Sunday, March 30, 2014

That the Works of God Might Be Displayed

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And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:2-3).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Seeing this man’s condition, the disciples ask the question we continue to ask in such cases: “Why?” They apparently believe that such a physical defect must have been caused by some particular sin. In this case, they ask: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” People often think that way to this day: “I’m suffering, it must be for some sin I committed.”
The question is difficult. If the man’s own sin caused his blindness, how could he have sinned so bad while in the womb? If his parents’ sin caused it, that seems unfair. Still, the disciples thought that one or the other was true. It was a commonly held belief, so they didn’t think of any other possibility. The rabbis had developed the principle that “There is no death without sin, and there is no suffering without iniquity.”
But Jesus plainly contradicts this theology. Although all sickness, suffering, and death are a result of living in a world suffering the curse and consequences of original sin, not every ailment is caused by specific sin. Some times there no reason, no cause to the effect—at least not that will be made known to you. In his case, the man is blind so that the works of God might be displayed in him. God’s purposes are to be served, and they will work to God’s glory and that man’s good.
Jesus spits to make mud, puts it on the man’s eyes, and sends him off to the pool of Siloam. When the man washes off his face, he can see. For the first time in his life, he is no longer in darkness. Now he walks in light. Jesus has set him free from blindness, free from darkness.
The neighbors and others who have seen him begging don’t know what to make of the man who now walks confidently with full sight. How could this be the same person? Some insist it isn’t the man, but only someone who looks like him. The man has to convince them by insisting over and over that he is the very man who has been blind all his life.
“Then how were your eyes opened?” they ask in wonder, and the man tells them without embellishment exactly what Jesus has done with the spit and mud and washing with the water and word. It is obviously a miracle of God, and so the people want to know where to find the miracle worker of God. Where is he?
Not able to come up with a satisfactory answer to their questions, the people lead the man to the Pharisees. No evil motive is suggested on their part, since it was normal for the people to call the matter to the Pharisees’ attention. As the religious leaders of the Jews, they need to know about this apparent miracle.
No sooner do they hear this man’s story than some of the Pharisees declare that Jesus could not have done this with God’s blessing because He did not observe the Sabbath, at least not according to their strict traditions. But others wonder how it is possible for a sinful man to work such signs as this—even while committing sin. They are divided; not able to come to a judgment in the case. Yet in their very division, they are being judged by their acceptance of the sign and Jesus’ Word.
Not satisfied with their own conclusions, they turn back to the man; after all, it is his eyes that have been opened. “What do you have to say about Him?” He believes Jesus is from God and speaks for God.
In their unbelief, the Pharisees do not learn from the sign but try to discredit the miracle. They rule out giving any credibility to Jesus, so they somehow have to discredit this man’s story. They assume it is a hoax, that the man never was blind. To get to “the truth” they call for the man’s parents. “Is this your son? Do you claim that he was born blind? If so, how do you explain that he can see now?”
The man’s parents answer briefly and evasively: “Yes, he is our son. He was born blind. But if you want to know how he came to see, ask him; he’s old enough to speak for himself.” The parents speak in fear. You can perhaps relate if you’ve ever been called into the principal’s office for discipline, or the boss’s office to be coached, or the district office to discuss a complaint lodged against you.
The Pharisees want Jesus out of their way, so they have spread the word that anyone who confesses Him as Christ will be thrown out of the synagogue. Not able to prevail against Jesus with reason or with God’s Word, they resort to scare tactics and implied threats. Jesus’ enemies realize that if details concerning this miracle are spread, Christ’s fame will grow and their prestige and influence will receive a severe jolt. They call the man again to convince him to change his story. In modern political terms we might call this “spin” or “damage control.” On the playground—bullying. In legal terms—extortion or witness tampering.
They intensify the pressure, charging the man to answer under oath. With a sanctimonious air they admonish him to give glory to God alone by telling the “actual truth” not this piece of fiction invented for the benefit of Jesus. He might as well ‘fess up. They know Jesus is a sinner (and therefore incapable of doing the miracle). What does this man have to say about that?
The once-blind witness does not fall for their trap. They call Jesus a sinner, but he has seen no evidence to that effect. He only knows one thing: “I was blind, now I see.”
The Jews badger the man: “What did He do to you? How did He open your eyes?” 
The man’s faith is being tempered in the fire of cross-examination, and he begins to show some mettle. His answer comes back with a touch of sarcasm: “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become His disciples?”
If only they truly wanted to truly discover the truth! If only they wanted to learn from and follow Jesus! But their anger boils over at the suggestion. “You are His disciple! We are disciples of Moses!” They claim Scripture is on their side. They know that God talked with Moses. But from where did Jesus come? What authority could He claim? Never mind that Jesus had already told them repeatedly who gave Him authority. Ironically, they claim as their authority Moses, the very one whose writings Jesus earlier said will condemn their unbelief (John 5:45).
The man does not wither under the insults of the Pharisees, but grows still bolder. “Why, this is an amazing thing! You do not know where He comes from, and yet He opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does His will, God listens to Him. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind” (John 9:30-33).
It all makes sense! If Jesus can perform such miracles, He must be from God. That is the right conclusion, one which completely vanquishes the Pharisees. This uneducated man can argue with much more exactness and power than they, with all of their theological training, can argue because he has truth on his side.
The frustrated Pharisees level their final insult and throw the man out of the synagogue. No doubt alluding to his blindness as evidence, they say he was born completely in the control of sin and has no business teaching them who “self-evidently” are not so sinful. The Pharisees touch on a universal truth but only apply it halfway. The words “born in utter sin” actually apply to everyone. This condition, like the man’s blindness, can be corrected only by Jesus.
Jesus doesn’t waste any time finding the man once the Pharisees are done with him, because He has important work to finish. Jesus has given him physical sight to set the stage for spiritual sight. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Jesus asks, using the name He used to identify Himself as the promised Messiah.
