Wednesday after Reminiscere (Vespers/Final)
St. Peter Lutheran Church
Passion History, Part 2: Gethsemane
February 24, 2016
“Turn Not From His Griefs Away”
It’s easy for us to pass over Jesus’ suffering quickly. To not allow it to sink in.
That is an indicator of the hardness in our hearts. Even if the account of Jesus’ Passion had nothing to do with us, sympathy and love for other people should cause us to feel pity and sadness when we hear about the agonies Jesus suffered without having deserved it in any way. But of course living in the world as it is, we are used to hearing about people suffering, experiencing tragedy, and dying. Every day young men are shot and killed in Chicago, and it doesn’t even get on the news. It’s easy for most of us to be numb to other people’s suffering until it has something to do with us.
But Jesus’ anguish has everything to do with us. Our hard hearts don’t believe this, but it is true.
Because it is true it is important for us to turn our faces toward and not away from Jesus as He suffers in the Garden of Gethsemane. To open our ears and not allow our hearts to remain cold and indifferent as His Passion is read and preached. His pain has everything to do with you, if you could only perceive it.
In the reading, Jesus has His disciples sit down while He goes a little way off to pray. He tells them, “Watch with Me.” He doesn’t ask them to go do some work, to go preach or distribute alms to the poor. They are only to stay awake and watch Him as He prays.
That doesn’t sound like a very exciting thing to watch. But Jesus tells them “watch with Me” for good reason. By staying awake and praying they will fortify themselves against the spiritual attack that is coming, “the hour of the power of darkness” He spoke about.
But by watching as He prays, and not turning away from His agony, from the torment of His soul, they will see what was usually invisible to their hard hearts.
They would see in Jesus’ tears and sobs to God His Father a glimpse of the true nature of sin. And they would begin to perceive in Jesus’ horrible agony a little of His love and the Father’s love toward them.
And for the same reason Jesus speaks these words: “Watch with Me” not only for them, but for us. If we do not turn away from Jesus’ anguish in Gethsemane, we will be strengthened against temptation. We will begin to perceive what it means when we confess “I, a poor, miserable sinner…” And we will also see, as Jesus is crushed by anxiety and torment, something of His love for us.
Go to dark Gethsemane
All who feel the tempter’s pow’r
Your Redeemer’s conflict see
Watch with Him one bitter hour.
Turn not from His griefs away;
Learn from Jesus Christ to pray. (LSB p. 436)
Jesus’ Agony in Gethsemane
Jesus’ agony in the garden may not be obvious from hearing the story read. When we hear of Jesus being flogged by Pilate, crowned with thorns, having His hands and feet pierced by nails, the physical suffering is more readily apparent.
Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane is not so much physical as emotional and spiritual. But in reality, that means that His suffering in Gethsemane was worse than mere physical pain.
Jesus makes this clear when He asks His disciples to watch with Him. “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death,” He says. He doesn’t complain of bodily pain, but suffering in His soul. And the pain is so great that He is brought to the gates of death.
We shouldn’t write off these words of Jesus as an exaggeration. His suffering is so severe an angel comes to strengthen Him, otherwise He would perish there in Gethsemane.
But how can suffering in the soul be so severe that you could die from it?
There is an engraving by the famous artist Albrecht Dürer (Engraved Passion, “The Agony in the Garden”) that seems to capture this torment. In it Jesus is kneeling in the garden. Peter, James, and John are in the foreground asleep. Off to the left of the picture an angel appears in a cloud, holding up a wooden cross before Jesus. Meanwhile, Jesus lifts His hands straight up in the air. His face looks almost angry, and His mouth is open as though He is shouting at the angel or God. Perhaps He is in the midst of a groan. Whatever it is, the woodcut captures the turmoil and agony of a man who looks as if He is being torn apart from inside.
People do experience such suffering of soul that they die. They suffer such inner torment that they take their own lives. Perhaps it is a chemical imbalance in the brain, as they say today; or perhaps, as Luther thought, the devil harasses people with despondency and sorrow until they give way to despair.
Other people experience torment of soul that is explicitly spiritual. They become overwhelmed with the awareness of their sins; they become painfully conscious of God’s wrath against sin. Luther experienced this, and occasionally people still do today. When a person undergoes this they are not merely depressed but are actually experiencing a little of the pains of hell. They experience separation from God and can’t find rest from their spiritual agony. Luther expresses this in his hymn “Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice” (LSB p. 556, st. 3):
My own good works all came to naught,
No grace or merit gaining:
Free will against God’s judgment fought
Dead to all good remaining.
