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Revelation 2: To the Church in Smyrna

Revelation 2:8-11
Midweek Lent 1

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

    The second letter of our Lord Jesus in Revelation is to the church in Smyrna.  Smyrna was a city in Asia Minor that had become fairly well-to-do because of its firm loyalty to Rome and the Roman empire.  Smyrna was the first city in the ancient world to build a temple in honor of the goddess of Rome.  There was also a temple built to Tiberias Caesar, and to the Roman Senate.  Because of Smyrna’s strong allegiance to the empire, they were rewarded with imperial monies that built a well-known stadium, a noted library, and a large public theater.  Rome referred to Smyrna as “the crown” of Asia.

    These circumstances presented some trouble for the Christians who lived there.  For believers could not take part in the various pagan temple rites that would’ve been common among the citizens of that city.  This caused economic hardship to many believers.  How were Christians supposed to get a decent job when everyone thought of them as irreligious and unpatriotic for not taking part in the imperial worship?  Even though the church would pray for the Caesar as God’s civil authority and would obey the laws and pay the taxes, they would still be looked on with suspicion.  Through a serious distortion of what the Lord’s Supper was, rumors abounded that Christians were cannibals, eating the body and drinking the blood of some victim.  In this sort of context, it’s easy to see how most believers were poor.  Jesus says here, “I know your tribulation and your poverty.”

    During certain periods in the early church outright persecution of Christians would take place.  All someone had to do during these times was to bring a charge against someone for being a Christian, and they could be imprisoned or put to death.  Often those who had been charged as Christians would be given an opportunity to deny their faith or recant it by offering up incense to Caesar and saying “Caesar is Lord.”  If they performed that act of worship and loyalty to the Roman emperor, then they could go free.  However, if they didn’t, then they could lose their life.  Believers could not say, “Caesar is Lord,” but only, “Jesus is Lord.”null

    One of the groups that was giving Christians trouble in Smyrna was the Jews.  Jesus says here, “I know the blasphemy of those say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan.”  True Jews, true Israelites believe that Jesus is the Messiah and the Savior.  But these were blasphemers, in league with the evil one.  For the name “Satan” literally means, “accuser.”  And they were accusing the Christians to the authorities in order to do them harm.  These Jews did not like the pagan worship of the Romans, but they seemed to hate the Christians even more passionately.

    One famous Christian from Smyrna who was martyred was a man named Polycarp, who was the bishop of the church in Smyrna.  This old man was brought into the stadium before the crowds, who shouted at him, “Away with the atheist!”  See, they thought of Christians as atheists, because Christians had a God you couldn’t see and wouldn’t bow down to their gods, whom you could see.  But bishop Polycarp turned to the crowd, and with a wave of his hand said to them, “Away with the atheists!”  After refusing to renounce the Lord Jesus whom he had served for 86 years, Polycarp was burned to death.

    So, how does all of this apply to us?  Well, thankfully in one sense, things aren’t so dire for us yet as they were for those in Smyrna.  But still, consider this: Roman citizens made a god and a religion out of their empire and their rulers.  In a similar vein, are people in this country sometimes more religiously fervent about their patriotism than about Christ and His Word?  Do we ever see symbols of our country and symbols of religion being combined and intermingled–angels holding the American flag, or flag draped crosses, or July 4th church services that are more pro-USA than they are pro-Jesus?  We must always be on guard against the mixing and confusing of the civil realm and the spiritual realm.  For to make any worldly thing, even our country, the object of our worship and highest loyalty, is to commit idolatry.  

    On the economic side, being a Christian can also present challenges to God’s people today.  Refusing to engage in unethical practices like everyone else seems to be doing can close the door to advancement at work.  Likewise, having it known that you’re against abortion or homosexuality or living together before marriage, or that you believe that the Bible is literally true and that Jesus is the only way to eternal life can cause you to be ostracized or thought of as extreme.  That’s certainly how the cultural elite today want to paint the church.  We’re not yet faced with demands to deny the faith or be executed.  But we are tempted to compromise and downplay what we believe and go with the flow so that we don’t lose our social or economic standing.  Giving such homage to the spirit of the culture is also a form of idolatry that we must be on guard against.

    To all of this Jesus says, “Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer.”  To live in fear of what men can do to us is not to live in trust of our Creator and Redeemer God.  In the Gospel Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.”  Rather, let us learn to fear, love, and trust in God above all things.  For we are of great value to Him.  Jesus reminds us here, “I am the First and the Last.”  In other words, “I was here before your enemies were, and I’ll be here long after they’re dead and gone.  So do not fear them; I will deliver you from them.”  “I am the One who was dead and came back to life.  They did their worst to me and failed.  So also, they may cause you grief or pain or even death, but they can do nothing to separate you from My love.”  “You will have tribulation, but it will only be for ten days; in other words, it has a limit and an end when it will all be over.”  “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”  

    Smyrna may have been called the crown of Asia, but it wasn’t long before it’s edifices were piles of broken stone, as was the case also with Rome.  It was a crown that faded.  But Jesus gives a crown that does not fade away, that not even death can touch.  For the crown of glory we wear is His own.  The life that we have is His own eternal life.  That is how Jesus can say to those who are poor, “You are rich.”  For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  St. Paul writes, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us.”  Not only will we be with our Savior Jesus, but we will be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.

    We are given to wear the crown of life because Jesus was given to wear the crown of thorns.  He bore our curse and died our death–not only our first death, but also our second death.  That is to say, not only did He suffer temporal death but also and especially He suffered eternal death and hell for us on the cross.  That second, eternal death is conquered by Jesus’ death and resurrection.  It has no power over you any longer.  That’s why Jesus says, “He who overcomes [by faith] shall not be hurt by the second death.”  Rather, we look forward to the resurrection of the body.

    “Whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father in heaven.”  To confess Jesus before men is to say “yes” to Him when the world wants you to say “no” or “maybe” or “I’m not sure.”  To confess Jesus before men is to be willing to let it be known that Jesus is your Lord and the One you stake your life on.  And if you’ve faltered in confessing Jesus in the past, remember Peter, who denied Christ three times but was three times forgiven and restored.  So also, all your sins are forgiven, and you are restored in Jesus.  He has said an unwavering “yes” to you in your baptism, confessing your name before His Father in heaven.  And on the Last Day He will again say, “Yes, this one was born in Zion; this one is Mine.”

