Wednesday after Oculi
St. Peter Lutheran Church
Passion History III: Palace of the High Priest
March 2, 2016
“No Condemnation in Christ Jesus”
Jesus is led from the Mount of Olives bound with ropes or chains. The soldiers lead Him back to Jerusalem to stand trial before the high priest and the council of the elders, called the Sanhedrin. We can imagine the kind of abuse He had to endure on that long, torch-lit walk to the city: insults, curses, mockery, punches and kicks.
The Law of God commanded that the priests and elders were to decide legal cases in Israel, according to Deut. 17 and 19. And in the Law God gave to Israel, the punishment for false teaching and blasphemy—that is, to curse or misuse the name of God—is death by stoning (Leviticus 24). The chief priests and elders have been plotting Jesus’ death for some time, but they don’t want to just assassinate him in a corner somewhere. They want His death to look like it was done legally, both so that they can satisfy their own conscience that they have not transgressed God’s law, and so that it will look to the public like Jesus was put to death as a false prophet. In that way they intend to snuff out the people’s faith that Jesus is the Christ.
So they lead Jesus first to the father-in-law of the high priest, named Annas, for questioning. Then they take Him to the high priest’s palace, where the priests and the council have gathered for Jesus’ trial. First the high priest questions Jesus about His disciples and His teaching. Next they bring forward false witnesses, who accuse Jesus of threatening to destroy the temple, God’s dwelling place. But the testimony of these witnesses is contradictory. As Jesus is slandered and defamed by these false witnesses, Jesus remains silent. He says nothing in His own defense. Finally, the high priest puts Jesus under oath and commands Him in God’s name to answer this question: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus replies, “I am. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power of God and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest shouts out that Jesus has just committed blasphemy in the council’s presence; they have heard it from His own lips. He asks for a verdict from the council, and the council unanimously votes that Jesus is worthy of death. Then, because it was late, the council disbanded for the night, in order to reconvene in the morning, when they would send Jesus to the Roman governor and ask him to carry out their sentence of death.
While the priests and elders went home and slept, Jesus was kept under guard. His guards spit in His face. They beat Him and mocked Him, putting a blindfold over His head and then slapping Him in the face, saying, “Prophesy, Christ! Who hit you?” That was how Jesus spent the night before His execution.
Early the next morning, the priests and council gathered again and asked Jesus once more if He was the Christ. And when Jesus confessed that He was, even though He knew they had no intention of listening to Him or letting Him go, they took His confession as proof of His guilt. And they made plans to hand Him over to Pontius Pilate, so that Pilate would carry out their sentence, not by stoning, as the Law mandated, but by crucifixion, which was the Roman manner of executing non-citizens.
Now we must ask ourselves why this happened, that Jesus, who was innocent, was put on trial by the God-appointed religious authorities and condemned to die as one who had cursed God. Jesus really would have been a blasphemer if He had claimed to be God’s Son and was only a man. But Jesus was innocent; He was who He claimed to be. So how could it happen that these men, the leaders of the people of God, who were supposed to be servants of God, could condemn God’s own Son as the worst kind of offender, as one who cursed God? And how could it happen that God would allow His beloved Son to be accused, tried, and condemned, and to be spit on, slapped and put to shame, by wicked hypocrites?
It was not just a tragic miscarriage of justice, not just another example of evil men getting the upper hand in the Church and using its authority to persecute the righteous.
It happened by the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, as the Apostle Peter later preached after Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 2:23). God used the wicked priests and elders of the Jews to put Jesus on trial and bring His charges against His Son. The priests and council falsely accused and condemned the Lord. But through their trial, which was unjust, God was conducting His own trial of Jesus, which was just. He was trying Jesus as the one who was accused of committing all the sins of the world.
Of course Jesus Himself had committed no sin and spoken no blasphemy. “No deceit was found in His mouth (1 Peter 2:22),” nothing untrue ever passed His lips. Yet He stood before God on trial for all the blasphemies and sins ever committed by human beings. And God found Him guilty. Through the mouth of the priests He condemned Jesus to death. God handed Jesus over to be mocked and disgraced, while even Jesus’ own disciple Peter denied ever knowing Him. Jesus was cast away by both God and man as a sinner and was handed over to the civil authority to be put to death for His crime.
Does it seem right or just or loving for God to do this? It does not. Why should Jesus be tried and found guilty by God for misusing His name? Jesus never misused God’s name or treated God’s name with disrespect.
We are the ones who have done this. We have used God’s name lightly, using it to express boredom, or irritation. We’ve sworn by His name in trivial matters, as though God’s name was not holy and worth more than everything in heaven and earth combined, and as if God didn’t care how His name was used. We’ve used it to curse people and to condemn them to hell. Some of us have even cursed God Himself, whether out loud in words or in the thoughts of our hearts. Some of us have used His name as a joke. We have tolerated, believed, or even spread false teaching in God’s name, acting as if it did not matter if God’s Word was falsified. At many times and in various ways we have denied Christ, like Peter, when we were afraid that we would be hated or laughed at if we acknowledged that we belong to Him. And in addition to the ways we have abused God’s name, we have also neglected to use it rightly. God wants us to call on His name. He wants us to ask Him for what we need, and then to praise and thank Him for His gifts and His help. But we have neglected prayer, as though we didn’t need God’s help and His gifts, and we have neglected to give thanks and praise, as though we had not received everything we have from Him.
