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Archives - April 2020

Conquering Shepherd

April 26, 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 third weekend of Easter comes from our Gospel text, where John records Jesus’s words, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”  Here ends our text; dear Christian friends …

Everyone knows this text, almost to the point where it speaks for itself. It’s vivid and relevant in every age, one of the most endearing images of the Savior that we are given in Scripture. “The Good Shepherd.” All I need do is say that phrase, and I’m sure that an image comes to mind – I know it does for me. I think of a painting that was in the stairwell of my home congregation, which portrayed Jesus smiling, in a fertile valley, carrying a lamb on His shoulders. This image is nothing new – in the early Church, in the Christian catacombs that lay beneath Rome, the image of the Good Shepherd was exceedingly prevalent, with paintings on the walls and tomb-inscriptions, portraying the Savior as a young, Apollo-like shepherd. Even if the closest interaction you’ve had with sheep and shepherds is through a wool sweater or blanket, there’s something endearing, beloved … familiar … when Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” So why does this gentle, jovial, kind image … need such explanation?

In the context of this most beloved text, Jesus is … arguing. In the preceding chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus heals a man who had been blind from birth … to which the Sanhedrin doesn’t take kindly, since He healed the man on a Sabbath. After they cast the now-seeing man from the temple, Jesus finds him and asks if he believes in the Son of Man. The formerly blind man asks who it is, and Jesus tells him, “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.” The man responds by saying, “Lord, I believe,” and Jesus tells him, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” This phrase is what sets off the Pharisees, who we are told were standing nearby and overheard Jesus say this. They tell Him, “Are we also blind?” Jesus responds by telling them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”

Immediately after this retort … comes Jesus’s talk of gates and sheep and thieves and shepherds. He tells them, “he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.”

Imagery, again, that likely is familiar and comforting to us who believe, but to those first hearers and unbelievers, it was quite the mystery. They didn’t understand, so Jesus had to explain further. At this point, we come to our text, where Jesus qualifies what makes Him the Good Shepherd: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.” This, we are told, is cause for great division among the Jews, with some saying, “He has a demon, and is insane; why listen to him?” while others reply, “These are not the words of one who is oppressed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”

Surely, in a day where shepherding was a common vocation, the people listening to Jesus could understand this image! But they didn’t. They didn’t understand or believe what Jesus was telling them; instead, they took offense. Why? Why would these Judeans take offense to Jesus calling Himself the “Good Shepherd?” Because it’s a loaded term. The motif of shepherds and shepherding among the leaders of Israel is prevalent throughout the Old Testament. Moses was called out from among the sheep of Sinai to shepherd YHWH’s people out of Egypt and to the Promised Land. King David had once been a shepherd-boy, who protected his sheep fiercely from the jaws of violent predators, before he also was called to shepherd the people of Israel. In our Old Testament text, when the kings of Israel decided to prey upon their people like wolves instead of shepherding them as they had been called to do, YHWH Himself said, “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out.” He Himself would be their Shepherd.

This image of the shepherd of God’s people is full of messianic expectations of the Lord’s Day of salvation and judgement, the Day of the Messianic King, so for Jesus to declare Himself to be the Good Shepherd is much more than images of verdant pastures and wayward sheep. There is hope for the great and terrible Day of the Lord when He says, “I am the good shepherd,” but as He is wont to do, Jesus flips this preconceived notion on its head as He qualifies what makes Him the Good Shepherd: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

This Good Shepherd is the Shepherd King, David’s greater Son. And yet, before Pilate, He declares that His kingdom is not of this world … His scepter is a reed with which He is struck numerous times … and His crown is … well, you know what it is. This Messianic Shepherd King … lays down His life for the sheep, and the crook that He uses to gather His sheep, so they can be one flock under one Shepherd … is particularly cruciform in shape. He presents His sheep … with a dead shepherd, a crucified King, which isn’t much cause for hope, so it’s no wonder people then and now take offense to the Good Shepherd, who lays down His life for the sheep.

Unless, of course … that dead Shepherd, that humiliated and crucified King … does not stay dead. If He doesn’t stay dead, then by all means, there is all the hope in the world! The transition we heard in Psalm 23 this morning is remarkable – again, a well-known, well-beloved psalm, but perhaps one you know too well. Think about the shift that occurs! After going through the valley of the shadow of death, in which the rod and staff comfort and fear of evil is unknown, there is the promise of a well-prepared table placed before us in the presence of our enemies, heads anointed with oil and cups overflowing. We have the promise that we will dwell in the house of YHWH forever – “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.” That is the promise given to us in the wake of Easter morning: because of our crucified and resurrected Messianic Shepherd King is risen from the dead, we too will dwell in the house of YHWH forevermore!

