Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Creative God

Second Sunday of Easter
Sunday, March 30, 2008
John 20:19-31

If you’re like me you marvel at people who are creative. They’re able to produce art while I can’t even make stick figures look good. They can envision a building that is sleek looking and also practical. They can put characters together and dialogue and a good story line putting it all together in a novel.

There is no one more creative than God. He creates things out of nothing. And then with the things He has created He makes things. In today’s Gospel reading we see the creative God at work. Maybe we should start seeing God that way. Do we marvel at God’s work the way we do art? The creating God is the creative God.

On the first day of the history of the universe there was nothing. But God created. Out of nothing He made something. Through the next six days He created the universe. On the first day of the week, the day Jesus rose from the grave, there was something. It was a door. God didn’t create anything on that day, but He sure was creative. The door at this particular moment was used to keep the people inside safe and keep the people they were afraid of outside. But the creating God who is creative ignored the door. The God who created something out of nothing now appeared before the disciples in their bunker as if there was no door at all.

The God who created life at the dawn of history was the God who showed what life was all about when He brought to death the grave early on Easter Sunday morning. The creating God who is the creative God doesn’t worry about things like tombs and doors. He created all those things and creatively works as He pleases with them.

At the beginning of the world God’s creative power was manifested by speaking. He spoke into existence the things that were not. “Let there be light,” and there was light. Holed up in their bunker, their Savior dead, the disciples were anything but at peace. But their dead Savior now appears and speaks once again. Speaking into existence what only He can create: peace. “Peace be with you,” He says to them. And He’s not just greeting them. He is imparting peace to them. He is speaking peace into existence in them. They now have peace because He has just creatively brought it about in them.

This God is so creative that in bringing about the things that are unseen to existence, giving us his unseen blessings, that He does it in ways that our senses can absorb. He is spiritual, He gives us spiritual blessings, but He does it through physical means. He spoke. He showed them His hands and His side. He used the things of this world that He created to bring about His creative work.

He who was dead is now alive. The one who suffered on the cross is now standing before them. He who is one with the Father is the incarnate, flesh and blood Son of God who grants life because He Himself is living. Because He Himself is no longer bound by the grave. Because He is not trapped by the created things of this world.

I love the disciples’ reaction: “Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” We’re physical beings. We live in the world. We’re bound by the created things of this world. We have emotions. Spontaneous reactions tell a lot about us. Jesus, the eternal God, the spiritual Creator of the universe came to them in flesh and blood, living after having been dead. They were glad! It was great to see Him!

Okay, so they hadn’t believed before. Now they did! They were seeing Him face to face. They were touching His hands and sides. The reality was that Jesus Christ who was dead was no longer dead.

But they need more spiritual blessings. We can never have enough. Jesus says again, “Peace be with you.” He speaks into existence this gift He’s giving them so that He may bring about in them another thing He creates. The creative God creates in them apostles. Ones who are sent. Jesus Himself had been sent: “As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you.”

Think about it. Who were these guys? Well, they were people a lot like you and me. They were ordinary people who had been called by Jesus to an extraordinary calling. And when things became grim they got scared. They were holed up in a room. How long would they stay there? What would they do? Where would they go? They weren’t good for much as far as what Jesus had called them to was concerned. He had told them He would die and rise, but they didn’t believe that anymore than they would have believed Caesar bowing down before them.

So the creative God created something. He created apostles from these very men. He called them to a new life, one in which they would be sent out even as He had been sent. And in this creating and creative act we see something remarkable. Not just the fact that God is able to create something out of nothing. Not just that God is able to take what is and make it into something wonderful. But that our Creating, Creative, and Almighty God is humble. He creates the world in majesty and then uses the ordinary things of that creation to bring about His blessings of salvation, such as a wooden manger in a stable. Such as a cross used to execute criminals. Such as a few men who were cowering in fear and unbelief. Such as simple water that was applied to you when you were Baptized. Such as the ordinary bread and wine on this altar that you will eat and drink.

And it is because of this that we should not be so quick to see the speck in Thomas’ eye when there is a log in our own. I know, he’s Doubting Thomas. He didn’t believe unless he saw. But are we so different? The other disciples weren’t. Is your faith so strong that you do not think of revenge when someone harms you but rather pray for them? Do you see Christ in your neighbor that gets on your nerves, or do you succumb to your aggravation and hope you can avoid him? Do you pray that God’s will be done even if that means your illness gets worse rather than better?

