Sunday, April 24, 2011
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
April 24, 2011 (Easter, Series A)
Happy birthday! Huh? Did he just say what I thought he said? Pastor, are you okay? Or did all those extra Holy Week sermons plus having to work at Walmart mess up your mind? No, I said what I meant to say. Happy birthday! Today is the commemoration of your rebirth into the new life of Christ. When you were baptized, however many years ago that was, you were born again into a new life, a life lived by faith before God, and you died to your old life, the life of sin leading to destruction. Of course, most of you probably weren’t baptized on April 24th, or on Easter Sunday whatever date it fell on for that matter, so you’re probably still confused about what I’m talking about. The fact of the matter is, when you died to sin and were reborn to God in your baptism, what happened was that you joined Christ on the cross and were reborn from His tomb. And so, in a sense, your Baptism took place not on whatever date is on your baptismal certificate, but in 33A.D., on a hill called Golgotha, as well as a couple of days later in a new tomb belonging to one Joseph of Arimathea. God is outside of time, and so the key events having to do with our salvation don’t obey the normal laws of time. Christ’s death on the cross, His resurrection, your baptism, your physical death, and your resurrection on the last day, are really all the same event as far as God is concerned, even though they show up at various points on the time line from our perspective. As St. Paul points out in Romans 6, you died with Christ on the cross, and you were born again in Christ’s resurrection. So, happy birthday!
In the Gospel lesson, we see two groups of people at the tomb, besides the angel who comes down and rolls away the stone. One is the soldiers, the other is the small group of women who had come to mourn and to finish preparing His body for burial. When the angel came down and opened the tomb up, and the earth shook, our text says that the guards “became like dead men.” And this isn’t surprising, considering that these men were indeed dead in trespasses and sins. The guards were at the tomb to prevent anyone from stealing Christ’s body. They were there to make sure that no one would be able to say that Christ rose from the grave. Their mission was to make sure that, since Christ had been eliminated as a possible threat to the power and the pride of the high priests, He would stay out of the way. Of course, they didn’t seriously believe that Christ would rise again, but they were there to make sure that nobody would be able to claim that He had.
In this respect, the guards, and the priests who had hired them to do this, are a picture of what we are according to our fallen sinful nature. The Old Adam in each of us wants Christ out of the way. We don’t like it when somebody tells us that we haven’t fulfilled God’s law, and worse yet that we cannot do so. We like to think that we are pretty good people, that we can get along pretty well without God’s help. When Christ comes along and tells us that we are sinners who need what only He can give us, we wish that we could ignore Him, get away from Him, get Him out of our way. This was why the Jewish leaders had Jesus killed in the first place, and why they had posted guards to make sure that He stayed dead.
But when Christ is risen, the old sinful nature dies. The guards, who represented the unbelieving world that wanted Jesus killed and out of its way, become like dead men. In baptism, the Old Adam was drowned, was killed with Christ on the cross, so that a new man might come forth and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. That which is sinful and unclean cannot live in the presence of a holy and righteous God. If we wind up in the presence of God, as all of us will at one time or another, without Christ’s righteousness covering us, we will suffer eternal death in Hell.
Fortunately when God came to us in Holy Baptism, and when He comes to us now in Holy Absolution, Preaching, and in His Holy Supper, He comes to us in such a way that we don’t suffer eternal death, but rather He gives us a new life. Yes, you died in Holy Baptism, but you died to sin and you are now alive to God, and all the blessings that God has to give you are yours. In our text, the characters that depict this are the women who came to the tomb. Instead of depressed, sorrowful, hurting people who wanted to die because their Lord had been killed, they became joyful people, people who have a new life. When Christ Himself met them, he greeted them with one word. The ESV renders it as “Greetings,” but it can also be translated “Rejoice!” Because He lives, we too now live in His presence. We have been transformed from His enemies into His brothers by His death and resurrection. And that’s how He refers to the disciples in His instruction to the women: “My brothers.” We have been adopted into Christ’s family, we have become sons of God. We are now among those who are welcomed into His house and who receive His bountiful gifts to us. We can eat with Him and drink with Him and not die, because He has transformed us from sinners who would be killed by His presence into His saints.
Today, when Christ rose from the grave, you were born again. You who were dead in trespasses and sins are now alive to God in Christ Jesus. So again I say, “Happy birthday!” to all of you. But instead of a birthday dinner, with a cake and candles for desert, we have something better to celebrate today. We have the feast of victory itself. We have our Lord’s own body and blood which He gave for us to win us this victory. Let us feast, for the Lamb who was slain has begun His reign. Alleluia! Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +
Friday, April 22, 2011
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
April 22, 2011 (Good Friday, Series A)
According to the way many Christians think, Good Friday is a depressing day, a day to mourn the terrible things which happened to our Lord, a day which we only observe so that Easter will seem that much more joyful in comparison. It looks to human eyes like Christ is defeated, like His ministry ended in tragedy. Death is the end of it, is what human reason tells us, and it isn’t a victorious thing. Certainly it’s true that Good Friday is very somber and serious, since what Christ endured for our salvation is neither pleasant nor easy. He suffered through just about the worst sort of torture and execution that mankind has ever devised, and even that physical suffering was nothing compared to the fact that He did it with the guilt of our sins weighing upon His heart. Since it was we who put Him there through our sinfulness and rebellion against God, Good Friday is a day to reflect penitently and seriously on our sin. And so it’s appropriate that the mood be serious and somber. After all, even though it was done out of love for us, to win us the victory, it was still painful and bloody for our Lord.
But Good Friday is not a defeat for Christ. Easter is not the undoing of Good Friday, it is rather the fulfillment of Good Friday. Christ doesn’t win the victory by rising again from the dead on Easter Sunday, He wins the victory by suffering and dying on Good Friday. Easter is the proclamation, the fulfillment, of what was really happening on Good Friday. We can see this from Christ’s word from the cross in our sermon text. Christ says, “It is finished.” This is not a word of despair, a word which pronounces the end upon His message or His ministry. Rather it is a word of fulfillment, a word by which Christ proclaims to the world that everything is accomplished, that our redemption is complete. It is finished. Since it was our sins that led Him to the cross, it is our sins, our death, and our eternal damnation that are now completely destroyed.
This word, “It is finished,” reminds us that there is nothing more that needs to be done, or even can be done, for our salvation. Christ has done it all, and our part is simply to receive His completed work through Word and Sacrament. By nature we tend to think that we should have something to contribute to our own salvation. We tend to think that our living a good life should be part of how we “get right with God.” That’s the idea that keeps people away from Church or away from Holy Communion sometimes, because they think that they need to do something, to achieve a certain level of sanctification, before they can come and share in God’s blessings to us. But Jesus tells you in this text that none of this is necessary. He makes you right with Him. Everything that is necessary was done by Him on the cross. Your salvation is completed. Heaven is open to you. Your sins are paid for. It is finished. And the Word and Sacraments you receive here are not something you do to please Him or get right with Him, rather they are the means by which He comes to you to give you the blessings He won for you, blessings which were perfected and completed on the cross.
And so we see that Good Friday is not the opposite of Easter at all. The salvation and the eternal life which we will celebrate on Sunday were won on Good Friday. Christ couldn’t have been resurrected as the firstfruits of the new creation, the new heavens and the new earth, if He had not first died to this old world and all of its sin and death. Yes, it was our sin that put Him there. It was the punishment we deserved that He suffered. But it was a victorious suffering. It was a suffering that freed us from suffering. It was a death that freed us from death. Christ bore our sin so that we can share in His righteousness. He who was not a sinner and therefore not subject to death died to free us from the eternal death that we deserved. If Christ had not died on Good Friday, He would not have risen on Easter Sunday. The joy and the wonder of Easter, the celebration of new life which has been granted to us who have been made partakers in Christ our risen Lord, is not possible without the death of Christ on the cross. You can’t resurrect something that hasn’t died. Christ’s death on the cross was necessary for our salvation just as our own deaths to sin in Holy Baptism are necessary for us to receive the newness of life which God grants us through water and the Word.
