Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Jesus Is the Fulfillment of Religion

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
A couple of years ago, a young Christian, Jefferson Bethke, made a video that went viral on YouTube, entitled “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus.” It sounds good, doesn’t it? Jefferson professes to love Jesus, and it is a good thing to love Jesus. Not only that, but as you watch the video you can tell he really does love Jesus, and he is zealous for his faith. He wants to share his love for Jesus, and he’s been very successful: his video has been viewed over 28 million times.
I have to say, there is much in the video that is good. Unlike many of today’s popular preachers who teach what one critic has called “moralistic, therapeutic deism,” Bethke does share the real Gospel. He proclaims salvation by grace through faith apart from works and he confesses Christ crucified for sinners. His criticism of the church is also not far off the mark… if only he had been more careful with his terminology. If only he had used the words “false religion” or “legalism” rather than “religion” I would have to agree with him even more.  
But that’s this video’s fatal flaw. Mr. Bethke sets up a false dichotomy between religion and Jesus, asking provocative questions like: “What if I told you that Jesus came to abolish religion?” and making unsubstantiated claims such as: “Which is why Jesus hates religion.” Ironically, in his attempt to dismiss religion, Bethke just sets up his own way of worship, his own personal version of religion.
When you really think about it, saying “I hate religion but love Jesus” is a lot like saying “I hate vegetables but love broccoli.” Christianity is a religion. It is one religion in a world full of religions. But not all religions are equal. Neither are all “saviors.” Jesus is the true and proper focus of the service and worship of God. Jesus is the Way and the Truth and the Life. Jesus is not antithetical to religion. Jesus is true religion. Jesus is the fulfillment of religion.
We see this in our text for today, Mark 1:21-28—Jesus is fulfilling religion. It’s the Sabbath in Capernaum, and He’s in the synagogue, the “congregating place” for God’s people. That’s what the word “synagogue” means—“a place to gather.” This is nothing new. Take a look at the gospels. Every Sabbath that is mentioned (except for the one between Good Friday and Easter), we see Jesus gathering with God’s people. If He’s in Jerusalem, He goes to the temple—for prayers and sacrifices and hearing God’s Word. Every other Sabbath we find Jesus in the synagogue with the congregation of believers of that particular town.
All of this was in obedience to God’s command to His people, Israel: “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. You shall sanctify the holy day.” The Sabbath was a holy day, a day set apart for the Lord. That meant no work. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.” Sabbath, Shabbat, means “rest.” Slaves work seven days a week without rest; God’s free people worked six and rested on the seventh.
Rest didn’t mean sleeping in. Nor did it mean getting out the golf clubs for a quick morning round. Rest meant worship—gladly hearing and learning the Word of God. For the Israelites, rest began on Friday evening with a nice meal with undiluted wine, then sleep, then a day full of the Word in the synagogue.
Now, of course, the Sabbath law has been fulfilled in Christ and doesn’t apply to us the same way it did to the Israelites. The Christian congregation is not a synagogue and Sunday is not a Sabbath. What was law in the Old Testament (punishable by death), is now a matter of Christian freedom. But doesn’t it say something about the depth of our depravity when God has to make a law about rest, when God has to command us to set aside some time to hear His life-giving Word? Jesus is the fulfillment of the Sabbath. He is our Sabbath. And if we’re “rest”-less, then perhaps it’s because we don’t seek our rest where “two or three are gathered,” in the place where Jesus promises to be with us in His grace.
About thirty years of age—a fitting age for a prophet (Ezekiel 1:1), priest (Numbers 4:3), and king (2 Samuel 5:4) to begin his work—Jesus, newly baptized and ordained, comes to the synagogue and begins to teach. He teaches as one who has authority: “You have heard it said, but I say to you…” Jesus’ teaching comes with the full authority of the Lord. He speaks as the Lord Himself, because that’s who He is—the Lord. He is the Prophet of whom Moses speaks in Deuteronomy. To hear Jesus is to hear it straight from the mouth of God Himself.
Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus is teaching on this particular day, but just a few verses earlier, he does tell us what Jesus was preaching as He began His ministry in Galilee. We heard it last week: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.” Jesus preaches about sin, forgiveness, and the kingdom that has come with His coming. In other words, pretty much the same stuff you hear as you gather with God’s people each Sunday.
You can be sure that wherever the Gospel of Christ is being taught, the devil and his demons will be hard at work. You can preach social justice and morality until you’re blue in the face and the devil couldn’t care less. But preach Christ, His message of repentance and forgiveness, and all sorts of hell break loose. And so, an unnamed man with an unclean spirit jumps up in the middle of Jesus’ sermon and shouts: “What have You to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us?  I know who You are—the Holy One of God.”
Notice how the demons know who Jesus is, and they even speak the truth about Jesus. He is the Holy One of God come to destroy the works of the devil. But this truth is a crooked truth, meant to distract, to get Jesus off track with some unwanted advance publicity. Jesus is trying to bring His hearers along slowly, reshaping their messianic expectations. But the devil wants to imprint his own image of “messiah” in the people’s minds. Get them to think of Jesus in terms of power and politics so they forget about this cross and death and resurrection stuff.
Satan has no problem with you believing that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, as long as it diverts your attention from all this stuff about cross and body and blood, death and resurrection. The devil loves “religions,” cross-less, bloodless gospels that are really no Gospel at all. For that reason, I seriously doubt Satan is too concerned about most of the Christianity you see on TV. The kind that talks about God giving you a better life if you only believe; the kind that avoids talk of sin and judgment but emphasizes the power of positive thinking; the kind that focuses on electing the right kind of people so we can set up our own kingdom here on earth.  That kind of religion doesn’t bother the devil in the least.
And I’m sure the devil takes great glee in seeing theaters and arenas full of people gathering to hear words that scratch their itching ears. For even though much of what those preachers say is true, it is not the Truth that sets you free. They are false prophets, hirelings, wolves in sheep’s clothing—and even though their practical advice may offer a better life now, it will not bring you eternal life.
What the devil hates is the Word that creates faith. Saving faith that trusts Jesus for forgiveness… faith that looks to Jesus crucified and sees life… faith that suffers all things for Jesus’ sake… faith that knows that Christ has conquered and in Him we conquer, too. In Mark, Jesus’ being the Christ, (what it really means), is a secret, hidden until the end, when He hangs dead in on the cross and a Gentile soldier blurts out, “Truly, this was the son of God.” And then no one silences him. Why? Because hanging there on the cross, Jesus is most the Son of God, most the Holy One of God, most the fulfillment of religion.
This is why He comes. Why He is baptized. Why He preaches. Why He casts out demons. This is how the kingdom of God comes to us—by His death and rising. And until that happens, until the world sees Him dead on a cross, they will not know or understand what it means for Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of God. And neither will we. We will always try to reshape Jesus into something else.
With a word, Jesus silences the disruptive demon and restores order to the synagogue service. “Be silent. Come out of him,” Jesus commands. And the demon obeys. He has no choice. He must obey the Word.  Now that’s authority! This is not simply persuasive preaching. Nope. This is a Word that cuts through the darkness, casts out demons, changes water into wine, calms the wind and the seas, cleanses the leper, and lifts the paralyzed man from his bed.
This is a Word that declares with the authority of God that Baptism is your personal rebirth in Christ… that the bread of the Supper is His Body given for you, the wine of His Supper in His blood shed for you. This is a Word by which your sins are forgiven. This is a Word by which you are declared saints in Christ. This is a Word that will raise you up from the dead on the Last Day.
 But there’s something else that is said that we dare not pass by too quickly. In addition to being amazed by Jesus’ authority, those gathered in the synagogue that day notice something else—Jesus’ teaching is new. Not “new” as in shiny and just-out-of the box (the Gospel promise goes all the way back to the fall in the Garden), but “new” as in “We haven’t ever heard this before!”
What’s so new and completely different? Consider how the scribes would normally teach the Law. “Obey God’s commands well enough, and God will be pleased; and if God is pleased by your obedience, then He will reward you.”
Now, common sense will tell you that a man with an evil spirit isn’t going to be doing God-pleasing things. He’s under bondage to the devil, and all that he does is evil. Nothing that this man does is earning God’s favor. Even his presence in the synagogue seems to be solely for the purposes of disrupting Jesus’ work of salvation. The evil spirit has just declared that he wants nothing to do with Jesus, the Holy One of God. But Jesus helps him anyway. The man hasn’t done any good works to earn God’s favor and reward, but Jesus helps him anyway.
This is why the teaching is so new, so completely different. It goes against the natural religion of our Old Adam, who seeks to justify himself. The man is not delivered because of his good works. He’s delivered solely by the power and mercy of Jesus. He is delivered because Jesus fulfills the Law on his behalf by His perfect obedience. He is delivered because Jesus pays the penalty the Law demands for this man’s sin with His atoning death. For those conditioned to believe that their obedience earns God’s favor, this is an amazing new teaching.  
But if the people of Capernaum ever put two and two together, they will be astonished even more. The same Jesus who says “Be silent. Come out of him” to the evil spirit is the same One who says, “Repent and believe the Gospel.” If His Word has such amazing authority to chase away demons, then His command to repent certainly gives the ability to repent. His call to believe the Gospel gives the faith to believe the Gospel. Jesus is delivering people solely by His work and mercy, not by their own efforts or worthiness. It is true in Capernaum for a possessed man that day. It will be true for all the world when Jesus hangs on the cross and saves them by His suffering and death for their sins.
This is amazing! This is completely different! This is true religion. Every other religion on earth is a religion of law—you earn God’s favor by the works that you do. We proclaim a new, completely different message to this world: You are saved from your sin by the work of Jesus Christ. He has fulfilled the Law on your behalf. He has redeemed you from sin by His death on the cross. He is risen again and freely offers you forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life in His means of grace.
In Baptism, the same Jesus who casts out an unclean spirit in Capernaum cleanses you with water and His Word. He sends the devil packing. No, you won’t have the demonic shrieks and convulsion of the Gospel (although from time to time we do have a good crier), but it happens nonetheless. The devil is wily enough to sneak away these days and make you think that nothing special has happened.
But Baptism “works the forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.” By Christ’s authority, even little babies are forgiven. They have eternal life. So do you! Because we declare this same new teaching with authority to you. In the name of Jesus you are forgiven.
 Jesus Christ lived the perfect life that you do not and cannot live. He died on the cross to take away the sin of the world—and that includes you! He rose again on the third day and ascended into heaven to the Father’s right hand. And yet He is still with you always, coming to you with His very own body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.
In that Word and Sacrament, the Lord sends the devil scurrying away. He gives you His promise that He will use all things to your good, and that He will deliver you from this sinful world to life everlasting.  Through the voice of His called and ordained servant, He declares all who believe His Word and promises: You are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Repent and Believe in the Gospel

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Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel’” (Mark 1:14-15).  
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
With the arrest of John the Baptist, it is time for Jesus to take center stage. He comes to Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God, and saying: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.” This message is meant to lead Jesus’ first listeners back into the Scripture that they had heard in their synagogues: the Old Testament promises of the Savior, the Son of David, who will establish His kingdom. So when Jesus proclaims, “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand,” those who know Scripture and do not misinterpret it politically are looking for the promised Messiah-King.
The way to the King and His kingdom is to “repent and believe in the Gospel.” Repent means “to have a change of heart as far as sin is concerned.” And it points to the Gospel, the Good News concerning the One in whom they will find forgiveness of sins. Jesus calls on His listeners to turn away from sin, to be sorry they have fallen away from God, and to trust in Him who alone offers forgiveness. Surely that is the Good News mankind needs, whether in Galilee back then or here in Trosky today. But unfortunately, like much of God’s Word, this message has also been twisted and mangled. So many fail to understand what it really means to repent, or to believe, or for that matter, what the Gospel really is.
In his second letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul explains the difference between true repentance and false repentance: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (7:10).
Sometimes people feel such great sorrow over their sins that they don’t believe they can possibly go on living under the guilt. Even if they dedicate the rest of their lives to “making it right” their past still haunts them. Unfortunately, they only get to the first part of repentance—seeing their guilt and feeling ashamed because of it. But repentance has two parts! Not only does God’s Word expose sin, it also declares to you the forgiveness found in Christ. No matter how horrible a sin you may have committed, God’s forgiveness still is for you, full and complete!
When the devil can’t get you to settle for worldly grief, he tries to get you to misunderstand other aspects of repentance. For example, some think that repentance is the first step every person must take in order to please God and to establish a relationship with Him. But no person can take the first step in repentance. Repentance is a gift of God. Only God can prompt and accomplish repentance by coming to you through His living Word. God does it all.
Many people think of repentance as a one-time conversion experience. But repentance is a daily ongoing activity. Jesus’ call to “repent” in our text literally means to “be repenting” or to “keep on repenting.” Repentance is a cycle that begins and continues in Baptism. Luther writes that your Baptism “indicates that the Old Adam in [you] should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that [your] new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
In a related vein, there are those who teach correctly that Jesus died for all their sins, but then they add that a Christian must live a daily life worthy of forgiveness or he will lose that forgiveness. This is a life of constant pressure, filled with endless spiritual anxiety. This is like a judge who frees a prisoner, but says he is free only if he continues to live a holy and perfect life. That prisoner is not really free, but forced to live each day in a living hell of uncertainty without the assurance that he has total peace with God.
Some make repentance a burden. They have turned confession and absolution into a law rather than a gift, by insisting that you must go to a certain place at a certain time, and that you must enumerate every sin you ever committed. Then you must add something else: you must “make satisfaction for” your sins. This adds uncertainty. It is like saying to Jesus, “You didn’t do enough to pay for my sin. I must also contribute to make up what You, Jesus, didn’t finish.”
But private confession and absolution is not an obligation or burden, rather it is a gift that brings certainty. When you go to your pastor and confess your sins to him, believe that the forgiveness he speaks is Christ’s forgiveness.
Believe: that is the second part of Jesus’ proclamation. “Believe in the Gospel.” To believe means to trust in God and His promises. But unfortunately this has been twisted today in the modern church as well. The popular understanding of faith is the free will I have that enables me to “invite Jesus into my heart.” But your will is not free; rather it is bound to sin, self, and Satan. Born spiritually blind and dead, you don’t have the capacity to believe even if you really wanted to.
The Good News is, God has done it all! He not only prepared His salvation in Christ, but He also gives you the gift of faith through His Word and Sacraments whereby you receive these blessings. God has accomplished your salvation from beginning to end. “It is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). This is the Gospel of God.
But sadly many have turned to “a different gospel—which is really no Gospel at all” (Galatians 1:6-7). In fact there are many alternative gospels in the marketplace. One of the most popular false gospels in our age is really a form of an ancient heresy—gnosticism—that used Christianity as a springboard to a supposed higher spirituality attained through mysticism. Pop spirituality uses words and phrases that sound “christianish.” It speaks about “redemption” and “atonement,” but means something entirely different than Christ’s substitutionary death for sins. Sadly, you can also find this in the Church, with sermons and songs that emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus, but insist that He comes through experience and emotion, rather than where He has promised: His Word and Sacraments.
Another false gospel is self-help. In this theology, there is no need for Christ as our mediator since God is never quite as holy, and we are never quite as wicked, to require something as drastic as Christ’s death in our place. God is our buddy. He just wants us to be happy, and the Bible gives us instructions for life in this world. Salvation is not a matter of divine rescue from the coming judgment, but rather of how to have your best life now. And Christ is lost in the process. You can lose weight, improve your marriage, or become a nicer person without Jesus. But you cannot have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life without Christ.
“Social gospel” is the false view that the purpose of the Church is societal change. Liberals seek to change the world into a socialist utopia. Conservatives seek to establish a distinctly Christian nation. But anytime the Church becomes entangled with the State, or seeks cultural relevance, the Church comes up the loser, and the Gospel of Christ crucified for sinners goes unpreached.
That’s the problem with all of these alternative gospels: they lead away from Christ as the only hope for sinners. Where everything is measured by our happiness rather than by God’s holiness, the sense of our being sinners becomes secondary, if not offensive to our sensibilities. If we are good people who have lost our way but with the proper instructions and motivation can become better people, we need only a life coach, not a Redeemer. But the central message of Christianity is not a way of life, or a program for personal or societal change; it is the Gospel.
The word “gospel” comes from the Greek word for “good news.” Typically used in the context of announcing a military victory, a gospel is the report of an appointed messenger who arrives from the battlefield. That is why the New Testament describes pastors as heralds and ambassadors of the victorious Christ.
It is not incidental, then, that this story of redemption is called the Gospel. If it were merely a program for self-improvement, it would be called something else, like good advice or good idea. But it’s Good News because it is an announcement of the victory that someone else has already achieved for us. When we are distracted from this commission, we begin to think of ourselves not as ambassadors of a great King but as the star of the show. The focus falls on what we do, and Jesus’ role is reduced to a moral example or life coach.  
Yet the Bible provides a very different focus. With the exception of a few important passages in which we are told to follow Christ’s example of suffering loss on behalf of others, the New Testament makes it clear that Jesus is unique in every way: in who He is, what He did, and what He said. Only He could inaugurate the kingdom of God. Only He could die as an atoning sacrifice for sinners. Only He could be raised as the firstfruits of those who sleep.
When pastors are expected to be coaches sending in the plays and their parishioners are expected to be all-stars to take Jesus’ team to victory in the culture wars, the focus must necessarily fall on our stories and strategies rather than on God’s. But this means that much of our ministry today is Law without Gospel, with the accent on “What Would Jesus Do?” rather than “What Has Jesus Done?” None of us is immune to this indictment that we are losing our focus upon, confidence in, and increasingly even our knowledge of the greatest story ever told.
We must return to the true Gospel. We must return to the message delivered by the faithful prophets of the Old Testament, by John the Baptist, by Jesus Christ Himself, and by His apostles: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent and believe in the Gospel.”
And here is that Good News: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15). Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary for you and your salvation. Jesus lived a perfect life fulfilling the Law for you. Christ was crucified on the cross for your sins. God raised Him up on the third day so that you might be certain that His Word is true. Christ ascended into heaven and sits at the Father’s right hand, ruling for your benefit and interceding on your behalf. Jesus will return to raise you to eternal life and take you to live in His presence forever.
In the meantime, Jesus promises to be with you always in His means of grace. In Baptism, He gives you His Holy Spirit and makes you a child of God—a co-heir. In His Supper, He feeds you His body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins. And through His spoken Word, He calls you to repentance and faith that you might remain His child and be conformed to His image.
Repent and believe in this Gospel. Jesus did not die to give you happiness or self-esteem. The goal of God’s Word is to obliterate self-esteem, to destroy it completely. You need self-esteem like you need cancer. The moment you start looking to yourself, you are putting yourself in Christ’s place. That’s why God wants you to die to yourself. He loves you too much to leave you enamored with yourself because looking at yourself and thinking about yourself is killing you.
Instead of looking at yourself, you must look to Christ and Him alone. Jesus did not die for you because you’re beautiful or desirable or loveable. Jesus died for you because He has the capacity to love the most unlovely. It is Christ’s grace bestowed upon you that makes you beautiful, desirable, and loveable. It is His grace that cleanses you and restores you. Indeed, it is by the grace of Jesus Christ and for the sake of His holy wounds, His bitter suffering and death, that you hear and believe   this Good News: You are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Children Are a Blessing!

Click here to listen to this sermon.
“Children are an inheritance from the Lord. They are a reward from Him. The children born to a man when he is young are like arrows in the hand of a warrior. Blessed is the man who has filled his quiver with them. He will not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the city gate” (Psalm 127:3-5).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Children are an inheritance from the Lord. Children are a reward. Children are a blessing. I’ve known this… I’ve believed this…I’ve preached this… for a long time. But one Sunday night about three years ago that truth was reinforced. Entering the room, I was greeted by a young couple, in their mid-twenties. She was sitting up in her hospital bed. He was in a chair by her side. Both of them looked tired and confused and scared. Their pastor had asked me to visit them, so I knew they were about 200 miles away from home, without immediate family support.
I also knew that she was experiencing difficulty in her pregnancy, but not to what extent. They quickly filled me in on the details. She was in her twenty-third week. The placenta had ruptured. Most of the amniotic fluid was gone. Both she and their baby boy were in grave danger. Every day was crucial to the health and well-being of both mother and son. While each day slightly increased his chances of survival, it also greatly increased her risk of systemic infection.      
What do you say to a couple who is in such a situation? “Don’t worry? It will be all right”? They had reason to be anxious. Barring a miracle, it was likely that things were not going to “be all right.” Even if their son beat the odds and survived, he would most likely have some developmental disabilities. And for that matter, the mother wasn’t totally out of the woods either. Fortunately, I was not left with my own fumbling words. I had God’s Word, which brings immeasurable comfort and hope in even the most desperate circumstances.
The Word of God that I shared with them was from the Old Testament reading assigned for that day, Isaiah 49:1-7. I spoke with them about how, in this text, Jesus Himself speaks to us through the prophet Isaiah. He tells us that God the Father, “formed Me from the womb to be His servant.” “The Lord called Me from the womb, from the body of My mother He named My name.”
We talked about the wonder of the infinite, Almighty God, setting aside His glory to become a tiny baby, subject to the limits and vulnerability of His mother’s womb. To be our Savior, Jesus took our place, not only on a cross and in a tomb, but also in the womb. It took a mother’s womb for the Messiah to identify with and bring salvation for all humanity, including them and their unborn son. More than anyone else, Jesus understands what they were going through. More importantly, their unborn son is one for whom the heavenly Father gave His one and only begotten Son into death, even death on the cross. God’s Word reassures us that no matter what happened in the days to come, they could be certain that Jesus died to give their child the gift of eternal life. They could trust that He longs to bring their boy into His kingdom through the water and Word of Holy Baptism.
I left that hospital room more aware of the precious gift of life and how children are a great blessing from God. I venture to say that that young father and mother would have been willing to give up everything they had if it could bring their child into this world healthy and safe. Isn’t it sad that it takes such dire circumstances for us to realize just how blessed we are?      
Children are an inheritance from the Lord. Children are a reward. Children are a blessing. I believe this, and I know you do, too, or else you would probably not be here this Sunday as we observe the sanctity of all human life. But sadly, we live in an age and society that does not view children in the same way. Trouble, inconvenience, noise, and cost are frequently used to describe children by those who call themselves “happily childless by choice.”
There is a growing prejudice against children. Many people no longer even pretend to like them. Housing units advertise rentals for those with “NO CHILDREN,” while more subtle institutional prejudices exist in restaurants and even in some religious buildings and services. Do you think “children’s church” is really for the sake of the children? No, it’s so the adults are not “bothered” or interrupted by the children. I thank God that this congregation recognizes what a blessing it is to have little children with us in worship, even when they are at their most vocal, wiggliest best. Such distractions force us to put the needs of others ahead of our own. The need for that little child, our little brother or sister in Christ, to learn how to sit with God’s people and to hear God’s Word and to sing God’s praise outweighs any temporary inconvenience we might experience.
Sadly even many of those who “choose to have children” do so with selfish motives. Men say that having children motivates them in their careers. Yet studies reveal that the average American father sees his pre-teen child only 12 ½ minutes per day, while middle-class fathers spend an average of 38 seconds a day with their one-year-olds. And women aren’t immune from this either. The Washington Post describes a growing “baby panic” among feminists and yuppies. As they approach age 35, they seek to have a child in response to the ticking of their biological clocks. Still others, interviewed when applying for surrogate motherhood, say they want to have a baby for someone else to “somehow make up for having an abortion.” Studies of the pregnancy epidemic among teenagers reveal that some boys want babies to prove their virility; and some girls want babies because it is the “in” thing. Still others want a child to fill in the loneliness of their lives in a world they perceive as too impersonal, too lacking in love. It seems many people view children as a mixture of expensive nuisance, fragile treasure, super-pet, a means of penance and—judging from statistics—as objects or things to be exploited, abused, or simply discarded when they make life too inconvenient.
But our text tells us that God has an entirely different view. Children are an inheritance from the Lord. Children are a reward. Children are a blessing! Perhaps, then, more important than why people have children is the question of why God gives children. Certainly children arrive with demands on our schedules, budgets, and patience; but just as certainly they arrive as gifts. And like most of God’s best blessings, these are often cleverly disguised.
Consider, for example, how children teach us about faith. Jesus said: “Whoever doesn’t receive the kingdom of God as a little child receives it will never enter it.” Some mistakenly think that Jesus is saying that children are somehow role models, that they possess certain “virtues” such as innocence. But anyone who has had little children of his own knows this is not true. Children can be quite selfish. Children are often demanding. And Scripture makes it clear: No child is innocent. We are all conceived and born in sin and transgression.
So what does Jesus mean then? The key is in the word “receives.” In the Old Testament and in Jesus’ day, people had a more accurate view of children than today. Children were seen as weak, as vulnerable, as not being able to care for themselves. Children were to be cared for and not abused or aborted. Children need to be trained, or they’ll go bad. Children are not wise or powerful, but weak and ignorant. But therein lies their advantage over us adults: They usually realize this and are not afraid to admit how weak and needy they are. Having no other recourse, they rely and trust in others for help.  
This is what Jesus means. Only people who are powerless—and who admit it—will be saved. The only way anyone can receive the kingdom is “as a little child receives it,” that is, by simple faith and trust in what Christ has done for us. Faith and salvation is not something we can earn, but it is a gift of God’s grace. And probably nothing else so effectively demonstrates salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone as the baptism of a tiny, little baby.
Speaking of the baptism of little ones: I didn’t finish the story I started earlier. A few weeks later that same young couple called me to come back to the hospital. The nurses escorted me into the neo-natal intensive care unit, and I had the privilege to baptize their one pound, four ounce baby boy. They named him Chance, because they were so thankful that God had given them another three weeks in the womb so that he might have a chance for life. The last I heard Chance and his parents are doing quite well. What a blessing to not only receive life, but to receive eternal life and to be born again through the water and the Word!
Children are a blessing in other ways as well. Children teach us how to receive forgiveness and how to give forgiveness. Children give us the opportunity to share the Gospel. Children help us to live as “little Christs.” Children help to teach us patience and to practice selflessness. In caring for the least of these little ones, we do for children what we would not do for money, power, or even ourselves. Can you think of a time when you did more for “one of [Christ’s] brothers or sisters, no matter how unimportant they seemed,” than when you did these things for the child whom God entrusted to your care?
Children provide us with opportunities to serve Jesus by loving our needy neighbor. Remember the parable of the sheep and the goats? To those blessed to inherit the kingdom of God, Jesus says: “I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you took Me into your home. I needed clothes, and you gave Me something to wear. I was sick, and you took care of Me.” (Matthew 25:35-36).
Children are an inheritance from the Lord. Children are a reward. Children are a blessing. This message needs to be proclaimed loudly and strongly in our day, when self-fulfillment and materialism seem to have drastically changed people’s attitudes toward children. The prevalence of abortion, child abuse, child neglect, and divorce stand as a terrible indictment of our society and its values.
And it’s no mere coincidence that the devaluing of pre-born life has led to the devaluing of life near its end. It is no coincidence that thinking of children as a burden rather than a blessing has led to thinking of the aged and infirm as a burden as well. Children, if properly taught to appreciate the sanctity of all human life, will not only support their parents when they have attained old age, but they will make it their business to protect the rights of their parents from those who would question “the quality of their life.”
In God’s view, passing on the heritage of faith to our children is the most important goal of each generation. It is doubtful if many in our society, including many in the Church, would list this as the first priority of life. But it fits very well with the mission of Lutherans For Life: “To witness to the sanctity of human life through education based on the Word of God.” And it is our purpose for being God’s church in this place at this time: to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to make disciples of God’s people of all ages and backgrounds.
By God’s grace, may we continue to proclaim the blessing of children. May we continue to speak and act on behalf of those who are vulnerable and defenseless. May we continue to offer healing and hope to those who have made an abortion choice and are now dealing with its consequential guilt and regret. May we continue to witness to the sanctity of all human life.   
Above all, may we continue to tell others the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, how God formed Jesus in the womb and called Him from the womb so He could identify with and bring salvation for all humanity… so that His Incarnate Son might defeat sin, death, and Satan with His death on the cross… so that God could be glorified in all this… and so that you might be forgiven of all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Baptized in Christ from Tomb to Womb

We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
In the midst of its songs about drinking beer, driving pickup trucks, and chasing pretty girls, country music occasionally reveals a spiritual side. I remember as a kid, listening to my Dad in the barn singing along with Kris Kristofferson, asking “Why me, Lord?” or Johnny Paycheck as he urged, “Let’s all go down to the river.” Carrie Underwood’s recent hit, “Something in the Water,” follows in the same spiritual stream. And its baptismal theme is hard to miss.
I’m guessing that some of you have heard the song, but for those of you who haven’t, let me summarize. The lyrics speak of the wasted life of one who, late one night, is “all out of hope and all out of fight.” She recalls the advice of someone who had been in her shoes, where “down every hallway’s a slamming door,” where there’s “no way out, no one to come and save me.” Encouraged to have “a little faith and it’ll all get better,” the man had “followed that preacher man down to the river.” Not having anywhere else to turn, the distraught woman gets down on her knees and prays the only prayer she knows, “God, if you’re there, come and rescue me.” And He does. She’s “washed in the water, washed in the blood.” And she’s changed, she’s stronger, because “there must be something in the water.”
It’s a very powerful, moving song. And the first time I heard it, I thought to myself: “It’s a good start. Oh, I wouldn’t include it in a worship service. But this song says a lot more about baptism and its power than you’ll hear from many Christian pastors. Rather than merely viewing baptism as a pledge of my allegiance to Christ, it ascribes a power to that baptism—a life-changing power. And we Lutherans who confess that baptism works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare, would do well to remember such power and live in the power of our baptism. There certainly is something in the water!
It’s a good start! For a country song about a spiritual journey. But the problem with the song theologically is that it doesn’t go far enough. It still sells baptism short. Baptism doesn’t just change you. It doesn’t just make you stronger. Baptism puts you to death, it buries you, and it raises you to new life in Christ!
Now, I’m guessing that your life is not as dramatic as the lyrics of a country song. And that’s probably a good thing—in most ways. We would all rather avoid the heartache of broken relationships or the consequences of a misspent life. But the reality could well be that your life is going along just good enough that you’ve become comfortable in your sin. When you consider your life in comparison to the rest of the world, it looks like you’re doing well. Certainly better than most others.
And therein lies the trouble. For God does not grade on a curve; His standard is perfection. And you are not perfect! Your real problem is not that you are weak and need to get stronger; you need to die to sin and be reborn. You don’t need to just be changed; you need to be recreated. You don’t just struggle with a few bad habits you’ve picked up along the way; you are a slave to sin. You are not just someone who has made mistakes or poor choices in life; you are a poor miserable sinner who justly deserves God’s wrath and His temporal and eternal punishment.
Fortunately, there is Someone in the water! And you are exactly the kind of sinner He is seeking! So, let’s all go down to the river! There’s a man named John. Some say he’s a prophet, and dressed in camel hair and leather, eating locusts and wild honey, he certainly looks like Elijah, who called Israel to repentance in the days of King Ahab. The people of Judea and Jerusalem come out to hear this man “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4).
Centuries before, Isaiah had predicted such a messenger would appear to “prepare the way for the Lord” (Mark 1:3). And so there in the wilderness along the Jordan, John has set up his camp, preaching his fiery message of repentance in anticipation of the Lord’s coming: “After me comes He who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:7-8).
Confessing their sins, people come to be baptized by John. But when Jesus steps up for baptism, John objects, “I need to be baptized by You,” he says. And we know what John means. After all, since Jesus has no sins of His own to confess, how can He qualify for John’s baptism—a sinner’s baptism, a baptism of repentance? Jesus insists that He be baptized anyway: “It is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness,” He replies (Matthew 3:15). Jesus wants to take on our sin. He insists on bearing our guilt. For He is intent on dying our death. And die He does. Ultimately, Jesus breathes His last after hours of excruciating shame on a cross. “He was pierced for our transgressions,” Isaiah prophesied. “He was crushed for our iniquities. By His wounds we are healed.”
And Jesus’ baptism is not His own, either. It is ours. By His baptism in the Jordan, Jesus takes upon Himself the obligation of the sins of the world. At the Jordan the sinless Son of God is made to be sin for us. His destination is sealed and the Lord of life steps heroically into death. For since the wages of sin is death, the baptism of Jesus points relentlessly to His cross and death.
Dying to live. It sounds strange, but that’s exactly how Christ brings life into this dying world. Through death; His death on the cross. From His body flows blood and water that day, the signs of His death. But they are signs of life for us. In fact, there’s no other way to live than through the death of Jesus. We are all dying; we can either die alone, or we can die in Jesus. But His death brings life, and it’s when we die with Him that we really begin to live.
God does things backwards in Jesus Christ—at least, He always seems to act exactly the opposite of what you and I would expect. He shows His power in weakness, His glory in shame, His majesty in lowliness. From the day that the angel announces to Mary that the baby conceived in her womb is none other than the Son of God until the day the soldiers take His body down from the cross and His friends bury Him in a borrowed tomb, there is always more to Jesus than meets the eye. What you see is what you get, we think. But that’s not the way it is with Jesus. When you look at Jesus, you are actually looking at the back side of God.
But the back side of God and His backwards ways are not an attempt to hide from us. He is actually hiding—in seeming weakness and apparent foolishness—so that He can reveal Himself all the more clearly. God backs into our world, so to speak, in order that we can face Him without being annihilated in our sin. It is His way of being up front and personal.
And the cross is about as personal as God can get. In Eden, Adam and Eve hide their shame from God. At Calvary, a new Adan is clothed in naked human shame. But the Lord of life does not hide—not from either God or man. On His cross He openly displays His love for all to see. It is a hidden love, wrapped up in shame and death so that we might have His intimate love and life here in this dying world of ours. And out of the body of Jesus flows water in His death. It is water drenched in life; the life of God for the death of mankind. But that water flows out from death: the death of God for the life of the world. Nothing else will do.
If the children of Adam are to go on living, then death has to die. And there is only one way death can die; the curse can only be broken by one of Adam’s children—the Seed of the woman. And Jesus is uniquely qualified. A descendant of Adam through Mary, His mother, and yet the Son of God at the same time, He deals conclusively with death by taking it in His own body. Thus the death of the Lord of life is the death of death itself.
“He has destroyed death and brought life and immortality to life through the Gospel,” writes St. Paul (2 Timothy 1:10). Similarly, the letter to the Hebrews elaborates: “Since the children have flesh and blood, He too shared in their humanity so that by His death He might destroy Him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil” (2:14).
In the cross, Satan’s tyranny is broken. The old ancient foe is defeated. The deceiver is deceived, the accuser stands accused, and the destroyer is destroyed. On His cross, Jesus undoes all the havoc wreaked by the devil in the Fall. In the Garden of Eden, Satan had overcome Adam by a tree. But on the tree of the cross the New Adam overthrows Satan. An instrument of death becomes the instrument of life. And so it is in baptism: the very water that destroys brings new life. Drowning becomes rebirth. Christ’s victory means Satan’s defeat. And this victory/defeat is personally applied to every believer in his or her own Baptism.
It’s no accident that the Church to this day precedes baptism with the renunciation of Satan and all his works and all his ways. We all come into this world as slaves of sin, death, and hell. In the waters of Holy Baptism we are set free from slavery; we share in the victory Christ won by His cross. But that victory comes out of death. And the same baptism which raises us to life first plunges us into death. This is precisely why there is life in this water; it brings life by destroying the enemy. When we pass through the waters of baptism a death occurs. It is the same death Christ died long ago: “The death He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life He lives to God” (Romans 6:10).
It all begins in Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan by John. There He assumes your sins. There He is given over into death just as surely as the day He takes up His cross and heads for Calvary. Your baptism begins with the Jesus’ baptism, where He steps into His saving work by that washing of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The Holy Spirit descends on Him like a dove. The Father’s voice affirms Him and His saving work: “You are My Son, whom I love; with You I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). The baptism of Jesus, in other words, is a seal and affirmation of His saving work. That baptism is His consignment into your death.
And it works the other way around, too. As Jesus is baptized into your death, so you are baptized into His death. Your death means death for Him, but His death means life for you. Consigned into His death by baptism, you are partners with Him in His risen life. Thus baptism is at once your tomb and your mother, as the ancient church fathers continually reminded the faithful. Holy baptism is both your tomb of death and womb of new life.   
Your baptismal link with Jesus in His death lies behind St. Paul’s repeated use of the phrase “in Christ.” Because you have shared with Him in His death by baptism, you also share with Him in His resurrection. Because you were buried with Him by baptism into death you now share in Christ’s own risen life. And if you have been given over into the death and resurrection of Jesus, you are given over into Jesus Himself. Hence you now live “in Christ.”
This is not just a figure of speech. The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that the believer’s life is not his own; he lives in Christ as Christ lives in him. Baptized into Christ, we can truthfully say: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loves me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
Human willpower is notoriously anemic and fickle. Jesus Christ, on the other hand, is firm, steady, and sure. I wonder—do you suppose the reason you and I have such a hard time living the Christian life is that we try to go it alone, apart from our baptism into Christ? Baptismal renewal happens as we confess our sins and return in repentance to the forgiveness of sins we first received in Baptism. Small wonder that St. Paul would say, “For to me, to live is Christ.” You simply cannot live apart from the life you have in Christ by your baptism into Him.
The ancient church described baptized believers as fish, conceived in water, born to swim in water. And you know what happens to fish out of water.
So keep in your baptism.  Drown your Old Adam through daily contrition and repentance, so that he would die with all your sins and evil desires, and that your new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. St. Paul declares, “We were therefore buried with Him through Baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
Baptism is both your tomb of death and your womb of new life. It is a link with both Jordan and Calvary, with river and cross, with water and blood. Baptism offers here and now all that your Lord accomplished for you then and there.
What amazing grace! You been washed in the water, washed in the blood—the water and blood that streamed from Jesus’ side on the day He died for you. And there’s no better place to be. For here, baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, you have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. 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.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Have You Seen Jesus?

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“And when His parents saw Him, they were astonished. And His mother said to Him, ‘Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, Your father and I have been searching in great distress’” (Luke 2:48).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Have you seen Jesus? He’s been missing for three days! We’ve been looking all over for Him. We’ve left no stone unturned. Where could He be? He’s only twelve. A small town boy lost in the big city, with hundreds of thousands of people gathered for the Passover. I hate to even say these words aloud for fear that they might come to pass, but for all we know, He might be dead!
Oh, I know what you’re probably thinking: “How could you let Him out of your sight?” That same thought has been plaguing me. You can’t imagine the guilt I feel for failing to keep a closer watch over the son the Lord entrusted to my care. You must think I’m the worst mother ever!
We came to Jerusalem, just like we do every year, to observe the Feast of the Passover. We came to celebrate the redemption of God’s people, Israel, from the bondage of Egypt. When the Feast was ended, we left with our fellow pilgrims for the journey back to Nazareth. It wasn’t until we had traveled a full day that we realized that Jesus was not with us! Let me explain. We were traveling in a caravan with family and friends. The children belong to everybody, and everyone watches over them. The older boys enjoy many adventures as they keep their own company along the way. We just assumed Jesus was with them and we’d meet up with Him at nightfall. We had no reason for concern until we discovered that Jesus had not been with any of them all day. Not finding Him, there was nothing left for us to do but commend Him to the protection of God’s angels and head back to Jerusalem.
Have you seen our Jesus? Please help us find Him!
When something or someone is lost, it is often helpful to retrace your steps. Where did we last see Jesus? That’s right! He was in the temple. In last week’s Gospel, the verses preceding our text, Jesus was in the temple for His presentation. In today’s text, Luke continues that emphasis on the presence of God and the temple, with his account of the only event recorded in Scripture of Jesus’ life between the days of His infancy and baptism at the age of thirty. Out of all of the incidents that Mary might have told Luke when he interviewed her, the Holy Spirit inspired Luke to write this story as representative of Jesus’ childhood.
At twelve years of age, Jesus is about to take His place in the Jewish community as “a son of the Law.” Scripture indicates that Joseph and Mary were faithful in their religious duties, and participated in all the required rites and ceremonies, including the annual Passover festival in Jerusalem. But, as we tell our youth at their rite of confirmation, the time comes in which each of us must take responsibility for our own spiritual growth, and that is just what Jesus is doing according to His human nature. After being “lost” for three long days, Jesus is “found” in the temple courts. The child who was presented here at forty days of age now takes a seat among the teachers of the Word of God. And all who hear Him are amazed at His understanding and His answers.
Where did Jesus get this understanding and answers? It’s so easy for us to assume that He just knew these things from birth. He is, after all, the eternal, all-knowing God. But in taking on human flesh, Jesus set aside His divine attributes. He hid them, if you will, and never used them for Himself, but only for those things necessary for His work of salvation and for works of mercy. But our text provides us with the answer: “[Jesus] grew and became strong, filled with wisdom.” Jesus got this understanding and answers in much the same way as you and me—from hearing and studying God’s Word—though not held back by sin, Jesus’ intellect and will grew at a much faster rate than yours or mine.
It is impossible for us to penetrate the mystery of this development in Jesus—His body and soul and mind untouched by sin, unchecked by any result of sin, His mind and His soul absorbing the wisdom of God’s Word as a bud drinks in the sunshine and expands. Jesus’ mind and His soul, which are truly human, grew in strength and wisdom, but in perfection and in power beyond anything that is possible to sinful mortals. Yet Jesus’ development was absolutely normal. It is the development of all other human beings since the Fall that is abnormal and stunted.
Twelve-year-old Jesus makes quite an impression on the crowd. Mary and Joseph are also astonished—and a bit perturbed—when they find Him. This is evident from Mary’s words: “Son, why have You treated us like this? Your father and I have been searching for You in great distress.”
We might expect parents in this situation to be very stern. But the Greek softens Mary’s complaint by having her call Jesus “child,” instead of “son.” Perhaps this softening has something to do with the place where they finally find Him—in the temple courts. If a twelve-year-old boy were missing today, probably the last place we would expect to find him would be in church. And if we did, we probably would not expect to find him sitting in on a Bible study.
Certainly over the years, Mary and Joseph had brief moments when they were reminded that Jesus was not an ordinary child. When the angel announces His conception and birth. The shepherds repeating the angel’s good news of great joy. Simeon’s song telling that this child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel. The visit from the Magi who come to worship the Baby King. Each of these instances provide a glimpse of the uniqueness of Jesus’ and His work. But in their everyday living as a family, most of the time, things probably seemed rather normal. Then situations such as this would awaken again their sense of the deep responsibility that the Lord had placed upon them. That, more than anger and frustration, must have been their feeling as Mary rebuked Jesus.
Jesus’ response to His mother is His earliest words recorded in any of the Gospels. Mary had addressed Him with a question. As He would often do as an adult, Jesus calmly replies with His own question, two questions, in fact: “Why were you looking for Me? Did you not know that I must be in My Father’s house?”
Though spoken respectfully, there is a gentle rebuke to His questions. Mary is tempted to think of Jesus as an ordinary child, one over whom she has control. But in contrasting His “My Father” with Mary’s “Your father” Jesus shows that He while He remains obedient to His earthly parents, He is bound to follow the will of a higher authority—His heavenly Father.
What Jesus does is not an act of rebellion against his parents. His perfect obedience to them continues to be demonstrated on their return to Nazareth. But Mary and Joseph have to learn and be reminded often that Jesus is directed by a greater will, the will of the heavenly Father, in a way in which no other child is directed. This was something they do not naturally understand. Like any other parents, but with a much higher learning curve, they have to learn “on-the-job.” For Mary this incident adds to the treasure stored in her heart. Already she is learning the meaning of Simeon’s words: “a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Luke closes out this story by telling us, “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and men.” Today we would say that Jesus grew intellectually, physically, spiritually, and socially. In His life as a child, a teenager, a young adult in Nazareth, Jesus basically lives the life of a typical Jew of His day. So seemingly normal that He will catch His parents off guard. So normal that when He preaches in His hometown, the people of Nazareth marvel and wonder where He gets “these things.” So normal that they refer to Him as the carpenter, or Mary’s son, or the brother of James, Joseph, Judas, Simon, and His sisters. But Jesus’ personal growth and His experiences in the human family are all equipping Him for His ministry as Teacher and Messiah.
I think we easily miss this point, so let me reiterate: Jesus is learning! The eternal God, all-knowing even at age 12, is nevertheless learning through His creatures, actually increasing in wisdom, the text says. Realize what this means! Jesus doesn’t always use His omniscience, but instead chooses to learn from the same source we have—the Bible. And consider what that means: When Jesus goes to the cross, it isn’t made easy by His omniscient understanding that He’ll rise again. No! He goes to the cross trusting that God will raise Him—because God has promised in Scripture to do so. The writer to the Hebrews says, “Although He was a son, He learned obedience through what He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). Jesus willingly put sit all on the line to save us, just on the promise of God’s Word. And we have the same source of confidence!
This will not be the only time that Jesus will be found in unexpected places, doing unexpected things. In a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes. Eating and drinking in the homes of sinners and tax collectors. In the temple court, preaching and teaching, turning over tables, and driving out the moneychangers. Hanging on the cross at Calvary for your salvation. Risen from the tomb, giving His disciples peace, and sending them with that same message. Yes, Jesus shows up in the most unusual places. But all of them have one thing in common: they are all “things of His Father.” They are all part of His plan of salvation.
Even when the twelve-year-old Jesus is found in the temple court sitting with the teachers, He is about the things of God, working for your salvation. Jesus is subjecting Himself to His Father in heaven and to His human parents, but not for the reasons we might expect. Jesus does not do this to be a role model, to show you how you can do this, too. Jesus does not do this out of fear, because they are more powerful or greater than He. Jesus submits Himself to His Father—even though they are equals—out of love. Jesus submits Himself to Mary and Joseph—even though He is far greater—out of love. Love to God and love to neighbor.
And love to you. You see, when Jesus submits Himself to His Father and to His earthly parents, He is fulfilling God’s holy Law for you. Where you have failed to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, strength, and mind, He does! Where you have failed to take seriously the reading, hearing, and study of God’s Word, He does! Where you have failed to honor the authorities that God has placed over you, Jesus does! And He does it all for you—for you and every other man, woman, and child—that His perfect obedience might be credited to you.
All of Jesus’ life, from Mary’s womb to the Easter tomb, has one purpose and point—your salvation. When the shepherds find Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in the manger, He is doing so for you. When Jesus goes into the homes of “sinners” to seek and save the lost, He is looking for you. When Jesus parades through the streets of Jerusalem, turns over the tables of the moneychangers, and drives them from the temple, He is fulfilling all of Scripture for you. When Jesus hangs on the cross, He is suffering and dying for you. He is taking on the Father’s wrath for your sins, and crediting with His righteousness to you. When Jesus rises from the dead and appears to the women and His disciples, He does so for you, that you might know the certainty of your own resurrection.
The Son of God has a mission to fulfill, one that trumps every other concern. He comes down from heaven not to fit in the God-box we have crafted for Him, not to fit the messianic job description we might have written. He knows what He has to do, is resolved to do it, and does it. Nothing can stand in His way. Even the best, if misguided, intentions of those closest to Him will not keep Him from accomplishing His mission—the salvation of us all. And that’s why Jesus shows up in the most unexpected places, doing the most unexpected things.
Perhaps that is also why so many people today seek but fail to find Jesus. And I’m not talking about just unbelievers, I’m talking about people who are very familiar with Jesus, people who love Jesus, people who should know better, people who should know Jesus best! Far too often, even they have a difficult time finding Jesus. They have their own misconceptions about what He should be doing. And they get all distressed and confused—just like Mary and Joseph.
The problem is that people look for Jesus in all the wrong places. They look for Jesus in the fleeting and vacillating emotions of their hearts. They look for Him in “relevant” worship filled with entertaining music and messages of self-help and pop psychology. They look for proof of His presence in their own health, wealth, and prosperity. They have the wrong expectations of what Jesus will be doing for them. Setting a good moral example. Helping them live a purpose driven life. Giving them practical tips for living their best life now. But Jesus has not promised to be in any of these places. He has not promised to be doing any of these things.
Where do you find Jesus? What will He being doing? You will find Him in His Father’s house, doing His Father’s things. In the water and Word of Holy Baptism, He washes away your sins and makes you a child of God. In the mouth of His called and ordained servant, He absolves your sins. In His Word of Law and Gospel, He shows you your sins and brings you salvation. In the Sacrament of the Altar, He is truly present with His body and blood to forgive your sins and strengthen your faith. In your daily vocation, He provides you opportunities to serve Him by showing love to your neighbor. In the trials and struggles of life, He refines and perfects your faith, which is of more value than silver or gold.
Have you seen Jesus? Yes, most certainly you have! He’s right where He has promised to be—in His Father’s house, doing His Father’s things. Working for your salvation. Speaking this Good News: “You are forgiven of all of your sins.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Into the Wilderness

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