“And who is He, sir, that I may believe in Him?” the man begs. He is ready to follow any suggestion from his benefactor. His heart is ready; he understands that the Son of Man is a well-recognized title for the Messiah; he wants to believe, but he has not yet actually seen Jesus as Messiah, his Savior from sins.
“You have seen Him, and it is He who is speaking to you,” Jesus replies. And with that powerful Word the man believes. The formerly blind man can now see Jesus, not just with his open eyes, but by faith. He confesses his faith in Jesus on the spot and bows down before Him in worship. In calling Him “Lord” and bowing down, the man gives Jesus the reverence due to God alone.
When asked why the man was born blind, Jesus explained: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” From the way it turns out, it’s easy to see the works of God on display: There is this unheard of miraculous healing and the greater miracle of the man coming to faith. His suffering is relieved and he receives the free gift of faith, forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life!
But what about all those who suffer and who are not healed in this life? After all, even in His earthly ministry Jesus didn’t heal everyone. Not every blind man or woman received his or her sight. Not every sickness was cured, not every dead person was brought back to life, not every sinner was brought to faith. Can the works of God still be on display in their life, too?
Allow me to share a personal story. Three years ago tomorrow my nephew and godson Justin passed away after lying unconscious for three weeks in a hospital bed, following a senseless beating at the hands of a complete stranger. I can honestly say that I’ve never prayed for anything more frequently and fervently than for God to heal Justin. But despite my prayers and the prayers of hundreds of others, Justin passed away just three days shy of his twenty-seventh birthday.
How could the works of God be displayed in a case like this?
I guess you could take comfort that in remaining unconscious Justin didn’t suffer greatly. But his loved ones sure did! Especially his Dad and Mom, brothers and sister, grandparents, cousins, closest friends, and a whole lot of others. Many of them still suffer, every day grieving the loss of his company, missing his infectious smile, and quiet, unassuming nature.
So, how could the works of God be displayed in a case like this?
Oh, you might find a number of ways if you look hard enough. Some might suggest that such times draw you closer to one another. Others will suggest your faith will grow and deepen. And these may all be positive results. God does promise that all things work to the good of those who love Him and have been called according to His purposes.
But with any tragedy, there is also a lot of garbage that lingers in its wake. It just doesn’t immediately go away. The death of a loved one changes people, and not always in ways that are good or beneficial. Rather than draw you closer to your loved ones, the stresses can pull you apart; they can lead you to become bitter, vengeful, or more withdrawn. As you wrestle with suffering you may feel abused by God or deprived. You might feel guilty that you were responsible through some sin you’ve committed—either knowingly or unconsciously. Or you might put on masks so that others do not know just how much you are really hurting.
That’s when you need to take your eyes off of the immediate emotions and/or circumstances and focus on the works of God being displayed. Only they give true comfort.
What works of God? Baptism, for one. Those who mourn his death can take comfort that Justin is a baptized child of God. In the water and Word, the triune God gave him His name and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ words opened Justin’s spiritual eyes and created saving faith in Him, the one whose suffering and death on the cross displayed the works of God most vividly.
In Baptism, Justin has been crucified and buried with Christ in His death, and raised again in His resurrection. My prayers, the prayers of us all, for healing did not go unanswered. The heavenly Father will bring healing to Justin according to His good and gracious will. It just was not His will to do so then and there, but on the Last Day, when He will raise all the dead, and take Justin and all of His children to be with Him forever with perfect bodies, minds, and souls.
What’s more, even though Justin has gone to be with the Lord, there is still one place on earth we can all gather together: at the Lord’s Table, where we Christians in churches from all around the world gather with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven to receive Christ’s body and blood. This work of God brings us forgiveness and strengthens our faith.
Don’t torture yourself searching for answers that you’re not going to find; instead, acknowledge that you’re a sinner in a sinful world; that the wages of sin is death, that bad things are going to happen; and then, look to what is certain. Look to the cross, because you can be absolutely sure that Christ has become flesh and died on that cross to reverse the curse of sin for you. Jesus has delivered you from sin to eternal life; and while you await that final resurrection to glory, He will treasure you as His instrument so that the works of God might be displayed in you.
Many questions in this life about suffering will remain unanswered, but the Lord makes this answer perfectly clear: He declares that He has come into this world of darkness to shine the light of His grace upon you. He has gone to the cross to die for your sins, and He is risen again to deliver you to everlasting life. Indeed, in His means of grace, His Word and Sacraments, He is always with you, just as He promised. Do not seek answers that He does not promise to give, but instead cling to the truth that He makes clear above all others: you are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

When You Pray, Say: "Thy Will Be Done"


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Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to Me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in Me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen Me and yet do not believe. All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and whoever comes to Me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will but the will of Him who sent Me. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that I should lose nothing of all that He has given Me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:35-40).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
When you pray, say: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
What does this mean? The good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may be done among us also.
How is God’s will done? God’s will is done when He breaks and hinders every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature, which do not want us to hallow God’s name or let His kingdom come; and when He strengthens and keeps us firm in His Word and faith until we die. This is His good and gracious will.
So far in our Lenten series on the Lord’s Prayer we have prayed that God’s name be honored by us and that His kingdom triumph among us. But now comes something that is just as important: we must firmly keep God’s honor and our salvation, and not allow ourselves to be torn from them. We must also pray that God’s will be done among us and by us.
It will not be easy for us to abide in God’s will. By faith we cling to God’s holy name and His holy kingdom. But evil opposes us and tries to snatch God’s kingdom from us. In this petition we pray that God will work His will among us and protect and keep us safe from our old sinful flesh and from all the evil in the world. We ask God to work His gracious will for us and to provide us with the strength we need.
Jesus prays precisely this way in Gethsemane: “Not My will, Father, but Yours be done.” And His Father’s will is to save a world teeming with sinners, through Jesus, His Son; and only by Jesus, by means of His Son’s agonizing suffering, death, and resurrection. It is the Father’s will to crush Him, to lay on Him the sin of the world, to put to Jesus’ lips the cup of His wrath and damnation. And that He would drink it completely—for you, for all, for your salvation.
