Sermons

Archives - March 2021

The Love of God

March 28, 2021
By Rev. David French

When you read the different Palm Sunday accounts in the four gospels, you see that there were a lot of different responses to this man riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. Some were by friends. Some were by enemies. Some were by people who were just curious what all the fuss was about. There were people who expected big things from Jesus, having heard about or seen some of His miracles.

The big one was the miracle Jesus performed in Bethany. Bethany was just on the other side of the Mount of Olives and was the starting point for Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem that day. Bethany was also the home of Lazarus, who Jesus called back from death, and his two sisters Mary and Martha. There were people in the crowd who had witnessed this resurrection and were telling everyone they met what Jesus had done.

Jesus had performed all the signs spoken of about the Messiah. The blind received their sight, the lame walked, lepers were cleansed, hearing was restored to the deaf, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news preached to them. So in fairness, it’s really not too surprising that people were looking for more of the same. 

Then, there were the enemies. These were men from the full spectrum of the political world in that day. There were: Pharisees, scribes, Sadducees, chief priests, Herodians, and others. During normal times these groups would have been fighting with each other, and yet, they were able to overlook their intense differences in order to plot against Jesus. And it’s really not surprising that they wanted Jesus dead, considering His success would be the end of the comfortable lifestyles these leaders of God’s children had created for themselves. And so, they refused to believe that Jesus was even from God, let alone God Himself.

Then, there were those who were just there because it was Passover. The Law of Moses instructed the men of Israel to spend the days of the Passover in the temple areas in Jerusalem. Some were, no doubt, thieves and other criminals who looked to take advantage of the large crowds as they fulfilled that law of Moses. And certainly, there were the extra Roman soldiers who were out in force keeping the peace during this great Jewish festival.

From an outsider’s perspective, Jesus’s entry really wasn’t all that unique. Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people, gives examples of other popular leaders in a speech before the Sanhedrin saying, “Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.” It almost sounds like he’s saying, “Here we go again, another deceiver of naïve people.”

Few, if any, who witnessed the palm procession understood that this man riding into Jerusalem on a donkey actually was the Messiah … God’s anointed warrior prince … on His way to battle Satan for the souls of mankind. None understood that eternity hung in the balance as this humble man rode into Jerusalem and up to the temple. None understood the battle that waited for Jesus was just outside the city walls.

In today’s reading, Jesus teaches about that battle. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” This is Jesus teaching us that He must die to be the Victor. That He, like a seed, must lie in the ground in order to bear the fruit of salvation.

The Passover Pilgrims think Jesus’s glory would be ushering in a new age of prosperity for Israel. His enemies think they can destroy His glory by killing Him. Jesus says it is His death that will glorify Him, and it is His death that will bear much fruit. His enemies see Jesus’s death as a way to put an end to this troublemaker. Jesus teaches that His death will bring victory over sin, death, and the power of the devil.

Jesus knew that everything was in place for the offering of God’s sacrifice. Before He rode that donkey into Jerusalem, He had always said, “My hour has not yet come,” but now He says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” He also said, “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out.” -- It is just five days before He will offer His blood for the salvation of mankind.

One last time, Jesus tells them how He will accomplish His work as the Promised One of God. “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” At this point John adds an editorial remark to be sure we can understand Jesus the same way the people in the temple understood Him, “He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.” That is a sacrificial death that will draw all people to follow Him. And make no mistake, God’s grace in Christ does draw all people; and yet, sadly, there will always be those who resist.

But honestly, from a human perspective, it’s not hard to resist. I mean, the idea of salvation coming through suffering and death doesn’t make sense. That’s why the Jesus who dies for sin is an uncomfortable Jesus. We don’t like to admit that we have sin that someone had to die for. And, we certainly don’t want to think about the reality of the cross knowing that it should be us suffering God’s wrath. We’d just as soon get past the Jesus who tells us that we are born spiritually dead in sin and that His forgiveness is the one thing we need for eternal life.

And still, the love of God sent His Son to ride a donkey into Jerusalem where His Son would freely and willingly offer Himself as the sacrifice for our sins. That is - the Jesus who entered Jerusalem in majesty on Sunday would carry a cross out of Jerusalem for you and me on Friday. And the Scriptures are clear that as surely as He carried that cross, so also He carried the sin of the world. It is His death on that cross that has earned forgiveness, life, and salvation for all who are born of flesh. And finally, the life Jesus earned on the cross is offered to all through the means of grace: God’s Word and sacraments. And, that life is received by the faith those Holy means create and nurture. So, His death is truly life for all who believe. 

From a worldly perspective, Christ’s procession into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday looked a lot more victorious than His procession out of Jerusalem on Good Friday. And yet, it was on Friday that our victory was secured. There on the cross of Calvary, the King who rode on in majesty battled sin and death for our very souls; and with the shedding of His blood, that battle was over. 

And now, by grace through faith in Christ, there is a new procession, a procession that began three days after His death and will continue until the end of time. This is a procession from the grave to our heavenly home; a glorious stream of saints entering into eternal life. One day, we who are God’s forgiven children will also be among them who are going to Him who came for us all. 

In His name, Amen.

