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Keeping the Words of Jesus

John 14:23-27

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

In our “spiritual, but not religious” culture, meditation is something that is fairly fashionable.  Meditation is something that most people will accept as a positive form of spirituality.  The problem is that meditation can be about any number of different things.  Of itself it’s really neutral; it doesn’t even necessarily have anything to do with the divine.  Meditation is defined by its focus, by what you are meditating on.

The fact is that everybody meditates, whether they realize it or not.  Meditation has been described as passive thinking, where the mind focuses on a particular thought, and then that thought takes over and leads to a stream of related thoughts and ideas.  Daydreaming is a form of meditation, where you aren’t actively in control of your thoughts, but your mind has wandered to a particular place and you are focusing there almost without even realizing it.  (Hopefully there isn’t too much of that going on right now!)  Worry is a form of meditation, where your mind constantly returns to a particular source of stress and concern and keeps running through all the possible things that could go wrong and how you might deal with it over and over again.  You don’t have to tell yourself to worry.  But your mind is focused on that worry and it takes over the direction of your thoughts.

Our problem as fallen human beings is that it’s much easier to meditate on the things of the world more than on the things of God.  Paying attention to a 3-hour sporting event or a 2-hour movie comes much more naturally than paying attention to a 1-hour church service, even though it gives eternal gifts.  We focus our minds on the wrong things.  We meditate on how we’d like to get back at that person who wronged us.  We meditate covetously on that dream vacation.  We meditate lustfully on one who is not our spouse.  We meditate greedily on all the better stuff we want to get for ourselves.  We meditate on days past that our hearts long to go back to.  We let our hearts and minds get all wrapped up in and dominated by things that pass away.

Even most religious meditation has gone wrong; you may run into this in exercise programs like some forms of yoga.  The spirituality of the world teaches you that meditation is about focusing within yourself, getting in touch with your inner spirit, drawing upon the resources and the strength you have inside, or else getting in touch with some sort of cosmic life force that has nothing to do with the true God.  In the end all of that is nothing but self-worship and a spiritual running around in circles.

Holy Scripture gives us the proper object of our meditation.  It says first of all in Philippians 4, “Whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy–meditate on these things.”  Don’t let your mind be filled with the junk of pop culture which seeks to infiltrate your homes and your lives.  Dwell upon the good gifts of God and the virtuous and noble things He has caused and allowed to be in existence in this world.

In particular in today’s Gospel Jesus tells us of the #1 focal point for our meditation.  He says, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word.”  That word “keep” is very important.  It means in the original language “to hold onto, to treasure, to cling to,” like Mary who “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.”  It doesn’t simply mean “obey.”  It involves taking Jesus’ words to heart, meditating upon them, inwardly digesting them, trusting in them, following them.  “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word.”

The best way to think of this is the way you would treat a love letter or a Valentine’s Day card–or even an email or a text from someone you really care about.  When you get a communication like that, you don’t just skim through it and quickly throw it away or delete it.  You dwell upon every word.  You consider what every word is saying.  You read between the lines.  You remember most of it by heart.  You treasure it and hold onto it and refer back to it again in your heart and mind.

So it is with the words of Jesus.  If you love Him, you want to hear what He says to you, not just once and that’s enough, but over and over again, always uncovering more of the meaning that is there in His words to you.  No guy would ever say to his girl, “I love you, but I don’t want to listen to you.”  In the same way, no Christian would ever say, “I love Jesus, but I don’t want to listen to His words and preaching.”  To be Christian is to hang upon Jesus’ words and to draw your life from them continuously–not simply showing up for church and then zoning out, but meditating on and pondering Christ’s teaching and letting it form your faith and your way of living.

Martin Luther once compared the Word of God to a spice which releases the fullness of its flavor and aroma the more it is crushed and broken apart.  In the same way the sweet aroma of Scripture is released more and more as we meditate upon it and break it apart and consider each life-giving word.  This is why we need regular, even daily contact with the words of God.  They help in forming those paths and patterns in your mind and heart and spirit that conform to God’s truth–which is especially important in a world which is daily preaching and  peddling lies to you.  “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word.”

Now, you might be asking yourself, “Why all this stuff about meditation on Pentecost?  I haven’t heard anything yet about the Holy Spirit.”  Well, I’ve been talking about meditation on the Word because the Holy Spirit comes to you through that Word.  Jesus said, “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.”  The Holy Spirit made sure that the disciples remembered and wrote down for us the things that Jesus said and did truly and correctly.  And now the Holy Spirit is all about bringing those words and deeds of Jesus to you, teaching you all things about Jesus through the Scriptures so that you may be filled with His light and life.

That’s the central thing that happened on Pentecost.  There were the miraculous signs of the coming of the Holy Spirit–the rushing wind and the tongues of fire.  But the main event which the Holy Spirit brought about was that the Word of God was preached and confessed, not only in the Hebrew or Greek tongue, but in the native tongue of countries well beyond Israel.  For indeed this Gospel of Christ the crucified is for all the nations.  

The Word of God is filled with the Holy Spirit.  That’s what we mean when we say that the Scriptures are inspired by God.  Literally, that means they are God-breathed, full of the breath and Spirit of the living God.  Jesus said, “My words are Spirit and they are life.”  To hear those words and consider them, to meditate on them in true faith is to be instructed by the Holy Spirit Himself and to receive in them the life of Christ.  

Jesus said this about the one who loves Him and keeps His Word, “My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.”  Through the words of God which the Holy Spirit teaches, Jesus comes to be present in and with the believer.  And where Jesus is, there the Father also makes His home.  The Father loves all those who love His Son.  The Father loves you who love and trust in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.  You are never alone, no matter how isolated you may sometimes feel.  For the Blessed Holy Trinity has made His home with you.