I love the image of the Good Shepherd – there is great comfort in it. For me, though, it’s less because of a version of Jesus who’s nice and kind – which He is – but more because He is the conquering Shepherd King, who utterly destroys the wolves of sin, death, and the devil by His atoning self-sacrifice … that He did so for you and for me, and that He deigns to call us by name. The crucified King is risen! Alleluia!

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

The Foundation

April 19, 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 Easter comes from our Gospel text, where John writes, “Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’”  Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

Have you ever built a house of cards? Maybe you built one as a kid like I did; it was fun to see how high I could build it up. Truthfully, though, I wasn’t very good at it, because it is rather difficult to do. You need a strong, steady foundation on which you build the upper levels of the structure; if there is the slightest breeze from a person walking by or the slightest shaking of the table, the foundation buckles and the whole structure collapses like … well, like a house of cards!

They’re not permanent; eventually, the house will fall, and when it does, you might feel a bit disappointed, but it’s certainly not the end of the world. There’s no danger, no risk. It’s not like lives are depending on you as you carefully place each of the cards. It’s not a big deal, really … as long you’re only working with cards. But what if you’re working with more than that? What if more important things are at stake? Your job? Your finances? Your relationships? Life goals, your dreams? Your future? Would you be willing to risk it? Probably only if the foundation is solid, if it’s a sure thing. Otherwise, you wouldn’t do it. Neither would I. Neither would the disciples, and neither would Thomas.

Today, on this Quasimodo Geniti, the Sunday after Easter, we do focus heavily on Thomas … and he gets a bum rap for it, but it’s not entirely fair. I say that because, really, there’s no difference between Thomas and the other disciples. True, the way that John writes the gospel makes us think the emphasis is on the twin, but truthfully, all of those men, hiding in the upper room, were no better. They were unbelievers – not doubters with questions, needing verification; they didn’t believe. In the verse before our text, after Jesus has been seen by Mary Magdalene, she goes to the disciples exclaiming how she has “seen the Lord,” and everything He had told her … but in spite of this gospel, which was corroborated by the account of Peter and John themselves, having seen the empty tomb (though not the risen Christ), they didn’t believe it.

John tells us, “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews” … They didn’t believe Mary when she said she had seen the risen Jesus. It’s not until after the disciples themselves have seen Jesus that they believe. The same thing happens to Thomas, where the disciples also say, “We have seen the Lord!” and Thomas says the quiet part out loud: “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” In other words, “Unless I see things for myself, I will not build my foundation, my future … on this extraordinary claim.”

It was a risk, my friends, make no mistake about it. There was a reason why they were hiding: enemies had killed their Lord and Master, and they would certainly come after the disciples, as well, if given the chance! They had left their homes, their families, their livelihoods, all to follow this Jesus of Nazareth … and they had seen Him DIE. It had all come crashing down on that Thursday and Friday, and if you want them to rebuild, as Mary’s message suggested they could, then it had better be a solid foundation. A foundation so strong, that it could replace their unbelief. It needed to be firm enough to overcome that kind of fear. It had to be a foundation that they could touch … and see … and grasp. It had to be as firm as hands with nail marks in them, a side pierced open by a spear, and feet with scars through them. That’s what they wanted … and that’s what Jesus delivered.

The question for our broken, bleeding, dying world is this: did Jesus of Nazareth actually do these miraculous signs or not? Did He turn water into wine at Cana? Heal the royal official’s son? Drive out demons? Heal those blind from birth? Revivify the four-days-old corpse of His good friend Lazarus? Did He or did He not die … to snatch away our sin and guilt, to liberate us to have life with Him, now and forevermore? Did He or did He not die … and rise again the following Sunday morning, rising to eternal life so we can know that one day, all sickness, fear, sin, and death will be undone and we will live with Him forever? Did He do the signs … or not? The world continues to ask these questions, just as the disciples did back then.

But notice that Jesus didn’t begrudge them that question. He gave them the foundation they wanted … the one that they needed. Should they have believed Mary’s report and acted accordingly? Of course; she had seen the Foundation! Should Thomas have believed the numerous reports from his brother-disciples? Again, of course; they had seen the Foundation! Should we believe the words of Mary, of the disciples, of Thomas? Should we believe the words of John, who had been there, who could have written so many more of these signs, but tells us that “these are written 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?” Should we believe them?

