Sunday, June 30, 2013

Jesus Set His Face to Go to Jerusalem

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The text for today is our Gospel reading, from the ninth chapter of Luke 9, particularly verse 51: “When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, He set His face to go to Jerusalem.” 
There are good reasons to consider this verse the turning point of Luke’s Gospel.  Up to this time, Jesus’ following has been on the rise.  People have thronged to hear His authoritative Word, to have Him heal their sick, blind, and lame, and to release those shackled by unclean spirits.  Then things begin to change, because Jesus tells the disciples that He will soon be delivered into the hands of men.  “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
Throughout His three-year ministry, Jesus’ death has steadily become an explicit part of His messianic mission.  From this point on, it becomes the focus.  Jesus journeys toward His death in Jerusalem to offer sacrifice for the sin of the whole world: His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. 
The phrase, “He set His face,” sounds strange to our modern ears.  But it is a good translation that alludes to Jesus’ prophetic role.  For God to “set His face” against a person or place is for God to show His wrath.  The opposite is for God to “make His face shine on you and be gracious to you.”  But here, Jesus “set His face” to go to Jerusalem—not to show wrath or mercy, but to face and overcome all temptations and opposition that would turn Him aside from the cross.
Old Testament passages offer further illumination on the significance of the fact that Jesus “set His face.”  In Ezekiel 3, we read that God made Ezekiel’s forehead as hard as flint so that he could endure the hostility of rebellious Israel.  Perhaps that is where we get the expression “hard-headed.”
In Isaiah 50, the Suffering Servant says prophetically: “I was not rebellious; I turned not backward.  I gave My back to those who strike, and My cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not My face from disgrace and spitting.  But the Lord God helps Me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set My face like flint, and I know that I will not be put to shame.”
This isn’t just another journey to Jerusalem—this will be Jesus’ last.  He knows that.  Jerusalem is the place where the Suffering Servant will be “taken up,” that is, to be crucified for the sins of the world, raised to life on the third day, and be taken up to the right hand of the Father.  Nevertheless, Jesus is determined to go to the cross, fully aware of the torture and humiliation involved.  He trusts in the eventual vindication by the Father, and He knows the cross is the only way.  Jesus set His face to go to Jerusalem—the place of sacrifice, where God had caused His name and glory to dwell. 
Even as death draws near, Jesus does not turn in on Himself.  He sends messengers into the villages along the way to prepare them for His arrival so that they might believe in Him also and be saved.  For Jesus is the only way to the heavenly Promised Land.  There is no other option.
To get from Galilee to Jerusalem, one had to go through Samaria.  There was no option there, either.  All roads led through Samaria.  And that was just fine, for Jesus came for the Samaritans, too.  Like that sassy Samaritan woman He once met at the well, the one who had had five husbands and was shacked up with number six.  She, too, was included in Jesus’ mission.
One of the Samaritan villages wanted nothing to do with Jesus.  They turned His messengers away.  This doesn’t mean they blocked the gates and drew swords.  It could have been that they were so busy chasing personal wealth that they just didn’t have time to come to hear Jesus’ message of grace and life and salvation.  Maybe they stayed out too late the night before and wanted to sleep in. 
Or it could be as simple as religious or racial prejudice.  Jesus was headed to Jerusalem for the sacrifice.  The Samaritans had their own place of worship… not Jerusalem, but Gerazim.  They had their own notions about where God was to be worshiped and where sacrifices were to be made.  They even had their own version of the Bible, one that made Samaria the place to be.  So why bother with Jerusalem when you can go to Gerazim?  Why bother with the preached Word and Sacraments, and with that crazy congregation and all those boring, difficult hymns, when you can sit at home with your Bible and have it your way?  Surely it doesn’t matter so long as you “believe in God”?
Whatever their particular reasons, we can be sure of this: The Samaritans wanted Jesus on their own terms.  They wanted a Jesus that fit their own preconceived notions of who and what Jesus should be.  How do I know that?  Because that’s the kind of Jesus the Old Adam, that sinful nature, in each of us wants… if we want a Jesus at all. 
In demanding their own personal Jesus, the Samaritans get no Jesus at all.  Remember this the next time you’re tempted to roll your own Jesus.  He is entirely for you, but only in the way He gives Himself to you.  You may want another Jesus or another way.  You may think that you know better.  But you don’t, and in your sinfulness you can’t.  You are dead and blind when it comes to spiritual matters.  Follow your heart for the way of salvation and you will be wrong every time. 
The Jesus who sets His face to go to Jerusalem is the crucified and risen One.  The same One who says, “Make disciples by baptizing and teaching.”  Who says, “Take and eat this is My body and blood given and shed for you.”  Who says, “I forgive you of all your sins.”  He is the One present in His Church, which is His body, by way of His Word and His body and blood.  Any other Jesus who comes by any other way is not the One who died and rose to save you, no matter how “religious” He may seem, no matter how “good” He may make you feel.
And so Jesus moves on to the next village.  But keep this in mind.  It was not that Jesus rejected the Samaritans; they rejected Jesus.  His going to another village is only in response to their refusal to receive Him and the messengers of His Word. 
James and John are furious.  They want to call down fire from heaven to consume those Samaritan ingrates.  No wonder Jesus calls them “sons of thunder.”  “Give ‘em hell, Jesus!  Give ‘em the old Sodom and Gomorrah treatment.  That’ll teach ‘em.”  Ever catch yourself saying the same thing?  “He’ll get hell for that.  She’ll burn for what she did.”  Even those who no longer believe in hell believe that what goes around comes around, that in the end, you get what you deserve.
But Jesus doesn’t send down fire from heaven to consume the Samaritan village.  Instead, He rebukes James and John.  The kingdom of God is a kingdom of grace.  Its influence in the lives of people is established by love.  It is promoted not by human pressure and force, but by the convincing power of the Spirit in the Good News of Jesus.  We are not to try to force people into the Church, nor are we to forcibly oppose those who reject and work against the Church.  We are not to fight fire with fire, but are to overcome evil with good. 
