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Living Bread

John 6:1-15
Lent 4

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

    At the end of today’s Gospel, the people said about Jesus, “This is truly the Prophet who is to come into the world.”  When they spoke of “the Prophet,” they were referring to the promise that the Lord had made to Moses, when the children of Israel were afraid to hear the thundering voice of God on Mt. Sinai.  The Lord told Moses, “I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth.”  

    And to that extent, the people were right.  Jesus is the promised Prophet, the New and Greater Moses, who speaks God’s words to His people, who leads you and feeds you and intercedes for you.  Just consider all the details in today’s Gospel.  In the same way that  Moses led the children of Israel through the Red Sea, Jesus goes across the Sea of Galilee (6:1), and a great multitude follows Him.  And why did they follow Him?  Because of His signs which He performed on those who were diseased (6:2), just like Moses who had performed great signs in Egypt before Pharaoh.  And as Moses went up Mt. Sinai with the elders of Israel, and they saw God and ate and drank, so also Jesus here ascends a mountain with His disciples, and in Him the people would see God and eat and drink (6:3).  And it is written here that the Passover was near (6:4), the sacrificing of the unblemished Lamb whose blood protects from death.  In this Gospel, then, the Lord is teaching you that He is your greater Moses.  He alone is the One who sustains and leads you safely across the wilderness of this fallen world.  He is the One who comes after Moses, your Joshua, who leads you through death into the Promised Land and eternal life.null

    Jesus is also your manna.  He said, “I am the Living Bread which came down from heaven.  If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world (6:51).”  So when we hear of a miracle like the feeding of the 5000, we know that its significance doesn’t end with the earthly bread of that time and place.  No, here is pictured the true Manna, the Bread of Life which is still being distributed to the multitude today, to you in the Sacrament of the Altar.

    Seeing all the people coming to Him, Jesus asks Philip a question to test him.  Now when the Lord tests you, He does so not to find out information about you that He didn’t already know, right?  He’s God; He knows all things.  Jesus tests you ultimately to direct your faith to the right place and to strengthen it.  God’s tests are for your good.  The Lord asks Philip, “Where shall we buy bread, that these may eat?”  In this way the Lord leads Philip to despair of his own ability to do anything to solve this problem.  “Even if we had 200 days’ worth of wages, we still couldn’t buy nearly enough food.”  The disciples were helpless to do anything.  The first thing about having the right faith is knowing what not to trust in. Tests serve to empty you of your idols and your false gods.  The disciples were not to trust in themselves or their own resources.

    It’s the same way with you.   Jesus asks this question to show you that the bread of life is not something that you can acquire with your own spiritual resources or by your own goodness.  You simply have no ability to come up with what is necessary to attain eternal life.  You must learn to turn way from and despair of your own qualifications to solve this problem.  You’ve got nothing to barter with to make yourself right with God.  You can’t purchase this heavenly bread.  Rather, God offers it to you freely in Christ.  His forgiveness and salvation are granted to you without cost; for He has paid the price.  As Isaiah 55 says, “You who have no money, come, buy and eat.”

    Only those can receive the bread of life, then, who acknowledge their spiritual bankruptcy before God, who recognize that of themselves they can lay no claim on God’s eternal gifts.  Those who think that they are worthy of the Bread of Life will not be given life at all.  For they are still trying to “buy” their way into God’s good graces with their own merits.  Only to the poor in spirit does the kingdom of heaven belong.  Our righteousness is like the rotting Old Testament manna that was kept overnight; it’s goodness doesn’t last.  Only those who hunger and thirst for the righteousness of Christ will be satisfied.  For His is the food which endures to everlasting life (6:27).

    One of Jesus’ disciples, Andrew, said to Him, “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two small fish, but what are they among so many?”  On the surface it appeared that this bread and fish would be useless to help feed the people.  But with Jesus it was more than enough to do the job.  It’s the same way with the Sacrament of the Altar.  Someone might ask, “What good can this little bit of bread and wine do?  How can these elements help my soul or give me any eternal blessings?”  But in the hands of Jesus, such elements are more than enough.  For what counts is not the impressiveness of the bread and wine but the miracle that our Lord does with them.  You must focus not simply on the elements only but on the Word of the Lord who stands behind them.

    “Then Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’  Now there was much grass in the place.”  The Lord invites you also to do the same thing today, for the Psalm says, “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall lack nothing.  He makes me to lie down in green pastures.”  Right here is your grassy pasture where He calls you to come for rest.  It is here that He leads you beside the still waters of His living Word.  It is here that He prepares a table before you, spread with heavenly food.

    “And Jesus took the loaves, and when He had given thanks He distributed them to the disciples, and the disciples to those sitting down; and likewise of the fish, as much as they wanted.”  Here is the great miracle, that as the disciples handed out this food given them by Christ, there was always more and more.  The more they handed out, the more there was.  First there were five loaves in the basket.  Then, as this was distributed, the disciples would reach in and find more and more loaves ready to be given out.  And likewise with the fish.  Thousands upon thousands of people were fed, and the food never ran out.  Everyone was filled and satisfied; no one was left out.  The Lord more than covered all of their needs.

    Isn’t this also how it is with the gifts that Christ gives in Holy Communion?  In bread and wine He multiplies His body and blood, and through His ministers He distributes them to His people, that you may receive all that you want of Him who is the Living Bread from heaven, and that your souls may be thoroughly satisfied with His mercy.  There is always more and more of this Bread of Life to be given out.  For this bread is the flesh of God Himself; and there is no limit to God.  He offered up His body for you on the cross to purchase your forgiveness.  And now He offers up His body to you in Holy Communion that you may receive that full and limitless forgiveness.

    Like the five loaves and the two fish, our Lord’s love is ever-expanding.  It’s reverse mathematics; the more that He gives, the more that He has yet to give.  It can’t be measured; you can’t put a boundary around it.  So when you come to the Lord’s table with penitence and faith, you need never fear that the sin you bring is bigger than the Lord’s forgiveness.  The cross covers it all, and then some.  The shed blood of the Passover Lamb of God takes away the sin of the world.  When you eat the Living Bread from heaven in the Sacrament, you receive the fullness of Christ’s pardon, all that you could ever want.  And there is still more even beyond that.  For when you eat this Supper, you are partaking in the very life of God Himself.  Jesus said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day (6:54).”

    After the 5000 were fed, Jesus told the disciples to gather up what remained, so that nothing would be lost.  We also do the same thing here in Holy Communion.  What remains after the Supper is gathered up and placed into the tabernacle there at the back of the altar.  From there it is carried out to our hospitalized and shut-in members.  In that way the Lord’s love also reaches out to them in their need so that they might be drawn in and joined with us in this same holy communion.  

    Finally, when the disciples gathered up what remained, they filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves.  Five loaves became twelve baskets–more than when they started.  Five is the number of the Law, for there are five books of Moses.  Twelve is the number of the apostles.  In this miracle, then, we see a transition, from the old Israel, guided by the Law of Moses, to the New Israel, the Church, built on the doctrine and ministry of Christ’s apostles, as we say in the Creed, “one holy Christian and apostolic Church.”  It is written in Acts 2 of the early church,  “They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers (Acts 2:42).”  This is what the 5 becoming 12 means for you: You have been freed from the judgment of the Law by Christ, who fulfilled it all for you; and your life is now to be found in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking and receiving of the Bread of Life, and in the prayers and liturgy of the church.  

    The multitudes back then wanted Jesus to be king–but only to keep their bellies filled and their appetites fed.  But you know that Jesus is much more than that.  He is the King who goes off to the mountain by Himself where He will be crowned with thorns, that His flesh might be given for the life of the world.  You are children of the Jerusalem that is above.  You are children of the promise in Jesus, the Greater Moses and the Bread of Life.

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

Behold the God With Skin

John 19:1-24

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✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

    Our God is a God with skin.  The Lord Jesus, true God, took upon Himself real flesh and blood, body and soul, and became true man.  He is covered with skin.  Skin clothes our bodies, yet we usually also cover up most of our skin with clothing.  This is to protect it from the sun or from the cold weather.  But we also cover our skin to cover our shame.  In the beginning, man’s skin was uncovered.  Genesis 2 says that Adam and Eve were naked and that were not ashamed.

    But you know what happened.  They fell into sin, and immediately Scripture says that they saw that they were naked.  Their eyes, which had been directed upward to God in faith and outward to one another in perfect sinless love, now were turned in on themselves.  They became self-preoccupied and self-absorbed.  That’s one way of understanding what sin is; it’s when your humanity is distorted and bent and curved in on yourself.  

    Having lost their humanity, with the image of God broken in them, our first parents sought to cover their shame with flimsy fig leaves.  We too try to keep the truth of our sin and shame from being exposed by doing our best to cover it up and hide it, or to justify it and rationalize it.  But such fig leaves don’t work too well.  They’re not a good or lasting solution.  They cannot truly hide sin and shame.

    And so according to Genesis 3, God covered Adam and Eve with skins.  The first real item in their wardrobe came from the death of an animal or perhaps several animals.  Their sin had brought death into the world, not only to themselves, but to all creation.  Their nakedness would be covered at the cost of an even deeper nakedness.  For what could be more exposed than an animal stripped of its skin? And so the first death, the first bloodshed, happened at the hands of the Creator Himself, to grant to these rebellious human beings the luxury of hiding their sin and shame behind the innocence of another creature.null

    You cannot truly hide your own sin.  Sin can only be covered with skin.  No one knows for sure what type of animal it was in the garden from which God peeled its innocent hide in order to hide the exposed and vulnerable parts of Adam and his wife.  But considering what was later used on Passover and in the tabernacle and the temple, it's not unreasonable to suspect that the first animal to die was a sheep, a lamb.

    "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world," John the Baptist declared of Jesus (John 1:29).  Behold in Jesus the fulfillment of every lamb with its throat slit to render it a sacrifice in the temple. Behold in Jesus the fulfillment of every Passover lamb roasted and completely consumed the night before God brought His people out of slavery.  Behold, the Lamb who is a man, and the man who is God.  Behold the God who literally has skin in the game.

    Jesus was scourged by the Roman soldiers with a whip called a flagrum.  It was designed to shred the skin from the back of the one being whipped, tearing away flesh so deeply that the internal organs are nearly exposed.  In order to rescue us from our shame and cover the nakedness of our exposed sin, Jesus is not only stripped of His clothing, but even His skin is torn open.  Jesus is utterly uncovered on the cross, and the soldiers cast lots for His clothing.  All He wears is the crown of thorns that were mockingly pressed into His head.  Thorns were part of the curse on Adam and Eve in the beginning.  Now that’s what Jesus wears, for He bears the curse for us to break its power over us.  Behold the God with skin, God made naked, now clothed only in the mockery of sinful men.

    This event not only exposes Jesus to shame, above all it uncovers and reveals His great mercy toward you.  It lays bare His sacrificial love for you.  Jesus’ garment is seamless and perfect.  This garment is taken off of Him so that it may be placed on you, so that you may be covered with His perfect righteousness and enveloped with His full and free forgiveness.  

    Behold the man who willingly bears your sin and shame.  Behold the man who suffers in your place without complaint.  Behold the man whose nakedness answers for Adam’s, and for yours.  Behold the man with nothing to hide, with no sin of His own to cover up.  He is stripped bare to bear all of your sins, and especially to take away the ones that cause you the greatest shame.  All of them hang there on the cross with this man, this God, Jesus, naked and dying for you.

