Living Water – Sermon for Pentecost 2017

Living Water
John 7:37-39
Feast of Pentecost
June 4th/5th, 2017
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

 

It’s hard to overstate the importance of a culture’s holidays.  As Americans, we celebrate Memorial Day because we want to remind ourselves to honor the sacrifice of those who died protecting our freedom. We celebrate Independence Day because we want to remember that the roots of our nation lie in limiting the power the government has over the lives of individual citizens. We celebrate Thanksgiving because we want to remind ourselves to be grateful for the prosperity we enjoy in this land. The holidays we celebrate help us remember what it means to be American. And since we celebrate these holidays from our youth, from long before we can understand their significance, these holidays also play a large role in shaping us into Americans. Our holidays both make us who we are and remind us who we are.

 

When God established Israel as a chosen people in the Old Testament, he established holidays. Seven, to be exact. Seven feast days that helped give the people of Israel the identity our Lord intended for them. Each feast highlighted a specific characteristic of what God wanted from and for his people. The feast of Passover reminded the people of Israel of their deliverance from Egypt. They were a people who were at one time slaves, but now were free. The feast of Unleavened Bread reminded them that the Promised Land was theirs as a gift from God. Since the land belonged to God, this feast reminded the Israelites that they were expected to live in the land as God described. The feast of Firstfruits was celebrated as the crops were just beginning to produce a harvest, a reminder that just as the land belonged rightfully to God, so also all the fruit of the land belonged to God as was given to Israel as a gift. They were a people who depended on God to provide for their needs. The Feast of Pentecost celebrated the great harvest and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. They were a people who had received both bodily and spiritual blessings from their Heavenly Father, the physical food of the harvest as well as the spiritual food of God’s Word. Rosh Hashanah was the feast that asked God’s blessing over the new year. They were a people who were created and redeemed by God, and so they were reminded by this feast to live each day by the grace of God. Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, was like a spring cleaning for the Temple. The feast reminded them that they were a sinful people whose holy God lived in their midst by covering their sins with his own holiness.

 

The Feast of Tabernacles, often called the Feast of Booths, is the seventh celebration. It was a feast of rejoicing and anticipation, a celebration that had one eye on the past and the other on the future. This was a holiday that recalled Israel’s days living in tents in the wilderness, days when the Israelites survived on the gracious manna and quail provided by the mercy of God. For seven days during the Feast of Booths, faithful Israelites would live in temporary shelters they had built from branches collected after the harvest.  For seven days, the people ate, lived, and slept in these temporary booths. They did not work, but spent this time remembering how their ancestors ate bread without working for it. The feast was a week-long celebration of how God provided for the people in the wilderness, which culminated in God’s delivering them into the Promised Land. The feast taught the people to rejoice in the ways God continue to provide for his people in their own day and also to look for the great deliverance that he had promised but had not yet fulfilled.

 

While some of Israel’s holy days allowed the people to celebrate in whatever village they called home, observing this feast, along with Passover and Pentecost, required a pilgrimage to the Temple. So during the Feast of Booths, the streets of Jerusalem would be especially crowded not only with travelers, but also with the make-shift shelters that the travelers built. But unlike Passover or the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Booths was not a primarily about repentance. It was not an especially solemn observance; it was a time of great celebration. Think along the lines of Time’s Square on New Year’s Eve. The seven days of the Feast of Booths was like the week between Christmas and New Year when nothing much gets done, culminating by counting down the seconds until the ball drops to ring in the New Year. It was a huge campout filled with exuberant and joyful people living in home-made shelters for a week.

 

Like the time between Christmas and New Year, each day of the Feast of Booths was a celebration. Each day would see the pilgrim throng march in procession to the Temple and around the altar, singing and rejoicing the whole way. Each day would see a procession of priests march to the Pool of Siloam and fill a pitcher with water to be processed back to the altar and poured out as a drink offering. During this procession, the people would sing Psalms of deliverance. Eventually the Israelites adopted the custom of singing the words of Isaiah chapter 12, words which we still sing today: “With joy will you draw water from the well of salvation, and you will say in that day, “Give thanks to the Lord, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the people. Proclaim that his name is exalted. Shout and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”

 

During this celebratory parade, the ceremonial water called to mind God’s great promise of deliverance waiting to be revealed with the arrival of the Messiah. The feast reminded the Israelites how their ancestors had lived in anticipation of God delivering them into the Promised Land, and it taught them to live in anticipation of God’s promised Messiah, the one who would deliver a new generation of Israelites. The final day of the feast was especially energetic, the culmination of a week of celebration, reaching its climax as the priest, for the final time, poured out the water from the Pool of Siloam and all the people shouted, “Hosanna! Lord, Save us! Deliver us! Give us water from the well of salvation. Send us the promised Messiah!”

 

Now, you may be wondering why I would take so much time to describe the Feast of Booths when today is Pentecost. But the Feast of Booths is the setting of today’s Gospel reading. John tells us that on the last day of the feast, the great day, the culmination of a week’s worth of celebrating and praising God for all his gifts while also looking for the fulfillment of his promise to send the Messiah, as the people were either anticipating to the final pouring of water or right after they had seen it, as all the energy and emotion of the crowd was directed toward calling out to God to send his promised Messiah, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone wants this water of life, let him come to me and drink.” Jesus’ message couldn’t be clearer. This feast of celebration that anticipates God’s great deliverance finds its fulfillment in Jesus. He is the living water. He is the great deliverance.

 

He is the great deliverance for you, too. For like the Israelites of Old, we live in a time of wilderness wandering. Life in the fallen world is often like walking through the barren wilderness. The cares and concerns of this life sap our energy and leave us emotionally and spiritually dehydrated. The threat of disease, the challenges of relationships, the guilt over sins committed, the shame of other people knowing our shortcomings all combine to drain our hope dry. Like Israel in the wilderness, we are often tempted to curse God for our lot in life. And like Israel in the wilderness, all too often we give in to that temptation. Like Israel in the wilderness, we are often tempted to turn our back on God and embrace the sinful philosophies of a dying world. And like Israel in the wilderness, all too often we give in to that temptation. We treat each other according to the standards of the world, speaking out of bitterness and anger instead of out of charity and mercy. We turn our back on the needs of our neighbor, preferring to send a check to some charity so that we can clean our conscience without dirtying our hands. When the opinions and ideas of our world come into conflict with God’s Word, we often tell our Lord to keep silent.

 

And yet for all our sin and failure, God showed his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. While we live in sin and ingratitude, our Lord continues to cause the rain to fall and food to grow. He continues to provide for all our needs of body and soul. And he continues to call us to look to the great gift of promised deliverance. As the Israelites in the wilderness were called to look to the promised land with hope, so also we are called to look in hope toward our promised rest. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in your place make that rest a reality. The gift of baptism, the forgiveness of your sins, the body and blood of Jesus given to you at this very altar make that promise yours. Apart from Christ, the wilderness of this world would leave us parched beyond hope, dead from dehydration, a valley of dry bones. But Christ has come. Jesus lives for you. Whoever believes that promise will drink the living water of salvation.

