Sunday, January 27, 2013

Life Is Unfair. You Have God to Thank for That.

Commemoration of John Chrysostom, Preacher
January 27, 2013
What is the Kingdom of heaven like? According to Jesus it’s like nothing you and I would ever expect it to be. It certainly was not like what those laborers would have thought who worked hard all day and got exactly the same pay as those who slipped in at the end of the day and worked for only one hour.

Now if this little story Jesus were telling was about the way things are in this life then He would not be much of a God, let alone a leader. Things would not work out very well if in this life a guy were to treat people that way. Sure, the people who hardly worked would like it, but word would soon spread that there’s this guy who will pay you for a whole day if you show up in the last hour. How long do you think that would last?

No, Jesus doesn’t tell His stories so that we can learn better how to do things in this life. He tells them so that we can learn, well, what He said we were learning from it: what the Kingdom of heaven is like.

If you think that there are things in this life that are unfair, you’re right. We live in a fallen world. The world is populated with sinful people, who, guess what?, act unfairly. Because of the Fall into sin, things are not as they should be in this life. When I was a child and my parents tried to drive home the fact that life is unfair, so I should get over it—I didn’t want to get over it. It just wasn’t fair, and it needed to be fair. Since then I’ve learned this lesson and it’s still a hard one. It’s one I try to impress on my own children, and I sympathize with them when they don’t want to let the unfairness go.

But why would Jesus become a man just to teach us that life is unfair and we need to deal with it? He wouldn’t. He became a man for another reason. And the reason is to show us the Kingdom of heaven. It’s to show us something we don’t know and can’t know on our own. We need to be shown it. If you want to succeed in life, sooner or later you should be able to learn on your own that life isn’t fair and that if you don’t dwell on the unfairness you will be able to do great things. But the Kingdom of heaven? You can’t know what that’s like on your own. That’s why Jesus told this parable.

It’s like this man who apparently had a lot of money. So much so that he gave no thought whatsoever to paying workers who worked for only one hour a whole day’s wage. He also apparently gave no thought as to how this would make the other workers feel, the ones who worked hard all day, who bore the burden and the heat of the day. Talk about unfair. Those workers who came last surely loved the jackpot they walked into, but even they would have to admit that the landowner wasn’t acting in fairness. Eccentricity maybe. But he wasn’t being fair.

So there you have it. Not only is this world unfair, the Kingdom of heaven is too! If we have such a strong aversion to unfairness in this life, why would God present to us what is supposed to be better—the Kingdom of heaven—as unfair as well? Working through the parable will show us the answer.

Jesus’ parables can be difficult for us. He tells them to teach us what we cannot know on our own. So here He is teaching us what we need to know about the Kingdom of heaven. One challenge with parables is, how far do you take all the details? When Jesus says that the Kingdom of heaven is like a man who entered into an agreement with several laborers, does that mean that the Kingdom of heaven is like a business transaction? There are a lot of people who think that way. You do your part, God will do His. You do good works and live a good life and God will reward you for that. If we press this detail of the parable too far we find ourselves in contradiction with other parts of Scripture that teach that salvation is far from a business transaction but rather purely by grace. It is not some agreement we have entered into with God. It is not on the basis that we have done our share and so God then gives us our due wages. It is rather purely by God’s grace that He has saved us.

And yet, if you do look at that detail, there is something striking about what that landowner does with the first ones he hires and the ones he finds milling around later on in the day. The first ones get a straightforward business transaction. The wages back then were a denarius a day, and that’s what both the landowner and the workers agreed to. At the end of the day he was happy that people did the work he needed to be done and they should have been happy that they were able to make some money they presumably needed.

But notice how he interacts with those he finds hanging around later in the day. “And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same.” He doesn’t agree with them on a wage. He says rather, “Whatever is right I will give you.” Apparently they are just happy to get a job, perhaps thinking that since the day had already begun they might be standing around all day and not get any work. So whatever this landowner would give them would be great. We can probably assume they were thinking it would be less than a denarius, in other words, not a full days’ wage.

