Archive for the month “March, 2014”

Scandalous, Damnable Divine Love: Jonah Takes God to Task

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Dear God,

Leave me alone. Please, just Leave. Me. Alone. Got it? Have you not poured enough grief into my life already? Just kill me and be done with it.

I didn’t sign up for this preaching gig. My name is Jonah, not Isaiah. He was the one all gung-ho with his “Send me! Send me!” attitude. Not me. I was perfectly happy back in the land of milk and honey. This swamp of ilk and money repulses me.

Nineveh. The very name makes me throw up in my mouth. A hovel of hate, that’s what this city is. Need I remind you that these pagans find sadistic joy in knifing open the bellies of pregnant women? Ripping the skin off their enemies and draping it over their walls? Beheading, mutilating, and impaling the bodies of their victims high on poles to make the world cower in fear? These people, why they’re not even people; they’re animals. Subhuman. The devil’s spawn. They play at evil. And, to top it all off, they’re the enemies of your own chosen people.

But as if none of that matters, as if somehow even these people are the objects of your care and compassion, you have the audacity to tell me to go preach to them. Cry out against this city, you say. Warn them that if they don’t repent they’ll be destroyed in forty days, you say. So of course I ran away. And of course, you chased me. Onto the sea, into the fish, out of the fish, you chased me. Until finally I walked through the streets of Nineveh and preached. I did your bidding.

I hoped like mad they’d spit in my face and laugh me all the way out of town. I wouldn’t have even cared if a mob of them had beat me to death in a back alley. But heavens no, I couldn’t be that lucky. They believed in you, the whole lot of them. From the lowest slave to the king himself, they just had to repent. And they went all out: fasting, wearing sackcloth, praying for mercy. They went so repentance-crazy that they wouldn’t even let their beasts eat or drink; made farm animals fast. My Lord, they even dressed their cows in sackcloth!

I’m watching this spectacle and thinking, “Oh, no. Dear God, don’t you dare…don’t you dare…don’t you….” Then you do. Of course you do. As if their bloody, prideful, despicable past means nothing; as if their gargantuan mountain of evil weighs not an ounce on the scales of justice; you let them off the hook. They repent and you relent. Just like that.

I saw it all coming, long before today, while I was still back in my hometown. I even told you so. That’s why I ran away—not because I was scared to preach, or frightened of these lowlifes, but to delay this evil day of mercy as long as possible. I just knew it. You and your grace. You and your compassion. You and your slowness to anger. You and your scandalous, damnable, exasperating love!

Where is justice in this, God? You can’t keep on letting evil men off scot-free. Know what you’re like? You’re like a judge who, every time a criminal apologizes in court, takes off his robe, lays down his gavel, and walks up to the felon to hug him, kiss him, and ask him to come live with him and eat at his table. It’s beyond ludicrous. It’s shameful, downright embarrassing the way you let mercy triumph over judgment. Listen, when a man sins, he’s got to pay. It’s as simple as that. But you act as if someone has already paid for his crime, as if someone has already been executed in his stead. I simply cannot wrap my mind around it.

If you want to know why I’m so ticked off, well, there’s your answer. You’ve gone and did your God thing again. It’s not too late to change your mind, so I’m going to sit here and watch the city. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll come to your senses, decide there needs to be more fairness and justice in this world, and you’ll afflict them with plagues, or throw fire and brimstone on at least part of the city, or something, anything, that makes them realize how wrong they’ve been.

I tremble to think of what message this sends to the world. If you want people to get the impression that you are all love, that you’ll forgive their past no matter what, that you will accept and embrace even the most wicked person of earth, keep it up. Keep doing what you’ve done in Nineveh. Keep being that kind of God. But I warn you, that if you do, pretty soon everyone will assume that you love the world so much that you’ll stop at nothing to save it.

Unhappily Yours,

Jonah

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God Has a Mom

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, Blessed Virgin Mary, The Helper in Childbirthwell, 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.

To All My Fellow Flying Scrollers: THANK YOU!

For almost the last year and a half, I’ve been posting my writings on this blog. To all my Flying Scrollers, I say Thank you! You rock. Every share, every comment, every private message telling me that something I wrote was a blessing to you or someone you care about, is a monumental encouragement to me. I put down my pen for years. And, when I took it up again, it was with fear and hesitation. Thank you all for showing me that through my writings I can, and do, serve the church. For every one of you, I thank Him who is the Word made flesh for us.

