Very Good Friday

The day a loved one dies is not ordinarily called a “good day,” at least from the world’s perspective. We are taken aback when we discover that all those saints’ days we celebrate are not their birth days but their death days. The death day of a loved one, from a worldly perspective, can hardly be called “good.” Sad, tragic, somber, grief-filled – certainly. And yet we call this day “Good Friday,” the day our Lord Jesus hung on a cross and died a horrible death.

The goodness of this Friday is a matter of faith.

The facts of good Friday are these: Jesus was betrayed by one of His own disciples, Judas, and arrested. He was tried before the religious high court and the high priest and was found worthy of death, guilty of blasphemy against the name of God. He was hauled before the civil authorities, represented by Herod and Pontius Pilate, and was sentenced to death for the crime of treason. He was denied by Peter, beaten by soldiers, mocked, spit at, scorned, crowned with thorns. He was stripped and crucified between two convicted terrorists at 9 o’clock on Friday morning. At noon it became very dark. At three in the afternoon, the hour of the evening sacrifice, the hour the lambs were slain, Jesus cried “It is finished,” and died. To ensure His death, a spear was jabbed into His side, causing water and blood to flow from His already dead body.

Those are the plain facts of history, attested to by eyewitnesses that included Jesus’ mother Mary, His mother’s sister, the wife of Clopas, Mary Magdalene, and John, the apostle and evangelist whom we heard. This is all simply a matter of historical fact.

The matter of faith is that all this is for you and for your salvation. Faith clings solely to the Word. Hear these Scriptures for your faith and life:

“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” (John 2:19)

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14)

“When you have lifted up the Son of man, then you will know that I AM, and that I do nothing on my own authority but speak thus as the Father taught me.” (John 8:28)

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” (John 12:32)

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who hands on a tree.” (Galatians 3:13)

“For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.” (2 Cor. 5:14)

“For our sake He (God) made Him (Christ) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 5:21)

“God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Since therefore, we are not justified by His blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God.” (Romans 5:8)

“My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin; but if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and he is the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:1-2)

“Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.” (Rev. 5:9-10)

The cross of Jesus is the ultimate paradox. The Light of the world hangs in darkness. The Source of living water thirsts. The innocent One dies for the guilty. The One clothed in divine majesty hangs in naked shame. The King of kings is enthroned on a cross. The One who is “in the bosom of the Father” is forsaken by God. The One who is the Life of all hangs dead.

In His thirst, is your refreshment. In His nakedness is your garment of righteousness. In His rejection is your acceptance. In His forsakenness is your inclusion. In his wound is your healing. In His blood is your forgiveness. In His death is your life.

Jesus is the fulfillment of all the OT pictured. He is the lamb skinned to clothe Adam and Eve. He is the whole burnt offering, bled out and consumed for another’s sin. He is the evening and morning sacrifice. He is the scapegoat and atoning sacrifice of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. He is every lamb and goat and bull slain in the temple and offered to God for the sins of the people. He is the ram that saved Isaac from the knife. He is the Passover lamb, whose blood marks the doorpost of freedom, whose flesh is the food of Israel. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

“It is finished.”. This is Jesus’ last word in humble obedience unto death. Finished, accomplished, worked to its conclusion. There is nothing more to be done for your salvation. Not by Him, nor by you, except for Him to give and for you to receive. Humanity’s redemption is done to death. Adam’s sin, and yours, is answered. Justice is done. All that remains now is Sabbath rest.

On the sixth day, the Friday of man’s creation, when God looked over everything He had made, He said “very good.” On the sixth day, when Jesus the Christ, the Son of God incarnate, looked over all that He had redeemed, He hung His head in death on the cross and said, “It is finished.”

And we, with God, say, “Very good.” It is a very good Friday.

In the name of Jesus,
Amen.

Behold! The Lamb of God

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

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

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

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

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

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Dirty, Dusty Feet

It is the night of that fateful day on which the Son of God incarnate in our human flesh laid down His life to save the world. In the rhythm of the day as it appears in the Bible, evening marks the beginning of the day. Darkness into light. Evening into morning. This is the evening Jesus was handed over; the morning would bring his death for the life of the world.

Jesus is in an upper room at table with His disciples, His Twelve, His Israel. They are celebrating the Passover, the OT sacrament by which you were joined to Israel on the night they walked through a blood-stained doorway into freedom from slavery. “This day shall be for you a day of remembrance, and you shall keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, you shall observe it as an ordinance forever.”

At this table, Jesus gives His disciples in two ways. First, He gives them a pattern to follow, an example of sacrificial service, of holding others of higher regard than self. He takes off his tunic, takes up a towel and a basin of water, and washes the dusty, dirty feet of His disciples. The Lord and Creator of all, bends down to do the work of the lowliest of servants. The Master becomes the slave. He came not to be served, but to serve, and to lay down His life as a ransom for the many.

At first, Peter would have none of it. Pride gets in the way of our being given to. It is so terribly hard to be given to. We say it whenever we receive an unexpected gift: “You shouldn’t have.” We mean it. But Jesus, ever patient, persists. Peter must learn the way of being give to as well. Before you can give of yourself in service, you must receive from the divine service of the Suffering Servant.

In washing their feet, Jesus gave them an example to follow, “that you should do as I have done to you.” This is what it means to live under Him in His kingdom and to serve Him. He is the King who bows before His subjects and washes their feet. In the face of that, is there any task beneath your dignity? “A servant is not greater than His master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him.” What would Jesus do? He would wash dirty, dusty feet.

If clean feet were all Jesus gave out that night in the upper room, He would not have given anything new. Examples are nice, and examples from the Lord are even better. Who can argue with a Jesus example? But apart from His death and life, apart from our union with Him as branches to the vine, we can do nothing. The spirit may indeed be willing to wash feet, but the flesh is not only weak, it is dead.

And so Jesus gives to His Twelve in yet another way. Not the way of pattern but the way of sacrifice and gift. He takes the bread that opens the Passover meal, the hard, unleavened bread of affliction, He gives thanks, and He breaks it into pieces, handing a piece to each of His disciples. To receive the piece of bread is to be admitted to the meal. You belong at this table. He says words never before heard in a Passover liturgy: “This is my body, which is given for you.” His words tell us what we could not know for ourselves. This bread is Jesus’ body, what will later that day be given into death on the cross. Here bread finds the highest and holiest use – to be the vehicle to deliver Jesus’ body, the Bread of Life, living Bread come down from heaven as manna to feed His Israel. His Israel, His church, would live off the Bread of His death until He appears again in glory.

He takes the cup of wine after supper, the blessing cup. He lifts His cup, gives thanks, and gives each of His disciples to drink from it. Again, Jesus says words never before uttered in a Passover: “This is the new covenant in my blood.” Covenants were sealed with sacrificial blood sprinkled on the people. This covenant blood is given to drink. Here too, wine finds its ultimate purpose, binding those who drink of Jesus’ cup in a covenant of His blood. In the OT, blood stood for life. “The life of the creature is in the blood.” This blood of the new covenant is a blood that was poured out for you, in your place, for the forgiveness of your sins.

Washing feet was the example. That was something the disciples could do. But giving His body to eat and His blood to drink; that was something only Jesus could do. He unites them with Him in His death and life. He is the vine; they are the branches. His body and blood, His death and life flowing into them make them fruitful foot washers. Apart from Him, they can do nothing. Nor can you.

