Living Bread

Why eat? Silly question. Because we’re hungry, that’s why. Well, sort of. Hunger is a sensation triggered by a need. Or sometimes not. Your brain senses a need, and therefore creates the feeling of hunger. Sometimes our brains are out of sync with out bodies, and so we’re hungry when we don’t need food, or we’re not hungry when we do. We call that disordered eating.

Eating incorporates food into our bodies for health, for energy, for growth. Take a simple loaf of bread, for instance. All the energy of the sun, the nutrients of the soil, the vitality of the life of the grain is baked into that loaf of bread. When you eat it, you incorporate and release all that good stuff into your bodies. As the Wonder Bread folks used to say in their ads, “Building strong bones and healthy bodies 12 ways.”

“You are what you eat,” we say. I’m not sure what that means exactly. I think it’s supposed to mean that it’s good to eat good food, a version of “garbage in, garbage out.” But it’s not literally true. When I eat broccoli, I don’t become broccoli. When I eat a steak, I don’t become a cow. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. What you eat becomes what you are. All the proteins, vitamins, minerals, sugars, fats of your food become part of you.

OK, now that I’ve stirred your appetites a bit for food, let’s talk about another kind of food. Not the food that becomes what you are, but the food that transforms you, the food that gives eternal life. Of course, I’m speaking of Jesus, who calls Himself “the Bread of Life” and “living Bread come down from heaven.”

Spiritual food for eternal life. All your other food, you eat to your death. That’s the outcome of Adam’s eating the food that was forbidden. And each of us is part of that death. Wonder Bread may build strong bones and healthy bodies 12 ways, but it can’t ward off death even in the healthiest of bodies. Even that miracle manna bread couldn’t save the Israelites from death in the wilderness. But Jesus, the Bread of Life, is an entirely different food on our diet. He is the Bread that conquers death; He is the Bread that overcomes our affliction; He is the Bread that brings life out of His own death. He builds life forever one way: by His death and resurrection.

Jesus is the Bread of Life. As I noted last week, He is not the chocolate of life or the caviar of life or the cotton candy of life. He is not some little delicacy you nibble at once a month or so. He is Bread. Daily bread. The staff of life. That’s why the church never treated the Lord’s Supper as something “special,” but something weekly and even daily. Bread is ordinary, daily food, and without our daily allotment of the Bread of Life, faith will shrivel up and die and anemic death.

When your eating is out of whack, we call it an eating disorder. There are spiritual eating disorders too. I’m afraid there are many Christians who suffer a spiritual eating disorder. Imagine trying to live on one meal a week, or one meal a month. It wouldn’t take long for the weakness to set in. You’d die. Yet some try to live on a starvation diet of the Word and the Sacrament. We make excuses about there being “no time” for church, no time for Bible study, no time for daily prayer and devotions. Yet there’s always plenty of time to stuff ourselves with the world’s idea of food.

We have churches offering “happy meals” instead of the Bread of Life, entertainment instead of the Lord’s bounteous table, principles and purpose-driven programs instead of the Word the kills us and makes us alive. Unfortunately, our natural appetites are drawn to that stuff like a sweet tooth pulls us to the dessert bar and away from the bread line. That’s what happens when you have Adam’s taste for forbidden fruit. Real food starts to taste bland, dull, boring.

I’ve read how kids today prefer artificially flavored ice cream to natural. Fake strawberry tastes much better to the modern set of buds than does real strawberry. Artificial flavors pack more punch and tickle the tongue more than their real counterparts. We actually prefer amplified digital music to the sound of real instruments. Our ears are tuned to the artificial sound. The same is true for our spiritual tastes. Sugary, sweet sentimentality is so much more enticing than sturdy, crusty bread. The artificial flavors of religion with all its emotion and fantasy and self-improvement tickle our spiritual taste buds so much more than that humble, homely Bread of Life that comes down from heaven to nourish us in His death.

Bread doesn’t seem like much of a meal, does it? Hometown Buffet is more to our palate. We’d prefer it if Jesus had said, “I am the Hometown Buffet of Life” – I am whatever you want, as much as you want, whenever you want it.

Bread doesn’t seem like much of a meal, does it? Word and Sacrament don’t seem like much of a religion either. Remember the prophet Elijah, who traveled 40 days in the wilderness on bread and water. Ordinary bread becomes extraordinary food in the hand of God, joined to His Word that says to you “Take, eat, drink.”

When the Bread is the Son of God in the flesh, you have food you can find nowhere else. Notice all the “exclusives” in today’s Gospel. “For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life.” “Everyone who hears the Father and learns from Him comes to me.” “No one has seen the Father except the One who is from God; only He has seen the Father.” No one but the Son of God can speak this way. And no one but the Son of God can make this promise: “He who believes in me has eternal life.”

To eat is to believe. To trust in Jesus is to live off of His life and death. To say, “Not my works, Lord, but your work. Not my sacrifices, but your sacrifice. Not my crosses, but your cross. Not my blood, sweat, and tears but your blood, sweat and tears are what save me from my sins, from my death, from hell itself. I cannot save myself. I can only dig myself deeper into my own grave. But you, dear Son of God, sent by the Father, you have become a human being, a man born of a human mother, to save my own wretched flesh from the grave. And baptized into You, clinging to your promise, I have eternal life now, and I have this promise that keeps me: ‘I will raise you up on the Last Day.”

Resurrection. That’s what Jesus, the Bread of Life, does that no other bread in the world can do. No other religious figure can make that promise. Only Jesus died and rose. And only Jesus can make this promise to His believers, three times in this morning’s Gospel: “I will raise him up on the last day.” That’s our Christian hope. Not that we have an easy and happy life; not that we are bailed out of every difficult situation that befalls us; not that we are successful at everything we do; not that we are spared every sickness or even death itself. But that Jesus, the crucified and risen One, will raise our bodies on the last day. Jesus is the Bread of Immortality – eat of Him, trust in Him, and you not only live forever, He will raise you from the grave on the last day.

Those who heard Jesus grumbled when they heard it. It wasn’t the grumbling of empty stomachs yearning for bread, but the grumbling of hardened empty hearts unwilling to receive the gift given. They grumbled over Jesus claim to have come down from heaven. They knew His father (so they thought!). They knew His mother and His family. They knew where He was born and where He grew up. How can He call Himself living Bread come down from heaven?

It’s the scandal of the Incarnation. God became man, a flesh and blood human being. It’s utterly scandalous to our reason, our senses, our religious sensibilities. It’s the first thing you have to deny when you want to write off Jesus. You must deny His Incarnation, that He is the eternal Word become flesh. That’s what is often missed at Christmastime. Christmas is about the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. God is now man in the Son. And the world is still scandalized by this today. Jesus the teacher, the family values policeman, the ethical philosopher, the moral example – all of these are perfectly acceptable to the world. But Jesus the Son of God, the infinite God in finite Flesh, the Word Incarnate – unthinkable! Islam denies it; Judaism denies it; Buddhism, Hinduism, and every other -ism all deny it. They have to deny it, because if it’s true that Jesus is true God as well as true Man, then they’re all out of business, which they actually are anyway.

Only the flesh and blood of God become Man can save your flesh and blood from the grave that is our lot in life. Only the blood of God’s Son can cleanse from sin. Only the flesh of God’s Son, offered up for the life of the world, can raise your flesh from the grave. Faith in Christ feeds on His death, much the way scavenger birds feed on roadkill. Jesus said of His kingdom, “Where the carcass is, there the vultures will gather.” Where the death of Jesus, there the faithful gather to eat and live off the one Death that brings life.

In eating, we incorporate all the energies and vitalities of our food, releasing them for our life. Hearing Jesus’ Word of forgiveness, hearing His word “this is my body given for you; this is my blood shed for you” and actually eating His Body and drinking His Blood, trusting Jesus through the gift of faith (and faith is a gift given by God, not the result of our doing), all the energies and vitalities of the crucified and risen flesh of the Son of God are incorporated into you. Eat this Bread and you have life forever. Eat this living Bread and He will raise you up on the Last Day.

With this food, you are what you eat.

In the name of Jesus,
Amen

More Answers Than Questions

Questions. The crowds have lots of questions. And Jesus has answers. And with the answers come much more than anyone would dare to ask. That’s how it always goes with Jesus. We come with our questions – sometimes curious, sometimes trivial, occasionally challenging or even doubting. And Jesus meets our questions with answers that go far beyond our small, religious way of looking at things.

Feeding the five thousand with five little barley loaves and two small fish was a genuine crowd-pleaser. They wanted to make Jesus a king by force. And so He withdrew to a mountain, slipped away from their political plans. His disciples left by boat and headed across the sea of Galilee. Jesus decided to go foot. Literally, walking on the water. Again, it was another “messianic sign” – Jesus walking on the Deep, Tehom, the swirling chaotic waters. The Lord of creation is free to walk wherever He pleases, even defying the “laws” of buoyancy.

Of course, Jesus walking on the water in the middle of the night scares the wits out of His disciples, but once they hear His voice, they were more than happy to take Him on board. So when they land on shore, Jesus is with them in the boat, which leaves the crowd a bit puzzled: The boat left without Jesus, and then it landed with Jesus. So the first question is a logical one: Rabbi, when did you come here? How did you get here?

Now, of course, the obvious answer is, “I walked,” but that would have raised more questions than answers, so Jesus just leaves that question aside. How Jesus gets from one place to another as irrelevant as how water is Baptism or how bread and wine are the Body and Blood of Christ. The Lord is free to do whatever He pleases with His creation.

Instead of satisfying their curiosity, Jesus pushes on the issue of faith. Where was there trust? Why were they following Him? What did they want? “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are seeking me not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” “You’re looking for me to fill your bellies with food, to scratch your needs, to put a bandage on your bumps and bruises. But I have so much more to give you than bread and fish. You’d be thrilled with bread and fish for life, but I have a food that will give your much more than a full belly at the end of the day.”

“Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you; for on Him God has put His mark.”

There are two kinds of food: Food you work for, and food which is given. Food that perishes, and food that endures to eternal life. You know about the first kind of food. Food you work for. That’s one reason you go to work, to put bread on the table. That food goes back to the Fall in the Garden in Genesis: “From the sweat of your brow you will eat your bread until you die.” That wasn’t how it was in the beginning. In the beginning, food was fruits and nuts, gifts freely falling off of trees where nothing dies. There was the tree of life, from which one could eat and live forever. In the beginning it was all gifts and no work.

But disobedience and death changed the ecology and the diet. No longer fruits and nuts, now bread, food you work for, work that eventually kills you. Farming uncooperative ground. Fighting weeds, climate, bugs. Grinding grain. Kneeding dough. Baking bread. Work, work, work. Sales quotas, production schedules, budget constraints, government regulations, unreliable suppliers, dishonest business partners, lawyers, cranky customers, mean bosses, lazy workers, endless piles of paperwork. Ecclesiastes calls it “futility,” endless chasing after wind.

God has rigged it that way. He’s made work a sweaty, frustrating business, to teach us work is not the way to life. It’s simply work. We cannot work our way to heaven; we can only work our way to the grave.

The food we work for perishes. It spoils, it rots, it gets moldy and smelly. That’s why we have refrigerators and freezers. Our food is dead and slowly decaying. We’re just trying to slow the decay with freezing and preservatives. Even the manna in the wilderness was like. If you tried to store for the next day, except on the Sabbath, it rotted and was full of worms and stank.

The world is decaying, and all our work to “save it” can only delay the decay a bit. It’s all the death of Adam worked out in the cosmos, as Paul says, “The whole creation has been subjected to futility and decay.” All that doom and gloom stuff in the headlines – pollution, global warming, melting polar ice caps, you name it – it’s all part of the grand death that is the wages of sin. And there’s no turning the clock back, no undoing the Fall or its effects. Remember, God isn’t into rehab, but dying and rising. We can only manage the death, much like a hospice that doesn’t try to cure the patient but comfort him.

Our food is dead and we die along with. And even though the manna was wonder bread from the hand of God HImself, the people who ate it still died. A whole generation of Israelites. The bread Moses gave couldn’t save them from death, no matter how “miraculous it was.” Nor could the Law Moses gave save them. That’s our lot as sinners, no matter how “good” you might be. That’s what Paul means when he says, “The wages of sin is death.” You earn it with your works – all the ways you’ve trampled on God and on each other.

“But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” Gift not works. Free gift – undeserved, unmerited, placed into empty, dead, receiving hands. “Do not work for food that spoils, but the food that endures to eternal life which Son of Man will give to you.” Jesus promises a food that requires no preservatives, no refrigeration. It doesn’t spoil. It endures to eternal life. And guess what? It preserves the eater to eternal life too. Imagine that. A food that doesn’t spoil, and it prevents you from rotting eternally. Talk about “health food,” this has vitamin supplements and nutrition shakes beaten hands down! We spend oodles of money on “health foods” and “nutritional supplements,” and here is free food from the hand of God that preserves to eternity!

And yet the world, and even us, you and I here this morning, pay more attention to belly food than eternal food. We lavish more attention and devotion on our daily bread than on the bread of life. We’re more concerned about Sunday brunch than we are about the Supper of the Lord. We’ll point a good restaurant much more quickly and easily that the Lord’s Supper. Our taste buds are not naturally inclined to eternity.

Look at the Israelites. They were fed by God’s hand in the wilderness, and what do they want? The menu of Egypt – leeks, garlic, meat, wine. All that good stuff in exchange for what – freedom. That was the food of their slavery. Our appetites are not geared for liberty, and we’d be willing to sacrifice most anything for loaf of bread.

The food that endures to eternity is not a food you work for, but a food that’s given you free, gratis, from the Son of Man, from Jesus, marked in His Baptism as the Son of God and Source of salvation. Jesus alone, and there is no other.

But the crowds, like us, are still thinking about works. What must we do to be doing the works of God? Surely we must do something? “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” as economist Milton Friedman once observed. “What must we be doing to do the works of God?”

Listen carefully to Jesus’ answer: “The work of God is this: That you believe in the One He has sent.” Not “works” but a singular “work.” And not our works but the work of God, the singular work God does. Faith is God’s work, not ours. It’s the work of God that we believe, trust, in Jesus whom He has sent. St. Paul fleshes this out completely in this one sentence from Ephesians chapter 2: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God – not because of works, lest any man should boast.” (Eph 2:8-9)

Any works you and I do, are built on the work of God in Jesus. It’s not our good life that saves us, but Jesus’ perfect life, His sacrificial death, His victory over the grave, all given to us freely as a gift and received through trust that God Himself works in us. Our work can’t save us, our bread can’t save us. Only Jesus has a work and a bread that gives life to the world. He is the Baker of a new loaf of bread, a new and mysterious manna. Not as Moses gave. Not as the Law gives. Only as the Son of God gives.

“What sign will you give us,” they ask, “that we should trust you. Moses had bread from heaven, what you do have, Jesus?” And Jesus has them right where He wants them. And us too. At the place where He gives Himself. The bread He gives is Himself. “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever trusts in me shall never thirst.” Jesus our bread; Jesus our drink. If you’re thinking Lord’s Supper, you on the right track. And we’ll get there in a week or so as we tour John 6. But today it’s about trust in Jesus and His work to save you. If you don’t get trust in Jesus right, you won’t get the Lord’s Supper right either.

And what is the sign He gives that we should take Him at His word and trust Him? Nothing short of His death and resurrection. That’s how this Bread of Life is baked – in the fiery furnace of God’s wrath against our sin and in the burning heat of His passion to save His fallen creation. Like wheat ground up by the mill and put into the fire, Jesus endured the cross bearing our sin in order to be our Food, the Source of life.

“I am the Bread of Life.” Bread. Not caviar, not chocolate, not a delicacy to be indulged in once and a while. Bread. Daily, ordinary, earthy food. Jesus is manna for sinners – those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. You, in all the ways that sin has left you empty and hungry. There is food that endures forever. A Bread that gives life forever. A drink that quenches your thirst and soothes your parched soul. Not “chicken soup for the soul,” but bread of life for your life. And it is free. Not earned but given, received.

That Food and Drink is Jesus Himself – Jesus in the Word, Jesus in your Baptism, Jesus in the Bread and Cup. Eat and drink, trust in Him, and you will filled with life forever.

In the name of Jesus,
Amen.

Borrowed Bread and Fish

Borrowed bread and fish are a feast in the hands of Jesus.

John writes, “Sometime after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee.” The “after this” refers to Jesus’ healing of the man at the pool of Bethsaida. There with a word, He told a paralyzed man, to get up, and he did. It was a Sabbath, and so the religious confront Jesus. “My Father is always at his work to this very day,” Jesus told them, “and I, too, am working.” He said He was the Son of God, and He had the works to prove it. The confrontation ends with a question to those who would follow Moses: “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”

On this question, John hangs the next thing, this morning’s Gospel. Jesus crosses the Sea of Galilee to the far shore, and a great crowd of people follow after Him. They had seen the miracles, how Jesus healed the sick, and they wanted more. Faith in miracles always needs another miracle to keep it going. You can pack a stadium full of people that way.

Jesus goes up to a mountainside with His disciple. Watch when Jesus goes up to a mountain. Sermon on the Mount, the mount of transfiguration, Mt. Calvary. God’s holy mountain. In our reading from Exodus, Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and the seventy elders of Israel saw God, and they ate and drank, and were not destroyed. Keep that one running in the background.

Jesus sees the mob coming toward them, and He tests one of His disciples. “Philip, where are we going to buy bread for all these people?” He says this with messianic tongue firmly planted in messianic cheek. He knew what He was going to do. He wanted to hear what Philip would say.

Philip fails the test. He thinks only in terms of dollars and cents and work. “Two hundred denarii, the wages of eight months’ work, would not be enough.” Philip can see only so far as his own work. Jesus has nothing whatsoever to do with it. And so we, in our practicalities, and our Monday through Saturday Christianity that has little if anything to do with Jesus. He’s for Sunday, when we have the time. The rest of the week is for work. He can heal the sick on occasion, but feeding a mob of five thousand hungry people is another matter.

Andrew has his solution. He co-opts a little boy bringing lunch home to his mother. Five little cakes of barley and two dried fish. How far can these go among so many, Andrew wonders. He fails the test too. Borrowed bread and fish in the hands of Jesus go as far as needed. And even more.

He has them sit down. John, who was there himself, notes that there was much green grass. Why the grass? Perhaps John was thinking about Psalm 23, the psalm of the sheep boasting of his good shepherd. ‘He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.” Good Shepherd Jesus is there to feed His flock, to prepare a table for them in the presence of their enemies.

Jesus takes the borrowed bread into His own hands, gives thanks, breaks it up and distributes it. Sound familiar? It should. It happens every Sunday here in church. What He did with borrowed bread there, He does here for us, and so much more. Instead of multiplying it, He amplifies it, gives more than we ordinarily receive with bread – His body sacrificed on Calvary for your sins.

He takes the bread and begins to distribute it, and the bread keeps on coming and coming. Bread in abundance, like manna raining down from heaven. He does the same with the fish. In the wilderness, Jesus was tempted by the devil to turn stones into bread to feed Himself. Jesus refused. To serve Himself was not why He came. And to destroy one thing to make another is not the way of God. He made the stones, and He makes the bread. He loves them both, and will not destroy one for the other. In feeding the 5000, Jesus multiplies the bread and the fish. That’s God’s way.

The rabbis said that when Messiah came, he would feed His people with bread from heaven. That’s the sign of this miracle, what this miracle is intended to show. The age of Messiah had come. The Son of God in the flesh had come. Bread in abundance. More bread than they could possibly eat. A perfect twelve baskets full of leftovers, doggy bags for the disciples. And fish too. At the Sabbath meal, you always ate some fish in Jesus’ day. (That’s how we later got fish on Fridays, by the way.) It was said that when Messiah came, the people of God would feast on the flesh of Leviathan, symbolized by a great fish. (Think Jonah here.)

What a day it was! The Lord on a mountain, green grass, five thousand eating bread and fish with God to their contentment. And twelve baskets full of leftovers.

The people said, “This is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” They got that part right. We’ll give them a B- on that. Jesus was indeed the one of whom Moses wrote in Deuteronomy chapter 18: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers.” Jesus is that Prophet, and more. That part the people got right. The next part they got terribly wrong. They wanted to make Jesus a king by force, and so Jesus withdrew again to a mountain by Himself.

If you want to co-opt Jesus for your own cause, if you want to call the shots with Jesus, you will do it alone. Jesus will have nothing to do with it. He knew what they had in mind for Him. When they heard “Prophet” or “Messiah,” they were thinking revolution, an armed revolt against Rome. They were thinking a Davidic king sitting on the throne of Israel. They were thinking, like so many deluded people today think, that God would restore the nation of Israel to its former greatness, establish the throne in Jerusalem, and reign over the world through His chosen Messiah. And they were willing to push the agenda along, if necessary. Make Jesus king by force. Take up swords and clubs and storm the gates of Jerusalem. Jesus knew what was on their minds, and He wanted no part of their plots.

The people wanted a bread king. We do too. On the promise of a chicken in every pot, universal health care, the end of world hunger and poverty, peace in the world, we would put most anyone in power, including even the devil, were he a candidate. Think of all that could have been accomplished by putting Jesus into temporal power. The end of hunger in the world. Bread for everyone. The end of disease. No health care crisis. No worries about AIDS or bird flu or whatever pestilence makes the headlines. Global warming? No problem when the Son of God is in charge. War in the middle east? The Prince of Peace can settle that.

We expect that of our religions too. We expect a solution to our problems, a quick fix to our hungers, fulfillment of our needs, a bandage for broken marriages, a chastity belt for our kids, chicken soup for our souls. That’s what we expect from God, and there are plenty of religious hucksters out there peddling you the snake oil of health, wealth, and prosperity all in the name of Jesus. And when we don’t find them, we move on to other congregations, other religions, other gods.

The sign of the bread and fish was a stepping stone to yet greater things. Jesus was indeed a king, but not the bread king the people wanted. A beggar king. Riding atop a borrowed donkey. Wearing a borrowed purple robe. A crown of thorns. Bearing your sin in His body on the cross. Behold your king. In Hebrew, Latin, and Greek nailed to the cross above His head: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. That’s how it is when the Lord is King.

What Jesus offers is not fast food, not a quick end to your hunger, nor a religious pill to pop when you are feeling bad. He offers to you a bread you can have from no one else but Jesus. The bread of His body broken for you in your brokenness; His flesh offered up for the life of the world. He offers you a cup of wine you can have from no one else but Jesus. The wine of His life’s blood poured out for you; cleansing you from all your sins. Borrowed bread and wine are a feast of salvation in the hands of Jesus.

When you leave here this morning, what will you say to each other? What will you remember? What will you think about on the way home? The hymns were hard? The church was stuffy? The organist dropped a couple of notes? Pastor didn’t bring his A-game this morning?

Try this: We ate and drank with God on His holy mountain, and He did not lift His hand to destroy us.

In the name of Jesus,
Amen

Behold! The Lamb of God

Abraham was right. That faithful old man, the “father of believers,” was caught in the deepest anguish of his faith when God stuck him on the spear-point of his order to sacrifice his son. Laden with wood on his back, the boy asked, “Father, where is the lamb?” With fire in his box – and in his own heart – and with the knife in his hand, Abraham was faithful.

Behold the Passover

God provided the Lamb for the burnt offering. And so that you and I and the rest of the world might not miss the Lamb or get muddled with the claims of a thousand and one other messiahs who promote themselves – willing to make us sacrifices to their ideologies and dreams – God took the pains to send John the Baptizer to point to Christ. John, that bony, strange, and brave man, was sent for your service. Let him do his divine service for you as you listen with due attention to his speech: “BEHOLD THE LAMB OF GOD wo takes away the sin world.” Follow the direction of his bony finger when he points to that burnt-offering sacrifice on the cross.

Contemplate that Lamb on the cross, the sacrifice offered once and for all time for our redemption. The fire of God’s wrath, fanned by his mercy and passionate love to be our God, roasts this Lamb. Stretched out on the cross, this Lamb is God’s embrace of the world of his enemies: He is our peace. Like a magnet drawing filings itself, this Lamb, when he is lifted up, “draws all men” to himself. Into himself this Lamb draws the poison of our death: his death is ours. When he dies, we all died.

The curse of death is everywhere in the world. It is in us too. The slavery of death causes us terror in our loneliness, fear in our boredom, anger and grief in our loss. That curse lives us not rest, no Sabbath. It hunts us down, drags us out of hiding, and snatches us away from all we love. Death and its curse dog our days mercilessly and mock our deceits of culture, religion, and civilization to escape them.

Contemplate the wounds

And yet Israel lived safely in its houses when death passed over the land. Hiding behind the blood of the Lamb, they could eat, talk to each other, and rise up to walk to the land promise to them. So you too hide yourselves in these sweet and glorious wounds of Christ. Look on the Lamb of God and consider.

On the head of the Lamb are the wounds that heal your minds in the heavenly joy of repentance. Learn to think with a new mind about God and yourself by contemplating the wounds of his head.

In those hands are the wounds that heal the works of your hands, making them fruitful again in the service of God and your fellows.
In those dear feet are the wounds that heal your straying feet so that you may walk with your Lord on the way of your Lord.

On that back are the wounds of stripes that heal all your wounds of self-inflicted flagellation or the blows you receive from the hostility of your fellow victims. Your backs are healed to stoop down and pick up on your shoulders the lost and the straying and the bruised among your fellows.

And from the side of the Lamb, where the spear of our curiosity about death, where the hatred and the violence of our hearts, are rammed deeply into his heart, there flows the mystery of the love of God. There flows the holy church, the mystery of the unity with God as she is bound together in cleansing and forgiving. Water from his death cleanses you in the baptismal washing and cools down the feverish conscience. Blood fills the chalice you drink that your mortal and condemned body, riddled with disorder, might be ordered sweetly again with God in forgiveness of sins that is lively and salvific. In those wounds you may hide safely from the curse and sin and death. From those wounds flows to you the life that is full of blessing, fidelity, and vitality.

BEHOLD THE LAMB OF GOD WHO TAKES AWAY THE SIN OF THE WORLD!

Behold and listen

And now, look at those parched, chapped lips. No chap-stick of mortals can heal or soothe them, for in his mouth he suffers the cost of the scorn, the lies, and the blasphemous abuse of his Name. The healing comes rather from his mouth. He utters through those cracked lips the words that heal you – at cost to himself. He is the Author of those gracious words. Therefore, those words have authority – authority to heal you in and with and through those words. He heals not himself but you.

The first word

His first and last words are addressed to his Father and ours. First: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He does not scorn us in contempt for our ignorance and willfulness. He does not wither us with words of disgust and revulsion. He does not drive back into our souls resentment, the bitter hatred we pour out on him. He embraces it all – and us – to himself, into his body to carry it all to the grave and bury it. The lethal, murderous hatchet is buried. It sinks deeply into his soul and by him the sin is extracted from our soul. We are delivered.

In his body – the body of Mary, of the Tree, of the Table – he carries the sin. But out of that body’s mouth he speaks the word of the forgiveness of sins, the word which creates his body, the church. And by that word he fills the church chock full of forgiveness of sins. Into that body, the church, created by his word of the forgiveness of sins, you have been placed for the daily and generous forgiveness of sin so that you may as freely forgive as you have been forgiven. As the forgiveness springs from the heart of God, you can freely and heartily forgive those who sin against you.

His first word opens the door to life forever. That word, hot with the fire and passion of God, welds us to the faithfulness of the Speaker, creating the faith that embraces him. That union of his mercy and our trust heals us forever in the eternal redemption.

and the last

And his last word, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit,” finishes what he began. At the end of his life and work he prays the prayer of his boyhood, the prayer he learned from the lips and laps of his parents. It was his “Now -I-lay-me-down-to-sleep” prayer. Having gathered us together in himself he lifts us up into the Father’s hands as he returns whence he came. With a loud voice he roars into our confused ears and minds what our end is. These words tell us where we are going. He carries us with himself. As he offers himself on the cross, he takes us along that where he is there we may be also. Without ceasing day and night, he who alone can condemn you rather prays for you.

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and hear the words of his prayer. His first word is your beginning, your origin, your creation anew in righteousness. His last word is the way you are finished out in perfection. It is the word of your destiny, the word that teaches you to die well, to end your life where it has begun: in him with the Father. Hold that cross before your closing eyes. By faith enfold in your heat this One who has enfolded you in his. Who dies thus dies well.

“Today you shall be with me in paradise.”

In between the first and last word of Jesus, those gracious lips of the suffering Lamb nurture our life for living. To the thief on his right Jesus speaks the word that gives courage to suffer with patience and with hope the rewards we receive for our wrong doing. This is no superficial smile, condescendingly turned to look at a wasted life, botched opportunities, and broken hearts. Here is no look of regret at a life that is full of plain evil and harm unleashed on others. Here is no sentimental muttering about the evil of the system as the painful, shameful verdict falls on the perpetrator of evil. Here is the deep and terrible truth about us who are the proper targets of God’s infallible detection system.

But the deep and terrible truth is caught up in a deeper truth and the terrible good. “Remember me, Lord,” is the cry of faith in the midst of pain – pain justly deserved and suffered. And we, with nothing else than death on our hands, are taught by our Lord’s words how to pray to and how to confess the truth. From our cross we learn to pray to him on his cross: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus, our Priest, says the AMEN: “Truly (Amen), today you shall be with me in paradise.” For his shame there is the gracious look, the beauteous word that covers the thief with glory. For despair and anger there is the life-giving promise. For the empty sorrow of regrets there is the vivifying hope, the root of courage.

BEHOLD THE LAMB OF GOD WHO TAKES AWAY THE SIN OF THE WORLD that you may be filled with patience, courage, and hope.

“I thirst!”

Do not trick yourself, or deceive yourself, or deprive yourself of the benefits of this Lamb by imagining that his pain and sorrow were somehow not real, as if God’s only-begotten Son would not (surely) feel the brute pain as you do. His is real pain – as real as his real death. He hurt. He died. And for hours, now, he had been, mocked and scorned. He was the Victim of coarse injustice. Physically he had been knocked around, whipped, and slapped. Now he is thirst:y: plain, burning, parching, painful thirst. Indeed, he thirsts for you salvation, too. We heard him say in last night’s Gospel (Luke 22) how he longed and thirsted to eat this passover meal (the Lord’s Supper) with his disciples. But his thirst is also plain thirst. Don’ t by-pass this plain pain. The recollection of it will sustain you at times when you are in plain pain. Remember his thirst so that you may know the thirst for the Holy Supper when you are in pain and the help offered to you seems as cynical and manipulative as the vinegar he received when he wanted a drink of cool water. Recall his pain with yours so that you may also learn to have pity on those of your fellows who are hungry and thirsty. In them, Christ, incognito, still cries out. “ I thirst”; he still waits for you to care for him in his pain with something other than vinegar.

BEHOLD THE LAMB OF GOD WHO TAKES AWAY THE SIN OF THE WORLD so that in your pain you may have the companionship of him who feeds you and the comfort of him who knows real and inescapable pain.

“Woman, see you son; son, your mother.”

However, the pain goes deeper than the body. Loneliness and lostness, division and separation, loss and rejection, conflict within the circle of family, friends, and loved ones are aches of the heart and soul, too. Mary was a Jewish mother. Can you imagine the confusion that could beset the mind of this pious and God-fearing mother when her son has been tried, deemed worthy of death by God’s law as a blasphemer, despised, and now killed on this instrument of damnation and curse? Her son had been generous and faithful, good and true. He had borne the stamp of divine pleasure in his conception, birth and baptism,. And now she watches this scene. What would you women think if this were your son? Would that now be the cause of confusion compounded? Would you not wonder: “What on earth is God doing?”

And then think of John, Jesus’ special friend. What do you do when you stand by and see a friend abused? How desolate John and Mary must have been. They are impotent sufferers, and silent. But in their confusion grieved by the loss of their love, they receive the look of tender love from his eyes. With the gracious look of the face of God who sets the solitary in families, who wraps in the care of his arms those devastated by death, he says, “Woman, see your son; son, your mother.” the separation in his death is the death to our separation; he gives us to each other as mother and son in the company of the holy church.

A pledge of peace from God I see
When thy pure eyes are turned to me
To show me thy good pleasure.
Jesus, thy spirit and thy word,
Thy body and thy blood, afford
My soul its dearest treasure.
Keep me Kindly
In thy favor, O my Savior!
Thou wilt cheer me;
Thy word calls me to draw near thou.
(“How Lovely Shines the Morning Star,” stanza 4)

BEHOLD THE LAMB OF GOD WHO TAKES AWAY THE SIN OF THE WORLD and from his gracious look and gracious words, receive “your mother” and “your son” in your family and in your church.

Look at him too when he must go alone, even though our closet attention to him cannot enter he terrible God-forsakenness. The depth of the abyss of hell and damnation, the wretched loss of God himself, is beyond our knowledge and experience. He alone goes to that far country. He has come from the secret heart of God. Now he opens up that secret.

“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

Angels sang at His birth. Angels came to serve Him in the wilderness of temptation. Angels came to comfort Him in His Gethsemanic sweat. But now there are no angels. Ten thousand times ten thousand of powerful shining spirits, faces ablaze with indignation, swords drawn and singing, mounted on steeds chomping at the bit and pawing the sky for release, would have swooped to work a rescue that would have made the most powerful cavalry charge seem like a twitch of the nose. But God looks down on this Man of Sorrows, Grief, and Death, and says to the angels who love to do His will: “Stand back. Do not raise a finger to help. Verily, do not raise an eyelash.”

And God Himself turned away.
The burden is the burden of the Lamb alone.

We are that terrible and lonely burden. He is the God who comes to us in our loneliness, forsakenness, and curse. Lost in the “non-place” of our aloneness, He comes to be our place. We cannot go to Him. He comes to us. He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Caught in the enchantment of our self-love, bound in the enslavement of our own sin, strapped down by the Law’s verdict of condemnation, and writhing in our shameful servitude, this Lamb comes to us. Well do we sing, “Blessed is He that cometh in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna – please save us.”

Enough of this religious prattle that speaks of our doing this and deciding that. First He comes to us. He helps us, not by stepping on us, and not by shouting out commands for self-improvement at us, but by coming, by stooping down even under us to lift us up on His neck. He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death – even death by the cross. We are His burden.

BEHOLD THE LAMB OF GOD WHO TAKES AWAY THE SIN OF THE WORLD.

“It is finished”

He isn’t finished. You are not yet finished. But the work is finished; redemption is perfected and completed for you. The price has been paid, in full. Redemption by the Lamb has no missing pieces that you must full in. It is perfected in order to perfect you. By his cross he has brought joy to the whole earth; he is out to perfect you in that joy. He who won the prize and paid the cost through suffering and death speaks the word of the perfected redemption to you so that you may know what you will be like when he is finished with you.

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Adore him. Adore his cross. In him on that cross the perfection of heaven, with pure joy, is given to you. He was put to death that he might vivify his people.

MERCIFUL JESUS. LAMB OF GOD, look on us that we may cling to you, and in your mercy have our peace forever. Amen!

Kenneth F. Korby, ThD.

Wake Up, Jesus, We’re Drowning

God is God, and we are not God, and that’s good. We make terrible gods. Jesus is God in human flesh, and that’s the best of all. The Word became Flesh. The Son of God is also the Son of Man, and humanity never had it so good as when the Lord of creation became His foremost creature.

It was Jesus’ idea to go across the Sea of Galilee that evening. He knew the ways of the wind and the waves and the weather. He’s the Lord of creation, after all. Still He says, “Let’s go over to the other side.” He puts the disciples in a vulnerable position, a dangerous place where they would have to trust in Him. The disciple agree. They put Jesus atop a cushion in the back where He won’t get in the way of the fishermen, and set out across the sea.

The Sea of Galilee is tricky. Cool air from the Mediterranean whips through the mountains and mixes with the warm, humid air hanging over the lake. Storms can be sudden and swift. An evening squall breaks out. The wind whips and the waves break over the sides of the little boat. From the perspective of dry land, we might wonder what the big deal was. But this is a small boat on a big lake with a very big wind. Even the fishermen were anxious. They knew all about the sea; they’d had their share of near misses. Perhaps they had friends buried at the bottom of the sea.

It’s easy to trust Jesus when the water is calm, isn’t it? When all is right and well with your life. No winds, no waves, no water coming into your boat. Just a nice leisurely sail with Jesus. More of a cruise, actually. “Jesus, Savior pilot me,” means “Jesus, put wind in my sails so I can take in the scenery, do a little fishing. Jesus and me out on the water. What a great time that would be.

But here’s the deal. The wind the blowing, the waves are washing over the sides of the little boat, which is taking in water faster than the Titanic, and Jesus is sound asleep on the cushion in the back of the boat. The disciples wake Him up! All hands on deck. We’re going down if you don’t do something, Jesus. Teacher, don’t you care that we are perishing?

Don’t you care? Of course He cares. He came because we are perishing in our sin, drowning in our death, with a heavy millstone of the Law tied around our necks, pulling us into the deep. He cares all the way to the cross, where He slept in death, bearing our sins. Make no mistake about it, Jesus cares. Compared to His caring on the cross, a little old sinking boat is nothing. Child’s play for the Lord of creation. He can stop the storm with a one-word rebuke from His mouth. He’s the one who separated the waters above from the waters below, who ordered the sea and the dry land, who said to the waves, “This far and no further.” He could calm the storm in His sleep with one hand tied around His back, if He wills. Or not.

Don’t you care? It’s an indictment of motive. If Jesus cared, He do something. If Jesus cared He wouldn’t be asleep in a time of crisis. You’ve probably said, or thought, the same thing when life got a bit “overwhelming.” At least the disciples could see sleeping Jesus, and grab hold of Him to wake Him up. He isn’t quite so shakeable for us, is He?

Perhaps we’ve said it in our prayers or held it in our hearts. Why should He care for you, for me? Who are we? What does He owe us? We want Jesus to fix it, to make the bad, boogy men go away. Remember the boogy man when you were kids? We adults still have them, we just don’t call them that. Cancer, heart disease, death, the grave. Oh, the boogy men are as real as those waves washing over the boat. When the doctor says, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing more we can do,” then we’d like to give Jesus a shake on His throne in heaven. Lord, don’t you care that we perish?

He cares. He cares enough to lay down His life to save us. To die on a cross and rise from the dead. Think about it. You can afford to. You’re not in a sinking ship at the moment. If all Jesus had ever done was die on a cross and rise from the dead, that would have been enough to save those disciples on that little boat. Oh sure, the boat would have gone down, but Jesus would have gone down with them. And that makes all the difference in the world. When your boat goes down, He goes down with you.

It takes faith to say that, to trust that a sleeping Jesus can save you. He opens a sleepy eye and looks around at the wind, the waves, the water, the soggy, frightened disciples. And He says, “Shhhh. Be quiet,” the way you might speak to a barking dog. “Be still.” That’s all it takes. One little word, and the chaotic waters are calm, the storm is still. Mark says, “there was a great calm.” Peace. Silence.

Jesus looks His disciples in the eye. “Why are you so afraid? Don’t you trust me?” He’s asking us the same thing this morning. Why are you so afraid? Why do you live small and fearful lives? Why do you act as though a sleeping Jesus were a useless Jesus, or an invisible Jesus was an absent Jesus? If Jesus singlehandedly conquered sin, death, and the Law by dying on the cross, don’t you think He has everything else covered as well?

There was a remarkable sentence in this morning’s epistle reading. Ordinarily, in the Pentecost season, the epistle reading is running on its own. We’ve been marching through 2 Corinthians. Whether by design or accident or “holy luck, “ here it is: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was in Christ reconciling the world (the cosmos) to Himself, not counting men’s sins against them.”

Reconciliation. Making peace. Stilling the storm. Calming the chaos. Setting things in order. That’s what God is doing through His Son. Making things new. A new creation. Creation began with chaotic waters, and here the Lord of creation in the flesh, Jesus, sets everything in order again. He reconciles wind and waves and water and boat and disciples and they are safe because they are with Jesus.

Jesus draws their fear to Himself. They once were afraid of the power of nature, of the sea and the storm. Now their fear is directed toward Him. “They feared a great fear,” Mark says, “and asked each other, ‘Who is this? Who is this that even the wind and sea obey Him?”

You know the answer. He is the Lord, the eternal Son of God, the Christ, the Messiah of Israel, the creative Word, the Savior of the cosmos. No one else can rebuke the storm. No one else can speak to wind and waves and have them obey. There’s only One like this, and He happens to be the One in whom you are baptized, in whom you believe.

He wants your fear. “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” What causes your heart to race; what keeps you up at night. He wants that fear. Don’t fear the wind, the storm, the tumor, the bullet, the burst blood vessel, the grave. Don’t fear what can only destroy the body, but cannot harm the soul. Fear God. Fear the Son of God, for He will swallow up your fear. Who is greater than the Lord?

This miracle is an exceptional image, a piece of hard evidence, but it is not the rule. There are plenty of ships that go down into the deep. Some of them with Christians aboard. Airplanes fall from the sky. Tidal waves sweep across crowded beaches without warning. Hurricanes wipe out cities. Earthquakes turn solid rock to liquid. Wildfires roar through canyon communities. Bombs explode in crowded places. A chromosome has a tiny, devastating nick in it. A cell turns into a cancerous monster. Where is Jesus when all this happens? Is He asleep at the wheel? Does He care?

The answer is: He is there in the middle of all of it. Reconciling all things. Making all things new. Working salvation, making good. To see that and say that calls for repentance on our part, just as it called for repentance on the part of the disciples. A change of mind. A new way of looking at things. A turning from fear to faith. The same Word that stills the storm is the Word that forgives your sin and justifies you before God. You are safe, dear baptized believer. Safer than you could ever imagine. Safe in life and in death, when the winds and waves die down and when they don’t.

Imagine that you are out there on that stormy sea in the darkness. The wind howls, the waves wash over the side of the boat. You grab on to Jesus and say, “Lord, save us. We’re going to die.” But instead of rebuking the wind and waves, Jesus simply wraps those crucified and risen arms of His around you and says nothing more than this, “Don’t be afraid. It’s finished. You’re baptized into my death. You’re safe. Just trust me.”

That’s all you need to hear.

In the name of Jesus,
Amen

Small Sown Seed

You just know that summer is here. It’s hot and humid. The crickets are chirping late into the night. The smell of early fireworks in the air. It’s the “fourth of July” weekend and grills are ablazing. And we have parables.

Parables are a fun, subversive way to teach. Jesus used parables when people stopped listening to Him. Parables are earthy, everyday stories about seed and soil and grain and mustard plants that are little analogies for the very big topics of God’s kingdom, grace, and judgment. Parables require “ears to hear,” which is another way of saying “faith.” They invite you to trust in Jesus and to act on that trust in Jesus. And so this morning, we get a couple of kingdom parables for our consideration.

“This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scattered seed on the ground.” Now the scattering was dealt with in the first parable, the parable of the four kinds of soil. There the sower sows the seed by walking along, reaching into a bag, pulling out a handful of seed, and scattering it all over the place. Some falls on the pavement, some among the rocks, some among the weeds, and some on the good, plowed soil.

The thing you notice right away is that the sower is pretty casual when it comes to sowing his seed. He doesn’t do any soil science. He doesn’t send off soil samples to some lab to see how receptive the soil will be and what the yield will be. He doesn’t count the seed, either. No measurements. He takes handfuls of unnumbered seed and scatters it all over the place, and doesn’t seem to care where it lands.

Now when you realize that the seed is the Word, who is Jesus Christ the Word in the Flesh, and the soil is the hearts of men and women, you start to get a picture of how God operates His kingdom in the world. He scatters the Word of Christ all over the place, without regard for whether it lands on good, productive soil, rocks, weeds, or hard pavement. And then the Word does His thing. Automatically.

Can you imagine a church that took this parable seriously? Can you imagine a church that sows the Word of Christ recklessly, without concern for where it lands? Can you imagine Christians going out into the world to proclaim Jesus Christ in their various callings, and not being terribly concerned about who hears it, or if they are “ready” to hear it, or if they will perhaps respond favorably? Can you imagine what would happen if baptized believers simply started sowing the seed of Christ’s Word?

Why don’t we? There are many reasons, I suspect. Fear is one. But the chief reason is that we really don’t trust the Word to do its thing. We have to help the Word along. Cultivate the soil. Do some digging and analyzing and weeding. Measure our scattering efficiency. But that’s not how things work in the parable. The sower sows his seed with a kind of joyful reckless abandon, and then when his seed bag is empty, he retires to the house, cracks open a beer, puts up his feet, watches a little tv. He sleeps, he gets up, he tends to his chores. And the seed sown in the ground sprouts and grows, and the sower has no idea how it all works. And he doesn’t have to know.

Our Lutheran Confessions say something similar when they speak of the ministry of the Gospel and the Sacraments. “Through these, as through means, the Holy Spirit works faith when and where it pleases Him in those who hear the Gospel.” How it works, we have no idea. That it works is all we need to know. And the Word does work. It never returns empty; it always accomplishes the purpose for which God sowed it. The Spirit works faith in the heart of those who hear the Gospel. The church’s task, our task together, is that people hear the Gospel. To scatter the seed. You don’t need to understand how it works. In fact, you can’t understand how it works. The seed just needs to be sown, that’s all.

The rest happens automatically. All by itself, without any input from the sower, the seedy soil produces grain – the stalk, the head, the full kernel, and then the harvest. But you’re not going to see any harvest if you don’t take the seed out of the bag and scatter it on the soil.

Seed left in the bag doesn’t accomplish anything. I had some grass seed that I tried to store. I was patching holes in my lawn and had some seed left over, so I put it into a dry, sealed container and left it in the storage shed behind the garage. Then I forgot about it. A couple of years later, I stumbled upon that container and opened it. Some of the seed tried to sprout, most of it rotted. There was a layer of mold on top. A bad smell came up. That’s happens when you don’t scatter seed into soil

The seed of the Word grows and produces fruit in being scattered – preached, proclaimed, spoken. It’s scattered when pastors preach and missionaries go out in mission. And it’s also scattered when you are scattered from here out beyond those church doors, with seed bags full of ripe, fruitful seed and God’s benediction. It’s scattered when you tell someone else about the hope that is in you, when you teach another about Christ, when you lead someone to righteousness, when you point someone to Baptism, to the Supper of Jesus’ Body and Blood, to the forgiveness of their sins. When you say to another, “Jesus Christ died for your sins, for your life, for your freedom. He has won for you the ultimate liberty – freedom from condemnation, from hell, from yourself.”

I’ve been thinking about these things this week. I’ve been thinking about why I decided to go into the ministry in the first place. I look back at almost 14 years in the holy ministry, and I’m wondering what was the energy that pushed me out of a very comfortable life in the laboratory out into the mission field of the world. And I remembered what it was. It wasn’t the chance to wear cool vestments or chant old liturgies or study venerable doctrines. That’s fun, but it wasn’t what propelled me. It was seeing the Word at work in the lives of people, literally killing them and making them alive. It was seeing that the Gospel really is the power of God for salvation, that it packs divine power to turn people from sin to Christ. It was being a part, an instrument, in someone’s rebirth to faith in Jesus. Seeing someone brought out of the darkness of unbelief into the light of faith. Conversions. That’s what propelled me into the ministry. As a pastor much of my work is trying to keep Christians Christian. It’s like the difference between planting a garden and watering and weeding it.

Conversions are what inspire a complacent and comfortable church, too. Nothing like a bunch of new converts to liven things up. That’s what happened to the church at Antioch, the church that sent Paul on his three missionary journeys recorded in Acts. There’s no harvest without some sowing of the Word, some scattering on hearts through ears. This past Easter we had no baptisms at our Easter Vigil. I don’t think we should be satisfied with that. We ought to expect a richer harvest. The Word works, you know. We need to be sowing that seed now if there’s going to be a harvest next year at Easter time.

The Word of Christ doesn’t seem like very much, does it? Not impressive as the world measures impressive things. But don’t be fooled. Seeds may be small, but they pack quite a punch. Consider the mustard seed, Jesus says. When sown, it’s among the smallest of seeds. Yet when it’s planted, it sprouts and grows into a bush that even has room for the birds.

The amazing thing about seed is that it’s all there in a tiny little nugget. Everything for a mustard plant is already there in the seed. When you plant a little mustard seed, you are planting the entire plant. There’s nothing more to add. Everything for your salvation – forgiveness, life, freedom, resurrection from the dead – is already fully there is that tiny little word of forgiveness spoken into your ears, that speck of Gospel read from a book, that splash of baptismal water, that tiny piece of bread and the small sip of wine. The seed of the Word is planted, and without out help, without our knowledge, automatically, all by itself, it grows. And what starts out as a small, insignificant planting – a seed dropped into soil – grows into something far greater than we could ever have imagined.

But first the seed must die. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. “ He was referring to His own death on the cross. He is the promised Seed of Abraham, the Seed through whom all nations of the earth would be blessed. He had to die and be buried like seed in the ground. If Jesus hadn’t died, there be no fruit, no forgiveness, no life, no salvation. You’d be left to earn points with God and hope for the best. There would be no way out from under the Law. No fellowship with God. No freedom. No worship. Nothing but sin, death, and hell, had Jesus not died.

The seed needs to die, to be buried, in order to fulfill its purpose. Yu need to die too. Every day in your Baptism as that implanted Word has its way with you. You must die to sin, to self, to all the ways you try to be God. And each day you must rise up to new life in Jesus. Dying and rising is the way of the seed, it’s the way of Christ and His kingdom. Scattered seeds that die to live.

We might think we are insignificant here at Holy Trinity. A hundred or so believers gathered on a Sunday morning. Less than 0.2% of the population of Hacienda Heights. Mustard seed sized. I would remind you that the seed of the church, the first group of believers was only slightly larger – about 120. But the Word preached through that little church at Pentecost sprouted to a harvest of 3000 in a single day, and filled the Mediterranean world with the Gospel by the close of its century. Don’t think for a heartbeat that we are too small or insignificant.

Your bags are full of good by the Divine Sower Himself. Now scatter it. Fearlessly, recklessly, in the confidence that it will grow and produce fruit, all by itself, just as it has in you.

In the name of Jesus,
Amen

It’s Downright Crazy

There are all sorts of euphemisms for being a little crazy, weird, or eccentric. He has a screw loose. He’s a taco short of a combination plate. A few clowns short of a circus. A sandwich short of a picnic. Out to lunch. Lost his marbles. Not firing on all cylinders. Not playing with a full deck. Knitting with one needle. The elevator doesn’t go to the top floor. The lights are on but no one’s at home.

That’s what they were saying about Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. He was “beside himself,” “confused,” “out of His mind.” That was the opinion of Jesus’ own family! He didn’t seem Himself of late, crammed in by the crowds, unable to think let alone eat, the hordes of crazy demon possessed people clammoring for Jesus’ attention. Mary and the boys wanted to take Jesus into protective custody. Let Him rest; perhaps a little vacation at the shore; a little R&R to get things back in order.

It’s understandable. It isn’t every day that God appears in the flesh, born of a Virgin. And even the Virgin who bore Him sometimes tripped over the craziness of it all. Her son was the Son of God – true God and true Man in one person. That didn’t happen every day to every mother. And if Jesus hadn’t risen from the dead, we’d be reasonable to think Jesus wasn’t playing with a full deck either. That’s just downright nuts to call God your Father, except in the most symbolic sense. Unless, of course, it’s true.

The religious types, the teachers of the Torah, had a different view. “He’s in league with the devil. Casts out demons by the prince of demons, Beelzebub.” That’s a harsher assessment than calling Him crazy. It calls into question everything that Jesus was doing, all those signs that showed He was the Messiah of Israel. All the healings, the exorcisms, everything had a suspicious glaze on it. What if He cut a deal with the devil? He was tempted to do that. What if He actually did? What if Jesus and Satan were in cahoots with each other and all those great miracles were really part of a grand conspiracy to take over the world. There’s probably a best selling book and a movie deal in there somewhere.

The world does much the same with Jesus today. They either write Him off as a religious kook, or marginalize Him to the fringes of history as some murky figure “we don’t really know very much about” We don’t hear the deal with the devil theory much these days. I suspect that it’s because a large chunk of the world denies the devil as much as it denies God, the evidence notwithstanding. The people who were saying these things actually saw the miracles Jesus was doing. It shows you that miracles will only get you so far, and they can’t create faith in Jesus. The religious saw Jesus’ miracles, how He man-handled the demons with a word from His mouth. And their conclusion: He’s in league with Satan.

They said the same of cousin John the Baptizer – “He has a devil.” That’s how you wrote off someone in those days. You insinuated that he has a devil in need of exorcism.

Jesus nails all of it to the wall with a little parable. “How can Satan drive out Satain?” Divided kingdoms don’t stand. Divided houses fall. And if Satan is actually opposed to himself, then his days are over.” That would be really crazy. Satan casting out his own demons. Nuts. Nuts even to suggest it.

Actually, the truth is just the opposite. The devil’s met his match in Jesus. Jesus is the promised seed – promised way back in Genesis. You heard it. “I will make enmity between you (the devil) and the woman, between your seed and hers. (Notice it’s the woman’s seed; no man involved. Can you say “born of the Virgin Mary”? We celebrate it every Christmas, the Word became Flesh and dwelt among us.) He will crush your head (a fatal blow), and you will crush His heel (the cross) (Gen 3:15).

There you have it. Straight from the mouth of God. The first promise of salvation, couched as actually as a curse on the devil. God would do what fallen man would not. He’s not the one in league with the devil; Adam and Eve were. And we are as their sons and daughters. God the Son, the Seed of a woman, would engage the devil in hand to hand combat. In the process, He would be bruised, literally a death on the cross. But in His cross-bruised heel is the victory.

You might go so far as to say that the death of Jesus is the exorcism of the world. That’s how Mark paints it, and the sketched lines are right here in today’s Gospel. The work of Jesus is “bind the strong man” and plunder his goods. The divine Thief has come in the flesh to tie up the devil (the Revelation speaks of the devil bound for a figurative thousand years). You and I aren’t strong enough, or willing enough, to pull this off. It takes the Son of God in the flesh to do it. We’re the plunder the divine Thief carries off after He’s tied up the strong man. We’re plundered goods, snatched from sin, death, darkness and devil, all that Adam’s sin and our own sin has done to us.

We are carted off to freedom. Salvation is a hostage rescue effort. We’re held captive to sin and death. Christ breaks into our world, overpowers our captors, and takes us along with Him in His death and resurrection into a life of freedom. We’ve been pulled out of an eternal hostage situation by the strong, rescuing hand of the Son of God, reaching out to you from the cross, grabbing hold of you in the water of Baptism, in the preached Word of Christ, at the table of His Body and Blood, tossing out the lifeline of faith, embracing you in His death.

We sometimes speak of the keys as binding and loosing. Binding the unrepentant in their sins, and loosing the repentant. I’d invite you to consider it also this way: whenever sins are forgiven, sinners are loosed, their chains are broken, they are freed, and the devil is bound by that same forgiveness. He hates it when you are free and forgiven.

“All the sins and blasphemies of man will be forgiven.” People have been saying some not very nice things about Him. And He says, “All is forgiven. I died for it all. There isn’t one sin that hasn’t been answered for in my death.” That’s pretty amazing. Crazy even. Throw your worst at Jesus, and He says, “Forgiven.”

Except for this: “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven (or better, never has forgiveness). He is guilty of an eternal sin.”

There is lots of ink spilled over the unpardonable sin, the mortal sin, the sin that breaks salvation’s back. There’s a lot of anxiety over it too. Did I do it? Will I know if I did? I know you’ve heard this countless times before, but it bears repeating: If you’re worried about it, you haven’t done it.

Beyond that, it’s fairly clear what Jesus is saying. He said this because the religious types were saying that He had an unclean spirit. They were calling the Holy Spirit unclean and rejecting His work. Imagine receiving a notice that you just won a million dollar prize, and the van with all the balloons and the big check pulls up in front of your house and you slam the door in the guy’s face. And he comes back the next day, and you pull a gun on him. And he comes back the third day, and you sick the dog on him. At some point, he’s going to stop coming around. You’re a millionaire, but you refuse to receive what is yours. That’s the sin against the Holy Spirit – refusing to be forgiven, refusing to receive what the Spirit wants to deliver to you from Jesus.

The unforgivable sin is not unforgivable because it’s so big and bad. Jesus can deal with big and bad sin, and big, bad sinners. The unforgivable sin is unforgivable because it wants no part of forgiveness. And that’s just downright crazy, foolish even.

Jesus’ family finally arrives on the scene. There’s a crowd gathered around Jesus in a tight circle, so tight His family is stuck outside. “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” And Jesus says a remarkable thing. He looks around at this motly group of sinners, these losers who have lost their lives in Him, and He sees, “Here. These people gathered around me. These are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Did you catch that? That’s just crazy. His own mother, the blessed Virgin Mary, is on the outside at that moment. Outside the circle. His family, His mother and sister and brother are those who are gathered around Him, who trust Him, who look to Him for their life, who hear His Word.

That’s you! You gathered in Baptism. You hearing the Word of God. You kneeling at the altar to receive Jesus’ Body and Blood, the fruits of His sacrifice that frees you. That’s you gathered in that great circle called “the communion of saints.”

You say, “But I don’t always do the will of God. How can I be sure?” The will of God is that everyone be saved and come to the knowledge of truth in Jesus Christ. God’s will is to save you, and to do His will is to receive what He wants to give you – forgiveness, life, salvation. You are Jesus’ family. It may sound crazy, but your Baptism, the Word, the Body and Blood testify to you.

It’s crazy. Getting up early on a Sunday morning when the rest of the world sleeps in or rushes off to work or play or whatever. Going through ancient rituals that have no correlation with contemporary culture. Calling yourself a sinner and believing that a pastor’s word is Christ’s word forgiving your sins. Singing old difficult hymns, praying to a God you can’t see or hear directly. Eating a bit of bread, drinking a sip of wine believing they are the sacrificial Body and Blood of Jesus. Trusting Jesus’ finished worke instead of your own works for salvation.

Some will say, “It’s of the devil.” Most will likely say you’ve got only one hand on the religious steering wheel, a french fry short of a happy meal, you’re an odd ball, nutty as a fruit cake, on another planet. Crazy.

God calls it “faithful.”

In the Name of Jesus,
Amen

Shabbat

Leave it to man to turn rest into a religion. That’s how messed up we are, spiritually speaking. God says, “Rest. Six days for work but the seventh you rest. Shabbat. (It means rest.) Your family rests. Your workers rest. The alien within your gates rests. Your animals rest.

Remember, you were once slaves. Slaves work seven days a week. But my free people work six and rest for one .” In Exodus, the reason for the Sabbath goes back to the creative week. God made everything in six days, and then He rested. He called the seventh day “holy,” set apart, consecrated. In Genesis the seventh day has no evening and morning. It’s the eternal Day, the Day that fulfills all the days, what we call “eternity.” The Sabbath was a slice of eternity at the end of your work week.

God says, “Rest,” and we say, “Now what exactly do you mean by ‘rest’”? God says, “No work,” and we say, “Do we have to rest? And what do you mean by “work” anyway?” The rabbis had 39 categories of work, slicing and dicing “rest” to include things like not carrying, burning, writing, erasing, kneading, grinding, tearing, demolishing, building, cooking, and 29 more things not to do. You can be sure the basketball, volleyball, and shopping would have been included. Turn off your pagers, your cells phones, your Blackberries, or whatever else you may be plugged into. Rest. Take the load off. God insists on it.

Among the prohibited tasks: reaping and threshing. It was forbidden to cut or pluck any growing thing. That would include flowers and fruit. No mowing the lawn.

Enter Jesus and His disciples, walking through a grain field, on the Sabbath. As they were going, they plucked some heads of grain and rubbed them between their hands. Two Sabbath strikes against them: reaping and threshing. And the sharp-penciled Pharisees are right there on top of them. “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

Says who? Man or God? God simply said “rest, no work.” It was the Pharisees with their endless bookkeeping and their sharp penciled tradition that turned a handful of grain on a Sabbath stroll into work. Jesus is right there with the comeback. He brings up the story of King David, when he was on a military campaign, and how he and his companions ate the consecrated show bread which was lawful only for priests to eat. Yet they ate and lived to tell about it.

Jesus’ conclusion: The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

There’s the kicker. You thought you could please with Sabbath keeping. You thought that by intentionally not working, God was just thrilled to number you as one of His people. You thought it was your civic duty to make sure that everyone else kept the Sabbath too, like the Pharisees playing Sabbath police. You thought that jumping through the Sabbath hoop would justify your existence before God. You thought God liked religion. You were wrong. You had it upside down.

The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

The Sabbath was God’s gift to Israel. No other nation had a god who said, “Hey, take a day off once a week.” In fact, the other nations thought the Israelites were a bunch of slackers, working only six days a week. Sabbath was God’s special gift to Israel. No other nation had this command. God’s free, chosen people had divine permission to rest, to enjoy the eternal rest of God, to sample a slice of eternity at the end of every week. Wow! Imagine that. Heaven come to earth. Communion with God. Rest, no work. Enjoying the fruits of your labors. Resting with God. What a gift! Who could say no?

But do you see what happened? Rest becomes religion. A string of don’t do this and don’t do that, 39 times over. And keeping watch everyone else to make sure they’re not doing anything either. Blue laws. In modern Judaism, you can’t start your car and you have to unscrew the light bulb in your refrigerator because that would involve kindling fire. And God is supposed to be pleased with this. The Sabbath was God’s gift to Israel, and the Israelites turned rest into a religion, a way to bribe God and measure themselves against one another. Hardly the rest God had in mind.

I say this every time this text comes up, and I’m going to say it here again this morning. The Sabbath, the seventh day of rest, is God’s unique gift to OT Israel. It has no counterpart in the New Testament. Sunday is not the Sabbath. Sunday isn’t the 7th day, as any Seventh Day Adventist will tell you. Sunday is the first day of the week. And that has its own tradition and symbolism.

First, it most certainly is not the OT Sabbath. The early Christians wanted to be clear that the Law of Moses had been fulfilled in Christ. Sunday is not a new Sabbath day any more than Jesus is a new Moses. Second, the first day was the day of resurrection. In fact, in Russian, Sunday is called “Resurrection Day,” which I think is kind of cool. Even if you’re an atheist, you have to say, “I’ll see you on Resurrection Day.” Much better than the “sun’s day.” Third, resurrection day was also the day the Holy Spirit fell on the church at Pentecost, fifty days after Jesus’ resurrection. Finally, the first day signified the first day of the new creation having broken in to the old. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that the first day of the week was called “the Lord’s Day” by the first Christians.

That’s not to say the rest of society recognized that fact. You still had to work on the Lord’s Day. That’s why many Christians gathered early in the morning, or late Saturday night, or whenever was convenient.

Luther nailed it in the Catechism when he saw the gift of the Sabbath day as the Word of God. He never mentions a “sabbath day” in the catechism. Instead, he says, “You shall keep the holy day holy.” And this means that “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and God’s Word, but hold it sacred, gladly hear and learn it.” That’s why you didn’t work on the 7th day. You had a nice meal in the evening, toasted the God who created and redeemed you with undiluted wine, slept, and then you gathered to hear the Word, the Torah. And that’s what we do too. We gather on the first day of the week to hear the Word and to receive the Sacrament of Jesus’ Body and Blood. That’s what God calls “rest.” Sabbath’s rest.

The Word is what makes a holiday a holy day. Without the Word, it’s just a holiday. A day off, a chance to go to the beach, throw a steak on the grill, catch up on the home improvement. But with the Word, any day is a holy day – sanctified, made holy, by the Word of God and prayer. The Word is the spirit of the Sabbath.

Unfortunately, many Christians, including, sadly, many who call themselves “Lutherans,” have become “ABC” Christians – Anything But Church. Sports, recreation, hobbies, family not to mention work schedules, family schedules, busy calendars, busy lives running around from one thing to the next, one activity to the next. Out of the 10,080 minutes God gives us each week, we struggle to set aside 90 minutes to hear the Word, receive the gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation, and pray, praise and give thanks. We do that to the peril of our faith. Faith is born of the Word and lives on the Word and without the Word, faith in Christ will wither and die. Can you imagine eating once a week?

I’d be happy to gather on Saturday night or early in the morning, like the first Christians did so they could get to work, but I have to wonder, would you take advantage of the opportunity? I’m going to begin offering this to those who are having a hard time making it here at 9 am on Sunday. We’re not bound by times and days. But if we can’t find a suitable time and day to gather, and we can’t make time to hear the Word by which we live eternally, then I have to wonder whether there is any faith to be fed.

The old Adam hates all this. He hates the notion resting in God. He wants to turn rest into a work, and he wants you to work to your death. He refused God’s gift in the garden, and he continues to refuse God’s gift in you. That’s why it’s such a chore to get to church, but not to go out to eat. That’s why church is boring to you, while the movies or a concert aren’t. That’s why we don’t “gladly” hear the Word, why we aren’t glad as David was glad when they said, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” That’s why the kids act up more than usual. You are being confronted by the Word of life, by the only thing that can save you from sin and death. And the devil hates it, the world hates and will throw any distraction in your way, and your own sinful flesh hates it and will use any excuse not to receive what Christ has died to win for you.

The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath. Jesus did something wonderful for you. He bought your freedom. He fulfilled the Sabbath. He rested on His seventh day in the grave, making your grave a sabbath’s rest. He gives you perfect sabbath rest from your sins. You don’t work your way to rest; you receive it as a gift. Salvation’s sabbath is not the result of your work, but trust in the finished work of Jesus.

This is your freedom, by dear baptized believers. Freedom to gladly hear the Word of God and cling to it. Freedom to worship God without fear, holy and righteous in His sight, all the days of your life. Heaven comes down to earth, to you; your sins are forgiven; God speaks to you here; there is a place for you here at Jesus’ banquet table; here you have rest from every burden that weighs you down. Here is a rest no pill can provide, no self-help book can broker, no religion can offer.

Here is Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, your Lord, your Rock of refuge, your rest. And faith in Jesus says, “I was glad when they said, ‘Let’s go to the house of the Lord.’” Faith in Jesus would have it no other way.

In the name of Jesus,
Amen

Blessed Be the Holy Trinity and the Undivided Unity

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit

Paradox. That’s the theme for this Sunday of the Holy Trinity. Paradox.

Dictionary definition: A seemingly contradictory statement that may nonetheless be true. Example: “And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in three Persons, and three Persons in one God, neither confusing the Persons nor dividing the Substance.” Got it?

I’m reminded of that famous line from Dorothy Sayers, who wrote: “The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, the Holy Spirit incomprehensible, the whole thing incomprehensible.” And that’s good, right, and salutary. Any god who fits comprehensively inside your head isn’t big enough to be your God anyway.

The Christian faith is built on paradox: God is Three and He is One – a tri-unity. Jesus is God and man – two natures, yet one Person. The Scriptures are God’s Word and man’s word. As a believer, you are both sinner and saint at the same time.

There is danger lurking in these paradoxical waters. The danger is that we turn God into a concept, a mathematical abstraction, something we can tuck safely in a book or a theory or a picture in our minds. A safe God that you bring out for those “special occasions” when you need a little dose of deity. A tame God on a leash for those times when we need a little religion to help us through our troubles.

Holy Trinity Sunday is a feast without a narrative. No story. The best we have is Jesus telling the disciples to baptize in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost – there are rich historic narratives for these days. But the text behind Holy Trinity Sunday is a doctrine not a narrative, a summary of the mystery of the God who made the heavens and the earth, the God who revealed Himself to Moses in a burning bush, the God who led Israel out of captivity into freedom; the God made Himself concretely known and knowable in the incarnation of His Son Jesus Christ, the God who blows His Spirit-breath through His Church and raises the dead to life.

The Holy Trinity is about a living relationship, communion within God and with God. The Father begets His Son; the Spirit proceeds from Father and Son. God is never alone, even when He is alone. Together as One the undivided holy Trinity creates, redeems, makes holy. Each divine Person doing His personal thing, yet always as One. And you, baptized “in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” enter into the tri-une love and life of God. The Father is your Father. Jesus the Son is your Brother. The Spirit is your Advocate, Guide, and Friend. You are a member of God’s family; you live in triune communion with God – with the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.

There was a man named Nicodemus, a rabbi, a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin. He was about to encounter a divine Paradox in the flesh. Jesus – the Son of God. “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

Don’t you get just a wee bit suspicious when someone starts a conversation that way? As the praise heaps up, you’re waiting for the “but” that comes at the end of the clause. “You did a really great job with the report last week and corporate couldn’t be more thrilled but…” “Pastor, I really like your sermons and your bible classes are always interesting but….” Jesus preempts Nicodemus with an Amen and a perfect non sequiter. “Amen. No one can see the kingdom of God unless he’s born again.”

The born must be reborn. Again, paradox. Nicodemus has a brain sprain. “Wait a minute. How can an old man be born again? What’s he supposed to do? Enter his mother’s womb a second time?” (In logic they call that an argumentum ad absurdum. Argue to the point of absurdity.) Did Jesus mean born again or born from above? The word works both ways. Which is it?

Jesus says, “Amen, listen up. Let me put it another way. No one can enter the kingdom of God unless he’s born of water and Spirit.” As if that made things any clearer. Shuffle through your mental concordance. Water and Spirit; that’s creation talk. Genesis 1 where the Spirit hovered over the waters of the Deep in creation. Unless you are a new creation, created by water and Spirit, you can’t enter the kingdom.

There’s another birth, a new birth from above. The old creation is shot dead. Flesh give birth to flesh. That’s your birth from below, what makes you child of Adam. That’s the birth that gives birth to a sinner. You know all about that one. You don’t need anyone to teach you about that. But that one doesn’t get you an entry ticket into the kingdom of God. Quite the opposite. Not that God isn’t involved in that birth. Every birth is the result of God’s Word – “Be fruitful and multiply.” But that makes children of Adam, not children of God. Your first birth delivers you to death; your second birth brings you to Life.

“You must be born again,” Jesus says. Born from above. A spiritual birth through water and the Spirit. Do you hear Baptism talk in that? I sure hope so. It’s like the wind, Jesus says. You hear it, but you can’t see it. You see it’s effects – the leaves rustling through the trees, but you can’t get a hold of it. That’s how it is with the Spirit and with everyone born of the Spirit. You must hear it and believe it because you can’t see it.

Of course, that leaves Nicodemus more confused than ever. “How can this be?” The teacher of Israel is stumped. The problem is not that Nicodemus isn’t a sharp tack. He’s plenty smart. He’s a rabbi, after all, a Pharisee, a member of the ruling council. He’s no dummy. The problem goes back to his first sentence. He doesn’t yet see Jesus for who Jesus actually is. He sees Jesus as a holy man, a teacher come from God, a miracle worker. Close but not cigar, (as they used to say before cigars became politically incorrect.) Nicodemus doesn’t yet grasp the paradox – this man standing before him is God in the flesh, the second Person of the undivided holy Trinity, God of God, Light of light, true God of true God, eternally begotten of the Father.

Nicodemus is staring at the Word made flesh, the One who would be lifted up for the life of the world. He is the Son, sent in love to save the world by His dying and rising. Nicodemus has no way of knowing or believing that. Yet. Somewhere, somehow the Spirit-wind of God blew on Nicodemus, the water, Word and Spirit had their way with him. I say that because Nicodemus was already a believer the day Jesus died. Secretly, yes, but a believer. He trusted that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. He along with Joseph of Arimathea arranged to bury Jesus.

In a way, you and I have an advantage over old Rabbi Nicodemus. He was standing on the threshold between the old and the new, between the prophesy and its fulfillment. He saw the signs, but the pieces of the puzzle weren’t yet in place. That’s why John mentions that he came to Jesus at night. He was still in the dark, so to speak. The light of Easter had not yet dawned. The Spirit had not yet enlightened him. We live entirely in the new. Christ has come. Christ has died. Christ has risen from the dead. Christ now reigns. What was a riddle to Nicodemus is perfectly clear to us: To be born again from above by water and Spirit is to be baptized into Jesus: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come.”

“The Spirit blows like the wind wherever He pleases.” You can’t bottle the Spirit up, put him into a box, label and categorize Him. You can only enjoy the refreshing, heavenly breeze. The Spirit has blown on you in His good time and place, as it pleased Him. And it pleases Him that you believe the Word He brings to your ears, that you trust that Jesus’ death and life are your life and salvation, that on account of Jesus you can say, “Our Father.”

Yes, God’s tri-unity is an incomprehensible paradox. That’s true. The Athanasian Creed can’t even contain it, though it gives it a good try. You and I would never have invented such a God. But on the other hand, remember, gods we invent are not God. They are useless idols; gods that sit on the mantle pieces of our lives so we can be spiritual without believing anything. The Lord’s ways are not our ways; His thoughts are not our thoughts. He’s not the sort of God we would invent for our selves. And for that we are grateful.

You don’t have to understand someone to be in relationship. Most of us are in relationship with people we don’t begin to understand. How much more with God. You don’t have to understand the mystery of the undivided Holy Trinity; only confess and praise Him. “Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the undivided Unity. Let us give glory to Him because He has shown mercy to us.”

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
Amen

Dry, Dusty Bones

There is nothing deader than bones. Dessicated, dusty, long dead bones. The hand of the YHWH was heavy on Ezekiel. The Holy Spirit led him to a valley full of dry, dusty bones. Lots of bones. Bones scattered all over the place, long dissociated from their rightful owners. Skulls and arms and legs. Who were they? No one seems to know. It’s like something out of CSI. We need dental records, DNA sequences. What happened in this valley? A natural disaster, or perhaps. Or more likely a battle gone bad, a defeated army, left dead in the desert to dry up without so much as a decent burial. “Dust you are and to dust you will return.” The flesh is the first to go; the bones are the last. And then you are dust.

“Son of Man, can these bones live?” That’s the question for us on this Pentecost Sunday, the Sunday of the Holy Spirit, when Jesus breathed on His church as He had breathed on His apostles seven weeks before. “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit-ed Living giving Breath of God. The Spirit who moved over the waters of the deep in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth. “When you send your Spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the earth.” (Ps 104).

Can these dead, dry bones live? Ordinary experience says no. Forensic science says no. We can tell who they were, perhaps how they died, how old they were when they died, their general health. Bones are the archivists of the body, telling the story of a life long after it ended. Think of fossils, or bones accidentally uncovered, or bones found where bones don’t belong. They tell silent, dusty stories. But can they live again? Only God knows. “O Lord YHWH, you alone know.”

Ezekiel receives a two part vision. The first part shows the power of the Word. “Preach to these bones.” They are the prophet’s congregation, only slightly more dead than many congregations on a Sunday morning, I suspect. “Preach to these bones.” Seems kind of silly, doesn’t it? Preaching to old, dried up bones. Ah, don’t underestimate the power of the preached Word hidden under foolishness. Oh, we would certainly mark Ezekiel as a fool, or a lunatic, talking to a valley of bones. But when the Lord says “preach,” you preach, even if it’s to a bunch of dry, dusty bones.

There was a noise. Rattling. Bone against bone. Bones coming together, back to their rightful owners. That’s what Ezekiel heard. Rattling bones. What he saw was even more amazing. Tendons and flesh appearing on the bones; skin covering the bones. That’s the creative power of the Word at work. Don’t underestimate it; don’t ignore it. Through the Word all things were made. By the Word all things hold together. The Word creates, renews, sanctifies, enlivens. It rattles your dry, dead bones. Bodies long dead are resurrected with new muscle and tendon and flesh and blood and skin. Wow! Wouldn’t you have loved to be peeking over the prophet’s shoulder and look down into that valley and see that? Or maybe not?

It’s a little too weird, perhaps. A bit too uncomfortable, maybe. Not exactly in your comfort zone, is ti? It would be safer to say this was a dream, a hallucination, a vision, anything but real. Then we could tuck it safely away in the past with those “primitive people.” We modern types of the 21st century are far too sophisticated to think that dry dead bones can shake, rattle, and reassemble themselves and live, just because someone preaches at them.

The same could be said of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. It’s terribly inconvenient and uncomfortable to the old Adam in us to think that a grave of a dead man is empty, His body risen. That’s the point of Peter’s Pentecost sermon. Jesus was not abandoned to the grave; His body did not see decay; God has vindicated Jesus by raising Him bodily from the grave. “And we are all eyewitnesses of the fact,” Peter preaches. Dry bones lived that Pentecost Day. Three thousand believed, were baptized, received the Spirit and lived by the preached Word of Jesus.

We need to be shaken ourselves, come out of our comfortable little religious hideaways, our saccharine spiritualities, our pious platitudes. We need to have our bones rattled by the Word that says, “You are no more alive than those dry and dusty bones. Dead in sin. Dead in iniquity. Dead in transgression. Dead in lust and greed and idolatry.” But those bones of yours can live, and do live. Not by your efforts. What can bones do to live? “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the Lord – the Spirit who works through the Word.

The second part of the Eziekiel’s vision underscores the unity of the Word and the Spirit. There is flesh on the bones, but no breath. Without breath, they can’t live, just as when God made Adam out of the mud, but without the “breath of lIfe” Adam was just a lifeless lump of clay. “Preach to the breath, preach, O son of man.” Summon the breath from the four winds of the earth – from the north, south, east, and west – and tell the Breath to breathe into these dead bodies that they may live.

We confess the Holy Spirit, “the Lord and Giver of Life.” By the Spirit-Breath of God, we breathe; we have life. The Spirit and the Word; the Word and the Spirit. They always go together. The Holy Spirit is a preacher – calling, gathering, enlightening, making holy, stirring up faith, forgiving sin, bearing fruit – all by the Word He causes to be preached.

When that little congregation gathered together in the upper room at Pentecost, there was the sound of rushing wind. The Breath of Jesus blowing over His church. And there were tongues like fire, separating and resting on all the disciples. “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” Fire as in the pillar of fire that lead Israel across the Sea. Fire as in Sinai fire, a mountain ablaze with the Torah, the Word. Fire as in a refining fire, burning away the dross, the useless stuff, refining the silver, the gold, your faith.
Wind and fire were the unique elements of that first Pentecost. They were like the fireworks and balloons at a grand opening. God was inaugurating the Last Days. The time of the end had come. Jesus had died on a cross for the redemption of the world. The world was now reconciled to God in Jesus. Jesus had risen from the dead, and for forty days was seen by over 500 eyewitnesses. Jesus had ascended to the right hand of the Father, disappeared into a heavenly cloud, out of sight but not absent. Truly present by Word and Spirit.

Peter preached that day. He preached to thousands, where fifty days before he was afraid to even be known as one of Jesus’ disciples. The resurrection of Jesus and the Spirit will do that to you – turn cowards into couragious preachers of good news. The disciples spoke in a variety of languages and dialects, and everyone who was in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost heard the preaching of Jesus in his own native language and dialect.

The lasting gift of Pentecost is not rushing wind or tongues of fire or speaking in fluent foreign languages. The lasting gift is the Spirit-ed Word of God. The Word preached out of the mouths of men with the very breath of Jesus. “The sins you forgive are forgiven.” Jesus’ own breath and words and Spirit. At the end of that Pentecost day, three thousand were baptized. Three thousand had the Word have its faith creating, faith enlivening way with them. Three thousand were joined to Jesus in His death, His life, His glory. Three thousand were clothed with Christ. Three thousand became members of Christ body, continuing in the teaching of the apostles, in the breaking of the Bread, that is, Holy Communion, and in the prayers. Three thousand in one day, by the power of the Word and the Spirit.

Your personal Pentecost is your baptismal day, whenever and wherever that was. There you were joined to Jesus by the Word and Spirit in the water. And in a real sense, every Sunday is Pentecost when you hear that your sins are forgiven in Jesus, that your death is answered for in Jesus, that your life is hidden in Jesus, and His life – His own body and blood – are hidden in you.

Son of Men, can these dry, dead bones of ours live? Can your dry, dead bones live? Jesus answers, “Oh yes they can.” As sure as He is risen from the dead is sure, these bones can live. As sure as the Word and breath of Jesus blow over them, they will live.

“O my people, I am going to open your graves aqnd bring you up from them; I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I, YHWH, have spoken, and I have done it,” declares the Lord.

In the Name of Jesus,
Amen