You can usually see that in Jesus’ parables His intent is not to teach us about what this life is like or about how we ought to operate in this life. The first clue is that He says something along the lines of, “The Kingdom of heaven is like this…” The second clue is that His stories simply wouldn’t make sense if played out in the real world. In this parable we need to come to terms with who these first laborers are and who the rest of them are. We need to come to terms with how the landowner deals with the first ones and how he deals with the rest.

The first ones were looking for something and the landowner provided that. They had an expectation and they were right to. They would provide the labor, he would provide the wage; a day’s wage for a day’s work. But what happened with those first workers? What changed that their expectations changed? What changed is that the rules changed. They put in a full day’s labor and then along come these other workers who worked only part of the time. A few of them only worked the last hour of the day! It was no longer hot. They were rested up from standing around all day. When it came time for everyone to get paid, those other workers got a denarius. The landowner gave them a full day’s wage for a little bit of work.

At first, the first workers were ecstatic. The landowner really needed a lot workers today and so he kept hiring people throughout the day. Since he gave those others a full day’s wage, and he must be extravagantly wealthy to do that, he’s going to draw from his treasury and give us even more. Today has turned out to be a really good day!

Then they got it. A denarius. A stinkin’ denarius. Only a day’s wage. Normally, this would be great. You put in a day’s work and you’re happy to go home with a day’s wage. But they were getting exactly the same as those who worked only one hour. They didn’t toil and sweat like they did. They didn’t put in a full day’s work. It wasn’t fair. And they told the landowner so. Why are you treating us like this? We deserve more than what you gave those other guys.

His response wasn’t going to win any friends among those who worked the whole day: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” And this here is the beauty of this parable. It is the brilliance of the unfairness of God. You think life is unfair? The Kingdom of heaven is more so. You think you don’t like it when life doesn’t go the way you want it to, when others treat you unfairly, when God seems not to care how badly things are going for you? I promise you you will like it even less the way God deals with you in His Kingdom.

To understand the unfairness of God, you need to broaden your understanding of life. Do not think of it only as your living on this planet, your living day to day in this world. Life is so much more than that. It is all the blessings, not only in this life, but all of His abundant blessings of eternity. Once you do, you will see things clearly. You will see, in fact, that God is not fair. You will see that life, not just this life, but life in all its fullness and abundance, is not fair. And it won’t be in the way your parents taught you, life isn’t fair, deal with it. You will see it and give thanks to God for it. You will see that exactly what you need is for God to not be fair with you.

Think of it this way, God will deal with you in the same way you deal with Him. If you want to earn from Him a wage, a wage is what you will get. You will put in the work, you will work hard, you’ll do good works, you’ll toil and sweat, and at the end of the day He will give you your wage. You will have earned it.

The only problem here is that you will look around and you will see all those people who didn’t work nearly as hard as you. They didn’t do nearly the good works you did. They didn’t put in as much time on church boards and helping the needy and driving the elderly to their doctor appointments. In short, they didn’t deserve it like you did. What you won’t see is that they didn’t receive a wage. They received grace. What God gave them was a gift. “Whatever is right, I will give you,” said the landowner. And you know what is right? What is right is grace. Because God doesn’t operate in fairness. He operates in grace.

There was no agreement made on the cross. There was the completely unfair reckoning of your sin and my sin and every person’s sin to Jesus. If you’re looking for a wage you will get it. The wages of sin is death. That’s fair. The thing about God is that He’s completely not about fairness but about grace. Jesus received the wages of our sin. We have received grace. Or do we begrudge His generosity? That truly is the scandal of all of this. God chooses to give to us and to all what we do not deserve. Instead of being fair, Jesus died for every single person. He didn’t check first to make sure we were going to be good workers in the vineyard. He didn’t determine if we were going to work hard and do all the right things and live a life of good works.

He simply died on the cross. He acted in grace. He gave to all because that’s who He is and what He’s about. He gives life and abundantly. This life is not fair, but we see clearly now, and thank Him for it. We see clearly, that there is so much more to life than simply what we know in this life. There is also and especially eternal life; the Kingdom of heaven. And when it comes to that, life is unfair. You have God to thank for that! Amen.


