1st Sunday in Lent – B LSB #’s 525, 420, 696
Text – James 1:17
Every good gift & every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
THE GOOD & PERFECT GIFT
Little Joey came into the kitchen where his mother was making dinner. His birthday was coming up & he thought it was a good time to tell her what gift he wanted: “Mom, I’d like a bicycle for my birthday.”
Now, Joey was a bit of a troublemaker. He’d caused problems at school & at home, so his mother asked if he deserved to get a gift for his birthday. Of course Joey thought he did, but his mother wanted him to reflect on his behavior over the past year.
“Go to your room & think about how you have behaved since your last birthday. Then write a letter to God & tell Him why you deserve a bike for your birthday.” Joey shuffled up the stairs to his room & sat down to reflect & to write.
Dear God, I have been a very good boy this year & I would like a bicycle for my birthday gift. I want a red one.
Joey knew this wasn’t true. He had not been a very good boy this year, so he tore up the letter & started over.
Dear God, This is your friend Joey. I’ve been an “OK” boy this year & I still would really like a red bicycle for my birthday present. Thank you.
Sadly, he knew this was not true either. So, he tore up the 2nd letter & started a 3rd.
God, I know I have not been a good boy this year. I’m very sorry. I will be a good boy if you just send me a bicycle as a gift for my birthday. Please!
But Joey realized, even if it were true, this letter wasn’t going to get him a bicycle. He went downstairs & told his mom that he wanted to go to church. Joey’s mother thought her plan had worked, so she said to him, “Just be home in time for dinner.”
Little Joey walked down the street to the church on the corner. He went in & up to the altar. There, he looked around to see if anyone was watching. Then he picked up a statue of the Virgin Mary, slipped it under his shirt, ran out of the church, down the street, into the house, & up to his room. He shut the door & sat down with pen & paper.
I’VE GOT YOUR MAMA! IF YOU WANT TO SEE HER AGAIN, SEND THE BIKE!
Signed, YOU KNOW WHO.
Apparently Joey felt that he needed that red bicycle really bad!
Humorous stories are excellent tools for teaching because they allow us to recognize the truth in somewhat of a disguise. It’s less threatening that way, so we’re more open to hearing the truth. Joey’s kidnapping of the Virgin Mary makes for a funny story, because it strikes so close to the truth; a truth that we would rather not examine too closely out in public.
It’s obvious to each of us that we can’t be kidnapping something & demanding a ransom from God. Yet we also realize that the story has as much to do with our own sins, as it does with little Joey’s. At least I hope you realize that. I mean, to be honest, I couldn’t care less about Joey’s sins, but God has made me accountable for yours.
So what does the story of Joey’s ransom demand have to do with our sins? After all, there aren’t many of us here demanding a red bicycle for our birthday. And I expect that none of you has ever written a ransom note. But I do know that some of you have endured the breakup of very special relationships. Having gone through that myself, I know the sort of tricks the sinful mind will play at times like that, “God, if you don’t let this relationship work out, I’m not going to waste my time in church anymore.”
Or maybe you’ve urgently prayed for someone’s health, but the diagnosis came back & the doctors said, “there’s nothing more they can do.” Someone you cared about very dearly ended up dying. Then it occurred to you, “What’s the use in praying? God never answers my prayers anyway.”
Sometimes your parents are upset because nothing seems to be going right for them. As their child a misunderstanding gets you punished unfairly. You did nothing wrong. In fact you tried to do what was right, but still end up grounded & missing your best friend’s party that you’d been looking forward to for months.
As you slam the door to your room, you tell them, “I hate you,” as you’re wondering if God loves you anymore.
In each circumstance, we have questioned God’s love & been tempted to give up on His promises. Like Joey, trusting in God’s love often isn’t good enough for us. Somehow we want more leverage with God than that. Trusting His goodness leaves us helpless & at His mercy.
But taking God hostage to our prayers – to our love – to our church attendance, those are an attempt to gain the gifts from our heavenly Father through extortion. Those are attempts to put yourself into the driver’s seat. As Joey did, we want control – not mercy. We want to be in charge – not forgiven.
To accept forgiveness means to admit that I was wrong. It means to blame no one but myself. It’s a good laugh when others try to take God hostage, because then we easily see the foolishness involved. But our own sin involves a certain blindness to common sense. What’s
clear to you in Joey’s case is normally anything but clear when you have your mind set on something particular & are longing for it. How frustrating religion can be when we grow uncertain of God’s love.
When plans for a baby end in miscarriage, or the joy of marriage becomes the worry of finances, people look for a response from God. When we’re tempted to uncertainty, concerning His love, every event in life is looked to as a possible sign from heaven.
And such a life of doubt, fear & uncertainty kills the soul. That’s not the life our Savior came to give. The 18th verse of the Epistle reading says, “Of His own will [our Father] brought us forth by the Word of Truth...” James desires that his hearers see things clearly so their conversation with God will not be tedious & frustrating, but eternal & one of freedom.
We are not to feel chained down by the changes in life. We are not to feel burdened by the adversity, suffering & struggle. We are not to surrender hope because of our sins. After writing letter # 3, the story says Joey realized, even if it were true, this letter wasn’t going to get him a bicycle. But those are the lies of the Devil, “Did God really say?”
The truth is that our heavenly Father longs to give precious gifts to His children. He sent His Son to give light & life. Too often we give the curse of darkness & even death! The Devil would have everyone believe that in religion only darkness & death can be found. But when faced with feelings of doubt & uncertainty, God’s children turn to the Word of Truth.
That Word is Jesus Christ Himself. He is the ultimate good & perfect gift. His death released us from the stranglehold of sin. Our Lord is so powerful, & so loving, that in Christ even adversity & suffering are opportunities to grow, & thus they are gifts from God. They’re not meant to end in doubt & hostage taking.
So how do we deal with those gifts? Do we focus on what is not fair about them? Yes,
we do! Should we? NO!!! But that can be like prying a dog’s jaws off a bone, because frequently we do not want to let go of, “But it’s not fair!!!” Like Joey, our sinful nature doesn’t believe that God is fair, so we try to get our gifts through our own cunning or deception. The only gifts those bring are darkness & death, certainly not good & perfect gifts.
Earlier in his book, James wrote, “Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature & complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:4 NIV) In Christ, adversity & suffering develop perseverance & character. Joey came close several times.
He wrote the 3rd letter apologizing for his behavior. Then he failed to believe that God would accept it. He went into the church & approached the altar, but only to steal; not to seek forgiveness. Either he did not understand God’s love, or felt he could not trust in it.
The assurance of God’s love & the focus of our faith is not the absence of disease or divorce. It’s not the presence of birthday gifts. The assurance of God’s love & the focus of our faith is the cross. There, God demonstrated His love very clearly. There, God assures us that even in the midst of great pain & suffering, He is at work bringing good & perfect gifts.
Our feelings change like the shifting shadows, but God’s love, shown in the sacrifice of His Son, is the same yesterday, & today & forever. Let us all as one person say, “Lord, we have sinned & done evil before You; we have wantonly despised Your mercy & love; we have fallen short of Your glory – again today.”
But let us not fear our guilt, like Joey feared his. The prophet Isaiah tells us, “Say to those who are afraid, ‘Be strong, & do not fear, for your God is coming… to save you.’” (35:4 NLT) He will save us from having caused trouble & from having sinned. He will save us from having given gifts of darkness & death instead of light & life.
At Bethel, Jacob wrestled with God until he received Yahweh’s blessing. In a sense,
what Jacob said was this, “God, I have Your promises, & You have to keep them. Send me forgiveness & send me new life!” As a result we emphasize clinging to the Body & Blood of Jesus, clinging to the waters of Baptism, because God’s promises do not change. They are not shifting shadows like our emotions are.
And God’s promises are granted through His Sacraments & through His Word. Yahweh has remained & will remain constant in His desire that all be saved.
What a joy then, as we encounter the changes in our lives, to know that this remains the same: whether having recently married or recently divorced, whether standing over a crib, or walking away from a grave, when we are gathered here, Sunday after Sunday, we come before the One who does not change in His love for us.
That love is expressed most fully in the Good & Perfect gift, His only begotten Son. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” PAUSE
The Gospel of Mark tells us, “And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done all things well. He even makes the deaf hear & the mute speak.’” (7:37 ESV) But God’s gift does not end there. His gift even makes the guilty – innocent! That is a truth all of us can enjoy reflecting upon. Amen.
Christ the life of all the living, Christ the death of death our foe; who Thyself for us once giving to the darkest depths of woe, through Thy sufferings, death & merit, we eternal life inherit; thousand, thousand thanks shall be, dearest Jesus unto Thee. Amen. LSB 420:1.
Transfiguration Sunday – B LSB #’s 414, 396, 924
Text – 2 Corinthians 3:17
Now the Lord is the Spirit, & where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.
WHAT’S HOLDING YOU BACK?
“We hold these truths to be self-evident…” Powerful words from a momentous time in the history of the world, they helped to inspire men & women to strive for more than most of them would ever have expected was their right & due. In the minds of its authors the declaration of independence put forth the causes which impelled them to seek the freedom of our nation.
They believed that the King of Great Britain was holding them back through an unjust tyranny over the citizens of the American colonies. They had patiently suffered through years of oppression & now the times called for throwing off the shackles of despotism.
“…that all men are created equal…” It does not say all men are equal. Look around you. It’s obvious that we aren’t. Sin has twisted & corrupted what our heavenly Father created such that inequality exists everywhere. Yet the founding fathers of our nation knew that all men are created equal. In God’s design, all people are equally free.
