Sermons, Uncategorized

The Teacher Has Questions

“Nicodemus Visiting Jesus” by Henry Ossawa Tanner

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

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

John 3:16. The Gospel-in-a nutshell. You have seen it plastered on billboards, tagged on buildings, spray painted on railroad cars, printed on eye black strips, and held up in the endzone of a nationally televised football game. This verse has become a public fixture of Christian efforts to evangelize the world. By putting this verse out there, people hope others will read the Bible, encounter Jesus, and believe God sent His Son into the world to save them.

This is good. Anything that puts people into contact with God’s Word is a good thing because the Spirit works through the Word. But today, we come and encounter this Word in church. Here, it is not plastered on a billboard or held up in the endzone. No, here, it is spoken privately in a late-night conversation.

Sometimes, God’s Word works in a private and personal way. When you see this verse painted on a building, it is public and, unfortunately, impersonal. You do not know who put it there or for whom it was intended. It is not part of a conversation. It is present in an environment, kind of like advertising or trash. Someone may pick it up if they are interested. But, when you read this verse in context in John’s Gospel, it is private and personal. It must be dealt with.

Jesus had frequent encounters with the Pharisees, the work-righteous and often hypocritical Jewish religious elite. Usually, the Pharisees sought to discredit Jesus. They didn’t really want an answer but sought to trap Him, publicly, in His words, much like the gotcha questions we see in today’s politics.

But this time one of them comes alone, secretly, at night. He is Nicodemus, also a leader of the Jews, a member of the ruling council (Sanhedrin). As a Pharisee and ruler, Nicodemus undoubtedly knows the Old Testament well. But he has some legitimate questions he really wants good answers for. He has been listening to Jesus’ teaching, but he does not understand it.

Nicodemus, unlike the others, comes sincerely seeking the truth. Jesus’ teaching and signs have impressed him. He knows that Jesus has come from God because Jesus does miracles no one could do without God. Still, Nicodemus doesn’t know what to make of this teacher, so he has come to see for himself.

Jesus gets right to the point: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). To Nicodemus, Jesus is talking in riddles. He senses a deeper meaning, but what is it? So he asks, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4).  

Jesus again emphasizes the solemn truth of His response: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:5-6). Water and Spirit work together in the new birth.

Jesus is speaking of Baptism, through which the Spirit works saving faith. We need this heavenly rebirth to enter God’s kingdom, or even see it. God’s kingdom is God’s rule of grace in our hearts. Through Baptism, the Holy Spirit connects us with God’s ruling love. He works a new birth, birth from above, a birth that makes a person a child of God and a member of God’s kingdom. The apostle Paul describes it this way: “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).

Two births—one is physical and one spiritual. One is flesh born of flesh; the other spirit born of Spirit. All of us alike come into this world outside of God’s kingdom. Contrary to what some teach, even infants begin their lives under sin’s condemnation. Babies may look as pure as spring water, but the source is polluted. But there is a water that purifies, the water that brings with it God’s Spirit. As Ezekiel prophesied of the Lord: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean… “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you… And I will put My Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in My statutes and be careful to obey My rules” (Ezekiel 36:25-27). The Spirit works the new birth through the water of Baptism.

Nicodemus has a hard time understanding this. So, Jesus continues: “Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:7-8).

We human beings can understand the working of God’s Spirit as little as we can predict the wind blowing on us. We know when it blows, and it affects us. But we don’t see it. We can’t be certain when or from what angle it will come. So no one can fully understand how God sends the Spirit. We just know He does.

Jesus makes one imperceptible change in His words here. When He says, “You must be born again,” He uses the Greek plural “you.” Clearly, He is not speaking only about Nicodemus, but of all people.

Nicodemus remains incredulous. He asks again, “How can these things be?”

In His reply, Jesus first rebukes Nicodemus, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe in the heavenly things?” (John 3:10-12).

Jesus has just spoken to Nicodemus of the spiritual activity that takes place in this world, “earthly things.” The new birth happens in a person’s heart here on earth. Repentance, Baptism, and faith happen on earth. But Nicodemus still does not believe. How then can he possibly believe if Jesus is to tell him of spiritual activity that takes place in heaven, “heavenly things.” Is Nicodemus ready to learn about God’s eternal plan for the world’s salvation and about Jesus, God’s Son, who was with God in the beginning?

In this way, Jesus prepares Nicodemus to hear the even more wondrous “heavenly things.” “No one has ascended into heaven except He who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (John 3:13). Jesus has the knowledge and authority to tell Nicodemus of heavenly things because He alone came from heaven. He is the Word, who was with God when the plan of salvation was determined. And He has become a perfect human being, the Son of Man, to execute the plan.

Now comes the teachings from heaven. Jesus directs Nicodemus to his well-studied Scriptures for understanding: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). Jesus draws an analogy between Moses lifting up the brass serpent on a pole in the desert (Numbers 21:8, 9) and His own saving work for the world on a cross. Everyone who looked in faith at the snake was healed from the bite of deadly snakes. Everyone who looks in faith at Jesus will be saved from the bite of eternal death and have eternal life. This is the life that begins with the new birth by the Spirit.

Jesus is now ready to teach Nicodemus God’s eternal plan of salvation. In simple terms, which most Christians today know from memory, Jesus sums up the plan: “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

God loved the world He had created, even though the crown of that creation had gone bad and ruined it all. Our sins did not stop God from loving us. He offers the ultimate sacrifice for the world He loves. He gives His one and only Son. This giving, however, means more than having Him born of a virgin mother and hailed as Savior. God gives His Son as the necessary sacrifice for the world’s sins.

Then Jesus repeats what God’s gift means: “Whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Faith saves. But not just any faith—faith in the Son of God, who was given as our sacrifice. Those who believe in Him shall not perish; they shall not die eternally. Believers live on forever with Jesus. We enjoy life with Jesus now already, but after death we will know life in full glory.

When Nicodemus came to see Jesus that night, he could not have known where his questions would lead. Jesus lays out God’s plan of salvation for Nicodemus. No human being could have devised such a plan. No one would have imagined it. It could not work without God. But here is God, revealed in His triune majesty. God the Father loves the undeserving world so much that He sends His Son to save it. God the Son, present here in the person of Jesus, comes to fulfill the Father’s will and win eternal life for all people. God the Spirit comes to work the faith people need to receive the gift of eternal life. He brings about a new birth.

Notice the way this relationship with Jesus moves Nicodemus from a private conversation at night to a public witness of his faith in the world. Here, Nicodemus questions Jesus privately. Later, Nicodemus questions his fellow religious leaders, asking them whether or not they have given Jesus a fair hearing (John 7:50). Then, finally, at the end, after Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus comes out into the open, bringing 75 pounds of spices to anoint Jesus and provide Him with an honorable burial (John 19:39). By faith, Nicodemus gives public witness to Jesus. It takes time for Nicodemus to move from private conversation to public witness—time and the gracious working of God.

