Sermons, Uncategorized

Blessings and Woes

WordItOut-word-cloud-3621658Click here to listen to this sermon.

And [Jesus] lifted up His eyes on His disciples, and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied.

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.

“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

“Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.

“Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.

“Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”  (Luke 6:20-26).

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

So, is it better to be dirt poor or filthy rich? Horribly hungry or completely satisfied? Racked with grief or bubbling with laughter? Hated by all or liked by all? The answer seems simple enough: You don’t find a whole lot of self-help books on how to ruin your portfolio, devote yourself to starvation, make your life more tragic, or how to make an enemy out of everyone. These are mostly things that happen quite naturally if you don’t help yourself.

Yet, when Jesus preaches to His disciples in our Gospel lesson, He declares that it is a blessing to be poor, hungry, weeping, and hated. Even more startling, He declares that it is a woe to be rich, satisfied, laughing, and of good reputation.

What is He saying? After all, He poses the same words to you. So, is it better to be poor or rich? Hungry or satisfied? Grief-stricken or joyful? Hated or loved? The purpose of this sermon is to answer these questions, and we must answer them in two ways—the way of the Law and the way of the Gospel.

First, the Law. There’s no doubt about it: Jesus declares blessing to the poor, hungry, weeping, and reviled; and woe to the wealthy, satisfied, happy, and popular. Part of this is because Jesus is declaring to the people that things are not as they appear. Those who are successful in the world aren’t necessarily blessed by God; and those who suffer all sorts of misfortune may still have His eternal favor.

For instance, He says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”; and on the other hand, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”

Wealth has its share of temptations, to be sure. In order to gain riches, one might have to resort to all sorts of sinful practices: Ignore wife and children, worship the job, take the credit for the work of others, and work for the ruin of your competitor, just to name a few. The road to wealth is littered with all sorts of ways that make it necessary to ignore the Lord’s commandments.

Once wealth is achieved, the road is hardly any more sanctified. Those who have riches may well put their trust in them and reject the Lord’s grace. Or they may spend so much time with their luxuries that they have no time for the Lord and His Word. Those who fall prey to the temptations of riches will certainly face God’s wrath and woe. The poor will not be so tempted if they have no wealth.

Likewise, Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied”; and, in contrast, “Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.” A full stomach was hard to come by in Jesus’ time; and although we take it for granted, a full stomach on an ongoing basis is still a sign of wealth in this world. In a nation where news broadcasts spend far more time dwelling on diet plans and the dangers of gluttony than hunger and famine, this is a woe to take seriously.

With this blessing and woe, Jesus again warns against the peril of placing worldly luxuries—in this case, food—over and above obedience to Him. The hungry are not tempted to dwell on a full belly if they have no food to fill it with.

And again, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh”; and “Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.” Ours is certainly an age where people seek out entertainment and pleasure, where mourning and weeping are to be kept in a closed room because death is too much of a downer. Jesus issues the warning that those who devote themselves to a pursuit of worldly pleasure, and in doing so ignore repentance and confession, will face God’s wrath and woe.

And once again, “Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.” And on the other hand, “Woe to you, when all men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.”

The Lord says, time and time again, that His message of sin and grace will be rejected by the world; so it panned out for the prophets. Therefore, one who enjoys immense popularity with the world probably isn’t being faithful to Christ and His Word. The one who is rejected is far more likely to be the faithful one.

So, with these four blessings and four woes, the Lord warns against the dangers of wealth, a full stomach, laughing, and popularity. He explains why the one who is poor, hungry, grieving, and rejected is blessed.

But we know that it’s not that easy. Some people are poor because they’re just too lazy to hold down a job, or because they’ve done some incredibly foolish things that have cost them their livelihood. Furthermore, while those who are poor don’t suffer from trust in wealth, they may certainly be afflicted with covetousness and envy for what others have—and perhaps resentment toward the Lord. The Lord doesn’t bless foolish choice, felonious behavior, or slothfulness, does He?

Some will mourn and be sad because by their sinful choices, they’ve completely ruined their lives. They may be saddened out of guilt for harm brought to others. Is this what the Lord chooses to bless? I don’t think so. And, frankly, some people are unpopular because they’re rude, boorish, and/or irritating. When people supposedly speak ill of them, they are only saying what is honestly true.

Clearly, then, Jesus is not saying that those who are poor are more righteous in God’s sight than those who are wealthy. Both have their sins and vices to deal with. The idea that all poor people are noble and all rich people are evil is in keeping with the writings of Marx, Lenin, and Mao—not God’s Holy Word. Scripture clearly indicates that all people are born with the same sinful nature.

Well, then, perhaps the Lord is telling us that we need to make sure that we don’t become too rich, too satisfied, too obsessed with pleasure, or too popular. Look for moderation, in all things as Benjamin Franklin suggested. This is closer to the truth, but this is still Law. And in the end, you will find no comfort there.

Let me try to illustrate where this line of thinking leads: It says, in effect, that Jesus warns against the perils of wealth, and so we’d better be careful about wealth and accumulating wealth; and isn’t it a good thing that we’re not filthy rich? But please note: Jesus never stipulates how rich “rich” means. I daresay that we’re not exactly a wealthy bunch. But compared to the slums of Calcutta or the shantytowns of Central America, we’re doing quite well. Are you sure that you’re poor enough to be blessed with the kingdom of heaven? Are you sure you’re not rich enough that you haven’t already received your consolation?

Jesus warns against the perils of a full belly, and these are words to take seriously in a land where throw out as much food as we consume. So we may well respond that it’s a good thing we’re not gluttons who live only for the next meal; but are you sure you’re hungry enough to be blessed? Are you sure you’re hungry enough, and not too satisfied now?

Likewise, Jesus warns against those who laugh now, who pursue pleasure and ignore the fact that this world is under the curse of sin. We may well respond that unlike those unbelievers, we certainly realize our need for forgiveness. But, be honest. Don’t you still delight in some of the worldly entertainment and luxuries? Are you sure you mourn the state of this world enough to be blessed?

And as we’ve spoken of just recently, we can expect that, as a congregation and as individuals, some will be offended at us for the Gospel that we proclaim. On the other hand, there are no picketers outside calling for the dissolution of St. John’s/Our Saviour’s/Trinity Lutheran Church. We’ve certainly not faced the threat of imprisonment or martyrdom for the faith. Are you sure that we’re proclaiming the Word purely enough to invite the rejection that the prophets faced? Are we excluded enough by the world to be included by Christ and His blessing?

No, you won’t find much comfort in the Law of God. The Law declares that you are to be poor, hungry, sad, and rejected to be blessed by God. But it doesn’t stipulate a level. Just how poor, hungry, sad, and rejected do you have to be? You never can tell, can you? That’s the purpose of the Law, to accuse you, to leave you in despair—to make sure that you know you can’t trust in you, to realize that your salvation must come from outside of you.

“Pastor, we’re well aware that we’re not saved by our works—we’re not saved by being poor or rich, but by Jesus. It’s Him that we need.” And in saying that, you are absolutely right. In fact, that is exactly what Jesus is saying with this Gospel lesson, when we answer the questions according to the Gospel. Who has been perfect in all that He does? Only the Lord Jesus, of course. He has been perfectly poor, perfectly hungry, perfectly mournful, and perfectly hated.

As far as poverty hear this Good News from St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 8: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.”

Taking on human flesh is enough of a step down for the Son of God; yet He stepped even lower in that He was born to poor parents and grew up to be a Man with less of a home than foxes or birds. He became even more poverty-stricken, for He exchanged His perfect righteousness and holiness for our sin at the cross, and suffered God’s judgment for us there. Jesus became perfectly poor for you.

As far as hunger, remember Christ’s wilderness temptation. Not only did Jesus go hungry, but He did so while constantly tempted by the devil; and throughout those forty days, Jesus remained perfectly sinless. Why? So that He might remain the perfect sacrifice for your sin. Jesus was perfectly hungry for you.

As far as mourning, Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus, for He knew the wages of sin. Likewise, He lamented for Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37) because they had rejected God’s Word and stoned His prophets. The Lord Jesus grieved the sinfulness of man and mourned death—so much so that He died in our place so that He might raise us up from the dead. In other words, Jesus’ weeping was perfect, for He wept over sin even as He delighted in doing His Father’s will.

And reviled? Spoken ill of? “Here is a glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and ‘sinners,’” His enemies charged. “He deceives the people,” they said. “You are demon-possessed,” they shouted. “Let Him be crucified!” the crowd cried to Pilate. So reviled was Jesus that the crowd demanded that a insurrectionist be spared and the holy Son of God be put to death. Oh, yes: At the cross He was despised and rejected by man—and forsaken by God for our sin. Yet perfect in His love, He prays that His Father would forgive them.

Do you see? Throughout His life and journey to the cross, Jesus is perfectly poor, hungry, mournful, and reviled—and perfectly sinless. And, therefore, perfectly blessed. And at the same time, at the cross, He suffered all of God’s woe for all the sin of the world. Now, if only He’d take away your woe and give you His blessings. Oh… but that’s exactly what He does, isn’t it?

Hear this Good News of woes and blessings: The Savior takes away from you and the Savior gives. The Savior takes away your sin and suffers its woes on the cross. He becomes the perfect Sacrifice whose blood is shed so that you can be forgiven. But even as the Savior takes away your sin and woe, He credits you with His blessed sinlessness. He shares His merit with you, so that you might be holy and blameless in the eyes of God.

How can you be blessedly poor, hungry, mournful and rejected?

You can’t—not by your own works, reason, or strength. But on the cross, the Lord gives you credit for His perfect obedience, and His merit covers up your sins. Thus St. Paul writes in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

If Christ dwells in you with the forgiveness of sins, then He brings with Him all the blessings He has earned for you. And you can be sure Christ dwells with you. When you were baptized, He joined you to His death and His life, sharing both with you. By His Word proclaimed, He continues to dwell among you. And at His Supper, He puts His body and blood into you for the forgiveness of sins. Are you baptized? Do you hear the Word? Do you receive His Supper? Then you can be sure—Christ dwells with you, and so every blessing of His is yours.

If you and I are to seek perfection by being poor enough or sad enough or enough of anything, we will never reach perfection, but face only woe. That is the message of the Law.

But the Gospel declares this: Blessed are you, because your Savior Jesus Christ has been perfectly obedient in your place, and covers you with His merit now and forever. He takes on your woes and gives you His blessings.

In other words, blessed are you: Because you are forgiven for all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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

 

Sermons, Uncategorized

Bringing Out the Best

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“A Seraph Purifies the Lips of Isaiah with a Hot Coal” by Marc Chagall

Click here to listen to this sermon.

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here am I! Send me” (Isaiah 6:8).

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

“Bringing Out the Best.” What comes to your mind when you hear this phrase? Some of you might be reminded of times when your family was planning for company and your mother had you bring out the best china and silverware. Or maybe you remember when your grandma honored your visit by “bringing out the best,” preparing your favorite meal and fixing a special dessert.

Others, hearing the phrase “Bringing Out the Best” might think of rising to a challenge, like being an underdog who works hard to upset the higher ranked team, and who’s able to achieve a level of success no one else thought possible. Though the struggle is difficult, it has the benefit of “bringing out the best” of valuable qualities that had been hidden within you.

“Bringing out the best” in Christian stewardship entails all these things. As the Small Catechism reminds us, God first brings out the best by providing to everyone—Christians and non-Christians—every good thing we have out of His fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in us. And, for all this it is our duty to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him.

As Christians, we especially rejoice that our heavenly Father brings out the best by giving His Son, Jesus Christ, as our Savior. We rejoice that Jesus brought the very best when He gave His perfect life on the cross for our sins that we may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. We rejoice that after bringing us to faith, the Holy Spirit continues to sanctify us, ridding our life of sin and bringing out the best of the Christ-like nature given to us in Baptism.

And, in turn, we strive to “bring out the best” in ourselves by the way we faithfully manage the time, talents, and treasures God entrusts to our care. As followers of Christ and stewards of God’s riches, we are especially to be “bringing out the best” by sharing the Good News of Jesus’ work of salvation.

But what happens when you realize that the best that’s required of you is more than you can bring? What happens when your best is not good enough and you find yourself trailing by fifty points at halftime? What happens when the guest deserves a banquet served on the finest china, crystal, and silver and all you have is a few slices of dry bread, paper plates, Styrofoam cups, and “sporks”?

In a way, each of those scenarios describes our situation before God. You and I know our failures. We know our past, a history stained by disobedience, guilt, and shame. By nature, we’re alienated from God, separated from His holiness and opposed to His will. Not exactly prime candidates to be used for God’s call to mission and outreach.

But through our text, we discover that’s exactly what God does. He calls sinful humans to be His children. Then He equips us to bring out the best news ever, to share His message of love and forgiveness with all nations.

That’s what happened to Peter in our Gospel reading for today. And it happened to Isaiah in our text as well. Both found themselves in way over their heads. They realized their best wasn’t close to being enough. In the light of God’s perfect holiness and righteousness, their own hearts seemed so dirty; their own efforts to serve seemed so impotent. Yet despite their many failings, God was able to renew them and equip them to proclaim His Good News. Let’s see how.

In the year that King Uzziah died, the prophet Isaiah saw a vision. What a vision it was! Angels, an earthquake, the Lord Himself. Smoke, fire, and a voice that could bring down the house. By the time Isaiah had seen, heard, felt, smelled, and tasted all that the Lord had for him to experience that day, he was ready to do whatever God wanted him to do. And what God wanted him to do was to go and tell the people the Good News of the coming Messiah.

Short of such a vision—or maybe not short of such a vision—what would move us to tell the Good News about Jesus?

Perhaps realizing that our plight in sin is as desperate as Isaiah’s would move us to tell the Good News about Jesus. Isaiah found himself in the Presence of the Lamb who was slain from the foundation of the world, who died on Calvary’s cross for the sins of the whole world. That was enough for him to realize his sinful plight. Maybe if we saw the Lord Himself on His throne, exalted above us, we’d be moved to share our testimony, too.

Oh, but when Christ returns, we will see Him. Not in His humiliation as we are accustomed to think, but in His exaltation. Not hanging shamefully on a cross, with nails through His hands and feet, but dressed in a royal robe, seated on His throne as judge, His eyes like blazing fire. But by then, it would be too late for us to realize our sinful plight and be moved to witness, wouldn’t it?

Maybe we’d realize our sinful plight and be moved to share the Gospel if we, too, saw how even the seraphim look upon the Almighty. Those special angels used two of their wings to veil their eyes from a direct view of God’s glory.

How would we fall down before Him? Would it be as an unbeliever, begrudgingly forced to pay homage to the King of kings and Lord of Lords? Or would it be done in adoration and joy as the song, “I Can Only Imagine” tries to picture. Would we dance in joy, stand in awe, or fall to our knees? Would we sing His praises, or find ourselves speechless? Would that help us realize our plight?

Yes, I imagine it certainly would! But again, it would be too late to make a difference. It would be too late to share the Gospel with others.

Maybe, we’d realize our sinful plight and be moved to share the Gospel if we, too, witnessed the full holiness of the Lord. “Holy, holy, holy,” the seraphim cried. Holy is the triune God! Holy is His name. But it seems today, we rarely talk about God’s holiness, rather we focus almost exclusively on His love. Yes, God is love. God is the source of love. And without God’s love we’d be lost. But we must never forget His holiness, either. God is sinless. God hates sin. Sin cannot exist in God’s presence. And because of that, we could never stand on our own merits in His holy presence, let alone be moved to share His holy Gospel.

Maybe we’d realize our sinful plight and be moved to share the Gospel if God shook our sanctuary, and filled it with smoke. Imagine the thunderous cry of the voices of a host of angels! The shock as the doorposts sway and the threshold shakes! The smell of smoke filling the sanctuary!

I don’t know about you, but that would certainly get my attention! But I’m afraid my fear would keep me from witnessing. Anyway, must things really have to get so bad for us to realize our sinful plight and be moved to share the Gospel?

One thing’s for certain. All this drove Isaiah to realize his desperate sinfulness. “Woe to me!” he cried. “For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Time and again throughout Scripture, the sinful man who suddenly becomes aware of being in the Presence of the holy God makes a confession of his sinful nature and his sin. And it’s not a comfortable feeling. St. John described his experience of being in the Presence of the ascended Christ this way in Revelation: “When I saw Him, I fell at His feet as though dead” (1:17).

Even in His state of humiliation, when Jesus veiled His glory and revealed it only in glimpses, the sinner understood what it meant to be in the Presence of God. Following the miracle catch of fish, Peter fell down at Jesus’ knees, and said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8).

You’ve come here today to this house of God to be in the very Presence of the Lord, too. But you are no less sinful than Peter. No less unclean than Isaiah. Do you realize what you’ve done by appearing here and seeking to be in God’s holy Presence? Do you understand what you’ve said when you added your “amen” to the Invocation? You’ve presented yourself here on the basis of God’s holy Name—the Name given to you on the day of your Baptism in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Isaiah was one of God’s chosen people when the Lord brought him into the heavenly temple. Still, he remained a sinner and he knew it. “Woe to me!” Isaiah cried. “For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5).

You are also one of God’s chosen people when you entered this house of God today. Still, though the Lord has brought you into His Kingdom by water and the Word, you’ve remained a sinner and you know it. That’s why a few minutes ago, you confessed: “O Almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable sinner confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment.”

You realize you have nothing to offer God to avert His condemnation and wrath—no good work, no sacrifice, nothing. Your continued existence here in His holy Presence is due solely to the mercy and grace of God in Christ.

“Woe is me!” Isaiah declared. “I am lost! I am unclean, and live among unclean people.” This was the first step in moving Isaiah to tell the news of the Messiah. It’s our first step too. We must confess our sins and our unworthiness.

And then, we need to realize that our forgiveness is as cleansing as Isaiah’s. After he confessed his sins, Isaiah was assured—visibly, tangibly—that he was cleansed of his sins. The hot coal touching his lips, the declaration of forgiveness spoken of by God’s own messenger, a heavenly seraph! “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” What an absolution!

But have you not heard, seen, felt, tasted, and smelled your cleansing from sin just as certainly? What about when God’s messenger, taking water, pouring it over your head, once said, “I baptize you in name of the Holy, Holy, Holy?”

Or when the same messenger of God, standing before the altar, announces: “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit?”

Haven’t you, too, been cleansed from sin by God’s absolution?

Or if that’s not enough, how about when God’s messenger takes something from the altar, touches your lips with it, and says, “Take, eat; take, drink; this is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, given and shed for the forgiveness of your sins.” As the bread and wine touch your lips, your guilt is taken away and your sin is atoned for.

Having been cleansed of his sins, Isaiah heard the voice of the Lord saying: “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” In these words, the Lord extended His call to Isaiah to be His prophet. He whose guilt had been taken away was now ready to serve when and where and how the Lord wills.

Isaiah’s vision moved him to say, “Here I am. Send me!”

What about you?  Are you as aware of your sinful plight as Isaiah was? Do you realize that you have been cleansed of those sins as tangibly, as certainly, as Isaiah was? Does your “vision” move you to tell the good news about Jesus?

If you are, if you do, then when God asks, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” you’ll have an answer, too. “Here I am. Send me!”

So, go in the peace and joy of the Lord, serving Him and your neighbor as He gives you opportunity, knowing that for Jesus’ sake, you are cleansed and righteous. You are forgiven for all your sins.

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

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

Sermons, Uncategorized

Demon-Possessed, Mothers-in-Law, & You

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“Christ Preaching at Capernaum” by Maurycy Gottlieb

Click here to listen to this sermon. 

And [Jesus] went down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee. And He was teaching them on the Sabbath, and they were astonished at His teaching, for His word possessed authority (Luke 4:31).

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

What do the demon-possessed and mothers-in-law have in common? I know, it sounds like the beginning of a tasteless joke. But I’m not going there. I happen to like mothers-in-law. Some of my favorite people are mothers-in-law. No, I’m talking about our Gospel for today. What do the demon-possessed and mothers-in-law have in common? They are both healed by Jesus by His authoritative Word!

The season of Epiphany is about Jesus making Himself known, about people discovering who He is. In our Gospel lesson for today, we find four more important puzzle pieces that teach us much about our Savior.

The first is that He teaches, and that He teaches with authority. If you remember last week’s Gospel, we had Jesus teaching in the synagogue of His hometown, Nazareth. He read from Isaiah 61 and then began to explain the text. But unlike the rabbis who might say, “This is a prophecy of the Messiah who will come someday,” Jesus declared, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He’s not another teacher saying that the Christ will come—He says that He is the Christ, standing before them. He claims that authority, and rightly so. But familiarity breeds contempt, and they don’t want Him to be the Savior, so they reject His authority: in fact, they try to throw Him off a cliff, so He moves on.

Here, in our Gospel lesson, the people of Capernaum are more receptive. They’re astonished at His teaching, for His Word possesses authority.

So what are His Word and authority good for? Here’s the second puzzle piece to fit into place: by His Word, Jesus shows He has authority over demons. A man with the spirit of an unclean demon cries out, “Ha! What have You to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are—the Holy One of God.”

Demon-possession is a terrifying thing, but Jesus is far from frightened. What does He do? He speaks. He speaks His Word which has authority. He simply says, “Be silent and come out of him!” The demon departs. It has no choice. There’s no great battle, no back-and-forth where the outcome is in doubt. Jesus speaks. The demon departs. The man is unharmed. The people are astonished: “What is this Word?” they ask. “For with authority and power He commands the unclean spirits, and they come out!” The news spreads across the region.

The Lord isn’t done: His Word does more than cast out demons, as if that weren’t enough of a demonstration of power and authority. He leaves the synagogue and goes to the home of Peter’s wife’s mother. She is ill with a high fever—a serious condition that can still kill today, despite all our medical advances. Jesus treats the fever the way He treated the demon: He rebukes it.

Again, there’s no epic struggle, no need for Jesus to repeat Himself. He speaks. The fever is gone. Peter’s mother-in-law gets up and begins to serve them: she’s not just getting better; she’s fully healed. This, by the way, is the third puzzle piece as to Jesus’ identity: by His Word, He shows that He has authority over sickness, too.

Meanwhile, the Word has spread like wildfire; and by sunset, people have brought any who are sick or demon-possessed to Jesus. He lays His hands on them and heals them. There isn’t a single Savior-resistant virus or evil spirit in the lot. It’s no contest: He wins every time. When it comes to the demons, they can’t even speak without His permission. When they cry out, “You are the Son of God!”, He shuts them up. It’s not that they’re wrong, but that it hasn’t been given to them to reveal His identity.

Jesus departs to a desolate place. The people track Him down, which only makes sense: when you’ve got a miracle-working physician, you want to keep Him around. That’s their plan: they want to keep Him from leaving. But He isn’t going to stay. He speaks His authoritative Word to say, “I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.”

There’s the fourth piece that we can fit into the puzzle of who Jesus is: as astonishing as the miracles are, that isn’t why Jesus has come. He’s come to preach the good news of the kingdom of God—not just in Capernaum, but to the other towns, too. Jesus is going to go from town to town, calling people to believe in Him for salvation—and by His authoritative Word, He’s going to give them faith to believe in Him. As He continues to preach His Word, He’s going to keep performing miracles, because the Old Testament said that the people would know the Savior in part by His miracles. He’s also going to go to the cross to die for their sins; because, from the beginning, God declared that’s what the Messiah would do.

So our text gives us four clues, four more puzzle pieces that reveal who Jesus is. He speaks His Word with authority. He has authority over demons. He has authority over sickness. And He has come to preach the Gospel.

That was then. This is now. Unlike the people who were hearing and watching and wondering who this new Teacher might be, you know the answer. But those four clues about Jesus hold wonderful comfort for you, too.

First, it is still true that Jesus speaks with authority. He does so by means of His Word. In that Word, Jesus doesn’t point to another. He points to Himself and says, “I am your Savior. I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

Not only is this good news, but it is His Word, spoken with His authority. In other words, when Jesus declares to you in His Word that He is your Savior, He’s not just giving news for you to believe: He is, in fact, giving you the faith by which you can believe the news He speaks. He has authority over demons.

We think ourselves too advanced to speak of demons and possession these days, rather try to explain all illness scientifically. The Lord, however, disagrees: His authoritative Word says, “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). Those spiritual forces of evil haven’t gone away. Sometimes they still manifest themselves, but more often they wear disguises. After all, one of the greatest tricks the devil can play is to make you believe that he doesn’t exist.

So how come all the demons in the Gospels? It may well be that His presence in the flesh ticked them off so much that they felt compelled to raise a fuss; or it may be that the Lord drew them out in order to show how powerless they were against His Word. But the relative absence of such events today does not mean that the devil has ceased to operate, nor does it mean that demon-possession has ended. Every temptation you encounter is hurled at you by the evil one, and he is far too powerful for you. He is no match, however, for your Savior who still sends Satan packing by means of His authoritative Word.

You’ve witnessed it yourself, surely, for you have seen the Lord’s Word added to water and spoken over an infant at the font: “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” With that, Jesus takes possession of His beloved child and sends the devil packing. The evil one doesn’t put up much of a fuss like the demons in our Gospel lesson, for the last thing he’d want to do is provide evidence to you that Baptism actually does something.

The Absolution does him similar damage: your sins give Satan a claw-hold by which to hang on as he whispers in your ear that you’re condemned. But Holy Absolution exposes his accusation as a lie as it declares Jesus’ authoritative Word that you’re forgiven for all your sins. This, too, sends the devil scurrying away into the cowardly darkness away from the light of Christ.

Third, it is also true that Jesus has authority over sickness—even death. He has, after all, borne all our sins and infirmities to the cross and died with them there before rising again on the third day. Sickness and death are no match for His powerful Word.

So why so many more healing miracles in the Gospels than now? The miracles in the Gospels took place for a specific reason—to prove that Jesus was the Savior by fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies that declared that miracles would accompany the Messiah. He’s made the case—no more proof is needed. To believe in Him, we don’t need to witness such miracles ourselves, because we hear about them in His Word—His Word that He still speaks with authority.

Nevertheless, it is true that Jesus has authority over sickness and death. The problem is that you will be tempted to believe that He must exercise that authority right now, on your schedule, to prove that He is the Savior. But the Lord often works through weakness to save—there is no better example of that than the cross; and so He will also permit sickness in your life, too—and He will permit it to stay for a while. But this does not mean He is powerless or faithless. He did not heal everyone who was sick during His ministry, either.

You’ll be tempted to doubt your Savior when He doesn’t work on your schedule, but do not despair: though He permits suffering and affliction in this life for a while according to His wisdom and will, He will still demonstrate His authority over sickness and even death itself. He will do so on the Last Day, when He raises you up from the dead, fully healed and never to be afflicted again.

The fourth comfort is this: the purpose of Jesus remains the preaching of the Good News of the kingdom of God. It’s true that He gave them authority to heal the sick and cast out demons like He did, at least for a while; but most of all, He sent His disciples out to preach the Good News of the kingdom of God. Those who were healed of their sicknesses would eventually grow weak and sick again, and those who had demons cast out still had to confront death and grave. But the Good News of the kingdom of God is better news than that: by the proclamation of Christ and Him crucified, it gives forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation.

The Church is always tempted to stray away from this message, for the Good News of the kingdom of God appears so humble and weak and useless against the temptations and afflictions of this life; but once again, so did the cross appear humble and weak and useless. The Church does well to remember this, because she will always be tempted to give up on the Gospel in favor of things that people consider more important and glorious—be it faith-healing, tolerance, emotional experience, or whatever.

Yet Jesus came to preach the Good News of the kingdom of God, humble though it may sound— and humble though it may appear at the font and the altar. Familiarity breeds contempt in a sinful world, so you’ll be tempted as well to look past this Good News. But as a called and ordained servant of the Word of Christ, and by His authority, I tell you this: Jesus Christ became flesh to be your Savior. He has died for all your sins. He is risen from the dead and sits at God’s right hand, interceding for you. He will deliver you from every evil of body and soul unto eternal life. That is why He came. And that is what He continues to proclaim in His authoritative Word.

Dear friends, this is the Good News of the kingdom of God. It’s Good News for the demon-possessed. It’s Good News for feverish mothers-in-law. And, it’s Good News for you! Your Savior is not far away. He is as near to you as His Word and His Sacraments. And by that Word which He proclaims with authority, He says this to you: “I forgive you 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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Rock That Says My Name

my_tombstoneI like to listen to music from a variety of genres, favoring songs that have thoughtful lyrics reflecting a true picture of the human condition with all of its joy and sorrows, challenges and triumphs, its scars and freckles, beauty marks and warts.

Some songs grow on you over time; others connect with you immediately. My current favorite, “Rock That Says My Name,” falls into the latter category. The first time I heard it, I loved it. The more I hear it, the more its message resonates with me. “Rock That Says My Name” was released January 18, 2019 by The Steel Woods, a relatively new band whose music balances heavy blues-rock with Southern poetry, adding a bit of plainspoken outlaw country to the mix. (If you wish to listen to it, you will find a link to the official YouTube version of the song here. Click on “more” to read the lyrics.)

“Rock That Says My Name” is a story told from the point of view of a man who works at a cemetery. A jack-of-all-trades, he keeps the grounds, digs the graves, carves and polishes the gravestones, serves as pall bearer, helps with the burial, and when called upon, is willing to put on a suit and tie so he can join in the mourning. Though it’s not exactly the most glamorous job, it is necessary work, and the man finds great satisfaction and contentment in his job that he’s been doing for fifty years.

What gives this man such satisfaction? I would suggest two things: faith and vocation. This comes out especially in the chorus:

Well I ain’t afraid to die ‘cause I know where I’ll go.
There I’ll live forever on the streets made of gold.
‘Til then I’ll keep on working, you won’t hear me complain
And every day I’ll tip my hat to the rock that says my name.

The man knows his ultimate destination—in heaven to be with the Lord for eternity. This frees him to serve his neighbor as he carries out his calling in life. It enables him to do his work in a way that respects and affirms the dignity of human life even as he daily walks amid death and all its accessories.

As he faithfully follows his vocation, the man recognizes that the day will soon come when it will be his own grave that is dug, his own gravestone that is carved. He and his wife have picked out their own plots right by the cemetery gate, where the sun shines every day. He’s carved his name on the stone. All that’s left is for someone else to add the date of his death next to the date of birth, throw the dirt on top of him, sow some grass seeds and let it grow.

In the meanwhile, the man carries on with his vocation, working each day without complaint. And just so he remembers all this, he says “every day I’ll tip my hat to the rock that says my name.”

I’m reminded of Psalm 90, which I often use when I conduct funerals. After talking about the eternal nature of God and the mortal nature of God’s fallen human creatures, Moses prays:

Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom… Satisfy us in the morning with Your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as You have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil… Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” (v. 12-17, emphasis added).

Moses’ closing prayer contains two main elements. The first is a plea for understanding and wisdom. As we daily observe death all around us, we are warned to make the most of this time of grace that God has given us, since death is inevitable. We are warned against being like the rich fool who accumulated treasure on earth but forgot about the needs of his soul (Luke 12:13-21). Since we have only one life and that one life is short, we should use it to gain the wisdom that comes from God. That wisdom is the message of the Gospel, through which we gain forgiveness of sins and salvation.

The second part of Moses’ prayer is a plea for mercy. We do not deserve to have our lives prolonged, but we pray that God will give us the time and the wisdom to serve Him faithfully on this earth. Such labor brings joy to all the days of our lives, even to life under the burdens of sin. Only the labor that we do for the Gospel can produce fruits that will endure into eternity. We pray that God will establish and bless our labors for the Gospel so that they will bear fruit for us, for our children, and for others, now and forever.

“Rock That Says My Name” ends with the voice of a Southern preacher reading a fitting portion of Matthew, chapter 6, verses 19-20:

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth,
Where moth and rust doth corrupt
And where thieves break through and steal,
But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven,
Where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt
And where thieves do not break through nor steal.
For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

As beloved children of God, heirs of His kingdom, we have something that lasts long beyond anything that this fleeting world has to offer. We realize how few are the days that we actually have in this present world, and how our only real security and refuge is found in God, through His Son Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. We are also reminded that just as the treasures of this earth are only temporary, so are our sorrows and troubles. They will all be forgotten when we come to the eternal joy and glory of being in God’s eternal presence. This proper perspective frees us to live in service our neighbor, living out our vocations joyously without fear or regret, no matter to where or to what God may call us.

By God’s grace, may He make you and I learn to number our days that we may gain hearts of wisdom. May He make us glad for as many days as He has afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil. May the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us! May God grant this to us all.

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You Always Were God’s Favorite

smothers brothersClick here to listen to this sermon.

[Jesus] unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

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

Most of you probably remember the Smothers Brothers. (For those of you too young to know who I’m talking about, you can check them out on YouTube https://youtu.be/PfgrREmy68A .) Their trademark comedy bit was singing folk songs, with Tommy on guitar and Dick on bass. Usually, these songs would devolve into an argument between the two brothers. Seeing he was losing the argument, an exasperated Tommy would retort, “Mom always liked you best.”

When our kids were younger, each of them at least one time thought they were getting short-changed. “Why does Jessi get to go and we don’t?”, they’d ask. “Because she’s our favorite,” I’d reply. “Why did you let Katie do such-and-such when she was eight, but I still don’t get to?” “Because she’s our favorite.” The question was repeated in various forms, always with the same answer: “Because she (he)’s our favorite.” Eventually, they caught on: “You say that about all of us!”

I suppose parents can sometimes show favoritism. After all, none of us are perfect. But, what about God? Does He show favoritism? Can I point at you or you or you and say, “You always were God’s favorite”? The answer is yes!

The Word of God before us today reminds us that God’s favor has been revealed to each one of us through His Son, Jesus Christ. Today God tells us that regardless of what we have done, God’s favor rests upon us through the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.

“You always were God’s favorite.” Is that really true? In one sense, it’s not. In terms of what we deserve, it’s God’s wrath, not His favor, that should come upon us. Paul says that we “were by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). Because of our sinful nature and the sin that it produces in our lives, we do not deserve to be sons and daughters that God punishes. But do not despair! In another sense, you always were God’s favorite!

Paul says that God chose you in Christ “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). God’s words to Jeremiah could be spoken to each of us. “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5). In Psalm 139, God tells us that He saw our “unformed substance” (v 16). God chose you before the world began! God knew you before you were you! God was present and active in your development in the womb! No doubt about it: You always were God’s favorite!

But just what does it mean to be God’s favorite? That question brings us to our text. Jesus visits His hometown of Nazareth. As was His custom, He went to the synagogue. He was given the scroll of Isaiah and asked to read. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me” (Luke 4:18), he begins. We know, of course, that He meant this quite literally because when He finishes, He says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v 21). He is the Anointed One. He is the one who proclaims “good news to the poor” and who brings “liberty to the captives” and “sight to the blind” (v 18). In short, Jesus comes “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (v 19). And there’s our word—favor.

The word favor as used in the Bible has to do with being accepted by God. To be God’s favorite means that, He accepts you. It means that He accepts you based on His love for you, not on your ability to make yourself acceptable. That is what’s so great about being God’s favorite. It doesn’t depend on you or what sins may be lurking in your past. Being God’s favorite means the past is forgotten!

In the Old Testament, there was a “year of the Lord’s favor,” when the past was forgotten. It was called the Year of Jubilee. Every fifty years, past debts were canceled, slaves were freed, and land was returned to its original owners. The size of your debt, how long you’d been a slave, or the number of years you’d been without your land didn’t matter. Every fifty years you got a brand-new start.

Wouldn’t it be nice to get a brand-new start? Well. That’s exactly what it means to be God’s favorite! Jesus came to give everyone a brand-new start. What Jesus gives is much greater than having a debt removed or being freed from slavery. The good news Jesus brings is not just for those who are poor financially. It’s for those who are poor in spirit, those who recognize their debt of sin and their inability to do anything about it. Jesus says, “I favor you and have assumed the debt of your sin Myself. You are brand new!”

The liberty Jesus proclaims is more than liberty for captives in jail. It’s liberty for those held captive by sin. Jesus says, “I favor you and grant you daily the liberty of forgiveness. You have a brand-new start every day!”

The sight for the blind Jesus offers is more than physical sight. He gives the sight of faith. Jesus says, “I favor you, and My Spirit will convince you of what you cannot see. You have brand-new eyes that assure you I am present with you always.”

The release from oppression Jesus offers is more than release from oppressive rulers or governments. Jesus offers release from the burden and guilt of sin. He says, “I favor you and have taken that burden upon Myself. You have a brand-new start regardless of your past.”

What does it mean to be God’s favorite? It means He accepts you because of what Jesus has done through His cross and resurrection. It means He accepts you regardless of what you’ve done. It means He accepts you and sees you as brand new!

Yes, you always were God’s favorite—acceptable, brand new. But just who is included in this? Is this really fair to everyone? Think again about the Year of Jubilee. Undoubtedly there was some grumbling and complaining. Was it fair that a debt of several thousand dollars was forgiven just like a debt of a few dollars? Was it fair that some got hundreds of acres of land back and others only an acre or two? Is it fair that God’s favor should be extended to everyone regardless of the number of sins they have committed or the horror of their sins?

The people in Nazareth didn’t think it was fair. Oh, they “spoke well of [Jesus] and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from His mouth” (v 22). But this lasted only as long as those words favored them. Things changed quickly. Jesus knew His fellow Nazarenes wanted Him to do miracles of healing as He had done elsewhere. But He also perceived their lack of faith in who He really was. Mark’s account of Jesus’ visit to Nazareth tells us He could not heal there because of their unbelief (6:1-6). Jesus then gives examples of Old Testament prophets whom God sent to show favor to non-Jews. Elijah extended God’s favor to the widow in Zarephath, and Elisha extended God’s favor to Naaman the Syrian.

The hometown crowd is suddenly “filled with wrath” (v 28). “Not fair! How dare Jesus imply that God would favor non-Jews over us?” They are so enraged at this perceived insult that they drive Jesus out of town to kill Him. But this was neither the time nor the manner of Jesus’ death. Jesus simply walks away. He will extend His favor to others.

The people of Nazareth illustrate for us why some reject God’s favor. They thought they deserved His favor. They deserved to have Jesus heal them. After all, this was His hometown. They deserved healing. After all, they were Israelites, God’s special people. How ironic! Those who think they’re accepted by God because they are acceptable on their own merits end up rejecting God’s favor.

We know better than to think we’re good enough to deserve God’s favor. But we may sometimes struggle with the fairness of God’s favor. How could God forgive so-and-so for such-and-such a sin? Is there favor for the rapist? What about the child abuser? On this Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, we might think about those who commit abortions.

Yes, we can fall into the trap of thinking that God could not possibly favor certain people. But perhaps more often we think it of ourselves. We think we have done something God could not forgive. Because of a particular sin in our past, we doubt whether we could ever be God’s favorite. Some sins burden us even though we know intellectually that God forgives. One of those kinds of sins we think of today is the sin of abortion. If there’s anyone who might feel they could never be God’s favorite, it’s those who are struggling because of an abortion in their past.

Most women who’ve had an abortion and men who’ve been involved in an abortion decision know they’ve done something wrong. Abortion, the killing of unborn children, is so unnatural. As the saying goes, “One cannot hurt a child with hurting the mother.”

Concerning this, Dr. David Reardon, who has done extensive study on the effects of an abortion, writes, “This is why from a natural law perspective, we can know in advance that abortion is inherently harmful to women. It is simply impossible to rip a child from the womb of a mother without tearing out a part of the woman herself—a part of her heart, a part of her joy, a part of her maternity.”[i]

Parents find it extremely difficult to deal with the death of a child. Think how this difficulty is multiplied when you make a choice that leads to the death of your child. It weighs heavily on the heart. You can never forget it. After listening to a presentation on the struggles of those who’ve been involved in an abortion, a woman handed the speaker a note. It read, “My womb has become a tomb, and it only takes the beat of my heart to visit the gravesite of my child.”

Those hurting because of an abortion decision in their past can identify with the words of our text that talk about being “captives” and “oppressed” (v 18). They feel imprisoned, surrounded by the thoughts and memories of the abortion. They feel oppressed by the burden of shame and guilt as these thoughts weigh upon them. They don’t feel very favored by God.

But the good news of our text for us who are poor because of our sin is that Jesus came “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (v 19). Through Jesus, God makes us acceptable by the forgiveness of our sin—every sin, any sin. Through Jesus, God liberates us from the captivity and oppression of sin. Through Jesus, God says to each of us, “You always were My favorite.”

We dare not be like the people of Nazareth and think that there are those who should not hear that message. That is one of the reasons we are talking about the sin of abortion today. We need to bring an end to this ungodly practice that kills over three thousand babies every day in our country. We need to bring an end to this atrocity that wounds so many women and men. If we don’t talk about the sin of abortion in our churches, it will never go away. If we don’t talk about the sin of abortion in our churches, we will never be able “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” to those who have been caught up in this sin.

You may have said it in jealousy to a brother or sister, “You always were Dad’s favorite.” God says it to you in love. God says it to you regardless of your sin. God says it to you because in Jesus Christ, He made you acceptable and gives you a brand-new beginning. So take it to heart. Take it personally when God says, “You always were My favorite.” 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.

 

This sermon is an adaptation of a sermon by James I. Lamb, in Concordia Pulpit Resources, Volume 17, Part 1, p. 63-65.

[i] David C. Reardon, The Jericho Plan: Breaking Down the Walls Which Prevent Post-Abortion Healing [Springfield, IL: Acorn Books, 1996], 14).

 

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You Shall Be Called by a New Name

Click here to listen to this sermon.

04.28.2018-625“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet, until her righteousness goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch. The nations shall see your righteousness, and all the kings your glory, and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your sons marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:1–5).

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Rise, Shine, for Your Light Has Come!

adoration-of-the-magi-1632
“Adoration of the Magi” by Rembrandt

Click here to listen to this sermon.

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and His glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising  (Isaiah 60:1-3).

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

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany of our Lord, the beginning of the church season in which we celebrate the Lord Jesus manifesting Himself to the world as God. “Epiphany” comes from the word “to shine,” and the picture is of that light shining into the darkness and overtaking it.

In the past few weeks, we have been talking and singing about light—about Jesus, the Light of the world. At candlelight services on Christmas Eve, we sang about the “Son of God, love’s pure light.” We sang about how in Bethlehem’s dark streets “shineth the everlasting light.” We hailed the heaven-born Prince of Peace and reveled in the “light and life to all He brings.” Our Old Testament lesson for today proclaims, “Arise, shine, for Your light has come.” The Lord has appeared and the world should see the light of His coming. God in man is made manifest. It’s Epiphany!

Epiphany is a mission festival. The light is moving out into the darkness. And people are being drawn to the light. In our Gospel, we hear about the Magi from the east who follow a star until it casts its beams of light directly upon the house where the young Christ lives. When they find Him they bow down before Him and present Him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. They are the first Gentiles to worship the King of the Jews.

But Jesus is not just the King of the Jews. In Him, the Light of the world has come for all nations—Jews and Gentiles—to dispel the darkness of sin and death and hell that covers the earth and all its peoples. Therefore the light that we enjoy here, the Light that is Jesus, has to shine forth.

We don’t often think about it, but our building has walls. Walls that divide “us inside” from “those outside.” But the walls aren’t there as a barrier. The walls are there to hold up the roof and keep the rain, wind, and snow off us—not to keep the people out. That’s why the walls also have doors—there, and there, and there. Anyone can come in through the doors; in fact, we want them to come in!

But from the outside, walls can be a very real barrier. People looking at our church wonder if they can come in. And if they do come in, will they be welcome? Will they fit in? Will we give them a chance to be an active part of our congregation? Will we accept them with their own peculiarities and struggles and sins? What if they come inside and find they are still “outsiders”? How long will they stay? We on the inside must realize that the walls can be barriers between us and those outside—even if those outside only think they are barriers. That’s why we must step out from these walls, and let our light shine before others as we have opportunity. So that they may see our good works and give glory to our Father who is in heaven. So that they might be drawn to Jesus who is the Light of the world—both “insiders” and “outsiders.”

This is why Paul wrote the message to the Ephesians that is our Epistle lesson. He tells them about the mystery that was once only known to God, but has now been revealed to the prophets and apostles, and through them is revealed to us. The mystery is that the Gentiles—the outsiders of Paul’s day—are heirs together with the Jews of Christ’s inheritance. “Outsiders” and “insiders” are one body with Christ, are partakers together of His promises. There is no division. The doors are open. Jesus opens the door, and no one can shut it.

For us to get the full impact of Paul’s words, we need to remember that we are the outsiders in this text. I’m guessing that all of us here today were born Gentiles—not Jews, not the descendants of Abraham, not part of the covenant people God set apart for His holy purposes. But thanks be to God! The plan God fulfilled in Jesus Christ gives us also access to His presence—free and confident access to the throne room of God through faith in Christ Jesus.

As far as God’s eternal plan of salvation is concerned, that we Gentiles are on the “inside” is the surprise. It was once a mystery known only to God. It was Paul’s great joy to unveil the mystery to us, the Gentiles: “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus” (Ephesian 3:6). Not just for the Jews, but also for us, Jesus was born, died, and rose again. Also for us, He gives citizenship in heaven and eternal inheritance with the Father forever.

That was Paul’s great message, the message God gave him to bring to people like us. Outsiders like us. Paul was not adding his little Epiphany addition to the Gospel he was given. His work was rather a small reflection of the great Epiphany, the glorious appearance and work of Jesus Christ.

All of us were born children of Adam and Eve, tied to sin in rebellion against God and sentenced to die. We lived in the darkness of sin and the shadow of death. Jesus came as a volunteer, willingly taking on Himself the form of His rebellious creatures, so that He could bring the rebellion to an end.

Next week, we celebrate His Baptism, when Jesus voluntarily, despite John the Baptist’s objections, received a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He had no sin, needed no repentance; but He stood with us, He identified Himself with us who do. In weeks to come, we will hear more about how Jesus lived and taught and touched and healed people. He let His light shine, but He let that light be covered with the darkness of sin and cross and death.

Jesus is the Light of the world, who took on flesh so that He might take you into His arms, heal your hurts, forgive your filth, and destroy your darkness. The Son of God became a human being, not to demonstrate the innocence of infancy, but to live the life we could not and to die our death so we need not.

Yet even on the cross, His light was shining. The darkness did not overcome His light. Jesus did not die for His crimes. He died for the sins of others—for outsiders like you and me. He died for people who would have ended up in hell to be punished eternally for their sins. When He said, “It is finished,” our death and our punishment were finished. The Son of God provided new life and love for us. Here is dazzling light, and eternal light.

And there is more light to come! When Christ returns, He promises to take us to the new Jerusalem, where “night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light” (Revelation 22:5). The day is coming when we will fully share in God’s glory. Heaven’s gates are open. God and sinners are reconciled! All are invited to come in. Insiders and outsiders.

Compared to the barrier between the sinless Son of God and us poor, miserable sinners, the barriers between Jew and Gentile pale. The barrier between us and our “unchurched” neighbor is no barrier at all. We are, all of us, sinners who need a Savior. The good news is, we have one! Jesus has appeared. Jesus is here. Let there be light.

Let there be light, first of all, in our lives, where there is still too much darkness. We still try to keep God at a distance. Paul said to the Ephesians: “For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light… Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them… When anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, ‘Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:8, 11, 13–14).

Let there be light. Let there be light here in the church, where we gather around the Word and message and gifts of Jesus Christ, our Light. We need to guard ourselves so our own habits, activities, attitudes, and expectations don’t block the light. We are here because Jesus Christ is the light of the world—the light no darkness can overcome. If we obscure that light, how can people who don’t know that light, come in to find it here?

Most of all this Epiphany season, let’s dedicate ourselves to the task that was Paul’s joy and make it our own—that light shines into the lives of people who need to see it. For those times we have failed to let that light shine, we repent. We beg God’s forgiveness and ask Him for strength to do better, that we might live as children of the light, whose only message is, “Let me show you the Light of the world, also for you.”

If we are not the best witnesses, we can learn to be better. And even as we are learning to be better witnesses, we can still let the light of Christ shine. We can simply tell what promises we rely on, what God has accomplished for us, and why we boldly and confidently believe that we have access to God even when we don’t always live up to the ideals of the one who is true light. When we talk about those things, we offer light to others—the Light of the world.

Think of it—everyone we know or meet is a fellow heir with us in Christ’s inheritance, a fellow member with us of the body of Christ, and potentially a fellow recipient of His promises. Just like us. Everyone has the invitation to bring joy to the courtyards of heaven by turning from the slavery of sin to the freedom from sin given by our Savior. Just like us. Everywhere we go can bring light.

Arise! Shine! You are light to the world. As you are given new birth in Baptism, as you are kept in the light of the Gospel by the preaching of the Word, as you are sustained by the body and blood of Him who is the light of salvation, so you are also honored. The Lord stands you before the dark, fearing world, as light!

Even as you are in your sinful flesh and the world sees you only in your weakness, the world is given to see your repentance, your hearing of God’s forgiveness, your humble receiving of His Sacrament, and your joyful extolling of His light! In seeing that, the world—every person living under the shroud of darkness—is given to see the light: “Arise, shine, for your light has come… and nations shall come to your light” (Isaiah 60:1,3). 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.