St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Luke 8:4-15
Feb. 19, 2017
“Broken Hearts are Good Soil”
The Word they still shall let remain
Nor any thanks have for it;
He’s by our side upon the plain
With His good gifts and Spirit.
And take they our life,
Goods, fame, child, and wife,
Though these all be gone,
Our vict’ry has been won;
The Kingdom ours remaineth. LSB 656 st 4
Surely the people is grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever (Is. 40:7-8). Jesus’ parable this morning reveals the mystery of how the eternal Word of God is given to us, who are otherwise grass that withers and fades.
Jesus preaches to the great crowd that has gathered to him from cities all around that the Word of God is spread like seed when a farmer goes out in the spring and sows his fields.
But Jesus doesn’t explain this to the crowd. He just tells them a story about a sower casting seed into the field. Most of the seed lands somewhere where it doesn’t grow up into a crop. Then Jesus calls out, He who has hears, let him hear!
Only to His disciples does Jesus explain the meaning of his story. To you it has been given to know [or understand] the mystery of the kingdom of God, but for others it is in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’ Jesus is quoting the prophet Isaiah, who tells how he saw God in the temple and the seraphim flying around His throne singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God of Sabaoth!” Then, says Isaiah:
I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” 9 And he said, “Go, and say to this people:
“‘Keep on hearing,[c] but do not understand; keep on seeing,[d] but do not perceive.’ 10 Make the heart of this people dull,[e] and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.”
Wait! God told Isaiah to preach His Word so that they would not understand it? So they would not turn to God and be saved?
That’s what it says; and Jesus says that’s why He preached a parable to the crowd—so that seeing they may not see and hearing they may not understand.
That’s not very loving, is it? What it is is a terrifying warning about the consequences of “not having ears to hear.” The consequences of taking lightly the Word of God, of ignoring it, of valuing it less than other things, of treating it as if it is only the word of men. God may cause those who hear His Word but do not listen to it to no longer be able to listen to it, understand it, and be saved by it.]
Then Jesus goes on to explain His parable to His disciples. The seed, He says, is the Word of God.
Why does Jesus tell a parable about proclaiming and preaching God’s Word? It isn’t as if God’s Word was never preached before Jesus came. It’s not new. God sent prophets to proclaim His Word since the beginning of the world.
But there is something new here. God sent the prophets to proclaim His promise that salvation would come for the world in the future. The seed of a woman would crush the head of the ancient serpent; the offspring or seed of Abraham would bring blessing, salvation to all the nations of the earth to replace the curse that all human beings were under. The descendant of Abraham, born of a woman, would bring God’s Kingdom to the earth. Satan would no longer control us. In place of sin ruling in human hearts there would be righteousness; instead of death there would be eternal life. Instead of God being absent from us and angry with us, God would dwell in the midst of us and have pleasure in us.
That is what God told His people through the prophets would happen in the future. But Jesus proclaimed and preached: that day is now. Now forgiveness of sins is happening. Satan is being cast down. Death is being overcome. Sinners are declared righteous. God is present with and pleased with all who believe this good news.
That was and is the Word of God that Jesus preached and still preaches, which endures forever. But there is something else amazing and mysterious about this Word of God.
You know the story of creation. When God wanted to create the world, He didn’t get out a plumb line, a saw, a hammer and some nails. He spoke. And nothing disobeyed His Word. The light didn’t say, “No, I won’t shine.” The waters didn’t say, “I don’t want to be gathered together and let the dry land appear.” When God spoke, creation obeyed. God’s Word is omnipotent, almighty. What God speaks happens.
But when God speaks to human beings, it’s different. God allows His almighty Word to be resisted and rejected by human beings, who were made out of dirt. He says, “You are forgiven and saved,” yet many people say, “No.” Or more likely they say nothing, because they aren’t listening. Or laugh and say, “Listen to that fanatic, that crazy fool,” or “This has been going on for 17 and a half minutes already.”
And so it happens that God’s almighty, eternal Word that gives pardon from sin, brings God into our hearts, saves us from being damned forever on the day of judgment gets sidelined, thrown into a closet in the Church, rejected.
Jesus says God’s Word is a seed. When it is sown, when it is thrown onto ears and hearts through preaching, it lands in many ears and hearts where it is not permitted to do what it is meant to do. It is meant to fall into the ear canal and find its way into the heart. There it will grow up like a plant into eternal life and joy and with it bring fruit to the praise of God—much fruit, a hundredfold.
The Word is the Word of Jesus; it brings Him and His full atonement for our sins, accomplished in His death in our place on the cross, where God’s anger against not listening to His Word and believing it was poured out in full on Him. In those who hear and believe is planted the death and forgiveness of their sins. Where this is planted in the heart, the Holy Spirit who is present in the seed of the Word causes a new life to grow in our hearts that were formed from dirt. In the midst of these bodies of dust and ash which rebel against God, love self more than our neighbor, the life of Jesus grows. We begin to love God, desire His Word, find comfort and pleasure in it; we trust Him and call on Him with confidence that He will hear and help, and we begin to seek our neighbor’s good—his well-being here on earth and in spiritual things.
