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Fear Not

July 25, 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 ninth Sunday after Pentecost comes from our Gospel text, especially where Mark records, “But immediately [Jesus] spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.’ And He got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased.”  Here ends our text; my dear Christian friends …

I’m going to ask you all a question, and I need you to be absolutely honest. It’s rhetorical, so you’ll be happy to know that I won’t actually have you voice your answers. Here’s the question: what are you afraid of? I don’t mean the heebie-jeebies; I mean, what sends a shiver up your spine, makes your hair stand on end, and makes your blood run cold? What wakes you up in the middle of the night with a terrified shriek, drenched in a cold sweat? What are you afraid of? Losing your job and financial ruin? Hearing from a doctor that there’s nothing more that they can do for you? Receiving a call from the sheriff’s department that there’s been an accident, and your child was involved? Learning that someone has found out your deep, dark secret, something you’re truly and deeply ashamed of? What are you really, really afraid of?

We just heard an account in our Gospel lesson wherein the disciples experienced true terror. Who knows what was going through their minds as they were making painful headway across the Sea of Galilee in the dead of night? It was a long way to Bethsaida from where they had been, and to be fighting against the wind, I’m sure, was no picnic. Bear in mind also that they had, just that day, “returned to Jesus and told Him all that they had done and taught,” only to go across the lake and be met with a massive crowd to feed. These guys, I’m sure, were tired. They had to be physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. And Mark tells us, “about the fourth watch of the night [Jesus] came to them, walking on the sea. He meant to pass by them, but when they saw Him walking on the sea they thought it was a ghost, and cried out, for they all saw Him and were terrified.” They thought the One walking past them was a phantasma, an apparition, a ghost. It’s hard to blame them, since everyone knows that human beings cannot walk on water; ergo, whoever or whatever was walking past them was an eerie, unknown entity that was clearly more than human, and the first thing that came to mind was that it was a specter. … Well, maybe they weren’t terribly off-base.

In their fear, they hear this walking-on-water entity speak, and we as hearers of their experience usually focus on the latter sentence, when Jesus tells them, “Do not be afraid.” Grammatically, that’s an imperative, a command, and as you know, commands fall under the purview of the Law. We Lutherans know what the Law is and does, right? It gives us the requirements of God, how we ought to live, what we ought to do, what we ought not do, but more importantly we know that the Law gives the command … but not the ability to carry it out. The Law of God is good and wise, but to us who are perishing, it is a cruel taskmaster. So, in light of that honest conversation you’ve just had with yourself about the things that legitimately strike terror in your heart of hearts, to hear Jesus say, “Do not be afraid” may come with no small amount of guilt. We know we ought not to be afraid, that we ought to trust in the Lord our God with all our hearts, but that knowledge hardly gives us the ability to dismiss those fears from our hearts and minds. The plain and simple fact is that Jesus’s command to not be afraid is yet another command which we poor, miserable sinners are unable to fulfill.

But Jesus did say more than this. “Take heart; it is I,” He told them before the aforementioned command. With all due respect to the translators of this version, I think a more wooden translation serves the text better: “Take courage; I AM.” That’s right, Jesus says, Ego eimi, the Greek translation of the name YHWH. Turns out the disciples were on the right track, after all: the One who was walking on the waters of the deep was more than a mere man. He was the same One who made those very waters He walked upon, spoke them into existence ex nihilo, out of nothing. The same One whose voice the waves and winds couldn’t help but obey. The same One … who would, in the fullness of time, do what only God could do: make full atonement by offering Himself in the place of all sinful mankind. He was no ghost: He was, and is, God. Jesus’s proclamation to the disciples during His leisurely stroll across the Sea of Galilee is a Gospel proclamation, which frames the reason why the disciples need not fear. This is made clear as He climbs into the boat, and immediately the winds die down – note, without even a word from His lips.

Sad to say, while the creation recognized and obeyed its Creator, the disciples did not. Mark tells us, “they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” In spite of all they had witnessed, in spite of the miracles they’d seen, they still didn’t understand. They still would experience fear through their lives. That’s because they were sinful men living in a broken world, and fear is endemic to the fallen human condition. And we’re in the same boat. In spite of the miracle that is baptism, when God claims a human being as His own, that human being will still be afraid. In spite of God’s Gospel proclamation week in and week out, in the words of absolution, we still worry and fret that we’ve sinned too much for God to forgive us. In spite of the glorious feast in the Lord’s Supper, wherein we taste and see God’s goodness, we are still beside ourselves when those deep-seated fears that we know resurface in our lives.

We can’t live perfectly without fear … but the One who did knows your secret fears and yet loved you so much that He died to pay for all your sins. Courage isn’t the absence of fear; it’s continuing on, trusting in spite of that fear, and Jesus, who claimed you as His own, says to you, “Take courage; I AM.”

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

Tags: Mark 6:45-56

Foretaste

July 18, 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 eighth Sunday after Pentecost comes from our Gospel text, especially where Mark records, “When [Jesus] went ashore He saw a great crowd, and He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And He began to teach them many things.” Here ends our text; my dear Christian friends …

Before a certain pandemic took the world by storm, it was rather commonplace for grocery stores to offer their patrons free samples. Members of their staff would man a station where they would prepare small, individualized tidbits of a certain product that maybe was on special, or that the store had an overabundance of. If you’re anything like me, sometimes those samples would be incredibly good, and you would find yourself meandering back to the same station for seconds … or thirds … or sevenths. Whether or not you actually buy the product advertised, you still got a taste of what you could have … and it might very well leave you wanting more. That’s what samples do. They tease with a snippet, a crumb, a morsel of what you can expect to come later. They’re tantalizing tidbits that foreshadow what is to come. Call them … a foretaste.

That’s a word we’re somewhat familiar with, right? A word often associated with the Eucharist, the Holy Supper of our Lord’s true body and blood in, under, and with the bread and the wine. Sometimes, for the post-Communion collect, you’ll hear Pastor French or myself pray, “Gracious God, our heavenly Father, You have given us a foretaste of the feast to come in the Holy Supper of Your Son’s body and blood ….” What is meant by that is that the Lord’s Supper gives us a taste—physical and spiritual—of what is waiting for us on the other side of Jesus’s return. It’s a sample of the blessed communion we already have with our Lord, as well as with all the company of heaven. This is not the only example of “foretaste” as a theological concept expressed in our confession. It is something seen readily throughout the Scriptures, and our Gospel lesson today absolutely exudes it.

We know the miracle in this text very well, one of the only miracles seen unequivocally in all four Gospel accounts: the feeding of the 5000 men, plus the women and children with them, with nothing but fives loaves of bread and two fish. After the disciples return from doing their apostolic work, Jesus leads them away for a bit of “R&R.” They get in their boat to go to a “desolate place,” barren, isolated, wild, a place on the edge of the desert wasteland, but their intention to slip away was not to be. We’re told that “many saw them going and recognized them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them.”

Jesus and the others come ashore, and He sees this crowd, and instead of getting frustrated or angry, we’re told that “He had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” The Greek word for Jesus having compassion on that crowd is very strong, denoting a sort of gut-wrenching anguish. He knows what they need – the Word of God – and since the leaders of Israel, the supposed shepherds of the people, aren’t giving it to them, His heart ached for them, and He began to provide that Word as He began to teach them.

But the teachings went on, and the hour grew late, and there wasn’t enough time to let the people go away to the distanced villages to get food; they’d been given spiritual sustenance, but they also needed physical sustenance. The disciples tell Jesus as much, and He replies with a humanly impossible challenge: “You give them something to eat.” Even two hundred days’ wages wouldn’t be enough to feed a crowd of well-over 5000 adults and children! How could they possibly provide them with enough food?

Now, we know what Jesus had in mind, but the disciples did not, so when He tells them to check inventory, they come back to report (possibly with some sarcasm) that they’ve got five loaves or cakes of bread – “Oh, but we’ve also got two whole fish!” Clearly, in human terms, that’s not enough to even feed their theological troupe, let alone this crowd. But Jesus is unconcerned with the number; He commands the crowds to sit down in that deserted place now populated, upon the verdant slopes of what was once wild and desolate and dead. At this point, Jesus does His Jesus thing: taking the food, looking up to heaven, giving thanks, and in some way that none of the Gospel writers can even describe, multiplies that food to feed the entire crowd, with enough leftovers of broken cakes and fish morsels to fill twelve baskets-full.

It was an incredible miracle with sumptuous morsels and tidbits for all who read it. We’re given several foretastes in this miraculous text. The most obvious one is the connection many theologians and pastors make to the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Certainly, it is not an apples-to-apples comparison to that miraculous, holy meal—there was no wine that we’re told of, the diners feasting upon the bread and fish were not eating and drinking the forgiveness of their sins, and Jesus was not telling them to make this unique meal into a sacrament. However, in that particular dinner, what we nevertheless see is a clear showing of God Himself providing for the needs of His people. We’re seeing culmination of the foretaste shown to Moses and the leaders of Israel in Exodus 24, when they went up on YHWH’s holy mountain, seeing God face to face, and we are told that they “ate and drank” in His presence.

But that’s not the only foretaste we get in this text. The splagchnon, that deep-seated, heart-wrenching compassion that Jesus felt toward the shepherdless crowd, starving for God’s Word … that’s a foretaste of the compassion and steadfast-lovingkindness that compelled the incarnate God, the Good Shepherd to lay down His life for His sheep, to die in the cruelest way imaginable for His wayward children. That heart-rending compassion and pity shown at the shores of the Sea of Galilee is the same love and mercy shown by the God of the universe when He took on human flesh, endured the beatings and scourgings, ultimately to be nailed to the cross on Golgotha’s hill to atone for the sins of His sinful creatures. It’s the same love and longing that He showed to each of us in the waters of holy baptism, when He put His name on our foreheads and hearts and declared to all of creation, “This one is My beloved and forgiven child.”

Are you full yet with these samples and foretastes? I hope not, because there is another; one I don’t want you to miss, and it might be easily missed. “Then He commanded them all to sit down in groups on the green grass.” The area where they were had been wilderness: deserted, barren, a haunt of jackals and demons. That’s a good way to think of, not only this area, but all of creation after the Fall: it was broken and dead, not as it ought to be, what it was created to be. But then comes the Creator to undo the curse and scourge that sin wrought in this world, and where He goes, life springs up from what was once dead. This once barren hellscape where the feeding occurred was, by the time of Jesus’s arrival, verdant and lush and green once more. This miracle is a foretaste of the undoing of sin’s diabolical effects. No more will sin and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground! He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found! We saw this best where it happened first: on Easter morning, as the tomb of the crucified Lord was vacated in glory and triumph! But that foretaste pointed to the return of our crucified, resurrected, and now ascended Lord Jesus, when He will issue a cry of command, and that which is now dead will live once more! That’s a foretaste, a sample that is sweetest of all: a taste of the restoration of all creation! May our Lord Jesus hasten the blessed Day of His return, so that these foretastes may find their culmination at the victory feast in His kingdom, which will have no end!

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

Tags: Mark 6:30-44

Long Ago and Far Away

July 11, 2021
By Rev. David French

Last week I mentioned how popular Jesus was becoming. This week we see the extent of that popularity as even Herod the king has heard about Him. This Herod was the son of the Herod who ordered the death of the young sons of Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’s birth. Mark tells us that he began to believe the whispers about Jesus being John the Baptist raised from the dead.

Remember, John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament prophets, and he did what all the prophets did. He exposed sin and called for repentance. Thousands came out to hear John. Many of these people came to understand that God does offer forgiveness to those who repent. These are the people were comforted as they listened to John. It’s also true that wherever there is a prophet, there are those who cringe at the prophet’s message of repenting or admitting you’re a sinner to receive the forgiveness of sins. Herod and his wife Herodias were two of those people.

Herod had married Herodias while she was still married to his brother. John, having no fear of Herod or Herodias, called on them to repent of their adulterous sin. Herodias especially didn’t take kindly to John's message and convinced her new husband to have John arrested, waiting for an opportunity to shut John up for good.

Finally, on his birthday Herod decided to through himself a party. As part of that celebration, Herodias's daughter gave a dance recital. Apparently, this young lady was a very skilled dancer, and her entertainment pleased Herod a great deal. Herod wanted to reward this girl’s effort and skill. He made what he must have thought was a grand gesture of generosity: “Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it to you.” And he vowed to her, “Whatever you ask me, I will give you, up to half of my kingdom.” It was, it turned out, a very foolish gesture, and Herodias used it to her advantage. She instructed her daughter to ask for John’s head.

We are right to condemn all those who are involved in this crime. We are right to condemn the adultery of Herod and Herodias. We are right to condemn Herod, Herodias, and even the daughter for the murder of John. Most of all, we are right to condemn them all for their blatant idolatry - for living according to the law of their own pleasures instead of living according to the law of God. We are also right to praise God for the ministry of John the Baptist - for his bravery, his integrity, and his loyalty to God.

You know, it is very easy to hold John up as a hero of the faith. It is easy to hold up the faithful ministry of all the prophets. We can talk about how noble they all were. We can talk about how they died for their faith. We can talk about how the world persecuted them. It’s all easy because it happened so long ago. But what if John lived today? What would we think of John’s message if he began pointing out the sin in our lives and publicly calling us to repent? How would our society respond to John’s message?

Since the sin John dealt with was adultery, let’s look at the situation today. After talking with many pastors and based on my own experience, I can tell you that most of the couples who come to us to get married are already living together. In most cases, couples that come to a church realize that they’re living in sin, but figure that’ll stop once they’re married and God will forgive them. And while there is truth to that, it is also a very immature and shallow understanding of their relationship with their Savior.

When we view John from a distance, we call him a hero; but if John were to show up in our faces today and call us to repent, we’d at the very least think he was a jerk. We’d say he was cruel, uncaring, narrow-minded, bigoted, and well, you know the list. Many would no doubt want him gone. It’s all well and good for John to be faithful to his office in first century Israel, that is, long ago and far away. But many think it’s different now, people are different now, we don’t like the “in your business” kind of preacher. Calling people out for their sin publicly? Well, times have changed. And they may have, but people haven’t.

Jesus had a vision for pastors. They were to warn people of spiritual danger and then tell them about the only place of spiritual safety. As Luke records Jesus saying, “Repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in [the name of Christ] to all nations …” [Luke 24:47]. In order to proclaim repentance, a pastor must teach the people about God’s law and then tell them how they break it. A pastor must teach people that they are sinners and that the penalty for sin is eternity in hell. Pastors do this in love because they want those Christ died for to be aware of spiritual dangers, and with God’s word to guide them to a place of spiritual safety, that is the cross of Christ and the forgiveness of their sins.

Just as Herodias schemed to kill John, so also, other rulers schemed to kill Jesus. They tortured Him and then nailed Him to a cross. His death on the cross did something John’s death could never do. Jesus had lived a perfect life. He had no sin of His own. His death on the cross was totally and completely undeserved. Because Jesus died in total innocence, His blood has the power to take away the sin of the world. And not just the sins we commit, but the sin we inherited as well. All of it has been covered with the blood of the Lamb.

God gave us a sign that Christ’s death truly did paid for our sins by raising Him from the dead. Truly, Jesus is true God and true man, and death can no longer hold Him. He rose and now lives and reigns forevermore. And so, God has Himself opened up the door to eternal life with Him in heaven for all who believe in the work of His only begotten Son. What a joy it is for pastors to proclaim the victory of Christ that brings us the forgiveness of sins, and with that, the gift of eternal life and salvation.

You see, servants of God have lives that are full of great contrasts. They want all people to be in that safe place at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, many people refuse to listen to the warning and chose to remain in their trespasses and sins. In others, however, the Holy Spirit is able to work faith in their heats and bring them to the safety that comes through the forgiveness of our sins.

This world is full of sin. When one of God’s servants gives you a warning, he is only doing what God has called him to do. He’s warning of the danger of sin and proclaiming the safety of faith in Jesus who died on the cross for you and then rose from the dead. The warning of God’s faithful servants is an act of love and not an act of judgment. We only want you to know and have the peace that is yours in Christ.

In His name, Amen.

Tags: Mark 6:14-29

Is Not This ...

July 04, 2021
By Rev. David French

When I was a young boy, the people in Nazareth always puzzled me. It seemed to me that the people in Nazareth should have been proud of Jesus. He was very popular. He went about healing the sick and feeding the poor and just doing good deeds. He challenged the teachers of Israel and taught a message of salvation by grace with authority. You’d think that whenever Jesus returned to His hometown, they’d welcome Him with great joy. You’d think at a minimum they’d hang up a sign at the entrance to the town - Home of Jesus, the rabbi and miracle worker. But instead, the people in Nazareth hated Jesus. We see fierce - even physically violent - opposition to Jesus in every recorded account of His teaching in Nazareth. That’s why He moved His headquarters, if you will, down the road to Capernaum. It just never made sense to me. I couldn’t understand what was wrong with the people in Nazareth.

What I didn’t know or understand then was the bigger picture, if you will. A picture that is given color by today’s reading from the Old Testament provides some insight to my curiosity. When God chose Ezekiel to be a prophet to Israel, He warned Ezekiel that the people were very stubborn in their unbelief. He told him, “Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me. They and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants also are impudent and stubborn.”

The result of their generations of stubborn arrogance is seen in their descendants in today’s reading by their refusal to learn more about their own native son. The things that they did know about Jesus were absolutely right. Is not this the carpenter? No doubt Jesus had learned the trade from Joseph. Is not this the son of Mary? That’s what Christmas is all about. Is not this the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? Absolutely is! Are not his sisters here with us? Yes, they are. Their knowledge of Jesus was absolutely right as far as it went. But because of their stubborn arrogant hearts, the people of Nazareth were unwilling to learn more about Jesus.

And, it’s not like Jesus was doing these things on the other side of the country. Last week we heard about Jesus raising a girl from the dead. That happened in Capernaum, less than thirty miles from Nazareth. Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine, was less than six miles from Nazareth. Jesus taught and healed in the area all around Nazareth and yet, when He was in Nazareth itself, He experienced rejection. In their stubborn arrogance, the Nazarenes refused to learn more about Jesus. Today’s reading tells us that Jesus marveled or was amazed by their unbelief.

Now, before we condemn the Nazarenes, we might take an inventory of our own attitude toward learning about Jesus. Do we take the attitude that we learned all we need to know in confirmation? Or, do you think you have nothing more to learn from Jesus? Be honest with yourself. I mean, God already knows the answer. When it’s time for Bible study, are you there eager to deepen your understanding of not just Jesus, but of what Jesus taught?

In the Great Commission, Jesus tells His church that she is to make disciples from all nations by baptizing and teaching them to observe all that He has commanded. Jesus knew that those God has given Him would be hungry for His gifts - that they would want to know more and more about their Savior’s love for them. In the Great Commission, Jesus instructed His church to be ready to feed His disciples for a lifetime.

C. F. W. Walther, the first president of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, had used these words when he described the Nazarenes in today’s Gospel, [Walther, Law & Gospel, Second Evening Lecture] “A person may pretend to be a Christian though in reality he is not. As long as he is in this condition, he is quite content with his knowledge of the mere outlines of Christian doctrine. Everything beyond that, he says, is for pastors and theologians.”

Today’s lesson, if you apply it to yourself, forces each of us to consider some hard questions. Questions like “How often do I ignore the opportunity to learn more about Jesus?” or “Why do I think studying God’s Word isn’t worth my time?” I’m not judging anyone’s heart; I’m simply saying anyone can look at just about any church and see that there are more people in worship than in Bible studies. Why do you think that is?

You see, we’re no different than the people in Nazareth or any other place. We’re sinners, forgiven sinners to be sure, but that also means Satan works harder to deceive us. It’s plain to see, the gospel of Christ is still offensive to many. I mean, we all know there are whole denominations of “Christians” who are offended by many of the teachings of Christ. But Christ told us that. He told us those who share God’s Word faithfully will meet opposition. And so, many will say nothing because, for some reason, we feel like we’ll have to defend God’s Word rather than simply speak the truth in love and let the seeds fall where they may. Remember, we don’t grow seeds, we sow seeds in a sinful world. And that means conflict will always be a part of the Christian’s life. There are, after all, two natures warring within us.

The good news is, in spite of the world’s opposition, Jesus doesn’t stop offering His gifts. He continues to send His disciples out to prepare the way for His work even though He knows there will be opposition. You see, Jesus doesn’t withhold His gifts just because His church would experience rejection.

In fact, Jesus still offers those gifts today. When Christ died on the cross, it wasn’t for good or nice people. Christ died for sinners. And as God reminded the Romans through Paul, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” [Romans 3:23], which means Christ died for all. He died for those who rejected Him in Nazareth, and He died for those who still reject Him today. He offers His gifts of forgiveness and life to all, even those whose actions show they reject Him time and time again.

It truly is beyond human understanding, but simply, Jesus loves us, you and me. He wants us to know Him. He’s given the church the command to teach the nations to hold fast to all the things that He taught. Notice, not just what He did, but what He taught. Take advantage of this invitation. Learn about the Christ who loves you and gave Himself into death for you. Learn about the Savior who delights in giving you the things that are best for you. Learn about the Lord who rose from the dead in order to give you eternal life.

Yes, God’s Word is divisive. As we read in the book to the Hebrews, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” [Hebrews 4:12]. What the Word divides is those who are faithful to Christ’s teachings from those who reject them.

Jesus faced opposition in Nazareth, His hometown, because the people rejected God’s Word. Eventually, other people who rejected God’s Word arranged to have Him nailed to a cross, leading to the fulfillment of His promise. By His death on the cross, He reconciled us to our Creator and heavenly Father through His blood paying our debt for sin. And so it is, by grace through faith, that we are among those who say of Jesus, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

In His name, Amen.

Tags: Mark 6:1-13
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