In some churches, today, January 27 marks the commemoration of one of the most celebrated preachers in Christian history, St. John Chrysostom (his name means "golden tongue").
I know a family in turmoil. The mom and dad are at odds over the children; the younger brother has lied to and stolen from his older brother. He’s so crazy with rage that he’s plotting to murder his kid brother. And this same older brother, mad at his dad, too, finds out what really gets under the old man’s skin and sets out to do that very thing to spite him. And the younger brother—the thief and liar—is so scared for his life that he runs away from home. I know this messed up family. And you probably do, too. Their names are Isaac and Rebecca, Esau and Jacob. Broken homes such as theirs, full of broken hearts, broken promises, anger, spite, guilt, and all kinds of nastiness, are nothing new.
Here is Jacob, the younger brother, the man on the run. Asleep with a rock for a pillow. Alone between a past full of deceit and a future fat with fear. And there, in the midnight of his sleep, he dreams a dream no mortal had ever dreamed before. A ladder stretching to the stars, the stairway of angels. Up to heaven and down to earth the angels go. From Jacob to God they ascend, from God to Jacob they descend. Here is a living bridge from creature to creator. And the Lord speaks, “I am the God of your grandfather, Abraham, the God of your dad, Isaac. And I am your God, too, Jacob.” He is a God with a past full of promises and a future full of their fulfillment. He doesn’t scold this sleeper for having had a deceitful past. He doesn’t give him a tongue-lashing for his theft. He promises him the very land on which Jacob lies; descendants as numerous as the grains of dust that are his bed; and most importantly, the God at the top of the ladder says, “I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
Wow, that sounds sweet, doesn’t it? All these grand promises. But maybe you’re thinking: “Where’s God when I need a dream like that? Where’s God when my real life feels more like a nightmare—one that goes on and on and on? Jacob had it bad I suppose; but I tell you what, that runaway and I could compare scars. Let me tell you about my dysfunctional family. Let me tell you what it feels like to crave love from those closest to you and not get it. Let me tell you what’s it like to lie in bed at night and pray you don’t wake up in the morning just so all the pain will be over. Let me tell you not about my dreams but about my fear to dream, my fear to hope. Let me show you my scars.” Maybe that’s what you’re thinking.
If you are, let me tell you something. You may not believe it; you may even scoff at the claim, but here’s the truth: God hears your roar of pain on the other side of your silence. He counts every tear you let escape, or refuse to let go, from the ocean of anguish inside you. He is your God, too, as much as He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and that deceiving, stealing, runaway Jacob. And since He is your God, neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities, neither things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate you from the love He has for you in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing and no one.
And here’s the thing about God: He actually keeps His promises. For richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse. When you’ve made more stupid mistakes than even you can remember. When you’ve hurt virtually everyone who’s tried to love you. When you can barely stand to look at your face in the mirror because all you see is shame and failure staring back at you, mocking you. When it feels like you’ve wallowed in the mud of hell itself, you have a God who loves you. You have a God who cares. You have a God who will stand up publicly beside any man or any woman, embrace them, forgive them, and say to the world, “This is my child. I love him. I love her. And I defy you to say otherwise.” You have a God like that. You have a God who cannot and will not stop loving you and keeping you and dying to make you right.
These are grand promises, and they are as real as your pain and doubt and fear. But they are better, and stronger, because they are God’s grand promises, and He stands behind them. You want a dream like Jacob’s? You want a ladder and the pretty angels and God up top all strong and talking to you? You want too little. You need more than that. You need more than a dream. You need something concrete. And you got it.
You need a God who pushes the angels aside and climbs down the ladder. You need a God who doesn’t just make promises, but also keeps them, and who Himself becomes promise and fulfillment. You need a God who not only comes down that ladder from heaven, but also brings heaven with Him, who pulls heaven downward and lifts earth heavenward, and fuses the two together in His very own body. The God of heaven, the Man of earth, in one person, Jesus the Son of Mary, the Son of the Father.
You see greater things than Jacob saw. You see the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. You see people with broken lives, from broken families, with broken and bleeding hearts, welcomed into the kingdom where they find peace that they dared not even dream existed this side of the grave. You see people whom society has rejected, whom friends have shunned, called friends of God, heirs of the kingdom, sons and daughters of the king. Do you see yourself there? There you are. That is who you are because of Christ Jesus.
Show your scars to Him and He will show you His. His scars endured to heal your own. He will take your scarred heart in his scarred hands and love you, and love you, and love you still more, until all that matters is not the scar upon your heart, but the scar embedded in His hand. All that will matter is not how hellish life can sometimes be, but rather how heaven itself is grasped in this God who came to earth to be Himself that ladder by which we ascend to the Father. He will wipe away your tears, cleanse you of your shame, embrace you as a member of His family, and tell you, “I am with you. I am Emmanuel. I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, and your God, now and unto ages of ages, and even forevermore.”
It is not hard to track down the Church; just follow the trail of blood. It begins in the wet soil beneath the body of Abel, murdered not by a stranger but by a brother, slain by one who hated the believer because he hated the believer’s God. And onward it winds, this haunting crimson road. The blood flows from the veins of the very old to the very young, from the infant boys in Egypt and Bethlehem to the gray-haired men and women whose tongues would not be tied by a tyrant’s decree. In this world the Church never has peace—peace as the world understands it. Yes, wherever she goes, the Church leaves—or, rather, is forced to leave – the telltale sign of her passage through that place. Just follow the trail of blood, and there you will behold the lineage of the Church. See to it that no one leads you astray from such a path, painful though that path may be. Many come to tell your itching ears what they crave to hear: “It doesn’t have to go on like this. We can have peace. No more blood need be shed. Wink at the golden calves and mind your own business rather than throw down the law and insist on only one saving truth. Much favor will be won if we learn how to compromise, to play our political cards right, to sweeten our speech with opinions rather than confessions, to crawl about like a theological chameleon in today’s multi-colored religious landscape.” If these lies were true, then the world would smile and sheathe its sword, the demons would retract their claws, and the haunting crimson road would come to an end. But then, so would the Church.
Deep guile is the weapon of the one who masquerades as an angel of light, but who is truly the prince of darkness. It is he who opened Eve’s eyes to “a better way,” unencumbered by a Word from God that deprived her of what could only make her life better and more fulfilled. So she thought. It is he who persuaded Solomon that it was more prudent to build temples for the gods of his many wives than risk losing family tranquility and political capital by insistence on the only true way of divine worship. It is he who shows you that it’s fine to applaud our spiritual forefathers for their bold stance in their own historical context but to chuckle and poke fun at any serious attempt to follow that teaching and practice in our own.
O such is the crumbling fortress of the god of this world, but how it entices our flesh! It looks like a house of candy to the Hansels and Gretels who wander lost through this world. And we all have tasted its seeming sweetness. For it is always easier to rest inside the devil’s crumbling fortress than to trudge on alone in a dark and friendless world. It is always easier to hold hands with unbelievers inside those walls than risk public defamation by declaring the Gospel from without. It is always easier to file away the 95 Theses until a more politically expedient time; to bite your tongue so long as no one else speaks up; when standing before governors and kings to say, “Here I stand…and there and there and there and wherever else you wish, whatever keeps my neck out of the noose. Yes, such is the fortress built by the devil’s deep guile. And woe to the believer and woe to the church that passes through its gates; so deceptive and seductive are its inner charms that few are those who escape. For it is not really a fortress; it is a dungeon—dark and dank and reeking of death.
See to it that no one leads you astray from the narrow way, the straight way, the only saving path, for it alone leads to the Jerusalem above. Though the road that frees you from suffering for the truth may seem broad and easy, in reality it is a road that leads only to greater and unending suffering. Though the narrow path is bloody, and though the way is steep, and though the trail of truth seems impossible to follow at times, only on that path does our Father feed you and clothe you and fill you and flood you with true and lasting peace.
For we travel not alone—far from it. At our head is the Son of David, the severed head of hell’s Goliath dangling from His hand, blazing the trail that leads to the heavenly Jerusalem. Yes, for us fights the valiant one, whom God Himself elected. Though weak and frail and frightened you may be, it matters not, for it is not you who fight but God who fights for you. He parts the waters so you may pass through, while engulfing your foes behind you. He topples the walls of Jericho; He turns the swords of your enemies against each other; He fights and He wins and He places the crown on victory upon your head while you merely stand by and see the salvation of your God.
O little flock, fear not the foe, for at your head is the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for you. For all your compromises, He made the good confession before Pilate. For all your shirking of the cross, He bore His own for you. For your silence in an effort to save face, He turned His face toward the spit and the fists and the blood and the gore. And willingly He did it, all for you, that you might be His own, bought at a price.
Just follow His trail of blood, the blood of the crucified one, and there you will behold the life of the Church, your life. The Church’s life is in nothing and no one else. Not in glory nor in fame; not in numbers nor power; but in His holy, saving blood, in the blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. The wounds of His hands and feet and side open like lips to proclaim, “Come to me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden by the heat of this desert world. Drink deeply from my cloven side! Come to me, sit at my feet, all ye who have gone astray, and I will show you my heel, with which I have crushed the head of the serpent of old! Come to me, all ye Adams and all ye Eves, who with guilty hands have tried to cover your shame—come and taste the fruit of my body that your eyes may truly be opened and you may see that I have clothed you with my own flesh.”
Dear Christians, one and all rejoice, because for you there is a strong city, which has lasting foundations, whose builder and architect is God. Salvation unto you has come—salvation from sin, from falsehood, from false hopes, from false and crumbling fortresses. A mighty fortress is our God, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging; though devils all the world should fill, all eager to devour us—we will not fear. The kingdom remains ours. The forgiveness of sins is ours. We are washed in the blood of the Lamb. Fed with manna from on high. Compassed about by legions of angels. Christ before us and behind us. Christ on our right and Christ on our left. Christ above us and Christ below us. We all believe in one true God who will ever remain true to us. So be still and know that He is God, and you are His children; nothing will separate you from Him who shares your flesh and blood. He will grant you endurance to the end.
The sower went out to sow his seed. But you would have thought he blindfolded himself before he hit the fields because he sows his seed like a man who’s as blind as a bat. Look at him, this silly farmer! Recklessly, unpredictably, haphazardly he wanders over hill and dale, his hands casting seed from here to kingdom come. On asphalt and sand, among weeds and thorns, where soil is thick and thin, rich and poor—it matters not. For what concern does the farmer have where the seed may land?
He sows it on Sodom and four seeds take root—or is it three?—while the rest falls on rocky hearts destined for fire and brimstone. He sows it on Nineveh and over 120,000 seeds take root in the soil of repentant hearts. He sows it on Israel. In the Joshuas and Calebs and Rahabs and Moseses, the seeds find a home and grow; in others, the seeds find soil as soft as concrete, souls as hospitable as hell. He sows among the homosexuals of Sodom and gossiping widows of this town. He sows here and there and everywhere, preaching the Word in season and out of season, in the field and out of the field, embraced or rejected, scorned or loved.
When the sower went out to sow his seed, he dropped some into your heart. I wonder, will it take root, this seed of Christ, this seed of His grace and mercy. Will it take root, or has it? And if it has, will it remain? Will it take root in a heart like yours, a heart that is always eager to do good . . . so long at it’s pleasant and profitable for you; a heart that consistently rejects temptations . . . so long as the temptations are to do things you don’t really enjoy anyway; a heart that loves others . . . so long as they are nice to you, compliment you, and do what you want?
Will the seed of the Word remain in a heart like yours, a heart that loves a good story—a story that shows the weakness, failure, or stupidity of someone, especially if you don’t like that person anyway; a heart that keeps close tabs on how much money’s in the bank but pays little heed to how much the church floor is littered with the gold and silver of God’s Word, which you have let fall from your ears? Will the seed of Christ, the seed of His grace and mercy, take root in a heart like yours, a heart that is as clean as a manure pile and as fertile as a brick?
Repent. You know the truth as well as I do. You think that, compared to the hearts of hookers and thieves, yours is as clean as can be. You think the sower sowed his seed in you because he saw such good soil, such a good, generous, noble person. But that’s only the lie you love to believe, because it’s a lie that makes you feel good about yourself. Repent and believe. Believe the truth.
The truth is that when the sower sowed his seed in you, it fell on rock-hard soil; and where there weren’t rocks there were weeds; and where there weren’t weeds there were birds of the air waiting to devour it. But, lo and behold, the seed of God’s Word doesn’t look for good soil to fall into; it creates the soil for itself, no matter how rocky or how weed-infested your heart may be.
Jesus doesn’t look for the right kind of people to believe. He doesn’t scout out the best planting ground for His word. He simply sows, and His Word has its way with you. His Word—that Word of grace and absolution—transforms you, O sinner, into good ground. It is just as if a farmer sowed his seed on a Walmart parking lot one evening. By the time the sun rose, that concrete was rich soil. All that gray, lifeless stone was colored with blooms. A parking lot was transformed into a field of salvation. That’s what the Lord Jesus does to you and for you. He transforms your parking lot heart into a place for parking His Word, His Spirit, His body and blood, His divine life.
For the seed of His Word is packed with the flesh and blood of the Son, the Son dead and risen for you. It is packed with the life of the One who once was packed with your sin and death; packed with the bloody love of the One who chose to endure sacrifice rather than endure eternity without you; chose to be devoured by the demons, strangled by the weeds of justice, buried in the earth, that He might have and keep you as His own.
Humble yourself, therefore, under the nail-pierced hand of God, the hand that worked everything out for you. God sowed, you received. God changed your rock into soil; you received. God gave growth to His seed; you received. God keeps you in the faith, grants you daily forgiveness, and guarantees you heaven, and you—that’s right—you receive.
So rather than trusting in anything that we do, let us rest secure in the defense that God provides against all our foes. Be they the satanic fowl that seek to gobble up the Word; be they the thorns of cares, riches, and the pleasures of life; be they the burning sun of temptations; be what they may, come when they will, none of them will uproot the seed within you. It is defended by the sower, who never leaves His plant, who never forsakes you but for your sake plants Himself in you.
The sower went out to sow his seed. He sowed it in you, and when the harvest comes, he will find in you a crop, a hundredfold, ripened unto eternal life. Thanks be to God.
There was a certain rich man who was decked out in the finest clothing. Every day was a feast. His closest friends gathered round about him, delighting in his company, and he in theirs. This rich man led the best of lives, had the best things in this world. He was a blessed man.
And this rich man’s name was Lazarus.
Seeing, we do not see. Our eyes are busy deceiving us 24/7, like two liars sunk into our faces, calling black white and white black.
To see God's work in our world, our eyes must retire and our ears labor overtime.
We mistake appearance for reality. We see someone driving a fancy car, owning a big home, having healthy children and an attractive spouse. Instantly, almost without a second's thought, we assume they are successful. Life is good for them. They are living the dream.
Maybe they are. Or maybe they're not. Because if Christ is not living within them, if the word of God is not part of their lives, they are to be pitied, not admired. I don't care how much money they have, they're impoverished. I don't care how healthy their children are, they're dead. Without Jesus, our whole life is a non-life. Without Jesus, every second of earthly life is simply a prelude to everlasting darkness and despair.
Seeing, we do not see, if we let our eyes tell us what is true and what is false, what is good and what is bad.
Look at our friend, Lazarus. Our eyes and ear tell us polar opposite stories:
Our eyes see Lazarus as a poor beggar, but our ears hear him as a man rich with the Father's grace.
Our eyes see Lazarus in rags, but our ears hear him decked out in the righteousness of Christ.
Our eyes see him starving, but our ears hear him feasting sumptuously every day on the bread that came down from heaven.
Our eyes see him a man without friends, but our ears hear him as the friend of God, the companion of angels.
As it with people, so it is with religious institutions, too.
On Sundays, I drive by a certain church all the time. It boasts a sprawling campus. Its pastor is known internationally. Its multimillion dollar budget dwarfs most businesses. Outwardly, this is a sexy, awesome church.
On weekdays, on my delivery route, I drive by what is possibly the ugliest church in San Antonio. A store-front congregation squatting between a laundromat and a greasy taco joint. In the evening, prostitutes strut their stuff on the nearby street corner and drug dealers hang our around back. Inside, the pulpit is an old music stand and metal folding chairs serve for pews.
Now which of these two churches is "successful"? In which one is God pleased to be at work? There's only one way to tell. On Sunday morning, leave your eyes at home and drive your ears to church. Whichever one is preaching the word of God in its truth and purity, whichever one is proclaiming the law and the Gospel, that is the church where God is pleased to dwell.
In daily life, in our spiritual life, God's work in our world is hidden under its opposite. To "see" it, look through your ears.
Here's the hard truth: Chances are, you're not going to like it when God is most active in your life. It'll be when you think he's thrown you away, forgotten you, or declared war against you. It won't look like a honeymoon but a divorce. It won't look like a mountaintop experience but like dragging yourself out of a grave.
Your eyes will tell you a thousand lies. Only your ears will tell you the truth. They will tell that, in the midst of all this pain and loss, Jesus alone is your life and your hope. When it seems you can't do a damn thing right, Jesus has done all things for you.
“Teach me the whole law,” a Gentile once demanded of Rabbi Shammai. Not a bad request, to be sure, until he tacked on this stipulation: “Do this while I’m standing on one foot.” Living up to his short-tempered reputation, Shammai grabbed a stick and with it drove away his would-be student.
Undeterred, the Gentile next visited Rabbi Hillel, repeating the same challenge: “Teach me the whole law while I’m standing on one foot.” Hillel responded, “‘What is hateful to you, to your neighbor don’t do.’That’s the entirety of the law; everything else is commentary. So go, study.”
Hillel is basically right. At its essence, the law is simple, uncomplicated. You can learn it all, yes, while standing on one foot. “What is hateful to you, to your neighbor don’t do.” St. Paul nods in agreement: “The whole law is fulfilled in one statement: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” And our Lord echoes them both, adding love toward God: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commands hang all the Law and the Prophets.” Everything else is commentary.
But a happy commentary it is not. The rest of the Law and Prophets comment on how folks learned the whole law standing on one foot, while using their other foot to kick their neighbor. Cain took out his anger at the heavens by reddening the earth with his brother’s blood. Rape-hungry Sodomites attempted to gratify their lust on Lot’s two out-of-town visitors. Belly-aching Israelites got sick of God’s food and wanted to stone God’s prophet. Saul hounded David; David impregnated Bath-Sheba and murdered her husband; Bath-Sheba’s grandfather, Ahithophel, became a “Judas Iscariot” to King David during Absalom’s coup and wound up slipping a noose around his own neck.
These stories make most soap operas look like kindergarten pageants. The unkept command “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is abbreviated to what is quite keep-able: “You shall love...yourself.” So it still remains beyond the walls of this church, where in the name of self-love, murder masquerades as compassion, perversion as entertainment, and the god of this world keeps cranking up the volume as Whitney Houston sings that “loving yourself is the greatest love of all.”
But of all those who act in self-love, those with the greatest guilt are not “out there” but in here, in the pew, around the altar, standing within this pulpit. Because to those to whom much is given, much will be required. Think of it this way: who is worse, the child or the adult who steals from some store? Even though the child may know that what he’s doing is wrong, because he is immature and doesn’t fully comprehend the gravity of his actions, we can at least partially excuse his behavior. But the mature adult, who knows very well that what he does is forbidden and consciously violates that law, we cannot excuse. And we are the mature adults, those within the church, not the immature children of the world. We have violated not that of which we are ignorant, but that of which we are fully aware. If you want proof, simply look at how well we attempt to cover up our evil deeds. We know well to wear gloves when we stab others in the back. Our skillfulness at acting out lies would make Hollywood jealous. Over time, with enough practice, we can begin to convince ourselves that—since no thunderbolt has fallen from the skies—God must be winking at our “naughtiness.”
Lord, have mercy. What more is there to say? If the law really has one thing to say, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” then we law-breakers really have only one thing with which to respond: “Lord, have mercy.” Not, “O God, give me another chance and I’ll...” Not, “But God, I really didn’t mean to...” Not, “O Lord, I promise to make it up to you by...” If the law is learned while standing on one foot, the best response thereafter is to drop to both knees and pray, “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy, for your law I have not kept.”
It is mercy that your Lord wants to give. That is His greatest delight. An ancient tradition has it that when the Egyptians were drowning in the Red Sea, the heavenly choirs started to break out in song, but the Lord silenced them, chiding, “The works of my hands are drowning and you want to sing!?” Hell is not the laughingstock of heaven.The Lord takes no delight in the death of the sinner. Rather, He takes pleasure in those who are cleansed through the sacrifice in which He did delight.
If all the Law and the Prophets hang on the words, “Love God and love your neighbor,” those words hang on something else. On the crucifix they hang. As St. Paul testifies, “[Christ] canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us and which was hostile to us; He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Col. 2:14). The two tablets of the law are suspended from the tree of sacrifice, for on that tree their demands have been met. God threatens to punish all who break these commandments, but He punishes His Son in your stead and for your sake. He promises grace and every blessing to all who keep these commandments, and that grace and blessing He gives you, for Jesus has kept the commandments on your behalf. What was given at Sinai is fulfilled at Calvary. The lawgiver keeps His own law; the judge takes the criminal’s place; and you go free.
For the joy set before Him, Jesus has done all this. Your salvation is His joy. He gladly bore the thorns that you might wear the crown of glory. He willingly was stripped of His robes that you might be clothed in His righteousness. He readily loved those who hated Him, for He loves the unlovable, and in so doing, transforms them into His friends.
And what is most remarkable is that He still loves you. Despite your lies, He speaks the truth when He says, “You are mine.” Despite your self-love, He never stops loving the selfishness out of you and leading you into love for your neighbor. Despite the fact that He sees the deep, dark, hidden evils within you that you think you’ve hidden from all the world, He nevertheless sees you not as an enemy but as a precious child, one for whom He gave His life, one for whom all His suffering was worthwhile. For if earthly fathers delight in their children, how much more does your heavenly Father delight in you!
You may not be able to get blood out of a turnip or make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but if you’re God, well, no sweat. His daily occupation is making something out of nothing. From dead dirt He molds a living man. And from a piece of bone He builds a lovely bride. Ninety-year-old Sarah giggles when out of her desert womb sprouts a flowering Isaac. Aaron’s staff buds, out of fleece Gideon squeezes a bowlful of dew, and a boulder becomes a drinking fountain at which all Israel may slake their thirst. This is no divine magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat; this is simply God, all in a day’s work, always pulling everything out of nothing by means of His almighty Word. “When all was still, and it was midnight, that almighty Word descended from the royal throne” to fill a tabernacle of virgin flesh with all the glory of the Godhead (Wisdom 18:14-15). He pulled everything human—body and soul, eyes, ears, and all our members—all this He pulled into God. “Not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking the manhood into God,” (Athanasian Creed). Therefore, God sucked His thumb and God dirtied His diaper; God learned His ABC’s and survived puberty; God ate and drank, sneezed and cried, walked and talked, lived and died.
And it all started when out of the nothingness of Mary’s womb, the Word who makes all things, made for Himself a body, human through and through. From the virgin soil of Eden the first man came and from the virgin womb the last man came—came to re-genesis you. If you want something done right, do it yourself; so the Word who created men came Himself to make all men new as the Word-made-man. If it seemed like God was getting awfully close to people when He set up His tent smack-dab in the middle of Israel’s camp, how much closer He came when He shifted the holy of holies beneath the bulging belly of a young maiden from Galilee. Now that’s Emmanuel—God-with-us, God-in-us, God-who-is-one-of-us.
For Mary is greater than Sarah, promised son though Isaac was. Mary is greater than Samson’s mother, savior though he also was. In Mary’s womb and nursing at her breast is the Lord of all. So it had to be, for if Mary had given birth to one who was less than God, then more would have been needed. To put it simply: if Mary is not the mother of God, then God is not our Father. For He must, and He did, become like us in all things, and yet remain like His Father in all things, that in all things He might redeem us by His blood.
Simultaneously virgin and mother—Mary is the icon of the virgin bride of Jesus who bears all her children in the image and likeness of her husband. She was the first to be in communion with the flesh and blood of Jesus. She is the preeminent receiver of the Word from the Father. Higher and more glorious than the cherubim and seraphim, this bearer of the eternal Word gives voice to the praise of all creation as she sings the most heavenly hymn ever uttered by an earthly tongue.
But Mary is not alone, for what she received, of Him you have partaken. The Word became flesh to make your flesh into Word. Into your sin-infested body is placed the body of the Word, the antidote for life, to make you new by union with Him. The Father wraps His Son in the swaddling clothes of bread and lays that bread from heaven within the manger of your mouth. The rock from whence Israel drank is pierced so that a lifeless corpse becomes an ever-flowing chalice that pours into you the liquid of life.
You who deserve nothing good are given everything good and more. For you are given Jesus. The Jesus born of Mary, the Jesus who bore your iniquities, the Jesus who was borne on the clouds to God’s right hand—this Jesus is yours and you are His. You are woven into His divinity through His humanity and this cord of three strands cannot be broken. It is the rope of salvation that binds you to the Father in the unity of the Spirit. Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for the blessed virgin Mary, because through her womb came the One makes everything out of nothing for you.
A cemetery is a hard place to confess. It may be an easy place to open your eyes and weep, to open your mind and reminisce, to open your arms and receive an embrace. But it is not an easy place to open your mouth and say, “I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” A cemetery—that place is a hard place to confess. Why is that? Is it simply because our emotions get the best of us? Is it merely because we’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, so we don’t say anything at all? Perhaps. But I suspect there’s more to it than that. I suspect a cemetery is a hard place to confess because that place, more than any other, seems like the enemy’s public trophy case. Every tombstone appears to be another medal on death’s uniform. There it seems that no matter how valiantly we fight for life, death always comes out on top. He always throws the knock-out punch. He always wins the gold. A cemetery is a hard place to confess because the cemetery itself seems to confess, “You, O mortal, have lost.”
That, anyway, is the way it seems to be, the way it looks to the naked human eye. Looks, however, can be quite deceiving, can’t they? The naked human eye sees the cemetery, the coffin, the corpse, and man is easily deceived into thinking death has won, once again. Ah, but therein lies the problem: the naked human eye. What that naked eye needs is clothing, the kind of clothing that will enable it to see through the deceptions of death, to see beyond the cemetery, the coffin, the corpse, to the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. What that naked, human, easily-deceived eye needs is to be clothed with these words from mouth of Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.” A cemetery may be a hard place to confess, but with that simple confession, a cemetery is no longer seen as a place of defeat but a place of victory in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Just ask Mary and Martha. These two sisters, both friends of our Lord, sent for Him when their brother Lazarus fell ill. They waited and they waited, and finally He came. But it was too late. Lazarus was already dead. The sickness had moved too quickly, and Jesus had moved too slowly. Or so it seemed to these two grieving sisters. Little did they know that Jesus had purposefully delayed coming until Lazarus was not only dead, but buried and in the tomb four days. Little did they know that their Lord was allowing death to suck their hearts dry, that He might fill those empty hearts with the fullness of faith in Him.
When Jesus finally arrived in Bethany, it seemed that everyone was pointing an accusing finger at Him. Three times Jesus was told, “If only you had been here, Lazarus would still be alive.” First from Martha, then from Mary, and finally from their friends. Martha, at least, holds out a tiny hope that Jesus might still do something, anything, to help. She says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” When Jesus tells Martha that her brother shall rise again, she responds, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” In saying this, Martha confessed the truth, but she did not confess the whole truth. For the whole truth of the Christian faith is not just in something that will be, but in someone who is, not just in a distant hope but a present reality, not just a salvation of the future, but a salvation in the here-and-now. The whole truth of the Christian faith is an embodied truth, a flesh-and-blood truth in the Man who says, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life. I am the Resurrection and the Life.”
Dear Martha, for all the correctness of her confession, demonstrates the tendency that plagues us still today: the tendency to divorce Christ from His gifts. What I mean is this: all too often we think of salvation or forgiveness or resurrection as “things” that God gives to us. As a groom gives his bride a wedding ring, so God gives us the ring of salvation. He gives us a “thing,” something external to Himself, like the groom gives the ring. And, to be sure, God certainly does give us things. But the things that God gives are things like our body and soul, eyes, ears, clothing, shoes, house, home—daily-bread type things. But salvation, forgiveness, resurrection, and the like are not mere things external to God. Instead, they are God Himself. God Himself, the Man Christ Jesus, is your forgiveness; He is your salvation; He is your life; He is your resurrection. When He bestows these gifts upon you, He is not like a groom placing a ring on the finger of His bride the Church; He is rather the Groom who is giving the Bride His body. All that Christ is—your embodied salvation, your embodied forgiveness—all that Christ places within your body.
To Martha, to Mary, to their friends, and to us, who Christ is becomes abundantly clear in that cemetery near Bethany. Martha still didn’t quite get it. She didn’t want the stone rolled back; no need to let loose the stench of her brother’s decomposing body. But at Jesus’ insistence, she relents and the tomb is open. There, time ceased to matter. The Eternal One was present. There, death ceased to matter. Life Itself was present. There was no need to wait for the Last Day for the resurrection of the body, for here stood the One who is the Resurrection and Life.
Truth be told, in the midst of that crowd gathered at the cemetery, the only one who completely believed in Christ was the dead man. He alone truly heeded the voice of Christ. Mary had heard, Martha had heard, the crowd had heard, but their hearts were still crowded with doubt and grief. But the dead man, he believed; Lazarus heeded the Word of Christ. “Lazarus, come forth,” Jesus called out. And so he did. The dead man was ripped from the arms of death by the One whom death could also could not hold in the tomb. He who is the Resurrection, who is resurrected, raised Lazarus. That dead man who now lived was as a living trophy of Christ’s victory over the enemy called death.
A cemetery is a hard place to confess, unless standing beside you is the One who stands triumphant upon the neck of death. That place of graves is a hard place to confess, unless He who rose from His own grave lives within you and in the one whose body is laid to rest. And not just in the cemetery, but any place in this fallen world in which we stare the enemy face-to-face, in which we see with the naked human eye only loss, heartache, and defeat—in those places that naked, human, easily-deceived eye needs to be clothed with these words from mouth of Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.”
He is not only the one who is crucified to earn our forgiveness, who sheds His blood to acquire our salvation, and who exits the tomb alive again to provide us with the hope of the resurrection. He is also the One who is our forgiveness, who is our salvation, and who is our resurrection. It is this One who constantly surrounds us with Himself as we face the enemies in this world. As it has been so beautifully expressed in the ancient prayer of St. Patrick:
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise.
May this Christ, who the Resurrection and the Life, continue to grant you Himself now and unto all eternity.
John the Baptist is uncivilized. With locust legs stuck between his teeth he’ll never rank on Ms. Manners top ten list. With hair untouched by scissors he’ll never be hired by a Fortune 500 company. And with a wardrobe consisting only of camel’s hair he’ll never make the cover of GQ. Yes, indeed, John is uncivilized. He makes you uncomfortable, doesn’t he? He’s the kind of person you think you have to make apologies for: “Oh, yes, John, he is a bit eccentric, a little off-the-wall, not your run-of-the-mill biblical figure. You just have to look past a few things, that’s all. I’m sure deep down he’s a very normal person.” But—to twist an old country song—mamas don’t want their babies to grow up and be John the Baptists; let ‘em be doctors and lawyers and such.
Why does John make you uncomfortable? You know. It’s not just the clothing; it’s not only the hair; it’s not even really the diet. John the Baptist is uncivilized--that’s the problem. He doesn’t live in an air-conditioned, three-bedroom house with a white-picket fence and a two-car garage. He didn’t marry his high school sweetheart and raise two lovely children. He doesn’t buy his clothes at Dillard’s and his groceries at United. John didn’t even hold down a job. Turning his back on both city and village, John lives in the wilderness, the Judean wild country his unwalled bedroom. Although entitled to the priesthood, John’s temple is the desert, his altar the Jordan River, his vestments animal hides. Although he is the culmination of the OT prophets and--as Jesus said--the greatest man ever born of a woman (Luke 7:28), John spits in the face of flattery, deeming himself unworthy even to touch the shoestrings of the Messiah with his sinful fingers. John is everything that civilized sinners don’t want to be.
“Who are you, John?” That’s what the civilized priests and Levites want to know. “I am not the Christ,” John emphatically answers. “What then, are you Elijah?” “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” “No.” “Who are you, that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What do you say about yourself?” Humble John has nothing to say about himself, so, thankfully, Isaiah the prophet has already spoken for him: “I am ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Make straight the way of the Lord.”’”
John is the forerunner, the one who trots ahead of the Messiah to announce His coming. He is the advent man, the preacher who prepares you for Christ. John is what the psychiatrist would call a monomaniac--someone with an excessive interest or irrational preoccupation with one subject. A monomaniac about Christ--yes, that fits John to a tee.
“Who are you, John?” “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord.” Why in the wilderness, John? What’s so important about the desert? Why not build a church in the civilized section of the country or at least erect a pulpit on the street corner? Good grief, John, why not just get half an hour of religious T.V. broadcasting so we could sit in our living room recliners and ponder your message? Why must we travel out to the wilderness?
But John the Baptist is unrelenting: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” John beckons you away from that place called civilization where civilized sinners are all too easily duped by the demons into believing the lie. Leave that place where you are easily tricked into believing that your job is your life, your family is your life, your possessions are your life. Leave that place where trivial pursuit is not just a game but a way of life. Leave that place where death masquerades as life, where the person who is “living it up” has made pleasure into a god, where the person who is said to have lived a “full life” may never have been baptized, where “real life” has nothing to do with Christ but just getting by in a dog-eat-dog world. Leave that place where people think they have civilized sin, but where, in fact, sin has transformed them into savages at heart.
There is part of us that is uncomfortable with . . . no, there is part of us that hates John the Baptist. The ugly Old Adam in us hates to be stripped naked and made to stand ashamed in the front of the mirror of the law. So he loathes John. For John lays bare how comfortable we’ve become with our love of mammon, how adept we are at blaming others for our shortcoming, how easy we are on ourselves. This preacher’s sandpaper words are much too abrasive for our civilized hearts. His preaching grates on our modern sensitivities. But John will preach no Walt Disney version of the law. He is “calling you to repentance, that you might escape from the wrath to be revealed when Christ comes again in glory,” (Proper Preface for Advent).
So John beckons you out of civilization into the wilderness of repentance. To live a life of repentance is to sit at John’s feet in the desert sand. And what do you see in this wilderness of repentance? Barrenness stares blankly at you; the hollow eyes of death peer into your soul. When you go to St. John in the desert, into the painful stillness where you are utterly alone with the law of God, there your eyes behold with clarity the desert of your own heart, filled only with the wild monsters of your sins. Sit in the dust of this wilderness; pick up a handful of dirt, watch it trickle between your fingers. Behold your origin and your end. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. There, in the wilderness of repentance, where the pride of life is absent and the humility of death pervasive, there confess what you see: “I have lived as if God did not matter and as if I mattered most. My Lord’s name I have not honored as I should; my worship and prayers have faltered. I have not let His love have its way with me, and so my love for others has failed. There are those whom I have hurt, and those whom I failed to help. My thoughts and desires have been soiled with sin,” (Liturgy for Private Confession/Absolution, Lutheran Worship, p. 310).
John calls you out into the wilderness, into the barren desert, where the only life is where there is water. St. John the Baptist, we call him. He’s the water-man. John beckons you out of the civilization of sin, into the wilderness of repentance, to lead you ultimately to the river of life. And once he’s got you to the water, he’s done his job. For there, standing in the oasis of the Font, is your Savior, Jesus Christ. John points and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away your sin. Behold, the Lamb of God, who gives you the life of absolution in the water of Baptism.”
Ever since the day John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, our Lord has been found in the water. He locates Himself there for you. Flowing through the desert of repentance is this liquid of life. There, your conscience which burns with the heat of sins committed, finds the soothing coolness of sins forgiven. There, your heart, which is dried and cracked under the blazing sun of the law, finds shade and refreshment in the shadow of the cross. There, your mouth, which is parched from the confession of sins, is filled with the sweet drink of the compassion of God. Our Lord is found in the river of absolution. Come to Him. Drink of Him. Bathe, swim, soak in this fountain of immortality.
Your Lord has been baptized in blood, sprinkled on the Font of the cross by His own sliced veins. A soldier braced himself and thrust his cruel spear upward into the side of our blood-bathed God. That spear opened the fountain of His flesh and out flowed a river of blood and water, one fork filling the chalice, the other the Font. So when you desire forgiveness, you go to the blood, for without blood there is no forgiveness. The life of God is in the blood of His Son and that life-giving blood is in the Chalice, the Font, the Absolution. Go there for forgiveness. Go there for life. Go there for God.
The only true and lasting life is in the wilderness of repentance for there alone flows the Jordan River. Only in the water to which Christ has tied Himself is there life. Here the penitents truly “live it up,” really have the “full life,” and live the “real life” in Christ. Here the trivial is not pursued but the eternal is found. Here the shame of sin is removed by the name of the Forgiving One. Here uncivilized John places us into Christ’s keeping, where He makes us citizens of the heavenly fatherland.
Ask about just about anyone to draw a picture of an angel, and about 99.9% of those angels would be sporting those well-known wings. De-wing the angels, and I daresay their popularity in our culture would soon, well, fly out the window. We want angels as long as they’re adorned with wings. And so it is with other things. We want leaders as long as they have warm smiles; we want doctors with jovial personalities; we want pastors with shiny shoes, handsome faces, and—above all—niceness. Like starving men who would rather gorge themselves on paper showing pretty pictures of candy than dine on an ugly steak, so are we, for we suffer from an addiction to The Trivial.
The lion’s share of our lives is wasted in making big things little, and little things big. Every hour of every day demons lurk to snatch us up in their bloody claws, while we fret over wrinkles and graying hair and varicose veins. Within us there is an old Adam that hates God with a passion and who will fight tooth and nail to drag us down to hell with him, but we get all worked up over the neighbor who painted his shutters purple and has two feet high weeds in his yard. Not a single day goes by when we don’t sin enough to deserve ten-thousand lifetimes in that place of unquenchable fire, but we freak out if the A/C quits working in the middle of July. We are pros at making big things little, and little things big. We yearn and long for so many things that do us little or no good, while all the while forgetting about the One who does us nothing but good, who hungers and yearns and longs for us—the Lord of Angels, the God of Redemption, the One who is anything but trivial.
We pray every morning and evening, “Let your holy angel be with us, that the wicked foe have no power over us.” And well we should, for if God’s angel is not with us, the wicked foe has all power over us. Then we are lambs in the midst of wolves. But the holy angels of God, who help and defend us on earth, muzzle the demons’ murderous jaws. But they don’t wield swords and spears. The weapon of the angels is not tucked into a scabbard or holster. It’s in their mouths. Their tongue is our shield, for the weapon of angels is the word of their Lord. Revelation 12 says Michael and his angels fought against the Dragon and his angels. And how did they overcome him? By the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony. Words, angelic words, words steeped in divine blood—these words shield you from the fiery lies breathed out of the Dragon’s mouth, for these are not trivial words, but the word as weighty as the Lord whose words they are. It is not wing-ed angels that you need, but word-ed angels who do his word, heeding the voice of his word (Psalm 103).
And it is the same with those whom Scripture often calls angels, messengers from God—the pastors of the church. He whom God has called and placed in your midst is to you as Michael is to the whole church. He is God’s messenger to you, your angelic man, who stands guard over you with the shield of the Father’s word.
So what do you need from him? Do you need a man who will preach to make you happy or who will preach you into hell and back to heaven again? Do you need a man who will say, Thus says my Conscience or Thus says my Experience or Thus says my Church Body, or one who proclaims Thus says the Lord? Do you need a man who will feed you whatever is easy to swallow or who will feed you with the food of God, even when you have to choke it down?
What you need is an angelic man who is outfitted only with the word, the same word of the angels, the word steeped in divine blood, shed for you. That is all he has, for that is all he needs, for the word does it all. This is the word that converts you into little children so that you enter the kingdom of heaven. This is the word breathed into water so that heaven becomes your second womb and you are born from above. This word is the Spirit’s sword by which he cuts off the hand or foot which causes you to sin, that cuts to the heart of the matter, and leads to confession and absolution. This is the word joined with our flesh and blood in Mary the Virgin that we might eat that same flesh and blood in the church our Mother. This is the word that makes each of you greatest in the kingdom of heaven, for it plants you in the King of the Kingdom and makes you a partaker of his never-ending life.
Because what you need is not trivial, what God gives you is anything but trivial. He gives you himself for he gives you his very own word—incarnate, crucified, resurrected, ascended, all for you. Because the worst of hell is what you have deserved, God has given you the best of heaven which you have not deserved, that his doing of your salvation might be complete and perfect. There is no more to be done—the Serpent’s head has been crushed, the Passover Lamb has been sacrificed, the Red Sea has been parted, the New Joshua has led you into the Promised Land, the temple of his body has been destroyed and rebuilt. Now salvation and strength and the kingdom of our God and the power of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been cast down, and they overcame them by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony.
This is the weighty word you need and the weighty word God provides, speaking into you the word made flesh, that your flesh might forever be one with the word. This is the word your angelic man will preach into your ears that with Michael, the angels, archangels, and all the saints in heaven, you might forever rejoice at the Feast of the Lamb in his kingdom, which has no end.