Sermons

Archives - March 2020

Via Dolorosa

March 29, 2020
By Rev. Peter Heckert

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

The text for our meditation for this fifth weekend in Lent comes from our Old Testament text, where we hear Isaac ask his father, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” and Abraham’s response, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

Hadn’t his faith been tested enough? A perusal of Abraham’s life to this point shows incredible periods of testing. When he leaves his homeland and family for Canaan … when they have to go to Egypt in the midst of a famine … going to battle in order to rescue his nephew Lot … witnessing the destruction and literal overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah … all the while, enduring the barrenness of his wife, Sarai, and yet having the promise of becoming a great nation, of having offspring as numerous as the stars. He and his wife tried to do everything that they could think of to ensure this promise came true – even going so far as to have Abram lay with Sarai’s servant girl Hagar and father a son that way; we all know how that ended. To say that it had been an emotional and spiritual roller coaster for Abram – now called Abraham – is an understatement.

But then came the promise of a son … from his own body, even though he and his wife were nearly a century old at that point. It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely scenario playing out, but YHWH made this promise to Abraham and Sarah ... and it was fulfilled in the birth of their son, Isaac, the child of promise. Now, several years later, YHWH tells Abraham to do something that seems unthinkable, seems to fly in the face of all the promises made thus far: sacrifice his only son, the child of promise, and seemingly throw all those promises to the wind.

Again, hadn’t he been tested enough? For all his foibles and failings, Abraham had proven himself time and again to be faithful to YHWH, his new God. He’d listened to the call, heeded the visions, built the altars, even literally cutting a covenant with YHWH in his own flesh. So as Abraham and Isaac are walking away from the attendants, up Mount Moriah’s slope, with Isaac carrying the wood and the fire and asking his father where the lamb for sacrifice was, the question is, why? Why did YHWH test Abraham this way? Why make him endure this impossible test? Why would He ask Abraham to do something that, if completed faithfully according to God’s word, would have conceivably resulted in the destruction of all the promises that YHWH had made to this point, including the coming of the Messiah from Abraham’s seed?

It’s hard for us to wrestle with this. We who know the whole story can’t really imagine what it would have been like to be in Abraham’s shoes during the long trek up the via dolorosa of Moriah’s hill. We know how the story ends, how the Angel of YHWH intervenes just as Abraham is about to strike the killing blow, how Abraham lifts up his eyes to see a ram caught in a thicket, and how he offers it as a sacrifice to YHWH instead of Isaac. We know how Abraham passes the test. We know how he believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness. So, seeing as how God is omnipotent, all-knowing, surely He knew Abraham was more than willing to follow God’s command, so why did God even bother testing him in the first place?

I’m sure that’s a question you’ve asked of God yourself in your own trials and tribulations, sufferings and uncertainties. I know that it’s a thought that has crossed the minds of many in recent weeks as this new plague has swept over our nation and our world. Hasn’t our faith been tested enough, O LORD? As the body count climbs and the new cases grow exponentially, haven’t we endured enough? Why make us go through this? … We’re asking the wrong question here.

Setting aside the fact that what we are enduring is the product of living in a broken, sinful world, and the fact that, as we confessed a few minutes ago, we justly deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment for our sin, it misses the point entirely. Difficult as it may be to wrap our minds around, the reality is that Abraham … is a spectator in this pericope. To a greater or lesser extent, so is Isaac. God Himself is the center and focus here, and not so much His putting Abraham’s faith to the test, but rather His faithfulness.

We’re going to be singing a well-known hymn momentarily: “The Lamb, the Lamb – O father, where’s the sacrifice? Faith sees, believes God will provide the Lamb of price!” Our faith is a response to God’s faithfulness. He had shown Himself to be faithful through all the years of Abraham’s life. He had kept His word of promise thus far, even if it took Him some time to do so! Here again, YHWH proves Himself to be faithful, by not allowing the child of promise to be slaughtered! Even through the subsequent generations of Abraham’s descendants, as they proved themselves time and again to be faithless, YHWH proved Himself to be faithful. He always allowed a remnant to remain, never snuffing out a smoldering wick. Until the time came when YHWH Himself would show His faithfulness as He Himself trudged up another hill – Golgotha, by name. He carried, not a bundle of wood, nor fire, nor a blade, but rather a cross.

There’s a reason why our upcoming hymn makes the connection between this episode of YHWH’s faithfulness to Abraham and what YHWH incarnate, Jesus Christ, did on the cross of Calvary. Our faithlessness notwithstanding, our God is always faithful to His Word. It’s worth mentioning that His Word does not say that we won’t face times of testing. It doesn’t say that life will be hunky-dory and that we won’t face trials and tribulations; quite to the contrary, it says that we will face these things! But we are able to face them – not because of the faith that we have, but because Who our faith is placed in is faithful to His promises. Promises like, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Promises like, “Your sins are forgiven.” Promises like, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” We will not be spared suffering and testing, but we have God’s promise that, since Jesus walked the Via Dolorosa on our behalf, our sins are forgiven, and eternal life is ours. Yes, we should all aspire to endure times of trial and testing like Abraham did on Mount Moriah, but more than this, we trust how YHWH kept His promises to Abraham, even on that dark day of testing, and He keeps His promises to you.

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

Eyes on Jesus: Murderous Eyes

March 25, 2020
By Rev. Peter Heckert

+ 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 evening comes our gospel text, where Mark records, “And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, for they said, ‘Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.’”  Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

“If looks could kill.” I’m sure you’ve heard that phrase before, but … have you ever lived it? Looking upon the seething rage in the face of another. A look that is so full of anger and even hate that you’d be surprised if there weren’t murderous intent behind it? Maybe you’ve seen that look in the mirror – which, frankly, can be more unsettling and frightening than seeing it in the face of another. In the ancient world and still today in some cultures, the “evil eye” is a glance that is thought to cause harm to the recipient. You can imagine this being what one would have seen in the eyes of the chief priests and scribes, the Sadducees and Pharisees, as they plotted Jesus’s death in tonight’s Passion reading. They were filled with hatred and murder as they gazed upon Jesus being greeted with praise in Jerusalem during Holy Week, and before that, when face-to-face with Jesus, they heard Him speak woes and reproaches to them. Make no mistake – if they’d had the ability to shoot fiery arrows from their eyes at the young rabbi, they would have done so.