The way of the disciple is the way of the cross, the way of Jerusalem.
Elijah learned his lesson the hard way.  He had just come off of a spectacular victory over the false prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel where fire from heaven consumed 450 of them at Elijah’s prayer.  Then he’s summoned before Queen Jezebel who says, “What you did to my prophets, I’m going to do to you.” 
Elijah is depressed, in the throes of a prophetic career crisis.  We pastors are prone to the same thing.  I’m seen it happen before.  Just recently felt it a bit myself.  You preach the Word for years and people seem to forget everything they learned overnight.  You preach the Word to seeming no effect, and you begin to wonder—does the Word really work?  It happens!  Martin Luther quit preaching for a year for the same reason.  But that’s the devil at work on sinful flesh.
Elijah heads for the hills, afraid for his life.  He goes back to Mt. Horeb (another name for Mt. Sinai) ostensibly to have a little “one-on-one time” with God.  But he’d rather throw his own “little pity party.”  There’s certainly enough whine: “I’m the only one left, and they’re trying to kill me, too.” 
Did you know that there’s even a psychological complex named after Elijah?  It’s the one where you think you’re the only one left, the only one who is faithful, the only one who gets it right.  No one else sees it as clearly as you do.  No one else is as pure as you are.  You’ve broken fellowship with everyone else in the world.  And now it’s just you and your wife at the kitchen table having communion, and she’s beginning to look a bit suspect too.
Elijah hides in a cave, perhaps the same cave that hid Moses as God’s glory passed by.  And there’s a great wind, earthquake, and fire—all that good Mt. Sinai stuff.  But the Lord isn’t in any of that.  At least not as Yahweh, the Lord God of the covenant.  And then there is a whisper.  Not a still, small voice in Elijah’s head, the way some people speak of it, and some translations render this verse.  An audible whisper.  You see… God doesn’t have to yell to get our attention. 
And Elijah gives God his little pity speech again.  “I’ve been zealous, faithful, true.  Your people have broken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, killed Your prophets, and now they’re trying to kill me, too.” 
And God says, “Poor Elijah.  I didn’t know you had it so tough.” 
No!  He says.  “Go!  Go back to Damascus.  Install Hazael, king of Syria, and Jehu over Israel, and Elisha to succeed you.  And oh, by the way, you’re not alone.  I have 7,000 faithful in Israel who haven’t bent their knee to Baal.”
Elijah essentially gets fired that day.  God orders him to appoint his own successor, Elisha.  His work is done.  Oh, he’ll get a nice ride to heaven in a fiery chariot and a brief return engagement on the Mount of Transfiguration over eight centuries later, but his ministry, for all intents and purposes, is done.
But Elijah learns a few things that day in the cave.  He learns that it is not about him.  He learns that the kingdom of God doesn’t rest on his shoulders.  He learns that he isn’t alone, though he wasn’t aware of it.  Seven thousand others had not bowed the knee to the idol Baal.  God has His secret agents scattered all over the place.  You’re one of them, too! 
So remember: The way of the cross seems lonely at times.  But it’s not!  There are always “7,000.”  You don’t know their names.  You wouldn’t recognize their faces.  They are the communion of saints, the sum total of believers of all times and throughout the world of which you are a part.  The actual number doesn’t matter; what matters is that you are not alone.
Jesus set His face to go to Jerusalem.  By the time He reaches the cross there will be no one with Him.  This is His to do alone.  Jesus alone is faithful in his mission, the whole way.  Only He is able to claim this.  Only He is perfect, sinless, holy, doing the will of His Father who sent Him not to condemn the world but to save the world.  With the world in mind, Jesus set His face to go to Jerusalem.
There are those who would follow Him, not knowing where He was going or why.  One says, “I will follow you wherever you go.”  Jesus says to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”  In other words, “You really have no idea what you’re asking for!”
To another, Jesus says, “Follow Me.”  But he replies, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” Now, that’s an honorable task.  But Jesus says, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead.”  Get your priorities straight!
Yet another says, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.”  But Jesus says, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”  You can’t plow a straight line looking back over your shoulder.  Any farmer will tell you that.  Lot’s wife became a pillar of salt, a monument to those who would look back from the way of salvation.
Don’t you find this strange?  Doesn’t this trouble you?  Jesus wants people to follow Him, doesn’t He?  So why does He stubbornly give these guys such a hard time?  Why doesn’t He encourage them a little bit?
Remember the text at the beginning: “When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, He set His face to go to Jerusalem.”  Jesus is going to Jerusalem.  But He has to go this road alone.  Yes, He is surrounded by disciples, but the way is His alone.  The cross is His alone.  The salvation of the world is His alone.  He is God’s faithful people reduced to one Man.  The One who made heaven His home is homeless on the way to the cross so that you might have an eternal home with Him.  Burial is not Jesus’ concern.  He is going the way of death and burial Himself, so that He might raise the dead in His resurrection. 
Jesus set His face to go to Jerusalem, to the cross that was set before Him.  He did not look back at what was, but looked ahead to what is to come.  He alone is “fit for the kingdom” on His own terms.  Jesus put His hand to salvation’s plow and for the joy set before Him He endured the cross and scorned its shame.  For the joy of salvation, to have you as His own, He set His face to go to Jerusalem. 
So set your face on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of your faith.  He has brought you out of slavery to sin and self into freedom.  He has rescued you from the works of the flesh to yield the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. 