The Father’s will is that Jesus be your Savior. But that doesn’t mean that God’s will is always easy. If you’ve tried to follow God’s will, even for a little while, you know this to be is true. And Jesus’ experience in the Garden of Gethsemane shows that it wasn’t always easy for Him to follow God’s will either.
The anticipation of a painful ordeal is often more agonizing than the ordeal itself. That is one reason we are better off not knowing exactly what the future holds. As Jesus brought His disciples to the Garden, He knew what He would have to endure in the hours ahead. He was face-to-face with death. Before He could witness another sunset, His bruised and bloody body would be taken down from the cross and hastily placed in a borrowed tomb.
Jesus knew what was coming. The extreme agony of body and soul that He suffered in Gethsemane was even greater than the physical pain inflicted upon Him by His enemies. Only the agony of the Father’s wrath poured out for sin and the loneliness of being totally forsaken by the Father while He hung on the cross would be worse.  
Jesus’ agony was intensified because He was not facing death as an ordinary man. We are born into this world with the taste of death in our mouths. Our lives are a gradual process of dying. Still, it is a fearful and terrible thing for a mortal man to die because we were created to live forever. The bond between body and soul was not intended to be broken. But when sin came into the world, that bond weakened. Sooner or later our souls will be separated from our bodies. It is part of the “natural” process in our fallen, cursed world. For the sinless Son of God, however, death was most unnatural, not ordinary at all.
The agony of anticipating death was so much greater for Jesus, not only because He was no ordinary man, but also because His was no ordinary death. We experience the natural consequences of our own sins when we die. But Jesus’ death was the unnatural consequence of the sins of others. The burden of the sins of all people was upon His shoulders. Just think of the terror that a guilty conscience can bring upon one sinner who is face-to-face with death. Then consider the fact that Jesus had voluntarily taken the guilt of the whole world upon Himself. It is no wonder that He said to Peter, James, and John, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.” We cannot begin to comprehend His anguish. We can only thank Him for what He endured for us.
Jesus’ agony of body and soul was increased by the fact that He was facing a lonely death. He knew that His disciples would soon be scattered. Satan would attempt to divide and conquer. In a sense, the disciples had already abandoned Him. Three times He returned to find Peter, James, and John fast asleep.
The disciples had good intentions. They sincerely meant what they had said about being willing to die with Jesus. When Jesus came back and woke them up the first time, they must have been embarrassed. Peter, the boldest in saying that he would never fall away was chastised for not being strong enough to pray with Jesus for even one hour. “The spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak.”
That explains the disciples’ difficulties, but what about Jesus? Why did He struggle so? Since Jesus is the Son of God, it would seem that He would have been aware of the absolute necessity of His substitutionary suffering and death. After all, that was why He had come into the world in the first place. So how could He seem to forget it?
We can solve this mystery only by pointing to another one: the humiliation of Christ. Jesus took upon Himself our human nature, and without giving up any of His divine powers, He refrained from using them for His own benefit. Paul says that He “made Himself nothing,” literally, “He emptied Himself” (Philippians 2:7). Rather than rely on His own divine power, the Son of Man availed Himself of the same source of power we have at our disposal—God’s Word and prayer.
Jesus illustrates the old saying that prayer changes things. Prayer does change things—but not in the way that most people might think. When we pray, prayer does not change God; prayer changes us.
As Jesus fell on His face (the only time in His whole life that we are told He assumed this common Old Testament prayer posture) His first prayer was a heart-wrenching plea: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from Me.” There is no question about the sincerity of His words. He had a genuine desire to be relieved of the agony He had just begun to endure. Although He knew of no alternative—and suggested none—He earnestly desired that there might be one.
Jesus’ second prayer was slightly different from His first one. Instead of saying “if it is possible,” Jesus said, “If it is not possible.” His vision was beginning to clear. It is as though before His first prayer the crushing load of sin that He was bearing and the furious assaults of Satan had combined to cloud His vision. So very recently He had explained to His disciples that it was necessary for Him to suffer all these things. But once He was alone in Gethsemane, the burden seemed too great to carry… until He took it to His Father in prayer.
Not only do we notice a difference between his first and second prayers, but we also see that after His second prayer Jesus does not bother to rouse Peter, James, and John again. The feeling of desperation is fading. A grim determination is growing in His heart. After His third prayer, He is able to say, “Rise, let us be going; see My betrayer is at hand.” Yes, prayer does change things.
It is also worth noting that even Jesus did not always get what He asked for when He prayed. There certainly was no sin in asking for something that His Father chose not to give Him. But when we say prayer changes things, that does not mean all you have to do is pray long enough and hard enough, and God will give you what you want. Jesus prayed so hard, He sweat drops of blood, and He still didn’t get what He was asking for.
Jesus taught us to pray: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus’ prayers in Gethsemane demonstrate what this means: “Lord, bring My will into perfect harmony with Your good and gracious will.”
The arrest in Gethsemane, the kangaroo court before Pilate, and the bitter suffering and crucifixion of Good Friday—this is all God’s good and gracious will. For without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. Jesus is more than willing to do just that. And He did it. His sacrificial blood that is spilled all over the altar of the cross, sprinkled on your body, and poured into your mouth—purifies you from all sin.   
Jesus was always about doing the Father’s will. That was His whole life. “My food,” He confessed in John 4:34, “is to do the will of Him who sent Me and to finish His work.” In our text, Jesus proclaims: “For I have come down from heaven not to do My will but to do the will of Him who sent Me” (John 6:38).
“It is finished,” Jesus cried from the cross. God’s will is done, by Jesus, without your prayer. “The good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer,” the Catechism correctly teaches. God is, after all, sovereign.
God created everything and you without consulting you. He didn’t ask the world or you if you wanted to be redeemed. He sends His Son Jesus without your prayer. God doesn’t wet His index finger and stick it in the air to see where the latest opinion poll winds are blowing. God did not need your permission in order to save you. He didn’t ask: “Now, would you like to be saved?” Truly, truly I say to you: where God causes His name to be hallowed—where God causes the reign of Jesus’ death to come, to be manifested, and bestowed—there His will is done! 
In heaven God’s will is unopposed. But here on earth it’s a different story. And so Jesus teaches you to pray “Thy will be done” so that the good and gracious will of God be done among you.
That God’s will be done among you. That’s what you’re praying for!  And when you pray this way you’d better buckle up. Strap yourself in tight. You’re in for a rough ride. The battle is on. Your bitter enemies—Satan, the world, and your sinful nature—won’t stand for all this hallowing of God’s name. They don’t want Christ’s reign of forgiveness be lorded over you or God’s will to be done among you. They will go on the offensive; attacking you from all sorts of angles. Satan is like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. This evil trinity blasphemes God’s Name and assaults God’s kingdom. So that His good and gracious will might not be done among you.
So Christ leads you and carries you in fighting back. Against your old Adams and Eves. Against the world and against Satan. With His very own words!  When you pray, say: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” With these words we’re not trying to change God’s will. Instead, He would change and align our will to His. That His name be hallowed among us. That His will be done among us. And this means that our stubborn and wicked wills must be crushed!  Our sinful wills must be drowned and put to death!  Everything in us that will not hallow God’s name nor let His reign come must come to an end.
What is it in your life that refuses to hallow God’s name? Or let Christ’s reign of redemption have its way with you? Whatever it is, it is time to pray: “Not My will be done Father; but Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Praying this way with Jesus and with His own words puts to death all that would prevent, hinder, or block the hallowing of God’s name and His gracious kingdom among us.
“Thy will be done” in our families, homes, marriages, bedrooms, boardrooms, and congregations! “Thy will be done” in our sicknesses, sufferings, and service to others! “Thy will be done” in our doubts, despair, and most especially in the hour of our dying!
What is God’s will? The rite of private confession and absolution in the Small Catechism explains it this way: “Dear pastor, please hear my confession and pronounce forgiveness in order to fulfill God’s will.” Did you hear that? “Pronounce forgiveness in order to fulfill God’s will.” Isn’t that incredible!  Forgiveness for Christ’s sake is God’s will for you! 
That’s precisely why God gathers you into the Church so that you can hear this forgiveness in the Word of the Gospel, Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper. In these means of grace, your prayer is answered. God’s good and gracious will is done among you in the forgiveness of your sins.
Jesus promises: “This is the will of Him who sent Me: that I shall lose none of all that He has given Me but raise them up on the last day. For My Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day.”
In Christ’s, God’s will is done. God’s name is hallowed. His kingdom reigns. You have eternal life. You have salvation. You are forgiven of all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Adapted from a sermon series presented by Brent Kuhlman at a pre-Lenten Preaching Seminar on Luther’s Small Catechism the 3rd chief part—The Our Father.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Come, See This Man!

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Come, see a Man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Christ?” (John 4:29).
Oh, perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me first tell you what happened; then you’ll see why you have to meet this Man. It seemed like an ordinary day. Not much was going on in the dusty town of Sychar. Yet something strange happened that noon when I trudged the familiar trail to draw water from the well just outside of town. I didn’t know it yet, but that something (actually, Someone) was about to change my life.
There was a traveler sitting there alone by the well. He looked tired and worn out. At a glance I could tell that He was a Jew. I tried to ignore Him, just wishing He’d move away from the well so I could get my work done. Sweaty Jew. Why couldn’t He pick a different spot to rest? I came here specifically at this time to avoid people. The other women came out as a group to draw water when it was cooler, but they treated me like an outcast, not letting me go along. That was all right by me. If they thought they were too good for me, I sure didn’t want to be around them either.
But then the most amazing thing happened. The traveler asked me for a drink. I was incredulous. A Jewish teacher shouldn’t be speaking with a woman in the first place. And a Jew asking a Samaritan to share the same water jar—why, that was unthinkable! I knew those rules. They’d been engrained in me since I was a small girl. He should surely know them, too. So I asked Him, “How is it that You, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?”
But clearly this Man wasn’t concerned about manmade rules or social customs. He said to me, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him and He would have given you living water” (John 4:10).
What a puzzling statement! Though I found out later that “the gift of God” is the one and only Son of God, the Savior, I didn’t know what to make of it at the time. So I stuck with the obvious reference to water. “Sir,” I said, “You have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do You get that living water? Are You greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock” (John 4:11-12).
He responded quickly, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Well, that certainly got my attention. It sounded too good to be true. You, probably already know that He was talking about the water that gives life, the spiritual life that comes with new birth, the eternal life for everyone who believes. This Man was talking about Himself and His Spirit who are poured out and received by faith. I know that now. At the time, I didn’t really understand what He was saying, but I wanted to know more. “Sir, give me this water so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water,” I begged.
That’s when He blindsided me. “Go, call your husband, and come here.”
Of course, at the present time that was a problem for me. I tried to wiggle out of it by saying, “I have no husband.”  But He caught my evasion of the truth.  “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband,’ for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.”
Busted! I hadn’t lied, but I had conveniently omitted a few pertinent facts, including my history of adultery, divorce, and fornication. How could He know about it, though? I suddenly understood I was in the presence of someone who knew a lot more about me than I knew about Him. He even knew my most shameful secret sins! I sensed that He must be a prophet.
And you can about imagine how uncomfortable I felt having a prophet of God discussing my sins with me. It would be like having your pastor coming into your home and asking you to explain an area of your life that you’re the most ashamed of—only worse, because this Man didn’t have to ask. He already knew.
So, I did what most people do in such circumstances—I changed the subject! And what better way to get a Man of God sidetracked than to talk about worship. “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”
But this Man wasn’t going to let me off the hook so easily. “Woman, believe Me,” He said, “the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship Him. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:21-24).
The place does not determine the value or validity of the worship. You can worship the heavenly Father anywhere. However, what or whom you worship means everything. Over the years, we Samaritans had mingled our worship with idols and disregarded most of the Old Testament except for the book of Moses. We didn’t know the real object of true worship.
