Sunday, September 14, 2014
John 12:20-33; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; Numbers 21:4-9
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
In 1951 the surrealist artist Salvador Dali painted an image of Christ upon the cross entitled “Christ of Saint John the Divine.” Now, while depictions of Christ upon the cross are anything but rare, most paintings and sculptures portray Christ crucified from the perspective of those gazing upon Him, looking up at Him or directly at Him. In contrast, Dali depicts our crucified Lord from the perspective of God the Father looking, not downward precisely, but down, and across, and upon Christ upon the cross and all the earth at the same time. This is to say that Dali’s “Christ of Saint John the Divine” spans the heavens over the face of the earth, at once enabling the viewer to step back and to ponder the universal significance of the event that is the death of the Son of God. As Christ proclaimed, “It is finished,” and breathed His last, so the Father gazes downward upon His mission accomplished for the life of the world.
Sometimes the surreal is simply more real that what appears to be reality. Indeed, Jesus Christ was crucified in atonement for the sins of the entire world, not just for a few thousand Jews, Greeks, and Romans residing in first century Jerusalem. Jesus Himself speaks of the cosmic ramifications of His crucifixion and death saying, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” This is the truth exhibited by Salvador Dali in his surrealistic painting, which is more communicative of ontological reality than the works of artists who tried to portray what Christ’s crucifixion might have really looked like as perceived with the limited perceptions of men.
Flesh and blood can only reveal a part of reality. Man’s eyes perceive a man dead upon a cross. Man’s ears perceive His perplexing words, faintly recalling the words of the prophets of old. Man’s hands perceive malleable and weak flesh, all too easily pierced and torn, mortal just like all men. But that’s only part of the story. There is a reality that is hidden to all perception but the eyes and the ears of faith. Those who are given eyes to see and ears to hear by the Holy Spirit of God through His Word confess the reality of who Jesus is and what He has done. St. Peter confesses, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” This truth was revealed to him, not by his flesh and blood perceptions, but by the Holy Spirit of God alone. So too did St. Bartholomew confess, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God, the King of Israel!” And, St. Thomas confessed, “My Lord, and my God!” Even the demons, who see reality beyond the limits of perception, confess Jesus to be the Son of God. All of these could see that there was more to Jesus and, ultimately, to His cross, than meets the eye.
That’s why God prepared us to receive Him beforehand. God prepared us, not by giving us lots of impressive signs to see and hear, touch, taste, and smell, but he gave us His Word. Well, He did give us signs, but not often in the ways in which our sinful, fallen flesh, mind, and reason would desire. For example, God gave us the sign of the bronze serpent raised up on a pole. God had sent poisonous serpents to bite the children of Israel when they rebelled against Him and disobeyed, failing to trust Him to guard and protect them as He had promised. After many people died from the poisonous venom, the people cried out to Moses asking Him to pray that God would take away the serpents. Moses did pray, but God did not take away the serpents. However, God did provide a way that those who had been bitten could be healed and live. The LORD commanded Moses to make a bronze serpent and to raise it up on a pole, with the promise that whoever looked to it would be healed and live. This was a miraculous and marvelous sign to be sure! However, to the eyes and the ears of most it was absurd, offensive, and decidedly un-glorious.
This is precisely why Jesus alludes to that sign in the desert 1,500 years before His birth and He interprets it in relation to His being lifted up on the cross in death. Just as the children of Israel bitten by poisonous serpents could look to the bronze serpent lifted up on the pole and receive healing and live, so now all children of the New Israel, of all races, nations, and cultures, can look to Christ crucified and receive healing forgiveness and live. Indeed, Jesus’ prophetic words, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself,” were fulfilled in His death upon the cross for all people of all times and all places. Just as Dali portrayed in Christ of Saint John the Divine, “in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” Thus, the cross of Jesus Christ and Him crucified is justifiably the center of our faith and our confession. We confess with St. Paul and preach Christ, and Him crucified.
But the cross is always offensive, scandalous, and even embarrassing. To the eyes and ears of men it seems pitiful, despicable, weak, and foolish. An ancient inscription was once found on the Palatine in Rome dating between the first and the third centuries. The inscription depicts a figure on a cross having the head of a donkey. Written in Greek beside it is the title “Alexamenos worships his God.” Mockery of Christians and their faith is nothing new. “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing,” writes St. Paul, “but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Yes, the cross of Jesus Christ is the power of God, whose power is made perfect in weakness. On the cross, God showed the greatest love possible for you, laying down His own life and suffering death that you might live. And so, the cross is our faith and confession. The cross is our victory over death. We mark ourselves in the morning and in the evening with the sign of the cross, in remembrance that we were marked with the same cross when we were baptized into Christ. We begin and end our worship with the sign of the holy cross. And, when we are laid to rest, we are marked with the same sign once again at the end of our life that marked us at the beginning and sealed us throughout all our days.
The Feast of the Holy Cross is one of the earliest annual celebrations of the Christian Church. The day traditionally commemorates the discovery of the true cross in Jerusalem by Helena, the mother of Roman Emperor Constantine the Great. However, in our observance today, knowing the location of the true cross is of no more consequence than knowing the location of Noah’s Ark or the Garden of Eden. The cross without Christ is of no more value and significance than a pole without the bronze serpent. Further, neither the cross nor the pole nor the serpent had power to affect anything apart from the Word of God. And that is why the cross of Jesus Christ is so much more than a piece of wood or a pole, for upon the cross the Word of God made flesh sacrificed His life for the life of the world. The cross of Jesus Christ is the glory of God, for it displays His love, mercy, and forgiveness for all the world.
The Holy Scriptures would also have us see in the cross of Jesus the restoration of the Tree of Life. The Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden was most likely an ordinary fruit-bearing tree. What made it special was that God had attached His Word to it making it life-giving through its fruit. Jesus is the Word made flesh who, in turn, makes the tree of the cross a life-giving tree once again. Life is restored to all who look to Jesus in faith and trust in Him for forgiveness, the fruit of His life-giving tree. Now He invites you to take and eat and drink of His fruits in the Lord’s Supper for the forgiveness of sins, the strengthening of faith, and for life everlasting.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.
Sunday, September 7, 2014
Mark 7:31-37; 2 Corinthians 3:4-11; Isaiah 29:17-24
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Knowledge of the Scriptures does not save you. Only faith does that. So, whether you seek wisdom like the Greeks, or signs from God like the Jews, these do not and cannot save you. Only faith does that. You are saved by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in God’s Son Jesus Christ alone. Therefore, hear, read, and study the Word of God – Yes! To be sure! – but do not think that your knowledge of Bible history, of the great stories of the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles, and that your memorization of countless verses will save you. Only faith does that.
Our First Parents’ succumbed to the temptation to become wise in a worldly and fleshly way. However, the wisdom they thought they were gaining was really a lie. Indeed, they could only attain that wisdom by rebelling against and rejecting the true wisdom of God, His Law and His Word. They exchanged God’s Truth for a lie because they desired to be like God – they desired to be gods themselves. And, so do you. God didn’t make them that way, covetous, jealous, discontent, rebellious – but He gave them the freedom to rebel against Him, the freedom to choose according to their own will, against His will. They should never have rebelled against God were it not for Satan’s tempting; but, alas, that is the way the tale goes. And, you are their rebellious children, carrying their corruption in your own body, your will enslaved by sin, with freedom only to rebel, to choose against God, His Word, and His Will – spiritually deaf, dumb, and blind. Who will save you from your body of death? Who will open your eyes, your ears, and your mouth? Who will release your tongue?
“O LORD, open Thou my lips and my mouth will show forth Thy praise.” Salvation comes to you from outside. “Behold, your King is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is He.” He turns a desert into a fruitful field. He opens the ears of the deaf and the eyes of the blind. He opens the mouths and looses the tongues of those who cannot speak. He says “to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you’.” Did you hear that? He did not say that a Savior will come. He did not even say that the Messiah will come. But, He said, your God, your King, will come. Your God, your King, will come and He will save you!
In Jesus, Emmanuel, which means God with us, God has visited His people to redeem them, to save them! Jesus is God in the flesh come to save His people. He is your Savior, your King, and your God, and this is His salvific, kingly, and Godly work – to save you, to save you from sin, and from death, and from Satan. And so, the crowd that had heard Jesus’ teaching and that had witnessed His miracles brought to Him a man who was deaf and had a speech impediment. They brought to their King one of His subjects who was captive to the effects of sin that He might save him, release him, and heal him. They brought the man to Jesus, just as you bring your infant children to Him, that He might bless them and touch them, speak His Word of Absolution to them, release them, heal them, and save them. And He did: Jesus took the man aside from the crowd, put His fingers into the man’s ears, took spittle and touched his tongue; and “looking up to heaven, He sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened’.” And, the man’s “ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.”
Just as the Word of God was once spoken into the nothingness before creation and all things came to be, just as the Word of God called Lazarus to life out of death, just as the Word of God was spoken from the cross, “It is finished,” and it truly was, just as the Word of God was spoken to the deaf and mute man and his ears were opened and his tongue was loosed, so too is the Word of God spoken over the re-creative waters of Holy Baptism and a spiritual nothing, a spiritual Lazarus, a spiritually deaf and mute man, woman, or child is brought out of the nothingness, is raised to life out of death, his ears opened, his tongue loosed to confess, to thank, to praise, and to serve. For God has come to save His people. In Jesus, God has visited His people to save them. The King has come, and His reign has begun. Your King reigns over heaven and earth, and His reign is seen and confessed in the proclamation of His Word and the forgiveness of sinners in Holy Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper of His very body and blood.
Though Jesus put His fingers in the man’s ears, spat and touched his tongue, these actions and signs alone did not release the man, but it was Jesus’ Word spoken, “‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened!’” It was this performative and creative Word, in, with, and under the elements and Jesus’ actions that opened the man’s ears and loosed his tongue. And, it is still that performative and creative Word, in, with, and under the elements and the actions of the Blessed Sacraments that creates in you a clean heart, forgives you of your sin, and strengthens and equips you for every good work.
On this Rally Day, in which we celebrate the kick-off of another year of Christian Education, let us ever keep this truth in mind and on our hearts. The Word of God is like no other word. God’s Word is powerful, performative, and creative – it has the power to bring into being what it says. If God’s Word says that you are forgiven, then you are forgiven. If God’s Word says this bread is His body and this wine is His blood shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins, then that is precisely what they are. And if God’s Word says that He will never leave you or forsake you and that nothing can separate you from His love in Christ Jesus, then you can bet your life and your soul that He will keep His promise.
Therefore parents and teachers, guard and keep this Word and make every effort to keep it pure, to teach it in truth and purity, whole and undefiled, for it is powerful for life unto salvation. And students, listen attentively to this Word and ponder it in your hearts and in your minds as the Holy Spirit works through it to open your ears, hearts, and minds to it that your faith may be strengthened, that you may have courage to resist Satan’s temptation and to remain firm, and that you may have comfort when you walk in darkness knowing that you are not alone and that the Word of the LORD is a lamp unto your feet and a light unto your path.
Because God made you spirit and flesh, body and soul, His Word became flesh and made His dwelling amongst us, as one of us, as our brother. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. He is Spirit Word in human flesh, God and man in one person to be your King, your Savior, and your God. Just as He used His fingers and spit along with His Word in healing the deaf mute, so does He minister to you, forgive you, and heal you with Spirit Word and created elements, bread, wine, and water. Do not despise the lowliness of these means any more than you could possibly despise the human flesh and blood body the Word of God has taken up. Rather, give thanks to the LORD your God who comes to you who could not come to Him. Behold, your God comes. Let us receive Him and give thanks.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.
Sunday, August 31, 2014
Luke 18:9-14; 1 Corinthians 15:1-10; Genesis 4:1-15
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
It wasn’t the sacrifice that was the problem. They both returned to The LORD a portion of what He had first given them, just like you do. Cain offered a portion of his harvest, and Abel offered the firstborn of his flock. It was meet, right, and salutary to do, just as it is meet, right, and salutary for you to return to the LORD a portion of what He has given to you in thanksgiving and praise. Your offering, your sacrifice, is a confession of your faith – what you believe about The LORD and about the things, even your life, your faith, that He has given you. Anything you might return to Him is already His. However, in returning it you are confessing this truth. You are confessing your faith in the LORD, that He is the LORD and that you are not, that the things you offer to Him are truly His and not yours, that you trust in Him with all your heart, soul, and mind that He will provide for you what you need, that He lovingly provides you with all that you need for your body and life out of Fatherly divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in yourself. And so, it’s not that the LORD prefers animal sacrifice to a grain offering. No, It’s not that at all. In truth, I don’t believe that the LORD cares that much about what you offer and sacrifice. But He cares immensely about why you offer and sacrifice.
The preacher to the Hebrews explains it this way: “By faith Abel offered The LORD a greater sacrifice than Cain, and through his faith he was commended as righteous, because The LORD commended him for his offerings.” You see, it was not what Abel offered, but rather why, that The LORD commended. The LORD commended Abel’s faith. Then, as a result, the LORD also commended Abel’s offering, His sacrifice. Indeed, this is precisely how the LORD would receive Abram and his faith hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of years later. The LORD credited Abram’s faith to him as righteousness. It wasn’t righteousness, of course, on it’s own, Abram’s sin-corrupted and weak faith, but rather, the LORD chose to view it that way – the LORD chose to view Abram’s faith as righteousness.
We see this scenario played out, a little differently, in the sacrifices of Elijah and the prophets of Baal. In that situation, both Elijah and the prophets of Baal offered the exact same sacrifice, a bull. As the story goes, the LORD accepted Elijah’s sacrifice even though three times – in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit – he had poured four jars of water on the wood of the pyre. “Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.” All the while, the prophets of Baal limped around the altar they had made and cut themselves and raved on, “but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.” Of course, the prophets of Baal did not believe that they were sacrificing to the God of Elijah, but to the demon god Baal. Here the LORD demonstrated by His prophet Elijah that there is no other God but the LORD. We construct gods – false gods and idols – out of things that the LORD has made – wood, stone, iron, etc. – and too often, we make ourselves out to be god. Then our sacrifices and offerings are like Cain’s and the prophets of Baal – the work of our hands, our actions, our wisdom. There is no faith in the LORD, so there is no one to accept the sacrifice, to answer, or to justify. Just as the fool has himself for a lawyer, so does the idolater have himself for a god. If your god is yourself, then no one can hear you, speak to you, or help you but yourself. Good luck with that.
However, there’s a whole lot more to what the LORD desires from you in sacrifice and offering. The LORD desires from you love – true love – that is selfless and sacrificial love, like the love with which He loves you, the love that the LORD says is the fulfilling of the Law, the love Jesus teaches there is nothing greater than. We pick up on this in the latter portion of the story about Cain and Abel. After Cain had murdered his brother out of jealously and rage, the LORD asked him, “Where is Abel your brother?” Cain infamously answered, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” Indeed, Cain was his brother’s keeper. And so are you your brother’s, your neighbor’s keeper. Not only did Cain not help and befriend his brother in every bodily need, but Cain hurt and harmed his brother in his body – Cain murdered his brother. So, too, do you murder your brother and your neighbor when you have no care for him at all. Your Lord Jesus teaches in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” Jesus interprets the Fifth commandment much more broadly than did the Pharisees and the scribes, much more broadly than did Cain, having the Law of the LORD written upon his heart, who asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” “But, Pastor, this has nothing to do with making sacrifices and offerings to the LORD,” you say? Jesus follows up His teaching about the Fifth Commandment saying, “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
What might your brother here in church have against you? What might your neighbor in the world have against you? What might your brother or sister, son or daughter, husband or wife, father or mother have against you? Who have you hurt or harmed in their bodies, by thought, word, or deed? Who have you not helped and befriended when you had the opportunity, by thought, word, or deed? How often have you felt in your heart, thought in your mind, or spoke with your mouth, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Why does the Lord say to leave your gift at the altar and first be reconciled to your brother? Because, anger, hate, and lack of concern for your brother, which is apathy, are the very opposite of love. These things corrupt your offering. They pollute your sacrifice. And they are symptomatic of a deeper problem – idolatry, self-love, making yourself to be god. These are the characteristics of Cain, not Abram. These are the characteristics exemplified in the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable.
St. Luke prefaces this parable of our Lord by saying, “Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” Right away we see the two-fold problem, the cause and the effect, of lovelessness and idolatry: “They trusted in themselves that they were righteous” and so as a result “they treated others with contempt.” The Pharisee clearly trusted in himself that he was righteous: He set himself apart from other worshippers. He thanked God that he was not like other men, even naming a list of notorious sinners, but especially the lowly tax collector kneeling behind him. He named his works before the LORD – fasting, tithing, etc. It was in these things, his works, that he placed his fear, love, and trust – not the LORD. He took credit for these things. What he gave was from himself, his own offering, his own sacrifice. He did not love the LORD, but he loved himself. He did not love the LORD, so he could not possibly love his brother, his neighbor, “extortioners, the unjust, adulterers, or even the lowly tax collector.” This is the fruit of original sin – idolatry; the same sin committed by Cain and his and our parents.
The tax collector, or the publican for you King James devotees, is the picture of humility. He stands far off. He does not look up, but beats his breast in repentance and grief over his sins. He boasts of no works, no goodness, no righteousness, but he throws himself upon the mercy of the LORD. Jesus says that “this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other.” This is because justification is gift of the LORD’s grace which you receive by faith, not by works and merit. The tax collector had faith – even if it was weak faith, sin-tainted and corrupted faith – and the LORD credited the man’s faith to him as righteousness. It wasn’t righteousness, of course, on it’s own, but rather, the LORD chose to view it that way – the LORD chose to view the tax collector’s faith as righteousness.
Hear these Words of the LORD: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” Thus, even St. Paul confesses, “I worked harder than any of [the Apostles], though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” Let your daily prayer continually be what you prayed in today’s Collect: “Pour down upon us the abundance of Your mercy, forgiving those things of which our conscience is afraid and giving us those good things that we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Christ, our lord.”
Come, now, and receive “those good things that we are not worthy to ask, except through the merits and mediation of Christ, our Lord” – the forgiveness of your sins, the strengthening of your faith, and the keeping and protecting of your life today, through death into eternal life. Come and receive the sacrifice that the LORD has made for you, for your forgiveness, life, and salvation. Come, eat His body and drink His blood and live. “For, God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life.”
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.
Sunday, August 24, 2014
John 1:43-51; 2 Corinthians 4:7-10; Proverbs 3:1-8
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Jonah didn’t want to go to Nineveh. But, that wasn’t because he didn’t think that they would believe, rather, it was because he believed very strongly that they would believe and repent. He knew that the Word of God had that kind of power, to create everything out of nothing, to bring light out of darkness, life out of death, faith out of unbelief. No, he believed very strongly that the people of Nineveh would believe the Word of God. They would repent. They would be saved. And, Jonah thought to himself, “That just isn’t right.”
Nineveh was the capital and the greatest city of ancient Assyria. The Ninevites were wicked and cruel. They were powerful enemies of God and of God’s people Israel. If any city and people deserved God’s wrath and judgment, so thought Jonah, it was the Ninevites. But, God had commanded His prophet Jonah to go to Nineveh and to preach repentance to them that they might repent and be saved from destruction. Jonah didn’t want to go, not because he believed it wouldn’t work, but because he believed that it would. The Ninevites did believe. They did repent. And, God did spare them. In fact, Nineveh and its surrounding territories became the cradle of Christianity. Some of the oldest Christian communions and church buildings remain in Nineveh, which today is called by the name of Mosul in the northern part of the country that today is known as Iraq.
While Christians have always been a minority in Iraq, until recent decades they have been a significant minority. Today the country is 97% Muslim with Christians making up less than 3% of the population. Over the past two months, the jihadist Islamic State and the Levant, commonly referred to as ISIS and ISIL, seized control of a major portion of northern Iraq and began carrying out a systematic purge of Iraq’s Christian population, particularly from the city of Mosul, ancient Nineveh. It is estimated that 25,000 Christians were given the ultimatum to convert to Islam, flee, or die. For those Christians who did not comply with the decree by July 19, ISIS warned that, “there is nothing to give them but the sword.” Indeed, graphic photos and videos of Christian executions by rifle, hanging, beheading, and even crucifixion have been filling the walls of social media websites, the pages of many news publications, and the television screens of some national news media. Surely, we have all been tempted to think and feel like Jonah and have no pity or mercy for these modern Ninevites who are persecuting God’s people. Likely we have even hoped and prayed that God would pour down His wrath upon them and extinguish them from the face of the earth. In times like these, however, we must remember, recall, and repeat the words of our LORD: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the LORD,” “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you,” and “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, persecution is a real and even necessary evil, and I say to you that it is good for Christ’s Church. Let me explain. Persecution is real. It’s ALWAYS real, ALWAYS happening in some way, to someone, somewhere. In our comfortable lives and homes, we too easily become complacent and unaware of persecution in the world, in our own nation, in our own towns. The truth is, however, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is often met with hostility and even violence. Our Lord Jesus and His disciples experienced this firsthand and He promises you that the world will hate you because of Him and will consider it good to persecute you. When horrific persecution like what is happening in Iraq finally wakes us up, opens our eyes, and gets our attention, thanks be to God! That’s a good thing! ISIS means this persecution for evil, but God means it for good.
It is good that you are paying attention. It is good that you are more aware that this fallen world is not your friend, it is not your home. This world’s wisdom is foolishness. This world’s values are not aligned with God’s Word and will. This world’s treasure is fleeting and corrupt, it will not last, it is even now passing away. Yet, there is a treasure that does not fade away, that moth and rust cannot destroy, that thieves cannot break in and steal – the Word of the LORD. Our LORD, His Word, is the one thing that doesn’t change, that endures forever, that will never pass away. It is the only thing that truly matters – “Take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife; let all these be gone, they still have nothing won, the kingdom ours remaineth.” Persecution clears the air, clears the mind, clears the soul so that we can see, once again, that we are not gods, but that the God who created us, who loves us, sustains us still; we exist by the breath of His mouth; our life is His ongoing creative Word.
Blessed with the Wisdom of the LORD, Solomon gives us this Proverb: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.” This is GOOD advice. This is advice for life. For, what does “your own understanding” think when you face persecution? That you suffer because God is punishing you? That you suffer because God does not love you? That you suffer because God is not able to help you or because He doesn’t exist at all? This was the counsel Job’s so-called friends gave him when God permitted Satan to persecute and afflict him, taking from him everything of worldly value. All Job was left with was God and His Word, and that was enough. When Job questioned why God permitted this suffering to come upon Him, God’s reply was, “That my righteousness might be revealed.” God’s righteousness is His Word, and His Word made flesh Jesus Christ. Men are counted righteous when they believe and trust in God’s Word, Jesus. Persecution and suffering helps us by stripping away all other things that get between us and God, idols, so that all that is left is God’s Word and our faith in that Word. God is not the author of evil and suffering and persecution, but He uses them for the good of those who love Him, who trust in Him. God alone is the LORD of life and death. Do not fear those who can only harm the body, but fear the one, the LORD, who has authority over body and soul temporally and eternally.
God’s Word, and His Word made flesh Jesus, is our treasure. St. Paul writes that “we have this treasure in jars of clay,” our fragile, weak, and perishing flesh, “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” When persecution comes, to Christians on the other side of the globe or to your own home or body, remember that you carry within your own body the death of Jesus, but you also carry the life of Jesus which will be manifested in the resurrection of your body on the day of Your Lord’s return.
When the Lord called St. Bartholomew, whom St. John calls Nathanael, Bartholomew marveled that Jesus knew who he was and all about him though they had never met. This demonstration of our Lord’s omniscience was enough to evoke Bartholomew’s confession, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” But, Jesus redirected Bartholomew’s faith and attention to God’s Word and promise saying, “You will see greater things than these. Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” This allusion to the patriarch Jacob at Bethel also occurred at Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John. And, in His atoning death upon the cross, Jesus opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers, and on Pentecost He poured out His Spirit upon His Church. Thus, the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection and sealed in the Spirit, cried out as was dying, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
St. Bartholomew is said to have taken the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Armenia, a country just north of Iraq. In fact, a great majority of the Christians in Iraq are Armenians whose ancestors likely first heard the Word of God from St. Bartholomew. Like Stephen, Bartholomew was martyred. Tradition says that he was flayed alive, meaning that his skin was sliced off of him by knife while he was still alive. Clearly, this kind of brutality is commensurate with the cruel horrors inflicted upon Iraq’s Christians today. But, Jesus’ words to Bartholomew, confirmed by St. Stephen, are true for all His Christian people upon their death, “You will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending.” Dear Christian, your Lord means for you to understand Him as the ladder, “the way, the truth, and the life” by whom alone you must come unto the Father.
Jesus is the ladder between heaven and earth, between God and man. Jesus is also the gate and the only way to heaven. He is the Word of God made flesh, the treasure we keep in the jars of clay which are our bodies. Let us never fear the breaking of the jar, the loss of our bodies and lives, but only the loss of the treasure, our Lord and His Word. Still, this weak flesh does indeed suffer temptation and waver in faith. Therefore, the best thing that we can do for our brothers and sisters in Christ suffering persecution in Iraq and in other hostile parts of the world is pray for them.
Pray for their safety and protection and for an end to persecution, to be sure, but also pray that the Spirit would strengthen their faith to maintain their confession, even unto death. Pray that they will love the LORD and His Word more than their jars of clay lives. Pray that they will find comfort, peace, and faith to persevere in the unchanging and immovable Word of God, the Word who became flesh and suffered and died for all and was raised again to imperishable and eternal life that can never be taken away. And, pray also for their persecutors, for their enemies. Pray that they may be moved by the Spirit of God through His holy Word and through the faithful confession of those they persecute and destroy to relent from their evil. Pray that the Lord would work through the faithful as He did through Jonah long ago to turn the modern Ninevites to repentance that they too may know forgiveness, life, and salvation through the Lord of life Jesus Christ.
Now, come and receive your Lord’s body and blood for the strengthening of your faith, for forgiveness, life, and salvation. His precious body and His holy blood will preserve, keep, strengthen, and protect you unto life everlasting.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.