“…that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” Not only did our forefathers acknowledge that human beings were created & equal, but they stated there was a Creator instead of a haphazard process of chance mutation supposedly producing life over billions of years. A random process of chaos does not assign unalienable rights to anything.
“…that among these are Life, Liberty & the pursuit of Happiness.” It’s the desire of our Creator that we enjoy the blessing of life, even here on earth. Sin has definitely made a mess of things, but God’s Word from Genesis 1 still applies, if we live by faith:
“So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male & female He created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful & multiply & fill the earth & subdue it, & have dominion over the fish of the sea & over the birds of the heavens & over every living thing that moves on the earth.’” (1:27-28 ESV) Life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness are not only the rights of the 1%, or of the Hollywood elite. Our forefathers, & God Himself, intended them for all mankind.
What is holding you back? Certainly that question can be answered in a general way with the word – sin. Yet, the Word of God makes clear that our Savior has conquered sin & removed the grip it had on our heart & soul. Jesus Himself told us:
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33 ESV) Then, St. John wrote, “For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world.” (1 John 5:4a ESV) To believe in Jesus means that we put our faith in those words & promises.
The world cannot hold us back because Jesus has overcome sin, & death & the Devil. They have no power over you or me. As the Apostle James wrote, “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, & he will flee from you.” (4:7 ESV) If Lucifer is not fleeing, what do you think is holding us back? Are we not submitting to God as we should?
In any case, it should be clear that the only thing which can hold us back is we ourselves. Our weakness & our fear, our wants & our desires, our refusal to surrender control of life to the heavenly Father, those are the temptations through which Satan lures us away from the freedom that Jesus won for us on the cross of Golgotha.
Yes, there is forgiveness for our sin, for our weakness, for our wanton desires, but there is also a great danger in refusing to acknowledge & submit to our Creator. St. Peter wrote about it in 2 Peter 2: “And when people escape from the wickedness of the world by knowing our Lord & Savior Jesus Christ & then get tangled up & enslaved by sin again, they are worse off than before.” (2:20 NLT) God’s desire & design is not simply to rescue us from our sinful choices in an outward way. He wants true freedom for us, so He doesn’t just slap a new coat of paint on us to make us look good. Our Lord desires to change your heart in the process. If you remember, Jesus criticized the ones who were only concerned with outward appearance:
“Woe to you, scribes & Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones & all uncleanness.” (Matthew 23:27 ESV) That, through Baptism, we are a new creation in Christ occurs from the inside out. In this life, the freedom given to us by our Lord is primarily an inward one.
In the context of suffering the effects of sin, St. Paul stated: “Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:16b-18 ESV)
The freedom Christ gives is eternal, yet, much of the time we allow the things that are seen, & are transient, to hold us back. Our home, our possessions, our time & money, even our relationships, all of them are at times valued above following Jesus. We’re afraid that if we allow Jesus to command our attention, then we’ll miss out on things we believe we deserve.
With that attitude, we quickly become slaves to what otherwise is intended by God to be a blessing. We end up serving the blessing, rather than the giver, our gracious heavenly Father. Behind that fear of missing out is none other than the Devil himself, but it is you & I who choose in allowing fear to guide & direct our actions.
The dictator in North Korea rules by fear & intimidation. Jesus does not exercise dominion over those who belong to Him by the promulgation of laws & the pronouncement of judgment. Rather He does so by fellowship with sinners & by forgiveness. His lordship is not intended as a burden but as a help. He did not come to earth to be served, but to serve. You will be more useful as an instrument of God if you recognize what it is that’s holding you back. Why is it that you aren’t living life boldly for Christ?
The transfiguration is meant to encourage us so we live the freedom Christ has won for us through sacrificing His life in our place. Jesus was transfigured so His disciples could see a more complete picture of reality to encourage them once Jesus had risen from the dead. They had been living by sight, & would continue to do so until after the resurrection.
Living by sight, instead of by faith, was holding them back. They were so sure Jesus was going to take over as an earthly ruler; they were so looking forward to the day when He ascended an earthly throne that they forgot to keep on living in the present.
We do that too, looking forward to a wedding, or a graduation, or finally landing a job or buying a home. We can so look forward to our future that we forget to live in the here & now. It’s a blessing that our Lord is patient. He revealed His glory to three of the disciples & then told them not to tell anyone, until He had risen from the dead. That is being patient.
When Pentecost arrived the Disciples would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Then the Disciples would understand what the Transfiguration was about. St. Paul defends his boldness, in this reading from 2 Corinthians, in the face of criticism about, “Who does he think he is?” He used to imprison & oversee the murder of God’s children. Now he’s telling us to live boldly?
However, Paul bases that boldness not on himself as his opponents suggest. He bases it upon the new covenant set up by Christ. Faith is not simply trust in God in general. It is a specific trust that accepts the cross & has its foundation in the saving work of Jesus. Out of that trust grows boldness that has no fear of being ‘put to shame.’ It is a trust that fully grasps hold of the freedom we have in the cross. If we refuse to serve boldly in the name of Jesus, then we lapse back into slavery, because our will is no longer attuned to His. We either live according to the flesh because we believe we’re just going to die anyway. Or, we believe & live according to the Spirit because we know we will never die! We throw off the shackles holding us back.
God’s Word is a precious gift which leads & feeds its hearers unto everlasting life. People of God depend on that Word, & the Spirit of God working through it, for salvation, instruction, direction & preservation in the one true faith. That Word is true, & powerful, & it does what it says. Sometimes it is a Word that tests our strength of character, & our resolve.
God’s Word is not just sweetness & light. It is a fire, the Psalmist says. It melts the earth if it must; it abides forever; it creates weal & woe; it is what will never fail. Against it, who can stand? That Word can be very unpopular inside & outside the church, & too often, we do not speak or live its truth in love, as we ought.
There is something inside of us, some selfish beast of a subtle thing, that doesn’t like the truth at all because it carries responsibility, & if we actually believe these things we have to do something about them. But we do not stand alone. Whenever & wherever the Word of the Lord is spoken & lived out, there the Word made flesh is also present & active.
The Son of God came to earth in mercy & humility to fulfill the Word of God, precisely because we are not capable of doing so. And because of that singular reason you have nothing to be afraid of in following Jesus. You can live boldly. You can die boldly, because the power of Yahweh is at work through you.
No more lies or half-truths to hold you back. All your sins are forgiven. There is nothing to fear, not even fear itself. In Christ you are already holy in the sight of God. In Christ you know the truth & the truth has set you free. Amen.
Lift up your eyes in wonder – see, nations gather yonder from sin to be set free. The world has heard Your story; her sons come to Your glory; her daughters haste Your light to see. Your heart will leap for gladness when from the realms of sadness they come from near & far. Your eyes will wake from slumber as people without number rejoice to see the Morning Star. Amen. LSB 396:4-5.
5th Sunday after Epiphany – B LSB #500
Text – Isaiah 40:21
Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
FROM THE FOUNDATIONS OF THE EARTH
You’ve probably heard the term ‘sacred cow.’ It’s a figure of speech for something regarded as immune from question or criticism. This idiom is based on a popular understanding of the elevated place of cows in Hinduism. It appears to have emerged in America in the late 1800’s.
That something is considered a sacred cow does not, of itself, make it good or bad. The figure of speech refers to the attitudes of the people who are thinking about it. To have a sacred cow is to hold on to an outlook that is unreasonable in its unwillingness to question or criticize whatever the issue or object may be.
The right to have an abortion is a sacred cow to many of the Baby Boomer generation. The right to own guns tends to be a sacred cow to people on the other side of the political realm. Ironically, in our last presidential election, both Donald Trump & Hillary Clinton became sacred cows to many very different groups of Americans.
Heading into the debates on the recent tax reform, the deduction for interest on a home mortgage was considered a sacred cow, & it’s been entrenched as such for years. To build the wall, or to help the Dreamers, have more recently become sacred cows to differing groups of human beings.
One problem with an attitude that turns something into a sacred cow is this – our attitudes guide & direct our actions. If my attitude is out of balance what generally happens to my actions? They become unbalanced as well. One thing the Navy taught, in the world of nuclear power, is that we need to always critically evaluate & question our every action. The wrong action, at the wrong time, could easily kill everyone on board the submarine. No one is correct 100% of the time. So the practice of always questioning our own actions was one method of discovering our mistakes before they would cause harm.
In the world of climate change, scientists who claim it’s happening were caught manipulating the data to ‘prove’ their point. The sacred cow had become so important to them that they lowered themselves to unethical reporting of the facts in order to “protect” their god. What that demonstrates is that people actually worship gods they can manipulate.
Another example is the name they employ for their god. It used to be ‘global warming,’ but to the public, that became an obvious joke every time the polar vortex blew in. So the politicians & scientists who worship it have changed the name to one that isn’t so obviously a farce. Have you heard any reporting on where the phrase ‘global warming’ disappeared to?
The God who actually did bring the entire universe into being didn’t give us an opening to make up names for Him. At the burning bush it was spoken directly to Moses – I Am Who I Am. At the root of that name is the fact that Yahweh has always been, He is now & He will always be. His very name implies that God is the foundation of all that exists.
In Hebrews 13:8 we hear of the true God that is the same yesterday & today & forever. It reveals that He can’t actually be manipulated like the gods that human beings create for themselves. Listen to how people in the OT had to help out one of their ‘gods.’
“After the Philistines captured the Ark of God, they took it from the battleground at Ebenezer to the town of Ashdod. They carried the Ark of God into the temple of Dagon & placed it beside an idol of Dagon. But when the citizens of Ashdod went to see it the next morning, Dagon had fallen with his face to the ground in front of the Ark of the Lord! So they took Dagon & put him in his place again. But the next morning the same thing happened – Dagon had fallen face down before the Ark of the Lord again. This time his head & hands had broken off & were lying in the doorway. Only the trunk of his body was left intact.”
Our culture is too ‘sophisticated’ to bow down to hand carved idols, yet that in no way proves we are immune to idolatry. The idol Dagon had fallen & could not get up. He needed the help of his human subjects to put him back in place. The sacred cows of our culture eventually fall as well, & when they do, they need our ‘help’ to be put back in their place.
An idol like that is in no shape to tell us anything we might refuse to hear. If it did, we’d simply make another one – like manipulating the climate data so the report tells the world what ‘believers’ want us to hear. The climate change ‘god’ needs human help, & such control over the idol shows who truly is in charge. It is the one who creates & manipulates the idol.
Yahweh created the universe & is constantly about the manipulation of it in order to rescue us from our ignorance, from our idols, & from our sins. The thrust of the message in Isaiah 6 is Israel’s inability to see & hear, to know & perceive. By chapter 40, God implies that this ignorance has been lifted & He has once again enabled the people to embrace His plan.
The people of Judah were despondent & had given up on Yahweh as their God. They thought He was defeated by the Babylonian gods so their future was hopeless. The judgment of God had done its proper work & convicted them of their sins. To restore them, Isaiah wrote:
“Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, …who brings princes to nothing, & makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when He blows on them, & they wither, & the tempest carries them off like stubble.”
People who worship false gods understand that the purpose of worshipping such a god is
to gain his favor. Idolatry is all about pleasing the sacred cow so that it will do your bidding. You just have to figure out the formula. Sadly, even when we believe in the true God, sometimes we look at prayer as nothing more than the formula to gain our heart’s desire.
The essence of idolatry is putting our desires before those of our Creator. And when our attitude gets out of balance so do our actions. There are plenty of opportunities in this broken world to give up on our heavenly Father. As an answer to the brokenness of despair in the lives of his people, Isaiah points to Yahweh as the Foundation & the Creator of all things.
He rules over all things. In the Gospel reading from St. Mark, Jesus instantly cures the mother-in-law of Simon Peter. Then He heals many others & casts out many demons. Jesus demonstrates that He is God & He does desire to save His people & His creation. “Even… young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength...”
Which of your attitudes are holding you back? What counterproductive actions are arising from any of the out of balance attitudes in your heart? Is there a sacred cow, or two, that need to be cut loose from your mind & soul? Are you worshipping a god that needs to be manipulated or fixed every now & then? Maybe you’re wondering if God will still save you.
Here’s another detail from the OT reading to encourage you. The Babylonians captured God’s people because Yahweh had turned His over people over to them for judgment upon their sins. However, the Babylonians & the Jews thought it might be that the Babylonian gods were stronger. Babylon was the home & center of star worship. Most of their gods were star gods.
So Isaiah wrote to God’s people, “Lift up your eyes on high & see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name, by the greatness of His might, & because He is strong in power not one is missing.” (Isaiah 40:26 ESV) All of these so-called gods were created & named & put in their place by I Am Who I Am. The Lord’s people needed to be humbled. Because of all the blessings they’d received, they had gotten full of themselves & sought independence from their Creator. God emptied them through their suffering, & He used Isaiah to call them back to Himself, beginning with chapter 40 which famously implores of the prophet, “Comfort, comfort, ye my people…”
Yahweh acted on a national scaled to deliver His people from slavery in Babylon. Now, He is acting on a universal scale, since the death & resurrection of Jesus, to deliver all people from captivity to sin & death. He still uses the brokenness of our world to empty us of ourselves, to rid us of our sacred cows, but only so we can be filled with the power of His Spirit.
When you are despondent & have been cast down low, these words of Isaiah call out to you: “Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?”
The prophet & messenger of God assumes that you know who created the heavens & the earth, who is the foundation of all that exists. Then, Isaiah calls you to trust in your Creator’s love for you. “It is He who sits above the circle of the earth, …who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, & spreads them like a tent to dwell in.” (Isaiah 40:22 ESV)
The apostle John picked up this very theme in the closing chapters of the book of Revelation, as he paints a picture of heaven: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, & they will be His people, & God Himself will be with them as their God.’” (21:3 ESV) Amen.
Creator Spirit, by whose aid the world’s foundations first were laid, come, visit every humble mind; come, pour Your joys on humankind; from sin & sorrow set us free; may we Your living temples be. Immortal honor, endless fame attend the almighty Father’s name; the Savior Son be glorified, Who for all humankind has died; to You, O Paraclete, we raise unending songs of thanks & praise. Amen. LSB 500:1 & 4.
 1 Samuel 5:1-4 NLT
 Isaiah 40:21-24 ESV
 Isaiah 40:30-31 ESV
4th Sunday after Epiphany – B LSB #’s 761, 783, 707
Text – Mark 1:23-24
And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, “What have You to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are – the Holy One of God.”
WHAT HAVE YOU TO DO WITH US?
Just leave me alone!!! Ever said those words? There are times when it feels as if our “oppressor” is about to destroy us, & we need some space. That “oppressor” may be a little brother or sister who just wants to be with their hero. It might be parents who seemingly have to be involved with every decision you make.
On a submarine that feeling came with each trip that lasted more than a month or so. You get about to the halfway point & you don’t want anyone to talk to you ever again.
Just leave me alone!!! All of you can relate to that feeling. Maybe it’s been about religion. Maybe it was about school. It might have been personality differences or fear of not measuring up, fear of being ridiculed. In the Gospel lesson for this morning, it’s about good vs. evil, & death vs. life. “What do you want with us, Jeeeeesus of Nazareth?”
Have you ever wanted Jesus to just leave you alone? That’s an uncomfortable question to be answering truthfully, especially in church, surrounded by fellow Christians, with the pastor right up front. But I’m going to press the point. I want you to be uncomfortable. Have you ever had too much religion? Have you been up to here with it?
Can you sense the truth at the core of those questions? You have a sinful nature & it hates religion as well as the Son of God. To deny that is to deceive yourself. We are sinful from conception. We have not followed Jesus joyfully or trustingly. Our thoughts have been for ourselves, not for others. “Just leave me alone. What do You want with me, Jesus?”
Romans 8:7, “The sinful mind hates God.” e;cqra is the Greek word used by Paul & it
even sounds hateful! But that’s not what we’re talking about when we say, “I just hate it when that happens.” e;cqra means active & intentional hatred. It’s the kind that leads to death by murder. It’s the kind that chops the body into pieces & feeds it to the neighbor’s dog! That’s e;cqra & Paul says it is our disposition towards God, or at least part of our disposition.
An evil spirit cried out, “What have You to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have You come to destroy us?” And that is why it’s difficult to truly admit our sin here in church, here in front of our fellow Christians, in front of a pastor, because we are afraid of being destroyed. That’s what made you uncomfortable earlier in the sermon. The truth causes anxiety for sinners.
You have been up to here with religion & your sinful mind does want to kill God, because you want to take His place. Each of us would like to be in absolute control of the things that matter most. That’s what being impatient is all about – ‘wanting control.’ When you’re impatient with your children, or with your parents, it’s because you want to be God.
Our soul relates well to the words of that evil spirit, & that’s the frightening part. We understand those words all too well. We live them every day, & we run from them, hoping no one will notice. You heard the same theme in the OT reading, “Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.” (Deuteronomy 18:16b ESV)
Death, destruction & damnation hound us all. Our sinful nature fears them rightly, because Jesus Christ did come to destroy that sinful nature. “What have You to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?”
He wants death for the rebellious old Adam within, & as long as that old Adam is alive, our existence will be one of anxiety & impatience. We will constantly be looking for space to avoid the damning holiness of God. It’s natural for you to have had it up to here with religion because its purpose is the death of your sinful nature. Like the demon possessed man, part of you also cries out, “What have You to do with me, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy me?” That aspect of religion makes a lot of people very uncomfortable. Part of that discomfort comes from a lack of understanding &a lack of faith.
For Christians, the death of our sinful nature is a blessed thing. But it doesn’t first arrive on the day of our physical death. Rather that death is a process which began already with our baptism & continues throughout each day of this life.
That 100% Saint, 100% Sinner paradox is not easy to live with. It pulls us in two opposing directions. The good we want to do - we don’t, & the evil we do not want to do - that we keep on doing. Part of you wishes it could be nice to your younger siblings, & part of you even wants your parents to be involved in the decisions you make.
But another part wants to be God. That old Adam would murder Him if it had the chance. That’s a disturbing thought to really consider, or meditate on. You may never have seriously considered yourself as a murderer, but that’s because we don’t like to think that we are at fault. Our sinful nature always finds someone else to blame.
It’s like Gollum in a Lord of the Rings movie: “Master hates us. He cannot be trusted. He tricked us. Master does not love us.” Did you catch how master is the subject of each statement? Obviously, Master is to blame! The same battle goes on within you & me. “What have You to do with us?” can be our cry of unbelief. You have come to destroy us.
Yet, that is also the cry of the believer, “What have You to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” Master does love you. Master is good to you. Master knows your name. Your Saintly nature loves, & wants to know, God’s will. Those two opposing natures are constantly at war within us – to shape our perception of reality & to control our actions.
Sin twists & distorts our perception of reality. As Frodo had trouble seeing the truth,
because of the power of the ring, we also have trouble seeing the truth because of the power of sin, death & the devil. Our sinful nature truly believes that Jesus came only to destroy us. For the evil spirits that is true, but not for human beings. As Christians all of us are Saints as well.
In John 3:17, we’re told Jesus came the 1st time not to destroy people, but to save them. He came to save the 100% Saint that is created as the Holy Spirit works through the means of Grace, God’s Word & His Sacraments. Yes Jesus does want death for us, but at the same time life, death to the old Adam & life to the new.
That brings us back to the Saint/Sinner paradox. We are at this very moment dead, but alive – a confusing way to live – a complex teaching to learn – an even more difficult concept to teach. “What have You to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” The answer is, “Death and life,” death to the Sinner & life to the Saint.
For example, on the one hand I long to write excellent sermons. On the other hand I hate even the thought of sitting down at the computer. “And the unclean spirit, convulsing him & crying out with a loud voice, came out of him.” (Mark 1:26 ESV) I can almost feel that spirit within me as it stirs against knowing & doing God’s will.
Maybe you feel the same thing when you’re supposed sing at church. And when you’ve had it up to here with religion, or with your parents, or a younger brother or sister, then you are engaged in the same sort of struggle. You want to choose life, but death has its grip on you as well. PAUSE
“Be silent, & come out of him!” Jesus spoke seven words & the demon obeyed. I was helping lead a Bible study at the county jail in North Dakota when the leader of the study tried casting the demons out of the prisoners. He ranted on for about 10 minutes, often at the top of his lungs, but the prisoners were still struggling with sin a week later, a month later & so on. It was a sincere yet absurd attempt at doing what only God has the power to do. When people saw Jesus do it with success, they became very uncomfortable. They were astonished & alarmed. They may not have fully understood who Jesus was, but they well knew an unearthly power had just been unleashed, which they had never before experienced.
The teaching of Jesus came with authority & the people recognized they had just been confronted with an absolute claim upon their soul. Choose life or choose death! There is no space left in which to hide. So they found the presence of Jesus to be a very disturbing one, & when that happens, our sinful nature cries out, “Just leave me alone!”
But at those same moments the new Adam living within begs us, “Repent & believe! Master does love me. Master is good to me. Master knows my name.”
Within you today are the voice of death & the voice of life. Fortunately, there is a difference between the demon & us. You & I struggle with doubt & belief. The demon does not! It believes Jesus is the Holy One of God but has outright rejected Him as Lord.
In times of tragedy, such as massive hurricanes of last summer, you’ll often hear, “Where was God when that was happening?” That question comes from the heart of doubt. It’s the statement of the unclean spirit, “You’ve come to destroy us!” It’s the claim of Gollum, “Master does not love me.” It is our own demand, “Just leave me alone!”
But Jesus of Nazareth does not leave us alone. In fact He is with us always, even to the end of this age. He was with the students at the shooting in Kentucky this past week & He is with their families today. He’s with each of us as we encounter the struggles of our lives, even during the times when we just need some space.
For the people killed by the shooter, who had faith in Jesus Christ, last Tuesday was the day that their sinful nature was eternally destroyed. The mission of Jesus has been completely fulfilled in their lives. But for those of us who still live, by virtue of our baptism, our sinful nature dies a new death every day, every time we receive the body & blood of Christ, & every time the Word of God is rightly preached or taught. Our being made holy is the work of the Holy Spirit, not an unclean spirit, & that work goes on every day of our time here on earth.
For the demon possessed man Jesus broke down the gates of hell to rescue him in fulfillment of the book of Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives & freedom to prisoners,” even the prisoners of demons. (Isaiah 61:1)
For God’s children, the Word of Jesus is one of life for children of death, a word of mercy for children of hatred, a word of encouragement among voices of doubt & criticism, a word of light for those lost in darkness, a word of eternity amidst the vanity of this fleeting life.
None of our current fears, selfishness or failures threaten the salvation that our Heavenly Father gives. And the joy of that assurance is what moves His children to serve Jesus of Nazareth. So we live, trying to know & do God’s will, not because it earns anything, but out of gratefulness for the life & the joy that we have already been given.
Lord, we believe. Rescue us from our unbelief. Amen.
They went to Capernaum, & when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue & began to teach. Amen. (Mark 1:21 NIV)
Life Sunday – 2018 LSB #575
Text – 1 Peter 3:15-16
But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness & respect.
“Hope” is an interesting word in the Bible. When you & I talk about hope, we say something like, “I hope it doesn’t rain.” What we mean is: “I think it might rain, but I really wish that it wouldn’t.” With this kind of hope, there’s always a possibility that we might not get what we want – what we are “hoping” for. That’s not how the word “hope” is used in the Bible.
In Holy Scripture ‘hope’ is a word describing confidence. “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood & righteousness.” The hymn lyrics express a “confidence” in the blood & righteousness of Jesus for our salvation. In 1 Peter 3, he writes:
“But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness & respect.” What is the hope he’s writing about? God, the Father, out of love for us, gave His eternal Son to bridge the gap that separated us from Himself.
Jesus is the chosen One who suffered & died in the place of sinners. He satisfied our Father’s wrath against human sin & effected true reconciliation between God & mankind. In rising from the dead, Jesus conquered sin, death & all the powers of Satan. By this grace, extended to humanity through Christ’s death & resurrection, we share in our Lord’s victory.
This is our hope, our confidence! Through Jesus Christ, we can come before our heavenly Father because we are clothed in the righteousness of the Son of God.
St. Peter’s 1st epistle was written to believers who were facing persecution. As such, Peter’s call to “always [be] prepared to make a defense” meant that believers should be ready to answer objections to Christianity. When the Christians in Peter’s time were charged by the Roman state with atheism, & ordered to recant their faith, they were to be ready to defend their hope in Christ in spite of the threats of prison & torture. Peter’s instruction in 3:15 meant that believers should have already reflected upon the answer for their faith in Jesus.
St. Paul wrote in Philippians 2:15 that we live in a “crooked & twisted generation.” We live in a culture of death, but Paul goes on to say that we “shine as lights in the world.” We have a hope that is in us! In a culture where death is preferred over life, in a culture where death is considered a friend, we have a hope that is in us & it’s full of life!
We have life in Jesus Christ, the Lord of life! That is our identity. We identify with the Living One, the One who once was dead but now is alive forevermore! In a culture that promotes death as an answer, there’s no hope for those who have no identity in God.
Without knowing the Lord of hope, there’s no identity as parents or spouses. Without a heavenly Father, a fetus loses its identity & then it’s simple to choose abortion if the baby is not wanted. Without a Creator, the elderly have no identity; so when they feel like they aren’t productive anymore, it’s not that difficult to opt for assisted suicide.
Our identity as children of God gives us hope & life. From where do we receive them? Through hearing & studying God’s Word! You have been prepared through your memorization of the catechism to know what you believe. But you need to stay ready. That means you shouldn’t let your catechism or Bible gather dust.
It means you should take advantage of what God regularly provides to prepare yourself for those opportunities to give an account for the hope that is in you. You come to worship on Sundays to be reminded of God’s great love for you in Christ Jesus, in spite of your sins. You attend Bible study at church to learn more about God & how His love works in your life. In those ways, God is preparing you to make a defense of the hope & the confidence you have in your Savior. Not that Jesus needs defending. He doesn’t! He didn’t even defend Himself before the chief priest, or before Pilate or Herod. Our Savior willingly accepted His sentence of death on the cross, & gives us the privilege of sharing the incredible hope we have because of it.
With anyone who asks why you believe what you do, you have the privilege & honor of making the case for salvation through Christ’s death & resurrection. In advance, God has prepared those opportunities in your daily life. The neighbor next door who seems to be depressed needs your witness of the amazing identity God has prepared specifically for him.
That young lady you know, who seems to be looking for love in all the wrong places, she needs to know that in Jesus there is waiting for her all the love & fulfillment she needs, & God will tailor it to her needs. In any case you can be sure your witness will be a credible one. Why is that? Because Yahweh Himself is faithful. Here are two of His related promises.
Hebrews 10:23, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.” (ESV) There, God tells us specifically to hold fast to our hope without wavering, because He is faithful. Then, in 1 Thessalonians 5, He goes into more detail:
“Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely, & may your whole spirit & soul & body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it.” (5:23-24 ESV) There, He makes the point that even if we mess up our witness, the God of peace will keep us blameless at the coming of Jesus Christ.
You have nothing to fear, & no reason to be afraid. Just share the hope that you have in the once dead, but now risen, Christ Jesus. He is faithful to His promises! The Word of God, Baptism & Holy Communion empower you to live as God’s child & to be a powerful witness of the Christian faith that will encourage & inspire those around you to want what you have. Invite your friends & neighbors to church so that they will get to hear the sweetest words they’ll ever hear this side of heaven – words we too often take for granted. They will hear their heavenly Father say to them through His called & ordained servant: “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father & of the Son & of the Holy Spirit!”
Those words give us a living hope which also has an eternal future. That is far better, especially being in Michigan, than living with words of helpless hope such as “I hope it doesn’t rain.” Amen!
My Hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood & righteousness; no merit of my own I claim but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. His oath, His covenant & blood support me in the raging flood; when every earthly prop gives way, He then is all my hope & stay. When He shall come with trumpet sound, Oh, may I then in Him be found, clothed in His righteousness alone, redeemed to stand before His throne! On Christ, the solid rock, I stand; all other ground is sinking sand. Amen. LSB 575:1, 3-4.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet