Rogate—The Sixth Sunday of Easter
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 16:23-30
May 1, 2016
“Asking God the Father”
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
It’s been a long time for most of us since we asked our fathers for anything, but not for all of us. The catechumens who are here today still have to ask their fathers and mothers for help with their homework, or to let them go over to their friends’ house, or to play video games for five more minutes instead of doing their homework.
What is it like to ask your father for something? It depends on your father, doesn’t it? It also depends what you’re asking for.
I know with my father, who has now been gone for almost nine years, a lot depended on his mood. Since my dad didn’t talk as much as I do, I had to be able to read his mood before I could ask him for something and expect to receive it. I had to know him. And I did know him. At least I knew how to read his moods and tell whether it was a good time to ask him for something that I wanted.
Whatever your father was or is like, I am sure it was the same for you. Knowing your father was a big part of being able to ask him for something and getting what you asked for. You had to know when was a good time to approach him. You had to know how to speak to him. You had to know what he wanted in order to frame your request. “Dad, you know how you always tell me I need to be responsible? I really think that buying me this car will help me learn responsibility.”
Of course, often when we asked our fathers for things, we were tuned into the things they had said only as a means to an end. We weren’t thinking about pleasing them or honoring them when we asked for things. We were mostly thinking about getting something out of them for our own enjoyment. As I get older, I feel sorry about this. I know my dad had many failings as a man, as a father. Yet I owe my life to him. And many of the things in my character that are good I owe to him. And besides this, I know that despite his faults he loved me and wanted me to be blessed. And so, I wish that I had honored my father more, by not selfishly asking him for things that would give me temporary pleasure, but asking him for things that would have pleased him, that I knew he wanted to give me.
Now, as a father, I have a different perspective than I did as a child. When my son asks me for gifts, I usually want to give him what he asks for. But I don’t always. And the reason is obvious enough. I want my son to be happy now, of course. But I’m even more interested in him being happy later in life—being happy because he is a virtuous man, a good man, who knows how to work hard, manage his money, be a husband to his wife and a father to his children, who can be a blessing to his church and a help to his neighbors. I want him to be able to use the gifts God has given him to the best of his ability and not be held back by laziness, lack of self-control, greed or selfishness.
And even more than these things, I want my son to be happy for eternity. And because I want these things more than I want his short-term happiness, I frequently say “no” to what he asks me. When we’re at Wal-Mart and he asks me to buy him a toy, I say, “No, you have a thousand toys at home that you need to learn to pick up and put away first.”
So is it a surprise if you ask your Father in heaven for things and He says “No”?
If you look back at your life, you can probably remember many prayers in which you asked God for gifts you didn’t deserve and He said “Yes.”
At the same time, I know many Christians have asked God for things that seemed like they should be the Father’s will, and He said “No.” Or He said, “Not yet,” and that not yet stretched on for years and years.
And so when we hear Jesus say today, “Amen, Amen, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my Name, He will give to you,” those of us who have struggled in prayer for years may find ourselves feeling depressed at this amazing promise. Or doubtful, or cynical, or perhaps, in spite of ourselves, a little angry. If only being a Christian was as glorious and joyful as Jesus seems to describe it here.
It’s interesting that Jesus describes praying to God the Father in a similar way to the experience I had with my dad. He says asking God the Father for gifts depends on two things—one is being loved by the Father, the other is knowing the Father. Through faith in Jesus we receive the Father’s love: I do not say that I will ask the Father for you, because the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came from God. (John 16:26-27) But also through Jesus we receive the knowledge of who the Father is, what He is like, what He desires. Jesus doesn’t promise His disciples will receive everything they ask the Father, but whatever you ask the Father in My Name, He will give to you. (John 16:23) “In Jesus’ Name” means we ask God the Father in the authority of Jesus, believing that God the Father receives us as His children because of Jesus. It also means that we ask what Jesus authorizes us to ask. We can ask the Father for anything, as long as we say, “Your will, not mine, be done.” But only when we ask for the things that Jesus has promised and taught us to pray for can we be certain that the Father will give them.
Now if we think back on many of the prayers we have prayed in our life, maybe even most, maybe even all, we will probably discover that most of what we asked the Father in heaven has been like what we asked for from our fathers and mothers on earth. We usually asked our earthly parents for things that would please us. We didn’t think, “My father and mother have been given to me by God to raise me, and He commands me to honor them; they gave me life, so I should honor them.” When we asked them for things we often thought only about what would please us in the short-term, not about what would honor and please them.
In the same way, even when we have prayed to the Father for godly things, often our hearts have been set on ourselves. We may have prayed for our family members, but our hearts were on ourselves instead of on what would glorify God and what would be the highest good for our family members. We were trying to escape pain and to have an easy (or easier) life.
But even more often we haven’t prayed. And the reason was we didn’t know or believe in the Father that Jesus reveals to us very firmly. We didn’t rightly appreciate His great power and wisdom. Even more, we doubted Jesus’ word that the Father loves us and wants to give us everything that is His. We didn’t know the greatness of God’s love for us, the love that surpasses knowledge that Paul describes in Ephesians chapter 3.
Christians don’t have a monopoly on the act of praying. When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, it wasn’t something totally new. The Jews prayed a lot. They had a custom of praying every morning and every evening, to go along with the morning and evening sacrifices at the temple.
And today lots of people believe in a God, even though it isn’t the God of the Bible. They think of Him as being a Father, and they pray to Him.
But Jesus gives a privilege and promise about prayer to those who believe in Him that those who don’t believe in Him don’t have. His promise is that those who believe in Him have God as their Father just as truly as He has God as His Father. The unbelieving world doesn’t have this relationship to God. God is the Father of all people, because He created us all. But those who don’t believe in Jesus don’t have the privileges of being children who are fathered by God and live in His house. They don’t live in God’s house, which means of course that they don’t have to live by the rules of His house. But it also means they don’t have the benefits of dwelling in the house of the Lord.
As God’s children through faith in Christ, God the Father has an open heart toward us, like a loving father has toward his children, except that God’s heart is full of perfect love, where a human father’s is imperfect. Because of this love, we can make requests of God the Father and expect to be heard.
But also through Jesus we know God the Father. No one can see God. But in Jesus we have the exact reflection of who God the Father is. Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father, Jesus tells Philip in John 14.
As we grow to know Jesus by hearing and reading His Word, receiving His absolution and His Supper, we grow to know the Father. We learn to know His grace—that He doesn’t deal with us as our sins deserve, but blesses and honors us as though we had never sinned. We learn to know His mercy and kindness, His gentleness toward sinners—even when our lives are hard and from a human perspective it appears as if He is dealing harshly with us. We learn to know His power to save, deliver, and defend us, which knows no limits. We learn all these things especially from Jesus’ death and resurrection. There we see God deal once and for all with our sins. All of them, including the selfishness that has motivated us to try to use God for our own ends instead of seeking Him for His own sake, He laid on Jesus. All of them He judged and punished on the cross. And all of them He showed to be removed, taken away forever when Jesus rose from the dead. And because we don’t believe this, or doubt it, He continually proclaims it to us as we come to church week in and week out, burdened by our failures, our unbelief, our feelings of alienation from God. He continues to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, His testimony that our sins have been erased from His sight.
