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God is My Help

Luke 16:19-31
Trinity 1

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

    Unbelief makes a person blind.  All the while he thinks he’s being religious and doing the right thing, he can’t see that he’s really still self-absorbed and in rebellion against God.  Just consider the rich man in today’s Gospel.  Even after he dies, even after he knows that he has separated himself from God forever, notice that nothing really changes with him.  The same beggar that he apparently ignored while he was alive, he now still treats selfishly, wanting to use and control him for his own purposes.  “Send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue.”  “Send Lazarus back from the dead to my brothers, so that they don’t also come here to this place of torment.”  Lazarus was still not fully a person in the rich man’s mind, just someone who could be used to do something he wanted done.

 Of course, it is a good thing that the rich man was thinking of his brothers.  He could at least care about his own flesh and blood.  But even here, we see most profoundly how the rich man was still an unbeliever.  For after he begs Abraham to send Lazarus back to his brothers, he completely rejects Abraham’s holy reply.  Abraham says to him, “They have Moses and the prophets; let [your brothers] hear them.”  In other words, “Your brothers have the Scriptures, the Word of God, which alone has the power to bring about true repentance and saving faith.  That’s what they desperately need to listen to.”  But the rich man actually has the gall to contradict our father in the faith.  “No, father Abraham; but if one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”  The rich man is still the rebellious child, thinking he knows better.  No, father Abraham.  I don’t believe you; I don’t trust in the power of God’s Word to help in this situation.  My brothers need something better, something more than the Scriptures.  No, they need to see a miracle, something to shake them up to really make them repent.

    This reveals the rich man’s fundamental problem.  He doesn’t have faith in God’s Word, before or after death.  Take note of this; this is key:  It’s not as if once an unbeliever dies, he suddenly becomes a believer, but it’s just too late.  No, the lack of love for God and the lack of trust in God remains.  During his life, even though the rich man probably would have gone to hear God’s Word on the Sabbath as a good citizen, he was blind to its message, blind to the presence and power of God there to save, and blind to the Messiah it spoke of.  And so he was also blind to the need of his neighbor laid right there at his gate.  All he could see were the things that helped out his business, how his religious living helped to give him a good reputation and honor in the community, how secure he felt having the things he had come to possess.  In the end, because he lived without the Lord in any real way, he also dies forever without the Lord.  He only sees from the greatest distance and never experiences or knows the Lord’s goodness that had been freely offered him.

    There is a rich man also in every one of you, your old Adam; and he too is blind.  All he can see is what he wants to see, what fits in with his way of thinking, what serves his purposes.  When there’s a problem, your fallen nature thinks, “if only my spouse or my friends or co-workers would just see things my way, then everything would be better; everything would be right.”  Ironically, we selfishly want everyone else to repent of their selfishness.  Your old Adam is always trying to lead you to avoid those who can’t do anything for you.  He finds his security and happiness in having a cushion in the bank account, and can’t seem to feel any love for God when the finances go south.  It is that old nature in you which likes religion, but only to the extent that it brings success or makes you look good to others and feel better about yourself.  It is that part of you which still believes that a key factor in how you get into good standing with God somehow has to do with the fact that you’ve tried hard to live a decent life.

    Repent of this.  Take your place not with those whom the world loves, but with humble Lazarus.  Return to your baptism and drown the old ways.  Your old Adam is not the real you, not in God’s sight.  He has given you a new life in Christ.  That is your true identity; that is who you are, a beloved child of God.  With empty, open hands, receive the good gifts God freely places into them.

    Lazarus is one who most certainly heard Moses and the prophets in true faith.  Stripped of all the entanglements of this world, there was nothing to blind him to his true condition or the only place where there was real help for him.  The Word of God was his hope, as his name indicated– “Lazarus” which is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Eliezer, meaning “God is My Help.”  Even though Lazarus longed for crumbs from the table like a dog, even though the street dogs were his company and licked his wounds, even though in this world Lazarus had nothing–not even his health–in truth, Lazarus found what he was seeking.  He found mercy that endures forever.  He received Living Water and Bread from Heaven. He obtained perfect satisfaction and health.  It was all there for him in Moses and the prophets.  For there in Moses and the prophets was the Messiah, Jesus, his Help and his Savior.  

    In the Scriptures, Lazarus found a Messiah whom he could identify with.  Isaiah prophesies that the Christ is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, despised and rejected by men, one without any attractiveness that we should desire to be near Him.  Jesus Himself said in the Psalms that He was surrounded by unbelieving dogs who mocked Him in His pain, who pierced His hands and His feet.  And yet, Isaiah says, “He Himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses. . .  And by His wounds we are healed.”  The blood that flowed from those wounds cleansed us of our sin and bought our eternal healing, the restoration and resurrection of our bodies to glory on the Last Day.

    Truly Jesus made Himself to be just like Lazarus for us.  For notice how Lazarus is comforted there in the bosom of father Abraham, laying on his chest.  That is a clear picture for us of the first two persons of the Trinity, the eternal Father and Son.  John 1 states, “No one has seen God at any time.”  But, “The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known.”  Jesus made the love of the Father known and manifested it to us by coming down from heaven into the midst of our poverty and affliction.  He did this in order to raise us up and bring us back with Himself to the Father’s embrace and the true riches of heaven, which do not pass away.

    Lazarus was a real son of Abraham, not only by blood, but also because he had the same faith as Abraham.  Remember how the elderly, childless Abraham was told by God that he would be the father of many nations, that his descendants would be as countless as the stars.  And even though Abraham had no evidence or experience to go on, he believed God’s promise, and God credited it to him as righteousness.  Abraham was righteous by faith alone.  And so was Lazarus.  Lazarus, too, trusted in God’s promise that He would not forsake the lowly, that no one who puts his trust in Him would ever be put to shame, that the Lord saves those who have a humble and contrite and penitent heart.  Even when all of the evidence and experience of Lazarus’ life said that God had forsaken him, he still clung to God’s promise.  By that faith he was accounted righteous before God.  He was saved.