    “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.”  He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

Whatever is Right I Will Give You

Septuagesima
 
 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
 
What is the real difference between the first and the last laborers in the vineyard?  Some might think it’s simply a matter of greed and jealousy, that the first workers didn’t get what they thought they deserved in comparison to the others.  And we can sort of understand their point.  We wouldn’t like it if somebody got paid the same as we did for doing only a fraction of the work.  Nothing seems to arouse our passions more than if there’s even a hint that we are being treated unfairly in money matters.  We love to grouse about overpaid athletes and greedy political and corporate insiders and how we’re not getting paid as much as we’re worth at our job and how high prices have gotten for this or that.  Of course, when we get more than we deserve, a deal that’s more than fair, we’re rarely as vocal about that, unless we’re bragging–which if you think about it is the same as grumbling in an opposite way, just the flip side of an obsession with oneself.  “I’m not being treated fairly” and “Look at what an awesome dealmaker I am” are both attempts at self-exaltation.  But even so, that’s not the primary difference between the first and the last laborers in the vineyard.  It goes deeper than that.
 
The first laborers had an agreement, a contract with the landowner to work for a denarius a day, which was the going rate for a day’s work.  This was a fair day’s wage for a good day’s labor.  The other laborers, though, had no such agreement, no contract.  They didn’t insist upon definite terms.  The landowner simply said, “Go into the vineyard, and whatever is right, I will give you.” null
 
Now if that was you, would you have gone to work for this landowner?  Would you labor for him not knowing what your wages were going to be, if all you had to go on was His promise to do what was right?  It all depends, doesn’t it?  It depends on what kind of person you think him to be–is he miserly or generous, is he a man of good character or bad?  It depends on whether or not you trust him–do you know him, do you have a good relationship with him?  If you didn’t trust the landowner, you probably wouldn’t go into his vineyard.  If you did, you would.
 
That ultimately is the real difference between the first and the last in this parable.  The first were dealing with the landowner on the basis of a contract; the last were dealing with him on the basis of trust in his goodness.  The first wanted to deal with him on what they deemed to be fair.  The last dealt with him on the basis of what he deemed to be good and right.  That’s a big difference.
 
The owner of the vineyard in this parable is God the Father.  By His Word and Spirit He sends out the call of the Gospel to come into His vineyard, which is the church, and for His people to be about the things pertaining to the holy Vine, Jesus Christ.  Some come into the church from the first moments of their life, baptized as infants, remaining faithful their entire lives.  Others are converted as adults.  Some aren’t brought to faith in Christ the Savior until their lives are almost over.  But God gives all the same salvation at the end of the day: full forgiveness of sins, deliverance from death and the devil, everlasting life with Him in heaven.  He does this not because He is unfair, but rather, because He is generous and loving and merciful.  He pours out His gifts on His people abundantly and lavishly.  For the reward at the end of the day is given not based on our work but on the work of His Son, who lived and died and was raised again for us.
 
The problem arises when some in the vineyard of the church begin to think that their length of time and service is what earns salvation, who want God to work on the merit system.  The problem is that this attitude destroys the relationship of love that God wishes to have with His people.  Love has nothing to do with what is owed or deserved.  Real love is a freely given gift with no strings attached.  As soon as we start wanting to deal with God on the basis of what He owes us, it is no longer a relationship of love, but in the end one of manipulation, where we get God to do what we want by pulling the right strings.  We put in the good works, like a coin into the slot, and out comes the blessing.  To treat God like that is really to treat Him as nothing more than a vending machine or a puppet.
 
Besides, it’s foolishness for us to want God to give us what we deserve, anyway.  For here’s what the Scriptures say about our fair wages, “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.  The damned actually believe that God is wrong, that He’s being unfair to them.  This worsening bitterness and teeth-gritting frustration is a big part of their unending torment. 
 
Do you find yourself considering God to be unfair because of your situation in life or something that’s happened to you?  Are you one whose religion is like a contract with God, a system of rewards for your good deeds?  Do you negotiate with God in your prayers (I’ll do this for you if you do this for me)?  If so, then you are behaving like the first laborers in this parable, and you must repent.  Turn away from ranking yourself above others, turn away from your own works, and turn to the works of Christ.  Believe that it is only and entirely through Him that you receive any blessing from the Father.  Trust in Christ alone to save you from death and hell.  
 
That is the difference between the first and the last, between unbelief and faith.  Unbelievers seek a God who is fair, and when they find Him, they don’t like Him.  Believers seek a God who is merciful and gracious, and when He finds them, they love Him.  (Notice how in the parable, it’s the owner who finds the workers.  He initiates the “hiring.”)  Believers know that it is only by grace that they are even in the vineyard, no matter how long they’ve been there.  They consider it a privilege and an honor to be able to contribute to the health and the growth of the vineyard.  They are not jealous of the newcomer or the repentant restored sinner or the one converted in his dying days, but they rejoice that the same mercy that saved them has also saved another.  Even a faithful lifelong Christian recognizes that of himself he deserves nothing and that it is only because of Jesus that he has forgiveness and life.  As it is written, “The free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23).”  And again, “By grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).” 
 
Remember, the landowner said, “Go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.”  The word for “right” in the Greek can also be translated “righteous.”  “Whatever is righteous I will give you.”  That puts a little different perspective on that phrase, doesn’t it.  God is not simply saying, “I will give you whatever is fair,” but, “I will give to you according to my righteous plan of grace.”  “I will give to you what My righteous Son Jesus won for you.”  Or most simply, “I will give you My righteousness.”  It is written in Romans 3, “You are declared righteous freely by God's grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
 
Now this does not mean that we are to be lax and lazy about good works; not at all.  For there is something else about God’s grace here that goes even further, which we don’t often talk about: namely that once God has freely forgiven you and made you a Christian, He does offer rewards for your good works, and that also is a free gift of His mercy.  Listen to what our Lutheran Confession of faith says.  This is from the Apology or the Defense of the Augsburg Confession:  
 
“Here also we add something concerning rewards and merits. We teach that rewards have been offered and promised to the works of believers. We teach that good works are meritorious, not for the forgiveness of sins, . . . but for other rewards, bodily and spiritual, in this life and after this life, because Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:8, “Every man shall receive his own reward, according to his own labor.”  There will, therefore, be different rewards according to different labors. But the forgiveness of sins is alike and equal to all. . .  (For instance,) Paul, in Ephesians 6:2,  commends to us the commandment concerning honoring parents, by mention of the reward which is added to that commandment, where he does not mean that obedience to parents justifies us before God, but that, when it occurs in those who have been justified, it merits other great rewards.”  
Just as disobeying God’s commands can bring great trouble and hardship to people, so also keeping His commands has the promise of great blessings, both for this life and the life of the world to come. This should encourage us to do diligent work in the vineyard.
 
But then, since even this notion of rewards for good works can lead to pride, the Lutheran Reformers go on to remind us of this: “Yet God exercises His saints variously, and often defers the rewards of the righteousness of works in order that they may learn not to trust in their own righteousness, and may learn to seek the will of God rather than the rewards; as appears in Job, in Christ, and other saints” who suffered greatly while doing good.  The Word of God speaks of the blessing and the reward of doing good works, both for this life and the next.  And so we should be moved to do good works.  After all, we aren’t in the vineyard to sit around in the shade but to labor while it is day, before the night comes when no one can work.  But our work is always to be offered in the humility of faith.
 
           It is as we prayed in the Introit, “The Lord will save the humble people, but will bring down proud and haughty looks.”  Or as Jesus said, “The last will be first, and the first last.”  For this is His way.  He who is the first and the greatest humbled Himself to be the last of all on the holy cross.  He Himself is the one who bore the burden and the heat of the day that brings us the generous reward of salvation–handed over to Pontius Pilate at dawn, crucified at the third hour of the day; then darkness covered the land at the sixth hour, noon.  Our Lord died at the ninth hour as the perfect and complete sacrifice for our sin.  He was buried at the eleventh hour of the day just before sundown.  See how the work was all done before you were even brought to the faith.  Hear again those words from the cross, “It is finished.”  For you.
 
Let us then be truly full of good works by trusting in this 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.  Let us run with the certainty of faith, setting our hearts on Him, disciplining our bodies and minds, filling ourselves with His words and His life-giving body and blood.  Come and lay hold of the denarius Christ earned for you–not because it’s owed; but simply because it is His pleasure and delight to be generous and loving toward you, to give you whatever is right.
 
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Jesus Trespasses into Baptism for Your Trespasses

Matthew 3:13-17
Baptism of our Lord

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

    John the Baptist is back again.  You remember him from Advent, the one preparing the way of the Lord, the one who proclaimed to those who came out to him, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come, the unquenchable fire?”  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”  “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance.”  With such words, John the Baptist reminds us that the Christian faith is not always about being nice–though, of course, kindness is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, along with love.  However, love does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth.  And the truth about our sin is not something we want to hear.  The old Adam only wants to hear the truth in watered-down and corrupted form.  “Sure you’ve made mistakes and have your failings, but if you try hard to do what’s right, if your intentions are good, God won’t hold it against you.  Besides, your sins aren’t really that bad.  Nobody’s perfect.”  That’s the kind of talk that the old Adam is drawn to and that he himself engages in; for then he can still find his security in himself and not in God alone.  John won’t let us get away with that.

    Now it is true that, according to Scripture, we are to speak the truth in love.  Our purpose in speaking the truth is always to be for the good of the one who is hearing us; that’s love’s goal.  But hearing the truth about sin, hearing the call to repentance rarely seems loving at the time.  It sounds like judgmentalism and an attack.  We put up our walls and instantly start blaming the messenger of the truth.  But the reality is that John the Baptist actually was speaking the truth in love when he called those coming out to him a brood of vipers, children of the snake of Eden.  For only when they had come to truly see their deathly spiritual condition would they desire the holy cure in Christ and penitently receive His kingdom of pure grace.

    And the same is true for us yet today.  John’s voice still rings through the centuries, calling us away from the fatal loves of this world, from taking refuge in our family heritage or our own spiritual efforts and self-justifications.  He turns us from the way of death, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Jesus the King is here in His words and the sacraments.  Receive Him in humble repentance.  Find your life in Him alone.null

    It’s important that we begin today by remembering all of this about John’s baptism, that it was a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  For only then can we begin to understand what’s going on here in today’s Gospel.  John prepared the way of the Lord, but even he didn’t fully grasp the ways of the Lord.  John seems shocked when Jesus comes to him to be baptized, and it is written that John tried to prevent Him, to stop Him from being baptized!  “What are you doing, Jesus?  This is a baptism for those who need to repent.  This is a baptism for sinners in need of forgiveness, not for You, the sinless Son of God.  I should be the one being baptized by You!  Why are you coming to me?  This seems all wrong and improper and upside down.”  

    But Jesus responds, “Permit it be so now; for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”  This is proper; this is right.  For this is why I have come–to stand with sinners in order to save sinners.  

    A pastor friend of mine described what Jesus was doing as a divine trespass.  Usually when we think of trespasses and sins, we think of how we’ve crossed over a boundary and have gone where we shouldn’t go.  By crossing the line, we attempt to enter into God’s territory and do things our own way as if we’re in charge.  But here Jesus does just the opposite.  He crosses out of divine territory and into the territory of fallen man.  He trespasses for our good out of His realm as God into the mud and muck of our sin as fallen creatures.  He doesn’t just make Himself to be like us by becoming human–that we celebrated at Christmas.  Now He goes the final step, the full trespass, and He makes Himself like us by even allowing Himself to be dirtied with our sin.  

    Today, the Son of God is numbered with the trespassers, so that we trespassers may be restored to being children of God.  Saying it most starkly, today Jesus becomes Sin with a capital S.  And if that sounds blasphemous, listen again to these words from 2 Corinthians, “God made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”  Jesus became a sinner so that you would become saints.  He had no sin of His own; but He made your sin His own, as if He had committed it all.  Isn’t that what John said after Jesus baptism, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes 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.”  

    You see, at His baptism Jesus was not just interacting in some shallow way with the common man.  He is not like Hollywood actors or politicians who go and serve at the local soup kitchen to “identify” with those less fortunate than themselves. Rather, Jesus is more like a very rich man who gives up all his advantages and stands in line with the beggars, and becomes dirt poor and dirty Himself.   He goes so far as to take your place and put Himself into your bondage in order that He might burst the bars of your captivity and conquer your satanic captor.  As Isaiah prophesied, God’s Servant Jesus will “bring out prisoners from the prison, those who sit in darkness from the prison house.”  Our Lord’s Baptism and His holy cross are inseparably connected.  For on both occasions He is there as your substitute.  He trades places with you to set you free from the power of death and to give you the glorious liberty of His everlasting life.

    This is why we hold baptism in such high regard.  This is why it is such a powerful act of God and a true Sacrament.  Our Lord Jesus has put Himself into it!  He who paid the penalty for our sins on the cross has “trespassed” into the water and sanctified it with His real presence.  Christ is in the water to make baptism a fountain of grace and forgiveness and life.  Baptism and the cross still go together, for your salvation, even as they call you to die to yourself and rise with Christ to newness of life.

    There are those who hold baptism in low esteem and consider it to be a mere ceremony or human act of dedication.  They say that Jesus was merely setting an example for us here.  And so the Small Catechism poses the question, “How can water do such great things?” like rescuing from death and the devil and giving eternal salvation to all who believe.  The answer: “Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water.”  Do you see?  It's not mere water that does these wonderful things.  It is the Word of God that is in the water that is the key thing, the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, whom our hearts cling to and trust in.  His presence makes baptism a life-giving, faith creating event.  As Titus chapter three says, “[God the Father] saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior.”  He who needed no baptism put Himself into the River in order that your baptism might be a holy cleansing.  What was washed away from you in your baptism was washed onto Jesus and absorbed by Him in His baptism, that He might take it away from you and conquer it forever.

