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Mountain to Mountain: Mount Moriah to Mount Zion

February 28, 2018
By Pastor Peter Heckert

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Mountain to Mountain: Mount Moriah to Mount Zion
Genesis 22:1-14 and John 3:14-18

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father,
and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

Self-disclosure: I share many of the tastes of my wife’s family, especially in their love of the movie, “The Sound of Music.” The music alone is enough to fall in love with it, let alone the plot, but one of the more standout features is the cinematography, especially the wide, sweeping panoramas of the Austrian Alps. There’s a reason why those shots are so powerful; mountains are majestic. They inspire us. They have symbolic meaning for us—as in, “Climb every mountain.” Mountains are amazing geological structures, but do they also cause us terror and dread? Maybe the early pioneers, as they forged their way west, saw mountains as obstacles and were overwhelmed by what stood in the way of their journey. Did they view them with trepidation? I don’t know, but I think it’s safe to say that Abraham in our text must have experienced feelings of dread when Mount Moriah came into view.

The Lord came to Abraham and instructed him to take his son – his only son, mind you – to Mount Moriah and offer him up, to sacrifice him on an altar on that mountain. Abraham loaded the donkey with wood, and he headed for the region of Moriah. We can only imagine what that journey must have been like! Abraham knew what lay ahead, but Isaac was clueless. What do you talk about? How do you act? When you know that the death of your child—your only child, by your own hands—lies in your path, how do you say the things that need to be said without giving away the intent of your journey? Well, after three days, Abraham lifted up his eyes and there it was—Mount Moriah. The time had come.

Sin requires sacrifice. Payment must be made to satisfy the debt.  Sin has exiled man from God; the only way to return from this exile is to pay what is demanded, and the price … is blood. So, to satisfy the payment demanded, Abraham prepares to offer up his only son.

Isaac bears the wood upon which he will be sacrificed up the mount, and he wonders and asks, “Where is the lamb for sacrifice?” He knows there must be blood shed to atone for sin. He knows the ritual. He knows, and he wants to know where the sacrifice is. Abraham’s heart must have been ripped from his chest at the question. How do you answer? What do you say? Abraham responds in faith, even though the tears are, undoubtedly, pushing at his eyes. “God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.”

Abraham has faith. He trusts. He knows the Lord will provide the lamb for sacrifice, but is the lamb Isaac? He doesn’t know, and you imagine that his feet are dragging, and his heart is heavy in a way none of us can understand. Is the sacrifice Isaac? Abraham builds the altar … he arranges the wood … he places his only son upon the wood … he raises the knife to deal the killing blow . . . and the Lord stays his hand! The Lord provides a sacrifice, a ram caught in the thicket. And thus it is said, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

So powerful is this account, so intense the drama, so shocking the faith, so amazing the rescue that the Hebrew people will later build the temple on this very hill. This very hill, this mountain is where God dwells with His people. This mountain is Mount Zion! The Hebrew people revere this account of Abraham and Isaac so highly that it has its own title and place in their faith. They call it the Aqedah, the Hebrew word for “binding.” Isaac is the only “bound,” tied-down sacrifice in the Old Testament. All other sacrifices are first killed and then placed upon the altar as their blood is poured and sprinkled. Isaac is the only bound sacrifice, the only living sacrifice in the Old Testament. In the rest of the Bible, there is only one other.

“On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” On this mountain, the sacrifice of the only-begotten Son of God will be provided. He, too, is a bound sacrifice as He is nailed to the tree to suffer and die. Sin – our sin – has exiled us from God. Blood is required for payment, and on the mountain of the Lord, He provides. That sacrifice takes place on another mountain, Calvary. Here, Jesus carries the wood for His sacrifice – a cross. And from that tree on that mountain, the blood of the Lamb of God is brought to Mount Zion. Jesus Christ brings His own blood onto Mount Zion, into the temple, through the curtain, and into the Most Holy Place. The temple curtain is ripped in two, and the blood of the Lamb is poured out on the Mercy Seat. The Lord provides the final sacrifice for the sins of the world.

Abraham makes a three-day journey to Mount Moriah prior to the sacrifice of his son. Jesus makes a three-day journey, as well, but it follows His sacrifice. For three days, He lies in the tomb. For three days, the grave holds Him. But on that third day, Jesus is lifted up to new life, a glorious resurrection. God provided His Son, His only Son, as the sacrifice required for sin, and all who believe in Him shall not perish, for God provides the forgiveness of sins, everlasting life, on this mountain.

Mount Moriah to Mount Zion—a return from exile. We who have been exiled from the presence of God by our sin have been restored to His presence, returned to look upon His face. We are reunited on this mountain, where God provides His only Son, and where He provides the bloody payment for sin. On this mountain, as the curtain is ripped in two, the gates of heaven are thrown open to those who believe and call upon His name. On this mountain, make no mistake, the Lord provides.

+ In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.

Follow

February 25, 2018
By Pastor Peter Heckert

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Follow
Mark 8:27-38

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation is from our Gospel lesson, specifically where Mark records Jesus’s words, If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it. Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

Have you ever heard the story of the 26 Martyrs of Japan? If you didn’t know, a few years after Martin Luther died, the first recorded Christian missionaries – Jesuit priests, specifically – stepped foot on Japanese soil on August 15, 1549 at the port of Kagoshima. Initially, for a variety of reasons, the Japanese leaders – the daimyo lords and the overarching shogun – were quite receptive, cordial, and welcoming to the foreign missionaries. However, as decades passed, the Japanese leadership, becoming increasingly wary of colonialism and Western influences, became more hostile to the foreign ancient faith and those who represented it. This increasing tension reached a boiling point in late 1596, with the wreck of the San Filipe, a Spanish galleon, at the port of Urado. While the crew was being interviewed, the Pilot Major mistakenly gave the impression that the only reason the Spanish and Portuguese sent missionaries to foreign lands was to convert the people in order to make them more pliable for invasions by conquistadors. Not surprisingly, this did not sit well with the daimyo or the shogun, Toyotomi Hideyoshi himself. Hideyoshi gave orders that all foreign missionaries be rounded up, and in the end, in February of 1597, 26 Catholics – 6 Franciscan friars, 3 Japanese Jesuits, and 17 Japanese laymen, including 3 young boys – were marched from Kyoto to Nagasaki (yes, the same Nagasaki), and were crucified there on a hill. After that, Christianity was all but outlawed in the land of Japan, not to be seen again for centuries except in the underground.

Is this what you imagine when you hear Jesus’s words in the Gospel text today? If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. That’s understandable, and certainly it is a beautiful (albeit gory and sorrowful) testimony to their faith in Christ their Lord. However, there’s a different meaning behind all of this, a deeper meaning that is, oddly enough, plain as day. Let’s allow the surrounding context to inform the simple and deep meaning behind Jesus’s words.

Immediately prior to our Gospel text, we have a curious anecdote, telling how a blind beggar from Bethsaida is, initially, only partially healed when Jesus spits on his eyes and lays His hands upon him. The man says, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Jesus then lays His hands on the man’s eyes again, and only thereafter is the man’s vision fully restored. This is curious because it almost sounds like Jesus may have made a mistake, or that He may not have had the power to deal with this man’s blindness – both are utterly absurd notions! No, no, in that story, we see a physical illustration of the point Jesus makes in our text: at that moment, the disciples were only seeing in part. They didn’t see perfectly Who Jesus is and what His mission was.

It’s no wonder, then, that Jesus asks the disciples, on the way to Caesarea Philippi, Who do people say that I am? The disciples give their varied answers, essentially saying that no one knows, really. This prompts Jesus to ask who they think He is. Peter answers correctly, declaring Jesus to be the Christ, the Messiah, David’s heir. He’s right, of course, but they still don’t see with clarity what that actually means. That’s why Jesus charges them with silence; He doesn’t want them spreading misinformation, a wrong gospel about Him. That’s also why we have Jesus explaining to them immediately thereafter what must happen to Him: His suffering and rejection, His death, and His resurrection three days later. That is what the Messiah must do, Who He is. He is the sacrificial Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world.

Well, Peter’s not having any of this! He rebukes, tries to censure Jesus, but in turn, Jesus censures him. Why? Because Peter does not see clearly; his mind is on the temporal, the here-and-now. Even though Jesus has used exceedingly plain and simple terms, Peter simply cannot comprehend what the Messiah is actually called to do. This is why Jesus calls the crowd to Himself; they need to know that Peter’s perception, his vision of the Messiah and what it means to follow Him, is flat-out wrong.

To follow the Messiah is not an easy way. It’s no cake-walk. The one who desires to follow Jesus must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow the Christ. Are we talking about what happened on the outskirts of Nagasaki those four centuries ago? Are we talking about what currently goes on in the Middle East, when ISIS at the height of power would tie beaten Christians to crosses built of iron pipes? Is Jesus talking about martyrdom as a requirement for following Him? Well, no, not exactly like that. For the average American Christian, odds are martyrdom of this caliber is not the norm. More often than not, we are not called upon to make that ultimate sacrifice and testimony – though, certainly, we should all be willing to do so. No, the plainer and more universal meaning is what Jesus is getting at.

The one who denies himself is the one who denies his own ability to save himself. He rejects his own attempts to “be good,” to place any trust in the works of his hands to count for anything toward salvation. Jesus is declaring to those within earshot that self-justification is NO justification. If it were that easy, if Man were capable of saving himself, then the Messiah would not have been necessary! But the Messiah has come, and has come with a purpose: to be rejected, to suffer, to die, and to rise! And it was exceedingly necessary!

THIS is denying one’s self. THIS is taking up one’s own cross: to trust, not in one’s own efforts, but in the sacrifice, the work and offering Jesus Himself made. It is to cling to the promises found atop Golgotha, the atonement made in the broken body of the God-Man, the love that poured out with His blood as it flowed down the vertical beam of the cross. It is the willingness to say, “Yes, I am a lousy, rotten, no-good, stinkin’ sinner, who deserves nothing but death and condemnation, but I trust that, contrary to all logic and reason, I am forgiven in Christ Jesus. I trust that His sacrifice, and the grace of the Father because of that sacrifice, is enough to atone for my sins.” It is the Spirit working in you to say this, in spite of the world calling you a fool for believing it.

Will you face ridicule for this trust and belief? If you haven’t already, odds are you probably will at some point in your life. Is it a blow to your pride, to be entirely reliant upon another to make satisfaction for all your sin, when you’ve been taught all your life to pick yourself up by your bootstraps and do it yourself? Undoubtedly, it’s humbling, even humiliating. Are you going to be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice, testimony, and witness to the love and power of Christ, which is made perfect in our weakness? I have no idea; it’s certainly possible, but that’s up to God alone to bestow such an honor. It was true of the apostles, of countless Roman subjects, of the 26 martyrs of Nagasaki, and of the countless other saints who have gone before us. What they shared with all Christians is the trust in this salvific work of the Messiah They are the ones who see clearly, who follow closely the Savior through death, and who follow Him into the life of the world to come.

+ In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.

Garden to Garden: Eden to Heaven

February 21, 2018
By Pastor David French

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Garden to Garden: Eden to Heaven
Genesis 3 and Revelation 22

A beautiful place, a perfect paradise! The heavens and the earth all created by God’s word alone. All the living creatures that crawl on the ground, that swim in the waters, and that fly in the air, created by His word. Man created with loving hands and His breath to give us life. Created in His own image He made them, male and female. And it was good! Not just good it was perfect.

God placed man, the crown of His creation, in a beautiful garden called Eden. It had to be beautiful because it was perfect. There was no need to labor and till the ground because it produced all that man needed in abundance. There was no need to worry about the weather because the world was perfect and everything work according to God’s design. There was no need to worry about anything because everything was exactly the way God intended for it to be.

But without a doubt the best reality of all was the relationship God had with our first parents Adam and Eve. God and humanity were united together in perfect unity. It was an amazing relationship. God walked hand in hand, talked face to face, lived in perfect communion with His creatures. A beautiful, perfect place with God and man united in a beautiful and perfect relationship. The unimaginably beautiful Garden of Eden, the place where God and all of humanity lived together in perfect harmony …. That’s how it was in the beginning.

But Adam and Eve wanted more than to know God, they wanted to be like God. The old, evil foe had tempted Adam and Eve to question their relationship with their Creator by casting doubt on His integrity. Satan was able to convince them that God was keeping something from them, holding back the ability to be like Him. They believed satan and disobeyed the one command God had given them and ate the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and they tasted death.

The amazing relationship they had with God was severed—a divide a wall built of sin if you will, now separated them. Adam and Eve sinned and were driven out from the Garden of Eden and their return was forbidden by the flaming sword of the cherubim. They were exiled from a perfect place of light and beauty and thrown into the darkness and their return was forbidden, their access to the tree of life was cut off.

Created in God’s image as the crown of His creation with His own hands from the dust of the ground to live eternally were now sentenced to be returned to the dust from which they came in shame and disgrace. We were created to live forever in the presence of God but because of the disobedience of our first parents we are living in exile in a land of darkness and death far from the face of God with its light and grace. How tragic for Adam and Eve. How tragic for you and me!

Exiled like Adam and Eve from the beautiful Garden; exiled from standing in the presence and before the face of God and driven out into the darkness of a broken and sin-filled world with broken and sin-filled hearts. Sin drives man from God and sin exiles us from the courts of heaven.

To be sure, if we become perfectly obedient to God’s Word, if we resist all temptation to sin and walk in absolute purity, if we are found to be righteous in God’s sight by the works of our hands, then and only then—would we be able to return to the Garden. Its gates would be thrown open, and we would be received with great rejoicing. Once again the Garden would be our dwelling place and God would be our constant companion and we would walk together once more in the cool of the day and all we have to do is be perfect.

But the truth we live with is that we are not perfect and our sin is ever before us. And that means we simply cannot return from this exile by our own reason or strength. We cannot enter into the presence of God by the works of our hands. We are helpless and hopeless, wandering in the darkness. We hang our heads unable to look our Creator in the face, unable to come into His glory, unable to look Him in the eye.

And no matter how much we may want to we simply cannot return on our own. The journey is too difficult, too demanding, it’s just too much for a sinner. We need help, no we need more than help, we need to be saved which means we need a Savior. We need One who will bring us back into the presence of our God. One who will carry us back to the Garden.

A Redeemer, a Messiah, the Christ—that’s what God promised Adam and Eve as they were driven from Eden. God told them that the darkness would be overcome by the One who would do battle with the evil serpent. He told them the Seed of the woman would crush the head of satan even as He suffered the pains of the flesh that lead to His death.

The Promised One would overcome the temptations of sin and would fight the ultimate battle on a cross. The burden He would carry to the cross would be our sin. The sacrifice He would offer would be His blood and it would be offered for all because of the love and mercy of our God.

On Good Friday Jesus did suffer what we deserve. He did carry what we could not bear. And with His resurrection He accomplished in our place a return from the exile of sin and death. The blood of Jesus has made us clean. And because of that Jesus declares: Today you will be with Me in paradise.

And so, it has come to pass. We have been redeemed and restored by our Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fought the good fight in our place and overcome all that kept us from the Garden. From paradise lost to paradise restored, the gates of heaven stand open before you and all who believe.

To be sure, the day will come when we walk through those gates and see the Lamb on His throne. There in the garden of gardens we will see the waters of life flowing around the tree of life. Then we shall bask in the Light that is Christ and live in the fullness of His presence forever.

In His Name, Amen.

Lived in Your Shoes

February 18, 2018
By Pastor David French

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Lived in Your Shoes
Mark 1:9-15

Today’s reading from Mark covers a lot in just a few verses.  Matthew records the baptism and temptation of Jesus in 16 verses, Luke in 14 verses, and Mark covers in just 5 verses.  And while Mark gives us just the facts, if you will, still there are details about Jesus’s ministry that are found only in Mark.

Now in general, these days we hear the account of Jesus’s baptism on the First Sunday after the Epiphany and we hear about His temptation on the First Sunday in Lent.  That means the church has put several weeks between the reading of these two accounts and we don’t always realize or see the connection that exist between them. 

Mark’s compact style of writing doesn’t really allow for that.  And so this morning/evening we heard about both and realize that one moment the Holy Spirit was descending on Jesus and the very next moment that same Holy Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert to confront the devil.  This was before He did any teaching or miracles or had called any disciples.

We read, The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. The Greek could also be translated as, The Spirit immediately threw him out into the wilderness. Mark gives us the impression that Jesus was still wet from His baptism as He confronted satan.  It’s like the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus and He goes, as only God can go, and begins the work of earning our salvation, beginning if you will where Adam and Eve failed.

The point is this was an intentional confrontation with satan.  The involvement of the Holy Spirit shows that Jesus time in the desert wasn’t some random encounter between enemies.  This battle was God’s intent for the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry.

Now Mark doesn’t record many details about the actual temptations.  He does tell us that it lasted forty days and that Jesus was with the wild animals. And that phrase reminded me of an Old Testament sacrifice that was also driven out into the wilderness. That is the sacrificing of the scapegoat. And as you may recall, the scapegoat was the central figure in the ceremony for the Day of Atonement. 

In Leviticus 16 we read about the Day of Atonement: Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.

 The idea was that the goat, an “innocent” animal, did not volunteer for the role of scape goat but was given that role by others.  That goat did not suffer or bear the burden of its own sins but it bore the sins of the people of Israel.  Aaron, the high priest, according to God’s command confessed the sins of the nation over the goat.  And in doing so he transferred the sins of the people onto the goat.  After that a special shepherd led the scapegoat out into the desert in the midst of wild animals. And so the goat with all the sins of Israel went out into the wilderness never to be seen again.  And the sins of the people went with it.

Of course, once the special shepherd set the scapegoat free, no one really knew what happened to that goat.  The most likely outcome is that wild animals ate it.  It’s also possible that a shepherd from another country who knew nothing about the traditions of Israel might find it and take it home to his own flocks.  No one really knew.  The point is: although the symbolism of the scapegoat was that the sins of Israel were gone never to be seen or heard from again, no one really knew for sure what happened to the goat. 