Return to the Lord: Return to the Kingdom of God

March 24, 2021
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, our final Lenten midweek, comes from our gospel text, especially where John records Jesus’s response to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Here ends our text; my dear Christian friends …

A pastor is summoned to a nursing home in rural Wisconsin to offer the Commendation of the Dying for an elderly member of the congregation nearing the end of life. His words bring comfort and peace to the assembled family as they gather together to share stories, comfort one another, and await their loved one’s final breath. Welcome to the kingdom.

A young mother tentatively steps into the lobby of a small congregation in Kansas, seeking some assistance to pay a long-overdue power bill. A member of the congregation, who has volunteered to serve, sits with her, listens to her story, prays with her, and contacts the power company to pay her debt. Welcome to the kingdom.

A homeless man is found sleeping on the sidewalk in front of a Georgia church early one Sunday morning. The elder who finds him welcomes him inside, provides him with a grocery bag full of food, and invites him to stay for worship. Welcome to the kingdom.

On Sunday morning, you line up at the rail in front of the altar, and your King feeds you with His very own body and blood, taking away your sins, strengthening your faith, and building you up in His image. Welcome to the kingdom.

What does it mean to be in the kingdom of God? Pilate struggles with understanding this in today’s gospel, and it can be hard for us, who actually are in the kingdom of God, to grasp it as well.

During this Lententide, we’ve focused on God’s invitation, calling us to return to Him. We first heard it on Ash Wednesday from the Book of Joel, and have sung it every week before the gospel reading: “Return to the LORD your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over disaster.” Today, His invitation is for us to return … to the kingdom of God.

We hear that phrase rather frequently in Scripture. Some imagine it as a place, confined to the walls of the church, where God does some of His most visible and obvious work. Certainly, it is here, but it is not limited to this place.

Some think the kingdom follows the pastor around—sort of a mobile kingdom centered on the things that God does through some of His most devoted and humble servants. But that doesn’t seem right, either, since we have all heard stories of pastors who have fallen from grace and embarrassed themselves and scandalized their congregations with their human failures. No, it can’t and mustn’t be centered on the pastor.

Is the kingdom of God is purely heavenly? Is it all about the day when we will be in His presence and under His protection after we have moved on from this earthly life? No, that’s not right either; Jesus Christ broke into this world … took on our flesh … died for our sins. And He did it all right here. You can even visit the place where He was born, the place where He grew up, the place where He died. It seems silly to argue that all of that happened outside the kingdom of God. After all, if it’s not where Jesus is, where could it possibly be?

The chief priests turned Jesus over to the Roman government that Friday morning. Their intention was clear: this man must die. Pilate tried to de-escalate the whole thing, but was backed into a corner. So he brought Jesus in to, ironically, ascertain the truth. “Are you the King of the Jews?” he asked Jesus. This was no idle question; Pilate clearly understood what the chief priests had been up to, and he had a pretty good idea of why Jesus had been turned over to him. Best to get right to the point and lay it all out on the table.

But Pilate has a specific understanding of what it means to be a king, and Jesus’s kingship doesn’t really fit into any of Pilate’s categories. He could admit that He’s a king, but Pilate wouldn’t understand that; he might think that Jesus was vying for political power, that He was a threat to the Roman Empire. But He’s not; He is King on a whole different plane.

So He answers the governor with a question of His own: “Did you come up with the question all by yourself, or did somebody tell you to ask it?” Pilate is in no mood to play games with this man, essentially telling Jesus, “Listen, I’m not a Jew, and frankly I don’t care who the ‘King of the Jews’ might be. But you’ve rubbed somebody the wrong way, and they’ve turned you over to me. So help me understand what this is all about.”

Jesus tries His best to explain to this man who doesn’t grasp who Jesus is and who doesn’t understand why He is standing in front of him. “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” It’s something else … something bigger … something much more important.

Pilate chews on that for a moment. “So you are a king?” Jesus’s answer is terrific: “You say that I am a king, For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” At this point, Pilate gives up, replying simply with the postmodern question par excellence, “What is truth?”

The “kingdom of God” is not about geographical boundaries, and it’s not about particular groups of people. It’s about Jesus. It’s about the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s about a loving God who invites, forgives, encourages, and builds up.

The kingdom of God exists wherever the activity of God is playing out. In operating rooms, where miraculous healing occurs; in drug treatment programs, where addicts who have hit rock bottom finally manage to control their demons and begin to dig out of their situations; in food pantries, where people in need find love and care and provision; in voters’ meetings, where the whole congregation comes together and agrees to fund a new, sorely-needed cafeteria roof.

God calls us to be part of His reign and rule. To witness the work that He is doing in our midst and to participate in it as the tools in His hands. To play a role as hands and feet of God to share His love with others, both inside the church and outside of it. That’s the kingdom that God has called you to. Rejoice, dear brothers and sisters, that you are subject to the One who created you, the One who redeemed you, the One who sanctifies you. For He is the best King in all of creation; He is the King of kings.

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

How It Looks

March 21, 2021
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 Sunday of Lent comes from our gospel text, especially where Mark records, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Here ends our text; my dear Christian friends …

Mark’s got a real panache for painting the disciples as dunderheads – and his accusations are not baseless. Whether it’s them trying to shoo away little children from Jesus, them quietly trying to figure who’s the “greatest” among them, or even rebuking Jesus for saying that He’s going to be crucified, the disciples … just don’t get it. Mark makes that abundantly clear in his gospel account, but what we heard just a few moments ago … takes the cake.

For the third and final time, Jesus tells the disciples He’s going to be crucified and resurrected, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.” How do the disciples react to this third pronouncement? Abject horror? Solemn reverence? Humbled contrition? Nope. Two of them, including the disciple that Jesus loved, thought this the perfect opportunity to spring a request on Jesus without even telling Him upfront what it is. “Teacher,” they say, “we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You. … Grant us to sit, one at Your right hand and one at Your left, in Your glory.”

If any conversation in history ever fit the description of “cringe-worthy,” this would be it. But the conversation only gets worse. Jesus cautions them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” Mark tells us, “And they said to Him, ‘We are able.’” So Jesus replies, “The cup that I drink you will drink, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized, but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

The cringe … does not end there. Dejected as the sons of Zebedee no doubt were, they now faced the ire of their fellow disciples, who overheard their conversation. They didn’t like what they heard. Mark tells us they became “indignant at James and John.” Who can blame them? The two brothers went behind their backs! They were trying to weasel their way into a better spot with Jesus’s power-structure (whatever that means)! Never mind the fact that all of them were quietly arguing about who was the greatest among them the last time Jesus had foretold what awaited Him in Jerusalem; these two jerkfaces were lobbying for positions of power! How dare they!

Jesus puts all this in check, as He did the last time this happened, gathering the disciples together and telling them, “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all.” Jesus then drives the final nail into the coffin, bringing the conversation back full circle: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Boy, Jesus sure put those idiots in check! How dare they mock His looming suffering, crucifixion, and death with such petty and vain requests as the sons of Zebedee brought! How dare the other disciples think themselves any better than the two brothers; they were in no position to be casting stones! What petulant children, these disciples! Their rabbi had just told them that He was going to be spit upon, mocked, beaten, flogged, and killed! And they were arguing over positions of power? How dare they squabble over something so trivial and insignificant … as the Son of God was going forth to do battle with Satan! … And frankly, how dare we think we’re any better?

Yes, in the context of the conversation and situation, what the brothers and their fellow disciples did was incredibly selfish and paltry. But consider your own life, and I’ll consider mine, at this present moment, as we are on the cusp of Holy Week. Lent is ending, and soon we will march with our Lord up Golgotha’s skullish mount. What pettiness dwells within your heart, as we turn toward Jerusalem and the beautiful horror that awaits our Lord there? What trivialities have been at the forefront of your existence during this Lententide, even as we’ve read and meditated upon our Lord’s agony and passion? How many times just this week … have our thoughts been turned away from what our dear Lord endured for our sake—the fists, the flagrum, the thorns, the nails, the cross, the sin—and instead to the cares and concerns of this world? Our own sinful pettiness? Trying to get ahead at the expense of others? If you’re like me, that happened more times than I’d care to admit.

The truth is, this is human nature. I am a selfish, petty creature, so inwardly curved, inwardly focused upon what’s best for me that I lose sight of what’s going on around me … and the same can be said of you. We are oblivious to the needs of those around us, but more importantly, we forget about the one thing needful. Just as James, John, and the other dunderheads completely glossed over what their teacher was about to endure, we get caught up in our own wants and desires and needs. We aren’t servant-leaders; we’re barely able to look upon the suffering of others without immediately looking for a means of escape! Wretched creatures that we are, it’s a wonder that God allows us the opportunity to draw one more breath!

But He does. He richly and daily provides for our needs of body, mind, and spirit. More than that, He gives us real life. Even as I imagine Jesus shakes His head at the disciples’ little tiff, He knows that this … is one of many sins that He would soon bear upon His shoulders. That can be said of every petty impulse, every thoughtless word and careless deed, every malicious act and selfish endeavor that you and I and every other human being in existence have ever or will ever perpetrate. The squabbles of the disciples, the vain and vapid worries that consume us … they were the reason why Jesus set His face toward Jerusalem and the gruesome death that awaited Him there. He bore our sins… He paid for our sins … only out of His completely selfless love for us.

That should be all our thought as Lent winds down and we anticipate Holy Week; but let’s be honest, it won’t be. Sure, maybe this sermon hits you hard, and it gives you pause – frankly, I’d be elated if that were the case! But sometime today, tomorrow, or this week, there’s going to come a time that we return to our incuvatus, navel-gazing ways. We’ll say some thoughtless thing, give no regard to our needful neighbor, indulge in our petty, selfish, arrogant impulses. That’s who we are as poor, wretched sinners. Thanks be to God that Jesus came to save poor, wretched sinners like us – whether they be overly ambitious brothers, indignant disciples, or apathetic, dull Americans, Jesus died to pay for all our sins. He died to save us, to give us His righteousness. This is what a life of selfless love looks like, and thanks be to God that He lived that perfect life, died that perfect all-atoning death, and was resurrected in perfect power and victory … for us!

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

Return to the Lord: Return from Denial

March 17, 2021
By Rev. David French

The evening had absolutely run off the rails. It had started off so well! The camaraderie of being with His friends; the warmth of their fellowship; the joy of being with their Master and hearing all that He had to say … it was all amazing. One of those moments you know will stick in your memory and make you smile when you think about it.

But then Jesus said something about one of them betraying Him. That sent a ripple through the entire group. His disciples looked with suspicion at each other, wondering who would do such a thing.

Oh, and then the argument about who was supposed to be the greatest among them. Jesus, of course, turned that into a teachable moment. “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you” (Luke 22:25–26). He encouraged them to see everything upside down. “Let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves” (Luke 22:26).

For Peter, it really got awkward when Jesus leaned over with a troubled look on His face and said that Satan had demanded him, but Jesus had prayed for him. Peter was shocked. “Lord, I am ready to go with You both to prison and to death” (Luke 22:33). But Jesus knew better and told Peter that three times he would deny even knowing Him, and that before the rooster crowed.

And if that weren’t enough to completely ruin the evening, when they went to the Mount of Olives with Jesus to pray, the disciples fell asleep while they were waiting. They couldn’t help it; they were just tired after everything that had gone on, tired from trying to process what Jesus had said was coming.

And then … it got worse. There were soldiers. Judas Iscariot had brought them, and the chaos that followed was unbelievable. The servant of the high priest got his ear cut off in the commotion! But Jesus shut it down right then and there, even healed the guy’s ear. Didn’t matter. They arrested Him. Dragged Him to the high priest’s house. Peter couldn’t help himself, he had to follow. Had to see what was happening. Had to do something, even if it was just to see for himself.

As he stood in the courtyard, Peter could see Jesus with the Council inside. It didn’t sound like it was going well at all. In fact, Jesus was barely speaking. He just stood there. Peter had moved close to the fire to warm himself, but he wasn’t really paying attention to what was going on around him. He was focused on what was going on inside. He didn’t notice the girl sitting next to him, studying his face intently, until she blurted out, “This man also was with Him” (Luke 22:56). She startled Peter. He turned to her and for the first time took notice of where he was. He looked around at the crowd gathered in that courtyard and realized that these folks weren’t all that friendly to his group of friends. He hoped to handle it without drawing more attention to himself. He looked at her and quietly said, “Woman, I don’t know Him” (cf. Luke 22:57). That seemed to satisfy her, so he returned to watching the events unfold inside.

There was more arguing. Raised voices and accusations were being shouted across the room. At least that pesky woman had moved on, but now a young man was looking at Peter. “You’re one of them too!” (cf. Luke 22:58). Peter was a little irritated. He needed these people to quit interrupting his thoughts. He was trying to hear what was happening to Jesus. “Man, I am not,” he said (cf. Luke 22:58). The young man seemed to take that at face value and walked away, although Peter noticed him a little later whispering with a group of men off in the corner of the courtyard. Still, his eyes were riveted on Jesus and what was going on inside.

Time passed. It was late maybe early in the morning; Peter had lost track of time. He couldn’t tell exactly what was happening, but it didn’t seem good. There was a lot of yelling. The high priest had been carrying on for a while and was obviously agitated. That’s when it happened. From across the courtyard a voice rang out. As soon as the man began speaking, Peter knew it was about him. He was standing and pointing at Peter, “I’m telling you - this guy was with Him! I heard him talking earlier, and he is definitely from Galilee; his accent gives him away” (cf. Luke 22:59). All eyes turned to Peter. He wasn’t sure how to react, what to say.

What would they do if they realized he really was with Jesus? He didn’t know, and he didn’t want to find out. He figured if he responded aggressively, maybe they would stop saying it. “Man. I. Do. Not. Know. What. You. Are. Talking. About!” (cf. Luke 22:60). The courtyard grew quiet, and Peter heard it, a rooster crowing in the distance. Peter just glared at his accuser for a moment and then turned to see what was going on inside. At that very moment Jesus turned and made eye contact with Peter. And Peter remembered what He had said about denying Him three times before the rooster crowed and Peter was overwhelmed. Tears welled up in Peter’s eyes as he pushed through the crowd. He had to get out of that place. He couldn’t face Jesus after what he had just done. He was so ashamed; so confused. What had he done?

How often do you do the same thing? Not speak what you believe, I mean?  Fail to acknowledge your faith in public because, well, our sinful nature fights against it, and our world has taught us since before I was born that you don’t talk about taxes or religion. That’s a sin of omission. Do I think any of you would join a crowd in mocking another believer because you don’t want to be seen as different? That may or may not be the reason, but again, we’d be much more likely to say nothing. And so, again, deny the One who died for our sins without anyone knowing, but we’d know.

After His resurrection, Jesus confronted Peter and his denial. He did it in the form of a question, asked three times: “Do you love Me?” And Peter responded yes, every time. “Then you’ve got work to do. Tend My flock, feed My sheep, and build them up.” You see, Jesus had already dealt with all the denials; Peters, yours, and mine. He took it to the cross along with all the other sins we and all who are born of sin have committed.

My friends, know in your mind and believe in your heart that your salvation is complete. So, do you love Him? Then you’ve got work to do. Share the Good News. Tell others in word and deed about Jesus. If you miss an opportunity, repent and ask God to help you overcome whatever it is that keeps you from speaking, and He will do it. That doesn’t mean our sinful nature won’t continue to fight against it. Growth takes time, but know that God will bring another opportunity and another and another. You may never speak what your heart wants to say; that too has been paid for. Remember, God calls you to return from your denial, not to punish you, but because He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.

In His name, Amen

His Word of Promise

March 14, 2021
By Rev. David French

Most people don’t like snakes. Some people are deathly afraid of snakes. Even people who don’t mind snakes are startled when they see a “stick” lying in their path, and it suddenly moves. It’s hard to remember that most snakes are beneficial predators that help control the rodent population. It’s hard to remember that most snakes are more afraid of you than you are of them. Of course, the fact that the devil used a serpent to tempt Adam and Eve doesn’t help their reputation. It also doesn’t help that the Bible refers to the devil as the "ancient serpent." Today’s lesson from the Old Testament also doesn’t help the snake’s reputation.

Beginning with the book of Exodus through Leviticus and about half of Numbers, we learn that when God’s children left Egypt and arrived at Sinai, they were a ragtag, impoverished mass of humanity. God used the next year or so to put things in order. He gave them the moral law on tablets of stone, had the tabernacle built for worship, established the civil law for governing themselves as a nation, put together the military to protect themselves, and put in place the ceremonial law to establish Holy feasts and sacrificial offerings for temporal forgiveness, but more importantly, they were also shadows pointing forward to the Messiah and the eternal forgiveness He would provide. By the time the Children of Israel left Sinai, they were a nation: soundly structured, securely protected, well organized socially, and spiritually ready to inhabit their Promised Land.

Now, I don’t know if you ever noticed, but God also disciplined His children differently after Sinai. On the way to Sinai, the people grumbled and God fed them with manna. They weren’t satisfied, and He sent quail into their camp for meat. He gave them water to drink out of a rock. He knew they didn’t yet know what He expected, and so disciplined them gently. 

By the time Israel left Sinai, God expected His people to know better than to grumble. They had seen the plagues in Egypt. They had seen the water of the Red Sea part for them and drown the Egyptians. God had given them His commandments, the Tabernacle, and the Ark of the Covenant as constant reminders that He was with them. Now, God’s expectations are different, and He will be more stern than before.

Today we hear the Children of Israel complaining, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?  For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” No doubt you noticed how they say, “there is no food,” and then go on to say that they “loathe this worthless food,” referring to the manna that God provided for them every morning, which means they were judging God’s provisions to be loathsome and worthless. 

And so, God disciplines His thankless people, you might say, by bringing their complaints against Him - to life - in the form of snakes that invade the camp of those grumblers, and we’re told that many died. You see, sadly, the people had gotten to the point where they simply refused to listen to God at all. And so to help them understand how serious a problem this was, He sent death into their camp. The people finally confessed their sin and asked Moses to ask God to take away the serpents. God heard his prayer, but gave them an answer they didn’t expect. Instead of removing the snakes, God offered them a way to be saved from the bite of the snakes. God told Moses to duplicate one of the serpents in bronze and place the bronze serpent on a pole. Then He told him that anyone who was bitten and looked at the serpent on the pole would be saved from the deadly bite.

Now, just so you don’t get the wrong idea, remember that Israel had a population of about 600,000 men of military age. If you add in wives and children, it doesn’t take long to estimate a population of 2.5 million people, not to mention tents, livestock, and other belongings. That means that the Israeli camp, if it were square on the low side, would need at least 500 square miles. That means you didn’t just poke your head out of a tent flap and glance at the serpent on the pole. For most it was a long several days journey to the bronze serpent.

Clearly, the healing power of the bronze serpent did not depend on the quality of the bronze that Moses used. It didn’t depend on the type of the wood used for the pole or where the pole was placed. No, it was the promise of God working through the bronze serpent that saved those snake-bitten children of God. That is, God used the bronze serpent then to restore earthly life just as He uses the means of grace today to restore eternal life. Whether we’re talking about the inspired Word, Holy Baptism, or the Lord’s Supper, they are all able to do what God’s says they do, that is, save you and all who look to or believe in Him from our sins because they are bound to His Word of promise.

In today’s gospel lesson Jesus compares Himself to the bronze serpent in the wilderness. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” There it is … Jesus makes the promise of eternal life to all who believe in Him who would soon be lifted up on the cross to offer Himself as payment for the sin of the world. The promise of God did indeed save every bitten Israelite who believed by looking at the bronze serpent. In the same way, the promise of God in Christ forgives and so saves eternally the life of every sinner who believes His blood has paid for our sin.

Jesus then expands on the full meaning of this comparison with one of the most well-known verses in the Bible, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”  The word "whoever" means that this promise is for all people. As the bronze serpent hung on a pole in order to save all of Israel from poisonous serpents, so Jesus hung on a cross in order to save all sinners from the deadly effects of sin.

But, can you imagine if God turned our sins into snakes? Do you think you’d notice? My friends, our infestation would dwarf the problem Israel had in the desert. I mean, we live at a time when many don’t even believe that there’s a God to sin against. To be sure, we do occasionally recognize our sins, but most of the time, they are like the serpent in Eden, crafty – working into our lives in ways we don’t even notice. Now, certainly, we confess the sins we know, but most of our sins are known only by God. How blessed we are to know and believe that, on the cross, the blood of Jesus was offered as payment for them all.

Three days after His crucifixion, Jesus rose from the grave, and the future of every believer became more than a promise. It was finished; a promise fulfilled. Even now, life eternal belongs to all who believe in the crucified and resurrected Christ. The Lamb without blemish has overcome sin, death, and the power of the devil for us with His holy life, and He paid for our sin by the shedding of His blood. That ancient serpent who is called the devil now has a sure and certain future in the eternal flames of hell – not as its lord, but as a prisoner.