That gracious work is something we need to remember today. With the growing hostility toward the Christian Church in our country, public conversations are more difficult. People disagree with many of the moral teachings of the Church. They resent the privileged position the Church has had over the years and want to create a public realm where other views are heard and accepted. Some go so far to suggest that the Christian voice is dangerous and should be silenced.

What this means is this most public of verses might again need to be encountered in private ways. It is in our relationships with people where God will work through His Word. Those late-night conversations are not easy. To hold up a sign at a sporting event, all you need is to go to Walmart and buy some poster board and markers. You can make the sign and then hold it up. To enter into a private conversation with another, however, you need to cultivate a relationship of trust. You need to have a place where another person feels comfortable asking you questions, knowing you will listen to them before asking them to listen to you.

The night that Nicodemus went to see Jesus, it couldn’t have been easy for him. Jesus had just cleared the temple of those who had turned His Father’s house into a market. Contact with Jesus was not desirable for any Pharisee at this point. It goes without saying that the Sanhedrin would not be inviting Jesus to speak for their next prayer breakfast. Yet Nicodemus ventures out at night to meet with Him.

I wonder how many evenings Nicodemus stewed over this decision before he actually worked up the nerve to go. What intrigued him so much about this man from Galilee that he was willing to risk everything by going to Jesus?

Nicodemus was driven by a desire to know the truth. He did not yet know Jesus is the Son of God, the promised Messiah, but he saw something at work in Jesus, and he had to find out more.

You, too, will attract others who do not yet know that Jesus is the Christ. There will be those who see the hand of God in your life and desire to know more about the faith that you hold. But you never know when that’s going to happen, so you must always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you (1 Peter 3:15).

And who knows how God will work through your witness. The Holy Spirit works when and where He wills. You’re not called to convert anyone. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit. You’re called to faithfulness. Just simply listen, pray for a teachable moment, respect where they’re coming from, and then firmly and lovingly share God’s Word of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life in Jesus Christ that you have come to know for your own life. And then let the Holy Spirit go to work. You never know what may happen. 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

The First Stewardship Crisis

“Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden” by Lucas Cranach the Elder

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“The Lord God called to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ And He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.’He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.’ Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent deceived me, and I ate’” (Genesis 3:9-13).

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

If you read the theme of today’s message, you might have wondered: Stewardship? What does that have to do with Lent? Or the temptations in the garden or wilderness? Is this just because Pastor Moeller went to the Stewardship Workshop a few weeks ago? Did he decide it’s time for a stewardship emphasis?

No, this is not part of a special emphasis. We were reminded at the conference that the teaching of stewardship should be an on-going, year-round focus, and that is what we will continue to do. But I guess you could say that this sermon was influenced by the conference. Our presenter, the Rev. Dr. Nathan Meador happened to suggest that our readings for this First Sunday in Lent are a wonderful place to preach and teach about stewardship. He even began his presentation focusing on our Old Testament lesson and called it “The First Stewardship Crisis.” And he emphasized that the primary force in stewardship is repentance. What an excellent tie-in to Lent, this season of repentance!   

What is stewardship? The official LCMS definition says, “Christian stewardship is the free and joyous activity of the child of God and God’s family, the Church, in managing all of life and life’s resources for God’s purposes.” But while that’s a good definition of stewardship, it’s probably the wrong place to start. Being a steward is less about activity than it is a matter of identity. Not so much about what you do, but who you are and what God has created you to be. Humans were created to be stewards!

“God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth’” (Genesis 1:27–28).

Stewardship is related to the image of God. An image is a reflection of the real thing, like the way the moon shines by reflecting the rays of the sun. The image of God is the way in which humans were created to be like God with the ability to live by faith in God, in perfect service to one another and creation. Faithful stewardship is the way we reflect the image of God.

God called Adam to stewardship. After creating him, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). Adam had it made. The Lord provided all good things, and the garden was full of trees with fruit for him to eat. Among the trees was the Tree of Life, the best of all.

There was one tree that was off limits—the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Many have asked why it would be there in the first place. Perhaps it is this: love never forces its way, and God loved this man. Therefore, the Lord would not force Adam to remain in the garden, alive forever. If Adam didn’t want to be loved, the tree is the exit door. He could choose darkness, sickness, decay, and death for himself and all who follow him. Clearly this was not a good or wise choice; but it was a choice. God did not force Adam to be loved and alive.

Clearly also, the Lord wanted Adam alive and holy, so He warned the man about the tree. He said, “Stay away from the tree, Adam. Stick with all the rest of Paradise. There’s plenty of good stuff to last you for eternity.”

Now, in telling Adam to avoid the tree, God gave Adam a command. In addition to making him His steward, God gave His Word to Adam. To his wife and the children who will follow, Adam was given a calling: out of love to them, he was to tell them to stay away from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Because he desired to serve them, he would preach God’s Word to them, repeating the God’s command to stay away from the tree, telling of the love of God who had given them all good things, including the Tree of Life. Adam was to be Pastor for his family, and it was his privilege and responsibility to teach them God’s Word.

Paradise didn’t last long. The serpent crawled into the garden and confronted  Eve: “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?” Already, the tempter called God’s Word into question, with his own half-truth. Eve bit. Instead of fleeing the tempter, she replied: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the Tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” Notice how she’d already added to God’s Word, making Him sound like a harsh taskmaster.

Having gained the woman’s attention, the serpent continued: “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” He basically called God a liar and said the only reason He said to not eat is He doesn’t want the competition.

The devil has a way of making sin sound better than Paradise, and Eve liked what she heard and saw. She ate from the Tree; and then gave some to Adam, who was right beside her. There stood Pastor Adam, entrusted with God’s Word, listening as the serpent tempted his bride. He watched mutedly while she fell prey, and then he participated in the sin. Adam failed to preach the Word, and so sin and death came into the world—and all of the fallout from the first stewardship crisis.

Yes, the fall in the garden was truly a stewardship crisis. Adam failed in his stewardship of God’s Word. Adam failed to protect the wife that God had given him. In plucking that forbidden fruit from the tree, Eve turned from receiver to taker. No longer content with what God had freely given, Eve seizes it for herself. She moved from being a steward to thinking she was the owner.

And isn’t that what all sin is—our attempts to be our own god? To think of ourselves as owners rather than stewards of a gracious God? Poor stewardship is theft. Worse yet, it’s idolatry. We’re claiming ownership of things that are not ours. We’re forgetting that everything we have at our disposal is not our own but has been placed into our stewardship by our loving, gracious God.

That first sin has lasting consequences. The perfect relationship of God and man was broken. Adam and Eve hid from God out of shame. Eve tried to pass the blame to the serpent. The perfect relationship of husband and wife was broken. Rather than accept responsibility as head of house and spiritual leader, Adam blamed his wife and God for giving him the woman.

Both suffered consequences directly. The image of God in which they were created is lost. The woman will experience pain in childbearing and raising a family. Adam will experience trials and troubles as he toils to scratch out a living from the ground. Both will experience turmoil and strife in what was intended to be the bliss and harmony of marriage. Both will die and return to the dust. Labor becomes hard and frustrating. God never takes away the role of stewardship, it just becomes more difficult. We are called to a pre-fall vocation in a post-fall world! 