Sunday, January 20, 2013

Don’t Stay on the Mountain

The Transfiguration of Our Lord
January 20, 2013
There were only three of them. He might have taken all twelve of His disciples. But He chose only three. He might have invited the crowds who had heard Him on the Sermon on the Mount up this other mount so that they, too, could witness the glory of the Transfiguration. But He picked just three from that crowd. After feeding the thousands of the Feeding of the Five Thousand He could have really shown them some glory and brought them along to the Mount of Transfiguration. But He showed this glory to only three of those thousands.

Of those three we have a recollection of it from one of them. In the Epistle today Peter tells us what it was like. It was glorious, of course. It was spectacular, of course. It was something that many, if not all, of us would ourselves like to witness. But the Holy Spirit in inspiring the apostles in writing the New Testament gives to us the perfect perspective on things like this. Peter’s words maintain the glory of the Transfiguration even as they show that it’s not what we ought to hang our hat on. It’s great, but there’s something better, he says. It’s spectacular, and how great would it have been to witness it as he had, but there’s something better that we have.

Consider this, the closing words to today’s Gospel reading: “And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, ‘Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.’” The first detail almost goes past our observance. They came down the mountain. This is a very important fact. They didn’t stay on the mountain. It was great! It was spectacular! They wanted to stay on the mountain! But they didn’t. They came down.

And as they did, we see the second detail, Jesus telling them to keep quiet about it. It’s spectacular. It’s amazing. It’s a sight to behold. But don’t tell anyone. Well, it’s not so much not telling anyone as it is not saying anything until another event of spectacle has occurred. “If you think you saw something today, wait till you see Me rise from My grave. That’s when you can tell people.” And so Peter did. We have it in the Epistle reading. We were on that mountain. We saw the glory. We heard the voice of the Father. We witnessed this glorious event.

But then we came down the mountain. Then we kept quiet about it. Then we reflected upon what we had seen and witnessed. Then we pondered something amazing. The words of the Father. We saw Jesus transfigured before us. We saw glory as we had never known. But as we came down the mountain, He said something to us. No longer radiant, He said, Don’t say anything. Don’t tell people what you have witnessed. It means nothing apart from what I am about to do. The glory you will behold will not make sense at first. I will look the opposite of what you saw on this mountain. I will be beaten, and bruised, and bloodied, and stricken. I will draw My last breath. I will not hear the words of My dear Father, “This is My beloved Son,” but will cry out to Him, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”

And after that, I will rise from the grave. There will be glory in these events that will pale My transfiguration before you on this mountain. That is why you must wait to tell others. That, and going back to what you heard My Father on the Mount of Transfiguration say of Me: “Listen to Him.”

And so we did. We listened to Him. We heard the words of the Father and heard the words of the Son. And what we have realized is that, when we wanted to hang out on that mountain, holding on to that glory we were experiencing, we were holding on to something fleeting. The glory we wanted paled in comparison with the glory of the cross and the empty tomb. The glory we attempted to hold on to was truly a vision, a glimpse if you will.

The glory of the cross, though, that is certain. The glory of the empty tomb, that is enduring. The word we have now is something that we have now. On the mountain Jesus’ face was radiant. His clothes were bright and marvelous. But what good does that really do? It does no good apart from the glory and beauty of the cross and the empty tomb. It does no good if you tell people, “Hey, we saw this spectacular display of glory from Jesus! Wish you could have too!”

No, that doesn’t do anybody any good. What does is going down the mountain. What does is the prophetic word. How does Peter say it? “We have something more sure, the prophetic word.” Now, you may be like me and the Word of God does not strike you as spectacular in comparison with the glory of the Transfiguration. But Peter sees things clearly, very unlike the way he saw them when he witnessed the glory of the Transfiguration up on the mountain. “Lord, it’s good we’re here! Let’s stay! We can enjoy this glory forever!” No, it wasn’t until he came down the mountain. Until the Lord suffered on the cross; rose from the grave; until Peter did what the Father had said, and listened to his Lord, that Peter realized that he didn’t need glory, he needed certainty.

