Government: God’s Good Servant and Avenger of Wrath

The Apostle Paul Explains the Tenets of Faith in the Presence of King Agrippa,
His Sister Berenice, and the Proconsul Festus” by Vasily Surikov

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Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:1-4).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

The IRS. CDC. FBI. DHS. City Hall. County Courthouse. The Mayor. The Governor. The President. Your Congressman or Congresswoman. Your Senator. Make America Great Again. Black Lives Matter. De-fund the Police. Words like these can stir up a beehive of feelings—frustration, disappointment, betrayal, distrust, oppression. With the flames of Minneapolis, Portland, and many other cities flickering on our screens, after months of living under executive orders and mandates, it’s remarkable to us today that St. Paul wrote this little paragraph about being subject to the ruling authorities. Many today take it for granted that government officials of any level are not to be trusted.

Many Christians—on both sides of the political aisle—take it for granted that governments are corrupt and dehumanizing and that it is part of our marching orders as followers of King Jesus that we should offer serious criticism and opposition even, if necessary, at any cost to our personal prospects.

Sadly, this paragraph has been used—and abused—by many people in power as a way of telling their subjects to keep their mouths shut and step in line even in the face of flagrant abuse. But when we put these verses back into their context, right here in the letter, we start to see what Paul is getting at. He has just said, strongly and repeatedly, that private vengeance is forbidden for Christians.

This does not mean, on the one hand, that God does not care about evil or, on the other, that God wants society to collapse into chaos where the bullies do what they like and get away with it. In fact, even in places where people hate the authorities and fear the police, when someone commits a serious crime, everyone affected by it wants the authorities to find the culprit and administer justice. That is a basic, and correct, human instinct. We do not want to live by the law of the jungle. We want to live in an ordered, properly functioning society.

This is almost all Paul is saying, making the point as he does so that the Christians, who were regarded as the scum of the earth, might not get an additional reputation as troublemakers. No good will come to the cause of the Gospel by followers of Jesus being regarded as crazy dissidents who will not cooperate with the most basic social mechanisms. Paul believes Jesus really is the true Lord of the world and His followers should not pick unnecessary quarrels with the lesser lords in His name and in the name of His bride, the Church.

If we followers of Christ become known as lawless rebels concerning the authorities, then what will a watching world think of us with respect to obedience to Christ Himself? True, we are indeed a revolutionary community, but if we go for the normal violent and lawless revolution, then we will be playing the Empire game on Empire terms and that is always a losing proposition for the Gospel.

But, while making this point, Paul is making one or two others of great interest. To begin with, he declares that the civic rulers and authorities have been put in place by God Himself. This would be news to Nero and the other emperors, who believed (or claimed to believe) in their own divinity, certainly that they held power in their own right rather than as a gift from the One Creator God, who was, in fact, their sovereign. They would have laughed at such a suggestion.

Christians are called to believe, though, that the civic authorities are there because the one true Lord wants His world to be ordered, not chaotic. This does not validate particular actions or governments. We retain the right to make bad decisions and vote for bad officials and pass bad laws which we enforce badly. God is not at fault for our faults. Rather, it is merely to say that some government is always necessary in a world where evil flourishes when unchecked.

Of course, Paul knew that quite often one might do the right thing and find the rulers doing the wrong thing. You only have to read the stories of his exploits in Acts to see that. But notice in those stories that, precisely when the authorities are getting it all wrong and acting illegally or unjustly, Paul has no hesitation in telling them their proper business and insisting they should follow it. Hardly the way to become popular, but completely consistent with what he says here.

In saying this, Paul was standing within the Jewish tradition and developing it in light of the Gospel. The Old Testament had denounced pagan nations and their rulers, but some of the prophets whose rebukes were fiercest also told Israel that God was working through the pagan nations and rulers for Israel’s long-term good. God, the only true and living Lord, was, in fact, sovereign over all the nations, even as the pagan nations and their rulers, were wicked, idolatrous, immoral, and dangerous for Israel. It was precisely this tension that came to its head when Jesus stood before the Roman governor and declared that, even though Pilate was about execute Him, the power by which he did it had come from God in the first place.

It is a profound truth: there is no authority except that which God has established. God’s overriding concern in establishing governments is to bless us with an orderly and peaceful existence, hence it is the duty of God’s agents to encourage and commend those who do right. But when the peace is jeopardized by lawbreakers, God’s representatives need to step in to restore order and punish evildoers. Earthly leaders are God’s servants for good, His avengers of wrath.

Now, I think it’s valuable to explain this text—and it’s fitting as we’re just a couple of months away from another election. At the same time, though, a sermon is to preach Law and Gospel. My task, as a preacher, is not to give you a civics or history lesson, but to show you your sin, call you to repentance, and then declare that Christ has died for your sin.

The Law for this day may seem mundane, only because it is broken so often and so easily. We live in angry, cynical times. We are troubled as a nation by upheaval. News reports detail scandal after scandal among politicians, substituting rumor and “unnamed sources” when the news day is slow. There’s little trust in elected officials, and lots of calls to “drain the swamp” or “burn the whole thing down.” Political debate is reduced to name-calling and mudslinging.

Now, I’m not naïve. I’m aware of corruption and trouble in the government. I know about immorality among politicians, both in their personal lives and in legislation proffered. As a citizen, I’ve got a few opinions. But I’m not in the pulpit as a citizen; rather, I’m here as a called and ordained servant of the Word. And the Word says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”

Therefore, says the Word, exercise Christian care in how you treat those placed in authority. You’ll be tempted to be angry that the officer is pointing the radar gun in your direction when you’re in a school zone, running late. You’ll find that glee comes easy when a politician you don’t care for gets his or her comeuppance. These are the times in which we live.