    And here’s where it all comes home, then, also for you.  The evidence and experience of your life may seem to suggest that God doesn’t like you, that He’s forgotten you.  You may have this nagging feeling that you’re not going to heaven, that there’s no way to escape hell because of what you’ve done or because of the things that have happened to you.  But don’t judge God by what you see or feel.  Instead, go by His Word and His promises.  Trust that what He says is true and real.  For God does not lie; He does not break His Word.  He will come through for you–maybe not the way you want right now; maybe not even in this life.  But most assuredly He will do so in the life to come.  For He has conquered your sin and death by His own death and resurrection.  Through faith in Him, you are accounted righteous before God.  You are holy in His sight, without a single flaw.  The comfort and happiness of heaven is yours, entirely by the grace of God.  You don’t have to earn it by your works.  It’s all a gift of Christ’s rich love for you.  Believe it.

    Those who are like the rich man refuse to believe this.  They want a god who rewards people based on merit, and so they get what they deserve, the fire of hell.  Abraham reminds us that even if someone like Lazarus were to rise from the dead, that wouldn’t cause anyone to believe who didn’t already believe Moses and the prophets.  In fact, some have suggested that this Lazarus is the one that Jesus did raise from the dead right before Holy Week.  That miracle caused the rich Pharisees and chief priests to plot Jesus’ death even more fervently.  So beware of desiring miracles and signs, needing to see such things before you’ll believe.  Miracles don’t create faith.  If God gives them, they only confirm the faith that He has already worked through His Word and Spirit alone.  

    The unbelieving rich man is given no name by Jesus.  But like Lazarus, you have been given a name by God in holy baptism as His beloved child.  The Lord did more than dip the tip of His finger in the water; He reached in with His whole self and doused you with His Spirit, that you may know that God is your Help.  Let us, then, be like Lazarus in spirit–poor, weak, dependent on the Lord, satisfied with no other food than what comes from His holy table, eating the rich crumbs of the Bread of Life that satisfy completely.  Then you may die unfearing; for God’s own angels will bear you home to His side in Christ.  And in the resurrection you will with your own eyes behold the Son of God’s glorious face, your Savior and your fount of grace.  

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

Blessed Be the Holy Trinity

John 3:1-17

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

    Every year on Trinity Sunday we say the words of the Athanasian Creed, words which speak about the catholic faith.  And I’m sure every year, some of you think to yourselves, “Why do we still have to use that word ‘catholic?’  We’re Lutherans!”  You remember, of course, that there’s a big difference between Roman Catholic with a capital “C” and catholic with a small “c” as in “the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church,” which was the original wording of the creeds.  In the other creeds we use the word “Christian” rather than “catholic” to avoid confusion.  But the two words really mean the same thing.  The catholic faith means the one true faith delivered through the apostles and prophets and recorded for us in the Scriptures, the one, universal faith which has been confessed by the true church in all places at all times, the faith which trusts in Jesus Christ alone as the Savior, which worships the Blessed Holy Trinity as the only true God. 

    This is the faith we hold to and which every generation of Christians has held to before us back to the time of the apostles and Christ Himself.  We will settle for no other; we will allow no compromise.  Any one who confesses something different is not catholic; which is to say, he’s not Christian, whether he is Lutheran or Baptist or Roman Catholic or the pope himself.  The fact of the matter is that in several important respects, the pope is not catholic.  For instance, he teaches that there can be salvation for those who do not hold to the Trinitarian faith, including some Jews and Muslims–even though Jesus specifically said, “He who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me.”  Anyone who utters words other than what has been delivered to us from the apostolic Scriptures is not uttering the words of the catholic, Christian faith.  

    That’s why the Athanasian Creed is very particular on this doctrine of the Trinity.  On the basis of the Scriptures, it says this, “Except a man believe (this) faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.”  There is no salvation, no eternal life apart from faith in this Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; this Jesus, the Son of God who became flesh to redeem us.  You cannot be saved if you trust in something different than this.

    And this is where we bump up against our culture.  It sounds exclusionary to talk this way, especially in a context where everything is about diversity and inclusion.  It may even sound a bit arrogant to some, as if we’re better than everyone else.  But that’s not at all what we’re saying; in fact, just the opposite.  We speak this way because we know that there is only one way for humans to be reconciled with God, and that is through Jesus, who is both God and man in one undivided person.  It’s not about us, it’s about Him, the only Son of the Father, through whom the Holy Spirit is given.  This faith is not exclusionary, since it is a free gift for everyone who believes, no matter who you are or where you’re from.  But it is a faith that cannot include falsehood or embrace false, diverse gods; for to do that is to reject Him who is the Truth incarnate.

    And so in a world which tries to blur distinctions and encourages acceptance of false belief, it is good that we confess the Athanasian Creed.  We don’t worship a single-person god, as do the Muslims and the Jews; we don’t believe in multiple gods, as do the Mormons; we don’t believe in a god who is just an impersonal force in the universe, as do Buddhists and Hindus and New age types; we don’t even worship a generic god, “the man upstairs,” as so many of our neighbors do.  We worship the three-in-one God who is love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the God who creates and sustains us, the Son of God who became the Son of Man to deliver us from sin and death, the Spirit of God who sanctifies us and gives us everlasting life.

