Sunday, May 26, 2013

We Don't Like What We Don't Understand


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The text for today is our Gospel lesson, John 8:48-59.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
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The story line of “Beauty and the Beast” has all the features of a classic Disney cartoon.  An enchantress turns a young prince into a beast in order to teach him a lesson about judging by appearances.  The only way he can break the spell is to learn to love another and to earn her love in return before the last petal falls from his enchanted rose.  All in all, it’s relatively standard fairy tale fare. 
But hidden in the midst of heroic lovers, loathsome villains, sympathetic victims, magic spells, and castles is a cutting commentary on sinful human nature.  Having lost his bid to gain Belle’s affections, Gaston convinces the villagers that the beast is dangerous and he rallies them to storm the castle.  In the midst of their rage, the mob breaks out in song, with a frank but ironically honest chorus: “We don’t like what we don’t understand.  In fact it scares us.  And this monster is mysterious at least.  Bring your guns!  Bring your knives!  Save your children and your wives!  We’ll save our village and our lives.  We’ll kill the Beast!” 
It’s true, isn’t it?  We don’t like what we don’t understand.  It scares us.  And unfortunately it seems we sinful human beings so often end up seeking to kill what we do not understand. 
We are observing the Sunday of the Holy Trinity, perhaps best known because it is the one day a year on which we recite the Athanasian Creed.  And so you have—perhaps gamely, perhaps willingly.  Perhaps you understood perfectly everything you were saying; likely you did not.  I’ll admit it: the Athanasian Creed is a little long and repetitive and hard to understand.  But here is a question with which to begin our sermon: would you kill because of the Athanasian Creed?
The crowd around Jesus in our text was ready to kill because of one short sentence.  A doctrinal statement.  A confession of the faith.  True, the conversation hadn’t been going well before that.  As soon as someone plays the “you’re-a-demon-possessed-Samaritan” card things are bound to go downhill.  And it’s a good rule of thumb that if the level of debate descends to name-calling and innuendos you know someone doesn’t have a sound argument.
That’s how we sinners deal with what we don’t understand.  We first dismiss it as irrelevant.  If that doesn’t work, we label it so we can dehumanize it, so we can eliminate it from our minds, or justify killing it.  Call him “Beast” rather than his royal title and name: Prince Adam.  Call the unborn baby “fetus” to give the illusion that he is merely an inconvenient blob of tissue.  Call the stranger from another land by racial slurs instead of getting to know him.  Call the only begotten Son of God a half-breed Samaritan and demon-possessed when He says something you don’t like or don’t understand. 
These ad hominem tactics might intimidate someone to silence, but they will never win a real debate.  It’s generally worthless to waste your breath with someone who has resorted to name-calling.  But Jesus is very patient and long-suffering.  And so this conversation continues well past its freshness date, until Jesus finally says, “Before Abraham was, I AM.”
Notice what Jesus says: “I AM.”  Not, “I was,” which would have sounded grammatically correct, if not logical.  Not “I have been.”  The text doesn’t allow for that either.  Jesus declares clearly: “Before Abraham was, I AM.”
So what?  Well, think back to Moses, standing before the burning bush, asking for God’s name.  What did God tell Moses?  “I AM Who I AM.”  “I AM” in Hebrew is “Yahweh,” God’s personal name in the Old Testament.  To the crowd gathered in the temple that day Jesus makes it perfectly clear that He isn’t just another man.  He tells them in no uncertain terms that He is the Lord God.
Jesus’ words are harsh and to the point.  They reveal hearts that are as hard as the rocks they are picking up to throw.  And the more Jesus reveals who He really is, the more the opposition to Him increases.  We don’t like what we don’t understand.  In fact it scares us.  And this Jesus is so mysterious.  Bring the rocks!  Bring the stones!  Let’s kill this fraud! 
“Who do you think you are Jesus—God?”
“Precisely!  And not just any God!  I AM the only God in town.  In fact, I’m the only God ever in the universe that I created!  I’m the one true God.  I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses.  Before Abraham was born I AM!” 
Do the Jewish religious leaders get the point?  Oh, yes!  They know exactly what Jesus is claiming.  But they are not willing to hear any man claim to be the Lord without concluding that He is blaspheming.  And so they take up stones to throw at Him.  They’ll kill Him on that very spot.  Bury Him under a pile of rocks. 
The reasons Jesus’ opponents have for their actions are many.  For one, Jesus has just been talking about God the Father in heaven; and if the Father is always in heaven and God is one, how can Jesus be God, too?  For another, Jesus is clearly a man.  He is made of flesh and blood, standing in front of them.  He can’t change.  Because He is man, how can Jesus be God, too? 
Those are two mysteries.  But the crowd is convinced that they aren’t mysteries to ponder, or truths to accept by faith, but rather the lies of a demon-possessed Samaritan.  Rather than believe, they take up stones to kill Him. 
Dear friends, those two mysteries in the text are the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation.  To some who refuse to believe—worth killing for, even yet today; and for those who, by God’s grace, believe—they are doctrines worth dying for.  They are what the Athanasian Creed is all about.  As we just confessed, if you desire to be saved you must think thus about the Trinity.  If you do not firmly and faithfully believe this about the Incarnation, you cannot be saved. 
The Trinity and the Incarnation are two great truths of Scripture, and both are frustrating to speak of because we cannot explain either one satisfactorily to human reason.  The best we can do is to say what the Bible says, and then we can go on to make clear what the Bible doesn’t say, lest we be led away from the truth.
Take the Trinity.  We believe that there is one God: as in Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!”  At the same time, we also know that the Bible declares the Father to be God, the Son to be God, and the Holy Spirit to be God.  Therefore, even as we gladly confess that there is one God, we speak of God as Triune—one God, but three persons.  It seems to be a contradiction, but Scripture proclaims it.  And I, for one, take comfort in a God who is so big I can’t fully understand.  So while we can’t wrap our minds around it, we confess the Trinity: we believe in one God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We are also careful to make clear what the Bible doesn’t say about the Trinity.  For instance, it doesn’t say that there is one God with three different masks or modes—as though sometimes He’s operating in “Father mode,” other times in “Son mode” or “Spirit mode.”  This false teaching, called modalism, leads to all sorts of other false teachings from ancient Sabellianism to the modern heresies found in the United Pentecostal Church or the popular novel, The Shack.    Likewise, the Bible doesn’t say that there are three different Gods—a false teaching called tritheism, held centuries ago by the Monophysites and taught today by cults like the Latter Day Saints, the Mormons.
Now, here’s why these explanations are tempting: on a certain level, they make sense.  We feel like we’ve got a better grasp on God if we can see Him as one God changing hats, or three different Gods; so such teachings will always be tempting.  But they’re not true—and we live by faith.  We hold our reason captive to the expressed truth of God’s Word.  We trust in one God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even if we cannot understand how He can be.
Likewise, the Incarnation: the Son of God becoming flesh.  This one is, if anything, more difficult to wrap your mind around.  The always-been, all-powerful, all-knowing, everywhere-present Son of God became man with a starting point, weakness, a human mind, and the need to be carried from one place to another as a baby, and to walk from one place to the next as an adult.
It leads to all sorts of questions: when Jesus was a child, did He know His abc’s because He was God, or did He have to learn them because He was man? How could Mary give birth to her Creator?  How could God get tired and have to sleep in a boat?  How could a man silence the waves with a Word?  How could God die?  How could man rise again?   These truths collide in our tiny minds.  Thus, once again, we have to make clear what the Bible doesn’t say. 
In order to make Jesus’ Incarnation understandable, it has been taught that He never became man, but only seemed to be and was play-acting His way through His life, death, and resurrection.  This heresy, called Docetism might be easier to accept, but it denies the clear testimony of Scripture.  Furthermore, if the man Jesus didn’t shed His blood and die for your sins, you haven’t been redeemed.  Likewise, it’s been taught that Jesus was just a man whom God used for a while, but Jesus was never really God Himself.  Known as adoptionism, this idea may be more comprehensible, but it also denies Scripture and destroys your salvation.
This is why the Athanasian Creed is written the way it is.  It’s a serious confession of faith that pins down who the Trinity is and who Jesus is.  It also refutes many false teachings about the Trinity and Incarnation.  But the Trinity and the Incarnation are still mysterious, so once again we’re stuck—and we only love a good mystery when we can solve it by the end of the evening.  And that can be frustrating.  In the text, it was enough to make the crowd want to kill Jesus.  Today, most of us don’t literally pick up stones to throw, but we do tend to dismiss things that we don’t understand and not think about them very long. 
So, sadly, it’s far too common for Christians to say, “The Trinity?  The Incarnation?  Leave that stuff for the pastor.  For us, it really doesn’t matter.”  Ah, but it does matter.  In our text, Jesus declares, “Most assuredly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My Word he shall never see death.”  “Keeps” as in “holds on to,” “treasures.”  It is from the testimony of God’s Word not our own speculation that we know who God is.  By faith, when we treasure God’s Word, we are treasuring what God says about Himself.  This is hugely important: if you don’t care about who God is and either dismiss His identity or create a different one, then pretty soon you’ll be looking to a different god to save you.  But there is no other god who gives life—only the one true God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Jesus is the eternal Son of God.  Conceived by the Holy Spirit.  Born of the Virgin Mary.  A real man who is also at the same time true God!   He was sent to do His Father’s will.  How?  He suffers under Pontius Pilate, is crucified, dies, is buried, descends into hell, and rises on the third day.  Then He ascends to reign at His Father’s right hand, where He lives and reigns to all eternity.
The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.  Poured out upon the Church on Pentecost, He continues to call, gather, enlighten, sanctify and keep you in the true faith in the same way He does the whole Church on earth.  He daily and richly forgives your sins and the sins of all believers.  On the Last Day He will raise you and all the dead and give eternal life to you and all believers in Christ.
The Triune God is for you.  He’s not against you.  He holds no grudges.  He doesn’t keep score.  Now beware: If you insist on having a god who’s an expert at grudge holding, bookkeeping, and give you what you deserve… then that’s the god you’ll have.  He or she isn’t the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He or she isn’t the Holy Spirit who brings true faith and understanding.  He or she will just be another run-of-the-mill handcrafted idol in your wicked hearts and minds.  A false god who will promise you everything, but will only lead you the pit of hell!
The Triune God refuses to be a god of our own making, thinking, and wanting.  He is a God beyond human understanding.  He is who He is.  He does what He does.  He gives what He gives.  He forgives you.  For His Son’s sake.  The Father gives you His heart in the crucified and dead body of His Son on the cross.  This is the catholic faith, the one universal true faith, the only faith that has saved throughout the centuries from Adam and Eve until the day of Christ’s return. 
Jesus declares in our text: “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing My day.  He saw it and was glad.”  So did King David: “He was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that He would place one of his descendants on his throne,” St. Peter proclaims in our second reading.  The pivot point of the world’s history is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  He is the God of Abraham and the promised descendant of King David who reigns as Israel’s king on Good Friday. 
Purple robe.  Crown of thorns.  A wooden pole for His throne.  There on the cross Jesus dies for the sin of the world.  Yes, for the likes of you and me the God-man Jesus really did die.  Not because you or I are so lovely or loveable.  You’re not.  I’m most certainly not.  But the Triune God loves you anyway.  And His love has raised you from the death of your sin for the new life of faith only in Him.  God’s grace in Christ: that’s the real mystery.  That’s what’s really hard to understand.  That can only be accepted and confessed by faith. 
Therefore, dear friends, rather than try to reduce God to something understandable or dismiss Him as irrelevant, rejoice in this.  The one true God—whose essence is far greater than we can understand—knows you by name.  He understands you and your greatest needs better even than you do yourself.  In love and sacrificial service to you, the Son of God—Himself God—became flesh and died for the sin of the world to redeem you, then rose again.
Even now, the Father wills that you be saved.  Even now, the Son sits at His Father’s right hand and intercedes for you.  Even now, the Holy Spirit brings you forgiveness as He brings you into God’s presence in His means of grace.  The entire Holy Trinity is constantly at work for your salvation. 
So rather than trying boil our Lord down into something so small and weak that we can comprehend Him, we rejoice in the saving power of God’s holy Word and His triune Name.  What Word?  What Name?   This Word, this Name.  “For the sake of Jesus Christ, His suffering and death, you are forgiven for all of your sins—in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Amen

Monday, May 20, 2013

Make a Name for Ourselves... Or Call upon the Name of the Lord?

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
What a day!  The Day of Pentecost.  The day of the baptism of Andersen Theodore Bucher.  The confirmation of his dad, Derek.  And the reception of Andersen’s family into the body of Christ here at St. John’s.  And it’s very fitting, for like all baptisms, Andersen’s is a mini-Pentecost—a Holy Spirit-filled event.  He received God’s Spirit, not in the rushing wind or in tongues of fire, but in the water and Word.  My grandson is now my brother in the Lord—yours too!  Derek, Marissa, and Abbott are also now part of this congregation, numbered with you, and all Christians throughout the ages and across the world.    
This is a day for which I have prayed for some time now.  I prayed for Derek before he even began to date Marissa—not specifically by name, of course, but that God would provide a godly husband for her and father for Abbott.  I prayed for Derek and Marissa during their engagement and I still pray for them and their marriage each day.  Andersen just turned two months old last week, but I’ve prayed for him for over 10 months—at least the last eight by name.  Abbott would hear me in Daily Prayer, praying for members of my family, including Aimee, my Dad and Mom, my children and grandchildren, and he’d say: “You said, ‘Andersen.’  That’s my brudder.” 
Long before he was born, Andersen had a name.  But historically, the day of baptism was the day for receiving your name, your Christian name.  Hence, the word christening is nearly synonymous with Baptism.  And so today, the one known for a very brief time in the hospital as “Baby Boy Bucher” received his Christian name: Andersen Theodore; and you heard it a number of times in the baptismal rite.  This is significant, for God says to His children, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are Mine” (Isaiah 43:1).
My parents taught me the importance of a good name.  But it was my boss, Ralph Korn, who taught me one of the most important lessons I ever learned on the first day I worked for him selling feed: “Remember to greet a person by his or her name.  People like to hear their name.  Their name is important to them.  People like to know that you care enough to learn their name and call them by it.” 
And God cares very much about each one of you gathered here today—from the oldest to the youngest.  He loves you!  Enough to give His Son into death for you.  So today, true to His promise, God has redeemed Andersen Theodore, called him by name, and made him His own dear child.  He did so by giving him His own triune name: the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. 
Names are important to us.  They give us a sense of identity, a sense of belonging, and from a sinful selfish standpoint—bragging rights.  And that’s just what the people in our Old Testament lesson, our text from Genesis 11, were talking about: “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” 
Who were these haughty builders?  They were a family of favor and privilege, bearing a prestigious name.  Their patriarch, Noah, had been the only one to find grace in the eyes of the Lord.  Only he and his wife, their three sons and their wives were saved in the flood.  They were Shemites—sons and daughters of Shem—the line that had received Noah’s special blessing that the Messiah, the Promised Seed of the Woman, would come from among them.  So blessed, but perhaps only four generations later, openly rebelling against God’s expressed will. 
As they left the ark, God had commanded, “Fill the earth.”  It was God’s good will that in time the whole earth should be filled with people who would live for His glory, so that from east to west His reputation as Savior would be magnified.  That multitudes across the earth would call upon His holy name.
Noah’s descendants started out well.  From Mount Ararat, where the ark had come to rest, they journeyed down into the Tigris-Euphrates valley (in present-day Iraq).  “They found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.”  It didn’t matter to them that God had said, “Fill the earth!”  They responded: “Why should we?  This is our paradise—the Fertile Crescent.  It doesn’t get any better than this!” 
The settlement they planned to establish was not a temporary one either.  “Let us build ourselves a city,” they said—a fortified settlement.  “Let’s build a tower that reaches to the heavens.  Then we will be important and we can stay right here and bask in our glory and our achievement.”  They even talked about the “state of the art” construction techniques that would be necessary.  They wanted their tower to last, so they burned their bricks, much like a potter would fire a pot in a kiln.  And they used bitumen, tar, to hold it together. 
And then we have a very interesting turn of phrase: “And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built.”  Moses, the one who wrote this text for us to read, is saying something important here.  Even though the “children of man” were building a “tower with its top in the heavens,” God had to “come down” to see it. 
Of course, God didn’t need to come to Babel in person to see what was happening.  He is all-seeing and all-knowing, present everywhere, all the time.  Nothing escapes His notice.  The point is that from God’s vantage point their great work wasn’t even big enough for God to see without coming down.  The picture Moses wants you to have is of someone squatting down with their face pressed against the ground to view an anthill.  After all their efforts at greatness, this great tower they are building is really nothing at all from God’s perspective. 
So what exactly was wrong with what they were doing?  What’s wrong with a little human ingenuity?  What’s wrong with building tall buildings and making a name for yourself?   Is God afraid of losing power?  Of course not!
