Like newborn infants

The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a novel by Victor Hugo, tells the story of a baby who was left on the steps of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris the Second Sunday of Easter. The baby was found and adopted by a priest, who gave the baby a name derived from the Latin name for that day. The story of Quasimodo is not much of an Easter story. It has more sorrow than joy, more tragedy than triumph. Yet its origins link the novel to the life of the Church, and as such the story can be used to illustrate and celebrate the Christian season of Easter.

But a few things must be explained. When I was a boy and heard that the story of “the Hunchback of Notre Dame” would be shown on television, I assumed that the movie would be about football. I knew that Notre Dame had a football team (confusing the university in Indiana, USA, with the cathedral in Paris, France). I guessed that hunchback was a football position, something like quarterback and halfback and fullback. I did not expect priests and gypsies to be part of the story. But I saw the movie; I have read the book several times since then. Quasimodo and Esmeralda are as meaningful to me as the three musketeers or Christine Daae. Classic French literature is a joy, even if its sentences and paragraphs require more effort to consume than our post-Hemingway American novels and stories.

Other people might question what is meant by “the Second Sunday of Easter.” The traditional Christian calendar assigns more than a day to Easter—the Easter season is a week of weeks, forty-nine days, ending on the fiftieth day which is the festival of Pentecost, celebrating the work of the Holy Spirit. During those seven weeks, especially on the seven Sundays, the resurrection continues to be celebrated—not with colored eggs and candy, but with Bible readings and hymns and sermons and prayers that remember the resurrection of Jesus Christ and apply his victory to our lives today.

Like all the Sundays and holidays on the Christian calendar, the Sundays of Easter each have a special “praise song” called an Introit. The words of the Introit are taken from the Bible, mostly from the book of Psalms, although other verses of praise are also used. The Introit for the Second Sunday of Easter begins with a quote from I Peter 2:2-3: “Like new-born infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.” The Latin words for “like new-born infants” are “Quasi Modo Geniti”—hence the name given to the baby hunchback, Quasimodo.

The Quasimodo theme, though, is not about human deformities or about dancing gypsies. Quasi Modo Geniti speaks of new life—the new life Christians receive through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In his work, Christians are born again. Our old sinful selves are killed and buried with Christ; our new selves are raised with Christ and live with Christ forever. In his letter to the Romans, chapter six, the apostle Paul links this death and burial and resurrection to Baptism. Therefore, traditional Christians claim to be “born again,” not because of any prayer they prayed or invitation they gave to Jesus, but because of his death and burial and resurrection, because of baptism, and because of the ongoing work of God the Holy Spirit in their lives.

Because God is outside of time and unlimited by time, his people can be new every day. Every day we can be born again; every day we can be “like new-born infants.” Every song of praise is a new song sung to the Lord, even if we sang it before, even if Christians have been singing it for centuries. The commandment to love one another is a new commandment every day. Christ spoke it as a new commandment the night he was betrayed, but it had already been spoken in the past by Moses and the prophets. It is new because Christians are new—new-born infants, born every day through the resurrection of Christ and through his forgiveness, his restoration, and his transforming power.

Two years ago, the cathedral of Notre Dame was damaged by fire. Today it is being rebuilt. That holy place, dedicated to God, is both old and new, transformed even as each Christian is transformed through the work of Jesus. The fire of God’s judgment is quenched by the water of his Sacrament, washing away our sins and adopting us into God’s family. Jesus endured that fire for us on the cross. Jesus provided us with victory. Jesus makes us new every day—born again by his grace as children of the heavenly Father and heirs of the kingdom of heaven. We have tasted that the Lord is good. We rejoice in his goodness forever. J.

Easter hymn

Christ is arisen

From the grave’s dark prison.

So let our song exulting rise:

Christ with comfort lights our eyes. Alleluia!

All our hopes were ended

Had Jesus not ascended

From the grave triumphantly

Our never-ending life to be. Alleluia!

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

So let our song exulting rise:

Christ, our comfort, fills the skies. Alleluia!

Traditional German Easter hymn, ca. 1100.

A Good Friday hymn

O sacred Head, now wounded, With grief and shame weighed down,

Now scornfully surrounded With thorns, Thine only crown.

O sacred Head, what glory, What bliss ‘til now was thine!

Yet, though despised and gory, I joy to call Thee mine.

Men mock and taunt and jeer Thee, Thou noble countenance,

Though mighty worlds shall fear Thee And flee before Thy glance.

How art Thou pale with anguish, With sore abuse and scorn!

How dost Thy visage languish That once was bright as morn!

Now from Thy cheeks has vanished Their color, once so fair;

From Thy red lips is banished The splendor that was there.

Grim death, with cruel rigor, Hath robbed Thee of Thy life;

Thus Thou hast lost Thy vigor, They strength, in this sad strife.

My burden in Thy Passion, Lord, Thou hast borne for me,

For it was my transgression Which brought this woe on Thee.

I cast me down before Thee; Wrath were my rightful lot.

Have mercy, I implore Thee; Redeemer, spurn me not!

My Shepherd, now receive me; My Guardian, own me Thine.

Great blessings Thou didst give me, O Source of gifts divine.

Thy lips have often fed me With words of truth and love;

Thy Spirit oft hath led me To heavenly joys above.

Here I will stand beside Thee, From Thee I will not part;

O Savior, do not chide me! When breaks Thy loving heart,

When soul and body languish In death’s cold, cruel grasp,

Then, in Thy deepest anguish, Thee in mine arms I’ll clasp.

The joy can ne’er be spoken, Above all joys beside,

When in Thy body broken I thus with safety hide.

O Lord of Life, desiring Thy glory now to see,

Beside Thy cross expiring, I’d breathe my soul to Thee.

What language shall I borrow To thank Thee, dearest Friend,

For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?

Oh, make me Thine forever! And should I fainting be,

Lord, let me never, never, Outlive my love for Thee.

My Savior, be Thou near me When death is at my door;

Then let Thy presence cheer me, Forsake me nevermore!

When soul and body languish, Oh, leave me not alone,

But take away mine anguish By virtue of Thine own!

Be Thou my Consolation, My Shield, when I must die;

Remind me of Thy Passion When my last hour draws nigh.

Mine eyes shall then behold Thee, Upon Thy cross shall dwell,

My heart by faith enfold Thee. Who dieth thus dies well.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153)

A Palm Sunday hymn

Ride on, ride on in majesty!

Hark! All the tribes Hosanna cry,

O Savior meek, pursue Thy road,

With palms and scattered garments strowed.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!

In lowly pomp ride on to die.

O Christ, Thy triumphs now begin

O’er captive death and conquered sin.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!

The angel armies of the sky

Look down with sad and wond’ring eyes

To see th’approaching sacrifice.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!

The last and fiercest strife is nigh.

The Father on His sapphire throne

Awaits His own anointed Son.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!

In lowly pomp, ride on to die.

Bow Thy meek head to mortal pain,

Then take, O God, Thy pow’r and reign.

Henry H. Milman (1791-1868)

Christ’s new covenant

(a sermon on Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Mark 10:35-45)

              We take it for granted, and generally we don’t even think about it. When we do stop and think about it, the topic confuses us. Sometimes it seems to rush by quickly; other times it seems to drag. Physicists like Isaac Newton assumed that it is the same for everyone everywhere, but Albert Einstein insisted that it is relative. Many modern philosophers say that it doesn’t really exist, that it is only there when we notice it.

              This strange quality is called time. We measure time with years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, and seconds. Without time, nothing could move and nothing could change. Nothing would be new or old if time did not exist. Time has a direction: we move from past to present and from present to future. Because of time, we have worries; and because of time, we have hope. Our lives are shaped by time. Yet the more we think about time, the less we understand it.

              God created time. He made the universe and all that exists in it “in the beginning.” God established time by making evening and morning, the first day. Our relationship to the sun creates days and years; our relationship to the moon creates months. Weeks are special; God created weeks by making the world in six days and resting on the seventh day, giving the people created in his image a day of rest every seventh day. God’s commandments of sabbath rest extended to sets of seven years, in which farmland got to rest every seventh year. God also created the Jubilee Year after every seven sets of years. On the Jubilee Year, debts were canceled, slaves were set free, and land was returned to the families who had received that land from God.

              God created time. We live in time. Our relationship with God works in time. When God speaks to us, he mentions time. Yet time does not limit God. He exists in time, but he also exists beyond time. To God, it is always “today.” God is eternal and unchanging. He sees all time at a glance. To God, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. “Old” and “new” do not have meaning to God as they have meaning to us. Therefore, when God speaks to us, he uses our sense of “old” and “new.” Yet to God, everything is new and nothing is old. What seems old to us might be very recent for God, and what seems new to us might be old news for God.

              The prophet Jeremiah lived centuries after the time of Moses. When God called Moses, he had Moses lead the Israelites out of Egypt on their way to the Promised Land. On the way, Moses and the Israelites stopped at Mount Sinai, and God made a covenant with his people. He said, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” God spoke about the behavior of his people under that covenant. They would have no other gods. They would respect God’s name, God’s time, and the human authorities that represent God’s authority. They would love their neighbors and respect their lives, their marriages, their property and their reputations. They would be content with what God provided them; they would not covet the things God provided to their neighbors.

              Under the terms of this old covenant, God would bless his people when they obeyed him, and God would punish his people when they disobeyed him. While his people obeyed, God would provide favorable weather, fertile fields, abundance of crops, and security from their enemies. But if they broke the covenant, God would withhold the rain and would let the crops fail. He would allow enemies to invade and to harm his people. If they obeyed the old covenant, they could stay on the land God had given to them; but if they broke that covenant, God would take them away from the land and would force them to live among their enemies, even though their enemies were also God’s enemies.

              When Jeremiah came, the Israelites had been breaking the old covenant for generations. They had worshiped false gods, the gods of the Canaanites and other neighboring nations. They had taken advantage of one another, forcing their neighbors into poverty for their own wealth and comfort. They had broken the sabbath commandments about rest and freedom and restoration. Under the terms of the old covenant, God had no reason to provide for them or protect them. Jeremiah, like the prophets before him, warned that consequences were coming because of the broken old covenant. Enemies would destroy the nation Israel, killing many of its citizens and carrying others away from the land. God had no obligation to prevent these bad things from happening, because his people had already broken the covenant God made with them. The Assyrians and Babylonians were tools in the hands of God, instruments used to accomplish his plan according to the terms of the covenant he had spoken to his people at Mount Sinai.

              Terms of the old covenant seem natural to us. Some people call it karma. We expect good things to happen when we do good things; we expect bad things to happen when we do bad things. If we obey the commands of God, we expect God to reward us. If we break his commandments, we expect God to punish us. We all know how the old covenant works: what comes around goes around. You harvest whatever you plant. In the end, we all get what we deserve. Therefore, if something good happens to you, sometime in the past you must have done something good. If something bad happens to you, the first question you ask is, “What did I do to deserve this?”

              Jeremiah spent much of his career warning God’s people of the consequences of breaking God’s covenant. But Jeremiah, like the other prophets, knew that God has an old covenant and a new covenant. Under the old covenant we get what we deserve. Under the new covenant, God forgives our sins and blesses us. The new covenant is based on God’s grace, not on our obedience. Under the new covenant, God rescues us from our sins. He rescues us from what we deserve. He rescues us from the power of evil, because God forgives our iniquity and remembers our sin no more.

              The new covenant is not fair. The new covenant involves an exchange. In that exchange, the Son of God becomes one of us and lives among us. He obeys the commandments and earns God’s blessings. He deserves nothing but good. But, in the new covenant, the Son of God takes the burden of sins and iniquity, and he pays the price in full. The guilt of the world’s sins falls upon him, and he consumes the punishment that sinners deserve. In return, when God has forgiven iniquity and forgotten sin, he is able to bless those who broke the old covenant. God is able to claim us as his people and to give us the good things that Jesus deserves. He is our God and we are his people, just as he said in the old covenant. But the sins of our past have not destroyed that relationship. He remains our God and we remain his people, because through the cross of Christ God has forgiven our iniquity. He remembers our sin no more.

              The old covenant is fair. It makes sense. The new covenant is unfair. It transcends our understanding. In a perfectly fair world, the new covenant would not be allowed. Jesus could not suffer, because he never did anything wrong. Each of us would get what we deserve. Because we have all sinned—we all have broken the commands of God—we all have fallen short of his plan for our lives—he would no longer be our God, and we would no longer be his people.

              But God is not fair according to the terms of the old covenant. He replaces it with a new covenant that is unfair. He allows good people to suffer so he can suffer on the cross to pay for our sins. He allows sinful people to receive good things so he can give us good things we do not deserve. He is unfair for our benefit, breaking the terms of the old covenant and replacing it with a new covenant that allows him to remain our God and allows us to remain his people.

              In our travel through time, we encounter the old covenant first and then the new covenant comes later. Sinai happens first in history, and then comes Calvary. We are born knowing the justice of getting what we deserve, good in return for good and bad in return for bad. We then are told about the new covenant, an agreement when God reverses everything we took for granted. He absorbs our guilt upon the cross, paying our debt, reducing his wrath to zero; and he forgets our sins, gives us good things we do not deserve, and changes us to be his people. As a result, we also forgive those who sin against us. We also give good things to our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. We also are unfair, showing love and mercy to our neighbors and loving them, even and especially when they do not deserve our love.

              For us, grace and mercy are a new covenant. For that reason, God speaks of an old covenant at Sinai and a new covenant at Calvary. But to God, nothing is old and nothing is new. In fact, the new covenant is (in a sense) older than the old covenant, because the new covenant is truer to the nature of God. God responds to sin with punishment; he reacts to evil by judging and condemning evil. At the core of his nature, though, God is love. He wants to give good things even to those who do not deserve good things. He wants to rescue victims of sin and evil. He wants the world to be good, and therefore he restores what is good, fixes what is broken, and reshapes us into the image of Christ after we first sinned and lost the image of God. He is our God, and we are his people, because that is what God desires. Forgiveness is more natural to God than judgment. He sees our sins for a while, but the blood of Christ erases our sins. Every day, in the sight of God, we are new people—cleansed, restored, and spotless in the eyes of God. Every song of praise we sing is a new song to God, and every time he tells us to love each other is a new commandment, because we never stop being new in the new covenant God has established with us through the cross of his Son.

              The old covenant comes in the course of time. The new covenant stands outside of time. Before God began to create, before he said, “Let there be light,” he had already planned our salvation. He knew that we would sin. He knew that his covenant based on our obedience would be broken. He knew the price he would pay to rescue us from the punishment we deserve. But God had already chosen his new covenant. That new (and timeless) covenant rests in the eternal and unchanging love of God, love by which God chooses to become a victim of evil on the cross to rescue us victims of evil and give us a share in his victory over evil and sin and death.

              We live under the terms of the new covenant. The old covenant no longer threatens us with punishment for our sins. But sometimes we forget where we live. We still want the benefits of the old covenant, so long as its judgment applies to others and not to ourselves. James and John, the disciples of Jesus, were thinking of the old covenant when they asked a special favor of Jesus. They wanted to be at his right hand and at his left when he claimed his glory. They were thinking in Old Testament terms of the kingdom, the power, and the glory when they made this request. They were not considering the unfair new covenant that Jesus had come to fulfill. Jesus denied them a place at his right and at his left when he claimed his kingdom and came into his glory. Those places belong to others—not to Moses and Elijah, not to Simon Peter, not to Martin Luther or any other great Christian heroes. Jesus claimed his kingdom and accomplished his glory on a cross. At his right and his left were two thieves, being punished for their crimes under the old covenant. Because Jesus was establishing his new covenant, when one of those thieves confessed his faith, he was promised a place with Jesus in Paradise. James and John and the rest of us are also promised a place in Paradise, not under the old covenant where people get what they deserve, but under the new covenant where, by grace through faith, we are forgiven of our sins and claimed as the people of God.

              Speaking of both covenants, Jesus speaks of a baptism and of a cup. Baptism washes and purifies. Jesus endured the cross as a baptism of fire, a baptism of his Father’s wrath, so we could be spared that wrath and our sins could be forgotten. The cup of God’s wrath is filled with our guilt and our sins. This cup contains a poison that kills, for the wages of sin is death. But Jesus drinks the poison in that cup. He consumes the wrath of his Father so he can adopt us into his family, making each of us a child of God.

              Jesus has another baptism, one of water rather than fire. Having endured the fire for us, Jesus washes us with water in Holy Baptism. As the new covenant is stronger than the old covenant, so the water of Holy Baptism extinguishes the fire of judgment and gives us eternal life in God’s kingdom.

              Jesus has another cup, the cup of salvation, the cup of the New Testament. At his Table, Jesus trades cup with us. He takes our cup, the cup of wrath, the poisoned cup, and he drinks from it until it is empty. Jesus did not want to drink from that cup. In Gethsemane, he prayed that the cup of his Father’s wrath would be taken from him. But he accepted the will of his Father and drank from that cup. Now, in exchange, Jesus gives us his cup. “This is the cup of the New Testament,” he says, “given for the forgiveness of your sins.” His blood removes our sins, because he shed that blood to take away our sins. They are forgiven and forgotten by God because of the work of Christ on the cross. As often as we drink from his cup of salvation, we proclaim the death of Christ until he comes. We proclaim the death that conquered death, the death that was followed by resurrection so we could rise to eternal life according to the terms of God’s new covenant.

              Jesus did not come to claim what belonged to him under the old covenant. The Son of Man did not come to be served. He came to serve and to give his life as a Ransom. Because he is a Ransom, our debt is paid. Our sins are forgiven and forgotten. The God who made all things—who created time itself—has chosen to be our God. He has chosen us to be his people. We are new every day because of the new covenant, the covenant fulfilled by Jesus through his sacrifice on the cross. To our Savior Jesus Christ be glory and honor and praise, now and forever.                 Amen.

Two plans: creation and salvation

              A story is told about a father and his son who took a donkey to town to sell it at the market. When they left their home, the father and his son walked alongside the donkey, one on the right and the other on the left. But the father overheard some people along the road commenting, “What a waste of a good animal, to carry nothing while both of them walk.” So the father told his son to ride the donkey. Soon he heard another group of people saying, “What a thoughtless boy, to ride the donkey while his father walks.” So the father had his son get off the donkey and instead he rode. But then he heard other people saying, “What a mean father, to make his son walk while he rides the donkey.” So the father told his son to get in front of him on the donkey so both of them would ride. But then the father heard some people say, “That poor donkey! How cruel of them to make it carry all that weight.” The father finally decided that he and his son would carry the donkey to town. Finally, they heard no more comments, because people were laughing too hard to say anything. Finally, the donkey lost patience, struggled, and ran off across the fields, and the father had no donkey to sell in town. The moral of the story is that you cannot please all of the people all of the time, so you might as well not try.

              Even the Almighty God cannot make everyone happy. The message of his Bible contains two simple plans that relate to us, his people. Lutherans call these plans Law and Gospel. They have many other names. From Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we might call them the plan of creation and the plan of salvation. Even with two simple plans, God often finds his people confusing them, mixing them, and misunderstanding how those two plans relate to our lives. Even among Christians who trust the Bible and believe that it is true, a trustworthy message from God, we still find many differences relating to these two plans and what they mean for our lives as God’s people.

              Why were you born? Why are you here on this earth? What is the purpose of your life? Paul says that we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand. God is love, and we were made in his image. We are created to love God wholeheartedly and to love our neighbors as ourselves. God’s Ten Commandments tell us how to love. If ten commandments are not enough for you, more than six hundred more commandments can be found in just the first five books of the Bible. All of these commandments are about love. They tell us how to love God. They tell us how to love our neighbors. They tell us how to be the people God had in mind when he created us in the beginning.

              God’s perfect world has become polluted by sin and evil. We are frequently tempted to sin, and every day we surrender to temptation. We rebel against God. We fail to love. We fall short of God’s plan for our lives. When we sin, God’s plan of creation cannot rescue us from evil. We are like the victim of robbers in the parable of the Good Samaritan. God’s good commandments, like the priest and the Levite, walk past us without stopping to help. Only a second plan can save us. This second plan is God’s plan of salvation. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. Jesus is the Good Samaritan who stops to rescue us, to heal us, to restore us. Whoever believes in him will not perish. Instead, through the plan of salvation, we receive eternal life. We are saved by grace, through faith, not by works. We are snatched out of the clutches of evil. Our sins are forgiven, and the sins committed against us are likewise cancelled. We belong to God, and no power in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.

              These two plans of God are vitally important. They are also fairly simple. God created us to do good works, to love as he loves, to forgive as he forgives. God loves us and rescues us by grace through faith when we sin and when we are hurt by evil in this world. When we want to know why we are here, we consult the plan of creation, the commandments of God, the Law. When we want to know how to be forgiven, how to have life, how to be free from evil, we consult the plan of salvation, the grace of God, the Gospel. Both plans are God’s plans. Both plans are important. Both plans give meaning to our lives. But even Christians who know both plans sometimes go off course when we start confusing these plans and mixing these plans and muddling the messages God has given us about these plans.

              God does not save us from sin and evil because we try our best to do what is good. Our best efforts are not good enough for God. God has zero tolerance for sin and evil. He hates sin because it hurts the people God loves. We cannot contribute anything to God’s plan of salvation. Jesus does all the work to rescue us. When we think that we are helping Jesus to save us, we are only getting in his way. We insult God by suggesting that he saved us because of good things we were doing. Even seeking God, even giving our hearts to God, even inviting Jesus to be our Savior, even these are not good works that contribute to our salvation. Jesus is the Shepherd who seeks us and finds us; we do not find him. Jesus claims our hearts, even though our hearts are stained and corrupted by sin and selfishness, hardly worthy of being gifts to him. Our decision to be God’s people means nothing: God’s decision to rescue us is the only decision that matters in God’s plan of salvation.

              God does not save us from sin and evil because of the good things we will do for him once we are saved. God’s grace restores the image of God that we had because of creation, the image of God that was damaged and lost through sin and rebellion. We are not yet perfect and sinless: we sin every day and need God’s forgiveness every day. God made us so we would do good works; God does not save us so we do good works. God saves us because he loves us. God gives his Son out of love. God rescues us by grace through faith, not because of works. Being forgiven, being rescued, we begin to be transformed into the image of Christ. His love enters our lives so we love God more and we love our neighbors more. But the good things we do are caused by the plan of salvation; they are not the reason for the plan of salvation. We cannot repay God for saving us, any more than we can purchase his salvation in the first place. Being saved by grace through faith is the result of God’s love, not a result of our love.

              Therefore, we cannot measure our salvation by the good things we do for God. We cannot be sure that we are going to heaven because of the good things we do for God. Other people see the good things we do out of love and recognize us as saints. Seeing our good works, they praise our Father in heaven. Our good works testify to others about God’s goodness, but they do not testify to our hearts. For one thing, we know our sins, our darkness hidden in our hearts from the rest of the world. We know how far we still remain from the perfect love God planned for us. We know our mixed motives for doing good, the times that we do the right things for the wrong reasons. For another, because we are Christians, our eyes and our hearts and our minds are to be focused on Jesus, not on ourselves. If we want to measure salvation, we look at the Savior. If we want to be sure that we belong to God and his kingdom, we reassure ourselves by God’s promises and not by our good works.

              We do not live up to the plan of creation. God’s Law guides our lives, but it does not lead us into heaven. When we have sinned, when we are victims of evil, the Law cannot help us. All we can do is throw ourselves on God’s grace and mercy. We confess our sins and ask him to forgive us. We call out to God for help, trusting his promises. We turn to the plan of salvation, setting aside the plan of creation so long as we need to be rescued from evil and restored to the people that belong to God.

              Jesus helps us. God gave his only Son. Jesus became human, became one of us, so he could accomplish the plan of creation in our place. He obeyed all the commandments of his Father, and he gives us the credit for his goodness. He trades places with us, letting us be blessed as he deserves while taking the blame for our sins. He clothes us in his righteousness, putting instead on his shoulders all of our guilt. On the cross, Jesus pays our debt. He accepts the wrath of his Father at sin and evil so he can give us instead the grace of his Father, bringing us his victory over sin and evil and death.

              Jesus fights the war against sin and evil and death, and Jesus wins the victory. He is the light shining in darkness, the light that the darkness can never overcome. On his own, Jesus defeated all the forces of darkness. He defeated all the sins ever committed, including my sins and your sins. He defeated the devil and all the evil forces that work against his plans. He defeated death—the wages of sin, the result of rebellion against God, the end of all that fails to match God’s plan of creation. Jesus proves that love is stronger than hate, stronger than pride, stronger than selfishness. Jesus loves, and so he sacrifices himself to rescue the people he loves. To the forces of evil, love is weakness. To Jesus, love is strength and glory. Love prevails; love triumphs; love never fails. We belong to him because of his love, which is bigger than all our failures and shortcomings.

              Therefore, Jesus gives us the gift of faith. We are saved by grace through faith. Faith cannot save us unless it is faith in Christ and him crucified. If we put faith in ourselves or in our good works, that faith cannot save us. Only God’s grace saves us, but that grace saves us through the faith God has given us. Faith is nothing we do for God—not a good work, not a gift, not even a decision. Faith is the relationship God has established with us. Faith is our confidence that the promises of God are true, and that confidence could not exist if God had not given us his promises.

              Therefore, God delivers those promises to us in ways that we call the Means of Grace. He speaks to us in the Church, promising us forgiveness. He speaks to us in the Bible, telling us his plans and bringing us his promises. He speaks to us in Holy Baptism, washing away our sins and adopting us as his children. He speaks to us in Holy Communion, bringing the body and blood of our Savior from the cross to assure us of forgiveness and eternal life and victory over all evil.

              None of these Means of Grace are good works that we do for God. We do not come to Church to earn forgiveness; we come to receive it as a gift. We do not read the Bible to earn forgiveness; we read it to gain faith in God and to strengthen that faith. We are not baptized to earn a place in God’s family; we are adopted by the price Jesus paid for us on the cross. We do not eat and drink at God’s table to earn his blessings; we receive those blessings by God’s grace as Jesus serves us his body with the bread and gives us his blood with the wine.

              The plan of creation is restored in our lives by the power of the plan of salvation, the grace of God. Being adopted as his children, we are transformed into the image of Christ, learning again how to love God and how to love our neighbors. We walk in the light, not in the darkness. We look to Jesus, putting our faith in him, and being saved by him we also are changed by him so we can be the faithful people of God.

              This salvation rests on God’s love. God so loved the world that he gave his Son. God’s grace rescues us and claims us forever for God’s kingdom and his family. We were in sin and darkness and death, but God has made us alive through Jesus. To our Savior Jesus Christ be thanks and glory and praise and honor, now and forever.                   Amen.

A sermon on the Ten Commandments

              God created us. God has the right to tell us how to live our lives. Jesus Christ redeemed us. We do not belong to ourselves; we were bought with a price. Again, Jesus has the right to tell us how to live. The Holy Spirit guides us to be the children of God, telling us what to do and what not to do. But does God obey his own rules? Does God do everything he tells us to do? And is God careful not to do any of the things he tells us not to do?

              God commands, “You shall not covet.” We are not to want the things that belong to other people. But God says of himself, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.” Can God be jealous when coveting is wrong? Or are coveting and jealousy two different things?

              In modern English, we often use the word “jealousy” to mean the same thing as “envy” or “coveting.” But jealousy has a second meaning which is more appropriate to describe God. A jealous person wants to keep what belongs to him or to her. God commands us not to commit adultery—if a woman appears guilty of breaking this commandment, her husband might be jealous. God commands us not to steal. A jealous person might be angry when someone steals things from him or from her. This kind of jealousy is different from envy and from coveting. Wanting to keep what belongs to you is not a sin. Since God made us and God redeemed us, we belong to him. God says, “I am the Lord your God.” All his commandments tell us how to remain in a right relationship with God, how to remain God’s people so God does not have to be jealous about losing us.

              Therefore, God gives us ten commandments to tell us how his people act. We all agree that there are ten commandments, even though we do not all number them the same way. Lutherans combine the commandments about having no other gods and about not making and worshiping idols. Other people divide those two commandments and combine the commandments against coveting. For this reason, if you mention the sixth commandment to a group of Christians, some will think you are talking about adultery, but others will think you are talking about murder. Some people even make both combinations. They say that the first commandment, the most basic commandment, is the proclamation, “I am the Lord your God.” Those words tell us the reason we try to obey all the other commandments. As Luther pointed out, our obedience to all the commandments of God reflects back to our relationship with God. We obey his commandments because we fear God and because we love God.

              We know, of course, that we should love God. God is love. He made us in his image. We are meant to love—we are meant to love God with our whole hearts, and we are meant to love our neighbors as ourselves. If our love was perfect, we would need no other commandments. Because our love is imperfect, God needs to tell us how to love. At Mount Sinai, he delivered these commandments along with fire and smoke, lightning and thunder, earthquakes, and the blaring of trumpets. We hear these commands and sing about them in more subdued circumstances, but God means these commandments for us as seriously as he meant them for his chosen people centuries ago.

              We should have no other gods. Nothing should matter to us more than God. Not only should we love God more than anything else; we also should fear God more than anything else. Our fear of God is not meant to make us run away and hide from God. We love God and trust God. But, remembering that God is always with us—that he sees everything we do and hears everything we say and even knows our thoughts—we guide our lives by his commandments. Even when we fear other powers that want us to break God’s Law, our love for God and our fear of God guides us to do what is right instead of wandering into sin and shame and guilt.

              Therefore, we have no other gods. We do not create idols and images to worship. God is not opposed to religious artwork. The same God who spoke the Ten Commandments also designed the Ark of the Covenant, topped with two angels. But our artwork does not replace God. We cannot control God by capturing him in a piece of art. We keep God’s name holy and we give God his holy time, but we never let his name or his time or anything else that belongs to God take the place of God himself.

              Holy things belong to God. His name is holy. His day is holy. This church is a holy place, because we have dedicated it to God. We are holy people, because God has chosen us for himself. God hates it when we misuse holy things. He takes it as a personal insult when we take what is holy and try to use it for our own purposes. Our Gospel reading for this morning shows how Jesus reacts when holy things are misused. Because we love God, we will respect everything that belongs to him, everything that has become holy because it is the property of God.

              We respect authority in this world because of God. Whether we agree or disagree with our rulers, we treat their authority is holy, as something that comes from God. This holiness begins in the family, where we honor father and mother as pictures of God the Father. This holiness continues in the school, the workplace, the community, and the nation. Parents and teachers and managers and government officials are sinful human beings like the rest of us. They make mistakes; they can be wrong. Yet we respect their office of authority, because all authority comes from God. We honor and serve our parents and others in authority to show our honor and respect for God.

              We also love our neighbors. We respect their lives, so we do nothing that harms their lives. Even selfish anger toward another person is sinful. Instead, we help them to care for their lives and preserve their lives. We respect their marriages. Those of us who are married love our husband or wife and remain faithful; and all of us help our neighbors to do the same by respecting marriage and the privileges of marriage. We respect our neighbors’ property. We take care of what God has given us, and we help our neighbors take care of what God has given them. We respect our neighbors’ reputations. We speak the truth in love, and we correct others when they say things we know are not true.

              God has given good things to our neighbors. He has also given us good things. Because we love and fear God, and because we love our neighbors, we remain content with those good things God has given us. We are happy for our neighbors when they have good things. We do not covet our neighbors’ house, or anything our neighbor has that can be bought with money. We do not covet our neighbors’ husband or wife, our neighbors’ workers, or even our neighbors’ animals. If they belong to our neighbor through love and loyalty, we respect that relationship. Like God, we can be jealous, wanting to keep and protect what is ours. But we never covet; we never resent our neighbors for having good things we do not have. Our contentment comes from loving and trusting God, who takes care of us and of our neighbors in all the things we need.

              We know, of course, that the Israelites who heard these commandments from God did not obey them. Forty days after they heard these commandments, they had already built a golden calf and started to worship it. Through the history of Israel, they broke these commandments repeatedly. God had to discipline his chosen people, sending Midianites and Philistines and Assyrians and Babylonians to bring judgment upon his people. But, because they broke the covenant God made with them, God also promised a new covenant that would be based on grace, not on obedience.

              We know that we have sinned. We have fallen short of God’s plan for our lives. We have not loved God with our whole hearts. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We sin. If we still lived under the old covenant, we would also be subject to judgment. We have joined the rebellion against God; we have cooperated with God’s enemies by doing what we want instead of doing what God wants.

              God hates sin. He does not hate sin because he is selfish and wants all the attention on himself. God hates sin because it spreads. It pollutes the good world he made, and it hurts the people who live in that world. When we sin, the evil we commit does not lie just between us and God. It hurts other people. Sin lingers in the world. The third and fourth generation still carry the burden of sins committed by their ancestors. Every act of disobedience adds to the pollution of sin in this world. God is jealous; we does not want us to rebel, and he does not want us to hurt the other people that God loves. Therefore, God still threatens judgment on all those who sin, on all those who break even the smallest of his commandments.

              But we live under the new covenant. The thunder and fire of Mount Sinai has been taken away because of a different mountain, a mountain found in Jerusalem. There the Son of God endured all the judgment that the old covenant threatens. There he received the penalty for our sins so we could receive instead the blessings and steadfast love of God. The cross is the power of God to rescue our lives, to transfer us from the old covenant to the new covenant. The cross is the power of God to restore the fundamental truth of the old covenant, in which God says, “I am the Lord your God.” Because we belong to him, we are no longer victims of evil and shame and guilt. We are no longer threatened with death and eternal punishment. Jesus has traded places with us, taking upon his shoulders the wrath of his Father so we could receive instead the grace of his Father.

              In both the old covenant and the new covenant, God tells us the consequences of being his people. After saying, “I am the Lord your God,” he says, “you shall have no other gods… you shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain… you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal….” These words of God do not say, “Try your best to have no other gods; try your best not to murder or commit adultery or steal.” These words of God do not say, “you shouldn’t do these things” or “you’d better not do these things.” They are firm statements, statements of fact. Because he is the Lord our God, we will not have other gods. We will not murder or commit adultery or steal. We will not covet. God made us. God redeemed us. We belong to him. We are holy people, and holy people do not do such things.

              Under the old covenant, God rejected and destroyed sinners. Under the new covenant, God does not see our sins, because Jesus paid in full on the cross for all our sins. God looks at us, and he sees the righteousness of his Son. From what he sees, God can say that we have no other gods, that we do not murder or commit adultery or steal or even covet. He accepts us because Jesus has traded places with us, covering us with his righteousness and paying the full price of all our sins.

              This transfer happens at the cross, but it is made ours personally through the means of grace. The Bible delivers to us the news of the new covenant and gives us faith in those promises. The Church delivers forgiveness to us so God sees us as his children and not as rebellious sinners. Holy Baptism washes away our sins and covers us with Christ’s righteousness. Holy Communion brings us the body and blood of Jesus to guarantee us forgiveness and eternal life.

              But God is not merely blind to our sins because of the cross. His forgiveness changes us. We are being transformed into the image of Christ because of the power of the cross. We are not perfect and sinless yet. The transformation has not been completed. But God already sees us as we will be in the new creation, totally transformed so that no sin remains. We will be like Jesus. We will live with him in perfect joy and peace forever.

              Sin and evil have power. God’s grace has more power. Sin and evil corrupt what is good. God’s grace restores what is good. Sin and evil bring damage to the third and fourth generation of God’s enemies. The power of the cross brings grace and peace to thousands of generations of those who love God and cling to his Word. From the creation of Adam until today, not even one thousand generations of people have lived in this world. The power of the cross, the power of God’s grace and mercy and love, overwhelms all of history, because he remains what he always has been. He is the Lord our God.

              Jesus, the only Son of God, has brought us this grace of God. He has given us life in the new covenant. He keeps us safe in that new covenant by the power of the cross. Therefore, we are able to live as his people, content in his peace today and forever. To Jesus Christ our Savior and Redeemer be honor and praise, now and always. Amen.

(sermon delivered March 7, 2021; shared with permission. J.)

Leviticus

People trying to read the Bible cover-to-cover in one year have probably long since moved beyond Leviticus. (Or they gave up before they finished Leviticus—the string of chapters from mid-Exodus to the end of Deuteronomy is difficult to navigate, second only to the series of chapters from the beginning of Isaiah to the end of Ezekiel.) My personal plan for reading the Bible alternates between different books, helping to add understanding while reducing repetition. So in January I read Genesis, Matthew, and Ecclesiastes. In February I read Exodus, Hebrews, Romans, and Song of Solomon. Finishing Leviticus yesterday, I moved on today to Jeremiah, with Lamentations and Philemon to follow. Next month I will start with Numbers, then will read Galatians through Titus.

Either way, completing Leviticus is an accomplishment. The details of animal sacrifices and of holy living under the old covenant scarcely seem relevant to today’s Christians. Remembering, though, that the entire Bible is about Jesus, important lessons can be gathered, even from the book of Leviticus. Pictures of Jesus are present, although some of them are like photographic negatives; they require a reversal of perspective to illuminate the work of Jesus Christ as Savior. A good commentary helps readers to understand difficult books like Leviticus, and I have access to a very good commentary: Leviticus by John W. Kleinig (Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, Missouri, 2003). But the New Testament epistle to the Hebrews also provides much helpful context to understand the Old Testament book of Leviticus.

Leviticus begins with details of various animal sacrifices. Hebrews emphasizes the fact that all Old Testament animal sacrifices were pictures of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Old Testament sacrifices brought forgiveness of sin, not simply by being done, but by being done with faith in God’s promises. Therefore, in Genesis 4 Abel’s sacrifice was acceptable to God but Cain’s was not. Likewise, in some writings of the prophets and some Psalms, God says that he hates the sacrifices of his people and will not accept them. (I particularly like Psalm 50:9, which in the Revised Standard Version is translated, “I will accept no bull from your house.”) God hates it when people go through the motions of worship without faith, without focus on the work of Jesus. He loves and blesses the worship of people who come to him through faith in Christ. Like Paul, every Christian must “know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2). Because of his righteous life and his atoning sacrifice, we are acceptable to God. Without them, we are lost.

Aaron and his sons were consecrated as priests in Leviticus, chapters 8 and 9. They became pictures of Christ, the great High Priest. But when two of Aaron’s sons offered to the Lord fire that was unauthorized (“strange” or “foreign”), their gift was rejected and they were killed. Under the old covenant, nothing could be substituted for the Word of God. Even under the new covenant, nothing can replace Jesus Christ as Savior. Coming to the Father through him, we are blessed; attempting to come to the Father by any other means leads to death rather than to life.

The following chapters of Leviticus deal with impurity and uncleanness. Examples include leprosy, mildew, and non-kosher animals. In each case, that which is not holy contaminates that which is holy; the effort to remove contamination and restore holiness is extensive. In these examples we see the high cost of sin; we learn why God must reject anything that is even lightly touched by evil. Modern examples of medical sanitation, including our efforts to escape COVID contamination, are relevant here. But when Jesus came with the new covenant, he reversed the process of contamination. He removed leprosy and other contamination with a touch or a word. Contact with Jesus made people pure and holy, acceptable to God. Under the new covenant, no food is contaminated or unclean spiritually; all food is kosher, because Christ has redeemed the world from sin and evil.

In the old covenant, even priests and offerings could be contaminated by uncleanness and evil. In the new covenant, Christ’s grace and his victory over evil overwhelm all contaminations. Yet Christians are not free to do whatever our sinful hearts desire; we are still expected to shun evil and to imitate Christ. In Acts 15, the first generation tried to find a balance between obedience and freedom—they forbade some foods, including the blood of animals, as well as sexual impurity. Paul later wrote that all foods are clean, but he continued the prohibition of sexual immorality. Food cannot come between us and God. But, because God is love, our love should be pure; marriage should be a picture of God’s perfect love for us. Christ is the end of the Law, having fulfilled the Law for all people. Christ’s people live in freedom and are not burdened by the Law. But, imitating Christ, his people continue to love God and to love each other, which restricts our freedom to do all things. We are transformed by the Gospel, living as Jesus would live, walking in the light and not in the darkness.

In Leviticus 23-25, rules are given about the holidays of God’s people—the weekly holiday of the Sabbath, and annual holidays such as Passover and the Day of Atonement. All these old covenant holidays were pictures of Christ which were fulfilled by Christ. He is the Passover Lamb; he is the High Priest who provides atonement for all people. His rest on the Sabbath—his body in the tomb, his spirit in the hands of his Father—fulfilled the Sabbath. Christians are free from these laws. Many have moved the Sabbath commemoration from Saturday to Sunday; some continue to gather on Saturday, and others find another time during the week most convenient. We are free to gather when we choose. We now have Christmas and Easter to celebrate, but we are free in these matters also. Paul wrote, “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance is Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17). We learn the laws of old covenant holidays to see pictures of Jesus, our Savior. We establish new covenant holidays as pictures of Jesus, our Savior. These are no longer matters of Law; they belong to the Gospel, to grace and freedom.

The end of Leviticus establishes the old covenant, which is described in more detail in Deuteronomy. Under the old covenant, God blesses those who obey his commands and punishes those who disobey his commands. This also has been changed by Christ. We read the histories in the Old Testament, seeing how God treated his chosen people according to this old covenant. In both Testaments, we find the promises of the new covenant. God forgives the sins of his people. He transfers their guilt to his Son, who pays the debt for sin in full on the cross. His perfect righteousness is transferred to all who trust in him, adopting us into his Family and making us acceptable in his Father’s sight. We read the words of the old covenant to see what is fair and just; we read the words of the new covenant to discover God’s mercy, grace, and love. The warnings of the old covenant bring us to the cross of Christ in repentance; the promises of the new covenant flow through the cross to remove our sins, to give us life, and to share with us Christ’s healing and cleansing power, his victory over all evil.

The value of Leviticus is to give us a different perspective of Christ. Seeing the old covenant at work, we value the precious new covenant all the more. We rejoice that Christ has given himself for our salvation, acting as our great High Priest. We rejoice that Christ has removed all evil and contamination from our lives, making us pure and holy, fit to live forever in his kingdom. We rejoice that the new covenant claims us for God’s family so we belong to him and with him forever. J.

Blessed are the poor…

  Jesus says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh… But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep….” (Luke 6:20-21, 24-25)

What does this mean? Are poor Christians the only good Christians? Are wealthy people banned from the kingdom of heaven? Is money a sin and wealth a crime? Should all Christians give away their possessions and live in poverty until the Day Christ appears in glory?

Some Christians have taken the words of Jesus in that way. Others have read the rest of the Bible and have found more context for these sayings of Jesus. God has blessed the wealthy—he did not reject Abraham or David or Solomon or Lydia because they had worldly wealth. He allowed Job’s wealth to be stripped away from Job, but at the end of the test he gave Job twice as much wealth as he had at the beginning. If Jesus wanted all Christians mired in poverty, he could not expect us to give food to the hungry, clothing to the naked, or shelter to the homeless. If Jesus wanted all Christians to be mired in poverty, he would not expect his people to set aside money to help the poor, to do the work of the Church, and to support workers who spend their careers working for the Church and Christ’s kingdom.

At times, Jesus seems sympathetic toward capitalism. He tells parables about investing money, expecting a profit (Matthew 25:14-30, Luke 19:11-27). In fact, Jesus told more stories about money and investment and business than he told about planting seeds, tending crops, or taking care of sheep. Jesus knew that his followers would be involved in the world. He always intended to bless some of them with worldly wealth, making it possible for them to love their neighbors and to provide for the needs of the poor and the oppressed.

The problem is not with how much money people have; the problem is with how much money people want. A poor person can still be guilty of idolatry, dreaming about the wealth and riches he or she desires. The Ten Commandments close with warnings against coveting—wanting the property of another person. God blesses some people in poverty and some people in wealth. Being poor in spirit is not a matter of how much you own; being poor in spirit is a matter of how much your possessions own you.

The Bible endorses no economic system. Through history, most Christians have accepted whatever economic system surrounds them, doing their best to love God and serve their neighbors with any blessings God provides. When given a choice, though, the Christian does not only ask, “What is best for me?” The Christian asks, “What is best for my neighbor? Which system offers the greatest promise of helping the poor and oppressed, of making life better for all people?” In the rare instances where Christians may choose, their choice should reflect love for neighbors rather than greed and self-centered thinking.

Jesus said, “For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” When those who heard it asked, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus did not answer, “the poor, and those who give away all their possessions to become poor.” Instead, he said, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” Salvation comes only from the work of Jesus Christ. It is not earned by being poor or by becoming poor. Jesus endorses neither capitalism nor socialism; Jesus condemns neither capitalism nor socialism. He rescues sinners whether they are rich or poor or middle class; he rescues sinners whether they live in a capitalist country, a socialist country, or any other kind of country. The work of Jesus is for all people; Christianity transcends politics and economics. J.

The first shall be last, and the last shall be first

On several occasions, in different contexts, Jesus swapped the first with the last. He said it both ways: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first,” and also, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” In some contexts—such as the parable of the workers in the vineyard, in which twelve-hour workers were paid the same amount as one-hour workers—Jesus seems to be saying that all are equal, that no one is first and no one is last. That approach appeals to contemporary culture, where much emphasis is placed on the equality of all people. But a more careful study of the words of Jesus in their context, and in the teaching of his Church, shows more significance to his saying than merely, “No one is first and no one is last because everyone is the same.”

Most of us want to be first. Few of us achieve the humility of Paul, who called himself “chief of sinners” and “least of the apostles.” But none of us deserves to be first. We all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We all have failed to meet our Maker’s specifications. We all need to be rescued from our sins and from evil, redeemed from the cost of our misdeeds and failures, and reconciled again to God who made us. We cannot rescue or redeem or reconcile ourselves. We need Jesus to do these things for us.

Jesus is the only-begotten Son of the Father, and the entire universe belongs to him. He became human, like us in every way except that he never sinned. Jesus is first in a way that none of us can be first—first in divine power and glory, and first in human purity and perfection. When rewards are distributed for a righteous life, not only is Jesus first in line—he is the only one who deserves a place in line.

But Jesus, who is first, becomes last for all of us. By making himself last, Jesus makes each of us first. He puts us in the front of the line by surrendering his position to us. Being last, Jesus takes upon himself our guilt and our punishment. He goes to the cross for us so we can be rescued and redeemed. He takes for himself death, the wages of sin, so that each of us can receive the free gift of everlasting life.

God is not fair. He makes the first last, and he makes the last first. But God’s injustice is not opposed to us. God’s injustice is in our favor. Jesus is generous and does not complain that our reconciliation with God is unfair to him. Jesus gladly cheats the system, taking away our sins and giving each of us the blessings earned by his perfect righteousness.

The first becomes last to make all of us who were last into the first. No longer enemies of God, we have become the adopted children of God. In that sense we all are equal. But the first and the last trading places leads to more than equality—it leads to rescue, redemption, and reconciliation. Jesus has done this for us, because of his holy love for us. J.