Thomas wasn’t the only one who had to see and believe. The other disciples did, too. So do we. And Jesus’ response is the same as it was to Thomas: “Peace be with you.” He speaks His peace to us in the Absolution. He speaks into existence the reconciliation we now have with our Heavenly Father. As Jesus said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see My hands; and put out your hand, and place it in My side. Do not disbelieve, but believe,” so He says to us in His Holy Supper, “Take and eat, and take and drink. Feel and see this bread and wine and believe that in and with it is My very Body and Blood.”

Thomas’ answer was, “My Lord and my God!” The creating God created faith in him. Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen Me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” His promise to the apostles is that He would send them out even as He had been sent by His Heavenly Father. His promise to you and me is that we are blessed, even as we have believed but have not seen Him. We have not seen Him, but we have been Baptized. We have not touched Him, but we have partaken of His Body and Blood.

And on the Last Day we will stand before Him in glory, face to face, and say with eternal joy “My Lord and my God!” Amen.


Sunday, March 23, 2008

What Are You Seeking?

The Resurrection of Our Lord
Easter Day
Sunday, March 23, 2008
Matthew 28:1-10

“Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for He has risen, as He said.”

Many of you here today know exactly what the Resurrection is all about. Some of you here today may wonder, what really is the big deal? Why do Christians make such a big deal out of Christmas and Easter?

But I imagine there are deeper questions you have. What does all of this commotion over Easter men for me? How is what happened two thousand years ago important for me today? When I go back to work tomorrow what impact will the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection have on me? We probably all want to know the answers to these questions, no matter how well-versed we are in the Biblical story of Jesus.

In this way, we are exactly like the women in the Gospel reading. We are seeking something, but it’s the wrong thing. Interestingly, even when it’s the right thing, it’s the wrong thing. They were seeking Jesus, after all. But the problem is that they were seeking Him not according to what He had said about Himself. That’s our problem, too. None of us here wants to hear this, but the reason we are seeking the wrong thing is that that’s what our sinful nature is prone to do.

What is our sinful nature? It is ourselves on our own. Think about what you most desire. Your deepest desire is your own satisfaction. All of you will come up with different ways to satisfy your desires, but it’s all the same. It’s centered around yourself. You are ultimately concerned with Numero Uno. You ultimately do not have your heart, soul, strength, and mind set on God. This is your sinful nature.

So whatever it is you’re seeking, when all is said and done, it’s not God. You listen to yourself rather than the Word of God. The women were going to the tomb. We all can readily see the sense of this, Jesus had died. They were there when He was buried. Now they were going to take care of the body. It was a loving act. They had loved Jesus and He knew that. But the problem was that they didn’t really believe in Him. They didn’t take Him at His Word. That’s why the angel said, “You’re looking for Him in a lifeless state, but He’s no longer dead. He is risen, just as He said.”

Maybe one of the reasons Jesus died on a cross was the visual symbol of a cross itself. The two beams of the cross form an intersection. In this way we have a visual image of the importance of the event in history. His suffering and death on the cross is the crossroads of history. One died on behalf of every person in history. The sinless Son of God suffering in the place of sinners.

And it is for this reason that Paul writes in the Bible: “We preach Christ crucified.” His suffering and death for the sin of the world is the Gospel. The most famous Bible verse tells this Gospel message clearly, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son so that whoever believes in Him should perish but have eternal life.” The word Gospel means “good news” and when we hear that God loved the world—He loved everyone, no matter who they are—we begin to see why it is Good News. Jesus died for everyone. Everyone is a sinner. Every person is the very person Jesus died for. That is why we preach Christ crucified.

That is why if we are going to seek true answers to all our questions, we must seek them in Christ. Specifically, in Christ crucified. The problem with the women seeking Jesus at the tomb is that they weren’t seeking Christ crucified but Christ crucified and dead. Christ was indeed crucified but He was also raised. He didn’t stay dead—He is alive. He is Christ crucified and risen.

Maybe all this still sounds a little theoretical to you. But whatever it is you’re seeking, this is why Christ came. Maybe you’re dealing with difficult end of life decisions with your elderly parents. Maybe you’re getting a raw deal at work from your co-workers and your boss seems to be no help in the matter. Maybe you’ve been asking spiritual questions for a long time and keep putting them off. Maybe it all seems so confusing that you don’t know where to begin.

Whatever it is you’re seeking, don’t seek where the women were. Not with the Jesus you think is dead. Do start with Christ and Him crucified, however. Because the one who was crucified has also been raised, just as He said. He has told you where He will meet you. In His Gospel. In Baptism. In His Holy Supper. These are the places where you ought to seek, because He has said to you that He will meet you there. With His forgiveness, with His mercy, with His comfort and strength.