My fears increased till sheer despair
Left only death to be my share;
The pangs of hell I suffered.
Luther is not being metaphorical there. Consciousness of sin and God’s wrath against it are the pangs of hell itself.
But even the greatest saints only experience a small taste of those agonies. What Jesus experienced in the garden was far beyond that. He was experiencing the undiluted anger and judgmetn of God in His soul. As He looked to what was to come, He saw that He was going to be forsaken by God on the cross. He was bearing the full force of God’s anger. The grief and anguish this caused Jesus was enough to kill Him without whips, nails, and the Roman spear. Had the angel not come to Him and God not supported Him He would have died in God’s anger. All alone in the night He wrestled with God.
And so Isaiah’s prophecy concerning Jesus was fulfilled: “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief…Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…” (Isaiah 53:3-4) He was sorrowful to the point of death because He was not bearing His own sorrows but ours, and those of the whole world.
The grief and regret that sinners in hell experience for eternity for their sins was on Him. In hell the damned will be gnawed forever by a worm that does not die—their conscience accusing them, “You brought this on yourself by rejecting God! Why did you do that?” They long to be able to go back and repent but they can’t. There is no hope. That is also what we have merited by every one of our numberless sins. That is the bitter cup that Jesus drinks on the Mount of Olives—alone.
The most terrible part of Jesus’ torment is that, as He anticipates what is coming, He is not merely facing human enemies in Jerusalem. He isn’t merely facing Satan and the unclean spirits. But it is God His Father whose hand is coming down on Him. Jesus makes that clear to the disciples when they first enter the garden. He says, “You will all fall away from Me this night, because it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’” (Matthew 26:31, Zechariah 13:5) Jesus is the Good Shepherd; His disciples are the sheep. And the prophecy Jesus quotes makes it clear that the One who strikes down the Good Shepherd is God Himself. God Himself strikes down His Son because He is carrying on Himself the guilt of the world’s sins. So it is God who judges Jesus, God who condemns Him, God who is angry with Him.
It’s no wonder that Jesus prays in great agony and grief. He casts Himself down on His face and begs His Abba, His dear Father, to take this cup away. And as His prayers are answered with “No” from His Father, He becomes more anguished. He has known since before the world was created that this is what must be, yet He asks His Father to let ther ebe another way. And as He prays His sweat becomes like great drops of blood streaming from His body. He waters the garden with bloody sweat. And the Father looks at His beloved Son in agony, falling apart, writhing like a worm, and says, “No, You must drink this cup.” That is what we see when we watch with Jesus—the Father, who has said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased”—will not spare His beloved Son the anguish of His wrath. He does not spare His Son because nothing less will atone for our sins. In Jesus’ torment we see what sin is and what it does. It brings torment and agony to Christ. And what will it do to those who don’t repent?
That’s why Jesus tells the disciples and us to watch. But they don’t. They fall asleep. It’s too much for them to bear. So, in addition to all the other sufferings, Jesus also bears this—that He is utterly alone in His anguish, abandoned by God and all men, even His friends.
Who can bear to watch Jesus suffer?
Why would we want to look at Jesus like this? Who can bear to see the Son of God, our Lord, laid in the dust like this, being destroyed like this?
But Jesus calls us to do it. “Watch with Me.” He knows we need to see Him like this because we are weak. We fall into sin so easily.
Jesus has told the apostles, “You will all fall away tonight.” The version we read said, “You will all be offended,” but it means “fall away”—that is, leave Jesus, fall from grace, lose faith and the Holy Spirit. Many evangelical preachers teach that this is impossible—true Christians can never fall away. That isn’t true. When a Christian gives into temptation and lets sin master him, he falls from faith. When the disciples abandoned and denied Christ, they fell away from Him. And when we fall into unrepentant sin we also fall away from Christ. We forfeit eternal life until we are again brough to contrition and repentance. This is a present danger for us. That’s why Jeuss warns the apostles and us to “watch and pray,” so that we may not fall into temptation.
However, we often believe that this can never happen to us. Peter said, “I will never deny You, even if I have to die with You.” Peter had too much confidence in his own spiritual strength. And so do we. That’s why Jesus wants us to watch with Him.
Watchin with Him means being alert to the devil’s temptation and calling on God for help. This is spiritual warfare. But the disciples fell asleep. Jesus pointed out this inconsistency to Peter. “Couldn’t you even watch one hour?” How are you going to die with me if you can’t even stay awake and pray for an hour?
The question applies to us as well. Why is it that we think we are so strong when we can’t even overcome small temptations? Why is it that we think we’re so strong that we can afford to do without His Word, prayer, and gathering with other Christians?
Peter wanted to die rather than deny Jesus. That was a good intention. It came from the Holy Spirit. But Peter’s flesh was weak. Jesus knew, as the One who had done combat with Satan and successfully resisted his assaults, how weak our flesh is. Unlike Jesus we are born corrupted by sin; He knew that our flesh is so great a liability that it makes us unable to resist Satan’s temptation apart from the help of God which we invoke through prayer.
“I know that in my flesh dwells no good thing,” St. Paul says in Romans chapter seven. Elsewhere he says, “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:8) And He tells us that our flesh always fights agains the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5).
In other words, we should not trust ourselves in the slightest, not even to overcome the smallest temptations, but only in God’s help and grace.
But as we watch and pray with Christ, we receive armor against Satan’s attacks, and we call in heavenly reinforcments. Through Jesus’ agonies, the lust of our flesh is checked. Through prayer Satan is driven off and we receive heavenly aid.
But Peter and the others neglect these armor and weapons. Finally Jesus asks them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest?” They are napping and indulging the desires of their flesh at precisely the wrong time. And the result is catastrophic.
First they try to attack the men that come to arrest Jesus. They don’t realize that by doing this they are opposing God’s will. They take up an earthly sword, which is useless agains the spiritual enemies they are really fighting, the “powers and principalities” (Ephesians 6).
And when Jesus rebukes them for this, and they see that they are not going to prevent being arrested and killed themselves if they stay with Jesus, they abandon Him.
This is what we do by nature? Do you recognize yourself in the story? All of it is a result of not watching with Jesus.
We put confidence in our flesh. We turn away from Jesus’ agonies, not wanting to see His bloody sweat, tears and groans, not realizing that Jesus’ suffering is the only way our flesh is overcome and put to death. We indulge our flesh instead, seeking what pleases it instead of denying it, taking our cross, and seeking first God’s kingdom and righteousness.
In the end we also fall and forsake Jesus in trying to hold on to our lives.
This is the reason for Jesus’ agony.
It is because His disciples, then and now, are like this, that Jesus experiences this agony.
He is suffering because we have loved the flesh more than we loved God, because we trusted in ourselves instead of the Lord. He is in agony because of our willfulness because we have done what pleased us instead of seeking to accomplish God’s will for us, as Jesus did when He prayed, “Your will, not mine, be done.”
He is in agony because even when we watch and pray, when we are faithful, the sinful flesh clings to us and leaves its stain even on the good works we do at the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Were it not for Jesus’ suffering that makes us clean in God’s sight even our good works could not please God.
Because of these things Jesus faces God’s wrath in Gethsemane.
But here in Jesus’ agony, we see not only our sins and God’s wrath, but the unquenchable fire of God’s love.
Because Jesus goes to this suffering willingly. And the Father gives His Son to this torment willingly.
Jesus says when His disciples try to prevent His arrest, “Do you think I cannot pray to My Father…and He will send me 12 legions of angels” instead of 12 poorly-armed fishermen? As Jesus is being led away in chains to trial, even then He could ask the Father to spare Him the torment of the cross and abandonment by God. He could pray that and the Father would give Him what He asked.
Jesus doesn’t pray for that. He goes out ot meet the armed mob that is going to take Him in chains to the chief priest. He goes, knowing all that would happen, having concluded His prayer to His Father: “Your will be done.”
So we see the Father’s will in Gethsemane: to give His Son to suffer for our sins, that they should be atoned for and covered. And the Son is of one will with the Father. He also goes willing to His suffering for our sakes.
From watching Jesus’ agony, you can see the mystery of God’s love for sinners. He goes willingly to this torment out of love for His selfish, self-indulgent disciples. Peter. You. Me.
What kind of love must it be that would embrace the pains of hell for someone else?
That is the love of God the Father and God the Son for you.
