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Jesus Comes into His Kingdom

“Crucifixion” by Andrea del Castagno

Click this link to listen to this sermon: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1uXqRuVqkzcSgTY65unowf_mz5W9qIfA3/view?usp=sharing

And he said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” And He said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:42-43).

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

The road to the cross has been christened by Christian tradition as the Via Dolorosa, the way of pain and grief. The road begins at the fortress of Antonia and winds its way through Jerusalem about one-half mile to just outside the northwest wall of the city. It is this path that He treads in His final steps before Jesus comes into His kingdom.

But His is no ordinary coronation procession. He is not astride a proud war horse, nor carried on a palanquin by four strong men, but He stumbles beneath the burden as He carries His own cross. He is not accompanied by a band of loyal and chivalrous knights, but a couple of convicted criminals, rebels. The soldiers are not there to protect Him, but to see that He is put to a horrible death. The crowd does not greet Him with cheers but tears as He is led out of the city. Jesus had Himself wept over the city of Jerusalem. Now, He tells these daughters of Jerusalem that their tears would be better shed for themselves than for Him.

The reason for the tears is the impending destruction of Jerusalem. That will be a time when children are no blessing from the Lord; rather, the barren woman will regard herself as blessed because she won’t have to witness the suffering of her child. That will be a time when people again cry to the mountains and hills for protection from violent destruction as they did in the days of Hosea the prophet. Jesus’ concluding question is based on proverbial wisdom: if green wood burns, just think what blaze will result from setting fire to dry wood. If Jesus, who is innocent, suffers so terribly, what kind of suffering will befall guilty Jerusalem?

Jesus is crucified at the place called “the Skull” between two criminals. The Jewish historian, Josephus, speaks of crucifixion as “the most pitiable of deaths.” The Roman statesman and author, Cicero, describes it as “the worst extreme of torture inflicted on slaves.” Jesus endures the pain of having nails driven through His hands and feet before being hoisted into the air to die a slow death, usually from suffocation when the victim becomes so weak and filled with pain that he can no longer lift his torso up to take another breath.   

It is customary to say that Jesus spoke “seven words” from the cross. This is based on compiling His statements from the four Gospels. No Gospel contains all seven of these words. In Luke, we find the first, second, and seventh. The first is Jesus’ prayer for those who are inflicting death upon Him: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). They truly do not know what they are doing: killing the Son of God, by whose death the world is ransomed from sin.

Luke’s account of the crucifixion is striking because it contains one small moment of intimacy. It is a moment which is good for us to see and remember.

Crucifixions were not known for their intimacy, but rather for their cruelty. One of the purposes of public crucifixions was dehumanize the person being crucified, to strip them of any honor and make them an object of scorn. Literally stripped of all His clothing, Jesus—the sinless Son of God—hangs naked on the cross accused and condemned as a criminal and an enemy of God—the grossest kind of humiliation possible.

In Luke’s account, this is certainly true. Jesus is an object of scorn. The religious leaders mock Him as a Messiah unable to save Himself much less His people. The soldiers mock Him as a king, not receiving rich wine from a steward, but being given sour wine—the poor man’s cheap drunk—instead. Even one of the criminals joins in the act. When someone being crucified looks down his nose upon you, you can’t get much lower than that.

But Luke records one more interaction. A strange moment of intimacy between Jesus and the repentant criminal.

First, the criminal makes a confession of sin as he rebukes the impenitent evildoer. He admits he is being crucified justly. His death is deserved because of his misdeeds. Then, he makes a confession of faith. Jesus has done nothing wrong. His death is not deserved, and He will be vindicated. The criminal foresees a day when Jesus comes into His kingdom.

Having heard Jesus pray for God to forgive those who know not what they do, this criminal prays Jesus will forgive someone who now knows what he did. “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” The man’s request reveals a remarkable now/not yet tension in God’s kingdom. Now, on the cross, Jesus is King, and now His Word bestows forgiveness. Not yet has Jesus entered into His kingdom—of glory—yet Jesus’ word of forgiveness now opens the door for this dying evildoer to enter the not yet kingdom when it comes. And it will come that same day!

The catechesis of the penitent evildoer is brief, and his initiation into the life of Christ comes quickly. The dying “King of the Jews” who “saved others” says to this dying man, “Truly, I say to you, today, you will be with Me in paradise.” Jesus, crucified, is the source of forgiveness for all—even the worst, the least, and the last. With these words, Jesus invites the man to participate in this forgiveness forever.

Such intimacy stands out at a public execution. It is extraordinary because it is strange. But it also stands out because it is true. In this one small moment of intimacy, we see truth in the midst of the mockery. Here, we see a true sinner meeting His true Savior.

This should not surprise us, of course, because this is what we have seen through the Gospel of Luke. Jesus loves those who are lost, the marginalized and mocked, the disabled and disenfranchised, the hopeless and humiliated, the suffering and the sinner. These are the ones Jesus seeks out and saves.

When Jesus was presented in the Temple as a little baby, Simeon sang of God’s salvation for all peoples, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory to Thy people Israel.” When Jesus preached His first sermon, He offended His hearers by reminding them of Elijah’s mission of mercy to a Gentile widow and Elisha’s cleansing a Syrian of leprosy. In Jesus, God’s merciful mission extends beyond the bounds of Israel. A Samaritan leper falls down in thanksgiving before Him. A Roman centurion stands as an example of faith for Israel. Luke reveals the faith of those on the margins, the place at the table for the outcast, the love of God for the lost. In Luke, Jesus summarizes His mission with the words, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (19:10).

And so, at the very end, as Jesus speaks His last words, He reserves one word of promise for someone most unlikely—a criminal who repents. In mockery, people cry out for Jesus to save Himself. In truth, Jesus came not to save Himself but to save others. He came to save you.

On this, the Last Sunday of the Church Year, our Collect reads, “Lord Jesus Christ, you reign among us by the preaching of your cross.” Today, our Savior rules not in spite of the cross, but through it. He would not free Himself from the cross because by the cross He frees others; then and now.

Our world has changed. The Church has lost privileged status in our culture; it is viewed by many as restricting, bigoted, and discriminatory. And so, the culture no longer does the heavy lifting for Christin mores. Christians are no longer tempted to see themselves as powerful. They no longer set the cultural agenda. Instead, they have been set aside. They are not serious partners in cultural conversations. If they appear at all, it is as jokes on late night television or as dangerous figures fostering hate speech.

Yet, it is among the despised that Jesus comes into His kingdom and reigns. One by one, He gathers the marginalized and mocked, the disabled and disenfranchised, the hopeless and humiliated, the suffering and the sinner. These are the ones Jesus saves.

And so, today, God calls us to be servants of Jesus, a king who reigns by a personal word of welcome to the least. God invites us to have intimate conversations in a world filled with mockery and hate. To trust Jesus reigns whenever and wherever He extends a word of promise to the displaced and the disfavored, welcoming them home.

The world has changed, but God has not, and neither has His Word changed. In a broken chaotic world, there are plenty of broken people who need the healing message of Jesus Christ. The Church must see itself as “a company of recovering sinners.” The fields are white for the harvest. So, pay attention to the invisible people. Befriend your community. See people not as evangelism projects, but as neighbors to love and to show mercy. Each one is a precious soul for whom Jesus has shed His holy and precious blood. Remember: In Christ, we always work from a position of strength and plenty, not lack and weakness!

Jesus comes into His kingdom on the cross. He was crucified that we sinners might enter into that kingdom with Him. Because Jesus sacrificed Himself for us all, we have His word of absolution and the promise of being with Him in paradise. 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.

Devotions & Essays

Who Are You? A Short Devotion

Who are you? Where do you find your identity? These are important questions. Questions most of us ask at one time or another. Who am I?

People look for identity in many places. Some turn to DNA samples and family trees. Some take a pilgrimage; others retreat in solitude. Some find identity in their work; others hop from job to job, searching for purpose. Some pour themselves into their families; others leave relationships hoping to “find myself.”  

When some asks me who I am, I will probably tell them my name, occupation, where I grew up and attended school, a little about my family, and interests. From that information, you can begin to understand who I am and what’s important to me. Part of my identity is who I am as an individual, but much is derived from the people I’m a part of. You also gain a sense of my identity by what others say about me.

God’s Word has a lot to say about me as an individual. It tells me that God created me as both a physical and spiritual being. It is with my body and soul—i.e., my eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses—that I relate to God, to other people, and to this world. Not only does this give me a sense of identity; it also means that I am accountable to God.

God’s Word tells me that He created human beings in His image. In the fall into sin, we lost the ability to live by faith in God, in perfect love toward one another, and in a proper relationship to creation that was intended. However, we still possess unique dignity as the highest of God’s creatures.

God’s Word tells me that I am, by nature, a lost and condemned sinner. I was conceived and born in sin, and I have sinned in thought, word, and deed, by what I’ve done and by what I’ve left undone. But nevertheless, God chose to love me and show His grace and favor.

 God’s Word tells me Jesus redeemed me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. That is more valuable than anything this world has to offer.

God’s Word also tells me that my salvation is the work of the Holy Spirit. I cannot rely on myself in any way for the assurance of my salvation—not my thoughts, feelings, words, or deeds. Toward this end, God put me in the Church where the Gospel is declared to me in the spoken Word, in Baptism, in the Absolution, and in the Lord’s Supper.  

As members of the Body of Christ, we Christians still maintain our own identity even as we are united under one Head, Jesus Christ. We are not assimilated into the collective like the Borg in the Star Trek series. God places His triune name on us in Holy Baptism, but He knows and calls each one of us by our own name. God knows each of us so intimately that the very hairs on our head are numbered.

In Christ, we discover our true identity. It tells us who we are, where we come from, and best of all, Whose we are! We are God’s dear children, brothers and sister of Christ and in Christ. What could be better?

Sermons, Uncategorized

For All the Saints

Click here to listen to this sermon: https://drive.google.com/file/d/14gJMF5_ZCfPDiteyjmm6AFjRSjM26tUQ/view?usp=sharing

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:13-14).

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

Today we observe All Saints’ Day. This day is a little bit different from other saints’ days we might celebrate in the Church. On other days we identify and commemorate one particular saint, such as St. Matthew or St. John. Just who are we commemorating on All Saints’ Day? Well, all the saints; but who are they?

Traditionally, someone is called a saint who has lived an exemplary life of faith. Most of the people we call saints have been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, which teaches that saints have lived so well that they have merited a superabundance of grace from God and have earned God’s favor so much that they can transfer a little of that grace and favor to you.

A process of canonization is followed. In the Early Church period, the process was not very well defined. Now, however, there are specific rules to follow before declaring someone a saint. First, the person has to be dead for at least five years. That counts any of you out! Then, once the person has been dead for the requisite period, there are a series of investigations to see just how virtuous the hoped-to-be saint actually was. If these investigations turn out favorably, the documentation is turned over to cardinals and bishops who take a vote on whether to proceed or not. Finally, there must be at least one miracle performed by the dead saint-to-be before the examination is completed, and one miracle performed after! As you can see, it takes quite a bit of effort to become a saint according to Rome. You can’t stop working at it even after you’re dead!

Those who have studied the lives of some of the people who bear the official title saint very quickly discover that the saints, while extraordinary in terms of their faith and life, were also flesh and blood people who were at heart sinners. In addition to showing generosity to children, St. Nicholas was a staunch defender of the doctrine of the Trinity, but that zeal for the faith was carried too far when he reportedly punched an opponent in the nose. As Lutherans, we do look to the saints as examples of faith and Christian living, but we’re careful not to ascribe more to them than is right. None of them merited anything before God but were what they were because of the grace of God toward them.

There is only One who has actually merited the favor of God. There is only One who has earned the right to the title saint. That One is Christ Jesus. And He, had done it for you and me—for all the saints!

Today you heard the  Beatitudes. Many teach that the Beatitudes are primarily rules for how you should lead your lives as Christians. Some even teach that if you try really hard, you can actually live up to them. Taken that way, the Beatitudes are pure Law; they condemn and give no hope, for none of us truly live up to such standards. All of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. And, even if we manage to general keep lesser angels of our nature in check, our mouth has still uttered hurtful and untrue words, our heart is still fill of sinful thoughts.

But the Beatitudes are not so much Law as they are rich Gospel because they properly describe everyone who is incorporated into the One who earned the title saint. They don’t so much give us a roadmap on how to become a saint, but describe who we are, even now, as someone washed in the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. The Beatitudes are a description for all the saints!

Let’s review the Beatitudes with this mind.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3). Who is poor in spirit but the soul incorporated in Him “who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6–8). Christ cried out in poverty of spirit, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:46).

Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matthew 5:4). Who has mourned but the soul incorporated in Him who mourned, not over His own troubles but over the unbelief of His people? Christ came to comfort His people as their Savior, but He was, in the words of Isaiah, “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). He grieved over Jerusalem, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!” (Matthew 23:37).

Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek” (Matthew 5:5). Who is meek but the soul incorporated in Him who as King entered Jerusalem, “Humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9)? Christ said of Himself, “I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). He gained that rest by enduring the Passion, silent before His executioners.

Jesus says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6). Who has hungered and thirsted, but the soul incorporated in Him who did all things that righteousness might be fulfilled? Christ endured the cross “so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5:21). He became, according to St. Paul, “Our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30).

Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful” (Matthew 5:7). Who has been merciful, but the soul incorporated in Him so dedicated to mercy that, according to Hebrews, “He had to be made like His brothers in every respect, so that He might become… merciful” (2:17)? Christ mercifully healed and forgave all who called upon Him in faith, even from the cross crying out, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what to do” (Luke 23:34).

Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart” (Matthew 5:8). Who has been pure in heart, but the soul incorporated in Him so pure that, again from Hebrews, “In every respect [He] has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (4:15)? For the pure love of others, Christ sacrificed Himself, as Paul says, “He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9). Who has made peace, but the soul incorporated in Him who made our peace with God? According to the Benedictus, Christ came “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79). He said to the disciples, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you” (John 14:27). According to Paul, “He Himself is our peace… through the cross… He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near” (Ephesians 2:14, 16-17).

Jesus says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Matthew 5:10). Who has endured persecution, but the soul incorporated in Him who was perfectly righteous yet condemned? Because Christ was righteous, He became the target for the world’s hatred; He was threatened with death from all sorts, from Herod to the Pharisees of the Sanhedrin to Pilate.

To Christ belong all blessings. And so, to the soul incorporated in Christ also belongs the blessings! To the believer in Christ belongs the kingdom of heaven, the comfort of salvation, the inheritance of the earth, the fullness of righteousness, the mercy of the Father as exhibited in Christ’s righteousness, the mercy of the Father as exhibited in Christ’s resurrection, the right to see God, the right to be called a child of God. Indeed, great is the reward in heaven for the soul incorporated in Him who “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature, and… upholds the universe by the word of His power. After making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrew 1:3).

Jesus lived the perfect, holy, righteous life you and I could not and would not. Jesus, the Lamb of God, died on the cross as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world—yours and mine, included. Jesus sanctified the grave and gave us Sabbath rest with His own three-day rest in the tomb. Jesus rose from the dead, giving us the certain hope of the resurrection of our bodies to eternal life on the Last Day. Jesus ascended into heaven and sits at the Father’s right hand interceding for us and reigning over all things the sake of His Church, the communion of saints, even as He is always with us in His means of grace as He promised. One day, Jesus will come back in glory, for all the saints, to bring us to live with Him in His kingdom forever.

Christ’s saintliness is proven by what He has done. (And yes, Jesus even did several miracles after He had died!) And now this One who earned the right to be called saint also calls you holy. Jesus, by His grace, makes you a saint and all of the blessings He has earned He now gives you. They are for all the saints.

We have a description of what it really means to be a saint in today’s First Reading from Revelation. Note how the people are described. First of all, there are lots of them, not just those who went through canonization or even those who led particularly exemplary lives. These, we are told, are saints because they have washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb. The blood of Jesus has removed their iniquities in Holy Baptism, and they have been clothed with His own sanctity and righteousness.

Now, having been cleansed, they dwell in the presence of Christ, who provides them with eternal blessing and consolation. These are victorious in Christ. All that was arrayed against them—their sins, death, the devil—are destroyed and removed by Jesus. Now they carry the palm branches of His victory.

This, dear Christians, is a picture not only of heaven but also of you here in the Church on earth. Already our Lord has sanctified you in the waters of Baptism, dwells among you in His Word and Sacrament, and bestows upon you in His Word and Sacrament, and bestows upon you the victory over your enemies. You may not feel like a saint yet, but in God’s eyes you are, for you have faith in Christ Jesus, His Son, who has saved you and made you holy.

Oh, you don’t see it yet—you don’t appear that way. Neither do you see Jesus yet in all His glory—rather, He cloaks Himself in His Word and Supper to give you forgiveness and purity again. For now, this is something that cannot be visibly observed or measured, but only seen through the eyes of faith.

It won’t always be like this. One day Jesus will come back for all the saints. Jesus is coming back in glory for all to see. You haven’t seen Him revealed in His holiness and glory yet. But you will. You will see Him as He is, the glorious Son of God who took on flesh and died for you. And then, as one redeemed and forgiven, you’ll be exposed for who you truly are even now for Jesus’ sake.

You’re pure.

You’re a saint.

You’ve washed your robe and made it white in the blood of the Lamb.

You’re one of God’s children, now and 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

Be Prepared… Not Afraid

“Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem” by Francesco Hayez

Click this link to listen to this sermon: https://drive.google.com/file/d/14gJMF5_ZCfPDiteyjmm6AFjRSjM26tUQ/view?usp=sharing

And [Jesus] said, “See that you are not led astray. For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am He!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them. And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once” (Luke 21:8-9).

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

Our text begins with Jesus hearing His followers discussing the impressive appearance of the temple. This would have been quite a natural response to looking at Herod’s temple, which was not only lavishly decorated but was also the largest religious structure in the world at the time. When Jesus tells them of the coming destruction of the temple they respond with the obvious question: when will this happen?

The remainder of the passage is an extended speech by Jesus, a response that goes far beyond the question itself. Jesus warns His followers about a number of things that will happen before the end:

  • the coming of those who will teach falsely in His name (Luke 21:8);
  • rumors of coming wars between nations (Luke 21:9-10);
  • a variety of natural disasters (Luke 21:11);
  • persecution leading to an opportunity to bear witness to Jesus (Luke 21:12-15);
  • betrayal by family and friends (Luke 21:16);
  • the hatred of all around them (Luke 21:17-19);
  • the siege and destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of gentiles (Luke 21:20-24).

Jesus responds to their question by making two related points: First, He tells His disciples to be prepared to face what is to come. There is no sugar-coating here. The world that hated Jesus will hate His disciples. The whole history of the Church will be a history of tribulation and suffering. In order to stand firm in the day of trial the disciples will need to be prepared.

The second point made by Jesus is that all of the hardship and suffering to come should not drive His followers to despair. He will not abandon them but will give them wisdom to witness for Him when the hour comes (Luke 21:15) and He will preserve them in the midst of their suffering (Luke 21:18-19).

These two points come together in the “surprise ending” of the discourse: “Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28). It is ultimately the certainty of their redemption that will be the source of their strength and comfort as they face hardships to come.

In AD 70, Jesus’ prediction of judgment would come true: the religious leaders who rejected Him were punished by God through the destruction of the temple and the laying waste the city of Jerusalem by the hands of the Romans.

What were the disciples to do as they wait for these things to pass? Jesus’ words invite them to see past the trouble, to see past the sorrow and evil in the world, to the day when He will return to judge the living and the dead, and to remove all sin from our lives and make all things right! Because it is Jesus who says these things, His disciples can be confident that God is going to rescue and redeem all His Christian people.

At the start of verse 25, our text switches from the destruction of Jerusalem to the end of the world: the “times of the Gentiles” are fulfilled and finished on the Last Day. Jesus describes the end with these words:

And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves,people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. (Luke 21:25-27).

As Jesus spoke these words, so we are to hear them with Jerusalem’s destruction in the background. As He describes the future destruction of Jerusalem to His disciples back in the 1st century, He tells us that there are parallels to the future destruction of the world. The world will end, and it will end with distress, perplexity, fear, and foreboding among the nations. In the end, like Jerusalem, it will be utterly destroyed. On that day, all will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and glory. And they will be terrified.

Why does it end this way? For the same reason that Jerusalem fell—people following false gods and a religion of our own making, rejection of Jesus Christ as Lord and God, our Redeemer and Savior.

Here’s the truth: while there might be a million different ways in which they are acted out, they’re all one gigantic rejection of Christ. There seem to be endless deviations to human religion, but they all deny the Gospel. They all want Jesus gone. That’s what sin does: it wants Jesus gone.

And that is why the world is going to end—not because it wears out, but because the time will come when the Lord’s patience ends and He says, “If you do not want Me, then you don’t have to have Me around. I will give you a place where you need never have Me around again.” That’s what hell is. A place where God has withdrawn His gracious presence—a place that is literally God-forsaken.

The only reason that this world holds together as well as it does is because it isn’t God-forsaken, because the Lord still attends to it for the sake of His people, for the sake of Christ. Look at the rubble of Jerusalem after Jesus was rejected—destruction, death, and despair reigned supreme. Hell is the ongoing, chaotic destruction in a place where there is no mercy of God because its inhabitants do not want Him there.

In the meantime, the world still has its share of troubles, afflictions, and disasters. There are many things that threaten us and may cause us to fear: global warming, massive national debt, socialism, crony capitalism, increasing pressure against practicing the Christian faith in the public square, a culture of death that looks for solutions to problems in abortion and euthanasia, an aging population, the opioid crisis, the health care crisis, the farm economy crisis, just to name a few. And there are still the good old standbys that Jesus warned His disciples about: false teachers, wars and rumors of wars, persecution, betrayal by family and friends, hatred all around.

Some might say these calamities are death throes to indicate that the end is coming. But for you, these are not death throes. They are birth pains. They are reminders that Jesus’ Word remains true. It remains true that this is a world of distress and perplexity. But it is also true that your redemption draws near. So, while all the world is in distress at the thought of death and endings, it is not so for you: Jesus says, “Straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Dear friends, with this text the Lord does not want you to obsess over the end, the Last Day. Rather, He would have you be prepared for it whenever it occurs. And you are prepared for it because of what He tells you in His Word. He tells you that, although the world wishes He were gone, He is still very much present and findable. Just as one could point to Him in our Gospel lesson and say, “There is the Lord in His temple,” so can you today.

You point to His Word and say, “There, in the Word—read, spoken, and preached—is the Word made flesh.” And so He is. Jesus still speaks to you by means of His Word. By His Law, He shows you your sin and need for His grace. By His Gospel, He speaks that grace and redemption into you. He tells you what He will tell you on Judgment Day: “You’re no longer guilty, because I have died with your guilt already. You are prepared. That’s why heaven is yours.” And that’s the message we declare to the world, that others might be prepared for Judgment Day.

You point to the font, to Holy Baptism. The Messiah is present there, too. In that water and Word, He has joined you to Himself, to His death and resurrection. That is key for Judgment Day, for in Baptism the Lord says to you: “You will not die for your sin on Judgment Day, because I’ve joined you to My death for your sin. I’ve joined you to My resurrection, too, so heaven is yours. You’re prepared because I’ve redeemed you.”

And you point to the altar, to the Supper, where the Lord gives you His body and blood—His risen body and blood that has conquered death, descended into hell and come back again for you. No destruction for you, because the Lord strengthens and preserves you unto life everlasting.

The Lord is still present in His temple for you: that’s why this world is not forsaken. It’s just that, rather than a temple made of large stones, He now dwells in the temple of His means of grace—but He is just as surely, fully there as He was in the temple in our text. It’s little wonder that the means of grace are held in such low esteem today, for Christ was treated the same way in Jerusalem. But He is present, and He will not forsake you. Whatever distress you see in this world, the Lord is as near to you as His Word and Sacraments. You will not be put to shame on Judgment Day.  

Be prepared… not afraid. Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. 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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Justification: The Article upon Which the Church Stands or Falls

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“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:23-25a).

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

Martin Luther is generally remembered on this Reformation Day for the posting of the 95 Theses, statements for debate on repentance and the sale of indulgences. But a more complete statement of faith prepared by Luther is the Smalcald Articles. It was Luther’s hope that this document would be used for discussion at a general council of the Church or, should he die before such a council was held, that it would be regarded as his “last will and testament.”

The Smalcald Articles clearly establish the differences between Romanism and Lutheranism. Nowhere is this more evident than in Article I. It reads:

The first and chief article is this:

1 Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification (Romans 4:24–25).

2 He alone is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), and God has laid upon Him the iniquities of us all (Isaiah 53:6).

3 All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works or merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood (Romans 3:23–25).

4 This is necessary to believe. This cannot be otherwise acquired or grasped by any work, law, or merit. Therefore, it is clear and certain that this faith alone justifies us. As St. Paul says:

For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. (Romans 3:28)

That He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. [Romans 3:26]

5 Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls [Mark 13:31].

For there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. (Acts 4:12)

And with His stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)

Upon this article everything that we teach and practice depends, in opposition to the pope, the devil, and the whole world. Therefore, we must be certain and not doubt this doctrine. Otherwise, all is lost, and the pope, the devil, and all adversaries win the victory and the right over us.[i]

Article I is short, to the point, and like Luther himself, pulls no theological punches. Notice how many of the passages cited come from our Epistle, Romans 3:19-28. It is easy to see why this pericope was chosen for Reformation Day.

The key teaching of Lutheranism, “The article upon which the church stands or falls,” is justification—particularly, justification by grace through faith in the work of Christ. “Justification” has to do with being or being made or being declared “just,” or “righteous,” or “right.” Scripture teaches that we are justified by Christ, who took our sin into Himself and atoned for it on the cross and who imputes (or credits) to us His righteousness. When we are united to Christ—which happens by Baptism, in Holy Communion, and when we receive His Word—we are justified, freely, apart from any works of our own. To believe, trust, and depend on the fact that Christ saves us is to be justified by faith.

Now, it might seem that justification is another theological term whose meaning has been lost in today’s secular climate. Christianity is about the forgiveness of sins. But many people today do not think they have need to be made right with God. “Sin” is thought to be an outmoded concept.

And yet people today still search for “justification” for themselves and what they do. They still crave approval, and they want to consider themselves to be good and right. And when they fail to measure up even to their own standards or that of their peers—let alone God’s standards—they tend to construct explanations and  excuses that would exonerate them. It turns out that justification is the article on which we all stand or fall. It’s just a matter of where we look for our justification.

We can look for justification in our political or ideological beliefs: “I am good despite my personal failures, because my cause is just.” Post-modernism can be a way to justify ourselves: “The truth I reject is nothing more than a construction, so I am blameless in rebelling against it.” We can seek justification through atheism: “God does not exist, so no one can condemn me.” Or we can simply seek to justify ourselves by comparison: “Nobody’s perfect, but at least I’m better than so-and-so.” These are all attempts at self-justification. They are endless mental exercises by which we can consider ourselves to be good.

But something is missing in these attempts: a correct understanding of sin and personal culpability for that sin. Many believe there is no such thing as objective morality to sin against. They assume morality is purely subjective, varying from one culture or one person to another. No one has the right to “impose” his personal morality on anyone else. And yet, those who reject the very possibility of moral truth, are constantly making moral judgments of others: demanding social justice, human rights, and ethical approaches to the environment.

We tend to frame conflicts with others as arguments over moral transgressions—“You’re selfish!” “You don’t really love me!” “That’s not fair!”—with both parties accusing each other and defending themselves. Our transgressions still leave us with guilt, which can torment us for the rest of our lives. And yet we still tend to insist that “I am a good person.” If someone else considers us “bad” or “wrong,” we defend ourselves—with excuses and arguments maintaining that our vices are not bad but good, even something to be celebrated. In truth, we do not need to be righteous in order to be self-righteous.

Far from being an outdated theological concept, justification is a preoccupation, if not an obsession, for people today. We always feel the need to show that we are right. At work, online, in our casual conversations, in our relationships with others, we are always seeking approval, scoring points, making excuses, and defending ourselves. At the same time, we are also always accusing and judging others. Often, such criticism is not dispassionate moral analysis, but attempting to cover our own flaws by highlighting the far greater flaws of others. Underlying the need to be justified is our yearning for affirmation, for thinking that our existence matters, for our need to think that our life is worthwhile.

Not only do we judge and justify ourselves and one another; we also judge and justify God. “How can God allow evil and suffering in the world?” both believers and non-believers ask. “He must not be good.” Against that accusation, believers can form arguments to justify God, as if He needs our help to explain His motives and actions. Non-believers, ironically, justify the intellectual concept of a righteous God by concluding that such a being does not actually exist.

But the problems of evil and suffering do not go away even when God’s existence is rejected. No longer is the question “Why does God allow evil and suffering?” but “Why does existence allow evil and suffering?” If God cannot be justified due to the evil and suffering in the world, existence itself cannot be justified for the same reasons. If existence cannot be justified, life is meaningless, absurd, pointless, and (in a tragic number of cases) not worth living.

But what if, instead of having to justify ourselves, God Himself gives us the approval, affirmation, and assurance that our existence matters, that despite our many, obvious shortcomings, our lives have His approval? He does! We do! The incessant desire to justify ourselves is put to rest when we are justified by Christ.

How does Christ justify us? By dying.

The Second Person of the Trinity assumed a human nature. Instead of living in earthly glory as we might expect and as He was certainly entitled to, He chose to be born in poverty and to live a life of homelessness. But He did good works—by healing the sick, raising the dead, reconciling people who had been at each other’s throats—and His teaching blessed the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the persecuted, and so on. Jesus’ goodness was evident to all, even to His enemies, who hated Him for it. He accomplished what other human beings throughout history have always tried to do but failed: He was justified by His good works.  

Nevertheless, Jesus did not escape accusations, judgments, and condemnation. He was, in fact, wrongly convicted and sentenced to death. While others have supposedly died an innocent death, Jesus is the only person to have truly died an innocent death. At His execution, though, He fully exerted His divine power by doing something that defies our capacity to understand or to imagine: He took the evils of the world—that is to say, the sins of the entire human race—into Himself. “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). St. Paul put it even more strongly: “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

When on the cross Christ “bore our sins in His body,” He also took the punishment that we deserve. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). The “wonderful exchange” also means that Christ’s righteousness—along with access to the Father, freedom from guilt, and eternal life—become ours. God the Father now counts our sins as belonging to Christ. He also counts Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us. Thus, when we face the judgment of God the Father, He will consider all of Christ’s good works—His healings, His acts of love, His obedience to the Father, His perfect fulfillment of the Law—to be ours. This is what it means to be justified by Christ.

This is unbelievable, one might think. It would be tremendous if it were true, but how could it be? How could God become a human being? How could anyone—even God—bear another person’s sins, let alone the sins of the entire world? It staggers the mind. It is beyond understanding. Interestingly, Luther agrees. “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him,” he writes in the Small Catechism. Essentially, Luther admits, “I believe that I cannot… believe.”

Notice how Luther anticipates—and repudiates—the mindset of both the modernist and the postmodernist. “I believe that I cannot by own reason… believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord.” So much for the “Age of Reason.” So much for modernism. Human reason is not how we receive Christ Jesus and His gifts. “I believe that I cannot by my own… strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord.” So much for the will to power. So much for postmodernism. Exerting our own power or effort is not how we receive Christ Jesus and His gifts.

So how do we? Luther goes on to explain: “But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” Faith, this belief and trust in Christ, is a gift from outside ourselves. The Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity, creates our faith. Rather than human reason or power, faith is how we receive Christ Jesus. God does this by calling me through the Gospel, His means of grace—Word and water, body and blood—which creates, sustains and grows faith.

For Lutherans, the doctrine of justification is the “chief article” on which the Church stands or falls. Every other key teaching—the Sacraments, Scripture, worship, vocation, the two kingdoms, prayer, the Christian life—has as its keystone our justification by Christ.

And it is also the chief article on which individuals stand or fall. Restless hearts and anxious minds find peace in justification. Frenetic lives of self-justification have rest in the salvation of Jesus Christ. The incessant need to prove our own worthiness and our failure to ever do so are nailed to the cross, buried in the tomb, and put to death forever. What Good News!

 We confess: “[We] all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by His blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:23-25a). That is to say, by God’s grace, for Jesus’ sake, you are righteous and holy; 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.


[i] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (pp. 262–263). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

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Holding on for the Blessing

“Jacob Wrestles with an Angel” by James Tissot

Click this link to listen to this sermon: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1AYyGj8eB3ssyP3NKDQCaWoJQNbnEvqz2/view?usp=sharing

Jacob said, “I will not let You go unless You bless me.” (Genesis 32:26).

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

Jacob and his caravan reach the Jabbok, a stream that flows into the Jordan from the east just about midway between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. After leading family and flocks south across the Jabbok under cover of darkness, Jacob himself goes back across the stream, apparently to spend some time alone with the Lord in prayer. As he begins once again to pour out his heart to God, he suddenly becomes aware that out of the darkness someone has grabbed hold of him and is wrestling him to the ground. The mysterious struggle continues—for hours—until the first streaks of dawn appear in the eastern sky.

In commenting on this passage, Martin Luther said, “This text is one of the most obscure in the Old Testament.” Although there are elements of this wrestling match that are difficult to understand and to explain, there are some basic truths that are immediately clear.

Jacob is struggling with God in earnest prayer. This struggle involves a spiritual striving with God for His blessing, but it involves a physical struggle as well. Jacob’s opponent, at first referred to “a man,” later identifies Himself as God.

But why should God appear to one of His children as an opponent, as an enemy fighting against Him? Surely not to crush the life out of him. If God so wanted, the wrestling match would be over in half a second. In the heat of the struggle, Jacob may be tempted to think of God as his enemy; in that case God would not want to bless Jacob. But God has promised to bless, and Jacob knows that God cannot lie. Yes, God is an opponent, but He is not the enemy.

The struggle continues until Jacob’s divine opponent, by merely touching Jacob’s hip, throws the entire hip socket out of joint. Now Jacob can’t continue the painful struggle any longer, so he throws his arms around his opponent and holds onto him. His opponent says, “Let Me go, for the day has broken.” He is delighted to hear Jacob answer, “I will not let You go unless You bless me.” God doesn’t want Jacob (and He doesn’t want us) to be timid with Him. He delights to let us win victories over Him on the basis of humble believing prayer. Jacob clings in faith to God and to God’s promise, and he receives the blessing he desires.

“What is your name?” the Lord asks him, not because He has forgotten but because He wants to remind Jacob that he has been born a “heel-grabber,” one who takes unfair advantage of a rival. But that old name no longer fits this man, and so God gives him a new one. “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

Bible names often serve as more than convenient labels for people. Here Jacob’s new name describes the new nature and character the Spirit of God has patiently and painstakingly created in him. No longer will he rely on his own cleverness to overcome anyone who opposes him. The heel-grabber has become the persistent fighter who clings to God’s promise and wins God’s blessing legitimately. He has learned to lean on God.

God apparently feels that Jacob needs a memento of his victory, as a warning against relapsing into his old nature. So, as Jacob leaves the scene of the wrestling match, he is limping. All of God’s children need to learn that in and of ourselves we have no strength, no power with God or man. Our only strength, like Jacob’s, lies in holding on for the blessing, on holding firmly to God’s promises.

For Jacob another blessed fruit of this mysterious struggle is that he is freed from the terror that has gripped his heart since he learned Esau was coming for him with four hundred men. With the Savior’s promise ringing in his ears, he is now ready to meet Esau, ready for whatever surprises the new day might bring.

God still appears to His people on occasion as though He is an opponent. Each of us has known dark hours when we were unable to see God’s blessing and have seen only a face that looks angry. Jacob holds on to God even when He appears as his opponent, and he wins a blessing. We will have that same experience when we learn how to say, “My Savior, I will not let you go unless You bless me. Keep holding on for the blessing!

Jacob learned the hard way a lesson we all need to learn—in and of ourselves we have no power with God or man. We are much like helpless babies. Our only strength lies in holding firmly to what God has promised and crying out to Him for help. Apart from Jesus, we can accomplish nothing spiritually. Without the Holy Spirit, we do not know how to pray or for what to pray.

Unlike babies, we do not outgrow this helplessness. We never become spiritually self-sufficient but grow in our dependence. If there is one thing we discover as we mature spiritually, it is that before God we are nothing but beggars. In the face of death and God’s judgment, we can only cry out to Jesus as beggars did in the ancient world: “Lord have mercy!” Or as Jacob did in our Old Testament lesson: “I will not let You go until You bless me!”

Yet that experience of helplessness is the best thing for our spiritual growth. As long as we can manage quite well by ourselves, we have no need to pray and never learn to praise God. But when we have come to the end of our own rope, our only hope lies in prayer. Only those who are helpless can truly pray. Only those who have been helped by God in answer to their prayers can really praise God.

You are on a journey through this fallen world to the Paradise of God. You live in a land where there are temptations, and in which you have fallen often. Perhaps it is pride that keeps you awake in the darkness before the coming dawn. Maybe it is slavish fear in the middle of the night. You are alone as you wrestle with your past, with your conscience, and with that ever-increasing load of guilt.

Then the Lord permits you to wrestle with Him throughout the darkness of this world’s night. He may reach out His finger and touch your heart or your home or a loved one. There is instant pain and it continues. You hobble around and, in spite of the hurt and suffering, with strength and determination that can only be from above, you hold on until you have God’s intended blessing.

It’s amazing, isn’t it? Striving with God and men… and prevailing. Suffering. Enduring hardship. Hearing the accusations of the Law. All the time, holding God to His gracious promises in prayer. Holding on for the blessing.

“The wages of sin is death…”

Yes, Lord, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

“The soul that sins shall die…”

Yes, my Lord, but He was wounded for our transgressions.

“There is none that does good; no not one…”

Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.

Why does the Lord engage in such a wrestling match with you? Why does He inflict or permit a variety of painful injuries, horrid diseases, and awful injustices that might dog you the rest of your earthly life? In order that you might hold on for the blessing. In order that you might turn from your prideful independence to humble dependence upon Him. And in Christ you are! In order that He might bring you forgiveness. And in Christ you are forgiven! In order that your slavish fear might be replaced by godly fear. And in Christ you are! In short: In order that He might bless you! And in Christ you are blessed!

The Lord provides you with His Word and Sacraments, not only to bring you into the Israel of God, but to sustain you in His Church. Recall your Baptism daily by drowning the Old Adam through contrition and repentance. Declare to Satan: “I am baptized. And if I am baptized then I belong to Christ.”

Know yourself… both the sinner and the saint. Know God’s Word… both the Law that accuses and the Gospel that forgives. Listen as the absolution is announced and take it to heart. Receive the true body and blood of the Incarnate Son of God, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sin and the strengthening of your faith. Through these means of grace, the Holy Spirit gives you the strength to endure whatever the Lord God may permit to come your way and to remain faithful unto death and be given the crown of life.

This literal encounter between Jacob and God provides an object lesson for our prayer life. We wrestle with God in prayer. It isn’t always easy. Eager as He is to hear us and help us, God is no pushover. He is no magic genie at our beck and call. Often He must oppose us when our sinful will is out of sync with His perfect will. He challenges, convicts, judges, evaluates us and our requests. But when our will is in accord with His, God graciously lets us prevail. Graciously, He gives us the blessing we ask for.

Like Jacob, may you continue to hold onto the Lord even in those dark hours when you are unable to see God’s mercy and see only a face that looks angry. May you learn to say in prayer, “My Savior, I will not let You go unless You bless me.” Indeed He does bless you. He soothes your suffering spirit. He calms all your fears. And He gives you peace and comfort even in the midst of strife.

In Christ, you are blessed. That is to say: 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.