For this misuse of God’s Name, along with all our other sins, we deserve to be brought to trial and accused. And we often feel ourselves accused.
Our consciences accuse us. They remind us of our past and all the ways we have rejected God as our God. They speak to us about the present state of our hearts, reminding us that they are not pure, but instead full of disbelief, pride, vengefulness, lust, covetousness. Our consciences put us on trial and accuse us. They call out our sins and remind us that we do not deserve to be acquitted by God, but deserve His punishment.
Sometimes our consciences fail, though. Sometimes they don’t accuse us even though we are guilty. Other times they accuse us of sins when there is no sin. However, there is another voice that accuses us which is never wrong. It is the voice of the Law of God. When the Ten Commandments accuse us of sin, their accusation is true, because those commandments don’t come from the darkened mind or heart of man, but from God. And the Ten Commandments show us to be sinners who have rebelled against God by thought and word and deed.
Then we have another accuser who shows us no mercy. This accuser would bring our secret sins not only before our own eyes but also drag them before the throne of God and the company of the holy angels and lay our shame and guilt before their holy eyes, crying out for our damnation. His name is Satan, which means “the Accuser.” He is not willing that your sin should ever be forgotten—not by you, not by God.
And yet it is Jesus and not us who stands accused by God for all your sins. And God finds Him guilty and condemns Him. How can God, who is just and righteous, pass this sentence on His Son?
Because Jesus willingly offered Himself to bear your sin and its accusation, and indeed the sins of the whole world. Jesus offered Himself to be your mediator, to make the Father pleased with you, a sinner. He offered Himself to stand in your place. The Father isn’t committing an injustice against His Son. The Son willingly offers Himself up, to pour out His blood to save you from being accused, tried, and condemned for your sins. When the Father condemns and punishes His Son for your sins, and then forgives you, God is doing justice. “If we confess our sins,” says the apostle, “God is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) He isn’t just letting us off the hook and letting our sin go unpunished. But because our sins have already been accused, tried, and condemned in Jesus, God does justly when He forgives us and cleanses us.
That is why Jesus is accused, put on trial, and condemned—to spare you from God’s accusation and condemnation. But because Jesus has already been tried for our sins and condemned, God no longer enters into judgment with you. This is what Scripture teaches again and again. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, Paul says in Romans 8:1. Those who are baptized into Christ are not condemned by God, even though their consciences, the Law, and Satan accuse them. In fact, God does not even accuse or enter into judicial proceedings with those who believe in Christ. Jesus says in John 5, Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life (5:24).
Because Jesus is accused for your sins here, God does not accuse you of them. Because Jesus was condemned for your sins by God, there is no condemnation for you. The accusations levelled against Jesus are your good testimony before God. His condemnation is your acquittal. He is the one who stands before God in your defense if anyone would bring any charges against you: If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 2:1-2)
That’s why Jesus stands there silent when His accusers rail against Him. He does not want to escape their accusations. He wants to bear them all, along with all their punishment. He wants to let all the charges levelled against Him stick to Him, so that none may stick to you. He lets them slap His face, make fun of Him, spit on Him, so that the shame of our sins will be on Him and not on us.
When you are accused and brought to trial by your conscience, when Satan wants to expose all your sins to the eyes of God and call for your condemnation, and when even God seems to have rendered His verdict on you in the Ten Commandments—“He is worthy of death!”—remember Jesus’ trial in Caiaphas’ house. Here God accused Jesus of the sins of the whole world. He tried Him and found Him guilty, who willingly offered Himself to bear your sins. He sentenced Jesus to death. And therefore God does not enter into judgment with you. He does not accuse you or condemn you for the sins that Jesus bore.
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria
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
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. Matthew 21:1-11
March 29, 2015
“Blessed is He Who Comes in the Name of the Lord”
“And the crowds that went before Him and that followed Him shouted, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’” Matthew 21:7
What are the crowds shouting as they swirl around Jesus on Palm Sunday?
“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”
What does that mean?
The one who comes in the name of the Lord is the person who comes with the Lord’s authority to bring about the Lord’s will on earth. The one who comes in the name of the Lord comes to accomplish the will of the Lord.
So when Moses trembled before God’s presence at the burning bush, Moses asked, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I tell them? God said to Moses, ‘I Am Who I Am.’ And He said, ‘Say this to the people: ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” Exodus 3:13-14
Did you hear that? Moses went to the people in the Name of the Lord, in the Name of I AM.
The Lord told Moses His name and sent him by the authority of His name to claim Israel for the Lord as His people and to make them free.