    It’s not easy for us to confess that faith out in the world, is it?  It’s easier just to keep quiet and avoid possible trouble.  We don’t want to be stereotyped; we don’t want to be thought of as weird.  And so we often keep what we believe secret, unless we’re sure it’s safe.  We’re tempted to think and talk one way in here and another way out there.  That’s what Nicodemus was doing in today’s Gospel.  He came to Jesus at night.  It is written elsewhere in the Scriptures that Nicodemus was a follower of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews.  Nicodemus was a member of the Jewish ruling council.  And that council saw Jesus as trouble, a rabble rouser and a blasphemer who needed to be silenced.  And so Nicodemus felt the pressure to conform and maintain the status quo, even as we know all too well the pressure to conform to this world and follow its ways, especially this month.

    But Nicodemus was beginning to be drawn in by the words of Jesus.  Those words of life were beginning to penetrate his heart.  He was beginning to want something that he didn’t have, just as every sinner, whether he admits it or not, knows that he’s missing something without Christ.  Our hearts are indeed restless until they rest in Him.

    So Nicodemus comes with his restless heart to Jesus by night.  And he says, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.”  Nicodemus reasons that Jesus must be from God, because He’s able to do these signs and miracles.  And so Nicodemus figures that Jesus might be able to help him to get his spiritual life together, get his religion right.  But Jesus responds in a way that shows that this teacher of Israel didn’t understand and was really missing the point.  The Christian faith is not about getting your life together, it’s about getting a whole new life.  It’s not doing something of yourself to get in touch with God, it’s about being reborn in Christ.  Jesus said, “Most assuredly I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

    In your fallen state, you cannot see God and live; you cannot behold or be a part of His kingdom.  And so your old life must pass away and you must be born again.  You must receive a new and holy life that is acceptable to stand in God’s presence and to enter His kingdom.  And that life is given to you by Christ.  For He lived a life that is perfectly holy and without sin.  He fulfilled the commandments entirely and kept the Law of love completely, even to the point of laying down His life.  Now He is risen from the dead in the flesh to pour out His life by the Holy Spirit on all who believe.  Jesus said, “Most assuredly I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”  

    It is in holy baptism, then, that you are reborn in Christ through the seed of the living Word.  You are not born again through some decision of your own, any more than you had a part in deciding to be born the first time.  Rather, you are born again as children of God purely by the gracious will of your heavenly Father.  Just as our Lord Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, so you are conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Church in the waters of baptism.  That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and passes away.  But that which is born of the Spirit is spirit and does not pass away.  Therefore, the old Adam, the perishable sinful nature which still hangs with you, must be put down and drowned through daily repentance.  Then walking by faith in the risen Christ, He will daily emerge and arise in you to live before the Father in righteousness and purity forever.

    Later this same night, Jesus said to Nicodemus, “Everyone practicing evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.”  We hate coming to the light; it’s easier to hang around in the shadows, because in the light all the blemishes of our sin are exposed.  It’s not easy to come to confession; it’s not easy to kneel at this altar rail as a sinner needing help.  But when you come to the Light with penitent faith in Jesus, just as Nicodemus came through the darkness to Him who is the Light of the world, Christ will not castigate and reject you.  For if we confess our sins, God if faithful and just to forgive our sins.  He cleanses us from all unrighteousness by giving us His purifying blood and holy body at His table.  “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.”  What good news that is!  Jesus did not come to damn you but to rescue you.  He did not come to convict you but to pardon you.  Jesus did not come to lay new rules and requirements on you, but to take your burdens and sins on Himself and put them to death in His body on the cross, that you may have life and have it abundantly.

    “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.”  There is no one to whom that verse does not apply.  God so loved you that He gave His only begotten Son for you, that believing in Him you shall not perish but have everlasting life.  

    This is why we hold tenaciously to Scriptural confessions of faith like the Athanasian Creed and reject anything that is contrary to it.  It’s not out of an arrogant “We’re right, everyone else is wrong” kind of attitude.  Rather, we know that this is the only true God who is love; this Jesus is the only one who is the way, the truth, and the life.  And no one comes to the Father except through Him.  Here’s the only medicine that can heal you.  All the others are just quacks.  Ultimately it is out of love for our neighbor that we reject all false religion, so that they may know and believe the saving truth of the Holy Trinity–the Father who created us and who loves even us fallen creatures, the Son who demonstrates that love by taking on our flesh and redeeming us with His precious blood, and the Holy Spirit who pours out that love upon us by means of His words and sacraments.  This is our God.  This is our Lord.  We desire no other.

    Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the Undivided Unity: let us give glory to Him because he has shown mercy to us!  For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things, to whom be glory forever. Amen.

Scars of Blessing

Luke 24:44-53
The Ascension of our Lord

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

    We know we shouldn’t focus on it.  And yet whenever we see a person with a noticeable scar or some sort of disfigurement, our eyes are initially drawn to that.  That first glance isn’t necessarily intentional.  In fact, we feel a twinge of guilt when we realize what we’re doing.  But before we can think about it, that’s where our eyes go–and not just with strangers, but even sometimes with the long-time acquaintance who lost part of a finger or the friend who has that burn scar or the relative who had to get all those stitches.

    There’s a story behind every scar that will often tell you something important about that person.  Of course we know, too, that many scars are invisible, and yet they run deep into the heart and soul of a person.  Everyone has these scars. Even the prettiest woman, the most handsome man, the most self-confident people have scars that cause them hurt or anger or shame–emotional scars.  If you really want to know a person and love them, very often those scars are what you need to pay attention to.

    During this Easter season we have seen that Jesus, too, is known by His scars.  That’s how the disciples first know the risen Jesus as the crucified conqueror.  Even after His glorious resurrection, Jesus retains those scars in His hands and feet and side, because they are the everlasting signs of His sacrificial love.  It’s the story behind those scars that tell us who Jesus is for us.  This is how He wants to be known.  These are scars we definitely should focus on.

    And that point is emphasized in our Lord’s Ascension.  Don’t let your picture of the Ascension get too sentimentalized and fuzzy with puffy clouds and flowing robes.  For what did Jesus do as He was parted from the disciples?  It says that He lifted up His hands and blessed them.  In other words, He presented His scars, the wounds by which we are healed in both body and soul, the wounds that cover our scars and the disfigurement of our sin.  It is from those nail-scarred hands that the blessing of forgiveness and life flows.  That is the final visible picture that Jesus leaves us with before He comes again on the Last Day.  He ascends to the right hand of the Father to bless us eternally, to present those scars forever to His Father and to us.

    Always hold on to that truth of the Ascension, that Christ the crucified is Lord over all things for the blessing of His beloved church.  For when we forget that truth, that’s when we can sometimes begin to succumb to doubt, to wonder if the Lord is even paying attention, that all of our troubles and difficulties are escaping His notice.  When we stop looking to His scars, we start wallowing in our own.  Or we can begin to behave as if the Lord doesn’t see what we’re thinking and doing at all, that we can pretty much get away with living as we please.  Like a little child, we think that if we can’t see Him, He doesn’t see us.  That is when the scars from what we’ve done and from what others have done to us multiply and fester.  And then we meditate on the scars and become bitter.

    Repent of all of that.  Look away from yourself to the scars of Jesus that He presents to you with outstretched arms from heaven’s throne.  God’s Word proclaims to you that right now, Jesus is speaking on your behalf with the heavenly Father by virtue of those scars, so that your scars and sins might be covered as with a beautiful garment, and healed and taken away.  It is written, “Christ Jesus, who died, more than that, who was raised to life, is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”

    You may recall that in ancient kingdoms, it was the job of the “right hand man” to receive petitions and requests and pass them on to the king.  In the throne room you would not address the king directly, but would speak to the king through the “right hand man.”  So it is with Christ.  He is the Father’s “right hand man” who receives your prayers and petitions and intercedes on your behalf with the Father.  And because of His Son’s righteousness, because of Jesus’ sacrificial scars, God the Father hears and acts upon your prayers according to His wisdom and mercy.  It is written in 1 John, “If anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.  And He Himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the whole world.”

    This is why Jesus’ ascension is so important.  It means that your salvation is complete and secure in Him.  It is written in Hebrews, “After He had provided purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.”  You cannot purify yourself of your sins.  No  amount of “clean” living can do that in the sight of a holy God.  But Jesus provided purification for you on the cross.  As it is written, “The blood of Jesus, God’s Son, purifies us from all sins.”

    And Jesus’ resurrection and ascension show that the Father has now accepted Jesus’ sacrifice for you.  His being seated at the Father’s right hand demonstrates that Jesus accomplished the mission He was given.  God the Father has embraced and honored His Son’s redeeming work and has received Him back to His side.  Your human nature has been fully restored and exalted in the ascended Christ.  Because Jesus has been received into heaven, so will you also who believe in Him.  Jesus’ ascension has paved and opened the way for you to receive everlasting life.  His death means that you have died to sin.  His resurrection means that you have been given new life.  And His ascension means that you also will ascend to glory in God’s presence.

    In fact, the truth is that in Christ, you have already ascended into heaven.  Ephesians 2 says, “Even when we were dead in trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ . . . and raised us up together and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”    Those are truly amazing words if you hear them clearly.  Heaven is already yours, Paul says, because Jesus is already there, and you are baptized into Him.  Colossians 3 puts it this way: “You died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  The baptized have died to the sin and Satan and the world at the font, Christ has now become the very life of those who believe.  Therefore, what is true for Him is true also for you.  Your flesh and blood is on the throne of God.  Your blood brother Jesus is there, and therefore you who are members of His body are there, too.  

    That is your comfort and your healing for the wounds and the disfigurement that sin inflicts on you in this fallen world.  When you begin to waver in your Christian hope, when you aren’t sure whether or not God loves you or has saved you, just remember Jesus’ Ascension; just remember that you are a member of His body by your baptismal faith and cling to that truth.  You’ve already gone to heaven, for Jesus is at the right hand of God as the Mighty Conqueror.  It is as Romans 8 puts it: “If God is for us, who can be against us? . . .  In all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, . . . nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  The Lord, who has begun His good work in you, will bring it to completion in the Day of His return.

    And even when life just seems to be random and chaotic, no clear sense of purpose, the Ascension of our Lord is a reminder that He is still directing all things toward the ultimate well-being of His people, including you.  It is also written in Romans 8, “God works all things together for the good of those who love Him, who are the called according to His purpose.”  That’s you, the called ones, the baptized.  Therefore you may know and trust that the Lord will never forsake you.  The Ascension of Jesus to the right hand of the Father is a call for you to believe that He is working even now for your eternal good.  Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords for the Church, for you.

    The two angels said, “This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come again in the same way you saw Him go into heaven.”  Jesus ascended and a cloud received Him out of their sight.  And Jesus said of His return,“They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”  Your hope, then, is centered not in this world but in the one to come.  Your life is in Christ.  Therefore, the Scriptures exhort you, “Seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God.  Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. . .  When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.”

    And all of that because of Jesus’ blessed scars, the signs of His love and self-giving which reconcile you to the Father and to one another.  Pray, then, that the Holy Spirit would always give you eyes to see Christ’s scarred, sacramental hands raised in blessing over you.  Fix your eyes on them.  For in His hands are the marks of life.

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

I Have Overcome the World

John 16:23-33

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

    In the Gospel appointed for today, our Lord Jesus makes reference seven times to the Father.  On the secular calendar, today is the occasion in which we honor our mothers.  But there is no conflict between the two.  For not only are motherhood and fatherhood inseparably connected with each other, both are instituted and given by God.  Our Lord gave tremendous honor to motherhood by being born of woman. 1 Timothy 2 even goes so far as to say that woman is saved through childbearing; for every birth points us to the birth of Christ our Savior in the flesh.

