Sunday, April 22, 2012

Third Sunday of Easter, Series B

Sermon on Luke 24:36-49
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
April 22, 2012 (The Third Sunday of Easter, Series B)

When someone has died, and then one of their loved ones thinks they see him again, one of the possibilities that people think of is that they’re seeing that person’s ghost, or spirit, as if somehow his spirit didn’t make it to its eternal destination and is somehow stuck in this world for some reason.  The idea that the non-physical part of a person, his spirit or ghost, can get “stuck” in this world, especially when the circumstances of his death were tragic or violent or otherwise out of the ordinary, is a popular one in many cultures, and it is often used to explain creepy and weird feelings associated with old houses, cemeteries, battlefields, and the like.  Of course, it’s not a Christian idea but one imported from various pagan superstitions, but it’s very common.  Sometimes Christians might also think that, while a person’s spirit isn’t stuck in this world the way pagan ideas would have it, nevertheless God can grant a special communication between that person in heaven and his loved ones here on earth for specific reasons.  I think this latter idea is certainly possible, as we do have occasional instances of it in the Bible, but I’m not sure that’s what is really going on every time somebody thinks they can see or hear their loved one.  Sometimes it can just be the mind playing tricks on you, too.

Either way, that’s the sort of thing the disciples thought at first when Jesus appeared to them on Easter evening in the locked room where they had gathered.  They knew Jesus had died, and so their first conclusion when they saw Him was that they were seeing His spirit.  And this was no mere shadowy voice or faint illumination that could have been a trick of the lighting, either.  They clearly saw Jesus standing in front of them.  They couldn’t explain it away by wishful thinking or tricks of their eyes or ears.  He was really visible.  And so, since they knew He had died, and they also knew the room they were in was locked, they concluded that His spirit was visiting them.

But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, does several things to prove that He is not a spirit.  He invites them to touch Him, and then he eats a piece of fish in front of them, fish that He actually swallows with His throat, and which stays in His stomach rather than falling through His body onto the floor as would happen if He were just a ghost.  He wants to get the idea that He is a ghost out of their heads right away.  He has come to proclaim to them that He is risen from the dead, not just spiritually but bodily as well.  He has come to tell them that death itself, the separation of body and soul, has been destroyed and that He has won for them eternal life with Him, His Father, and the Spirit.

What the disciples experienced on the third day after His crucifixion was not a mere apparition or spiritual event.  Jesus’ body was really gone from the tomb, it was reunited with His soul, and He really was alive.  Easter isn’t just about the abstract concept of life after death, or about the fact that the circle of life goes on even after death has struck our loved ones, the way that new grass and new flowers and new leaves spring up even after the ones from last year lay dead and brown.  Easter is about the resurrection of the body.  Easter is about the fact that the physical creation is an integral part of what Christ has redeemed.  Easter is about the fact that God, who created the physical world as well as the spiritual, sees the physical as good and worth saving.

That’s not what many religious philosophies out there will tell you.  Most Eastern religions will tell you that the physical world is either evil or meaningless.  There was an ancient heresy that arose within Christianity called “gnosticism” which teaches the same thing.  In fact, most liberal forms of Christianity, once they get done telling you what they don’t believe, are pretty much left with gnosticism as the only thing left to tell you they do believe.  According to gnosticism, the physical world is the result of some sort of mistake that happened in the spiritual realm, and is thus either meaningless or evil, depending on which gnostic you listen to.  And thus either everything physical is a distraction that must be ignored or eliminated, or we can basically do whatever we want to with our physical existence because the physical doesn’t matter anyway.

What the Scriptures tell us about the physical creation is that, even though it’s been messed up by Adam and Eve’s sin and thus it doesn’t work nearly as well as it was created to, it was created to be very good, and it will be restored to that perfection on the last day.  Even in the midst of the chaos and destruction and sorrow that sin has brought into this old world, the physical elements are things that God made and which God can use for His purposes.  Even despite how we misuse His physical gifts, He keeps sustaining us, not only for this life, but for the life to come using precisely physical things.