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall: Jesus and the “Bad” Samaritan Woman

ImageJesus never does get His drink of water. He asks for one, from our not-so-puritan friend, Ms. Samaritan. Give me a drink. Not a lot to ask from the lady. Still, even at the story’s end, His whistle’s not wet. But that’s okay, because our Savior is always more interested in giving than in receiving.

He asks for what we should be asking for. Give me a drink. It’s His not-so-subtle way of reminding us that we don’t know what we need until He tells us. We beg Him for salt but He gives water, for a serpent but He hands over a fish. “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.”

“If you knew the gift of God.” If you knew that, nothing else would really matter, for you would have Him who is everything. Take they our life, goods, fame, child, and wife; take they our Synod, seminary, congregation, salary; take what they may, they yet have nothing won, the living water ours remaineth. If you knew the gift of God, you would laugh at the pile of dung you have christened your “success.” If you knew the gift of God, you’d let the world damn you for your five husbands and the five hundred other skeletons you’ve crammed into your closet, for you have acceptance in the husband who won’t let you go, who’s burned your skeletons to ashes in the flames of His love. If you knew the gift of God, you’d reject all the poison the bartender from Hades tries to shove your way; you’d slake your thirst in one place: in the fountain of living water, cascading from the side of the upraised body of the temple destroyed for you, but rebuilt in three days.

For One greater than Jacob is here. That patriarch worked seven, nay, fourteen years to gain his lovely Rachel. But our Jacob worked harder, worked longer, worked to death, to wed those made so ugly by sin that they make homely Leah seem a trophy bride. He labored to gain Ms. Samaritan, Gomer, Jezebel, and you, their twin sisters, as His wife. Our Jacob loved this church and gave Himself up for her, that He might beautify her, having cleansed her by the washing of living waters that issued from the new and better Eden.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all? You are, who are flesh of flesh and bone of bone with Jesus, our Jacob. You who drink from the well of salvation He dug with His own hands. You who dine at His table and drink from His cup. You to whom our Jacob has pledged His undying love and fidelity. You are the fairest of them of all, for His kisses of grace have healed your scars, brightened your eyes, transformed you from a beast to a beauty.

So come with me, my fellow Samaritans, and let us ask this Jew for His living waters. He knows what it means to thirst.

ImageP.S. This unnamed Samaritan woman, after her conversation with Jesus at the well (John 4), went back into town and told her fellow citizens about Jesus, saying, “He told me all the things I have done.” As a result, “many of the Samaritans believed in Him.” They testified, “This one is indeed the Savior of the world.” Later tradition named this woman Photini, which means “enlightened one.” She tirelessly told and retold the story of Jesus, not only in her hometown, but also in Carthage, where she traveled to carry on the work of evangelism. During the persecution of Christians under Nero, she spoke to Gospel to Nero’s daughter, who became a Christian. She died the death of a martyr, by Nero’s hand, in A.D. 66.

Reading Life Backward: Why Hebrew is the Language of the Christian

ImageNot German, not Latin, not even Greek, but Hebrew alone is the language of the Church that preaches Christ crucified. In this language the last is first and the first is last. Everything is read from right to left, from end to beginning, from what will be to what is. In the Church, what you see is never what you get. It is the opposite. Appearances are deceptive.

Israel is my servant; Jacob is my chosen; Abraham is my friend; the Church is my bride. So says God. But this flies in the face of what I see. For I see Israel black-eyed and bloody-lipped, wrapped in Babylonian chains. I see Jacob fleeing a would-be murderous brother, exiled far from the land of promise. I see old man Abraham loading the wood onto Isaac’s back, lifting the blade of sacrifice over the promised seed. I see the Church plagued with those who canonize heretics and crucify prophets, chisel bylaws into stone while giving lip service to the sacred page.

These things I see, but in the Church, what you see is never what you get. God says Israel is my servant; Jacob is my chosen; Abraham is my friend; the Church is my bride. Everything must be read in a Hebrew fashion. If Christ is crucified, so must be His Church, His Word, His sacraments, His pastors, all of you—everything and everyone that belongs to Him. Everything that is God’s must bear the cross, and crucifixion is never pretty. It is ugly, messy, bloody, repugnant. We preach Christ crucified, which is to say, we read life like a Hebrew.