So, to come in the name of the Lord is to come in the Lord’s authority to accomplish His will.
And now the people of Israel are saying it about Jesus—“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” They are saying, “Blessed is the one who comes to accomplish God’ will on earth.”
What the people who shout this to Jesus don’t realize is that they don’t really know what the will of God is. They think Jesus has come to do something like Moses did—deliver the people of Israel from slavery.
They don’t realize that what Moses had done was only a dim foreshadowing of what Jesus would do.
Moses didn’t really bring about the will of God on earth. He came and led the people out of slavery to Pharaoh. But it was only a temporary freedom. The Israelites only remained free as long as they kept God’s commands.
They didn’t remain free long. The history of Israel is a history of being attacked and oppressed by invaders because they were unable to remain faithful to the Lord.
The real slavery that they had was slavery to sin. Moses didn’t free them from that.
But the Lord promised them that he would send another prophet like Moses who would bring them lasting freedom and peace.
He would reign as king over the whole earth and keep God’s people from being enslaved anymore. He would truly accomplish the will of God on earth.
He would make it so that God’s people were not merely God’s people externally, who worshipped God with ceremonies and outward actions, but were His people in Spirit and truth, worshipping Him by the Spirit.
He would make it so that God’s people were freed from their real slave masters—not Egypt or Rome but from sin and the devil.
This is what Jesus has come to do. The people are right to praise Him—Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. But they don’t really understand what they are saying.
They thought Jesus was going to put them in a position to gain the whole world. They had seen His miracles, most recently the raising of Lazarus from the dead. If He was the head of their nation, just imagine the kind of glory they could expect! He would finally make the people of Israel the head and not the tail, the rulers of the world instead of slaves.
We also misunderstand what it means that Jesus has come in the name of the Lord. He comes into our midst in the Lord’s name to give us freedom and victory. We keep thinking that means He will give Christians glory and honor in this world, or that He will deliver us from suffering and humiliation. We think that Jesus has come in the Name of the Lord to do our will. He has not. He has come to accomplish the will of God. The will of God is not to deliver us from all suffering or that His church have this world’s glory and praise. The will of God is that we be set free from slavery to sin.
Moses didn’t do that. Moses came in the Lord’s name and through him the Lord delivered Israel from slavery to Egypt. But the Israelites did not go free from sin.
Jesus comes to do greater works than Moses. He not only comes in the Lord’s name and by His authority. He comes wearing the name of the Lord, bearing the name of the Lord. He is the Lord. In last’s week Gospel He said it—“before Abraham was born, I AM.”
Jesus has come to do what only the Lord Himself can do—make us free from slavery to sin and death. Only the Lord can do this because sin is against the Lord. Only He can forgive it.
And only the Lord has power to take away sins. There is no mere man on earth who can offer a sufficient payment that sins should be forgiven. Only the Lord can make a payment sufficient to remove the offense of sin from human beings.
That is what Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem on a donkey to do. He is praised, but He has not come to do a work that the world esteems. He has come in the Lord’s name to accomplish His will.
He has come to fulfill God’s commandments. He has come to establish righteousness. This He did by fulfilling the whole law by His spotless obedience to God. Now He comes on Palm Sunday to offer His spotless life up to God as the payment for our sins.
It is not a merely human life that He comes to offer but the life of God the Son. He offers it up to God in exchange for us. He pays for our sin with His blood. With His suffering He pays for God to regard us as righteous and free from sin.
And now, just as He once rode into Jerusalem to shed His blood for our justification, He rides into our midst to bestow His body and blood on us so that we might believe that we have been set free from slavery to sin.
We are not free from sin in that we no longer sin. We are free from sin in that they are paid for by the blood of Jesus and are no longer counted. They are no longer regarded as our sins because they became Jesus’ sins on the cross.
“Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” It is the Lord’s will that His law be fulfilled. It was also the Lord’s will that we be saved from sin and eternal death.
Jesus truly comes in the Lord’s name and accomplishes His will. He fulfilled the law. He comes to Jerusalem not to free us from pain or to win us earthly glory, but to save us from our sins. And He truly comes to us in the church in His body and blood not to exalt us in the eyes of the world but to bestow freedom from sin.
That’s why it’s right that we praise Him on Palm Sunday with the crowds and the great company of saints and angels in heaven. He is a victorious King, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He is not this because people praise Him. He has not come to win us earthly splendor and victory.
But as a mighty king He comes to destroy the yoke of sin and death and make us free people of God. He frees us from sin by the shedding of His blood. As it poured out on the cross, we were released from our sins.
That’s why it is right that we sing, “Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord.” He has accomplished the will of God by the shedding of His blood. Now He gives us the Lord’s accomplished will by giving us to eat and drink the body and blood sacrificed on Calvary.
Take, eat, this is my body. It is as if Jesus is saying, “The Lord’s will is done; you have fulfilled the law. You are free.”