He knows you have questions. He knows you have struggles. He knows you’re severely tempted and struggle against sin. He knows there is a lot that is confusing in this life. That’s why He Himself went through the suffering and torment of your sins and guilt. That’s why He paid the ultimate price so that you may have the ultimate gift—life with Him forever. He is alive, so you know He makes good on His promises. Amen.


Friday, March 21, 2008

Context, Context, Context

Good Friday
Friday, March 21, 2008
Matthew 27:37

And over His head they put the charge against Him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

You know what the three most important factors of real estate are: location, location, location. When it comes to the Word of God, you might say three factors we need to keep in mind are context, context, context. Too often people will take portions of Scripture and yank them out of their context so that they end up with an entirely different meaning. One way this has been described is by putting these three statements of Scripture together: “Judas went out and hanged himself.” “Go and do likewise.” “What you must do, do quickly.”

This is obviously not what the Scriptures intend for us to do so we must look at each of these statements of Scripture in their context so that we may know the correct meaning of them. There’s a statement in the Passion reading from Matthew that deserves our look. In its context, it presents us with a fascinating understanding of our Lord’s Passion. When Jesus was crucified, Pontius Pilate placed above the head of Jesus on His cross the crime for which He was being crucified. It read simply, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

Pilate had made it clear that He didn’t care one way or another what Jesus was saying about Himself. He knew that Herod was the king of the Jews. He knew that Jesus wasn’t. He knew that Jesus was not guilty of any crime against the state. He wanted to set Jesus free. He was in the business of crucifying hardened criminals, not preachers. As the Scriptures say, he knew that the Jewish religious leaders delivered Him over to crucifixion out of envy.

But Pilate was also concerned about his own hide. He answered to Caesar and Caesar was a more powerful force in his life than this itinerant preacher from Galilee. So if Jesus said He was the king of the Jews then Pilate would play along. The Scriptures tell us that the religious leaders were none too pleased about Pilate’s statement on Jesus’ cross. They said to him, “Don’t say ‘The king of the Jews,’ but that He said He was the king of the Jews.” Pilate had given them what they wanted in delivering Him over for crucifixion, but for this complaint he simply said: “What I have written, I have written.”

And what he wrote is fascinating, because though Pilate did not believe in Jesus as Lord what he wrote on Jesus’ cross gives us an understanding of who Jesus is. The context of it is a pagan acting on behalf of all humanity: Pilate gave the death sentence; he gave Jesus over for crucifixion; but we all share in that act. It is the sin of every person that delivered Jesus over to crucifixion.

The context is a governor stating the crime Jesus had committed. What was it? Being the king of the Jews. An honorable king will lay down his life for his kingdom. This is what Jesus has done. But not only for the Jews, for everyone. He reigns on high as the King of all creation and yet became part of that creation in order to save sinners. He saved sinners by laying down His life for them.

But the most striking words Pilate placed before them were these: “This is Jesus.” These words direct us to what we need to know about Jesus. We’re familiar with the Apostle Paul’s emphatic statement, “We preach Christ crucified.” Well, before he uttered those words, here was a pagan, a politician who wanted to get ahead in his career, showing us the same thing. If we want to know who God is, look at Pilate’s words: This is Jesus. If we want to know what God thinks of us, look at those words above Jesus’ head when He was crucified: This is Jesus. If you are wracking your brain trying to come to grips with the suffering in your life, take a glance at what a man you’d probably never want to meet wrote in order to crucify an innocent man: This is Jesus.

The context of these words clarify for us what God was accomplishing. We’d expect the Apostle Paul to boldly cry out to the world, “We preach Christ crucified.” We’d never expect a pagan politician to point us to the Savior of the World. But he did. With these simple words—This is Jesus. No, Pilate didn’t believe it. But the words were there. For all to see. All who were there saw them and gazed upon the Savior of the world. God has preserved those words for all to hear. We are much more like Paul than we are Pilate, of course—we’re Christians, after all. We believe that Jesus is the Savior of the world. But may we point others to Jesus in the same way. Pointing them to His suffering and death on the cross. This is Jesus.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

What Is True Preparation?

Maundy Thursday
Sunday, March 20, 2008
Matthew 26:17-30

The disciples weren’t prepared for Jesus’ institution of the Sacrament of the Altar. They were a little mixed up. They meant well, of course. People so often do. They wanted to help. I’m sure Jesus appreciated that. And we don’t see any sign that Jesus got on them for not having a clue as to what would really be happening. No, He just went right along with what He had planned. They had their own idea of what was happening, that they were the ones preparing the meal, but that didn’t stop Jesus from giving them what only He could.

They were faithful Jews. They asked Jesus where He’d like them to prepare the Passover meal. Boy were they in for a surprise. There would be no Passover this time. Something completely different. Something they could never prepare. You wouldn’t waltz into Emeril’s kitchen and cook dinner. He would be the one to prepare the meal.

The first thing we need to remember about the Lord’s Supper is that it is the Lord’s Supper. He is the one who prepares it. We do not do anything to bring about what it is. It is the Sacrament of the Altar, His Holy Supper, the Meal He has prepared for us to eat and drink. Most of us could no more make a fine meal like Emeril than could we provide the Body and Blood of Christ with a meal of bread and wine. It is the Lord who does that. He is the Host. He has prepared this meal for us.

So what do we do to receive this meal? Christ wants all to partake of it. He doesn’t give gifts only for some. He wants all to share in His gift He gives of His body and blood. But good things often are not just to be partaken of in any old way. Medicine is a wonderful gift from God. People throughout history have been grateful that there are things we can take to help heal us and provide relief from pain.

But just because medicine is good and beneficial doesn’t mean we can take it in any old way. If you take too much of it it could harm you and you could possibly even die. If you take some medicine that conflicts with a condition you have or some other medicine you’re taking, you could actually end up worse off than you were before. So no one denies that medicine is good. But we also realize that we must receive medicine with the proper preparation.

Jesus’ Holy Supper is medicine for your soul. It gives healing for your weary soul. You have a sickness and this is the balm for that. You were born in sin and you sin against God daily. That is why Jesus, the Great Physician, gives you His medicine of immortality.

And like a doctor He guides you in your preparation for His Holy Supper, His medicine for your soul. In your first two years at seminary you’re assigned to a field work church, a local congregation where you assist the pastor on Sundays and begin learning the ropes of the Ministry. One day in Bible Class the pastor asked what it is that makes us worthy to receive the Lord’s Supper. I shot my hand up and said, “You are worthy to receive the Lord’s Supper when you believe that you’re not worthy to receive it.”

Now first and second year seminarians think they know a lot of theology. But that’s not enough for them—they think everyone else needs to know that. What they don’t realize is how little they know and how much they have yet to learn. And yet, on this particular occasion this particular seminarian could not have given a better answer.

The fact is that we are not worthy to receive the Holy Supper of Christ. It is a pure Gift. He alone is worthy. He alone is holy and righteous. We are unworthy, unrighteous. In short, we are sinners. To believe this is to begin our preparation for the Lord’s Supper. If we think we have any merits of our own before God then we are despising Jesus’ gracious gift of the Sacrament. If we think we don’t need this gift then we are ungrateful to Him for His mercy.

While He is the one who prepares this sacred Meal for us, He desires that we prepare to receive it so that we may receive it to our benefit. So that we may receive it for the forgiveness of our sins rather than to our soul’s harm. That is why we confess our sins. We continue to sin against our Lord so we need to continue to confess our unworthiness. The Good News we hear from our Lord is that He forgives our sins. Having forgiven you of your sin He invites you to His Meal.

He gives you faith to believe what He offers there: His Body and His Blood. Because you could never comprehend with your mind that in the bread and wine of this Meal is given to you the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. Your preparation is never of an intellectual understanding of the presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Sacrament. It is always one of faith, of trusting that the Lord who brought God to the world in a baby is the one who brings Him to you in bread and wine. That the Lord who secured salvation for the world in a lowly figure suffering and dying on a cross is the one who forgives your sins through these ordinary elements of bread and wine.

What is true preparation? It is humbly receiving a gift you don’t deserve. It is rejoicing that He gives it to you because that is what He loves to do. He loves to give Himself to you. He did that in His suffering on the cross and He does it here for you this evening at this very altar. Come and receive it. Amen.


Sunday, March 16, 2008

Before There Was Seabiscuit

Palm Sunday
Sunday of the Passion
Sunday, March 16, 2008
Matthew 21:1-11

In 1938, a time of turmoil, when people were reeling from the Great Depression, the number one newsmaker wasn’t FDR or Adolph Hitler. It wasn’t even a person. It was an undersized, crooked-legged racehorse that most everyone had written off. He went on to be an inspiration, showing that things are not always what they seem to be. A man who himself had been down on his luck chose Seabiscuit to be his racehorse and turned the racing world on its head, even knocking off the most dominating horse of the time, War Admiral.

Before there was Seabiscuit, there was a donkey tied to a post in a small village outside of Jerusalem. And just as probably nobody would ever had heard of Seabiscuit had it not been for a man who was willing to take a chance on a horse nobody wanted, this donkey that has been immortalized for two thousand years would have ended up like most ordinary donkeys.

The owner of that donkey probably saw nothing more than that, an ordinary donkey. If Jesus wanted to use Him, He was more than welcome to. But Jesus saw more in that donkey than everyone else did. He saw an animal that would do what no person would want to do for Jesus: bring Him into the city in order to die. A donkey was just the animal for Jesus. Because though He entered Jerusalem to accolades He was one who was coming in humility. If anyone in the crowd had had an inkling of why Jesus was coming their accolades would have turned to questions and disappointment. Nobody wanted a part of that kind of Savior. They preferred that the one who would save them would bring about victory, not end up defeated, hanging on a cross.

Nobody wanted Seabiscuit, either. That is, until he started winning. Then everyone was enamored with him. They saw something worth cheering for when he was leaving the competition in the dust. But what about when he didn’t seem to be worth much? No one gave him a second glance.

We learn about what redemption is in the man who took Seabiscuit in. He took Seabiscuit exactly as he was. There were plenty of other horses out there with greater potential. Instead of giving up on him like so many had done, he cared for Seabiscuit and gave him a chance.

The fact that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey in order to save the world from sin tells us something about redemption, also. He chose a donkey because He chose humility. He chose to humble Himself so that we’re not tempted to look to what seems glorious, which tends to take our attention off of Him. You see, the crowds were hailing Him on that Palm Sunday but their focus really wasn’t on Him. It was on glory. It was on exhilaration.

It was much less appealing to look upon Him when He was bloodied and hanging on a cross, only hours away from death. It was, frankly, disheartening. But our focus needs to be exactly there. Because what the world and our sinful flesh doesn’t give a second look at, is where Jesus shows us that there is much more than meets the eye. Just as sticking with Seabiscuit brought victory to his owner, sticking with the very un-Godlike details of a Savior riding into town on a donkey, being ridiculed and beaten half to death and then finally murdered, is the only way we will see the victory God has secured for us.

On this altar is bread and wine. They’re kind of like Seabiscuit, none of us will think twice about these things if we just see them sitting there in an ordinary kitchen. They’re kind of like that donkey, used for ordinary things. But Jesus does spectacular things with ordinary things. He will take this bread and wine just as He did that donkey and bring salvation about through them. He will forgive your sins through them.

The donkey was the humble vehicle used to carry Jesus into the city where He would be crucified for the sins of the world. The bread and wine on this altar are the vehicles used to carry Jesus directly into your mouth were He is eaten and drunk by you for your sins. Don’t get caught up in the glory, thinking that what you need needs to come in a way that looks or feels spectacular, because you just might miss out on a Seabiscuit. You might miss out on the very Lord of Life Himself coming into your life right where you’re at.

It may not seem like there’s much glory or exhilaration to your Christian life. But God does not give up on you. He doesn’t tell you you have to be powerful and successful like War Admiral. He takes you as you are. Jesus died for you while you were still a sinner. He didn’t come to save those who aren’t in need of salvation but precisely those who are. By God’s grace we are able to see that we are anything but a War Admiral. We are much more like a Seabiscuit or the donkey that was tied to a post.

But God was willing to give up His life for you. That was His great joy. He wants nothing more than for you to experience glory with Him in heaven forever. That He brings it about in a very un-glorious like way gives us comfort to know that like Seabiscuit or that donkey there is always hope for us. There are no conditions on His love for us. There is only pure mercy flowing from the side of Christ as He hung on that cross. Rejoice not in the glory but in the grace of God. Give Him glory not because of His power but because of His mercy. And give thanks that He takes you where you’re at and lifts you up.

Before you were around, there was a donkey that brought into town a man who would die for your sins. He remains your Lord and Savior. Jesus comes into this place again today here at this altar, humbly coming to you to forgive you. On the Last Day these humble means will give way to glory like no other when He welcomes you into the glory of heaven. Amen.


Sunday, March 9, 2008

When Jesus Is At Work

Fifth Sunday Lent
Sunday, March 9, 2008
John 11:1-45

When Jesus shows up at the tomb of Lazarus some of the bystanders observe that if He had the power to give a blind man sight, as we heard last Sunday, then shouldn’t He have been able to keep Lazarus from dying? From a purely temporal standpoint, the guy has a point.

But he’s missed the point Jesus is trying to make. Last Sunday we saw how Jesus saw the situation of the blind man in a completely different light from everyone else, including the blind man himself. Whereas we may see a tragedy, God sees an opportunity to reveal His gracious works. Normally one would think that receiving sight after being blind your entire life would be the high point of your day. But the greatest blessing that man received that day was coming to know the Savior of the world.

We tend to get wrapped up in the temporal affairs of this life. It’s understandable. I mean, if you’re blind, much of your life is going to revolve around trying to make your way through many challenges just to do very simple things. Like finding a chair to sit in or counting out money to buy something with the hope that you’re not going to get ripped off. But we tend to delve into speculation also, don’t we? Why is one person blind and not another? While it certainly impacts our life here on earth, what impact does it have on you for eternity? Absolutely none. In heaven it will not matter one bit whether you were blind or sighted in this life.

So Jesus shows us the perspective God has on things: His response to the disciples’ question of why the man was born blind was: “We must work the works of Him who sent Me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.” Jesus has the same approach here with Lazarus’ illness. When He hears Lazarus is sick He waits around for two days. When He is ready to go the disciples are leery because the Jews want to kill Him. This is Jesus’ response: “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”

It may not seem immediately clear what Jesus is getting at since He’s using metaphorical language. But His actions end up showing us what He means. Obviously there are people that work at night. And while it’s true that we end up stumbling around when we’re trying to make our way at night, Jesus here is pointing us to the greater work that He accomplishes. Greater than giving a blind person sight. Even greater than bringing a dead person back to life. There will come a point when all this will come to an end. We live now but this life will not last forever. He truly is the Light of the World—not light for us to see in the dark. Light which brings to an end the darkness of our sin.

This life God has given us in this world is wonderful. But it does not compare to the glory of heaven. That’s why Jesus was doing His thing for three years. It’s not that He was just helping some people for a period of time, what He was doing was accomplishing salvation. And not just for those particular people He helped—for you and me also. What Jesus accomplished for the blind man He accomplishes for you and me. The miracle of bringing a dead man back to life is a miracle that Jesus accomplishes in us.

Now, we may look at such things and wonder how exactly a blind man receiving sight and a dead man raised to life applies to us. How is Jesus accomplishing this kind of work in us? During these six weeks of Lent we have been going through the Catechism. The Catechism takes us through the work of salvation. It brings to us Jesus Christ Himself and what He accomplishes in us. When we look at what He did for Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, we see how He does that for us:

The episode begins with an illness that leads to the death of Lazarus. Ultimately, this is where the Ten Commandments leave us, in death. The Ten Commandments are holy and good. They are a guide for us in living in a way that is beneficial to ourselves and to others. But at the end of the day, they are devoid of the one thing that will benefit us eternally—Christ. Ultimately, it is not what we do that saves us. The good things we do are not a pass into heaven, but much more like “Do not pass go, do not collect $200.”

While the Ten Commandments show us God’s will for our lives they also spell out clearly our failure to abide by God’s will. When we are met with the command of God to love Him with our whole heart, mind, and soul and to love our neighbor as ourselves, we are also met with the end result that we see in Lazarus—death. The Ten Commandments do not give life. Our death without Christ is an eternity of torment in hell.

It is only when Jesus comes on the scene that we see that there is hope for Lazarus. It is only in the action of Christ that Lazarus has life. This is the confession of faith in the Creed. While our lives on earth are largely concerned with earthly matters, we must always remember that our souls are eternal and that there are only two prospects at our physical death: eternal death and eternal life. The Creed is infused with language like we hear in Jesus’ dialogue with Martha at the death of Lazarus. When Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise again,” Martha responds with a confession of faith that we also confess in the Apostles’ Creed: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” His response to that, then, is what the Creed is all about; why we know we will rise again on the last day: “I am the Resurrection and the Life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” And like her with her response, we confess what we believe to be true: “Yes, Lord; I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” He was in a tomb just as Lazarus was. But that was because He willingly chose death, in our place, so that it won’t be our ultimate end. He willingly suffered death so that we may live and His resurrection ensures this.

What does new life like this look like? What does one who has received eternal life do now that we know we haven’t done anything to gain it and yet are called by God to live according to His will? Jesus gave us the Lord’s Prayer not just to pray. It is also a picture of holy living. Jesus exemplified that holy living in His very life on earth.

When you pray does it sometimes feel like you’re praying to some cosmic force? Do you wonder if your prayers sometimes get lost somewhere up in the stratosphere? It’s easy to forget that God is not just God. Jesus became a man. He knows exactly what we’re going through. He identifies with our hurts, our struggles, our grief. When Jesus went to Mary and Martha He took time to comfort them. After talking with Martha, she went to Mary to tell her that Jesus wanted to talk to her also. When Mary saw Him she displayed actions that we would normally associate with prayer: “Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw Him, she fell at His feet, saying to Him, ‘Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.’” The act of reverence is certainly an attitude we should have in prayer, and her talking to Him is what we normally think of as praying to God.

But there’s another aspect of prayer shown here that we might not think much about, and that is Jesus’ response to her statement: “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in His spirit and greatly troubled.” When we pray, our Lord is right along with us in our prayers! He is moved at our petitions to Him! This is seen all the more when Jesus actually got to the tomb and wept Himself. He loved Lazarus. He loved Mary and Martha. In the same way He loves us, and that’s a comforting thing to know when we’re praying to Him.

There are three other things Jesus does for us that reinforce this salvation He accomplishes for us, this new life He gives to us. But they don’t just reinforce—they are actually the means by which He brings about our salvation, the forgiveness of all our sins. They are Baptism, Confession and Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper.

Bringing Lazarus from his grave is a vivid picture of what God does for us in Baptism. There was no way he was getting up from his tomb on his own. Four days in there had already brought on the odor of decay. And while we may not be able to smell the stench from our sin, we are decaying. We, in fact, are dead in our trespasses and sins. But in Baptism we are raised. We are brought out of our own tomb of death.

And what does a person do who has been raised from the dead? Well, he lives. And one isn’t going to have much of a life if he’s still wrapped up in his burial cloths. So Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” That’s exactly what Jesus does for us when we confess our sins. He speaks His word of Absolution to us and we are unbound of our burial cloths. We are loosed. Set free. We are forgiven and given a new lease on life.

The site of Lazarus staggering from his tomb was a spectacle. He may have been wondering himself what in the world was going on. The people witnessing it were undoubtedly amazed. And this was the result: “Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what He did, believed in Him.” Seeing is believing, as they say.

So what does Jesus do for us today? Any spectacular miracles He has to perform for us so that we, too, may see and believe? So that we may be rid of all doubts lingering in the back of our minds? So that we may know for sure? What He does is exactly that. A miracle. A thing we can see. And not only that, but also that we may taste and smell and that we actually eat. What He gives us is Himself. His body and His blood. He gives us Himself in things that we can see, touch, smell, and eat, in bread and wine. It’s a miracle. We can understand it no more than we’d be able to understand a man walking from a stinking grave four days after he had been placed in it. But we believe. We believe because He has said it is what He has said it is. And that is Himself. His body. His blood. For you. For the forgiveness of your sins.

When Jesus is at work, life is brought about. We saw that with the blind man. The main thing there was not in his receiving sight, but in receiving eternal life through the one who had given him sight. We saw it with the raising of Lazarus. Christ has power over our sin and death. The Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, Confession and Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper spell this out for us. It is Jesus at work in your life to give you true and eternal life. Amen.


Sunday, March 2, 2008

Dig Deep

Fourth Sunday Lent
Sunday, March 2, 2008
John 9:1-41

We might think it a quaint notion, a mystical view of the universe, the question the disciples posed to Jesus about the man who was born blind. He must have sinned, or his parents must have committed some atrocity to bring about this unfortunate curse of not being able to see. We might think we know better in our enlightened age.

Especially in America we pride ourselves on digging deep within ourselves to make our lives better. Even in many churches today you might not find so much of a questioning of why a person would receive the fate of being blind as you would of a motivational appeal that even they, too, can be empowered to live a fulfilling life. That, in fact, we’re all in need of motivation; that we all have problems—but also the potential to be all that we can be.

But when you look inside yourself, what do you see? If you dig deep will you find inner strength to have the victorious life you hear of in much of contemporary American Christianity, that is yours for the taking? Will you find that who you are as a Christian calls for the same kind of digging deep for success that the American spirit does?

This is popular because we want to hear this kind of message. We want to believe it’s true. We want to believe that we can somehow make a difference in our lives, that it’s up to us to make it happen. That we have the power to be more than we are.

The problem with this brand of Christianity is that it takes its cue from numero uno. The Bible’s brand of Christianity takes its cue from God Himself. It’s a dangerous thing to look within ourselves when God tells us to look to Him. And what does God tell us is deep within our hearts? A heart that is far away from God. A heart that is deceitful and looks to itself for the fulfilling of its own desires. That is why the success-oriented brand of Christianity is so appealing—it appeals directly to our sinful hearts.

We’re told that when we look inside ourselves we should like what we see. Be proud of writing a little note to your child telling them how much you appreciate them. Feel good about yourself because you go out of your way to help people who really need it, even when they don’t ask you. Be pleased with yourself at the progress you’ve made in becoming a better you.

There is a word for this kind of self-congratulation. It’s called being a Pharisee. You are not seeing yourself for who you really are, but for who you would like to be. The sinful flesh always looks to itself and likes what it sees. That’s the way of the Pharisee. The Pharisee doesn’t want to see himself for who he really is. He hears what God says about him and rebels.