In contrast, the Jews understood the promised salvation was to come through them—the tribe of Judah. The Savior was to be the Seed of Abraham, the Son of David. The Jews who remained faithful to Scriptures worshiped in truth because they looked forward to the Messiah. The time would come, however, when things would change. God’s promised salvation for the world was being worked out in Jesus Christ. The temple in Jerusalem with its sacrifices foreshadowed the Messiah, but those things would lose their significance in His coming.
True worship is done “in spirit and truth.” It revolves around and is anchored in the truth of God’s revelation. It praises the true God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It sorrows over sin and rejoices in the undeserved love that brought about salvation. It trusts in Jesus for forgiveness and life eternal. It proclaims the Scriptures and rejoices in the message. True worship can use forms as we do today, or not, but it doesn’t need specific forms. It needs only “spirit and truth.”
You’re very fortunate to have access to this true worship. Each Sunday you begin your worship in the name into whom you were baptized: the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. You confess your sins and by Christ’s command the pastor stands in His place and forgives you of all of your sins in that same name. God’s Word—His Law and Gospel—are preached and taught here in all of their sin condemning and soul saving power. You eat and drink the very body and blood Christ gave up on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. These means of grace equip and enable you “by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1) throughout the rest of the week.
That part about worshiping in spirit and truth really got to me. I couldn’t help but think about my earlier unsuccessful attempt to conceal my sinful relationship from this prophet, and I became even more uncomfortable. Although Jesus was kind enough to not call me a liar in so many words that was what I had become, resorting to half-truths and evasions in order to cover up the details of my scandalous life.   
I wasn’t exactly wanting to have all my dirty laundry hanging out in public. Certainly this Man treated me with more dignity and less condemnation than my sin deserved, but for the first time in a long time I felt real shame. I tried to change the subject one more time. “I know that Messiah is coming (He is called Christ). When He comes, He will tell us all things.”
Looking back, I guess it goes to show just how much power God’s Word has. Even though we Samaritans only had the five books of Moses for Scriptures, it was enough to teach us something about the Messiah promised by God. There was the Seed of the woman who would crush Satan’s head from Genesis 3. The promise to Abraham of the descendant through whom the world would be blessed in Genesis 18. The prophet to come who would be like Moses, only greater in Deuteronomy 18. It was a rather incomplete picture, but I hoped one day to see the Messiah who would explain everything.
I’m not certain whether this was just a last-ditch effort to gracefully end the conversation with this Man and not have to deal with the whole confusing business, or if I saw some of those messianic qualities in Him and was beginning to believe in or at least wonder about Him. Whichever it was, the reference to the Messiah allowed Him to reveal Himself to me, “I who speak to you am He,” He declared. His witness was simple and direct. I couldn’t miss His meaning. The very Messiah, God Himself who came in the flesh to save the world—to save me—from sin, was talking with me!
Just then, His disciples returned. I could tell they were surprised to find Him talking with me—a Samaritan woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” I got the distinct impression that although such a conversation wasn’t socially acceptable; it wasn’t all that unusual for Him to go the extra mile to reach out to a stranger, or to speak of sin, eternal life, and forgiveness to everyone with whom He came in contact. They called Him “Rabbi,” but I found out His name is Jesus—“the Lord saves,” for He is the Savior of the world.
Such a Man shouldn’t remain unknown! Everyone must have an opportunity to meet Jesus and to hear of His offer of living water and eternal life. So I left immediately, in such a hurry, I even left my water jar behind. And I hollered out, “Come, see a Man who told me all that I ever did. Could this be the Christ?”
Having experienced Jesus’ forgiving love, I was not about to let my shameful history keep me from sharing this Good News! Let the people talk! I wasn’t the same woman that I had been just a short while earlier as I walked out to the well at noon. Even though it might take a while for everyone in Sychar to treat me differently, I knew that in Jesus’ eyes, I was no longer an outcast! He’d offered me living water that brings forgiveness and spiritual cleansing and wells up into eternal life. And I couldn’t hold that Good News in… even if I had wanted to!
I claim no personal responsibility. It was simply because of God’s grace. But as a result of my testimony many others from town believed in Jesus or at least they were curious enough to check Him out for themselves. Many more came to believe when they met Jesus for themselves. What prompted and reinforced their faith was His Word. Jesus, the Word who was with God from the beginning, gave them the Word of salvation in Him. Their faith advanced beyond the spark kindled by my words. It fanned into a glowing flame, and they could confess, “We have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Savior of the world.”
That’s my story. Now, what about you? Where do you fit in? Maybe you’ve pictured yourself as one of the disciples, closely connected to Jesus, out running errands for Him. Perhaps a neutral bystander. I would guess most of you haven’t envisioned yourself as me—the despised Samaritan woman. But I would suggest that’s exactly what God is calling you to do today through His Word.
It’s very likely that in the past you’ve made yourself to be one of the companions of Jesus. Maybe in your own mind, you’ve even made many of those who are outside the church to be the “social outcasts” of your day. Perhaps you’re thinking, “Why shouldn’t we? After all, we are God’s chosen people. Insiders. We know the words recorded in 1 Peter apply to us: ‘But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light’” (2:9).
Yet in doing so, an insidious cancer creeps into the body, where you recite the Great Commission, yet seldom reach out to people groups other than your own. You may talk about “love for your neighbor,” but then whisper about the alcoholic or the unemployed during coffee hour. You may cringe to think that those who are homeless, addicted, or homosexual might decide to come to worship here.
The aim of this section from 1 Peter, however, is not to congratulate pious Christians. In the next verse the apostle reminds us each from where God has lifted us up: “Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (2:10).
It is, indeed, far too easy to see the people out there as the outcasts. Yet because of sin, you were also outcasts. You’ve each listened to Jesus’ words as your tarnished past has been revealed. You’ve all tried to fool Jesus with the bluster of sure words and confident smile, thinking perhaps to receive His nod of approval. But you don’t need to hide your sins. You can’t! Jesus has seen through it all. He meets you where you’re at and invites you in. He loves you, forgives you, and then asks you to share His life-giving water with others.
