Palm Sunday – B LSB #680
Text – Zechariah 9:10
I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim & the war horse from Jerusalem; & the battle bow shall be cut off, & he shall speak peace to the nations; his rule shall be from sea to sea, & from the River to the ends of the earth.
CUTTING OFF THE CHARIOT
A Lexus mechanic was removing a cylinder head from the engine of a car when he spotted a well-known cardiologist in his shop. The doctor was there waiting for the service manager to come & take a look at his car. So the mechanic shouted across the garage, “Hey Doc, want to take a look at this?”
The cardiologist walked over to see what he wanted. The mechanic straightened up, wiped his hands on a rag & said, “Doc, look at this engine. I opened its heart, took the valves out & repaired or replaced anything that was damaged. Then I put everything back in, & when I finished, it worked just like new.
So how is it that I make $48,000 a year & you make $1.7 million, when you & I are doing basically the same work? The cardiologist paused a moment, then leaned over, & whispered to the mechanic, “Try doing it – with the engine running.”
That is a radical idea – trying to repair a car’s engine while it’s running. Most everyone would agree, you’d be crazy to try it. Still, it’s not nearly as obvious that the words of Zechariah in today’s OT reading are just as radical.
A lot of people “practice” some kind of religion, or spirituality, think they’ve got a handle on it, & feel like they’re good to go. They tell you that they “believe” in Jesus, but they have zero concept of what it means to follow Him, as Jesus called them to do. For example, listen again to verse 25 of today’s Gospel reading:
“…whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” If we spell that out,
Jesus is saying, “If you want to enter heaven you have to hate your life in this world.” That is not a comfortable message to hear. I doubt those words send you to your happy place, but in this life, Christianity is not the safe & easy road. It is not the way of power & influence. It is not a process by which, if you do the right things, you get the right stuff.
Instead, it is total & complete trust in our heavenly Father & whatever He chooses to place into our lives. That might be health. It might be illness. It might be riches. It might be poverty. Hating your life, in this world, means to be absolutely vulnerable except for God’s protection. It’s like entering a major world city by riding on a donkey.
Over 500 years earlier, God had set His people free from Babylon. They had refused to hate their lives in this world & loved the things of life, more than the Creator of life. So He disciplined them by sending them into exile under King Nebuchadnezzar. Once Yahweh released them, they were free to return to Jerusalem & rebuild the city & the temple of God.
It hadn’t gone so well. Not all the Jews wanted to leave Babylon. Those who did leave, instead of rebuilding the city & temple, had succumbed to infighting & self-centered pursuits. The city, the temple & the wall around the city eventually took shape, but the glory days of King David & Solomon never returned. Judah did not become the world power its people envisioned.
Thus the prophet Zechariah is called to proclaim the coming of Yahweh’s royal Messiah. This Chosen One would bring deliverance from Judah’s enemies, both the enemies outside & the enemy within. The context for the beginning of chapter nine is the promise of God’s judgment on the enemies of His people. Yet, this victory of Messiah would come with a twist:
“I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim & the war horse from Jerusalem; & the battle bow shall be cut off…” This victory, the ultimate victory of all history, will be won without the instruments of war. The chariot shall be cut off, & so the war horse, as well as the battle bow. In fact, this text is eerily similar to how Martin Luther King’s movement, here in the United States, brought about the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was brought about through strictly non-violent protest. Since Dr. King was a pastor from a conservative theological understanding, I presume some of his thinking was based upon today’s sermon text.
Another OT text that clearly prophecies of Jesus’ coming work of salvation is found in Isaiah 53: “He was oppressed, & He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, & like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth.” (V. 7 ESV)
The kingdom of the Messiah would unfold itself through lowliness & suffering to might & glory. However, the might & glory are yet to come. They arrive, along with Christ, on Judgment Day. All of which means that we are still in the lowliness & suffering stage Jesus inaugurated for mankind with His ride into Jerusalem, on a donkey, on Palm Sunday.
That was almost 2000 years ago. The true kingdom of God does not establish itself through instruments of war & that is one certain proof that the terrorists of ISIS are not of God, but rather, are children of the devil. That is an easy target. The same criteria apply to the evaluation of how we live our lives.
Do we try by means of force to persuade others? I’m not saying there’s no room for force of any kind. God has given government the right to bear arms in order to keep the peace. Government, however, is not realm of the Church. Spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the Church’s realm & it is to do so with gentleness & respect.
We are to win over those who support abortion with the love of Christ. We are to win over, with the love Christ, those who are advocating for the perversion of sexuality. We are to win over people who advocate for the evolution of mankind by demonstrating how God’s creation & salvation of mankind is a far more tolerant & loving understanding of life. The blood of Jesus, shed on the cross, not human evolutionary progress or achievement, is the sole immovable basis for our Creator’s merciful rescue of you & me. He has delivered us from the depths of sin, death & the power of the devil.
Jesus completely surrendered Himself to His Father, even to the point of being forsaken by Him. The only-begotten Son of God thus endured hell so that we will not. Jesus’ absolute trust of His Father was vindicated on Easter morning when He was raised from the dead.
That kind of surrender is a totally radical concept, very unlike the message preached in a lot of Christian churches today. Many churches are preaching that God’s glory is already for this life. Many churches are preaching that the wealth of God’s kingdom is already for this life. Many churches are preaching that suffering & weakness is for the ungodly.
Jesus Himself taught that suffering & humility are the normal circumstance for children of God. It is the character of His kingdom here on earth. The chariots & the warhorses & the bow are cut off by Christ so that His kingdom wins through suffering, death & love. Thus we ask people who are confirming their faith in Christ, among others, this question:
“Do you intend to live according to the Word of God, & in faith, word & deed to remain true to God, Father, Son & Holy Spirit, even to death?” Those who believe as we do, answer: I do, by the grace of God.
If you’re thinking the Gospel of Jesus Christ is an extremely radical approach to life – you are correct. Most of us truly have no clue how radical it is. Radical Islam looks like a bunch of punks compared to the radical nature of Jesus.
We are more like ISIS than we are like Christ, & that is why Jesus came, to suffer & to die & to rise again, because we desperately need to be rescued. His love for us extends that long, that deep & that wide. Zechariah’s prophecy was inaugurated on the day Jesus entered Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. The prophecy is still being fulfilled today as we endure humility & ridicule for the name of Christ.
Jesus’ death was necessary to reconcile the sinful world to God & restore the foundation of peace upon which His kingdom was to be built. With the spread of His kingdom over the earth – “…his rule shall be from sea to sea, & from the River to the ends of the earth.” – the fulfillment continues until the annihilation of all the ungodly powers, after which war will cease.
In the meantime, God’s Holy Spirit is transforming us, overhauling our engine so to speak, even while we are alive & the engine is running. Amen.
Thine the truly Thine the yes Thine the table we the guest Thine the mercy all from Thee Thine the glory yet to be Thine the ringing & the singing then the end of all the war Thine the living Thine the loving evermore evermore. Thine the kingdom Thine the prize Thine the wonderful surprise Thine the banquet then the praise then the justice of Thy ways Thine the glory Thine the story then the welcome to the least then the wonder all increasing at Thy feast at Thy feast. Amen.
5th Sunday in Lent – B LSB #435
Text – Jeremiah 31:31
Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel & the house of Judah…
MAKING A NEW COVENANT
“…the heavens will be set on fire & dissolved, & the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to [God’s] promise we are waiting for new heavens & a new earth in which righteousness dwells.” (2 Peter 3:1-13 ESV)
‘New’ is a good thing when you live in a world ravaged by the effects of mankind’s rebellion against our Father in heaven. For examples of those effects we look to the obvious & easy things like the terrorist attacks occurring here & there around the world. We consider how abortion has become an acceptable solution in the hearts & minds of so many people.
We can look at the great number of lives that have become a living hell due to drug addiction. The mobile society we live in has greatly weakened the cohesiveness & stability of families, churches & communities. It used to be, if little Johnny was misbehaving in public, the neighbors would take him to task & straighten him out. Now, many parents don’t do it.
However, in the end, pointing fingers at other people is a fairly pointless exercise. It does not change ‘those’ people. The place where change truly begins is with each of us holding our own feet to the fire. Since we are God’s children, we do know better, yet our sins also are irrational & self-centered. We don’t come close to loving God above all things.
Right now, people who believe in March Madness will easily spend six to ten hours a week watching basketball. We say that we “believe” in Jesus, but how many hours a week do we spend with our Lord? I could give countless examples of things we dedicate & commit our time & energy to, all of which far exceed what we commit to fearing, loving & trusting in God. And that’s just the 1st commandment. We have nine more to go if we’re going to hold our own feet to the fire. It really is not a pleasant task. It’s much more satisfying to point our fingers at the failings of others, even knowing that we are powerless to change them. Then Christ tells us to love our enemies & to pray for them.
Things were no different 2600 years ago. Jeremiah was known as the “weeping prophet” for he shed tears for the fate of his people. His writings were almost entirely long lamentations of woe. He wrote the books of Jeremiah & Lamentations & there’s nothing in them to draw God to this nation. They are story after story of lazy unfaithfulness & outright rebellion.
If you read them, you truly have to wonder how the Creator of all the universe could love such a people! And yet, aside from a brief few chapters referred to as the “little book of consolation,” all the long & detailed stories of rebellion & infidelity are good news for us. This is why. If God could love such a people then He can love you & me as well.
Then, if Yahweh loves His people even in their darkest moments, there truly is hope for you, for me, for anyone. Were it not for God’s love, there would be no point in confessing our sin. To do so, would only get us killed. It would be the cruelest of all commands, that of confessing our sins. “Executioner! This man is sorry. Off with his head!” PAUSE
In case you haven’t connected the dots yet – Jesus’ suffering & crucifixion were real. All the sins, of every human being, from the entire world, were concentrated right there, in Christ, on the cross. That is God’s portrait of sin. That, my brothers & sisters in Christ, is what Jeremiah was preaching about in the OT reading for today:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel & the house of Judah…” Since the Lord is making a new covenant, the implication is that there were old ones. To this day, the rainbow of Genesis 9 is God’s promise of His covenant with Noah & his descendants, with the earth & with every living creature: “Yes, I am confirming my covenant with you. Never again will floodwaters kill all living creatures; never again will a flood destroy the earth.” Other covenants were to follow. Each of them was a promise of redemption looking forward to the new covenant.
When that new covenant was sealed, in the body & blood of His only-begotten Son, all of God’s previous covenants, or promises of salvation, reached their goal of fulfillment. Today, in her baptism, Amelia Nowicki received that promise of salvation. The Lord has again made a new covenant with the house of Israel, & the house of Judah, & the house of Nowicki.
When Amelia is old enough to understand what’s happening, she’ll have the privilege of being taught to observe everything that Christ has commanded us. After that instruction, she will have the opportunity to pledge herself to this covenant of grace in the rite of confirmation. Next Sunday three of our young members will be standing before this altar to make their pledge.
The people of Jeremiah’s day were a broken, sinful, rebellious people; as are we. They had rejected God’s previous covenants with them & their forefathers. They did not deserve it, but, at chapter 31, in the midst of Jeremiah’s lamentations, Yahweh then made a new covenant of salvation with them. The route from brokenness & sin to salvation now leads through Christ.
There is no other route to salvation except through God’s forgiveness, earned for us by Jesus on the cross. This season of Lent, & in 12 days the day of Good Friday, remind us of what that forgiveness cost our heavenly Father, & what it cost His Son. St. Luke wrote:
“And when He had taken some bread & given thanks, He broke it & gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ And in the same way He took the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.’” (Luke 22:19-20 NAU) None other than Jesus Himself interprets the Last Supper for us in terms of the new covenant. Jesus would, on the cross, pour out His blood for us in order to establish the new covenant. Here in the Lord’s Supper we receive the fulfillment of that covenant, & of the last verse of the OT reading: “For I will forgive their iniquity, & I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:34b)
That is the essence of the new covenant. As God & Man, Jesus has fulfilled both sides of the agreement. Following God’s saving act in the Exodus from Egypt, He made a covenant with Israel at Mt. Sinai. They were asked to do nothing in holding up their end, but were simply shown the path to walk. How could they fail?
But they managed, & an entire generation died in the wilderness. By the time of Jeremiah, Yahweh is about to wipe out the city of Jerusalem. The desolation would be so complete, & the ensuing chaos so far reaching, that the visions of restoration given were in the form of a new creation. The same is true for our day, as St. Peter wrote:
“…the heavens will be set on fire & dissolved, & the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to [God’s] promise we are waiting for new heavens & a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”
The Holy Spirit empowers us to repent through the message that our sins are already forgiven. For that reason & because of that good news, by faith in Jesus, we are enabled to hold our own feet to the fire, to repent & to believe in the forgiveness of our sins. That still isn’t easy. At times it is frightening & exhausting, yet, because of Jesus, it is possible.
The gist of Jeremiah’s message in chapter 31 is, although the present suffering may be grievous, & repenting of our sins can be incredibly difficult, a glorious future certainly lies ahead. Our Lord has made a new covenant, & He has kept it on our behalf. He imparts the blessings of that covenant – forgiveness of our sins – through His body & blood in the bread & wine of Holy Communion. Salvation already belongs to all who believe in Jesus as Savior from their sins. In the meantime, the Word of God encourages us with many verses describing the ‘new’ that our Lord is bringing into being through His creative power.
And He who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also He said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy & true.” (Rev 21:5 ESV)
“…they were singing a new song before the throne & before the four living creatures & before the elders.” (Rev 14:3 ESV)
“…to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, & to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Heb 12:24 ESV)
“…by the new & living way that He opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh…” (Heb 10:20 ESV)
“Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices & have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (Col 3:9-10 ESV)
“But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit & not in the old way of the written code.” (Rom 7:6 ESV)
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2Co 5:17 ESV) Amen.
Come to Calvary’s holy mountain, sinners, ruined by the fall; here a pure & healing fountain flows for you, for me, for all, in a full, perpetual tide, opened when our Savior died. They that drink shall live forever; ’Tis a soul renewing flood. God is faithful; God will never break His covenant of blood, signed when our Redeemer died, sealed when He was glorified. Come in sorrow & contrition, wounded, impotent & blind; here the guilty, free remission, here the troubled, peace may find. Health this fountain will restore; they that drink shall thirst no more. Amen.
 Genesis 15:18; Genesis 17:2ff; Exodus 24:7ff.
4th Sunday in Lent – B LSB #337 (to tune #672)
Text – John 3:19
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, & people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.
ARE YOU DARKNESS OR LIGHT?
A young girl walked to & from school each day. Though the weather this morning was questionable, & thick, dark clouds were forming, she made her daily trek to school. As the afternoon progressed, the winds whipped up, along with lightning.
The mother of the girl felt concerned that her daughter would be frightened as she walked home from school. Mom feared that an electrical storm might harm her child. Full of anxiety, she got into her car & drove quickly along the route to her child’s school. Finally, she saw her daughter walking home, but at each flash of lightning, the girl would stop, look up, & smile.
The lighting followed rapidly & with each bolt of energy, the girl would look at the streak of light & smile. When the mother drove up beside her child, she lowered the window & asked, “What are you doing?” Her daughter answered, “I am trying to look pretty because God keeps taking my picture.”
Even amidst the worst storms of life, there is light in the darkness if you’re willing to see it. The world may call you, “Foolish Pollyanna,” but that’s the devil speaking through his children. St. Paul set matters straight when he wrote: “…the foolishness of God is wiser than men, & the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Corinthians 1:24 ESV)
Being an optimist is only foolish when you’re trusting in human beings of any sort, including yourself, for your hopes & your dreams to come true. In the book of Proverbs this wise saying appears twice. It’s in the 14th & the 16th chapters: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (14:12 & 16:25 ESV) While eating of the forbidden fruit, Adam & Eve thought they were doing what was right. Instead, they brought darkness, suffering & death into their lives, & into the lives of their children. For a picture of what darkness looks like, we’ll listen to these words from Genesis 4:
“The LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, & why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.’ Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel & killed him. Then the LORD said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’”
Did you catch how darkness revealed itself? The Lord asked Cain a very direct question, “Where is Abel your brother?” Not only does Cain lie when he answers, but he asks a question of his own in return. He tries defending himself with false words, & then he goes on the offense by questioning God.
That’s darkness! It’s hedging our bets, dodging the truth, ducking responsibility, & making excuses. Are you Darkness or Light? Now that you’ve thought about it for a moment, it’s not an existential question. If you are a child of God, in this life you are both. Saint & sinner is the same dynamic, the same paradox.
The sermon title, “Are You Darkness or Light?” is more about how you live, than it’s about who you are. It’s asking, “How do you make decisions?” Here on earth, every Christian is both darkness & light, yet at any given moment, as you make choices – one or the other is dominating your thinking.
Jesus’ teaching on this is meant to be a guide for the choices we make. It should be a compass for pointing you in the right direction as you make the decisions that life drops into your lap. “Am I darkness or light?” should be a question I ask myself as I embark upon my every thought, word & deed. Is darkness dominating my decisions, or is light?
As God’s children, the Holy Spirit has already created faith in Jesus as Savior within us.
The Law of God is then a guide or a rule in our lives, helping us to make choices. It’s the Holy Spirit who empowers us to make good choices. It’s the Holy Spirit who enables us to “see” the light even amidst the darkness of the worst storms of life.
There are countless stories of Christians who have seen our heavenly Father at work through the trials & darkness of their lives. These words of St. Paul are well known, even if we tremble at hearing them prior to any experience we may have of hope that our Lord delivers:
“Through [Christ] we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, & we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, & endurance produces character, & character produces hope, & hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:2-5 ESV)
The unbelieving world sees that as complete foolishness because they are darkness & are never light. That may strike you as a harsh statement, but remember I began by referencing unbelievers in particular. By definition they are darkness.
It is most certainly true that, “…God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him.” (John 3:17 ESV)
Nevertheless, not all people are saved, not all people receive the Light, because they will not allow our Lord & Savior to have His way with them. They want their own way. They see the ways of God as foolishness. They do not trust His promises in Christ, & therefore, they are left in the dark literally as it relates to spiritual reality.
Our Father in heaven does not force His life or salvation upon them. Since they want their own way, & will not receive the Light of Christ, they condemn themselves. They surrender themselves to darkness as they reject the Light. That’s what the Apostle John is writing about:
“Whoever believes in [Christ Jesus] is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is
condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, & people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light & does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.” (John 3:18-20)
To those who do not believe, to those who are dying spiritually, our Lord says, “Turn to me. You are dying anyway. Turn away from yourself, turn back to Me, & I will give you life.”
Refusing that offer is the essence of unbelief whatever that unbeliever’s reasons may be. To Jesus, that is clearly darkness at work. Because we, as children of God, are saint & sinner, because we are darkness & light, we have great difficulty trying to separate the two. We have clear evidence of that in the reading from the Gospel of Mark two Sunday’s ago:
“And [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things & be rejected by the elders & the chief priests & the scribes & be killed, & after three days rise again. And He said this plainly. And Peter took Him aside & began to rebuke Him. But turning & seeing His disciples, He rebuked Peter & said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’” (8:31-33 ESV)
Jesus sees & understands very clearly that, in this instance, Peter’s thoughts & words are being dominated by darkness, rather than light. As a result, Jesus rebukes Peter for setting his mind on the things of men. When God confronted Cain, who had murdered his brother Abel, God saw very clearly that his thoughts, words & deeds were being dominated by darkness.
God calls both men to account & does not abandon them in their sin. He offers them the opportunity to turn back to Him, as He stated when He finished rebuking Peter: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself & take up his cross & follow me.” (Mark 8:30 ESV)
To deny ourselves is to drown the Old Adam in us. It is to chasten & rebuke our sinful nature. It is to war against the darkness within, & surrender to Christ, thus following Him one footstep at a time. As Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12 ESV) Following Jesus is not some game to be played, yet many think it would be harsh or cruel of God to condemn anyone to hell. They believe that hell is inconsistent with God’s goodness & love. However, if God were to allow unbelievers & unrepentant sinners into heaven, He would be neither good nor loving.
He would be a liar, because already in the book of Isaiah, heaven is described as a place with none of the effects of sin: “I will rejoice in Jerusalem & be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping & the cry of distress.” (Isaiah 65:19 ESV)
If unrepentant sinners were allowed in heaven, you could be sure there’d be weeping & sorrow & darkness there after their thoughts, words & deeds were accomplished. Only those with a heart willing to follow Jesus can enter the eternal city. A soul that only follows the darkness cannot exist anywhere near the blazing glory of our heavenly Father’s holiness.
Our heavenly Father’s desire is to change their heart from one of darkness to one of light. Human love is drawn to an object that we find to be lovable. Yahweh, in His creative power creates what He wants to love, making a new creation out of the darkness & the nothing that we were & out of the nothing we have to offer.
Inexplicably, some people reject that re-creation. They prefer to remain in unbelief & in spiritual death. It is not loving them, if we tell them that’s okay. On other hand, it’s not our job to coerce them into surrendering to Jesus. It’s our calling to love them with a sacrificial love while still holding the light of truth before their eyes.
The darkness pictures God as the enemy. The light from Jesus’ crucifixion on our behalf reveals Him as our ultimate friend. With faith in our Lord’s promises, & in the guarantee of the empty tomb on Easter morning, we can see light in the darkness of even the worst storms of life. If you have faith in Jesus as Savior you have seen that light. And if the Lord is my light & my salvation, whom shall I fear? “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” Amen.
The night will soon be ending; the dawn cannot be far. Let songs of praise ascending now greet the Morning Star! All you whom darkness frightens with guilt or grief or pain, God’s radiant Star now brightens & bids you sing again. Yet nights will bring their sadness & rob our hearts of peace, & sin in all its madness around us may increase. But now one Star is beaming whose rays have pierced the night: God comes for our redeeming from sin’s oppressive might. God dwells with us in darkness & makes the night as day; yet we resist the brightness & turn from God away. But grace does not forsake us, however far we run. God claims us still as children through Mary’s infant Son. Amen.
 Genesis 4:6-9 ESV
3rd Sunday in Lent – B LSB #865
Text – Exodus 20:2
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
WHAT DOES SLAVERY LOOK LIKE?
It’s a single word yet it evokes a thousand different viewpoints. It’s a single word yet its historical context is so vast & pervasive that writers will never come close to capturing the totality of the effect it has had on the human race. In order to approach some understanding of the damage it has done, we’ll consider, “What does slavery look like?”
To some it will appear to be the chores they’re asked to do – cleaning their room, going to confirmation class or babysitting younger siblings. To others, slavery is having to cook meals, clean the house, keep up on the laundry. It can include mowing the lawn, paying the bills or fixing the car. A dead end job, or a dead end marriage may leave the same impression.
Still, as trying as any of those circumstances can be, they’re trivial compared to the kind of slavery practiced when President Lincoln gave the Emancipation Proclamation. It was often a brutal & inhumane way of treating people, yet it wasn’t unique to our nation. Slavery has been a common practice throughout the history of sinful mankind.
In Exodus 20 the people of Israel had already been brought out of the house of slavery. If we look back to chapter 5, however, we get a glimpse of what things were like prior, as Moses & Aaron said to Pharaoh:
“…This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Let my people go so they may hold a festival in my honor in the wilderness.’ ‘Is that so?’ retorted Pharaoh. ‘And who is the Lord? Why should I listen to him & let Israel go? I don’t know the Lord, & I will not let Israel go. (Exodus 5:1b-2 NLT)
“That same day Pharaoh sent this order to the Egyptian slave drivers & the Israelite
foremen: ‘Do not supply any more straw for making bricks. Make the people get it themselves! But still require them to make the same number of bricks as before. Don’t reduce the quota. They are lazy… Load them down with more work. Make them sweat! That will teach them to listen to lies!’” (Exodus 5:6-8c, 9 NLT)
Today, slavery is officially illegal in all countries, but there are still an estimated 20 to 36 million slaves worldwide, many of them in debt to loan sharks in South Asia. In Ancient Greece, it’s reported that anywhere from 40 to 80% of the population was enslaved. The estimated number of slaves in the Roman Empire ranges from 60 to 100 million people.
No wonder the ancient Greeks & Romans had such magnificent building projects. We are blessed to live at a time in history when slavery is far less pervasive than it was in centuries past. Our struggle now is not so much in being enslaved by other people, as it is in being enslaved to our own desires. Marketing & advertising exploit much of that.
“What does slavery look like?” To some, it’s striving to own a particular car, or fashionable clothing, or the designer home. To others, it’s striving to get a certain college degree, or a position with that famous company, or maybe it’s to have a boyfriend or girlfriend who looks like those on television, or in the movies.
There are also people enslaved to the obsessive compulsive sort of tendencies. The classic case is someone who washes their hands a hundred or more times a day. Maybe their desk, or kitchen table, has to be sparkling clean all the time, or their house, closet & shoes need to be in immaculate condition & position at all times.
People who suffer from addictions, along with those who have eating disorders, are slaves to impulses that are irrational & yet exceedingly difficult to control. The underlying & key issue beneath anything we may be enslaved to is that we are not able to control our actions with precision or with authority. St. Paul wrote to that point in Romans 7: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (7:19 ESV) So it’s interesting to note that in the 20th chapter of Exodus, after our heavenly Father states that He rescued His people from the house of slavery in the land of Egypt, His very next word is this:
“You shall have no other gods before me.” Somehow, in Yahweh’s wisdom, the Ten Commandments follow immediately upon Israel’s rescue from slavery. Yahweh’s call to obedience is based upon His rescue of them, as He parted the waters of the Red Sea & led them to the other side on dry land.
No matter what you might be enslaved to, no matter what slavery looks like in your own particular life, as your heavenly Father redeems & rescues you from sin, death & the power of the devil, the Ten Commandments are Yahweh’s answer for the life you are now privileged to live. You have been rescued & led to the other side through the waters of Baptism.
God’s call for you, to obedience, is not based upon His creation of you, but upon His rescue of you; upon the fact that Yahweh is bringing you out of the land of sin – out of the house of slavery to sin. In the design for human life, our Lord has woven into our very being both freedom and responsibility to love God above all things & to love our neighbor as ourselves.
In the book of Exodus, Israel was to recognize its complete dependence on God’s redemptive mercy & power. Helpless in the shackles of slavery, it had not merited divine favor nor had it contributed to its deliverance out of the “house of slavery.” It had never been able to control its actions with precision or with authority.
When Jesus was serving the three years of His ministry, the people recognized He was different: “And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, & they obey Him.’” (Mark 1:27 ESV) None of us can control all our actions with authority. We do not do the good we want, but the evil we do not want is what we keep on doing. That’s what slavery looks like. We too are helpless in the shackles of slavery to sin. As Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. (John 8:34 ESV)
Now it’s time to be really honest. When things begin to get crazy, when stuff is getting out of hand, don’t we like to deal with it from a standpoint of power & authority? You know, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going!” That’s how our ego likes to view things, but the truth is we are not tough, & when it comes to living a perfect life, we never get going!
“When the going gets tough, the tough get going!” is how we’d like to view ourselves. Its how the world likes to view itself, & because of that, the gospel message is foolishness to our sinful nature & to unbelievers: “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18 ESV)
So what do we do with the Law, with the Ten Commandments? How do we keep ourselves from becoming slaves to it, or to all of our earthly desires & obsessions & failings? When we want our home to be immaculate, or give in to the latest advertising to buy this, so we can be like that, what are we to do?
Those are critical questions since God’s law gives us part of His design for life. Fortunately, God has also given us the other part of His design for this broken world, & that is the gospel, or the message of the cross. It is folly to our sinful nature, but it is the utmost of wisdom to our saintly nature, to the part of us that does have faith in Jesus as Savior.
Because we want to run our own lives, making decisions contrary to God’s law, we experience His commands as the enemy. We think God’s law is what slavery looks like, because it interferes with our efforts to redefine what it means to be human. As creatures we can only create frustration & fear with our futile, fatal efforts to redesign our humanity according to our own foolish plans. It only makes sense to enjoy God’s gift of the true design for human living. We think God’s law is what slavery looks like & we think God’s good news is for chumps who are taken advantage of. This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer had to say about the Gospel:
“The Word of God in its weakness takes the risk of meeting the scorn of men & being rejected. There are hearts which are hardened & doors which are closed to God’s Word. Yet that Word recognizes opposition when it meets it & is prepared to suffer. It is a hard lesson, but a true one, the gospel, unlike ideology, reckons with impossibilities.”
The Ten Commandments are an impossibility for us, that Christ needs to fulfill on our behalf, & to save us from. Taking the message of God’s mercy into our sin hardened world will cause us to get hurt, but not just out there. Even in here, among our fellow church members & among our own family members. The good news of forgiveness is often dismissed as weakness.
The Ten Commandments do show us how to live, but we’re able to live the life that fulfills God’s design only through the liberating resurrection of our Savior, the Son of God. Luther’s approach to teaching the Christian faith incorporated those elements in this way:
We diagnose our sin through the Law, we receive healing, life & repentance through the Gospel, & with both we have a plan for living as a forgiven child of God.
In Exodus 20, God was making His covenant with the people whom He had freed from slavery in Egypt. He had claimed them, giving them this gift apart from anything they had done to earn this freedom. With God’s gift came His expectations. These expectations were also a good gift, a plan for enjoying their identity as His creatures & His children.
Yahweh never faltered in the terms of His covenant with Moses, but the people of Israel did fail. At last, our Lord made the final covenant on the cross of Calvary. Jesus was there as fully God & fully man. He fulfilled both sides of the covenant. The difficult question is: “How do we live up to the expectations that come along with being in God’s family?” The answer is the focal point of Lent. We live a life of repentance in the grace & mercy of our heavenly Father. We are no longer slaves, but heirs of our heavenly Father.
The Law of God was meant to show us what true life is. The Gospel of Jesus Christ enables us to live that life & live it to the full. Amen.
Help us Your holy Law to learn, to mourn our sin & from it turn in faith to You & to Your Son & Holy Spirit, Three in One. Hear us, dear Father, when we pray for needed help from day to day that as Your children we may live, whom You baptized & so received. Lord, when we fall or go astray, absolve & lift us up, we pray; & through the Sacrament increase our faith till we depart in peace. Amen.
 Bonhoeffer, D., The Cost of Discipleship, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1963), p. 207.
2nd Sunday in Lent – B LSB #566
Text – Genesis 17:1-2
When Abram was 99 years old the Lord appeared to Abram & said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, & be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me & you, & may multiply you greatly.”
WALK BEFORE ME – BLAMELESS
Doesn’t that just sound like a deal! Blameless! Just walk before me blameless. By the time a person is 99 years old they probably got it figured out. It’s not going to happen! But that is the Word Abram receives from God Almighty, or in Hebrew – from El Shaddai. It’s a strong word; the kind of word that should make a man or woman of little faith – cringe!
We are in the church’s historic season of Lent, a time of repentance & a time where we should be sorrowing over our sins. Not that we shouldn’t always grieve over them, but that is as impossible as walking blameless before El Shaddai. So church leaders, already by 400 AD, realized that it’s helpful if people have a focused time of the year to spend in repentance.
Otherwise, we won’t do it! Isn’t that right? When is the last time, like Peter, you literally wept over your sin? I’m going to be generous & guess that maybe 1 in 20 of us can remember such a time & describe the circumstances surrounding it. Sin is our nature. We’re born with it. We’ve never known a time without it. King David wrote:
“For I was born a sinner – yes, from the moment my mother conceived me.” (Psalm 51:5 NLT) And those are words from a man after God’s own heart, as Luke recorded of God in the book of Acts: “…He raised up David to be their king, of whom He testified & said, ‘I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.’” (Acts 13:22 ESV)
If you believe in Jesus as your Savior from sin, then you are a child of God & a descendant of Abraham. You are part of the covenant. You are part of the family, & along with being in the family come certain expectations: “Walk before Me – blameless,” says El Shaddai! Even the man after God’s own heart committed adultery & murder & then hardened his heart against His almighty Creator, so he would not feel the need to repent of his sin. Are you feeling the need for the season of Lent, in your life, right now, to turn back to God?
I didn’t expect you to answer that, because it’s a rhetorical question. I’m afraid not all of us would be able to answer it honestly, & the last thing I want to do is lead you into sin during a sermon. I only asked that question to make a point. Martin Luther put it as clearly as it can be said, when he wrote:
“[Baptizing with water] indicates that the Old Adam in us [the sinner King David spoke of in Psalm 51], the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition & repentance be drowned & die with all sins & evil desires, & that daily a new man should emerge & arise to live before God in righteousness & purity forever.”
“I am El Shaddai; walk before me, & be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me & you…” Each Sunday we come before our heavenly Father we confess our sins so He can remove them from us as far as the east is from the west. Each morning when we arise & every night before we sleep, we should confess our sins so our Lord can erase them.
In this way we drown the sinful nature in us that it may die. Through the work of His Holy Spirit, our heavenly Father has created in all believers, a repentant heart. It is one of the gifts of faith, but our sinful nature hates it, & deceives us into ignoring it.
As churches go, 50 years is a pretty short history. When Jan & I were in Germany two summers ago, we were able to see the church that my Dad’s ancestors worshipped in before they came to America. I got to stand in its pulpit & we heard its bells ring. That building is still in use & it’s been there since about the year 1140 AD.
But whether a church is young or old, whether it has bells to ring or not, what is
important for all eternity is that people are called to turn their hearts back to their heavenly Father in repentance. Then, just as importantly, they’re called to believe the good news:
“Almighty God in His mercy has given His Son to die for you & for His sake forgives you all your sins.” It is that Gospel message that, “…is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” (Romans 1:16 ESV)
As the season of Lent gives us a special opportunity to focus on turning away from our sins & turning back to Jesus, so an anniversary gives us a special opportunity as well. At anniversaries we stop to reflect & take inventory. We stop to count our blessings, & then we thank our heavenly Father for them. Otherwise, we’re not likely to do it. Isn’t that right?
The last time you said a prayer, what was the main focus? Were you asking, or thanking? The odds are you were seeking something. Granted, it may have been a prayer for someone else, but in that prayer did you thank our Lord for anything? You see, thankfulness is not a natural part of who we are. It’s a gift we received along with faith in Jesus.
In his letter to the church at Colossae, St. Paul wrote: “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” (4:2 ESV) As you looked at the pictures last evening, what memories were brought back to be thankful for? As you spoke with people you may not have seen in 20 or 30 years what blessings were rediscovered to be grateful for?
How far back would you be able to look & uncover the mysterious ways in which our Creator brings blessing & joy to our existence? Do we look back 30 years or 50? In faith, we are more blessed if we look all the way back to Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Gethsemane & Calvary. It was then that the Lord made it possible for St. Matthew to begin its services 50 years ago.
Even before Jesus’ incarnation, about 1850 years before, Yahweh was promising & then creating an heir for Abraham & Sarah. And through that one single heir, conceived long after their bodies were incapable of doing so, God spoke to Abram in the OT reading for today: “…your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.” Not even Isaac has been born, & yet, it’s as good as done – father of a multitude of nations. So Yahweh changes Abram’s name to reflect not just the promise, but the certain reality.
That takes us back to the word ‘blameless,’ which in English could be pronounced salem. It stems from the same root as the Hebrew word shalom that you may already be familiar with. At its root, blameless, or salem, has the idea of completeness, peace & safety. Yahweh is calling Abram, not so much to a life free of blame, but to a life of being connected to his Creator.
It’s the life Adam & Eve had in the Garden of Eden, before the fall! They walked with God. They were in perfect harmony with Him. Their life was complete. They knew only peace & safety. They naturally set their mind on the things of God & not on the things of men. There was no cross to take up in following their Lord because they did that without thinking.
“And God saw everything that He had made, & behold, it was very good. And there was evening & there was morning, the 6th day.” (Genesis 1:31 ESV) Yet, Adam & Eve turned their hearts away from their Creator & followed the serpent. That rebellion separated them from their Lord. They were no longer salem; no longer complete, no longer at peace, no longer in safety.
Their hearts were now turned against Yahweh. Confusion & disharmony reigned as far as their eye could see. God promised them a Savior & they thought it might be Cain, until he murdered his brother Abel. Adam & Eve died looking forward to The Promise. After The Flood, & the tower of Babel, things settle down & Yahweh renews His promise with Abram.
“When Abram was 99 years old the Lord appeared to Abram & said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; walk before me, & be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me & you, & may multiply you greatly.’” God’s plan to restore the salem, the harmony, the completeness, is to create a covenant between Himself & Abram. A covenant is basically a device that creates family from something other than blood lines. When Yahweh makes His covenant with Abram it is to restore God’s family.
Taking a vow of marriage is to make a covenant. Adopting a child is to make a covenant, but those are covenants made by fallible, sinful human beings. Yahweh never faltered in the terms of His covenant with Abram, but Abraham’s descendants did. God made a new covenant with the people of Israel at Sinai. They failed again.
At last, our Lord made the final covenant on the cross of Calvary. Jesus was there as fully God & fully man. He fulfilled both sides of the covenant. That’s what Jesus wants the disciples to recognize when He asks, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answers, “You are the Christ.” In other words, Jesus is the Chosen One.
The Son of God has been chosen to fulfill the covenant – both sides of it. I suspect that every one of us here today would answer as Peter did, “You are the Christ.” That is the easy part. The far more difficult question is: “How do we live up to the expectations that come along with being in God’s family?” The answer is the focal point of Lent.
It’s highlighted in the very 1st of Martin Luther’s 95 Thesis, thus beginning the Reformation: “When our Lord & Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ – Matthew 4:17, He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” Having a repentant heart is to be alive, for a repentant heart turns us always back to our Father in heaven.
Abraham could walk before El Shaddai & be blameless only as he remained in the right relationship to his heavenly Father, set forth in God’s covenant of grace. That covenant was kept for us by our Brother, who is also our Savior & our Lord. When we are in God’s family we are complete, whole, right & at peace. When you hear today’s sermon text, “…walk before me, & be blameless…” even a man or woman of little faith need not cringe. Yes, ‘be blameless’ is a strong word, but Jesus Christ has kept that word on our behalf. We remain in right relationship to our Creator through remaining in Jesus, & it is Yahweh Himself who has chosen us in Christ. St. Paul wrote of that in his letter to the church at Ephesus:
“Blessed be the God & Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy & blameless before Him.” (Ephesians 1:3–4)
El Shaddai is the One who does the choosing. Our task is simply to surrender to His choosing. This congregation has had its share of conflict over the years. It’s because we don’t surrender well. In every set of relationships, every family, every community, every congregation, regarding the need for repentance, there is plenty to go around.
Fortunately, by God’s grace, there is even more forgiveness. It was, & still is, our heavenly Father’s will that we look at the cross of Jesus, with repentant hearts, & live. 50 years of St. Matthew Lutheran Church, 50 years of the need for forgiveness, & yet 50 years of life for all who have surrendered to Jesus’ name.
As St. Paul wrote in Romans 5: “…since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Trust that Jesus has given you life & you will walk with God – blameless. Then you will live. Amen.
By grace, I’m saved, grace free & boundless; my soul, believe & doubt it not. Why stagger at this word of promise? Has Scripture ever falsehood taught? No! Then this word must true remain: By grace you too will life obtain. By grace! None dare lay claim to merit; our works & conduct have no worth. God in His love sent our Redeemer, Christ Jesus, to this sinful earth; His death did for our sins atone, & we are saved by grace alone. By grace! On this I’ll rest when dying; in Jesus’ promise I rejoice; for though I know my heart’s condition, I also know my Savior’s voice. My heart is glad, all grief has flown since I am saved by grace alone. Amen.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet