Sunday, April 30, 2017

Hidden in Plain Sight

"The Pilgrims of Emmaus" by Henry Ossawa Tanner
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“When He was at table with them, He took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized [Jesus]. And He vanished from their sight” (Luke 24:30–31).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Have you ever frantically looked around for something and not been able to find it? Maybe your car keys, or the TV remote, the book you were just reading, or some other object. You search and search again. Then, after you’ve given up all hope of ever seeing it again, you come across it in the exact place where you’ve been looking. It was there all the time, but for one reason or another, you just didn’t notice it. Somehow it was just hidden in plain sight.
The disciples on the road to Emmaus, had a similar experience that first Easter. Like the disciples back in the city, these two were struggling to make sense of recent events. They had a lot of facts, but they didn’t know how to interpret them. They had all the pieces of the puzzle, but couldn’t put them together.
As the original Greek indicates, theirs was a lively discussion. They were throwing their thoughts and words back and forth like a ball. They had heard the reports of Jesus’ resurrection—probably not only the “vision of angels” seen by the women and the empty tomb witnessed by Peter and John, but also Christ’s conversation with Mary Magdalene and the other women. Were the women imagining things? Or was it simply Jesus’ spirit they had seen? They wondered.
As they traveled along, a stranger suddenly joined them in their walk. It was, literally, a miracle that they did not recognize it was Jesus. He prevented them from knowing Him because He wanted to teach them where they could discover Him without seeing Him. And so, Jesus was hidden from them in plain sight.
Jesus’ question stopped them in their tracks: “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” He asked. We can imagine a long silence. They may have turned to look Him in the eye, dropped their heads, and then drawn a slow, deep breath at the prospect of telling the whole, sad story. How could this stranger have been in Jerusalem and not known? All the people had known Jesus of Nazareth to be a mighty prophet powerful in word and deed.
The Emmaus disciples hated to even think about it now. They had hoped He was the one who was going to redeem Israel from Roman rule. But He had been dead for three days. Rumors of some sort of vision or spiritual visitation by Jesus were no consolation. To redeem Israel would require a real, physical, earthly leader, not some spirit. In their despair, the two opened their hearts to this stranger. Their entire speech reflects the disconnected thoughts of people speaking under the stress of great excitement. They referred to important points, but didn’t explain them. They mixed up their own fears and hopes into the narrative. That confusion showed how pitifully weak their faith still was in many respects. If the truth be told, they were, in fact, only hanging on to faith by their fingernails.
And their experience is repeated in our days. We indeed believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. But our faith is often subject to doubts. Some days it seems we have the faith to move mountains. Other days, it makes a mustard seed look like a watermelon. But amid doubt and despair, Jesus comes to lead us back to faith. We realize He was there all along, just hidden in plain sight.
Perhaps for a moment, the two disciples were offended when the stranger seemed so at ease with their tragedy; when He actually upbraided them as “foolish” and “slow of heart to believe all that the prophets had spoken (Luke 24:25). But they needed that bit of Law to jolt them to their senses. They had not properly listened to the description of the Messiah given by the prophets. Even worse, they had not listened to Jesus’ own predictions of His suffering and death.
Immediately, Jesus began to explain what those Old Testament prophets had always meant. Deliberately, beginning with the books of Moses and then continuing through the writings of the prophets, Jesus pointed out the true meaning of those familiar passages, which had been previously hidden from them: the entire Old Testament demonstrates that the Messiah had to first suffer death and then be raised in glory. The events of the last few days had been no setback, but were, in fact, a part of God’s plans. The disciples should have expected them.
Upon reaching Emmaus, the disciples urged this stranger to stay with them. So enthralled were they by His teaching, they could not bear the thought of His departure. He consented, then again surprised them. As the evening meal was served, the guest suddenly became the host. He took the bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them.
At last their eyes were opened and they recognized Him! There was Jesus! He had been hidden in plain sight. This stranger was none other than their Friend and Master, the same man who had so often, in His capacity as head of the little band, performed this customary task. They had seen Him do this before! The disciples themselves later emphasized that they recognized Christ’s presence in this very act.
And just as suddenly as He had appeared, Jesus was gone. He vanished out of their sight without fanfare or even a farewell. Though He was still their Friend, they could no longer enjoy His company in the same way as they had done in the days before His suffering and death.
But that was good news! You see, Jesus’ disciples were no longer bound by His visible presence, but would learn to place their trust in the Word of the Gospel by which He bestows forgiveness and strengthens faith. To be with the resurrected Christ, Jesus’ disciples need only go to where He has promised to be—hidden in plain sight—in His Word and in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.
The disciples were no longer sad. They were eyewitnesses of Christ’s resurrection. They had the words of Jesus that He had spoken to them on the way in their hearts and minds. Full of eager happiness they exchanged confidences on their experience: “Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked to us on the road, while He opened up to us the Scriptures?” The two men now realized that the prophecies of old had been to them a sealed and hidden book. The truth had been hidden in plain sight. But now it had been opened to them.
For us Christians, this is always the effect of the words of Christ. When we are sad and weak, when we are longing for consolation, and then hear the Word of the Lord with all eagerness, then our heart is warmed with the comfort of salvation and the forgiveness of sins. And our faith is strengthened.
The joy of these men did not permit them to rest in Emmaus. Though it was growing late, they arose from their meals at once. They had to return to the city and tell their friends—even if it meant stumbling the last steps in the dark.
The appearance of Jesus on the road to Emmaus is among the most vivid, detailed post-resurrection reports of the four Gospels. The emphasis in this story, though, is that God’s means of grace deliver all one needs to know to see Christ. There, in the words of Scripture and His Sacrament, we find the resurrected Christ hidden in plain sight.
The key to the Scriptures, meanwhile, is Jesus Himself. Every word of the Bible is not primarily a manual for a happy life, rather it is the story of God saving us in Christ. Each passage either shows us our need for Christ (the Law) or declares or applies what He has done to meet that need (the Gospel). Learning to look for Christ on every page of Scripture is a most precious lifelong skill. That’s why we encourage you to join us for one of our Bible studies. They help you learn to see Christ who is hidden in plain sight.
Looking for Christ on every page of Scripture enables you to tap into the faith-strengthening power of the Holy Spirit working through God’s Word. Recalling how God has fulfilled all His promises, leads you out of doubt and despair. Seeing God’s plan of salvation unfold despite the wiles of the devil and the sinfulness of us mortals gives you the assurance that God works all things for the good of those who love Him and have been called according to His purpose.
Looking for Christ on every page of Scripture enables you to interpret God’s Word with wisdom. Understanding that Christ is the very center and reason for Scripture helps you correctly understand and apply this life-giving Word to your life. It helps you properly understand some of the more difficult passages.
And as you look for Christ on every page of Scripture, you will be able to share God’s Word more effectively with others. You will be better able to answer the questions and doubts of those to whom you bring the Good News of Jesus Christ. You will be better prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. You, too, will be able to show them Jesus “hidden in plain sight.” What better gift can you share with someone than forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life found only in Jesus Christ?
The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

A Wonderful Mystery: An Address for the Wedding of James & Rebecca Dubro

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Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Jim and Rebecca: When I asked you what readings you would like to have for today, you indicated that you wanted something different. Not the usual 1 Corinthians 13, “Love is…” or the Genesis account of marriage, or Matthew 19, where Jesus talks about marriage. By now, you probably noticed we still had those readings. They are too important to ignore. But I think you’ll find I’ve kept my promise to bring in something different with our text from Proverbs 30:18-19: “Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a virgin.”
How is that for different? I would guess that most everyone here this afternoon had two immediate reactions to the passage I just read: First, what a strange text for a wedding address! Second, what a strange combination of items! An eagle, a snake, a ship, and a human couple (specifically, a man and a woman). What can such a foursome have in common? What is the common denominator that, according to the author’s own admission, mystifies him?
Well, what puzzles the writer of Proverbs is the relationship of these items to their respective environments, specifically the relationship of the eagle to the air, the snake to the rock, the ship to the sea, and the man to the maiden. How can an eagle, a large, clumsy bird on land, fly so gracefully in the air? How can a snake, a creature without legs, glide so smoothly over rock? How can a ship stay afloat and move over the water? These are three mysteries that the writer simply cannot understand.
But then he lists a fourth mystery, a fourth miracle of difference in the relationship of an item to its environment. And this is the climactic mystery, the real stunner: “the way of a man with a virgin.” How can two creatures as opposite from each other as a man and a woman fall in love to begin with? And how can they manage to live together successfully in this thing we call marriage? This fourth miracle of difference is the greatest mystery of them all.
This is the mystery we ponder today, Jim and Rebecca, with special reference to you on the occasion of your wedding. In addition to the obvious physical differences between you, there are other differences: your family backgrounds, your church affiliations, your personalities, your talents, and no doubt, some of your interests and habits as well. Obviously, you are both wonderful people. I can tell when I’ve met with you, that you love each other very much and want to look out for each other. You’ve got a good start here on the verge of this wonderful thing called marriage.
But how such opposites as a Jim and Rebecca will continue to love each other “till death [them] do part” is a good question today. In the language of our text, what will keep the eagle from falling, the snake from perishing, the ship from sinking, the way of a man with a maiden from failing? In short, what will make your marriage work?
The answer is a fifth miracle of difference, a mystery that our text doesn’t mention but which the Bible certainly does, over and over, so often, in fact, that it is the theme of the Scriptures—and that is the way of God with people. How can the Creator share heaven with His creature, especially since that creature has gone wrong? How can a holy God associate for all eternity with sinful people? How can light have fellowship with darkness? How can those opposites—God and people—attract, here and hereafter?
The answer lies in the greatness of God’s love for us, a love that prompted Him to bridge the differences between Himself and us by sending His Son, Christ Jesus to our world as one of us.
The curious thing is that to overcome the differences between God and people, Jesus Himself became different, decidedly different. The Son of God became man. Spirit became flesh and blood. The Architect of the universe became a carpenter. He who framed the worlds had nowhere to lay His own head. The timeless Son of God stepped into time. The Lawgiver put Himself under the Law—for our sake. The innocent one was made sin for us. The Blessed One was cursed as He was hanged on the tree. The Giver of life died—died on a cross—on our behalf. He who is one with the Father was separated from Him in the damnation of God-forsakenness—in our place.
What Jesus did, however, did more than bridge the differences between us and God; it also bridged the differences between us and our fellow sinners. Therefore, Christ’s life, love, and forgiveness is available for your life together, too, Jim and Rebecca.
God through Jesus will enable you to be attracted to each other for a lifetime, no matter how opposite from each other you may presently be. No matter how many more differences you discover in the future. God through Jesus will enable you to love and forgive even when you don’t feel like it. God through Jesus will achieve that remarkable unity in diversity that society calls a happy and successful marriage. Again, in the language of our text, it is God through Jesus who will keep the eagle flying, the snake gliding, the ship sailing, the way of a married man and woman, God-pleasing, happy, permanent.
Therefore, what better place to be together each week than in worship. For it is only there, in His means of grace, that the Lord promises to give you the love and forgiveness your marriage needs, and that you cannot produce for yourself. God’s Word of Law and Gospel, brings you to repentance, faith, and the forgiveness you need for yourself and your spouse. In the Lord’s Supper, Christ gives you His own body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith.
In addition, gathering together with God’s children gives you an extended family of love and support that goes even beyond your loved ones who are gathered here today. You will have many examples of married love that draws its strength from Christ’s love, and by God’s grace a marriage that can be a picture to others of the profound mystery of Christ’s perfect love for His bride, the Church.
Jim & Rebecca, my prayer for you is that, by God’s grace, you will revel is the mystery of married love for many years to come. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