    Baptized into Christ, you now have new skin.  Behold the man who dresses you in His own holiness, who gives you Himself to wear.  For it is written, “as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”  Behold the man who was sacrificed for you sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, who covers you with His own skin.  Gladly wear His garment of righteousness and peace, knowing that you are dear children of God.  For in Christ, your sin has been removed, and your shame is gone.

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

Behold the Man Who Prays

Luke 22:24-46
Midweek Lent 1

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

    Perhaps it seems strange to you that Jesus would pray.  I remember as a child wondering who it was that Jesus prayed to, since He’s God.  Is He talking to Himself?  What’s going on?  Of course, we know that even from before creation, there has been an eternal conversation going on among the persons of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  So it’s perfectly natural that the Son of God would speak to the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit.  This is part of their everlasting union and communion with one another.

    But with the incarnation of Jesus, there is an additional and very important element added.  He is now praying not only as true God, the Son of the Father, but also true man, our fully human brother.  Behold the Man, Jesus, who prays as one of us, who leads a life of faith and trust in the Father as a perfect human being.  When we say that we are saved by faith, one of the things we mean is that we are saved by Jesus’ faith, by Jesus’ trust in the Father and His faithful following of the Father’s Word and will.  If you ever find yourself struggling in your faith, if your faith feels weak and fading, don’t try to work up more faith in yourself somehow.  Rely on Jesus’ faith; cling to His perfect trust and faithfulness; take refuge in Him who took refuge in the goodness and love of His Father.  That’s what Christian faith is.  That’s how we come to know the Father as good and loving toward us.null

    To have faith in God is to pray to God.  Prayer is the exercise of faith.  So that’s what Jesus does, throughout His ministry, and particularly here in His Passion.  And we see that Jesus is praying as a true human being, because He expresses a will that is different from the Father’s.  Think about that!  For our sakes, Jesus has emptied Himself of His divine powers, and He faces His suffering on our behalf as a man, without any of His divinity to diminish it or mitigate it.  And His truly human will quite obviously wants to avoid the hellish afflictions He’s about to undergo if at all possible, if there’s some other way.  “Father, if it is possible, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me.”  

    The cup that Jesus is referring to there is the cup of judgment, like a cup of poison that will cause Him to die a slow, agonizing death.  By drinking this cup for us, He will take away the judgment of sin that stood against us.  Only in this way can we be saved.  Only by Jesus submitting to the Father’s will are we rescued.  And Jesus does submit; He obeys.  “Nevertheless, not My will, but Yours, be done.”  That is our salvation.  Behold the Man, who submits His fully human will to the Father’s will in perfect obedience.  Where we had asserted our human will against the Father, wanting to do things our own way and make ourselves the greatest and avoid the narrow way, Jesus says, “Thy will be done.”  He restores our humanity by bringing the divine and the human will back together, back in line with each other.  He restores us to communion with the Father by His obedience and His willingness to serve and to suffer.

    And we see that suffering already beginning here in the Garden.  It was in the Garden of Eden that man first fell under the curse.  And so it is fittingly here in this garden that Jesus begins to bear the full weight and pressure of the curse.  The name Gethsemane literally means “oil press.”  It was part of an olive grove where the oil was pressed out of the olives.  Here, Jesus is pressed down in a similar way, under the crushing burden of the world’s sin and the judgment we deserved.  Imagine the anxiety and the stress you would feel if you knew what was coming on you like Jesus did, if you knew that tomorrow you would be dying a slow, agonizing, and torturous death.  Here in Gethsemane, Jesus is pressed in such a way that His blood is forced from His pores.  It is written, “His sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground.”  

    Medical experts describe this condition where a person is under such duress and stress that the capillaries in their skin actually begin to burst, and the blood mixes together with the nervous sweat.  This is what Jesus is experiencing here.  Even before anyone can arrest Him and do Him harm, already He is shedding His blood for us.  Remember this when you are undergoing stress, when anxiety seems to dominate your mind and your life, when there seems to be no way out from underneath your burdens and whatever it is you’re dealing with.  Remember Jesus, who has been there, who knows just what you’re going though–and more–and who provided the way out through His suffering and into the resurrection.

    It is written in 1 Corinthians 10, “No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.”  Here in the Garden of Gethsemane, we see the way of escape.  It is Christ who, when put to the test, was faithful.  After Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, the Gospel of Luke records that the devil left Him “until an opportune time.”  This is that time, where Jesus is tempted to turn away from the Father’s will.  But He doesn’t.  He follows through on your behalf.  

    And now He says to the disciples and to you, “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.”  Pray in the name of Jesus, who conquered sin and Satan for you.  Take refuge in Him when you are put to the test and lured away from God’s Word and God’s will.  Cling to Christ for mercy and forgiveness and for strength to endure in the faith until the end.  He is your Mediator, your Intercessor, your Advocate before the Father, speaking in your defense, appealing on your behalf by the virtue of His shed blood.  In the time of trial He has promised that He will never leave you or forsake you.  Learn to pray with Christ, “Not my will, but Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

The Lord is Good

Matthew 20:1-16

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

    Let me begin by saying what today’s Gospel is not about.  If your first thought in hearing about the laborers in the vineyard is to try to apply it to politics or economics, don’t.  This is not about socialism or capitalism; it has nothing to do with the rights of workers or employers.  It doesn’t support a conservative or a liberal agenda.  More and more we tend to see everything in terms of politics and rights and power and victimization.  But Jesus is no politician, and his mission is not to empower you in your quest for your rights.  His kingdom is not of this world.  He says here very explicitly, “The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.”  The way things work in God’s kingdom is quite different from the ways of the world.  Wages are given not based on the merit of the worker but on the goodness of the owner.  Here’s the key saying from the vineyard owner, “Is your eye evil because I am good?”