The peace of God that passes understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria
St. Peter Lutheran Church
March 25, 2015
“Ye Tears, Forth Flow”
We should weep tears when we hear the story of the death of Jesus. I know that we are Lutherans and you’re always hearing me say that it’s not about the way you feel about what Jesus has done for you, it’s about what He’s done. Just as what is important in the Sacrament of the Altar is not how you feel when you receive it, but about the reality of what it is—Christ’s body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. I know that I am always saying these things. But isn’t it true that we should weep over Jesus?
If He were just some historical figure who died a long time ago then it would be perfectly understandable if we didn’t feel anything at hearing about His suffering. But He is not just some long dead historical figure. He is our Savior. He is not dead but living. He is alive and He is the One who died out of love for us. Why then should my heart be so cold and hard when I hear about His suffering?
After all, we make so much of our own suffering. When we are going through pain and hard times we can hardly think about anything or anyone besides our own problems—am I right? Sometimes we burden other people with our pain, or we take out our frustration and fear on those closest to us. We want other people to care about our suffering. So why do we have so few tears at our Lord’s suffering? He, unlike us, didn’t deserve any of it.
The worst kind of pain is when you suffer unjustly. Why don’t I have any tears at the terrible injustice Jesus suffered? We have been hearing about it at these Lenten services. First Jesus was betrayed by one of His own disciples. Then the others abandoned Him. The high priest and the leaders of the nation unjustly accused and condemned him, bringing false witnesses against Him. Then Pilate out of cowardice gave Him over to be killed by His enemies and didn’t save Him, even though he knew that Jesus had done nothing wrong. And instead of being put on a throne, thanked and worshipped, as He deserved, Jesus was crucified between two criminals, as though He was a criminal, even though He had never so much as spoken an evil word. If we suffer unjustly we are incensed about it! Yet the greatest injustice ever perpetrated is put before our ears, and our eyes barely get moist. See Jesus naked, pierced, hanging on a cross, being laughed at and slandered by everyone—the priests, the people, the soldiers, even the other crucified men! See how everything is taken from Him, even His clothes, and He has to beg for a drink on the cross. And even then people crowd around hoping to see Him do another miracle. Can’t we take a break from worrying about ourselves even this one time of the year and shed tears over the injustice Jesus suffered?
And if the injustice of Jesus’ death doesn’t move us to tears, what about the horrible agony inflicted on our gentle and innocent Lord Jesus? Just imagine the pain you would feel, the agony, if you stepped on a ten-penny nail and it went through your foot! But Jesus had His hands and feet hammered through with nails that were as close to railroad spikes as they are to our nails. Before this He had been whipped, flogged by a crowd of soldiers, beaten and punched and spit on. A garland of thorns was driven down onto His head. His bones were pulled out of their sockets as He was stretched out on the cross. Shouldn’t the brutality of His death move us to tears? And besides the physical agony there was the great spiritual agony of being forsaken by God. Jesus had been deprived all of His life of the earthly comforts we enjoy—good food and plenty of it; clothes, cars, entertainment. Jesus barely had enough to eat and had nowhere to lay His head. He was born in a stable. The one delight of His life was union and fellowship with His heavenly Father, and now that is taken away from Him. He is forsaken in God’s anger because He is getting the reward for our sins. He is tasting the bitter fruit of our self-seeking and our glorifying of ourselves. How hard is my heart that I can stand before you and preach this and not break down in tears! How hard your hearts must be too, to hear of Jesus’ agony for you and not weep!
And what should make us cry even more than all this is that when the nails are driven into His hands and His limbs are wrenched out of joint and He is lifted up on the cross, He prays, “Father, forgive them.” Jesus isn’t faking. He truly loves those who are killing Him in their hard-heartedness. They aren’t weeping over Him. They smile as they do their bloody business. But Jesus doesn’t hate them, nor does He hate the disciples who fled, nor us, with our selfish hearts. He is concerned not about His pain and the injustice that He is suffering, but about the eternal pain and torment those who are killing Him will have to endure if He doesn’t save them. We so often have our minds on our own pain. Jesus forgets His pain. He is thinking about the agony souls will endure in hell if He does not suffer for them.
Jesus is thinking about others. That’s why He tells the women as He is being led out to His execution, “Don’t weep for me, but for yourselves and your children.” He is talking about the terrible hard-heartedness of human beings. If they are willing to beat and slaughter the Son of God, who never did any evil to anyone, what do you think they will do to those who believe in Him? If they are able to watch Jesus weep and suffer and not shed a tear even though through all of it He still loves them and prays for them, what will they do to each other?
But it’s not just “they.” Our hearts are hard and closed to pity too. How often have we closed our hearts toward Jesus, putting His crucified form out of our minds so that we could go ahead and do our will instead of His? And how often have we closed our hearts against other people who dare to interfere with our self-seeking plans? It’s not even just that we harden our hearts. They are hard by nature. We often simply are unable to consider others. And it was for our selfishness, our hard-heartedness too, that Jesus died and was forsaken by God.
But notice as Jesus is being led out to die, He is not thinking about Himself at all. “Do not weep for Me,” He says. He is thinking about us, pitying us, even as He is about to be crucified—the women who cried for Him, the soldiers who crucified Him, and we who with our hard hearts can so seldom be bothered with anyone else’s pain, even the pain of the innocent Son of God who loves us. He is thinking about us.
That is why Jesus went to the cross. Because He was thinking about us and our hard hearts and the eternal misfortune that was ahead of us.
It’s not our tears for Jesus that save us. We are not saved by our hard hearts becoming softer. We are saved by the softness of His heart toward us. We are saved by His grace, because He eagerly desires our salvation. His grace took the form of His battered body on the cross, crying out, being forsaken by God.
It was His desire to endure our hardheartedness and to suffer God’s anger that comes because of our hardheartedness.
That’s why He prays as He is crucified, “Father, forgive them.” He means it. He wants us to be forgiven more than He wants His own pleasure. He is willing to offer Himself to suffer and die for us.
And to the criminal who does nothing other than admit that he was getting what he deserved, and then turns to ask Jesus for mercy, Jesus says “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Jesus hungers and thirsts for our salvation. That’s why He died. He pleads with us to turn and be forgiven for our hard hearts. He does everything to assure us that all is forgiven before God.
Maybe your heart is soft enough to weep today at Jesus’ suffering. Or maybe you don’t cry much, even when you probably should.
Jesus has saved you by His agony either way. Even though your heart is still selfish and hard, Jesus has saved You. He has accomplished your salvation without you. He has become sin for you on the cross and received the wrath that belonged to you.
So come with your hard heart. Ask Jesus to work in it so that you notice your neighbor’s suffering and desire his well-being instead of just your own.
Ask Jesus to work in you stronger faith and love for Him.
But don’t doubt that your sins are forgiven today, while your heart is still evil and your eyes are still dry. Today is the day paradise was opened to the crucified thief. While they were still crucifying Him was when Jesus prayed for their forgiveness.
And while we are still sinners, Christ died for us.
It is to you that He says: “This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
It is for your consolation that He cries out, “It is finished.”
Soli Deo Gloria
St. Peter Lutheran Church
March 22, 2015
In the novel Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, a young man murders a pawnbroker. He has convinced himself that exceptional people are not bound by the laws of ordinary morality. He kills the woman with an ax and manages to escape without being found out. But he finds himself out. He is pursued by a judge he never expected—his conscience. The awareness of his crime alienates him from his family and friends. Everywhere he goes he either suspects that people suspect him, or he despises them for not knowing what kind of a person he really is.
That’s what a bad conscience does to a person. It makes them live their lives on the run from their sins and from judgment, but everywhere they go they are reminded of their guilt.
You may be surprised to know that we are living in a time when many people have bad consciences. It may come as a surprise because so many people act as if they had no awareness of sin. But don’t be fooled. We live in a time where we are told that everyone is an exceptional person and no one is bound by the rules of ordinary morality. But behind our society’s bold philosophy, which is the same as the main character’s in Crime and Punishment, is the same uneasy conscience that knows that some day there will be a reckoning.
But bad consciences are not limited to the non-believing world. You might think that Christians would be more likely than unbelievers to have a peaceful conscience. After all, we believe in “the forgiveness of sins.” But in reality just the opposite seems to be the case. Christians, you see, not only have God’s law written in their consciences, like everyone else. In addition they have God’s law preached to them from the pages of Scripture. We are much more clear on what exactly God requires of us than the world that only has the handwriting of the law on their consciences.
As a result Christians often struggle with a defiled conscience that haunts them. You probably are not haunted everywhere you go by a murder that you committed. Yet you are often pursued by the awareness that you have not been what God has commanded you to be. It may be that certain specific transgressions haunt you from the past. It may be that you chronically fall into a certain sin. Or it may not be. It’s not only sinful actions that defile us in God’s sight. We are defiled by sinful thoughts, impulses, and emotions. Anger defiles us and makes us unclean and unable to enter God’s presence. Covetous desires defile us. Lust defiles us. Lack of inclination to hear God’s Word and pray defiles us long before we have taken the sinful actions of neglecting His Word.
All these sinful impulses defile us, and the wages of all sin is death. Yet we can’t get away from them.
In fact, when we have a guilty, defiled conscience, all that we do is stained by it. When your conscience is defiled, you produce defiled works—dead works, the epistle reading calls them. You may be acting outwardly according to the law of God, but really your works are like a corpse is to a living human being. They are stiff, rotten, and unclean. That’s because they proceed from an unclean conscience that is trying to justify itself, make up for its own sins. This is what Jesus told the Pharisees. He said they were like whitewashed tombs because they looked pretty on the outside but inside were full of death. Outwardly they strove to obey God’s law but inwardly they were full of pride, selfishness, self-love. That’s what our works are like when they proceed from a defiled conscience. Such works can’t be pleasing to God. We can’t serve God with a defiled conscience.