We live in a broken world that hates us, a world that is groaning as it waits its redemption. We live with a sinful nature that’s constantly turning us in ourselves, thinking about our desires, our comfort. A sinful nature prone to unbelief and idolatry. A selfish, sinful nature that seeks to make myself a god. And that affects our stewardship, often disabling the ministry of the Gospel.

A perceived lack of resources makes us fearful. Worrying that we have limited resources we are tempted to hold back more for ourselves, rather than trusting that the Lord will provide. We become so focused on ourselves, we fail to look for ways in which we can expand the ministry of the Gospel.

Or we give to the budget and not to the Lord. It’s the difference between philanthropy and stewardship. Both are motivations for giving. But the two are not equal. Philanthropy starts with the philosophy that “I am the owner and I will give some of what I own to support the projects and people that I wish.” Stewardship says, “It is all God’s; I manage it for Him, for sake of others, and for the Gospel.”

 But all is not gloom and doom: In the curse upon the serpent, we find a promise to God’s wayward stewards. God says to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her Offspring; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heal” (Genesis 3:15). God promises a Savior, a Second Adam, who will come and be the faithful steward that Adam has not been. A Savior who will redeem mankind from sin, who will reconcile the world to Himself, who will defeat sin, death, and the devil.

We see this second Adam in our Gospel. Not in a lush garden, but in a wilderness. He’s the Son of God, with almighty power, but He is also fully human, and according to that nature He is weakened and hungry and at His most vulnerable. The devil, never one to play fair, seizes the opportunity.

Satan’s tactics have worked well throughout the centuries, so he sees no need to change from the ones he used on Adam and Eve; he just adjusts them to the intended victim. Instead of “eat the fruit,” it’s “Command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Instead of “If You eat, You will not die,” it’s “Throw Yourself down from the temple and You will not die.” Instead of “You will be like God,” it’s “Forget the suffering and cross. Wouldn’t You be more like God if you just started throwing Your weight and power around here?” Thus, the devil hits Jesus with temptations to forsake His Father’s will, to choose pleasure over hunger and pain, to enjoy power rather than submit like a lamb to the slaughter.

Each time, though, Jesus does what Adam didn’t do. He is the faithful steward. He resists temptation. Jesus refuses to take for Himself what the Father has not seen fit to give Him but trusts that He will provide Him with what He needs. Furthermore, where Adam failed to speak the Word of God, Jesus speaks the Word. Each time the devil tempts or twists God’s Word, Jesus quotes Scripture against him. Thus, the Second Adam succeeds completely at what the First Adam so miserably failed.

All of this He does for you. Jesus endures this temptation for you. He does not teach you how to do it for yourself, because you can’t do it for yourself. This is a common misunderstanding. We don’t say, “Jesus healed people to show us how to heal people.” We don’t say, “Jesus raised the dead to show us how to raise the dead.” But we’re always tempted to say, “Jesus resisted temptation to show us how to do it.” But that is incorrect. Jesus resisted temptation, because we couldn’t, because we sin; and then He submitted Himself to the cross to die for our sins.

All of His work, both His active and passive obedience for you, brings you this hope: For the sake of His Son, God the Father says to you: “I don’t hold your sins against you. I don’t remember the many times you give in to temptation. I don’t recall all the times you’ve failed to be a faithful steward. I don’t see all the times that you’ve tried to be your own god. You see, My Son took all your sins upon Himself at the cross; and when I condemned Him, I condemned them. When I raised Him, they remained dead. Therefore, you have no sins left for Me to see. In the place of that sin, My Son has given you the credit for His perfect obedience; therefore, when I look at you, I see only His righteousness.”

Do you see how freeing this is? Christ and His redeeming, reconciling work restores proper Christian stewardship. We do not seek to be good stewards of God’s creation in order to gain God’s favor; we seek to work and keep what is God’s because He has already graciously made us His stewards.

As Christians, we have entirely different motivation. A non-Christian steward cares for creation out of fear. A Christian cares for creation because it is God’s and has been entrusted to us by grace. We willingly share God’s resources with others because this is who we have been created to be, this is who are redeemed to be, and this is who the Holy Spirit calls us to be.

God is the ultimate actor in our stewardship. Christ redeemed us from sin, death, and the devil with His holy precious blood, His innocent suffering and death. By His death on the cross, He reconciled us to the Father and to our fellow man. Through the means of grace, the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies, and keep us in the one true faith. In gratefulness we use all that the Lord provides us for the good of our neighbor and the spread of His kingdom.

Christian stewardship begins in three places: the font, pulpit, and altar.

In Holy Baptism, you have been adopted as God’s beloved child, made a steward of His creation, given the gifts of the Holy Spirit, faith, forgiveness, and eternal life. Return to your Baptism daily through contrition and repentance. For there, you are being made into the image of God, as your old Adam is put to death and the new man arises to live in righteousness, innocence, blessedness forever.

In the Lord’s Supper, Christ gives you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins, for strengthening you in the faith and fervent love toward your neighbor. Come here often!

In God’s Word preached and spoken to you in Holy Absolution, God calls you to repentance and faith. Hold His Word sacred and gladly hear and learn it!

In these means of grace, you have forgiveness, life, and salvation. Indeed, for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.

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

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.


Behold the Man! A God Who Hungers

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This sermon is based upon a series written by Jeffrey Hemmer and published by Concordia Publishing House.

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Devotions & Essays, Sermons

Christ’s Glory & the Prophetic Word

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“We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to Him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is My beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with Him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:16-19).

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

God has a history of revealing Himself on mountains. Moses came face-to-face with God and heard Him speak from a burning bush on Mount Horeb. The fire indicated the presence of God. God’s presence was confirmed in the Word that God spoke from the bush. God’s presence made this ground holy (Exodus 3:5).

Later, when Israel fled from Egypt, the glory of the Lord dwelt with them on that same mountain, also called Mount Sinai. Moses assembled the people and told them all the words of the Lord and all the rules. All the people answered with one voice: “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” Moses built an altar at the foot of the mountain, where they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings to the Lord. Moses consecrated the altar and sprinkled the people with blood and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord had made with you in accordance with all these words (Exodus 24:1-8).

Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders went up, and they saw the God of Israel. “They beheld God, and ate and drank.” At the Lord’s command, Moses went up further on the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which God had written for their instruction. A thick cloud appeared over the mountain for six days. And on the seventh day, the Lord called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. Similar to the time Moses first met God, “The glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people” (Exodus 24:9-17).

Centuries later, again on a high mountain, the Lord reveals Himself to Peter, James, and John. Jesus is transfigured before the apostles’ eyes. His face shines like the sun, revealing the glory of God. Jesus’ clothes are as white as light. Moses and Elijah appear, representing the Law and the Prophets, announcing—in effect—that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the Old Testament Scripture.