It is only because Christ dies that the Church is born. It is only because He sheds His blood that the Church can be cleansed in it and renewed. It is only when water and blood come forth from Christ’s side that we are able to be partakers of that water and that blood through Holy Baptism and through the Lord’s Supper. The sacraments which gave us birth in the faith and which nourish and sustain our faith have their root in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Just as Eve was born out of the side of Adam, whom the Lord caused to fall into a deep sleep and took one of his ribs and formed the woman from it, so also the Church, the bride of Christ, is formed when Christ sleeps the sleep of death and from His side comes out the elements from which the Church is reborn into eternal life. Here is the tree of life, which, if a man eat of its fruit, he will live forever. This tree, the tree of the cross, bears a fruit that gives us eternal life itself, the fruit of Christ’s body and blood, given us in the Lord’s Super. Here, on the cross, is the source of our eternal life. Here is the center of our salvation. We eat that which was broken for us, and drink what was shed for us, and in so doing we receive the perfect, complete, and, yes, finished salvation which He won for us today. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +
Thursday, April 21, 2011
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
April 21, 2011 (Maundy Thursday, Series A)
Why do we have the Lord’s Supper? What is the purpose for it? What is the benefit of this eating and drinking? The Catechism’s answer is that we receive the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation, for where there is the forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation. But for many people, and perhaps even some of you, that doesn’t completely answer the question. We also receive the forgiveness of sins through Absolution and through God’s Word. If what we receive in the Lord’s Supper is the forgiveness of sins, if the whole point of receiving Christ’s own body and blood is the forgiveness of sins, then why do we need to come to the Lord’s Supper? After all, we receive the forgiveness of sins in Holy Baptism and Holy Absolution and through the word of the Holy Gospel which is preached to us. Why do we need the Lord’s Supper at all, let alone as frequently as it is offered, every week and more often than that during special times of the year such as Holy Week? If the whole point of the Lord’s Supper is the forgiveness of sins, and we already have forgiveness of sins, then what’s the point?
Let’s think about that question for a minute. “Why do we have to have the Lord’s Supper?” It sounds like a small child asking why does he have to clean his room. When did the Lord’s Supper become like chores or housework? Why should the Lord’s Supper be something we only do if we “have to”? The whole question implies that partaking of Jesus’ body and blood is something that is a burden on us, or a chore or a drudgery. It implies that the person asking such a question wants to get away with doing as little as possible and still meet God’s requirements. It implies that the Lord’s Supper is something negative and frightening and dangerous and that we should try to get out of it if at all possible. But if this were a true picture of the Supper, then if God were truly loving and gracious He wouldn’t put us through it at all in the first place.
To be sure, sometimes we get the idea that this is what the Holy Supper is: an opportunity for God to test us, a frightening encounter with a God who is just waiting to “zap” us if our minds wander for a moment. In times past, it was thought by some folks, who belonged to a group called the “Pietists,” that if taking the Lord’s Supper wasn’t some huge emotional experience for a person, then they were taking the Lord’s Supper to their judgment. Even as recently as the early part of last century there were a number of Lutherans who would only come to the Holy Supper four times a year, and burst into tears every time they came. Of course, you can’t go through that much emotional upheaval every Sunday, or even twice a month for that matter, and not destroy your health in the process. And so that’s why these people would only come four times a year. After all, if you come more often, then the Supper isn’t “special” enough to you, and therefore you’re taking it to your judgment. Granted there’s nothing wrong with emotions when they result from what God does for us in Word and Sacrament, but our worthiness to receive the Sacrament should not depend upon our emotions.
For that matter, the Lord’s Supper doesn’t depend on anything that we do. It doesn’t depend on how earnestly or carefully we have prepared for it. It doesn’t even depend on whether or not we are able to keep our minds from wandering while we are receiving it. Many people think that if your mind wanders while you are taking the Lord’s Supper, you have taken it unworthily and to your judgment. They get worried that if they take it too often their mind is going to wander more often and that they’ll take it to their judgment more often. Well, it just isn’t true. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. If the Lord’s Supper depended upon how worthy we were and how carefully we are paying attention for its benefits, then quite frankly every single one of us partakes to his judgment every single time we take it. None of us is focused enough or prepared enough to earn our worthiness to receive Christ’s body and blood.