But Jesus says this doesn’t happen in most people to whom God’s Word comes. Many people have hearts like the hard-packed dirt of a footpath, made rock-hard by the weight of many feet. They hear the Word of God, but it never enters their heart. It just lies there on the top of the hard crust of their hearts. They don’t understand it, and even if they do, they don’t put their trust in the message it proclaims. Then the demons swoop in and take the Word of God away. If our eyes were open to this, we would see how every Sunday morning demons descend on so many hearers of God’s Word like crows and grackles to take away God’s Word from their hearts.
Others receive God’s Word and believe with joy for a time. They hear that salvation is accomplished, finished by Jesus, and they rejoice. But beneath the soil at the surface of their hearts is rock that prevents the Word of God from taking deep root. God’s Word is planted, but it gets no moisture. The seed is not watered; they do not continue to hear and learn the Word of God. They may keep hearing it, but it doesn’t get in; they don’t acknowledge their need for ongoing daily repentance and renewal. So when it gets hot and they are tested by suffering or persecution, the new life of faith dies.
And then there are those among whom God’s Word takes root and grows, but alongside it also grow the weeds of worry about this life, the desire for wealth and pleasure here on earth. These weeds are not pulled out. They are there in the heart with God’s Word—worry, love of wealth and pleasure. And the Word of God is not able to grow with these things. It grows stunted, sickly, fruitless. The Word of God in their hearts becomes knowledge that produces no fruit—in essence, another weed.
There is only one kind of soil, one kind of heart, that receives God’s Word to salvation—the good soil, the noble and good heart. Hearts that are not packed down and hardened against God’s Word; hearts that are not rocky and unwilling to continue in daily repentance for sin and renewal by God’s Word; hearts that are not divided by obsession with the worries and pleasures of this life.
In this parable Jesus is comforting future preachers, who will experience how few people seem to receive the Word of God, continue with it, and bear fruit. But He is also calling us to examine ourselves, to ask ourselves, How do I receive God’s Word? Do I bring forth fruit that testifies that my faith in Jesus is living and genuine?
It is a question that requires serious attention from us and honest self-examination. It is a question that Jesus brings before us not to kill us, but to save us. And this self-examination will have this effect on nearly everyone who honestly does it, as they prepare to receive the body and blood of Jesus each week—we will be disturbed. At how often we fall into the same sins—perhaps at how we live in those sins without repentance, bearing fruit for the devil. And at how little of the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, self-control, thankfulness and praise to God we bear. How little we endure suffering without complaining, trusting in God; how little we can endure mistreatment from other people and still love them.
This kind of disturbance is good, if it is excited by the Holy Spirit and not by our own efforts to feel the right way. We are not born good soil to receive God’s Word. We can’t make ourselves good soil either. It is God’s work.
But what makes a heart “noble and good” is conviction of sin that makes us hunger and thirst for forgiveness and the freedom to bear fruit for God. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled, said Jesus. The poor sinner who is terrified of his sins, who runs to Jesus continually for forgiveness and help, and believes that He will help, He says has “a noble and good heart.” Such a sinner is glad to receive Jesus’ help, glad to confess his sins and be absolved, comes to Jesus wherever Jesus is planting and watering. This is why a long time ago I tried to teach about the benefit of private confession and absolution. I was speaking from my experience, and echoing another teacher who also knew what it was to be terrified at his lack of fruitfulness. He wrote:
Thus we teach what a wonderful, precious, comforting thing confession is, and we urge that such a precious blessing should not be despised, especially when we consider our great need. If you are a Christian, you need neither my compulsion nor the Pope’s command at any point, but you will force yourself to go and ask me that you may share in it…If you are a Christian, you should be glad to run more than a hundred miles to confession, not under compulsion, but rather coming and compelling us to offer it…Therefore, when I exhort you to go to confession, I am doing nothing but exhorting you to be a Christian. If I bring you to this point, I have also brought you to confession. For those who really want to be upright Christians and free from their sins, and who want to have a joyful conscience, truly hunger and thirst already. They snatch at the bread, just like a hunted deer, burning with heat and thirst, as Psalm 42 says, “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.”
That’s what Martin Luther thought about confession.
But God is so gracious that both the seed of His Word and the flowing streams that water it and make it grow in our heart don’t come to us in only one way. He plants the Word in our heart in Baptism and in teaching His Word; He waters it through preaching, teaching, and His Holy Supper.
In all these things, He tells us the joyful news—your sins have been taken away by my blood. You are liberated from death and Satan. It has happened as surely as I died, was buried, and rose again. All who receive this eternal Word with noble and good hearts that hunger and thirst for forgiveness and desire to bear fruit to God will find that this Word will not return to God empty or in vain—in this world or on the day of judgment.