Now, you may be thinking, well it’s a good thing that I’m not that way. I’m certainly not a Pharisee. I do believe what God says about me, and I am aware of my sins and my faults. But in thinking this about yourself you prove that you are a Pharisee.

In the Gospel reading today Jesus used the situation of the blind man to show us what we need to know about ourselves. Most of us wouldn’t want to be blind. But if you’re spiritually blind the consequences are eternal. Did you notice how Jesus turned things around on the disciples? When they asked how the blind man came to be in the condition he was in, Jesus turned it around to focus on the fact that God was the one who would do the work to help this man.

Have you ever been at a loss for words in trying to comfort a loved one suffering from serious illness? Wouldn’t it be so great for a miracle to happen? And isn’t it somewhat disconcerting that Jesus in His three-year Ministry was seemingly healing people left and right while today it seems that we’re merely reliant on doctors and medicine? It almost seems to not be comforting that Jesus was performing spectacular miracles two thousand years ago but doesn’t waltz into the hospital to do the same for your loved one.

It’s one of the hardest things to do, but it’s in times like these—but really in our entire life—that we need to dig deep into the well of God’s mercy rather than into the desires of our heart. Looking deep within ourselves we will ultimately be disappointed. Looking into the heart of God we will find freedom and hope. We must re-train ourselves in how we pray. There’s nothing wrong for praying for what we want. In fact, God even encourages us to do so. But we often forget the parameters of these prayers. He tells us to pray according to His will. So often our prayers for what we want are according to our own will.

That’s why it’s so important not to look within ourselves. Much better is to look at God’s Word. The Church’s prayer is formed by the Word of God. A wonderful example of that is the collect we prayed a few moments ago:

Almighty God, our heavenly Father, Your mercies are new every morning; and though we deserve only punishment, You receive us as Your children and provide for all our needs of body and soul. Grant that we may heartily acknowledge Your merciful goodness, give thanks for all Your benefits, and serve You in willing obedience.

We may not think of it much, but when we pray, we are praying to the one being who has all power. The one who actually has the power to help us in needs of both body and soul. It’s more important than we think in how we address God when we pray to Him. And not really so much for His sake as for ours. In the collect we prayed, “Almighty God, our heavenly Father.” He knows who He is. But in our words of prayer to Him we remind ourselves of who He is. Almighty. Our Heavenly Father. The one who has eternal power and loves us as His very own children.

When you pray, do you find yourself simply asking for things? God gives us the invitation also to give thanks for His blessings. The collect did not begin by asking for what we need but by a statement of who God is and what He does for us: “Your mercies are new every morning.” How often do we think of this? How often do we believe it? Could the blind man say this every day when he woke up? Can you say it every day? Or do you let your physical ailments supersede the kindness and compassion God shows you?

Maybe we struggle with this because when we pray we so often are praying for what we want rather than praying for God’s will to be done. Today’s collect guides us in praying according to God’s will: “You receive us as Your children and provide for all our needs of body and soul.” We got the praying for our needs of our soul down, don’t we? We know what we need there: forgiveness of sins, eternal life, spiritual guidance and strength. And we also believe that God abundantly provides for us with these eternal blessings. But what about our bodily needs? What about when we’re sick? How about when money is tight? What about when our friends seem to turn on us? When these things aren’t miraculously addressed by God the way the blind man’s were, where does that leave us? Do we think that God is not providing for our physical needs?

This is tough to come to terms with. And we may not like the answer God gives us, but the answer doesn’t lie in what we would like to see happen. It lies in what our true needs are. While we certainly would like to see immediate help in our physical needs, only God knows what is truly best for us. Praying according to God’s will is praying for the wisdom, the patience, and the strength to endure whatever may come our way—even if that means that healing doesn’t come immediately. Even if that means that our relationships with our loved ones remain strained though we are trying to seek reconciliation. Even if that means we don’t understand why God is allowing us to struggle.

Oftentimes, the answer God gives us is not what appeals to our heart. We American Christians are right at home with digging deep and coming out on top. Or at least attempting to be the best that we can be. The call Jesus gives to us is not about this kind of victorious living. It is rather concerned with a humility that seeks solace in the humble God who Himself gave us the gift we ultimately need: and that is Himself. In any cross we bear we will find true comfort in the cross Jesus bore. In looking deep inside ourselves and confessing that our Lord is right, that there is nothing good within us, we will find eternal comfort in looking outside of ourselves to the pure heart of Christ who was slain on the altar of Calvary.

We may then pray that this will be our prayer both now and into all eternity: “Grant that we may heartily acknowledge Your merciful goodness, give thanks for all Your benefits, and serve You in willing obedience.” Amen.