Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our text this morning is the Gospel lesson, where John the Baptist begins his ministry.
There is a lie we tell our children when they’re growing up. A lie we hope will build them up. Make them strong. Drive them to their very best. We tell them at bedtime. We whisper it in their ears from infancy. You can be anything. You can do anything you set your heart on. We want to give them permission to try. We want to teach them that hard work pays off. We have the best of intentions. But that doesn’t make it any less of a lie.
Eventually, we all find out. We can’t fly like Superman. We can’t rule the world. We can’t stop death from taking the ones we love. Even something as simple as being hurt is out of our control. But even then, we’d rather believe the lie. We’ll keep watch, remain vigilant. Be on the lookout for anything that could hurt us. And keep pain at arms length. Until something happens. Until someone happens. And they will happen. Because everyone hurts.
So when we hurt, what do we do? When someone we love breaks our hearts. When someone who is supposed to love us sucker punches us in the gut. When circumstances beyond our control bring us to tears. What do we do? We walk away. We shut our doors. We push everyone aside. Because we’re going to get through this on our own. That’s what everyone else does. And they look like they’re doing all right. I’ve gotten through everything else on my own, I can get through this too. Because I have this lie I can rely on. I can do anything that I set my heart on. My hard work will pay off. I will be okay.
Sometimes there are those in the Church who will baptize this lie. I have heard great Christians say things like “God won’t give you more than you can bear.” Or, “God helps those who help themselves.” “God wants you to try as hard as you can,” when what those words really mean is that if you work hard enough, you can deal with it yourself. God might be a sympathetic ear. God might be your personal cheerleader. God might be the world’s greatest motivator. But only you can get you through this. Because only you can do anything. I will get through this. I can do anything.
But what we really mean by “getting through it” is that we’re going to hide it away and pretend it never happened. Hoping that the pain will eventually make us numb. Hoping that this issue never comes back. That it will be lost to the mists of time, and we’ll never have to actually deal with it. With this lie, we have made a virtue out of cowardice. We have institutionalized isolation. And because of this, when you’re hurting the most, when you’re putting on that happy face, the rest of the world also looks happy and content without you.
Got it, world. I understand, God. Lesson learned. Apparently, I am the only one who can’t do anything. I alone am the one who hurts this badly. I am suffering more than anyone else. No one could possibly understand. I have no one to whom to turn. So I’ll keep going at it alone, until I just can go any further. It’s not pride that keeps me from asking for help. It’s fear. Fear that they will know how bad I am. Fear that they will see that I am a failure at life. Fear that I just don’t measure up to everyone else. That this need of mine makes me less than human.
So what does God have to say about all this? Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Really? Of all the things that I imagine might help me out of this, a homeless guy with a sandwich board over his head is about the last on the list. Or the first century equivalent in John the Baptist. Because what do it mean to repent? Feel guilty that I did something wrong? Feel bad because I broke some obscure commandment? I’m sorry, but I’m hurting too badly to care.
Which is why the word ‘repent’ needs to have it’s original meaning back. Μετανοειτε. A changed thought. A heart turned to a different direction. A different idea. Μετανοειτε. Because you aren’t the only one who has ever hurt. Everyone hurts. And everyone lies about how bad it hurts. Even when they’re living 2000 years ago in Judea. And everyone looks to pick themselves back up. And nobody does it well.
Μετανοειτε. That’s why God sent John. To make straight the paths of the Lord. Paths that before only curved around, turned back to inside yourself. Paths, that to this day, would leave you empty and alone. Paths that told you that you had to get through it by yourself. So the thought must be changed. The heart must be turned. A new idea must be given. And it is this: There are things you cannot do. And one of those is that you can’t get through it on your own.
You can’t make the paths straight. You can’t stop the hurting. You can’t change yourself. It all comes from the outside. John said, “I baptize you with water for μετάνοια.” And that part of baptism has not changed. Because baptism isn’t some thing you do for God. It isn’t an act of obedience. It isn’t showing the world what you have on the inside. Baptism is not the lie with which you declare that you can do anything. Baptism was, and is, for μετάνοια.
Because God baptized you, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. God baptized you in the fire of His death and resurrection. God baptized you, creating in you μετάνοια, repentance. God baptized you so you do not hurt alone. He straightened out those curved paths that only led back to you. And that’s the path He comes in on.
No longer are we limited in our prayers. No longer do we just have to say, “God help me though this pain.” No longer are we stuck with, “God, be there the burdens I bear.” No. Through baptism we can dare to ask for more. “God, take my pain away.” Without caveats. Without conditions. Without anything from us. “God, take away my pain.”
And God says yes. Jesus says, “You see that cross? I’m taking your pain there with me. All the times you’ve been hurt. All the times you’ve been betrayed. All the times that circumstances left you hurting. All the times you’ve been sick or injured. All the times you’ve been alone. All the times you’ve been lied to. I’m taking them all with me in order to die.” We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too might live a new life.
Does this mean we get to avoid ever being hurt? No. But when we are hurting, we’re not hurting alone. We don’t have to put on a happy face. We don’t have pretend everything is alright. We don’t have to be afraid that we’re somehow not good enough because we hurt this bad. Because not even God could bear this alone. It killed even Him. So there is no shame when it’s killing you too.
But there is an answer for this pain. And end to it. A real end. Not just hiding, not just pretending. Not just acting like it isn’t there. An actual end to the pain. And that end is in Jesus. Taking pain, and sin, and death, and changing it’s direction. Creating a new idea. Giving the fruits of μετάνοια, giving the fruits of repentance, giving resurrection to you. Even now. Thanks be to God.
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Great guy, that Jesus. Everybody likes Him. And what’s not to like? He’s quite possibly the greatest person to ever live. And the founder of so many great movements. You should see what He gets credit for. I mean, He can literally be anything you need Him to be.
H.G. Welles called Jesus the most dominant figure in all history. Ghandi said, “I know of no one who has done more for humanity than Jesus.” Gorbachev called Jesus the first socialist. Ivan Illich called Jesus the first anarchist. Martin Luther King called Jesus an extremist for love, truth and goodness. Adolf Hitler called Jesus a great warrior. And there are no end to the number of people who think Jesus was a great teacher, a good moral example, a positive influence on the world. And on their side.
Everybody likes Jesus. Especially with Christmas coming up. Who doesn’t love a baby. And that cute little manger, with the cute little Mary and Joseph. It melts your heart. Who could turn down this kind of Jesus. The Jesus who likes all the same things I like. Who believes all the same things I believe. What better endorsement could I have?
And the people in our text who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem thought the exact same thing. He was their Jesus. The Jesus they had been waiting for. What could go wrong? When people asked, “Who is this?” …the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee.” And he’s going to make all your dreams come true. That is the Jesus anyone can believe in. That is the Jesus everyone believes in.
But Jesus, the Son of God who died on your behalf and rose again? You believe in that Jesus? What are you, some kind of freak? You can’t believe that. Any Jesus is okay. But not the one you read about in the Bible. The Jesus of Islam, now there’s a great prophet. Lots of wisdom in that Jesus. But Allah begets not, nor is he begotten. So forget whatever your Bible says about Him.
Any Jesus is good, but not the one you hear about in church. Thomas Jefferson said, “The priests have so disfigured the simple religion of Jesus that no one who reads the sophistications they have engrafted on it, from the jargon of Plato, of Aristotle, and other mystics, would conceive these could have been fathered on the sublime preacher of the sermon on the mount.”
Any Jesus will do, but not the Jesus we confess here. Not the Jesus born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried, and on the third day rose again from the dead. That’s all mythology. Literary genius George Bernard Shaw was right when he said, “No sooner had Jesus knocked over the dragon of superstition than Paul boldly set it on its legs again in the name of Jesus.”
Any Jesus is fine, but not the Jesus confessed by Christians. Mark Twain said, “If Christ were here now there is one thing he would not be — a Christian.” You can believe in any Jesus you want, as long as He’s yours. You can believe in any Jesus you want, so long as you don’t believe it too much. You can believe in any Jesus you want, except this one.
It’s hard to be a Christian in this world. Whether today, or back then. When Jesus asked who the people out there said He was, they said “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” The same thing they said as He rode into town on the back of a donkey. Jesus is someone important. Somebody great. Somebody who they like to have around. Somebody in their own image. But not the Christ. Not the Son of the Living God. Not God in the flesh.
On Christmas, everyone was so glad Jesus came. Glad for the birth. Glad for the angels. Glad for the shepherds and magi. But not glad enough to care why. When Jesus entered Jerusalem, everyone was so glad Jesus came. Glad for the signs. Glad for the miracles. Glad for the whole town getting excited that He was there. But not glad enough to care why. Today, people are glad that Jesus came. Glad that He left some wise words for us. Glad that He stood up for what He believed in. Glad that He left His mark on the world. But not glad enough to care why.
But the answer to why is the most important answer in all history. The most important answer to all mankind. The most important answer anyone will ever hear. Why did Jesus come? Why did Jesus do what He did? Jesus did it all for you. Jesus was born for you. Jesus lived on your behalf. Jesus entered Jerusalem to go to the cross in your place. Jesus died. Not as a teacher. Not as a prophet. Not as a great guy. Not as a hero. Not as a martyr. Not as a political activist. Not as a great thinker of His time. Not as a revolutionary. Not as an example for us to follow. Not as a champion of human rights. All those titles are too small. All those titles are insignificant when compared to who Jesus is. Jesus is the Christ. The son of the living God. God in the flesh for you.
God the embryo. God the baby, born Christmas morning. God the child visiting His Father’s House. God the man, entering Jerusalem on a donkey in order to die for your sin. Die for the sin none of us want to face. The sin we try to justify with our own excuses. The sin we can’t justify, and hide from the eyes of the world. The sin inflicted upon us by others. The sin on whom we don’t know who to blame. Jesus died for all sin. That’s who Jesus is. That’s what Jesus did for you. And then, He rose for you too.
And loving that Jesus is to admit the sin is ours. And there’s nothing we can do about it. Believing in that Jesus is to be in desperate need of mercy. And relying on Him for that mercy. Trusting that Jesus is to say that nothing in this world is enough. Not even ourselves. And that to be saved takes a grace that’s out of this world. So our world is right. That’s too extreme. That’s too zealous a thought. That’s to believe too much. Because to hold on to that Jesus takes everything out of our hands. And puts it in His.
Who is this? The question of our text. Who is this whose mere presence makes the world shudder? Who is this who has us believe this much? Who is this who lays out our sin in front of us? Who is this who takes our sin away? Who is this?
No mere prophet. No mere man from Nazareth of Galilee. But a King. “Behold, your King,” as our text quotes from Malachi. Declared King at his birth by magi, shepherds and angels. Hailed as King to shouts of Hosanna on His triumphal entry. Crowned as King with thorns. Announced as King, by Pontius Pilate. Died as King, with a great shout. Rose as King on the third day, victorious over His enemies. Victorious over our enemies. Over sin, death, the devil, and the world. That is the only Jesus. That is your Jesus. Thanks be to God.
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. When I first got here three years ago, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I was fresh out of seminary. This was my first call. I knew nothing about the valley, about the Fresno area, and certainly nothing about Caruthers.
It was the first Sunday morning I was here. Pastor George Massingill preached on Philemon that morning, since I wasn’t going to be ordained and installed until that afternoon. But I introduced myself to everyone. And Bob was sitting next to Lee over there. And you know what Bob told me? He said, “We’ve got a trap door installed in that pulpit. If your sermon is too long, I’ve got a button out here.”
Now fortunately for me, his idea of a long sermon was longer than my idea on a long sermon. He never pressed that button. But on that first day, he wanted to make sure I knew what his feelings on the subject were. Sharon pointed this out to me again on the night Bob died. On the wall was a list for the doctors to know what all of Bob’s likes and dislikes were. And on that list of dislikes were long sermons. That’s how important it was to him. So if I, this new guy, was going to be here with him, he had some expectations.
We all have expectations of the people we meet for the first time. Bob was either kind enough, or blunt enough to tell me what those were. We don’t always do the same. But if those expectations, spoken or unspoken, aren’t met, those people won’t be with us for very long. The expectations aren’t necessarily that high either. Maybe it’s as simple as not wanting them to be jerks to us. But if they can’t even manage that. Then we’ll find a way to remove our presence.
For Bob, if I would have preached each Sunday for an hour, I don’t know what he would have done. But it just isn’t worth putting up with the things you hate the most to get to know someone new. Sometimes we think God is that way too. We think that if we’re going to be with God, then we need to have our act together. Think that we need to avoid doing the things He hates most. Things called sins. And if we can’t manage to do that, God will simply remove His presence. God won’t be with us. Therefore it’s up to us to reach up into heaven and get ahold of Him with our own hands.
So we figure that we should do all the right stuff. Say all the right things. Be what God wants us to be. And if we do that, maybe we can get to know Him. Maybe even become friends with Him. Maybe we can even go to heaven with Him. Like Bob has.
There’s a poem the family included in your bulletin by an unknown author. And this thought is one of the ways we could understand the last stanza of it. “A golden heart stops beating, working hands are put to rest, God broke our hearts to prove to us He only takes the best.” Are we saying Bob did enough to be friends with God? Said the right things? Lived the right life? And because he did, he’s now with God in heaven? No. That’s not how our God works at all. Because if Bob didn’t do enough, if we don’t do enough, what hope do we have?
It’s not up to us to be with Him. It’s the other way around. It’s up to God to be with us. He’s the one reaching. He’s the one trying. He’s the one looking for a way to be with you. God doesn’t have to wait and see if you’re worth having with Him. He already knows you’re worth it. No matter who you are or what you’ve done. And He’ll do what it takes to be with you. He came down from heaven to be with you. Was born a human being to be with you. Lived, died, and rose again to be with you. That’s the way God is. Not that we’re with Him. He’s with us.
Look at Psalm 23 which Andy read just a moment ago. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Even here. At our darkest hour. He is with you. Look at what Mike read from Isaiah 43. Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. Even here. When things are scary. When hope is hard to come by. He is with you. Our Gospel lesson from Matthew 18. Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I with you. Or the last words Jesus leaves his disciples with in Matthew’s Gospel. Behold, I am with you always.
Jesus didn’t wait for you to find Him. He didn’t wait for you to reach up to Him. He didn’t wait until you had a heart golden enough. Or hands busy enough. Jesus first comes to you.
It is true, that God hates sin. But that’s not enough to make Him leave. Because what He hates more is not being with you. And if bearing your sin is what it takes, Then Jesus will bear it all. If dying is what it takes, Jesus will die for you. If forgiving your sins is what it takes, Then He will forgive your sins. Not just once. Not just the seven times Peter asked. But over and over again. He forgets your sins, as we hear from the prophet Isaiah. Because you are that important.
And that’s how we should understand that poem from the unknown author. God only takes the best, and you are His best. Even with the sin. Even with the things that God hates in our lives. Even with the screwups. Even with that shame that no one else can know about. Even when we’re angry with Him. Even when we ask Him why. Even when we die. God will be with you, His best creation.
Jesus is with Bob right now, in death. Jesus with you, Dorothy, as you mourn. Jesus is with you right now, Sharon and Dave, as you cry. Jesus is with you right now, Pam and Andy, as you hurt. Jesus is with you, Diane and Mike, as you grieve. Jesus is with you, all who called Bob brother-in-law, uncle, grandfather, great-grandfather, friend. Jesus is with you. Because He cannot bear to see you go through this alone.
Jesus is with you all. Doing something about this pain. That’s why He went to the cross. That’s why He died. God died on your behalf. To be with you. No matter what. And if He can join us in death, then He can also bring us with Him to resurrection. Dave read this in 2 Timothy 2, “The saying is trustworthy. For if we have died with him, we will also live with him.” That includes Bob. That includes you. That includes all of us.
The resurrection of Jesus is our hope. So that not only will Jesus be with us always, we will also always be together with each other. And, yeah, we have to wait for that. We wait in grief. We wait in tears. We wait while hurting. But we never wait alone. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, because you are with me. Thanks be to God.
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our text this evening is the Old Testament lesson, where God reminds His people where they’ve been and where they’re going.
Context is everything. We know that. If you walk up to a conversation, it’s probably not a good idea to just jump right in. You’re going to need a little bit of context to know what they’re talking about. Have you wondered why it’s so hard to talk to teenagers? They’re context is very different from yours. And without the right contexts, you can talk right past them, and they talk right past you. Context is important. It’s especially important in the Bible. You don’t have to search through the Bible long to find something that, if taken out of context, would mean something completely different than it actually says. So context is everything.
In our text, the people of Israel have been wandering the desert for 40 years. That is their context. For them, bread falling from the sky happens six days a week. When they get hungry for meat, quail just show up. They’ve never had to patch up old clothes. Neither do we anymore, but that’s because we go out and buy new clothes. In their context, there is no such thing as new clothes. No new shoes either. Nor replacing the soles of the old ones after forty years of walking in a wilderness. In fact, this context is so unique, that I’m not sure we’re ever really going to understand it. You thought teenagers were tough? Ha!
But this context wasn’t always their context. In fact, they were yanked out of a context they were perfectly happy with. Well, comparatively. They were happy with it precisely one day after they entered the wilderness. But all their lives they had been slaves in Egypt. That’s how they grew up. Every day life was work, food, and complaining about Egyptians. Now the work was gone. The food was gone. The Egyptians were gone. They longed to go back to Egypt and eat that Egyptian food. See that Egyptian landscape. Breathe that Egyptian air. It didn’t matter that they were treated worse than animals. That was their context. That was their home.
It took forty years. Enough time for the whole generation who grew up in Egypt to pass away. Enough time for the overwhelming context to be wilderness. The old context had to be destroyed. So that they could go to the right home. A new home.
We too are leaving an Egypt of sorts. Leaving the context of this world. Which is really hard, because the world is still here. With it’s daily routines. It’s patterns and cycles. With all the things we grew up with. That’s our context. When we think of home, it’s a home on this world. Yet God is calling us to the wilderness. Calling us to leave slavery to sin, death and the devil behind. Calling us to leave home behind. And that is not easy. We want to go back to being at peace with the world. We’re a lot more comfortable with sin ruling our lives unchecked. We miss the certainty of death. And who doesn’t love to complain about Satan getting His way? This is our context. This is where we feel at home.
So a promise of a new heavens and a new earth is scary. Will there be dogs in heaven? Can I play golf? Will I really be me up there? Because I can’t imagine myself without this sin or that sin. Will it be just like my home now? Will it feel like that place we always remember? Or will it be something completely different?
It will be different. In what ways? I don’t know. But that place will be home. So God has to change our context now. That’s why God has us wandering through this wilderness right now. Wandering through this Church thing that we’re part of. Because context isn’t everything. Not when it’s the wrong one.
This world isn’t our home. This context which we live in says that only you can look out for you. It says to indulge yourself, because you are the only one that matters. This world’s context is that everyone dies. That death is just part of life. This world’s context is that you can justify your own sins. And that you are the only judge of whether the sins of others are justifiable or not. This world’s context is wrong. The old context has to be destroyed. So that we can go to the right home. A new home.
That’s what Jesus does. His death and resurrection leaves the old context in the dust on the way to the wilderness. Maundy Thursday is the new Passover. Good Friday is the new Red Sea. And Easter Sunday is the new entrance into the promised land. A brand new context. A context through which we look at everything. All done so that we can go home. Go to our real home.
We’re on that same journey. The same one as the Israelites. The same one as Jesus Himself. We have been called to leave the Egypt of this world behind. Called to a wilderness that’s a life as Christ’s own bride, the Church. Where we have no choice but to rely on Him for everything we need. And just like those Israelites in the desert, Jesus gives us our food. The same meal every time. Manna from heaven. The true body of Christ, given for you. Even if those wafers seem like the blandest, most tasteless thing you’ve ever eaten. It did to them back then too. But this meal changes our context. This meal is what it means to be Christian. What it means to be His Church. It isn’t just something we do because God said so. It’s God giving us our context. This is who we are. This is what makes this place home. This is the Christian life. Gathered together at His table. Young and old alike. Because everybody eats. And this is His feast.
Not only does God feed us the same way He fed those who walked the desert for 40 years, He also gives us clothes that do not wear out. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. Paul’s words from Galatians 3. These are clothes that last your whole life. No matter how badly you’ve beaten them up. No matter what you’ve dragged them through. Your baptism does not wear out on you. Because it is God’s promise to you. And that never fails.
This baptism is also part of your context as a Christian in this wilderness. A context that places you in the grave of Jesus in order that you would also rise from the dead with Him. I think Paul said something about that too. These are God’s gifts through Christ to bring you through this wilderness, away from the world. The old context has been destroyed. So now we can go to the right home. A new home.
God changed the context of His people of old. From the toxic context of Egypt, to the reliant context of the wilderness, to the restful context of a land of their own. Likewise God changes our contexts. From the toxic context of this world, to the reliant context of His Church. A sacramental context. Where God provides everything. And at this point, we’re still here in this context. But the restful context is coming. And every day, He’s getting us ready. Ready to go home. Thanks be to God.
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. God, why? There is no cry so primal, no cry so universal as this. It’s my cry when I buried my daughter. It’s our cry when Bob died Friday night. It’s the cry we all share when our hearts are broken. When the emotions are raw. When death is at the door. God, why?
This very question is cried over and over again from all kinds of people. God, why did my children have to be taken hundreds of miles away from me? God, why can’t I support my family? God, why wont the pain stop. God, why did it have to be cancer? God, why did the one I love hurt me so badly? God, why did she have to die? God, why can’t I do anything right? God, why did this disaster happen? God, why is this depression so deep? God, why wont it stop? God, why?
And there are answers why. You don’t have to be a Christian to say there’s evil in the world. You don’t have to even believe in God to know that the sin of it all rests on someone’s shoulders. The world is screwed up. They’re screwed up. I’m screwed up. We already know that. We already have a list of other people out there to blame. We already have a whole list of “if I couldas” and “if I wouldas” for ourselves. So when the Biblical answer is that the wages of sin is death, that really isn’t a surprise.
That answer is true. But it isn’t that much help. It just isn’t that much comfort. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t tell the world that sin hurts people. It does. And people need to be told that. But not when that fact is already killing them. And it’s not what we need to hear when that fact is already killing us. We don’t need to be told, because the situation is already telling us these things loud and clear.
So when I bury my daughter, it is not the time to tell me that it’s because the world is a sinful place. Or that I failed somehow. Nor is it time to tell the abused wife that she hurts because somebody sinned. Or the father longing to see his kids who were carried off in divorce that he should have done this or that differently. Or the husband who is watching his bride die before him that his wife is a sinner. Or a son burying his father, that the wages of sin is death.
Hearing that “it’s for the best,” or “God will work all things for good,” isn’t enough. “Trust God, and it will all work out,” “It just wasn’t meant to be,” those words have no comfort in them. We mean so well when we say them. We want to help so badly when we see others in pain. But those words do nothing to ease the pain. Nothing to make us feel better. Because if God wanted to, He could have made everything turn out fine. How could it be any good at all for things to be otherwise? God, why?
It’s the same cry in today’s text.The multitude of people following Jesus to His crucifixion were all asking God why. God, why did Jesus get unjustly condemned? God, why did they nail Him to the cross? God, why are they lumping Him together with the other criminals? God why is Jesus being scoffed at as He hangs there? God, why are the soldiers dividing his clothes amongst themselves as if Jesus were some kind of animal? God, why did Jesus have to die? God, why?
Was it any comfort to those who mourned that the world was a sinful place? Was it any comfort to say someone deserved the blame? Would it have made them feel better to hear someone say, “It’s for the best?” or “It just wasn’t meant to be?” Was it any consolation to hear that God will work out all things for good?
Not on Good Friday it wasn’t. And not on that Sabbath Saturday. On those days, those words held no comfort. No matter how true they were. It was exactly because the world was a sinful place. It was exactly because someone needed to take the blame for it all. It was exactly what God had in mind for the good of all people. But there was no true comfort in Jesus’ death until Easter Morning.
The resurrection was the first time we could say that all of what Jesus went through was okay. The resurrection was the first time we could see it all working out. The resurrection was the first time we could look back, and understand. Understand why it all had to happen just that way. In the resurrection, we finally saw why.
Because when we ask why today, we’re not really looking for God to tell us what caused it all to go wrong. We’re looking for God to do something about it. And He has. He died on our behalf, and rose again from the dead. So that all these things we suffer. All these things we endure. All these things which kill us inside and out. So that all of them are overcome at the last. The resurrection of Jesus is the only answer for that question of why.
But the unanswered question will not be unanswered forever. Because Jesus’ resurrection is our resurrection too. Until that resurrection, until that last day, we can’t always see why. We can’t always understand how come God could let all this happen. But the resurrection is coming. That’s the promise Jesus has given to you in your baptism. The promise Jesus gives when he says your sins are forgiven. The promise Jesus gives when he feeds you His own body and blood. His resurrection is your resurrection. And it is the answer to why. And that answer is yours. Thanks be to God.
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our text this morning is the Gospel lesson. Where the Sadducees take their turn at beating Jesus in a debate.
The Pharisees had already taken their shot. The chief priests and scribes tried to trap Jesus by asking if it were right to pay taxes to Caesar or not just a few verses up. Hoping that he would either denounce Caesar, and get arrested. Or denounce God, and get arrested. It didn’t work. So their political opponents took the opportunity to show that they were more capable of the job.
Now, Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. That much we got from the text. But they also believed that only the first five books of the Bible were Scripture. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. That was the only divine authority. Everything else is just superstitious nonsense. According to the Sadducees, to get ahead in this life, you had to follow God’s Law. And if you were poor, or broken, or sick, that was your fault. Because there is no heaven to earn. No hell to fear. We accuse the Pharisees of works righteousness. But the Sadducees lived it proudly.
Jesus beats the Sadducees so soundly, that we assume that the Sadduceees were probably just stupid. But, their argument is really a pretty good one. They start out by saying, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and εξαναστησω raise up offspring for his brother.” That’s the same root word we translate everywhere else in today’s text as resurrection. It’s also scripture. Deuteronomy 25. And we could go on for a while about levirate marriage. But that’s not what the Sadducees are debating.
They’re saying that we who believe in the resurrection from the dead are reading what we want into the text. Because when we read about this αναστασις, this resurrection in the undisputed books of the Bible, it’s not the dead coming back to life. It’s having children. The dead husband is raised up, he lives, because there is a child in his name. But the dead don’t come back. Life instead goes on through the ones left.
If you were to argue against the resurrection today, you would use the same argument. People don’t rise from the dead. The early books of the Old Testament don’t mention the dead returning to life at all. It’s something made up. A lie to make those who grieve the loss of loved ones have something to hope in. But it’s better to believe that those who have died continue to live in their children. And through our children, we all will live forever.
That’s a strong argument. It’s a spectacularly secular argument. But it appeals to scripture. It appeals to reason. It appeals to experience. And it gives an alternate answer that makes sense. This argument doesn’t need God. However, the Sadducees still believed in a god. A god who created. A god who delivered them out of Egypt. A god who made them a people. But their god was the god of the living, not a god of the dead.
So, Jesus, you believe in resurrection, do you? Even despite the evidence just presented? Then how does this work? Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. And the second and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. Afterward the woman also died. In [your so called] resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.”
This is how you break down an opponent’s argument, when they’re argument doesn’t make sense. Present a possible dilemma. And let logic dismantle the position for you. What could possibly go wrong?
However, if there’s anyone who knows what the resurrection is going to look like, it’s God in the flesh. “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage, for they cannot die anymore, because they are equal to angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection.
And we could go on for a while about what marriage is, and what heaven is like. But just like that wasn’t the Sadducees’ point, it’s not really Jesus’ point either. More important is that resurrection changes everything. Previous responsibilities that existed because of death, no longer exist in the resurrection. And that answers the question posed.
But simply answering the question of resurrection from the dead by assuming the resurrection of the dead is a logical fallacy. We call it ‘begging the question.’ Which is why Jesus cannot stop with His answer just yet. Jesus needs to show the resurrection from the dead. And He does, by pointing to the motto which the Sadducees hold so dear. Yes, it’s just like you say, Sadducees. God is a God of the living, and not of the dead. And so, when God appears to Moses in the burning bush, that is exactly how He introduced Himself. I AM the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. The God of those who once were dead and were buried. But who now are alive.
For the Sadducces, that was enough. At least enough to shut them up for a while. But not all who ask that question hold the Torah in such high regard. So where are Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, if they are now alive? They are waiting for the resurrection. Which is an unconvincing answer for those who still ask.
So Jesus gives us His own resurrection. Not a future one. Not an assumed one. An actual resurrection from the dead. And Jesus’ resurrection is the lynchpin to our faith. The resurrection is why we listen to everything else Jesus says. It’s what we grab onto. It’s where we see what the forgiveness of sins looks like. What God-with-us looks like. This is it. This is why you read your Bibles. Why you come church. Why we talk about Jesus’ death and resurrection every time. There is nothing more important.
St. Paul says the very same thing. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. He also says, I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.
It is of first importance to us as well. This life has more than it’s share of pain and suffering and death. This life is more than we can bear. And it will kill us. But God is not a God of the dead, but of the living. And because of Jesus death cannot hold onto you. You are worthy to attain that age and the resurrection of the dead. Worthy because of Jesus. You are children of God. And children of His resurrection. No matter what you go through in this life. No matter how bitter, or painful, or miserable. No one can take God’s gift through Christ away from you. Thanks be to God.
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Rejoice and be glad! For your reward is great in heaven. Jesus’ words express our great hope as Christians. Our hope that heaven is waiting for us. That one day, everything will be perfect. All sin will be forgiven. All evil will be gone. Heaven will be ours.
Today is All Saints Day. It’s tradition to remember those who have gone before us in the faith this last year on this day. They are in heaven already. And James Beck joined that number from our congregation. We rejoice in the fact that He is with Jesus. But you know what, we miss him. We miss all those who have died. And that makes it a little harder to be glad. But we tell ourselves that they’re in a better place. That they have their reward. And when we put it that way, we can be happy for them. But it’s not quite same as being happy.
And it would be weird if it were. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard funerals called “celebrations.” And then wondered why everyone was glad that this person was dead. I know that’s not what we mean. But you know, sometimes we think that if we just put on a happy face; Use a happier term; put on a happier show, that maybe, just maybe, we’d start to feel that happiness ourselves.
Y’know, when it happens, it feels good. When we’re truly happy, there’s nothing like it in the world. We want that moment to last forever. That’s why we want heaven so badly. That’s why we can be happy for those who are there. But in this life, happiness is so fleeting. It’s there one moment, and gone the next. We’d do anything for one more taste. Anything to feel that way again.
No wonder the Beatitudes are one of the most loved passages of scripture. Because Christians have a church word for being happy. We call it ‘blessed.’ Blessed are the poor in Spirit… Blessed are the those who mourn… Blessed are the meek… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… Blessed are the merciful… Blessed are the pure in heart…. Blessed are the peacemakers… Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness… Blessed are you. So rejoice and be glad.
It’s like happiness is just right there for the taking. Just follow these steps, and you too will be glad. If you just commit more to Jesus. Give more to Jesus. Trust more with Jesus. True happiness in all things can be yours. At least that’s how the sales pitch goes. And like most sales pitches, the product absolutely does not live up to the hype. And when it doesn’t, the hucksters can make you believe that it’s because you failed. You didn’t believe enough. You didn’t trust enough. God wanted to give you happiness, and you wouldn’t let Him.
Those words, that look like they’re so sweet, are the deadliest of poisons. They look like God’s promises, but they’re so twisted, that you cannot see God. And we’re so sold on happiness, that we keep buying the lies, long after they have been proven false. Just ask us if we feel blessed. Ask us, when we can’t take anymore. When we get punched in the face. When everything is crumbling around us. Ask us, and we’ll tell you, “Yes. Yes we are blessed. We are happy.” We’re scared to death to let anyone know that we’re not. Scared to death to admit to ourselves that we’re not. Because we have to believe enough. We have to trust enough. We have to rejoice and be glad. Or else.
It doesn’t work that way. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure it out. The poor in Spirit aren’t blessed because they’re poor in Spirit. The poor in Spirit are wondering where God is as their life falls apart. As their children are taken away. As their homes are taken out from under them. Should they be happy? They’re not. Nor are those who mourn blessed because they mourn. Because mourning sucks. Nor are the meek blessed because they are meek. Because they are still trampled underfoot. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness are deprived of righteousness. The merciful must surrender the justice they’re due. The pure of heart must live in this world. The peacemakers must step into the middle of war. And being persecuted for righteousness sake is still being persecuted.
You will be given more than you can bear. Pain, suffering, loss, injustice, evil, death. To use these things as a means by which to buy happiness from God? I don’t care how churchy they make it sound. I don’t care how well intended they are. I don’t care how much Jesus has done in their lives. Anyone who tries to sell you on you doing more in order to get blessed by God is selling a different god than the one revealed in the Bible.
Because look at what Jesus says. Blessed are the poor in Spirit, because theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The blessing isn’t being poor in spirit. It isn’t the the suffering. It isn’t the loss. It isn’t the uncertainty of what tomorrow will bring that brings rejoicing. It’s that no matter what you go through, Jesus has already died on your behalf. Already rose again. Already forgiven your sin. Already brought you into God’s family. Already has a place set for you next to those who have died in the faith.
It’s not just a future comfort either. Jesus is with you right now. He’s by your side when you ask why. Comforting those who mourn. Side by side with those meek who can’t stand on their own. Feeding the hungry and thirsty with His righteousness. With His own body and blood. Jesus is giving mercy right now to those who have went without justice. Showing Himself right now to those who have suffered the filthy wretchedness of this world. Bringing into His family right now those who have faced their share of wars. Giving His kingdom right now to those who are persecuted.
Blessedness, rejoicing, gladness, happiness. None of those are conditional upon you. And none of them are the primary gift. God has given His only begotten Son on your behalf. He has given His Son for you. And that is why you are blessed. Because you have Jesus, you are still blessed when everything is falling apart around you. Because you have Jesus, you are still blessed when those you love have died. Because you have Jesus, you are blessed, even when overcome by meekness, or starving for good things, or are without justice. Because you have Jesus, you are blessed, even when surrounded by corruption, war and persecution.
Rejoice and be glad. Not because all the rest of it kills you stonecold dead daily. But rejoice and be glad, because in Jesus, there is resurrection from the dead. It is already yours. Right now. Even while all the other stuff is going on that hurts so much. Jesus is for you, and with you. Not because you believed hard enough. Or committed to God enough. Or put on a happy face often enough. Not because you could endure anything for Him. But because there was nothing He hasn’t already endured for you. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is [already] great in heaven. Thanks be to God.