The key here is a very small word in the first part of the text: “Us”. “Let us build…”  Let us do it… not “Let’s see if God would have us do it…” or even “Let’s do it for the good of all people.”  Or “Let’s pray about it in the Lord’s name.”  And certainly not, “Let’s ask the pastor to bless this building project.” 
No, it was: “Let us… according to our own will… according to our own power… according to our own ability…”  What they were saying was, in effect, “We don’t need God to protect us; we’ll build our own fortified city.  We don’t need God to reach the heavens; we’ll build a tower.  In fact, if just we stick together, if we are just unified, if we just depend on one another, we can do without God altogether.  And this tower itself will prove that nothing is impossible for us.”
And on that point God agreed.  “Nothing they propose to do will be impossible.”  But, God means something far different.  When God says “nothing they propose,” He knows what kind of evil will naturally result.  It’s not that God is threatened by the building of great skyscrapers; He’s concerned about the great evil that lives right here in the hearts of the children of man.
God knows about the selfish ambition that leads people to walk all over others to get what they want.  He knows about the quest for power that leaves thousands of dead soldiers lying on bloody beaches.  He knows about the worship of “Choice” that leads to the death of millions.  He knows about the hubris that leads to torture chambers and mass graves in the desert.  He knows about those who say the most practical and compassionate thing that we can do for Grandpa is to put him to sleep so that he won’t have to suffer or be a burden.
When God said, “nothing they propose will be impossible,” I don’t even want to know about the evil that He was acting to prevent.  It’s bad enough today.  But when God confused the languages and caused the people to be scattered instead of unified, He was really protecting mankind from itself.  He was protecting us from our own evil that consumes us, our own sinful nature.
God’s judgment here, unlike the time of the flood, wasn’t even visible.  We don’t hear about the city being sacked or the tower being toppled.  God simply made some changes inside the minds of the builders.  They could no longer understand one another’s language.  And that had severe repercussions.  For one thing that meant that they could no longer work together.  Any of you who have worked with those who do not speak the same language know how difficult it can be.  Worse yet, the builders no longer trusted one another.  The spirit of friendliness and confidence was replaced by ugly suspicion and enmity.  And so the settlement they had hoped would bring them security and fame became know as Babel or “confusion.”  A name that would live on forever in infamy. 
God scattered the children of man.  But the sinful pride is still there in each human heart.  Even now, we continue to build our own little empires.  And God still kneels down to look at our puny towers… all the things we depend on instead of Him… all the things we use to say, “We really don’t need You, God.  We can do it on our own.  Come, let us make a name for ourselves.”  
Yes, you and I have prideful towers we have built, too.  Just think for a moment about the things we use to help us to “make it on our own” and “make names for ourselves.”  We float along in life pretty well, feeling pretty much in control, running our day-to-day life as we best see fit, and using our Sunday church attendance to keep God right where He belongs—in the background, on stand-by. 
And when trouble comes we may even pay God lip service through prayer.  But really we believe that if we are just strong enough we can get through our problems by ourselves.  Like when we have to face death in the family, we say things like “I can get through this” or “I’m a strong person.  I’ll survive” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.”  We live life and deal with trouble as if God lets us suffer so that we can show how strong we are.  So we can build our own tower of strength and show how we really don’t need Him at all. 
But whether our towers are built from burned bricks or steel or our own self-esteem, it all comes out the same.  We want our bragging rights.  We want to be in control.  The sin of the people at Babel is our sin—pride and rebellion. 
At the Tower of Babel, God broke up the people’s pride by breaking up their communication.  He scattered them across the face of the earth to prevent greater evil.  He breaks our pride by allowing trouble and pain in our lives.  God doesn’t allow trouble into our lives to show us how strong we are.  Trouble and pain show us how much we really need Him.  Death shows us how helpless we really are.  How puny we are in respect to the eternal and infinite Lord.  How scattered and confused we become when we push God away or simply ignore Him.  
Thank God we live by grace.  The God that scattered is also the God who gathers.  The same God who took away the ability to communicate gave it back again.  On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came and turned disunity—scattered people with scattered languages—into unified people who each heard “the mighty works of God” in their own language.  It was “Babel undone.” 
We see in these readings from Genesis and Acts a sharp contrast—the difference between making a name for ourselves and calling upon the name of the Lord.  Everyone who tries to make a name for himself is ultimately confused and scattered.  Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord is saved.   They are enlightened and unified by the Holy Spirit.  These are the “mighty works of God”!
Sinful human beings naturally want to take care of things themselves. We want to earn our own way.  We think that if we just do enough good things we can make it to God on our own.  It is a plan doomed to fail from the start, because it focuses wrongly on us. 
But God’s plan is much better!  He sends His own Son to save us from ourselves.  We want to build our own stairway to heaven, but God has Jesus come down to earth as one of us instead.  We want to make it to God with our own religion, where our own good works and efforts count for everything.  God give us the only true religion where we are brought to God only through the free gift of His only Son.  He gives Jesus to die for the sins of the whole world.  All the sin of pride and self-promotion, all the sin of leaning on everything but God, all the sin of wanting to make a name for ourselves, all of our sin was taken to the cross of Jesus, where it was put to death that you might have life in His name.  
And so today, we’ve had our little Pentecost.  For the sake of His Son, Jesus Christ, the Father has poured out His Holy Spirit.  And we’ve had the miracles, too.  No tongues of fire, rushing wind, or the speaking of many languages.  Something even better.  The Lord is building His Church—brick by brick, one soul at a time, with His Word and Sacraments. 