In the Old Testament, the priests offered sacrifices for the people when they had sinned in order that they might have a clean conscience again. But the problem was that such sacrifices were only temporary remedies. The blood of a bull or a goat, it’s death, could not really take away sin. Day after day, year after year, animals had to die, their blood had to be shed. But sins were never removed once and for all.
And the law that the Jews had, which expressed the holy will of God, was holy and good and separated the Israelites from all the other nations on earth, because they knew the will of God. But it only increased the problem of a bad conscience. The law is spiritual. It not only judges external behaviors but also the inward movements of the heart. It not only condemns murder but the anger in the heart that leads to it. It not only condemns failing to keep the Sabbath day holy but also the inward contempt for God’s Word that leads to it.
Many times we Christians turn back to the law in an effort to deal with our sin and bad conscience. WE say, “I’m going to repent and try that much harder to put my besetting sin away.” But these efforts usually only increase our bad conscience. We should fight against our sins and drown them as soon as they come to birth within our hearts. But those efforts can never give us a peaceful, clean conscience before God. We can’t give ourselves a clear conscience by any works. Efforts to do so only multiply transgressions and bring forth stillborn, stinking, dead works.
The epistle for today tells us about the true cleansing for defiled consciences. It is not accomplished or effected by us or by any merely earthly priest. It is accomplished by Jesus Christ, who is the high priest and mediator of a new and better covenant than that of the law.
In the Old Testament the tabernacle of God was divided into three sections. Outside the tabernacle was the outer court, where the altar stood. This was the closest laypeople got to the presence of God. They came near to God at the place of sacrifice, where before their eyes and all their senses was the death and burning of an animal for their transgressions.
Just inside the tabernacle was the holy place. In there was the altar of incense. Each day a priest would enter the holy place to burn incense before the Lord, signifying the prayers of the people who had been made acceptable to God by sacrifice. The priests would draw near to God here and then go out and bless the people in the Lord’s name.
Divided from the holy place by a curtain was the Most Holy Place, the holy of holies. This was something like the throne room of God on earth. No one came into the Most Holy Place except for the chief priest, and that only once a year, with blood to sprinkle to make atonement for the sins of the people. But it had to be repeated every year. There was never a time when the people could say, “Our sin is gone. It is at an end and we are at peace with God.”
Our high priest, Jesus, did not enter into this Most Holy Place. Our reading from Hebrews says He went through the more perfect tent—the tabernacle not of this creation, not made with hands. He went into the eternal dwelling place of the Most Holy God. And He went, not carrying the blood of a goat or a calf that had died to make atonement for the uncleannesses of the people. He went into the eternal presence of God once with His own blood, the blood of the eternal God made flesh in the womb of the virgin. He offered His own blood once to make atonement for the sins of the whole world. And by that one offering, says the Epistle to the Hebrews, He “secured an eternal redemption.” That means by one offering of His blood He caused all sin from the beginning of creation into eternity to be blotted out and cancelled. There is no repetition of this sacrifice, no daily or yearly offering, because by His one offering Jesus removed all our sins forever with His blood. We can now say our sin is at an end. It is removed forever.
He mediates a new covenant between us and God. Under the old covenant offerings had to be made repeatedly to cleans the consciences of the people of Israel. Every time they sinned there would need to be a sin offering. Every year the chief priest would need to sprinkle the blood of atonement on the mercy seat for the whole nation. But Jesus doesn’t offer repeated sacrifices over and over. By the eternal Spirit of God He offered up His body and blood without blemish, without stain of sin, to the Father in His agony on the cross. By that one offering He has merited for us an eternal inheritance wherein we stand before God as His priests, servants, and sons forever. His death seals this inheritance to us.
Thus the blood of Jesus cleanses our consciences from dead works because we know that He has redeemed us eternally from sin by His one sacrifice. None of our sins are counted to us who believe in Jesus. Not even the sins of thought and emotion and attitude that constantly rise up within us. Not the sins from our past that haunt us. Not the sins we struggle with. We have been cleansed from their defilement by the death of the eternal Son, who offered Himself up for us. He establishes this new covenant or testament, in His blood, and brings it about that God regards our sins as covered, paid for, blotted out. Therefore we have no need to try to justify ourselves. We have already been justified by the blood of the eternal Son of God.
But Jesus not only atones for our sins; He also cleanses our consciences from defilement by applying His blood to us. He reconciled God to us by offering His blood for us. But He also cleanses our consciences by washing us, anointing us with His blood.
In the Old Testament if you touched a dead body or stepped on a grave you were unclean. Contact with death brought defilement, because death is the fruit of the uncleanness of sin. If someone was made unclean by a dead body or a grave, he was not allowed to come near God in the temple.
But God provided a means of cleansing from defilement. A red heifer would be slaughtered and burned to ashes, and they would mix the ashes of the heifer with water and sprinkle this on the person who was defiled on the 3rd and 7th day, and then he would be clean again.
The letter to the Hebrews says, “if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer” made someone clean who was defiled through contact with death, how much more will the blood of Jesus cleanse our consciences from dead works! In other words, if the ashes of a cow made someone clean who had touched death, much more will the blood of Jesus cleanse our conscience from sin when it is applied to us.
And how does Jesus’ blood touch us and cleanse our consciences? When it is preached that it was shed for you. That happens in preaching the good news. It is also applied to you when Jesus gives you His blood with the wine. He says, “Take, drink, this holy blood was shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Take, eat, this holy body was given for you.” There He cleanses you from defilement; all the uncleanness of your heart is cleansed. And He has sprinkled His blood on you once and for all when He baptized you. There the cleansing properties of His blood sanctified and cleansed you. You were scrubbed clean of all your defilement because you died with Him and were raised.
So cleansed, we are able to serve God. In the flesh with our bad conscience we cannot produce pleasing works to God. But now we have been set free from sin through the blood of Jesus. We have been released from God’s wrath by the offering of His blood. We have been eternally redeemed from our sin. And we have been cleansed from sin’s defiling of our conscience by the blood of Jesus which is applied to us in the word, baptism, and the Holy Supper. With consciences cleansed by His blood we can serve God in freedom, offering Him thanks for our redemption with our lips.
We serve Him by being served by Him. He served us by offering Himself to the whips, the nails, the cross, and the spear and the wrath of God. He serves us by applying the blood He shed to our wounded consciences. We serve Him by receiving His cleansing and going forth in freedom to love our neighbor as He has loved us. Be served by Jesus. Be cleansed by Him. Then do likewise for one another, and begin to rejoice in the eternal inheritance Jesus died for you to receive.
Soli Deo Gloria
Wednesday after Laetare
St. Peter Lutheran Church
Catechism: “Who receives this sacrament worthily?”
March 18, 2015
“When they had bound Jesus, they led Him from Caiaphas to the hall of judgment and gave Him over to Pontius Pilate, the governor. It was early. They themselves did not go into the judgment hall, so that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover.”
See how the Jews took such care to be clean when they ate the holy meal of the passover? This was because the Law commanded that all the Jews not have any yeast in their homes during the time of the Passover, which is also called the feast of unleavened bread. So they didn’t want to go into the dwelling of a Gentile, for fear that there might be some yeast there which would make them unclean. It seems, too, that Jews avoided contact with Gentiles in general, maybe because they thought that the Gentiles’ contact with idols and other unlawful practices would make them unclean. The Jews were very concerned about being pure, because if they were ritually unclean, the Law said they were not allowed to go near to God in the temple or around other holy people or near holy things like the Passover meal.
Now if the Jews had a reason to be concerned about being pure when the Passover lamb they ate was only symbolic of Christ, how much more should we be concerned about being clean before receiving the sacrament of the altar? That is, we should be prepared to receive the Sacrament worthily. Because we are not just approaching symbols when we approach the Lord’s Supper. We are coming to receive the very body and blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. This is the holiest of all holy things. We are coming near to receive the body of Jesus, about whom God said, “this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased!” How terrible it would be to draw near and receive the body and blood of the Son in whom God is well-pleased only to defile and misuse it! St. Paul warns us against this in 1st Corinthians chapter 11: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” That means blaspheming against the body and blood of the Lord, desecrating it. He goes on, “Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.” What is Paul saying? When we come to the sacrament of Jesus’ body and blood unworthily, not recognizing it as the body and blood of Christ, we receive judgment from God instead of blessing. Paul says that many of the Corinthians had gotten sick or weak because they were eating and drinking without recognizing that it was Jesus’ body and blood. Some had even died.
This is part of the reason why our church practices “closed communion,” which means that those who have not been instructed and confessed the faith together with us are not allowed to receive Christ’s body and blood together with us. The first reason for this is because it would be wrong and harmful for us to give people the body and blood who may not be ready to receive it worthily. Those who eat Christ’s body unworthily, not recognizing the body of Jesus, receive judgment from God. They could become sick or die. And we would be helping them to profane the body and blood of Jesus if we knowingly gave them the holy gifts.
So it’s necessary that we know how to receive the Lord’s body and blood reverently and worthily. This is no child’s play. A hymn says: Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand; ponder nothing earthly minded, for with blessing in His hand, Christ our God to earth descending, Comes our homage to demand.
So how do we receive Christ’s body and blood worthily? How do we approach the holy gifts in cleanness? The Catechism says: “Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training.” Some people might think that to prepare for the Sacrament of the Altar we should fast or do other things to get ourselves into a devout and reverent frame of mind, where we recognize our sins and are sorry for them and intend to live a new life. Luther doesn’t say such efforts are worthless. Fasting and bodily preparation are certainly fine outward training. It’s good to discipline our flesh to make it pay attention to the holy things we are about to receive. In the Roman Catholic church you are supposed to not eat or drink anything for an hour before receiving holy communion. In the Greek orthodox church you are also supposed to refrain from eating or drinking or chewing gum also for a period of time after receiving holy communion. Are these worthless practices? No, they can be, certainly, fine outward training in that they restrain our flesh and force it to pay attention to the gifts Christ is giving. In the same way we used to have the practice of “dressing up” to go to church in order to show reverence for God’s Word and Sacraments. We kneel to receive the body and blood of Christ. That also is fine outward training. In the old days (but not that long ago) you had to announce your intention to go to holy communion to the pastor on the weekend before. Such practices were intended to make us stop and reflect on what we are doing when we go to communion. In the same way it is a good practice to pray before receiving the Lord’s Supper and ask for a heart that will receive the body of Christ worthily. It’s good to examine yourself and make confession of your sins to God and ask for His help to live a holy life, and receive absolution before going to Holy Communion. Prayer and absolution are not bodily preparation, exactly, but like bodily preparation such as fasting they are also not what makes you worthy to receive Jesus’ body and blood.
Preparing to receive the Lord’s Supper and to be in a devout frame of mind when receiving it is a good thing. But these efforts are not the thing that makes us truly worthy to eat and drink the body and blood of Christ. The Catechism goes on: “but that person is truly worthy and well-prepared who has faith in these words, ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’ But anyone who does not believe these words or doubts them is unworthy and unprepared, for the words, ‘For you,’ require all hearts to believe.” What makes us worthy and clean to receive the body and blood of Christ? Believing His words with which He instituted the Sacrament: “This is my body given for you, this is my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
Why is that what makes us clean and prepared to receive the Sacrament? Because we cannot make ourselves clean to enter the presence of God and His holiness. No matter how sorry we are for our sins, no matter how many tears we shed, no matter how long we fast, how much money we give to the church or to the poor, no matter how seriously we intend and commit to changing our lives, we can’t make ourselves clean and worthy to come near to Christ and receive His salvation. What makes us worthy is that Jesus wants to give His life for us, freely. We get to come because He has decided to give His body and blood for our salvation. He invites us to come receive these most holy things.
What makes you clean and worthy to receive Jesus’ body and blood? Only believing that He gave them into death for you. That means you believe that when Jesus was on trial before Pilate, and the chief priests and elders were bringing charge after charge against Him, Jesus was silent and gave no reply because He wanted to be put to death for you, for your sins in particular. When Jesus allowed Himself to be handed over by Pilate and the whole cohort of soldiers surrounded Him to lash Him with whips, Jesus suffered that agony to make atonement for your sins. When He was clothed with a scarlet robe over His bloody back and crowned with a crown of thorns, and the soldiers knelt before Him to mock His claim to be a king, Jesus wanted to endure that for you so that you would not endure eternal mockery for trying to be like God. When Jesus was led humiliated before the crowd, you believe that He endured it for you so that you would not be led before all creation in shame on judgment day. When the crowds chanted for Jesus to be crucified and for Barabbas to be released, it was for you, so that you might not be cast away into eternal torment on the day of judgment.
This is what believing in the words “for you” means. It means that when the innocent son of God was hit in the face and spit on, when He bled from His flogging and His blood stained the ground, when He was condemned and put to shame as an evildoer, it was for you, out of love, that He was doing it. Your many and great sins which make you unclean in His sight, for those sins the only Son of God made payment with the suffering and death of His body and the shedding of His blood. All that is contained in those little words, “for you.”
Now if we reflect on this we see that this is very difficult for us to believe. Why would God give so much to save me from the very sins by which I have offended Him? Why would Jesus allow Himself to be rejected and beaten and mocked, not only by men but by God, for Peter who denied Him out of shame and fear at His approaching death? Why would Jesus shed His blood to atone for the sin of the crowds who were chanting for it, for His brutal death, for His body to be broken on the cross?
It’s Jesus own words that give us the confidence to believe this. They not only invite and encourage but also command us to believe that Jesus has done all this to deliver us from our sins and God’s punishment. He says, “This is my body, given for you. This is my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” It is Jesus’ body and blood. It is His life to do with as He wills and as the Father wills. And His will and the Father’s will is to give His body and blood to ransom you from your sin.
So even though our own sinfulness would make us want to hide and not draw near to the Lord’s table, His words invite, encourage, console, and summon us to receive His body and blood precisely because we are such sinners that have such need. He invites and summons us in the assurance that He has made us worthy by His Words that say, “This is given and shed for you.” As our hymn today said:
Christ says: “Come all you that labor,
And receive my grace and favor;
Those who fell no pain or ill
Need no physician’s help or skill.
“For what purpose was My dying
If not for your justifying?
And what use this precious food
If you yourself were pure and good?”
It is just because we are not pure and good, because we are so in need of forgiveness and help, that Jesus summons us to receive this powerful, cleansing medicine. He wants us to come and receive the help of His bitter suffering and death. He wanted to give Himself for us and He wants us to come and receive His crucified body and shed blood that we might be healed. That is what His Words say, and believing these words, we are worthy to receive these most holy gifts, because we are the poor miserable ones to whom He says “This is for you.”
Amen. Soli Deo Gloria