 

And with but a single drink, you have so much living water that rivers pour forth from you. In our Lord’s Word, we have more than we could ever need, more than we could ever deserve, more than we could ever hope for, more than we could ever contain. The gift of Christ is so abundant that when you have but a single drop of his living water, it is as if you have rivers upon rivers of it. You don’t get just part of Jesus through his Word. You don’t get just part of the Spirit. You get all of it. You get life in abundance. You get faith in abundance. You get immeasurably more than all you could ask or think.

 

In a way, our life as the people of God today is like our own celebration of the Feast of Booths.  The dwellings and circumstances of this life are temporary shelters made from branches that will one day wither and fade. Through his word, our Lord calls us to rejoice in the gifts he freely gives while we live in this temporary situation. And he calls us to look with anticipation to the deliverance waiting to be revealed when he comes again in glory. Rejoice and anticipate, that’s what this feast is about. That’s what your life is about too.

 

So even though it may be Pentecost, celebrate the Feast of Booths today. Come to the altar of your Lord and celebrate the waters drawn from the well of salvation. Drink the living water that is Christ himself. In this Sacrament Jesus gives himself to you. He fills you to the point of overflowing with faith, hope, and love to sustain you in the wilderness of this life. Here at this rail, Jesus gives you the gift of the Spirit to sustain your soul, to guard and protect you in the true faith unto life everlasting. And when the time comes, our Lord will fulfill the deliverance promised to you just as he fulfilled the promise of deliverance for the Israelites in the wilderness by leading them into the Promised Land, and just as he fulfilled his promise of deliverance by sending Jesus as the Messiah.

 

Remember and anticipate: that is the Feast of Booths, and that is our life in Christ.  May our gracious Father in heaven grant us living water all our days of this pilgrimage and deliver us safely into the life to come.

 

+INJ+

Dealing with Distractions – Sermon for May 14, 2017

Dealing with Distractions
Acts 6:1-9, 7:2a, 51-60
5th Sunday of Easter
May 14, 2017
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

Everyone gets distracted. The older you get, the more responsibilities you have, the more likely it is that something will slip through the cracks. Sometimes it’s something small, like scrambling to get out the door on time in the morning and leaving your coffee mug sitting on the table. Other times it’s something more significant, like missing an appointment or deadline because something else comes up unexpectedly.  No one knows this better than moms, who are consistently responsible not only for their own schedule but also for the schedules of their kids and, often, their husband. That’s why it’s good on a day like today to take time out to say thank you to moms for all that they do. But Mother’s Day sentimentality aside, most moms could probably tell you a story about the time they forgot something important for work or home or their child’s school. Most dads could too.

That’s because distraction is a common problem. Many would argue that, as a culture, we have become addicted to distraction. It is now a documented fact that the sound your phone makes when you get a text message or other alert releases dopamine into your brain. Dopamine is a chemical in your brain that drives you to seek rewards and gives you a sense of pleasure when that reward is met. It sharpens your focus and increases goal directed behavior so long as that behavior results in the desired reward. Some researchers suggest that the cultural addiction to smartphones is a result of the dopamine they produce in your brain. For example, dopamine in your brain makes you start looking for something, and when you find that thing, you get a feeling of reward or accomplishment. With smartphones, the dopamine in your brain encourages you to look for the notification: a new text, new email, new mention. With phones, you can have that reward experience almost immediately, which releases more dopamine into your brain so that you seek the reward more and more. Smartphones are especially suited to feed this cycle because dopamine is heightened by anticipation and unpredictability. Subconsciously wondering when your phone will bing next releases dopamine into your brain. Then, when your phone finally bings, the result that your brain was seeking is fulfilled. The behavior is rewarded, and your brain starts the whole cycle over by anticipating the next bing.[1]

When your phone doesn’t bing, you pick it up to see if you missed something. You check it every few minutes just to make sure. And if you didn’t miss something, if there’s no notifications there to reward you, then you post on social media or text someone in an effort to induce a response from your phone. Or you play one more level on that game so that you can hear the sound it makes when you win. Or you look for that one perfect pin on Pinterest that you can save for later. And pretty soon, the dishes aren’t done, the laundry’s not folded, the lawn needs to be mowed, you haven’t made eye contact with your spouse all day, you haven’t spent much time with your kids, you didn’t finish that report for your meeting at work in the morning, and all you can think about is how to get your phone to make that “new message” sound you love so much. We are easily distracted people. And more often than not, we’re so caught up in the distraction and how it makes us feel that we don’t even realize what’s not getting done, what important tasks are slipping through the cracks.

It’s just as easy for us to get distracted in the church. It’s easy for us to get distracted as the children of God. It’s easy for us to let what’s most important slip through the cracks as we chase after other things – some of which are important, some of which are not. It’s a temptation that faces the church as a whole, and a temptation that faces each of us as a child of God.

Today’s reading from the book of Acts tells of a two-fold distraction, temptations that would keep us distracted from the main purpose of the church and the primary work of the children of God. One of the major distractions is the threat of persecution. The Apostle Stephen was violently opposed for preaching the good news of Jesus. When he would not fall silent in the face of his persecutors, he was killed. We often find ourselves living in fear of persecution and we wonder what we would do if such a threat appeared in our lives. We don’t need to limit persecution only to death threats, although there are certainly people around the world for whom that remains a distinct possibility. For us, we live in fear of becoming a social outcast, or of losing friends, maybe even losing family members. We live in fear of how people might negatively respond if we proclaim the Word of God with our lips and with our lives.

The threat of persecution or hardship is a powerful temptation to set aside our identity as God’s children and instead to attempt to blend in with the world around us. And because there’s no shortage of reasons to fear, we can quickly become addicted to the distraction. Like waiting for the phone to buzz, we end up waiting for, even looking for the next threat. We become distracted from the comfort of God’s Word.

When faced with such temptations, we remember Jesus’s words from today’s Gospel reading: “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Often Jesus spoke of His suffering and death, but we tend to forget. Now He says: “I am the Way.” He is the Way to live and to die. Jesus said “Narrow is the Way that leads to Life and few are those who find it.” It is narrow because it is the way of God, following God’s Word, not distracted by the threats of sinful men. How does one quiet a fearful heart in the face of persecution or rejection from the world? By believing in the promise of Jesus. How does one quiet fears about the future? By listening to Jesus who says: “In My Father’s house are many mansions. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to Myself so that where I am also you may be.” And then He adds: “And where I am going you know the Way.” Jesus went the way of sorrows and suffering, the way of the cross, the way of death and resurrection so that we can go the way of peace and everlasting life. Jesus is the Way.[2]

Beyond the fear of persecution, we are also tempted to become distracted from who we are as the children of God by other good and godly activities. It is important for parents to make sure their kids have clean clothes, but that’s not their most important task. Would we applaud parents who were so wrapped up in doing laundry that they neglected to feed their children or take them to the doctor when they had a fever? So also we are likely to get distracted by activities that are in and of themselves good and godly, but that are not our main focus as the children of God.

In today’s reading from Acts, that activity was tending to the needs of widows. The twelve summoned the full number of disciples and said: “It is not right that we should give up preaching the Word of God to serve tables.”[3] There are cautions and reminders in there for all the children of God. Most importantly, there is a reminder of the importance of hearing God’s Word. I’ve often heard it said that the church should focus on deeds, not creeds, that the church should focus on helping the sick and starving, the widows and the orphans, and not on gathering for worship or Bible study. And because such experiences are often more fulfilling than an hour of sitting in church or Bible Study, we become addicted to the distraction. Like waiting for the phone to buzz, we are waiting for the next service trip or charity event, ignoring the simple task of listening to God’s Word while we wait.

But such ideas distract us from our main focus as the children of God. It’s not that such activities or acts of charity and mercy are unimportant. They certainly are. But we must keep the hearing of God’s Word our top priority. We are first and foremost people who hear and confess the truth of God’s Word. We hear and confess the truth of our sin. We hear and confess the truth of our salvation. We listen to him who is the way, the truth and the life, for there is no way other than him. There is no life apart from him. His Word of truth assures us that he is our Good Shepherd, the one who laid down his life that we might overcome death. Living in that promise is what makes us children of God. The acts of kindness and mercy, while important, come after the hearing of God’s Word. It’s like a lamp in your living room. If you want the lamp to light up, you have to plug it in. Once you unplug it, the bulb goes dark. You don’t just plug it in for 30 minutes then unplug it expecting the lamp to go on working all evening. The lamp has to remain plugged in to shine. So also the children of God. We need to be plugged into God’s Word to be the light of the world. We don’t just plug in once or twice a year and expect the light to shine. We stay connected to the source – to the Word of God – and then through us the light of God shines into the darkness.

The world is full of things that would distract us from this reality. Whether it’s the bing of a smartphone or the dozens of other activities and events that would keep us from regular worship and Bible Study, repent of these distractions. Turn your focus back to hearing and learning the Word of God, making regular worship a priority, not fearing soft or hard persecution from the dying world, not prioritizing pious actions over the Sabbath rest of hearing God’s Word, but instead remaining plugged into that Word in order that the Holy Spirit might create saving faith within you.  For with that faith comes the promise of eternal rest, the joy of knowing you are loved by your Father in heaven, and the comfort of knowing that no matter what happens in this life and in this world, Jesus has gone to prepare a place for you. And he will come again to take you unto himself. May the Word of God comfort you with this promise all the days of this life and into the life to come.

[1] Susan Weinschenk Ph.D. “Why We’re All Addicted to Texts, Twitter and Google” Psychology Today Online (https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/brain-wise/201209/why-were-all-addicted-texts-twitter-and-google)

[2] The Sermon Notes of Harold Buls. http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/bul/east-03a.html

[3] Acts 6:2

Hearing Our Lord – Sermon for May 7/8, 2017

Hearing Our Lord
John 10:1-10
4th Sunday of Easter (Good Shepherd Sunday)
May 7th/8th, 2017
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

The human eye is an incredible creation composed of over 2 million working parts. There has never been a successful eye transplant because the eye is so intricate, connected to the brain by more than 1 million microscopic nerve fibers. But the eye incredible not only because of how precisely and intricately designed it is, but because of the impact it has on us as people. Sight is the primary sense in human beings. Some people estimate that 80% of our memories are determined by what we see, and 80% of what we learn is learned through the eyes. The only organ more complex in the entire body is the brain itself, but over half of the brain is devoted to processing visual stimuli. Vision is the primary sense for the vast majority of human beings – it forms our most basic understanding of the world around us. Of course, the bodies and brains of those who are blind learn to rely on other senses to make up for the lack of vision. But generally speaking, sight is the primary sense in people.

But what about the children of God? What is to be the primary sense for the children of God? Which sense are we to rely upon most for our understanding of the world around us?

Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. Our Epistle reading reminds us that we were at one time straying like lost sheep, but we have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls. The Psalm for today is Psalm 23, one of the most beloved sections in all the Scriptures. The Lord is my shepherd; I am his sheep. The Gospel reading for today records for us words of our Lord that have become known as the Good Shepherd Discourse. The image of shepherd and sheep is one of the consistent images that runs through the entire history of God’s people. It’s a prominent image in the Old Testament. It’s a prominent image in the New Testament. It’s a prominent image in the church today. It’s in our hymnody. It is in our artwork. Here at St. John we have a painting by the elevator depicting Jesus as a shepherd, and we have a stained glass window dedicated to the same idea. Today’s Gospel reading helps us understand a bit more about why this image is a favorite one of our Lord, and why he consistently places it before us. And believe it or not, it has a lot to do with sight.

Today’s Gospel reading from John chapter 10 follows on the heels of an exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees where sight was the main topic. John chapter 9 records for us the account of a man born blind who had his sight restored by Jesus. The man is questioned by the Pharisees, as are his parents, and eventually he is cast out of the synagogue for confessing Jesus as Christ. When Jesus heard that the man had been cast out of the synagogue, he went and found him and said, “For judgment have I come into the world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” When the Pharisees heard this, they asked Jesus, “Are we also blind?” To which Jesus replied, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say you see, your guilt remains.” He then immediately launches into the Good Shepherd Discourse, including this discussion about how true sheep hear the voice of their shepherd, relying on their ears, not their eyes.

That’s our call as the children of God: to rely on our ears, not our eyes.

Our eyes will deceive us. Our eyes will fill us with fear. Our eyes will fill us with anxiety and doubt. Our eyes will look out at the world around us and see rising unrest. They will see a polarized political existence in our country. They will see racial tensions. They will see professional baseball players subjected to racial slurs in a Major League Ballpark. They will see tensions rising between those fighting for religious liberty on one side and those fighting for SOGI laws on the other. Our eyes will see flooding in Missouri and Texas. They will see tornados and earthquakes and hurricanes. They will see cancer and disease and death within our own families and church and school. Our eyes will give us every reason to fear.

