Friday, March 25, 2016

Living among the Dead

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“Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how He told you, while He was still in Galilee that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise” (Luke 24:5b-7).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
We’re going to hear a story today, a story that most of you have heard many times, but it’s worthy of being heard again. I use the word “story” with caution, for some are concerned that to call this account a “story” is to diminish it. But I use the word story here in the best sense: “a narrative of historic events and real people,” rather than “a work of fiction for entertainment purposes.” Our story today is a history and mystery. It’s a heroic epic and love story. It is mystical, almost mythical. It’s a riveting drama and comedy (in the classic sense). No wonder this story is often called “the greatest story ever told,” for it is indeed the story in which all other good or great stories have their root. I’m speaking, of course, of the story of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
But, perhaps you’ve never thought of it this way. Familiarity breeds contempt, or at least repetition begets boredom. Some of you have heard the story of the resurrection of our Lord so many times, it’s easy to miss the sense of mystery and awe experienced by the first witnesses. They were “perplexed,” “frightened,” “unbelieving,” “marveling.” And so today, I would invite you to listen with fresh ears. Listen to this story unfold as though you have never heard it before, as if you are living it yourself for the first time.
I’m sure Jesus’ followers remembered Friday vividly, though certainly not fondly. It started out badly for this little rag-tag band, and it only grew worse as they followed Him to the Mount of Olives. While the disciples had slept, exhausted from sorrow, their Teacher sweat drops of blood in the Garden. Suddenly, Jesus was arrested, betrayed with a kiss for 30 pieces of silver. His disciples had scattered in the dark like rats from a burning landfill. Jesus was scourged and beaten, unjustly tried and convicted before the corrupt religious and spineless civil authorities. By afternoon, the sky grew black as He hung dying on the cross. The women watched at a distance as the God-man was suspended between heaven and earth, derided by man and cursed by God. A far cry from His triumphal entry into Jerusalem to waving palms and shouts of “Hosanna” just five days before.
Now Jesus was dead. The disciples knew about death—they’d even heard Jesus predict His own several times. But death, particularly the death of a loved one, is an uncomfortable topic to meet head-on, so they’d always found a way to avoid discussing it. We all do this whistling past the graveyard to one extent or another to avoid the terrible possibility. But now, possibility had become violent reality. Jesus was dead; His body laid in a tomb. The disciples hid in fear.
Saturday came, whether the eleven wanted it to or not. How did they spend Saturday? The Bible doesn’t tell us. But one can only imagine that it seemed to last forever. One can only speculate on their thoughts and emotions. Grief would be one, because they had lost the Teacher who had declared them to be His friends. Bitterness and guilt would be there, because they’d pledged their loyalty to Jesus, even to death, and then they had run away when confronted with threat. Shock and horror would be another, because Jesus had been killed in such a brutal, gruesome way. Fear would follow quickly—for if the Teacher had been put to death by those in power, wouldn’t it make sense for them to kill His disciples, too?
With that tempest of thought and regret, there’s little doubt that the disciples were less than one step away from total despair. Jesus was in the grave. All that they had left was the memories and the agonizing wait for the other shoe to drop on them. Or so it seemed to their broken hearts and tear-filled eyes.
But whatever the disciples felt or perceived in their despair, Jesus was not given over to death and corruption. The work of redemption was complete. So, like the first week of creation, this Saturday was a day of rest from His labors. From what we know from Scripture, this is when the Lord descended into hell—not suffer, but to declare His victory to the spirits in prison.
Nothing so proclaims a victory as entering the enemy’s turf unhindered, saying what you want to say. So Jesus entered into hell and proclaimed His victory there. The Living One goes among the dead to show that neither death nor hell could hold Him. To proclaim that death and hell can no longer hold you! But while He did, the eleven agonized throughout that long Saturday—because they’d forgotten what Jesus had said. If only they had remembered!
Then, Sunday comes. The women take the spices they have prepared and go to the tomb. These women have followed Jesus from Galilee. For the last three years, they have made it their special responsibility to minister to His needs. They plan on serving Him one last time by anointing His dead body. They certainly don’t expect to find Him living among the dead. This is the attitude of those who are still living in the old covenant: they have confidence in resurrection on the Last Day, but they certainly do not expect a resurrection now!
