Saturday, April 27, 2019

Jesus Is the Alpha and the Omega

Revelation 1:4-18 Do you know the phrases “back on his heels” and “against the ropes”?  They come from the world of boxing and they describes a boxer who is so beaten and battered that he is no longer able to fight back and is about to be knocked out.  Sadly, that’s the way that many Christians think of the church, especially here in the United States.
            In their eyes the church seems beaten down by the culture wars and the fact that millions of our fellow citizens no longer share the same convictions regarding marriage and family and sexuality and the sanctity of life.  The church seems battered by the lack of commitment from its own members.  The church seems broken by the claims of science. 
Beaten, battered, and broken down, too many Christians see the church as “back on its heels” and “against the ropes”—one strong assault away from being knocked out for good.
This is not the first time in the history of the church that Christians have felt this way.  The disciples felt this way after Jesus’ crucifixion.  The day of our Lord’s resurrection found them hiding out for fear of the Jews.  The reign of Nero led them to the same place of fear and worry.  They wondered:  How could the church stand against the Roman Empire and its emperor who accused them of burning down Rome?  Beaten, battered, and broken down.
So it was in the final years of the first century A.D.  Domitian was the emperor and he was committed to the old pagan religion of Rome and so he persecuted Christians even more severely than Nero and exiled and executed their leaders.
That is the context for the Book of Revelation:  the church seemingly back on its heels, against the ropes, persecuted by the most powerful empire of the day, its members and leaders going through great tribulation. 
It was at that moment—when all seemed lost—that God had a message for the church—a message that is still timely for our day because it is a message of hope in the resurrected Christ who promised that not even the gates of hell would prevail against his people the church—not then and not now.  John wrote: 
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.  To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.  Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen.  “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”
            One thing that happens to us when we are going through hard times is that we lose perspective.  The crisis becomes everything.  The blessings and good times of the past fade from view- and the future has a dark cloud over it that hides its blessings from our eyes- and all that we can see and know and experience is the tribulation of the moment.  That is the way that many Christians feel about the church.
            But the hope we have in the resurrected Christ is that he is the God over all of it—the past, the present and the future—he is the one who was and is and who is to come—and his powerful presence and bountiful blessings can be counted on today and always!
The persecuted Christians of John’s day and the worried Christians of our own day need to be reminded of what Jesus Christ has already done:  that he has accomplished our salvation by the shedding of his blood—that he has brought us into God’s kingdom and made us his priests.  These are the accomplished facts of salvation history! 
We also need to be reminded of the glorious future still to come—that Christ’s work of salvation is not just what is in the past-- but also our hope for the future--that has prepared a place for us in heaven. 
When we feel that the church is about to be overcome, it is the greatest encouragement in the world to remember that Jesus is coming with power and glory to destroy our enemies once for all and take his people to heaven.  The gates of hell will not prevail against the people of God!
That Jesus is the Lord of the past and Lord of the future matters as we view our present struggles—for he is Lord of this moment as well—whether it is a time of persecution and exile like it was for the Christians of John’s day--or a time of trouble like it is for the church today. 
Jesus is Lord and the ruler of the kings of the earth.  In other words, it is Jesus who is in charge of this world at any given moment and we can count on his promise that whatever we undergo as the people of God- it must serve his saving purpose for us and the world. 
That is why the Lord showed this vision to John—so that the Christians in every time and place could have courage and be strengthened to fight on another day.  Jesus told him:
Write what you see and send it to the churches.  Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest.  The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.
      I don’t know how you picture Jesus in your mind’s eye but I doubt that very many of us picture him like this!  And yet this is just as true a picture of Jesus as the Babe of Bethlehem and the humble carpenter of Galilee and the Good Shepherd and the dying man of the cross. 
The fact of the matter is that this is how the resurrected Christ is right now.  He is the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, the One who was and is and will be, the absolute ruler of the kings of the earth—powerful and wise and mighty!
He revealed himself this way once before on the Mount of Transfiguration as just a few disciples saw him for who is truly is right now and always will be:  his face shining like the sun and fire coming from his eyes and his feet like burnished bronze.  
You can imagine why this image of our Savior was such a comfort for the persecuted Christians of John’s day.  They were facing execution and exile from the most powerful man in the world—a man whose image they saw everywhere they looked, on their coinage and in statues —a man whose image struck terror in their hearts. 
It wasn’t the image of a peasant baby or a crucified man who would drive the terrifying image of their enemy from their minds—it was this picture of the King of kings and Lord of lords that gave them the courage they needed to face persecution.  So it is for us too!
There is nothing weak about the resurrected Christ—he does not appear as “gentle Jesus meek and mild”.  The resurrected Christ is the One who truly rules the kings of the earth, the One who strikes terror in the hearts of his enemies, and the One who is mighty and powerful and strong to save.  That was a comfort of the people of John’s day and so it is in our own. 
What are the forces of evil- and the faithlessness of our fellow citizens-and the apostasy of so many former believers-- compared to the resurrected Christ?  How can we ever doubt that the resurrected Christ is not more than able to provide for and protect his people?  Why should we be back of our heels and against the ropes when Jesus is with us right now?
John saw that Jesus was in the midst of the seven golden lampstands and he held seven stars in his hand.  And so what were the lampstands and the stars?  Listen to how Revelation begins:  John to the seven churches that are in Asia.  The seven lampstands were the seven churches and the seven stars were their pastors.  And it’s not an accident that there are seven-- but that biblical number of completeness tells us that these words are for every church and every pastor in every time and place.
The point is this:  whether it was the persecuted Christians of John’s day or the troubled Christians of our own day we can be confident that the resurrected Christ is with his people.
When we are going through hard times, when it seems as if the church is losing ground to the godless culture around us, when we face persecution for our faith- it is easy to fall victim to the temptation that God has somehow abandoned us; that we are all on our own; that it all depends upon us.  Nothing could be farther from the truth!
The resurrected Christ is with us, upholding us in his Almighty hands, accomplishing his saving work by the sharp two-edged sword which is the word of God which will accomplish the saving purpose for which he sends it.  There is nothing for us to fear—whether it’s the difficulties of the moment or the uncertainties of the future-nothing for us to fear!  John says that when he saw the resurrected Christ:
I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.
            Fear not!  So said Jesus to his frightened disciples on the day of his resurrection—so he said to the persecuted Christians of John’s day—so he says to the Christians of our own day.  Fear not! 
The resurrected Christ has paid for your sins by his shed blood and made you to be a part of his kingdom.  He has defeated death for you so that you can face eternity knowing that there is another life to come.  He is ruling this world right now (including everything that is impacting your life) in such a way that IT MUST work for your good.  And he has robbed the devil of any power that he might have over your life.  Fear not!
I know it seems at times that in the life of the church at large and in our own lives of faith we are “back on our heels” and “against the ropes”.  But it is exactly in those moments that these words are spoken to us and this vision is set before our eyes so that that we can know and believe that there is hope for the church in the resurrected Christ.  May God grant us faith to live without fear!  In Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Christ Has Been Raised from the Dead!

1 Corinthians 15:19-26 I will never forget one Easter Sunday after church when I was a boy.  We were riding in the car on the way to hunt Easter eggs at the Botanical Gardens in Ft. Worth and we were listening to Dr. Barry Bailey on the radio who was the pastor of First Methodist Church in Ft. Worth. 
And in his Easter Sunday sermon he said that it didn’t really matter whether Jesus was raised from the dead or not.  What mattered is that Jesus rose in your heart each day. 
Then and now I have no idea what he meant by Jesus rising in our hearts-- but I knew exactly what he meant when he said that it didn’t matter or not whether Jesus had been raised it—and I knew how wrong he was! 
The Bible says:  If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.  Do you understand what Paul is saying? 
Of all the people in the world—those who suffer and those who hunger and those who are imprisoned and those who are poor—of all the people who are misled by false religions and all people who live only for themselves—of all the people in the world-- we Christians are the most to be pitied if Jesus didn’t rise from the dead.
If Jesus is for us only a wise teacher or a wonderful example to follow—if he is only the path for a good life here on earth—then we Christians, among all the people in the world, are the most to be pitied. 
If Christ has not been raised we are fools!  If Christ has not been raised we are delusional and deceivers in our own right.  If Christ has not been raised we are wasting our time right here and right now. 
That is how important the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is!  There is NO Christianity without the bodily resurrection of Jesus!  There is NO hope for life after death, there is only this life and nothing  most to be pitied.  --of more.  If Christ has not been raised from the dead, then Christians and our religion are worth nothing more than the pitiful contempt of our fellow man.  But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead,   
But in fact, Christ has been raised from the dead!  The man who suffered and died on Calvary’s cross was taken down by his friends, carried to his grave by his disciples, prepared for burial by those who loved him most, and was placed in a borrowed tomb.  He died and was buried.
But early in the morning on the first day of the week, that exact same man, with that exact same body, still bearing the marks of his violent death--physicarst day of the week, that exact same man with that exact same body still bearing the marks of thlly rose from the dead. 
He appeared to his followers and even though they couldn’t at first believe their eyes, they recognized him and told others.  And then he appeared to more and more of them in the days that followed and finally there were over five hundred witnesses that Jesus had in fact been raised from the dead.
Countless believers in that first century alone were subjected to torture and suffered martyrdom death but would never deny that Jesus had been raised because they knew he had!  And what’s more they knew that he was only the beginning of those who would rise from their graves.  The Bible says that Jesus is the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.
This language of firstfruits is from an Old Testament harvest festival where the priest would take some of the very first fruits from a harvest and wave them before the Lord as a visible sign to the whole community that the harvest was at hand and that the Lord could be counted on to bring forth a bountiful harvest just like the first fruits.
That changes death forever from an eternal judgment that renders our lives meaningless to a peaceful rest for our bodies.
That is who Jesus is and that is what his resurrection is.  Jesus is the very firstfruits of an entire harvest of people just like him who will rise from their graves.  He is the living proof of the faithfulness of God who promised to give life to his people who are broken by sin and death.  The Bible says that:
For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 
            Sin and death go together.  The Bible says that the wages of sin is death and it has been that way all the way back to Adam and Eve. 
God warned them that disobedience would bring death but they turned their back on God’s warning and went their own way and disobeyed God and brought death into the world for themselves and every one of their children including us here today and for all those we love.  And that was the uninterrupted trajectory of the world from almost the very beginning.
But with the resurrection of Jesus Christ all of that has changed.  Jesus is the new Adam whose obedience and holiness and perfect sacrifice has changed the direction of ourd holiness and perfect sacrfice eathiinheir back on God' lives from death to life.
Now, it is true that there is an order to this:  the resurrection of Jesus from the grave comes first-- but there will be a harvest of people just like him who will also come forth from their graves because they belong to Christ. 
But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.
Brothers and sisters in Christ that is you and me.  The Bible says that if we have been united with Christ in a death like his we will certainly be united to Christ in a resurrection life his.
That is exactly what the Holy Spirit has done for us in Holy Baptism.  He has laid claim to us and said, now you belong to Christ and you will live with him forever!
At the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ each and every one of us sitting here today will rise from our graves just as Christ rose from his grave with a glorified body no longer subject to sin and death and we will live (body and soul) with our risen Savior in heaven. 
On that day the fullness of Christ’s redeeming work in his death and resurrection that we know by faith will be seen by all.  The Bible says that on that day he will:
…deliver the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.
            We tend to forget this powerful picture of the Lord especially during Holy Week.  We seem him ride into Jerusalem in great humility.  We see him taunted and spit upon and beaten.  We see him die a criminal’s death. 
But in those same moments he is God’s great champion who is doing everything necessary to defeat our enemies and on this day we celebrate his victory.  One of the great hymns form the old Lutheran hymnals that didn’t make it into our new hymnal summarizes these verses like this:
Who Is this that comes from Edom,
All His raiment stained with blood;
To the captive speaking freedom,
Bringing and bestowing good;
Glorious in the garb He wears,
Glorious in the spoil He bears?
'Tis the Savior, now victorious,
Traveling onward in His might;
'Tis the Savior; oh, how glorious
To His people is the sight!
Satan conquered and the grave,
Jesus now is strong to save.
            Brothers and sisters in Christ, on this day when Christ came forth from the tomb he came as God’s own great conquering champion—the victor over death and the grave, the destroyer of Satan and the dread warrior of the heavenly armies who has the victory over all his foes. 
That is who Jesus is, that is what he accomplished, and the spoils of that victory will be manifest on the last day.
On that day every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and every knee will bend before him and every mouth will confess that is he is the one true sovereign Lord.
For those who are part of his kingdom through faith, it will be the greatest day in the history of the world.  Sin and death will have no part of our life.  We will live in the th, it will be the greatest day in the history of the world.  Sin and death wilpresence of God forever.  And we will be reunited with those we love who shared our faith.
But for those who are the enemies of Christ, the day of our Lord’s return will the day of their eternal destruction. 
Until that day he rules the world at this moment with his enemies under his feet so that all of their evil plans and all of their destructive ways must is moment with his enemies under his feet so that all of their evil plans and all of their destrucive angels to be tormenteserve his own good and loving purpose for our lives in bringing us to himself as even death does right now.
Despite what the Barry Bailey’s of the world would tell us, the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is the single most important event in human history.  It is God’s own resounding declaration that our sins are forgiven, death is conquered, and our eternal life with God secured.  Amen.

Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted

Friday, April 19, 2019

Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted

Isaiah 53:2a-6 When I was serving as a pastor in south Texas, one of the area congregations de-commissioned and after they closed they offered us their altar crucifix—a really beautiful piece of church art.  I was thrilled to have it but several people in my congregation were not.
            They told me it was too catholic.  And I said, “Well, we have stained glass windows like the catholics and an altar and baptismal font like the catholics and paraments like the catholics, should we get rid of all of those to?”  They didn’t want to do that.
“Okay then”, I said, “let’s accept this gift”.  Then they took another tack.  “But Jesus is no longer on the cross.”  “Yes, you’re right”, I said, “but Jesus isn’t in the manger either.  Do you want to leave baby Jesus out of our nativity scene?”  No, they didn’t want to do that.
“But the empty cross is the sign of the resurrection”, they said.  I said, “No, the crosses of the thieves were empty too on Good Friday.  It’s the empty tomb on Easter morning that is the sign of the resurrection”.
I finally asked, “folks what’s really going on here—why are you so opposed to having this beautiful crucifix?  And one brave soul finally said, “Pastor, I just can’t stand to see Jesus on the cross.”  Now, that I understand.  And so we opened up our bibles and talked about it. 
We talked about how, when Paul came to Corinth, he came to them knowing nothing but Christ-- and him crucified.  We talked about Paul’s work in Galatia and how he publicly portrayed Christ as crucified before their very eyes. 
And we especially talked about these verses from Isaiah, how Jesus had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.  There is no place where these words are truer than on a hill called Golgotha. 
What happened there was brutal and horrific.  It was a public execution in the most shameful way in the ancient world.  We heard the astonishment in Paul’s voice last Sunday when he said that Christ had humbled himself into death, even –death- on- a -cross. 
It is unimaginable that the very Son of God should die in this way, with nails in his hands and feet and a crown of thorns upon his head, to the taunts and jeers of his enemies, but he did.  And that scene of our Lord’s death, God intends for us to look at for the rest of our lives. 
God says that the appearance of his Servant Son was marred beyond human semblance and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—and yet, he shall be high and lifted up and exalted.
High and lifted up for all to see-- because it is only there in that horrible, brutal ugly scene—only in the crucifixion-- that we can even begin to understand the incredible beauty of God’s deep and abiding love for we poor sinners.  It is only there at the cross that we can learn something of the height and depth and breadth of God’s love for people who, much too often, would just as soon not look upon their Savior and his salvation.  The Bible says that:
He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 
In the beginning of John’s Gospel, he says that Jesus came to his own but his own did not receive him. 
Over these forty days of Lent we have seen how true that is!  His friends denied him in his hour of need and one betrayed him to his enemies for money.  The religious leaders wanted him dead.  And the common folk received him as their king one day and a few days later called for his crucifixion. 
Throughout his life he sorrowed over the spiritual blindness of people who could not see beyond their next meal and he grieved over what sin and death has done to the world. 
As he hung on the cross, the hatred of the world for him even in his torment, unsated, he was mocked and ridiculed and taunted.
And if we are tempted to let time and distance keep ourselves at a distance from all of this, if we are tempted to point the accusing finger at others, Isaiah reminds us that we esteemed him not.  Surely that cannot be true, can it—that we esteem him not?! 
And yet, how often have we regarded the person and work of Christ as merely the starting point to our life with God?  How often have we desired to hear more “practical” sermons and have more “lifestyle” Bible studies than deepen our knowledge of Jesus? How often have we turned aside from his example and turned a deaf ear to his words because we regard them as impractical or too difficult? 
The judgment of God is true:  that we have not esteemed the Lord Jesus Christ as we should despite the fact that it is FOR US that he suffered and died.  The Bible says that:
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.  But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. 
Bible scholars call this “the great exchange”.  On one side of God’s ledger is our griefs and sorrows and transgressions and iniquities.  One the other side of the ledger is Christ being pierced, crushed, chastised and wounded on the cross. 
I really do think that the opposition of Christians to a crucifix (can you imagine such a thing!) has nothing to do with artistic sensibilities and it has nothing to do with theological niceties. 
It has everything to do with the fact that the nails and thorns and agonized face and bloody sweat all belong to us. 
In Christ crucified we see as nowhere else God’s judgment and verdict on our transgressions and iniquities.  Yes, it is God who punishes his own Son on the cross, it is God who abandons his own Son to death and the torments of hell, but dear friends in Christ, we are the ones who caused it. 
When we come face to face with the scenes of our Lord’s death in a painting or in a crucifix or a movie or on the pages of the Bible, our sins and their consequences are inescapable and inexcusable and that is painful for us to have to face. 
But what God wants us to see even more clearly in the bloody death of Jesus than our sins-- is the peace and healing and forgiveness that is found in the death of the Lord.
Just as there is nowhere else on earth that we see our sins so clearly as the crucifixion--so there is nowhere on earth that we will see our forgiveness and peace and healing more clearly than in our Lord’s death on the cross-- as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  The Bible says that:
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
            We believe in the verbal inspiration of Holy Scripture, that every single word is inspired and given by God.  And so when the Bible says that “all” have gone astray, that is exactly what God means.
 There is not one of us here tonight --and there is not one throughout the world-- who has not gone astray from God’s ways to follow his own way.  We are all, by nature, lost sheep but God has sent Jesus to be the Lamb who takes those sins way.
And so it is also true that the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.  Every sin for every sinner laid upon the one who bears them away to the cross.
Believe the promises of God!  There is not one sinner who is not loved by God, not one sinner who is excluded from the saving work of the cross.  There is not one sin that has not been laid on Jesus, not one sin that has not been paid for by his shed blood on this Good Friday. 
The Bible says that in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting men’s sins against them.  The Bible says that Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins and for the sins of the world.
Every sin of every sinner was paid for at the cross and here’s what that means for you assembled here tonight.  Your sins are forgiven—every sin. 
The sins you are ashamed of—the sins that make you shudder—the sins that have enduring consequences in your life to this day—the sins you are unaware of—the sins of the past and the sins of the future--washed away forever by the blood of our Jesus Christ.
Every sin of every sinner paid for at the cross and here’s what that also means for you.  The Lord desires that the Suffering Servant would be “high and lifted and exalted” so that every person would see in him their own salvation. 
That means that there is a mission that is given to every one of us to glorify Jesus and magnify his saving works and lift him up before those around us for the sake of their salvation.
Certainly that happens in Church in sermons and bible study and sacred art.  But God also intends that it would be so in our lives:  that as people forgiven by the man of the cross-- we would bear faithful witness to him to others and live with others as people of forgiveness.
That life of forgiveness and peace and healing is only possible because there was a man there on that cross named Jesus—a man who was stricken, smitten, and afflicted.  Amen.

A New and Living Way to God

Thursday, April 18, 2019

A New and Living Way to God

Hebrews 10:15-25 Each time we celebrate the Sacrament of the Altar we remember and reclaim the saving works of our Lord Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection. 
Jesus gives us his body and blood and tells us to eat and drink it in remembrance of him. He says that this is the new covenant in his blood.  That is what the author of Hebrews was talking about when he wrote that:
The Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord:  I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”  Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
            On this night some two thousand years ago, the disciples gathered around a table.  There was bread and wine.  And they remembered. 
They remembered that their people had been slaves—that they lived and died and slavery and so did their children.  They remembered their helplessness and their hopelessness.
They remembered how God had raised up a deliverer for them.  They remembered how they took refuge from the death under the blood of the lamb and how they feasted on the very sacrifice that saved them from death.
As the disciples celebrated the Passover they also remembered the faithlessness of their people, how they fell away from their Savior God, how their good intentions and promises to do better never really lasted for long. 
The lambs being sacrificed all over Jerusalem were a bloody testimony to their own helplessness and the truth that the blood of beasts cannot really take away sin.
But then Jesus took the bread on the table and the wine and he said that these were his body and blood—the new covenant of enduring forgiveness. 
At those words you have to know that every head turned towards him and every eye was fixed upon him.  This new covenant had been promised since the days of Jeremiah!  The old covenant that rested on God and man each doing their part had never really brought peace.  Not because God had failed.  God was always faithful and forgiving!
And yet, the old covenant never brought lasting peace because man could never do his part.  It always stood as a testimony to man’s sin and failure.
That is why the Lord promised that a new covenant would come.  A new covenant where God ALONE would act and God ALONE would save and God ALONE would forgive.  A new covenant that would bring peace to troubled hearts and comfort to burdened consciences because it rested on God’s gracious goodness ALONE.
That night in the Upper Room the ancient promise was fulfilled as Jesus took bread and wine and said:  this is my body and blood—the new covenant of forgiveness of sins. 
From that moment on in Holy Communion God’s people would remember and reclaim Christ’s sacrifice on the cross that was offered up for their sins.  From that moment on God’s people would give thanks that God no longer remembered their sins and lawless deeds.  From that moment God’s people would come into God’s presence unafraid and unashamed.  The Bible says that:
we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh
            In the temple in Jerusalem on Good Friday afternoon things went on as they always had.  The priests and Levites were doing their work.  Sacrifices were being offered. 
At the same time, outside the city walls of Jerusalem, the Lamb of God was being put to death. 
As Jesus breathed his last, something dramatic happened inside the very heart of the temple:  the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple—the curtain that keep people from the presence of God—the curtain that could be bypassed only when the high priest shed the blood of a sacrifice and then only once a year--was torn in two from top to bottom. 
It was torn in two because it was no longer needed.  The great high priest Jesus Christ had offered up the once-for-all sacrifice of his own body and blood upon the altar of the cross and now a life in God’s presence was promised to all people. 
Everyone could have life with God so long as they came through the new and living curtain found in the living flesh of Jesus who continues to serve us in God’s house as our great high priest.  The Bible says that:
since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
            In our communion liturgy tonight we will confess our faith that, as we kneel at this altar to receive Christ’s body and blood, we gather here with the whole house of God:  with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. 
The veil which separates the living from the dead simply falls away in the Body of the living Christ into which we have been baptized with pure, saving, baptismal water.
            And we will receive the ongoing work of our great high priest, who will not sacrifice himself again, but will give us that which was sacrificed once for all:  his true body and blood and the forgiveness of sins that is found there for the strengthening of our faith.  The Bible says:
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.
We come to the Lord’s Supper tonight, not only as recipients of the Lord’s gifts but as confessors of God’s saving work in the Lord Jesus Christ—a confession to which we are to hold fast without wavering.
We confess that we are sinners who are no more able to help ourselves or save ourselves than the Israelite slaves in Egypt.  We confess that God has sent a deliverer in his Son Jesus who has set us free by his shed blood and who provides for us (body and soul) in the true Manna of Heaven upon this altar until he brings us to the Promised Land of heaven. 
And we insist that those who share this meal with us make that same confession of faith so they may receive it to the good of their soul and the strengthening of their faith.  The Bible says that we are to:
consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
            At the end of our service of Holy Communion we pray this prayer:  “We give thanks to you, almighty God, that You have refreshed us through this salutary gift, and we implore You that of Your mercy you would strengthen us through the same in faith toward You and in fervent love toward one another”. 
Did you catch that?  That God would strengthen us in “fervent love toward one another”.  That post-communion prayer from our liturgy is grounded in the words of our text tonight. 
You see, the gifts of forgiveness, life and salvation that our Lord Jesus Christ gives us in his body and blood are intended by him to change us:  to make us people of deeper faith-- and to make us people full of good works-- and to make us people of greater love towards one another.
No one who truly draws near to God through faith in the Lord Jesus, no one who comes to the cross a sinner under God’s wrath and leaves it a child of God and heir of heaven, can remain unchanged by that encounter with Christ. 
So it is for us here tonight who receive his body and blood.
We want to do good to others and have a deeper, more meaningful love for our friends and family, and encourage our fellow Christians in their faith. 
And so we meet together and remember Christ’s sacrifice for us and receive his gifts and in this way we are prepared to stand before him when he comes again, as our text says:  as the Day draws near.
When we began our meditation tonight we remembered the disciples gathered together around the table in the Upper Room.  We recalled the story they told one another of God’s judgment on his enemies and his deliverance of his people. 
Throughout salvation history that story was told again and again among God’s people because it is THE story-- and God told it fully in the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus.
   That story will be told one last time on the Last Day.  God’s enemies will be destroyed once and for all.  And God’s people will be delivered into eternal life.  It is the most important story ever told for it has everlasting consequences to every person on earth.
For us here tonight who have taken refuge under the shed blood of the Lamb of God who has taken away the sins of the world, we have nothing to fear of that day and everything to gain for there is a new and living way to God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Monday, April 15, 2019

The Humble King

The Humble King

If you were visiting a European country and you heard someone say, “Look, the king!” we would all expect to see the same thing. 
We would expect to see someone dressed in a military uniform, with a sword by their side and medals on their chest.  He might be on top of a brilliant white horse or riding in an ornate carriage.  But there would be no doubt in our minds when we saw him:  this is the king!
Our expectations regarding royalty are no different than people in the ancient world.  If you lived in ancient Rome and ever caught a glimpse of Caesar there would be no doubt in your mind that you had seen the king. 
All of the earthly trappings of power and position made it clear to everyone looking on that this was a person of wealth and influence and power.  How different then is the humble king who rode into Jerusalem this day.  The Bible says of him:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!  Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!  Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
            During his earthly ministry and especially during Holy Week we hear the religious and political power of the day trying to get a handle on just exactly who Jesus was. 
He freely admitted being a king but he said that his kingdom was not of this world --and for those whose hearts and mind were fixed on earthly things, this was beyond their understanding.
But Jesus was just exactly the king that God promised he would raise up for his people.  One who was gentle and kind and humble.  It is especially his humility that is the focus on Palm Sunday.
We hear this prophecy from Zechariah that the King of God’s people would be humble- and we hear Matthew’s confirmation that Jesus of Nazareth was the fulfillment of that promise- and we hear from the apostle Paul why his humility was so necessary.  Paul wrote that Jesus:
Who was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but …he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
The humble king who rode into Jerusalem came to bring salvation to his people by dying on the cross.  Even though he was God in the flesh, he came as a humble servant for the sake of our salvation.  Even though he was holy and righteous, he bore our sins in his body and died under the Father’s wrath.
It is right for us, and all of God’s people in every place and time, to rejoice greatly and shout aloud because our King’s great humility led him to become the servant of us all, so that we might have peace with God, and be delivered from the sorrows of this world.  The Bible says that this humble Savior King:
will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.
            From the moment Cain murdered his brother Abel, violence and war and bloodshed has marred our life together in the family of man.  Throughout history, from individual acts of violence to world wars, to state sponsored terrorism, the world has been a violent place.  Right now there are more than 40 active military conflicts going on. 
And yet we have this wonderful promise that our gentle, humble king will bring this hatred and violence to an end.  How is that possible? 
It is BECAUSE he rode into Jerusalem, not as a man of war bent on destroying the lives of others --but as a humble king willing to lay down his life for others-- and make peace by his sacrifice.  The Bible says that Jesus:
is our peace…who has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility…making peace, to reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
            The war and hostility between us and God came to an end on Good Friday when the Father’s wrath fell upon his innocent son who humbled himself unto death.  But even more happened there that day. 
A foundation for peace between us and others was also laid so that we can build new and lasting and peaceful relationship with all kinds of different people through faith in Jesus. 
The old barriers of race and class and wealth and ethnicity and language that divide people into warring camps comes to an end when they understand the unity they have in Christ.
Of course we know that the vast, vast majority of people are still outside of Christ and so they are still at odds with one another.  Violence and hatred and war are still part of our fallen world.  But even that will come to an end under the righteous rule of our humble king.
On the Last Day Jesus will stand upon the earth and the weapons of war will be destroyed, and the peace he won for us at the cross will extend throughout a new heaven and a new earth, and we will be set free once for all time from sin and death and evil.  The Bible says that:
For you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
            Throughout the Bible we hear about God’s people being thrown into pits:  Joseph and Jeremiah and Daniel—places where they were helpless--dark, lonely places where they were hidden from others, places where they had to be rescued.
One of these days, unless the Lord comes first, each of us will be placed into our own waterless pit--a grave covered with earth while those we love will return to daily life.
What the Holy Spirit wants us to know today is that our humble King is so powerful, and his saving work so complete, that his people will be set free from the grave by his saving work on the cross where he shed his life’s blood for them in a new covenant of life and peace and forgiveness.
Any time a solemn promise was made between God and his people, the blood of a sacrifice was shed to mark the occasion.  So it was at the cross.  God said to the world:  my wrath is satisfied--your sins are forgiven—we are reconciled. 
That solemn promise that God made with the world was sealed by the blood of Jesus Christ—the blood of a new covenant of forgiven and forgotten sins.
That is the very thing we receive on this altar this morning—the blood of the new covenant of forgiveness and life.  That is why the sacrament of Holy Communion Christ instituted on Maundy Thursday is so important! 
It make us the recipients of our humble king’s saving work and it assures us, that such is his powerful love for us, that not even the waterless pit of the grave will have victory over us!  Rather than counting ourselves as prisoners of darkness and death we can count ourselves prisoners of hope.  The Bible says:
Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.
I think that most of us have heard the old proverb:  To the victor goes the spoils—the idea that when there is a battle or conflict those who are victorious get the bounty and blessings that come with that victory.
So it is with our humble king.  Jesus rode into Jerusalem to do battle against sin, death, and the devil.  He did not possess the weapons of war, but he did win the victory by his humble, righteous death and resurrection. The Bible says that from his victory:  he ascended on high, leading a host of captives and he gave gifts to men.
And so he has!  He has given us the gift of forgiveness and salvation and eternal life.  There is even more to hope from on the day of his return. 
He will give us the gift of a new heaven and new earth.  He will destroy evil once and for all.  And he will raise our bodies from their resting places and bring us into our eternal home.
Yes, those gifts are still in the future and that is why, as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Zechariah calls us “prisoners of hope”-- but we can be confident that the days of our full freedom in Christ’s completed work will be accomplished for us, and that we will receive more blessings than we could have asked for or imagined.  That is what Zechariah is talking about when he says that the Lord will restore double to us. 
Much too often we look at our life in the kingdom as some kind of onerous burden rather than a blessing that gives meaning and purpose to our lives!
That said, there are hardships and difficulties and sacrifices that we are called upon to make as God’s people and Jesus was completely serious when he called us to take our cross and follow him.
But God wants us to know that our king did not come into this world to take from us-- but to give us blessings without number and without end. 
There is not one thing that we have ever lost from living in a broken world-- and there is not one thing that we have ever sacrificed out of obedience to our king-- that will not be restored to us twice over.
And so then, on this Palm Sunday we will welcome our humble king and we go with him this week one more time to the upper room and the cross and the empty tomb and we rejoice greatly and shout aloud our praises and thanksgiving to our humble king who comes to us, righteous and having salvation, mounted on a donkey.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Take Him Away!

God led and governed his people by Moses and Joshua and then by the judges and the priests.  In all of this, there was no doubt among these leaders or the people they served, that it was God himself who was the ruler of his people.
But in the days of Samuel the people no longer desired to be led this way or governed this way or ruled this way.  They wanted an earthly king to rule over them so that they could be like the other nations around them, the pagan nations around them, the people who did not have a relationship with the living God.
When Samuel prayed to the Lord about this sinful desire and sought his counsel on how to address it, the Lord said to him: 
Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you”
They have rejected me as their king.  Can you imagine such a faithless, foolish thing for anyone to do!  To intentionally choose to be ruled by frail, fallen man when you could have the Lord himself as your king! 
But that is what they asked for and so the Lord sent them kings.  Some of these kings were faithful but most of them were not.
One stood out above all the rest:  King David was a man after God’s own heart—but still just  a man who sinned and failed.  And yet, God loved him and promised that he would have a descendant who would sit on his throne and rule his people forever—someone who would be both David’s heir and David’s Lord.  The Bible says that:
It was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. Pilate said to the Jews, “Behold your King!”
            Standing there day in the presence of Pilate and the chief priests and the Jewish leaders and the Jews-- was the fulfillment of God’s promise to raise up a king from the line of David to rule upon his throne forever.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of David.  He was a direct descendant of David.  He commanded the forces of nature.  He defeated the forces of evil.  His words possessed authority. 
Just a few days earlier all of Jerusalem had turned out to welcome him into the city and shouted, Hosanna to the Son of David! Surely the priests and religious rulers of the Jews would acclaim him as their king and rejoice in the faithfulness of God to his promise to raise up an eternal heir to David’s throne! 
But the Bible says that, They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!”  Crucify him!?  Not, “thanks but no thanks” but “crucify him”?!  That response seems completely over the top! 
And yet, over the years they had accused him of being an outrageous sinner.  They said he was in league with the devil.  They talked trash about his mother. 
To call names is one thing but to plot someone’s murder and call for their execution, that is something else altogether.  What can account for this kind of hatred?  At the end of it is the mystery of evil and yet we know a few, important things about what was in their hearts.
We know that the Sadducees were closely connected to Herod and the other political powers of the day and they wanted to keep their place in society and were afraid they would lose it if Jesus came to power. 
We know that the Pharisees had abandoned the biblical teaching that salvation is by God’s grace through faith in his promises of a Savior to come and had substituted a religion of the law where they were the teachers and gatekeepers and judges of other men’ souls.
And we know that the Zealots were looking for an earthly messiah who would throw off the Roman rule and re-establish an earthly Jewish kingdom. 
And Jesus was a complete rebuke to all of them because he taught that his kingdom was not of this world and that life with God is based upon his gracious love for sinners.  Jesus was a threat that had to go.
That was the wholesale failure of the Jews to receive their promised king and it led to his crucifixion-- but we cannot go too far without noting our own place and role in all this. 
You see, Jesus is not just the Davidic King promised to the Jews.  He is the King of kings and Lord of lords and his righteous reigns extends to our own lives too no less than the Jews.
And yet how often have we chafed under his wise rule?  How often have we rejected his ways?  How often in our sins have we engaged in outright rebellion against our true king?  How often have we desired to reject his rule for our own? 
We did not call out Crucify, crucify but have no doubt that there have been days when we have rejected his lordship no less than the Jews did that day and that rebellion, our rebellion led to his death no less than theirs.  The bible says that:
Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.”
The passion of our Lord Jesus Christ is one shocking, appalling scene after another but surely this is near the top of the list! 
The chief priests of the Jewish religion were the men, above all others, who should have been leading the people to the Messiah—who should have been anxiously awaiting their true Davidic king—who should have had a loyalty to God above all else.
If nothing else, the previous four hundred years of their history had been focused on regaining their national prominence and so why would they ever abandon their own people--but now in this moment, when they have a chance to receive their king, they abandon their faith, they turn their backs on their nation, and they pledge allegiance to a pagan king. 
This was the sin of the Jewish religious leaders but there is an important lesson here for us too!  To reject the righteous rule of our true king over our lives does not make us free any more than the Jews that day who, rejecting Jesus as King, had to swear allegiance to Caesar as king.  We will always have a ruler and that ruler will always be a tyrant who despises us and desires our destruction rather than our good. 
A generation after these words were spoken the Roman army would utterly destroy Jerusalem, lay to ruin the temple, and kill over a million Jews.   
We have no king but Caesar!  And so it has been for the Jews for the last two thousand years and so it will be because their king has come and they rejected him and had him crucified by the Romans.  The Bible says that:
Pilate delivered Jesus over to them to be crucified.  So they took him, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha.
            The wages of sin is death.  From the very beginning when God promised Adam and Eve if they disobeyed him they would die till the last day when death will be destroyed once and for all, death is the curse pronounced upon sinners.
But Jesus was no sinner.  And yet he carried the instrument of his own down the way of suffering to a place outside of Jerusalem known as the Skull.  What God wants us to understand about this scene is that the cross is not placed upon the shoulders of Jesus because of his sins, he does not go to die for his failures, he does not journey on the way of sorrow on account of his failures.
All of this takes place because of our sins.  He was proclaimed by John as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world and in this moment we see those words fulfilled.
Watch that scene with the eyes of faith and see your sin burden placed upon Jesus.  Journey with him down the way of suffering and know that is your failures that he is carrying.  Go with him to that place of death and know that he dies there under the Father’s wrath as your substitute.  The Bible says that:
There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them.
When the Second Person of the Holy Trinity took on human flesh within the womb of his Blessed Mother, God became man.  Jesus shared in our joys and our sorrow.  He knew what it was to be tempted and he felt the pain of rejection and the loss of friends.
And there at Golgotha we see how far his love for us would take him as he became one with us in our sins, one with us under the judgment of God, one with us in death, dying in the very middle of sinful mankind. 
On one side was a sinner who did not know him and refused to hear a word from him of love and concern and forgiveness—a sinner who died in his sins. 
One the other side of him was a sinner who did not know him before, but came to know him during those hours on the cross—a sinner who listened to what he had to say and came to faith even in that late hour and entered into Paradise.
Jesus still stands in the very midst of sinful humanity and he still speaks words of love and mercy and care and forgiveness. 
Sadly, tragically there are still those who prefer to die in their sins and reject his salvation.  But for  us, even in this late hour, there is still time to listen to what Jesus has to say there at the cross—to believe the promise that he makes that we are forgiven and that Paradise is still to come—and to confess him as our Savior and King.  Amen.