Sunday, January 28, 2024

Grace Vs. Works

 Matthew 20:1-16

"For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.  And when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius for the day, he sent them into his vineyard.  And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the market place; and to those he said, ‘You too go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.'  And so they went.  Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did the same thing.  And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing; and he said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day long?'  They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.' He said to them, ‘You too go into the vineyard.'

"And when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said  to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last group to the first.'  And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each one received a denarius.  And when those hired first came, they thought that they would receive more; and they also received each one a denarius.  And when they received it, they grumbled at the landowner, saying, ‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.'

"But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius?  Take what is yours and go your way, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you.  Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?'

"Thus the last shall be first, and the first last."

Sermon for Septuagesima Sunday                        1/28/24

Grace Vs.  Works

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

As hard as it may be for you to imagine, some people would rather have God demand works of them than for Him to simply give them eternal life and salvation.  Maybe that isn't so difficult for some of you to imagine.  I don't know.  We were all raised by Depression-Era parents, or perhaps some of you grew up in the Depression.  Self-sufficiency was a virtue and strongly stressed, so that understanding the "give-me" mentality that some people have is just alien to you.  Well, this grace vs. works thing is the point of the parable in our Gospel lesson this morning.  So, let us consider the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard under the theme, Grace Vs.  Works.

The Kingdom of heaven is something like this parable.  Jesus says so.  But what Jesus is describing is not what the experience of heaven is about as much as what getting there is all about.  Jesus is addressing this particularly to the Jews of His day.  They were historically the "Chosen People."  They had been chosen of God in Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses, and David, and so on through the ages.  They were the laborers in the parable who had been hired right away in the morning.  The others, hired later, were the proselytes – Gentile converts to Judaism.  We, Gentile Christians, are the men hired at the eleventh hour.  Jesus was picturing in the parable the attitude of the Jews that they were a people set apart, something different, something special by virtue of their long association with God.  They were sure that they were better and deserved more than the "Johnny-come-lately's" of the proselytes.

Jesus was explaining to them that their relationship with Almighty God didn't work the way they thought it did.  To them it was all about earning and deserving.  With God it is and always has been about His generosity and giving.  They were thinking "works", and Jesus was saying "Grace."  They believed that the length of time in their relationship to God – which was purely legal for many of them – meant that they deserved something more than others.  It is an attitude which is still prevalent among Jews today.  They have done more, they have suffered more, they have earned more.  

But the truth which Jesus was trying to illustrate by means of this parable is that it is by grace, and if God chooses to include others in His goodness and generosity, He can and will.  With God, it is all gift.  Life is a gift.  His Word is a gift.  Our faith is a gift.  We were all standing about in the marketplace until He came and got us, and put us to work.  We have the agreed wage – we have the promises of God of forgiveness and life and salvation.  These are the same promises the Jews had, although they tended to interpret them in terms of worldly comfort and pomp and power – but then again, so do many of the prosperity preachers and their followers today.  The problem that Jesus confronted with the Jews was that they thought that God owed them something – something extra, that they deserved more, that they had God over a barrel, so to speak.

Modern so-called Christians often think the same way.  You've heard the slogans – Name it and claim it, Expect a Miracle, the Abundant Life for God's People.  Those slogans reflect a theology of glory which says that we deserve something more and something better because we are God's people, because we have done something, because of our time of service.  Jesus says that our salvation is gift, not deserving – that it is grace, not works.

The Jews were in for a surprise.  The Christian Church was that surprise.  Suddenly, the all of those centuries of history did not count for much.  Those who had been there and had been faithful received what they had been promised.  The faithful were saved by faith.  God forgave them their sins in view of the coming sacrifice for sins, just as He now forgives us in view of the sacrifice once made for us by Jesus.  Those who thought that they had something more and better coming because of their national heritage have been disappointed.  God spoke through St. Paul, saying, they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; neither are they all children because they are Abraham's descendants.

That is why I preach the Law.  The Law shows us our sins and teaches us that whatever we receive from God is not because we are such good people.  The Law tells us that we are sinners – and we do well to keep that clearly in mind.  God gives to us out of His generosity and love – grace.  We don't get what we deserve – nor should we want to.  We receive so much more and better than what we earn.  We earn death and hell.  We get life and salvation instead.

Part of this attitude to which the parable speaks is reflected in the idea that our religion is about us.  We want it to be fun.  We want it to be entertaining.  We want it to make us feel good, and we want it to fit neatly into a sixty-minute package.  But when we say those things, we are revealing that we think church is about US!  But it is not about us.  It is about Jesus and His great love, and His great gift to us.

It is actually good for us to have our flesh disappointed in the worship service, as long as it is disappointed by the Word of God and the faithful worship of God.  Then we are forced to place God and His will and His Word first, and humble ourselves before Him.  When we grumble about this or that in the face of God's Word, we are like those laborers in the vineyard who grumbled because they just naturally thought that they were going to get more, somehow.  We need to discipline our flesh to serve God and to hear His Word.

But we do not need to leave the service feeling good.  It would be nice, but it is not always possible, and to expect it is to have an unrealistic expectation.  We are sinners.  We should feel guilty.  We should be ashamed of our sins.  We need to repent.  Only when we genuinely repent can we actually understand, believe, or receive forgiveness.  Only in true sorrow over sin can we appreciate how much God does for us when he forgives us our sins.  Only in the shadow the mountain of our own sinfulness can we estimate how deep and great the suffering of Jesus was – how great it had to have been – for our sins.  Only the one who is forgiven much can love much.

And if we know our sins, it is impossible to always feel good.  When we then have faith in our Lord and believe that our sins are forgiven, we will usually feel thankful, and the knowledge of His goodness will bring us joy – but it is always a joy tempered by the humiliation of facing our corruption and sin.  Some days the sin part is overwhelming the joy part, and then we rest in a quiet joy in faith, knowing that Jesus died for us and took our punishment, guilt and death, even when we are not "feeling good" or bright and chipper.  The gospel is true no matter how I feel today.

If we require a certain feeling, we have a "work" which we have imposed on ourselves or others before we can have salvation.  If we demand that worship be entertaining, or that it meet some criterion other than faithfulness to the Word of God, we have made it about us.  The Gospel is for us, but it is not about us.  Our salvation is God's gift to us, but it is about His love, and Christ's substitution for us, and about the grace of God, freely given to all who believe.  It is about grace, not works.  It is about what God has done and gives to us, not about us, except as the grateful recipients of His abundant generosity.

In the parable, the issue was deserving versus generosity.  For us, this morning, it is grace vs. works.  We want to keep grace clearly in our minds, for it is by grace that we have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves.  It is the gift of God, not at all on the basis of works, so that no one may boast – save in Jesus Christ alone!

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

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Looking Forward - Looking Back

 Matthew 17:1-9

And six days later Jesus took with Him Peter and James and John his brother, and brought them up to a high mountain by themselves. And He was transfigured before them; and His face shone like the sun, and His garments became as white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, talking with Him. And Peter answered and said to Jesus, "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if You wish, I will make three tabernacles here, one for You, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah." While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and behold, a voice out of the cloud, saying, "This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased; listen to Him!" And when the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were much afraid. And Jesus came to them and touched them and said, "Arise, and do not be afraid."

And lifting up their eyes, they saw no one, except Jesus Himself alone. And as they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying, "Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead."

Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday             1/21/24

Looking Forward -- Looking Back

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Crossroads. Have you ever come to that point in your life? To crossroads? That is the point you come to when you have reached one goal and you're about to start on another, or when one crisis is past and you are ready to face everyday life once more. There are a lot of different kinds of crossroads at different times of life, and we all come to them, now and again. When you come to crossroads, you tend to stop for a moment and look around, to look forward to what lies ahead, and to look back at what has come and gone before. Then, usually, we take a big breath and square our shoulders, and set off on another leg of the journey through life.

Our Church Year is at the crossroads this morning. We have scaled the giddy heights of Advent and looked out from the inspiring peaks of Christmas joy, and then we descended on the pleasant slopes of Epiphany. Now we stand at the crossroads, looking down the road into the gloomy abyss of Lent, leading into the death valley of the Church calendar. We call this crossroads Transfiguration Sunday.

From any crossroads, we can look back, and look forward, and wisdom suggests that it is a good idea to do just that now and then. Transfiguration Sunday actually does it for us, it looks back, and it points forward. Let us pause, this morning, and look from this crossroads at the view afforded us by the Transfiguration of our Lord on the mountain. Let us look forward and look back to see what the Transfiguration has to show us.

In Matthew's gospel, Jesus has just heard the disciples confess Him as the Messiah, the Son of God. Then He foretold how He was to die. But His disciples were not ready to hear it. Peter tried to persuade Jesus not to endure the cross, actually saying God forbid that this should happen to you!

Jesus was preparing for the road to Jerusalem. He was preparing Himself and He was preparing the disciples for this last, fatal journey. It was in this context of preparation that He took three disciples up on the mountain with Him. He took three, possibly because by Jewish Law it took three eyewitnesses to establish testimony as fact. The word of one was not enough, and two might do in a pinch, but the same testimony from three men would seal any witness as true.

Jesus took Peter, and James, and John. Luke tells us that they went up the mountain to pray. Although Jesus knew what they were going to see, they did not. While they were praying, the disciples began to nod off. Jesus kept praying, but they were beginning to sleep. Just at that point where they were semi-aware of their surroundings, and halfway to slumberland, Suddenly, Jesus was transformed! His physical body began to change. He began to show the glory that was His as the Son of God. What that did to His body we do not know, all that the disciples recorded for us was that He began to glow and shine with the glory shining brighter than the sun His clothes became brighter than bright and whiter than white.

Just as suddenly, the disciples were wide awake, and amazed and terrified and bewildered all at once. They stared at the transfigured Jesus, and suddenly they noticed two others standing there with Him. From the conversation they were having with Jesus or just from how they looked, the disciples knew that these other two were Moses and Elijah and they, too, had glorified bodies! And the disciples heard them calmly discussing with Jesus the death He was about to die. There could be no doubt about it, not even for Peter, Jesus was heading for a death on the cross. This was about all the disciples could handle.

But suddenly there was more. A cloud of light overshadowed, them a bright cloud although it shined instead of casting a shadow, but our language simply doesn't have a word for cloud shine and negative shadowing. The cloud glowed with an eerie and unearthly light. It seemed like it filled the whole sky above them. And then the voice of God boomed out of that cloud. This is my beloved Son, in Him I am well-pleased. Listen to Him!

Much the same words had been spoken from the heavens at the Baptism of Jesus. The "well-pleased" was the same as the goodwill and good pleasure of God about which the angels sang at Bethlehem those many years before.

This was, however, too much to deal with for the three disciples. Our text tells us that they curled up on the ground and hid their heads in fear. Peter had begun to speak incoherently, not even really thinking about what he was saying, or so Luke tells us, but the voice of the heavenly Father stopped even that, and they all hid their heads in stark terror.

Then Jesus touched each one of them, reassuring them, and when they lifted their heads, there was only Jesus, plain, old, ordinary Jesus, just as they had always seen him. No cloud shining, no face shining, no clothing glowing, no Moses and Elijah, just Jesus, Himself, alone.

Now, what did they see? What was the view from their mountaintop crossroads?

Looking back, they saw Mount Sinai. They saw Moses and the Law. They saw Moses coming down off the mountain with a face shining with an unearthly light in the reflected glory of God. They saw the man who had been entrusted with the Law and the covenant. They saw a dark and ominous cloud hanging over Mt. Sinai, terrifying the people with its flashes of fire and the awful, fearful rumblings.

But in Jesus, they saw something greater. In Jesus, they saw a face which shines with its own glory, unreflected and, as the hymn says, unborrowed. In Jesus, they saw one who fulfilled the Law instead of simply delivering it to us. In Jesus they saw something greater than Moses - but something that Moses had himself promised - Deuteronomy 18:15, The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your countrymen, you shall listen to him. And that is what the voice told them to do, Listen to Him!

The cloud they saw was bright, not dark and ominous. They did not hear the rumblings, but the clear voice of God, a voice which may have terrified them, but it spoke of good pleasure and blessings, not of fear and threatenings. It is that well-pleased of which the voice spoke which is underlying our gospel.

Looking back, they saw Elijah, the great prophet. They saw Him, but in Jesus, they saw an even greater prophet, and the one who fulfilled all of the prophecies. Elijah prophesied doom. Jesus prophesied forgiveness and grace. Elijah prophesied the coming Messiah, the Suffering Servant. Jesus was that Servant, and He not only prophesied, He fulfilled all that He promised by the word of the Lord. Something greater than Elijah was on that mountain.

And what did they see looking forward?

Looking forward, they saw the death of Jesus Christ. They heard the great giver of the Law and the great prophet of old speaking about the death which Jesus had to die. There was no longer any room for denials. They finally understood, only briefly perhaps, and not with utter clarity, but they finally understood that Jesus had to pass through death to enter glory. And because of that death, we have only to pass through death to enter that glory also.

Although it is hard to say for sure what they understood, they saw the sacrifice. God was declaring that Jesus, with whom He was well-pleased when He had begun His course at His baptism, was still well-pleasing to the Father. God announced on that hill that He was well-pleased with the One who would die for us. Hearing the voice then terrified them, but looking back in later years, it was the assurance of fitness of the sacrifice and validation of all that they had heard and read in Holy Scriptures before.

Because Jesus was pleasing to the Father, He could die on the cross for the sins of many. His righteousness was perfect, so His death was unneeded, and He could exchange with us, His holiness for our sins, His life for our death. He died for our sins, not any of His own. He was made sin for us, the Bible says, [He] who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him. And so it is!

Because while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly, we can now "put on" the righteousness of Christ, which He freely traded to take up our sins. We can have forgiveness. How?

By faith. When we believe that Christ has paid the full price for us, and when we take God at His Word that, for the sake of Jesus Christ, God forgives us and gives us eternal life, we are forgiven and we possess that eternal life, and we will walk in glory with Him one day.

When we look from the crossroads of the mount of the Transfiguration, we see our forgiveness the worthy sacrifice, the willing exchange, the free gift. We see who it was that died for us, and how He can be so bold as to say, Your sins are forgiven - go and sin no more! He revealed Himself in that shining moment of glory.

And Jesus showed us what we could look forward to. We see the resurrection and the reality of the eternal life which we have been promised in the two who stood and spoke with the Lord. Just as the Bible says, when we see Him we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. There they were, Moses and Elijah. Long dead, and yet they were there, alive and recognizable! We, too, shall have bodies, and we shall be who we are - except without sin. We shall have bodies of glory, like Jesus and Moses and Elijah. We shall see and commune and converse with our Lord and with one another. What we see from this lofty crossroads gives us reason to hope in the future and comfort when we remember the past.

And we can see that the portal to this transfiguring glory is what we dread and fear and call mistakenly "death," for death is swallowed up in victory, Christ's victory. Moses and Elijah spoke of the necessity of death for Jesus, and if we are to follow Him, it must be through that same portal. This truth alone should teach us not to fear death, but to view it as the door to eternal life with Jesus and it should comfort us that those who have passed through those gates before us are not dead and gone, but live in transfigured glory, like Jesus, and with their Lord.

While we may not be able to commune with Jesus in that holy place today, as Moses and Elijah, or to see the wonderful transfiguration with our own eyes, as did Peter and James and John, we can share with them in the communion with Christ at this holy table, and here receive the blessings which He has won for us life and forgiveness. And having paused at the crossroads, and looked forward and looked back with the disciples, and having refreshed ourselves with this holy Meal of the body and blood of Jesus, we are ready to continue.

We take a deep breath, and we begin our descent through Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima into Lent. We begin to live again, walking on the path which He has given us to walk. We are refreshed. We are ready for that next step in the journey. We now know, having seen it clearly from the crossroads, how far we have come, and where it is we must go. Let us thank God, and with Peter, let us humbly confess, Lord, it is good for us to be here!
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Listen to Jesus

 John 2:1-11

And on the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there; and Jesus also was invited, and His disciples, to the wedding.  And when the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to Him, "They have no wine."  And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what do I have to do with you?  My hour has not yet come."  His mother said to the servants, "Whatever He says to you, do it."

Now there were six stone waterpots set there for the Jewish custom of purification, containing twenty or thirty gallons each.  Jesus said to them, "Fill the waterpots with water."  And they filled them up to the brim.  And He said to them, "Draw some out now, and take it to the headwaiter."  And they took it to him.  And when the headwaiter tasted the water which had become wine, and did not know where it came from (but the servants who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter called the bridegroom, and said to him, "Every man serves the good wine first, and when men have drunk freely, then that which is poorer; you have kept the good wine until now."
This beginning of His signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.

Sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany      1/14/24

Listen to Jesus

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

The account of the wedding at Cana is a familiar and often preached Gospel text.  It is used in weddings, and, of course, it is a Gospel lesson during the season of Epiphany.  There are a number of lessons one can draw from this text.
One lesson might be the compassion of Jesus.  Look how He helps those in trouble.  Another might be Jesus' respect for His mother, although that one could go either way, in the opinion of some.  One could look at the providence of God or the richness of Christ's blessings.  As an Epiphany theme, one could even speak about the glory of God shining through the humanity of Jesus in this, His first public miracle.  This morning I want to begin from the words of Mary, Jesus' mother, "Whatever He says to you, do it."  Our theme is, Listen to Jesus.

The account is simple.  Jesus is attending a wedding, with His disciples in tow.  This is the wedding feast which follows the year of betrothal.  This is the sort of wedding feast that Jesus intends everyone to relate to as He tells the parable of the Five Wise and Five Foolish Virgins.  There is feasting and drinking and dancing and great merriment.  Everyone they know is invited.  Such joy and feasting was a community affair.

Unfortunately, they underestimated the appetites and thirst of their guests, and the wine ran out.  Now Mary comes to Jesus.  Mary seems to know that they have run out of wine before most of the other guests.  She comes to Jesus and lays this problem at His feet.  She doesn't directly ask for Him to fix it, although that request seems to be implied.  

We are also not given any reason why Mary would expect Jesus to do something, or what she thought He might do.  We don't know if and when His powers might have been used at home.  We don't know if she thought Jesus might just go get some extra wine.  We don't know if the Holy Spirit prompted her, or if she was just your typical Jewish Mother.  We only know that she lays this problem at His feet, and, by the brief exchange between her and Jesus, we can tell that she clearly expected Him to do something, possibly something miraculous.

Jesus' response to Mary is remarkable.  "Woman, what do I have to do with you?  My hour has not yet come."  Some people have imagined that Jesus was being rude to His mother.   Some suggest that Jesus was telling her that He did not want to do anything, or that she should leave Him alone.  His response, though cryptic, must be understood as coming from our Holy Lord.  It has to make sense in the context in which was spoken, and be consistent with His character.

What He said to her, translated into idiomatic English – the kind of English we speak – would be something like, "Things are different now, and this is My responsibility, not yours.  When the moment is right, I will take care of things."  His words tell His mother that she is no longer in charge of His life, now that His ministry has begun.  He lets her know that He is going to take care of things, but at the right moment.  Though terse and cryptic, His answer to Mary is a promise to help, and a gentle instruction for her to understand that He is no longer merely her little boy.

So, Mary steps out of the way.  She gives the whole thing to Jesus and tells the servants of the household to listen to Jesus and obey.  And Jesus tells them to do things that make no sense in the circumstances.  He tells them to fill six stone pots with water.  That's twenty or thirty gallons each.  Those servants were working hard for a while!  Then Jesus tells them to scoop out a ladle full of water and take the water to the steward of the feast – the guy in charge of the party arrangements.  Headwaiter, from our translation, is just a little misleading.  Doing the water filling had to seem nonsensical.  Taking the water to the Steward of the feast had to seem equally pointless.  But they did, and WOW!  What a result!  

Jesus not only answered the need, He answered it abundantly!  He provided somewhere between 120 and two hundred gallons of wine.  And what Jesus provided was good stuff.  The response of the steward of the feast tells us that.  No one knew what Jesus had done, at least at first, but Jesus, the servants, and probably the disciples.  What He did was not about an urgent need, but about the need of the moment, significant for that couple, but only for that night.
So, what can we learn from this?

There are several lessons.  First, is the lesson which forms our theme, Listen to Jesus.  Nothing would have happened that night if the servants had simply ignored Him.  They could have, He had no specific authority in that house.  Like them, we need to listen, to hear Jesus, and to follow His direction.  Not all that seems to be pointless is.  Sometimes God has hidden great benefits in doing things His way, even when it doesn't make sense to us.

To listen to Jesus, you need to listen to the Word of God.  That means more than simply allowing it to flow over you.  You want to pay attention, you want to think about what is being told to you and how it might apply to you and your life.  You want to hear what Christ commands in His Word – and everything God tells us is a command.  We ignore the Word of God in any topic at our peril.  God knows.  He knows what is true.  He knows what we are like and what we are dealing with.  He knows how to bring us blessings.

What God tells us does not always have to make sense to us.  Those servants did not understand the water thing, as they filled those large pots.  You don't have to understand what or how or why either.  Admittedly, it is nice to understand, but sometimes it is just faith, trust in God, that we need to listen to, and do it as God says to do it.  

A good example of this principle is all of the grumbling in our churches.  God tells us to take our troubles to the ones who are troubling to us – directly, one-on-one.  If you have a concern about me, or about someone in the parish, you are to take it to them personally, and hash it out there.  That doesn't happened in many situations.  We have all witnessed people grumbling to one another about someone else, instead of talking to the one they were grumbling about.  The result is frequently discontent and division in a congregation, a scenario we see happening all around us in the Synod.  And when I have encouraged people to do what God's Word teaches us to do, many have told me that it is not reasonable, and that it would never work, and that the destructive course of grumbling and gossip is better and more useful.  But God's way is the way of healing, even if it doesn't seem that way or to appeal to us.

God's way doesn't have to make sense or appeal to us.  In fact, it is human nature that God's ways would not appeal to our flesh.  It is, none the less, God's way, and it will be effective for accomplishing what God wills.  His way is usually effective in bringing relief and peace to His people, too.  I mean, no one thought at that time that Jesus should die on the cross, except His enemies — and Jesus Himself.  No one but Jesus thought that He would be able to do something positive with so terrible a thing.  But He took your sins and mine there.  He nailed them to the cross in His body, and He died the death that you and I have earned.  Because He died for our sins, God forgives us.  Those who know this truth, and trust God, and take Him at His Word, are called "the children of God" and are given eternal life and are promised by God that they will rise even from their graves to life of both body and soul - with Jesus - forever.

It doesn't have to make sense to us from the "get go".  We need to listen to Jesus.  He will help.  And our need doesn't have to be the real important stuff either.  Jesus cares about us.  He cares about the little things, too.  He helped this couple with the need of the moment – a little extra wine – okay, a lot of extra wine.  You can take anything to God.  And everything He tells you to do is what you should do.

I don't expect God to talk to me personally out loud, and neither should you, but His Word tells us what we are to be like, and how we ought to behave, and doing it – whatever "it" may be – Jesus' way is always the right way.  If God says it, it must be important, and we should listen to Jesus.  God will help you in your troubles, and He will guide you in your way.  

Another truth which this Gospel account illustrates is that God can and will bless abundantly.  He provided more wine than they could reasonably use that night.  He fed the five thousand – with baskets full of left-overs.  He forgives your sins abundantly too.  He pronounces forgiveness in the absolution.  He speaks His forgiveness in the sermon.  And He feeds you with His love and forgiveness in the Holy Supper, as you eat His true body and drink His true blood hidden under the form of the bread and wine in the Sacrament.

Do we need this forgiveness upon forgiveness upon forgiveness?  The question is an impious question.  God gives it.  One might assume, rightly, that any one absolution is sufficient for the moment, but God is so superabundant in His giving that He gives and gives, and pours out more and more upon us for our comfort and our assurance.  If you are wrestling with your sin, hearing one absolution may not be enough to quiet your fears and silence your guilt and shame.  Besides, who are we to ask the question of need?  God gives – and gives richly and abundantly!  He gives so that if you can imagine that He did not intend you to be forgiven in the absolution that you cannot doubt that He knows your sins, and He knows you are there, and forgives you as He gives His body and blood into your hand and your mouth, personally!  Listen to Jesus!

You see, the question about listening to Jesus is really the question about who is Lord here.  Our flesh is always tempted to push God aside and take charge.  That is what Adam and Eve did in the garden.  That is what Mary began to do at the Wedding at Cana.  Jesus reminded her, gently, that He was in charge and that He would handle the situation according to His own timing and wisdom.  The question each of us needs to answer in every situation where we are tempted to put our own wisdom and our own ways first is, "Who is the Lord here?"

Who do we trust – ourselves, or Jesus?  Who knows and understands how things work better – us or the Lord? Even the wickedness and sin of those who persecuted Him and executed Him served God's holy purpose.  Because of that death, you are forgiven, and Jesus pours out on you eternal life.  Jesus shows us in Cana how compassionate and abundant He is.  Mary tells the servants of the house, and reminds us, to listen to Jesus, and to do whatever He tells you to do.  It worked then, even though it wasn't clear until Jesus was finished just what He was going to accomplish.  It isn't clear for us, either, many times, precisely what Jesus is planning to accomplish.  But as it was in those days, so it is today.  Listen to Jesus.

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

Sunday, January 07, 2024

What Does This Mean?


Matthew 3:13-17

Then Jesus arrived  from Galilee at the Jordan coming to John, to be baptized by him.  But John tried to prevent Him, saying, "I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?"  But Jesus answering said to him, "Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness."  Then he permitted Him.

And after being baptized, Jesus went up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon Him, and behold, a voice out of the heavens, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased."

Sermon for 1-S A E                     1/07/24

What Does This Mean?

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

It is the most Lutheran of questions.  We grow up with it in the Catechism.  "What does this mean?"  It doesn't always mean that we don't know what something means, when we ask the question.  It is simply the Socratic method of teaching – asking questions.  We see the method at use in the Christian Questions and Answers in our Catechism, building the understanding by means of questions that direct one to think clearly about an issue.  It is also the nature of a Catechism to ask questions and then to answer them.

But this morning, it is not a Catechism question, nor is it intended to be the Socratic method of inductive learning.  It is simply a question aimed at getting into the meaning of a very familiar account.  We all know about Jesus' Baptism.  It is the Gospel for this service.  What we want to do is think about what it teaches us, and why it is the lesson for the start of the Year.  Our theme is, What Does This Mean?

John was preaching repentance and was baptizing those who confessed their sins with a baptism of forgiveness.  He did it at the Jordan River - because there was plenty of water there, which is where all our Baptist friends get the idea that Baptism is supposed to be by immersion.  They picture John baptizing in waist-deep water, dunking people under to symbolize their new birth and washing clean from sin.  And it is a wonderful symbol.

It just doesn't happen to be what John was doing, in all likelihood.  These were people who believed that the water – bodies of water – were the domain of demons.  They did not know how to swim - not even fishermen, generally.  They were terrified of standing water, particularly deep water.  That is why the parting of the Sea by Moses and the parting of the Jordan by Joshua was so significant.  It demonstrated God's power over the devil's domain.  That is what the "walking on water" of Jesus mean to those who saw it.  He was treading on the domain of the devil.  It wasn't simply mastery of the surface tension of water, or some ability to float on the soles of His feet.  It was that demons were supposed to live in the water, that was a common superstition of the time.  Jesus was demonstrating His mastery over the demonic kingdom by walking above it - on it, not allowing those devils to grab Him and drag Him under and slay Him as they had so many for so long!

So these people were not likely to want to walk out into deep water and be plunged under.  It would have suggested precisely the opposite to them from the symbol we imagine today.  Instead of representing a cleansing and new birth, it would have pictured being plunged into the domain of Satan.  And my grandmother on my mother's side was from Kansas.  She grew up in a dry land, without lots of lakes.  She was terrified of water in lakes and rivers.  Knee-deep was as good as she could get.  I am sure not every person was that terrified of water, but I would guess that most of those who gathered to hear John were.

So John was standing in the shallows, pouring water over their heads in a ritual washing – as most of their washings were – to picture for them the forgiveness which God was working through their repentance and Baptism at the hands of John.  His Baptism was very much like ours.  And Jesus came to be baptized.

John took one look at Jesus, and He knew who He was.  I don't know if John recognized his cousin, or not.  Probably did.  But John was filled with the Holy Spirit, as the great prophetic forerunner of the Messiah, and he saw, and he knew instantly, that this One was the Son of God, the Savior, and without sin.  So John said, "I have need to be baptized by You, and do You come to me?"  What does this mean?

It means that John understood who Jesus was, and asked Jesus to Baptize Him instead.  And, let's face it, Jesus did not need forgiveness.

Then Jesus replied, "Permit it at this time; for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness."  Scholars have been debating the meaning of those words ever since.  Jesus asked John to baptize Him, even though Jesus did not need forgiveness.  He did not argue with John about His assessment.  He simply asked John to let it be, and do the baptism.  He said it was "fitting for [them] to fulfill all righteousness."  What does this mean?

It means that it was the right thing to do.  Jesus was righteous already, no sin.  So what He did was not for forgiveness, but for us.  In part, this was Jesus taking over for John.  He received from John what John was doing.  He didn't need to in an absolute sense, but it was important for people to see that Jesus was "coming after" John.  He was John's successor – the one John was preparing the way for.

Jesus was also showing that He had assumed everything that is part of us, in order to save us.  He humbled Himself and stepped through the waters of Baptism, just as each of us who hope in Him must also come to Him through the waters of Baptism.  In a sense, He prepared the waters of Baptism for us by His baptism – placing His righteousness into baptism, so that it would have the power to cleanse us from our sins.

He also recapitulated the history of Israel with His life, and, just as Israel had passed through the waters – which Scriptures call a "baptism" into Moses – so, Jesus passed through the waters – and then went into the wilderness for 40 days, instead of the 40 years.  He is the better Israel, for He did all things well, and did not sin, and did not fail to be and to do all that God called Him to be and to do.

It was fitting, for God wanted Him to do it.  It connects Jesus to the Old Testament people walking with Moses, and it connects Him with us, Baptized as He was, and cleansed by Him.

Then Jesus came up out of the water – He walked to shore and stepped out of the river – and the heavens opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on Him in the form of a dove, and the voice of the heavenly Father spoke, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased."  It is interesting to note that God's Word sounds different to different people, sometimes.  Mark and Luke report Jesus' hearing of the words, "Thou art My beloved Son, . . ."  John, and anyone else who may heard and understood the words, heard "This is My beloved Son, . . ."  God's Word comes to us, always fitting us as we hear it.  We dare never assume that the Word we hear is aimed at anyone but us!

What does this mean?

First we see the Trinity.  Jesus is standing in the water, the Holy Spirit is perched on His shoulder - or head - in visible form of a dove, and the Father is speaking out of the sky.  All three persons may be observed, if not seen.  Father in heaven, Son on earth by the river-bank, and Holy Spirit descending upon and resting on Jesus.

Secondly, we hear that Jesus is "well-pleasing" to the Father, as He begins His public ministry.  This is the judgment of God that Jesus is holy and without sin.  He is fit to begin the great work of our salvation.  We will hear the same judgment of God spoken from the mount of Transfiguration on January 21st as Jesus sets His face to descend into Jerusalem to die for us.  This is God the Father acknowledging His Son, and declaring that He is fit and holy and righteous as He begins His great work in His public ministry!

I want to take this opportunity to focus your minds on the song of the Angels to the Shepherds outside of Bethlehem.  "Peace on earth, good will to men" is better translated "Peace on earth among men with whom He is well-pleased."  This "Well-pleased" spoken over Jesus here, at the beginning, is what is accounted our own in connection with Jesus Christ, by grace through faith.  These words here mean He is ready to be our Savior, and He has what we need, as He begins.  Right here, right at the beginning of His public work, Jesus has what we need from Him to have peace with God and to end the wrath of God against our sins.

Why is this our Sunday after Epiphany's Gospel?  Because it speaks of beginnings.  Jesus is beginning His great work prepared, equipped, and worthy.  His ministry will next step into the wilderness for forty days and nights of fasting and temptations by the devil - temptations that Eve surrendered to, but which Jesus resisted and triumphed over for us.

Are you ready to begin another year?  Are you prepared with faith, equipped with the gifts of the holy Spirit, and worthy by virtue of repentance and forgiveness, and confidence in God?  Sure you are.  This little sermon is just a reminder.  You begin the Epiphany season this year with God, Jesus is your constant companion – He did say, "Behold I am always with you."  The Holy Spirit has been poured out on you, too, in your baptism.  He is given to you as a pledge and a guarantee of God's presence, power, and blessings – and your salvation, too.  You share, by the grace of God, in the "in whom I am well-pleased" spoken about Jesus on the day our Gospel records.

What does this mean?

It means we begin this year in faith, with hope and trust in God, confident of His mercy, blessing and presence with us and among us!  Our sins are forgiven, and we are beloved of God in Jesus Christ.  That's what it means!

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

(Let the people say Amen)