There’s a lot at stake, a lot to risk, because this isn’t an inconsequential game of cards. There are futures, relationships, finances, dreams, uncertainties all at stake here. Did He do the signs or not? Did He die for you and me – and then rise, or not? Jesus wanted us to know the answer, so He appeared to Mary … He showed Himself to the disciples, and later, to blessed Thomas, inviting him to put his fingers into the places where our salvation was won, the only wounds in all of creation that made the Father … smile. Thomas believed – “My Lord and my God!” He knew, as we do, that Jesus of Nazareth, who is called “the Christ,” is THE Foundation.

How firm is this Foundation? It’s strong enough for your dreams and plans; strong enough for today and tomorrow and every day thereafter. This Foundation is stronger than the foundations of the earth, the Word of Christ crucified and resurrected! It is a Word that you may believe, a Foundation you may build upon: Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again!

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

Eyes on Jesus: Angel Eyes

April 12, 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 blessed Easter morning comes from our Gospel text, where Mark records the words of the angel, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples and Peter that He is going before you to Galilee. There you will see Him, just as He told you.”  Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

You’ve likely heard the phrase “angel eyes” before, and depending on your age and interests, it probably means something different. It’s been a popular song title – from Ella Fitzgerald’s duet with Frank Sinatra, to the power ballad from the Jeff Healey Band, to the modern country hit by Love and Theft. There was the 2001 movie of the same name, staring Jennifer Lopez and Jim Caviezel. Dog lovers recognize “Angels Eyes” as the brand name for products that help clear up tear stains around the eyes of dogs. It’s a popular phrase for branding, no doubt, but today you and I will focus on some literal angel eyes. We’ll look through them to see the greatest sight this world has ever seen: the empty tomb of Jesus.

It’s funny that we call it the “empty tomb.” From the way Mark describes it, the tomb was a bit overcrowded on the first Easter Sunday. The two Marys and Salome were shocked to discover the large stone rolled away from the tomb. They went inside to investigate and were startled to find, not a dead Jesus, but a young man dressed in white. No doubt this was distressing – not only was the body of their Lord missing, but angels of God are terrifying! Despite what you see in figurines and artistic depictions, God’s angels usually appear as majestic creatures who strike fear into the hearts of onlookers, which is why the first words they often say to believers are, “Don’t be afraid!”

Exactly the words from this Easter angel. He says to the terrified women, “Do not be alarmed.” They needn’t fear this angel, since he has come in peace bring a message of Good News: “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples and Peter that He is going before you to Galilee. There you will see Him, just as He told you.”

The angel directs the women to see with their own eyes that Jesus isn’t there, then explains what his own eyes have seen. He knows they are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, “who was crucified.” The women had gazed upon Jesus, suffering for the sin of the whole world, under His Father’s wrath on the cross, and they had looked on as Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus buried His lifeless holy body, but that’s all they had seen. The angel, however, has seen the resurrected Jesus with his own eyes but still calls Him “the Crucified One.”

Later that afternoon, Jesus would appear to ten of His apostles and prove His identity by showing them the nail and spear scars on His hands and side. The next Sunday, Jesus invites doubting Thomas to touch those scars, which turns him into believing Thomas as he cries out to the Crucified One, “My Lord and my God!” Still later, Paul would encounter the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus then write to the Corinthians, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”

Why all this talk of the crucifixion on Easter, of all days? Because the cross must always be the center of our theology! A God who has not been crucified on your behalf would do you no good. Look through the angel’s eyes and see that Jesus is the Crucified One, put to death for your sins. The cross is our life! Paul told the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me, and far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

We need the cross, but Lord knows that we need the empty tomb, too! We need to see through the angel’s eyes that Jesus was raised on Easter for your justification. Good Friday and Easter are like two sides of the same coin. Jesus had to actively obey God’s Law on your behalf and passively suffer for your sins against the Law. He had to actively fight Satan, whom you couldn’t defeat, and die for all the times you have fallen for the devil’s temptations. He had to go into the grave and deposit all of your sins there, but He had to come out alive in order to grant you forgiveness of sins and His own righteousness. The angel saw this first hand and delivered this message to the ladies at the tomb.

It’s a message of Good News for all people, a that message needed to be shared (and continues to be needed). Jesus sent His apostles out to be His angels, His messengers, proclaiming the Gospel to all of creation. In turn, those angel-apostles appointed and ordained pastors and teachers to continue sharing the Good News of Good Friday and Easter morning. Just as the heavenly angel Gabriel visited Mary with the wonderful news that the Lord was with her in the incarnation, now earthly messengers proclaim to all who believe and are baptized that the Lord Jesus is with them until the end of the age. Just as the angel of the Lord brought glad tidings of great joy for all people to the shepherds at Christmas, now earthly angels proclaim the glad tidings of great joy that Christ has died for all, for the sin of the whole world, and has risen to declare all humans righteous so that they may be saved by believing this message!

It’s the same message you receive here at St. James week in and week out, whether we are physically together or not: for the sake of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven. Baptized into His death and resurrection, you are now clothed with His righteousness, which grants eternal salvation. When we are gathered once more in this place, we will taste and see the salvation won for us in the Supper of Jesus’s true Body and Blood, in under and with the bread and the wine, a foretaste of the feast that awaits us on the Last Day.

That first Easter morning, the angel told the women where they could find Jesus. It’s same message I give to you today: Jesus has promised that you will find Him in His Word and Sacraments. May your eyes stay always stay fixed on Jesus Christ, crucified for your sin and raised for your salvation! Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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

Eyes on Jesus: God's Eyes

April 10, 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 Good Friday comes from our Gospel text, where Mark writes, “And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last.”  Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

What did the Father see on Good Friday? He saw His only-begotten Son suffering and dying unjustly on a Roman cross. Can you imagine watching your own child die in this way? It is unfathomable. As sinful mortals, we cannot understand what it is like to be the immortal, holy God, but surely the Father’s heart was grieved beyond words.

What’s more unfathomable is how God loves you so much … that He willingly inflicted this on His beloved Son. Paul wrote to the Romans that the Father “did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, and that God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” He didn’t wait around for us to clean up our act, but while we were ungodly – spiritually blind, dead, and enemies of God – He slaughtered His Son in our place, under His righteous anger against the sin of the world.

This means that we provoked the death of Jesus. On Pentecost, Peter told those in Jerusalem, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” The Father gave the Son to the world, but “You crucified and killed Him.” Peter is also talking to you and me. This is an indictment of all sinners, whether in the first century or the twenty-first, the guilt and blame is all the same: we all crucified the Son of God by our sin. Our Lenten hymnody reflects this well:

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

O child of woe: Who struck the blow That killed our gracious Master? “It was I,” thy conscience cries, “I have wrought disaster!”

As we acknowledge our sin and unworthiness, we need to see ourselves nailing Jesus to the tree, but also understand that His crucifixion was “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God the Father.” What value did the Father see in this plan? He saw, and now all of us can see, His own glory being manifested to the world. This is what Jesus prayed for, just hours before His crucifixion: “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son that the Son may glorify You, since You have given Him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom You have given Him. And this is eternal life, that they know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. I glorified You on earth, having accomplished the work that You gave Me to do.”

The Father and the Son glory in having mercy on sinners, and that is what Christ’s perfect life, suffering, death, and resurrection accomplished. The Father sees all of your sin taken upon Jesus on the cross, even the sin of crucifying His Son. Moreover, He sees His wrath against sin being poured out upon the Son and the gates of hell prevailing over Him. Yes, hell is being under God’s wrath, and that is what the Father sees Jesus taking, in your place, to save you.

What about the Son’s perspective? What did He see? Jesus’s name means “the Lord saves,” so no doubt He sees Himself as the object of the Father’s wrath but as the subject of your salvation. He drinks the cup of His Father’s wrath down to its dregs, finally crying out in abandonment from His Father, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” But this is no cry of despair. He suffers abandonment from His Father, He suffers the pains of a sinner condemned to hell, but still looks to His Father with perfect love and trust. He cries out “My God,” with unbroken faith. With the words “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit,” Jesus breathes His last, knowing His Father still loves Him and will raise Him from the dead on the third day.

But on Good Friday, Jesus also sees you and me. He recognizes us as the cause of His woe … and He doesn’t hold this against us. The Lamb of God bears it willingly, wanting nothing other than to be your Savior. He looks at you and then prays, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He stares into your sinful eyes and says, “I love you all the same. I and My Father love you so much that We would make this sacrifice for you. I am offering Myself under the Father’s wrath in your place to save you from your sins and spare you from hell.”

What does the Holy Spirit see? He sees the Son and comes to Jesus’s aid as He offers His life as a ransom to the Father. We don’t know the ins and outs of this, but the epistle to the Hebrews says that Christ, “through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God” (Hebrews 9:14), thus accomplishing your redemption by the blood of His cross. Jesus had received the Spirit without measure in His Baptism, and we know that the Spirit is the Helper, so it makes sense that the Holy Spirit not only helped Jesus fulfill all righteousness during His earthly ministry but also helped Him offer Himself to the Father on the cross.

The Spirit also sees that everything necessary for the salvation of sinners is achieved by the Son. Jesus had promised that, too, just hours before His death, “When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth . . . He will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take what is Mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is Mine; therefore I said that He will take what is Mine and declare it to you.”  At Golgotha, we see the Holy Trinity working together in their natural perfect harmony. The Father gave the Son the task of redeeming mankind. The Son willingly took this task upon Himself. And the Holy Spirit joyfully proclaims this message to you so you may enjoy the benefits of the Son’s sacrificial death.

The Spirit takes what is Christ’s and declares it to you. He takes the righteousness of Jesus and instills it in the waters of Holy Baptism to make it a life-giving water, rich in grace, and a washing of new birth into God’s eternal kingdom. He takes the forgiveness of Jesus and declares it to you through the Gospel and through the words of absolution. And He presents to you the body given and blood shed for you on the cross to be received for forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation in Holy Communion.

On Good Friday, God’s eyes see everything necessary to save you from sin, death, and hell. Although your own eyes look upon your guilt, unworthiness, and impurity, the Father looks upon your sin forgiven for Christ’s sake, the Son credits His own righteousness to your account, and the Holy Spirit makes you a participant in the holiness of Jesus. You are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, so keep this truth before you: When God looks at you, He sees the apple of His eye, His beloved child united with Christ in His death and raised up to new, eternal life with Him.

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

Eyes on Jesus: More Than Meets the Eye

April 09, 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 Holy Thursday comes from our Gospel text where Jesus tells His disciples, “This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”  Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

YHWH had visited nine plagues on Egypt … and the Passover marked the tenth and final one. To every house that was not protected by the blood of consecrated lambs, YHWH came and struck down the firstborn sons. However, for the houses marked by the blood of said lambs, He caused the destroyer to pass over – hence, the name.

This was such a momentous occasion that God commanded His people to celebrate the Passover annually as a memorial meal. Moses told the people, “When you come to the land that YHWH will give you, as He has promised, you shall keep this service. And when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of YHWH’s Passover, for He passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when He struck the Egyptians but spared our houses.’”

Take a long, hard look at the Passover. If we dwell only on the blood and the violence, the slaughter and death, it might cause us to stumble. It shocks our pacifist sensibilities. What kind of God would perpetrate such wrath against even helpless children? And doesn’t it seem morbid or cruel to memorialize such a bloody, gory event?

But look deeper. After Moses announced the institution of the Passover, we are told, “The people bowed their heads and worshiped.” They recognized that, when YHWH speaks His will, the only proper response is worship. The Passover is all about the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods.” YHWH had said concerning the Passover, “On all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD.” The tenth plague was divine warfare against God’s idolatrous enemies, against the Egyptian false gods and the oppressors of His people. Later in Exodus, God says, “I, YHWH your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me.” Under all the Egyptian blood, you should not see innocent victims of a capricious god, but impenitent sinners receiving just judgment from the one Holy God. All of His acts of judgment on idolaters—from the flood to the Passover to the conquest of Canaan—are intended to warn us about the consequences of idolatry and impenitence. They are previews of the final judgment.

And that should make you uncomfortable. When you see the slaughter of the Egyptians by the holy and just God, you also see the judgment you deserve. For your idolatry – for every time you have not feared, loved, and trusted in YHWH your God above all things – you merit the destroyer’s arrival to spill your blood on the ground, as well as the eternal punishment of hell that follows. YHWH is no tame God. Paul knew this all too well, when he wrote to the Galatians, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.”

Now, lest we think they were sinless, it’s worth noting that the Israelites deserved the same fate as the Egyptians. They were sinners – just as idolatrous as we can be. However, looking at the blood of the Passover lambs painted thickly on the doorposts of Hebrew homes, you see God’s Word of grace, promising to gave His people a means of salvation from the destroyer. Those who believed the promise … were saved. Under the blood of Passover lambs, you do not find any merit or worthiness in the Israelites, but only the promise of deliverance from the gracious and merciful Lord.