This sermon is adapted from a sermon by Rev. Francis C. Rossow, published in Concordia Pulpit Resources, Volume 19, Part 4, Series B, p. 58, Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis 2009

Speak Your Peace: Sermon for the Funeral of John Stuckenbroker

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On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any it is withheld.” (John 20:19-23)
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
On one of my visits with John at the hospital. I waited for the nurses to get him re-situated and then I asked him if it would be all right to read some Scriptures and pray with him. John’s answer was short and sweet: “Speak your peace!” I think Helen and their children were a little embarrassed, but not all that surprised. I appreciated John’s honesty and took it as a show of his sense of humor—at least as much as he was able to muster given his location and situation.
On the way home, I got to thinking about it a little bit. “Speak your peace.” Is that supposed to be p-i-e-c-e or p-e-a-c-e?  Either one of them can make sense depending upon context. Speak your piece, as in “say whatever it is you have prepared to say” or speak your peace, as in “say whatever you need to clear the air.” Not sure which is correct, I went to the ultimate authority: Google. Unfortunately, that didn’t help a lot. It seems there is no consensus there, either.
But that’s okay. Today I want to speak peace, the peace that passes all human understanding, the peace that the resurrected Jesus gave to His apostles on that first Easter evening, the peace that Jesus commissioned His disciples to carry out into the world in His name: “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent Me, even so I am sending you.”  
Easter morning is far, far better news because of Easter evening.
All that day, the disciples are doubtlessly conflicted. The image of Jesus’ suffering and death is freshly seared on their minds from Friday, and the despair has been palpable ever since. But as of Sunday morning, the body is gone, the tomb is empty; and the women keep insisting they’ve heard from angels that Jesus is risen from the dead. Some of them claim to have even seen Him alive. They’ve heard him speak, and they relayed His living Word to the disciples. But the disciples don’t believe that He’s risen. They don’t know what to believe. So, in the evening, ten of them are hiding in a room, the doors locked out of fear.
So as of Easter evening, they’re full of questions. And they don’t even have Google. Could it be possible that Jesus is risen? And if He is risen from the dead, what is He risen for? He’s taken a lot of abuse, so maybe it’s time for vengeance: maybe He’ll strike back at His enemies… maybe He’ll strike out at His disciples who failed Him so miserably. Remember: You and I know that the resurrection is good news, but the disciples don’t yet. Easter morning has raised a bunch of questions, maybe even some hopes, but they’re still hiding in a locked room.
"Christ Appearing to His Apostles" by Rembrandt
Jesus stands in the midst of them. He’s suddenly there, and He speaks to them. Note His first words to His disciples and treasure them as your own. He says to them, “Peace be with you.” He doesn’t say, “You’re fired!” He doesn’t say, “It’s payback time.” He doesn’t even say, “Although you’ve utterly failed to be faithful, you’ve still got a shot at heaven if you just clean up your act and do well enough from here on. He speaks His peace—literally. He says, “Peace be with you.”
The first thing Jesus tells His disciples is that He is at peace with them. He is not back with vengeance to punish sinners—that’s the last thing the risen Christ comes to do. He’s just died for the sins of the world, including the sins of the disciples. His first words announce to them that the price has been paid for their redemption. God does not hold their sins against them because Christ has died for every last one of them. They are reconciled. Forgiven.
And now Christ is risen from the dead. He shows them His hands and His side, where nails and spear have pierced him. It’s really Him, not an imposter. It’s really His body, not a ghost. He’s fully alive, His body revived and blood coursing through His veins. That is important, too, because it declares that He has defeated the entire curse of sin. Sin brought death to soul and body, so Jesus restores life to both soul and body. Calvary isn’t a draw where the grave gets to hold on to flesh and bone. The grave is utterly defeated. Death gets no consolation prize. It’s an enemy under the feet of Jesus, and can do nothing without His permission.
This is what the disciples hear and see on Easter evening, and it’s a vital part of the Easter story. After all, imagine what would have happened if Jesus had risen from the dead and simply ascended into heaven. The victory over sin would have been won, but the disciples never would have found out. They would have stayed in a locked room for a while considering the possibilities, and then likely would either have dispersed or died trying. End of story. No hope. No peace.
But Jesus didn’t die merely to defeat sin and death and devil, and then tell no one and leave His people as uninformed victims. So, He appears to His disciples. He shows them He’s risen, body and all. Shows them the holes in His hands that were nailed to cross, the hole in His side from which blood and water flowed. He tells them what it means—they’re at peace with God, and God will raise them up from the dead, body and all, to everlasting life.
That takes care of the disciples, but it doesn’t help anybody else. Let’s say there’s someone laying in a hospital bed suffering the physical pains of burns and feeling bad that it was their own actions that put them there, realizing that their days are drawing to an end. In such times, the devil likes to pour it on, to make you feel even worse. To make you feel guilty when it was an accident, there really wasn’t any sin at all. Such a man needs to hear someone speak Jesus’ peace.
And so He sends His called and ordained servant, or if he is not available He sends one of you: “Peace be with you. I made you My own child and have given you My Holy Spirit in the water and Word of Holy Baptism. I’ve fed you My true body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. I love you. I’ll care for you. I will bring you healing, if not now, most certainly in the day of resurrection, where you will be raised body and soul to eternal life. Whatever happens in the days and hours ahead, know that I am with you.”
Or let’s say there’s someone sitting in the pews today, who is mourning the loss of a loved one. In the back of their mind, they knew he wouldn’t be around forever, but everything happened so fast, there wasn’t much chance to get prepared, if anyone can ever be prepared for the death of a loved one. There wasn’t a lot of time for long good-byes, to heal old hurts, to give thanks for all they brought into the lives of others, or to reminisce about the good times they shared together. Such a woman or man or child needs to hear someone speak Jesus’ peace.
And so, I am privileged to do today in Jesus’ stead and by His command: “Peace be with you. You are forgiven for all of sins. You are my child. I love you. I love your loved one who has just died even more than you do. I mourn his death also, for man was not intended to die. But, I went to the cross and grave to defeat sin and death, so that you and your loved one and all of My people might be with Me forever. In the meanwhile, I will be with you every step of the way of your grief. Turn to Me. Lean on Me. Speak to Me. Listen to Me.”
But there are a lot of people who aren’t here today to hear me speak Jesus’ peace. A good share of them will not hear the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life any time this week. They may never hear a pastor speak Jesus’ peace in a worship setting or in private.
That’s where you come in. Jesus’ peace isn’t just for pastors to speak. He gave it to the whole Church. He gave it to you. Whenever you tell someone of Christ’s death and resurrection, or whenever you tell them that they are forgiven for Jesus’ sake, you are declaring the peace that Christ died and rose to give. It doesn’t matter if the speaker is a 95-year-old man or a three-year-old girl: what matters is the message, because the message is the message of Jesus’ peace.
It’s by that Word of the Lord that we declare Christ’s victory over sin and death. It’s by His Word that we show people Jesus’ hands and side and say, “He died for you. This is for you! It’s with this Gospel that we say, “Peace be with you.” It is by this Good News that Easter continues—all the time, not just once a year—until the Lord returns.
In our present day, we look at Easter and think of it as a once-a-year celebration, as a big Sunday. For the early Christians, it was different: every Sunday was a little Easter. This remains true today. Whenever the people of God are gathered together around His Word and Sacraments, Jesus is in the midst of them. He is present to give them the victory He has won by His death and resurrection. He is present to say, “Peace be with you.” He is present to give you His Word, that you might have the privilege of taking it to others. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Counted Worthy to Suffer Dishonor