It is true, of course, we should examine ourselves as St. Paul tells us to do. We should make sure of three things when we come to the Holy Supper. The first is, “Are you a Christian? Do you believe that Jesus Christ died for your sins and that you are saved because of His sacrifice?” The second is, “Are you living in some deliberate sin and being unrepentant of that sin, which casts the Holy Ghost out of your heart?” And the third is, “Do you believe what Christ says, that His body and blood are truly given you to eat and drink in the bread and wine of this Sacrament?” The reason for this is because if you’re not a Christian then your heart is only hardened in its unbelief, and that’s what partaking to one’s judgment means. But the same thing is true of a person who hears the Gospel in a sermon and uses it to excuse his sin instead of repenting of it. The Gospel causes such a person to become worse than he was before. It’s simply the Lutheran distinction between Law and Gospel that is at work. That’s why we in the Missouri Synod practice close communion and why there is such a thing as excommunication. For a person who doesn’t repent of his sins or doesn’t believe, the Lord’s Supper makes them secure in their sins and leads them further down the road to hell. And by the way, when we turn those from other denominations away, we aren’t saying that they personally don’t have faith, but we are saying that the public doctrinal confession of their denomination, a confession which they also share because of their membership, is against Scripture and therefore it is not a true confession of the faith into which we are baptized.
And so we should take care about the Lord’s Supper. But we should also heed Luther’s words: “He is truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’” If you believe this, then it doesn’t matter what other preparations you forgot to make or how distracted and harried you might be that particular Sunday morning. Granted, fasting and so on are indeed fine outward training. And I’m not arguing for carelessness in approaching the Sacrament of the Altar. But if your mind does wander while you are up at the altar, or if you realize after receiving the Supper that you weren’t concentrating on what you were doing, don’t despair. Don’t think that you just received it to your judgement. Instead, think, “Christ is so good to me that He is willing to give me these blessings despite how weak and frail, I am.” Instead of meditating on how bad you are, meditate on how good God is that His blood which you just received, covers even the weaknesses you just showed while you were receiving it.
The Lord’s Supper is the center of the Church’s life. It is here that we partake with all of our senses in Christ Jesus. Here God touches us, not just through our eyes and ears to our brain, but He Himself enters our bodies and sprinkles our hearts with His blood. Here God serves us just as Jesus served the disciples by washing their feet. He is our Lord precisely by becoming our servant. Here we partake already here and now in the eternal feast of victory which has no end, the great marriage feast of the lamb who was slain and is risen again. Here we receive the body and blood of Him who died, the body and blood of Him who in His resurrection has become the beginning of the new creation in which we will live eternally. Here we are returned to the garden of Eden to receive the food which causes us to live forever. Here we see God at His best. God identifies Himself as the giver of life, as the God who is love. In the Lord’s Supper He feeds us with the food of eternity. God is shown most clearly as a good and loving God by feeding us with His Son’s body and blood.
Why do we have to have the Lord’s Supper? As well might a child ask why he has to eat his chocolate cake. As well might we all ask why we have to go to heaven. It’s not something you have to do, it’s something you get to do. If you don’t want to do it, it doesn’t mean that you’re in trouble, it means that the Old Adam is putting up a fight inside you. And in that case you need it most of all, because, unless you are an outright unbeliever or a willful, unrepentant sinner, it means your faith needs all the help it can get. And there is no help for our faith that is more powerful than Christ’s body and blood. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +
Sunday, April 17, 2011
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
April 17, 2011 (The Sixth Sunday in Lent, Series A)
Which are you? Of the two Gospel lessons we read today, the Palm Sunday story at the beginning of the service and the Passion account just now, which crowd do you find yourself in? The one crowd welcomed their heavenly King joyfully and shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” The others shouted, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him! Away with Him!” Which are you? I’m sure most of us would prefer to see ourselves as being part of that crowd on Palm Sunday rather than Good Friday. We would rather join the Palm Sunday crowd in singing the Sanctus as we do during the Communion liturgy, “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of Thy glory! Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” But I suspect that most of you found it a bit difficult to recite the part of the crowd just now in the passion account. When we did the same thing at my first parish in Minnesota, some of them told me exactly that. We don’t like to see ourselves in the place of those who demanded the death of Jesus Christ. We don’t like to see ourselves as wanting Him to be crucified.