    God’s unmerited goodness is what we call grace, His undeserved love toward us in Christ that we receive by faith.  Now unfortunately, some take that teaching about grace and use it as an excuse for laziness when it comes to doing good works.  “My salvation isn’t based on my works at all?  Great!  I’m going to take it easy, then, and just enjoy myself and do as I please.”  But that’s just a perversion of God’s grace, and ultimately it’s a rejection of grace.  For God’s Law is still in force.  You should still be loving God above all things–including your money, including your family, including the approval of your friends.  You should still be loving your neighbor as yourself.  The Ten Commandments are still commanded.  They’re not the Ten Suggestions.  God has told us to do them, and so we must.  It’s not optional.null

    But here’s the point: If you do good things in order to gain some eternal reward out of it, is that truly a good work?  Or if you do something good out of fear that if you don’t you’ll be punished, is that truly a good work?  In both cases the good deed is tainted, isn’t it?  It may be good humanly speaking, but it’s not in God’s sight.  For with Him it’s not just the outward act but what’s going on in the heart that counts.  Love and trust in Him is what He seeks.  If heaven is the reward we get for living a good life, we’re hopelessly lost; because then trying to live a good life would end up being a self-serving thing, which in fact is the opposite of doing good before God.

    Let me illustrate it this way: Valentine’s day was just celebrated.  If a husband gets his wife a card and flowers or some other gift only because he feels like he has to or else he’ll be in the dog house, is that really love for his wife?  Or if he does something romantic because what he truly wants is to score some points that he can cash in on, is that really love for his wife?  What he does might be good outwardly speaking, but what makes it real love is when it’s done without thought to rewards or consequences, but simply with a desire for the good and the happiness of the spouse and their marital communion.

    So what God has done is this: He has enabled you to do truly good works by taking the eternal threat and reward entirely out of the mix.  The reward is already yours before you even start working.  It’s been purchased by Christ for you; it’s a done deal, whether you entered the vineyard at dawn or at the 11th hour.  Your reward, your eternal life in Christ is not in doubt.  The denarius is yours through faith, simply by trusting Him.  So now what?  Now you are truly free to do the work God has given you to do from the heart, out of love for Him and love for your neighbor, without any thought of what’s in it for you.  All the tainted motives you might have are taken away in Christ.  Fear of what might happen to you, self-serving goals no longer have a role to play since Jesus has already given Himself to you with every blessing.  You are set at liberty to do good, not because you have to in order to win God’s favor, but precisely because you already have God’s favor in Christ, and because your neighbor needs you.  In a sense you actually are free to do as you please.  Because what pleases the heart of faith is not to go back to the same old shallow, empty, self-serving ways, but to live in Christ, loving and trusting in God and serving others.  That’s why it is written that without faith in Christ, it is impossible to please God.  Only in Jesus are you truly free to do good.

    When we forget that, that’s when we’ll start to grumble.  You only complain when you think God owes you, that you deserve better based on what you’ve done.  “I’ve worked harder than that other guy; I’ve done more for the church.  So I deserve better than him.”  “It’s not fair that God is letting me go through this hardship.  I’ve lived a good life and been a good person.”  You can only talk and think that way when you believe it’s your works that run the show with God.  And when your works run the show, then it’s all about you, not Jesus.

    The laborers in the vineyard wanted the landowner to be fair.  But in fact He was more than fair.  A denarius is a good and proper wage for a full day’s work.  That’s exactly what they received.  The landowner wasn’t being miserly; he didn’t stiff them.  It’s just that the landowner was extremely generous to the others.  He treated even the ones hired at the 11th hour as if they had worked all day.  The landowner wasn’t unfair but gracious.  Besides, he had the right to do whatever he wished with His own things.

    Beware of applying standards of fairness to God.  Beware, because generally the fairness argument is just a mask for promoting your own interests.  That’s why we love to grouse about the rich and income inequality.  “They don’t deserve it, and we deserve more for all our hard work; it’s not fair.”  But God doesn’t want to deal with us that way, on the basis of what we deserve, as if we had a contractual arrangement with Him, a business deal, a pre-nuptial agreement.  He wants our relationship to be one of real love, freely given, no strings attached.  As soon as it’s about what we think God owes us, then we’re not seeking to love Him but to use Him.

    We should beware of wanting God to be fair with us, anyway, as I’ve often told you before.  For then we’d be in grave danger.  If you want fair wages, then here’s what the Scriptures say, “The wages of sin is death.”  Those who end up in hell are really in the end only getting what they asked for, namely, the just and fair payment for their faithless works.  “Go your way,” the landowner said.  Have it your way.  Hell is filled with grumbling and complaining against God.  You might think that hell would mostly be about regret.  But regret quickly shifts to anger and blame, especially toward God.  The damned actually believe that God is wrong, that He’s being unfair.  This worsening bitterness and teeth-gritting frustration is part of their unending torment.

    Repent, then, of dealing with God as if He were against you, as if He needed to be negotiated with and badgered into loving you.  Turn away from your anger with Him.  Trust that He is good, that He is merciful and abounding in steadfast love.  He is blessedly unfair with you, pouring out on you the fullness of His generosity in Christ.  He does love you.  He will provide you with all that you need.  After all, if the Father has given you His own Son, will He not also graciously give you all that is good and necessary and right for you?  Remember that the laborers who were hired later in the day went to work without being told what they would be paid, just trusting in the goodness of the landowner.  So you also, even though you can’t see what the future holds, even if life doesn’t seem to be fair–trust in the goodness of your heavenly Father; stake your life on His grace in Jesus.  Know that He will give far more than you could ever dream of.

    Just like 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 perfectly on your behalf in His perfect life and death and resurrection.  He Himself is the true Laborer in the vineyard.  He 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.  Then our Lord 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 at the eleventh hour 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.

    “The Lord will save the humble people, but will bring down proud and haughty looks.”  And so we are not jealous of the newcomer in the vineyard of the church or of the one converted in his dying days, but we rejoice that the same mercy that saved us has also saved another.  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, “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.  For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them (Ephesians 2:8-10).”  

    Let us, then, be truly full of good works by trusting in the grace of Christ alone to save us.  Or as St. Paul puts it, let us run in such a way as to obtain the prize of life with Christ, which He Himself has won for us.  Let us run with the certainty of faith, setting our hearts on Him, disciplining our bodies and minds, more than even a dedicated Olympic athlete, 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 to you; 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 ✠

Jesus, the Greater Jonah

Mark 4:35-41; Jonah 1:1-17
Epiphany 4

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

    Jonah was called by God to go and preach to the city of Nineveh, to cry out against it because of its wickedness.  But Jonah wanted nothing to do with that.  He found a ship going in the opposite direction and got on it.  Nineveh was to the east.  Tarshish, which is probably the southern part of modern-day Spain, was to the west.  Jonah tried to run from God, to avoid God’s will, to flee from the presence of the Lord.  

    We are not unlike Jonah–in two ways.  First of all, we see the wickedness of the world around us, and we know that we should say something and speak up about it where we are called to in the vocations God has given us.  But that’s a risk we prefer to avoid.  It could affect relationships with family or friends.  There could be financial and job consequences.  Best just to keep our mouths shut, we think, keep our heads down and go with the flow, even though we know deep down that “the flow” is eventually going right over the edge of a cliff.null

    And second of all, we’re like Jonah because just as a general rule, by nature we want to go our own way rather than God’s way.  Our old Adam runs from the presence of the Lord.  Now your running may not be so obvious as Jonah’s.  It’s usually more subtle.  You may not be leaving for a far away place.  You may not be staying away from church–although when you do skip church or don’t go to Bible class, a big part of it is to avoid having to face God and His Word in favor of something of your own choosing, right?  The truth is that we want religion that doesn’t require too much of us, one where we can keep God at a manageable distance and stay one step ahead of him and still be pretty much in charge of our own life.  And when God gets too close, when His Word calls for us to go in a direction we don’t want to go, when it involves changes in our life and the forsaking of our favorite idols, that is when we run.  Whatever it is that you do to avoid your responsibilities, wherever it is that you go to hide out and escape from the stations of life into which God has placed you, whenever you engage in excuse-making for your failure to follow His words and heed His calling, that is when you are being just like Jonah here, stowing away in the belly of some ship.

    Of course, you can’t run from the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.  Jonah’s rebellion against the Lord caused a great storm to rage against the ship he was on.  Nothing that the crew tried could save the ship from certain destruction.  The only thing that finally kept the ship from breaking up was the sacrificing of Jonah.  He was thrown overboard, and the sea stopped its raging.  So it is with us.  Our sin causes God’s wrath to rage against us.  There is nothing we can do to save ourselves.  The judgment of the Law is that our eternal death is required.  Only then will the raging cease.

    But then comes the Gospel in which we learn of a new Jonah, one who takes our place under judgment and who saves us from its surging storm.  For here is Jesus in the very same circumstance as Jonah, in the midst of a tempest on the sea.  Just as Jonah was sleeping in the ship, so also here Jesus is sound asleep in the boat despite the commotion of the wind and the waves.  Our Lord was weary and worn out from the day’s work and teaching.  He took on our very flesh and blood and subjected Himself to all of the exhausting effects of sin on our behalf.  

    Jonah’s shipmates awakened him and asked him to call on his God, that they might not perish.  So also the disciples woke Jesus with the prayerful plea, “Lord, save us!  We are perishing!”  Jonah’s shipmates cast lots to see for whose cause this trouble had come; and the lot fell on Jonah.  In the same way, the Lord Jesus took our place under the Law.  Though the storm of judgment was brought on by our own doing, Jesus allowed the lot to fall on Him, that He might receive the punishment in our place.  In other words, Christ became as if He were the sinner fleeing from God.  He became Jonah for us, in order that we might be forgiven and brought back to the heavenly Father and restored to fellowship with Him.  

    Jonah was cast overboard, and the storm stopped.  Jesus was cast over to death not on the sea but on the cross.  In view of that impending sacrifice, and with His authority as the Almighty Son of God, Jesus rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.  Christ is not only true man but also true God.  He is the One through whom all things were created.  By His Word the wind and the waves were called into being in the beginning; and by His Word these fallen elements of creation are subdued and tamed.  “Quiet, be still!”  And there was perfect peace on the water.

    Jonah was three days in the belly of the great fish before being vomited onto dry land.  So also our Lord Jesus was three days in the belly of the grave.  Having paid for our sins by the shedding of His blood, Jesus then came forth from the depths of death victorious over the grave, bringing His resurrection life to all who believe in Him.  By the holy cross, the storm of God’s judgment has subsided for you.  Through Jesus there is a great calm, the full forgiveness of your sins.  “Be still and know that I am God.”  In the risen Christ you now have perfect peace and reconciliation with the Father.  

    And that perfect peace is yours in the water.  For it is through holy baptism that you are placed into Christ.  It is by water and the Word that Christ became your refuge, like the great fish was for Jonah.  Most of you know that the fish has long been a  symbol in the church for Jesus–you see it in a couple place in this building.  The Greek word for fish is IXTHUS.  And those letters form an acronym in Greek for the phrase, “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.”  So it is that Jesus is our great fish.  He saves us from the watery depths of death by taking us into Himself, protecting us in His body, joining us to His death.  And then He sets us forth on the shores of new and eternal life, joining us also to His resurrection.  

    It is written in Romans 6, “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”  The old, fleeing Jonah was buried in the water, and a new Jonah came forth whose first destination was Nineveh.  So also the rebellious fallen nature in us was buried at the font, and we came forth from the water as new people with a new direction, ones who share in and who are given to live the very life of Christ Himself.  In fact that is the substance of the Christian life–to drown the sinful nature through repentance, so that the new man, Christ, may daily emerge and arise in us to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

    As we await the day when our old nature will be put off from us forever, there will be times when our faith will be tested.  There will be times when it seems as if the storm of judgment still threatens to do us in.  Sicknesses and pains in our body, sorrows in our hearts, troubles in our family, strained relationships, financial problems all can make us feel as if we’re going to go under and never come up again.  And as this tempest rages around us, it might seem as if our Lord is sleeping, as if He’s paying no attention to us and doesn’t even care.  “Why don’t you do something, God?  Don’t just sit there.  The ship’s about to go down!  Help me, if you care!”  That’s the temptation we face: to doubt God’s goodness toward us in Christ, to fear the things that are going on around us and inside of us rather than revering and trusting in God above all things.  

    Jesus said to His disciples, “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?”  At least they had little faith and called on His name in their time of need, “Lord, save us!”  If their faith had been greater they would have recognized that the only way they could go down was if Jesus would go down, if the wind and the waves would prove stronger than He who created them.  Jesus was unthreatened by the storm, sleeping soundly, trusting in His Father’s care.  In fact, there was probably no place safer in all of Israel that night than right there on that boat.  For Jesus was on that boat, He who is Creation’s Master, He who is the refuge and the fortress of His people.  

    Remember that when it seems as if the wind and the waves in your life are going to overwhelm you.  Remember who their Master is.  Remember these words of faith from Romans 8, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future nor any powers, neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”  

    You’re in the same boat with Jesus.  He has received you into the ship of the church.  The only way that you can go down is if He goes down.  And the fact is that He has conquered the storm and every threatening evil by the power of His cross and resurrection.  You are safely sheltered in His holy wounds.  His risen presence surrounds you as an impenetrable stronghold, so that not even death can snatch you out of His hands.  Therefore, cast all your cares on Him, for He cares for you.  Our Lord Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, ruling over all things for the sake of the Church.  He has promised to work all things together for the good of those who love Him, for you who are the called according to His purpose.  He has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”  He has given you the Sacrament of His body and blood to strengthen you in that confidence, that you might be certain that He truly is with you, that He forgives you, that He loves you.  

    Believe that truth; trust in His Word.  For though this fallen creation may groan all around you, though you may groan inwardly under the power of the curse, yet the Word of Jesus overcomes the wind and the waves and brings calm to your heart.  We are those who live with a sure hope in Christ and a sure destiny in our voyage.  We eagerly await the redemption of our body, the resurrection to come on the Last Day.  And so we boldly confess with St. Paul, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”

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

You Can Make Me Clean

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✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
 You may have noticed that the word “clean” comes up a number of times in today’s Scripture readings.  And it’s a word that also shows up in a number of ways in our contemporary culture, too.  You hear, for instance, about the concept of “clean eating,” avoiding overly processed foods, eating organic, pesticide-free, non-GMO.  Eating in this way is intended to make you more clean and healthy.  Or, there are several shows on Netflix and cable that are about cleaning and tidying up your life.  Being disorganized and cluttered gives a sense of uncleanness, and so methods are given (that are sometimes almost spiritual in nature) to put your life in order and make things clean and right again.  Or when it comes to exercise, you’ll commonly hear references to the technique of taking a “cleansing breath.”  As you breathe in and then exhale out your anxiety and stress and negativity, this technique is supposed to help cleanse you in body and in soul.
 Whether people are overtly religious or not, we all have this inherent sense that there is something unclean about us and that we need to be purified.  And so our eating and our exercising and our tidying and our doing of good works and our positive thinking is often an attempt to address that, to cleanse ourselves.  But if we’re honest, we can never completely shake the sense that things still aren’t quite how they should be with us, that what the confession says is true, “we are by nature sinful and unclean.”  We are all in the position of the leper in today’s Gospel reading, who comes before Jesus with the prayer, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”null
 Now usually we think of our need for cleansing from God only in spiritual terms.  But what our Lord gives involves the body, too.  We see that fact with both Namaan in the Old Testament and the leper in the Gospel.  Their being made clean involved their whole being, flesh and spirit.  To be sure, uncleanness is first of all a spiritual matter.  The Bible sometimes calls demons unclean spirits who seek to defile us as well.  Sin and the allurements of the world are described in Scripture as pollutions–you take part in them and you’re left feeling tainted and infected and corrupted.  And then there are also the sins that have been perpetrated on you, against your will, that leave you feeling contaminated.  Verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse can leave a person feeling desecrated and soiled.  We need cleansing from Jesus not only for the sins we’ve committed, but also for those that have been committed against us. 
 But again let’s not lose sight of the fact that the cleansing Jesus gave was also a fleshly cleansing and healing and restoration.  We need our whole selves to be cleansed, soul and body.  This quickly becomes apparent when we’re dealing with physical sicknesses and diseases; the body isn’t naturally sanitary and hygienic.  Doctors and nurses are dealing with wounds that ooze, limbs that swell with fluids, cancer that eats away at healthy tissue, mucous and phlegm that congest, bowels that malfunction.  It’s no wonder that medical personnel are constantly using the hand sanitizer.  They know better than most that what they’re dealing with is uncleanness, viruses and bacteria and disorders that require very tangible, fleshly help to bring about some sense of cleanness and order back to the body.  A hospital patient’s comments about their messed-up hair or lack of make-up or decent clothing are often a commentary on this deeper feeling. “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
 What an excellent prayer that is which the leper prays!  He doesn’t presume to tell Jesus what to do but comes before Him humbly.  However, He also expresses full confidence and faith in Jesus, that He surely has the power to help Him if He wants to.  And then what an excellent response our Lord gives to him!  Jesus says, “I do want to."  "I am willing; be cleansed.” (8:3)  Here the Lord’s heart is opened to the leper and to us all, and we see His great desire to make us clean in both soul and body.  This is the very reason why the Son of God was made man, to purify you from all that ails your flesh and spirit.  For notice what Jesus does here.  It says that He put His hand on the leper and touched him.  That’s the last thing you would normally want to do with someone who has a contagious disease, not at least without getting gloved and masked up.  But Jesus makes direct contact with this man in his uncleanness, because, as it is written later in this same chapter, “He Himself took our sicknesses and bore our infirmities” (8:17).  This is your Savior, the One who took into His own flesh all that attacks your flesh.  He knows, He has felt your sickness in the deepest way possible.  In His scourging and on the cross, His body was opened up and laid bare to every pathogen that threatens our life.  He died a bloody, infected, unclean mess.  However, by that very death, He conquered all your sickness and your disease and the grave itself.  For in the body of God made flesh, all corruptions of the flesh met their match and their end.  It is written in Psalm 16 that Jesus’ body did not see decay or corruption in the grave.  By the wounds of Christ you are healed and cleansed.  The One crucified and now risen in the flesh is your cure.
 Believing that doesn’t come naturally to us.  The ways of God often seem insufficient or foolish or strange to our minds.  That’s certainly how it was with Naaman in the Old Testament reading.   Naaman thought He knew the way that God and His prophets should behave.  Naaman was an army man, and so He assumed God would act according to his power thinking.  He traveled all the way from Syria to Israel because he heard that there was a man there who might be able to cure him of his leprosy.  But after making this lengthy trip, things did not go according to his plan.  Elisha, the man of God, didn’t even come out to greet Naaman.  Instead he sent out his servant.  Naaman wouldn’t even be able to meet the prophet whom he had come to see.  He had all this silver and gold and clothing which he thought he could use to secure Elisha’s blessing, but the prophet would have none of it.
 All Naaman got from Elisha was words, words through his servant telling him to go and take seven baths in the Jordan river.  At that, Naaman lost his temper.  “You mean I came all this way and that’s it?!  I thought the prophet would come out and wave his hands around and call on his God and do something spiritual and heal my leprosy.  All I get is a command to bathe?  I could’ve done that at home, and in much clearer water than this measly river.  That’s it, I’m leaving.”
 We too can be tempted to be like Naaman, especially in those times when God isn’t meeting our expectations, when He doesn’t seem to be coming through for us.  “I’ve come all this way, Lord, seeking health and happiness and a successful life in this world.  I’ve tried to jump through all the right hoops, but I am still weighed down with all sorts of problems and troubles.  And all you’re giving me is words and Scriptures from your servant?  Give me some spiritual advice and techniques and power that will work for me right now.  If not, I’ve had enough.  I’m going home.”
 Fortunately for Naaman, he had wise servants.  They said to him, “If the prophet had told you to do some great and difficult thing, you would have done it.  Why not, then, trust in this little thing and do it?”  We’re always more inclined to think that great religious deeds are what really make us holy and bring us closer to God and obtain His blessing.  But the key factor is whether or not God’s creative and healing Word is present, even connected to simple water.
 Naaman did according to the word of God spoken by Elijah, and when he came up out of the water the 7th time, his leprous skin had been healed and cleansed completely, like that of a little child.  You might say that Naaman was born again, freed from his disease to live a new life.  Having washed once for each of the 7 days of creation, Naaman came out of the water a new creation, a new person, through the hidden power of the words connected with the Jordan water.
 That’s how it is also for us.  God heals and cleanses and recreates us not through impressive visible power, but through simple words and promises connected to the baptismal water.  This is what we heard last week in Ephesians 5, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.”  It is written in John 3, “Unless one is born (again) of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”  We must turn and become as a little child, Jesus said, (like young Korben today), utterly dependent, forsaking our adult merits and wisdom, completely on the receiving end of God’s gracious giving.  Laying aside any claim to our own worthiness, we stake everything on Christ and His holy Word.  For wherever the Word is, there God is present to cleanse and save.  And the Word is in the water!  Remember that Jesus Himself later entered into these same Jordan waters.  There He was baptized into our sin and death so that through our baptism into Him we might receive His mercy and His life.
 So here’s the point for you to take to heart today: Our Lord has said also to you what He said to the leper, “I am willing; be cleansed.”  At the holy font, He gave you the sure hope that your lowly body will be transformed to be like His glorious body (Philippians 3:21).  In divine service He continues to speak those words in the absolution, words of forgiveness which are life to you and health to all your flesh (Proverbs 4:22).  And here at the altar, you receive the blood of Jesus which cleanses you from all sin (1 John 1:7).  Here for you is the medicine of immortality and the guarantee of health and wholeness that will be yours in the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. 
 Jesus can make you clean.  He is willing.  Be cleansed.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

To Fulfill All Righteousness

Matthew 3:13-17
The Baptism of our Lord

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

    We know that Jesus grew up like any other faithful Jewish boy, going to the synagogue weekly, and to the temple for the various feasts.  And so praying and singing the psalms would have been a regular part of His life, all the way to the end even as He prayed from the Psalms on the cross.  But that raises an interesting question: Would Jesus also have also prayed the penitential psalms, those Psalms that ask for God’s mercy and forgiveness?  For instance, could the sinless Son of God pray Psalm 51, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your unfailing love; according to the multitude of Your tender mercies, blot out My transgressions”?  It’s pretty easy for us to picture Jesus praying parts of Psalm 69 to His Father like this, “Those who hate me without a cause are more than the hairs of my head. . . Because for Your sake I have borne reproach . . . Zeal for Your house has consumed me.”  The New Testament even says that those words apply to Jesus.  But what about verse five of that same Psalm, “O God, You know my foolishness; and my sins are not hidden from You”?

