Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Good Shepherd Lays Down His Life

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[Jesus said]: “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Let’s be honest. The idea of a shepherd laying down his life to save a sheep is ludicrous, even scandalous. No reasonable shepherd would lay down his life for his sheep. No sheep, not even a whole flock of sheep, is worth the life of one  shepherd. Even the most dedicated shepherd would not give his life up for his sheep. Oh, I’m sure he would be willing to experience discomfort for his sheep. He might spend sleepless nights keeping watch over his sheep. He might risk harm in order to keep predators away from his sheep. But he would not be willing to die for the sheep. It is generally the sheep that end up dying for the shepherd’s benefit—some to feed the shepherd and his family, others to provide the sacrifice for the sins of the shepherd and the rest of God’s people. And so, while some of Jesus’ first hearers find great comfort in His words about the Good Shepherd, many others have a problem accepting them. And Jesus isn’t surprised by this one bit.
The Holy Gospels from John 10 that are assigned to this Fourth Sunday of Easter make it Good Shepherd Sunday every year. In the course of the three years of the lectionary, we are given a complete look at this metaphor as Jesus speaks about knowing His sheep and His sheep listening to His voice.
This is all good and nice for you and me. What a comfort it is for us to have Jesus as our Good Shepherd, to be His sheep! But what about Jesus’ original audience? How did they take Jesus’ use of the shepherd metaphor to give a picture of His person and work? It was based upon something familiar to all of them, both from their awareness of what was involved in shepherding and from their familiarity with the Shepherd Psalm, Psalm 23, which we just read responsively.
To understand this passage, we must look at the immediate context. Jesus had just been confronted by the Pharisees for healing the blind man on the Sabbath.  Jesus implied they were really the blind ones. They were spiritually blind. They claimed to see, better than all others; but their eyes were blind to the truth. That’s when Jesus began His discourse on shepherds and sheep, hired hands and wolves.
Although it is likely His disciples were also present, Jesus spoke primarily to the Pharisees. And so the question becomes more personal: Would these Pharisees, the ones who claimed to know God’s Word and teach it, hear it for themselves? Would they repent and receive Jesus’ offer of forgiveness and life or would they remain in their sinful disbelief? Would they listen to the Good Shepherd’s voice?
The power of God’s Word is amazing. To repentant sinners, to those who are truly His sheep, Jesus’ message of the Good Shepherd is sweetest Gospel. It brings forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. But that very same Word becomes accusing Law in the ears of unbelievers, those who reject Him. As St. Paul would write in 1 Corinthians 1:18: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.”
Notice the reaction of Jesus’ opponents after He spoke these words: they were divided. Those whose hearts were hardened became still more vehement against Him. They said, “He is demon-possessed and raving mad.” But others said, “These are not the sayings of a man possessed by a demon.” Besides, they remembered Jesus’ miraculous signs: “Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”
In calling Himself the Good Shepherd, Jesus was making a very specific claim, calling for specific acceptance or denial. His opponents recognized this. That’s why, a few verses later in John 10, they picked up stones to stone Jesus. When Jesus asked why they planned to stone Him, they replied, “for blasphemy, because you, a mere man claim to be God.” They knew exactly who Jesus was claiming to be. They just did not accept His statement to be true.
When it comes to the question, “Who is this Jesus?” there are really only three possible answers. Jesus is either a fraud, a mad-man, or the Savior of the world. He can be nothing else. Jesus lays these possibilities before His hearers in our text for today, as He speaks of hired hands, wolves, and the Good Shepherd.
In that culture, a shepherd owned the sheep. He cared for his family’s flock and was born to the task. He focused on the welfare of the sheep and was ready to face hardship and danger for their benefit because he had a vested interest. On the other hand, a hired hand would think largely of the pay he would receive for “doing the job.” He would not be ready to risk himself for the sheep that belonged to someone else. When trouble came, he would disappear.
The hired hand is like those church leaders who think more of their own well-being than of serving God’s flock. They are not true shepherds. They do not feel any personal responsibility for the sheep. When the wolves come, they show their real colors. They abandon the flock and let the wolves ravage and scatter it.
The wolf is the enemy who, if unchecked, will destroy the flock and keep it from the Good Shepherd. Every false teacher is such a wolf. Jesus warned another time: “Watch out for the false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matthew 7:15).
In contrast to the metaphors of hired hand and wolf, Jesus declares: “I AM the Good Shepherd.” This is another forceful I AM statement by which Jesus pointed to Himself as the Lord God. No wonder, the Pharisees were ready to stone Him! But Jesus didn’t merely lob this statement like a verbal hand grenade and run. He backed it up with evidence, evidence that demanded a verdict in the heart of every listener. Jesus’ Word has the power to divide and unite—to divide believers from unbelievers and to unite believers with Him and one another. Jesus had just stated as much: “For judgment I have come into the world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind” (John 9:39).