They find the tomb open. Jesus’ body is gone. All of the facts of the resurrection are right there before them. However, the women need to have the significance of the facts explained to them. They don’t know what to make of what they have seen. Two angels suddenly arrive on the scene to provide the interpretation. They ask the women a question that invites them to see things from the perspective of the new era of salvation: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how He told you, while He was still in Galilee that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise” (Luke 24:5b-7).
These words of the angels are the first of two instructions in Luke to “read back” from the perspective of the evidence before them, and see how this great moment—the revelation of Jesus’ resurrection—had already been revealed in the record of Jesus’ teaching and miracles while they had been with Him in Galilee.
A breakthrough occurs. The Word of God—finally—penetrates the uncomprehending minds of sinful humans and produces faith. For the first time, Jesus’ words are “remembered”—that is, understood by faith and believed. At long last, minds and eyes are being made open to understand God’s Word. There is no longer any doubt in their minds, nor any uncertainty, but joyful trust and belief in the resurrection of their Lord. Christ is risen from the dead. God has raised His Son, Jesus. Christ has raised up the temple of His body in three days.
And thus He has been declared to be the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead. And therefore He has also proved to be the Savior of the world. He has broken the chains of death. Death has been conquered, and the sting of death—sin—has been taken away. Christ was delivered for our offenses, and raised again for our justification (Romans 4:25).
All these gifts belong to the believing women by faith on that first great Easter morning. And this same faith causes them to turn back from the grave, to return to the city, and to bring the message of all these wonderful things to the other disciples. Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia! It’s not that just His memory lives on, so that people can do what they think is right and say they’re following Jesus. It’s not that only His soul is alive, free-floating somewhere apart from His flesh. The tomb is empty! Christ is risen, body and all!
This, dear friends, is huge. Way back in the Garden of Eden, God created Adam and Eve to live forever in both body and soul. Sin brought death to both, to the whole of them. If Jesus is risen only in soul, it means that He hasn’t completely beaten sin and reversed the curse. But He is risen—fully, wholly risen.
So, on that day, the angels tell the women to tell the disciples the Good News, and to send them toward Galilee where they would see Him again. After all, He conquered sin and death and hell for them. Just as He has conquered sin and death and hell for you. And for you that makes all the difference in the world, in this life and the next. For the one thing that is certain in this life is death.
It’s considered impolite, depressing, to spend much time talking about death if you don’t have to in our culture. And yet you spend much of your life with it in the back of your mind, don’t you? That’s why you look both ways before you cross the street and make sure the mayonnaise hasn’t gone bad. That’s why you go see the doctor for all those unpleasant preventive exams—or purposely avoid going to the doctor for them. That’s why you wear seat belts, try to get some exercise, count the calories, get a flu shot, and keep the blood pressure in check. It’s why you bombard your kids with all sorts of rules to keep them safe. It’s why parents stay up late at night waiting for their teenagers to come home.
Life in this world doesn’t just happen. Even though death is the most unnatural thing in God’s plan for this world, life in a dying world doesn’t naturally go on. It’s a precious, fragile gift from God. God willing, you’ll still be here tomorrow, but you can’t be sure. It takes vigilance, hard work, and the Lord’s mercy to stay alive in a dying world. So even if you don’t consciously think about death all that much, you plan your day against it. Everyone does—everyone has to, because all are born in sin. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God… and the wages of sin is death.
The world seeks to cope with this in different ways: it tries to pretend it doesn’t happen, it seeks to make death a friend, or it searches for scientific breakthroughs to avoid dying in the first place. But death is always the shadow at the end of everyone’s vision.
But as for you, you do not despair. You know that Christ is risen from the dead… for you. Therefore, even though it will be given you—at times—to suffer and grieve and then to eventually die, despair is not for you. While you must bear your own cross, the risen Lord is with you now.
 In His Word and Sacraments, the Living One walks among you, you who were dead in your sin and transgressions. He speaks forgiveness to you in His Word. He gives you His risen body and blood in His Supper. He promises that nothing and no one can snatch you out of His hand… not sin, not Satan, not even death itself. Death remains an enemy, yes, but a conquered one. It is an enemy under Jesus’ feet, and He uses it to deliver you from this world to life forever with Him. In Christ, eternal life awaits because He is risen.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed. Alleluia! And because He is risen, you have life and salvation. Indeed, you are forgiven for all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Christ, the Firstborn, Is Sacrificed

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The New and Better Passover Meal of Meals

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Friday, March 18, 2016

When Jesus Was Glorified

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“His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about Him and had been done to Him” (John 12:16, ESV).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
There is some dispute within the Church over whether we should be celebrating Palm Sunday or observing the Sunday of the Passion today. While there are good arguments for both, I like the way that it is combined in our assigned Gospels, two accounts that, at first blush, seem so distant from one another, yet end up being so inextricably connected.
We begin the service with the Palm Sunday procession from John 12:12-19. We conclude with the account of Christ’s Passion from Luke, chapters 22 & 23. Here in these passages we see the great mystery of concurrence—God working through the free actions of His creatures (Judas, the Jewish Council, Pilate, the crowds in Jerusalem) to bring forth His predetermined will. God uses the devilish schemes to defeat the devil. The sinless Son of God uses the sinful actions of men to overcome sin. The Lord of Life uses His own death to destroy death.
Despite Christ’s clear prediction that He must suffer, die, and rise again, no one who stood before the cross that day could have guessed they were witnessing the greatest moment in the history of the world. From their vantage point, they saw nothing but suffering and defeat. But there on Mt. Calvary, with His words, “It is finished,” and His dying breath is truly when Jesus was glorified.
I would liken it to the hand embroidery that my Grandma Moeller used to do. When you look at it from the back side, it’s not very pretty. It’s often messy and confusing, with threads going every which way. But when you turn it around you see the beauty that the skilled embroiderer intended all along.
For now, we live on the back side of life—the ugly, messy, confusing side. It will only be when we get to the other side of eternity and see the finished product that we will recognize the beauty and grace the Creator was incorporating into every stitch. For now, Calvary is the only place where the two sides come together—where, by faith, we can begin to see how Christ’s cross is His glory, and become confident that our present suffering will one day be transformed into everlasting joy.   
His mother stood at a distance, watching as His body was taken down from the cross and wrapped in a finely woven linen shroud. As the sturdy white fabric enveloped His lifeless remains, she strained to look upon her Son one last time. His head and body already covered by the cloth, all that remained visible were His once powerful hands. Like a snapshot frozen in time, they revealed the intensity of the suffering He had endured. Rigid and stiff, they lay folded across his chest, contorted fingers clenched tight. Just above the wrists, unbearably large gashes could be seen—the place where the nails had ripped open a hole in His flesh. The deep dark red of His wounds looked all the more shockingly real against the impressive whiteness of the burial cloth.
Consumed with sorrow, grief, and pain, the grieving mother turned away from that dreadful image, certain those nails had ruined her life. Life, you see, doesn’t always turn out the way you might expect.
Just a few days before, it had been all so different. Riding confidently into town, seated on a donkey, thousands of people waved palm branches and cheered His name. With great enthusiasm, they cried aloud, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:9-10). The excitement, the energy, the passion for her Son was like nothing she had ever seen. For the first time in her life, she dared to believe her deepest hopes and dreams might actually come true.
But then, suddenly, everything changed. He was betrayed, arrested, put on trial, and nailed to that terrible cross. Her hopes and dreams now shattered, she had nothing left except the haunting image of His stiff and rigid hands, the unbearably large gashes, the deep, dark red of His wounds. Those nails, you see, had ruined her life. Life doesn’t always turn out the way you might expect.
I don’t have to tell you, many of you know this much better than I: The older you get, the more you discover how true that statement is. Life doesn’t always turn out the way you might expect. The excitement, the energy, the wonder you experience as a child slowly fades away, leaving you with the mundane routine of bills, work, and family obligations. As you grow up, you come to learn that the hopes and dreams of your youth never quite seem to be fulfilled. We spend much of our lives thinking: If only my marriage were a little bit better… if only I could make a little more money… if only I could get that dream job… if only I had made a better choice… if only… if only… then I would be happy… then I could get my life together… then I would finally be content.
But all too often, loving marriages grow cold, exciting careers turn dull, gifted children lose their way, and youthful bodies grow old and wear out. And then, when we least expect it, tragedy strikes. Suffering, disease, and death disrupt our humdrum lives, waking us from our slumber and causing us to cry out in despair: “Why, God, would you allow this to happen? Why, God, does life always have to be so full of sorrow and pain and hurt?” These are the ultimate questions we all must face.
These are the ultimate questions that can be understood only in light of the cross of Jesus Christ. For as we will soon celebrate at the end of this Holy Week, a few days after He suffered and died, Jesus rose again from the dead and appeared before His disciples in the Upper Room where they had been hiding. His mother was there as well.
Strong and full of life, Jesus raised His arms into the air; His hands opened wide, inviting all to see. Incredibly, just above both wrists, the large gashes left by the nails could still be seen, except now they looked—somehow—beautiful. Filled with wonder, joy, and awe, Mary stared at His wounds, realizing in that moment that the nails hadn’t ruined her life after all—the nails had saved her life. So when Jesus said, “Peace be with you,” He wasn’t just being polite. He wasn’t just making small talk. He was bestowing peace—peace with God, peace with our fellow man. Peace that brings forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life!
On the day that you stand before the Lord in glory, gazing upon His nail-scarred hands, you, too, will realize that everything you thought had ruined your life was actually used by God to save it. In that moment, every single thing that has caused you sorrow or shame will not simply be forgotten, but will become for you an everlasting source of joy. Your cries of pain and grief will one day be transformed into endless songs of praise. Life, you see, doesn’t always turn out the way you might expect.
For now, your sufferings may seem to signal the undoing of everything you hope for. But since Christ bears those scars for you, through the cross, you can be confident that your present sufferings will one day be transformed into everlasting joy and peace. You have been baptized into Christ’s death and raised in His resurrection. He feeds you with His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. Through His called and ordained servant, He speaks the Word of Absolution. 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.

Adapted from a sermon by Scott F. Abel, Concordia Pulpit Resources Volume 20, Part 2, p.21-22

Sunday, March 13, 2016

I AM [Is] Doing a New Thing

The Baptism of Boden Diggs Bucher
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“Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19a).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
The children of Israel had been in this situation before. About seven hundred years earlier, they’d been captives in Egypt, slaves to a Pharaoh who ruled them with an iron fist. But God had not forgotten His people. He met Moses on Mt. Horeb, spoke to him from a burning bush, and introduced Himself as I AM. The Lord told Moses He was sending him to Pharaoh with the command to let God’s people go. When Pharaoh refused, the Lord sent a series of plagues to convince him of the futility of resistance. The tenth plague was the worst of them all, where the Lord took the lives of all the firstborn sons of Egypt—all, of course, except for those who killed the Passover lamb and painted their doorposts with its blood.
It was not easy. It was not pretty. The Lord had to use a lot of muscle to get hard-hearted Pharaoh to release Israel from their bondage. Finally, Pharaoh folded and freed God’s people…then foolishly, he changed his mind one final, fatal time. Pharaoh and his chariots charged after the Israelites, ready to bring them back alive or leave their corpses in the desert. The situation appeared hopeless. I AM miraculously intervened. He moved, in His glorious pillar of cloud and fire, stood guard to protect His people. The following day, God parted the Red Sea. His people passed through safely. Pharaoh’s armies pursued, but were drowned.
By the time of Isaiah, the people of Israel were in need of that sort of deliverance again. This time, they weren’t captives because a friendly pharaoh had been replaced by a hostile one; they were captives because they’d forsaken God and turned to idols. And their idols couldn’t do a thing to stop the Babylonian army. So they were exiles by their own fault, by their own faithlessness.
They were faithless, but God remained faithful. Furthermore, God was still powerful; and perhaps He would save them again the way He had delivered them from the Egyptians. Maybe Isaiah would be the new Moses who would go before the Babylonian king on behalf of the Lord and demand, “Let My people go!” The Lord, however, had a different message for His people. It was still a message of hope and deliverance, just not the way they envisioned. “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19b).
