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Qadosh for a Reason

May 30, 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 Trinity Sunday comes from our Old Testament text, “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me.’”  Here ends our text; my dear Christian friends …

Qadosh. That’s the word that the seraphim are calling back and forth to each other as they flitter to and fro about YHWH’s smoke-filled temple/throne room. It’s a word that we translate as “holy,” and that’s a fine translation (probably the best we can do), but it means so much more than that. Qadosh is set-apartness. Separatedness. Wholly other-ness. It is exalted, perfect, high above. It is something beyond what the human mind can grasp, like nothingness or the fifth dimension or … a concept like the Trinity, maybe? Qadosh is the word the seraphim use to describe YHWH Sabaoth, the Lord of hosts, heavenly armies. They can’t see Him, as they have shielded their eyes with two of their six wings, but nevertheless, they cry out what they know of Him. He is qadosh, holy. Isaiah, however, is taking in the whole picture. And I don’t think there’s a word in English that adequately conveys the terror that fills him.

The seraphim have the right idea, guarding their eyes from beholding sheer holiness, but YHWH wants Isaiah to see. The throne room, too magnificent for words, filled with billowing smoke and the enormity of the flowing robe. The foundations of the thresholds of this holy place trembling at the sound of YHWH’s voice. But none of this splendor and glory and majesty … compares to seeing YHWH Himself. The literal picture of qadosh, holiness … and Isaiah can’t take it.

Oy-li! he cries, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” Isaiah’s mama didn’t raise no dummy; he knows exactly what this interaction should mean. No one can look upon YHWH and live. That’s because he’s a sinner, and he knows he’s a sinner. He knows his sin, and the sins of the people from whom he comes, and he knows that sin cannot abide in the presence of God, of holiness. So, naturally, Isaiah assumes he is about to melt before the presence of the Holy One.

But that doesn’t happen. Instead, one of those fiery, flittering seraphim takes one of the live coals from the altar with tongs, sets it in his hand, brings it to Isaiah, and touches it to the petrified prophet’s lips. We’re not told if there was searing pain involved in this, as one may expect; we simply hear this proclamation from this seraph, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” Isaiah … will not melt before the holiness, the qadosh of YHWH Elohim. Instead, he will be given a mission. YHWH Elohim speaks, and Isaiah hears, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” You can imagine the newly-forgiven, overjoyed prophet flailing his arms before the face of his beloved Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, Hineini! “Here am I! SEND ME!”

Isaiah saw something very few sinful humans ever have: the unveiled, unadulterated vision of the God of the universe, the Lord of heavenly armies, the great I AM. But it wasn’t for no reason that YHWH chose to bestow this incredible vision upon Isaiah. He didn’t show him the things of heaven just so the prophet could think back on it later in life and think, “Huh, that was pretty cool!” YHWH Elohim, the Lord of heavenly armies, the Triune God, disclosed this vision of His holiness, His Godhood, in order to prepare Isaiah for the mission ahead. His sins were removed, he stood blameless before God Almighty, and God charged him with bearing His message before His people.

 Does that sound familiar? It should. What happened to Isaiah in his vision of YHWH’s throne room is also what happened to you when you were baptized in the name of YHWH, the Triune God. No, a burning coal was not pressed to your lips, but as the pastor baptized you in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God Himself made you a participant in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our Lord. The atonement, the payment for sins that Jesus paid on the cross was applied directly to you in those holy waters, and now God claims you as His own, with the promise that no one can snatch you from His hands. That water, combined with God’s Word of promise, His name, was poured out upon you, and what the seraph told Isaiah is now true of you, as well: “your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” You are qadosh, holy, set apart, justified. How? By God’s performative proclamation that you are.  

Like Isaiah, you are not cleansed of your sin simply for you to think back later in life about something nice a pastor once did for you. Like Isaiah, you’ve been cleansed and thus called to the life of a Christian. This doesn’t mean that you can now stop yourself from sinning, but it does mean that you can freely run to your Father in heaven every time you do sin, ask for His forgiveness, and know that it is yours in Christ. It doesn’t mean that you are free to sin, but it does mean you are free to serve your neighbor and be served by your Lord Jesus with His gifts. It doesn’t mean that you are free from anxiety about sharing the Gospel with others, but it does mean that the Holy Spirit will give you utterance to bear witness before the world, as He did with Isaiah.

You’ve been saved from the just penalty for your sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity. Your guilt is taken away, as far as the east is from the west, and your sin is atoned for through His blood. My fervent prayer, for you and for myself, is that we would not be blasé about this incredible, beatific good news, but that the Holy Spirit would work through us as He did through Isaiah. My prayer is that, when YHWH Elohim asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” like the prophet, we would all eagerly cry out, Hineini! “Here am I! SEND ME!”

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

Tags: Isaiah 6:1-8

The Spirit of Life

May 23, 2021
By Rev. David French

Today we celebrate the Day of Pentecost, the day Luke records in the book of Acts when the Holy Spirit was given to the men Jesus had chosen to be His apostles. The account speaks of a mighty wind … tongues as of fire … proclaiming the works of God in other languages … and well, just a lot of commotion throughout the city. It’s a reading we listen to every year. Just like the birth narrative of Christ is read from Luke 2 on Christmas, the birth narrative of Christ’s Church is read from Acts 2 on Pentecost.

This year however, I’d like to focus on Ezekiel and his preaching to a valley of dry bones. And it is fair to ask, “What does Ezekiel preaching to a valley of dry bones have to do with Pentecost?” But first, something that might help answer that question is noticing one of the less spectacular miracles of Pentecost that may have snuck under your radar. With all the signs and noise and visions and the preaching in other languages, you might not notice that Peter preached an entire sermon and didn’t stick his foot in his mouth once. And I’m certainly not being critical or judgmental when I say that. I mean, throughout the Gospels Peter is well known for talking and acting without thinking. Now all of a sudden, here’s Peter preaching an amazing Law and Gospel sermon without missing a beat. That too is a sign of the working of the Holy Spirit on the apostles.

For whatever reason, today’s reading doesn’t include Peter’s entire sermon. Instead, it ends right in the middle. If you’ve never read it, there’s a lot of very powerful preaching throughout his sermon. Listen to some of the other things Peter preaches: “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.”

You see, Peter never passed up on an opportunity to assign responsibility for crucifying Jesus and proclaiming Jesus’s resurrection from the dead. As Peter came to the end of the sermon, the Holy Spirit produced a response in those who heard. Peter concludes: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified. Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.’”

The result was the Holy Spirit brought life to three thousand souls. They were dead in their sin and unbelief until the Holy Spirit used Peter’s preaching of God’s Word to give them life in Jesus Christ. And this is where we see the connection to Ezekiel and his vision about the valley of dry bones. God explains that the dry bones are the house of Israel, that is, the house of God’s chosen people that is the Old Testament church. In the vision, Ezekiel preached to the dry bones and God reassembled them and brought the breath of life back into them. In the same way, Ezekiel was to preach the Word of God to Israel and the Spirit, working through God’s Word, would bring Israel back to life. God used the vision of the dry bones to teach Ezekiel that it is through the preaching of the Word of God that the Holy Spirit works to bring life back to His people.

And God never changes. He worked the same way on the hearers who gathered in Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks or Shavuot which celebrates the giving of God’s Word in the Torah on that first Pentecost ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven. The rumbling sound … the tongues as of fire … all the signs created curiosity among those who heard and saw them, but it’s not until they hear the faithful sermon Peter preaches that the Holy Spirit works to convict them of their sin and offers them life through the forgiveness of sins and hope through the gift of the Holy Spirit, who Paul tells us grafts us into Christ who is our life.

And again, nothing has changed. Spiritually speaking, we all enter this world dead in our sin, as dry bones you might say. As St Paul reveals, “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins …,” and again, “… Like the rest, we were by nature objects of (God’s) wrath.” The point is, just as scattered dry bones cannot bring life to themselves, so we who are born dead in sin are also unable to bring life to ourselves. But the Father of all mercy and grace sent His Son Jesus Christ to take on our human flesh. He lived a life without sin, a life we could not live, for us. He offered that life as a sacrifice for our sin on the cross of Calvary, paying for everything our dry bones need for eternal life. We know that this is true because on the third day Jesus rose from the dead. And now He offers you the gift of forgiveness and the eternal life it brings. He wants to bring you back to life.

Here is where the work of the Holy Spirit comes, not to help us, but to us. Just as the Holy Spirit worked through the preaching of Ezekiel to bring Israel back to life … just as He used Peter’s preaching to add three thousand to the holy Christian Church … so also the Holy Spirit continues to use faithful preachers today to bring life and salvation to His people. This is not because we’re so good, but because our God is so merciful. It is not our call to faithfulness, but the Holy Spirits calling us by the Gospel, as the apostle Paul describes it to the Church in Rome, that brings life. He writes: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” And Paul concludes, “… so faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

So, even though signs may be impressive and catch your attention, it is the faithful preaching of God’s Word in all its fullness that the Holy Spirit uses to deliver Christ’s righteousness to each of us. You see, the miracle we celebrate on the day of Pentecost is that the Holy Spirit still uses the Word of God, preached by sinful men, to convict and turn repentant sinners to His cross and the forgiveness it offers.

Luther’s Catechism teaches that we cannot believe in Jesus Christ our Lord or come to him by our own reason or strength, but the Holy Spirit has called us by the Gospel. The simple truth is we can no more bring ourselves to life from the curse of sin than a valley of scattered and dried-out bones could pull themselves together and regain life. It is the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who does the impossible. Working through the Gospel, be that Word or Sacrament, the Holy Spirit breathes into us the life Christ purchased for us on the cross, that we might know the mercy of the Father, both now and forevermore.

In His name, Amen.

Name

May 16, 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 on this seventh and final Sunday of Easter comes from our Gospel text, especially where John records Jesus’s words, “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. … But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.”  Here ends our text; my dear Christian friends …

Names have meanings. My wife’s name, for example, is from the Hebrew word chanah, which means “grace.” My name is from the Greek word petros, meaning “stone” or “rock.” I’m sure many of you know the meaning behind your own names. Not surprisingly, God has several names by which He refers to Himself. In the Old Testament, YHWH is the proper name which He reveals to Moses – it’s based on the Hebrew word hi-yah, meaning “to be.” This is why, in the burning bush, He tells the somewhat reluctant prophet, “I am who I am. … Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” The less-specific Elohim simply refers to the rather generic name, “God” – though, to be sure, faithful worshippers of YHWH would certainly know the “God” to whom they were referring. After Judah was released from the Babylonian captivity, in an effort to ensure they would never take His name in vain, the people stopped using the name YHWH altogether, replacing it with the “less-holy” Adonai, meaning “Lord” – which is why, in your Old Testaments, you will sometimes see the word “LORD” in all caps but with the ORD being smaller; this is a holdover from this tradition of saying “Adonai” when the text actually reads, “YHWH.”

Names ... are important. A few … have importance of eternal significance. That’s what Jesus says, anyway, in our text today. Here we find Him finishing His “farewell discourse” that we spoke about a few weeks ago. Specifically, our text falls right in the middle of His “High Priestly Prayer” – frankly, a rather odd place for us to pick up reading, but I’m not one to question why the lectionary writers chose thus. In any case, Jesus is in the midst of this prayer, after telling His disciples everything they needed to be prepared for, what the next several hours and days would hold. John tells us, “When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, ‘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.’”

This prayer that Jesus is praying is lifted on behalf of the disciples, those who are following Jesus, who had walked with Him, talked with Him, rejoiced with Him, and cried with Him. These were the ones … who would, in a matter of moments, completely and utterly abandon Him. Jesus knows this, so He continues His prayer, “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything that you have given me is from you. For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine, and I am glorified in them. And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you.”

This is the whole point of the prayer. Jesus knows what is about to happen to Him, and again, He knows equally well how weak, how cowardly, how silly man can be, including these eleven for whom He is praying. They have received His Word, the Word from the Father. They believe, they trust, but they are still sinners living in a very sinful, broken world. They will falter, they will fall, and they will run away. Some will deny Him, others will just hang back and watch, not defending or standing up for Him, let alone be crucified alongside Him. He will be alone, and because of their sin, their unbelief, they too will be alone for some time.

Thus what Jesus speaks in our text, about the half-way point through this priestly prayer. He prays, “Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.” Their faith, their trust in Jesus cannot be dependent upon their own strength of will. Because of their sin, if they were left to their own devices, they would give in to despair and doubt, following Judas’s example. Jesus does not want that for them. He doesn’t want them to fall away, or to fracture and divide, so He intercedes on their behalf, asking His Father in heaven to keep, preserve, and protect them in the one true faith as He goes about His work of atonement.

John writes in today’s epistle lesson, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.” That’s what it is to be kept in God’s name. The name of Jesus, Y’shua, which means “salvation,” is the name which is above every name because it is the name of the Man who won for us salvation in His death on the cursed tree. It’s the name of true God and true Man who, after defeating sin and the devil by His dying, showed His mastery over death by rising from the dead, and demonstrated the way by which He would defeat that final foe on the Last Day. To trust in the name of Jesus is to trust in the One whom the Father sent, and who, with the Father, sent the Holy Spirit to deliver to you personally the gifts of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation in the waters of Holy Baptism. There, when you were baptized into the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as you were made a participant in the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord Jesus, you put on the righteousness of Christ so that, when the Father looks at you now, He doesn’t see the sin, the brokenness, the debauchery and evil; He sees His Son.

And here’s the beautiful thing about this text: this is still the prayer, the intercession Jesus makes on our behalf today. “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” He is continually asking the Father to keep us steadfast in His Word, in the name that He gave to us in His Son, the name placed upon us in holy baptism. His name placed upon you and upon me is the source of our joy, because we are in Him, and because we are in Him, we know that eternity with Him in joy everlasting is what awaits us, and all those who trust in His name.

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

New Lord in Town

May 13, 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 this evening, as we celebrate our Lord’s ascension, comes from our Epistle text where Paul tells the Ephesians, “that [the Father] worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.” Here ends our text; my dear Christian friends …

“There’s a new sheriff in town!” That phrase undoubtedly calls to mind Westerns, movies like “Tombstone,” “High Plains Drifter,” “Rio Bravo” … maybe even irreverent ones like “Blazing Saddles.” Admittedly, I couldn’t find where the phrase actually originated, but nevertheless, it conjures up images of hot, dusty streets in a town in the Old West, as two gunslingers stare each other down mere moments before they draw their six-shooters and resolve the duel. Wherever and whenever it was coined, we all get the meaning behind the idiom: the old ways are over. Lawlessness and terror no longer have a place, nor do those who practice such things. The new sheriff is here, and he’s going to clean house. He’s going to oust the wicked and evil oppressors from the town by force, to the joyous gratitude of the residents. That’s what you’ll usually see in those Westerns, if the new sheriff successfully kicks out the bad guys and actually survives, the town is overjoyed, and there’s usually a grand party of some sort to celebrate. The evil in their midst has been defeated (at least temporarily), law and order has been restored, and they can go on with their lives.

Tonight, we examine a similar scene in our text: in the aftermath of the physical, literal bodily ascension of our Lord Jesus, true God and true man, back to heaven to take His seat at the Father’s right hand, the disciples are … overjoyed. Our first reading sets the tone by painting a picture of the disciples gaping after Jesus’s ascent into the clouds until two messengers appear and tell them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Our Gospel lesson shares that the disciples who went with Him as far as Bethany, after His ascension, “worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.”

This was a time of pure elation, hopeful expectation. But, why? Why was Jesus’s ascension a source of such jubilation? After all, He was leaving! You’d think this would be a time of sorrow! As He’s going up, becoming obscured by the clouds, not to be seen in the same way again by the apostles, one would assume that they’d be sad. But they’re not. Quite to the contrary, they are overjoyed! So what gives? Why are they so enraptured? Well, because of what Paul wrote in our text: “… what is the immeasurable greatness of [the Father’s] power toward us who believe, according to the working of His great might that He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things under His feet and gave Him as head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.”

It may be hard for us to comprehend, since we live in the apostolic age, but prior to Jesus’s first advent, this world had a lord. A deceiver, a cheat, a corrupted one who corrupted everyone and everything he could sink his claws into. The tyrant ruler and prince of this world, Satan would have no competitor. He had beguiled Eve, deceived Adam, broke the cosmos, and ruined all of humanity, the pinnacle of God’s creation. … except for one. There was the One with whom the strong man, the prince of this world, had to wrangle with.

If this were a Western, the bad guy, Satan and his demonic horde (or posse, I guess) would be shown having considerable skill. They’re a force not to be reckoned with. They’d honed their skills in deception and temptation and beguilement with the residents of this world for so long, that it was no doubt a surprise when the new sheriff, Jesus, came to town and resisted. Beginning at His temptation in the wilderness all the way through His death, and culminating in His glorious resurrection, our Lord Jesus dueled with Satan. Yes, the deceiver has skill that far exceeds ours, but he’s no match for the new sheriff. Yes, at a certain point, he thought he had Jesus on the ropes, utterly defeated, as He breathed His last and cried out, “It is finished.” However, that moment which seemed like victory for the Evil One proved to be his undoing! The Lord Jesus boomeranged triumphant, descending into hell, where He proclaimed His unmatched victory over the yellow-bellied Satan and his posse, and sent them running for the hills. The new sheriff has come. He’s cleaned house, ousting the wicked and evil oppressors by force, to the everlasting joy and gratitude of His people. He has bound the strong man and plundered his house. He has shown His complete dominion over all of His creation … and it is His creation and rule.

Now, you may say, “Well, it certainly doesn’t seem as though the bad guy and his posse are gone. Evil still occurs – wars, famine, the pandemic. Marriages still fall apart, crime and violence are skyrocketing, depression, suicide … hatred. Is the bad guy really defeated?” Yes, he really has been defeated, and now we depart from our unravelling Western cinema analogy. Satan really had devoted all his energies to the goal of preventing Christ from achieving salvation for us. He failed. In His death and resurrection, Jesus triumphed over the power of the devil, along with his allies of sin and death. He won a decisive victory for us. By His ascension, Jesus returned to heaven where He kicked Satan out as our accuser once and for all and makes His enemies His footstool. Your sins and mine are atoned for, and the accuser can only roar and foment, but he is utterly defeated! “This world’s prince may still scowl fierce as he will. He can harm us none! He’s judged, the deed is done. One little word can fell him!”

Philip Melanchthon wrote in the Augsburg Confession, “[The Son of God] … descended into hell, and truly rose again the third day; afterward He ascended into heaven that He might sit on the right hand of the Father, and forever reign and have dominion over all creatures, and sanctify them that believe in Him, by sending the Holy Ghost into their hearts, to rule, comfort, and quicken them, and to defend them against the devil and the power of sin. The same Christ shall openly come again to judge the quick and the dead, etc., according to the Apostles’ Creed.”

That’s what we’re celebrating this day: the return of Jesus to His position of power at the Father’s right hand. We are celebrating His ousting of Satan from the heavenly places, who will never again accuse those whom the Father has claimed as His own. We are celebrating Jesus’s dominion and rule over all of creation. There is nothing that goes on without His seeing, no act that goes without His permission. Nothing happens to His people that, despite our view from below, is not for our good. The penalty has been paid, and we are His people. To our joy, He is “raised … from the dead and seated … at [the Father’s] right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.” There’s a new Lord in town; He is the Lord of the earth, the Lord and Master over all of creation, and He is coming back.

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

If?

May 09, 2021
By Rev. David French

I don’t know about you, but this is one of those lessons where I find it would be so easy to lie to myself. I mean, listen again to verse 12, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” Now I’m neither foolish nor Pharisaical enough to believe that I keep this or any other command. In fact, I have no doubt I don’t even love myself as the Lord loves me.

No, what bothers me about this text is how Jesus says the greatest show of love is laying down your life for your friends and then ties everything together with the conditional statement, “You are my friends if you do what I command you.” But again, the ugly truth is I don’t do what my Lord commands and neither do you. And the Lord surely knows there have been times when I didn’t keep this command on purpose. There are people I’ve known who I just didn’t want to love. They’re liars and just plain mean. But … if I don’t love them, then I’m not a friend of Jesus, and that makes me want to just lie to myself thinking, I guess, in my own way I do love them, which means nothing.

But, what if the problem isn’t with the words of Jesus, but with my understanding of His words? You see, as good Lutherans we know we’re saved by grace and not by works, but Jesus is saying we must abide in Him and love others as He loves us or we’re not His friends, that is, we’re not the ones He laid down His life for. Clearly, it’s hard for us not to stumble over this particular text. And that’s the problem! Our sinful nature wants us to focus on us and what we need to do. But, do you really think that’s why Jesus gave us this command? Just to be sure, let’s listen again to Jesus. “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. “

Jesus was speaking these words to His apostles just hours before He was betrayed, beaten, spit upon, and nailed to a cross, “... my joy may be in you, and your joy may be full.” You see, all too often we hear these commands of Christ apart from their context and turn them into “do this or else” instead of the gospel assurance our Lord intended them to be. But remember, Luther said he who properly decerns between law and gospel is the one who deserves to be called a Dr. of theology. That implies that it’s not always easy. Just as 1+1 is math, the math a Dr. of mathematics works with can be very complex.  

When Christ first spoke these words to His apostles, He knew what awaited Him in Jerusalem. And yet, our Lord continues teaching the very men who would soon abandon Him that, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for His friends. You are my friends.” Jesus is telling His disciples, in no uncertain terms, how much He loves them. And in just a few hours, He’s going to practice what He preaches, showing them and us just how much He loves us by offering His life as a substitute for ours. He’s showing a love that only God could show. He took our sin into Himself and was judged and condemned in our place, and with His blood paid the debt for sin that we owed. That is God’s definition of true love!

But, that actually only seems to makes things worse. I mean, how can we love like Jesus if only Jesus has that kind of love? The truth is, we can’t. Moms come close. In fact, a good mom probably comes as close to showing true unconditional love as you can find among sinners. But even a mother’s love can be limited by diseases that affect the mind and certainly time as death comes to us all.

And that is why we rejoice! The love that Christ Jesus has for us is not limited by health or time or any other factor that dilutes our love for one another. The love that Christ Jesus has for us is so holy and pure that on the third day, nothing could keep the Lord of Life from rising from the grave. That’s whose life we have been baptized into. It’s His love offered in the waters of baptism that made us His own, because God is love.

That’s why, even in the midst of whatever life throws at us, there is joy in the heart of a believer. To be sure, sometimes that God-given joy is buried under a pile of earthly sorrows, but it is there. No matter how bad life gets, you know you are loved by Christ; loved so much that He willingly died and rose for you, and that’s what this command of Jesus is all about. 

Jesus speaks these words, not to get us to pay attention to what we need to do to be saved, but to turn our attention to what He has already done to save you and me and all who are born of sin. You see, when we focus on the unconditional love of Christ crucified, we can’t help but recognize one another as brothers and sisters who Christ also loved enough to die for. You see, this command isn’t about loving in order to be saved, but loving because we are saved, by Christ’s unconditional love. A joyous love that is made complete in us by loving one another just as Christ loves us.

Now, I worded that very carefully, because the original Greek makes it crystal clear: The love of Christ is made full and complete in us. Jesus intentionally uses what’s called a theological passive here. If you recall your rules of grammar, a passive verb receives the action of the subject. We don’t make our joy complete ourselves. We can’t do that, no matter how hard we try. Our joy, the joy of Christ, is made full in us by Christ.

As St. Paul reveals to the Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ” (that is in baptism) and “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” In other words, I have been baptized into Christ. And so, it is no longer I who try to love, but Christ who lives within me who does love.

God the Holy Spirit working through the means of grace brings this joy of Christ to completion and fullness in you, but apart from Christ, there can be no fullness of joy. There will always be a void. In this world, voids demand to be filled, and our sinful nature has been trying to fill that cross-shaped void with the things we believe will bring us joy for a very long time. And the result is they always leave us looking for something else.

That’s why God draws us to the love of Jesus; the love that led to the life He lived for you, the death He died for you, and the love you are assured of by His resurrection. The love that He still offers you today by coming to feed and nourish you with His life-giving, body, blood, His holy Word.

I guess you could call them commands: “Behold the Lamb, listen to Him, take and eat, take and drink, go and be ….” You can call all of those commands. You can legitimately say that they’re all law, but remember, there is law and there is a more complex understanding of law. In fact James in his epistle calls them laws of freedom or liberty (2:12). But understand, these commands God speaks are not spoken to threaten or fill you with despair, but to bring you joy and peace through faith in Christ. You see, Christ speaks these laws of freedom to draw your attention and you to Himself and assure you there is no “if” because He is the sole fount and source of your forgiveness, your hope, your joy, your eternal salvation, your everlasting peace.

In His name, Amen.

Tags: John 15:9-17

Abide

May 02, 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 in the season of Easter comes from our Gospel text, especially where John records Jesus’s words, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”  Here ends our text; my dear Christian friends…

It’s not unusual for words to fall into disuse or to change meanings over time – I wonder if anyone here knows what a “dandiprat” is, or if anyone knows that a baby walker used to be called a “go-cart.” The word “abide” is like that; of the numerous definitions and uses of the word, almost half of them are now considered antique. You just don’t see hotels on the side of the road, encouraging people with billboard signs that say, “Come abide with us!” You won’t hear baseball announcers telling viewers, “Well, Braun is up to bat with Yount and Cooper abiding on second and third base ….” If it’s used at all these days, “abide” is a word that’s used in a very specific, often religious, context. Certain hymns use the word – think, “Abide with me,” or our closing hymn, “Abide, O Dearest Jesus.” Proper prefaces and other prayers will sometimes utilize the word as well – though, again, it’s not terribly frequent. And of course, we do find the word in specific, albeit scattered and disjointed, passages of Scripture, except here in John 15.

Here, and throughout the entire chapter beyond our text, Jesus uses the word “abide” 11 times, all of which are close in proximity. Of course, the question becomes, “What definition, archaic or otherwise, are we working with here?” Are we talking about a lodging, dwelling in a physical place for a period of time? Is it that we are agreeing to work with a set of rules or mandates, abiding by them? Is there something that we are awaiting? Something we are putting up with? All of these are working definitions of the word “abide,” but I think the more antiquated definitions are what we’re seeing here: persevering, continuing, lasting, withstanding, staying.

Jesus is in the midst of His “farewell discourse,” His conversation with the disciples that takes place on Maundy Thursday in between His commandment for them to love one another and His betrayal in Gethsemane. In our text, the “True Vine” discourse, He tells them, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit He takes away ….”

Now, think about the disciples to whom Jesus was speaking. What did they do mere minutes, hours after their Lord spoke these words? Well, they ran. They did not stay, they did not abide, as their Lord was led away to the horrific, beautiful work that lay before Him. They took off, like the pusillanimous sinners and cowards that they were … and we’re no better. Is your devotional life stellar? Is your church attendance impeccable? Do you find yourself tapping your feet, waiting for the sermon to be over so we can get on with the rest of our lives? How about out there, in the world? Do you find yourself to be the picture-perfect example of abiding in Jesus? A branch that is worthy to stay attached to the true Vine?

Well, I guess it depends. If you are basing your worthiness of staying attached to the true Vine upon what you do, then no. By that standard, you and I ought to be cut clean from the good true Vine and thrown into the fire. Is that what Jesus is saying here? I don’t think so. He continues by telling His disciples, “… and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. …  By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”

It is His Word that makes you worthy, that makes you clean, that makes you a branch attached to the true Vine! His Word causes you to abide in Him! His Word causes you to trust in Him, in spite of what you see in yourself and in the world!  You abide in Jesus by believing, trusting His Word proclaimed to you in the words of absolution, in the waters of Holy Baptism, and as you partake of the very body and blood of our Lord, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. That is how we abide in Christ: by receiving His gracious gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation and replying, “Amen; let it be to me as You say, O Lord.”

Well, what about the bearing of fruit? Isn’t that a call for me to do something, to show that I am a branch abiding in the Vine? Well, if you are abiding in Christ, hearing His Word, trusting His promises, then you can be sure that you are bearing fruit! You may not know it, you may not see it, and it will not be perfect, but you can be sure it is happening, as Jesus promises, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit …”!

I don’t often close my sermons this way; but today, I’d like to close with an old prayer not often heard (unless you tune in to my Thursday night devotions on YouTube). It’s a prayer that orients our understanding of this antiquated word. Let us pray ... “Abide with us, Lord, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent. Abide with us and with Your whole Church. Abide with us at the end of the day, at the end of our life, at the end of the world. Abide with us with Your grace and goodness, with Your holy Word and Sacrament, with Your strength and blessing. Abide with us when the night of affliction and temptation comes upon us, the night of fear and despair, the night when death draws near. Abide with us, and with all the faithful, now and forevermore.”

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

Tags: John 15:1-8
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