That was the point Jesus was making when He invited the disciples (including Thomas a week later) to touch Him, and when he ate the fish in front of them.  The physical is also part of what He came to save.  It’s not just as spirits that we will live forever with God, but as men and women with flesh and blood, bones and skin, just as He had flesh and blood, bones, and skin when He appeared to the disciples that night.  Eternal life is not just a matter of our soul moving on to a “better place,” but about this physical world and our own physical bodies becoming that better place, because the sin that causes sickness and death, tragedy and destruction, will be removed, not just from us, but from the physical world itself.

And so the physical has meaning.  What we do in our bodies has meaning.  That’s why we can’t simply let our fellow Christians do whatever they want without admonishing them or even, if necessary, disciplining them, because what they, and we, do in the body is a confession of either faith or doubt as to what God says about the body.  Adultery and divorce are a failure to confess His faithfulness toward us.  Stealing is a failure to confess the goodness of His gifts to us and to our neighbor.  Murder is a denial that life itself is a good gift from the creator of life.  And so on.

That’s also why we confess that God uses precisely the physical to bring us back to Him.  He doesn’t operate primarily by putting feelings in our hearts, but by putting words into our ears, water on our heads, and bread and wine that are His body and blood into our mouths.  It’s not how you feel about God that matters.  It’s what He actually says to you using the objective, tangible, audible Word and Sacraments that matters.  And what He says is, your sins are forgiven, and you will live bodily with Him forever.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Second Sunday of Easter, Series B

Sermon on John 20:19-31
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
April 15, 2012 (The Second Sunday of Easter, Series B)

Seeing is believing.  It’s necessary to operate with this idea in mind, because all of our fellow human beings are corrupted by the sin that we have all inherited from Adam and Eve, and so you can’t always trust the other person with whom you have dealings.  You can’t always trust what the advertisers say about their products.  You can’t always trust what people say about their own abilities.  Even people who mean well may make claims that they can’t back up because they don’t really understand what they’re up against.  And so we are naturally, and rightly, inclined to be suspicious of what people say.  It’s not their words that matter, it’s what they do.  Actions speak louder than words.  A picture is worth a thousand words.  If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.  Seeing is believing.

This is the way Thomas thought when the disciples told him about Jesus’ resurrection.  He thought that the story about Jesus being resurrected was just “too good to be true.”  He wanted to see with his own eyes and feel with his own hands before he would believe that Jesus had risen from the dead.  He wasn’t willing to accept the word of the other disciples about Jesus; the news about Jesus’ resurrection was too impossible, too wonderful, to be believed on the basis of their word alone.  He had to see Jesus in the flesh in order to believe.  He had to see Him for himself in order to be convinced of the truthfulness of what he was being told.

We can certainly understand Thomas’ reluctance to believe his fellow disciples.  After all, only a few days ago he had his entire world turned upside down.  His Lord and Teacher, the one he confessed as the Son of God, had died.  God isn’t supposed to die.  And He had not only died, He had been brutally murdered by the Jewish leadership in collaboration with the Roman authorities.  He was the one who was supposed to save his people, and now here He had died.  Of course, Thomas had heard the things Jesus said about His death being the way it was supposed to happen and that this was how salvation would come to men and that He would be raised up again on the third day, but with everything that had happened, Thomas couldn’t bring himself to believe that all of that had been what Jesus had intended.  And in all his fear, uncertainty, and doubt, he wanted to see Jesus for himself to make sure.

We are by nature a lot like Thomas.  We see sin in the world around us, we see God’s will for the lives of His creatures being ignored and spit upon daily.  We see increasing acceptance of lifestyles such as homosexuality, living together before marriage, divorce for casual reasons, lifestyles which God has prohibited to His creatures for their own good.  We see increasing selfishness and callousness toward those who are in need of help.  In the Church herself we see all kinds of people who don’t act very Christian toward each other.  We see old hurts and grudges carried on over the course of years and even decades, despite the damage it does to the work of the Church.  We see a mentality imported from the world of big business that wants to measure success rather than faithfulness to God’s word.  What we don’t see is Jesus.  And so we begin to doubt Him and His word, and wish for some sign from Him that He really is there watching over us and taking care of us, some sign that our own sins really are forgiven and that our sacrifices and our struggles against sin are in fact all worthwhile.  Like Thomas, we want to see Him with our own eyes and feel Him with our own senses in order to believe.

But what Christ says to Thomas reminds us that we are looking for God with the wrong sense.  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  In other words, in matters having to do with faith, we are to trust our ears rather than our eyes.  Instead of relying on what we actually see for ourselves, we are to rely on the words that are spoken to us for our salvation.  We are to rely upon faith, which trusts in what is not seen, instead of testing God, trying to force Him to prove Himself.  As St. Paul says in Romans 10, “Faith comes by hearing.”  It does not come by seeing.

Elsewhere in the same chapter, Paul elaborates on this.  “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.  How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed?  And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?  And how shall they hear without a preacher?  And how shall they preach unless they are sent?”  What St. Paul says here has to do with the first part of our text this morning.  Jesus met the disciples, breathed on them, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them, but if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”  As St. Paul points out, if faith comes by hearing, the Church needs preachers.  When Jesus told Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” he was talking about the people to whom he and the other apostles would preach, as well as the rest of us Christians down through the ages who have believed by hearing the Word.  When Jesus gave the apostles the Holy Spirit and told them that they were to forgive and to retain sins, He was ordaining the apostles into their office as apostles and as pastors of the Church.  The Fifth Chief Part of the Small Catechism refers to today’s Gospel lesson, and then it asks, “What do you believe according to these words?”  The response we confess together with the Catechism is, “I believe that when the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command, in particular when they exclude openly unrepentant sinners from the Christian congregation and absolve those who repent of their sins and want to do better, this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.”  You can’t see Jesus with your physical eyes.  You can, however, hear His words.

Christ tells the apostles that when they proclaim the forgiveness of sins to someone, either by a specific announcement such as what we call Holy Absolution, or by preaching, or by baptizing, or by allowing someone to come to the Lord’s Supper, that their sins are actually forgiven.  What a pastor does is not simply to talk about something that has already happened.  Through a pastor’s declaration of forgiveness, God Himself actually acts to forgive a person.  Now, that forgiveness which is granted to a person first in Baptism lasts through his whole life; it’s not as if you aren’t forgiven until you come to Church again the next Sunday.  And, of course, anybody can tell his neighbor that God has forgiven their sins for Christ’s sake, and this message creates and sustains faith just as much as does the direct action of the pastor in administering the Means of Grace.  But the pastor’s job is to speak Christ’s own words, “I forgive you,” directly into your ears, first person to second person.  While the objective power of the Gospel is the same either way, it is especially comforting to hear God’s own words spoken through the mouth of his servants as opposed to a third-party news report about what God has done for us.  God has instituted the Office of the Holy Ministry so that you can hear with your own ears that yes, you are forgiven.

This principle that faith comes by hearing and not by seeing is not only true of Holy Absolution, however.  It is also true of the preaching of the Word and most especially of the Sacraments.  All that the eye sees in Baptism is water.  All that the eye sees in Holy Communion is bread and wine.  It doesn’t see the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Ghost that takes place in Baptism, nor does the eye see or the fingers feel or the mouth taste the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.  But we know that they are there because the ear hears the words, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost” in Baptism, and “This is My body, this is My  blood” in the Lord’s Supper.  There too we hear and believe what Christ gives us even though we cannot see these things.

Today’s Gospel records for us God’s institution of the Office of the Holy Ministry.  God has given pastors to His Church so that they can proclaim the forgiveness of sins, for the eternal salvation of God’s people.  As Jesus says to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  You have heard the message, and you have believed, though you have not yet seen the risen Christ with your own eyes.  Blessed are you.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Resurrection of our Lord, Series B

Sermon on Mark 16:1-8
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
April 8, 2012 (The Resurrection of our Lord, Series B)

Who will roll away the stone from the tomb?  After Jesus had been buried, a huge stone had been rolled into place over the door of the tomb.  This was normal for these kinds of tombs, because this was how they were closed off in order to isolate the odor and the possible disease associated with a corpse, and it was also how grave robbers were kept out.  The stone was very heavy and was impossible for one or two people to move by themselves.  In addition, this particular tomb was made extra secure.  A seal had been put on the door, and guards had been posted to make sure the disciples didn’t try to steal Jesus’ body.  The Jewish authorities had heard Jesus predict His own resurrection, and they wanted to prevent the disciples from taking the body and pretending that He had been resurrected.  And so the women were concerned that they would not be able to get into the tomb.