"Dispute before Sanhedrin" by Fra Angelica
Click here to listen to this sermon.

Then [the apostles] left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus” (Acts 5:40–42).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Baronelle Stutzman, Kim Davis, Ruth Neely, Aaron and Melissa Klein: Are you familiar with these men and women and their stories? You should be. Each of them are Christians who recently have been bullied for failing to bow down at the altar of political correctness. Each of them have suffered severe damage to their reputation and livelihood for refusing to violate their consciences. Each one of them has remained faithful despite religious persecution, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Jesus.
Baronelle Stutzman is a 72-year-old florist in Richland, Washington. For her entire career, she served and employed people who identify as homosexual. Despite this, the ACLU and the Washington attorney general allege that she is guilty of unlawful discrimination because she declined to use her creative skills to beautify the same-sex ceremony of a long-time customer and another man.
Kim Davis is a Rowan County, Kentucky county clerk who was sued and jailed for refusing to validate marriage licenses for same-sex couples. Losing in lower courts, Davis appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. When they refused to hear the appeal, Davis, a relatively new Christian, responded: “I never imagined a day like this would come, where I would be asked to violate a central teaching of Scripture and of Jesus Himself regarding marriage. To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience.”
Ruth Neely is a municipal court judge in Wyoming who was asked a hypothetical question about whether she would officiate a same-sex marriage. Although she prefaced her answer by saying she had never performed any wedding in her 21 years as a judge, she said that she would decline such a request based upon her Christian faith. The radical religious group to which Judge Neely belongs? The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. By a vote of 3-2, she received a censure by the Wyoming State Supreme Court and faces further legal action.
Aaron and Melissa Klein are an Oregon couple who were asked to bake a cake for a wedding. Upon learning the ceremony would be for two women, Aaron said, “I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t waste your time, but we don’t do same-sex marriages” based on his belief in the Bible. The women soon filed suit, claiming discrimination and mental harm. Overwhelmed by a nasty social media campaign, the Klein’s were forced to close their bakery. To add injury to insult, the Kleins were fined $135,000 by an Oregon judge for discrimination.
To be sure, such instances of violations of religious liberty in our country are the exception rather than the rule. But emboldened by their recent successes, with the help of an activist judiciary, willing accomplices in the media, and—let’s be honest—the failure of us Christians to defend our brothers and sisters who come under attack, such instances are becoming more frequent and the enemies of the Church and its Christians are becoming more vocal and threatening.
Current trends of political correctness put pressure on the Church as various groups declare that it’s “hate speech” to warn sinners of their sin. Sooner or later, the time may come when it is illegal to say that immorality is immoral or sin is sinful simply because it hurts feelings, because people don’t want to hear with their ears what their consciences are already telling them, because sin never settles for toleration but seeks acceptance and eventually demands supremacy.
The day is fast approaching when you or I may be challenged to confess with Peter and the apostles, “We must obey God rather than men,” accepting the consequences of such defiance, and then go forward, “rejoicing that [we are] counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name [of Jesus].”
I don’t say this to scare you, for the only one we need to fear is the Lord. I say this to prepare you, to convict you, and to encourage you. Martin Luther wrote:
I must place the Word of God above everything else. To keep it and to stay with Christ, who is my highest Treasure in heaven and on earth, I must be willing to risk my body and life, the popularity of the world, my goods, my reputation, and all my happiness. For one of these two things has to happen: either the Word of God will abide and conquer them; or at least they will be unable to suppress it, even if they refuse to accept all its grace and goodness and salvation.[i]
That is certainly the situation of the apostles in our first lesson. They stand before the Council—the Sanhedrin—because they’d been arrested in the temple. The chief priests had thrown them in jail for a night, but an angel released them and they returned to the temple to teach some more. And what are they teaching? They’re telling the crowds Jesus has died for their sins and is risen from the dead; and by His authority, the apostles are forgiving sins and healing people.
The chief priests are furious. They have the apostles brought before them again and say, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us” (Acts 5:28). The same men who led the mob in shouting, “Let His blood be on us and our children” (Matthew 27:25) now want nothing to do with Jesus’ death or blood. Ruled by blinding sin, they’re just trying to get as far away from Jesus as they can. In their fervent opinion, the sooner these apostles stop talking about Him, the better.