It seems somewhat contradictory. Throughout much of Scripture the Lord calls His people to remember their deliverance from Egypt by His mighty hand. Only three chapters after today’s text, the Lord will tell Israel in so many words: “Remember the former things of old” (Isaiah 46:9). But the Lord’s intent here is not that the people forget His deliverance of Israel from Egypt, but rather that they not give their full attention there now, for He has a new deliverance on which He wants them to focus. Remembering the past deliverances by God should not generate nostalgia for the “good old days,” but a sober appreciation for the new thing the Lord is doing for them now, and give them hope for the future.
“I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts will honor Me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to My chosen people, the people whom I formed for Myself that they might declare My praise” (Isaiah 43:20–21, ESV).
I AM is doing a new thing. This new thing that the Lord is going to do is the deliverance of Israel from captivity in Babylon. And further, the text states, “now it springs forth.” God’s deliverance is imminent, right on the verge of happening. In fact, the question, “Do you not perceive it?” may be more of an affirmation than a question. In other words, it’s right in front of you; you can’t miss it!
In the verses prior to our text, the Lord tells His people how this will come to pass. The ships of the Babylonians, which now carry precious cargo, will transport them as fugitives in the future. The Lord will dispatch the necessary forces to make this happen, much as He done in the days of the exodus when He destroyed Pharaoh and his army (Isaiah 43:14-17). Not only will God break the power of the Babylonians, but God will also release His people. They will find a way through the desert so they can travel back to Jerusalem. They will return to their homeland and God will cause Israel to flourish again (Isaiah 43:20-21).
Their deliverance will be grand! Yahweh will achieve it in an amazing new way—He will cause a pagan emperor to lift up his captives for special honor and send them back to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple (Isaiah 44:28-45:5; Ezra 1:1-4). How many times had that happened before? Never! I AM, the Lord, Israel’s Holy One, their Creator and King, is indeed doing a new thing!
Not only that, but the Lord goes on to name this Gentile king who will be their deliverer some two hundred years in the future. Surprisingly, the Lord calls this pagan “My shepherd,” “My anointed” and promises, “He shall fulfill My purpose.” Why, He even predicts his proper name will be Cyrus! (Isaiah 45:1). History tells us that in 539 BC, Cyrus II, king of Persia conquered Babylon. Shortly after he took over, the Israelites found favor with the king. Cyrus issued a decree that allowed the Israelites to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple under the leadership of Ezra the priest, and Nehemiah the governor of Judah. And so they did. God’s people were delivered once more.
But God was not finished delivering His people. In fact, all of His others deliverances were to set the stage for His greatest deliverance. This new thing would something completely different. Rather than the effect of a crushing flood that breaks and drowns, this new thing would be like a spring of water in the arid desert. It would provide streams of water to give life to all. Most of all, however, it would be living water to His chosen people. By this spring of water, people would be the people of God. This new thing would be a stream of mercy and life.
The prophecy, of course, is of Jesus. Like Moses, Jesus was sent to lead His people from captivity to the Promised Land. However, the Son of God is greater than Moses: where Moses led the people from the bondage of Egypt to the edge of the Promised Land of Canaan, Jesus leads His people from the captivity of sin and death to the Promised Land of heaven. So we hear of Jesus in John 7: “On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, ‘If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. Whoever believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water”’” (vv. 37-38).
Back in Exodus, it was Moses and God, the man following God in a glorious cloud. In the Gospels, it would be Jesus, both man and God in one person, present with His people to save. God was keeping His promise, and God was delivering them by doing a new thing: God in the flesh to save His people. Oh, and one more thing: this time around, the climax of God saving would not be the terrible, crushing death of His enemies. The climax would be the death of Jesus, the only begotten Son of God. That is the Gospel, after all: Christ died for the sins of the world, that all who believe in Him might have eternal life.
Not surprisingly, God continues to use water to save. In this new age, God still kills and makes alive by water. Even more so than with the “former things,” water is important in our faith history, too. In fact, without water we have no faith history. I AM is doing His new thing in Holy Baptism.
We, too, were born into the bondage of Satan, death, and hell. We, too, have fallen into sin and idolatry. We, too, must confess with David: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your steadfast love; according to Your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, so that You may be justified in Your words and blameless in Your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:1–5, ESV).
You and I were conceived and born as sinners. And every day since we have sinned against God in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. And that includes little Boden over there, who, in my biased opinion, is one of the best babies ever. He is a sinner. The only thing that keeps him from acting out that sinfulness is not yet developed gross and fine motor skills.
But as the Lord delivered His people in the past, so He delivers Boden and you and me from the guilt of our sin. The Passover lamb, the passage through the Red Sea, the return from Babylon, each of these were Old Testament shadows of the one great deliverance. Because God then did something completely new: He sent the fulfillment of the old things—the Lamb of God, who died for the sins of the world, but passed through death to new life, returned from the grave to raise us also.  Christ’s victory is personally applied to every believer in his Baptism.
It’s no accident that the Church to this day precedes Baptism with the renunciation of Satan and all his works and all his ways. We all come into this world as slaves of sin, death, and hell. In Holy Baptism you are set free from slavery in the victory Christ won by His death on the cross. You are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. Your sin and rebellion becomes His sin, His obedience and righteousness becomes yours. Baptism is when your life of faith begins. You are born again, born from above, born by the water and the Word.
To be sure, your Baptism did not look powerful by the world’s standards: odds are that it looked like a handful of water gently poured on a baby’s head—like just happened to our little brother Boden a few minutes ago. But that is where the eternal I AM is doing a new thing, bringing you a greater deliverance.
Baptism works forgiveness of sins, rescues you from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to you and all who believe this as the words and promises of God declare. Christ our Lord says in the last chapter of Mark: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16, ESV).
Obviously, it’s not the water itself that does such great things, but, as Luther explains in the Small Catechism, “the Word of God in and with the water…along with faith which trusts this Word of God in the water. For without God’s Word the water is plain water and no Baptism. But with the Word it is a Baptism, that is a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit.”
In Baptism, I AM is still doing a new thing for you. The water may long ago have dried from your skin, but the words that made that water a Baptism are still with you, and so is their power. Live in your Baptism daily through contrition and repentance. “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I AM [is] doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" (Isaiah 43:18-19a). 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.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Reckless Living, Reckless Love

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“And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found’” (Luke 15:31–32, ESV).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
This is a story about a father with two sons who are very different from each other. However, they both suffer from the same sin. As we review the story, see if you can spot the sin they have in common. Here’s one clue: Remember to whom Jesus is speaking—tax collectors and sinners, Pharisees and teachers of the law. These two groups have the same sin in common, too.
The younger son is the one we know better. He’s the brash, ungrateful brat who goes to his father one day and demands his share of the inheritance—about one-third of his father’s estate. With so much wealth, he decides he really doesn’t need his father’s help anymore—not to mention the rules and the chores and the responsibilities. So, it’s off to a faraway land and the high life.
Living large is fun while it lasts, and it attracts a lot of friends—maybe not the best kind, but you’ve always got company around you. However, it also takes a lot of money. So it’s only a matter of time until he finds himself dead broke and alone—the fruits of his reckless living. He hires himself out to a pig farmer. Talk about embarrassing. Imagine a poor Jewish boy going to work for New Horizon Farms. Being so hungry that pig feed looks good. Talk about hitting rock bottom.
But sometimes, suffering like that has an upside. It wakes you up. It makes you remember what you left behind. That’s a good thing—especially if you can still go back. The lost son realizes he really wants to go back. But can he? When you’ve cut and run with a sizable chunk of your father’s wealth, when you’ve as much as wished him dead, that bridge might be already be burnt beyond repair.
So the lost son comes up with a plan. He writes the best groveling speech he can write: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.” It sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? It’s a two-part confession. First, he admits that he’s forfeited his right as a son. Second, he offers to be a servant, to earn his keep. But will the father buy it? I guess that depends upon the character of the father. There’s only one way to find out for sure—you’ve got to head home with your hat in your hand. Not easy to be sure, but it certainly beats dumpster diving with the pigs.
From Jesus’ description, we get the clear sense that the father has been watching for his wayward son every day since he left. We can just imagine the father going out to the end of his driveway, checking the mailbox for a letter from his lost boy. Looking down the road wistfully, praying to see his son’s familiar profile on the horizon.