But when they arrived at the tomb, the stone had already been rolled away!  And not only that, but their task was no longer necessary, for Jesus was no longer in need of the spices and the wrappings that were normally used on a corpse in those days.  “He is not here, He is risen!” the angel tells them.  Instead of the sorrowful task of properly finishing the burial, the women were given a new task, that of telling the disciples about what had happened.  He is risen!  Instead of fighting and struggling with death, they are now to proclaim life.  The stone wasn’t rolled away to let Jesus out, by the way.  He had left the tomb already before the stone was rolled away, just as He entered the locked upper room that night without the door being opened.  The stone was rolled away so that the women and the disciples could see into the tomb and know that He had risen from the dead.

The stone that covered the mouth of the tomb before the resurrection represented the same problem for these women that the rocky, hard rebelliousness of our hearts presents to us as we contemplate our relationship to our God.  The fact that man is by nature not in fellowship with his God and Creator is entirely man’s fault, and is traced back to the corruption of original sin that is in each of us from the moment of our conception.  We are born with stubborn, cold, selfish, rebellious hearts.  Even though we know that it is wrong to be against God and in rebellion against Him, we cannot help the fact.  We are sinners.  There is nothing we can do to break down the wall that separates us and our sinfulness from the living God, just as the women were not able to move the stone that separated them from their Lord and Savior.

Fortunately, we don’t have to.  The Lord breaks down that wall that separates us from Him.  He is the one who recreates us to be new creatures who fear, love, and trust in Him above all things.  The women couldn’t get to Jesus on their own because of the stone.  But instead He came to them.  All of our sinfulness, all of our rebellion against God, all of the things that make our hearts like huge lumps of stone that are impossible to move, have been done away with.  The stone is not only rolled away, it is taken completely out of its track and dumped on its side.  Christ took upon Himself our sins so that we could be completely free of them.  And by rising again He showed us that we are indeed free of our sinfulness and that it is no longer a barrier between us and Him.  The stone of our hard and cold and sinful hearts has been cast aside and is no longer a barrier to Him, because He has raised us up with Himself to live in newness of life.

Remember that the stone was not removed so that Jesus could get out.  Jesus had already risen and left the tomb miraculously.  He had already won the victory over sin, death, and the devil.  The removal of the stone was only done so that the women and the disciples could see the empty tomb and believe in His resurrection.  Likewise with our hearts.  The victory over our sin, selfishness, and hardness of heart doesn’t depend on the fact that the stones of our sin have been removed from us.  Otherwise, we would never be sure of our salvation, because while we live in this world we are constantly falling again into sin.  The victory over our sin, the freedom from death that has been won for us, depends only on Christ’s resurrection.  It is true to say that the sins of even the unrepentant sinner are forgiven, because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  It’s just that the unrepentant sinner isn’t in a position to receive forgiveness rightly, and so we keep him from the forgiveness which is offered in the Lord’s Supper until he does repent.  But the forgiveness is still real, still true even for such a person.