Come then to His table on this night which commemorates the night on which Jesus your Savior was betrayed into death for you. The same Meal He gave to His Twelve, He now gives to you. Receive the bread He prepared for you and eat it. It is His body, your manna to sustain you in your wilderness journey until you rise to walk in promised land. Receive the cup He prepared for you and drink from it. It is His covenant blood, poured out for the many, poured out for you. This is wine from Calvary’s vineyard to gladden your sin-saddened heart. What greater gift can Jesus give, than to give you the fruits of His sacrifice, His own Body and Blood?

He gives His all to you so that He might save the all of you. Nothing stands outside His forgiveness. Nothing can separate you from His self-sacrificing love. No greater love is there than that this self-giving love that lays down its life for another. In His Supper, at His table, He lays before you the gifts of His cross and says, “These are for you.”

And from this holy Meal arise refreshed, renewed, restored. Let Jesus’ Body and Blood have its way with you, enlivening you in faith toward Him and in fervent love toward one another. Love that bends down in service of the neighbor – both friend and stranger. Love that seeks to serve Christ in the least, the lost, the lowly. Love that washes dirty, dusty feet.

In the Name of Jesus.

The Passion of Our Lord

Palms to Passion. Shouts of Hosanna! to cries of Crucify Him! It’s all there in one Sunday – Palm Sunday / Passion Sunday.

Some might ask why. Why do it this way? Why not break it up into more digestible bits? We will. This is the start of Holy Week. But today we take in the big picture all at once. The Passion of our Lord to save you from your sins. The Passion of our Lord to rescue you from death. This is the fulfillment of His mission. This is why He was conceived and born of a Virgin. This is why He became flesh and dwelt among us.

A verse from the apostle Paul’s letter to the Philippians summarizes the day: And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

When the crowds greeted Jesus with palm branches shouting “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were treating Jesus as the messiah-king. They remembered the prophet Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” They remembered Psalm 118 and the victorious king riding into Jerusalem. “Hosanna, O Lord, save us. Grant us success. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

They were expecting the revolt to begin. King Jesus had come to His city, and now it was time for holy war. You can imagine there likely were swords and other weapons in that crowd in addition to palm branches. The air was thick with anticipation, crackling with danger. The religious leaders noticed. So did the Roman government. God was finally going to vindicate His people, liberate them from Roman rule, establish the kingdom of heaven on earth.

No one could have anticipated how this holy war was going to play out that week. No one could have guessed how this messiah-king would win salvation. Betrayed, tried, convicted, beaten, crucified. This is not the world’s idea of a messianic holy war. Nor ours. But that’s exactly what the Passion of our Lord is – a holy war against sin, death, devil, the Law the convicts and kills. And only God in the flesh can fight it.

When we walk along a stretch of beach and see the vastness of the ocean, we tend to feel small. When we look at those marvelous pictures from space and consider the vastness of the heavens, we feel insignificant. But these are nothing compared with the height and depth and breadth of the passion of Jesus the Christ to save the cosmos. And you.

A woman anoints Jesus with the costliest gift she has, a jar of perfume worth a year’s wages. Her devotion raises eyebrows and draws criticism. The money could have gone to feed the poor. But worship is never practical, always priceless. This was preparation for Jesus’ death and burial, an act of devotion that would never be forgotten.

Judas betrays Jesus. That act would never be forgotten either. In later centuries enemies of Christ would try to salvage Judas, as the gnostic “Gospel of Judas” attests, but the first century eyewitness narrative tells the sordid truth. A disciple from the inner ranks betrays His master for the paltry price of a slave. It would have been better had he not been born. And the Lord permits it, all for your sake, all to save you.

Jesus celebrates the Passover together, one last time with His Israel, His Twelve. He gives what had never been given before at a Passover table – His Body, the broken Bread; His Blood, the cup of wine poured out. Even before the Sacrifice, they get to share in the blessing, because this Sacrifice reaches back to the beginning and forward to the end. One time for all time. One death for all, and for you.

Jesus goes to the Garden to pray. Heavy with sorrow, burdened by your sin, He falls to the ground praying for another way. But there is no other way. He is the chosen Lamb, the unblemished Sacrifice. The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.

He is betrayed with a kiss, and arrested by an armed crowd. He is tried by the religious high court, and is pronounced worthy of death. Peter, His leading disciple, the one who said he would rather die than fall away, denies even knowing Jesus three times.

Jesus stands before Pilate, Caesar’s man. The King of kings before a minor Roman official. Pilate tries to negotiate his way out, but there is no way out. He offers a terrorist – Barabbas. But the crowd calls for Jesus. The terrorist goes free; the innocent, unblemished Lamb goes to His death.

They clothe Him in royal purple and press a crown of thorns on His head. Thorns were the sign of God’s wrath, the curse on the earth. He is cursed for us. They beat Him and spit on Him and mock Him, just as He is mocked in our day. And He takes it, because He is the world’s Savior. The world cannot save itself.

A passer-by, Simon from Cyrene, is grabbed and forced to help Jesus carry His cross. He is a picture of you and your salvation; you have been crucified with Christ. Joined to Jesus in His death. At nine o’clock in the morning, the third hour, they crucified Him. The hour is important, as is the place. This is history, not myth or legend. History has time and place.

Between him are two insurrectionists. James and John wanted to be on Jesus’ right and left when He came into His kingdom. Here, in His hour of glory, when He comes into His kingdom, there are two thieves flanking Him. James and John had no idea that this was what they were asking for. Behold your King.

Everything that is said of this crucified Jesus is true, even in mockery. He is “the King of the Jews.” He is the Christ. He is the King of Israel. At his death, the centurion in charge says, “He is the Son of God.” That is the greatest truth of all. Dead on the cross, Jesus is most King, most Christ, most Son of God for you.

From noon to three it was dark as though it were night. This is the Day of the Lord. In the darkness, Jesus, the Light of the world, prays Psalm 22, the prayer of the God-forsaken King. That’s what you and I deserve – to be forsaken by God. God would be justified in turning His back on us, but instead He turns His back on His only-begotten Son.

He drinks the bitter cup, the sour wine of our sin and His Father’s wrath, and utters one last loud cry with His last breath. An echo of the exorcisms Jesus performed. In this death, the devil is undone. The temple curtain that closed off the Holy of Holies is torn in to from top to bottom, as the heavens were torn open at Jesus’ Baptism. God and man are reconciled. Your sins are forgiven. Heaven stands open to you through the doorway of cross-shaped wood stained with the blood of the Lamb.

All of this here for you in your Baptism, in the word of Absolution, in the Body and Blood of His Supper.

This is the Passion of our Lord to save you.

In the Name of Jesus,
Amen.

A Glorious Death

The Greeks were eager to see Jesus; Jesus was eager to see His cross. It happened at the start of Passover week in Jerusalem. Some Greeks had come to Jerusalem for the Passover feast. We don’t know anything about them. Perhaps they were simply curious. Seekers. Foreign journalists out to get a story. Or more likely they were the so-called “God-fearers,” worshipers of YHWH, but from a distance. Permanent guests at the synagogue. Greeks were reticent to receive the mark circumcision. Who could blame them?

They go to Phillip. He has a Greek name, so he’s the logical one to go to. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Likely they’ve heard of His raising Lazarus from the dead. Jerusalem must have been buzzing with the news. Phillip tells Andrew, Peter’s brother, and together they go to Jesus. A hint of hierarchy here, perhaps. We can’t resist it, can we? We’re not sure if they brought the Greeks along or just had them wait at the receptionist’s desk.

From the perspective of a Jew of Jesus’ day, the Greeks were the “other part” of human race. The Gentiles, the goyim, the uncircumcised outsiders. Jesus uses the opportunity to point to His impending death and it universality, that it is for all. His death is the way of a grain of wheat. Try and preserve it, and you get nothing in return. Bury it in the ground, and it rises to bear fruit. This is what’s in store for Jesus this Passover week. He goes the way of death and the grave like a grain of wheat cast to the ground. He will lose His life in order to take it up again three days later. And in His dying and rising, He will bear much fruit. Your salvation.

As it is with Jesus, so it is with all who would follow Him. Death and resurrection are the only way. We might look for some other, easier way, a way that we can hang on to at least some of our life. But then that would not be following Jesus, would it? The answer to the question, “What would Jesus do?” is summed up in these two words: die and rise. That’s what Jesus would do, and what all those who follow Him must do as well. “Where I am,” Jesus says, “there my servant shall be also.” There on the cross, there in the tomb, there at the right hand of God.

We don’t like this way of speaking. I don’t imagine Philip and Andrew were to pleased with it. And I can’t imagine the Greeks were terribly impressed. This is the Jesus who had just raised Lazarus from the being four days’ dead. Now the same Jesus says that if you love your life, you will lost it. But if you hate your life in this world, you will guard it for eternal life.

Here is the strange paradox of faith in Jesus: To live we must die, not just once, but every day. Dying and rising is a way of life for the Christian. It’s the only way of life. If the Greeks were reticent about circumcision, you can only imagine what they thought of dying to live. Holding your life in a dead hand, trusting that you are held in the hands of the One who lost it all for you, so that when you literally lose your grip, He will not lose His. Our grip on things is tenuous, uncertain, unsure, and in the end we only wind up losing the very thing we wish to save. Unless the grain of wheat dies and is buried in the ground, it cannot bear fruit. You can’t hold on to the grain. You must let go of it, bury it. We understand that of wheat and other seeds, but do we understand it of ourselves and our lives?

The temptation is to “spiritualize” this or make it something less than a genuine death. A nice little figure of speech that you can throw out when things seem to have slipped out of your control. But there is nothing more out of control than to die. Ask the dying, they will tell you. To be as a kernel of wheat planted in the ground is to give up all that you are and aspire to be, to be utterly at the mercy of God, to rest is the damp soil of God’s goodness, and receive everything from Him as a gift. It is to be utterly given to.

Think of Lazarus in the tomb, the last of the revelatory signs in John that lead up to today’s Gospel text. Lazarus was four days’ dead. Dead as dead can be. Not a flicker of life left in him. When Jesus has them roll the stone from the entrance, Martha worries about the smell. That’s how dead Lazarus was. Stinking dead. So when Jesus yells into the open tomb, “Lazarus, come out,” this isn’t some call for Lazarus to make a decision as to whether he wants to live or not. “Choose life, Lazarus! Choose life. Decide not to be dead!” No, Lazarus was dead. He had no choice about being dead. Death is laid on him, as is life. Life in death comes only through Jesus, His Word spoken into your lifeless flesh.

Jesus sees His impending death as His hour of glory as something not to be scorned but embraced. He is “purpose-driven”: “For this very purpose I have come to this hour.” In His death, He brings glory to His Father who sent Him. For the joy set before Him, He endures the cross and scorns its shame. He wants to bring glory to His Father’s name. His glory is to die a sacrificial death, literally for the life of the world.

“Death” and “glory” are two words that don’t ordinarily hang together in our way of speaking. That’s why we have the voice of the Father confirming what Jesus just said. This voice is “for our sake,” that we too might believe that this dark Friday when the Son of God hangs on a cross for the life of the world really is a “good” Friday. Even a glorious good Friday.

What do you imagine when you hear the word “glory”? Certainly not death by crucifixion! No glory in that, as far as we can see. We think in terms of glitter and gold, sparkle and celebrity, displays of power and pomp. What do you attach the word “glory” to? Certainly not your death. You don’t expect your doctor to come to you with the test results that say you have six months to live and say, “Your hour of glory coming!” Or if he does say that, you might be more than a bit disturbed by his bedside manner. You should expect your pastor to say that, though. That’s what he’s there for.

What is glorious in the world’s way of thinking is what causes the spotlight to shine on us. American Idol glory. Fifteen minutes of fame glory. Jesus was offered that kind of glory in the wilderness by the devil tempting him with the glories of the kingdoms of this world. “All these I will give you; just bow down and worship me.” But that’s not Jesus’ glory. His glory is to do the will of His Father, to accomplish what He took on human flesh to do: to lay down His life as a sin-sacrifice for the world. We hear such phrases as the “glory of Christmas” and the “glory of Easter.” There the glory is easy to spot. But the glory of God has it’s focal point on the cross – the glory of good Friday, the glory of the sixth day that God called “very good,” the day He made man and the day He redeemed man in the human flesh of His Son.

“Now is the judgment of this world.” Jesus’ death is the day of judgment where the world is judged in Jesus. The One who comes to judge the living and the dead here bears the judgment of God in His own body. He’s judged for the world, and in Him the world stands judged.

“Now is the ruler of this world cast out.” Jesus’ death is the exorcism of the world. He casts out the devil by the power of His own death. The reign of the Lie is ended. The reason the Son of God appeared in the flesh was to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8).

“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all to myself.” (He said this to show by what death He was to die.) Last week, we heard Jesus say that He would be lifted up as Moses lifted up the bronze snake in the camp of Israel. Here His lifting up is the lifting up of all humanity. His death is a magnet drawing iron filings to itself. It draws all. Just as the first Adam embodied all of humanity in his body, so that when Adam sinned all sinned, and when Adam fell into death, all of humanity fell; so Jesus, the second Adam, humanity’s new Head, embraces all in His Body, so that when He dies, all die (2 Cor. 5:14). Just as the first Adam took humanity from life to death, so Jesus, the second Adam, takes humanity from death to life. In that glorious death, God is reconciled. Sin is forgiven. The image of God is restored. Sinful man is justified. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

You have been crucified with Christ. His good Friday was your good Friday. You have been buried with Him in Baptism. Joined to Him in His tomb. You no longer live in yourself. You live in Christ. And Christ lives in you. He is your life in the midst of your death. And the life you now live in the flesh you live by faith in the Son of God who loved you and gave Himself up for you (Gal 2:20-21).

In Christ, you are that grain of wheat, dead your selves but alive to God in Christ, buried in the fertile soil of Jesus’ death so that you too might bear much fruit. You have been lifted up in Christ from the depths of your sin – lifted up on the cross of Jesus, lifted up from the grave, lifted up to glory at the right hand of God.

And what Jesus did for you, He has done for all.

In the name of Jesus,
Amen

The Cure Looks Like the Disease

The Israelites were snake-bitten. Venomous fire-snakes were let loose in camp. The people were in agony, dying. They grumbled. They spoke against God and against His servant Moses. They were ungrateful for the manna that fell from heaven and the water that came out of the rock. And so God sent a plague of fiery poison snakes.

The people confessed, Moses interceded, and God provided a sacrament – a bronze serpent on a wooden pole. A visible sign with a promise: “Anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” It’s a strange sign, don’t you think? The cure looks like the disease itself. A serpent of all things, an image of that sly, subtle creature who tempted Eve in the Garden. A bronze snake on a stake. In Leviticus God said don’t make images; then He has them make an image.

An idol is an image without the command and promise of God. The golden calf. Even the bronze serpent became an idol for the Israelites. They named it “Nahushtan” and offered incense to it. It had to be destroyed along with Aaron’s staff that miraculously budded. Whenever a sign comes unbuckled from God’s Word, idolatry lies close at hand.

With the Word, the sign is a “sacrament,” a gift from God given tangibly, receivably. Look on the bronze serpent and be healed of your snakebite. The promise was there, located for certain for you. And when you were burning up with fever and delirious with poison, you didn’t say, “What do I need such a silly snake on a stake for? I can just pray to God directly.” You didn’t say, “I don’t like snakes; they give me the creeps. Look at the snake? Are you crazy?” No, you did what the Lord said to do. You went out of your way to glue your eyes on that bronze snake because it was the only way to survive.

“As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.”

Jesus foretells His own death on the cross and its benefits. He is the “serpent” on the wood, lifted up for the life of the world. All who look on Him through the “eyes” of faith have eternal life.

Like the Israelites in the wilderness, humanity is “snake-bitten.” It happened in the Garden when the shrewd and subtle serpent tempted Eve and injected the poison of his lie. The lie that God is not true to His Word. The lie that God doesn’t mean what He says. The lie that we can be gods in place of God, that we can experience good and evil on our own terms, that we can reach into the middle and be masters of our own destiny. The lie that we can disobey God and we won’t die as a result. Eve bit, Adam bit. The serpent bit and his deadly poison invaded our humanity leaving no part undamaged. Humanity died that day. They were dead to God and to each other – hiding, ashamed, blaming, self-justifying. The poison not only invaded them, it was passed on to their children. Every son and daughter is infected with the serpent’s venom. No generation is skipped. Not you. Each of us is born with the poison coursing through our humanity. The apostle Paul says, “You were dead in trespasses and sin.” Not sick, not weak, not troubled, not struggling or even hanging on for dear life. Snake-bitten dead.

How do you cure a deadly case of snake bite? You don’t put a band aid on it and say, “Think positive thoughts and try really hard to get better.” You don’t say, “Pray this prayer for the snakebitten, and all will be will.” You need a shot of anti-serum. Anti-serum comes from one who has been exposed to the poison and survived. God made Jesus the sinless Son to be sin for you. He became your sin, so that in Him you might become the righteousness of God. He was cursed with the curse against your sin; He was damned for you. He was exposed to our sin and death. Jesus took the full hit for us, the wrath of God, the temptations of the devil, the judgment of the Law. He went down to our grave, and He rose from the dead. He conquered our death in His Death. He is the anti-serum of Death. Like the bronze serpent on the pole, all who believe in Him are healed of death and have eternal life.

Imagine you were an Israelite in the wilderness. Your best friend, a relative, a neighbor is lying on the ground, bitten by the fire snake. What do you do? Do you wish him good luck and hope for the best? Tell him to accept YHWH into his heart? What if you had already looked on that bronze serpent and lived because of it. You’re a survivor, alive by the grace of God. Wouldn’t you point your friend to the bronze serpent. Maybe you’d even carry him over to the place where he could see it too. You would urge him, “Look on that thing and live.” You wouldn’t take no for answer, at least not easily. You’d be urgent and forceful. You wouldn’t worry about hurting his feelings or “not respecting his beliefs” or all the other excuses we have.

The medicine is here in the church. The church fathers used to call the Sacrament “the medicine of immortality.” The cure for death and the curse of sin. Jesus’ own body given into death; Jesus’ own blood given for your life. The world looks on the Sacrament as though you have just raised a bronze boa and says, “You’ve got to be joking! This is how you live forever? Trust Jesus? Eat His Body as bread? Drink His blood as wine?” But what other cure is there? Who else promises life from death? Who else in the world died and rose from the dead? Who else says, “Trust me, eating my flesh, drinking my blood, and I will raise you up on the Last Day and give you eternal life”? Who else but Jesus?

You need this medicine, this word of forgiveness, this Sacrament of Jesus’ death and life. You need this medicine because the snake bitten you too and without the anti-serum you will die in your sins. You need hear and eat and drink. And others you know need to hear and eat and drink too.

God loved the cosmos in this way: He gave His only-begotten Son to die for it. He raised His Son up on a cross one dark day we call Good Friday. It wasn’t a bronze image He lifted up but His own Son in the flesh in that cruel and bizarre death that even today people would rather look away from. An empty cross, they can abide (unless it’s on a county seal or a government building). But not a crucifix, that instrument of torture. Who can look at such a thing? What kind of religion is it that lifts up such a banner with pride and says, “Behold, your Savior and King”?

Here is the love of God. He loves the world to death in the death of His Son. God loves by giving His Son for the life of this unloving, unlovable world. Can you begin to imagine it? What God tested Abraham to do, offer up his son Isaac, God the Father actually did. And the world says, “That’s nuts. How can I believe in a God would do such a thing?” You have no other alternative. This is the God who is loving to the loveless, forgiving to sinners, who justifies the sinner in Christ. The God who is willing to be bruised by the serpent in order to crush his head.

Many of us know this passage by heart: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” It’s more than a sign people hold up at sporting events. It’s the Gospel in a nutshell. We ought to learn verse 17 as well: “For God did not send His Son into the world to judge the world, but to save the world through Him.” Judgment comes later, at the end. And then it’s a judgment in view of what has already been done in the death of Jesus. “It is finished.” Look on Him and live. Behold the Lamb of God bearing your sin. That’s your life hanging there on the cross. Trust Him and live. He’s not there on the cross or in the Sacrament to judge you. He was judged for you. The verdict is rendered. Jesus is guilty, and you in Jesus are innocent. Acquitted. Justified.

“Outrageous,” you say. Yes it is, but this isn’t your court. If God’s judgment of “innocent in Jesus” doesn’t suit you, if you’d rather argue your own case and justify yourself, if you’d rather refuse the bronze snake on a stick and work out your own antidote then listen carefully: Whoever does not believe, does not trust crucified and risen Jesus, stands judged already because he refuses to trust in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

There is hope for this snake-bitten world of ours. God has raised up the sacramental sign – the cross of Jesus – and has made a promise. Look on Jesus – in your Baptism, in the word of forgiveness, in the Body and the Blood, look on Him through faith-full eyes and live forever. He is your healing, your strength, your life, and your salvation.

In the Name of Jesus,
Amen

Turning the Tables

Today’s Gospel delivers a different sort of Jesus than the kind and gentle Jesus we hear about in Sunday School or the fun Jesus who makes 180 gallons of vintage wine for a wedding that’s already run out of Two Buck Chuck. This Jesus is flush with anger. Veins sticking out of His neck, His face blood red, a whip of cords in His hand, flipping over tables, and dumping money boxes on the floor. This Jesus is consumed with righteous zeal for the temple, His Father’s house.

I saw a cartoon that depicted a little boy who had just gone on a rampage through the ladies’ bake sale. Cookies and pies scattered all over the floor. Money poured out, coins rolling everywhere. And his mother comes and grabs him by the scruff of the neck and says, “What on earth are you doing? Who told you to do this?” And the little boy says, “I learned it today in Sunday school. The teacher asked us, ‘What would Jesus do?”

Matthew, Mark, and Luke set this episode at the beginning of holy week, a few days before Jesus was crucified. This was sort of straw that broke the religious camel’s back, and you can understand why the religious leaders wanted to get rid of Jesus. But John puts it right up front in his Gospel, in the second chapter, right after Jesus’ first miracle in Cana of Galilee, as the time of the Passover drew near.

Passover was the time when people would have been coming from all over the land of Israel to celebrate the Passover meal and make sacrifices. The Law said that if you had to travel a long way, you could buy your sacrificial animal in Jerusalem instead of dragging it along with you. And the money changers were there to exchange out of town currency for temple currency, just to be sure some unclean gentile hadn’t handled put his dirty fingers on it.

Jesus saw something else. He saw His Father’s house being turned into an emporium, a shopping mall of religion. Next thing you know, they’ll put in a Starbucks. Some even suggest that the profits of the temple were being used to fund anti-Roman terrorist groups like the Zealots. More than a shopping mall, the temple had become a haven for terrorists. Jesus seemed particularly irked by the pigeon sellers. Pigeons were the sacrifice of the poor. These merchants were praying on the poor for profit.

Nothing irritates Jesus more than faithless religion. Faithless sacrifices. Bargaining, dealing, transacting in the Name of God. All of it in some vain attempt to atone for your sins by your own self-chosen sacrifices. And don’t think the sacrifice sellers and the money changers have gone away. They’ve just changed their bill of goods to accommodate more modern tastes in religion. Now they sell motivation and purpose and self-improvement, all in the Name of God. All this can be yours if you just fork over 40 bucks. A whip of cords might be too kind.

Behind it all is the business of transaction, cutting deals with God. It’s at the heart of all religion, the idea that we need to do something to atone for our sins, to get on God’s good side. It’s the notion that God has done His part and now He’s waiting around for you to do your part. It’s the idea, implicit in WWJD wristbands and purpose-driven books which would surely be on any money changers best seller list, that there is some way to have a life than than in the death and resurrection in Jesus. Let’s face it – death and resurrection is not a path you and I would willingly choose for ourselves.

At the heart, it’s a failure to recognize how grim our situation actually is. We like to think we’re doing pretty well and improving. And then we get a quick refresher course straight from Sinai and the terrible truth gets mirrored back to our sinful selves:

  • You shall have no other gods.
  • You shall not misuse God’s Name.
  • Remember the Sabbath day (i.e. don’t forget to hear and learn God’s Word and to worship)
  • Honor father and mother.
  • Don’t murder, commit adultery, steal. (Don’t even think about it.)
  • Don’t lie about others.
  • Don’t want things you can’t have that others have.

Not just in deed, mind you, but also in word and thought. You think things are bad? You’re only seeing part of the picture, the part that God permits you to see. You and I couldn’t handle the whole truth.

And so we invent religion, ways to bribe and butter up God so that He’ll overlook this mess we’ve made of our lives. OT Israel treated the sacrifices that way – turned them into religious obligations and duties, stuff you had to do to get on God’s good side. That’s not what the sacrifices were for. They weren’t bribes. You think you can bribe God with a sheep? You think He needs a pigeon? Or a check in the offering plate? Think again.

The sacrifices in the OT were supposed to teach the Israelites how to live vicariously, literally to live off the death of another. The blood of the animal stood for your life. Bad news for the lamb, good news for you. It was training in trust, teaching people to live on the promise of God and not their works. Yes, you brought your sheep, or bought one from the local sheep seller. But the gift of forgiveness and life was God’s to give through the blood of the Lamb. It was more sacrament (gift from God) than it was sacrifice (work you do).

But the Israelites flipped things upside down, as religious man always does, and made God’s work their work, and turned a gift into a transaction where God does His part and you do yours and together you work out the terms of your salvation. Jesus utterly turns the tables on that sort of religion.

The Jews want a sign from Jesus. By what authority do you do these things? This was an act of messianic proportions. You don’t just go into the temple courts and start turning things upside down. They want a sign, and Jesus gives them a sign. “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it.” How’s that for a sign? His own resurrection from the dead.

But they are thinking temple as in building. They say, “What are you talking about? It took forty-six years to build this temple. It would take another 38 years to complete the work. And then six years later the Romans would knock it down. (God has a way of making His point, doesn’t He?) “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it.”

The “temple” Jesus was referring to was the temple of His own body. The true temple where God meets man is His own human flesh born of Mary. This is where you meet God face to face. Not in a building, but in the crucified, risen, and glorified flesh of Jesus Christ. Here God and man are united as one Person. Here humanity is glorified. Here sins are forgiven. Here the dead are raised. This is where your life is, not in a building, but in the body of Christ.

Jesus is the true and ultimate temple, where God locates His Name to save, where God makes His dwelling with man, where the Father is worshipped in Spirit and in Truth. Where the body of Jesus is, that’s where God forgives and blesses. That’s where heaven kisses and earth, where the infinite meets the finite, where eternity breaks into time. It happens right here, among us, where sinners are baptized into the Triune Name of God, where sinners hear the full and entire forgiveness of their sins, where sinners eat and drink the body and blood of Christ.

The church is the temple of God. Not a building but a gathering, an assembly, a congregation congregated around the Word and the Lord’s Supper. Peter wrote, “You (the baptized) like living stones are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). The church is God’s temple built on the crucified and risen body of Jesus.

After Jesus rose from the dead and the disciples saw Him, ate with Him, touched Him, they remembered what Jesus said that day in front of the temple. They remembered how the prophet Zechariah had said that a day was coming when God would come to purify His temple. They remembered the psalm of David, that zeal for the Lord’s house would consume Him. And, reflecting on everything, they trusted the Scripture and the word Jesus spoke. You could do no better this morning, than to leave here trusting the Scripture, which speaks of Christ’s death and resurrection, and believing the word Jesus speaks to you here – “I forgive you all of your sins.” “This is my body given for you.” “This is my blood shed for you.”

“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” That’s precisely happened. Jesus was crucified. The temple of His body was destroyed in death in order to save the world. And in three days, He rose from the dead. Death and resurrection is the way of God’s temple, the body of Christ, and you. Though you go down to death, from death Jesus will raise you. That’s what He always does with His temple.

In the Name of Jesus. Amen.

Losing to Win

We hate to lose. From the earliest times on the playground or the soccer field, we absolutely hate to lose. We hate to associate with losers. If we’re on a losing team, we want to be traded; if you’re a loser on a winning team, they want to trade you. The “grown-up” kids aren’t any better. Winners like to hang with winners. In business it’s profit and market share. In investments it’s return and dividend. In church it’s crowds and programs ablaze with glory. We want to see ourselves as winners not losers.

Along comes Jesus, who has definitely been a winner when it comes to kicking around demons and diseases. He turns to His disciples and says, “Guess what? I’m about to become the biggest loser the religious world has ever seen. I’m going to suffer at the hands of the religious, the people who should have welcomed me with open arms – the elders, the chief priests, the teachers of Torah (or as I like to call them, “the bureaucrats, the clergy, and theologians”). I’m going to be rejected and killed. And in three days, I’m going to rise again. And you know what else? If you’re going to join me in this losing venture, you’re going to become a loser just like me!”

Jesus said it boldly, plainly, straight-up. No parables, no off-center questions, no poetic phrases loaded with double meanings. And He said it by way of necessity. This wasn’t an option, one possible road among several. He must suffer, die, and rise. It was necessary for these things to happen.

This didn’t square well with Peter. Peter had just made the “great confession” – “you are the Christ” – but as with most things, Peter didn’t fully understand what that little word “Christ” meant. “Christ” to Peter meant messianic muscle, power, glory, dominion, demon busting, disease curing, leper cleansing, hypocrite rebuking dynamite. The fun stuff. The first half of Mark’s version of the Gospel is filled with it. That’s what Peter had in mind when he said “Christ.”

It’s curious, and I believe intentional, that the episode just prior to this is Jesus’ healing of a blind man at Bethsaida. The miracle takes place in two parts. First, Jesus spits in the blind man’s eyes and puts His hands on him. Then Jesus asks, “Do you see anything?” (Testing one, two, three.) The man looks around and says “I see men but they look like walking trees.” 20/2000 on the eye charts. Not blind, but not exactly seeing yet, and please don’t let him drive. So Jesus puts his hands on the man’s eyes a second time, and then his sight was restored to perfect 20/20 clarity. This was Jesus’ last miracle prior to our Gospel reading.

I think Mark is setting us up to see the disciples in terms of this blind man after the first part of his healing, the spit part. Seeing but not clearly, nor even really enough to be useful. Peter “sees” who Jesus is – the Christ, the Messiah – but he doesn’t “see” in the sense of comprehend what exactly that means. You won’t clearly see Jesus as the Christ until you see Him hanging dead on a cross and rise from the dead. Until then, it’s spiritual nearsightedness; Jesus may as well be a walking tree.

Peter pulls Jesus aside and begins to rebuke Jesus. “No, that’s not the program. Enough of this loser talk. We didn’t leave the fishing business for this. We thought we were in on the ground floor of the kingdom. Suffering and dying aren’t part of the kingdom building agenda.”

That wasn’t Peter talking. That was the diabolical voice last heard in the wilderness, tempting Jesus not to be the suffering Son of God. Now he tempts Jesus through one of His own, the chief of His disciples. “Get behind me, Satan. You do not have in mind God things but man things.”

A cross-less Christ. That’s what the devil wants. No suffering servant stuff. No bloody sacrifice. No vicarious atonement. Power and glory and fame and celebrity. That’s the satanic way. It’s also man’s way. Our way. The way of the winners. Not the cross. Crosses are shameful. Losers hang on crosses. Resurrections are cool, but there’s a catch: you have to die first. No Easter without Good Friday, not matter how hard some Christians try to have it that way.

A cross-less church. The devil couldn’t be happier. And I don’t mean a church without a cross symbol or a crucifix, though the absence does make you wonder a bit. I mean a church that can go on as if Jesus hadn’t suffered for the sin of the world. That’s what I mean by a “crossless church.”

Why do you think people want to rid the world of the symbol of the cross? Why do you think a crucifix is so offensive, even to some Christians? It really isn’t political, though it often gets political. The cross is the big scandal of Christianity. It’s what makes Christianity the great non-religion in the world of religion. God-in-the-flesh hung on this shameful instrument of torture to offer up His life to save a world that didn’t ask to be saved.

Look at what’s happening in the church today, even in some of our own Lutheran churches. The focus is on purpose, prosperity, peace, programs designed to fire us up so we can be winners, transform society, improve the self-image. Put your cross detectors on and take a reading. Do modern hymns fix your eyes on Jesus, on His death and resurrection, on His body and blood? Do our sermons preach Christ crucified or some other gospel which is not good news at all? Can we say and do what we say and do even if Jesus never died and rose from the dead? If we can, then it isn’t uniquely Christian, no matter how piously purpose-driven it might be.

Jesus would say the same to the church today as He said to Peter: You are not “Theocentric” (God-centered); you are “anthropocentric” (man-centered). That’s the self-centered religion of old Adam in us who would like nothing more than to get rid of that bloody Jesus on a cross and show some slides of pretty flowers and sunsets and smiling children so we can all “feel good about ourselves.” That’s not Christ’s church; that’s the devil’s church.

A cross-less church cannot bear suffering. It can barely suffer an ingrown toenail. Did you hear the apostle Paul this morning? We rejoice in our sufferings! Huh? What kind of people rejoice in suffering? We have pills for that. What sort of people embrace suffering as a way of growth and life? Cross-centered people do. People who have been baptized into the death of Jesus and who have been given to follow Him through death to life.

Suffering makes sense only in Jesus, only in His death and resurrection. Take away the cross, and suffering is a puzzle, a mystery, a glitch in the “intelligent design” of the universe. Why does an all-powerful, loving God permit suffering? You don’t ask those sorts of questions at the foot of the cross. Instead you thank God for the privilege of being chosen to suffer, trusting that you are justified nonetheless, trusting that you have peace with God in Christ, knowing that your suffering is producing perseverance, character, and hope and there’s no other way to produce perseverance, character, and hope except through suffering.

That’s the big big reason the church is in the shape she’s in, especially in our midst. She’s fat, complacent, comfortable, like the church of Laodicea in the Revelation. Lukewarm Laodicia, rich yet poor, complacent in her comforts. We fight “worship wars” and worry about meeting the corporate bottom line. Look where there is a vigorous and vital Christianity emerging today. It’s precisely where Christians suffer for their confession – in Africa, in communist China, in Siberia. In our Thursday Bible study we’ve been reading the book of Acts. Do you know when the Word of the Lord increased and the church grew? When it suffered persecution and martyrdom.

I went to a one day pastor’s retreat this past Monday at a monastery near Sacramento. Our teacher was a noted Lutheran historian of the liturgy, Frank Senn. He’s written what we lovingly call the “Fat Book” on Christian worship. Pr. Senn made a great comment comparing “homegrown” contemporary creeds to the three great creeds of Christendom – the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds. He said, “I won’t confess a creed written by a church who hasn’t suffered for confessing it.”

“If anyone would follow after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” The cross is the way of Jesus the Christ, and of all who would follow Him. There’s no other way. The cross is the narrow door that many seek but few find and our sinful selves want nothing to do with. Who wants to be a loser when you can be a winner?

Deny yourself. We’re not talking about giving up chocolate or coffee for Lent, people. We’re talking dying to your self, denying that inner brat who wants everything his or her way 24/7. Dying to sin and self. That kind of denial.

Take up your cross. This is not some piece of self-chosen suffering, as though you could go to the cross catalog and pick one that matches your Sunday outfit. “Here’s a pretty one. This will be my cross.” Crosses are laid on you, and you are nailed to them. Crosses don’t inconvenience you or hurt you a little bit like a hang nail or a sprained ankle. Crosses kill. They were a form of capital punishment in a day when they didn’t care if punishment was cruel or unusual. In fact, the crueler and more unusual the better.

To put it plainly, your cross is your death. You can’t choose your death (except for suicide, I suppose). Your death something given you. Jesus tells His disciples, and us, the plain truth about our lives. To save our lives we must lose them in Jesus. To live we must die, not just once, but daily in our Baptisms.

To rise with the winners we must take our place on the cross with the biggest Loser of them all, the One who lost His life to save you, the One who denied Himself to embrace you, the One who exchanged His perfect life for your miserable sin and death, the One who was not ashamed to bear your shame in nakedness, to become your sin in His own sinless flesh so that in Him you might become the righteousness of God and be justified and have peace with God.

The world doesn’t understand this. We have to teach them. We have to show them. Lift high that shameful cross, with crucified Jesus hanging on it, and do not be ashamed of it. Eat the bread that is His Body and drink the cup that is His blood and so proclaim His death until He comes.

The world of winners will think you’ve lost your mind. And you have, along with your heart and soul and strength and all that you are. You’ve lost it all in Jesus; and losing it all in Him, you have gained it all forever.

In the name of Jesus,
Amen

Temptation

Mark gives the temptation of Jesus only a few short sentences in his version of the Gospel: The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.

It goes by so quickly in Mark, you almost miss it. Still dripping wet from His baptism in the Jordan, Jesus is cast into the wilderness by the Spirit. Just as Israel emerged from the parted water of the Red Sea to a 40 year wilderness journey to the promised land, so Jesus – Israel reduced to One – begins His journey to the cross. Forty. The number of days the rain fell in the Flood. The number of years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. The number of days Elijah trekked through the wilderness to return to Mt. Horeb. Jesus – God’s Israel, His Servant, His Son.

Matthew and Luke fill in the details. Jesus was hungry. He hadn’t eaten for forty days. He was having His Lent. Don’t you try that at home in yours. This is uniquely His to do. He was tempted by the devil, Satan. Tempted by miracle: Turn these stones into bread. Tempted to test the Word: Throw yourself off the temple. Tempted by religion and power: It’s all yours, Jesus; just bow down and worship me. Tempted in every way we are tempted, except for one thing. Jesus did not sin.

Satan tempted Jesus not to be what His baptism said He was: the Christ, the Son of God. “If you are the Son of God…. You are, aren’t you, Jesus?” So sly, so subtle. A snake in the garden. “Did God really say it? How can you be the Christ if you are rejected and crucified? Is that any way to start a successful religion? Is that any way to reform the masses? Is that any way to solve the problems of this world? Be crucified? That’s not what the world is looking for. They want miracle, they want invincible power, they want celebrity. They don’t call it “American Idol” for nothing! Give them what they want, Jesus. And maybe then, you can give them what you want.”

Why did Jesus have to be tempted this way? Ever wonder? Why go through forty days of hunger, of isolation, of temptation? Why even bother with the devil, that old liar? It goes back to the garden and the threat that was a promise: “I will make enmity between you (the devil) and the woman, between her seed and yours.” There’s going to be war. One on one. In the wilderness. What the devil did to humanity would be undone by God enfleshed in humanity. Where the devil’s lie was successful in getting Eve and then Adam to disobey, he would fail in the second Adam, the new head of humanity.

This is part and parcel of Jesus’ mission to seek and to save. It flows right out of His baptism. Immediately He is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. This is part of the package, to confront the great liar in our human flesh armed with nothing more than what you and I have – the Word of God. Whereas we’re willing accomplices, He is not. He faces the great temptations that warp our lives and turn us against each other and against God Himself. He trusts His Father and the Word. That’s all Jesus has at His disposal in this barren wilderness with the wild beasts all around Him and the devil hot on His heel. Nothing but the Word.

Abraham trusted the Word of God, the Promise that he would be the “father of nations.” He trusted the Word even when God told him to offer up his only son. Can you imagine the anguish of that man? Talk about confusion! God against God. God gives him a son of the promise and then says, offer him up to me on Mt. Moriah.

Abraham trusted the promise, even against the law, God’s command. He took his son, left the servants behind, trudged up the mountain with the wood and the fire and the knife. Oh, and how the question must have burned him like fire, cut him through like a knife. “Father, where’s the lamb for the burnt offering? The fire and the wood are here, but where’s the lamb?” How but by the grace of God did Abraham even manage to say it? “God will provide the lamb, my son.”

Abraham builds an altar, arranges the wood, ties up Isaac, and lays him on the altar. He reaches back for the knife and is ready to slay his son, when Christ calls out from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham! Stop. Don’t touch the boy. Don’t do anything to your son.” Off in the thicket is a ram caught by its horns. The substitute. The lamb for sacrifice. YHWH will provide.

God’s Lamb walks alone in the wilderness – your Substitute – hungry with your hunger, thirsty with your thirst, tempted in weakness to go another way than the cross, to seek another joy than your salvation, to refuse the shame and the pain in favor of power and glamor and cross-less, painless, feel good, be happy religion. But then He would not have been the Lamb of sacrifice. He would not have been tempted as we are. He would not have laid down His life to save you. And you would be like Isaac without a ram, with the law of God dangling over you like a knife.

Trials and temptations will come your way. That is certain. You can expect them. You are baptized, after all. Look at all the trouble Jesus’ baptism caused Him. To be baptized is to live as marked men and women. You bear Jesus’ mark, and the devil hates that. So does the unbelieving world. A servant is not greater than his Master. The cross is always there for the baptized. The very next thing that Mark tells us is that John was put into prison where he would die. And with that, Jesus goes up to Galilee and announces good news: The kingdom of God is near. Repent, believe – trust the good news of Jesus.

“Lead us not into temptation,” Jesus taught His disciples to pray. God doesn’t tempt anyone. That’s the devil’s doing. He does test, as He did Abraham. And He’s promised never to test you beyond what you are able to bear, and in Christ you are able to bear much more than you may even think you are able. That’s the “secret” the apostle Paul learned when he wrote, “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.” In our temptations, we are never alone. Christ is with us, by our side, “with His good gifts and Spirit,” as we just sang. And He’s the One who was tempted for us and did not sin.

The baptized life is not an easy life. Christians are granted no special immunities from disease, no exemptions from suffering, no special passes that allow us to go around the wilderness. You can only go through it, you can’t go around it. The season of Lent symbolizes that for us. Forty days of sober, somber preparation – a fast before the feast of Easter. It is “symbolic” in the sense that we choose the time and the place and even the “suffering,” if you can call it that.

The reality is that our wilderness is this life that we’re in; and the sufferings and temptations are real, not some self-chosen discipline. Were it not for Jesus, we wouldn’t make it. We wouldn’t even take a first step. But there is a promise stretched out like an umbrella over you that reads: “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” You do not walk in this wilderness alone. God does not leave you alone to wrestle with the devil, the world, and your own sinful self. And if God is for you, who can be against you? If God gave His Son for you, if that’s what you are worth to God, do you think He would possibly abandon you in your time of need? If Christ died for your sins, who can bring any charges against you? If God has justified you in Jesus, who can condemn you?

Do you realize what that means? You walk in this world justified by God, forgiven, restored, redeemed by the blood of Jesus who is at the right hand of God interceding for you. The Son of God, the crucified and risen Lord, is interceding for you. “Father, forgive them,” showing His wounded hands and side. There is literally nothing in this world that can drive a wedge between you and God. Nothing. Not trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword, global warming, Islamic terrorists, tsunamis, hurricanes, cancers, stray bullets, clogged arteries, killer viruses, or holes in the ozone layer. Not angels, demons, the present, the future, powers, nothing in the heights or the depths. Not even the worst of your sins can separate you from the love of God in Jesus.

Not when your sins have been washed away in Baptism.
Not when your sins have been forgiven by the word of Jesus.
Not when you have received the broken Body and the shed Blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Not when you have Jesus on your side, the One who resisted the devil for you with a word.

We really do face death all day long, as Paul says. We’d rather not admit. We’d rather live in denial of it. Yet Paul says in all these things – things that signal death, things that the world fears and maybe you do too – in all these things we “hyper-conquer,” we conquer above and beyond conquering, through Jesus who loved us to death and who conquered sin, death, and devil for us. Only in and through Jesus can you say that, because only Jesus conquered death itself by dying on a cross. And the proof of that: His risen body, His empty tomb.

The Lord will provide, as faithful Abraham once said. And He has in Jesus, the sacrificial lamb. And He will provide, through Word and Water and Supper as you make your wilderness way through this Lenten life and on to endless Easter.

In the name of Jesus,
Amen

Happy Lent

Lent is a curious season. 40 days of purple. Somber and serious. Sackcloth and ashes. Prayer and penitence. It seems so out of place in our culture of consumption and comfort. Contrition cuts against the grain of self-esteem and our expectations that every day will be sunny and happy. Lent is like a cold shower in a world of warm, fuzzy religion. A time to stand before the mirror of God’s law and face our sin and death squarely as men and women redeemed by Jesus.

In the OT reading for this evening, the prophet Joel urges us to rend our hearts and turn to the Lord. You may wear sackcloth, if you wish. You may heap ashes on your head, if that’s your desire. But a broken and contrite heart, God will not despise. It’s heartbreaking – what we have done to others, to ourselves, to God. And what others have done to us. And if it doesn’t break our hearts, that’s simply further evidence of how hardened our hearts have become, calloused by comfortable religions, sedated by syrupy spiritualities.

“Return to the Lord,” the prophet says. Turn to Him, for He has already turned to you. He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Whenever we confess our sins, God is always faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. We know the price paid for our redemption: “not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood, and His innocent suffering and death.” Turn to the Lord with your sin, your broken lives, your death. He’s the One to turn you.

He made Jesus, His sinless Son, to be sin for us. Your sin and mine. Jesus on the cross is the adulterer, the murderer, the thief, the liar, the abortionist, the homosexual, the unfaithful spouse, the disobedient child, the fallen Christian, the loser and failure. He became our sin. He embodied our death in His body, so that we, in Him, might become the righteousness of God. God has reconciled the world to Himself in the death of Jesus.

This is why we speak so much about sin. Not so we can embark on some kind of spiritual self-improvement program. We know such efforts are doomed from the start. We speak of our sin so that we might ever more deeply speak of Jesus, the Savior of sinners, who for the joy set before Him, the joy of saving all of humanity from sin and death, endured the cross, scorning its shame (Heb. 12:2). Yes, we are ashamed of our sin. And rightly so. It’s embarrassing how we behave, especially we who call ourselves Christians. But the shame of Jesus is greater than our shame. He bore our shame to death on the cross, covering us with His robe, cleansing our soiled lives with His blood. We are examples to the world of how live clothed with Christ who covers our shame.

Lent is a time to clean up our house of yeast of malice and insincerity, of all the religions that rob us of the joy of our salvation. Jesus speaks of the three traditional “works of righteousness,” what the Jewish people still call today “mitzvoth’ – almsgiving, fasting, prayer. These are also the traditional pieties of Lent, though we ought to be doing them all the time. Doing these “works of righteousness” will not make us righteous; we are already that in Jesus. They are what the righteous do, and Jesus presumes that His justified disciples will do them too. Only He cautions against doing them in order to be seen and praised by men.

When you give to the poor, Jesus says, and He assumes that His disciples will be generous toward the poor, sound no trumpet. Don’t even let your left hand (or your tax accountant) know what your right hand is doing. Don’t give with one eye on the books and one ear cocked for the applause. Give out of the abundance of God’s grace, en crypto, cryptically, under cover, the way God works. Almsgiving is the antidote to the religion of money with its endless creeds and commandments. The love of money is the root of all manner of evil, Paul says. And the only way to hold your money is with a dead hand, giving freely and receiving with thanksgiving. Use this time of Lent to give more freely, especially to the poor. Loosen your grip, hold your money with a dead grip instead of a death grip, and you will enjoy the gift of daily bread that much more.

When you pray, Jesus says, and He assumes that His disciples will pray, don’t make a big deal of it, in the marketplace, on the street corner, in the MacDonalds, or even in church. And don’t deal with God as though He were some kind of vending machine into which we plug the right combination of prayer and praise to get a blessing on demand. Instead, come as dear children coming to the dear Father and say, “Our Father.” Papa. Talk to God.

Prayer is the antidote to the religion of cause and effect, by which we imagine that we can change the course of things by making a big enough noise. Prayer is not about getting stuff out of God or parading our piety around for the neighbors to ogle at. Prayer is intimate conversation between the creature and the Creator. Family talk. Baby talk. Pillow talk. Honest talk between you and the God who loved you to death in the death of His Son.

When you fast, Jesus says, and He assumes that His disciples will fast, don’t walk around with long, unwashed faces and dirty hair. Instead, wash your face, comb your hair, and let your hunger be between you and God. Don’t fast religiously, fast unreligiously. Out of non-necessity. A discipline of our undisciplined appetites.

Because we lost the sense of fast, we’ve lost the joy of the feast. It’s all fast food now. How sad our tables have become: styrofoam containers, plastic forks, paper cups. And in place of a healthy, disciplined fast, we have the disorder of dieting, where we no longer enjoy the gift of daily bread without confessing our fat grams and calorie counts and feeling guilty over that piece of chocolate cake. Jesus didn’t hang on a cross for all of this.

Fasting, in its healthy, non-religious form, is a discipline of the appetite. A reminder that we do not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from God’s mouth. Fasting is not a deal cut with God, but a sharpening of our senses, an embrace of our mortality and even our death. It’s a celebration of our freedom. We are not slaves but free men and women in Christ. And we are as free to put down the piece of bread or that glass of wine as we are to take it up. “For freedom Christ has set you free” (Gal 5:1), let no one or nothing enslave you, including food and drink.

While it may sound strange, I will say it anyway. Enjoy this season of Lent. Savor the opportunity to give more of yourself away to others in need. Relish the discipline of your appetites. Enjoy a greater time for prayer and the Word of God. It is truly a joy to be free in Christ, and to experience the freedom of those who are dead and no longer live to themselves, whose lives are hidden safely in Jesus.

And when your Lenten fast is ended, may you come to a renewed joy of the Paschal Feast that is already and always yours in Jesus.

Happy Lent.

Amen