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The Kingdom of God Enters Enemy Territory

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“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 1:14-15).

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

Sometimes the best way to learn something is to just start doing it.

That’s the premise behind language immersion, a technique used in bilingual education. Unlike more traditional programs, where the language is taught simply as a subject to be learned, language immersion focuses more on the second language being a tool which is used to immerse the student completely within a variety of subjects. Research has shown that language immersion provides students with overall greater language comprehension and production of the second language in a native-like manner, with greater understanding of the underlying culture as well. It’s one thing to study a language for one class period each day for a year or so. It is something else when it is experienced throughout the day, every day in different fields and settings for a few years.

The same is true for faith—it something more “caught than taught.”

Whether we like it or not, Christianity can unfortunately sometimes be reduced to a body of teachings. It may be covered in Catechism class or explored in Bible study, but it too often remains a matter of intellectual study. And when Christianity is merely a matter of doctrine, then faith becomes a matter of knowledge, a series of academic exercises, and God’s people are reduced to students going to school for an hour or two, one day a week at best.

In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus pushes us outside the classroom and into the world. He invites us to see faith as an immersion experience that forms us as disciples as we follow our Lord.

Mark sets the scene. He tells us John the Baptist has been imprisoned, a result of prophecy colliding with politics in Galilee. We find out later from Mark (6:17) that Herod Antipas, the ruling authority in Galilee, had John arrested because he had the temerity to criticize the king’s marriage to Herodias. Herodias was the granddaughter of Herod the Great. Her present husband, Herod Antipas, was a son of Herod the Great. Her ex-husband, Philip, was also a son of Herod the Great. In other words, both of Herodias’ husbands were also her uncles.

That’s not to say, King Herod is happy with his decision—he’s afraid of John. And he doesn’t feel all that secure in his position. He’s no son of David, no legitimate heir to the throne. Truth be told, he’s not even an Israelite. And Rome has never recognized him as “king” of anything—not even the backwater region of Galilee. He’s just another puppet governor who serves at the pleasure of Caesar. So he can’t let John the Baptist stir the people up. What John preaches is all true of course, and John preaches it not to foment rebellion but rather to call Herod to repentance. But a king just can’t have critics like that speaking inconvenient truths, so he’s put him behind bars. But how will the people react? John obviously is quite popular. Will the people rise up or will they just accept the arrest of John?

To make matters worse for Herod, a man arrives in Galilee and starts proclaiming, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand.” It’s time for a new kingdom, says Jesus of Nazareth, and generally, a different kingdom means a different king. It sounds like the rallying cry for an insurrection, as if Jesus’ next sermon is going to be, “Let’s get rid of King Herod, so that God might rule over us instead.” And if the multitudes that love John the Baptist decide to rally behind this Jesus, then Herod could have a serious problem on his hands.

You can bet that all of Galilee, both foe and friend, are hanging on to Jesus’ words. If this Kingdom of God is at hand, then how will it come about? So, Jesus tells them. He says, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”

Huh. It’s not your usual revolutionary speech. It’s not “take up your arms, draw your swords, and prepare for battle.” It’s “repent and believe in the Gospel.” Repent—by the grace of God, turn from your sin. Believe in the Gospel—believe the Good News that the long-promised King has come to save you from your sin.

Every kingdom has enemies, and this new Kingdom is no different. But the enemies of this Kingdom that Jesus proclaims are not Herod or Pilate or Caesar. The enemies of this Kingdom are sin and death and devil. Sin and death and devil are not going to be defeated with swords and rebellion against human rulers. They’re going to be defeated by the shedding of the Savior’s blood on the cross. In this new Kingdom, Herod is not the enemy nor the competition. Herod is a ruler of an entirely different kingdom, and this Savior comes to redeem him, too.

Now, a king needs to have followers; and having proclaimed that this new Kingdom has come, Jesus begins to recruit. He doesn’t go after Roman soldiers, temple guards, or other trained killers. He goes for fishermen. He picks up Simon and Andrew, James and John. He’ll get a few more, like a tax-collector along the way, but His “army” consists of 12 men who generally get little respect and possess no advanced fighting skills. When one of them takes out a sword and cuts off an ear, Jesus tells him, “Put your sword back in its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:53). No, if the Kingdom of God is about believing the Gospel, it doesn’t need an army. It needs mouths—mouths to speak the Gospel. Like fishermen, Jesus disciples are expected to draw others into the Kingdom through the proclamation of the Gospel.

There’s one more consideration—a king is nothing without a territory. But Herod doesn’t need to worry, this is a different Kingdom: it doesn’t have a set location. This Kingdom moves around. Wherever the King is, that’s where the Kingdom is. A Kingdom of repentance and faith doesn’t require land because it’s not about crops, water, steel, or other material things. Why, someone can conceivably be a penitent who believes in the Gospel, and still serve faithfully in the palace of King Herod. In fact, St. Luke lists “Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager” as one of the faithful women who provided for Jesus’s ministry out of their own means (8:3).

“The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.” Jesus’ first words in Mark define the King and the Kingdom. Contrary Herod’s fears and the hopes of Herod’s enemies, this new Kingdom is not about conquering Herod and Caesar. It’s about conquering sin, death, and devil for all people, Herod and Caesar included. It’s not about gathering soldiers, wealth, power, or land. It’s about forgiving sins and giving eternal salvation.

Throughout the Gospels, you see that King Jesus going about the establishment of His Kingdom. He does not fight, but He speaks. He works wonders and heals; but He doesn’t say, “Now you owe Me a favor that I’ll call in later,” but rather, “Follow Me, because I have more to give.” He feeds five thousand miraculously; but He doesn’t use food as leverage to field an army. In fact, when they try to make Him a king like all the other kings of the earth, He refuses and goes on His way. Significantly, a Roman centurion asks Jesus to heal his servant. Jesus does so, and He doesn’t require the centurion to switch alliances and renounce Caesar. Instead, Jesus would have the centurion be a Roman soldier and a penitent Christian at the same time.

This is a completely different King and a completely different Kingdom. He is no threat to Herod or Caesar. On the contrary, He tells people to pay their taxes to Herod and Caesar. In fact, the more people follow Jesus, the better citizens they will be for Herod and Caesar both. For they will be penitent Christians who submit to human authorities and acknowledge that they are placed there by God.

It’s so tragically ironic, then, that Jesus is crucified for being this different King. His crown on earth is made of thorns, and His throne is a cross. The accusation above His head on the cross declares Him worthy of death because He is the King of the Jews. He’s crucified on the orders of a reluctant Pilate. In fact, when Pilate interrogates Jesus, Jesus tells Pilate that Pilate has authority to rule only because He has given it to him; and then Jesus submits to Pilate’s rule and allows Himself to be killed. This is a remarkably different kind of King indeed.

If all this doesn’t set the Kingdom of God apart, this certainly does: Jesus’ death is not a defeat. It is His victory. By His death, He defeats sin and death and devil. By His sacrifice, He has salvation for all who repent and believe in the Gospel: the Gospel that God forgives them for the sake of Jesus.

With John placed in prison, Galilee was no longer a safe place for prophets. Into that unsafe space, Jesus comes, preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. Notice how Jesus does not retreat. In the face of political and cultural opposition, Jesus does not go off to a different part of the country. He does not begin His service where it might be calmer. He does not retreat to a place where He will be accepted. No, Jesus comes into the land that imprisons prophets and publicly begins to call His disciples there.

I find great comfort in this action of Jesus. Jesus is not threatened by political or cultural opposition. He engages it. He does this because He knows that, ultimately, He will triumph over it. After He has been killed and placed in a tomb, He will rise and reveal that His Kingdom is not of this world. His Kingdom is of God: Eternal and indestructible. Jesus rules overall. He can enter any hostile territory and claim people as His own, giving them life that is everlasting.

This is comforting for us because we have seen how our cultural setting has become hostile toward Christianity. We are not being put to death like Christians in other parts of the world, but we are publicly mocked for our beliefs on TV, censored in social media, and demonized by our more vocal critics. It makes one nervous. How can I enter into that world and live as a believer? Christianity is much easier if I just reduce it to a teaching I know and something I do for an hour or two on Sunday. But Jesus comes to us today and reminds us that He has the power to make disciples in the midst of conflict and suffering.

In doing this, Jesus does not gather those who might make His mission easier. That is, He does not gather soldiers to defend Him or wise men to explain Him or social influencers to persuade others to receive Him. No. Instead, He calls fisherman who are casting and mending their nets. “Follow Me and I will make you fishers of men.” God makes disciples from ordinary people. It is not our gifts or our talents or our work that make us disciples but God’s work on our behalf. In Baptism, God immerses us in the death and resurrection of His Son and claims us as His own. We are now disciples, called by Jesus to follow Him.

Notice how, as we follow, Jesus forms us. These fishermen would write Gospels. They would testify before tribunals. It would take time, but God would work and shape them into the witnesses the world needs. In Christianity, we learn by doing. When we follow Jesus, we are changed. The places where we work become holy. Our lives are opportunities for others to encounter our God. Christianity becomes “personal” as we walk with Jesus into His world.

By God’s grace, discipleship is an immersion experience. In Baptism, God immerses you into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Not a part of your life is separated from Him. You are completely, totally, wholly His. And He leads you, as His disciples, into enemy territory to reclaim His fallen world, proclaiming His Word: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel.” You are forgiven for all your sins.

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

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

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Sermons, Uncategorized

Love One Another

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Love One Another

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Sermons, Uncategorized

Holy Father, Keep Them

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[Jesus said:] Holy Father, keep them in Your name, which You have given Me, that they may be one, even as We are one” (John 17:11b).

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

“The Bucket List,” tells the story of two men who have little in common except the room they share while they await treatment for terminal cancer. As their friendship develops they compile a “bucket list,” or things they want to do before they “kick the bucket.” You can tell a lot about what a person thinks is important by what they choose to say and do in their final days or hours on this earth.

Jesus is no exception. In addition to teaching His disciples about true greatness through serving, telling them one more time that He was going to return to the Father, and instituting the new covenant of His body and blood, Jesus prayed—first for Himself, then His disciples, and then for all believers to come.

In our text, Jesus prayed specifically for His disciples. The disciples were His special charges, and they needed help and strength to face what was coming. Jesus was going to leave the world and go to the Father, but His disciples had to remain in the world. So Jesus prayed for them.

“Holy Father,” Jesus prayed, stressing the reverence that is due God’s name. Then He called for the Father to keep and guard the disciples in His name. God’s name is everything we can know about Him: His person, His power, His character—His entire revelation of Himself through the Word. Here God’s name clearly implies His power that saves His followers from the forces of evil.

Jesus was given the Father’s name to guard and to proclaim in word, and to display in deed, as the incarnate Word of God. Through it all, He revealed and implemented the saving love of His Father. Now as He was completing His work, He was assigning the guarding and proclaiming of the name to His apostles.

“Keep them in Your name,” Jesus prayed, “that they may [continue to] be one as We are one.” All who believe and follow Jesus enjoy a God-given spiritual union in Him, reflecting Jesus’ own eternal oneness with the Father and the Holy Spirit as God in three persons. This oneness helps us as we are sent into the world.

Jesus had used the power of God’s name to protect His disciples. It worked. They were kept safe. Not one was lost, except the one foretold by Scripture. Instead of remaining a child of God by faith in Jesus, Judas Iscariot was headed for damnation. Even as he received the bread of the Last Supper from the Lord’s hand, Satan had entered into him. At that moment, even as Jesus prayed for His disciples, Judas was betraying his Master for thirty pieces of silver.

That one of the Twelve was doomed to destruction by his negative role in God’s will for His Son is hard to understand. But let us remember: Judas was not a puppet on a string manipulated by God to be the villain in the drama of Jesus’ saving mission. He was chosen by Jesus to be an apostle out of the same gracious intention that He had for all the others. Judas was evidently a believer—but in the dreadful moment of having to choose, he chose to implement his own desire and will over that of the Lord. All of this, foreknown by God, made him the “son of perdition,” “doomed to destruction.” The lesson should not be lost on us. By the name of God, Jesus’ disciples are kept for God. But those who reject His name in unbelief are on the road to destruction.

Jesus’ time had come. He was to complete His work of salvation and return to His Father. But now while He was still on earth with the disciples, He prayed that they might have the fullness of Jesus’ joy in themselves. Just hearing the prayer would help sustain the disciples in the troubled hours ahead, and it laid the foundation for the joy to follow. Jesus’ joy was to complete the work the Father gave Him and return to His glory. The disciples received the full measure of that joy in the assurance that Jesus succeeded for them and all people.

The disciples could depend on Jesus’ Word, which was also the Father’s Word. Through that Word, Jesus’ disciples were separated from this unbelieving world and consecrated for God. They were not part of the world any longer, just as Jesus was not part of the world. They needed the Father’s protection. They would face hatred from the world for the same reason the world hated the Lord: God’s Word exposes and judges human sin as it calls people to forgiveness in Christ.

But please notice: Jesus did not pray for God to take the disciples out of the world and keep them safe. They had work to do for God following Jesus’ departure. As the disciples carried out their mission, they would face fierce, hellish opposition, no less than Jesus had encountered. They needed Jesus’ prayer.

We must never underestimate the power of the evil one. On the night when He was betrayed, Jesus made this clear to His disciples. “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you [all the disciples] as wheat. When Peter declared that he would remain at Jesus’ side even if all the others left, Jesus added: “But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32). When Peter insisted he was ready to go with Jesus to prison or death, Jesus was more blunt: “I tell you Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know Me” (Luke 22:34).

Later, St. Peter could draw from his own personal experience of the destructive power of the evil one as he wrote: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings” (1 Peter 5:8-9).

Peter knew the sting of Satan’s bite, but he also knew the restoration of the Lord. That’s why he could continue: “And the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will Himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (1 Peter 5:10-11).

Although Peter failed to live up to his prideful boast, by God’s grace his faith did not fail, as Judas’ had. Rather than fall into despair after his shameful denial of Christ, Peter turned back in repentance. The resurrected Lord forgave Peter and restored him to leadership, as we see in our First Lesson for today.

As you prepare to battle Satan each day, keep the following precious promise in your heart and mind: “No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

To this end, God also gives you His Sacraments. Through Baptism, Jesus protects you from Satan’s destructive powers. When you are baptized into Christ, the incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ comes to live within you. He is someone the devil definitely wants to avoid. St. Paul explains, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who 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” (Galatians 2:20).

God also gives His devil-defeating power to His children in a special way in Holy Communion. Communion is more than a mere ritual of remembrance. Jesus’ body and blood are a living, spiritual medicine, which is able to suppress the devil and control the power of sin. Receiving the Lord’s Supper regularly is especially important at the time of illness and near death. Luther writes: “As long as I am living, it is necessary for me to go to the Sacrament in order to strengthen my faith so that death (in case it comes swiftly) may not scare me and cause me to despair.”

Pastors today need to explain the benefits and blessings of frequent and regular distribution and reception of Holy Communion to their people so that always and particularly, at the hour of death, these children of God may desire Communion, especially to fight the devil’s final attacks.

For every Christian, each day is a struggle against the demonic power of sin. Thank God daily that Jesus has given you another special weapon to fight the power of sin: His gift of prayer. When His disciples asked for advice on how to pray, Jesus said to pray: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Pray the Lord’s Prayer daily, with the confidence that God will not only hear you, He will surely answer your prayer for protection from sin and every evil.

Using prayer for protection from the power of sin is not a human idea. In our text, Jesus prays that very thing for His disciples: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that You keep them from the evil one.” Jesus told His disciples also to use this divine weapon, and now He commands you: “Pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Luke 22:40).

And as you pray, don’t forget to ask for help from God’s holy angels. Angels are “ministering spirits, sent out to render service for the sake of those who will inherit salvation” (Hebrews 1:14). The psalmist writes: “[The Lord] will give His angels charge concerning you, to guard you in all of your ways. They will bear you up in their hands, lest you strike your foot against a stone.”

The devil may try to tempt or even destroy you, but God provides His holy angels to be present at your side at all times to strengthen and deliver you! Even when you sometimes stumble and fall, your heavenly Father sends His angels to protect and bring you new hope and strength.

No wonder, Luther, in his Small Catechism, gave this example of prayer for the head of the family to teach his household to pray each morning: “I thank you, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Your dear Son, that you have kept me this night from all harm and danger; and I pray that You would keep me this day also from sin and every evil, that all my doings and life may please You. For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me. Amen.”

Your help and only hope to overcome the evil one is in your Savior, Jesus Christ. When you are baptized, Christ lives within you to guide your thinking and to fight the devil every time he tries to tempt, control, or destroy you. Through His Supper, our Lord strengthens your faith that you might resist temptation. Just as He prayed for His disciples, our ascended Lord is at the Father’s right hand interceding on your behalf. His Holy Spirit helps you to pray that you would not be led into temptation, but delivered from the power of the evil one.

And should you fall into temptation, repent and take heart, trusting that this sin has also been paid for. You have been redeemed by the holy, precious blood of Christ, and His innocent suffering and death. Indeed, for His sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

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

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

 

Sermons, Uncategorized

Another View of the Ascension

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“The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb” by Jan van Eyck

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Then I saw in the right hand of Him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that He can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. And He went and took the scroll from the right hand of Him who was seated on the throne. And when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.

And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are You to take the scroll and to open its seals, for You were slain, and by Your blood You ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and You have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”

And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To Him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped. (Revelation 5:1-14)

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 is an adaptation of a sermon by the Rev. James I. Lamb, former executive director of Lutheran For Life.