But that is what happens. We were not only among those who were shouting Hosanna on Palm Sunday, we were also among those who were shouting Crucify on Good Friday. You see, Christ suffered and died on the cross to bear the punishment we deserved by our sins. It was our sins that nailed Him there. Every time we commit sin, it is as if we shout out again, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him! Away with Him!” Every time we commit sin we increase the pain and the suffering that Jesus bore on that cross. His death covers even the sins we will commit in the future, and so when we sin now, two thousand years later, it is as if we are still pounding nails into His hands and feet.
Today is kind of an interesting day in the Church Year. In ancient times this entire week was devoted to meditation on Jesus’ Passion. Historically the passion according to St. Matthew would be read today, that according to St. Mark on Tuesday, St. Luke on Wednesday, and St. John on Friday. This tradition was also followed by the Old Lutherans in Europe, with musical “passions” based on each of the four Gospels being performed on Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday of Holy Week, with the pastor performing the part of Christ from the pulpit, and other parts being performed by soloists, the choir, and even the whole congregation. J. S. Bach’s famous Passions according to St. Matthew and St. John are only the most well-known examples of this musical tradition.
We are recovering part of this practice today, partially because too many Christians skip over Good Friday as “too depressing” and go right from Palm Sunday to Easter. This is not good, because Jesus’ suffering and death are of vital importance to our faith. The Palm Sunday celebration would historically have been a separate service that has its historical roots in an actual procession through the city of Jerusalem that the ancient church did every year, culminating in the arrival at the Church and the beginning of the Divine Service. And so we end up with these two very different Gospel lessons in two different parts of the service. When you first look at it, the whole service ends up seeming a little bit weird because of this. At first glance, Palm Sunday and Good Friday don’t seem to have all that much in common.
But in fact, there is actually a very close connection between what happened on Palm Sunday and what happened on Good Friday. The mood is different, but they are both part of the same event. You see, Good Friday is not some sort of a defeat for Christ, which is what we all too often end up thinking it is. Of course, it’s natural to think that way. Good Friday, on the surface, is a pretty gruesome and depressing thing. There are even some who call themselves Christians today which teach that the death of Jesus Christ was some sort of a mistake, that it wasn’t supposed to happen, and that the Church is sort of a stopgap solution that is holding the fort until Christ can come again and do what He really intended to do, namely to reign on earth for a thousand years. That’s not the true Biblical picture of Good Friday at all (aside from the fact that it’s not the Biblical picture of the end times, either). Yes, Christ suffered an extraordinary amount of pain and grief and sorrow because of our sins. Yes, He was in agony and temptation. Yes, He was abandoned by all of His loved ones in this world. Yes, He even experienced the hell of separation from His heavenly Father. But He did all of this willingly. It wasn’t a mistake or a defeat or a setback. It was all done according to His plan. This is what was supposed to happen. When He entered into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, He entered to die. He entered the city on the day in which the lambs would be chosen for slaughter during the Passover Sacrifices. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world was choosing to go and give Himself up for the sacrifice.
The King of the Jews was coming to claim His throne, but His throne was made of wood. It was a throne from which He would hang rather than being seated. He was coming to claim His crown, but that crown was made of thorns. The crowd on Good Friday were reacting to Christ out of the hate and anger that was in their sinful hearts—the same hate and anger toward God and toward authority that is in all of our sinful hearts—but they were asking for what Christ had come to do in the first place. They were asking for Jesus to be crucified, which is precisely what He had come to do. We might be horrified and sickened by the sight of Christ on the cross. And many Christians are made uncomfortable by the crucifix. Many times I have heard people saying that we Lutherans shouldn’t have crucifixes because we believe in a resurrected Christ (which is a little bit silly, because all that an empty cross means is that He was taken down and buried, not that He was resurrected) or because the crucifix is “too Catholic,” but that’s not really why people don’t like crucifixes. The crucifix reminds us that sin has consequences. It reminds us that the forgiveness of sin is not just a matter of saying, “Oh, God will forgive me because He’s just a nice God.” It reminds us that the forgiveness of sins is a matter of Jesus suffering and dying a horrid, bloody, painful execution in our place, which means that sin, including our sin, is serious, bloody, painful business. But He does it willingly. He does it out of love for His creatures. He does it because He is a God who is love, and that means that he will give Himself up to death so that we might have eternal life.