Set your face on Jesus in your Baptism, washing away your sin, renewing your life.  Set your face on Jesus in His Supper, giving you the hidden gifts of His body and His blood, the fruit of His cross.  Set your face on Jesus, who by His blood and His perfect life and death makes you fit for His kingdom.  Set your face on Jesus, who speaks to you this Word of grace and life and salvation through His called and ordained servant: “I forgive you all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  Amen.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Released from the Shackles

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The text for today is our Gospel, Luke 8:26-39, which has already been read.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
"My Name Is Legion" by James I. Tissot
For most people today, demon possession brings up memories of The Exorcist or pictures of mental illness or hallucinogenic drug use.  But for the people of Jesus’ time—indeed, for Jesus Himself—demon possession was a present reality.  A fellow pastor once remarked that in lands where the devil is taken seriously, he shows himself even more seriously.  Take Haiti as an example.  There are all kinds of weird stories told by our missionaries in this country where voodoo is alive and well.  In places where the devil isn’t taken very seriously, he shows himself even less serious.  The Halloween kind of devil.  Horns, tail, red suit.  Funny.  Comical.  But either way, the devil and his demons are serious business and not to be played with.  “On earth is not his equal,” ends the first stanza of A Mighty Fortress, and it’s not referring to Jesus but to the devil. 
The demonic realm is real.  Don’t think for a moment it isn’t.  You do so at your own peril.  The devil prowls around like a lion, looking for someone to devour.  And demonic activity seems always to peak when the light of Christ and His Word comes into the darkness.  Perhaps that explain much of the turmoil we find in the Church.  The Word of God from the lips of Jesus is the light that reveals the darkness, then and now.  But the darkness hates the light.
This also explains why the Old Testament rarely mentions Satan while the New Testament speaks about him so often.  The advent of God’s Son, His appearance in the world, discloses the hidden presence and operation of Satan.  So wherever Christ appears and speaks, Satan and the demons are unmasked.  Wherever the Word of God is proclaimed in the Divine Service with the authority of Christ, there the demons are exposed and driven away, but not without a fuss.
This continues a theme in Luke’s Gospel.  Jesus had just used a parable to teach His disciples how Satan tries to steal God’s Word away before it can take root and grow in human hearts.  And how the cares of this world seek to choke out that Word.  Jesus went on to tell them not to hide that Word, but to let its light shine for the world to see.  And then He emphasized that those who hear the Word of God and do it are truly part of His family.  Families of flesh and blood last only for a lifetime, but the family of God endures forever.  Then Luke recounts Jesus’ calming of the storm on the Sea of Galilee.  With a Word, the Lord rebuked the wind and waves, and there was instant calm.  “Who then is this,” His disciples ask, “that He commands even winds and water, and they obey Him?”
Now they are about to see Jesus exercise His power and authority over a spiritual storm—the hurricane of demonic power over human beings.  Not only do the winds and water obey Him, but His power, grace, and mercy are able even to restore that which human sin has destroyed.  Jesus comes to release those shackled in darkness and death.  He goes to the Gerasenes, the Gentile side of Galilee. 
A man from the city is there to meet him.  Not the mayor with the keys to the city, but an outcast, a man plagued by demons.  For a long time he has run about naked, without a home, living among the dead.  Here was a man no one would have anything to do with.  They kept him in shackles to keep him from hurting himself and others.  But even those chains could not hold him when he was under the demons’ influence.
“What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” he cries out.  “I beg you do not torment me!”  The spirits know who Jesus is and why He came.  They tremble in His presence.  He is their Lord too, but not in mercy.  They praise Him, but only in a way that seeks to undermine His mission.  He is most Son of the Most High God when He is dying for the sins of the world.  The devils will have none of that.  They will do whatever they can to short circuit the cross.
“What is your name,” Jesus asks the demon directly, establishing who is the one in charge.  “Legion,” comes the answer.  Not just one, but many.  Perhaps thousands, since a Roman legion numbered six thousand soldiers.  But whether one or many, they were no match for Jesus, and they knew it.  They began negotiations to cut their losses, and begged Him not to cast them into the Abyss, the place of their torment and imprisonment.  They opted for the pigs.  A large herd (about two thousand head) was feeding on a nearby hillside.  And so Jesus gave the unclean spirits permission to enter the unclean pigs.  And as they did, the herd rushed headlong over the cliff and into the lake and the pigs were drowned. 
Poor pigs.  Poor herdsmen.  They just lost a fortune, thanks to Jesus.  No wonder they asked Jesus to leave!  This is simply too weird!  But there is more going on here than meets the eye.  It was, in type, a picture of the last day when the devil and his demons will be cast into the lake of fire and sulfur, as St. John saw it in the Revelation, where “they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” 
The next time the man was seen, he was wearing some nice clothes and in his right mind.  He’s sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to Jesus’ Word, learning the Good News of salvation from the Teacher Himself.  Jesus had saved him from the darkness, the demons, and the madness.  He was clothed and at peace. 
This is a picture of what Jesus does for each of us.  No, our condition doesn’t seem as dire as that man’s was in the Gerasenes.  We are able to get up each morning and dress ourselves and go to work or our regular activities and act generally respectable most of the time.  We are not demon possessed.  We do not wander the catacombs.  We do not have to be shackled or sedated.  We certainly don’t expect to see a herd of pigs hurtling off the bank of Split Rock Lake at the command of Jesus.  But we are bound to sin and death.  And like that man, we cannot free ourselves.  We need to be clothed by Christ.  We need Him to release us from our shackles, to set our minds at peace and restore order to our lives.
This story reminds us that there is a lot more going on in this world than we are aware of.  There is a dark, demonic realm that occasionally breaks into our existence and wreaks havoc on our lives.  I know that’s a bit hard for us to swallow in our scientific age.  We tend to relegate devils to Halloween.  We smile inwardly when we sing “though devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us.”  Our scientific minds have no place for the demons.  If that man with demons were among us today, we’d likely label him “insane” and institutionalize him. 
The fact is that there is a dark, demonic realm of which the Bible has precious little to say.  But this we do know: There is a devil, an evil one, the one who is the father of lies and a murderer from before Adam and Eve.  He tempted Eve to disobey God’s Word.  He wreaks havoc and evil in the world, working with our all too willing sinful natures.  No, this is not Halloween silliness.  This is a hidden, dark fact of life.  It’s what St. Paul calls the “powers and the principalities and the rulers of this present darkness.”  Our text has much to teach us about this. 