The first evidence of Jesus’ being the Good Shepherd is that He lays down His life for the sheep. The Greek translated as “for the sheep” means more than just dying to defend the sheep. It conveys the sense of “on behalf of” or “in the place of” the sheep. This Good Shepherd will die as a Substitute for the sheep.
In the Old Testament sacrificial system, sheep were offered daily as sacrifices for the sins of the people. During festivals and dedications hundreds and thousands of sheep, bulls, and goats might be offered up. For the burnt offering, a male lamb (or goat) without defect was slaughtered, its blood sprinkled on the altar, and the lamb consumed in the fire of the altar. Here, the Good Shepherd, the sinless Son of God, says He will lay down His life in the place of His sheep.
But it is important to remember that Jesus did not just give up His physical life, Jesus also gave up His soul into death, as a ransom, as the one complete sacrifice for the guilt of all sinners who have earned eternal damnation. As our Substitute, the once-for-all sacrifice that atones for the world’s sin, Jesus’ body and soul experienced God’s fiery wrath, so that we would not have to.
This would be done voluntarily. All the bulls and goats and sheep of the Old Testament had no say. And though Jesus, like a lamb who is led to slaughter would not open His mouth, He would not do so under compulsion. He would do so willingly. “I lay down My life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of My own accord. I have authority to lay it down and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I received from My Father.”
          No one could possibly take Jesus’ life from Him against His will. Right before healing the blind man, Jesus’ enemies had tried to take His life by stoning Him, but Jesus slipped away from them. They would pick up stones again in the passage right after this, but Jesus would escape their grasp. Later in John’s Gospel the men who came to arrest Jesus, drew back and fell to the ground at Jesus’ word, “I am He.” There was no mistaking who was really in charge of the situation.
When Pilate threatened Jesus with his authority to crucify Him, Jesus replied, “You would have no power over Me if it were not given to you from above” (John 19:11). Jesus had the power to call the whole thing off any time He chose. That’s why He told Peter in Gethsemane, “Put your sword back into its place… Do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once send Me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Matthew 26:52-54). Jesus’ death was no accident, nor was it just another human tragedy. It was the purposeful act of Jesus’ will.
The second evidence of Jesus’ identity as the Good Shepherd is tied to the first. As He moves toward His sacrificial death, Jesus makes it clear that He is not a tragic victim of death. Rather, He is the confident master of death and will become the victor over it. Jesus said: “For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of My own accord. I have authority to lay it down and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from My Father” (John 10:17-18).
Much is made today about who killed Jesus: who was to blame? We know who the human agents were, but that’s mostly beside the point. No one could have killed Him against His will. “No one,” Jesus stressed, took His life from Him. His was a true self-sacrifice out His boundless love. He had the authority and the power and the directive from His heavenly Father to give the sacrifice and show the proof. He was determined to die and rise again, to fulfill all Scripture.
When asked to tell you how they know that the Christian faith is true, many will say you feel it in your heart. Others will point to dramatic changes in their life. In fact, there are some who say, “Just give it a try. If it works for you, then you will know that the Gospel is true.” But all of these approaches are subjective. They point you to something in yourself. True saving faith is objective. It comes from outside of you. It is rooted in the objective truth of God’s unchanging Word.
How do you know that the Christian faith is true? Consider the evidence. Consider the eyewitness testimony, including Peter’s confession in Acts 4. “Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead… This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone” (v.1-11).  Is Jesus’ Word true? Did Jesus do what He said He was going to do? Was He a fraud, a mad-man or the Savior of the world?
Jesus is the Savior! Jesus is the Good Shepherd! And we know this because He laid down His life for His sheep, only to take it up again, just like He said He would. Would a fraud lay down his life? No! At the first sign of trouble he’d hightail it out of there like the hired hand in Jesus’ parable. Would a mad-man lay down His life? Perhaps. Demons are very destructive. They could most certainly fool a man into taking or giving up His life. But they would not be able to raise him from the dead. Jesus’ death and resurrection is proof that He is who He said He is—He is the Good Shepherd, our Lord and Savior, who lays down His life on behalf of His sheep to take it up again.  
Jesus’ words in our text are an urgent invitation to all who hear or read them. They were originally addressed to the Pharisees. Most of them were stubbornly opposed to Jesus. Many wanted to kill Him. But some were on the brink of faith. Jesus invites and urges all of them to accept Him. “I love you so much that I will die for you. I will prove My words by taking up My life again, by rising from the dead. I AM the Good Shepherd and the Savior that you need!”
He also directs these words to you and me. To sheep surrounded by wolves on every side He cries out, “Remember who your Shepherd is. Remember that I laid down My life for you. Remember that I took it up again on the third day. I am a shepherd whom you can love and trust. I am your Good Shepherd.”
Before we close today, I want to remind you who that Good Shepherd is. Here, in this church, we have a beautiful stained glass window portraying Jesus as the Good Shepherd, gently holding one of His lambs in His arms. This is a fine representation of our Good Shepherd as portrayed in Psalm 23. The one who comforts His sheep, guards and protects them, and provides all that we need for this life and the next. And all of this is most certainly true. Our loving Lord does all of these things each day out of His goodness and mercy.
But any good shepherd would care for his sheep. Only one would die for them! The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep and takes it up again. The love of the Good Shepherd is more accurately represented with a crucifix—Christ’s bloody corpse hanging on a cross as our Substitute. Or the statue that we have on the altar: the resurrected Lord, holding out His nail-scarred hands, declaring to us His peace and forgiveness. For it is in His death and resurrection that Jesus ultimately proves who He is.
To each of us He calls out today: “I AM the Good Shepherd. Listen to My voice so that you may know Me as I know you. Come faithfully to the Divine Service to hear My words of Law and Gospel. Come and be refreshed in the still waters of your Baptism. Come regularly to the Table I have prepared for you in the presence of your enemies—sin, death, and the devil. Follow Me as I lead you fearlessly through the valley of the shadow of death. Come to eat and drink from cups that overflows with goodness and mercy. Receive My very body and blood, which I have laid down for you for the forgiveness of your sins. I have taken it up again that you may have abundant life, eternal life, resurrected life.
“Come and hear this Good News that makes you My sheep and keeps you in My flock forever: You are forgiven of all of your sins.”

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

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Sermon for the Funeral of Lucille Brockberg

Dear members of Lucille’s family, her friends, and members of St. John’s: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
At a funeral service, I find that there are often younger people, and maybe some not so young, who are trying to find the place for religion in their lives. They’re asking themselves, “Does this mean anything to me? Is this just something my parents cared about?” But then, at some point, everybody faces something he or she can’t handle, something that shakes us up. Maybe it’s the biggest stress we’ve yet faced in this life. Maybe it’s the death of a loved one. Maybe it’s an unexpected diagnosis of a dangerous disease. Or maybe it’s the eventual realization that we have to face the end of this life. And suddenly we wish there could be some place to turn—or Someone to turn to—outside ourselves.
Then maybe those who’ve gone before can teach us something after all. Turning to their example we see that as they learned and grew their faith became absolutely foundational. It’s not an old-fashioned thing; it’s not a generational thing. Each of us needs a firm foundation so we know how to face the fears of life and beyond. Lucille, I think, is one of those people from whom we can learn because she knew where her Christian faith fit into all this. Lucille knew she could face her fears because her Redeemer promised to deliver her from them all.
It is this kind of confidence to which the Lord encourages His people in our text for today, Isaiah 43:1-3a.: “But now thus says the Lord, He who created you, O Jacob, He who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.’”  
In the verse immediately preceding our text, Isaiah announced God’s wrath upon His people. They did not obey His Law; they were blind and deaf to all that God had done for them. God would certainly have been justified in abandoning such ungrateful and stubborn people to their own sins. The phrase “But now,” however, introduces something unexpected. We read tender words of faithful love from the Lord, the God of free and abundant grace.
Isaiah tells us that this message come from the Lord Himself. These are words of hope and encouragement in the midst of fear and despair. This is important. There are many philosophies, ideas, and different ways to live life out there in the world. There are many strategies people try in order to handle fear—some of them relatively successful and others abject failures. You can be crippled by fear. You can bury your head in the sand and try to act as if no problem existed. You can try to handle it yourself until you break under the pressure. Or you can turn to the Lord and listen to what He says.
Isaiah tells us something about this God who speaks to His people. This Lord is “He who created you, O Jacob, He who formed you, O Israel.” Notice the repetition. That’s how Hebrew poetry works. Say something, and then repeat it with a little twist to deepen our understanding of it. Here, God says: “I have created you,” but then adds: “I have formed you.” That’s a closer relationship. “You are not an accident produced through a series of random events,” God is saying. “No, I ‘formed’ you. Like a potter with a piece of clay, I have lovingly and skillfully molded you and shaped you. From the time of your conception, while you were yet in the womb, I have been actively involved in your life.”