Because this is true, Jesus tells the disciples, including us, “In that day you will not ask me for anything. Amen, Amen, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name, He will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:23-24)
When Jesus rises from the dead, we are also alive from the dead. We are dead to sin and alive to God the Father. We are no longer God’s enemies in Adam, but new creatures who live to God in Christ. So when we speak to the Father, we come before Him as little Christs.
Just as Jesus received everything He asked from the Father, so will we.
That means that when we pray for the things Jesus promised us and taught us to pray for, we can be certain that we “will receive” those things. When we ask for God’s Word to be taught purely to us, that He will give us the Holy Spirit to believe that Word, be saved by it, and live a holy life, we will surely receive it. When we ask that God preserve us in that word and faith until we die, we will surely receive it. When we ask for God to give us daily bread—what we need to support this life—He will not fail us. Nor will He deny us forgiveness of our sins when we ask for it, nor support and deliverance from the devil’s temptations, and finally be to be brought out of this world of sorrow safely into the eternal joy of everlasting life.
We don’t pray those things and hope God will give them to us. That’s the way those who don’t know Jesus and His Father pray. Such prayers are not heard.
Instead we pray to the Father with certainty, not only that He hears us, but that He will give us whatever we ask, as though we were His Son.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Soli Deo Gloria
Cantate—5th Sunday of Easter
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 16:5-15
April 24, 2016
“Not of This World”
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Now to my Father I depart
From earth to heav’n ascending
And heav’nly wisdom to impart
The Holy Spirit sending;
In trouble He will comfort you
And teach you always to be true
And into truth shall guide you. –Martin Luther (LSB 556, st. 9)
“I tell you the truth; it is to your advantage that I go away,” Jesus says. It is to the advantage of the disciples and it is to our advantage. First, because when Jesus goes to the Father He is taking human nature, our nature, to the highest place, to the throne of God. When Jesus does this, it is not for Himself only. He does it so that everyone who shares His nature, human nature, will also sit with Him at the right hand of the Father. When Jesus is at the right hand of the Father, the One who has taken away our sins will be present before the Father continually. When we see our sins and fear God’s wrath, we should remember that our righteousness is before the face of the Father. Jesus is “the Lord our righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6?). He stands before God as the One who has atoned for our sins and made us righteous before Him. And He stands before the Father and daily speaks to Him on our behalf.
Secondly, when Jesus goes to the Father, He will also send the Helper to dwell in His disciples. He will send His Holy Spirit to live in us. The Helper is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, the third person of the Godhead. When creation began, the Helper was “hovering over the waters” (Gen. 1). In the Old Testament, the Helper came upon the prophets and opened their mouth to speak the words of the living God. He dwelt among the people of Israel in the tabernacle and then the temple. When Jesus ascends to God’s throne, He sends this all-powerful Helper to all of His disciples. We become a new creation. We become prophets who know and speak the words of the living God. We become temples in which God lives.
Jesus sends this Helper as a down payment on our future redemption. The gift of the Holy Spirit is the testimony that our sins have been blotted out before God—because the Holy God will not live in an unholy place. The Holy Spirit is also the Helper who will lead us into the truth and bring us where Jesus is.
Jesus is not of this world. That’s why, after appearing for a little while in it, He returned to the Father.
Christians are also not of this world. We live in this world, but we do not belong to it. We look and feel like ordinary people, but we are not. We were not baptized in order to live an ordinary life, where you do what you have to do and enjoy what you can, and then die and hope that God will reward you for your good works. We were baptized into a new life; we died with Christ in Baptism and were raised with Him to live, as He does, in freedom, in the favor of God, in His presence.
But many who are baptized do not live this new life. Some resist the Spirit of God and set their hearts on this world, and the bodies that were baptized to be temples of the Holy Spirit become desolate. This may happen through obvious sins against the ten commandments, when a person does them knowingly, lives in them, and doesn’t repent. Or it may be a hidden sin instead of an obvious moral transgression. They desire honor in the world and seek it instead of the glory of sitting at the right hand of God, to which Jesus calls us. Then the Holy Spirit departs, and wicked spirits enter in, and they become worse than if they had never been baptized. And if they continue to resist the Holy Spirit who convicts them of sin in the preaching of the Word of God, they will perish with the world.
Others of us are like the disciples. We believe in Christ, and yet even while we believe in Him our hearts are weighed down by the desires and cares of this life. The wisdom of the flesh fights against the wisdom of God. And while the Holy Spirit leads us out of this world, we continue to hope for the glory of God to appear for us in this present age. That’s the reason why even true Christians are so often worried, anxious, and fearful when earthly troubles come, or when the Church is rejected, mocked, or threatened.
But dear Christians, you are not of this world. You have been separated from this world and made holy to God by Jesus. He paid for your transgressions and blotted out the record of them with His red blood. You were cleansed from them when You were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Then He sent you the Helper, the Holy Spirit. The Helper is the pledge that you are a new creation and a dwelling place for God Himself, that you belong to Christ and your home is where He is, with His Father at the right hand of glory.
Since we are not of this world, we have received the Spirit who is not of this world. He created the world and gave it life. But He does not dwell in those who belong to the world because they are unholy and unclean. They remain in their sins and do not receive the testimony of Jesus, that He alone takes away the sins of the world.
The Holy Spirit does not dwell in the people who belong to the world, but the Holy Spirit still remains in the world and speaks to it. He will do this until the world ends, because it is the will of God that all people be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. But the Holy Spirit bears witness to the world through the Church—that is, through you who are baptized into Christ and continue to trust in Him.
We are in the world for the same reason that Jesus was in the world, even though He did not belong to it. He was in the world to bring people to His Father. He did that by dying for our sins and rising from the dead, but also by preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
You are in the world for the same reason. Your home is at the Father’s right hand, with Jesus your Savior, exalted above all the angels. But the same Helper who assures you of that through the preaching of the Gospel also bears witness to the world through you. Through you He confesses the true faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Through you He calls men to proclaim the word of Christ, to baptize and administer the Lord’s body and blood. And through you He also speaks to the world and convicts it. He convicts the world that everyone who does not believe in Jesus is dead in sin, that Jesus alone gives righteousness before God, and that the prince of this world, the devil, is condemned along with all who belong to him, and his kingdom is awaiting its final destruction.
This is not a popular message. Who wants to be convicted of sin and damnation? But Jesus’ message was not received well either. The world hated Him. So we should not be surprised if the world hates the witness of the Holy Spirit through us, or simply doesn’t respond to it.
But the Helper does the work. He convicts the world and pierces their hearts with the knowledge that the Word we preach is the truth, even when they resist it. He also strengthens us so that we don’t run away and give up our confession when we receive trouble because of it.
He also remains with us. If we fall into sin, He convicts us until we return with humble repentance and believe in the Gospel that saves us. If we are weak, He sighs to the Father from within us that He would not let us fall. He keeps us in the faith until we come into the glory that Jesus came into after He had suffered a little while—the glory of being seated at the Father’s right hand and reigning with Him. The Helper testifies that that glory is already ours, and that in a little while we and all the world will see it.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Soli Deo Gloria
Wednesday after Misericordias Domini
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 10:11-16
April 14, 2016
Hirelings and Pastors
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
How many sermons that you’ve heard in your life can you actually remember? I heard lots of sermons and lots of preachers at seminary. I thought some of them were very good preachers, but I can’t remember what any of them said in any of their sermons. In the time I spent thinking about it, I could remember something that was said in about six sermons. Six. Out of however many hundred I’ve heard in my life—and of these I remembered maybe a sentence or a phrase, or even a couple of words.
But as I sat down to write, bits of two sermons immediately came to mind. They were both, I think, from sermons on Jesus as the Good Shepherd.
One was from the pastor who confirmed me. I thought very highly of him, but I don’t remember anything he preached, except one time he told an interesting fact about shepherds, which may or may not be true.
He said that when a sheep would wander away too much, the shepherd would break its leg. Then he would carry it around on his shoulders until its leg healed. Then the sheep would grow attached to the shepherd from being carried around on his shoulders for so long and not wander away anymore.
The other sermon I remembered right away—and this one I probably remember better than any of the others I mentioned. It was preached in Marseilles, Illinois sometime in the last ten years.
All I remember was that the preacher said very bluntly to us, “You are the hirelings!”
The preacher was saying we were hirelings because we all, in various ways, run away and seek to save our own lives instead of giving them up for Christ’s holy flock, the Church.
It was interesting to me that both of the sermons I remembered most readily were about Jesus the Good Shepherd, and also that they were preached by men who are no longer in the office of shepherd.
(How I wandered, and Christ carried me on his shoulders. How the pastor’s catechesis stayed with me. And how I found the book he gave me when my conscience was troubled. And the book said:)
Things like this: “Anyone who is troubled on account of his sins is a fool for not promptly taking refuge with Christ and for imagining that his evil conscience is proof that he may not come to God. No, this is what the evil conscience indicates: You should come to Jesus; He will give you a cheerful conscience, causing you to praise God with a joyful heart…For what does it mean that Christ died for you? Accordingly, when you have committed this, that, or the other sin and are perplexed about a way out of your sin, do not try to make a way yourself. Go to Him who alone knows a way—go to Christ.—It is a remarkable statement of Luther, but certainly true, that we are to find peace by wholly despairing of our own works. When a poor sinner regards himself, he does despair; when He looks at Jesus, he is made confident.” (Walther, Law and Gospel, p.111)
Then, one day, talking to my mother about him, she said, “You know what happened to him, right?” I did not. He had been called to another congregation across the country. A few years later he resigned when his adultery became public.
And the preacher of the other sermon on the Good Shepherd and hirelings now lives in another state after resigning his call at his second congregation. He has kids and a wife and, last I heard, no job. In both of his congregations he had made too many enemies; how much he was to blame I can’t say, though whenever a pastor is deposed other pastors usually form opinions. Maybe that’s because we want to assure ourselves that it was really his fault and that it will never happen to us.
Why do I bring these men up—to drag up their pain to make a homiletical flourish?
No. First to testify that the Lord worked through them, whatever may have happened to them later, whatever people say about them now.
Second, to remind myself and you that nobody remembers your preaching, except in very rare cases that have nothing to do with how great a pastor or preacher you are.
Yet you really want them to, don’t you? To remember your sermon, to think you’re a good—shepherd. Just like a hireling, as Pastor Anderson said, or rather, as the Lord said through him? Harsh or not, it was true. Admit it or don’t. I know it’s true of me.
And isn’t that the mark of a hireling? The hireling seeks himself, his reputation, his honor. Yet if the sheep are shepherded through you, it isn’t your skill as a writer or an orator, nor your reputation as a theologian, nor your compassionate, gentle nature, your “pastoral-ness”, nor really anything about you. All the glory belongs to the Good Shepherd, who shepherds his sheep through the office of shepherd. We always say this, but I for one seldom get it.
If our ministry appears successful we may rejoice in what we think we see for the sake of the Good Shepherd and His sheep. And if it appears to fail, we may rightly recognize our sins and failings by which we have deserved to be rejected as unfaithful hirelings. But at the same time we shouldn’t doubt that the Good Shepherd is quite capable of gathering His sheep with shepherds who are weak and who fall into sin. Shepherds who whether deservedly or not, are later removed from the ministry. Even shepherds who on judgment day Christ will reject as hirelings.
This is a great consolation when we think our labor in the Lord is in vain.
But by itself it’s no cause for rejoicing. Balaam’s ass spoke, and God spoke through Balaam. What good did being a prophet do Balaam? Saul prophesied too.
We have all sinned and sought our own profit at the expense of the Good Shepherd’s sheep. Some of you are sanctified men of whom Paul perhaps could say, like he did of Timothy, “I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for [the] welfare [of the Church]” (Phil. 2:20), and not what he said of most other pastors: “For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 2:21) Regardless, there are plenty of times when Jesus could have said of you, “He flees” and seeks his own well-being “because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” (John 10:13)
But Jesus doesn’t say that about you. An honest appraisal of yourself may tell you this: you care for yourself a great deal, but it’s hard to find real, unselfish love for Christ’s sheep in yourself. Wasn’t it the same with St. Peter? Jesus forgave him and sent him to feed His sheep, and then said, “When you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (John 21: 18) We know Peter didn’t want to die on the cross on Thursday night. But even after Jesus rose he still lacked that love for Jesus and His Church. And unless God miraculously expunged all Peter’s self-love sometime before his martyrdom, he went to the upside-down cross with his flesh still desiring something other than the glory of God and the good of Christ’s sheep. Neither you nor I nor Peter can save the sheep from the wolf by our death, but our deaths can benefit the sheep if nothing else in providing an example of faith in Christ.
But the Good Shepherd’s death does save the sheep from the wolf. It saves them because it silences his accusations. Christ does not accuse Peter of being a hireling. All Peter’s unfaithfulness disappears under the red blood of the Good Shepherd. Joseph’s coat of many colors became one color when it was dipped in the ram’s blood—red. Joseph wasn’t dead, but his father thought he was. And so in God’s eyes you look like the Good Shepherd who died and not like the hireling who ran away. What He sees is the blood of His Son in which you were dipped in Baptism.
That blood takes away condemnation from you. You are not condemned for your sins before God. The blood of Jesus speaks for you. Listen to the voice of the blood of the Good Shepherd. It pleads to God for you. You hear it speak in your own voice when you preach the Gospel. It declares you a righteous man, and also a faithful shepherd, not a hireling. If Satan or your conscience disputes that, let them argue with the blood of the Shepherd in which He drenched you in Baptism and which will soon be poured into your throat to cleanse your insides as well as your outsides.
Only faith in this blood of the Shepherd allows us to go on preaching and not despair over our sins or the unthankfulness of the world. We go on preaching and, despite our failures, we go on dying until our dying is perfect.
As long as Jesus sees fit to keep us in this office that is called after the name of the Good Shepherd, the office of pastor, we should rejoice not only that He works through us, but also in us. To believe that when He carried the cross He carried us and that when He died He saved us from the accuser. Not only to preach Him, but to believe in Him, and believing in Him, to die with Him until we are perfect.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Soli Deo Gloria
Quasimodogeniti (2nd Sunday of Easter)
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 20:19-31
April 3, 2016
“The Joyful Mission”
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
It is the evening of the first Easter Sunday. St. John pictures the eleven disciples of Jesus sitting inside a house with the doors locked “for fear of the Jews.”
Why were the disciples afraid? It’s simple. Outside was death. Jesus had been murdered days before, and Jesus’ disciples were nowhere near as strong as He.
But then, says John, this miserable handful of scared men begins to rejoice. “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” (John 20:19-20)
Our flesh might expect the story to end here, happily ever after, with the disciples basking in the peace of God.
But it is not the end of the story.
Jesus doesn’t stop at proclaiming forgiveness of sins and peace with God to His beleaguered disciples in that room. His reign of salvation and life extends to the ends of the earth, to all people and throughout time. “And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.’” (John 20:22-23)
Jesus empowers and sends the disciples to be the risen Christ, so to speak, to the world. They aren’t Him, but they are given His power and authority, so that when they say, “Peace be with you,” it is the peace of the Lord and conqueror of death.
He’s sending them out of those doors that they have locked to try to keep out death. He’s sending them out into the world that killed Him and which will also kill them. But they are no longer to fear death. They are to reign over it.
He’s sending them out to reign with Him as King.
They will go out into the world and exercise Jesus’ authority to forgive sins and to hold sins unforgiven. They will go out into the world like little Lord Christs, and in His name they will forgive some sinners and they will hold some sinners bound in their sins until the day of judgment.
But why would Jesus give this prerogative of God to eleven men who were unable to stand by Him when He suffered?
That is a good question. But it’s not simply a question about the disciples then; it also concerns us, who have been made Jesus’ disciples by Baptism and catechesis.
All Christians are called to reign as little Lord Christs. Every Christian is called to participate in forgiving and retaining sins—by supporting the Church and the ministry of Word and Sacraments, by proclaiming God’s Word to family and neighbors. Every Christian is called to reign with Christ by serving the world with words and deeds. Finally, every Christian is to share the marks of the Lord Jesus’ Christ’s Kingdom; to endure the cross and suffering for the privilege of proclaiming His forgiveness and judgment.
But the question is how Jesus can give you this royal privilege, the authority to “forgive and retain sins”, also known in the Catechism as the office of the keys. You too have proven untrustworthy. You have been embarrassed of Jesus, have run away to save your skin when you should have willingly endured the cross with your Lord.
This is not the way who believe in risen Lord should act. They should not be afraid, but be joyful. The disciples rejoiced when they saw the risen Lord; they didn’t remember how they were small in number, how their enemies were great and powerful, how death was waiting for them outside the door. They rejoiced when they saw Jesus, because in Him they had peace with God. It was as if they no longer remembered their weakness, their sins, the hostility of the world, or death.
Yet many baptized Christians act as if all they can see is the church’s weakness, the hostility of the world, the pain of the cross, and the power of death. It’s as if Jesus hasn’t risen, conquered death, loosed us from sins, and as if He isn’t present in our midst in flesh and blood.
In other words, they manifest unbelief.
And as a result, by no means are they willing to go outside the locked room and reign with Jesus.
What is this but to live as if Christ is not risen? Hypocritical Christians don’t recognize this. They don’t realize they are called to reign with Christ; they are content to live what they consider virtuous lives in the flesh. They say, “I do enough. I go to church. I’m as good a Christian as anyone can expect. Surely Jesus doesn’t expect me to put my life, reputation, comfort, or standard of living at risk to be a Christian. After all, we’re supposed to be saved by grace apart from works.”
Real Christians, however, are troubled by this failure to follow Jesus out of hiding and self-protection. They recognize that when Jesus gives us peace with God, it’s not an earthly peace. Peace with God means that God exalts us with Christ. We become “a royal priesthood”, as Lutherans are fond of saying—kings and priests together with Jesus. But as kings with Jesus, we go into the world not to be served, but to serve. We proclaim God’s law and His Gospel, we serve our neighbor in every way. But we also endure hostility from the world and the devil. To receive Christ’s blessing, “Peace be with you” by true faith at the same time means to receive His cross. Christians are troubled to recognize all the ways we try to avoid the cross. They are all manifestations of our unbelief in Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and the world.
And this is another reason why Jesus gave the office of the Keys to the Church. It isn’t simply so that we may forgive and retain the sins of those outside of the visible boundaries of the Church. Jesus gave this authority also for the sake of those within the visible Church, so that those who are baptized and yet struggle to leave the locked room may be loosed of their sins.
When Jesus rose from the dead and proclaimed, “Peace be with you” to His disciples, He was proclaiming not only that they were forgiven, but that they were new creatures. What they saw themselves to be—men who a few days before had fallen away from Christ, who were weak and unworthy to be His disciples—was not who they were anymore. Jesus forgave them everything, and His forgiveness also meant that the old disciples had died and new men had risen in their place.
And when you are absolved of your sins, Jesus frees you from them as well. Their guilt is taken away. But you are also not the person you were before. You live now by His Spirit. Your sins, inscribed on His flesh with nail and spear, died when He lay in the tomb; now that He is risen, the wounds are memorials before God of your priceless worth to Him. The old you has died, nailed to the cross with the Lord, and you now live in Him who died and has been raised again, in Him over whom sin and death have no dominion (Romans 6).
That is what enables us to go out into the world to reign with Him—this appearance by Jesus declaring that His work for our justification is finished.
Yet in the Church so many people seem to be unaware of the fact that in the Divine Service, in the Scriptures, in the Sacraments, and in Absolution, Jesus is appearing to us with peace just as in that locked room on the first Easter. This is shown by so many people’s lukewarmness toward His Word and Sacraments. People don’t come to pastors and say, “Show us Jesus.” Generally pastors have to urge people not to despise the Divine Service, Bible Study, and so on. But nowhere is this more evident than in people’s disregard of absolution.
Yes, we’re willing to be absolved in general, as we do in the service. But that’s really not much different than what happens in preaching, except we add a general confession of sins to it. A sainted member of the church once remarked to me that private confession and absolution probably made it seem “more real”. This person never came to private confession but understood that it’s easy to admit in a general way “I’m a sinner” without owning the sins by which we have earned damnation. Similarly, it’s easy to hear “I forgive you all your sins” in the same way—as a general statement about the way God works instead of a personal forgiveness for our personal unfaithfulness. General statements don’t usually provide much comfort.
The reality is that everyone struggles with sin. It’s true that God has already assured us of the forgiveness of sins in the Scripture. Yet it is also true that many people doubt whether that forgiveness applies to them because of the state of their heart. When you reveal your sins in front of the man God has called to speak in His name, and that man forgives your sins with the authority Christ here gives to His Church, it provides comfort and assurance that is greater than your heart.
In private confession and absolution God’s forgiveness spoken in response to the very things that make you feel alienated from God. The absolution says those things are forgiven, and that you are not the person that you see in yourself, who has repeatedly failed Christ and cannot be trusted to reign with Him. You are a new person, raised from the dead to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
Private absolution says, “You can speak God’s judgment and grace to the world because you are not the slave of sin you once were. You are released from sin and condemnation; peace be with you.” You are righteous through Christ, and everything He has is yours. You are no longer under the law’s curse; you have been set free from the law, having died to it through the body of Jesus.
Of course, no one is going to force you to confess and receive absolution privately. No one should be forced to receive the gifts of Christ. If our need and the greatness of the gifts don’t compel us to come to hear God’s Word preached, or to baptize our children, or receive the Lord’s Supper, or go to Bible study, or read it at home, or confess and be absolved, external force won’t help. It would be wrong for me, however, not to show you the greatness of Christ’s gifts and remind you of your need.
But mostly I preach this for those who see their need for it and desire the blessing, but who are afraid or ashamed; I preach this to encourage you to come. I cannot invite you as graciously as Jesus invites you; I wish I could. I can tell you that Jesus welcomes sinners and those who are weak in faith. He wants them especially to receive His comfort and pardon. I can tell you that the greater our sins appear to us, the more worthy we are of condemnation, the more graciously Jesus invites us to come to Him. When we come, He will not only forgive us. He will wipe our guilt and shame away entirely. He will make us reign with Him, seat us above the holy angels, make them our servants.
I can tell you that when Jesus showed the disciples His hands and side He didn’t do it simply to show it was Him, nor did He do it to remind them of their sins. It was also an invitation to them to consider how sincerely He loved them and had how completely He had forgiven and put away their sins. The place of the nails and the spear in His body are seals to us that we no longer have anything to fear, but have peace with God that can’t be taken away.
By those same marks Jesus invites and urges us to come to Him so that we may hear Him say, “Peace be with you”. I pray that you will hear His invitation and recognize that when He opens His Word, bestows His Sacraments, and absolves us, He comes into our midst with peace as He came into that locked room. And when He does so He enables us to leave our locked rooms and go forth into the world with His peace to reign with Him.
Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
Soli Deo Gloria
Good Friday—Chief Service (1 PM)
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 18-19 (in particular: John 19:13-16)
March 25, 2016
“The Preparation of God’s Sons”
It is amazing, in a way, that you came to church today.
It was bold. We show boldness in being here. Hopefully it isn’t a boldness born of arrogance or foolishness.
Look around. The church is bare and naked of decoration. The only thing we see is the cross. It is because Jesus, the Son of God, was stripped of glory and dignity on Good Friday that the church looks like a desert, all its ornaments taken away. Yes, God’s Son was stripped naked and nailed hand and foot to the tree; raised up to hang as a spectacle before the world for a few hours, and then to die.
Yet we are bold enough to come and commemorate what happened to Jesus. But don’t we know? Don’t we understand? Jesus suffered because of us. He was put to death because of us.
“When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic, Gabbatha. Now it was the day of the Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, ‘Behold your King!’ They cried out, ‘Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but Caesar.’ So he delivered Him over to them to be crucified.” (St. John 19:13-16)
Pontius sits down in the judgment seat to give a verdict concerning Jesus. And John makes sure to tell us right after Pilate assuming his role as judge that it was “the day of Preparation of the Passover.” People disagree about what this means. Jesus had already celebrated the Passover the night before. But one thing is sure—Jesus was being prepared to die as the true Passover lamb. Pilate was moments away from issuing the sentence that Jesus should be crucified. But who was preparing Jesus, setting Him apart, for sacrifice? It appears to be the crowd of the Jews, acting through Pilate as their instrument. But it couldn’t have been them. They weren’t strong enough to tie Jesus up and set Him apart as a sacrificial victim, nor to slaughter God’s Son like a lamb. It is God the Father who is preparing Jesus for sacrifice; God the Father is preparing to slaughter His Son.
Long before, God put a picture of this day in front of the Israelites. It is written in Genesis 22: “After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, ‘Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here am I.’ He said, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.’” (Gen. 22:1-2)
Then we are told in the rest of the story how Abraham set about to obey this commandment from God to slay his only son. Abraham doesn’t delay. He gets up early in the morning, cuts the wood on which he will burn the body of his son as a sacrifice. Then he journeys for three days to get to the place of the sacrifice, allowing plenty of time to reconsider whether he really wants to go through with this, whether he really thinks God is worthy of such a sacrifice. But Abraham, amazingly, doesn’t waver. He gets to the land of Moriah and loads the wood on Isaac his son, and leads the young man up the mountain. Finally, Abraham builds the altar. He arranges the wood on it. He binds Isaac and stretches him out on top of the wood. Finally, he takes the knife in his hand to kill his son. Only at the last moment the angel of the Lord interrupts the sacrifice.
Many people who have heard this story and taken it seriously have been revolted by it, said it paints an ugly picture of the God of the Bible. Even though God stopped Abraham from killing his son, what kind of God, they say, would ask that of a person, and then allow the person almost to go through with it? Abraham didn’t bring the knife down on Isaac. But in order to get as far as he did, Abraham would have had to have already made up his mind to spill the blood of his only son.
Thinking of killing your son—whether for God or for anyone else—is too much for us. Most people would be angry and spit at God if He demanded such a thing. Others, who might admit that God, as God, has a right to demand such a thing, would still find themselves too weak to do it, too weak even to go about the preparations for it, as Abraham did. They would find themselves unable to cut the wood, to journey to the mountain, to build the altar, prepare the wood, certainly to bind their son. Even talking about it or spending any time thinking about it makes you realize that God is nothing like the sentimental picture most people paint of Him. How many people who say they love God would vigorously hate Him if He spoke to them and commanded this? Even if we wanted to, most of us would not get through the preparations. Before our eyes the whole time would be our son’s pain and cries. We would visualize his bright red blood streaming at our hands and we would be undone.
But what God did not allow Abraham to do—to slay his son out of love and obedience to God—God did out of love and compassion for the world. For an unworthy world that hated Him. He foresaw His Son’s anguish, He foresaw His Son’s pouring blood, His cries and His tears.
And still He prepared His Son to be sacrificed. He tied Him up by the hands of the Jews. He condemned Him to die on a tree under His curse and wrath, through Pontius Pilate. He drove the nails into Jesus’ hands and feet and stretched Him out over the rough wood of the tree through the hands of the soldiers. And He lifted Him up to be cursed; to receive not merely bodily torment and physical death, but also the spiritual anguish that sinners deserve to suffer throughout eternity.
[We will sing the words of Paul Gerhardt in a few minutes, words which we have sung many times before, and yet likely not taken to heart—words that Gerhardt puts into the mouth of the Father:
“Go forth, My Son,” the Father said,
“And free my children from their dread
Of guilt and condemnation.
The wrath and stripes are hard to bear
But by Your Passion they will share
The fruit of Your salvation.” LSB 438, st. 2
Yes, imagine telling your son, “Go forth and be flogged and crucified to help people who despise and hate us”! ]
This is what God the Father was doing on Good Friday. And why? Not because Jesus ever displeased Him. No, the Father loves His Son far more than we evil men love our sons. And Jesus loved His Father and never did anything against Him. The Father was preparing His Son to die for your sins.
That’s why it is bold for us to show up here today. The Father offers up His Son; and we, for whom the Son of God was offered come to commemorate His dying. Do we dare?
Aren’t we the same people who have repeatedly chosen to do evil, to “turn, every one, to his own way”? (Is. 53) Haven’t we often freely chosen to do what called God’s anger down upon us? But God poured this anger on His Son. And we come, with little sense of what it cost the Father to do this, with little awareness of what Jesus endured, and quite often, with little desire to know. We come for an hour or so today to pay our respects, and then return to live as if we were rightful masters of our own lives?
And aren’t we the same people who, when backed into a corner, repeatedly excuse our sins and the sins of other people?
Perhaps we are those who think, “Why should God be so angry about sin? What kind of cruel God is this, to demand an eternal repayment for sin in hell?
Or perhaps we believe that God will punish sins in hell, but certainly not the sins we commit in weakness—our evil thoughts, impurity, our anger, our difficulty forgiving people. Why should God demand an eternal accounting for things like this, which no one can avoid?
And aren’t we also the same people who have often denied that our sin—or those of people we love—was actually sin? Aren’t we the same people who have called evil good?
So God says, “You shall not misuse the Name of the Lord your God.” But we say, surely it’s not such a big deal when a church teaches errors in God’s name, when they do it because they don’t know better. Surely God doesn’t take it so seriously if the church down the street doesn’t believe and doesn’t teach that the Lord’s Supper is really Jesus’ body and blood.
Or God says, “Remember the Sabbath day, by keeping it holy.” But we say, surely God doesn’t care that much about the fact that I get busy and don’t come to church.
Or we say, “Surely God doesn’t really get so angry about who I sleep with, or who my kids sleep with—not so angry that He would punish them for it forever.”
We say these things, and then we want to come and remember Jesus’ death, and the Father preparing His Son to be sacrificed? When we try to excuse the very things for which the Father allowed His Son’s blood to pour?
That is the same as the Jews choosing Barabbas over Jesus. They chose a lawless man, a violent man who had participated in a rebellion and shed blood, over Jesus. They asked for Barabbas to be freed, and for Jesus to be crucified.
Why did they do this? Because they were more comfortable with a lawless man, even if he was violent and dangerous, than with Jesus, the righteous and just One.
We have done the same as the crowd. In excusing our sins, and minimizing them, we are trying to shout Jesus down. We demand that the Righteous One be silent; we demand Him to be taken away from our sight so that His innocence no longer stands before us as a rebuke to our lawlessness. [And the more Jesus suffers unjustly, the louder the mob screams for Him to die, so that they may no longer have His witness to the truth and see Him reflecting back, in His body, the image of our sin.]
But even if we don’t excuse our sins, and our mouths are silent, it remains the case that we are the reason the Father set apart His innocent Son to die.
So how can we be so bold as to come near to the Father on the day in which His Son was slain?
We come because God the Father has given us the right to approach Him with boldness and confidence.
He slew His obedient Son for our disobedience because He wanted to give us the right to become children of God (John 1:12).
When the Father prepared Jesus as a sacrifice for our sins, He was carrying out what His wisdom and love toward us had planned before the creation of the world. Before the world began God saw Adam’s sin and also yours. None of it was hidden from Him. But instead of never creating You, or planning your death in His anger, He planned an unthinkable thing—to have His beloved Son take your place as an enemy of God, and to give you Jesus’ place as a well-beloved Son in eternity.
Why would God do such a thing? It is incomprehensible that He should show such love to us.
But that is, beyond any doubt, what God has done. In the death of Jesus, His Son, the Father has given you the right to approach Him without fear, without any stain of sin, as a pure, holy, well-pleasing, beloved child. As a lawful heir of God and all His eternal glory.
And not only did the Father will this grace for you, but also the Son. The Son and the Father are one (John 10); they will one will. The Father and the Son together willed our justification.
Because the Son willed this, He willingly came and put on our image.
He is mocked for us, who deserve mockery for our pretensions to be God, to be equal to God, the eternal King.
He is beaten and flogged; chastised, as Isaiah said, for our disobedience to God. Upon Him was the chastisement (or punishment) that brought us peace, and by His stripes we are healed. (Is. 53)
He puts on Adam’s curse as His crown. Blood streams from His sacred head down His face, drawn by the thorns that began to come out of the earth because Adam turned aside from God. Now Adam’s curse sits on the head of the Son of God.
He is condemned to die among wicked men. The innocent Christ is crucified between two robbers, men whom even an evil world rejects as too evil for it.
He is stripped naked to bear the shame we have been trying to hide since Adam and Eve clothed themselves with leaves and hid among the trees. Jesus is stripped of all coverings and lifted up before the whole world.
He is nailed to a cross, which the Romans view as so shameful that it is forbidden to apply it to citizens. And He is lifted up on a tree to die, which according to the Law means that Jesus is cursed by God, because it says “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree” (Leviticus ?, Galatians 3). Dying under God’s curse, Jesus removes His curse and damnation from us.
Though He is God, He comes in the appearance of a man like us, like one who is subject to death and enslaved by sin. He comes in our fashion to free us from slavery. He removes sin’s bondage from us by suffering for it and cancelling it out with His blood. Thus we are freed from slavery to sin and its condemnation. We are liberated from the devil, who held us in thrall through His blackmail and accusation. We are sprung from our chains into the glorious liberty of the children of God, to live before God forever free from condemnation.
Today the altar is bare; no paraments, no lights, no banners. That barrenness is really our image; we are barren of the glory God created us to have—His image. We lost it through sin. When we see Jesus crucified, covered with wounds, His face streaked with blood, forsaken by God we see Him bearing our image, so that we might bear the image of His glory in eternity.
And when Jesus has accomplished this and been emptied—when He has become sin for us, become a slave for us, received God’s wrath for us, He says “It is finished,” and dies.
It is finished. It is done. Everything is accomplished for us to be received as sons of God. Nothing remains outstanding. Every sin is punished and blotted out of God’s book. In its place Jesus gives us the seamless, undivided robe of His righteousness.
No one takes away Jesus’ life. He freely gives it up. When His life ends, ours begins—our new life as God’s Sons.
By His death, Jesus gives us the right to approach God with confidence as if we were Him, as dear, innocent, beloved sons of God. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24)—so said our Lord to His disciples before He suffered. By His death Jesus bore the fruit of many sons of God. Before He died our sins blocked the way to God; when He died, those sins were removed.
So we dare to come before God with boldness on the day of His Son’s death, without fear. For Jesus who died for us has baptized us into His body, so that we are members of Him, of His flesh and of His bone. Trusting in Jesus and in the Father who prepared Him as the sacrifice for us, we come to the Father as His true sons. And in thanksgiving for all He has done we offer to Him our bodies as “living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God” (Romans 12).
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
Good Friday—Tenebrae (7 pm)
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 19:28-30 (Lamentations 2:13-15; Hebrews 10:1-2. 10-18)
March 25, 2016
No one ever thinks destruction is going to come until it does. Till the end people keep believing that the good times will go on forever; at least the days of terror will pass them by. We all secretly believe we’re special.
Nevertheless, God warns us with clear and certain words that destruction is coming to the world because of sin. He tells us clearly and unmistakably—He never, never, never will overlook sin or let sinners go unpunished.
“He will render to each one according to his works…for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil…” God says in Romans chapter 2 (v. 6-9).
And as the children have learned from the catechism, God says regarding the ten commandments: I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the fathers to the 3rd and 4th generation of those who hate Me…”
Which means if you want to disobey God’s commandments, if you want to excuse your disobedience to God—not matter what that disobedience is, no matter how minor you think it is—you can’t tell yourself that God will forgive you anyway. You’re only kidding yourself.
The two sets of readings we heard are examples of this. In the first we saw Jesus, the Son of God, stretched out on the cross, giving up His spirit. Destruction comes upon Him as God visits our iniquities upon Him.
The first set, from Lamentations, are the prophet Jeremiah’s words as he weeps over the destruction of the city of Jerusalem, about 500 years before Christ. God told the people of Israel before they entered the promised land that if they did not keep His commandments, God would not only not be their God and abandon them to their enemies. He would actively turn against them Himself and set Himself against them. As He had once looked on them to bless them and do them good, He would set His eyes on them to punish them. And after the Israelites came into the good land that God promised them, they forgot His warning. They turned aside to worship idols. God sent them many prophets to warn them of the destruction that was coming, and to cease from their rebellion against Him.
But they didn’t listen. And so in Lamentations, Jeremiah wanders through the ruined city that had once exulted in God’s favor and bragged of His presence. He mourns over the city’s destruction. “The Lord determined to lay in ruins the wall of the daughter of Zion; He stretched out the measuring line…” (Lamentations 2:9). God was calculating and measuring with precision not to build Jerusalem up but to destroy it. Jeremiah watches children die in the arms of their mothers, because after the invading armies have ransacked the city, there is no food.
Destruction came upon Jerusalem because of the sin of the people. They should have known that this was the inevitable result of their sin. But they chose to believe false prophets who told them that the day of destruction would not come. “Your prophets have seen for you false and deceptive visions; they have not exposed your iniquity to restore your fortunes, but have seen for you oracles that are false and misleading.” (Lamentations 2:14)
What happened in Jerusalem is coming for everyone who transgresses the commandments of God. Destruction is coming on the world because of sin.
And not only because of the sins we know and willingly do, but also because of those we don’t know, and those which we can’t help. The sin we were born in, that we inherited from Adam, is going to be rewarded with destruction. The sins of our hearts that we try to suppress—unbelieving thoughts, evil desires, hatred and desire for vengeance, pleasure in our neighbor’s downfall—are going to be visited with eternal punishment.
In other words, things cannot go on like this! Our sins must be removed, otherwise all we have in front of us is the fearful and certain destruction that God will bring on all the ungodly. The emptiness of the altar and chancel tonight—its desolation—is a faint reflection of the eternal desolation that is to come on the world and all who commit iniquity.
But let us turn our attention again to the second set of readings, from St. John. There Jesus, as we said before, is experiencing desolation. He is experiencing the judgment of God on sin.
As He hangs on the cursed tree of the cross, He cries out, “I thirst.”
Of course, Jesus is thirsty. Dying people often experience great thirst. And besides the fact that He is dying, Jesus has other reasons for His thirst. He has been up all night and all morning laboring for our salvation. He prayed and wept in Gethsemane, and sweat like great drops of blood fell from His body. He was arrested and marched to the house of the high priest, some miles away, enduring blows and curses. Then all night He was accused by false witnesses, by the assembled elders of His people, and by the chief priests, until at last they declared Him to be worthy of death. He then was handed over to Pilate and accused and interrogated before Him. He stood in front of a crowd that screamed for Him to be crucified. He was mocked by the entire troop of Roman soldiers. He was torn open with whips and crowned with thorns. Finally they forced Him to carry the heavy cross to the Place of a Skull. There His hands and feet were nailed to the wood and they lifted Him up to hang from those nails. It is no surprise that Jesus is thirsty after that ordeal, no surprise that as His blood pours out He is seized with thirst.
But of course Jesus’ thirst is not merely a physical thirst. It is a spiritual thirst, the thirst of one being consumed in the heat of the wrath of God. In Luke 16 we are told the story of the rich man and Lazarus; Lazarus lived covered with sores and racked with hunger, but when he died, the angels carried him to the bosom of Abraham. But the rich man in Jesus’ parable died and went to hell. And there in the flames, he cried out for Lazarus to come to him and touch his tongue with a drop of water, so severe was his thirst and agony in the flames of hell.
Jesus, God’s Son, also experiences this thirst on the cross. Though He was innocent and had done nothing to deserve God’s wrath, He was experiencing the torments of the damned. God’s eternal destruction was upon Him.
Destruction had come upon Jesus because He was offering Himself there for our transgressions.
Jesus has another thirst parching Him on the cross. It is the thirst caused by His love for us. He loves us, and because He loves us He thirsts for our salvation. He thirsts that we might be saved from the destruction coming on the world because of sin.
In Jesus’ heart burns an unquenchable fire that causes this thirst. It is the fire of divine love; the fire that burned the bush on Sinai but did not consume it; the fire that later set the mountain ablaze. That fire does not burn against us but for us; it burns in Jesus’ heart, and it causes Him to thirst for our salvation. And this thirst will not be quenched until He has rescued us from destruction.
This fire that is burning in Jesus’ heart is described in the Song of Solomon: “Love is as strong as death, jealousy is fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, the very flame of the LORD. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If a man offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly despised.” (Song of Solomon 8:6-7) Solomon is not talking about the love of a man for his wife. He is talking about the love of the heavenly bridegroom, Jesus Christ, for His bride, the Church. The very flame of God burns in Jesus’ heart and drives His thirst for our salvation.
“You have captivated my heart, my sister, my bride,” says the Bridegroom in the Song of Solomon to His beloved. Jesus, the bridegroom of the Church, has had His heart wounded and stolen by those who have deserved destruction. He will not be satisfied until He has freed His beloved bride from destruction. It is for this that He thirsts.
And so it is not the drink of sour wine that Jesus receives that quenches this thirst. His thirst is quenched when destruction is removed from His bride, the elect. And that happens when, after receiving the drink from the sponge, He says “It is finished,” and gives up His spirit in death.
There His thirst is quenched. What He thirsted for—our salvation—is finished, completed.
But how can that be true? Just as Jesus experienced the fire of divine love burning in His heart, we experience the fire of evil desire still strongly glowing in ours. How can our salvation be accomplished and our destruction be averted when sin seems so often to still hold us captive?
In the readings still ahead of us, from the tenth chapter of Hebrews, the author tells us about the futility and weakness of the sacrifices offered in the temple in the Old Testament. “The Law…can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins?” (Hebrews 10:1-2)
Each year on the day of atonement, the high priest would bring blood behind the veil, into the most holy place, and put it on the atonement cover, or mercy seat, of the ark of the covenant. That mercy seat was the place of God’s dwelling on earth. And yet the sacrifice was repeated yearly. The blood continued to be put on the mercy seat because each year the people of Israel had new sins to atone for. And the writer of Hebrews tells us, there was no way for these sacrifices to make the people perfect or complete or “finished.” They were never completely through with their sins. Their sins were never finally gone.
In the end, this was because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (Hebrews 10:4). An animal’s life, an animal’s soul, is not sufficient to remove the sins of a human being and save him from destruction.
And so the yearly sacrifice of atonement didn’t give people a clean conscience.
But on the cross Jesus is offering a better sacrifice, one that really is sufficient to cancel our sins. When Jesus suffers and dies on the cross, it is not merely a human being suffering agony and then dying. God is hanging on the cross; God suffers anguish; God dies. When Jesus’ blood is poured out and His life is given, a greater price has been paid than all the debt of your sins—a greater price than the cost of the sins of the whole world. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23); the due reward for your sin is eternal death. But Jesus has paid more than enough to ransom and release you from eternal death; more than enough to ransom the whole world. His death and the shedding of His blood have removed sin.
Not as though sin no longer lives and works in you. But it is no longer counted before God, because it has been paid for by the death of Jesus.
That is the reason why those who believe in Jesus are no longer burdened with the consciousness of sin so that we need new sacrifices to be offered for us. It’s not that we don’t experience our sinful desires or see how we stumble and fall into sin. It’s that we believe that the blood Jesus shed and the death He died cancels and covers all our sin—the sin of our past, the sin that lives in us now, and the all the sin that we will commit before we, too, give up our spirits in death.
On Sunday morning, in Bible class, I have often asked the class whether they have experienced what it is to have a disturbed conscience, a conscience that is uncertain because it is aware of sin and God’s wrath against it. It seems that almost everyone there not only has experienced it, but many continue to experience it often.
Through the death of Jesus God wants to give us a restful, peaceful conscience; not a conscience that thinks that it no longer sins, but a conscience that is at rest because it believes and is confident that by His one offering Jesus has put our sins away from God’s sight forever.
That is what Jesus said before He died: It is finished. There is no more price to be paid for sins. There is nothing left to be done to save us from destruction. All is accomplished when Jesus gives up His spirit.
And the tenth chapter of Hebrews echoes these words of Jesus. It says that although God commanded the sacrifices of the Old Testament, they were never really His will, His lasting will. Jesus came to accomplish God’s will; not to sacrifice many animals, but to make one sacrifice—to offer up His own body and blood to God. And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all (Hebrews 10:10)—we have been made holy and set apart for God by the one sacrifice of Jesus.
And again: For by a single offering Jesus has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified (Heb. 10:14). Jesus has perfected us, completed us. He has finished us by a single offering, the offering of Himself. No, we think, how are we perfected? How are we finished? It is finished, Jesus said, and then died. The turning away of the Father’s wrath, the reconciliation of God with us, the covering of our sin, our being counted righteous, or justified—all finished, completed, perfected, when Jesus is delivered over to death.
Finally: “The Holy Spirit also bears witness to us, for after saying, ‘This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,’ then He adds, ‘I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.’ Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.” (Hebrews 10: 15-18)
The reason there is no longer any offering for sin is not because Christians no longer sin. It is because, as the LORD promised through the prophet Jeremiah, He “remembers our sins and lawless deeds no more.” The Lord is not forgetful. He does not remember them because they have been paid for by Jesus. The Lord indeed puts His laws on our hearts and writes them in our minds, and yet, nonetheless, that doesn’t enable us to keep His laws without sin. But as the writer of Hebrews points out, the inscription of the Law on our hearts is not the whole of the New Testament. He writes His laws in our hearts and minds and begins to sanctify us in this life. But our justification, the blotting out of our sins from before God’s eyes, is not simply begun now. It is completed. It is finished. And as a result, there is no longer any offering for sin.
Destruction is still coming on the world because of sin. The day is far spent and evening is at hand. The world has grown old, and as it ages it is not becoming better but more wicked. Judgment looms. It appears to glower over us too. The end of our lives is before us. And when it comes, it will look and feel the same as it does for the rest of the world—not like a happy day, but a day of mourning. It will not look like the day of our salvation, but the day of our destruction. It will not appear to be light but darkness.
In the Tenebrae service tonight the candles are halfway out. When we have sung the Benedictus they will all be extinguished except the one in the center. Then that one too will be taken from its stand. The Church will become totally dark, just as everything became dark for Jesus’ disciples when His body was taken down from the cross, wrapped in the cloth with spices, placed in the tomb, and sealed in with a heavy stone.
Likely when we die that is what our eyes will see and our senses will experience at the ending of our lives—darkness.
But as the lights go out and the darkness descends, Jesus’ words from the cross will sustain us: It is finished. With those words, like Moses, we will enter the thick darkness where God is (Exodus 20: 21), and in the darkness the light will dawn on us (Luke 1: 79), because by one sacrifice Christ has perfected us before His Father.
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Soli Deo Gloria