    That’s why the heavenly Father is so pleased with His Son here.  Jesus faithfully and humbly obeys His Father and gives Himself in love to accomplish your redemption.  And therefore, in Jesus, the Father is perfectly pleased with you as well.  At the holy font you truly were Christened, incorporated into Christ’s body, made to be the temple of the Holy Spirit that descended upon His body.  You’ve become part of the divine family, children of the heavenly Father.  For it is written, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.”  No longer are you the brood and offspring of the serpent.  You are sons of God in Christ, forgiven and redeemed and holy children, well-pleasing to Him in Jesus.  God the Father is happy with you; He rejoices in you, His baptized ones.

    Brothers and sisters of Christ, heaven has been opened to you.  The “No Trespassing” sign for sinners has been torn down.  You’re allowed in because of the Divine Trespass of Jesus.  You have crossed the Jordan with Jesus into the Promised Land.  This is real.  You are a child of God in Jesus.  You are precious in God’s sight.  You are His beloved.  Stay close to the river of baptism.  Come back to it daily in repentance and faith.  For your Life, your Jesus, is in the water.  

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

Partaking in Christ's Sufferings

1 Peter 4:12-19; Matthew 2:13-23
Christmas 2

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

    Today’s Epistle begins by saying, “Do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you.”  And yet we still do think it’s strange when bad things happen to us, don’t we?  We’re still shocked and surprised when we have to go through trials and afflictions and sufferings.  For we generally live in denial of the way things are with us and with this world.  We suppress the truth of our original sin and the curse on this creation.  And we pretend that we can be Christians in this world without having to suffer the consequences of following Christ.  So when things go wrong, we get frustrated and angry as if some strange and unfair and totally unexpected thing were happening to us.  Today’s readings help to set matters straight for us.

    First of all, we need to recognize that very often we suffer as a result of our own foolishness.  It is written in 1 Peter, “Let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people’s matters.”  And yet we do.  We murder by daydreaming about payback for those who have hurt us; we steal by getting things under false pretenses; we commit sexual sins in heart and mind if not also in body; we gossip about others and stick our nose in where it doesn’t belong.  We commit all manner of sins that have all manner of spiritual and physical consequences.  So much of the suffering we have to deal with in our lives is self-inflicted, whether it’s in our health or in our finances or in our relationships.  We like to rationalize our behavior and make excuses and deflect blame.  But the Scriptural saying holds true, “You reap what you sow.”  It is written in Galatians, “He who sows to His flesh will of the flesh reap corruption.”  Man very often blames God for the deadly consequences of his own sin.null

    Of course, it is true that some of what you suffer isn’t your fault.  Some of it is the collateral damage of other people’s foolishness.  It’s not just that people make “mistakes” or “bad choices”; they sin.  And sin always has ripple effects.  Sometimes you get caught in that wake, which very often feels more like a tsunami.  Often it’s those who are the most vulnerable who bear the brunt of other people’s behavior.  We shouldn’t be surprised that living as a sinner among sinners in a fallen world, we’re going to have to regularly deal with the aftereffects of the fall in trials and afflictions.

    But here’s where Jesus enters into the picture.  Here’s where our suffering is redeemed by the Son of God, who shared fully in our humanity and bore our infirmities and sins and carried all of our afflictions.  For Peter’s main point here is not about suffering because of sin but suffering because of Christ who has taken away our sin and saved us.  He says, “Rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings. . . If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter.”  Holding to the words and the ways of Christ is to be in conflict with the words and the ways of this world.  We should not think it strange or be shocked when we suffer as followers of Jesus, for it is precisely through suffering that He redeemed us.  Not only should we not be surprised at suffering for Jesus’ name, we should in fact rejoice that we have been given that privilege, that we have been granted a portion in Christ’s cross and its blessings.  In Acts chapter 5, in the early days of the church, the apostles were beaten for preaching the name of Jesus.  Afterwards, it is written, “So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name.  And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.”  To be a disciple of Jesus is to take up the cross daily and follow Him, holding to the faith in spite of the cost.

    From the very earliest moments of His life, we see that the way of Christ is the way of the cross.  Not only was He born in the most humble circumstances, as we heard at Christmas.  But from the very start, the infant Son of God was vulnerable and under assault.  The people of this world will try to destroy anything that threatens the worldly power and treasures they hold onto.  And King Herod was no different.  Seeing Jesus as a future rival to His throne, he took the horrific and tyrannical step of trying to destroy Him by killing all the infant boys in the city of Bethlehem, even up to two years old!  Jesus and His family had to flee for refuge to a foreign country, Egypt.  Even upon their return to Israel, they had to change their destination out of fear of Herod’s son, Archelaus.  There was nothing glorious or easy or free of suffering even in the earliest days of Jesus’ life.  If that is true of our Lord, we should not be surprised if it is true also for us.  For Jesus said, “A disciple is not above his Teacher.”  

    There is some comfort to be taken in this, however.  Looking at Jesus’ childhood, it appeared that things were rather out of control.  Joseph and Mary may well have wondered just what was going on.  Simeon had spoken of how Jesus would be a sign that would be spoken against.  But I’m sure they still expected that the Messianic promises regarding Jesus might have meant something more glorious than living as refugees in Egypt and shuffling around from this place to that.  And yet even though they couldn’t see the whole picture at the time, all of this took place in fulfillment of Scripture and to carry out God’s eternal plan of salvation.  What seemed out of control was still under God’s gracious direction.  And so it is also for all of you who are baptized into Christ.  No matter what’s going on in your life, you can still be confident that your times are in His hands.

    For Jesus, that detour to Egypt fulfilled God’s plan in Hosea 11, where He said, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”  Hosea’s prophecy was originally spoken concerning the entire nation of Israel who had been slaves in Egypt.  That is why it was important that Jesus also would be called from Egypt, too.  For it was His task to be the embodiment of God’s people, to do perfectly and without sin what Israel had failed to do.  After being delivered from their slavery, the children of Israel had grumbled against God and rebelled against Him.  They did not live as His holy people or glorify His name among the nations.  But now the Child of Israel, Jesus, has come to do that perfectly, accomplishing God’s will completely on behalf of Israel and all people.  So in the seemingly minor detail of the calling of Jesus out of Egypt, we see that He was fulfilling the Law for us, actively doing all that was necessary to rescue us.  Jesus is the new Jacob, the new Israel, going down to Egypt and coming up again to be our Redeemer, to bring us into the Promised Land of life with God.

    So also in the prophecy that Jesus would be a Nazarene.  It was more than just political circumstances that were at play in Jesus living in Nazareth.  In the Old Testament we learn that the Messiah would be humble and ultimately even despised.  And if there was ever a lowly and despised town in Israel, one that you didn’t want to admit you were from, it was Nazareth, near Gentile territory.  Even one of Jesus' own disciples once said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”  That is why Jesus was a Nazarene.  He was to bear affliction and rejection and the most horrific sufferings of the cross for you to cleanse you of all sin.  