But our Shepherd beckons us to believe our ears, not our eyes. For faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ.  Christ our Shepherd invites us to cast all our anxiety on him, for he cares for us. His yoke is easy. His burden is light. He leads us to the still waters. He makes us to lie down in green pastures. He fills our cups overflowing with his mercy. Though the mountains crumble and the earth gives way, the steadfast love of our Lord never ceases. Behold, the Son of God, with whom the Father is well pleased. Listen to him. Don’t let your eyes fill you with fear. Let your ears fill you with peace.

But our eyes are powerful. We’ve learned to rely so much on vision. We’ve trained ourselves that seeing is believing. It is not only fear and anxiety that our sight tempt us to believe more than we believe the promises of God. It is greed and lust. Our eyes see the fruit of the world, and seeing that the fruit looks good for eating, we are tempted to take a bite. Our eyes take in the new car our neighbor drives, the new house our friends purchased, the new phone, the new Apple watch, the new iPad, the new this the new that. Our eyes gluttonously devour all the toys and possessions that are not ours, and our eyes tell us that we deserve more, that we deserve better, that we want what others have.

But our Shepherd beckons us to believe our ears, not our eyes. Our ears hear the voice of our Shepherd saying , “Do not covet.” It those words is more than a command; in those words is a promise of freedom. The one who commits sin is a slave to sin. The one whose eyes are addicted to greed becomes a slave to greed. But if the Son sets you free, you are free indeed. Free from the worry that comes with discontent and coveting. Free from the temptation that is always hiding in the shadow of those shiny new things. The temptation to cut back giving to God so that we can afford a nicer car or more extravagant vacation. The temptation to neglect quality time with our spouse or children because we are spending so many hours working for a bigger paycheck. The temptation to play with the numbers a little so that the government doesn’t really know how much we make. The growing hatred in our hearts as we look at the possessions of the people around us and, rather than rejoicing in the good gifts our Lord has given someone else, hating them for getting what we want. The temptation to tear down the reputation of another person or to speak ill of them or to sabotage them because we are jealous.

Our Lord’s Word sets us free from all of that when it says, “Do not covet. But receive from the Lord with thanksgiving that which is yours.” Our ears give us the peace of a thankful heart. Our ears hear the Lord’s call to pray, “give us this day our daily bread.” And our ears trust that our Lord will give us such bread, neither giving us so much extra that we think we have no need of our Lord, nor giving us so little that we fall into theft and so dishonor the name of the Lord. Our ears hear that our heavenly Father knows we need food and clothing and shelter, and that he desires to give us these things. Our ears, not our eyes, fill us with such peace.

Our eyes see the pleasures of the world around us. Our eyes lust after the flesh, after the bottle, after the next high or the next thrill. Our ears hear the voice of our Lord calling us back to his fold. These other voices are not the shepherd. They have not entered our lives or our hearts or our minds by the door, but have climbed in by some other means. They come to steal and kill and destroy. To steal our joy and kill our relationships and destroy the life our Lord has designed for us – a life of faith toward him and love toward others. Jesus has come that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Jesus has come, and he speaks. He comes with his Word. He comes to our ears, not our eyes.

He comes in a splash of water on a baby’s forehead. The eye sees tap water. The ear hears the Word of God and knows that by itself that water would be plain water, but because it is combined with God’s Word it is the life-giving water of baptism.  The eye sees bread and wine. The ear hears the Word of God and knows that the crucified and risen Christ himself is present in this meal to bring us forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. It is our ears, not our eyes, to which our Lord makes his appeal. It is through our ears, not our eyes, that our Lord is present among us today.

When a person loses their sense of sight, their body responds by directing some of the parts of the brain that would normally be used to process visual stimuli to process sounds, smells, tastes, and touch instead. That’s partly why people close their eyes when the kiss or when they take a bite of a particularly tasty steak or when they take a long deep breath to absorb the smell of flowers in the springtime. Our other senses are strengthened when sight is taken away. Jesus says that he came into the world so that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind. Those who trust the eyes more than the ears will never see the Lord for who he is. As far as we trust our eyes, the painful and disappointing circumstances of our lives, the temptations and siren songs of the world around us, more than we trust the Word of the Lord in our ears, so far will we miss Jesus for who he truly is.

Repent of idolizing your eyes. Hear the voice of your Shepherd. Learn to recognize the voice of your Shepherd. When you hear the voice of another, do not follow it. Flee. Learn to hear the voice of your Shepherd in the proclamation of his Word, and follow that voice. For he alone is the Good Shepherd. All others are thieves and robbers. Do not listen to them. Hear the voice of your Shepherd calling you to repentance. Hear the voice of your Shepherd promising you forgiveness. Hear the voice of your Shepherd and follow him. For He has come to give you life, and to give it to you abundantly.

Jesus Lives, the Victory’s Won – Sermon for Easter 2017

Jesus Lives, The Victory’s Won!
Exodus 14:10-15:1
Easter Dawn
April 16, 2017
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

 

“Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt?” What?! Talk about a tone-deaf! That’s not the gratitude Moses was probably hoping for after marching in to Pharaoh’s palace and demanding he “Let my people go!” That’s the perspective of a teenager who screams at her parents that they never give her anything as she goes stomping off down the hallway of the house they pay for, flinging herself onto the bed they bought her and crying into the pillow they gave her before texting or Snapchatting or Instagramming her friends on the smartphone she got from, you guessed it, her parents! And those texts and Snapchats will all be bitterly and angrily written to let the girl’s friends all know how awful her parents are and how they never give her anything.

“Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?”  Did God bring you out of Egypt to kill you? No! Of course not! If he wanted to kill you, he would have directed the 10 plagues at you instead of against the Egyptians. If he wanted to kill you, he wouldn’t have given you the Passover Lamb whose blood painted on your door posts protected you from the Angel of the Lord, he would have left you ignorant and let your firstborn die too. If he wanted to kill you he would have left you to suffer in Egypt under the whips of your slave masters. “Is it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us out here to die?” No! What had God done to this point that could possibly give you that impression? “What have you done in bringing us out of Egypt?” What do you mean, ‘What have you done?!’ I’ve set you free from a life making bricks with no straw. I’ve set you free from those who would drown your sons in the Nile. I’ve set you free from slavery and oppression. That’s what I’ve done! And now you want to go back?

Talk about short-term memory loss. Talk about selective amnesia. The Israelites were blinded by the threat of Pharaoh’s army closing in. And, to a certain extent, I can’t say I blame them. I mean, each and every one of them had been conditioned from a young age to fear the Egyptians, to cower before the whips and swords of their captors. Now, just a few short days after leaving slavery behind, here was Pharaoh’s army threatening to recapture them. A lifetime of conditioning doesn’t just go away overnight. So to a certain extent, I can understand the fear of the Israelites. They looked at their situation and processed the information according to the only reality they had ever known – the reality of slavery in Egypt.

But God had something different in mind. The Angel of the Lord who had been leading the people in the pillar of cloud and fire moved to the rear guard to protect the people from Pharaoh’s army. God had Moses stretch out his hand over the sea, and the Lord drove the sea back, and the people of God passed through on dry ground. Of course, the Israelites didn’t stop complaining once they were on the other side. Instead, before they ever reached, Mt. Sinai they accused God of freeing them from slavery only to starve them in the desert, a complaint he answered by giving them miraculous bread from heaven. Then they accused God of bringing them out of Egypt only to kill them with thirst, a complaint God answered by bringing forth water from a rock. Then, while at Mt. Sinai, they thought God had killed Moses up on the mountain, so they demanded that Aaron build them a golden calf to replace the God who had supposedly abandoned them. When they left Mt. Sinai they refused to follow God into the Promised Land because they were afraid of the people who lived there, even accusing God once again of delivering them from Egypt only to kill them by the swords of the Canaanites. And none of these example even touch on Israel’s 40 years of wilderness wandering. These are all accusations against God that happen in the same year as the 10 plagues and deliverance from Egypt. It’s like Israel was completely blind to the many times God had delivered them. All they could see were the challenges and fears before them.

Does that sound familiar? Do you see yourself in the story? Do you see yourself in the Israelites? You should. Each of us should. We are all guilty of stunningly selective amnesia. Here we are today to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Re-sur-rection! Life from death. Christ, our Passover Lamb, has been sacrificed. More than that, he lives! He has defeated death. Christ is arisen from the grave’s dark prison. All our hopes would be ended had Jesus not ascended from the grave triumphantly. But he did ascend from that stone cold tomb. Jesus lives, the victory’s won!

Yet how often do we, like the Israelites of old, respond to our deliverance by ignoring the manifold ways God has revealed his love for us, focusing instead on the challenges and problems and fears in our lives? “Jesus lives!” the angels say, and our response is, “Yeah, but money’s tight this month. Have you conquered death only to starve me in this life?” “Jesus lives!” the angels say, and our response is, “Yeah, but my cancer isn’t getting any better. Have you conquered death only to give me over to an army of murderous cells?” “Jesus lives!” the angels say, and our response is, “Yeah, but look at how many people are turning their backs the church today. Look at how few there are left. Have you conquered death only to abandon me in the middle of this desert?” “Jesus lives!” the angels say, and our response is, “Yeah, but it’s getting harder and harder to live as a Christian in America. Have you conquered death only to destroy us with the swords of those who inhabit this land?” Are we any different from the Israelites of old? “Have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in this wilderness? To kill us with starvation or thirst?  To destroy us with the sword of our enemies?”

A lifetime of conditioning doesn’t go away overnight.

We do, indeed, live in a world that attacks us our whole life long. We live in a world that gives us reason to fear. So our Lord’s response is as simple as it is merciful. He calls our gaze away from the problems. He calls us to look at the deliverance, to fix our eyes on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith. O Israel, why are you frightened by the hunger or the thirst or the army closing in on you? Look at the manna and the water from the rock and the Red Sea being pushed back for you to cross! O Christian, why are you focused on the chaos and disease and evil in your life and in the world around you? Why are you focused on chemical attacks in Syria or capricious politicians or the storm clouds brewing in the relationship between church and culture. Yes, in this world you will have tribulation, but take heart. Jesus has overcome the world. This world threw all it could at our Lord. Satan and his demon host attacked our Savior in every way they could conjure. And our Lord bested them all. Our Lord bested death itself. The grave could not hold him.  He has triumphed gloriously. The hosre and his rider have been thrown into the sea! Jesus lives, the victory’s won!

And in your baptism, you live too. You live in him. In this life we will still have hardship. Jesus never promised us anything different. What he promised us is that this life is not all there is. This life is a desert wandering. We are free from the slavery to sin and death, but we have not yet arrived in the promised rest. Like Israel who had been delivered from Egypt but was not yet in the Promised Land, our time in this desert is filled with reasons to fear, with death and disease, with enemies both physical and spiritual, with temptation and despair and doubt. But the gift of today is that our Lord has given us something else to look at. Rather than looking at the problems, look at the cross. Look at the empty tomb. Look at your deliverance. Jesus lives, the victory’s won!

Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on, nor about the things the people of this world will say about you, what they will call you and what you will suffer on account of being faithful to Christ. For the Gentiles seek after these things. But you have a Heavenly Father who knows you need them. And you know he will provide them. You know he loves you, for God demonstrated his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. And now Christ lives. And no matter what this world throws at you, your Lord will deliver you.

Jesus lives, the victory’s won. All you need, God will dispense. Let this be your confidence. Jesus lives, the victory’s won. Death’s reign is done. Brighter scenes will soon commence. Let this be your confidence. Jesus lives, the victory’s won. And now even death itself is but the gate to life immortal. Let this calm your trembling breath in the face of life’s challenges. Let this be your confidence.

Christ is risen. Alleluia!
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

 

 

Christ, Our Meal With God

Christ, Our Meal With God
Exodus 24:3-11
Maundy Thursday
April 13, 2017
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

The Temple in Jerusalem was a bustling place, especially during the high feast days like Passover. The priests who worked there filled their day by offering sacrifices on behalf of Israelite worshippers from sunrise to sunset. Every animal sacrifice had two significant parts: the flesh and the blood. The priests did different things with the flesh and the blood, depending on what kind of sacrifice was being offered. But the flesh and the blood were the key elements.

Each day began with a priest on duty offering a whole burnt offering, a sacrifice of an entire lamb. Since only one of these was offered each morning, a priest might only get to perform this sacrifice once in his life. The offering was called the whole burnt offering because the entire animal was sacrificed. The blood of the lamb was splashed against the base of the altar and flesh of the lamb was placed on the altar to be consumed by flame. None of it was eaten by the priest. None of it was eaten by the Israelite worshippers. None of it was used for anything. The whole offering was burnt on the altar.

This daily sacrifice was the divinely instituted means of grace that covered the sins of the people so that the holy God could dwell among them in the Temple. The burning of the meat on the altar would produce a pillar of smoke to remind the Israelites of the pillar of cloud that led them out of Egypt and across the Red Sea in the days of Moses. It served as a visual reminder that just as the Lord dwelt among his people in the pillar of cloud and fire during the Exodus, he was now dwelling among them in the Temple. It was the sacrifice of the whole burnt offering that allowed the people to live in the presence of God.

Once God was present among his people by virtue of this whole burnt offering, the priests would then offer the other sin offerings of the day. If a new mother needed purification after giving birth or if a soldier was returning from war with blood on his hands, their offerings would be offered at this point. Again, none of the flesh and blood would be eaten in these offerings. They were sacrifices that made atonement. They were sacrifices that covered the sins of the people. They were whole burnt offerings to the Lord. Day after day, year after year, lamb after lamb was sacrificed to cover the sins of the people, to reconcile God and man, to bring peace where there was division and hostility on account of sin.

Once all the whole offerings for sin had been made each day, once the entire congregation present had their sins covered in order that they could stand in the presence of the holy God, that’s when the peace offerings would happen. They were called peace offerings not because they established peace, but because they reflected the peace that had been brought about by that day’s sin offering. That’s when things really picked up at the Temple. That’s why there would be several priests on duty on any given day. While there may have been only one whole burnt offering each day, there were sometimes hundreds of peace offerings. Peace offerings were celebratory meals.  They were required for each family at the high feasts like Passover or Pentecost, but that’s like saying it is required that you have turkey and pie on Thanksgiving. Peace offerings could also be given throughout the year in thanksgiving for just about anything, like the safe return of a family member from war or the birth of a child.  Just like we celebrate significant events with a meal, the Israelites celebrated significant events with a peace offering.

As with the other sacrifices, the key elements to a peace offering were the flesh and the blood. The Lord’s institution of the peace offerings required that the blood of the animal be splashed against the altar, but the flesh would be consumed by the worshippers. Israelites rarely ate meat – it was expensive to buy an animal and if you killed an animal from your own flock you no longer had that animal for breeding, wool, or milk. Typically, the only time Israelites ate meat was as part of a peace offering. There, they ate the flesh of an animal, but they didn’t eat the whole thing. No, the priest got a small portion, and a small portion was left on the altar for God. God and the Israelite would consume the same animal. Just like your entire family eats one bird on Thanksgiving, God and his people would eat one lamb together. It was a holy meal, one that took place after a whole burnt offering had covered the sin of the people.

This holy meal at the Temple was foreshadowed by the holy meal described in today’s reading from Exodus. At Mount Sinai, God ate with his people. We are told that the there was pavement as sapphire stone under his feet, for Moses and the elders were truly in the presence of God. Yet even though they were in the presence of God, the elders of Israel were not struck down, for God covered their sin. They beheld God, and they ate and drank with him and with each other. In this meal with God on Sinai, like the meals with God in the Temple, the Lord first covered the sin of his guests. In the Temple, this was done through the daily whole burnt offering. At Sinai, we are told that Moses ordered burnt offerings to cover the sins of the people. Then he took half of the blood and threw it against the base of the altar, sprinkling the other half on the people, covering their sins with the blood of the lamb and bringing them into the covenant of God. Once God was present among them, they ate and drank with God.

All of this paved the way for the events we remember today. On the night when he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus instituted a new covenant. And the disciples ate with God. Like the sacrifices of the first covenant, flesh and blood are the key ingredients in this new covenant. Our Lord Jesus Christ took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples and said, “Take and eat. This is the flesh of the new covenant. It is my flesh. I give it for you to cover your sins. I give it to you as your meal with God.” This flesh was sacrificed on the cross as the whole burnt offering to cover the sins of the world. In that one offering, sin was covered once for all. The Temple curtain was torn in two. The earth shook. Graves were opened. God and man were reconciled.

And then he took the cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them saying, “Drink of it all of you – this is the blood of the New Covenant. My blood. I give it for you to cover your sins. I give it to you as your meal with God.” This blood was poured out on the cross. It dripped down our Savior’s back as he was whipped within an inch of his life, down our Savior’s brow as thorns cut into his scalp, down our Savior’s arms as nails were driven into his wrists. The blood was shed once for all. The Temple curtain was torn in two. The earth shook. Graves were opened. God and man were reconciled.

At the Temple, once the whole burnt offering had been made for sin, it was time for the peace offering. Now that God and man are reconciled by the sacrifice of the cross, we enjoy a meal with God. It is a meal of thanksgiving, which is why we call it a Eucharist. It is a meal hosted by God himself, which is why we call it the Lord’s Supper. It is a meal shared with God and with each other, which is why we call it a Holy Communion. It has gone by many names through the history of the church, but the dynamic remains the same: once God and man are reconciled, they share a meal. The did it at Sinai. They did it at the Temple. We do it tonight.

And it’s all because of Jesus. He is the fulfillment of the sacrifices of the old covenant. He is the true sin offering, the one who gave himself entirely, the whole burnt offering that covers our sin. On the cross, he offered himself as the sacrifice to forgive all your sin. The lying and lust and anger and bitterness that would separate you from God have been covered by the blood of Jesus. There is no longer any need for sin offerings or whole burnt offerings. God made him who knew no sin to be the sin offering for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God. The suffering and death of Jesus in our place put us right with God. There is no longer any sacrifice for sin. Jesus has done it. It is finished.

But not only is Jesus the true sin offering, he is the true peace offering, the Lamb of God who gives himself as the feast which we eat with God. The Israelites celebrated being reconciled to God by eating with him. So also, in this meal, because we have been reconciled to God by the blood of Christ, we now eat with him. We gather at the Lord’s table as if we were gathered around Easter dinner. The blood of Jesus and water of baptism has brought us into God’s family, and families eat together. We eat with God as part of his family. And as the family of God, we eat with each other.

So let us repent of our bitterness. Let us repent of our grudge holding. Let us repent of our gossip. Let us repent of the ways we drive wedges into the family of God. Let us repent of the ways we bring selfish division.  And let us rejoice in Christ, the whole burnt offering, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Let us rejoice in Christ, the peace offering, the Lamb of God, who is the main course in this our meal with God. The sin offering is done. The peace offering in prepared. The feast is ready. Come to the feast.

+INJ+

Serpents & Doves – Sermon for April 5, 2017

Serpents and Doves
Matthew 10:16-23; 1 Peter 3:8-17
Midweek VI
April 5, 2017
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

Sheep and wolves, serpents and doves. No, it’s not the passenger list for Noah’s Ark or the table of contents for a volume of Aesop’s fables. It is the animals Jesus speaks about in tonight’s reading. “Behold,” Jesus tells the Apostles, “I am sending you out as sheep among wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” Sheep and wolves, serpents and doves.

The sheep and wolves imagery is pretty straight forward and easy to understand. As sheep among wolves, the Apostles will be stalked. They will be hunted. They will be attacked. They might even be devoured, for that is exactly the kind of thing one can expect a wolf to do to a sheep. But Jesus tells them to go anyway, go out and proclaim the good news of the kingdom. But do so with eyes wide open, Jesus says. Make no mistake about what kind of reception you should expect. Be not naïve about how receptive people will be to the message you bring. You are not going out as honeybees among the flowers. You are not going out as frogs among the lily pads. You are going out as sheep among wolves. So be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.

The wisdom of serpents lies in their heightened awareness.  Ophiologists will tell you that snakes have such awareness because they sense vibrations in the ground, which allows them to feel predators coming from any direction, or that their tongue can both smell the air and sense the body heat of other animals in their vicinity. The point is, it’s next to impossible to sneak up on a snake, almost as impossible as sneaking up on a fish in the water. They feel you coming. They sense your presence. They’re aware of danger.

Jesus tells his Apostles to be as wise as serpents. Do not be deceived, Jesus says, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. And wolves love to eat sheep. I am sending you out into harm’s way. Beware of the danger. Be as wise as serpents. Don’t hide your head in the sand. Don’t close your eyes to reality. Be alert. Be aware. Be prepared. They will deliver you over to courts and flog you in their synagogues.  You will be dragged before kings for confessing the name of Christ. You will be hated for my name’s sake. They will persecute you. Danger is coming. Be ready for it. Be as wise as serpents.

But also be as innocent as doves. The innocence of doves lies in their helplessness. It lies in their inability or unwillingness to fight back or to defend themselves. Sometimes doves get eaten. Sometimes they fly away. In the case of the Apostles, this dovely innocence is bound up in willingly following Jesus’ commission to place themselves in harm’s way. Jesus is telling the Apostles: Yes, you are going out as sheep among wolves. Yes, the wolves will seek to devour you. Yes, you should be as aware of impending danger as a serpent who senses potential threats. But go anyway, as innocent as doves, willingly suffering opposition and persecution when it comes upon you. Do not be anxious about what you will say in the face of such persecution, for the Holy Spirit will give you the words you need. And when the persecution gets totally out of hand, then, like a dove, spread your wings and fly on to the next town. There are more than enough people who need to hear the Gospel. Don’t beat your head against the wall. Martyrdom may come, but don’t seek out a chance to turn yourself into a martyr for the cause. If people will not listen, if the threat gets too great, fly on to the next town and find someone there to whom you can deliver the good news of the Messiah.

I am sending you out as sheep among wolves, so be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. That’s the message Jesus leaves with his Apostles. What does it have to do with us today?

We too are sheep among wolves. It takes no great cultural analyst to see that Christianity is not well loved in our nation today. If we’re honest about it, it’s not just Christianity that’s on trial but truth itself and the very nature of existence. It’s whether or not there’s any meaningful difference between girls and boys. It’s whether or not it’s in the best interest of a child to be raised by a mother and a father. It’s whether or not the best interests of a child matter at all, or whether the ideology or the needs of the state takes precedence. Truth itself is under attack. We live in a world that can’t agree on what it means to be a person. And if we can’t agree on what it means to be a person, we certainly won’t agree on what purpose people serve or why we’re here. And if we can’t agree on why we’re here, then we certainly won’t be able to agree on what we should honor and esteem, what we should aspire to and hold forth as admirable and noble.

Even speaking of such things will be met with resistance. We live in world addicted to destruction. We live in a world that loves to tear down the gifts and institutions of God. We live in a world that wants to destroy marriage and the family and the church and all manner of other supposedly evil institutions, and they do it all in the name of freedom. But after the world has supposedly freed us from our family and church and God-given identity, it has nothing to put in their place. It leaves people staring into the abyss, frightened and alone. And when people are frightened and alone, they lash out. The world will lash out at you when you speak the truth. The world will lash out at you when you speak of sin. The world will lash out at you when you speak of the Savior. The world will lash out like the alcoholic who takes a swing at anyone who threatens to take away his bottle or the addict who is a danger not only to herself, but to anyone who would confiscate her stash. The world loves the lie. It is addicted to it. It will not give it up willingly. We who cling to the truth are, indeed, sheep among wolves.

So let us also be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. We are called to confess the truth today, to speak of our Savior and all he has done not only for us, but for the world. Let us approach this task with the wisdom of serpents. Let us be realistic about the challenge ahead of us. Let us expect opposition.  But let us also be as innocent as doves. Let us take heart in this simple reality: we confess the truth, and the truth has a way of surviving. Yes, some people will revile and hate us for our confession. But others will be brought back from the edge of the abyss, brought to repentance through a knowledge of their sin and yearning for salvation, brought to life according to God’s design, a life lived in family and church. We have the only cure.  Jesus has placed it into our hands, into our mouths, into the keeping of his church. He has placed it into your hands as a child of God. We have the Word of truth, which means we have the medicine people need. Let’s give it.

To use the words of the Apostle Paul, let us speak the truth in love. In speaking the truth, we confess faithfully what our Lord has revealed in the pages of Scripture.  As the Apostle Peter says, we do so with gentleness and respect. We need to sense the danger like serpents. We don’t need to yell and scream and rant and rage as if that will change the world or the people in it. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling. Yelling only leads to more yelling. Responding to anger and name calling with more anger and name calling is never the answer. Be as wise as serpents. See the danger in the way the world holds conversations, if you can call what goes on today “conversation.”  Sense the danger in simple stereotypes and clichéd villainy.

And be as innocent as doves.  Speak the truth in love. When the world reviles us, we bless in return, for to this we were called. We do not give in to fear; we listen to the words of Jesus. Nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. The lies of the world will be unmasked one day. The spotlight of God’s Word will drive Satan from the shadows, and he will be shown for the liar he is. Maybe that will happen in your lifetime, maybe not. What of it? Do not fear the things or people of the world because they can kill your body. Your soul is safe with Jesus.  Rather, fear only God, for he alone has the power to destroy both body and soul in hell. So confess the truth in love, with gentleness and respect, and let the chips fall where they may. For whoever confesses Jesus before men, Jesus will also acknowledge before the Father in heaven, but whoever denies Jesus before men, Jesus will also deny before the Father in heaven.

Sheep and wolves, serpents and doves. There’s a lot of animals involved in confessing the faith. It may not be Aesop’s Fables, but the message is still simple: confess the faith. Don’t worry about what will happen or how it will go, just confess faithfully. So that’s what we’ll do. We will confess faithfully, with our lips and our lives, in our jobs and in our families and in our nation. We will confess faithfully, even if we are sheep among wolves.  We will confess faithfully, as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. We will confess faithfully, for the Lion of Judah is watching over us.

Jesus, the Resurrection – Sermon for April 2/3, 2017

Jesus, the Resurrection
John 11:1-45
Fifth Sunday in Lent
April 2nd/3rd, 2017
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

            Spring is in the air.  Finally.  Maybe. You can never quite tell in Michigan, can you? One day it’s sunny and beautiful, the next it’s snowing and sleeting. But regardless of what’s going on with the weather, we have turned the calendar to April. Every morning when I get dressed I can hear the sound of birds chirping outside my window.  The days are getting longer. March Madness is almost over, baseball season is here. But the surest sign that warmer days are ahead is the return of the construction barrel, that ubiquitous orange decoration that frustrates drivers across the state from the first thaw until the winter chill returns at the end of next fall.  Yes, construction season has returned, so get ready for some detours. The barrels are already out on Garfield, and I hear Schoenherr between 15 and 16 Mile roads will get torn up too, not to mention the major closure on I-75 South between Detroit and Downriver.  If you are headed in those directions, better plan on being rerouted.

Today’s Gospel reading tells of a rerouting of sorts.  It tells of a detour. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem where he would be greeted by throngs of people waving palm branches as he enters the city riding on the colt of a donkey.  But that’s the reading for next week. Before we reach the triumphal entry of Palm Sunday, we take a slight detour and visit the cemetery.  This detour might have taken us to the deathbed of a dying Lazarus, but as you just heard in the reading a few moments ago, when Jesus heard that Lazarus was ill, he waited for two full days before going to him.  We visit a cemetery instead of a hospital bed because Jesus waited.  He waited for Lazarus to die.

When He finally arrived, Martha, the sister of Lazarus, greeted him with the following words: “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”  Jesus had a reputation for miraculous healing. That’s why crowds of people would bring their sick loved one to Jesus. Martha knows Jesus healed a veritable army of strangers, but when his friend is deathly ill, he doesn’t drop everything and rush to heal him? Why in the world would Jesus wait? Why would he do that to her? In her grief she comes out and accuses Jesus of being responsible for her pain.  “Lord, if you would have been here, my brother would not have died. If you wouldn’t have forgotten about Lazarus, if you would’ve only gotten here on time, when I told you to be here, then my brother would be alive, and I wouldn’t be hurting.”

Jesus comforts her by reminding her, “Your brother will rise again.”  And Martha admits knows that Lazarus will be raised on the last day.  But that offers little comfort to her right now.  Right here and now, Lazarus is still dead.  This isn’t what Martha had in mind at all.  This isn’t how Martha planned it. This isn’t what her life was supposed to be. So Jesus tells Martha, “I am the resurrection.  I am the Life.  I may not have been here on your time table, but I am here now, here in my time, here for you.”  But Martha didn’t understand.  What Martha wanted was for Jesus to have healed her brother and protected her from feeling grief.  But Jesus didn’t do that. Jesus had something else in mind.

Lazarus’s other sister Mary also greeted Jesus, much in the same way as her sister Martha.  She also tells Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.”  And then she breaks down into tears, overrun with grief at the death of her brother.  Jesus, seeing her grief, weeps with her.  The sadness and grief he feels is evident by his own reaction to the situation. But some of those who had gathered at the tomb saw Jesus weeping and said, “Couldn’t he who opened the eyes of the blind have kept this man from dying?  Couldn’t he have prevented this pain?”  From their perspective, Jesus is to blame for this pain. Jesus should have done something to keep Lazarus from dying.  Then Mary and Martha wouldn’t have to experience the terrible grief of losing a family member.  Then Mary and Martha would know that Jesus loved them, if he shielded them from the hurts and afflictions of this life.  But Jesus didn’t do that. Jesus had something else in mind.

It’s in the words of Jesus that we see what that “something else” was. “I am the resurrection and the life.”  Resurrection.  Now there’s a loaded word.  For while resurrection certainly calls to mind images of life, in order for there to be a resurrection there must first be a death.  If there is no death, there can be no resurrection.  When Jesus tells us, “I am the resurrection and the life,” what he is also saying in these words is “I bring death.”

“How can Jesus bring death?” you may be asking yourself.  “Didn’t Jesus tell us that he came in order that we, his sheep, may have life, and have it abundantly?  How can Jesus bring death?”  And yet we’re left to meditate on what Jesus really said, not just on what we wish he would have said. “I am the resurrection,” he said. Jesus brings death.  Jesus brought death to Lazarus. He waited to go to the house until Lazarus had died. But death doesn’t get the last word because Jesus doesn’t bring death to just Lazarus. Remember, this stopover at the tomb of Lazarus is nothing more than a detour on Jesus’ journey to his own tomb.  Don’t forget where Jesus goes when he leaves Mary, Martha, and their resurrected brother.  Think of where this road is taking him, from Bethany to Jerusalem: to Palm Sunday, to Maundy Thursday, to Good Friday and the cross.

“Hosanna!” the people will shout when he arrives in Jerusalem, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Have mercy on us.  Save us!”  And save them he will, but not in the way that they expect. Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.  Behold, the perfect sacrifice, bloodied and dead under the judgment our sins deserve.  Behold, he who is the resurrection and the life. But for there to be resurrection, there must be death first.

All too often, we too would have Jesus simply protect us from our daily pain and affliction.  Like Mary and Martha, we look at the problems and hurt in our lives and say, “Lord, you could have prevented this!  Why did you let this happen to me?  Where were you?”  We look at Jesus as the one to deliver us from financial or emotional difficulties, to heal our earthly infirmities or cure our cancer.  To make everything right and comfortable and to put things just the way we want them. We cry out, “Lord, have mercy on me where I tell you to, where I think I need it.”  But Jesus has something else in mind, something greater.

Jesus didn’t take on human flesh in order to make us comfortable or to give us what we think we want.  He didn’t come to make us only feel better for a little while.  He came with the true cure.  He came to make us his own.  He didn’t come to put a band-aid on our sinfulness.  He came to kill it, to crucify it with himself on the cross.  If anyone would follow him, let him take up his own cross. “Or don’t you know, all of you who were baptized into Christ were baptized into his death?”  The road from Bethany to Jerusalem, like all roads in the life of Christ, leads to death.  The entire journey of Lent is a journey of death, a journey of repentance where our old Adam daily drowns and dies, along with all sins and evil desires, and a new man arises to live before God in righteousness and purity for ever.

Jesus is not impressed with our perception of the problems in our lives; he knows what the true problem is: sin.  That is why he came.  That is why he went to Jerusalem.  That is why he lived. That is why he died.  There were no construction barrels that could keep our Lord from reaching his destination.  There was nothing that was going to keep him from reaching the cross.  He didn’t come to give us what we want.  He came to give us what we need.

“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said. He came to earth, took human flesh, and traveled to Jerusalem for one reason: to die and rise again.  And through our baptism we too die with him there.  But death is not the final word; Jesus is the resurrection.  And Jesus is not only the resurrection, he is our resurrection.  He is your resurrection. Now we live in our baptism, living in repentance, dying to our sinful flesh, united to Christ in his resurrection.  The resurrection lives within us.  Christ lives within us.  Jesus did not give Mary and Martha a temporary solution or quick fix.  Jesus came to bring true life and true freedom, the life and freedom which can only be had through death . . . and resurrection.  Such is your life as a child of God, a life of death and resurrection.  So live as the children of God you truly are! Repent! and die to your sins.  Repent! and be made alive in him who is the resurrection and the life.  Repent! and live in Christ, never to die again.