve saved for charitable giving.  If you’re giving up screen time, use that time for more meditation on God’s Word and to serve your neighbor.  Jesus came to serve.  That is why He who is the Bread of Life refuses to make bread for Himself against the Father’s will.

    “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”  Jesus overturns the dust of Adam’s death by clinging to the living words of God.  Jesus does what Adam and we failed to do.  Jesus fights the devil. He resists the temptation. He stands firmly on the Word of God. All of this…for you. Jesus said in John 4, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work.”  That’s His bread and yours–God’s Word. “It is written.” He knows and trusts that the Father will provide all He needs.

           Where the first Adam ate and brought death, the second Adam does not eat and brings life, so that you who hunger and thirst for righteousness might be filled with His words of truth and life.  The devil’s lies are no match for the Word of Christ. In the end the devil will have to flee.

           But the tempter doesn’t give up right away.  Next, the devil takes Jesus to the top of the temple. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you’ and ‘on their hands they will bear you up lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”

           See how cleverly the devil twists Scripture?  He even uses God’s own word to try to plant doubt. It worked on the first Adam. “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?’”  Notice how the devil twists and changes God’s Word to make it sound like it’s forbidding more than it is.  Did God really say, “On the day you eat of that tree, you will die?”And by mixing a little truth with his lie, he makes his lie all the more convincing.  

          This temptation is particularly insidious. Luther observed that this temptation to forsake the Lord’s clear Word is the worst and most dangerous. It’s a temptation to put God’s Word and promise to the test as if it’s not entirely trustworthy. With this temptation the devil scratches itching ears, muddling God’s Words with our emotions and opinions. With this temptation the devil has blown his foul breath of false teaching into countless churches and led many astray.

           Did God really say “male and female” for marriage?  Surely He’s not against “love.”  And by the way, how can you trust the Bible anyway?  Did God really say that all Scripture is His inspired words?  How can you trust things written down by men?  Did God really say, “Baptism now saves you?” or, “This is my body and my blood?”  How can earthly things possibly convey heavenly blessings? . . .  Understand the devil’s tactics here.  See how the devil just wants to implant doubt, to get you to trust your own thinking over God’s thinking and His clear words.

    Notice how Jesus doesn’t get into a theological debate with the devil in response.  And neither should you.  After all, the devil is a whole lot smarter than you.  Just hold to God’s Word.  Even Jesus simply says, “It is written, You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”  Period.  Take refuge in God’s Word; don’t call God into question as if you are above Him or in any position to judge Him.

    Finally, the devil took Jesus up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory...if you will fall down and worship me.”  It’s a regurgitated temptation, the same one that got Adam and Eve to bite.  The devil comes at us this way too.  Power.  Praise from the world. You can be like God.  Just bow down to whatever or whoever you have to in order to get what you want out of life.  The devil loves the way most people do religion–just choosing the parts they like.  My kingdom come.  My will be done. Do it yourself spirituality. Do it yourself morality. You can have it all, if you just make this compromise and reject that divine Word, if you just bow down and worship me.

           But Jesus doesn’t take the bait. He stands firm, refuses the self-exalting power grab. The devil would’ve promised him anything to bend the knee and avoid the cross. But Jesus will bend the knee to no one except His Father.  “It is written, you shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.”  The only way Jesus is enthroned as King of kings is by his coronation on the cross. No cross, no Kingdom.  And so He becomes the Man of Sorrows, the broken, bleeding man, the beggar King who rules by dying and rising.

            That’s why Divine Service isn’t conditional like the devil’s worship is. Jesus doesn’t say, “If you worship me, then I’ll give you” such and such.  It’s exactly the opposite. Christ gives you everything in His preaching and Supper, and the response of faith is that we worship Him.  It’s not a transaction, it’s a gift.

            In all these temptations–food, doubting God’s Word, self-exaltation–the first Adam failed.  But not Christ; He is the new Adam who overcomes the old foe.  The lord of lies is no match for Lord of life.  That’s what Luther means in that line of the hymn, “One little Word can fell him.” That one little word is liar.  Tell the devil who he is and then tell him exactly where he can go.
           Where the first Adam said “yes” to the devil’s lie, Jesus says no, three times. Jesus resists and stands firm.  And what makes that such good news is that Jesus does not stand alone in the wilderness.  He stands with you, as your substitute. You are there in Him.  His temptation is your temptation; His victory is your victory.  Everything Jesus does is for you. He was Born for you, grew in wisdom and knowledge for you, was an obedient teenage boy for you, baptized for you, sent out into the wilderness for you, tempted for you.  His righteous obedience is yours.  That’s why it is written, “You shall tread on the lion and the cobra…the young lion and the serpent you shall trample underfoot.”  You share in Jesus’ head-crushing victory at Calvary.

           The first Adam could not defeat the devil. But the second Adam, Jesus, can and did defeat him by the holy cross, so that the devil, who overcame mankind by the tree of the garden, might likewise by the tree of the cross be overcome.      

           In the first Adam we were cursed to return to the dust. In the second Adam we are raised from the dust by His bodily resurrection.  In the first Adam we were cast out of Paradise into the wilderness in sin and death. In the second Adam we’re brought through the wilderness to a new creation: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  In the first Adam we were cursed with the food of sweaty labor. In the second Adam, we’re blessed by His sacrificial labor in the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  Whoever eats of this Bread will live forever.  In the first Adam we were tempted and fell. In Christ’s temptation, in His life, death and resurrection, we stand victorious over sin, death and the devil.  

           You are the Baptized. And that means the devil will come after you too, just as he did with Jesus right after His baptism.  You will be tempted by your appetites, by your craving for power and control, by your desire to test and doubt God’s Word.  But you need not fear the devil or his lies. The serpent’s head is crushed. The devil is thrown down.  You are in the Mighty Fortress.  You are Christ’s and Christ is yours.  Christ stands firm for you in the wilderness, on the cross, and today by His words and body and blood. And He holds the field forever.

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Sam Schuldheisz)

He Arose from His Throne and Laid Aside His Robe

Jonah 3:1-10; Matthew 6:1-21
Ash Wednesday

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

    We enter today into the 40 day season of Lent, a number which corresponds to the time that our Lord Jesus fasted in the wilderness, in which He suffered and overcame the temptations of the devil for us.  Living by faith in Jesus, we seek to follow in His way–to put down and mortify our sin through repentance, and to grow in the holy life He has given to us purely by grace.  Today’s readings instruct us in that, in the meaning of repentance and faith.

    To begin with, we learn from the Old Testament reading that true penitence has some very real outward aspects to it.  Sometimes we can be tempted to believe that repenting and believing only has to do with some sort of inward sorrowful or pious feelings that we have.  But the account from Jonah shows us it also involves our bodies, too.  

    Jonah was sent to Nineveh by God to preach against it because of its wickedness.  The Ninevites were enemies of Israel; they were idolaters who were known for their cruelty.  They would sometimes skin their enemies alive and hang the skins on the city walls as a warning to their adversaries.  You can see why Jonah wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of prophesying to them and ran in the opposite direction.  But the Lord brought him back, and Jonah declared to the city, “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown.”  They were given their own Lenten season. God’s judgment was about to come down upon them for what they had done.

    Amazingly, it is written that the people of Nineveh believed God.  You wonder what might happen if Jonah went to one of our big cities today and cried out against its wickedness and violence and immorality.  Here in Nineveh, the Law of God was not met with rebellion, but it accomplished its primary purpose of leading the Ninevites to repentance.  They proclaimed a fast and put on sackcloth.  Even the king of Nineveh laid aside his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes.  The king announced to the people: “Cry mightily to God; yes, let every one turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands.”  

    Notice here how the repentance of the Ninevites wasn’t purely a spiritual matter but a bodily matter too.  The two go together.  They fasted and put on sackcloth as a way of humbling the flesh along with the spirit.  They put themselves in the ashes as a sign of death they deserved.  “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”  Furthermore, their inward repentance  involved the outward turning away from evil, stopping the sinful deeds which they had been doing.  They didn’t just say, “I’m sorry” while all the while planning to continue the same way of living.  Their belief in God’s judgment was real.  Their desire to change was real.  

    Let it also be the same way for us these 40 days of Lent.  Whatever your pet sins may be–gossiping, gambling, gluttony, drinking, the love of money, lust and sexual immorality, anger and losing your temper, grudge-holding, misusing God’s name, laziness, self-righteousness and conceit–whatever it is, acknowledge that you have invited God’s just judgment by it.  All of us have deserved nothing but death and hell.  Repent, turn away from your sin and turn to God for mercy and help in Jesus.  That is literally what the word “repent” means, to turn, to turn around from embracing the things that lead to death to embracing Christ and the life that is in Him alone.

    Even the Gentile king of Nineveh turned to the Lord in his repentance, declaring, “Who can tell if God will turn and relent, and turn away from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish?”  This is the key point:  The Ninevites put their hope not in their own turning, their own works of repentance, but in God’s turning.  They relied on the hope that God would turn away from the judgment He had declared on the city.  They hoped in the Lord’s mercy, and through that faith they were saved.  It is written, “Then God saw . . . that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it.”

    In a very real way, the message of God to you this day is the same as Jonah’s, “Yet forty days and judgment is coming.”  Yet about 40 days and Good Friday will be here.  As we contemplate that coming judgment, we lose our appetite, so to speak.  When a person is in sorrow or troubled or focused intently on a future goal, very often he won’t be able to eat.  So also, as we enter this 40 day season, we engage in a holy fast, that our hearts and minds and bodies may be more devoted to the Word of God and prayer.  Like the king of Nineveh, we set our hope on the fact that God will turn His fierce anger away from us, so that we may not perish but have everlasting life.  

    And our hope is certain.  We live in the sure confidence that our Lord will turn His fierce anger from us, because He has turned it elsewhere, on His own beloved Son, who bore our judgment for us on the cross.  The Father executed our disaster on Christ in our place by His merciful grace.  And so He relents from bringing it upon us, and He does not do it.

    In all of this we see that the Ninevite king was, in a way, a picture of Jesus.  For again, it is written, “He arose from his throne and laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes.” Our royal Lord laid aside the robe of His glory, covered Himself with the shame and sackcloth of our sin, and was laid in the dust and ashes of our death to save us.  Moths would eventually consume the cloaks that were put on Jesus in mockery. Rust would destroy the spear that pierced his flesh. But neither could lay a hand on the Lord of life. Death would not the victor be over Him who hung upon the tree.  The grave met its match when Jesus was laid in its dust.  Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust is no longer the final word. Jesus gives the final word over our enemy: “It is finished.” Jesus rises from the dust, having taken away the stain of sin.  Through Christ God relents from the disaster of judgment that was to come upon us.  He raises you from the ash heap of repentance to be seated with the Prince of Peace as children of God.  

    Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.  We know and believe that our true treasure is not worldly acclaim and the praise of men.  For that reward quickly fades.  We don’t give our gifts and pray our prayers and fast our fasts to draw attention to ourselves, but so that all attention is drawn to Jesus, that we might meditate on His words and share in His love ever more deeply.  Jesus is your treasure.  

    And above all, you are the Lord’s treasure.  His heart is with you.  You are the focus of His love, which sacrificed all to win you back through the secret and hidden means of the cross.  The Father sees in secret and honors His Son’s work, and He now reveals openly the mystery of the cross through His Word to save you who believe.

    This is our joy and our happiness, even on this penitential day.  The Lord is near to those who have a broken heart and saves those of contrite spirit.   The Introit declares to us what the mind of God is toward us: “You have mercy on all, O Lord, and abhor nothing you have made.  You spare  (us) all because you are our Lord, our God.”  God loves us in Christ, in spite of ourselves.  

    So even in dust and ashes we rejoice and are glad.  For ashes symbolize something more than death.  They symbolize sacrifice, the burnt offerings of old.  In the Old Testament the ashes of the burned sacrifices for the sins of the people were found outside the camp.  Jesus was crucified outside of Jerusalem, thereby showing the true mercy of God towards His people.  Ashes on the forehead, then, are also a baptismal sign in the shape of a cross, marking you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified, recipients of His mercy.  And in the midst of the Lenten fast, Jesus invites you to feast on Him who died and rose for you, to receive His true body and blood for your forgiveness, so that you may share in His everlasting life.

    That is what it means to lay up for yourself treasure in heaven.  Store up and take to heart the gifts of Christ.  For moth and rust cannot destroy and thieves cannot break in and steal this treasure which Christ has won for you.  Endure patiently in the way of the cross, looking forward with sure confidence to the Easter victory–Christ’s resurrection, and your own resurrection when He comes again.

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

The Seed Is Christ

Luke 8:4-15

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

    We are right now in the midst of the three “gesima” Sundays in the church year.  “Sexagesima” has to do with the fact that we are approximately 60 days away from Easter.  As we prepare for Lent and Easter, these gesima days fit in very nicely with the three solas of the Lutheran Reformation, namely, that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ’s Word alone.  Last week we heard about grace alone in the parable of the laborers in the vineyard who were paid not by works but solely on the basis of the generosity of the landowner.  Next week we will hear about faith alone in the account of the healing of the blind man.  And today we focus on the Word, how the Word of Christ alone implants life and salvation in us.

    It is hard for us to believe that the Word of Christ is all that we need.  We are so easily tempted to think that the Word is not enough, that in addition we need something more to make it effective–good packaging and a marketing strategy with a fancy logo, dynamic presentations and music and speakers that will really draw a crowd, a set of programs that meets the “felt needs” of the people.  Some of that can be fine, but the great danger is that the Word of Christ will end up taking second place to what we do and what we want.  We must never forget the words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians, “When I came to you, I did not come with excellence of speech or of wisdom declaring to you the testimony of God  (lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power) . . . I was with you in weakness, in fear, and in much trembling.  And my preaching was not with persuasive words of human wisdom . . .  that your faith should not be in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”

    In today’s parable it is abundantly clear that our Lord does not conduct a demographic study before determining how He’s going to scatter the seed of His Word.  Instead, He casts it anywhere and everywhere, on good ground and bad, on those who seem receptive and those who don’t, on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  His technique does not seem to be very wise or effective.  But it is the way of His lavish love.   He sows His seed in foolish, weak, and impossible places, with no thought of gain or loss, only conscious that the seed is good and that all are in need of the life and the mercy it brings.  

    As Jesus preaches and sows the seed of His Word, great crowds are coming out to hear Him.  But having big numbers is not necessarily the same thing as having many believers.  Some of the people were just coming out of curiosity or hoping to see a miracle.  And so Jesus tells a parable which describes how, though many hear the Word, not many grasp it and continue in believing it.  

    Some are like the seed that fell on the path, the hard, foot-worn soil. The Word of Christ is heard.  But it is not received or planted home where it can take root and sprout.  It can’t penetrate the hardened, impenitent heart.  We are reminded by this of the importance of not just knowing the faith outwardly, mentally, but of receiving the Word into heart, clinging to it, relying on it.  Jesus said that the seed is trampled down.  It is slandered by so-called scholars as being untrustworthy; or in the popular culture it is made fun of so that it’s not taken seriously.  Seed that falls on the hardened path is gobbled up by the birds.  Satan slithers in and with his forked tongue snatches away the Gospel.

    Some are like the stony, rocky ground on which the seed was sown.  These are the ones who have an impulsive faith, who haven’t counted the cost of what it means to follow Christ.  Initially they seem to have a great deal of enthusiasm for the faith.  But then something happens in their personal life or in the life of the church that changes all of that.  When things start to get too difficult, when life becomes a mess, then the doubts and questions creep in.  Their once seemingly strong faith is now shown to be only a surface faith, easily scorched by the heat of testing and temptation.  It is based on feelings and emotions.  Their faith is not deeply rooted in God’s words and promises but on how well He’s coming through for them right now.  In the end when it becomes clear that following Christ means real repentance and change and taking up the cross, they become offended; they stumble and fall away.  They wither spiritually, never having been firmly rooted in the faith.

    In the third instance, the seed lands among the thorns that choke out the young seedlings. Christ is preached and heard and believed, but there are so many other voices clamoring for your attention that faith in the Word of Christ gets choked off, like weeds crowding out a garden plant.  That’s the big temptation that our consumeristic, entertainment-oriented culture places before you.  Sometimes it’s not as if we purposely ignore the daily practice of our Christian faith.  It’s just that there are so many pleasures and distractions and diversions offered to you that you don’t have time for the one thing needful.  The thorns crowd out God’s Word.  You may desire within yourself to pray more regularly and read the Bible and have devotions more often; but then you hardly ever seem to have the time, there’s so many other obligations and things you supposedly have to do first.  Even here in church the thorns try to crowd your mind and divert your attention to other things so that you can’t dwell on God’s Word as you should.

    It’s interesting to note here that Jesus refers to the thorns as the “riches, cares, and pleasures of life.”  That’s odd because usually when you think of thorns, you think of something that’s painful, something that hurts.  And yet the thorns Jesus mentions include riches and pleasures, things which seem to be the opposite of pain!  And yet experience teaches that Jesus’ words are true.  For, in fact, the things that often promise us the most pleasure bring us the most pain.  The things of this world  give a temporary happiness but leave us with a lasting sadness and emptiness if they are what we set out hearts on.  St. Paul says in 1 Timothy, “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. . .  For the love of money some have strayed from the faith and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.”  Riches and pleasures are indeed thorns which can very easily ensnare and entangle us in all sorts of worries and cares and anxieties which bring us only pain.

    Well, if you’re anything like me, you can probably see yourself being described in more than one of those first three soils.  We must confess that even as Adam was created from the dust of the ground, we are that dirt full of hardness and rocks and thistles, dirt that the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh want to make unfruitful, so that we will remain nothing more than dust.  Who here can claim to be that fourth good and perfect soil?  Who here can claim that they always act from a noble and good heart with patience?  This parable cuts through us all like the sharp blade of a plow, calling us to acknowledge our condition and repent.  

    The good news is that the Father sent forth His Word from heaven precisely to rescue you from what has infested you.  Christ Himself is the seed.  He is the Word made flesh and the substance of all true preaching.  The Father sends forth His Word from heaven; and Christ does not return to Him void but accomplishes the purpose for which He was sent.  Though the seed, the preaching of Christ, outwardly appears to be powerless and ordinary, yet it contains within it the power of God to save.  For in Christ dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.  

    Christ Jesus has cleared away the debris in your soil through the power of His suffering and death.  Since Christ literally is the Word, the seed that is cast, whatever that seed experienced–on the path, on the rock, in the thistles–Christ has experienced for you.  Thorns were placed on the head of Christ, the Lamb of God who bears the sin of the world.  Jesus was crucified in some hardened and rocky soil called Golgotha, the place of the skull, in order to deliver us.  There, He bore the withering heat of the day and the fire of our judgment.  There, people trampled on His Name with their insults, and Satan and his demons, like scavenging birds, gobbled Him up in death.  Do you see?  All that happened to the seed in the first three instances happened to Jesus.  But because Christ suffered all of that in your place, the devil and the world, sin and death are now conquered for you.  Christ has destroyed the power of the raven and the hard clay, the thorn and the rock from the inside out.  For on the third day our Lord rose from the depths of the earth, bringing with Him the abundance of His mercy and the fruitfulness of His new life, for you.

    The truth is that it is Christ Himself and Christ alone who is that fourth good soil.  For only Christ is without the stain of sin; only He is not overcome by the devil or the world.  He is the divine Word of the Father who was cast like seed from heaven into the good soil of His perfect humanity, which He received in the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary.  He alone is the One with the noble and good heart who received His Father’s will and patiently carried out His Father’s Word, growing up and producing a bountiful harvest of those who believe and are saved.

    Our Lord Jesus is that promised Seed of Eve, planted in the tomb in order that abundant life might spring up through His bodily resurrection.  And you share in that life.  For you are one in whom the Seed has been planted.  In Christ alone, by the working of His Word alone, you become the fourth soil.  The seed of the Word was planted in you by the Holy Spirit with the water of your baptism.  It is sown still in the absolution and the preaching of the Gospel.   And the seed of Christ will be scattered on the soil once again today as the very body and blood of Christ are placed into your mouth for the forgiveness of your sins.  The Word of Christ is at work in you now, that you may bear fruit one hundred fold–the fruit of faith toward God and fervent love toward one another.  The Sower is still sowing His seed, that you may have His life and live His life forever.

    To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God.  Treasure these mysteries, dwell upon them, believe in them, so that you may remain deeply rooted in the Word of Christ, and so that you may share in Christ’s resurrection in the final harvest on the Last Day.  “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”

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

Eyewitnesses of His Majesty

Matthew 17:1-9; 2 Peter 1:16-21

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

    The scholars and the cultural elites and the intellectuals of our time think that much of the Bible is merely myth or fable or even fraud.  The virgin birth, the miracles, and the resurrection of Jesus to them are more or less fairy tales. And certainly they would think of today’s Gospel in the same way.  Jesus’ face transfigured and shining?  Ancient Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus on the mountaintop?  A thundering voice from a brilliant cloud of glory?  It’s all just a little too fantastical for them.

    But why would Peter, James, and John ever invent such a story and then stand by it their whole lives?  All it earned for them was persecution, and martyrdom for two of these three.  Well, the so-called scholars would say that perhaps the story was made up later on somehow, and Jesus went from being merely a popular rabbi to the Son of God.  Power-hungry bishops supposedly invented or embellished these stories for the purpose of setting themselves up as the only source of salvation.  Today’s “smart” unbelievers clearly want to put forth the idea that the Bible is mostly a work of fiction, that there were no eyewitnesses of the birth, miracles, or resurrection of Jesus, and that the Christian Church perpetuates lies in order to maintain control over people.  

    And because we are so often like the disciples in the Gospel, spiritually sluggish and lethargic in the faith, not giving proper attention to the Word of God and prayer, even we can begin to be wonder about these things ourselves; doubts can begin to creep in.  Is this for real or just a grand hoax?  I myself wondered that as a teenager. We forget that not only are the Scriptures historically reliable, verifiably and faithfully transmitted to us from the days of the apostles; but even more importantly, the Scriptures are self-authenticating.  They show themselves to be true as the Holy Spirit convicts us of our sin and brings us to repentance and faith in Christ for the forgiveness of sins.  The Scriptures have the ring of truth, for they give us Him who is the truth, who can only be received in faith or rejected in unbelief.  When it comes right down to it, the real story for those who have turned away from trusting the Bible is that they’ve turned away from repentance and Jesus as Savior.

    It is often the so-called “experts” and “smart” people who are actually the ones promoting falsehoods and fables and frauds, taking 2nd-century religious writings by people who weren’t eyewitnesses and giving them equal respect and weight with the Gospels and the letters of the Apostles who knew Jesus directly.  The New Testament wasn’t concocted after the days of the Apostles.  Documentary evidence of the Gospels and Epistles can be reliably traced back to when they were still alive and facing hardship for proclaiming the Gospel.  And also remember this: Christianity was not a legal religion in the Roman Empire until the 300's A.D.  The bishops at the Council of Nicea in 325 who confessed Jesus to be God in the flesh were not power-hungry monsters but men who in many cases had suffered horribly for what they believed.  A few of them were missing an eye or an arm or a leg or were disfigured because of the torture they endured for being Christian.  Far from being some secretive cover-up or conspiracy, the confession of the Church at Nicea, which produced the Creed that we still confess today, is what has been believed and taught by the Church from the beginning.  If you’re going to doubt someone, be skeptical of those who are skeptical of the Bible.

    The truth is, there were in fact eyewitnesses who recorded what they heard Jesus say and what they saw Him do.  One of those eyewitnesses was Peter.  And He says today very clearly, “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”  And the Apostle John says in his first epistle, “That which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life...” (1 John 1:1).  Those are both statements which everyone must wrestle with: Are they telling the truth? Were Peter, James, and John and the other apostles writing cleverly devised myths?  Or later on, did Paul give up his career as a rising star among the Pharisees for a lifetime of poverty, being hated, stoned, beaten?  Their lives were turned upside-down by their encounters with Jesus, and they shed their blood as testimony that their writings were true and not cleverly devised stories.  Peter, James, and John are telling the truth, that they really were on the mountain with Jesus, that they heard the voice of the Majestic Glory, that they saw something so extraordinary that they could only come to one conclusion, no matter how amazing it seems: Jesus of Nazareth is in fact the Lord, God in the Flesh, the Son of the Living God. “For we were with Him on the holy mountain.”

    And what they saw could only be likened to something that Moses saw: God’s appearance in the burning bush.  Just as that bush burned but was not consumed, so the divinity of Christ dwelt in His humanity but did not destroy it. You and I are mortal and sinful; if we would come into direct contact with God, we’d be instantly destroyed.  But the divinity, the Godhead, dwelt in Jesus, and He was not destroyed.  The fire burned in Him but He was not consumed.  God came to us in this way, into our humanity, that we may come into contact with God through Him and live.

    But why does this transfiguration happen now, before Jesus is crucified?  Well, when they go down from the mountain, they are going to begin the journey to Jerusalem for the last time. Jesus will be handed over to the chief priests, and will be executed.  By showing Peter, James, and John His divinity, Jesus is showing them that His divinity is not something that comes later, a reward for His crucifixion, but something He always had, from the very moment of His conception.  They will understand then who it is that died for them: not just a man, but God made man, God in the flesh.  This is of the utmost importance for you.  If Jesus were just a man, His death would not save you.  But since it was the blood of God Himself that was shed on the cross, it is sufficient to cover and pay for the sins of the whole world, including yours and mine.  Your sins are forgiven in this Jesus, and in Him alone.

    That’s why they could not stay on the mountain. Peter wanted to build three tabernacles and hold on to the moment and the glory.  But it is only Jesus who is given to build a new tabernacle in Himself, the resurrected body and the new creation. That won’t happen on this mountain, but on another, Mt. Calvary.

    The only way to glory is through the cross.  That’s why it is written in Luke that Moses and Elijah spoke with Jesus of His exodus, His departure which He was about to accomplish.  They knew very well what He had come to do.  There is no new creation without first breaking the curse of sin on the old one.  There is no eternal resurrection without there first being suffering and death.  And that’s why Jesus spoke these words to His disciples and also to us just before this event.  He said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.  For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.”

    The Transfiguration is a true story.  It is no myth or fable or fraud.  The glory of God shines in the flesh of Jesus for you.  And Peter reminds us what this means: we now have the prophetic word confirmed, the promises of God made all the more sure.  Moses and Elijah testify that this Jesus is the One whom they spoke of; He’s the Messiah and the Savior.  That’s where you are to focus your attention–not on seeking after supernatural signs and spiritual mountaintop experiences, but seeking after the prophetic Word of God, which points us to the Word made flesh.  That is the one sure thing you can rely upon, the one thing that is certain in this world of uncertainty, chaos, and death.  After all, what did the voice of the Father say from the cloud?  “Hear Him!”  Listen and pay attention to His Word.  And what happened at the end of the Gospel?  “When they had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.”  Jesus only.  Let us fix our eyes on Him.

    For in the end, this story of the Transfiguration is your story.  When you see Jesus on the mountain in glory, you are seeing your own future.  You are baptized into Christ’s body, right?  You are joined to Him by faith.  Therefore what is true for Him is true for you, too.  Though now you must bear the cross and deal with all the troubles and afflictions of this life, that is only a temporary thing, since Jesus bore the cross for you.  You will be like the risen Christ, for you will see Him as He is.  You will behold and reflect His awesome majesty forever.

    And even now, this is already beginning to happen with you.  It is written in 2 Corinthians 3, “We all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord–we are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”  After all, we have the presence of Jesus here, don’t we?  We may not have the shining glory–which the non-denominational churches like to try to replicate and replace with their light shows and big screens.  But we do have the very body and blood of the Son of God–the very same Jesus who was on the mountain, now giving Himself to us for our forgiveness, to transfigure us into His likeness through faith.  And we have the Benediction, given by God, which bestows what the words say, “The Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you.”  Peter may not have known what to say on the mountain, but he was right about this much–it is good for us to be here with Christ and with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, including Moses and Elijah.  The Lord’s Word is reliable and trustworthy and true.  He will be with you in all the valleys of your life until He comes again to give you to share in His divine and eternal glory.

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

(With thanks to Christopher Esget)

The Perfect Humanity of Jesus

Luke 2:41-52
Epiphany 1

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

    It’s easy to misunderstand what is going on in today’s Gospel.  We think that the 12 year old Jesus was able to amaze the teachers with His understanding because He was (and is) God.  As the only-begotten Son of the Father, He is omniscient and therefore He knows all the answers.  It’s a piece of cake for Him to do this.  Except that is actually not what is going on here.  For notice how it says that the 12 year old Jesus was listening to them and asking them questions.  And it’s not that Jesus is just playing along; He’s truly learning.  For it is written here that He increased in wisdom as well as stature.  Just as Jesus was growing up in body, so also He was growing up in mind as a true human being.  So Jesus doesn’t impress the teachers here by pulling out His divinity card.  Rather, right there before them is perfect humanity, a boy who loves His heavenly Father and who is absolutely enthralled with pondering the Scriptures, who has no sin to cloud His understanding and insight.  

    The way that the Scriptures speak of this is that the Son of God emptied Himself of His divine powers for us.  We call this Jesus’ state of humiliation, that period of time where our Lord did not always or fully use His divine knowledge and might.  Only after His death on the cross and burial did Jesus then enter His state of exaltation, as He bodily rose from the dead and ascended to the Father’s right hand.  Certainly now He does always and fully exercise the powers of His divine nature as both God and man.  But here in today’s Gospel, Jesus has emptied Himself for us in order to redeem us.  It is written in Philippians 2: “[Christ Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.  Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

    So consider what is going on here.  Having been raised in a pious household with Joseph and His mother, Jesus had been hearing and learning the Scriptures all His life and was growing up with a clear-minded, innocent, accurate grasp of them as a fully human boy.  Now here He is in the temple, and He is just reveling in talking about the things of God, demonstrating marvelous insight, growing in the holy words of the Scriptures, which all are fulfilled in Him.  Would that all tweenagers and teenagers would be like that, right?  Imagine such a 12-year-old boy in Sunday School or Bible class.  Here is Jesus doing that, all without making use of His divine powers.  Here in Jesus, perfect 12-year old humanity is being revealed.  That is what is bringing amazement to the teachers.

    We also are given to marvel and to be amazed at all this.  For Jesus our Savior was doing this for us and for our children and our grandchildren.  He was living a perfectly human life in our place, unstained by sin from beginning to end, so that He might cleanse us of our sin, so that we might be given to share in His love of the Word, and so that we might be made perfectly human again through faith in Him.

    This is so important for you to remember and cling to, especially in those times when you seem to have lost track of Jesus like Joseph and His mother did.  All too often we can become complacent in our faith, thinking that we’ve got the religion stuff all figured out; and then we take our eyes off of Jesus to focus our attention on the things and the people and the honors of this world.  Everything seems to be going along fine until we get a rude awakening of some kind, when we’re confronted with the truth about ourselves.  And suddenly Jesus seems to have become far, far away from us, we’ve been walking without Him for so long.  That’s when the fear strikes you that perhaps you’re the one who is lost, and you don’t know how to get back to Him.  Thankfully, the good news of today’s Gospel is that Jesus in the temple is already at work to bring you back into God’s holy presence–just as Mary and Joseph were brought back–to find you and reconcile you to the Father in Himself.  That is His Father’s business.

    As Joseph and Mary were anxious at being separated from Jesus, so all Christians should have care and concern that their children and family and friends not be separated from Jesus in this ungodly world.  That’s the business we should be about.  Instead of focusing primarily on our children and grandchildren being smart or popular or athletic or earning lots of money, much more important is their spiritual welfare.  For there is nothing worse that can happen to anyone than that they wander from Jesus and are cut off from Him and the life He alone can give.  And so our fears in particular are for our loved ones who have strayed away from the Lord and who may not even seem to care, who have loved this world and their own philosophy of life instead of the wisdom of Christ.  We shouldn’t just give up and say “Oh well, it’s not my business.”  We shouldn’t just pretend that they’re not acting like unbelievers when they have no time for the preaching of Christ or His holy supper.   We should care and be anxious for them and pray for them and speak to them about Christ.  

    For Jesus lives through these growing up years, including adolescence and early adulthood–those times when people often stray away from the faith–Jesus lives through all the stages of our life to sanctify them for us, and to make the way back for those who have strayed, so that His life might be theirs again, so that the words of the Psalmist might be in their mouths, “Remember not the sins of my youth and my rebellious ways.  According to your mercy remember me, for Your goodness’ sake, O Lord.”  Our Lord fills up this and every phase of our life with His perfect life so that we might never lose hope for those who have lost track of Jesus.  He lives to restore our humanity and to reclaim us and draw us back to Himself.

    For what is clear here is that while Joseph and Mary lost track of Jesus, Jesus Himself was never lost.  He was always right where He was supposed to be.  He was in His Father’s house and about His Father’s business.  Jesus would not only learn and do the carpentry work of His guardian-father Joseph, but also and especially the work of His heavenly Father, where wood and hammer and nails would be to be put to a different use.   Jesus will continue His work until it perfected 21 years later outside Jerusalem as He says, “It finished.”  This is, after all, the Passover feast, and the Lamb of God is in the holy temple.  His shed blood causes death to pass over you.  By His holy cross He takes away your sins.  You are redeemed; you are forgiven.

    For three days Mary felt the loss of her Son here, when He had to be about His Father’s business.  All these things that happened she would keep in her heart, even though she didn’t understand them yet.  Mary may well have recalled this day in the temple as she stood at the foot of her Son’s cross, and lost Him again, this time to death and the grave, only to receive Him back once more on the third day, risen from the dead.  Here Jesus said, “Why did you seek me?”  Later angels would announce to the women at the tomb, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”  The temple was destroyed and in three days it was raised up again.  Jesus had to be about His Father’s business like this to deliver Mary and Joseph and the whole world from the curse.

    On this day we are given to see that the Son of God empties Himself so that we might be emptied of our sin.  In Jesus we are being restored to who we really are, not the identities we try to create for ourselves, but our true selves.  By the Holy Spirit, we are being made to be all that we were first created to be–not in the way of the world, which thinks you are becoming all you can be by pursuing self-fulfillment and achieving your dreams–no, you are being recreated in the way of Christ, increasing in godly wisdom, in love for the Lord, in kindness and compassion for others.

    So remember this:  You may sometimes lose track of Jesus, but He never loses track of you.  He has inscribed you on the palms of His fully human hands.  The Lord has given you His saving name, and He has not withdrawn it.  His words and promises always remain true; you can count on them.  Trust in them.  For Jesus increased in wisdom and stature in order to give you stature and standing before God, to bring you back into the Father’s favor, to make you wise for salvation through faith in Him.  Here is your lost humanity restored.  You can count on this Jesus, who already as a Boy is applying Himself to His saving work for you.  It is written in Colossians 2, “In Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him” (Colossians 2:9-10).

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