So, the Passover was to be celebrated by Israel above all as a remembrance of YHWH’s election of Israel, His gifts to them of protection and salvation from their enemies. This prefigures the sacrificial system God gave to Israel; through the pouring out of blood in the Most Holy Place, He provided His people with a means of cleansing and forgiveness for their sins. As the preacher to the Hebrews put it, “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”

Which leads us to the Upper Room on the night when Jesus was betrayed. It was, after all, a Passover meal. Israel’s deliverance from Egypt was in view, and the recently shed blood of Passover lambs would be fresh on the disciples’ minds. They’d celebrated this meal dozens of times with their families; they knew the Passover liturgy by heart. They thought they knew what was coming as they celebrated the meal with their rabbi … but then He revised that Passover liturgy.

Mark tells us, “As they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them.” So far, so good; no surprises yet. But then comes the bombshell: Jesus spoke over the bread, “Take; this is My body.” An unexpected bombshell, no doubt, but Jesus seems to go back to the regular liturgy: “He took a cup, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, and they all drank of it.” A return to normalcy, they thought. Maybe they’d misheard Jesus earlier, but then Jesus drops another bomb on them, as He said to them, “This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”

At this unprecedented Passover meal, Jesus teaches His disciples three main things. First, in a short while, His body would be given and His blood shed on the cross—and that under the apparently senseless slaughter of a Righteous Man, they should see His death as a ransom for the masses of humanity, for the sins of the whole world. His sacrifice is God’s final judgment on sin, and from that day forward, the only sin that condemns to hell remains idolatry, but specifically the idolatry of unbelief. Second, Jesus teaches that in a mysterious and supernatural way, by the power of His Word, the bread of this Passover meal was truly His body and the wine was truly His blood, given to His disciples for the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. By His words, “Do this,” He instituted the Lord’s Supper for His Church to proclaim His death to the end of time. Finally, Jesus was teaching them that the Passover and the sacrificial system of Israel all prefigured His once-for-all sacrificial death on the cross, but now these Old Testament ceremonies must give way to the New Testament in His blood.

John the Baptist had pointed to Jesus and proclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” At the Last Supper and on Good Friday, John’s preaching was fulfilled, when God’s holy, spotless Passover Lamb, Jesus Christ, finally offered His life as a ransom for the masses. No longer do sinners get what they deserve; rather, believers in the promises get what Jesus has earned for them. Everything in the Old Testament pointed forward to the coming of Jesus as Messiah to redeem His people and win forgiveness for all – Jews and Gentiles!

It’s obvious when we look at the Passover, but there’s another Old Testament text that is obviously fulfilled in the Supper Christ instituted. YHWH had told Israel, “If any one of the house of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn among them eats any blood, I will set My face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.” The blood of animals in the Old Testament was reserved for the atonement for the people’s sins, not to be consumed. That prohibition would end with the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the New Testament in Jesus’s own blood! His blood delivers to us the forgiveness of sins and serves as the antidote to death. Jesus promises, “Whoever feeds on My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.” The life is in His blood, my friends; when we are able to congregate once again, I encourage you to feast well, and feast often, on the life-giving blood of the Lamb who died for you! At this Table, there’s more than meets the eye!

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

Party's Over!

April 05, 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 Palm Sunday comes from our Gospel text where Matthew writes, “When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’”  Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

You may or may not remember last year, when Pastor French announced that this year we would be following the historic One-Year Lectionary instead of the Three Year. Some people asked what the difference was between them; our answer was that some of the readings are different, perhaps not lining up with the particular day or festival we’re celebrating. You might have noticed it thus far through the year, but if you didn’t, I’m willing to bet you’ve noticed it today.

No, I didn’t read the wrong gospel lesson. It’s not a typo. In the One Year Lectionary, this is the gospel lesson for the Sunday of Passion Week: Jesus’s final hours, from His trial before Pontius Pilate, all the way through His death, to the centurion’s incredible recognition that they had crucified the Son of God.

If you’re like me, this probably took you aback! This is Palm Sunday! This is supposed to be a day of celebration! This is supposed to be the day when we celebrate, with all of Jerusalem, the triumphal entry of the Lord’s Anointed into the city gates! We’re supposed to continue crying out, “HOSANNA TO THE SON OF DAVID! BLESSED IS HE WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD! HOSANNA IN THE HIGHEST!” It’s a happy day, a festive day, as palms and cloaks are strewn in Jesus’s path as He rides into Jerusalem in high, kingly, Davidic fashion, fulfilling the words written by Zechariah, author of our Old Testament text. It’s a day to party, seeing Jesus rightly hailed as the King we know Him to be!

But by the time of our text, the party’s over, and the “Hosannas” are a mere memory. By the time we join Jesus, it’s Friday morning, and He’s already coming before Pontius Pilate. The Last Supper has already ended, His time among the dark trees of Gethsemane is over, the disciples have deserted Him, Judas has betrayed Him, the Sanhedrin has judged Him, and now, He stands before the Roman governor on trial for His life. He’s questioned by Pilate, and Barabbas is released. He’s scourged and mocked, then led out of the city to Golgotha to be crucified. He’s nailed to the tree, darkness comes over the land, and after crying out several words, He yields up His spirit. The temple curtain is torn in twain, the earth quakes, all of creation seems to be coming undone, even as the righteous dead come out of their tombs, and we hear a curious confession from a Roman soldier, “Truly this was the Son of God!”

Not much of a party. Not exactly the jocular atmosphere you would expect on Palm Sunday. Hosannas seem to escape us – and not just because we are currently worshipping at a distance. There are no more palms or cloaks. The party … is over, and if you’re like me, you might be wondering why our forebears chose this text as the most fitting, appropriate text for our Palm Sunday observances.

Well, I have yet to find the answer, but the more I’ve thought about it, this text is exceedingly appropriate for Palm Sunday. Even in our festivities and our jocularities, we know what comes at the end of this week. We know that the crowds who hailed Jesus as David’s greater royal Son … will sing a different tune come Friday morning.

That’s always been the reality, the sobering reality coming into Passion Week. The jovial, festive nature is all too quickly replaced by the terrible knowledge that soon … Jesus would be betrayed, suffer, be crucified, killed, and buried. At Christmas, I had said that the shadow of the cross hung heavily over Jesus’s manger, knowing the reason He took on human flesh. Well, on Palm Sunday, that same shadow lies heavy over the palm-and-cloak-strewn streets.

Jesus entered into Jerusalem as He did, knowing full well why He was doing so. Before entering the city, He told His disciples, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.” No doubt, on the day of His triumphal entry, the disciples thought that, for the first time, Jesus was wrong. After all, the people that day loved them! The crowds were excited to see their rabbi! There was no way that He would be delivered to the Sanhedrin, mocked, flogged, and crucified, let alone, rise on the third day! Any such thoughts would be gone by Thursday night, as they saw their rabbi, for what they thought was the last time, being taken away by the Temple guards.

They didn’t know, but Jesus knew. He had known all along that the “Hosannas” would soon give way to shouts demanding His crucifixion. He knew the palms and cloaks would be replaced by spitting and mocking. The donkey that bore Him in such kingly fashion would go away, and Jesus Himself would bear a roughly-hewn, heavy cross through the Jerusalem streets all the way to the Place of the Skull. Jesus knew this party would not last … and that’s the remarkable thing. He still went through with it. Knowing the incredibly gruesome, brutal, savage, unspeakably painful suffering and death that awaited Him, Jesus still rode through those city gates on the back of a donkey.

That’s why I think this text is most appropriate for Palm Sunday. Jesus knew all this would happen, and He did it anyway. He willingly went to His death, suffering the pangs of hell that we deserve … out of love for us poor, miserable sinners. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” This is an appropriate text for us today, my friends, because it shows the intentionality and the love that God has for us. It shows the lengths to which He would go, the cost He would pay, sparing no expense, to atone for our sins. Jesus knew what would happen to Him in a matter of days … and still, He rode that donkey into Jerusalem.

While this is a sobering and somber thought, there is still reason to celebrate this day, to raise our “Hosannas” on high. We know that the Son of God was crucified for us, making atonement for our sins, and because of Him, we are forgiven and justified before the Father! More than this, we also know the rest of the story: we know that the crucified and killed Son of God … did not stay dead! We know that Good Friday didn’t have the final say, and the grave was not the final resting place for our Lord! That’s the present reality! Somber and solemn though our remembrances will be during this Holy Week … we know the rest of the story. Even as we face Good Friday in a few days, we do so knowing that Easter morning is not far off! A blessed Holy Week to you all!

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

Eyes on Jesus: Worldly Eyes

April 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 evening comes from our gospel text, where Mark writes, “And Pilate again said to them, ‘Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?’ And they cried out again, ‘Crucify him.’ And Pilate said to them, ‘Why? What evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him.’ So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.”  Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

In the Roman Empire, you didn’t rise to the level of power that Pontius Pilate enjoyed without being worldly. As a governor, everything boils down to convincing the emperor of your ongoing worth. Above all, you have to look out for yourself, not other people, and Pilate was certainly more than willing to do so. He had worldly desires and ambitions, but he was also worldly in the sense of not personally caring about religious matters. As governor of Judea, the large population of highly religious Jews was a thorn in his side.

Which is why it’s a bit surprising to see Pilate cooperating with the Jewish leaders at Jesus’s trial. True, he seems to have thought Jesus was innocent, but Pilate’s worldliness won out. His religious skepticism was on full display when he asked Jesus the quintessential postmodern question, “What is truth?” Ironic, as the beaten, bloodied Truth was standing right in front of him. Nevertheless, his pragmatism was displayed by acquiescing to the vociferous Jews’ demands for Jesus’s execution, and instead freeing Barabbas, the notorious murderer. After all, better to pacify the raucous crowds than jeopardize his position over this insignificant Jewish rabbi.

Pilate wasn’t alone in his pragmatic worldliness, though. In spite of the show they put on, the Jewish leadership had worldly eyes too. The Sadducees saw Jesus’s popularity as a threat to the compromises they’d made with the Romans, and the Pharisees saw Jesus as a competitor to their own religious influence, an opponent to their legalistic theology. Jesus was a threat, and the Jewish leaders stirred up the crowds to demand the crucifixion of Jesus.

But the Roman soldiers – they had worldly eyes too. They thought they knew what kings looked like. Some had seen Caesar himself; others had seen kings of the East during military campaigns; still others could envision with the mind’s eye glorious kings in all pomp and circumstance. But this Jewish carpenter, beaten and bloodied, wearing a crown of thorns? It was a joke. Their bowing down and praising Jesus was cruel mockery: “Hail, King of the Jews!”

But ironically, Pilate and the soldiers got it right. Regardless of what was in their hearts, they correctly called Jesus King of the Jews –that is, the eternal Messiah promised to Adam and Eve, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, all of God’s chosen people in Israel. But as Jesus told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Rather, He came into this world from heaven “to bear witness to the truth.” And here it is: Jesus was and is a king – not a worldly one, but the heavenly, divine King, God the Son incarnate! The King of all creation in the flesh! While the world looks for power and glory in its rulers, the true God glories in suffering and the cross. We see Him most clearly as the eternal King … as He is dying on the cross.

“Crucify him!” shouted the crowds. “Crucify him!” cried the Father from His sapphire throne. “Crucify me!” uttered the obedient Son. St. John said in our Epistle, “Whoever does the will of God abides forever,” and this first and foremost refers to Jesus Himself. He came from heaven to do His Father’s will, to draw all men to Himself on the cross, bearing the sins of the masses, dying for the life of the world. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son” to reconcile the whole world to Himself, not counting men’s trespasses against them.

Does that include you? Was His death for you? You’re in the world, so yes! Jesus is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” and if your worldly sins were on Him on the cross, then they are no longer on you. They are separated from you as far from you as east is from west, drowned in the depths of the sea that is Holy Baptism, proclaimed to you anew with every absolution declared, tasted in the true body and blood of the Supper. That is the truth of the Gospel: in Christ Jesus, you have been set free from sin, death, and hell! Because of that … because of Him … what you have to look forward to is eternal righteousness, everlasting life, and resurrection in God’s heavenly kingdom!

Now, that doesn’t mean that you can go out and sin as much as you want! St. Paul writes to those baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.” Jesus prayed to His Father for you on the night when He was betrayed: “I have given them Your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that You take them out of the world, but that You keep them from the evil one.”

That evil one, Satan by name, wants you to share the worldly, postmodern worldview expressed by Pilate when he asked, “What is truth?” Such skepticism leads to nihilism and despair, which in turn leads to either suicide or extreme worldliness and hedonism. That’s not you. You know the truth about this broken world. St. John writes, “All that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.”

What is God’s will? That all receive the Gospel of Christ, crucified and resurrected, for the forgiveness of all who believe. This is God’s saving way, no matter what your worldly status is in this fallen creation. In the words of St. Paul, “[C]onsider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of Him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’”

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

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