The Holy Spirit is turning hearts toward Jesus, creating faith, through the Word.  He is putting His name on people, making a name for them through the water of Baptism.  Feeding you with His very body and blood.  Not so that you can take care of yourself.  Not so that you can depend on yourself.  But so that you trust more and more in Jesus and less and less on yourself.  For only in His name do you have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.  Only in His Word will you hear this Good News: You are forgiven for all of your sins. 
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Now What? (2)

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The text for today is Acts 1:9-11: “And when [Jesus] had said these things, as they were looking on, He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him out of their sight.  And while they were gazing into heaven as He went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?  This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.”  Here ends the text.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Well.  It came and went.  Did you miss it?  The great apocalypse linked to the last day of the Mayan calendar: December 21, 2012?  Just another failed attempt to forecast the end of the world.  I’d always wondered: What do you suppose those people who count so heavily on the world ending on a particular date do the day after?  You know… the ones who give up everything they own, and then gather on a mountainside and wait for Jesus or the mothership to return. 
Now I know; I met one of them personally.  One of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet.  Just knew Jesus was coming back on 12-21-12.  December 22nd, he started putting out job applications.  But I suspect that he is the exception, not the rule.  I’ve always pictured these misguided souls cloistered in their own rooms—forlornly looking outside through their windows, considering the possibility that they had somehow miscalculated.  Or even worse, that they had been left behind.  Saying to one another: “I can’t believe we’re still here.  Now what do we do?”   
Now what?  The same question that Jesus’ disciples face as they stand on the mountain, gazing up into the sky where Jesus has just ascended into heaven.  It had taken them time and much explanation by Jesus to understand His death and resurrection.  Clearly it will also take some time and a careful examination of Jesus’ teaching of Scripture to understand the significance of His Ascension.
The angels try to jumpstart the process: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?  This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).  Obviously, that must be enough to jolt the disciples out of their daze.  In our Gospel, we read that they “went out and preached everywhere.” 
What about you?  Why are you sitting here?  What’s so special about this particular day that we observe it with a church festival: The Ascension of Our Lord?  The reason for Good Friday is clear enough: Jesus’ sacrificial, atoning death on the cross for the life of the world.  Though some mistake it for defeat, we still proclaim the victory.  Easter Sunday is clearer still: Jesus’ resurrection from the dead—the open, empty tomb.  He is risen!  Alleluia!  But Ascension Day?  That’s the odd one.  So odd, it isn’t even remotely on the culture’s radar screen.  No Ascension Day parades, no Ascension Day sales or egg hunts.  How many of you will get together with your family for an Ascension Day dinner?  
But the Ascension of Jesus is a big deal despite its low visibility in the secular world.  A very big deal.  Historically, in the early Church, it was one of the three festival days, right along with Easter and Pentecost.  Observed long before people thought to celebrate Christmas.  Well worth better understanding.        
What, then, is Jesus’ Ascension?  What does it mean?  What happens when He ascends into heaven?  And what does it all have to with us, the Lord’s Church and His dear Christians?  To answer these questions we will delve into great mysteries that are wonderful, and well beyond our limited understanding.
The answer begins with the first Christmas, the Nativity of Our Lord.  Actually, it begins even earlier—nine months earlier—when Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary.  The Incarnation, when the eternal Son of God took upon Himself flesh and blood.  So the two natures of Christ—divine and human—are perfectly and eternally united in the person of Jesus. 
What marvelous love that God has toward us that He would unite Himself—God and man together—in the person of Jesus!  And He does this for us, so that He would be our brother.  So that He would be tempted and suffer like us.  So that He could sympathize with us in our weakness.  So that He could die in our place and suffer the punishment for our sins.  So that He could rise again from the dead for us to bring us life.  So that He might ascend to the Father’s right hand for us. 
This personal union of the natures means that all of the attributes of the divine nature are communicated to Jesus’ human nature.  All the things that we can say about God we can say about Jesus as a man.  According to His human nature He knows everything, is all powerful, eternal, full of life, and is in every place.
From Jesus’ birth to His crucifixion, we see glimpses of this union.  In His miracles, knowledge of the thoughts of men’s hearts, and Transfiguration, we see the man Jesus doing things that only God can do.  And yet, in His state of humiliation, we see that Jesus did not fully use all of the divine attributes that are His by this personal union.  He was tired and hungry and did not know certain things.  He limited Himself to one location.  But this is the significance of the Ascension: When Jesus sits down at the right hand of God He is permanently and fully taking up the use of all the divine attributes through His human nature. 
This is what Paul means when he says, “He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.”  Jesus fills all things, that is, He is present absolutely everywhere.  And this is where the celebration of the Ascension brings us comfort.  For we often seem lost and alone, as if God is far away or that He’s turned His back on us.  We live in a sinful world and we ourselves are sinful, and have lives that are full of trouble on the outside, and on the inside.  Sin pushes us away from God.  And the devil loves this; he wants us to think that we have to do it on our own without God, that we have to make it on our own, that we have to fix it on our own.
But we are not alone.  Jesus, our Brother, our Friend, our Savior, and crucified Lord—this God-Man Jesus Christ has ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, so that He might be near us, in the midst of us, with us.  His Ascension is not His leaving us, but His drawing near to us.  And so it is He—He the man who has spoken with the disciples, the One who has endured all tribulations in His assumed human nature, and who therefore has sympathy with us—He will be with us in all our troubles also according to His human nature.
In a sense Christ’s Ascension is the culmination of His saving work.  The disciples in Acts see it from this side of creation as He is taken up in a cloud.  In Revelation, St. John gets a glimpse of the same event from the heavenly side.  It’s like a big tickertape parade.  The conquering Christ strides across the glassy sea in the heavenly throne room and takes His rightful seat at the right hand of the Father as the hosts of heaven sing out: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.”
Moses never made it into the Promised Land.  He was buried in the land of Moab, with a single return engagement with Elijah on Jesus’ Mount of Transfiguration just to assure us that all is well with him.  But the One greater than Moses, having gone through the parted sea of death in His exodus from death to life, entered the Promised Land as the conquering King at His Ascension.  Forty days after His Resurrection, in parallel to Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness after the Red Sea, forty days after His exodus from the Egypt of death, the Promised One greater than Moses leads the charge to heavenly Canaan in a bright cloud.
The bright cloud of the Ascension shows this connection, too.  This is no ordinary puff of frozen atmospheric moisture.  This is the same cloud that led Israel through the wilderness.  This is the cloud of the glory of Yahweh, the shekinah that settled between the cherubim over the ark of the covenant in the tabernacle, the manifestation of God’s abiding, though hidden, presence.
The Ascension proclaims the reign of Jesus Christ over all things.  His alone is the Name that is above every name.  Greater than the name of prophet, priest, or religious leader—greater even than God’s Old Testament covenant name, Yahweh.  So great is the incarnational Name of the Son of God that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow—in heaven, on earth, and under the earth—and every tongue confess the three-word creed: Lord Jesus Christ to the glory of God the Father.
But if you’re honest, you must admit: you forget the reign of Christ, don’t you?  Or perhaps I should say: “You willfully disregard it.  Your Old Adam will not abide it—to be subject to such a King who dies to save His subjects by sheer grace.  You recognize only the reign of power and the sword.  I do, too.  “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus told Pilate.  But His disciples didn’t get it even as He was about to extend His hand in a final blessing.  They asked Him: “Are You now going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”  In other words, “Does the revolution start now?  Can we break out the swords and summon the troops?”  The disciples still didn’t recognize that the fight was over, the battle won.  Christ had triumphed.  The King was returning to His throne to sit and reign forever and ever.
Here was Jesus as they had known Him for three years.  They saw Him.  They touched Him.  He ate with them.  He’s so familiar that even risen from the dead, it’s terribly easy to forget that He is the Incarnate Son of the Most High God.  He is God in the Flesh.  The throne He ascends to occupy is the very same throne He has had for all eternity as the only-begotten Son of God.  The throne He vacated, emptying Himself of His divine honor and glory to become Man. Humbling Himself in obedience to His own Law to save a world of lawbreakers.
The present reign of Jesus Christ is often neglected or even denied within Christendom, by those who seek some future reign and some future kingdoms, as though Christ were not now seated at the right hand of Majesty.  The kingdoms of this world are now the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. 
And by the way: we don’t by our prayers and pieties put Jesus on His throne.  Nor do we by our religious feelings make Him our Lord.  He is Lord—King of kings and Lord of lords.  Ascension Day proclaims His lordship over those who believe and over those who refuse to believe.  This is not a matter of faith, but fact.  Our faith no more seats Christ on the throne than our unbelief unseats Him.
The Ascension of Christ is also the glorification of our humanity.  This is not man become God, but God become Man to rescue fallen humanity, to bring mankind back to God.  The God-Man reigns.  Fully divine and fully human He reigns over all creation.  God Incarnate.  God in human flesh.
We need to put to rest the Gnostic notion that Jesus somehow shed His humanity in His Ascension, that He is once again free of the confines of the body.  That may sit well with the new-agers and all the so-called “spiritualities” of our day, but there is no comfort in a Christ without a body enthroned in heaven.  Just as we can say that Mary is the “mother of God” because she bore the Son of God in her womb, so we can say that a human being reigns over all things from the throne of God—Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords.
And as perfect Man, Jesus is also our High Priest, like us in every way yet without sin, sympathetic to our humanity, bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh, showing the wounds of His once-for-all atoning sacrifice in the heavenly temple, pleading our forgiveness and pardon.        There’s no comfort in a disembodied God, just as there is no comfort in an absent Jesus. 
So while we’re at it, let’s shoot down a second misunderstanding of the Ascension, namely that Jesus “went” to another place, the way we say when Grandma dies: “She went to a better place.”  Jesus disappeared into the cloud of God’s presence.  He didn’t shoot off into space like a missile.  He’s withdrawn His visible presence, not His actual presence.  In fact, He is more present now than ever.  He departs in one way so that He can be with us in a yet greater way.
He’s not gone to another place, but He has embraced this place—this fallen, dying world.  Had Jesus not ascended, we would be stuck with Jesus popping in here and there every so often.  If He’s here and He can’t be there, and if He’s there and He can’t be here—then how is He going to “be with us always” as He promised?  The gift of the Ascension is Jesus’ abiding presence in the Word, the water of Baptism, in the bread that is His Body, the wine that is His Blood.  He has gone away in one sense to be with us in a yet greater sense. 
The culmination of Jesus’ work, His present reign, the glorification of our humanity, His greater and nearer presence—these are the significance of Christ’s Ascension.  These are the reason we observe the Ascension of Our Lord today. 
So, now what?  Three things: First, know the times.  These are the last days.  The Ascension of Christ marks the beginning of the end.  The work of salvation is done.  Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ now reigns.  We are in the midst of the “millennium,” the “thousand year” reign of the saints with Christ. 
“But it’s been nearly two thousand years,” you say.  “When did the thousand years begin?”  And I say, “They began when Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father.”  You may as well put away your calculators and calendars.  They won’t do you any more good than they did the ancient Mayans.  Jesus says it is not given us to know the times or the seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority.  St. Peter reminds us that a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day with the Lord.  Jesus could return at any time.
Be prepared.  But don’t spend too much time worrying about it.  Jesus’ appearing will be like a thief in the night, unannounced and unanticipated.  But it won’t go unnoticed.  Jesus will descend from heaven visibly, in the same way as His disciples saw Him go into heaven.  As you wait for that Day, go about your lives in freedom and keep watch with expectant joy.
Second, listen.  The days and years between the Ascension and the Last Day are the times for hearing and listening to Jesus.  He is physically present.  It’s just that we don’t see Him with our eyes.  But we hear Him with our ears.  Now is the time the sheep are given to listen to the Good Shepherd’s voice.  Faith comes by hearing, not by seeing.  You cannot see the Lord, but you can hear Him in His Word preached to you.  You cannot see Him, but He can be recognized in the breaking of the bread that is His Body.  You cannot see Him, but He is with you always, to the end of the age.  What you now must believe, you will one day see.  But for now you must trust in what is not seen.  That is the essence of faith.
Third, speak.  Having heard, we speak.  Jesus didn’t leave His disciples staring into space.  Before ascending, He gave His Church a mission: “Go into all the world and proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation.  Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”    
It couldn’t be clearer than that, could it?  We don’t need a mission statement or some whizbang synodical program.  The Church has it straight from her Head.  Speak the Good News of Jesus to the world for whom Jesus died.  And do it with all the joy and confidence that comes with being under the gracious reign of Jesus.
Christ has died.  Christ has risen.  Christ now reigns in glory—all for the sake of His Church.  All that you might be redeemed, purchased and won from all sins, from death, and the power of the devil, not with silver or gold, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.  All that you might be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.  All that you might hear and believe this Good News: You are forgiven for all of your sins. 
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

That They May All Be One

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Three-Year Lectionary devotes this Seventh Sunday of Easter to what is called Jesus’ “High-Priestly Prayer.”  Our Gospel text for today from John 17 is part of that prayer.  It is certainly fitting to consider this prayer on this Sunday after the Church has remembered Christ’s ascension, for our heavenly High Priest continues to pray for His Church before His Father’s throne of grace and glory. 
In this section of the prayer, Jesus prays not only for His disciples who are gathered with Him that night, but also “for those who will believe in Me through their word.”  Jesus prays for all of those who will receive His Word through His apostles.  The Father had given His Word to Jesus.  Jesus gives the apostles’ His Word by the Holy Spirit.  That Word works faith in Jesus for eternal life. 
Jesus sees this process as ongoing.  Already He has used His disciples to preach and teach the Word.  But more is to come.  The great Day of Pentecost lies ahead when the Spirit will lead them into all truth.  The Spirit will guide them to write down God’s Word, and God will preserve it in the New Testament Scriptures for us to read today.  In this way Christ will build His Church.
Jesus—in His all-knowing power as God—sees it all.  And as true Man, He prays for those who would come to faith in Him through the apostles’ word.  That means that Jesus prays for you.  For in the water and Word of Holy Baptism you have been grafted into His body the Church.  Jesus prays for all those who will believe in Him through His Word from that day forward until the last day.
And what is it that Jesus desires for His disciples?  He prays for our success.  Right?  For the new ideas that we can cook up to save ourselves.  Right?  He certainly prays that our congregation and synod would grow by leaps and bounds.  Right?  No.  Jesus prays for the Church’s unity.  For our oneness. 
“That they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You…. That they may be one even as We are one, I in them and You in Me, that they become perfectly one.”  Unity.  Oneness.  Between those who believe in Jesus.  Why?  There’s a specific reason.  Jesus says: “So that the world may believe that You have sent Me.”  So the world may believe that God the Father loves them too.
But the world looks at the Church, and it doesn’t see unity, does it?  It sees endless divisions and many versions of the message packaged and peddled.  It sees congregations divided by petty squabbles and major conflicts.  And this turns people off.  So they retreat from “organized religion.”  Unfortunately, in the process, many close their ears to hearing the true, saving Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Division in the Church is truly scandalous.  So Jesus prays for her.  For unity.
Actually, I think that the whole world is already looking for unity.  The problem is that so many of us are looking for it in the wrong places. 
Some look for institutional unity: Like all being under the bishop of Rome or Eastern patriarch, or some other ecclesiastical supervisor.  They argue that if we would all just place ourselves under the same hierarchy and traditions, or establish the right churchly structure and governance then we would be unified.
Others promote a unity in diversity, where substantial doctrinal differences are ignored so that there can be “full fellowship” declared.  Like when Lutherans decide to commune with others say the Lord’s Supper is merely a symbol of remembrance not substance of salvation. 
Or those, who in the name of tolerance, insist that a man has the right to marry another man and that a woman should be able to marry another woman.  And that even if you haven’t yet been “enlightened” enough to accept this, you should still keep quiet to maintain the peace.  Make no mistake; God is not pleased with such an arrangement.  It is wrong to pretend that it is okay.  It is wrong to not tell our children that such behavior is sinful and against God’s commands. 
On the other hand, it should be noted that we shouldn’t tell people who are caught up in such sin that they are not welcome here until they get their lives straightened out and stop sinning.  If that were the criteria for admittance, none of us would be here.  No, we need to invite them here and let God’s Word—His Law and Gospel—work in their lives just as it does in ours. 
But let’s not ignore a sin that’s even more socially acceptable.  In fact, many now just take it for granted that it’s part of the natural progression of a relationship.  It’s nothing new for a man and a woman to live together without being united in marriage.  What is new is the way that Christian churches deal with such an arrangement in order to prevent division.  It is just ignored or swept under the rug. 
Statistics show that couples who live together before they are married are far more likely to divorce.  That would be enough reason to counsel against it.  But more than that, this arrangement, too, is against God’s will.  When we don’t stand up and say so, when we don’t encourage unmarried couples to change their sinful situation, we are participating in their sin.  What is more, our silence may leave them in the bondage of their sins.  Never called to repentance, they may never have the joy of having the words of forgiveness applied to their particular sins.  Far from uniting us, such willful negligence may end up cutting others off from their only source of forgiveness, life, and salvation: the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We don’t have to look very hard at these manmade attempts at unity to see that they really don’t work.  They collapse under their own weight, because they are based upon things that are not true.  They are based upon a misunderstanding of the way that God has made things.  They ignore the truth of God’s Word for the sake of an artificial, external coming together.  And a false unity is no unity at all.  In fact, false unity is the biggest barrier to the true unity of the Church.
And yet Jesus prayed for the unity of the Church: “that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You.” 
So, are we to believe that Jesus’ prayer has gone unanswered?  I hardly think so.  As we just heard last week, Jesus promised His disciples, “Whatever you ask of the Father in My Name, He will give it to you.”  Certainly a prayer spoken by the Son Himself on our behalf would be answered just as favorably.
No.  We can trust that what Jesus prays is true.  The Church is united.  Even if it doesn’t look that way to the world or ourselves.  We are united because of Christ.  We are united by Christ.  We are united in Christ.  Like many of God’s gifts, that unity is hidden right in plain sight. 
Look around.  See those other Christians sitting in the pews around you.  You’re united.  You share many things with them, one of which you just confessed together with them: that you are a poor miserable sinner, who has offended God and justly deserves His wrath.  Together you sincerely repented and prayed that He would be merciful for the sake of His beloved Son, Jesus Christ.  Together you heard Christ’s absolution spoken to you through His called and ordained servant.
You are also united when you hear about God’s great love that sent Jesus to live and die for you, to rise and ascend for you.  As you gather at the altar rail for the Lord’s Supper, you are united not only with those sitting in the pews today, but with all Christians, present and past, with angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven. 
You are united when we invoke God’s holy name at the beginning of the service: “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Those are the same words spoken when Jesus united you to Himself in Baptism.  You are united because you have been claimed from the jaws of death, rescued from sin, and saved from your own sinful desires.
Christian unity comes only from the work that God does and what God has done for you, not from anything you have done or could possibly ever do.  Martin Luther said it very clearly in his explanation of the third article: 
“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.  In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.”
 Jesus prays, “That they may all be one.”  Jesus prays for unity.  But Jesus isn’t referring to a “touchy, feely, holding hands around the campfire” kind of unity.  Jesus is talking about a unity that has as its basis the Word of God, particularly the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ.  As St. Paul would point out in his Epistle to the Ephesians, the basis of this essential unity of the Church is our having one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all (4:3-6).
Jesus prays for the oneness of faith that unites the holy Christian Church and ties all Christians to one another.  This is the reality of the Una Sancta, the one Church made up of all believers and only believers, wherever they may be found, bound together in Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.  This is the holy Christian Church that we confess in the Creeds. 
Jesus prays for a unity that will not only bless the Church but will also influence the world.  This unity includes a common confession of faith based on God’s Word that is witnessed to the world.  Unified by the Spirit, Jesus’ disciples confess their faith in their Savior.  By the Spirit’s work through the Gospel, the world will believe that the Father sent Jesus and the Father loves the disciples of Jesus just as He loves His Son. 
This unity is best displayed when Christians are consistent in their testimony to Jesus as the Son of God and the only Savior, when we are serious about guarding the Gospel from error, and when we give evidence of Jesus living in us through active love to one another and to the world.
A common confession of faith—itself the gift of the Holy Spirit—begins with acknowledging God to be the Holy Trinity, and God’s Son, Jesus Christ, to be the Lord and Savior.  United by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, Christians can then speak the truth of the Word to each other in love… teach and admonish one another in love… and respect and serve one another in love as Christians. 
A unified Christian witness would be powerful.  Like Jesus, we should pray for the day when all church communions faithfully witness to the world the one, true, apostolic faith, based upon the Holy Scriptures and confessed in the creeds.
That’s why we confess our Christian faith together each week with one of the Ecumenical Creeds.  That’s why we have our catechumens memorize the Apostles’ Creed and the explanations of the three articles.  For it’s in confessing such creeds, that our unity is not merely expressed, but also formed, reformed, maintained, and passed on to the coming generations.   
Speaking of confessions and creeds… I have a confession to make.  In my earlier years as a pastor, I used to have the catechumens write their own statement of faith prior to their confirmation.  I reasoned that if the students could write a creed, they would be showing that they had a solid understanding of the basic teachings of the Christian faith.  Fortunately, whether it was that they had greater theological insight than I possessed at the time, or more likely just plain old laziness and a touch of plagiarism, each of students came up with statement of faith that was a remarkably close paraphrase of the Apostles’ Creed. 
I’ve since repented of this practice.  I came to realize that it is more important to know and understand the Ecumenical Creeds, those ancient confessions of faith developed by the Church to combat false teaching.  In an age where diversity is celebrated above all else, it is far more important for us to confess our Christian faith together corporately with other Christians throughout the world and history than for anyone to express his own personal faith. 
The Church will never find unity with our own man-made structures or fellowship agreements.  The Church will never find unity by ignoring sin.  The Church will only find unity by resolving real differences that take away from the truth about what Jesus has done for us in His life, death, resurrection, and ascension.  The Church will only find unity in Christ and His saving Word and work.  How He has paid the penalty for all our sins and credits us with His righteousness.  How He rose from the dead that we might have eternal life.  How He sent His Holy Spirit to lead us to all truth.  How He continues to rule all things for the sake of His Church.  How He saves us, His children, through water and Word.  How He gives us His very own body and blood for forgiveness and life.
True unity is found in a common confession of the one true faith.  For only through faith in Christ do you have eternal life and salvation.  Only in Christ’s Word do you hear this liberating, unifying, gracious Good News: You are forgiven of all of your sins. 
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Into the Wilderness

"Christ in the Wilderness" by Ivan Kramskoy Click here to listen to this sermon. “The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out ...