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,


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,

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,

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,

The King Ascends in Triumph

Two questions for this Thursday evening forty days after Easter: So what? Now what? “So what?” might be more in the lips of those who do not believe, or those who don’t see the point for making such a fuss for a holy day that always falls on a Thursday. Couldn’t the Lord have waited until Sunday?

Now what? is more on the minds of the baptized who live in the last days waiting anxiously to see the glory of Jesus face to face.

So what? is not the kind of question people who shlep off to church on a gray Thursday evening ask themselves. You know why you came, or at least you have some vague notion. Believers don’t need an excuse to worship. “I was glad when they said, ‘Let’s go to the house of the Lord.” Still, I’m not sure we’re always quite so clear about what exactly why we do what we do when we do it.

Good Friday is clear enough: Jesus’ sacrificial, atoning death on the cross for the life of the world. Though some mistake it for defeat, we still proclaim the victory. Easter Sunday is clearer still: Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, the open, empty tomb. He is risen, Alleluia. But Ascension Day? That’s the odd one. So odd, it isn’t even remotely on the culture’s radar screen. No Ascension Day parades, no Ascension Day sales at the mall. I haven’t heard a word this past week about four more shopping days left until Ascension Day); no Ascension Day family parties. Thursday just isn’t conducive. (Sorry, we can’t make it to church, we’re going to Grandma’s for Ascension Day. Let’s face it – in comparison to Christmas and Easter, Ascension seems not to be much of a big deal. Even our circuit used to give Ascension Day to the “smaller” congregations, figuring the small crowd would look bigger in a small place.

But the Ascension of Jesus is a big deal. A very big deal. If Christ be not ascended, then we’ve got a big problem. Where in the world is He? So let’s get down to the “so what” of Ascension Day.

First, Christ’s ascension is the culmination of His work, the big tickertape parade down the streets of the city in which the conquering Christ strides across the crystaline glassy sea in the heavenly throneroom and takes His rightful seat at the right hand of the Father as the hosts of heaven sing out: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.”

Moses never made it into the promised land. He was buried in the land of Moab, with a single cameo appearance on Jesus’ Mt. of Tranfiguration just to assure us that all is well with him. But the One greater than Moses, Jesus our Joshua having gone through the parted Sea of Death in His exodus from death to life, now enters the promised land as the conquering King. Now you see why it has to be a Thursday. Forty days after His resurrection, in parallel to Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness after the Red Sea, forty days after His exodus from the Egypt of death, the Promised One greater than Moses leads the charge to heavenly Caanan in a bright cloud.

The bright cloud shows this too. This is no ordinary puff of frozen atmospheric moisture. This is the bright cloud that descended on the Mt. of Transfiguration where Jesus gave a glimpse of His glory. This is the cloud that led Israel through the wilderness. This is the cloud of the glory of YHWH, the shekinah that settled between the cherubim over the ark of the covenant in the tabernacle. The manifestation of God’s abiding, though hidden, presence.

The ascension proclaims the reign of Jesus Christ over all things. His alone is the Name that is above every name. Greater than the name of prophet, priest, or religious leader, greater even than the OT covenant name YHWH, so great is the name of incarnational Name of the Son of God that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow – in heaven, on earth, and under the earth – and every tongue confess the three word creed: Lord Jesus Christ to the glory of God the Father.

We forget the reign of Christ, or better, we willfully disregard it. Our old Adam will not abide it – to be subject to such a King who dies to save His subjects by sheer grace. We recognize only the reign of power and the sword. Even Jesus’ handpicked disciples didn’t get it. As He was about to extend His hands in a final blessing, they asked Him, “Are you now going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Does the revolution start now? Can we break out the swords and summon the troops? They still didn’t recognize that the fight was over, the battle won. Christ had triumphed; the King was returning to His city, to His throne, to sit and reign.

Here was Jesus as they known Him for three years. They saw Him, they touched Him, He ate with them. Even risen from the dead, it’s so terribly easy to forget that this man from Nazareth is the Son of the Most High God. He is God in the Flesh. The throne He ascends to occupy is the very same throne He has had for all eternity as the only-begotten Son of God, the throne He vacated, emptying Himself of His divine honor and glory to become Man; humbling Himself in obedience to His own Law to save a world of lawbreakers.

The present reign of Jesus Christ is often neglected or even denied within the gates of Christendom, by those who seek some future reign and some future kingdom. as though Christ were not seated at the right hand of Majesty. The kingdoms of this world are now the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. And we don’t by our prayers and pieties put Jesus on His throne. Nor do we by our religious feelings and tears make Him Lord. He is Lord – King of kings and Lord of lords. This day proclaims His lordship over those who believe and over those who refuse to believe. This is not a matter of faith but a matter of fact. Our faith no more seats Christ on the throne than our unbelief unseats Him.

The ascension of Christ is the glorification of our humanity. This is not man become God, but God become Man to rescue fallen humanity bring mankind back to God. The apostle Paul, writing to the Colossians, views Christ’s ascension as our own: “For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.” In Him you were crucified, in Him you were raised, in Him you are already glorified. And so seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on heavenly things, where your life is, and not on earthly things.

We need to put to rest the gnostic notion that Jesus somehow shed His humanity in His ascension, that He is once again free of the confines of the body. That may sit well with the new agers and all the so-called “spiritualities” of our day, but there is no comfort in a Christ without a body enthroned in heaven. Just as we can say that Mary is the “bearer of God” because she bore the Son of God in her womb, so we can say that a human being reigns over all things from the throne of God. Jesus is our High Priest, like us in every way yet without sin, sympathetic to our humanity, bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh, showing the wounds of His once for all atoning sacrifice in the heavenly temple, pleading our forgiveness and pardon.

There’s no comfort in a disembodied God, just as there is no comfort in an absent Jesus. And while we’re at it, let’s shoot down a second misunderstanding of the ascension, namely that Jesus “went” to another place, the way we say when Grandma dies, “She went to a better place.” Jesus disappeared into the cloud of God’s presence; He didn’t shoot off into space like a missle. He’s withdrawn His visible presence, not His actual presence. He departs in one way so that He can be with us in a yet greater way.

He’s not gone to another place, but He has embraced this place – this mixed up world of war and terror and corrupt boardrooms and adulterous bedrooms. He “fills all in all.” Had Jesus not ascended, we would be stuck in those forty days before Thursday, with Jesus popping in here and there. If He’s here and He can’t be there, and if He’s there He can’t be here. And how is He then going to “be with us always,” as He promised?

The gift of the Ascension is Jesus’ abiding presence in the Word, the water of Baptism, in the Bread that is His Body, the wine that is His Blood. He has gone away in one sense to be with us in a yet greater sense.

The culmination of Jesus’ work, His present reign, the glorification of our humanity, His greater and nearer presence – these are the “so what” of the Ascension.

So now what? Three things:

First, know the times. These are the last of the last days. The ascension of Christ marks the beginning of the end, the eschaton, the sabbath’s rest of the cosmos prior to the Last Day. The work of salvation is done. “It is finished.” And when you’re done with your work, you sit down. There is nothing more that needs to be done that what has been done: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ now reigns.

We are in the midst of the “millenium,” the “thousand year” reign of the saints with Christ. “But it’s been nearly two thousand years,” you say. “When did the thousand years begin.” And I say, “They began when Jesus ascended to reign from the right hand.” And you may as well put away your calculators and calendars because they won’t help you. It is not given us to know the times or the seasons. If a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day with the Lord, then this is His cosmic sabbath, His rest, having completed the work of our salvation. And His appearing at the end of the days will be like a thief in the night, unannounced and unanticipated. Go about your lives in freedom and keep watch with joy.

Second, listen. Don’t look, listen. Now is not the time of seeing but hearing, and hearing believing. Faith comes by hearing, not by seeing. So stick your eyes in your ears and listen to what the Lord has to say. You cannot see Him, but you can hear Him in His Word preached to you. You cannot see Him, but He can be recognized in the Breaking of the Bread that is His Body. You cannot see Him, but He is with you always, to the end of the ages. What you now must believe, you will see one Day. But now you must trust in what is not seen. That is the essence of faith.

Third, speak. Having heard, we speak. Jesus didn’t leave His disciples staring into space. Nor did the angels who attended Jesus’ ascension. Why are you staring into space? The same Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven. Lo, He comes with clouds descending, at a day and a time you do not and cannot know.

But in the meantime, for as many days as we have, “you will be my witnesses.” In Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of earth. Discipling all the nations – baptizing in the Name and teaching. Proclaiming repentance and forgiveness (or as I prefer to translate it: repentance unto forgiveness – forgiveness is something you turn to that is already there, not something you earn by your repenting). Proclaiming repentance unto forgiveness in the Name of Jesus to all the nations.

It couldn’t be clearer than that, could it? We don’t need a mission statement or some whiz bang synodical program. The church has it straight from her Head. Speak the good news of Jesus to the world for whom Jesus died.

And do it with all the joy and confidence that comes with being under the gracious reign of Jesus.

Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ now reigns in glory – all of it to save you.

In the Name of Jesus,


Friends of Jesus

It’s the upper room on the night that Jesus surrenders Himself to death to save the world. He is with His Twelve. He washed their feet as a Servant among servants. He celebrated the Passover in a new and unique way: giving them His own Body and Blood as a gift even before His “once for all time” sacrifice.” He teaches them. Word and Sacrament, the same as He does for us. This is His Word.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.” (John 15:9)

Love. Now there’s a squishy word. A tricky word. Frightening to some. Don’t think puppy love here. Or the love of a mother for her baby. Don’t think erotic love, what we speak of when we helplessly fall in love. Don’t think casual, friendly love, as when someone says, “I just love everyone,” which is a likely indication that person actually loves no one in particular.

Think self-sacrificing love here. In Greek, agape. What St. Paul describes in 1 Corinthians chapter 13: Patient, kind, not jealous or boastful, not arrogant or rude, not insisting on its own way, not irritable or resentful, not rejoicing in wrong but rejoicing in right. Bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things. An action more than a feeling. An intentional laying down of one’s life for another. What faithful husbands are supposed to do for their wives as pictures of what Christ does for the Church.

This is love that lays down its life for those who couldn’t care less. God so loved the world that He sent His only-begotten Son. Did the world care? Not really. Did the world ask for this love? No. God could have sent flowers or a box of chocolates. Does the world care today? Not particularly. Now the world idly speculates as to whether Jesus and Mary Magdalene had kids and a dog and toured France in an SUV. That’s how the world treats divine love. It yawns and mocks it. But God loves anyway. He can’t help Himself. God is love. It’s His essence to love. He can’t stop Himself. He loves the loveless, the unlovable, the unloving. You, me, the world.

He loves us to death. Do you want to see this love in action? There is only one picture I can point you to. Jesus on the cross, bleeding, dying, pardoning, loving. Yes, it’s odd. But it’s odd precisely because it is so “unworldly.” And that’s why it’s so difficult for us, so offensive and scandalous to be loved this way. “I can’t love like that,” you say. And that’s right. We can’t. We won’t. Our pride, our ego, our old Adam, that inner brat that says “I want things my way” – we won’t love like this.

If you keep my commands you will remain in my love. There’s the promise. Don’t get thrown by the word “commands” and the mistranslation “obey.” It’s keep, as in hold fast to. Jesus has only one command to obey, to love one another as He has loved us, but that comes a later. His commands are not things for us to do so that God will love us, but things by which God’s love in Jesus comes to us. Commands such as be baptized, hear His Word, trust Him, eat and drink His Body and Blood, “do this in my remembrance.” Those are Jesus’ “commands” by which we remain in His love. To remain in His love is to receive all that He has to give to us. That is the dynamic of love: His to give, ours to receive. To receive Jesus’ love is to stay in His love.

Jesus is not laying down a burden on us. We’re the ones who makes things burdensome. We’re the ones who make receiving gifts a burden. We’re the ones who think coming to hear God’s Word or coming to receive the Supper is some great sacrifice on our parts, as though God should be pleased with us because we decided to get out of bed and show up on a Sunday morning. Wrong perspective. Upside down. “This is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

Only in that sacrifice, in the cross and its fruits, can the love of God be seen and known. You can’t know it from nature – nature is as harsh and cruel as much as it is loving. You can’t know it from your inner feelings or thoughts. Those are your thoughts, not God’s, and that “inner voice” will always be busy accusing you or making excuses. You can’t know it by looking at the world or at other people. We’re sinners. We naturally unloving. We naturally kill and destroy. We’re naturally turned inward, not outward. That’s why capitalism works and communism doesn’t, by the way. Capitalism assumes we’re greedy from get go.

You know the dying and rising love of God by being joined to Jesus, by being baptized with Him into His death, by hearing His Word of forgiveness addressed to you, by taking your place at His table and receiving His gifts. That’s what it means to keep His commands and so stay in His love.

The singular command flows from this: Love one another, as I have loved you. Not simply “love one another.” That wouldn’t do, we wouldn’t do it. But love one another as I have loved you. Jesus’ love comes first. He first goes the way to the cross and the tomb. He first dies for our sin and forgives us. Notice that it works this way with forgiveness too – forgive as you have been forgiven, love as you have been loved. It’s only when we have been forgiven can we forgive. It’s only when we are loved by God in Jesus that we can love. And then the love is not our own. It doesn’t come from within but from above. It’s God’s love, not our own, by which we love one another.

No friend of Jesus can say, “I don’t have this love to give.” You have it. You may or may not use it, but it’s there. You have it as friends of Jesus. Friends of Jesus. I hope you caught that. “No longer do I call you servants, instead I call you friends.” Do you remember how everyone wanted to be called a “friend of Bill” when Bill Clinton was the President. To be a “friend of Bill” meant Oval Office access; you got to stay in the Lincoln bedroom. You don’t hear much about friends of George. I’m sure our president has friends; he could probably use a few more these days.

In middle eastern culture, to a friend is to be in the know, to have insider information, to have the mysteries revealed. “A servant does not know his master’s business.” But Jesus has revealed the Father’s business, that in the Son the world should be saved through faith in Him. You are in on the big mystery; you’re an insider. Your Baptism is your backstage pass. You’re a friend of Jesus. And that may not carry much power in this world, but being a “friend of Jesus” is the only thing that will carry you on the Last Day.

A person I know got an invitation from a friend of his, who happened to be the director of the San Francisco Bach Society, to come to a rehearsal of the San Francisco Orchestra. He got to tour backstage and see the side of the concert hall that usually only the musicians saw. One of the security guards saw him wandering around backstage and questioned him. “What are you doing here,” he asked. “I’m with him,” the man said, pointing to his friend. I imagine that’s what Judgment Day will be like, when the Law says, “What are you doing here?” and the only response will be to point to Jesus and say, “I’m with Him.”

Jesus calls you His friend, dear baptized believer. Chosen. And again, it’s all His doing, not yours, so there’s no boasting, no bragging. “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” Before you believed, you were chosen. Before you even were, you were chosen in the Chosen One, beloved in the Beloved Son, to go and bear fruit. You heard about fruit last week. Branches joined to the vine bear fruit. Believers joined to Jesus are fruitful. And here the fruit is named: Love.

When I think of fruit, I think in terms of its entire life. I have little green apricots on the tree in my backyard. Not yet ready for picking. In a month or so, they will be ripe. Wait too long, they’ll go rotten and be useless. That’s how it is with much that we do. It has it’s moment, it’s time of ripeness, and then it’s gone and forgotten. But not love. Not the love that flows from the Vine to the branches, from the cross to you and through you to others. That’s God’s love, a fruit that never fails, never rots, never goes bad. It remains forever.

Much of what we do in this life is temporal. We build buildings, but they will one day fall down. We design things that are useful for a while, but something will replace them. We work on our houses, which one day won’t be standing anymore. We bandage wounds on bodies that one day will die. Sermons are forgotten. Paint peels. Wood rots. Weeds take over fine landscapes. Most of what we do will be forgotten, undone. But not love. St. Paul said, “Love never ends. Prophesies pass away, tongues cease, knowledge disappears.” But love is fruit that lasts forever. It goes from death to life. It survives the grave. It’s never forgotten.

You are chosen, you are loved in Jesus. Jesus calls you His friend. And in the freedom of His laying down His life for you, His dying to save you, His rising to give you life, love one another. There’s nothing else you can do, not when you are a friend of Jesus.

In the name of Jesus,

The Lord is My Shepherd

Of all the images of Jesus the Scriptures give us, the most gentle and comforting one is today’s – the Good Shepherd. The old Latin name for Good Shepherd Sunday was Misercordias domini – the merciful heart of the Lord. David, the shepherd who became king, wrote that wonderful psalm by the Holy Spirit. “Yahweh is my shepherd, I shall lack nothing.” We sang as sheep of the Good Shepherd on our way in this morning. Some of you may remember that little song from childhood:

I am Jesus’ little lamb
Ever glad at heart I am
For my Shepherd gently guides me
Knows my need and well provides me
Loves me every day the same
Even calls me by my name.
(Lutheran Worship #517)

The image of sheep with their shepherd is not exactly near to our experience here in the LA suburbs. Our pasture lands are now mostly paved over with concrete and asphalt. You may find cows grazing out toward Ontario, but I don’t recall sheep. Even if you were to find a flock of sheep, it wouldn’t resemble a middle eastern shepherd with his flock. You need to think more along the lines of how it is with you and with the family pet, which will be a bit closer to the merciful heart of the Good Shepherd than any modern sheep herding operation.

The Good Shepherd literally lays down his life for the sheep. They are his life. He brings them out to green pasture. He leads them to fresh pools of water. He sets them upright when they’ve fallen down and can’t pick themselves up. He leads them along well-worn paths, through places sheep don’t naturally want to go, the dark valleys where predators abound. Where the good shepherd leads, the sheep will follow in trust. He feeds them, anoints their wounds and sores, cares for them, even pampers them. And at night, after the flock is safely tucked in their pen, the good shepherd lays down at the entrance to become like a door. If anyone wants to get to the sheep, they’ll have to get through the good shepherd first.

A shepherd is not a hired hand, who runs off at the first sign of danger. For the hired hand, it’s only a job and a paycheck. But the shepherd lives for the sheep. They are his own, like a family. He defends them. He calls each of his sheep by their name, as we do our pets, and they hear his voice and follow only that voice and no one else’s. That’s what Jesus is for us. The Good Shepherd who laid down His life in order to save us.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a shepherd’s town, the birthplace of His ancestor David, the shepherd-king of Israel. The first to worship Him were shepherds from Bethlehem’s field. Though Jesus grew up in a carpenter’s house, shepherding was His true vocation. When Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd,” He is identifying Himself with Yahweh, David’s Good Shepherd God.

To say Jesus is our good shepherd is also to say that “we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.” That will prove troublesome to our egos. While it’s nice of think of Jesus as our shepherd, we might desire something a bit more flattering to ourselves than the image of sheep. Sheep are stubborn, often mean, prone to wandering. Isaiah says, “All we like sheep have gone astray, everyone has turned to his own way.” We don’t like to stay close to the flock.

Me fellow pastors all note with frustration how prone believers are to wandering. (Pastor, by the way, means shepherd; that makes a congregation a flock.) One of the greatest frustrations of pastoral work is the constant wandering. Shepherds have sheep dogs whose job it is constantly to circle the flock, keeping the strays in line. I guess would be the elders of the congregation. We pastors need this reminder that shepherding involves a lot of chasing after strays and lost sheep.

We are prone to wandering. We’ll drink from any putrid, polluted puddle that promises refreshment – religions, philosophies, self-help fads. We’ll sample any weed in the pasture that looks tasty, no matter how poisonous it might be. We’ll wander off on our own, thinking we can go it alone. The American breed of sheep is particularly prone to wandering. We are, after all, a nation that admires rugged individualism – the Marlboro man sitting high atop his horse, the self-made man, the single mom who does it all by herself. Just me and God, thank you. Who needs a congregation, or a pastor, or a people, when you can do it yourself and dial direct and get all the religion you need off the internet? Remember, the lone sheep, the isolated Christian, is easy pickings for the wolves.

All this waywardness comes from the original sin of wanting to be gods in place of God and sticking our hand into the middle of the garden to pluck fruit that brought death instead of life. You and I have that same inborn tendency and it manifests itself in our spiritual restlessness, our boredom at the Good Shepherd’s table, our continual flock hopping from one church to another, our itch for the novel and exciting over the well-worn ruts of righteousness.

Left to our own we’d be dead sheep, devoured by the wolves. Had the Son of God not joined the flock by becoming man, we would be doomed by our own sin and death. But this is the heart of the merciful heart of God, the Good Shepherd. He became one of us. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, the way a shepherd dwells among his flock. God didn’t sit there on a throne in heaven somewhere saying, “They sure look lost; I hope they find me.” Yahweh, the Good Shepherd, joined the flock. “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep,” God said through the prophet Ezekiel. God didn’t leave shepherding His people to hired hands. He sent His Son Jesus, to seek and save the lost, to gather the scattered, to be the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.

In His death on the cross, He did just that. He laid down His life for a world of lost sheep. Lifted up on the cross, He drew all to Himself, gathering a sinful, damned humanity in the embrace of a loving shepherd God who is willing to suffer and die to save the unsalvagable.

You are sheep of the crucified and risen Good Shepherd. He pastures you in the green pastures of His Word; He leads you to the quiet waters of Baptism; He restores your soul, raising you from death to life in Him. He guides you in the paths of righteousness, the way of repentance, daily dying and rising, for His name’s sake. Even though you walk every day through the dark valley called the “Shadow of Death,” where threats to your life are all around you, where death and the grave loom large over you, you need fear no evil. Good Shepherd Jesus has gone ahead of you through suffering and death to resurrection and glory. Your Shepherd lives and in Him you live too. The grave couldn’t hold Him, and it can’t hold you either.

He is with you, comforting you with His Word and presence. He prepares a table for you, the meal of His sacrifice, His own Body and Blood which He offered up once for all to pay for your sins, He gives you as food and drink on the banquet table of His altar. Nothing can harm you in His presence. “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”

He anoints your head with healing oil, forgiving your sin, in general and in specific, in a corporate way and in a private, personal way. I see here a nice image of personal confession and absolution. A shepherd will give the sheep a flea bath, like a corporate absolution. But he will also apply a healing balm to the troublesome sores and spots that could easily become infected if left unattended. You are forgiven in general, all the sins with which you have ever offended God, and also in specific, those sins that trouble you the most. That’s why we musst never let private confession fall into disuse as our forefathers did. Forgiveness, like sin itself, is both general and specific.

At the end of this day, and at the end of your days, you can say with David, “surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.” Like a couple of sheep dogs nipping at your heels, our Lord’s goodness and mercy will dog you each and every day of your life, reminding you that the Lord is your Shepherd and you are His sheep. And at the end of it all, there is a promise held in trust that is as sure as Jesus crucified and risen from the dead is sure: You will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

In the name of Jesus,

Ghosts Don’t Eat Fish

John sure knows how to write a prologue, doesn’t he? He set the standard in his gospel when he wrote “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Then he holds out for fourteen tantalizing verses before he pops the cork: “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” Now that’s what I call “prologue.”

John’s first epistle hits another high note for prologues. “He who was from the beginning, whom we have heard, whom we have seen with our eyes, whom we have looked on and touched with our hands, Him we proclaim concerning the Word of life.”

This is no make believe Jesus; no “Christ of faith” Jesus; no myth and legend Jesus. “We heard Him,” John says. “We saw Him with our own eyes, we observed Him and touched Him with our own hands. The One who is the Light and Life of the world, who made all things, and redeemed all things by His blood, Him we preach so that you might have fellowship with us, and our joy might be complete.” Now there’s a good, gospel reason to evangelize – that others may have fellowship with us and that our joy might be complete. Much better than putting the burden of the world’s salvation on your shoulders instead of on Jesus’.

There is no other saving name than the name of Jesus. No other savior than this Jesus who was crucified as an atoning sacrifice for sin. No one else has a death and resurrection; no one else can rescue you from your sin and death but this Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Son of God. Visible, touchable, hearable Jesus.

Luke gives his own version of the Easter upper room in today’s Gospel. The disciples are frightened, discussing all the rumors that were flying faster than an LA gossip column. Two disciples claimed to have seen Jesus on the road to Emmaus. He taught them and broke bread with them. The disciples are discussing what this all means when suddenly Jesus appears literally out of nowhere, and says “Peace be with you.”

Those poor disciples. You have to feel for them. Their nerves are worn ragged. Crucifixion, burial, rumors of resurrection, empty tomb, Jesus sightings first by Mary, then the two on the Emmaus road. All in three days. And then without so much as a polite knock on the door, Jesus appears risen from the dead and says “Peace be with you.” The disciples nearly jump out of their skin, thinking they’re seeing a ghost. (They thought the same thing when Jesus walked on water.)

Jesus shows His hands and feet, those wounds that are our healing, the wounds that identify Jesus. Any Jesus without those wounds isn’t the real Jesus, no matter how glorious He may appear. Remember that. Jesus said there would be all sorts of false christs near the end, so brace yourselves and be ready. You can tell the real One by His wounds. “Those dear tokens of His passion, still His dazzling body bears.” He shows them to the Father as evidence of our redemption. “See, I’ve paid the price,” He says. He shows them to His disciples as evidence of His resurrection from the dead.

“Go ahead and touch me,” Jesus says. You can’t touch ghosts. Spirits don’t have flesh and bones. And notice please, that Jesus has “flesh and bones” after His resurrection. This is the resurrection of the body, not some sort of immortal spirit floating about in the clouds. And then to drive home the point, Jesus asks for a piece of broiled fish, and He eats it. right before their eyes. Here’s the rub: Ghosts don’t eat fish.

John says, “We heard Him, we saw Him, we touched Him. That’s how real the resurrection of Jesus is. Audible, visible, tactile. And though He isn’t visible to us today, He remains quite audible in His Word, His Office. And though we cannot touch Him in the way that John did, He still touches us in all our creaturely humanity. He baptizes us with water; He gives us His body to eat as bread. He gives us His blood to drink as wine. Audible, visible, tactile. Real. It doesn’t get more down to earth than that. Or more real.

This touchable Jesus, with wounded hands and feet and sides, who eats fish, opens the closed minds of His disciples so they too can understand the Scriptures at their very heart and core: That the Christ must die and rise; and that the sinner must die and rise with Jesus in daily repentance unto forgiveness; “that repentance unto the forgivenness of sins be preached in my Name to all nations.”

“In my Name” is the name of Jesus. There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. It’s a devilish lie to say that God goes by many names and is worshipped in many ways. That’s the world’s way of syncretism, throwing all religions into a blender and spinning the blade. It’s not all the same. There is only One who died and rose from the dead, and He goes by the Name of Jesus. No other name can save you, because no one else but Jesus rose from the dead. Ghosts don’t eat fish.

Repentance is what the disciples were to preach. Did you catch that? Repentance. Not rennovation, renewal, refreshment, or retreat. Repentance. Metanoia in the Greek. It means a change of mind, a turning around. With minds opened to the Scriptures, the church is sent into the world to turn them minds of the nations. We have only one note to sound: Repentance.

Think of repentance as a complete turn around, a new mind, a new self. Being turned inside out, away from self toward God, from sin to forgiveness, from fear to faith. It is a turning to the God who has turned so graciously and mercifully to you in Jesus. That’s what the church is supposed to be preaching. Not health, wealth, happiness, fame, and fortune, but repentance in the name of Jesus.

We are born turned from God, turned inward, self-centered instead of Christ-centered. Don’t deny it; denial is not the way of repentance. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” That goes for the most innocent newborn to the most holy of senior citizens. We are born in that condition; we have sin. “If we say we claim we have not sinned, we make God out to be a liar and His word is not in us.” Don’t deny that either. Whatever we do has the fingerprints of a sinner on it.

Here’s the good news: When we confess our sins, when we say back what God has said to us in His law, when we own up to our sin God is faithful and just, and in His faithfulness and righteousness He forgives our sin and cleanses us from all unrighteousness. That’s what the death of Jesus accomplished. Forgiveness and cleansing. Why does God put up with the world, with you and me? It’s all for Jesus’ sake. What does God love to do more than anything? To forgive and cleanse; baptize, absolve, pardon sinners.

The religious world doesn’t get this. They would have no clue that God would actually want us to come into His presence not with excuses and bribes but with a confession on our lips, an honest admission of guilt that we have sinned in our thoughts, in our words, in our actions. And we are bringing our confession not to a judge or a jury so that punishments can be meted out, but to a faithful and righteous God who keeps His promises and who swears by the blood of Jesus that He will forgive you. That’s something to tell the world, because the world doesn’t have a clue that this is how God operates.

Of course, there will always be those who say, “Hey, if God loves to forgive so much, why don’t I just sin up a storm and give Him even more to forgive.” But that’s not the way of repentance. John writes in all sincerity, as a father to his children, “My dear children, I write this so that you do not sin.” But the reality is that we do sin. John knew that. He knew that of himself, and he knew that of his people. Every pastor, every apostle, every Christian must say, “I, a poor miserable sinner,” or they are not telling the truth.

There is good news for the sinner: If anyone sins, he has an advocate, a defense attorney who speaks to the Father. He bore the price of our sin on the cross. He paid our debt. He received our sentence and paid it in full. He’s the defense attorney who receives the sentence of his guilty clients. And He stands before the Father’s throne with those wounds – His hands, His feet, His side – and says, “Father, forgiven them.” And the Father has no choice but to forgive. The wounds of Jesus testify that the price has been paid.

Not only for our sins, but for the sins of the whole world. It’s almost as though we are given to hear the Holy Spirit give John a nudge and say, “Don’t stop there, John.
Don’t water it down. Pour the good news straight up.” Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Yes. And that’s good for us to hear. But there’s more, a whole world more. “Not only for ours sins, but for the sins of the whole world.”

It’s become fashionable in some circles to confess the Nicene Creed by saying “who for us and for our salvation” instead of the way we know it, “who for us men and for our salvation.” While it sounds all nice and “inclusive,” “us” isn’t inclusive enough. “Us” only says, well, us. Not necessarily all, just us. And it leaves it in doubt as to exactly who “us” is. Us Lutherans? Us Christians? Us in this room? “Us men” says “us human beings.” For all of mankind, the every son and daughter of Adam and Eve, the Son of God became man to die and rise. That means you can look anyone in the eye and say, “Christ died for you.”

Salvation in Christ is exclusively inclusive. It is exclusively in Christ Jesus, there is no other name, no other way, no other door but the narrow door of His death and resurrection. And yet it is inclusive, embracing “all nations,” every sinner, every sin without exception. “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

And it would all seem too good to be true, but for this one fact: Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. He was seen, heard, touched. Ghosts don’t eat fish. This is most certainly true.

In the name of Jesus,

His Words and His Wounds

Jesus’ words and His wounds make every Sunday a little Easter. With His words and His wounds, Jesus brings peace to His fearful disciples. With His words and His wounds He sends them to speak forgiveness with His own breath and Spirit. And with His words and His wounds, He reaches out to a disbelieving disciple, and to each of us gathered here this morning.

It was late afternoon of that first day of the week, the first day of the new creation when death was swallowed up in the victory of Jesus. The disciples were huddled behind locked doors, afraid, fearing that they might be next in line for crucifixion, perhaps. Or simply afraid. It had been quite a weekend. Jesus’ crucifixion on Friday, a hasty burial, a somber Sabbath, followed by daybreak rumors of the tomb being empty and Jesus’ having been seen by the women. It was enough even to make the fishermen hide behind closed doors. What next?

What’s next, of course, is Jesus, who comes and stands among them. How did He get in? Do we really need to ask such questions? There He is in all the splendor of His resurrection, and the first words from His mouth are “Peace be with you.” Do you see why I prefer that as a greeting around here? So much more than “Good morning or good evening.” “Peace be with you.” And when it’s the Lord who’s speaking peace then peace there is.

With His words, He shows them His wounds. The visible sign, the proof. His hands and feet and side. Here is the source of the peace. “By His wounds we are healed,” Isaiah said. Fear melts away; sorrow turns to joy. “The disciples rejoiced, seeing the Lord.” There is no reason to be afraid, not with the Lord in your midst. He’s the one who just conquered sin, death, devil, and the Law. What’s left to be afraid of?

Those same words, Jesus speaks to you here today. “Peace be with you.” And with His words, His wounds. Not hands, feet, and side, but His Body and His Blood, the gifts of His cross. Here is your peace and the end of all fear. He enters our locked little rooms, those places where we hide from others in fear. Our sin does that – it isolates, estranges, divides, sets us against one another. We throw the deadbolt on our lives, keeping the world away, keeping God away too. It’s Adam all over again, cowering in naked fear in the bushes, hiding.

We won’t step out, but Jesus steps in. He comes to us, as He came to those frightened disciples. He speaks His peace and shows the wounds that are our healing. That’s where the joy is – the words and wounds of Jesus. That’s where the peace that passes our understanding is – in the words and wounds of Jesus, all here for you.

And more. Again, Jesus says it, “Peace be with you.” Wasn’t once enough? Why receive forgiveness when you’ve already been forgiven? Why speak peace a second time when you’ve already said it? That’s not the faith speaks. Faith simply delights in receiving whatever the Lord has to give, and if He’s giving out double peace on Easter Sunday, that’s where I want to be.

He breathes on them, as He once breathed over the waters of creation in the beginning, as He once breathed into the nostrils of Adam turning his lifeless clay into a living being. Breath and spirit are the same word in Greek. So is wind, in case you’re thinking ahead to Pentecost. With Jesus’ breath and words comes the Holy Spirit. It’s a little Pentecost, a preview of what is coming fifty days later.

He sends them. “As the Father has sent me, so I am sending you.” Jesus is the Apostle of the Father. Apostle means one who is sent. Jesus is making His disciples into apostles, “sent ones” sent with His word and breath and Spirit. He binds His mouth to their mouths, His breath to their breath, His words to their words. “The sins you forgive are forgiven.” Absolution.

The text history of this verse is revealing. They can’t seem to agree on the tense of the verb. Is it perfect, present or future? “The sins you forgive have been forgiven, are forgiven, will be forgiven.” So which is it? Which would you rather have? Forgiveness past, present, or future? How about all three? That’s the way faith would have it – every way the Lord has to give it.

Perfect: “The sins you forgive have been forgiven,” done to death on Calvary’s cross, a done deal, nothing more to add to Jesus “it is finished.”

Present: The sins you forgive are forgiven, right here in your hearing, as we say in the Catechism, “from the pastor as from God Himself, not doubting but firmly believing that by it our sins are forgiven.”

Future: The sins you forgive will be forgiven, on the Last Day, “judgment day,” when the Lord appears to judge the living and the dead. So the word of forgiveness from the cross holds yesterday, today, and forever.

And, if the gift of forgiveness is refused, then “whatever you retain is retained.” Forgiveness is always rejectable, as Jesus is always rejectable. You do so at your own peril.

Out of Jesus’ death and resurrection flow apostolic ministry and apostolic church. Jesus sends His disciples as His apostles, sent for the purpose of making forgiveness audible to those who have not seen. This is why God sends pastors to His church, this is why God has a church in the first place, that forgiveness of sins would be preached and heard and believed and lived. God doesn’t care if we are entertained on Sunday, or even if we feel “spiritually uplifted” (whatever on earth that means). He wants you to hear the forgiveness of your sins in the name of Jesus and trust it and live in fearless freedom. He wants to give you something concrete and tangible to believe, something outside of your selves, namely, that Jesus died for your sins and that He was raised for your justification. He wants to speak His peace into you and to display the wounds by which you are healed.

Thomas, the “Twin” wasn’t there that first Easter Sunday. We don’t know why he wasn’t there. Maybe he was sulking, or hiding out somewhere else, locked up in his own upper room. The disciples told Thomas what they had seen and heard, but he refused to believe them. It’s not so much that he doubted. He’s very plain about it, “Unless I see the nail marks and put my hand in His side, I will not believe it.” That’s not doubt, that’s unbelief.

And so a week later, the next Sunday, the disciples are again locked up in their little room. Freedom is hard to get used to, isn’t it? They still don’t quite get it, still hiding, fearful, tentative. Like newly paroled prisoners, they’re not quite sure what to do. It’s safer to be locked up.

This time Thomas is with them. Jesus again appears out of nowhere, speaking His peace and showing them His wounds. He zeroes in on Thomas. “Go ahead, Thomas, put your finger here; see my hands. Stick out your hand and place it in my side.” (Jesus had overheard Thomas’ every unbelieving word!) Do not be unbelieving but believing. Trust me, Thomas. Trust my words to you.”

We don’t know if Thomas ever actually touched Jesus. The words of Jesus have their way. The next thing we hear is Thomas’ confession of faith. “My Lord and my God.” Much more than his eyes could have told him about Jesus.

Faith is trust in the word, not in what you see. Faith comes by hearing not by seeing. We walk by faith and not by sight. What Thomas saw was the same Jesus who had been nailed to a cross now tangibly, touchably risen from the dead. What Thomas believed was that this man named Jesus was His Lord and His God, His Creator and His Savior, the Christ and the Son of God. In a way, you and I have an advantage over Thomas and the other disciples. We have nothing to see, nothing to distract our ears. “Faith comes by hearing.” That’s why the church and her ministry have never been much to look at.

This crucified and risen Jesus, the One with the wounds, is your Lord and God too. You have not seen, and yet by the Word and Holy Spirit working through your Baptism you believe. Jesus has a word for you: “Blessed.” “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

You are blessed with a peace that can be found nowhere else but the words and the wounds of Him who sent to the cross to save you.

You are blessed with Jesus’ forgiveness, absolution spoken directly to you, in the stead and by the command of Jesus, His Spirit-ed words breathing life and forgiveness and peace and joy into you in your death.

You are blessed with something far, far greater than the sight or even the touch of Jesus’ hands and feet and side. His Body and His Blood. Not to investigate, like an unbelieving Thomas, but to eat and to drink trusting these are “for you.”

You are blessed with a freedom to step out of locked rooms and fearful lives and dismal unbelief to go out into the world and tell the good news of sins forgiven in the name of crucified and risenJesus, to invite all the unbelieving Thomases to come and hear for themselves.

Jesus’ words and His wounds. His forgiveness and His peace. You are blessed.

In the name of Jesus,

Death Has Lost Its Grip

Christ is risen! He’s made it through. His “it is finished” from the cross holds up against death and the grave. Nothing can hold crucified Jesus down. The grave has lost its grip.

Mary Magdalene went to the grave very early in the morning. It was Sunday, the first day of a new week. It was still dark. In the dim light she saw the stone door had been rolled away, the grave was open. She assumes the logical worst – someone had taken the body of Jesus. That was the reasonable thing to think. Dead men don’t rise. Someone must have moved the body. “They’ve taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they have laid him.” Jesus is missing.

Peter and John race to the tomb. John is faster, Peter a bit braver. John stoops down to have a peek inside. Peter rushes headlong the tomb. Good old Peter, always the first. He sees the burial cloths lying there where Jesus’ body had been laid out. Everything is tidy and in order, the burial cloths folded neatly, as though Jesus had made His bed after getting up from sleep. If someone moved the body, they forgot the burial cloths. And then who would fold them up so neatly? John looks in and sees the same things. (It takes two witnesses to establish something legally.) A realization began to dawn: Jesus is risen. The grave has lost its grip.

Peter and John see the evidence, but they hadn’t seen Jesus. That gift was given to Mary Magdalene. She stood outside the grave sobbing. What else can you do? You’re best friend and teacher died and now his body is missing. Tears flow. She looks into the tomb and sees two shining angels in white sitting on the shelf where Jesus’ body had lain, one at the head, the other at the foot. Recall that in the OT, there were two angels on either side of the ark of the covenant, facing each other. The same image is pictured here. Jesus has made the grave a most holy place.

Mary looks over her shoulder and sees a man standing outside. He must be the gardner. Does he know where Jesus is? Did he take the body? He says her name, “Mary.” The voice, the sound of her name. A sheep knows the voice of her Shepherd. She throws herself at His feet and grabs on tightly to His ankles. “Rabboni, my Teacher.” “Weeping remains for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” Jesus turns her tears of sadness to tears of joy. The graveyard is now a happy place for her. She had her Jesus back and wasn’t about to let Him go.

“No need to keep on holding me,” Jesus says to her. He’s not going anywhere. “I’ve not yet ascended to the Father. Go and tell my brothers.” They needed to be told; He gives that holy task to her. This poor woman with the miserable train wreck of a life whom Jesus had rescued from the grip of the demons gets to tell the good news first. “I have seen the Lord.”

Those are the plain and sober facts of Easter. An empty tomb. Folded burial cloths and head covering. Two angels. A risen Jesus you can lay hold of. Not a vision, a ghost, an illusion, or a fond wish. A bodily risen Jesus. There are eyewitnesses – John, Peter, Mary. Soon the other disciples. By the end of the month, over 500 witnesses, people who had nothing to gain and everything to lose by making this up. All with the same remarkable message: Jesus who was crucified is risen. The grave has lost its grip.

First century Greeks didn’t believe in resurrected bodies. Immortal souls, no problem. But not risen bodies. Spiritual resurrections were fine, but not bodies that rise up from tombs leaving neatly folded burial cloths behind. The apostle Paul is blunt and to the point with the Christians of Corinth: If Christ has not been raised, your faith is empty, futile, and you are yet in your sins.

If Christ isn’t raised, there is a body of Jesus out there somewhere, some bones in a box with Jesus’ name on it, like James. If Christ isn’t raised, that chapter from John you heard is a myth, a pious legend, even worse, a fraud. If Christ isn’t raised, then my friends, you need to find another religion, and soon.

Never mind all the fringe benefits of “being a Christian,” how it brings you peace of mind or joy in your heart or helps you through life’s problems. Forget it all. If Jesus isn’t raised, those things don’t matter in the long run. “If our hope in Christ is only for this life, than we are to be pitied more than all men.” We really are a pitiful bunch of dupes, if Christ isn’t raised.

You can’t have Jesus the teacher, Jesus the great moral example, Jesus the prophet, Jesus the nice guy who did nice things for people without the Jesus who hung dead on a cross and rose bodily from the dead. If Jesus is not risen from the dead, then the Christian faith is not one of the “noble” religions of the world, it’s a big fat lie and not worth wasting your Sunday, let alone your life over.

If Christ isn’t raised, you may as well play soccer on Sunday, read the newspaper, go to the beach or the desert, get on with your lives as best you can. Eat, drink, be happy, be nice, be safe, live fast and hard – for tomorrow you die and that’s the end of it all. That’s your good news if Christ isn’t raised from the dead.

If Christ isn’t raised, you can have chocolate Easter bunnies and baskets full of colored eggs and bouquets of springtime flowers, and that’s all of Easter you will have. A celebration of spring. If Christ isn’t raised, you can have Easter supper without the Lord’s Supper, you can feast on meats and wines but it won’t be the feast that the prophet Isaiah pictured because the shroud of death still hangs over everything.

If Christ isn’t raised, you are still in your sins. That’s the worst of it. That awful cross accomplished nothing. There is no atonement for sin. It’s all up to you to balance the scales. You have to fix things. You have pull yourself up. You have to balance the books yourself, and you better not waste any time, because you don’t know how much time you have.

If Christ isn’t raised from the dead, you are imprisoned in your old Adamic self. In Adam, all die, and you’re no exception. If Christ isn’t raised then it’s only a matter of time before death punches your time clock and you receive the just wages of sin – the cancer cell, the stroke, the blown blood vessel, the stray bullet, the strange virus. Even if you spent your life doing all the things you think Jesus would have you do, it’s all for nothing, if Christ isn’t raised.

But Jesus Christ is risen. That’s the abiding joy of this day. The tomb is empty and ordered. The crucified body is risen. It’s a witnessed fact of history. Mary and John and Peter and the Twelve, James and all the apostles, 500 all say the same thing to us. “We saw Him. We touched Him. We ate with Him. We heard His voice. He is risen from the dead!”

Have you noticed the world seems to check in with the church twice a year – at Christmas and Easter? That’s when you’re most likely to see books and television specials that question the historical facts. This year has certainly been no exception. When you strip everything else away, these are the twin pillars of the Christian faith – that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God in human flesh, born of a Virgin, and that He is crucified and risen bodily from the dead. No other Jesus than one who fully shares your humanity can bear your sins. No other Jesus than the One who died and rose from the dead can conquer your death. No other Jesus than the One whose ankles Mary held onto so tightly on that first day of the week.

As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. No one will sleep in on that final Easter Sunday, whenever that day comes. Those who trust Jesus and His completed work to save them will rise to eternal life. Those who refuse to trust Him and reject what He has won for them, will rise to eternal condemnation, which is a waste of a perfectly good resurreciton. But all rise. Every single son and daughter of Adam and Eve will rise in the power of Jesus’ resurrection.

The grave has lost its grip. “O death, where is thy victory? O grave, where is thy sting?” The sting of death is sin; the power of sin to kill is the Law. God’s Law, the Law we break each and every moment of our lives. It’s killing us. Driving us to the grave. “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Christ is risen! His death is Death’s demise.
Christ is risen! Death is swallowed up forever.
Christ is risen! Sin is washed away.
Christ is risen! The devils cower in fear, their reign of darkness is ended.
Christ is risen! A new creation has dawned; the old is gone, the new has come.
Christ is risen! Adam is lifted up from the dust of death.
Christ is risen! And in Him you live.

The feast is ready for you dear baptized believers. The finest of foods, the best of wines. Not in the parish hall, but here where the Lord is having His mountain. Here, where the bread is the Body of Christ, where the wine is His Blood. Death is swallowed up in victory.

“Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in His salvation.”

In the name of Jesus,