Notice, first of all, that Jesus does not go around actively searching for people with unclean spirits even though He is engaged in a mission to destroy them.  They come to Him.  The man with the unclean spirits is attracted to Him, like a moth to a flame.  He meets Jesus as soon as Jesus steps foot on land.  Although people who live in spiritual darkness often avoid Jesus for fear of exposure, the man with these many demons is strangely drawn to Christ.
Second, the unclean spirits recognize Jesus long before His disciples do.  “What have You to do with Me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” the demons ask through the man.  “I beg You not to torment me.”  Christ’s hidden nature and authority is apparent to the demons, for it is spiritual.  They see what we cannot see.  They know what is hidden from our sight.  His holy presence threatens them and their power, just as light banishes the darkness.  They must therefore attack Him and short circuit His power before they are vanquished.
Third, this episode shows that the battle between Christ and Satan, the battle between the Holy Spirit and the unclean spirits, is not a contest between two equal and opposite powers.  All power in heaven and earth belongs to God.  The only power that Satan possesses is what he has usurped and stolen from God.  So this contest is, basically, a truth encounter, a matter of spiritual authority. 
Satan is the arch-liar.  His apparent power is all a lie.  It is nothing but make-believe, misappropriated authority, and rank deception.  He gains power by feeding on spiritual disorder and impurity.  Evil thrives on guilt, fear, and hatred.  Hence, in the New Testament, the demons are most commonly called “unclean spirits.”  Demonic power is parasitic, for it gains its force from the desecration of what is holy and the defilement of what is good in the order of creation.  Why do you think the man lives among the dead in the cemetery?
Since Satan deals with untruth and unreality, Jesus routs the unclean spirits by teaching God’s Word with authority.  That Word destroys the web of illusion and deception that characterizes the dominion of darkness.  It releases prisoners and slaves from the shackles of sin, death, and Satan. 
The power of Jesus does not just apply to what happened there in the Gerasenes.  It applies equally—and perhaps even more fully—now in the light of Easter, to us and our situation.  All people remain in darkness until Christ comes and teaches them His Father’s Word with authority.  That Word discloses and exposes the darkness.  With the Word, Christ dispels the darkness from human hearts.  With that Word He sends Satan and his unclean spirits packing.
Everything, therefore, depends on Christ and His victory.  Through His self-sacrificial death for our sin and His resurrection for our purification He was won the victory for us.  All that remains to be done now in this period of history is to mop up the remaining outposts of darkness here on planet earth. 
That’s not to say it is going to be easy.  It took only a few weeks for U.S. led forces to gain control of Iraq, but American troops spent nearly a decade fighting stubborn pockets of resistance, and still today Iraqi insurgent groups continue to attack the central government of Iraq, resulting in thousands of deaths in 2012.  And spiritual warfare has much higher stakes!  The casualties are eternal! 
Satan, though defeated, has dedicated himself to lead us and the world away from Jesus, and to join him and his demons in hell.  How does he do this?  He makes hay out of our sin and sinfulness.  First, he tempts us to sin; then when we fall into sin he works on our consciences through his accusations. 
When that doesn’t work, he takes advantage of our sinful condition to mock Christ as nothing before our eyes.  Satan calmly and rationally speaks: “This Jesus is a fraud.  He’s making plans to suffer and die!  You can’t run the world or your life on forgiveness alone!  Your congregation will die if it’s only about Jesus for the forgiveness of sins!  Free forgiveness?  Then people will do whatever they want.  You need to have more policies and rules in place.”
The devil will whisper in your ear.  “Look what’s happening!  You’re giving up everything.  You can’t trust in that Jesus to provide.  Take charge!  Figure it out yourself before He runs you into the poorhouse.  For that matter, why is everything so difficult for you?  If this Jesus were really in control and so powerful as He says, things should be going much better for you, shouldn’t they?”
Do not fear!  Jesus is the Savior.  You’re not.  He’s taken care of you.  The crucified and risen Son of the Most High God came to you in your Baptism.  In that water, He cast Satan out and commanded him to keep his claws off of you.   And now the Son of the Most High God possesses you.  You’re His.  He put His Name on you.  He’s given you His Holy Spirit.  He’s promised that you will be with Him forever.  And if He has done all of these impossible spiritual things, you can be assured He still takes care of your relatively simple temporal needs as well.
For you and me, that means confidence and boldness.  The prince of darkness, the devil may still prowl about like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour, but he can be resisted as we stand firm in the faith of Jesus.  You are baptized into Jesus’ death and life.  Like that man of the catacombs, you have been brought out of darkness into His light, out of death into His life.  You have been clothed with Christ.  He is the healing of your mind as well as your body and soul.  You are children of the light and of the day.  The darkness is ended. 
You receive Christ’s body and blood as your food and drink.  That body given into death… that blood shed for your forgiveness… causes the whole demonic realm to tremble as much as it did that day in the Gerasenes.  We are powerless against the forces of evil, but Christ is our strength, our fortress, our shield.  You have nothing to fear of the darkness, of death, of the devil.
The man wanted to join up with Jesus, but Jesus had other plans for him.  He didn’t need more people following Him around.  He needed someone there in the Gerasenes who would tell others.  So He sent him away, saying: “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.”  And so he did.  “He went away, proclaiming throughout the whole city how much Jesus had done for him.”
What a great sentence for us who have heard the Word of forgiveness, who have been released from the shackles of sin, death, and the devil, who have tasted the heavenly gifts.  As you leave here today, He bids you to return to your home, and as you go about your daily vocations declare how much God has done for you in Christ.  He’s healed you, giving you the right mind and heart of faith.  He’s clothed you, fed you, raised you to life, and given you to share in His glory.  Even today He brings you His powerful Word that cleanses you and releases you from the shackles of sin, death, and the devil. 
What Word is that?  This Word: You are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Your Many Sins Are Forgiven

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The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Luke 7:36-50.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
There was a certain creditor who had two debtors.  One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.  And when they had nothing with which to repay, he freely forgave them both.  Tell me, therefore, which of them will love him more?