A lamb goes uncomplaining forth
The guilt of sinners bearing.
And laden with the sins of earth
None else the burden sharing.
Goes patient on, grows weak and faint,
To slaughter led without complaint,
That spotless life to offer.
He bears the stripes, the wounds, the lies
The mockery, and yet replies:
All this I gladly suffer. (LSB p. 438 st. 1)
The peace of God, that passes understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria
In Memoriam +Evelyn Macmillan
Blackburn-Giegrich Funeral Home
Romans 5:1-11; John 11:17-27
February 11, 2016
Dear Gary, Nina, and all of Evelyn’s family and friends,
Members of St. Peter:
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
God’s Word for our comfort this morning are the words of Jesus from the Gospel of St. John: I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.
It’s right today for us to carry an ache and sorrow in our hearts at Evelyn’s death. It’s true that she lived a long life and that no one can live in this world forever.
And yet when you love someone, you never want to be parted from them. That’s the nature of love. In the Bible it says, “Love never ends.” (1 Cor. 13) And again, “Love is strong as death; jealousy is fierce as the grave.” (Song of Solomon 8) It’s speaking about God’s love, of which our love as fallen human beings is only a faint reflection. Yet even our weak human love wants to always have the person it loves.
You loved Evelyn and you received love from Evelyn, each in your own way. She loved Ron her husband. She loved her children, whom she raised and cared for. She loved her grandchildren and her dear friends. She loved her church, which she served faithfully for decades in the Ladies’ Aid.
So even though she lived a long life and her life was difficult in her last years, it is right that we ache at the thought of not seeing her again in this life.
Besides that, death is a fearful thing. People often act like it isn’t these days. “I’m not afraid to die,” they say. But when death comes for them things are different. And when we see people close to us die it begins to make us anxious about our own death.
–What the catechumen told me last night—I asked, what do you think is the hardest thing about dying? What would you be most afraid of if you were dying? A girl said, “That I might not go to heaven.”
–That fear often nags at us. There is the fear of dying and nothingness, but there is also the fear of facing God’s judgment for our many sins.
But we need not have that fear for Evelyn.
In the Gospel reading Martha reproaches Jesus: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She is not far from the truth. Jesus has the power to prevent death (but He doesn’t need to be visibly present to do it.)
But Jesus answered: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live even though He dies. And whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Those who believe in Him are alive even when they die, because He is the Life. He is the Resurrection.
Evelyn has life now even though she has died.
Why? She believed in Christ.
Because of Jesus, death and God’s judgment was taken away from her.
Why? Because Jesus atoned for her sins. Romans 5:8-9 But God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have been justified by His blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God.
God’s judgment and wrath was taken away by Jesus’ suffering and death in her place, for her sins.
Where God’s judgment and sin are gone, death is no longer death. Because what makes death death—the wrath and judgment of God—are removed. And after death follows the resurrection from the dead.
That is why for a Christian there is “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 5:1) We have peace with God through Jesus’ blood even when it does not appear that we have peace in this world.
There is peace when there is pain and hardship in life, and there is life even while we are dying.
Because our sins are gone and God’s wrath is gone.
That’s why Paul says Christians rejoice in their sufferings—not because suffering is fun, but because God is not against us, but for us in our sufferings. He makes them work for our good.
Evelyn has life now and more life to come. No one can take away the life we have through faith in Jesus.
We have life in Him in pain and sorrow. We have life because our souls are united to Him who is the Life.
We have life on the last day, when He will raise Evelyn and all the dead, and give everlasting life and glory to those who believed in Him.
So she has life now, and we may rejoice for her as well as sorrow.
And despite our fear of death, our doubts and our weakness, there is life for us who believe in Jesus.
We can’t take away our sins nor death.
But Jesus has done it. Nothing remains to be done.
And He did it not in response to anything good we had done but “while we were yet sinners.”
When we were baptized He pledged that His death and resurrection are ours.
So we hold fast to His Word and promise and “rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.” That is what we hope for. But even now in the midst of our sufferings we possess His life because we grasp Him by faith.
Many times people are uncertain and doubtful about whether they will get to heaven. We should not be for Jesus’ sake. With Paul we should rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. We have a certain hope given in Jesus’ death for our sins and His resurrection from the dead.
We will see God’s glory through the blood of Christ and we will see Evelyn, whom you loved, sharing in that glory.
