Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. What is more valuable, a book, or experience? What speaks louder, words, or actions? Where would you rather be, hearing a story about an event, or being at the event yourself? I think that’s probably an easy question. And in the context of today’s Gospel lesson, how great would it have been to see the Transfiguration of Jesus?
What an amazing event for Peter, James, and John to be a part of! I mean, this is where the cliché, ‘mountaintop experience’ comes from. There’s Jesus, suddenly transformed from looking just like every other guy, to His face shining like the sun and His clothes as bright as light. And that’s not all! Moses and Elijah show up, and the three of them start talking with each other. How cool is this! Words can’t even describe.And, Peter might have not known exactly what he was saying, but it’s pretty obvious at the time, he wants everyone to experience this revelation of God’s glory for themselves. Quite possibly because who would believe the words? So let’s set up some tents. Or tabernacles. Give everyone room to stay. Make a place to house the glory of God.
But then, the cloud overshadowed everything in its light. There was God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, right before their eyes. How could you do anything but fall on your face in exceeding fear? And the Father spoke. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” Yes, it was more frightening than anything they had ever imagined. But, you know, they survived the encounter. And it was something they were never going to forget. What better vision could they have seen than this? What better experience could they have had? What better testimony to the divinity of Jesus than what just happened before their very eyes? No wonder it got included in the Bible.
So how would Peter see this experience later on in life? Would this be the most important moment in his life of faith? Was his the mountaintop that would carry him forever? Actually, no. Now, our Epistle lesson today does have Peter remembering the Transfiguration. And it is certainly an important event. And yes, it did define Peter. He wrote, “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.”
But Peter’s experience is not ours. We get the book, not the sight in person. We get the words, not the actions. We get the story, not a front row seat to the event itself. And we know that can’t ever be as good as the original. But that’s where Peter is going to tell us we’re wrong. Our assurance doesn’t come from Peter’s experiencing of Jesus. Peter himself says that, “we have something more sure, the prophetic Word, to which you will do well to pay attention….”
Now wait just a minute. Did Peter just say that the book is better than seeing for yourself? That the words are better than the actions? That the story is even bette than the event? When it comes to the Word of God, the answer is yes. Experiences, testimonies, emotional highs, those may all be nice. But they are less sure. Less reliable. Less useful. Even when we go through them ourselves. What we should be paying attention to above all else is the Word.
And if you wont take Peter’s word for it, then listen the God the Father Himself speak. He didn’t say to learn from this transfigurative experience. He didn’t say to go tell everyone the amazing glory of My Son that you just saw. He didn’t even say to make this event the cornerstone of your faith. The Father said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”
It’s the Word that Jesus speaks that is sure. It’s the Word of Jesus that we listen to. And I’m not talking about just the parts in some Bibles that are printed in red. The entire Scriptures are the Word of Christ, because each letter that’s inside is about Him. By the way, this is the same Word that brought creation itself into existence. This is the same Word which creates faith in you. This is the same Word that saves you, forgives your sin, and gives you life. Because you can’t do your way into any of those things.
So what does Jesus say to Peter, James, and John in today’s text? While they’re there on their faces, shaking in fear? Exceedingly afraid because they were evil sinners in the presence of a holy and perfect God. And God, by all means, should have destroyed them for it. And frankly, that is the very same sin that you and I have within us. Seeing God in all His glory is not in and of itself good news for them or us.
But Jesus said to them, “Rise, and have no fear.” In other words, “Don’t be afraid. The sin which condemned you is the very sin that I have taken away.” This is the Word that is more sure than any experience or event. This is the Word that is more sure than even the sight of Jesus glorified standing with Moses and Elijah. This Word is spoken to Peter, James, and John. And this Word is also spoken to you.
It’s in this Word that we hear just how it is that Jesus has taken all our sin away. That God took on our humanity. That Jesus was born of the virgin Mary. That Jesus lived on this earth for us. You can even go see where He grew up. Where He walked. Where He taught. And on one of those actual mountains over there, two thousand years ago, He showed His transfiguration to Peter, James, and John. He was crucified for us just outside of the actual Jerusalem, bearing the sins of the whole world. And yours in particular. And in that, the glory of God was shown far brighter than even the sun.
In the death of Jesus, every sin was atoned for. And in the resurrection of Jesus, death itself was overturned. On the third day Jesus rose. And for forty days walked in those same places again. You see, the Word, in which we have our assurance, is anchored to history. The Word, which gives us faith, is anchored to truth. The Word, which gives us salvation, is anchored to Christ.
And Jesus is saying to us, to you and me today, “Rise, and have no fear.” Because by His death and resurrection, He has forgiven all the sins which would have rightly condemned us to hell. He says it today, so that we can be assured today. But Jesus is also going to say them to us again. Because on the last day, when we are dead and in our graves, Jesus will once again proclaim, “Rise, and have no fear.” And we will indeed be raised to life forever, with no reason to ever be afraid again. And yes, on that day, we will get to see Jesus just as Peter, James, and John did on the mountain. But just as it does today, it will be Christ’s Word that makes it all sure.
And now may the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Over the last month during Epiphany, we’ve been working through the first chapter of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. And each week, things have gotten more difficult. Week one, Jesus says, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” Week two, Jesus says, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Last week, Jesus says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” And this week, Jesus says, “Love your enemies.” and “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
That last one is more than difficult. It’s down right impossible. And with those words, Jesus cuts down the legalism of the Pharisees. He cuts down the works righteousness that we hear preached against so often against. And if anyone had any idea of earning God’s favor, an inkling of showing our Lord how good we are, Jesus has just shot it down in flames. After all, that’s what our sinful nature in us wants to do. That’s what every other man-made religion in our world does.
Therefore, you would think that our old sinful nature would just recoil against that demand of perfection. But we don’t. In fact, of all the words Jesus speaks in the Sermon on the Mount, these are the only ones the Old Adam in us wants to hear. You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. There is nothing more relieving to hear after all that Law Jesus gave than those words right here.
Because in those words is the perfect excuse to ignore everything Jesus just said. After all, if God knows anything at all, then He certainly knows that I can’t possibly be as perfect as He demands. Because nobody is. Nobody’s perfect. And, if I can’t be perfect, then obviously I don’t have to be perfect. And that is the thought which undoes everything. Because now none of what Jesus says matters.
Now, it isn’t a big deal if I’m not perfect. It’s not so bad if I don’t actually love my enemies. It’s not a problem if I forget to turn the other cheek. It’s not the end of the world to demand that an eye be given for an eye, and a tooth be given for a tooth. I don’t actually need to worry about cutting out my own eye or lopping of my own hand to avoid sinning. I’m not in all that much danger if I hate my brother in my heart, or look lustfully at a woman, or get a divorce, or take frivolous oaths. My place in heaven is not in any danger if I relax the least of these commandments. And there are likely far better blessings to be had in avoiding persecution than the blessing Jesus promises to those who are persecuted for His sake.
If anyone says to me that maybe I should be doing these things, then I have every right to say no. Because I don’t want to fall into legalism. The best part about this excuse for the Old Adam in us? We never have to answer the question of what it looks like to live this Word of Christ. I can just do everything the way I’ve always done it. And it’ll all be alright. No need for repentance. No need to turn away from sin. No need to do what Jesus says. After all, only a legalist would do those things. And Jesus in this text is specifically talking about not being one of those.
The problem with us is that we want everything to be easy. If the law is all spelled out cleanly, then it’s easy to stand in the loopholes. If the law doesn’t save, then it’s easy to just throw it away. We don’t want to be challenged. We don’t want to have to struggle to figure out how to live according to God’s Word in this life. We don’t even want to bothered with anything from God except for maybe an hour a week. Less if we have a good excuse. Because that makes it easy. But the Word of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount is anything but easy.
When’s the right time to turn the other cheek and be a punching bag? When is the right time to give more to the one who would rob you? When is the right time to go the extra mile with the enemy who wishes you were dead? As long as there is sin in the world. As long as there’s sin our hearts, The questions raised by the Law do not have easy answers all the time. Because we can imagine times when these might not be the right things to do. But maybe a good starting point is the one Jesus gives at the beginning of chapter 5. …[W]hen others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on [Christ’s] account.
Jesus doesn’t just give us the Law in order that we can skip it, and get to the good stuff. Yes, Jesus gives us the Law so that we we can see our sin reflected in it. But Jesus also gives us the Law so that we know what right and wrong are. And so we can know what the right thing to do is. And when what Law applies where. And that takes study, and effort. And it is hard. And we will do it wrong. But not one iota of it will pass away. We hold on tightly to that part of Christ’s Word as well. Even when we don’t like the parts of us it shows. Because without it, the Gospel is meaningless.
Yes, the Gospel needs to have the dominant position over the Law. The Gospel has the final Word to say. But Law and Gospel always go together. It’s the greatness of the Law that gives value to the greaterness of the Gospel. Therefore we keep the Law. We hold it. We listen to it. We treasure it. Because by it, we see how difficult it is to turn the other cheek, give the clothes, or go the extra mile. We see how difficult it is to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We see it, because we’re actually trying. We try to be perfect, even when we know we can never get there on our own.
Why do we try to do the impossible? Because of that very Gospel. The good news that Jesus did in fact fulfill the Law for us. Because Jesus turned the other cheek for us when the members of the Sanhedrin slapped Him on the night when He was betrayed. Jesus gave up not only His cloak to the soldiers who mocked Him, He also gave up His tunic for us to the soldiers who cast lots for them under His cross. When they compelled Him to carry that cross, He carried it as far as He was physically capable of. And hanging from that Cross, Jesus prayed for those who crucified Him, Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. Jesus was perfect, just as His Father is perfect.
But Jesus didn’t stop there. Because we demand the very same things from Him today. When our sin punches Jesus in the face, He stands. Ready not only to take more, but to take it all. And to take our sin away. Jesus gives up His own righteousness, and clothes us with it. Not only with a cloak. But He dresses us from head to toe in our baptism. It’s Jesus we ask to walk with Us through the valley of the shadow of death. But He walks all the way up to the tree of life with us as well. And Jesus loves us. While we were still enemies, Christ died for us.
And we know just how hard that was. How impossible that was. Because of of that very same Law that He fulfilled for you and me. So no, we do not throw away the Law. True, it alone doesn’t save us, but without it, the Gospel has no meaning. And yes, we know that means that things will not be easy. God’s Word of Law challenges us. It makes us uncomfortable. It gives us a lot of work to do. But we’re not alone in it. Jesus is by our side through it all. Whether we fail through our own fault, or we succeed by Christ working in us. And so we hold fast to the whole Word of God, as He holds just as much onto us. Thanks be to God.
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This is a story of two different Lutheran congregations. And the text for that Sunday was today’s Gospel lesson in both places. The first church was right in the heart of Lutheran country. The winters were harsh, the summers were humid, and the people were well catechized. They knew all about the differences between Roman Catholicism, Methodism, and Pentecostalism. And how each of them, while denying works righteousness, also practiced works righteousness. And if there was one thing they couldn’t stand, it was works righteousness.
That was very good. But the pastor at this church was worried. You see, they were so focused on not being works righteous, that they didn’t bother to do any good works at all. When the pastor suggested that they help the poor in the area, most just shrugged their shoulders. They would not help. “I’m not here to give handouts,” said one. “If they’re that bad off, they can go get a job,” said another. One even went as far as to say, “we don’t believe in works righteousness here, pastor.”
So this first pastor knew exactly what had to be said from this text. The Law needed to preached in all its sternness. “but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” “…people [don’t] light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.” “Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” If you’re relaxing any of these commandments, if you’re not shining your light, if you aren’t Jesus’ salt, then what good are you?
Now, of course, this pastor knew that the Law could not make willing hearts. Only the Gospel could do that. So He pointed to Jesus on the cross. He said, “There’s our salt. Just like salt was a necessary part of every Old Testament Sacrifice, so also Jesus makes us salty again. A light on a hill cannot be hidden. So also, Jesus is shining in your life. You have been baptized into this light. And so the world will see your good works as well, and give thanks to the Father. Likewise, Jesus is the one who does not relax the least of these commandments. He keeps them all. Both for you, and in you. So go, be that salt, show that light, be Jesus to the world.” And so, in this way the pastor preached what the people in his congregation needed to hear.
The second congregation in our story had a much different situation though. This congregation was in the middle of the Bible belt. The winters were not as harsh, the summers were even more humid, and the people held the faith like no other. This group grasped onto God’s Word like an overboard sailor hanging onto driftwood in the midst of a storm. Maybe they didn’t know as well the difference between Lutherans and non-Lutherans. But they were surrounded on all sides by Christians of other denominations, many of whom confused Law and Gospel. Their communities outside the Lutheran Church pointed to their own heart and their own works when asked where their assurance of salvation rested. And so, along with the great faith was also great struggle.
The pastor of this second church also saw this text, and knew what the people in his congregation needed to hear. The Law needed to be preached in all its sternness. “but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” “…people [don’t] light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.” “Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” And in your sin, you have already lost your saltiness. In your sin, you have already put your light under a basket. In your sin, you already least in the kingdom of heaven.
Now of course, the Law only accuses. The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation. So the second pastor pointed to Jesus on His cross. He told them, “Jesus doesn’t say, ‘be salt,’ but rather He declares that you are salt. The same way that Jesus said, ‘Let there be Light,’ and there was light. The same way Jesus said, ‘This is my body, this is my blood,’ and it is His body and blood, so also Jesus gives you what He did on the cross. When Jesus says, ‘Let your light shine before men,’ he uses a third person imperative. We don’t have those in English. The command isn’t to you. It’s to the light within you. Jesus does the work. That’s why we don’t need to worry about being least in the kingdom of heaven. Because Jesus is the one who keeps and teaches all those commands, even in you.” And so, in this way the pastor preached what the people in his congregation needed to hear.
The differences are subtle, but they are there. One needed to be reminded that good works are part of the Christian life. The other needed to be reminded that good works are not where we look to find assurance of our salvation. One needed to hear that they shouldn’t stand in the way of Jesus’ work by refusing to do. And the other needed to hear that they shouldn’t stand in the way of Jesus work by trying to do it themselves. Both had Law and Gospel preached to them. Both heard that Jesus has indeed done it all for us on His cross. And that’s the way things are all supposed to go.
But there was a problem. Sometimes pastors like to post their sermons online, so that God’s Word can go out to more people. After all, maybe someone in the congregation wants to share what they heard with their neighbor. Maybe someone in Thailand will hear the Gospel for the first time. There are all kinds of great reasons to make such a sermon public for the world. And both of these pastors in our story today did so for like reasons.
However, some members from the first congregation got ahold of the sermon that was written for the second congregation. And some members from the second congregation got ahold of the sermon from the first congregation. And they were understandably confused. The midwesterners went to their pastor and said, “This pastor didn’t think that doing good works was such a big deal, why did you stress it so much?” The Bible belters went to their pastor and said, “That pastor emphasized the place of good works in the Christian life so that we can know we’re saved. Why didn’t you do that?”
Now that isn’t at all what each one meant to say. They both wrote their sermons faithfully. Neither were just ‘giving their own interpretation,’ as if it didn’t matter what was being said. No. Both were true to biblical doctrine, which is critical. Both share the same confession. Both kept in mind what their people needed most to hear. But people in a different context still heard it very differently. Because people are sinners. Now, if this were a good story, we could wrap it up with each pastor calmly sitting down and explaining the context, and why such words are necessary in one, but something else is necessary in the other. And the people would all understand why. And everything would be wrapped up with a nice little bow.
However, pastors are sinners too. We can be quick to take things the wrong way. We can fail to live up to the eighth commandment by not putting the best construction on things. We can double down when someone accuses us of making a mistake. We can be as stubborn as a mule even when we’re wrong. And this story doesn’t have so tidy an ending in the real life Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. Because we still grouse at each other over which of these two sermons is right.
But that’s the thing, we all need both of them. Because Satan doesn’t care which side of the horse we fall off of. Just so long as we fall. Warning someone that they’re falling off the port bow is well and good, but don’t then go and fall off the starboard bow for good measure. Likewise, do not hold onto your own works of the Law as proof of your salvation. But also don’t then turn around and neglect the Law altogether.
However, when you do. Not if, but when. When you do, Jesus is there to catch you when you fall. Because while today’s text is about you, it is far more about Him. Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.
Jesus has indeed fulfilled the Law on our behalf. He did every work that the Law required. He received the punishment the Law demanded. And He went to the cross to endure the entire wrath of God in our place. Every iota of it. Every last bit. And that Law was fully accomplished when the very creator of the heavens and the earth passed away. Your salvation is done. You can find it at the cross. But Jesus is not yet done with you. He’s still accomplishing every iota and dot of the Law in you, for your neighbor.
Jesus both is your salt, and makes you salt. Jesus both is your light, and makes you light. Jesus both takes your good works away, when you would keep them for yourself, and He gives you His good works to be done on behalf of your neighbor. And none of that is a matter of perspective. None of that is just one way of interpreting it. The whole thing is what Christ does for you. Every aspect, every facet. Sometimes we might look at only one. Other times we might look at them all. But they are all there. So that no matter what it is you need at the moment, Jesus is always there for you with His righteousness, which easily exceeds that of the scribes, the Pharisees, the pastors, and even our own. Thanks be to God.
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. When we need a fool, to whom does the world look? When we need a good laugh, where do we turn? We giggle at those who do not know even the most basic things. We chuckle at those who make the most obvious mistakes. There’s a whole industry built around sharing what people fail at, so that we can all point and laugh. And, if we’re good natured enough, we can even laugh at ourselves, when it’s us who’ve been utter fools.
Some of the greatest comedians have known that we laugh the hardest when can we laugh at our own biggest failures. When we say, “I can’t believe I actually did that!” But what makes it funny is that we learn from our mistakes and move on. It’s funny to watch the video of the forklift driver who accidentally causes a cascade collapse of all the shelves of the warehouse. It’s not so funny when it’s the third time this month, and you have to help pick up the pieces. Jokes get old. Failure over and over again gets stale. Eventually, the laughter fades, and anger builds. You can only stomach a fool for so long.
Who in our world has been the biggest fools for the longest time? Is there anyone else as bad as a Christian who takes their faith seriously? We’re a punchline because of what we confess. We’re a bad joke that the world has long since gotten sick of, because we hold onto our Scripture. Our faith is a scandal of the highest order. And it always has been. Because of Jesus’ cross. For 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.
When St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, the fact that Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, died on a cross was absolutely crazy. He called that fact a stumbling block to the Jews. Whatever a stumbling block is. We actually understand it better from the Greek word Paul used, σκανδαλιζω. It was scandalous that the most holy and perfect God, creator of all things, would ever be found on a cross. Because to be crucified meant that you had obviously done something so bad that you had been cursed by the Lord. After all, it is written, Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree. Even if it wasn’t what the Romans you were accused of, God still let it happen to you. So obviously, you must have done something terrible. To say that this was God hanging here? That was unthinkably scandalous. Blasphemous, in the worst of ways.
Likewise, it was absolute folly to the Greeks. Now, the Greeks had grown up with all the stories about Zeus and the like. And it wouldn’t be a big deal at all for a god to come down looking like a man, and do all kinds of amazing miracles. And it wasn’t even surprising that such a god could get into trouble as well. Those weren’t the problems they had with Jesus. The problem was that Jesus died. Our God died. Silly Christians, gods can’t die. Whoever heard of something so foolish in all their life? At the point of death, the gods would then show who they really were. And their immorality and power would be on full display. If your God dies, then He can’t be much of a God now, can He?
If you’re going to put the Messiah on the tree, then He’d better give a powerful sign, like coming down off of it, if you wants us to believe you. If you’re going argue that God dies, then you’d better get some wisdom, and argue for something else. Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.
In two thousand years, some things have changed. And yet, nothing has changed. It may no longer be a scandal that Jesus was found in the place of sinners when He hung on a tree. But there is still little more scandalous than the cross. The scandal now is that God would glorify such violence, and let His people celebrate it. If us Christians were truly good, we’d hide that cross away where no one would have to see it again. It may no longer be foolish to believe that a god cannot die. But the cross is still the height of folly. For only a great fool would believe that a man killed on such a cross could ever rise from the dead on the third day. The dead stay dead. Death is forever. Everyone who knows anything knows that. And so the world laughs at us. And when they’ve had their fill of it, they then get angry with us. Our belief, our confession, our faith in such a cross has gotten old. And it’s time to grow up.
And you know what? We want to follow the wise. We want to be written about by the scribes. We want the debater of this age to debate on our behalf instead of against us. We want to be where they are. We crave their approval. And to get that approval, we must stop with the scandal and the folly. We must stop with this cross. Only then will the world finally recognize us. Only then will the world finally pay attention. Only then will we get the world to come through our doors and hear us.
The cruel irony is that those who gave up that cross in order to get the world approval, never got the world’s approval. Instead, they lost their very reason for even existing. Turns out you don’t actually need to go to Church to be a nice person. You don’t need to go to Church in order to help people in your community. You don’t need to go to Church to sing your favorite music. You don’t need to go to Church to feel good about yourself. And you certainly don’t need to go to Church to be spiritual.
However, there is only one place on the whole earth that preaches Christ crucified for you. And that is the Church, wherever it might be. And to us who are being saved [that Word of the cross] is the power of God. In fact, that’s how you know where the Church is. We confess that “The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.” Because it’s the Gospel itself that delivers to us that immense foolishness of God that is His cross.
There is no other worldly way to describe the actions of Christ except as utter folly. Who would ever leave a perfect heaven in order to take part in my suffering? Who would surrender perfect holiness in order to bear my sin? Who would think that taking nails in His spotless hands and feet would ever rescue me from the hell I’ve earned for myself? Who would ever exchange exchange His eternal life for my death? Who would ever believe that the sheer proclamation of these events to me could ever save me from my fate?
However, 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. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
Jesus has indeed come down from heaven. Incarnate by the Holy Spirit. Born of the Virgin Mary. Was made man. All for you. Jesus has indeed left His holiness behind in order to become sin on your behalf. To become your sin. And as such, He endured hell itself on that cross for you. Jesus has indeed taken those nails in His hands and feet for you. And by them, He has pulled you out of the depths of hell itself.
And even though those scars will remain on him forever, so will you. For Jesus has indeed sacrificed His life in order to put an end to death forever. Death is beaten. Death cannot hold anyone for long. It does it’s very worst, but it cannot stop Christ’s resurrection from coming. And He is indeed on His way with it soon. But here is the most foolish promise of all. That simply by speaking the report of these events to you, you receive them in their fulness. And that promise is true. That’s what it means to proclaim the Gospel. No more, no less.
And in this way, God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. The foolishness of a cross. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. the weakness of a man nailed to a tree. God chose what is low and despised in the world. A man condemned to death. Even things that are not, like a dead God, to bring to nothing things that are. Sin brought to nothing. Death brought to nothing. Hell brought to nothing. All through the utter folly of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus…. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
That is why we do exactly as St. Paul says in the very next chapter. Words we’ll hear in next week’s epistle lesson as well. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. Because nothing else matters. Everything comes down to Him. Every word spoken. Every hymn sung. Every movement we make. All of it serves this proclamation. It’s all about Jesus on His cross. It’s all about Jesus in His grave. It’s all about Jesus alive on the third day.
Of course, the world will laugh. Until they get tired of us. And then they’ll hate us. Jesus promises that is our reality in our Gospel lesson today. In fact, you could sum the entire Beatitudes into the words, “Blessed are the foolish.” And the world would agree with us being the fool. But that world doesn’t forgive sin. That world only offers death. That world is going to hell. But today, you have heard Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” Thanks be to God.
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In the bulletin each week, we take the Lectionary Notes section and the Stewardship Thoughts section from what the National LCMS website puts out. And they always have a small tidbit to say about the texts we have for each Sunday.
However, there’s a fear we have with today’s Gospel lesson. It’s not a fear that we’ll speak out loud. On the outside, we’ll nod our heads, and all agree that it’s a really good idea. But inside, we’re terrified at these words: And [Jesus] said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
Our Stewardship Thoughts then confirm our worst fears. “Discipleship cost Peter and Andrew everything they had.” And, “The important this is this: that we know that all we have is the Lord’s, to be used for His purpose.” And His purpose, quite clearly in the text today, is to make fishers of men. Now, I don’t want to insult those few people who really enjoy going out and talking with strangers about Christ. That’s amazing, and I’m thrilled they do it. But for the other 98% of us, it is literally more frightening than death itself. If someone put a gun to our heads and told us to go and talk to strangers about Jesus or die, we would ask them to make our deaths as quick and painless as possible.
Because how often have we heard this text, and then were told it meant that we need to go out and bring people to Jesus. All but maybe two percent of us secretly hoped that the person in the next pew up was going to do that, because we’re sure not. We all love evangelism. And we’re all very thankful for every effort that anyone puts in in that area. Because, as long as someone else does it, maybe I don’t have to.
Because being a fisher of men is hard. Giving up everything is hard. Leaving behind your family, your livelihood, and any semblance of normalcy is hard. Proclaiming Christ in this world risks all of that. And while it’s great that Peter and Andrew, James and John all did it, we find so often that we simply can’t. Which inevitably leads to the question of whether or not I have enough faith after all. Jesus needs me, but I can’t be there for Him. I want to be a disciple, but I can’t do what disciples do. If “[t]he important this is this: that we know that all we have is the Lord’s, to be used for His purpose”, the purpose of fishing for men, then we have continually failed in the important thing.
However, while we’re here going back and forth between fear and guilt, Zebedee is back out in his boat, fishing. Did we ever notice that before? The father of James and John. The husband of Salome, one of the women at Jesus’ resurrection. The man who was also related to the High Priest, so that his son John could get Peter onto the grounds of the trial the night when Jesus was betrayed. This faithful man was not called by Jesus to be a fisher of men like his sons. Instead, he was left in his boat to be a fisher of fish.
And while we’d love to take that fact as a great relief, something about doing that doesn’t quite sit well with us. We know that bringing people to Jesus is important. We know we can’t just dismiss it just because it’s terrifying to think about. What God wants us to do is something we absolutely must consider, even though most of us aren’t going to do anything about it. And that struggle isn’t just something we have with evangelism, it’s a struggle we have with every single part of the Law of God. If we care about that Law. And honestly look at ourselves. Then every time we try to respond to that Law by doing the right thing for Jesus, we come face to face with that cycle of fear and guilt.
I can’t tell you how many times I have done that, even as a pastor. How many times I’ve done that here, standing in front of Bible Study, or sitting down with someone in my office, or out on a visit. Trying to figure out what the right thing to do, the right thing to say, and not fall off the fence on either side. Because I’m asked a Law question, I’m seeing it as a Law problem, which then needs a Law answer. And we do that exact same thing with today’s text.
But the Law answer to the Law problem is always that the wages of sin is death. The Law answer is always be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. There is no Law answer for the sinner that forgives us, saves us, lets us live. That’s why it’s so hard to get an answer we can live with from the Law. It always accuses us. But even Jesus answers Law questions with Law answers, because that’s what the Law needs to do. And so if we ask what this text tells us what we’re supposed to do, then the Stewardship Thoughts aren’t wrong. Give up everything in service to the kingdom, because it all belongs to the Lord for His purpose.
What if we asked something else instead? What if we asked, not what we’re to do from today’s text, but rather what Jesus does? In the first part of todays text, Jesus preaches in Capernaum. And by that preaching He gave light to those in darkness, and life to those who were living in the shadow of death. In the middle part, it’s the Word of Christ that causes the nets to be dropped and the boats to be abandoned. Jesus does the work. It’s Jesus who says, “I will make you fishers of men.” I will make. I will do it. In the last part, Jesus taught first, proclaiming the Gospel. The result was that people were brought from all over to him to have the effects of their sins taken away. While we worry ourselves to death with how we could possibly do any of that, Jesus simply speaks that action into existence by His Word.
Jesus speaks “Repent,” and repentance is created in you and me by that Word. Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Literally, that the kingdom is here right now. And that kingdom is made ours by that Word. To some, Jesus speaks, “I will make you fishers of men,” and by that Word they placed into the Office of the Ministry. To others, Jesus does not speak those words. And they continue in their vocations as fishers of fish, or teachers of the taught, or workers of work, or whatever office they have been given in this life. And that is good.
But to all, Jesus teaches and proclaims His Gospel. The good news that the condemnation of the Law doesn’t fall on us. Instead, Jesus bears the entire weight of the Law on our behalf at the cross. The effects of our sin land squarely on His shoulders instead of ours. He bleeds where our blood is called for. He takes death in our place. And by the Word “It is finished,” the effects of our sin are truly at their end. Because on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead, and that resurrection is coming for me, and you, and everyone. This is the Gospel This is the important thing.
Evangelism and mission are good. You too can bring someone to Jesus, just like the crowds did in Galilee in our text. Carrying them to where Jesus is teaching and proclaiming the Gospel. But we put them in Jesus’ hands. Because it’s the Word of Christ that truly does all the work. Jesus makes that His responsibility. He holds the net to make the catch. And that doesn’t take a program, or learning all the right men fishing techniques.
Instead, we are now free to live our lives through our own vocations. The kingdom of heaven needs Zebedees just as much as Peters. For, as it is written, If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body… Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. You’re part of this body, because Jesus has fished for you. And caught you. He has brought you into His boat, into His Church. And here, no matter what Jesus calls you to, His death and resurrection are for you. The Law is fully answered in His cross and grave. And Jesus proclaims His Gospel to you. Taking away the consequences of your sin forever. Thanks be to God.
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It’s the Second Sunday of Epiphany, the season of showing and seeing. Where we see Jesus shown for who He really is. And today’s text is full of that kind of language. There are a lot of synonyms in the original Greek for our English word, “to see.” And almost all of them are used by John the Baptist today.
There’s βλέπω, which means “to see,” or “to look.” As in, “The next day, [John] saw Jesus coming toward him.” There’s ἴδου, “to behold,” or “to pay attention to.” “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” There’s θεάομαι, “to see, to experience the optical vision of.” “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him.” There’s ὁράω, “to see a particular thing.” “I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” That example also includes μαρτυρέω, which means “to bear witness,” another sight related word. And finally, there’s φανερόω, “to reveal, to make seen.” “for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” In fact, perhaps the only Greek synonym for sight we don’t have from John’s account is επιφαινω, where we get our word epiphany from.
But the point is made. You’re supposed to look, see, take in with your eyeballs, know, grasp, understand, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He’s right there. You can’t miss Him. The sacrifice. The final sin offering, final burnt offering, and final thank offering. Here is the one who doesn’t just baptize with water alone, but in His baptism He gives the Holy Spirit. He gives faith. See and bear witness with John. Because here before us all is the Son of God.
But then we have to ask, do we really see Christ? Do we actually get to look at Him? Can we possibly behold Him? Does the sight of him come into our eyes? Can we actually say that we are eye witnesses of Christ? Or is this the time we turn to the end of John’s Gospel and take hold of the words of Jesus to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed.”
Perhaps then, we should lower our standard here. Maybe we don’t see Jesus Himself, but rather, we see how Jesus works in our lives. Okay. But really, what are the kinds of things we actually notice? Where do we confess His presence the most? Where do we see Jesus? “On my way in, every traffic light was green, God must really be with me today.” “I was going to pick up some lunch, and I just happened to fid a coupon for the very place I was going, God is really watching out for me.” “I lost my keys, and I prayed to God to help me find them, and guess what, I found them, with His help.” These are the kinds of things we use as proof of God’s involvement in our lives. And while I don’t deny that, God is certainly there in those places, it really doesn’t say as much as we think it does. Because we make it sound like God’s main purpose in our lives is to make our lives better, easier. And maybe that’s what we actually believe?
But if these are the prime places we see God, how in the world will we possibly have an answer when life happens? “The company managing my retirement went under, and now I have nothing left. Wasn’t God there for me?” “My grandchild is dying, and I’ve been praying to God, but nothing’s changed.” “I’m afflicted with cancer, and every day is pain. Where is God in any of this?” What do we say to those people? What can the God we’ve been looking for do about this suffering? What use is a God who can’t actually make our lives better? If we look closely, what do we see?
That’s a huge problem for Christianity in America right now. Because this life improving god is what Christians buy into, thinking it’s the same God of Scripture. They believe that “God” is there to help make things easier in this life. Popular Christian music sings this. Popular Christian books write this. Christian gifts and knick-knacks proclaim this. “God” will surely make this life better. This is what we choose to listen to. This is how we talk with each other. How we encourage one another when things go wrong. This is the depth of our evangelism efforts. And it crumbles to nothing in the face of true suffering. We have nothing to say. Because when that kind of suffering begins, we get to see just how true a god who makes life better is. And it’s not.
So then we’re left with two choices. Abandon what we’ve built on that god. Or lie. Lie to others, lie to ourselves. That despite the suffering, the good things of this life are enough. And since we mix up this false god with the true one, we don’t dare abandon our god. We’ll close our eyes. We’ll blind ourselves to the truth. We will not see.
At this point, you might say to me, “Okay wiseguy. Just what do you say to those who have lost their livelihood, their loved ones, and even themselves? What do we say to those who suffer?” We say, Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
What did Jesus come to do? What’s the job of a lamb in a sacrificial culture? Our God became human just like us so that He could suffer right beside us. Apart from Christ, there is no good to be found in suffering. We think that because suffering is bad, it is therefore a separation from God. To hurt is to be rejected by God. To be in pain is to lose heaven. And why wouldn’t we think that? After all, Hell itself is nothing but suffering. Therefore it must be the same on earth as well. But then Jesus suffered and died. And since Jesus did that, He changed the nature of suffering forever.
Because now there’s a suffering that is holy. Now there’s a suffering that is good. There’s a suffering that is heavenly, righteous, and perfect. There’s a suffering that’s godly. Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The Lamb who has no earthly possessions to call His own. The Lamb who is betrayed by his closest friends. The Lamb who is mocked, beaten, and spit upon. The Lamb who is scourged by whips, and cut by His thorny crown. The Lamb who is nailed to a cross and whose side is pierced.. The Lamb who endures the entire wrath of God over all sin poured out onto only Him. The Lamb who suffers and dies for you. And it is good.
What is your suffering next to that? And that’s not saying that you should compare your suffering as if yours weren’t that bad. But rather to now really ask, what is your suffering in light of Christ’s? Look and see. Jesus Christ has taken your suffering, what you are enduring this very day, and He made it His. What you suffer right now is also at the cross. And because Jesus has taken it there, your suffering is now good. It no longer separates you from God. It’s not there to let you know that you’ve been rejected by God. It isn’t a sign that you’ve lost heaven. Just the opposite! The very root of your suffering, your sin, is what divides you from our Lord. But see now. Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He takes away your sin as well.
We would like to see. But as we asked before, do we really see Christ? Do we actually get to look at Him? Can we possibly behold Him? Does we get to see the sight of him come into our eyes? Can we actually say that we are eye witnesses of Christ?
Yes we do. That’s why Christ gave us sacraments. That’s why we have baptism and the Lord’s Supper. So that we can see Christ’s sufferings given to us. Not only do we get to physically see where we are united with Christ in a death like His in baptism, we are physically washed with it. Not only do we get to physically see Christ’s own body, given on that cross. Not only do we get to physically see His blood shed on our behalf. We get to physically eat and drink it as well. Why do you think we sing Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us, every time we have the Lord’s Supper? Because Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
This is what John wants us so badly to see. This is the sight Epiphany reveals. Not some god who wants to make the small things in your life better, but is powerless with the big things. But rather God in the flesh, literally turning your suffering into hope, by taking all yours and making it holy through His.
Therefore, as St. Paul writes in today’s epistle lesson, “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way [even in your suffering! In every way] you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge—even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you—so that you are not lacking in any gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will sustain you to the end.” He does indeed sustain us, no matter what happens in our lives. And you are not lacking any of Christ’s gifts. You have them all. And they’re all right here. Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the World. 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 today is the Gospel lesson, where Jesus goes to John the baptist. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”
Who are the kinds of people John baptized in the Jordan river? Who do we baptize today? Is it the ones who are already clean that need to be washed? No. Rather it’s the ones who need to repent. The ones who are born sinners. The ones who are unclean. And in baptism, we are made clean.
That cleansing is easy enough to see with water. Especially for us who have been raised in a place where clean drinking water is not only common, it’s expected. We can go to just about any tap in the country and find drinkable water coming out of it. But what if that water had something in it? Would we trust it so easily if we were in a third-world country? What if it came out of the tap brown or green? What if it came from the river, just down stream of the sewage spout? What if it were the water saved by the butcher after cleaning his cutting boards? Would we still look at that water in the same way? As something that could make us clean? Probably not.
And if we don’t trust that kind of water to make us clean physically, then it’s probably just as unlikely that we’d use such dirty water in our baptismal font. Because what sense would it make to be spiritually cleansed by becoming physically dirty? Because that’s what baptism does. “Be baptized every one one you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of all your sins.” “Baptism now saves you.”
We love baptism. Because Christ works in it for us. In it are the promises of Jesus. In fact, we see foreshadows of baptism all throughout the Old Testament. From the Spirit hovering over the waters in Genesis 1. To the flood in Genesis 6-8. To the crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus 14. To the water coming from the rock in the wilderness. To the crossing of the Jordan by Joshua and the people. To Jonah being thrown into the sea. And those are the ones the New Testament points us to. There’s also a prefiguring of baptism pretty much any time there’s a water reference. And, sometimes, even when there’s not.
So why don’t we spend more time on the one place in the Old Testament that looks the most like the baptism that Jesus uses in our congregations today? In Exodus chapter thirty, The Lord said to Moses, “You shall also make a basin of bronze, with its stand of bronze, for washing. You shall put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it, with which Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet. When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn a food offering to the Lord, they shall wash with water, so that they may not die. They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die. It shall be a statute forever to them, even to him and to his offspring throughout their generations.”
Architecturally, the bronze basin is to our font, as the bronze altar is to our altar. Likewise, when we are washed in Christ’s baptism, we are made priests. That washing brings us into the tent of meeting, His Church. That baptism is the entrance rite that brings us near the altar to receive Christ’s body and blood. Our sins are washed away in that water and Word, so that we would not die. That baptism is ours forever.
The parallels are actually pretty amazing. And they’re there when we look at John’s baptism as well. The people are baptized into repentance. They are prepared for God in the flesh to come to them. They are washed from their sins. And yes, John’s baptism isn’t quite all what Jesus’ baptism is. But the people could see the parallels to the events at the temple, and understand. You’d think that this Old Testament text would be a great place to find baptism.
Though perhaps there is a reason we aren’t so keen to look there. The priests aren’t the only thing washed in the bronze basin. Leviticus, chapter one gave directions on how to prepare sacrifices. And verse nine tells us this. “But its entrails and its legs he shall wash with water, and the priest shall burn all of it on the altar.” And where was the water to wash the sacrifice with? The bronze basin. That’s actually kinda gross. Because what’s all over those insides is now in that basin. The same basin that the priests wash themselves with. Turns out that not all kosher laws were supposed to be for sanitary reasons. Because this is not sanitary. This is not clean. It’s as revolting as using dirty water in our baptismal fonts. How can it be clean?! There’s blood in the water!
And that’s precisely the point. There’s a reason why when John says to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus is the sacrifice. And as the sacrifice, Jesus needs to be washed at the basin. Jesus needs to be washed in the water. Because if we’re washing priests, there needs to be blood in the water. If we’re going to the tent of meeting, there needs to be blood in the water. If we’re going to be at the altar, there needs to be blood in the water. If we want to live, and not die, there needs to be blood in the water. If we’re going to have our sins washed away, there needs to be blood in the water. If baptism saves as Christ promises, then His blood absolutely must be in the water. And it is. That’s what it means for Jesus to fulfill all righteousness. Because every promise, both Old and New are completed by that blood.
From all our experience in the world, we want to cry out “unclean!” when we see the blood in the water. But It’s Christ’s blood shed for us. And, it is written, what God has made clean, do not call unclean. You have indeed been washed and made clean by the blood of the Lamb. You have dipped in your robes, and they have been made as white as snow. The blood has been shed for your sin. And forgiveness has been delivered to you. Through that baptism, Christ has opened heaven to you. The Father sees you, and says, “This is My beloved son with whom I am well pleased.” The Spirit comes and rests upon you. And the fulfillment of all righteousness has indeed been given to you. That’s what baptism does. That’s why it’s so very important.
That’s why we have our kids learn by heart the words from the catechism. “Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s word.” “It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.” Because baptism is as big as it gets. And that’s why we remember our own baptisms every day. For not only did Christ step into history two thousand years ago in the Jordan river, He steps in again and again for each and every one of us. Because it’s His blood in the water. And all His promises are there. Thanks be to God.