He first made His home with you by pouring His saving Word onto you in Holy Baptism, marking you with His own name as His treasured dwelling place.  And the Large Catechism says, you have enough to meditate on in your baptism for the rest of your life.  The Lord makes His home with you as He speaks His life-giving Word out loud right into your ears in the absolution and in the spoken meditation we usually call the sermon.  In fact hopefully the Word of God will cause you to meditate on even more than the sermon can say.  I’ve had people thank me for something they thought I said in the sermon, some good Scriptural insight, but which I hadn’t directly addressed.  That’s how meditation on the Word can works, where the Spirit opens the Scriptures and applies them to you in just the way that you need.  And God also makes His home with you in the Sacrament of the Altar.  For there you receive and eat the Word made flesh, the body and blood of Christ sacrificed for you on the cross for the full forgiveness of your sins.  By the power of the Word, Christ is truly present here and comes to make His home in your very flesh and bones.  Truly, God has given you so much to meditate on and ponder, so much to draw your hope and salvation from, so many ways to keep His Word and live from it.

But none of it would do you any good apart from the working of the Holy Spirit.  Only the Spirit of Christ can make your meditation on His words fruitful and beneficial.  Without Him the sermon will seem useless, the liturgy will seem like dead ceremony.  We cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ our Lord or come to Him.  The Holy Spirit must open our understanding and enlighten us with the Gospel, as it is written, “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord,’ except by the Holy Spirit.”  

And finally, Jesus teaches us here that through that Gospel we receive peace.  The only meditation that gives real and lasting and indestructible peace is meditation on His words.  Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”  There is no reason to fear any more.  For Jesus has conquered your death by the holy cross.  He absorbed into His body all that makes you fearful and restless, and He crucified it.  Isaiah prophesied, “The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him.”  You have been reconciled to the Father in Christ.  You are at peace with God.  And if you are right with Him, then you can face whatever is going on in your day to day life with His strength and with the confidence that He is with you and will guide you through His Word.  This is not worldly peace which fails; this is peace given by the Spirit of God which never fails and which endures forever.  

Now may this peace of God which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen.

That You Should Not Be Made to Stumble

1 Peter 4:7-14; John 15:26 - 16:4

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

Setting proper expectations is a very important thing in life if you want to be content.  If you have unrealistic expectations for something, and then it fails to meet those expectations, you’re unhappy.  If you’re more realistic and expectations are met or exceeded, then you’re quite happy.  You’ll sometimes hear it said that you should manage your expectations.  You can have great hopes and dreams, but you should also be careful not to set yourself up for a fall.

In a very real way, that’s what Jesus is doing for us in today’s Gospel reading when it comes to the Christian life in this world.  For we sometimes have the notion that if we just work hard and stay positive and have enough faith, everything’s always going to work out well for us.  The marriage will be wonderful, the job will be fulfilling and pay nicely, the family will stick together, people will always think well of us, we’ll be able to enjoy a prosperous retirement, our health will be good all the way until we reach a ripe old age, and then we’ll die painlessly and peacefully in our sleep.  

But when those things don’t all pan out, then we can become disillusioned and disappointed.  And with our faulty expectations, the worst part is that we can begin to stumble in our faith and question God and think He’s not coming through for us.  We can stray from the Church because it’s supposedly not giving us what we need.  You remember in the parable of the sower how the seed that was planted in the shallow, rocky soil sprung up quickly, but then it also withered away quickly because it lacked moisture.  It wasn’t deeply rooted in God’s words and promises.  Which is to say, as soon as times of testing came and God wasn’t fulfilling people’s expectations, they fell away.  

So out of love for us, the Lord in His Word gives us a heads up and tells us what’s coming, so that we know what to expect as His disciples.  “These things I have spoken to you, that you should not be made to stumble.”  The Epistle reading says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12 ESV).  We should expect troubles in this life–first, simply because we live in a fallen, sin-cursed world that is full of death and disease and decay.  All creation groans, and so do our bodies.  Our expectation should not be depressive and pessimistic, for reasons I’ll point out in a moment.  But we should not be shocked either when a bad diagnosis comes, or when nature convulses with a destructive storm or earthquake, or when animals and insects annoy and destroy.  For we know that this old creation is passing away.

However, today’s readings are especially talking about the troubles and suffering we might have to endure because we are disciples of Jesus.  And it’s not something we can necessarily escape, even within our own homes.  Jesus says in Luke 12, “Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division. For from now on five in one house will be divided: three against two, and two against three. Father will be divided against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”  Holding to Christ and His Word may mean family division.  Family is important, but it’s not the most important thing.  Don’t be surprised if friends or family turn against you for what God has given you to believe.  You are called to love the Lord more than your parents or children or grandchildren.  Expect that this might bring you heartache.

And in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus doesn’t mince any words when speaking to His disciples, “They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service.”  Being put out of the synagogues means that you may well lose your place or your status in certain groups or clubs or circles of friends because of your Scriptural beliefs. You may well lose your job or be demoted because of the faith that you confess.  People are already being browbeaten into keeping their mouths shut when it comes to speaking out against abortion or gay marriage or transgenderism, even on social media, lest their be negative repercussions.  There is a secular, progressive orthodoxy that is not to be contradicted, or else.

Note that Jesus talks in these spiritual terms about those who oppose Him and His Church, that the people who do so are religious about it, even thinking that they are offering God service, upholding some sort of distorted and corrupted notion of goodness and love.  Today’s Pharisees and Puritans are not so much the old time Bible thumpers but the enforcers of the new secular spirituality.  You most hold to their doctrine and their creed purely, or else you’re rejected and cancelled.  You can always tell what the dominant cultural and religious beliefs are by who or what you’re not allowed to criticize without consequence.