The peace of God that passes understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
St. Peter Lutheran Church
February 10, 2016
“Return To Me With All Your Heart”
“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning, and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Joel 2:12
“Return to Me,” God says at the beginning of Lent.
And possibly, you are thinking, “Return? But I’ve never left you, Lord. I believe in Jesus. I’m not aware of any grave sins in my life, only the normal struggles with sin that none of us can avoid.”
When Adam and Eve sinned in the garden of Eden, they were too busy to stop and consider what had happened, what they had done. First they realized they were naked and set about to cover themselves up with fig leaves. Then they heard the sound of the Lord God and they were busy with trying to hide among the trees of the garden. They were busy trying to deal with their sin themselves, and that occupied their minds so that they did not have time to stop and think about what they had done.
Until God called, “Adam, where are you?”
Then they started to realize where they were. They were separated from the God who made them. They were far away from Him—not physically, but spiritually. They had taken leave of Him in their hearts.
Then He called, and they had to come out and face Him, look into His eyes and see their guilt reflected back at them, face the punishment they had brought upon themselves.
When God says “Return to Me,” He is calling to us just like He did to Adam and Eve. He calls us to stop and consider where we are, something we often don’t do because we are busy—busy, in the end, running from God. You may not have committed any conscious, willful sins against God. You may not be living in any sin you consider great. Or you may be.
Regardless, God calls you to return to Him. All our sins of thought, word, and deed alienate us from the Triune God, the giver of life. And we are always turning from God. Turning from Him to make an idol of our work or our pleasure, drawn away from loving God above all other things. Even when it is as common a thing as neglecting to pray, we are withdrawing from the living God.
God calls us, even commands us in His Law, to be wholly and completely His people. We are not supposed to be partially God’s, but wholly His own—heart, soul, and body. “Our great God and Savior Jesus Christ…gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession…” (Titus 2:13-14) “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength.” We were created to love God and to be wholly His. And after we fell, we were re-created in Baptism in order to be God’s own.
And yet no matter who you are, how holy you are, you have not been wholly the Lord’s. You have not been faithful to your God.
“Return to Me with all your heart.” During the season of Lent we are invited to take to heart just how serious a thing it is to depart from God.
The ashes we put on our heads are not decorations. They remind us of the consequences of departing from God. “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” God told Adam (Genesis 3:17). “The wages of sin is death,” says Paul in the 6th chapter of Romans. By the sin in which we were conceived, the sins we have committed unintentionally and those we have committed willfully, we have brought death on ourselves. Each one of us must one day experience the pain and agony of death because of our sins, and along with it (unless God grants us grace), we will also experience the fear and sorrow of knowing that it is the just punishment for our sin. The things we love and enjoy in this world—friends, children, loved ones, along with food and drink and every other lawful pleasure—we will have to leave to come before God. We will return to Him to be judged when we die, whether or not we willingly return to Him in this life.
The ashes also symbolize something worse than death. They symbolize the wrath of God. Just as Sodom and Gomorrah was burnt to ashes by fire that fell from heaven because of God’s wrath and indignation, so we deserve to be burnt in the eternal fire of hell for departing from the Lord.
Even more, during Lent we see our sins reflected in the suffering of Jesus. See how Jesus sweat blood in Gethsemane for fear of God’s wrath. How he was condemned and suffered the physical agony and shame of the flogging, the mockery, and the crucifixion. See above all how He cried out on the cross that He was forsaken by God.
Jesus never departed from the Lord. He always obeyed, always loved God, never turned away from God to give the love, faith, and worship of His heart to something or someone else. And if this innocent Son of God suffered so bitterly for sins that were not His own, what kind of torment will come to people who do not return to the Lord in repentance?
So what does it mean to return to the Lord with all your heart? How is it done?
It is not something we can do by our own free will. When we return to the Lord, it is because the Spirit of God turns us. Through His Word He makes us see where we are, how we have left behind the God of life and tried to find life elsewhere. And through His Word He reveals what restores us to Him—the suffering of Jesus.
To return to the Lord is first of all to listen to the Word of God, His voice calling to us “Where are you?” Like Adam, we hear God’s voice while we are hiding. To return to the Lord means to listen to that voice as it exposes our sins. We stop running and examine ourselves in the light of the ten commandments. By that light we see how we have departed from God. We learn to know ourselves; we recognize that we are not able to return to God by keeping His Law, because our sinful nature prevents us from fulfilling it.