Why the vehemence? A quick glance at Matthew’s gospel account may give us a clue. According to Matthew, during Passion Week, Jesus took the religious leaders to task for their hypocrisy: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, saying, ‘If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus, you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers.”

He wanted them to recognize their rank hypocrisy and repent, and sometimes mockery is the best way to drill a point home for hardened hearts. Thus, Jesus’s words, “Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers.” He’s mocking the religious leaders to bring them face-to-face with the murder that lay hidden under pious pretenses of honoring the murdered prophets and the platitudes of “We wouldn’t have done what our fathers did!” – as if anyone believes that.

After all, “There is nothing new under the sun,” as the preacher wrote in Ecclesiastes. Murderous thoughts and looks are as old as the fall into sin. Cain’s downcast eyes became murderous toward his brother. The cause of murder is always the agency of man, but the original source is the devil, who, Jesus says, was a liar and murderer from the beginning. St. John says that the murderer Cain was of the evil one. In addressing the Jews who wanted to kill Him, Jesus identifies Satan as the father of all who hate God’s Son.

But aren’t John and Jesus just wailing on Cain and the presently-plotting murderous Jewish authorities? Surely, He’s not talking to us, right? Listen to His Word: St. John writes, “Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” And a bit later, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” Follow the logic. If I claim to love God while hating my brother, I am both a murderer and a liar and cannot love God, and if I don’t love Him, then I must hate Him. Looks like we’re in the same boat as Cain and the Sanhedrin. Consider the words of confession found in the Good Friday hymn, “Upon the Cross Extended”:

I caused Thy grief and sighing
By evils multiplying
As countless as the sands.
I caused the woes unnumbered
With which Thy soul is cumbered,
Thy sorrows raised by wicked hands.

Don’t lie to yourself. You have said in your heart, “I have reasons for hating my parents. I can make excuses for wishing that my brother were dead. I have good cause for casting an evil eye upon my neighbor.” That makes you a murderer in God’s sight and places you under His wrath. The Jews filled up the measure of their fathers in tonight’s Passion reading, and if we’re honest with ourselves, we must see ourselves right along with them.

What an absolute marvel, then, that the Father would allow His Son to be murdered at the hands of sinful men, just to save a bunch of rotten, rebellious sinners with eyes filled with rage against God and man. “But God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by His blood, much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God.” The wrath of God is not a murderous glance from the Father, but a look of righteous judgment upon the guilt of sin. We all deserve His just wrath, but instead of giving us what we deserved, God put it on Jesus, and Jesus willingly took it, for us men and for our salvation.

From the cross, Jesus looked upon the masses of humanity and said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Original sin, which produces deception, hatred, murder, and every other sin, is so deep a corruption that we cannot recognize the depravity of what we think, say, and do unless it is revealed by God’s Word. But once our murderous eyes have looked in horror on what we have really done—nailing the innocent Son of God to the tree with our sins—then we are also ready for the joyful Good News of the forgiveness of all of our sins for the sake of Christ’s voluntary sacrifice at the hands of murderers, the death by which He has extinguished the wrath of God toward us. “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.” Rejoicing is the theme of Laetare, the Fourth Sunday in Lent. So, rejoice in Christ, who has turned your murderous eyes away from sin, guilt, and despair and lifted them up to look upon Himself as your Savior. Amen.

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

How It Really Is

March 22, 2020
By Rev. Peter Heckert

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

The text for our meditation for this fourth weekend of Lent comes from our gospel text, where John writes, “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!’ Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends …

Who is Jesus? That’s the question that echoes through the pages of John’s gospel account. Is He the Messiah, the Son of God? From the prologue where he declares that the Word was in the beginning with God and that the Word was God all the way through Jesus’s death and resurrection, John’s message is clear. Jesus of Nazareth, who is called the Christ, truly is the Son of God. And he shows it. John is a masterful storyteller, and his account is very dramatic to read, almost like a play or a novel. It sucks you into the action so you think you are really there at Cana or in the dead of night with Nicodemus or standing before Pontius Pilate. Today’s gospel text, the infamous feeding of the 5,000, is an excellent example – not only of John’s literary genius, but more importantly, of his demonstrating that Jesus truly is the incarnate Word, the Son of God.

In our text, Jesus has gone “away to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, which is the Sea of Tiberias,” and because of the signs and wonders He had been performing of late, crowds of hundreds and thousands have come out to Him in the wilderness. That’s a problem, though, because the Passover was near, and they were all far off from anywhere that the people could get food. Already knowing what He would do, Jesus tests one of His disciples, Phillip, by asking how they would provide food for such a sea of people. Phillip responds that not even two hundred days’ wages would be enough to provide just bread for the crowd; nevertheless, Jesus takes a child’s lunch of five barley loaves and two fish, and He feeds the whole crowd. He feeds them, giving them all they could want, all they could eat, with leftovers to spare – twelve full baskets of leftovers. He provides for them, and the people perceive that something wonderful has happened to them, that it was thanks to this Man who had done the miraculous once again, but this time, for them. John tells us, “When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!’” They are thinking to themselves, “Know what? This guy would make a really good king!” Jesus, however, knows what they’re thinking, and He withdraws.

That’s where our text ends, but the story itself doesn’t end there. Jesus goes across the Sea of Galilee once more … but the people follow Him. Why did Jesus leave? Because the crowds didn’t get it. Jesus tells them when they finally catch up with Him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.” Jesus had done something wonderful, a sign, a witness to who He truly is, and the people didn’t see it; they knew something incredible had happened, but they didn’t realize what it meant. They saw the food. They saw what they got. But they did not recognize who Jesus is, and that was the real point of all of it.

When Jesus makes plain what the point of all of this is – that He is the bread of life, the true bread come down from heaven, that people are supposed to believe in Him, that they are supposed to eat His flesh and drink His blood – then they understand … and most turn away. Most of them don’t believe, asking, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” and “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” They don’t believe that He is the Son of God. Sure, they saw the sign, and they understand what Jesus is saying, but they will not believe it.