While the prophets are speaking with Jesus, a bright cloud overshadows them. A voice from the cloud says, “This is My beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.” The apostles see, and then they hear. That they had not heard at the Baptism of Jesus, they hear now: “Listen to Him.” Moses had foretold that God would raise up a prophet to whom the people should listen (Deuteronomy 18:15). Jesus is that prophet. He alone knows the Father, who has handed over all things to His Son (Matthew 11:27). Listen to Him!

Upon hearing, the apostles immediately understand this is holy ground, and they are in the presence of the Holy One. They hit the dirt, their faces to the ground, overcome with fear and awe at what they see and hear.

Jesus comes over and touches them, moving them out of their dazed state with this human gesture. “Rise, and have no fear,” He says. They cautiously lift up their eyes and see no one but Jesus only in His normal, everyday appearance.

Now the disciples know that where Jesus and His Word are, there is a holy place. This is really a glimpse of heaven. Peter and his fellow apostles are eyewitnesses of an awesome sight, and Jesus reveals to them the glory of His presence. God is where Jesus is—in Christ and the prophetic Word.

In our Epistle, St. Peter encourages the Christians of Asia Minor to remain faithful to Christ and His Word in the days to come. He knows his time on earth is not long and he wants to remind them of what they have been taught.

All of us forget things. Information slowly drains out of our brains each day. Sometime forgetfulness is cute or harmless. But forgetfulness can get embarrassing or costly, like missing an appointment, running out of gas late at night, or skipping an important medication dosage.

Sometime forgetting is ugly and dangerous, as when a spouse “forgets” that he or she is married and slides into adultery. Or when church leaders “forget” that they are servants and start bossing people around as if they were lords.

And sometimes forgetting causes spiritual sickness and even death, as when people forget that they are by nature sinful and unclean, forget the expensive rescues by which Christ lifted them out of hell, forget about the prince of darkness and their other spiritual enemies, or forget to put on their spiritual armor and pick up their spiritual weapons.

Peter wants to strengthen and encourage these Christians. Unlike the false teachers, he does this not by bringing in all kinds of new teachings but by reminding them of teachings from God’s Word, which they already know. And he wants to make sure their memories will be continually refreshed even after he dies.

How can this happen? By writing this letter down, for one thing. A written letter can be read and reread and taught to others. For another, Peter might be alluding to the apostolic practice of recruiting and training new workers for the kingdom who will keep the remembering process going. Or possibly he is referring to the remembering he did to help St. Mark write his Gospel of the life of Christ.

The churches in Asia Minor are forgetting the true source of their information about God and are drifting into uncertainty about what to believe. False teachers are exploiting the people with their own made-up revelations and are promising the people pleasure and “freedom.” But there are not many truths; there is only one truth (verse 12). And so, Peter reminds them about a certain event on a certain mountain involving three disciples, two prophets, and one Messiah:

“For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For when He received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to Him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is My beloved Son, with Whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with Him on the holy mountain” (2 Peter 1:16-18).

  All attacks of Satan on the Church sooner or later come around to this—an attack on the apostles and prophets of the Lord as true and authoritative sources of information about the Lord. That attack is as old as Eden: “Did God really say…?” The new breed of teachers who are demanding attention in the Asia Minor churches are disparaging the reliability of Peter, the other apostles, and the written message of the Old Testament prophets.

Peter recognizes the deadly peril. They are denying the power and coming of Jesus Christ. They are leading people to doubt that Jesus really does possess and exercise God’s power, that He really does enter people’s lives and work on their behalf. They are leading people to think that Jesus will never come back, that they are not accountable to Him for their beliefs and lives. The bitter irony is that the very people who are accusing Peter of making up cleverly invented stories are the ones making up cleverly invented stories.

Peter reminds them that he had been present at the transfiguration, surely one of the most significant events in Jesus’ life. The transfiguration is not some cleverly devised myth. No, he and James and John were eyewitnesses. They were allowed to see something no other human being would see before Judgment Day—the true glory of the Son of God.

Jesus was transfigured before them, glowing with the brightness of the presence of God Himself. Surrounding the shining Savior was a bright cloud, which Peter calls the “Majestic Glory.” In the Old Testament, “the glory of the Lord” refers to an appearance of God in cloud and fire to mark a significant advance in His plan of  salvation. In addition to the appearance of God to Moses and the people of Israel already mentioned, God appeared to Abraham in a smoking firepot. On the day of the dedication of the temple in Jerusalem, the glory-cloud filled the temple. In this way the Lord signified His approval and His actual presence among His people.

When the glory-cloud blazed around Jesus on the very high mountain, the Father was demonstrating His approval of His Son’s person and work. He also showed that through Christ He was present on earth among His people. Peter declares, “I saw those things happen,” not to brag but to demonstrate his authority to speak on Christ’s behalf. Unlike the peddlers of self-invented notions, he was an eyewitness.

Peter was also an earwitness. He saw the glory; he also heard the voice. Three different times during Christ’s ministry, the voice of the Father had boomed over His dear Son: once at His baptism in the Jordan, where John the Baptist anointed Him for His Savior work; once during Holy Week, when the Father confirmed that Christ’s work was indeed bringing Him glory; and once on the very high mountain up north, in front of three terrified disciples and the two great Old Testament prophets, Moses and Elijah. The glory and the voice forcefully proclaimed the Father’s love, approval, and pleasure and greatly strengthened Christ in His determination to go to the cross for sinful mankind.

They also strengthened the certainty of the apostolic eyewitnesses. The disciples’ faith in Christ was sometimes shaky, as is ours, because we are disappointed by the subtle, hidden way in which Christ comes. The manger, the cross, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper promise the victorious Christ by faith, not by sight. But Peter did see, and hear, once. He never forgot, and he didn’t want his friends to forget either. He wanted them to grow in their certainty of what they believed. Jesus really is who He says He is; He really does what He says He will do; and He really gives what He says He will give.

Peter wants his readers to remember where they will find true comfort and certainty in the years to come: “We have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:19).

At a time when many people claim to be speaking for God, it is reassuring to know that there is a written, unshakable source of spiritual information and authority—the timeless truths of written Scripture.

Satan is the prince of darkness, and everybody who works for him knowingly or unknowingly spreads his darkness. In Satan’s darkness, some people are proud of their own goodness, hostile to the idea of needing a Savior, and satisfied that they can figure out right and wrong by themselves. Some in the darkness feel despair and fear, knowing that they are evil, but not knowing that there is a Savior for them. And some simply do not care about spiritual things; apathy rules their hearts. Like animals, their highest concern is satisfying their appetites. Satan uses false teachers to push Christians into these kinds of darkness.

God’s written Scripture will never lie; it is absolutely dependable; we can lean our lives on it. The best way for Christians to grow in the certainty of what they believe is to go back to God’s written Word. God’s Word is a light that shines in a dark place. It illumines our minds and hearts. We do well to pay attention to that Word, for it alone drives back the darkness and confusion of hell. As the Word does its work, the glory that shone from Christ and the Majestic Glory of the Father now shines in us. The day of grace dawns; the Morning Star rises.

In popular astronomy, the planet Venus is sometimes called the morning star. It is, of course, not a star at all. But it reflects the sun’s rays just before dawn, and its light is a sure sign that night is almost over and the day is at hand. Jesus is called the bright Morning Star in Revelation 22:16. His coming into the world signals that the power of the night of sin, sickness, death, and hell has been broken and will soon be over. His Word reflects His light. His people wait longingly for the full revelation of the Son of God when He returns to take us home.

In the meantime, He is still with us in His means of grace.

In the holy mountain of the altar, Jesus comes to you, inviting you to eat His body, which is given to you in the bread. To drink the cup, the new testament in His blood, which is given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. And to do this “in remembrance of Me.” There, in, with, and under the bread and the wine you behold God, eat and drink His real presence.

At the font, Christ washes away your sins, clothes you in His robe of righteousness, and gives you the gift of His Holy Spirit, forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Through contrition and repentance, you live in your Baptism, daily putting to death the old Adam so that the new many may arise to live in righteousness, innocence, and blessedness forever.

In Christ’s Word of forgiveness preached to you, in the Holy Absolution applied to you, you have the forgiveness He won at the cross.

Here, in this holy place Jesus reveals the true God to you—that same forgiving presence of the Lord—wherever His Gospel is purely taught and His Sacraments are rightly administered.

Here, in this holy place, hidden in water, wine, bread, and the voice of God’s called and ordained servant you will find Christ’s glory. Here is the prophetic Word more fully confirmed that always points to Jesus. Here is the One who came to save the world by His death on the cross. Here is the One for you, Who brings you salvation and eternal life, in Whom 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.

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Sermons, Uncategorized

The God Who Takes Sin Seriously

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

As one hears the Old Testament reading, you can clearly see a God who takes sin seriously. So seriously that it is a matter of life or death, good or evil, blessing or curse. Through His servant, Moses, the Lord God issues a warning and a promise to the people with whom He had chosen and established a covenant relationship based upon His grace:

“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you today, by loving the Lord your God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and his statutes and his rules, then you shall live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess” (Deuteronomy 30:15-18).

What’s more, such blessing or curse, life or death, good or evil are not just for this life, but have eternal consequences.

Yes, the Lord who spoke through Moses is the God who takes sin seriously!

“But that’s the Old Testament!” some will say. “Everything has changed. We’re more enlightened now. Let each of us find the way to love and happiness that’s best for us. Don’t you dare impose your morality on me!”

And so, the proclamation of the Law has been largely silenced in society. Just to our north in Canada, a pastor can be found guilty of hate speech for saying that the Bible condemns homosexuality. More and more, it is becoming illegal simply to repeat what the Bible says.

But that shouldn’t be so surprising. Unbelief always attacks the Law of God. But the devil’s target ultimately is not the Law. It’s the Gospel. See, if the Law isn’t preached, it’s so much easier for people to deny that they’re sinful. If they don’t know they’re sinful, then they see no need for the Gospel.

But there’s also another danger that’s infected much of Christendom. Extensive studies of “Christians” in America show that what they really believe in is what has been labeled “moralistic therapeutic deism.” “Deism” means they believe that God exists, but that He’s pretty distant most of the time. “Therapeutic” means that they believe that you only need to involve God in your life when you’re in trouble, when you need help and healing. And “moralistic?” That means that Christianity is about being moral, being nice. It’s all about how you live.

That means that a stunning number of “Christians” believe that they can keep God’s Law well enough to please God. This can only mean that God has softened up over time, that He’s not quite so serious about sin or enforcing His Law anymore. After all, some will say, He used to strike people down on the spot for sin or call for people to be stoned to death for immorality. But that’s not the case anymore, so clearly God has changed how His Law is to be used. But God takes sin seriously. He hasn’t relaxed His Law, softened it up or dumbed it down. His Law is not something that you can keep. That’s the point! Its primary purpose is to show you your sin and how much you need Christ and His forgiveness.

We are not the first generation to say that God has softened up over time. It was happening at the time of Jesus, too. The Pharisees claimed to have a high regard for the Law. But, since they taught that people were saved by doing good, the rabbis tended to interpret God’s laws in ways that made them keepable.

When Jesus preached the Sermon of the Mount, He wasn’t changing God’s Law by either making it harder or dumbing it down. He was teaching the disciples what God had intended all along. This is the Law He still intends for you today. So, it doesn’t matter what “you’ve heard said” by others; what matters is what Jesus says to you. He is the God who takes sin seriously.

Jesus begins: “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

Anger, insult, and murder. A sin of thought, a sin of word, and a sin of deed. You can see how this progression often plays itself out in real life. Most homicides occur among people who know one another, are often related, or even romantically involved with each other. They are not premeditated, but crimes of passion: someone gets angry, so someone insults, and someone gets murdered.   

Now, in this world, anger, insult, and murder are three different things that merit very different punishments. Anger might punish you with a loss of friends if you can’t control it. An insult might get you a civil suit or libel—or a huge following on Twitter. Murder, on the other hand, invites serious prison time, even the death penalty. So, they’re different sins with different temporal consequences. But to God all three sins are the same. They all bring judgment, even the hell of fire. All three have the same sinful root. If you commit any of these sins, you’re not loving your neighbor. You’re wishing or inflicting harm on him instead.

All three sins also put you at odds with God. No matter what your neighbor is like, God loves him or her so much that He has given His Son to die on the cross in order to redeem them. You cannot hate your neighbor and still love the Lord. Anger is a fire that seeks to destroy your faith. Repent of it. When it flares up, repent of it again. If you’ve got something against a brother, go and be reconciled. If they’ve got something against you, go and be reconciled. But do not ever believe that you are justified to remain angry at someone for whom Christ has died.

The Lord is the God who takes sin seriously.

Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Lust and adultery. There’s obviously a progression there too, often by way of pornography. There are varying degrees of consequences too. Lustful thoughts are among the most common of sins, while adultery destroys marriages, lives, and the future of children. Yet in a sense, they’re all the same to Jesus. All of them lead to hell. And lust and adultery share the same sinful root. God is the Creator of each person. He gives to each beauty and body as He sees fit, as well as the ability to help bring life into the world—what power and privilege! He also places great worth on each individual. With regard to a person’s body and procreative powers, God declares to each, “You are of such high worth that, before another can be intimate with you, he or she must promise before God and man to be faithful to you for the rest of your life.” That’s what those marriage vows are about.

Lust devalues others. By lust you determine that someone is an object to be used, not a neighbor to be served. It doesn’t matter if that “neighbor” is willingly devaluing herself and inviting the sin. Who are you to confirm her in her sin? She is also one for whom Christ died: who are you to encourage her to impenitence?

Flee lust. It is destructive enough in its consequences for this life. Far worse, it will destroy your faith. You cannot rob others of the worth God gives them—even just in your own mind—and at the same time embrace the worth that God gives you in Christ.

This is a difficult sin to flee from, because it often doesn’t feel like disdain or harm. And you always carry your sinful heart and lustful eyes with you. Perhaps this is why Jesus goes on to say, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”

We have a God who takes sin seriously.

On a related note, Jesus goes on: “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

This is a difficult one to speak of because it’s such a sensitive and painful subject, especially for those who have suffered it. It’s very likely that there is not one person here whose family has not experienced the effects of divorce.

We should note that Jesus is especially warning against a casual approach to divorce. In His day, as in ours, the common presumption in society was that divorce is not that big of a deal, and the important thing was just to carry it out in the right way. Against this, the Lord’s authoritative voice thunders! Divorce is sin! Divorce shatters a union that God intends to be permanent. Planning one, especially scheming to bring one about, is going to do serious damage to faith.

Should marriage be in your future, choose carefully. If you are married now, work hard in service to the other. Where sin threatens marriage, repent and pray. If you’re ready to give up, don’t. God hates divorce. Speak to your pastor. He can help you apply God’s Word to your situation. And if you have undergone divorce, please know that you are not forsaken. It’s a tangled web to sort out and it will almost certainly include grief and repentance. But God is faithful.

Finally, in our text, Jesus says, “Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.’ But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.”

 Aside from those oaths that He permits (like marriage vows and court testimony), Jesus warns against taking oaths. To swear an oath by God is to bind Him to your promise, and you don’t have His permission to do so. To swear by heaven or earth is to use His creation as collateral, and you don’t have His permission to do that, either. If you break your oath, you communicate to others that misusing God’s name itself is no big deal. But to take God’s name in vain is to break the Second Commandment and invite God’s condemnation. That God doesn’t strike you down doesn’t mean He’s softened up. Rather, it means He is patient and merciful, so that you might repent before the Day of Judgment.

Anger, murder, lust, adultery, divorce, oaths: some we would call “big sins,” others we would call “little sins.” All have consequences in this life, and that is a blessing because those consequences are meant to warn you of the greater consequence of hell if you hold onto these sins and do not repent. Ultimately, that’s what makes them all the same. That’s what Jesus says.

He is the God who takes sin seriously.

We have a God who takes sin so seriously that He sent His only-begotten Son to die on the cross in payment for our sins and to bring us forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. We have a God who takes sin so seriously, He took on human flesh and bore our sin, lived a holy, righteous life resisting all temptation and willingly gave Himself as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world.

Where you and I deserve God’s righteous anger for our sins, God took out that wrath on His Son on the cross instead. Jesus has suffered the judgment, the condemnation and the hell of fire in our place. He endured the mocking and scorn and false accusations of His enemies. Though you are guilty of anger and insults, hell is not for you because Christ forgives you. Even if you are, literally, a murderer, Jesus has laid down His life so that you might have life forever.

Where you have reduced and demeaned others by your sins of lust, you have also demonstrated your poverty of sin. But Christ has died for you, too. The holy Son of God has given you worth—you’re worth the price of His own innocent, precious blood. Rather than live for Himself and His own gratification, Christ offered His hands and feet to nails and His back to the scourge in order to atone for your sin. He’s suffered for you in His body already. He gives grace freely. For your adulterous thoughts, you are forgiven.

When you have undergone divorce, it probably still chews at you because you know your sin, your part, and you’ve got to live with yourself. Confess your sin, for you hear this Gospel that Christ has died to lay down His life for His bride, the Church, of which you are a part: and though you or others prove faithless, He is always faithful with forgiveness for you.

Likewise, there is forgiveness for you where you have misused God’s name and broken your word. Though you demonstrate your failure and faithlessness, the Lord remains faithful. He has made good use of His name to baptize you and continues to speak His Absolution to you in His name. He gives you His Word that He forgives you for all of your sins, and the Lord always keeps His Word.

Dear friends, as Jesus demonstrates in our Gospel, the consequences of sin are devastating—but they need not be for you. Christ chose to be cursed on the cross in your place that you may be blessed. Christ chose to give Himself into death that you might have life, eternal life. Christ chose to take on your evil and overcome it so that you might receive good. In Him, your sins are all the same—gone, remembered no more! For 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.

Sermons, Uncategorized

Presented to the Lord

“The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple” by James Tissot

“And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord” (Luke 2:22).

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

To better understand our text, we must first go back to the time shortly after the first Passover, about 1446 B.C. The Israelites had been in slavery in Egypt for 400 years. But God had not forgotten them. He sent Moses as His spokesman, warning Pharaoh again and again, “Let My people go.” Pharaoh stubbornly refused, so the Lord sent nine plagues to persuade him that rebellion against God is a very foolish thing. Finally, the Lord declared that He would come through the land and take the lives of all the firstborn males of Egypt, both man and beast.

Every firstborn would die… unless. The Lord declared to His people that their firstborn sons could be saved. They were to take a lamb without blemish and sacrifice it. They were to put the blood of the lambs on the lintels and doorposts of their homes, and they were supposed to roast the lamb and eat it for dinner. The people of God followed His instructions about His Passover to the letter; and when the Lord came through Egypt to take the lives of the firstborn males, He passed over every dwelling marked with the blood of the lamb and spared those inside.

The tenth plague—the death of the firstborn—finally moved Pharaoh to submit, at least temporarily. He ordered the people of Israel out of his land. As they left Egypt, the Lord commanded them to remember the Passover every year. He also said, “Consecrate to Me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is Mine” (Exodus 13:2). The firstborn males of animals were to be sacrificed as an offering to God. The firstborn males of the people were to be redeemed, consecrated to God.

As God brought the people of Israel out of Egypt, He gave them His Word in the Torah, often called “the Law of Moses.” These five books, the first five in our Old Testament, tell how God brought His people out Egypt, how He led them through the wilderness, how He made a covenant with them, and how He established and regulated their worship. In addition to the instructions for the consecration and presentation of the firstborn that go back to the Passover, God also gave laws and restrictions for keeping Israel separate from the nations as the people from whom the Savior would come.

Among those regulations was the ritual purification of mothers after childbirth. When a baby was born, the mother was ceremonially unclean. This was not because procreation itself is sinful. It is indeed the will of God, a command and a blessing. God told Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). The inspired psalmist said, “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward” (Psalm 127:3), and “Your wife will be like a fruitful vine within your house; your children will be like olive shoots around your table. Behold, thus shall the man be blessed who fears the Lord” (Psalm 128:3,4). The Israelites thought of children as a blessing. In fact, in ancient Israel, childlessness was considered the height of misfortune and even a judgment from God. No, it was not the birth itself that made the woman unclean, rather it was the discharge of blood that occurs following birth.

The ritual passage began with the birth of the child. Immediately after that had occurred, the mother remained in social seclusion for a week if she had given to a son or for two weeks if she had given birth to a daughter. Following a ritual washing, she was free to resume her normal domestic role in the family.

This period of social separation for one or two weeks was followed by a longer period of ritual quarantine. If she had a male child that lasted an additional thirty-three days; if she had a female child, it was sixty-six days. During this time, she was not allowed to have any contact with the sacred domain. She was not considered to be unclean, but neither was she considered to be ritually clean because she was not allowed to touch any holy things in her household, such as meat from a peace offering or anything that had been dedicated as an offering to the Lord or, if she was the wife of a priest, any of the holy food from the sanctuary.

The period of religious quarantine was concluded by an act of sacrifice. The woman who had given birth to a child offered a lamb as a burnt offering and a turtledove or pigeon as a sin offering (Leviticus 12:6). If she was too poor to afford a lamb, she brought another bird instead (Leviticus 12:8). She entered the sacred precincts and brought the offerings to the priest on duty at the entrance.

These two sacrifices performed two specific functions. Through the rite of atonement with the blood from both sacrifices, the woman was cleansed from any impurity that she had incurred from her flow of blood (Leviticus 12:7). Through the burning up of the lamb on the altar she was accepted by God and reinstated as a member of the congregation. She was once again ritually clean. She therefore had access to God’s holiness and His blessing. That meant, too, that she was once again open to the gift of another child from Him.

The observance of this rite of passage had a profound impact on the life of every mother. It connected her life as a mother with her participation in the divine service and her reception of blessing from God. Negatively, it ensured that she did not become involved as a woman in pagan practices of the fertility cults. Positively, it affirmed her status as a full member of the holy congregation and recognized her role as a bearer of blessing from God. The original language in Leviticus 12:2, literally calling the mother a “seed-bearer,” hints at this connection between her vocation as a mother and her call to holiness. Moreover, the continuity and survival of her family—and, more broadly, of Israel—depended on her and her access to the blessing gained from the presence of God in the sacred domain.

The description of the mother as one who “produces seed” recalls the promise to Eve, the “mother of every living person” (Genesis 3:20), that her “Seed” would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). God repeated to the patriarchs His promise that through the Seed of Abraham all nations of the earth would be blessed (Genesis 22:18). The apostle Paul expounded the fulfillment of this promise about the “Seed” by Christ and in all those who are baptized into Christ and thereby become the “seed” of Abraham (Galatians 3:15-29).

Over 1,400 years after God gave His Law to Israel through Moses, the Seed of the woman is born in Bethlehem. On the fortieth day, Mary and Joseph come into the temple in obedience to the Lord’s command. They bring Jesus to the temple for the first time to include Him in her purification. Since Jesus is her firstborn son, He is presented to be consecrated to God at the same time.

That she offers the sacrifice of two birds, helps us to understand that Joseph and Mary were likely of a “humble state” (Luke 1:48), that is, too poor to be able to afford a lamb. On a theological level, no lamb was necessary because already here at forty days old, Jesus is the Lamb brought to His temple for sacrifice.

No mention is made of Jesus’ redemption then or later. Jesus’ life is consecrated to the Lord in the fullest possible way. Luke quite deliberately connects Mary’s purification to Christ’s presentation, for she was purified by her son—as are all the saints—for access to the heavenly sanctuary. The purification of Mary is celebrated on the day of the presentation of our Lord on February 2nd of each year. On this day, the Church prays for cleansing by Christ so that, like Mary, the people of God may be brought and presented to Him with clean hearts.

Jesus is the firstborn in many ways. Colossians 1 calls Jesus the firstborn of creation, for the eternal Son of God is now incarnate, born of Mary. Colossians 1 also calls Him the firstborn of the dead, because the One who was once the Sacrifice for sin is also now the risen Son of God. Crucified for the sins of the world, He lives again to give life forever. And now the Spirit is at work calling you to faith, interceding on your behalf, conforming you to the image of God’s Son, in order that He might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8:29).

Like Simeon, you, by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the Word of God, know of Jesus. You know that the Son of God became flesh, lived, and died for you. By faith, you also know where to find your Savior: as the Spirit pointed Simeon to the infant Jesus in the temple, so He points you to your baptism, to the Word, and to the Supper. There your Savior is found, present with forgiveness and life. You hear the Word. You receive Christ’s body and blood. It’s no wonder that, after the Supper, you sing Simeon’s song—because the Savior is just as body-and-blood present with you as He was with Simeon when Simeon held Mary’s firstborn in his arms. And so you may depart in peace.

As you do, what does the Lord call you? Firstborn.

Hebrews 12:23 calls the Church “the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven,” and you are numbered among them. Like the firstborn sons of Israel in Egypt, you have been saved from death by a sacrifice of blood: the blood of Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Like the firstborn of Bible times, the inheritance of the Father is yours: The Lord declares that the kingdom of heaven is yours. This is so because Jesus, the firstborn of creation has joined you to Himself in Holy Baptism; there, you were adopted as sons of God. For the sake of Jesus, you are sons of God, heirs of the kingdom, and God is your Father who works all things for your good, even as the Holy Spirit is at work conforming you to the image of the Son.

It is not your doing. It is not your righteousness or works or obedience or sacrifice that make you an heir of the kingdom of heaven. But it is yours because, as our Epistle reading for today reminds us, Jesus Himself partook of flesh and blood, that through death He might destroy the one who has power over death, that is the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. To help us, the seed of Abraham, Jesus was made to be like us, His brothers, in every respect, so that He might make propitiation for our sins (Hebrews 2:14-18) that you and I might be presented to the Lord, adopted as His sons, justified and sanctified, co-heirs of His kingdom that has no end.

Redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the firstborn from the dead, you are among the assembly of the firstborn, for 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 Place Jesus Calls Home

“The Calling of Saint Peter and Saint Andrew” by James Tissot

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“Now when [Jesus] heard that John had been arrested, He withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth He went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali” (Matthew 5:12-13).

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

When Jesus hears that John has been arrested, He withdraws from the region around the Jordan into Galilee, heading northward after His wilderness conflict with Satan. Jesus is not running away, but He Himself will choose the times and ways to confront those who seek to destroy the work of God’s gracious reign.

More importantly, Jesus withdraws into Galilee and leaves Nazareth, His hometown, in order to take up residence in Capernaum by the sea, in the regions of Zebulun and Naphtali. This happens in order to fulfill Isaiah’s words from our Old Testament reading. The light of the Christ has begun to shine in Galilee. Jesus is about to begin His ministry of preaching and teaching and healing on behalf of the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

Jesus’ preaching is precisely the same as John the Baptist’s: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” John proclaimed such a message as the one who had come to prepare the way of the Lord. Jesus proclaims the same message as the Lord Himself who has come to free the people from their exile in sin and to bring God’s end-time salvation already now into the present.

Jesus addresses the lost sheep that are the house of Israel. Though there are certainly members of the faithful remnant who have never lost true faith in the God of Israel, the spiritual condition of the whole nation is essentially one of “lostness.” The call “Repent!” is then a call to conversion, to move from sin and unbelief to repentant faith and salvation.

When Jesus grounds His call to repentance with the declaration that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” He is proclaiming that the reign of God, expected on the Last Day, is beginning already now on the earth. The “kingdom of heaven” is not primarily a place. It certainly is not a group of people or an organization. The kingdom of heaven is the reigning of God—in Jesus, in history. Wherever you find Jesus, you find the kingdom of heaven.