    The early church father Cyprian said that you can’t have God as your Father without having the church as your mother.  Martin Luther said, “The Christian church is your mother, who gives birth to you and bears you through the Word of Christ.”  

    So just as every Christian has a Father in heaven, every Christian likewise has a spiritual mother, the church.  Our Lord Jesus told us that we must be born again.  And just as our earthly mothers birthed us amid water and blood and pain and joy, so too we are given new life in the Church at the baptismal font where the cleansing water and blood flows from Christ’s side–from the pain of the Lord’s suffering and from the joy of the Lord’s resurrection.  Each one of us has been given this new birth, having a Father in heaven and a spiritual mother on earth, who continues to nurture us all our lives with the words and body and blood of Jesus, with the preached Gospel of the forgiveness of sins in Christ.

    We need this ongoing nurture and care week by week throughout our lives because of a truth that Jesus speaks at the end of today’s Gospel.  He says quite bluntly and straightforwardly, “In the world you will have tribulation...”  In this life, our Lord Jesus Christ doesn’t promise us prosperity and wealth, freedom from illness and pain, or a life untouched by physical and spiritual struggle–far from it.  Of course, there are plenty of religious hustlers out there selling that nonsense.  But what does our Lord tell us?  He speaks plainly and without figures of speech, saying: “In the world, you will have tribulation.”

    Earlier in this same chapter of John 16, Jesus tells us to expect to be ostracized for the sake of His name, and that people who try to kill us will actually think they are doing a good and moral deed.  The Greek word for tribulation here literally means “pressure” or even “constriction,” like a snake trying to squeeze its prey.  Even though most of us today are not being threatened with death, we do face real pressure to compromise our faith from “respectable” and supposedly smart people who mock Christianity, who scoff at God’s Word.  We also have time pressure: the cares and worries of this life that choke out our time and energy to pray, to attend Divine Service, to teach our children the catechism, to study God’s Word, to volunteer to serve the body of Christ. And we have the pressure of the sinful flesh: our own greed and laziness that we indulge all-too quickly.  No, instead of tickling our ears with a “prosperity gospel,” the Lord Himself soberly warns us that we will have tribulations, pressures in this world.

    Back in the early 400's AD, as the unthinkable was happening and the Roman Empire was slowly collapsing, St. Augustine wrote a book called The City of God.  In it Augustine compares the world (the City of Man) with the church (the City of God).  The world, he noted, runs by pressure and force.  And just like the City of Rome eventually was overrun by Barbarians, this fallen universe is running down and will one day perish.  By contrast, the City of God is everlasting.  The Church is eternal.  It operates based on God’s mercy and grace, as our Lord said: “the Father Himself loves you.”

    Right now, you live in both worlds, both cities.  The situation for us today is not all that different that in Augustine’s day.  We see American power and influence winding down at breathtaking speed as the culture and our institutions collapse.  In Augustine’s day, the people were stunned that their country was falling.  They wondered how God could let such a thing happen. They were frightened for themselves and their children.  But Augustine did what he was called to do: to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to forgive sins, to pray for their leaders and for the coming of our Lord.  He exhorted the people to store up treasures in heaven, and not to put their trust in princes and fading earthly powers.

    For the only thing that can bring us comfort in time of tribulation is the fact that we know how the story ends.  We know that sin, Satan, and the world do not win the day.  We know that the City of God overtakes the City of Man.  For our Lord Himself said, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”  The Greek word that is used there is one we associate with a shoe brand, Nike, and it means to conquer.  Jesus has niked, overcome; He has conquered the world.

    So all those things that trouble you now–be it your health, your losses, your brokenness, your sinful flesh–those tribulations Jesus took into His own flesh and bones, and He crucified them at Golgotha.  Jesus knew tribulation of the worst sort, being under such pressure in the Garden of Gethsemane that He sweat blood as He prayed, even before His blood was shed.  Jesus said in the days before His death, “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say?  ‘Father, save me from this hour’?  But for this purpose I came to this hour.  Father glorify Your name.”  And the Father’s name was glorified as Jesus was lifted up from the earth on the cross, like the bronze serpent in the wilderness.  It is the glory of Christ to bear your troubles and sorrows to set you free.  Truly, Jesus did overcome the world by taking away the sin of the world.  He conquered death by swallowing it up in His own death and then rising on the third day in glory.  

    And all of this He did for you, so that your tribulations will only be temporary, so that they will not overwhelm you who believe.  Jesus’ victory has been given to you, the baptized, as it is written in Romans 8, “We are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”  And 1 John 4 says, “This is the victory that has overcome the world–our faith” in Christ the Conqueror.  That is how we can be of good cheer, even in the midst of tribulation.  “If God is for us, who can be against us?  He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also, along with Him, freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32).  In Jesus we have the sure hope of the resurrection of the body and all the gifts of the world to come.  And already now we have the comfort and the assurance that all things are in the hands of the Lord who is full of goodness and loving kindness.  Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace,” the calm assurance in your hearts that all things are made right in Christ.

    And don’t forget that even tribulation itself can be God’s own instrument to work for your good.  By it He humbles you and brings you to repentance–as He did with the children of Israel, who were turned from their sinful grumbling to cry out to Him for help.  He lays you low in order to lift you up and exalt you in due time.  Prayer happens best when we are bowed down before the Lord.

    So as Christians, let us learn to live with and even expect tribulation.  Let it drive you to pray all the more fervently.  For Jesus is the one Mediator between God and men who gave His life as a ransom for you.  He invites you to pray in His name, using His credentials, as beloved children of the heavenly Father.  Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.  Call upon the Lord in your troubles; trust in Him and cling to Him in times of trial.  For He will deliver you.  

    The Lord doesn’t promise that you will necessarily be rich in this world, but He does guarantee that you are spiritually wealthy beyond measure. The Lord doesn’t promise you that if you have enough faith, you will never suffer or struggle, but He does guarantee that you will overcome all these things by His power and grace, His might and mercy. The Lord doesn’t promise you that you will not suffer due to the burdens of your own fallen nature, but He does guarantee that the sin that lurks within you has been atoned for and will be removed from you in the fullness of time.

    Brothers and sisters of Christ, it is easy to get discouraged and feel defeated. It is easy to turn away from the faith when life in the world is hard.  But Jesus has come to bring you to the Father as beloved children.  He has come to bring you to your mother, the Church, where you are fed and nurtured and given all that you need to grow.  And Christ our Lord invites you again today to share in His victory when He says, “Take heart!  Be of good cheer!  Have confidence! Have courage!  For I have won the victory.  I have overcome the devil and the world, and in Me, you too have overcome and conquered and won the greatest victory of all.  Be at peace.”

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

(With thanks to the Rev. Larry Beane)

Sin, Righteousness, & Judgment

John 16:5-15
Easter 4

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

    What is the worst possible sin that a person could commit?  What is the absolute worst thing that someone could do in God’s sight?  The first thing that pops into most of our minds is probably something that has to do with a felony.  An act of violence and hatred, or perversion and immorality–something like that would have to be the worst.  And such things would be egregious and terrible sins against God and the neighbor.  But there is something that fundamentally is even worse than that in the eyes of heaven.

    In today’s Gospel Jesus is in the midst of telling the disciples about the coming of the Holy Spirit.  One of the things Jesus says the Spirit will do is this: “He will convict the world of sin, because they do not believe in Me.”  What is the most damnable sin there is?  Unbelief.  Not to have confidence in Christ, not to trust in His words.  There is nothing worse than that–stubborn, self-focused unbelief.  

    This is the real problem with the world and with us fallen human beings.  It’s not simply that society is immoral and rebellious and greedy and power-hungry.  Those are but symptoms of the real problem.  The root of the matter, the heart of the situation is that people don’t love God or trust in Him or have faith in His Son whom He has sent.  They don’t worship the Father and acknowledge Him as the source of every good and perfect gift.  They don’t receive Jesus as the only Savior from sin or rely on His all-atoning death on the cross.  Instead, they believe in themselves and their own thinking and wisdom.  They’re full of pride in who they are and where they’ve gotten themselves in life.  They figure that if they keep their nose clean, they can earn their way into some eternal reward by doing more good than bad.  They may be religious, but their spirituality is oriented toward self-fulfillment.  And so God ends up being just a part of their formula for achieving personal happiness.  They’ve got no real need for a Jesus who is a Savior–maybe a Jesus who is a counselor or an advice-giver so that they can make a better life for themselves, but not a Savior from sin.

    There is no greater insult and affront to God than to treat Him in that way.  Jesus didn’t take on your flesh and blood and sacrifice His life on the cross just so that He could be another guru giving you principles for living.  Jesus came to give you a whole new life–His own.  Those who love their own lives, who have justified themselves and their behavior, in their hearts reject Jesus and the life He comes to bring.  It is this sort of self-satisfied, self-justified way of life that is the greatest rebellion against God and the biggest slap in His face.

    In John 6 Jesus was asked by the people, “What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?”  Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent.”  It is God’s work that you trust in Jesus.  That is the work that the Holy Spirit accomplishes in you.  And apart from that work you can do nothing good.  For it is written in Romans 14, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”  Since everything we are is by nature tainted and infected by the fall, none of us can do anything that is truly a good work apart from Christ, apart from holding to Him and His saving truth.  No matter how good a person may appear to be humanly speaking, if they are not a believer in the Christ of the Scriptures, it is all a pile of manure before God.  For it proceeds from a heart that doesn’t trust in Him.

    Only what proceeds from faith in Jesus is good; for He alone is good.  Only works that are sanctified by Christ’s blood are good works.  Which is another way of saying that it is not our works that are good, but Christ’s works are good in and through us.  He dwells in us to live in love toward God and our neighbor.

    So let us be rid of all thinking which says, “So and so is a good person; church just isn’t their thing.”  How could that be true if they are persistently ignoring the words and the sacraments of Jesus which alone create and sustain true faith?  Hebrews 11 says that without such faith it is impossible to please God.

    Let us rather be like St. Paul, who followed the law steadfastly even before His conversion, but who said that He counted all of that as sewage, “that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.”  

    This is the second part of the ministry of the Holy Spirit.  Having convicted the world of sin, having brought us to repentance, He then proclaims and freely gives out the righteousness of Christ who is seated at the right hand of the Father as Lord of all.  This is the heart of what the Holy Spirit is about.  Jesus said that the Spirit will “take of what is Mine and declare it to you.”  That is the Holy Spirit’s job, to point to Jesus and glorify Him, to take the gifts of life and salvation that Jesus won for you and dish them out to you.  The Holy Spirit is the delivery driver of the Trinity, who brings the blessings of the cross to you in the package of the Word and the Sacraments, that you may receive them and open them by faith.  Just as the Son of God was sent to reveal the Father, so now the Holy Spirit is sent to reveal the Son.  And in that way, He brings you back into fellowship with God, the Blessed Holy Trinity.  

    The Holy Spirit, then, is the real preacher in the Church.  He is the One who preaches the Gospel to you that you may be led into all truth.  St. Paul declares, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ. . .  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed.”  Through the words of the Gospel, the Spirit reveals and gives to you Christ’s righteousness.  He speaks Jesus’ righteousness into your ears, so that the Father in heaven no longer sees your sin but only the perfect holiness of His Son.  