He didn’t say, “You know that glory we saw on the mountain? We have something more glorious—the Bible.” No, he said, “We saw the glory, and granted, you didn’t, but we have something more sure.” More certain. More lasting. More what we need. And then he says, “So pay attention to it. It’s like a lamp shining in a dark place.”

Well, with radiance beaming from Jesus’ face and clothes, I’m sure it lit the place up. But it’s like a flicker from a candle compared to the Word of God. The Transfiguration was a vision, a momentary display of glory. The Word of God is a prophetic word of God; an enduring entity that shines brightly and dispels darkness. Don’t stay on the mountain. Don’t seek glory when you have something more certain. Don’t look for the glory you think God should show you when you have something more certain, the prophetic word which is written and proclaimed and applied in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Mountain top experiences are experiences we want to hold on to. But they inevitably contain the action of coming down from the mountain. After summer kids can experience a letdown, now having to go back to school. After a fantastic vacation, instead of feeling great having had wonderful experiences, you can feel down in the dumps now that you’re back to the ordinariness of your life. Any spectacular experience in this life is just that, it’s an experience. It doesn’t last. Some of the effects of it may. But the thing you want to hold on to, what you want to continue, doesn’t last. The experience itself comes to an end. You have to go back down the mountain.

What we learn today is that this is good. Don’t stay on the mountain. You need to go down to the plain. That’s where you live. That’s where God calls you to live your life and carry out your vocation He has given you. That’s where you do what our Heavenly Father has instructed you to do, you listen to your Lord. You hear the prophetic word and receive the salvific means of grace. If you stay on the mountain you are removed from the place where your Lord comes to you and gives you His true glory. It’s known chiefly in His giving His mercy and grace to you.

It’s here in this house where we hear the Word of God and receive the Holy Supper of our Lord. It’s in our homes where we hear the Word of God in family devotions and where we pray together. It’s in our daily lives where we serve others and bring them hope to their lives that comes only from coming down from the mountain and taking them to the Mount of Calvary where Christ paid for all of their sins. Showing them the empty tomb where He guaranteed eternal life in conquering the grave. Pointing them to the waters of Baptism which are connected with the word of God and in which they are transformed into a new creation.

At the very least we ought to see that Jesus, who was transfigured in glorious display, came down the mountain. He did so in order to ascend a humble mountain, Calvary. Even that mountain, though, He came down from, having accomplished salvation and displayed His true glory, that of suffering and dying for us. His rest in the tomb even was momentary, He left that dark place after three days. He reigns on the mountain now, so to speak, having ascended to heaven. But even here, Jesus doesn’t stay on that mountain, but rather descends to us; coming to us in the Gospel and the Sacraments.

After the glory and after the voice of the Father, the disciples saw on that mountain Jesus only. When we hear the Gospel, when we remember our Baptism, when we receive the Lord’s Supper, we ought to see Jesus only. It was Jesus only on the cross. Don’t stay on the mountain seeking glory from Him. Hang out where He has promised to come to you. It is indeed good to be here where He displays His glory by giving you grace and forgiving you. And in this way you may descend the mountain and go in peace and serve the Lord. Amen.


Sunday, January 13, 2013

Why Jesus Was Baptized; Why You Are Baptized

The Baptism of Our Lord
First Sunday after the Epiphany
January 13, 2013
To get an understanding of why John was so puzzled when Jesus came to him to be Baptized by him, listen to what Matthew had said earlier in chapter 3, right before today’s Gospel reading: “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.”’” Matthew goes on to say that “Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.”

Furthermore, Matthew tells us that John said “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” The very next thing that happens is what we heard in today’s Gospel reading, “Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.” No wonder, as Matthew tells us, “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’”

Baptism is a treasure. It is a rite and a Sacrament the Church has cherished since our Lord Jesus Christ instituted it. We cherish it because it is the very means by which a child of wrath becomes a child of God. It is the blessed way in which a sinner is forgiven; in which a person who is dead in sins is resurrected to new and eternal life. John was rightly puzzled. “I’ve been paving the way for You. I’ve been preaching repentance and Baptizing people. I’ve been pointing people to You and now that You’ve come, You’re not going to preach, You’re not going to Baptize, You’re not going to take over for me… You’re going to be Baptized?”