It is from this perspective that we can truly understand what the crowd was saying when they welcomed Jesus as their King that first Palm Sunday. That crowd probably didn’t understand fully what they were doing themselves. After all, they were probably expecting an earthly king. But they were correct in welcoming Jesus as their King, because that’s what He was. That’s what He is. He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. He is God Himself, who reigns over us from the cross. He reigns over us by giving Himself up for our sakes so that we might have life. Just as the crowd did, we welcome His coming among us with His body crucified and His blood shed in the Communion liturgy with the very same words: “Hosanna! Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” He rules over us in love, by giving us Himself, and by granting us eternal life and fellowship with Him forever in heaven. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
For Lamb of God Lutheran Church, Pleasant Prairie, WI
April 13, 2011 (Lent Midweek 5)
Everyone must die. That’s the reality of life in a world cursed by sin. It happens to all of us, sooner or later. As Paul points out further on in this same chapter of Romans, the wages of sin is death. It’s what happens to everyone descended from Adam and Eve. We all bear its symptoms. Some of us wear glasses. We all get the common cold every so often. We are subject to cancer and other serious illnesses. Our bodies are less and less able to handle exercise and injury as we age. Limbs or even vital organs may even need to be amputated or replaced with artificial substitutes. Hair turns gray and eventually falls out. In a sense, we are all the walking dead, because all the sickness and aging we see and feel in ourselves and around us remind us that death claims everyone descended from Adam and Eve.
But death isn’t natural. It isn’t the way we were originally made. There are those who would tell you otherwise, that death is simply part of the natural cycle of life, and that we must accept it as such. And we can see why they say that, since all living things die sooner or later. This is simply wrong. We were not made to die. We were made to live. Death is only part of this world because sin is. We know this instinctively, which is why we mourn even when someone has lived a long, full life by earthly standards. We all die far sooner than we ought, even those who live past 100, even if we were to live longer than Methuselah’s 900-odd years. Death is still wrong and disruptive to how we were made.
Now, for those who have been baptized into Christ Jesus, Paul points out that there is another sense, a completely different sense, in which it can be said that we have already died. You see, the washing of Holy Baptism unites us with the One who died sinlessly. It washes us in the blood and water that flowed from His side. God Himself entered our worldwide tomb and died a death He did not deserve. And so now the washing He instituted gives us a special kind of death. There is an old spiritual that asks “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” I personally am not very fond of that song, because it never answers the question but instead focuses on the songwriter’s emotional reaction to the event. But the question that song asks is a good one. And it has an answer. That answer is yes. You were there. Not just standing by, but you were there with Him on the cross. You died in, with, and under our Lord when you were baptized. You won’t experience that death with your senses until you physically die to this old world, but since your death is, was, and will be the death Christ died, your death is now transformed into resurrection. All men since Adam have been the walking dead, but all who are in Christ are the walking resurrected. You can’t see your new, resurrected self, but he is there, dwelling in you as well as at the same time dwelling in heaven before God’s face eternally.
Death is still part of this old world. This old world itself will die sooner or later. But in the One who died and shed His blood for you, we have no more sickness or death. We have life with Him forever. His death is our life. The Roman sword piercing His pericardium is the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit. You were there when they crucified my Lord. Amen. + Soli Deo Gloria +
Sunday, April 10, 2011
Sermon on John 11:1-53
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
April 10, 2011 (The Fifth Sunday in Lent, Series A)
I need to admit something. This Gospel lesson has me a bit puzzled. For most of my ministry I’ve followed the old one-year series of readings which Lutheranism has followed for most of its history, the series on which Luther and the other reformers preached, having inherited it from the united western Church of the middle ages, the series that CFW Walther, the first President of the LCMS preached, and which is found in our Synod’s 1941 worship book, The Lutheran Hymnal, as well as being one of the options given in our most recent worship book, Lutheran Service Book. These past few months serving as your vacancy pastor have been the first time I have used the three-year series in a long while. And so, as I said, when I looked up the Gospel lesson for today, I was confused. Why read a section of Scripture which tells us and shows us how Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life, on the fifth Sunday in Lent, immediately before we enter Holy Week? It certainly made picking the hymns more difficult, as most of the hymns listed as being related to this text in Lutheran Service Builder, the electronic version of our hymnal, are Easter hymns which contain the word alleluia, a word which we customarily don’t use in worship during Lent. Not to mention that it seems to break the mood of Lent in general, previewing as it does the fact that Jesus not only can raise the dead, but that He Himself is the Resurrection and the Life, and so death itself will not be able to hold Him captive either. When you look at it from a thematic perspective within the Church Year, this Gospel lesson seems totally out of place.
