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Return to the Lord: Return to Prayer

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Holy Gospel                                                                                                        Matthew 26:36–46

36 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and He said to His disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” 37 And taking with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, He began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then He said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with Me.” 39 And going a little farther He fell on His face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.” 40 And He came to the disciples and found them sleeping. And He said to Peter, “So, could you not watch with Me one hour? 41 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 42 Again, for the second time, He went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, Your will be done.” 43 And again He came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy. 44 So, leaving them again, He went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. 45 Then He came to the disciples and said to them, “Sleep and take your rest later on. See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 46 Rise, let us be going; see, My betrayer is at hand.”

This sermon is adapted from a series called “Return to the Lord,” written by Eric Longman and published by Concordia Publishing House. 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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Practicing Repentance

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In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when He came up out of the water, immediately He saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on Him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.”

The Spirit immediately drove Him out into the wilderness. And He was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And He was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to Him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the Gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:9-15).

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

With his typical stinginess with words, St. Mark describes the inaugural events in Jesus’ ministry. His rapid-fire approach draws attention from the details of the individual events themselves and focuses on the movement between them: Baptism, temptation, and the proclamation of repentance.

This is the movement of our life in Christ, too. It begins with our Baptism into Christ, which is followed immediately and continuously by temptation. We are not as resilient as Jesus, so the movement in the text takes a slightly different turn for us. Before we proclaim repentance to others, we need to repent ourselves.

Thus Lent. This forty-day season is an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to responding to Jesus’ call to repent. This means the movement of our text, is also the movement of our life: Baptism, temptation, and the practice of repentance.

But what does that movement look like in your life?

Likely, for all of you, Baptism has already taken place. You have already been united with Christ in His death and resurrection. You are members of His body, participants in the resurrected life of Jesus Himself. Coming out of the water, you find yourselves in another kind of wilderness where the Devil still prowls.[i]

Practicing repentance involves more than acknowledging temporary feelings of guilt. It is more than a regular participation in a transaction to clean the slate. Our worship services begin with repentance and forgiveness, but the entire life of a follower of Jesus is a life of turning from sin and returning to the Lord.

Repentance is comprised of two things: contrition (sorrow over sin) and faith (trust in the promises of Christ). Our Lutheran Confessions say, “contrition is the true terror of conscience, which feels that God is angry with sin and grieves that it has sinned. This contrition takes place when sins are condemned by God’s Word.”[ii]

Scripture vividly describes these terrors:

For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me. I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart. (Psalm 38:4, 8)

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing; heal me, O Lord, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is greatly troubled. But You, O Lord—how long? (Psalm 6:2-3)

“In these terrors, conscience feels God’s wrath against sin… The conscience sees the corruption of sin and seriously grieves that it has sinned.”[iii]

As St. Paul discussed contrition, he distinguished between “godly sorrow” and “worldly sorrow.” As anyone with a few traffic tickets can testify, most of us regret being caught in some violation of the law. We dislike going to court to pay a fine, or we find ourselves embarrassed as we face the police officer. Perhaps we fear possible future consequences (e.g., high car insurance rates). This fear of punishment is one sort of “worldly sorrow,” and we, have all experienced enough of it to recognize it instantly.[iv]

Another type of worldly sorrow involves what the Scriptures sometimes call condemnation—the feeling of despair that crashes in on us when we fear that we have used up our quota of God’s grace, and therefore, that He will refuse to forgive us for a particular offense. Probably all Christians struggle with the sense of condemnation from time to time.

But there’s another form of worldly sorrow that seems even more prevalent in our day—guilt. Secular prophets like Friedrich Nietzsche suggested that once the modern Western world finally threw off the constraints of religion, feelings of guilt would disappear. But that has not proven to be the case; if anything, guilt has grown, even metastasized, into an ever more powerful and pervasive element of contemporary life as God has been kicked to the curb.

The old vocabulary is still used to describe virtue and vice, but we no longer have the religious framework to guide conversation and debate. Having departed from God’s Word, we have words and instincts about what feels right and wrong, but no settled criteria to help us think, argue, and decide what is objectively true.

You would think that would lead to a culture of easygoing relativism. With no common criteria by which to judge moral action we’d all become blandly nonjudgmental: “You do you and I’ll do me, and we’ll all be cool about it.” But that’s not what’s happened. Moral conflict has only grown. In fact, it’s the people who go to church least who seem the most fervent moral crusaders. Religion may be in retreat, but guilt seems as powerfully present as ever.[v]

Where does this guilt come from? You and I know it’s ultimately from the Law that is written on our hearts, our consciences. But without proper guidance of the Law, that guilt can get misplaced. Wilfred McClay suggests technology plays a part. It gives us a feeling of power, and power entails responsibility, and responsibility leads to guilt. You and I see a picture of a starving child in Sudan and we know inwardly that we’re not doing enough. “Whatever donation I make to a charitable organization, it can never be as much as I could have given. I can never diminish my carbon footprint enough, or give to the poor enough.” [vi]

McClay describes a world in which people are still driven by a need to feel morally justified, and yet they have no clear framework or sets of rituals to guide their quest for goodness. Worse, people have a sense of guilt and sin, but no longer a sense that they live in a loving universe marked by divine mercy, grace, and forgiveness. There is sin but no formula for redemption.

People seem to sense, if not fully understand, our brokenness. And that’s a good start, but if we only see it as something that has been done to us, we’re going to fail to benefit from that knowledge. Repentance will be replaced with a counterfeit named with victimhood. Yes, there’s plenty of blame to go around, but it’s all somebody else’s fault, those who are around me, those who came before me. The Law is a mirror that others must look into, a microscope that detects all the sins of our forefathers without acknowledging any of our own.

And so we enter into the 40 days of Lent. Forty days out in the wilderness, to be reminded that there is more to life than food, than glory, than power, as our Lord Jesus Himself showed us. But even more, to confess our sins, to say not only mea culpa (“my fault”), but mea maxima culpa (“by own grievous fault”). Unbelief is the core of all sin, but to say so is a ploy if we do it to minimize what it is we are doing, or not doing, in our lives.

For this, the Law is more than helpful.

Have we had problems with our parents? Of course, we have! But have we played a part in causing those problems? Does our own anger and rage reach to the violence of murder? Well, we know the angry one is liable to the charge. But then our own desires for pleasure and convenience, makes murder necessary as we see in the life of King David or the current abortion holocaust. Violence is justified if it furthers our own cause. We say we don’t steal, but we do demand justice, which means taking other people’s money. Gossip remains an indulgence, and still destroys other’s reputations and lives. Instead of speaking well of others and putting the best construction on their words and actions, we find our own righteousness in a cancel culture which aims to show the sins of others, so that we may feel good about ourselves. And yes, coveting. It’s in the air. Others are wealthy, and we’re not, so we want what they have.

Now is not the time to minimize the Law; it’s time to actually preach the Law in such a way that the Gospel might once more be sweet in our ears. And we must never minimize the Law in such a way as to say it is temporary, as if it is done away with, and not fulfilled, and we are left in our sin.[vii]

Worldly sorrow comes from Satan; it brings death. By way of contrast, Paul commends “godly sorrow.” This kind of sorrow for sin leads us to the next step in God’s process of repentance. Recognizing our sin and sorrowing over it, we confess it. The word for confess in Greek means literally “to speak together” or “to say the same thing.” When we confess our sins, we simply say what God says:

  • We have indeed done what His Law has forbidden.
  • Our action (thought, attitude) was wrong.
  • Our sin hurt God; it hurt us; it hurt other people.
  • We deserve God’s punishment.

When we honestly confess our sins to God in this way, we do not try to excuse ourselves. We do not try to shift the blame for our sin onto someone else’s shoulders. We do not trivialize what we have done, nor do we minimize the consequences we deserve. As the apostle John wrote, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8).

Standing before God stripped of all self-righteousness, we hear the beautiful words of our Father’s absolution: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

Absolution is, for the Christian, a glorious emancipation proclamation. The Latin word from which we derive the word absolve literally means “to set free; to release.” Absolved from our sins, we find freedom from their guilt and from the punishment we have deserved. But also—and this is critically important—we receive in God’s absolution release from the power of our sins to enslave us.

That freedom comes, not as we try hard to amend our sinful lives, but as we rely on the Holy Spirit’s power to “cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” We realize that in our own strength, we cannot obey God. And so, we ask Him to work these things in us.

Contrition. Confession. Absolution. Yielding to God’s Spirit. We repeat this process of repentance as often as we need it. We may, at times, find ourselves mired in a sin that we confessed only minutes before. In fact, we may find ourselves repeating the steps of the cycle a dozen times within a 10-minute period. But God will not become impatient or angry with us. He simply invites and encourages us to use the medicine He has prescribed. We can take it as often as we need it; we need not worry about overdosing.

Perhaps all this seems too simple. Admittedly, it is simple, so simple that we could easily let our pride prevent from using the process our Lord has given us to enable us to live more fruitful, less frustrating lives of discipleship. It is simple. But it works. It is the only thing that works. And Jesus yearns to help us use it.

And so He equips us for such a life. He baptizes us into His death and resurrection, bringing us forgiveness, life, and salvation, teaching us through His Word, feeding us with His body and blood to strengthen us in our faith toward Him and in fervent love toward one another. Then He sends us out in the world, providing us with opportunities to practice repentance in our daily vocations.

As we sit, stalled in traffic; as we push a wobbly-wheeled grocery cart up and down the aisles of the grocery store; as we coach softball or chair a congregational meeting; as we play with our grandchildren or kick our shoes off and turn on the television set—as we do all these things, our Lord gives us opportunities to practice the principles He has taught us. We never work on these on our own. Our Teacher always stands beside us, reminding us of His Word and offering His encouragement and His help.[viii]

Sometimes we will succeed; other times we will fail, even fail spectacularly. In this life, we’ll never get it perfect. That’s when we repent. We confess our sins and failures, hear and trust in Christ’s forgiveness, resolve to do better with the help of God and continue practicing repentance over and over until the day the Lord calls us home.

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy! You are forgiven for all your sins.

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

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

[i] Nafzger, Peter. https://www.1517/articles/gospel-mark-19-15-lent-1-series.b

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

[iii] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (pp. 162). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.

[iv] Fryar, Jane L. (1992). Go and Make Disciples: The Goal of the Christian Teacher (pp. 57-58) St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House

[v] Brock, David. The Strange Persistence of Guilt.” The New York Times, March 31, 2017, Section A, Page 23.

[vi] McClay, Wilfred M. “The Strange Persistence of Guilt.” Hedgehog Review.

[vii] Scaer, Peter. “Ash Wednesday, Sin, and Brokenness.” Facebook post, February 18, 2021.

[viii] Fryar, Jane L. (1992). Go and Make Disciples: The Goal of the Christian Teacher (pp. 59-60) St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House

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Sermons, Uncategorized

Return to the Lord: A Call to Return

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“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord, your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster. Joel 2:12-13

This sermon is adapted from a series called “Return to the Lord,” written by Eric Longman and published by Concordia Publishing House.

Sermons, Uncategorized

Preparing for Departure

“Elijah Carried Away into Heaven by a Chariot of Fire”
by James Tissot

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When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. And Elijah said to Elisha, “Please stay here, for the Lord has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. And the sons of the prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take away your master from over you?” And he said, “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.”

Elijah said to him, “Elisha, please stay here, for the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. The sons of the prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that today the Lord will take away your master from over you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.”

Then Elijah said to him, “Please stay here, for the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the sons of the prophets also went and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his cloak and rolled it up and struck the water, and the water was parted to the one side and to the other, till the two of them could go over on dry ground.

When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you.” And Elisha said, “Please let there be a double portion of your spirit on me.” And he said, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you, but if you do not see me, it shall not be so.” And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more (2 Kings 2:1-12).

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

“What is it like to die?” a little boy asked his mother. “Does it hurt?”

His mother replied, “Remember when you were little, you liked to crawl into your big brother’s bed? And around midnight, your father would come and carry you in his big loving arms. In the morning you would wake up in your own room. That’s what death is—waking up in your own room—the room that Jesus has prepared for you in His Father’s house.”

What is it like to die? Does it hurt? What will your last moments be like, the last minutes or hours before you pass from this earth? I’m sure most of you have probably thought about these things a time or two. They’re natural questions.

As I visited with a man a few hours before he died, he asked: “So, is this what dying is like?” His voice was full of emotion yet controlled. I could tell that it was a major, complex experience for him. But he was not overly troubled or bothered. I had asked him, and he had replied, “No, I’m not worried or afraid.”

How do you answer a question like that? What do you say at such a time? I knew I couldn’t honestly answer that question. I’ve never died before. And I hadn’t heard it described the way this mother told her son. So I said the first words that came to my mind: “You probably have a better idea than I do.”

It might seem like a strange answer. But as I look back on it, I think it was probably the best response I could give. The man who was dying wasn’t really looking for an answer. He was looking for a chance to explain what was happening to him. And as he tried, his tone said, “I can hardly begin to tell you all that is happening at this moment.” Yet, there was a strange sort of peace about him, because he knew that by God’s grace for Christ’s sake, he would soon wake up in his own room in heaven.

What will your dying be like? And mine? It’s a big question for each of us to consider, isn’t it? Although we like to avoid it, we would do well to prepare for it as much as possible now if we can. For none of us of know the day or time in which our death will occur. Perhaps our text for today can help us to understand how to prepare for that moment just a little bit better.

Come with me, as we walk alongside Elijah and Elisha on the last two days before Elijah is taken from this earth in the whirlwind. We’ll walk from Gilgal, five or six miles west of the Jordan River, to Bethel, about twenty miles west. The next day we’ll go back east, from Bethel to Jericho, another twenty miles. Then we’ll go over another 5 or 6 miles to the Jordan River.

At each of the three places we’ll watch Elijah and Elisha meet with groups of prophets. We’ll hear them say their farewells to each other. After meeting at each of the three places, a few of the prophets will go on with Elijah and Elisha. When we arrive at the Jordan River, we’ll be among fifty-two prophets in all.

One of the major hurdles we all face when we think of death is loneliness. The dying person will miss those who have loved him or her, and those grieving will hate to say goodbye. The person watching his loved one die might wonder, “How will I be able to go on without him? He has been so much a part of my life.”

Aware that a big hole is going to be opened in his own life, Elisha is in a sort of state of denial. When the company of prophets at Bethel asks, “Do you know that today the Lord will take away your master from over you?” Elisha answers, “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.” When the company of prophets at Jericho asks the same question, Elisha repeats his answer:  “Yes, I know it; keep quiet.”  The impending loss of a loved one is difficult to sort out and accept.

Elisha will miss Elijah, his mentor and master, the elder statesman of the true faith in Israel. Elisha will miss Elijah’s spiritual strength and his commitment to proclaiming God’s Word. He’ll miss his leadership and guidance. And therefore, he wants to spend every moment possible with his master to learn how to carry on his important work as Elijah’s successor.

Then suddenly, as they were still walking along and talking together, Elijah is being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind. What a display of power! A chariot of fire and horses of fire roared between them, as if on a freeway. It formed a median strip to separate them. Elisha saw all this and cried out, “My father, my father!” And then, “The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” It is as if he said, “What a dynamic force you have been in the Lord’s army, my spiritual father Elijah!”

Elijah had no military power—not one soldier with a sword was at his disposal, much less a chariot with charioteers. Yet the power of the Holy Spirit at work in him was so strong that he overcame a company of soldiers sent by King Ahaziah to bring him back to the palace by force. Elijah said to the captain, “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.” In minutes, the 51 men were toast. The same happened with the next group of fifty and their captain. Finally, the captain of the third fifty learned his lesson and conceded.

Elisha will miss the spiritual energy with which Elijah stood up to the prophets of Baal, Queen Jezebel, and King Ahab on Mt. Carmel. He remembers the contest between Elijah, with his few servants, against the 450 prophets of Baal. Elisha remembers how the prophets of Baal carried on from morning to noon, dancing around their altar, slashing themselves with swords and spears until their blood flowed, all in the attempt to please Baal, the so-called source of their agricultural productivity. Elisha remembers how Elijah had taunted them to shout a little louder to get Baal’s attention. “Maybe he is deep in thought or sleeping or he’s gone to the bathroom. Maybe he really wasn’t a god after all!”

Elisha remembers how Elijah took up twelve stones (one for each tribe of Israel) and rebuilt the altar of the Lord. Elisha remembers how Elijah had dug a trench around the altar and doused the wood and bull of the sacrifice with water. Elisha remembers how God had shown His great power by sending down a heavenly fire. It burned up not only the sacrifice and wood, but also the stones, soil, and water. God and His prophet won the day.

Now, as Elijah is being lifted from this earth, the words overwhelm Elisha: “My father! How valiantly you fought against the enemies of God’s kingdom! In the face of great opposition, you held to the truth! What faith God entrusted to you, by His mercy! Will God entrust that kind of faith to me when I battle my own giants?” I think in the face of the death of a loved one or our own death, we all ask those same sorts of questions.

As he prepared for the Lord to take Elijah, loneliness was joined by fear in Elisha’s heart. And Elijah was tempted with that sense of loneliness as well. He was an independent man, not used to working in concert with others. Before they left Gilgal, Elijah said to his younger disciple, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to Bethel.” It was as if he said, “Don’t bother, Elisha, this is something I have to do alone. I can’t ask you to be with me in my final hours. Besides, you have things to do, people to minister to.”

But God gave Elisha special courage. “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you,” he replied. They had that same dialogue twice more, at Bethel and at Jericho. “You don’t have to come with me,” Elijah would say. And Elisha would respond, “I will not leave you.” God knew that both prophets needed each other as the critical moment of transition drew near.

When they get to the Jordan, Elijah rolls up his cloak and strikes the river. The waters part so the two prophets could walk across. Then Elijah knows God wants his friend to be with him in his last hour. “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you,” Elijah says.

“I thought you would never ask,” Elisha probably thought. “Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit, my father.” “Let me have the firstborn’s portion, the double portion, of your inheritance from the Lord” is what Elisha means.

“You’ve asked me for a hard thing,” Elijah replies. Only God can grant that gift. But if God grants you to see me as I am taken from you, then you will know that God has granted your request. And so, it happened! Elisha saw and heard the brilliant display of rushing heavenly chariots with the drivers at the reins. God swooped the faithful man of God up and away, lifted by the wind.

Elisha picks up the cloak that Elijah drops to him. It signals Elisha’s succession to his mentor’s ministry. And when Elisha crosses the Jordan again, rejoining the fifty waiting prophets, they notice the difference right away. “The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha,” they say.

But that spirit of prophetic authority was and always is secondary to the primary gift—God’s forgiveness of our sins. This gift Elisha and all Old Testament believers received as they anticipated in faith and hope the sacrifice that God’s Son would produce by His dying for our sins and His return to life again in resurrection power. God gives all His gifts by grace alone, and we receive them only through faith alone.

What will our dying be like? God has not chosen to reveal those details to us—including the exact time it will occur. Those things would only distract us from our mission here on earth now. But in the meanwhile, the God of the universe protects us moment to moment, while we “tilt at the windmills” of temptation and stress.

Paul described the reality of our struggle to the Ephesians: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

Elijah met his Lord in the air, and so will we, when Christ comes for us. Paul relates the sequence of events when Christ returns: “The Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them—all the faithful, including Elijah, Elisha, and the rest—in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16–17).

After Elijah left to go to heaven, God granted him a most wonderful experience. At the Transfiguration, Elijah was allowed to appear with Moses, the father of his nation, and Jesus, the Savior of the world, to have a three-way conversation about Jesus’ upcoming departure from this world. What an uplifting, glorious experience, to be privileged to share with Jesus their experience of being released from this earth. What a foretaste of the finale Elijah and Moses were granted. Jesus will return for them also—someday. And also for each one of us.

Most of us will likely die in the normal way before the time of Christ’s return. We probably won’t go up to heaven in a whirlwind. We won’t necessarily be escorted with chariots of fire and fiery horses. But we will be taken safely into the loving arms of our heavenly Father. Our meeting with the Lord Jesus will be the same as those who are still alive when He returns for His own. We, and all believers will receive the perfect gift of endless grace to live with our Lord and Savior. “And so we will always be with the Lord.”

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. 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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Disease, Demons, and Darkness

“The Healing of Peter’s Mother-in-Law” by James Tissot

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“Immediately [Jesus] left the synagogue and entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told Him about her. And He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

“That evening at sundown they brought to Him all who were sick or oppressed by demons. And the whole city was gathered together at the door. And He healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And He would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew Him.

“And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, He departed and went out to a desolate place, and there He prayed. And Simon and those who were with Him searched for Him, and they found Him and said to Him, ‘Everyone is looking for You.’ And He said to them, ‘Let us go on to the next towns, that I may preach there also, for that is why I came out.” And He went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons” (Mark 1:29-39).

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

Disease, demons, and darkness, that is the context for this reading from the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. Peter’s mother-in-law was sick (1:30), and many others suffered various diseases (1:32, 34). A man in the synagogue was oppressed by an unclean spirit (1:23-26) and he was not alone (1:32, 34). The darkness which followed sundown (1:32) was not simply literal. It summarized the spiritual and physical condition of a creation corrupted by sin. This was the broken world into which Jesus was beginning His ministry. The direct temptation of the Devil in the wilderness (1:12-13) was only the beginning.

Jesus was not intimidated, however. Undeterred by the Devil or the disease or the demons or the darkness, He went on the offensive. With recently gathered followers by His side (1:16-20), He taught in the synagogue with authority (1:22, 27). With the crowds paying close attention, He exercised lordship over the physical and spiritual forces of evil. His rule was clear for everyone to see and hear, and His fame began to spread (1:28).

But rather than capitalize on His celebrity status (Mark 1:28), Jesus retreated to the relative privacy of Simon and Andrew’s home after the synagogue service was finished. They already had plenty to talk about, but there was going to be a lot more. When they arrived at the house, they found Peter’s mother-in-law ill with a high fever. The disciples immediately brought this matter to Jesus’ attention. They had to wonder: Was Jesus willing to help them, too? Or were His miracles meant only to increase His prestige and renown with the multitudes?

It didn’t take long for them to find out that they would also be recipients of His loving care. Jesus answered their request. He took the woman by the hand and lifted her up. The healing was complete and instantaneous. The fever left her. The woman’s strength was fully restored. She immediately proceeded to wait on them—her way of expressing her gratitude.

As soon as the Sabbath ended at sundown, a huge crowd came to the house with their sick and demon possessed. No matter what the disease, Jesus healed the sick and drove out the demons. Nothing was too difficult for Him.

Jesus did not allow the demons to speak. He wanted those who were healed and those who witnessed the healings to draw their own conclusions directly from His words and actions and thus to come to the realization that He is more than just a healer of the body—He is the promised Savior from sin.

That Sabbath had been an exceptionally busy one for Jesus, yet He did not sleep in late the next morning. After a night of wrestling power from the prince of this world, Jesus left the house before sunrise and withdrew to a solitary place to pray. It may seem strange to us that Jesus, the Son of God, felt the need to spend time praying to and communing with His heavenly Father, but only until we remember He was also truly human. As such, He, too, was dependent upon God for everything. However, in one respect, His prayers were not identical with ours. They were not prayers for the forgiveness of sins, for He had none.

In His prayers, Jesus talked with His heavenly Father about the work that lay before Him and thus found strength for His task. On this particular morning, He may well have discussed with the Father whether He should remain longer in Capernaum or begin taking His message into other areas of Galilee. The Father’s answer is seen clearly in Jesus’ words to His disciples and in His subsequent action. That Jesus felt the need for spending time in prayer reminds us that our need to do so is even greater. Let us take to heart His example.

Peter and the other disciples had different plans for Jesus. It was time to strike while the iron was hot. Jesus’ status was trending. A crowd was quickly gathering. There were many more diseases, demons, and darkness to confront.

But by the time the crowd had gathered again, they discovered that Jesus had already left the house. Immediately, they began searching for Him with Peter leading the search party. That they seemed to find Him so quickly suggests that they were aware of His practice of going apart by Himself to pray.

They told Jesus about the crowd looking for Him. Undoubtedly, they thought Jesus would be pleased with that. But Jesus knew many only came to Him for what there was in it for them. He also recognized the disciples still had a lot to learn about Him and His mission. Had Jesus followed their suggestion, He would not have placed the emphasis on proclaiming the Gospel but on presenting Himself as a healer—the error that many faith healers are guilty of today.

It is not surprising that Jesus’ disciples and the multitude would be seeking Him that morning. He was breaking the darkness, as several hymns put it. The people were increasing with hope. But Jesus had other things in mind. He informed His disciples that He would not stick around and satisfy every appeal in town. R.T. France describes what this meant:

Here for the first time, we meet a recurrent theme of the Gospel, that of the difference between Jesus’ programme and His disciples’ (and still more other people’s) expectations. It is not just that He is one step ahead of them; His whole conception of how God’s kingship is to be made effective is quite different from theirs. While they would naturally pursue the normal human policy of taking advantage of popularity and building on success on their own home ground, following Jesus will increasingly involve them in having to learn a new orientation” (The Gospel of Mark. NIGTC, 111).

Strengthened by His time in communion with the Father, Jesus saw clearly what He must do next. Though Jesus had much more He could still do among the people of Capernaum, it was time for Him to move on to the work His Father had prepared for Him. Jesus’ clear plan stands in stark contrast to our tendency to lose focus, to allow others to set our agenda, and to put lesser things above what is most important. Given our weaknesses, it is reassuring that Jesus keeps things straight. His highest goal was, and is, to fulfill the Father’s command that He save the lost. Jesus therefore informed His disciples on that very morning that He would set out on a preaching tour of Galilee.

Wherever Jesus went on this tour, He entered the synagogues. This offered Him many opportunities to preach the Gospel, since synagogue services were not only conducted on the Sabbath but also on Mondays and Thursdays. In connection with His preaching, He also drove out demons, for they were opponents of His message. The tour may well have lasted several weeks or even months, but Mark summarizes it in one verse. “And He went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons” (Mark 1:39).  

As the Son of God and Lord over creation, Jesus was demonstrating His divine authority and sovereign rule. Demonstrations would continue throughout His ministry. They would culminate in the ultimate sign of His lordship on Easter morning. The announcement of His resurrection would provide life and salvation which exceeded even the temporary healings and exorcisms described in our text.

Which brings us to our day. Given the endless series of things to which Jesus attends, we may sometimes imagine that He is too busy for us and our problems. But Jesus knows and cares for us individually. He commands us to lay all our needs before Him and stands ever willing and able to help us.

The world is still dark. It is still filled with disease. The Devil and the demons still tempt and oppress. Much like the people in our text, you come to worship this week looking for Jesus. You are looking for help and looking for healing. You look for the Lord to reign graciously over your particular struggles with darkness.

Often, Jesus seems to depart for other towns. He seems to leave you in the darkness and without deliverance. He seems to leave you to struggle with your doubts and despair.

But the preaching continues! The announcement goes forth. That is how Jesus continues coming to town after town—even to ours. Through His called and ordained servants, Jesus proclaims His victory over all the forces of darkness. Through the promises spoken in His name, He makes known and spreads forth the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation.

As you consider the darkness in your life, it would be easy to list the usual suspects—the pandemic, social unrest, political dysfunction, and economic uncertainty. But you’ve heard much about these lately. It might be more helpful to dig deeper, to poke and prod at more specific problems casting shadows over your lives: Doubts and despair sown by the Devil, family relationships sick with selfishness or self-righteousness, the internal demons of depression, anxiety, fear, suspicion, or jealousy, the oppression of the Devil, the world, and your own sinful nature. And there’s the physical manifestations of sin through death and disease, such as cancer, heart disease, COPD, dementia, arthritis, glaucoma, osteoporosis, neuropathy, diabetes, and stroke, just to name a few.

Dearly beloved, those and many other physical afflictions will be taken away from you in time or in eternity. I often speak of this in funerals, saying that the deceased loved one is alive and well with the Lord in paradise awaiting the day of resurrection, while the disease is dead and gone forever.

Disease, demons, and darkness—Jesus came to defeat all these, as He demonstrated in Capernaum and Galilee and, ultimately by His death on the cross. Through His Word and Sacraments, He still comes to forgive, restore, comfort, and encourage us. And when He returns on the Last Day, He will break the darkness once and for all as He raises you, me, and all who have trusted in His name to everlasting life in body and soul. That is the promise that I get to preach, that you get to hear, that we get to share. This is how Jesus’ mission continues in our towns.

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. 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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