Soli Deo Gloria
I was thinking of a story I wanted to use in a sermon maybe, and I wanted to see when the last time was that I told it, because I was pretty sure I had told it before. Lo! Apparently the last time was in August, 2007! That was when I had been a pastor a whole year. That was a lifetime ago.
The sermon was not bad. Actually, technically it could well be better than my sermons now. It was certainly shorter. On the other hand it seems to stick closely to the pattern of sermon I heard preached at seminary. That may be why it is better technically, but it also seems derivative.
Yet I can see that I was trying to (even then) communicate with the congregation, not preach over everyone’s head. I’m not sure how successful that’s been over the years.
Anyway, I look at this and think that I haven’t changed much technically or theologically. If anything I’ve gotten worse technically. On the other hand I feel when reading it that it was a different man who wrote and preached it. I hadn’t yet experienced very much tentatio or suffering. The theology is orthodox, but the preacher had not yet suffered much of anything in the ministry. I thought I had though. It will be interesting to see what I think in another decade if the Lord sees fit to have me preaching then still.
I know what it is that strikes me as off about this sermon. Even though it is probably better technically than my sermons now, the difference is that I can tell that when I wrote it I still was naive and thought that all I would have to do is preach it a couple of times and then people would get it. You can also see me banging the drum about “Lutheranism”; that was back when I thought that I could convince people that they should care about being a Lutheran. You can also see me subtly (or not so subtly) rag on the congregation for thinking they know everything and being unwilling to learn, a theme that I have undoubtedly returned to again and again. And it has seemingly had little effect beyond making many people angry.
I post it mainly for myself. But any other pastor who reads this and still feels like he just left seminary but really has been at it over five years may be inspired to go look at a really old sermon.
When you come out of seminary you don’t know that it costs you to preach. I mean, the cost we pay is really nothing if we look at it correctly and don’t whine, considering the exceedingly great glory of the Word that we are allowed to speak.
But I think I didn’t really understand that it was God’s Word then, so I thought my performance in writing or speaking would do something. That was a very painful lesson that I don’t know if I’m done learning–the lesson of running into a ten feet thick titanium wall for years–that it is God’s Word, and He has it work in spite of me (thanks be to God), and not how I want it to work. I knew this theological concept but it was a painful lesson to learn, or begin to learn, in experience.
I didn’t understand that cost associated with preaching the Word of God. And I also didn’t understand a different kind of cost– that it was necessary to experience pain and weakness and failure and utter inability to see anything, to know whether you were doing it right or wrong. Of course I knew, theologically, that if the sermon was Scriptural and the law and gospel rightly divided then you were doing it right. I hadn’t felt what it was like to have the Word rejected and agonize about your failures, to blame your lack of preparation and so forth, and to see your clumsiness in handling God’s Word. I knew theologically that preaching and suffering went together, but I hadn’t experienced it yet. And I am sure that that remains true. Dr. Kleinig said something to us at the Ft. Wayne class about Exodus. He asked whether we had suffered as a result of preaching, whether we had had major conflicts and faced opposition. Then he said, We assume that as we get older, we’ll have fewer problems like that because we’ll gain experience. But, he said, the hardest trials come as you have been in the ministry a long time, and as you approach the end of your years of service.
So, I haven’t experienced anything yet! Quit whining! is the moral of the story.
I wish that I could help someone else escape the pain that comes from preaching God’s Word and having to learn the hard way that it is not your Word, and therefore you can’t make it do anything, and it’s necessary for you to be afflicted by the devil so that you do not “become too elated at the surpassing greatness” of the Lord who is pleased to raise the dead through your lips. But I suspect that I cannot help anyone escape it, except maybe to comfort someone else who is in the middle of it and let them know that it is the Lord’s work when you fail.
The beautiful thing is that it is really the Lord’s Word, even if it is despised and seems to bear no fruit. Even if you have no talent as a preacher or a pastor or an administrator, and you appear to ruin more than you build up, it is Jesus Christ’s word that you have to preach. And He preaches it to us as well as to the congregation.
One of the most shocking things about preaching is when, after years of everyone esentially telling you your sermons are “all right” and everyone else saying they are garbage behind your back, and when even your wife doesn’t like your sermons, somebody in the congregation was edified–maybe even comforted–and it was a person who doesn’t like you.
So it is really the Lord’s Word, and He has to keep us aware of the fact that the treasure is from Him and not from us, and therefore it is driven home again and again that we are jars of clay. In my case more like a potsherd or a broken vessel.
I’ve noticed a strange thing in the time I’ve been in the ministry that I didn’t notice before. Maybe you’ve noticed it too.
Kids believe in ghosts and spirits much more than they did when I was a kid. People pretended to believe in ghosts when I was a kid, but I don’t think that many people really believed in them. Certainly not that you could communicate with them. We believed in demons—at least, Christian kids did—but it was kind of an esoteric thing. I played with a Ouija board once, but I was just messing around. And there was also this superstition that if you went into a dark room and looked at a mirror and said, “Bloody Mary” a certain number of times you would see a demon or a spirit.
Times have changed. I’ve met a lot of kids who not only believe in ghosts but claim to have seen them, or communicated with them.
And demons are much less esoteric. A few months ago a bunch of pastors were up in Wisconsin listening to Dr. John Kleinig talk about the ministry of deliverance from demons, about the increase in overt demonic oppression encountered by pastors in Australia (and the United States).
But what seems to me the strangest of all is the prayer to the dead engaged in by lifelong American Lutherans who are sixty or seventy or eighty years old.
The reason this is so strange is because, typically, Lutherans who are above age 50 or so hate everything that smacks of Catholicism. Yet I frequently hear parishioners speak of dead loved ones as if they continue to communicate with each other. The loved one is spoken to in prayer, and sometimes speaks back by phenomena in the physical world—lights flickering, changes in the weather.
This less rationalistic take on the souls of the dead is I think quite different from what pastors a generation ago encountered. In his Church Postil sermon for Epiphany, Luther has an eye-opening digression where he talks about the souls of the dead and what to make of spirits claiming to be the souls of dead loved ones, as well as spirits that haunt houses or cause strange noises. This would probably have been a section of the postil where in previous generations we would have simply assumed that Luther lived in a more superstitious age, and these things just don’t apply to us. But if you have experienced your parishioners praying to dead relatives or communicating, supposedly, with ghosts, then this section of the sermon will be enlightening.
This openness toward communication with the dead has some positive implications. It means that the rationalism that controlled so much of our thinking is mostly dead. People are able to conceptualize the ongoing existence of souls whose body has died. They are able to think of invisible spirits continuing to exist without being utterly divorced from us. This is positive. It means that when we speak of the communion of saints we will not meet the same wall of resistance. If people think dead loved ones can be spoken to, it means that they are not closed to the idea that the angels and the holy, departed souls are present with us together with Jesus. And it also means that the Calvinist notion that Jesus and the saints are somehow locked away in another plane of existence called heaven no longer has a death grip on people.
But unfortunately the superstition about the dead that I keep encountering has a lot of negative ramifications as well.
http://www.memritv.org/clip/en/3644.htm (I thought the video was on here when I published this post! Sorry. )
O Zionists, we love death for the sake of Allah just as much as you love life for the sake of Satan. We long for martyrdom for the sake of Allah just as much as you hate death, O enemies of Allah….I am just a small child, but nevertheless…If it were up to me, I would come to you [Palestinians] and I would fight alongside you in the battlefield. –Wee Egyptian TV preacher Ibrahim Adham
I heard a Lutheran 6 year old preach a sermon in response to this video. Unfortunately I didn’t record it. But below is the transcript.
“O Turks, why do you protest so loudly that you love death? That is not something to brag about. By saying this you show that you are Satan’s children, since he is a liar and a murderer from the beginning.
O Mohammedans, the true God does not love death. Idols love death, especially the death of children. The Jews who did not know their God sacrificed their children to Moloch, and you, O Mohammedans, are the spiritual children of those unfaithful Jews who offered up their children to a bloodthirsty god.
O Saracens, the true God loves life and blesses little children. This God Whom you do not know said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not forbid them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child shall never enter it.’
O prisoners of the bloodthirsty idol Allah, the living and true God said, ‘Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven, for He makes His sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain upon the just and the unjust.’
O you who have been ensnared by the false prophet Muhammad! The true God became man and died on the cross–not because He loves death, but because He loves human beings who are made slaves through the fear of death. O deceived ones! You may love death, but you are still slaves to its fear. That the dead will rise is certain, but whether God will raise you to paradise or the fires of hell you do not know. O false ones! Your conscience does not let you rest. You run toward death and push your children ahead of you because you seek to atone for your sins with your own blood!
O you who submit to the devil’s yoke! O you among the Mohammedans whose consciences are not yet completely seared! Your heart condemns you that you have done evil deeds which God must surely bring to justice. Let the pain of your conscience remain as a witness to the truth that Islam cannot deliver you from your sins. Do not believe the false hope that death for Allah will result in certain salvation for you. If Allah could take away sins he would have done so for you already.
O you whom Christians should pity, even while you rape their daughters, bear false witness against their husbands, and steal their property! The only Muslims who have relief from the accusations of their consciences are those who have destroyed their consciences and have lost the ability to see that ablutions and prayers and special diets do not erase sin or give the conscience rest. Or else they are those who are convinced that “martyrdom” is an assured path to salvation. But when a Mohammedan’s body falls to the ground while waging jihad, his soul is carried away by angels not to paradise but to the laughing mouth of Satan, who says, “Well done, my faithful martyr!”
O Moors, Turks, and Saracens! Christian martyrs die willingly for Christ because they have already died with Him. O idolaters! Christians wear crosses not because we love death and execution, but because by the true God’s death on the cross, death’s power and fear is taken away.
O blind, most miserable Muslims, who intend to die for God but do not know Him! The true God was crucified, dead, and buried, and rose again on the third day, and destroyed death. O lost ones! For Christians death is no longer death. Christians have been born a second time. They are sons of God, not His slaves.
O Mohammedans! the true God was born a human being to live in the midst of His enemies.
O you lovers of violence! The true God died for His enemies. Because all men were His enemies–Jews, Christians, Mohammedans. But He had compassion on all the sons of Adam and gave Himself as a burnt offering to take away their sins.
O murderers of Christians, oppressors of the helpless! You have blasphemed the true God and shed the blood of His saints! Yet He seeks your salvation. His believers with whose blood you paint church walls seek your salvation. They pray for you. Even though you have made your children preachers of murder and worshippers of death, the living God suffered for you to rescue you from the eternal fire.
O Janissaries and Assasins, do not believe that God will receive you into Paradise when you embrace death for the sake of Allah and when you murder in the name of Allah.
O you who desire to be martyrs! The true God only receives those who embrace His death in their place. His true martyrs suffer or die not to earn something but because they have already been given everything in Jesus Christ crucified.
O Mohammedans, Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father and will come to judge the living and the dead. This Jesus is the true God, and no one can know God unless they know Him.
O Muslims! If you would submit to God, you must know who He is. He makes Himself known through the cross. Through Jesus the true God is known–the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are not three gods, but one God; not one person but three.
O Mohammedans, do not think that you can philosophize with God. Do not think that you will be able to present yourselves before God without shame for your sins on judgment day. O Mohammedans! God does not judge like men. He will not overlook sin or take a bribe, or accept suicide and murder as a ransom. He will not accept your arguments that “God cannot have a son.” God knows far better than you what He can and cannot do.
O blind-hearted Muslims, like all Adam’s race blind to God because of self-love! The Trinity, the God you do not know, is love. He loves you, O Arabs, O Mohammedans, and He seeks your blessing. Wearing the scars from nails which pierced Him He loves you, even now. Even though you have burned churches and blown His believers apart in the countries where they pay you tribute, Jesus the Lord God still loves you and wants you to live. So he allows you to kill His people so that they may bear witness to you that He died to save the whole world. He allows you to display your remarkable zeal for your idol and your false prophet by slaughtering Christians like lambs, spilling and spattering their blood on your streets and walls, thinking that in doing this you do God service. He hears their blood crying out to Him, and yet He delays your punishment.
Oh Mohammedans, listen to the true God. You love death, but He loves you. He wants you and your children to live.
‘So Jesus again said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers; but the sheep did not heed them. I am the door; if anyone enters by me, he will be saved, and will go in an dout and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father.” ‘ (John 10:7-12, 14-18)
‘At this time Jesus declared, ‘”I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealeed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was thy gracious will. All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Fahter, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”‘ (Matthew 11:25-30)”
- The Prophet Jesus (pbuh) is not Allah, but a manifestation of Allah (islamolife.wordpress.com)
- Muslims do not respect Jesus, Moses, Abraham, and Adam as claimed – only Mohammad (ofthehighest.wordpress.com)
- This Pleases God…Who Desires All Men to Be Saved. Thanksgiving Sermon (deprofundisclamaviadtedomine.wordpress.com)
- Childhood dreams, the Mohammed way: “I am 14 years old, I will blow myself up among Jews” (themuslimissue.wordpress.com)
- Hamas: Killing Jews Is Worship That Draws Us Close To Allah (midnightwatcher.wordpress.com)
- The Jewish view of Islam (onefilm911.wordpress.com)
St. Peter Lutheran Church
Revelation 7:9-17 (St. Matthew 5:1-12)
November 4, 2012
Grace and Peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
In heaven, a multitude which no one could number, from every tribe, language, nation, and people, around the throne of God and the Lamb. These are the saints, the holy assembly, the church built by Jesus to live forever.
They are dressed in long flowing white robes; they have palm branches in their hands. And they shout with loud voices, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne and to the Lamb!”
The palm branches remind us of the Palm Sunday liturgy. When I was a child they had us lead the procession into God’s house carrying palm branches, just as there was a crowd to welcome Jesus to Jerusalem as the Messiah, the promised King. And above all there were children in this crowd, praising the King of the Jews, Jesus. He rode into Jerusalem on a carpet made of their clothes which they spread out before Him in the road, accompanied by waving palms and loud shouts of “Hosanna!” The palm branches are symbols of victory. “Hosanna” is a cry of praise which means “Save us!” It says that the king is the deliverer and savior.
The Gospel of Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem is also the Gospel for the first Sunday in Advent, the beginning of the church year.
What the people cried out on Palm Sunday; what we sang as small children. In heaven the saints sing the same thing to Jesus.
There is a difference, though. The crowd on Palm Sunday did not really understand what they were saying and doing, did they? They were all like children. They shouted, “Hosanna! Save us!” “You are the Messiah! Save us!”
But they didn’t know what they were asking. When Jesus began to fulfill their request, then all these crowds were confounded. Some may have been in the same crowds a few days later that shouted “Crucify him!” Others just stood there and watched the spectacle of Jesus who had ridden into the city and been greeted as Messiah now led out of the city as a cursed and condemned man carrying a cross.
Hosanna! Save us! So Jesus did; He did not drive out the godless, immoral Romans—not in the way they thought. He didn’t solve take away hunger and poverty and sickness—not in the way they thought. He drove out demons and death. He united people from every nation and language and tribe. He made people full and rich, and healed them in the same way that He was full and rich even though He hungered for forty days in the wilderness and even though He had no place to lay his head.
Hosanna! Save us! They were asking, “Sacrifice yourself for us! Spill your blood for us! uffer and die for us!”
They did not realize that is what they were saying. But the saints in heaven know. They shout “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” They are looking at the lamb who was slain, who died like the Passover lamb so that His blood might paint the doors of our houses (Exodus 14); they see the Lamb who makes atonement by His death for our desecration of God’s Holy Name, and Whose blood cleanses us (Leviticus 14: 10, 13-14) from the leprosy and uncleanness of our flesh so that we may come near to God. His blood which was poured out on the altar (Leviticus 8:30) is also taken from the altar of God and sprinkled on us so that our robes are white and we may enter God’s presence as priests. The saints in heaven see the reality. What we ask for when we say “Hosanna!”—the saints in heaven see clearly what the crowd in Jerusalem did not see, and what we see only darkly. They see that “save us, forgive us,” means, “shed your blood for us”. And they see the Lamb who was slain, and can say not “save us!” but “He who sits on the throne and the lamb who was slain have saved us.”
Yet when Jesus answered the prayer of the people in Jerusalem, they drew back. They stood back from His suffering. To have stood with Jesus would have meant to die with Him. The priests plotted His death because they wanted their teaching and authority to stand. Some of the people of Jerusalem shouted for his crucifixion because He did not come to pat them on the back for their goodness and put the Gentiles under their feet and the riches of the earth in their hands. Judas sold Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Jesus was worth less to him than a little sum of money. But Pilate condemned Jesus rather than have the trouble that would have come from doing justice and declaring Him innocent. And Peter denied Jesus; Jesus was worth less to him than his honor and his life. And the rest of Jesus’ disciples ran away, except for John and Mary and a few women. And they did not die with Jesus. All they could do was watch.
Why did everyone run away or desert Jesus, or at best just watch? Because they wanted to keep their lives; they loved their lives more than Jesus.
We cry “Save us” to Jesus too, and we do it in the presence of the angels and the saints in heaven. “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the Highest!” We sing it every week or nearly every week. And Jesus comes with life and salvation, giving us His body and blood, forgiving our sins, purifying us.
But are we really different from the Palm Sunday crowds, and the disciples, who backed away from Jesus when He answered their cry for salvation? They wanted to save their own lives.
And don’t we do the same? We eat Jesus’ body and drink His blood. But when Jesus answers our cry “Save us! Hosanna!” He not only gives us His body and blood, but the tribulation that came to Him comes to us. And when the tribulation comes, don’t you back away?
When the tribulation is that you must trust that Jesus has washed you with His blood even though you are poor and helpless and God does not make you rich and prosperous? Or when the tribulation is that you must suffer wrongdoing from someone and forgive them, pray for them, love them, not speak evil of them? When the tribulation is that you must put to death the desires of your flesh—don’t we often do as Jerusalem did? We said, “Hosanna! Save us!” But then when Jesus gives us His body and blood and saves us—and when tribulation comes and our earthly safety or happiness is threatened—we turn away from Jesus and trust other things to be our savior. We prefer our life and preserving it to Jesus and His cross.
How can we be saints then? How can we stand among the angels—even more, before the throne of God and the Lamb who was slain—and sing His praises when our hearts continue to shout “Blessing and glory to God—and some to me also”?
That was the question that Luther agonized over, and some of us do too.
No one can be a saint who wants to continue in his sin and who wants to go on justifying himself and saving himself. That is what the priests in Jesus’ day did. And the tax collectors and prostitutes and idol worshippers who did not want to give up their theft and adultery and false gods could not be saved, because they already had their gods and saviors. The rich young man would not follow Jesus’ instructions for eternal life because what he loved most of all was his great riches.
But then what about those who want Jesus’ salvation but fall into sin—repeatedly turning away from Jesus and warming their hands at the fire, making ourselves comfortable instead of bearing the cross?
The saints who come out of the great tribulation wash their robes and make them white in the blood of the lamb.
With our falling, we go like Peter to Jesus for mercy. “Lord, to whom shall we go?”
And He washes us in His blood. And His blood does not stain our clothes. His blood washes out our stains, our filth, our guilt.
Jesus washed us in His holy blood in Baptism. Just as the Passover blood stained the doorposts of the Israelite houses but caused the angel of death to Passover, Jesus blood was smeared over us in Baptism. We were born in uncleanness and death. But in Jesus’ flesh and blood is righteousness and life. And when He suffered, His blood was sufficient for forgiveness of the sins of all men. It paid for their sins to be forgiven. It paid for human beings to be cleansed.
That blood washed over us and all the saints in Baptism. And when we stumble and fall and turn away—as we do daily, sometimes knowingly, sometimes unknowingly—there is only one remedy—the blood which was shed for us and which drenched us in Baptism.
Whenever you hear, “Your sins are forgiven,” you are not simply hearing, “God loves you and doesn’t look at your sins anymore.” You are hearing, “The blood of Jesus was shed for you. It is poured over you. It drenches your body and your garments. And it makes God’s wrath pass over you. And on judgment day you will stand with robes whiter than any man can bleach them (Mark) as Jesus did in His transfiguration.”
The saints in heaven—that is their righteousness. That is their only righteousness. The saints in heaven are those who constantly turned not to their attempts to change, or their sorrow over their sins for salvation. They cried, “Hosanna! Save us!” and then they came near to Jesus and were washed in His blood, again and again. They went nowhere else and looked nowhere else.
That is why we can stand among them and the angels, now in the divine service and hereafter in eternity, even while we still have hearts which turn away from Jesus because we still have the sinful flesh.
We are washed in the blood of the lamb in Baptism. We return to it each day.
When we confess, we are splashed with Jesus’ blood and put on His righteousness, believing the absolution, “I forgive you all your sins.” Jesus sprinkles you with His cleansing blood that He shed for your atonement and salvation, for all the sins you could not excuse; for the heart that goes on praising itself while the Spirit of God within us praises the Father.
When we come to this altar, in the company of the saints and angels, Jesus gives us the atoning sacrifice; His body and blood—the life-giving body and blood of true man and true God. This and this alone makes us saints.
This struggle with sin, the suffering that comes from sin and death—the persecution of the ruler of this world and his servants who hate Christ—these give us trouble and great pain until we die.
But today we rejoice in those who have come out of the great tribulation. Blessed are they!
God is their shelter from heat; the Holy God spreads out His glory over them, and they are before His throne day and night—always. They see God and the Lamb. They are in the presence of the fountain of life and the fountain of eternal joy, and they never leave, but see His glory. And the glory of God and His goodness is so great that we have no words to speak of it.
That is what our brothers the saints who are at rest have. They come out of the tribulation. Instead of continually returning to Jesus by faith, and washing their robes in His blood, the Scripture says, “They Have washed.” It is finished. They sing of salvation that has been finished.
They no longer hunger and thirst for righteousness, as we do. But the lamb who was slain, who became one of his flock shepherds them to living water—where thirst is quenched forever. The saints drink of the Holy Spirit and are refreshed. The Lamb who is the shepherd makes them lie down in green pastures. They no longer weep over sin, over the misery and evil in the world, over death. God Himself wipes away all tears from their eyes. God Himself comforts them.
That is how it is for our brothers who are at rest. But they have received their rest from God and the Lamb alone. They received rest because they washed their robes in the blood of the lamb.
That is why we rejoice in the saints. What God has done for them and in them, He has done for us and He is doing in us. He washed us in the blood of His son in Baptism. He is daily putting us to death and raising us from the dead, returning us to Baptism, until the day we no longer say “Save us! Hosanna,” but “Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb!”
Then we shall see Jesus as He is, and we will be like Him—perfectly in His image. It will be glorious. And it already is for John and Mary and Peter. And also for Martin Luther, and our loved ones who this year died in Christ.
But you have what they have if you believe in Jesus Christ and are baptized. Because you have been washed in His blood. You are one with Him and with them. Today He comes to us; and we know that the saints are with us in Him—all of our brothers who died in Christ this past year and this past century and all the way to the beginning of the world.
Praise be to our Lord Jesus Christ, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, who gives us salvation, and victory, and clean white robes and brings us to His glorious table.
The peace of God, which passes understanding , keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Soli Deo Gloria
Finally, and this will have to be brief because I’ve spent time that I don’t have writing this—the preceding discussion has me wondering, “How exactly does Baptism work faith in infants?”
Dr. Marquart, I remember distinctly, said that babies do not have reason and so cannot understand the Word; thus in Baptism the word is applied to them through the water and the child receives faith and the Holy Spirit not through the ears and then the understanding, but through “the skin.” At the time I liked it. Then later I forgot about it. But now I’m wondering whether this might be the fruit of Marquart’s encyclopedic knowledge and decades long meditation on the Confessions and on the Lutheran theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries in the original languages.
I was doing research about this by looking through free books on Google, and I found a book by a Prof. M. J. Firey, who was a professor at a seminary of the General Council (I think). He writes in this book that Luther’s baptismal theology developed through three stages. In the earliest stage, he was still Augustinian, so he distinguished between the sign (baptism with water in the Triune Name) and the signified (regeneration through the Holy Spirit). In the second stage he (according to this guy) tended to stress that the promise (He who believes and is baptized will be saved) was necessary to be added to the sign (baptism) in order to bring comfort to the afflicted sinner. Then in the third stage, he was supposed to have emphasized God’s Word and ordinance in instituting the sacrament and how it transformed the earthly element (or transfigured it). The author points to the Small Catechism.
“What is Baptism? Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included [comprehended?] in God’s command and combined with God’s Word. Where is this written? Christ our Lord says in the last chapter of Matthew: therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
“How can water do such great things? Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with faith, which trusts this word of God in the water. For without God’s Word the water is plain water and no baptism. But with the Word of God it is a baptism; that is, a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of the new birth in the Holy Spirit, as St. Paul writes in Titus, chapter 2: ‘He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal in the Holy Spirit, Whom He poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ, our Savior, so that having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”
Hopefully I remembered the catechism correctly because I didn’t go back and check. But the point is that the water of Baptism is more than plain water—it is life-giving water that effects new birth. I wonder then if that is where Prof. Marquart was getting his idea that in Baptism the Holy Spirit is given “through the skin.”
(In quoting Dr. Marquart, I’m not trying to suggest what he definitely meant or didn’t mean, or that he’d agree with what I’m saying. I’m pretty sure I didn’t hear him wrong, but I never sat down with him and had an extended discussion either.)
Anyway, that last question is something I will have to study some more.
The conclusion is this: I’m not disagreeing that Christ gives infants faith through the external word. I think that that is probably the right way to think about it. The problem is that we are not told exactly how infants are given faith. We have examples of them receiving faith or responding in faith while still in the womb, in response to a spoken Word. We have Jesus imparting blessing and the kingdom of God to babies seemingly through His spoken word and perhaps his touch, even though the babies don’t understand the words.
My concern is the way that we get to this conclusion. It seems that the route is through a theological apothegm which is very important, but which seems to be being misinterpreted and which seems to be now norming the words of Scripture. No Spirit apart from the word is a basic rule of orthodox theology. But it should not be expanded to mean that the Holy Spirit, once received, never does any comforting, leading, or preaching except during Divine Service, Bible class, or devotions. Nor does it mean that the promises Christians have been given regarding the salvation of infants only apply if they can be shown to have been in a church service or heard the bible read. Nor should this passage from the Smalcald Articles be used in such a way that we permit ourselves to believe that our negligence in prayer is not responsible, at least in part, for the feebleness and sickness of confessional Lutheranism, even though we are “zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20), or at least, zealous for pure doctrine.
All of those interpretations of the passage in the Smalcald Articles contradict what Luther repeatedly teaches elsewhere. It is true that we have had great trouble from evangelicals who have gotten us to think of the Spirit apart from the Word. But the situation isn’t helped by denying that the Holy Spirit comforts us inwardly after we have received Him through the external word, or that He leads our prayer, or that He offers unspoken sighs to God from our hearts which God hears, or that our prayers help us and the church, and our failure to pray harms us and the church. I suffered as an evangelical with lack of assurance of salvation. But the problem isn’t helped by denying the Spirit’s work in applying the word or teaching the Christian inwardly, or His work in teaching us to pray and intercede. “Whoever doesn’t pray will certainly lose his faith. Next to the preaching office, prayer is the greatest office in Christendom,” Luther writes (WA 34 , p. 395, 14f).
Finally, we risk undermining our own doctrine of the means of grace when we forget that the Word comes to us in human words. We should not insist or demand that God miraculously supersede the ordinary limits of human language (and human hearers). That’s why it isn’t right for me to walk into the pulpit with no preparation and start making stuff up. Of course the Holy Spirit can make such a sermon good, but it’s tempting God for me not to prepare. Likewise, when I preach too long for my hearers to be able to handle—refusing to recognize the limits of the people I’m preaching to—that is also tempting God. Of course, I’m not able to know how to preach exactly what people need, so after preparing every sermon I have to commend all of it—the writing, the delivery, and the fruit that it bears—into God’s gracious hands. But it’s still wrong if I slack off, because God uses human words to give His Spirit, and those words should be prepared with the same care you would in preparing any other address.
So if we say, “the kids hear the word, so God works faith through that—“ that may not be a bad conclusion. But it is bad if on the way there we reject his promise regarding children, denigrate the promises He has given to prayer, and read Scripture through the lens of our theological presuppositions.
But in saying all this, I don’t intend to direct any criticism at you, Dr. Heidenreich. I think these are dangers for confessional Lutherans in general. We rest on our laurels too much, and have a tendency to develop an idiosyncratic reading of Lutheran theology that does not necessarily fit with the Lutheran fathers (not to mention Scripture) and then look suspiciously at everyone who doesn’t talk the way we do. I guess I’ve been guilty of this. I spent a lot of years driven by hostility toward evangelicalism and as a result rejected things as “evangelical” that were really necessary and salutary for me.
And with that, I thank anyone and everyone who bothered to read all 4500 words of this. I usually think through things as I write and talk, which makes it difficult to keep things to a reasonable length.
Verbum Dei in Utero, part 1:
Verbum Dei in Utero, Part 2
Theology Like a Child:
- Luther: The Faith of Unbaptized Infants (deprofundisclamaviadtedomine.wordpress.com)