The answer is obvious, at least to Simon the Pharisee: “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.”  But though he gives the right answer, Simon completely misses the point.  As we often do!  For this certain creditor does not keep his books according to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP).  And we are so oblivious to the extent of the great debt that we have piled up over the years that we can take this forgiveness for granted. 
So maybe we should modify the parable a little bit. 
There was a certain creditor who had two debtors.  One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.  Actually, both owed thousands of denarii, but one assumed that he had made up for most of it with his good looks and charm, though he’d never run this by the creditor.  When they had nothing with which to repay, the creditor freely forgave them both.  Tell me, which of them will love him more?
Answer: The one who realizes just how great a debt was forgiven.  Figuring that he’s made up for most of it himself, the other will easily take the forgiveness for granted.  Now, let’s apply this to our Gospel lesson for the day. 
There was a certain Savior who encounters two sinners.  More, actually, but for now, we’ll focus on the two.  There is, on the one hand, Simon the Pharisee.  He’s not quite perfect, of course.  He realizes that.  But Simon also believes that he makes up for his sin by the good and pious life that he leads.  In other words, like the rest of the Pharisees, Simon figures that he’s made up for his debt of sin. 
On the other hand, there’s the sinful woman.  Not just a run-of-the-mill sinner.  She’s a notorious sinner.  Not only does God know she’s broken His commandments, everyone else in town does, too.  Shunned by all, she lives a life of shame.  But perhaps the woman’s public shame is actually a blessing in disguise.  After all, she is daily and relentlessly reminded that she is sinful, that her debt before God is huge and unpayable.  There’s no chance that she’s ever going to believe she’s okay before God on her own.  She comes like all repentant sinners must—as a beggar before God. 
So there you have it.  Simon, believing he has made up for his debt, has little use for a Savior.  The woman, understanding the enormity of her debt, falls at His feet in worship.  To Simon, Jesus has words of admonition.  If he wants to get what he deserves, he will.  To the woman, the Savior speaks sweet words of grace and mercy.  Her debt is paid.  The sinful woman is sinful no more, because Jesus announces that He pays her debt in full: “Your sins are forgiven.”  What joy!  
There is no joy for Simon and the other Pharisees, though.  “Who is this who even forgives sins?” they say to each other.  Because they don’t realize the enormity of their own debt, Jesus’ forgiveness is easy to dismiss.  We have little desire for those things of which we see no need. 
I, for one, have trouble getting personally excited about insulin.  I know it’s an important medicine and literally a God-send for those who are afflicted with diabetes—but at this time I am not one of them.  Therefore I don’t appreciate insulin as much as someone who depends on it every day.
Perhaps a better illustration is chemotherapy.  The thought of taking something into my body designed to kill part of me that’s killing me is not something that I’m ready to agree to.  There’s a simple reason: At present, I do not suffer from cancer.  Should I some day be diagnosed with that disease then I’m sure that I would come to appreciate its treatments far, far more.
The less we see the need for something, the less we care about it.  The more we see the need for something, the more we care about it.  If you need medicine, then you’re going to make sure you get it.  If you’re convinced you need some time away, you’re going to take off for the weekend.  If you’re hungry, you’re going to exert every effort and spare no expense to obtain food.  That’s how human beings work.  We perceive a need—real or not—and go after it.
Dear people of God, this reading reminds us why it is necessary to preach both Law and Gospel.  The Law is this: We all have an insurmountable debt of sin, whether we realize it or not.  Blinded by sin, man does not by nature realize the great load of debt he has.  Therefore, God gives us His Law.  God gives His Law, first and foremost, to show us how extensive our sin really is. 
This is not pleasant, but it is necessary, for if we do not realize the extent of our sin and the seriousness of our sinful condition, we will not take forgiveness seriously.  A doctor does not say, “You have a deadly illness, there’s medicine if you want it.”  No, he makes clear the dangers of the illness so that the patient understands the need for the treatment.  Likewise, God declares His holy Law in all severity lest we discount the debt and fail to see our need for forgiveness.
This, then, is the purpose of God’s Law: to show to us the debt and the enormity of our sin.  If, by the work of the Holy Spirit through the Law of God, we realize the debt of sin that we have, then there is nothing that we earnestly desire more than the forgiveness of sins.  When we truly understand the impossibility of paying our debt, then we want nothing more than to have that debt forgiven, to hear the Good News of free salvation in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  
This recognition of sin and desire for forgiveness continues throughout the Christian’s life.  Luther once noted that the mature Christian doesn’t necessarily see himself as one who has grown closer to God; rather, the mature Christian sees how far away from God he really is, and therefore desires forgiveness all the more.
When we realize our debt of sin, the sweetest words we can hear are “Your sins are forgiven.”  It is then that the Invocation comes alive as it reminds us of our Baptism, where the Lord cleansed us by water and the Word.  It is when we see our debt that we rejoice to hear and sing and speak God’s Word of grace in His liturgy.  It is when we see our debt that we eagerly desire the Lord’s Supper, because the Lord is present there with His very body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins.
By nature, however, the Old Adam discounts the debt.  The sinner naturally believes that sin isn’t all that bad, and that he has made up for his sin with his good works.  Along with that, the world is quick to assure us that God really doesn’t hold sin against us—He isn’t concerned about that debt, so why should you worry?  And the devil exploits it all.  If we discount the debt, we fail to appreciate the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and we see little need for forgiveness.  If we see little need for forgiveness, we’ll have little time for God’s means of grace. 
This is a most dangerous sin because it masquerades as righteousness.  When we sin and know that the sin is shameful, like the woman in our text, we are quick to run to the Lord and make confession.  But when we believe that we are righteous because of who we are or what we do, when we discount the debt and dismiss the sin, then we see no need for forgiveness.  Then we’re lost!