    This is our comfort, then, in our own suffering.  Through such suffering our lives are being conformed to Christ.  In Him we trust that even when everything seems to be out of control, He is at work for our eternal good and our salvation.  Our suffering humbles us and empties us of our self-righteous foolishness and teaches us to look to the Lord for help.  And it reminds us of how He suffered for us.  The cross becomes all the more precious to us, that we have a God who loved us to that extent, who shed His blood for us, who has promised to never leave us or forsake us in our afflictions.  We learn to see that He is our only Help and our only Hope.

    The baby boys of Bethlehem suffered and died because they were under the wicked Herod’s authority.  But their suffering was redeemed because even more so their suffering was for the sake of Christ, who became a weak baby boy for them to rescue them.  Though it certainly didn’t seem so at the time, the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem were given to share in Christ’s glory as the first martyrs for His name.  Though their lives were violently cut short, they are blessed in Jesus, having been delivered so quickly from the burdens of this fallen world.  Being close to Christ does mean sharing in His sufferings.  But it is the opposite of being in the wake of those people who bring you trouble by what they do.  Here through partaking in Christ’s suffering, He brings you to glory.

    So in the midst of your afflictions, especially those trials you undergo for believing God’s Word and doing what is right in God’s sight, take to heart the words of God to you in Romans 8: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”  Not only back in bible times but also still today, God is active in human history working out His good and perfect will for the sake of His church.   And so we trust that despite any appearances to the contrary, God is with us and graciously at work in our lives.  For we are the called ones, chosen in Holy Baptism, made to be the forgiven children of God.  Even in the midst of our human vulnerability, God is carrying out His almighty will for our benefit.

    And in those times when you can’t make sense of things, when you feel like the parents of Bethlehem, whose infant children were slaughtered before their eyes, when there seems to be no valid purpose or meaning to what’s going on in your lives, God points your eyes again to the cross.  For there in that greatest display of God’s all-powerful weakness, there in that senseless and yet most meaningful death of Jesus, you are assured that God’s love for you is limitless and unshakable.  There is nothing in all of creation that can separate you from the love of God in Christ.

    Come, then, to the altar of the Lord’s love.  You are here given to partake of Christ's sufferings in a most blessed way.  If the almighty Lord would go so far as to take on your vulnerable human flesh, to die in the flesh and shed His blood, and then give you His resurrected flesh and blood for the forgiveness of your sins, certainly you can trust Him even in those times when there seems to be no reasonable answers to your questions.  For in the end, the answer to all of those questions, the solution to all of those problems is the One in the manger and on the cross and under the bread and the wine.  This is your strength for living in the new year.  And if you must suffer according to the will of God, commit your souls to Him in doing good, as to a faithful Creator.

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

Your King is Coming to You

Matthew 21:1-19
Advent 1

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

    It is written in the Psalms, “Wait on the LORD; Be of good courage, And He shall strengthen your heart; Wait, I say, on the LORD!”  “Evildoers shall be cut off; But those who wait on the LORD, they shall inherit the earth.”  And it is written in Isaiah, “Those who wait on the LORD Shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

    Yet even with those great promises of God, we are not a people who like to wait, on God or anything else.  Everything needs to be available within a couple of clicks.  People better answer our calls or texts without delay.  Christmas is four weeks away, so we’d better start celebrating and playing all the music and doing all the shopping right now.  What is it about the world–and even that bit of the world that resides in us–that can’t wait, that must do all the celebrating in advance so that by the time the actual holiday comes, you’re weary of the songs and the artificial cheer and you’re ready to move on, especially if things don’t quite live up to expectations?null

    I think the answer is to be found in the fact that for the world, there is no certainty about the future.  All they see looming in the distance is decay and death.  So what’s the point of waiting?  With the world it’s life, then death, so you’d better have your fun now before your time’s gone.  But that’s not the way of the church and the people of God.  For us, what we see in the distance is something far better than anything we will know in this world.  Christians know that the pattern that Jesus has laid down for us is death, then life, first humility, then exaltation, first repentance, then forgiveness and reconciliation and joy.  That’s why we have Lent before Easter, and it is why we have Advent before Christmas.  We can delay our gratification; we can afford to wait.  For we wait on the Lord, who will in the end give us the greatest joy and happiness in the fulfillment of His promises.  

    The world celebrates holidays backwards.  But the church has it right.  That’s why it’s not yet the Christmas season but the Advent season.  This is a time of penitent and hope-filled preparation.  This is a time not for mere sentimentality but to dwell more fervently on the Word of God to make ready the way of His coming to us–which is the reason for the additional midweek Advent services.  And even though we will follow the tradition of many churches of putting up the Christmas decorations on the third Sunday in Advent–which is called “Gaudete” or “Rejoice Ye” Sunday–we won’t light all the lights and candles until Christmas Eve.  We eagerly anticipate Christmas, but now’s not the time for the full celebration.  We don’t sing the “Glory Be to God on High” yet in the liturgy.  That’s the song of the angels at Jesus’ birth.  Now’s the time for waiting and discipline and preparing for the coming of our Lord in the flesh to save us.

    That’s why we have the somewhat unusual Gospel that we do today.  Advent means “coming” or “arrival.”  This Gospel teaches just how it is that our Lord comes to us–humbly, whether on a beast of burden or in a lowly manger.  Jesus comes not simply to be born; He is born to humble Himself even to the point of death on a cross, to give His life as a ransom to rescue us from sin and death and the devil.  “Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly and sitting on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

    Note that there are two donkeys that Jesus rides, an older one, the mother, and a younger one, a colt, the mother’s foal.  These two donkeys represent God’s Old and New Testament people.  First, Jesus rides the old, to show that He is the fulfillment of all that Israel was about and all that its prophets foretold.  Then Jesus rides the new, which is born from the old, the new Israel, which is the church.  Our Lord comes to make all things new by dying and rising again.  Out of the old order of death comes a new order of invincible life for us in Jesus.  He unites all believers, from the Old Testament and the New, from every nation and race, together as His true and everlasting Israel.

    And let us not forget that we are the donkey, a very stubborn animal, hard-headed, set in our sinful ways, eager to go our own direction.  And so Christ must ride us and gently but firmly drive us toward the cross.  He drives us to die with Him, to die to ourselves, so that we may also rise with Him to new life, real life.  He drives us to repentance through the Law so that through the Gospel we may have His full and free forgiveness.