Though you feel abandoned and alone, weak and afraid, God preaches, “Do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with my righteous right hand,” (Isaiah 41:10). Though men with forked tongues accuse you of lying, though men become angry at you, slander you, curse you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, the Lord says, “Behold, all those who are angered at you will be shamed and dishonored; those who contend with you will be as nothing, and will perish . . . For I am the Lord your God, who upholds your right hand, who says to you, ‘Do not fear, I will help you,’” (41:11-13).

Read your life like a Hebrew, from right to left, from the end to the beginning, and you will see that the last is first. The dead are alive, the cursed are blessed, the humble are exalted. Israel returns from Babylon; Jacob is repatriated to Canaan; the ram is killed in the stead of Isaac; the body of the crucified is enlivened by the Spirit.

Though for a short time you Jobs scrape your sores, healing is on the horizon. Though for a season you Josephs languish in a dungeon, you soon shall stand at Pharaoh’s right hand. Though you suffer, whether from your own fault or from the fault of others, there is a day of vindication, a day of resurrection, a day in which the last are made first, the crucified are raised, and the bride whom the world considered widowed is kissed by the lips of the king of kings who has betrothed her to Himself.

So do not fear, you worm Jacob (Isaiah 41:14), for the Messiah who said, “I am a worm and not a man” (Psalm 22) is both God and man, and in Him you have partaken of the divine nature. Do not fear, for though the world calls you worms, the Father in heaven calls you chosen servants, friends, and yes, even sons. Good Friday is always viewed through the lens of Easter. The sufferings of this present time are always seen through the glories that await us. Thus that which seems to be so ugly, messy, bloody, and repugnant now—read it like a Hebrew and soon you will behold a most beautiful icon of atonement and absolution, peace and life, all for you.

This meditation is a sampling of what will appear in my forthcoming book, Christ Alone: Meditations and Sermons, which will be available for purchase within the next few weeks.  If you like my writings, check out my recently published book, The Infant Priest: Hymns and Poems. You can purchase your copy, for only $9.99, by clicking here.

“I Love You” is an Incomplete Sentence

photo (2)“I love you” is an incomplete sentence. Those three words are but the beginning of an unspoken, complete sentence. There’s a “because” or “until” or “if” or “but” that follows the “I love you.”

“I love you…because you make me happy.”
“I love you…but I love someone else more.”
“I love you…until you cheat on me.”
“I love you…because you’re my son.”
“I love you…if you love me.”

We love because we find in the beloved something that is lovable.  We see, we know, and then we love. Or, at least, we promise to love.

Not so with God. God is the only one for whom, “I love you,” is a complete sentence. He loves first, without finding anything worthy of love in us. He does not seek the lovable, the likable, or the one who will love Him back. Even before He found you, even before He created you, from the very foundation of the world, He loved you. Indeed, His love created you, formed you in your mother’s womb, re-created you in the womb of the Church, and continues to love you even when you are mean, spiteful, and unmerciful. God loves you because God is love. He does what He is.

Men in search of a wife look for a woman who is attractive, appealing in many ways, one who will love them back. Not God. He found an ugly, unwashed, deformed, disease-infested prostitute whose life was littered with impurity, infidelity, and every manner of wickedness. This woman God made His bride. He washed her clean of every filth, forgave her past, clothed her in His own righteousness, and pronounced her beautiful. The one for whom God did this—she is you. His love transforms the beloved into something truly lovely.

He takes me, the most unlovable of men, and before I clean up my act, before I show signs of repentance, before anything, God loves me. He loves me in the very embodiment of His love, Jesus the Christ. He is love made flesh. And in His flesh, made one with His body, I partake of the love of God.

God is the only one who can say, “I love you,” and no more. For He speaks truth, the full truth, and in that full truth we receive the full love of God in Christ.

Adam’s First Sunset: When All You’ve Known Sinks Away

ImageGaze at a sunset and what happens? If you’re the romantic type, maybe you get dreamy, eloquently poeticizing about how the kaleidoscope of colors paints the celestial canvas with fading rays of light. Or maybe you just say, “Oh, look, that’s pretty.” More often than not, we pay no attention to this daily occurrence. The sun goes down, the sun comes up. So what? We’ve seen it thousands of times.

But Adam had not. Not that first day of his existence. What did the father of our race think when he saw his source of warmth and illumination slowly swallowed by the western horizon?
For hours few he’d loved its light
Had basked in its embrace.
Then soon, too soon, befell the night,
When darkness veiled his face.
There is an old Jewish tradition that Adam, during his first experience of night, was overwhelmed with fear, because he assumed that he had forever lost his beloved sun. To him that virgin sunset was not poetic, nor pretty, nor mundane; it was cataclysmic. All through those black hours he wept like one bereaved, as if he’d witnessed that ball of fire lowered into its distant grave. Only when the eastern horizon began to blush with the first winks of dawn, and his lost gift of light was found again, did Adam grasp that this, too, was the course of life in this world. The sun that sets will also rise.

Granted, a manmade tradition this is, but one that for me has always embodied a divine truth. It is a parable of human loss. For who of us, at some point in our lives, has not watched with horror and grief as our own “sun” vanishes? You stand around a rectangular depression in the ground to watch a box of wood that cradles your beloved slowly lowered into the dark earth. You walk out of the courtroom where you and the one who was flesh of your flesh, bone of your bone, had sat on the opposite side from you, hard and cold as stone. You are haunted by the scream of “I hate you!” and feel the whoosh of the slammed door as the child you bore stormed away to God knows where, disappearing for God knows how long from your life. You become like that Adam of legend, as light wanes and darkness waxes, and your life is swallowed by shadow.

I suppose I could try to encourage you with the assurance that your sun will rise again, that loss and gain, like sunset and sunrise, are merely part of the course of life in this world. And there would be truth in that, as well as hope. But I wish to impress something else upon you, which I think is even more important. For I too lived a shadowed existence for years, my loves and hopes trampled under midnight’s foot. And in those years of dark grief, though the hope of a coming sunrise did ease my suffering to an extent, knowing something else meant even more to me.

That something else is that there’s someone else in the darkness beside you. He is one who was born in the cold and the dark, unwelcomed by the world he came to save. He knelt in darkness the night before his execution, wrestling with the thought of his impending death, praying so fervently that his sweat became crimson. He hung suspended in an unearthly darkness for three hours, impaled upon a rack of torture, forsaken by friends, and even by his Father, till death came calling, and the tomb welcomed this lord of life.

There’s someone else in the darkness with you: this man, this Jesus. This is the one Isaiah described as “despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” Jesus is a God who knows darkness firsthand. From the night of his birth until the day of his death, he felt its cold chill, knew its temptations to despair. He is the one who is beside you during those lightless hours. You may not feel him there. There are times when you may not even want him there. But he is, and will remain, closer to you than your own skin.

This man who is light of light will sustain through the dark of darkness. When your life is swallowed by shadow, he will feed you with his love. When tears run down your face, he will wipe them away with hands that bear the stigmata of a saving crucifixion. He is not a God to give up on you, nor to walk away, no matter how long your night lasts. For when, like Adam, all you’ve knows sinks away into darkness, he will make known to you that his love is light even in the deepest, darkest midnight of life in this fallen world.

The Small Huge Gift: A Remembrance of Ken Korby

ImageIf they’d made a movie about this pastor, only John Wayne would have sufficed to fill his shoes. He was a cigarette-smoking, authoritative-preaching, no BSing shepherd of souls. I could easily imagine him walking boldly into the mission field with a Bible in one hand and an ax in the other—the former to preach with, the latter to chop down any trees that the local pagans had divinized. I had a single, two-week class with him in the spring of 1997, when he was a guest lecturer at Concordia Theological Seminary. And though I had studied four prior years at that institution, the one course I had with him shaped my pastoral care more than any other. Ken Korby was this pastor’s name, and when I grew up, I wanted to be just like him.

Of all the monumental things I could tell you about Korby, the one I’m about to recollect might seem rather inconsequential. Were you to ask him, he’d never remember it. But me, I’ll never forget his small act of generosity.

Like all students, I was strapped for cash. But sitting on the shelves of the seminary bookstore was a volume that made my mouth water. My heart was set on it. It was a Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament bound together in one thick volume—the entire Holy Scriptures in their original languages. Korby had overheard me lamenting to my classmate how desperately I wanted a copy, but the price, being prohibitive, put it beyond my reach.

Later that day, outside Kramer Chapel, I was walking along the brick sidewalk when I saw Korby walking toward me. As always, he was dressed in his black suit and clerical, a crucifix hanging from his neck. And, of course, he was puffing on his trademark Marlboro. Korby stopped in front of me. Pulling out his wallet, he opened it. There was nothing but a ten dollar bill inside. He said, “I heard you wanted a book, but you can’t afford it. Here,” he said, pulling out the bill and putting it in my hand, “maybe that’ll help you a little.” And then he walked on, leaving me there in silent gratitude.

It did help. I scraped together the rest of the money and soon the Biblia Sacra was off the shelf and in my hand. And I treasured it. Every time I labored over a text that I would be preaching on when I served St. Paul Lutheran Church in Wellston, Oklahoma, I used that Bible. A few years later, it was with me every time I taught Genesis or Isaiah or Hebrew at Concordia Theological Seminary, in the same classroom where I had sat at Korby’s feet. And still today, it is within arm’s reach, on my desk, as I get ready to teach Bible classes at Crown of Life in San Antonio. From student to pastor to professor to teacher, that book has served me well. And every time I open it, I see Pastor Korby’s face.

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I remember all he taught me. I remember him encouraging us to sing Luther’s hymn, “Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord” every day, as a prayer for the church. I recall him admonishing us that even though the church seems crazy, she is still our mother, and we are called to love and honor her as such. And I remember what he, no doubt, soon forgot: that he emptied his wallet to help a struggling student buy a book.

I’ve had people tell me, years after the fact, that they appreciate such-and-such that I did for them. Sometimes I recall the instance, but most of the time, I have no remembrance of doing for them what they said I did. But they do. They’ll never forget. It’s a simple reminder for me, that in our daily vocations, whatever those might be, we encounter opportunities to do something for people—seemingly little, inconsequential acts of love—that are anything but little to them.

That’s one more thing the sainted Ken Korby taught me. May he, who served our church well, and who served me in that small but huge gift, rest in peace round the throne of God and of the Lamb, whose kingdom has no end.

Hurts So Good: Loving Lent for All the Wrong Reasons

ImageI knew I was in trouble the moment I started feeling good about feeling bad.

This past Ash Wednesday it was. We’d all filed forward toward the pastor, who stood there with a dirty thumb upstretched, as if hitchhiking his way toward Holy Week. We all took a knee for the finger-painting rite. Every brow crisscrossed with the greyish fruit of fire.

As the liturgy unfolded, we had plenty to say about the law and sin. And we were repenting. Lord, were we repenting. More sin than you could shake a stick at. We hadn’t loved God like we should. We hadn’t loved our neighbors enough. And let me tell you, these weren’t your vanilla-flavored, every other yawning Sunday confessions. It was Ash Wednesday, so we laid it on thick, got all personal. And the thing was, I was kind of getting into it. “These confessions are good for my soul,” I said to myself. Why, I’d have probably confessed to sins I’d never even heard of before. For the more bad stuff we confessed, the worse I felt about myself; and the worse I felt about myself, the closer I felt to God.

Now you may think this reaction to confession more than a tiny bit weird, perhaps even spiritually masochistic. Okay, I’ll agree to that. But let me let you in on a little secret: there’s something inside all of us that enjoys fessing up to wrongdoing, because we assume thereby we have repaired the bridge between God and us. And we couldn’t be more wrong.

The old adage, “Confession is good for the soul,” is only half true, at best. What is confession, after all? Nothing more than telling the truth. To generically confess, “I am a sinner,” or even specifically to admit, “I’ve been stealing from my company,” is no more a profound truth than saying, “There are clouds in the sky.” These are all simple truths. To confess, in the Christian sense, is to echo God’s words, to say back to God what he has already said to you. The Lord says, “You are a sinner. You’ve sinned in these particular ways,” and we confess, “I am a sinner. I’ve sinned in these particular ways.” On Ash Wednesday, all I was doing was being honest. And while honesty is good, it does nothing to cross the chasm between me and the God against whom I have sinned. I can confess and feel terrible about my sins all day long, but none of that brings me any closer to the kind of healing I desperately need.

Confession is not good for the soul; absolution is. If confession is us telling the truth about ourselves to God, then forgiveness is God telling us a truer truth about ourselves. Confession says, “I have sinned,” but absolution says, “Your sin is no more.” But it’s better than that. Your sin doesn’t just disappear; it appears on the body of the Man who bore that sin for you. It is peeled away from you and stuck to very soul of the one who, in your stead, bore not an ashen cross upon his forehead but a cross of wood and nails of iron and thorns of piercing for you. His cross crosses the chasm between you and God. He repairs the damage. It is his confession that is good for your soul, for he confesses, “I love you. I lay down my life to save your own. I forgive you. I heal you. Mine you are, now and forever. In my scars are written the song of an undying love for you.”

As I sat in my pew on Ash Wednesday, feeling good about feeling bad, thinking that by my confession and repentance alone I was making things right between me and God, I was deeply and dangerously wrong. The cross of ashes upon my forehead pointed me, finally, to the truth, for it betokened the Christ of the cross. Because of him, and him alone, we learn to love Lent for all the right reasons, for in Jesus we are reconciled to the Father, adopted as his children, and on our brows is written the very name of the Lord himself (Revelation 22:4).

The Desert of Temptation

ImageThe Jordan River water slowly trickled off our Lord’s wet head. Behind Him the famous Jordan river snaked its way along; before Him the ancient serpent lay in wait. Still drenched with baptismal water, Jesus marched into the desert of temptation. Heaven and hell were about to exchange blows. And in the celestial realm, you could have heard a pin drop.

You are tempted, tempted to view the fight as a spectator, to whoop and cheer for your big brother who’s about to blacken the eye of the bully from Hades. But you are not a fan in the stands. No, you are in Christ. In Jesus, all of you go toe-to-toe with the heavyweight champion of hell. When this one man enters the ring with the tempter, all of you step in with Him. Just as in Adam all humanity fell through temptation into sin and death, so in Christ all humanity will rise through obedience into righteousness and life. You are not in the audience; you are in the desert, for you are in Christ.

When Jesus was baptized, His Father’s voice fell from heaven, proclaiming, “You are my beloved Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased,” (Mark 1:11). But there in the wilderness it did not seem so, did it? After fasting forty days and forty nights, Jesus was hungry. “You are my beloved Son,” the Father had said. Well, if you love Him so much, why are you allowing Him to suffer hunger? “. . . with whom I am well pleased,” the Father had affirmed. Pray tell, if you are so pleased with Him, why have you not given Him so much as a scrap of food to alleviate the wrenching emptiness of His stomach?

Such are the doubts devised by the devil. Satan, too, had heard the Father’s sermon at the baptism of this man. He watched Him fast, he saw Him hunger, so he devised a plan of attack. “The tempter came to Him and said, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread,’” (Matt. 4:3). Do you hear what is suggested? The devil is saying, “If what that voice from the clouds said is true, then why has He abandoned you to die of starvation? Why is He depriving you of the basic necessities of life?” So, you see, Satan, hungry for victory, has swung his fist at the empty belly of our Lord.

But no more had that swing begun before it was blocked—not by human strength, not by will power, not by argumentation—but by what? Solely by the Word of God. Jesus answered and said, “It is written, ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God,’” (Matt. 4:4). And the word that had proceeded from the mouth of God was this: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Do you see? The temptation was not simply to turn rocks into food; Satan lured Jesus to turn from the trustworthy words of His Father to the fickle feelings of the human heart. But instead of turning stones into bread, Christ stuffed the stone of His Father’s Word into the devil’s open, tempting mouth.

That same satanic mouth has dropped such doubting thoughts into your suffering heart, hasn’t it? At your baptism, too, the Father said, “You are my son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” But it doesn’t always seem so, does it? When the bills pile up, have you wondered what use is the Father’s rich grace if you haven’t money to pay what you owe? If you are so loved by Him, why did He allow you to be injured, to become ill, to be widowed or divorced, to spend hour upon hour in pain or misery or heartache or loneliness? If God is good, why is my life so bad? So goes the temptation to despair.

But as it was with Jesus, so it is with you. Satan is luring you to turn from the trustworthy words of your Father to the fickle feelings of your human heart. Do not trust yourself; trust your Father. If He sent His own beloved Son to the cross, do not pretend that He will spare you crosses, sufferings, and pains. But know and believe that behind these masks of suffering is the smiling face of your beloved Father. The Lord disciplines those He loves (Hebrews 12:6). In love He is bringing you, cross by cross, suffering by suffering, into conformity with His beloved Son, and finally, to the glory of the resurrection.

Having failed in his initial assault, Satan circled His opponent, planning his next attack. This time he went for the jugular. “The devil took Him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down. For it is written: “He will command His angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone,”’” (Matt. 4:5-6). What is the devil up to, trying to break our Lord’s neck? No, he is far more sinister than that. He is saying, “You claim, then, that you are the beloved Son of God, He in whom God is well-pleased. If that is so, if your Father loves you so much and you are so well-pleasing to Him, then I suppose He will do anything to protect you. Very well then, throw yourself down from the temple. Why, He has even said He will protect you with His angels. You rely on His word—well, then, take Him at His word and fly, O wingless Son of God.”

But as the devil tried to wrench the sword of the Spirit from Lord’s strong grasp, he sliced open his hand on the razor-sharp blade. Yes, the psalm says, “He will give His angels charge concerning you . . .,” but the deceiver omitted the words that follow, “in all your ways.” Never had the Father commanded Jesus to jump from the pinnacle of the temple; thus to do so would be to “walk in a way” outside God’s Word and command. So Jesus responds, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test,’” (Matt. 4:7). You shall not test His anger by abandoning His straight Word to walk in the way of man’s twisted thinking.

As Dr. Luther notes, this second temptation—the temptation to abandon the Lord’s clear Word—it is the greatest. With this temptation, the devil has shattered the outward unity of the Church into thousands of sectarian shards. Men and women, walking not in the clear way of God’s Word but in their own muddled emotions and opinions, have jumped from the pinnacle of truth and struck their feet upon the stone of heresy. Do not put the Lord your God to the test; rather, inscribe the Words of God onto your heart that you may not subscribe to the lies of the tempter’s mouth.

Having now been defeated in the first two rounds with our Lord, Satan stepped forward for one final swing. In the first temptation, the devil held adversity and pain in the face of Jesus; here, he holds prosperity and delight before him. The devil “took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. ‘All this I will give you,’ he said, ‘if you will bow down and worship me,’” (Matt. 4:8-9). The devil knew that Jesus knew what sufferings awaited Him, so he says, “You who claim to be God’s Son are not worthy of this miserable life; see the riches, view the honor, covet the glory I would bestow upon you! All, yes, all this and more I will give if only you will get on your knees before me.”

But our Lord came not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many, as a ransom for you. And if He came not to be served, certainly He came not to pursue wealth, fame, and glory. He came to fear, love, and trust in God above all things, and in so doing, to fulfill the law for you. So He said, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only,’” (Matt. 4:10).

Do you see what our Lord has done in His conquest of Satan with all his temptations? He has utterly reversed the fall of the first man. But that is not all. He has not only reversed Adam’s fall; but He has also brought forward a new humanity, with Himself being a new Adam who bears in His own body the source of all true and lasting life. What you could not do, Christ has done for you. The tempter whom you could never defeat on your own, Christ has defeated. The new genesis, which you could never create, Jesus has created for you.

In the plush Garden of Eden, the first Adam was defeated by the ancient serpent. But in the wasteland of the Judean wilderness, Jesus fought off the temptations of the evil one. Every fiery arrow shot from Satan’s bow was doused in the water of the Word. Heaven and hell stood toe-to-toe and hell was left lying in the dust, that you, O man of dust, might stand toe-to-toe with God and be embraced by Him as a beloved child.

The Lord Jesus fought and won this battle for you. His victory over the devil is your victory as well, for all that Christ accomplished has been reckoned to you as your very own. When you fall prey to the temptations of Satan, flee to the One by whom Satan has already been defeated. Those who are in Christ Jesus cannot be harmed by the enticements of evil. As in Adam you died in sin, so also in the obedient Christ you live. Repent and return to Him. Leave the old Adam with his death and come to the new Adam with all His life. He will receive and embrace you as His very own. He who was tempted for you is never tempted to turn you away. His baptism is your baptism, His conquering of sin is your conquering of sin, His crucifixion, His resurrection, His ascension are all yours. What belongs to the head belongs to the body, and you are the body of Christ, living members of that man who is also God, the One in whom you have the life of the Father.

“Lead us not into temptation,” our Father, but lead us into the One who conquered the tempter for us: Jesus Christ, our Lord.

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