So, what are we to do when people don’t want to hear God’s Law and Gospel?   Preach it all the more.  This is not a smart-aleck attempt to annoy them.  Nor is the purpose merely to reassure ourselves as we march onward and upward.  No, we preach God’s Law and Gospel to these people because it is most necessary for their salvation.  We proclaim God’s Law to them so that they might, by the work of the Holy Spirit, understand the great debt of sin that they have before God.  Then we proclaim to them the Gospel, for there is forgiveness, life, and salvation.
So in case you still haven’t applied God’s Law and Gospel from this text to your own sin and salvation, I offer you this story that might hit closer to home. 
There was a certain boy, who stood in the doorway of Miss Schmidt’s office, clinging tightly to his foster mother’s hand.  Not able to maintain eye contact or stand still, he looked down at his feet and shuffled back and forth restlessly.  A normally patient mother of ten children—three of them adopted and seven in foster care—this woman was at her wit’s end.  Jon had been dismissed from one private school and the public school had made it very clear that they weren’t going to invest too much of their limited resources to help.  So, led by dim memories of her own childhood experiences she brought him to this Lutheran Day School.
The details of Jon’s exasperating situation tumbled out of her mouth.  Jon’s birth mother had lost custody of him shortly after giving birth.  Unfortunately, Jon had already suffered.  It wasn’t noticeable to the casual observer, but the signs of fetal alcohol syndrome were obvious to the trained eye.  Jon was immature; his body was growing up but his mind would never keep pace.  Short-term memory limitations kept him from even remembering why he had gotten in trouble a few hours earlier.  Even when people repeated the same things over and over again Jon would still forget.  It was almost impossible for him to distinguish between categories of “appropriate” and “inappropriate” behavior. 
Jon’s foster mother could hardly believe it when Miss Schmidt said she would love to have Jon in her class.  Even then she dreaded each ring of her cell phone, fearing it was the school calling to say she would have to take him home.  But the days turned into weeks, the weeks into months, the months into years, and Jon remained in the school.  That’s not to say there weren’t many challenges.  The energy that was necessary to keep Jon on task took away from the attention Miss Schmidt might direct to the other students in the class.  Jon’s antics were a big distraction.  It often took a whole class period to teach something that might otherwise only take 10 minutes.  It bothered her how often she had to exclude Jon from an activity because he was unable to properly focus his attention.
Perhaps the most hurtful thing was those voices who suggested “that little troublemaker shouldn’t be allowed in our school.”  Some of the parents were understandably concerned about the vulgar words their children learned from Jon.  Some of the members of the congregation wondered how a Lutheran school could accept such “unchristian behavior.”  And there were legitimate complaints about damage Jon and some of the others caused to the church property.  Miss Schmidt certainly didn’t enjoy the unpleasant sights and smells that came from cleaning up.
But much to her credit, Miss Schmidt didn’t give in to those frustrations.  She remembered her calling.  She knew the reason she was teaching at a Lutheran school.  It certainly wasn’t for the pay.  She could have made more in the local public school, let alone if she had used her talents and education in some field other than teaching.  It wasn’t because the kids were better behaved.  Kids are pretty much kids, whatever their setting. 
So what kept Miss Schmidt going?  Why did she keep working with Jon and others like him when so many factors indicated she should just give up?  She realized that her most important work was really not her work at all.  Over time Jon’s social and academic skills would improve, but even more important was the work the Holy Spirit was doing in Jon’s life each day.  Just as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies every Christian through God’s Word and Sacrament, the Holy Spirit was miraculously at work in Jon’s life, too! 
The same finger that occasionally is used to make obscene gestures more often now joins the index finger of his right hand as he traces the sign of the cross during the invocation.   The same mouth that from time to time spouts profanities unabashedly proclaims every chapel service: “Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins!”   Even more amazing: the same boy who stubbornly resists his teachers’ discipline will walk over to the person he has hurt or offended and apologize to them.  And his face just beams when he hears that he is forgiven.   
Miss Schmidt rejoices that she has the opportunity to share with Jon and all the other children what is most important to her: the wonderful story of a certain Savior and His love.  It brings her great joy to watch that Word come to life in a child entrusted to her care.  Especially in one who, despite all contrary expectations, readily soaks up that grace and lets it pour out of him with acts of love and kindness.  She just wishes that everyone else could see the occasional blessings of this ministry, not just the inconvenience and expense.
Daily Jon reminds Miss Schmidt that each of us is broken by sin.  None of us have it all together.  Each of us suffers from the sins of our parents, especially our first parents and their fall into sin.  All of us are beggars before God, having absolutely no righteousness of our own to offer.  If it depended on the purity of our heart, mouth, life, or mind we couldn’t earn a space in a Lutheran Day School classroom, much less a room in heaven.  We are citizens and heirs of Christ’s kingdom solely by the grace of God.
It is true: You and I are debtors, and it is a debt we cannot repay.  From the time of Adam and Eve, we have been sold into sin and cannot redeem ourselves.  But Christ the Savior has come to redeem us—to buy us back and set us free from sin and death.  The wages of sin is death, so Christ pays the debt to His Father by dying on the cross in our place; and having debited our sins from us, He credits us with His righteousness.
This He does today and every day!  Tempted by the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh, we keep heading back into sin and debt, slavery, and death.  Therefore the Lord comes here to wash us clean in our Baptism, to feed us His body and blood for forgiveness, to declare to us: “I have redeemed you.  Your debt is paid in full.  Your many sins are forgiven.  Indeed you are forgiven for all of your sins.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

In the Midst of Death, God Visits His People

Click here to listen to this sermon.

The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Luke 7:11-17.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“Lord, you know the secrets of our hearts; shut not your ears to our prayers, but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and merciful Savior, O most worthy judge eternal.  Do not let the pains of death turn us away from You at our last hour.” (Liturgical verse)
“In my anguish I cried to the Lord, and He answered by setting me free… It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man.  It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in princes… I was pushed back and about to fall, but the Lord helped me… Shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous: ‘The Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!  The Lord’s right hand is lifted high; the Lord’s right hand has done mighty things!’  I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done… Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.  This is the gate of the Lord through which the righteous may enter.” (Psalm 118:5, 8-9, 13, 15-17, 19-20)
“I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end He will stand upon the earth.  And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God” (Job 19:25-26).
“For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone.  If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord.  So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (Romans 14:7-8).
[Jesus said,] “I am the resurrection and the life.  He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die” (John 11:25-26a).
Perhaps you recognize these words.  They are the words the pastor says in the procession to the gravesite for the committal following the funeral service.  The casket with the deceased’s body is carried from the hearse.  The pastor walks directly behind as he reads these words.  Family and friends join in the procession as we make the trek.  It’s a solemn, sad occasion.  And though it may be only a few feet in distance, I’m sure for many it seems like one of the longest walks they will ever make.  Saying a final good-bye to a loved who will be greatly missed.   
If you haven’t been in such a procession yet, you will be one day.  The day will inevitably come when some of us will be following behind the hearse and the coffin, grieving and mourning the loss of a loved one.  One of us will be leading the procession—or at least our dead body will. 
In our text, there is just such a procession heading out of Nain, a town in southern Galilee, a few miles southwest of Nazareth.  They have just come to the city gate and are headed toward the cemetery outside of town.  The open coffin carries the body of a human being—someone old enough to be called a man, yet someone young enough that his mother is still living.  She is following closely behind the lifeless body that once was her only son. 
This is at least the second funeral procession the woman has participated in, for our text tells us that she is a widow.  Her grief over this latest death is in its early, raw stages.  In that climate, the dead are ordinarily buried the same day they die; or if they die too late for that, then on the following morning.  There’s no time for lengthy, detailed preparations.  No one gets the luxury of a period of private grieving or time to get over the shock before meeting the other mourners.
The woman has now lost the two men she loved most in life—her husband and her only son—and with their loss, she’s lost her only means of financial support.  There wasn’t any Social Security or life insurance in those days.  She is destitute and in dire straits, emotionally and physically. 
The fact that the crowd is quite large indicates the people’s sorrow for her.  But their sorrow is of little help.  Sorrow doesn’t bring back the dead.  It doesn’t put bread on your table or money in your purse.  For her, this is personal.  Every mother fears the possibility that one of her children may pass on before her, but no one can prepare for such a blow.  Still, in reality, this procession is not that much different than any other funeral procession.  Death has claimed another helpless victim—one more in a long line that goes all the way back to Adam and Eve.
It would be an unending line of deaths, but for this life-changing, death-changing development: There’s another procession headed into Nain that day.  Jesus is walking in front and a large crowd is following Him.  Both processions meet at the city gate.  The procession of death meets the procession of life.  One must give way to the other.  And though it is usually the procession of death that seems to have the last word, today it will be the Word of Life that prevails.
Jesus seems to be fully aware of the poor woman’s plight.  Our text tells us: “When the Lord saw her He had compassion on her.”  Luke uses a Greek word for compassion that literally means to spill out one’s guts.  It’s the onomatopoeic word used in the sacrifice of animals.  The animal would be split open and the entrails spill out on the altar, σπλαγχνίζομαι.  Sounds just like it means, doesn’t it?    
Jesus’ compassion is genuine and effective.  His words to the woman, “Do not weep,” are not merely uncomfortable small talk, but practically contain a promise of mercy, for as an ancient commentator has said: “Who but a mad man would tell a mother to not weep at the funeral of her son?”
Suddenly, with the voice of authority, Jesus puts His hand on the coffin, and the procession halts.  Touching a coffin means becoming ritually unclean.  But the power of holiness and life is in Jesus.  He brings purity to the unclean situation, not vice versa.  In fact, from the day of His baptism, He takes the burden of all sickness and death on Himself and bears it all the way to the cross.
Jesus’ words ring out clearly: “Young man, I say to you, arise.”  He speaks to the dead young man as if he can hear and obey.  And His command carries with it the power to obey.  At Jesus’ Word, “the dead man sat up and began to speak.”  Understandably, fear takes hold of all the people.  To see a dead man who was on the way to his tomb raised to life by a word would (or at least should) strike every one of us with the fear of God. 
After the initial shock subsides sufficiently, everyone glorifies God: “A great prophet has arisen among us,” they say.  Perhaps they are comparing Jesus to the great Old Testament prophet Elijah, remembering how Elijah had raised to life a boy who had died.  He did this by stretching himself three times over the boy and crying out to the Lord: “O Lord my God, let this boy’s life return to him!” 
But the way in which Jesus works this miracle is altogether greater than in the case of Elijah.  By His own Word, with no prayer to any higher being, Jesus simply commands the young man to get up.  Truly, here is the Lord—true God and true man.  Even death must bow before Him!  God has visited His people!
Sadly, the crowd seems to miss the full impact of the miracle they have just witnessed.  They call Jesus “a great prophet.”  But they do not realize He is The Prophet, the one promised by Moses and foretold throughout all of the Old Testament.  They do not understand that this same prophet must be crucified and be raised on the third day.  They have not understood the psalms (e.g. 16:9-11) and Isaiah’s prophecy (52:13-53) about God’s suffering, Righteous One.
If Jesus is only a teacher and miracle worker, the result is a theology of glory that imagines that Jesus has come for the sole purpose of alleviating human suffering.  Only when they understand Jesus must also suffer rejection to the point of crucifixion will they be able to confess Him as the Christ, and comprehend the theology of the cross.  Only then will they have salvation and eternal life. 
This clash of theology of glory and theology of cross continues yet today, even in Christian churches, and one of the places this contrast is most evident is in funerals.  Dr. Gene Edward Veith brought this out in an essay of his I read recently called “A Tale of Two Funerals.”
A young man I knew died in a tragic traffic accident.  His death was utterably sad.  At his funeral, his friends were all wearing T-shirts adorned with his picture.  At the front of the church were heaped up flowers, footballs, and stuffed animals.  On top of his coffin was a picture from his senior prom.
The service began with a recording of his favorite song, a heavy metal power ballad.  The preacher gave a eulogy, praising how the teenager was such a good friend, such a good person, recounting some of the funny things he used to say, telling about the dreams he had for his life.  Everybody in the church was crying.  Then his best friend got up to say a few words.  He was sobbing.  He finally croaked out his good-bye, as the congregation joined his sobs.  His girlfriend recited a poem she wrote about how much she loved him.  Then, the boy’s grief-stricken father had to get up in front of everybody to talk about his son.
As if all of this emotion were not wrenching enough, the funeral director next played a video, showing highlights of the boy’s life—his baby pictures, playing with his friends, enjoying Christmas with his family, waving at the camera.  There was not a dry eye in the house.  People said what a beautiful funeral it was.
Another funeral I attended was of another young person who died a tragic death, one that was even more senseless and horrible.  She had been raped and murdered by a serial killer.  (I was one of the elders on duty.  My job was to keep the news media away from the family.)
At this funeral, the congregation sang old hymns.  They were in a minor key, but the lyrics centered on the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  The grievers joined together in a responsive reading of the Word of God.
The pastor, garbed in black, read more texts from the Bible.  Instead of a eulogy, the pastor recited the facts of the girl’s life, emphasizing her baptism, her catechesis, her confession of faith.  He described how she joined the church, her confirmation, and her regular reception of the Lord’s Supper. 
The pastor, preaching from the Bible, gave a sermon on our travails in this wicked world, on how the Son of God entered our sinful condition, how in His sacrifice and His promises, we have a sure and certain hope that this poor child has entered into everlasting joy.  The justice of God will be manifest, and so will His mercy, and He will wipe away every tear.  We sang some more hymns.  The mood was sad and somber, but the Word of God that permeated the whole service was like a lifeline.  Or, rather, like a strong arm supporting us in our grief.  Yes, we cried, but the funeral gave us strength.
Our culture does not know how to handle death.  We insulate ourselves from it.  The dying pass away out of sight.  We are terrified of death.  And so we sentimentalize it.  The contemporary funeral deals with grief by indulging it, even feeding it.  A successful funeral—with its heart-wrenching personal testimonials, its parade of mourners pouring out their anguish, the emotional manipulation of the congregation—works by creating an emotional catharsis.  The upsurge of feeling can indeed feel cleansing.  As at the ending of a tragedy, the emotions are purged.  The bereaved feel drained.  The aftermath, in Milton’s words, is ‘calm of mind, all passions spent.’  The grievers really do feel better.
But how different is a traditional Christian funeral.  In a Christian service of the burial of the dead, the mourner’s grief is fully acknowledged and shared.  But it is channeled into contemplation and prayer.  The grievers are given not catharsis but consolation.  That consolation is not to be found in how good of a guy the dear departed was.  Even Christian funerals sometimes miss this point. 
My former pastor refused to deliver eulogies.  It is not fitting, he would say, nor is it comforting, to dwell at a funeral on the dead person’s good works.  When we die, we dare not stand before God claiming how good we are.  So that must not be the emphasis at a funeral.  The dead person’s only hope is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  That is the only hope of the grievers at the funeral, who, having been forced to confront the reality of death, tend to be uniquely receptive to spiritual truth.
My pastor would deflect attention from the person who died to the Person who died and rose again.  He would preach Jesus—the cross, the atonement, the imputation of His righteousness, the resurrection—as the victor over death, hell, and the grave.  He would not preach this into a vacuum, but into the hearts of the grieving family and friends.  
He would connect Christ’s resurrection to the resurrection of their loved one and to theirs.  We did not leave this funeral drained, but comforted.  He moved us from desolation to faith.  We still hurt, but we were given hope, not in ourselves—at a funeral we experience as at no other time our frailty and helplessness—but in Someone stronger at a time when we need strength.
I think Dr. Veith is right.  There are really only two kinds of funerals.  There is one that is focused on the deceased and those who mourn—the kind of funeral where Jesus (if He is mentioned at all) is merely a sympathetic friend, or an after-thought out of some vague feeling that He should be included in the day.  That’s the kind of funeral, where at best, you can go home saying, “That was nice.” 
The other kind of funeral—a truly Christian funeral—has Jesus—His life, His death, His resurrection, and His Word—as its center and substance.  The grief of the mourners is fully acknowledged and shared, but rather than catharsis, it is given the consolation of God’s Word.  This is the kind of funeral where a Christian can go home and say, “Even in the midst of death, God has visited His people.”     
The crowds of our Gospel lesson looked at Jesus’ coming as merely a visitation of God’s grace.  Little did they realize that God Himself has come veiled in human flesh to visit them personally as the Savior of the world.  And He still comes to help us to today in the most concrete and unexpected way.  By touching us through His Word and Sacraments, He creates the faith we need in order to trust Him to help us with all our losses as we journey through life. 
What a comfort to know that, in Jesus, God has rescued us from eternal death even before we could utter any prayer, and now He also responds to our formal, articulated prayers and our “groans that words cannot express” (Romans 8:26)!   What a comfort to know that the same powerful Word that raised the widow’s son to life, raises us to eternal life in the water of Holy Baptism!  What a comfort to know that the same Word that released the young man from the bondage of death, releases us from the bondage of sin, and the wages of sin—eternal death!  What a comfort to know that the same Lord who brought life back to the young man’s body with simply a Word brings us forgiveness and the power to live a new life in His Holy Supper with His very own body and blood!
What a comfort to know that on the Last Day, when the Lord will return for judgment, He will halt the great funeral procession which is moving forward all over the world for centuries!  When God the Son comes to visit His people, He will bring all the dead back to life.  He will heal all wounds which death has made.  He will reunite all those whom death has separated.  Then there will be no more death, neither sorrow, nor weeping, neither shall there be any more pain.
What a comfort to know that on this day, and every day, in the midst of life and in the midst of death, we can truly say: “God has visited His people!”  And as He visits, Christ brings this message of comfort and hope that overcomes sin and death: “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 ...