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I Shall Lack Nothing

Psalm 23

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

“The Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want.” Or as we sang earlier, “I shall lack nothing.”  That sentence is something only those who walk by faith and not by sight can say.  For we certainly don’t always see it with our eyes, do we.  Our experience sometimes is that we do want, we do lack, we do suffer need; we do feel threats.  We want for answers to our health issues.  We need friendship and companionship.  We lack time or finances or resources.  We fear dangers to our safety or to the well-being of those we love in this fallen and chaotic world.  But still we boldly say, “The Lord is my Shepherd.  I shall not want.”  Because of Him, I shall lack nothing.

This is so because Christ, our Good Shepherd, lacked everything for us. Out of His goodness He was rejected already as an infant in Bethlehem and had to flee to Egypt.  Out of His mercy He had no place to lay His head in His ministry. Out of His love He was hungry in the wilderness, attacked and arrested and abused by the authorities, thirsty upon the cross, stripped of all his clothing and His dignity.  More than anyone else, Jesus lacked and wanted and did without.  He lacked an escape route or any relief or comfort in His suffering, forsaken by all.  The jaws of the wolf that came to seize and scatter the flock laid hold of Him.  His body and soul were torn apart from each other.  He laid down His life so that we poor sheep could escape and live.

Out of that divine goodness—His want, His lack—comes your abundance. His thirsting drenches you with living water, His hunger satisfies your longing soul, His death gives you life.  That is why right now, you lack nothing—even though you may still experience want.  This is your confession of faith.  This is what you believe and know to be ultimately true, regardless of your experience. In the face of evil (which is really just the lack of good), when what you see and experience is the absence of good, yet you know that you have everything that is good because you have Christ, the Good Shepherd, and more importantly, He has you.  “I know My sheep, and My sheep know Me.” 

This Psalm is a favorite to pray at funerals. How strange to the world and how wonderful before God it is to stand at the edge of the grave and say even there, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall lack nothing.”  “O death where is your victory?  O grave, where is your sting?” Our hearts and our eyes may sting, but not because of death’s power.  Death is defeated by our risen Lord, and one day our eyes will see it and our hearts will again rejoice.  We know and believe that victory over the grave is already a present reality in the living Jesus. 

We confess that we have no lack or want because, if God did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also freely give us all things?  He grants us our daily bread—food, drink, clothing, a place to lay our head—but not just the realities of our bodily needs, which can suffer lack for a time. No, we have the eternal, spiritual gifts that Christ provides for us in the Church which do not fail.  We are nourished with His body and blood. We drink in His Word.  We are clothed with His holiness. That is not just poetry or a metaphor. It is a confession of reality, a reality that supersedes our sight and experience. In Christ, even in our want, we want for nothing.

Our Good Shepherd makes us to lie down in the green pastures of His rich Gospel, where we find real rest and peace.  By the still waters of Holy Baptism, He who laid down His life for the sheep provides wholeness to us. He restores our souls.  Once, in those still waters, He named us as His own.  Even now, He makes those waters an abundant restoration as we return to them in repentance and faith.  They well up within us and define us.  As the baptized we belong to Jesus the Good Shepherd, the Protector and Provider who does not fail.  He has claimed us and put His name upon us.  Our souls are restored, and we are set again on the paths of righteousness.

Those paths sometimes wind through the valley of the shadow of death where we know lack and evil, and we want out.  But we must all pass through this valley. We cannot go under or over or around it.  No one gets out of the Church Militant alive.  No Christian can avoid the cross  forever, because no Christian is above his Master, the crucified One.  The sorrow may be terrible, and we should never belittle the sufferings and sorrows of others.  But thanks be to God, it is fleeting, temporary.  It doesn’t endure; it is only a shadow. 

As we walk through this valley of shadows, we can sometimes feel the darkness.  In our sheepish ways we know fear or sorrow or anger.  We feel death’s shadow even in our hearts and struggle to rejoice and trust in God.  Still, we must never forget that as terrible as it is, it really is only a shadow, fleeting and temporary.  It has no substance with which to do us any eternal harm. 

Your lives are not your own. They belong to Christ, and in Him, to one another. You do not walk through the valley of the shadow of death alone. You are together in the fellowship of the Church.  So look up and you will see the pillar of cloud, Christ going before you. Look around and you will see brothers and sisters. God has given you a family, where you belong, a congregation in which to sing and journey.  You will not remain in the shadowy valley.  The Pillar Himself leads you through the valley.  Death itself has become a passage to life in Him.  The angel has rolled away the stone, and the Light of the Resurrection is straight ahead.  Keep walking.

You could not make this journey through the valley if our Lord Himself had not made the way before you.  He walked through this valley and constructed a road for you to walk.  He knows you and precisely what you’re going through.  Baptized into Him, you do not suffer as those without hope, as though the valley has no end.  You have an Advocate who very literally knows your pain.  We walk together with saints and angels, following Christ the Pillar of cloud and fire. We walk in the sure hope of passing through this valley, of coming to the City not built with hands, to the place He has prepared for us, and to our people who have gone before us. 

Already now, we know and follow the voice of the Good Shepherd. We shall not want. Our souls are restoredHis rod and His staff, His Law and His Gospel, His cross and resurrection, they comfort us.  The goodness and mercy of the Good Shepherd follows us, pursues us, hounds us if He must, so that we stay on the paths of righteousness and make it to the blessed goal of His promise.  The Good Shepherd is there as we walk.  There is no sin He has not forgiven, no accusation He has not deflected, no hair He has not counted.  He goes before us, His goodness mercy follow us, His love surrounds us.  And so we are kept safe from every attack from every direction, even the ones that come from within. 

And while our joy is not yet full, it most certainly will be. It will be!  We can already taste it.  For the table is prepared before us right in the face of our defeated enemy.  And our joy will never end.  For Jesus lives and keeps on living to all eternity.  This is our sure faith.  The Lord is our Shepherd. We shall not want. We will dwell in the House of the Lord forever. 

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

(With thanks to David Petersen)

Thomas the Realist

John 20:19-31
Easter 1

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

    I have to admit that I can identify with Thomas.  He’s a little bit cynical.  He’s not going to be carried along by every conspiracy theory and fairy tale hope.  I’ve heard far too many superstitious stories, sometimes involving departed loved ones, to believe everything that people tell me, as if there isn’t likely a simpler and better explanation (like wishful thinking or coincidence).  Thomas is a realist.  He calls a thing what it is, and he knows that we don’t get to contrive the meaning of something for ourselves or create our own reality.  Thomas believes that if he observes real things in the real world, he can know something about them, that there is such a thing as objective truth and objective reality above us and outside of us, regardless of what we think or feel or wish in our pain.

    In that sense, Thomas would have a definite problem with where we’re going today as a culture.  For as a society we don’t believe that things have meaning and purpose established and given by God.  Rather, we assume that we get to define the meaning of things for ourselves, even to the point of defining our own “identity.”  Meaning and truth supposedly come from within us.  And any outside meaning given to us by our Creator is to be rejected if it doesn’t feel right for us.  How else can we look at someone whose every bodily cell is male and call him a woman?  How else can we look at a clearly designed and fine-tuned universe and say that it all came to be by chance random processes?  Or look at a same-sex couple and call them married?  Or look at an unborn baby and say that ending its life is “women’s health care” or “a courageous choice?”  Or, on a more personal and uncomfortable level, how can we look at one of God’s clear commands and say to ourselves that it doesn’t really apply to us in our own particular situation?

    No, Thomas knew that you don’t get to define your own reality.  Reality has a way of imposing itself on us.  And so when it came to the events of Holy Week, “These things did Thomas count as real:/ The warmth of blood, the chill of steel,/ the grain of wood, the heft of stone,/ the last frail twitch of flesh and bone.”  Thomas needed to use his bodily senses in order to believe.  And the fact of the matter is, so do I, and so do you!  For God created our bodies as well as our souls, our reason, and all our senses.  And so, it is not necessarily a bad thing that we desire real sensory things in order to believe.  After all, Scripture says that faith comes by the sense of hearing.

    The problem with Thomas is this: Even after he heard the testimony of trusted friends who had experienced real things (that could not have been communally hallucinated), things that Jesus Himself foretold, he still did not believe.  That is where Thomas the realist goes wrong, when he says, “Unless I see in His hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into His side, I will not believe.”  Now Thomas has shifted from being a realist to being a mere materialist who only counts visible, physical things as real.  He reduced everything down to the sense of sight (and touch).  Thomas had seen his Lord whipped and the cruel thorns driven into His holy head.  He had seen his blessed hands, feet, and side pierced with nails and spear.  He had seen His lifeless body taken down from the cross and placed into a tomb. The only thing that seemed real to him was that visible material reality of death.

    But Thomas really should have known better from his own experiences with Jesus.  For Thomas himself had witnessed Jesus raise the widow’s son from Nain, and Jairus’ daughter, and Lazarus from death.  He had seen the signs Jesus performed, confirming and fulfilling the prophecies of God’s Word.  Thomas had heard with his God-given ears and comprehended with his God-given reason.   Thomas had every reason to believe that Jesus really was risen and alive, just as He had said before His crucifixion, just as Thomas’ friends recounted to him. But still, “The vision of his skeptic mind /was keen enough to make him blind/ to any unexpected act/ too large for his small world of fact.”  In his sorrow, Thomas had become like a modern materialist.  “His reasoned certainties denied/ that one could live when one had died.”  So it is with much that passes as science today; it is a close-minded ideology, a “small world of fact,” a materialist, godless, and ultimately hopeless view of life.  

    However, our Lord is gracious and merciful. He comes to us in our fears and sorrows and weaknesses and misguided thinking to restore us and to free us from our little locked-up rooms.  Notice how both times when Jesus comes to His disciples, the first words out of His mouth are “Peace to you.”  On the first occasion without Thomas, the disciples were gathered in fear of what was going to happen to them at the hands of the authorities who had killed their Teacher.  They were feeling guilty for how they had behaved–fleeing when Jesus was arrested, even engaging in cowardly denial.  They didn’t know what to make of the women’s news of the empty tomb.  They were a sad, lost bunch.  But when the risen Lord appears to them in the flesh, His words bring them life and hope: Peace be with you.  It’s going to be OK.  I am not here to bring judgment on you, but mercy.  The blood that I shed on the cross has cleansed you of all your sin.  You are at peace with God the Father now, reconciled to Him through Me.  All is well.  Fear not.  Your future is safe with Me.  

    And that’s the message the Lord has for you this day.  We, too, are sometimes a sad, lost, and confused bunch–fearful, burdened by guilt, following wrongheaded ideas.  But Jesus has already entered our assembly today with His words of peace, saying, “I forgive you all your sins.”  For what did He say to His apostles, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  By breathing His Holy Spirit on these men, Jesus ordained them and all those who serve in the pastoral ministry after them to stand in His stead and speak His words.  And so the forgiveness I speak to you is not mine but Jesus’ Himself; it is just as valid and certain as Jesus speaking to the disciples that first Easter evening.  “Peace be with you.  I am alive in victory over sin and Satan and the grave for you, so that you may share in my victory.  My cross has purified you of your pollutions and your errors, and my resurrection has put you right with the Father as His beloved children.  Do not be afraid but rejoice; you’re going to be alright.  In Me you have a life that cannot be corrupted or destroyed.  I forgive you.  You are Mine.”

    And then on the second occasion, a week later Thomas was there.  He had avoided the assembly of believers the week before–didn’t seem practical or necessary–and so he missed out on the good stuff when Jesus was present for them with His peace.  That’s what happens when you skip church; it may very well be the week you especially needed to be there.  That’s why we should do what the disciples surely did and invite and encourage those who are absent in our assembly to come back and receive the gifts of Christ the next week.

    Jesus comes back to the disciples the next Sunday, on the 8th day, one day beyond the seven days of this creation.  For truly with His resurrection Jesus has ushered in an eternal 8th day, a new creation freed from the curse of sin and death in this old creation.  That’s how we should think of every Sunday and every divine service, as a participation in the 8th day of Christ, where He brings the life of the new creation into this old creation by means of His words and His supper.  

    In His glorified humanity, Jesus does not need the door to be unlocked for him to enter and be present.  The omnipresent risen Lord comes into the midst of the disciples, and He says 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.”  Then Thomas’ “fingers read like braille/ the markings of the spear and nail.”  By Jesus’ wounds we are healed and forgiven.  By Jesus’ wounds Thomas is brought back to faith.  He confesses the truth of who Jesus is, “My Lord and my God!”  If you think about it, Thomas’ confession of faith is just as great as Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  And both are given from above.  No longer doubting, Thomas confessed Jesus to be God Himself in the flesh. And then Jesus gently says to Thomas, “Because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  Thomas had everything he needed to believe, but, like we often do, he became enslaved by his desire for visible proof, and he forgot that God had also given him ears to hear the good news of His Word and believe.

    Jesus still shows us His wounds today, that our faith may be strengthened.  Our resurrected Lord invites you to behold His hands and His side in the Sacrament of the Altar so that you may share in His life.  You touch the nail marks in His hands.  For with His own hands, Christ gives you His true body, which is imprinted with the mark of the cross.  And you reach out our 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.  Do not be unbelieving but believing.  That’s why it is that the minister holds high the body and blood of Christ before Holy Communion and says, “The peace of the Lord be with you always.”  The words and the wounds of Jesus bring you that peace, real peace with God.  By your “Amen” you are confessing right along with Thomas, “My Lord and God!”  “May we, O God, by grace believe/ and thus the risen Christ receive,/ whose raw imprinted palms reached out/ and beckoned Thomas from his doubt.”

    So by all means, use your God-given senses to be a realist, to observe and study His creation and to discern its meaning and purpose.  Use your reason and all your senses to understand and believe and receive Christ who comes to you from outside of you.  And above all, learn the lesson of Thomas and use your ears. Blessed are you who have not seen, but who use your sense of hearing to listen to His Word, the Holy Scriptures.  For His Word is Truth.  Everything that you perceive with your senses finds its meaning in the words of God.  And the words of God are all about Jesus your Redeemer.  “These are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.”

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

(With thanks to Jon Ellingworth for some of these ideas)

There's No Going Back

John 20:1-18
The Resurrection of our Lord

    Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

    There’s one part of the Easter narrative in the Gospel of John that doesn’t seem to fit; it doesn’t quite end how we would expect.  Mary Magdalene had gone out very early on that Sunday morning to grieve at Jesus’ tomb.  Mary was one Jesus had cast seven demons out of.  She wanted to be where his body was, to remember the teacher who had called her out of darkness, and to struggle to comprehend how it could be that the darkness had overcome him.

    When she came upon the garden tomb, she discovered that its stone covering had been rolled back.  “Grave robbers!” she thought.  Bolting in terror that they might still be lurking about, she ran and awoke two of the disciples with the alarming news:  “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb!”  Perhaps they could still pick up the trail and find where the body had been taken.

    John outran Peter to the tomb, but Peter was the first to go in.  When Mary arrived, she could see them emerging from the tomb–Peter with a look of puzzlement, John wearing a curious slight smile.  But rather than starting to search the garden, they simply walked away, saying nothing to her.  Now what?  They had abandoned Jesus when He was arrested; why should she expect them to risk their necks to track down His corpse now?  Alone and powerless, deprived even of the chance to mourn properly, angry at the useless disciples, she broke down and cried.

    Before going home she decided to take a final look into the tomb.  Through teary eyes she could hardly believe what she saw:  two angels seated where Jesus' body had been.  They asked her why she was crying, and she told them the reason, all the while wondering if she was dreaming, or if, under the stress of the moment, her mind was just playing tricks on her.

    Then in the changing light, she turned around and saw a man.  “The gardener!” she thought.  He began to ask her questions, “Woman, why are you weeping?  Whom are you looking for?” Perhaps he knew something.  In grief and hope she blurted out, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will get Him.”  But He answered, to her astonishment, only by speaking her name.  “Mary.”  Her eyes flashed with sudden recognition.  The sheep hear the Shepherd’s voice, and He calls them each by name.  She answered, now with tears of joy, “My Teacher!”  Jesus was alive!

    Now here’s the strange part.  How is this account to end?  You would expect an embrace and smiles and laughter as they walk off together–a sort of happily-ever-after finish.  Instead, Jesus says quite abruptly, “Do not cling to me.”  Even Mary, the first witness of the Risen Lord, is denied the satisfaction of being able to keep holding on to Him.  And here’s why:

    Things are not the same now.  This is not just a going back to the good old days before the horrors of Good Friday.  Easter is not a cancelling of the reality of the crucifixion, as though Jesus had just turned back time.  Jesus’ apparent snub of Mary indicates that there is no going back.  Everything has been changed.  Time has actually been turned forward.  Through His death and resurrection, Jesus is bringing about something altogether better and new, for Mary and for all people.  

    Too often we have our hearts set on the good old days, when we felt better, when the world seemed to make more sense and wasn't so crazy, the days of our favorite memories and experiences.  Sometimes we’re tempted to conceive of heaven that way, too–a place where we get to engage in our favorite hobbies all the time, where we’re fishing and sharing a beer with family and friends again.  But those things, as good they might be, are just shadows of the way it will really be.  It’s not even that we’re going back to something like the Garden of Eden.  No, we’re going forward to a new creation because of Easter.  In Jesus, the old has gone, the new has come.

    So hear the message clearly: Easter is not the undoing of Good Friday; it is the victory of Good Friday.  It’s not as if the bad guys were winning when Jesus died, but now He gets the last laugh.  This is a vindication here, but the Resurrection reveals that even already on the cross, when Jesus cried out, “It is finished” and breathed His last, He had won.  The world was redeemed.  Salvation was accomplished.  Satan was routed.  Death was undone.  Today, we get to see that triumph manifested in glory and celebrate it.

    What was it that led the procession today?  The cross of Jesus.  What was it that was held high while the Easter Gospel was read?  The cross of Jesus.  What is it that is the center and focus of your attention over the altar?  The crucified body of Jesus.  What’s up with that?  Shouldn’t we leave the cross behind now?  After all, Jesus is alive!

    Fellow believers, if you remember anything from this morning, remember this: Easter is the victory of the cross, not the undoing of it.  We dare never say to ourselves, “Whew, I’m glad that we can move past all that suffering and death stuff of Lent.  What a downer!  Time for something a little more upbeat.”  Such thinking totally misses the point of Easter.  Just as the crosses now have their black veils removed, Easter unveils the meaning of the cross.  Jesus’ resurrection shows us why Good Friday really is good.  It reveals that Jesus really did pay for the sins of the world.  For the wages of sin is death, but Jesus is alive; and so the wages are paid.  Sin is no more; the gift of the cross is life forevermore!  Jesus’ resurrection means that His cross really did crush the power of the grave. Jesus really is the Son of God.  His words and promises are true.  Death and the devil have no claim over you any more.  You are forgiven; you are free. You are alive in Christ eternally.  Easter shows you that it’s all for real.

    The resurrection demonstrates to all the world that when the jaws of death laid hold of Christ, He ripped those jaws apart and broke them in pieces.  When the grave swallowed Jesus up, He was its poison pill.  When Satan bruised Jesus’ heel, Jesus in turn crushed the devil’s vile head.  Calvary was not an unfortunate setback on the way to victory; it is the victory.  The cross is our sign of triumph.

    The one who rose triumphant on Easter remains the crucified One.  That’s why it is written that we preach Christ crucified.  He reveals Himself to the twelve by showing them His wounds; His hands and side are marked by scars.  It is the Lamb who was slain who has begun His reign.  It’s not as if Jesus just hit the rewind button on Easter and went back to the time before His suffering.  No, Jesus’ suffering and death moves us forward to something altogether new and better.  It is the only way through to the new creation.

    So hear the Easter Gospel clearly: The way to heaven and to resurrection life is not by going backwards to some earlier time or through some therapeutic restoration of your youth; it’s by going forward through the cross of Jesus.  That’s the only way to get to Easter.  Only by dying with Jesus will you be raised to everlasting life.  Only by crucifying your flesh with its sinful passions and desires will you know real life and joy in Christ.  The way of Good Friday and Easter is the way of repentance and faith.

    That way was begun for you in your baptism.  “Do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?”  In one sense you’ve already died.  The worst part of death is over for you in Jesus.  In Baptism was begun a life of drowning your old sinful nature, so that the new life of Christ might emerge and arise in you to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.  “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.”  Like Peter and John, we too must enter the tomb of Jesus and come out new, changed.  That is the baptismal pattern given to us: burial and resurrection, dying to ourselves, rising in Christ to love others; repenting and believing.

    Finally, our baptism will come to its fulfillment in our literal, physical dying and rising in Christ.  For it is written, “if we have been united with Him like this in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection.”   Jesus died; and so will we.  But Jesus conquered death and rose to life immortal; and so will we in Him.  We will share in His glory with new bodies that are no longer subject to the sickness and pain and deterioration and death that we now endure.  Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.  He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies.  And whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.”  Jesus is our head; and we who believe and are baptized are members of His body.  Where the head goes, the body will follow.  Jesus rises on Easter; you and I will surely follow on the Last Day.  In the resurrection of Christ as the crucified One, we see that our suffering too will have its end in life with God.

    That is your great comfort and joy this day.  The crucified One lives.  And He says to you, “Behold, I make all things new!”  He took your death to be His death, so that His life would be your life.  You will shine with the brightness of His righteousness in your own resurrected bodies because He passed through the valley of the shadow of death with you.  The Church is never about going back to the “good old days,” as Mary Magdalene learned, but going forward to the new day, the eternal and unending day of life with Christ in the new creation.  

    Mary could not hold on to Christ in the old way.  But in this age of the resurrection, the Church throughout the world is given to hold on to Jesus in a new way, in the Sacrament of the Altar.  Here especially, Good Friday and Easter come together as one for us.  It is the body and blood of Christ that was sacrificed on the cross that we receive.  And yet it is the living, risen body and blood of Jesus that is now given into our mouths and into our bodies, the sure guarantee of our own bodily victory over death.  The risen Jesus is among us still, giving us forgiveness and new life.

    God grant you faith to see the way Mary’s eyes were opened to see, and to seek the risen Lord here in His words and His supper each and every week–why would you want to miss it!?  Why should the church not be just as full next week?  For the day is fast approaching when your faith will be turned to literal, glorious sight, when you will behold Jesus returning in resurrected majesty and worship in His presence forever.

    Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Dr. Rick Stuckwisch for a sermon of his on how Easter is the victory of the cross, as well as a Christian Century article on Mary Magdalene and the resurrection for which I can no longer find the reference)

Four Meditations on the St. John Passion

John 18:1-27

    The contrast between Peter and Jesus couldn’t be more stark.  Peter had talked big about his faithfulness and devotion to Jesus.  He had flailed around with his sword in the garden, as if he were Jesus’ personal bodyguard.  But now he is suddenly a coward.  Now that Jesus is captured, he is fearful even of a little servant girl suggesting that he is Jesus’ disciple.  Peter is afraid of what might happen to him.  He is afraid to suffer.
    And so are we.  We’re in love with the idea of faithfulness. We look up to the martyrs of the church and believe that we too would rather die than deny Jesus.  But we deny Him in so many little ways, when we fail to speak or act, even with family and friends, because that might associate us with Jesus in a negative light.  We’re afraid of what might happen to our reputation or our income or our life if we’re stereotyped as one of “those” Christians.  We don’t want to suffer for the name of Jesus.  
    But Jesus is most willing to suffer for us.  He doesn’t hide from those who come to arrest him.  Rather, Jesus goes forth boldly to meet His captors, fully prepared to drink the cup of judgment given Him by His Father.  Jesus is not like Adam, who hid among the trees in fear.  In this garden Jesus meets his enemies head on, so that we who are the children of Adam may go free.  For this man Jesus is the great I AM, the eternal God revealed in the burning bush to Moses.  His name causes His enemies to draw back and fall to the ground.  For all who do not call on His name in faith will fall to their own destruction.
    Peter would later not deny but confess the name of Jesus boldly on Pentecost with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  In the end Peter would die courageously for the name of Christ.  God grant us His Holy Spirit that we too may confess the name of Jesus with full confidence in Him.  Take to heart Jesus’ words, “Be faithful even unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

John 18:28-40

    The Jewish leaders do not want to enter Pilate’s Praetorium, especially during this time of the Passover, lest they be defiled by being in a Gentile building.  But they are already defiled within by their sinful motives and desires.  So also, we are all too often concerned about outward righteousness and appearances, when the Lord looks at the heart and desires the inward righteousness of faith.  To be undefiled is to confess your sins for what they are and to trust in Him who is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  
    Jesus stands before Pilate.  Pilate received His authority from God.  And now God in the flesh humbles Himself to be placed under this authority.  The Judge of all men is being judged by a man.  Judgment should be based on truth, but the only thing Pilate can say is “What is truth?”  All fallen human beings are liars, the Psalm says.  But Jesus is Himself the truth.  He is reality.  He is the way things are, the truth of God’s mercy shown to those who have not deserved it.
    Pilate finds Jesus innocent, no fault in Him at all.  But the crowds don’t want Jesus, they want Barabbas.  The violent robber goes free that Jesus might rob us of our sin by being violently executed.  The one who took life lives; the One who gives life dies.  This is God’s good and gracious will, that Christ should die in the place of sinners.  Jesus goes to death in our place, so that we might live forever in His place, in His kingdom, which is not of this world.  Pilate’s plan to release Jesus fails.  The Passover Lamb will be sacrificed by the Father to take away the sin of the world.

John 19:1-22

    People will sometimes blame their failings on the fact that “they’re only human.”  However, the problem since the fall of Adam is not that we are human but that we are less than human.  Our sin has dehumanized us, turning us in on ourselves rather than outward in love toward God and others.  Beastly thoughts and words and actions often proceed from us.  Survival instincts dominate. So it is written, “Man is like the beasts that perish” (Psalm 49:12).  
    And we don’t like anyone drawing this to our attention, either.  Better if they can be ignored or shut up.  This is the behavior of those who are less than men.  It is the behavior of the chief priests and the officers when they see Jesus.  He is a threat to their territory and domain.  And so they growl  for His crucifixion.  
    But before they can cry out their desires, Pontius Pilate speaks words that were more true than he realized.  He presents a bloodied and beaten Jesus and says, “Behold the Man!”  Here is the One who is truly and fully human, who is not degraded and corrupted by His own sin.  Here is the only real Man, who lays down His life for fallen creatures like you to raise you up as the people of God, His own beloved bride, His Church.  He willingly allows Himself to be treated inhumanely to rescue you, to restore your humanity, to give you to share in His life and His glory.  By His wounds you are healed and forgiven.
    Behold the One who wears thorns on His head as a crown, to redeem you from the curse on the ground which you were created out of.  Behold the Ram whose horns are caught in the thorny thicket of sin, who is offered up in the place of you Isaacs as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Behold the woman’s Seed who is crucified at Golgotha, the place of a Skull, whose cross is driven like Jael’s tent peg into the skull, whose pierced feet crush Satan’s head and defeat the power of death. 
    This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.  The chief priests don’t like this inscription that Pilate placed over Jesus’ head and ask him to change it.  But the earthly authority whom God has established proclaims the truth.  “What I have written, I have written.”  Jesus truly is the King of the Jews, that is, the King of all those who are the true children of Abraham.  He reigns in mercy over His baptized ones, over all you who believe in His promises, and who are credited with His righteousness by grace alone.

John 19:23-42

    It is Friday, the sixth day of the week.  It is the day not only of man’s creation in the beginning, but now also of His redemption and re-creation.  For here is the new Adam who is put into the deep sleep of death, that the new Eve might be created from His side.  The sacramental water and blood that flow from His pierced heart are most certainly what gives the church her life.  “We are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones” (Ephesians 5:30).
    The new Adam bears the shame and the nakedness of our sin, which the fig leaves of our rationalization and self-justification cannot hide.  Jesus is exposed and laid bare on the tree of the cross.  As the first Adam and Eve were clothed with the skins of sacrificed animals, so we who are their children are covered with the seamless garment of Christ, as it is written, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27).  His bloody death covers our shame and atones for our sin.  
    In the sweat of His face, Jesus cries out “I thirst!”  He who is the fountain of life is parched like the dusty ground.  His tongue sticks to the roof of His mouth (Psalm 22:15).  He is given sour wine, vinegar for His thirst (Psalm 69:21).  Our Lord endures this scornful gesture that we might hunger and thirst for His righteousness and drink deeply of the Living Water that He gives and so be honored with Him in His resurrection.
    Jesus is buried in a garden, an indication of the greater Eden to come.  For in Christ paradise is restored and all creation is made new.  The work has now been completed.  “It is finished,” Jesus said.  The Sabbath is at hand.  “And God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.”  “And God saw everything that He had made, and indeed, it was very good.”

Going Up to Jerusalem

Mark 10:32-45

    Today’s Gospel begins, “Now they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem.”  There are two reasons why going to Jerusalem is always referred to as going “up.”  First, Jerusalem is located literally “up,” in a range of hills, on top of a high hill called Mt. Zion.  It’s the same mount where Abraham had brought Isaac for sacrifice 2000 years earlier.  Traveling to Jerusalem involved a journey up in altitude.  But Jerusalem was also theologically “up.”  For that’s where the temple of God was, where His name was present for their blessing.  So whether you were coming from the north or the south on a map, you were going up, to the place where God was for you.

    Now for us, Jerusalem is also “up.”  For in the Scriptures Jerusalem is often a symbol for the dwelling place of God with His people, the Church.  In Galatians, Paul describes this as “the Jerusalem that is above.”  Hebrews speaks of “the city of the living God . . . the heavenly Jerusalem,” and Revelation speaks of, “the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”  So you and I also are on a journey with our Lord Jesus, through this life, up to the holy city, the new Jerusalem.

    “Now they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was going before them.”  The only way we can make this journey is because Jesus is making the way.  He goes before us.  We walk behind Him who is our shield, who faces for us what we cannot face, what would destroy us.  He is the trailblazer.  In fact He is the trail–the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.  No one comes to the Father in heaven except through Him.  

    “Now they were on the road going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was going before them; and they were amazed, and as they followed, they were afraid.”  One of the most interesting documents outside of the Bible relating to our Lord’s earthly life is the actual arrest warrant issued by the Hebrew authorities, which is contained in an ancient Hebrew work called the Talmud. It refers to Yeshua Hannozori, Jesus of Nazareth, and it says, “He shall be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and led Israel to apostasy, and if anyone knows of his whereabouts let him tell it to the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.”  In the Gospel of John, the disciples plead with Jesus, “Rabbi, a short while ago they tried to stone you, and yet you are going back there?”  The disciples were amazed, then, and also afraid, because Jesus was a wanted man, threatened with death by the authorities at Jerusalem, and now he is leading not only Himself but also them right into their murderous hands.

    Jesus’ disciples were dumbfounded and distressed about where He was leading them. They didn’t understand why this happening. And that’s the way it is often with us, as we journey with Jesus along life’s way to the heavenly Jerusalem. We also are often distressed, not understanding why certain things are happening, and we wonder, “What is God’s plan and purpose?”  Fear can paralyze us.  Illness, financial uncertainty, personal struggles, many things in this life make us afraid.  And most fearful of all is facing the prospect of death.

    “Jesus took the Twelve aside and began to tell them the things that were going to happen to Him.” Jesus can see that they are distressed, confused, afraid. And, so, he takes them aside, to explain, and reassure them.

    That is also what Jesus is doing for you, here, each week. He knows exactly what you’re going through on your journey through this life to the Jerusalem above.  And so, just as he took aside the disciples, each week he still takes you aside for a time, to explain and reassure you on your journey.

    However, the way that Jesus assures them does not seem at first to be very comforting.  He tells them that He will be betrayed to the religious leaders; and they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him to the Gentiles; and they will mock Him, and scourge Him, and spit on Him, and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again. Why would that be comforting or helpful for the disciples? Isn’t that exactly what they fear?

    For three years, Jesus had been catechizing them, trying to overcome their misconceptions about him as a mere political leader, an earthly king, a revolutionary.  Those misconceptions were sadly still lingering, as it was revealed again in the dispute in today’s Gospel about who will sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in His kingdom.  

    James and John were a part of Jesus’ inner circle, along with Peter.  They were trying to cash in on their connections with Jesus.  They figured Jesus was going places, and they aspired to be His top advisers and top power brokers when He got to be in charge.  This may seem to us like an over-the-top request to us.  But it’s really not much different than when we are tempted to use religion as a means for self-fulfillment, or when we go to church and pray and do good works so that we can get some worldly blessing out of it.  Of course then our faith is not so much about loving God as it is a way to have a successful life and get where we want to be.

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

    James and John wanted to be with Jesus in His glory.  And it is Jesus’ glory to die for sinners in order to save them.  It is His glory to lay down His life that we may live.  It is His glory to be the God who is love, who gives Himself completely for us that we might be drawn in to His life.

    James and John and all of us disciples need to learn over and over again that the way of Christ is not the Gentile way of power–of using your position so that others underneath you might honor you and serve you and do what you want.  The way of Christ is the way of service and sacrifice.  To be great in Christ’s kingdom is to be the servant and slave of all.  “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”  

    So while at first Jesus’ words about His imminent suffering and death don’t register with James and John, they are in fact good news, because they mean that He is the atoning sacrifice for their sins, and not only for them, but also for the sins of the whole world. That is God’s gracious plan in Christ.  That is where’s He’s going for them, and for you.

    At a time when the disciples needed understanding and comfort, when we need reassurance, Jesus points us to the only real source of comfort: His cross, His suffering, death, and resurrection.  Jesus did not come to be served, but to serve.  He bore your sins in His own body on the tree.

    Christ has paid your ransom and set you free from your captors, sin and Satan and the grave.  He did this not with gold or silver but with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.  He offered His life for yours.  He set you free and then destroyed your kidnappers by the power of His resurrection.  All this He did purely by grace, as a gift, to serve you.

    So if you want to share in Jesus’ glory, then, you must journey with Him to the cross.  You must die to yourself and your desires.  Be emptied of all your own merits and righteousness so that Christ may fill you with His righteousness and His life.  

    For Jesus’ servanthood doesn’t stop here in church.  It continues through you out there in the world.  Just as God uses ordinary things like water and words and bread and wine to give His saving gifts, so also He uses ordinary Christians in your ordinary stations in life as one of the ways He serves the world.  In that sense, you Christians are God’s Sacraments to the world.  Christ is present in, with, and under His people to show forth His love to the neighbor.

    You live in God by faith, and you live in your neighbor by love.  By faith you get to stand in Jesus’ place and receive His righteousness as your own.  By love you get to stand in your neighbors’ place and make their needs your own.  A Christian receives God’s Service in church and then gives God’s service to his neighbor in whatever stations of life God has put you.  

    And when you fail and fall short in doing that, let that drive you back to Christ, to receive the service of Him who gives you His mercy freely and abundantly.  Never forget what the Gospel says, “They were going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was going before them.”  In the midst of all of your fears and confusion and distress and sin, Jesus is with you, leading the way up to the heavenly city.  He takes you aside to point you to your only real source of comfort, His cross, his suffering, death, and resurrection, for your salvation.  He says, “You will drink the cup I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you will be baptized.”  While that may mean short-term affliction, it means above all that you have been cleansed by your baptism into Jesus’ death.  And it means that today He again gives you to drink of His cup.  Because it was a cup of judgment for Jesus, it is now a cup of mercy for you, the cup of His own life-giving blood.  Receive it gladly.  Journey to Jerusalem in the freedom of Him who gave His life as a ransom for you.

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

You Are What You Eat

John 6:1-15; 27-35
Lent 4

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

    “Give us this day our daily bread,” Jesus taught His disciples to pray.  And the Catechism teaches us that the “daily bread” for which we pray is everything we need to support this body and life–from the sunshine and rain, to the farmer and baker, to the truck driver and the grocery store, not to mention the roads and the general peace.  Daily bread sustains life; without daily bread we die.

    In today’s Gospel we hear about the Giver of daily bread.  These verses occur right after Jesus had fed the five thousand with 5 barley loaves and 2 small fish.  They ate their fill of miracle bread, but they did not perceive the sign or believe in the One who fed them.  Like the Old Testament people of Israel who ate the manna in the wilderness, their attention was fixed not so much on the Giver of the bread, but on their bellies, their appetites.  If Jesus could feed thousands with five little loaves, just think of what He could do for the economy of Israel.  Let’s make Him our political leader, an earthly king!   It’s not unlike even many Christians today who are much more passionate about politics and political causes than they are about God’s Word and the Church.  The attention of these Jews was focused not on what was eternal and heavenly, but on what was temporary and worldly.  They should have seen that this miracle was a sign, pointing beyond itself to Him who is the Living Bread from heaven.

    And so that is where Jesus wants to move us today–beyond daily bread to true, eternal food; to bring us from barley bread to the Bread of Life.  And to do that He has to break through three barriers.  

    The first barrier is the belly and our appetites and desires.  Jesus says, “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you.”  The prophet Isaiah said the same thing: “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?”  

    There is perishable food and there is eternal food.  Perishable food is what freezers, preservatives, and expiration dates are all about.  I like how a colleague of mine put it quite starkly: your refrigerator is basically a morgue, a place where you store dead things, dead plant and animal products to keep them edible.  Even those freeze-dried emergency food rations and MRE’s that you can get still only have a shelf-life of 20 or 25 years.  

    You are what you eat.  Perishable food feeds perishable life.  “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food” cried the pleasure-seeking Corinthians. “And God will destroy both one and the other,” came the sober warning from the apostle Paul.  That puts both food and the belly in perspective.  The foods we eat do not last forever, and neither do the people that eat them. It’s good to try to eat well and stay in good shape for the sake of your vocation and serving your neighbor.  But in the end the wages of sin is death, and no earthly diet is going to alter that fact.  As the saying goes, you’ll just die healthier. :-)

    The two kinds of food feed two kinds of life.  There is our natural life born of the flesh, the life that we received through our parents when we were conceived and born.  Then there is spiritual life born in Baptism by water and Spirit.  Both must be fed.  In the same way that we eat the food of our work, so also we are given to eat the food that comes from God’s work.  The life born of flesh is fed with the perishable bread of the earth, bread that is earned by the sweat of our brows and the strain and stress of our everyday work at the office, at the shop, at home.  It is as perishable as this week’s paycheck and last week’s loaf of bread.  The life born of the Spirit, however, is fed with the imperishable Bread of heaven.  This bread is earned not by the sweat of our brows, but by the sweat of our Lord’s brow–by His anguished prayer in Gethsemane, by the mistreatment and flogging He underwent, by the offering up of His body on the cross to make payment for our sins and to conquer our death.  The Bread which Jesus earns is as imperishable as His resurrected body.  Only Jesus gives food that endures to eternal life.

    We must remember that this heavenly food comes not by our work but by Christ’s.  And that is the second barrier through which Jesus must break.  For we want to be able to take some credit for getting it.  The people ask him, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?”  The question was a natural one.  Jesus had said not to labor for the food that perishes but for the food which endures to everlasting life.  What exactly did that mean?  What does God want us to do to get that food?

    Jesus could have replied with the Ten Commandments or the two commandments to love God and love the neighbor.  Those are works God gives us to do.  But Jesus stands the question on its head. Ultimately it is not our works but God’s work that counts.  It is not the works we do for God, but the work God does for us that feeds forever with imperishable food.  “This is the work of God,” Jesus replied, “that you believe in the One He has sent.”  That’s it.  The work that feeds us with imperishable, eternal food is no work at all on our part, but the work of God on and in us, namely that we believe in Jesus Christ whom the Father has sent.

    It’s faith, not works.  Faith is the work of God in us, opening our mouths to receive the holy food of Christ.  Faith is to soak up the vitalities and the energies of God’s life in Christ, just as the body soaks up the vitalities and energies of daily bread.  We no more work for the food that feeds forever than the five thousand labored for the barley loaves and fishes.

    The third barrier, then, is unbelief, that inborn, hard-hearted resistance to being given to by God.  “What sign will You perform then, that we may see it and believe You?”  The people wanted proof, a sign, a miracle, which was strange coming from those who had been among the five thousand on the hillside.  But faith in miracles demands a continual diet of newer and bigger miracles to feed it, and it shrivels and starves when the miracles quit coming.  “Show us something new.”  But if we trust Jesus only as far as He is able to supply today’s miracle, or quiet today’s grumbling belly, or solve today’s problems, then how will we truly trust him with the big, eternal things–like forgiveness of sins, eternal life, salvation, the resurrection of the body?

    Jesus draws his hearers, and us, beyond the miraculous manna of the wilderness and the multiplied barley bread of the hillside to the true Bread, Himself.  He draws us out of and beyond our needs and hungers to the one great need and hunger that only He can fill, our need and hunger for life in Him, life in the fullest sense of the word.  We may try to fill that hunger with other food, other bread.  We may try the fluffy Wonder Bread of believing in yourself, following your heart, looking within for the answers.  We may be intrigued by the foreign foods of ancient nature religions and pagan spirituality.  We may sample the elegant pastries of material possessions and worldly praise, or chew the hard, 10-grain bread of work, achievement, and success.  But in the end only one Bread can fill the eternal hunger that makes us cry out, “Lord, give us this bread always.”

    Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall never hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst.”  Jesus is the Manna of these end times, God’s Bread come down from Heaven to feed His New Israel, the Church, as she wanders in the wilderness between the Red Sea of Baptism and the Promised Land of the resurrection.  Jesus is the Bread of God; and He says, “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.”  In His birth among us, Jesus incorporated the vitalities and energies of the life of God into His flesh and blood, and now He feeds that life of God into us with His very flesh and blood.

    And this is much more than a clever figure of speech.  This is very literal and real.  For in the Lord’s Supper, we are given to eat daily bread which is also Living Bread.  Jesus said later in this same chapter of John, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.  For My flesh is real food, and My blood is real drink.  He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.”  Here at this Altar, Jesus the Bread of Life feeds Himself into You and nourishes You with Himself.  He gives you to eat His true body and drink His true blood–not to be merely digested as earthly food, but to be received as imperishable, heavenly food which gives everlasting sustenance.  The real flesh of Jesus brings real bodily resurrection on the Last Day.  Jesus comes to us in this way that He may live in us and we in Him, tangibly and concretely.  

    Ordinary food is transformed into the eater.  You eat the food and it becomes a part of you.  But the Living Bread from heaven transforms the eater into the food.  You become what you take into your body.  This is the only instance in which it can be literally said, “You are what you eat.”  You are the body of Christ, as it is written, “Because there is one bread (namely, Jesus), we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”

    The Psalmist said, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”  This, then, is the menu of faith, the words and the supper of Jesus.  There is no faith apart from these things, regardless of how often somebody assures you that they’re still Christian and they still believe.  Here is Bread the way the world cannot bake it, a Bread that satisfies eternally, a Bread that doesn’t simply provide health for this life, but the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

    Such a Bread has come down from heaven to feed you.  He gave Himself for you on the cross; He gives Himself to you now in this service on the altar.  Draw upon Him through faith.  Believe in Jesus when He says to you, “Every one who sees the Son and believes in him has eternal life; and I will raise Him up at the last day.”  “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him.”

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

(With thanks to the Rev. William Cwirla)

Spirits, Demons, and Jesus the Stronger Man

Luke 11:14-28
Lent 3

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

    C.S. Lewis observed that when it comes to the Devil, there are two mistakes we can make.  One is thinking too much of him, and the other is not thinking enough about him.  Some people conceive of the devil almost as being equal with God, when in fact he is merely a fallen angel, very powerful and utterly evil to be sure, but a creature nonetheless.  People become terribly frightened of the devil and forget that his rebellion has been crushed under the heel of Jesus, who died and rose again in victory over him.  However, others don’t give the devil any thought at all.  They think of Satan as the stuff of fairy tales, at best a figure who is only symbolic of evil, but not a literal being.  They forget that the devil’s goal now is to lure people away from the safe refuge of Christ Jesus; and if Satan can do that by making people think of him as nothing real, just a Halloween caricature, all the better.

    But I would add that there’s a third mistake we can make which, in a way, combines these first two mistakes.  And it’s something even many Christians do.  We know as believers that there’s more going on than what the eye can see, that there is a spiritual realm beyond the simple grasp of our five senses.  But too often, instead of listening to God’s Word on this subject, we embrace all sorts of superstitious and ungodly beliefs.  And in particular what I’m talking about here are the popular notions about ghosts and spirits.  Whether it’s a belief that loved ones who have died are still present on earth and interacting with us in our lives, or whether it’s something more sinister and spooky, like spirits of the dead haunting buildings, far too many Christians are open to this false belief rather than hearing and holding to God’s Word.

    Here is what Scripture says: It is written in Ecclesiastes 12 that when someone dies, their spirit returns to God–plain and simple.  Hebrews 10 speaks of how it is given to man to die once and then the judgment of heaven or hell–certainly no reincarnation or inhabiting of other bodies or anything like that.  To the thief on the cross, Jesus said “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”  And on and on it goes.  Never in the Bible is there a period of time where the spirits of the dead are doing unfinished business on this earth before they can enter into the light or some other such nonsense.  Don’t let Hollywood movie fictions or TV shows about the supernatural and communicating with the dead and ghost hunting and good or evil spirits of the departed–don’t let such things lure you into foolishness.  It’s not true.  In fact, it’s occult.  Scripture speaks about attempts at communication and interaction with the dead as wicked and an abomination.  It’s in the same category as witchcraft and sorcery.  

    For in the end, while most of this is the stuff of hoaxes, if people really are having contact with a supernatural being, it’s not the spirits of the dearly departed, it’s demons that are at hand.  It can’t be human spirits we’re talking about according to Scripture.  It can only be angels or demons.  And angels almost always do their work unnoticed.  For it is their joy to glorify God and to draw you to Christ as they watch over you.  These mighty creatures that God created in the beginning (who never were and never will be human beings, btw)–these mighty creatures would never distract you or draw you away from Jesus and His Word.  But demons on the other hand, that’s all they want to do.  And if they can get you to dwell on this mysterious occurrence or that supposed haunting or some supposed appearance of a deceased spouse or relative, then that’s right up their alley, for then you’re being distracted from God and His words.  People think they’re being “spiritual” by doing this, when in fact they’re just engaging in another form of foolish unbelief.  That’s why I say that this sort of silly superstition combines both mistakes C.S. Lewis spoke of–people are giving too much attention to the occult at the same time that don’t even realize they’re doing so.  For the devil likes to come in disguise, even as an angel of light.

    Again, it is the goal of the devil and the demons to lure you away from the safe refuge of Christ to something else, anything else, to keep your attention there and away from the Savior.  And if Jesus is center stage, then they’ll try to pervert and distort who He is and what He has said.  That’s what happens in today’s Gospel reading.  Jesus casts out a demon, and what do the unbelievers say?  That somehow He did this good by using an evil power, the power of Beelzebub, another word for Satan.  This is the way of the wicked: to call good evil and to call evil good–we see that all the time in our culture, where the godly are presented as bigots and the ungodly are presented as the loving ones.  The devil is a liar, and like an obnoxious politician at a debate, he’ll do whatever he can to try to shout over the truth of Jesus and to keep you from trusting in Him.  Our Lord does not cast out demons by Beelzebub.  He is the Stronger Man who overcomes the satanic strong man with nothing but a finger, the finger of God, which is the power of His Holy Spirit.  
    Jesus is warning us here to be vigilant about our ancient enemy.  For once an unclean spirit (a demon) is cast out, if he gets the opportunity to return, he will do so–and it will be even worse the next time.  This is why the Church generally doesn’t baptize a child unless the parents are committed to teaching the child the catechism, the Word of God, and making sure the child is brought to divine service regularly.  For baptism is truly a form of exorcism.  Luther’s ancient baptismal rite begins this way: “Depart unclean spirit, and make room for the Holy Spirit.”  It is not enough to baptize someone, only to have their new faith starved and deprived of God’s Word.  Christians are to be continually on guard against the evil one by being devoted to the Word of God and prayer.

    Remember that, while outright demon-possession may be rare–though it is on the rise on our re-paganizing culture–typically the demons are more subtle, tempting us behind the scenes, working through our sinful flesh to drive a wedge between us and God, chipping away at the stone, gradually eating away at us until we are alienated from God and don’t even realize it or care.  The devil seeks to take away your faith in Christ not usually by an obvious frontal assault but by deceptively trying to undermine what you believe, by planting doubt, by turning your attention to other spiritualities and philosophies that appear to be good but are devoid of the Gospel of Christ the crucified.

    So how do we guard ourselves against such a crafty enemy who is more powerful than we are and that we can’t see?  The answer, very simply, is to take refuge in Christ.  For He is the Stronger Man who overcomes the strong man.  He is the One who not only won the victory for us in the wilderness, the Son of David slinging the smooth stone of the Word and felling the Goliath Satan.  He is also the One who outmaneuvered and outflanked the devil and utterly destroyed Him through the cross.  He turned the devil’s own weapons against him.  Jesus overcomes the crafty one with His own divine and holy craftiness, sneaking into the devil’s kingdom of death, allowing Himself to be crucified, and then nuking and laying waste to the devil’s power from the inside out, rising from the dead in glory on the third day.  

    Satan is defeated and undone and humiliated.  Christ is the Conqueror has rescued us from the realm of darkness and brought us into His own kingdom of mercy and love and goodness.  Our Lord has made our bodies the temple of His Holy Spirit in baptism.  He speaks His powerful, forgiving words into our ears.  He feeds us His holy, life-giving Flesh and Blood to sanctify our bodies and fortify and strengthen our spirits.  We come to this church week by week because we need to be strengthened against the crafts and assaults of the devil and to be equipped to resist them.

    There is only one way to be safe from evil: to be with Jesus, our fortress and our refuge.  Jesus says, “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.”  We gather with Jesus right here.  And like the mute person who was gagged by the demon, when Jesus casts out our demons, our tongues are loosed, and we give praise to God for his gifts.  We are given to tell the marveling multitudes just who it is who has delivered us.  And we can also raise our fists at the devil and give him the “finger of God” and curse him to hell in the name of the Lord Jesus.

    “You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.”  Your days of being imprisoned to Satan are over.  You have been released from your shackles and led out of the dark prison into the glorious light of Christ!

    And this blessing from God is for all of you who hear and believe and hold on to His Word.  Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.”  Holding on to Christ’s words, you are blessed and you are safe.  So if you are concerned or fearful about strange or unexplained experiences in your life, remember that all things are sanctified and made holy by the Word of God and prayer.  At the name of Jesus, the demons must flee.  Call upon His name, not only here in this place, but also in your homes.  Read the Word and pray out loud so that both the angels and the demons can hear.  God’s Word cleanses and blesses and makes holy.  God’s Word sets you apart as His own, and it sets apart your dwellings as the place where God dwells.  Don’t allow the things of demons into your homes, only the things of God.  It used to be a common practice to have house blessings of Christian homes, especially when someone was just moving into a house.  And on at least one occasion that I was involved with, when there were some unusual and frightening things happening in someone’s home, when the Word of God and prayer were brought to bless that house, those things stopped happening.  It is written that God has not given us a spirit of fear but a spirit of power and love and self-control (2 Tim 1:7).

    And if you want to be close to departed loved ones, don’t try to do that in superstitious ways.  Meet them instead at the altar.  For if they died in the faith, they are with Christ, and Christ is here.  Here is where the communion of saints is.  Let the highest love and devotion of your heart always be fixed on Jesus.  For through Him, nothing can snatch you from the hand of God.  For on that hand of God are the fingers that cast out demons and that point you to the cross where your salvation was won.  You have been liberated from all your sins by the Lord Jesus Christ.  You are now free to walk in love as children of light.  Let your eyes ever be toward Christ, who plucks your feet out of the net, who conquers your enemy, and who will deliver you from all evil in the resurrection of the body.

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