I have to imagine John trying to keep his hands steady as he Baptized Jesus, having just proclaimed to everyone their need for repentance and Baptism, and now the sinless Son of God was requesting Baptism at his very hand. Like John, we know our need for Baptism. Also like John, we don’t understand why it is that Jesus needs to be Baptized. He had no need for repentance. He hadn’t sinned. He wasn’t dead in sins and in need of being made a new creation. He came to save us from sins.

John acquiesces, however. It’s only right that when Jesus says, “Here’s the thing, do it the way I’m saying it,” that you do it. John in this regard truly is what he had said he was, he was not worthy in comparison with Christ. He came to be the one to prepare the way for Jesus and when he does what Jesus says to do, namely, Baptize the one he has been preparing the way for, he is humbly submitting to that one, Jesus, the Messiah.

Jesus’ reason is that it is to fulfill all righteousness. Baptism is a passive thing. It is something done to you. One does not do anything in order to be Baptized. You are washed. You are forgiven. You are brought into new life. It’s similar to birth. You did not do anything in order to be born. Your mom was pregnant with you and then gave birth to you. You came out of her womb by the working of her and the doctor. This was passive on your part. You were the one receiving. You were the recipient of life. That’s the way it is in Baptism.

So when Jesus came in order to do—to forgive, to save, to restore, to create anew—it’s odd to John that Jesus would be the passive recipient of John’s Baptism. In Baptizing Jesus, John would be the one doing the doing, Jesus would be the one receiving. This, Jesus says, is what will fulfill all righteousness. We think of Jesus fulfilling all righteousness for us in terms of His acting, His working, His doing. What He is saying here is that it is in terms of His receiving. He is being a passive recipient, just as we are to be.

John may not have understood what this meant, this Baptizing Jesus in order to fulfill all righteousness, but Jesus certainly did. He knew that this Baptism He was receiving was connected with the other Baptism He would undergo; the Baptism by fire; the receiving of the wrath of God for sinners upon Himself. God was most certainly doing the work in this act of accomplishing salvation, or, as Jesus says it, fulfilling all righteousness, but He was doing it by Jesus being the passive recipient of the punishment and wrath for our sins.

Think of it. Jesus on the cross, suffering what we human beings rightly ought to suffer, namely, the wrath of God poured out on sinners. We are the ones who need to repent, not Him. And yet, He went humbly to the cross to suffer in our place. When Jesus shows up on the scene at the moment John is making his case that people need to repent and be Baptized, and Jesus, instead of Baptizing, as John said He would, is Himself Baptized, we see what Jesus was doing. He was receiving. He was receiving what we ought to receive. When you’re Baptized, you don’t do anything. You receive. God does something to you.

When Jesus was Baptized, it was the same thing. He was receiving. But He wasn’t doing it because He needed it. He was doing it to fulfill all righteousness. In other words, He was doing it for us. He was already accomplishing His work of salvation for us in receiving what we ought to receive, namely, a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Often in the New Testament when the word ‘fulfill’ is used it’s in terms of fulfilling prophecy. Isaiah 53:11 has this prophecy: “by the knowledge of himself shall my righteous servant justify many; and he shall bear their iniquities.” This prophecy connects Jesus’ Baptism, as He said of it, in order to fulfill all righteousness, with the cross, bearing the iniquities of all sinners. The theologian Leon Morris makes this great statement about what it was Jesus was doing when He turned the tables upside down on John the Baptist: “Jesus might well have been up there in front standing with John and calling on sinners to repent. Instead he was down there with the sinners, affirming his solidarity with them, making himself one with them in the process of the salvation that he would in due course accomplish.”

Isaiah 53 is the clearest passage in the Old Testament of the Suffering Servant, the Messiah who came to suffer for the sins of the world. We rightfully see this passage as pointing to the cross. With Jesus’ rationale here at His Baptism, perhaps we should see that prophecy, as well, as encompassing all of His work of salvation, as Isaiah 53 also says that “He was numbered with the transgressors.” There Jesus was, in the Jordan River, with a bunch of sinners who needed to repent; who needed to be Baptized; who needed Jesus. And there was Jesus, with them in those waters.

There was Jesus, the one Matthew earlier in his Gospel account said of His birth, that this was Emmanuel, God with us. God was with those people on that day. They had come out to hear an itinerant preacher and in John heard a message of repentance, and a call to be Baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. What they got was Jesus coming into the water with them, being Baptized, fulfilling all righteousness.
It would be one thing to talk about Jesus’ Baptism as the historical event it is and leave it as that. But the Baptism of Jesus actually means something for you. It affects who you are and how you live. When you consider what those people got when they heard John and were Baptized by John, that they received Jesus having the water poured on Himself also, that He was joining with them in this, you begin to see what Paul in Romans 6 was talking about when he said that in Baptism we are united with Christ. Our Old Adam is drowned, our New Man is raised up, as we are joined with Christ in Baptism in His death and resurrection.
This is how Paul says what he does in the Epistle reading today: “Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”

It might seem that having water applied to you and words spoken in connection with that water is too simple of a thing to be the major thing it is. But this is how God works. He uses the simple, the lowly, the foolish. The Catechism even asks this question, “How can simple water do such great things?”, in response to the question, “What benefits does Baptism give? It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.” And so the question: “How can water do such great things?” And the answer: “Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water. For without God’s word the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the word of God it is a Baptism, that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.”

In the Epistle Paul brings home the purpose Jesus said John should Baptize Him: “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” God is the source of your life. How? In Christ Jesus. God has made Him our wisdom, and in light of Jesus’ words about why He was Baptized, in order to fulfill all righteousness, our righteousness, and our sanctification, and our redemption. When you are Baptized He joins Himself with you. You are united with Him. All righteousness is fulfilled for you. You have purpose. You have new life.

And as Paul said in the Epistle, consider your calling, continue to pray as we did in the Collect of the Day, “Father in heaven, at the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River You proclaimed Him Your beloved Son and anointed Him with the Holy Spirit. Make all who are baptized in His name faithful in their calling as Your children and inheritors with Him of everlasting life.” Amen.


Sunday, January 6, 2013

Whose King Is He?

The Epiphany of Our Lord
January 6, 2013
Wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?”
 There were these wise men who came to Jerusalem seeking the King of the Jews. The things of it was, they were Gentiles. Why were they looking for a Jewish king? Why were they wanting to worship Him? They were Gentiles. When Pilate affixed the sign above Jesus’ cross he wrote, “The King of the Jews.” Pilate was a Gentile. Why did he write that? In fact, the Jews wanted to know that very thing. “Don’t write,” they said, “‘The King of the Jews’ but that this man said ‘I am the King of the Jews.’”

At the beginning of His life Jesus is shown for who He is, the King of the Jews. The funny thing of it all is that He is shown this by Gentiles. The Jews didn’t want Him as their king. Granted, Pilate didn’t either, but he wrote accurately when he wrote on the cross of Christ, “The King of the Jews.” Certainly unknowingly, the statement He posted above Jesus’ head as He hung there on the cross brought to fulfillment Jesus’ own words in John 4: “Salvation is from the Jews.” Jesus had spoken those words to a woman who was a Samaritan. The Jews were very particular about their Jewishness. Samaritans, though sharing a common ancestry with them, were treated by them in the same way they treated Gentiles—as not one of them.

In a basic sense, Gentiles were nothing more than the “nations.” In the Old Testament there were the Israelites and then there was everybody else—the nations, the Gentiles. While the Israelites were most certainly the chosen people of God He never intended for only them to be saved. His salvation was always proclaimed and offered to the ends of the earth. To His own precious people, the Israelites, as well as to the nations, the Gentiles.