    The people spread their clothes on the road before Christ.  This is a fitting sign of their repentance and their faith in Him.  For we must all lay aside our clothing.  St. Paul exhorts us, “Let us cast off the works of darkness and let us put on the armor of light.”  You too, then, must cast your clothes on the road before Christ, laying aside the stubborn works of your sinful nature.  For that is how you repent and prepare the way of the Lord.  Do not engage in gluttony and drunkenness.  Do not indulge in immoral passions and lusts.  Do not give way to strife and division and envy and pride.  For these things choke you off from the life of God.  

    Instead receive by faith the clothing that only God can provide.  “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”  For He is your righteousness, as Jeremiah says.  Jesus wore all of your dark, sin-stained clothing and made it His own so that you would be free from it.  Jesus Himself became the beast of burden, bearing and carrying the sin of the whole world to the cross.  He became Sin for you, so that you would become righteous before the Father by His holy sacrifice.  Jesus perished in the darkness so that you would wear His garments of light and live as children of the Day.   

    That’s the sort of king you have in Jesus, not one who coerces and forces His subjects to serve Him at the tip of a sword or with guns and bombs, but one who lays down His life to serve His subjects, who draws you to Himself through His self-giving.  Every other king sends out soldiers into battle to fight on His behalf.  But this King goes into battle Himself to fight on your behalf.  He rides not on an armor-clad stallion, but an animal of peace–for He comes to bring you peace, as the Christmas hymn sings, “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.”  This King will ascend His throne not by wearing a crown of gold but a crown of thorns, not by defending Himself but by becoming defenseless, dying so that you may live and escape from the enemy’s grasp.  This is the King who is coming to you.

    And notice that He’s the One doing the traveling.  You don’t have to go out searching for Him.  Jesus searches you out and comes to you.  You can’t get to God through your own spirituality or works or emotions.  But God can and does come to you in His grace, 100% of the way.  Without our asking or help, He came down from heaven right to where we’re at, right into our very body and soul, taking up our human nature in the womb of the Blessed Virgin.  He even went so far as to come into contact with the slime and the slop of our sin and death on the cross so that we would be cleansed and rescued from them by His precious blood.

    And our Lord still rides into this Jerusalem, this Mount Zion, meekly and humbly.  The gates of the city through which He enters among us are His words and sacraments.  There in simple water, in spoken and preached words, mounted upon bread and wine, the Lord Jesus comes to you to bring you His forgiveness and life, that He might live in you and you in Him forever–no Christmas-special glitter and fanfare, just beast-of-burden humility and love. So it is that before receiving the Sacrament, we sing the Sanctus, which contains the very same words that were shouted to Jesus in the Gospel, “Hosanna in the highest.  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”

    Let us all , then, come forth to meet our King Jesus with heartfelt Hosannas, casting our prayers and praises like palm branches on the path before Him.  Hosanna means “Save now.”  “Save us, Lord.”  It is a penitent cry of praise which is confident that the Lord will help us who wait on Him.  We know that Jesus comes to us here, to give us poor beggars His royal and divine treasure.  While the world madly rushes by with its mobbed stores and Black Fridays and small business Saturdays and Cyber Mondays, as people anxiously spend their money on treasures that wear out, here in churches that are too often ignored, that which does not wear out is freely obtained.  Here are gifts for you with an eternal guarantee, warrantied by Christ’s own blood.  Let us receive Him who alone gives real peace and lasting comfort and happiness, who comes to you humbly and lowly.  “Daughter of Zion, behold, your King is coming to you.  He is righteous and having salvation!”

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

Saved From Sin's Slavery Through Christ Alone


John 8:31-36, Romans 3:19-28
Reformation

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

    “Whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.”  Martin Luther knew well the meaning of those words.  He knew what it was like under the old papal system to feel enslaved to the Law, to be in captivity to his sins and unable to set himself free.  The thing he most felt was the burden of an angry God on his back, driving him, demanding a holy life and penance for sin.  So much did he want to escape his slavery that, instead of a becoming a lawyer like his father wanted, he thought becoming a monk might do the job.  If he just devoted himself fully to being righteous and worshiping God, perhaps then he could break free and the shackles would come off.  But things didn’t get better; in some ways constantly being reminded of the demands of a righteous God, constantly going to confession under the requirement of confessing every single sin only caused him to feel his chains all the more.  This attempt at righteousness by his own efforts and works became a torture.  “Whoever commits sin a slave of sin.”

    The same thing is true for us, too; only we tend to experience this in an opposite way.  In our culture, the wrath of an angry God isn’t what runs the show.  For us it’s the absence of any wrath at all that’s runs things, spiritual permissiveness, being free to do as we please.  And that supposed freedom is where we experience our slavery.  For the sins that we enjoy promise us freedom and happiness, but they only ensnare us and bind us and imprison us in the long run.  Our desires and passions end up ruling us.  The technologies that make us feel like we’re lords of our own lives end up being what we serve, what we chain ourselves to for hours a day.  Gluttony enslaves us to our belly and our food, as does alcoholism to drink.  Lust enslaves us to our passions, to pornography, to adulterous behavior that tears people apart.  Laziness enslaves us in a cycle of dependency and pessimism and excuse-making and blame.  Gossiping enslaves us to the never-ending game of one-upsmanship, and really only ends up tearing everyone down, including the gossiper.  Greed enslaves us to our possessions and all the things we have to do to get and hold on to our stuff.  Pride chains us to having to keep up our image and prop up the facade, when deep down we know it’s just hypocrisy.  And on and on it goes . . .  We may not be running for the monastery like Luther, but we, too, often find ourselves grasping at straws because we know that things aren’t right with us, that we’re not truly free.  “Whoever commits sin is a slave of sin.”  And the wages of sin is death. null

    Repent.  God doesn’t just accept your best efforts as being sufficient to make yourself right with Him.  He doesn’t just say, “Try your hardest, be sincere, do what is in you, and that’s good enough.”  What does His Word say?  “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”  It is a misuse of the Law to try to justify yourself.  We can often be successful in justifying ourselves and our behavior before others in this world.  But that just won’t fly before God.  Besides, if you’re trying to do a good deed so that you can get some sort of reward for yourself–in this world or the next–is that really a good work at all in God’s sight?  What did the Epistle say?  It said the purpose of the Law is “that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the Law no flesh [no one] will be justified in [God’s] sight.”  You can’t free yourself from the slavery of sin by your own doing.

    So what is our only hope of being saved and set free?  St. Paul writes in the Epistle, Since “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” we are “justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  Pay close attention to those words.  Don’t let them become passe’ because it’s familiar Lutheran talk.  You are justified freely by His grace–freely!  God grant that we never lose our gratitude for that!  It’s a gift of God to you, without any strings attached.  That’s what grace is, an undeserved gift of love.  God justifies you, He declares you righteous, He puts you right with Himself solely and completely based on the works of Christ Jesus His Son–not what you have done for God but what Christ has done for you.  