But this is not just about human contests for power. To be angry at one in authority is to be angry at one whom God has placed there for your wellbeing. To wish ill on one in authority is to wish ill on God’s servant for your good. To hold them in contempt or be gleeful at their downfall is to rejoice in the downfall of God’s instrument. For such sins, repent.

Furthermore, pray for these authorities, whether you agree with them or not. Pray that they might resist temptation and act with integrity. Pray that they might repent of positions which contradict Scripture and that they would act in love for those they serve. Pray that they and their families might be spared trouble and trial. And remember: Their failures no excuse for you to disobey God’s Word. Where you fail to pray for authorities, and instead choose contempt and scorn, repent. And where you find the laws of the land to be disagreeable to you, keep them anyway. For such sins, even sins of thought, repent. They are sins against those whom God has appointed for your good; and thus, they are sins against God.

That may sound crazy, because we set high standards for God’s representatives in the Church, in the kingdom of the right hand. If pastors are guilty of the same actions as many politicians, we rightly remove them. But we are speaking of the kingdom of the left, for governing this world; and God, in His wisdom, appoints an interesting collection, many of whom choose to abuse the office. In fact, who ruled the Roman Empire at the time Paul wrote this epistle? That would be Nero, an evil tyrant if ever there was one—and one who martyred Christians in all sorts of gruesome ways. Yet, what did Paul write? Be subject, pay taxes, accord honor. Nero was placed there by God, though his evil was his own doing—not the Lord’s. Yet Paul, by inspiration of God, commanded honor.

And who issued the death sentence on no less than Jesus? A weaselly Roman ruler named Pontius Pilate; yet Jesus, the all-powerful Son of God, acknowledged that Pilate was put in that office by God and submitted Himself to Pilate’s authority (John 19:11). And what did Pilate do with his authority? He unjustly put the Son of God to death on the cross. But rather than draw His sword, the Son of God willingly suffered and died. And yet, that death is your salvation. Despite the evil of man, God used this for your redemption. Christ Jesus bore your sins to the cross and died with them there, so that you might have everlasting life.

In this Gospel, you rejoice. The authorities of this world are fallen sinners, subject to failure and unable to keep even the promises they mean to. Jesus Christ, your eternal king, is without sin. He promises to you that He will deliver you, and He keeps His promises. While the criticism of many authorities today is that they are out of touch, it is not so with your Savior. He promises, “where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). He is in the midst of you today by His Word and by His Supper.

Jesus does not come into your midst to take from you, but to give—to give you grace by His Word of Holy Absolution, to give you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins. He does not come to you with power and sword to give orders and say, “If you obey these laws, then you can be My people.” He comes in grace and says, “I have obeyed the laws for you where you could not; and by My obedience and My death I have made you My people.”

And where many rulers fall prey to the temptation of believing that they exert power over others for personal gain, the Son of Man—the King of Kings!—continues to serve you with grace and mercy, even as He came in the flesh not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many. He gave Himself into death to appease God’s wrath for sin. He truly is the Servant for good!

Because Jesus has given His life as a ransom for you, your sins are forgiven and the kingdom of heaven is yours. As long as you are on this earth, He appoints rulers to keep order and punish evil, some of whom will do better than others. For these you pray, and to these you accord the honor due. But no matter what happens in this world, you know this world is not the end. The kingdom of heaven is yours forever because 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.

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Sermons, Uncategorized

A Short Step from Rock to Stumbling Block

“The Protestations of St. Peter” by James Tissot

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But [Jesus] turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a hindrance to Me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:23).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

It’s a short step from “Rock” to “Stumbling Block,” from “blessed” to “Satan.” Just ask St. Peter. In last week’s reading, Peter spoke for the rest of the disciples by confessing Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus commended this confession, identifying the Father as its source and its truth as the foundation of the Church’s endurance. In other words, Peter got Jesus right. Jesus pronounced Peter blessed and called him Petros, “Rock.” But now, just five verses later Jesus calls him Satan, and says he is a skandalon, a stumbling block to Jesus and His ministry. What changed? To find out, let’s review the narrative.

The time has come for Jesus to reveal His mission to His disciples. The Father has just shown Peter and the others that Jesus is, in fact, the unique Son of God and the Anointed One Jesus has promised to them a future in which He will build His Church and use them to unlock access to the reign of heaven (Matthew 16:17-19). Now it is time to show them what that will require of Him and them.

Jesus speaks frankly to the disciples about His imminent suffering and death. He has surely spoken of these things before, but the disciples have not really understood. They do not understand what Jesus tells them here either, but in due time they will understand. Nevertheless, at this time, it is necessary for Jesus to go on record as being fully aware of the suffering and death He will soon endure, and also to speak of His resurrection on the third day. It must be clear that Jesus knows what He faces and that He willingly endures it all. He is a willing sacrifice for all our sins, not a helpless victim of the schemes of evil men.

Jesus’ ministry evokes many reactions, including the hatred and opposition of influential people in Israel. Arrayed against Him are the likes of Herod Antipas (Matthew 14:1-2), Galilean Pharisees (Matthew 12:2, 14, 26), Jerusalem Pharisees and scribes (Matthew 15:1), and Sadducees as well (Matthew 16:1). Always before, when the opposition has arisen, Jesus has chosen to withdraw to avoid conflict. Now, however, He declares that He must confront His enemies in Jerusalem, the city where the Messiah of Israel, should be rightly received with faith and acclaimed with joy, but where He must die. The powerful men in the holy city will inflict many pains on Him, and He will be killed. Sin and rebellion will have its way. Jesus will die and He gives His life as the ransom payment for many (Matthew 20:28).

This is all too much for Jesus’ disciples to comprehend. Peter takes Jesus aside, and begins to rebuke Him: “Far be it from You, Lord!” Peter says. “This shall never happen to You!” Peter’s intentions are good. But His denial confirms the old saying: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Peter cannot bear to think of such terrible things happening to his Lord. But he speaks without considering the ramifications. The man who just acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, now presumes to contradict Jesus’ very plain words.

A moment earlier, Jesus commended Peter’s confession of faith. He called him Petros, “Rock,” and pronounced him blessed. Now, Jesus rebukes him sternly, even addressing him as Satan. This is appropriate because Peter is now saying essentially what Satan told Jesus during those forty days of temptation in the wilderness. Forget the obedience and suffering, seize the glory now. This is no ordinary but well-meaning confusion on Peter’s part. His words show that he is taking his stand against the Lord and against His Anointed. There are two ways to think about God’s activity in the world, and Peter has chosen to think and articulate the satanic way, that is to say, “the things of men” (Matthew 16:23).

When Jesus calls the apostle a skandalon, or “stumbling block,” that term refers to a crooked stick in a trap to which bait would be attached. An animal going for the bait would spring the trap and be captured or killed. In the same way, Peter is setting a trap for Jesus. If Jesus steps into that trap, His whole mission of redeeming the world will be aborted. The rebuke Jesus speaks to Peter is in order, and it is important for the other disciples to hear it, too. They have not said what Peter said but have thought what Peter thinks.

In mere moments, Peter goes from “Rock” to “Stumbling Block”, from “blessed” to “Satan.” What changed? The promise of suffering. Peter’s resistance to suffering is so strong, and so natural to his fallen nature, that he is willing to rebuke the very Son of God he just confessed. In addition to contradicting Jesus (which is never a good idea), Peter’s opposition prevents him from considering the resurrection. Jesus is clear. Not only will He suffer and be killed, but He will “on the third day be raised.” But Peter finds no comfort in the promise of the resurrection. He is too disturbed by the suffering.

Isn’t that how it works for us, too? It’s hard to get past the suffering. Most of us have learned that life—even Christian life—involves a certain amount of anguish and affliction. But this knowledge does not make the experience of suffering any easier, and it does not make the desire to avoid suffering any less intense. For this reason, Peter stands again this week as a model Christian. Unfortunately, he is not the type of model to emulate. Peter puts on display our shared determination to avoid suffering at all costs—both for ourselves and those we love. This does not sit well with Jesus.

Jesus reminds His disciples what they must expect as they follow Him. They have long since committed themselves to following Jesus, but they seem to forget what that involves. So He tells them, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24).

This verse is the heart and summary of Jesus’ teaching. He speaks these  words because His disciples have badly misconstrued the character of God’s work in the world. They still do not know what it will mean for God to reign through His Anointed One and what it will mean for Christ to accomplish the work that He has been sent to do. God’s work will entail the seeming defeat of the Christ. He will not go to Jerusalem in triumph, but rather, He will suffer there and be killed.

This speaks volumes about the nature of the world as well as the plan of God in Christ to reclaim the world and reign over it in grace. The world is filled with violent men. All, by  nature, are such, and all such would seek to snatch away the kingdom of God and destroy it. To be sure, God is King, and in Jesus, His reign has broken into the creation. The mighty deeds and authoritative Word of Jesus have demonstrated that full well. In the unexpected way of God, however, this same Jesus must yield to those who oppose Him and suffer the unjust fate of vicarious suffering and death. Only in so doing, by God’s design, can God’s people, all people, and all creation be saved from sin and its henchman, death.

After dying, Christ will rise to eternal life, and this sequence can neither be changed nor interrupted. Those who belong to Jesus will follow in this world the same sequence and path—first the cross, then glory. Death first, then resurrection.

The first and primary obstacle to such following, however, comes not from the world around, but from within. The enemy lies within the heart of every disciple. So Jesus’ call begins: “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24). Even as the “things of men” are allied against God’s plan in Jesus, within each person who would be a disciple is the “world” in microcosm, which must be rejected. This reality is so prevalent and deeply rooted in the corrupt human nature that Jesus says a person must “deny himself.” This is the opposite of what Peter has just done. Instead of saying no to himself, Peter has just said no to Jesus.

There probably is no limit to the specific applications of what it means to deny oneself as Jesus commands. There are so many sinful desires in our hearts! The context of Matthew 16, however, emphasizes two related tendencies that are alive and well in every fallen human creature, who, by God’s gracious invitation, wants to be Jesus’ disciple.

The first tendency is to think—and insist—that God’s way of dealing with the world and its evil should conform to our way, that is, a way of power and success. We reason: If evil really is evil, should not God, the omnipotent Creator of all things, simply come forth in might and overcome it? Moreover, shouldn’t Jesus’ disciples be allowed to be participants in such work, separating wheat from chaff and uprooting the sons of the evil one (Matthew 13:28)?

God’s mysterious answer is, simply, no. The Christ Himself will not deal with the world in that way—at least not yet. To deny ourselves means that we will not assume or believe that God’s way of working in the world will conform to our expectations or definitions of success or efficiency or glory.

The second tendency, related to the first, is for a disciple to insist that God work in humanly powerful ways, so that the disciple desires to exercise power over others, especially over fellow disciples, so that he can accomplish what he believes should be done. Living in each disciple is that dark conviction that can destroy unity and do untold damage to the cause and name of Christ: “Put me in charge, and I’ll set things right.” This conviction can take the forms of ambition, a disguise considered good, even in the Church. It readily sprouts forth as criticism, competition, and one-upmanship. More introverted sinners might choose to worship Lord Self wit quiet, prideful comparison in which one doesn’t actually do anything, but merely demeans a brother or sister. Ambition, comparison, and criticism are all ways of embracing and exalting oneself, rather than denying oneself.

The way of Jesus, however, is the way of humble obedience and submission to the will of Another. When first confronted by Satan (Matthew 4:1-11), Jesus set aside His own power (Matthew 4:3-4) as well as the presumption that His Father’s powerful provision would rescue Him from reckless independence (Matthew 4:5-7). Instead, Jesus chose the way of service and obedience and suffering for the sake of Israel and the world. Now He calls every Christian to look at the darkness within, at the desire for power over others, and to deny that desire whenever and wherever it shows itself. Let us deny ourselves and take up our cross.

This is not some terrible task; this is the life of the Christian. By the Law of God, we know what our old sinful nature is like, with all of its selfish tendencies. By the grace of God, we deny ourselves—we deny our sinful selves the authority and respect the Old Adam desires. We declare to the Lord that we naturally follow our own will, not His, and we pray that He would forgive us for the sake of His crucified Son.

We say this, though often in different words. Words like, “I, a poor miserable sinner confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You.” We sing, “Lord have mercy upon us,” and “O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us,” praying that He—who died for our sins—would forgive us.

He does! You hear the truth proclaimed in words like these: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins.” The pastor announces that Jesus forgives you! Furthermore, he traces a cross toward you as he says them, to convey this awesome truth: You are forgiven because Christ has died your death on the cross, and He has shared His death with you in Holy Baptism. His cross is your cross! This is the cross that you bear! St. Paul makes that clear in Galatians 2: “ I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (v. 20). He also says in Romans 6, “We were buried therefore with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Jesus had placed His cross and His victory over sin upon you, and that is the cross you bear.

And that is why Luther advises us to draw that cross upon ourselves each morning and evening, as we rise and go to sleep with prayer, that we might constantly remember that we bear His cross—that we have died with Him to sin. And because He pours out His grace and gives us faith, we daily confess our selfish sinfulness, put it to death once again, and live as His forgiven people.

So, like St. Peter, we cling to the Word of our Lord—the Word of Christ, the Son of the living God who suffered many things, died, and rose again. Oh, rejoice to deny yourselves and confess your sins, for you do so knowing that the Lord has died to set you free from your selfish, sinful nature that seeks to kill you forever. And you rejoice, all the more, knowing that the Lord has died your death and made His cross your cross; and that He gives His cross and life to you in His Word and His Sacraments. You will battle your sinful self each day, but the Lord is present with His grace; and 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.

Sermons, Uncategorized

The Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail

“The Protestations of St. Peter” by James Tissot

Click here to listen to this sermon.

[Jesus said:] And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

It may be the case, that as Jesus meets with His disciples near Caesarea Philippi, He is geographically farther away from Jerusalem than at any other time in His earthly ministry. The town was about twenty-five miles north of the Sea of Galilee, at the base of Mount Hermon. That’s around 100 miles from Jerusalem, a long trip in the day when just about every land journey was completed on foot.

Whether or not Matthew intends the geographical perspective of distance and separation to highlight how far apart the religious establishment in Jerusalem is from Jesus, the comparison is certainly applicable. It is also true that the religious leaders of Jerusalem would have looked down on the inhabitants of this area that had been the northernmost region of the nation of Israel in its heyday, with much the same perspective that the political class and cultural elites of our country look on SW Minnesota as “flyover country.” They couldn’t believe that anything good or worthwhile would ever come from or happen there.

As Jesus has journeyed from the town to town, region to region, the constant theme has been the various answers to the question: “What do you think of Jesus?” In Galilee, religious leaders and crowds alike do not know how to answer that question rightly. The Pharisees and scribes come from Jerusalem thinking that they know how to pose the important questions (Matthew 15:1-12). The Sadducees join the Pharisees in demanding that Jesus give a sign to validate His ministry of words and deeds (Matthew 16:1-14). But Jesus has refused to meet with them on their terms. Jerusalem and her leaders are not the focal point of the new thing that God is doing to reestablish His kingdom of mercy and truth in Israel and in the world. Jesus is that center! Tragically, Jerusalem and her representatives have shown no signs of repenting and believing; they are far away from Jesus.

One begins to wonder: Will anyone in Israel grasp the real significance of Jesus and His kingdom of God ministry? Of all the people that have encountered Jesus, the Canaanite woman we heard from last week has displayed the strongest faith (Matthew 15:21-28). Jesus’ disciples themselves are an uncertain commodity. On the one hand, after Jesus saved Peter from his near-disastrous demand to walk on the water, the disciples in the boat joined in confessing, “Truly You are the Son of God!” (Matthew 14:33). However, in the debates over the traditions of the Pharisees (Matthew 15:1-20), the feeding of the four thousand (Matthew 15:29-38), and Jesus’ warning about the leaven of false teaching of the religious leaders (Matthew 16:5-12), the disciples have not exactly distinguished themselves by displaying a firm grasp on the truth. It appears the knowledge of Jesus’ identity is too high for any human beings to attain. And so, it is.

It is, however, also the Father’s good pleasure to reveal the Son to little children (Matthew 11:25-26), and that is what Matthew offers in this account at Caesarea Philippi that brings the question of Jesus’ identity to a climax.   

Jesus begins with public perception. Not because He needs to take a poll to know what anybody thinks about anything. He already knows. In a way designed to set up the false or incorrect perceptions of His identity so as to highlight the truth, Jesus asks His disciples what they have heard from others. Most people seem to put Jesus into a prophetic mold, but beyond that agreement, there are a variety of answers. “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets” (Matthew 16:14). Certainly, there are similarities between the careers of Israel’s prophets and the ministry of Jesus, but it is in no way sufficient to name Jesus merely as a prophet of the kind God sent in the Old Testament. Those prophets merely foreshadowed Him and His ministry.

So, Jesus moves on to personal confession. Who do you say I am?” He asks the Twelve. Notice, that Jesus’ question has to do with what they say. It is a reminder that faith in the heart is always accompanied by words in the mouth (see Romans 10:9-10).

Peter’s confession always gets the attention, and rightfully so. “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” he declares. Notice that “the Christ” connects Jesus to the people of Israel, while “the Son of the living God” connects Jesus to the Creator and all people. What makes Peter’s confession noteworthy to Jesus, however, is not its specific formulation, but that it did not come from Peter himself. The Father made it known to him, which is how it always works. The Father reveals Jesus and the result is a faithful confession.

Simon’s words have revealed what God the Father Himself has placed into his heart, and so, Jesus proclaims him blessed, one who has been reconciled and restored to the Father. God’s salvation consists of Jesus Himself, and one receives that salvation by being brought to a true knowledge of Jesus—even if that true knowledge is not yet completely formed. Simon is not praised for his great insight; he is pronounced blessed because God the Father has revealed the Son to him.

Jesus continues speaking to His disciples and matches the apostle’s earlier emphasis. Where Simon had said, “You are the Christ” (Matthew 16:16), Jesus says, “You are Peter” (Matthew 16:18). Although certainty is not possible, it may very well be the case that it was at Caesarea Philippi that Jesus first applied the label “Peter” to Simon. This also seems to be the first time in ancient literature that “rock” (petros) ever was used as a proper name. As far as nicknames go, “Rock” is certainly better than “Little-Faith.”

After giving Simon a new name, Jesus makes a promise. “On this rock I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).

Jesus speaks the promise to Peter, who is standing as the first among equals in the company of the other apostles. Jesus promises that He will build His Church upon the rock of Peter and his confession of Christ. And that is precisely what He will do: He will call, equip, and put in use in wonderful and terrible ways the men who were the unique and unrepeatable group of the holy apostles, whose chief task it was to speak the truth about Jesus.

What is more, Jesus promises: “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Jesus acknowledges that during the time when He is building His Church upon the apostles and their confession of Him, this assembly of disciples will find itself under assault. If one wishes to specify more exactly what threat Jesus’ words envision, perhaps it is the idea that Satan will send his forces out of the gates of Hades to assault Jesus’ disciples, the Church. The battle, as Paul will later say, will not be with mere flesh and blood, but with spiritual rulers of evil (Ephesians 6:12).

As fierce as the battle may be, however, the Christ, God’s Son, will not allow Satan and his ways ultimately to gain the upper hand. In the battle when Jesus’ disciples cry out in faith, God will honor the prayer that Jesus taught the Church to pray: “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”

This confession of Peter and Jesus’ reply isn’t just an earth-shattering moment; it’s a hell shattering moment. Jesus has just declared that He’s come to defeat sin, death, and devil. Not only that, but He’s going to share the victory with His people—He’s going to build His Church upon Himself, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

This promise does not, of course, guarantee that any particular congregation or denomination or historical manifestation of visible Christian fellowship or confession will never pass away. Christ’s Church is here thought of in general terms, as we might say, the una sancta, “the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” (Nicene Creed). This is a tenet of faith to which we cling despite the fracturing, corruption, and demise of so many Christian institutions.

“On this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).That is what Jesus promises to and about His Church. It is a timely promise for us. The pandemic is putting Jesus’ assurance to the test. Many congregations across the country have not resumed in-person worship services. Congregations like ours that have returned to in-person worship services are still seeing a significant decline in participation that already had been dropping precipitously the last few years. None of us knows what the future holds.

We have traditionally measured engagement in the Church and maturity of faith with Sunday morning attendance. Not only is this no longer a reliable measure, but we are also being forced to consider why and how we have been measuring things that way, as well as why we do what we are accustomed to doing as the Church every week. What are the essentials?

As we consider such foundational questions, Jesus’ promise of endurance becomes crucially significant. Whatever the “new normal” may be, and whatever Bible study, worship, and our life together may look like in the short and long terms, the Church will endure. Not even the gates of Hell will prevail against it. In a context where just about everything else seems up in the air, there is certainty in Christ. Two things are ultimately certain in life, and they are not death and taxes. It is Jesus’ return and the preservation of His people until that day.

The justification for this promise is Jesus’ resurrection. The gates of Hell, which He encountered in His death (“He descended into Hell”), did not prevail against Him. Neither will they prevail  against His body on earth. History gives us plenty of examples of times when this promise was tested. Every time Jesus has delivered. The existence of this congregation in worship (whether online or in-person) is the latest evidence locally.

In Article VII of the Augsburg Confession, what has been called the Magna Carta of the Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Confessors addressed Jesus’ promise and defined “Church”: “Our churches teach that one holy Church is to remain forever. The Church is the congregation of saints [Psalm 149:1] in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered.” [1] Where you find the Gospel purely taught and the Sacraments correctly administered, you find the Church. There, in the means of grace, God’s people are blessed.

So, here, at this time and this place, by God’s grace, you are blessed. You are just as blessed as Peter. By His Word, the Father has revealed to you Jesus—the Christ, the Son of the living God. By His Word, the Lord has shown you by your sin: by His Law, He has let you feel them bind you so that you repent, and by His Gospel He releases them from you so that you might have salvation.

It is sure, because Christ had conquered sin and death, devil and hell.

So next time you hear the Absolution, listen carefully: it’s not just words, but a proclamation so powerful that the devil can’t contradict it, that the very gates of hell can’t prevail against it. When you kneel at the altar, rejoice that you receive the body and blood of the Son of the living God, the body and blood that opens the gates of heaven for you. You are built on Christ, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against Him or His people. Where Christ is, the devil must flee; and when your sins are loosed, he has nothing left to work with. So let us send the evil one scurrying away again:

In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you 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.

[1] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (p. 34). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

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Great Faith

“Christ with the Canaanite Woman and Her Daughter” by Henry Ossawa Tanner

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“But she came and knelt before Him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ And He answered, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly” (Matthew 15:25-28).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Jesus withdraws to the district of Tyre and Sidon. This is Gentile territory, a coastal region northwest of Galilee that had never been part of Israel and had been dominated by the Phoenicians in Old Testament times. Jesus goes there, not primarily to engage in ministry, but to avoid the opposition arising from His recent confrontation with Pharisees from Jerusalem. The Canaanites who live there are descendants of those whom the Israelites failed to exterminate when they occupied the land. Most are unbelievers and idolaters, but this woman is an exception.

With the word “behold,” Matthew draws attention to this Canaanite woman and her words. She speaks like a disciple and calls Jesus “Lord.” This woman, who might so quickly be dismissed as unclean, speaks like a believing Israelite and addresses Jesus as “Son of David,” in sharp contrast to the Pharisees who had just been offended by Jesus’ teaching on what makes someone clean or unclean.  

“Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David,” she pleads. “My daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” It is a heartfelt prayer to the only One who can help. But how does Jesus respond? “He [does] not answer her a word.” Jesus’ response, or rather, lack of response, may surprise or even puzzle us. We have never seen Jesus treat anyone this way, and we wonder why He did this. Many commentaries seek to provide a satisfying answer, as though Jesus’ actions require a defense from us. But it is useless to conjecture why; Jesus simply remains silent.

But is that so out of character? Doesn’t it seem to you, that God is often silent when you are most anxious for an answer? At times, God seems inattentive, inactive, indifferent. And this silence may lead us to disappointment, despair, and hopelessness. God’s silence can be hard to take. It must have been excruciating for the woman in our text. You could probably tell of times when you have experienced this. It can be difficult. But it is necessary because it is only out of the silence that faith arises. As the writer of Hebrews puts is, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

The woman hopes for healing for her daughter. But even before that, she hopes for a response from Jesus. You, no doubt, have hoped for many things, too. Some of your prayers are known to others. Others you have kept hidden, because the hurt is too raw, you’re afraid it will overwhelm you if exposed. The need is so deep, you prefer to keep it under wraps to avoid the pain.

Jesus is silent as though He has not heard the woman’s plea. His disciples, however, have had enough. They ask Him to “send her away.” Give her what she wants so she’ll leave us alone and we can all get some rest.

Why Jesus replies to the disciples as He does, with words about His not being sent except to Israel’s lost sheep, we cannot be sure, but the words of the Canaanite woman provide a likely answer. She, herself a Gentile, has raised the issue of who Jesus is by calling Him “Lord, Son of David.” These titles are key to Jesus’ identity. In an especially important sense, Jesus has been sent only as Israel’s Messiah. To be sure, His identity as Israel’s Messiah and Savior has implications for His relationship with the rest of the human race and the entire creation. Nevertheless, Jesus is, first and foremost, “the Christ, Son of David, Son of Abraham,” as Matthew describes Him in the opening verse of his Gospel. Jesus is not there for the disciples’ convenience or to be a wandering wonder worker.

Undeterred and unfazed by Jesus’ apparent indifference, the woman persists. She “kneels” before Jesus, the same word usually translated as “worship,” calling Jesus “Lord” for the second time, and continuing to cry out, “Help me!”

Finally, the Messiah of Israel speaks to her directly. If His silence was disappointing, His words are crushing. If His words seemed harsh before, now they are brutal. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” It’s not just that Jesus has been sent only to the lost sheep that are Israel’s house, but it’s also that He has come to give bread to feed the children, the people of Israel, and “it is not right,” if this woman is thinking that she should get what by right and by divine economy belongs to Israel.

Remember, Jesus has just provided bread in the wilderness for five thousand men, besides women and children, with twelve baskets of fragments left over (Matthew 14:13-21), and He will soon provide bread for four thousand more (Matthew 15:29-38). In Jesus, Israel’s God is feeding His ungrateful, uncomprehending people once again, as He had done during their forty years of wilderness wandering, while they waited to get into the promised land, the land that God had taken away from the idolatrous Canaanites. Now, Jesus wants to know this: does the Canaanite woman really know who He is, or are the things that have come out of her mouth just words and no more?

The woman speaks and shows her faith. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” In other words, “Yes, Lord, You’re absolutely right! It would be bad indeed to try to deny or contradict God’s plan to save His ancient people Israel. You are Israel’s Messiah, and the bread you give belongs to the children. I agree and believe, and I don’t want the children’s bread. But when the children eat, they drop a few crumbs, don’t they? And the dogs get to eat them, don’t they? The bread of the Messiah is so abundant and so overflowing that everyone can eat and there are still fragments leftover. I’ll take the crumbs!”

Last week, we had Jesus rebuking his disciple as Little-Faith. We learned what little faith looks like. We learned the dangers of little faith. And we were reminded that little faith in Jesus is still saving faith. This week, Jesus lauds an unnamed Canaanite woman for her faith: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire” (Matthew 15:28).

How did she know? Who had taught this Canaanite woman about Israel’s Messiah? We simply do not know. We do know, however, the ultimate answer to the question of how this woman came to know and believe. The Father revealed to her His Son Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. She is an unlikely candidate for such faith. That, however, is the way of God, to hide things from the wise and understanding and to reveal them to little children (Matthew 11:25-27).

Great was her faith. In what does greatness of faith consist? Two things. She knew who Jesus is: Lord and Son of David. And she knew that Israel’s Messiah has come to give such abundance that there will be something left over even for her. Great faith puts all hope in Jesus. It believes Jesus can and will help. The woman demonstrates this faith by looking for Him, following Him, begging Him for mercy, and continuing to ask even when it seems that He doesn’t care a whit about her. That’s the way all genuine faith in Jesus works.

The unnamed woman is not too proud to hear that she has no right to ask or demand anything. She listens humbly as Jesus says He was sent for the children of Israel and referred to her people as dogs. The children of Israel were God’s chosen people. They had received the promise and the Messiah came to them now. The Canaanite woman does not belong to His people. She recognizes her lack of standing. She identifies herself as a beggar—worse, a dog. She also recognizes who she is talking to. Jesus is the Master and He has bread (even if it was just crumbs) to spare. That’s the way it always is with true faith. Faith knows that if He helps, it’s undeserved grace.

The Scriptures make it clear how you and I are also beggars and we have no standing before God outside of Christ. He has all that we need for this life and for eternal life. In Holy Baptism, He has made us God’s children, heirs of God’s kingdom. He has washed away our sins and clothed us with Christ’s righteousness. He feeds us with the Bread of Life, Himself, His very body and blood, for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith. Furthermore, God’s Word reminds us that Jesus is still Lord, and He has even more to spare. So, we come to Him, like the woman came to Jesus, and continually cry out for mercy, “Lord, help me.” And He does. He will. Not always when or how we would like Him to, but always at the right time.

It is interesting to note the different ways that Jesus deals with people who come to Him for help or for healing. He often surprises us by the way He treats people. When we analyze each episode, however, we see that He deals with each person in exactly the right way, for He can look into their hearts, and He knows what is best for them. In this way, He also teaches us that He deals with us as individuals. He knows our needs, and He is always concerned about providing what is best for us. His primary concern is to keep us in the saving faith to everlasting life. Nothing could be more important than that. We need to remember that always, especially when our gracious Lord deals with us in ways that we cannot immediately understand or appreciate. Any difficulties we have to endure in this life are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us in the life to come.

The promise in this text is not that Jesus will respond here and now by doing our will. He does on occasion, and at such times we sing His praise. But in many cases, and in an ultimate sense, we are stuck with the silence. Our shared experience with the Canaanite woman in our text comes to an end… for now, at least.

You see, our story is not yet finished. Our healing and restoration has not taken place yet. But it will. At the return of Jesus, when God’s silence is broken by the trumpets and His absence is replaced with His glorious presence, we will know the fullness of His mercy. As He did for the unnamed woman and her daughter, God will bring you and me full and eternal healing. In the meantime, we live in faith and prayer, appealing to and trusting in the mercy of God in Christ. Such is how it goes for those who live by faith alone. Amen

The peace of God which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. 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.

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“Saint Peter Walks on the Sea” by James Tissot

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Jesus immediately reached out His hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matthew 14:31).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Have you ever had a nickname? Did you like it? Hate it? Still answer to it? I suppose it depends upon the nickname. Sweetie or Dolly or Mama Bear are good. Stinky or Lumpy or Terry the Toad, not so much.

Did you know that Jesus had nicknames for His disciples? James and John were Boanerges, “The Sons of Thunder.” Thomas was Didumos, “Twin.” In this week’s Gospel, Jesus has a less-than-flattering nickname for Peter (already a nickname for Simon, meaning “Rock”). Jesus calls him Holigopiste, “Little-Faith.” This Greek word occurs only in Matthew (6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8). Where it does occur, it always applied by Jesus to His disciples in rebuke. However, the result never is that Jesus rejects them. No matter how weak or small their faith may be, they remain His followers. “Little-Faiths” are not the same as unbelievers.

Faith can be little or great, and your faith may fluctuate. Faith is fed by the Lord, present in His Word and Sacraments. The more you receive Him and His grace, the stronger your faith is likely to be. The less you make use of His means of grace, the weaker your faith will be. However, it’s important to note that your faith is like your pulse: as long as you have one, you’re alive. A strong pulse is better than a weak pulse, of course, and a strong faith is better than a weak faith. One with a strong pulse can get more done and is less susceptible to death. One with a strong faith will accomplish more good works and is less susceptible to doubt and temptation. But a little faith is still a saving faith because it holds onto Jesus.

Sometimes, nicknames just happen, but often there is an incident or trait behind the nickname. I suspect the moniker, Stinky, would be connected to someone who has frequent gastric issues. Blondie is probably noted for her golden locks. Jesus’ nickname for Peter also has a context. Let’s explore that a bit.

Our Gospel reading follows immediately after Jesus feeds the 5,000. Having provided compassionately for the people, Jesus sends away the disciples in a boat while He dismisses the crowds. Then He goes up on a mountain to pray, finally finding some time alone with His Father, a necessary recharge after the news of the Baptist’s death and all the busyness of healing and feeding the hungry horde.

Somewhere between 3 and 6 o’clock a.m., Jesus heads out to His disciples, walking on the sea. The response of the disciples when they see Jesus walking on the sea is threefold. (1) The disciples are terrified. (2) They speak a sort of anti-confession, “It is a ghost!” (3) And they cry out in fear.

They are afraid of such power and mystery. They do not understand who this is. Only one possibility enters their minds: It must be a phantom. This is like their reaction when Jesus appears in the upper room on Easter evening. They can hardly be blamed. Unlike Easter evening, Jesus has not promised He would walk to them on the water. He simply shows up unannounced, which may be why He does not chastise them, but encourages them.

Notice how Jesus’ response matches the disciples’ responses perfectly. Because they are troubled, Jesus invites them to “take heart.” Because they don’t know who He is, Jesus responds simply and absolutely, with echoes of Yahweh’s “I Am” at the burning bush, “It is I!” Because they have cried out from fear, Jesus speaks assuring words, “Do not be afraid.”

The message is clear and straightforward. This amazing being who has mastery over the sea and who comes to them in a fearful epiphany is none other than Jesus, their Master. Because it is He, they can know that this awe-full figure is for them. They do not have to be afraid. In this, His reassuring word, He has given them everything, and it is enough.

It should be. But it is not enough, apparently, because Peter does not quite believe it is Jesus. So, Peter opens his big mouth. He poses a bizarre question (a challenge?) to Jesus. “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” It’s a pattern that is repeated throughout the Gospel. Peter speaks from a lack of understanding at best, and perhaps from a far worse motive (see 15:15; 16:22; 17:4; 17:24-25; 18:21; 19:27; 26:33, 35, 69-74.) You think our current presidential candidates are gaffe-prone; when Peter speaks, bad things always come out of his mouth. The one exception to the pattern occurs in Matthew 16:16, where Peter speaks a wonderful truth: Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. He only does so, however, because the Father gives Him the words to speak.

 Doubting Jesus’ words of assurance, Peter wants evidence. Surprisingly, Jesus obliges. “Come,” He invites. Unsurprisingly (given Peter’s impulsivity), Peter accepts the invitation and steps out of the boat. Doubts quickly rise again, however, and Peter begins to sink. He cries out to Jesus a second time, not to challenge Him, but to find salvation. “Lord, save me!”

Earlier, when Jesus spoke to all the disciples who were in the boat, He offered them only words of invitation and encouragement. Speaking now to Peter, however, His words are a gentle rebuke. He doesn’t say, “I’m so proud of you for being bold enough to try stepping out on the water.” He’s doesn’t say, “You did well for a while; you only need to learn to trust Me more.” Jesus reaches out His hand, takes hold of the sinking man, and says, “Little-Faith,” why did you doubt?”

Peter’s lack of faith in Jesus manifests itself in fear. The same happens for you and me. Jesus promises He rules over all creation. He promises He will deliver us from all adversity and provide for all our needs. But we don’t always see it, which leads to doubts and fear. Fear leads us into all kinds of foolishness.

What is causing you to fear? Which promises of Jesus are you struggling to believe? Financial instability? Questionable governmental leadership? The pandemic? School re-opening? What has Jesus told you that you have a hard time believing? ? To what foolishness is your fear leading?

At the heart of all fear is idolatry, foolishly following false gods that seek to lead you away from Jesus, in this case, not because they promise pleasure or help, but because they terrify you into thinking that Jesus is no match for them. The example of the Gospel is the wind. Peter believed Jesus at first. Then he saw the wind and believed it was more powerful—that it had more power to kill him than Jesus had to save him. You, too, will be tempted by false gods who rule by fear.

It may be the god of pain or heartbreak. In this case, it may be a sinful relationship that you’re afraid of losing, because you’re afraid that the broken heart would be too great for Jesus to mend and cleanse. Therefore, you stay in it out of fear of the hurt. It may be that you’re afraid of staying in a God-given relationship because there will be some pain on the way to healing it; therefore, you get out of it in fear of that pain. It may be that you are afraid of leaving old sins behind, afraid what life will be without them. In that case, that sin has become a god that terrifies you that you will be worse off as a new creation.

Your peers may become a false god. Whether it’s in the office, the locker room, or the classroom, you’ll be tempted at times to deny your faith and confess another because you’re afraid of losing their respect or their friendship. You may  be afraid of suffering persecution for your faith. In that case, those people have now become your gods that you fear more than you trust in Jesus.

Disease is a big one. When healing is slow or the disease is chronic, when the scary stories of the pandemic are in front of you every day, you’ll be tempted to believe that the illness is too powerful for your faith and your Savior. You may withdraw, hoping that isolation will protect you, even as it saps your soul, mental health, and physical strength. In that case, disease has become a powerful false god which boasts it has more power than Jesus.

The greatest of all, of course, is death. Many have feared death enough that they were willing to deny Christ to avoid execution. Confronted by death, many are terrified because they can’t see beyond it. They recognize the power of the grave and doubt that there’s any way Jesus will raise them up again. The fear of death may cripple people, prevent them from doing those things that God would have them do in worship of Him and in service to their neighbor: once again, death has become a false god that must be obeyed out of fear.

In this world, the false gods that rule by fear look so big and intimidating, while Jesus looks so small and weak. These enemy idols are formidable and powerful, and the devil mocks you for putting your trust in a Savior who was so weak that man put Him on a cross and killed Him. That’s what the devil does, turning everything upside down. And living in this world and looking at everything upside down, those with little faith will be intimidated by those false gods that rule by fear. At times, you will be intimidated, for at times you will be Little-Faith.

But you rejoice because little faith is still faith. It still clings to Christ. It’s not intimidated by what you see—faith trusts in what you do not see, despite what you do. So, when you are afraid of these false gods, by faith you do what Peter did: you call out, “Lord, save me!” You call upon the One who has conquered your enemies, including sin and death and devil. By faith, you call on the One who has borne your sins and sicknesses and destroyed the power of the grave. And by faith, you hear Him draw near to you in His Word. To you, the risen Christ declares, “Take heart; It is I. Do not be afraid.” He forgives for all your sins—including all your fears.

Through the means of grace, Jesus comes to you as He came to the disciples on the boat; unasked for, sometimes unrecognizable, but always with authority. His stroll on the sea gave them a glimpse. His resurrection from the dead sealed the deal. His promise to return will provide the final assurance for you.

Jesus can save, and He will save all who have only a little faith in Him—even if at times we, too, doubt. The promises He has made He will keep, even now in the present time, as this tired old age still fights against the new age of salvation. He is the Lord of creation, who entered it to set things right. His power over creation was masked in weakness. He took upon Himself humanity’s sin and the divine curse of death, only to burst forth new as the Lord of life, the Lord over death and everything that would destroy us. This is Jesus; it is He, and no other.  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

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.