But we know how to take a good thing and turn it into a selfish thing, don’t we? If we are chosen we begin to think we’re better than others, don’t we? If we have been blessed we start seeing everyone else as not blessed for a reason; they are somehow inferior or not worthy. This was the problem with the Jews. Their heritage was the chosen people of God, the Israelites. They saw themselves as somehow special. They constructed a religion in which they were chosen because they deserved it. They were blessed because they did what was right and good and pleasing in the sight of God. They lost sight of grace and mercy. They forgot that their blessings came solely from the immeasurable love of God.

And so while God was their king, they rejected Him as their king. They weren’t able to see the grace in their God, in their king, in coming to them to bless them and care for them. They wanted to be self-sufficient and worthy in the eyes of the world.

But along comes God as a baby. An infant who lay in a manger rather than sitting on a throne. And this was no king for them. But Pilate called it correctly, didn’t he? This is the King of the Jews. The one hanging here, bloody, beaten to a pulp, losing blood, struggling for oxygen. And Pilate didn’t even know the half of it. As much pain as he could inflict on that man he referred to as the King of the Jews, he was unaware of how God saw His only-begotten Son as the King of the Jews. For God the Father inflicted nothing on Him, but laid on Him the sin of Pilate and every Jew and every Gentile.

See, this wasn’t just a Gentile ruler convicting some guy who claimed to be a king of some people known as Jews. This was God bringing salvation, from the Jews to the Jews and Gentiles. In other words, to everyone. Jesus was Himself a Jew. Jesus shared the same heritage the Jews did, from the chosen people of God in the Old Testament, the Israelites. The fact that He was born of a woman means that He had a genealogical ancestry, as we all do. But it wasn’t just that He was a “Jew.” He was of the lineage of the Promise. It went all the way back to Abraham, who was a Gentile, by the way.

That’s the important part of all of this. Salvation is not in who you are or where you’re from or what you’ve done or in your heritage. It’s in the one who hung up there on a cross with a sign hanging over His head that read “The King of the Jews.” The promise was given to Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. There’s that word again, nations, Gentiles. His son, Isaac, was the father of Jacob who was renamed by God “Israel.” Thus the Israelites were born and the Jews ended up holding on to this genealogical ancestry rather than the promise given to Abraham.

The promise was fulfilled in Jesus, the King of the Jews. In other words, it was fulfilled in the cross. It was fulfilled in sins taken away, salvation accomplished, mercy showered on all. That’s what Epiphany shows. It shows that Jesus came not as a king in the way Herod was. Herod attempted to hold on to his power. He didn’t see that the king the wise men were seeking came to be his king. Not to unseat him from his throne; to call him to repentance as He does everyone. God Himself is the one who calls people to serve as kings and rulers. There’s no problem with Herod sitting on his throne. There was a huge problem with him being troubled that God sent His Son as King; King of the Jews, the one who came to bring salvation.

The wise men came to worship the true King. The one who was in a manger, not one who came to rule from a throne. The one who would care for His people from a cross, not a palace. Kings have power, and rightfully so. They need that power if they are to serve in a God-pleasing way as kings. The key, though, is serving. One is not carrying out his calling from God as king or ruler if he abuses his power or seeks to hold on to his power. The power is to be used for the good of those in the nation. He is to protect them. The wise men humbled themselves before a King who could do this like no other.

Jesus’ reign as King is from heaven, but unfortunately that doesn’t do us any good since we have rejected Him as our king. But He is the ultimate King. He came to us so that we could be restored to Him. As a king is most fully a king in his calling when he is carrying out his office as one who serves his people, Jesus shows us that He is the true King in that He came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many. And if you are ever in doubt about how your Lord rules over you as your King you need look no further than those words of the Wise Men: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” You need not look past the words written by Pilate: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Put simply, look no further than the cross.

Whose King is He? He is your King. He is the King of the Jews. He is the King of the Gentiles. He rules His people in grace and mercy. Not because they are of particular lineage or ancestry. Not because they’re really good people. Not because they’ve maintained their power as a chosen people. Because of the cross. Because of grace and mercy. Because this is the kind of King we have in Jesus.