Then come two great words that are the theme of our text: “Fear not.” This unexpected announcement to set aside fear comes for three reasons; all three of them trace the comfort back to the Lord Himself: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”
These sweet words of comfort apply first of all to God’s faithful people in the days of Isaiah. Centuries before, the Lord had redeemed His people from their bondage in Egypt, claiming them as His own. Now, in spite of their continued rebelliousness, the Lord would again redeem His people from Babylon. In the troubled days ahead, these words sustained God’s people. God Himself had said, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you.” But they also treasured these words for the promise of a deeper, more significant redemption with the coming of the Messiah.
When we read and hear these words thousands of years later, we too find comfort in them. The Lord has redeemed us too, but from a greater bondage. By our sins, we were slaves of sin and in bondage to death and punishment. The Lord redeemed us from sin, death, and hell. He bought us with the price of the blood of Christ on Calvary. God called us by name when He washed us in the water of Baptism. All believers belong to the Lord; we are His possession, His chosen people. And so, His promises are ours as well, including His promise to “Fear not.”
But it is easier said than done, isn’t it? Life is full of fears. I’m sure that Lucille went through most of them. Growing up—that’s terrifying for everybody, isn’t it? We each struggle to find our own identity. We wonder what our life will be like, where we’ll work, if we’ll ever get married. When we do tie the knot, there’s the fear and tough business of making it work.
Lucille and Harvey went through more than 50 years together facing the fears every couple faces: finding a job, the ups and downs of family farming, making a home, planning for the future. Along came children, and Lucille and Harvey suddenly had a whole host of new fears! There was worry about paying the bills, keeping the kids fed and healthy, the friends they hung around with, and the choices they’d make as they established their own way in the world. Finally, in life, Lucille, like each of us, had to deal with her own shortcomings, her own insecurities, her own sinfulness, and ultimately, her own mortality.
Lucille could have become worrisome and anxious, but she kept hearing the Lord’s voice saying, “Fear not. I not only made you, but I came in the flesh as one of you. I was born of a woman that I would experience everything that you can experience. I understand. So don’t be afraid. I redeemed you on the cross when I took all your sins upon Myself. Every bit of punishment due you ended right there. I want you to live free, not fearfully, for you are My daughter. I redeemed you, and in My resurrection even the last enemy—death—has been defeated. Fear not.”
As the Lord said to Israel through the prophet Isaiah, He also said to Lucille: “I have called you by name.” That happened over 92 years ago when Lucille was baptized. At that moment God said, “Lucille, you are My child. You are Mine. I called you by My name. No one shall ever pluck you from My hand.” And to make sure Lucille stayed in His flock, the Lord fed her regularly in the worship service with His life-giving Word and His own true body and blood for the forgiveness of her sins and the strengthening of her faith.
God sustains us through even our most difficult times. And, let’s face it: life in this world does have its difficult times. But our Lord promises to be with us: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” Notice how the Lord says, “When you pass through the waters…” It is not a matter of if you pass through the waters, but when. In this fallen world we can expect, we must expect difficulties, troubles, and trials to come. Because of sin such things are inevitable.
Even so, the Lord promises, “The rivers… shall not overwhelm you.” Oh yes, they will bother you; they will try you; they may make you want to give up. But fear not. I will be with you. “When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
It probably won’t surprise those of you who knew her best, but the few times when I visited with Lucille alone, she wasn’t interested in talking about herself and how she was doing for very long. She preferred to talk about how much God had truly blessed her. She wanted to talk about her life, her children, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren. She was more concerned about you than she was concerned for herself.
You know why? Because she believed God’s words: “Fear not.” Lucille wasn’t afraid of her last days or her final moments because she knew she was redeemed. She knew that the Lord had called her by name and made her His through the water and Word. She knew her Good Shepherd would be with her as she walked through the valley of the shadow of death. She knew her final destination was to be with the Lord. That let her enjoy talking about other things. That let her focus her attention on your welfare, on your successes and challenges, on your walk of faith, rather than on her own weakness and advancing age.
And so, I’m sure that Lucille would want me to take this opportunity to direct your attention away from her and point you back to her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ one more time. Listen again to her confirmation verse, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”  

Only in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, and His life-giving Word will you find freedom in the midst of bondage, hope in the midst of despair, peace in the midst of fear, strength in the midst of weakness, life in the midst of death. Only in Jesus will you find forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. May God grant each of you to know His saving love. Amen.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Christ Is the Content, Center, and Key to All Scriptures

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“Then [Jesus] said to them, ‘These are My words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem’” (Luke 24:44-47).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Dr. Mortimer Adler taught a class at the University of Chicago on “The Great Books of the Western World.” On one occasion Dr. Adler turned to one of his brightest students and asked her to summarize one of the books for the class. She had just gotten a high A on her examination for that very book, but she had to sheepishly admit: “I have no idea what it was about, Dr. Adler.”
Adler instantly realized that he had been preparing his students for the examination on a book, but he had not taught it to them. His students could get 100 percent on an examination, yet not understand what the book was about! He said he changed his whole approach to teaching that afternoon. From that time on Dr. Adler had his students read a book primarily to learn what the book was about rather than simply memorizing facts.
Unfortunately, too many people read the Bible in the same way as Dr. Adler’s students had been reading their assignments. They can answer a lot of questions about the Bible, but they can’t tell you what it is really about! They get bogged down in the minutiae and subplots, and end up ignoring the main character and major plot, the golden thread that ties it all together. As a consequence, the Bible remains for them a closed book.
A good example of this approach is the Jehovah’s Witness or Mormon missionary who comes knocking at your door. In all likelihood, if you ask, they will tell you that they take a very high view of the Bible’s inspiration. But they do not acknowledge the centrality of Christ in all of Scripture. And, consequently they do not confess Christ crucified and risen for the justification of sinners.
But this position is not found only in cults outside of Christianity, it is unfortunately also held by many mainline liberal Christians who treat the Scriptures as simply a collection of moral lessons for wise living, but even then, make certain to highlight their own tolerance and open-mindedness—that, of course, you’re free to pick and choose your own morality.
And then there are the more socially conservative Christians who call themselves American evangelicals. Unfortunately they tend to emphasize the “American” more than the evangelion, the Gospel, so the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ takes a back seat to “reclaiming our Christian heritage.”
As a result, much of the preaching in today’s American churches is just as Christless as the teaching of the Enlightenment deists. The “Christ” preached in many of these congregations seems to exist in order to aid the hearer in his or her pursuit of successful living—whether that be financially, relationally, or psychologically. And for that kind of “salvation” there really is no need for a Savior who dies on the cross, is buried, and is raised again on the third day according to Scriptures. I suspect that is probably why Jesus just makes an obligatory cameo appearance on many Sundays in those congregations.    
What is the Bible about? It is about Jesus Christ and His work of salvation. Martin Luther said that Jesus Christ is the “center and circumference of the Bible,” meaning that its fundamental content is Christ—who He is and what He did for us in His death and resurrection. To miss Christ as the center and key to Scripture is to remain in darkness and ignorance.
In taking this position, Luther was not dreaming up some novel way to read the Scriptures. He was simply reflecting what Jesus said. Jesus confronted the Pharisees: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40).
Or think of the story of the risen Lord walking with the dejected disciples on the road to Emmaus. On that first Easter, Jesus teaches the Bible study of all time. St. Luke tells us: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27).
Later that night, Jesus appears to His disciples as they gather together in the locked room, as recorded in our Gospel. After assuring them that He has come in peace, and that it is truly Him risen in the flesh, Jesus reminds them: “These are My words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
It is evident in these and other passages that Jesus really thought He is the major subject of the Old Testament Scriptures—from Moses all the way through the prophets. He believed that they were all writing about Him! This is either highly inflated ego, unbridled narcissism, or Jesus was giving His disciples (and us, by extension) the key to understanding what all of Scripture is about.
This seems like a “no-brainer.” Not many Christians would object if you were to say, “I’ll tell you something really radical: the whole Bible is about Jesus Christ!” Many would yawn as they reply, “Tell us something we don’t already know.” But ironically many evangelical Christians treat the Bible as if it were some handbook for good living like William Bennett’s Book of Virtues or a collection of inspiring Chicken Soup stories, and they never really see Christ at all. If we were to read any other book this way, actively ignoring the major character and the plotline, we would never come to a correct understanding of that book.
Let me reemphasize this: The Bible is about Christ—about Him from start to finish, from Genesis through Revelation, from the Seed of the Woman promised in Eden to the Lamb of God on the throne in the New Jerusalem. If one does not see this, he or she will inevitably have no idea what the Bible is actually saying.
The entire Old Testament was laying the groundwork for God’s eternal plan of salvation through His Only Begotten Son… the Offspring of Abraham… the Prophet Greater than Moses…the Son of David who reigns eternally as David’s Lord … the virgin-born Immanuel and Suffering Servant of Isaiah… Job’s Redeemer who lives to bring bodily resurrection to His own… Daniel’s Ancient of Days who convenes His heavenly court. The Bible is the record of the Mystery dwelling among us… the eternal Word by whom all things were created… the great I AM, who speaks to Moses through the burning bush and leads His people through the wilderness into the Promised Land by pillar of cloud and fire.    
Embedded in that history of Israel—all of its battles, its ups and downs, successes and failures, strengths and weaknesses—is this singular message: Jesus is the Christ. He suffered, died and rose to save sinners. Sinners like you and me. Jesus shed His blood on the cross for your sin. He rose for your justification. The Bible is all about the proclamation of full forgiveness for sinners in Christ’s name. And where there is forgiveness in the Name of Jesus there is life and salvation.
Of course, this knowledge and understanding do not come naturally to us. The Scriptures tell us that one of the consequences of the Fall was that our intellects were darkened in respect to any knowledge of our Creator and His will toward us. We do not see the centrality of Christ in the Scriptures on the basis of our own reason or strength, but solely by the grace of God. As was the case with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and those gathered in the locked upper room that first Easter, He must open our eyes to understand the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit must use the Gospel to open our eyes to Christ and His work on our behalf.
Christ is the content, center, and key to all Scripture. Our very salvation rests entirely on Christ’s person and His finished work… and that is very Good News! You see, you and I are beggars before the Lord. We bring absolutely nothing to the table—nothing, that is, but our sins and sinfulness. Our sins put Jesus on the cross. It is for our sinfulness that Christ shed His innocent blood. It was not just the Jewish leaders and Pontius Pilate who were responsible. You and I denied the Holy and Righteous One. You and I killed the Author of Life! That’s why it was necessary that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead—to fulfill God’s perfect justice and His amazing grace and mercy.
The background to this is the nature of God and His Law. The Law demands absolute obedience—not just in outward behavior in accordance with the Ten Commandments, but inwardly as well. We are to love God and our neighbor perfectly from the heart. Anyone who does not measure up to this unchanging and non-negotiable standard of God’s Law stands under God’s just condemnation now and forever. And my Christians friends, that includes me, and that includes you. None of us measures up to God’s perfect standard of holiness, none of us is righteous, none of us is perfectly obedient or loving.
But from the foundation of the world, God planned salvation through His Incarnate Son. The manner in which Jesus accomplished this was to lay down His sinless life as a ransom for the sins of the world. He was the great Substitute, the real Sacrifice prefigured in the Old Testament sacrificial system. He was and is the great High Priest who sacrificed Himself on our behalf. Christ died for us, bearing our sins in His body on the cross and He rose again for our justification.
The Gospel described in the Scriptures has everything to do with what Christ did and nothing to do with us—our hearts, our inner experience of Him, our Christian life and piety, our works of love to our neighbor, our anything!
Not even our faith. Contrary to most of American evangelicalism, Scripture’s emphasis is on Christ and His death, not on our faith. Yes, we confess with Scripture that we are saved by God’s grace through faith, but this does not mean “on the basis of faith.” The justification of the sinner is solely on the basis of Christ’s obedience, Christ’s cross, Christ’s shed blood, and Christ’s resurrection for our justification. To “preach Christ crucified” is to preach Him and His saving death, rather than to preach our faith in Him as what saves.
This may sound like hair-splitting, but it is not. It is the difference between a Savior who saves and human faith that does not save. It is the difference between an objective Gospel that saves and another “gospel,” a subjective one, that is really no gospel at all and that does not save. The ground of your justification is Christ and His innocent sufferings and death. Period.
Your faith in Christ does not save you; Christ saves you. Christ’s death! Christ’s shed blood! Christ’s three-day entombment! Christ’s resurrection! Christ—His person and His Word—alone saves you! Christ won forgiveness for you with His atoning death on the cross. Christ distributes forgiveness to you though His Word and Sacraments. You receive it by the faith that He gives to you by His Holy Spirit working through His means of grace.
In Holy Baptism, Christ unites you to His death in resurrection. In the proclamation of the Gospel and the absolution, Christ speaks to you His forgiveness. In His Supper, Christ gives you Himself—His very body and blood—for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. Christ is the center, content and key to all Scripture. Christ is your life and salvation. Indeed, for Christ’s 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, April 4, 2015

The Resurrection of Our Lord: A Verifiable, Historic Fact of Your Life

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Oh, but how do you know that He is truly risen? How do you know this is true? And, if it were not true, would it really matter whether or not Christ actually rose from the dead? There are those—even some who call themselves Christians—who dismiss the resurrection as myth. Others insist that Jesus’ resurrection was merely a spiritual resurrection. And still others are undecided, but say it really doesn’t matter because Christianity is all about being nice and doing good, and Jesus certainly was a good example and moral teacher. (But how good or moral could Jesus have been if He lied about or faked His own resurrection?)
St. Paul certainly thinks the bodily resurrection of Jesus is important. He includes it as one of four clauses that summarize the Gospel: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then He appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:3-6).
Paul is not exaggerating when he says this is “of first importance.” Christianity hangs on the truthfulness of Christ’s death and resurrection. If there is any historical foundation for our Christian faith, it must include the fact that Jesus rose from the dead. If that is true, then all else we believe as Christians on the basis of the Scriptures is true, and all that we reject as Christians on the basis of the Scriptures is false. The difference between truth and error, faith and unbelief, world and church, heaven and hell, hope and despair, depends on this central event in history—Jesus Christ rose from the dead on Easter morning.
One of the questions our catechumens must answer in their examination prior to their confirmation is this: “Why is the resurrection of Christ so comforting to us?” The answer? “It proves: 1) that He is the Son of God; 2) that His doctrine is true; 3) that God accepted the sacrifice of His Son; and 4) that we, too, will rise.”
If Christ has not risen from the dead, it means He is not the incarnate Son of God. We cannot trust what He said or taught. He was not the atoning sacrifice and we are still in our sins. And it means that we have no hope of our own resurrection.
But the resurrection of Christ from the dead is true, and so St. Paul repeats the evidence he had already presented when he first brought the Gospel to the Corinthians. Christ truly died “in accordance with the Scriptures.” From the Old Testament, Paul showed that Christ’s death was for our salvation. We think of Isaiah’s prophecy: “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities… they made His grave with the wicked and the rich man in His death, although He had done no violence” (53:5-9).
By adding “that He was buried” Paul underscores the fact that Christ truly died. According to all four Gospels, Christ’s burial underlines the reality of His physical death on the cross. Both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed testify that He “was buried.” His corpse had to be disposed of in the usual manner.
But Jesus did not stay a corpse. “He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” Earlier, Jesus had told His disciples that He “must” be killed and rise again on the third day, implying that it was the Father’s holy will for His plan of salvation laid out in the Old Testament.
In speaking of Christ’s resurrection, Paul very likely used the same Scripture he used at Pisidian Antioch: “You will not let Your Holy One see decay” (Psalm 16:10). He might have quoted Isaiah: “After the suffering of His soul, He will see the light of life” (53:11). As the Lord Himself did, Paul could have cited Jonah’s three days in the great fish as a prophecy of Christ’s three days in the tomb.
Paul goes on to supply the supporting evidence: “He appeared” to many witnesses. Old Testament law stipulated that legal evidence should be corroborated by the testimony of two or three witnesses (Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15). The resurrection of Christ is so vital a fact for the Christian faith that God supplied an abundance of witnesses—more than five hundred of them! Anyone in Paul’s day could check out the story himself, for most of those witnesses were still alive.
The New Testament is nothing more or less than the inspired testimony of eyewitnesses that Jesus is God’s Son, our risen Savior and Lord, which the Holy Spirit enables us to “see” and believe. The Christian faith is not just a transmission of ideas and teachings. It is historical, built upon events that happened according to God’s saving will at the appropriate time and place. It involves a relationship with the historic figure who was at the center of those events—Jesus Christ. That makes Christianity qualitatively different from all other claims to religious truth.
For example, Eastern religions ask the inquirer to enter into the experience of the religion, for by doing so, one will find the position to be self-validating. Islam is also experiential; if you just submit and become a Muslim, the religion will all make sense to you. LDS missionaries will tell you to read the Book of Mormon, and if you get “burning in your bosom” then you will know it is true. But any approach using subjective experiences for verification is incapable of being validated, for who am I to say whether or not you really had an experience. Thus all non-Christian religious positions suffer from the same flaw: they are untestable.
Christianity, however, stands in stark contrast for as the apostle Paul states, “if Christ has not been raised our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” The Christian faith is falsifiable in principle, for if the body of Christ was discovered and it could be verified to be that body, Christianity totally collapses. If Christ has not risen from the dead, you have no hope. Jesus was a liar or a lunatic, but not the Lord. He was not the sinless Son of God sent for your salvation.
This is the Good News of Easter: Christ has died. He was buried. Christ is risen. He appeared to many witnesses. It is objective truth, and nothing you do can ever change that. This is very, very Good News.
You live in a world where the resurrection is devalued. Leading voices will tell you religion is true if it works for you. If you believe Jesus is risen from the dead, then He is risen from the dead; if you don’t believe it, then He’s not. This is as nonsensical as it is popular, and few are foolish enough to apply it to anything else besides religion. I know of no one who says that the law of gravity is true only if you believe it. I know of no one who would say Barack Obama is the president of the United States only if you want him to be. The law of gravity and fact that Barack Obama is the U.S. president are objective truths. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is just as much an objective truth; yet you will often be told today that He is risen—but only if you believe that He is. What power man claims for himself! He can keep the Lord from rising simply by saying it never happened.
To all such attempts to deny the graciousness of God, we simply repeat this joyous confession: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures… He was buried… He was raised on the third day… and He appeared to [many eyewitnesses].” Despite the vain arguments of the world, Jesus is still risen from the dead. And risen again, He continues to voice His Gospel to all nations, that all who abandon such hopeless reasoning might repent of their sin and believe.
Within liberal wings of Christendom, you will still find scholars who teach that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, but that the disciples added the story to give the Gospels a better ending. They will speak in the most sincere and persuasive voices. They will point to their degrees and diplomas, and claim to be much more honest and enlightened than the evangelists who gave eyewitness accounts. Sadly, they will lead many people astray, because they tempt their readers to believe they are smarter than God; such will outsmart themselves right out of eternal life.
To such pontificating, we respond: “Christ is risen.” Rather than the speculation of man, we have the Word of the almighty God. We have the eyewitness testimony of those who followed Jesus, saw Him die on the cross, put in the tomb, and then saw Him resurrected from the dead. There is more reliable evidence to support the Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus Christ than there is of any other historic event from antiquity. It is objective truth that Christ is risen from the dead, and all the denials cannot keep Him in the grave.
Of course, it’s relatively easy to defend yourself when accusations come from the outside. You expect nothing better from the world. However, it’s far more difficult to combat the arguments from within, when your old sinful nature starts whispering in your ear. Guilt has a way of doing this. Seeing the radiant holiness of the angel, the women in our Gospel were alarmed. Even after hearing the angel’s message, they still ran away from the tomb, trembling and afraid. But remember: Their fear didn’t change the truth that Jesus was risen from the dead. Risen, He came to them—forgave their sins, erased their doubts, and calmed their fears.
So it is with you. At times, because of your sin, the Law of God will leave you alarmed because it speaks the truth of sin and its consequences. Confronted with God’s holy demands, you will see your guilt in stark contrast and you will be tempted to run away. But you can’t run away from sin and guilt, and apart from God there is no forgiveness or peace to be found.
Are you burdened by guilt today? Then hear this Good News: Jesus was crucified, and now He is risen. Jesus bore your sin and guilt to the cross and destroyed their power there. They couldn’t keep Him in the grave; they won’t keep you in the grave, either. Do not run away from the risen, holy Son of God; for in seeking to conceal your guilt, it will only grow within you. Instead, hear this joyful news: Christ is risen! The price has been paid for your sin. Confess the sin, for Christ left it buried in the tomb. You are forgiven and holy before the Lord.
Guilt is not the only tool of the Old Adam. There is also doubt and fear, a numbing exhaustion brought about by struggle, tragedy, or illness. There will be times when you are so beaten and battered that the Lord feels a million miles away, and it seems He has forgotten you. At such times, remember this objective truth: Christ is risen. The disciples were despairing that first Easter, but their despair did not keep Jesus in the grave. Before they even saw Him, they had His Word of objective truth. Jesus was alive, and He would come to them.
The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is a verifiable historic fact. But more importantly it’s a fact of your life. Jesus died on the cross and rose again on the third day for the forgiveness of your sins. This is His Word and objective truth, and it is far more sure than your emotions, no matter how strong they may be. He is risen, and you are not forsaken. He comes to you in His Word and in His Supper, bringing you the forgiveness of sins, strengthening and preserving you unto life everlasting. Your struggles will end; you also will rise again to live forever.
We must also speak of grief on this Easter Sunday, for it seeks to rob you of all hope. The Old Adam uses mourning to accuse God of cruelty, using unanswered questions of “why?” to charge Him with unfaithfulness. The questions of “why?” cannot be specifically answered simply because we do not know the answers. But this we do know: Christ is risen from the grave, and our grief does not keep Him in the tomb. Risen from the dead, He announces to you this joyful truth and hope: He has conquered the grave. Death has lost its sting, because Christ is the death of death. He is firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. Because He has died and risen again, He will raise His people whom you mourn to eternal life.
He is risen. He is risen indeed. Like the women at the tomb, you have not seen Him, but you have His Word: He who remained on the cross for you did not remain in the grave. This is God’s truth, and it cannot be changed. Many reject Him; He is still risen. Many deny His resurrection, but His tomb is still empty.
This is a world of grief and fear and doubt, all tools of sin, death, and the devil. But they cannot keep Jesus in the grave, because He has defeated sin, death, and the devil. Nothing can change the fact that He is risen. Nothing can reverse His redemption of you. Nothing can repeal this joyous truth: Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!
And because He died and is risen, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son 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 ...