But at the same time, Christ’s resurrection would have done no good if the disciples had not known about it.  They would have continued in despair and ultimately gone back to fishing and the rest of the world would have died in sin and rebellion against God.  Faith comes through hearing, and for hearing you need preachers.  Without the message of the resurrection, without the message of the open tomb, without the removal of the stone, the world would still have been lost in trespasses and sins.  The people of the world would have continued in their rebellious rejection of their Creator and their God and would have died eternally in that rebellion.  Likewise with you.  Even though the message of forgiveness was true even while you were yet sinners and enemies of God, your rejection of that message would have made it all for nothing.  But since God has broken the stones of your heart, put you to death and raised you up again in Holy Baptism and thus made you into new creatures, you can hear that message and appreciate it.  You can carry that message to others so that they too will be able to come to die and be reborn in the waters of our font.  The stone has been removed.  Your hearts have been cleansed by the blood of Christ.  The wall of separation has been broken.  Christ now invites you to sprinkle your hearts with His blood by partaking of His body crucified and His blood shed in the Sacrament of the altar.  Even this intimate connection with Him, where we actually eat His body and drink His blood, is made possible by His victory over the sin that had separated us from Him.  The stones of your hearts have been rolled away by Christ.  Then let us feast this Easter day on Christ the Bread of Heaven.  The Word of grace hath purged away the old and evil leaven.  Christ alone our souls will feed.  He is our meat and drink indeed.  Faith lives upon no other.  Alleluia!  Come and rejoice in the fellowship of our risen Lord.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Friday, April 6, 2012

Good Friday

Sermon on John 18-19
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
April 6, 2012 (Good Friday)

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 5, 2012

Maundy Thursday

Sermon on John 13:1-17, 31b-35
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
April 5, 2012 (Maundy Thursday)

Most families have traditions as to how they celebrate certain holidays.  The same things happen every year and give the holiday something of a timeless quality.  The same foods are served, the same kinds of things are said, the house is decorated the same way every year.  In my family we would get up early, to see if the Easter Bunny had brought us anything, and then get ready and go to Church.  After Church several relatives who lived in Fort Wayne would come over for the big dinner.  Churches also have specific traditions connected with holidays.  There are evening services on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, with the altar being stripped at the end of the Maundy Thursday service.  There is a Tre-Ore service at Lutheran High every year.  Even with a new pastor who may do some things a little differently, most things don’t change.  The paraments go through the same cycle of colors, from Lenten purple to to nothing on Friday, to white with full decorations and Easter lilies on Sunday.  We sing many of the same hymns, and hear the same story every year.

The Jewish Passover was like this for Jesus and His disciples.  In fact, the traditions surrounding the Passover meal were quite a bit more rigid than our own Easter traditions.  Certain things were said in a specific order, certain psalms were sung, and certain foods were eaten at specific times, with specific explanations given to remind the people of specific aspects of their deliverance from bondage in Egypt.  Everyone went through this ritual meal every year, and everyone probably knew it by heart; even if they couldn’t recite it from memory word for word they would know if anything was different.  And so when Jesus diverged completely from the Passover ritual toward the end of the meal, it probably made a big impression on the disciples.  Something new was happening.  What Jesus was saying was different from what they expected to hear.  They weren’t expecting Him to connect the meal they were eating with His body and His blood in this way.  Instead of looking backward to the Passover when the Israelites escaped from Egypt, Jesus was looking forward to His own death.  This particular Passover was different from all the others that had gone before, because the next day the Passover itself would be fulfilled when the Lamb of God Himself was sacrificed for the sins of the world.  The people of God stood at the junction between the Old and the New Testaments, and Jesus changed the Passover ritual to reflect that fact.

The purpose of the Passover meal was, of course, to remember and to proclaim the events of Israel’s release from slavery in Egypt.  Israel’s very identity as a nation came from that series of events.  God sent Moses to Pharaoh to tell him to let the Israelites go.  When Pharaoh refused, God sent the ten plagues to punish Egypt for keeping Israel captive.  The last plague was that God killed the firstborn sons of every Egyptian family, and even the firstborn of all the cattle.  The Israelites were to sacrifice a lamb without blemish, and to put some of its blood on the doorposts and lintels of their houses, so that the destroying angel would not harm their own firstborn.  They were to eat that lamb as their final meal that night, along with unleavened bread.  Afterward, they were to eat a similar meal every year to remember the great victory which the Lord won for them that night and the next day over the Egyptians, and as part of the meal the head of the household was to preach to the whole household concerning these events.

The first Maundy Thursday was at the time of the Passover, when every household would gather to hear the story again and partake of the meal which the Israelites had eaten.  If you read the Passover liturgies, you will see that the Israelites didn’t just think of the Passover as a historical reenactment.  Even generations later, even after many centuries the people of Israel thought of themselves as the same people who had been led out of Egypt by the pillar of cloud and fire, who passed through the Red Sea on dry ground, and so on.  It wasn’t just that God had freed their ancestors from bondage in Egypt, it was that God had freed them from bondage.