    It would be easy to think that Jesus could not possibly have prayed those words.  But I would suggest to you today that one of the things the baptism of our Lord teaches us is that Jesus must have prayed those psalms in their entirety–not because He had any sins of His own to confess, but because He bears our sins in His flesh and makes them His responsibility and confesses them as if He were guilty of every single one of them.null

    It was a strange sight for John the Baptizer, to see the Messiah, the One he had been preparing the way for, stepping down into the water to be baptized.  The people were coming out to John in response to his preaching of repentance confessing their sins.  John’s baptism was a baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  And yet here is Jesus with His feet in the murky Jordan waters asking John to baptize Him.  You can understand why at first John tried to prevent Him and didn’t want to do it.

    We probably would have done just as John did.  For the truth is, we don’t necessarily want Jesus getting down into the mess and the muck of our everyday life in this world.  Better to keep Him at a distance all shiny and clean; better to keep Him here at church unstained by our lives out in the “real” world.  We, too, try to prevent Him, keep Him away from the coarseness of our workplace or the imperfections of our home life.  It bothers us and unsettles us a bit when Jesus gets down into the nitty gritty of our existence.  For then there’s no more hiding the way things are with us.  Jesus’ entry into the water means things are going to be stirred up and changed, everything out in the open.  And that means repentance for us; that’s never easy.

    But it is good.  For Jesus enters the water to take our place.  Jesus said to John, “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  In doing this Jesus was fulfilling the Father’s righteous plan to save sinners by trading places with us–the holy for the unholy.  Jesus receives this baptism for sinners in order that He might become the Sinner, the only sinner.  Like a great sponge He absorbs the whole’s world’s sin into Himself, and counts Himself guilty of it all, so that we would be counted righteous in God’s sight.  It is written in 2 Corinthians, “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”  Jesus takes our curse of death so that through Him we might have the blessing of His divine life.  Here in the water is where it all starts.  Jesus begins His ministry here by accepting and taking this burden on Himself, as John would later say, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away, who carries away the sin of the world.”

    You might say that Jesus stole your sins from you; He took them away.  The only way they can damn you now is if you steal them back and insist on continuing in them and keeping them away from Jesus.  Either your sins are on Him or they’re on you.  And Jesus says today, “They’re all on me.  I took them.  Believe that; deal with it. You don’t get to hold on to them any more; you don’t get to keep beating yourself up over them.  I became your pride, your greed, your lust, your immorality, your jealousy, your impatience, your laziness and weakness.  And in turn you have become My righteousness, My holiness, My glory.  Today I begin My sacred journey toward Calvary, bearing and carrying the sin of the world, so that I may destroy it there by My death and the shedding of My blood.”  

    It’s interesting to note that after Jesus persuaded John to baptize Him, it says that John “allowed” Him or permitted Him.  It’s the same word that Jesus Himself later uses when He says, “Let the little children, permit, allow the little children to come to Me.”  That word in Greek is closely related to the word meaning to be forgiven, released, let go of our sins.  The point for us is this: Because Jesus was permitted to be baptized, there is now forgiveness and release for us in the water of baptism.  By the power of His Word and Spirit, all our sins washed away.  They have been taken up by Christ and carried to the cross where they were paid for and destroyed forever.  You are forgiven, pure and holy in Jesus’ name.

    Proof of what Jesus’ began to accomplish in His baptism is shown by the signs that appeared that day.  As soon as Jesus was baptized, the Gospel says behold–pay attention to this–the heavens were opened to Him.  That’s what Jesus accomplishes: He opens the heavens by His taking on and taking away the sin of the world.  Heaven was closed to us fallen creatures.  There was no entrance permitted for us by our own efforts or striving.  But now the heavens are opened to Him, the righteous One, and to all who are baptized into Him and who share in His righteousness by faith.

    Then it is written that “the Spirit of God descended like a dove and alighted upon Him.”  That imagery of the dove is important, particularly as it connects this event to Old Testament events involving water and new life.  In the very beginning we hear that the Holy Spirit was hovering, like a bird gliding over the face of the waters.  The Holy Spirit was there with His creative power to bring life to the world that was being made.  And then we hear of Noah sending out a dove from the ark, hovering over the waters, and then bringing back a freshly plucked olive branch, as a sign of the new creation that Noah and his family would enter after the flood.  The Holy Spirit coming in the form of a dove points to Christ as the bringer of the new creation.  It’s all there in Him.  Through our baptism into Christ we receive the same Holy Spirit which He was anointed with.  The Holy Spirit alights upon us to bring us new life, to make us new creatures, and to give us entrance into the new creation to come.

    Finally, it is written that a voice came from heaven, the Father’s voice declaring, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.”  God the Father was most pleased to see His Son obediently humbling Himself in love like this to save us, beginning His journey to the cross.  Because of what Jesus has done, all the baptized now hear this very same voice of our heavenly Father saying, “You are My beloved Child; in you I am well pleased.  I see no fault, no blemish in you–only my perfect and holy son or daughter.  You may feel like a bruised reed or a smoldering wick, worn down and at the breaking point.  But I will never cast you aside or forsake you; find your rest in My Son.  I have called you by name; you are Mine.  You belong with Me.  Nothing in all creation can separate you from My love.”  

    All three persons of the Trinity are present here at Jesus’ baptism.  That’s why you are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, so that you may receive all the mercy that is wrapped up in the Holy Trinity’s saving name.  Jesus has put Himself in the water for you.  And so your baptism is a cleansing, life-giving flood.  Jesus has put Himself in the water for you.  And so all your sins are taken away.  Jesus has put Himself in the water for you.  And so you have a place in the Father’s house forever.

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