Saturday, February 28, 2015

Better the Devil You Know...?

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“And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And He said this plainly. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. But turning and seeing His disciples, He rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man’” (Mark 9:31-33).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
I’m sure most of you have heard the saying, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” It means that it is often better to deal with someone or something you are familiar with and know, even if they are not ideal, than to take a risk with an unknown person or thing. But the problem with such an approach is that the devil you know is still a devil, and no devil has your good in mind. Certainly, no devil should be taken lightly, for you or I, on our own power, are no match for the evil one. There is only one who can and does defeat the devil and his demonic hordes—Jesus the Son of God, our Lord and Savior!
You may not have thought about it before in such a way because it is so familiar to you, but the Gospel of Mark is written as a sort of mystery: not a whodunit?, but a “who-is-He?” Who is this Jesus who is baptized by John in the Jordan, who teaches with amazing authority and works miraculous wonders, who dies on a cross, rises again and ascends into heaven at the right hand of God? It’s not a mystery to you. The first verse of the Gospel tells you who He is. It says, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” You know from the very start who Jesus is: then, as you read through the Gospel, you watch for who people think He is, who they say He is. You watch for who gets it right and who gets it wrong. And you are often surprised and amazed at the results.
It’s not until the end of Mark’s Gospel that anyone gets it completely right. It’s a Roman centurion, who says, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” He says it as he stands at the foot of the cross. He says it while he looks up at the powerless, lifeless body of Christ hanging crucified. It’s an extraordinary confession of faith, to look at the corpse of Jesus and say, “I believe that that’s the Son of God.” But that is where Jesus most shows that He is truly the Son of God: as His dead, bloodied body hangs on the cross for the sins of the world.
Our Gospel reading for today is a turning point of Mark’s Gospel. Up to this point, Jesus has been quite cautious, almost coy, about revealing His full identity. From this time on, Jesus begins to teach His disciples very clearly who He is and what He has come to do. He begins to instruct them on what it means for Him to be the Messiah, the Anointed One, and what it means to be a disciple of Christ.
 So far, Jesus has been recognized as the Christ only two times. Very early in His ministry, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum when suddenly He is confronted by a man with an unclean spirit. The demon cries out, “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.” Jesus rebukes the unclean spirit, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” (Mark 1:23-25). Jesus thus demonstrates that He has divine power over unclean spirits, even as He seeks to avoid any interest and amazement in His authoritative teaching and powerful wonders which might actually distract from His real mission.
In Mark 5, Jesus is on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, in the country of the Gerasenes. Stepping out of the boat, Jesus is immediately met by a man with an unclean spirit. He lives among the tombs. And he’s so strong that no one can bind him, not even with chains. When he sees Jesus from afar, he runs and falls down before him. And he cries out with a loud voice: “What have You do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.”
Jesus rebukes the demons, saying, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” And then He casts the demons into a herd of pigs. At this display of His raw power, the townspeople beg Jesus to leave. As a primarily Gentile area, they do not have the false messianic expectations of many of the Jews, but they do display a superstitious suspicion and fear of anything divine.
Jesus recognizes that such people may be more willing to listen given a little time. So when the formerly demon possessed man begs Jesus to let him come along with Him, Jesus tells the man, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how He has had mercy on you.” The witness of the man seems to work for many marvel at what Jesus has done for the man, and the next time Jesus comes into the region, He is heartily welcomed (Mark 7:31-36).
And so it is the devils who first recognize Jesus. And they try to put their own spin on Jesus’ person and work, before He has a chance to properly teach His followers. They want to imprint upon the people their own false impressions of the Messiah—His person and work—before He can, before Jesus can teach His disciples why the Son of God has truly come in the flesh—for the redemption of all people, for the forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation of all God’s people.
Sadly, St. Peter keeps this satanic streak going. Like the demons, he first identifies Jesus as the Christ and then takes Him aside and tries to tell Jesus what to do (or what not to do). So Jesus has to rebuke him: “Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
Jesus has just asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am,” and the disciples have given Him a range of answers—from John the Baptist to Elijah or one of the other prophets. Then Jesus asks them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Christ.” Finally! The right answer! Peter’s got the person of Jesus right—He is the Christ, the Messiah whom God has anointed to save. What good news!
But Jesus tells the disciples to tell no one, because the people will still get the wrong idea about what He’s come to do. But for the disciples, it’s time for Him to fill them in. So He tells them plainly that the Christ has come to suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes; He will be killed and after three days rise again.
Jesus' death on the cross for sin might make perfect sense to you and me; we hear it each week. But it’s a terrible shock to the disciples—so much so that Peter pulls Jesus aside and rebukes Him. Dying on a cross is just not the sort of thing that the Son of God does. Crucifixion is torment and death, and the Christ is all about miracles and powerful preaching… right? So Peter, speaking on behalf of the other disciples tries to talk Jesus out of this plan that seems so insane.
Jesus rebukes him and says, “Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Did you catch that? Jesus calls Peter “Satan.” At this point, Peter’s confession of faith is the same as the demons’: they know who Jesus is, but they don’t want Him to go to the cross. Peter’s rebuke is really no different than the devil’s temptations for those forty days in the wilderness: both encourage Jesus to be the Christ without the suffering.
Now, I’ve little doubt that Peter’s motives are better than those of the devil or his demons, but we all know what highway is paved with good intentions. The simple truth is that both Peter and Satan are trying to prevent Jesus from dying for the sins of the world. But that is exactly why Jesus becomes flesh and dwells among us. He doesn’t have to become flesh to give us His Word—He’s been doing that through the prophets throughout the ages. He doesn’t have to become flesh to work wonders, either. He becomes flesh so that His flesh can be nailed to the cross, so that His blood can be shed, so that He can be the substitute sacrifice for the sins of the world. He becomes man to take man’s place and to be condemned for man’s sin. The cross is how Christ defeats sin, death, and the devil.
That is why it is vital to believe and confess both the person and work of Jesus, that He is the incarnate Son of God who died on the cross for our sins. It is not enough to say, “I believe in Jesus.” Even the demons and the devil believe Jesus is the Son of God, but they certainly do not believe in Him as their Savior.
Today you can find numerous opinions of Jesus just as wrong and just as devilish. Some seek to redefine the person of Jesus into one god among many, one son of God among many, a life-force, a life coach, or a nice man who was mistakenly crucified. Others seek to redefine Jesus’ work so that He’s all about social or environmental justice, communism, feminism, or hedonism. Instead of acknowledging Jesus for who He is and what He does, they want Him to meet their own desires and expectations and agendas.
But the devil is in the details. Because if you get the person or the work of Jesus wrong, then you don’t have faith in the Son of God who died for your sins; and if you don’t have such faith, you have no salvation. That is why the creeds we confess are anything but old, dusty, and irrelevant. In a world that wants to redefine the person and work of Jesus, it is never more important than now to keep saying what the Church has always said, “I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son our Lord: who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried…”
We give thanks that, in a world that so dearly wants to distort Jesus, He preserves His Word so that we might know who He is and what He does for our salvation. We give thanks for preaching “Christ and Him crucified.” The cross is central to our theology. It is only through the lens of the cross that we get a proper understanding of who Jesus Christ truly is and what He has done for us.
And same goes for His Christians. The cross shapes and defines who we are and what we do. Therefore, Jesus says: “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” (Mark 8:34).
But what does this mean? It sounds like a call to suffering, doesn’t it? “Jesus suffered on the cross for your salvation. Follow in His footsteps. Take up your cross and suffer. That’s how you’ll be saved.” But this cannot be! For this sort of devilish reasoning also denies Christ’s cross, and replaces it with a cross of your own making. If you must suffer to be saved, then you must do something for your salvation. And if you must do something for your salvation, then Jesus’ horrific suffering and death wasn’t enough to get the job done.
So then, what does it mean to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Him? Consider these words from St. Paul, in Galatians 2: “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 loved me and gave Himself for me.” Paul speaks of bearing a cross, but it’s not his own. Having already suffered for Paul’s sins, Jesus shares His cross with Paul. He gives Paul the credit for His suffering and death. This is what it means to take up your cross. It means that Jesus makes His cross yours. He gives you the credit for His suffering and death, so that you don’t have to suffer and die for your sin.
But how? How does Jesus make His cross to be your cross?  Paul answers in Romans 6: “Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (vv 3-4).
There you go. In Holy Baptism, Christ gives His cross to you. He shares His death with you and He shares His resurrection with you. In Baptism, you have already died to sin because there Jesus shares His death for sin with you. As His baptized child, you already have eternal life. You still face physical death, yes; but that’s only because your body hasn’t quite caught up with you yet. You’ve already died to sin because Christ joined you to His death.
And here’s the thing. For you, it didn’t hurt one bit. It felt like a splash of water to the head, because it was a splash of water to the head. Your Baptism, your death to sin, didn’t have to hurt you—because Jesus suffered all the hurt for your sin 2,000 years ago. He gives you the credit for His cross, but He does not pass on the cost because He has made the payment in full.
So let’s return to Jesus’ words: “If anyone would come after Me, He must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” This is the life of a Christian. In your Baptism, Jesus placed His cross upon you. Now, daily you deny yourself. In other words, you confess your sins. You confess that, like Peter, you prefer the things of man to the things of God. Then you take up His cross. You trust that, because Jesus has placed His cross on you, the Lord does not hold your sins against you. God looks at you and says, “I see My Son’s cross on you! I see that your sins have been paid for by Jesus, so I will not make you pay again.”

That’s why it has long been the custom of Christians to make the sign of the cross. The sign of the cross is a way of declaring your salvation. Jesus has made His cross to be yours, so that you do not have to suffer for your sin. It is a reminder of all the gifts given to you for Christ’s sake in your Baptism—forgiveness, eternal life, and salvation. Indeed, for Jesus’ sake, 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, February 21, 2015

An Awful, Wonderful Paradox

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The text for today is our Old Testament lesson, Genesis 22:1-18.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Would you deny God in order to save your child’s life? To say that is a difficult question is a huge understatement. It’s an awful question to even consider. But it’s really not a far-fetched question. In fact, given the persecution of Christians throughout the world, it is a question far too many parents actually face. When groups like ISIS line up 21 Christian men for beheading and the only words they can force out of them is a prayer and confession of faith: “Jesus, help me,” they turn to threatening and molesting the children in order to get the parents “to convert.” That’s when the rubber hits the road, when the chickens come home to roost, when theory becomes reality. Loving parents are willing to do almost anything, to make almost any sacrifice, for their child. How far would you go? Would you deny God in order to save your child’s life?
That is also, in essence, the question that is put before Abraham in our text. And the most shocking thing is that it is God who poses the question by commanding Abraham: “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love… and offer him as a burnt offering.” It is a test of faith, of fear, love, and trust in God above all things. “So Abraham, whom do you love more—Me or your son Isaac? Do you trust Me enough to obey no matter what I say?”  
We have here in our text a paradox, “a situation or proposition that seems self-contradictory but in reality expresses truth.” And Abraham faces a paradox of epic proportions. The Lord God has promised that He will establish His everlasting covenant with Abraham and his descendants through his son Isaac; that is, one of Isaac’s descendants will be the Messiah. Then the Lord commands Abraham to take Isaac to a mountain and offer him as a sacrifice.
What do you do when God’s Word seems to contradict itself? This is the test that Abraham faces. But remember, while we, hearing the whole story, know this is a test, Abraham doesn’t. Like Job, Abraham does not learn of this until later. God does not say: “Abraham, don’t you worry; this is only a test.” This is not a role-play or fire drill. This is a real situation, literally involving life and death.  
It’s also important to remember that this testing is not for God’s benefit, but for Abraham’s spiritual benefit. God already knows Abraham fears and loves Him. But Abraham’s love for Isaac, right and good though it is, might in time crowd out his love for God. Many a loving parent has turned his or her own child into an idol, by holding on when the Lord says it is time to go. Jesus later says, “Anyone who loves his son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37). Abraham needs an opportunity to consciously put God first.
The particular sacrifice God calls Abraham to bring is a burnt offering or “holocaust,” a blood sacrifice that in the Old Testament symbolizes a person’s complete dedication to God. You and I may have decided to give up something for Lent of our own accord. Abraham is commanded by God to give up his son, his only son, the son of the promise. And it is to be done in a way that seems to go against everything that Abraham knows of God’s justice and mercy. The ashes of this Lenten journey will be the cremated remains of his son!
It is an awful paradox. Martin Luther accurately describes it: “To human reason it must have seemed either that God’s promise would fail, or else this command must be of the devil and not of God.” To Abraham it must seem that God’s command is destroying God’s promise. And what further complicates the situation for Abraham is that God’s command seems not only to violate a father’s love for his son but also to cut off his hope of ever being saved. If Isaac is the link between Abraham and the only Savior he will ever have, how can Abraham cut off that link and hope to be right with God?  
After what must have been a sleepless night, Abraham gets up early, perhaps so he won’t have to discuss with Sarah the gruesome assignment that lays ahead of him. He saddles his donkey, cuts wood for the sacrifice, and then sets out for the land of Moriah with two servants and his son Isaac.
We marvel at his prompt and absolute obedience. God gets no backtalk from Abraham, no bargaining, not even a question—just obedience. If “the region of Moriah” is the same area as the hill on which Solomon later builds the temple, as many scholars suggest, Abraham has a 50-mile trip ahead of him. God doesn’t want Abraham’s obedience to flow from spur-of-the-moment enthusiasm. Three days of traveling gives Abraham plenty of time to think about what he is doing. And we can be sure that during that time Satan supplies a dozen logical reasons why Abraham should not take the life of his son. “Did God actually say that? Why would He take away your son? Can’t this be done some other way?”
As they draw near to the site, Abraham orders his servants to stay while he and Isaac go on ahead. The servants are not to witness the sacrifice, since they certainly won’t be able to understand. Who can? In what seems the cruelest irony, Isaac carried the sizeable load of wood that is to be used for his own sacrifice. Abraham’s instructions to his servants are significant for two reasons. “I and the boy will worship,” he says. Abraham rightly describes the act that is to follow as worship. His act is a declaration of fear, love, and trust: “Lord, You have my heart. Even though I do not understand, You have spoken and I will listen.”
But the patriarch also adds: “And then we will come back to you.” This hints at the conclusion Abraham has reached to this awful paradox: What do you do when God’s command seems at odds with His promises?  Abraham’s faith answers, “If God commands me to kill Isaac and I obey Him, then God is simply going to have to bring Isaac’s ashes back to life, and the two of us—I and the boy—are going to come back down this mountain.”
Abraham is silent as he and his son walk to the place of sacrifice. It is Isaac who breaks the silence: “My father! Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” The question has to cut Abraham’s heart like the flint knife he carries for the impending sacrifice. His answer is a combination of considerate love, which spares Isaac the brutal details, and of confident faith, which leaves the outcome in God’s hands: “God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”
To obey God’s command, Abraham has to disregard everything his heart and his reason tells him and concentrate totally on God’s promise: “My covenant I will establish with Isaac” (Genesis 17:21). The epistle to the Hebrews give us insight into Abraham’s attitude: “By faith, Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’  He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Hebrews 11:17-19).
Abraham knows that if there is a conflict between God’s command and His promise, resolving that conflict is God’s business. Abraham’s business is to put God first, and he draws his knife. And with that. God knows that in Abraham’s heart the necessary sacrifice has been made. He has surrendered his will and his wisdom—yes, and his son—in obedience to the word of his Lord. Even though he cannot reconcile the awful paradox in his own mind, Abraham is obedient to God’s command, trusting that God’s promise is even stronger.
God deliberately allows the situation to develop to this point to demonstrate that Abraham has made the inner spiritual sacrifice. And then with a doubly urgent “Abraham! Abraham!” God directs Abraham not to harm his son. God has now brought Abraham’s spiritual training to a successful climax, and a messenger from heaven announces: “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him.”
It is the “angel of the Lord” who calls out to Abraham. The fact that He says, “You have not withheld your son from Me” indicates that the speaker is not just a regular angel, but the Angel of the Lord, the Son of God Himself, making another appearance prior to assuming our flesh and blood in the womb of the Virgin Mary.
“Now I know that you fear God,” the Angel tells Abraham. Throughout Scripture the fear of God is a deep feeling of awe in the presence of the great God. It includes an absolute fear of doing anything that would displease him, as well as childlike respect and trust in Him. In unbelievers, only the former is present. Abraham’s behavior at Moriah demonstrates that both are present in his heart.
What do you do when God’s command seems in conflict with His promises? As some would say: “You let go, and you let God.” God resolves this awful, wonderful paradox Himself. He provides the sacrifice! He provides the lamb, thus fulfilling both the command and promise. By providing a lamb for the sacrifice in place of Isaac, God illustrates a principle that becomes more prominent as the Old Testament unfolds—substitutionary atonement. When sinful mortal man cannot fulfill His holy command, God provides a sacrifice that does. Thankful, Abraham gives the mountain a new name, Yahweh Yireh, “The Lord Will Provide.”
The Angel of the Lord speaks to Abraham once again. He rewards Abraham’s God-given faith by repeating and expanding His messianic promise with an oath. When Abraham leaves Moriah, his trust in God’s promise is deepened, and his love for his son is purified and properly prioritized.
But this story is about much more than Abraham as a good example. Like all of Scripture it points to Christ and His work of salvation for you. Abraham’s crucial journey will be repeated many centuries later when Jesus walks the sorrowful way to Golgotha. God’s beloved Son, too, will carry the wood for His own sacrifice to the same mount where Abraham offers up Isaac, the place where the Jerusalem temple will be built with its abundant and pungent animal sacrifices.
Jesus’ journey will continue to the west side of the mountain, to the place of ultimate sacrifice known as Calvary. On that Good Friday, God does not stay His own hand, as He does Abraham’s. God’s only Son, His Beloved will indeed die. And it will be a complete, whole offering. The once-for-all sacrifice of the innocent Son of God will make atonement for the sins of the world. Christ’s body and soul will be consumed in the fire of God’s wrath against sin.
And this makes all the difference in the world for you. You see… you come here in the midst of your own paradoxes. God’s Law requires perfect obedience. A close examination of your own life in the mirror of God’s Law will quickly show you that you—like I—have failed to keep God’s Law perfectly. You have failed to fear, love, and trust God above all things. You have failed to love your neighbor as yourself. You have sinned daily and much against God in thought, word, and deed and justly deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment. And God’s Word makes it clear that the wages of sin is death. Sin can only be atoned with the shedding of blood. But God’s Gospel tells us that He does not desire the death of a sinner. God loves you. He has chosen you to be His very own from before creation. He wants you to be His own and live forever under Him in His kingdom.
This is the awful, wonderful paradox. On one hand, because of sin you justly deserve death and God’s wrath and hell. On the other hand, God, in His mercy and grace, loves you and wants you to live with Him forever in paradise. And there is only one solution: Yahweh Yireh. The Lord Provides. The Lord provides the Sacrifice. The Lord provides the Substitute—His only-begotten Son. The Lord provide the Lamb—the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus fulfills God’s holy Law in your place with His perfect obedience and righteousness. He willing suffers injustice at the hands of sinful man as they mock, scorn, whip, beat, and crucify Him. And He suffers God’s just judgment for a world of sinners—you and me included.