That’s what I did the day I met Jesus at the well in Sychar. God is able to use you in a similar way. You, too, can tell others what Jesus has done in your life. Tell them of the mercy that God has shown to you, the sinner who walks in a saint’s shoes every day. Tell them your story. But then point them past yourself to the Man who welcomes all people, just as He welcomed you. Invite them to “come, see this Man” Jesus for themselves.
Invite them to come and worship the Father in spirit and truth with you. There is no longer any temple in Jerusalem or on Mount Gerazim for you to go, nor must you. Remember, spiritual worship is faith trusting in the truth, trusting in the promises of God. And among those promises is Christ’s promise that He is with you always, even to the end of the age.
Worship is not you demonstrating your love for God by your sacrifices of work or fervor; worship is the coming of Christ to you, to give you forgiveness, life, and salvation. So by faith, you rejoice: because just as Jesus detoured through Samaria for me at the well in Sychar, He comes here to you in little St. John’s Lutheran Church in Trosky, Minnesota.
I could look at the Man at the well and say, “There is the Christ, and He has come here to forgive my sins and save even me.” You look at your baptism, the Word, and the Supper and say: “There is the Christ, and He has come to forgive my sins and save even me.” The worship of God in spirit and truth is to say, “I know that I am a sinner, and I trust the true promise that Christ has come here to forgive me, a poor, miserable sinner.”
Christ is here, present in His means of grace, just as He promised. When you hear His Word—proclaimed or joined to water or bread and wine, you know that it is Christ saying, “I who speak to you am He.” No less than Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is here to speak His saving Word to you. To repentant sinners, He speaks not words of condemnation, but the Word of His Gospel: You are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

When You Pray, Say: "Thy Kingdom Come"

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The text for today is John 18:28-40: Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover. So Pilate went outside to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?”
They answered him, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered Him over to you.”
Pilate said to them, “Take Him yourselves and judge Him by your own law.”
The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death He was going to die.
So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to Him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about Me?”
Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered You over to me. What have You done?”
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But My kingdom is not from the world.”
Then Pilate said to Him, “So you are a king?”
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to My voice.”
Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?”
After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in Him. But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?”
They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber. Here ends the text.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Thy kingdom come.
What does this mean? The kingdom of God certainly comes by itself without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may come to us also.
How does God’s kingdom come? God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity.
God’s kingdom. Do you see God’s glorious reign here on the earth? Do you see His mighty kingdom? Is it on display with all the pomp and circumstance that is the Roman Empire in Judea with Governor Pilate? Now that’s a kingly court!  Look at the attendants! The magnificence! The wealth! The power!       
Look carefully. God’s reign and God’s kingdom stands right before this official representative of his majesty and his eminence, Caesar of Rome. It’s Jesus. God in the flesh Jesus!  King of kings and Lord of lords Jesus! “Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man” Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.
But how pathetic King Jesus looks. Betrayed. Arrested. Denied. On trial in Pilate’s court. And once Pilate’s soldiers get a hold of Him, He’ll look even less kingly. Beaten to a pulp. The back of His flesh will be mercilessly flogged, ripped by the scourge. He’ll be mocked, dressed with a purple robe and a crown of thorns. And they will taunt Him: “Hail, king of the Jews!” He’ll be treated like nothing more than a fraudulent king with a fake kingdom! 
The governor seeks to investigate this Jesus. Is He the king of the Jews? Does He have a kingdom? Jesus confesses that He is a king. But He’s not a worldly kind of king, and His is not a worldly kind of kingdom. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus says. And yet He is the King of kings and Lord of lords. The “who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven” kind of King. The Suffering Servant kind of King! You see… the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many. He came down from heaven not for Himself… but for you and me and for the world! This is the kingdom for which we pray in the “Our Father.”
God’s kingdom is nothing other than what we confess in the Creed: God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, into the world to redeem and deliver us from the devil’s power. He sent Him to bring us to Himself and govern us as a King of righteousness, life, and salvation, against sin, death, and an evil conscience. For this reason He has also given His Holy Spirit, who is to bring these things home to us by His holy Word and to illumine and strengthen us in the faith by His power.  
Our King Jesus has come down from heaven to do the work of salvation. Not just for the Jews; but for all. For the entire world! For you! For me! Jesus comes down from heaven to annex the entire world in His Kingdom. To draw all men to Himself as He is lifted high upon His throne—the cursed tree! He dies a notorious sinner’s shameful death. But don’t let appearances fool you: This crucified Christ is a world conqueror who has defeated our mightiest foes—sin, death, and the prince of this world—the devil! 
What a King! What a kingdom! Behold His reign! He is delivered into the hands of sinners. He suffers. He dies. He bears the entire lot of the world’s sin in His body. He atones for every last bit of it. “It is finished,” the King declares!  And the head of the ancient, wicked serpent named Satan is crushed. Death’s deep dark chill loses its crushing grip. Your reservation in hell is cancelled.         
And all this done without your praying. Without your help. Without your advice and consent. Jesus just goes and does it!  Willingly. Lovingly. While you were still ungodly sinners. While you were His enemies. While you were dead in your sins and trespasses.
So then, what’s the point of praying “Thy kingdom come?” Well, that’s how Jesus teaches faith to pray—with all boldness and confidence that your heavenly Father gives good gifts to you His children. When you pray “Thy kingdom come,” you’re begging the Father to bring and reveal Christ’s gracious reign to you! Smack dab in the midst of your life and your living in this world. A confusing life and world in which it does not always seem that the Lord is reigning. A world in which His reign is for now hidden, but will one day be revealed to all.
“Thy kingdom come,” we pray. And Christ manifests His reign over you in time. As we were reminded last week in our review of the First Petition: in your Baptism the Lord God put His holy name on you. And with His name He gives Himself to you—totally and completely. The Father gave you His Holy Spirit! The Lord and Giver of life, in that washing of water with the Word of Christ, gave you new birth from above. You are new creations in Christ! You’ve been buried with Christ into His all atoning death to be raised up with Him for a new life. The life of faith in King Jesus, who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven. 