    And here is in particular is what Christ has done for you: the Epistle says that the Lord Jesus redeemed you.  In other words, He bought you back.  He found you in your slave chains, being driven and abused by sin and Satan, and He asserted Himself as your rightful owner, your gracious Master.  He purchased you out of your slavery with His holy precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.  He went so far as to trade places with you.  He allowed Himself to be enslaved, captured and condemned as if He were the sinner, guilty of every wrong that’s ever been done and every failure to do what’s right.  He was your stand-in on the cross to set you free, so that you stand in His place in “the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).  Through His death, Jesus conquered your slave masters so that they have no eternal power over you any more.  In the Son of God, Jesus, you are truly free–released, forgiven, alive–as Jesus Himself said, “If the Son sets you free, then you are free indeed.”

    Martin Luther puts it this way in the Large Catechism: “The Lord Jesus has redeemed me from sin, from the devil, from death, and all evil. For before, I had no Lord nor King, but was captive under the power of the devil, condemned to death, enmeshed in sin and blindness.  For when we had been created by God the Father, and had received from Him all manner of good, the devil came and led us into disobedience, sin, death, and all evil, so that we fell under His wrath and displeasure and were doomed to eternal damnation, as we had merited and deserved.  There was no counsel, help, or comfort until this only and eternal Son of God in His unfathomable goodness had compassion upon our misery and wretchedness, and came from heaven to help us.  Those tyrants and jailers, then, are all expelled now, and in their place has come Jesus Christ, Lord of life, righteousness, every blessing, and salvation, and has delivered us poor lost men from the jaws of hell, has won us, made us free, and brought us again into the favor and grace of the Father, and has taken us as His own property under His shelter and protection, that He may govern us by His righteousness, wisdom, power, life, and blessedness.”

    This is where Martin Luther finally found his liberty.  Before, he had understood the righteousness of God to be referring to God’s righteous demands on us, what we must do to get into God’s good graces.  But then, when studying the Scriptures, he came to understand the truth of the Gospel in Romans 1, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes . . .  for in it the righteousness of God is revealed.”  In other words, the Gospel makes known the righteousness of God, not as demands on you, but as a gift to you.  God gives you His righteousness, so that through faith in Christ, you are clean and guiltless in His sight.  Believe that.  God declares it to be so through Jesus and what He has done for you.

    That understanding of the Gospel, which had largely been lost, made all the difference for Luther.  And so began the Reformation and the restoration of the Gospel to its rightful place in the Church, a heritage we are beneficiaries of down to this very day.

    We summarize this belief with the four so-called “solas” of the Reformation: Grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone, and Christ alone.  Eternal life and a right relationship with God are a pure gift of His grace alone, not because of anything we have done.  We receive that grace by faith alone, apart from our decisions and spiritual efforts.  Our faith is in Christ alone and in no one and nothing else.  And God brings us to faith and keeps us in the faith through His life-giving Word alone and not by anything that comes from within us; all our teaching comes from Scripture and not man-made wisdom or tradition.  To sum this all up, all the glory for our salvation belongs not to us but to God and His abundant mercy.  All boasting on our part is excluded.  Romans 3 states, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith [in Christ] apart from the deeds of the Law.”

    So hear the Word of God to you this day clearly: you have been set free in Jesus.  And remember, then, what you have been freed for: You are freed from slavery to sin so that you might have a new life, the life of Christ in the household of God.  Jesus said, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.”  To abide in Jesus’ word is to continue to receive His Word in the many ways that it comes to you and find your life in it.  It is to live in the gift of your baptism, where the Word of God was applied to you with the water, drowning the old Adam and bringing you forth to a new life.  It is to hear the preaching and teaching of the Gospel, by which the Word is applied to you and its gifts are given to you.  And it is to receive the Lord’s Supper, where the Word made flesh is truly present, giving you His flesh and blood for the forgiveness of sins.  Our freedom from sin’s slavery is freedom for life with God.  That’s what we set our hearts on; that’s our goal: to be with the One who made us and redeemed us, to live in fellowship with Him, to bask in His presence, to glory in His gifts to us, to worship Him forever.

    The Reformation was about standing against anything that stood in the way of that: whether it’s the Pope with His man-centered works-righteousness, or whether it’s radical reformed churches that reject the words and promises of Christ in the sacraments and instead make it all about man-centered personal spiritual experiences.  False teaching on both sides had to be rejected.  No, Jesus said, “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.”  The Word in the water, the Word proclaimed from the pulpit, the Word in the bread and wine.  Abide in this, continue in this, trust in this, and you are Christ’s disciple, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free–free children of God who will abide in His house forever.

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

Created By the Word

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Genesis 1:1 - 2:3
Trinity 21

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

    “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” All things have a beginning except God.  He alone is eternal and uncreated.  We reject the evolutionist belief that the stuff of this universe has always been here and somehow formed itself into what we see now.  For then we would be declaring the universe to be eternal, making a god out of creation rather than the Creator.  That is the very definition of idolatry.

    The God who created all things out of nothing is the Triune God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–three eternal Persons in one divine Being.  Even in the beginning, we have a glimpse of God in His three-in-oneness. The Father creates. The Word of the Son is spoken. The Spirit of God hovers over the water. The Father creates through the Word, His Son, and He does it by the Holy Spirit who is in and with the water. You can see here that creation and baptism are intimately connected with one another.  Both are beginnings, creation and new creation, the work of the Father through the Son in the Spirit with the water.

    Interestingly, the Gospel of John in the New Testament begins just like Genesis, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  Through Him all things were made.”  The Word is Jesus, the Word made Flesh. Through the living Word of His Son, God created everything out of nothing. “Let there be light,” the Word says, “and there was light.” The Word is powerful and creative.  He brings about what He says.  Through the Word all things were made–water and sky, plants and trees, fish and birds, animals and man. All creatures owe their existence to Christ the Word, whether they know Him or not.  In fact, it is written in Colossians 1 that not only were all things were created through the Son of God but that in Him all things hold together still.  Jesus is the Logos, He is the logic, the wisdom of the universe.  The Laws of nature, the intricate complexities of the smallest strand of DNA to the largest galaxy, the beauty and the orderliness and the liveliness of creation all find their source in Him.  

    One of the many reasons we reject the theory of evolution, then, is because it’s opposed to this Scriptural truth of the centrality of Christ.  It imagines that all this beauty and order and life can be produced by chance random processes, that chaos can order itself, without any person doing the designing and organizing and sustaining.  To use a familiar example: if I were to say that an auto assembly plant exploded, and out of that Big Bang, after a long, long time, came a perfectly assembled car, you’d think I was a little nuts.  And yet what evolution proposes is infinitely more improbable than that; for our eyes, our brains, our DNA are vastly more complex in their design than a car.  Not only does evolution fail to say where all the stuff in the universe came from (which is no small matter); the key question that evolution has yet to explain is:  how can life come from something that’s not alive, as evolution proposes?  Such a thing has never ever been done in the laboratory in even the most rudimentary way.  We know that life only comes from another living thing, and that the Source of all life is God.  The fact that there are similarities among living things is not a sign that we have the same ancestors, but that we have the same Creator.  Our God is like a great artist who in His creatures shows a definite style to His work.  

    Of course, there are some who try to embrace both sides of the debate:  Believe in God and believe in evolution.  They propose that God created all things through the process of evolution.  But that is mere fantasy and a delusion when compared to Scripture.  For not only do the time frames not work–7 ordinary days of evening and morning vs. billions and billions of years–but the way in which all life, especially human life, comes into being couldn’t be more different.  For the evolutionist, to get to human beings like you and me, death has to be in existence right from the start.  It’s a necessary factor in the process of only the strong surviving and supposedly developing into higher and higher forms of life.  There’s all sorts of death and bloodshed before human beings ever come on the scene.  But there is no death at all in Genesis 1 and 2, not even among the animals.  Full-fledged human beings are present before there is any death.  What does Scripture say? “The wages of sin is death.”  First God creates human beings, and then there’s death after they fall into sin.  Evolution turns that Scriptural truth completely upside down and replaces it with a lie.  For by denying that death is the wages of sin, it denies the need for a Savior from sin.  It denies Christ.  It undermines the Gospel which says that Christ took the wages of death upon Himself to free us from the curse of sin when He died in our place on the cross.  Denying the Biblical narrative of creation undermines and contradicts belief in Jesus.  For Jesus is the creative Word made flesh who alone breaks the curse of sin on this fallen world by His death and resurrection and brings the new creation.

    It is only after the fall of mankind in the Garden that we see and experience death and disorder and decay all around us. It is written, “The whole creation groans.” The groanings can be heard in the earthquakes and tornadoes and hurricanes and fires that turn order into a pile of disordered rubble. Many creatures no longer multiply as they once did. Species go extinct.  Weeds grow in our garden. Our attempts to rule over and use this creation often end up harming creation.
    
    Above all, we see that death and disorder in ourselves.  Our first parents, Adam and Eve, turned away from God’s creative and ordering Word and believed the father of lies, who said that God is not to be trusted.  The Lie turned the creature against the Creator.  Turned inward on ourselves, the image of God is broken in us.  There is disorder in our homes and our relationships with others.  There is disorder in our hearts, where what we desire and what we know is right are  in conflict.  There is disorder in our bodies, where sickness and bodily ailments take their toll, leaving us finally in the disordered dust of the grave.  

    This is how it is.  The Word brings life.  The Lie brings death.  The Word says, “Be fruitful and multiply.”  The Lie says, “Children are a burden, not a blessing.  Better not have too many.  Separate the sexual relationship from the creation of life.”  The Word says, “The two shall become one flesh.”  The Lie says, “You don’t need God to join you together in the life of marriage to have sex.  Follow your heart’s desires and needs and passions.”  The Word says, “Male and female He created them.”  The Lie says, “Male and male is fine; female and female is fine.  People should be free to love whomever they want, even to live according to whatever gender they choose.”  The Word says, “Have dominion over creation; fill the earth and subdue it.  Continue God’s creative and ordering work.”  The Lie says, “Human beings have no more right to life than the animals, perhaps even less than they do.”  The Word says, “God is your Father; you shall be as He is.”  The Lie says, “The animals are your ancestors; you shall behave as they do.”  The Lie says, “You’re fine just the way you are; no need to change.”  The Word says, “Repent, and believe the Gospel.”  

    And here is that Gospel: Just as He did in the very beginning, yet again 2000 years ago God spoke His Word into the chaos and darkness of this fallen world.  The Father spoke His Word by the Spirit to a young girl named Mary, and the creative Word was made Flesh in her womb. The creative and ordering Word who made all things and set them in order in the beginning was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary in the person of Jesus.

    Jesus entered this world bearing our humanity to set things in order once again, to battle the darkness and the disorder. He healed the diseased. He cast out demons. He brought mercy and forgiveness to tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners, calling them out of darkness into His marvelous light.  He brought order to our disordered humanity.  He undid the damage of the Lie and took the curse of the Law against our rebellion.  Jesus took into Himself the disorder and the darkness and the decay and the death and He put it all to death in His body on the cross.

    When Jesus rose bodily from the grave on the first day of the week, a new creation dawned. It is the chief reason that Sunday is called the Lord’s Day in the new testament. The resurrection marks the beginning of a new creation. Just as light first shone into the darkness on the first day of the old creation, so the light of Christ broke through the darkness of our death on the first day of the week. A new creation has broken in even as this old one is passing away.

    And the creation account itself in Genesis actually foretells and foreshadows this saving work of Christ.  For notice how the days are marked: it’s not morning and then evening the way we usually think of it, but first evening and then morning.  First it’s darkness, then it’s light.  First it’s the shadow of death, then it’s the light of life.  Jesus dies in the darkness of Good Friday to subdue creation, which literally shook at His death, and then He rises at the dawn of Easter on the first day of the week to be the Light of the world, to put an end to death and to bring about a new creation.

    Man was created on the sixth day, and then God rested on the seventh.  In Jesus who is the new Adam, man was redeemed and recreated on the 6th day of the week, Good Friday.  He then rested in the tomb on the seventh day, having finished His work of redemption.  And He rose again to bring about an eternal eighth day, a day of unending light and life.  The Scriptures say that in the new creation there will be no night.  For the Lord God will be its light at all times, and the Lamb will be its lamp.  We will need no rest; for He Himself is our rest and our peace.  For from Him flows mercy and forgiveness and life.  In Jesus the image of God is restored to us.  In Jesus our lost humanity is given back to us, and we are made fully human again, prepared body and soul to live in the joys of God’s presence.

    And again, all of this is accomplished by the words of God.  He speaks, and it is so.  “Let there be light,” and there was light.  Jesus says to the nobleman in the Gospel, “Your son lives,” and indeed he lives and is well.  Jesus’ Word accomplishes what it says.  And so it is for you.  Jesus speaks His Word to you, and His Word creates what He says.  “Be still and know that I am God.”  And your hearts and minds are stilled and calmed.  “I forgive you all your sins.”  And your sins are truly removed from you as far as the east is from the west.  “This is My body; this is my blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”  And indeed, by that Word, the bread actually is His body and the wine actually is His blood, that you may be cleansed and filled with His life and light.  God’s creative Word is still in effect for you.  Like the nobleman in the Gospel, trust in that Word.  Cling to it.  Believe it that you may receive its blessing.  For only the Word of Christ can recreate you and put you back in order again.  It is written, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold the new has come.”  “Then God saw everything that He had made in Christ, and indeed it was very good.”

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

(The first paragraphs above are adapted from a sermon by the Rev. William Cwirla.)

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