11 March 2018

That You Should Not Perish But Live

Here for now you’re on a journey.  You’re traveling.  Maybe not through the best of circumstances, but you’re moving along from one point to another.  You’re on a journey from the crossing of the Red Sea to the crossing of the Jordan River.  You are with Israel in the wilderness.

This wilderness through which you travel, as a stranger in a strange land, is a place of repentance.  It is a place of training and discipline.  It is where the Lord your God catechizes you, the way a father catechizes his children, unto repentance, faith, and life in Christ Jesus, the beloved Son.

Your time here in the wilderness is preparation for eternity in the Land that God has promised.  He would have you learn to live by faith, that is, to rely on Him and receive all things from His hand, as a child relies upon his or her father.  But, as that is not the inclination of your sinful heart, you must be disciplined and trained, and taught repentance and faith.  Thus do you learn to enter into Paradise by faith, and to rejoice in the Lord your God as your Life, your Light, and your Salvation.

Such is the point and purpose to your life in this world, namely, that God would bring you through this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven.  It may well seem a long, slow death along the way, with trials and troubles aplenty.  But the Lord provides you with all that you need for the journey.  He has not left you helpless or hopeless, though you sometimes feel that He has wronged you.

Here stands the Font before your eyes, recalling how the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has adopted you and named you as His child.  And this very place is a Tabernacle in the desert, a Temple of God in the midst of this fallen and perishing world.  Here He instructs you with His Word of life in the preaching of His Law and His Gospel.  He declares that He is your God, that you are His own, and that He is here with you, not for nothing, but for grace, mercy, and peace.  And that Word of God is not empty or lifeless.  He does what He says and gives what He promises.

Here also is the Altar of the Lord, which recalls the Sacrifice of Christ upon the Cross, and from which He feeds you with Meat and Drink indeed, which are your Spiritual Food in the wilderness.

It is for you much as it was for Israel in the wilderness, as they traveled by the way of the Red Sea.  For you also live and move by the waters of your Holy Baptism, through which the Lord brought you out of Egypt into the freedom of His Easter (which is yours in Christ, even now during Lent).

You also are fed with miraculous Bread from heaven, to say nothing of the daily bread with which the Lord feeds and sustains your body and life on earth.  You also are given to drink from the riven Rock, which is Christ Jesus.  But will you join with Israel, then, in complaining that you have no food to eat?  Although what you really mean is that you do not want the Food that you are given; just as you do not want the parents, the spouse, or the children that God has given you to care for.

How is it with your heart and soul in the presence of the Lord your God?  Are you impatient on the journey?  Does forty years in the wilderness, or eighty years, or even one-hundred, seem too long to bear?  Are you tired of the Manna with which your Father feeds you?  Would you return to Pharaoh and the fleshpots of Egypt, rather than persevering through this desert wasteland?

Child of God, do not doubt His gracious providence, and do not despise His good gifts, for He will sustain you.  Do not grumble and complain against the Lord who loves you, who has named you with His Name.  Do not complain against His Divine Service, His Ministry of the Gospel, with which He daily and richly forgives all of your sins and calls you, body and soul, to everlasting Life.

Do not allow your stubborn, sinful heart to prefer the slavery of sin and death to life under the Cross, by which the Lord is bringing you through the desert into the Paradise of His Resurrection.

Again, it is unto repentance, faith, and life that you are being disciplined on your journey through the wilderness.  Not by your own resolve and efforts.  And not by your own works, of which you may not boast.  It is by the work of God that you are trained.  It is in love that He disciplines you.

Of course, you know how it is with Moms and Dads, and how it has been for you as a parent or child.  Patience wears thin, tempers are lost, angry words are spoken in the heat of arguments, and “discipline” is sometimes intemperate, harsh, and unfair.  That is how it is with us poor sinners, who are fallen and mortal.  But not so with your Father in heaven.  He does not lose His temper.  He is patient and long-suffering, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  He is full of mercy and compassion, and when He disciplines His children it is always in His love for them.

So, too, when He sends His fiery serpents to bite you, it’s not because He’s done with you, ready to lower the boom and let you have it.  His goal is not to destroy you.  His goal is not to kill you, not forever.  He rather uses sin to punish sin and bring it into the light.  And He allows the sin that is actively at work in your heart and mind to be outwardly manifested in your body and life, in order that you may recognize that your sin is killing you.  Not that He would leave you to die and be damned in your sins, but that you should turn back to Him in repentance and so live by faith.

The Israelites were in no more jeopardy with the fiery serpents than they already were in grumbling and complaining against God.  For safety and salvation are not found in escaping the adversities of this perishing world, but solely in repentance and by faith in the Lord’s forgiveness of sins.

When the Lord God disciplines your flesh, therefore, it is for your eternal well being.  He exercises fatherly care in seeing to it that you learn from your mistakes.  Not that you get better at getting away with your sins, but that you repent of your sins and turn away from them to God in faith.

So it is that, along with His discipline of your flesh, and even with His punishment of your sins, in love for you He also provides the way of escape, the rescue, the means of life and salvation.  Even in the midst of death, He is at hand to save you.  But He does so in truly remarkable ways.

In the case of Israel, He had Moses make an image of the very thing that was killing them, and had him hang it on a pole for all to see.  If you were bitten by one of those fiery serpents, you had only to look at the fiery image of a serpent on that pole, and then you would not die.  Now that is crazy.  But it worked, because God the Lord had spoken His Word, and His Word determines all things.

Not only that, but that serpent on a pole was more than just a remedy and rescue for ancient Israel.  By it the Lord your God was already proclaiming the Cross of Christ, His beloved Son, whom He would hang as a serpent on a pole, that you might look to Him and live.  The Son of God Himself assumes the very image of your sin and death, and He is lifted up on the Cross for your salvation.

This, too, is the crazy foolishness of God.  But you are guided by His Word to know the Truth and believe it.  Otherwise, without His Word, if you look at the naked Man on the Cross, condemned as a criminal outside of Jerusalem, you see not life but death, and your sinful heart recoils from it.  You don’t like to look at suffering and death, because it reminds you and accuses you of your own.

Nevertheless, this is the way and the means by which God loves you, and the extent to which He loves you.  He sends His only-begotten Son and hangs Him on the Cross for you.  So does He become your sin.  And He becomes your death.  And He becomes the curse that hangs over you.  He bears all of that in His own flesh, and He dies.  It is all put to death and buried with His Body.

When you look to Him, therefore, as God has spoken, you shall not die but live, because your sins are all forgiven.  Your death has been put to death in Christ, once and for all.  And the curse has been turned into a blessing.  God loves to do that, to bring forth life from out of death, to call forth light from out of the darkness, to create all things out of nothing by His Word (who is made flesh).

You have the Word that God spoke to Israel made more sure in Christ.  You recognize Him on the Cross for who and what He is, because God has spoken by His Son.  The Lord Jesus has catechized you and opened your eyes by His Word and promise: Whoever looks to Him in faith, crucified and risen from the dead — whoever believes in Him — shall not perish but have everlasting Life.

Look, then, to Christ on the Cross, and live.  Why should you die?  Fix your eyes on Jesus by faith in His Word.  For you “see” Him, not so much with the eyes in your head, but by the sound of His Gospel in your ears.  It is by the hearing of His Word that your eyes are opened in faith to behold Christ, the Crucified One, and to recognize Him as your Savior.  Apart from His Word, all that you are able to see is sin, death, and hell — upon the Cross, in yourself, and in the world around you.  But what you are given to see by faith in His Word is true divine Life.  Hear, then, what the Lord your God has done for you, and thereby know and trust the love of God for you in Christ Jesus.

St. Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans, “He who did not spare His only Son but gave Him up for us all, will He not also, with Him, freely give us all good things?”  Yes, it is most certainly true!  What more could He give than He has given?  What more could He do than He has done?  Look to Jesus by fixing your faith in His Gospel, and you will know exactly where you stand with God.

Return to the waters of the Red Sea.  Not that you should go back to Egypt, which is where your sinful heart too much resides, but return to the Passover of the Lord and to your Exodus from Egypt by your crossing of the Red Sea with Jesus.  Return to the waters of your Baptism, and die, in order to rise with Christ Jesus and live with Him in the Kingdom of His God and Father.

Examine your life, your heart and mind, your words and actions.  Look at yourself in the Light of God’s Word.  Go through the Ten Commandments, as the Catechism has taught you, and then compare what God has said to the way that you have lived in the world where He has put you.  And when you thus discover that you have fallen so far short, repent.  Do not despair, but confess your sins, and hear the Gospel.  Receive His Word of Absolution, by which He delights to forgive you.

Let the Word of Christ constantly be ringing in your ears.  Don’t worry, you won’t overdo it.  It is not possible to hear His Word too much.  Let it ring in your ears at all times.  Pray the Catechism when you’re driving in your car, or when you find it hard to sleep at night.  Sing the hymns of the Church which confess the faith.  Teach these things to your children, if you have children, but do not neglect them for yourself.  Be in the Lord’s House to hear the preaching of His Word.  Treasure it in your heart and mind, and rehearse it with your lips by praying and confessing what He says.

And set the Cross of Christ before your eyes.  It is true that fixing your eyes on Jesus and focusing on the Cross is more than simply jewelry and artwork.  But by the blessed Incarnation of Christ God has redeemed His creation, so that it is now able to proclaim the Gospel also in these ways.  So that pictures and statues, a cross around your neck, and the sign of the Cross that you make upon your forehead and your heart, all of these are able to confess the Cross of your salvation, that you might be drawn to Him who is your Savior, and that by His Gospel you might live and not die.

Above all, fix your eyes on Jesus here at His Altar.  Hear the Word of His New Testament, and by that Word know that He gives you His Body to eat, that He pours out His Blood for you to drink.

The Lord your God has not left you without provision.  He has not set you loose in the wilderness to fend for yourself and make your own way from the Red Sea to the verge of Jordan.  He travels with you in His Tabernacle, which is the very Flesh of Christ, and He daily and richly provides you with all that you need, both for your body and your soul.  He preserves your body and life in this world, for this present time, that you might hear and receive the gifts Christ freely gives by the Gospel, and that you might confess and share His Word of the Gospel with your neighbors, also.

The Son of Man, Christ Jesus, is lifted up most surely in this Holy Communion, that His death might be proclaimed as your Life and your Salvation, until He shall come to call you from out of this desert wilderness, across the waters of the Jordan into Canaan, into Paradise the blest, where you shall live and abide with Him in divine Peace and Sabbath Rest forevermore.  The One who promises is faithful, and He will surely do it.

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

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