On the altar of the cross, the Lord God provides the Lamb. We could never furnish a sacrifice sufficient to atone for our sin. Christ suffers for us as our Substitute. As man, Jesus makes the self-sacrifice that we humans owe to God. And as God, Jesus is the unblemished offering of infinite merit that cancels our sin. In Christ, the Lamb of God, the paradox is resolved; the full counsel of God’s Word—His command and promise, His Law and Gospelis fulfilled.      
What do you do when God’s command seems at odds with His promise? You hold on to the promise! You trust the Lord to provide. And He has done so in His Son Jesus Christ. Now you know that God loves you, for He does not withhold His Son, His only Son, but gives Him up for you so that you might be His own dear child and live with Him for eternity.
Toward that end, the Lord keeps providing for you through His Word and Sacraments. He makes you His own in water and Word of Holy Baptism. From His altar, in, with, and under the form of bread and wine, He gives you His very body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. Through the preaching of His Word of Law and Gospel, He calls you to repentance and faith. All this so that you might hear and believe 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.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Metamorphoses of Jesus for You

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“And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them” (Mark 9:2).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Last summer, my grandson, Abbott, got a new pet from his Grandma Aimee. Well, actually he kind of begged it from her. One of the teachers at school had found a couple of caterpillars in her herb garden and Aimee had brought one of them home. Seeing this amazingly creepy, crawly creature, Abbott just knew that he had to have this “calupidder.” And Aimee wisely realized that young boys have a much more urgent need for caterpillars than grandmas.
The next day Abbott brought his caterpillar to preschool so that all of his friends could share in this wonder of nature. They put it in a plastic case that Aunt Jessi had once used for hermit crabs, furnished it with a nice branch to which it could attach itself when the time got right, fed it herbs and sugar water and watched and waited for it to change. Abbott’s teacher used the opportunity to teach about the life cycle of these fascinating insects. Abbott came home telling his mom about chrysalises and cocoons, how caterpillars digest themselves, and eventually turn into butterflies. He even learned this process is called metamorphosis.
Metamorphosis: that’s an important word in our text. In fact, this Sunday in the church year gets its name from the Greek word from which we get metamorphosis. In English, we call it “transfiguration.” The dictionary defines metamorphosis as “a striking alteration in appearance, character, or circumstances” or perhaps even more fitting to the context of our text: “a change of physical form, structure, or substance especially by supernatural means.”    
But those of you spelling bee champions may have noticed that the theme for this Transfiguration of Our Lord is “The Metamorphoses of Jesus for You,” spelled with an “e” not an “i.” This is intentional, for today we are going to be talking about not just one metamorphosis, but several. And metamorphoses is the plural form of this word that describes such transfiguration.   
The first metamorphosis of Jesus we speak of is found in our text: “And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them” (Mark 9:2). Jesus was transfigured, literally, He “was changed in His outward, visible form.” Jesus did not change into something or become something new. Absolutely nothing about Jesus’ substance was changed. Jesus is and was and will always be the God-Man, God Incarnate, as we confess in the Athanasian Creed: “Begotten of the substance of the Father before all ages… born from the substance of His mother in this age, perfect God and perfect man.
What changed on the mountaintop? Only the outward form of Jesus changed. “He was transfigured before them, and His clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them.” It’s the same Jesus, but a different form. For a few moments in this Gospel, Peter and James and John are allowed to see the metamorphosis of Jesus. He is transfigured, that is, Jesus appears in a different form than they normally are allowed to see. Jesus is full of brightness and light, His clothes reflect His divinity as one would expect of the only Son of God. But it is just for a moment. St. Mark stresses the immediacy of this moment by using a word for “suddenly” which is used only here in the New Testament. The Father’s command to “Listen to Him” is reinforced by the instant removal of Moses and Elijah, though Peter would have enjoyed hearing more from them. But their moment and purpose has passed. Only Jesus’ words matter and remain. Only Jesus remains.
And that is a gracious wonder in itself. How easily Jesus could have left the world, escaping death just as Elijah did (though I dare say He would not have even needed the chariot and horses of fire or the whirlwind). Jesus could have simply vanished from their sight, never to be seen again. But Jesus remains, knowing full well that staying will mean His own death. He will save others by not saving Himself. He will do it according to His Father’s good and gracious will and timetable, not by the ways of this world or the wishes of mere mortal man.
And so, this transfiguration on the mountain is not the first or the last of the metamorphoses of Jesus. It happens even before His birth and after His death. The Scriptures declare that when He entered Mary’s womb, Christ set aside His “form of God.” He “made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant.” This is not a hologram or a mask or an impression. The eternal and limitless God confines Himself to the physical form of a human body, the same human body that is nailed to a cross (Philippians 2:6-8). Toward the end of his Gospel, St. Mark explains that after His resurrection, Jesus appears to His disciples “in another form” (16:2). Just what exactly that means is not explained. We do know that the Emmaus disciples are somehow kept from recognizing Jesus as they walk with Him on the road. It is only “in the breaking of the bread” that they recognize Him (Luke 24:31, 35).
The Scriptures indicate that Jesus, the incarnate Son of God approaches His people in various forms. In one, He is a nondescript preacher going from town to town in Galilee as Isaiah had prophesied: “For He grew up before Him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him.” (53:2).
Judged by human standards, Jesus appears to be the most unlikely agent of a heavenly mission. He comes not like a sturdy deeply rooted tree, but as bare root stock that needs to be cultured and cared for. God lets His Son grow up in vulnerable flesh. He is indeed a shoot from the root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:10).
However, by Jesus’ day, the outward kingdom of David’s house has been in the control of the Roman Empire; there is no prospect of its revival. Nevertheless, the Son of David has come to establish His kingdom. But He has to do so carefully for many people have the wrong idea of what the Messiah will look like or what He will do. Jesus cannot show the fullness of His majesty, for then He might be honored and spared the crucifixion. That’s why He tells His disciples “to tell no one what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (Mark 9:9).
 On the mount of transfiguration, Jesus shines with the glory of His divine nature, which otherwise has been veiled. This is the glory that the disciples might have envisioned in Mark 9:1, the sort of sign that could have been given to set the sneering Pharisees in their place (Mark 8:1). But that is not God’s purpose and it would only hamper Jesus’ real mission. And so it is only momentary.
However, there is a transfiguration that forever transforms the world from death to life. It is when the glorious God takes the form of a servant, ascends a dark mountain, places death upon Himself, and then rises from the grave. St. Paul writes of this metamorphosis “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5-8).
Isaiah also describes this metamorphosis of Jesus: “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not. Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:3-5).
The Incarnate Jesus appears to His people in various forms for various reasons: At one place, walking around as a common, ordinary man; in another, shining and radiant in His divine glory; at still another time, bloody and beaten, dying on a cross; and yet still in another form after His resurrection in which He is not recognized until He chooses to reveal Himself “in the breaking of the bread.”
“In the breaking of the bread.” That brings to mind one more metamorphosis of Jesus. In the Lord’s Supper, Christ comes to you in a different form. You see bread and wine, but Christ’s Word assures you it is He Himself coming to you. The bread and the wine are indeed the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, not merely represented or symbolized, but miraculously present for you, delivering to you the benefits of His cross and death: forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.
Why should all this matter to you? Simply this: It is just another example of the great lengths to which Jesus will go to be your Savior. Jesus allows Himself to be transfigured—He allows Himself to be changed in His visible, outward form for you, for your salvation. Let me give you some examples of how and why:
Jesus takes the form of a servant, born of the Virgin Mary, so that you will have no reason to fear Him or run away from Him. If Jesus had taken the form of a conquering hero or powerful king, your sin and guilt would compel you to run away and hide from Him like Adam and Eve after the fall into sin. Or the people of Israel when they beg Moses to go up on Mt. Sinai by himself because they can’t stand to be in God’s glorious presence. But Jesus takes the form of a newborn baby—because nobody is afraid of a baby! Jesus knows what the world needs and how it is best to bring it to us for our good.
In our text for today, Jesus is transfigured especially for the sake of Peter, James, and John. Why did Jesus allow these three to see how “His clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them”? These same three were also about to witness Jesus suffer and die for you and your salvation. Before going down the mountain to Jerusalem and the cross, Jesus graciously gives His disciples exactly what they need: a glimpse of His glory. He is transfigured before them to strengthen them for what they are about to see and experience. The intense darkness of Jesus’ crucifixion will be made somewhat more bearable for these disciples because of what they see this day on the mountaintop. This account of the metamorphosis of Jesus is certainly beneficial for us; that is why the Holy Spirit sees fit that it be written. But the transfiguration is especially good for Peter, James, and John. That is why Jesus takes them up with Him “up a high mountain.” Jesus knows exactly what these men need.
And why the Lord’s Supper? Why the body and blood of our Lord in, with, and under the forms of bread and wine? Because Jesus know what you need. Jesus knows the form of His presence that is best suited for you and for your salvation. In the same way He takes the form of a servant for you; in the same way that He is transfigured and radiant with light in today’s Gospel, so also our Lord takes the forms of bread and wine for you in Holy Communion.
Jesus knows that you cannot live on bread alone, but by every Word that comes from the mouth of God. So Jesus inhabits the forms of bread and wine to assure you with these words: “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.”  No, you don’t get a divine light shining brightly from the altar. There will be no cloud gathering in the chancel. Moses and Elijah don’t make an encore appearance. But you get something much better. As you come to the Lord’s Table, you join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. You get the very same Jesus that stood on the mountain of transfiguration and hung on the cross. And no matter where you have Jesus, no matter what the promised form, you have everything Jesus earned for you on the cross: forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Indeed, for Jesus’ sake, 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, February 7, 2015

A God Big Enough to Get Personal

"The Crucifixion: As Seen from the Cross" by James I. Tissot
Click here to listen to this sermon.
“Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; His understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might He increases strength” (Isaiah 40:28-29).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
When Henry Norris Russell, Princeton astronomer, had concluded a lecture on the Milky Way, a woman came to him and asked: “If our world is so little, and the universe is so great, can we believe that God pays any attention to us?”
Dr. Russell replied, “That depends, madam, entirely on how big a God you believe in.”[i]
How big is your God? Is He big enough to create everything out of nothing and to keep it going with only His Word? Is He big enough that the sky serves as His tent and the inhabitants of the earth look like so many grasshoppers as He looks down from his heavenly throne? Is He big enough to move the rulers of world like so many chess pieces? Is He big enough to know the hearts and minds of His people? Is He big enough to care? Is He big enough to get personal?
 Apart from God’s revelation of Himself, none of us would know much about Him. Oh, we can look at creation and know that there must be a God who created these things. We can get a glimpse of His power and majesty. But we can’t really know what He is like, or what He thinks about us.  
This has led humans to fashion their own gods out of their puny, limited imaginations. In Isaiah’s day they created idols out of wood and precious metals. Though we think ourselves too enlightened for such silly, superstitious images, that doesn’t mean that we don’t make our own gods. In fact, the gods of our contemporary world are really no different in essence from theirs.
The god that so many fashion today appears as a tolerant old grandfather in the sky who smiles when we do good. He forgets and excuse our moral lapses. He accepts everyone and embraces them in his fatherly arms. He does not threaten punishment for anyone except the most heinous criminal. But that’s an idol as surely as the images of Baal and Dagon. It’s a far different god from the one Isaiah describes in our text—a God of holiness and justice. We have fashioned a god in our image and molded him to be the way that we want him to be. But, if we can create our own god, how big can He really be? What can He really do for us?
The four questions that open our text are blunt challenges to all of us who seek to create God in our own image. “Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?”  
God has not hidden Himself.  He has revealed Himself from the beginning. He talked with Adam and Eve in the garden. After they sinned, He continued to speak to them. Though He warned them of the consequences of their sins, He also revealed the promise of a Savior to come. He spoke to Noah before and after the destruction of the sinful world by the flood. God came to Abraham and promised him that the world would be blessed through Seed. God met Moses on the mountain and gave him the Law, which reveals His holy will. God made sure that what Moses and later writers wrote was His Word, not their own speculation. God inspired them, giving them the very words they were to write.
The truth has always been available. But the human mind has been so darkened by sin that it cannot imagine God as He truly is. God pictures Himself as the Creator and Ruler of the world. He sits high above the world He created. He stretched out the heavens as easily as one would pitch a tent. God is not created but uncreated and eternal, without beginning and without end. He is separate and different from the world He created. He is holy, infinite, perfect, and changeless.
In comparison, we humans are like so many grasshoppers. Because of sin, we are nothing like God. We are finite, temporal, and imperfect, subject to changes of all kinds, limited in our knowledge and understanding, and mortal. What arrogance for us to fashion our own God!  If we want to know about the one true God, we must humbly listen to what He tells us about Himself.
The one true God asks: “To whom then will you compare Me, that I should be like him?” God, the Holy One who is high above and separate, has always wanted His creatures to know who He is and what He has done. He is big enough to get personal. Through His Word, God instructs men and women in the mysteries of His love for the world and its inhabitants.
First, we are directed to look to the heavens and the stars. We know the answer to the question “Who created all these?” God did, of course, but God did not simply create the universe and then leave it alone. He continues to care for it. Astronomers and astrologers study the movements of the stars in the vast expanse of the universe, but God determines the movement. He controls the movement of the stars as a general would control his army.
What a contrast to those who think that the stars control their destinies and who consult their horoscopes to discover what life will bring them. God controls the stars; not vice versa. But God does not control them with impersonal detachment. Each of the stars of heaven have God’s personal attention; not one of them is missing without His knowledge. He calls them all by name, as a father would call His children by name. So powerful, vast, and loving is our God.
Still, God’s people are not beyond complaining that such a powerful and boundless God has forgotten them. All too often we fail to depend on God’s power and tender interest in the affairs of His created world. Therefore the Lord says through His prophet: “Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”?
Jacob and Israel are names for God’s people that recall the love of God and the origins of God’s Old Testament people. God cared for Jacob, blessed him, and protected him. God wrestled with him and changed his name to Israel. Then God repeated the promise made to Abraham and Isaac that the Savior would come through his descendants. All this God did out of grace and mercy. Jacob did not deserve any of it. Neither did Jacob’s descendants. As they became the nation of Israel and left Egypt, God continued to care for them. He delivered them from Pharaoh through the Red Sea. He led them through the wilderness by pillar of cloud and fire. He brought them through the Jordan and into the Promised Land. God marked every phase of their history with His gracious care and providence.
In view of God’s loving care, the complaints of His people are groundless. If God can call the stars by name, He certainly can care for His people. If God had demonstrated such love for the ancestors of His people, He will continue to care for His people now. God has pledged Himself to His people. He has bound Himself to them by promise. No matter what difficulties they face, He is powerful enough to care for them. He loves them too much to abandon them.
This message was important for the Jews who would be led away captive by the Babylonians. In the midst of their tears and heartache, God wanted them to remember that He was in control and continued to love them.
The lesson is just as important for us to remember. We are God’s people, not by blood but by faith in Jesus Christ, nevertheless, we are no less prone to complain when things go badly. God loves us not just when all goes well. He loves us always. He has His own reason for allowing trouble, pain, and tears into our lives. And He promises that He works all things for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose. Whatever circumstances you might find yourself in today, remember that He is almighty and all knowing. You can trust Him to do the best for you. He loves you too much to do anything less.
To remind us of this, the Lord repeats two questions: “Do you not know? Have you not heard?” These questions direct us back to what God reveals about Himself in the Scriptures. That’s where we can discover who God is—in His Word. There God reveals Himself as “the Lord,” Yahweh, the God of free and faithful grace. This covenant-God reveals Himself to be the true God.
Here, the Lord reveals four important truths about Himself. First, He is the Creator. He has unlimited power and uses that power for the benefit of His creatures. He gave them life and provided a beautiful world in which to live.
Second, He does not become tired or weary. His power was not exhausted by creation nor does He grow tired caring for that world He called into existence.
Third, He is beyond human ability to grasp and understand. He is holy and unique. God must reveal Himself if we are to know anything about Him beyond the fact that He exists and He is great.
Fourth, God gives strength to the weary and weak. God turns Himself toward His creatures. He gives blessings to them out of love for them.
Humans are much different; we are not as big as God. We are creatures, not the Creator. We grow weary and weak. We can understand some things, but we are often confused and ignorant. We must learn; God knows all things. We stumble and fall, grow weary and tired; but God promises to give us strength.
How can we receive such a gift from the Lord? Our text provides the answer: “They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.” Faith in the Lord brings this strength. When we rely on our own strength, we will stumble. When we trust in the Lord for strength, He gives it.
What wonderful comfort for all “who wait for the Lord”! The entire life of God’s people—our walking, running, and soaring—is filled with the boundless and tireless strength of God. Even in death, we mount on eagle’s wings and soar to God in heaven, when God gives us joy forever.
All of this finds its ultimate fulfillment in Christ. God has been revealing Himself to man throughout human history. He has revealed His splendor and majesty in the magnificence of His creation. He has revealed His love and grace through His holy Word. Now He reveals Himself in Christ.
Jesus Christ is the ultimate Word and the perfect revelation of God. Jesus is the ultimate proof that God is big enough to get personal. And, I mean that literally. Jesus is the Lord Himself, who took on human flesh to take your place. He lived the perfect, obedient life that you could not live. He suffered and died on the cross to pay for your sins. He rose again on the third day, that you might have the certainty of the resurrection of your own body unto life everlasting. And now ascended into heaven, He promises to be with you always to the end of the age.
If you focus only on the circumstances of your life and look within yourself for strength, you will eventually fall into despair. You will see nothing but trials and troubles. You will see only your sin and the judgment you deserve. But our Lord bids you to lift up your head, to wait on the Him and His strength. He sets forth His Word and with it gives Himself to you, so that all things of His are yours and you, on the other hand, may cast your weakness off on Christ.
You are a sinner, but Christ is righteous. You are poor, but Christ is rich. You are foolish, but Christ is wise. If you are a captive, Christ is present to set you free. If you are forsaken, Christ takes you to Himself. If you are cast down, Christ consoles you. If you are weary, Christ refreshes you. Finally, He pours Himself out for you altogether, to redeem you and make you His own.
Jesus is a God big enough to get personal. And He does so today in His means of grace. Christ comes to you personally in His preached Word, calling you repentance through His Law and comforting you with His Gospel. In Baptism, He makes you a child of God and a co-heir with Christ, washing away your sin clothing you with His righteousness. In Holy Communion, the Lord feeds you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. Through His called and ordained servant He absolves you of all your sins. Indeed, it is my pleasure to proclaim to you today 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.

[i] Tan, P. L. (1979; Published in electronic form by Logos Research Systems, 1997). Encyclopedia of 7700 illustrations : A treasury of illustrations, anecdotes, facts and quotations for pastors, teachers and Christian workers (electronic ed.). Garland TX: Bible Communications.

Into the Wilderness

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