In a strange sort of way, we who are Gentiles, in other words, we’re not Jews, are actually not the Gentiles. We are the true Israel the New Testament speaks of. In other words, we are the people of God. We are the Christian Church. We are His chosen nation. Chosen, not on the basis of anything of ourselves, but of His mercy in Jesus, the one who was crucified.

And with that, because God in His mercy has chosen us, we who are sinful, there is the danger of us falling into the trap of turning in on ourselves instead of always looking to the cross and the Christ, the King, who hung there. There is the danger of thinking of ourselves as better. Of thinking of others as not as good. God has chosen us after all!

We need to be humble. We need to serve our King, the King who served us. We need to recognize that we are chosen simply because it is His pure grace, mercy, and love that drew Him to us. To be born, to suffer, to die, to rise. To come to us in Baptism and to give Himself to us in bread and wine. It is the King, Jesus the humble Servant, who is our sole glory. Not ourselves. Not our works. Not who we are or what we do. Not our lineage, not our church affiliation. Nothing. Only Christ. Only the true King, the one who came as the King of the Jews and brought salvation to all. Amen.


The Epiphany of Our Lord

The feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord commemorates no event but presents an idea that assumes concrete form only through the facts of our Lord’s life. The idea of Epiphany is that the Christ who was born in Bethlehem is recognized by the world as God. At Christmas, God appears as man, and at Epiphany, this man appears before the world as God. That Christ became man needed no proof. But that this man, this helpless child, is God needed proof. The manifestations of the Trinity, the signs and wonders performed by this man, and all His miracles have the purpose of proving to men that Jesus is God. Lately, especially in the Western Church, the story of the Magi has been associated with this feast day. As Gentiles who were brought to faith in Jesus Christ, the Magi represent all believers from the Gentile world. [Commission on Worship of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod]

Collect of the Day
O God, by the leading of a star You made known Your only-begotten Son to the Gentiles.  Lead us, who know You by faith, to enjoy in heaven the fullness of Your divine presence; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Commemoration of J. K. Wilhelm Loehe, Pastor

Although he never left Germany, Johann Konrad Wilhelm Loehe, born in Fuerth in 1808, had a profound impact on the development of Lutheranism in North America. Serving as pastor in the Bavarian village of Neuendettelsau, he recognized the need for workers in developing lands and assisted in training emergency helpers to be sent as missionary pastors to North America, Brazil, and Australia. A number of the men he sent to the United States became founders of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Through his financial support, a theological school was established in Fort Wayne, Ind., and a teachers' institute in Saginaw, Mich. Loehe was known for his confessional integrity and his interest in liturgy and catechetics. His devotion to works of Christian charity led to the establishment of a deaconess training house and homes for the aged. [Commission on Worship of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod]

Collect of the Day
Most glorious Trinity, in Your mercy we commit to You this day our bodies and souls, all our ways and going, all our deeds and purposes, We pray You, so open our hearts and mouths that we may praise Your name, which above all names is holy. And since You have created for us the praise of Your holy name, grant that our lives may be for Your honor and that we may serve You in love and fear; for You, O Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, live and reign, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Circumcision and Name of Jesus

Already on the eighth day of Jesus’ life, His destiny of atonement is revealed in His name and in His circumcision. At that moment, His blood is first shed and Jesus receives the name given to Him by the angel: “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). In the circumcision of Jesus, all people are circumcised once and for all, because He represents all humanity. In the Old Testament, for the believers who looked to God’s promise to be fulfilled in the Messiah, the benefits of circumcision included the forgiveness of sins, justification, and incorporation into the people of God. In the New Testament, St. Paul speaks of its counterpart, Holy Baptism, as a “circumcision made without hands” and as “the circumcision of Christ” (Colossians 2:11). [Commission on Worship of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod]

Collect of the Day
Lord God, You made Your beloved Son, our Savior, subject to the Law and caused Him to shed His blood on our behalf. Grant us the true circumcision of the Spirit that our hearts may be made pure from all sins; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.