    That’s how James in today’s Epistle can call Christians “my beloved brethren.”  You are siblings of Jesus now because the Father has brought you forth by the Word of truth; you have been born from above to a new life by the Word of Christ, ministered to you by the Spirit of truth.  Through Jesus you have been put right with God.  It is written, “Having been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  

    This is what the Psalm means about singing to the Lord a new song.  It’s not talking about some sappy contemporary garbage.  It means singing about exactly what we sang in the Introit, “His righteousness He has revealed in the sight of the nations; His right hand and His holy arm [that’s Jesus!] has gained Him the victory.”  Your righteousness does not come within but from outside of you in Jesus.

    Martin Luther once said about this Gospel.  “It is a particularly consoling message which the Comforter, the Holy Spirit, proclaimed in the world through the mouths of the apostles.  Indeed, what is more comforting than that all sins, regardless of how many and great, are canceled, forgiven, covered up, and not reckoned to our account because we believe in Christ, and that he who has such faith is declared righteous before God without any work or merit on his part, but solely through faith in Christ?  A more comforting message could not be preached to the world!”

    You must cling to that message of the Holy Spirit with all your heart.  Don’t be tempted to look at yourself and say, “There’s no way God could forgive or accept someone like me.”  Instead say, “Even though I don’t deserve it, I know that God loves and accepts me, for He is merciful and compassionate, and He has atoned for all my sins in His Son Jesus.”  Don’t look to yourself; look only to the cross.  For through that faith you are saved.

    But at the same time be prepared for the devil and the world to oppose you because you have such faith in Christ.  The world portrays those who follow Christ and take God’s Word seriously as being a bit whacko and on the fringe of society.  They say, “Who are you to suggest that only those who believe in Jesus can be saved?  What about all the other good people and religions in the world?  Don’t my efforts at moral living count?  You Christians just want to impose your thinking on everybody else.”  

    To all of this Jesus here says, “Take heart and be of good courage; you must not let the opinion and judgment of the world affect you.  For ultimately their words come from the prince of this world, the devil.  And He cannot help but condemn and persecute Christian faith and the righteousness of Christ.  Do not fear or waver, for the prince of this world is judged.  His condemnation can do you no harm, for he himself is condemned along with all those who parrot his empty words.”  It is written in John 3, “He who believes in Jesus is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”  And it is also written, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.”

    This is the third and final part of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, to proclaim the defeat and the judgment of Satan, the ruler of this world.  Christ conquered him forever by His cross and resurrection.  No matter how wise or powerful the people of this world appear to be, Jesus will retain the upper hand when it comes to judging.  He alone is wise and righteous, while all others are fools.  In the end He will have the last word on the last day.

    So then, it is indeed to your advantage that Christ went away through Good Friday and Easter to the right hand of the Father.  For only in this way could righteousness have been won for you.  Only in this way is the Holy Spirit now poured out on you to rescue you from unbelief and to bring you to saving faith in Jesus.  God grant you all to know ever more fully and deeply this help and comfort of the Holy Spirit, to whom with the Father and the Son belongs all glory, honor, and praise, now and forever.  Amen.

Your Pilgrim Identity

1 Peter 2:11-20; John 16:16-22
Easter 3

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

    Today’s Epistle encourages you to consider a very fundamental question:  Who are you?  What is your identity?  That’s a question the world likes to ask, too, though people stray into error when they think that they can choose whatever identity they want for themselves.  Our identity is generally not our choice but something that is given to us from outside, from above.  But the way you see yourself and your identity is what will determine the way you live in this world.  So who are you?  Often, we think of ourselves in terms of where we’re from.  We’re south-siders or Wisconsinites or Americans; or we’re Germans or Finns or Poles or Swedes, and so forth.  Or perhaps we think of who we are in terms of our job or groups we identify with.  We’re workers in a certain company or profession, we’re Packers or Brewers fans, we’re veterans of the military.  There’s our family identity–I think of myself as a parent or grandparent or spouse or child.  And in today’s culture, people more and more see their political identity as the core of who they are–an environmentalist or an LGBT crusader or a conservative patriot or a libertarian or what have you.

    What is it that really defines who and what you are in this world?  Peter would suggest that the word which best describes your identity in this world is a pilgrim, a sojourner.  To be a follower of Christ is to be a traveler, a voyager.  As God’s baptized people you are on a journey to something more; you are traveling now through foreign territory to a greater destination.  Though the pilgrims of Christ are dispersed throughout the world, yet together in small bands like this one, we journey to the same goal of a new creation.

    We must never forget that this is what and who we are; this is our deeper identity.  This fallen world is not home for us, and so any identity we have connected to it is temporary.  We are strangers in a strange land.  Like the children of Israel of old, we are on a pilgrimage through this wilderness land to the promised land of God.  It is written in Philippians 3, “Our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”  And Hebrews 13 says, “Here we have no continuing city, but we seek the one to come.”

    The real temptation for us, then, is to forget our pilgrim character as Christians.  Since the journey seems so long and is often difficult, we are sometimes enticed to give up the expedition and follow the native ways of this world, to adopt their thinking and their lifestyles.  The lure is always there for you to see yourself in worldly terms, to think of who you are not in terms of Christ and eternity, but in terms of all things that make you feel at home in this world, to see yourself more as American than as Christian, to be more passionate about your favorite sports team or your favorite hobby than you are about being a baptized child of God, to desert your identity as travelers and instead become settlers, making this passing, temporary world your home rather than setting your hearts on that inheritance from God that is undefiled and does not pass away.  It is written in Romans 12, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”

    If you feel a bit out of place in this world, that’s actually a good thing; that’s how it’s supposed to be.  Christians are not to be conformed to this culture.  It’s not our goal to fit in with this world.  St. James writes quite bluntly, “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?”  For instance, while our culture teaches self-indulgence and doing whatever feels right, Peter writes here, “Abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul.”  Such things are more than just diversions from the journey, they actually turn you around and take you in the opposite direction of your destination.  They are traps and snares which try to hijack your making it to the final goal.  They take your eyes off of Christ, who alone is the way, the truth, and the life.  Peter says, “Do not use your liberty as a cloak for vice,” as a cover up and an excuse for sin.  Abstain, stay away from any such thing.