The time is coming, Jesus says, when people will think that they’re doing God’s work by killing Christians who don’t tow the cultural line.  That’s how it was with Saul before his conversion to being the Apostle Paul, right?  He thought he was serving God.  Saul was devoted to living righteously according to the law; he was a rising star among his fellow Pharisees.  And he was so zealous and passionate in his religion that he devoted himself to rooting out and getting rid of those whom he thought to be heretics, particularly those Christians who worshiped Jesus as the Son of God.  He oversaw the stoning to death of a Christian deacon named Stephen.  He was willing to travel long distances in order to persecute and imprison those who followed Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  It was only the grace of God that turned Paul’s life around when Jesus appeared to Him on the road to Damascus, bringing him to repentance and faith and a new life.  Only by grace did He come to worship the true God, through faith in Christ alone.

So don’t be surprised but expect the modern equivalents of Saul to come around today, those who consider it a good and holy thing to fight against Christ and His Word, who reject Him as God in the flesh, who hate the teaching that there is no salvation except in Him and His righteousness alone, who love their own spirituality above all.  Jesus said in the Gospel, “These things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me.”

But then in the midst of all this, have this expectation, that God is working all things together for the good of His people, as He has promised.  Note how in the Epistle, Peter says that the fiery trial is to test you.  That’s not just to see if you pass the test of faith, but that through the fire, your faith will be purified and strengthened, like molten iron is purified by fire and the dross is removed.  That’s why it is written in James 1, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.”  God is doing good for you and in you through these things.  

So it is that Peter says in today’s Epistle, “Rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.”  Christ suffered all the way to death for you to take away your sins.  He completed that task fully.  Now, being baptized into Him, you share in His sufferings which put to death your old Adam.  And Romans 6 says that if we have been united with Him in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection.  If we share in His humiliation, we will also share in His exaltation.

That’s how we can follow the example of the saints and rejoice in trials and persecutions.  Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute and say all kinds of evil against you falsely on My account.  Rejoice and be exceedingly glad.  For so they persecuted the prophets who were before You.”  And where are the prophets now?  They are comforted in the presence of the Savior and Redeemer whom they prophesied.  God sees your suffering and will not abandon you but will vindicate you.

Jesus said, “A servant is not greater than his Master.”  If they crucified Him, those who follow Him should not expect a life of ease in this world.  But remember that in following Him, you are walking the path that leads through the grave and out the other side alive.  The Lord reminds you not to get too comfortable here. Your citizenship is in heaven, your life is hidden with God in Christ, safe and secure.  The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.  So while we’re realistic about what to expect in this world and in this life, we still live with confidence and joy, for we have a sure hope and expectation of the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.  

In fact, the whole universe shares with us in this hope.  It is written, “The earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God.”  That’s you!  Whatever your expectation is of what heaven and the new creation is going to be like, your expectations are going to be exceeded.  You will be filled with overflowing joy in that place where Christ is all in all.  

So trust in God in the midst of affliction or persecution.  For Christ has overcome the world and conquered the evil one.  “If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. On their part He is blasphemed, but on your part He is glorified.”  Do not be afraid; do not think for a moment that your heavenly Father has abandoned you, even in death.  For He loves you and has gathered you out of the world’s synagogues to be His own Holy Church, His new creation by water and the Word.

And who knows?  Perhaps like Saul, one day your enemy will become your brother or sister in the faith.  This is our prayer in Christ, who prayed for His enemies, who offered God the Father true service not by killing others but by sacrificing Himself for you to save you.  And now He gives Himself to you in the Sacrament that you may share in His life.  This is where everything is set right, where the madness of the world and its lies are held at bay.  For where Christ Jesus is, there is your home, your peace, your comfort, your joy in all hardships, and your entry into eternal life.

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

Hidden with Christ in God

Acts 1:3-11; Luke 24:44-53
The Ascension or our Lord
May 26, 2022
Joint Service of Mt. Zion and Our Father’s Lutheran Church
Greenfield, WI

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

Back in 1961 when the Soviet Union sent their first cosmonaut, Yuri Gagarin, into orbit in space, he is said to have remarked that he didn’t see Jesus when he was up there–implying that Christianity must not be true and there must not be a heaven.  Later, it was revealed that this was actually just a propaganda statement from Kruschev and the Kremlin, and that Gagarin was in fact an orthodox Christian.  But that old Soviet atheistic foolishness serves as a reminder that there is often a lot of confusion regarding what the Bible teaches about heaven and especially about the ascension of our Lord.  For when Jesus ascended to the Father’s right hand, it’s not that He went from one place to another, as if He were taking a trip above the atmosphere, but rather that He was taking our human nature into divine glory.

We know, of course, that it’s not as if we could go up into space and find Jesus in some confined physical spot.  For heaven is not simply above the clouds somewhere.  Rather, heaven is that unseen realm where God is, an infinite and eternal realm that is not limited to space and time, that is beyond space and time.  The Creator transcends His creation.  That’s the point of Jesus going up–He is the Lord above us, ruling over all things.

But Jesus is not gone from us and far away.  We know from the Scriptures that God is present everywhere, and therefore, so is His “right hand.”  So when we confess that Jesus bodily ascended to the right hand of the Father, we are not saying that He left us, but rather that He is present everywhere, both as God and now also as man.  His human nature shares fully in His divine omnipresence and glory.  St. Paul writes in Ephesians that Jesus “ascended far above all the heavens that He might fill all things.”  The ascension of our Lord, then, emphasizes not Jesus’ absence but rather His presence, especially for the church and in the church.  Jesus is at the right hand of the Father as King reigning over all things for the sake of His people.

This glorified presence of Christ actually began already at Easter.  Just consider His resurrection appearances:  The disciples are gathered together with the doors locked, but suddenly Jesus is there and stands among them.  He had been there all along, but now He reveals Himself to them visibly.  They are given to touch His hands and side.  Or what about His appearance to the Emmaus disciples?  Jesus makes Himself known to them in the breaking of the bread and then simply vanishes from their sight.

Throughout the 40 days between His resurrection and ascension, Jesus came out of His glory to appear to His disciples and to eat, talk, and walk with them.  He did this for their benefit to show that He had truly risen from the dead in the flesh.  Jesus’ ascension is really no different from those other times when He then removed Himself from their sight.  It’s not that He went away.  Rather, He appeared out of glory, and He returned to glory.  But His final removal from their sight had to be so convincing that they would no longer expect Him to return until His final appearing.  Being lifted up from the earth and covered with the cloud, along with the message of the angels, was to convince the disciples that Jesus would no longer be visibly present among them.  

You will not see Jesus until He comes again on the clouds in great power and glory on the Last Day.  This age of the church in which we live is the age not of the eyes but of the ears.  Although you can’t see Christ, you can hear Him whenever His Word is preached and taught in its truth and purity.  Although you can’t behold Christ visibly, you can come into tangible contact with Him wherever His sacraments are rightly administered–in the watery cloud of baptism, at the throne of His altar.  He is unseen and yet truly bodily present among His people, veiled behind words and water, bread and wine.  He makes Himself accessible to you in His glorified flesh here in divine service.  Faith believes His promise, “I am with you always, even to the close of the age.”

If we’re honest with ourselves, though, we must admit that we often struggle to believe this.  For we sinners are people of the eyes, aren’t we.  If we can’t see it, experience it, feel it, it doesn’t seem real or true to us.  Out of sight, out of mind with the Lord.  All the visually impressive and entertaining things of this fallen world, screens everywhere, distract us and catch our eyes and divert our attention.

And when we don’t see and pay attention to God, we then act as if He doesn’t see or pay attention to us.  We’re usually better behaved when we know we’re being monitored or there are cell phone or security cameras recording us than we are when the only One who sees is the Lord.  Too often we live as if Christ is absent, that He’s not a very present help in time of need.  We can be tempted to doubt that He really is in control or that He really cares.  We see the chaos and the violence in the world around us, we experience the disorder in our lives and even in our own bodies, and we wonder, “If Christ really is ruling all things, why is this happening?”  We are like the disciples who got sidetracked with when the earthly kingdom of Israel was going to be restored.

Repent of such thinking.  Turn away from your own wisdom and from merely what your eyes can see.  Trust again in the sure and comforting truth of the Ascension that is spoken into your ears today.  See by faith the last thing that the disciples saw of Jesus.  It is written, “He lifted up His hands and blessed them.”  That is  how you should picture what our ascended Lord is doing even now, lifting up His hands to bless His people with the gifts He won for you in His death and resurrection.  

At His ascension, Jesus entered a cloud–not an ordinary cloud, though.  It was rather like the pillar of cloud that led the children of Israel through the Red Sea and in the wilderness.  It is the very presence of God.  Jesus has taken up your humanity into God’s presence and reunited you with God in Himself. You’ll hear it in the preface before communion today, that Jesus ascended in order to make you partakers in His divine life.

In a very real sense, then, you have already ascended into heaven.  For you are baptized into His ascended body.  Therefore, you also are at the right hand of the Father as sheep of the Good Shepherd.  Ephesians 2 says: “Even when we were dead in trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ . . . and raised us up together and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”  You’re already there, because Jesus is already there, and you are in Him.  Colossians 3 puts it this way: “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

I know of nothing that can make you more confident in your faith than that.  When you begin to waver in your Christian hope, when you aren’t sure about whether or not you’re going to heaven, when you wonder if He’s paying attention to your troubles and needs, just remember the Ascension; just remember that you are a member of Christ’s body by your baptismal faith.  And He is at the right hand of God as the victorious Ruler of all.  All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him who conquered all sin and death by His cross and resurrection.  You are more than conquerors through Him who loves you.  Jesus is the Father’s right hand man.  Therefore, He is truly able to work all things together for the good of those who love Him, for you who have been called according to His purpose.  He cares for you.  Even in the midst of the ups and downs of your life, He who began His good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of His return.

Until then, Jesus stands before the Father as your Great High Priest and ministers on your behalf.  That’s what He’s doing right now.  In the Old Testament, one of the special garments that the High Priest wore when he appeared before God in the temple was something called an ephod, an apron-like vest that hung from the shoulders and over the chest of the High Priest.  Precious onyx stones were attached to this ephod, in which were engraved the names of the twelve tribes of Israel.  So on his shoulders and over his heart the High Priest carried the names of God’s people.  Every time he entered the temple into the presence of God, he placed the whole people before the eyes of the Lord. This one man embodied all of Israel as he carried their names into the Holy of Holies to offer sacrifice for them and plead their forgiveness.

This Old Testament High Priest and his ephod are a living prophecy of our ascended Lord Jesus Christ.  He is the great High Priest who put on our human nature when He came to minister among us.  But unlike the Old Testament priest, Christ didn’t just wear our human nature like clothing and take it off when He finished His work.  No, He actually became flesh, became human, united the ephod of our humanity to Himself forever.

On His shoulders and over His heart Christ carries the names of God’s baptized people.  Having made His sacrifice, Jesus is now ascended to the temple of heaven for you, where He places you and the whole Church before the eyes of His Father and prays for you.  This one Man Jesus embodies all of you as He carries your names into the heavenly Holy of Holies.  He intercedes for you and speaks on your behalf before the Father.  And if Jesus says to the Father that your sins are forgiven and paid for, then you’d better believe your sins are forgiven and paid for.  It is written in 1 John 2, “We have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous.  He Himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.”

So then, brothers and sisters of Christ, take comfort in this ascension of Christ your King, who is working all things together for your eternal good.  “Seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God.”  Come to the Sacrament today and enter heaven, the place of Christ’s bodily presence.  And then on the Last Day, “when Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.”

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

Delivered From Fiery Judgment

Numbers 21:4-9

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

Several years ago when my family was out in Wyoming camping, my son Philip came upon a rattlesnake.  It wasn’t a big one; just a couple of rattles on its tail.  But it was still a threat.  We got hold of one of the ranch hands working there, and with the sharp blade of a shovel he took care of the threat.  But imagine if you were camping and there were hundreds of rattlesnakes everywhere you turned. That’s what the Israelites were facing in today’s Old Testament reading.  Still in the middle of their wilderness wanderings, the people of Israel found themselves surrounded by poisonous snakes wherever they went, even in their tents.  There was no escape.  The whole community was infested with these creatures, so that it wasn’t long before a great many of the Israelites had died.

The reason this happened is clear.  It was Israel’s sinful grumbling and complaining against the Lord.  Numbers 21 says, “The people spoke against God and against Moses: ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?’”  The people became thankless towards their God, who miraculously delivered them from their slavery to the Egyptians through the Red Sea.  When things got a little difficult, they turned against the Lord.  And on top of that, they failed to acknowledge that they were the cause of their own difficulty.  God had already brought them to the borders of the Promised Land of Canaan by this time.  Moses had led the people there and had sent spies into the land to bring back a report, so that Israel could prepare to enter the land and conquer those who dwelt there as God commanded.  But when the people heard about the Canaanites and how strong they were, they became afraid.  They didn’t trust that God would give them victory over these people.  They refused to enter the Promised Land, and so the Lord caused them to wander in the wilderness for 40 years.

Still God provided for Israel each day, sending them bread from heaven in the morning, which they called “manna.”  But they came to despise even this blessing, saying, “our soul loathes this worthless bread.”  You can see why God’s anger was kindled against them to send these serpents among them.

Do we ever behave like the Israelites did here?  Have you ever become blase’ about how Christ saved you from your slavery to sin and death?  Have you ever taken for granted how He brought you through the Red Sea of baptism and made you His own people?  Do you ever grow tired of the gifts of divine service and skip out on them rather than seeing them as the greatest blessing?  When things start to go badly in your lives, you also may be tempted to grumble against God and blame Him for your difficulties; we, too, are often full of ingratitude.  Like Israel, we tend to forget the terrible state of affairs from which God has rescued us.  And, like Israel, we tend to forget that the cause of our difficulties in this wilderness world is not God but our own stubborn, self-absorbed rebellion against Him and His Word.

Yet God provides for us each and every day, giving us all that we need to support this body and life.  But even then we still sometimes become bored with the same old job, the same old roof over our head, the same old people to live with, the same old husband or wife, the same old groceries on the table.  How often haven’t we or our families complained about what was for dinner or about not having anything enjoyable to do.  Boredom with God’s gifts is a sign of creeping unbelief.  We wish for something better, something different, something more.  Like Israel, we can despise the abundant blessing God has given us and incur His wrath.  Beware of wishing for something new.  You might get it, and it might be something along the lines of fiery serpents.

Those deadly snakes in the Old Testament reading are a reminder to us that our root problem can be traced back to the snake of Eden, Satan.  The serpent’s fangs sank into our first parents with his poisonous lies.  That lethal venom still courses through our veins, causing all of humanity to convulse with reminders of our terminal condition.

The judgment that Israel experienced brought them to repentance, which is the ultimate purpose of the judgment of the Law for us all.  The people turned to the Lord and prayed for deliverance.  And the Lord showed them great mercy.  He provided them with a solution to their problem.  “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it up on a pole, that everyone who is bitten, when he looks at it, shall live.’”  By looking to this lifted-up snake and trusting God’s words, the people were saved.

Now if you think about it, this solution really seems sort of odd.  Why of all things a snake?  Hadn’t they seen enough serpents already?  Why not something, for instance, that would be a better symbol of God?  The answer to that question lies in the fact that God fights fire with fire.  The solution He provides is of the same stuff as the problem.  Fiery snakes were the trouble; a fiery snake is the answer.  The serpent on the pole had the dual function of calling to mind the cause of the crisis, Satan and their sin, as well as showing the incredible love that God had for Israel in providing for their rescue from otherwise certain death.

Of course, the full weight of this passage hits home for us when we understand that the snake corresponds to Jesus Christ.  John chapter 3 says: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so the Son of Man (Jesus) must be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.”  In His unfailing mercy God has also provided us with a solution to our problem.  The lifted-up snake in the Old Testament reading was a living prophecy of what Christ was to come and do in being lifted up on the cross.  Looking to the crucified Christ and trusting God’s words of forgiveness, the venom of sin is cleansed from our blood and we are restored to a right relationship with God.  The problem is focusing inwards and being self-absorbed; the solution is focusing outwards to the cross and being absorbed in Christ.  For in Him our punishment was executed.  By the cross our sins are canceled, and we are restored to God.

And don’t gloss over the fact that the snake and Jesus are parallel in this instance.  For that is precisely where the heart of the Gospel is.  That wonderful passage, 2 Corinthians 5 says, “God made Jesus who knew no sin to be sin for us, that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”  Also in our situation, God fights fire with fire.  The solution is of the same stuff as the problem.  The terminal trouble is our sin, the healing solution is sin on a pole, Jesus on the cross.  He was actually made to be the problem so that we would be freed from the problem.  God treated Jesus as if He were the devilish serpent himself on the cross, so that you would be treated as His beloved child.  Jesus put Himself on the level of the devil for you.  It almost sounds blasphemous to call Jesus sin.  For He was certainly without sin of Himself.  But because He made our sin His own, His death now means that our sin is dead, powerless to do us any eternal harm.  By dying and rising again, Jesus crushed the serpent’s head.

You might compare it to the true story of the hunter who was out with his friend in a wide-open area of land in southeastern Georgia.  Far away on the horizon he noticed a cloud of smoke.  Soon they could hear the sound of crackling.  A wind came up, and he realized the terrible truth: a brushfire was advancing their way.  It was moving so fast that he and his friend could not outrun it.  The hunter began to rifle through his pockets.  He soon found what he was looking for–a book of matches.  To his friend’s amazement, he pulled out a match and struck it.  He lit a fire in the grassy brush.  Soon there was a fairly large area of blackened earth downwind.  They stepped into this large smoldering area where the grass had already burned up, waiting for the firestorm to come.  They did not have to wait long.  They covered their mouths with their handkerchiefs and braced themselves.  The fire came near–and swept around them and right by them.  But they were completely unhurt; they weren’t even touched.  For the fire would not burn where the fire had already been.

The judgment of the Law is like the brushfire.  We cannot escape it.  But if we stand in the burned-over place, where the Law has already burned its way through, then we won’t be hurt.  The death of Christ is the burned-over place.  The Law already burned its full judgment there on the cross.  There we huddle, hardly believing we’re safe there, yet relieved that it is true.  The Law is powerless against us; Christ’s death has disarmed it. (Zahl, “Who Will Deliver Us?” p. 42)

This is why we have no problem displaying crosses with the body of Christ on them.  For there we see where the fire has already burned.  There we see our safe place and our refuge; there we take our stand.  We preach Christ crucified, so that looking to Him in faith we may live, relieved and joyful.  

And finally, what better way is there for you to look to Christ in the midst of all the fiery serpents of this world than to receive the holy supper of His body and blood for your forgiveness with prayerful faith.  As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.  Here is the antivenin that undoes sin’s toxin; here is the medicine of immortality, given and shed for you.

Trust then in these words of Christ from the Gospel and know that they are true for you, “In the world you will have tribulation”–no way around it–“But be of good cheer.  I have overcome the world.”  

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

Sing to the Lord a New Song

John 16:5-15

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

We’ve been doing a little more singing than usual this morning.  And that is certainly appropriate.  For this Sunday in the church year is traditionally called Cantate Sunday.  Cantate means “Sing ye!” from the opening words of the Introit.  I’d like to base most of today’s meditation on those words from Psalm 98, especially the opening words: “Oh, sing to the Lord a new song.  His right hand and His holy arm have gained Him the victory!”

The church for thousands of years has voiced her deepest hopes and anguish and faith in song.  That’s really what the Psalms are; they are the hymns sung by God’s people of old expressing their trust in Him in the midst of all the joys and needs of life.  But then today’s Psalm speaks about singing something new.  What is this new song which the Lord would have us sing?

For some, a phrase like this means that whatever is new and different must be better than the old and familiar.  Our fallen nature is obsessed with the new.  New smartphones, new TV’s, new clothes, new cars, a new house, a new recipe, a new lover, a new job, a new congregation–whatever is new we assume is better than whatever is old.  It is not much of a stretch to see how the church can get infected with the love of the new, including when it comes to church music–contemporary Christian music sung in pop, feel-good styles must be better than the centuries old hymns.  But is that really what the Psalm is talking about when it says to “sing to the Lord a new song,” just to sing something that was written recently?  

Psalm 98 actually tells us itself what this new song is all about.  “Sing to the Lord a new song . . . His right hand and His holy arm have gained Him the victory!”  Very simply, what makes the new song new is that it is all about the truth of Jesus.  For He is the right hand and the holy arm of the Father, is He not?  Did Jesus not win the victory over sin, death and the power of the devil by His cross and resurrection?  That is the song of songs.  Jesus’ work of dying on the cross for you and rising from the dead, that victory is the song of all time.  It is the eternally new song.  Or, to put it another way, it is the song of the Gospel.  That’s what the Psalm means when it talks about a new song; it is the song of Christ who makes all things forever new with His redeeming love.

So what makes a song “new” or “old” theologically speaking is not how long it’s been around, but rather whether or not it’s centered in Christ.  The old song is the way of the Law, of making yourself right with God by your own spiritual efforts and therapeutic progress and inward self-discovery and outward good living.   “God helps those who help themselves” is the old song, where salvation depends in large part on what you do and what you bring to God.  The old song is the way of karma, of being rewarded or punished based on what you’ve done.  The new song, on the other hand, is the way of grace, of being redeemed and shown mercy based on Christ having suffered the karma we had coming in our place.  With Christ’s resurrection from the dead, we sing a brand new song, the song of salvation, the song of the One who died for us and rose again so that we might truly live.

So it’s a little bit tricky discerning what makes a song “a new song” in the way of today’s Psalm.  Some of the “oldest” hymns in our hymnal express that “new song” of salvation better than any “new song” of today ever could, though, of course, there are some good new songs and hymns, too.  It just so happens that I chose one of the oldest hymns in our hymnal to sing today during Holy Communion.  The words were written by a bishop named Ambrose in the 300's A.D. They are words addressed to Jesus:

Come, very Sun of truth and love; Pour down Thy radiance from above
And shed the Holy Spirit’s ray on all we think or do or say. Alleluia!
(And then praying to the Father:)
On Christ, the true bread let us feed; Let Him to us be drink indeed;
And let us taste with joyfulness the Holy Spirit’s plenteousness. Alleluia!

Words like that are ever new, because they are centered on Christ, whose mercy never grows old.  They’re not based on the shifting sands of our feelings but on Him who is the solid Rock.  That is truly a new song in the way of Psalm 98, a Trinitarian song of saints and angels.  And those words, by the way, are wedded for us to a very appropriate and reverent and beautiful new tune.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with newer music being used, like we did with the Old Testament reading for today, as long as it’s there as a servant to the words of God.  The Word must always be the main thing.  Too often contemporary music is used simply as a way of trying to create an emotional feeling and manipulate people into a certain spiritual mood, and it is not primarily a servant of the words of God.  By means of the band up in front and the lighting and the video screens, the goal is to create a moving experience not all that different than seeing a show or going to a concert.  That is not what it means to worship God with a new song.

Or consider a 500 year old hymn from the Reformation, “Salvation Unto Us Has Come.”  It, too, is a “new” song in the way of Psalm 98.  First, it directs us away from trusting in ourselves.

What God did in His Law demand And none to Him could render
Caused wrath and woe on ev’ry hand For man, the vile offender.
Our flesh has not those pure desires The spirit of the Law requires,
And lost is our condition.

To look to within yourself for your hope of salvation is the old song, the old way of death.   But then the hymn sings the new song of Jesus:

Since Christ has full atonement made And brought to us salvation,
Each Christian therefore may be glad And build on this foundation.
Your grace alone, dear Lord, I plead, Your death is now my life indeed,
For You have paid my ransom.

So again, the new song is not primarily about the music that moves us but the Gospel that saves us.

Jesus talks about this quite clearly when He says: “When the Spirit of truth has come, He will guide you into all truth . . .   He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you.”  A truly spiritual song, then, is one in which the Holy Spirit speaks Christ-centered prayer and praise in you or where He proclaims the Gospel of Jesus and delivers the gifts of Christ to you.  That’s what the Holy Spirit is all about, glorifying Christ and pointing to Him so that we might trust in Him and be saved.  

In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks of three aspects of the Spirit’s work.  These three things also identify what makes up the “new song.”  First of all Jesus says that the Spirit will convict the world of sin.  The Holy Spirit will tell you the truth about yourself and about the curse we all are under.  The Spirit of truth will not condone sin or affirm you and support you “just the way you are,” but will drive you to despair of yourself, so that you might learn to see your need for Jesus the Savior and cling to Him alone.  The goal of the Spirit’s coming to you is not to make you feel all tingly inside, but to lead you to cast aside all human merit as nothing but filthy rags in God’s sight.

However, Jesus also says that the Spirit will convince the world of righteousness; He will make the true righteousness of Christ known.  As Psalm 98 says, “His righteousness He has revealed in the sight of the nations.”  Just as Jesus purchased our righteousness before God with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death, so now the Holy Spirit clothes us with that righteousness in preaching and the sacraments.  As it is written, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed.”  The Holy Spirit takes of what is Christ’s and delivers it to you.  He puts in your mouth the new song of faith in Christ.

And then thirdly, Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will convince the world of the judgment of the devil and of Satan’s defeat.  Even though we still have troubles in this life and things which cause us to falter, even though the devil still tries to use these things to scare us to hell and make us lose our faith in Christ, the truth of the matter is that all that he can do is buzz about like a pesky fly.  For Jesus conquered him decisively, once and for all at Golgotha.  He took away Satan’s power by undoing the sin which held us in bondage.  The resurrected Christ has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.  The new song, then, doesn’t leave matters in doubt, but speaks of that certainty of the victory which we have in Christ, which will be revealed for us on the Last Day.  And if that makes you feel a little tingly and uplifted inside, well, good.  That’s a wonderful thing.  

This is the message the Holy Spirit has to give to you this day, a message which continues to be proclaimed through the church’s song.  So the next time you are learning a hymn, or hear some Christian music for the first time, ask yourself whether it truly gives you Jesus.  Is it giving you solid doctrine or just a temporary spiritual rush?  Is it the old song of the Law that focuses on you or the new song of salvation which focuses on the Lord?  Remember the words of today’s Psalm:

Oh sing to the Lord a new song, for He has done marvelous things.  His right hand and His holy arm have gained Him the victory!  He has remembered His mercy and His faithfulness to the  house of Israel–to you, His people.

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

(With thanks to Todd Peperkorn for some of the framework of this sermon)

Do Not Be Unbelieving But Believing

John 20:19-31

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

Thomas was not going to be a fool.  Sure the women had come back with their report of the angels at the tomb.  Sure the other disciples had claimed to actually have seen Jesus themselves.  But Thomas’s attitude was, if it seems too good to be true, it’s probably not true.  Maybe the women just said that stuff as a way of dealing with their grief.  Of course, the empty tomb was harder to explain.  Guards were placed there by Jesus’ enemies precisely to keep the body from being stolen and stories like these being made up.  Where was Jesus’ body?  If the Jewish and Roman authorities could have produced it, they certainly would have.  And the appearance to the disciples wasn’t easy to figure out, either.  They couldn’t have all hallucinated the exact same thing at the exact same time.  And they had no reason to make up such a story, either.  They were afraid for their lives.  That’s why they had been behind locked doors.  Still, Thomas wouldn’t accept it unless certain specific criteria were met.  He had to see with his own eyes and touch with his own hands; only then would he believe it.

We should learn from Thomas two pitfalls to avoid.  First of all, God doesn’t have to fit our criteria.  It’s not for us to place certain conditions on God of what He should be like, and if He meets them, only then will we believe.  Who’s really #1 in that scenario?  Sometimes we make an idol out of our own intelligence by requiring God to fit into our logic of how we think things should be and how we think He should act.  And if everything doesn’t fit the mold, then forget it; He must not be real or worth trusting.  We begin to sound a lot like Thomas when we think, “Unless God behaves in a way that makes sense to me; unless I see certain evidence of God in my life; unless He answers my prayers and comes through for me the way I want, then I won’t believe.”

The second pitfall to avoid is the whole reason why Thomas ended up doubting at all: he was absent from the assembly of the disciples when Jesus appeared.  Thomas missed church.  And of course you’re going to start having doubts when you cut yourself off from the life-giving, faith-sustaining words and presence of the Lord.  Thomas was off by himself somewhere, isolated from the rest of Jesus’ followers, even as we sometimes isolate ourselves from fellow believers in difficult times.  And so Thomas missed out when Jesus came among them.  He probably figured he’d be better off on his own at this point–just like those who think that they can have a fine relationship with God all by themselves without gathering together with other Christians.  But Jesus comes where the assembly is, where two or three or more are gathered in His name around His preached Word and His holy Sacraments.  You skip church and you miss out on the gifts Jesus Himself gives.  That’s why pastors are bothered when people don’t show up.

Of course, that’s not to say that any of the other disciples were better than Thomas.  On that first Easter evening, they were all there timidly hiding out from the Jewish authorities with the doors bolted shut.  All of them had proven unfaithful and disloyal when the heat was on.  But the risen Jesus comes to this wretched bunch nonetheless, in the flesh, miraculously, through the obstacle of their barred doors.  For His humanity now shares fully in the glory of His divinity.  His is a real body, truly risen from the grave, but now it is exalted completely into the majesty of His eternal nature as God the Son.  And so locked doors are no barrier.  

And the first words that Jesus says to them are “Peace be with you.”  Those are His words of absolution and forgiveness to them.  They might have been afraid that Jesus would come to chastise them for their failings.  But it is written, “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”  In effect Jesus is telling them, “I have payed for all your sins by my suffering and death; they died with me.  And now I am alive to bring you mercy forevermore.  Don’t be afraid.  I have made things right for you.  You are reconciled to God the Father through Me.  Peace be with you.”  

And then Jesus shows them the wounds in His hands and side.  Of course, He didn’t have to keep these wounds; they could’ve been undone in His resurrection.  But He chooses to let them remain.  For these are His glory; these are the signs of His sacrificial love for us.  These are the precious treasure of the church for all eternity.  For by His wounds we are healed and saved.  When Jesus shows the disciples His wounds, then their fear is turned to gladness.  Jesus is known by His scars.  This is no impostor.  It’s the same Jesus who died and who is now alive again in the flesh.  Jesus is with them; and so there is nothing to fear.  Nothing can be done to us that hasn’t already been done to Jesus.  And He has done it all to death on the cross and triumphed.

Then Jesus does something rather amazing.  He takes this rag-tag bunch of forgiven sinners, and He makes them apostles and pastors.  Again Jesus says, “Peace to you!”  With His first word of peace Jesus absolved His disciples and took away their fear.  With His second word of peace He sends them to absolve others and take away their fears.  “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”  In the same way that Jesus was sent to reveal the Father and speak on His behalf, so now the apostles are being sent to reveal Jesus and speak on His behalf and give out the gifts that He had just won.

Jesus breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”  Jesus gives them His breath and His words and His Spirit so that they can be like Ezekiel and give life to the dry bones of sinners.  With His breath, Jesus resurrects and resuscitates His church.  

“If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven.  If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”  The apostles, and those who follow after them in the apostolic ministry, are given the very authority of Christ to proclaim and dish out His forgiveness to those who repent, but to withhold forgiveness from those who remain unrepentant.  Jesus here is establishing the office of the ministry so that His voice may continue to be heard in the church, so that we may have the certainty that all the benefits of Jesus’ death have truly been given to us personally–His called and ordained servant has spoken it.  The Catechism puts it this way, “I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command. . ., this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ, our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.”  This is all drawn together even more simply in the order of Private Confession and Absolution that Luther gave in the Catechism.  The pastor asks the one who has just made confession, “Do you believe that my forgiveness is God’s forgiveness?”  And the believing penitent answers, “Yes, I do,” and is absolved.

We must learn, then, to grasp the truth that the risen Jesus is still literally coming among His people with His gifts of forgiveness and life.  It’s no coincidence that Jesus appears in the Gospel both times on a Sunday.  For we are to think of every divine service as a little Easter, another resurrection appearance of Jesus; it’s the 8th day, the day of the new creation.  Our Lord Christ continues to come among His people very concretely through His Word.  Even now He stands among this rag-tag bunch–we who so often hide away behind our own bolted doors, fearful of the future, afraid of being alone, burdened by guilt–and He says to us right here and now, “Peace be with you.  My peace I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.  In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.  Shalom, peace–everything is in its place, made right and whole again.  You are forgiven; I am with you.”  

Jesus didn’t have to appear that second time when Thomas was there.  But in His mercy, He did.  Jesus said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side.  Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”  Thomas’s skeptic mind had made him blind until he read like braille the markings of the spear and nail.  Then Thomas could see, “My Lord and my God!”  It was true!  Thomas confesses Jesus to be God in the flesh risen from the dead for him.

And we also are given to confess the same thing with Thomas and say of Jesus, “You are My Lord and My God.”  This is no myth, no childish fairy tale; it’s for real, it’s true.  Our eternal life is built on this sure foundation, this living reality of Easter. Only a Savior who is truly alive in body and soul can save us fallen people in body and soul.  And Jesus has done just that.  Something less than a real resurrection for Jesus would mean something less than real life after death for us.  But because Jesus did, in fact, rise bodily from the grave, we who have been baptized into His body will also rise from the grave on the Last Day, even as we already share in His new life by faith.  Life after death is not only a spiritual reality, with our souls in heaven; it will also become a very physical, concrete, fleshly reality too at the end of time.  For it is written, “Christ will change our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body.”  And Job spoke these familiar words of faith, “I know that my Redeemer lives and that in the end He will stand upon the earth.  And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God.”  This is our sure and certain hope in the resurrected Christ.

In a moment you will hear it said in the liturgy, “The peace of the Lord be with you always.”  And then the risen Jesus will invite you to touch His hands and His side in the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  Like Thomas, He bids you to come into contact with His own living flesh and blood, so that your faith may be strengthened.  You feel the nail marks in His hands.  For with His own hands, Christ Himself gives you His true body, imprinted with the mark of the cross.  And you reach out your hand and put it into His side.  For what was it that flowed from Christ’s side but His precious blood?  Therefore, when you reach for the blessed cup of Christ and receive His life-giving blood, you are truly touching His holy side.  Like Thomas, you, too, know Jesus by His scars.

Listen, then, to what Jesus says to you and take it to heart, “Blessed are you who have not seen Me and yet have believed.  For by so believing you have everlasting life in My name.”

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

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)