This is another pattern you see though John’s gospel, Jesus demonstrating who He really is through these signs and wonders, and the people not believing. What about you? You’re not a member of that crowd that infamously dined-and-dashed. If I asked you if Jesus is the Son of God, I’ve no doubt y’all would answer with a confident “Yes” … but there is a difference between saying that and living it out. What was the issue of those who were fed with the five loaves and two fish? It wasn’t that they didn’t recognize what Jesus did as a miracle – they clearly did – but rather that they saw Jesus as the answer to all their problems. They saw Jesus, they made Jesus, into a means to their ends. Jesus wanted the food to be a means, a sign, pointing to His divine nature and His identity as the Son of God; the crowds wanted things the other way around.

And that sort of thing does happen today. We make Jesus into a means to our ends, probably more often than we think. We want to go to heaven; Jesus becomes the means to that end. We want forgiveness of our sins, and we make Jesus the means to that end. We make Him into the answer to all that troubles us, the solution to all our problems. Of course, Jesus really did feed those people, just as He really did heal the sick and raise the dead, and He really does give us the promise of life eternal and the forgiveness of our sins, but He didn’t come to be a mere instrument, a means to get what we want and even need. He came … as the Son of God. He came to represent, to speak for, to act for God. EVERYTHING runs through Jesus – even the things we want, need, and consider good. He didn’t come to make things right according to our desires, but to show how things really are! When He says something that is entirely contrary to what we see and feel, what He says is the reality! That’s what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God! The feeding of the 5,000 points to that reality and His resurrection from the dead was the ultimate sign that He gave that He is God’s Son, but He isn’t done giving signs!

Do you want to know how things are between you and Him? That’s what baptism is – a sign and a seal upon you, as one redeemed by Christ the crucified and resurrected Lord. Even when you don’t feel it, even when you don’t see it, that’s the reality, because Jesus has declared it to be so and has given you a new birth! You are a new creature because of it, completely washed of your sins!

Do you want a sign that things are good between you and Him? Even though we’re not currently able to partake in it, when Jesus gives you His very body and blood in, under, and with bread and wine, that’s Him promising that all who partake in faith have eternal life. He gave these promises back then, and He gives them to you now – definitely something to look forward to when we are finally able to gather in person as His people once again!

As the Son of God, as the One who speaks and acts for God, Jesus gives these signs to you! Not because He is a means to our end, but because, as God’s Son, Jesus gets to say how things really are. As John wrote at the end of his gospel account, these signs and wonders are given “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name.”

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

Tags: John 6:1-15

Eyes on Jesus: Denying Eyes

March 18, 2020
By Rev. Peter Heckert

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

The text for our meditation tonight comes from our Gospel text, where Mark writes, And Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” But he said emphatically, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And they all said the same. Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

The eleven apostles and Jesus had already sung a post-Communion hymn – there were only eleven with Jesus because Judas had already departed to get staged for his betrayal. Now, they were headed for the Mount of Olives. Jesus told the group they would all fall away, fulfilling the words of Zechariah the prophet, Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered. Peter thought he was exempt from this, saying to Jesus, Even though they all fall away, I will not. But Jesus knows how it will really go down, saying, Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny Me three times. Peter’s having none of it: If I must die with You, I will not deny You. And the other ten apostles emphatically agreed. That’s right, it wasn’t just Peter; they all denied that they would fall away from Jesus. Though it would seem like wisdom, it was unparalleled foolishness: denying the words from Jesus’s own lips, and the inspired and inerrant Word of God recorded by Zechariah.

That reminds me of an Eagles song, “Lyin’ Eyes.” Those of you who know it will remember what Don Henley and Glenn Frey wrote: “…your smile is a thin disguise … there ain’t no way to hide your lyin’ eyes.” If we broken, sinful creatures can tell when another is lying simply by looking in the eyes, how much more does the omniscient Lord Jesus see lying and denying in the eyes of His disciples of all times and places?

What was in the eyes of the apostles as they looked upon Jesus predicting their falling away from Him? Perhaps first a look of horror at such an awful prospect, then a look of disbelief as they processed His saying and began to form their defense, and then that slightly crazed look of a religious fanatic who thinks he can keep his vows to God by simple fervor, his own force of will.

The eyes of the apostles weren’t really seeing Jesus and letting the truth of His words sink into their ears; they were blinded by their own strong delusions. They were lying to themselves as they were denying their Lord’s words. They were focused on their own perceptions and plans. They had their minds on the things of men rather than on the things of God.

The hard reality is that, in spite of their strident protestations, all of the remaining eleven apostles would deny Jesus by falling away, and we see it most dramatically as Peter verbally denies Jesus during his cross-examination by a little servant girl and some bystanders. However, as we saw last week, it had to be this way: Jesus had to be the last one standing, the only one making the good confession, the one who would never deny the will of His Father but humbly submitted to suffering and death, for us and for our salvation.

When Jesus had quoted the prophecy of Zechariah, He had actually added a couple words to it that I left out earlier. He said, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.” This is a quote from the Lord God of Israel Himself: “Awake, O sword, against My shepherd, against the Man who stands next to Me,” declares the LORD of hosts. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.”

Jesus is the One against whom the Father bids the sword awaken. It’s just like we heard a couple weeks ago, that the one who ultimately handed Jesus over wasn’t Judas but the Father Himself. Remember back in Isaiah 53, it was the Father’s will to crush the Messiah so that the masses would be accounted righteous in the Father’s sight: 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.

“I will strike the shepherd,” said the Father, and Jesus was stricken with all of that, for you, for me, even for the denying disciples. Jesus had told them they would all fall away … but He had also told them, “[A]fter I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” His words about their falling away and denial did prove true, but so did the words about His resurrection and His subsequent appearing to the apostles. To these denying and doubting apostles, Jesus entrusted the teaching and baptizing that would go out to all nations and turn deniers of God into confessors, into followers of Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit. His forgiveness and peace were given, even to those who denied even knowing Him, even Peter.

Now, we do tend to bash Peter pretty heavily here, as the guy who literally, verbally denied his Lord, but we should bear a few things in mind. First, it’s worth mentioning that Peter seems to have been the only one with courage enough even to approach Jesus’s trial. Second, as a sentiment we’ve considered before, we are certainly no better. How many times have we stood by silently when someone spoke words contradicting our Lord’s Word? How many opportunities to confess the Gospel to others have we passed up for fear of giving offense? Probably more times than we’d care to admit. Finally, we should recognize in Peter an example to follow in the way he expressed his contrition over what he had done. Unlike Judas, who tried to deal with his guilt on his own, Peter had true, godly sorrow over his sin, which prepared him for the absolution he would receive on Easter, when Jesus appeared to the apostles, showed them His hands and side, and spoke the forgiving “Peace be with you.”

My friends, though you and I both regularly deny our Lord like Peter and the other apostles, through your baptism into Christ, you have been given a gift greater than the whole world. You have lost your life in this world for the sake of Christ and have now found your life in Him and His kingdom, where you are saved from sin, death, and hell. You now look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Come, follow Me, Jesus says, for it is a truly joyful journey.

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

Filled with the Word

March 15, 2020
By Rev. James Barton

The whole Lenten season is intended to help us prepare for the suffering and death of Jesus and what that means for us. But our services and Scriptures also remind us that, not just at the cross, but all through His life and ministry, Jesus was struggling and experiencing suffering and being misunderstood and being challenged and sometimes being accused of being downright evil Himself. None of it was easy - and our gospel lesson for today is a prime example.

Jesus had just done another of His great miracles. “Now he was casting out a demon that was mute. When the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke” (Luke 11:14). You would think that all the people would be thankful and rejoicing in Jesus, because Jesus had freed this man from an evil spirit controlling him, and the man was normal again and could speak again. Instead, we hear that “people marveled” (v.14) - which may simply mean that they were asking, “How could that guy do that?” - kind of like people watch magicians today and wonder how they do their tricks. Certainly, many of the crowds later on deserted Jesus, no matter what they had seen from Him.

We also hear that “others, to test Jesus, kept seeking from Him a sign from heaven” (v.16). They wanted something more and something better from Jesus. He never had done enough, in their minds, even though He was doing exactly what was prophesied in the Old Testament for the Messiah, the promised Savior, to do. In Isaiah 35, in the Old Testament, we hear this prophecy, “Behold, your God will come … He will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute (the one who could not speak) will sing for joy” (Isaiah 35:4-6).

And others, seeing the miracle of Jesus, even accused Jesus of pure evil, of being on the side of the devil, and working by the devil’s power. “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons” (v. 15). They were using an Old Testament derogatory term connecting Jesus with the Lord of evil, “the Lord of the flies,” the devil. But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said to them, in effect, “Does what you are saying make any sense?” “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls. And if Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?” (v.17-18) But Satan is not divided, Jesus says. Satan is like “a strong man, fully armed,” working relentlessly against God and against all that is good (v.21).

That is the way it has been, in this world, ever since the fall of Adam and Eve into sin. There are the three great enemies: 1) the devil and his fallen angels, the demons; 2) the now fallen, sinful world; (this includes the fallen natural world, which produces viruses and diseases and physical ills that are so hard to deal with - and falling stock markets and so much else - and a fallen people and culture all around us, that want to lead us in bad directions); and, 3) we have our own sinful nature, that part of us that just doesn’t want to do the right things we know we should be doing.

It is no wonder, then, that Jesus faced so much trouble and opposition all His life. And it is no surprise that many of us are probably listening here today very uneasy about all the chaos that is going on around us, these days, and with uncertainty about what we should be doing.

And Jesus tosses one more warning and concern into our text, as well. He pictures us as being a house - and if we are left on our own, we are like an empty house. Even if we could get rid of some evil or problem in our lives, left on our own, something even more evil could move into our empty house and make things worse (v.24-26). If a vaccine for Covid-19 is found and this disease becomes under control, over time some other virus or problem might appear, as we have seen with MERS and SARS and Ebola and on and on. Or say that we are struggling with a personal moral issue, something that is not good for us, and we finally are able to deal with that issue. Aren’t there other moral issues we still need to deal with? And don’t new temptations also come along?

We need help from outside ourselves, and the good news of our text is that there is help for us. Satan is a strongman, but one stronger than he comes and attacks and overcomes, and that stronger man is Jesus Himself. Jesus never did any evil at all. He never cooperated with Satan. He says, “It is by the finger of God that I cast out demons” and do all that I do - and that means, He says, that “the kingdom of God has come upon you” (v. 20-21).

The term “finger of God” is an Old Testament term for how God did the miracles by which He rescued His people from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 8:16-19) and wrote the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone (Exodus 31:18) and even created the heavens (Psalm 8:3-4). It was entirely by the power of God - not by Moses or anyone else. It was, the Book of Genesis tells us, by the simple Word of God, “Let there be ...” and the universe came into being, as easy for God as the flick of a finger (Genesis 1).

This one true God has now sent His own Son into this world to deal with the problem of sin and evil that plagues this once perfect creation. And according to the plan of God, His Son had to become a real human being, who would live in this troubled world as we do and suffer and struggle and be tempted as we are and yet, in our place, never sin and do evil Himself. And in that process He would battle Satan himself and break his power and overcome him and all the forces of evil.

Though He was also God, Jesus lived as a true man, and much of the time, limited His power to the same spiritual power that we have still today - “the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). Remember how Jesus battled Satan’s temptations in the wilderness? He simply trusted God’s Word and quoted it and followed it, and Satan had to retreat (Matthew 4:1-11). And even during Holy Week, Jesus said that He could have called 12 legions of angels (72,000 angels) to help Him; but instead, He simply trusted His heavenly Father’s Word and will, and lived and died by the Word, even though it meant the cross, to pay for our sins and bring us salvation (Matthew 26:52-54).

In His death, it looked as if Jesus had been defeated and done away with by Satan and an evil world. In reality, it was Jesus who had won the victory, as shown by His mighty resurrection. Even death could not hold Him, and in Him and His Word come forgiveness and hope and eternal life for us who trust that Word by faith (Hebrews 2:14-18, 4:14-16). And even after His resurrection, Jesus spent much of His time, not doing miracles (the Easter miracle of the resurrection was enough!) but teaching the disciples more of God’s Word. Later in His gospel, Luke tells us, “Beginning with Moses and all the prophets, Jesus interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27).

That is what we all need, still today - that our empty selves, left on our own, be continually filled with the words and promises of the Scriptures. Jesus Himself emphasized this at the end of our text for today.

A woman, hearing Jesus, raised her voice and said, “Blessed is the woman who gave birth to you and nourished you” (Luke 11:27). In response, Jesus used a word that means “Yes, but” - “Yes, with a correction.” Yes, Mary was blessed to be the mother of Jesus (Luke 1:28, 42), but Mary was not the important one. She needed Jesus and His Word and work for her above everything else, as we all do. Luke tells us that “Mary treasured up all that she had seen and heard, pondering these things in her heart” (Luke 2:19). That is how she was blessed and could say, “Let it be to me according to Your Word” and “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:38, 46). Mary too was a sinner who needed a Savior.

And so, Jesus says, “Blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and keep it” - literally, “blessed are those who keep on hearing the Word and are guarding it,” knowing how precious and important it is for us, always (Luke 11:28). That is why the Word of God is called, in our catechism, a “Means of Grace” - a pipeline through which God continually fills our lives with His Word and gifts and blessing. All this comes along with the Word connected with water, in baptism, and the Word connected with bread and wine, in the Lord’s Supper. Blessed are those who hear and use that Word regularly.

And Jesus said, on another occasion, “If you continue in My Word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). That means that what we see right now is not all that is going on. We are free to live with hope in this chaotic world, not having all the answers, but led and helped by Jesus and His truth. We are also free to live in confidence that the kingdom of God really has come upon us in Jesus and that our eternal future is secure in Him who has forgiven and saved us. We know that there will come a time when in heaven nothing will trouble us, including Covid-19 or any other difficulty. There will only be peace and joy, and in the meantime, we will have strength to carry on, guided by Jesus and His Word.

One last thought. Jesus also says, in this text, that there is no neutral ground with Him and His Word. He says, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Luke 11:23). We are with Christ, we do try to gather to receive His Word, and we are richly blessed. We also know how strange it seems at this unusual time not to be able to gather around Word and Sacrament.

But think of how many people around us are more like empty boxes, still without Christ and His hope. They think it is strange even to have a National Day of Prayer and question its values and the importance of God and His Word. We cannot convert anyone, only God can. But we can try, when we have the chance again, to invite people to worship and Bible class and Sunday school and other places where the Word of God is heard. We can tell people, by Word and deed, how important the Lord is for us.

There are people here at St. James who tell me often about others they care about and are praying for and trying to reach out to. They maybe haven’t gotten too far, but they keep trying. And more of us could do the same, through Christ and His Word at work in us. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing comes through the Word of God” (Romans 10:14, 17). Amen.

Eyes on Jesus: Sleepy Eyes

March 11, 2020
By Rev. Peter Heckert

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

The text for our meditation tonight comes from our gospel text where Mark records Jesus words to the three disciples, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends …

Ask my wife – there’s been more than one occasion where we are going to do a movie night together. It’s always a movie we’re both interested in, so lest you think I’m not interested in the movie, that’s not the case! If we are watching the movie at night though … usually after a long day’s work … it doesn’t fail: after about twenty or thirty minutes, my eyelids start to get heavy. I’m somewhat able to focus on the action, but then I’ll notice that the movie has mysteriously lurched forward in the plot, meaning I’ve missed a scene or two or ten. Sometimes my wife will pause the movie, at which point I protest, saying I was awake, only to be sold out by snores of varying volumes a few minutes later. Again, it’s not that I’m not interested in the movie! Maybe it has to do with the general fatigue from the day. Maybe it’s my internal clock. Maybe I’m just getting old and not able to stay up as late as you young whippersnappers. Whatever the cause, I know that I’ve been embarrassed by my occasional inability to stay awake.

I know many of you have been there too. I know you’ve had times when you were so tired that you couldn’t fight off the sandman anymore, and you start to inexplicably snooze. We all should be able to identify with Peter, James, and John as they succumbed to exhaustion in Gethsemane while Jesus steadfastly watched and prayed to His Father.

It had been a busy, exciting, scary, confusing, roller-coaster week for the disciples. No wonder they were so tired, just needing to see the inside of their eyelids for a while. Who knows if Peter, James, and John had gotten any shut-eye since hearing Jesus’s sermon about staying awake and watching for the Last Day? Maybe they had taken it quite literally. They were reclined on the soft grass of the garden, the cool night air was perfect, exceedingly comfortable. And can you think of something more sleep inducing than watching another person pray? Certainly, if you’re like me, you’ve nodded off during your own prayers, falling asleep in the middle of a petition. Let’s be honest: a nap was inevitable, right?

Indeed, it was. And we would not have done any better than they did. We likewise would have caved to that temptation. The disciples’ apparent narcolepsy teaches us to identify sinful humans—even believers!—as sleepyheads whose willing spirits cannot overcome the weakness of their flesh. But the marvelous dichotomy of this scene is that Jesus, as Lord of Israel, neither slumbers nor sleeps, for His eyes were set only on doing God’s will. When it came time for all righteousness to be fulfilled, for all the sin of the world to be paid for, it had to be Jesus - only Jesus. Only He could stay awake, persevering through the homestretch of His active obedience, to suffer the pangs of hell in His passive obedience, and then to sleep the sleep of death in the tomb, for us men and for our salvation.

Tonight, in the Garden of Gethsemane, we see Him—sorrowful and troubled, even to the point of His sacred heart failing right then and there. The weight of the world’s sins pressed down upon Him in a way we could never imagine; He fell upon His face in weakness and trembling, begging, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for You. Remove this cup from Me.” The cup Jesus spoke of was the cup of His Father’s wrath against all the sin of the world. God’s wrath is His unmitigated anger, a furious outpouring of condemnation, the fires and torments of hell. Certainly what we deserve, but not what the sinless Son of God deserved.

