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Four Meditations on the St. John Passion

John 18:1-27

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

John 18:28-40

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

John 19:1-22

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

John 19:23-42

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

Going Up to Jerusalem

Mark 10:32-45

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You Are What You Eat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(With thanks to the Rev. William Cwirla)

Spirits, Demons, and Jesus the Stronger Man

Luke 11:14-28
Lent 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When God Appears to Be Your Enemy

Genesis 32:22-32; Matthew 15:21-28
Lent 2

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

    Last week we saw how the devil, who is your enemy, likes to parade about as if he is your friend.  He told Jesus, “Go ahead and feed Your desires; You can have glory and power if You just listen to Me and pay homage to Me.”  He said to Adam and Eve in the garden, “Go ahead and eat.  Your eyes will be opened; you will be like God.”  The devil is a false and traitorous friend if there ever was one.  Now this week, we learn that there is an opposite truth as well, namely, that when Jesus, your truest friend, deals with you, very often He will appear to be your enemy, to be One who seems not to care, who apparently ignores your prayers for help.  

    As a Christian you know that you can count on Jesus to keep His Word, to be faithful to you and stand by you and never forsake you.  But sometimes you know that only by faith and not by sight or experience.  Sometimes it’s like in today’s Old Testament and Gospel readings.  For in both of those readings, God acts as if He were the enemy.  He doesn’t appear to be the faithful friend, but an adversary, first of Jacob and then of the Canaanite woman.  Why would He act in that way?

    We must always remember that God deals with us in two different ways–through His Law and through His Gospel.  Those aren’t just theological words, those are the realities of how we experience God’s coming to us.  The Law brings judgment; the Gospel brings mercy.  With His Law, God holds a gun to our head, so to speak, so that our predicament as sinners before His holiness hits home with terrifying reality.  We haven’t really dealt with reality until we’re scared to death that God is going to be our worst enemy.  After all, He holds your life in His hands.  His Law undoes all of your defenses and lays you bare–no excuses, no escape, nothing to bargain with at all as you face an eternal death sentence.  There’s no playing games with such a God.

    But the Lord behaves this way toward us, humbling us, laying us low, not to harm us but to save us.  The Law ends up serving the Gospel.  God “kills” us in order that He might raise us from this cursed life to real life.  We need to know the terror of death before we can truly live.  And so God slays us sinners with the Law in order that He might recreate us holy in Christ with the Gospel.  Through His damning Law God clears out and creates a place for His mercy in our fallen hearts where there was no place before.  And this is what He wants–hearts stripped of all pretense and self-sufficiency, directed only toward Him, seeking and taking refuge in His mercy in Christ.  It is written in Hosea, “Come, let us return to the Lord; for He has torn us to pieces, but He will heal us; He has injured us, but He will bind up our wounds.  After two days He will revive us; on the third day He will raise us up that we may live in His sight.”

    The analogy of a doctor is worth repeating here: Just imagine if you lived 1000 years ago, and you were transported through time to today to witness a surgery.  The surgeon would certainly look like a terrifying bad guy, cutting with His scalpel, wearing a mask, with blood on his hands.  Only through the words you hear telling you what he’s doing, only by believing those words could you see that the surgeon is actually the good guy.  In the same way, only by believing the words of God do you come to see that even when He appears to be doing you harm, He is still the good guy.  This faith is something that the Holy Spirit creates in you, giving you to believe that God’s true nature is one of love and mercy, and that his attitude toward you is favorable in Christ, even when everything that you feel and see seems to say otherwise.  This is what it means to walk by faith, not by sight.  We trust in His mercy that we often cannot see against His judgment that we often do see all too clearly.  We believe that His promises are greater than His threats.

    This is what we witness in today’s readings.  God comes to Jacob as a nameless stranger who fights and wrestles with him.  Jacob probably would’ve hoped for God to come to him in a more gentle manner.  For Jacob was already under a lot of stress.  He was about to meet his brother Esau, the one whom Jacob had tricked out of the inheritance and the family blessing some 14 years earlier.  This would be the first time they’ve seen each other since then.  Jacob didn’t know if Esau would receive him well or try to do harm to him and his family.  And in the midst of all this, God comes and wrestles with Jacob until the break of day.

    But He does so for Jacob’s good.  For despite appearances, He is making Himself accessible to Jacob here.  The Lord is with him to wrestle away his fears and to strengthen Jacob’s faith in the promises He had made to him.  So it is that Jacob clings to the Lord and will not let Him go until he receives a blessing from Him.  That’s faith, that’s what the Lord wants.  Though He seemed like an enemy, God was there as Jacob’s ally.  For He blessed him there.  Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, which means “struggles with God.”  For he struggled with God and men and prevailed.