    Now, all of this does not mean that we should stay away from the world altogether and cloister ourselves off in seclusion somewhere, though sometimes that sounds appealing.  As pilgrim Christians who are not of the world, God still has given you to live in the world and to be reflections of His light to the world.  Indeed, St. Paul says in his letter to the Corinthians that if you were to try to avoid contact with the ungodly entirely, you would have to leave the world.  And God’s intention for you is not yet to leave the world, but to be the salt of the earth as you travel on your way.

    Therefore Peter writes in the Epistle, “Have your conduct honorable among the Gentiles, that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may, by your good works which they observe, glorify God in the day of visitation.”  Live honorably and with integrity among the pagans and unbelievers and skeptics of this world.  Though they may put down Christians or Missouri Synod Lutherans as being closed-minded or self-righteous or speak ill of you in some other way, let your good conduct show that their accusations are slanderous and false.  Perhaps by observing your behavior, they may be drawn to respect what you believe and want to join you in this pilgrimage, so that in the end they, too, will glorify the true God for what He has done for us all in Christ.  

    That’s one of our primary reasons for wanting to do good works, to lead lives that honor God and His saving Gospel.  It’s not so that we can somehow win our way into God’s favor.  For not only is that impossible, but Christ has already won us into the Father’s favor by His good works and by His death for our sins which has reconciled us to God.  No, we do good works, rather, as it is written in Titus, “to adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.”  The Gospel of Christ is the most precious jewel we could possess.  And we want our lives to be a setting for that jewel which ornaments and glorifies it, which draws others to the Gospel rather than dragging it through the mud and giving others the occasion to call Christians hypocrites.  Out of love for Christ we seek to live honorably and with love toward our neighbor so that others might also know the love of Christ and honor Him.

    One of the ways we adorn the doctrine of God our Savior is by submitting to the laws of the land.  Even though as citizens of heaven we are like foreigners in foreign territory here, yet we honor governmental authority, just as we would honor the authorities if we were traveling through another country.  Peter writes, “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors, as to those who are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of those who do good.”  Even though civil authority is temporary and of this world, yet the Scriptures teach that it is established by God.  Those in authority are put there by the Lord to punish what is wrong and promote what is right.  And that is good and necessary, even if the ruler is not a Christian–better a competent pagan than an incompetent Christian.  As long we are not caused to sin by the authorities and their laws, we are bound to obey them as God’s representatives.  This honors God and, Peter says, it puts to silence the ignorance of foolish men who would want to assign evil motives to Christians in this world.

    The other way to adorn the doctrine of God our Savior mentioned in today’s Epistle is to be a good and faithful worker, to be a diligent and honest employee.  And the situation that Peter addresses here serves to emphasize that point.  For he speaks not simply to employees but to servants.  It is written, “Servants, be submissive to your masters with all reverence, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh.”  Now, if that applies in a master/servant relationship, which we certainly would not describe as being the best situation, how much more does it apply to an employer/employee relationship.  It is written elsewhere, “Servants, whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men.”  Of course, that’s also a reminder to employers to act not selfishly but as agents of God.  But still, to honor the one in authority, in government or in the workplace or or in the church or in the home, is to honor the Lord who has established the authorities.  

    That’s how the Epistle can state that it is commendable to suffer wrongly, if you endure grief because of conscience toward God.  If a Christian endures in doing good as a citizen under an unjust ruler or as a worker under a tyrannical boss, that is praiseworthy in God’s sight, because that is the way of faith.  Such a person is seeing and honoring the God who instituted earthly authorities, even if the authorities themselves are dishonoring their God-given offices.  And, such a person is doing as our heavenly Father does, who gives daily bread even to the evil.  Now, Peter says, if you suffer by your own fault–if you break the law or are a lazy worker and have to suffer the consequences–that is of no credit to you.  But St. Peter concludes, “When you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God.”

    It is indeed commendable, but it can also be quite difficult for us.  We grow weary of it and say, “How long, O Lord?”  Jesus answers that question in today’s Gospel when He says, “A little while.”  “A little while, and you will not see Me; and again, a little while, and you will see Me.”  “I am about to go the cross to suffer your sins to death in My body and win your full and free forgiveness.  And you are my pilgrim followers.  You are baptized into Me.  So don’t be surprised when those little whiles of affliction come, when you can’t seem to see Me, when life is fierce, when you are sharing in my trials, when it seems like all is lost.  Always remember, it really is only a little while that you must endure.  That pain, that disease, that heartache, that difficult situation is almost over.  Just hang on to Me.  Trust in Me to pull you through it.  It may seem like an eternity, but only three days.  Easter is coming.  “The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

    This final deliverance, the resurrection of the body on the Last Day, is what you are to focus on.  It is written in Hebrews, “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”  Trust in Jesus to carry you through.  For in fact He has already carried you through by dying and rising again.  He’s already conquered all that weighs you down.  It’s just a matter of time for that victory to be revealed.  It’s only a little while more, and then comes the forever, the unending while of dwelling in the majesty of our Lord and the perfect happiness and completeness that His presence brings.  Then comes the time, Jesus says, when “I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you.”  

    So, fellow pilgrims, do not lose heart.  You can’t see Christ now, but you will.  And you get to behold Christ even now by faith in this place.  After the little while of this past week, you see Him again in His Supper, receiving His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins.  He comes to give your hearts joy that no one can take from you.  He comes to comfort you and strengthen you to complete the journey.  For He Himself is the Way.

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

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)