“Thy kingdom come,” we pray. God is not miserly with His mercy. Jesus lavishes His Good Friday forgiveness over you. Over all of your life. Over all of your sin. Over your death. Over everything! He reveals and gives it in the Supper. “My body . . . My blood,” He says, “given for you for the forgiveness of your sin.” You are forgiven. The King says so. He’s there in the Sacrament giving and doing exactly what He says. St. Paul describes it this way: “God has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son He loves in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1).   
“Thy kingdom come,” we pray. And that changes everything! Christ’s reign of forgiveness changes everything for you. You have life. You have salvation. You have an unshakeable kingdom! You have an eternal inheritance kept in heaven for you! For the fruit of such royal forgiveness is magnificent. It leads to the end game: the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.
Luther comments in the Large Catechism: “For the coming of God’s kingdom to us happens in two ways: (1) here in time through the Word and faith [Matthew 13]; and (2) in eternity forever through revelation [Luke 19:11; 1 Peter 1:4-5]. Now we pray for both these things. We pray that the kingdom may come to those not in it, and, by daily growth it may come to us who have received it, both now and hereafter in eternal life.
“All of this is nothing other than saying, ‘Dear Father, we pray, give us first Your Word, so that the Gospel may be preached properly throughout the world. Second, may the Gospel be received in faith and work and live in us, so that through the Word and the Holy Spirit’s power [Romans 15:18-19], Your kingdom may triumph among us. And we pray that the devil’s kingdom may be put down [Luke 11:17-20], so that he may have no right or power over us [Luke 10:17-19]; Colossians 1], until at last his power may be utterly destroyed. So sin, death, and hell shall be exterminated [Romans 20:13-14]. Then we may live forever in perfect righteousness and blessedness [Ephesians 4:12-13].
“From this you see that we are not praying for a simple crust of bread or a temporal, perishable good. Instead, we pray for an inestimable treasure and everything God Himself possesses. This is far too great for any human heart to think about desiring, if God Himself had not commanded us to pray for the same. But because He is God, He also claims the honor of giving much more and more abundantly than anyone can understand [Ephesians 3:20]. He is like an eternal, unfailing fountain. The more it pours, the more it continues to give. God desires nothing more seriously from us than that we ask Him for much and great things. In fact, He is angry if we do not ask and pray confidently [Hebrews 4:16].
“It’s like a time when the richest and most mighty emperor would tell a poor beggar to ask whatever he might desire. The emperor is ready to give great royal presents. But the fool would only beg for a dish of gruel. That man would be rightly considered a rogue and a scoundrel, who treated the command of his Imperial Majesty like a joke and a game and was not worthy of coming into his presence. In the same way, it is a great shame and dishonor to God if we—to whom He offers and pledges so many inexpressible treasures—despise the treasures or do not have the confidence to receive them, but hardly dare to pray for a piece of bread.
“All this is the fault of shameful unbelief that does not even look to God for enough food to satisfy the stomach. How much less does such unbelief expect to receive eternal treasures from God without doubt? Therefore, we must strengthen ourselves against such doubt and let this be our first prayer [Thy kingdom come.] Then, indeed, we shall have everything else in abundance, as Christ teaches, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” [Matthew 6:33]. For how could He allow us to suffer lack and to be desperate for temporal things when He promises to give us what is eternal and never perishes [1 Peter 1:4]?” [1]
“Thy kingdom come,” we pray. God’s kingdom certainly comes of itself. But in this petition, we are praying to God that the kingdom of Christ will come and remain among us, both in this life and finally on the Last Day. We ask God that we will remain faithful and daily grow in His grace, so that more will come to Christ’s kingdom.
“Thy kingdom come.” We pray this petition, trusting that our heavenly Father wants to give us not only for the small cares and needs of life, but also for greater spiritual blessings. God longs to give you all the riches of His eternal kingdom. Indeed, for the sake of His Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, those riches are yours even now. You have salvation and eternal life. You are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Adapted from a sermon series presented by Brent Kuhlman at a pre-Lenten Preaching Seminar on Luther’s Small Catechism the 3rd chief part—The Our Father.


[1] Concordia : The Lutheran Confessions. Edited by Paul Timothy McCain. St. Louis, MO : Concordia Publishing House, 2005, S. 414

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Baptism: Born Again, Born from Above

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“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:5).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
At one time or another, every Christian feels the need to have some sort of sign or evidence that God is truly in his or her life. For some Christians, this happens during times of great loneliness or hardship. In the midst of his struggle, a suffering Christian will deeply desire some sort of assurance, some indication from God, that everything is going to turn out okay. “Lord, just give me a sign!”
Other Christians desire a sign from God when they are agonizing over a major decision in life, such as whether to change jobs; whether to marry this girl or that one. “If God would give me some small indication that He is guiding me in all of this, my difficult dilemma would not seem quite so daunting.”
Still other Christians will look at their ongoing struggle with sin and despairingly think that God could not possibly remain with such a sinful person. “I’ve really blown it this time. If only God would give me some sort of sign or assurance to let me know that I am still one of His children… that I haven’t fallen out of His grace… then I might find some comfort.”
If you find yourself every once in a while searching for or wishing you could have a special sign from God, today’s Gospel is for you. Nicodemus sought exactly the same thing—and he thought he had found it in the miracles he saw Jesus perform. But let’s let Nicodemus tell us the story himself.
Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Nicodemus, a Pharisee, a biblical scholar, and a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. I suppose I am the equivalent of what you might call a seminary professor, a doctor of theology. I want to tell you about a night that changed my life.
It was during the early days of Jesus’ ministry; His popularity was at its peak. I was intrigued by His miraculous signs: water turned into wine, people healed, and demons cast out. It was new and exciting. You could really tell that something special was happening. These signs made me feel good. It seemed like I had finally tapped into something deeply spiritual. I felt as though all my prayers had been answered, and all my worries could be put to rest.