There is an “already” and “not yet” quality to God’s reign breaking into history. The kingdom of heaven has not yet fully arrived, with all its power and salvation. At the same, however, Jesus, the Son of God, is already here, and He is bringing a salvation that will avail on the Last Day. The time is urgent, and those who refuse what Jesus offers will seal for themselves a judgment on the Last Day.

With the kingdom of heaven at hand, Jesus calls His first disciples. Four men are specifically named: Andrew and Simon Peter, James and John. They are all fishermen. Jesus speaks, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” They immediately leave their nets and follow Him.

Some, concerned to show how such a dramatic response by the four could be more reasonably understood, have focused on the fact that at least some of Jesus’ first disciples had come already into close contact with Him in Judea before He returned to Galilee. However, to try to make the fishermen’s response to Jesus humanly reasonable or understandable misses the point. No one becomes Jesus’ disciple by his own initiative. Jesus calls, and only then can and do people respond.

To what are the four fishermen responding? What do they know and believe? Although the evangelist does not tell us specifically, the context provides a strong indication, so obvious that it might be missed. Jesus has just begun to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” The four believe, even with only faltering faith, that Jesus’ preaching is true! They have begun to acknowledge their need for conversion, their need to be saved, and they have begun to believe that through Jesus, the kingdom of heaven has broken into Israel’s history. They have begun to repent and to believe.

The fishermen leave their former lives and follow Jesus. It is easy to find either too much or too little significance in this aspect of their response. On the one hand, commentators at times almost speak as if the disciples clearly understand what discipleship might personally cost them and are willing to pay that price. A quick reading of the Gospels shows how wrongheaded it is to make that much of their response. The disciples do not yet understand fully who Jesus is or what He has come to do, and they understand neither what Christian discipleship nor (in their case) apostolic ministry will eventually cost them.

On the other hand, there can be no doubt that just as Jesus had begun to preach and call disciples to Himself, so these disciples are given, through His preaching and call, the beginning of the understanding that none of their old priorities and relationships will ever be the same or will ever again possess primary importance. But the four do not know the implications of this as yet. There will be many occasions, even up to the time of Jesus’ ascension, when Jesus’ disciples show that they have not grasped or appropriated all the ramifications that His call will have for their lives.

Do you find our text difficult to relate to? It offers such wonderful things—a world encompassing ministry, miracles and healings, disciples dropping their nets to follow Jesus—but these things are so distant from our daily lives, aren’t they? When you work all day during the week, have your children in school, and pay a mortgage on your home, how can you identify with the disciples who drop their nets to follow Jesus? Have you really left everything to follow Jesus?

Upon closer reading, however, Matthew offers a careful correction to such questions. The point is not so much whether you can identify with the disciples but whether Jesus identifies with you.

Matthew begins with very specific details. A specific place: Capernaum. A specific prophecy: Isaiah. A specific proclamation: Repent. Specific disciples: Peter and Andrew, James and John. Such specificity is part of a larger mission. Light shining in the darkness. Jesus proclaiming the Gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease. Great crowds following Jesus.

The beauty of this account is found in the specifics. The eternal reign of God breaks into our world in specifics. The ministry of Jesus has to start somewhere, and He chooses to work from Capernaum. The death and resurrection of Christ will take away all boundaries. Sin, death, and the devil—nothing can separate people from God’s love. This means that Jesus can enter any territory and call the place home, including backwoods Capernaum in Galilee. Jesus can go into any life and from that life bring discipleship, including among some uneducated fishermen.

In the beginning of His ministry, Jesus chooses to make His home in Capernaum. So much so that later, Matthew says He comes back to “His own city” (9:1). While Jesus indeed travels throughout the region of Galilee, there is a place He calls home. While the disciples indeed leave their family and fishing, later we find them eating in Simon Peter’s house (8:4). The world-encompassing mission begins with specific people in a specific place.

This is the wonder which is present in the calling of the disciples. Not how they drop their nets to follow Jesus, but that Jesus does not need to go far to find disciples. He chooses the people He lives among, the place He makes His home. Such is the power of His love.

Capernaum was a fishing village on the northwest coast of the Sea of Galilee. Since Jesus lives in a city by the sea, we find Him walking on the shores of Galilee and interacting with fishermen. If He were in the financial district of New York, He would interact with people in the banking industry. If He were in Silicon Valley or Seattle, He’d meet computer nerds at the coffee shop. If He were in rural Minnesota, He would interact with farmers in the field and feed store. Jesus makes His home wherever He chooses. Jesus calls those He lives among. He begins with a specific people who live in a specific place. The power of God’s grace means He can bring anyone from any walk of life into His kingdom.

This is the work of God that continues among us today. He chooses to begin with specifics: You. There was a specific day He made you His child. Perhaps it was when your pastor held your head over the baptismal font that your discipleship began. You did not leave your parents but grew up in the family. You learned how to follow Jesus even as you learned how to get along with your brothers. What matters here is not the drama of discipleship, dropping nets, and leaving family, but the wonders of God’s particular love.

In this world where death reigns because of sin, Jesus makes His home, calls His disciples, be they in Pipestone or Jasper or Trosky or Afghanistan. He brings with Him forgiveness and victory over death. This victory is missed by many, because again the Lord comes quietly, mercifully. He spread this grace and victory around Zebulun, Naphtali, and Galilee by walking from town to town, preaching His Word; and this is how His evangelism still happens today. As people talked of Jesus and Christians told His Word to others back then, so they do today.

While the Lord can accomplish His will without us, He delights to use us as His instruments in the spread of His salvation. People hear the Word and come to Church to hear more, to be instructed in the ways of the Lord. Believers gather to hear the Absolution, to be baptized, to receive the Lord’s body and blood.

It looks ordinary but know this: The Lord’s work will ordinarily look ordinary. After all, He created this world and set it up to run normally according to His will: therefore, because the Lord’s will is the normal way of doing things it will look normal. Rather than have bread fall from heaven each day, He ordains that seeds sprout and grow into grain that is harvested, ground, and baked; but as He uses farmers and bakers to supply bread, it is no less the Lord’s plan. Likewise, He delights to give forgiveness in His Word and His Sacraments—Word, water, wine, and bread, and they appear quite normal because that’s how the Lord normally saves. This is no less a miracle than if the Lord started zapping individuals with salvation via lightning bolts from heaven.

The Lord’s way of evangelism will seem ordinary, and it may even seem inefficient as the Church plods toward eternity. But of this we are comforted as well: Christ Jesus will not fail to send forth His Word to save all who will believe. He will not lose one of His beloved children. And as He fulfills that promise, you and I have the privilege of being His instruments.

Jesus continues to make His home among His people, wherever they are, with life and salvation—because He has shed His blood and given His life to win that gift. That is the message of Epiphany, and that is the purpose of evangelism. In this dying world, the Lord of life makes His home. He comes in human flesh to die our death and set us free. He come in His Word even now, to forgive your sins and give you His victory over the grave. Indeed, for Jesus sake: You are forgiven for all of your sins

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

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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