Well, the Father answered His Son’s prayer. While it was possible for Him to remove the cup, the Father’s will was for Jesus to suffer … for you. He answered Jesus’s prayer by giving His Son the strength to accept His good and gracious will, and the Son willingly went into captivity when Judas showed up to betray Him. Moments later, Jesus said that all this was done to “let the Scriptures be fulfilled.”

No doubt, the Scripture recorded in Isaiah 53 is in the background here. There, the Suffering Servant of the Lord is said to be stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted for our transgressions; crushed for our iniquities; cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of God’s people, even though He had done no violence and no lies were upon His lips. Why all this punishment on the Innocent Victim? Isaiah writes, “It was the will of the Lord to crush Him; He has put Him to grief.” The Father willed to crush His own Son, and make Him an offering for the guilt of our sin. Unsettling as that may sound to our sinful ears, we receive this news with awe and thanksgiving that the Lord has done this to save us from our sins, trusting God’s Word, which says that His good and gracious will was to love us by sacrificing His only-begotten Son on our behalf!

And make no mistake: the Father eternally loves His Son, and Isaiah’s prophecy did not stop with the death of Jesus. It pointed forward to Easter, when Jesus appeared to the disciples, gazed upon them with living eyes, and said, “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, their eyes looked upon His hands and His side. “Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” His nail-marked hands speak of God’s goodwill toward you and all sinners: “Peace be with you.” The scars on His hands reveal the good and gracious will of God, that peace between God and man had been made by Him who was delivered up for our sin and was raised for our justification.

Through all this, Jesus had eyes only for His Father’s will and, through this, fulfilled what He had told His disciples in John 6: “I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will but the will of Him who sent Me. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that I should lose nothing of all that He has given Me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”

The good and gracious will of God is that you set your eyes on the Son, believe in Him, and have eternal life as a free gift. With that Good News in mind, you can fall asleep in peace, tonight and every night, and awaken to serve Him each morning. When, however, your eyes are closed in death, we are confident that they will be opened to everlasting life in the resurrection.

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

Insistence

March 08, 2020
By Rev. Peter Heckert

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

The text for our meditation for this second weekend in Lent comes from our gospel text, where Matthew records Jesus’s reply to the Canaanite woman, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.”  Here ends our text; dear Christian friends …

Try to put yourself in the shoes of this woman. You’ve got a daughter, a dearly-loved child, who is possessed by a demon – perhaps saying horrific things to you, harming herself or others, speaking in a voice not her own – and you are powerless to do anything about it. You’re at a loss, but you’ve heard news regarding a few individuals from Judea, especially a young rabbi from Nazareth, who some are calling the “Son of David,” the Messiah, and who apparently has power from the Jewish God to cast out demonic spirits.

“Boy, wouldn’t it be wonderful if He could be here and do something about my demon-possessed child?” You allow that thought to cross your mind, but reality sets back in. So many things are cutting against the remotest possibility of this happening. First and foremost is location. Tyre and Sidon lie beyond Galilee, a region that most high-society Jews looked down upon as a backwater, a place from which nothing good proceeds, so anything beyond that was even worse. There’s no way that this Jesus of Nazareth would come this far north, much less to your rinky-dink little abode.

There’s also your nationality, but more specifically, your religion. You’re a descendent of Canaan, the ancient foe whom the Israelites were supposed to exterminate, but failed to do so. More than likely, you’re an idol-worshipper – perhaps not so much Baal, but whatever deity you bow before is not the God of Israel. In the eyes of the Jewish upper-crust, you’re worthless scum that deserves nothing but contempt because you worship false gods. Unkind as that sentiment may be, the truth is that it’s entirely possible that the unclean spirit that has possessed your daughter has come as the result of your pagan worship – inviting in a spirit, but not getting the one you were wanting. You know of the God of Israel, but you’re not of Israel, so there’s no way that He would send this Jesus to you to take care of your daughter.

And you’re a woman. While much of Roman society was rather egalitarian, in your neck of the woods a woman’s word wasn’t even permissible as evidence in a court of law. It’s entirely possible that you’re a widow or a woman whose husband abandoned her. Perhaps you committed adultery against him and he decided to go on his merry way. In any case, it seems that you’re alone, left to fend for yourself and your daughter. You’re a nobody; there’s no reason why this Jesus would ever go out of His way to help you.

Then you get the news: the impossible has happened. Jesus is just over the border from where you are! He’s not far off at all! So you run in the direction that people have said. You feel embarrassed about your daughter, so you leave her either on her own or in the care of someone else. All you know is that you have to try something …. You’re desperate. With everything that the demon has been doing to and through your daughter, you know this is an opportunity that you simply have to try and seize, even though there’s that nagging thought in your mind that it’s going to blow up in your face anyway.

You’re running, getting close to the border with Galilee, and suddenly, you see a man and a small entourage with Him. You’re sure that He’s not going to pay any attention to you – after all, why would He? You’re a nobody, remember? But as you are drawing near to the group, something within you makes you cry out, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” You just blurt it out, not knowing how He would answer … but He doesn’t. He doesn’t say a word. You can, however, see His entourage – and you can hear them say, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” And your heart sinks as you hear His reply to them, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

It’s true, you know. You’ve got no leg to stand on, no right to come and ask this Jewish rabbi to do something for you, a Canaanite woman. But you know there’s something about this man, something inexplicable that you’ve never encountered before. And you trust the reports you’ve heard from others, who had said that He made lame beggars walk and blind men see. You don’t know much about Him or His teachings beyond what you’ve heard, but something within you makes you realize He’s your only hope. That little something within you is very insistent, and while you can hardly believe that you’re doing it, you suddenly find yourself kneeling before this Galilean rabbi. And you simply utter a cry from the depth of your soul, “Lord, help me.”

This time, He does answer you: “It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs,” which is true. You understand this. He had just said that He was sent to the lost sheep of Israel, and you know that you are not of Israel. In the same way that you wouldn’t throw an entire loaf of bread intended for your children to your dogs, it wasn’t right to ask Him to give something to you, a Canaanite, something intended for the people of Israel. You get it, but that little something inside persists. You know that in spite of all that you’re feeling, what you’re seeing, that little something inside lets you know that this Jewish rabbi has something for you too. Which is how you can humbly, but boldly reply, “Yes, Lord, because even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.” You trust; you believe that this man can do what you ask of Him. Because of that, the Son of David smiles at you, a Canaanite woman, and declares, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” He didn’t need to come to your house or even see your daughter. All He did was speak, and you come to find out later that your daughter was instantly and completely healed. No more demon. All thanks to the Jewish rabbi who was willing to let a crumb of His mercy and grace fall for you.

Now, much of that was pure speculation, of course. Aside from what Matthew actually gives us, we have no idea what was going through the Canaanite woman’s mind. But it’s not difficult to imagine because, like her, we know what it’s like to be desperate and to receive something we know we’re unworthy of receiving. Humanity’s default state is that of sinful, rebellious, enemy of God who’s justly condemned to death in this world and the next for his sin. We’re nobodies, idolaters, adulterers, gossips, thieves, sinners all. There’s nothing redeeming about us. We’re sinful scum that would be more than deserving of God’s full wrath, and there’s no reason why Jesus should ever go out of His way to help us.

But, He did. Undeserving though we are, the Triune God was rather insistent on pursuing us fallen creatures – so much so, that He was willing to become one of us, taking on our frail human flesh and dying the horrific death that we deserve. Looking at Jesus, bleeding and dying, nailed to Calvary’s cross, we see just how insistent, how relentless our God is. He’s willing to suffer the worst death imaginable to restore us to a right relationship with Him. He spared no expense – not even His only-begotten Son. Thanks to what Jesus did on our behalf, we have been given faith to believe His word, to trust His promises in spite of what we see and feel, regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in. We do not deserve His goodness. We do not deserve His forgiveness. But He gives generously to those who hold on to His promises. We no longer receive the scraps from His table, but in Christ, we become children of our heavenly Father, and at His insistence, we partake in the sumptuous feast that He provides.

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

Eyes on Jesus: Betraying Eyes

March 04, 2020
By Rev. Peter Heckert

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

The text for our meditation tonight comes from our gospel text where Mark writes, Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray Him to them.  Here ends our text; dear Christian friends …

Marcus Brutus. Guy Fawkes. Benedict Arnold. Robert Hanssen. Some names are infamous for good reasons; these aforementioned, however, are noted for their treachery. However, the assassination of Julius Caesar or even betraying U.S. secrets to Soviet Russia pale in comparison with history’s most infamous traitor. Judas Iscariot will forever be a name associated with betrayal, handing over the innocent Jesus to sinful men who would see to His death. We know this part of the story well, but tonight, we’re going to slow down and consider the sheer betrayal we see through Judas’s eyes.

Mark mentions that Judas was “one of the twelve,” highlighting the deeply personal nature of his treachery and the brazenness of his betrayal. Judas had been chosen out of countless Jewish men to be one of the twelve apostles, a select group who had the privilege of being in Jesus’s inner circle for three years. Judas knew firsthand the love and mercy of Jesus, and had witnessed His powerful miracles. He had heard the Beatitudes again and again; he had had the parable of the rich fool and warnings about greed drummed into his ears; he had gone out and preached in Jesus’s name; he had heard the warnings about those who preached in the Lord’s name but are shocked on Judgment Day to find out that their faithlessness has landed them in hell. He’d heard everything, been exposed to all the right teachings, and in spite of this, Judas still rebelled.

Judas had sought out the chief priests with an offer to hand Jesus over to them, And when they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money. The Jewish leaders were seeking an inconspicuous location to arrest Jesus, and Judas would provide them with an ideal opportunity, in the middle of the night in an isolated garden. In spite of how some modern movies have attempted to soften his disposition, we know from the other gospels that Judas was a greedy man, even a thief, so he must have looked at this betrayal as an opportunity to line his pockets.

Judas’s plan was in place, but first he had to wait through the preparation for the Passover meal and the meal itself. At dinner, Jesus drops this bomb on the twelve apostles: As they were reclining at table and eating, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” Imagine that. Put yourselves in the place of the apostles. Jesus seems to be calmly looking around, knowing exactly who it is but not giving anything away. Mark says that they began to be sorrowful and to say to [Jesus] one after another, “Is it I?” Picture them looking around the room with suspicion, wondering, “Who must it be?” Imagine the tears streaming down some of the faces to express their grief at what Jesus was predicting.

What were Judas’s eyes doing? Did he look down in shame? Did he nervously glance around to see if he was suspected? Did he put on a good show and act like the rest of them? We can’t know for sure, though I’m willing to guess the latter. But why would Jesus make this proclamation in the first place? Was He wanting to subtly out Judas? Or was He wanting the Twelve to examine themselves, to help them each see that they had the capability to betray innocent blood, to commit treason against his Lord? Again, I think the latter is more probable.

J. S. Bach wrote a piece in his “St. Matthew’s Passion” that depicts this fateful scene at the Last Supper. When we hear Jesus announce that the betrayer is at the table, part of the chorus sings the words of each of the disciples, asking if he is the traitor. In German, it reads, “Herr, bin ichs?” “Lord, is it I?” Then comes a confession to Jesus in the form of a chorale, sung by the whole chorus. It begins: Ich bin’s. “It is I.”

Bach gets the Judas story right, highlighting that all of us have participated in the sin of Judas. Difficult as it may be to hear, we all have committed treason, turning against our Lord. That’s what our sin is: our treachery against the king of grace. Surely, when we examine ourselves, we see that each of us is a traitor, and certainly deserve to die a traitor’s death.

But then … we hear Jesus say in the Upper Room, The Son of Man goes as it is written of Him, and then in the garden, The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Jesus came specifically for this purpose, to be betrayed, to pour out His holy, precious blood and suffer an innocent death to atone for your sin, my sin, Judas’s sin, for the sin of the whole world. The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.

There are deep mysteries here which none of us will understand in this life. Judas was morally culpable for betraying Jesus and he justly paid the price for his sin and impenitence, yet the Scriptures foretold it would happen. God did not force Judas to do anything – it was Judas’s sinful will, along with the devil’s prompting, that led him to act thusly, but nevertheless, it needed to happen. The Father wanted, needed, to punish His Son for our sake; He wanted to hand over His Son to this death; and the Son went willingly, out of love all us sinners.

My fellow traitors and Judases … I’ve good news for you: in the waters of Holy Baptism you were washed clean in the blood of the Lamb, the same One we regularly betray. Don’t try to hide your crimes; confess them. Jesus isn’t surprised that you’re a sinner; He knew that as He went to the cross, and He knows that now, forgiving the sins of all who repent and trust His Word of forgiveness. For every time that you have betrayed Him, for every time that you have made promises to Him you couldn’t keep, for every commitment to Him that you’ve failed to fulfill, remember this: there is forgiveness for you. As the words of absolution drum into your ears, as the grace given to you in baptism is recollected, as you taste your salvation in the Supper of Christ’s true Body and Blood, there is forgiveness for you!

The verb translated as “betray” in this text can also be translated as “hand over” or “deliver.” In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes that faith will be counted as righteousness to us who believe in Him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification. God the Father handed Jesus over to death in our place, and because of His sacrifice, we have forgiveness of our sins and the promise of life and salvation. So fix your eyes on the One who became a curse for you; in Him, you find your salvation.

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

Compare and Contrast

March 01, 2020
By Rev. Peter Heckert

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

The text for our meditation for this first Lententide weekend comes from our Old Testament text, where Moses writes, “And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

We know this pericope all too well. Eve had been beguiled by the serpent – Satan in physical form – and her husband had failed to stop her. From the sounds of it, he was right there with her as the snake goaded her on saying, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Instead of fulfilling his God-given vocation of protecting his wife as her husband, he just went with the flow and followed her lead. Then, we are told, “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” They knew good and evil, they knew their own sin, and consequently, when they heard the sound of YHWH walking through the garden in the cool of the day, they were rightly terrified.

Well, you know how it continues: God calls out to them, knowing full well where the man and woman were and what they had done, but giving them this opportunity to repent. In a fashion that is all too familiar to us all, we see the first husband and wife play the blame-game, with Adam blaming Eve, and Eve blaming the serpent. Not that anything they said was factually wrong or dishonest, mind you, but rather that neither of them claimed the Mea culpa of contrition and repentance. Neither took responsibility for their actions, and thus remained unrepentant.

In the wake of this remorseless confession, God pronounces His judgment over all involved: utter and complete defeat for the serpent at the hands of the seed of Woman, pain in childbearing and a desire for lordship over her husband for the woman, hardship in vocation and weakness of spine for the man, and ultimately the introduction of sin’s fruit – death – into the once perfect creation. And we see the very first death in the wake of this pronouncement. Not the death of Adam, or his newly-named wife Eve … we see the death of an innocent animal.

We’re not told what kind of animal it was. We’re not given the details of how God killed it. All Moses tells us is that YHWH God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them. Sometimes when this is portrayed, you see the man and woman covered in these freshly slaughtered skins, even with some blood dripping down their bodies as they leave the garden in disgrace and shame.

If this seems unfair to you, that some innocent animal, newly created, had to be killed in order to cover the shame of the doofus man and woman who broke things in the first place, you’d be right, because it is unfair. Nothing about what Adam and Eve did is fair to the rest of God’s good creation – indeed, in light of humanity’s vocation to care for that creation, their failure to keep God’s singular commandments takes on the tone of betrayal. But this is what sin does, and the only way to rectify it … is through the shedding of innocent blood. In this case, one of God’s creatures, having done no wrong, had to die in order to cover the shame of those first sinners, our first parents.

This is the reality, my friends. The only way to pay, to atone for sin … is by shedding innocent blood. Blood is life, and sin – regardless of the “size” or “scope” thereof requires the payment of life. Atonement for sin, ironically enough, requires death. This is why YHWH gave the Israelites the sacrificial system.

But even that sacrificial system was untenable; it worked on a temporary basis, but not an eternal one. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, was a once-a-year holy day on which the high priest would offer sacrifices for himself and on behalf of the people. At YHWH’s prescription, the people had the promise that these sacrifices and the sprinkling of blood really would atone for their sins … but another year would roll around and they’d have to do it again. And again. And again. They would have to offer the same sacrifices every year because they’d need it again … every year. Truthfully, they’d need it every day, every hour, every second. The terminal illness of sin rears its ugly head almost the moment the atonement would be paid. Repentant though the people likely were, they could not rid themselves of the disease. What they needed … what they had been promised … was a Messiah, an Anointed One, who would not need to make atonement for himself, as Aaron did, but would be Himself an innocent sacrifice. They needed Jesus.

He’s more truly human than we are, having done what Adam and Eve and every human being since has failed to do: resist every temptation. In our gospel lesson, we get a glimpse of His perfection, hearing how the same damned serpent tried, once again, to tempt true Man. He rebuffs every temptation with the piercing two-edged sword of God’s Word. Truthfully, were it anyone else (including you and me), we would have failed epically. We would have caved to those wilderness temptations faster than you can blink. Not Jesus. He maintained His innocence … and for good reason.

The sin of Adam and Eve, the sin of every human being since, your sin, my sin … it all requires atonement. Payment. Like our first parents, our shame needs to be covered, and just as God had to kill one of His innocent creatures, we needed Jesus, an innocent victim, to be slaughtered on our behalf. Paul reminded the Corinthians that, “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The One who had resisted the devil’s guiling in the desert became the embodiment of sin so that we, who cave to every temptation, can be forgiven. His torture, the breaking of His flesh and the shedding of His blood on Calvary’s holy mountain, accomplished the once-for-all atonement that the sum of all sacrifices throughout history could never hope to achieve. “Not all the blood of beasts on Jewish altars slain could give the guilty conscience peace or wash away the stain! But Christ, the heavenly Lamb, takes all our sins away; a sacrifice of nobler name and richer blood than they!”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: sin is deadly serious business, and we do need to take it as such. There’s no such thing as a sin that harms only you; whether your actions have harmed another sinful human being or not, your sin does require atonement that you cannot hope to pay. Somebody’s gotta foot that bill to cover your shame, but like our first parents, it ain’t gonna be you. I have no idea what kind of animal God slaughtered to cover the shame of our first parents … but we do know and trust that the sinless Lamb of God was slaughtered for us all, and He has clothed us in His righteousness.

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

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