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God's Servant from the Womb

Click this link to listen to this sermon: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1d4q7bmwcMjig81rW40_fRIBGpO0CtSyP/view?usp=sharing

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

It is the Second Sunday after the Epiphany, the season of the year in which we focus on Jesus revealing Himself as God Incarnate, the Savior of all mankind. It is also Sanctity of Life Sunday. So, it is fitting that our Old Testament lesson, Isaiah 49, is serving double duty today. Let’s focus especially on verses 5 and 6:

And now the Lord says, He who formed Me from the womb to be His Servant, to bring Jacob back to Him; and that Israel might be gathered to Him—for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord, and My God has become My strength—He says: “It is too light a thing that You should be My Servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make You as a light for the nations, that My salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Do you see the connection? This Servant will “bring the preserved of Israel” and will be “a light for the nations,” that is, the Gentiles. That’s Epiphany! And He will be called and formed “from the womb.” That’s sanctity of human life from the womb to the tomb. Which brings to my mind two important questions: Who is this Servant that God formed from the womb? And why does it matter that He did call and form Him from the womb?

Over the centuries, a great deal of debate has raged over the identity of this Servant. If we look carefully, we will see that He will identify Himself clearly.

 The Lord called Me from the womb, from the body of My mother He named My name. He made My mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of His hand He hid Me; He made Me a polished arrow; in His quiver He hid Me away. And He said to Me, “You are My Servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified” (Isaiah 49:2-4).

Some suggest this Servant is Cyrus. God chose him before his birth, and through His prophet, God even mentioned him by name. God does say that Cyrus is His anointed, but the other identifying marks do not fit the Persian king. In verse 3, the Servant is called Israel. Cyrus could never be called Israel for he was not of Israel but only used by the Lord. The importance of Cyrus can be documented in ancient history and in what he did for Israel, but he did not bring salvation for all to the ends of the earth. We must look for someone else.

How about a prophet sent from God? God said of Jeremiah who appeared after the time of Isaiah: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). But no single prophet could be called Israel. How could any prophet restore the tribes of Jacob and bring salvation to the ends of the earth? A prophet might announce such blessings, but he could not accomplish them himself.

Some have suggested that the Servant is the nation of Israel. Certainly, the nation was described as the Lord’s servant (Isaiah 42:19). But Israel was anything but a good example as a servant. The nation turned away from the Lord and despised His servants, the prophets. Israel itself needed rescue and help. In addition, the Servant mentioned here is a single person. He has a mouth, and God calls Him from His mother’s womb. No, we must look for someone else.

Who else but the Messiah fits the description here? God chose Him before birth. From the beginning, God’s plan for the deliverance of the world involved the coming of one person. God told Adam and Eve this person would be the Seed of a woman. Throughout the long history of the Old Testament, God promised the coming of such a deliverer. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all anticipated the coming of that one deliverer. God promised David that such a deliverer would come from his family. Isaiah identified Him as a child, born of a virgin. All the prophets pointed to the coming of that one Great Servant who would deliver His people.

Only Jesus fits that description. God set Him apart long before His birth. Jesus, the eternal Son of God, is born in time of a woman. The words of Jesus are often like a sharp sword cutting away pretense and unbelief, exposing sin, then applying the healing balm of God’s grace for sinners. Jesus is the reason God had chosen His people Israel. He is the true Israel, who will bring glory to God and who stands in dramatic contrast to the historical Israel as the obedient Son.

Jesus is born in Bethlehem to “save His people from their sins.” He will also be “a light for the Gentiles.” Through this Servant, Jesus, God provides deliverance for all humanity. And it will all begin from the womb.

Why from a womb? If you were God and wanted to restore your people, if you were God and wanted to bring salvation to the “end of the earth,” if you were God and wanted to defeat sin, death, and Satan, if you were God and wanted to be glorified in all of this, why enter the world from a womb? Why not arrive on a white horse wielding a flashing sword accompanied by legions of angels and blazing chariots? Why from a womb?

The Word of God before us today provides answers to this question. God will teach us that the Messiah will be called from the womb to identify with and to bring salvation for all humanity.

Why from a womb? First, it took a womb to properly equip the Messiah for the task of bringing salvation to the “end of the earth.” In the prophecy that is our text, Jesus Himself speaks to us. He tells us that the Father, “formed Me from the womb to be His Servant.” God formed His mouth “like a sharp sword” and made Him like a “polished arrow.” The Servant’s task required a human body.

If Jesus, God’s Servant, was to be “wounded for our transgressions” (Isaiah 53:5), then He needed a back to feel the scourge, hands and feet to receive the nails, and a side to be pierced by the spear. If He was to pour out “His soul to death” (53:12), He needed a human soul. He needed lungs to stop breathing, a heart to stop beating, and a brain to stop functioning. If He was to be “an offering for sin” (53:10), He needed blood to shed. 

Being formed in a womb made these things possible. After His miraculous conception by the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus grew and developed in His mother’s womb just like every human being. His heart began beating at around twenty-four days. Blood flowed in His veins at thirty days. He produced brain waves at forty-three days. About this same time His lungs were nearly developed. By seven weeks He had little feet and little hands complete with fingerprints. By eight weeks He, like all of us, was a small-scale baby one-and-an-eighth inches long and weighing one-thirtieth of an ounce.

In order to be a “light for the nations” and to bring salvation to the “end of the earth,” the Servant Jesus must suffer and die. In order to suffer and die, Jesus had to become a human being. The writer to the Hebrews put it this way, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:14-15). It took a womb to do that.

It also took a womb to be the beginning point for the task of bringing salvation to a fallen world. Jesus says, “The Lord called Me from the womb, from the body of My mother He named My name.” The path of salvation that would lead to the “end of the earth” had to begin in a womb. He who would be the “light for the nations” had to begin His life in the darkness of His mother’s body.

The womb was an absolutely necessary place to begin. Here’s why:  Jesus’ ancestor, David writes: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). Since our humanity begins at the moment of conception, our sinfulness begins at the moment of conception. Because our sinfulness begins at the moment of conception, our Savior from sin had to begin His sinless life from the moment of conception. To be our Savior, Jesus took our place, not only on a cross and in a tomb, but also in a womb. It was necessary for our salvation that the Servant Jesus be called “from the womb.” 

It does seem strange though, doesn’t it? Instead of coming to save us with legions of angels and blazing chariots, our God came hiding in a womb! We see this “hiding” language in our text. Jesus would have a mouth “like a sharp sword” but “in the shadow of His hand He hid Me.” Jesus would be like a “polished arrow” but “in His quiver He hid Me away.” Sometimes God accomplishes His will visibly and powerfully, but other times God accomplishes His will by hiding. That is how He accomplished our salvation.

Jesus did not come on clouds in blazing glory. He hid in a womb. Jesus did not come as a king but hid as a servant. Jesus did not come to live in a palace but hid as someone who had no place to lay His head. Jesus did not come as a judge to condemn but hid as a teacher of truth in whom there is no condemnation. Jesus did not come to defeat earthly enemies by leading an army. He came to defeat Satan and sin and death by hiding on a cross. It was in all this that God was glorified.

Still, it does seem strange that God would choose to accomplish His will by hiding. It seems like such a difficult way filled with humiliation and pain and suffering. The Servant Himself questions the way of hiding. We hear Him in our text, “I have labored in vain; I have spent My strength for nothing and vanity.” We hear Him in Gethsemane, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death … My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me” (Matthew 26:38-39). But we also hear Him in our text: “yet surely My right is with the Lord, and My recompense with My God” and in Gethsemane “nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 16:39). The way of hiding isn’t easy. But when it is God’s way, then it is the right way, the necessary way.

Why from a womb? It took a womb to equip the Messiah with the human body He would need to suffer and die and rise again for the salvation of the world. It took a womb as a necessary starting point to bring salvation to the world.

That leads us to our final point and our main point. It took a womb for the Messiah to identify with and bring salvation for all humanity. This is the message of Epiphany. Jesus did not come just for a certain ethnic group or for people with a certain skin color or for people with a certain mental capacity. He came to be light for all the nations. He came to bring salvation to the “end of the earth.” In today’s Gospel, John points to Jesus and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).

As an embryo developing in His mother’s womb, Jesus identifies with humanity at the point which is the very essence of “sameness.” Although individual characteristics are there genetically from the moment of conception, outwardly we are all the same. You cannot look at an early embryo and discern whether it is male or female, black or white or red or brown. You cannot look at an early embryo and know his or her intelligence or athletic ability. You cannot look at an early embryo and tell whether he or she will be a person with a particular disease or disability. As embryos, we all looked the same!

And guess what? Jesus looked exactly the same! Jesus looked just like all of you. Jesus looked just like people from Africa or the Near East or the Far East. Jesus looked just like people from Mexico or Guam or Russia. Jesus looked just like people in care centers and group homes and mental hospitals. As embryos in a womb, all humanity looks the same. Jesus came as an embryo in a womb to identify with all humanity and to bring salvation for all humanity. That’s the message of Epiphany. That’s the message of Christ’s Church all year long.

How remiss we would be as Christ’s Church if we were to exclude certain people from the message of salvation. Thank God we belong to a church body that never says, “We’re not sending missionaries to that country. You know how those people are.” We never say, “We’re not going to start a church in that part of town. Those people will never listen any way.” No, we belong to a church body that understands “those people” are people for whom Jesus died and rose again. We belong to a church body that boldly proclaims the message of salvation cross-culturally, to all nations wherever and whenever God gives opportunity.

However, we do live in a country that still openly discriminates against a certain people group. This discrimination is so entrenched and so widespread that it can even deceptively draw God’s people into its bigotry. We live in a country that says people not yet born are not really people and have no rights including the right to life. After forty-five years of this prejudice, many in the Church have forgotten the humanity of the unborn and, without even thinking about it, exclude them from the message of salvation.

But Jesus did not exclude them! He became one of them. Every embryo in a womb is an embryo for whom Jesus entered a womb as an embryo. Every embryo in a womb is part of humanity for which Jesus suffered, died, and rose again. Every embryo in a womb not only has the right to life but is someone for whom Jesus paid to have eternal life. God formed Jesus in the womb and God called Jesus from the womb so He could bring salvation to all humanity.

That is the message of Epiphany! This is the message that can change the course of this country when it comes to the value of human life. This message gives value to those not yet born and about to enter this life. This message gives value to those who are frail and about to leave this life. It gives value to the young woman in a crisis pregnancy for it speaks of God’s forgiveness and love and strength. It assures her she is not alone and enables her to make a choice that is best for her and her baby. This message speaks compassionately and gives value to those who have made an abortion choice and are now dealing with its guilt and regret. This message speaks to them as it does to us all, for we all have sinned. It says, “You are precious in His sight! Jesus entered a womb, lived, suffered, died, and rose again for you. He made things right with God for you. God, in Jesus, forgives your sins regardless of number or magnitude. 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. 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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The Next Step

“The Baptism of Christ” by Giotto

Click here to listen to this sermon: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1__w5tsZ1JTBKd9zoyefMpoYF72dcUOcJ/view?usp=sharing

“And when Jesus was baptized, immediately He went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on Him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17).

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The Good King's Wisdom

“God Appears to Solomon in a Dream” by Marc Chagall

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11 And God said to [Solomon], “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches or the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12 behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you. 13 I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days. 14 And if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days” ( 1 Kings 3:11–14).

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Out of Egypt

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“Flight into Egypt” by Jean-Francois Millet

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Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and His mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy Him.” And he rose and took the Child and His mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

“A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Matthew 3:13-18).

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

Joseph. It’s a good old-fashioned name. “Yahweh has added.” It’s the name that Rachel gave to her son when, finally after so many years of waiting, she gave birth to a child. Joseph, son of his famous father Jacob, was now in the world. And Joseph would act with such trust and valor throughout his life that he would be well remembered, and his name would be often given to little baby boys.

You know the story of Joseph, son of Jacob. Jacob loved his boy and gave him a coat of many colors. His older brothers hated him so much that they faked his death and sold him into slavery. Carted off to Egypt, Joseph became a slave in Potiphar’s household. In fact, he became master of the house until Potiphar’s wife falsely accused him because he refused to share in her sin. Though innocent, Joseph was sent to jail, and he languished in that Egyptian prison for years.

Eventually, his ability to interpret dreams came to the attention of Pharaoh. And because Joseph was able to interpret Pharaoh’s troubling dreams, Pharaoh released him from prison and made him second-in-command of all of Egypt. In that post, Joseph saved the Egyptians from famine. He saved many others, too.

For instance, his brothers. The same brothers, who had so cruelly sold him into slavery years before, now came to Egypt looking for food. Joseph toyed with them for a while, but only to test the sincerity of their repentance. And when he was assured of their change of heart, he revealed who he was.

His brothers feared for the worst—that it was now payback time. But Joseph spoke words that have echoed through the centuries:  “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20). Rather than seek revenge, Joseph provided for his brothers and his families. This was all part of God’s plan to save—to deliver Israel, His chosen people. In fact, this was even a part of God’s plan to save the world from their sins.

His providence would not always be that apparent. After Joseph died, they would be slaves in Egypt for 400 years. But then the Lord would send Moses and lead them back out of Egypt.

Back out of Egypt—you know the story of the Exodus well, too. After ten plagues, the Lord finally convinced Pharaoh to let His people go. The Israelites were delighted to leave Egypt and slavery, they were ready to trust in the Lord’s promises and to let Him lead them to the Promised Land.

At least, until they got to the Red Sea (not very far), at which time they said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt?” (Exodus 14:11). So much for delight and trust!

And of course, there was that little incident out at Mt. Sinai on the way to the Promised Land. The same people who had seen the Red Sea part, lasted just about two seconds at the foot of the mountain as they waited for Moses to speak with the Lord, and then they asked Aaron to make a golden calf to worship instead. It’s a testament to God’s patience that He didn’t wipe them out then.

We could speak of their grumblings about the food in the wilderness as they resented the manna that God gave them each morning. We could spend some time repeating their statements of how they’d like to go back to Egypt and slavery just for a few cucumbers, leeks, and melons. We could mention that the Lord led them right up to the Promised Land, but that they had to spend an extra forty years in the wilderness because they didn’t believe that God was a match for tall people.

But rather than dwell on their disobedience in the desert, let’s fast-forward to their life after conquering the Promised Land by the Lord’s strength and power. Let’s see how carefully they kept God’s Word and lived according to His commands.

Take, for instance, the time of the Judges, when…well, when every man went and did what was right in his own eyes, when time and time again the people had to be punished for their disobedience, and God had to raise up a judge to deliver them. Okay. Never mind. Perhaps we’d better move on. Take the reign of Rehoboam, when…well, when the country divided and the ten tribes began to worship golden calves. Or later on, when the people are either killed or taken into captivity because of their persistent rejection of God’s Law and Gospel.

In such a sordid history, a stand-up guy like Joseph really stands out. Although he suffers dearly, he brings his family down to Egypt to save them from certain death. Because he saves them, they can later return from Egypt and go back to the Promised Land—and be disobedient some more.

One wonders what Joseph would think of all that happened after his death, for the nation whom he saved from starvation by God’s grace certainly rejected the faith that sustained him.

At any rate, “Joseph, son of Jacob” was a well-known hero. And so it was a popular name. In fact, centuries later, there was another Jacob who had a son. And this Jacob named his son Joseph. And this Joseph was betrothed to a virgin named Mary, who was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.

After the Child was born, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, “Get up,” he said, “Take the Child and His mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the Child to kill Him.”

Here we go again. Another Joseph-son-of-Jacob heading down to Egypt. This time, the purpose is far more specific than the salvation of God’s chosen people, Israel. This Joseph is going to Egypt to save God’s chosen Savior, Jesus.

Like his namesake of old, this Joseph is also obedient and faithful. When he got up, he took the Child and His mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord has said through the prophet:  “Out of Egypt I called My Son” (Matthew 2:14-15).

Joseph takes Mary and her Baby to Egypt, and there they stay until Herod dies.  Then, when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Get up, take the Child and His mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the Child’s life are dead.”

So he got up, took the Child and His mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, “He will be called a Nazarene.”

So Joseph-son-of-Jacob, having taken Mary and Jesus to Egypt, now brings them back to the Promised Land, and they find a home in Nazareth, just like the prophets said it would be. That’s what our text tells us today.

But the big question is this: So what? Why does it matter to me that the family went to Egypt and back? The story seems to have little significance. Ah, but there is much Good News here for us in the stories of Josephs, sons of Jacobs.

For one thing, Matthew insistently points out that this trip takes place to fulfill what the prophets had said about the Messiah. Even as a toddler, Jesus is proving Himself to be the Savior—even as He will by fulfilling prophecies about healings and other miracles. The trip to Egypt adds to His credentials as the Christ. But there is more for us to rejoice in here.

Remember the story of the original Joseph. And especially remember the original Israelites’ trip to Egypt. The Israelites who go down to Egypt and Joseph’s care are his brothers—the brothers who gave into jealousy, faked his death, deceived his father, stole his coat, sold him into slavery, and dismissed him as gone. This is hardly a righteous group of characters, these Israelites who make their way to Egypt and Joseph’s care.

Furthermore, consider the Israelites who leave Egypt 400 years later, who survived because of Joseph’s invitation. They constantly doubt God’s promises, bow down to false gods, challenge Moses, and complain about the Lord’s deliverance, and gripe about the Lord’s provision. They do so all the way to the Promised Land. And after that, they get even worse about it.

The point is this. All the way down to Egypt and all the way back to the Promised Land, the Israelites are a bunch of thankless and unrighteous sinners.

Now, remember the story of Joseph, husband of Mary. More specifically, look at the Child whom he delivers to Egypt and back. This Toddler—likely about 2 years old—makes the arduous journey to Egypt without a single sin. He arrives at His exile completely righteous and holy. Later on, He makes the journey back from Egypt to Nazareth in the Promised Land. And as He does so, He is still wholly righteous and without sin.

The point of this remembrance is this. The Toddler Jesus makes the same trip that Old Testament Israel did. And He makes it while perfectly trusting God and perfectly obeying His parents. He makes the trip without a single sin.

If this seems like nothing worth remarking on, then you’ve never gone on a long car ride with a two-year-old.

The Son of God makes this rough journey in part because He has taken on human flesh to be the Savior. And since life is rough for man, man’s Savior gets no special favors. But more importantly, the Son of God makes the trip because He is the Savior of all who believe in Him, even those Israelites of the Exodus. And in His trip to Egypt, He is hard at work to save.

You see, in preparation for Judgment Day, the Savior Jesus now makes this declaration to those long-gone Israelites of the Old Testament. He says, “When you went down to Egypt, you were full of all sorts of sin—just from the way you treated your brother Joseph. And when you left Egypt for the Promised Land, you were an unrighteous lot of grumbling, unfaithful idolaters. These sins merit the punishment of eternal death. That is what you deserve.

“But I am your Savior, and I save you from death. Therefore, I went to Egypt, too. I made the trip down to Pharaoh’s land, but I did it perfectly, without sin. I stayed in exile there for a while, and I stayed perfectly righteous in doing so. Then I made the trip out of Egypt—and I did so without a single sin. And, back in the Promised Land, I didn’t turn to false gods and idols. I stayed obedient to My Father’s will, even went to the cross at His bidding.

“I did this for you, so that you might be forgiven. I’ve lived to give you credit for my righteousness. And I’ve died to take away your sin. You see, when My Father looks upon you, He says, ‘When I look upon you, I don’t see your sins, your shabby treatment of Joseph, or your grumblings in the wilderness and idolatry in Canaan. My Son has taken all of that away. Instead, when I look at you, I see My Son’s perfect sinlessness as He travels down to Egypt. I see His perfect holiness as He lives there. I see His righteousness and obedience as He travels back to Nazareth and submits to His parents. I see these things because Jesus did them for you and gives you the credit for them. That’s why you’re saved from your sin. That’s why heaven is yours.’”

Therefore, this Gospel lesson does much to teach us of the Gospel itself. Jesus has lived and died for you. He has lived a perfect life so that He can give you credit for His perfect life. He has died the sinner’s death so that you don’t have to die for your sin.

Therefore, consider some of those sins that may well be prevalent as the holiday season begins to fade. It may be the anger of toddlers who are screaming because of a broken toy or just because they want to assert their will.

It may be the covetousness of children who wish they had the toys that a friend received. It may be the contempt of teenagers, who doesn’t want to listen to the parents and may grow angry at them for a bad day at school. It may be the sins that afflict adults, that rush into the vacuum left by the disappearing holiday cheer: lust, anxiety, selfishness, abrasiveness, a whole host of sins. Sins that don’t really shock us anymore because they’re just a part of who we are. And frankly, these are the dangerous sins. When sins trouble us, we repent of them. When they don’t trouble us, we dismiss them and do not seek forgiveness. But the Lord still calls them sin and calls us to repentance. For the wages of these sins, too, is death.

And the Lord also bids you to remember His trip to Egypt; because, you see, He is not just living a perfect and sinless life for the Israelites of old. He is doing that for you, too.

So that toddlers may be forgiven of their angry power-plays, Jesus perfectly and serenely submits to His parents. He then takes the punishment for angry power plays by submitting Himself to death on the cross. So that children can be forgiven for their covetousness, Jesus lives a perfect life of contentment. He then takes the judgment for their sin by giving up even His life at Calvary. So that teenagers can be forgiven for contempt and disrespect, He remains perfectly subservient to His parents through His adolescent years. Then He goes to the cross and accepts the blame for all the sins of the world.

For all of those grown-up sins that are so commonplace, He lives an adult life of perfect purity, trust, service, kindness, and holiness. Then He accepts the wrath of God and pays the price for all vice, wretchedness, unholiness, and iniquity. He doesn’t do this to set an example—we already have God’s Law to tell us what to do, and we cannot do it. He does not do this to set you up, to say, “Ha! It can be done, so you’d better get on the ball!” He lives that perfect life for you!

And He declares to you today, “Repent and remember my perfect life and my terrible death. I’ve lived that perfect life to give you the credit for it. I’ve died that death to save you the punishment. Therefore, I do not see your sin and shame —I’ve taken it away! Instead I see only perfect holiness, because I lived and died to give it to you.”

So hear the story of the Toddler Jesus, on His way to Egypt and back. Hear and marvel, because that 2-year-old is doing what you cannot do, and He’s doing it for your salvation. He fulfills prophecies at that young age, proving even then that He is the Savior that the prophets foretold.

And as He does so, He is living for you. So that He might die for you … And rise for you … And live for you once more, so He can declare that 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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Good News for the Poor

“John the Baptist in Prison” by Cornelis Galle the Younger

Click this link to listen to sermon: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1IYwgZuMmM401C42wNpeiRQolp6jga93Y/view?usp=sharing

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to Him, “Are You the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by Me” (Matthew 11:2-6).

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

In his weekly radio program, Garrison Keillor would end by saying that in Lake Wobegon all the children are above average. Fictitious or not, there is some truth in this. Every parent’s child has hidden talents waiting to be discovered. Our job as parents and teachers is to recognize their abilities and help them to perfect them. Without a sense of who they are and what they can do, they will not have the confidence to reach the goals they have set for themselves. Many people lead non-productive lives because they do not have a goal. Very few of us achieve all our goals, but by accomplishing some we have the satisfaction that we have done something with our lives.

If there was ever a man who could have a proper sense of himself from the time he was a child it had to be John the Baptist. When Zechariah learned from the angel that he and his wife were going to be parents, in their old age, after many years of barrenness, he fell into unbelief. As a sign to Zechariah, God deprived him of the ability to speak. He regained the ability to speak only when the child was born, and his father named the miracle baby John. Zechariah sang a hymn we still use in Matins, the Benedictus: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people” (Luke 1:68). In this song, Zechariah spoke of how their child would be the prophet of the Most High.

From his childhood, John knew that he would go before the face of the Lord to prepare His way. He would begin to lead the people out of darkness by bringing them to Christ. John’s life was shaped by the stories of his birth. He knew who he was and what he was going to do. John had a sense about himself. He was not simply another child, but the one whom Isaiah called the voice crying in the wilderness. Valleys would be lifted up and mountains lowered to prepare a level road for the promised Messiah. John would stand on the edge of darkness pointing the people to the dawn emitting from Christ, the Sun of Righteousness. God chose John as the watchman on Zion’s walls to signal the coming of a new day.

John the Baptist’s sense of himself as a child was confirmed by his success as a preacher. He was so eloquent that some thought he was the promised Messiah. After John died, his memory had such a hold on the people that they thought Jesus was John the Baptist come back from the dead. Even though John made it clear that he was not Christ, he was the last prophet that God would send, the one who would identify Jesus as the Christ. In John’s pointing to Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament, God was using John to bring the old era to an end.

Those who grow up without life’s ordinary disappointments often have a difficult time dealing with setbacks later in life. Many a hometown high school football hero or homecoming queen has caved into the pressure when they find they are no longer the big fish in the small pool. People who have been healthy all of their lives often have trouble coming to terms with the frailties and limitations of old age. Setbacks can be devastating for those who have traveled a relatively smooth road through life.

This might have been true of John the Baptist, the miracle child born to aged parents and predicted by prophecy, God’s last prophet, the eloquent preacher with audiences so large that Matthew says that all Jerusalem and Judea went out to hear him. Now in his mid-thirties, his prominence and successes have been changed for a prison, not because he had done anything wrong, but because he had done everything right. We can see how the man who preached how the Christ would release captives from prison might expect that Jesus would spring him from prison. John, who pointed to Christ as the light of world, might expect that the darkness of his cell would soon be exchanged for brightness of day. But it wasn’t happening!

We Christians know that life can become so miserable that, like Job, we are forced to ask ourselves if God really cares for us. Perhaps we go to the extreme and question whether God even exists. John’s question is a little different. He sends his disciples to ask whether Jesus is the Christ: “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” John, who had pointed to Jesus as the Messiah, toys with the idea that he may have made a misidentification. If Jesus is not the Christ predicted by the prophet, then John’s ministry has been a total waste.

Some scholars cannot accept that the great preacher did not believe his own sermons; they have hypothesized that John asked this question not for himself but for his disciples. John did not want his impending execution to cause those who’d heard him preach to lose faith in Jesus as the Messiah. But such an easy and attractive solution, putting the burden of unbelief on John’s disciples and not on John himself, has no support from Scripture. This reading is about John’s conflict with unbelief and how Jesus deals with it. John’s doubts do not detract from his importance or his greatness. Jesus calls him the greatest man born of woman.

A large segment of the conservative Protestant population holds that believers will never lose their faith. They claim that those who lose their faith never had faith. The cliché is “once saved, always saved.” Wrong! For us Christians, there is never a time when faith is very far from the edge of unbelief. Satan never leaves Christians alone, but each day he works harder to take us away from Christ. John was no exception. The sad reality is that preachers can lose the faith they preach to others. Preachers and hearers are not immune to unbelief.

“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” John’s question is as honest as they come, and it is not surprising, given the context. Even though he was there at the Jordan to see the heavens opened, even though he heard the Father’s voice, even though he saw the Spirit descending like a dove, even though Jesus would identify him as nothing less than Elijah himself, still, there he sat, in prison. There he sat, awaiting his executioner. John looked around at what God and His Messiah were not doing, and even the greatest among those born of woman had his doubts.

“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” This question lurks in the hearts of all God’s people who suffer in their faithfulness. Every Christian asks it at some point (or multiple points) in life. There is no sugarcoating the fact that the kingdom of heaven, as it comes about through Jesus, does not make everything better; not yet, at least. It does not remove the tears or dispel the fears which characterize life in this dark valley.

This is what makes John’s question so important. His willingness to give it voice invites us to do the same. What struggles and doubts do you wrestle with? Perhaps you or a loved one suffer from poor health. You have prayed over and over again that the Lord would grant healing, but He just hasn’t done it yet. It might even be that the condition worsens. Maybe you are mired in mourning, gripped by grief after the loss of a loved one. You long to go back to a time when every thought of him or her brought a flutter to your heart and a smile to your face rather than the pain of a broken heart or the sting of tears to your eyes. Or maybe you’ve suffered from a bout of depression so deep that you wonder if you’ll ever get out of the dark pit and some days you’re not even sure that you’ll be able to go on. You look for a sign from God that there is some sort of light at the end of the tunnel, a ray of hope that will dawn with a new day. Or maybe anxiety has you so overwhelmed you feel like everything is coming at you at once.

It’s understandable that at this point John would have some questions. If Jesus is not the one who is to come, John has wasted his life. He’s never gotten married. Never had kids. He’s been living out in the wilderness, dressed in camel’s hair garments, eating locusts and wild honey like some lunatic. Preaching repentance in preparation for a coming kingdom that seem not to be at hand. He needs some answers ASAP.

A miracle is always a quick solution for unbelief—or so we think. Nearly every pastor has heard the excuse that this or that person would believe if only Jesus did a miracle, if only God would just give a sign. John would like to see a miracle, ideally, his release from prison. But for those caught between faith and unbelief, there are no miracles. For John there are only the words of Jesus: the blind see again, those who are paralyzed walk around, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are brought back to life, and the poor hear the Gospel.

Consider the sequence. Straightening our crooked bones, restoring hearing and sight, and curing leprosy are difficult, but raising the dead is impossible. More important than all these physical miracles is that the poor have the Gospel preached to them. This is the greatest miracle. The Gospel works the impossible, delivering forgiveness of sins and righteousness to those who are corrupt at their very core.

Jesus’ answer exhibits a two-fold character. On the one hand, His words offer the strongest possible “yes!” to the first part of the Baptist’s question. The deeds that Jesus has been performing are the long-expected signs of renewal and restoration in Israel. God is at work, establishing the new age of salvation!

On the other hand, Jesus’ words invite John to accept in faith the strangest of all paradoxes in the history of the world. The reign of God has broken into history in the person of Jesus, and He is the Coming One. But the power of evil men remains strong, and Christ will not overthrow that evil—yet. Jesus has come to save His people from their sins, yet He teaches His followers to expect opposition and hatred. God has come to rule and restore through this Jesus, and through Him alone. But only God can reveal to people the knowledge of Jesus’ identity, and many will be caused to fall into unbelief because of Jesus and His hidden ways of revealing God’s reign.

Nevertheless, to the Baptist and to all hearers since Jesus uttered these words, His final saying reaches out, inviting to faith and discipleship: “Blessed is the one who is not offended by Me” (Matthew 11:6). Only the one who takes Christ at His word regardless of life’s circumstances will attain to the blessedness God has promised in Christ—forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.   

There will be no last-minute reprieve. No miracle will release John from imprisonment or save him from execution. The Baptist will have to be content that sins are forgiven in Christ—this is what it means that the poor have the Gospel preached to them. Faith feeds not on miracles but on the Gospel.

The cross of Jesus is not mentioned in this text, but it certainly displays the theology of the cross. God, indeed, works in mysterious ways, often working His greatest good in the midst of suffering and trial. As theologians of the cross, we may not be comfortable with God’s ways, but we are familiar with them. We worship a God who died a cursed death, after all, in order to bring us blessing, forgiveness, and eternal life. No matter how much good might have come from His death in the end, on Good Friday evening there was no way to spin it.

As Jesus foretold in verse 12, the violence of the world would take Him by force, and it still does. Like the disciples who found themselves alone, afraid and in hiding, we continue to grope around in the dark, struggling to make sense of what seems like a backwards way of reigning over heaven and earth.

But resurrection is coming! John’s and ours! This is the promise to proclaim to the faithful as they suffer. The resurrection is coming for all who are not offended by Jesus and His ways. We see the beginning of this resurrection in Jesus’ fulfillment of the Word from the prophet: the blind were seeing, the lame were walking. The sick were being healed, the deaf were hearing, and the dead were rising. And the poor? Well, the poor were receiving good news!

And this is good news for poor, miserable sinners like you and me. We live by faith. We live, with John, in all sorts of uncomfortable places. We live by the witness of those who have seen, heard, and touched the Word of life. We live, and we wait. We wait for the final resurrection, for the full realization of Jesus’ restoring work.

As we wait, the Lord speaks to us in His Word—His Law that shows us our sins and leads us to repent; His Gospel that brings us faith, forgiveness, and life. In Holy Baptism, He has made us His children and gives us an eternal inheritance in His kingdom. In His Supper, He feeds us His body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith, a foretaste of the marriage feast of the Lamb in His kingdom, which has no end.

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve Him with joy. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father 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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Baptized with the Holy Spirit for a Life of Repentance

“St. John the Baptist Preaching” by Salvator Rosa

Click this link to listen to this sermon: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1YNk9_FyRJzQrSTm1a5Y53inMiEin65eV/view?usp=sharing

[John the Baptist said:] “I baptize you with water for repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3:11).

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

Our Advent journey began last week with Jesus headed into Jerusalem on a donkey on Palm Sunday. Today we back up a few years and take a detour through the Jordan where Jesus began His public ministry in baptism, much as we begin our discipleship in Holy Baptism. The way of the Lord is a rigorous one because we always journey “in Christ.” But we know where we are going, and we know who we are. In this second week of Advent, we remind ourselves that we have been baptized with the Holy Spirit for a life of repentance.

We will soon celebrate Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, but already on these first Sundays in Advent, it’s clear that our destination is not an idyllic manger scene with an adorable baby. There is a cross to be suffered. And that means Jesus’ mission is serious business, not be “tagged along” by the casual traveler or the unprepared. Thus, John suddenly appears on the scene to prepare His way. An attention-getting appearance, to say the least! One that illustrates suffering and sacrifice along a weary way. A robe of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist. A diet of locusts and wild honey. A voice crying in the wilderness.

John comes to prepare God’s people for the messianic journey ahead—to teach that the journey is one of suffering and deprivation, like Israel’s time in the wilderness. There is all righteousness to be fulfilled, pictured by Isaiah as filling in the valley, leveling the hills, making the Messiah’s paths straight. Anything that stands in the way will be bulldozed by the earthmover coming through. It is time to repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!

Crowds are going out to John from the entire region for just that purpose. They are confessing that they do need to repent. Then John’s baptism is washing away their sin, preparing them for the kingdom’s coming in the person of the Messiah. Others, though, come as hypocrites. The Pharisees and Sadducees are sure of their own righteousness because of their bloodlines and circumcision. They refuse baptism because they feel they have no sins to wash away.

John cuts through their hypocrisy in the most graphic terms. Calling them a “brood of vipers” is bad enough. For John to say that “God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham,” is a greater insult to the Jews, for Gentiles are considered stones, so John is saying that God can create children of Abraham out of Gentiles by means of baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Unless these hypocrites repent, they will be chopped down like dead trees and cast into the fire.

John’s appearance is the signal that the Lord Himself is at hand. The coming kingdom is Christ Himself. Already now He is among the people. While John’s coming on the scene has made a huge splash, John is even less before the Messiah than the lowliest servant before the greatest master.

John baptizes with water for repentance. Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. When will this be? Certainly, He does, in part already, in His own baptism, in His crucifixion, and at Pentecost. But the context here, however, has the Last Day firmly in view, and refers directly to the salvation and judgment that Christ will administer when He returns in glory. On the Last Day, Jesus will pour out the Holy Spirit on those who repent and look for the coming of God’s kingdom in Him, and all such will be gathered into His barn and saved. On the other hand, those who persist in their unbelief and reject God’s reign in Jesus will receive on that day the unquenchable fire of eternal judgment.

So, are you properly prepared?

John’s simple message comes in two parts. The first concerns the kingdom, which is now at hand, not because of anything the people have done or are doing, but because God is at work. The second concerns how they should respond. They should repent. The two go together; the coming of the kingdom and the call to repent. This was true then, and it is still true today. God will judge all people. Therefore, all people everywhere must repent.

While the message remains much the same, the audience has changed. John preached before Jesus; before His baptism, before His teaching and preaching, before His death and resurrection, before His ascension. He preached to prepare his hearers for these events. In contrast, you come here after the fact. You have heard about the empty tomb and believe. You have been baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection. You have begun a life of repentance. It would be inappropriate to call you a brood of vipers. You are neither Pharisees nor Sadducees.

And yet, you and I still need to repent. Despite our baptism, things in our life are not as they should be. The problem is not that we are unrepentant. The problem is our contrition is too small. Too often it stops short. It is a mechanical, transactional (and therefore distorted) version of repentance. I think you know what I mean. It is what happens when we feel guilty, ask for forgiveness, and then find relief in the words of absolution. This is good, as far as it goes. But too often, that is the end. We go right back to life as usual. We return to things in our lives which are not as they should be. After a while, the guilt mounts and we go back through the motions: repent, relief, repeat—but never truly repenting.

Acknowledging the confusion about repentance in their day, the Reformers spelled out true repentance in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession:

 We have attributed these two parts to repentance: contrition and faith. If anyone desires to add a third—fruit worthy of repentance, that is, a change of the entire life and character for the better—we will not oppose it… The sum of the preaching of the Gospel is this: to convict of sin; to offer for Christ’s sake the forgiveness of sins and righteousness, the Holy Spirit, and eternal life; and that as reborn people we should do good works.[i]

John is talking about repentance manifesting itself in fruit (Matthew 3:8). It begins with confessing sin (Matthew 3:6), but it does not stop with words of forgiveness. It continues with a new life of love and obedience. The Lutheran Confessions call this “total repentance.” It involves forgiven sinners showing forth their repentant hearts in the way they live.

We say that good fruit, good works in every kind of life, should follow repentance, that is, conversion or regeneration. Neither can there be true conversion or true contrition where the putting to death of the flesh and bearing good fruit do not follow. True terrors, true griefs of mind, do not allow the body to satisfy itself in sensual pleasures, and true faith is not ungrateful to God. Neither does true faith hate God’s commandments. In a word, there is no inner repentance unless it also produces the outward putting to death of the flesh. We say that this is John’s meaning when he says, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:8).[ii]

To make it clear what they were referring to, the Reformers went on to speak of what sort of fruit repentance produces:

These good fruit are what the commandments teach: prayer, thanksgiving, the confession of the Gospel, teaching the Gospel, obeying parents and rulers, and being faithful to one’s calling. We should not kill, not hold on to hatred, but we should be forgiving and give to the needy, so far as we can according to our means. We should not commit sexual sins or adultery, but should hold in check, bridle, and chastise the flesh, not for a repayment of eternal punishment, but so as not to obey the devil or offend the Holy Spirit. Likewise, we should speak the truth. These fruit have God’s command and should be produced for the sake of God’s glory and command.[iii]

Repentance is not a one-time act. The entire life of a Christian is to be characterized by repentance. Our baptism should remind us to drown our old Adam by daily contrition and repentance.

Is it not time that we join the faithful in confessing our sins? Confessing our pride in who we are, our hypocrisy in wanting to look pious, yet living daily lives that deny our identity as children of God. Confessing that without forgiveness, we really will be cast into eternal fire. Confessing all our sins in thought, word, and deed, what we have done and what we have left undone for which we justly deserve God’s present and eternal punishment.

We confess that we are indeed poor, miserable sinners. Yet, we confess our sins with hope, because we now walk in the way of the Lord, looking for Christ to come again soon (Matthew 3:11-12). In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given to die for us, and for His sake God forgives us all our sins. To those who believe in Jesus Christ He gives the power to become children of God and bestows on them the Holy Spirit.

You are a child of God. When you were baptized, you were baptized into the very “baptism” Jesus underwent—the baptism of His cross. You have been baptized with the Holy Spirit for a life of repentance. That means your life is now one of walking the way of the Lord—with all the wildernesses and deprivations and hard lessons and crosses that entails. But it also means that you walk the way the Lord walked in His resurrection—to everlasting joy in the kingdom.

What might such fruit look like in your life? Let’s take something rather simple and immediate—the observance of Advent and Christmas

Imagine how Christians celebrate Christmas differently than the rest of the world. This involves much more than simply saying, “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy holidays.” At the very least, it involves paying more attention to the fruit of repentance than the things we place under the tree.

It will probably include generosity and mercy—helping out your neighbor in need. There are certainly many needs and many opportunities for giving this time of year. The fruit of repentance may include reconciling with those whom you  have become estranged. Confessing to them how you have wronged them and forgiving them for their offenses against you. The fruit of repentance will include making time each day for prayer and the study of God’s Word. And the fruit of repentance will certainly include making worship a priority. Christians will not plan worship attendance around family events, but family events around worship attendance. What better way to prepare for the coming of the Lord and to celebrate Christmas than to gather with your family for worship to receive God’s gifts of Word and Sacrament? It is only by that Word and Sacraments that you are motivated and equipped for genuine repentance on every day.

And so our pilgrimage to Jerusalem continues. With the people of Jerusalem who came to John in repentance and faith, we, too, come before Christ, who visits us now at the Table He has prepared to nourish us on our way. You who are clothed in Christ, receive Him again where He gives Himself for you! Already now the gifts of Christmas are given here in this Divine Service. Come confessing your sins and your faith as we prepare for Christmas by receiving the Christ Child here in bread and wine. Come to the Table, for it is time to walk in the way of the Lord. You are baptized with the Holy Spirit for a life of repentance. 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.


[i] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (pp. 160–161). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

[ii] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (p. 176). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

[iii] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (p. 183). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

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The Lord Needs Them

Click here to listen to this sermon: https://drive.google.com/file/d/16CZ7xvdNGLiGK_goLZwQbJP5fsktMhtf/view?usp=sharing

[Jesus said:] If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once” (Matthew 21:3).

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

The two young Galilean men walk into the village. They look around a bit and then go up to a donkey that is tied outside the gate of the garden with her colt. They begin to untie it without asking permission. A couple of peasants ask them what they think they are doing. “The Lord needs them,” is their simple answer. The owner nods and the men go on their way.

Give that a try some time. Walk over to a stranger’s house. Open up the garage door and start backing his car and pickup out of the garage and down the driveway. If anyone asks you what you think you’re doing, just tell them, “the Lord needs them,” and he’ll send you on your way. Right! It sounds like a good way to get arrested for grand theft; doesn’t it? Of course, it makes a huge difference if the Lord has actually told you to say this or not.

In this case, that’s exactly what the Lord has instructed. “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to Me. If anyone says anything to you, you shall say, ‘The Lord needs them,’ and he will send them at once.

 Think about everything that is going on in His life. In just a few days, Jesus goes from Jericho to Bethphage and Bethany by Mount Olivet, then on to Jerusalem. Then in short order, He’ll go to Calvary, grave, hell and back again, a locked room, a few more stops, and then to the right hand of God. Today, it’s Palm Sunday. Betrayal is in the air, the cross is near, the sacrifice for sins is about to be made, the tension is thick. And, just as all of this is breaking, the Lord tells His disciples He needs a donkey—actually two of them, a donkey and her colt.

Why does He need two donkeys? He can only ride one at a time. Besides, up to this point, He’s been walking everywhere from town-to-town, village-to-village. Has He suddenly grown weary? Is He trying to keep up with the Joneses who have two donkeys? Some sort of gesture of humility? Why does He need a donkey now?

Because He says He does.

Actually, the Lord has said so for a long time, over 500 years, since the time of Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is He, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (9:9). So that Jerusalem might be sure that He is really the Messiah, says the prophet, look for the King on a donkey, giving righteousness and salvation.

In other words, the Lord needs them for you. Jesus needs the donkey for you. He ties Himself to that donkey and her colt in the Old and New Testaments as one more assurance, one more prophecy fulfilled, that your King has come.

The crowd gets it. They praise God, recalling all of the mighty works that they’ve seen. “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” they shout, straight out of that magnificent messianic Psalm 118. “Hosanna in the highest,” they cry, an echo of the angel’s song when Jesus was born (Luke 2:14). This is the One the angel had promised Mary at the annunciation whom God will give the throne of His father David (Luke 1:32). All grown up now, Jesus arrives in Jerusalem with peace and glory, life and salvation. That’s why He needs a donkey!

The whole city is abuzz as Jesus enters Jerusalem. “Who is this?” they ask. And the crowds answer, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.” In the past, God has spoken through the voice of one of His prophets. More recently one of His holy angels. Here, the Lord uses the voice of the nameless crowds to proclaim Jesus as the Savior and King. Why?

The Lord needs them. He says so Himself. Now and 1,000 years earlier.

Just a few verses later in Matthew 21, we read: “When the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that [Jesus] did, and the children crying out, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ they were indignant, and they said to Him, “Do you hear what these are saying?’” Jesus, quoting Psalm 8:2, says, “Yes, have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies You have prepared praise.” The Lord needs them. Their cries are the fulfillment of Scripture.

In his account, St. Luke tells us that the Pharisees, whose legalistic lives of earning righteousness have no place for a king who just goes around handing out life gratis to any old repentant sinner, are not amused. “Teacher, rebuke Your disciples,” they demand. Rather than rejoice to hear shouts that God is faithful, that He’s kept His Word and the Christ has come, they want the praise to be silenced.

To these critics, Jesus says, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones will cry out.” Huh. The Lord needs these people to sing His praises: not, of course, because He’s ego driven, or because He’s losing His voice. He needs them like He needs a donkey, because this is how He has declared that salvation will be spread. He puts His Word into His people: He opens their lips, and their mouths declare His praise. Others hear and believe, and so the kingdom of God grows. No praise, no Word. No Word, no Jesus; and then all that’s left is for the stones to cry out.

And so it will be in Jerusalem, for those who reject the Lord. The stones will not be left upon another because the people do not recognize the time of their visitation. The dismantled stones of the temple will cry out of a terrible desolation, that the Lord visited with life, and sinners were so anxious to have Him gone that they put Him to death on a cross to make it so.

You’re stuck between legalistic Pharisees and those of a libertine mind and heart. On the one hand, there are those who submit to a greater teaching than themselves and insist that the way to God is by way of keeping all the rules. You’ll find one variety, who can be so insistent when they ring your doorbell. Elsewhere in the world, you find others so violent that they execute Christians who fail to comply. On the other hand, you’re daily immersed in a culture of individuals who aren’t going to submit to anything, who are going to live their lives according to their personal choices and expect that God is pleased with whatever sin they determine He should delight in.

It may seem strange to put, for instance, the legalistic Pharisee, the radical Islamist and the same-sex marriage activist in the same camp, for they surely wouldn’t get along with each other. But the teachings of all three have something big in common. All three want the Church to be silent. All three want the people of God to shut up about the Gospel. All three want to rebuke Jesus’ disciples until they are quiet.

The intimidation is strong these days. The Church is afflicted with an undercurrent of fear, and the goal of fear is silence. The devil prefers silent Christians: it prevents the praises of God from getting into the ears of others; and it discourages faith because faith is always ready to declare the praises of God.

Now, if the devil is going to silence the Church, a good place to start is on the leadership. If you are a lay leader here, you can rest assured that the devil will do his best to make your tasks as burdensome as possible so that it feels like drudgery not worth doing; unless of course, he takes the back door and inflates you with pride until you feel the congregation can’t survive without you. (At that point, he doesn’t mind if you talk, because you won’t be talking about Jesus anymore!)

And, if you’re a pastor, the temptation of pride is there for you, too, to think everything good that happens is due to your brilliant leadership and every failure is someone else’s fault. Or else the evil one will work you over until you feel useless, until you’re weary and become convinced the Word you speak isn’t accomplishing anything, so you better double down on the preaching of the Law. Or you might just as well be quiet.

You must always remember: the devil is a liar.

The truth is that Jesus needs you—at least in the sense that He needs donkeys and the crowds on Palm Sunday. He needs preachers and people who hold up prophets’ hands because He’s said so, because He’s entrusted the proclamation of the Gospel to people. Flesh and blood people. People with names written in the Book of Life at the font and called into various offices as His instruments.

If you’re called into the Office of the Holy Ministry, it is not because the Lord was scraping the bottom of the barrel that day. You are there because He calls you to be His mouth and His hands in that place for His people. If you’re a lay person, He’s given you some opportunity to serve His people in your daily vocation. Pastor and lay person, shepherd and sheep, the Lord needs them both.

This is also true of the gifts God has given you to manage on His behalf—your time, your talents, your treasures, and your testimony. The Lord needs them. The Lord who is eternal, without beginning or end, the One to whom a day is as a thousand years—He needs your time. The Lord who knows all things and can do all things needs your talents. The Lord who owns the cattle on a thousand hills needs your treasure. The Lord who is the Word from the beginning needs your testimony. Why? Because He says so!

Don’t get the wrong idea. All of this assumes that you’re abiding in the Word that He has spoken. You’re not indispensable: wander away from the faith, and the Lord can find someone else to declare His praise. Or start to take over offices that don’t belong to you, and you’re acting against the Word and starting to silence it. It is not up to anyone to decide for their own that they are going be pastors. God has made His will clearly known in His Word and He doesn’t expect you to join the hordes of outside the Church to approve of whatever you want Him to. God places certain men as His undershepherds and calls them through the Church. The Lord needs them. Not because they are in and of themselves qualified, but because He qualifies them.

The Lord needs them! Pastors and people, sheep and undershepherds. Professional church workers and laity. Not because of who they are, but because that is how He has said His Gospel is to go out, that is how disciples are to be made in all nations—baptizing and teaching what He has commanded.

To each of us, God gives a sphere of influence, people among whom we interact regularly in our vocations, our daily callings in life. It is within our relationships with family, friends, neighbors, and co-workers that we have the best opportunities to witness to the love of God shown to us in the person and work of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is here that the Lord wishes us to invest the time, talents, treasures He’s placed into our stewardship for the advancement of His kingdom.

So, go home. Depart in peace and joy. The Lord watches over your going out and your coming in both now and forevermore. The One who’s been to hell and back goes with you. Sing like the crowds on Palm Sunday! Declare Christ Jesus who brings glory and peace, and who still comes in the name of the Lord to save in His means of grace. Proclaim Christ crucified and risen, knowing that it kicks death and devil in the teeth every time.

Rejoice! Go forth with praise in the name of the Lord, for the One who comes in the name of the Lord has come to you; and in His means of grace, He is with you always, even to the end of the age.

In the name of Jesus. Amen

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

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