23 July 2011

The Kingdom of Heaven Is at Hand

Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand. It is here with you, and for you, in the Person of Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, in His flesh and blood, in His Word and Spirit. It comes to you and is given to you by the preaching of His Gospel, that you might be rescued from the abyss, from the black hole of your sin and death, from the chaos of your idolatry and unbelief, and from the dust of the earth in which your mortal frame will be buried.

Repent, therefore, and believe the Gospel. Cease your striving for a kingdom of your own on earth, and here receive the Kingdom of heaven in the Word of Christ. And don’t suppose that you must find it for yourself, nor that you must (or even could) buy your way into it or earn your place in it. The Kingdom of heaven is not for sale at any price. Nor is it within your grasp — neither of your heart nor head nor hand. You will not storm its gates or take it; not with your feelings, nor with your hard work, nor with your intellect.

It has been hidden from before the foundation of the world in the heart of God. It is given to you from His open hand. And it is received and recognized only by the Mind of Christ, which is to say, by His Word and Spirit. For it is a divine Mystery, and it is yet hidden even in its revelation.

When Christ Jesus opens His mouth to utter the Mysteries of the Kingdom of heaven in parables, He thereby conceals from the crowds what He reveals and gives to His disciples by the catechesis of the Gospel. To this day, it remains the case that you cannot comprehend the Mystery apart from faith in the Gospel, which comes by the hearing of the Word of Christ. And even the ears by which you hear must be given to you and opened for you by the preaching of His Word.

You are His disciple — a Christian — a citizen of His Kingdom (on earth as it is in heaven) — not by your own wisdom, reason or strength, but by His apostolic Ministry of the Gospel, by His Holy Baptism, and by the ongoing catechesis of His Word. For you enter His Kingdom in the same way that it comes to you (within and through His one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church), that is, by His preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Repent, therefore. Trust Christ, and live.

He is the one true God, the only-begotten Son of the Father from all eternity, who came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made Man. He is the One who has found you — hidden in the world of sin and death — fallen, frail, weak and mortal; sinful and unclean; angry and afraid; desperate and despairing, yet prideful and arrogant; boasting of your numbers, your impressive stats, yet whining and complaining of your poverty and want. That is how He finds you. That is your condition apart from Him, under the curse of sin, subject to death and the grave. You’re made of dirt, and you’re returning to the dirt, so much so that you’re already up to your neck in it and going under, even as you go about your life in the world.

But for the sake of His divine and holy love, the Man Christ Jesus has redeemed you from your bondage to sin and death, that you might be raised up with Him to the life everlasting. Because that is what the Kingdom of heaven is like, and really what it is: the Love of God in Christ, and the Resurrection and the Life in Him. For He has purchased and won you to be His very own. He has liquidated Himself and His Life, shed His holy and precious Blood, and given His Body into death upon the Cross, in order to redeem you for Himself forever.

Indeed, He has redeemed not only you but all people. There are no exceptions. He has redeemed the whole world, and reconciled the world to God, not counting anyone’s trespasses against them.

He has given His everything to buy the entire field, for the sake of His people, His Church, His chosen possession, His Treasure.

That is how He regards you, dear child of God, in His love for you. You are holy and precious to Him. You are His pearl of great price, for whom the Father did not spare His Son but gave Him over to death, and for whom the same Son willingly suffered and died. That is your great value and precious worth: not your stats, but His steadfast love for you; not your savings account and savvy investments, but His free and full salvation, by which you are counted righteous in His sight.

Who you are, and what you are in truth, is still hidden in this world. It is hidden even from you. What you still see and feel and experience is sin and death, within you and all around you. You’re still up to your neck in the dust and the dirt. You’re still sinning every day, and you’re still being sinned against. Despite your boasting and bravado, you honestly don’t find much to brag about in yourself. Your best efforts too often fall flat and fail. Mostly what you’re given to do is the tedious bearing of the Cross for neighbors who don’t recognize any great value or priceless treasure in you. And the Cross seems hardly any way for God to prize and regard His beloved.

But, then again, who’s to wonder? You don’t really find any great value or priceless treasure in yourself, do you? You don’t much feel like such a precious pearl of great price. Leastwise, if you are honest with yourself, as a Christian, you know that you are a poor, miserable sinner, and that you surely deserve nothing but punishment for all your many sins. If you do not recognize or admit the truth of that, all the more do you need to repent.

However, this also is most certainly true, that your great value is not found in you, but in Christ, and in the price that He has paid for you in love. He looks upon you with grace, mercy and peace, and He does not see your dirty, filthy, rotten junk. He does not smell your stink. He rather rejoices over you according to His own righteousness. He perceives you entirely in His great love for you, by which you are most beautiful. He glories in you, according to His own divine grace and glory. And He credits to you His own worth, His own value, by investing Himself entirely in you: not only by giving Himself for you, but by giving Himself to you, by anointing you with His Holy Spirit, by naming you with His holy Name, and by making you a child of His God and Father.

What, then, is your value? What is your worth? It is that of God Himself. It is that of the beloved Son, who, though He was rich, yet made Himself poor, that you might inherit all the riches of the Kingdom through Him. That He has done so by the Cross — by the divine grace of His Self-sacrifice — by making Himself nothing, and humbling Himself unto death, in order to save His enemies — reveals that true value and true worth are not what the world imagines or calculates.

The world looks at the Man on the Cross and concludes that He is nothing but trash. God the Father looks upon that same crucified Man and declares, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.” And for His sake, the Father redeems and reconciles the world unto Himself.

That is why the great dragnet of the Gospel is cast far and wide and gathers fish of every kind from all the oceans and seas, all the rivers and lakes, all the ponds and streams on earth. It’s not that God is being reckless in catching good and bad alike. This isn’t one of those “kill ‘em all, and let God sort ‘em out” kind of deals. Truth be told, there are no good fish who are righteous in themselves, but all the fish are bad — not from the beginning, but ever since the fall into sin. There is no one who is righteous; no, not even one. But the Gospel gathers sinners, the bad fish, the guilty, the unrighteous and unclean, and it brings them aboard the holy ark of Christendom.

This isn’t a joke. God isn’t teasing or making sport of anyone. He preaches the Gospel of Christ Jesus sincerely to all the ends of the earth. By it sinners are truly forgiven and saved. The unrighteous are justified. The unholy are sanctified. The dirty are cleansed. The dead are raised to newness of life. For the preaching of the Gospel is the means by which God, the Lord, calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it united with Christ Jesus in the one true faith, unto the resurrection and the life everlasting.

So shall it be done, unfailingly, until the whole number of the elect from every time and place, from every tribe and tongue and nation on earth, have been gathered into the Kingdom of heaven. For those whom God foreknew from before the foundation of the world, whom He predestined to be conformed to the Image of His Son, He calls to Himself by the Gospel, and He justifies by His grace through faith in the Gospel; and those whom He thus calls and justifies by the Gospel, He shall also glorify in the Resurrection of Christ Jesus from the dead.

Until then, His Treasure remains hidden under the Cross in the world. Good and bad are gathered together in the net, the righteous and the wicked intermingled, even in the Church on earth, like the weeds entangled with the wheat.

But now, take care how you hear this, lest your ears and heart and mind be given over to pride or despair. Do not measure and evaluate your neighbor, as though to sort out the bad from the good among your fellow Christians. And do not look within yourself, either, to determine whether you are good or bad. Rather, love and serve and care for your neighbor, according to the Word of God, even as the Lord Himself preaches the very Gospel of forgiveness and life and salvation to your neighbor in love. All the more so should you love and serve and care for those who are caught in the same net of the Gospel with you, and forgive them for Christ Jesus’ sake.

And as for yourself, yes, indeed, examine yourself according to the Word of God — consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments — and when you thus discover nothing in yourself but sin and death, from which you cannot free yourself — repent of your sins and heed the Gospel. For the Gospel delivers you from sin and death through the forgiveness of Christ Jesus, by His Cross and in His Resurrection. He is your righteousness, which cleanses you within and covers you without, and guards you against every evil of body and soul. He is the good Fish, in whom you also are good. And in the resurrection at the end of the age, then all the sin and death which for now remain in your mortal flesh, and all the unrighteousness and wickedness which for now reside in your sinful heart and mind and will, shall be removed and done away with forever.

That doesn’t mean that you should take your sin lightly or continue in your unrighteousness. Do not trifle with the Lord, but fear God and humble yourself before Him. Repent of all your wicked thoughts, words and deeds, that these not consume you and swallow you up. Do not presume upon the grace of God while you blithely turn your back and a deaf ear to His Word, and harden your heart against His preaching. He will not cast you out of His net, but if you reject His Gospel and refuse to hear it, you wriggle yourself out of the net and dive back into the chaos of the deep.

Rather, give ear to the preaching of the Gospel of Christ Jesus. For it is in Him that the Kingdom of heaven is at hand. It is in Him that you are righteous and safe. It is in Him that you are hidden under the Cross in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection. It is in Him that you are God’s great treasure, His pearl of great price. It is in Him that you are predestined for the salvation ready to be revealed at the right time. It is in Christ Jesus that you are called, gathered, enlightened and sanctified. It is in Him that all your sins are forgiven, so that nothing is counted against you, and there is no condemnation for you.

It is in Him that you are now found, by His grace, and there is nothing in heaven or on earth, nor in all of creation, that shall be able to separate you from the love of God in Him. For He is the Lord your God, and He is faithful. He shall do for you all that He has promised. As He has called you to Himself in love, according to His good and gracious will (that you be saved), so does He work all things together for your good. As the Father did not spare His beloved Son but gave Him up for you, so shall He not withhold any good thing from you forever. Even here and now, while yet hidden in the field, He keeps His Covenant with you and grants you His New Testament: the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus, given and poured out for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins.

Thus do you abide in Him, and He in you, unto the life everlasting.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

22 July 2011

An Excellent Wife He Has Found

Mary Magdalene is a woman who fears the Lord, and He has risen up to praise her in the gates. Her children also rise up to bless her, and her works follow her to praise her, both day and night. For as St. Mary the Mother of God is both an icon and a member of the Lord’s Holy Bride, the Church, so is St. Mary Magdalene. And as St. Mary of Bethany (the sister of Lazarus and Martha) is remembered wherever in the world the Gospel is preached — because she loved the Lord Jesus, and listened to His Word, and anointed Him beforehand for His burial — so also is St. Mary Magdalene remembered with thanksgiving to God for her works of mercy and her witness to the Gospel of Christ Jesus, our Lord.

Her gratitude runs deep, and she loves Him greatly, because she was rescued from great evil, and she was forgiven much. Jesus cast out seven demons from this dear woman, saving her life and cleansing her in both body and soul. He had mercy upon her, and called her to Himself, and gave her, not only another chance, but a brand new life, here in time and hereafter in eternity. Therefore she became a true and faithful disciple, following the Lord Jesus throughout His Ministry on earth, listening and learning. In love, she supported Him and His holy Apostles from her own means, because she recognized the value and importance of His Ministry, both for herself and for others.

She was there, then, to witness the defining events of the Gospel: the Cross and Crucifixion, the burial of Christ, and His Resurrection from the dead. In fact, she is the first witness of our Lord’s Resurrection — not only His empty tomb, but His risen and glorified Body — and He Himself sends her to announce His Resurrection to the Apostles, to the very ones who would be sent to preach this Gospel to the ends of the earth. So she is “the apostle to the Apostles,” as the Eastern churches regard her, and if their feet are beautiful because they have gone out into all the world to preach the Gospel of peace, St. Mary Magdalene is also beautiful among the saints of God in Christ. She is adorned with His beauty and His glory, as a bride is adorned for her husband. And as we thus remember her, and give thanks for her on this day, we honor Christ Jesus, our Savior, and give all thanks and praise and worship to Him.

Everything we know about St. Mary Magdalene is bound up in and with her dear Lord Jesus. She received such excellent gifts and benefitted from His Ministry, and so she supported His Ministry with her whole life and all that she had. She shared in His Cross and Passion, not only by her presence as a witness, but also by Holy Baptism and daily repentance; therefore, she not only witnesses His Resurrection, but she herself is raised up by it, in and with Him, to live before God in His righteousness and purity forever.

Dear little lamb of Jesus, the same is no less true for you, as well. Though you are not an eye-witness of His Cross and Resurrection, you are in fact baptized into the very same, so that you also die and rise with Christ Jesus through daily repentance and faith in His forgiveness of all your sins. Consider the great treasures of His grace, mercy and peace, which are given to you by the Ministry of His Gospel. By these you have abundant life in Him, and with Him, both now and forever. For He is your true and heavenly Bridegroom, who has sought you out and found you, and called you by name to be His holy Bride, that is, within His Holy Church, as a member of His Body.

How, then, shall your life be a witness of His Resurrection? How shall your words and actions testify that God has raised your dear Lord Jesus from the dead? With what means, and by what works, will you support His Ministry of the Gospel, for your own sake and for your neighbor’s?

Everything about you, and all that you are and have, is bound up with Christ Jesus. For you are baptized into Him. You have died with Him — through your Baptism into His death — and so, now, your life is hidden with Him in the bosom of God the Father. Your temporary sojourn on earth, including your stewardship of whatever means the Lord in His mercy has entrusted to your use, is sanctified, and has real meaning and good purpose, because you are taken up into Christ and His Gospel — through His Cross and Passion, into His Resurrection and His Life everlasting.

Do not cling to Him, therefore, in the dead and dying things of this world. Do not attempt to find Him and have Him for yourself in that which has only the appearance of beauty, but inwardly is perishing. That sort of beauty is vain, and its charm is deceitful.

Trying to hang onto Christ and His Life in the transitory familiarities of earth is futile and fatal.

The fact of the matter is, that, apart from His Word and His Voice of the Gospel, you do not know where or how to find Him (and you can’t). You are still in the dark, and so you are confused, and afraid, and you weep with sorrow. You seek comfort and security and answers to your questions from your mortal father, old Adam, but he is laid to rest in the tomb and remains there to rot. And thus intent upon the dust and the dirt, you are unable to recognize the risen Lord Jesus. You do not know Him as He is.

But He is not that gardener, old Adam. He is the Good Shepherd, who lays down His life for the sheep — and takes it up again — that they may have abundant life in Him. He does for you and all His sheep as He did for dear Mary Magdalene: He calls you by name. He calls you with His sweet Voice of the Gospel — which forgives you all your sins, and casts out all your demons, and heals all your diseases, and raises you from death to life. His Voice calls you, and leads you and guides you, to and from the quiet waters of your Baptism, through the lush green pastures of His Word, to the laden Table of His Altar in His Father’s House. There He has prepared a great Feast for you, and He pours out His overflowing Chalice, which is the New Testament in His Blood.

Now your heart sings for joy, because you know the Voice of your Good Shepherd. You recognize and respond to the tone and timbre of His Gospel with its persistent rhythm of mercy and kindness, and its melody of forgiveness. You know, when He speaks, where He is to be found, where His Body is given and His Blood is poured out for you to eat and to drink. You know, when you hear His Voice, not only who He is and where He is, but who you are, and where you are.

Beloved, not only are you a dear sheep of this Good Shepherd, but you are an excellent wife of this true and heavenly Bridegroom. O son or daughter of the King, you belong to His most holy Bride! With St. Mary Magdalene, with Mary of Bethany and Mary the Mother of God, with Peter and John and all the witnesses of the Resurrection, and with all the baptized in every time and place, you belong to the Wedding Party of the Lamb, and you are seated with Him at His Table. For He takes you to be His very own, to have and to hold forever, and all that is His, He shares with you.

He rises from the dead; therefore, you also rise. He ascends to the right hand of God, and you are seated with Him in the heavenly places. His God and Father is now your God and Father. And He has prepared a place for you with Him, where even now your life is hidden, safe and secure.

Not only has He called you by name to Himself, but He has also called you by His own Name. Even now that is your surety, your pledge, your guarantee, your down-payment and your dowry, unto the life everlasting.

You are no longer in the dark, since Christ your Lord is risen from the dead. Even in the middle of the night, His Word is still a Lamp that does not go out, and by its light you rise up to eat and drink His Food from afar, and so to feed your neighbors in love. You are clothed with His scarlet and His purple, that is, with the forgiveness of His holy and precious Blood, and with the dignity and strength of His own royal righteousness. Therefore, you are made strong, and you are able to strengthen your household and family, your neighbors and friends, and all your brothers and sisters in Christ. For as He speaks so sweetly to you with His Voice of the Gospel, He likewise opens your mouth to speak in wisdom and with kindness to others.

Were you to look at yourself and consider yourself, for now, you would see no such glory, but only a poor gardener of sin and death, waiting to die and to be buried. But listen now, and hear the Voice of your Bridegroom, who has risen from the dead for you, who blesses you and praises you according to His grace, mercy and peace:

“Many daughters have done well, but you excel them all. For you are worth far more to Me than silver and gold, more than many rubies and fine jewels. Have I not sought you out and found you for Myself, and given Myself for you? Surely I have done so, and you are My own forever. Even in the gates of Hades I declare that you shall never perish but have abundant life in Me, and no one shall snatch you out of My hand. Rest assured that you shall not be put to shame, for I am your Refuge and Strength. Let not your heart be troubled; neither let it be afraid.”

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

19 July 2011

Reversing Polarities

I see it in my children, of course, but I find it as much or more in myself. There is this tendency in me to focus and dwell upon my own hurts and upon my neighbor's sins. Really, though, it ought to be the other way around. I need to reverse my polarities, as it were, and consider my own sins, that I might repent of them, curb them and confess them, and consider my neighbor's hurts with compassion, that I might care for him and relieve his hurts where I can.

Among my children, several of them are especially prone to pick at their ouchies, their bug bites, scratches, scrapes and scabs, until they've made things many times worse, much larger, infected and inflamed. The healing process is hindered and slowed, and the end result is often a scar that need not have been. I know well enough to warn my children against that sort of self-harm, and to avoid doing the same thing where my own external ouchies are concerned. Would that I were better at resisting the urge to agitate and pester the internal wounds of heart and mind.

I'm too often as bad or worse than any of my children when it comes to my emotional ouchies, that is, the insults, offense and slights, whether real or imagined, which I suffer in the bump and grind of life in a fallen world. I'll poke and prod and pick at them, analyzing and investigating, exploring all the ins and outs of my hurt, until I've got them festering and oozing, angry and raw. Instead of leaving them alone to heal and dissipate, I end up making them bigger and bigger, and worse and worse, until the "bug bites, scratches and scrapes" become major wounds, and temporary scabs turn into permanent scars.

What goes hand-in-hand with such a focus on my hurts, is a focus on the sins of those who hurt me (whether in fact or in my exaggerated perception). And just as I manage to make my hurts that much bigger by my dwelling on them, so do I magnify my neighbor's sins in the process, at least in my imagination. Except that it isn't actually my neighbor's sins which are getting worse, but only the hardness of my own heart against my neighbor. That is a self-inflicted wound in its own right, which causes harm both within and without. Such things should not be so.

My hurts can actually help me learn to love my neighbor, because they enable empathy and teach me understanding and compassion. That often happens instinctively in the case of my children, as they experience many of the hurts and hard lessons of life that I've already lived through and learned from in my own growing up. My heart is moved in love for them, to care for them and comfort them, because I actually do know how it feels. How, then, should I not console them?

That is how my hurts can help and serve my other neighbors, too, and yet another way the Cross bears good fruits, as the Tree of Life that it is.

But my focus should not be on my own hurts, nor on my neighbor's sins. Those things I should leave to Christ, the Good Physician of body and soul, who heals and forgives. But in myself, by self-examination in the clear light of His Word, "considering my place in life according to the Ten Commandments," I identify and address those sins in me that war against both faith and love. I do not pick and poke at them with morbid curiosity, but curb them through self-discipline and give them over to Christ through confession, that I might avail myself of His Holy Absolution.

As I thus address my own sins by the Word of Christ, by the Law and the Gospel, and so live in the freedom of His forgiveness, I can look in love upon my neighbor's hurts. Not that I would gloat over my neighbor or revel in his ouchies, but that I might know where and how to care for him, to serve him in the peace of Christ. That my heart would not be hardened against my neighbor, but softened with compassion, and moved in tenderness to comfort and console. That I might also help my neighbor in his need, in the same way that Christ heals all my hurts.

It is a simple enough little flip of the switch, but it makes all the difference in my posture and perspective vis-à-vis my neighbor. Instead of dwelling upon my own hurts and my neighbor's sins, I am turned about to consider my owns sins and my neighbor's hurts in the light of Christ. For He has borne all our hurts and all our sins in His own body on the Cross, and in the great reversal of His Resurrection from the dead, we are recreated and made brand new. That is the real balm and healing that gives real life to both me and my neighbor. And in the end, the only scars are those in the hands and feet and side of Christ Jesus.

16 July 2011

Why Won't the Lord Weed His Garden Already?

An enemy has done this. An enemy of God has sown the seeds of sin and death throughout the broad field of the Lord’s good creation. Prideful and arrogant, full of self-love, he has rebelled against the Author and Giver of life, and so he seeks to rob the whole world of all good gifts. Consumed with envy and jealousy, rage and resentment, he is driven by hatred of the one true God.

He is your enemy, and he hates you, and he seeks to destroy you, because he hates the Lord your God, your Creator and Redeemer, who loves you and has given you life. That is why the devil storms against you, determined to let you have no peace within or without. That is why he roams about like a wild beat, a deep growl rumbling in his throat, always seeking to swallow you up and consume you in his hate.

That is why the whole creation groans under the curse of sin, the weight of death, and the futility of fallen flesh. Mortal man cannot redeem himself, and he cannot preserve or save the world. It withers and fades, perishes and crumbles into dust all around him, as he himself returns to dust.

Not only is everything dying, but the devil stirs up anguish and pain and rebellion. The rain not only waters the earth, but floods and drowns and crushes and washes away. Fire not only gives warmth and light, but burns and consumes and destroys. The earth itself is not stable but trembles and ruptures, sometimes spewing hot lava, sometimes swallowing whole towns into the depths.

Your body, too, your flesh and blood, your parents and children, all have been sown with the devil’s seeds of sin and death. What God has raised up from the dust of the earth, created holy and good by His Word and Spirit, the devil attacks with great wrath and deadly fury. On the one hand he sneaks in with subtle cunning, like a serpent slipping through the cracks, and then, on the other hand, he is suddenly a fire-breathing dragon, a monstrous serpent with fangs like steel that pierce your flesh and wound you to the core of your being.

There are the hurts, the wounds, the scars, the bruises, scrapes and broken bones. There are the breakdowns and failures of one bodily system or another, or one after another, robbing you of freedom, of dignity, of pleasure, and finally of life. There are cancers that eat up your flesh, and diseases that eat away at your mind; illnesses that poison your blood or stop your heart.

An enemy has done this: an enemy of God, who hates you because he hates your Creator. And so great is his hatred, his anger, his wickedness and spite, that he is not at all content to attack your body of flesh and blood, your health and well-being, and the whole world of nature. No, he sows a far more vile weed than even all of that painful hurt, suffering, sickness and violent death.

As the devil warps and ruins God’s good gifts of creation, so does he manipulate and misuse God’s good gifts of language. Because the devil is no god, but a creature himself, he can only steal and destroy what God has made and given. So he thrashes about at the external world, while craftily using words to lie and deceive, to trick and lead astray. From the Garden he has always done so, for he is a murderer and a liar. He whispers and murmurs at your ear, unnerving and distressing you. He poses questions that raise doubts and fears in your heart and mind. He plants assumptions and accusations against your neighbors, so that love itself is broken, wounded and destroyed.

He sows in you the seeds of evil, like unto his own: arrogance and pride, envy and jealousy, rage and resentment. He strokes your ego and stokes your passions, but then sends shafts of guilt and shame deep into your heart and soul, so that you cannot stand but you reel and fall like a drunk.

He plants weeds that pose as virtues, masquerading in self-righteousness, as though they were grains and fruits and healthy foods. Thus, He sows gossip and retribution and stringiness, harsh words, unreasonable demands, destructive criticisms, and party spirit. He sows the seeds of hurt in the guise of help.

He sows the seeds of competition, which leads to jealousy, which leads in turn to resentment and bitterness, then to anger, arguments and fights, and finally to death. Even brother against brother, so caustic are the devil’s weeds.

He sows the seeds of covetous lust, which leads to fornication and adultery, then to betrayal and deception, and again to death.

And where he has first sown such seeds of wickedness, he follows with the weeds of accusation, condemnation, a guilty conscience, a troubled heart, a restless soul, and the terror of punishment. The devil haunts you with such fearful specters, and he taunts you with such threats, scattering his seeds into every nook and cranny of your mortal life.

An enemy has done this, and his devastation fills you with dismay, or with desperation. You cast about frantically, and there is hardly any wheat to be seen or to be found anywhere. Instead there is this thick and overgrown jungle of deadly weeds. What may have looked like wheat at first, or like a beautiful flower or good fruit, has turned out to be a tangle of thorns and thistles, brambles and brush, deadly nightshade, and dangerous man-eating plants of every kind.

If you are not overwhelmed with hopeless despair by all of this, it might seems as though the remedy were obvious. Clearly, all of these weeds have to be removed — rooted out and destroyed, by whatever means necessary — or none of the wheat will survive.

So, then, you may wonder why the Lord does not do this; why He does not get busy and deal with the mess. Lots of people wonder about that very thing: Why does He allow so much evil in the world? Why doesn’t He stop it, and get rid of it? Why won’t He weed the garden already, instead of leaving it go and apparently not doing anything about it.

And when you haven’t seen that kind of action that you’re looking for, and you haven’t received the answer or response you were hoping for, you may volunteer — like the earnest and eager servants in the parable — to do it yourself.

Or perhaps you simply take it upon yourself to start weeding. Hacking and thrashing, ripping and pulling, picking at your neighbor, digging through the dirt, rooting out every suspect plant you can find. Pull out the machete, the flamethrower, the poison, whatever it takes.

That’s some satisfying work and effort, isn’t it? Because you can readily see the results, and so it’s something that feels productive. Left and right you go at it, clearing a larger and larger patch of field all around you. And every time another weed peeks out of the ground, you pounce and remove it — almost like one of those first-person-shooter video games. If there’s more and more collateral damage along the way, as you’re caught up in the frenzy, and the wheat is rooted out along with the weeds, well, at least you’re getting rid of the weeds.

Except that, every time you pause to catch your breath, or turn around, or go to sleep for awhile, the weeds keep coming back — because the enemy is still on the loose, on the prowl and on the rampage. What is more, your own efforts to root out the weeds have done as much or more harm to the wheat as the enemy himself, no matter what your good intentions may have been. And there is yet another problem you had not bargained on at first, one that you cannot fix or resolve. Not only are the weeds all around you, surrounding you on all sides, tangling your feet and tearing at your arms, but they have taken root within you, in your fallen flesh, deep within your heart and mind, in your sinful thoughts, words and actions.

If you can live with all the collateral damage to your neighbors, what are you going to do with yourself? Self-discipline is good and right — especially for your neighbor’s sake! — but do not suppose that your self-discipline will get to the real heart of the matter. Your self-discipline may end up becoming self-mutilation and self-destruction, if you really go after all those weeds within you, and still you won’t get them all. You can’t. You’ll do more harm than good if you would cleanse the field that way, and you won’t uproot the weeds without undoing yourself altogether. Suicide, then? Is that the obvious solution? Don’t believe it, and don’t go there. That’s another seed of Satan, a weed that will not save the wheat but only strangles it and kills it all the faster.

Why, then, does God not do something? Why does the Lord not cleanse the field and rescue the wheat? What is He waiting for? Can’t He see that everything it out of control and getting worse all the time? Doesn’t He care about His field and His wheat?

Yes, dear friend, He does care. He cares more deeply and far better than you can yet perceive or imagine. Be at peace, for that is why He waits with such patience and long-suffering. He is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, full of kindness, tender mercy and compassion. Therefore, He will not risk collateral damage. He will not throw out the baby with the soiled diaper or the dirty bathwater. He will not uproot the weeds at the risk of the wheat. He will not uproot you, though you are full of weeds, because He loves you, and He is intent upon your life and salvation.

You know how He has gone about accomplishing His purposes, don’t you? Not with violence, but in gentleness, humility and voluntary weakness. He has actually taken the curse of sin and death upon Himself. He has suffered thorns and thistles to crown and cover Him, the weeds to entangle Him, to choke and strangle and kill Him. He has not uprooted them at once, but He has returned Himself to the dust of the earth, and planted Himself in the ground like a Seed.

The Seed of the Woman, indeed, is bruised and beaten and bloodied by the devil’s seed.

Yet, the Son of Man is not destroyed.

He is put to death and buried, yes, and with Him — in His Body of flesh and blood — the weeds are also put to death and buried. But He does not suffer corruption or decay. He is raised up from death and the grave, His Body and soul reunited. The weeds have all been done away with in His Self-sacrifice, but now He is raised all-glorious, immortal and imperishable. His Cross is proven to be the Tree of Life, His crucified and risen Body the First Fruits of a New Creation. His holy and precious Blood has been poured out to heal and cleanse the earth, atoning for the sins of all mankind, redeeming creation from the bondage of death, and reconciling the whole world to God.

This is how He thwarts and defeats His enemy, cleanses His field, and preserves each and every grain of His wheat. He gets to the heart of the problem, and He bears the curse, the consequences, the inevitable hurt and pain and death of sin in His own flesh, so that the devil is undone from the inside out. Satan can no longer hold your sin against you, because Christ Jesus has removed it from you and suffered all its sting and received all its poison. Satan can no longer scare you with death and the grave, because Christ Jesus has already been there, done that, and returned to life and glory at the right hand of the Father in heaven.

So the devil’s seed is rendered impotent and sterile. Whatever weeds it may produce will neither destroy the wheat nor force the Landowner’s hand. For the harvest is sure and certain, already in the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The wheat will be gathered, none of it lost, into the Lord’s granary, and the righteous will shine — with His perfect righteousness — in the Kingdom of His God and Father.

That is the Lord’s long-suffering patience — with the fallen world, with His weed-infested field, with you and your weeds, and with your neighbor, too. He’s not wringing His hands in worry, nor twiddling His thumbs (unsure of what to do), nor simply hoping for the best. He waits in mercy and peace, having already resolved the assault upon His field and His wheat, and as surely as the Father has raised His Son, so shall He raise you in the harvest at the end of the age.

That is your patience, too, although it is hidden beneath the Cross and crowded by weeds. The Resurrection of Christ Jesus is your sure and certain hope — not just wishful thinking, but as steadfast and true as the Lord Himself — even though you do not yet see Him or His Resurrection. For now you wait upon the Lord, who shall indeed preserve your life and save you. And you are able to be patient with your neighbor, resisting the urge to pick and pull at his or her weeds, because the Lord is likewise so patient with you. You and your neighbor’s sins are all forgiven.

In the meantime, despite the enemy’s best efforts to sabotage the field and destroy the wheat, even the weeds must serve the gracious purposes of God the Lord. For the harder they press, the more they weigh you down, the tighter they choke and strangle, the more you are put to death with Christ, unto repentance. His Cross, looking to all the world like the biggest baddest weed of all, crucifies and buries you with Him. Daily it returns you to your Baptism, so that daily you die to sin and every evil.

But so, too, because it is the Cross of Christ, it does not destroy you, but it brings you — by the way of repentance — through death into faith and life, into the prayer and intercession of Christ and His Spirit. You call upon His Name, and you are heard and answered. In this way you are exercised in faith; you learn to hope and trust in God, and such hope will not be disappointed.

The weeds are daunting, to be sure, and all around you, within and without, they confront you with your own futility. They choke and strangle and put to death all your self-reliance, all your obvious solutions, and all your strategies of self-righteousness.

Well and good that you should thus despair of yourself.

But the devil with his bag of evil seeds could not foresee, nor can he now contend with, the Son of Man and His good Seed of the Gospel. The enemy has more than met his match in Him, who is the true and only God — in human flesh and blood like yours. He has planted Himself in faith and love, in peace and hope, in the midst of the devil’s overgrown jungle of weeds, and up from the dust of the earth He has risen, for you and for all, forever and ever.

The Lord’s Cross is your Redemption, His Resurrection is your righteousness, and His very Body and Blood are the First Fruits of your own bodily resurrection unto the life everlasting. Then, what you now hope for and wait upon shall be fully revealed in all its grace and glory, far exceeding all the suffering of this present time.

No enemy has done this, but your truest and best Friend forever.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

02 July 2011

From the Water to the Blood

The great joy and gladness of holy marriage, and of this day — in all its personal particulars and bodily specificity — is found in Christ Jesus: in His loving service to His Bride, the Church.

Which is why the Lord God Himself, the blessed Holy Trinity, rejoices and delights in this day and in this couple — in Nathaniel and Sarah, and in their Holy Matrimony, and in His Holy Church.

For God the Father takes you to Himself as a beloved daughter, even as He gives you to His only-begotten Son, to be His holy Bride. That is where the only true and lasting joy is found: in Christ.

Apart from Christ Jesus, it is all in vain; everything is finally in vain. Because there is, first of all, your natural finitude as a creature. Which is to say that you are not self-sufficient, but entirely dependent on your Creator for life and health and every good. But now, beyond that, there is also the mortal frailty of your fallen flesh, which withers and perishes; so that, not just “the wine,” but everything runs out. In yourself, and of yourself, there is no life nor love, but only sin and death.

Yet, you have been created by God to live by His grace. And you are called — by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel of Christ Jesus — to live by faith in His Word; that is, the Word of the Cross.

True, the Cross puts to death the Old Adam in you, with all your sinful lusts and desires; your self-idolatry and selfishness; your false belief, despair, and all your shameful vices. But the Cross also raises you up — in and with the New Adam, that is, Christ Jesus, who has suffered your death, and has submitted Himself to the dirt of the ground for you, in order to redeem you from sin and death.

The Cross does not destroy you, because it has been the Cross of Christ for you, first of all.

Indeed, for all its pain and agony, shame and humiliation, the Cross is the Hour of Christ’s great Glory; for by it, by His divine grace, mercy and love, He has atoned for the sins of all people, and He has reconciled the world to God.

So, too, it is from His side, as it has been opened up in His deep sleep of death upon the Tree of the Cross, that His Bride is formed and purified with His Glory — by the water and the blood.

And on the Third Day, the fruits of His Cross are borne forth in His Resurrection from the dead, and there is the beginning of the New Creation — in the glorified Body of this great New Adam.

All of creation — including God’s good gift of marriage (the union of one man and one woman) — it has all been redeemed and made brand new. In fact, it is completed, perfected, and better than ever — in the crucified and risen Body of this true and perfect Man, Christ Jesus. By His holy Cross, and in His Resurrection, He has become the new Head of a renewed humanity. He is the new King of a new Creation, and the Church is His beautiful Queen, His beloved Body and Bride.

So, then, you and your marriage, and your whole life, are sanctified by the Word of God in Christ, and by prayer in His holy Name. That is both how and why you invite Jesus and His disciples, and holy mother Church, to your wedding (today) and to your marriage (until death). For by His Word and prayer, His righteousness and holiness are granted to you.

He Himself cleaves to you, dear ones, as to His own beloved Bride, by the Ministry of His Gospel. He provides for you, in love, and He grants to you His good gifts for both body and soul, for now and forever — by the means of His good creation.

In the Divine Service, in particular, as also on this day, He brings you from the waters of Holy Baptism — which have purified your conscience before God, and have cleansed you as a Bride for her Husband — to that good Wine which is the New Testament in His Blood, and to that Bread of Life from heaven which is His own Body.

And in this you find that His good creation and good gifts are taken up by His Word, and given back to you all the better: like dirt into a man, a living creature; like a rib into a woman; like water into wine — and this good wine now points to something better.

For just as He is risen from the dust of the earth to live and reign forever (also as true Man!), you also are now flesh of His flesh, and blood of His blood, so that your body is raised up from death to life in His Glory. As it shall be at the last, so also is it now in your life and marriage here — although it is still hidden under the Cross, and for now it is visible only to the eyes of faith.

His Glory — His gracious gift of life — shall be manifested in your life together, Nathaniel and Sarah, as husband and wife: As you love each other in Christ, as He loves both of you. As you live by His forgiveness of all your sins, and so you forgive each other.

And as you also serve your neighbors within your vocations.

Your sufficiency and life are not in yourselves, but in Christ. Do not worry. Do not be afraid. And do not despair. But for your part, simply do whatever He tells you — and do so in the hope and confidence of His Resurrection, because it is Christ who works in you and for you. Therefore, do not be timid in that which He has called you to do, but love boldly and gladly.

When a husband loves and serves his wife faithfully and well, there’s almost nothing she can’t do or accomplish. So, then, take this to heart, dear ones, that Christ cares for His Bride; He nurtures and cherishes her; and so she is well able to care for others (by His grace, in His mercy and peace).

Beloved, He cares for you, and nurtures and cherishes you. You shall not be put to shame.

As He has grafted you into His Body and joined you to Himself as a member of His Bride, so do you find yourself at home with Him. And He shall likewise make His home with you forever.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

"Come to Me, and Rest"

Rejoice, and praise God, that He has revealed Himself to you, and has granted you life in Himself, and that He gives you rest. For He has willed and chosen to do so in love, and He is well-pleased to save you by His grace. Otherwise, you would not know Him, nor could you ever find Him or come to Him, and you would have no life or salvation.

As it is, you are still tempted to rely upon your own human wisdom and earthly intellect, to make your own life and to find your own way to God by your own efforts, hard labor and striving. That won’t work, and you won’t find what you need, but still you fall into such sins.

It is sometimes out of selfishness and greed, and sometimes out of desperation; sometimes out of pride, and sometimes out of fear. But whatever the particular reasons may be, the consequences are a heavy burden, which you cannot bear: restless anxiety, turmoil and confusion, and such a weariness of heart and mind, body and soul, that you can no longer stand upright, far less continue on that path. Maybe you could trudge on to the bitter end, but then death would finally stop you in your tracks and lay you low. If you die with your boots on, you’re still dead, and what have you achieved? What would you take with you and still have?

The harder you try to work your way to God, or to think your way to God, the more hidden He becomes to you, and the further away you wander from Him; the heavier your burdens become, with no end to your labors in sight, and your weariness increases.

How then does the Lord Jesus say, “Come to Me”? Or what does He mean by that, and how can you “come to Him”? It’s not by your own wisdom, intelligence or reason, nor by any strength or striving of yours. You cannot do it. All of your attempts are worse than futile, because they actually make your situation worse. So is Jesus mocking you, or teasing you, or rubbing in your infirmity and weakness? Of course not!

No, dear child, the Lord who gently invites you, “Come to Me,” is the Son of the Father, who has come down from heaven to you, and has humbled Himself to bear your burdens, to share your weakness and pain, to suffer your hurts and sorrows; who gets down on His haunches to draw you — as the little one you are — into His arms and to His embrace.

By this beloved Son of God, in the flesh, the Father calls you and draws you and gathers you to Himself, the way a loving Daddy scoops up his toddler and cradles his newborn.

He says, “Come to Me,” even as He does so, not that you must work your way up to Him, but so that, by His Word, He should lift you up and strengthen you in confidence, and comfort you and give you courage. Such sweet words upon His lips are not a law, nor yet another heavy burden laid upon your weary back, but a respite from your labors and a place of rest.

Here there is blessed peace, and calm safety, and sure refuge. Here there is not death, but life; not shame, but the glory of God in Christ bestowed upon you by His grace.

In caring for you like an infant, He surely does not belittle you, but He raises you up and supports you and shares with you all that belongs to Him. For as the Father hands over all things to the Son, so does the Son hand over Himself — and all that is His — to you, to all of His disciples, and to His whole Church in heaven and on earth.

In becoming small before Him, by the humility of repentance, you are enlarged by His Gospel of forgiveness (which He gives to you freely for the sake of His holy love), and you are made great by the Cross of Christ unto the life everlasting. For this is real greatness, not that you exalt yourself, but that God the Lord exalts you and glorifies you in the resurrected Body of Christ Jesus.

So it is that His yoke is easy, and His burden is light, even though it is a Cross that is laid upon you. For that is what disciples of Christ Jesus are given and are called to carry after Him.

By your Baptism you are crucified, dead and buried with Him, and so you are signed and sealed by His Cross. It puts to death the old Adam in you, slaying your selfishness and calling you to live unto Christ by faith, and for your neighbor in love.

But, again, the Cross of Christ is not a work or burden of yours by which you must save yourself. It is, rather, the way and the means by which He has saved you in His own gentle humility, in perfect faith and love. Because He has so borne the Cross for you, and suffered and died for you, and has risen from the dead for you, and lives and reigns to all eternity as your merciful and great High Priest, His Cross puts you to death in order to give you His newness of life.

The death of His Cross is the way and the means by which you are reborn as an infant of God, a beloved child of our Father who art in heaven. And it is to you, who have been crucified and raised with Christ Jesus, the beloved Son — through Holy Baptism and by daily repentance — that God the Father has revealed Himself. He does so by granting you His Holy Spirit through the Gospel of His Son, whereby you know Him as the one true God who loves you and has mercy upon you; who forgives you all your sins, casts out all your demons and heals all your diseases, provides for all your needs, and gives you life forever with Himself in peace.

In making Himself known to you in Christ Jesus, by His Spirit through the Gospel, your dear God and Father does not only give you news and information “about” Himself, but He actually gives you Himself and His Life, His Name and His Home to be your own. Already now, in His Church and in His Gospel, even in this vale of tears under the Cross in the midst of sin and death, He shelters and protects you, provides for you and cares for you; He feeds, clothes and comforts you.

He is, in short, your true Father, and you are His true child, in Christ Jesus His Son.

That is your life, beloved, both now and forever. That is your Sabbath Rest, your safety, and your peace, which remains for you and always shall. In Christ Jesus, you breathe the Spirit of God, and so you live. And whether with your body here on earth you are working hard or resting easy, waking or sleeping, playing or praying, or whatever it is that you are doing, your life remains hidden with Christ in God.

Come to Him, therefore, and rest your soul upon Him, as He here comes to you in love and gives Himself to you, as your Meat and Drink indeed. For so He wills to serve you in peace.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.