Then one day, his father finally sees him in the distance. Delighted, the father runs to him. This is never done in middle eastern society, by the way. It is considered undignified for an adult male to run anywhere. And wayward sons respectfully walk every inch, and they grovel the last few. But this father, in full view of the neighbors, runs out to meet the son that wanted him dead. And if that isn’t outrageous enough, he embraces and kisses the boy, who still reeks of pigs, as though nothing shameful had ever happened between them.
And the son begins his confession: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But before he can say any more, his father cuts him off. He calls a servant and tells him to bring the best robe, a ring, and sandals, and to kill the fattened calf. Quite the party for an ingrate who has so recently spent his whole inheritance on reckless living. Wouldn’t it be prudent to pull back a little—put the prodigal on a probation period until he has proved himself? 
How great is the love the father lavishes upon his son! It is reckless love. No matter the sins and the foolishness of his boy, he is still his son. Therefore, the father will not hear of an offer to become a hired man. Instead, he declares his lost son is found. And he gives him all the trappings to witness to the community that he has received his son back in good standing. The lost one has been found! He was as good as dead, but is now alive and back in the family. It’s time for a party!
That’s the story of the younger son. Now we turn to the older son and the sin he shares with his brother. The older son is the responsible one with the good work ethic. He’s been slaving away while his good-for-nothing brother has been gone doing only God knows what. At the end of another day, the older son comes near the house, and he’s surprised to hear music and dancing. There’s an impromptu celebration going on, but what could it be? A servant tells him: “Your brother has come, and your father’s celebrating because he has him back safe and sound.”
Now, there’s a thankless kick in the gut for you. Worthless brother’s found his way home after losing everything—and the father throws a party?! There’s no way he’s going to be a part of this travesty! There’s no way he’s going inside! So the ever-patient father has to come out to plead with this son to join in the celebration. But the older brother’s words reveal his sin. Listen carefully and see if you can spot it: “Look! These many years I have served you and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!”
Wait a minute! Do you really think this older son never disobeyed His father’s commands? He’s not exactly being very obedient at this point, is he? And where did the “prostitutes” come from? Jesus said “reckless living.” That could mean he binge watched Fuller House, slept in late, and ate high cholesterol snacks. It doesn’t necessarily mean he dallied with the ladies of the evening.
The older son’s words sound like something an unscrupulous politician might say to drive his primary opponent down a few points in the polls. Or like something a mean girl might post on social media about her rival for the star quarterback’s affections. Certainly nothing like brotherly love. These words are reckless gossip… the language of resentment… putting the worst construction on another’s actions… overstatement for effect.
But their effect is totally lost on the father. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” How reckless is the love the father lavishes upon both of his sons! His grace abounds not only to the prodigal, irresponsible younger son, but also to his resentful, self-righteous older son as well.
The brothers seem so different in every way. Each has his own sins to deal with. But there’s one they have in common. Have you spotted it? It is this: Both believe that their father's love depends on what they do. Both believe that their sonship depends on their obedience. The younger son—the prodigal—believes that because of his sins he has forfeited his sonship. At best, he can only hope to earn his place as a hired man. And the older son believes that he’s more of a son than his brother because he’s the one who’s stayed home and worked hard in the fields. Therefore, he should be favored because he’s earned the right.
Both arguments make sense. But both of them insult the father’s love. The younger son is saying, “My father’s love is conditional. He can’t love me as a son because I’ve sinned. Therefore, he’ll only help me if I earn it somehow, if I become his slave, if I prove my worthiness.” And the older son is saying, “My father’s love is conditional. He should love me more because I’ve earned it.” They come at it from opposing directions, but both sons are declaring that their father’s love is limited and conditional. It is indeed a very reckless love!
Having realized this, now, remember the father of the parable is really none other than God the Father. And those two sons are very much like the tax collectors and Pharisees to whom Jesus first told this parable. The tax collectors might well be tempted to think, “I have sinned against God so much that He’ll only love me if I prove that I am worthy.” The Pharisees are tempted to believe, “God loves us so much more than those tax collectors because, while they’ve been living a sinful life, we’ve been hard at work to be good sons.” But both have this sin in common: they believe that God’s love for them is based upon their performance. It makes sense, but it also says that God’s love is limited and conditional.
This same sin lurks within us, too. To say, “God will not love me unless I do better” is to say that God’s love is conditional and must be earned. To say, “God must love me more because I’ve been in church every Sunday,” is to say God’s love is conditional, and that you’ve somehow earned it.
Saying that God’s love is conditional is bad enough, but there is a greater offense at work. It insults your Savior, the crucified and risen Jesus Christ. He goes to the cross, suffers, and declares, “It is finished!” But sinners respond, “No, it’s not. God won’t love me just because of You. God will only love me if I earn His love.” This says that Jesus’ death isn’t enough for my sin. His atoning sacrifice is not sufficient for all sin. How terrible a sin is that?
But our loving Father doesn’t want to leave us in our sin. There’s Good News that must be told when we look at the parable’s Father. But before we speak of Him, let me ask you this: As a child, what did you do to earn the right to be a son or daughter in your family? Did you pay dues? Take vows? Sign a contract? No-o-o. You did absolutely nothing. You were born—given unearned life or you were chosen and lovingly adopted as a son or daughter, and that’s how you became part of the family.
How about when you obeyed your parents? Were you more of a son or daughter? No. When you disobeyed them and got in trouble, were you less of a son or daughter? No. You may have suffered disapproval, but you were still part of the family. Whether you were the perfect angel or a total brat, you were still a son or daughter. In fact, the only way you would no longer be part of the family is if you ran away from home and never came back. Then, your parents couldn’t care for you—not because they didn’t want to, but because you weren’t there.
In the same way, the brothers of our parable are sons of their father. It’s not because of their obedience; it’s because they are his sons. And once they can get past their sins in the text, this is good news. Whether they have a good day or a bad one, the father still loves them. Why does God love you? Because you are His son. Whether male or female, the Bible declares you a son of God, an heir of the kingdom of heaven. And why are you? It is not by your reason or strength, your doing or worthiness. It’s because God’s Son has redeemed you, He’s suffered the judgment for the sins that would keep you out of the family of God. And the same is true of that wayward brother of yours who is presently living recklessly.
Jesus, our Older Brother, certainly would have every right and reason to resent His Father’s extravagant love toward us. Our reckless living cost Him more than His favorite fattened calf. It cost Him everything… life and breath, flesh and blood, body and soul. But despite this, He joyfully shares His eternal inheritance with us. And He celebrates with angels in heaven when we receive it by faith.
So today, rejoice and celebrate. The full price for your sin has been paid. Jesus did not die to make you slaves who now must earn your keep. He died to make you sons—part of the family now and forever. Thus the Father declares to you: “You are Mine, and of this you can be certain, because My Son paid the full price for you by His death on the cross. You can be certain because I adopted you in Holy Baptism, gave you the robe of My Son’s righteousness. By water and Word, I made you My child. You can be certain that you remain in My family because I keep reminding you in My Word. For as long as you are forgiven, you are Mine. And you can be certain that you remain in My family because I keep bringing you to My table. As long as you’re being strengthened and preserved with My body and blood, you are Mine until life everlasting.
“When you sin against Me, you are still Mine and I do not love you any less. My love for you is based upon My Son’s obedience—His perfect life and sacrificial death—not your behavior. Children may disobey their parents, but they are still in the family. They may need discipline and forgiveness, but they’re still loved. Likewise, your sins are disobedience, but you are still My child. I will discipline you to bring you to repentance, but when I do, I don’t love you any less.
“When you keep My Word, I delight. But I do not love you any more than before. I can’t love you any more because My love for you is unconditional. Know, however, that keeping my Word is good for you because each sin and disobedience seeks to pull you away from me. Each one is designed to dissatisfy you with My love so that you eventually reject Me and run away from home. That is the only way that you can ever be lost—by removing yourself from My family. But as long as you are forgiven, you are Mine.”
What joyous news! Your salvation is certain! God has made you His child and gives you eternal life. And because it depends upon Christ, and not upon you, then God’s love and your sonship will never change. Whether you are more like a tax collector or a Pharisee, more like the younger brother or the older brother, you are a son for the sake of Christ. Not a slave who must earn his keep, but a son to whom all is given. Oh, what a reckless love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called sons of God! And that is what you are! For the sake of Jesus Christ, the perfect Son of God, you are forgiven for all of your sin.

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

Into the Wilderness

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