    In the same way, there may be times in your life when you want God to come gently and softly, and instead you get the God who fights and wrestles with you.  But trust Him; He knows what He’s doing.  Rejoice that He’s there, that He’s with you.  He’s putting your sinful nature to death. Like Jacob, hold on to Him tightly.  Cling to His promises; wrestle with His Word.  Don’t let Him go until He gives you a blessing.  That’s what He wants.  That’s why He seeks you out and comes to you.  Be a true Israelite, struggling with God and prevailing by faith.  Believe that behind the awful judgment of the Law, the Lord is indeed good to you, and His mercy endures forever.

    That’s what the Canaanite woman in the Gospel believed.  Jesus certainly treated her as if He were her enemy.  According to the woke standards of today, Jesus acted like a racist!  This Gentile woman comes to Him believing that He can help.  Though she’s not from Israel, yet she believes that He is the Messiah, calling Him Son of David.  She prays to Him, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David!  My daughter is severely demon-possessed.”

    But Jesus doesn’t even answer her.  He acts as if she is not even worth listening to, turns His back on her.  All she gets is silence.  It’s like when we pray to God, when our need is serious, but there seems to be no answer to our prayer.  That’s when the struggle and the wrestling begins.  That’s when the temptation arises in your hearts to think that God is loveless (at least toward you), that He doesn’t really care, that there’s no point in seeking His help.

    Jesus goes on emptying this Gentile woman of herself so that He might fill her up with His goodness and life.  He behaves as if He’s not for her, saying that He’s only for the Jews.  And then, even when she kneels before Him and begs for help, He seems to give her a mortal blow, calling her a little dog who shouldn’t get the children’s bread.  
    But this Canaanite woman shows herself to be a true Israelite.  Like Jacob of old, she won’t let Jesus go until she receives a blessing.  She clings to the Lord’s words, and she’s not going to let Him wriggle out of them.  Out of His very own words she forms a plea.  “Yes, you are right; I have no right to your mercy.  I am a dog.  Yet, if that is what I am, then give me what a dog gets; give me some table scraps, and that will be more than enough to see me through.”  And Jesus delights in being caught in His words and to give to the woman not just crumbs but the whole loaf, all that she desired.  She struggles with God and man in Christ and prevails.  And so she, too, is of Israel!  Jesus says to her, “O woman, great is your faith!  Let it be to you as you desire.”  Behind the enemy’s mask, Jesus now breaks through and is revealed to be her truest Friend.

    So it is with you, too.  God’s Law deals you a mortal, lethal blow.  “Lord, your judgement against me is that I am damned sinner.  Yes, Lord, it is true.  I deserve nothing good from you.  I have no right to your mercy.  Yet, if I am a sinner, give me what you have promised to sinners.  It is written, ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.’  Grant me that salvation.  It is written, ‘The blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin.’  Grant me that forgiveness.  It is written, ‘I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly.’  Lord, grant me that life.  I’m not letting go until you keep your promises to me.”  And Jesus is delighted to have you hold Him to His words.  That is what faith is, to cling to Christ and His words, even when everything else seems to be against you, even contrary to what you see.  For Christ gives you not just crumbs, but the whole loaf, His entire self, His true body and blood offered up for you on the cross, now given for you for the forgiveness of your sins.  No longer are you mere dogs, scrounging around for scraps.  You are children at the table of the Lord.

    And that is so because Jesus Himself was treated as if He were the unwanted street dog, whipped and rejected by men.  He too heard the silence of God in His ears when He prayed to the Father, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?”  No answer came back as He suffered our sins and our hell to death.  And yet He remained faithful, trusting in and holding on to His Father’s love, and He was vindicated in the end, rising from the grave triumphant on the third day, so that with the Canaanite woman, you too might share in His vindication and His victory.

    So remember, our God is in the business of death and resurrection.  He cuts you so that He may heal you.  He kills you so that He may make you alive through His Son.  Through tribulation He produces perseverance and character and hope which does not disappoint.  Trust Him with your death.  And trust Him with your life in Christ.

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

The Son of David Defeats the Goliath Satan

Matthew 4:1-11; 1 Samuel 17

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

    We didn’t sing “A Mighty Fortress” today just because it’s a favorite Lutheran hymn (or even because the Martin Luther brass choir is here).  “A Mighty Fortress” is the appointed hymn of the day because this season of Lent that we have just entered is all about battle and spiritual warfare.  We often think of Lent as being primarily about Jesus’ suffering–and that’s certainly a part of it, especially later in Lent.  But the first three weeks of this season focus especially on our battle against the devil and demons.  Lent reminds us who the real enemy is.  For too often we get caught up in the wrong fights.  St. Paul reminds us, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”  The enemy is not simply the politicians or the criminals or the cultural elites or China or Russia.  The enemy is Satan and sin.  They are the real threat which we need to be defended against and which must be defeated for us.

    Humanity was devastated in this war when we first fell into sin in the Garden of Eden.  Our very humanity was ripped away from us as our first parents were lured away from God, enticed into thinking they could become like God themselves.  Stepping outside of the protective, life-giving fortress of God’s Word, the devil ravaged and plundered them and all of their descendants, right down to us.  By causing you to rebel against God, to go your own self-serving way, the Goliath Satan won a big battle.  As the hymn said, “On earth is not his equal.”  He loves to taunt you and terrify you with the death you deserve because of your sin.  

    However, then suddenly there appears someone new on the field of battle, the Son of David.  He comes to fight on your behalf.  “But for us fights the Valiant One, whom God Himself elected.  Ask ye who is this?  Jesus Christ it is.  Of Sabaoth Lord, and there’s none other God.  He holds the field forever.”  Jesus stands in for you and fights off all the onslaughts of the devil in your place and conquers him decisively.

    It’s all prefigured and foreshadowed and prophesied for us in the fight between David and Goliath.  The children of Israel lived in fear of the Philistine army because the Philistines had this soldier more than nine feet tall on their side, who wore armor heavier than most men could even manage.  For 40 days this Goliath came out and taunted the Israelite soldiers, challenging them, “Send someone out to fight me.  If he defeats me, we will be your slaves.  But if I defeat him, then you will be our slaves.”  No Israelite soldier could be found willing to fight Goliath.  

    But then a young man named David heard this giant who blasphemed God and mocked God's people.  And with the permission of King Saul, David went out to fight Goliath, bringing with him only a slingshot and five smooth stones.  The giant man laughed when he saw David, who was little more than half his size, and tried to intimidate him with some trash talk, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks? . . . Come to me, and I will give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!”  But David relied not on his own strength, but on the strength of God.  He said, “I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts . . .  The battle is the Lord’s, and He will give you into our hands.”  As the Philistine moved towards David, David ran towards the giant, putting a stone into his sling.  And he slung it and struck Goliath between the eyes, so that the stone sank into his forehead, and the Philistine fell on his face to the ground.

    You are like the army of Israel, intimidated by the devil’s threats, unable to overcome him, unable to find anyone who is worthy to fight the Goliath Satan.  But then the Son of David steps forth, Christ Jesus, to do battle with the blasphemous giant.  He appears to be no match for the devil, for He is there in weak human flesh with no weapons but the five smooth stones of the books of Moses.  Christ fights not with human power but with the power of the living God.  After 40 days the devil rushes in to attack, and with each onslaught Jesus slings back the smooth stone of God’s Word. Satan says, “Forget this silly self-denial that your Father has placed upon you.  Command that these stones become bread.”  But Jesus responds, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’”  Satan says, “Come on!  Let’s see if the Scriptures are really true.  Put on a little display to prove it.  Throw yourself down from this temple.”  Jesus answers, “It is written, ‘You shall not tempt the Lord your God.’”  Again, Satan says, “You can skip the suffering and get right to being the glorious ruler of the world if you just fall down and worship me.”  But Jesus gives the final rebuttal, “Away with you Satan!  For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.’” The Son of David reaches into the five books of Moses, and each time he slings the single stone of Deuteronomy.  And the stone sinks into the forehead, and the Goliath Satan falls with his face to the ground, defeated.  Those who refuse to bow before the Lord in life will most certainly bow with their faces to the ground in death.

    When the Philistine had fallen to the earth, David ran and took the giant’s own sword and used it to cut off his head.  In the same way, Jesus, the Son of David, uses the devil’s own weapons to bring about his eternal defeat.  Satan’s favorite tool is death and the fear of death.  He tries to scare you into all sorts of false belief and idolatry to try to get you to evade or ignore death.  In particular he thinks that by crucifying Christ, he will be victorious over Him.  But in fact, it is precisely through death that Jesus brings about Satan’s downfall.  For through the cross the Lord takes away the sin that gives Satan his deathly power over you.  Then Jesus rises to life again to break sin’s curse.  It’s no longer “dust to dust” but “dust to life” for those who trust in Christ.  Your death is now simply a precursor to your bodily resurrection with Jesus.  For He came forth from the grave eternally triumphant over death and the devil for you.  Satan falls into His own death trap.  Jesus, by His cross  and resurrection, has fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy and crushed Satan’s head.  Like Goliath, the devil is decapitated by his own sword.  No longer can the devil cause you any lasting or eternal harm.  For you have been baptized into Christ the conqueror.  The serpent may still hiss and squirm and convulse in his final perishing twitches.  But ultimately he can’t touch you; you have the victory in Christ.

    Finally, when the Philistines saw that Goliath was dead, they fled in fear.  And the Israelites pursued them and routed them.  In the same way, in Christ you now have the power to send the hordes of hell into retreat in the final skirmishes that must yet be fought.  You have the means to master and vanquish the foe.  For the Lord says, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”  “Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you.”  “Put on the whole armor of God . . .  Take up the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one.  And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.”  When you are in the wilderness–tempted to feed your own desires rather than to be faithful to God, enticed into putting God to the test to make Him prove Himself to you rather than trusting the promises of His Word, lured to seek after the approval of this world rather than the approval of God–you have at your disposal the very same things that Christ did in the wilderness.  He gives you His righteousness and His salvation as a shield and armor to protect you from the blows of the evil one.  You have the saber of the Word, with which you can run the devil through.  For the Word of God is living and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword.  And when you call upon Christ in prayer and faith, you are calling upon one who can sympathize with your weaknesses, one who was in all points tempted as you are, yet without sin.  He will certainly hear and answer your prayers.  God will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape for you into the mighty fortress of Christ.

    Jesus went through all this testing and temptation not just to be your example; He did this in your place, on your behalf.  Here is the key point:  Christ has carried your human flesh into temptation, and He has triumphed. He has prevailed over sin, over the devil, over death, all for you.  Where Adam was defeated in humanity’s first battle, Jesus the Son of David is victorious; in Him the war is won.  And He gives you His victory as a gift through faith in His name.  In Him, the words of the Psalm come true, “You shall tread upon the lion and the cobra; the young lion and the serpent you shall trample underfoot.”

    Truly then, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”  And today you receive not just bread alone, but bread which is Christ, the Word made flesh.  In His preaching and His supper, He Himself comes to dwell within you and strengthen you.  Fellow Christians, in the midst of your testings and temptations and battles, never forget what the Word says, “The battle is the Lord’s.”  “Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.”

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

Create in Me a Clean Heart, O God

Psalm 51; 2 Samuel 12:13-14
Ash Wednesday

    The text for this evening’s sermon is Psalm 51 which we prayed a few minutes ago, and also these verses from 2 Samuel 12: David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.”  And Nathan said to David, “The Lord also has put away your sin; you shall not die. However, because by this deed you have given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, the child also who is born to you shall surely die.”

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

    He was a man of great power and authority, highly respected by the people.  But He had used his position to have an affair with another man’s wife.  He committed adultery.  She became pregnant.  When nothing else seemed to resolve the situation, he plotted to have her husband killed–quite by accident, of course.  The plan worked.  He took her to be his wife.  This man was the ruler of Israel, King David.

    But this was not the end of the story for King David.  God sent a prophet to him named Nathan to confront him with his sin.  Nathan unmasked David’s scheming and deceptive iniquity, cutting him to the heart with words of divine anger and judgment.  David was laid bare as one who had sinned against God.

    What we have before us here in Psalm 51 is David’s penitential plea to God following Nathan’s visit.  These are David’s anguished words of confession.  As we now enter the penitential season of Lent, it is certainly appropriate that we pray and make these words our own and consider well their meaning for our lives.

    The Psalm begins with the only words a sinner can say who wants to be forgiven and delivered from God’s judgment:  Have mercy on me.  God isn’t obligated to forgive you just because you’ve asked.  That's not how it works, as if God is a vending machine, and you just pop in the coin of your confession, and out pops the forgiveness you want. There’s nothing you can do or say to climb your way out of this.  All you can do is appeal to His mercy and pray for His favor.  Your destiny is entirely up to Him.

    “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me.”  You appeal to God’s mercy because you know better than anyone else how you’ve fallen short of God’s glory.  What may be hidden and secret from others is all too apparent to you.    Your sin is constantly visible to you, despite your best efforts to forget it or overcome it.

    David continues, “Against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight.” On the surface of it, King David had transgressed primarily against Bathsheba and her husband.  Murder and adultery are certainly not private wrongs.  And yet David gets to the heart of the matter when he confesses that his sin was pre-eminently against the Lord.  He had ignored God and rejected God’s ways in doing this.  David had made himself to be his own god.  That was the core problem.

    So also, when you sin, it may be against yourself or others, but first and foremost it is against the Lord.  Every broken commandment is ultimately broken in rebellion against God.  When people act selfishly, God is being pushed out of His #1 spot.  When people abuse the Lord’s name, they’re abusing the Lord Himself.  When they fail to remember the Sabbath Day, they’re despising the Lord’s Word.  When they dishonor parents and other authorities, they’re dishonoring God who gave those people their authority.  When they harm their neighbors or fail to help them, they’re rejecting God’s gift of human life.  When they engage in wrongful sexual thoughts or behavior, they’re forsaking God’s gift of marriage.  When they take what belongs rightly to others, they are disregarding God as the Giver of all possessions.  When they gossip, they’re taking away the good name God has given a person.  When they envy and covet, they show dissatisfaction with what God has provided.  Against God and God only have you sinned.

    David explains why this is, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”  Right from the very moment you came into existence, this rebellion against God adhered to your being.  All of humanity has a nature that is stained with the fall.  It’s called original sin, a doctrine confirmed by the experience of every parent trying to raise a 2 year old.  No one is able by nature to have true reverence for God and true faith in God.  All are subject to His eternal wrath.

    What then are you to do?  The same as David did.  “Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to Me with all your heart.”  For now is the time of God’s favor.  Now is the day of salvation.  “Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  The Psalmist pleaded, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love.”  That is what keeps us from despair and gives us strength for repentance, the sure hope we have in God’s love which does not fail.  The Lord does not delight in executing wrath but in showing mercy to those who repent.

    David prayed, “According to your great compassion, blot out my transgressions.”  The imagery here is of a book with a listing of all your sin being completely erased and wiped clean.  And such is exactly what God did for you in His only Son, our Lord Jesus.  Colossians 2 proclaims, “God forgave (you) all (your) sins, having canceled the written code . . . that was against (you); He took it away, nailing it to the cross.”  Jesus erased your name from the document sentencing you to eternal death and put His own name there instead.  On Calvary the sentence was fully meted out.  Your transgressions were wiped away.  For Jesus stood in your place.  Just as the infant son of David was the one who died and paid the price for David’s sins, so also Jesus, the Son of David died for your sins and paid the price for the sins of the whole world.

    Christ never broke any of the commandments, kept the Law from the heart, and yet He was counted as the Great Transgressor in His baptism and crucifixion so that the unholy world might be counted as righteous before God through faith.  To put it another way, the words of this Psalm were made to be the words of Jesus.  He cried out on your behalf, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love.  According to your great compassion, blot out my transgressions.”  He who knew no sin spoke these anguished words of confession in your stead.  For your sake, no mercy was shown to Him on Good Friday, but we know from Easter morning that His cry was heard.  Through Jesus, then, your prayer to God for mercy is answered affirmatively, “Yes, you have My mercy and forgiveness.”

    This forgiveness is cleansing, like a filthy garment being purified.  “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean; wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.”  In Old Testament times, when a leper was to be pronounced clean, a hyssop plant was dipped in sacrificial blood and sprinkled on the leper seven times.  Then he was clean.  So you too have been made clean from a leprosy of the soul by the blood of Christ sprinkled on you.  I John 1 proclaims, “The blood of Jesus, (God’s) Son, cleanses us from all sin.”  God’s mercy in Christ is like a renewing shower, a baptismal washing that rinses away the dirt of sin and makes you pure in His sight.  God says through His prophet Isaiah, “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.  Though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.”

    David prayed, “Create in me a pure heart, O God.”  His prayer was answered when Nathan announced to him, “The Lord has taken away your sin.”  The prophet’s words accomplished what they said.  So also God creates in you a pure heart by the living words of Christ spoken in the absolution, “I forgive you all your sins.”  God’s Spirit creates in you and gives to you a new heart, the heart of Christ.  For His body and blood are truly fed into you with all of their renewing power.  A heart in which Christ dwells by faith is pure.  He lives in you and through you with a willing spirit of service and love towards others.  His gracious presence restores to you the joy of your salvation.

    Brothers and sisters of Christ, return to the Lord with all your heart this Lenten season.  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and He will lift you up.  Take comfort in knowing that the sacrifice God is looking for is a broken spirit.  As Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  God will not despise a broken and penitent heart.

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