But when you look at it from the perspective of the history of Jesus’ progress toward Jerusalem and toward His own death on Good Friday and resurrection on the first Easter Sunday, it makes a lot more sense. You see, this was the event that finally convinced the religious leaders in Jerusalem once and for all that He needed to die. They couldn’t simply try to discredit Him or make Him look foolish any more. Bethany was not far from Jerusalem, and many from Jerusalem knew Lazarus had died, and now saw him walking around alive. There was no longer any way to convince the people that Jesus wasn’t who He claimed to be: the Son of God, the promised Messiah, come to rescue the world from sin and death. Now the only course of action left to the Sanhedrin, if they wanted to hold on to their power over the people, was to eliminate Jesus entirely, by finding a way to have Him executed.
It’s kind of ironic that it was precisely by demonstrating that He is the Resurrection and the Life, the One over whom Death itself had no power, that He put Himself in a situation where His own death became inevitable. It shows just how perverse was the thinking of the Jewish leaders of the time. They had to have figured out by now that Jesus really was who He claimed to be. That’s what made Him so dangerous. You can’t argue with or discredit the true Messiah. You can’t simply ignore or publicly embarrass God Himself. It’s precisely because He really was who He said He was that the chief priests wanted Him dead. It’s precisely because He represented God’s own condemnation of their leadership that they needed to get Him out of the picture.
And we are no different than they were. It’s precisely because Jesus is God Himself in human flesh that we would rather He stay safely away from us. We may call on Him now and again when things aren’t going so well for us, we might like to think of Him as an example for how to live an upright and moral life, or as a great teacher, or any of a thousand other things. But to have Him come to us and take away from us any illusions we may have about our ability to please God on our own, to have Him come to us, not only to insult us by telling us even our best good works are filthy rags as far as He is concerned, but to give us salvation as a free gift and thereby destroy any hope we thought we had of pleasing God on our own, is simply intolerable. And yet that’s what He does. He comes to shatter any illusions we may have had that we are in any sort of control over our own relationship with God. He comes to show us that only He who made us can restore us to the perfection we were meant to be. He comes to take away any power we thought we had over our own lives. And so we, with the chief priests, want Him dead, gone, and away from us.
But you can’t keep the one who is the Resurrection and the Life dead. That’s the thing about God. He’s God. Even death itself is not an obstacle to Him, because He’s the one who made life in the first place. Jesus is the Word the Father spoke at the beginning of creation, the Word that is so powerful that it speaks into existence what it says. He is the life-giver, the one who sustains us and gives us everything we need to support this body and life. He became man precisely so that He could die, but He’s still God, and so death itself is fatally poisoned by the attempt to swallow Him. He spoke creation itself into existence, His word speaks Lazarus out of his tomb, free of whatever disease killed him, and free of the decay that ravaged his body afterward. His word speaks life into us again, despite our wish that He leave us alone here in this tomb of an old, sin-filled world. You can’t keep God dead, since He is life.
And so we who have become part of Him can’t be kept dead either. The old, dead Adam in us thinks he can hold onto life by killing the Son of God, but he only ends up getting himself crucified with Him in the process. He only ends up getting himself drowned in the water and blood that flowed from Jesus’ side, in which we were washed in Holy Baptism. And since we joined Him in His death, we also join Him in His resurrection. We also sit with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, not at their home in Bethany with the Sadducees looking on and gnashing their teeth, but in His home, where He is the host and the meal, where Mary, Martha, Lazarus, and all who have died in the faith gather, with the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven, praising God eternally, eating His body crucified and drinking His blood shed for us. We eat and drink the Resurrection and the Life, and receive eternal life itself in the process. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +
Sunday, April 3, 2011
Sermon on John 9:1-41
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
April 3, 2011 (The Fourth Sunday in Lent, Series A)
There is an old saying that goes, “There are none so blind as those who do not want to see.” In other words, people who physically cannot see usually still want to find out what is really happening around them, and often they will get a pretty good idea by using their other four senses, especially hearing. However, when someone, whether physically sighted or blind, does not want to admit to the reality of something, they will find all sorts of excuses to pretend that they haven’t just seen that thing. A child is asked to clean up the mess his room, and one of the first responses, in many cases, is, “what mess?” (Men often respond like that to their wives, too.) Sinful human beings will deny reality itself before they will admit to even plain and obvious facts that point out their own sin or their own duty that they would rather avoid.
This is the meaning behind what Jesus tells the Pharisees at the very end of today’s Gospel lesson. It is those who claim to see reality but deny it that are guilty, rather than those who know their blindness and wish to be enlightened. It is those who think that their relationship with God is on pretty good footing on the basis of what they do, that are most likely to ignore the very first Commandment, namely that God is the giver of everything, including salvation; God is the one in whom we are to trust for all good things. Those who know themselves to be poor, miserable sinners who cannot see God with their own reason or strength are the ones whom God has already prepared to receive the good news that God has come down to us by grace, in sending His Son, Jesus Christ, and in bringing that same Jesus Christ to them in water, words, bread, and wine, by the Holy Spirit’s power.
Our sinful, selfish pride causes us to be like the Pharisees. We want to do it ourselves. We want God to be pleased with us on the basis of our own works. We want Him to see all the things we are doing for Him, and congratulate us, pat us on the back, and tell us we’ve earned a spot in His kingdom, or, if you believe Rick Warren, that we’ve earned a better spot in His kingdom than we otherwise would have had. We want our own eyes, our own reason and strength, our own good works, to be good enough to get us something from God. And whenever it is pointed out to us that even our best good works, even our most ardent zeal at witnessing or volunteering for the Church or whatever, is like filthy rags as far as God is concerned, that offends us and just makes us angry. We want to ignore the fact that by trying to earn something from God we are breaking the First Commandment, the most important one from which all the others flow, and so it doesn’t matter how good the things we may be doing are for our church or our fellow human beings, God is not pleased. We become blind as only anger can make us blind, and will not see the evidence that only He can, and has, bridged the gap between us and God.
But He has, in fact, bridged that gap, not from our end, but from His. It was not because of anything special in the blind man that he was able to see. It was a pure gift. That’s what God does. He gives gifts. He’s not in the rewards business. You can’t earn enough points with him to earn a little extra benefit. Yes, the Scriptures do say that there will be different positions or vocations within eternal life, just as there are here on this earth, and that who we have been given to be in this world to some extent will be related to who we are given to be in eternity. But it’s not a rewards system per se. It’s a free gift system, because who we are in this life is determined by His gift of providence in placing us in our vocations, and so who we are in the next life is also determined by the uniqueness of who we are and where He has placed us in that world. Focusing on rewards for our own works in heaven, even if we admit that getting there in the first place is a free gift, is still a selfish focus on what I can get out of the deal, and not a focus on love for God or the neighbor. I’ll be blunt here: Rick Warren is simply dead wrong on this point, and he’s leading millions of Christians into a false motivation for doing good works, one which denies and forgets that God is a Father who loves to give gifts to His children, and instead makes Him into a rewards machine.
God is a giver. God is the creator, which means that He is the one who gives restoration of that creation. He will sometimes open the eyes of the blind, either through the purely miraculous, as we see here (though even here, notice how it is that He uses ordinary and even, well, yukky things to do it), or through the gift of technological and medical advances, or whatever. All the blind who trust in Him as their Savior from sin, death, and the devil will have their sight completely and miraculously restored in the resurrection at the last day. Even those of us who simply need glasses won’t need them then, and we will see Him clearly, face to face, in His glory. We can’t ever do enough to earn that. Thank God, we don’t have to. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +