Thursday, March 23, 2023

The Wound of Mockery

Matthew 27:27-31

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole Roman cohort around Him.  And they stripped Him, and put a scarlet robe on Him.  And after weaving a crown of thorns, they put it on His head, and a reed in His right hand; and they kneeled down before Him and mocked Him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!"  And they spat on Him, and took the reed and began to beat Him on the head.  And after they had mocked Him, they took His robe off and put His garments on Him, and led Him away to crucify Him.

Sermon for Lenten Wednesday #5                       3/22/23

The Wound of Mockery

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

I have got my rights!  I deserve this!  You owe me.  These are very common statements.  We hear them frequently.  We might even speak them now and then if the provocation is big enough.  There are some things that are just right.  We deserve what we earn.  We deserve what others get in similar circumstances.  We have a sense of entitlement to some things.

Of course that is all stuff and nonsense!  We hope for and want to have and imagine what we deserve, but we actually deserve nothing.  Everything we have is gift, right down to the very breath we breathe.  God is good.  He deserves.  He deserves our thanks, our worship, our praise.  He gets darned little of any of that, but He deserves it.  "I am the LORD, that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, Nor My praise to graven images."  Seeing what He deserves, and how He intends to guard His name, imagine the horror of the wound of Mockery.  That is the wound for our consideration this evening.

Our sermon a couple of weeks ago was about apathy.  Facing the prospect of the Passion when those you were suffering and dying for didn't care enough to stay awake with you for prayer was one thing, but this is something entirely different.  First of all, the pains of the Passion were no longer merely potential, or in the future.  Jesus was in the midst of them as our text speaks.  He was hours into the humiliation, the injustice, and the ‘punching and hitting' part of the thing.  Total strangers were having at Him with a fierce abandon, and mocking Him!  He whose name is Holy, who deserved worship and honor and thanks from every man, was being mocked with a crude and violent false honor.

Just a week or so ago, Jesus had revealed His glory, in part, to the disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration.  That glory – just seeing it - caused grown men to babble mindlessly and, when they heard the voice out of the cloud, to pass out.  He hid that glory within human flesh, but it was rightfully His.  Just walking among sinful men had to be a burden, considering His holiness.  Enduring years of opposition from those who were supposed to be leaders in the church that was supposed to be worshiping Him had to be difficult and frustrating.  He bore that burden for years.  But here and now they were mocking Him, making light of His true nature.  The were not content with arrest, or even just His murder, removing Him (or so they thought) from the scene.  They had to have the perverse pleasure of humiliating Him!  Even though these men in our text were Romans, and had no real idea of who Jesus was, they were working at humiliating Him.

They stripped Him naked.  He lived in a culture where nakedness was great shame, not a titillating turn-on.  Remember the shame of Noah when he got drunk and "uncovered himself" as he slept it off.  Many things had changed since the time of Noah, obviously, but not that sense of the shame of nakedness.  The soldiers clothed Him in the color of kings to laugh at the very idea of His royalty and worth.  They hit Him.  They placed a crown of thorns on His head.  Then they took the bundle of reeds they had given Him to use as a pretend scepter and beat Him on the head with it.  They spit on Him!  All the time mocking both Him and the people God had chosen to bear the promise of salvation through the centuries until the time was right.

I have been humiliated once or twice.  I was one of those kids that people made fun of.  I understand something about the pain of being teased and picked on.  We read about people who feel this sort of shame and disrespect going "postal" and murdering their associates, attacking their tormentors, shooting friends and enemies alike.  But none of them, and certainly not I, have ever endured such mocking, in circumstances so lethal, while we were doing such good for ones who mocked us.

Mockery was clearly one of the central elements to the suffering in the Passion.  It was deliberately so.  The soldiers, and the priests who had handed Jesus over to them, intended to make the suffering all the more bitter by highlighting how helpless and insignificant and without honor Jesus was.  They had the power, and they were the important people.  If it were not for the torment of the moment, the ideas they acted out are almost laughable.

They wanted to rub it in that Jesus was without power, helpless before them.  But just the opposite was true.  Jesus could have destroyed them with a thought, much less than by battling against their power.  Jesus was not helpless, He was simply humble for the great work of our salvation.  Far from being insignificant, Jesus was the most important person alive - or to have ever lived, for by His stripes and suffering, we are healed from our sins, our shame and our death, and raised to new and everlasting life in Him.

This is the point in the sermon where I connect us to the same sort of sin as our text reveals, so that we can understand how precious this suffering Savior is for us.  None of us were there.  None of us have deliberately mocked our Lord - at least I hope not.  But we have each been offered the opportunity to do our modern day version of that.  We have been offered the opportunity when we are invited to joke about Jesus or laugh at the ribald and often blasphemous jokes of others - professional comedians and casual acquaintances.  He died for us, but we can offer lame jokes, or laugh at someone - often an unbeliever - who makes jest of sound doctrine, or of the very Passion which bought our salvation.  If we were to object, we would, no doubt, be told to grow up, to get a thicker skin, to loosen our grip on things and lighten up.  It is only a joke!

But it is not.  It is the continued mockery of the world.  We have been counseled by good men with the best of intentions to not take such things seriously and not allow ourselves to be so lightly offended.  In a culture where crude jest about one's mother or grandmother are considered comedy rather than a just cause for coming to blows, and obscenity is the fallback position for any comic, we have become jaded and inured to such debased vulgarity that this affront to the honor of the Almighty is rarely even responded to.

But doesn't that make us part of the gang mocking Christ?  We can laugh at not only our Creator, but also at He who died in our stead.  The tremendous pain of the Passion is reduced to a punch line for the quickest wit in the room, and our flesh delights in the contrast between the holy and the obscene.  As I consider these thoughts, I can remember several common jests, mockery, that struck me as funny at the time.  Some of them I have even repeated without measuring what I was really saying or doing – just like those ignorant and violent Roman Soldiers.  They at least have the excuse that they did not know, they really had no way of knowing, just who it was that they were abusing in their mockery, not that their conduct was right and good no matter who they were knocking around.  I, and you, however, have always known who it was - and is - that these soldiers abused and our refusal to treat Jesus as holy in every act and every word mocks.

Have we mocked Jesus like those soldiers, or like the Jews on that night?  No.  We did it as we confessed Him and knowing who He is and what great things He has done for us.  Jesus' words from the cross strike me as particularly fitting for us, in this case, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."

And thanks be to our Lord that our sins are forgiven.  Our weakness is forgiven.  Our failing to think things through carefully is forgiven.  When we repent.

We need to recognize that what we have said or done has, at times, mocked our Lord.  Our society is not going to see it that way.  They don't take anything seriously except power, wealth, fame, and pleasure.  Religion?  You can take it seriously if you want to, but our culture considers it a form of insanity.  You can hold whatever private thoughts you want to, as long as it does not intrude on my life or limit my perfect liberty – or violate the rigorous confines of political correctness.

Laughing at God because some unbeliever can quip brightly and turn a phrase well is still laughing at God.  Ridiculing sound doctrine is still ridiculing the truth whether we see it for what it is or think that we have heard a new, clever joke.  We did not put the crown on Jesus' head.  We do not slap Him or pretend He is kings when we clearly don't believe it, but we engage in mockery none the less.

And He still bore our ridicule and mockery silently, and carried our sins to the cross and died there the way we deserve to die for our sins.  He did it in our place so that we might be forgiven.  He died, knowing it was coming; not their mocking only, but also ours.  He died to redeem us.

Now your sins are forgiven, when you repent.  You need to know that what your have done is wrong, and sin, and you need to turn from it with the sincere intention of leaving sins behind and being faithfully His.  When you do, your sins are forgiven, and you are made whole and holy once more.  The payment has already been made - and the resurrection is God's seal of acceptance.

Now we can shake ourselves off, and start afresh.  Each time we confess and hear those words of absolution, we can start afresh, knowing that Jesus has taken those sins, too, and we are forgiven and invited to go and sin no more, just like the woman caught in adultery was, so long ago.  Be of good cheer, your sins are forgiven.  Now go forth and live in the light of that forgiveness, and the knowledge of what was forgiven, you share in the wound of Mockery.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Sunday, March 19, 2023

A Lesson in Faith

 Exodus 16:2-21

And the whole congregation of the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.  And the sons of Israel said to them, "Would that we had died by the LORD'S hand in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the pots of meat, when we ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger."  Then the LORD said to Moses, "Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day, that I may test them, whether or not they will walk in My instruction.  And it will come about on the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily."

So Moses and Aaron said to all the sons of Israel, "At evening you will know that the LORD has brought you out of the land of Egypt; and in the morning you will see the glory of the LORD, for He hears your grumblings against the LORD; and what are we, that you grumble against us?"  And Moses said, "This will happen when the LORD gives you meat to eat in the evening, and bread to the full in the morning; for the LORD hears your grumblings which you grumble against Him.  And what are we? Your grumblings are not against us but against the LORD."

Then Moses said to Aaron, "Say to all the congregation of the sons of Israel, ‘Come near before the LORD, for He has heard your grumblings.'"  And it came about as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the sons of Israel, that they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud.  And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, "I have heard the grumblings of the sons of Israel; speak to them, saying, ‘At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread; and you shall know that I am the LORD your God.'"

So it came about at evening that the quails came up and covered the camp, and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp.  When the layer of dew evaporated, behold, on the surface of the wilderness there was a fine flake-like thing, fine as the frost on the ground.  When the sons of Israel saw it, they said to one another, "What is it?"  For they did not know what it was.  And Moses said to them, "It is the bread which the LORD has given you to eat.  This is what the LORD has commanded, ‘Gather of it every man as much as he should eat; you shall take an omer apiece according to the number of persons each of you has in his tent.'"

And the sons of Israel did so, and some gathered much and some little.  When they measured it with an omer, he who had gathered much had no excess, and he who had gathered little had no lack; every man gathered as much as he should eat.  And Moses said to them, "Let no man leave any of it until morning."  But they did not listen to Moses, and some left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and became foul; and Moses was angry with them.  And they gathered it morning by morning, every man as much as he should eat; but when the sun grew hot, it would melt.

Sermon for Laetare Sunday  – The Fourth Sunday in Lent               3/19/23

A Lesson in Faith

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

While we Lutherans talk a lot about faith, we often do not define it very well.  There is an idea running lose that faith is this private little thing that goes on inside of you.  People act, and sometimes speak, as though faith were a personal opinion, or a feeling one has.  We often pretend that someone can be secretly a Christian, without giving any evidence to the fact.  We like to act as though we can be faithful without our unbelieving friends discovering who we are and what – or even that – we believe.  All of the silly notions above are false, untrue, dangerous, and unworthy of a Christian – which makes their popularity among Christians puzzling.

What we need is a good lesson in faith – in what it is and in how it works.  And that is precisely what we have in our text today.  The children of Israel were confronted by the reality of God and His good will toward them.  They had certain promises.  All they really needed to do was believe.  To be honest, they were not good at believing, but we can learn from their failures as well as their successes.  Our theme, this morning, is A Lesson in Faith.

This doesn't start well for the children of Israel.  They have just recently  been led out of Egypt with the most remarkable signs and wonders, and they begin to grumble.  They were slaves, captive and abused, and God worked the ten plagues which were mighty signs.  He protected them from the effects of the last plagues, culminating in the death of the firstborn of Egypt and the remarkable Passover of the angel of death.  Now, they are not only free to go, they are encouraged and hurried out Egypt.  Their neighbors give them gold and silver and whatever they want as they leave so that they will leave all the more quickly.  They are saved again from the fickle mind of Pharaoh as God opens a dry pathway through the Red Sea for them, and then drowns the Pharaoh's army in the waters as they return to their former place.

So, having been through the most remarkable few weeks or months in human history, they find themselves on the other side of the Red Sea, free and obviously blessed by God, and now apparently hungry.  They have witnessed the love of God for them, and His mighty power to do virtually anything He desires, and anything that they might need.  How do they respond?  Do they say, We're hungry, lets ask God for some help?  No.  They grumble.

Don't feel superior.  We are not all that different.  We live in the land of abundance, and yet we worry.  We have more free time and more disposable income after meeting the costs of necessities than any other people on earth, and yet we never seem to have enough, and often we act as though the riches God has poured out on us will cease or fail us somehow.  Rather than living in the light of God's goodness towards us and calling on Him in every need, we fret and grumble, oftentimes, just like the Children of Israel.

God is so good.  He didn't swoop down on them in anger, but blessed them.  He heard their grumblings and decided to bless them miraculously and abundantly and see whether or not they would walk in His Word.  He decided to bring birds on the wing in abundance in the evening that they might have meat, and then cause food to appear on the ground every morning, as the dew evaporated, and feed them in the most marvelous way.  The food was some previously unknown substance that tasted sweet and good and provided all their nutritional needs.  When they first saw it, they asked "What is it?"  And that became its name – Manna.  The text doesn't include all that we know now about it, including that God fed them for forty years with this wonderful food.

Manna came with a set directions from the Giver, God.  The first direction was to get up early and gather it up for the day, because when the sun got hot on the landscape, the Manna would evaporate if it hadn't been gathered.  The second direction was to gather only what you would eat that day.  God will be feeding you every day, so goes the promise in our text, so you trust God and only collect what you need for that day.  The third direction was that they would gather twice as much on the sixth day – Friday – because God was going to observe the Sabbath, and so were they, and there would be no Manna on the seventh day - but what they gathered on the sixth day would not spoil for forty-eight hours.

The rules were the test of faith God spoke of – "Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day, that I may test them, whether or not they will walk in My instruction."  Sadly, they failed.  Our text tells us that even though they were commanded to gather only for the day, and to keep nothing overnight, some of them did – and God caused it to rot and breed worms in it.  Keeping it overnight was failure of trust in God – not just a failure to obey.  They did not trust God to feed them adequately day by day.  Our text doesn't report it, but just four verses after our lesson ends, some of the people ignored the third directive, and did not keep the Sabbath day's manna, and went out to find food on the Sabbath, and found none.  Hunger was then their reward for unbelief.

The lesson in faith is highlighted by their lack of faith, rather than by their exemplary faith.  They experienced God's goodness, witnessed His abundance, and did not trust Him to continue.  He promised and they did not trust Him to keep His promises tomorrow, even in the face of the miracle of today's faithfulness and provision!  Then, having witnessed how good God was in keeping His Word faithfully all week long, some of them did not listen to His Word, but went out on the Sabbath to gather where God said there would be nothing.

Adam and Eve had the same problem.  They did not trust God, in spite of their experience with His daily goodness to them.  They looked for blessings where they were told they were not to be found, and ignored God's Word and instruction, to their own dismay.  It is not very surprising, then, to find that we tend to be just as difficult about faith as they were.  No matter how long God takes care of us, we can always seem to imagine that He won't, doesn't want to, and that life is going to slip out of control and we shall be caught up in it helplessly.  We fail to trust God to provide.  We fail to expect God to be good.  We imagine ourselves in dangers that are not real and rarely stop to consider seriously that God is with us to keep us and provide for us.

We do this as a congregation when we expect to fail and chafe about celebrating our anniversary, and we do this as individuals when we fear the future.  In both cases, the result is that we stop being faithful, stop doing what is right and good in favor of what seem practical or pragmatic.  We worry, where there is no cause, and no benefit from worrying.  We try to make adjustments to take care of things we don't expect God will handle – just like those people who kept some of the manna over-night just to be sure they had some the next day.

Well, just as it was for them, being less than faithful is not a winning strategy for us either.  You cannot lose by doing what is right and good and faithful, and you cannot accomplish by unfaithfulness what God wants to give you through your faithfulness.  You can't earn it faster than God can take it away.  You cannot grow by unfaithfulness nearly as well or as strong what God can grow.  The congregation is His.  We are called to be faithful in it.  That means loving one another and bearing with one another even when it doesn't come easily.  Faithfulness means doing what is right, even when it isn't popular, or doesn't seem attractive.  It's like closed communion; it isn't popular, and it isn't always easy – it is simply faithful.  

What do we do when God permits us to fail, to suffer, to experience the things we fear?  If we are faithful, we continue to trust God.  We can remember that His ways and ours are not always the same, and His goals and ours do not always look the same.  But either His Word is true, and He is with us and loves us – and will grant us all the increase and success that He has planned for us – or we no longer believe Him.  These are issues we cannot judge by what we see and hear, but by His Word alone.

Your personal life works the same way.  God has demonstrated His love for you.  He sent His Son to die for you before you had even come along.  It is tempting to think that He did that, and then you just happened to come along, but the Bible tells us that God knew us from the foundation of the world – that means that He knew you by name before He created the world.  You are part of His plan!

And that plan is so deep and so wonderful that it included the birth of God as a man, and Jesus dying for your sins and the sins of the whole world.  The cross is the emblem and sign of the love of God for you!  Look there, and see how much God loves you.  He has claimed you as His own, and called you by name in Baptism.  He has guarded you and guided you and kept you to this very moment.  He has blessed you with long life and riches, and to live in this most favored of times and most blessed of nations where everyone is rich, and we have all of the conveniences of modern technology.  God loves you deeply indeed – outwardly, inwardly, physically and spiritually.  He has claimed you for eternity with Him.

So how can we gossip, grumble and worry as though we have never seen or tasted the goodness of the Lord?  Troubles are not fun – but God can handle them.  Sickness is no joy, but God creates health and wellness where it exists.  You cannot run so far that God cannot find you or bless you or keep you.  Trust God, and pray, and do what is right, and faithful.  Don't be afraid to confess Him.  Don't be reluctant to trust Him.  Act and speak as those who have God on their side, and blessings in their pockets.  Look what He did for ancient Israel.  He can meet any need – He just doesn't usually do it in such open and obviously miraculous ways.

Look at the Lord's Supper!  It looks like mere bread and wine – little dry, white wafers, and mere sips of wine.  But God gives us Christ's true body and blood in this Sacrament!  He feeds us with eternal manna just as miraculous as the manna of ancient Israel – and far more powerful.  When we eat it, we are cleansed once again from our sins, and strengthened to live as God's holy people, and prepared for our resurrection.  If door of the grave opens in and out, then the grave has no power, death has no real bite, and we have nothing to fear.  When the worst thing that can happen in this world is also the best thing for us – we have peace.

We have the Word of God.  It is no more difficult than the promise of good food just appearing on the rocks each morning.  Like ancient Israel, all we need to do is take God at His Word, and be patient.  Their stumbling unbelief and unfaithfulness was met by God's goodness and faithfulness and blessing.  He didn't do it because He likes grumblers and unbelief.  He did it because He is faithful, even when we waver.  He did all of the things we read in our text back then for us now  – it is a lesson in faith.

So, look and see, hear and learn, believe and trust God!  And come and receive the heavenly feast God has prepared for His children on earth.  Learn the lesson of faith!

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Friday, March 17, 2023

The Wound of Denial

 Matthew 26:69-75

Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard, and a certain servant-girl came to him and said, "You too were with Jesus the Galilean."  But he denied it before them all, saying, "I do not know what you are talking about."

And when he had gone out to the gateway, another servant-girl saw him and said to those who were there, "This man was with Jesus of Nazareth."  And again he denied it with an oath, "I do not know the man."

And a little later the bystanders came up and said to Peter, "Surely you too are one of them; for the way you talk gives you away."  Then he began to curse and swear, "I do not know the man!"  And immediately a cock crowed.  And Peter remembered the word which Jesus had said, "Before a cock crows, you will deny Me three times."  And he went out and wept bitterly

Sermon for Lenten Wednesday #4                 3/15/23

The Wound of Denial

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Week after week, we are talking about the wounds of Christ in the Passion.  Of course, they are not individual wounds.  Each of these wounds is just part of the Passion.   Nevertheless, each of these wounds were likely to have been felt individually at the time.  Tonight we look at Peter, and his denial of the Lord in the courtyard of the high priest.  Our wound tonight is the wound of denial.

I have to admit, I am puzzled by this one.  I understand Peter.  He is in the courtyard of the enemy, and Jesus has just been taken captive.  Things aren't going too well for Jesus, so it is not unrealistic for Peter to fear that he might be associated too closely with the one who is suffering in the center of all of this.  He is afraid, especially as he hears the attitudes of his questioners in their voices, that he might end up in the hot-seat too.  His denial is understandable, even if it is regrettable.

What I am not clear on is how much trouble this denial would cause Jesus.  After all, Jesus predicted this denial.  He told Peter, who was so sure that he would stand with Jesus even if it mean his death, that before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.  I doubt that Jesus was much surprised.  I would guess he was not really disappointed either, since He knew without a doubt that Peter was going to do this.  I suspect for Jesus this was one of those moments when you are proven right and wish it were not so.  It marked another step in the Passion, and it demonstrated the absolute truth of what Jesus saw was going to happen to Him.  This wound did not have much power to hurt Jesus, I suspect.

If it hurt anyone, I suspect that it may have hurt Peter the most. He had to face the truth that he was the man Jesus described, the coward who would deny his Master repeatedly, for the sake of his own safety.
But what does that say about us today, when we follow in Peter's footsteps?  How often do we imitate Peter in denying our Lord?  We never face the courtyard of the High Priest.  Some Christians have faced far worse threats and more certainly deadly circumstances.  Such Christians are challenged concerning their faith, and the threat is explicit that if they confess Christ, they will suffer terribly and even die.  Many have faced such a moment, and many have confessed Christ.  Others, I suspect, have failed this test, sadly.

When we have faced this test, I would guess that few of us have faced it as a threat to life.  We face a threat to our standing in the eyes of others.  We imagine that if we confess Christ clearly we will be less liked, or less respected, or somewhat humiliated in front of others, but we haven't faced the sort of situation where we were clear that a solid confession could quite easily be an invitation to a death sentence.  Sometimes the danger to our respectability is explicit, and sometimes it is only in our fears and imaginations.  But when we face that test, how have we responded?  Have we confessed Christ?  Have we been bold and proud to be Lutheran and clear about our need for a Savior and our delight in Jesus Christ, that He has won forgiveness, life and salvation for us?

I hope so.  I am sure that we each have been bold confessors in such circumstances – at least some of the time.  Sometimes, I suspect, we have worked hard to avoid being caught in such a bind.  It may also be true that sometimes we have failed this test of confession.  I cannot say that I have always been bold and forthright in my confession.  I have allowed circumstances and the pressure of the moment to silence me, or mute my confession to a whisper.  It happens less now that I am older, but I guess it has happened.

And I have a rationalization for it each time it occurs.  It wasn't the right situation.  I drew a blank mentally (which was certainly true at times).  The Holy Spirit kept me quiet for some reason!  The problem was never me, or cowardice like Peter's.  Nevertheless, each time it happened, I could hear Jesus in the back of my mind saying that those who deny Him before men, He will deny before His Father in heaven.  I speak of myself because I cannot accuse any of you for sure, but I figure that if I could be cowed into a poor confession, it may have happened to some of you as well.

In such a situation, or remembering such behavior, I am led to repent.  I think about Jesus looking at Peter.  The look may have been only sorrow for Peter, of Jesus reminding him, "I told you this would happen."  Peter felt it as the preaching of the Law, the accusation of sin and cowardice and failure.  Peter went out and wept bitterly.  I doubt that he ever forgot that moment for the rest of his life.  The wound of denial surely cut Jesus, but it also cut Peter – and me and you.  How can we deny the One who suffered so much for us and died in our place?

Who knows how?  We just know that we have.  Every time we are reluctant to speak of Jesus, to pray for a friend for fear of weirding them out, reluctant to speak the Gospel to bring someone the peace of God in their troubles, we are behaving just like Peter.  The risks of the circumstances aren't as deep, the dangers we perceive aren't as compelling, but our reaction to the situation is the same – we pretend we don't know Jesus, even if only for a moment.

Have you ever done it?  Yeah.  Me too.  All that we can do is repent.  We can admit it was not the right thing to do, but it was sin.  We can ask God to forgive us, and we can ask for strength and wisdom not to ever do it again.  Like Peter, we can realize the horror of what we have done.

Peter had to wait days, until Jesus rose from the dead and spoke with Him about it, to know what I am about to tell you.  Your sins are forgiven. Even the sin of denying Jesus.  When we repent, God is faithful and righteous to forgive our sins, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  The denial of Jesus that is not repented, the denial that continues throughout life is the one that brings the denial by Jesus of you before His heavenly Father.

Jesus knows who we are.  Peter walked with Him for three years!  Yet Peter denied Him.  In fact, all of the disciple pretty much ran away and hid and tried to make sure they were safe while Jesus suffered and died.  They were all guilty – and they were all forgiven.  And they were the brave band of Apostles that spread the word and founded the Church of Christ, and died martyrs' deaths for their confession.  When we fail, it is important that we remember that it is sin to fail to confess Christ, and then, remembering, repent.  God will forgive.

One of the good things that came out of Peter's cowardice is that when the church face the Lapsarian Controversy - when it had to ask the question about those who denied the Lord in the first century of the Christian Church when threatened with death if they were Christians - it had the example of Peter, and of the Lord receiving him back.  You remember, when Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him those three times.  It seems that He asked once for each denial.  And He welcomed Peter back into the group and told him to feed His sheep.  The Church concluded from Scriptures that one could repent, even of denying Christ, and return to the faith.  The problem with denying Jesus becomes something truly deadly when one does not repent and does not return.  We can make a mistake.  We don't want to, and should not plan to, but it might happen.  In a moment of fear, even a great Apostle can sin.  But a child of God feels his failure and sin as acutely as Peter did, and repents.

The wound of Denial is a wound which cuts both ways.  It hurts the denier, too.  But the denials by His people surely contributed to the Passion of our Lord.  He was denied explicitly by Peter, and less so by the others, but denied by all, none the less.  It was for our sins, not our good qualities and our strengths, that our Lord suffered and died.  We do not rejoice in our sins, but we rejoice that for our sakes our Lord endured all of the wounds of the Passion for us.  He was wounded for our transgressions - including the wound of denial.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Lest You Be Like Pharaoh

 Exodus 8: 16-24

Then the LORD said to Moses, "Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the earth, that it may become gnats through all the land of Egypt.'"  And they did so; and Aaron stretched out his hand with his staff, and struck the dust of the earth, and there were gnats on man and beast. All the dust of the earth became gnats through all the land of Egypt.  And the magicians tried with their secret arts to bring forth gnats, but they could not; so there were gnats on man and beast.  Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, "This is the finger of God." But Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he did not listen to them, as the LORD had said.

Now the LORD said to Moses, "Rise early in the morning and present yourself before Pharaoh, as he comes out to the water, and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, "Let My people go, that they may serve Me.  For if you will not let My people go, behold, I will send swarms of insects on you and on your servants and on your people and into your houses; and the houses of the Egyptians shall be full of swarms of insects, and also the ground on which they dwell.  But on that day I will set apart the land of Goshen, where My people are living, so that no swarms of insects will be there, in order that you may know that I, the LORD, am in the midst of the land.  And I will put a division between My people and your people. Tomorrow this sign shall occur."'"

Then the LORD did so. And there came great swarms of insects into the house of Pharaoh and the houses of his servants and the land was laid waste because of the swarms of insects in all the land of Egypt.

Sermon for Oculi -- The Third Sunday in Lent                   3/12/23

Lest You Be Like Pharaoh

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Our Old Testament lesson this week deals with the Pharaoh of Egypt.  In a way, the Pharaoh was a very modern sort of man.  He was a man who did not believe in God.  That is surprising modern.  Many today do not believe in God - even, I am sorry to have to acknowledge, many in the churches.  Pharaoh believed in something, but what that "thing" was is beyond telling from the text of Scripture.  What he did not believe was "in God".  How very modern and current of him.

Pharaoh was confronted in our text, and beyond, by God's signs and wonders, as God showed forth His glory in rescuing His people from bitter bondage in Egypt.  God showed Pharaoh His presence and power as He has rarely demonstrated His presence and power, and, for a time at least, Pharaoh yawned and hardened his heart and ignored God.  He paid the price for that hardness of heart in the lives of his people and his soldiers.  And God reports it all to us through Moses as a warning.  Our theme, this morning is, Lest You Be Like Pharaoh.

The account of the ten plagues on Egypt is probably pretty well known to most of you.  This is just a short piece of that account.  It was chosen to be the Old Testament lesson, I think, because it uses the phrase "the finger of God", as Jesus also does in our Gospel lesson.  Both lessons involve hard-heartedness and rejection of what God is doing.  In both cases, they ought to have known better, but their own agendas and their own hardness of heart blinded them.  They just didn't care about God or truth or anything like that.

We look at the Pharaoh, and we wonder how the man could have been so stubborn.  Here God was working great signs and wonders in his presence, and he would not believe, and would not relent, and would not allow the servant of God to do what he was commanded by God to do.  That he would not let God's people go makes some sense in terms of economics and labor force allocation and so forth, but to ignore the signs God was doing through Moses seems incomprehensible.

In fact, the only way I can understand it is to take seriously the words of Scripture that tells us that God hardened the heart of Pharaoh.  That is a difficult thought!  We are accustomed to the thought that there is always a chance – but if God is hardening your heart, there is no longer any chance.  Pharaoh was one of those men whose unbelief and hostility toward God and all that is His – brought the judgment of God on Him even while he lived and breathed.  It was over for Pharaoh, in terms of the final judgment, while he still lived.   God had a plan to use the wickedness and unbelief of this man, but there was no longer any hope of salvation for him.

That is a spooky fact!  What can we make of it?  What use can we put that
truth to?  

The answer is, we can be warned by it.  Whether there are men and women today who have already been condemned, even though they still walk among us, we cannot tell.  We must faithfully continue to hold the gospel of forgiveness and salvation before all people at all times.  We dare not assume that God is done with anyone!  God has called us to faithfully confess, and there is no use for this truth about the Pharaoh in terms of our work of confessing Christ and sharing the Gospel.

But there is a warning.  It is possible to go too far.  Some people call it "grieving the Spirit."  It is mentioned in Hebrews, in chapter 10, where the warning is spelled out for those early Christians, "Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near.  For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and THE FURY OF A FIRE WHICH WILL CONSUME THE ADVERSARIES.  Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses.  How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?  For we know Him who said, "VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY."  And again, "THE LORD WILL JUDGE HIS PEOPLE."  It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God."  Lest you be like Pharaoh!

On the one hand, none of us could be just like Pharaoh.  We are Christians.  There is no evidence that this Pharaoh ever knew the true God or worshiped Him.  He was a hardened unbeliever!  No true Christian can be a life-long unbeliever.

We can do something worse: we can turn our back on God.  Some Christians do.  Some have!  Sometimes our own agendas - or our own egos - or our own desires will cause some of us to behave just as the Pharaoh behaved.  Such people cannot see beyond themselves or their own thoughts – or the pressures of the moment – to God.  They hear His Word and choose to regard it as merely the opinion of the pastor.  They see God at work, and they just don't care.  Their fun, or their success or their agenda – whatever it may be – is so compelling to them that they simply do not respond.

Pharaoh had the prophet Moses.  We have our pastors.  Pharaoh had the Ten Plagues.  We have the Sacraments and the Church.  He had God working and speaking – and so do we.  Now it is true, the scope is different.  Pharaoh was dealing with a nation and the issue of letting millions of slaves go free, and we are usually dealing with far fewer people and a much smaller scope - such as our personal lives.  But the importance of the task is just as great.  God was working to rescue Israel from bondage in Egypt, God is at work through us to rescue men from bondage in sin.  Israel was off to the promised land.  We are dealing with resurrection from the grave and everlasting life in glory – a true promised paradise, and not merely some earthly real estate!

We are called to hear the Word of God, called to the fellowship of the saints, called to faith in the heart – and faith in the life.  We need to hear God's Word and consider what He would have us to do, lest we be like Pharaoh.  God's Word needs to be our guide, not the feelings of others, or our own feelings about others.  We cannot allow our love for someone - or our dislike of them - form our response to the things to which God calls us.

Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.  Those are words from our Epistle today.

Remember, it was the heart of Pharaoh that was hardened, not his head or his ears.  He heard the Word of God.  He saw God at work.  There was no reasonably denying that it was God.  Pharaoh simply would not let it move him.  He had decided upon a course of action and he was not going to let anything or anyone – not even God – change his mind.

The Christian faith is not about actions.  It is legalism when your religion says you must do this or that to be God-pleasing, or that you cannot do that and still be a Christian – unless, of course, God's Word explicitly says so.  It is called "pietism" which says that we must feel this way or think that way – unless God's Word commands us as to how we are to think or feel.  The heart of our faith is forgiveness.  It is centered in Jesus upon the cross, dying for our sins.  This forgiveness is received by trusting the good will of God toward us and taking God at His Word and believing His promises of forgiveness, life, salvation - and of blessings, guidance and love here and now.  

Your sins are [ † ]forgiven.  It is not so because we like to think it is so, it is so because God says so!  You live every moment of your life in the radiance of the love of God – and I can say that because God's Word says it, and not because it necessarily feels like it or looks like it.

Our lives are to be lived in faith.  We are to love one another, not because we or they are so lovable, but because God loves each of us, and has commanded that we love one another.  

We are to forgive each other.  Forgiving someone else doesn't usually feel as good as holding a grudge or getting even.  It is, however, simply what God would have us to do.  He has forgiven us, and He expects us to forgive one another.  He has demonstrated His love toward us, and He wants us to walk by faith, and demonstrate our love toward Him by acting on the basis of that love toward one another.

The Pharaoh ignored the finger of God – the direct action of God – in his presence.  We cannot, lest we be like pharaoh.  When God speaks, we want to listen.  When God acts, we want to respond.  And God speaks every week in the preaching of His Word.  And God acts among us when He baptizes and when He feeds us with His body and gives us to drink of the blood of our Savior in Holy Communion.

We are not challenged to ‘let His people go', or any extraordinary work.  We are challenged, instead, to be His people.  We are challenged to hear His Word, to participate in the fellowship of His family - the Church, to eat and to drink the Holy meal He serves to us, and to live every moment of our lives as those who have God on their side.  We are called to forget our guilt, for our sins have been forgiven, and to give thanks instead.  We are called to live without fear about what may be coming, but to know that God is caring for us.  We are called to do what we know is right whether it is popular or pragmatic or not.

And we are called to confess Christ.  We cannot hide Him under the bushel-basket of silence.  We need, now more than ever, to make Christ known and to make Him real to the world around us by living and speaking as those who know Him and love Him and depend on Him for life and salvation and everything.

Our text gives us the example of the Pharaoh – lest you be like the Pharaoh.  We are to be God's people: those who walk in love, in faith, and those who know that God is with them.  We are to be those who give thanks for all things, for we know that God has given us all things.  For God's child, God is first.  We don't want to assume that we can ignore His Word and still be safe.  God gives safety to His faithful people - and life everlasting - so you want to be faithful, lest you be like Pharaoh.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.             
 (Let the people say Amen)