Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 26, 2019 (John 16:23-33)

“The Exhortation to the Apostles/Recommandation aux apôtres” (1886-1896), by James Tissot (1836-1902). Brooklyn Museum. Public Domain.

Originally preached at Grace Lutheran Church in Woodbridge, Virginia.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and just as the Apostle Paul brought greetings from the churches he served throughout the Mediterranean, I bring you greetings from your brothers and sisters in Christ at Living Savior Lutheran Church in Fairfax Station.

In our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus makes three promises to his disciples.  For the moment, we’ll take a look at the first two that Jesus makes: “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full,” and “In this world, you will have tribulation.”  To be sure, both of these promises taken together seem somewhat…antithetical. The Father will give us whatever we ask of him so that our “joy may be full,” but we will receive trouble in this life.  How can one’s joy be full when one will also experience hardship and tribulation? Certainly it is a great comfort to us to know that God hears our prayers; as Jesus says “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you” (John 16:23), but what about those times when one asks God for something and appears to receive trouble?  How can one’s joy be complete then?

When Jesus told this to the disciples, he was preparing them for their future.  They were about to experience sorrow that they could not have imagined when Jesus would be taken to be tried before the religious leaders and Romans, and ultimately, to be killed.  Jesus needed to let them know that, even without him, God would still be with them and would still care for them. They would feel sorrow for “a little while,” but their joy would be restored, and they had the assurance that they could boldly ask God for whatever they desired in their prayers.  But how did they square this good news, that God would give them whatever they asked in Jesus’ name, for the completion–“filling out”–of their joy, with the fact that Jesus told them that they will have tribulation?

Of course, Jesus had told them all along that they would experience the coming sorrow of losing him, but on so many occasions they had disbelieved him, thinking that what he had told them about his coming suffering and death at the hands of the authorities was something that wouldn’t happen, or that Jesus was being a pessimist.  Do you all remember what Peter said? “Far be it from you that any of this should happen to you, Lord!” But he also told them that life wouldn’t go easy on them. To be a follower of Christ is to suffer with him; to take up one’s cross and follow him. Christ’s telling the disciples that they would experience tribulation–thlipsis, as John writes in the original Greek, a literal crushing or pressing–in this life is a warning for them.  This life will be difficult. You will face crushing opposition. The disciples don’t know it when he tells them, but they will all be sent to the furthest reaches of the known world, and all of them will suffer for Jesus’ sake.  Sin will try to have its way with them. They will be attacked in body and soul.

“The Protestations of St. Peter/Protestations de Saint Pierre” (1886-1894), by James Tissot (1836-1902). Brooklyn Museum. Public Domain.

Our world is certainly one full of tribulation.  We see it in the news every day. There’s conflict in the Middle East and West Africa.  Terrorist activity in Southeast Asia. Shootings here in the United States. Rampant destruction of the unborn.  The Chinese Uyghirs are being placed in reeducation camps. There’s suppression of the Gospel in China, North Korea, and elsewhere.  There is terrible flooding in the midwest, and farmers unable to plant crops. Famine and economic collapse in Venezuela. The world is full of troubles and trials.  But there are common everyday tribulations, too. Illness, crime, and poverty affect our communities. Interpersonal conflict and stress threaten our families. We are subject to worries about paying the bills, doing well at school, and excelling in our work

C.S. Lewis. From Flickr.

Imagine this individual, described by C.S. Lewis in his book, The Screwtape Letters.  Imagine “…a man hag-ridden by the Future–haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth–ready to break [God]’s commands in the present if so by doing [he thinks] he can attain the one or avert the other–dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see” (Letter 15).  Does that sound like someone you’ve ever known?  Someone who feels like the fate of the world depends on human action?  It’s easy for all of us to give in to the temptation to make the cares and stresses of the world our own, to believe that we can or have to fix the world ourselves or else fall with it.  Today, we feel as if we experience more anxiety than previous generations have, likely because of our intake of mass-communications. Stress has become the norm. Our own personal struggles, as well as the struggles of the world, seem to crush us, weigh us down, make our lives miserable, and attempt to squelch any hope we have in this world.  How do we overcome them? Can we?

On our own, we cannot.  The world is full of sin, and sin is the cause of all this pain and tribulation.  Being sinful creatures ourselves, we cannot overcome this sin that defines and pervades the world.  That’s like trying to remove an ink stain by pouring more ink on it. But Jesus gives his disciples a third promise in today’s reading from John: Jesus has overcome the world.

Jesus was no stranger to tribulation, either.
“Jesus Tempted in the Wilderness” (1886-1894), by James Tissot (1836-1902). Brooklyn Museum. Public Domain.

Because Jesus has overcome the world, the tribulations that afflict his followers ultimately have no power over them.  The disciples will go through all manner of troubles and affliction; in fact, all of them except for John will suffer and die for their faith.  Peter, Andrew, Phillip, Bartholomew, and Jude will be crucified. Matthew will be axed to death. James the Greater will be put to death by King Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great, with the sword; James the lesser, stoned and clubbed.  Simon the Zealot will be killed, and Thomas speared to death. John himself was imprisoned and eventually released in his advanced old age. He still suffered the afflictions of this life. The oppression and crushing— the thlipsis— of this sinful world brought death and suffering to the disciples.  But, through Christ’s overcoming the world, they too triumphed over it with him, sharing his victory.  

“The Martyrdom of the Apostles” (1435), from the St. Lawrence Altarpiece, Cologne, by Stefan Lochner (1410-1451). Städel Museum. Public domain. Left wing: Sts Peter, Paul, Andrew, John the Evangelist, James the Greater and Bartholomew. Right wing: Sts Thomas, Phillip, James the Less, Matthew, Simon and Judas, and Matthias.

And notice the confidence with which Jesus says: “I have overcome the world”!  When he says this, he has not yet died and risen for the sins of mankind. But Jesus has won the long-game.  He knows that death holds no power over him, and that his dying and rising will redeem the world and open the way to eternal life for all people.  His disciples will live, though they die and suffer. Those who trust in him will be delivered from tribulation, if not in this lifetime, then at the resurrection of all flesh, and their joy will be complete.

This promise is for us, too.  Though we see and experience so much current suffering, though the Enemy tries to distract us with the cares of this life so that we despair or make gods of ourselves and our ability to fix the world, you and I can take comfort and solace in the fact that Jesus has overcome the world and its tribulations.  We can trust in him for our deliverance from sin’s oppression. We can look to his second coming with expectant joy because we know that, having defeated death already at his resurrection, at his return, our joy will be truly complete and fulfilled.

So if you are care-worn and have been ground down by the world, beset by sin and in need of relief, take heart!  Jesus has overcome the world and sin and all their combined powers. He died and rose for you so that you might have new life in him, a new life freed from sin’s oppression and life’s tribulations.  Though you might still experience those pressures and troubles, with Christ, you too shall overcome and be freed from them. Christ has overcome. He is with you.

Going back to the beginning of this sermon and our reading, because Christ has overcome the world, we can boldly ask the Father for whatever we need because he has made our joy full in Christ’s resurrection.  In Christ, we have been made his children, and so he will hear us when we ask, and he will fulfill our happiness in Christ. He may not always give us what we want when we want it (like any good father), but he will give us what we need when we ask him, not always in our time, but in his.  You might remember how the Rolling Stones put it— “you can’t always get what you want…but you just might find, you get what you need.” God is in control. This is what Job learned in his afflictions— God is in control of all things; all of his vast creation is under his care and dominion.  Even those things that wish to do us harm are subject to him. Luther called Satan “God’s Devil” because God can even use the schemes of the enemy to achieve his purposes. Because Christ has overcome the world and its suffering, we can, with full trust in him, go to our Father in Heaven and ask him “as dear children do their dear father,” and he will give us whatever we desire to bring us joy out of our sorrow and an end to our troubles.  As we sang in our hymn of the day, 

4 Be still, my soul: the hour is hast’ning on
when we shall be forever with the Lord,
when disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past,
all safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

Let your soul be still! Christ has overcome the world.  The Lord will fulfill you joy. Amen

Sermon starts at 35:00.

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2019 (Acts 20:17-35) – “Finishing the Course”

Panathenaic amphora depicting long distance runners. From Gardiner, E. Norman (1864-1930), Greek Athletic Sports and Festivals (London: MacMillan, 1910): 280, Fig. 51. Public Domain.

Originally Preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.

Have you ever run in a race?  I haven’t; I was never much of a runner in school.  I was more of a weight-training guy. But I have always admired people who can get up the gumption to go out and pound the pavement and put in seven to eight miles before work each day, and who run 5ks and 10ks and marathons.  Such running requires immense physical conditioning and training. It can take a long time to get to the point where you are physically fit enough to run a marathon. Someone who’s never run before can’t just get up and put in a 26 mile jog.  You can get injured or overtax yourself. And even if you are in condition, you have to work to keep yourself in that condition. Otherwise, you might end up like Pheidippides, the first marathon runner. His heart exploded when he made it back to Athens after running those 26 miles between the battlefield at Marathon and the city to deliver the news of the battle’s outcome.  Running, whether it be a morning warm up or the Marine Corps Marathon, is hard work.

“Le soldat de Marathon” (1869), by Luc-Olivier Merson (1846-1920). Private collection. Public Domain.

The Apostle Paul liked running metaphors when speaking about his work in the service of Jesus.  We all know his famous statements in 1 Corinthians 9: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.  Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Cor 9:24-27 NIV). We also remember his statement to Timothy: “I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7 NIV).  

We have another racing reference in our reading this morning:  “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.”  

“That I may finish my course.”  ὡς τελειῶσαι τὸν δρόμον μου. The dromos, the racecourse, was central to life in the ancient world.  It was major entertainment; every town had its racetrack, either for footraces or for horse- and chariot-races (or both).  Racing was sort of the First Century world’s equivalent of NASCAR or soccer. Track and Field was a big deal, big enough that successful runners could win money and fame, and charioteers could win fame and acclaim for their teams (yes, they had teams–and even racing hooligans!).

“Paul preaches to the elderly of Ephesus at Miletus” (late 16th Century), by Giovanni Guerra (1544-1618). Private Collection. Public Domain.

Paul knew racing, as did everyone in his audience, and so Paul often speaks about “finishing the race.”  Here, speaking to the elders from Ephesus, he compares his life and ministry to running a race, a race which has start and a finish.  Paul is going to Jerusalem when he says this. He doesn’t expect to come back to see the people in Ephesus again, and he doesn’t know what God has in store for him there.  Little did he know that he would face beatings, threats, and ultimately arrest. But now, going into the unknown to Jerusalem, Paul tells the Ephesians that his race is now theirs.  They will have to run it, since they are now responsible for their own flocks in Ephesus, and he has done his best to prepare them with the Gospel, raising them up in the way they should go in their own roles as shepherds.  They will be faced with temptations and made targets by those with nefarious aims. Therefore, they, too, must keep themselves in top spiritual condition so that they remain strong in the faith, and so that they can protect those under their care.  They need to do this in order to keep the church in Ephesus alive.

But of course, there are distractions and enticements that can make finishing the race of faith difficult for believers in the church.  Paul’s Ephesians faced competing religions that demanded obeisance. The Jewish authorities sought to undermine Paul’s ministry and have him arrested for preaching about Christ.  The cult of Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt, virginity, and childbirth, especially, served as a major threat to the young church in Ephesus, and its adherents had attacked the church for its denial of Artemis’ goddesshood.  Ephesus was a major cult center for Artemis’ worship, and her followers had even forced Paul to leave the city. Other religions practiced by the Greeks and Romans were also about; Ephesus was a veritable melting pot. But there were other dangers from inside the church, too.

“Ephesian Artemis,” from the Naples Museum, Naples, Italy. Photograph by Giorgio Sommer (1834-1914). Public Domain.

Paul also knew that there would be those who would try to use the church as a way to gain fame or power, or who might try to defraud the church or use the church as a platform to preach their own ideas and philosophies, and so he charged the Ephesians to be watchful for such persons and to hold tight to what he taught them.  And then, of course, there are the “everyday” temptations and sins that the Devil uses to draw people away from the faith. Greed, sensuality, pride, hate–they’re all things that can harm the believer on his or her race of faith. They’re the potholes and rocks and branches that fall on the raceway that can cause a person to trip and fall, to stumble.  And without help or protection (and perhaps, we might say, without a good trainer), these enemies of faith can end a person’s race prematurely.

Even though it’s been nearly 2000 years, we Christians today still face these obstacles and pitfalls in our running of the race of faith.  We still see people who use the church for their own gain and who lead people astray in order to defraud them. We see wolves in sheep’s clothing using the church to conceal their crimes against other people.  Outside the church, just as in Paul’s day, we still see people in positions of power attempting to silence the preaching of the Gospel around the world, and we even see people in the United States using their positions of power and influence to belittle Christian faith or force Christians into crises of conscience.  And we experience the myriad temptations of the flesh common to all people, every day, that can draw us astray and shipwreck our faith if allowed to reign in our lives. How could Paul and the Ephesians–and how can we–run the race successfully? Who or what can keep us from stumbling?

Of course, we cannot run the race of faith successfully on our own.  No matter how much we train, our sinful nature will cause us to trip and fall, and those forces who wish to knock us out of the race will try their best to do so.  We cannot stay consistently alert of our own accord–eventually, we tire or become distracted and lose sight of the goal. So we must look to another one who can help us run; indeed, one who makes it possible for us to run: our Lord and Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.  He ran the race of life perfectly in our stead. Being both God and man, he did what we could not do. He lived a sinless life, and he died and rose again, indicating that he had indeed won the race for us by defeating the sin and death that threaten we who run. None of the various pitfalls that attack his church were able to touch him, and he thwarted all of their schemes in his running of the race of faith.  Because of this, he won for us the “everlasting crown” that Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians, and he won the completion of the course of a life of faith for us as well. This is what Paul looked forward to in our reading this morning. Christ had finished the course for him, and Paul had faith that his Lord had done this, so that he might finish strong in faith so long as he trusted him. And Christ has finished the race for us, too.  Though we are sinners, we can look to him at the finish line and forge ahead. He’s won the crown for us, and so when we trust him and fix our eyes on him, we share in his victory. Trusting in him, eyes fixed on him, victory is guaranteed.

This is what the race finished on our behalf looks like.
“Crucifix in a Classroom at Concordia Seminary” (2017) by Nils Niemeier.

But even then, how can we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus?  We’re sinners, after all, with all of the weaknesses that come with that.  How can we, like Paul and the Ephesians, keep ourselves watchful and in top spiritual shape to run the course in spite of the dangers?  In this race, Jesus has given us a coach who will aid us in our run, who runs beside us all the way, keeping pace with us and encouraging us as we run on.  This is the Holy Spirit, who helped Paul in his course; as Paul says, “And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there.  I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me” (Acts 20:22-23 NIV).

“St. Paul Writing His Epistles” (ca. 1618-1620), by Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632). Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Public Domain.

Just as the Holy Spirit led Paul in the course of his ministry through dangerous situations and foreign lands, yet kept him in the faith and gave him hope, so are we preserved in the faith by the Holy Spirit.  He helps us to daily die to sin and rise in faith. He strengthens us to daily fight against the temptations of sin and the assaults of the devil. He teaches us to joyfully serve our neighbors and steward God’s gifts, and he leads us in being a neighbor to strangers and foreigners.  And he leads us in worshipping God through work, rest, and recreation. By grace, Christ frees us from sin and death’s certain defeat, and the Holy Spirit drives us on to complete the course, helping us to grow in faith and focus on the prize Christ has won for us: eternal life with him, forever.  

When we “commit [ourselves] to God and to the word of his grace” in light of our faith in the work of Christ, God “build[s us] up and give[s us] an inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32).  Our faith in Christ and reliance on the Holy Spirit to run the race of faith preserves us in the face of threats, challenges, and dangers. When you trust in Christ, you can strongly finish the course upon which God has set you.  So keep your eyes on the prize, and trust in your Lord! Your Good Shepherd will not forsake you. You will finish the course and receive an inheritance among all those who are sanctified!

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter, May 5, 2019 (Revelation 5:1-14) – “And to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

“Hymn of Adoration to the Lamb” (1497-1498) from “The Revelation of St. John” by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Houghton Library, Harvard.

Originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.

“Who is this that comes from far,
With his garments dipped in blood,
Strong, triumphant traveller–
Is he man, or is he God?”

“Bozrah,” from William Walker’s Southern Harmony, 1854, sung at the Big Sing in Benton, Kentucky, 1966

So goes the first half of a splendid short hymn known as “Bozrah,” written by the late-18th, early-19th century Congregationalist minister, Joshua Spalding.  Who is this that comes from far? Is he man or is he God? This is a question that has come up a lot lately in our readings. Just last week we had Thomas’ confession of who he understood Jesus to be.  Now this Sunday we hear Paul asking Jesus who he is when he meets him on the road to Damascus, and we have the disciples afraid to ask who Jesus is because they recognize him on the shore after they go fishing.  But it’s the reading from Revelation that I want to look at today. Who is Jesus here?

Revelation (the “Apocalypse of John”), it goes without saying, is a weird book, probably the weirdest book in the Bible, at least from a modern perspective.  It’s not easy to read or understand; it’s a work of prophetic and apocalyptic literature that does not lend itself to modern American eyes and brains. We lack a lot of the secondary knowledge (what linguists call a secondary vocabulary) needed to know just what John is talking about.  We might be able to understand some of the more sweeping narratives of the book, but much of it is cryptic, the imagery bizarre, the supposed referents of the prophecies disputed. Even its inclusion in Scripture and the authorship of the book has been disputed, though historically, the Church has believed and taught that John the Revelator is the same John as John the Gospel-writer, the Disciple Whom Jesus Loved.  So what is John telling us about who Jesus is in Revelation, specifically Revelation 5?

In today’s reading from Revelation, we see John experiencing a vision of heaven in which he is standing in the midst of the heavenly court before the throne of God, surrounded by ranks of angels and strange looking creatures.  I’ll read the verses preceding those we heard in our Epistle reading this morning so you have the full context:

“Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. 2 And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” 3 But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. 4 I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. 5 Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
6 Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits z of God sent out into all the earth. 7 He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne.” (Rev. 5:1-7, NIV)

“St. John before God and the Elders” (1497-1498) from “The Revelation of St. John” by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Houghton Library, Harvard.

God holds forth a scroll and a challenge is given.  Can anyone open the seals on it? Is anyone worthy to do so?  That is to say, is anyone, anywhere, able to do so? There is no one, in heaven, on the earth, or under the earth who can.  Not one, and if no one is worthy, then the seals will not be opened and the prophecies associated with them will not be spoken.  And when he hears this, John weeps, because the prophecies will not be spoken. How can God’s word come to pass if there’s no one worthy to unseal the scroll and read the prophecies therein, and by means of reading, bring them to pass?

John’s vision of heaven here reminds us that no one, anywhere in the universe, in all of creation, is worthy to stand before God for any reason, let alone to open the seals on a scroll.  And this isn’t the sort of worthiness where a person has to tick all the right boxes, as if he or she fulfilled the requirements of a job interview. There is no one who is intrinsically worthy in any regard to open the seals on this scroll–no one by reason of his or her person, power, or qualifications is worthy–and that is because these seals are fit to be opened by the ruler of all creation, the pantokrator, the “over-all-ruler.”

But what makes the rest of creation unworthy?  Ignoring the angels, who serve the will of the Almighty, the rest of creation is tainted by sin.  No creature is immune to sin itself or to its effects. Thus, all people are sinful, and all other creatures have been damaged or marred by it, such that creation groans and desires deliverance.  Sin separates all people from God, and prevents them from being able to live according to his precepts, and it’s not just the big sins. We’ve seen some bigs sins lately in the news, most recently at Chabad Poway in Escondido, California, but also the church and hotel bombings in Sri Lanka and the campus shooting in North Carolina.  We even had an armed robbery at the 7-11 up the road here from us in Fairfax the other evening. But the “little” sins also make us unworthy. Have you ever said something unkind about your neighbor? **BRRT** You’ve sinned and are unworthy. Have you ever thought about someone inappropriately? **BRRT** You are not worthy to open any such seals.  Have you stolen? Have you not paid for something you ought to have, or borrowed an idea without attribution? **BRRT** You’ve sinned and are unworthy. I could go on. No human being is worthy to undo the seals on this scroll and to speak God’s prophecies into being. Sin makes that impossible.

And sin taints all of creation.  Because of sin, as we learn in Genesis 3, all of creation has been fractured, damaged, broken, and so all creatures feel the pain and suffering that our first parents brought into the world.  Before the fall, all of creation lived in harmony. Now the world is dog-eat-dog, and where there was once paradise, death now reigns. Indeed, the world is chaotic, and we’re so used to the idea of the world being in the constant flux of chaos and terror that we’re largely blind to thinking about it.  In fact, the chaos and evil that afflict the world are so normal to us that they’ve become central to a lot of our entertainment. How many of our video games reenact war? (And I say this as someone who enjoys historical war-games, for what it’s worth.) How many games and movies glorify crime and violence and the degradation of others?  Game of Thrones, anyone? How about music that does that? Our culture is fascinated by this chaos that comes from sin, and in feeding our fascination, we’ve forgotten that this isn’t how things are supposed to be. In fact a lot of us function as if this fallen world is as it is supposed to be, some kind of “best of all possible worlds.”

“Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (1497-1498) from “The Revelation of St. John” by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Houghton Library, Harvard.

But it’s not.  Sin still plagues the earth, and just as you cannot cure the common cold with the further application of the common cold, sin and its chaos cannot be cured by the application of the efforts of sinful people. And so something–or someone–needs to come in from the outside to cure sin’s disease.

So if there is no one above the earth, on it, or below the earth who is worthy to open the seals on the scroll that God holds forth on his throne, who is?  No one is worthy— no one, save one. “How’s that,” you say–“how can one person be worthy if no one is worthy?” John receives the answer to this question from the elder who is with him.  Like a good pastor, this elder who has gone on before John to the courts of heaven, points him to the One who can save him, the one who can break the seals on the scroll:

“Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.
“And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. 7 And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. 8 And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” (Rev. 5:5-8, ESV)

“The Name of the Worthy,” Douce Apocalypse (1265-1270), Bodleian Ms180, p.011.
“The Lamb Enthroned,” Douce Apocalypse (1265-1270), Bodleian Ms180, p.012.

The Lion of the tribe of Judah.  The Root of David. The Lamb Who Was Slain, Jesus Christ.  He alone is worthy to open the seals of the scroll and to reveal its contents.  He alone has the power to defeat sin, and has conquered it. He is truly man and truly God, and for this reason, sin cannot touch him; he came down from heaven and took on flesh so that he might defeat sin through the medium in which it dwells.  And now ascended and exalted at God’s right hand, it is made apparent to all in the court of heaven that he alone has power and authority over all creation. His power is signified by his eyes and horns, not in the sense that he has seven physical eyes and seven physical horns— no lamb has those.  But rather, the horn is the symbol of power and might, and the eye the symbol of wisdom and intelligence. All strength and wisdom belongs to him, and the number 7, the number of God (3) paired with the number of creation (4), indicates that he indeed is the pantokrator who has dominion over all things.  Only he, the Messiah of all, has perfect might and perfect understanding, and because of this, he has conquered sin and destroyed its power.  He has conquered sin and death. The twenty-four elders sing:

         “You are worthy to take the scroll
     and to open its seals,
     because you were slain,
     and with your blood you purchased for God
     persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
  10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
     and they will reign on the earth.”” (Rev. 5:9–10, NIV)

“The Sealed Book of the Lamb,” Apocalypse Flamande – BNF Néerl3 f.6r, 15th Century.

Christ’s death and resurrection secured the victory.  Christ’s death and resurrection ransomed all people for God, no exceptions, and his coronation here in the court of heaven (because that is what we are really seeing here with John) has sealed it.  This is demonstrated to John, but it is something that has been demonstrated for our benefit as well. Christ is worthy because Christ has saved. The hosts of heaven sing:

     “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
     to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
     and honor and glory and praise!” (Rev. 5:12, NIV)

Christ has saved us from sin and death, too, and we see him as he is, exalted and at God’s right hand, the savior who now rules all of creation.  You no longer need fear or despair when you recognize your sinfulness—Christ has rescued you. When the chaos of life seems overwhelming, and you see no end to the violence, hatred, and exploitation that seems so commonplace, you can rest assured–Christ has rescued you and all people, and he is worthy to wield all power and authority over all things.  He has you in his hand. He will not abandon you. For he, whom the hosts of heaven and all the saints adore and acclaim, has ended the power of sin in your life. It may rage against you. It may try to entice you. It may even try to kill you. But when you trust in the one who is king in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, you will not be left to be destroyed by sin, because sin cannot destroy or harm those whom Christ has made his own.  The One who alone, by his death and resurrection, is worthy to open the seals on the scroll will protect you, and in the fullness of time, will bring you to dwell with him in peace forever. No power in heaven, on earth, or under the earth can separate you from his love.

So who is this that comes from far?  Who is this Jesus? He is your savior, exalted in heaven and given power and riches and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise.  To him be praise, honor, glory, and power for ever and ever! Amen.

“Adoration of the Lamb,” Cattedrale di Anagni

Sermon for Quasimodogeniti, the Second Sunday of Easter, April 28, 2019 (John 20:19-31)

Originally preached at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Herndon, Virginia.

Sermon Audio, from Good Shepherd Lutheran Church

First-year seminarians are often asked a lot of questions about what they believe in their beginning theology classes.  It makes sense. Professors want to know just how off-base some of the beliefs might be which their students hold so that they can deliver helpful correctives to false ideas or nip some would-be heretics in the bud before they take their own theories to a more dangerous conclusion.  The seminary is kind of like the army— a group of people show up from different backgrounds and life-experiences and are re-formed over four years into an effective preaching-and-teaching force who can rightly divide Law and Gospel, preach well, and faithfully shepherd God’s church, among other things.  So asking questions of first-years is a great way for the professors there to weed out would-be pastors’ misconceptions and pet heresies while focusing them on what they should know.

Don’t be a heretic!

So it generally comes as a shock to many seminarians when one of the first questions they are asked by their systematic theology professor is, “Who is your God?”  It’s a big question, and a scary one. Initially, you feel pretty sure of yourself and your beliefs. “I know who my God is!” But then, doubt sets in. That confident attitude you had suddenly starts giving way to unsurety; the sense of security you had five minutes ago starts to slip away.  “Who is my God?”  “Who do I really say God is?”  “Who do I really think God is?”  You think it’s the Triune God, but is that who you’re really worshipping?  Is this a trick question? Is there some hidden idol in my life I’ve been worshipping all along?  The faithful young seminarian is suddenly subject to an existential crisis.

You might say that this is a question that is tacitly posed to the disciples when Jesus died on the cross.  “Who is your God?” Is he this carpenter-turned-rabbi from Nazareth with whom you have traveled for three years, or is it someone else?  John tells us in John 20:9 that on Easter morning, none of the disciples truly understood what Jesus meant when he spoke of the resurrection, and when they found the tomb empty, they didn’t know what to think of it.  Who was their God? Where had Jesus gone? Did the Romans steal him? Did they spend three years roaming Judaea with him for nothing?

But then, he appeared to them, and he showed him his wounds and let them touch him.  He was real! But John doesn’t tell us what they said when they saw him, merely that they were glad.  We don’t necessarily know what they were thinking when Jesus appeared in the room in their midst. But we do know what Thomas, that apostle called Didymus, “The Twin,” thought when he saw Jesus risen from the grave.  John recorded his confession. “My Lord and my God!”

“Doubting Thomas” (ca. 1620) by Giovanni Serodine (1594-1630). National Museum in Warsaw.

Thomas is, as a member of the apostles, kind of an odd duck because we remember him by calling him “Doubting Thomas.”  He’s the only member of the Twelve who’s given a negative epithet (apart from Judas, whose name has become synonymous with treachery).  We could just as easily call Peter “Denying Peter” because he denied his being one of Jesus’ followers, or we could call Mark “Streaking Mark” because he ran away naked from Gethsemane after his tunic was pulled off by an attacker.  But we don’t. Only Thomas is remembered for his apparent skepticism at hearing the report of Jesus’ resurrection.

I have to laugh because I saw this cartoon after I wrote this sermon, and it seems that many of us who have thought about this gospel have had the same issues with Thomas’ unfortunate moniker.

Except Thomas wasn’t the lone doubter.  All of the apostles doubted that Jesus had come back from the grave— they disbelieved the testimony of the women at the tomb; they thought the women were speaking nonsense—, and Jesus gave them the same proof that he gave Thomas.  Thomas just happened to not be there. But only Thomas is recorded by John to have stated, upon seeing these proofs that Jesus had indeed been raised from the dead, that Jesus was both his Lord and his God. And Thomas’ confession that Jesus is Lord is a big and important thing.  It’s big and important because it means a number of things for the one who confesses it.

To say “Jesus is Lord” is radical.  It’s life changing. And it means that the person making such a confession believes certain things about Jesus.  It means that one believes that Jesus is God, and that Jesus is identified with the God of the Old Testament as well as the New.  It means that when we read the explanations of the Ten Commandments in the Catechism and we say “We should fear, love, and trust God that we may do X,” we’re talking about Jesus there just as much as we are talking about God the Father.  It also means that we really believe what we say about Jesus in the Creed, saying with Luther:

“I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned creature, purchased and won [delivered] me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, in order that I may be [wholly] His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.”

Concordia Triglotta—English: The Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, electronic ed. (Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Publishing House, 1996), 545.

This is how we relate to Jesus if we say that “Jesus is Lord.”  When you confess that “Jesus is Lord,” you are saying that you believe what he says and what he has done, and that you are with him in all things.  Dr. Joel Okamoto at Concordia Seminary says this about the act of confessing one’s faith:

“When one confesses, one declares a commitment. The act of confession is like “stepping forward” or “standing up and being counted.” You step forward for a person, and by that act you commit yourself to the person. If he goes down, you go down. You stand up for a person, and by that act you commit yourself to that person. If she goes on, you go on. Similarly, you confess your faith in someone, and by that act you commit yourself to believing in him. If he comes through, you come through. It is striking that simply by the act of confession—by saying certain words—you do something. Those who utter the sentence: “I confess that Jesus is Lord” have confessed.  Those people have by their confession committed themselves to Jesus Christ. Confessors commit themselves to Jesus Christ, putting themselves under his disposal, and positioning themselves in a certain way against everybody else.”

Okamoto, Joel P., “Making Sense of Confessionalism Today,” Concordia Journal Winter, 2015: 40

We live in a world that does not confess Jesus as Lord, nor do we live in a world that really has a single understanding of who God is.  In our modern world, especially here in the west, the word “God” has become a placeholder. It can mean whatever we want it to mean. Think about the Pledge of Allegiance, for example.  Ignoring the fact that the phrase “under God” was added during the Cold War years to indicate that we, unlike the Soviets, acknowledged a deity, who is the “God” meant in “under God”? Is it the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?  The God Jesus called God? We don’t know— the pledge is vague. Maybe it’s Ba’al or Ishtar or Woden or Zeus. It could be Allah, or Krishna. It could be a bunch of them all together, seeing as some see all deities as reflections or manifestations of a single, divine reality.  My point being that in the modern world, “God” can be anything. “God” could be your smartphone. I know I pay obeisance to mine far too often. That owl on Duolingo is really demanding.

No, Duo, please don’t look at me that way! I hit my daily quota for German, Norwegian, and Esperanto revision! Stop! No! Why are you crying?

But in this day and age, when the normal operating procedure for most people is to live as nihilists, “God” can even be yourself.  Why not, if the idea of God has been made devoid of all meaning and we operate as if God doesn’t really affect our lives? And when “God” becomes a placeholder, it really means that you are placing yourself in the place of God.  It means that you become the one who chooses what or whom is worthy to be called God. It makes God subject to your will and your understanding. But when you do that, you break the first of all the commandments of God by making yourself God, and in that, you stand condemned.  For when you break that first commandment, you break them all.

And this is a universal problem for us.  According to Luther’s explanation of the First Commandment in the Large Catechism, a god is anything we put our trust in for our safety and salvation.  We’re sinful human beings, and the first sin our first parents, Adam and Eve, ever committed was, indeed, to place themselves above God by trusting their own judgment over his and making God subject to their own reason.  We make our own gods every day. We put our trust in governments to care for us and do what we think is best for us. We tie the fate of our nation and indeed our own lives to various politicians’ campaigns. Or we make a god of science and technology— “this new energy technology will save the planet and save all of our lives!”  Sometimes we make gods of our possessions— our vehicles, our weapons, our food, our money. Think of all the time we spend counting our money, tallying our expenses. But all these things ultimately will fail us. They won’t deliver us from our sins. They won’t save us from death and hell. There is no constancy in them.

This is why Thomas’ confession is so important for us to hear.  When Thomas calls Jesus his Lord and his God, he is siding with Jesus, making his identity with him, and trusting in him above all others.  Thomas subordinates himself to Christ— his will, his desires, his hopes— they are all subject to Christ and what he has done. And Thomas trusts that Jesus has indeed been raised from the dead; that he has died for the sins of all mankind and risen again to demonstrate to his disciples and all people that he has been victorious over the powers of death and hell and had freed all people from bondage to these terrible entities.  Thomas and all the disciples received proof of this, in the flesh. They saw Jesus, risen from the dead, standing physically among them, and they believed. Jesus had done just what he said he would do, and they could put their faith in him. All of their misconceptions about Jesus were now disproven. Like Thomas, they could see Jesus and say with Thomas that he truly was not just their lord and master, but their God. They could see that he is the one who gives them real peace, who gives them the Holy Spirit to be their guide and helper, who forgives their sins, and who chooses them to be his ambassadors to the world.  And so, Thomas’ confession becomes the first great confession of the church. Jesus is Lord and God. He is not subject to the world. The world is subject to him.

“The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” (1600-1641) by Adam van Noort (1562-1641). Saltram House, Plymouth.

And Thomas’ statement of faith in Christ as his Lord and God is a testimony for us.  Thomas tells us who Jesus is. We can make Thomas’ confession our own because Jesus’ promises for us are trustworthy and true.  His death and resurrection are for us just as much as they are for his first disciples. But how do we who live so many centuries removed from this know that Jesus is Lord?  Jesus tells Thomas that those who have not seen him in the flesh and who yet believe are blessed and happy. John then writes to us directly–“These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.”  We are those who Jesus calls blessed–we are those for whom John has written his Gospel. We haven’t seen Jesus bodily like Thomas and the other apostles had, but we do have their testimony, and we have Jesus’ promises to us recorded in God’s word.  Not only that, but we have the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, whom Jesus sent to us, and we have the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in which we encounter and receive Christ in his body and blood. And when we trust in these things, that Jesus died for us on Calvary and rose again for us on the third day, we can say with Thomas that Jesus is “our Lord and our God,” and receive his peace, his forgiveness, and his sending.  When we believe that Jesus is our Lord and God, we can trust confidently that he has saved us from the power of death and sin. When we believe that Jesus is our Lord and God, we can confidently tell others about what he has done and share the good news of our salvation in him with them. When we believe that Jesus is our Lord and God, we can have peace with God, and live as his redeemed and beloved children. When we believe that Jesus is Lord and God, we can “be [wholly] His own, and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.”

And if you are struggling in your sins, or find yourself looking to inconstant, earthly things for your salvation, Christ’s forgivness and peace is for you, too.  Though Jesus did many things after his resurrection, the testimony you have heard this morning is for you so that you might come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth is your Savior and God.  He desires that you have his peace, dwell with the Holy Spirit, be his ambassador to an unbelieving world, and live a life of forgiveness in him. So have faith in him— he will bless and forgive you, “that you have life in his name.”  This is most certainly true. Amen.