It is then that “Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men’” (Acts 5:29). This answer establishes a principle for all Christians for all time. What God’s Word commands, we must do, even when forbidden to do so by human authorities. What God’s Word prohibits we must not do, even when commanded to do so by human authorities. It is true that “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). But when that authority exceeds its bounds by commanding people to break God’s law, Christians are bound to obey God rather than the authorities.
Peter goes on: “The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging Him on a tree. God exalted Him at His right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey Him.”
Why has God done this? “To give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” Peter is exercising the Office of the Keys that we heard about in our Gospel lesson. Jesus said to His disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” Jesus sent His disciples to forgive sinners; and Peter is attempting to do exactly that. Peter is preaching the same message he had preached on Pentecost and since—the message he and other had been proclaiming in the temple courts a short while before. “You killed Jesus. God raised Him from the dead. Repent! Receive God’s forgiveness, which is for all, including you.”
Once again, in the case of the Sanhedrin, the message falls on deaf ears and hard hearts. It makes them furious and murderous. They hear the Word of Life and want to silence the messengers forever. This is no surprise, because this is how unbelief reacts to the Gospel, especially when there is fear involved. The chief priests are afraid—they’re afraid that if too many follow the apostles and believe in Jesus, Rome will destroy them. Fear often makes for zero-tolerance policies.
Fortunately, Gamaliel, regarded as moderate and tolerant in his religious views, saves the day. He notes examples of previous rebellions that have failed. Then he says, “in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!”
Gamaliel’s speech persuades the Sanhedrin not to kill the apostles, but it does not persuade them to treat the apostles fairly. The apostles suffer a terrible beating; yet they rejoice that they are counted worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus. The apostles keep on doing what they had been called to do. They never stop teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.
What does this mean for you and me today?
First, God grant that His Church never cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ even for a day. That is the news of salvation for all who believe, and salvation is found in no other name than Jesus. If we are forbidden from speaking it, we must obey God rather than men—the Good News is just too good of news to forsake, for it gives repentance, forgiveness and eternal life.
This is especially true when we speak to those who oppose the Christian faith. When others seek to harm, the natural reaction is to speak only harm in return and therefore deprive them of the Gospel, or stop speaking the Gospel because it’s what got the trouble started in the first place.
But we must remember: Those who oppose the Gospel are also those for whom Christ died. He bore their sins to the cross and listened to their shouts of scorn as He breathed His last. He desires that they be saved, and salvation is found only in Christ and Him crucified. Therefore, where we encounter those who desire that we cease proclaiming Christ, it is right for us to proclaim Christ even more—for their sake; not without Law and not to be stubborn annoyances, but in sincere, loving desire that they hear, believe, and receive forgiveness.
We pray for them, too. And we give thanks: we give thanks that, while we were born enemies of God, God has made His salvation known for us. And we give thanks that, for Jesus’ sake, He counts us worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Jesus.
We must obey God rather than men. Better yet, we believe God rather than men. The God our fathers is your heavenly Father for Jesus’ sake, because He raised Jesus from the dead, who was crucified for your sins. God has exalted His Son at His right hand as Leader, as Your Savior who leads you even through the shadow of death. He gives you repentance and the forgiveness of sins by the work of His Holy Spirit. That is the news that gives you salvation, and that is the news that God entrusts to His Church to declare so that others might have salvation, too.
Should you suffer for that proclamation, God grant you faith and strength to endure. God grant you joy, too: joy that He counts you worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus. For this means that the world is not worthy of you, but that God declares you worthy to bear His name—because you are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] Luther, M. (1999). Luther’s works, vol. 21: The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat. (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald, & H. T. Lehmann, Eds.) (Vol. 21, p. 121). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Sign of the Palms

"The Entry of Our Lord Christ into Jerusalem" by Giotto di Bondone
Click here to listen to this sermon.

“The next day the large crowd that had come to the feast heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem. So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, crying out, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!’” (John 12:12–13).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Everybody loves a parade. Indeed, parades are wonderful events! They are usually occasions for celebration. You’ve probably attended a parade celebrating a holiday, such as Independence Day or Christmas or St. Patrick’s Day. Perhaps you plan to attend an Easter parade next weekend. We even hold parades that celebrate people, such as the one honoring a hometown soldier who returns from serving in combat or to welcome home the local team who has just won a state championship. There’s a festive mood in the air. A feeling of pride. Expectation.
That’s the kind of atmosphere it must have been on the first Palm Sunday. There was a great crowd, John tells us. They were all coming to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Many of them had heard that Jesus had raised His friend Lazarus from the dead just a few days before in Bethany. So they gathered along the two-mile stretch of road that leads from there into Jerusalem in order to greet Him.
It is important for us to remember that Jesus initiated and directed everything that happened that day and in the days to come. Jesus assured His disciples that they would find a donkey and her colt and they would be permitted to take the animals for the Lord. Luke emphasizes that the disciples found everything in Bethphage “just as He had told them.” In his account, Matthew underscores that Jesus’ plans were just as the prophets had long ago proclaimed. And so, as Zechariah had foretold over 500 years earlier, Jesus the Messiah came into Jerusalem as a king, seated on a donkey’s colt.
The crowds knew what Jesus’ arrival in such a fashion meant: He is the King of Israel, the Messiah. No wonder they were excited! As Jesus drew near to Jerusalem, they took palm branches and went out to meet Him shouting. Among their shouts were the words from one of the greatest messianic psalms: “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna” is a prayer that literally means “Save now!” God’s people had waited many years for the Son of David, the Blessed One from the Lord, to come and to reestablish the kingdom of their father David. They were more than ready for Him to save now!
Palm branches were used in victory celebrations in those days. Why palm branches, I’m not sure. But that was the custom. People would wave them in celebration. Not the long, skinny fronds that you have today, but palm branches, like those from the trees. It was a joyous exciting occasion. For the crowd that welcomed Jesus thought He was the Messiah. They thought He would be the next king of Israel. The palms were a sign. A sign of celebration. A sign of victory. A sign of joy. What a day it must have been!
Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is seen by some as a near-success that fell just short. One day Jesus was welcomed into the city by adoring crowds; less than a week later He was mocked by the jeering crowds as He hung on a cross. We might think that if only the same crowds had not turned against Him, perhaps the tragedy of the cross could have been avoided.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus came to Jerusalem for one purpose only—to die. As Jesus rode into Jerusalem, He had only one thing on His mind: He had come to confront death. Look death square in the eye. Though He is the Lord of life, Christ would not hide; but instead, He would take our death upon Himself, thereby placing a death sentence on death itself. All other man-made religions are pale fabrications of the truth of Christ’s love.
In raising Lazarus, our Lord’s words had penetrated the tomb and time, raising one who had died and been buried four days earlier. But that, while marvelous, would not be enough. In order to bring us into His life, our Lord would have to trade places with us. Even as He took upon flesh, and then lived each stage of our life without sin, here outside of Jerusalem He would take upon Himself our death, the death which is ours as the wage for the sin we have committed, the good that we have not done. Yes, our Lord will call us out of the tomb on the Last Day, and He will do so by the power not simply of His might and His Word, but He will do so by the power of His death.
The triumphal entry was in no way a failed attempt at glory for Christ; rather, it was a very successful step toward suffering. For it forced Jesus’ enemies to move up their timetable and plot His death. In only five days after the excitement of Palm Sunday, Jesus would be crucified and buried.
Yes, Jesus entered the city as King, but not the kind of king most of the people wanted. The prophet Zechariah had related God’s true purpose: the King came humbly, riding on a donkey, not a mighty warhorse. He came not to conquer earthly enemies for Israel, but to establish eternal, spiritual peace for all nations. This peace would be achieved only by the King’s ultimate humiliation.
The “triumphal entry” must always be viewed in the light of—or, rather, the darkness of—Good Friday. Just five days after Palm Sunday, Jesus would hang on the cross. Darkness would cover the land from noon until 3:00 p.m. and Jesus would be rejected by everyone, including the crowds who shouted “Hosanna.” Jesus’ disciples would scatter. Judas would betray Him. Peter would deny Him. And even the heavenly Father would be forced to forsake His Son, turning His back, withdrawing all His protection, so that Jesus suffered the torments of hell for a world of sinners.
Think once more about the palms of Palm Sunday—the cheers and adulation that accompanied Jesus. Now, think about some other palms later that week—namely, the palms of Jesus’ hands, as He was nailed to the cross. Suffering for the sins of the world. Scratch that! Suffering for your sins, and for my sins. With nails driven through His hands and His feet.
Jesus had used those hands to reach out and touch people during His ministry. More than once Jesus picked up little children to bless them. Again and again in the Gospels we see Him touching people who had leprosy, touching the eyes of people who could not see, touching the ears of people who could not hear, touching the diseased bodies of people who were sick; on one occasion, touching the corpse of a little girl who had died. Jesus’ touch brought blessings to the children, healing to the sick, sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and even life to the dead. But those very same hands that had touched so many people in such loving, caring ways were nailed to the cross.
When He rose from the dead three days later, Jesus was raised with a glorious resurrection body. But He still had the marks of the nails on those hands. In fact, when He appeared to the disciples after Easter, He bid them “Peace,” He invited them to look at His hands and to touch them so they would know for sure that it was really He—not a ghost or a vision, but real live flesh and blood.
If the sign of Palm Sunday palms is the sign of celebration and joy, the sign of Jesus’ palms is the sign of His love. His love for you.
Through the prophet Isaiah, the Lord says to His people, “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10). And “I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of My hands” (Isaiah 49:15-16).
Think of those nail prints on Jesus’ palms, as your name engraved. Proof that He will never forget you. Proof of His work of salvation for you. So that you will someday be in this beautiful picture of heaven that John paints for us in the book of Revelation:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9–10).
By God’s grace, may you always remember the sign of the palms. The palms of Palm Sunday that joyfully welcomed the arrival of the King who brings salvation even now. The palms of Good Friday that were fastened to the cross as He gave Himself into death as payment for your sins. The palms of Easter Sunday when Jesus offered His disciples proof of His victory over sin, death, and the devil with His resurrection. And the palms you’ll be waving in the eternal celebration around the throne of God in heaven. For each of these signs point you to Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior. In Him, you have salvation and eternal life. For His sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.

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

Monday, April 3, 2017

Life Breathed into Dry Bones: Sermon for Pipestone Circuit Winkel

"The Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones" by Gustave Dore
Click here to listen to this sermon.

“Thus says the Lord God to these bones: ‘Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord’” (Ezekiel 37:13-14).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
It sounds almost like a scene out of one of my favorite movies, “The Sixth Sense.” The young man talks to his counselor, a ghost.
“I see dead people.”
“In your dreams?”
“While you’re awake.”
“Dead people like, in graves? In coffins?
“No, they’re in a valley, a valley of dry bones, dead and lifeless bones.”
But this is not a Hollywood movie; it is a biblical account. The young man who sees dead people is the thirty-year-old prophet, Ezekiel. And the Counselor with whom he speaks is the Holy Ghost, the Spirit of the Lord, who has brought Ezekiel to this valley. And the “dead people,” “the dry bones,” that Ezekiel sees are the Israelite refugees returning from Babylonian exile.
As Ezekiel writes this, Israel is, for all intents and purposes, dead and gone. The ten northern tribes were conquered by Assyria 150 years earlier. They had been wiped out and replenished with foreigners transplanted from other vanquished nations. Now the southern tribes are captives in Babylon, far from the rubble and rabble that was once Jerusalem. That is how nations and peoples disappear in the ancient world. Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.
Ezekiel is the prophet called by God to speak to the remnant of Israel held captive in Babylon, and one would think that it will be his burden to declare their final judgment. That’s what they’ve got coming, isn’t it? All that God had given them is gone because of their own stubborn refusal to trust Him and follow His Word. But the Lord declares that He has different plans for His rebellious people. Even if they are faithless to Him, He will remain faithful. He will not forget His promises. That’s Good News, right?
Unfortunately, the faith of the child of God is constantly threatened by two opposite dangers: overconfidence and despair. This is certainly true of the people of Israel. In the previous chapter, Ezekiel preached scathing Law to them to convict them of their pride and self-conceit. Here, in our text, the prophet must overcome their reluctance to accept the Good News of restoration. It seems too good to be true, so rather than rejoice, they have fallen into doubt and despair. “Our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off,” they lament (Ezekiel 37:11).
In His mercy and grace, the Lord grants Ezekiel a vision of a valley of dry bones that is to convince his hearers that their despair grows out of their refusal to believe in a Creator who “calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). They are struggling because they do not trust in the One for whom “nothing will be impossible” (Luke 1:37) according to His Word.
God’s question to Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?” normally would have to be answered in the negative. Ezekiel’s reply is interesting. He says, “O Lord God, You know,” implying that only the Person who made all those bones could make them alive again. The Lord promises to do just that.
At His command, Ezekiel prophesies to these lifeless bones the Word of the Lord, and there is a rattling noise as bone comes together with bone. To Ezekiel the valley seems no longer to be full of disconnected bones but of skeletons—an improvement to be sure, but still not exactly the poster children for life.
Ezekiel prophesies again, sinews and flesh fill out the bones. Now the valley resembles a battlefield littered with corpses. Human bodies, yes, but still lifeless human bodies. Dead people. They have no breath. Like Adam of old, they need the Spirit of God to breathe life into them. So God tells Ezekiel to prophesy again. The prophet obeys. Breath enters the army of corpses. They come to life and stand up.
Through this vision, God reveals how He will recreate His people now apparently lost in Babylon. Humanly speaking, Israel’s hopes appear as unlikely as expecting a vast array of skeletons to come to life again on their own. Yet at God’s command, death must surrender its victims. Against all odds, Israel will continue. The Lord will give life to the nation. He will bring the people back to their land. He will raise them as a people from death to life, to be a blessing to all people.
That’s right… for all people! You see, the Lord must bring Israel back so that a virgin might conceive and give birth to a Son in Bethlehem. It is necessary that Jerusalem and the temple might be rebuilt, so that the Son of David might enter the city triumphantly on Palm Sunday, so that the King of the Jews might be led outside the city to die on a cross, so that the One who is the Resurrection and the Life might Himself rise on the third day. Simply put, the Lord raises that nation from the dead in Babylon so that He might raise all His people from the dead.
The primary purpose of this passage (as with all Scripture) is to point to Christ and His work of salvation. Still there is application to you and me as individuals, and in our service as called and ordained servants of the Word, as the Lord bids us to preach the breath of God into dry bones,
Have you ever looked out over the pews on Sunday morning, and thought to yourself: “I see dead people! I’ve been called to preach God’s Word to dry bones, dead people lost in sin, dried up in doubt and despair, concerned about their prospects for the future, many of whom don’t even yet realize the seriousness of their condition. Can these bones live?”
Yes, they will. Against all odds, Christ’s Church will prevail. The people may have given up. They may be weighed down by doubt and despair. But the Lord will give life to His Church. He will bring His people into His kingdom. He will raise them as a people from death to life, to be a blessing to others. And miraculously, in His mercy and grace, He will use you as His chosen instrument.
A few lessons to keep in mind in the meanwhile:
First, God does it all. Dry bones can’t make themselves alive, and it is only the Lord who made those bones who can give them life again. The people of Israel couldn’t restore themselves as a people—it was the Lord who brought them back and made them a people again. So it is with me and you and the people under our pastoral care. It is not our word, but God’s Word that brings new life. It is the Holy Spirit who calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies, and keeps us with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. God does it all.
Actually, you and I and the people to whom we minister were in worse shape than the bones of Ezekiel’s vision. We’d never been alive in the first place. We were dead in the trespasses and sins. But the Lord makes alive! God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.
This not your own doing, but it is His. This is good, because He gets the job done for sure. The dead can’t make themselves alive anyway. Neither can you. Even if you could, you’d always have to wonder if you really had. After all, sinners often think they’re alive when they’re still dead in sin. But because God makes you alive, your life in Him is certain—as certain as Christ’s death on the cross for you. It is not a resurrection to a life of slavery and groveling, but a seat in the heavenly places and the immeasurable riches of God’s grace. It is all gift, all for the sake of Jesus.
Second, because of Jesus, God’s Word that resurrects a nation in Ezekiel is for you and God’s people, too—not as a nation, but as individuals. Because Christ has died for your sins and is risen again, the Lord now promises: “I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O My people... And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O My people. And I will put My Spirit within you, and you shall live... Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it(Ezekiel 37:12-14).
This is a far greater promise, with farther reaching implications, for the Babylonians were merciful and weak compared to the grave. A captive in Babylon would still have some sort of life even if his nation was erased from the earth. Death provides no such amenities: as the wages of sin, it takes everything and permits nothing. But Christ has conquered death—He has taken this greatest enemy captive. Now He says, “I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, because you are My people.” This comfort is for you when you face death, and it is comfort for you when it is given you to mourn those who have died in the faith. The Lord is faithful to His people. He will raise them up from their graves.
Third, while the Lord spoke life to the dry bones and deliverance to Israel, He did it through the prophet Ezekiel. This is profound and significant: this message is not rare or far away, but the Lord entrusts this Word to His Church and calls upon His men to proclaim it.
The Lord calls upon His pastors to preach it publicly, that you might tell others that Christ has conquered death—that they, too, might be delivered from their graves and have eternal life. Every time people hear you speak this Gospel, the Lord declares to them, “I have died and risen so that I might open up your grave and give you eternal life.” What a privilege: He doesn’t have to, but the Lord gives to you the joy of declaring His deliverance to all.
Many will reject the message, believing that it’s too good to be true, that their bones are dried up, their hope is lost, and they are cut off. Many Israelites in Babylon rejected the Lord’s promise when Ezekiel proclaimed it too, and many would not make the trip back when God kept His promise; but their unbelief did not make the promise any less true. So it is today: the Lord does not force this life on anyone, but His promise remains true and all who believe will be saved.
Many will ignore the message because they consider it far too common to have any real value. Sadly, proclamation of the Gospel grows rarer than people think these days as other messages replace it while sleepy Christians don’t realize. But even where the Gospel is proclaimed often, its common-ness and familiarity is no proof that it is of little value—that’s the devil’s argument. Rather, because sin and death constantly threaten, the Lord constantly assures you that you are His, that He has died and risen again to give you eternal life.
Can these bones live? Yes, they can! As surely as Christ is risen from the dead is sure, these bones can live. As surely as the Word and breath of the Spirit blow over them, they will live. As surely as the Holy Spirit breathes new life in Christ in you, you will live—you will live forever. Just as surely as He brings you this Word of the Lord to you today: 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

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Into the Wilderness

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