Jesus was in Jerusalem with His disciples for the Passover. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to go meet Him in person. I’m ashamed to admit it now, but I came to Jesus secretly in the middle of the night. I suppose I feared the reaction of my colleagues, the other Pharisees, who saw Jesus as a threat. I saw no need to offend them… at least until I checked this man out for myself.
“Rabbi,” I said, “we know that You are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with Him.”
Jesus’ reply caught me off guard: “Truly, truly, I say to you unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” It seemed like He didn’t really want to talk about His miracles. I remember thinking: “What do you do signs for if you’re not going to talk about them? Isn’t that the point of doing signs—to draw attention to yourself? To convince others of your authenticity?”
It was only later that I figured out that Jesus wanted to speak about something greater than miraculous signs… something more assuring… something more comforting… something more sure… something that remains with you forever. Jesus wanted to talk about being born again, born from above.
 Born again? What’s that mean? Jesus certainly didn’t mean that a person must undergo a second physical birth, did He? Granted: That would be a pretty significant miracle. But I couldn’t picture any mother in her right mind wanting to go through that. So I asked Jesus: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
Jesus answered: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
Birth from our human parents does not bring us into the kingdom of God. It only brings us into the sinful, condemned, dying human race that is outside of the kingdom of God. Contrary to what some teach, all infants begin their lives under sin’s influence and condemnation. David makes this clear in Psalm 51:5: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”
Babies may look as pure as spring water, but the source is polluted by original sin. A thousand physical rebirths could not change that reality. But there is a water that purifies, a water that brings with it God’s Spirit. Centuries earlier, Ezekiel had prophesied of the time when the Lord would give this gift to His people: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean… I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you… And I will put My Spirit in you and move you to follow My decrees” (36:25-27). In Baptism, God gives us the gift of His Spirit and a clean heart. Through the water and Word, the Holy Spirit works a new birth that makes us children of God and heirs of His kingdom.
Jesus saw that I was still confused. “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Jesus was right. We human beings just can’t understand the working of God’s Spirit any more than we can predict the wind blowing on us. We know when it blows, and it affects us when it does. But we don’t see it. We can’t be certain when or where or from what angle it will come. We can only see the results, the fruits of the Spirit. So everyone born of the Spirit cannot fully understand how God in His wisdom sends the Spirit. We just know He does!
I couldn’t believe what I heard. More to the point, I couldn’t understand what I was hearing. I probably should have let it go, but I had to satisfy my human reason. So I asked Jesus one more time, “How can these things be?”
Needless to say, Jesus’ rebuke didn’t exactly build my self-esteem. “Are you the teacher of Israel and yet do not understand these things? If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?”
If was as if He was saying, “Nicodemus, you ought to be able to grasp this. A lot of what you have already learned in Scripture points to this. It’s all there for you already; you just need to look at it from a different perspective. You’re supposed to be one of the most respected teachers in Israel, but you don’t even get the most fundamental doctrines yet. You should be ready for quantum physics, but you’re still struggling with 2+2. You should be defending your doctoral thesis, but you don’t know your ABC’s yet. You’re looking for signs and missing salvation.”
Fortunately, Jesus is a patient teacher. He directed me back to the Scriptures that I had studied and taught for so many years. He drew an analogy between the brass serpent Moses lifted up in the desert and His own saving work for the world. Just as the serpent was lifted up on a pole, Jesus was to be lifted up on a cross.
Jesus summed up this plan with these simple words, you maybe learned them as “the Gospel in a nutshell”: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Perhaps this Good News is so familiar that it seems like old news. Maybe you have forgotten what a miracle God did in your life when He made you His child in the water and Word of Holy Baptism. Perhaps you fail to remember what a privilege it is that Jesus comes to you for your forgiveness with His body and blood in His holy Supper. Maybe you don’t realize what a blessing it is to confess your sins and to hear Jesus’ absolution from God’s called and ordained servant.
You may have already been a Christian long enough that you have even taken God’s love and forgiveness for granted. But this was totally new for me. To be honest I didn’t fully understand what Jesus was saying until I saw Him hanging on the cross and then risen from the dead three days later. It was confusing and sounded too good to be true. No human being could have devised such a plan. No one would have imagined it. It could never work without God.
But here was God, revealed in His triune majesty. God the Father loved the undeserving world so much that He sent His Son to save it. God the Son, present in the person of Jesus, came to fulfill the Father’s will and win eternal life for all people. God the Holy Spirit comes to bring new birth through the water and Word. That’s what He began to do that night I came to see Jesus.
I was expecting a great deal from my visit with Jesus, but what I found far exceeded my expectations. I came looking for miraculous signs and, instead, Jesus offered me the kingdom of God and new life. I came looking for a teacher sent from God; Jesus identified Himself as the Son of God who is also the Son of Man. I was looking for someone who could enlighten me; Jesus explained that He would die for me and for the whole world. I wanted to know what I could do to be closer to God; Jesus offered a relationship with God that would make me a new person.
My fellow Christians, this is a very important Gospel for all of us because we are all sin-riddled people… because we are all lonely people and grieving people. This is a very important Gospel because we are all people who never outgrow our need for a sign from God—a sign that He loves us… a sign that He truly has not grown weary of us… a sign that He will always be with us.
This is an important Gospel because it teaches us with clarity and simplicity where to look for our sign—God’s miracle of Baptism!  There is nothing greater—there is no other sign or miracle that God might perform—that will give you more than what you have been given in God’s miracle of your Baptism.
In the miracle of your Baptism, God your heavenly Father gives you a second birth—a birth from above—and nobody can take that away from you. People may take away your clothing, house, and family. They may take away your limbs and senses and even your life. But no one can take your birth away from you! 
Just as surely as no one can take your birth away from you, so certainly and without doubt can no one take your new birth away from you! No matter what you shall experience in this life, no matter what suffering may be imposed on you, or what shame you may call down on yourself, your second birth remains forever! 
In the miracle of your Baptism you have been born again, born from above. In the miracle of your Baptism you have received the Holy Spirit and faith. In the miracle of your Baptism, you have salvation and eternal life. In the miracle of your Baptism, you are forgiven for 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 ...