Mercifully, God does not turn our sins into snakes to terrorize us. Instead, because of His Word of promise, He forgives them all for the sake of His Son. For Jesus’s sake He washes us clean, clothes us in the robe of righteousness, makes us His children, and invites us to live under Him in His kingdom, that we may serve Him in everlasting innocence, blessedness, and peace. 

In His name, Amen.

Tags: John 3:14-21

Return to the Lord: Return from False Witness

March 10, 2021
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 lesson, especially where Matthew records, “Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, ‘This man said, “I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.”’” Here ends our text; my dear Christian friends …

In 1996, the summer Olympic Games were well underway in Atlanta. People from all over the world had converged in that city to participate and watch some of the finest athletes in the world competing in twenty-six sports. Eighteen days into the games, Eric Rudolph detonated pipe bombs at Centennial Olympic Park. The blast killed one person and injured 111 others. It was the first of four bombings committed by Rudolph in 1996 and early 1997. Rudolph eluded capture for years but was finally arrested in North Carolina in 2003. Two years later he pleaded guilty to all four bombings.

But before anyone knew the name Eric Robert Rudolph, the FBI identified an Atlanta security guard named Richard Jewell as a “person of interest,” largely because he was something of a loner and kind-of, sort-of fit a profile of a “lone bomber.” The media had a field day with it, portraying Jewell as a failed law enforcement officer who may have planted the bomb so he could “find” it and be hailed as a hero. It was all false witness.

Once the dust settled, it was clear that Jewell was, in fact, a hero. He had spotted the suspicious backpack, alerted the appropriate authorities, and helped to clear the area of spectators in the thirteen or so minutes before the bomb exploded. Without a doubt, the number of casualties was reduced because of Jewell’s actions. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done to Jewell’s reputation. His name had been forever connected to the Centennial Park bombing, and if you asked people two or three years afterward who the bomber was, inevitably they would mention his name, even though he had been exonerated. In 2019, a biographical movie about Richard Jewell, directed by Clint Eastwood, was released. It may help to recover some of Jewell’s reputation. Sadly, Jewell died in 2007, so he will never benefit from it.

The eighth commandment is simple: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” I would guess that most of you were taught in your catechism classes that this commandment is mainly about gossip, that our “false witness” most often has to do with the ways we talk about one another to third parties. That’s certainly true, but we cannot overlook the fact that this commandment, in its simplest meaning, has to do with what is said in public courts of justice. This is exactly what we see in today’s gospel.

This reading takes us to a dark place. Jesus has been betrayed by Judas Iscariot. The temple guards have seized Him and hauled Him to Caiaphas the high priest, and all of the scribes and elders had gathered. They have decided that they are going to put Jesus to death, presumably in order to protect their own power and position. And they are determined to complete this task by any means necessary. “Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put Him to death.”

It is worth stopping right there to simply ponder that sentence for a minute. They were actively looking for someone to offer lies under oath with the intention of putting Jesus to death. How evil do you have to be that you are willing to seek false testimony in order to kill someone? But, it gets worse. Matthew says, “They found none, though many false witnesses came forward.” How evil do you have to be that you are willing to offer false testimony, knowing full well that it is intended to lead to another person’s death?

All that aside, these actions clearly conflict with the eighth commandment in its most obvious meaning, first and foremost, about testifying falsely in court against another person. So, we observe the sin that comes out in the trial. But we don’t really feel it, not in a personal way, because most of us have never been put in a position where we have to testify in court against someone else, falsely or otherwise. But Luther, as he does so well, stretches our understanding of the commandment, and in doing so, brings the weight of the Law down on us.

The commandment, he says, forbids all sins of the tongue by which we may injure or offend our neighbor. He writes in his Large Catechism, “It is a common, pernicious plague that everyone would rather hear evil than good about their neighbors. Even though we ourselves are evil, we cannot tolerate it when anyone speaks evil of us; instead, we want to hear the whole world say golden things of us. Yet we cannot bear it when someone says the best things about others.”

Our false testimony often consists of the rumors and innuendos that we utter about other people. The whispered did you hears and the murmured you’re not going to believes that slip off our tongues. The half-truths and outright lies we speak about brothers and sisters without ever speaking directly to them. The slander and backbiting we too often delight in sharing. Luther boils it down like this: “No one shall use the tongue to harm a neighbor, whether friend or foe. No one shall say anything evil of a neighbor, whether true or false, unless it is done with proper authority or for that person’s improvement.”

Let’s not kid ourselves here. We’ve all broken this commandment. And we deserve the punishment of hell for each and every time we do, but God calls you to a different path. He invites you to return to Him, to see that He has something different in mind. He protects your reputation through the kind words that others speak about you … and He encourages you to be part of it.

Christ endured all of that false witness in Jerusalem in order to reconcile you to God and win forgiveness for all your false witness. And, second, to empower you to speak the best about others, to help protect their reputations, and to always put the best construction on everything, much like Paul after his road-to-Damascus conversion, when he was empowered to turn from his own false witness about Christ in order to speak the very best about our Lord and Savior.

You can too, and you get to, all because of what Christ has done for you. Return to the Lord your God. Receive His love and forgiveness. Turn aside from your sins and serve the Lord with all your heart. He will not forsake you.

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

Protect This House

March 07, 2021
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/Sunday of Lent comes from our gospel text, especially where John records, “And [Jesus] told those who sold the pigeons, ‘Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.’ His disciples remembered that it was written, ‘Zeal for your house will consume me.’” Here ends our text; my dear Christian friends …

Back in 2010, the athletic equipment company Under Armour launched an ad campaign; if you’re a fan of the brand, you may even remember it. It was called, “Protect this house; I will.” You can look up the old ads on the internet, but basically in any given one, you’d see a montage of athletes going through intense training regimens, sweating, performing incredible feats, all sporting the UA logo, as there’s a voiceover of a coach or team captain motivating the players, concluding with the phrase, “Protect this house!” and the players all roaring in response, “I will!” The phrase was plastered all over their merchandise, and even today, you can still find athletic clothing that sports the motto. Clearly, it was an effective campaign. “Protect this house; I will!”

Effective though that campaign may have been for Under Armour, with all due respect, I’d say Jesus actually owns that phrase, as we see in our gospel lesson. Through the years, some have treated this text rather flippantly – you may have even heard the joke, “Whenever someone asks, ‘What would Jesus do?’ remind them that flipping tables is always an option.” In reality, this text ought to be read with great gravitas. This is not the kind-hearted, tender, compassionate Jesus we’re used to seeing – this is angry Jesus, Jesus with a temper. This is Jesus, the rabble-rouser. The Jesus … who is not so very nice.

Some might actually think He is the villain here – after all, the money changers, those selling the animals, were just trying to make a living! And it wasn’t as if their services were unnecessary or unwanted; they had set up shop to be a convenience for the countless pilgrims coming into Jerusalem from all over the world … and Jesus just comes in and starts destroying their livelihoods! This hardly seems kind or welcoming! He’s not going to win anyone over with that kind of attitude! Why’s He acting like such a brute? … We know better. Of course, Jesus isn’t a villain, He’s not a bully, and He’s not an anarchist. So why is He going berserk like this? Why is He being so “mean”? One word: zeal.

Luther describes the “zeal” Jesus is demonstrating as “an angry love or a jealous love,” going on to say that, “His anger does not arise from hatred; it springs from … love toward God.” The temple, this place where the priests carried out the atoning sacrifices for the sins of the people, a place of holiness, the seat of God’s presence and promise on earth … was being used, unintentionally or otherwise, in a profane, even evil, manner.

It’s not surprising, then, that Jesus would act as He does. “And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, ‘Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.’” It’s not irrational or mean or anarchic; this is Jesus, the eternal Logos in human flesh, seeing what is sacred, what is holy, being misused, and God’s people being hoodwinked and abused …  and that makes Him, rightly and righteously, very angry. Someone needed to cleanse, to defend, to protect God’s house and His people … and as He twisted together His scourge, Jesus may as well have said, “I will!”

It’s also unsurprising that the religious authorities would freak out and become indignant at this act of disestablishmentarianism. They were deeply invested in those moneychangers, exchanging foreign currency into a temple currency … and doing so at outrageous rates that the priests themselves set. They were highly invested in those selling sacrificial animals … no doubt whetting their own beaks there, as well, at the expense of the pious and penitent. These were people dealing crookedly with God’s people. They are the villains, and yet, amazingly, they have the gall to demand an ultimatum from Jesus: “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” “Show us proof that You have the right, the authority to do this!”

Jesus’s answer to them, on the surface, sounds ridiculous, outrageous, and offensive – not to mention rather antithetical to the idea He was there to “protect this house.” “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” By the time of this incident, the temple was either nearing completion or recently completed; if you didn’t know, Herod had undertaken the task 46 years prior to refurbish the Second Temple – essentially, creating a whole new one, and it was beautiful! It was grand! It was an engineering marvel! No one wanted to destroy it! And if they did and accomplished that objective, was this radical rabbi really suggesting that He could rebuild in three days what it took nearly half a century to build? The very cheek! It was a ludicrous contention, the ramblings of a crazy person or the claims of a liar … or something else entirely!

The answer Jesus gives to them is the sign that shows He has authority to do these things. God’s dwelling on earth would, indeed, be destroyed, but we’re not talking about that magnificent structure in which they stood. The temple set for destruction that Jesus spoke of would be destroyed by the chief priests, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the scribes, all of Judea and Rome, every Jew and Gentile from Adam until the last human being born. John tells us that Jesus “was speaking about the temple of His body. When therefore He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”

Jesus’s zeal for the physical temple was a mere glimpse at the incredible passion He has for His temple, His body … His Church; you and me. We, who sent Jesus to the cross because of our sin … our lack of zeal for holy things … our blasé disposition toward the sacred and indifference to God’s perfect gifts … we are the reason for His radical passion and incomprehensible love. It pushed Him before Pilate, before the scourging post, through the streets of Jerusalem and up Golgotha’s mount. His zeal for His people … did consume Him. Because of it, He allowed His body, that perfect and holy temple, to be destroyed in the cruelest manner imaginable. Oh, yes, His passion, His love, His zeal for us poor, miserable sinners is what nailed Him to the tree. Protect, defend … redeem this house? “I will,” Jesus says as He breathes His last and cries out, “Father, into Your Hands, I commit My Spirit.”

Those who hated the living temple destroyed Him … but true to His Word, three days later, He did raise that temple up again! The beauty and majesty of Herod’s restored temple – indeed, the beauty of anything in all creation – pales in comparison to Immanuel, God with us, stepping out of the cool darkness of His tomb, rebuilt, vivified, resurrected and alive. He now makes the same promise to all those who trust in Him: “Destroy this temple … and I will raise it! Whether it be the ravages of time, illness, the madness of sinners or the chaos of the broken creation, when the temple of your bodies are destroyed … I will raise them up on the Last Day! Protect this house … this house … I will … because I AM!”

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

Tags: John 2:13-22

Return to the Lord: Return from Betrayal

March 03, 2021
By Rev. David French

Imagine for a moment that someone you trust deeply has betrayed you. Maybe you told this person something in confidence, and he or she shared it with someone else. Maybe this person betrayed your friendship or your trust for personal gain. Now, I imagine some of you are thinking about something that actually happened to you. You haven’t had to conjure up some imaginary betrayal. No, I’m guessing that the suggestion brought to your mind an actual betrayal; something that hurt you deeply at the time and still stings when you think about it.

Our theme for today revolves around betrayal. As you know, we’re working through a sermon series this Lenten season based on God’s call to return to Him. We’re looking at different events that occurred during Jesus’s Passion and thinking about the sins committed. My hope is that we’ll see the ways that our own sins pull us away from God and that we also will hear His call to return to Him because He offers reconciliation and forgiveness.

In our gospel reading, the betrayal, of course, is that by Judas Iscariot. He makes a deal with the chief priests and scribes to turn Jesus over to them, knowing full well that their intention is to have Him put to death. Judas’s actions are hard to wrap your head around; they’re dark and painful, completely self-serving.

Clearly, we have no problem seeing the sin in what Judas did. No, our problem is that we don’t always see as clearly when it comes to our sin or how we betray Jesus by the things we do. But, we’ll get back to that in a minute. First, I want to set the stage by looking at another betrayal, an older betrayal, that of King David by his son Absalom and his longtime trusted adviser Ahithophel.

This is a lesson about betrayal, but it is also a lesson about how one sin can lead to many others, and how the consequences of sin ripple out and touch many more people than we might expect. It starts with the adulterous affair between David and Bathsheba. You know the story. He sees her bathing on the rooftop. He initiates an inappropriate affair. She becomes pregnant. He tries to find a way to cover up his sin, but his plan backfires. David has to up the ante and basically puts a plan in place that ensures Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, will be killed in battle. Shortly after that time, David is called out for his sin: he repents, the baby dies, and a huge split is created within David’s family.

The truth is that split in the family becomes one of the major unintended consequences of David and Bathsheba’s affair. That event led Absalom, one of David’s sons, to rebel and begin a campaign to unseat his father and take over his throne. One of the people that Absalom gets to help him in his plot is Ahithophel, a trusted adviser of David, who also happened to be … wait for it … Bathsheba’s grandfather.

As the story unfolds, Ahithophel suggests a plan where Absalom would raise up an army of twelve thousand men to hunt down and kill David. Absalom liked the plan. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way, which is a little ironic because it probably would have worked. The thing is, David had planted a spy, Hushai, who came up with a different plan involving a lot more men, and Absalom chose to go with that one. Hushai then informed David and in the end Absalom and Ahithophel die and David keeps the throne. But, the betrayal haunted David. In fact, we hear about it in Psalm 41 where David says, “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me” (Psalm 41:9). David laments the fact that a trusted adviser has betrayed him, turned against him, and taken steps to kill him in order to place someone else on the throne. To be sure, betrayal is very hurtful and can have long-lasting effects.

We understand the pain that betrayal causes because we’ve all been subjected to it. What we don’t often think about is how our actions betray others, including our Lord Jesus Christ. Ahithophel betrayed David in order to put someone else on the throne, and we do the exact the same thing. We’ve betrayed Jesus in order to put ourselves on the throne. With our thoughts, words, and deeds, we deny His lordship over our lives before others. We’ve ignored God’s commandments and sought to do things our own way. We’ve treated others thoughtlessly and elevated ourselves at their expense, directly contradicting God’s Word to consider others better than yourself (Philippians 2:3).

And what is the result of our betrayal? The Gospel message is distorted. People don’t hear or see the amazing love of Christ because we push Jesus into the background or deny His importance in our own lives. Jesus says, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Do we? Do you … love others as Jesus loves you? Why not? Are you ashamed of the love He has for you? Of course not; then why not show His love to others? And I don’t mean a select few. God’s love in Christ isn’t for a few, but for all. So why do you betray Him? By keeping for yourself the love He has commanded you to share, I mean.

You see, the law - it can be brutal. Like the words Peter spoke in Solomon’s Portico when he called the Israelites to repentance, “You denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:14–15). But, the Law is never God’s last Word as Peter continues, “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19). It echoes the invitation that we heard on Ash Wednesday from the prophet Joel, “Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and He relents over (or as the NIV puts it, He relents from sending) disaster” (Joel 2:13).

Certainly, Jesus knew all of this in the Garden. He knew about Judas’s betrayal, and He knew about our betrayals. He knew that we would fail. He knew that you and I would betray Him in uncounted ways without ever intending to, and often without even noticing. Jesus also knew that He had the solution when He asked, “Shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (John 18:11).

God calls, “Return to me! I want you to be faithful to me because it is what’s best for you, but I know you and so I have already provided for you - a great blessing!” I have paid for your sin. And with His words, He offers the strength to turn back to Him and so receive the blessing He purchased for all and offers to you again this evening through the simple yet life-changing words, “you are forgiven.”

In His name, Amen

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