Of course, the Angel of the Lord, who was with Israel in the pillar of cloud and fire, who guided and protected them, who spoke with Moses at the Tabernacle, and who provided the community with food and water, was none other than the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, whom we know as the Son of God.  This very same Person was the one who took upon our flesh and sacrificed Himself for our sakes.  The man Jesus who presided over the Passover meal that first Maundy Thursday was in fact the same Person who had appeared to the Israelites in the cloud and fire and who had freed them from their bondage.  He had every right to change the Passover ritual, because He was the One who had instituted it in the first place.  The Angel of the Lord who led the people out of Israel was now changing the Passover ritual to reflect the new thing He was doing for His people.

In fact, when He first instituted it back in the Old Testament, the Seder meal was intended as a symbol of what He Himself would do for His people.  He would become the true Lamb of God, whose blood protects His people from destruction.  His death gives us life, not simply a temporary protection for the firstborn sons of our families, but permanent protection from eternal death and damnation.  We have been delivered, not just from physical bondage to earthly rulers, but from spiritual bondage to sin, death, and the devil.  The Passover sacrifice, as well as all the other sacrifices of the Israelite Temple, pointed forward to the sacrifice of the Son of God.  Everything that happened to Israel during that first Passover in Egypt was a picture of the salvation God would accomplish for the whole world on Good Friday.  Instead of killing our firstborn, God allowed His own firstborn Son to die, that we might have life.

An important part of the Passover was that the blood of the sacrificial lamb would be sprinkled on the door frames of the houses where God’s people lived, as a sign for the destroying angel to pass over that house.  In this way the sacrificial lamb died that the people in the house might live.  Christ, who died on the cross, gave Himself so that we might live.  He has sprinkled us with His own blood, not on the outside, but on the inside, where it counts.  He gives us to drink of His own blood, and thus He marks us repeatedly as His own.  Since we have that mark, the destroyer passes over us and does not bring us down to eternal damnation.  Instead we inherit the promised land of eternal life.  Come and receive the blood of Christ which marks you as one who belongs to Him and who will inherit eternal life.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Palm Sunday, Series B

Sermon on Mark 14:1 – 15:47
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
April 1, 2012 (Palm Sunday, Series B)

People are fickle.  Fashions which are all the rage one year are seen as completely out of touch the next year.  The government swings from Democrats to Republicans, depending upon which party is seen as the lesser of two evils by the people that year.  Musical groups can be wildly popular one day and completely hated the next, especially if the group is one whose appeal is to teenagers.  Some people even change their friends, or even worse their husbands or wives, as quickly and easily as they change clothing styles or hairstyles.  Even some churches have gotten into this habit of constant change, striving continuously to keep up with whatever musical style is popular at the time.  Unfortunately what often happens is that the church can’t quite keep up fast enough, and sooner or later the crowds who were attracted to that church by its popular style will move on, and the church will be left with nothing.  It has been said that the church which marries itself to the spirit of the age will be a widow in the age to come.  And the reason is that people can often be downright fickle.

The liturgy today contained two different Gospel lessons, and in them we get two very different pictures of the people who were in Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover.  In the reading at the beginning of the service, which is also the text for this sermon, the crowd sang His praises, singing, “Hosanna in the highest; blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”  They waved palm branches and laid them at His feet along with their cloaks to cushion His way.  In the passion history which was read just a few moments ago, there was a very different kind of crowd there, a crowd which wanted Jesus’ blood and which would stop at nothing to see Him dead.  Of course, these were two different crowds of people; many of the people who had welcomed Jesus to Jerusalem were probably cowering in fear during His trial, like the disciples were, and not thirsting for His blood.  But there were probably some of the same people too, people who thought that Jesus’ kingdom was an earthly kingdom which would overthrow the Roman governor and restore Israel to its rightful position as a major world power, and who were disappointed when Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world.  In any case, the contrast between Palm Sunday and Good Friday shows us how quickly a person’s fortunes can change when he becomes a public figure and his welfare is connected to popular opinion.

But unlike the latest popular music group or the latest fashion or the latest popular TV sitcom, Jesus’ mission isn’t affected by what people think of Him.  He didn’t come to be a popular earthly ruler.  He didn’t come to be popular at all.  To be sure, it was good and right for the crowd to welcome Him to Jerusalem.  After all, it is truly good, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to Him, because He has redeemed us and overcome sin, death, and the devil for us.  The crowd on Palm Sunday were simply doing what we do every Sunday when we welcome Him as He comes to us in His body and blood.  But Jesus’ mission doesn’t depend upon His popularity.  In fact, the crowd which wanted His death, which cried, “Crucify Him, crucify Him,” on Good Friday, was asking for the very thing Jesus had come to do.  He had come to be crucified.  Of course, the crowd on Good Friday had the wrong motivation; they were filled with hate and anger at Jesus for disrupting their religious lives, just as many people are filled with hate and anger today when their complacent and comfortable religious lives are disrupted by the preaching of the Law.  In fact, that is the reaction of all of us by nature to God’s Law.  But what these people wanted when they asked for Jesus’ death was according to God’s plan, just as even today God uses the worst and most hateful actions of sinners against His Church for His own good purposes.

You see, even though the crowd on Palm Sunday which sang His praises didn’t realize it, Jesus Christ came to Jerusalem for the very purpose of dying on the cross.  They knew that He had come to be their Messiah, but they didn’t know fully what that meant.  Even the disciples were frightened and hurt by what happened to Jesus on Good Friday.  When the crowds put their cloaks down to cushion His path and waved palm branches to shade His way, they really were welcoming the Messiah who was about to come into His glory.  Everything was going according to plan.  The celebration on Palm Sunday really was for the true King of Israel.  He was about to be enthroned during the course of that week.  But what nobody knew, what nobody could know until afterward, was that the throne upon which King Jesus Christ was to be seated appeared in this world as a cross, an instrument of torture and execution.  They could not know that the crown with which He was to be decorated had thorns in it.  They had no way of knowing that the way in which He would become our Lord and King was through His own suffering and death.

What they did know, however, was that He had come to Jerusalem to be their Savior, their Messiah.  Even though they didn’t know fully what that meant, they got that part of it right.  When they sang, “Hosanna in the highest, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord,” they joined the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven who laud and magnify His glorious name.  As our text says, after Jesus had risen from the dead the disciples remembered that they had done these things for Him.  They realized that despite the horrifying events of Good Friday they had done the right thing on Palm Sunday.  They realized that Jesus was entering Jerusalem to fulfill His purpose, to die for us.  He didn’t fail, and His death was not a mistake.  The sacrificial Lamb was approaching the altar where He would give His life for the sins of the whole world.

I suspect that when John mentions that the disciples later remembered Palm Sunday and what they had done for him there, he is hinting at why these words have become part of our liturgy.  John wrote his gospel probably between 30 and 60 years after these events happened, and by that time some of the basic features of the liturgy we now use were already in place, including the canticle we know as the Sanctus.  Just as the crowd of disciples in Jerusalem welcomed their Savior with these words, so also we welcome Him who comes to us in His body and blood in exactly the same words.  He came to Jerusalem to give Himself up for the sins of the whole world; and He comes to us now to give us Himself, so that we too can receive the benefit of His great sacrifice.  The apostles probably started including these words in their liturgy precisely because they realized what they had done for Him on Palm Sunday was in fact good, right, and salutary.

And we still sing these words, because Christ still comes to us in His Word and His body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins.  Over against the world which is always fickle, always moving from one style to another, from one fashion to another, the Church has sung this song for centuries.  Our needs have not really changed, even during this modern era when it seems everything changes too rapidly to follow.  We still need a Savior from our sins.  And that Savior still comes to us to give us forgiveness and salvation.  These things have not changed, and so we the Church have not changed what we sing to welcome Him who comes to us in the name of the Lord.  Even as the apostles did, and the Church throughout the ages has done, we still sing, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the highest!”  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +