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How Beautiful Are the Feet

P: Christ is risen! 
C: He is risen indeed. Alleluia.

In today’s Easter Gospel, there is one phrase in particular that stands out as unusual and unique.  It is reported that when the risen Jesus appeared to the women as they left the tomb, “they held Him by the feet and worshiped Him.”  This brings to mind the words in Isaiah, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of Him who brings good news!”  We don’t usually think of feet as being particularly beautiful, but the history of salvation, the true story of the Gospel can be followed by tracking the feet.

On the Sixth Day of Creation, God brought forth and formed a man from the dust of the ground and placed him in a garden made just for him. Adam wasn’t just someone for an all-powerful God to boss around; this man was a king, God’s representative on earth. And this king, Adam, was not created to lollygag around the garden all day; he was made to have dominion and to rule. This king was created with feet, for God gave him work to do, and he had to get around. His blessed work was to tend the garden and to guard it, and that meant also guarding His bride, Eve.

But Adam blew it big time. A preacher from hell, a fallen angel, came into the garden.  And he came to Adam’s wife spewing his poisonous lies. Now, Adam should have taken those feet and planted them right between his wife and the serpent and said, “Eve, don’t listen to that preacher. He’s a liar.” But he was a very convincing preacher, smooth-talking and slick. Adam was caught flat-footed and did nothing to rescue his deceived wife. “Take; eat, Adam,” she said.  And he did.

Almost all kings leave some kind of legacy, something they are remembered for. David was the great warrior king. Solomon is remembered for his wisdom and for building the temple. But King Adam built nothing. His legacy was death. His work brought tombs and graves into the world, funeral homes and obituaries, sickness and disease, fear and anxiety. Before the fall, Adam and Eve reverenced God with a holy fear and love. Now they were just scared of Him and everything else.

Consider your feet, you children of Adam.  How often have you used your feet to wander away from Christ’s church to someplace you thought was more interesting or convinced yourself was more important, or buried those feet deeper under the covers rather than get up and go hear Christ’s Word each week as He commands? How often have you used your feet to wander away from those around you who are in need? How often have you run with those feet to share the latest bit of juicy gossip? How often have you stomped away from your spouse or your parents when you're angry at them? How often have you kicked others while they are down or to strut around like you're the best thing that ever happened? Because our feet are caked in the gunk and crud of sin, like Adam, we’ve been driven out of the garden of living in God’s presence.  With Adam, we’ve made our bed, and it’s a grave, and now we’ll have to lie in it, too.  

But amazingly God still loved fallen man who had blown it so badly, and He promised one day to send another Adam, another King.  He would send a royal Seed–His only-begotten Son, God in the flesh, God with feet. These feet would not be the feet of a coward, but the feet of a champion who came into the world to restore all that King Adam ruined. His were the feet that came to crush the head of that false preacher who deceived Adam and filled the world with fear. This king, our Lord Jesus Christ, was not caught by the enemy flat-footed and unprepared.

These are the feet that stepped into the water of the Jordan River to be baptized for you. These are the feet of Him who walked from town to town preaching the kingdom of God and healing the sick, even walking right into a funeral procession to raise a widow’s son.  These are feet that the sinful woman washed with her tears and hair! These are the feet that stood before the religious leaders and the Roman Governor. These are the feet that stumbled as they carried the cross to Calvary. And there, on that mountain, behold the beautiful feet, pierced with nails, affixed to the cross. All this to bring you mercy.  His feet and hands and side and brow are pierced for you, for your sins. His blood washes it all away and cleanses you.  Your sins are wiped out once and for all.  The price has been fully paid.  In Jesus there is peace between you and God. How beautiful indeed are those holy feet of Jesus that walked this earth on their way to be nailed to the tree for your salvation!

And today we rejoice in the glorious results of that sacrifice. For what good are the feet of a king if they can’t move, remaining cold in the grave? How can a dead king give out His gifts, give out a share in his kingdom, give glory and honor to his subjects? The Epistle said, “If Christ is not risen, you are still in your sins!”  “But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”  The term “firstfruits” means that Jesus’ Easter is just the beginning.  In Him there is more resurrection to come.  For as in Adam all die, so now all who are in Christ will be made alive.  God the Father raised His crucified Son from the dead, so that you might know that you are no longer in the death of your sins.  The resurrection proves that Jesus’ sacrifice really did take all your sins away.  For if the wages of sin is death, the forgiveness of sins is resurrection from death.  Let your conscience, then, be at peace.  You have been reconciled to God in the risen Jesus.  Death no longer has power over you.  The holy feet of Jesus have kicked down the door of the grave and have knocked out the teeth of Satan’s accusing mouth.  Your King is alive so that you might live and reign with Him forever.  

What tremendous things we are given to see and hear about in the Easter Gospel!  We see the sad and scared women, a picture of God’s sad and scared church, now filled with joy and gladness at the angel’s preaching. We see the stone rolled back and no body in there, catching a glimpse of our own future graves. For Jesus said, “Because I live, you will live also.”  And He also said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.  He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies.”  The fearsome angels who once guarded the way back into garden of Eden after the fall are no longer threatening in this Easter garden.  See the angel preacher in white. He has no sword. He’s not even standing on his feet. He simply sits in a garden graveyard and preaches a short but magnificent sermon. “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for He has risen, as He said.” No more need to be afraid in this fear-filled world, says the preacher from heaven. The Crucified One dealt with and conquered all that could ever make you afraid, and He is alive forevermore.

See how Mary Magdalene and the other Mary take hold of those blessed feet of the Second Adam, as Jesus comes to them and preaches the same sermon. “Don’t be afraid.” They worship at the feet of their Savior and King who took the bed that Adam had made for man, laid in it for three days, and emptied it of its dread and power.
How great was that sixth day in the beginning when God made Himself a king with feet. But now that Jesus died on the sixth day, Good Friday, how much greater is what happened on this day, the eighth day, the first day of a new creation, when God placed His King back upright on His pierced feet to lift you up with Himself and to give you new and eternal life and bodily resurrection.  

“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of Him who brings good news!”  You may know that Romans 10 applies that verse to Christian pastors and preachers, who are called to be Jesus’ ambassadors and representatives.  After all, didn’t Jesus prepare the apostles to be His ministers by washing their feet?  The job of a minister is simply to be the mouth and the hands and the feet of Jesus, that His Easter gifts might be distributed to the world through His words and sacraments.  

       And so fellow believers, you also now are given to do just as the women did on that first Easter, to cling to Jesus’ beautiful, risen feet today.  For Christ makes this chancel to be His throne and this altar to be His footstool.  Come and worship the risen Jesus here and grasp His feet.  He is truly alive; He is truly here.  Receive His life-giving body and blood for the forgiveness of all of your sins.  Share in His victory.

P: Christ is risen! 
C: He is risen indeed. Alleluia.

(With thanks to the Rev. Mark Beutow)

Guilty By Association; Innocent By Association

Matthew 26 and 27

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

You’ve heard the phrase, “Guilty by association.”  It means that you are considered to be blameworthy simply by virtue of having a close relationship with a guilty person.  If a family member of yours has done something wrong, then everyone thinks that you may have had some part in it, too.  If a longtime friend is condemned for a crime, you yourself are considered suspect.

We see this happening in two different ways in the Passion Gospel.  First, we see Peter trying to avoid being guilty by association.  When a servant girl saw Peter on the night our Lord was betrayed and condemned, she pointed out that he was one of Jesus’ disciples.  But Peter tried to nip that news story in the bud.  He denied it, “I don’t know what you are saying.”  Twice more Peter tried to avoid any association with Jesus, even cursing and swearing to emphasize his point.  “I don’t know the Man!”  And at that moment, a rooster began to crow.

Peter was guilty by association.  For three years he had followed Jesus and had seen many miraculous things.  He was present when our Lord was transfigured on the mountain.  He had been with Jesus in the upper room as they celebrated the Passover and had said that he would never stumble.  Peter had been with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, even trying to defend Jesus from those who had come to take Him captive.  But after Jesus was arrested, when Peter saw that being an insider with Jesus was no longer what he thought it would be, he fled.  He was afraid for his own life.  Despite all his earlier hubris, now he didn’t want to be tied to Jesus and go down with Him.  He wanted to save his own skin.

Before we think too poorly of Peter for his cowardliness, we should take a look at our own lives.  Have we ever taken a slightly unethical action to protect our own livelihood, or to make sure we don’t lose our job or our position?  Have we ever lied or failed to speak up to keep harm from coming to us?  Even worse, have there ever been times when we have concealed some aspect of our faith in Jesus?  Though we gladly confess the faith here, do our actions and our speech sometimes hide our Christianity out there?  We don’t want to be guilty by association.  We don’t want people to make fun of us and think of us as holier than thou and not include us.  We cover up certain aspects of our faith so that we won’t have to face the consequences that might come if certain people knew what we believed.  Like Peter we’ve all denied Jesus in one way or another–that’s what sin is.  We all need to cry our own tears of repentant sorrow.

But there is hope for us poor sinners.  For there is another person in this account who was not ashamed to be guilty by association, and that is our Lord Jesus Himself.  In fact, that’s the very reason why He came into the world, to stand shoulder to shoulder with us and take the blame for our sin.  When we view Jesus hanging on the cross, we recognize that the only way He could become guilty at all was by association.  For He was and is the Holy One of God, without sin of any kind.  Even Pilate could find no fault in Him.  Yet He was put to death because He hung around with the wrong kind of people, and He wouldn’t lie to support the institutional status quo.  He associated with sinners and ate with them: the Samaritan woman at the well, tax collectors, lepers, the poor.  Even His disciples disputed about who was greatest among them; they were sometimes proud and faithless.  Because Jesus associated with sinners, with the likes of us, He was nailed to a cross.  

And please note that it was God the Father Himself who made Jesus to be the guilty One.  It is written, “For [God] made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21).  It was not just the angry mob screaming for Jesus’ crucifixion, but the Father Himself who called for it.  However, whereas the people cried out for Jesus’ death out of hate, God the Father cried out for it out of love for you.  It is written, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).  That is why Jesus remained silent when He was falsely accused.  For He came not to defend Himself but to defend us.  That is why Jesus was willingly obedient even to the point of death on a cross–not because we asked for it or deserved it, but because this is the expression of God’s Fatherly heart of love and mercy toward you.

Jesus was numbered with the transgressors and lumped in with sinners.  He was placed before the people alongside Barabbas, a murderer and a thief, as if they were on the same level.  And even in His death He was hung between two criminals, as if He were just another low-life.  But because He laid down His life like that, you now have eternal life through faith in Him.  Jesus willingly became guilty by association, taking upon Himself all of the wrath that your sins deserved.  And in turn, you become innocent by association with Jesus.  Just like Barabbas, you are released and set free, because Christ has taken your place.  He became the Sinner, so that you would become the holy ones, saints of God, His beloved children.  That is what you are.

You are truly most closely associated with Jesus.  For you are baptized into His death.  Peter had it right.  Being associated with Christ means having to die; the old Adam with all sins and evil desires must be drowned.  But that is something we want in the end.  For to be crucified with Christ in baptism means that Jesus’ death to sin counts as your own.  The death sentence He served is credited to you by grace.  Baptized into Christ, you are no longer guilty in the sight of God.  You are forgiven and blameless, given to lead a new life before Him free from fear.  

Living in that confidence, we are not ashamed to be associated with Jesus.  We are free to be like the centurion, who boldly and publicly confessed that Jesus surely is the Son of God.  We are given to be like Joseph of Arimathea, who took courage and asked the governor for the body of Jesus.  So we also ask for the body of Jesus; and we receive His body and His holy, precious blood in the Sacrament for the forgiveness of our sins.

So if you ever feel like Peter, with the finger pointed at you for being one of Jesus’ disciples, rejoice and be glad.  For to be guilty by association with Christ before men is to be innocent by association with Him before the Father in heaven.

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

The Son of Man Did Not Come to Be Served

Mark 10:32-45

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

When it comes to religion, we fallen human beings tend to get it all backwards.  We think that God created the world so that He would have people to serve Him and wait on Him (as if He needed anything), when in fact He created the world and humanity so that He might serve people and wait on them with His good gifts.  We think that church is about what we do and give to God to keep Him pleased with us, when in fact church is really about what God does and gives to us because of Jesus, in whom the Father is already well pleased with us.  And when it comes to our good living and our good works, we tend to think that those deeds are to be directed upward to God, when in fact they are to be directed outward to our neighbor.  

We see an example of this with James and John in the Gospel.  They were in Jesus’ inner circle.  Along with Peter, they alone had witnessed the transfiguration on the mountain.  They were His closest disciples.  But James and John came to think that their standing with Jesus was based not on His choosing of them but on who they were and what they had done for Him.  And so with this self-sufficient attitude they come to Jesus to try to cash in on their good works.  “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask.”  Imagine talking to Jesus like that!  I can just picture the smirk on His face when He heard that–sort of like when a person today prays, “God, I’ve stuck with you all these years; I’ve lived the best way I know how.  It’s time for you to come through for me now.  Do this or that for me.”  

Jesus easily could have blasted James and John right then for their self-focused religion and their presumptuousness and conceit.  But instead He says, “Hmm.  What do you want me to do for you?”  They said to Him, “Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand the other on Your left, in Your glory.”  They figured Jesus was going places.  And they were hitching their wagon to Him.  They wanted to be first in line.  They aspired to be His top advisers and top power brokers when Jesus got to be in charge.  This is like those today who use religion as a means for self-advancement and self-fulfillment.  It’s not so much about loving God as it is a way to have a successful and happy life.  Church is just part of the formula of getting where you want to be in life.  It’s one of things you’ve got to do to get blessed in this world.

Jesus was indeed going places.  But James and John didn’t grasp where it was that Jesus was going, even though He had just told them.  Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you ask.  Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”  Jesus there is referring to His suffering and cross.  He would drink the poisonous cup of judgment against the world’s sin.  He would be swept away in the cold flood of death.  There were two people who would be placed at Jesus’ right and Jesus’ left hand–namely, the two criminals who were crucified with Him.  They were the ones for whom those places had been prepared.

James and John wanted to be with Jesus in His glory.  But it is Jesus’ glory to die for miserable sinners in order to save them.  It is His glory to lay down His life that we may live.  It is His glory to be the God who is love, who gives Himself completely for us that we might be drawn in to His loving embrace.  Referring to the time of His death, Jesus said, “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified. . .  And if I am lifted up from the earth [on the cross], I will draw all men to Myself.”  

If you want to share in Jesus’ glory, then, you must share in His death.  You must die to yourself and your desires.  You must become like a death-row criminal before God, with no merit or worthiness of your own, with nothing to give and everything to receive. You must be emptied of your righteousness so that Christ may fill you with His righteousness and His life.  

Jesus said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.”  God doesn’t need your service; He’ll get along just fine without your good works.  Besides, what can you truly give to the God who is the Creator of all things and the source of everything good?  Jesus came not to get something from you but to give something to you, to give His life as the ransom price for your soul.

For you were kidnaped, captured by the devil and the power of the grave.  They demanded a price that neither you nor any other creature could pay for your release.  In time you would have been executed by your abductors and given over to eternal death.  But Christ came to pay your ransom.  He paid not with gold or silver but with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.  He offered His life for yours.  In this way He not only set you free, but in the end He annihilated and destroyed your kidnappers by the power of His resurrection.  All this He did purely by grace, as a gift, for you.

So make sure you don’t get it backwards.  By nature we want to receive from others and give to God, right?–have others serve us while we do our personal, spiritual thing for the Lord.  But in Christ we get it right: we receive from God and give to others.  You need not spend all your time trying to please God; you are already pleasing to Him in Jesus.  The thing that truly makes God happy is for you to trust in His goodness and to believe in His Son in whom He is well pleased.  The true worship of God that glorifies and pleases Him is faith, simply to receive His love and forgiveness and life and to extol and praise and give thanks for these gracious, unmerited gifts.  

Jesus gave up His life at Calvary, and now He gives out His life in preaching and the Sacraments.  That’s why what we’re doing now is called divine service–Gottesdienst in German, God’s service.  That term puts the focus on the primary thing, namely, that Christ Himself is here serving you.  Jesus is still the One who comes not to be served but to serve, to give Himself to you for your good, your redemption.

And here’s a key point from today’s Gospel:  Jesus’ servanthood doesn’t stop here in church.  It continues through you out there in the world.  Just as God uses ordinary things like water and words and bread and wine to give His saving gifts, so also He uses ordinary Christians in your ordinary stations in life as a means by which He serves the world.  In this sense, you Christians are God’s Sacraments to the world.  Christ is present in, with, and under you His people to show forth His love to the neighbor.  Jesus is active through you to serve others.

Martin Luther famously put it this way: Christians live outside of themselves.  You live in God by faith, and you live in your neighbor by love.  By faith you get to stand in Jesus’ place and receive His righteousness as your own.  By love you get to stand in your neighbor’s place and make his needs your own.  Faith looks up to God and offers Him nothing; love looks down to the neighbor and offers Him service.  A Christian receives God’s Service in church and then gives God’s service to his neighbor in whatever stations of life God has put him.  

So if you want to know what God wants you to be doing, consider the callings into which God has placed you–as a husband or wife, as a parent or child, as an employer or employee, as a ruler or a citizen, as a preacher or hearer.  Then apply “Love your neighbor” to those specific divine callings.  Then you will see all the ways in which He desires to serve others through you.  No longer will His command to love be bland or generic but specific and concrete.  It will sound more like this:  “Be an efficient, hardworking, and thorough employee or student.”  “Be honest and fair in your business dealings.”  “Listen carefully to the sermon; give a proper offering.”  “Make your bed, and help with the dishes.”  “Pay your taxes.”  “Take time to listen and talk to each other.”  “Be there for your children, speak about the Word of God with them, teach them about Jesus the Savior.”  

In your various vocations and stations in life, ordinary and mundane though they may be, Jesus is still giving His life for the world through you who are members of His body.  He calls you to offer up your bodies as living sacrifices for the sake of one another.  As your sinful nature is put to death in acts of service, Christ works life and good for your neighbor, just as He worked the ultimate life and good by offering up His own flesh for sin on the cross.  Through His Church, Jesus continues to be the Son of Man who came not to be served but to serve.

There is one final benefit to this understanding of vocation and service, and that is that it always drives us back to Christ.  For the more we see what we are called to do in our daily duties, the more we recognize how far we have fallen short of our callings and how much we need Jesus’ forgiveness.  This teaching reveals how the sinful nature hangs on to us and doesn’t want to honor the spouse or wipe the child’s runny nose or give 10% in the offering plate or work hard for that miserable boss.  The doctrine of vocation drives all self-righteousness out of us and leads us to repentance where we are again nothing but beggars with empty hands ready to receive the service only Christ can give.

Jesus told James and John, “You will drink the cup I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you will be baptized.”  So it is also for you.  You have been baptized in Christ’s baptism, cleansed by His death.  And today He again gives you to drink of His cup.  Because it was a cup of judgment for Jesus, it is now a cup of mercy for you, the cup of His own life-giving blood.  Receive it gladly.  Live in the freedom of Him who gave His life as a ransom for you.  His life is yours.

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

Jesus, Our Scapegoat

Leviticus 16; Matthew 4:1-11
Lent 1

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

Pretty much everyone knows what it means to be a scapegoat.  It means to be blamed for something that you didn’t do, or at least that you only had a very small role in.  A scapegoat bears the full consequences for someone else’s mistakes.  When a sports team loses, often one person in particular will be blamed–just ask the former Packers special teams coach.  When things go wrong at work or in our family, when a crisis or a tragedy occurs in the world, one of the first things that happens is scapegoating, finding someone to blame and to punish–it’s all the fault of my co-worker or my parents or this or that political leader.  We are experts at this, passing blame onto others so that we don’t get held accountable ourselves.  This ability goes all the way back to Adam, who blamed Eve for eating the forbidden fruit.  Eve herself blamed the devil.  

We usually think of scapegoating, then, as a bad thing, an unfair thing.  But the term, of course, originates in the Bible as something that God instituted and commanded.  When the Lord does it, it is actually a good and blessed thing for us.  So let us consider today how God engages in scapegoating, not to avoid blame–since He most certainly has none–but so that He can take the blame away from us and bear it Himself on our behalf.  It all begins in today’s Old Testament reading where the observance of Yom Kippur is described.  

Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement.”  Though God had commanded many different sacrifices in the Old Testament, on Yom Kippur, something special would happen.  Only on this day, the high priest would go into the Holy of Holies behind the veil in the tabernacle, bringing with him with the blood of slaughtered animals to make atonement for the people.  The blood would be sprinkled on the mercy seat above the ark of the covenant.  Through the promise God attached to these sacrifices, He was merciful to His people and covered their sins.  

All of the sacrifices of the Old Testament were opportunities for God’s people to look forward in faith to the coming of His Son to be their Savior.  Without the shedding of blood–Christ’s blood–there would be no final and complete forgiveness of sins.  All the blood that was shed in Old Testament times was meant to foreshadow the blood that Christ would shed upon the cross in order to deal with man’s sin once and for all.

The Day of Atonement, then, is really all about Jesus, especially the part about the goats.  You recall that two goats were to be selected and presented before the Lord.  One would be sacrificed; but the other would not.  Instead, the high priest would lay his hands on the head of the live goat, confess over it all the iniquities of the people, and in this way put all their sins on the goat.  Then this scapegoat would be sent away into the wilderness by the hand of a suitable man, presumably to perish there in the desert along with the transgressions of the people.  

This is particularly interesting in light of today’s Gospel.  For just like the scapegoat, we find Jesus sent out in the wilderness, fasting for 40 days and nights, even as Israel wandered in the wilderness for 40 years.  And just as the scapegoat had become the bearer of Israel’s sin, so Jesus here bears the sins of the world.

For Jesus had just been baptized.  Though He was without sin, yet Jesus submitted to John’s baptism, standing shoulder to shoulder with sinners, that He might be our substitute and stand-in.  There in the water God the Father made Jesus the scapegoat, laying on His head the guilt of the world, which He would take and carry away.  

And just as it was someone suitable who was to lead the goat into the wilderness in the Old Testament, it is written that the Holy Spirit immediately led Jesus up into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  It is the God’s will that He endure this for us.  Jesus does all of this in our place.  Whereas Adam had succumbed to the devil’s temptation, whereas the children of Israel had grumbled and been unfaithful in the wilderness, whereas we all too often give in to the desires of the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature, Jesus did not.  He took everything that the devil threw at Him and prevailed, for us.  He was and is entirely without sin.  

And please note that Jesus does this without using any of His divine powers.  Don’t think this was easy for Him.  Why do you think angels had to tend to Him at the end?  It wouldn’t be of much comfort to us if Jesus had done this with a brush of His almighty hand as God the Son.  Instead He humbles Himself to do this as one of us, our representative, as the Son of Man–weak, hungry, alone, face to face with the devil.  He even allows Satan to cart Him around–to the pinnacle of the temple, and then to an exceedingly high mountain.  Jesus uses nothing but the Scriptures to fight with.  And He wields the sword of the Word powerfully, skewering the devil and fighting off and defeating the him at every turn.  

“If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.”  “Go ahead and give in to your self-seeking desires.  Serve your own appetites.  Who cares what your Father has said.  A little bread is no big deal.”  We would give room to the devil’s words, dialogue with Him, and perhaps even give in.  “You know, that’s true.  I’m not sinning by providing a little bread for myself.”  But Jesus stands firm and is not moved.  His food is to do the Father’s will, which means self-sacrifice.  And so for us, in our stead He simply replies, “It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” Strike one for the devil.

“If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.  For it is written, ‘He shall give His angels charge over you,’ and ‘In their hand they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.’”  The devil can play the Scripture-quoting game.  Only for him, it’s just that: a game, a way of shrouding his temptation and making evil and falsehood appear to be good and holy.  Don’t think that just because someone quotes Scripture that they’re using God’s Word rightly.  Every false prophet uses the Bible.  Jesus sees through the devil’s game.  To put God the Father to the test, to ask for signs and miracles, to make Him give you evidence that He’ll really protect you and be true to His Word–that is to act not in faith but in unbelief.  It’s to put yourself above God, making Him prove Himself to you.  For our deliverance, Jesus replies, “It is written again, ‘You shall not test the Lord your God.’” Strike two.

Finally, the devil showed Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, saying, “All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me.”  “You don’t have to suffer and go to the cross.  Let’s team up and you can get to the glory right now.”  We know that temptation to take the path of least resistance, to follow the crowd and avoid offending people, to take the easy way out rather than the narrow way.  But on our behalf, Jesus says, “Away with you Satan!  For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.’” Strike three.  The devil’s out.

The good news for us today is that because Jesus was there as our stand-in, being tempted in our own flesh and blood, His victory over the devil now counts as ours, too.  Whatever the devil had accomplished through the temptation in the Garden of Eden, Jesus has completely undone in His own sinless temptation.  That’s what the hymn is all about when it says, “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.  He holds the field forever.”  On this wilderness battlefield, the devil has been routed.  Through faith in what Christ has done, the sin of Adam your father is no longer what’s most true about you; now the faithfulness of Christ your Brother is your true identity before the Father.  You are children of God through faith in Him.

In all of this, Jesus is our great High Priest, the one who makes sacrifice for us to rescue us–except that Jesus is both the sacrificer and the sacrifice.  The blood He sprinkles on us in baptism to cleanse us is His own.  He is both goats to accomplish our Day of Atonement.  First, He is the one cast into the wilderness, actively obeying His Father’s will in our place, who was tempted in every way just as we are, yet without sin.  Then, bearing all of our sins He is the second goat, passively being offered up on the mercy seat of the cross.  Out of great love for you, Jesus has willingly made Himself to be your scapegoat.  In Him you are free from blame.  And in Him you are free from the need to blame others.  Jesus has covered it all, for you.  

Therefore, since we have such a High Priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses, and who stands before the throne of the Father in heaven as our mediator, let us come boldly to the throne of grace–let us come boldly to the altar in faith–that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

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

Signaling the Virtue of Jesus

Ash Wednesday
Matt 6:1-6, 16-21

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

There was no internet or social media when our Lord preached today’s Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount.  The average person didn’t dream of “going viral,” and merchants didn’t tell people to “be sure to like us on Facebook and Twitter.”  There were no YouTube personalities and Instagram celebrities.

But even though technology has changed, human nature hasn’t.  In every decade and century and millennium, the fallen old Adam craves attention and loves to be seen by other people in order to be praised by them. The same thing that is true now was true in the first century–we naturally seek reward and approval from others more than God.

Today we call it “virtue signaling”–doing certain things publicly and for show to indicate that you’re a good person and that you support the right things.  In a lot of ways, it’s the contemporary version of being a Pharisee–wearing your righteousness on your sleeve so that others will see you and notice you.  But our Lord says today to beware of practicing your righteousness to be seen by other people.  If that is your motivation for doing such things, then “you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”  For if the goal is a dopamine rush for someone noticing you, well, you have your reward.  But that good feeling only lasts a little while.  It’s not a treasure that endures


The righteousness that our Lord offers to us instead is not a passing and phony good feeling but rather eternal life and communion with Him.  Instead of minutes or hours, it lasts forever.  Jesus came to give us this righteousness as a free gift.  And as a result of this gift, we are freed up to do truly good works for the right reasons.

The Old Adam in us is a hypocrite who does religion and good works lovelessly, for himself.  He doesn’t give to the needy because his neighbor is in need; rather he does it in order to “sound the trumpet before [him], that is to say, to “toot his own horn.”  That’s why Jesus says not even to let your left hand know what your right hand is doing when you give.  The old Adam doesn’t pray with his eyes focused upwards on God, but sideways on the neighbor and what he thinks.  That’s why Jesus says, go into your room and close the door when you pray.  The old Adam doesn’t fast and engage in self-denial for the sake of leading a more disciplined Christian life but in order to look super spiritual.  That’s why Jesus says to wash your face and anoint your head and get yourself all put together like usual when you fast.  And of all these good works Jesus says: Let it be in secret.  Trust that God the Father sees.  Let your reward be from Him and not from man.

And I should add another warning here.  The Old Adam can even twist these Gospel words. He says, “Well, since people often do these good works for self-serving reasons, I’m not going to be a hypocrite.  My solution is that I’m not going to give special attention to any of these spiritual disciplines.  No danger of me praying in front of others or fasting or giving away my money to charity and church.  I’m just going to do my usual other stuff.”  But that’s just falling into the ditch on the opposite side of the road.  Jesus doesn’t speak of these things as if they’re optional.  It’s not if but, “When you do a charitable deed...”  “When you pray...”  “When you fast...”  So consider how you will do these things, not only during Lent, but beyond as well–how you will give to support the ministry of the Gospel and your neighbor in need; how you will engage in daily prayer and what resources you might use to do that; how you will discipline your body through fasting and self-denial and bring it into subjection.  Beware of letting the abuse of these practices cause you to abandon them.

Our Lord came to crucify the Old Adam in us, and to give us a new life in Christ, who is the New Adam–to give us a renewed self that is motivated by true righteousness and actual self-giving love.  Though we inherit a mortal curse from our father Adam, we are given immortal blessing in our brother Jesus.

The name “Adam” is closely related in Hebrew to the word “adamah” – meaning “dust or dirt”  He was created from the dirt, and so that is his name.  The Word of God is clear for him and for all of us who have fallen with Adam, “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.”

The ashes that are applied to you on this day are a reminder of that.  But they are more than that.  For ashes are not merely dust; they are what’s left after something has been burned.  And so it is that they remind us of the sacrifices of old, the burnt offerings.  Those burned animal sacrifices were performed in view of the once-for-all, final sacrifice of Jesus, who suffered hell for us to redeem us.  That’s why those ashes are in the shape of a cross.  They are a sign of repentance–not only the sorrow over sin, but also the turning away from sin toward Christ who forgives us and sets us free.  The ashes are more than just dust, for they proclaim the sure and certain hope we have that we will be raised from the dust in the resurrection of the body on the Last Day.

So we receive the ashes on our bodies, not as a work of righteousness to parade before men.  It is not virtue signaling, but an act of humble honesty.  It is an admission of guilt and a cry for help as we stand at the edge of our graves, teetering between life and death.  But above all it is a statement of faith in the One who conquered the grave.  And so on this day we cry out, “Lord, have mercy; Jesus help!”

And the Lord does indeed help us; He comes to our rescue.  For He redeemed you and called you by name, when His name, the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit was placed upon you–when, not only your head, but your very soul was washed in baptismal water, cleansed, and given the gift of eternal life.

That’s why we have the ancient custom of tracing that sign of the cross on your forehead at your baptism, as we say in the baptismal liturgy: “Receive the sign of the holy cross both upon your forehead and upon your heart to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified.”  Remember that as you wash off the ashes later.  You are cleansed in Christ, marked and signed and redeemed by His holy cross.

It is also the custom for the pastor to make the sign of the cross upon your forehead on your deathbed.  The sign of the cross is even made on your casket at your burial, tracing the sign of the holy cross upon you one more time until the Crucified One rouses you from your body’s slumber and raises you in the flesh to everlasting life, which is the fulfillment of your baptism.

Believing and living in this truth, we are freed from being dependent on the clicks and the likes and the back-patting and the praise of people; we are freed to be God-pleasers rather than man-pleasers, storing up treasure not on earth but in heaven.  Instead of signaling our own virtues, we point to and praise the virtues of our Savior, who sacrificed all to win you back through the hidden and secret means of the cross.  Hidden in secret beneath the goriness of the crucifixion is the glory of God and the love of God for you.  The Father sees in secret and honors His Son’s work, and He now reveals openly the mystery of the cross through His Word.  Through the foolishness of the preaching of Christ crucified, He saves you who believe.

So trust in Him.  Trust that He sees you and knows you and that He will give you openly the reward of Christ on the Last Day.

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

The Power of the Seed

Luke 8:4-15

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

In His parable about the sower and the seed, Jesus is teaching us again about the kingdom of God.  Through the common symbols in this story–a farmer, seeds, various kinds of soil–He is teaching us about higher and greater things.

As we move farther and farther away from being an agricultural society though, and as children are less educated, especially about where food comes from, you wonder how long it will be before future preachers will have to explain what a seed even is.  Then again, if you have never seen a seed germinate and sprout, it may actually add to the wonder of our Lord’s story.  For what if you knew nothing about seeds, and I handed one to you, and told you that if you put it in the dirt and put water on it, in a few decades it could possibly feed 1000 people?

You might think that this sounds like superstition; it doesn’t sound possible.  For how does a little seed know what to do?  Where do the stem, the roots, and the leaves come from?  And what about the fruit?  And how does it seem to work perfectly all the time – if it has the right conditions to grow?

The original listeners of our Lord’s story all knew that if you plant seeds, they will grow and become food, if they were placed in good soil and watered.  People were more connected to where food came from.  They didn’t just figure that it magically appeared on the store shelves.

But what a wondrous thing a seed is if you’ve never seen or heard about it before!  Many of us planted seeds in a little paper cup in school when we were children, perhaps a sunflower seed.  We observed with wonder as the little stem burst forth out of the dirt and started to grow leaves.  And if we stuck with it long enough, the sunflower might have grown to be taller even then our dads, with a flower bigger than a grown-up’s face – and in time, it would have a bunch of new seeds in the middle – which we could plant and start the process again – with no limit to the potential number of plants that would come from that original seed.

This sense of wonder should equally apply to the Word of God.  For the seed in our Lord’s story symbolizes the Word of God.  Just as the little seed contains microscopic DNA instructions embedded in the cells, which start working like a computer program when water signals the seed to do its thing – so too does the Word of God contain power – true power to bear everlasting life by germinating faith in Christ.  The DNA of salvation is carried within the preached Word of God.  How it works exactly, we don’t know any more than the original hearers of Jesus knew how seeds germinate and mature.  They didn’t know about DNA in the first century.  But they knew that the seed had some kind of hidden power: power to feed an countless people – so long as there was water and good soil.

The Kingdom of God also begins with water: baptismal water that sets in motion the activation of the Word of God.  Water and the seed of the Word are placed onto and into the dirt.  And you are that dirt.  For you are sons and daughters of Adam who was created from the dirt and dust of the ground.  From this watered Seed faith sprouts.  It starts out small.  Its beginnings are humble.  But it grows.  And with the right conditions, a seed will transform into a large plant, multiplying itself a hundredfold.

In our Lord’s story, the sower of the seed tosses it everywhere.  He doesn’t discriminate.  He doesn’t try to predict what soil will ultimately be good soil.  Likewise, preachers do not discriminate.  We cannot predict who will hear the Word and come to faith.  We cannot see into hearts.  We cannot point to any group or category of person and project who will be good soil and believe, and who will ultimately prove to be bad soil, and the Word of God will die in their hearts.  We don’t know, so we just sow our seeds everywhere, recklessly and at times desperately.  Sometimes we preach convinced that nobody is listening, that nobody cares, that our words are being wasted.  But the Word, of course, is never wasted.  It carries out the purposes of God regardless of appearances.  And when we least expect it, sometimes in surprising ways, the Word takes root and grows in the hearts of our hearers.

First, Jesus speaks of the seed sown “on the path.”  It was trampled on, like those who mock the Word of God and try to trample it down through lies and distortions, hardening people’s hearts to what it says like a footworn path.  The seed was carried away by birds.  This is like the devil coming and snatching away the Word of God because it never had the chance to take root.  

Second, Jesus speaks of other seed that falls amid rocky soil.  It doesn’t get enough moisture and dies.  This is like those who initially hear the word “with joy.”  But their faith is shallow, built in large part on feelings and how well God seems to be coming through for them at the moment.  But the Word itself has “no root.”  And as soon as difficult times come–relationship troubles, financial difficulty, a bad health diagnosis–this person loses his or her faith.

Third, Jesus speaks of seed that does take root and sprouts, but then gets choked out by thorns, and it bears no fruit.  This is like the people who hear God’s Word, who may even come to church fairly regularly.  But then they go out and get distracted by the “cares and riches and pleasures of life.”  These are all the things that make us anxious and fearful and stressed out, and it’s also all the distractions that this world offers–the phone screens, the never-ending sports, the mindless media entertainment–all of this leads to a faith that fails to bear the fruit of good works in God’s sight.

Hearing all this, it’s easy to see ourselves unfortunately in the first three soils, isn’t it–at times having a shallow faith, or distracted from the Word, or hard-hearted and cold to its message.  When we hear of the fourth soil, the good soil in which the seed sprouts and grows up healthy and strong, those who hear the Word with a noble and good heart who bear fruit one hundred fold, it’s hard for us to look in the mirror and say, “That’s a description of me.”  This parable most certainly is call for us all to repent.

But let your repentance be the kind that turns you to Christ.  For at the end of the day, the good seed in the good fourth soil in this parable is a description of Jesus.  He is the eternal Word of God, the Seed, who has taken root in the earth of our humanity–fully human but entirely without the rocks and thorns and hardness of sin.  He has sprung up from the grave and yielded a crop a hundred fold, bringing you the abundant fruit of forgiveness and new life.

And this is how He did it.  The Word became flesh and bore all that has infested your soil.  Behold how this Seed is cast to the earth, how Jesus is thrown onto the wayside, the way of sorrows, where he is dragged to His cross, mocked in His suffering like the caws of scavenging ravens.  But notice that the birds of the air do not devour Jesus’ body, as was often the case with other crucified criminals who would be left for the animals to consume.  This Seed is hurled upon the rocky ground of Golgotha, where he lacked moisture and cried out, “I thirst!”  But in spite of his suffering and thirst, this Seed would not wither away permanently.  And Jesus was even crowned with thorns, the very symbol of Adam’s curse; yet this Seed would not be choked out of existence, but would rise again.  A Seed has to die, if it is to rise out of the earth and bear much fruit.  The fruit of Jesus’ suffering is your salvation.

In this way our Lord has overcome all that stands against you, all that keeps you from having life, all that keeps you from growing to maturity.  In Christ you are free from hard-heartedness and the rocks of shallow faith and the thorns of this world.  In Christ alone you are the holy fourth soil, pure and righteous and fruitful and forgiven.  In Him you have a noble and good heart, as we pray, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.”  In you, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Word of God is implanted.  It is sown in the soil of your body even today, preached into your ears, placed on your very tongues in the Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.  The power of God to give life is in the Seed.  And the Seed of the Word is in you and with you and for you, the Word of the Father who wants with all His heart for you to share forever in His life.

Let us, then, be eager to confess this Word with our mouths before the world.  Let the scattering of the holy Seed continue outside of these walls, out in the daily callings that God has placed you in.  Let the Word accomplish its purpose with your unchurched or de-churched friends and family.  Take courage and invite them in to divine service, to adult instruction classes.  Together with them, let us all seek the Lord while He may be found, and call upon Him while He is near; for His Word is here.  Return to the Lord, for He will have mercy on you, and He will abundantly pardon.  His grace in Christ is more than sufficient for you, even in the midst of your weakness.  For His strength is made perfect in the weakness of the cross.  “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Larry Beane)

You Made Them Equal to Us!

Matthew 20:1-16

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

One way of understanding today’s Gospel is that it’s a debate about equality, and whether or not equality is a good thing.  The laborers who had worked all day in the vineyard did not favor equality.  For when those who worked fewer hours were paid a full day’s wage by the landowner, their complaint was  “You made them equal to us!”  They didn’t like that.  

And to some extent we can understand their complaint.  It doesn’t seem particularly fair to reward everyone equally for unequal work–sort of like a group project in school where one or two people do all the heavy lifting, but the slacker in the group still gets an “A” grade.  Imagine if everyone in the Olympics was rewarded equally after the competitions, and the person who fell three times in a skating event received the same medal as the one who performed all the jumps flawlessly.

In this sense we can rightly say that sometimes equality is not good.  Coercing and forcing equal outcomes and rewards is fundamentally unjust, no matter how the socialists and Marxists want to spin it.  It is good and just that the one who works harder, takes more risk, has more responsibility is given a higher wage.

But then what’s going on in today’s Gospel parable?  Well to begin with, Jesus is not speaking about politics or economics here.  Nothing that He says here has to do with being a republican or a democrat, a social justice warrior or a free-market capitalist.  This is not about the kingdoms and power structures of this world.  For what does Jesus say?  “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.”  So let us zero in today on what Jesus is teaching us about the way things work in God’s kingdom, how He desires to treat us, and what that means for us who have been called to work in the vineyard of His church.

“You made them equal to us!”  The complaint was accurate; that’s what the landowner did.  So in what ways are we all equal in God’s sight?  Firstly, we are all equally created by God, knit together by Him in our mother’s womb, and therefore equal in dignity and worth as human beings, made in the image of God–whoever we are, wherever we come from.  But as Scripture makes clear, that image has been broken in each one of us.  We are also equal before the Lord in this respect, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”  Not a single one of us can lay claim to some sort of heavenly reward or say that God owes us anything.  In fact, quite the contrary.  The wages we have earned by our work, the equal wages of sin is death.  If God were to be just and fair with us and give us what we deserve, eternal death is what we’d all receive.

This is where we begin to see the difference between the first laborers in the vineyard and the later laborers.  For the first, they thought that anything good they received was based on their work, what they did.  They were operating under the principles of a contract; a day’s wage for a day’s work–that’s what a denarius is.  But notice how it was for the later workers.  The landowner said to them, “You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.”  Now if that was you, would you go and work for this man, without any idea of what you’d be paid?  Well it depends, doesn’t it.  It depends on what kind of person you think him to be–is he miserly or generous, is he a man of good character or bad?  It depends on whether or not you trust him–do you know him, do you have a good relationship with him?  If you don’t trust the landowner, you probably won’t go into his vineyard.  If you do, you will.

That ultimately is the real difference between the first and the last in this parable.  The first were dealing with the landowner on the basis of the Law, a legal agreement; the last were dealing with him on the basis of the Gospel, faith in his goodness.  The first wanted to deal with him on what they deemed to be fair.  The last dealt with him on the basis of what he deemed to be good and right.  That’s a huge difference.

Remember, the Lord is not unfair with the first men.  He is just very generous to the others.  The Law was not broken.  The first received a just and fair wage.  He tells them, “Go your way.”  “You want it to be all your way, based on your work, fine.  Take it and go.  But I wish to be gracious to these others and bring them joy.  If that makes you grumpy, too bad.”  Hell is filled with grumbling and complaining against God.  The damned in their pride actually believe that God is wrong, that He's somehow cheating them, that His grace is unfair.  This worsening bitterness and teeth-gritting frustration is part of their unending torment.

Do you find yourself considering God to be unfair because of your situation in life or something that’s happened to you?  Are you one whose religion is like a contract with God, a system of rewards for your good deeds?  Do you negotiate with God in your prayers (I’ll do this for you if you do this for me)?  If so, then you are behaving like the first laborers in this parable, and you must repent.  Turn away from ranking yourself above others, turn away from trusting in your own works, and turn to the works of Christ.  Believe that it is only and entirely through Him that you receive any blessing from the Father.  Trust in Christ alone to save you from death and hell.  

Unbelievers seek a God who is fair, and then when they find Him, they don’t like Him.  Believers seek a God who is merciful and gracious, and when He finds them, they love Him.  (Notice how in the parable, it’s the owner who finds the workers; He initiates the “hiring.”)  Believers know that it is only by grace that they are even in the vineyard, no matter how long they’ve been there.  They consider it a privilege to be able to work in the vineyard and contribute to its health and growth.  They are not jealous of the newcomer or the repentant restored sinner or the one converted in his dying days, but they rejoice that the same mercy that saved them has also saved another.  They’re glad to say to the Lord, “You have made them equal to us!”  Even a faithful lifelong Christian recognizes that of himself he deserves nothing and that it is only because of Jesus that he has forgiveness and life.  As it is written, “The free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).”  And again, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast (Eph. 2:8-9).”

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

So to bring this full circle, Jesus is like that classmate who is the only one in your group who understands the material and who gives you to share in His perfect score on the project.  He is like the gold medal winner who invites you up onto the podium to share in His glory.  He is the one who gives you “whatever is right,” that is, His own righteousness and undeserved love as a gift.

And now, living in that confidence, we are freed to do truly good works, without calculating what’s in it for us or what reward we’re going to get out of it.  Instead of ranking ourselves above others and sneering at equality with them, we give attention to the words of St. Paul when he says, “Count others more significant than yourselves.”  1 Corinthians 12 speaks about how it is in the body of Christ, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor. . . God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”  We are all one body in Christ, we have all equally received the denarius of grace.

Let us then attend to the work of the vineyard of the Church and be full of good works by trusting in the grace of Christ alone to save us.  Let us run in such a way as to obtain the prize of life with Christ.  Let us fight the good fight of faith, setting our hearts on Him, disciplining our bodies and minds, filling ourselves with His words and His life-giving body and blood.  Come and lay hold of the denarius Christ earned for you–not because it’s owed; but simply because it is His good pleasure to be generous and loving toward you.

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