And so a scapegoat had to be sent out into the desert year after year. It’s greater role however was that of a shadow pointing to the One who is the fulfillment of all God’s promises. As we read in Hebrews 10: For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered every year, make perfect those who draw near.  Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered, since the worshipers, having once been cleansed, would no longer have any consciousness of sins? But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sins every year. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.  That is the scapegoat was a shadow pointing to the reality that is found in Jesus the incarnate Son of God.

Our Lord Jesus Christ is as John the Baptist declared the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  But even though He carried the sin of the world, He personally was without sin.  He endured and resisted every temptation satan put in His path. Again we read in Hebrews: For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. 

Jesus endured and overcame the temptations of satan.  He not only endured the three temptations in the wilderness, but for three years as He made His way to the cross, He was as we read … tempted in every way, just as we are, yet He did not sin.

You see, just as by Adam and Eve’s one sin Eden was lost, if satan could have gotten Jesus to sin just once, His death on the cross would have meant no more than the death of the two thieves next to Him. But Jesus didn’t sin, not in thought, word, or deed. And so with carrying our sin He went to the cross and the grave where He left it when He rose on Easter morning.

And with Jesus, we don’t have to worry that our sin might somehow come back to find us because on the cross Jesus the sinless one drank the cup of God’s wrath for us. Taking our punishment in His flesh and paying for our sin with His blood Jesus overcame death destroying the power of the old evil foe.  In Christ our sin cannot threaten us; in Christ satan has no power over us. 

The Holy Spirit made His presence known when Jesus came up out of the water from His baptism.  That same Holy Spirit drove Jesus into the desert to begin His battle with satan that would end on the cross in victory for you and me and all who are born of sin, just as God promised.

It’s important for us to know that as our substitute Jesus did endure all the hardships we endure.  He doesn’t just know where we leave our shoes but He has lived in our shoes, He has experienced life as you know it.  He was tempted just as you and I are tempted.  He experienced our pain, our sorrow, our frustrations ….  He experienced it all yet for you and me.  He never once sinned in thought, word, or deed.

As we read in 2 Corinthians 5: For our sake God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.  You see, just as the High Priest placed the sin of Israel on the scapegoat, God the Father put the sin of the world on Jesus so that now by grace through the faith created and sustained by the Means of Grace credits Christ righteousness to you.  The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.

In His Name, Amen.

Heart to Heart: Sackcloth and Ashes to Robes of Righteousness

February 14, 2018
By Pastor Peter Heckert

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Heart to Heart: Sackcloth and Ashes to Robes of Righteousness
Joel 2:12-29

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation this Ash Wednesday is from the prophet Joel, where he speaks, “Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love… Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

There’s a story of a vain emperor who loves clothes, wearing nothing but the finest apparel and suits. More than ruling his realm and caring for his people, the emperor would change clothes almost hourly, and his tailors were only too willing to oblige. Not surprisingly, the king’s proclivity for fashion drew two con-artists posing as tailors, saying they could make the finest suit the emperor would ever own, made of fabric so light, it is almost invisible to the eye. In fact, the only way one couldn’t see the clothes would be if one were too stupid, foolish, or undeserving of their position to see them.

This offer is too good for the emperor to pass up, thinking he can use the suit as a test to see which of his advisors are foolish or otherwise unfit for their positions. Unfortunately, he ends up the fool; conned by the two faux-tailors, the emperor dons the “new suit” and leads a procession through the town for all to see his marvelous new duds. The townsfolk are all shocked to see their emperor, stark naked, but no one wishes to say anything for fear of looking stupid. It takes a small child, who could care less about such trivialities, to call a thing what it is, by declaring that the emperor is wearing no clothes. Realizing he has been duped, the emperor can only grimly carry on for the rest of the processional, in his nakedness and shame.

Why did the emperor feel ashamed? Certainly, he was ashamed of being so foolish as to believe the con-men, but adding insult to injury, he was naked. That original shame felt by humanity, a shame which we feel the desire to cover up with clothing. Adam and Eve’s first clothes were hardly fashionable – fig leaves sown together, but they covered their nakedness and, undoubtedly, thought those clothes could fool the very God Who created them. Now fast-forward to our day, and you quickly find how we take pride in the clothes we wear. Some things don’t change; like Adam and Eve, we believe we can deceive God and He will not take note of our shame. We want to be responsible and cover up our sin. It does not work. Our clothes, whatever the brand, are used to cover up our nakedness, but they cannot cover the shame of sin that we attempt, in vain, to cover.

If the desires of our hearts were laid bare for all to see, we would indeed be ashamed. Evil thoughts, sexual desires, selfish wants, impure motives, jealousy, anger, envy, drunkenness, strife, idolatry; need I continue? This is the condition of our hearts, and we seek to hide it. Yet, man is incapable of hiding the truth from God. We may fool those around us, and we may be fooled by those around us, but the Lord God sees the condition of all hearts. He knows we are guilty, and that we are guilty of it all.

As Adam was formed from the dust, when his life was no more, when he died because of sin, he returned to that dust, and now his body is dust. Paul writes in his letter to the Romans, The wages of sin is death. We die because of sin, and this is what we remember during Ash Wednesday. We are born sinners, and our journey leads us back to the dust of death. Any attempts to cover up our sin, every effort to pay up always results in the same destination: the grave. We are dust, and to dust we shall return.

In this sorry spiritual state of affairs, the prophet Joel speaks. The people of Israel have wandered away from their God. They have been unfaithful in word and deed. They have sought other gods and played the harlot. So the Lord will turn them over to disaster. They will be oppressed and downtrodden. They will suffer want and weep in their distress. Joel calls out, “Rend your hearts and not your garments.” The ancient tradition was to express terrible anxiety and distress by tearing your garments, displaying your state of sorrow. But the rending of garments will only reveal the problem: a corrupt and sinful heart. A torn garment shows the problem, a torn heart begins to heal the problem.

Rend your hearts and not your garments! Put on sackcloth and ashes. Repent! Return to the Lord! David tells us in Psalm 51, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.” That is why we have gathered here this day to put on ashes, to repent. We know our sin, and it is ever before us. We know the sorry condition of our blackened hearts, and that we, of our own strength and power, cannot return from our sin-stained exile. We cannot return to the presence of the Lord our God. The ashes remind us of our sin, of the condition of our hearts. But ashes in the sign of the cross … remind us of a gracious and merciful God.

Yes, an instrument of torture and death is the means by which God has cleansed our hearts and exchanged our garments. The cross—the place where Jesus is raised up in our place. The cross—the place where Jesus is stripped of His robe and all of our sin is revealed as He hangs naked in our stead. For He who knew no sin became sin for us. We attempt to cover our sin, but Jesus reveals it so that it might be washed away by His blood. Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrow.

What do we get in this felicitous exchange? Listen to the words of St. John as he describes those who are gathered around the throne of the Lamb in His kingdom, and you’ll get the answer:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.

A great multitude who wave palm branches as they worship their Savior. Note that they are clothed in white robes. These are no fig leaves they wear; they are not adorned in filthy rags. They are clothed in white robes, robes that have been cleansed, washed in the blood of the Lamb. Their garments of sackcloth have been exchanged for robes of righteousness.

The sackcloth and ashes are gone. It is the blood of Jesus that washes away sin, His blood that washes our robes and makes them white. Jesus takes our sackcloth and ashes, and clothes us in righteousness – HIS righteousness. Now, when the Father sees us, He no longer sees our shame, nor our nakedness. He sees His Son, so drenched and thoroughly cleansed by His blood are our robes! Our hearts are restored! The exile is over! The journey is finished with the coming of that blessed Day! We are returned to the presence of our God, and we rejoice in the robes the Bridegroom has provided for His Bride.

+ In Jesus’s holy, precious, and mighty Name. + Amen.

Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet

February 11, 2018
By Pastor Peter Heckert

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Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet
Mark 9:2-9

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation this Transfiguration weekend is, unsurprisingly, our Gospel lesson, specifically where Mark records, And Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified. And a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

If your family is anything like mine, family gatherings revolved around bigger events – certain holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, events like that. Every Thanksgiving, for example, a majority of my mom’s family would gather at her sister’s house for food, football, sharing of memories, and of course, the obligatory family pictures. As a little kid, I didn’t appreciate them as much as I do now – like any child, I would fidget and squirm, preferring the fun of playing with my cousins than sitting still for a picture. Those of you with children certainly know the struggle that comes with having an energetic kid sit still for a picture. Now imagine having a gaggle of them sit in a coordinated way, according to the various family clans, all radiating out from the central figures, the familial patriarchs and matriarchs. I know it’s probably a circus to deal with, but I also know, as do you, how worth it the struggle is, as you look back at these photos, years later, and remember with fondness those times.

Those pictures are snapshots of time, a gathering of the different generations of your heritage, your family, who you are based on who and where you’ve come from and the people who have had an influence in your life. These are important to consider, as my dad is often wont to remind me, “Never forget who you are and where you’ve come from.”

With words, Mark paints us a similar portrait on the Mount of Transfiguration, only it is hardly a static portrait with kids sitting perfectly still for the microsecond necessary for the picture to be taken. No, the portrait that Mark paints for us is dynamic and alive. You see the select few apostles – Peter, James, and John – who have been brought up this mountain to witness an incredible moment. You also have, incredibly, two powerhouse figures of ancient Israel – Moses and Elijah –making an appearance, albeit in a mysterious, unknowable way, since the two of them had long since been removed from this earth.

Speaking of appearance, we come to the central figure in the portrait, the One commanding all the attention: Jesus Himself. Only … He doesn’t quite look the way that the disciples were used to seeing Him. They were, more likely, used to Him looking like an average Joe (or Jacob), perhaps with a sense of something extraordinary about Him, something one couldn’t quite put one’s finger on, but one knew when one is in His presence. No, here, on this mountain, Jesus isn’t just the teacher that they knew and loved. There, the disciples got to see Jesus in a raw display of His glory.

To say that this was a sight to behold is an incredible understatement, on par with Peter’s response to this extraordinary event, Rabbi, it is good that we are here! We are getting a rare glimpse at Jesus’s divine nature, the unadulterated majesty, holiness, and grandeur that is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. It’s almost an aside that Moses and Elijah are there. Their presence is certainly impressive, puzzling, and wondrous, but certainly not the focus. The focus here, as always, is Jesus, and Who He really is.

That’s what we see here in this family snapshot that Mark describes: the family is there, and they’re important, but of more importance is the central figure, Jesus. Peter’s desire to make three tents – one for Him, one for Moses, and one for Elijah – indicates Peter’s ignorance of Who Jesus really is in spite of the magnificence he has just been made privy to. This is undoubtedly one of the reasons why the cloud envelops the disciples and they hear the voice of the Father say, This is My beloved Son; listen to Him. The focus of this monumental moment, of this dynamic snapshot, is Jesus.

Awe-inspiring as this image of Jesus is, as majestic and powerful and glorious as we see Him in this moment of transfiguration, even then we are not seeing His divine nature most fully. That’s right, even this incredible spectacle on a mountain is not the complete display of Jesus as God. We see His glory, to be sure, but the true nature of divinity in Jesus is best beheld at another snapshot, one which we will begin contemplating in a matter of days with the coming of Lent. Yes, one sees Jesus most fully as God as He is suspended between heaven and earth, lifted up as the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world. There isn’t glory to behold, but rather gore as the blood of the Lamb is shed for the people. We don’t see His splendorous majesty, but we see the humble love of the Creator for His creatures as He lays His life down for them. We don’t hear the booming proclamation from the Father, but rather His deafening silence, as Jesus breathes His last and says, “Father, into Your hands, I commit My spirit.” We see Jesus doing the impossible, what only God can do: making atonement for sin by taking all sin upon Himself, and killing it in His own physical death. We see Jesus’ divine nature most clearly as He becomes the physical embodiment of love in His self-sacrifice upon the cross. We see Jesus as God most clearly as He dies out of love.

That’s not where the disciples are at, though. Right then and there, as Jesus is standing before them, resplendent and regal on the mountain, in this picture, we see a snapshot of the family of faith, those who trust in what and Who He is as the Messiah. As Jesus displays His glory, He is the bridge between the Old and New Testaments, bridging the gap between ancient Israel and those who see the promises given to Israel fulfilled.

While you may not see it, as we read these words and believe them to be true, we are likewise privy to this private, majestic display. That’s because we likewise are members of this family of faith. We are of the same family as Moses and Elijah, all the Old Testament believers who clung to the promise of the Messiah. We’re in the same family as Peter, James, and John, those first apostles who not only witnessed Jesus holy life, death, and resurrection, but also were sent out to bear this Gospel message to our forebears! The same family as Constantine, as Augustine, Luther, Walther, Pieper, all those who have gone before us, as well as those who will come after us who trust in Christ our Lord!

With Him at the center of the picture – both true God and true man – we have nothing to fear! When the focus of our teaching and faith is nothing by Christ, and Him crucified, resurrected, and returning, we know from where we come, and to Whom we belong! We gaze upon Christ as we partake of His body and blood, broken and shed for us! We hear His forgiving voice in absolution pronounced to us! And we shall see Him most truly and fully when He returns in a glory and majesty that is sure to outshine even what the disciples saw on that mountain! Yes, dear Christian friends! The best is yet to come!

+ In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.

Run the Race

February 04, 2018
By Pastor David French

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Run the Race
1 Corinthians 9:16-27

Well we certainly don’t have to look very hard to find a sports metaphor in our text for today, and there’s a good reason for that. Most people recognize and appreciate the life lessons that are a part of sports; lessons that prayerfully will last long after the win loss record of the team has been forgotten. But Paul uses sport today to teach a greater lesson.

The first thing we want to remember is this lesson is not about the blessings that are a part of the grace God has and continues to show to each of us in Christ.  This lesson is about our responsibilities as God’s children, if I may, as players on His team.

It’s about living with the knowledge that we are forgiven while at the same time continuing to fight the temptation to use that truth as an excuse to sin, or to take time off from the discipline of Christian living. While I’m no athlete, I do exercise regularly, and while I do more walking then running these days, I know that after missing just a week you can see and feel a decrease in your endurance. A truth everyone who exercises laments is that - you lose ground a whole lot faster than you gain it.

Paul begins in verse 24 with these words, Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. What Paul is looking at is attitude and effort, not to earn salvation that’s God’s gift to you and all who believe, but the determination and effort it takes not just to claim but to live the life we have been given in Christ; that is, to live as His faithful witnesses.

All one of the players that have joined us this weekend have spent months in preparation. They’ve run laps, done sprints, shot free throws, run through passing and dribbling drills time and time again. They’ve given up afternoons and portions of their weekends. The result is that they are no longer five or ten players, they are a team. They think and work as one. They come with the desire to win and the hope that they will be the ones to take home the trophy. They are prepared and determined to play in such a way as to win the prize, no matter what the odds.

As you’ve seen or know from your own experience, athletes often deny themselves many things during the season that they enjoy in the off season. They’re taught and work at self-control so that no matter what situation they find themselves, in they don’t panic, but they stick with the game plan. They subject themselves to strict rules and accept the discipline that comes if they break those rules understanding it’s for the good of the team.  All this for a trophy that will collect dust on a shelf or in a trophy case somewhere in one of our schools.

The truth is, you parents have also been willing to make those same kinds of sacrifices. You have your child at practice whenever it’s scheduled, you miss meals because you have to run to pick someone up or drop someone off. I’m sure most of you here this Super Bowl weekend could have found something else to do, but you willingly and joyfully make the sacrifices needed so your child’s team would have a chance to bring that trophy home. That’s the way it is when you have children in sports, or music, or art, or dance, or whatever activities or teams you and your child are involved in.

And so knowing that to be true Paul, says in effect, “You’ve shown you’re willing to sacrifice so much and to rearrange your life to the extent that you do for a moment of glory now are you willing to put that same kind of effort into your Christian life, a life that brings eternal glory?

Now, maybe you disagree with Paul, but for a moment put the two pictures side by side and consider: When it comes to living as a Christian, have you gone into strict training? Do you show the same sacrifice, the same self-denial and extra effort that we expect from our children when they’re involved with sports? Do you have your child in bed early the night before a game so that he or she can be well rested, but find sometimes it’s just easier to stay in bed on Sunday morning? Do you have your children at practice early so they can warm up, but run into church not taking the time for a prayer before worship begins? Do you tell your child to keep his or her head in the game while your mind wanders during the Divine service? Do you look for opportunities to talk about what your children did in their last game and miss the opportunities to talk to them about the love God has for them in Christ?  Do you put as much effort into living your faith as you do your sports? It’s a hard question; a fair one, but a hard one.

Please remember Paul is not calling eternal life the prize.  He’s not saying we have to do this or that to go to heaven. Paul understands better than most that forgiveness is God’s gift to you in Christ, and a real gift is not earned, but comes from the heart of the giver, and your effort or lack of effort won’t change that.

Again Paul’s lesson today is not heaven, but our faithfulness in living the life that is ours in Christ. Paul is reminding us that the way we live our lives Monday through Saturday says as much, if not more, to our families, friends, and neighbors about the place God has in our hearts as the things we do on Sunday.

The truth is, if we look, we can see in ourselves what Paul saw in himself; that our sinful nature is also very much alive. Thanks be to God that while we share the same sinful nature as Paul, we also share in the grace that God showed to Paul and to us all.

The same Christ who called Paul His child calls you His child. The same Christ who died for Paul’s sins died for your sins. The same Christ who rose that Paul might know life rose that you might know life. The same Word of Christ that reminded Paul again and again that he was forgiven reminds you again today that you are forgiven.

You see, our confidence about our place in heaven, like Paul’s, does not come from a list of deeds we have accomplished, but it comes through the cross of Christ alone.  But, do we who know God’s love in Christ take that to mean we shouldn’t try? Is that the advice you’d give to your team? That, if you can’t win it all, don’t bother trying?

No, I’m sure you’re much more the: “It’s not whether you win or lose but how you play the game” or “as long as you do your best…” kind of people. So the question remains, are you doing your best to live your life as a witness of God’s love in Christ?

The truth is, we do often work much harder at the unimportant things ... and yet even as we recognize and confess the truth that we often take God’s gifts for granted, we have a reason to rejoice. We rejoice for we know that in Christ we are forgiven and the prize, the crown that never fades, even now, in Christ Jesus is yours.

In His Name, Amen

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