Second, to return to the Lord means to confess our helplessness to God and seek His grace.
Third, and most importantly, we believe the Gospel that God proclaims to us. In the face of our sins, we cling to the good news that God does not count our sins to us. He has given them to His Son, who made atonement for them with His blood. By Jesus’ suffering and death God receives us as if we had never departed from Him. He has made peace with God for us so that our sins are not counted to us. Believing in Him, we return to God.
Finally, having returned to God through faith in Christ live in Christ. We devote ourselves to His Word and draw near to Him daily in prayer, asking for His help to put away our old nature and to put on the image of Christ. We devote ourselves to good works, not merely turning away from sin but practicing the good works God would have us do. We give ourselves to neighbors by serving them in the positions to which God has called us; we forgive those who sin against us; we show mercy to the poor and to those who have not heard the Gospel. We pray for and mourn over our neighbors, seeking their salvation.
But you will notice that the reading from Joel does mentions other things besides repentance and faith. “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning, and rend your hearts and not your garments.” (Joel 2:12-13) “With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” What does fasting, weeping, and mourning have to do with returning to the Lord?
“Fasting, weeping, and mourning” are outward signs of the sorrow we should feel because of sin. But fasting also has another purpose. It helps to discipline the flesh, to put it to death so that we are able to give our attention to the Word of God and prayer. It is also a way of humbling the flesh. Fasting helps us to hear and to pray by disciplining our bodies so that we can give our attention to His Word and prayer.
Fasting need not be difficult. It is simply a matter of limiting or abstaining from food for a certain period of time, and then using that time to engage in self-examination, confession, meditation on the Word and prayer. A simple way to fast would be to skip one meal on Wednesdays during Lent, and then to attend Matins or Vespers to hear the Word and pray. A more difficult fast would be to abstain from food until after sundown one or two days a week
Finally, in the reading from Joel God gives promises and encouragements to those who would return to Him with all their hearts.
“Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God?” (Joel 2:13-14)
Again, God says through Joel: “Then the Lord became jealous for his land and had pity on his people. The Lord answered and said to his people, ‘Behold, I am sending to you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied; and I will no more make you a reproach among the nations.” (Joel 2:18-19)
Today it is largely forgotten that God not only punishes sin eternally in hell for those who do not return to Him; He also sends earthly chastisements and punishments for sins to bring us to repentance.
Most of us have many crosses and difficulties in our personal lives. Besides this our congregation experiences many difficulties with declining attendance and an increasing budget deficit. On top of this there are the troubles we see afflicting our synod, our nation, and the Church throughout the world.
We don’t always know the reason that God allows these difficulties to come to us. But we know that He does send “temporal punishments” and chastisements for sin, and we know that we have plenty of sins for which He could rightly punish us. But in this reading from Joel God says that He is gracious and merciful and often “relents from disaster,” turning away the temporal punishments we have brought on ourselves when we return to Him with all our heart. How many of the difficulties experienced in our homes, our church, and our nation might be averted if we returned to the Lord with “fasting, mourning, and weeping”?
God encourages us about this, but does not promise that He will turn away all suffering. But though we are not promised that all our earthly suffering will be averted by returning to Him with all our hearts, we are promised that He will receive all who repent and turn to Him in grace. He will graciously forgive them their sins, turn His face toward them, and give them eternal life.
When Adam heard God call, “Where are you?” and Adam returned to God, He must have been full of grief and terror. He must have feared the punishment He deserved and grieved over the way He had squandered the honor God had given Him.
But when He returned to the Lord He did not find destruction or shame. Instead the Lord promised that He would send a man who would destroy the power of the serpent who had deceived him. Adam was promised that in the future a man would destroy the power of death. And though Adam deserved shame and had to live under a curse, God promised him that he would be relieved of his disgrace. An offspring of the woman would bear Adam’s shame, suffering death and condemnation for his sin. He would silence the devil’s accusations against Adam and his offspring by bearing their offenses.
In the same way when we return to the Lord, facing the bitterness of our sins, He shows us grace instead of punishing us. We return to the Lord in sorrow for our sins and hold fast to His promise that Christ bore them. And in Christ’s wounds God’s wrath passes over us. He receives as though we had never departed from Him. He replaces our shame with honor.
May the Lord aid us this Lent to return to Him with our whole hearts, that we may learn to know His grace, mercy, patience, and steadfast love.
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Soli Deo Gloria
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 18:31-43
February 6, 2015
“Jesus Will Stop for You”
Why should Jesus stop?
That may seem like a harsh question. Yet it is in the back of the minds of many people. Sometimes you’ll hear people say something like, “I don’t pray much. Why should God pay attention to my prayers? There are billions of people in this world asking Him for help. What’s so special about me, that He should listen to me?”
It’s a question that might have occurred to the blind man on the road to Jericho. It might even have seemed a little arrogant for him to shout at Jesus as Jesus passed with a great crowd down the road to Jerusalem.
After all, Jesus is the Son of David, the promised Christ, the King anointed to rule the nations forever. Does this man think this great King has nothing else to do, that He should interrupt His business and stop for a blind beggar? How do you feel when a beggar approaches your car when you’re waiting for a red light, on your way to work? Do you ever feel a little irritated or put out? What if they are yelling for help with a loud voice?
Besides this, Jesus is surrounded by a great crowd of people. Does this blind man think that no one else in the crowd might want to ask Jesus for a healing, for a miracle, for mercy? But they don’t interrupt Jesus’ procession to Jerusalem.
Maybe this is what the people who rebuke the blind man are thinking. Their rebuke could even seem devout and pious. “Why are you screaming at Jesus? You’re being prideful. Who do you think you are?”
Does this man think the world revolves around him? Does he think he’s so important that, of course, Jesus should stop what He’s doing and come to serve him, a blind beggar?
This is how we might think. But Jesus makes it clear by His actions and words that He does not think this way. He stops what He is doing to answer the blind man’s prayer. He puts Himself at the blind man’s disposal. He praises the man for his faith.
What gave the blind man such boldness?
He had heard good news about Jesus. He had heard that Jesus was able to cure the sick, the lame, the paralyzed. And he had heard that Jesus not only possessed such power, but that He was gracious and kind and did not turn away those who came to Him for help. Perhaps he had also heard about how Jesus had mercy and received even the greatest sinners in Israel. Perhaps he drew the conclusion that Jesus was the promised anointed one, or perhaps others told him that.
The blind man believed the good news that he heard. He had faith. And when his own conscience and others rebuked him and told him that Jesus had other things to do, he persevered in faith and believed that Jesus would have mercy. He believed in spite of everything that Jesus was able to heal him and that he wanted to heal him, even if it meant that he was the only one in a great crowd of people for whom Jesus would stop and give him his attention.
It was not that he thought highly of himself. He thought highly of Jesus’ mercy. He believed that Jesus’ mercy was greater than everything else. The blind man didn’t believe that he was the center of the universe. He believed that Jesus’ mercy and love were so great that Jesus was willing and able to deal with him as though he was the only one in the world.
Although this man couldn’t see with his eyes, he saw Jesus far better than most by faith. By faith He saw that Jesus was the son of David, the promised King and Savior. And by faith he saw—perhaps even better than the 12 disciples—what kind of a King Jesus was. He was and is not a king who came to be served but to serve. He came to give of Himself freely; to have mercy.
On the other hand, the earlier part of the gospel reading shows us how the disciples did not understand fully who Jesus is.
Of course the disciples understood that Jesus was God in human flesh. Three of them saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain. They saw Jesus tell the stormy winds and sea to be still and they obeyed Him. They saw Him raise the dead. Peter had confessed what all the disciples believed—that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. This is what the season of Epiphany that is now ending is about—Jesus revealing Himself as God incarnate, God with us in our flesh and blood.
The disciples believed and knew that Jesus was God with us, but they did not clearly see what that meant. They did not grasp well what the apostle John later wrote in his first epistle, that “God is love” (1 John 4:8).
They believed Jesus was God. But when Jesus told them that what had been written by all the prophets was about to be fulfilled in His going to Jerusalem, they could not understand Him. They did not understand what the Scriptures said about God, nor did they fully understand Jesus.
“And taking aside the twelve, [Jesus] said to them, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day He will rise.’ But they understood none of these things.” (Luke 18:31-34)
This was the third time Jesus told the disciples about His impending death. But they didn’t understand Him. Why didn’t they?
This did not fit with their understanding of who God is. They understood that God was all-powerful and glorious, holy and righteous. It was beyond their comprehension that the Son of God should be mocked, treated shamefully, spit on, and killed.
But Jesus told them this so that when the Scriptures were fulfilled and Jesus was handed over to shame and execution, they would not think that it happened accidentally, that Jesus didn’t know about it and couldn’t prevent it.
How could God be handed over to enemies, be mocked and spit on and be killed? Clearly, the only way this could happen to the eternal, Almighty God is if He let it happen. If He allowed Himself to be taken captive. If He allowed Himself to be mocked and spit on and nailed to a cross.
But in their minds, God would never allow this to happen. Why would He?
For the same reason He let Himself be stopped by the blind man on His way to Jerusalem. God is as great in mercy and love as He is in majesty and power. As His power and knowledge far exceed our ability to understand, so does His mercy.
His mercy is so great that He interrupted His procession to Jerusalem to be the servant of one blind beggar. He stopped to give this man his request, to heal him.
But His mercy is greater still. He finished His journey to Jerusalem so that He might serve each one of us individually by becoming sin for each one of us. He went and accomplished what no one was asking Him for, what no one would think of asking Him for. He bore our sin and atoned for us with His death.
Jesus saw clearly what was coming in Jerusalem and He went anyway. He did not go grudgingly but willingly to shame and spit and abuse and flogging and death. He went joyfully and suffered for the sins of each one of us. As He was lashed, as He was spit on, as He was laughed at and scorned, He healed us our guilt before God. As the prophet prophesied seven hundred years before, Jesus was “wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed.” (Is. 53: 5)
If the disciples had understood the Scriptures, they would have understood that this is what Jesus came to do, and that nothing short of this would save them from their sins and from condemnation.
And if they had known that only Jesus’ blood would save them from their sins, would they have dared to ask Him? Would they have said, “Please bear my sin; let Your divine majesty serve me, a sinner with no excuse. Let yourself be captured, mocked, put to shame, spit on, and crucified to pay for my transgressions”? Do you think they would have dared to ask for that?
Would we dare to ask that of the high and holy God, of our innocent and gentle Jesus?
Yet this is what God proclaimed through the prophets that He would do.
Like the disciples, we are slow to believe the Scriptures, and we are slow to believe in the love of God for us. We do not think highly enough of His love toward each one of us individually, or grasp the greatness of His mercy.
When the blind man yelled out for mercy Jesus allowed Himself to be stopped and caught by the man. He made Himself the man’s servant. In the depth of His love He allowed Himself to be taken captive by the man’s faith in Him.
Like the blind man we also cry out to Jesus for mercy in the liturgy. Like beggars we sing, “Lord, have mercy upon us” in the Kyrie. When we pray that to be sure we are asking that Jesus would bless and help and heal us in this life. But we are asking for an even greater gift; the forgiveness of our sins and for salvation.
But long before we started singing that, Jesus answered our cry. Or better—He answered your cry individually. He did not go to Jerusalem simply to die for the sins of the world as a mass. He died for each one of your sins individually. For your guilt, for your sins which cry out for your condemnation, Jesus willingly went to Jerusalem and was mocked, spit on, flogged, and killed to present you holy and righteous before God.
In answer to our cries for mercy, Jesus still stops and serves each one of us. He cleanses us with His blood as it is sprinkled on us in the preaching of the good news of his cross.
He feeds us the body that was nailed to the cross for us; He tells us to drink His blood which was poured out for us for the forgiveness of our sins.
Today as we prepare to enter the season of Lent in which we remember His suffering and death, Jesus tells us that He willingly endures all this for each one of us. Nothing else can take away your sins except for Jesus, who has mercy on you and endures your shame and punishment.
By the blind man’s example He encourages you to hold fast and believe that His mercy is for you, and is greater than you can comprehend. His love is deeper than we can grasp. No matter how much your faith expands it will never be able to exhaust the riches of His love and mercy.
We are often doubtful about whether God will listen to our prayers. He is so great and we are so small; the world is full of people and we are just average individuals, with nothing special about us. More than this He is holy and we have provoked His anger with our many sins.
We would never have dared to ask God to pay for our sins with His own humiliation and suffering. Yet He did, even when we did not ask. He did it for each one of you specifically and bore your sins. And if He did that, how will He deny us any other good thing?
Take courage. Jesus will stop for you.
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Soli Deo Gloria